Sunday, April 27, 2014

Mini-Review 3 - The Door to Lost Pages, The Alchemists of Kush, Burning Paradise, & Beyond the Rift


Time for another batch of mini book reviews! Some of the selections this time around are relatively new, while others are books read quite a while ago that I've been chewing over in my mind. We'll be looking at Claude Lalumiere's The Door to Lost Pages, Minister Faust's The Alchemists of Kush, Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson, and Beyond the Rift by Peter Watts. They're a diverse group of authors, presenting a wide range of SF subject matter, writing in different styles (sometimes within the same book), and saying different things. All are extremely intelligent books that are definitely worth adding to your collection.

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Claude Lalumiere's collection The Door to Lost Pages is very much like the titular bookstore featured in its stories: densely-packed with all manner of strange writings on different subjects, and if you're not paying attention, you'll miss intriguing and important details.

The Lost Pages bookstore (and its collection of resident dogs) is the constant that weaves in and out of the various stories and their different, sometimes interconnected, universes. Some of the tales feature characters who pull the same act, managing to squeeze between different reflections of reality, sometimes voluntarily. The store is alternately a mystery, a source of knowledge, and a refuge, and after reading this mosaic book, you get the feeling that for every story in it, there's probably a corresponding book crammed somewhere in the dusty back shelves of the store. My favourites among the bunch are "Let Evil Beware!" and "Dark Tendrils".

"Dark Tendrils" just simply scared the shit outta me. The reader is forced to watch the protagonist, Kurt — just as Kurt is forced to watch what's happening to himself — as he tries to resist the encroachment of a demonic force on his life, one that takes his spouse, and eventually, despite his best efforts, Kurt himself. It's the sense of awful inevitability that Lalumiere washes the story with that really got to me.

"Let Evil Beware!" is the story of Billy, an eight-year-old boy who comes into the store to buy research materials. See, Billy's no ordinary kid; he's a monster hunter. While his unaware parents buy him comics and carry on doing regular parent-kid things, Billy — who otherwise behaves like a normal kid — is also leading a secret life of slaying otherworldly fiends. On the surface, it's just a funny little story like a lot of the cartoons and comics many of us grew up with, featuring plucky young heroes (often young children) out there saving the world. My first impression of Billy was that he reminded me a lot of Simon from The Secret Railroad, without Mr Passenger, Melanie the cat, or Stella tagging along. You might just as well see Tom Sawyer, or Astroboy, or Johnny Quest, or one of a hundred other boy heroes though. But the thing about it is, after you've turned the last page and had your little chuckle, there's a bit of a chill that sets in, because this story is deadly serious: in its universe, the fate of the world really does rest on the narrow shoulders of this little kid. It made me think of kids who were in resistance groups in World War II. And then I had to wonder, how did this kid get this particular gig? Did Billy have a choice? I found myself wondering and wandering down a darker road as I thought about it... was this pushed on Billy by some outside agency? Was he coerced, even with some positive spin like "only you can save the world"? And if he was pressured, or denied a choice, is he different than a child soldier? And I had to wonder, what if this poor kid, as good-natured as he is, and as seriously as he takes his job, someday isn't up to the task of facing some supernatural horror that would turn most adults into a weeping mess? What happens to his world then? And what if some day he doesn't want the job anymore? That's what looking into the layers of a Lalumiere story will do to you.

That's why you've got to buy this book.

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 In The Alchemists of Kush, author Minister Faust presents us with a three-fold bildungsroman — a novel of growth about two boys and a community.

It's the story of Raphael "Rap" "Supreme Raptor" Deng Garang, a teenage Sudanese-Somali refugee, aspiring hip-hop artist, and comic fan living in Edmonton with his widowed mother, trying to find his identity and place in the world, unknowingly desperate for a father figure, and just as desperately trying to lock-down unwanted memories of a childhood spent on the run and victimized by violence. Saved from thugs one night by local shop owner Yimunhotep "Brother Moon" Ani (a character who made me think of a hybrid between Avery Brooks' portrayal of the sensitive writer Benny [Sisko's alter-ego] from the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Far Beyond the Stars" and Charles S Dutton's spiritually earnest, two-fisted convict-monk in Alien 3), Rap finds the teacher and surrogate father he needs to open himself emotionally to others, and to his past, and throw aside his preconceptions, healing himself and growing into a stronger, better man.

