Friday, February 29, 2008

A Fist Full o' Reviews

Warning: Spoilers (spoilage factor: about the same as buying a bag of mixed greens from a big-box supermarket and finding out when you get home that it’s only 2 days away from its expiry date – some leaves are perfectly good, others, well… I guess there might be some good in something slimy and discoloured teaching you to read the label a little more closely next time)

My pile of “just read” books has been getting larger and larger these days, and because there’s been no corresponding increase in the amount of blogging time I’ve got, I haven’t been able to set aside enough time to give each its due. Rather than leaving them by the roadside uncommented-on, I figured I’d just shotgun through a slew of mini-reviews. Let’s do it.

The Apparition Trail by Lisa Smedman
It’s a book with a vision as big as British North America’s northwest territories: combine steampunk, magic, First Nations folklore, mystery, political intrigue, the Northwest Mounted Police (precursors to the Mounties – a myth unto themselves) and real historical figures into a rollicking adventure across the Canadian prairies in the days of the railroad and colonial expansion into the aboriginal territories west of the Great Lakes. The book follows the adventures of Corporal Marmaduke Grayburn (the name of a real NWMP member killed in action) who’s seconded to Q Division (think of a frontier version of the X-Files department) by Superintendant Sam Steele (another real figure from the history books – a Mountie who’s deeds made him a legend) to help investigate supernatural phenomena in the territories. Aided by his second sight and by a civilian paranormal investigator, Grayburn sets off to investigate a growing number of incidents where settlers are vanishing. Grayburn uncovers a native plot to drive off encroaching whites and manages to finesse a solution that averts disaster for all concerned. I’d like to say I really enjoyed this book, it’s got a lot of SF elements that are not only cool but tend to make sense within the logic of the plot, and anytime a Canadian author can weave together a home-grown alternate history, my head is bound to turn. Unfortunately, there were a couple of significant flaws that kept my enjoyment of the story to arms-length. First among them was the story being recounted by Grayburn – not only does that remove any real suspense about his fate when he’s in life-and-death situations. The author’s commitment to making the narrative authentic in its tone to how a gentleman of the 19th Century would have recounted the tale also causes the novel to suffer in that it comes off as a little too dry and detached for a modern audience – it was too hard to care much about Grayburn, even though he seems to be presented as more-or-less a likeable fellow for his time. Some of the action towards the end seems a bit contrived too – there seemed to be too many pitfalls, secrets and sudden changes for the story to be believable. And what was most unlikely of all was the resolution where the Grayburn aids the Cree and their allies with getting carte blanche over the region. I highly doubt that a European civilization that was comfortable using magic to energize its perpetual motion machines would simply roll over and accept the threat of magical annihilation at the hands of the natives, especially with the assemblage of intelligent and driven personalities in government and behind the scenes in industry at the time, to say nothing of the general attitude of the British Empire. Especially given the zeitgeist of discovery, innovation and brave (often reckless) boundary-pushing in Europe and North America during that era, one can imagine the fledgling Dominion of Canada, it’s parent the British Empire and its neighbour the US focusing their impressive energies on finding ways to exploit their own magic and technology to go head-to-head with, and roll over the native opposition. Given the amount of research Smedman has put into this era, the fact that she could imagine that degree of political capitulation, especially on the part of the Macdonald government, shows that this is indeed a work of pure fantasy. Not a bad little yarn, but not a great one either.

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin
Why review an autobiography, and one of a comedian for that matter, on a blog devoted to SF? Well, Martin’s appeared in enough SF-related stuff (“The Man with Two Brains”, “All of Me” and “The Three Amigos” [remember the Invisible Swordsman, the Singing Bush and the incantations?]) that it’s fair game (guess I probably should have reviewed the impressive Einstein biography by Walter Isaacson last year when I read it too). The book chronicles Martin’s stand-up career specifically, with some introductory childhood biographical detail to give it context. A fast read and a great window into the heart behind a powerfully creative and intelligent mind who graced us by entertaining us a while with some funny bits.

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
It took me a while to get around to reading this masterpiece, but certainly no-one had to twist my arm. I’m only kicking myself that I didn’t grab it when it was first released, especially since I am a fan of Wilson’s work. While the novel paints the picture of the Earth being walled-off from the rest of the universe and locked in slowtime by unimaginably alien forces wielding god-like technologies, the real story is about three friends going through life together. In many ways, with his portrayal of big ideas, post-singularity alien technologies and humanity’s use of current and near-future technologies to try to cope, and global disasters, Wilson is an author who has inherited the throne of Arthur C. Clarke. And yet, though some may charge me with blasphemy, Wilson is in many ways far superior to Clarke in his ability to delve into human relationships and emotions in painfully real details, ensuring that the human, and thus more important, stories sideline the spellbinding web of high-tech happenings (as opposed to Clarke’s characters, who, while being well-enough written to be understandable and even people we can empathize with, are features of the big goings-on – a part of the larger picture, rather than distinct and of primary importance). If you’re one of the few who hasn’t picked up “Spin” yet, go out and get yourself a copy right now.

