8.28.2011

Deus ex Machina, by Andrew Foster Altshul

Deus ex Machina
Deus ex Machina
Andrew Foster Altshul's Deus ex Machina is a hallucination of a novel that blends reality TV and Heart of Darkness into an unsettling social commentary. The novel shifts back and forth between timelines and settings without warning, and the only anchor is the unnamed producer. The novel shifts between a Survivor-like show currently filming somewhere in Indonesia and the unnamed producer trying to keep the show going while pleasing his new and much young boss. The producer wants to make a show about truth--but doesn't know how to do that or even what truth would be in this setting. But everyone around him in the control booth is out to make the most scandalous and shocking season they can. The players just want to win and are more than willing to show how low they can sink.

The show within the book, The Deserted, reads like a more extreme version of Survivor. One of the players actually dies at one point, and two others get close to it. The point of the show, according to the producer, is non-interference. The producer wants the players to have free will, though the players are required to participate in challenges and follow the rules of the game. They're removed if they don't. The show, like they all seem to, has become formulaic. The producer notices that they all fall into the same roles. There's always a Hero, a Schemer, a Whiner, etc. Only the first seasons were original and the producer is under pressure to make the show even more shocking to win back some viewers. Some of his team have already jumped ship and are following orders directly from the new boss. On top of all this pressure, the producer is haunted by a horrific season in Benin and his wife's awful death. It's little wonder that the producer starts to slid into paranoia and insanity.

While the plot is interesting and the characters are horrifyingly interesting to watch, the thing to pay attention to, I think, is the social critique. At several points, the producer muses on the extreme sorts of reality shows that The Deserted is competing with. Later in the book, he learns about the hyperbolic criticism from the audience. In these moments, Altschul approaches delightfully uncomfortable satire, highlighting the disconnect between the life-threatening risks the players have to take and the fickle attention of the audience. To the audience, it's just TV. It can't be real. We trust the lawyers and underwriters to keep things from getting too dangerous. The audience knows that the show is script to some extent, so they want drama. In spite of the pressure and the elaborate sets they've built and challenges they've designed, wants the show to be real. It's a mundane goal. Or it would be if the producer wasn't competing with with the ghastly storylines his team wants to put in place.

Deus ex Machina is a hard book to get a grip on, mostly because there are so many things that a reader could take away from it. There's the satire. There's the vaguely theological metaphor of the producer as god and everyone getting upset about the free will experiment. There's the social commentary on the reality TV phenomenon. It's amazing what Altschul can do in a little over 200 pages.

8.24.2011

The Complaints, by Ian Rankin

The Complaints
The Complaints
I think I'm out of practice when it comes to reading mysteries. At  times, the conspiracy at the center of Ian Rankin's The Complaints was so complicated that I felt like I needed a diagram to keep track of everyone's motives and plots. It seems as though everyone in Scotland has an ulterior motive. By the end, I suspected that it was really several plots colliding...but you can be the judge of that.

At the beginning of The Complaints, we meet Malcolm Fox, who is part of the squad that polices the rest of the police. He's putting the finishing touches on a case against a cop who likes the bend the rules when he gets the word that one of his target's comrades might be into child pornography. And just when it seems that Fox has enough on his plate, he learns that his sister's abusive boyfriend has been murdered. And, surprise surprise, he's a suspect. From there, things get--if you can believe it--even more complicated. It's fascinating to see it all come together.

My favorite part of the book was Fox himself. Rankin does a great job of showing him grow, although I can't say Fox is the better for his experiences. At first, he was very much by the book. But by the end, he's cutting the same kind of corners as the cops he normally investigates. It's an interesting transformation to watch.

I don't have much to say about The Complaints. It's a solid mystery and I did enjoy killing some time reading it. I'd recommend it to mystery readers who like to read books where they can't work out who done it until the big reveal.

8.22.2011

Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay
Mockingjay
Mockingjay completes Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy and it is a spectacular ending indeed. I really enjoyed this series. It's got everything that I love in stories: great, believable characters; terrific plot and pacing; ethical conflict; harrowing action sequences; examinations of human nature.

