Saturday, March 31, 2007

18. Terror's Cradle by Duncan Kyle

Terror's Cradle cover pictureI picked this one up for 50 cents at a bookstore on St. Catherine. I have always considered Duncan Kyle the poor man's Desmond Bagley. Both are Scottish and both wrote succesful solid, manly thrillers in the 60s and 70s. I think I should probably give Kyle a little more credit. He just didn't have the same publishing clout as Bagley, whose books are produced in nice consistent thematic runs, so they look really cool on your shelf. But Kyle is good, competent. Normal, british-tough, realistic men getting caught up in dangerous situations.

Terror's Cradle stars journalist John Sellers who gets caught up in a spy game when he goes after his missing co-worker and unrequited love. There is action and intrigue in Vegas, Gothenberg and finally the Shetland Islands. Good stuff.

Friday, March 16, 2007

17. Among Madmen by Jim Starlin and Dana Graziunas

Among Madmen cover pictureI feel like this was a cool Post-apocalyptic find. S.W. Welch's, the stalwart used bookstore on the Main, right across the streets from Schwartz's is moving (sad days as the Main slowly transforms) and they had a big $1 sale. There really wasn't any real treasures, but I found a few neat things, including this little gem, a novel with illustrations ("A unique new form of novel" or something like that it says on the back).

The story takes place in a small town in the Catskills, holding out after the Troubles. The Troubles in this case is a plague that first and gradually starts turning people into shambling vegetables. They aren't threatening or anything, but as their numbers increase, they slowly become a massive social and logistical weight on society. I mean what do you do with them? Just when things are getting really ugly (vegetables being rounded up and shipped to islands, mass starvation, economic collapse) a new strain of the virus, starts turning others into total psycho beserkers. It's worse than just turning them violent, because they retain their intelligence and some of them plot and take their time before exacting their own specific form of sadistic cruelty. It's an intricate but well-thought out apocalypse and quite fun in the telling.

The hero is an ex-Vietnamen vet, ex-NYC cop who made his way to the Catskills. The town is fortified and there are enough competent people here (used to hunting and living in the forest) that it manages to hold on, despite the occassional veg-out or psycho transformation as well as bands of marauders and bandits.

The story is about the hero as he tries to protect the town and his relationship with his wife, who has turned into a psycho. The disease manifests itself differently in her, coming out only after she has had sex. The guy has the situation all planned out, where he locks her in a padded closet until after her good self returns. Of course, the town is not happy with his situation and this is a major source of conflict.

A lot of the book is about how people deal with their loved ones when they have gone psycho or veg. One woman cares for her husband, even though he shows up in town naked wandering around with his jaw hanging open every now and then. Another woman has her psycho son chained to the back porch. He lives in a doghouse and when he is calm, she spends time with him. It's cool because when she first does it, the kid, who was always a pudgy wimp, is so fat and harmless that the sheriff can't bring himself to shoot him and lets the lady keep him. However, after months of snarling and yanking on his chain and eating whatever raw meat the lady throws him, the kid starts getting thin and strong and starts to become a real problem. I thought that was a neat idea.

There is nothing super profound here, but it is a lot of fun and competently written. There isn't any excessive bullshit either and the setting follows its internal logic well. A good little find and I'm glad to add it to the PA collection.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

16. Diary: a novel by Chuck Palahniuk

Diary cover pictureI've had a few recommendations to read Chuck Palahniuk. It was the one that came after the 4th pitcher, along with the argument that he writes concisely, that convinced me to actually give him a try. The specific book (Lullaby) in question wasn't available at the library, so I took out Diary.

I had no real expectations. The story starts out sort of indirectly, written in a mix of third and second person, as if you are being spoken to. It narrates the life of a woman who is currently living on an old blue-blood island somewhere off the northeastern coast of the U.S. She was originally from a small trailer-trash town in the midwest, went to art school where she met this young boy from the island. She had dreams of becoming a great painter, but instead got pregnant, fat and ended up waiting tables at the island's only hotel. Her husband tried to kill himself and is now in a coma. But shit is getting weirder and it seems to be amping up. Her husband was a contractor for people's summer homes and now they are all calling her, in yuppy outrage, discovering that he had done some bizarre remodeling in their absence, such as sealing off entire rooms. Worse, when re-opened, the walls of the rooms are covered in crazy, violent graffitti.

