Book Review

Neptune’s Brood, Charles Stross

Neptune’s Brood, Charles Stross

Ace, 2013, 336 pages, C$27.50 hc, ISBN 978-0-425-25677-0

I grinned when I heard that Charles Stross’s Neptune’s Brood earned itself a Hugo nomination: Stross’s brand of densely-packed imaginative Science Fiction may not be to everyone’s liking, but it’s certainly a favorite flavor of mine. Stross is able to meld SF’s traditional core strengths with contemporary social sensibilities to produce SF that’s both recognizably in-genre, while reaching out to integrate new ideas and social inclusiveness. I welcome any excuse to read his books, especially when they take the form of a Hugo nomination.

Loosely set thousands of years after the events of Saturn’s Children, Neptune’s Brood features a vast post-human diaspora settled on multiple worlds. Despite the lack of faster-than-light travel, technology has progressed sufficiently that people can be beamed from star to star… as long as the required infrastructure is in place. But even without the troublesome aspects of sending meat-flesh across interstellar distances, space colonization is hard. As Stross explains in an enjoyable series of explanatory passages, building a colony from scratch requires a ruinously expensive starship, dozens/hundreds of years of hard work in building laser transmission and reception infrastructure, and thousands of very specialized people working together. There’s no way to do that without incurring astonishing amounts of debt, and how do you do that across interstellar distances and years of separation?

The solution, ingeniously posits Stross, is to develop “slow” money, algorithmically created in much the same way emerging digital currencies currently are, that are not subject to the same kind of fluctuations as “fast” money used in day-to-day transaction. Slow money, of course, is different from fast money: a single slow dollar converted to fast money is enough to make an individual rich for years.

Having built a space opera on a physically-accurate economic framework, Stross then proceeds to deliver on of his usual thriller yarns, featuring an endearing heroine specializing in the history of frauds and on the trail of a massive financial con. Despite the heavy economic content, Neptune’s Brood is heavy on thriller plot mechanics, traditional SF devices and amusing set-pieces: By mid-book, we’ve been hanging with skeletal bots, zombie queens, space pirates and genetically-modified mermaids. Stross is clearly having fun, and it’s this blend of economic/futuristic speculation and out-and-out comic thriller sensibilities that make Neptune’s Brood so enjoyable.

Seasoned SF readers will, as usual, find much to like here. Stross understands genre SF completely and fluently plays with typical concepts, subverting a few of them and faithfully upholding others. The way Stross manages to present a vivid interstellar civilization despite the limitations of STL is intriguing (even though he still had to get rid of unmodified humans to do so), and the conceptual economic model her proposes is the kind of work other authors will, or should, adopt as part of their far-future toolbox. Anyone looking for SF speculation probably won’t find any better book this year.

As a long-time Stross reader who often peers over the author’s keyboard as he reveals aborted projects and odd sources of inspiration, it’s good to see his “Space Pirates of KPMG” pitch resurface after being deep-sixed as a sequel to Iron Sunrise. Neptune’s Brood will feel very comfortable to anyone who loves Stross’ far-future speculations (the indebtness to Saturn’s Children and the Eschaton series is obvious, but there’s shadows of Accelerando and Glasshouse in here too, and the criminal/financial theme finds resonance with the Halting State / Rule 34 universe as well.)

I’m not completely blind to the novel’s faults. It’s part of the point of Neptune’s Brood that travel between systems is slow and expensive, but that limits the amount of space-opera scenery we get to see during the trip. There’s also a certain familiarity to the caper-and-thriller plotting that undercuts the originality of the premise; I recall having some of the same reactions upon Saturn Children‘s release. Finally, perhaps more importantly, the narrative ends more abruptly than expected, with nary a denouement to release readers after the climactic so-there.

But those are relatively small quibbles in a strong SF novel in the classical mold, with enough speculation to keep core-SF readers happy, and enough thrilling action to satisfy adventure-minded readers. Stross remains at the top of the SF game and my reaction to Neptune’s Brood reaffirms why I should always make time on my schedule for his novels even as my leisure time has shrunk.

Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie

Orbit, 2013, 410 pages, C$17,00 pb, ISBN 978-0316246620

I went into this novel with the best of intentions.

For one thing, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice has, in the first few months of 2014, accumulated an impressive shelf of honors. In between winning the Nebula, BSFA, Clarke, Locus (First novel) awards and getting a much-remarked Hugo nomination, Ancillary Justice has become one of the best-received debut novels in the SF field since Paulo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. As someone who’s always on the lookout for the hot new SF writers, Ancillary Justice earned a spot on my to-read list early on, and cemented its acquisition the moment the Hugo nominations were announced.

So, to repeat: I went into this novel with the best of intentions.

And to be clear: I think Ancillary Justice is a good novel.

Thus, the above being said: Wow, I had a hard time getting into the book.

Ancillary Justice is billed as a far-future space opera, and that’s eventually correct. It involves a future in which a vast empire has conquered a good chunk of the galaxy, via AIs being incarnated in repurposed human bodies (the titular ancillaries), a leader splitting herself into multiple instance in order to rule the empire, fancy weapons, big starships, space stations and the rest of the hardware that is expected of space operas.

But it takes a while to get there: As Ancillary Justice opens, we’re stuck with the lead character on a cold isolated planet, nursing an old acquaintance back to health after a coincidental encounter. Flashbacks to nearly twenty years earlier progressively fill in the back-story of our protagonist, an AI fragment seeking justice for what happened to her and her ship.

So it goes for a long time. A really long time. I’m not the dedicated omnivorous reader I used to be, and novels that don’t immediately grab me are now far more of an annoyance than they were before. But even by my previous standards, Ancillary Justice takes forever to develop into something that I’d consider interesting, and even longer to become compelling reading. By the end of the novel I was all-in, but it felt as if much of the novel was build-up while waiting for something to happen.

