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On Books

by Peter Heck

 

THE DELIRIUM BRIEF
By Charles Stross
Tor, $24.99 (hc)
ISBN: 978-0-7653-9466-8

The latest in Stross’s “Laundry Files” brings developments to a drastic crisis.

Set in an alternate England where a special clandestine branch of the intelligence service—the Laundry—is charged with protecting the realm against occult threats, the series has followed the career of Bob Howard, who began as a lowly technical staffer. Now he’s risen to executive status, largely as the result of having been in the wrong place at the wrong time and somehow managing to save the situation—and survive. But the Laundry knows that the ultimate threat—Case Nightmare Green, in which the Elder Gods of the Lovecraft pantheon make their play to take control of Earth—is growing more likely with each passing year.

In the immediately preceding novel in the series, The Nightmare Stacks, everyone’s plans were overturned by an off-the-charts improbable event. An army of elves from another dimension invaded Earth, causing major damage and casualties in the north of England before being stopped. Now, two weeks later, Bob is among those charged with handling the aftermath—which includes hostile political scrutiny of the Laundry for its failure to prevent the attack. This in spite of Bob’s having managed to convince the elvish forces to surrender before they could wreak more havoc.

Bob’s first ordeal is a TV appearance to defend the Laundry against an interviewer who appears to know far more than he ought to. Clearly, the knives are being sharpened for a drastic trimming back of the Laundry’s autonomy. But a worse threat quickly emerges—Raymond Schiller, an American millionaire, arrives at Heathrow with a plan to privatize the agency’s mission. He’s already a known presence to the agency, having figured in one of Bob’s previous cases. New information comes to light suggesting that Schiller’s ultimate goal is to remove all barriers to Case Nightmare Green.

With a threat to its very existence gathering momentum, the Laundry puts an emergency plan into operation. Working on different aspects of it are Bob’s wife, Maureen; Alex and Mhairi, two bankers-turned-vampires who have been recruited as agents; Persephone, a powerful witch; Johnnie, her strong-arm assistant; and Cassie, queen of the elvish army now imprisoned near Leeds. Their initial goal is to get the goods on Schiller and discredit him before he wins over the government to his plan. Not surprisingly, complications arise—much more severe, and much faster-moving than Bob’s superiors have prepared for.

Stross said on his blog that this book was originally intended to be a light-hearted satire on the British bureaucracy, but in the wake of the Brexit vote and the Tories’ gaining ground in Parliament, he had to rewrite it to reflect the reality of current politics. And American readers may find the book’s perspectives on politics this side of the ocean a bit unsettling. As it turns out, the novel is much darker than previous installments in the series—though there are humorous passages enough. But Case Nightmare Green is coming into play much quicker than readers may have anticipated. Don’t worry—there are more books in the same vein yet to come.

A must-read for fans of Stross and of the Laundry series in particular.

*   *   *

TARNISHED CITY
By Vic James
Del Rey, $25.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-0-425-28412-4

The sequel to James’s Gilded Cage is set in an England where the ruling class maintains its privileges with liberal use of magic, and the lower orders are required to serve a period as slaves to the aristocracy, who call themselves the “Equals.”

At the end of the last volume, an attempt by a progressive, more egalitarian faction among the aristocrats was defeated, and Luke Hadley, who was serving his slave years with the powerful Jardine family, was found guilty of murdering an Equal. Now his sister Abi, who had been working with the Jardines as a confidential secretary, is on the run. And the Jardines are making a play for ultimate power in the realm.

As in the initial volume of the series, James follows several characters from each of the two families — in addition to Luke and Abi, the reader gets a look inside the heads of three of the Jardines— Jenner, Silyen, and Gavar, each of whom is dealing with the family’s power play in his own way. Silyen, who has a nearly unprecedented level of magical talent, is playing an especially complicated game —at one moment, apparently showing sympathy for individual slaves, at another accumulating power for all he is worth. For their part, his less talented brothers follow their father’s lead as he works the levers of power to put himself at the top.

Meanwhile, Luke is a prisoner in the Scottish castle of Lord Crovan, an Equal with a reputation for destroying the minds of his victims, reducing them to near-animals. To his surprise, instead of being thrown into a cell, he is introduced to a group of other prisoners who are lavishly wined and dined at a table with their captor, while a different group of prisoners wait on them hand and foot. But there is no escape — the only door out of the castle instantly kills anyone who goes through it. And the new prisoners’ privileges last only a short while — sooner or later, the feted prisoners will be reduced to servants in their turn.

