Reading

Book review: The n-Body Problem by Tony Burgess

I've just finished reading The n-Body Problem by Tony Burgess, published by Chizine Publications. It's a deeply disturbing story, and I hope that Burgess is seeking professional help.

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This book was very unsettling. It dives deep into a sea of depravity. Burgess enumerates, with disquieting precision, a whole host of vile and disgusting acts. This is a book for a rather particular audience, and I found some parts of it to be rather difficult to get through. At several places in the story, I paused to think that this story is exactly the kind of thing that people envision when they talk about censorship as a means of protecting culture. This story would get book censors excited in all the wrong ways.

Burgess paints the reader a post-apocalyptic world where hypochondria becomes reality, where the whole world is dying, one by one, or in vast groups awaiting a new rapture. The narrative is compelling, tightening in on the protagonist, drawing his world tighter as his personal agency is reduced, until he becomes as powerless as the reader.

Let it be made clear The n-Body Problem is not for most people. If you are easily offended, it is most definitely not for you. On the other hand, if you appreciate dark fiction, can handle obscene content, and are looking for something new, give it a try. The ebook is available through ChiZine, as well as through Amazon.ca, Amazon.com or Kobo.

In the end, the zombie apocalypse was nothing more than a waste disposal problem. Burn them in giant ovens? Bad optics. Bury them in landfill sites? The first attempt created acres of twitching, roiling mud. The acceptable answer is to jettison the millions of immortal automatons into orbit. Soon Earth’s near space is a mesh of bodies interfering with the sunlight and having an effect on our minds that we never saw coming. aggressive hypochondria, rampant depressive disorders, irresistible suicidal thought—resulting in teenage suicide cults, who want nothing more than to orbit the Earth as living dead. Life on Earth has slowly become not worth living. and death is no longer an escape.

I received an ebook version of this book from ChiZine's marketing department.

Book review: Stealing Home by Hayden Trenholm

It took me a long time to get around to reading this book. It's been on my to read pile for about a year. As I've mentioned recently, I've started doing most of my reading electronically. In fact, I actually read an ebook version of this, even though I have a paper copy on my desk. Stealing Home book coverStealing Home (Kindle, Kobo) is the third book in the Steele Chronicles, published by Bundoran Press. The series started with Defining Diana, and following Steel Whispers, both of which I've previously reviewed. Through each of these books, I've found that the story becomes tighter, and more focused. While the stories can be read independently, the emotional punch of the third book is diminished if you haven't read the earlier books.

I read this book immediately after reading Robert J Sawyer's novel Red Planet Blues, another science fiction novel with a detective story. It's hard not to draw some comparisons. Stealing Home is much darker and grittier than Red Planet Blues. It draws on somewhat of a post-cyberpunk vibe. It feels much more like Blade Runner. The noir point of view wasn't as obvious reading Stealing Home as it was when I first read Defining Diana, and has been scaled back.

It was easier getting into Red Planet Blues. It has a much wider appeal. Once Trenholm gets your attention though, you get sucked into the story. Stealing Home seems to have higher, more personal stakes. Frank Steele seems more human, more relatable. Steele is far from a perfect person. His scars, both emotional and physical, are front and centre. This is part of what makes the story so very interesting.

Stealing Home is a complex story. There are several subplots that weave together, wrapping up several threads from the earlier novels. Like some of Sawyer's novels, one of the themes Trenholm explores is that of uploaded consciousness, something sought after as the ultimate goal of many of the Borg: the Hard Upload into the cloud. It's a kind of cultural myth, a promised homeland for those seeking to cut all ties to the biological body.

The world is a dark place, with large corporations fighting proxy wars across the planet, controlling governments, playing their pawns to gain advantage over others. It's a world full of prejudice, not altogether unlike our own.

Trenholm uses several other themes as well, namely politics and ecological scarcity. Hayden has edited an anthology of short fiction exploring conflict based in ecology, Blood and Water, and is working on editing Strange Bedfellows, a science fiction anthology of future politics, which was a successful Indiegogo crowd funded project.

 

Book review: Red Planet Blues by Robert J Sawyer

It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that I've read the latest novel by Robert J. Sawyer. Since Sawyer's novel Hominids was the One Book, One Community reading selection in Waterloo Region several years ago, I've read all his books. Sawyer's most recent novel, Red Planet Blues, is the first of his books that I won't be getting signed. Since I've started reading extensively on my eReader (a Kobo Glo), I've rarely felt the desire to read one of my paper books.

The book cover for Red Planet Blues

What can I say about Red Planet Blues? If you've read any of Sawyer's work in the past, you know what you're getting: a science fiction story with strong philosophical content. Moral questions are raised on the essence of consciousness and identity. What you don't get in this book are dinosaurs, although fossils of another sort play an important role in the story.

Sawyer has adjusted his style for this novel, aiming to target a detective/noir/mystery audience in addition to his existing science fiction audience. I can't judge the effectiveness of his appeal to the new audience, but I can say that he hasn't compromised the expectations of his existing audience. The pace and feel of this story feels consistent with many of his earlier works.

While this is a mystery, it's not a dark and gritty noir. It's more like the Dixon Hill Private Investigator holodeck episode of Star Trek TNG ("The Big Goodbye") than Frank Miller's Sin City, or Blade Runner. While I would have welcomed something a little darker, I don't think that would fit as well with Sawyer's style.

The story pacing is good, which is expected. This is hardly Sawyer's first novel. However, there did seen to be a bit more exposition earlier on, as some fundamental concepts to do with consciousness transference were explained. It's important information, and critical to both the setting and plot, and I reasonably executed. It one of those writing problems: how do you get information to the reader that the protagonist should be reasonably familiar with?

Perhaps the other reason I was sensitive to this is that it's a topic Sawyer has dealt with in the past, so I was already familiar with it. It didn't detract from the novel at all, it was merely something that I was conscious of. For readers outside of the science-fiction genre, or even those unfamiliar with this idea, this exposition is essential.