I’m not going to pretend that this personal reaction should be considered a universal assessment. I know, for instance, that I’m really not interested in the kind of gender-recoding that Leckie commits to in the early pages of the novel (the protagonist can’t easily distinguish between genders and doesn’t really see the difference, so everyone is labelled female), and I have a similar lack of interest into many of the elements (songs, multiple temporal strands, fine prose, etc.) that give personality to the novel. Much of what specifically attracted other reviewers to this book were lost on me. I had to wait 40% in the novel before the back-story became clear, and 80% until the present-day action became earnestly interesting. I suspect that this may make me a bad reader; I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not reading with the same concentration than I used to. I am, mind you, a bit surprised at the tenor of the acclaim that the book received: Pacing issues aside, Ancillary Justice makes competent use of well-worn tropes, but I found the idea density to be a bit on the low side for space operas.

Thus I come away from Ancillary Justice with the sense of having done my duty as a genre SF reader, but not as having had any fun. This doesn’t make Ancillary Justice any less of a success as the novel it meant to be: it’s written competently, put together with skill and is a self-assured contemporary representative of the genre. It’s not a bad nominee for the Hugo. But as for its impact, I remain underwhelmed.

Ah well; you can’t love them all.

[August 2014: Ancillary Justice has won the Hugo Award, sweeping whatever awards remained to be swept.]

Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card

Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card

Tor, 2009 revised reprint of 1986 original, 416 pages, $C9.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0812550757

Having re-read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game shortly after seeing its film adaptation, I was struck by an irresistible impulse to re-read the sequel as well: I would seldom have the original fresher in mind, and it would allow me to revisit Speaker for the Dead much as I revisited Ender’s Game, twenty years after first reading it.

Looking at my 1994 notes about both novels, it’s clear that nineteen-year-old-me liked Ender’s Game a great deal better than Speaker for the Dead. Despite being directly linked, they are very different novels. In Ender’s Game, protagonist Andrew Wiggin is a teenager struggling to make it through a series of desperate battles. In Speaker for the Dead, he’s a mid-thirties man trying to atone for his early crimes by living a life of peace and civility. The age-gap between this older Wiggin and me now is almost the same as the one between Ender’s Game Wiggin and me twenty years ago. As a result, I’m not really surprised to find out that I liked Speaker for the Dead a lot more now than I did then.

It’s also easier, in some ways, to figure out why Speaker for the Dead was such a hit back in the mid-eighties: It features a blend of far-future extrapolation, clean prose, exceptional characters, anthropologic mystery, a world-weary hero, galactic portents, as well as an exploration of colonialism, scientific ethics and the consequences of abuse. I’m not going to pretend that the mid-eighties were a particularly innocent and naïve era, but I will suggest that a number of those themes had not yet been explored then in the way Card dares tackle them, with heartfelt earnestness or blatant emotional manipulation. Looking at the field back then (which was reeling from the cyberpunk wave and perhaps looking for a bit more humanity in its flagship titles), it’s easier to understand why Speaker for the Dead would go on to sweep all awards and earn a place as one of the decade’s defining SF novels… even if it hasn’t aged particularly well.

But before digging into the novel’s problems, let’s spend at least a paragraph praising what works. Because there’s a lot of stuff that’s actually quite good here: Card may have earned a disgraceful reputation as a right-wing homophobe since his eighties heydays, but he’s a skilled writer, and at its best Speaker for the Dead can indulge into easily-digestible exposition (such as when a AI’s inner workings are explained), emotionally resonant sequences (such as when our protagonist does speak for the dead), intricate science-fictional mysteries (such as the riddle behind the alien lifecycle that so baffles the characters) and the technical challenge of spinning a tale with multiple family members and twice as many other characters. Speaker of the Dead takes place in a future with hundreds of planets separated by slower-than-light travel but united by instant communications, and it doesn’t take much more than a few consequent extrapolations to make core-SF fans giddy. The prose is easily digestible, Ender is an exceptional character (and as much as teenager-me wanted to be Ender’s Game tactically brilliant Ender, thirty-something-me would like to have Speaker for the Dead Ender‘s gift for empathy and effortless soothing.) and you can recognize how the novel hits many of SF’s power chords.

But one thing that thirtysomething-me does quite a bit better than teenage-me is question core assumptions of a novel. I don’t suspend my incredulity so easily, and I’m willing to suggest that contemporary Science Fiction is quite a bit better at building a more credible model of reality compared to eighties-era SF. Where I’m going with these caveats is how flawed Speaker for the Dead can feel once you apply more complex models of reality. So it does tackle colonialism –but in ways that seem incredibly manufactured, always from the oh-so-repentant perspective of the white colonial rather than the colonized (a crucial difference now far more common.) (And I’m not even going to talk about the ridiculous passage in which all aliens really do is aspire to starflight, and will flip over themselves if they don’t.) It does tackle victimization by domestic violence, but feels compelled to blame the victim a little bit for not caring enough about the aggressor. It does feature scientists at work… except that a quick look at what they do suggests that they have no understanding whatsoever of the way science truly works. (Or, perhaps more appropriately, not as much that they themselves aren’t very good scientists, but that the entire scientific establishment of the book’s universe is considerably dumber than one of today’s least-competent review boards.) And for all of the wizzy-bang flavor of its universe separated by distance and time, this society three thousand years in the future feels almost too comfortably contemporary –down to a number of planets settled by people speaking today’s languages apparently unchanged. And the inconsistencies… I’m somehow led to believe that Ender has never turned off his link with his AI super-friend Jane even as it’s suggested early during the novel that she’s got to sit around and wait decades every time he takes an STL star-ship trip. The instant he does turn off the link in real-time –blammo, instant unfriending. And how about the ableism late in the novel…? Or, heck, the very strange aside about Calvinism?

