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Bookends: The Saga of Mr. Mercedes Comes to a Suitable End February 16, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, mystery, Science Fiction, thriller, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: The Saga of Mr. Mercedes Comes to a Suitable End

By Dan DavidsonEnd of wATCH

July 10, 2017

– 888 words.

 

End of Watch

By Stephen King

Scribner

$14.16 (paperback)

$10.99 (Kindle)

448 pages

 

In at least one previous book, Rage, first published under his nom de plume, Richard Bachman, Stephen King described a high school shooting spree. He wrote it in the early 1970s and it was published in 1977, before such things became nearly annual horror shows. Not surprisingly, there were people, who want to blame this sort of behaviour on anything other than the vast American home arsenals just waiting to be misused, who blamed the book for inspiring such atrocities. In response, King allowed the novel to go out of print.

I have to hope that the Bill Hodges trilogy won’t meet the same fate. End of Watch brings the Hodges saga to a satisfying conclusion, but adds a touch of the paranormal that was not present in Mr. Mercedes or Finders Keepers, both of which were pretty much mundane mysteries with a touch of the thriller genre mixed in.

It’s the set-up sequence in each novel that might give the books a bad reputation. In each of the books, people are dealing the ramifications of Brady Hartsfield’s decision to steal a lonely woman’s Mercedes automobile and drive it into the midst of a large group of victims waiting in line for a chance at a job fair.

We have recently had a spate of these activities in England, France and other European countries, but I don’t think you can blame them on King. He didn’t invent the idea. There were such cases in he USA, and at least one in Canada, before he wrote the first book.

The killings in the book were inspired by an actual event which had taken place at a McDonald’s restaurant. King ramped up the body count and spent quite a bit of the book guiding us through the mad mind of the killer, who followed up his original evil deed by taunting the poor woman whose car he had used until she killed herself.

His big mistake was going on to taunt former homicide detective Hodges, who had been unable to solve the case before he retired. Energized by the attack conducted by telephone and e-mail trickery, Hodges, along with some young associates, does solve the case, and Hartsfield is institutionalized with brain damage as a result.

The book won the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award in 2015.

Finders Keepers ,which is the name of Hodges’ private eye practice, goes off in an entirely different direction, but still deals with people whose lives were impacted (sorry, couldn’t resist) by the original crime, which is recapped from a different point of view in the opening chapter.

End of Watch returns to the villain of the first book, whose brain has been altered by the events of his capture, and by some very unethical experiments that one of the doctors tending him has been conducting. Hartsfield slowly discovers he has the ability to project his consciousness into the mind of a person who has been slightly hypnotized by a certain frequency of flashing lights. Eventually he is able to control such persons – first a slow witted hospital orderly, and eventually the doctor – and walk around using them as his meat puppets.

Add to this the discovery that a certain brand of defective hand-held video games can emit this frequency, lure victims to log on to a special website, and thus extend his reach beyond his sick room, and Hartsfield is ready to take his revenge on the people who stopped him when he attempted to be a suicide at a boy band rock concert several years earlier. He arranges to buy up a stock of the units and us them to target people who are connected to Hodges and his young friends, people who were his immediate targets at that concert. There is a sudden spate of suicides and it takes a while for Hodges to make the connection.

Hodge is distracted by the fact that he has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. While he does not want to die, having found fulfillment in his new career, he is more worried about his autistic partner, Holly, who has blossomed so much while working with him.

He has always suspected that there was more to Hartsfield than the seeming vegetable in that hospital bed, but getting anyone else to think seriously about his suspicions is an uphill battle. Finally his old partner does offer some encouragement, but even that is limited. By this time Hartsfield has left his original body, which dies, and is fully in the mind and body of the neurosurgeon whose unethical use of drugs has boosted his powers of telepathy and telekinesis.

Hartsfield’s attempts to draws Hodges into his plot so he can mind control him as he has done his other victims backfire in the same way as in the first book, but with far more terminal results.

The title has a number of possible meanings, and most of the ones I can think of fit the story well. So, I do hope the books don’t do out of print, and this is a trilogy that make a good set of movies.

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Bookends: The Great Lorenzo’s Role of a Lifetime February 16, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, Science Fiction, Uncategorized, Whitehorse Star.
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Double Star audiobookBookends: The Great Lorenzo’s Role of a Lifetime

By Dan Davidson

June 28, 2017

– 821 words –

 

Double Star

Written by Robert A. Heinlein

Narrated by Tom Weiner

Unabridged Audiobook

5 hrs and 31 mins

Blackstone Audio Inc.

$20.97

 

Print version: 240 pages

Gollancz

$15.99

 

Imagine a world and time when a ham actor of dubious morals could become the leader of an interplanetary government, elected supreme minister to the Emperor of this system.

Oh well, given the current state of affairs south of our border, maybe it’s not such a fantastic idea any more, but it was in the mid 1950s, when Double Star was being serialized as a novel in Astounding Science Fiction, and later published between hard covers and finally in paperback, where small print squeezed 240 pages into the 128 pages that I read back in 1969 and still have on my shelves.

