Saturday, September 25, 2010

CB II Book 21: Transition - Ian M. Banks

Transition is not the first book of Ian M. Banks’ I’ve read (I’ll get to the reviews I swear) but it is certainly the strangest. The first two I read were science fiction of the space faring variety while this one takes place in a more contemporary time witch encompasses the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. While I think that the premise is certainly an interesting one, in my own opinion I think the execution and story fell short.

The central concept of the book seems to be that there are an almost infinite number of earths in different realities or dimensions. In each of these realities Earth can be completely different in every way imaginable or, there can be a difference as subtle as a certain person being alive when they shouldn’t be (relative to THIS Earth). A group of individuals from the primary manifestation of earth that call themselves The Concern believe that it is their duty to interfere with each and every world’s future by removing or aiding specific people who would have an influence on events. As such, The Concern has identified a talent that certain people have to “transition” to different worlds and different people with the aid of a drug called Septus. Septus allows a person to “flit” from world to world and person-to-person in order to achieve their aims. There are various permutations of the talent: some allow the transitioner to take people with them, some block another’s ability to transition and others can track transitioners through additives in the drug, but The Concern identifies, trains and uses them all. Especially one particular Transitioner trained as an assassin.

Yell is loyal to The Concern. Identified and trained from an early age for his future occupation, he’s developed a talent for flitting with a sneeze and dispatching his quarry. He doesn’t usually question his orders until they begin to be amended by one Madam d’Ortolan. It appears that Yell, is to remove some of the members of the ruling body of The Concern dubbed the Council of which Madam d’Ortolan is the head. As this is highly suspect, Yell defies his orders and soon finds himself subjected to torture to find out what he knows as Madam d’Ortolan is convinced that there is a conspiracy afoot and is determined to stop it. Shortly thereafter, Yell is contacted by Miss Mulverhill who is a former student of d’Ortolan’s and has since formed a rebellion. It would appear that Madam d’Ortolan has designs upon The Council and plans for immortality.

Perhaps if I had read Transition in a reasonable amount of time it would have made more sense. It flitted from person to person, backwards and forwards and didn’t engage me for more than short periods of time. There are instances of great storytelling that just seem to get lost in the “who are we talking about now?” aspects of the writing. As an example of the need of a guide through the book, all of the changes of character have headings. Not chapters, mind you, but when the first person narrative changes (sometimes after a few paragraphs) you literally get a: “Sparkletits” in italics. Perhaps it’s that by using this method of storytelling it took quite a while for me to connect with the characters, as it took me more than two weeks to read it which is very unusual. While the characters actually do end up being very well developed, the methodology employed meant that it took until at least mid way through 400-pages before you even started to get a feel for what some of them were about. Perhaps it’s just me, I really did enjoy Banks’ other two books that I’ve read, but this one just felt convoluted and needlessly complex. It felt like Memento but, ultimately, I was left without anything to take home.

CBII Book 20: Watch - Robert J. Sawyer

I speak three languages: English, Sarcasm and Hyperbole. I’m a really big fan of the last two and can probably speak them better than my native tongue. Unfortunately my trilingualism has repercussions. One of which is that some people think that I’m joking when I’m not and not joking when I am. I’m pretty sure that the ones that can’t tell the difference are the same ones who engage in rampant asshattery and are responsible for putting the “nant” in ignorant. I can’t confirm this at the moment, but I’ve applied for a government grant and hope to have some bona fide research to back up my claims.
The entire reason for this inane prelude is so that you understand that I am being absolutely honest when I make the following statement: to this day, I don’t believe I’ve read a more brilliant and moving example of science fiction literature than Robert J. Sawyer’s Watch.

This is the second instalment of the World Wide Web trilogy and the second book of Sawyer’s that I’ve read and reviewed. I reviewed the first book, Wake, some time ago and, while I thought it took some time to get going, it was definitely worth the read as it was very well written and engaging on the back end. I will admit that I felt a little trepidation purchasing Watch (hardcover books are not inexpensive these days) because baby needed a new pair of shoes. In hindsight, I have no issue with having my youngest walking through life’s dog-dookie without the protection of a sole.

