BOOK REVIEW: The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu

The Hidden Girl and Other StoriesThe Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: February 25, 2020

 

This smart collection of speculative short stories by Ken Liu is mostly science fiction, but includes a few works of fantasy (including the titular story, which is what one might call “martial arts-fantasy” – i.e. imagine “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” with more magic.) Depending how one counts up the stories, one could call the collection nineteen stories or sixteen stories and a novella. The novella, broken into three parts, is “storified” enough that its sections are interspersed among the other stories.

Liu doesn’t neatly contain his stories within boundaries of genre. In some cases, he jumps through time — including historical fiction, contemporary / near future, and distant future within a single story. He also takes on social issues like the Japanese internment during World War II in “Maxwell’s Demon” and the blight of technology on social interaction (best shown in “Thoughts and Prayers.”) There are hard sci-fi stories that show intergalactic travelers in a distant future, such as “The Message,” but there are even more that peer into the worries of the near future, such as artificial intelligence or the replicating of human consciousness in computers.

The novella imagines a world in which companies have captured the consciousnesses of great, but dying, minds for their own purposes. It then explores considerations such as: what happens when a great mind gets tired of being trapped as an acorporeal intelligence for the benefit of a company, and what does humanity mean in the context of fully replicated human minds?

I found these stories to be both intriguing and thought-provoking. I enjoy a good story, but stories that make one think deeply hold that much more allure. I’d highly recommend this collection for fiction readers. Whether or not you read genre fiction, you’ll find stories of great appeal.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick

The Three Stigmata of Palmer EldritchThe Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This trippy sci-fi novel takes place in a future in which near colonization (e.g. the moon and Mars) has taken place, and life is so dismal that much of the population (especially on the colonies) take a drug that allows them to partake of a communal hallucination of a more idyllic life. This substance is called CAN-D, and – like many drugs – is largely illegal but widely available. But the CAN-D business is about to be turned upside-down, because the tycoon Palmer Eldritch is returning from the Prox System with a new drug based on a lichen that is indigenous to that solar system, a drug called CHEW-Z. CHEW-Z, it is claimed, is better in every way, but it has two readily apparent advantages: it’s cheap, and it’s not yet illegal. Beyond that, what CHEW-Z is is a question the reader will be forced to confront.

The book has shifting perspectives and isn’t focused upon a single central character through its entirety, but the lead character is Barney Mayerson. [If you’re wondering why the titular character, Eldritch, isn’t the lead, it’s because the mystery of him is crucial to the intrigue of the story. Throughout most of the story, Eldritch is more of a legend than a character, and the reader is presented with the question of whether the Eldritch coming back from Prox is the same one who left for it.] Mayerson is in the employ of the firm that runs the layouts central to the CAN-D trade. He has powers of precognition and his job is predicting whether potential products will sell or not so that the corporate powers-that-be can decide whether to invest in them. But two problems loom over his head. First, his number has been called in a draft to force him to move to Mars, away from his prestigious New York life. Second, his position is going to put him right at the center of the battle between CAN-D and CHEW-Z.

The book explores topics of religion and mystic experience. Mayerson, like most of the population, is secular and has little inclination toward religiosity. For many, CAN-D is a sort of pseudo-religion, or at least it frees them from their egos and helps the feel empowered in a way many seek through religious practice. One of Mayerson’s love interests (he has three over the course of the book, but this is the one he meets when he moves to Mars) is a hardcore Christian (by the standards of the day.) The interaction of these two characters brings the philosophical / religious component to the fore.

Much of the story plays out a product war between CAN-D and CHEW-Z, but, in the latter chapters, as the story plays out in large part in the minds of individuals on CHEW-Z, one starts to reflect upon just what CHEW-Z really is. And that reflection leads one into some profound questions such as: What is the nature of consciousness? What does it mean to be a god?

