Black Hole Apocalypse

Darby Harn’s, A Country of Eternal Light, A Review

Genre: Science fiction, apocalypse

Positives: Stunning prose. Emotional depth.

Negatives: A happy ending isn’t really an option, given the scenario. Difficult main character.

Mairead, traumatized by the loss of her child, her mother’s rapidly progressing dementia, and her father’s relatively recent death is withdrawn and suicidal. And now, a black hole wanders closer to Earth swallowing everything in its path.

At in the novel, I was reminded of the movie Melancholia, in which a rough planet is on course to smash into Earth. And the main character, an acutely depressed basket case, weathers the planetary collision with greater composure than her ‘together’ relatives. Continue reading Black Hole Apocalypse

The Hammond Conjecture by M. B. Reed, a Review.

Hugh Hammond of The Hammond Conjecture is an everyman, who thinks with every organ other than his brain. And unfortunately, the fate of Europe lies in his hands.

He wakes in an isolation ward with no recollection of his past. Encouraged to dredge up memories by writing, the confused man diligently types away. But the emerging memories recount an impossible history: WWII ended by 1941, Europe stultifies under Nazi rule, and Britain continues to appease.

While he languishes in home for incurables and relives his spy years, the mystery of how Hammond bounced from 1970 to 1980 is slowly revealed…

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. Hammond’s decade-old memories of his spy career are beyond embarrassing. He’s an Austin Powers, saddled with an early 1970s attitude toward woman and the raging ego of a young man, but possessing low self-esteem and a talent for making the wrong choice. Every. Single. Time. Not dissimilar to my character, Martin. Fortunately for the reader, many of Hammond’s choices and much of the dialogue are quietly hilarious.

And the alternate Europe in which the spy-action occurs is complex, believable and depicted in detail. The author does an excellent job of describing the ramifications of an early treaty between Great Britain and Nazi Germany, clear even to a reader with no detailed knowledge of WWII.

This novel will interest alternate fiction and time travel readers, as well as those who enjoy thrillers. The ending is left open, suggesting a sequel is on its way. And I appreciated the professional-level editing and formatting.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Branches, by Adam Peter Johnson – a Review.

Branches, an alternative universe novel rings frightfully true, a precision hit on a raw nerve. 

Still reeling from the loss of his mother, a man dives into the social media black hole surrounding an unnamed right wing president. Several of my Facebook acquaintances went this route. And at times, I worried for their mental health. Several of the negative reviews of this novel complain about the character’s political angst. But his obsession is warranted. In his alternate timeline, the worst has happened and the US has descended into storm-trouper, police-state, racial-cleansing fascism.

Then, a shadowy company extends a bizarre offer, allowing him to shift timelines. Can he find peace in the multiverse?

What follows is a series of alternate nows and near-pasts; so more alternate universe than alternate history. And the author handles these subtle and not so subtle shifts cleverly. The plot never lost me, and I found the prose entertainingly of the moment. Most of the character’s heavy-lifting is psychological, but the novel includes plenty of action. 

Certain readers, including avid Trump supporters, social conservatives, and racists, will struggle with this novel. Those readers might want to lay aside their prejudices or give this book a miss. 

But I highly recommend this book to those of you that can lay aside politics and the other factors that divide society. Because this book is not actually about those issues. It’s about a more insidious problem in our society. It’s about becoming lost in adulthood and missing one’s own life. The last five years, packed with hatred and anxiety, have given many excuses to lose themselves. I hope this novel gives some the insight to get back on track.

This indie published first novel appears professionally edited and formatted. And the prose is high quality. 

Descendants of Power, The One Percent on Mars

In P.N. Shafa’s near future dystopia Descendants of Power, the 1% flee to Mars, leaving behind a ravaged climate and starving post-apocalyptic survivors.

But on Mars, the colonists continue with business as usual, i.e. predatory capitalism, the usual “how much can I get for myself” mentality. And turns out, that ethos doesn’t work well in an incredibly fragile situation like living in an oxygen bubble and eating off a slim range of genetically modified foodstuffs. Go figure. Continue reading Descendants of Power, The One Percent on Mars

Time Travel Via Sea Anemone! Tentacle by Rita Indiana, A Review.