The World Wide Web is sentient. Via her optical implant, Caitlin Decter can actually see information flow as it moves through the internet. The being that Caitlin has names Webmind is now far more intelligent than even the smartest of humans and begins to dabble in other peoples lives via the internet. Fortunately for humanity, Webmind has decided to use its abilities to aid the human (and not so human) race; unfortunately for Webmind, the American secret services have also taken notice and are not so convinced. Now it is up to Caitlin and her genius parents to devise a way to keep Webmind safe from those who would see him destroyed but to also let the world know that he is alive, watching, and maybe save a life or two in the process.

The previous synopsis is an extremely simple outline of what Sawyer’s book is about. I must keep it that way as I feel that giving away any spoiler, no matter how minor, would do an excellent work a great disservice. Sawyer manages to explain very complex ideas that are of both the ethical and scientific variety with an easy simplicity without making it seem as though he’s talking down to the reader. He deftly juggles the intertwining threads of various themes, lives and questions without ever getting them knotted. But where I feel Sawyer truly shines in his second entry to the trilogy is how he is able to provoke a stunning feeling of empathy within the reader. This is not only extended to Webmind (though that would be impressive enough) but also to a Chimpanzee/Bonobo hybrid named Hobo. I have no reservation in stating that at certain points in the book, a warm tear may have caressed my usually frosted soul. Truly, Sawyer’s Watch is an excellent addition to the genre and a brilliant lesson in humanity as learned from a machine.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

CBII Book 19: At The GAtes of Darkness - Raymond E. Feist

Written by Raymond E. Feist, At The Gates of Darkness is the second book in the Demonwar Saga. I reviewed book one entitled Rides a Dread Legion previously and if your interested you can check it out here. The Conclave of Shadows is continuing its investigation of a possible demon invasion. Both members of The Conclave and those only loosely affiliated with their mission begin to witness extremely disturbing events that lead them to believe that Midkemia is in even more danger than previously thought. Torture, slavery and sacrifices on many different worlds are only some of the atrocities that The Black Magician, Pug, and his retinue are forced to deal with in order save their planet. Unfortunately this impending doom is taking a terrible toll on Pug as he attempts to save the planet while dealing with his own terrible loss. When the invasion finally begins, Pug must place his trust in people whom he can’t in order to salvage a victory.

 With book two we get more of the same from Feist and I believe that’s a good thing. His style is easy and breezy but doesn’t sacrifice quality that makes the majority of his books enjoyable reads. Feist knows just how much to give you without prattling on about something you’re not really interested in anyways. The story remains engaging and brisk so that, before you know it, you’re done and waiting for the next tale. I usually end up reading Feist’s books in order to take a break from heavy Science Fiction as they’re a wonderful palate cleanser that are well written and tremendously enjoyable. While I’ve tired of other authors that write in a similar style and genre as Feist, he never talks down to the reader and, for being such a prolific author, reading his books never feels like he’s mailing it in. I suppose that’s why I own all of his work. 

Saturday, August 14, 2010

CBII Book 18: Fahrenheidt 451 - Ray Bradbury

I count myself a Science Fiction nerd. I will freely admit that my reading list is veritably smothered in it and I’ve now become quite comfortable with the stigmatism that it may bring. That being said, I feel no small amount of shame that this is the first of Ray Bradbury’s books I’ve ever read. I throw myself upon the mercy of the bespectacled court; please make sure the phasers are set on stun.

Fahrenheit 451: the temperature at which book paper catches fire, and burns. That’s the tagline of this 50th anniversary edition of the book and, of course, burning books is the central premise upon which the story unfolds. Guy Montag is a firefighter. However, in this day and age, firefighting has taken on a whole different meaning. Guy is charged with the socio-political responsibility of burning books wherever they may be found. There are still all the lights and sirens that we associate with being a firefighter - they even have a pole to slide down on – but now, when the fire engine pulls up outside your door, it is met with trepidation not relief. Whereas water used to be the fluid of salvation, kerosene has become the liquid of suppression. Guy goes about his duties with the typical verve that a firefighter must have and he never thought twice about lighting a match to save people from themselves. That is, until a new neighbour moved in.

