2.26.2012

Deadline, by Mira Grant

Deadline
Deadline
I don't often get to say this, but I think Mira Grant's Deadline is even better than the first book in this trilogy. While it still has problems with repetition in the prose, it freaked me out (in a good way) more than the first book did. Don't get me wrong. Feed was great. I read it in one day it was so good. But Deadline runs with the premise set up by the first book, deepens the conspiracy, and ratchets up the terror.

The zombies in this series are the result of two man-made virus (one to cure cancer, the other to cure the common cold) combining into a terrifying new disease. All mammals are susceptible. To make things worse, the disease is mutating, evolving. At the time of the second book, they know about fifteen strains.

The beginning of the book starts about a year after the events of Feed. Shaun Mason is still coping with his loss and seems to have lost his taste for poking dead things with sticks--his previous passion in life. Though Shaun and his team of bloggers got the truth out, the cost appears to have broken him. So when a new conspiracy, potentially more explosive than the one from the first book, lands in his lap, it's tempting for him to think about passing it by. His sister's commitment to the truth prevents him. Almost before Shaun decides to investigate, he finds himself in them middle of a man-made outbreak of zombies and an airstrike that takes the life of one if his bloggers.

Shaun and his team spend most of the rest of the book running, crisscrossing the country to find out if what they suspect--that someone is manipulating the deadly zombie virus--is actually true. In Shaun's world, manipulating the virus and potentially making it worse, is the ultimate taboo. One of the few things that gives the living the upper hand over the dead is the fact that the virus can only transfer through fluids. If it managed to go airborne, humanity might be looking at the end of their species.

It sounds a little pale when you write it down in bald sentences, but it's a lot more gripping when you get it piece by piece as Shaun investigates. And because Grant is the kind of author willing to sacrifice characters like pawns, you never know who's going to die next. I'll admit I kept reading partly to make sure my favorites survived to the end of the book. (I'm not going to say if this worked out or not.)

There's only one book left in this trilogy, due to come out in a couple of months. I have no idea how Grant is going to escalate from the events of Deadline. But if the fact that Deadline is such a great read and seems to suffer from none of the middle volume doldrums, I am very excited to see what happens at last.

Household Gods, by Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove

Household Gods
Household Gods
As I read Household Gods, I wonder if the authors--Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove--had sat down and planned to write a novel that would dissuade anyone from time travel. The main character, a divorced Los Angeles attorney, spends a significant portion of the book learning how to deal with the cultural shocks of living in second century CE Pannonia. There's the constant stench, the slavery, the disease, the barbarians, the daily grind. The list goes on and on. If I had to fault this book for just one thing, it would be that the reader is told a lot more than they are shown simply because we spend too much time in the narrator's head. Once I started to think of the book as a thought experiment more than anything else, I started to enjoy it a lot more.

We meet our protagonist, Nichole Gunther-Perrin, on one of the worst days of her life. Her kids are unruly brats. She gets no help from her ex-husband. Her babysitter quits. The car is making weird noises. She doesn't make partner at her firm. And then the kids get sick. It's a lot to heap on one person's head and it's clear Nichole is about to snap. She makes a frivolous wish to an "antique" votive of a pair of Roman gods. The next thing knows, she wakes up eighteen hundred years ago in the body of a Pannonian tavernkeeper. She's lucky in that she is able to speak the local version of Latin and a very helpful slave, but that's about all she has in her favor. She eventually gets her stride, but the town suffers a plague of measles and an invasion by the Marcomanni and Quadi.

It doesn't take long before Nichole is disabused of her notion that life was simpler without cars and taxes. Her first day in the past she learns (painfully) that drinking wine is safer than drinking water and that giving kids a smack every now and then doesn't hurt them much. Nichole spends most of this book in a state of shock at one thing or another, but she eventually does learn to become a stronger person. If she doesn't stand up for herself, who will? I just takes an awful of words and whining for her to get there.

