Book Review: Hellbent, Gregg Hurwitz

Book Review: HellbentGregg Hurwitz

1250119170

Fiction Thriller: Hellbent, Gregg Hurwitz

Third book in the Orphan X series, following Orphan X and The Nowhere Man

A couple of years ago a fascinating book caught my attention. A thriller about a former government wet-ops agent who now worked secretly helping people who were in desperate situations, Orphan X was well written, had an interesting protagonist and strong secondary characters, and told a compelling story. Its sequel, The Nowhere Man, continued the story in riveting fashion, filling in backstory and introducing new characters to the series.

 

The third in the series came out earlier this year, and it is a thriller reader’s dream come true. Hellbent is one of the most enjoyable books I have read this year. I finished it in a five-hour straight shot. I made the mistake of starting it after traveling all weekend, and could not put it down. From beginning to end, Gregg Hurwitz takes the reader on a ride that had me gripping the edge of the book with white knuckles. The first two books in this series were excellent, but this takes the series to a new level.

 

Evan Smoak is Orphan X, part of a top secret program that recruited orphans who showed certain useful characteristics into a black ops training program. He was possibly the best of the “orphans,” brilliant, resourceful, and ruthless. His trainer, though, had become like a father to him, and as a father he taught Evan not only how to be a killer, but also how to be a human. Evan was raised with a code, commandments that his trainer instilled within him. “Do not kill innocents” was part of that code, a part that eventually led to Evan leaving the program and disappearing off the grid–which in his case was Los Angeles.

 

When Evan’s arch-enemy Orphan Y, the new head of the Orphan program, finds Evan’s trainer and kills him, Evan has a new mission: kill Orphan Y. First, though, he must decipher his trainer’s final message to him. That message leads to a most unexpected package: a teenage girl who was also trying to escape from the Orphan program. Suddenly, the Nowhere Man has responsibilities that go beyond a mere mission. Orphan Y wants to kill her, too. How can Evan keep her alive, go after Orphan Y and his group of killers, and deal with the trauma and drama of a teenager? The result is a fast paced and action filled novel with twists and turns that go beyond the core “how does our hero survive and complete his mission” of all thrillers. It includes the shock and awe of a shopping trip to Target to purchase “female products.” It includes learning how to listen, how to open up, how to become vulnerable without losing his edge. It includes asking a mother for advice on talking to a young girl. And before you know it, you realize you’ve read a complete novel with the requisite body count of a high octane thriller, but with an unexpected and delightful emotional depth that is rare in this genre.

 

Hellbent checks the boxes for a thriller. But what makes it next level is the emotional growth of the characters. We see new sides to some familiar characters. We see Evan needing help and reaching out for it, and we see others stepping up for him. We see a young girl, traumatized and alone, make informed choices that define who she is and who she will become. Throughout we see that characters define themselves by their own choices, who make emotionally difficult decisions that can cost them everything, who confront themselves and challenge themselves to become more than they have been. Hurwitz spins a great story, but more delightfully he draws great characters. Orphan X books will stay on my reading list because of those characters, and I cannot wait to find out what Evan Smoak faces in the next novel of the series.

 

1250119170

Book Review: HellbentGregg Hurwitz

Book Review: The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions, Peter Brannen

Book Review: The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions, Peter Brannen

 

0062364812

Nonfiction Science: The Ends of the World:Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions, Peter Brannen

 

Peter Brannen is a science writer. His work has appeared in newspapers and magazines. He writes about discoveries and professors and interesting and fun things.

 

So why has his book given me nightmares?

 

The Ends of the World is not a futuristic “aliens attack” novel. Nor is it an apocalyptic war/genocide vision. This is not about a prospective “how the world will end” scenario–at least, not entirely. This is a well written, thoughtful, clear look at how the world has ended. How life has been scrubbed from our planet. How the tenuous hold of biology has been torn away from Earth before. And this has happened not once, not twice, but five previous times in our planet’s history.

 

And some argue we are in the midst of the sixth.

 

Brannen’s The Ends of the World covers the history of life–focusing specifically on the history of death. Not just any ordinary deaths, either. Five times our planet has faced mass extinction events that have had worldwide effect. Once, the result was a rounding error away from 100% fatality of every species of animal AND plant alive. The most well-known of these events resulted in the extinction of the dinosaurs, but the four previous events were just as cataclysmic and possibly even more comprehensive in their life-ending totality.