Oh, I’m not going to thoroughly tackle the novel’s flaws in order (If you want to, I would rather suggest Wil Wildman’s incisive and hilarious series of posts.) But once you start poking and prodding at Speaker for the Dead‘s assumptions, a lot falls apart. And if something hasn’t really aged well in thirty years, it may be primarily Speaker for the Dead‘s almost smarmy self-assurance that it knows best. Since then, we’ve seen far better examples, writing from better-informed perspectives and achieving far more nuanced goals.

(It’s also worth mentioning as a flaw that, for all of the historical acclaim that Speaker for the Dead got, it leads straight to third volume Xenocide, which earned far fewer friends either then or since. No, I won’t be pursuing my re-reading odyssey any further.)

So it is that Speaker for the Dead nowadays feels far less formidable than it did upon publication. Distance isn’t everything: I believe that the novel contains a number of unforgiveable shortcuts that make it now far less palatable to better-informed, more world-aware audiences. It’s still worth a read for those who are interested in the historical evolution of SF, but I’m not sure that the novel is worth just an entertainment read today –too many flaws, too many vexing presumptions, too many annoyances to fix. But that’s what revisiting books is for –sometimes they improve, and sometimes they don’t.

The Wolf of Wall Street and Catching the Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort

The Wolf of Wall Street and Catching the Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort

Bantam, 2008 reprint of 2007 original, 528 pages, $C19.95 tp, ISBN 978-0553384772

Bantam, 2011, 480 pages, $18.00 tp, ISBN 978-0553385441

After watching Martin Scorsese’s hilariously excessive biographical movie The Wolf of Wall Street, it’s tough not to reach for the two books that inspired it all. Legendarily corrupt Wall Street bad-boy Jordan Belfort loves few things more than self-promotion, and it it’s in light that the movie serves as the trailer for the books that seek nothing more than tell us how special Belfort was and continues to be.

And if the preceding paragraph has a bit of a skeptical edge, keep in mind that enjoyment is not a close relative of credulity.

The basics of Belfort’s story are these: He’s a gifted young man who, somewhere in the late eighties, realized that brokers made money out of stock transaction commissions, and that nothing, legally speaking, forced brokers to have their client’s best interest at heart. Once you couple that flash of evil genius with top-notch sales techniques, it’s a relatively easy step to building a company built on selling sub-standard stock to wealthy clients rather than enriching said clients. From there, pump-and-dump schemes are only a short ethical distance away. Profits from the sales accruing to the owner of the firm, you can see how Belfort allegedly made something like forty-nine million dollars on his best year. That, in turn, enabled Belford to indulge in an unchecked succession of drugs (most notably, but not exclusively, qualuudes), prostitutes, lavish decoration and increasingly ludicrous vehicular damages. (damaging cars you can understand, crashing helicopters you can imagine, but losing a yacht is mind-boggling enough.)

But chances are that you’ve seen the movie (a solid box-office performer and a critical favourite) and already know all of this. The point being that if the film is a heightened version of reality, the books aren’t necessarily documentary material. Oh, sure, Belfort has a much harder time in the books than in the film: Scorsese and his screenwriter Terence Winter voluntarily messed with the usual bad-boy-gets-comeuppance narrative to maximize the fun-and-game phase and to gloss over the arrest-and-jail time. Nearly all of Catching the Wolf of Wall Street is spent somewhere inside the judicial system, awaiting trial or experiencing prison. Belfort may have lost his money in both versions of the tale, but the books are quite a bit harsher in pointing out the personal toll of seeing his marriage break up, and feeling his kids grow away from him.

This being said, let’s not minimize the can-you-top-this?! tall-tale quality to both the film and the books. Belfort is a born raconteur, and his life of incredible anecdotes is carefully heightened through engaging narration, carefully chosen details and melodramatic inner monologues. As a Hunter S Thompson fan, I was amused for find a definite Thompsonesque resonance in Belfort’s world-weary omniscient description of drugs and their effects. The books are frequently hilarious and always fascinating, taking us in places where the average middle-class reader will never be able to afford. Hearing Belfort complain about the million-dollars decoration of his former house is… special.

I keep discussing “the books” as if they were one unit, and there’s a reason for that: While the first book is easily better (newer, funnier, fresher) than the second (which does spend a lot of time re-hashing the same life), it’s telling that the film draws inspiration from both, using the more detailed explanations when available. The first book is certainly more entertaining, as it (like the movie) spends very little time detailing the judicial proceedings against Belfort. But the second book uses the structure of a series of interrogations to double back and fill a few holes in Belfort’s life, from his early experiences in business to more ludicrous stories of drug abuse. There is some evidence in the author’s acknowledgements of both books to suggest that Belfort initially wrote a very long narrative that was then re-structured in two separate volumes –the best advice is to read them both back-to-back for the best experience, despite the strong repetitiveness.

But reading even one of the two books raises a really vexing question: Is Belfort truly sorry for defrauding so much money, of is he sorry he got caught? There’s no doubt that Belfort believes himself to be exceptional (in fact, there’s little doubt that, lack of ethics put aside, he is exceptional in remarkable ways), and the overblown quality of his narrative can’t escape a dastardly “Ain’t I a stinker?” twinkle whenever he tells us about his worst moments. Still, some of his excuses in the book feel forced, the kind of things you read in depositions and probation requests and other official documents in which repentance is socially expected. Belfort may truly regret the actions that led him to so much personal turmoil, but the gleeful anecdotes in the books suggest that he wouldn’t change much save for the parts that got him indicted.

