Wednesday, May 30, 2012

100 Books #48 - Elaine Dundy's THE DUD AVOCADO

A casual look over the blurbs and whatnot for The Dud Avocado might make it seem like its heroine is just a blonde* Holly Golightly amuck in Paris (our narrator even mentions Audrey Hepburn at one point). And sure, Sally Jay Gorce has things in common with that famous character: she is beautiful, seems a bit careless (especially about her love affairs), and has a tendency to show up for lunch in an evening dress for complicated and amusing reasons. But really, she is more like a Henry James than a Truman Capote/Hollywood heroine, except with even more going on upstairs.**

The Dud Avocado reads like a story told over a long and leisurely lunch by a sly older woman who has lived more than you have, but still, somehow, has kept the ingenue's breathless "oh golly" quality even as she shrewdly and candidly analyzes her possible errors, her weird sort of luck, the impression of herself she has given to others and her impressions of others, both on the surfaces and down in reality. She never goes so far as to break that fourth wall and directly address the reader, but that sense of her looking over the reader's shoulder as the pages turn (or the e-ink screens click by) is palpable. She never crowds us, having much better instincts than that (though she'll insist she doesn't, that she's really just blundering along, but don't let her fool you. Every word counts, perhaps most so when it most seems like it wouldn't), but she's watching our reactions under her carelessly perfect eyelashes.

She is, after all, an actress, and great actresses are not just good performers but powerful students of human behavior. Or, at least she is now, over that imaginary lunch. And she was then, too, in the story she's telling, but she wasn't so good at applying her insights, by golly!

Sally Jay has been turned loose on Europe in much the way her spiritual ancestor, Isabel Archer, was: an older male well-wisher wanted to "give her her freedom" (i.e., financial independence) to see what she would do with it. Sally Jay gets just two years of this freedom, after which she is expected, more or less, to make her own way, by marriage or perhaps a job of some sort where her intelligence and creativity an attractiveness are put to use; times have (sort of) changed since Isabel's inheritance set her free to be manipulated into marrying a fortune hunter.

But there's that pesky "sort of". Once Sally Jay sort of backs into her "first real relationship" she finds herself part of a circle of couples giving each other dinner parties and when her painter boyfriend learns that she can't cook, he gives her  "a wry sort of some-women-are-made-for-only-one-thing smile." She doesn't quite resent this, but that's partly because she is still free, although she's starting to see, at this point, an unappealing end to that freedom. "Here I was practically fresh out of the egg... and here was everybody telling me to stop drifting and start living in this world; telling me to start cooking, and swering, and cleaning, and I don't know what. Taking care of grandchildren." Italics Dundy's.

Because of course a young woman who hasn't allowed herself to be trapped in a life of domestic bondage can only be drifting. Even at the dawn of the sexual revolution (for of course, Sally Jo is sexually liberated -- how do you think she backed into that relationship. Ah, me).

But still, she is free, and free in a way that few people ever will be, ever again, in our age of Four Square check-ins and GPS-equipped everything: “Frequently, walking down the streets in Paris alone, I’ve suddenly come upon myself in a store window grinning foolishly away at the thought that no one in the world knew where I was at just that moment.” When was the last time you felt like that?

And that, along with the funniness -- the out-of-the-mouth-of-a-babe wittiness, the accounts of clumsiness, the unintended consequences of that will to say "yes" to every opportunity -- is what keeps this book bubbling along. You'll finish it in no time, but it will stay with you, for while it may look light and frothy on the outside, it's quite tart. And sharp. Mwee wappa.

Many, many thanks to Rob, the BardoRobot, for telling me about this book!

*Well, okay, for most of the story it's actually pink.

**Not to say some of Henry James' women are not very intelligent, it's just that we only ever see them from the outside, usually gracefully posing near a window or in a garden. Sally Jay tells us exactly what she's thinking about everything and everyone she encounters, puts everyone and everything in its place and never stands still.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

100 Books #47 - Brand Gamblin's DISCOUNT MIRACLES

"When your sovereign catches fire and takes off like a bird in flight, all ties are in question."

Readers of this blog already know that I'm bullish on Brand Gamblin's imagination. I'm terribly pleased to share, therefore, that with this new release, his stock is still rising: the storytelling is still beguilingly top notch and appropriate for all ages, and the niggling little complaints I had about the editing of his previous novels have been addressed, leaving even picky readers like me with nothing to worry about but enjoying the tale.

And enjoy it I did!

Discount Miracles could do very well as a lost/extended Firefly script, if Mal, Kayleigh and Jayne survived a bad crash onto an inhabited planet with a gender-swapped Saffron (not a member of the crew, he is just as amoral and manipulative as Saffron but he is indeed a dude) and had to make their way through a society at a superstitious and medieval level of development. Their only stock in trade: science, which they find themselves pressured by various forces of necessity and local politics into using to stage "miracles" -- a practice with many short-term advantages, but with potentially longer-term consequences. Too much success and they risk persecution as witches; failure means exposure as frauds. Either has definite pitchforks-and-torches potential.

And of course there are lovely complications. Robert, the somewhat brainier Jayne figure, is furious with the rest of the crew for seeming to give up so easily on getting back into space; Anvir, the Saffronesque rogue, is all about manipulating the rubes for the sake of manipulating the rubes; Dannia, the charming Kayleigh analog, has fallen for a local woodcutter whose love notes to her take the form of flaming wooden crop circles only visible from her "metal broomstick."

Adding to the fun is the crew's main, if unwitting, client for their miracles, the uncommonly born commoner, Dayner Raeburn, whose status as the thirteenth son of a thirteenth daughter has vaulted him not only into the spotlight but into royalty: there is a prophecy on this world saying that such a boy will ascend to some kind of transcendent state on his 20th birthday and Make Everything Better. He's spoilt and willful and snotty and basically comes off, quite a bit of the time, as a less homicidal Prince Joffery*, which is most enjoyable. Once he "ascends" and leaves behind a power vacuum, the novel takes on a whole new dimension, full of schemes and double-crosses and hardball politics, even as a lot of the action has moved to the other side of the planet.

The novel, too, invokes Star Trek, as the ship's crew and stowaway find themselves rather hotly debating how much technology it's safe -- and ethical -- to reveal and share, whether or not helping Prince Raeburn's "ascension" is worse than some of the trading the stowaway has done on the side, and, of course, whether or not they have any chance at all to be rescued.

I could have done with a smidgeon more battling, especially in the climax, but I'm probably one of those bad, bad people who have become desensitized to violence, and Gamblin does try to keep his appeal as broad across the generations as possible. This book is not as sweet or charming as its predecessors, but it's still something that I, were I a parent, would be happy to let any young science fiction fans in the family read after I was done with it.

*See George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, in the first two novels of which Joffery is one of the more over-the-top villains. Indeed, in more ways than one, the elevator pitch for this book could be Firefly meets a G-rated Game of Thrones, with a soupcon of H.P. Lovecraft.

FGC #16 - First World Problems

All o'er their phones, all heads are bowed.
They walk and they ignore the crowd.
They stop to concentrate, ignore
The others, who, behind, before,
Protest "It should not be allowed!"