Clarisse McLellan is seventeen and, as is typical of persons of that age, doesn’t care for how society requires her to think and behave. Guy and Clarisse happen to meet one day while he is returning home from work and they engage in a bit of idle banter. Guy is initially confused and a little disturbed by Clarisse’s questions and opinions however he chalks them up to youthful ignorance. But, Clarisse asks, “Have you ever read any of the books you burn?” Of course he hasn’t, reading books illegal. Guy continues about his normal routine and even manages to talk to the strange girl next door on occasion. Eventually, Clarisse’s views causes Guy to begin questioning what he once thought were societal norms which causes no small amount of stress at work and home. His boss begins interrogating him due to the inquiries Guy makes and his wife becomes concerned that he’s acting strangely. That is, when she can pull herself away from the people on the wall. Guy tries to hide his new unconventional feelings from everybody but he is also hiding something else: a book. When Guy’s indiscretion is finally uncovered, his own firefighting unit must pay him a visit which could cost Guy everything, including his life.

One of the reasons I love science fiction so much is that good authors base their writing in reality. It may not be today’s reality, but a writer with a modicum of skill can make you believe that a particular event or invention could easily happen by connecting it with the familiar. In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury has proven himself somewhat of a prognosticator of our own times. Originally published in a shorter form in Galaxy Science Fiction in 1951, we can easily form associations to our own regulated and addictive multimedia world. How much time do you spend on the internet? What’s your favourite reality TV program? Would you rather talk to real, meat-bag people, or would you prefer to type? Do you want your movies with or without full-frontal nudity?

I believe media consumption is an underlying message in the book, but what Bradbury was definitely alluding to, was the book burnings that various parties engaged in historically and the control of information. It doesn’t take a minute to correlate many present day crusaders that are doing the very same thing that is the fireman’s mantra. Consider certain religious groups that insisted the Harry Potter books be banned from school libraries for promoting witchcraft. Or perhaps the FCC dictating that a pastied boob was more offensive than a number of men trying to tear each other’s heads off. Perhaps one could question the MPAA and their dictation of what may or may not be shown in a movie theatre. It doesn’t matter that a person could just change the channel, not go to the movie or decide not to buy the book; there is someone who knows better what’s appropriate for you, and damned if you question them.

CBII: Book 17 - Hater- David Moody

“A head spinning thrill ride, a cautionary tale about the most salient emotion of the twenty-first century…Hater will haunt you long after you read the last page.”

That’s the glowing praise that Guillermo del Toro gave David Moody’s Hater and it’s what prompted me to buy the book. Guilli, you owe me $16.99 CDN, fucker. Hater is a poor attempt at telling the story of humanity turning on itself. It’s been done before and it’s been done far, far better than Moody’s unoriginal and vomitous prose.

The story begins with the protagonist’s (I think his name’s Danny) morning commute to work. On his way, he witnesses a man beat a woman to death for no apparent reason. The assailant just starts throttling the poor woman standing next to him. Traumatized (but not nearly enough to take the day off) he continues to work where the assault is the day’s topic of conversation. Aw fuck it! Look, you’ve all seen or read this before, it’s a disease, more people catch it, they call the infected people Haters, it’s the governments fault, anarchy, us against them, lather, rinse repeat.

Perhaps it’s just me (and it could be given the heaping manure pile of praise contained on it’s back cover) but it was just boring. There is only one surprise in the whole book and rest of it is painfully predictable. I found the writing to be simplistic and plodding but one must…fuck it. I’m not wasting any more time on this. Go watch, Doomsday. Same thing, but better, and with cleavage.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