As a reader, that leaves us with the mixed feelings of being entertained and repulsed at the same time. Wolves are beautiful but have no place in civilized society, and if Belfort’s books can truly teach us something, it’s a glimpse into the minds of those dangerous high-fliers who think their exceptionalism is an excuse to grab what they can.

Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card

Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card

Berkley, 1994 paperback revised edition of 1985 original, 352 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-812-55070-2

It’s hard to overstate the prominence of Ender’s Game as one of the major novel in the Science Fiction genre. It swept the major awards of the field upon initial publication in 1985 and hasn’t stopped selling in the three decades since then. It’s one of those rare SF novels that nearly every serious fan has read, and it has found a substantial audience outside the genre. It’s a perennial favourite of SF academics, a part of the US Army course curriculum and has been translated in nearly all major languages. Now that it’s a movie, it’s likely to replace Dune as my perennial favourite for demonstrating the reach of media SF compared to written SF. (As in: In any given room, more people will have seen the averagely-successful movie than will have read one of the best-selling SF novels of all time.)

And with that success has come a substantial backlash, reinforced by the widely held perception among the most progressive wing of SF fandom that author Orson Scott Card has since become a conservative right-wing homophobe. (Vulture has a nice timeline of the controversy.) There is now a vigorous number of essays criticizing the novel from various points of view: John Kessel’s Creating the Innocent Killer remains a landmark, but for a comprehensive look at the various self-contradictions and outright puzzlers of the novel, I can’t recommend highly enough Will Wildman’s vastly entertaining and insightful Ender’s Game read-through. And I’m sure that there’s plenty of accumulated wisdom somewhere in the 7643 reviews that the book (merely 179 of them one-star) has accumulated so far on Amazon.

I first read Ender’s Game as an older teenager, and it’s fair to say that almost exactly twenty years later, I don’t quite have the same perspective on it than I did back then. I picked up the book shortly after seeing the movie adaptation, and unlike my mid-nineties read-through, I immediately started second-guessing the basic premise of the novel. Ender’s Game appeals to smart teenagers because it tells them that they are special, and so are inevitably ostracised by normal people, and that being so exceptional gives you the right to kill your tormentors as long as you feel bad about it. This is the kind of power-fantasy that explains the book’s success… and that seems toxic once you graduate from high school. Given my life’s journey so far, I’m increasingly dubious (and headed toward repulsion) of fantasies of exceptionalism. The bedrock of Ender’s Game plot machinations are that the end justify the means, that it’s OK to systematically abuse a boy if he’s the only chance that humanity has at surviving. But that only works as a narrative conceit. The real world doesn’t require such harsh premises: smart people are everywhere, and it’s hard to imagine a situation where a single exceptional person could save the world. In reality, many people are suitable for even the toughest assignments, and they usually succeed because of systems, teams, procedures and support mechanism that do much to distribute expertise among capable groups. (Yes, I work in an office.) Exceptionalism is a sure road to exceptions and abuses of power. We don’t need exceptional people to save us: We need structures so that we never get in a situation where we need saving by exceptional people.

But never mind that for a moment: Broad ideological objections aside, Ender’s Game does remain a highly enjoyable read. Card has a gift for prose narration that remains easily readable while hitting ambitious emotional targets. His handling of incluing is as good as it gets (as you can see from the use of technology that is never explicitly explained, but fits the plot naturally while surviving twenty years of innovations) and he manages to render a compelling internal monologue for his characters. As strange as some of the novel’s plot points can be, their handling feels right –the sequences where the teams of soldiers-in-training go in combat are exhilarating, and there is some strong emotional material in the conversations that Ender has with his sister.

It’s also worth underlining how ironic the novel seems to be from beginning to end. Ender may be a savior of humanity, but he needs to be made alien to everyone in order to do so. His greatest triumph remains his biggest mistake, and for an entire novel thirsting for xenocide, Ender’s Game seems positively devastated when humans triumph over their opponents. Ironies pile upon each other in a rich blend that makes it hard to dismiss the entire novel as being much of this and some of that.

Still, Card’s contemporary reputation as a right-wing homophobe being what it is, it’s amusing to spot in a 1985 novel the various kernels of what would later define him among a certain audience.

  • Sexism? Try the bit where girls are said to be less aggressive than boys due to centuries of evolution:

“All boys?” “A few girls. They don’t often pass the tests to get in. Too many centuries of evolution are working against them. (Chapter 3)

  • Jingoism/religionism/birthism? I was gobsmacked by the bit where the French (in their “arrogant separatism” ) are bashed for daring to speak French rather than “common” language –in the same novel where the Poles are praised for chafing against anti-Catholicism (and, more importantly, anti-birth-limits) restrictions. Have a look at this:

His name, Ender quickly learned, was Bernard. He spoke his own name with a French accent, since the French, with their arrogant Separatism, insisted that the teaching of Standard not begin until the age of four, when the French language patterns were already set. (Chapter 5)

versus

Your father was baptized with the name John Paul Wieczorek. Catholic. The seventh of nine children. (…) Your father denies his Polish ancestry, since Poland is still a noncompliant nation, and under international sanction because of it. (…) [Your parents] haven’t really given up their religion. They look at you and see you as a badge of pride, because they were able to circumvent the law and have a Third. (Chapter 3)

  • Zionism? There’s a few paragraphs dedicated at explaining why Jews make the best generals (and this despite a Jewish character called by a slur and demonstrated to be not very good at the stuff.): it starts with

“Since the I.F. was formed the Strategos of the military forces had always been a Jew. There was a myth that Jewish generals didn’t lose wars. And so far it was still true.” (Chapter 8).

  • Racism? There’s a bit where the kids trade the n-word and then laugh about slavery, which ends with

“Alai grinned. “My grandpa would’ve killed you for that.”
“My great great grandpa would have sold him first,”
. (Chapter 6)

[This bit apparently isn’t to be found in the latest editions of the novel.]