The book isn't all bad, though it does spend a lot of time smacking the reader upside the head with the lesson that life in the past is dangerous and barbarous. Anyone who's studied history will know this, if only in an academic way. But if you had the opportunity to explore the past, to talk with the people, to literally smell what the past was like, would you take it? I've read a lot of time travel novels in recent months, and I have to say the option is tempting. At least until I read Household Gods.

Hartley once wrote that "the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." Boy, was he right. It's easy to view history as a progression from the primitive to the modern. especially in the developed world. We don't have slavery. Medicine allows us to live decades longer than we could even a couple of hundred years ago. We have laws that protect children. We don't publicly execute people anymore and blood sports are illegal. We have laws that protect equality between the sexes. Looking at Household Gods, any reader should be grateful for those eighteen hundred years of progress. I, for one, am glad that I live now, rather than then. 'Course, if I had lived then, I would probably be grateful I didn't live in ancient Sumeria.

2.21.2012

Feed, by Mira Grant

Feed
Feed
At first, Mira Grant's Feed struck me as an overstuffed novel. It's a zombie novel, complete with hordes and close shaves and bullets to the brain. It's also a conspiracy/political thriller involving a presidential election and assassination attempts. It's also a commentary on the state of media and journalistic ethics. It's also just over 600 pages long. There's a lot going on here.

Fortunately, I didn't have any big plans today.

Grant quickly introduces us to a world that's had 20 years to acclimate itself to a zombie virus that strikes no matter how a victim dies. In this world, the zombie virus actually infects everyone. It only goes "live" when the victim is bitten or dies. Everyone is just an accident or a spot of bad luck away from an outbreak. Elaborate security measures have developed to keep everyone as safe as they can be under such circumstances. On this front, Grant has a very serviceable zombie novel. There are a number of thrilling close shaves that keep you on your toes as you read.

Our guide to this world is Georgia Mason, a professional blogger along with her brother and friend. Georgia is prickly and cynical. But her dedication to reporting the truth (and her wicked sense of humor) override any dislike you might have had for her. She's the conscious and the ethical center of her little cadre. Her brother is usually too busy poking zombies with sticks (sometimes literally) and uploading the live feeds to the internet. And the friend is a technical genius, but a flake when it comes to just about everything else.

Shortly after a fairly spectacular opening involving a motorcycle-assisted escape from a small pack of zombies, Georgia gets word that her group is the first group of professional bloggers exclusively selected to follow a presidential campaign. It's a big coup for them and lets them go independent. But it becomes clear after a couple of deadly coincidences, that something sinister is going on.

At this point, the zombie plot gives way to the thriller plot somewhat. George and her team try to track down whoever seems to be trying to kill or otherwise destroy their candidate. But when it became clear how deep the rabbit hole goes on this particular conspiracy, I didn't mind so much that the zombie action died down. In fact, it all leads to a rather terrific conclusion.

I can't give away any more of the plot without revealing a major plot point. But that major point also makes this book worth the price of admission. If you read this book and get to that point--you'll know the one I mean--you'll see how Grants novel suddenly evolves from a workmanlike, but original novel, into one that has startling emotional depth and pathos. I was having a blast up to that point, enjoying all the fights and mystery. But that moment tugged at my heart in a way that I was not expecting.

The other thing this book does is serve, as I said, as a commentary on the state of media. Most people I know distrust the traditional media to a greater or a lesser extent. In my role as a librarian, I try to get more people into that questioning group. In the world Grant created here, no one trust the traditional media because they ignored the first outbreaks as hoaxes or nonsense. Only the bloggers told the truth. As things got worst during those initial outbreaks, the surviving public lost all faith the media and started trusting the bloggers. People learned, the hard way, to triangulate their news. They learned to seek out the news from more than one source. Bloggers eventually get licenses to help regulate them, to make sure they're not following the route followed by their older siblings on TV and in print. So both journalistic ethics and critical reading also get resurrected. (Sorry about the pun.)

