Category Archives: Novels

(Review) Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Reading 150The most shocking thing about Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is how pleasantly it presents its dystopian setting. The World State as it exists in AF 632 (or the year 2540 as we know it) is a paragon of monolithic stability where nearly every aspect of life is manipulated by the government. Human beings are lab-grown, given chemicals that will assure their development into one of five separate castes. Once their development is complete, they’re immediately indoctrinated into the beliefs the World State wants them to have: that they are glad of the caste they’re in, they like the activities appropriate to their castes, that consumerist pleasure (sexual and otherwise) is the ultimate goal in life, and that all troublesome feelings are to be deadened through the liberal use of soma, an opiate drug. Everything that could inflame the human spirit — like art, literature, religion, even monogamy — is seen as ridiculous and savage by the enlightened citizens of the World State. 

One man, at least, is not satisfied by this blissful status quo — Bernard Marx, an Alpha human who nonetheless doesn’t conform to the physical or emotional standards of his class. He’s shorter than most Alphas, and his depressive nature exacerbates an inferiority complex stemming from that. Instead of seeking out company and casual sex, he prefers his own company and melancholy thoughts. Lenina, a fetal technician at the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Center, seems to like him anyway — even though his insistence on being sad is something she can’t understand. 

Bernard and Lenina travel to a “Savage” reservation on holiday and find a World State expat who disappeared decades ago, now quite advanced in age and with a strapping young son. Lenina is horrified by the simple living, different cultural morality, sickness, infirmity, old age, and poverty; Bernard is fascinated by it. When he learns that John, the expat’s son, is the illegal offspring of the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning, Bernard is all too happy to charitably bring both of them to London for a family reunion. 

It really doesn’t work out well for anyone. Linda, the expat, was so devastated by culture shock and the subsequent rejection of her native society, that she disappears into a soma hole. John, her son, is much like Bernard. They’re both disaffected outcasts failed by society, with no emotional outlet to even begin to understand their longing. What’s interesting, though, is that while John rejects the World State that wants to embrace him, Bernard abandons his dissatisfaction as soon as he gets that taste of fame and acclaim. John is determined to remain true to his personal experience, even in the face of alienation and suffering. Bernard starts blowing his social capital like he’s won the lottery, confusing his luck as a mandate to tell the world the way he really thinks. 

The World State rejects Bernard, ultimately exiling him to an island where he can’t participate in society any more. John, however, remains stuck in its suffocating grip to the very end. Both men are ultimately broken by the monolith they rail against, and what’s worse — nothing is changed by it. The vulgar orgies and soma abuse continue. No one treats them as anything more than a curiosity.

And that’s because neither Bernard or John are good advocates for their anti-society stance. Both of them have been emotionally stunted by their background in different ways, and their inability to express the difficult emotions roiling them end up isolating them from anyone who might be able to help. Bernard, to me, confuses his depression for depth in the manner of high school and college kids everywhere but lacks the courage of his convictions to really explore the root of it. Instead of examining his emotions, he turns his unhappiness outward on anyone he feels deserves it. His dissatisfaction isn’t borne out of idealism or empathy; ultimately, it’s selfish and self-serving. 

John, on the other hand, is self-focused because he was never given the opportunity to actually join a society. He was an outcast on the reservation and wasn’t allowed to participate in the rituals and ceremonies that marked his maturation into manhood or the connection to the land that all of his fellows shared. His own mother was too entrenched in her own pain to guide him through his, or to teach him how to work with his ideals. What results is a rigid and miserable man who clings to the devil he knows, unable to find any kind of balance that he might be able to work with. 

Contrasted against the relatively happy (if vapid) citizens of the World State, Bernard and John feel more like warnings about the dangers of individuality than anything else. Citizens are conditioned from “birth” to be satisfied with their lot in life, given jobs appropriate to their predetermined abilities, and allowed their choice of leisure activities. All they have to do to keep society humming along is what, if the conditioning holds, would make them happy to begin with. No one even misses high art or literature. As far as dystopias go, the one in Brave New World is almost seductive in its completeness and effectiveness. It’s actually disturbing to me that it feels that way.

Because, looking around in this day and age, doesn’t it feel like all people want is some way to feel marginally meaningful, occupied and content, with no reason to think any further than their own pleasure? What have free thought and expression provided for us? If the only way to stabilize the human race and ensure its survival is through biological and psychological manipulation, wouldn’t that be better than the suffering and war we have now? 

Brave New World was written in response to the popular utopian novels of the time, a kind of parody to the shiny optimism that had taken hold in post-World War I Europe. Huxley was concerned by the overreach of government, the radical shift in industry brought about by Ford’s assembly line, social manipulation through media, and how the short-term pleasure of people could be weaponized as an element of control. Scientific and cultural advancement is purposefully stunted by the World State in favor of stability and unity; technology as a disruptive influence is simply unheard of.

The World State is a strange hybrid of the worst excesses of capitalism and communism, with its strictly-defined castes and coercion to consume material goods above all else. People are straight-up brainwashed into being agreeable, discarding their own thoughts and feelings to keep the peace and happiness of the group intact. But the craziest thing is that, for the most part, the society works. Even the people who aren’t on board, for whatever reason, are given a place where they can be who they want to be without the pressures of groupthink. 

The effectiveness of the World State is what sets Huxley’s work apart in the canon of dystopian fiction. Most authorities rule through oppressive fear, secrecy, or a more incompetent social manipulation that cannot hold. Seeing an authoritarian society that has somehow managed a (more or less) contented populace forces us to really think about why the World State is a dystopia and not a utopia. Is it simply that our cultural values are so far removed from theirs, or is there some fundamental aspect of the human experience being violated? The citizens of the World State are free to do as they please — only the State has conditioned them to be pleased by State-sanctioned activities. Is it really freedom if society has programmed us to make specific choices? If not, can we truly be free in any form of social structure? 