 

The Ends of the World goes around the world in search of clues to these abrupt breaks in the story of life on Earth. Six chapters are specifically named after these interruptions: “The End-Ordovician Mass Extinction,” “The End-Devonian Mass Extinction,” and following the same titular pattern he looks at the Permian, Triassic, and Cretaceous extinctions. Each of these ancient eras had an abundance of life, though much of it would be strange to us. Trilobites and ammonites and giant fish and salamanders the size of cars and, of course, dinosaurs. In their time, they walked or swam the world as its masters. Many times the world they inhabited was very different from our own: warmer, more carbon dioxide, a single massive continent instead of the global distribution of land we currently have. And the length of time they had on the planet was also significantly longer than we appreciate. Humans have been around for only 2 million years or so. Global distribution of our species goes back maybe 30,000 years, and civilization less than 10,000 years. Some of the earth’s previous masters were dominant for tens or even hundreds of millions of years. Yet all of them eventually faced a crisis which ended their course. Only hubris would say we are immune to the same fate.

 

As a species we have trouble agreeing on what to have for dinner any given night, so it should come as no shock that scientists differ on the causes and reasons for previous mass extinctions that happened long before humanity was a twinkle in evolution’s eye. Even the one which has the most hard evidence to support it, the impact of a six-mile wide asteroid in what is now Mexico, is not universally believed to be the cause of the End-Cretaceous extinction; although most agree that an asteroid hit at the same general time as the mass extinction with catastrophic effect, there were other roughly contemporaneous events that might have been as much or more responsible for the end of most life. Two things consistently appear in the geologic record at the same time that fossils disappear from it. Those two things have different indicators, but similar causes. One cause is massive activity from volcanoes. The other cause is dramatic climate change.

 

Although earthquakes and volcanoes make frequent headlines today, we live in a fairly quiet time compared to others. The Permian era seems to have ended when Siberia erupted. Not one or two or ten volcanoes in Russia. Siberia. Virtually the entire region began spewing lava and gases, enough lava to deeply bury the entire United States under many feet of flaming molten rock! At the end of the Cretaceous period, around the same time as the asteroid hit, volcanoes in India began erupting and spewing enough lava to bury the United States under 60 feet of the stuff! (Some argue that the volcanoes were already impacting life before the asteroid hit, while others suggest that the impact of the asteroid in Mexico actually supercharged the volcanoes across the world in a sort of ripple-effect, one-two punch to the biosphere.)

 

Living in an era where climate change is an existential threat, reading that massive climate change contributed to several (if not all) of the previous mass extinctions is disturbing. The good news, such as it is, is that the climate change shown in the fossil record is often greater than the climate change we see today. The bad news is that it is not always greater, nor is it always dramatically greater. Anthropogenic climate change may not usher in the next great extinction event, but it has enough similarities to those previous events to concern us all. Furthermore, we are not “just” changing the climate. Our plastics are fouling the ocean, our pollution is changing the very air we breathe, and our homes and appetites are destroying species and habitats at alarming rates. But although our methods have changed, our impact on the world is a time-honored one.

 

One chapter is titled, “The End-Pleistocene Mass Extinction.” This dates back several thousand years, tracing a line of destruction around the world affecting primarily (though hardly exclusively) mega fauna. Giant kangaroos and moas, American rhinos and lions and sabre-toothed tigers and mammoths and mastodons, European elephants and aurochs and even Neanderthals. Cause and effect cannot be conclusively determined, but it seems unlikely to be a coincidence that the extinction of all of these species followed the introduction of a new, invasive species that has spread around the world. That species is us.

 

The Ends of the World is a powerful, well-written and deeply researched book. It is dark, though there are light-hearted moments throughout as Brennan interacts with scientists and amateur paleontologists around the world. Despite the planet’s best efforts to rid itself, the good news (as Jurassic Park character Dr. Ian Malcolm might say) is that “life will find a way.” That may not be good news for us, though. The dinosaurs ruled the world for millions of years. Then, one day, they were just gone (well, except for the birds). Someday our story may also be told only in fossils and strange remnants left in rocks of a bipedal primate that spread around the planet, only to fail to adapt when the planet changed around them. The question is: are we the agents of that very change?

0062364812

Book Review: The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions, Peter Brannen

Book Review: Senlin Ascends, Josiah Bancroft

Book Review: Senlin Ascends, Josiah Bancroft

B074M62D7Y

Fiction: Senlin AscendsJosiah Bancroft

Senlin Ascends is the first book in the series, “The Books of Babel.” Thomas Senlin and his wife Marya are on their honeymoon. Senlin is headmaster of the school in a small fishing village. He has long studied and taught about the most amazing technological achievement in the world: the Tower of Babel. Newly married, the couple decides to spend their honeymoon visiting this marvel. Almost immediately after arriving, they are separated and Marya becomes lost. It takes Thomas a couple of days to realize this. By the time he does, the trail has gone cold and his only hope is that Marya has successfully made it to their intended destination on the third floor of the tower. Thomas embarks on a journey into the tower. There he finds that nothing is as it seems, no one is who they say they are, and everything he thought he knew about the tower was wrong.