Science fiction fandom was impressed, and voted the book the Hugo Award as best Novel of the year for 1956. It remains a classic and its most recent paperback incarnation was as part of Gollancz’s “SF Masterworks” series.

When we meet Larry Smith (aka the Great Lorenzo) he is on his uppers on Earth, with hardly the price of a cup of coffee to his name. He is engaged by a spacer named Dak Broadbent to serve as a body double for an important man who is indisposed, for mysterious reasons.

As it turns out, the mysterious reason is that John Joseph Bonforte, the former Supreme Minister and leader of the opposition in the Imperial government, has been kidnapped. There is an important ceremony – a nest adoption – on Mars, that Bonforte absolutely has to attend, even if they can’t locate and free him before then.

By the time he knows all of this, Smith is on his way to Mars, having been smuggled off planet, and it’s too late to back out. It’s by appealing to his vanity as an actor that Bonforte’s aides get him to continue, but a funny thing happens.

The more he absorbs his subject, the more he watches videos of him and listens to his speeches, the more he reads about him and tries to copy him, the more he becomes Bonforte.

The Martian ceremony is a success, and not long after that they manage to find the missing man, but the Bonforte they find has been horribly abused and shot full of mind altering drugs. Larry is persuaded to carry on until the great man can recover his wits and health. He continues out of a sense of obligation (a new thing for him) and applies himself to the task by continually asking himself “what would Bonforte do?”

Weiner’s reading of the text was important to my understanding of what was happening to Lorenzo/Larry. When I first heard this first person narrator I didn’t like his voice. It wasn’t my memory of the book which, granted, was 48 years old. Interestingly, the voice changed as Larry did.

Larry learns how to be Bonforte so well that he starts improving on the speeches he’s being handed by his scriptwriters, applying his actor’s sensibility to his increasing knowledge of his subject and model. He does so well in this department that one of his broadcast speeches causes the incumbent government to call for an election and resign, forcing Bonforte’s party to form an interim caretaker government.

As Bonforte has still not recovered – has had a stroke, in fact – Larry is forced to continue with masquerade and does so by being true to his “what would Bonforte do?” dictum.

This leads to some friction within the group and the departure of one member. That man, Bill, becomes a dangerous loose cannon who could expose the entire substitution plot, which had been his idea in the first place. He had expected Larry to continue to be a ventriloquist’s dummy, and when it doesn’t work out that way, when Larry starts questioning his interpretations of the Bonforte legacy, he decides to scuttle the operation. The tension is delicious.

While there’s a thriller aspect to this book, and there is also a political drama, the real story is about a man learning to improve himself more than he ever thought he could, or, as Theodore Sturgeon, Heinlein’s SF contemporary liked to phrase it, this is a story about “a man who learns better.”

The book has a coda, written a quarter century later by the man who lived most of his existence wearing another man’s life, and becoming more like that man with every year. He is unsparing in his assessment of the Great Lorenzo, though he does recognize that without the talents of “that seedy actor” he could never have managed to live up to the task he set himself.

Larry Smith was improved by his elevation to high office and his understanding of what behavior was required to be worthy of it. We could only wish that this would be true of a certain American president.

 

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Bookends: Considering Free Will in a Murder Investigation February 14, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, Klondike Sun, Science Fiction, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: Considering Free Will in a Murder Investigation

By Dan DavidsonRule 34

May 16, 2017

– 923 words –

 

Rule 34

By Charles Stross

Ace Books,

336 pages

$8.99

Rule 34 is set in the same futuristic Scotland (a more or less independent nation) that Stross used for Halting State, the first book set in this milieu, but about five years later and with a different cast of characters.

It uses the same narrative structure. There are half a dozen second-person present-tense viewpoints that rotate the story around a series of murders.

Detective Inspector Liz Kavanaugh is one of these characters, and the one initially most concerned with the killings. She is the first to realize that, unconnected as the victims may be, there is a thread, a very obscure thread, in the means that ties them all together. The two or three she views, have all been killed by malfunctioning appliances that contain computer chips.

When it turns out that there are more of these, some in other countries, and that the body count is well over a dozen within a few days, she concludes, and manages to persuade her superiors, that some sort of coordinated murder spree is under way.

We are some time putting all this together, because we have to cycle through several other narratives, several times, before we hear enough of Liz’s thoughts (these are very internal narratives) to see the pattern.

Like many a Scots detective (Rebus is cited several times), Liz’s personal life is s total mess and her thought processes are disrupted several times by the arrival in town of an old lover, Dorothy, who has her own problems to share.

In the meantime we meet Anwar, a small time crook on probation who is trying to make ends meet and stay out of trouble. Anwar is that oddity, a married Muslim with a straight family (wife and kids) who carries on a number of homosexual liaisons in seedy bars, and imbibes quite often in spite of the Islamic laws about drinking alcohol. He becomes the onsite diplomatic attaché for a small, breakaway Slavic nation that is involved in some sort of financial scam, of which he is unaware. He is the comic relief in this book.

