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: Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

Stories of Your Life and OthersStories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This collection of eight smart short stories is most well-known for the eponymous story that served as the basis for the movie “Arrival.” The stories are sci-fi, but in the broadest sense of that word. “Speculative fiction” is probably a more apt descriptor. At any rate, the pieces all have nerd appeal and offer philosophical food-for-thought as well as entertaining stories.

1.) “Tower of Babylon:” The Biblical myth re-imagined. What if god didn’t sabotage construction by introducing varying languages and spreading humanity to the four winds? What if, instead, the tower did eventually reach to the heavens?

2.) “Understand:” A man who suffered severe brain damage due to a fall through thin ice, is put on an experimental medicine that begins to stimulate neurogenesis on a massive scale. The protagonist becomes preternaturally intelligent, realizes that such super-intelligence is considered a threat, but is able to keep one step ahead of the ordinary minds who pursue him. That is until he runs into another patient who had a similar accident and treatment. A thinking man’s “Lucy” (referring to the Scarlett Johansson movie), this piece considers the question of how different people would use such a gift, and whether differences could be reconciled.

3.) “Division by Zero:” If a scholar’s life was invested in an idea or way of thinking about the world, but then the scholar proved that that way was in error, might it cause a descent into madness and even a crumbling of one’s world?

4.) “Story of Your Life:” This is the story that the Amy Adams’ movie “Arrival” is based upon. The protagonist is a linguist charged with helping to communicate with a newly arrived alien species that has a very different approach to language. In the process of learning their language and interacting with them, she begins to see the world as they do – time being an illusion. Stories from her daughter’s life, which the lead character has seen in full before conception, are interspersed with the description of her work with the alien language.

5.) “Seventy-Two Letters:” This is a golem story. In this world, names have the power to animate matter and golems can be created. (A Golem is a living being created from inanimate matter; the idea comes from Jewish folklore.) The story ads a layer to the question of what would be created if humans could make a simulacrum of themselves – e.g. Frankenstein’s Monster style – and asks the reader to consider what would be the reaction to the dawn of an era in which the golems might be able to make themselves.

6.) “The Evolution of Human Science:” This is one of the shorter pieces and is also the least story-centric entry. It considers philosophical questions around the development of meta-humans.

7.) “Hell is the Absence of God:” This story is also not as story oriented as most of the others, but it is thought-provoking. It revolves around a support group for people who’ve lost significant others in tragedy and asks one to consider the various approaches to belief in the wake of tragedy.

8.) “Liking What You See: A Documentary:” This clever piece imagines a technology that prevents wearers from being able to recognized beauty (and ugliness as well.) As the subtitle suggests, it’s presented as if it were a documentary that is following a college’s debate over whether to require the student body to use said technology.

I enjoyed this collection of stories. “Understand,” “Stories of Your Life,” and “Seventy-two Letters” are gripping stories, and all eight are thought-provoking and well-written. I’d highly recommend this book for readers of short fiction, particularly speculative fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

The Illustrated ManThe Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is a collection of 18 science fiction short stories by Ray Bradbury, featuring: space travel, androids, time travel, and alien invasions. However, many of the stories use science-fiction – space travel most extensively — to investigate down-to-earth subjects such as: religion, marital relationships, war, and race relations. The fact that the collection deals in everyday subject matter allows it to retain its relevancy. The sci-fi is definitely dated, from the fact that “Martian” is used as a synonym for alien to the Cold War themes, but the stories are still worth reading because they are well-crafted and continue to be thought-provoking.

The stories of this collection are integrated by the titular story. The Illustrated Man is a character who had his body covered in tattoos to continue his employment with the carnival, but the witch who tattooed him made shape-shifting images that told stories. The story of “The Illustrated Man” is the last in the collection, but there’s a prologue that sets it up. It’s not a novel-in-stories, however, as the stories aren’t connected — other than being collected into a universe of this character’s flesh. The end of several stories feature a quick reference to the Illustrated Man narrative arc, but generally there’s no other connective tissue to the stories.