This is the thing that will stick with me long after I’ve forgotten the name of the ‘Savage’ in Brave New World. The World State really forces you to think about the value of the individual over society, and what one would be willing to give up for stability. It’s disconcerting to face those questions in a way that makes you reconsider the answers, but that’s precisely what the book invites you to do.

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Posted by on August 21, 2019 in Novels, Reading, Reviews


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(Review) The Shame Locked Away in Giovanni’s Room

Reading 150The Paris in James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room is a kind of hell in which desperate men step on each other to climb out of the hole they’re in, never realizing it’s possible to help lift one another out of their predicament. Fear motivates everyone; they’re afraid of anyone finding out who they really are before they can, but they also need somewhere they belong. So they draw people just close enough to be used, and then cut them as soon as that need has been fulfilled. That fulfillment doesn’t last long, though, and it’s not too long before they need something else again — companionship, money, distraction. David, the protagonist, enters this scene as an unrooted American trying to find himself. What he discovers is someone whose fear overrides his capacity to love, with disastrous consequences.

David meets Giovanni, the bartender at a gay bar in Paris, as he’s asking an older acquaintance for money. Jacques hits on the mysterious Italian and strikes out; David manages to strike up a friendly if challenging conversation. Conversations leads to dinner and drinks, which leads to sex; David, with nowhere else to go, moves into the waiter’s small room where they talk and have sex all summer. Eventually, David’s girlfriend Hella announces that she’ll be coming back to Paris after their “trial separation” and he’s faced with a choice — does he fall in with the expected path to adulthood, with marriage and children? Or does he break things off with Hella to continue his relationship with Giovanni? Complicating matters is the fact that Giovanni loses his job in the gay bar where he works after the owner makes one too many passes at him.

Throughout the novel, David sees people as a means to an end; they can provide him with something that buys him more time to figure out what he wants and who he is. Jacques, the old gay man he leans on for money, is someone that David doesn’t like or respect — and he makes it clear that he thinks the feeling is mutual. However, he exploits Jacques’ sense of shame to get the money he needs to remain. His relationship to Giovanni is built on that same impulse. He feels a physical lust and confused attraction that he doesn’t know what to do with; the poor Italian is there to ease that tension, so David uses him. Later, when faced with the prospect of Hella’s return, he hooks up with a distant acquaintance just to prove to himself he’s still attracted to women. His partner, Sue, realizes she’s been used at the same time she makes a few hesitating attempts to actually connect with him. The fear of being responsible for someone else’s happiness is just as much a reason that David distances himself from Giovanni as the fear of committing to an alternative sexuality.

What’s most interesting to me about Giovanni’s Room is how sensitively it deals with David’s bisexuality as one piece of the character’s larger issue — his inability be open and honest with himself. Giovanni isn’t David’s first homosexual encounter; as a kid, he slept with a friend that he then bullied in order to hide his guilt. He also overhears an argument between his father (who is prone to drinking) and his aunt where his dad says that he just wants David to be a “real man”. Unable to work out for himself what that is, David begins drinking himself.

baldwin quoteWe see how things like abuse and neglect are internalized by the victims of it, and how that expresses in a cycle of perpetuation eventually. David was never taught how to be reflective, how to cope with hard truths, how to anticipate and manage consequences. He only knows how to run away from discomfort — into the bottle, or the arms of someone who can make him feel good, or a new city full of distractions.

The culture he falls in with is populated with people who have no idea how to rectify that, because they’re running too. Wealthy, established men run away from the pressures of having a high status in a society that would not accept them for who they really are; their shame is assuaged by one-night stands and brief, tumultuous relationships with broke younger men who need a job or a place to stay. Each partner secretly hates themselves for what they’re doing, and resents the other for taking advantage of their own vulnerabilities; it’s an environment where the basic interpersonal relationship is built on competition, not cooperation. Each partner is looking to get the most out of the relationship while putting in the least amount of work.

This underworld, full of men who want everyone to look at them admiringly but are unable to even look at themselves, encourages the worst impulses in people like David and ruins anyone attempting to be vulnerable and sincere. Even those rare moments of self-reflection are accompanied by a resignation that these men are trapped this way; any attempt to live honestly would likely end with a very long and painful fall.

The tragedy here is that so many people end up being warped and twisted in the most delicate and dangerous periods of their lives. Unable to navigate their own strange feelings, the only community they have shows them that sublimation and distraction is as good as it gets — there’s no reconciliation to be found. Society’s disrespect for their “particular tastes” becomes personal disrespect, and their behavior stems from that. Since everyone in the scene is despicable, it excuses all manner of similar actions.

So many novels about minority experiences in a particular place or time in history share this fundamental trait; the protagonist simply cannot make peace with themselves because society refuses to provide the basic respect needed to see themselves as someone worthy of that stillness. And so many novels project that this fundamental sociological rejection leads to anti-social behavior — murder, sociopathy, bitter solitude, misanthropy. This underscores the need for us to belong somewhere, to have communities that support and enrich us. But it also provides the blueprint for how institutional injustice curdles within the victims who endure it until self-hatred — and selfish, amoral behavior — oozes from our pores.

Giovanni’s Room is another cautionary tale in this vein. The closing moments of the novel find David wandering the streets of southern France all alone, imagining the miserable consequences he feels personally responsible for. We’re left to imagine what David actually does with his experience — does he sink further into despair and escape, or does he take the clarity he’s gained to make the necessary changes? Is that even possible?

I have to believe so. We can each of us unlearn the toxic ways we’ve learned to deal with each other and ourselves. But it requires claiming for ourselves the respect that society feels unable to give us, seeing each of our fellow people as individuals worthy of that same respect, and a keen, painful awareness of the consequences of demanding the things the world is not ready to provide. Living honestly is not easy by any stretch, but it is the way out of the hell people like David put themselves in.