We meet the Toymaker, a multi-identitied agent of some sort who is in Scotland for nefarious purposes. He is somewhat psychotic when off his meds, and frustrated in accomplishing his task in that it seems that all the people he has been supposed to do business with are being murdered before he can work with them.

Ah-hah, we say to ourselves. A connection, though it’s uncertain as to what.

Not quite half-way through the book we encounter some other viewpoints, including one which is that of the organization (the Operation) which employs the Toymaker. There is also Felix, the chief aid of the president of the quasi-nation that employs Anwar. Another is Kemal, the European “spam-cop” who specializes in computer fraud and is assigned to travel to Scotland to assist in what has become an international murder case.

There’s an Internet meme that runs this way: “Rule 34—If it exists, there is porn of it – no exceptions.”

In this case we might substitute “corruption” for “porn”. Given what we have learned about Internet monitoring, government snooping and electronic surveillance, it might not seem as surprising today as it did when Stross published the hardcover edition of this book back in 2011, that something might go wrong.

In this case it seems that an advanced spam filter program might have gone off the rails and started organizing the deaths of people who might, perhaps, be involved in some sort of nefarious activity. It’s using an advanced form of the algorithms that Amazon and Facebook use to decide what ads to show us and what things we might like to buy.

Philip K. Dick wrote a short story decades ago in which psychic precognitives were used to do much the same sort of thing. It became the movie called “Minority Report” and the short-lived television spin-off of the same name.

This book delves into some of the same territory, while raising the possibility that an evolving artificial intelligence code named ATHENA might not hesitate to manipulate individuals in order to bring about what it considers to be a satisfactory solution to a problem that only it has resources enough to analyze.

This is likely the last of the Halting State series, unfortunately. Stross has written about why in an essay on his blog, Charlie’s Diary.

“I really wanted to make it a trilogy, you know? I mean, what could be cooler than a trilogy of near-future Scottish police procedurals about crimes that don’t exist yet, written in multi-viewpoint second person?

“At this point, I’m clutching my head. ‘Halting State’ wasn’t intended to be predictive when I started writing it in 2006. Trouble is, about the only parts that haven’t happened yet are Scottish Independence and the use of actual quantum computers for cracking public key encryption (and there’s a big fat question mark over the latter—what else are the NSA up to?).

“The science fictional universe of Halting State and Rule 34 is teetering on the edge of turning into reality. Meanwhile, the financial crisis of 2007 forced me back to the drawing board for Rule 34; the Snowden revelations have systematically trashed all my ideas for the third book.”

So there it is. Enjoy this one until he figures out some why to get beyond our rapidly evolving digital reality.

 

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Bookends: Coming to Terms With a Moral Dilemma February 8, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, Frederik Pohl, Science Fiction, Uncategorized.
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Bookends: Coming to Terms With a Moral DilemmaGateway

By Dan Davidson

February 22, 2017

– 791 words –

 

Gateway

By Frederick Pohl

Narrated by Oliver Wyman

Introduction by Robert J. Sawyer

8 hrs and 37 mins

Audible Studios

288 pages in hard copy

$21.95

 

 

I don’t re-read too many books, but with the advent of audio books and lots of long distance driving, I’ve taken to re-hearing books that I first read years ago.

Gateway is a tour de force by the late Frederick Pohl. It won all the major best novel awards in the science fiction world: the Hugo Award (basically a peoples’ choice award); the Nebula Award (voted on by writers in the field); and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, which is more than fitting since Pohl was also a great editor in his day.

In his enthusiastic introduction to this audio book, former Berton House Writer Robert J. Sawyer (who has also won all these awards) explains the importance of these accolades and tells you why Gateway is his all time favorite SF novel.

After nearly 40 years my memory of the story wasn’t sharp, and so there were a lot of pleasant surprises.

At novel length Pohl first made his mark as a sort of SF satirist, and some of that shows up in one of the two strands of this first person narrative. Robinette Broadhead (who insists he is a man, in spite of what his mother named him) is a troubled individual. We know this because we first meet him when he is deep in a psychotherapy session with a very patient and somewhat drool artificial intelligence whom he calls Sigfrid Von Shrink.

Bob, Rob, or Robbie (he gets all of these), grew up on a very impoverished, very crowded planet Earth, where he worked in the shale mines, extracting hydrocarbons from rock (impressive forecasting here), not to burn as fuel, but to turn into nutrients for a hungry planet.

Planet Earth hasn’t done too well in terms of getting people into space, and might not have been able to do anything if they had not discovered leftover traces of a long vanished alien race they call the Heechee. They left habitable tunnels on Venus and Mars and, more importantly, the Gateway asteroid, filled with hundreds of self-guiding spaceships in a variety of sizes.

When Rob wins a lottery, he uses the money to travel to Gateway in hopes of becoming one of the successful prospectors. These men and women ride those ships out and back, and sometimes find Heechee artifacts that can be reverse engineered for human use, even if humanity has so far been unable to figure out how the ships work. One such device is called a p-phone, something that reads very much like today’s smartphones, only more so.

