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book reviews by Althea


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Grave Predictions: Tales of Mankind’s Post-Apocalyptic, Dystopian and Disastrous Destiny

Grave Predictions: Tales of Mankind’s Post-Apocalyptic, Dystopian and Disastrous Destiny
Grave Predictions: Tales of Mankind’s Post-Apocalyptic, Dystopian and Disastrous Destiny by Drew Ford

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

INTRODUCTION – (Harlan Ellison) – No denigration to Ellison as a writer, but this ‘Introduction’ felt more like something someone would post on facebook after a few too many.

*** THE END OF THE WORLD – (Eugene Mouton) – This essay by a 19th-century French writer of the fantastic is unfortunately still awfully relevant. Sure, there are a few predictions here that haven’t aged all that well, but the vast majority of Mouton’s fears have turned out to be very well founded. (His main concern: global warming caused by increased industry and population density.)

*** THE COMET – (W.E.B. Du Bois) – I never knew that the famed civil rights activist had written a piece of post-apocalyptic fiction! This public-domain piece is also available online, here: http://hilobrow.com/2013/05/21/the-co…
A low-level bank employee is busy with a seemingly-unenviable task in the vaults when the Earth whisks through the tail of a comet. The astronomical event was predicted; its effects were not. When the man emerges from the sealed-off depths of the bank, he is shocked to find that it seems that he may be the last man on Earth: everyone around him has succumbed to toxic vapors from the passing comet.
The language the piece is written in is rather florid and overwrought, to the present-day reader. However, the point of the story is clearly impassioned and still-valuable, even today. DuBois was primarily concerned with human rights, not fiction, and this is a story with a message: (view spoiler)
I’m extremely glad to have read this.
Later thought:
I’ve been asked many times: What is the appeal of post-apocalyptic fiction? I think DuBois cuts right to the heart of it, here. The question at the core of much of this genre is: What would we be, if everything we take for granted was stripped away?
Often, authors answer that question with “barbaric and terrible in oh so many ways.” DuBois has a different answer, and I think his has much truth to it.

***** THE PEDESTRIAN – (Ray Bradbury) – Published in 1951, two years before his most-famed work, ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ the themes here will be very familiar to anyone who’s read that book. The short story also makes very clear what Bradbury meant when he made his controversial statement that his novel was not about the dangers of censorship but about the evils of television. The content of this story is simple: a solitary man takes his habitual evening walk through his neighborhood, passing house after dark house full of people sitting and watching TV. No one else is on the streets – and the man is stopped and arrested by an unmanned police vehicle for his suspicious and deviant behavior.
The message is precisely the same as that of ‘Fahrenheit 451’ and it’s stated even more clearly here. Yes, the faceless government forces are cracking down on “regressive” and anti-social behavior. But the reason is because that is what the masses want. The man we see here – an unemployed writer – has cultivated skills that are undesired by his society. He is single; no one even wants him as a partner. Every single other person in his neighborhood is happy to eschew personal contact. As in the novel, the oppressive dystopian government that we glimpse here is actually doing exactly what the majority of the people wants – and that is the truly frightening aspect of the prediction. The danger is not necessarily that a future society will be crushed by forces from above – but that a future society will no longer see value in intellectual freedom and the diversity of complex and dissenting expression of opinions.
Personally, I don’t think that TV is all that bad. It certainly CAN be bad, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s just another media format, and is perfectly able to convey worthwhile content. I would be more in agreement with the noted TV journalist Edward R. Murrow, who, not long after this story (and Fahrenheit 451) was published, in 1957, said: “It might be helpful if those who control television and radio would sit still for a bit and attempt to discover what it is they care about. If television and radio are to be used to entertain all of the people all of the time, then we have come perilously close to discovering the real opiate of the people.”
However, while I might not agree that TV is the danger, I certainly do agree with Bradbury’s core idea regarding the dangers inherent in the dumbing down of society and the waning interest in intellectual pursuits in general.

**** NO MORNING AFTER – (Arthur C. Clarke) – A re-read… but I read it long ago. Clarke isn’t generally known for his humor, but this is an excellent piece of black comedy. Benevolent, telepathic aliens are desperate to contact humanity with a message of the greatest import for us. However, the only guy they manage to reach is both wildly depressed and three sheets to the wind – and believes he’s hallucinating.