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Posted by on June 19, 2017 in Better Living Through Stories, Novels, Reviews


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My Writing Guide to November 2015

Self Improvement 150October was a pretty intense month. I went in for full training on changing my position at work, which means there are a LOT of holes in my technical knowledge that need to be filled. The shift also means that I’m down in the trenches with coworkers a bit more, and that means an opportunity to change the culture that I’d feel awful not taking. It’s important to me that any community I’m a part of feels more like a community because I’m a part of it — that may sound egotistical, but I like being a glue. I want to make people feel more connected, like someone has their back.

But that means paying attention to work in ways that I hadn’t before, which also means that it has to get a lot more of my time and energy. Because things happened so suddenly, I had to drop any other plans I had made in order to make sure I had the emotional space for it. Now that there are a few weeks of this under my belt, I think I’m able to take a beat or two to see where my head’s at and what I feel I can do.

I’ll still need to set aside a chunk of time to learn more about the technical aspects of my job, like getting to know Linux from the command line and how to work with PostGreSQL and maybe even learning more about SOAP API. But I’d also really like to use whatever remaining time I have for writing and reading — immersing myself in stories that matter to me and learning how to tell them better.

I won’t be able to join NaNoWriMo this year; there’s simply too much going on, and I’m too far behind on a few other things. Still, in the spirit of the month I’d like to set a few goals. They’ll be a bit more modest than what I may have originally planned, but I think they’re a good challenge for what I can handle right now.

Ugh, I’m so far behind. On everything. But no worries! This month I’d like to focus on making writing a regular practice, so projects are geared towards that. In addition to making sure The Writing Desk is updated three times a week, I’d like to work on articles for other blogs like [adjective][species] and perhaps Claw & Quill. I’m not sure I’ll have anything ready to show this month — besides, at least with [a][s] they have a pretty solid line-up of posts to take us through the holiday season. Seriously you guys, I really think you’ll like what they have planned.

But there are things about the culture of the fandom I’d really like to write about — what we want out of an art/writing/music community portal, how the broader politics of other SFF fandoms influence our own, how the fandom treats mental illnesses, social maladjustments, and the expression of fetishes that aren’t seen as acceptable or respectable by the society at large. It’s interesting stuff to me and there are no easy answers for this, but it’s all top of mind and I think we should be talking about it, at least in a high-level way.

Here at The Writing Desk, I’ll try to tighten the focus to storytelling and the lessons I’m learning from it — which means more reviews of the stuff I’ve been reading, more thoughts on the lessons we can take from our stories to the broader world, and how our experiences in the broader world are baked into our stories. I’ll talk about the bricks of my Afro-Futurist philosophy as I discover places for them, and the ideas that are taking shape in my mind as I’m writing stories.

As for the stories themselves — well, I’ve got three short stories that I’d really like to finish before I really dive into anything new. “A Stable Love” is a commission that a friend of mine has been waiting on for years, and while I’ve been marching towards completion it’s well past time it was done. Another friend generously donated to my Clarion Write-A-Thon fundraiser, earning a commissioned story that I’ll begin as soon as “A Stable Love” is draft-complete. And then there’s a short story that I would love to submit for the People of Color Destroy Science Fiction anthology coming up next year. I have the idea and the outline for it in my head, and I’m really excited to get started on that.

I’ll also be working on a collaborative project with a few friends called “A Changing Perspective”. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure story spun off from an interactive over on; since that website has issues with advertising for their interactive space, I can’t ask friends to go read those chapters in good conscience. A group of four writers has made an informal pact to revisit the interactive through Twile, and cone we’ve got significant chunks of the story underway we’ll find a way to host it.

So for November, I’d like to finish “A Stable Love” and write 12 chapters for “A Changing Perspective”; update The Writing Desk three times a week; and have at least one complete article for both [adjective][species] and Claw and Quill. It’s an ambitious schedule, but I think I can do it if I keep my focus.

I haven’t been reading nearly as much as I should. I’ll be honest — I’m a slow reader, and I often spend time I could spend reading doing something else, like playing mobile games. Making an effort to read more means spending more of my downtime devoted to it, and that’s something I’m very much in favor of.

This month, I’d like to finish two (I believe) short novels that I’ve been wanting to read for a very long time — Kindred by Octavia Butler and Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. The former is a great introduction to one of the biggest black voices in science-fiction, and has been served to me as an Outlander-type story of the slavery South. It sounds like it’ll be incredibly rough, but an illuminating read. The second is a good introduction to one of the best black intellectual voices from the Harlem Renaissance, and that alone has got me tremendously excited. Reading up on black literature — not just sci-fi/fantasy, but novels, essays, and poetry — is something that I want to feel better rooted to the tradition I’m coming out of. I’m hoping that it will help me better understand why my community is the way it is these days, and better imagine what my community will be like in the future, or how it would deal with magic, or how my personal experience fits in to an Afro-Futurist context.

I’ll also be reading through the slush pile for New Fables, though we generally only have poetry to deal with at this point; short stories and novels from friends, of course; and the comics that are coming through the pike as part of All-New, All-Different Marvel. Exciting times, and as usual there is no shortage of reading material.

There is no shortage of demands for attention these days — it’s tough to distill your life down to the essential things that you want to be doing. One of the things I’ve been trying to remind myself is that everything I do is a choice; if I spend a lot of time doing something that doesn’t get me closer to being a writer or someone with good technical skills, that’s a choice I’ve made. If I goof off instead of do something equally enjoyable but possibly more enriching, that’s a choice I’ve made. At this point, it’s important to make good choices about how I spend my time. There are only so many hours in the day, and it’s in my best interests to make them count.