Sometimes they crash, minds in the cloud
Unknowing what is all around
In quest, as ever, but what for?
All o'er their phones.

With such as this they're now endowed,
Distracted, and of this quite proud,
As though someone were keeping score
Of how much data from the core
They have consumed, with all heads bowed
All o'er their phones.

100 Books #46 - Catherynne Valente's THE FOLDED WORLD

"Stew is better than war, for only one has nice carrots in it."

It should say something that, just days after devouring the first book in this series, I've done the same with the second (I actually finished this on May 23, but was out in the land of little bandwidth with no time to blog). Which is to say that, series title aside, so far the Dirge for Prester John is pretty enjoyable reading.

The Folded World both is and is not a sequel, its conceit being that parts of it were written long before parts of the first book even though the events of the story all take place after The Habitation of the Blessed. Thus we have one of the narrators from the previous book, the blemmye Hagia, writing after she became Prester John's wife and gave birth to their daughter, Sefalet but before the writing she did for the previous book. Further confusing matters, for this book she is serving mostly as scribe for Prester John's other daughter, Anglitora whom he fathered on a crane long before meeting Hagia, and the narration swerves dizzyingly between Anglitora's and Hagia's own without warning, sometimes trading paragraphs as the two of them struggle for control over the story and its telling. It's a real testament to Catherynne Valente's talent that it is always perfectly lucid which of the two is speaking in Hagia's parts of this book.

This time around, Hagia is sharing narrating duties with several others, including a lioness, Vyala, mother of Hagia's lover Hadulph (yes, another lion), whose devotion to Hagia extends to her daughter by Prester John to such a degree that, seeing her unhappy and about to be abandoned by the royal couple's march to war, Hadulph sends the girl to Vyala  for care, company, and instruction in love, for Vyala is universally acknowledged to be the best at love (not at sex: at love) and the wisest about it. Her passages are full of lovely and lively explorations and wisdom on that subject, including an inversion of St. Paul's famous homily on love that emphasizes love's cruelty and selfishness and feels just as true as Paul's words.

Poor Sefalet needs Vyala's instruction, for she is deeply afflicted by congenital uniqueness that's a heavy burden for a little girl: her head is entirely featureless, with her eyes on the backs of her hands, and on her palms, both of them, are her two mouths, one of which speaks sweetly and one of which is monstrously cruel. In addition, through the mean mouth, Sefalet makes prophecies that have a habit of coming true. As she observes early in the story, Cassandra had it easy.

But it's Anglitora, Prester John's daughter by the crane, a girl who looks mostly human but who sports a wing where one of her arms should be, who is the real catalyst for this second story. Her arrival in John's kingdom is dramatic: she carries a helmet containing a letter from the emperor in Constantinople, who received Prester John's famous letter (which is mostly a pack of lies even in this world where John's kingdom really exists) and has written him back, begging him to help defend his city from the invading Muslims.

Further complicating the book is its third narrator, John Mandeville -- yes, that John -- another famous liar, whose bullshit accounts of his explorations nonetheless, in our world, inspired the likes of Christopher Columbus. In the world of the Dirge for Prester John, he comes to John's world, but he lands among the peoples who dwell on the other side of the great diamond wall built by Alexander the Great to protect what would one day become John's kingdom from all the demons out there. Said demons being, of course, the peoples who meet John Mandeville and tell him horror stories of those other demons on the other side of the wall. Of course.

And yet further complicating matters is that once again all of this is framed in the account of a monk copying these stories out of another book-fruit, but it's a different monk because the monk who raced against rot in The Habitation of the Blessed wound up eating one of his rotten books and is now incapacitated.

Got all that? And I haven't even gotten to the war. For of course there is war, and of course it does not have nice carrots in it.

Too, these books would argue that stew is also better than organized religion, which comes in for a lot of questioning, disputing and gentle satire as the fabulous creatures of Pentexore follow their lottery-annointed king into a holy war they really don't understand. A scene amidst a great hedge of Christian and Muslim knights that grew from a bunch of corpses that washed up on a beach comes to mind. They are planted firmly in Pentexore's magical soil, these soldier-trees, but they still want to fight each other over points of doctrine.

The war itself is full of surprises and sadness even as the story builds to a wholly different and only sort of foreshadowed conclusion that has nothing to do with that war and everything to do with the ancient history of Pentexore.

There is a whole lot of bang for my bucks in Ms. Valente's books. I see from her blog that she and her publisher have parted ways. Here's hoping she gets a move on and joins the brave new world of self-publishing. She's certainly talented enough.

More soon, please!

Monday, May 21, 2012

100 Books #45 - Catherynne M. Valente's THE HABITATION OF THE BLESSED

Blemmyes! Panotti! Skiapods! Cametenna! Astomi!* Bookfruit trees! If these words do not excite you, or you just don't know what the hell they mean, then you are likely not a fan of the mythical kingdom of Prester John, a legendary priest-king who supposedly had a powerful and flourishing Christian kingdom in the far east somewhere, whose aid many crusaders were deluded into hoping for based on a fanciful letter said king was said to have sent to Constantinople in the middle ages. His kingdom was populated, in imagination, by pretty much every kind of fanciful beast that had yet to be found in the lands actually explored by Europeans, including those whom it was pretty well understood by that point had probably been made up by Herodotus. Even after Prester John's letter was discredited as complete fakery, some people still believed in his kingdom, where also was supposedly located the Fountain of Youth.


I might have thought that my lust for all things Prester John had finally been sated by Umberto Eco's Baudolino, many years ago, but I would have been wrong, wrong, wrong. Enter Catherynne M. Valente, a fantasy author of some repute (though heretofore unknown to me), who took the idea of "what if Prester John's kingdom had actually existed just as imagined" and ran a freaking marathon with it.

It's kind of a melancholy marathon, though, because, among other things, Prester John emerges as pretty much the villain, bumming everyone out with his insistence that everybody needed to convert to Christianity and stop making each other happy. "I will remake the world, more perfect, more pure," he says. Sound like every super-villain you've ever heard declaiming?

Despite this, this is a truly lovely book, even as it breaks the reader's heart in pretty much every way a book can.

The Habitation of the Blessed is divided up into several related narratives: that of John himself, detailing his discovery of and rise to power within this fabulous land, that of his immortal blemmye wife Hagia, that of a Panotti nanny who raised the children of the queen who invented the lottery that changes everyone's fates (see below), and that of an aging, ordinary human monk who is frantically reading and copying these other three stories before the books containing them, books he plucked from a bookfruit tree rot into illegibility. "My eyes raced my brain and both of them panted, exhausted. Fat globs of soft, furry mold swarmed up and took a great swath of words, and I felt tears prick my heart." Bookfruits must be taken fresh or not at all.

The tone of all four narratives is like that, incredibly wistful, mournful, full of love and regret (hence the title for the series of which this is the first novel A Dirge for Prester John). But the love the Pentexorans have for one another relieves the gloom and makes it beautiful, even as the strangeness and absurdity of their world makes it amusing.