I enjoyed this book. I’m a fan of the work of Philip K. Dick, anyhow, but this book is among my favorites. Hopefully, I haven’t made it sound like a confusing or cumbersome read. It’s actually quite easy to follow despite the perspective shift from Mayerson to his boss Leo Bulero and back as well as the dreamlike quality of life for characters on CHEW-Z. In fact, I’d say its one of the most skillfully written mind-bending reads that I’ve read.

If you like trippy, mind-bending fiction, you should definitely check this book out, and if you like books that spur philosophical deliberations — all the more so.

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BOOK REVIEW: Escape from a Perfect World by Sándor Szélesi

Menekülés egy tökéletes világbólMenekülés egy tökéletes világból by Sándor Szélesi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Available here.

 

This short sci-fi novel revolves around the mystery of a man who wakes up with autobiographical amnesia (i.e. he can’t remember anything about his life, though he is familiar with the world in general.) It should be noted that I read the English translation, and can’t speak to the original Hungarian edition (i.e. Menekülés egy tökéletes világból.) At least one minor criticism leveled may not apply to the Hungarian edition (e.g. there are a couple minor typos of the kind spellcheck wouldn’t necessarily catch.)

The story is set in a futuristic Budapest. Most of the description goes into detailing the futuristic technologies — such as virtual reality — that are important to the story and intriguing, but there is minimal description of setting or characters. Some will find this works fine – particularly those who are familiar with Budapest. (It’s accurately described as a beautiful city and locations are given that will be familiar to those who’ve spent time there, but others will be left completely to their imagination.) Other readers will find the writing a bit sparse. The technologies involved are believable progressions of what is under development currently, though implementing some of them would take working through intense controversy (though that is set up to some degree by mentioning a dystopian background event.)

The story is intriguing from the opening premise of a man wondering who he is (not to mention the woman he woke up next to) through the discovery of why it is he can’t remember his life. Along the way, a couple possibilities pop up as false flags to tug readers’ anticipation in the wrong direction. That the protagonist tries to not let on that he doesn’t know who he is also creates an interesting wrinkle.

There is a nonfiction appendix that discusses the future of technology that is presented by the corporate sponsor of the work (i.e. WaveMaker.)

I enjoyed this story. It’s a quick and entertaining read and raised some questions about the future of technology that aren’t yet clichéd.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Valiant (#1-4) by Jeff Lemire, et. al.

The ValiantThe Valiant by Jeff Lemire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book gathers four comic books into a full story arc. It tells a simple story of good versus evil involving a team of superheroes versus an extremely powerful opponent called “The Immortal Enemy.” The Immortal Enemy takes many forms over the course of its life, and in this case (as always) it chooses a form designed to unnerve the Geomancer who opposes it. It’s an allegorical tale of environmental protection versus degradation that blends fantasy and sci-fi with a touch of the weird.

At the heart of the story there is a blossoming relationship of an unlikely pairing. The first is an inexperienced Geomancer. She is just learning the ropes and is a very human and emotionally-oriented character. He is a Wolverine-esque character named “Bloodshot.” He’s stoic and rocksteady. The gist is that she becomes more confident through her exposure to him, and he regains some humanity through exposure to her.

The story’s resolution felt a bit deus ex machina to me, involving an artifact whose role and function aren’t clear until it proves instrumental, but overall it was an entertaining read.

I found the artwork to be well done. I don’t have any particular expertise in such matters, but it looked good too me.

If you enjoy graphic novels, this one is worth picking up.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

The Man in the High CastleThe Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In this counterfactual novel, the Axis powers won the Second World War, and America has been divided between Germany and Japan. I recently re-read this book, having watched the Amazon Prime series that is loosely based upon it. [FYI – the plotting and details are considerably different between the book and the series, and — while many major characters and a few key events are shared between them — they are not recognizable as the same story. Though I believe both are good, each in its own way – and the world is quite similar between them.]