This is a bit of a tangent, but it’s a bit like shaping your diet so that you eat better. If you’re trying to make sure you only eat a certain number of Calories per day, then it becomes a lot more important to make sure those Calories are doing something for you — either helping you with your exercise routine, or making sure you’re full for longer, or helping out with your digestion. When your Calories become precious or finite, the impact of empty Calories — those in say, candy or a milkshake — becomes startlingly apparent. If I’m holding myself down to 2000 Calories in a day, I really can’t afford to spend 650 of them on an Oreo milkshake, no matter how much I want to. It’s either that, or dinner.

Bringing that awareness to my time is a lesson steadily, painfully being learned. There’s only so much free time that I have on a weekday; an hour before work, if I wake up on time, and maybe two or three afterwards. What am I doing with those four precious hours? Am I playing Marvel Puzzle Quest on my phone? Am I looking at Facebook without actually absorbing any of the information I see there? What else could I have done that would help me get closer to the life I’d like to be living?

This month I’ll try to make more responsible decisions about how I spend my time. Don’t get me wrong — I know that I’ll need to blow off some steam, or do something inconsequential sometimes to relieve some stress. I’d like those activities to be a mindful choice, though, not the easiest option available, or some sort of default.

To those of you participating in NaNoWriMo, good luck! This will be a crazy and exciting month for you. I hope it’s fulfilling as well. Let’s get to work.


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Book Review: The End is Nigh

Reading 150The End is Nigh (The Apocalypse Triptych, Book 1)
Edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey

My love of all things apocalyptic doesn’t know many bounds; chances are, if there’s the whiff of the end of days surrounding a project, I’ll at least have to give it a look. This has lead me astray in a few cases, especially once we got more and more apocalyptic projects off the ground (I’m looking at you, Revolution), but generally there’s always something worthwhile in apocalyptic work. Either we’re looking at the breakdown of society, revealing our relationship with it through that deconstruction; or we’re uncovering something surprising about us as people as traits emerge free from the binding of societal expectation. Really great apocalyptic fiction strips down complications to get to something fundamental, essential; they tell us what lies underneath all of us when you clear away everything that puts us into the positions we’re in.

When I heard about the Apocalypse Triptych, I was really excited. Not only do we get a great set of stories about a host of different apocalyptic scenarios, but we get a bunch of authors taking the scenario three each phase of the end: the tipping point where a problem spirals out of control; the point where civilization loses its fight against this threat; and what happens afterward, when the dust has settled and the survivors look out over an unrecognizable world. The triptych collection contains a collection of triptych stories, which I certainly haven’t seen done before.

The End is Nigh is the first collection in the series, focusing on the discovery of the threat to civilization. The threats range from the relatively common, like the impending asteroid in Jake Kerr’s “Wedding Day” or the disease apocalypse of “Removal Order” by Tananarive Due, to the truly weird — like the mass suicide depicted in “BRING HER TO ME” by Ben H. Winters or the slow but steady removal of our atmosphere in “Houses Without Air” by Megan Arkenberg. But whatever the cause of our demise, each of the 22 stories brings something new to the end. None of the stories ever feel like a retread of something we’ve seen before, even when dealing with well-worn tropes in the apocalyptic sub-genre.

Take “Wedding Day” for example. Kerr centers the tale around a couple who want nothing more than to get married before the asteroid hits, even though it might mean one person might have to give up her ticket to have a fighting chance in a shelter. The already-engrossing story edges towards the political, as the couple in question are lesbians who are caught in a sort of legal twilight that never had time to get sorted. It’s heartbreaking to see these two stuck where they are, all forward momentum stopped by society crumbling around them. Had they been married, one ticket would have saved both of them or some other arrangement could have been made. As it stands, the nature of their relationship makes things exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.

In the bio-apocalypse of “Removal Order,” Due’s protagonist is a young black girl who’s trying to take care of her cancer-stricken grandmother as the medical system falters under the strain of an epidemic ravaging the neighborhood. So often we see these apocalypses through the eyes of people in positions of power who are either able to fight the inevitable or connected enough to escape it. Due’s tale reminds us of all the people who are screaming and dying in the background, those who don’t necessarily have a chance. It’s fascinating to see the familiar landscape of medical disintegration through those eyes.

The diversity of the protagonists aren’t all outright political; in “Spores” by Seanan MacGuire, the same-sex relationship is treated as normal, almost incidental, and the focus is instead on our hero’s struggle to deal with her obsessive-compulsive disorder during the first bloom of a killer that will quickly spiral out of control. Ken Liu’s “The Gods Will Not Be Chained” features an Asian family struggling to deal with the death of their father, and “Heaven is a Place on Planet X” by Desirina Boskovich sees the end through the eyes of a woman in a place of power over others, but still helpless in the face of what’s coming.

Even zombies get an intriguing twist. In “Agent Unknown” by David Wellington, a member of the CDC tracks down the spread of an illness that seems to make its victims hyper-violent, mindless killers. The answer to the riddle is effectively chilling, and sets the table for the inevitability of the fall of mankind. Almost every story here is a winner, particularly if you’re read a lot of apocalyptic fiction; either the cause of the end is scene through eyes that make it new again, or the mechanism for the destruction is so strange you have to wonder how they were even thought of.

The result is a collection of stories that are consistently surprising, engaging and tense. Some of them are clearly setting up for a continuation of the story in later volumes, so they don’t so much end as stop — “The Fifth Day of Deer Camp” in particular feels like an incomplete story, while “BRING HER TO ME” ends in a place that makes you impatient to continue the tale. “Break! Break! Break!” by Charlie Jane Anders is strange and full of energy, but by the time the story ends you’re left wondering if it even counts as pre-apocalyptic at all. These are all definitely worth reading, but it’s clear the structure has suffered in the attempt to break up the tale into three distinct parts.

Even still, the creativity on display in The End is Nigh is well worth the price of admission; I’m really looking forward to seeing how these stories continue and discussing the best, most frightening scenarios with people. If you’re looking for a mix of end-of-the-world stories that are challenging, involving and decidedly left-of-center, then this is the collection for you.

