Pump Six and Other Stories, by Paolo Bacigalupi / *****

pumpsixandotherstories-paolobacigalupiOne of my favorite little things about picking up a science fiction short story collection by an author I’ve never read is figuring out what kind of sci-fi I’m getting into. Is this going to be the hard, science-focused work of an Arthur C. Clarke or Robert Charles Wilson? The softer, more adventurous style of something like Star Wars or Dean Wilson’s Coilhunter? The darker, slightly satirical cyberpunk worlds of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson? Am I getting steampunk or post-apocalyptic, philosophical or scientific, satirical or exciting? Or, best of all, will I get some weird blend of all of them?

In many ways, that last one is what I got with Pump Six and Other Stories, my first exposure to the work of author Paolo Bacigalupi. There’s no small amount of cyberpunk to this world; in most of these stories, there’s a sense of a world ruled by corporations and technology, one in which the world and society have changed as a result of the two blending together. From the living organic skyscrapers of ”Pocketful of Dharma” to the bioengineered crops of “The Calorie Man,” from the genetic supermen of “The People of Sand and Slag” to the human art projects represented by the title of “The Fluted Girls,” Bacigalupi is fascinated by the directions that technology is taking us, and where it could go if it’s unchecked by humanity or morality.

And really, that’s more where Bacigalupi’s voice comes through. For all of his fantastical (and often nightmarish) visions, Pump Six is ultimately a series of stories about situations in which humans have allowed their morals to be subjugated by the world around them – a theme that makes for a bleak set of stories indeed. Clans grapple with legacies of violence and xenophobia, and a priest is forced to think about what must be done to end it. A man murders his wife and finds that the world moves on just as merrily as it did before. The last thinking man in a city realizes that the world around him has no interest in knowledge, work, or survival, and no one minds. People are treated like commodities, societies are left to starve in the name of corporate profit, genetic engineering makes monsters in the name of progress – but whatever the situation, the world seems to move on without a single worry.

That all makes Pump Six sound like a more overwhelming and crushing experience than it really is. No, this isn’t exactly a collection of rainbows and kittens, but focusing on the bleak themes doesn’t do justice to the sheer life and imagination on display in these stories. Within a narrow window of pages, Bacigalupi doesn’t just manage to tell a story; he creates complex ecosystems, full societies and worlds with their own history and sense of progress. And his characters get no less care, with Bacigalupi bringing them all to life with the careful sketching and outlining of an artist. Look no further than the tragic life of “The Yellow Card Man,” a man struggling to survive a world that he was once on top of, and constantly battling against the indignities and cruelties that fate has dropped on him. What could easily be a portrait of simple misery becomes more compelling and tragic in his hands, becoming as much a story about how this all happened as it this man’s life.

No, you’ll never mistake Bacigalupi for an optimist. But you’ll also realize within a page that you’re in the hands of a master, a man with ambitious, fascinating visions not just about technology, but about people and their relationships with the world around them. More than that, he brings sharp craft, careful prose, and great storytelling to bear. It all makes for a phenomenal collection, and one well worth reading. Just don’t expect a happy ride in the process.


The Changeling, by Victor LaValle / *****

9780812995947One of the things I most love about Victor LaValle’s work – and there’s a lot there to love – is the way he so ably mixes complex, relevant themes with original, strange tales on genre fiction, allowing the two to play off of each other. From the racial explorations and secret societies to Big Machine to the class and mental explorations of The Devil in Silver, LaValle grapples with difficult, important questions, all while crafting narratives that subvert your expectations and embrace their genre roots wholeheartedly. LaValle’s most recent – and most celebrated – work, The Ballad of Black Tom, did both of these things, telling a Lovecraftian horror story that also served as a critique of Lovecraft’s toxic racism.

All of which to say, it’s not a surprise that The Changeling has more on its mind than simply a crackling good genre tale, though it’s undeniably that. Nor is it surprising that the novel speaks to concerns of race, of ethnicity, of class, and even of toxic masculinity. What is surprising, though – and part of what makes The Changeling so excellent – is that LaValle’s focus is on something as intimate, heartfelt, and earnest as fatherhood. Yes, LaValle is still fascinated by bigger social issues – there’s a huge way in which the book is about fatherhood in the face of gender expectations of our modern world – but at its core, this is about something universal and fundamentally human.