Abi, for her part, is determined to get Luke freed. Convinced he has been framed, she joins up with a group of Equals who are committed to freeing the slaves and making the nation a democracy again. They work up a complicated plan to break him loose—only to find that Crovan is several steps ahead of them. But events are moving on their own momentum, with unrest breaking out in a number of slave compounds, and the Equals’ rule seems to be threatened. The plot takes several wild turns, and the book concludes with the ground laid for what looks like an even more spectacular sequel.

James is one of the more interesting new fantasy writers, combining dystopian energy with appealing younger characters in a manner that should appeal to a large audience. Recommended.

*   *   *

AFTER ON
By Rob Reid
Del Rey, $28,00 (hc)
ISBN: 971-101-88270-2

Here’s a near-future SF novel about the way social media is inexorably erasing the notion of privacy.

The setting is very shortly in the future, when a new social media platform called Phluttr is promising to revolutionize everyday life. Drawing on the user’s profiles on dozens of other social media platforms, Phluttr can extrapolate to provide exactly the right piece of information or the perfect suggestion for every situation. Now it’s about to launch a new app—a dating service that generates perfect come-on lines for the person you’re trying to pick up. Is the world ready for this? Doesn’t matter—it’s on the way.

We see the action primarily through the eyes of the employees of Giftish.ly, a small, nearly failed startup the Phluttr Corporation is about to acquire. Mitchell is the founder of Giftish.ly; his two remaining workers are Kuba, an old high school friend who’s a genius programmer, and Danna, a young designer he hired straight out of Berkeley and who quickly became an indispensable part of his company. But now Phluttr’s about to buy them out, and the future is in doubt.

As it turns out, one of Mitchell’s relatives is a major investor in Phluttr, and he’s convinced the company’s CEO to hire Mitchell and his staff. Thus begins a wild trip through the culture of Silicon Valley—only slightly exaggerated for comic effect. The characters are geek stereotypes on the order of “The Big Bang Theory,” and their interplay is just as preposterous—or would be, if it weren’t so close to reality.

Working for Phluttr turns out to be a bigger deal than Mitchell expected. The budgets are enormous, and the real-world stakes are a good bit higher. As it turns out, Phluttr has a hand in the machinations of the military, the intelligence agencies, and plenty more. After all, if you’ve got all the data from every online transaction or social interaction, there’s not much you don’t have a line on—and an interest in. So when Mitchell and his friends start to figure out just how many unanticipated things the algorithms are doing, they start to worry about just how much of the real world Phluttr is actually controlling.

This one’s a lot of fun—if you enjoyed the near-future comedy of Connie Willis’ Crosstalk, give it a try.

*   *   *

THE LAST ONE
By Alexandra Oliva
Ballantine, $16.00 (tp)
ISBN: 978-1-101-96683-9

What happens when the plot of a reality show collides with real-world events more dramatic than the show itself? That’s the premise of Oliva’s novel, in which one of the contestants on a sort of “wilderness survival” show is faced with a world that has changed drastically just as her participation puts her out of touch with the events taking place in the outside world.

Oliva lays out the premise in the first chapter, in which she reveals that the producers and editors of the show are beginning to die off—victims of some sort of pandemic, possibly a weaponized virus, even as the opening episodes are in production. But by the time the threat becomes obvious to everyone, the contestants, facing various challenges meant to test their survival skills, are off on an extended trek through wild country, completely unaware of what’s happening off-camera.

The story alternates between a third-person narration showing all the contestants in action and a first-person narrative from the point of view of a woman contestant, referred to by the producers as “Zoo” because she is an animal lover. (All the contestants are referred to by more or less descriptive nicknames, though several of them are referred to by their real names among the contestant group.) Zoo has been cast as a possible “fan favorite” because of her generally attractive appearance and her pleasant demeanor.

