Monthly Archives: January 1999

Red Ink, Greg Dinallo

Pocket, 1994, 341 pages, C$28.50 hc, ISBN 0-671-73313-3

My, have times changed.

Fifteen years ago, nobody would have considered Russia a country in crisis. They were pointing nuclear missiles at most North American cities, and that was enough to stop most people from thinking objectively about a country that was struggling under a rigid bureaucracy, an inefficient economy and backward technological progress. Author Greg Dinallo himself, in 1988, penned a novel titled Rocket’s Red Glare which featured a dastardly Russia plan stemming from the Cuba crisis.

Of course, nobody could have a clear picture of the true state of the Ex-USSR given that nothing was really well-known about the country. No open media, no independent accounting, no glassnost.

Of course, we all know the major beats of the subsequent story; Chernobyl, the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe, the 1991 coup in Moscow, the division of the USSR into independent countries… The true picture of the communist aftermath is finally clear and it’s not pretty. Now, Dinallo is looking at Russia again… and my have times changed.

Red Ink‘s protagonist Nikolai Katkov isn’t particularly sad to be rid of the old regime. An ex-gulag prisoner, Katkov is a freelance investigative reporter. He sees the new Russia through jaded eyes. As with most noir novels, Katkov is also down on his luck. By mid-novel, he’ll be stripped of most of what he hold dear.

Of course, it starts off innocently with a banal murder. Except that the victim is a high-banking government officer. Except that the victim was investigating high-stakes financial transactions. Except that he might or might not have been killed by a professional. Except that the trail points to the Russian mafiya. Except that Katkov’s article is rewritten and published under another byline. Except that Katkov is nearly gunned down…

The only thing missing is a love interest, and she quickly arrives as the sultry Gabriella Scotto, U.S. Treasury Special Agent. What is going on? Is her investigation tied into the murder?

Red Ink is, all things considered, an adequate thriller with enough quirks to make it interesting. The first-person narration is suitably cynical to add spice to the narrative, though this particularity fades as the novel goes on. The relation between Katkov and Scotto is handled maturely, with a flair that’s lacking in most Hollywood-inspired thrillers. Characterisation is strong, the writing is clear and -at least initially- compulsively readable. There are a few memorable scenes and the conclusion is far more interesting than could have been expected.

The first third of Red Ink is unfortunately much more fascinating than the remainder of the novel, promising more than what Dinallo eventually delivers. As Katkov travels to a more familiar environment (from our perspective), the book loses some of its charm, even if Katkov’s fish-out-of-water condition provides amusement. Simply put, Red Ink remains good, but isn’t special in its latter half.

Dinallo has always been an unconventional thriller writer, bringing sometimes uncomfortable elements in his fiction but usually building interesting payoffs. Red Ink is the best of his books yet, and Dinallo owes some of this success to the careful research he’s done about the Russia of the nineties. Red Ink is a good choice for an entertaining read… and proves that even if Russia has changed, it still offers considerable potential for all of those poor cold-war writers.

My, have times changed!

The Sneaker Book, Tom Vanderbilt

The New Press, 1998, 177 pages, C$19.95 hc, ISBN 1-56584-406-8

My troubles with footwear began a few years ago, as my favourite model was discontinued. Through high school and most of college, I bought pair after pair of Reebok Pro Volley Mesh. After some experimentation, this had proven to be the most comfortable, most versatile, relatively sober design. I really liked these shoes.

But, inevitably, the soles of my old pair cracked, it began to snow, my favourite model wasn’t available any more and I eventually found myself in the market for new shoes. A few trips to specialty footwear stores were unforgettable experiences: The shoes there bore no relation to what I really wanted to wear: I was looking for something relatively modest, not too flashy and as close as possible to the streamlined shape of the Reebok Pro Volley shoe.

What I discovered was an assortment of globulous, multicolored, fanciful shapes that looked more like Jim-Burns-drawn futuristic weapons turned upside down than footwear. I retreated to the nearest general-interest megastore and came out with a pair of white Nike Air.

