Monday, August 27, 2018

18. Net of Cobwebs by Elizabeth Sanxsay Holding

This is the second Elizabeth Sanxsay Holding I've read, from the two-book volume put out by Stark House and written later in her career, 1945, than The Death Wish (1934).  It's the story of a young man, Malcolm Drake, living with his upper class family while recovering from shell shock due to his time in the navy during the war.  He is already all up in his head and addicted to pills, interacting in a paranoid way with his aunt, sister, brother and his borther's wife.  Again, it has that weird disassociated perspective that I found in The Death Wish that kind of distances me from the material, though in this case it fits better as the character himself is struggling mentally.  I won't get into the plot here beyond that his Aunt dies and then other people die and except that he is the viewpoint of the book it is entirely possible that Drake himself is the killer.

This is solid, disturbing and entertaining.  I will keep looking for her books.  None of the covers below are the one I have, but I like to imagine the time when you could easily see this book in a bookstore and one of her novels was sort of mainstream and well-respected.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

17. The Postman by David Brin

The Postman has been on my post-apocalyptic to read list for a long time.  I never made a strong effort to find it because I knew it is not that hard to find.  I finally pulled the trigger at a nice used bookstore in downtown Nanaimo.  I had often wondered why it never seemed to get much recognition among the PA classics.  I suspect that part of it is that it came out in 1985, a bit later than when the sub-genre was really peaking and also that the name evokes the much-panned movie.  Having read the book, and especially having got to the end, I can also understand why it doesn't have a bigger footprint.  I'll get to that in the review.

It starts out in the way that I love for PA fiction.  Lone survivor in a crappy situation that just got way worse, with little tidbits of the current situation and how we got here.  Rather than a single major disaster, the downfall is the result of many things, including limited nuclear war that caused economic breakdown which led to social breakdown.  The sub-theme of the disaster (and the book) was that the real collapse was the result of far right extremist survivalists, whose aggression and worldview brought down the remaining pockets of civilization and governance that could have led to re-building civilization.

So our hero gets caught at the foot of the Rockies by a small gang of bandits. He escapes with his life but most of his precious equipment. He hides out in an abandoned vehicle that contains the skeleton of  postman, with his uniform and bag of mail preserved.  He takes the clothes and equipment because it is useful, but in another pinch, lies about who he is to be allowed into a stockaded town.  The surprisingly positive reception to his lie that he is an official representative of a provisional surviving US government operating out of Minnesota leads him to continue the lie which leads him to a role of travelling from town to town in the Pacific Northwest delivering mail and setting up a new mail service in each town.

This part of the book is really cool.  I know some of this region okay and Brin's conversion of it to this recovering and surviving future is convincing and fun to read.  There is a lot of variety in how different communities survive as well as tantalizing hints of larger regional conflicts, particularly in the south. 

Unfortunately, the ending, when these regional conflicts come to the fore as the survivalists make a push from the south and the sub-theme that these assholes are the real problem in the first place also comes to the fore.  It's fascinating and prescient to see how Brin portrays these people in 1985 seen through the lens of 2018 where they have coalesced under the Alt-Right banner and really do present a threat to the American empire.  However, in terms of enjoyable fiction, this is reified into an epic battle between what was initially two side characters and it all very much took me out of the world and the story.  There is also a ton of preaching in these last pages and it became a real slog.  It feels like what happened here is that Brin couldn't figure out a way to finish the story he started in a structurally acceptable way (in terms of how we expect fiction to work).  I get that because really it's a story that can't and shouldn't end, not unlike the Walking Dead.  Also, there may be some liberal preaching coming from Brin.  Either way, I just got really disconnected. 

I would say if you are a fan of the genre, this is definitely worth a read.  Just be prepared that the pleasure of the first two-thirds may not last for you.

I also thought I should watch the movie after reading the book, but now I am even more hesitant than ever.  The hero does a lot of acting and emoting (before he takes on the postman role, he survived by telling tales and doing one-man plays).  I really struggle to see Kevin Costner doing this stuff in a way that would not be almost painfully cringeworthy.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

16. Change Agent by Daniel Suarez

Also found this in the same communal bookshelf at the Vancouver apartment.  There is a lot of mainstream junk in there and older semi-academic stuff, but almost always several readable books and even a good find from time to time.  This one falls under "readable".  I resisted at first, having finished Suarez' Daemon on the same trip.  Again, easy digestibility tipped the scales and I jumped right in.

Change Agent was published 11 years after Daemon and it does seem that Suarez skill as a writer has evolved and improved.  This one has the same fun energy and nerdy tech info, but unlike Daemon, it is structurally more sound and the overall resolution of the novel more satisfying. 

The novel takes place in the future where genetic engineering has become mainstream, fundamentally altering the world.  Other than the changes to society (which are richly and interestingly portrayed), Change Agent portrays the biggest change as economic.  Silicon Valley gets caught napping and China and Southeast Asia takes the lead in this technology, which wipes out traditional silicon technology and creates massive unemployment and migration from the west.

The protagonist is an analyst for the US security agency responsible for policing genetic engineering.  There are a list of allowed pre-birth changes and striving parents and criminal organizations trade on a black market the illegal manipulations that will give their children the advantages needed to maintain their economic status.  On the trail of a black market genetics kingpin, our hero gets attacked early on in the book and wakes up in the hospital to find that he has genetically become this kingpin, at least physically.  His brain and personality remains his, but nobody believes him.  Forced to escape, he goes on the run to try and figure out what happened to him, why and what he can do about it.