It’s also, of course, a fantastic piece of genre fiction, one that starts simply enough – with the meeting of a boy and a girl – before slowly turning into something far darker and stranger. It’s the story of a rare book dealer named Apollo, his librarian wife, Emma, and their first child. It’s a wondrous moment in any parents’ life, but as Apollo basks and glows with pride, Emma starts to feel less and less comfortable and more frightened – and then things take a horrific, nightmarish turn.

What follows is a strange, unsettling journey into something that lays beneath the polished veneer of modern parenthood – into fears and anxieties, into toxic relationships and vicious misogyny, and even into old legends and fairy tales. And if you know the significance of the title, some of it won’t be a surprise, but much still will…but what ultimately results is almost a dark, primal fairy tale, one in which archetypes battle and morals are unclear, where lessons are taught and the cruelty of the world is laid bare. That it somehow manages to be a fairy tale and simultaneously an intensely contemporary story is only further testament to LaValle’s skill and ability to mix genre.

Just as he did in Big Machine and The Ballad of Black Tom, LaValle effortlessly swings between grounded, realistic fiction and strange, inexplicable horror, horror that’s all the more effective for how abrupt his shifts are. Because, yes, The Changeling is a fairy tale about parenting, but it’s also a horror story, both about the evil that humans do and about something darker and more primal – and it’s quite possible that the human evil is far, far worse, especially as LaValle carefully positions it into our modern world (when one vile character starts spouting off about “beta males” and “cucks” late in the book, it feels horribly inevitable).

But what makes The Changeling work is that more than any of those things, it’s the story of a man who loves his son and would do anything for his family. And that lets the book hold up all of the social commentary, all of the thoughtful points, all of the allegories, because more than any of that, it works as a story of a man driven by love – a character we care about, and whose trials and challenges resonate with anyone who’s ever feared for their child.


Recent Read Round-Up

What with one thing and another lately (mainly it being the end of the school year, which results in a hectic time for me), I realized today I’ve been letting some of my recent reads pile up without having been reviewed. So, today, let me go over four books I’ve read in the past week or so – three copies provided for review, and one for class purposes.

thehalloweenchildren-ebook-largeThe Halloween Children, a collaboration between Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss due out in June, boasts a pretty great structure, and for about 90% of its length, that structure and the unfolding dread of the book will keep you hooked. It’s the story of what happened one Halloween at a suburban apartment complex, with the tale told by two different narrators: a husband and wife duo, writing at two different times. The husband seems to be writing after all of this happened; meanwhile, the wife’s narration is as everything unfolds, in the form of monologues to a marriage counselor. To say the marriage is dysfunctional would be an understatement; there are power games between the two of them, distrust, and favorites between the children (split along gender lines). But through it all, Freeman and Prentiss keep the tension raising, leaving us wondering how these parents are unable to see how wrong and strange things are getting with their children – and in the complex as a whole. And all of it is intriguing and weird, playing like a horror variation on Gone Girl, where we’re not sure which, if either, of our narrators is reliable – that is, until the ending, when everything comes apart. Without getting into spoilers, The Halloween Children ends up throwing both of our narrators under the bus, leaving us unsure whether much of anything happened, before bluntly spelling out a ham-fisted moral and lecturing the reader. It’s a fizzle of an ending, which is a shame, because it’s an engaging, fast read up until that point. Rating: ***

