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  Adam Brate > Book Reviews

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March 14, 2006

ISBN 0785110739 Marvel 1602
by Neil Gaiman, Andy Kubert, Richard Isanove

Gaiman's tour-de-force re-imagining of the Marvel Comics pantheon in the Elizabethan era is a rollicking and lovely and overstuffed tale in its own right. And it offers numerous delights for those steeped in the comics, faithfully reimagining the creation tales of each of the superheroes for another time -- the Fantastic Four set out across the Atlantic Ocean rather than into space on the voyage that gave them their superpowers. Some characters, like Otto von Doom and Charles Xavier (now Carlos Javier) need no change -- Latveria is still Latveria, though now Professor X has to be carried around -- no wheelchairs in the 17th century.

It's sad how copyright laws make such wonderful reuse of contemporary culture as Marvel 1602 so rare and difficult. Comic book publishers are a special lot, generally owning all of the rights to the characters, with a strong incentive to continually recombine and transform their stories, so that we get to see the strange and clever variations that in other genres are limited to samizdat fanfic. The tales of the superheroes, superstars, athletes are the 20th century fairy tales and mythologies, and as such deserve free and expressive retelling as once existed in oral culture for thousands of years.

March 9, 2006

ISBN 0140258795 Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of his Time
by Dava Sobel

A brief foray into the the remarkable world of 18th-century science plumbed in insane detail by Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, Longitude heralds the achievements of clockmaker John Harrison. Newton, Halley, Captain Cook guest-star, while astronomer Nevil Maskeleyne plays the villain, or in Sobel's words, the "anti-hero". The best thing about the book may be the delightful quotations on the longitude, clocks, navigation, and the celestial motions that begin each chapter, as: Where in this small-talking world can I find/A longitude with no platitude?

ISBN 0345344324 Trader's World
by Charles Sheffield

SF in the classic mold; an exceptionally talented orphan is challenged repeatedly in episodic scenarios, each exploring a different well-crafted speculative society. Genetic engineering, nanoscale robotics, side-by-side with clasic SF tropes as the diplomat/trader corps, the genius AI, the post-apocalyptic society.

March 8, 2006

ISBN 1931498997 Crashing the Gate
by Markos Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong

Zippy, intelligent, not perfect....

June 17, 2004

ISBN 0765307596 Eastern Standard Tribe
by Cory Doctorow

Doctorow, in this breezily plotted novel, takes the reader through a fine extrapolation of present-day technorati culture: IRC channels, digital rights management, user interface design, and corporate espionage. We meet the protagonist, Art Berry, trapped on the roof of a Boston-area nuthouse pondering whether to drive a pencil up his nose into his brain. The events leading up to that moment are interleaved with Berry's slapstick efforts to get off the roof and escape the insane asylum. The title refers to Doctorow's conceit that the time-zone driven friendships that burgeon on IRC channels will flourish into formal alliances. Berry, a member of the Eastern Standard Tribe, is a saboteur placed in a European corporation, deliberately designing terrible product to weaken their ability to compete. The cast of characters balances the cultural satire of the novel, and the relationship between Art and his wacko girlfriend is touchingly real. Minor plotholes and digressions mar the flow, but EST hurtles to a satisfying conclusion with panache.

June 9, 2003

ISBN 0312848706 ISBN 0765304325 The Golden Age: A Romance of the Far Future
The Phoenix Exultant: or, Dispossessed in Utopia
by John C. Wright

The titles of these, the first two books of John C. Wright's debut SF trilogy, in unabashedly Victorian style, promise the reader an ornately plotted saga with heroic characters, great loss and tribulation, and grand prose. Moreover, Wright was bold enough to title the first book (and the series) The Golden Age--the name given to the era of the flowering of science fiction in the 1940s, under van Vogt, Bradbury, C.L. Moore, Theodore Sturgeon, and the like. It was the era of the great space operas, in which intrepid underdogs blessed with an unusual capacity to reach for the stars battled across space and time.

Remarkably, Wright does not disappoint. The Golden Age takes place in the far future of our own solar system, in which humans augmented by genetic enhancement and computation to immortality live among planetary intelligences, in a time of great peace and creativity. But one man, Phaeton (named for the mortal who dared to ride Apollo's sun chariot), finds that his memories have been locked away, memories of a ship to take him to the stars, memories that lead to the loss of his wife, his fortune, and eventually everything. The book unfolds one sad revelation and betrayal after another, with nods to heroic fiction from Roman myth, Shakespeare, Dickens, and van Vogt, but with well-realized characters in a world extrapolated from the edges of today's science.