Of them all, I loved Hagia best. She is neither defined by being a blemmye nor by being Prester John's eventual wife, spending most of the novel enjoying many ordinary human lifetimes' worth of experiences of every kind available to her because that's her culture's rule: immortality would get stale and unbearable if the immortal don't deliberately shake things up every once in a while, so every three hundred years a lottery is called that breaks up families and marriages and forces individuals to pursue new careers, a bittersweet idea softened by the knowledge that the next lottery might reunite a pair of spouses, a parent and child or close friends or colleagues. And hey, someone will draw a chit that makes him or her the ruler of Pentexore, the country where Hagia and her people dwell. It's a bittersweet existence, immortality...**

Not there aren't delights to be had in the other narratives, as when Prester John, just come from the most godawful of deserts, finally finds something sort of like food and eats of the fruit of the cannon tree (preferring that to the horse tree, where the fruit consists of whinnying horses' heads; at least the cannon tree just offers up edible, peppery-flavored shot) and is chewed out as a thief and worse by the fruits of yet another tree, those fruits, of course, being talking sheep heads, who tell him he is "baaaad." Well no, okay, they don't prolong the vowel sound, but they totally should.

A pity Prester John is such a prig in that scene, though. But that is his nature, for which he is ultimately and always forgiven, for that is how people are in Pentexore. That is how they have to be. They're stuck with each other forever, after all. Be excellent to each other, and party on, dudes.

If only.

Now, pardon me: I'm off to the bookfruit tree to hunt up the sequel.

*Blemmyes are headless people, whose faces are in their chests; Skiapods are dwarfs with one giant foot; Cametenna have hands so large they can hide their entire bodies in them much as Panotti can hide in their own giant dumbo ears. Astomi are people who need neither to eat nor drink and survive by smelling stuff.

**"Among the immortal, good manners are as important as bread and water. When we cannot forget anything, courtesy behooves  us all." The inhabitants of Hagia's homeland mostly come to regret their courtesy to John, who does not return it, who demands that they adopt his religion and beliefs and reject any source of eternal life that is not Jesus and in general is a bit of a jerk for a long time, but courtesy is what they know, courtesy and pity that John cannot see that he is already in Paradise as he harangues them about one they'll only reach if they're sorry enough.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

FGC #15 - Ad Astra

Faster-than-light was a dream we were still nowhere near realizing, and if we were patient people, the great dome of Tranq City would eventually have been buried under regolith dust, unpeopled, wouldn't it?

So, as the least patient of us contemplated the great hollowed-out corpses of asteroids being created by the miners who occasionally graced our spaceport (and sometimes contributed to our gene pool), some of us got an idea. Then another got another idea. Soon the ideas overwhelmed us all and hijacked any other purpose we might have had.

It wasn't enough to have colonized Luna. It wasn't enough to have outposts on Mars, Eros, Ceres. Our species would still die when our star did, whether it was after the long wait for it to burn out or in an instant of improbable cosmic disaster catching us with our systemic pants down.

As had been done with the settlement of Luna itself, our mission was best presented as a fait accompli. It was easy to keep the secrets from the Earthbound; all they cared about was power for their gadgets and their medical devices and their amusements, fuel cells to store that power for when they wanted it.

As far as they were concerned, we were the Molochs and they the Eloi, and that was fine with them.

It was fine with us, too.

And so one day the great polar region of Mare Frigoris opened up and discharged its secret contents, great unfathomable rings of metal, dragged clear of Luna's gravity by tug rockets, then linked together and dragged far out past the orbit of Mars. A few Earthbound astronomers noticed this and tried to raise an outcry, but their voices were lost in the din of decadence that Terran culture had become long before Tycho Powe and Spudis Spiegel had escaped it in that home-built tin can of theirs.

I am proud to be a descendant of Tycho Powe's, and while some insisted to me that my heritage should have led to a more exalted role than that I fulfill now, I'm just excited to be aboard, me and my little green friends (some of them lineal descendants of Tomatosaurus rex, actually) and my wife. Our child is due to be the first born in space, in just a few months. I wonder what he – she? -- will be like.

Reedy Powe never tired of reading her ancestor's journal, nor had her predecessors from the look of the thing. Despite the care everyone had taken with it, it was falling apart, smudged, barely legible, treasured nowadays more as a link to the otherwise unimaginable past than as reading material from which something could be learned.

She resisted the urge to give the decrepit notebook a friendly pat and carefully stowed it again in her family's vault, expertly maneuvering there from the reading station despite her pregnancy. Zero gee was so forgiving, not that she'd known anything else, really.

They'd stopped bothering with spinning for artificial gravity some generations ago. Reedy did not know when exactly the decision was taken. No one could, and it was only scholars like her who knew that once the practice had been common, ancestors fearing atrophied muscles and worse.

The bicycles and treadmills they'd also employed against this had long ago been disassembled and cannibalized to build other things, stranger things, things that Marcus Aurelius Powe, the author of the book Reedy had been enjoying, would never have recognized, but which Reedy and her generation accepted as their patrimony along with the enclosed rocky world which was their only home as they hurtled toward their destination.

Reedy worried about all of this, sometimes, in the night cycle. Captain Cross had announced at the last convocation that they were less than a year away from their destination, a small, rocky world orbiting a red dwarf star first seen by the Kepler probe the Earthbound had built and set to looking for exoplanets. With this destination in mind, the lights within the collared asteroids that were the Ship had been tuned to match that of their eventual sun, only for a few hours a day for the generation who had left Luna for the stars and for the plants in the enormous grow houses that had been scraped right off that world's "dark" side and attached firmly to the rock, but gradually for longer and longer as plants and people learned to live in such strange light.

Reedy had known only the red and never the white light, had grown up feeding on plants and animals carefully nurtured to adapt to the new conditions as they had been to one-sixth Earth gravity on Luna and no gravity out in the asteroid belt, had grown up, too, knowing that she and hers would be the first Ship-born humans in hundreds of years to stand (assisted by an exoskeleton, but still, to stand) on a planet's surface, to know up and down, to have to climb and walk and reach instead of merely floating.

And the child kicking in her belly would grow up knowing nothing else. This child would walk upright, would take wind and sky as Reedy had taken rocky walls -- for granted.

This child would be human like those they'd left behind were still human, trapped at the bottom of a gravity well but living just the same.

Reedy stroked her belly fondly, looking out across the vast main cavern of the Ship where against the far wall opposite, a young man fiddled with his prototype exoskeleton. Lowell was one of Reedy's baby's possible fathers -- not that anyone cared about this much, but he was by far Reedy's favorite of her lovers – kind and courteous as all the Ship-born had to be, but also, Reedy thought, a genuinely pleasant person, eager to share the discoveries he made through his tinkering with anyone who cared to ask about them.

His face brightened as Reedy, unconsciously flicking her wrist to get a last bit of propulsion from the guide-ropes joining her area and his, glided across toward him .

“How’s my girl,” he asked, eyeing her belly. “It’s going to be soon, isn’t it?”