There are a couple subplots that play out to form the larger story. One of these involves Robert Childan, a dealer in Americana who [while he specializes in antiques] ends up dealing in jewelry made by Frank Frink and Ed McCarthy after unwittingly being used as a pawn in their plan to manipulate the two artists’ former employer. This line intersects with that of Mr. Tagomi, a high-ranking Trade Ministry official who is involved in grand strategy level issues, but who is a customer of Childan’s.

The other major line involves Juliana Frink, ex-wife to the aforementioned artist Frank Frink, who meets up with Joe Cinnadella, and travels with him to Denver. Along the way, Joe introduces Juliana to a novel called, “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” which is a counterfactual novel in the world of the book that is substantially the same as the world as we know it (i.e. the Allies won the war and America becomes a hegemonic power.) Joe suggests that Juliana and he go to meet the author, who also lives not far within the Rocky Mountain states. “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” plays an important role throughout the book, and it is introduced to Childan by one of his customers as well. The controversial fictional book is allowed in the Japanese controlled territory, but the Nazi’s have banned it and are rankled about its existence. It’s author, Hawthorne Abendsen, is the same-named “man in the high castle.”

As in the series, the Chinese “Book of Changes” (i.e. the I-Ching) plays a role. However, in PKD’s novel it is a much more substantial role. In the series, it is mostly Mr. Tagomi who relies on the I-Ching. In the book, Frank and Juliana Frink use it heavily — as do other characters. The use of an oracle in conjunction with the alternate history premise of the book puts questions of fate and free will at the fore, providing deep food for thought.

In the interest of full-disclosure, Dick’s portrayal of Juliana Frink comes off a bit misogynistically in places, though she is also shown as a character of great strength and intelligence. [In fact, when we meet her, she is a judo instructor, and her cleverness is put on display as well.] It can also be said that the rendered dialogue of both the Japanese characters and those who strive to emulate them [i.e. the Japanophile / sycophant Childan] is a little “inscrutable Asian / Charlie Chan.” That said, Mr. Tagomi is one of the most mature and self-aware characters in the book. It could be argued that making Juliana shallow and self-obsessed gives her depth of character. The book also came out in 1962, so the approach to presenting characters has changed.

I enjoyed reading this book the second time more than the first, and I got a lot more out of the process. I’d recommend the book for anyone interested in questions of destiny and freedom, or who just wants an entertaining story.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

The Great God PanThe Great God Pan by Arthur Machen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This speculative fiction novella mixes horror and sci-fi in a genre-bending work of intrigue. When I started the book, I was surprised to learn that it was from the last decade of the 19th century. The opening chapter, which is what I credit as science fiction, presents an argument that reality as we know it is just a veneer beyond which we cannot experience, and it’s stated not unlike what one would hear in today’s cutting-edge science and philosophical discussions. (e.g. It wasn’t greatly removed from what one might hear from Donald Hoffman, for example.) The mad scientist of the opening chapter proposes that he can, with “minor” neurosurgery [to the extent there is such a thing,] open the doors of perception to make available what lies beyond our reality. We are left to think that he has only succeeded in a lobotomization.

The rest of the book is more the Victorian Era horror that one is likely to hear the story described as. We are introduced to a series of mysteries that will gradually be tied together and related back to the book’s opening. A gentleman is approached by a beggar who – it turns out – was his classmate and should have been a well-to-do landowner, but who reported being ruined by having fallen in with the wrong woman – a not unusual story until one delves into the particulars. We further learn that a man had been found dead at this couple’s property before the woman disappeared. Later there are a series of murders that have a certain demographic of society all atwitter.

Despite the shortness of the work, it does present jumping perspectives (not within chapters, but between them.) However, it’s not hard to follow, though it’s a bit jarring when the first PoV change hits because it involves a new cast of characters and it isn’t clear how the events tie together. The reader who sticks with it will be benefited by the shift.

This book was widely panned in its day, more for its shocking sexuality than its horror elements. However, it should be pointed out that the author uses strategic ambiguity for this matter, so there is no graphic sexual content. For example, one character may whisper in another’s ear the acts of depravity, but the reader is left to fill in the blanks according to the twistedness of their own particular psyche. For readers who enjoy the freedom to fill in the blanks, this is an interesting approach – others might not like the withholding of detail.