But there’s something even more amazing (not) to be found in a contemporary reading of Ender’s Game: For an author often accused of homophobia, you’ll find quite the opposite in the novel. In fact, it doesn’t take much imagination to read protagonist Ender as a gay, and the events showing him his true preferences in bonding with other boys while having ambivalent non-romantic feelings about girls. In a better universe, a slightly-revised version of Ender’s Game has become beloved for showing a positive role model for young gay teenagers. In this world, oh well. Moving on.

Perhaps my biggest reaction to a second reading fifteen years later is how rough the novel can feel at times. The world-building is a bit shaky around the edges, the plots points handled more arbitrarily than needed. A close reading of the text reveals astonishing contradictions, and push buttons that readers may develop later in life. I still think (as documented in my big list of Alternate Hugo Winners) that Ender’s Game is one of the novels from 1985 that everyone should read, but I now have to temper this assessment with a few warnings (and maybe move Sterling’s Schismatrix to the top spot). This, too, feels like the passing of the years more than any change in the novel itself: I’m not the same reader than I was twenty years ago, and my then-tendency to see it through uncritical fannish lenses has been eroded away (and even more so lately that I’m reading far less SF and am so not as completely immersed in its privileged assumptions.) So it goes; much like the plot of Ender’s Game requires an innocent ready to be molded into a destroyer of worlds, it strikes me more than ever that Ender’s Game is deliberately optimised for less-jaded readers. Which may very well explain its massive appeal: there are far more innocents out there than stone-cold readers.

[April 2014: Reasoning that I’d never get as good an opportunity while the original was still fresh in my mind, I re-read “parallax” novel Ender’s Shadow, which explores the same rough timeline from the perspective of ‘”Bean”, a minor character in Ender’s Game. Here we see Card’s attempts to patch the holes in Ender’s Game with fifteen years’ insight and second guesses about the first novel. Nearly every dicey plot development in Game is explained in Shadow as part of a masterful plan by someone even smarter than Ender. It often reaches ludicrous levels of disbelief (especially once you factor in Bean’s age) but there is some compelling material here and there, especially in getting another, better hit of the same kind of excitement about Battle School training. There are some major contrasts between both novels, though, and some of the issues in the previous novel simply can’t be explained away. My advice: If you’re going to read Ender’s Game, have a quick look through Ender’s Shadow while events are still fresh in your mind. Browse quickly over the parts with Sister Carlotta and Achilles, and focus on the parallax view of Ender as from other viewpoints.]

Inventory, The Onion A.V. Club

Inventory, The Onion A.V. Club

Scribner, 2009, 256 pages, C$24.00 tp, ISBN 978-1-4165-9473-4

Seven ideas gleaned from reading the Onion’s A.V. Club Inventory

  1. The web’s lowest-common-denominator excuse for content has finally crossed over to the paper world. Oh, I jest, but only barely: For one thing, books of lists have a long pedigree (From David Wallechinsky’s The Book of Lists series to David Letterman’s books of Top Ten Lists). For another, while Buzzfeed.com has recently perfected the idea of using lists as cheap ways to grab viewer eyeballs on the web to a science, the folks at The A.V. Club have been at it for years, delivering weekly lists of pop-culture trivia. Inventory is a collection of their best lists, along with some original material all wrapped up in pleasant page design.
  2. Pop culture is hopelessly tribal: Since The A.V. Club is entirely dedicated to pop-culture, expect the lists in Inventory to focus on movies, TV, music or (more rarely) books or video games. Of course, since the lists delve deep into minutiae, their interest is likely to be proportional to your own knowledge of the area. I’m generally knowledgeable regarding movies, a bit less so regarding books or video games, and sort-of-lost in TV and music (it’s a vast universe, and one can’t be expected to know everything) and my interest in the lists was generally proportional to my expertise in the area. Some of the music stuff was dreary and pointless enough to make me skip to the next list; other lists about movies, video games or books felt far more interesting. Inventory is a buffet; take what you want.
  3. At their dullest, lists are wastes of meaningless trivia: Especially if you have no perceptible interest in the central focal point of the list. “Songs about taking the bus?” Meh. “Songs under 3 minutes.” Really? I don’t need a list of movies about specific things when I can just go get one from IMDB.com
  4. At their best, lists are a decent way to chunk a larger thesis: Beyond trivia, well-conceived lists become something else: Some of the most remarkable material in Inventory end up building an argument through an accumulation of examples, or a categorization of the same. “Approaches to DVD commentary” isn’t a list as much as a systematic breakdown of how directors approach their DVD commentaries. “Videogames that outraged a nation” paints a capsule history of how videogames pushed the envelope throughout their history. And “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” practically codifies a trope that illuminates a certain kind of self-indulgent filmmaking. All a far more satisfying than listing songs about public transit.
  5. Talking about Pop Culture is a waste of time… unless you enjoy it: Reading Inventory, it’s hard to avoid the ghastly realization that the book is essentially useless. That lists of trivia are useless. That pop-culture itself is useless. Why, then, does it compel us so much? Perhaps because, as the very name implies, that pop-culture is the glue that binds us to our own self-chosen subcultures. Discussing shared interest is fun, not for the things themselves but for the sentiment of belonging to a group with someone else. Inventory is clearly meant for the cyber-fluent quasi-hipster: The “Heaven/Hell” bits clearly identify the audience as young(ish), urban, progressive and multi-media literate –although classifying Coke as Heaven and Pepsi as Hell is a good way to get on my list of pretentious posers. In keeping with the “Inventory is a buffet” thesis, the most interesting pieces of the book are those that most closely align with our own projected persona.
  6. Parents of toddlers trying to get back into reading could do worse than beginning with a book of lists: Let’s face it: toddlers require less attention than infants, but they don’t like to be ignored for more than a few minutes. A book of list, easily digestible in chunks of 2-3 minutes, is ideal for reading in such circumstances: Even trivial interruptions don’t feel as annoying when they happen on the eighth item of a meaningless list. Plus you can hand over the bookmark for the toddler to play with and not feel too concerned about losing one’s place in the book.
  7. There’s not need to go all the way to a top-10 when you’ve said enough.
Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder

Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder

Michael Wiese, 2005, 195 pages, ISBN 978-1932907001

If you feel that most Hollywood movies these days all feel the same, well, you may have a point: As a recent Slate article explained, writing for blockbuster movies has become a highly structured process and many writers are following the “beat sheet” as explained in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!