In Mockingjay, Katniss finds herself free of the Capital--but not free of government control. Most of her world believed that District 13 was destroyed some 75 years previously. But they just went underground, literally. The inhabitants rescued her at the explosive end of the last book, hoping to use her as a symbol for the rest of the rebels to rally around. At first, Katniss resists, not wanting to be the cause of more deaths. She manages to cut a deal with the rebel government to save the lives of other victors of the Hunger Games, including that of her erstwhile boyfriend, Peeta. In exchange for their lives, Katniss becomes the Mockingjay. She reluctantly agrees to be filmed to make propaganda. In the background, a real war is being fought. There is a strange disconnect between Katniss's sort of dangerous war and that real war.

Descriptions of life in District 13 add to the feelings of menace this book evokes. Life under President Coin is highly regimented--to the extent that everyone receives a daily schedule they must follow. Food is rationed, providing just enough calories to keep people going. Jobs are assigned. Everyone is micromanaged. Katniss is the only person, outside of the president, who gets some freedom. I wondered--as I expect Collins wanted to me to--that life wouldn't be much better under this regime than the last. If the rebels won and put Coin in control, it's clear that the roles of the Capital and the Districts would be reversed and they'd all be fighting it out in another 75 years or so. The anger that some of the rebels express and their willingness to be as cruel as their enemies call to mind the aftermath of the French and Russian revolutions. I theorize that those reigns of terror were a very bloody kind of catharsis for years of abuse.

The war gets real for Katniss by the end. She gets to rise above her role as a figurehead. She is also witness to some heartbreaking acts of war that make it clear that, unless someone changes the path the country is on, the killing will not stop. The ending is amazing. I think my jaw dropped as I read it. I loved the epilogue that followed. I can't say why for fear of ruining the entire trilogy, so I think I will stop summarizing here.

I think what I love most about these books is that Collins does not pull her punches. She makes these books very violent and dangerous, and you get a strong sense of the stakes people are playing for here. And being the cynic that I am (especially after I read the news), I can believe that governments can be this cruel and that revenge has a very, very long half-life.

Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire
Catching Fire
It took me a long time to get around to reading Suzanne Collins's Catching Fire, but I am really glad that I picked up the last book in the Hunger Games trilogy at the same time. I spent most of my weekend with Katniss Everdeen and the revolution that she accidentally started.

When we pick up the story again a few months after Katniss won the Hunger Games. Like a twisted version of Miss America, she and her co-winner have to make a publicity tour six months before the next Hunger Games. Though mentally scarred by the experience and sickened by the warped pleasure that Capital citizens take in the Hunger Games, Katniss is looking forward to being out of the spotlight. However, the President visits and makes it clear that she has to keep playing along with their games to keep her family and friends safe. At the same time, we get hints that unrest is spreading throughout the Districts. The lengths that the Capital will go to to keep order are horrifyingly cruel. And yet, I have no trouble believing that people would go so far. I watch the news and I know my history.

It becomes clear that Katniss's attempts to make her small act of rebellion during the Hunger Games was really just an act of love are not fooling anyone that matters. The President arranges things so that Katniss has to compete in yet one more Hunger Games, one that promises to be even deadlier than the last one. By the end of the book, a full scale revolution has broken out. On the one hand, this is a great middle book. It has it's own plot, with great pacing. But on the other, it's a clear set up for the last book.

I love how tough and commonsense Katniss is. She's far from perfect, but she is struggling to save lives and to do the right thing. These books got a lot of press and a lot of readers, but I wish that they got as much attention as the Twilight series. They deserve a wide audience. I'm really looking forward to what Collins comes up with next.

8.19.2011

Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes

Zoo City
Zoo City
Lauren Beukes's Zoo City is a delightful blend of noir and contemporary fantasy, set in exotic Johannesburg, South Africa. As soon as I read the first chapter, I was hooked. It was so good I read it in less than a day. There's a lot going on in this story. There's a killer mystery and an interesting premise (that I'll get to in a second). But what makes this book is its atmosphere. Without beating the reader over the head with details, you get a sense of the ricketty, crime ridden tenements where the main character spends most of her time so so strong that you can almost smell the stink of it. The dialogue is peppered with Afrikaans and several African languages and the cast is wildly diverse. I tip my metaphorical hat to Beukes's skill as a writer.

Zinzi December is a part-time lost object retriever and part-time 419 scammer until she gets caught up in a mystery that's a lot bigger than anyone (even the reader) suspects. What complicates matters is that she carries the weight of her brother's murder on her back in the quite literal form of a sloth. Because if the sloth, she can't move on with her life. She was once a drug addicted journalist, living the high life. By the time we meet her, she's off the drugs and in a stable relationship with a man who is reminded of his crimes as a child soldier by a mongoose that lives with him.