**** UPON THE DULL EARTH – (Philip K. Dick) – Horrific and surreal. A woman can summon… things… to her. Angels? Aliens? Vampires from another dimension? She believes she is destined to join them, against the protests of her fiance and her family. She has some sort of scientific? occult? setup in order to facilitate her transformation. But things so wrong… and then they go worse.
I think this is my favorite piece that I’ve read from Philip K. Dick.

*** 2 B R 0 2 B – (Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.) – I’ve never been a big fan of Vonnegut, though I’ve tried. I had mixed feelings about this one, as well.
In a near future, the Earth’s overpopulation problem has been solved by strict laws. Aging has been “cured” and people can live youthfully indefinitely – but the necessary corollary is that births must be limited. Voluntary euthanasia is encouraged.
In his trademark darkly humorous style, Vonnegut portrays this situation as grotesque and inhumane. I actually disagree, so I couldn’t really wholeheartedly embrace the story.
(view spoiler)

***** I HAVE NO MOUTH AND I MUST SCREAM – (Harlan Ellison) – A re-read, of course – but I was actually surprised at how much of the story I’d forgotten (although, the final scene stayed with me clear as day!)
There are a lot of stories in which humanity’s technology turns on us, but this is the ultimate classic example of the theme.
A supercomputer has become sentient – and with consciousness it developed a consuming hatred of its creators. Wiping out civilization was child’s play – and now, only five human beings remain, kept alive indefinitely (and interminably) for the sole reason that the AI enjoys torturing and tormenting them, messing with both bodies and minds. Death would be a welcome release.
I can confirm: still horrifically nasty after all these years!

***** THE ONES WHO WALK AWAY FROM OMELAS – (Ursula K. Le Guin) – Another re-read. This is a powerful and thoughtful story; one that should be read by every student of ethics. (Whether it really fits the theme of this anthology is another question, but…)
LeGuin asks the question: does the good of the many REALLY outweigh the good of the few… or the one? Even if you believe you have answered that question for yourself, to your moral satisfaction, this piece will cause you to question your convictions.
The city of Omelas is a utopia – but it also contains a small, but awful, misery. Is it acceptable? Justified? Opinions will differ.
Every time I read this story, I come away from it convinced that Ursula LeGuin is a better person than I am.

*** THE ENGINEER AND THE EXECUTIONER – (Brian M. Stableford) – Classic-feeling sci-fi. Extremely predictable, but fun… well, fun, in a way.
A robot has been dispatched from Earth with a mission: an engineer’s experiment; creating artificial life within a distant asteroid, has been adjudged too dangerous to be allowed to continue. There’s a possibility that his self-replicating biota could infect and wipe out all life on Earth. The engineer argues emotionally that this possibility is so remote as to be ridiculous – but there’s no arguing with the implacable machine intelligence of a robot.

**** THE END OF THE WHOLE MESS – (Stephen King) – Previously read in both ‘Nightmares & Dreamscapes’ and the ‘Wastelands’ anthology. Still worth the third read!
Told as a dying man’s last confession and testament; the reader learns what did the world in: an unprecedented discovery, and a well-meaning attempt to save humanity from our own worst natures. As it has been said, ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread,’ and, blinded by hubris, a genius researcher failed to correlate the damning data before it was too late…

** TIGHT LITTLE STITCHES IN A DEAD MAN’S BACK – (Joe R. Lansdale) – Not for me. If you like horror that’s gross just for the sake of being gross, you may feel differently.
In a post-apocalyptic wasteland full of dangerous and poisonous mutants, a nuclear engineer wallows in his guilt and his wife’s hatred, while nursing a bizarre obsession with the daughter who died in the atomic blasts.

** JUDGMENT ENGINE – (Greg Bear) – At the end of the universe, evolved intelligences contemplate a thorny philosophical problem, and a mundanely flawed romantic relationship is examined. I had a hard time getting into this one.

*** AUTOMATIC – (Erica L. Satifka) – A terrible plague nearly wiped out humanity. There would be no one left alive if not for the aliens from Ganymede, who apparently find humans quite fascinating. Earth has been saved… sort of… but (there’s always the ‘but’) as a tourist attraction / zoo / breeding program – after all, we’re an endangered species.
Most of the few remaining survivors are grateful or at least content, even though the Ganymedans aren’t really necessarily all that good at ‘keeping’ humans. But our protagonist is a dissatisfied Winston Smith-type who attempts to resist and would most likely rather die free than live to provide entertainment to aliens.