Pros: Fantastic world building. Interesting Dominican Republican setting complete with sea anemones and pirates. Rich prose. Excellent portrayals of unpleasant people in desperate circumstances.

Cons: Interesting and well-crafted but unlikeable characters who don’t grow. Disappointing ending.

 

 

 

Time travel by sea anemone powered by Olokun, the great spirit who knows what lies on the ocean floor: what’s not to like about a novel based on this premise? And initially, I was quite excited to read Tentacle by Rita Indiana. Because young Achilde is more than a transsexual maid living in a plague ridden Dominican Republic surrounded by a sludge-brown sea. He’s the chosen one, heir to oceanic power, the only one able to harness the power of a sea anemone electroencephalogram and travel back in time to save his homeland.

But what Achilde really wants is a sex-change operation, not a problem in of itself, but part of the problem with this novel; the principal characters are too busy chasing self-interest (drugs, desire, public acclaim) to take right action. And they don’t grow during the novel. I’d even categorise the other main character, failed artist Argenis, as a passive-aggressive narcissist, brilliantly portrayed, but being inside his mind while he self-destructs becomes a chore. Sure, both these characters haven’t had the best lives, even so, a touch more selflessness while they skate back and forth in time. would have been appreciated. Admittedly, the author convincingly conveys her character’s humanity but the type of humanity that will drive us to extinction. And I’m still hoping we’ll redeem ourselves.

The book ends very abruptly and on a multilevel betrayal. Hoping Olokun would whip a tentacle from the ocean and drag the protagonist to a watery grave, I flipped the page, only to encountered an advertisement. Disoriented, I thought, “how strange, the publisher inserting an advertisement into a book mid-chapter.” But sadly, our time tripping protagonist wouldn’t be reconsidering his choices. I would be reading an advertisement.

The ad, however, was of interest. Tentacle’s publisher, And Other Stories, sells subscriptions to offset the cost of releasing innovative literature. And while Tentacle may not tick all my literary boxes, I’d love to read more wildly creative literature from all over the world. If you agree, check out the And Other Stories website. Hopefully, this group will navigate COVID and continue to produce mind-blowing weirdness like time travel by sea anemone.

Wake Up And Dream by Ian R. MacLeod, a Review

 

Bottom line: Wake Up And Dream is a terrific alternate history read. Fascinating, haunting, and beautifully written. Highly recommended.

The career of has-been actor, Clark Gable, didn’t make the jump from the talkies to the “feelies.” Now he’s a two bit private eye specializing in matrimonial cases, sniffing pillow cases and peering under beds. But a fresh case drags Clark back into acting and to the dark side of the technology underlying the feelies, the mysterious Bechmeir Field.

The average citizen craves to escape the Great Depression in the dream of the feelies. But Clark’s skin crawls whenever he’s in the cinema. And the technology may have other uses in politics and advertising capable of drifting the United States closer toward fascism and collusion with Nazis. Can Clark Gable, unlicensed private eye, solve the case, save his own life, and prevent a socio-political disaster?

Ian R. MacLeod’s Wake Up And Dream is alternate history at its finest. The twisting plot combines hard-boiled private eye tropes, an imaginative, speculative technology, Hollywood angst, history, and social commentary. The stellar writing expertly captures the beauty and grit of Depression era Los Angeles.

        Peg Entwistle (Wikipedia)

In my last review, I criticized “celebrity cameos” in alternate history as disruptive and self-indulgent. But while players from Hollywood’s Golden Age appear in Wake Up And Dream, the celebrity characters are integral to the plot or provide plot-relevant information, so the scenes in which they’re featured don’t read as forced. And since the era is so remote, their fame is remote. Sometimes very remote, so a reader might not even recognize a celebrity. For instance, I’d never heard of Peg Entwistle, an actress who committed suicide in 1932 by jumping from the famous Hollywood sign.