I hated those shoes. Lightweight and featureless, okay, but two weeks after buying them, one of them began to squeak. You can imagine the infernal sound in a deserted corridor: Clop, squeak, clop, squeak, clop, squeak… I toughed it as long as I could (one year; my self-imposed shoe replacement delay) and went back to Reebok sneakers.

I consider myself a sane customer, but that, by any standard, was demented. No sneaker nowadays lasts more than a year, and it’s impossible to find a good model since they keep changing year after year!

The Sneaker Book finally put some sense in the mania that is the Sneakers industry. Design changes every quarter; squalid production conditions, obscenely-paid celebrity endorsements, nauseatingly pervasive marketing, shameless commercialisation of an image over function… there is a lot of material there for a scathing denunciation, and this is what Tom Vanderbilt delivers.

He takes us from design to sales, intelligently pointing out the crazier parts of the industry without necessarily being arrogant or spiteful about it. The result is book that reads well, and can be consulted easily. (There is a good index at the end.)

The design of the book, however, is less successful. In an effort to appear hip and modern, the designers have shot themselves in the foot (har-har) in matter of readability. Some sidebar excerpt from other works are run consecutively on several pages, running alongside the main text; the effect is to force the reader to either read one and go back, or to try to follow both threads simultaneously. The good idea of illustrating each page with a sneaker is undermined by the lack of identification of each shoe, and the repetition of several similar images.

Nevertheless, The Sneaker Book is an excellent work. It takes a product that most of us take for granted, and deconstruct it in such a way that we’re never going to think of sneakers in quite the same way again. It’s a precious document chronicling not only sneakers-as-footwear, but as a chilling materialization of some of the late twentieth century’s worst traits: Rampant commercialism, sports as entertainment, ghetto formalization, third-world exploitation, women inequity, image-as-substance…

Whatever you might choose to see in The Sneaker Book, it certainly made me look at my footwear often. The “Made in China” tag in all of my shoes never seemed more ominous. Who should care about my petty complaints of squeaking, changing models and lack of durability when I’m really the living incarnation of the first-world nations stepping on the product of the less fortunate members of the human race?

Northern Dreamers, Ed. Edo Van Belkom

Quarry Press, 1998, 254 pages, C$19.95 tpb, ISBN 1-55082-206-3

Curious Reader: So, what’s that Northern Dreamers book about?

Reviewer: It’s a collection of interviews that Edo van Belkom -himself a renowned horror writer- conducted with some of Canada’s best speculative fiction writers.

Reader: Really? Who’s interviewed?

Reviewer: A good cross-section of CanSF writers. Robert J. Sawyer, Charles de Lint, Candas Jane Dorsey, James Alan Gardner, Dave Duncan, William Gibson, Phyllis Gotlieb, Terence M. Green…

Reader: Whoa, enough! How many in total?

Reviewer: Twenty-three of them. The nice thing is that Belkom doesn’t stop at SF or Fantasy, nor to the most obvious authors. Some of his choices are pretty eclectic, like W.P. Kinsella, Michael Coney or Ed Greenwood-

Reader: Ed Who?

Reviewer: Yeah, that was my reaction too. Ed Greenwood is the guy who created the “Forgotten Realms” module for-

Reader: -for TSR’s Advanced Dungeons and Dragon! Cool! You mean a Canadian did that? I had no idea!

Reviewer: Neither did I, actually. That was one of the many surprises of the book. I won’t spoil most of them here, but I learned things from Northern Dreamers.

Reader: Is it kind of a oh-we’re-both-so-cool type of interview book?

Reviewer: Well, there’s a lot of that, obviously, but Belkom has the guts to ask some fairly pointed questions, and the results are honest. You’ve got Robert Charles Wilson talking about using LSD to overcome Writer’s Block-

Reader: No way!