 

Senlin Ascends is set in a dark dystopian world. The tower is a technological marvel, still under construction after 1,000 years. Most of the world has very limited access to technology. Marya and Thomas travel to the tower via steam engine train, and later we see Thomas’s amazement when he encounters electricity for the first time. The tower has access to more advanced technologies, but Thomas finds the rules governing behavior and organization in the tower are unique and often must be discovered by breaking them. Failure to follow the rules can have severe consequences. Failure to know the rules is irrelevant.

 

After spending several days surmounting the obstacles that face travelers on levels one and two of the tower, Senlin finds his first clue that Marya is still alive when he is on level three. Level three, though, is also where he begins to appreciate just how much trouble she–and really, both of them–are in. Their short honeymoon journey is going to be a trial of many months, and there are many challenging enemies who oppose them finding each other. And a mild-mannered intellectual headmaster is ill-equipped to meet the challenges of a world that doesn’t make sense. If Thomas Senlin is to find his beautiful bride, he will have to become something he never expected: a hero.

 

The two journeys of Senlin Ascends are both fascinating. The physical journey through the tower is vividly imagined. Each floor has its own culture, its own set of rules, its own internal logic that must be mastered before one can proceed. There are no shortcuts. Failure to follow the rules means banishment from the tower…or worse. But the rules change on each floor, the people in charge owe nothing to anyone else, and following the rules can require compromising your own ethics. Senlin finds that the price of success, the price of moving forward, the price of finding Marya, gets higher the further he goes. But he has no choice if he hopes to be reunited with his love.

 

The physical journey requires a hero’s journey for the protagonist. Thomas Senlin thinks he knows who he is. Intellectual. Calm. Reserved. A man of peace. The kind of man the tower destroys and spits out before passing the first floor. Senlin discovers that he can become more, but he also discovers that the price is high. The man of peace must seek out confrontation. The loyal husband must walk away from friends. The man who understands the world must understand that he knows nothing about this world. These are not easy transitions, and one suspects that the man who eventually finds Marya inside the tower will not be the same man who lost her outside those walls.

 

The second book in this series is Arm of the Sphinx. The third book, The Hod King, is due out in early 2019. Josiah Bancroft has started an interesting fable with Senlin Ascends, and I look forward to reading the subsequent adventures set in this curious and dark world.

B074M62D7Y

Book Review: Senlin AscendsJosiah Bancroft

Book Review: Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures, Nick Pyenson

Book Review: Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome CreaturesNick Pyenson

0735224560

Nonfiction: Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome CreaturesNick Pyenson

 

Nick Pyenson is a whale paleontologist working for the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. Although whales may not have captured the paleontological imagination the way dinosaurs have, maybe they should. In his 2018 book Spying on Whales, Pyenson reminds us that whales are the largest creatures that have ever lived. Although the largest brontosaurus might barely exceed their length from nose to tail, the blue whale is much more massive. In weight, they are many times heavier than any dinosaur, heavier than any other sea creature that has ever lived, and they are living in our oceans right now.

 

Although Pyenson is a paleontologist, he also studies living whales. Spying on Whales is not just about fossils and times long ago. Pyenson takes the reader to current expeditions where living whales are being watched and tagged. Clear-eyed about the realities of a world where whaling remains an ongoing concern, Pyenson also takes us on board a whaling ship and to a whale-rendering plant in Iceland. He acknowledges the ethical dilemmas faced in using these operations for scientific research and is clearly conflicted by the choices he has made. Whaling has not stopped, and his presence neither encouraged nor discouraged the whalers. He and other scientists have made some groundbreaking discoveries from the fresh carcasses of the killed beasts. Whether that justifies his presence there or not is left to the reader to decide.

 

Much less controversial is his work with fossilized whales. Pyenson takes us to Chile, where several layers of whale skeletons were discovered when a road was cut through a high mountain desert. Walking in the footsteps of Darwin, Pyenson tells a gripping story of how a local paleontologist made the discovery, how the Smithsonian was able to field a team to not only help with the dig but also to pioneer techniques in x-ray mapping the bones in situ, and how this all had to be organized and accomplished within a month because of the demands of the road construction timeline. Pyenson is a good story-teller and he gives much of the credit to the rest of the team. The working theory is that there were at least four occasions within a few thousand years when an algae bloom wiped out huge numbers of local creatures, not only whales but fish, birds, and other sea mammals. Those animals died and washed ashore in what was then a low lying area. Much later when the region was lifted above sea level by plate tectonics and then later still when it was exposed by the road construction, several virtually intact skeletons of early whales were identified and preserved for study by the team.

