26 October 2016

Books: The Everything Box by Richard Kadrey (2016)

Richard Kadrey has written 9 novels in his Sandman Silm series (which I was aware of, yet have not read) that is part of publishing’s latest subgenre called Urban Fantasy. Those books feature James "Sandman Slim" Stark, who escapes from Hell to take his revenge on the people that killed his lover. So he wanders the dark streets of Los Angeles that is haunted by vampires and demons –and after 11 years of combat as a gladiator against demons in Hell, he is more than prepared to fight back. It sounds very Angel like, to me and the premise a bit something we’ve seen before, but if they’re good, I guess I might take them up some day.

The Everything Box is the start of a new Urban Fantasy series for the prolific author, and though its premise is remarkably familiar (see Paul Cornell’s London Falling and Severed Streets and Ben Aaronovitch’s River of London series, along with Daniel O'Malley's Rook series) but unlike others, the book adds doses of broad humor, some funny one-liners and really tries not to take itself too seriously. 

Coop is a burglar who specializes in overcoming magical traps and spells, thanks to his natural immunity to them –i.e. the supernatural magic does not work on him. Just out of jail after a job gone sour, he’s recruited to steal a mysterious box for a well-paying client. Coop is far from the only person after the box; he and his crew must contend with a middle-class doomsday cult, agents from the Department of Peculiar Science, a temporally displaced homicidal stranger, and the angel who lost the box in the first place. Coop soon finds himself in the middle of a shadow war between heaven and Earth, with the biblical apocalypse at stake.

Kadrey draws a lot from the works of writers like Tim Powers, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Monty Python, Christopher Moore, and (I think) The Venture Bros. verbose and idiotic bad guy The Monarch. But he also slides in a rather droll caper aspect as well, which often reminded me of Gregory Macdonald’s Fletch & Flynn novels and a lot of other 1970s detective books (and a bit of TV's The Rockford Files to boot) that generally centered on over-the-top characters, both good and evil. 

Thirty years ago, this hardcover would’ve been a paperback original, probably with a 1970s inspired cover, but it’s still worthy of a read. Kadrey’s out to have fun, and the book fits nicely between Moore’s supernatural world of San Francisco, which has a deeper, more real-life feeling to it and Tim Powers Los Angeles based Dark Fantasy books that draws on ancient mythology. The Everything Box may not be deep, but it sure is a delight.

18 October 2016

Books: The Flying Sorcerers by David Gerrold and Larry Niven (1971)

The Flying Sorcerers introduces Shoogar, the greatest wizard ever known in his village. His spells can strike terror in the hearts of even his most powerful enemies. But the enemy he faces now is like none he has ever seen before. The stranger has come from nowhere and is ignorant of even the most basic principles of magic. But the stranger has an incredibly powerful magic of his own. There is no room in Shoogar’s world for an intruder whose powers match his own, let alone one whose powers might exceed his. So before the blue sun can cross the face of the red sun once more, Shoogar will show this stranger just who is boss.”

About halfway through this book, I decided to do some research on it because, I admit, I was confused. I’m never been a hard science fiction reader, but I’ve been known to dabble in it from time to time. And while I realized the book was satirical in nature, it took me a bit to catch on to the joke that the writers were blending hard science fiction with doses of broad humor. The gist of book is primarily a tale about the efforts of a stranded astronaut to escape from a primitive world, but what I learned (and sort of understood as it progressed), was that David Gerrold and Larry Niven were aping Arthur C. Clarke’s three prediction-related adages of science fiction: 

1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

And law three is what the two authors use in this book. I was also slow on the pickup, but soon realized that most of the names in the book are in-jokes –they seem based on real science fiction writers. They also sort of touch on the whole notion of how humans can introduce negative things into other cultures that have no notion of them. Purple -Dr. Dave Bowman from 2001: A Space Odyssey? - is sort of the reason Star Trek has a Prime Directive, as he introduces things like crime, money, alcohol, the battle between the sexes, along with altering their entire ecology.

While I did find the book humorous, the authors also spent an inordinate amount of time describing the building of the ship that Purple needed to reach the location to send a signal to his mothership. It’s this sort of detail, while important to the story, is why I do not read a lot of hard science fiction. I find the whole mathematical details boring. The book’s comedy sort of wanes as it progresses, which is another thing I found distracting (and the whole atomic explosion that destroyed villages and killed and injured many villagers is just weirdly out of place), but I’m glad I read it.

Plus, I sort of liked the cover. I acquired it a year ago when I was in Portland during the filming of Something Like Summer and I just found this British edition worthy of a purchase at Powell’s. So sue me for buying a book because of its cover.

11 October 2016

Books: The Tripods: The Pool of Fire by John Christopher (1967)

Much like the events of 9/11 when the United States and with help from other countries, who unified to take on those whom attacked America, one of the underling aspects of John Christopher’s Tripod series has been that while what these aliens did was horrible, it made the “free men” of the world unite one enemy and if we defeat those invaders can we learn from the mistakes that lead to them? And his question –which was always there in those three books-, was could we put aside our differences and actually work towards a more utopian society, maybe something on the idea perpetrated by Gene Roddenberry and his Federation of Planets? Of course, while some good things have come from those attacks, alliances both new and made stronger, we as a planet remain divided. Our Great Schism shows through this current election cycle and is bound to get uglier before it gets better.