Dean F. Wilson has become a reliable presence in my review book rotation, and a welcome one; over the past couple of years, I devoured his Great Iron War, finding myself swept up in the rich world that he created. 17399863So when Wilson offered me a chance to check out his fantasy series, it wasn’t much of a choice for me – I knew I was on board. Nonetheless, I think I was surprised and deeply impressed by The Call of Agon, which is the first entry in Wilson’s Children of Telm trilogy. This is high fantasy in a Tolkien vein, make no mistake about it; there are epic poems, old legends, numerous races, and dialogue – and narration – that can feel stilted, even archaic, until you get into the rhythms. And yet, once again, Wilson mixes well his world-building and his character work, populating an astonishingly complex and rich fantasy world with interesting characters who veer from their archetypal nature slowly but inexorably. The Call of Agon can feel slow and dense at times, and I can’t say that there weren’t a couple of times that I felt a little overwhelmed with the world-building, the history, and some of the speechifying going on with some of the characters. And yet, the story hooked me in, giving me interesting, flawed characters that I found intriguing, and letting its fantastical epic play out in unexpected, interesting ways that broke from convention appealingly. The Call of Agon may be almost too high fantasy for its own good, but none of that detracts from the incredible world-building, the great character work, and the compelling story that draws you in. And once again, Dean F. Wilson has hooked me in. Rating: ****

Sometimes, a gamble on a review copy pays off. Such is the case with Ray Else’s cover109911-mediumOur Only Chance: An A.I. Chronicle, a book whose description intrigued me enough to check it out. It’s the story of the first true A.I., an entity named Einna. Programmed by a brilliant young woman named Manaka, Einna is a technological breakthrough, but her creation raises any number of questions, ranging from the practical (is there a difference in Einnas if we duplicate the program?) to the metaphysical (does Einna have a soul?). Else’s novel navigates these questions ably and adroitly, tying them into the plot, which involves not only Einna’s evolution as a thinking creation, but the shady Yakuza ties that give the business the money it needed to get started. When I requested Our Only Chance, that Yakuza element made me think that I was getting something more cyberpunk than I got; nonetheless, Our Only Chance won me over surprisingly quickly, letting its story develop and raising fascinating questions without ever becoming preachy or didactic. Instead, Else follows Einna’s quest for self-actualization and lets it dictate the novel’s ideas and thoughts, letting the questions feel organic but no less thoughtfully approached. Indeed, that Yakuza element ends up being the one distracting element of the book, turning the ending into something a little more disappointing than it otherwise would be (without getting into spoiler territory, it turns the book’s final philosophical question into a moral one; moreover, it weighs the scales so heavily that it becomes not even a debate). Still, it’s rich fare, and if it feels like it could use a little more fleshing out, well, that’s to the book’s credit – not enough books leave you feeling like there’s more to say. Rating: ****

Finally, thanks to my recent class curriculum, I’ve been covering Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and it led me to be curious about Huxley’s follow-up, Brave New World Revisited (available for free at huxley.net). 81ldr2bwow7lA series of essays written over 25 years after the initial publication of Brave New WorldRevisited finds Huxley looking at his novel and assessing how accurate he was. His basic thesis? If anything, Brave New World was optimistic in thinking it would take us a few hundred years to get to that point; to the Huxley of Revisited, we’ll be there within decades. Revisited isn’t a novel, and it isn’t interested in being easily accessible; this is political theory, biological discussion, historical analysis, and more, all filtered through Huxley’s unique perspective. Revisited finds Huxley comparing his novel to Orwell’s 1984, discussing how Hitler and Stalin both change – and fail to change – some of his original ideas, noting the growth in advertising and television jingles, and just generally realizing that time has only made Brave New World more and more relevant. Sadly, the same applies to a modern reader, who will find some pain in Huxley’s comments about the perils of democracy being open to manipulation by sound bites and emotional bias, the willingness of people to be distracted by fleeting entertainments while real problems go unaddressed, and the unease of a society to ever be questioned. Yes, some of Huxley’s issues are out of date – he remains preoccupied with subliminal and hypnopaedic teachings, neither of which ever proved successful or worth continuing. But that goes for surprisingly little of this book, which instead draws out much of what makes Brave New World so uncomfortably relevant, allows Huxley’s brilliant and odd mind to shine through, and leaves you uncomfortable and disquieted about the state of the world. A compelling, powerful companion piece to a depressingly relevant novel. Rating: *****

Amazon: The Halloween ChildrenThe Call of AgonOur Only Chance | Brave New World Revisited

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley / *****

bravenewworld_firsteditionIt’s been maybe 15-20 years since I first read Brave New World, Aldous Huxley’s iconic dystopian novel about a society engineered from birth for stability and calm. At the time I read it, I was a bit disappointed; while the world Huxley created was interesting, I couldn’t help but hold the novel up against Orwell’s 1984 and find it lacking. Mind you, some of that had to be Orwell’s themes of language and words – catnip for an English major – but even so, I largely dismissed Brave New World as a lesser, less interesting book, and moved on.