 

Whales today are known for their size, although there are a few that are quite small. Unfortunately, most of those smaller whales are very endangered. It is likely that the Yangtze River dolphin has gone extinct, and a species of small dolphin in Mexico has fewer than 30 remaining individuals. Many larger species were hunted nearly to extinction. Blue and right whales may never recover their pre-whaling numbers, Humpback whales, though, seem to be nearing or at their pre-whaling numbers, and gray whales may be using new ice-free channels through the Arctic Ocean to recolonize the Atlantic, where they had not been seen for centuries until recently when two individuals were spotted far apart from each other.

 

Whales today face many challenges. Although hunting is greatly restricted, it has not ended. Climate change is putting new pressures on whales, potentially affecting their migration patterns and feeding habits. Thousands of whales are killed accidentally by ship strikes and by getting caught in fishnets. Plastic and other pollutants are being eaten by whales with unknown consequences long-term. And the sounds made by our industrial and military work in the ocean has unknown effects on animals which use sound to communicate over vast distances.

 

One other unknown effect humans have had on whales is changing the whales’ cultures. Whales communicate, and different whale pods have developed different cultures. For example, although they are biologically indistinguishable, there are three distinct cultures of orcas in the Pacific. One culture eats salmon almost exclusively, and stays primarily in fixed locations near the mouths of rivers where salmon go to spawn. Another group travels up and down the coast and eats primarily marine mammals. The third is much more oceanic than the first two, and their hunting is focused largely on sharks. Although there is no difference in the DNA between the three groups, they seldom interact and in their behavior patterns they are essentially different subspecies. Distinct cultures have also been observed in pods of sperm whales…but sperm whale populations were devastated by whaling ships. We will never know what effect the depopulation of the species had on its culture, nor will we ever know if or how that can be recovered even if the population rebounds.

 

Spying on Whales is a warm book about fascinating creatures. It is a great book for kids interested in science (it ends with a heartwarming story about the accidental discovery of a whale skull by the author’s preschool son–and how there is now a specimen in the Smithsonian’s collection whose discovery is credited to the child). It is also a fascinating read for those of us who maintain our childhood fascination with science and with the amazing creatures that share this planet.

0735224560

Book Review: Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome CreaturesNick Pyenson

Book Review: European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, Theodora Goss

Book Review: European Travel for the Monstrous GentlewomanTheodora Goss

1481466534

Fantasy: European Travel for the Monstrous GentlewomanTheodora Goss

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter was one of 2017’s most delightful novels. On the shortlist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award for best novel, Theodora Goss’s tale successfully turned Victorian horror fiction into a celebration of feminism and the triumph of individuals over their circumstances. Its 2018 sequel, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, expands on that success and takes the members of the Athena Club on an adventure through Victorian Era Europe that highlights both the power of Goss’s writing and the absolute magic she weaves with her characters.

 

The main protagonist of both books is Mary Jekyll. The daughter of Dr. Jekyll, Mary is both intelligent and practical. Almost penniless after her mother’s death, she finds herself meeting and befriending an unlikely group of women who end up living with her and helping each other make ends meet and confront the horrors of their own creation. There is Catherine Moreau, a panther transformed into a human woman on the island of Dr. Moreau. Justine Frankenstein, created by Dr. Frankenstein to be the bride of his first creation, is a painter who has greater physical strength than any man. Beatrice Rappaccini was slowly exposed to toxins throughout her young life until she became poisonous to everyone else–including her would-be lover who died. And Diana Hyde, Mary’s half-sister, the daughter of her father’s evil alter-ego, Mr. Hyde. These women come together in the Alchemist’s Daughter, aided by the inimitable Mrs. Poole (Mary’s housekeeper) and by the famous detectives Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. Together they solve the murders of several women in London, discovering that some of their supposedly dead creators are actually still alive and practicing new experiments.

 

In European Travel, Mary’s former governess reaches out to her for assistance. She has heard of the Athena Club and enlists their aid in helping Lucinda Van Helsing, who has been imprisoned in an asylum in Vienna. So begins the new adventures of the women, sending them from London to Vienna and then on to Budapest. During their travels they meet other characters we recognize from other works: among them Irene Adler, Sigmund Freud, and Count Dracula. Goss enjoys defying expectations. Heroes/Heroines and villains get new interpretations, and often the true monsters are the most human. The result is surprising, satisfying, and heartwarming.