The impact of the novel depends on the fact that the reader knows what’s going on while the protagonist doesn’t—a tricky proposition to make work. But Oliva pulls it off by keeping the focus on Zoo’s reactions as she works her way through the early stages of the reality-show scenario. Some of the challenges the contestants encounter are obviously staged—including a scene where they have to deal with a “corpse”—and these experiences set Zoo up to expect the rest of the adventure to be equally contrived. So when she first encounters the bodies of victims of the pandemic, her reaction is to take them as props and go on as if the show is still in progress. She keeps expecting cameramen to show up, and conducts herself as if the entire experience is part of the elaborate game of wilderness survival the show is built around. It takes a good while before she begins to realize the game is over . . . and for a while it looks as if she may indeed be the last one alive.

Oliva keeps the story moving effectively, with just enough glimpses of the world her protagonist is unaware of to let the tension build. I could see this one as a successful feature film—there wouldn’t have to be a lot of special effects to make it work. If you’re in the mood for a tale that focuses on the characters’ experiences and reactions rather than hardware and settings, this one could be right up your alley.

 *   *   *

BANNERLESS
By Carrie Vaughn
John Joseph Adams,
Mariner Books, $14.99 (tp)
ISBN: 978-0-544-94730-6

Here’s a mystery set in a post-environmental collapse California. Civilization has broken down into small, mostly self-sufficient communities along the Coast Road, with local councils the main form of government.

The protagonist, Enid, lives in Haven, one of the longer-established villages. She is part of a four-person family—the two-parent family as we know it has become obsolete, with the need to conserve resources in a society where scarcity is always on the horizon. Every woman has an implant to prevent unplanned pregnancies. The only way families are permitted to have children is if they earn a banner—which they do by making some concrete contribution to the community, doing an important job or adding to its security or well-being.

Enid is an investigator, the equivalent of a police detective. As the novel begins, she is called upon to look into a suspicious death in a distant community—one without its own investigators. So the structure of the novel is essentially a mystery—a good way for Vaughn to pry into odd corners of the society she has created as the protagonist goes about her business. And with Enid investigating a case outside her home territory, she is forced to ask questions about things she would already know if the story was set on more familiar ground.

Enid and her assistant Tomas—an older investigator who mentored her early in her career—travel to the distant town, where they are made to feel distinctly unwelcome. Things get complicated when an old acquaintance shows up—Dak, who travels between towns singing for his supper and charming the local ladies into his sleeping bag. Enid is annoyed at his appearance—they had their brief fling some time ago—but she sees him as a potential wedge into the otherwise closed society. Eventually the clues come together and the case is solved—though not without a good bit of pain for all concerned.

Vaughan does a good job of building up her post-collapse California, using the mystery format effectively to keep the story moving and the reader’s attention focused. Recommended.

*   *   *

FLOTSAM
Peridot Shift Book 1
By R.J. Theodore
Parvus, $14.99 (tp)
ISBN: 978-0-9975513-6-1

This first novel, touted as a blend of space opera and steampunk, is set in the space around a world that, at some point in the past, exploded into large fragments that have remained habitable. While the planet fragments have drifted a good ways apart, it is possible to travel between them by a sort of steam dirigible—a very funky sort of spaceship.

Talis, the protagonist, is captain of a ship that takes on a variety of risky assignments, not all of them strictly legal. As the novel opens, she is on a mission to recover an artifact from a wrecked ship—a mission complicated by the presence of an Imperial government ship that is likely to interfere with the job. A further complication is the presence of an advanced spaceship from far outside the system, with an alien crew whose interest in Talis’s mission is not at first clear. But when the captain of the Imperial ship boards Talis’s looking for the artifact she has found, the main conflict goes into high gear—especially because the captain turns out to be a former academy classmate and short-time love interest.

Talis manages to escape the overly curious intruders. But when she returns to collect her payment for the artifact she’s recovered, she finds out that the buyer who commissioned the recovery isn’t the only one who’s interested in the find. And a lot of the interested parties are willing to play dirty to get their hands on it. The complications build, and Talis eventually heads off on a journey through the many different fragments that make up her system, and the different societies inhabiting each. Not surprisingly, both the aliens and the Imperial captain involve themselves in the quest.

Theodore spins a nice adventure yarn, set in a quirky future world and peopled with a nice selection of different societies. Talis and her crew are fun company, and it looks as if they’re going to be taking on some more challenges in future volumes. Check this one out if you like swashbuckling space adventure with a touch of noir esthetic.

*   *   *

THE SKY IS YOURS
by Chandler Klang Smith
Hogarth, $27.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-0-451-49626-3

A fantasy set in Empire Island, a city where extreme economic inequality is the rule after a collapse of society some time in the future. The collapse has been exacerbated by the intermittent appearance of a pair of dragons that periodically burn down parts of the city—especially those where the poorest inhabitants live.