The primary conceit of the story is that people who have transferred to an artificial body don't leave genetic material around, rendering DNA forensics useless, and the investigative role more important. A reasonable way to bring back mystery to the detective genre. It's an interesting conceit, bringing to mind the film GATTACA, which depends in part upon this DNA evidence, and the ability to misdirect.

It's interesting to see the new world Sawyer has created. There is very little in the way of government or democracy in play. The Mars habitat is instead a corporate domain, with minimal services. The local police force does little beyond protect the corporate interests, and Lomax, the private investigator, does work for clients hoping to get paid. In a way, it's one of the more pessimistic of Sawyer's novels, while still leaning towards a believable realism. With any science fiction novel set on Mars, comparisons to Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) are inevitable. Where Robinson's work suffers a little from extreme optimism, and a long-term view of progress, Sawyer's novel focuses on the immediate, with an eye to long-term effects.

I liked Red Planet Blues more than Triggers, Sawyer's previous novel. The ending of Triggers didn't sit well with me philosophically. Red Planet Blues better suits Sawyer's style, even if it does seem to accept a more pragmatic view towards capitalism.

Book Review: The Parasol Protectorate series: Soulless, Changeless, Blameless, Heartless, Timeless

Back at the 2009 Worldcon in Montreal, I was scheduled to be on a Steampunk panel with Gail Carriger, who was unfortunately unable to attend the convention. It was still a blast, as I met Ann VanderMeer and Christopher J. Garcia (who is quite possibly insane, but in a very good way). Recently, I read Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate novels, starting with Soulless. The novels are a mix of Victorian paranormal mystery fashion and romance. There are bustles and décolletage, vampires and werewolves, zeppelins and robotic octopi.

The general setting is Victorian England, in a time where paranormals, such as vampires and werewolves, play an important role in society, even serving as advisors to the Crown. It's an interesting premise, but really starts to wear thin before the end of the series.

The series follows Alexia Tarabotti, a preternatural whose soulless nature renders supernatural creatures temporarily mortal, merely through touch. She of course has close friendships with both sets of immortals, the rogue vampire Akeldama, as well as the werewolf Lord Maccon. Alexia herself is, perhaps due to her lack of a soul, overly fashion conscious. A lack of natural creativity leads her to a series of social rules. It's hard to explain, but works out well in the novels. Just think about how often George RR Martin goes into excessive detail about battles, lineages, or day-long feasts, and apply that to Victorian fashion accessories, pastries, and fancy hats.

As the series progresses, Carriger builds upon the back story, gently teasing out some longer term plot elements. While the last novel finally manages to bring things to a close, on an upbeat note, some of the middle novels really start to drag on. In particular, Heartless lived up to its name, being considerably less enjoyable than the other novels.

Thankfully, Timeless was worth trudging through the earlier novels. Once again the wit was clever, and the plot twists interesting, once again on par with the amusements of Soulless.

Carriger creates some very amusing characters, and often their interactions are much more entertaining than the plot they're supposedly supporting. Her characterization is a strength, although all the talk about fashionable frippery can get a little old.

  • Soulless: 4/5 stars
  • Changeless: 3/5 stars
  • Blameless: 3/5 stars
  • Heartless: 2/5 stars
  • Timeless: 4/5 stars

Soulless was a fun read. It felt witty, and had a unique tone. The remaining books are worthwhile, especially the concluding book, Timeless. If you've made it to Heartless, push on. You're almost there.

Book Review: The Inner City by Karen Heuler

Karen Heuler's collection of short stories, "The Inner City", published by ChiZine, is a wonderfully bizarre set of stories. Reading the author's biography, I learned that her dog is named Philip K. Dick, and I can see a Dickian obsession with a world out of joint, a phantom reality that hides something sinister in these stories. Inner City Cover

The lead story, "FishWish", is a great opening piece. Originally published in Weird Tales in 2011, it takes the standard three wishes tale in an unexpected direction, plumbing the depths of unfulfilled desires.

Also rather Dickian is "The Inner City", from which the collection derives its name. A hidden power of distrust and chaos lies just beneath the surface of reality, directing the lives of others. Kind of reminiscent of The Adjustment Bureau, only with a much darker spin.

"Down on the Farm" touches on genetic manipulation, with a dark undercurrent. It's a rather uncomfortable story, dipping into several unsavoury topics.

"The Escape Artist" explores the relationship with fear. Does one run from fear, or confront it? And if we face our fear, is it to overcome, or to welcome the cold embrace?

Perhaps less disturbing than some of the other stories, "The Large People" is a story with ecological concerns. Ecology tends to take a longer view on things.

"Creating Cow" has clear parallels with Frankenstein, but in this case, the creature has far fewer redeeming characteristics. I wouldn't recommend reading this one right before lunch.

"The Difficulties of Evolution" is another little gem, which looks to our sense of humanity. The ending was quite appropriate.

There aren't any duds in this collection, although some didn't challenge my sense of reality as much as others. It's a well constructed collection which follows a common theme. If you're familiar with ChiZine, this should match your expectations.

Disclaimer: I received an advance eBook copy for review from ChiZine Publications. 

Book Review: Clementine by Cherie Priest

Clementine isn't the first Clockwork Century novel I've reviewed. I've been a fan of Cherie Priest since Boneshaker in 2009, and Dreadnought from 2010. I was browsing Amazon's recommendations recently, and discovered that the Kindle edition of Clementine was under $3. It's also available for Kobo. The dust jacket for the novel Clementine, written by Cherie Priest. Dust jacket by Jon Foster

Clementine is a novella. It's shorter than your average novel, and has a relatively straightforward plot. There are two main characters, Croggon Hainey, an airship pirate, and Maria "Belle" Boyd, a former Confederate spy turned Pinkerton agent.

Both plots converge rapidly, as they focus on the safety and recovery of a stolen airship, the Free Crow from Boneshaker, renamed Clementine, and its cargo. While Clementine, unlike Boneshaker and Dreadnought, doesn't have any zombies, there are other fantastical elements at play, including a super weapon with the power to destroy a city and end the decades long civil war. While the technology at play is different from the nuclear bombs which devastated Japan to end World War II, the intent is clearly the same.