It's also the story of Horus, a boy living thousands of years ago in an Africa of myth. Horus' life is told in segments parallel to Rap's, as he runs from the army that destroyed his village and killed his people, avoids monsters, and eventually finds a wizard-alchemist who can give him and his friends the knowledge and skills they need to survive, and to help Horus find his father Osiris in the underworld.

And, just as importantly, it's the story of a community's growth — of how people from different families and different African ethnicities come together in Edmonton, putting aside mistrust and cultural prejudices as they support a community centre for their children, recognizing shared experiences and a common desire for a stronger, more positive future.

Just because the story (stories) evolves towards a betterment of characters and community, doesn't mean for a minute that it sugar-coats life. Both boys experience horrific brutality, and the road towards a better life isn't an unwavering upwards glide: sometimes, like every teenager, Rap is an unlikeable dick. Sometimes Horus loses what he's struggled to build, sometimes the community turns on itself, and sometimes, even a teacher like Brother Moon, despite his wisdom and experience, hits his limits and loses his cool with tragic consequences. The Alchemists of Kush is not the zany action comedy/hero-coming-into-his-own story that The Coyote Kings of the Space Age Bachelor Pad was, it's far more introspective. Nor is it as caustic as the political satire in the guise of superhero adventure that From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain was — it's far more personal as it grapples with the issues it's trying to talk about. But all of that is what makes The Alchemists of Kush, despite its gods and alchemy, more real, and in many ways, more important as a novel. The cultures portrayed in it may be different from those of some readers, but its experiences are universal, and the importance of that, the ability to transform perspective and foster understanding, is where the real alchemy lies.

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Burning Paradise is the latest novel from Robert Charles Wilson exploring one of his favourite topics: how individual people would deal with life when confronted with super-intelligent — though not necessarily conscious — alien artificial intelligences using the Earth for their own ends.

In this case, Wilson presents us with an alternate reality of relative global prosperity (if one with lower levels of technology) where the devastating conflicts of the 20th Century didn't happen due to the influence of the "hypercolony", an unseen alien intelligence existing as a cloud of microscopic particles high in the atmosphere that has been manipulating electronic communications since the dawn of the radio age. The hypercolony keeps the peace by instantly "editing" radio and television transmissions to ensure statements from world leaders, academics, or the media don't create international tension. It's all part of the entity's plan to quietly develop the resources it needs to continue its ages-long lifecycle — propagating itself virus-like from star system to star system across the cosmos by gentling intelligent civilizations and encouraging the development of the technologies it needs to beam its template to the next unsuspecting world. And it values its anonymity, so much so that it's willing to manufacture "simulants" to kill anyone who threatens to reveal its existence. Against this backdrop, we meet Cassie, who's parents were murdered by the hypercolony for being part of a secret society dedicated to studying and eventually overthrowing the alien entity. Cassie and her little brother have been living the quiet life with her aunt Nerissa (herself a former member of the conspiracy), until one evening when Cassie discovers she's being watched by one of the sims. This forces her to flee across the country with her brother and two other teenagers who are children of the conspiracy, while Nerissa desperately searches for them. Along the way, they're all drawn to the reclusive leader of the secret society, and they begin to discover that all may not be as it seems with the hypercolony, and a difficult choice may lie ahead.

Again, this isn't the first time Wilson's played with the idea of the Earth and its people getting caught-up as collateral damage in the effects of alien infrastructure projects: we saw it in his brilliant Spin trilogy, Darwinia, and to some degree in Blind Lake. In each case though, Wilson tries to examine different variations of the scenario. In Spin, there was very much an Arthur C. Clarke feel to the whole affair — the alien intelligence was more-or-less going about its own business, using the Earth (and the occasional human) as a resource, but there was really nothing personal in its machinations, no more than a construction supply company would give consideration to the insects displaced or killed during the digging of a gravel quarry. Blind Lake provided a slightly more human, though still Clarkean twist, with the idea that the observation and transport devices were meant to offer opportunities for exploration and understanding. Darwinia, on the other hand, was, in turns, Burroughs-like in its straight-forward old-timey adventure plot of exploring a strange frontier,  but later turned Lovecraftian as the story mutated into the need to confront a grand and ancient life-hating menace. Burning Paradise, however, goes very deep into Philip K. Dick country, with its ever-present paranoia about being watched and hounded by things that look human, but really aren't; of not being able to tell until it's too late what's real and what's merely a slick mask over something gross and strange that's operating its own agenda of manipulation for purposes that aren't necessarily beneficial to humanity; of grand conspiracies involving or at least manipulating governments and corporation; and of the ever-present dread that despite all of your choices, you've never really had a choice. And that's why it's okay for Wilson to explore this type of notion again, because every time he looks at a different angle, he does it so very well.