The Phoenix Exultant tells a more hopeful story, as Phaeton climbs from the depths of the Golden Oecumene, battered and alone, with the goal of retaining his ship, the Phoenix Exultant. This book sparkles with Austenian dialogue, and scenes of high and low comedy missing from the darker first novel.

These books veer dangerously close to being exercises in writing the Archetypal Science Fiction Novel; there is only so much you can do with a protagonist who is more pure of purpose than everyone else (see Slan, Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Dorsai Cycle). Then again, it is not such a bad thing to approach the Archetypal Science Fiction Novel, is it?

January 31, 2003

ISBN 0375725237 The Book of Evidence
John Banville

In The Book of Evidence, Freddie Montgomery, a neurotic and articulate murderer, tells a beautiful tale. It begins with a threat he makes to a man who ends up with a severed ear. Then it meanders on to a confession that he likes to fuck his voluptuous and indolent wife with her glasses on because it make her look vulnerable. He abandons her and becomes a deadbeat dad, abuses his mother even after he sees her face drooping from a recent stroke, and fantasizes about a teenage girl. Later, he tries to steal a painting that his mother sold to a rich collector, a family friend. Among other crimes, the attempt leads him to murder a witness in cold blood, burglarize and lie to a friend, and have sly sex with his friend’s girlfriend.

The ugly story is beautiful because it’s beautifully told. Our murderer is poetic in his detailed descriptions of the outside world: weeds and spittle, smells and cobwebs, damp walls and heavy hair. He sees light, particularly at the moments when we think he should be in turmoil, “the half-light of an April dawn,” or “the bright light above the trees, bright and blue, like the limitless skies of childhood,” or, forbiddingly for its hemoglobic color and scent, the “coin-colored sun” and the “nickel half-light.” Freddie Montgomery’s gaze is set outward, at the glorious sunset, the amoral landscape of which he is part. He rarely examines himself; when he does it is about the surface (he sees himself as “animate carrion,” “frightful gobs of flesh”, “something pallid and slack and soft)” Mostly he reflects, casting impartial light at exquisite angles. Seeing his life through his eyes, we gradually forget its malignancy. It’s not because his awful deeds are diminished by any guilt or remorse or excuse. It’s because his story is told poetically, and in that we find evidence of redemption.

January 7, 2003

ISBN 0345443020 Perdido Street Station
by China Miéville

This book scored the two big British fantasy and SF awards for its tale of an ensemble cast of misfits in the phantasmagorically decadent city of New Crobuzon, the real protagonist of the book. Perdido Street Station depicts the city, a dark imagining of a transfigured London, well, and the various races housed within convincingly, with cameos by such humorously weird creatures as the handlingers--parasitic hands that clutch their host bodies--the darkly punctilious daemons of Hell, and the Weaver, a giant, insane, multidimensional spider. The book runs long, and has serious structural failings, with an overemphasis on action-movie set pieces and too much pseudoscientifimystical rambling. It feels more like a role-playing scenario led by a transcendently superior game master than a fully developed novel. With those caveats in mind, it's a must read.

December 12, 2002

ISBN 0441004016 The Anubis Gates
by Tim Powers

With this time-travel novel, Powers established his reputation. Like all good time-travel novels, it relies on a tightly woven, intricate plot, tying together the threads of immortal Egyptian sorcerors trying to bring back the ancient Egyptian gods by destroying the Western powers; the strange lives of Lord Byron and Samuel Taylor Coleridge; a twentieth-century industrialist who delves into the occult; and the slightly pudgy professor Brendan Doyle, who harbors a mild obsession about the elusive William Ashbless, a mostly forgotten contemporary of Byron and his crowd.

The Anubis Gates is mostly set in Victorian England, after the industrialist discovers a way to travel back in time for a brief visit, bringing Doyle along as a guide. Doyle is waylaid and misses the trip back, beginning his remarkable and often humorous struggle to survive as sorcerors, beggar kings, a werewolf, furred apes, doppelgangers, and the Spoonzie Boys battle over the past and future. Though the complexities of the plot turn turgid at points, Powers gamely rushes through, hurtling the reader from one heart-thumpting surprise to another, ending with a wonderfully satisfying conclusion.