Much of the book is taken up with life on Gateway and with Rob trying to work up the courage to actually join a launch crew and take a trip. The odds are not that good, he learns. Some ships never return; some come back with bodies; some come back with crazy people; some come back alive, but without any profit gained.

Alternate chapters take us through Rob’s time on the asteroid and on three trips that he finally does make on the unpredictable Heechee ships. We also spend a lot of time on his interactions with others, especially on his growing love affair with Klara, a woman who grew up on Venus.

Now, we know from the sessions with Sigfrid that Rob ultimately survives all these hardships, and ends up fabulously wealthy as a result of his final trip. The therapy sessions are years later, when he is still trying to cope with the emotional fallout of some catastrophic event that occurred when he was younger. We have a clear sense that he’s been chasing sensation and temporary liaisons ever since in an effort to numb his conscience – but we don’t know why.

So the tension in the book comes from our need to know about Rob’s emotional and spiritual damage rather than his physical jeopardy. However, Pohl tells both parts of the story so well that you sometimes forget not to worry.

When the story starts there is tendency to view the Sigrid sessions as a bit of comic relief from Rob’s grim life story, but as the book progresses, the two strands take on equal weight and, in the end, the final climax comes in the therapy room.

This was intended as a standalone novel, but ended up being the first of four books. There were some possibilities for more work in this universe and Pohl was persuaded to spin them out.

The reading, by Oliver Wyman, was extremely well done.

 

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Bookends: Game of Thrones Goes off the Main Track February 8, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, fantasy, Science Fiction, Uncategorized.
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A Feast For Crows

Bookends: Game of Thrones Goes off the Main Track

By Dan Davidson

February 1, 2017

– 916 words –

 

A Feast for Crows

(A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 4)

by George R,R, Martin

Random House of Canada

947 pages

$10.99

 

In a postscript for A Feast for Crows, George Martin admits quite frankly that the story got away from him and he probably became a bit too intrigued with some of the secondary characters in his expanding cast. So he and his publisher, knowing they could count on scads of sales any way, broke the book in half. This book and number 5, A Dance with Dragons, take place within the same time frame, and deal with different members of the cast.

If you want to know how Jon Snow is making out back at the Wall, you’ll have to wait until you get to book 5, because Samwell Tarly is about the only member of the Night’s Watch you will follow in this book, and he’s on a quest that takes him away from that place. Jon is mentioned only in terms of his early interaction with Sam.

We do follow two other members of the Stark family, Sansa and Arya, but they spend a lot of their time being other people. Sansa has been taken in hand by Littlefinger (Lord Petyr Baelish), perhaps to save her from the machinations of Queen Cersei, or perhaps for Littlefinger’s own devious ends. She is not using her own name and pretends to be his daughter. We do see that she is becoming more of a person and less of a Barbie doll princess as she copes with her various problems, but her destiny remains uncertain.

Arya is simply trying to survive, as she has been pretty much since her father was executed back in book 1, and to do that she takes on a number of personas in several different locales. The youngest of the Stark girls, she is a long way from making her mark in the world, yet she continues to seem to have a lot of promise.

Brienne of Tarth, the mannish woman who would be a soldier, has pledged to Jamie Lannister that she will find and protect Sansa Stark – but she doesn’t know where to find her and ends up having many adventures on her way to a very nasty cliffhanger that I’ll just bet doesn’t get resolved until book 6, if it does at all. Martin has a habit of actually terminating characters that he’s made us grow fond of, so who knows.

Jamie, meanwhile, is on his own quest, happy to be away from his sister, wishing he could rescue their remaining son from the madness that he can see enveloping her, coping with the loss of his sword hand, and actually doing quite a bit of good in the world.

Our first impressions of this man were supposed to have been set by that scene back in book 1 where he caused young Bran Stark to fall from a great height and lose the use of his legs. Between that and the incest that produced both of his sons, there seemed nothing to like about this man. Over two books, Martin has succeeded in shining light into the better parts of his nature.

Cersei seems to have been driven further round the bend by brother Tyrion (aka – “the Imp”) murdering their father and the loss of her eldest son, Joffrey to poison by persons unknown, both events in the previous book. Determined to be a female version of her father, Tywin, she engages in a multiplicity of plots, while serving as regent for her very young son, Tommen, who is now the king. Most of these schemes simply serve to isolate her more and leave her in a dreadful mess at the end of this book.

If these weren’t enough characters to have to juggle, Martin introduced a whole new subplot of characters from the Iron Islands, who will, apparently, play a big role in the next several volumes, of which there are supposed to be three.

If you only know this story from HBO’s Game of Thrones adaptation, be aware that these books are just as violent, but not nearly as sexy as the TV series. In fact, this book is notably less prurient than the earlier three. HBO has insisted in showing us highly detailed scenes that are generally more lightly sketched in print.

