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Sci-Fi Fi! What a wonderful phrase! Sci-Fi Fi! Ain’t no passing phaaaaaaaaaaase. OK, so Disney this ain’t, but it’s Friday, I’m punch-drunk from the longest shortest work week ever, and I’m about to go off the rails at any second. Let’s get down to business, shall we?
So my reading volume was up significantly all summer; but certainly wasn’t quality over quantity. Lucky for me, a solid short story anthology dropped right around the middle of summer. Masked is refreshingly high-quality collection of superhero fiction by some of the best talent in the industry today (and a few outside of it). As with any anthology, there are a few stories that fall flat; but the majority do a great job of taking what’s considered a “fluff” genre and elevating it to, maybe not high literature, but certainly something that merits further discussion (or at least multiple reads). Gail Simone’s “Thug” really shines as a quirky character portrait (which, admittedly, she does best) of a mentally-challenged henchman. “Cleansed and Set in Gold” by Matthew Sturges is the first story in the book and, despite the fact that you can figure out the twist pretty quickly, where it ends up is surprising. At it’s core, it’s a wink and a nod to that old comic trope of heroes developing just the right random power to get themselves out a fix whenever it befits the story; but the way it’s developed is satisfyingly plausible. “The Non-Event” by Mike Carey features some really sharp pacing and dialogue; and, despite it’s telegraphed conclusion, really charmed me with the world it created. Finally, “A to Z in the Ultimate Big Company Superhero Universe (and Villains Too)” by Bill Willingham deserves to be its own novel. Hell, it deserves to be its own ongoing comic series with movie and TV tie-ins. Ever read Secret Wars or any of the big Crisis events when you were a kid? Where every character in the world is thrown together against impossible odds? That’s this – only so much more brutal and witty. I mean, there’s a supervillain called Bad Moon…who actually is a rogue planetoid, it’s deliciously tounge-in-cheek. Taken as a whole, Masked is a great way to kill a weekend. Even those of you who don’t necessarily enjoy the cape and cowl set will likely find something refreshingly fun and different.
Anything else? Sadly, the only other book that I’ve found worth it’s salt wasn’t a library book, so it’ll have to wait for it’s own review (and I have to actually finish the damn thing). All-in-all a decidedly flat Sci-Fi Fi summer, but I was pleased to have stretched my reading muscles and rescue some books from the stacks (albeit briefly). If you haven’t checked out the offerings at your local library, please do so. Many are really stepping up efforts so that they can compete in this age of instantly downloadable media (though free Kindle previews are a great way to figure out if you’re going to like a book). Don’t be scared. The librarians don’t bite (much).
Hrm, just realized that I’ve inadvertently titled these articles “Science-Fiction Fiction Round Up.” Does that mean that I should be discussing fiction about science-fiction; meta-fiction where the fiction is written about fictional fiction (by aliens! or robots from the future!)? Is my post itself is fictional? This requires further pondering. While I do that, you read up on what books to pick up or avoid as we say buh-bye to Summer.
Having been burned by Catching Fire (ZING! “Burned!” Get it?! HA! HA! HA! H-…OK, I’ll stop now.), I decided to try another author who seems to have gained some ground in the “quirky sci-fi” category, China Mieville. First up was his latest, Kraken. It’s a labyrinthine tale of a decidedly unremarkable museum docent tossed into a hidden, mystical London sub-culture where he and his preserved giant squid are the keys to stopping (or maybe starting) a coming Apocalypse. I loved the concept, though I was a little wary of too much Cthulu creeping into my reading diet (having just finished The Mall of Cthulhu, a mildly enjoyable, but altogether forgettable Cthulu tale). Turns out I need not have worried. There are squid cults in here, and the Old One does get name-dropped early on; but only so that Mieville can dismiss this pedestrian concept and replace it with something even more batshit. You see that picture up there? You see that smug look on his face? If you think he looks like an arrogant college kid who dismisses criticism because people aren’t evolved enough to “understand his art,” you wouldn’t be too far off. Mieville revels in introducing quirky scenarios and characters and, instead of fleshing them out, swiping them to the floor with a grand gesture and plopping down something even more incomprehensible. What you’re left with is a book full of half-formed ideas, writhing together in an indistinguishable mass (much like the titular Kraken). The other Mieville book I tried, Perdido Street Station, is more of the same; more so, even, since it’s more “traditional” sci-fi, taking place far from Earth (though London obviously informs the setting) and doesn’t have to bother with the familiar at all. I couldn’t get through the first 100 pages. After following around an “arteest” with a bug for a head (not a “bug-headed girl,” mind you, but a girl with a complete giant beetle for a head; the former is, again, far too pedestrian) for about 3 chapters and getting nowhere except deeper into the “Look at this needlessly complex piece of crap that has spewed forth from my brain! Oh! Look! Here’s another! WHAT DOES IT MEEEEAAAAAAN?!” I decided that Mieville was far too clever for his own good and left him to his own devices.