What's also key to the success of this novel is Wilson's attention to detail and believability with his characters. Cassie, Nerissa, and some of their cohort are well flushed-out people, likeable at times, annoying as hell at others, sometimes intelligent, at other times gullible, and wholly believable in how they try to come to terms with what's happening to them, and the hard choices they're forced to make and things they have to do to survive and, maybe, do what's best for humanity. More importantly, it's the choices the characters make with respect to each other that show Wilson really understands how real people work, and is a true master when it comes to the craft of writing character. Writing a convoluted, paranoid alien conspiracy story is one thing, but it's Wilson's characters who make his books — and in this case, Burning Paradise — so good.

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Peter Watts' new collection Beyond the Rift is hard science fiction. Hard, not just because its stories are rooted in very plausible modern science, but hard because of it's unflinching in its Hobbesian state-of-nature view of humanity and the universe, and thus also occasionally hard for a reader to bear with.

You have to be in the right mood to read a Watts short story, and especially a whole collection of them (or one of his novels). Watts is brutal with his stories. They are full of violence — even when acts of violence are not being committed in the present of the stories' settings, the plots are still haunted by the memories and after-effects of past violence. It lingers in the psyches of the characters, in their view of the world and themselves. It coats the world and everything in it like a toxic chemical spill that refuses to dissolve. And this violence is completely matter-of-fact. In Watts' dog-eat-dog (and extraterrestrial polymorph assimilate dog) view of the universe, all of this is just as things are, and the realization of this is very often what brings his characters to their breaking points. In fact, even a character's survival, if they do survive, is not an indication that things are going well or going to get better, because the definition of "survive" in a Watts story becomes highly mutable — the body may go on, in some fashion, but the mind is never the same after the experience of the story (or a memory of what's happened in the past) has pared away at them. In fact, the loss of one's humanity (and, in some characters, it isn't ever really there to begin with), is a common theme in his stories. You have to be ready to feel appalled, saddened, and hopeless when you open a Watts story, because that's all his characters can expect, at best.

Among the stories in this book, the ones that had the biggest effect on me (I won't say "favourites", because that doesn't seem the right word for things that inflict a psychological kneecapping on a reader) were "The Things", "Nimbus" and "A Niche".

The collection's closer, "A Niche", is the story Watts drew from to build his Rifters books (beginning with Starfish), one I'd read previously in another collection, and one that's stayed with me years later. It's the story of the transformation of two people aboard a deep-sea geothermal power station, one driven to become increasingly paranoid and hostile by the isolation and psychological pressure of the hostile environment outside, while the other, already psychologically scarred by abuse in her past, adapts to the situation by increasingly avoiding her colleague; staying outside amidst the heat of the rift, the cold of the sea, and among the area's gigantic carnivorous fish; and refusing to take off her dive skin, becoming, in effect, a creature of the sea. The question is, which one will the company (speaking of entities without humanity) decide is most fit for the job?

"The Things" has received a lot of attention over the past few years for being a retelling of John Carpenter's version of the movie The Thing that's perhaps even more chilling than the material that inspired it. In Watts' version, the story is told from the perspective of the alien, an organism that's colonized the galaxy over the millennia, and has difficulty figuring out why it's encountering so much resistance on Earth. If you want a succinct example of the brutality of life in a Watts universe, you only have to read the Thing's resolution in the story's last line.

"Nimbus" was frightening not for the idea of intelligent cloud storm systems deciding to wipe out humanity, but for the fact that they'd wiped out humanity by doing more than killing people, but also by causing children to be so scarred by the experience of watching their parents die, as to lose their emotional humanity.

Beyond the Rift is worth reading, if you're up to it.



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