If you’re dying to know what happened to Jon Stark and the Night Watch, Bran Stark, Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons, Varys the Spider, or Melisandre (the Red Priestess), you’ll have to wait.

I’ve been reading this series as part of a four volume e-book version that I acquired during a KOBO sale a few years ago. This works pretty well on a pad, but referring to the material in the appendices at the end of each volume is a nuisance, and I’ve found it easier to check on family details in one of the numerous Wikipedia pages devoted to this series.

Martin is a novelist and short-story writer in the fantasy, horror, and science fiction genres, as well as being a television producer and screenwriter. The other large project he’s involved in as editor and writer is the Wild Cards shared universe anthology series about people with super powers, which currently totals about 21 volumes, the earliest of which have recently been reissued with additional material added.

 

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Bookends – There are no such things as vampires January 31, 2017

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Bookends – There are no such things as vampires

By Dan Davidson

September 28, 2016

rhesus-chart– 842 words –

 

The Rhesus Chart

By Charles Stross

Ace Books

372 pages

$10.49

 

In the fifth installment of the Laundry Files, Charles Stross takes on the subject of vampires, giving the supernatural his usual twist.

The Laundry is a secret organization somewhat in the vein of the MIO (Military Intelligence Other) that was featured in the ITV Jekyll and Hyde series that CBC ran last year. Every country has a similar organization and they all deal with things from other dimensions that would like to spend some time in our world. To do that they may burst across dimensional walls, or they may infect (read: possess) some of this world’s inhabitants.

Magic, in Stross’s rendering (much like that of L. Sprague de Camp and Jack Chalker), is actually connected to mathematics, and it is mathematicians and philosophers who seem most likely to discover it; mostly, it seems, by accident.

Bob Howard was an IT specialist and computer nerd who stumbled onto a spell that might have done a lot of damage to the world, and so he was immediately recruited into the Laundry – it was that or die, basically. Most of the Laundry’s agents joined up the same way.

Old style magic used to record spells in grimoires, but times have changed. When we first met Bob in The Atrocity Archive he was storing his emergency spells on a Palm Zire. He’s since upgraded to a smart phone.

His life has upgraded as well. When I last read one of these, Bob was single, but now he’s married to Mo, who is also an agent, one who is paired with a particularly vicious creature that looks, to the normal eye, pretty much like violin. It’s a weapon of incredible power and Mo’s a really good fiddler, but if she plays till her fingers bleed, bad things can happen.

In the current adventure, a group of banking nerds accidentally finds a combination of spells, while working of an accounting program, that links them to some extra dimensional parasites that basically turn them into vampires. There’s a twist. While they need the occasional drink of human blood to keep their new parasites from consuming them, their dining links them to their victims in a psychic manner and the parasites drain their victims of life force, leaving husks behind.

When the Laundry becomes aware of a sudden spate of suspicious deaths, they trace it to the bank. When Bob is sent in to “manage” the problem, he finds himself face to face with a former girlfriend, someone who once worked in the Laundry’s human resources office and knows how to game the system. She gets herself and her mates signed on as agents, thus avoiding death. The new vampires are classified as PHANG – short for Photogolic Hemophagic Anagathic Neurotropic, and no one knows what the G is for, but it works – persons and are about to be put to work somehow, when they started getting murdered.

It turns out that a group of PHANGS is a very unusual thing. By nature, they are territorial and loners (“there can be only one”, as the Highlanders used to say), and tend to work hard to keep their own numbers small so that they won’t be detected. It appears that there are already some very old members of the species in the area and they don’t like the attention the newbies are attracting, so they are dealing with it.

Or, at least, that’s what appears to be happening. On the other hand, there has to be some reason why nearly all the members of an organization devoted to the study and taming of occult threats are so absolutely convinced that vampires don’t exist. Solving that mystery becomes a side issue in the case file with the amusing name Opera Cape, until it turns out that this may actually be the main event.

I’ve said enough. The book is fun. It has some actual mysteries in it and quite a few plot twists. Enjoy it.

As I read this book, references to previous stories made it clear that I had missed some installments since reading The Jennifer Morgue, which was the last one I had seen. It turns out there are two books I’ve missed, which explains why Bob’s power levels are higher than I recalled them being. The current issue of Locus magazine has a long interview with Stross in which I learned that there are also two books after this one that I haven’t seen yet, as well as two Hugo Award winning short stories using the same setting. I’m looking forward to all of them.

I met and chatted with Stross at the Montreal Science Fiction Worldcon a few years back. He’s an interesting fellow who writes in a number of different styles. The Laundry books are basically H.P. Lovecraft meets John LeCarré, but he writes regular science fiction as well and has a variety of series on the go.

 

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Bookends: Body Shifting Suspects make for a Difficult Case January 31, 2017

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, mystery, Science Fiction, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: Body Shifting Suspects make for a Difficult Case

By Dan Davidson

September 21, 2016        lock-in

– 870 words –
 

Lock In

By John Scalzi

TOR Books

336 pages

$10.99

 

The science fiction field has a long history of crossing over into the mystery field. One of the earliest obvious practitioners of crossover writing was Isaac Asimov, whose three novels featuring the detective Elijah Bailey took the murder mystery to outer space in an obvious way. Outside the field Asimov produced six volumes of short stories about a mystery discussion group he called the Black Widowers.