The novella is fast paced, with large portions of the book occurring in airships. We get a strong sense of style in Clementine. It's a fast paced world, with America in a long Civil War. In term of the Clockwork Century books, Clementine is not as isolated as Boneshaker, nor is it as integrated as Dreadnought. Clementine attempts to navigate in a mostly apolitical sphere. While Belle is a former Confederate spy, she works for the Pinkertons, under contract to the Union. It's a grey area, just as her sympathies remain Confederate grey. We don't really get to see much of the world in this book; we instead see snapshots of cities as the characters pass through. The world building depth is strongly hinted at, but not extensively explored in this novella.

As for Hainey? His motivation in the story is to reclaim the Free Crow, a symbol of his escape from slavery in the South. While his narrative isn't quite as intriguing as is Belle's, it complements her plot quite nicely. The two plots and viewpoint characters are well balanced. It's dynamic, and enhances the fast plot progression. This addresses the problems with Boneshaker's unbalanced viewpoint characters, while adding more complexity than the single protagonist in Dreadnought.

Perhaps the greatest weakness in the story is the shorter length. Clementine is half as long as either Boneshaker or Dreadnought. Cherie Priest's writing is fast paced, leading me to read her books quickly. Sadly, this means that the book is over far too soon. This is balanced by the price of the ebook. Clementine is good value. There are also other novels released in the Clockwork Century series, which means that the story isn't necessarily over yet.

 

Book Review: Torn Realities

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I was first introduced to this anthology at Ad Astra, when Matt Moore read his story Delta Pi. After talking with a few other people online (Facebook? Twitter? Google Plus? I don't really remember anymore...) about the book, I picked up a Kindle Edition.

Torn Realities is a Lovecraft inspired anthology, with a focus on how reality twists and tears, revealing something unknowable, something malevolent, which shifts all our frames of reference. In addition to Matt's story, this anthology also includes Rawhead Rex, a story by Clive Barker. My other favourite stories in the anthology include Amsterdamned, and Hallowed Ground.

Torn Realities Cover Image

Delta Pi by Matt Moore Delta Pi was the first story I turned to, as I was already familiar with the story. As I read it, my mind echoed the punctuated rhythms of Moore's reading. Its energetic and passionate. If you ever get a chance to attend one of his readings, you should. The story itself draws upon the fears some have expressed in recent years, that a high energy particle accelerator experiment could tear the Earth apart in some recreation of the Big Bang. Moore doesn't focus on the science, but on the psychology of a researcher on the outside. Someone who accepts, nay, embraces the conclusions of a paper which other scientists have ignored as the ramblings of a madman.

Opt-in by JW Schnarr

I can see why the editors wanted to lead with this story. Today, personal, highly targeted marketing appears to be the norm. What would happen, however, if the personality targeting you was that of a loved one, since passed away? An advertisement that cannot be ignored, as you seek to keep up a link to the past. The story follows this theme down the rabbit hole, as what if two-way communication occurs, but it's not the loved one on the other side? Reading this story reminded me of the works of Philip K Dick, especially the novel Ubik, on multiple levels.

What Waits Out There by Jamie Lackey Reading this story, I was very much reminded of Nietzsche.

He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you. "Beyond Good and Evil", Aphorism 146 (1886)

The terror of being alone, but sensing that something is watching.

Angkor Sabat by C. Deskin Rink

The language used in this story is excessively ornate, telling the tale of a mighty prince turned pauper as he spends his wealth and sanity in an all-consuming search of a lost lover. While most of the story seemed excessive, I found the conclusion a satisfying warning to the dangers of being blinded by obsession.

By The Side Of The Highway by Philip Roberts

Being stuck in a strange temporal loop, able to communicate in a limited way with those who pass through a small section of deserted highway would be enough to drive anyone mad.

The Art of Lucid Dreaming by C.M. Saunders

In psychological horror, what is more terrifying than the desolation of being trapped in your own dreams for eternity? Perhaps being stalked by some malevolent awareness, from beyond the darkness. I quite enjoyed this story.

Rawhead Rex by Clive Barker

A malignant creature, released from a subterranean prison after hundreds of years stalks the British countryside, seeking flesh to devour, bringing death and defiling the landscape. As the landmark reprint in the anthology, I can see why the editors wanted this story. Aside from being written by an acclaimed master of horror, it fits with the theme perfectly.

The Midnight Librarians by Brad Carter As children, we are more likely to accept the existence of monstrosities concealed in darkness. While many of the stories in the anthology have adult protagonists, Carter draws upon the forbidden secrets exposed by rebellious youth. Some tales told to frighten children may just have a basis in another reality.

The Troll That Jack Built by Kathryn Board

Internet Trolls are foul beasts, especially those who prey on others insecurities. There's a reason legislation is being drafted in many areas against cyber bullying. An evil awareness that feeds off negative Internet posts, and the pain they cause, must be a glutton in today's society.

The Calm by James S. Dorr

History repeats itself, and that is certainly true in horror stories, many of which feature the cyclical return of some creature woken from a generations long sleep. This story however, involves a village outside time, and those who come across it in the wilderness, encountering the dangerous creature that haunts the region. This story has a quite interesting monster, one of my favorites in the anthology.

Casa De Los Cadaveres by Gerard Houarner

This story was rather confusing to me. I think it was about a young man wanting to get in on the family business to make some fast money. It appears that the business is something like arcane artifact dealers, or something, and he experiences something really strange. It was hard for me to follow.

In The Shadow of the Equine by Kenneth W. Cain

Camping on an island reached by ferry sounds fun, unless you're stuck with a cult of red-eyed monsters who smell of fish.

Visions of Parin by Joseph Williams

Another great space story. Long space voyages tend to completely unhinge the mind.

Amsterdamned by Mitch Richmond

This is one of my favorite stories in the anthology. It's more subtle than some of the others, the entrapment is at a greater distance. It explores supernatural protection given to someone without their knowing, which when triggered, reveals the secret world, much like in John Carpenter's film They Live.

The Residents of Mossy Rock by Lee Davis

Mental institutions are great hooks for horror stories, as they house all sorts of crazy. But what if particular delusions are real?