The action really gets rolling when, in order to pay off some old debts, Zinzi takes a job tracking down a missing pop star. All of her leads dead end, though she risks her life to try and find out where the girl went. As we read and as Zinzi investigates, there are small hints that something is off. Although neither Zinzi nor I put them together until the utterly thrilling Part II. Until Part II, I was content with the book. It was every interesting, but not spectacular. Part II is bloody spectacular. I hate to give away details in a mystery, but I will say that the missing pop start is just a small part of the bigger crime. It's interesting that Beukes lets you think it's all over at the end of Part I.

So, the premise. This isn't explicitly talked about much in the novel, so you have to pick it up from context. In Zinzi's world, people's crimes are readily apparent by the animal that appears shortly after their crimes--even if the death of the other person was unintentional. Throughout the novel, you get news stories and other hints of what's going on in the rest of the world. If the animal dies, the Undertow--a mysterious and terrifying force--apparently kills the person. It's never explained where these animals and the Undertow come from, or even that they represent. Are they guilt? Are they punishment? I really hope there's a sequel to this book, if only to get more clues.

Zoo City was a very enjoyable read, with many things to recommend it. And I'm not the only one doing the recommending. Zoo City won the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke award. I very much look forward to her next work.

Quiet, Please, by Scott Douglas

Quiet, Please
Quiet, Please
As I read through Scott Douglas's Quiet, Please: Dispatches From a Public Librarian I often wondered if he worked in the worst library ever. There were almost as many anecdotes about his coworkers as there were about crazy patrons. Not that I'm bothered--crazy people stories are one of the best things about working in libraries--but I wonder what non-library folk will think if they ever pick it up. A book like this really destroys the unflappable image of the librarian.

I've read Douglas's Dispatches before, on McSweeney's Internet Tendencies. The book version has the same style and tone. It meanders from anecdote to anecdote, with frequent asides for trivia, and occasionally interrupted by footnotes (necessary and otherwise). Aside from a sometimes unreliable chronology, there isn't a whole lot to link it all together. There doesn't even seem to be a consistent thesis, as Douglas lurches back and forth from despairing for libraries and their patrons to hope for the continuing role of librarians in the future. If you've spent any time with librarians, you'll know that we do the same. But Douglas does it with bipolar frequency--just about every chapter.

So while there isn't much to take away in the grand scheme of things, the best thing about this book is the crazy people stories. One of the reasons I love going to conferences is that, when you get a bunch of librarians together, we start telling stories about all the whackos that we've encountered. There's something about libraries and crazy people. I suspect it's that, unless people are being criminally disruptive or destructive, we can't really kick them out. But libraries draw them like lodestones. This book is peppered with stories and I enjoyed the hell out of those.

I suppose some readers could also use it to learn about functioning in dysfunctional workspaces. As I said, there are almost as many stories about weirdo co-workers as there are about the public. It reminded me a lot of the little public library where I worked (though I will admit that it wasn't nearly as bad as Douglas's libraries). These stories--although I enjoyed the hit of schadenfreude--made me despair a bit myself. I agree with Douglas's comment that libraries aren't just buildings fun of books. What makes them libraries, and what makes them important, are the people. I'd add, however, that we're going to need good, passionate librarians to take us forward.

I don't know if other readers will really understand what it's like for us until they read this book. We have to fight so hard to keep drawing in new readers and keep a hold of the old ones that we're nice to people who would get bounced out of businesses after five minutes of nonsense. But I will definitely recommend this to two groups. First, I'd recommend it to people who think we just sit around and read all day. And second, I'd recommend it to library workers who need a laugh and a dose of schadenfreude.

8.18.2011

The Reapers Are the Angels, by Alden Bell

The Reapers Are the Angels
The Reapers Are
the Angels
Alden Bell's The Reapers Are the Angels reminds me of nothing so much as True Grit with zombies. It's plain spoken and profound at the same time, anchored by a tough girl who is trying to do the right thing in a violent world. Unlike True Grit, there's no one to protect and guide Temple. She's on her own, with a vengeful man on her trail. In that way, it's sort of True Grit in reverse. With zombies.