Reviewer: -and Robert J. Sawyer talking about the reactions to his auto-promotion, and Andrew Weiner telling us how he hates SF, and Spider Robinson talking about composing his first published story while under the influence of drugs and-

Reader: Gee, there’s a lot of dirt in there.

Reviewer: Well, there’s a lot of dirt all right, but also many good revelations that will allow you a different take on the author’s work.

Reader: So this is the definitive CanSF interview book?

Reviewer: No, not really definitive… but it’s real close. It’s a pretty good cross-section of the market right now. The variety of the writers’ works is impressive in its own right.

Reader: So you’re recommending it to everyone?

Reviewer: It depends… I found that the best interviews were with people whom I had already read a lot. So you could say that it’s a must-read book for those who are already big fans of Canadian SF.

Reader: Uh-huh. Are there any shocking revelations about the state of Canadian SF in there?

Reviewer: Perhaps the most shocking is that while there are many writers writing SF in Canada now, few of them are purely Canadian-born. Most (Vonarburg, Gibson, Weiner, etc…) have immigrated here long ago, other hold dual nationalities, etc… If CanSF has a dirty little secret, I guess that’s it.

Reader: Whoa. Shooocking, duuude.

Reviewer: I guess we deserve the SF that we get.

The Jericho Iteration, Allen Steele

Ace, 1994, 279 pages, C$25.95 hc, ISBN 0-441-00097-5

It has become something of a cliché to set future stories in California against a backdrop dominated by the aftermath of a massive Earthquake. On the other coast, at least one novel dealt with a devastating earthquake on New York (Charles Scarborough’s Aftershock). Few writers, however, have examined the effect of an earthquake on non-coastal areas of the United States.

Enters Allen Steele, who lived a few years in Saint Louis. An ex-investigative reporter and freelance journalist, Steele is now regarded as one of the most promising hard-SF writer to have entered the field during the past decade.

In The Jericho Iteration, Steele departs from his usual future history to look at a future Saint-Louis devastated by an major (Richter 7.5) earthquake. The year is 2013 and the hero is Gerry Rosen, an investigative reporter for one of the devastated town’s alternative newspapers.

Even almost a year after the disaster, Saint-Louis is far from being back to its old levels of comfort. Indeed, thousands of homeless people are roaming the city and government officials have instituted martial law over the city, enforced by troopers who take an almost-sadistic delight in their work.

The sad life of Gerry Rosen (grieving father, estranged husband, alcoholic journalist) is thrown out of whack when someone contact him with information not meant for his ears. Soon, bodies begin to pile up and Rosen must not only save himself, but also find out the truth…

The Jericho Iteration is, in short, a standard “lone-investigator-against-conspiracy” story told reasonably well. The first-person narration is up to Steele’s usual high standards. Most readers, however, will have seen most of the plot elsewhere. At least three times, the next plot point can be predicted with a fair degree of accuracy. The novel is even less successful when considered from a dynamic perspective: Rosen doesn’t evolve a lot (even acknowledging the fact during the last pages) and remains as mildly unlikeable as in the beginning.

There are a few good scenes here and there; I especially liked the resolution of the “laser sniper” episode. The conclusion is not as strong as it might have been, but Steele obviously wanted to wrap everything up in as short a time as possible. Just ignore the fact that Rosen’s presence by the end of the story is rather less than essential to the resolution of the plot…

Certain SF elements, like “Ruby Fulcrum”, are handled without many surprises and with assumptions that would be more adapted to SF movies than written works. Otherwise, good use is made of the gadgets, especially during the otherwise unsatisfying finale.

But even with this substandard effort, Steele manages to deliver a competent action/adventure SF thriller. While your time and money would be best spent on something better, The Jericho Iteration is not exactly a bad choice.

