Friday, January 13, 2012

Friday Review Post, 1/13/12

So, I should probably let you all know what I've been up to. This week, as you know, I've been doing research at the Library of Congress. Which is to say, I've been staring into the Past, with only the barest of filters between me and the raw, unadulterated chronos. I've been reading newspapers from 1945 and 1946, hunting for evidence of ... well, wait - here, I can link you in, and you can share. Brace yourself, and then click here to stare into the past.

Historically, this is actually pretty exciting. It's one of those things where you can ask questions about a thing, and get into arguments about it which have no logical conclusions, because the event is far enough ago that it has no meaningful effect on the current period. My contention is that this movement forms an important link between the movement for women's suffrage and the movement against atomic bomb testing in the early 1950s.  But it really doesn't matter - it's just cool to look at, on some level.

Anyway, that's meant that I've been reading a lot this week. Trashy books, as usual. Here's the rundown:

William Deitz - At Empire's Edge

Have you ever wondered why folks from the northwestern US are so mellow? It's because Deitz has been hoarding the region's supply of exclamation points for decades, and the scattering them through his books. Only the Typeset Treaty of 1872 (which concluded the short but vicious Newspaper War of 1872) prevents him from tapping the strategic punctuation reserves in British Columbia, for which we can all be grateful. Oh, also? Deitz likes sentence fragments. So, this is a book about the last surviving member of an elite space police unit, forced to track down a homicidal shape shifter before said killer kills an important member of the Uman Empire's government. Oh, and avenge the death of his buddies. It has a lot of exclamation points. And sentence fragments. To indicate excitement and tension.

The characters weren't bad, but the writing was appalling. Save it for reading while drunk.

Simon Green - Ghost of a Chance

I've contended that Green writes trashy books as an exercise in cynical irony. That is, he writes trashy books because he knows he can get away with it. Green's books often feel derivative, with overly complex plots (often involving time travel) and needlessly intricate inside jokes (like sharing characters across different story lines). At the same time, the books are exceedingly well written, as if Green recognizes that he's writing a trashy book, and has decided to write the hell out of it. As a result, the books are highly entertaining, if a little disappointing. I've often suspected that he could write classy books if he wanted to. This book was, actually, kinda classy.

A team of oddball experts descends into the London Underground to figure out why a ghost has taken over one of the stations. Another team of oddballs is also in the Underground, seeking knowledge for their own nefarious purposes. The two teams end up having to cooperate in order to defeat a really big, nasty thing. So far, so "seen it before". But, the ghost-y stuff is actually pretty creepy, and I kinda liked the characters (which is good, because there will be sequels). Green does a good job of setting up a new series with new characters involved in new stuff. It's not like any other urban (dark) fantasy (horror) stuff I've seen, and I actually kinda liked it.

Alex Archer - Rogue Angel: Sacrifice

Oh. God. This book was awful. I mean, the Rogue Angel series isn't exactly high art to begin with, but this one didn't even live up to previous lows. Anja Creed (wielder, for some un-specified reason, of Joan of Arc's sword) is in the Philippines, held captive by Abu Sayyaf terrorists. Except, sometimes, they aren't Islamic Fundamentalist terrorists. Sometimes, they are Communist terrorists, for no discernible reason. Then, she escapes, and meets an American sniper, who just happens to be in the vicinity. And they get captured by a tribe of Philippine indigenes, who want to sacrifice them to some sort of creature in a pit.

So, yeah. The book has strong racist overtones. all Muslims are terrorists, or at least all terrorists are Muslims, or at least they pretend to be Muslims when they aren't being Marxist. All exotic locales have some sort of indigenous tribe type which will sacrifice you to their pagan god. It takes an American to save the day, preferably by shooting a brown person. But it's all ok, because the brown person's family gets money! Yay! Also, the book is misogynistic - which, given that the central character is a strong, independent woman, is saying something. Anja spends a great deal of time tied up - in the first scene of the book, she's handcuffed. There is an entirely unnecessary scene in which she has to pee in the jungle. Which then allows a tracker to find her and the sniper - because her pee is especially woman-y. Anja's attempt to solve problems by not shooting brown people almost results in Manila getting nuked (how like a woman!) - luckily, she gets herself out of the way in time for the shooting to happen. There is no sex in the book (despite strong overtones of sex). At the same time, there is no strange gluttony on Anja's part - that must just have been the one book. For all that these books epitomize trashy books, I think I'll skip them for the next trip. You feel free to skip them too.

