Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Justin Robinson's EVERYMAN

I mostly know of Justin Robinson as a cleverly goofy writer of fun stuff like his Mr. Blank books and City of Devils -- imaginative, occasionally silly romps that take an entertaining premise and run buck-wild with it.* I only vaguely knew that he wrote more traditional genre fiction, too, with a bent towards horror.

What I didn't know was that when he does so, if Everyman is anything to go by, he achieves even more impressive results.

Everyman goes on my virtual shelves alongside the works of Tony Burgess (Pontypool Changes Everything, The N-Body Problem), Ben Marcus (The Flame Alphabet) and Colson Whitehead (Zone One).** What do these have in common? They're ostensibly horror, but they transcend the genre in various amazing ways.

Superficially, Everyman is treading through Tim Powers territory, and I don't just say this because it so lovingly traces its way through the geography of Los Angeles. Its monsters (well, at least one of them) would be at home in a Powers novel, as would its depiction of the warm and happy but doomed marriage at the heart of its narrative, and it has chills similar to those that Powers occasionally offers, but Everyman has emotional beats and trappings that are entirely its own thing.

The book can be read as an extended ad absurdam metaphor for identity theft; its antagonist, Ian, can do so with frightening completeness, just by rooting out what thing among all of a person's possessions actually carries the most of his victim's emotional identification and stealing it. Possession of this possession allows him to mimic the person so completely that even those closest to the victim believe that Ian is the real person and their loved one is a bad and terrifying imposter -- even if both of them are in the room.

The victim is quickly expelled from his paradise, and finds that not only those who know him or her, but everyone, reacts to him or her with a deep lizard-brain level of hostility.

Such happens to our first protagonist, David, in the first act, and we spend a lot of time with him as his new unreality sinks in. He is suddenly friendless, homeless, loveless -- his own mother, his friends and neighbors, even, most importantly, his truly beloved wife, Sophie (who winds up the real hero of this novel in lots of poignant -- and kickass -- ways) threaten violence or law enforcement involvement at the very sight of him. This material is every bit as gut-wrenching as you might expect, but never strays into melodrama, remaining merely deeply effective, and eventually, quite Kafkaesque.***

And then things get bad.

Ian's power works in weird and grotesque ways, ways that Robinson spent a lot of time and effort reasoning out (again, in a very Tim Powers way that I can't applaud enough. Yes, it's supernatural/magical, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be internally logical!). Ian's victims don't just wind up lonely and homeless: there is a far sadder, weirder and grosser fate awaiting them. And their chosen objects. Yuck.

I am seriously impressed.

*And as a hilariously snarky lover of television and movies of questionable quality, which he loves (?) to share with us over at The Satellite Show.

**I suppose Doris Lessing belongs there, too, but I've only read The Fifth Child and don't want to read any more as a result.

***I mean, really, is anything more Kafkaesque than a well-constructed doppelganger story? To be truly Kafkaesque I suppose our heroes would have to have gotten tangled up in the justice system's red tape, but still.

Sunday, February 21, 2016


With the release last year of the long-awaited Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a couple of my internet buddies and I naturally got to talking about the Star Wars Expanded Universe, no part of which is included in the film (that whole sort-of-canon has now been shunted off as Star Wars Legends, to much grumbling in some communities). As followers of this here blog know, though I've been a Star Wars fan since movie houses first went pew pew pew in 1977, to date I've only sort of explored said universe -- I've played a lot of KOTOR, read the Storybooks when I was a wee one, and I have read Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire, and that's about it.

Well, that's about to change. We're going to swim in the bathwater that J.J. Abrams and Disney threw out.

Because those friends -- Shawn Duke, Rachel Acks and Sarah, the redoubtable tweeter we know as Bookworm Blues -- and I decided not only were we going to read, eventually, ALL THE STAR WARS together, but we'd podcast it, too.

And we just recorded our first episode, in which we talked about, yes, Heir to the Empire.

It's going to be lots of fun. We've got a diverse set of viewpoints on the EU -- Shaun and Rachel are both hardy long-time explorers of same, I've dipped my toe in some but am thoroughly steeped in the original trilogy and its game offshoots, and Sarah was a complete Star Wars innocent until The Force Awakens awakened her.

We're going to have guests, including author guests, and special features (including, yes, sonnetry from yours truly) and who knows what other craziness!

We'll be releasing it under the Skiffy and Fanty imprimatur, so we should be easy to find, but I'll also share a link as soon as the show goes live.

