All Systems Red, by Martha Wells / ****

71koskvyoblWhen the only thing you know about a book is that its narrator and “hero” is a android named “Murderbot”…well, that’s a pretty outstanding hook for a novel, isn’t it?

Such is the case with Martha Wells’ All Systems Red, the first novel in a series called “The Murderbot Diaries,” about a corporate-owned security droid that refers to itself as Murderbot – an indication of the conflicted, morally dubious, darkly humorous world that you’re about to plunged into. Murderbot makes for a wonderful host for this novel; deeply iffy about the humans its supposed to be protecting, uncomfortable with its place in life (not quite property, not quite sentient life), more interested in watching downloaded TV than talking to the human clients who need it, Murderbot is a wonderfully odd, unique creation. More importantly, thanks to Wells, Murderbot’s voice is fantastic – funny, idiosyncratic, and the perfect blend of antihero and hero.

All of which is good, because the actual story of All Systems Red is pretty generic. It’s not a bad story, mind you; it follows a team of planetary scientists who become slowly aware that the planet they’re on may be occupied by something hostile to them, and need Murderbot’s help in staying alive. That’s all fine, but there’s little here to write home about from a plot perspective. Things unfold at a nice clip, and there are enough developments and reveals to keep things moving. But there’s no real surprises, nothing too out of the ordinary – it’s a plot that serves as a framework for the novel, and not much more.

But that doesn’t really matter, because it’s clear that the plot is here to support Murderbot, and not the other way around. And given that Murderbot is such an engaging narrator – even before you get into the way the book carefully and cleverly engages with the line between sentient life and non-sentient life and how we would treat synthetic life forms manufactured by corporations – that justifies things here. All Systems Red is about introducing us to this world, and our conflicted, socially anxious, uncomfortable hero who just wants to be left alone and watch TV, and not deal with a bunch of humans who aren’t sure if it’s a computer or a human being – a question Murderbot isn’t entirely sure about either.

All Systems Red feels like a trial balloon for the rest of the series, and it’s solid enough that it’s sold me on the idea more Murderbot novels. I don’t know what to expect after this, but I had enough fun here to see what happens now that Wells has established a world and set up looser, more inventive adventures to come – and I’ll definitely be checking them out.


On Dracula 3D, Solo, and the Power of Expectations

argentodracAbout a week ago, I endured the roughly 18-hour ordeal that was Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D. (IMDb says the movie is less than two hours, but I can tell you, it feels infinitely longer than that.) Bringing almost nothing new whatsoever to the classic Dracula story, and telling it without any sort of visual style, inventiveness, humor, new angle, or any sort of compelling performances, Argento brings Dracula 3D to the screen as if he was dared that he couldn’t strip every bit of life and originality out of Stoker’s tale. (There is, admittedly, a single moment that’s unexpected in the movie, but is so gloriously badly executed and bizarre that it inspired not joy but absolute bewilderment and some sustained laughter in the theater. Three words: giant praying mantis.)

Now, the thing is, Dracula 3D isn’t the worst movie I’ve seen. It’s not even the worst one I’ve seen in recent memory – it doesn’t compare to a low-budget freak show movie called Side Sho that I saw a few weeks ago, which couldn’t even light its shots correctly. And yet, Dracula 3D undeniably feels like the worst movie I’ve seen in years, and inspired more vitriol and anger from me than any number of demonstrably worse low-budget slashers I’ve seen. But why is that? Why did I hate this movie so much more than low-budget trash without any redeeming qualities whatsoever?

It all comes down, I think, to expectations. Dracula 3D was helmed by the legendary Dario Argento, responsible for any number of essential horror films, not least of which is the original Suspiria. Now, admittedly, I’m not a die-hard Argento fan – it’s only recently that I even came around on Suspiria. Nevertheless, even the Argento movies I disliked always had style and color to spare. Sure, they’d make no sense and have mediocre performances, but I could never deny just how gorgeous his movies were. Say what you would about Argento, but his motto so often seemed to be “style above substance,” and I could enjoy that at least on one level.

