01 March 2015

Books: The Lies of Locke Lamora By Scott Lynch (2005)

They say that the Thorn of Camorr can beat anyone in a fight. They say he steals from the rich and gives to the poor. They say he's part man, part myth, and mostly street-corner rumor. And they are wrong on every count. Only averagely tall, slender, and god-awful with a sword, Locke Lamora is the fabled Thorn, and the greatest weapons at his disposal are his wit and cunning. He steals from the rich -they're the only ones worth stealing from- but the poor can go steal for themselves. What Locke cons, wheedles and tricks into his possession is strictly for him and his band of fellow con-artists and thieves: the Gentleman Bastards. Together their domain is the city of Camorr. Built of Elderglass by a race no-one remembers, it's a city of shifting revels, filthy canals, baroque palaces and crowded cemeteries. Home to Dons, merchants, soldiers, beggars, cripples, and feral children. And to Capa Barsavi, the criminal mastermind who runs the city. But there are whispers of a challenge to the Capa's power. A challenge from a man no one has ever seen, a man no blade can touch. The Grey King is coming. A man would be well advised not to be caught between Capa Barsavi and The Grey King. Even such a master of the sword as the Thorn of Camorr. 

Despite what the back cover says, Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora is not a caper novel in the vein of Ocean's Eleven. Sure there is some conning, some stealing, but the book is really not about that. It's more about who keeps the power and control of Camorr's assorted criminal activities. It's also about revenge, but that plot point stays on the fringes until the last quarter of the novel. What we get before is a detailed history of Camorr and it's surrounding villages. We get a bunch of good guy thieves who would be right out of the Bowery Boys -that is if they stole and swore like longshore fishermen. The plot meanders, but that's not a bad thing, for it neither fast or too slow. Then there's Lynch's one narrative conceit; we get "interludes" spaced through the book, which gives the reader a look at Locke's past, how he started out. It's a bit distracting at first, this time shift between Lamora of "today" and one from years before. 

The one thing I liked is that I never felt the twists that happen to Lamora and his band of merry men to be contrived in any sort of way. Though, like a lot of today's fiction, Lamora's problems are frequently and too easily resolved. Once again, its not the character's deeply storied life we've read about many of pages, but by the stupidity of his enemies (via the authors word processing program). 

All the characters get a nice fleshing out, and Lynch creates a large group of supporting characters that the reader will like. Mr. Lynch does spend a great time World Building here, and clearly the reason seems to be that he plans multiple novels set in his re-imaged world of Venice (because there is female character named Sabetha who is mentioned dozens of time through out the book, but never makes an appearance. Let us hope that when she does, Sabetha is half as interesting as she written to be). 

The book does, slightly, turn to torture porn, and despite growing up with the works of Stephen King, having read George R. R. Martin (but have not started the last two books), I'm never pleased with this. Yes the hero (or anti-hero depending on your point of view) may have some justification for what he does, but I found it unpleasant and even a bit disturbing. Sometimes it's hard for me to accept the character when he climbs into the gutter he supposedly hates. And While I understand's Lynch's need to create this world in detail, I think it still goes on too long. There are clearly repetitious parts that seem only designed to tell the reader what a clever writer Scott Lynch is and adds nothing for the reader, who already knows the history of Locke Lamora.

And, finally, I've discovered, despite my best efforts, reading multi-volume series again. I've got series going now by Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, John Scalzi, Tana French, Ransom Riggs, along with starting Ken Follett's Century Trilogy, Katherine Kurtz's Deryni saga and Jennifer Hobb's Farseer series. Plus I've got a number of stand-alone novels to read (including the new Stephen King, but that's not due until June). I guess I should turn the TV off and shut down the laptop. 


18 February 2015

Books: The Puppet Masters By Robert Heinlein (1951)

