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

Amazon page

 

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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BOOK REVIEW: The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard

The Unlimited Dream CompanyThe Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The protagonist, Blake, crashes a stolen small aircraft into the Thames River beside the sleepy English town of Shepperton. In short order, Blake discovers that he cannot escape Shepperton and gradually he comes to realize that he can do anything else that he can imagine. This gradual discovery is like a dream becoming lucid. At first the world seems right even though there is plenty that is odd about it, as is the case when one is dreaming and oddities and anomalies don’t trigger a response as they do when one is conscious. Despite the fact that Ballard captures the surrealism of the dream state well, and even uses the word “dream” in the title, the reader is never sure what is going on exactly until the book’s conclusion. Is Blake dreaming everything? (including the plane theft?) Or, was he knocked unconscious in the crash? Or, is something supernatural going on that is dreamlike, but not a dream. There are a cast of townsfolk who sometimes behave oddly, but who seem like they have enough depth to be more than projections of Blake’s subconscious. The unfolding of the story involves the surreal nature of Shepperton becoming more obvious as the reader — little-by-little — gets a better idea of what is going on there.

Readers with a prudish streak should be aware that references to sex are ubiquitous. It’s not that there are a lot of graphic sex scenes, but – as in a dream state, the subconscious mind is at the fore and primal urges take center-stage. Blake imagines having sexual relations with everyone in the sleepy town. He doesn’t, but he speculates about it. There is also symbolic sexual reference – e.g. flowers growing from his seed. Frequent references are made to Blake being naked, but the townsfolk not realizing it. There’s generally not graphic description, this recurring device primarily serves as a means to show how the other people in the story aren’t lucid, because Blake’s nudity doesn’t set off their weird-o-meters as it would in waking consciousness.

I enjoyed this book, and, if you like surreal and trippy stories, you should give it a read.

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5 of My Favorite Trippy, Mind-bending Books

I love books that send one down the rabbit hole. Here are a few of my favorites. [Note: as I was putting this post together, I realized that I’d left out Philip K. Dick entirely. That is a glaring oversight as almost any of his books could make this list, but I’m too lazy to make a bigger list right now, so you’ll have to wait for Part II.]

 

5.) The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard: A man crashes a small aircraft into the Thames, and after struggling up from the wreckage he discovers he can’t leave the town of Shepperton — though he can do just about anything else he likes.

 

4.) The Lathe of Heaven by Ursala K. Le Guin: George Orr believes his dreams shape reality. At first, he’s taken for a crazy man, but then his therapist begins to wonder.

 

3.) Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami: A man hired for his skill at using his mind as an unbreakable encryption device, finds out that the job that seemed too good to be true, was.

 

2.) The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov: The devil comes to Moscow with his  rogue’s gallery, throws the city into disarray, and it’s all tied to a novel based on the life of Pontius Pilate.

 

1.) Alice in Wonderland  & Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll: Tumbling down a rabbit hole or walking through a mirror, Alice is transported to a whimsical land where everything is strange and exhilarating.

Let me know of any oversights [besides the aforementioned PKD.]

BOOK REVIEW: The Velderet by Cecilia Tan

The VelderetThe Velderet by Cecilia Tan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

The dual protagonists of this novel, Merin and Kobi, live in a society in which equality is the supreme value, and in which sexual freedom is nearly complete (except where it bumps up against the aforementioned value.) For many, this would be a utopia, but the problem for Merin and Kobi is that they crave subjugation. That might seem an unusual desire, but one need not look far to see how urges develop for little apparent reason other than a person being told that such activities are prohibited or taboo. Merin is a straight female serving as legislative worker bee. Kobi is a bisexual male who bartends at a leisure club that not only serves drinks but facilitates virtual reality cyber-sex. The two are roommates (part of equality is a pairing of unattached without consideration of gender or sexual orientation), and one evening in a buzz-fed stupor Kobi admits that he would like to know what it’s like to be enslaved.

This story in which these two try to figure out how to develop an underground community of those who revel in power dynamics as part of sexual activities, plays out in a larger geo-political and historical context. It turns out that the reason that this society (i.e. the Belledonians) is so keen on equality in all activities is that they were once a slave-owning empire, and they basically killed off another race of people who they’d enslaved (i.e. the Gehrish.) So, it’s a guilt-driven policy. As the individual level actions play out, this society is in trade and security negotiations with the Kylarans, a more technologically advanced society that still practices slavery. There is a fear that the Kylarans might decide not to trade as equals but to colonize the Belldonians.

The resolution of the story brings this sadomasochism fight club story line into contact with the larger geo-political story, and that raises the stakes and presents one with varying philosophical stances on the dominant – submissive relationship. While the Belledonians had brutally oppressed the race they subjugated (i.e. the Gehrish,) the Kylarans have a much more traditional, protocol-driven, and complex approach to these power dynamic driven relations. For example, leaders must spend time as slaves before they can progress upward in the chain of command.

As I hope has been made clear, this book combines erotica with sci-fi and sex scenes are ubiquitous and kinky. Readers who are squeamish about such matter will probably want to steer clear. However, if one isn’t disturbed by sex, and sexual power play, this story is readable and intriguing. I would recommend it for those who are intrigued by stories at the nexus of science fiction and erotica.

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