I enjoyed this book. It’s readable, despite the era from which it came. As I said, in some sense, it’s ahead of its time. The non-linear plotting builds the up the intrigue nicely. I’d highly recommend it for readers of weird stories, horror, or speculative fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: Escape from Kathmandu by Kim Stanley Robinson

Escape From KathmanduEscape From Kathmandu by Kim Stanley Robinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is an oldy-but-a-goody. It was originally published in 1989, though I read a 2000 edition that I bought in Pokhara. Nepal is probably the only place one is likely to find this book on the shelves of a bookstore (other than used book sellers.) If you didn’t get your copy in Nepal (or haven’t been to the Himalaya) the one thing you need to know to admire the quirkiness of this book is that the grandiosity of what you experience in the Himalaya makes lost cities (ala, Shangri-La) or lost species (ala, the Yeti) seem less unlikely than you would ordinarily think them.

This isn’t so much a novel in the sense of a work with a single narrative arc as it is a novel-in-stories that consists of four adventure stories featuring the same lead characters — George Fergusson and George “Freds” Fredricks — some overlapping minor characters, and all of them set somewhere within Nepal. The cross-cutting theme of these stories is that of trying to rescue the magic of Nepal (dusty and dilapidated as it can sometimes be) from modernity and the grasping hands thereof. The point-of-view character varies from one story to the next (though not within stories.) The setting criss-crosses Nepal from Everest to Chitwan forest to ill-defined border areas, but always going back to — or cutting through — Kathmandu.

The titular first story of the book is about an attempt to rescue a Yeti that has been captured and taken King Kong style back to civilization by way of Kathmandu. The second adventure presents a race to hide the body of a famous deceased climber before it can be found and plundered by individuals who would like to take it from Nepal to make their names from the investigation of it (or, possibly, the novelty of it.) [You may or may not be aware that the bodies of most of the people who’ve died climbing Everest remain up there – often buried in snow and ice but, occasionally, exposed.] The penultimate story is about trying to save Shangri-La by stopping a road that is to be built too close to it for comfort. The final adventure imagines that there are ancient of tunnels under Nepal and centered in Kathmandu. In this story, the conflict between the old and modernity is brought to a head is a most challenging way by the fact that the threat to the secret, ancient tunnels is a badly needed sewer system for Kathmandu. While in the first three stories, the reader readily knows who to root for, in this last story, he or she is hung on the horns of a dilemma.

I enjoyed this book tremendously. It’s humorous. The two Georges (though one conveniently goes by the name “Freds”) offer a classic odd couple dynamic. The stories and characters are quirky, but the book still manages to hang on to its theme and lessons. I’d highly recommend this book for those who like humorous adventure stories.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Science of Monsters by Meg Hafdahl & Kelly Florence

The Science of Monsters: Demystifying Film’s Most Notorious Vampires, Witches, Zombies, and MoreThe Science of Monsters: Demystifying Film’s Most Notorious Vampires, Witches, Zombies, and More by Meg Hafdahl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Scheduled Release: October 1, 2019

Monsters, especially movie monsters, and science don’t seem like peas in a pod – one being fictitious and favoring the outlandish and the other insisting on firm roots in reality. Still, the supernatural creatures that enter folklore or mythology (and many movie monsters derive from these sources – whether loosely or closely) often arise because of some real world phenomena, e.g. genetic conditions that cause one to grow hair everywhere or – conversely – that make one pasty complected and sun-avoiding. It’s these kernels of truth as well as the limits of what is possible that form the core of this book. It considers a wide range of “monsters” from psychopathic humans to mythical monsters to ghosts to aliens to mysterious creatures of unknown origins.

