Saturday, October 25, 2014

Mini Review 4: The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains & Echopraxia

The books in the books-to-review pile are piling up, but I'll keep this instalment short because, in the week leading up to Hallowe'en, I want to stick with the theme of recently-read books that are creepy. And Neil Gaiman's The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains and Peter Watts' Echopraxia certainly fit the bill.

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Published as one of the new mini-hardcovers that seem to be all the rage with authors and publishers these days (most less than 200 pages, this one a mere 74), and complete with colour illustrations on every page, Neil Gaiman's The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains might sound, at this brief description, like a kids' book — at least, until you actually stop and look at the damn thing (with its menacing, shadowy skull staring out from under the hood of the mountain on the cover) and realize that it's far from it. A fairy tale book, maybe. But not for children. The book was released here in Canada this past summer, and I picked it up and devoured it shortly before we left for Worldcon in London, and after for Scotland and its Highlands. And it was a reading decision that would come back to haunt me. As soon as we got up into the dark, brooding mountains, leaning in over their fence of black pines around Inverness, I couldn't get the image of that cover, with its intense and frightening skull, out of my head. (To be fair, the Black Mountains are nowhere near Inverness [they're located on the Isle of Skye], but the Black Isle [not really an island] is, and seeing it looming in the distance, it certainly looked like the cover illustration on this book, and when that mental image was coupled with some of the grim local folklore we heard about the supposed origin of its name, you'll have to excuse me for mentally swapping the two.)

The book tells the story of a little man named Johnnie, who convinces former reaver Callum to guide him to a legendary island where he might find a mountain cave filled with gold. Callum agrees, though reluctantly, and throughout the journey they run into other country folk who warn them that the place is dangerous and their quest won't end well. When they do finally get to the cave, they find gold, but also a terrible darkness — a darkness watching them from within the cave, and a darkness within themselves watching each other.

What is the truth? It's a glimpse into the terrible things men do — for wealth, for a clean getaway, for revenge — and the costs and consequences they incur, and the things — other men, mountain spirits, and their own consciences — that prey upon them.

If you're looking for something suitably unsettling for All Hallow's Read, this book would be the ideal treat.

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What could be more appropriately scary for a Hallowe'en read than a book containing vampires, zombies, madness, murder, a vast uncaring alien menace from the blackness of space, and the end of human civilization as we know it — and all of it within the realm of possibility? Welcome to Peter Watts' Echopraxia, a worthy dark companion to Blindsight.

Where Blindsight told the tale of a ship crewed by a motley assortment of technologically-upgraded humans with a variety of alternate psychologies ranging from autism to multiple personality disorder, shepherded by a genius-intellect vampire resurrected by genetic engineering, all on their way to confront an intelligent but non-self-aware alien presence on the edge of the solar system, Echopraxia paints a picture of "meanwhile, back home" — as everything back home more or less falls apart. The other vampires have escaped their think tank prisons and are on the prowl, viral zombiism and other plagues (biological and technological) ravage the world, chemicals and rogue engineered crossover genes pollute wildlife like styrofoam fast food cartoons blowing across landscapes beside highways in the 80s, people are detaching themselves from reality by the thousands — uploading themselves to a virtual environment called Heaven — and governments and other large organizations take potshots at cults of people experimenting with creating hive minds. And if that's not enough, the folks back home have begun to get an inkling that things may not be going so well with the expedition detailed in Blindsight, and that the alien presence might be securing a toe-hold much closer to home — and much faster — than previously believed.

And so we ride along with biologist (and non-augmented human) Daniel Bruks, as he's swept along from self-imposed isolation in the desert to the confines of a spaceship where there's a watchful truce between a hive-mind of geniuses, their wannabe escort, a guilt-wracked soldier, an autistic pilot bent on revenge, and an escaped vampire and her squad of zombie soldiers, all heading towards a power station orbiting the sun that may be host to unwelcome guests. For Bruks, survival means more than just avoiding an alien attack; the terrifying, initially inexplicable attention of the vampire; or threats from others who try to kill him; it also means facing the possibility that the continuation of life might require the end of self. It might mean becoming the definition of echopraxia.

Like all of Watts' works, Echopraxia is hard science fiction. Not just because the author is rigorous about creating a world and plot based on what is scientifically possible, but also because this is a story that is hard on its characters, and hard on the reader who has to bear witness to all of it. Watts' stories operate in a Hobbesian state of nature, where life is nasty, brutish, and short; where the end goal of every life form is survival by any means necessary; and where the conscious mind is just along for the ride, regardless of how much control over events it believes it does or should have. Watts' stories are full of violence: physical, verbal, emotional, and psychological; self-inflicted and administered by others; and, where it is physical, it is active (where characters are being hounded, menaced, beaten, and killed), remembered, and promised/foreshadowed/implicitly understood as inevitable.

If that's not enough to scare you in time for Hallowe'en, I don't know what is.

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