We meet Temple in an isolated lighthouse somewhere in the Florida keys. When a zombie (or "meatskin") washes up on shore, Temple pulls up stakes and returns to the mainland to find a safer place to live. For a fifteen year old girl, however, the living are just as dangerous as the dead. Temple soon runs afoul of Moses Todd, a giant of a man with a lecherous brother. Temple kills the brother in self defense, and Moses starts to chase her all over the ruined Southern landscape.

Temple is not a bad person, though she constantly fears that she is. She questions what is right and wrong. She desperately wants to do what's right, even if it is hard. For a large portion of the book, she shepherds a mentally challenged man to Texas to try and find his family. But she is constantly put into situations where she must answer with violence. She's good at it; she'd be the first to admit it. But one comes away with the impression that this is what scares her most of all: her satisfaction with bloody jobs well done. Temple is a born soldier. She just can't seem to make peace with that. Her bloody jobs haunt her. Her guilt drives her on as much as her need for safety.

I love these ethically thorny books, and not just because they make me wonder what I would do in similar situations. I love ethical dilemmas because they push us to really consider what is right and wrong. I'm pragmatic, and I would argue that ethics--for the most part--have to be decided based on the situation. But Bell uses this book to also look at the repercussions of the decisions, even when they were clearly the right ones in the situation.

This book has great characters and a great plot. But what made me really love it was the language. It's plain, sure, but Bell is capable of creating beautiful images with it:
She watches the fire and feels sleepy, and when she pokes it with a stick, the embers fly up into the air like a crazy squadron of insects and then simply disappear as if they've gotten lodged in one of the many folds of the night. (161*)
Temple twists English a little, creating malapropisms like aerodynastics. But she's far from stupid. As she points out later in the book, when she should have been in school, she was surviving. She speaks a bit like the characters in Firefly--that's really the only way I can describe it. But I could read her for hours because I love the way she bends a phrase.

In a way, it's a shame that the book is so short. This is a rich environment for stories and characters. But on the other hand, if it had been longer it would have been tempting to natter on about guilt and ethics and right and wrong and utterly suck the life out of the book. I can tell that this is a book that rewards multiple readings.

I'm really looking forward to Bell's next book. He's the sort of writer that elevates the genre.

* 2010 trade paperback edition.

8.16.2011

Portrait of a Spy, by Daniel Silva

Portrait of a Spy
Portrait of a Spy
Every summer we get a new Gabriel Allon book. As I read this last one, I was struck by the fact that, every summer, we get a slight variation on a theme. Something awful happens. Gabriel gets reluctantly involved. A scheme is concocted and seems to work very well at first. Things go wrong. Someone is kidnapped and Gabriel has to rescue them. Gabriel gets the crap beaten out of him, but manages to salvage the operation sooner or later. Gabriel wrestles with his guilt and gets over it. Tune in next summer. This is pretty much a complete summary for Daniel Silva's Portrait of a Spy.

I've picked up on a pattern in the Gabriel Allon novels. The whole series covers Gabriel's life and espionage operations, but in side the big series are small trilogies that show Gabriel dueling with a major villain or a particular group of baddies. The best analogy I can think of is to compare them to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series, only much more dour. The whole series was Buffy's story. Each season had a Big Bag, and most of the episodes had a monster of the week. Portrait of a Spy is a monster of the week novel, as far as I can tell. In this novel, Gabriel--with the help of a very wealthy Saudi woman--go after a sophisticated terror network. There is some excitement, but it's so formulaic that it's hard to get worked up about anything. I knew how it was going to end from near the middle of the book.

As I read, I found the title of this book to be an ironic misnomer. We don't learn much more about Gabriel's inner life in this novel. We're consistently told rather than shown how he feels and thinks. I felt very detached from the plot and from the character throughout the whole read, and it left me disappointed at the end. The villains remain shadowy stock figures, too. We're told that the villains, a cleric-turned-recruiter and a terrorist mastermind, are Islamic fundamentalists who hate the West--but that's it. In previous novels, Silva devoted page space to explaining why his villains were the way they were and why they were unique and cunning dangers. Silva is capable of better books than this one. I'd really only recommend it to fans of the series. I really hope the next book will inject some life into the series.