 

The stories are ostensibly told by Catherine Moreau, but she has help. Goss brings in other voices through interruptions to the narrative, indented to set them apart. Other characters will comment on the immediate passage (“I was not thinking that!”) or offer a differing opinion or aside about another character (“I should have kicked Diana”). These serve well as comic relief and giving us backstory on the characters that don’t fit neatly into the direct story. There are also several “ads” for the first book (“Only two shillings”) which usually bring objections from Mary (“I don’t think people want to read ads”). Although they are occasionally distracting, usually these interruptions bring a smile and add warmth to the story of these women drawn together by personal trauma and who find in each other mutual support.

 

I suspect this book might challenge some readers who like their Victorian heroes to be, well, heroes. This book is by a woman and is about women. Men do show up. Usually they are villains. Sometimes they are allies. But the book is not about them. Mary and her friends are quite able to handle themselves, whether facing vampires, spies, or former tormentors. If you have a problem with that…well, you have a problem. The good news, though, is that if you have a problem, the Athena Club has some awesome women who can come to your assistance.

 

European Travel is a long book–706 pages long! But Goss uses the length to tell a great story in great depth. At the end of the book I almost felt it was too short. I hated to see the story end. The good news, though, is the book sets up another sequel. The Athena Club has more adventures to come, more romps through 1890s Europe, and more monsters who are human (and humans who are monsters) to encounter. Given that the villain in the next book is already revealed to be Dr. Moriarty, it promises to be one that might challenge the most monstrous of gentlewomen.

1481466534

Book Review: European Travel for the Monstrous GentlewomanTheodora Goss

Book Review: About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang, Adam Frank

Book Review: About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang, Adam Frank

1439169608

Nonfiction Science: About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang, Adam Frank

About Time reminded me of two truths about my life. The first truth has been a core part of my personality since my earliest memories. I love science. I find physics and cosmology fascinating. Adam Frank is a professor at the University of Rochester and a commentator on science and cosmology for NPR. He is known for taking deep subjects and putting connective tissue on them so that non-scientists can appreciate and relate to the astounding discoveries being announced by CERN and other high-powered labs and leaders in various fields.

 

About Time tries to do this as well. Frank looks at time in both practical and scientific terms. It is easy to forget in our always connected, always clock-aware culture that timekeeping is itself a relatively new invention. Sundials and general awareness of the passing of time go back centuries, even millennia, as natural phenomena follow rhythms set by the passing of days and seasons. As humans began agricultural pursuits, awareness of times to plant and harvest became important. People responsible for marking time’s passage also became important, as planting too early or harvesting too late could lead to catastrophe. As urbanization eventually led to manufacturing the marking of smaller increments of time became important.

 

Another often forgotten reason for the “invention” of time (or at least more accurate time-keeping means) was the need for accuracy in measuring distance. Time and distance are related, as we may vaguely remember from early algebra (rate x time = distance) and the always invigorating word problems: if Sally is on a train traveling west at 60 mph from New York and Johnny is on a train traveling east at 70 mph from Chicago, and both trains leave at the same time, when will you crumple up your homework and throw your book against the wall and burst into tears? (I have painful memories of many math classes, so my apologies for the cathartic outburst.) Much more dire than my painful memories is the fact that incorrect longitude leads directly to maritime catastrophe, and longitude is essentially a measure of time/distance from a fixed point. Accurate time keeping leads to accurate location and that leads directly to ships not sinking.

 

Travel on land also required accurate timekeeping. Railroads tied the burgeoning US together, and the need for accurate schedules led directly to the creation of time zones. Although the US led the way in this, the rest of the world quickly followed for the same logical reasons. As telegraph, telephone, radio, and television allowed vast distances to experience the same “now,” our reliance on accurate timekeeping increased.

 

I did not appreciate how grounded in the practical world Einstein’s relativity was. His job at the patent office was to evaluate patents dealing with accurate measurements of time. Swiss clocks were expected to be accurate and technology increasingly required them to be both accurate and synchronized. Einstein’s job required him to think about time and timekeeping–then at night he worked on the equations that eventually became the Theory of Relativity. Instead of time being fixed and universal, Einstein realized that time was fluid and changed depending on perspective, gravity, rate of motion, and other variables. The universe is not set to a cosmic clock. The experience of time changes as one approaches light speed, and even incremental changes are measurable. Clocks synchronized and then placed at sea level and at high altitude will eventually show different times simply because the rotation of the earth is marginally different depending on how close one is to the earth’s center. Einstein dealt with the practical aspects of measuring time. We may never know how much that practical experience influenced his thinking about the scientific aspects of time/space/relativity, but the duality of his life must have had some effect.