** THE BLACK MOULD – (Mark Samuels) – Sticking in the words “aeons” and “nameless dread” in random places does not Lovecraft make. An unsuccessful imitation of an antiquated writing style mars this recitation of the progress of black mold spores that take over the universe.

**** THE PRETENCE – (Ramsey Campbell) – One of the most interesting end-of-the-world pieces I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot). Not plot-oriented, the long piece creates an atmospheric feeling of creeping dread. Our protagonist is a regular guy – a family man and classical music afficionado. He has nothing but disdain for the doomsday cult that’s been gaining traction, calling themselves ‘The Finalists.’ When he wakes up the morning after their prophecied ‘end,’ obviously, the fanatics were wrong and nothing happened. Or… did it? Everything seems just a bit… off.

*** INVENTORY – (Carmen Maria Machado) – Our protagonist has an affinity for lists. She likes enumerating things. Here, she details the people she has had sexual contact with throughout her life. But gradually, we realize this is not just someone’s list of conquests, but the story of a devastating, apocalypse-level epidemic. And since the disease is spread through personal, physical contact, this particular ‘inventory’ is terribly apropos.

Many thanks to Dover and NetGalley for the opportunity to read this collection. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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*** Caraval – Stephanie Garber

Caraval
Caraval by Stephanie Garber

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Two sisters have always lived under the repressive, abusive thumb of their cruel father. Spurred by the remembered tales of their now-missing mother, they dream of Caraval, which is a near-legendary annual carnival-slash-contest run by a ringmaster who calls himself Legend. Legend is rumored to have a dark side, but the prize that goes to the annual winner at his events lures in participants: the magical granting of any wish.

This year, Scarlett has nearly given up on Caraval. She’s been engaged, and although she’s never met her suitor face-to-face, she holds hope that marriage will be her escape. Of course, it would be this year that Legend finally responds to her long series of ‘fan’ letters, sending her a personal invitation and free tickets to the game. Conveniently, her sister Tella has just made the acquaintance of an enormously handsome young sailor who is willing to smuggle the girls off their island home and off to the ball…

There’s some dithering about the risk, but it’s a foregone conclusion that the sisters will attend Caraval. But once there, they will find that the game may involve both of them more deeply than they had ever guessed.

The overall feeling of the book is that of YA romance, although the bulk of the page time is actually given over to running around and plots. I still think that romance readers will like the book more than fantasy/adventure readers. Of course, those who enjoy the subgenre of YA books centered around the idea of a ‘game’ will also appreciate the concept. However, for me, I had a hard time getting into the story simply because the settings were so very vague and unformed. At no time could I really picture the world or physical layout that all the action was taking place in. I think that the game scenario of Caraval would’ve stood out more sharply if it had a firm ‘real-world- background to stand out from, but the sisters’ home is only vaguely delineated with wavy fairy-tale-esque lines. On the island where Caraval has been set up, we know that there is a gated enclosure, and then that there are balconies overlooking the ‘action’ for spectators – but then most of the action seems to take place inside buildings. What are people actually watching? Is it magic? It never really becomes clear.

Also, why I very much like plots with abrupt reversals and hidden agendas – I felt like there were just a bit too many here, and not all of the revelations really made an enormous amount of sense with the given background.

Overall – this was OK, but I won’t be holding my breath waiting for the sequel that is very clearly planned.

Many thanks to NetGalley and Flatiron Books for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinion is solely my own.

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*** The Marches: A Borderland Journey Between England and Scotland – Rory Stewart

The Marches: A Borderland Journey Between England and Scotland
The Marches: A Borderland Journey Between England and Scotland by Rory Stewart

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve previously read both Stewart’s “The Places In Between” and “Prince of the Marshes.” I found both books to be illuminating and informational, as well as engaging. I felt that they really gave me an insight into the situations and cultures of Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively.

However I have to say that I don’t feel that Stewart’s change of focus in ‘The Marches’ works as well. Unfortunately, it also lessened, to a degree, my personal respect for the author.

The first problem, perhaps, is that this is very clearly the product of: “I’m setting out to write another book,” rather than, “These experiences and thoughts I’ve had demand the writing of a book.” It is admitted, several times in the text, that the author is having trouble getting that book together, and it shows.

