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.

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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 3 (The Big Book of Hap and Leonard / City of Thieves / The Stone Sky)

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.


51jtwhbpfllI’ve been advocating that people read Joe R. Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard series for a long time, so it’s nice that The Big Book of Hap and Leonard has come out to give me a simple way to let people try the series on for size. A compilation of two earlier collections – entitled, respectively, Hap and Leonard and Hap and Leonard Ride Again – the collection contains two full novellas (Dead Aim and Hyenas), a half dozen short stories, a comic book script based off of one of the stories, an “interview” between Lansdale and his two creations, and an essay by Lansdale explaining the origins of some of the books and the characters. That’s a ton of great material, but honestly, even if all The Big Book of Hap and Leonard contained was the two novellas, it would still be a must buy. The fact that there’s so many other pieces, and so much demonstration of Lansdale’s versatility – a couple of variations on locked-room mysteries, a heartbreaking tale of adolescent cruelty, a brief vignette about the passing of time, and more – is only icing on the cake.

There’s no one who writes like Lansdale out there – no one who can match that rapid-fire Texas banter between Hap and Leonard, no one who can move so effortlessly between light comedy and horrifying violence, between human cruelty and earnest kindness. Maybe that’s what keeps me reading the Hap and Leonard series; yes, they’re incredibly well-written; yes, they’re frequently hilarious, and they make me laugh out loud so often; yes, I love these characters. But more than anything else, there’s a heart to Hap and Leonard that’s undeniable. These are mysteries, but they’re mysteries that refuse to flinch from the unspeakable things that humans do to each other, and the reasons we do them – and that’s no small thing. That Hap and Leonard both do what they do partially because they refuse to not fight the good fight…well, there’s something I love about that, and about Lansdale’s refusal to let racism and hatred win the day. Rating: *****


1971304Long before he became famous for helming a small, independent TV production named Game of Thrones, I knew David Benioff’s name as an author. His first novel, The 25th Hour, quietly floored me when I read it (prior to its superb film adaptation by Spike Lee). And yet, for whatever reason, I never got around to reading Benioff’s second novel, City of Thieves, until recently. And having read it…well, I’m not sure it was worth the wait.

Set during the siege of Leningrad, City of Thieves tells the story of Lev, a young Russian Jew who’s stayed in the city to prove that he’s a man and to defend his hometown. After he gets arrested for breaking curfew, though, he and a fellow prisoner get sent on a fool’s errand: find a dozen eggs for a powerful general, who needs them for his daughter’s wedding.

So far, so good. There’s a lot to love about Benioff’s setup for the novel, which allows him to engage in some dark commentary about war, human nature, survival, and so much more. (The ending to the egg saga is a cruel twist of the knife that, in many ways, is the best moment of the book.) And there’s little denying that Benioff’s sense of time and place are carefully and beautifully constructed. There’s an incredible sense of cold that permeates City of Thieves, a sense of starvation and desperation that’s impossible to ignore. This is a land under siege, but it’s also a Russian land, with all the stoicism and dark humor that comes with the territory.

And yet, for all of that, City of Thieves left me cold so often. Maybe it was the overly contrived, screenwriter-y tics of Lev’s companion Kolya, who so often felt less like a person and more like an author’s construction of quips, sexual commentary, and literary theory. (The ongoing plot thread about Kolya’s favorite Russian writer is a prime example of this, turning into something that felt like a movie’s shorthand for getting into the head of a character, rather than a real thing someone would do.) Then there’s some of the plot mechanics along the way, most notably a game of chess that couldn’t be more foreshadowed and set up without neon lights and arrows involved, and once again feels less like a genuine moment and more like an absurd screenplay idea.

