BOOK REVIEW: Psi-Lords by Fred Van Lente

Psi-LordsPsi-Lords by Fred Van Lente
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

Out: December 2, 2020

Four individuals find themselves with autobiographical amnesia and superpowers in an unfamiliar deep-space world. Over the course of the story, they discover that they are a multinational team of Earth astronauts deployed to this location because it’s on a collision course with planet Earth. However, they are instantly caught up in the political and interspecies squabbles of the roving star system on which they’ve found themselves. Even once they figure out their mission, they have to contend with forces that have opposing objectives.

This volume (consisting of eight issues) seemingly suffered from a problem of not being constructed from story foundations upward. Rather, it felt like the author said, “We need these cool happenings to occur. Let’s write /draw them and then at some point we can figure out why they might happen.” If that sounds like devoting all energies to figuring out how to pimp out a penthouse without knowing anything about how the basement and ground floor will be arranged, that’s about the size of it. The central premise doesn’t make much sense, so the things that this book does right don’t matter so much – though they do exist.

To be fair, the most glaring point of incredulity in the book is later explained more adequately as part of the resolution, but by that time one is so soured to the book that it doesn’t matter [plus, it’s only one of several points of incredulity.] The issue in questions revolves around the fact that we are led to believe that these four have superpowers because they were given them in order to guard some dangerous (but ill-defined) prison population. Imagine you are a tourist traveling in a foreign country and people from the government hand you a machine-gun and rocket launcher, and say, “Please guard our most dangerous prisoners.” The reader is presented with a premise like this as the rationale for these four lead characters having superpowers. It seems like the author wanted to make a superhero story, but he didn’t want to waste a lot of energy thinking of why or how this team of people would have superpowers. [Yes, I know that, from radioactivity to murdered mothers, superhero origins are notoriously tenuous, but this one is so bad that it actively captures one’s attention, hindering one’s capacity to stick with what is going on in the story.] As I said, explanation is revised at the end, and the revision is a bit better, but by that time the sins of story have piled up so high that it doesn’t free the book of the stench of story failure. (I think the author wanted to keep origin information secret till the end, and that killed the story. He either could have made an earlier strategic reveal or thought up a more logical explanation.)

Because the lead characters are from Earth (i.e. in a universe where we know how physics work) there are some huge issues on the science front as well. I’m neither a science major nor one to nit-pick all the little physics violations that sci-fi stories are rife with, but I think if one so much as passed eighth grade science, one will find all the glaring impossibilities of this book annoying. [And if you really know anything about science, you’ll be mortified by how ridiculous it is at every turn.] You may have caught the biggest of these in that it’s supposed to be a star flying through space. There seems to be a lack of understanding that a star that gets relatively small becomes even more immensely dense, such that gravitational effects are still in effect. Setting the story in another world would eliminate this, but then one wouldn’t have the emotional appeal of characters from Earth. [Quite frankly, I also don’t think anyone (but the biggest science sticklers) would notice or care if they were engaged in the story, but because motivation is unclear and undercut from the start, it’s impossible to become lost in the story (and easy to find faults.)]

I found the art a bit odd and frenetic at first, but it grew on me. I can’t say that if there was nothing wrong with the story, I would have been troubled by the graphics at all. There were a number of little things that were not great, e.g. quips that didn’t land, etc. that wouldn’t have detracted from my enjoyment if there weren’t so many major story elements that didn’t make any sense. As I said, even huge science problems probably would have gone unnoticed if the story wasn’t a flaming train wreck by the time that I had the free cognitive capacity to notice those errors (i.e. because I wasn’t intrigued or emotionally engaged in the story.)

I think there are some interesting ideas in the book — such as the Scion character backstory. With different execution, e.g. revealing information differently and building more sound and logical motivations, this book could have worked. Despite being intrigued by the blurb, I wasn’t thrilled with this book, but your results may vary.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Boys, Vol. 1: The Name of the Game by Garth Ennis

The Boys, Volume 1: The Name of the GameThe Boys, Volume 1: The Name of the Game by Garth Ennis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

If you weren’t familiar with this comic book, you’ve probably at least seen promos for the streaming series adaptation available on Amazon Prime Video. After watched season one, and as season two is currently in release, I decided to give the source material a read. As with “Preacher,” this presents its own challenges in keeping the comic book and series straight. This is because (as with “Preacher”) there is a common cast of major characters, but significant differences in the story and details. That said, the book and series both open in a similar way with Hughie being drawn into the action by a tragic event involving a superhero (A-Train, this team’s version of the DC character, Flash) and Hughie’s girlfriend.

If the description of A-Train as – essentially – the same as the Flash makes the book sound derivative, it is intentionally so. In a nutshell, “The Boys” takes the Justice League and gives the characters nasty personality traits, ranging from pettiness to madness, and then centers the story not on the superheroes but on a group that works to check those “heroes’” power from the shadows (i.e. the titular “Boys.”) So, A-Train is fast like the Flash, but he lacks Barry Allen’s intellect and soft-spoken mannerism, and so – conversely – A-Train is a high school jock dialed up to his most vain and brash form. The other members similarly have unappealing personality traits, and even full-blown dark sides. This divergence between is most intensely seen in Homelander (the Superman of this series, but without the Man of Steel’s perfect moral compass and stoic Midwestern calm,) but even Noir (the Batman of the group) is intended to make Bruce Wayne seem like a well-adapted beacon of light by comparison.