And so, I think much of my anger and frustration with Dracula 3D – and much of my hatred – came from the fact that I went in expecting, at the very least, something to look at. What I got wasn’t just dull and overlong and uninteresting – it was framed without any sense of style or visual acuity whatsoever. Shots featured the blandest backgrounds possible, weren’t even framed well, used almost no color, and just generally felt as lazy and weak as possible – and Argento, whatever his faults, should be better than that. In other words, sure, Side Sho sucked, but it seemed like everyone was doing more or less their best. This, however? This was a phoned-in film by someone who couldn’t care less about his audience or anyone who paid for it, and who could undeniably do something better. In other words, my expectations – even mild ones, like “this is what makes a typical Argento film” – shaped how I felt about the finished product, and inspired my hatred and anger.

soloThe opposite, though, could also be true – that a lack of interest and an assumption of awfulness can so often work in a film’s favor. Take, for example, the new standalone Star Wars film, Solo. Here’s a film I had basically no interest in seeing – was there anything we really had to know about Han Solo that we didn’t already know from the film’s and Harrison Ford’s performance? Add to that the middling to weak reviews that confirmed my worst fears, the behind the scenes drama that ejected the interesting directorial duo Chris Lord and Phil Miller for the bland, generic Ron Howard, and my general irritation at fan-service, and here was a movie that I couldn’t care less about seeing.

And yet, I have a son who’s getting older and older, and who loves Star Wars films, and I’m not going to miss chances to do something together that means something to him. So, off we went to see Solo today, and to my surprise, I found myself enjoying the movie more than I had any expectation of doing.

Now, that’s not to say that Solo is a great film, or even more than “not too bad/pretty good.” It’s a film that’s far too indebted to fan-service and to franchise-building, and in spending so much time belaboring every connection to the past and bludgeoning home every signpost for the future, the film so often forgets to ever exist in the here and now. Worse still are the brief glimpses here and there of the lighter, sillier version of the movie Lord and Miller would have given us; while there can’t be much of their footage left in the final cut, there are moments here and there that feel funny, deft, and enjoyable in a way the rest of the movie rarely does.

For all of that, though, I ended up enjoying Solo far more than I thought I would, and I think that’s due in no small part to the fact that I went in expecting a tedious chore that would never really work for me. Yes, what I got is the dictionary definition of “inessential,” and it feels a bit weak at more than a few points (most notably with the pointless, glossed-over death of a major character). But as the film opened with a fun chase across a grimy Star Wars city, and then gave me a spectacular train heist, before leading to another great heist effort that ends up leading to cries for revolution, well, I couldn’t deny that I was having fun, because I didn’t expect those parts. So much of what I expected about Solo was the stuff that fell flat for me – the ridiculous explanations for things we never cared about (how Han got his blaster! how Han got his last name! what the deal with the Kessel Run was!), or the absurd markers that might as well have come with giant blinking subtitles reading “THIS IS FOR THE SEQUEL”.

And so, every time the film came to life and gave me what I wanted originally – a fun, lighthearted space romp without much debt to the rest of the Star Wars universe – well, I enjoyed it a lot more than I would have going in cold, because I was coming out ahead of what I assumed I was getting. Does it change the overall quality of the film? No more than my knowledge of Argento’s filmography changes the quality of Dracula 3DSolo is still pretty fun, but inessential and weighed down by its inability to stand on its own; Dracula is still bland, awful, and completely turgid, so much so that even a late-film appearance by Rutger Hauer can’t save the film.

But all of this goes to show how subjective a medium film really is, and how silly these reviews I write really are. I can’t tell you what you’ll think of a film, and the idea that there’s some “objective” scale of quality is silly. All I can do is tell you how I reacted, and that includes the way my expectations affected the viewing experience. And the more you have invested in a film, the more able it is to let you down; just the same, the lower your expectations, the more it might surprise you.

(Dracula 3D still sucked, though. No matter what you expect, it’s going to be bad. Except for that praying mantis scene, which rules, although I couldn’t tell you if it does so ironically or unironically.)