Powers draws from a wealth of historical detail to create an utterly compelling work of fiction. Without doing your own research, it would be impossible to tell which events, individuals, or ephemera are historical and which are fantasies. The Anubis Gates sets a high bar in style, plot, and character.

September 9, 2002

by Bruce Sterling

Sterling's space opera about the Asimov-grade diplomat (read: con artist) Abelard Lindsay, in his fight for the future between the Shapers, the youth-oriented genetic manipulators, and the Mechanists, the senescent biomechanicists, around the solar system. The book has a bold scope, covering a centuries-long life, and has many bright flashes of Sterling's mordant humor and speculative detail, but the characters and their relationships end up being a bit too stock. But maybe I'm just hoping that his stifling vision of a senescent future isn't accurate.

ISBN 188886916X The Artificial Kid
by Bruce Sterling

Sterling's second novel is planted firmly in his obsession with a society dominated by the very old, leavened by the media-mastering and ebullient youth--the Artificial Kid, who was created when a senile politician deliberately wipes his brain to start over. While the beginning crackles with the energy of the Combat Artists, the Kid at the top, the book muddles into pseudo-transcendent weirdness reminiscent of Gulliver's Travels but without the excuse of being nineteenth-century satire.

July 25, 2002

ISBN 0871136791 Cold Mountain
by Charles Frazier

It is easy to tell why this book is beloved and successful. It is a simple love story told with a careful eye for historical accuracy and vivid depictions of the gruesome miseries of war. From Homer to Hemingway this has been a winning formula. Frazier was not totally sucessful in submerging modern rhythms and expectations in the period language. The pseudo-antique result is a bit distancing, but I enjoyed this book. It transcends pastiche but doesn't offer enough that's new to be a unique gem. Each page offers pleasure or pain; for example, a random selection offers this sentence: "When the bleeding headless body staggered about the yard in the time-honored habit of sots, Ruby pointed to it with her ragged sheath knife and said, That's your sustenance there."

ISBN 0375706690 Babel 17 & Empire Star
by Samuel R. Delaney

Random House's Vintage Books imprint has done SF aficionados and lovers of literature everywhere a great service with the double-paperback publication of Babel 17 & Empire Star, in the vein of the old Ace Doubles (though with a trade-paperback trim size). Delaney's Nebula-winning Babel-17 is a beautiful tale well-told, a rich example of classical SF, bursting with grand invention and loopy space pirate battles. But the twenty-three-year-old Delaney applied that same juvenile fervor to linguistics, life, and love: the heroine, Rydra Wong, is a master poet whose words changed the worlds even before she came in contact with Babel-17, an incomprehensible alien language connected with acts of military sabotage. As she assembles a crew of strange characters, from teenagers with roses growing from their shoulders to discorporate ghosts, to investigate the transmissions of Babel-17, she begins to learn the intricacies and power of this tongue. Babel-17 ends with a series of fabulous twists that tie all the loose ends tightly together with satisfying fireworks.

Empire Star, a novella which Delaney dashed off to pay for his first trip to Europe, is a work of fiction in the Babel-17 universe, narrated by Rydra Wong's lover and copilot Muels Aranlyde. It follows the growth of Comet Jo from simplex to complex to multiplex, learning of cultural--and eventually temporal and spatial--relativity. Again, it's simultaneously rollicking and poetic by turns, with an ending that's even more intricate than that of Babel-17.

Both are remarkable signposts of how the hackneyed but juicy tropes of 40s and 50s pulp SF flourished under a new generation in the 1960s. This is SF that still feels cutting-edge, buoyant and fresh.

July 2, 2002

The Night Shapes
by James Blish

The original 1962 Ballantine paperback has remarkable cover art by Richard Powers, making it worthwhile even if Blish's exploration of the darkness hidden in the heart of the Congo were sub-par. But it's not; rather, it's a gripping tale of the stock SF flawed-yet-superior hero, Kit Kennedy (Ktendi to the natives), forced to lead an expedition into a mysterious valley, home to the night shapes, the primal essences of elemental nature. Kennedy turns out to be an interesting and full character, as are the others, from the loyal yet ironic Tombu and the headstrong Paula Lee. The novel is rich with historical detail, lending versimilitude to the tales of cannibalism, pythons, and drum-combat. If this hadn't been written by a SF author, this book would be thought of as a historical novel with touches of magic realism and scientific speculation. It's quick (125 pp.) and rich.