 

The main thrust of Frank’s book is on the Big Bang. The Big Bang theory has many problems with it. The obvious one is, “What came before?” So far there has been no adequate answer scientifically or mathematically proposed. However, no adequate replacement has yet been posited, either. Frank looks at several, including string theory and “banes,” but admits in the end that although Big Bang can no longer be considered as settled science (he offers no opinions on it’s role in television sitcom history) there is no other theory ready to take its place.

 

I started this review by noting that About Time reminded me of two truths about my life. The first was of my love for and fascination with science. Frank is a terrific writer. The book is full of interesting anecdotes, scientific history, and changes in culture prompted by science as well as changes in science prompted by culture. About Time reminded me of a second truth as well: I am not a scientist. I will confess, this is not an easy book to read. I was often lost and confused, which I fear is much more reflective upon the reader than on the writer. If you have a strong background and interest in science, especially in astrophysics and cosmology, then this is a terrific book. If you struggle with occasional terrifying flashbacks of 8th grade algebra, then this may not be the best addition to your library. An extremely adept younger reader would find it challenging and a great read, so if you have a young person interested in a career in the sciences, then About Time might be just in time to push her or him in that direction.

1439169608

Book Review: About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang, Adam Frank

Book Review: Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories, Vandana Singh

Book Review: Ambiguity Machines and Other StoriesVandana Singh

1618731432

Fiction Collection: Ambiguity Machines and Other StoriesVandana Singh

Traveling the stars, riding a current of particles and discovering it is inhabited by living creatures riding the current with you. Plotting to assassinate the king only to learn he is not what you expected. Watching the past through a machine that lets you see it happen, then discovering the machine might also let you make it happen. Traveling to Alaska to gather the effects of your late aunt and uncovering a mystery. These are among the stories told in Vandana Singh’s imaginative collection, Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories.

 

Singh is originally from New Delhi, India, but in recent years she has made Boston home. She is a professor of physics, with expertise that informs but does not overwhelm her writing. Her stories are rich with the flavors of India and the power of science. Reading them was fun. Her characters have Indian names, eat Indian foods, wear Indian clothes, reference Indian literature and remember Indian gods. Considering that India is the second most populous country on earth (and soon will surpass China for number one) and that India has a vibrant and growing technology and science sector in their economy, the lack of Indian characters in speculative fiction needs to change. Singh’s stories are a valuable addition to the genre even if that were all they did.

 

Fortunately, they do much more than introduce characters who hail from the subcontinent. They are beautifully written and wonderfully imagined stories. They introduce us to new worlds and new technologies, technologies that let you shape the future by changing the past, technologies that let you move between universes, technologies that let you ride particle waves through space between the stars. They introduce us to an Earth ravaged by climate change. They introduce us to poets and assassins, kings and queens and commoners, scientists and explorers and artists. Singh’s stories are fresh and new, but they convey the richness of a culture that has centuries of history supporting it. Her characters may live on other planets or on a very different Earth than we know, but then we hear them tell each other stories of Hindu gods and goddesses and we remember that those stories deserve retelling as much as the stories that are more familiar to readers in the United States and Europe. Even when her stories are pure imagination–the legends and myths of other planets–they feel rooted in a non-European soil.

 

Her characters are not just “diverse” because they are non-white. They are different ages and different social strata. They are male and female and non-binary, gay and straight, old and young and in-between, rich and poor, educated and not. Her settings include fancy laboratories and an urban slaughterhouse, spaceships and exotic planets and an Alaskan coastal research facility. Singh shows us imagined futures that include people of all types, and indeed it’s hard to imagine these days that any future would successfully end poverty and corruption and other societal ills that have bedeviled humans throughout history.

 

Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories is Singh’s second collection of short stories. Her first collection is The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories. She has also written some novellas. If you are looking for some creatively written and highly imaginative short stories, Vandana Singh is definitely a writer for you.

1618731432

Book Review: Ambiguity Machines and Other StoriesVandana Singh

Book Review: Heroine Complex, Sarah Kuhn

Book Review: Heroine ComplexSarah Kuhn

0756410843

Science Fiction: Heroine ComplexSarah Kuhn

Heroine Complex is funny, smart, and snarky. Any book that starts with the protagonist dodging an attack by a demonically-possessed cupcake with teeth stands out from the crowd. There are certain tropes familiar to fantasy-genre fans. Flying killer pastries? Not so much.