CBII Book 16: The Strain - Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

I found Guillermo del Toro's debut novel to be like taking a deep breath of fetid air that has been stuck inside a casket with a body that's been decaying for years and could actually be poisonous due to all the biological agents that may be lurking unseen. It's a book that, while written with Chuck Hogan, verily reeks of del Toro's hand at every turn of the page. It's a story that begins with a mystery and ends with a terrible answer that may destroy a nation.
 The opening of the book finds us on a plane about to land in New York. Everything is normal and it has been an uneventful flight but, just before touchdown, the radio goes silent. The control tower erupts in a panic as the 777 stops dead on the runway. There are no communications, no lights, no movement, no answers,  nothing. The airports emergency response team is dispatched and it would appear that their worst fears are true. Everyone is dead. Dr. Ephiram Goodweather, the head of the Center for Disease Control's response team is called in to investigate on his weekend off. He has to leave his teenage son, who is at the centre of a fierce custody battle, and immediately begin to determine what disease would kill and entire plane full of people with no warning, no blood, no panic and no struggle. Upon towing the plane to a hanger to begin unloading bodies and go through the plane piece by piece, he discovers four people on the plane that are still alive, barely. He also discovers a strange, old wardrobe in the cargo compartment that is filled with soil and doesn't appear on any manifest that he can find. Perhaps most disturbing, the finds a veritable bloodbath of some strange liquid splattered all over the crew compartment.
The survivors are taken to the hospital and the deceased are distributed to various morgues throughout the burroughs to begin autopsies. Eph and his team go to question the survivors and are confronted with even more of a mystery. No one remembers anything nor can they explain what may have happened. They all seem to be recovering but something isn't quite right. Next they go to the morgue to witness the results of the autopsies. The bodies have been infected with something that almost looks like cancer but has also mutated some physilogical aspects of the deceased. Later that night, the survivors are released from the hospital and the victims of this unexplainable occurance, leave the morgues.
I loved this book. While it was utterly predicatable and suffered from a mostly formulaic plot, it was so far from the vampire stories we've been exposed to for the last...fifteen or so years that I felt it totally made up for its shortcomings. The Strain is about as far away from Twilight as you're going to get. Hell, it makes Anne Rice's books look like bedtime reading for toddlers. The descriptions are graphic, the story is nuanced, and the legend of the vampire has not been romanticised at all so far (but I do have a doubt about the next two books). These fuckers are monsters. All they want to do is eat and they don't care how. Whether it's a daughter devouring her father or a mother feeding from her son, all bets are off. While they do play with the accepted cannon, I have to say that I didn't find del Toro and Hogan's twists to be unbelievable or insulting. (sparkles anyone?) I'd definately recommend it to horror fans and I will be purchasing book number two as soon as I can get my hands on it.


Wednesday, March 31, 2010

CBII Book 15: The Child Thief - Brom

Gerald Brom or "Brom" if you will, has taken a charming children's tale and turned it into a nightmare. We've all seen Disney's tale of a puckish Pan, and some of us have even read James Barrie's version, but "Brom" has managed to destroy my childhood memories so completely that I'll never look at Wendy the same way again.

A young boy with preturnatural abilities is...well...not "kidnapping" but, "enticing" children to come to his island. Perhaps he's a childish trickster, or maybe he's a masochist with a fetish for the young ones, but all he REALLY wants is for the run-aways to find a home.If they can help him defeat the adults and save the world, well, then so much the better.

This is not a tale for your children. Nor is it a tale for those of a gentle constitution. Brom's story begins with the recounting of a sexual assult and while it is, and is not graphic, it's meant to set the tone to the novel. Those of us who are familiar with the Disney version of Peter Pan will probably be apalled, but I'm not sure that those who are looking for "The Twist" will be satisfied  either.  Brom could have taken his work to a truly disturbing extent but he went for the PG rating instead. I can't help but think that if it was R-rated it would have made for a much better mind-fuck.  Which is what he was obviously going for.

The Child Thief is a good book in that it wields a classic story in such a way as to make one question whether the tale was really so innocent to begin with. It also provides a decent metaphore for the struggles that many children face in the world today. However it also falls into a lot of the "I saw Bobby smoking pot" cliches we're all used to0 and wish we could get awat from. If you're looking for a good retelling of an old and maybe sinister story; The Child Thief definitelty fills the bill.