Mathemagics, Margaret Ball

Baen, 1996, 341 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-87755-0

In his room, the apprentice is slouched over a tattered grimoire. The room is getting colder as the heat is drained away by the snow storm raging outside the dwelling. But he scarcely notices, as he squints hard at the strange symbols imperfectly reproduced on the paper. To his dismay, he finds that his own annotation do not help him. In fact, they only serve to confuse him further. It takes all of his willpower to continue his study without thinking about the consequences of failure. And yet, the test of his powers will take place in only a few day. How will he be able to prove to his aloof master that he deserves to continue his study? He has long abandoned any thoughts of distinguished honour; he now want only to pass…

Don’t laugh. That’s how I thought about Calculus 101. Strange symbols, weird results, wonderful applications, difficult application, heavy memorization… It did have similarities with magic.

This Math/Magic congruence has been noted by many authors, but few have explored it in as much details as Margaret Ball with her novel Mathemagics. A follow up to a story in Chicks in Chainmail (Ed. Esther Friestner), Mathemagics follows the adventures of Riva Konneva, a warrior woman from an alternate dimension currently in happy matrimony in this universe. She’s here mostly (but not entirely) because of her daughter Salla who, as the novel begins, is driving her teachers crazy at the local high school.

Where’s the math? Well, as you surely know, every warrior deserves its wizard, and the mages in Riva’s reality cast spells with complex mathemagical equations. Indeed, Riva is here to study mathematics, and her chosen male companion in this reality is… a math teacher.

Bringing more fun to the plot are a deviously manipulative mathemagician (ex-lover of Riva, father of Salla) who also crossed to this reality (only to ally with an overambitious fundamentalist preacher) and an alternate-dimension warrior who’s now on every romance novel cover.

But the fun of Mathemagics is less in the plot than in the details surrounding it. In the chapter numbering in mathematical equations (Chapter e^0, chapter 3!, chapter 2^4, etc… The proofs are at the end of the book.) In the hilarious description of a Science Fiction convention gone wrong. In the rehabilitation of romance novels. In the sharply-drawn, very sympathetic characters. In the skewering of the educational system. In the in-jokes.

One could say that Mathemagics is a novel for a specialized readership. To fully enjoy it, one should be versed in fantasy, SF, math, computer science, fandom, education… But fortunately, the novel doesn’t require those elements; I’m sure that most casual readers won’t mind reading about Riva Konneva, suburban warrior woman.

Which isn’t to say that the novel is entirely enjoyable. Half the chapters in Riva’s world could have been cut, or at least shortened. The inclusion of child-harassing traits in the preacher character is not only insufferably cliched, but takes away a chunk of the novel’s lighthearted tone. The style is often too-quickly-paced, with confusing results.

Still, it would be a shame for any SF reader in search of a fun read to miss out on Mathemagics. Margaret Ball obviously known her stuff, both in math and in SF, and the result will bring at least a smile -if not a laugh- to the reader’s face.

Diplomatic Act, Peter Jurasik & William H. Keith, Jr.

Baen Starline, 1998, 364 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 0-671-87788-7

Nichelle Nichols did it. George Takei did it. Jonahan Frakes did it. James Doohan did it. LeVar Burton did it. And of course, William Shatner is still doing it.

No, not only play on “Star Trek”. All the above-mentioned people followed their stints as actors in that celebrated SF franchise by “writing” a science fiction novel. Now, let’s not fool ourselves by pretending that these brainy actors actually typed a whole 500-pages manuscript and sent it off to some publisher in hope that it would be picked up. No; far more logical, as Spock would say, to assume mercantile interest from both the actor, the publisher and some often-anonymous SF writer with a house to pay.

Baen books has pushed the celebrity-novel idea to what might be its limits with its “Starline” imprint. It’s a book collection specialized in celebrity novels. Diplomatic Act is their third title.

Historically, celebrity novels have never been of exceptional quality, and Diplomatic Act‘s greatest achievement might very well be that it does not suck.

Peter Jurasik is one of the stars of fan-favourite TV Show “Babylon-5”. He plays ambassador Londo, a representative of a glory-starved extraterrestrial race. Diplomatic Act‘s premise starts from there; a human playing a wise extraterrestrial ambassador is kidnapped by fiction-challenged aliens convinced that the ambassador is for real. Oh, and one alien stays behind to impersonate the actor.