Oh yeah, and the name? Totally from an Abba song. Because we're not just dorks, we're shameless dorks. Represent.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

James S.A. Corey's CALIBAN'S WAR

The first Expanse novel, Leviathan Wakes was a Belter punk detective story in space opera clothing, and entertaining as hell, entertaining enough for me to set aside the books I was intending to read next and plunge right into the sequel. So what's the sequel, Caliban's War?

Man, the sequel is pretty much a horror novel with a sprinkling of military fiction in space opera clothing, innit? In fact, on reflection, it reminded me more than a bit of two favorites: the earlier Alien films, and Paul Elard Cooley's horror/petroleum punk The Black novels and, of course, Scott Sigler's Infected series. In fact, imagine a possibly omnipotent, physics-defying combination of those three menaces and set it in a human-settled solar system and you've pretty much got the protomolecule that is the main background threat of the Expanse series thus far.

So while I enjoyed meeting up with (almost) all of the characters I'd come to enjoy in the last novel, and my introduction to three new ones, it was really the horror/suspense elements of the plot, and the characters' (largely post-traumatic) reactions to them, that really kept me advancing the pages of Caliban's War. Especially the reactions. This book so successfully evoked the PTSD experience (at least as experienced by Your Humble Blogger) that it actually gave me quite a bit of trouble mid-novel. I won't say I had a full-blown attack, but I was pretty much a mess for the middle third of the story. Part of me is very upset about this, because triggering someone's PTSD is not at all nice, but the rest of me admires the effectiveness this had in absolutely freaking riveting me to what I was reading.**

But so, your mileage may vary there. A lot of people have whined that this book isn't as good as its predecessor (and they're not totally wrong in that lots of it does rehash/recycle elements from LW, right down to the Find the Missing Girl plot), but I don't see it. I was able to put the first one down, sometimes for days. This one, this one I barely slept.

But I wasn't just scared, reading CW. I also just enjoyed. I really dig all the characters from the first novel that carried over into this one (though I sure do miss [REDACTED]), and the new ones introduced here are just as great.*** Everybody gets a very satisfying character arc (well, except maybe Naomi, who has diminished into a stock girlfriend character who only occasionally gets to do something kind of important behind the scenes with her magical technological skills. Fix that, Coreys!) and their adventures with the Caliban-esque**** (in that they are supernaturally powerful beings imperfectly subjected to human will, only to of course throw off their chains and raise hell) protomolecular monsters are amazing, of course.

There was something else, though, that really fascinated me in CW, and that's the depiction of how Ganymede functions, and how it falls apart. Here the two-headed Corey monster really went to town, fully and convincingly realizing a complete world, a total artificial ecosystem on which not only its immediate inhabitants depend but on which most of the Outer Planets and the Belt do, too, and then tearing it all down in excruciating detail. It's kind of like watching a giant domino display of doom going down. Yes, I realize I'm probably a big ol' jerk for enjoying this aspect as much as I did. But I'm sure I'm not alone.

Now excuse me. I have to start on the next one. Because of [REDACTED] showing up at the end and not being [REDACTED] but instead [REDACTED]. Dude!

*Which, Bob help me, I always want to type -- and say -- as Leviathan's Wake. I'm sure there's something Freudian there but I don't care. It's just something that simultaneously amuses and annoys me.

**Much as in a full-blown event, I knew perfectly well that nothing was actually happening at the time and I was perfectly safe in my comfortable home and so was everybody else I care about, but knowing intellectually that nothing is wrong is not enough to stop me feeling it in my gut and shaking and crying, or to let me tear myself away from the horror show in my head. Because who wants to stop and do EMDR while reading a freaking sci-fi novel?

***Though man, the TV show sure did improve on Avasarala (even as the TV writers had to create her story out of whole cloth for the show, because she's not in the parts of the books that the first TV season covered). Not just because Shohreh Aghdashloo is fantastic and lends the character considerable gravitas and grace, but because she had to do something to get her point across besides swearing. I have no particular problem with cursing usually, but book-Avasarala relies entirely too much on the harmless-looking little old lady shocking everybody with F-bombs to get her point across. Jeebus!

****Read your damned Shakespeare.

Friday, February 12, 2016


So, a lot of people who are talking about these books and the rather good television adaptation they've recently spawned* seem to be very interested in having the argument over whether Leviathan's Wake and its sequels count as Space Opera or not. And maybe I should wait until I've read further into the series before I form my opinion, but I have an early contender for an answer to the question, and that is: it's not. Because it's its own thing, and the two-headed monster that writes as James S.A. Corey already done named it: it's Belter Punk.