Janet Evanovich - One for the Money

I liked this one - it was funny, with a strong early-90's vibe. Stephanie Plum as lingerie buyer turned reluctant bounty hunter is delightful. I really liked the characters. The plot was satisfying. The setting was, perhaps, a little overly described - I don't need to know the brand of coffee that Stephanie drinks (ok, it wasn't that bad, but close). I'm also not all that interested in the process whereby Stephanie gets ready for bed, or for going out in the morning. Still, the detail was evocative of Stephanie as a character - she's the sort of person who feels it necessary to describe her breakfast to her audience, so, good craft?

Less forgivable - Evanovich does this thing where she re-caps the previous chapter sometimes, at the beginning of the next chapter - as if she assumes you didn't read the previous chapter. This is a little annoying. Deitz does the same thing, actually - this implies something unpleasant about the way that the author sees their audience.

Despite that, I did enjoy the book, and I will pick up another of these.

Jean Rabe and Martin Greenburg, eds - Steampunk'd

So - an anthology of totally new steampunk short stories. Some of which were really really good. I am, however, going to maunder about steampunk as a genre for a minute before I discuss the stories themselves.

Right. I've talked about this before. The steam refers to the use of steampowered technology. Generally, it means steampowered technology in a Victorian (or Victorianesque) setting, but the technology is closer to our current technology than Victorian - steam powered computers, for instance, or things to that effect. The punk, when steampunk is done right, refers to the characters using steam powered technology to subvert the dominant paradigm - either the dominant paradigm currently in effect, or the paradigm in which they, the fictional characters exist, or both. The best works struggle with both paradigms. A story which doesn't struggle, though - that's just steam. Call it techno-Victorian, perhaps, or neo-Victorian, but it's not steampunk.

See, the thing about steam power is that it happened. The industrial revolution ran on steam power (and water power and wind power, but mostly steam). Our world is based in the steam powered machines of the Industrial revolution, and the mass-produced consumer product driven economy that those machines made possible. So, unless your characters are struggling against the flattening effects of mass-production, or against the crushing effects of rampant industrialization, or something of that nature, you aren't really doing anything new. You're just transposing existing genre bits into a steamy setting - steam powered ray guns! steam powered aliens! steam powered night vision goggles! yadda yadda yadda!

So. The stories I really liked from the collection:

Michael Stackpole - "Chance Corrigan and the TickTock King of the Nile"

Corrigan uses steam powered machines to improve the lot of the common Egyptian, while struggling with an industrialist who wants to use steam powered machines to make himself rich.

Jody Lynn Nye - "Portrait of a Lady in a Monocle"

A feisty lady proves that, despite Victorian thoughts about women, she is as capable an inventor as the next guy, even if she doesn't have a penis.

Paul Genesse - "The Nubian Queen"

Fantasy/sci-fi stories don't need to be set in lily-white Europe - they can happen in Africa! With an exploding zepplin and cannons carried by rhinos - why not!

Skip and Penny Williams - "The Imperial Changeling"

Who says that the hero has to be the one challenging the dominant paradigm? Here, technology attempts, and fails, to overthrow the European system of magic and monarchy - and that's ok.

Special mention to Robert Vardeman - "The Transmogrification Ray" - I haven't finished this story yet, but I loved that he includes a reference to Chance Corrigan from Stackpole's story - brilliant!

Special mention to William Dietz - "The Battle of Cumberland Gap" - nicely steamy, although not a lot of punk; basically steam enhanced mil-fic. With sentence fragments galore. But I liked the characters.

The remaining stories - it's not so much that a I didn't like them; for the most part they were fine. I had problems with characters in a couple, and plot in another, and a mild lack of punk throughout.

Final thought - that title! Someone picked that title! Punk'd and punk - not at all the same thing. Don't be put off, though; the stories are, generally, quite good - a nice place to begin playing with steampunk, if you aren't already.

That's all for now! I'll wrap up with some trashy books next week too, because I get to ride the train to Philly! Woohoo! So my reading is not done yet.