IMDb: Dracula 3D | Solo

Vacation Reads: Part 4 (The October Country / Jane Eyre / Re-Reads)

For the past couple of weeks, my wife and I have been on a vacation to Alaska – a cruise up there, followed by a week of driving around the interior. And while the vacation was great, that also meant that I did a lot of reading during all of that. In an effort to make all of those reviews a little less overwhelming, I’m going to do a series of shorter review digests, covering a handful of my vacation reads in each. This will be the last in the series, covering my last couple of reads and including some brief capsule reviews of some re-reads I did.

the-october-countryRay Bradbury’s The October Country is often held up as the closest Bradbury ever came to doing a horror anthology, and while not every story here is a dark one, there’s no shortage of nightmares here. There’s “Skeleton,” in which a man becomes horrifying aware of the bones within his body and becomes convinced that they’re trying to take over his life; there’s the surprisingly nasty ending of “The Man Upstairs,” in which a young boy becomes convinced that the lodger living upstairs in a vampire; and there’s “The Small Assassin,” about a possibly murderous infant, and a story that has one of the nastiest last lines in memory. In other words, there’s plenty of darkness here, and while Bradbury isn’t going to be mistaken for the full-fledged horror of a King or a Barker, there’s some wonderfully dark, Gothic material here.

But more than that, there’s the imagination and heart that Bradbury was so known for, and no story better unifies those ideas than the wonderful “Homecoming.” A favorite of Neil Gaiman’s (and the influence on Gaiman’s world is evident), “Homecoming” tells the story of a family of monsters – vampires, ghosts, and more – coming together for a family reunion, all told from the perspective of the one “normal” child in the family. It’s sweet, heartbreaking, and ends on an optimistic and heartfelt note that made me smile. Or take “The Emissary,” about a young boy, confined to his room because of sickness, who experiences the world entirely through his roaming dog and the visitors he brings home – a story that opens with wonder and heart, slowly turns to heartbreak, and then becomes terrifying. And that’s not all – once you add to the collection some stories that show off Bradbury’s rich sense of humor – the elderly woman who refuses to die in “There Was an Old Woman,” or the ridiculous satire of trend followers that is “The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse” – and you have a wonderful collection that reminds you what made Bradbury so special. Rating: **** ½

492864909As an English major, I’ve always felt a bit bad about the fact that I had never read Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. It didn’t help that I knew – or, at least, I thought I knew – most of the story already, having absorbed it through references, parodies, English classes, and other books (most notably Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, which is a must read for any literature fans out there).

Of course, I should have known better; stories, of course, are not about what they’re about, so much as they’re about how they go about it (to paraphrase the late, great Roger Ebert). And while I knew a lot of the basics of Jane Eyre‘s plot, what I didn’t know about was the book’s assured, confident narration throughout, turning Jane not into a passive participant in her own life, not into the socially conscious protagonist of a Jane Austen novel, but into someone unique and complex – a woman who demands to set up her own life and be beholden to no one, a woman not defined by her looks but by her mind, a woman who dedicates her life to others who are in need of help, without regard for what it does for her social standing. The argument that Jane Eyre is an early feminist work is an easy one to make, but that doesn’t make it any less valid; Jane is a complex, enjoyable, intelligent, witty, and kind-hearted character, but one who feels fiercely independent and well ahead of her time.

For all of that, I still struggled with Jane Eyre at times; it features that most romantic (the literary movement, not the emotion) of traits: bloat and verbosity. The book has a tendency to belabor things sometimes, with dialogue scenes particularly tending to go on for a bit. In general, there’s a sense that Jane Eyre could probably lose about 10% of its words and improve greatly, but that’s not the fault of Brontë, who was merely writing in the service of her times, and whose book suffers the same faults as some other iconic works. On the whole, though, Jane Eyre lives up to its reputation, feeling groundbreaking and interesting, and giving us a lead character for the ages – one that feels relevant and compelling even now, after so many years. Rating: **** ½

And finally, some brief thoughts on some re-reads I did over the vacation, each of which I’d give an easy five stars, for very different reasons:

  • As I mentioned in my review of The Woman in the Woods, John Connolly’s novella “The Fractured Atlas” (featured in his anthology Night Music) is worth re-reading before you pick up that book. But it’s also a novella worth reading for any fan of horror. Composed of five separate stories, all of which flow together in different ways, Connolly’s novella tracks the history of the titular occult manuscript back for hundreds of years – and the mysterious forces it unleashes around it. From shadowy figures to nightmarish creatures in drains, from faceless children to demonic soldiers, Connolly’s imagination has rarely been allowed to roam this freely, nor has it allowed itself to go this dark. Indeed, the fourth piece of the novella, entitled “The Wanderer in Unknown Realms,” is perhaps the most frightening thing Connolly ever wrote – and that’s not something you say lightly. I’m a Connolly fan anyways, but if you’ve ever been curious, you could do far worse than starting with this incredible piece of horror. Just don’t go in expecting something too light and fluffy.
  • J. Zachary Pike’s Orconomics is one of the best review copies of a novel I ever received – a book that wasn’t just “good by self-publishing standards,” or “better than I expected,” but honestly, truly, legitimately great. There’s no small amount of Terry Pratchett here, but Pike succeeds by using Pratchett not as a pure model, but as an inspiration. Yes, he crafts a fantasy world that closely mirrors our own in many ways; yes, he uses the plot of his novel to satirize elements of modern society (in this case, the inflationary bubble caused by investment capital, as well as RPG video game tropes – yes, he does both of those, and does them both ably). But Pike does it in a way all his own, interweaving humor with rich character depth, social commentary with fantasy action, delivering great comic prose that can shift to heartbreak when you least expect it. That Pike gets compared to Pratchett is no big deal; that he holds his own in that comparison, and delivers one of the richest, funniest, most satisfying pieces of fantasy I’ve read in years – well, that’s no small thing. (I’ll have more to say about Pike when I finish his long-awaited second book, Son of a Liche, within the next few days. Short version: it’s every bit as good, if not better, than Orconomics.)
  • What is there to say about Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that hasn’t been said before? It doesn’t matter that I’ve read this book a dozen times or more; it doesn’t matter that, between the book, the TV version, the film, the computer game, and especially the radio series, I could all but recite the story and most of the gags. Every time I open Adams’ pages, I find myself caught up in his weird, hysterically funny world, and I laugh anew as though I’ve never read it before. Even now that its familiarity has dulled its impact among fans, it’s easy to forget how revolutionary this book felt – and still feels, after so many years. Its imagination is incredible, its comedy is hilarious, its writing is sharp and trenchant, and its plotting surprisingly tight. There’s a reason it casts such a long shadow over the world of humor and science-fiction.
  • I think I’m supposed to hate J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye now – or, at least, I kind of expected to. Yes, I loved this book in high school, when I empathized so much with Holden Caulfield’s feelings of isolation, loneliness, anger at the world, and disdain for the hypocrisy of the people around him. But I expected to find him whiny and mopey as an adult…and instead, couldn’t help but have my heart break for him all over again. Maybe it’s the way that Salinger’s rambling, easy prose so accurately captures the tumult of emotions that comes with adolescence; maybe it’s the constant sway of emotions that nails the feelings that come with depression and anxiety (I say, from experience). Maybe it’s just the constant sense that the world is broken, and that the innocent need protecting, and that justice isn’t being served – a feeling that hits home all too well. But whatever the case, The Catcher in the Rye worked for me as an adult every bit as well as it did as it did in high school – maybe more so. It’s hard to think of another book that so accurately captures the feelings of adolescence and the pain of depression so universally, even though it’s inextricably linked to a place and time.

Amazon: The October Country | Jane Eyre | Night Music | Orconomics | The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy | The Catcher in the Rye

Vacation Reads: Part 1 (Space Opera / The Boy on the Bridge / Abbott)

For the past couple of weeks, my wife and I have been on a vacation to Alaska – a cruise up there, followed by a week of driving around the interior. And while the vacation was great, that also meant that I did a lot of reading during all of that. In an effort to make all of those reviews a little less overwhelming, I’m going to do a series of shorter review digests, covering a handful of my vacation reads in each.

51b-76sogglIt would be hard to talk about Catherynne M. Valente’s Space Opera without mentioning Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (a debt Valente acknowledges in her afterword). After all, both are science-fiction books that serve more as comedic works than something serious; both orbit around humanity suddenly discovering that they’re no longer the only life in the universe; both follow human representatives as they make their way into a very strange universe; and both even feature a wise guide to interactions that’s universally adopted and beloved. Both even have the same issues, in which the plot often feels like an afterthought tacked on to tie together the lunacy of the rest of it.

It’s to Valente’s credit, then, that Space Opera finds its own voice and emerges from Hitchhiker‘s shadow to become its own thing, even as Adams’ DNA is evident throughout. Inspired by Eurovision, of all things, Space Opera revolves around an intergalactic music competition in which new races are invited to compete to prove their own sentience. After all, if you can’t produce art, can you really be said to be sentient?