Hollywood, as you may guess, hasn’t waited until recently to codify script-writing. Syd Field’s classic Screenwriting has been telling budding screenwriters what to do since the late seventies (Dared by a friend to “do better”, I wrote two screenplays in the mid-nineties faithfully following Field’s formula), and Robert McKee has been giving his story seminar since the early eighties, leading to a massive book version of his theory, Story, in 1997. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: in addition to stacks of how-to manuals on bookstore shelves, screenplay-writing seminars are nearly everywhere in Hollywood. Most of them champion strong structure, admonish writers to show rather than tell, emphasise the importance of sympathetic characters and try to impress upon novices the importance of theme.

But Blake Snyder’s book manages to stand out even in a saturated environment. For one thing, Snyder (unlike Field or McKee) was a working Hollywood screenwriter prior to his death in 2009. His filmed output is admittedly meager (a largely-forgotten 1994 kid’s comedy called Blank Check, and the widely-derided 1992 Sylvester Stallone vehicle Stop! Or my Mom Will Shoot!) but Snyder reliably sold his own original scripts to studios during the nineties “spec craze”. Not coincidentally, Save the Cat! is focused on a single thing: writing a script that sells. Everything else is secondary.

It also means that everything else is slave to the “write to sell” mantra. In Snyder’s world, there are no surer arbitrators of taste than studio checks and box-office numbers. Save the Cat! memorably goads idealistic cinephiles by dismissing Memento out of hand –the oh-so-wonderful writing gimmick of the film being irrelevant given how little money the film made. (Of course, savvy cinephiles will be prompt to point out that Memento not only made a profitable twenty-five million dollars out of a nine million production budget, but also it led writer Christopher Nolan to a career that now includes four movies having grossed more than two hundred million dollars. But, you know: that’s the art of trolling film nerds.) Snyder, writing from his perspective inside the red-carpeted ivory towers of Hollywood, has little use for art when structure and cute epigrams can do the job.

Still, it’s easy to be sucked into Save the Cat!‘s focused charm. Snyder writes using more recent examples than either Field or McKee (in a strange coincidence, it even discusses an in-development film, Ride Along, that finally debuted on screens at the same time I was reading the book, nearly ten years after publication), and can rely on a long personal history within Hollywood to give anecdotes and glimpses at the writer’s life. It’s redundant to say that it’s written to sell itself: even non-screenwriters who just want to learn more about the business of writing movies will be entertained by the entire book.

For those cinephiles not yet ready to let go of the same story-driven idealism that led to oddballs such as Memento, it’s worth wondering if Snyder’s book represents a distillation of all that is wrong with Hollywood. The Slate article mentioned above amply demonstrates what contemporary filmgoers already know: blockbuster screenwriting has become even more formulaic as of late, and Snyder’s “beat sheet”, which specifies the script page on which twists and turns should occur (don’t worry, it’s not new: Field’s theory pretty much had the same prescriptions for acts) is an easy way to sell a story to risk-averse studio executives.

But as a movie reviewer, I’m not completely outraged by the thought that nearly everyone in Hollywood is using the methods suggested by Blake and others. For one thing, originality is overrated: execution is what matters, and the modern blockbuster is often far more interesting for its action-driven set-pieces than for its overall plot. For another, the structure found in Save the Cat! is a reliable way to ensure at least a minimal level of quality.

Oh, stop laughing: the beat-sheet structure provides a structural safety net for screenwriters, and while it may process every single premise into a conveyor-belt of similitude, it often prevents far worse material from making it on-screen. I may not share the current craze for all things adapted-from-comic-books, but the truth is that nerd-favorite properties cost a lot of money to film, and if banging out a script according to Blake Snyder’s beat sheet is the way to green-light risky prospects, then we’re better off with competent scripts for actual movies rather than perfect scripts for non-existent films. Furthermore, one suspects that conventional success finances artistic risk-taking. Directors use the profits of a franchise entry to get a green-light for their passion projects, studios take the profits from one comics-adapted blockbuster to finance those mid-budgeted original screenplay. The Dark Knight directly leads to Inception, and we get two awesome films out of the deal.

So it is that despite Snyder’s monomaniacal drive to sell, I’m not quite ready to dismiss his methods out of hand: Save the Cat! offers a revealing look beyond the scenes of Tinseltown, and I got quite a kick out of it as a film reviewer… even though for a while I may be a touch too competent at spotting the story beats as I see movies unspool. But the magic of movies are that they work even if you know everything about how they were made. So it is that if Hollywood wants to use story scaffolding such as Save the Cat!, then let them knock themselves out: I’ll be waiting to see if the result is worth the trouble no matter the path it took to get there.

500 Essential Cult Books: The Ultimate Guide, Gina McKinnon

500 Essential Cult Books: The Ultimate Guide, Gina McKinnon

Sterling, 2010, 384 pages, C$20.00 pb, ISBN 978-1-402-77485-0

If you’ve come here for a detailed, well-argued review of Gina McKinnon’s 500 Essential Cult Books: The Ultimate Guide, then prepare to be disappointed, because I’m going to use the book as an excuse to blather on The State of My Reading Habits circa 2013.