A Ride in the Dream Machine by Jessica McHugh

Dreams are extensions of the subconscious mind. The best of dreams come unbidden. Trying to force the matter could be seen as an attack on the mind, with unexpected results.

The Offering by Bob Mustin

A mixture of new age mysticism and Olmec legends result in a plan to wake a slumbering god.

Hallowed Ground by Jeff Suess

A rather well executed civil war story. The author executes a some really great reversals in the story. Those who tend to the dead are not always scavengers of unpure purpose.

The Seventh Plague by Allie Marini Batts

A beautiful piece of prose-poetry regarding the burning of Florida finishes up the anthology.

 

Book Review: Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers

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I was recently browsing the shelves at my local library branch, when I noticed that the only book by Tim Powers on the shelf was On Stranger Tides. This was likely on the shelf due to one of my earlier recommendations: I had told the staff that the Pirates of the Caribbean film was loosely based on Powers' novel. As I was checking out, I saw his most recent novel, Hide Me Among The Graves. This novel is a sequel to The Stress of Her Regard, although it doesn't need any previous knowledge of the earlier book. Hide Me Among the Graves book cover

This latest novel takes place a generation after the events in The Stress of Her Regard: the poets Shelley, Byron and Keats are long dead, and the Nephilim, the pre-Adamite stone creatures with vampiric tendencies have been banished, along with their poetic gifts, when a new wave of poets unknowingly invite them back.

I'm not as familiar with the works of the Rossettis as I am with those of Byron, but once again, Powers works his magic, weaving a fictional secret tale with historical records, which in some ways seems to make more sense than the original records.

 

The tone of this novel was also slightly different from The Stress of Her Regard. Where the earlier novel focused a great deal on blood and bloodlines, this novel focused more on kinship and family. This is seen as well by the choice of protagonist, and his relationship to characters from the original novel. The way in which this Powers writes in the previous history is actually quite clever, as it again enhances this novel for those who have read the first, but does not rely on any knowledge from the earlier book. Hide Me Among the Graves stands perfectly well on its own merits, although I highly recommend reading the earlier book as well.

Structurally, Hide Me Among the Graves is divided into several sections, each separated by a number of years. These breaks work in several ways. The breaks offer dramatic irony: the characters in the story believe the threat is over, while the reader is well aware that it has returned, and the threat is ever more dire than before. The intervening period also allows the characters to drift apart, and form new relationships, making the inevitable reunion a tense negotiation of personal alliances.

I didn't find Hide Me Among the Graves as intense a story as I found The Stress of Her Regard. The earlier novel felt more primal, more mysterious, than the more recent novel. Perhaps this is due in some part to the nature of the protagonist. In the earlier novel, the protagonist is a complete newcomer to the hidden world of the Nephilim. He has no prior experiences to prepare him for these supernatural events. In Hide Me Among the Graves, the protagonist has stories from his parents which prepare him in part for the supernatural events.

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Book review: Triggers by Robert J Sawyer

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I recently finished reading Triggers, the latest novel by Canadian science fiction writer Robert J Sawyer. After the television adaptation of his novel Flashforward, there was an obvious desire to tap into a larger market of potential fans. Many of Sawyer's earlier novels had elements of suspense, but none could ever truly be called a thriller. They have all been heavy on the philosophical issues, exploring ideas and thoughts on the meaning of humanity. Book cover for Triggers

Triggers is the combination of this philosophy on the human condition, mixed with high stakes action. Sawyer manages this quite well. While Sawyer's message is as positive as always, the comparison to Michael Crichton's techno-thrillers is more relevant than ever.

Although Sawyer is writing a faster paced story, the primary plot elements are still based on scientific extrapolations, with a focus on what it means to be human. In Triggers, the focus is on human memory. Unlike the common perception of memory as being stored whole and complete, Sawyer draws on recent scientific studies which show that memories are encoded as a series of cues, which are then decoded and interpreted in a framework of our experiences. It is these cues, which contain noteworthy elements, which are then physically stored in the brain. It's a really compelling theory, and explains a great deal about how the legal system now views memory.

Author Robert J Sawyer

In Triggers, Sawyer creates a situation where a medical experiment causes a link to be formed between two people, where the memories of the first could be accessed and decoded by the second. It is a science fiction version of telepathy, with the limitation that only these memory cues are accessed, from formed memories. It's a fascinating premise, and Sawyer gets some good use out of it, with some interesting examples of how it might affect our sense of morality.

At the same time, it challenges our sense of individuality. Certain sensations or events can trigger memories, but how do you decide whose memory is being relived? How could people use this ability to their advantage, with someone else able to recall any of your memories? Omnipresent surveillance is a common theme in Sawyer's novels, playing an important role in Flashforward, the Neanderthal Parallax novels, the Wake, Watch, Wonder trilogy, and now Triggers. In each novel, the circumstances and implications are different, but in all the cases, they affect our understanding of moral choices.

Triggers is not a perfect story. While the ending could be seen as a logical progression from the original premise, it felt too much like a deus ex machina. As intriguing as I found the earlier science about the physical encoding of memory, I found the further progression rather unsatisfying, and the eventual implications of the story rather unsettling. To make a Star Trek analogy, I greatly prefer the Federation to the Borg Collective.

Despite my dissatisfaction with the ending, Sawyer still writes a compelling story which tackles some interesting issues.

Book review: Enter, Night by Michael Rowe

I'm not really into the whole vampire craze. Zombies are more my style. I think I read some Anne Rice novels after Interview with a Vampire came out. The most interesting vampire literature which I've read would have to be The Stress of Her Regard, by Tim Powers. However, while at Ad Astra this year, I picked up a copy of Enter, Night by Michael Rowe.

Enter, Night Enter, Night is a much darker novel. It is grittier, more immediate. It evokes a primal response. Disquiet and fear. It makes me wish that tonight wasn't garbage night, and that I didn't have to step out into the forbidding darkness.