Coming back to it all this time later (and putting it more in its proper chronology, as a work that could not have helped but to influence Orwell), there’s no denying that I underrated Brave New World in many ways, even if I still don’t love it the way many do. Like many dystopian novels, the central premise of the novel – the astonishing society that Huxley has created – can’t help but overshadow the middling plot, which feels a bit haphazard at times, and undeniably becomes didactic and preachy at others. (Before you say it: re-reading 1984 last year reminded me that Orwell has his own issues with plot and preachiness, to be sure. So I’m well aware of the issues.)

But for all of that, none of it really keeps Brave New World from feeling astonishingly ahead of its time – vivid, modern, and frighteningly relevant in so many ways. From the mass-produced entertainments to a tiered society engineered from birth to keep people in their proper place, from a medicated calm to a need to consume every new product, Brave New World doesn’t just feel relevant; it feels prophetic, hitting hard in ways that I didn’t remember or appreciate on that first read. Much of that, of course, comes to the ways that Huxley spends so many early chapters immersing us in his strange world: touring the birth centers, hearing the methods used to build castes, eavesdropping in on the sleep teachings – all of it helps to build Huxley’s vision of a world dedicated to stability, order, and structure. And that’s before we start dipping our toes into the bizarre sexuality on display at any given point…

So where does Brave New World fall short? For much of the early going, it’s great, giving us a Winston Smith-style hero who doesn’t fit in to this society, and wants to push against it all in ways both quiet and outspoken. It’s when Huxley abruptly shifts us to a new protagonist, I think, that the book stumbles; it ends up feeling like a jarring swap, a bump that throws out our investment in Bernard and this world, and forces us into a new perspective more closely aligned with our own feelings about this place. If anything, this secondary protagonist is a stronger one, and a more gripping one…so why take so long to introduce him, and why leave Bernard behind to the degree that we do? It’s a frustrating choice, and one that I still think holds the book back from being as great as it could be.

But, still, for all that, Brave New World earns its place in the canon and then some, simply by virtue of its rich imagination, and the thoroughness of its world. Even beyond that, there’s the intriguing character beats – I had forgotten, for instance, the way that one character’s dialogue so heavily draws on Shakespearean allusions, but done in such a way that it constantly reflects on the character in ways both direct and indirect. There are the religious themes, the economic comments, the blending of sex and violence – Huxley’s book is nothing if not ambitious, and if it can’t always tie it all together, you can’t help but forgive it for making the attempt in the first place. No, Brave New World doesn’t work flawlessly; no, it doesn’t quite hold up to Orwell’s towering achievement. But taken on its own terms, it’s a fascinating, ambitious, incredibly rich book, and one that’s hard to imagine the current wave of dystopian fiction existing without.


Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood / *****

51nwvn-wm6l-_sx323_bo1204203200_Dystopias are all the rage these days, and even setting aside some grim feelings about our current age, it’s not hard to understand why. Dystopias make for rich world building, sure, but more than that, they allow writers to play with heady concepts – the power of language (1984), genetic engineering (Brave New World), unfiltered modern communication (Chaos Walking), media circuses (The Hunger Games), and so forth. What’s rarer, though, is finding a dystopian novel with a sly, dark sense of humor about itself, laughing all the way through the apocalypse and beyond. And yet, that’s what you get with Margaret Atwood’s wonderful Oryx and Crake, a post-apocalyptic tale that gradually starts revealing its roots in a dystopian society of sorts, filled with designer medications, profit-seeking corporations, medical research, and genetic engineering. You know, fiction.

In strict plot terms, Oryx and Crake is simple – it tells the story of Snowman, a human living in some sort of post-apocalyptic Earth. Mind you, this isn’t a radioactive blight, or some ashen McCarthy hellscape. No, the Earth of Oryx and Crake simply qualifies as post-apocalyptic by virtue of the fact that we rapidly realize that Snowman might be the last human being alive. Now, that doesn’t mean he’s the last humanoid – not with that tribe of creatures so like us, but so different, living nearby. And as we watch Snowman’s awkward interactions with a set of creatures that don’t quite understand him, he thinks back to the world that was – and how he and his friend Crake, along with a woman named Oryx, just might have ended it all.