“A week or two,” Reedy agreed.

“You sure timed that interestingly, didn’t you?”

“Well, I didn’t time it at all,” Reedy said, laughing a little. “But if I’d known how close we were to – what did Cross call it? Landfall? – I might have shown a little more restraint, yeah.”

“Ha ha, I bet! But hey, this one will maybe do the best out of all of the kids when we hit ground. He – she? – will never know anything else.”

“Kind of what I was thinking!”

“May I?” Lowell was reaching for her belly, exposed and round, poking out of her coverall.

“Of course! You might have earlier. Anytime.”

“Just, I remember someone complaining once, about how no one respected her space while she was pregnant. She was everybody’s property.”

“Yeah, there’s that, but go ahead. No, come on, if you’re going to, do it!” Reedy grabbed Lowell’s tentative hand and pressed it firmly. “S/he’s kicking right now. Feel it?”

Lowell broke away, startled, the motion propelling both of them apart. “Oops!” Lowell spun around to catch his foot on a loop in the wall for an anchor, and stretched out to catch Reedy’s foot before she could drift too far away and crash. It was a movement so natural to both of them that ordinarily they didn’t think about it.

Reedy read the look on Lowell’s face. “Yeah,” she said.


“But so, show me this?”

“Sure! You want to try it on?”

Lowell helped her into his creation, a little anxiously, seeing already more places where the contraption was going to chafe. He grabbed wads of fabric stuffed with who-knew-what and placed them strategically. The frame already sported many such pads.

“Okay, try moving around.”

Reedy did her best to pantomime walking as she understood it, scissoring her legs back and forth as she held on to a loop in the wall with one hand.

“No, it’s more…”

“More what?” Reedy asked, still flailing and trying not to giggle.

“It’s not just your legs.”

“How do you know that?”

“Study.” Lowell frowned, watching her. “We really need to practice with these. Practice properly.”

“Well, didn’t they used to spin these?” Reedy gestured at the rock and metal all around them “To give an illusion of weight? Maybe it’s time to do that again.”

“YES! I gotta…”

“Go. Captain Cross is over in the reading area where I was.”

Lowell bunched up his legs to launch himself across, then paused awkwardly, looking over at Reedy.

“Go! I can get myself out of this. Not completely helpless, you know.”

Lowell smiled and lunged in for a kiss. “Bye.”

“Bye,” Reedy laughed, already fiddling with some straps.

Within a week, Captain Cross had not only got the ancient spinning mechanisms working (with a lot of help from the Scotts, the Melzers and the Lermontovs) but had drawn up a mandatory training schedule, with orders to Lowell and his crew to get more exoskeletons made as quickly as possible.

Weird as it was to have Lowell’s invention caging Reedy's limbs and forcing her spine into a position that felt profoundly unnatural, it was nothing to trying to move with a heretofore unknown force tugging at those limbs and spine -- and suddenly unwieldy belly -- pulling them in a singular direction. The discomfort was extraordinary. Was this what it was going to be like all the time?

“Stop your giggling,” she snapped. Delilah was watching, a bowl of fresh pea pods tethered to her even as it rested in her lap. Old habits died hard, and Delilah was the oldest person on the Ship.

“Oh, let an old woman have her fun.”

“I don’t see you taking a turn in this monstrosity. They building you one special?”

“I take it you haven’t heard,” Delilah said around a mouthful of vegetables.

“Heard what?”

“Us oldtimers ain’t going down.”

“Ain’t going…?” Reedy stopped struggling with the metal surrounding her.


“I’m confused.”

“Ain’t going down onto the planet.”


“Oh, think about it, girl. We don’t stand a chance down there. I have to have help moving around as it is. So does the captain.”

Tears began to pool in Reedy’s eyes. She twitched at the bizarre sensation of their falling down her cheeks. “But that means…”

“Oh, it will be all right. We’ll just stay on Ship, here. Live out our lives, last one’ll take ‘er down into an ocean when he’s sick of being alone.”


“Pretty sure that was always the plan, honey.” Delilah reached over and gave the exoskeleton a pat. She couldn’t reach Reedy herself. “Lived my whole life on this ship, just like my ma and grandma and great-grandma on back. At least I’ll die in sight of the new sun.”

Reedy smiled wanly at this.

“Now you get back to your exercising.”

“Yes ma’am!”

“Must be hell with that belly of yours. When you due, now?”

“Any day, I think.”

Delilah tsked.

Reedy’s next turn in the exoskeleton was more eventful. She was getting better at moving around in it, and with a liberal application of some aloe vera gel at points of contact that chafed despite Lowell’s padding, was more comfortable doing so.

She was alone in the collar when chaos erupted. Voices called out, hooting and cheering, and there was the sound of applause.

“What’s going on?” Reedy shouted. And, when no one answered her, “Hey!”

Lowell came, laughing, through the darkness. Without explanation, he began helping her out of the exoskeleton.

“Come on,” he said when she was free.

“What’s going on?”

“I don’t want to spoil it for you.”

Tugging on the guide-ropes to follow him, Reedy approached the crowd gathered around one of Ship’s few portholes.

“Hey, let her through? She hasn’t seen yet,” Lowell said. The crowd parted obligingly and soon Reedy saw the source of the commotion.

“Our sun,” she said. “That’s our new sun, isn’t it?”

And a moment later, “Ow, ow, fucking ow!”

The newest addition to the proud Powe line had a fine sense of drama. Reedy had just gone into labor.


“You’re getting good at this!” Lowell explained, watching a slim-again Reedy going through her paces in the exo.

“Watch this,” Reedy said. “Here, chuck that apple piece onto the ground, would you?”

Lowell complied, and with pride Reedy bent over, exo and all, picked up the fruit, and popped it into her mouth.

“Wow!” Lowell said. “Really good. Did you see that, Astra? Did you see your mommy pick up the apple?”

Reedy’s daughter, all of six months old, was more interested in Lowell’s finger than in her mother’s accomplishments. To Reedy’s disappointment, she looked more like Mikhail than Lowell, but that meant Reedy was still perfectly free to enjoy as much of Lowell’s company as she wanted, in every way she wanted -- and Lowell was far more interested in the child anyway.

“Now we’re spinning, we can’t play ‘toss the baby’,” Reedy noted. “That’s always so fun.”

“Astra’s got more interesting things in store for her, yes she does,” Lowell said, smiling at the baby. “And we can still do this. Astra likes this, don’t you, Astra?” Lowell was now holding the girl by her underarms and swooping her around. The baby gurgled happily.

“Here, give her to me,” Reedy said, reaching out with exo’d arms for her daughter. The harness squeaked at the motion. The baby began to cry.

“She’s scared of the harness,” Lowell observed.

“Well, she needs to get used to it,” Reedy said, more sharply than she’d intended.

Lowell wrapped the baby in blankets she didn’t really need for warmth, trying to pad her against the discomfort of being held by a mother in a metal harness, and passed her over. Reedy peeled down one side of her coverall top to feed her daughter, pivoting at the waist awkwardly to rock her. The exo squeaked more.