A bit of a recap may be in order: For most of my life, I’ve considered myself at the far end of the reading bell-curve.  I scoffed at those 50-books-a-year blogging challenges: At my peak, I could knock off between 250 and 300 books per year and review a hundred of them thanks to a quiet single life and a lengthy bus commute.  That gradually stopped once I got married, became a father and moved dramatically closer to my place of employment.  As a result, I’m going to close 2013 having read fewer than thirty books –most of those late at night, on a handheld device while sitting in the smallest room of the house.  Things change!

So you can imagine my mixture of delight and bitterness at receiving, as a birthday gift from my sister, 500 Essential Cult Books: The Ultimate Guide.  Oh sure: Rub some salt in those wounds, won’t you?  I’m already complaining that I read a tenth of what I read before, and now here are more reading suggestions?  Well-played, sister.  Enjoy your pre-mothering days.  We’ll talk again in a few years.

My first impulse was to throw the book into one of the dozen boxes where my “to-read” pile has come to roost following The Great Household Move of 2013.  But 500 Essential Cult Books had a few things going for it: An attractive visual design, bite-sized text snippets describing the titular 500 books, and an appeal to my inner bean-counter: How many of those essential cult books had I actually read?  (As it turns out: roughly 111, although I’d like to claim half-credit for roughly 30 more due to having either seen the movie or read abridged versions.)

So I packed the book in my work bag and resolved to read a little bit of it every day at the office while my workstation was booting up, or during those inevitable downtimes where I was stuck between a few minutes to waste and a good book at hand.  It took two months to make it from one cover to another, but I did… and that feels like a victory in itself.

The most obvious comment about 500 Essential Cult Books is that McKinnon’s definition of a cult book is quite expansive, in both the best and not-so-best sense.  If you’re particularly picky, describing The Da Vinci Code as a cult book will strike you as nonsense: How can a massively successful book, mainly read by people who hadn’t picked up a suspense novel in years, even qualify as cult?  But McKinnon’s argument is solid: the novel has inspired an unusual devotion amongst its readership, leading to countless spinoff books, tourism tours and passionate commentary –not to mention the movie adaptation.  (As an aside; a significant proportion of those 500 cult books have been adapted to the big screen –a clear indicator of a readership passionate enough to risk the vagaries of moviemaking) So it goes –if you prefer, call McKinnon’s book “500 books that inspired a lot of people” and drop the “cult” as inconvenient shorthand.

Otherwise, there’s a lot to like about the breadth and variety of the books that McKinnon has selected.  She gets to pick works originally written in other languages than English, has no trouble mixing fiction and non-fiction, seems to enjoy graphic novels as much as I do, and subdivides the book in categories (“Incredible Worlds”, “Thrilling Tales”, “Inner Spirits”) that are more suggestive than restrictive.  Each book gets a plot summary, a critical commentary and further reading suggestions, and if it all feels a bit short, her list of 500 titles is broad enough to reach anyone and everyone.  If nothing else, it’s a far more entertaining set of “read this” recommendations than yet another attempt at canon-making: McKinnon is positively joyous in suggesting the kind of oddball and unusual titles that earn devotion rather than mere respect.  So it is that as I made my way through the book, my nods at “yeah, I read that and it deserves to be on the list” were followed by a number of “Oooh, that sounds interesting and I want to read that”. 

That last, obviously, is a harder sell now than it used to be: long gone are the days where I could just order a dozen books on Amazon and dispose of them in a few weeks, or embark on a year-long massive reading project.  I have bought fewer than half a dozen books for myself in 2013, and given the sheer amount of stuff to be done around the house alongside an active toddler, I’m not foreseeing 2014 as being any less punishing than 2013 in terms of free time left for reading.

But I am exactly where I want to be in my life, and far wiser avid readers have assured me that it’s normal and expected for everything else to pause while raising young children.  To risk an old cliché, I’ve learned quite a bit more this year caring for a little person than I’ve gotten from the books I would have read otherwise, and there’s no way I’d be tempted to trade the experience.  Those 500 books will still be there, just as intact and fascinating, once I get a bit more time; isn’t that the best thing about reading?

Double Down: Game Change 2012, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann

Double Down: Game Change 2012, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann

Penguin, 2013, 512 pages, C$31.50 hc, ISBN 978-1-594-20440-1

In an age of twitter-sized text bites, continuous news cycle and fragmented constituencies, there is something to be said for long-form narratives that seek to explain months of events and incidents.  This goes double for attempts to describe something as complex as a presidential campaign.  Following in the footsteps of their vastly entertaining Game Change (which tackled the 2008 presidential campaign, with a focus on the Obama/Clinton primary challenges and the impact of Sarah Palin on the campaign), Mark Halperin and John Heilemann have spent much of 2011 and 2012 following the main players involved in the 2012 American presidential campaign, and Double Down is an attempt to weave what they’ve learned into a coherent narrative.

The biggest problem with the 2012 campaign, of course, is that it was a fairly dull affair: Barack Obama went into the contest with the advantages of the incumbency, while Mitt Romney was seen as the least-objectionable pick from an uninspiring selection of candidates from a Republican party fractured between the older establishment and the extreme tea-partiers.  Save for a lopsided first debate that temporarily upset expectations, the campaign had few dramatic moments.  By the time November rolled around, the only people claiming a close election were media outlets hyping up their viewership number and the Romney campaign itself.  Watching the results at home, I knew enough about the possible swing-states to be able to call the election for Obama roughly three minutes before CNN did.

As a political junkie, I’m the natural audience for a book such as Double Down… even though I spent much of 2012 a step removed from American politics, preoccupied with a brand-new baby at home.  And while I may have opened this review with lofty goals of narrative-making, let’s be honest: I read book such as Double Down to get pieces of gossip, new revelations and an idea of what I’d missed from the usual open sources of information.

