Tuesday, September 19, 2017

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

It's impossible to read everything. Even worse. it's often impossible to keep reading the new books by all of the writers you've liked in the past -- unless you're incredibly demanding and picky, I suppose. Things pile up, and then you realize it's been close to a decade since you read a book by that writer you still think of as a favorite.

And that brings me to Martha Wells. I read her first four novels as they came out, and bought several of them for the SFBC. Then she dove into a trilogy, and I was putting them on a shelf to read, all together, for what I hoped would be a SFBC omnibus. I don't know if anyone else ever did that omnibus, but the door slammed shut behind me before I had the chance. I still wanted to read the trilogy, but maybe not right then -- it would remind me too much of what didn't happen. Then Wells jumped into another series, about winged folks in a different, less Earth-based fantasy world -- it sounded interesting, and more of a stretch for her writing, which is all good, but...I just never picked up one of those books (despite even going to see Wells read from one of them at the Reno Worldcon).

What did it take to get me back? Well, Wells tried SF for what I think is the first time. And she wrote a short book -- probably a novella -- which length I find very appealing these busy days. And, probably most importantly, it was a story told in the first person by a semi-human mechanical that calls itself "Murderbot," and that triggered my old John Sladek Tik-Tok tropism.

And, yes, that book was called All Systems Red. It looks to be the beginning of a new series: I hope it is.

Murderbot is our narrator, and it has a wonderful voice. Murderbot should not have free will -- its kind are designed not to -- but its kind are also made as cheaply as possible to maximize their corporate owner's profitability, so glitches do happen. And so Murderbot does have free will, which it could use to kill people. But it doesn't really want to kill people; it mostly wants to spend as much time as possible consuming media products and not worrying about its own life.

(In Murderbot, Wells has created the first slacker killer-robot, which I deeply love.)

There is a reason why Murderbot calls itself that, and the reader will learn that reason before the end of All Systems Red. But it's a good reason, and Wells sets it up perfectly, so I won't tell you here.

Anyway, the job of a SecUnit -- what Murderbot is, officially -- is to protect and defend exploratory teams on new worlds, as they figure out if it's worthwhile for their parent organizations to bid on colonizing/mining/exploiting that particular world. Murderbot is with a small team, of just five humans, and is the only SecUnit assigned to them. There's one larger team far away on the same planet, but that's it -- it should be a fairly easy job, protecting them from dangerous fauna.

But it turns out their info-packet on this planet has some very large and glaring holes in it, such as a very nasty tunneling predator and entire regions of the map. And the other, much better equipped team suddenly goes radio-silent. Murderbot is not happy with having to work harder, but it wants to protect this team, even if it isn't forced to do so. It turns out that Murderbot likes them.

But will that be enough?

All Systems Red is short and zippy, moving along at pace and driven by the grumpy voice of Murderbot. From the series title, I have my fingers crossed that we will get more adventures of Murderbot in this medium-future ultra-capitalist universe -- sooner rather than later, I hope.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 9/16

For those of you keeping track at home -- are there people who even read blogs nowadays? I tend to think I'm typing this mostly for my own memory, like a diary that's ostensibly in public -- this is the third week in a row with no books in the mail.

Since I just spent a very busy week alternately in a gigantic office building on the Minnesota prairies and a quite nice hotel attached to the Mall of America, that's just fine with me. There will be other books later: there are always more books.

But, this week, I'm not going to be the one telling you about any of them.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Troll Bridge by Neil Gaiman and Collen Doran

I didn't remember Neil Gaiman's story "Troll Bridge" well. In fact, if you'd asked me about it, I would have assumed some confusion on your part with Terry Pratchett's short story "Troll Bridge," and tried to lead you in that direction.

But story titles can't be copyrighted, and even good friends can use the same ones without stress or strife. I'd forgotten it, but Gaiman did also write a story titled "Troll Bridge," originally for the Datlow/Windling anthology Snow White, Rose Red in 1993 and collected a number of times since then. And, since Gaiman has a huge audience in comics that might not be as familiar with his just-prose works -- or, at least, there are publishers willing to bet that's the case -- a number of his short stories have been turning into short graphic novels from Dark Horse over the past few years.

Last year it was Troll Bridge's turn, adapted and drawn by Colleen Doran.