While Christopher’s final coda comes clearly through at the end, The Pool of Fire has much to do before it gets there:

We learned in The City of Gold and Lead that the Masters are awaiting a huge ship to arrive on Earth to implement their “final solution”, if you will, on the carbon based life forms that infest the planet: terra forming the planet so the Masters no longer have to live in the three large cities (which always seemed to me not a lot) and could roam the entire world freely. The good part is that the ship is not due for at least four years, giving the resistance time to plan their next steps: Will and Fritz spend a year traveling through Asia recruiting freedom-minded boys to their cause. Then Will helps the Resistance capture a Tripod and kidnap a living Master for their scientists to study. Will serves as the Master's prison guard, and inadvertently makes a discovery: alcohol incapacitates the Masters. That leads to a plan: small teams will sneak into the Masters' domed cities and dump alcohol into the city water supply. Will and Fritz are chosen to lead the attack on the domed city in Germany.  That attack succeeds. The Masters are incapacitated, and the Resistance cracks the city domes, asphyxiating the Masters in Earth's oxygen atmosphere. 

There is more to the story, there are setbacks before (the forgone conclusion all these series have) the final victory, but ultimately the best part of the book is at the end, with the authors bleak coda. 

But before I talk about that, I want to mention that while I found the idea of the Tripods, the Masters interesting, for being so advanced –space travel and mind control and other wondrous things- they failed to understand humans. They were naive to think that once human emotions of violence were suppressed with the Capping that they would be forever docile. There had been some disagreement between them as to an age when a child (mainly men, which I found oddly annoying) became too rebellious –some felt it earlier than the current 14 years of age, but in the end this plot thread was dropped. I also found the idea that failed Cappings on certain humans, the ones that became the vagrants, another of their failures to follow-up on sort of predicted their ultimate fall. 

While the TV series versions set the first book in 2089 and the second in 2090, and with the third (if it had been made) most likely in 2091, Christopher did one wise thing, which was not to say how far in the future these books are set. Thus it makes themes universal, plus it gets around any technological advances that have taken place in the years that would to come, though I’m assuming the author would’ve never guessed his series would forever remain in print. 

Of course, as Christopher noted in the 35th anniversary version of The White Mountains, by the time the proposal to write the Tripod series, he was sort of tired of the science fiction genre he had been writing in for a while. “The publisher”, he wrote, “wanted the future; I was more interested in the past.” Which was how the idea of taking the elements of the “future” and setting them on a future Earth that, more or less, resembled a medieval time period of England (something Doctor Who was already doing in the 1960s) made him interested in doing the series. 

Like the previous two books, there is a lot of stuff that is condensed (at the time, these “children’s” books were designed to short, which, good or bad, has changed in the last 50 years); sometimes we only get brief sentences about things that spans months or years. I mean, I would’ve found it interesting to explore Will (ever the flawed character, and one constant through the books) and Fritz’s year long journey to find help to overthrow the Masters, or Beanpole’s scientific studies on how to defeat the Masters –along with how they found and got an air army going with war planes that got left behind. And as I mentioned, the adaptations of the first two books were padded, but I suspect what was added –the action, the creation of lacking female characters and what not- was more or less designed to appeal to the TV demographic than story function. 

But the final question of the story is still relevant today as it was some fifty years ago: Having mastered the Masters, can humanity now master itself?

09 October 2016

Books: The Tripods: The City of Gold and Lead by John Christopher (1967)

“After a year in the White Mountains of hard training, the resistance charges Will, Beanpole, and a German boy named Fritz, to infiltrate a Tripod City by competing in a regional sporting exhibition. Will, a boxer, and Fritz, a runner, win their respective contests, while Beanpole fails to win in the jumping events. The winners are taken to the Tripod city in a pressurized dome astride a river. Inside the city, the boys discover the Tripods' operators, whom they refer to as the "Masters". Human males are slaves inside the cities, while beautiful females are killed and preserved for the Masters to admire. Slaves are furnished with breathing masks to survive the aliens' atmosphere, but are rapidly exhausted by the stronger artificial gravity and must therefore be periodically replaced. Although Fritz is abused by his Master, Will is treated as a privileged pet by his. Eventually, Will's Master reveals a plan to replace the Earth's atmosphere with the Masters' toxic air to enable full control of the Earth.”

The City of Gold and Lead is a tense, lean tale and is much creepier than the first book in the series. What worked was the whole concept of the Masters and their bizarre city of gold. Christopher comes up with intriguing ideas, even if he spends little time trying to fully explain them. The book still has issues with women, and while I don’t want to make apologies for the authors treatment of them, I’m still tend to accept that book was written at time when the world still saw women as the happy homemaker, concerned only with trivial things. They were not seen then as true individuals. Plus, again, this series was directed at males so it can be expected a bit to believe young boy readers would not like to see heroic women. There is also a suggestion that the boys are not only verbally and psychically abused by the Masters, but they are also molested by them. We also get a glimpse at how the Tripods overtook the world, but once again, the details are slim. Maybe something more is forthcoming in book 3?