Chizine Publications Pin

I think what makes Enter, Night so effective is the careful blend of the familiar with the unknown. Instead of a straight up vampire novel, it blends the vampire mythos with native legends of the wendigo. The setting of a small, remote northern Ontario town gives a sense of isolation, allowing the major characters to interact with stereotypical small town conservatism. While familiar, they aren't the experiences of the reader, who is of course, intended to follow the returning urbanites. We are supposed to share their distaste at the ignorance, prejudice and hypocrisy in Parr's Landing.

The theme of prejudice against the other, the fear of being different, is woven throughout the novel. Whether it is through issues of premarital sex and pregnancy, sexual orientation, or racial status, Rowe shows the pain of being different. Ironically, the true Other in the novel is a vampire, who unifies his victims. A sense of personal identity is important in the novel, and the loss of that personal individuality is crushing. This adds a much richer fabric for the story, and issues to talk about. Speculative fiction is a literature of ideas, and Rowe's novel speaks on issues of importance.

It's refreshing to read a vampire novel where all the traditional means of defense exist: stakes, sunlight, crosses and holy water. Churches as places of refuge, and the need for permission to enter a residence. This is another sign of the familiar, balanced by the addition of the wendigo myths. Further anchorage is provided through comics, such as the very real Tomb of Dracula series published in 1972 by Detective Comics. It roots the story in the familiar, framing our expectations.

The story has good characterization. The major characters are well fleshed out, and even minor characters have well defined motivations, often based on strong inner conflict.

After the main story, the book also contains an additional story, a historical narrative, explaining the origins of vampires in the area which became Parr's Landing. It's a document referenced in the main text, and provides an interesting view of history, especially regarding Canada's colonization of the native tribes. It traces not just the history of the vampires, but also of the guilt that we should feel for the way we have treated others.

Enter, Night is clearly worthy of the Aurora nomination this year. Read it with a mind open to these ideas, but you might want to keep the lights on.

Book Review: Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay's novel Tigana was first published back in 1990, although I first read it in 1999. It has remained one of my favourite novels. I have a signed first edition hardcover, in addition to my paperback reading edition. Tigana is a wonderful novel which examines the power of memories. The theme of remembering is woven throughout, starting with the opening prologue, where the Prince of Tigana muses on what legacy he leaves his country: "Oh, our pride. Our terrible pride. Will they remember that most about us, do you think, after we are gone?" to which his companion states that "the one they that we know with certainty is that they will remember us. Here in the peninsula, and in Ygrath, and Quileia, even west over the sea, in Barbadior and its Empire. We will leave a name" (16). The novel quickly opens to the tragedy of Brandin of Ygrath's great wrath, where in his magic he ripped away the name and cultural heritage of the province of Tigana, such that only those born in the province can comprehend the name.

There may be spoilers after the cut, but the book has been out for over twenty years. It's still a worthwhile read.

For the characters in the novel, memory is an important talisman, a connection to their past. During my most recent reading of the novel, I have been troubled by the narration of the flashbacks. They tend to start with a particular character, such as Dianora, who is thinking about some connection to their past. The flashback begins with a narration from their point of view. In Dianora's case, she remembers her plan to somehow gain entry into Brandin's castle, in order to kill him and redeem her province's name.

However, the narration tends to shift points of view, to the governor of the occupied province, and to that of the tribute ship captain who takes Dianora as hostage. The shift is subtle, and would fit within the narrative structure of the novel, except when one considers the nature of memory, and its importance to the text. This passage and others disrupt the flow of the story ever so slightly for me.

Kay explores numerous moral quandaries, often to do with the elements of choice and freedom. When Alessan binds the wizard Erlein to his cause through a magical connection, the issue of conscription is explored. Other differences of opinion are also explored, namely the different ways in which Brandin of Ygrath could be deposed, releasing the spell on Tigana's name. Alessan firmly believes that both Brandin and the Barbadian sorcerer Alberico need to be taken down at the same time in order to free all the provinces, which others, such as his mother, only care about the fate their own province has suffered. In a way, this reflects the differences between smaller city-states and a sense of growing nationalism which spread through Europe in our history. This is further complicated in the text when Brandin abdicates his throne in distant Ygrath, in order to fully commit to ruling the Peninsula of the Palm. The binding of himself to the lands which he conquered wins himself great praise from the people. In his stand against Alberico, a man who only seeks to gain power to return home and seize the Emporer's throne, Brandin can be seen as heroic, defending his newly claimed kingdom against an invader with no ties to the land. That he originally came as an overseas conqueror is of course another matter.

Possibly the most controversial aspect of the novel is the portrayal of the female characters. Many of the female characters use sex as a weapon, or tool. From Catriana's first encounter with Devin, to her later assassination of the Barbadior ambassador, or through Dianora's love for Brandin, who caused Tigana's name to be wiped from peninsula, the female characters tend to be at war with their own nature.

Possibly the best exception to this trend is that of Alais, who aspires to run her father's business, as a merchant ship captain. In the novel, she represents modesty and innocence, while still providing non-traditional goals and aspirations. As her character is more fully developed at the end of the story, Alais is a foil to the other female characters.

Rereading Tigana was enjoyable. it's not a story without problems, but Kay's novel successfully challenges several moral choices, prompting the reader to consider some issues of debate. It's worth a read.

Kindle for Academics

Currently, no ebook reader appears to completely solve my needs. Some come close in some areas, while still making things unnecessarily complicated in the final steps of the solution. Ulysses notes

Some ebook readers, such as the Kobo, quickly fail to solve my needs. The standalone Kobo ereader provides no means for text entry, having only a D-pad toggle. My first need for an ereader is to highlight and take notes on the text.

While there appears to be some support for these annotation features on the iPad Kobo app, they don't appear to sync across the cloud. Their desktop app, for example, provides no annotation features at all.

The Amazon Kindle has more strict Digital Rights Management (DRM), which restricts some forms of access to the text, such as in 2009 when Amazon deleted George Orwell novels, including 1984, from all Kindle devices. This is a level of control I'm uncomfortable with a large corporation to have. The opportunities for abuse are evident, as Amazon has shown in January of 2010, by pulling all books published by subsidiaries of Macmillan, including SF publisher Tor, from the Amazon store. This was done as part of a power play on digital rights sales, such as Kindle books, but it involved pulling all print editions as well.