This dual-threaded story structure lets Atwood play around in a number of ways, exploring not only a landscape changed thanks to the tampering of man with genetics, but also with our own modern world, showing how our own habits could end up being our doom. In Atwood’s hands, Oryx and Crake becomes a Brave New World for the modern age, where it’s not ourselves we need to genetically engineer – it’s the world around us, from animals to diseases, and most especially, to our medications.

In the wrong hands, Oryx and Crake could turn didactic and preachy, a jeremiad against modern conveniences and our desire to be happy above all else. But Atwood lets the subtext carry its own weight, instead investing us in Snowman, his awkward place in a tiered society that doesn’t have much need of him, and his friendship with the brilliant, strange Crake. Without giving too much away, Atwood’s story becomes far more human and emotionally driven than you might expect from its epic world-building, and its depiction of the way the world ends is almost bitterly funny.

That, of course, goes for much of the book, whose absurd brand names, bad drug side effects, internet sites, and school settings all feel dead-on, pushed just one step beyond our current reality and into deadpan parody. There’s a dark winking to help the trenchant points go down, finding the absurdity in so much of our modern world and trying to help us laugh at it along with Atwood.

For all of that, I’m not sure Oryx and Crake quite sticks the landing; even knowing that there are two more books to follow doesn’t make the slightly open-ended ending here less frustrating or less arbitrary feeling, as though Atwood just picked a bit of a random point at which to end the book. It’s not a dealbreaker – not in a book whose characters are this rich, whose world is this intriguing, whose commentary is so well handled – but it is the one sour note in Oryx and Crake, a book that otherwise I absolutely loved, beginning to end, and the one that confirmed for me what I thought after I finished The Handmaid’s Tale years back: that I really need to make reading more Atwood a priority.


The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead / *****

9780385537032If all Colson Whitehead’s remarkable The Underground Railroad had to offer was its central conceit – in which the “Underground Railroad,” a covert, loose organization that worked to help slaves in the Confederacy get to freedom, becomes a literal subterranean rail network – that might almost be enough to capture the imagination and make the book great. Because, in short, what this allows Whitehead to do is tell an age-old story – the efforts of a runaway slave to escape – in a way that feels like little else out there, bringing new life to a story that none of us can ever afford to forget. It’s a minor tweak to reality, but it gives the story a unique, odd feel, making literal the astonishing work that went into saving these people.

So, yeah, that might be enough. But luckily for us all, Whitehead has more on his mind than just that one conceit. Instead, Whitehead turns this flight for freedom into a modern day Odyssey, letting each stop along the way become an entirely different narrative in the life of slavery, America’s race relations, prejudice, and fear. And the result is a sprawling, strange, haunting novel, one whose separate episodes combine to make something far more fascinating and complex than any one story might have been able to do on its own.

For instance, a more traditional slave escape narrative could never contain the subtly wrong paradise that feels at first like heaven on Earth, only to have Whitehead slowly turn that world on its head. You wouldn’t have the nightmarishly violent community that has purged itself of African-Americans in the most horrific way possible; nor would you have the beauty of acts of kindness that come when least expected. In Whitehead’s capable hands, the journey becomes a more complex one, echoing back and forth through time as he takes on racism not just as an explicit force of slavery, but as a much more insidious, subtle evil that can hide behind people’s smiles. In other words, it’s not just the slave catchers we need to fear; it’s those for whom help means condescension and manipulation.

Make no mistake, though; this is undeniably a book about slavery, and one that deals with the horrors of the institution without blinking or flinching. Violence is casual and brutal, with torture being commonplace and almost barely worthy of mention. And while our heroine’s plantation is known for its cruelty, that doesn’t mean that it’s any more cruel than half of what she sees in her journeys. Whitehead doesn’t allow us the luxury of “this place is the worst”; it’s just a particularly bad one, but nothing special. And even if it were somehow worse, it barely compares to some of the psychological and emotional horrors to come, and the wanton cruelty and disregard that we see on display throughout the book.