Aside from the book's plot and character problems, the other thing that struck me was the depiction on Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism that is portrayed in the book. There are several sections and speeches that make it sound like another "Pissed Off at Islam" book. Personally, I think there are sects of Islam that are every bit as bad as novelists and politicians would have us believe. I don't dispute that. What I object to are the novelists and politicians tarring everyone with the same brush and expecting people to just go along with it. What bothers me even more is that there are few attempts to humanize and understand these terrorists. Terrorism is not created in a vacuum. There are reasons to explain this behavior. I think that the only way to stop terrorism is to remove the conditions that give birth to it.

However, Silva makes a point in this novel that I very much agree with. The West's war on terrorism is probably a forever war. It has the potential to last longer than the Cold War. It's already been more costly. On the one hand, this is fertile ground for thriller/espionage writers. On the other, it means that we need to start combating terrorism more intelligently. I suppose these thoughts indicate that Silva's book at least accomplished the goal of making his readers at least think about the situation.

Dreadnought, by Cherie Priest

Dreadnought
Dreadnought
I somehow managed to miss the second novel* in Cherie Priest's Clockwork Century series, but Dreadnought stands very well on its own. Unlike Boneshaker, Dreadnought begins in Virginia, during a civil war that has been going on for over twenty years with no end in site. Priest continues to twist history by introducing steampunk and zombies (always a fun mix), to create the nail-bitingly tense travels of nurse Mercy Swakhammer Lynch.

We meet Mercy in the middle of rounds at a hospital that takes care of wounded Confederate soldiers. Soon after this grim opening, Mercy receives the news that her Yankee husband died in Andersonville and that her wayward father has been terribly wounded in far-off Seattle. Most of the action in this story takes place once Mercy starts her journey west. She must be the most unlucky traveler in the history of her alternate America because in short order, her dirigible is shot down by Union forces, she is chased across a battlefield, her train is attacked by jayhawkers, the Confederate Army, and zombies. In spite of all this, Mercy finds the time to join forces with a reluctant Texas Ranger in investigating why the train, the Dreadnought, is the target of so much pursuit.

Dreadnought (the book) is a curious blend of mystery and travel novel. On the one hand, most of the narrator's attention (and perforce the reader's) is devoted to getting from northern Virginia to Seattle in one piece. Mercy spends a lot of time ducking and covering, and then attending to the wounds of the injured men around her. But in the (few) quieter moments, a mystery develops. There are two cars on the train that are off limits to the civilian passengers. The last car especially is forbidden, under the charge of a very unpleasant scientist who refuses to take orders from anyone. When the contents of that last car are confirmed (anyone who's read Boneshaker will have a pretty good idea of what's going on), it's like the last touch of something that makes the whole book an utterly ripping yarn.

Dreadnought is a very fun read, and I highly recommend it to fans of steampunk novels. I'd also recommend it to fans of adventure novels and alternate history readers. There's a lot to enjoy in this book, and I very much look forward to the new book in the series that's coming out this fall.

* The second novel, Clementine, appears to be available only as an ebook.

8.02.2011

Life, On the Line, by Grant Achatz

Life, On the Line
Life, On the Line
I don't envy the job of food writers. How do you describe the ephemeral pleasures of taste with words? Grant Achatz, the chef and owner of the avant-garde restaurant Alinea, includes pictures in his autobiography Life, On the Line, and while they help somewhat, it's still hard to wrap one's head around food that one will probably never taste. Achatz food is far beyond what most people eat, so it's hard to even imagine what it might taste or smell like.

Achatz and his co-writer Kokonas (his partner at Alinea) begin with a leisurely introduction to Achatz's early life. He comes from a restaurant owning family, though the family owned diners rather than fine restaurants. He describes learning to cook at an early age. From the book, it would seem that he had no other ambitions but to own a great restaurant and be the best chef in the world. Everything Achatz does is toward that goal. In the early parts of the book, it's easy to cheer Achatz on. But as his relationships deteriorate and as he leaps from high point to high point in his career, I found it harder to stay on his side. At times, I thought he sounded like a putz. This book is so different from the other food memoirs I've read, where cooks spend years toughing it out in grim, dirty, and dangerous kitchens or amateurs learning the hard way that cooking is not easy. It seems like everything in his professional life comes easily. And when things are not going well in his personal life, Achatz skims over the top of it in this book.