Here is a brief overview of the stories:

“The Veldt”: spoiled kids are given access to a technology that goes one step beyond virtual reality to what might be called mentally constructed reality. They create an African savanna, and things go awry.

“Kaleidoscope”: An accident causes astronauts to be scattered into space, not dying immediately, but knowing the limited resources of their spacesuits will not last long. This is among the more popular stories in the collection.

“The Other Foot”: A white man is forced to take refuge on a planet that minorities had long-ago been relocated to, because now a war has made the Earth uninhabitable. The story deals with the tension between those who are willing to welcome him and those who think he should be treated as they once were.

“The Highway”: A man living and working near a desolate stretch of highway meets a rare visitor who tells him that war is upon them. One of the Cold War end-of-the-world scenario stories.

“The Man”: The Captain of a spaceship is disappointed to find that none of the locals come to see them when they land. Little does he know, they were just visited by a Messianic figure the day before. The tension is between the non-believing, skeptical Captain and one of his men who is a true believer. A commentary on faith and belief.

“The Long Rain”: Space explorers are demoralized by the unceasing rain on a planet they are exploring, a rain that threatens to send them into madness.

“The Rocket Man”: The son of a space traveler wants to follow in his father’s footsteps, but doesn’t know how hazardous a life it is.

“The Last Night of the World”: This story asks one to contemplate what if one knew it was the last night before doomsday. Another Cold War-era sci-fi piece that hinges on atomic apocalypse.

“The Exiles”: A crew of space explorers is falling to inexplicable illness. This story has a great deal of literary allusion with Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, and Charles Dickens each playing a part. Like Bradbury’s most famous novel, the story considers the issue of censorship.

“No Particular Night or Morning”: This story considers the question of how one knows anything is true. It does so through the lens of a spaceship crewman afflicted with solipsistic delusions – or so his crew-mates assume.

“The Fox and the Forest”: In this time travel story, a couple has escaped a dystopian future into Mexico, circa 1938, but the authorities of their time don’t intend to let them get away.

“The Visitor”: The story of a man with powerful psychic abilities who is coveted by competing factions.

“The Concrete Mixer”: A Martian pacifist is forced to participate in an invasion of Earth, only to find that it is an ill-advised endeavor for reasons entirely different from he’d thought. The story revolves around the centrality of materialism and consumerism in American culture.

“Marionettes, Inc.”: One man gets a look-alike android to cope with a wife who hates him, and another gets one to contend with a wife who is smotheringly needy.

“The City”: Explorers find that the abandoned city they’ve been sent to explore isn’t as free of sentience as they’d thought.

“Zero Hour”: Alien invaders find an unexpected ally in the impressionable youth.

“The Rocket”: A man wants his family to see the stars, but lacks the resources to make the dream come true. So, he gets creative.

“The Illustrated Man”: As referenced above, this story tells the tale of carnival tattoo’d man whose body-art mysteriously tells stories through its images, with special focus on two special designs.

I’ve never found a Bradbury work I didn’t like, and this one is no exception. The writing is beautiful. The story-telling is skillful, and, even when the sci-fi details are dated, there are themes that remain relevant. I’d highly recommend this collection for readers of sci-fi, particularly those who like classic sci-fi.

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BOOK REVIEW: Meeting the Dog Girls by Gay Terry

Meeting the Dog Girls: StoriesMeeting the Dog Girls: Stories by Gay Terry
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This collection consists of 30 pieces of short fiction that might be put in the bucket of speculative fiction. (“Speculative fiction” being defined as existing in a world unlike our own–i.e. sci-fi, horror, strange tales, and fantasy.) The stories are cross-genre, but “tales of the weird” is a common theme. Many of the pieces are too long for flash but on the short side of short story, though there are also a number that are of typical short story length.