Other SF writers frequently “ghosted” in well-known series. “Ellery Queen” was already a pen name for two cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, and several SF writers – Theodore Sturgeon and Jack Vance, among others – wrote some of the later entries in the series.

John Scalzi seems determined to write every sort of SF related book that he possibly can, and has done an excellent job of following in that tradition, creating a future world shaped by a pernicious disease, and a murder mystery that has everything to do with that disease.

Some years from now a new, highly contagious virus appears. Like the zica virus, most people who catch it have just a few days of fever and misery, but it has other mysterious effects on some peoples’ brains. One per cent of its victims find themselves “locked in”, closed off from all voluntary motor functions and sensory inputs – fully awake but truly isolated from the world. They call it Haden’s Syndrome, mostly because the wife of President Haden is one of the victims.

Partly because of this connection, and because a good number of the victims come from wealth, an effort is made to find a way for these disconnected brains to access the world. The solution is to create robot surrogate bodies and implant in the brains hardware and software that allow people to interface with these bodies and “live” in the world again.

This is somewhat similar to the gimmick used in the Bruce Willis movie, “Surrogates”, except that most of the artificial bodies are not so cosmetically perfect.

One other, rare, side effect of the virus is that a very small percentage of Haden’s sufferers come out undamaged, but, with the installation of matching hardware and software in their craniums, are able to share their bodies with those who are locked in. They are called Integrators.

Chris Shane is Haden’s survivor from a wealthy family who has been locked in since he was a child. He was one of the first to use a surrogate, which are known as “threeps”, in honour of a very famous golden robot in an old movie. Tired of being the poster child for Haden-kind, he has taken up law enforcement as a career. He has been partnered with a difficult experienced cop named Leslie Vann, who has many secrets in her background.

Their first case together involves the murder of an Integrator, who may have been killed by another Integrator. The problem is that the apparent murderer doesn’t remember a thing about it. He was being “ridden”, as they call it, by someone else at the time, and while he’s supposed to be aware of everything his rider does, he has no memory of how he came to be in that hotel room with that dead man.

I spent some space on the social background of this story because it spoiled nothing to do that, and you need to understand that it’s entirely possible that some of the people you meet may not be who they seem to be at any given time in the book. All that is clear from the outset is that this is a Haden related crime, probably committed by a Haden person.

Means, motive and opportunity are much harder to pin down when your suspect might in any one of several threeps at any given time, or be integrated with another actual human some of the time.

In that sense the book reminded me very much of Asimov’s Bailey novels, in which the sociology and psychology of the places where the crimes occurred had so much to do with why and how they occurred.

Shane is the first person narrator of this story, and the fact that he is not moving about in a flesh and blood body didn’t come clear for me until I was a chapter or so into the story. There was certainly something odd about him, but I couldn’t pin it down until some of the expository dialogue made it clear. After that, I adjusted, and just sort of forgot about it, until he had an internal conversation with the caregiver looking after his body at home, or shifted bodies, or crossed the country in an eyeblink (more shifting) in order to follow up clues.

It’s not a simple mystery so it gives you lots to puzzle about and the future setting keeps you just off base enough to give the writer the edge in hiding some things from you along the way.

I continue to be impressed with Scalzi, who first came to my attention about six years ago and has yet to disappoint.

 

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Bookends: Investigators baffled by what lies beneath January 31, 2017

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Bookends: Investigators baffled by what lies beneath

By Dan Davidsonfirewalk

December 28, 2016

– 847 words –

 

Firewalk

By Chris Roberson

Night Shade Books

348 pages

$24.99

 

Zombies. They’re everywhere. The original horror flicks, back as far as the George Romero classic, were vague about what caused them, but the condition was infectious and the diet was human brains. I saw the original Night of the Living Dead back in college and have had no desire to see further renditions over the years.

The Resident Evil series introduced the idea that moved the plague away from the supernatural and made it into something humans might cause by means of evil science.

In other versions, the condition is caused by a virus or is some form of disease.

Stephen King’s Cell has the condition being triggered by a rogue cellphone signal that shuts down the brain’s higher functions.

Chris Roberson and artist Michael Allred created the comic book iZombie, in which an unfortunate combination of an energy drink and a designer drug triggers a zombie reaction. This can also be passed on by a bite or scratch. It can be controlled and the victims can only continue to function as normal humans by ingesting small quantities of human brain material. In zombie mode they possess unnatural strength and resilience.

After eating of another person’s brain they have access to that person’s memories and personality traits. The central character in the series, and in the television show now in its third season, is a victim named Olivia Moore (so, of course, Liv Moore). She is a former medical student who gets her require grey matter by working in the city morgue.