In the summer of 2007 Earth is under clandestine attack. Slug-like creatures, arriving in flying saucers, are attaching themselves to people’s backs, taking control of their victims’ nervous systems, and manipulating those people as puppets. The Old Man, the head of clandestine national security agency called the Section, goes to Des Moines, Iowa, with Sam and Mary, two of his best agents, to investigate a flying saucer report, but much more seriously the ominous disappearance of the six agents sent previously. They discover that the slugs are steadily taking over Des Moines, but they cannot convince the President to declare an emergency. Sam takes two other agents and returns to Des Moines to get more evidence of the invasion. They fail and are obliged to leave the city quickly, but in the confusion of their fleeing the city’s television center a slug sneaks onto one of the agents. Back in Washington the team discovers the slug and captures it, but later it escapes and attaches itself to Sam, using Sam’s skills and knowledge to make a clean escape. Thoroughly puppetized, Sam begins to infiltrate more slugs into the city, using the Constitution Club as a recruiting center. He’s gotten off to a good start when the Old Man captures him, takes him to Section’s new headquarters, and interrogates the slug through Sam. Under drug-induced hypnosis Sam reveals that the slugs come from Titan, the sixth moon of Saturn. After recuperating from his ordeal, Sam finds that the President and Congress are ready to accept the idea that the United States has been infiltrated and they mandate a law that requires people to go naked to demonstrate that they are not carrying slugs.
According to Wikipedia, Heinlein's original version of The Puppet Masters was heavy edited, mostly because it was considered too risque for the 1951 audience -in the original version the book begins with Sam waking up in bed with a blonde whom he had casually picked up the evening before, without even bothering to learn her name!! Anyways, in 1990, two years after he passed, his widow authorized a new expanded version that reinstated a majority of what was cut 40 years previous. However, there is also a few unintentional humorous phrases that may have not seemed funny back even in 1990 -Schedule Bare Back- but now make me snicker every time I read it. Then there is how liberal he made the US, including the idea that everyone who did not want to be possessed by the titans was walking around naked. I'm certain, no matter what, there would be plenty of Americans (stuck in their Puritan ways) who would never walk around in public without a stitch of clothes on. I can see why some of these parts were edited out in 1951. 
As I've mentioned before, reading these novels later in life rather than when I was in my teens, I'm not so impressed with the plotting or the science. The Puppet Masters does try to invoke the Cold War aspect between the United States and Russia (set in 2007 there has been a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the West which left both sides battered but unbroken, but then we fell back in another Cold War), but all I could think about was how this book shared a similar premise with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, even though that film was not released until 1956. But like Asimov's Foundation book, the story is a bit dry -a lot of talking with some minor action. Meanwhile, on the science side, in Heinlein's early 21st Century we have flying cars, we have space stations, and have a colony on Venus. Still, there is no communication satellites and TV broadcast are still line-of-sight as they were when Heinlein wrote the book. While this plays into the plot, it was hard part for me to grasp in 2015. 
I'm guessing that if I continue to read these books from long ago, I'm going to some how figure out how to understand them better. It's not that they're poorly written and all, it's just everything I've grown up with, all those science fiction movies and TV series are all built on the foundation people like Heinlein created. I've got to get passed the block in my mind that says "Seen this done before. Next."
You know what I mean?

09 February 2015

Books: Swan Song By Robert McCammon (1987)

While the post-apocalyptic genre has been around for many generations, I've only read a handful of them -after all not many writers bring something new to add to the table. Still, since nuclear war, World War III, was always the catalyst for the story, I usually passed them over. Stephen King's The Stand, which I read around 1980, was the first of this genre (I think) to end world not with a bang, but with a whisper -a super flu (called Captain Trips). Since the 1978 release of King's book, a lot of authors have used some sort of mutated organism to end the world. 

Back in 1987, when Robert McCammon released Swan Song, I was not put off by it's mass market length (956 pages), but by the fact that for me, King's The Stand was the best book ever written about the end of the world. Also, since I had discovered King, he became the only author I really wanted to read in the horror fiction genre. Yes, I read John Saul, Dean Koontz, Anne Rice, and few others, but they all seemed to pale next King (especially Koontz, someone I always deemed as conservative Americans safe horror writer; a guy who produced paint-by-numbers fiction designed not to be anything distasteful or liberal). And this tendency to read one author in one genre never applied to science fiction or fantasy that I read, as I bounced all over the place in my early years of reading (though I think everyone has tendency to stick to their favorite author). Yet, despite my misgivings, I do remember owing a copy of Swan Song. But I never read it. 

Now nearly 28 years since its first release, I discovered a copy (first printing as well) of McCammon's epic novel at a Goodwill store. Having given away some books due to moving around (ones that I felt I would never get too), I thought maybe this time was the universe telling me it was finally time to read this book. 