“Here, I’ve got some oil,” Lowell said. Soon the squeaking and the crying had both stopped. Reedy began to pace back and forth in the small space laid out for exo practice.

“Wish there was somewhere to sit down in here,” she said.

“Well, this area is supposed to be for exercise.”

“It’s supposed to be for practice.”

“Same thing.”

“No, not really. Shh, Astra. It’s okay. It’s okay.”

“She knows,” Lowell said. “She’s a lot easier to calm down than my little sisters were. Than any baby I’ve seen, really.”

“You know, I think you’re right. Huh.”

“I think it’s because she’s the first one who’s been born to something normal for us.”

Reedy smiled. “Good point. The first,” she whispered to her daughter, “But not the last.”

Lowell’s eyebrows shot up.

“No, that’s not what I meant, stupid.”



Astra was far less calm when the most momentous moment of her little life – of any of the Ship-born’s lives – took place a few weeks later. The Melzers and the Hudocks had done their best to make the shuttles they’d built to bring the Ship-born to their new home as comfortable as possible, but quarters were close and the excitement made everyone sweat, which made everyone stink, which made toddlers whine and parents speak sharply and Astra cry and cry even before the shuttle carrying her and her mother and her father and any number of other father-like figures down to the surface of Home fired up its engines.

“It’s going to be okay,” Reedy cooed anxiously.

“Shut her up,” Mikhail said from the pilot’s seat at the front of the shuttle. “I need to concentrate.”

“He does not,” Lowell muttered. The shuttle’s course had been carefully programmed by Captain Cross; Mikhail was just there in case the terrain at the landing site wasn’t as smooth as it looked from orbit.

“Shh,” Reedy said.

Delilah floated into the passenger area. With departure imminent, the spin had been shut off forever for the comfort of those who would be staying behind.

“All right, honey, give her to me,” Delilah said, taking the baby into her arms.

“She’s going to be all right, isn’t she?” Reedy couldn’t tamp down the anxiety, the near-panic.

“Better than if you just held her in your arms, certainly,” Delilah said, settling Astra into a seat specially fashioned for her and strapping her in tightly. Astra liked Delilah, so had been happy to go to her, but had protested at being put into the safety seat until Delilah turned it around so she could see her mother and Lowell.

“There she is, there’s momma,” Delilah said. Astra struggled in her tiny restraints, finally giving up with a frustrated little grunt.

“It’s going to be fine,” the old woman said, turning to Reedy. “You know that.”

“I know, grandma. Just…”

“I’d come if I could, but I’m just too damned old. I waited too long to have yer ma and then…” Delilah trailed off, wouldn’t speak of it, and neither would Reedy. “Good bye, honey. We can still radio after all, so it’s not really good bye, is it?”

“I guess not.”

“You take care of them, Lowell, you hear? And make sure this girl has more babies. Lots more babies. Us Powes are good breeders, with a little help.”

“I’ll do what I can, ma’am,” he said. “And, uh, so will everybody else, of course.”

“See that at least one of her babies is yours,” Delilah said sternly. “I want a red-haired great grandchild.”

“Everybody’s hair is red now,” Reedy said, sticking her tongue out.

“Some’s redder than others,” Delilah said. “Now I gotta git. You take care.”

The other oldtimers crowded into the shuttle said their last good-byes and floated out one by one, until it was only the colonists, who would soon be struggling to start a new life on a new world, were left.

Without any further ceremony, the rocket fired, and for the first time, Reedy and Lowell and the other soon-to-be colonists saw their home from the outside, the first humans to do so in hundreds of years. Five huge rocks, joined together by enormous metal collars, drifted silently away from them in the shuttle’s windows, until the craft turned away to enter Home’s atmosphere. Soon nothing was visible through those windows but fire and light.

Astra cried at the rumbling, the vibrations, the shaking as they made their descent. She wasn’t the only one. Reedy and Lowell clasped hands, squeezing tightly. Generations ago, they might have prayed, but now they simply clung to each other and watched Astra, anxious and afraid and sick to their stomachs, profoundly glad they’d obeyed Captain Cross’s orders to fast the night before this launch.

A lurch. Another. Earthbound humans who flew from place to place on their limited little world were accustomed to atmospheric turbulence, but that commonplace was a frightening new reality for the colonists who had never known rollercoasters or cars or anything but floating gently, insulated and safe in a cocoon of rock and metal and long-recycled air. Many screamed; many wept; all retched.

And then, with a mighty thump, they touched down. And bounced. And touched down again. And skidded across the ground of Home for hundreds of kilometers. Later they would discover, to their extreme distress, that one of the shuttles had gone over a cliff and plummeted hundreds of meters, killing almost everyone aboard, but now, right now, there was just the sense of gradually decreasing velocity and the tug of gravity that both was and was not like what they’d managed to simulate in space.

At last the craft came to a stop.

“Are we all all right?” Mikhail bellowed from the cockpit.

Variations on “Yes” sounded all around. Even Astra was silent, round-eyed and still, paralyzed with fear and panic but somehow sensing that, as her mother always liked to tell her, things were going to be okay.

Reedy and Lowell struggled out of their safety harnesses, exos already donned in preparation for the moment, coming very soon, when they would be needed on the surface of Home. Opinions differed as to how soon – if ever – these could be discarded, but for unloading cargos and building shelter (such a foreign, old-fashioned word) and starting their new lives, the Ship-born’s frail, unhabituated bodies would need the support these ungainly things provided, replacing never-developed muscles and supporting spindly, fragile bones.

Lowell hoped that in time his and Reedy’s bodies would get used to their new burdens. And as for Astra…

Reedy’s tears streaked down, down, down her face to see it as the hatch opened and they took their first squeaky steps onto the surface of Home, Astra struggling in her arms.

“Put her down,” Lowell said. Reedy shot him a funny look, remembered what “down” was, and shrugged.

And then her tears renewed to see her daughter crawl.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

100 Books #44 - Max Barry's MACHINE MAN

"You couldn't ever truly own anything you couldn't modify. I had always thought that."

Was the Tin Woodsman your favorite character in the Oz books? Do you have a secret hankering to be Steve Austin? Or Robocop? Or at least wish that some of your cyber-augmented prostheses from your last Shawdorun character could be real?

Then boy, have I got the novel for you!

Machine Man warms to its theme right away in its first pages, in which engineer Charles Neumann feels lobotomized without his phone. He doesn't know how to dress for the weather. He doesn't know what time it is. He doesn't know if maybe a war started in his sleep. When he later has the idea to call his phone to try to echo-locate it, he realizes he doesn't know its number: that's in the phone. But where some people would regard this a little sheepishly, Charles just takes it as further evidence towards his hypothesis that the human body has a badly flawed design and it's high time it was upgraded.

So when he finds his phone just out of reach in the middle of a crucial experiment, which leads to a laboratory accident, which leads to his losing a leg, he curses neither the phone, himself nor his circumstances. He instead focuses on the top-of-the-line prosthetic limb his company has bought for him, starts tinkering with it, and improves it vastly. Then he scraps that and designs a whole new leg from scratch.