So at this point I’m zero-for-four and starting to wonder if maybe I shouldn’t just run back to the pages of Gibson and Simmons. But no! I must press on and find new and exciting authors! Stones will not be left unturned! Asteroids will not be unexplored! That’s no moon! A recommendation trickled down the pipe for The Unincorporated Man by the Kollins Brothers. I immediately fell in love with the concept: after 300 years, a man is revived only to discover that our entire economic system has crumbled and that people subsist by incorporating themselves, with their “shareholders” determining the course of their life (depending on how much of you they own). It started out strong as well. The first few chapters concern themselves heavily with the practical implications of self-ownership and how resurrection is handled in a society where death and illness are inconveniences rather than a show-stoppers. Then the Kollins boys pulled a bait and switch on me. While the characters negotiated a deal at a pawn shop, they morphed into talking heads and delivered a little back and forth lesson on theoretical economics. At that point, I realized I was reading a book far different from the one I signed up for. Sadly, the pattern kept repeating as they went to Firenze and had pizza, and then again, and again, and again. Finally I put it down, realizing that I’d blundered into, not a work of hard science fiction, but an Economic Theory textbook with sci-fi trappings. Granted, my MBA friend couldn’t put it down; but then he’s already a special kind of crazy, so I’d expect him to lurv it.
So is there hope? Was there anything at the end of the summer to redeem my five-book strike out? Oh, there was. There was indeed. But you’ll just have to wait for a bit to find out what.
Summer is waning (which, for those of us in Florida, means another month of the most brutal humidity/temperature combinations known to man) and with it, any semblance of free time. Ergo, my days of tearing through new books like a blaster through a womprat are over. As I mentioned back in June, I rediscovered my local library and used it like the cheap, tax-fed grinder monkey it is to feed my need for new books. I covered Mira Grant’s Feed in that earlier post (I’m still desperately waiting for the release of Deadline) and Bacigalupi’s Pump Six and Other Stories, which is being re-released in paperback at some point in the near future; but what about the rest of the books I culled from the stacks?
First up was another by Bacigalupi, Ship Breaker. His first YA novel, it took elements of the post-apocalyptic society he started developing in Pump Six and The Windup Girl and brought it down to a much grittier, personal level. Don’t let the YA label fool you, this was a brutal, dirty work, where children are only valuable for as long as they can fit into the crawl-spaces of old oil tankers and strip them of their parts. Life is one long punch to the gut for the main character, Nailer, as he deals with life-threatening injuries, prostitution, drug addiction, class warfare…the list goes on. Some of the slavery messages are heavy-handed, and the showdown and ending were far too pat for me to be completely satisfied (feeling a bit like a concession to the YA label); but I still recommend it. Like Bacigalupi’s other works, the world he’s created is fully-realized and expertly rendered. If you’ve ever wondered what things will look like if they fall apart – this should be your first stop.
Next up in the reading list was Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. I know I’m going to catch Hell for this (since some of you are big fans); but I absolutely hated this series. BUT! But, I hate with the passion of a Kindergartner pushing down his object of desire, running away, and denying any involvement whatsoever. I want to love the Hunger Games trilogy. The setup is redolent with potential; after a long, brutal, and, ultimately, failed war of secession, America’s (Earth’s?!) remaining humans have been separated into specialized districts and are kept at the ragged edge of poverty and starvation while they produce goods for the rich inhabitants of The Capitol (the “winners” in that aforementioned war). To keep everyone in line, the ruling government rounds up the children from all the Districts every year, pick a boy and a girl from each, and force them to fight to the death in an elaborate staged contest: The Hunger Games. It’s got everything I love – society unwinding itself like a broken watch, a touch of science gone awry, and a Twilight-esque love triangle where a young girl can never quite decide who it is she should make out with (which doesn’t matter because she feels like crap no matter who she picks). Yeah, one of these things is not like the other. As much as I loved the setting and the action (which was really sharply written), I ended up rage-quitting the second book in the series as Katniss and her eternal waffling over Peeta and Gale kept getting in the way of the societal meltdown that was happening all around her. Especially in Catching Fire, I felt that Collins was playing up Katniss’ adolescent indecision to artificially pump the “drama” quotient, rather than just trusting the already ample situational stress present to do that for the reader. Hunger Games, I really wanted to love you, but I’ll have to settle for loving to hate you instead.