The story is told through the eyes of three young characters: Duncan, a spoiled rich kid from one of the last wealthy families remaining in the city; Baroness Swan, his fiancée; and Abby, a castaway who has grown up on a deserted island. The main plot is set in motion when Duncan, taking off in a hot-rod personal flyer, crashes on Abby’s island. She rescues him and he—typically—takes advantage of having a naïve female at his disposal. So when he arrives home with her in tow, and his fiancée—and her mother—arrive, the situation is decidedly awkward—for everyone but Abby, who understands nothing of how things work in normal human society.

Smith moves the story around the city, showing both the rich enclave Duncan and his family inhabit and the slums, where an amoral drug dealer named Sharkey runs everything worth running. When Duncan’s home turns out not to be a safe haven from the city’s dangers, the three young characters are turned loose to learn about the wider world they all inhabit—and each of them has plenty of gaps in their experience, which become apparent as they are thrust against new challenges—most of which they’re ill-prepared for. While each of them has flaws, all turn out to have unexpected resources, and the reader gets to watch them grow into something more like adults. And eventually the mystery of the dragons gets unraveled.

A solid debut novel; here’s another new writer worth keeping an eye on.

*   *   *

WELCOME TO DYSTOPIA: 45 Visions of What Lies Ahead
Edited by Gordon Van Gelder
OR Books, $22.00 (tp)
ISBN: 978-1-68219-126-2

Veteran editor Van Gelder teams up with progressive publisher OR for a collection of stories that have their roots in the current political climate—taken to its logical extreme.

Dystopian SF is nothing new, of course, but so many social and political winds seem to be blowing in the same direction that even people who rarely venture into SFnal realms are likely to find themselves imagining the worst. When some of the top writers in current SF put their minds to the job, the results are frequently chilling. Among the writers Van Gelder has persuaded to take on the theme are Harry Turtledove, Jane Yolen, Janis Ian, Geoff Ryman, James Morrow, Matthew Hughes, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Barry N. Malzberg, Ron Goulart—and some three dozen others.

Not surprisingly, the overall tone of the collection is downright somber—not that there isn’t a strong component of mordant wit and biting satire here. And, given the quality of the writers, even the most depressing stories feature well-drawn characters, suspenseful situations, and surprising twists. But a story like Goulart’s “The Amazing Transformation of the White House Dog” stands out for its hilarious, tone-perfect lampooning of the current administration. There are others—Michael Libling’s “Sneakers,” Jay Russell’s “Statues of Limitations,” and Lisa Mason’s “Dangerous” manage to fish a few smiles out of the dark waters at the base of the stories.

The individual stories take on themes like immigration, racism, religious oppression, oppression of women and minorities, and other trends familiar to anyone who pays attention to the news. They range in scope from a couple of pages, including Yolen’s poem, “Handmaid’s Other Tale,” to longer pieces like Hughes’ “Loser”—which follows a man sent to a rehabilitation camp—and Ted White’s “Burning Down the House”—the story of a young woman trying to survive in a future slum. And unless you’re a voracious reader of short fiction, you’re likely to discover a couple of new voices worth adding to your watch-for list.

Definitely not escapist reading, but a clear reminder of just how strong a role the fight against the status quo has played in the history of SF. One to ask for at your local bookstore.

*   *   *

SCIENCE FICTION FOR THE THRONE
One-Sitting Reads
Edited by Tom Easton and Judith K. Dial
Fantastic Books, $14.99 (tp)
ISBN: 978-1-5154-1025-6

Here’s a book everyone needs—stories short enough to read in a few minutes. As it happens, there are plenty of such stories—some authors have even specialized in the form—but for whatever reason, it’s hard to find a significant number under the same cover. Easton and Dial have now filled the gap.

One good thing about an anthology based mainly on the length of the stories is that a wide variety of styles and themes can be accommodated. The predominant note here is definitely humor—all the way from whimsy to outright buffoonery. But there are a fair number of short horror stories, as well — that being a genre that often lends itself to the condensed form.