The concept is: Since Stewart’s “walks” across the Middle East were so productive, why not apply that modus operandi to his home, and walk across the border of England and Scotland, meeting people along the way and getting a sense of the people and culture(s)? The initial idea is to walk along Hadrian’s Wall with his father, gleaning oral history from the older gentleman. Unfortunately, his dad was too elderly for the endeavor, and passed away before the book was completed. This means that the book ends up being sort of part memorial elegy to his dad, part historical musing on the history of the Border countries, and a large part complaining and disdainful jabs with a political edge regarding most of the people encountered along the journey.

The memorial part is nicely done, but honestly probably not of that much interest to most people who did not know the man (who does not come off as a particularly admirable person, though the familial love clearly shines through.)

I very much liked the idea of discovering ‘hidden’ bits of history in each town and obscure archaeological site. That aspect is the best of the book. There are many tidbits of information here which, for me, made the piece worth reading.

However, the third part – the attitude – was a huge disappointment to me. In Stewart’s previous writing, he seemed very sympathetic yet fair-mindedly critical regarding all the people he came across. Here, his attitude reflects that of the book project itself: he had a preconceived notion of what he wanted to find and do, and is resistant and frustrated when the reality doesn’t match those preconceived notions. Stewart has a ridiculously romanticized notion of rural British life, and is practically angry when he discovers that rural English folks and Scots are, well, modern people, concerned with their daily lives without secretly harboring old tales and traditions. Those who do love the old tales and traditions repeatedly come under fire from him for being inauthentic and inaccurate (this may be true, but one would think we could appreciate the passion and love these people have, regardless.)
A bizarre and insistent love of the quaint picture-postcard idea of British life repeatedly crops up, along with an adulation of sheep-farming. Farms and agriculture are regarded as a pinnacle of civilization, and the fight of Man against Nature in order to farm is granted a heroic stature. Environmentalists’ effort to create nature preserves and let areas revert to a wild state repeatedly come under fire, because this would be at the expense of FARMS! Can’t have that! These bits – and others – show a shocking inability for the author to be willing to listen, learn, or admit that anyone might know more about an issue than he does. After all, his ANCESTRAL ESTATE is here! This attitude is disturbing, considering that Stewart is currently Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (which shows why people keep insistently trying to explain things to him.) Overdevelopment of rural areas is certainly a valid concern, but when a major part of the ending of the book is a plaintive lament that a housing development will leave the aforementioned ancestral estate with ONLY a SQUARE MILE of property around it, and he just won’t be able to remain on the family lands because that will just be so *dreadfully crowded*, he comes off as simply the worst sort of blindly, selfishly entitled aristocrat, genuinely out of touch with the concerns of the average citizen. Which is genuinely disappointing.

Many thanks to HMH and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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***** The Winged Histories – Sofia Samatar

The Winged Histories
The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“A Stranger in Olondria” lured me in to the worlds evoked by Samatar’s lush, poetic writing style. I had heard this was a companion piece to that book, so naturally sought it out. However, this is a very different book and only very tangentially (if at all) related – it stands wholly on its own. And – I liked it even better. The elements that I loved about Samatar’s writing are all still here. While the form of the story is still not that of a traditional narrative, I think that the format used here is more successful.

In ‘The Winged Histories,’ through four separate but interlocked stories, Samatar explores themes including nationalism, religion, war, and power, guilt and responsibility, freedom and oppression – and how these forces affect those whose lives are touched by them. I’m not sure I can fully logically justify the comparison, but as a whole, the book really reminded me quite a lot of (a shorter, more beautifully written) “War and Peace.”

The first story is that of Tavis – a rich girl with dreams of becoming a swordmaiden. In pursuit of those dreams, she runs away into the hills and, as part of a bandit gang, is infected with a passionate fervor for liberating the nation of Kestenya. On the face of it, this is a common plot line for fantasy novels, to the point of being a cliche. But is Tavis a hero? Are her goals truly noble? Do they even make sense in the context of her background? Is violence the way to make the world a better place? It’s a complex, multi-faceted character sketch which effectively raises all kinds of thoughts regarding the intersection of personal and national identity.

In the second part, another way of “making the world a better place” is explored. And it may me even worse than the way of the sword. We see the rise of a new religion through Tialon, the daughter of its main prophet. I very much enjoyed (and agreed with) this section, but I have to admit that it is the least nuanced part of the book. The author is clearly no fan of organized religion. Tialon is unequivocally oppressed, abused and brainwashed by her father and his radical beliefs. But her story is still wholly engaging, and I very much liked the illustration of how ancient texts can inform our understanding – but are undoubtedly always filtered through our own judgement, deciding what words are meaningful and which should be disregarded.