When I first started reading Feed, I wasn't sure if Grant was going to be able to pull it off. Sure it was interesting, but it was an awful lot of plot (not to mention character development) to cram between two covers. I can point to instances where Grant stumbled. But it all comes together. And, as I said, that bitter moment of pathos near the end elevates this book from the category of "Pretty Good Read" to "Really Great Read" for me.

2.20.2012

The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman

The Forever War
The Forever War
Originally published in 1974, Joe Haldeman's The Forever War is simultaneously a book of its time and this time. (This is not an original observation. I'll be the first to admit that. Doesn't make it any less true, though.) It's clear from even the first paragraphs that it was meant as a satire of the Vietnam War. But anytime a country goes to war overseas for vague reasons, The Forever War becomes fresh again.

In the alternate history of this book, a war starts between Terrans in the mid-1990s with the first alien species they encounter. The United Nations Expeditionary Force quickly drafts the best and the brightest from around the world, sink a million dollars on each soldier's training, and sends them off to meet the enemy. But because of the curious physics of interstellar travel in this universe, the soldiers experience only a few months or years of travel while back home Earth is experiencing decades and centuries. Periodically, our protagonist Mandella (his parents meant to name him Mandala but no one could spell it) gets news from home--but soon things on Earth start to sound more alien than the actual alien worlds he encounters.

The chronology of the novel unfolds over 1,100 years, but it's a lightening fast read because Mandella spends so much time in stasis or being rebuilt from his last encounter with the enemy. His war really only lasts about a decade in his subjective experience. As Mandella hops across time, I was reminded more and more of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. In that novel, the protagonist jumps ever further in time. Before long, Earth is unrecognizable. Mandella finds that even after a decade or so in space (objective time, not subjective), he can no longer live on Earth. He can't adjust to the society. The army is the only place that makes sense to him, just like prison makes sense to long-time prisoners.

To my mind, this is a direct analog of how hard it is for some returning veterans to adjust to a society that's moved on in their absence. I can only imagine how much worse it is for veterans of wars like Vietnam or Iraq, ones where the reasons for going to war are murky, where veterans can't count on public support because a portion of the civilian population thinks the war is a bad idea. In that way, The Forever War is a very sharp commentary on psychology and politics. I wonder why this book isn't more widely read outside of the science fiction community. It should be up there with Slaughterhouse-Five and Catch-22.

Another thing that struck me about the book was the psychological manipulation the soldiers experience. It was disturbing to hear Mandella succumb to posthypnotic suggestions that cause him to kill every moving alien when he first encounters the enemy. The hypnosis those first troops had tried to turn them into berserkers. Even more disturbing is the conditioning that female soldiers get that makes them "open" to sex with their comrades in arms. As a female myself, that smacks of rape. This is alluded to only briefly by Mandella (a male character), which bothers me all the more.

This element isn't enough to make me change my mind about how good the book is. It just means that I have to classify it as a guy's book. It would have been very interesting if the main character had been female. But I have to remember that this book was written in 1974, by a guy. It's almost in the ball park of having to forgive Mark Twain for using the n word in Huckleberry Finn.

The Angel of Darkness, by Caleb Carr

The Angel of Darkness
The Angel of Darkness
Caleb Carr's The Angel of Darkness is an unusual mystery in that they give away the murder fairly early in the book. The real mystery is how they're going to catch her because the murder here is one of the most devious creatures I've come across in fiction.

It starts with a kidnapping. A mother is playing with her daughter outside of a museum when she is bashed on the head. When she comes to, her daughter is gone. From there, the team from Caleb Carr's previous mystery, The Alienist, springs into action. Spearheaded by one of the few female detectives in 1890s New York, the team includes a journalist, a former child criminal, a manservant, and a preeminent psychologist try to chase down the kidnapper.