It’s a mixed bag not only in terms of genre, but also in terms of the appeal. There were a few stories that I enjoyed, others that I didn’t care for, and—worst of all–a number that were utterly forgettable. Besides the strangeness, there’s another quality that might be called “quirky humor” that sparkles here and there throughout the collection.

Among the pieces that I found most interesting and readable were: “Spirit Gobs,” “Barbara Hutton Toujours,” “On Orly’s Border,” “Icon,” and “Meeting the Dog Girls.”

There’s a mini Tai Chi theme running across a couple of pieces, so I dig that.

If you enjoy tales of the strange and you can pick this book up at a good price, you just might like it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Iron Man: Civil War by Brian Michael Bendis et. al.

Civil War: Iron ManCivil War: Iron Man by Brian Michael Bendis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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With the “Captain America: Civil War” movie set to come out this year, one would have to be living under a rock to be unfamiliar with the basic premise of the Civil War story line. (Not that the movie will—or even can—follow the comic books exactly. But the gist is the same.” The government passes a Registration Act that would require superheroes to be registered, regulated, and trained. This splits the Marvel universe of heroes into two battling factions. (In the movies, it’s just the Avengers, but the comics include members of the Fantastic Four, X-men, etc.) One side, led by Tony Stark—a.k.a. Iron Man, supports the Registration Act. The other side, led by Steve Rogers—a.k.a. Captain America, staunchly opposes the new law. The four issues collected here offer insight into the mind of Tony Stark.

The four issues in this collection are: “Civil War: The Confession #1,” “Iron Man #13,” “Iron Man #14,” and “Iron Man / Captain America: Casualties of War #1.” Putting the issues in this order contributes to the somber tone of the storyline, as the chronological end of the events is put up front in the form of Stark’s confession. The start is a little like the very beginning of “Saving Private Ryan” (before the battle scene begins.) As with “Saving Private Ryan,” this opening does little to detract from the story and in fact builds immediate intrigue.

This isn’t the most action packed collection, but it is an emotional story line. Tony Stark is serious, somber, and sober (in both senses of the word.) This isn’t the cocky, witty playboy philanthropist one associates with Iron Man. It’s a man whose convictions are forcing him to fight his friends and comrades in arms. The irony of the situation is that Stark is certain the Registration Act is necessary because of people like him. In other words, if everybody was like his friend-turned-enemy Steve Rogers (i.e. a pinnacle of virtue) then the Act would be unnecessary.

There is some awkward expositional dialogue / monologuing in this book—a common problem among serial comic books. However, overall the story is engaging. If you want battle scenes, you may be disappointed, but this book makes one sympathize with Stark—even if you’ve previously thought him an arrogant douche.

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BOOK REVIEW: I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison

I Have No Mouth and I Must ScreamI Have No Mouth and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This collection of short fiction by Harlan Ellison consists of only seven stories. It was originally published in the late 1960’s and a second edition was released in 1983—the latter being the edition I read. Despite a bit of Cold War zeitgeist–most notably in the title story—this collection holds up well to time.

I’ll proceed by discussing each of the seven stories.

1.) I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream: It’s after World War III, the Soviets, Americans, and Chinese had built artificial intelligences (AIs) to help prosecute the war. The AIs ganged up against humanity and exterminated all humans—excepting five individuals (4 men and 1 woman.) The AI finds a way to indefinitely extend the lives of the five so that it can keep its playthings around. The AI is kind of like a sadistic child with an ant farm. The story is told from the perspective of one of the five remaining humans.

2.) Big Sam Was My Friend: A folksy narrator tells the tale of how a fellow interstellar circus performer met his ends. The deceased, Big Sam, was capable of teleportation, like the character Nightcrawler (Kurt Wagner) in the X-men. Ellison does an excellent job of creating a unique character and tone in this story.

3.) Eyes of Dust: On a planet of beautiful people, there remains a family of uggos–and the child is the ugliest of all. However, ugliness isn’t the boy’s only unique trait. This is one of the weaker stories of the collection in my opinion, but it’s not bad.