Amazon's Kindle has a multi-platform triple-threat. In addition to their portable ereader devices, they provide a desktop reading solution, as well as other mobile devices such as the Apple iPad. While Kindle is available for BlackBerry, like many other things Amazon has to offer, this isn't available in Canada.

While I haven't used the Kindle ereader hardware, I have used both their desktop reader, and the iPad version. Both of these offer highlighting and text annotations, which sync wirelessly with each other. They also maintain your reading position between the two applications. This is unfortunately only the first part of the solution.

The important part is where Amazon fails. Once you have selected portions of the text, and made annotations on the go, students need to access this text. Amazon sometimes allows these "clippings" -- as they refer to the selections -- to be exported via their web interface. Note the qualifying word of sometimes. Each book in their system apparently has some undefined, undocumented limit as to how much of the text can be exported in this manner. Some books have a hard limit of no exported text. While I can understand the publisher's desire to stop people from copying the book, this is not helpful for students in the least.

Sadly, copyright tends to actually be more restrictive for academics in Canada. Concordia University has a helpful comparison between fair dealing (in Canada) versus fair use (in the United States). The restrictions in clipping length may be analogous to the lack of definition of the term "substantial" in the Copyright Act (s.3). As this term is undefined in the Act, publishers may decide on a more restrictive definition than commonly accepted.

The web interface that Amazon uses is also difficult to use. In an ideal world, I would be able to select my highlighted sections from the desktop app, and have them copied in proper citation format, including an entry for my works cited list.

Another problem when dealing with the Kindle is directly related to citations. Amazon has standardized on a "location" number to reference text in a book, rather than the term "page". The thought on their part is that at different zoom levels, pagination will change, making page references unstable.

Amazon has lately started to remedy this problem, by including page numbers which presumably link back to a print edition of a book. While I see this change on the iPad, my desktop application only provides Location information. In either case, I still have to manually type the quoted text into my essay. How is this more convenient than just using a print book again?

What's the solution? It's been tempting to run screenshots through OCR software, except that I'd still have to proofread the text for corrections. I guess what really bothers me is that this is something that would likely be easier than what Amazon is doing now, and not just for students.

The Last Man

Mary Shelley is primarily known for writing Frankenstein (1818), and while many people think themselves familiar with the tale, their knowledge is usually based on the many play and film adaptations, rather than the original literary text. In the Billion Year Spree: The History Of Science Fiction (1973), Brian Aldiss argued quite successfully that Frankenstein is the first science fiction novel. Certainly the creation of a manufactured being, based to some extent on the science of the day should qualify as such. How then should we examine Shelley's later novel, The Last Man (1826)? While I don't believe that it really qualifies as science fiction, many of the themes Shelley includes are familiar to a modern audience. This post apocalyptic tale will seem familiar to readers of modern anthologies such as Wastelands, edited by John Joseph Adams. Stories like The Last Man bear a strong similarity to works by Stephen King, such as The Stand (1978), where a global catastrophe has depopulated the earth. Unlike King's novel, Mary Shelley's story lacks the supernatural elements, aside from the narrative framing device. Shelley mourns for a lost world, just as she mourned for her husband and child. As she notes in her novel, "all things proceed, decay, and perish".

Much of her novel can be seen as semi-autobiographical. Many of the characters seem based off those in her life. The story is a kind of momento mori, memorializing those who proceeded her. In many ways, The Last Man deals with death and emotion in a far more sophisticated way than Shelley dealt with this issue in Frankenstein. While Victor Frankenstein is unable to express grief or true remorse for anyone, in The Last Man, Lionel Verney memorializes the entire world, saying that "my thoughts were gems to enrich the treasure house of man's intellectual possessions; each sentiment was a precious gift I bestowed on them". Verney becomes a kind of living monument to the peoples of the earth.

This theme can also be seen in Richard Matheson's novel, I Am Legend (1954), for which the movie adaptation starring Will Smith utterly fails to conclude in a satisfying manner. In Matheson's novel, Neville is also a "last man", fighting for the memory of mankind.

While Shelley's The Last Man may not fully qualify as science fiction, the themes she used have formed a groundwork for authors who have worked inside and outside the genre ever since.

Review: Finch by Jeff VanderMeer

While I've read plenty of books with Jeff VanderMeer's name on the cover, it's generally been preceded by "edited by" rather than "written by". As such, Finch is the first Ambergris novel I've read. It's a very atmospheric novel, with a great deal of style. The city of Ambergris seems quite alive, just as China Miéville's Bas-Lag is a rotting corpse of a city. It's a gritty detective noir story, and the fungal atmosphere really works. While there is obviously backstory with some of VanderMeer's other Ambergris novels, each takes place at a different point in the city's history, which means that the previous stories are alluded to, rather than requiring knowledge. It works rather well for those coming to his fiction for the first time.

VanderMeer seems at home with the mystery genre, and the plotting makes sense once the story is done. The further I got into this book, the harder it was to set down, as if fungal spores had grafted themselves from the book into my hands. The plot tension of the novel ramped up, and VanderMeer's narrative kept pace.

VanderMeer plays with the liminal. The occupying forces are fungal creatures, not truly plant, nor animal. John Finch is a detective, but working for the occupying forces. Blending things even further are the Partials: human-spore hybrids, accepting greater power in the occupation, but equally feared by everyone. While there's a strong sense of independence and rebelliousness in the human detectives like Finch, the Partials strongly evoke the feel of collaborators in the war-time occupations in Earth history.

Finch is a very stylistic novel, with a near perfect mix of plot and characterization. It raises issues of colonization and living in an occupied state, something which resonates strongly in many areas of the world today. A very enjoyable read.