The two focal points of a book like this (e.g. monsters and science) are seldom equal. A popular class of nonfiction books has arisen that exists to convey scientific ideas by exploiting pop culture for examples. This isn’t that kind of book. I don’t say that as a criticism. There is room for both types of books. But in this one, the science is secondary to giving readers interested in movie monsters some context and background. This stress can be seen in the book’s organization (i.e. each of its chapters features a different horror [or horror-adjacent] film and its monster) as well the authors’ expertise (while they consulted scientists, the authors are more knowledgeable about horror movies.) Also, the focus is tighter on the type of monster under examination, and the discussion of science roams through different scientific disciplines (including social sciences and even humanities – and, in one instance, pseudoscience) as it discusses what Hafdahl and Florence are interested in, which is any real word bases for the plausibility of these monsters.

Again, the last paragraph isn’t so much a criticism as a statement of what kind of book this is — and isn’t. (Needless to say by this point, it’s also not a book about the science and technology of making credible monsters for movies [e.g. CGI or the anatomy of a credible kaiju,] which is another worthy topic of discussion for another book.) The fact that the book is inclusive of discussions beyond biology and physics and which range into the social sciences and other disciplines offers the reader interesting insights. The exploration of what makes an entity terrifying was fascinating to me, and there is a significant art, science, and psychology to that subject, itself.

I will say that there was at least one time when I couldn’t really grasp how the science under discussion was relevant to the topic (i.e. monster) under discussion. It seemed as though the authors had succumbed to a common ailment of writing – that is, the inability to pitch material that is good, hard worked for, but ultimately irrelevant.

All in all, I enjoyed this book. I learned about how the monsters of the silver screen relate to happenings in the real world. There were several references to how quirky little news stories influenced screenwriters and directors to come up with some of the iconic horror and dark sci-fi movies. If you are interested in the origins of monsters, I’d recommend you check this book out.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dogs of War by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Dogs of WarDogs of War by Adrian Tchaikovsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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What will it mean when there are other entities that (who) are intelligent on a human scale (e.g. master of technology, complex planning, and long-term planning?) This is a question that science fiction has addressed many times and in many ways. Tchaikovsky’s approach is interesting because it doesn’t just ask what if one produced a computer intelligence or if another biological species became (human-style) intelligent, but – instead – it imagines an entity that combines human and animal intelligence with computer capabilities and protocols?

The protagonist, Rex, is a supersized dog-man optimized and super-powered for warfighting. Rex’s general intelligence is about at an elementary school level, but his instincts, programming, and capacity to process and analyze complex and abundant information make him much more competent than that level of intelligence would suggest. The dog-part of Rex has the simple animal instincts that make dogs both loving pets and devastating predators, with both capacities rolled into one (even if one side often remains latent.) His human capacities include a limited ability to reason and – crucially – the ability to communicate via language. The computer part of Rex, besides giving him the ability to process and respond to multiple information streams at once effectively, keeps him in check by creating a hierarchy of command and by giving feedback by way of a crude proto-emotional system (i.e. feelings of being a “good dog” or “bad dog.”)

Rex is the leader of a squad of creatures of various speciation. There is a giant bear named Honey, who serves as the team’s heavy weapons platform. She’s easy to see but packs a wallop in weapons and strength. There is a reptilian member called “Dragon” that genetically shares certain lizard characteristics. Dragon is a sniper. He is stealthy, and exists to take out particularly designated targets. Staying hidden is essential because Dragon doesn’t have the fantastic durability of Rex or Honey. The final team member is Bees, a swarm intelligence of bees. Bees can go anywhere by flight, can disperse or gather as needed, and can sting with various styles of poison. The individual bees of Bees are fragile. However, losing a few here and there has little effect on Bees capacity, but its intelligence does degrade with continued loses, and the ability to act and think as a unit disappears altogether at some level of loss.