Axis by Robert Charles Wilson
As soon as I was done “Spin” around Christmas, I picked up “Axis” from where my wife (gotta love a woman who feeds my SF addiction!) had put it for me under the tree and jumped into it right away. “Axis” picks up several decades from where “Spin” left off, this time on another world the entities behind the spin barrier have given humanity the means to colonize. Strange dust, containing what appears to be tiny, artificial constructs falls from space, blanketing everything and causing alarm in the human cities and villages. A group of people sets off into the desert to find some renegade scientists and a strange young boy who may provide the key to what’s about to happen. As much as I’d love to rave about “Axis”, I can’t. It’s got all of the big ideas that “Spin” had, but unfortunately, this time around, Wilson’s characters weren’t as engaging as those in “Spin” or some of his other works. This is not to say I was disappointed because “Axis” featured a different cast than its predecessor. Not at all. Rather, I didn’t think Wilson spent enough time on or with these people to make them truly matter to the reader. While the plot pacing was fine, the characters themselves felt rushed. I felt as though I was reading an Arthur C. Clarke story, rather than something better that I know Wilson can (and has, in “Spin” and a number of his other stories) give us. “Axis” is good enough. Sadly, it’s not great, like I’d hoped.

A Time Odyssey – Firstborn by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter
In this latest installment of the “Time Odyssey” series, the Firstborn, or genocidal alien super race that doesn’t like noisy neighbours, or any neighbours for that matter who look like they’re about to develop any kind of significant technology, launches another weapon against Earth. As humanity fights among itself and tries to figure out how to deal with the latest alien menace, our hero Bisesa Dutt is yanked out of her world and yet again deposited on Mir, the copy of Earth constructed of pieces from various points in the planet’s history and stashed in a pocket universe (along with a copy of Mars with its now-deceased indigenous culture), where she must deal with Alexander the Great’s growing empire and the rising power of 19th Century Chicago, not to mention figure out how to get back home and help save the world. “Firstborn” is a worthy successor to the other “Time Odyssey” books by Clarke and Baxter. The pacing was perfect and the characters worked well. In all, it’s a solid series. My problem is that the novel is billed as the “conclusion” to the series, but the tone at the end doesn’t feel like an ending at all. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t need a pat ending that wraps up everything – on the contrary, I quite enjoy some endings where story lines are left incomplete and the reader is hanging there wondering how things will eventually pan out. But to do that right, an author needs to end on the proper tone, and “Firstborn” doesn’t do that – it’s abrupt in all the wrong ways… it’s as though the book has been cut in half and we’ll be getting the next installment next year or something, even though that’s not the case. Makes me wonder if Clarke and Baxter want to add another volume or two, but don’t want to commit themselves because of Clarke’s health or something. Are they leaving the door open for Baxter to write a sequel series himself in a couple of years if Clarke dies? I guess we’ll have to wait and see – or not. At any rate, if you enjoy a typical Clarkeian tale of mankind picking up the pieces after alien meddling, the “Time Odyssey” books are certainly worth your time.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
It’s taken me long enough to get around to reading this classic, even though I’ve seen all of the various cinematic takes on the story (Vincent Price’s “Last Man on Earth” and the Simpsons’ “The Homega Man” were the best). Until the release of the recent Will Smith movie, it was pretty hard to find a copy of Matheson’s work in bookstores, but, since the newest flick has been released, the publishers have released “I Am Legend” in a convenient anthology that includes a bunch of Matheson’s other stories that’s been widely distributed. As I expected, I enjoyed the book pretty thoroughly. No need to go over the plot, given that the general idea has been splashed around the media for the past few months. Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway, the book certainly surpasses any of the movies. Definitely worth a read if you haven’t done so already and you’re interested in a story about a man suffering from extreme isolation and depression amidst an unending horror and his battles with alcoholism and madness… not to mention madness.

Bonus thought: non-review of Will Smith’s film resurrection of “I Am Legend”
Irrespective of all the debates about the ending of Smith’s take on the story and which movie version was best, I thought this most recent attempt was a pretty good flick. Smith does a better job of a man sinking into madness as a result of loneliness than Tom Hanks did in “Castaway”. Hands down. But what interests me about Smith’s film in retrospect is this: it seemed like Smith was creating a monster’s answer to movies like “King Kong” or “The Mummy”. It’s like we’re seeing the movie re-made to show us things from the perspective of the marauding undead Egyptian. Not to be distracted by the fact that the mutants looked a lot like the mummy, I certainly got the feeling seeing the mutant in the jacket marshal all of his buddies and his mutant dogs to brave the bullets, UV spotlights and crushing SUV’s and pursue Smith across Manhattan to rescue the female mutant Smith bags to experiment on, that this mutant was a kind of Branden Fraser and Smith was the mummy. Maybe “King Kong” is more apt, since we kinda feel sorry for the big ape and here Smith’s character is basically a likeable guy. A different kind of story than the one Matheson told. Certainly its treatment of Smith’s character was too nice and the ending was all wrong for it to be trying to be the same kind of story as the one Matheson told. That being said, I’ll give Smith full credit for telling a good reverse monster movie story, even if it was done subtly enough that the point was probably lost on most audiences.

Tesseracts 11 edited by Cory Doctorow and Holly Phillips
I’m sad to say that this latest addition to the usually strong Tesseracts anthology series was a big yawn. I look forward to these fairly regular compilations of Canadian SF because for years they’ve been a hallmark of good storytelling – some of the best of what this country produces, some of it original and published for the first time as part of the anthology, some stories previously published in the various home-grown SF magazines, but generally, very high caliber stuff. This time around, not so much. I won’t say that the stories in this volume were bad, merely unengaging and not worth the $20 cover price. Really, there were only two worth-while reads in the lot: Kim Goldberg’s poem “Urban Getaway” was a tumble of moving images and Claude Lalumiere’s short story “The Object of Worship” was gripping (although, Lalumiere always writes top-notch stuff – I’ve never read a story of his that wasn’t impressive). In a generous mood I could give a bare nod to the opening tale “In Which Joe and Laurie Save Rock N’ Roll” by Madeline Ashby, but the rest were completely forgettable. Not a good average for a book with 24 submissions. Especially not with Doctorow and Phillips editing.
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