Interested in buying The End is Nigh? Go to the homepage for John Joseph Adams to get it in trade paperback or a variety of e-book formats!

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Posted by on October 1, 2014 in Novels, Reading, Reviews


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The Light Shines in a Trenchcoat

Reading 150I’ve recently come to appreciate the singular pleasure of a good detective story. I’ve been on a bit of a run with them of late, and I think it started with the broken-down post-millennial duo of True Detective‘s Hart and Cohle. It took Nic Pizzolatto’s spitshine of the detective story to really get me to sink my teeth into it, to understand the very interesting places it could take you. Since then I’ve been reading them in various genre mash-ups almost exclusively.

First stop: Harry Dresden and the modern-fantastic world of the Dresden Files. I’m mostly familiar with the setting through the excellent RPG, but I read the first book (Storm Front) and found it pretty OK. The second — Fool Moon — features the wizard Harry battling a host of different werewolf factions, each with their different abilities and goals. I’m a sucker for modern fantasy and especially werewolves, so this story was right up my alley. It’s also a notable improvement on the first novel in the series, so I’m excited to get to the rest of them. There are fifteen(!!) volumes so far; I have a lot of catching up to do.

After that I read two books in the Last Policeman trilogy by Ben H. Winters. The first book is about a New Hampshire detective named Hank Palace solving a murder set up to look like a suicide, six months before an asteroid plows into the planet — likely destroying all life on Earth. The second, Countdown City, picks up a mere two and a half months from impact. Winters takes great pains to imagine what America would look like when civilization has essentially laid down to die; individuals abandon their lot in life to do the things they’ve always wanted and society grinds to a halt. People who stick to their posts are suddenly the crazy ones, so Detective Palace cuts a really unusual figure in the world of the novel. He’s fascinating, and the book tackles head-on one of the things that most fascinates me about pre-apocalyptic literature — the way people behave when the pretense of civilization is stripped away completely.

In many ways, the pulp-novel detective is a lone figure of morality standing out in the background of a complicated and semi-lawless world. In almost all of the detective stories I’ve read so far (admittedly, a small sample size), the protagonist is of a type: tall but not physically threatening, with a single-minded focus on solving the case, an eye towards clothes or accessories that have deep personal symbolism for them and a knack for getting the crap kicked out of them. Before the current run of detective stories I read (and reviewed) Forests of the Night by S.A. Swann, another sci-fi detective story featuring an eight-foot-tall anthropomorphic tiger named Nohar Rajasthan. Harry, Hank and Nohar are thematic brothers of a sort, all idealists with a pragmatic view of the world.

I have a massive soft spot for characters who give themselves over to an ideal, even though they’re painfully aware of their limitations. None of these guys are the paragon of law and order, but they believe in the ideals of justice, fair play and morality. The fantastic backdrops of their settings make the world that much more wild and dangerous, but they stick it out just the same. Morality is different when you’re sharing the world with a host of species who are, in effect, alien. How do you tell a vampire that killing is wrong, especially when it probably looks at human beings the way we look at cattle? How do you deal with the Jekyll-and-Hyde scenario of a werewolf, where a sentient being really isn’t in control of themselves in certain situations? Do you still punish a good man just because he turns into a monster under circumstances not under his control?

The Last Policemen trilogy takes this devotion to law and order to an existential extreme. Everyone knows that there is an end date to our civilization, so what’s the point of keeping it going until then? The idea shows us just how fragile the agreements we make for one another are, and the value of keeping them anyway. There was a really striking passage in Countdown City that perfectly encapsulates this:

Because a promise is a promise…and civilization is just a bunch of promises, that’s all it is. A mortgage, a wedding vow, a promise to obey the law, a pledge to enforce it. And now the world is falling apart, the whole rickety world, and every broken promise is a small rock tossed at the wooden side of its tumbling form.

The detectives in these stories have made promises to help people however they can, and they will not let themselves off the hook on that. Even if they get it wrong, even if they put themselves in physical danger, even if helping people puts them at cross-purposes with the law at times. In many ways, these guys are superheroes without the “super”; all they have is the rugged determination that they have to do the right thing because if they don’t, who will?

There’s something tremendously engaging about that to me; the deeply-flawed man, shoring up the doubts and weaknesses in his mind with the symbols of moral authority he feels attached to, fighting his own character as well as the darker forces in the world to serve this ideal that may never be attained. It’s so hard to engage with the world that flies so consistently in the face of that ideal; it’s one of the reasons why fundamentalists create echo chambers for themselves. But here is our noble detective, well aware of the weakness and wickedness of men, striving to be something more while accepting the world just as it is.

I’ll be moving away from detective novels for a little while — the third book in the Liveship Traders trilogy has been calling my name for some time now — but it’s nice to know that Harry and Hank (and even Nohan) have new tests waiting for them in future books. I’ll be cheering them on again soon.


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Book Review: Forests of the Night by S. Andrew Swann

Reading 150S.A. Swann’s first novel — the beginning of a thematic trilogy — is set in a (by now) near-future America. It’s a 1990s cyberpunk-ish future, actually, where future-tech is still wired and location-based, the nation’s cities are in decline, and a world war involving nuclear weapons don’t necessarily mean the end of civilization as we know it. Japan and India are wastelands now, and the soldiers who were genetically engineered to fight in these wars have settled into an uneasy peace-time where they’re second-class citizens.

Nohar Rajasthan is the descendant of one of those soldiers, a human-animal hybrid named a ‘moreau’ for obvious reasons. He’s scraping together a good-enough existence as a private eye, living in the ghetto reserved for his kind. One day, a genetically-engineered human (called “frankensteins”) approaches him about investigating the murder of a baseline human. And if that didn’t make him uneasy enough, the victim just so happens to be linked to a well-known anti-moreau politicians with dreams of becoming a Senator. Despite his better judgement, he takes the case and quickly gets involved in a much bigger situation, because that’s how these things go.