The antagonist throughout most of the book is a man named Murray, who is an overzealous military contractor carrying out a brutal war in Central America using teams like Rex’s, but also laying waste to the Geneva and Chemical Weapons Conventions as he sees fit. (The book imagines a world in which the United Nations and global corporations are strong, but national governments are weak – at least relatively.) To cover up his war crimes, Murray kills a technician named Hartnell who is beloved by Rex (though below Murray – his “Master” – in Rex’s hierarchy,) but not before Hartnell can jettison Rex’s command hierarchy. This puts Rex in a rudderless position of having to make his own decisions. While the hierarchy is gone, Rex still has canine instincts and gets signals from his feedback chip. He doesn’t have to follow orders, though it’s still his inclination to do so. Two classes of individuals sit easy with Rex. Friends are individuals that one protects at any cost. Enemies are individuals that one destroys at any cost. Rex has sufficient intelligence to recognize that not everyone fits smoothly into one of these classes, but he doesn’t know how to respond to such individuals.

After Rex and team go “off-leash,” he is adrift in a world he doesn’t quite understand and there are events going on behind the scenes that he can’t fathom. Left entirely to his own devices, Rex might yield to his instinct to try to return to his Master (Murray) and try to get back to life as usual. However, while in command, Rex has gotten used to taking the advice of Honey because he realizes that she is more intelligent than he. (What he doesn’t recognize is that Honey was accidentally over-engineered and is super-intelligent – i.e. smarter than the smartest humans. She is quietly using that intelligence in the background, including finding allies.) While Rex is an autonomous decision maker, he isn’t at ease with this autonomy, and finds himself processing conflicting arguments to make challenging moral decisions throughout the book. Using the combination of his canine instinct to protect friends and fight enemies and his (albeit limited) human capacity to draw conclusions based on information, Rex tends to make satisfying decisions. Though the author does show Rex making cringe-worthy decisions as well. This way the reader feels the stakes, and recognizes that Rex’s mish-mash of instinct, thought, and programming could lead to a poor moral choice at any moment. (If this internal conflict seems complicated, it’s not so much different from the potential wars between the reptilian, mammalian, and human [prefrontal cortex] brains that we see in human beings.)

I enjoyed this book tremendously. I found it hard to put down. It does have intense scenes of violence, but that raises the stakes. Because, the book also asks an interesting question about what “someone” like Rex would be considered and what the legal and moral response to it would be. Is Rex a person, with all the the rights and responsibilities of that condition? Is he an animal that faces the same logic we apply to dogs (i.e. no animal cruelty allowed, but dogs that bite must be put down?) Or is he something else, and what does that mean? Can Rex be decommissioned like a bomb or a tank? What is the legal and moral obligation to an intelligent creature that can be [but isn’t necessarily] a killing machine? Is it right to create an intelligent entity and then install a command hierarchy such that it is a slave to the wishes of others?

If you enjoy science fiction, I believe you’ll find this book intense and entertaining.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dream Machine by Su-Yee Lin

Dream Machine (A Short Story) (Kindle Single)Dream Machine (A Short Story) by Su-Yee Lin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This surreal short story is a reprint from “Day One” magazine that is available as a Kindle Single. The story is about a factory in an industrial part of Shanghai that seems to make metal objects / shapes, the purpose of which no one seems to understand. The protagonist is – at the start of the the story – the newest of the half-dozen employees who work at the plant. The story has a sparse feeling that ranges from the fact that the characters are designated only with a single letter to the fact that we really don’t get much indication of the broad and bustling city of Shanghai in which the story is supposedly set.

It isn’t easy to convey a world that isn’t quite right – seemingly like the world we are familiar with, but just a little off. I thought the author did a good job of this.

I enjoyed this story immensely. I thought the author used strategic ambiguity nicely. There are a few ways I believe one could reasonably interpret this story. If you are the kind that needs to have iron-clad clarity, that might be a bit aggravating. [If you’ve seen the Christopher Nolan movie “Inception,” and you liked that it left an open ending, this story is for you. If you insist that there is no ambiguity to the ending and that the top definitely toppled or didn’t, you might not enjoy it as much.]

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