I'm not sure short stories need to turn into graphic novels, but they're about the right length -- a twenty-page piece of prose can be a forty-eight-page graphic novel and fit comfortably into that size, without the usual Procrustean manipulations to fit the format. So, given that it's possible, and anything both possible and likely profitable will happen, the only question left is: how well does this story work, translated into this new medium?

It works pretty well, actually. "Troll Bridge" is a story of episodes -- a boy meets a troll under a bridge near his home, somewhere in then-rural England, and then other things happen over time -- and that translates to comics just as well as it works in prose. The troll itself, as seen on the cover, is traditional, which is fine for this twisted-traditional story. And the boy looks much like Gaiman might have at the same age, which is of course the point, as in so many Gaiman stories. (He works from material based on his own life a lot more than I think he gets credit for.)

So this boy meets a troll, who wants to eat his life. The boy would rather his life not be eaten, so he makes a deal. And this is a fairy tale, so that deal comes out badly in the end -- fairy tales only reward the heroes who are strong and true throughout, and have the luck to be born third. (And not even them, all of the time -- fairy tales are one of our bloodiest types of story.)

I'm not sure I've ever gotten whatever lesson "Troll Bridge" has to impart -- unless it's "keep away from bridges, because trolls lurk there and will eat you" -- which may be why I keep forgetting it. Burt this is a good adaptation of that story, keeping the flavor of Gaiman's narration and adding Doran's pastorally-colored and carefully seen vision of his world. I'm still not 100% convinced this story needed to be adapted, but, if it was going to be anyway, this is definitely a successful version.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Contrary To Popular Believe by Joey Green

We all need something to read when we're doing something else. (Well, there may be people who don't read, but they are poor, stunted things, and we don't want to think about them.)

For a couple of months, the book I had in the smallest room of the house was Contrary to Popular Belief, written by Joey Green (of Wash Your Hair With Whipped Cream fame). It contains 250 things that some people believe, and explains why each of them is wrong in a single page.

Sure, I knew most of this already. (And quibbled with some of it; Green is happy to elide complications if it makes a better zinger.) But that makes a book like this even more fun: that smug feeling that you already know better than most people. If you already think you know things that most people misunderstand, this is the book for you -- and you get bonus points for everything you know that Green passes over.

This is not a deep book, or a serious one. But it's a book that sets things straight, which is entirely a positive thing. Its breezy, friendly style may make a few thousand more people learn the truth than otherwise would, which is entirely good. And I didn't actually find anything wrong in it: just things that are less simple than Green presents them. Considering the whole world is less simple than can be presented in a impulse-buy book, that's not too shabby.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Dragons: The Modern Infestation by Pamela Wharton Blanpied

Look -- you know I love fake non-fiction, right? The kind of books that seem to have come from a world somewhat similar to our own, but substantially changed?

Well, for years I've been saying that Pamela Wharton Blanpied's Dragons: The Modern Infestation was one of the best of that small category, along with Robert Sobel's For Want of a Nail. But I only read Dragons once, a good twenty years ago. What if I remembered it wrong?

So I got a new copy and read it again. And, of course, I was right all along: Dragons: The Modern Infestation is wonderful. It's also sneakier and smarter than I remembered, which implies I might have missed half of the fun the first time around.

Dragons, in the world where it belongs, is a serious academic book, full of citations and references to the peer-reviewed literature. It's set in a world where dragons began reappearing perhaps two generations ago -- seventy or eighty years or so. Their numbers are increasing, and they are unstoppable apex predators: deeply intelligent and cunning, huge, strong, flexible, flying fire-breathing creatures possessed of a nearly supernatural "mime" ability that makes adult dragons essentially impossible to target or kill. They can and do push mankind entirely aside to protect the places they want, and caused a years-long reign of terror in Europe when one dragon was wounded by a human attack.

(I should note that "two generations ago" is from the publication of this second edition of Dragons, and that it's set in what I estimate is an alternate near-future. Satellite imagery has been used for several multi-year Dragon Censuses, making the emergence of dragons pretty clearly in the second half of the twentieth century and the "now" of this book published in 1980/1996 somewhere in the 2020s or 30s.)

Blanpied clearly has a complicated backstory for this world in her head, and it comes out in parts during Modern Infestation, as we learn about dragons themselves and the few plucky researchers who have contributed to our slight knowledge of them. She smartly avoids real-world politics entirely, which makes this nearly forty-year-old book entirely fresh: all of the nations of the world are in the same boat dealing with dragons, and so their individual squabbles don't matter to this discipline.