4.) World of The Myth: The three-person crew of a spaceship crashes on an unfamiliar planet. The planet is inhabited by ant-like creatures that can form complex shapes, and through such displays the creatures can reflect the essence of who a person is back at them. This proves more than the despicable captain of the small crew can bear.

5.) Lonelyache: This story is more realism than speculative fiction—or at least I interpreted it that way. It’s about a guy who’s gone through a divorce recently, and is living alone. The story intersperses recurringly-themed dreams in which men are trying to kill the lead character, with waking sequences which revolve around the man’s troubled relationships with women.

6.) Delusion For a Dragon Slayer: In the Introduction, we are told by Theodore Sturgeon that the description in this story is very much how people on hallucinogens experience the world. I can see what Sturgeon is saying. The story begins with a series of vignettes about people who died for no logical reason and at the least likely times. The story then tells an extended tale of one such death, that of the lead character, in a way that mixes dream and reality in a way that’s hard to differentiate.

7.) Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes: A man in Las Vegas hits the jackpot on a slot machine. He feels compelled to engage in the very sucker-like behavior of playing the same machine again, but he wins again and then keeps winning. The casino obviously suspects foul play with the second jackpot, but they can’t find anything wrong with the machine or any way in which the man might be cheating. All their investigation reveals is that a woman had died playing that machine some time before.

I’d recommend this book for those who like short speculative fiction. The best of the stories are outstanding, and the worst of them are still intriguing and readable. I will say that it’s not a collection for readers with delicate sensibilities–including young readers. (e.g. Rape is a theme that repeats in a couple of stories.)

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BOOK REVIEW: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

NeverwhereNeverwhere by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Neverwhere taps into a reader’s imagination and the fantasy that beyond closed doors and locked grates, beyond the prying eyes of common men, lies something magical—not just the mundane sewers and conduits our rational mind tells us exist there. This magical world is “London Below,” and–to a lesser extent–rooftop London. It’s a world that exists below the workaday London that we know. It’s a London of angels and cutthroats, witches and warriors. It’s a London trapped in time, but unconstrained by the laws of physics or men as we know them.

The lead character is Richard Mayhew, a perfectly normal resident of London Above. He has a fine—if boring—job in the business world, and a fiancé isn’t right for him, but who he believes is close enough for an imperfect world by virtue of her being pretty, smart, and capable.

Mayhew is living an ordinary and comfortable life until he and his girlfriend come across an injured young woman on the street. While his fiancé, Jessica, steps over the girl because the couple are on their way to meet Jessica’s VIP boss, Richard refuses to leave the girl. The injured girl is a resident of London Below, and had collapsed to the sidewalk after escaping from the two London Below master assassins who killed her family. It turns out the girl, Door, is from a family whose magical gift is the ability to open doors—even doors that are locked, sealed, or that no one even recognizes the existence of. As no good deed goes unpunished, Richard’s assistance of Door pulls him into the world of London Below, and he soon finds that he’s almost invisible to the residents of London Above and that he’s been forgotten by Jessica, his friends, and his coworkers.

The rest of the book is a hero’s quest in which Door is trying to discover who ordered the assassination of her family and why, and Richard is trying to find out whether (and, if so, how) he can get back his life in London Above. Because the fates of Richard and Door are intertwined, they travel together along with a bodyguard named Hunter and a Marquis / conman in the debt of Door’s father named the Marquis de Carabas.

I enjoyed this book immensely. It’s highly readable and the reader will be drawn to the fate of the characters. It has that page-turner quality. I’d highly recommend this book for anyone who reads fantasy / speculative fiction–or who doesn’t but is willing to give it a try.

Neil Gaiman is, as always, the master storyteller. When the story calls for humor, it is genuinely funny. When it’s time to be scary, it creates shivers. The storytelling was good enough that I was willing to overlook an ending that—in less capable hands—would have felt flat and too easy.