On the edge of a barren Kansas landscape, an ex-wrestler called Black Frankenstein hears the cry..."Protect the Child!"---In the wasteland of New York City, a bag lady clutches a strange glass ring and feels magic coursing through her---Within an Idaho mountain, a survivalist compound lies in ruins, and a young boy learns how to kill. In a wasteland born of nuclear rage, in a world of mutant animals and marauding armies, the last people on earth are now the first. There is Sister, who discovers the strange and transformative glass artifact in the destroyed Manhattan streets; Joshua Hutchins, the wrestler who takes refuge from the nuclear fallout at a Nebraska gas station; and Swan, a young girl possessing special powers, who travels alongside Josh to a Missouri town where healing and recovery can begin with Swan's gifts. While the destines of those who survived the unsurvivable are inedibly bound to meet, there is also another entity, an ancient evil that now roams the blasted nightmare country, an evil as old as time. He is the Man with the Scarlet Eye, the Man of Many Faces, and he'll gather under his power the forces of human greed and madness that always seem to survive. For he seeks to destroy the one thing that he knows can stop him, stop his party as he says, a young girl called Swan.

A lot of Swan Song resembles King's The Stand, but I don't think that is bad. My biggest issue with the book comes in the form of James Macklin (though thanks to Parks & Recreation, I kept think of Chris Pratt's character of Andy Dwyer and his fake FBI agent Burt Macklin) and Roland Croninger, two of the villains of the book who the reader knows from their first introductions that they're psychotic and evil sociopaths. As noted, the book is 950 plus pages long, and you would think that you might give the reader a chance to like these guys before turing them into horrible people. Instead, we see their evilness from the get go. Also, we don't get much information of entity that is Friend (as he calls himself towards the end, but went under several names before). We can assume that he's some sort of demon, but who and how he came into existence is never fully explained. 

Is McCammon, as he has said, "'the poor man's Stephen King,' and that I was 'walking on King and Straub's territory,' that I was a rip-off artist and a hack with no style of my own?" I'm not sure, as I thought the book was still well written. The thing is, I understand the publishing industry (like most media) is based on flavor of the month. And what is hugely successful must have an imitation. Stephen King can be credited with bringing the horror genre out of the dark Gothic corner it painted itself into by setting his tales in modern times with easily accessible and (importantly) believable characters, but I always knew that other publishers were going to capitalize on that. I think McCammon does a fine job here, even if he borrows heavily from King.

Will I read more of his work? I'm sure I'll try -Boy's Life has always interested me- but at this stage in my life, I will never say never. All options are open. 

30 January 2015

Books: Foundation By Isaac Asimov (1951)

Isaac Asimov's Foundation series was on my list of classic science fiction novels I decided to read in the coming months, after skipping over them for decades. But knowing Asimov wrote two sequels and two prequels some 25 years plus after completing the trilogy, I wondered if I would need to read them (or want to read them) just so I could get to the original three. Upon a few inquires of other people, most said the later books -published in the 1980s- were not as strong as the original three and I would not be missing anything if I skipped over them.
So that's what I've decided.
The premise of the series is that mathematician Hari Seldon has spent his life developing a branch of mathematics known as psychohistory. Using this knowledge -which can predict the future on a large scale- Seldon foresees the imminent fall of the Galactic Empire. It would be a horrible dark age that will last some 30 thousand years before a second great empire arises. But Seldon foresees an alternative where the interregnum will last only one thousand years. To ensure the more favorable outcome, Seldon creates a foundation of talented artisans and engineers at the extreme end of the galaxy, to preserve and expand on humanity's collective knowledge, and thus become the foundation for a new galactic empire. The novel opens with Seldon arriving on Trantor, for he's to be put on trial on allegations of treason -for foreshadowing the decline of the Galactic Empire. 
Not to be put off by threat of imprisonment or death, Seldon explains to those prosecuting him, if allowed, he would collect the most intelligent minds and create a compendium of all human knowledge, entitled Encyclopedia Galactica that would cut the fall to only a thousand years. Despite some reservations, these men allow Seldon to assemble whomever he needs, provided he and the "Encyclopedists" be exiled to a remote planet of Terminus. Seldon agrees to set up his own collection of Encyclopedists, and also secretly implements a contingency plan—a second Foundation—at the "opposite end" of the galaxy.
Despite being one of the most classic books the of the genre, Foundation is awfully dry. Not much actually happens and there is very little in the way of action. I liked the premise, as it often reminded me of Nate Silver, the statistician who predicted a few elections. Of course, Asimov's Seldon does it on a grander scale (and some 60 years before Silver). Plus there was a lot of analogies going on here, especially with religion as political figures trying to suppress the knowledge that the Empire is failing. Still, it's challenge to get through this book as really addresses my thought process that I'm a well-read, intellectual chap. The other issue with reading these books now, instead of when I was young (or better, grew up with them) is that my ideas have already been shaped and what Asimov was doing here, some sixty-plus years ago seems less mind-blowing now. 
And while science fiction can and has predicted a plausible future, after reading this and authors like Heinlein (and the early works of David Gerrold) it surprises me that not one thought smoking would've ever gone out of style. I guess, because of the era, smoking was seen as okay. But it still, in some ways, surprises me that these "futurists", so to speak, could not predict a future where smoking was seen as unhealthy and dangerous. 