 

Sarah Kuhn was a finalist for the John W. Campbell award for best new writer in SciFi/Fantasy, not only because of Heroine Complex and its sequels, but also for her shorter pieces and comics. Her novella, One Con Glory, is in development as a feature film. She is also a popular speaker at conventions, often encouraging writers of color to tell their own stories, create their own worlds, and establish their own heroines. That is exactly what she has done in Heroine Complex.

 

Evie is the long-suffering assistant to Aveda Jupiter, San Francisco’s own superheroine, who uses a combination of killer moves and amazing fashion sense to show demonic interlopers the door back to hell (or wherever they came from). Evie and Annie (Aveda Jupiter’s real name) have been inseparable since kindergarten. Annie’s parents are Chinese Americans, while Evie is half Japanese/half white. Both of them received powers during a demonic invasion. Annie’s powers are not great, but they imbued her with a sense of purpose and mission. Evie’s powers are more dangerous and less easily controlled. Trying to keep them under control, while also raising her sister and managing Annie/Aveda’s outsized personality is as much as she can handle. So when Aveda is injured and asks Evie to take her place temporarily, Evie’s world quickly starts spinning out of control.

 

But this is a story of heroines! Evie finds more strength than she ever imagined. Aveda finds deeper character. I don’t want to give too much of the story away, but in a world with killer flying cupcakes, heroines are needed and these heroines step up.

 

(BTW, between Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series and Sarah Kuhn’s Heroine series, San Francisco is a MUCH stranger place than I ever realized!)

 

Being the spouse of an Asian American and the father of three children, I loved reading these characters. Being “the only Asian Americans in Mrs. Miller’s kindergarten class” is a perspective that is fully American, but not the pale suburban experience of my own childhood. Evie is a complex, strong yet vulnerable character who fears her own strength and fails to appreciate her own value. She is far from perfect. Kuhn has bravely drawn characters who may be fully fictional but are still fully functional. I think sometimes the fear authors have in creating characters that do not fit the traditional “hero” roles (and I deliberately changed the gender for this point) is that if they are less than perfect they will be seen as less. Given the sad reality that even great Asian fictional characters have been “whitewashed” when put on screen, and the equally sad reality that publishers still reject books with non-white protagonists thinking they won’t sell, a book with flawed women of color who experience doubt and pain and failure and troubles and still kick butt is refreshing, bold, and Kuhn pulls it off with elan.

 

I’d hate to tell you that Evie’s story ends with a “happily ever after,” because that would mean that Evie’s story ended. Fortunately, Kuhn has continued the series with two more books that I am excited to read. Hopefully, Evie and Aveda will have many more demons to slay and personal issues to conquer. Heroine Complex is a great start to what promises to be an exciting series, and I look forward to seeing what happens next.

 

0756410843

Book Review: Heroine ComplexSarah Kuhn

Book Review: The Collapsing Empire, John Scalzi

Book Review: The Collapsing EmpireJohn Scalzi

0765388901

Science Fiction: The Collapsing EmpireJohn Scalzi

*2018 LOCUS AWARD WINNER OF BEST SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL*

*2018 HUGO AWARD FINALIST FOR BEST NOVEL*

 

“The Interdependency,” a galactic empire spanning dozens of far-flung human settlements, has stood for a thousand years. The descendants of Earth long ago discovered how to access “the flow,” a current that runs parallel to real space and allows ships to travel vast distances in very short times. The flow only intersects with real space in certain areas, so human habitation and the empire cluster around these access points. Without the flow, interstellar travel is impossible. Without the flow, most humans would die, since the access points are usually near stars which have no naturally habitable planets, so the various planets of the empire are truly interdependent. Without the flow, the empire collapses. And the flow is collapsing.

 

The Collapsing Empire is the first book of a planned new series by John Scalzi, and it has exploded onto the science fiction scene. Winner of the 2018 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, it is also a 2018 Hugo Award finalist for the same award. Scalzi brings his trademark humor and irreverence to this novel of an empire potentially facing destruction. He cares about the science, avoiding things like faster-than-light travel that violates known physical laws. But his gift is in imagining complex worlds and populating them with complex people. His characters include an “emperox” who never planned to become a ruler, a scientist who did not want to leave his home planet, a very horny and foul-mouthed mercantilist who does some of her best thinking while amorously engaged, and a family of ruthless and ambitious nobles who do not mind shedding blood to reach their goals.