The six issues contained in volume one both tell the tale of Hughie’s reluctant entrance into “The Boys,” and follows him through his first mission as the newly reassembled Boys take on “Teenage Kix.” (A youth superhero group which is to “The Seven” as the Teen Titans are to the Justice League.) Having Hughie in the role of the group’s “everyman” would be an odd choice in real life because it puts a rank amateur on a team of professionals who are already outgunned. From a narrative point of view, however, the appeal is clear. It creates emotional stakes within a group that is otherwise stone-cold killers (if with some positive personality traits to subvert expectations.) Hughie’s naivete and raw fear is particularly necessary in the book because the stakes are somewhat lessened by the fact that the Boys are not as severely outmatched as they are in the series (in the series “The Female” is the only superpowered member of the “Boys.”) The decision to recruit Hughie is explained both by the desperation of the team’s leader, Butcher, and his desire to include someone who is personally driven. There are not a lot of people willing to sign on to take on a two-faced lunatic with the powers of Superman (i.e. Homelander,) and Hughie is uniquely motivated by the tragedy of his girlfriend’s death to go after superheroes who’ve been corporately levered above the law.

The comic is a bit more sexually graphic than the series, though in some ways the series is more viscerally horrifying. (As I mentioned, in the series the Boys – excepting one – are in no way capable of going toe-to-toe with the enemy.)

The art is well drawn and colored and I didn’t have any problems following the happenings conveyed graphically.

I enjoyed this comic as I have with other Garth Ennis works. At least this volume was a bit more lighthearted and not as visceral as the series, but I don’t count that as a good or bad thing. Just different and just appealing to different states of mind. The comic is funny in places and action-packed in others. If you are interested in the concept of neurotic to psychotic superheroes and what it would take to keep them under control, it’s worth giving this book a read.

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POEM: The Veil

They call it the Veil —
an invisible world scaffolded against our own.

The thin space between is as a two-way mirror —
from the Veil we can be seen with crystal clarity,
but, from here, the Veil is obscured
by our own reflection.

Everyone wants a ticket to the Veil,
but it’s a dimensionless dimension
so your meat vehicle can’t be folded inside.

Veil-dwellers could come here,
but our world makes them agoraphobic —
tormented by the feeling one gets in a sci-fi movie
when the astronaut’s tether is severed,
and you imagine what it would be like to float
in a vast void until one’s oxygen runs out —
or one’s high-tech diaper catastrophically fails —
whichever comes first.

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

Amazon page

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

Amazon page

 

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: 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

Amazon page

 

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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BOOK REVIEW: All Systems Red by Martha Wells

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries, #1)All Systems Red by Martha Wells
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This novella’s protagonist is a security cyborg that is corporately-assigned to protect a survey team of human scientists. What makes the story intriguing, not to mention humorous, are the features that we consider human frailties that are witnessed in the thoughts and behaviors of this cyborg. There is his discomfort in interacting with humans. He refers to himself as a “murderbot” and displays some of the awkward mannerisms that are familiar to me as an introvert, though — in this case — they aren’t so much about being easily overstimulated as being uncomfortable with the fact that humans see him as giant robot with great capacity for violence. (Hey, it dawns on me that maybe it is the same with me.) The Murderbot also displays the human traits of laziness and desire to be entertained, and is often watching serial shows when an ordinary robot would either be doing work-a-day tasks like downloading protocols or would be off-line.

The most salient human trait is that he bonds – if awkwardly — with part of his team, and – even though he’s lazy by nature – he goes to great lengths to make sure they survive. Because the Murderbot is notably lazy, the reader must consider whether his willingness to put his life on the line comes from something beyond his protocols. The reader doesn’t know to what degree the cyborg is free, though we do know it has hacked the governor unit that overrides autonomous functions, and so one knows it’s freer than most units in its line of work. [Of course, “putting it’s life on the line” isn’t necessarily as solemn a matter as with humans because murderbots are notoriously difficult to kill, and can suffer severe damage and be quickly repaired / healed – provided they have access to the requisite facilities.]

I won’t get into specifics of story except to say that it takes place on a remote planet that is newly being charted, and the Murderbot’s team is one of a couple teams independently surveying different parts of the planet. Things go wrong and the Murderbot’s team of humans must find out who is the culprit, why said culprit has done what they did, and get out alive.

I enjoyed this novella. The subversion of expectations that comes from the cyborg being perhaps the most neurotic of the characters provides plenty of opportunity for humor, not to mention light philosophizing about the nature of being human and how trust forms. Readers of sci-fi will certainly enjoy this story, non-genre readers should give it a try as well.

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