Forests of the Night is a straightforward hybrid of detective noir and cyberpunk thriller, and it works pretty well. Swann has a solid handle on the tropes and structure of a good detective story, and he plugs in his own imaginative spins quite easily. This type of story hinges on the personality of its main character, how well the motivations of its supporting cast stays hidden (and seems plausible once they’re revealed) and how well you’re able to keep up with the many twists in the plot. I think it works on at least two of three levels, though I imagine your mileage may vary with the third.

Nohar is an uplifted tiger, essentially; a massive guy (around 8 feet and 500 pounds) who wants to do his work while staying out of trouble. In the grand noir tradition, however, trouble seems to find him no matter what. What’s interesting about Nohar, obviously, is his physical difference — we really buy into his character whenever Swann thinks through how life would be different for a guy with fur and claws. For the most part, that’s the only thing that really serves to set Nohar apart. He follows the template of your basic noir detective — gruff and stoic, with reserves of inner pain and a heart of gold. He doesn’t get in many fights because of a mental block, of sorts. When a switch gets flipped, he’s fantastically deadly, but turning on The Beast leaves him drained and shaky afterwards. It’s kind of interesting that we have a protagonist who is more than physically capable of wrecking house, but doesn’t do so because the drawbacks are far too high.

How could you say no to this cover?

Much tiger. Very wow.

The world that Nohar inhabits is pretty interesting as well. There’s a lot of social parallels between moreaus and just about any other minority with its own insular culture, and that part in particular helped to draw me in to the setting. Moreytown is a run-down area in Cleveland long ago abandoned by most humans, patrolled by a single pair of policemen to make sure any trouble inside the neighborhood doesn’t spill out into the rest of the city. Crumbling buildings, a thriving set of street gangs, bars with its own set of regulars and addicts — Moreytown has the works. And the people who get along inside of it are largely accepting of their fate, generally disinterested in a wider world that they see as hostile. Any involvement with humans, whether or not it’s positive on the surface, is a harbinger of trouble. It reminds me of my neighborhood growing up, come to think of it. The black urban community thinks the same way of the larger, white-dominated world around them.

Which is why it’s so odd that the one black person encountered in Forests of the Night — a cab driver that Nohar hires when he needs to check out a bunch of places around town — seems right out of central casting for an 80s cop movie. She’s a minor character in every possible way, but she still peppers her speech with outdated slang. “Sheeeee-it,” she says when she sees that her fare is a moreau.

The supporting cast, in general, are unquestionable allies of Nohar and his quest to uncover the truth. There’s Stephanie Weir, a human romantically connected to the victim fulfilling the femme fatale role. Manny, a mongoose moreau and Nohar’s best friend, is the voice of reason. And Angel is a lepine moreau who offers street-level pieces of the puzzle while being generally “tough” and obnoxious. Imagine a little rabbit voiced by Michelle Rodriguez, and you get the idea. We get a better sense of Nohar through his interactions with these people, and they offer vastly different perspectives of the world that help to deepen it and give it weight. For the most part, the world-building is deftly handled through character arcs and interactions, so well done there.

The mystery itself is a bit of a head-scratcher. There are so many players involved in so many different layers that it’s a little difficult to follow how one piece of the puzzle fits into the next. We don’t really get a good high-level view of what’s going on until the final confrontation, where Nohar puts everything together in a few pages of really late (and sort of convoluted) exposition. Still, it makes sense once things are figured out, and once it was all laid out I figured out the final twist perhaps a page or two ahead of the protagonist. The twists could stand to be a little more clearly sketched so it’s easier to know which direction Nohar has just been turned, but it’s also clear that Swann has a clear idea of what’s happening and it’s easy to trust in him to tie everything together. And to his credit, he does.

Ultimately this is a great little pot-boiler of a novel; nothing deep or thoughtful, but the action moves along at a rapid pace, the characters are intriguing enough to be taken along for the ride, and the world is fascinating enough that you’ll want to spend some time there. Forests of the Night is the first book in a trilogy featuring various characters in mid 21st-century America, and I’m looking forward to dipping back into the setting with the follow-up, Emperors of the Twilight. Nohar is a minor character there, alas, but it’ll be good to see how he’s doing.

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Posted by on October 28, 2013 in Furries, Novels, Reviews


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The Unity Novels

I remembered reading this pulpy sci-fi novel out of the 70s when I was a kid, where some guy was abducted out in the middle of the ocean and put in some sort of intergalactic jail. One of his fellow inmates was this ten-foot-tall philosopher lizard, and it was this big, imprinting experience to meet this character. I’ve had this great love of philosopher-giants ever since, from the Ogier in the Wheel of Time novels to the Gurahl in White Wolf’s Werewolf: the Apocalypse game. I wanted to double back and read the novel again to see if it still held up, and then I was tipped off to the sequel when I mounted a search for it. Since I’m a slow reader (much to my great shame) that meant I’ve been spending a couple of months inside the fictional universe of the Unity, a cosmic government that brings together a whole host of different species. The Unity is little more than a backdrop for basic space adventures, but that’s all right.

Hunters of the Red Moon is the first book of the series, and I slightly misremembered the plot from all those years ago. Dane Marsh is a thrill-seeker who’s in the middle of sailing alone through the Atlantic when he’s stolen by the Mekhar, a felinoid race of slave traders. After organizing an escape attempt with a fellow “proto-simian” (the Unity’s term for human-like races), a telepath and an enormous proto-saurian, the group finds itself given over to the Hunters, a mysterious race for whom killing has been elevated to something of a religion. Along with one of the Mekhar captors they bested, they find themselves in the strange position of being “sacred prey,” forced to survive for roughly a month against Hunters no one has ever seen.