25 January 2015

Books: The Man Who Folded Himself By David Gerrold (1973)

I'm unsure how to approach David Gerrold's 1973 novel The Man Who Folded Himself. As a fan of time travel stories, I liked it. But the novel, I think, seemed to be designed as the ant-time travel books, as it takes a serious look -and make the claim -that temporal paradoxes are impossible. Which, of course, is what has kept time travel stories in books, TV and movies going for generations. Still, Gerrold appears to go with the Many Worlds Theory that dictates that there is an infinite number of alternate universes; that if time travel were indeed possible, you don't travel one linear road back and forwards, but that you wold "jump" one timeline for another, one that is exact in every detail, but subtly differences at the same time. 

We meet Daniel Eakins in 1975. He's a young college student when he's visited by his only known relative, an older man named Uncle Jim. He tells Daniel that he's worth a lot of money and will increase his monthly allowance for living expenses as long as college student keeps a diary. Shortly after the visit, Uncle Jim dies, and Daniel inherits not money, but something called a 'Timebelt'. Dan quickly figures out the mysterious gift and begins to travel in time, He quickly meets an alternate version of himself, who accompanies him to a race-track where the pair make a fortune betting on horse racing. The following day, Daniel realizes that it is his turn to guide his younger self through the previous day at the races; through this and other events the time-travelling Daniel learns more about the belt, about the nature of the 'timestream', and about his personal identity. Daniel, then, repeatedly encounters alternate versions of himself, ultimately having sex with himself and beginning a relationship with himself. But he discovers, however, that his personal timeline has been changed, and has excised his childhood. He tries to repair that, and ends really far in the past that he meets a female version of himself named Diane. Of course, he has a relationship with her that produces a child. 

And then things get even weirder. 

Gerrold produces some interesting quandaries here, moral questions and ideas of what time travel represents and what us mere human might do with what Dan calls "God" like powers. His theories are logical, yet confusing at the same time. Of course I realized early in the book where the story was going, but that did not put me off. Time travel stories are inherently full of paradoxes, and despite the whole premise circles back on himself, I'm still curious where the Timebelt comes from -which is just the MacGuffin of the story; you're not suppose to know. Again, that does not decrease my enjoyment of the novel, but it's these small things that some times distracts me. 

Note: While the book was written in 1973, it appears have been updated by Gerrold, once in 1983 (the edition I read) and again in 2003 for the e-book edition. 

20 January 2015

Books: Golden Son By Pierce Brown (2015)

With Golden Son, author Pierce Brown's second novel in his Red Rising Trilogy, he's able to forgo the World Building that preoccupied the first book and rush pellmell into Darrow's emotional and very violent struggle to bring down the Gold society from within that dominates the worlds of Mars and Luna (the moon). 

The story picks up two years after the events of Red Rising, and we see Darrow au Andromedus on a training mission aboard his own starship for war-games -though these Academy days seem fairly over, as this is about all we see of that time. Still, as Darrow navigates his way, he worries about the fact that in that time, he's heard nothing from the Sons of Ares, the secret rebellion group that started him on this journey. In the end though, this shift away from the Institute opens the book to a wider and more complex arena, even if the reader is forced to believe that Darrow had the ability, the agility to keep up his deceptive appearance amongst the duplicitous Golds for all those years without hearing from the Sons of Ares. Anyways, Darrow’s reach has expand exponentially, and story leaves Mars behind (for now) which helps with the action, as things move swifter than a nail driven through concrete out into the galaxy. Brown, however, is not afraid to take his hero Darrow down a few pegs, but like any true defender of the downtrodden, he gets back up to continue. But this can also be a bit of contrivance, Brown ultimately explains it that the reason Darrow does not let things defeat him is because the real tragedy of this struggle is the massive loss of life -something not done by his hand, of course, but more so the effect of what he's become. So he's driven more by guilt so he must always get back up on his two feet. And that maybe one of the very few flaws with the book; Brown's over reliance on this story structure. Darrow encounter's some horrible situation, then comes up with a magical (it seems) solution then suddenly stumbles into another setback. 