That’s a great hook for the novel, and it gives Space Opera some heft, allowing it to meditate upon the power of art, the way music is all about emotional connections and pain, and so much more. But in the end, Space Opera is a comedy, and it’s a genuinely funny one, one that’s often as funny for the way in which it talks as it is the elaborate gags being set up around it. (That being said, my favorite gag in the entire book is the slow realization of what persona the robotic race has adopted to communicate and aid the humans.) I had some issues with Valente’s writing – she has a tendency towards very long sentences, anchored by too many dependent clauses, that have a way of losing the reader – and her plotting is occasionally so loose as to be nonexistent. But there’s a lot of fun to be had here, and the fact that the books holds its own in the comparisons to Adams is praise enough. Rating: ****

41il3qwezjlI was a fan of M.R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts, but I wasn’t sure that what we needed was a prequel to that book. Did we really need a story about how we got to the zombie apocalypse that Gifts plunged us into? Luckily, The Boy on the Bridge turns out not to be the story of how we got there; instead, it’s the story of the first expedition that sets out into the wilderness – an expedition whose vehicle we stumble across during Gifts. In other words, yes, technically it’s a prequel to Gifts, but it’s more of a second story in that same universe, one that unfolded more or less parallel to the one we already knew.

In some ways, that holds back Bridge, as the characters slowly come to realizations that we’ve already made about the effects of the disease and how it’s transmitted. Thankfully, Carey avoids that sort of dramatic irony where he can, instead, letting the books play off of each other, with our knowledge supplementing the events of Bridge and deepening our understanding of why things are happening. That also allows Bridge to play out on its own terms, rising and falling not as a companion to Gifts, but on its own terms.

That can make Bridge frustrating, though, because of how much Carey seems to be mirroring Gifts and using it for structure. Once again have a divided group of survivors out in the wilderness; once again, we have an outcast within that group (this time, it’s an autistic young man instead of an infected girl); once again, we have a lead scientist who’s not trusted by the rest of the group; and once again, there’s the rift between science and the military. It all can seem a bit familiar, to be sure. Luckily, Carey makes the characters strong enough, and their interactions different enough, that Bridge feels like a companion, and not a rehashing, of Gifts. In other words, it’s a way of exploring some of the same big themes – knowledge versus morality, compassion versus fear, community versus isolation – in a different story. And if it doesn’t quite give you the perfect ending of Gifts, there’s still a satisfying conclusion here, one that recontextualizes what we know from the first novel and gives us something more. I prefer the first novel, but fans of Gifts will find much to enjoy here, and a generally satisfying read – just one that you may want to read with some distance from its predecessor. Rating: ****

unnamed-22I’ve raved about Saladin Ahmed’s writing – especially his magnificent swashbuckling fantasy novel Throne of the Crescent Moon – enough over the years that it should be no surprise that I made a decision to follow him wherever he went. And while I’m a bit disappointed that he seems to have paused his career as a novelist for now, the fact that Ahmed is writing comics hasn’t hindered his abilities one bit, at least not based on the evidence given by Abbott, a limited series story written by Ahmed and illustrated by Sami Kivelä. Set in 1970’s Detroit, Abbott follows its titular character, reporter Elena Abbott, as she investigates a series of strange killings that finds her dipping into a supernatural mystery involving dark forces, mystical hippies, occult rituals, and much more.

Ahmed has pushed himself out of his comfort zone to create a protagonist utterly unlike himself – an African-American bisexual woman – but shows how to do it right, making Abbott not a symbol or an archetype but her own unique, idiosyncratic person first, one shaped by all of those things but not pigeonholed by them. Abbott is a great protagonist – funny, outspoken, intelligent, dangerous, and fiercely independent, and I’d be lying if I didn’t finish this five-issue run disappointed that this was all I had of this character – I’d read her for years, easily. (Ahmed has hinted on Twitter that he’s not done with the character, and I hope that’s true.)

But equally part of this series is the way it uses its setting and characters to flesh out its story – the choice to make this a 1970’s story is no errant, thoughtless choice. It allows Ahmed to interweave relevant issues of the time – racism, police brutality, class warfare, the control of the media by the wealthy – into his story effortlessly, making Abbott not just the story of this mysterious case, but about this moment in America’s history. (Any resemblance to current day America are, of course, coincidental, and not depressing proof of how little we’ve changed, despite our pride in how “evolved” we are on these issues.)