What they find is a woman who is ruled by conflicting impulses. On the one hand, Libbie Hatch wants to be a good mother, to live up to everyone's expectation of what a woman should be. But on the other hand, she's just no good at it. In her heart of hearts, she doesn't want to be a wife and mother. She resents children. They're a constant disappointment to her, too needy, to ungrateful. When they fail to thrive, it's not her fault; they're letting her down. There's not one ounce of nurturing in her--but she keeps trying anyway. What makes her such a slippery character is the fact that she seems to be able to charm the right people. A perfect example of this: at one point, Libbie worked at a lying-in hospital. Several children died under her care. The nurses suspected and disliked her, but the doctors thought she was a hero for trying to save those poor babies. Our protagonists know she has the kidnapped child, but they just can't find concrete proof to convince anyone else. The police, and many other people, just can't accept the fact that a woman who wasn't clearly insane might murder children.

By the mid-point of the novel, the protagonists have managed to uncover Libbie's murderous past and taken her to trial. Things look promising until Libbie manages to wrangle a young Clarence Darrow as a lawyer. This fictional version of Darrow starts to throw around the word natural. Mothers naturally love their children. They naturally would not murder those children. Infanticide is unnatural. And because Libbie appears sane, she can't have killed any child.

All this brings up what, for me, is the most interesting thing about this book: the conflict between a person's inclinations and societal pressure. I've seen this a lot with a lot of the young women who live in this particular part of the American West. There's an awful lot of pressure for young women of a particular religion to marry young and start reproducing. A high school friend of mine married and divorced and remarried within just a few years because of this pressure. Libbie was pressured all her young life to follow the model everyone expected of women in the nineteenth century: to marry and start reproducing. Any other desires were unnatural. You can imagine how wanting one kind of life and being pressured into another, for which one is totally unsuited, could really warp a person.

This is the reason I like Caleb Carr's duology are the psychological portraits. Even though the forensic psychology is more than a little anachronistic (but in the service of fiction, so I can forgive it), it's fascinating. They're profound and utterly convincing. More than that, they highlight tension in the society of the time.

Another reason I like this duology is because Carr is an expert at pacing. The plot rolls along when it needs to, but when you get to the climax you better cancel your plans for later because you're not going anywhere until the book is done. I really, really wish that Carr has more plans for this series. It doesn't look likely because Angel of Darkness came out in 1998. And there is a pretty efficient wrap up at the end that makes me think that there won't be any more. Pity.

2.12.2012

A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge

A Fire Upon the Deep
A Fire Upon the Deep
In A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge chucks his readers into the deep end of a universe that is a lot more complicated that we can imagine. For the first few chapters, I flailed around a bit trying to figure out what the hell was going on. I don't want that to sound like a complaint. I like that about books. It  takes skill to ground readers in a science fiction novel without having to just tell us everything.

(On a side note, it was very interesting to read this essay while I was working my way through this book, especially their fourth point. (Yes, I linked to Cracked. Deal with it.))

The first chapter sets off the book like a short fuse. We meet a group of humans in deep space who are messing around with an archive. They wake up something, an intelligence that is bent on universe-wide domination. Within a few pages, the humans cook up a scheme to evacuate. One ship makes it to relative safety. The other brings the malignant intelligence back to their home planet.

At this point, the book splits into many different perspectives. (From here on, it seems like every time you might get bored with a character, the perspective switches.) And the perspectives are so different that it's almost like reading two completely different books, at least until all the protagonists meet up at the end. Two of these perspectives are children who survived the mad dash to that relative safety I mentioned. These children, Jefri and Johanna, find themselves on a previously undiscovered planet inhabited by an ingeniously inventive race of sentient canids. These canids are small packs (each pack is an individual personality) that live in opposing kingdoms. The children are split between the camps. This part of the whole book is like a classic planetary exploration novel, but much better written. The other perspective, the space opera part of the book, is narrated by librarian Ravna Bergsndot.