I Grew Up on Trashy Fantasy Novels

While I often write about science fiction, I actually grew up on trashy fantasy novels. Well, maybe not quite trashy. Certainly formulaic. More than one Dragonlance novel imparted a subtle grace to my bookshelves as I grew up. Seemingly the very definition of stereotypical characters, written as part of the TSR Dragonlance roleplaying game. This is certainly not to impugn the writing of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. The character of Raistlin for example, provides an interesting look at the balance of morality. Long after I stopped reading the tales of Raistlin and Caramon, I've continued to read other series by these two. The Rose of the Prophet trilogy was particularly memorable, and took a somewhat more nuanced approach to morality and religion, showing the power of the gods as different aspects of an integrated whole, and the quest to regain balance.

The Darksword trilogy took a different look at magic and technology, again with elements of self-sacrifice. This series was memorable for me as being my introduction to the idea of a city inside a bubble.

One of the most important novels I believe either author has written is actually Tracy Hickman's novel The Immortals, which examines quarantine death camps for those inflicted with AIDS. This novel is actually science fiction, not fantasy, but the message it contains is a powerful message against hatred and brutality.

Other series I read growing up included Anne McCaffery's Pern novels. In grade 6, we actually studied the Harper Hall trilogy in class, which was the first time I studied a book for class which I had already read.

I was also a fan of Raymond E. Feist's Magician series. The Magician: Apprentice and Magician Master, as well as the Empire trilogy cowritten with Janny Wurts are still among my favourites.

David Eddings' Belgariad was fun, although again it tended to oversimplify some things. The whole "this country is a jungle, that one is a swamp" thing sort of seemed a little like the Ice Plant Hoth, the Desert Planet Tatooine after awhile. Definitely an epic fantasy.

Among the more recent fantasy series have been those which more closely follow historical periods. Guy Gavriel Kay's works are great. Tigana is a great novel about the importance of memory. His most recent novel, Under Heaven, is a great story influenced by Chinese history.

I certainly can't fail to mention Jack Whyte, who has written one of the most interesting tales in the Arthurian legend, covering the span of time before Arthur is crowned king. Whyte's novels are told mostly from the viewpoint of Merlyn, but in a way which completely avoids the use of magic, in a much more realist setting.

Review: The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson is best known for his Mars trilogy: Red Mars (1993), Green Mars (1994), and Blue Mars (1995) chart the future trajectory of a martian colony, and the terraforming project that remaps the surface. It's a complicated trilogy, with a strong focus on issues of political governance and technological development. More recently, Robinson has published his Science in the Capital series, with Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005), and Sixty Days and Counting (2007), which explores issues of politics and climate change. One of Robinson's more interesting works however, is The Years of Rice and Salt (2002), an alternate history novel where the Black Plague wipes out European civilization, charting the progress of a world dominated by Muslim, Buddhist, Daoist, Confuscianist and Hindu culture and philosophies. It's a long novel, spanning almost 800 pages. This book is composed of several smaller narratives, linked together by the reincarnation of the different characters, charting the time between 1405 CE to 2002 CE. I didn't find that the individual narratives linked together strongly enough, the piece as a whole felt rather disjointed.

Where Robinson's story excels is in the imagining of the development of this world. With the void left by European Christianity, a different form of colonialism takes place. North America is actually colonized from the west coast, by Chinese explorers.

While I appreciate Robinson's vision, the end result of his alternate history is still uncomfortably similar to our history today: "Things were better but not in any rapid marked way. Different but in some ways the same. People still fought, corruption infected the new institutions, it was always a struggle. Everything took much longer than anyone had anticipated, and every few years everything was also somehow entirely different. The pulse of history's long duration was much slower than an individual's time" (724). The later sections of the book tend to loop back, becoming ever more philosophical in nature.

Where The Years of Salt and Rice excels is in telling the individual stories which convey the different vector in which history takes. I found the Mars trilogy to focus too much on the long view of history, especially when genetic engineering dramatically lengthens human lifespans. By focusing on much shorter sections of the intimate lives of characters, this novel provides not only the overall trajectory of the story, but also the specific details that bring the world to life. However, as others, such as Jo Walton have pointed out, this devolves towards the end of the novel. It's a story with a great premise, but the narrative breaks down in the end.

Sadly, the sudden change in political climate post-9/11 limited the initial reception of the text. A novel in which Christianity is all but wiped out in the 14th century, and in which Muslims compete with the Chinese as the two major world superpowers would be seen as offensive in the sudden xenophobia that washed over North America in the wake of the September 11th attacks. While The Years of Rice and Salt won the Locus Award in 2003, the Hugo Award for Best Novel went to Robert J. Sawyer's Hominids. While I can't quite argue with this, as I believe that Sawyer's more personal narrative structure was more effective, I think that far fewer people ended up reading Robinson's novel than it deserved.

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick's works have been quite popular for film adaptations, starting with Blade Runner, an adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? starring Harrison Ford in 1982. Sadly, Dick died from a stroke four months before the film was released. Total Recall followed in 1990, based of Dick's story "We Can Remember it for You Wholesale", starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Screamers, based on the short story "Second Variety" was released in 1995, starring Peter Weller. Minority Report, based on the short story of the same name, was released in 2002, starring Tom Cruise. A smaller film, Imposter was released in 2002, starring Gary Sinise and Vincent D'Onofrio, based on a short story of the same name. The Ben Affleck movie Paycheck was released in 2003, continuing the more recent trends to leave the name the same. In 2007, Nicolas Cage starred in Next, a loose adapation of Dick's short story "The Golden Man". Before Next was A Scanner Darkly. While I have a particular fondness for Blade Runner, it's more clearly an adaptation than Scanner, which stays much closer to the novel. The movie is rotoscoped, each frame was originally shot on film with the cast, including Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and Rory Cochane.

This is not the first of Richard Linklater's films to do so, he previously directed A Waking Life, which was done in a similar - albeit simplified - style. The visual style of the film is in a very large part what makes this such a compelling adaptation.

The story follows Bob Arctor/Fred, a junkie/undercover narc undergoing a steady drug-induced dissociate identity disorder. A combination of the drug, Substance D, and his dual roles as dealer and undercover agent cause him to lose his grip on reality. Particularly important is the so called "scramble suit" in which Arctor "cannot be identified by voice, or by even technological voiceprint, or by appearance" as it renders him "like a vague blur and nothing more".