At least two separate warning bells should ring loudly in your heads by now. First, the alien-among-us-trying-to-figure-out-humankind shtick has been done to death. First in the magazines of the Golden Age, then in the books of the sixties, and then on television ad nauseam. STARMAN, ALF, STAR TREK’s Data, etc… It’s not new, it’s not fresh and it should definitely be forgotten.

Second, the ordinary-human-is-whisked-off-to-an-alien-place-where- he-ultimately-wins-over-all cliché has also been done to satiety. Whoever plotted Diplomatic Act (whether Jurasik contributed something else than his name or not) didn’t waste any brain cells there.

Beyond the premise, the book drags on for almost half it length after a fairly zippy “behind-the-scenes-of-a-TV-Show” first chapter. While not exactly boring, the plot does takes a break in its first half.

So, it’s almost a surprise to find out that, after all, Diplomatic Act does manage to pack an entertaining amount of fun.

As the plot manages to start again, we’re gradually introduced to another dynamic arc that suddenly ties up the narrative together. The heightening of tension slowly sucks you in until the book concludes.

What also helps is Keith’s talent in creating believable advanced civilizations. Too many inferior SF writers will just say “hyperspaceship, nanotechnology and antigravity” and expect us to believe in an immensely advanced civilization. Keith backs it up with competent-sounding jargon and interesting philosophical issues. (Though these tend to be solved far too easily.) Obviously, Keith knows his hard SF, and if Diplomatic Act is lighthearted, at least is sounds okay.

Furthermore, the novel is definite entertainment. Unlike other novels which will remain nameless, Diplomatic Act does talk about the Grays and other aliens, but does it tongue-in-cheek, even putting an intriguing spin on the mythos. We’re there to have fun, and Keith’s having fun with us.

It may strange to praise a novel by saying that it doesn’t suck, but that’s the most apt qualificative for Diplomatic Act. It doesn’t do much for the advancement of the genre, relies on stock premises and simply competent writing, but can be read with a certain amount of pleasure. Not bad for a celebrity novel.

Virus (1999)

(In theaters, January 1999) As my first movie of 1999, I wanted a baseline. A not-too-good film against which to compare the others I’ll see this year. I certainly got that with Virus. Neither astonishingly bad or particularly good, Virus is about the most generic movie you could imagine about an energy life-form taking over a boat. As a representative of the “there’s-something-evil-on-this-ship-and-we’re-stuck-with-it!” subgenre, Virus does the job without distinction but also without being too tiresome. Joanna Pacula is as lovely as ever, and Donald Sutherland’s deliciously bad performance as the ship captain is a hoot to watch. The direction is promising, but hampered by jumpy editing. The special effects aren’t all that special (the CGI sequences are unfortunately easy to spot) and some lines of dialogue are hilariously bad. (Lighting coming out of the computer: “Something’s accessing the computer!” “Impossible! Only I have the access codes!”) Might be a good choice in a few years on late-night TV. Until then, it will join Mimic, Screamers, Species and other undistinguished not-too-bad-not-too-good SF movies on the shelves of your local video store.

Twister (1996)

(Second viewing, On VHS, January 1999) I loved that movie when I saw it in theatres. It was fun, fast, exceedingly well-done and incredibly exciting. Those who complained about the lack of character development, plot or thematic relevance were, I felt, missing the point of the film. Twister existed solely to make us see things we hadn’t seen on the silver screen before, and it delivered the goods. I was concerned, however, that the video version wouldn’t pack the same audiovisual punch than the movie, and up to a certain point, it’s true: this is a movie to be enjoyed on the biggest, loudest home theatre system you can find. But no matter; even diluted down to my monaural 20” TV setup, Twister is still a fun ride. Well-directed and competently acted within the confines of the action movie genre, this movie doesn’t loses itself in philosophical meandering and endless digression: Everything is to the point and we’re carried along for the ride. Enjoy it again.