Then he realizes that his new and improved leg would be ever so much better as part of a matched set...

On the whole, I don't like long narratives written in the first person, but this (and my prior long read, Embassytown) is the kind of stuff for which I gladly make an exception. Max Barry has evoked very well the engineering mindset that values efficiency and effectiveness over politeness and non-functional aesthetics, playing it for laughs even as his narrator doesn't really see what's funny about it. As he plays out the rest of his cybernetic Tin Woodsman story*, he also meets the love of his life. Who is, of course, the woman who outfitted him with that first prosthetic limb (I almost wrote "original prosthetic" but that might suggest he falls in love with a cell phone retailer. Props to Andy "Natural Born Cyborgs" Clark). Aww, mad engineer love!

But it's not all machine oil and roses: Charles works for a high tech corporation that has traditionally stayed out of the medical game because "if we made an artificial heart and then someone cured heart disease, it would be a disaster" but has started to see dollar signs in Charles' notion that replacement parts can be better (and thus more desirable) than the originals  Ms. Cautery (amusing name in this setting), the novel's mouthpiece for all things corporate, points out that people replace perfectly good smartphones every 13 months on average in pursuit of the new and shiny and sexy and naturally extrapolates that behavior to body parts and starts cheering Charles on.

But there are, of course, strings (or fiber optic lines) attached with any corporate support, isn't there? This story could have gone a very different way -- I was expecting Charles to discover that the parts he was replacing his natural ones with all had a corporate kill-switch to keep him in line and the scenario my friend Travis King explored in a short story last year, in which commercially produced life-saving techno-fixes could be shut off if the bills weren't paid, but that's not what happens here -- but the way it did go was just fine. As written, Machine Man has a nice comic book, super-heroic edge, reading like a high quality origin story, though whether Charles is going to wind up a superhero or a super-villain stays very much up in the air until the last few pages. At moments my willing suspension of disbelief was tested (rampaging cyborg destroys large amounts of city infrastructure but never draws attention from the police or the media?) but it was too much fun not to just roll with it.

Now all that's left for me to do is ponder what augmentation I would ask for first. Z-lenses? Better Skin? Better Muscles? Built-in Wi-Fi?

The last, of course.

*Seriously. His legs get Wi-Fi. I know a few people who would line up for that feature right now!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Some Seriously Cool Shorter Fiction

While I'm in the middle of some big sprawling novels -- writing or reading -- I like to take breaks with the odd shorter work. Short fiction can be hard to blog about; there is always the risk that the blog might be longer than the story, and then there is always the concern, if one is aiming to read a certain number of books per year as I am, about whether or not these novellas or longish short stories should "count." But I shan't let that stop me; I like to point my readers towards the good stuff no matter what!

So below are some cool shorter works  that I've been enjoying lately. Oh, and all of them are CHEAP for your Kindle, and most of them are cheap for other devices via Smashwords as well.

"We're all double and triple agents, and the only way to uncover everything is to wait until someone's too dead to keep hiding."

This novella covers something very dear to my heart: the very modern problem of handling a recently deceased person's "digital legacy" -- Facebook page, Twitter account, blogs, all the little straws that different services have poked into his online financial stream, etc. The titular character here specializes in that, a new employment niche for the 21st century.

This topic is of great interest to me personally -- Google the name of "Mac Tonnies" and you'll get an idea of why -- but might not in and of itself make much of a story. Hard to find an excuse for an action scene, for instance, in sorting through megabytes of data to find a dead man's Tumblr password. Fortunately, O'Duffy, known to many as a writer of kick-ass modules for White Wolf and other pen-and-paper role-playing-games, knows how to spin an exciting and absorbing story out of such stuff: just add a murder. Or suspected murder. Or a conspiracy. Or all of the above.

Now, my mentioning of Mac Tonnies may have led some of my readers into a certain set of expectations; Mac wrote a lot about the paranormal when he was alive. I feel obliged then, to disclose, that there are no such elements in The Obituarist unless you think cell phone apps and the ubiquity of online porn are paranormal. What there is, is a cool little mystery story in the classic noir sense (if perhaps a little soft-boiled; our hero is a computer geek), with a scary villain, a femme fatale, and secrets only our hero can uncover. All written with a punchy, jaded charm that forces one to read along with a rueful half-smile, and loaded with surprises that this reader, at least, really didn't see coming.


If you're not a Kindler, The Obituarist is available in every other electronic format, from PDF to EPUB to Palm to just a plain old text file, at Smashwords.

Why Yes, Aladdin and His Wonderfully Infernal Device is a steampunk fairy tale, updating the most famous story from the Arabian Nights into a tale of ingenuity and automata! This story preserves that of the "original" Aladdin in its outlines, focusing on his first encounter with the evil magician who tries to trap him in the cave of riches but whose schemes Aladdin ultimately counters with the help of an enormous clockwork genie and his own version of a magic carpet -- an ornithopter with blades of rug scraps. Tee Morris's Aladdin is perhaps even more resourceful than the original, stealing gears and bits and bobs to build his gadget, and the genie, Giles, is a charmer.

Some slight formatting problems mean that there are some weird indented passages and this could have used one more editing pass to fix some minor errors (usually a missing or wrong preposition -- as I said, minor), but that didn't spoil the amusement much, anymore than knowing already that Aladdin was going to triumph did.

Sorry, non-Kindlers, this one is only available via Amazon. But hey, even if you don't have a Kindle, you can always fire up the Cloud Reader or read it via the Kindle App on your IOS or Android device. And it's free to borrow for Prime members, so there's that.

Who doesn't love a weird western now and then? In Marked Men, John Mierau has brought together the human evil of greed and single-mindedness with that of a nebulous supernatural horror that exists to punish human sinners. Our hero Daniel bears a strange mark on his hand, transferred to him from a dying man who cackled to rid himself of his burden of misdeeds. On the darkest night of the month, the Collector comes to damn its bearer -- unless that bearer can divert it with a better victim. And Daniel has just met the most evil man in the west.

There is a whole lot of awesome in this small package: explosions, fights, friendships (including a character who seems a dead ringer for Short Round of Indiana Jones fame) and repentance -- and just a little terror. I felt a little misled by the title, though, spending most of this short reading experience wondering if someone else had the Mark, too.

The story ends with the possibility of a sequel and I'm eager to read it, though I sincerely hope that Mierau lets a good and anal-retentive grammar nazi have a go-over before he publishes it. Homonyms are his bane, to sometimes unintentionally comic effect. But it's a good story!

Available in all formats from Smashwords or click on the pretty Amazon link above to get it for Kindle.

Ever wanted to know what it would have been like if Philip K. Dick had tried his hand at writing a western? Sadly, no such thing has surfaced as yet, but be consoled, for Wade Aaron Inganamort has stepped forward to make your wish come true. With time travel to boot. But be not mistaken: this is not Back to the Future II and III in short story form. Clever as those films were, they were nowhere near as odd and edgy as Darrity.