I didn’t hate City of Thieves; the mood and setting of the book are absolutely phenomenal, and there’s no shortage of small little moments along the way that are almost perfect in their simplicity (again, that final moment in the ongoing story will stick with me for a long time, as will the general’s last lines in the novel). But the more Benioff constructs his plot and story, the more obvious the seams are, turning the book into something that betrays its best moments in favor of big, silly, bludgeoning obviousness. Rating: ***


31817749Fantasy series are notoriously hard to end. How do you do justice to whatever big, world-changing events you’ve been setting up, but also provide some sort of closure for your main characters? In other words, how do you balance the macro and the micro – a problem anywhere in fantasy, but one that goes double in the ending? And that was something I was even more worried about when it came to The Stone Sky, the final volume in N.K. Jemisen’s incredible Broken Earth trilogy. Could Jemisen stick the landing on one of the best fantasy series I’ve read in years, if not ever?

Did she ever.

Part of what’s made The Broken Earth such an effective series is the way it’s never lost sight of the personal stakes in all of its saga. Yes, this is a story about a civilization wracked by terrible devastation – devastation that comes along regularly and horribly. Yes, it’s a story of magic users – orogenes, in the parlance of the series – who can control the tremors of the planet, but can also wield that same magic as the most devastating weapon imaginable. And, yes, as becomes clearer and clearer during The Stone Sky, it’s the story of how all of this happened – how humanity may have doomed itself.

But for all of that – and make no mistake, Jemisen’s overarching story is incredible – it’s also always been the story of a mother who is worried about her daughter. It’s the story of a social class that has been rejected for centuries, and who are starting to realize that there is no future for them unless they stand up and demand to be treated as human beings. It’s the story of a young girl who’s realizing the flaws in her parents, and her desire to fix all of the pain and suffering that she and others like her have suffered. It’s the story of how we must sacrifice ourselves for the future, and more intimately, how parents must give and give until there’s nothing left if they want to leave behind a future for their children.

In other words, Jemisen mixes the macro and the micro seamlessly, allowing the two to comment on each other and reflect back and forth, linking the fate of the planet to the fate of this mother and daughter, each of whom is on their own path to wisdom and cataclysmic choices. But it’s also a story about the communities they have built along the way, and the way our friendships can shape us and define us and change us – often for the better – and how trying to survive the world alone is so often a fool’s errand.

All of this sounds vague, I know. But the fact is, for all of the rich lore and the world-building and the twists and the science-fiction that sneaks in and the fantastical elements, what made me love The Stone Sky was that it had all of those elements, and still chose to focus on its characters first and foremost. And by the time The Stone Sky ends, every one of the million small choices Jemisen has made along the way become clearer and clearer, working towards the messages and themes of the books. Even the often-questioned decision to write in second-person, whose purpose started to become clear in the second novel, becomes crystal clear by the end of book three, leading to an unexpected emotional wallop.

That the series can do all of that while also telling a story of the fate of the planet, a war against nature itself, generations of conflict, science-fiction plot threads, and the nature of magic – my cup runneth over. I loved this book, loved this series, and am excited that there’s more Jemisen waiting for me to jump into. Rating: *****


Amazon: The Big Book of Hap and Leonard | City of Thieves | The Stone Sky

Algorithm, by Arthur Dowekyo / **

51fhcmloe1l-_sx331_bo1204203200_Ideas can only get a book so far. Which can be frustrating, but it’s the truth; no matter how engaging and interesting the ideas of a novel are, ultimately, as Roger Ebert said (and I quote so often), stories aren’t about what they’re about; they’re about how they go about it. And it’s that quote that explains why I was so put off by Arthur M. Doweyko’s Algorithm, despite some interesting ideas at play and a couple of genuinely neat concepts.

It’s not just the frequent grammatical errors and typos that put me off – although, I’ll be honest and say that having three of them within the first two pages doesn’t fill me with confidence about the book I’m about to read. No, it’s the haphazard nature of the plotting. When you have such a neat hook – which revolves around a gold medallion uncovered in a lump of coal, buried for thousands of years, which leads to a young man making connections not only with an alien race, but possibly with the origins of human life itself – sometimes, you need to realize that you have enough. That goes doubly when you’re as ambitious as Algorithm is, mixing discussions about the purpose of DNA, evolution of humankind, alien life, and so much more into an adventure story.