And did I mention that it’s also a great story of occult powers, demonic entities, and supernatural conflict? If there’s a knock on Abbott, it’s that I wish it was basically one issue longer than it is; there are aspects of Abbott’s role in all of this that feel rushed and underexplained, and that goes doubly when it comes to the final conflict, which feels a little underdeveloped (even though the artwork, paneling, and pacing give it an incredibly satisfying and riveting feel that I can’t forget). But none of that should hold you back from reading Abbott – it’s an absolute treat from a writer who I’m glad to have back in my “to be read” stack, no matter what his current medium. Rating: **** ½

Amazon: Space Opera | The Boy on the Bridge | Abbott

The Quantum Thief, by Hannu Rajaniemi / **** ½

51oayprxp2blWhen I first learned about The Quantum Thief (courtesy of’s amazing free monthly ebook newsletter), it couldn’t have spoken to me more directly if it tried. A science-fiction gentleman thief heist novel? And one whose main character’s name is an allusion to a classic French noir? YES PLEASE.

But what I got was something very different than I expected. That’s not to say that what I got was bad, mind you; indeed, The Quantum Thief’s richness, complex world, and great plot absolutely engaged me, giving me so much more depth and complexity than I planned on. But while I expected the light, breezy fun of something like a Scott Lynch book, what I got was something far more challenging and complex.

Many reviewers have commented on author Hannu Rajaniemi’s approach of throwing the reader and expecting them to swim, and it’s a true observation. Rajaniemi throws a lot at the reader with a minimum of exposition, and given how dense some of the concepts he’s taking on are – a post-human society, a game theory-based prison system, a city where every interaction is governed by cryptographic programming – that’s a big gamble. Indeed, I ended up making my through the first several chapters of the book and then deciding to start over, now that I was beginning to understand some of Rajaniemi’s ideas – and I found that the book flowed much better now that I was learning how to comprehend what I was seeing.

That can be a high bar for many readers, so the question is, is the final product worth it? For me, the answer is a firm and enthusiastic “yes”. The Quantum Thief may take on a lot, but it does so with style and fun, never forgetting that, at its core, it’s the story of a gentleman thief who’s competing against his past self to recover the memories that he hid away years ago. That all of this stretches to incorporate masked police forces, gamer clans, sentient ships, shifting realities, and so much more – well, that’s just part of the richness that makes the book so engaging. In other words, Rajaniemi isn’t being dense just to show off; he takes all of these ideas and runs with them, turning them into not just world-building, but wrapping up his plotting in them and using it all to explore fascinating and interesting ideas.

Yes, The Quantum Thief is challenging, and it’s going to push you a bit to stay caught up. No, it doesn’t hold your hand, and it’s throwing a lot at you. But the result is all the more rewarding and engaging for that, immersing you in this world without the distraction of an audience surrogate, and delivering a layered, complex story that absolutely tears along. There were definitely a few points that got a bit challenging (and at least one big reveal that I stayed confused about until doing some reading afterward), but on the whole, I really enjoyed and admired this one a lot. And maybe the best indicator of my feelings? I’ll definitely be moving on to book two quite soon.


Ubik, by Philip K. Dick / *****

ea56b8dbc195160aedc8b1d009e2a1fdIt’s hard to write about Philip K. Dick in general – what new can be said about a writer who was so influential and who’s inspired so much writing? And that goes doubly for Ubik, one of Dick’s most acclaimed novels. And yet, here I am, trying to describe one of the best novels written by one of the most fascinating and interesting science-fiction writers who ever lived.

Those of us who love Philip K. Dick usually concede that it’s not the craft and the prose that draws us to his work; it’s the complicated, mind-blowing plotting (usually more evident in his short stories) or the rich, thoughtful philosophical musings (a staple of his novels). Ubik is the best of both worlds, though – a head-scratching, dizzying display of plot twists, confusion, and surreal touches that all come together perfectly, all while anchoring itself in musings about the afterlife, causation, time travel, and the nature of consciousness.