At least this first book is. There are hints throughout, of course, that the series as a whole is going to have that galactic sweep and scale and sense of awe and alienness that people go to Space Opera for, but this book right here, this is Belter Punk, which within the text of the novel refers to a genre of (presumably) grungy and loud and unlovely but passionate music favored by residents of the asteroid belt/minor planets out between Mars and Jupiter, where they live inside hollowed-out rocks and aren't quite self-contained but sure do try but meanwhile they're still dependent on Earth and Mars and various shipping vessels to make sure they don't run out of air or water. It's an unglamorous life out there in the Sol system, and the people who have adapted to it have gotten a tad strange, and not just because a general lack or low level of gravity have made them tall and skinny and big-headed and knobby-jointed and a tad resentful.

But so it's mostly Belters we're dealing with, here at the beginning of the Expanse series, chiefly in the persons of James Miller and Naomi Nagata, he a terse, embittered gumshoe straight out of a Dashiell Hammet, she a tech wiz who starts out her novel-life serving on the crew of a space-freighter hauling water to Ceres, the minor planet in/on which Miller has spent his whole life...

But there are planetary types, too, out there among them, including Earther Jim Holden, the Executive Officer of the freighter on which Naomi serves, who grew up in some kind of official polyamorous group marriage in Montana and was supposed to take over/save the family's ranch there someday but instead headed for outer space; Amos Burton, also an Earther, and a smarter and more useful (and even more quotable) version of Jayne Cobb if ever there was one, who serves as a mechanic on the freighter; Alex Kamal, he of East Indian descent and Texas accent that mark him out as a guy who grew up on Mars and quite the pilot; and Fred Johnson, he of the colorful military past who is now the somewhat shady "unofficial prime minister" of the Outer Planets Alliance.**

It's a not-too-surprising combination of noir detective plot (enacted by Miller) and a mystery/assassination/perils of Pauline plot (enacted by the freighter crew) that bring them all into each other's orbits, as both investigations eventually lead the parties to the same place, where they make a creepy and potentially system-shattering discovery involving the secret origins of one of Saturn's moons and a nasty "protomolecule" that is a sort of weaponized version of the noocytes of Blood Music (Greg Bear) fame.

There are lots of space battles and starship chases and space station explosions and squicky evil to enjoy as the plot tosses the characters around, making this a fun as well as a politically interesting read, but what really sold me on it was the character of Miller, the washed-up detective who is tossed a case that's pretty much meant to be unsolvable but decides to give it his all anyway, with melancholy as well as explosive results. He's in every way a literary cliche that should make one yawn, but his background as a guy born and raised in space gives him just enough freshness to make all that old, sad stuff feel new again. And I'm not just talking about the fungal whiskey he drinks (though maybe more than a bit is due to what watchers of the TV series have waggishly dubbed the "Space Fedora of Justice" even though it is very clearly named several times in the text as a porkpie and not a fedora, but anyway). His story is absorbing enough on its own, but when it becomes entertwined with those of the freighter crew members, it all gets wonderfully complex, until there is a moment when the essential natures of Miller and Holden so perfectly clash and transform each other, and with that the plot, and I just sort of sat there stunned for a while and had to stop reading and unpack more boxes (I recently moved to a new house).

I have no idea if the other four books in the series so far are going to hold my attention as well as this one did because of [REDACTED], but the way my Own Dear Personal Mother is tearing through them (she's already on the fifth novel and sort of tapping her foot at me, but hey, she still hasn't read any of the Song of Ice and Fire yet, just seen the TV show, so, you know, that.) I'd say it's an even money bet at what's left of the casino on Eros that they will. I've already started on Caliban's War...

*And yes, once again, the TV people caught me flat-footed. I've had this series on my to-read radar for years now, but kept getting distracted by shinies, and now they've gone and made the first half-or-so of this novel and chunks of later ones into a whole season of high-quality TV! It's The Last Kingdom all over again. D'oh!

**One of several factions rubbing up against each other and not-quite-fighting over resources in this human-settled Solar System, with Earth and Mars the inner planet superpowers, the Belt a somewhat chaotic mess of colonial outposts and outright corporate properties, and the at-times seemingly terroristic Outer Planets Alliance, aka OPA serving as a catch-all for further flung outposts' interests and meddling a good bit in the affairs of the Belt, too. Which is to say that if you don't like a lot of political plottery in your sci-fi, these books might not turn out to be your favorites, but I'd still give them a try for the reasons I've outlined above.