Instead, Algorithm throws in literal Nazis, cackling about world domination in the most cartoonish and ridiculous way imaginable. And a shape shifting religious alien zealot (maybe?) who comes and goes as the plot needs him to, and otherwise conveniently stays offstage. And shoehorned in exposition. And badly written dialect that grates. And a female character who’s constantly described in terms of her looks and whose whole purpose to provide “tension” and “banter” with our hero. And all of that is just in the book’s (admittedly lesser) first half, before the second half throws all of that out and gets more complicated and somehow sillier still, with continued reliance on some one-dimensional characters and overly contrived plotting that obscures the interesting ideas Doweyko is wanting to explore and play with.

There’s a great book buried somewhere in Algorithm, and I mean that honestly. I really liked the shape of what Doweyko was going for, and the revelation of what the medallions were used for was genuinely surprising (if a bit nonsensical, if you try to think about it). But in the end, to get through that, I had to get through some flat characters, a lot of grammatical issues, inconsistent actions, convenient plotting, and so many other problems that I can’t recommend this book. The ideas are great, but sometimes, that’s just not enough.

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

51oayprxp2blWhen I first learned about The Quantum Thief (courtesy of Tor.com’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.

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The Obelisk Gate, by N.K. Jemisen / *****

26228034I was a huge fan of N.K. Jemisen’s The Fifth Season, the first volume in her “Broken Earth” trilogy, in which she created a lush, compelling, diverse, nuanced fantasy world – and then ripped it apart, kicking off her book with an apocalyptic event that sends her characters into survival mode. More than that, though, there was the way that Jemisen used her unusual structure – interweaving three stories with different narrators and time periods – into one cohesive whole, building not only a lush world but also engaging in rich characterization.

The Obelisk Gate, the second volume in the trilogy, picks up almost immediately after the end of The Fifth Season – in one way, anyways. About half of the book follows Essun, the woman we met in The Fifth Season chasing after her husband – the man who murdered her son and kidnapped her daughter. By the time we ended The Fifth Season, we understood Essun to be so much more than she appeared – a powerful orogene (this series’ version of magic users, whose abilities to control the energies of the earth are both this world’s salvation and its biggest threat), a survivor of unimaginable trauma and grief, and a fiercely independent woman who has weathered the world’s attempts to wear her down. That serves her well in The Obelisk Gate, as Jemisen steers the book into territory it touched on in the first novel – the question of whether orogenes, with their supernatural abilities, can even be counted as human – and explores that in complicated terms, questioning what humankind’s relationship is to the earth, and to the other creatures that live there as well. More than anything else, Jemisen asks this question: would the earth be better off without humankind? And what did we do that could cause something like these horrific Seasons?

That’s half of the book. Once again, though, Jemisen interweaves through those chapters a second story – that of Essun’s daughter, on the run with her murderous father. This is an unexpected choice, but a richly rewarding one, one that allows Jemisen to look at how we pass down intolerance or strength to our children, how children learn to define themselves as separate from their parents, and what it means to come to terms with your heritage. More than that, there’s the way that Jemisen is echoing the stories of these two women off of each other, doing a constant compare/contrast that’s equal parts great plotting and rich characterization.

In short, then, The Obelisk Gate is every bit as good as The Fifth Season and then some. Once again, Jemisen’s worldbuilding is unreal, but more importantly, so is her characterization, which gives every character nuance, depth, backstory, and a richness that’s impossible to ignore. There are no easy villains here, no pure heroes, and Jemisen forces us to make tough choices constantly. More than that, though, there’s the way that Jemisen uses modern issues – intolerance, racism, xenophobia – in quiet ways to structure her conflicts, creating obvious parallels with modern society that never turn the fantasy into pure allegory. Instead, Jemisen manages the remarkable feat of creating an incredibly human fantasy novel – one that uses its fantastical elements not as an end unto themselves, but as a way of exploring her characters and their relationships with the world (to say nothing of questions about power, authority, society, and more). I can’t wait to read The Stone Sky and see how this story ends, but more than that, I’m just glad that there’s a lot more Jemisen out there to read.

Amazon

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.

Amazon