Friday, September 16, 2011

Friday Review, 9/16/2011

Three books this week. Also, it seems that the widget which allows me to post links to the Amazon page is broken at the moment, so that will have to not happen at this time.

E. Archer - Geek Fantasy Novel

I almost forgot this book. It was highly forgettable. At some point, I said "I don't like this book." At that point, however, I was too close to the end not to finish it.

The plot hinges on wish quests. Ralph Stevens (suburban American geek) discovers, much to his surprise, that he is descended from British royalty. As such, his relatives (including his mother) can grant wishes - one per person. The wish granter then creates a narrative virtual reality in which the wisher undertakes a quest loosely related to the wish si made, and through this experience, learns and grows as a human being.

Archer is trying to do something clever here, because Ralph enters the wish quest of one of his cousins, and is thus fully aware that what occurs around him is not actual reality, but rather a narrative construct. So, there's a certain meta-fiction thing going on. Also, the narrator (omniscient, third person) becomes a character - like in Into the Woods, except not as good.

In the end, the whole thing falls flat. I didn't like any of the characters. The narrator is really not very good (although, that may have been the cleverest thing in the book - an excellent writing of a really bad narrator, perhaps), and the plot, ultimately, doesn't make very much sense. Also, the book doesn't really conclude - a narrative council intervenes, and the book ends in a report of the trial of the narrator. Look, Fforde does it better, and even there it gets a little tiresome. Skip this book, read something else.

Paolo BacigalupiShip Breaker

Bacigalupi's books and short stories are set in a post-apocalyptic setting. They aren't part of a series, per se, but they do share the same general setting. At some point in the not too distant future, something happens, something genetic, which results in the wide-scale contamination of food stuffs. "Clean" food is own and patented by Monsanto and such. Free Market capitalism has taken over to a greater or lesser extent, and so the world is every person for hirself. Bacigalupi writes, for the most part, from the bottom up - his heroes are the folks at the bottom, barely scraping by.

In this book, Nailer (later, Lucky Boy) works on a "light crew" for a ship breaking group on the Gulf Coast of the US, somewhere in Texas. Ship breakers make their living stripping the hulks of oil tankers. (post peak oil, the tankers aren't good for anything but scrap, and sometimes the abandoned supply of oil left inside) "Light crew" do the light work; crawling through ducts and such to strip out copper wiring and aluminum staples. "Heavy crew" do the heavy work, breaking up steel bulkheads and such. If you're too big to do light crew work in the ducts, but not big enough to do heavy crew work, you sit on the beach and beg, or you die.

In the aftermath of a hurricane - a city killer, Category 6 or 7 - Nailer and his friends find the wreck of a yacht, a wind jammer, of the sort that rich people use now that oil is a thing of the past. On board, they find a young girl who isn't dead, and who catapults Nailer into a big adventure.

The action is fast paced, and this is a quick read. If you were looking for something to prompt discussion of environmental issues among a group of 7-9th graders, I'd give them this to read. Although the setting is depressing, Nailer and his friends rise above it and do wonderful things.

Apparently, there is a sequel. This book ends solidly, although I can easily see further exploration of the world as being entirely possible. I can even see room for growth in the characters here, or possibly a companion book which follows some of the secondary characters in this book. Either way, if a sequel is as well written and engaging as this book, it will be a good read.

Robert Bennett - The Company Man

More bleak and depressing. This is a fairly solid noir detective novel. The book features The McNaughton Corporation, and is set in Evesden, the gleaming city on the west coast of the US that McNaughton built. The book is set in 1919 and early 1920, and it's alt-hist. McNaughton's technology is far ahead of the rest of the world, and the corporation has used their advanced technology to prevent WWI - the mere threat of a McNaughton armed US is enough to get the principles to back down in Europe.

Despite that early high note, the book tells the story of desperate people in a rapidly decaying city. All is not swell in Evesden. McNaughton has a growing union problem, which has begun to spread into violence and sabotage. Enter Cyril Hayes, employed as a general purpose trouble shooter by McNaughton. Hayes has an uncanny ability to figure out what a person is thinking or feeling, and thus shift his personality in such a way to get exactly what he wants from the person. He describes it as hearing a shift in the music of the person.

Hayes is a broken man, though. His ability is constant - he cannot avoid the thoughts of others. To deaden his mind, he drinks and smoke opium. He is bitter, and his interactions with people continually convince him that humanity is utterly irredeemable.

Hayes is called in by a police detective friend to help id a body found in a canal. This spirals into the broader union issue, which explodes when a train car with 11 dead bodies arrives at a station. When it left the previous station, four minutes earlier, the 11 people were alive. Hayes is asked to make this mess go away, as much as possible. This turns out to be very difficult.

That, by itself, would have been a good read. Hayes and his young assistant, Miss Samantha Fairbanks, stumbling about, finding out dirt, busting some heads, getting shot a few times, drinking heavily - that would have been a stellar novel. I wish I had read that novel. Instead, Bennett includes a sub-plot, or possibly a super-plot - a deus ex machina plot, involving aliens, perhaps. I'm not sure it adds anything to the book, frankly. Surely Hayes' talent is enough to make this sci-fi? (It's published by Orbit, they're a sci-fi press)

At any rate, true to the noir genre, the book ends messily, and it's not clear that anyone has won - not Hayes, not Samantha, not McNaughton, not the aliens, not the unions, no one. I suppose a sequel is possible, but probably unlikely.