I didn’t realize that Neverwhere was based on a BBC miniseries. In other words, for a change the book is based on the movie rather than the other way round. However, the book does concisely but vividly portray setting—a task that one might imagine being easier having gone in this developmental direction. And, of course, setting is extremely important in this book. The distinct feel of London Below, London Above, and Rooftop London must be conveyed.

Here is a link to a piece of said BBC miniseries:

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BOOK REVIEW: Futureland by Walter Mosley

FuturelandFutureland by Walter Mosley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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As suggested by the subtitle, this is a collection of nine short stories about a dystopian world. What makes it a particularly intriguing read is that the stories take place in one world, and the events all exist within a greater context that could qualify the book as a loosely plotted novel had the writer not defined it as a story collection.

Some characters recur in different stories. For the most part the recurring characters are cameo appearances (e.g. Folio Johnson, a detective and the lead in one story, commiserates at a bar in another). However, the character of Ptolemy “Popo” Bent is a critical character in both the first and penultimate chapters.

Race and politics aren’t subtle in this book. Given the [sad] proclivity of American readers to only read / enjoy politically charged works with which they agree (unless the book in question is making fun of the opposition), it’s safe to say that—on the whole–those at the left-end of the political spectrum will find this book more palatable and on-point and those to the right-end will find it unbelievable and overbearing in its message.

Having said that, I’m of the persuasion that finds Mosley’s dystopian vision strains credulity, and yet I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of stories. This book’s dystopia is characterized by global domination by a corporation and a religion called the “Infochurch,” both led by the same man. The corporate control of the world storyline is a little hard to swallow. A monopoly can’t enslave people (or even enforce its monopoly status) unless it has a monopoly on force, and it’s hard to imagine a path by which a private business gets the people to give them a monopoly on force. That being said, Mosley’s stories are engrossing, creative, and readable.

The nine stories are as follows:

1.) Whispers in the Dark (6 Chapters): A man makes the ultimate sacrifice to help nurture a brilliant child’s special gift.

2.) The Greatest (9 Chapters): A female boxer becomes the world champion while seeking to help her father, whose addition to a drug called Pulse has left him in dire health. (The father’s story, Voices, appears later in the collection.)

3.) Dr. Kismet (4 Chapters): The man who is, for all intents and purposes, Emperor of the World tries to co-opt the co-chair of the 6th Radical Congress—a leading member of his opposition.

4.) Angel’s Island (5 Chapters): A hacker, sent to prison for Antisocial Behavior, has a device called a snake-pack installed that can control him by administration of drugs and shocks. But the ultimate hacker might not be the most easily controlled using technology.

5.) Electric Eye (4 Chapters): Folio Johnson, a private eye with an electronic eye, is hired to find out why young International Socialists are dropping dead left and right. Johnson learns that any hardware, even his eye, can be hacked.

6.) Voices (8 Chapters): Professor Jones, father of the female boxer from The Greatest, undergoes a transplant of neural matter to repair damage from his Pulse addition. After having dreams and memories that are not his own, Jones discovers that his treatment is not all that it seemed.

7.) Little Brother (3 Chapters): Frendon Blythe is on trial before a computer that acts as both judge and prosecutor. He pleads his own case, and finds he was a pawn.

8.) En Masse (12 Chapters): A worker gets sent to a new division only to find that it’s nothing like his previous divisions. Instead of strict rules, GEE-PRO-9 has no rules. He wonders if it might be a test by the management. It turns out that it is a test–just not of the type he imagined.

9.) The Nig in Me (6 Chapters): After a plot to destroy certain races backfires, a surviving man finds himself missing those with whom he was closest.

There’re no stinkers among these stories. They are all intriguing and readable, but a few of them stood out as being particularly good. These were: Whispers in the Dark, Angel’s Island, Voices, and En Masse.