Forbidden Summit, Payne Harrison

Berkley, 1997, 340 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-16214-1

Open letter to Payne Harrison:

Dear Mr. Harrison,

It is with considerable dismay that I write you about your latest novel, Forbidden Summit. For reasons which shall be exposed at length below, I find it regrettable to contemplate the possibility that one of the best techno-thriller writers in recent memory has fallen prey to disillusions so laughably flawed that he must be pitied, not scorned.

I really loved your first two books. Storming Intrepid was a tremendously exciting novel of cold war conflict, adroitly mixing limpid writing with an exceptionally thrilling plot of warfare in near space. I bought it twice: In paperback, and then in hardcover. Thunder of Erebus was no slouch either. You managed to bring techno-thrillers to a fresh new location -Antarctica- and the story contained far too many good scenes to enumerate. It was great.

I was slightly disappointed by Black Cipher, though. Even though the field of cryptology is intriguing like few else, your narrative talents had slipped a notch, and this rather simple tale of a lone cryptologist against a conspiracy of highly-placed officials… was satisfying without being spectacular.

Still, when I heard that a new Payne Harrison book was in bookstores, I rushed to the shelves, only to be surprised by the fact that your new book was a paperback original. When dealing with an established author, this is usually a sign of an inferior work. Puzzled, I read the synopsis and understood.

“A powerfully convincing novel of the ultimate government secret”… “Four unidentified aircrafts are tracked on a controlled descent over North America.”… “The official response -or lack of it- is puzzling.” “A desolate summit on a desert mesa. There, far from public eyes, the truth is waiting…” A glimpse through the afterword confirmed my doubts.

I quietly placed the book back on the shelf. Is that what it had come to? One excellent author reduced to pandering to the wide-eyes neurotic true X-Files believers?

Having thus resolved not to buy Forbidden Summit, I was ironically pleased to unwrap the book at our Christmas office party; my reputation as a voracious reader had netted me two books, including yours. So I would be able, after all, to actually have an informed opinion on your latest novel.

So I read and find myself unpleasantly vindicated. The shocking thing is not as much the fact that you do believe in this alien stuff -all pretences of harmless fiction are erased by your afterword- as how most of your writing skills seems to have gone to waste since Thunder of Erebus.

I’ll be blunt: The pitifulness of your cardboard characters is only surpassed by the shallowness of your plotting. Old flashes of the Payne Harrison of old still resonate at odd moments: Good technical descriptions, a few interesting scenes. But beyond that, it is not an impression of dislike that one gets of Forbidden Summit. It is one of pity, of shameful embarrassment at the fall of a once-promising writer. Your book is boring, misogynist, clumsy, inconsistent with reality and sadly paranoid. It reads like something you threw up after watching INDEPENDENCE DAY once too many.

In a way, you are your own best advertisement for your theories of alien conspiracies. Bring back the original Harrison, you alien bastards!

In the meantime, your pathetic belief in alien conspiracies are not only miserable in their own right, but they are an insult to the millions of soldiers, officers, scientists, engineers and politicians whose virtues you so espoused and profited from in your previous novels.

And if only for that, you should not be allowed to publish another novel.

With sincere wishes for an improvement in your mental health,

An ex-fan, Christian Sauvé.

The Thin Red Line (1998)

(In theaters, January 1999) An acceptable 90 minute WW2 movie mixed and intercut with a five-minute credit sequence, thirty minutes of a Discovery Channel special on the plants, animals and wonderful savage people of the south east-asian jungle, a fifteen-minutes experimental film by stoned freshmen philosophy students and another forty-five minutes of footage that the editor forgot to cut, probably because he fell asleep at the editing console. I really loved the camera work, the cinematography and the war scenes. I also liked the characters, but I just wish they’d been featured in a better movie. Saving Private Ryan it ain’t, because Spielberg never forgot that great movies entertain as much as they’re art. Now, could someone re-cut The Thin Red Line and chop off all the simplistic philosophy, repetitive romantic imagery and non-sequitur interludes? There was a great film in there, but director Terrence Malick choked it to death it with his disillusions of cinematographic grandeur. I’ve seen better reflections on the nature of war in men’s adventure novels, and those were entertaining.