As the biography moves towards the present, the timeline speeds up. After generous chapters describing Achatz's life at Thomas Keller's The French Laundry, Achatz lands a job as the head chef at Trio and revives the restaurant. In a few short chapters, Trio is the best Chicago area fine restaurant. Three years and a chapter later, Achatz gets itchy feet and wants to open a restaurant where he can control the food, the look, and the experience. He finds a partner if one of his regular diners at Trio and in a year, Alinea opens. Within seven months, it's named the best restaurant in America. This section of the book is almost blindingly fast. When Achatz learns he has squamous cell cancer of the tongue, it seems as though the ride of good luck is over.

The diagnosis seems impossible to beat. All the of the treatment options are terribly grim and would mean the end of his career. Achatz and his business partner/friend Kokonas visit four doctors before they find one that has a different treatment that does involve disfiguring surgery. Then Achatz's luck turns again. The alternative treatment works for him and he only temporarily loses his sense of taste. By the end of the book, Achatz and Kokonas are scouting locations for a new restaurant project.

Life, On the Line, is an interesting read, if only because it showed me a part of the food world that I had only briefly glimpsed through mentions in Ruth Reichl and Anthony Bourdain's books. Achatz's food struck me as being as much performance art as food. Achatz mines his memories and experiences and sense of humor to create elegant dishes that consistently defy expectations. He is now on my short list of people who should be given unlimited budgets and freedom just to see what they'll come up with next*.

* Others on this list include Joss Whedon, Neko Case, China Miéville, and Banksy.

Flashback, by Dan Simmons

Flashback
Flashback
Dan Simmons' Flashback is a very angry book. I'm hard pressed to say whether it's Simmons letting his anger at current events flood his book or if Simmons was experimenting. It was very hard not to try and psychoanalyze the writer as I read this book. Like China Miéville's books, Flashback is packed with ideas. But unlike Miéille, it has a sympathetic and human character to anchor the chaos.

Nick Bottom is an unlike hero in a future America that, in my more pessimistic moods, seems all too likely to happen. The economy has collapsed and most people live hand to mouth in former malls and housing projects or are fighting for territory. Many people are hooked on flashback, a drug that lets them relive moments from their memory. Nick used to be a cop until his wife died and his drug abuse got out of control. We meet him several years after that, trying to convince a Japanese advisor to let him investigate the murder of the advisor's son. Nick even tries to portray his addiction as an asset, since he can remember the case files while he's under the influence. Simmons lets us sink into Nick's world, picking up details about our possible future history while slowly building up the mystery plot.

There are two secondary plot threads that help us see just how dangerous the future America has become. In one of them, we meet Nick's father-in-law, an aging academic who would like to write a Tolstoy-level epic about this new American society. Until the plot really gets moving, however, Leonard mostly seems bewildered. The other plot thread is narrated by Nick's son, Val, a punk who is angry at the world but is reluctant to lash out against it.

Before long, it becomes clear to Nick that there is more going on to the mystery than he thought. To the reader, it becomes clear that the murder is not the center of this book. This is not a mystery; it's a conspiracy. Nick travels back and forth from Denver to Boulder to Sante Fe (no longer a part of the United States) to Los Angeles and back. Leonard and Val flee Los Angeles as a war breaks out behind them. The pieces of the puzzle come together in the end, into an unexpected picture. Everything clicks into place in a deliciously satisfying way, in spite of the possibly ambiguous ending. Flashback has an ending that could be read as optimistic or pessimistic, depending on your mood when you read it. This is a tremendous book, and I'm still turning over it's ideas almost a week after I finished it. This is one of the best dystopias I've read in a long time.

So why do I call this an angry book? Because it was all too easy for me to imagine a writer reading or watching the news and getting so angry at politicians and the media and terrorists and society that it had to come out somehow. The America that Simmons presents could not exist without our current society and government making some key mistakes. First, America is so broke that it hires out its army to fight for Japan in China. Second, September 11 is now celebrated as a holiday, rather than a day of mourning. Third, America has ceded its place as a world power and its population seems to have lost any will to regain that place. After all that, it's easy to picture Simmons as an anti-Islamic conservative or libertarian.

And yet, this book has too much subtlety to dismiss it like that. This book is crammed with ideas, just waiting to spark discussion not only about its literary merits but also about the way our society might be headed. I finished this book right before the debt ceiling talks produced a plan, so it was very easy to think that Simmons' predicted future was well on its way. This book is terrifying for that very reason.

This book deserves to be read widely, for its plot, its character, and especially for its ideas. I hope it wins a ton of awards so that more people will read it.