Trying to describe the plotting of Ubik is a fool’s errand, but more than that, it would remove the pleasure of unraveling the book’s mysteries for yourself. Suffice to say that the book gives us a future in which company’s provide anti-psychic services in an effort to protect corporate secrets, which has led to what amounts to underground warfare between the psychics and those trying to thwart them. Into this comes a whole new talent that could change the game – but first, a most unusual contract comes across the desk of the leading anti-psychic agency, one that’s going to make the next few days exceedingly strange.

If that sounds vague, well, good – as I said, much of the pleasure of Ubik comes from unraveling all of its disparate pieces and seeing how Dick toys with his audience. But more importantly, for all of its rich plotting, Ubik is packed with fascinating world details, from a society where everything is automated and linked to your credit report to mortuaries where people are kept in a half-life state so you can speak with them for years after their death. And it’s those aspects that make the book so fascinating, as Dick plays with our ideas of the afterlife (here, he’s drawing in no small way on Tibetan beliefs) and how it will play out, but also our own self-awareness. Few authors were as fascinated by the malleable nature of reality as Dick was, and Ubik brings that in spades, as characters unravel, fall apart, and see the world devolving in front of them. The very question of “what is real?” becomes central not only to the plot, but to the lives of our heroes, as they attempt to figure out any sort of purpose or meaning to their existence.

There are better written Dick books out there (A Scanner Darkly); there are richer novels (Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said is my favorite); but few marry Dick’s playful side with his thoughtful as well as Ubik does. In many ways, it’s the platonic ideal of a Philip K. Dick novel, and maybe an ideal gateway into his work for those who’ve never experienced it. More than that, it’s just a blast of a read, with enough substance to satisfy those wanting a bit more than pure pulp.


Dustrunner, by Dean F. Wilson / **** ½

36592503I’ve been reviewing Dean F. Wilson’s books for a while now – Dean provides them for me to read, and I’m more than happy to accept, because at this point, I’ve come to trust that I’m going to get a great read out of him – engaging and exciting action, solid character work, and great storytelling. That started with The Great Iron War series, continued for me with his high fantasy trilogy The Children of Telm, but for my money, Wilson’s current series, Coilhunter Chronicles, has been his most satisfying, enjoyable, and just plain great series to date.

Essentially a steampunk Western about a bounty hunter (the titular Coilhunter, whose given name is Nox) tracking down criminals, the Coilhunter Chronicles works because it’s all story. Wilson builds rich worlds, and his density of history in them – prophecies and ancient feuds in The Children of Telm, war and grudges in The Great Iron War – can sometimes get overwhelming, forcing the characters to figure out their own place in the world before they can even act. But by creating a character who knows himself so deeply, and who’s opted out of “civilized” society, Wilson has allowed himself to do pure storytelling. From hunting down killers to forays into cybernetic battlefields, this series feels like pure Western pulp with sci-fi trappings, and I’m eating it up.

What’s more, as Wilson gets further into the series, it only gets better. Dustrunner, the third entry in the series, has a simple hook: a village has been slaughtered, and the Coilhunter has been framed. What results from there is all-out war, as every bounty hunter in the Wild North comes after him in the hopes of collecting one of the biggest bounties of all time – well, that and the chance to settle a lot of old scores. And if that’s not enough, the tribes are also uniting against the man who seems to have slaughtered some of their own so coldly and brutally.

Simple hook, sure, but what it leads to is pure action, as Nox fights his way against incredible odds, does his best to investigate the case while keeping himself alive, and struggles to convince even a few people that this is a case of mistaken identity. There’s a slight sense of confusion when we get to the ending – without getting into spoilers, this is less a case where we’re re-meeting some old nemesis of Nox’s, and more that Wilson has created some new character we’ve never heard of to be the Big Bad. But that doesn’t really end up mattering that much; what matters is whether the story works, and does it ever. The action, as always, is crackling, full of devices, feints, gunfights, and clear writing that brings everything to instantly comprehensible and exciting life. And, as ever with this series, there’s Wilson’s great drawling dialect and prose, bringing his landscape to life every bit as well as his characterization.

Dustrunner is the best book of the three Coilhunter books to date, and when you consider that every single entry in this story has been great, that’s no small thing. Jump in here or in any of them – it doesn’t matter. Jump in and have fun with it – I certainly did, and I’ll be glad to do it again when book #4 comes out.