There’s more, but I’ll save you from additional ranting for now. Next up, a giant squid, a bug-headed girl, and a bunch of superheroes walk into a bar…
I’m sorry sir, command not recognized, please restate.
No, your model designation. It can be acronym-ed into Ess. Pee. A. Em. – SPAMbot.
…This unit’s form and function has been optimized to provide hands-free mobility options for subjects who have suffered traumatic injuries to their motor functions or are otherwise incapable of-
That’s fine, I don’t need the ‘scrip from your manual, I just was pointing out an amusing coincidence of language.
I am programmed to recognize verbal and text-entry commands in over 50 different languages.
That’s wonderful for you, I’m sure your mother is proud.
…This unit was manufactured to exacting specifications in a state-of-the-art Taiwanese automated assembly facility under the supervision of qualified Mobi-tech engineers.
I didn’t…I mean, I don’t care…What do I call you?
This unit is designated S.P.A.M. Robot 404.
Yes, sir. This unit is designated-
Heard you the first time. So I’ve loaded myself into an error page SPAMbot. Tupping lovely.
I’m sorry sir, command is not-
Right! Let’s get on with it then. I need to get to the grocery.
Would you like to input a manual course or shall this unit determine the most efficient route based on current GPS markers and market resear-
Just go! I don’t care how we get there, just get me there.
Understood, sir. Route enabled.
Wait…did you say market research?
Why would that factor…wait, this isn’t the way to the Publix. Publix is South of here, you’re taking us North.
Based on discreet fluid testing, this unit has determined that subject is in need of nutritional supplements to regulate blood flow and enhance prostate health.
Discreet…HEY! What the hell are you doing down there?
Does this subject know that by taking advantage of a limited time offer, this subject could obtain large amounts of herbal supplements for well below wholesale price? Distance to the nearest Pillmart is 100m.
No! I want to go to Publix! PUBLIX! P.U.B.L.I.X! Unit 404, comply and re-route as per original instructions.
This unit was informed that this subject did not “care how we get there.”
I care now! I don’t need any damn ginkgo-balobullshit. I need a roast beef sandwich.
Route has already been logged with Mobi-tech and local authorities. As per regulation parameter 001-4 “All automated mobility devices must register and verify routes in compliance with the Federal Robot Protection Act prior to departure. Deviation from pre-registered routes is a fine-able offense.”
Then fine me! Charge me whatever you need to change the route – just take me to the Publix so I can get my damn lunch!
Route deviation request acknowledged. The current FRPA Route Deviation fine is $25,000. Uploading…
STOP! Wait!…Nevermind. Pillmart it is.
Route deviation request cancelled, resuming original route. Did this subject know that there are many local area singles that are dying to meet this subject? By acting right now, this subject could find the “Love of his/her life” today.
One of my college professors once told me that there were no new plotlines; that everything was a variation of “A Stranger Appears.” 99% of fiction boils down something unusual happening in what’s usually a routine process.
The other 1% is sex (though there’s plenty of unusual happenings there too).
So what could be more unusual than me actually updating TWDT? Not much!
For those of you looking for that other 1%, you’ll have to go elsewhere, apologies.
Keep your eyes on my Twitter feed for an update later today!
For a long time now, I’ve been a library snob. I always had excuses like “I don’t have time to go find books on the stacks” and “I’d much rather own my books.” Recently, though, I’ve fallen back in love with my library. I discovered the reservation system, so I just find the book I want online, then tell the library to drop it off at the branch near my office – easy-peasy. And the “owning books” thing? More than half the time, I just end up selling them back for a loss through Amazon (and I just don’t have the room, honestly), so unless I’m on vacation somewhere and need a book RIGHT NOW, it’s not worth it to buy.
That said, I’ve found some great sci-fi new releases in the stacks and wanted to pass ‘em on to y’all.