The breakdown of reality in the story is perfectly suited to the visual style. The rotoscoping of the film acts in many ways like the scramble suit, carefully masking the reality beneath. Both of these effects are of course substituting for the "mors ontologica", the death of the subject experienced by those addicted to the drug Substance D.

Both the novel and the movie treat an important issue, as relevant in today's society as it was in 1977. It's in many ways one of the most humanizing of Dick's stories, and is clearly based on very personal events in his life. The story is one of my favourites, and I think the film is a very worthy adaptation.

Book Review: Dreadnought by Cherie Priest

Cherie Priest's novel Boneshaker was released in 2009, and was an instant hit for it's dramatic engagement with many of the steampunk tropes. It was named Steampunk Book of the Year by Steampunk.com  The cover of the book was self-consciously taking on the standard elements of steampunk: brass goggles, airships. The novel introduced us to Cherie Priest's alternate history: The Clockwork Century, where the American civil war raged on for decades, and zombies roam the streets of Seattle. The book was fun, but there were some valid criticisms about the branching narratives. The storyline of Briar Wilkes was considerably stronger than that of her son, Zeke. In the sequel novel, Dreadnought, Priest uses a more traditional single-path narrative, and uses a strong female protagonist again. It's a very liminal text, with many borders and boundaries being crossed. In the tale, nurse Mercy Lynch must travel from Virginia across the continent by airship, and steam locomotive to the west coast. Along the way, Union and Confederate soldiers and sympathizers interact with Texans, and Mexicans. As the main action of the novel takes place upon the Union locomotive Dreadnought, the tension increases steadily as they approach the mountain passages through the Rockies. It's really effective plotting, as there are really no options for escaping from the oncoming battle. In these tight quarters, Priest still manages to weave together several interesting subplots, which link together with some introduced in Boneshaker.

While reading the novel, I quickly came to a point where I couldn't put the book down. At an even 400 pages in length, that's no mean feat. While Dreadnought may not have quite the same level of appeal as Boneshaker, especially for more youthful audiences, as Mercy Lynch is older than young Zeke Wilkes was, I think Dreadnought is ultimately a more finely crafted novel. The books can be read in either order, and while they do tie together, they are largely independent stories. I'm looking forward to reading more of Cherie Priest's novels. While Boneshaker and Dreadnought are published by Tor, Priest has also written Clementine in this alternate history, which is published by Subterranean Press. Unfortunately, the Kindle ebook isn't available in Canada, and the Subterranean Press book appears to be out of print.

Choosing Electronic or Print Books for Academic Research

As someone with 200 books within arms reach of my desk, without counting those in the bookshelf behind me, I obviously have a fondness for the written word. When reading a particular text closely however, what advantages are there to an electronic format over a physical format? While portability of an electronic text is often cited as an advantage, as the ereader can hold multiple books in a relatively small space, I believe that the true strength of an electronic text is the search functionality. With proper bookmarking, one can quickly refer to key sections of the text, and search for other similar passages.

This isn't really a new technique. Many popular academic texts have comprehensive indices and supplementary notes, and with a little work, one can mark passages in any physical book for later reference. In some ways, this actually helps one understand the text at a deeper level, as it requires a deeper engagement with the text.

Ulysses notes

Another key aspect of using an electronic text is an easy way to mark up the text, and make meaningful notes. While I don't usually mark up fiction I'm reading for fun, my academic texts have lines underlined, words circled and squared, and margin notes. This is something I've started recently, especially for passages I'm trying to more deeply understand.

If I was studying a book with an electronic edition, it would be great if I could highlight, or otherwise mark up the text, and have my selections exported to my word processor for essay writing, with full citation support in whatever format I require (MLA is the citation format I most often use for writing in the humanities). I would love for the pagination of the online version to reflect a print version, even if it is displayed in a different format on the device. Sadly, not all texts are available in ebook format, and when they are, there are often regional restrictions on availability. Robert Fagles' contemporary translation of The Odyssey is available on Amazon.ca in print, but the Kindle edition on Amazon.com is unavailable to Canadians. A sad state of affairs, and not likely Amazon's fault, as there are licensing restrictions put in place by the rights holders.

I'm pleased that a number of scholarly presses and consortiums are planning changes and advances in etext publishing, as reported on sites such as Library Journal. I'm generally pleased by what I've heard about these initiatives, I only wish they were available now.

Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451: The Authorized Adaptation

Ray Bradbury's classic tale of firemen who burn books has become an emblem for those who oppose censorship. I was quite intrigued when I saw the graphic novel adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, illustrated by Tim Hamilton.

Like George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451 is a science fiction classic, recognizable to fans of science fiction, as well as the general population. Bradbury's book is not as widely read as Orwell and Huxley's novels, which is a shame, as the fear of creating an illiterate society seeking hedonistic pleasures in electronic entertainment appears as relevant today as it did in 1953.

What can be said about Tim Hamilton's illustrated adaptation of Bradbury's classic work? It's a sharp looking graphic novel, at 149 illustrated pages, in addition to Bradbury's new introduction. Hamilton's artwork is a good backdrop for the story of Guy Montag. Individual pages are confined to several shades of similar colours. Much of the story is shown in shades of browns and blues, evoking the drab dreariness of Montag's life. The fire hall is shown in slightly brighter colours, but the spark of energy explodes in the yellows and reds of the scenes where the firemen set fire to books.

A graphic adaptation for this work seems quite appropriate. Just as in the story, where Montag and the other outlaw academics memorize works of literature, holding new versions in their minds, Hamilton still presents the key features of Bradbury's original. Like most graphic novels, most of the text is dialogue, while most of the description is now visual in nature. This again seems quite fitting for a story where literature is banned. However, this also presents a form of hope, as the images in this adaptation are equally capable of evoking pathos.

Bradbury's tale is still relevant today, and this new adaptation is a good reminder. It would be nice to think that it might see use in some high schools, as the subject matter becomes much more accessible than the original text. Sadly, I suspect that it will not be deemed "Literature" by many school administrators and educators.