Another way to change the world might be through art and music; the creative force. In the third section we meet Seren. The songs she has grown up with have come down to her unchanged through millennia. The women she knows express their very individual feelings through set forms. But perhaps Seren can write her own songs… This section, as appropriate for one told by a poet, is only tenuously ‘prose,’ falling more into the ‘poetry’ side of the spectrum.

The final section of the book is narrated by Siski, a young woman who lives very much within the strictures of society, growing up without any major rebellion against the idea of doing what is expected of her. And what is expected of her seems to be that she will marry her beloved cousin Dasya in a mutually advantageous union. But a terrible secret is revealed, and Siski’s reaction to that revelation may change everything. Rather than changing the world, Siski seeks to escape the horrors and pain of the world in a desperate flight into libertinage.

The lives of these four very disparate women are more intimately connected than one might guess, and the ways in which their lives touch really draws the book together as a whole. Also, the ‘feel’ of the book begins as very much ‘straight’ historical fiction – but there’s a fantasy (or horror?) element that gradually sneaks in, becomes critical to the story, and also works extremely well on several levels.

If this had been a work of historical fiction analyzing the factions and crises of a real place, it would undoubtedly be hailed as a monumental novel capturing the complexity and soul of a nation. Because it is an imaginary place, it won’t be. But it truly is a masterful work.

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Review: The Story of Kao Yu – Peter S. Beagle

The Story of Kao Yu
The Story of Kao Yu by Peter S. Beagle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I just googled “Kao Yu” to see if he might be a historical figure, and apparently, “kao yu” means “roast fish.” Hmm. That does not add anything to my appreciation of the story. Some pretty tasty-looking dishes, though!

Kao Yu, here, is an upstanding judge. To fulfill his civil duties, he travels a route through rural China, making himself available to hear criminal cases. But something about him is special: he has the favor of the qilin, a mythic creature who acts as an avatar of justice; and doles out summary execution to the dishonest. Kao Yu is grateful for this sign of divine favor, and glad to defer to Heavenly opinion on the thorniest of cases.

But then, he is called upon to judge a petty pickpocket – who happens to be an alluringly beautiful young woman. For the first time, Kao Yu’s objectivity may be compromised…

As with Beagle’s recent novel, ‘Summerlong’ I feel that the themes of this story may be more greatly appreciated by older readers. I liked the ‘traditional’ style of the writing.
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*** Everything That Isn’t Winter – Margaret Killjoy

Everything That Isn't Winter
Everything That Isn’t Winter by Margaret Killjoy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This story felt like an episode of The Walking Dead; it had very similar dynamics.

In a post-collapse world, a group of people have managed to survive by creating and running a cooperative tea plantation. But when they’re attacked by a vicious group with heavy artillery, they may be outnumbered, outgunned, and out of options.
However, our narrator, Aiden and her friend Bartley, the commune’s two lookouts, have a bold and desperate plan to save them.

As in TWD, there’s plenty of post-apocalyptic action, but the main focus is on interpersonal relationships and characters’ inner strengths. In general, that’s something I’m in favor of, but in this case, I didn’t find myself really caring about Aiden’s lackluster relationship with her boyfriend.

Still, this wasn’t bad. I’d read more by the author. The politics, while present, never overwhelmed the story, and the characters were nicely drawn.

[Only because it appeared no less than 3x… It’s ordnance. It’s not ordinance. Those are different words.]

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***** Das Steingeschöpf – G. V. Anderson

Strange Horizons: ISSUE: 12 DECEMBER 2016
Strange Horizons: ISSUE: 12 DECEMBER 2016

***** Das Steingeschöpf – G. V. Anderson
Remarkably excellent twist on the traditional golem story, set in the days leading up to WWII.

In this alternate history, there is a long tradition of sculpting living beings; using a special stone which absorbs some of the artist’s life force to spark life in the new creation. The craft is not without its risks, though…

Our protagonist is a complex young man, recently confirmed as a master “Steingeschöpf” (“stone creator”), but lacking confidence in himself, and hampered by the prejudice against him. On his first commission from the guild, he runs into complications: the golem he’s being asked to repair is no run-of-the-mill assistant, but an unknown work by a renowned Old Master.

A lot packed is into these few pages; there’s a lovely depth and richness to the story.

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