People, when they first came here from back east to make movies, they said it was because of the quality of the light. But what they didn’t talk about was the quality of the darkness. I mean, whatever’s lurking underneath…

Replay by Ken Grimwood, a Review.

Experts claim that time travel into the past defies the universal laws of physics. But there’s no reason to allow pesky reality to interfere with good fiction.

So fictional travel back in time occurs rather frequently. And whether transported by a machine, magic objects, reincarnation or dream, characters find themselves back in time. Some times, the travel results in a ground hog day-like scenario, an awakening back to the early days of the character’s life. And this sort of backward time travel makes a great story because almost everybody can relate to the question: What if I had only…?

In Ken Grimwood’s novel, Replay, Jeff Winston wakes from a soured marriage, a mediocre career, and fatal heart attack to find himself in his eighteen-year-old body. Grimwood beautifully describes the confusion, melancholy and excitement a life reboot would evoke. And Jeff Winston’s tactics, as he faces the future with knowledge of what that future holds, feel realistic. After all, there’s a certain predictability to the answer to the question: how would a person live if they had a second chance? So the reader is along for the ride as Jeff loses himself in avarice, power, hedonism, saving the world, and love. Continue reading Replay by Ken Grimwood, a Review.

The Creative Info Dump

The Example of Hyperion, Blackfish City and Children of Time

Result of an info dump crash landing.

In science fiction, the author must describe the special features of the story’s world to the reader. At worst, the information is laid out in a long didactic paragraph, the dreaded “info dump.” And sometimes, an info dump includes details not relevant to the story: the alien societies sewage system or philosophy of early childhood education, for instance. The info dump  often sounds like a mini-history lesson.

“The world of Adelia had always been a place of strife. Over the centuries, a multitude of kings had vied for ultimate control. Now the rivers ran dry and vast deserts spewed dust into the heavens…5 pages later…But today, Crystoline must fetch the water.”

And who’s giving the history lesson? The author, of course. A large block of information not connected to a character or the plot inserts the author between the reader and the story, slowing the story down.

So how does an author successfully convey an imaginary world? Hopefully not in direct dialogue. A character wouldn’t blab on about recent events any more than you’d go on about the origin of COVID19 while standing in the grocery store check out. They live in the fictional world. Everything occurring is their normal, usually not worthy of comment. Attempts to insert information into dialogue at worst might sound like:

“As you know captain, when the revolutionaries jumped the line and destroyed Ilagra, Thagros eliminated our transponders.”

Usually, authors try to weave background information subtly into the character’s dialog, observations or thought.

“Crystoline rolled the water barrel to the spring, desert sand catching in her throat and triggering that irritating dry cough. She wiped a gritty sleeve across her mouth. A drink would do nicely, not that it’d taste right. Not after the contamination. Damn kings and their greed.”

But some science fiction celebrates the info dump, taking large chunks of bone dry information and converting it into a special feature of the story. And sometimes this strategy works incredibly well, usually when the information being conveyed is so interesting that it keeps the reader’s attention.

Take for example Hyperion, the first novel in Dan Simmon’s Hyperion Cantos. This book mirrors the Canterbury tales: a collection of aspirants travels to a shrine, and during their travels, each pilgrim tells their tale.

Each tale is basically a massive info dump; however, each story is so interesting that the reader “listens” with rapt attention to each traveller. (Although I’m still annoyed the book ended right at the climax, and the climax was drawn out over a much padded second book.)

Then consider Blackfish City, a novel I reviewed some months back. The action occurs on a post-disaster floating city with an interesting history and culture beautifully presented through episodes of a mysterious broadcast entitled,”City without a Map”. Excerpt from this poetic and subversive text are sprinkled throughout the book; the ultimate source remains mysterious until late in the story. The device wore somewhat thin as the book progressed, but overall it served well to explain Blackfish City’s unique features and describe its inhabitants while adding ambience.

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky also uses bulky info dumps with success. Didactic chapters detail the history of a spider civilisation, following the spiders from pre-sentience through to a spider space age. (Really how can you go wrong with spiders in space?)

The spider sequences are highly “told.”

Her attention is fixed on another spider at home in its web.