Half of the action takes place in the present day, in which a man, Rob is trying every means at his disposal to discover what happened to his sister and her car; both disappeared from a parking garage five years before we join his story. Meanwhile, the reader already knows where both ended up, or rather when, but how, how is the mystery as the action switches back and forth between the present day and the Old West, where Sam has witnessed the manifestation of something weird and tragic while exploring with his cousin Zandi.

But that makes it sound far too simple. Rob's computer is receiving packets from the future. And suddenly, Sam's cousin Zandi doesn't exist because she died fifteen years ago.

The story ends on a cliffhanger, perhaps too much of one as not very much gets resolved, but I'm still intrigued. I hope Inganamort has more for us soon!

I'm not too familiar with selkies, having spent my mythomaniacal youth focusing on Greek/Roman and then Norse/Germanic mythology and never getting around to the Celtic, so I came to this short with few preconceptions (aside from a great respect for the author, whose Goblin Market is one of my favorite dark fantasy novels ever).

As I've gathered over time and from this story, a selkie is a sort of were-seal, human on land, seal in the ocean. Stories about them are usually romantic tragedies, and this contemporary take, set in Pennsylvania, is no exception.

Call of the Selkie is a stormy and emotional tale, mysterious and full of longing for the sea from the very first paragraph. Hudock's greatest inspirations come from fairy tales, and she infuses her writing with equal parts wide-eyed wonder and mournfulness. Our narrator, Rhiannon, never knew her father except through the paintings that father left behind, enchanting seascapes that seem to contain urgent hidden meanings, communicated even after they are locked away by a jealous mother who fears the narrator will "follow and forget her" just like Rhiannon's father did. Once Rhiannon, now adult, steals them back, her already brittle relationship with her mother is all but shattered until finally, the family secrets are revealed.

Lovely, hopeful, sad, dramatic, this one is a story I'll remember for a while.

James Melzer is a messed-up dude, as anyone who's listened to his podcast novels already knows. Hull's Landing is some creepy, distressing stuff, and whenever Permuted Press/Pocket Books gets around to finally letting the world see his Zombie Chronicles in print, well, I just hope that his singular take on those monsters remains intact.

Melzer and wife Jennifer Hudock were releasing short fiction for the Kindle before it was cool, long before "Kindle Singles" were a thing. His shorts are all part of a grouping he refers to as "Deviant Dollar" but don't need to be read in any particular order. I chose this one because it was hot out, and because I like the idea of a menacing, scary snowman.* Just look at that cover!

Snowmen concerns Edgar, who lives by himself in rural Pennsylvania but who has lots of company in the wintertime, when people come from all over the place to see his display of, yes, snowmen, all of them works of art. Every year a different theme, every year an elaborate scene, sculpted in snow, kept pristine by a weekly wee-hours glaze of water from the hose to freeze and protect. All perfectly innocent, right?

Well, sort of. I mean, Melzer is a horror writer... Heh heh heh.


Snowmen is also available over at Smashwords.

*Heck, I like the idea of any snowman. Wyoming gets plenty of snow, but its water content is so low that it doesn't pack well enough to make more than a small, powdery snowball.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

100 Books #43 - China Mieville's EMBASSYTOWN

Not even a quarter of the way through this book, I was all but screaming my joy and proclaiming that Embassytown is the language nerd's Clockwork Rocket.* All the way finished now, all I can do is scream louder. Because I'm a language nerd, of course, in ecstasies at the idea of a species that communicates like Tuvan throat singers with "two sounds -- they can't speak either voice singly -- inextricable by the chance coevolution of a vocalising ingestion mouth and what was once probably a specialised organ of alarm."

Yeah, I'm one of those science fiction fans who nonetheless is always a little annoyed at things like universal translators (I defend Enterprise as my favorite of the second generation Star Trek TV shows because that crew had a linguist instead of a machine that automagically rendered all alien communication into perfect 20th century English), and at aliens that are not alien enough. So a space operatic tour-de-force that's all about the stonking variety of possible ways for seriously different species to communicate is pretty much a where-have-you-been-all-my-life find.

Except there's one problem: Mieville seems to have grown so besotted with this world of his (as indeed, who wouldn't be) that he almost forgot to tell the story, as if, say, he'd fallen so totally in love with that weird travelogue-cum-bestiary, Perdido Street Station, that he left out those hypnotic flying plot devices, the slake moths.

Or at least it seems that way, for about the first third of the book.

But hey, I did say almost. It just took him a while, and when he did get around to developing a plot, it was a doozy**, as is the main character, Avice. She's a native of the titular Embassytown, a human outpost on the world of the two-voiced aliens with the strange language. She's also a part of that language, for the Ariekei, whose language is completely and only literal and concrete, can't just make things up, cannot imagine things that aren't, can't lie. So they adopt other beings to perform acts and become figures of speech. Avice, for instance, is a simile: she is "the girl who was hurt in darkness and ate what was given her." Now that someone has done that in the presence of the Ariekei, they can refer to it, after a fashion. Another resident of the human colony at Embassytown is "the man who swims with the fishes every week" and has contracted irrevocably to essentially take a bath with goldfish every week for life. Think about that for a bit and let it cook your noodle.

More cooking: the Areikei, speaking as they do, with a language that works as it does, do not recognize it when other beings speak their language. However perfectly its syllables are pronounced, however coherently its syntax is emulated, if it comes from a single person (or a machine), it cannot be anything but noise; not only is the simultaneity of sound a requirement, but so is a recognizable mind behind it. A person speaking their language is only making half the necessary sounds; two people speaking in coordination are not one mind; a person and a machine speaking together aren't either. To adapt to this, the human colony has bred clone-pairs, called Ambassadors, that are technologically and emotionally linked so deeply that they are regarded as one person, though really they are like every couple you've ever met in which the partners finish each other's sentences. To the extreme.

Happy, hurty brain!

Avice is not just a simile, however; she is also an "immerser", one who can handle the physical, emotional and philosophical vagaries of traveling through this book's universe's version of hyperspace, the immer, the weird between state of places and things, which is not, as it might have been portrayed by another writer, a zone of nothingness or non-being; it has to be carefully navigated, has dangerous shoals and eddies, and none is quite as bad as the immer around Avice's home planet. So Avice is special twice over.

Make that thrice over; she's a serial monogamist, loving what's in front of her, as it were, and the vagaries of her love life go a long way towards causing the mess that is Embassytown's plot. A long way, but not the whole way, because this is a China Mieville novel, which means there is factionalism, here of a very abstract and cerebral kind, as it concerns the very nature of the Ariekei's language and one of its many unique qualities, namely that it is impossible to lie in it. Or was before the Festival of Lies started -- a kind of party in which Ambassadors deliberately fib for the entertainment of all, and then a few Arikei try to do the same with varying degrees of success. Or was before one of them started to get good at it and a philosophical shitstorm arose. And the less philosophical, actual violence.