It’s an interesting concept, and if you’re into straight-ahead soft sci-fi that’s more action-oriented than anything, this is a book for you. Author Marion Zimmer Bradley spends quite a great deal of her time with the novel exploring the universe, and that’s just fine for me — it’s a fascinating setting. We get to meet various members of the Unity and rough shades of what individual societies are like. The proto-felines are quite good with martial affairs and were the inventors of hyper-space travel. The proto-saurians are large but peaceful, devoting most of their pursuits to philosophies and the humanities. Proto-simians are the most curious and gregarious, but there’s this shade of disdain among the other species because they don’t have a “heat” cycle and have sex pretty much whenever they feel like it. It’s a cool tweak to the reputation of humans in an inter-stellar society; I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it before.

Beyond that, the action scenes are pretty competently written. The spaces between them are marked with a smattering of conversations and thoughts from Dane on how to survive from one moment to the next. The book doesn’t like to get too deep — despite the fact that Dane lives in a world where there’s never been conclusive proof of aliens before, he takes finding out in one of the most extreme possible ways in stride. And besides a bit of light bemusement about the alien-ness of the characters he meets, nothing much rattles him. He is very much a man of action, more of a template than a character, a man whose chief characteristic is his force of will.

The supporting cast is far more interesting. I’ve mentioned Aratak, and while a lot of his philosophy reads more like a fuzzy carbon copy of Spock’s Vulcanism, he’s still easily the best thing about the book. Cliff-Climber, the Mekhar guard who chooses to join Dane’s party, is another interesting fellow — his outlook is so far removed from the rest of the group that he spends much of his time at odds with them, and his slow-but-steady integration is the closest you get to a character arc. Dane simply acts to survive, and so does Aratak. The women in the party — Dallith the telepath and Rianna the proto-simian — are mostly love interests and their personalities serve to off-set each other. Rianna is something of a sociologist, but she’s got quite a temper and knows her way around a knife. Dallith, on the other hand, is pretty much a damsel in distress the entire time. Her people almost never leave their home planet, and when they do it almost never ends well. Dallith has lain down to die when Dane meets her, and it’s only his sheer force of will that essentially carries her through the rest of the novel.

It’s possible I’m being a little unfair; to be honest, Dallith and Rhianna are fine as far as characters go, and given Dallith’s culture it makes perfect sense for her to react the way she does. I chafe a little at their role in the story primarily because Dane is such a square-jawed hero it’s hard to see why either of them would fall for him. I’m never quite sold on his romance with Dallith, especially, simply because it doesn’t feel like he’s responding to her specifically — he likes the idea of being needed, of upholding the ideal of manliness in some way. Dallith becomes something of a cypher in this way, a prop that completes Dane’s image of himself. We don’t know too much about her otherwise.

But these are problems coming from a different time. Hunters is a pretty good sci-fi pulp adventure and a rather quick read. It won’t necessarily rock your socks off, but it’s a solidly-constructed, simple story that’s worth checking out if you’re nostalgic for that brand of fantasy.

The sequel, The Survivors, is better in so many ways. It carries forth the tone of Hunters as a good, straightforward adventure story while shading the characters with interesting complications. Sometime after Dane survives the Hunt with Rhianna and Aratak, he finds himself on a capital Unity world bored out of his mind. Like so many post-need societies, there really isn’t any risk in existence — which is something that Dane feels he needs in order to be complete. So when Aratak shows up with a proposition to investigate a “Closed” world (a society that hasn’t advanced enough technologically to warrant association with the Unity) where a few Unity researchers have gone missing, he jumps at the chance.

The new wrinkles added to the setting enrich it quite a bit. We’re introduced to other proto-saurian and proto-feline races, discover interesting new things about how the Unity operates, and the tendency of civilized worlds to have only one type of dominant sentient life. The primitive world Dane and company land on features two, which is rare enough to warrant very close study. However, both the Unity researchers and their first rescue team have vanished without a trace, and it’s up to them to determine what happens to them.

The planet they land on has undergone some sort of cataclysm in its not-too-distant history, and the sun is relentlessly scorching. Dane, Rhianna and Aratak have to undergo reconstructive surgery to fit in a bit with the natives — the proto-simians are darkened considerably, while Aratak’s gills are hidden and skin changed so its darker and more moist. They’re exposed to a culture with strange but absolute cultural taboos; throwing a spear is considered one of the most dishonorable things you could ever do, and one must protect themselves from the demons that live as stars in the night sky. They meet a boy who chafes at the superstitions of the people around him, but there’s no good outlet for his differences. He’s mercilessly chastised by his father, and there’s no other position he can hold beyond a fighting one. Rhianna takes him under her wing, while Dane finds he can barely tolerate the kid. Their arguments over him open up doubts about his relationship and uncovers a surprising streak of self-doubt and loneliness. Even though it’s not touched on too deeply, Dane wonders if Rhianna is staying with him out of some sense of duty to him — he begins to see himself as some sort of backwoods primitive, incapable of being understood by the people who have been raised in a much more advanced society.

Aratak plays well off of another proto-saurian who is much less philosophically-inclined. It’s neat to know that his almost-obsessive quoting of the wisdom of the Divine Egg drives his cultural cousins crazy as well. It makes him more of a quirky individual, and I like that shading of him. We also find out why other races look down on proto-simians for their ability to have sex any time they feel like it; while on the planet, Aratak and his companion meet another proto-saurian who has, er, come into season. Their reaction is surprising and extreme; with bestial roaring, they disappear for weeks to answer the call to mate. When they come back, they’re ready to pick up right where they left off — much to Dane’s bewilderment. “Leave others their otherness” becomes a proverb that he actually has to work to apply.