The subject spider is planning to hunt down the spider in the web, but note the passive construction, the spider’s behaviour reported as if by an observing scientist. A “shown” version, as experienced by a spider might read like:

“The other spider hung succulent and juicy, seemingly oblivious in its web.”

But do we know a spider can detect succulence? How do we know a spider can create a mental image of another insect’s mind? This shown spider reads very much like a human with our more or less shared theory of mind and body language. A nervous human can be shown pacing and chewing their nails without the author needing to state, “she was nervous.” However, nervous spiders might tap on their webs or rub their legs together. How’s a human supposed to recognise a nervous spider without being told, “the spider was nervous?” Unless the spider is anthropomorphised, stating the spider’s emotional state is required.

So I can’t fault the author of Children of Time for choosing a didactic style.  And Children of Time toggles between chapters detailing the spider’s world, and more conventionally written chapters featuring humans trying to survive a desperate space odyssey. I particularly enjoyed the human protagonist, an introverted scholarly old man, an atypical choice for a space adventure. The human chapters relieve the reports from the spider world. Also as the spiders evolve, and as the reader gains familiarity with the arachnid world, the spider chapters become increasingly immediate.

I have a fair bit of tolerance for the creative info dump; although some readers will claim “boring, nothing happens, brutal slog or repetitive.” For those readers, I recommend The Raidships by A.D. Wynterhawk, an old-fashioned adventure story I reviewed some months ago. Raidships takes place in a vibrant imaginary world, but the world unfolds during a fast-paced plot.

“A sense of self and the ability to contemplate the universe are not necessarily survival traits in and of themselves.” From Children of Time by Adrian Tschaikovsky

Them Bones by Howard Waldrop, a Review

Bayou time travel adventure.

Time travel fiction encompasses many subcategories, and Them Bones by Howard Waldrop fits into a couple. The novel has an anthropological survival angle and an archaeological subplot, but also falls into the hail-Mary-backward-pass-last-ditch attempt to fix an untenable present.

The author presents three story threads; the most fleshed out relays the tale of Madison Yazoo Leake who hails from a “bombed-out time in which everybody would eventually die from radiation, from disease, from chemicals.” Continue reading Them Bones by Howard Waldrop, a Review

The Wake Up, Paranormal Dystopia by Angela Panayotopulos

The Wake Up by Angela PanayotopulosGreek Glass Makers Navigate Fascist Dystopia

Pros: Lyrical prose. Poetic and allegorical. Cast features much cultural diversity.
Possible cons: Unusual structure including set up and unlikely wrap up. More character and theme driven than plot driven. Plot requires substantial suspension of disbelief.

In the paranoid dystopia of Angela Panayotopulos’s paranormal novel, The Wake Up, a mad president, threatened by the demon he sees in his own mirror, bans all reflective surfaces.

A Virginian glass-making factory is destroyed in the resulting purge. But worse, the glass-maker’s daughter, Lexi, possesses the power to detect inner demons and angles, a power the president fears. Lexi’s gift could mean prison or death.

Then time passes. Lexi grows up, slowly separates from her shattered family and suffers a romantic disaster. Flash backs explore Lexi’s history and introduce additional characters. By and large, these plot elements come together in a last conflict, but much of this book is operating on a deeper, more abstract level, exploring the good and evil inherent to each human’s nature.

This rolling, allegorical feel meshes well with the author’s beautiful prose. Instead of saying, “time passed,” she says:

The world continued to revolve, somehow. The wind breezed through the neighborhoods and pushed the hands of household clocks. Waves rose and fell with the regularity of a sleeping god’s snores. People cupped snowflakes in the hands, scraps of divinity that melted at the human touch, as ephemeral as time.

I’ve lived in Maryland and the District, I appreciated a poetic visit to the mid-Atlantic’s seasons. This book also touches on the idea of inner demons and angles, a theme I’ve explored in my own novels. And I appreciated the careful editing, proof-reading and production of this novel. So although and because The Wake Up doesn’t follow the plot “rules” of a typical paranormal novel, it is a lovely read that I recommend.