That Mieville manages to keep all of this interesting, even, I would argue, for non language/philosophy nerds, is amazing. But then, we are talking about the guy who wrote The City & The City, which concerned inhabitants of two cities on the exact same piece of ground who were basically trained and conditioned not to notice the people or fixtures of the "other" city even when they were right in front of them, so it's not as great a stretch for him as for some people. The man loves to try on other people's clothes: Kafka and Borges and Dashiell Hammet for The City & The City, Iain M. Banks and Alsastair Reynolds' for Embassytown. But he doesn't just let them hang on him; he's an expert tailor; he makes them fit him well.

Whose suit shall he be borrowing next?

*There is cause to rejoice at the very least for this book's introduction of a fantastic neologism: "floaker." A floaker is a person capable of more than he or she is doing but not really interested in exploring that just now, thank you very much. It's about expending just enough effort and energy to maintain a certain previously achieved position or status (in Avice's case, its her minor celebrity status as both a simile and a former space traveler) and no more. It's not quite coasting because coasting implies a slowing and eventual stop. A floaker is more like a lazy skateboarder, pushing very gently now and then but mostly relying on skill and balance to keep moving. I'm pretty sure that I'm a floaker, and I'm pretty sure a lot of my readers are floakers, too. Vive la floak!

**The whole thing could well have been constructed from a phrase that must have hit Mieville's weird brain like a thunderbolt: "narcocracy of language" and his need to make a story in which that could happen.

Monday, May 14, 2012

100 Books #42 - Guy Haley's OMEGA POINT

I was thoroughly impressed with the first novel in this series/collection, Reality 36, a solid and imaginative bit of cyberpunk introducing the duo of Otto Klein, augmented super-soldier turned freelance problem-solver, and Richards, his partner, an urbane, witty and resourceful artificial intelligence. Long and eagerly did I look forward to this follow-up, for which I put aside a lot of other books I was reading, the second it was available in my Angry Robot subscription feed.

But then my enthusiasm kind of diminished, and I'm having trouble accounting for why. It might just be a matter of what device I read it on. My Angry Robot books come to me in EPUB format, and it's dead easy to download them directly to my Galaxy Tab and read them in Aldiko. It's a perfectly enjoyable experience, reading that way, but the battery life on the Galaxy Tab is, well, let's just say the least awesome thing about it. And it doesn't charge up via just any old USB port; it needs its own charger. More stuff to lug around and lose.

My Kindle (a Kindle 2 for those who must know), though, has stupendous battery life and capacity. So the thing to do is convert all those EPUBs I get into .mobi files and dump them onto my Kindle. But that is a slooooooow process when there are a lot of books. Calibre is great but it does like to take its time.

But none of this should matter if the book is awesome enough. And don't get me wrong, there is plenty of awesome to be had in Omega Point. Just not as much as in Reality 36. Part of this I might just chalk up to familiarity: the first book was introducing me to a world and a way of thinking about, e.g. the artificial intelligences that drive non-player-characters in video games, and it was all new and fresh and shiny. Now I have at least a halfway decent grasp on how that world works and how things can go wrong, so even though the stakes have gotten raised in Omega Point, I'm a little jaded, even though I still love Otto and Richards.

Part of the trouble here is that Otto and Richards don't interact very much this time around, and the sidekick duo of Valdaire and her phone Chloe are about as present as Bubo the Owl was in the Clash of the Titans remake (well, okay, a bit more than that. She is a thing to be rescued at one point after all). Otto is off performing great feats of derring-do in the real world, fighting set-piece battles on a train*, and struggling with the lingering side effects of having what is essentially a second, computerized mind in his head (and no, that's not Richards, though Richards can access it and thus Otto when needed). He meets old frienemies and blows them up. He rampages through "SinoSiberia" to retrieve a hacker who is at the center of a whole heap of trouble. He shoots things. He is Otto.

Meanwhile, Richards spends most of the novel fighting his way through a messed-up fantasy video game into which he has been sucked and imprisoned in a nauseatingly realistic and convincing facsimile of a human body, to his utter (and amusing) disgust. Unlike Pinocchio, Richards never wanted to be a real boy. Before long he is saddled with two very strange companions, an AI teddy bear of militaristic background and mien, and a talking lion skin Richards winds up wearing as a cloak.** He tries not to get turned into a pig by succumbing to unaccustomed human desires and needs like hunger.*** He learns what it means to sweat, to bleed, to stink, to get hurt. His is the more vivid (and horrible) of the two narratives as he is plunged from surreal video game character battles to bits of literary re-enactment and then straight into hell in one of the most horrid scenes I've ever read. Seriously, watch out for Lord Hog.

The team's dual mission/ordeal is all toward a common goal, preventing a rogue AI from taking over both the virtual and real worlds, which overarching plot helps hold the book together but does little to make up for the lack of interaction between our heroes. No matter how many cool set-pieces and clever allusions to other stuff a piece of fiction has, a buddy story needs to have both buddies in it, together in some fashion, or it's really not much fun. Not enough fun to bother with a sissy battery, anyway.

That being said, though, both Otto and Richards have brilliant character moments, moments that make each of them more human, more real, than they were in the prior book. Otto's own, more or less internal, more or less back-story, is particularly moving, and very much of this world, and is not what you expect from the action hero of the pair. He faces a big decision, and by the time he makes it, we're right there with him, sighing over its necessity.

And so, on to the next story. Which is when, exactly? For I wasn't so completely dissatisfied with Omega Point as to be ready to give up on Haley's creation. I just really hope that the next book brings back the magic of teamwork. Because if it's done right, as it was in Reality 36, it's a glorious, glorious thing.

Meanwhile, I have taken the time to convert and move all of my EPUBs to my Kindle. And vow to do a better job of keeping on top of that task in the future.****

*I think the best part of Omega Point is that big battle on the train, because it's so cinematic and deranged it puts a high-quality action movie in the reader's brain.

**The interactions between Richards and the lion skin, named Tarquin for reasons I forget, are some of the novel's best scenes, but since Tarquin is basically being used as a stand-in for Otto, this just calls attention to the fact that the reader is not getting much in the way of that good old Otto/Richards chemistry. If a cyborg and an AI can be said to have chemistry, anyway.

***Oh god, the pig stuff. I've always found Circe's transformation of Odysseus' men into swine to be the most vivid and horrifying scene in Homer; I found the scene in which basically the same thing happens in the movie Willow to be equally horrifying. Here, Haley does it one better: there is metamorphosis into pigs and then there are scenes in a slaughterhouse, in which "generations of terrified swine had left their mark in rills of ossified urine" and there is a "line of pigs... chained together in inhumane fashion, a ring forced through the nose of each, a second piercing the flesh above the tail.... They walked slowly, heads down, their fear-haunted eyes an indication that they had not always been as they were." UGHHH.

****Why not just buy my Angry Robot books from Amazon, you may ask? Because Angry Robot sells its books free of digital rights management, for one thing, which means they feel a little bit more like I actually own them; I can change their formats, share them as much as I like, etc. And also, Angry Robot's ebook subscription service delivers all of its new ebooks to me as they come out for one annual fee, and that is both awesomely convenient and saves me a few scheckels -- in addition to introducing me to new authors I might otherwise have taken who knows how long to learn of via word of mouth. Go, Angry Robot, go!