Unfortunately, this had the tendency to take me out of the narrative. But the book does rocket along and (hopefully) it'll break out of the box that some seem to want to put it in, that this is just another dystopian novel in the vein of The Hunger Games. By far, these books (especially this second one) are better written, with more complex characters and with higher stakes, so those thoughts should be set aside. 

Again, there is no clear explanation to how Earth fell, but Brown makes some veiled references. History, they say, repeats itself and Golden Son could be defined as a retelling of the Roman Empire during its glory years. And while Homer and Sophocles survived, apparently Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire did not. And this colored based society has no historian (probably suppressed by the Golds), but to be honest, I'm not sure they would even admit that the original Roman tumbled under its own importance. 

I'm curious if, in the end, all this series is really is about, a science fiction retelling of Roman Empire and it's eventual (in book III) fall. 

But for me, who devoured this in a few days, I have a long wait for 2016 and that final book.

16 January 2015

Books: Methuselah's Children By Robert A. Heinlein (1958)

There is a lot of ideas in this thin little novel (183 pages of this old hardcover edition I got at the library) that could fill many others. But Methuselah's Children is not about filling endless pages of prose that may fill the ego of today's authors (there is no way writers like George R. R. Martin today could accomplish what Heinlein did without taking three or four books at a 1,000 pages each), it's about adventure, with humor, conflict and even romance to remind us that science fiction during it's Golden Age was characters who moved the plot. 
Heinlein also introduces us to a character that will pop up again in his latter writings. 
We begin in the 22nd Century, but the roots of the story go back to Gold Rush era. Despite wealth, Ira Howard will die young and childless. But he creates a trust that states he'll financially support families who have long-lived grandparents. This desire to prolong human life has, by the 22nd Century, have over 100,000 Family members living well over 150 years. 
Despite Earth being somewhat of a utopian society, the idea that human life can be extended creates a conflict -many believe the Families lifespan induced by selective breeding is a ruse, and they have developed a secret method to extend life. Of course, the family possess no such rejuvenation device. To prevent a pogrom, Lazarus Long (the oldest member of the Howard Family it seems), proposes to their one supporter and the Families: hijack the colony starship New Frontiers, and leave Earth.  Themes of the Bible also play into the story, as the first planet they discover turns out not be the Eden like place they hoped and are expelled when conflicts arise with the species that inhabit the planet. Then there is more issues with the second planet as well, that eventually puts the Family back on track to Earth.  But for Long, who reveals his age to be somewhere around 241, decides that Earth is no longer his home and with the help of brilliant engineer Andrew "Slipstick" Libby -who built (with the group minds that occupied the second planet) that helped create the FTL drive that got them home 74 years after they left, decide to recruit other members of the Families in hopes of exploring space with the new drive. And to see what's out there. 

As I said, there are a lot of ideas that the author puts out -from a Earth of the future that will be able to overcome war, prejudice, and famine ala Star Trek's Federation (and I suspect Gene Roddenberry got some of his ideas from this book) to the "magical" inertia device that removes mass to help space travel (along with the near faster than light travel). And long before it became fashionable for an author to tie everything to one single universe, this book (which began life as a serialized tale in 1941) falls into what John W. Campbell, Jr. coined as Heinlein's "Future History", a projected future of the human race between the 20th Century through the early 23rd (most of his short stories where written between 1939 and 1941 as well as 1945 through 1950 and complied into the 1966 book The Past Through Tomorrow). Although it seems Heinlein never fully intended to tie everything together (something that Isaac Asimov would eventually do as well) -he seemed to create a chronology of tales that fit together rather brilliantly. 

Then there is the character of Lazarus Long, who will go on to appear in four other Heinlein novels. Which are now on my reading list of 2015 and on.