It's a great premise and the adventure that follows is a really cool journey through biopunk Southeast Asia.  Many of the themes are super contemporary to us today (economic anxiety in the west, fake news, return to aristocratic relations between the rich and poor) and I suspect may seem dated even 5 years from now.  Nevertheless the portrayal of the massive refugee camps, the working poor and the new elites in the steaming jungles and dense cities of Thailand and Malaysia are really cool.  The technology as well and its evolution/development during the book is creative and will stimulate your nerd world-building synapses.

There is one big flaw that also exists in Daemon and it's again these super smart FBI agents who form an opinion about the situation that is harmful to the protagonist (and necessary to the plot) and just become utterly dogmatic and small-minded.  It is again not realistic and kind of weakens the reader's willing suspension of disbelief.  I just can't believe that anybody at this point, especially specialists in the field of a certain technology, would not be able to entertain the idea that the technology has moved beyond their previous conception of it. 

Still, a really enjoyable tech sci-fi thriller.  Check it out.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

15. Where'd you Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple

It is rare for me to read a contemporary trade paperback but this one was strongly recommended by my aunt (and previously by her daughter-in-law).  I like books that get passed around the family and my aunt has very good taste, plus it looked very easy to consume, so I took it on.

It is about an eccentric family in bourgeois Seattle and in particular the mother, a once-powerful architect in LA now sort of hiding in the world of schools, neighbourly conflicts and parenting.  The book is structured as a series of letters, diary excerpts and other actual textual material (I am sure there is some term for this).  It is quite cleverly done and very fun to read especially in the early part of the book which deals with school and parental politics at the elite but progressive private school the daughter attends as well as conflicts about overgrown blackberry bushes invading the neighbour's property.  These are truly contemporary issues for upper middle-class urban elite white people in the 21st century and it also told with a rye and amusing distance that I found very entertaining.

The main drive of the narrative is that the mom is slowly getting unhinged and behaving more and more erraticly.  Her extreme behaviours and conflicts with other parents (plus a misunderstandings and things getting blown out of proportions due to the husband and wife not communicating) get to the point that the father decides on an intervention and possibly to have the wife committed.  She disappears.  The storyline drives away from the petty squabbles into the wife's past and into her and her daughter's relationship.  It ends up being very literary fiction. In this case, it could have been satisfying (and I did like the independence of the daughter and mother from society's norms and the way in which the dad character is shown to be totally lame), however a lot of the plot tension orbits entirely around a missed letter, which weakened it all for me.  The idiosnyncracies of the mother which reach alarming levels in the first half, are ultimately deflated as her disappearance all gets washed away in a big misunderstanding. 

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

14. Rat Race by Dick Francis

Back in my teens, Dick Francis was a staple.  We had tons of them lying around the house and they could be found in any hotel lobby or waiting room in the western world in those days.  There were several of the older paperback versions in the basement communal bookshelf of an apartment we were staying at and knowing I needed something easily digestible to keep my reading pace going, I grabbed this one.  Interestingly, when I went to return it, somebody had taken all the original Pan copies and left any of the more recent versions.  I guess there may be another collector lurking in that building.

Not much to say here about this book that hasn't been said before about Dick Francis's books.  He was the biggest mystery author of his time but I wonder how long his literary legacy will last.  Rat Race has all the classic elements, lone male hero of good heart and skill but bearing a guilty burden even though he didn't actually do anything wrong (so much shame in England at that time).  Good, solid tension and intrigue with nasty bad guys and often realistically unsensational crimes.  The one new thing I observed at this age is how detailed and technical the stuff about flying and air communications is in the book.  I did a bit of research and of course it turns out this was all his wife's work, who herself was a pilot as well as the researcher for all his books.  He later basically came out and said that he goes by the name Richard in real life and that Dick Francis was really he and his wife.  I think there is a book here about so many succesful genre authors who when you dig a little deeper could only have been succesful because of their marriage to a woman who worked as hard if not harder and was also a crack writer.  Try to find me one of these dudes who didn't have such a wife.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

13. Daemon by Daniel Suarez

Meezly had been encouraging me to read this one for a while and the only reason it stayed on my on-deck shelf for so long was because it was a really good condition first edition hardback.  I took it on vacation and only read it when indoors so it made it back unscathed.

Daemon is a really entertaining tech thriller that is over the top but still close to being plausible.  Near the end, it bogs down a bit in excessive emphasis on inventive hardware and videogamey action.  The story is basically Ready Player One except the dead tech genius is totally malevolent, which is a great concept.  He's an Elon Musk/Jeff Bezos type character who sets up redundant, autonomous daemons all over the internet to make the world the way he wants it to be after his death.  Significant mayhem and society changing trouble ensues.  The worldbuilding/though exercise is really well done.  Some of his IT jargon is laughable (he comes from the industry and gets the big picture, but I question how much work he actually did in the trenches as some of his low-level details sound like he copy and pasted them from bad documentation), but the overall idea of a world controlled via a ghost in the internet is quite compelling and rich and honestly a bit frightening.

The other flaw in the book is that some of his characters believe things they are told immediately and react to them with complete conviction even though these are otherwise skeptical tech people and/or law enforcement.  The protagonist is messily framed and everybody just hates him all of a sudden.  That was a bit difficult to maintain my suspension of disbelief.

Still, a really fun read and a darker anodyne to Ready Player One's simplistic optimism of the individual.