 

The worlds of The Interdependency are quite different from the norm in science fiction. Scalzi imagines an empire connected only by access to transportation. Earth became inaccessible long ago. When humans discovered the flow, they learned they could travel unimaginable distances but only reenter real space at specific points. This meant that settlements were limited to the stars that were accessible via the flow, whether or not they had inhabitable planets. The capital planet of the Empire is Hub, a planet tide-locked to its sun. One side always faces the star, one side always faces away. Humans have created a vast underground settlement where millions of people live. Many essentials must be imported from other places in the empire. Some stars have no inhabitable planets, but huge space stations housing vast populations have been built there to support mining and other extraction of resources. Only one planet in the entire empire, “End,” is capable of sustaining human life on the planet itself. Hub became the lead planet of the empire because all currents of the flow led to it. (This reminded me of the saying, “All roads lead to Rome,” which Isaac Asimov adapted in his Foundation series to “all roads lead to Trantor.”) All planets in the Empire directly connect to Hub, while few of them have direct connections to any other planet. If the flow is disrupted, though, Hub and most other human settlements will become isolated and alone, and within a very few years will be incapable of supporting life.

 

The Collapsing Empire shows both the power and the danger of interdependency. It was written before the 2016 US election (but after the Brexit vote), so it is not a direct commentary on contemporary politics. It is, though, a compelling statement. A surface reading would say, “independence is good, interdependency is bad” because the flow is failing. Without the flow, interdependence is impossible and the settlements that rely so heavily on each other would fail. But the better understanding is to see that humanity was only successful because of interdependence. They may be facing a crisis because of environmental change (and I assume future novels in the series will further explore that crisis and human responses to it), but the only reason they have come this far is because of their interdependence. Because of interdependence, humans were able to spread across the galaxy. They were able to build settlements on moons, on space stations, on ridiculously inhospitable planets, and they were able to maintain a coherent, unified government for a thousand years. Yes, it’s a work of speculative fiction. It is also, though, a powerful statement of hope in the collective power of humanity when they pull together and rely upon each other. Scalzi is not one to ignore the venal and self-serving ambitions of individuals. His characters are petty and lusty and greedy and ruthless. But some of them are also caring and passionate and thoughtful and deeply committed to the survival of humanity. I am eager to see what happens next, when The Consuming Fire is released in October, 2018.

0765388901

Book Review: The Collapsing EmpireJohn Scalzi

Book Review: The Escape Artist, Brad Meltzer

Book Review: The Escape ArtistBrad Meltzer

1455559520

Mystery/Thriller: The Escape Artist, Brad Meltzer

The Escape Artist is Brad Meltzer’s latest thriller. Coming twenty years after The Tenth Justice, his new work shows a greater familiarity with his craft and introduces some interesting characters as well.

 

Jim “Zig” Zigarowski is a mortician at Dover (DE) Air Force Base. Preparing deceased military service personnel for burial is his job, and he is quite good at it. Usually the deceased are strangers, but when a young woman who knew his daughter dies in a plane crash, Zig insists on taking care of her himself. However, the body on his table is not that of Nola Brown, and the mix up is not accidental. Zig begins looking for Nola, and soon finds himself in the midst of a mystery that takes him back to his Pennsylvania hometown, to Washington, DC, and back again to Dover. His journey uncovers secrets and crimes that some very powerful people would rather keep covered, and reopens some wounds within him that he thought were closed.

 

Nola Brown was supposed to be on that plane, but switched places at the last minute. She suspects the plane crash was meant to kill her. Instead, it killed her friend and several other people, including the Librarian of Congress, who was a close personal friend of the president. She is eager to get to the bottom of things, too, but she also must confront both external enemies and internal memories to solve this mystery.

 

Zig and Nola share part of their history, connected through Jim’s late daughter. Still, they do not really know each other. Part of their challenge is learning to trust each other and work together. This journey may cover more ground, metaphorically, than the two must cover in their search to find out who was behind the fatal plane crash.

 

Brad Meltzer is a prolific and popular writer. He has had best selling books in many categories, including novels, advice, childrens, YA, and non-fiction. He is also the host of two shows airing on the History Channel networks.

 

The Escape Artist is an interesting and engaging book featuring a strong heroine. Parts of it are formulaic, and the characters flaws sometimes overcome their features, but overall the effect is positive. Definitely a great book for fans of Brad Meltzer and for fans of the thriller genre, and not a bad introduction to the genre for those who like to see smart, tough women overcome challenging circumstances. Unlike many thrillers, The Escape Artist does not use women as mere foils for the male characters. Nola has her own brokenness, her own issues, and she is truly a co-protagonist with Zig. Neither of them survives this case without the other, and both of them are changed by the other.

1455559520

Book Review: The Escape ArtistBrad Meltzer