Modern Infestation is so-named because there was a Pre-Medieval Infestation, and Blanpied's fictional researchers, though mostly anatomists and linguists and behaviorists, do have some interest in the history of that previous burst of draconic activity. But this book is concerned with what can be known about modern dragons, and so is based primarily upon the fieldwork of a small number of (named and characterized) researchers. So it opens with a chapter outlining the history of the Modern Infestation generally, hitting the major events. The second chapter, the bulk of the book, covers Anatomical and Behavioral Characteristics, including sketches of draconic anatomy and official-looking charts of draconic locations. (Some of those graphics are printed less than wonderfully in the current edition, which seems to be print-on-demand. It's all comprehensible, but it could be crisper and darker.) The third chapter contains excerpts from the papers of several foundational dragon experts, including some notes from (rare, and usually unsatisfying) conversations with dragons.

Dragons: The Modern Infestation is smart and deep and the best possible kind of quirky, a book like no other. It's a short book, but not a quick read -- Blanpied packs a lot into her sentences, and writes with tongue deeply in cheek at all times. There are immediate meanings, the implied history of this world, deeper satires of academic life and the foibles of humanity in general, plus silly pictures that have circles and arrows pointing to places where a dragon is lurking unseen.

This is a funny book, a thoughtful book, and a wonderful book. I know of nothing else like it at all. Blanpied, for all I can tell, wrote just this one book, but she did her job perfectly -- so why continue after that?

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Black Dahlia by Rick Geary

I'm in danger of turning into a broken record on this subject: Geary has been doing the same thing brilliantly for so long that I've run out of different ways to say it.

Black Dahlia is the seventh in his "Treasury of XXth Century Murder," which followed eight similar books in the "Treasury of Victorian Murder" (and one even earlier book, The Treasury of Victorian Murder, Vol. 1, a miscellaneous collection that was the prototype for the whole sub-career). Each one is a roughly comic-book-sized hardcover, of about eighty pages, telling the story of one famous historical murder. He's done Abraham Lincoln and James Garfield, Jack the Ripper and H.H. Holmes, Sacco and Vanzetti and several more not as well-known in the 21st century. Each book is carefully researched and filled with maps and diagrams of the towns and murder locations -- all drawn by Geary in his precise but puckish style.

The new book for 2016 -- he's had one of these for most years this century -- covers the famous LA murder case from 1947, as previously retold by James Ellroy and countless others. As always, Geary isn't here to fictionalize the case, or make up his own ending -- he wants to present the true story, as best it can be determined, in all of its complexity and confusion, and lay out what might have happened, if that's clear at all. It isn't, in this case: whoever killed Elizabeth Short got away with it cleanly, and we'll probably never know who he was.

Some of these books are more about the before, and some are more about the after -- some murders have a huge media life, with shocking revelations and new suspects, and some just don't. The Black Dahlia case basically went nowhere, so Geary doesn't have a lot of after to work with. But Elizabeth Short did have a complicated life for her twenty-two years, which means Black Dahlia starts with the murder and then moves back to tell Short's life story, or the pieces of it that seem to be relevant to her death.

Geary seems to be drawn to the unsolved, complicated cases the most -- not the ones where we know what happened and who did it, but the ones where we can almost tell what happened, where there are some suspicions but not proof, the ones that are a bit frustrating, the ones where we're pretty sure a murderer completely got away with it. Black Dahlia is deeply in that mode: whether Short was killed by a gangster or an angry boyfriend, he got away entirely. (And he's probably dead now, which is as much getting away with anything that anyone can ever do.)

As always, Geary's eye is focused and distinct. He gives us the people and places of the time -- the right hairstyles, the right cars, the right streetscapes -- to build the world that Elizabeth Short lived and died in. A series of books about old murders might seem frivolous or macabre, but death is just a lens to look at life. And Geary is excellent at telling us about both life and death.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 9/9

Hey guys! When I get books in the mail, I write about them here, every Monday morning.

When I don't get any books in the mail that week, I write about how I didn't get any books, which is pretty meta, and probably self-indulgent.

This is a week of Option #2.

That's actually pretty good for me: I'm flying out to Eagan, Minnesota tomorrow morning for a long week of meetings at what we affectionately call "the mothership." So I have stuff to get done today that is a bit more important than blogging.

And thus I'm happy I can finish up this blog post quickly on a Sunday morning.

Just like this.