The lineup includes several well-known authors, along with quite a few that are probably new to many readers. Among the former are Gregory Benford, Nancy Kress, Michael Flynn, David Brin, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Jo Walton, and Lawrence Watt-Evans. The contents are conveniently sorted into thematic categories, such as Aliens, Religion, Time Travel, and Shaggy Dogs.

The stories are primarily reprints (with a few originals from writers who got excited about the idea), but only the most widely read fans are likely to be familiar with most of these tales. And while the majority of them are from the last ten years, Lloyd Biggle’s “Gypped” dates back to 1956, and Benford’s “Stand-In” was his first published story—a twenty dollar winner in a 1964 magazine contest—and, according to the author, his only fantasy tale!

A good one for when you’ve only got a few minutes to read something!

*   *   *

TROPE-ING THE LIGHT FANTASTIC: The Science Behind the Fiction
By Edward M. Lerner
Phoenix Pick, $34.99 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-61242-369-2

Analog columnist and novelist Lerner here collects (and updates) a series of articles exploring the science behind several important scientific principles that SF writers have used—and misused—in their fiction.

The subjects cover the whole range of the sciences. Not surprisingly, physics and astronomy are especially well represented, but there are chapters on language (how we might communicate with aliens), xenobiology, artificial intelligence, warfare in space, and parapsychology — all of which make occasional appearances in SF.

Lerner makes frequent references to stories and novels in which the ideas appear — making this a useful reference for readers interested in expanding their libraries. His occasional references to his own work are generally in a context where understanding the author’s intention in using the material — or reason for using it in a particular way —help the reader understand the implications of the scientific idea in question. And he casts a fairly wide net, covering both classic and modern work, and by no means confining himself to hard SF.

On the whole, Lerner isn’t primarily interested in evaluating how accurate (or how consistent) the authors’ use of science is, though he does note when something that seemed reasonable when the story was written has been undercut by more recent discoveries. The “fiction” part of SF is equally as important as with the “science” part. And, as Larry Niven said in an interview a number of years back, a story-teller’s first commandment is to be entertaining — if that’s not happening, it doesn’t matter how accurate the science is. For his part, Lerner seems well aware of that requirement — this isn’t the kind of nitpicking survey of “errors” that Sheldon of “The Big Bang Theory” might write.

Readers can order this one from www.FantasticBooks.biz or ask their local bookseller to do so. Look this one up if you’re interested in the underpinnings of some of your favorite stories. Libraries might want to get this book in, as well.

*   *   *

THE FUTURE OF WAR: A History
By Lawrence Freedman,
Public Affairs, $30.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-61039-305-8

Nations are constantly preparing for war, and a major part of that preparation is predicting what the next war will be like. Here’s a detailed look at how that process has evolved.

Freedman focuses primarily on British and American approaches to foreseeing the shape of wars to come. He begins in the mid-nineteenth century, when a sort of consensus arose that wars were decided in decisive battles, on the model of Waterloo. Military planners were encouraged to aim for a knockout blow, preferably at the start of hostilities. That philosophy held sway for more than a century, despite ample evidence of its flaws, even as early as the American Civil War in the 1860s. Two of the best examples in more modern times were Pearl Harbor and the German invasion of Russia, both in 1941—they achieved nearly complete surprise, but instead of victory they led to long wars of attrition and ultimate defeat for the aggressors.

With the arrival of the Cold War and nuclear stalemate, Great Power wars became unthinkable. New technology that would settle conflicts short of going nuclear became the Holy Grail of military thinkers. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, local civil wars dominated the military landscape. Western involvement, as in Kosovo and Syria, became common—with results that rarely made the intervening powers happy. Especially after 9/11, it became clear that traditional military methods weren’t winning the new kind of conflict. The answers are still being figured out, with cyberwar and the introduction of remote ways of killing—drones in particular—drawing a fair amount of attention.

`Freedman cites SF novels such as H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and Nevil Shute’s On the Beach—and many less familiar ones—along with official military texts that show how the brass was thinking. More often than not, everybody guessed wrong—especially when they fell under the “decisive battle” illusion. The book is at its best when the author brings the discussion down to real cases, covering a wide range of history and geography. The final section, which considers the place of gang warfare and civil unrest in many parts of the world, and the likely role of China in future conflicts, is especially thought-provoking.

A very interesting overview of military history, and a useful reminder of how the visions of SF sometimes impact the practical world. Fans (and prospective writers) of military SF take note.

 

Copyright © 2018 Peter Heck

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