June 19, 2002

ISBN 0064408647 ISBN 0064408655 ISBN 0064408663 A Series of Unfortunate Events Books 6-8
The Ersatz Elevator
The Vile Village
The Hostile Hospital
by Lemony Snicket

The pseudonymous Lemony Snicket continues his juggernaut of juvenile fiction in respectable fashion. Some of the ironic flourishes which distinguished the first book have become a bit tired, and the plots are utterly formulaic, but the heroic Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire are still delightful, and the series-plots of the Quagmire triplets' plight and the life of Snicket are steadily advanced. Quickly: Elevator is weaker than the other two; Village draws from Hitchcock's The Birds for the looming terror of a village dominated by crows--oddly, it is the village elders, with an insane number of rules, who are the terror. Hospital is a bit quieter, ramping up nicely to a dramatic operation of a craniectomy: Violet's head is to be chopped off!

ISBN 0140154078 The Music of Chance
by Paul Auster

Auster is beloved around the world for his surrealist, sparse fiction. The Music of Chance is no exception. The protagonist becomes unmoored after his wife leaves him, but with an inheritance that arrives soon after, he is able to spend a year driving across the country. This alienation is but the prologue to the book, when near the end of his money he meets a young card sharp, and they challenge some rich eccentrics--grotesquely eccentric--to a poker game at their estate which ends disastrously for our heroes. They are confined to the estate, building a wall out of stones from an Irish castle. And that's your tale! It follows the psychological decay of the wall-builders with mordant wit and sharp shocks of violence. This book would be indistinguishable from what Iain Banks would write if it were set in England instead of America.

ISBN 0812566572 Marrow by Robert Reed

An arching SF epic which spans millenia, drawing from classic forms of the genre: the planet-ship hurtling through space, carrying multitudes of alien races; civilization-building from nothing on a harsh planet; immortality; the nature and meaning of the universe--much like David Zindell's work. The book takes way too long to set up "Marrow", a created planet mysteriously hidden in the center of the incomprehensibly large ship, and the stacked plot-twists at the end are more frustrating than illuminating, but the characters are well drawn and the ship weirdly and effectively realized. Marrow largely succeeds at evoking the sense of how humanity would change--and how it would not--if we were nearly immortal, loosed from Earth, living in an alien universe of wonder.

ISBN 0140132708 Midnight's Children
by Salman Rushdie

Rushdie's first novel is a rambling romp over the face of India. Its conceit, that the author, who was born at the stroke of midnight on the day of India's independence, was granted psychic abilities during his childhood, sometimes falls flat. Rushdie seems to waver between wanting to give his author-hero Zelig-like powers, influencing the course of history, and wanting the connections to be only metaphorical. That said, the language is rich and ripe, vividly portraying the sprawling nation of India (and Pakistan) as pulsing with life. Midnight's Children opens in idyllic Kashmir, which a few hundred pages later is home to an ugly India-Pakistan conflict: the same conflict that today threatens nuclear war. The political landscape in India has remained pretty similar since the book's publication in 1980. And that's the eternal appeal of the region: simultaneously unchanging and ever-changing, where reality and fantasy overlap in the mass illusion of a billion minds.

May 30, 2002

ISBN 1401300057 Firehouse
by David Halberstam

An uncomplicated but lucidly written tribute to Engine 40/Ladder 35, which lost twelve of thirteen men who responded to the World Trade Center on September 11. The book reached me deeply, as it evoked my own memories, especially of seeing the haggard faces of firemen in the following days, their bodies held up by a strange admixture of determination and grief. My only frustration was that Halberstam tiptoes around any negative aspects of the fallen firemen, which is entirely understandable. However, the portraits feel unfinished; without the shadows the light does not seem as bright.

ISBN 0738205435 Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web
by David Weinberger

I feel terrible for saying this, but I did not like this book much at all. The reviews and endorsements and related web site promise an interesting and thoughtful book. But it was poor reasoning stitched together with anecdotes. Well-written anecdotes make for enjoyable reading, but they mean little...

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