A lot of this stuff was dropped in the 1985 12 episode TV adaptation, with a bunch of new subplots and characters (females!!!) being added to offset some of the more homoerotic and, let’s face it, weirder and kinkier aspects that would’ve been hard to conceive on a TV budget back then. Which leads to the fact that Disney has held the rights to this trilogy since 1997 and it would be interesting to see how close a version of the book(s) they could do now. I still think they would need to add a few new subplots and expand other set pieces like the TV version did and they would probably change the gender of either Henry or Beanpole (and why not Will as well?) to a women to entice the female audience. And it’s obvious the technology of visual effects has greatly advanced in the 30 years since this series aired, so that would be keen. There even had been a suggestion that a film adaptation was coming in 2012, but that may have been about the time of the authors passing and it was just hopeful thinking. 

Now onto the concluding book…

07 October 2016

Books: The Tripods: The White Mountains By John Christopher (1966)

This year marked the 50th anniversary of John Christopher’s young adult trilogy The Tripods. The author, who passed away in 2012 at 89, was a long-time writer of science fiction who published books and stories under various pseudonyms over his long career. But it was these three books –and a fourth title, a prequel released some 20 years after the last book, that he is mainly known for.

Two of the three books were adapted by the BBC and Australia's Network Seven into a series, one with 13 episodes and the other with 12. The third series was axed due to low ratings and (then) BBC head Michael Grade’s all out war on science fiction. Grade, of course, was the man who cancelled long running Doctor Who back then, only to revive when there was such an uproar and who eventually cancelled it again in 1989. 

Back in 1985 when my local PBS station in Chicago WTTW began airing this series on Sundays (pairing it with Doctor Who reruns), I remember enjoying the series. I have no reason as to why it’s taken me this long to read the books, but I do know that the series, despite its many issues it had, never left me. The acting, like most BBC dramas, was better than you would expect.  Of course the BBC was aware that its many shows relied on strong acting and characterization to make up for the less than stellar production values. And science fiction, despite the long running Doctor Who TV series, were not that highly budgeted shows. But for The Tripods, the visual effects became the marketing ploy designed to interest outside bidders just as effects driven shows and movies were becoming popular.

And I think that’s what stuck with me, the visual aspects, the fact that the show never really delved into how the alien Tripods over took the planet, and performances from the young cast. 

“Life goes on largely as it had in the pre-industrial era, excepting that all adult humans are subject to Tripod control. Will, a thirteen-year-old boy living in the English village of Wherton, is looking forward to the next "Capping Day", until a chance meeting with a mysterious uncapped man named Ozymandias who prompts him to discover a world beyond the Tripods' control. He is accompanied by his cousin Henry and latter a French teenager named Jean-Paul Deliet, nicknamed "Beanpole". The novel climaxes with Henry and Beanpole discovering that earlier, when Will had been captured by a Tripod, he had been unknowingly implanted with a tracking device. When Henry and Beanpole remove the device, a nearby Tripod attacks them; but the boys defeat the Tripod and eventually join the resistance, located in the titular White Mountains.”

Having re-watched most of the first series on Youtube, it’s amazing how much padding was added to the book. At a slim 195 pages, The White Mountains is much tighter tale than what amounts to six-plus hours of the first season of the TV series. I found I enjoyed the book much more than the show because Christopher did not need to go off on so many tangents. 

The book does have some weakness, but I believe that has something to do with the era in which it was written. While the themes of dystopian world have been around much longer than Hollywood’s current obsession with it, this series was clearly designed to appeal to white boys –who was the demographic that publishers only seemed to care about back them. Girls are rarely talked about or even mentioned, and when they’re seen and heard, they’re idealized versions -and usually end up being Capped as well. This may have worked in the late 1960s, but by the time the series was produced in 1984/85, the producers and writers saw subtle subtext of too many half-naked boys hanging (especially in series two) about and added some of the opposite sex. However, while the girls were a little more present in the later episodes of season one and more in season two, they were still seen as subservient to men, doing the cooking and being concerned with looks and whispering about boy. None could be considered individualistic and hero like. 

But after fifty years, The White Mountains is still a vibrant analogy about growing up and boys becoming men. Childhood is about freedom here, while being an adult is about being a sheep (the Capped could be seen as men donning ties and suits and heading off in trains to be controlled by bosses). Unintentionally or not by the author, Will can be a bit of jerk though, and carries typical teenage boy bravado of letting his hubris get in the way of most things, along with a bad temper. And I did find the impulsiveness of Will and Henry to abandon their families a bit odd. While Henry may have had a better reason –his Mom had died and barley had a relationship with his distant father- Will’s hastiness to walk out on his parents and his village seems an obvious plot device.