There are also noble swordsmen who are only antagonists to Dane and his motley band through circumstances and misunderstandings, a few native and non-native animals who are terrifying in rather distinctive ways, and a surprising but satisfying answer to the mystery of what happened to the researchers and previous rescue team. Again, the novel never quite delves deep enough into the interesting ideas and character developments that get kicked up through the course of the story. It reads more of a travel-quest type tale with hints of a more thoughtful tale struggling to get out. But even these small steps towards complexity suit Dane and company well; the protagonist is more three-dimensional than he was before, and even when we don’t like him (which happens half the time) we at least feel something for him.

The Survivors is a good improvement over Hunters, though it’s not perfect. I would have liked to see where the series picks up from there, but unfortunately this looks like all there is. You could do worse than picking up these novels; they’d make for good beach or airplane reading.

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Posted by on September 4, 2013 in Novels, Reviews


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Coming Back From the Point of No Return

Ryan and I saw Dream House over the weekend, and it was interesting for reasons that ultimately didn’t have anything to do with its actual story. I’ll try to briefly describe what happens without spoiling it, just in case any of you are interested in watching a psychological thriller from last year starring James Bond and the Wife from the Brendan Frasier Mummy movies.

Daniel Craig is Will, an editor fresh from quitting his job and purchasing a fixer-upper of a house he hopes to raise his young family in. Pretty soon it’s clear that there are strange things happening in and around the house, and Will’s discovery of the house’s history causes him to question quite a bit through the rest of the movie. There are a couple of twists, and I have to give the movie credit in that it reveals the first one just when you’ve figured it out. I love when a film respects the intelligence of its audience and delves into the messy aftermath of what the twist means.

Only with Dream House, that’s not quite what happens. The plot pivots around a bit of the backstory that Will is involved in but ultimately not responsible for. I mentioned to Ryan that this was disappointing because the story of him coming to terms with his responsibility would have been more interesting than what we got, but he disagreed. He said that it wouldn’t work for a number of reasons that I won’t go into here because, spoilers. Instead, I’ll just go ahead and launch into my main point from here.

The protagonist is an easy character to screw up in a lot of genre stories. I think we have a tendency to construct our main characters out of a template because there are certain demands we place on them; they have to be active, heroic, but believable, relatable. They can’t be perfect or else they’re boring, and they can’t be too damaged because who would want to spend time with them, then? It’s really difficult to get the tone down because this is the person that will be pulling the audience through your story; you want them to like your main character, but you also want to make sure that he or she is textured enough that they’re not a Boy Scout. The flaws have to be legitimate but not alienating.

I’m becoming more interested in just how far you can go with making a flawed protagonist, though. The reason Dream House was ultimately disappointing is that it felt like a bait-and-switch to me; it teased with the possibility of this great, tragic protagonist struggling through this irreparable damage, then gave us something that was a bit more heroic and thus a bit more bland. It makes me wonder what you could have a protagonist ‘get away with’ and still have the audience on their side.

Can you have a murderer as the protagonist of your story? What about a mass murderer? In what context would those actions be acceptable or unacceptable? I know that there isn’t a pat answer for this; there are so many other factors that influence how an action like that looks. What about, say, a story of a thief who kills an entire family during a botched robbery? Would the story of him coming to grips with what he’s done sound believable, much less intriguing? To me, it would be. There’s something beautiful in someone finding grace and acceptance of the horrible things they’ve done. But perhaps I’m in the minority on that one.

I immediately think of the first book in the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever — Lord Foul’s Bane, I believe it was called. Thomas Covenant is an intensely unlikable protagonist, and it’s actually kind of impressive to read for that. Stephen Donaldson spends quite a bit of time telling us about Thomas; he is a writer who had a runaway success with his first novel, then contracted leprosy and lost his wife, his confidence and his health. The description of his mental state and his disease is thoughtful enough that it generates enormous sympathy for Thomas, and even though he’s bitter and cynical you understand why he is. When he’s whisked away to a magical realm known as the Land and told he’s fated to be the savior of its inhabitants, you can forgive him for his skepticism. What you can’t forgive him for is the raping of a young girl, one of the first people he meets.

I had never had such a visceral reaction to a book before then. Once both the girl and her mother don’t immediately call out Thomas for fear of displeasing him, I put the book down. But that small bit of story stuck with me; Donaldson’s obviously an effective writer, and now that I’m thinking about it what he did was quite remarkable. Even though I can admire his technical proficiency, his creation is just something I can’t spend any more time with. Thomas crossed the line, and I…still don’t know if I want to stick around to see if he’s redeemed or not.

But can you have Thomas do something like that and still make him…somewhat heroic? Obviously, that act is going to stain his personality for the rest of his existence, and rightfully so. What could Donaldson have done differently to set up Thomas for future redemption without lessening the horrificness of the act? For me, the act exposed a depth of disregard and near-sociopathic tendencies that I had been willing to overlook before. The rape stripped away the goodwill I had built for Thomas, and it made the anger and disgust I felt for him that much worse. Would it have been different if there was any indication beforehand that he had the capacity to be selfless? Would I have felt sadness instead of anger if Thomas had been portrayed more as someone who suffered greatly?

Thinking about these questions makes me realize how much I rely on the intent or mental state behind an action to determine a judgement on it. There are an awful lot of things that I would forgive if someone was “properly repentant,” and took responsibility for their actions. It wouldn’t make the actions any less heinous, but it would prove these people were still capable of, or desired to do, good. And that matters. Watching someone find their way back from a terrible mistake that can’t be erased is compelling, and failure or success brings with it a very intense return on your emotional investment. For me, the desire to be good is enough to get me on the side of the protagonist, and while there are a lot of things they could do to exhaust that goodwill, good intentions will go a great deal farther than anything else.

Now I turn the floor over to you: what attribute is absolutely essential for a character to keep your sympathy? What one thing will cause a character to become irredeemable? And who was the most unlikable protagonist you followed through the end of a story? Looking forward to your comments.


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