The children's plots, for most of the book, describe a war between the two canid camps. They would have been interesting enough on their own. But for me, it's the Ravna chapters that really make the book because they raise the stakes, on the one hand, and on the other, they keep the reader rooted in the larger story of that malevolent intelligence taking over entire swathes of the inhabited galaxy. Further, Ravna's perspective introduces the reader to the concepts of Powers (super intelligences that have transcended from "lower" civilizations) and the Zones. Ranging out from a central point, the Unthinking Depths, the universe in this novel is arranged in zones. The further away from the depths one goes, the more advanced the technology. The Beyond, for example, allows faster than light travel. In the Transcend, anything is possible.

Back to the plots. Jefri has fallen in with a group of Tines (the pack minded canids) who lie to him in order to gain a technological edge on their enemies. (The planet the children landed on is just over the border in the Slow Zone, where faster than light travel and whole host of other technologies just aren't possible. Also, the Prime Directive doesn't seem to exist in this universe.) He never discovers that this group are the ones that killed his parents. Johanna falls in with the other group, who are much more benign but who have been infiltrated by Jefri's group. As the book rolls on, the children unknowingly find themselves on a collision course.

Ravna's plot is a lot more intricate. First, her perspective allows us to follow the spread of that intelligence, known as the Blight. This part is supplemented by news posts (much like Usenet posts) that share legitimate news, wild theories, calls to action, and more. Second, her plot covers her attempt to rescue the children stranded in the Slow Zone and recover something (they're not sure what) that will help them defeat the blight.

As I read, I had to admire Vinge's sense of pacing. He's got a planetary war brewing on one side and a galactic chase on the other. The whole second half of the book sets up the aforementioned collision course. When it all comes together, this book goes from great to spectacular.

A Fire Upon the Deep was written in the early 1990s. It's only recently that Vinge published the sequel, The Children of the Sky. Fortunately, I know a library that has a copy.

2.05.2012

Before I Go to Sleep, by S.J. Watson

Before I Go to Sleep
Before I Go to Sleep
You have to marvel at the premise behind S.J. Watson's Before I Go to Sleep. Of all the challenges to set for yourself as a writer, why on earth would you choose to create a narrator who can't remember things from day to day? Would you, as a writer, have to waste a lot of words with said narrator just catching up from the previous chapter? Watson really makes it work though, creating a very creepy and more interesting version of 50 First Dates.

This book is divided into three parts. In the first part, we meet Christine Lucas. She wakes in a room she doesn't recognize, next to a man she doesn't know. In short order, she (and we) learn that she has a rare form of amnesia where she loses her memories while she sleeps. Sometimes she wakes remembering nothing past childhood or her teen years. She is entirely dependent on a man who has to introduce himself as her husband every morning. It's not much of a life, but it's a lot better than the institutions she stayed in after her accident.

In the second part of the novel, Christine finds and reads a journal she's been keeping and hiding from her husband. The first words in it are "Don't Trust Ben"--her husband's name. Everyday, a memory specialist she's been secretly working with calls her to remind her where the journal is. This is where you start to see Watson's skill as a writer. She uses that journal in such a way that the novel zips right along, without getting bogged down by the logistical problems of the premise. Through the journal, we learn that Christine is being lied to. Ben doesn't tell her about the novel she published. He tells her that her best friend moved to New Zealand. Most damningly of all, he lies to her about her son and her accident.

As part two moves along, the mystery deeps. We start to wonder, along with Christine, what kind of man this husband is. There is something seriously wrong and the dread and tension ratchet up as the book moves along. In part three, everything comes to a head. I can't say much more without getting into deep spoiler territory. I will say that you can see some of the twists coming, if you're paying attention. But it's a very satisfying conclusion.

One of the blurbs compared this to a book version of Memento. They're not far wrong, but this book doesn't take the premise as far as that film did. It's not nearly as cynical as Memento was. In a way, I kind of wish Watson had given the book a darker resolution. Every now and then, it's satisfying in a different way to read a book with an unhappy ending. Books like that, like 1984, stick with you for the rest of your life.