And yet, for all of that, The Underground Railroad is still a slave escape narrative, one in which we’re invested in our heroine’s success, and one that keeps us reading in the face of all of the potential horrors, hoping for something good. Whitehead never lets The Underground Railroad become crushing or so bleak as to be unpalatable; he tempers it, mixing the good and the bad, and investing us in the characters so that we need them to succeed – and feel it all the more when some of them don’t.

In other words, The Underground Railroad is something remarkable – a look at history that finds its truth through fiction, a dose of magical realism that serves to emphasize hard facts, a novel that explores ideas that many of us wish we had left in history. That it does all this is no small feat; that it does so in such a complex, powerful way without ever becoming didactic or simplistic, even less of one. But the fact that it manages to do all of that while still telling a gripping, exciting story? That‘s what makes it such an incredible novel, and worthy of its reputation.


Trump Chicken, by bobbygw / ****

trump-chicken-a-grotesque-tale-by-bobbygw-book-coverWhen you read copies of books that get sent to you, there’s all kinds of things that can draw you in. Sometimes it’s the book that inspired them to send it to you – for instance, I had one person who sent me their book because they knew I loved Terry Pratchett, while another did so because I loved Stephen King. Sometimes, it’s the way the author presents themselves. But most often, it’s the way they describe the book. And in the case of “Trump Chicken,” a short story by “bobbygw”, it was the comparison the author made to “A Modest Proposal.”

Now, I don’t know if you’ve read “A Modest Proposal”; suffice to say, it’s one of the greatest – and most vicious – pieces of satire ever written, a scathing piece of writing that indicts the English for their treatment of the Irish people, and does so by crafting one of the sickest jokes imaginable. (If you haven’t read it, do so here.)

Anyways, that’s the sort of comparison that’s going to win me over…but it’s also one that misled in me in some ways. What I expected from “Trump Chicken” was a piece of vicious satire, one that took on our current presumptive Republican nominee in a go-for-broke style. And while I definitely got that out of “Trump Chicken,” what I also got was a graphic story about a man who eats rich people. Quite literally. In somewhat grisly detail. Here’s the thing, though: if anything, that only made me enjoy this story more. (What that says about me is probably best left unsaid.)

“Trump Chicken” (which is basically a short story) takes the form of a rambling narrative by a prisoner being interviewed by a reporter about his crimes. Those crimes, as mentioned, are mainly of the cannibalistic variety – more specifically, cannibalism of the rich, which the narrator seems to have made his specialty over the years. It’s the narrator’s voice that really sells “Trump Chicken” – conversational, a little crass, a little broad, more than a bit arrogant…in other words, it’s a dead-on aping of Trump’s style at points, a point that bobbygw is smart enough to bring up along the way. It makes the book a blast to read, turning what could have been a pure horror tale into something darkly and horrifyingly comic as it unfolds.

The main focus, it turns out, is the narrator’s final victim: one Donald J. Trump. It was a bit of a “big get” for our narrator you see, but it turns out that Mr. Trump may be less tasty and wholesome than he hoped, as a fine diner. And as the story unfolds, the author gets to truly tear apart Trump’s image, giving us a disgusting interior to reflect the exterior.

If there’s a major fault to “Trump Chicken,” it’s the sense that the story doesn’t quite have a big point to be made, other than Trump’s awfulness. When you read “A Modest Proposal,” it’s hilarious and sick, but it’s also incredibly angry, and its points about English treatment of the Irish can’t be missed. “Trump Chicken,” by contrast, is a wonderfully sick joke – and one that I quite enjoyed – but you can’t help but wish there was a bit more meat there, if you’ll pardon the horrible pun. And yet, it’s still a darkly funny story, and one whose sick payoff I really loved, even with all of its nonsensical nature. I just kind of wish there was a tiny bit more to it.

That being said, between the writing, the great voice work, the spectacular and gory imagery, and the willingness to transgress in the name of taking down his target, I really liked the book, and I’d even recommend it quite a bit…as long as you’ve got the stomach for it.