I’d recommend this for readers of soft science fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: Cabinet of Curiosities by Preston & Child

The Cabinet of Curiosities (Pendergast, #3)The Cabinet of Curiosities by Douglas Preston

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Cabinet of Curiosities features many of the hallmarks of a Preston and Child novel. First, the lead is FBI Agent Pendergast. Special Agent Pendergast has three things that no FBI Special Agent in the history of the FBI has ever had: 1.) a fortune, 2.) the ability to pick and choose both his assignments and the jurisdiction he works in, and 3.) about 200 vacation days a year to learn things like ikebana and to read random scholarly publications in disparate fields such that he is an expert on the known Universe.

Regardless of the incredulity his character may inspire, Pendergast is a fascinating character. He has a New Orleans accent and an almost albino complexion, which intrigues–and puts him outside the New York / Chicago/ LA nexus in which cop fiction frequently gets stuck. (Don’t worry; the NYPD quota is still met.) Furthermore, his encyclopedic knowledge of everything allows him to constantly get the better of any and all unlikable characters in the book—and, in these books, you are either likable or loathable. It also features other Preston & Child familiars, including Nora Kelly and William Smithback Jr.

Second, it features the supernatural, preternatural, or at least the appearance of the aforementioned. This is all part of a dark and mysterious tone they have down to an art. This goes back to their first book Relic.

Third, one of the likable characters gets killed off.

The title, Cabinet of Curiosities, refers to collections of natural anomalies that were all the rage in the 19th century, and which served as mini museums of natural history. These cabinets (sometimes also called “wonder rooms”) might feature genuine exhibits, fakes, or some combinations thereof.

The novel begins with Agent Pendergast seeking Nora Kelly’s expertise to assist him in investigating a 19th century mass murder. The remains of the deceased were found in a building that’s being torn down to put up a high-rise, but it used to be the basement of a cabinet of curiosities.

We don’t get any clue as to why an active duty FBI agent would take an interest in 19th century murders until late in the book. [Of course, we never find out why Pendergast is allowed to investigate it.] I’ll leave it to readers to determine whether the ultimate explanation makes any sense or not. Needless to say, the murder and mayhem come to the present day over the course of the novel.

While I might sound down on both this book and the series, I’ve read seven of the books jointly authored by Preston and Child (and one or two from each as solo authors.) It’s, therefore, unreasonable to say that I dislike their work. However, I will say that I didn’t like this one as much as some others (e.g. Relic and Still Life with Crows.) I’m not entirely certain whether this one was just not as good, or whether I’ve become a bit jaded from over exposure to their formula. (Maybe doing so many book reviews of late has made me over analytical, and commercial fiction—like popular movies—are easy pickin’s for criticism.)

That said, I have three major criticisms of this book:

First, there’s a critical happening that requires someone so brilliant (yet unknown and working solo) that they could invented a technology in the 19th century that modern scientists couldn’t even fathom duplicating. This is sort of a common theme in some steampunk works (e.g. the Will Smith Wild, Wild West movie). However, steampunk creates its own world, distinct from the world as we know it. I can buy some kinds of “lost knowledge” lines, such as the idea that some plant-based medicinal compounds have been lost due to deforestation and loss of the experience of native peoples (this was the premise in Preston’s solo work, The Codex). However, in Cabinet of Curiosities there is a scientific discovery critical to this novel which is of a complex nature. It’s impossible to believe that it could be done by someone without modern equipment or access to the vast scientific literature of the intervening century.

Second, while I don’t want to sound like someone who poo-poos cross-genre novels, there’s a problem with this book not knowing whether it’s a mystery/thriller or supernatural/horror. In general, I love cross-genre work. However, a thriller needs some sort of realism to pull us in and mysteries call for some sort of rules or the game. If anything can happen (or if we don’t know the rules of what can happen) it’s a bit unsatisfying to try to noodle out whodunit.

Third, the reveal of the villain seems a bit forced. It’s not quite Scooby-Doo because they create several despicable characters to choose from—and not just one grumpy old man who you know is going to be the guy. However, it seems a little like they rolled dice to determine which detestable character would be the villain. In retrospect one can find foreshadowing, but no more for the actual villain then for the others one might suspect.