In Firewalk, Roberson, who writes fantasy novels as well as comic books, has come at the idea from a different angle, in what promises to be the first book in a new series. This is framed as a mystery/thriller, but it’s in familiar zombie territory and has echoes of iZombie.

Five years ago Izzie Lefevre, of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, and Detective Patrick Tevake, on the Recondito Police Force, were instrumental in tracking down and ending the career of a serial killer, a scientist named Nicholas Fuller, who had left a dozen sword decapitated bodies in his wake before they cornered him.

What is unusual about both partners is that their family backgrounds, which they both try to ignore, have exposed them to lore and legend which allows them to see what might be supernatural significance in events which have begun to occur in the city again.

Izzie’s grandmother was a voodoo priestess. Patrick’s Polynesian great-uncle believed that there were special places on earth where the walls between worlds were thin.

There is a new street drug called Ink, so-called because prolonged use of it causes its addicts to break out in ink-like blotches on their skin. It also causes them to want to avoid sunlight and, when gathered in groups, to behave in a herd-like manner, as if being controlled by a single intelligence.

When violent individuals in the final stages of this addiction are killed by decapitation, autopsies reveal that there are large empty spots in their brains, much like what happens to victims of variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, sometimes called Mad Cow Disease. The condition is identical to that found in the brains of Fuller’s victims from five years earlier. It is this coincidence that causes Tevake to request that Lefevre return to Recondito to compare notes with him.

The final straw for them both is the death of an Ink pusher who continues to rise from the ground and try to assault them after nearly every bone in his body has been broken by a fall and he has been shot enough times to take down a horse. Only after his neck has been broken so thoroughly that it is barely attached to his body, does he stop moving, and the Ink blotches fade from his skin.

They begin to wonder if Fuller hadn’t been killing the people he did for a specific, and perhaps very good, reason. His victims were all participants in a series of experiments that took place in an abandoned mine shaft, as part of a project called Undersight.

“Gravity leaks into other spaces, but doors swing both ways. They went down into the dark,” Fuller said of his victims before they died, “and the dark came back with them. Ridden. Passengers. I saw it, even if no one else did.”

He’d killed 12 people in horrible ways, but there was a number 13, someone he called the student, and five years later that man was continuing the work Fuller had tried to stop.

Before the book ends the two investigators, and a couple of other people who get roped into the case, find the true source of Ink, are chased by a zombie horde, find sanctuary in a light house, and realize they have a lot more work to do, The story will continue in the next book, Firewalkers. I’ll be looking for it. This one was fun.

 

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Bookends: A Black Family’s Occult Adventures in Nineteen-Fifties America January 31, 2017

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Bookends: A Black Family’s Occult Adventures in Nineteen-Fifties America

By Dan Davidson

lovecraft-couuntrySeptember 9, 2016

– 810 words –

 

Lovecraft Country

By Matt Ruff

Harper

384 pages

$29.49

e-book editions: $15.99

 

Given that Lovecraft Country is unrelentingly about the African-American experience in the United States during the 1950s, it surprised me to discover that Matt Ruff is not a Black man. This does not mean that he has committed a misappropriation of culture, but rather that he has produced a careful reflection on the problems faced by another race, using the framework of the science-fiction /horror adventure tales to do the job.

Maybe I need to explain the title of the novel and the way it’s structured. Howard Phillips Lovecraft is one of the most influential horror story writers in the history of the genre. No one who works in this genre can avoid having been influenced by him or by one of his contemporaries: Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E, Howard and, in some cases, Ray Bradbury.

“The Call of Cthulhu” introduced the idea that Earth was once ruled by demonic elder gods, who were somehow banished from the planet, but are just itching to find a way back. Lovecraft piled on the tension and the atmosphere in a manner similar to E. A. Poe, and was deliberately old fashioned in his use of language, at least when he wasn’t ghost-writing things for other people.

He was also a notorious racist and white supremacist in his personal views, and often worked those ideas into his stories in fictional form. So, “Lovecraft country” is a place where eldritch magic and racism come together, something that is made very clear in the first story/chapter in the book, when Atticus Turner is carded by a racist highway patrol officer while on his way home between Florida and Chicago.

I wrote “story/chapter” because of the way this book is set up. The cover resembles an old pulp magazine illustration, and it was common, once upon a time, for writers to tell a series of stories with a common protagonist, or background, and when they had enough of them to make up a book, they created what is called a “fix-up” novel, with some bridging material to string it all together. One of the most famous of these would be Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles.

Ruff has created a novel which resembles this pattern, but is actually much more tightly plotted that that. Atticus, his relatives, and other people who are connected to the family, are the central characters in nine independent short stories which are, nevertheless, a novel when taken together.

In the first story, Atticus, his father, his uncle George, the publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, and a young woman named Letitia, are tricked into travelling to Ardham Lodge (a clear reference to Lovecraft’s fictional town of Arkham) where the membership of the Order of the Ancient Dawn intend to use him as the catalyst (and sacrifice) to open a dimensional door and let the Elder Gods come back. Their plan fails, due to the intervention of young Caleb Braithwhite, a powerful sorcerer who will turn up in several other stories before the novel reaches its conclusion. Just because he helps the Turners out few times does not make him a good man.