I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (1998)

(In theaters, January 1999) I expected nothing from this film and wasn’t entirely disappointed. Sure, it’s even worse than its prequel, but at least the supporting players are fun to watch (with distinctions to Jack Black’s stoned hippie) and Brandi’s irresistible charm did a lot to raise my opinion of the film. (Not to mention her tight clothes.) The remainder of the movie is a representative example of a genre that should have remained dead for some more time.

I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)

(In theaters, January 1999) This does nothing to enhance my low opinion of scriptwriter Kevin Williamson. If he’s supposed to be so clever, then why is the movie so ordinary? A particularly bland entry in the “psycho killer” genre, I spent hours trying to find something distinctive to say about it, but in vain… At least, the (mostly-teenaged) audience I was with regularly snickered and laughed out loud at moments that were supposed to be scary or tender. Whether this reflects the unredeemable cynicism of our generation or good movie-watching sense remains an exercise to the reader.

Brute Orbits, George Zebrowski

Harper Prism, 1998, 222 pages, C$33.50 hc, ISBN 0-06-105026-1

TITLE: Brute Orbits

AUTHOR: George Zebrowski

STATUS: Hardcover Science-Fiction Novel

SUMMARY OF PREMISE: In the near future, Earth has successfully brought several asteroids to Earth orbit in order to mine them. Once the precious core has been extracted, some bright guy has the idea of transforming them in habitats, stuffing them with prisoners and sending them away in ten, twenty, thirty-year long orbits before they come back to Earth. Of course, it’s not that difficult to make a “mistake” and send the asteroid for an even longer orbit.

SUMMARY OF PLOT: There isn’t much of a plot. The massive space and time frame covered makes it difficult to have a unique protagonist. So Brute Orbits follows a few prisoners and historians, each vignette trying to tell a facet of the story. In one series of linked chapters, a super-intelligent prisoner tries to manage his micro-society of fellow criminals as they head away from Earth. In another, a political dissident talks with other exiles until the asteroid’s indoor lights go dark. In another, a historian tries to piece together the history of the Rocks. These are pretty much the only three sustained stories; other passages feature characters we seldom see again.

SUMMARY OF THEMES: Zebrowski here attempts to use his premise as a vehicle for argumentation about the judicial system’s corrective branch. As with any work dealing at length with criminality from a serious perspective, Brute Orbits exhibits a dark and violent viewpoint. Unlike most of these other works, however, Brute Orbits strongly suggests that not all prisoners deserve their fate and that society -not to mention more specifically society’s elites- ultimately define and causes crime.

SUMMARY OF VIRTUES: Brute Orbits‘s premise is exceedingly clever, forcing us to contemplate virtually escape-proof prisons, and the realization of a “just throw’em away together” social phantasm. Zebrowski’s writing is also, with a few exception, quite readable. Some good scenes. Good grasp of the hard sciences. His argument that society is the biggest criminal is a provocative systemic self-examination on the level that SF does at its best.

SUMMARY OF FLAWS: Though other readers might disagree to the “flaw” designation, the “vignette-sequence” structure of Brute Orbits has its disadvantages. Probably the most important of those is the lack of attachment to characters. Without those, Zebrowski is hard-pressed to illustrate his ideas convincingly. Not only does Brute Orbits reads like a fix-up, but the stories of the fix-up are all interleaved with each other. It’s not only difficult to read as a whole, but doesn’t really convince. Unfortunately, Zebrowski’s charge that society-is-criminal really needed a good dose of sympathy and credibility. This is lacking.

VERDICT: Not worth buying in hardcover, and a risky choice in paperback given the wealth of competent storytelling out there. Readers intrigued by the strong premise should consider borrowing from the local library.