If you’re willing to suspend a truckload of credulity this is a good read for beaches, airports, and trains. The authors know how to pique your interest and build tension. It’s not their smartest book, but it’s a fast and fun read.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Color of Magic by Terry Prachett

The Color of Magic (Discworld, #1)The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The Color of Magic is a hero’s journey tale done in comedic fashion. It’s the first book in Prachett’s disc world series. An incompetent wizard, Rincewind, becomes the guide to a goofy but wealthy tourist named Twoflower. However, as it happens the events that confront these two on their journey are part of a game being played between gods. I loved the humor, liked the story, but wasn’t a fan of the organization of the book.

I should admit up front that fantasy is–hands down–my least favorite genre, and I can’t say that view didn’t jaundice my perception of this book. However, it’s a testament to Pratchett’s humor and readability that I continued reading it.

What is my beef with fantasy in general? First, once one introduces magic, how does one maintain tension in an environment in which anything can happen effortlessly? Obviously, fantasy fans find plenty of tension to keep them reading, but I just don’t get it personally. I know that one retort is that the same could be said of other speculative fiction genres. To the degree that is true, I also don’t care for those other genres so much either. However, sci-fi (for example) has a basis for constraints that can be widely agreed upon. Second, the appeal of feudal society for setting perplexes me. I guess there is a certain romance to these periods for fans (perhaps because they imagine themselves in the statistically-unlikely role of king or knight as opposed to the much more likely position of serfdom, but whatever), but I see this type of society as backward and unsustainable (a ten millennia old kingdom maybe possible in a world of magic, but not in a world as we know it.)

I know fantasy fans will be able to come up with examples of how their favorite authors avoid both of the pet peeves mentioned. In truth, Pratchett does a good job of negating these pitfalls. With respect to the magic problem, he makes the protagonist wizard really inept and, therefore, easily in situations over his head. Simply put, he makes his lead weak relative to those confronting him. With respect to the setting issue, Pratchett creates an entirely different kind of world, the disc world. This is not Charlemagne’s Europe with wizards.

Prachett is often compared to Douglas Adams. In fact, if you Google “the Douglas Adams of fantasy,” you are sure to pull sites pertaining to Pratchett. One can see the same type of absurdist humor in Prachett’s work. Here’s a compilation of a few of my favorite lines:

“Being Ymor’s right-hand man was like being gently flogged to death with scented bootlaces.”

“No, what he didn’t like about heroes was that they were usually suicidally gloomy when sober and homicidally insane when drunk.”

“Yah. I outnumber you one to two.”

“He wondered what kind of life it would be, having to keep swimming all the time to stay exactly in the same place. Pretty similar to his own, he decided.”

“But the captain had long ago decided that he would, on the whole, prefer to achieve immortality by not dying.”

“Your affected air of craven cowardness does not fool me.”

Pratchett appeals to the downtrodden in all of us. This can best be gleaned from the tale of Goldeneyes Silverhand Dactylos. Dactylos is a superb craftsman who is blinded, has his hand cut off, and suffers ever greater indignities because the Emir wants him to never again produce anything as lovely. It’s like the myth about Shah Jahan having the hands cut off Taj Mahal craftsman, except Pratchett’s Emir keeps asking the same man of increasing handicaps back to construct ever greater marvels of engineering.

The book is arranged in just four chapters. This is a bit of an oddity for commercial fiction, and I don’t really care for the sparse employment of breaking points in this book. Again, if I was enough of a fan of fantasy to read this in a single sitting (or even a few sittings) I would likely not find this to be an issue. However, I read it over time and interspersed with many other books (a lot of which were more captivating to me personally.) This might seem like a ridiculously nit-picky point, but for those of us who have a lot of reading up in the air at once, being able to readily put a book down and pick it up seamlessly later without losing the story is of great benefit.

If you like humor, this book will appeal to you. If you like fantasy, I suspect you’ll doubly like it–as long as you have a sense of humor. If you don’t like either, this book will not be for you.

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