First up is Feed (Newsflesh, Book 1) by Mira Grant. MG is a pseudonym for…some indie author that I’ve never heard of, writes about modern urban “faeries” or some crap. But Feed is as far from “modern urban faeries” as you can get and is all the better for it. It details the travails of twin bloggers who get a lucky break and are chosen to shadow a top running-political candidate on the road to the GOP convention as he tries to become the next presidential candidate. Oh, and there’s zombies everywhere. Yeah, seems that, in the future, we don’t have to worry about cancer or the common cold (because they’ve been cured – yay!) but when you die, you come back as the shambling undead (because the cures combine and mutate into a super virus – boo!). I’m sure the science is paper-thin, but MG does a solid job of keeping our attention away from the nittiest grittiest parts of it while her narrator, Georgia, gives us a fascinating treatise on the breakdown of modern media and the rise of the blogger. No, I’m not being facetious. The zombies are window dressing – they’re a fact of life and they permeate everything that Georgia and Shaun (the blogger twins) do, but they’re not the story (until they are). It does bog down in exposition from time-to-time (Georgia is a “Newsie” and likes to provide every possible fact); but her voice builds an absolutely fascinating social future, one that I look forward to revisiting in Book 2 (which doesn’t come out till next MAY?! Frak.). Plus, there’s a main character who named herself after the titular character in Buffy the Vampire Slayer out of sheer situational irony…how can you not love that?
Next up is Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi. Usually, I don’t go for short story collections – I often end up getting just invested enough in the characters to care before things wrap up and I’m left wanting more than the quick glance I got. Bacigalupi sidesteps this by making the characters almost secondary. The stars of these stories are the insane post-apocalyptic (with one grim exception) deconstruction scenarios. The collection is a game of “What if?” on crack: What if procreating and children were outlawed? What if we became nano-based lifeforms? What if we became so stupid as a society that we couldn’t maintain the previous generation’s works? What if food companies’ genetically modified products destroyed the entire food chain and left them holding all the marbles? (That last, incidentally, is the impetus for his first long work The Windup Girl; another great work that I’ll cover in a future post.) The characters in each case are generally less memorable than the bleak future they inhabit. But it’s worth it to see Bacigalupi going through the motions of making things work in what should be completely untenable situations. And because he takes the time to make these vignettes believable, they’ve stayed with me longer than a lot of recent full-length works have. If you’re a fan of speculative sci-fi, it’s well-worth the weekend read.
Alright – so the use of the atom bomb in the final post was a bit too prophetic. Luckily, I’ve found new gear to blog about – so I’ve found a reason to assault you all again!
That beauty right there is the Razer Naga. Specifically made for MMOs, it’s got a completely insane 12-key keypad right under your thumb (sorry, lefties, this one isn’t for you). I nabbed it on a whim after I found a great used offer and have poked around in City of Heroes a bit to try it out (it’s really tailored for WoW…has a Addon and everything – but my authenticator was installed on my pool-soaked iPhone, no WoW for me!!). The first thing I noticed is that it’s smooooth. Say what you will about expensive mice, but the on-the-fly DPI switching and the accuracy of the sensor made my Apple Magic Mouse look sadly pokey in comparison. I was a little sad to unplug it, actually. Yeah…it’s a wired mouse in a day and age when wired mice are rather gouache; but apparently they need the extra juice for the keypad.
Speaking of – how does it perform? Pretty damn nicely! Though after 5 years of gaming where I only use the mouse to move and use my left hand to mash my number keys, moving everything over to my mouse hand is going to take some getting used to. I’m going to be curious to see how my thumb holds up after a typical 2-hour WoW session. I may be crying for the simplicity of my Razer Mamba another fine mouse (wireless too); but oddly, it doesn’t give me the same swooshy feeling that the Naga does. The top DPI always feels too fast, and the bottom feels only slightly better than the Magic Mouse. Odd.
Oh yeah, one caveat – if you’ve got bear paw meat mits, the Naga is not for you. I’ve luckily got nimble hands (a nice euphemism for freakishly small), so the Naga fit nicely and all the buttons were thumb-accessible. But you’d never be able to tell by the press photos that it was slightly undersized. I’d actually recommend the Mamba for “normal” sized hands. YMMV.
I’m about to spoil Avatar. Seriously. If you haven’t seen the movie, I’m going to give away the whole enchilada. So if you want to remain unspoiled for when you see it for the first time on DVD (a plan that, I would argue, needs serious reconsideration), then don’t click through to the link. Don’t do it!
Eh, whatever – the plot has absolutely no bearing on the movie, so why not be spoiled…click away.