This is perhaps the most Lovecraftian part of the book. The other sections are generally written as homages to other pulp fiction horror/science fiction tropes. There’s a haunted house story, with a nice twist to it. There’s a kind of treasure hunt/caper story. There’s an adventure in another dark dimension, a distinctly different take on the ideas behind Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, a ghost story, a tale of demonic possession, a showdown that gathers all the plot threads together, and a tidy epilogue that gives us a time frame. The various events in the book take about a year to play out.

As I noted, much of this book is a homage to the works of various writers, many of whom are name-checked in the narratives, who were big names in the pulp magazines of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. What’s unusual about each of the stories is that the central character in each case is a black man or (even more unlikely at that time) a black woman. In each case this racial identity creates some problems that would not have been faced by the mostly white protagonists that populated the pulps during those years.

So, while Ruff has given us a fascinating series of adventure stories that add up to more than the sum of their parts, he has also given us a commentary on a specific era in American history. The combination is very effective. He discusses some of his intentions in several interviews that are worth a look on his website.

 

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Bookends: The Little Prince Pops Up and Malcolm gets Muddy January 18, 2017

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Bookends: The Little Prince Pops Up and Malcolm gets Muddy

By Dan Davidson

little-princeJune 22, 2016

– 844 words

 

The Little Prince

By Antoine de Saint Exupéry

Translation by Richard Howard

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

61 pages

$35.00

 

I hardly need to say very much about the story told in this little book. A downed French airman, stranded in the desert, comes across a small person who demands that he draw him a sheep. We know the airman really can’t draw, because we’ve seen his earlier efforts, the ones that made everyone tell him to find another profession when he was just a child. But he’s clever and manages to satisfy the little person.

The small person comes to be known as the Prince of the title, and he hails from a little planet the size of a house, possibly a body best thought of as an asteroid.

The Little Prince relates a great many strange adventures to our nameless narrator, telling of the six planets he visited on his way to Earth and the strange inhabitants he met on his journey. Each of the solitary beings on these other small planets exhibit certain bizarre behaviors which are really a commentary on human fallibility, but that’s not clear to the Prince.

In the end he returns to his nameless planet, and to the obligations he feels he has there, propelled by the somewhat gruesome method of being bitten by a snake. It looks a lot like dying, but it is not.

Now, this is not the same book as the one I gave my wife as a gift back in the 1970s. For one thing, it’s a new translation, with a somewhat different linguistic sensibility. Comparing the two texts, I find the present one to be less stuffy and formal, but I don’t know that it changes much.

For another, it’s a shorter book. Our copy, having substantially larger print than this edition, is 113 pages; this one has 64 much larger pages with a lot more words on them in much smaller print.

The print size chosen for this book bothers me for the very simple reason that this is an oversized pop-up book, many times the size of our little paperback edition and filled with what must be dozens of pop-up sections and folding flaps. These are created by a process called paper engineering and are all based on the clever two dimensional drawings that grace the original.

Pop-up books don’t have to be just for children of course, but this is a story that lends itself to the age group, even if it is actually a satire about the human condition. The print size is going to make this one difficult for young eyes to follow.

Summing up then, this is a beautiful edition of this book. I like the text and I’m extremely impressed with the pop-up art. What I’m not at all sure about is who it was aimed at. If it’s for adults, and at that price this seems likely, then it’s the same sort of audience that made Nick Bantock’s Griffin & Sabine trilogy so popular bank in the 1990s.

It looks more like a children’s book, but the current translator feels that his work is closer to the “radical outrage” of the original French text, which he suggests can be read between the lines. That makes it more of an adult book, and the packaging now sends very mixed messages about that.

 

And Then it Rained on Malcolmand-then-it-rained

Written by Paige Feurer
Illustrated by Rich Farr

Sky Pony Press

40 pages

$23.99

 

There’s no question what age group this is aimed at. It’s the age 3 to 6 crowd and this is one that is meant to be shared, adult to child.

Malcolm is having a great time building a castle in his sandbox when the rain comes and dissolves his efforts. He’s furious at first, but then he decides he is not going to let the weather spoil his fun. So he gets dressed for it, goes back outside, and does every rainy day thing he can possibly think of. This is a delightful sequence of pictures.

That is all fine until he flops in a big puddle full of worms. The worms get into his boots, and his clothes and his hair and just everywhere really. It isn’t that he is afraid of the worms; but it is that they tickle terribly, and that drives him back into the house, where he makes a very serious muddy wet mess while trying to escape them. Of course. it all gets cleaned up by the end of the story.

This is a very energetic book. The artwork is colourful and expressive and full of action. The worms are cuter than any worms have a right to be.

The text is very simple, and it probably won’t take more than a few readings before a young mind will have in memorized. As this is one good way to get kids started in reading for themselves, I certainly have to recommend this book.

 

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