Diary goes into a few interesting areas, critiquing art school and rich art students, attacking our consumerist society and it's endless appetite for new vacations spots to take over and destroy, there's even a bit of art theory. But the story keeps moving forward and the prose is entertaining. [sort of spoilers ahead]Because I had no expectations, I was concerned that the book was going to go into some weird places without actually concluding the story or revealing the mystery. It turns out to have a very solid backstory and a very cool one at that. The book is very much a classic horror tale. Ironically, in some ways I was almost dissapointed that it made so much sense at the end. Could it be that I am becoming more sophisticated? (highly doubtful). I think it was more that when the actual situation becomes clear it is done in such a blatant, obvious way that after the weirder, less direct prose of the first two-thirds, it's kind of jarring.

Cool book, though. I will definitely check out more of his work.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

15. Blindsight by Peter Watts

Blindsight cover picture
Whew! This was a challenging book. It's a good book, too, but I can't say I really enjoyed it as I was reading it. It's too bad, because Peter Watts is an intelligent and interesting writer. I loved his first book, Starfish, and liked the follow-up to that Maelstrom. I still have two more books to read in that series, but the Mt. Benson Report got me Blindsight for xmas (much appreciated!) and it is a stand-alone book.

Blindsight takes place quite far in the future. You only get snatches and glimpses of what it is like on earth, but technology is advanced enough that it's considered deviant to have sex outside of the virtual world, terrorists use genetic bombs that can cause people's bodies to start growing a new skeleton (thus tearing them apart), and people's brains can be transferred to other bodie or connected directly to virtual realities where they spend their entire lives. One day, earth is surrounded by what looks like a giant meteor shower. A skyfall of exploding stars. Nothing beyond that happens, but the scientists of earth believe that our planet has just been photographed. This causes a great deal of concern. By the slightest chance, an anomaly is discovered outside of Jupiter. A ship is sent out to investigate.

The story of Blindsight takes place on the ship, whose captain is a vampire (literally; an actual other species living on earth) and whose crew includes a female military officer, who can control entire brigades of drone soldiers with her mind, an expert in languages and communications, who deliberately split her own personality into 5 separate ones, a scientist who is half diagnostic computer system and half human and finally, the protagonist, a sociopath (though this greatly simplifies his personality complex) responsible for observing the whole operation and reporting it neutrally back to earth. Of course, everybody else on the ship hates him, because they feel like he is always spying on them.

The anomaly is some kind of alien thing, but so profoundly different that they can barely understand even how to approach it. The story is divided between their stumbling attempts at contacting and learning about the alien presence and the psychological conflicts and developments on the ship. As you can see, it is a really cool setup, extremely well thought out. Though some of the concepts above might sound quite fantastical and over the top in my description, the book is without a doubt, hard sci-fi and all the conceptions are based on established scientific theory (and extremely well-researched; as usual the end of the book has pages of explanations, heavily footnoted and this was cut down from the original appendix, which you can find on the website).

Watts is no joke. He's an intense, intelligent, radical-thinking person. You can see that his personality is potentially quite combative in his notes and he doesn't pull his punches. He is also someone who doesn't shy away from difficult morality and the painful side of human psychology. I respect his writing for these things. But boy can it make for a lot of work! The book is not that long and moves quickly, it's not even that dense, but there is so much complexity, so much vocabulary and implied ideas that you really have to concentrate. On top of that, there is no happiness in his world. Humans are barely capable of perceiving anything outside of their own existence, let alone connect with another human. So it isn't a joyful ride! And there are some profoundly dark and disturbing moments, where you are just feeling, ugh and hesitant to continue forward. Watts addresses the human capacity for cruelty more directly than even Banks, I would argue, and it is not pretty.

Ultimately, the presentation of the alien being and the evolution of our technological world are convincing and fascinating. I got a lot to think of out of this. The book is a success. But it is a challenging one. I recommend it, but be prepared to work a bit. If you find most sci-fi way too fluffy and positive, then I would strongly recommend it. This is original and daring and in a sea of lame ideas, that alone is worth supporting. But beyond that, Blindsight is a dark and despairing look at the profound solitude that human existence can be, both at the personal and galactic level.