As it turns out, Double Down is most interesting when it does delve into what I’d missed: Mostly the early stages of the Republican nomination process, as promising candidates decide (or are strongly encouraged) to sit out the 2012 election cycle.  This, improbably, opened up the field for Romney, who managed to remain the least-terrible alternative after a succession of other would-be nominees flamed out early on.  The look behind the scenes of those failed contenders is often fascinating, and perhaps more affecting than the winning campaigns: I never thought I’d feel a bit of sympathy for Michelle Bachmann or Rick Perry, but seeing them struggles with (respectively) debilitating migraines and post-operative back pain is enough to remind you that for all the overheated partisan rhetoric, these are still real people running for office. 

Amusingly, the authors also have to contend with their own precedent in writing Double Down: Parts of Chapter 3 are spent describing the White House’s dealing with the authors, while one of the most hilarious anecdotes of the book has VP nominee Paul Ryan trying to calm down before his major convention speech by watching… the HBO movie adaptation of Game Change, focusing on the shortcomings of his predecessor Sarah Palin.  Fortunately, the book itself is not perceptibly biased, save for siding with the winner and being harsher on the losers: While Obama is criticized for his failings as a contemplative president and as a reluctant candidate, Romney gets worse by being described as a curiously ambivalent candidate, one that maybe didn’t want the presidency enough.

The authors have a knack for creating a compelling narrative (even though their vocabulary often runs wild, along with their tendency toward nicknames or metonymy) and the book is a joy to read, although a good background in American national politics is required before making sense of most details.  Still, it’s worth remembering that Halperin and Heilemann are part of the old-school of journalism.  Never mind the off-handed (and faintly reprobate) mentions of social media (and even, just Twitter –never Facebook!) as if it was just a fringe phenomenon: this mentality leads to a few curious omissions in what is otherwise a complete account of the campaign. 

For instance, while nothing made me smile wider than seeing the author dismiss Ron Paul as a man whose “radical libertarianism, out-front isolationism, and just plain kookiness— from his abhorrence of paper money to his ties to the John Birch Society — made him more likely to end up on a park bench feeding stale bread to the squirrels than become the Republican nominee”, Paul did earn more votes during the primaries than many other candidates described at length during the book.  I suspect that access has to do with this snide dismissal: that is, if the authors were rebuffed by the Paul campaign, then they found nothing interesting to say about him.  Far more troubling is Double Down’s refusal to mention Nate Silver even once.  Silver, as you may recall, was the most visible of the web-based statistical pundits who uniformly predicted an Obama victory, even as the traditional media was still creating a smokescreen of uncertainty over the election.  Also significant is the lack of discussion about the Romney campaign’s ORCA IT problems, which may have led to a false sense of confidence in the final weeks of the campaign in a supposedly data-centric organization.  Those stories were well-covered in the days immediately after the election, and it seems curious that they don’t even rate a mention even as figures who played no part in the election such as Haley Barbour rate pages of anecdotes.  (And let’s not even mention Chris Christie, who should consider sending copies of this book to registered Republicans in anticipation of his 2016 run… or not.)

And this brings us to my original assessment of Game Change, which holds true for Double Down as well: It’s become a quadrennial gossip rag for the political set.  Data, infrastructure, trends and strategy aren’t nearly as important in Double Down as screaming, shouting, money problems and dramatic narration.  That’s to necessarily a bad thing, as long as readers understand that this is political reporting as entertainment.  Insight will come from elsewhere.

Is it any surprise that a movie adaption has already been announced?

Tom Clancy (1947-2013)

Tom Clancy is dead.

The news came in via the internet, as all things now do: Within moments, it was the at top of news sites, and managed the rare quadrifecta of topping Reddit’s /news/, /books/, /movies/ and /gaming/ forums –an eloquent testimony to Clancy’s impact in three very different fields, and his once-preeminent status as America’s best-selling novelist.  (Cardinal of the Kremlin was the best-selling novel of 1988 in the United States; Clear and Present Danger repeated the achievement the following year.)

As I read the eulogies, what struck me is how distant the news felt.  2013 hasn’t been a good year for author deaths (Jack Vance, Richard Matheson, Vince Flynn, Iain Banks, Elmore Leonard, Frederik Pohl… geez, and that’s just a selection from relatively-famous authors I found interesting) but what was different with Clancy is that once upon a time, I could claim with conviction that he was my favourite author.

The reviews of his work on this web site don’t accurately represent that: they were all written after 1995, past the point of Clancy’s most successful work.  By lieu of apology-by-eulogy, I thought I’d take a trip back in time and revisit myself as a younger reader.  There may be some autobiographical content below.  (And given the vagaries of memory, there may be some unintentionally erroneous material as well, but if you know the truth, don’t tell me –I rather like my version of the story.)

It starts in Rockland, a small (mostly French-language) town in eastern Ontario, circa 1989 or thereabouts.  At the time, I’m a bright 13-year old mostly-francophone nerd just beginning high-school.  I love reading (well, in-between computer games) and I’m taking up more adult novels in English, but the local selection is limited: the (mostly French-language) school library is aimed at teenagers, the (mostly French-language) local public library is small and there’s no bookstore closer than the one 15 kilometers west in Ottawa-suburb Orléans.  Not that it would matter, since I don’t have any money.  My interest in science and technology make science-fiction my favourite thing, but the small local selection means that I have already read everything SF.

Enters Clancy.

Thanks to a kindly great-aunt who loves reading as much as I do, I end up borrowing The Hunt for Red October (a battered gray paperback edition, portraying a submarine through a periscope) and I get hooked: The writing is plain and effective, the plot moves forward relentlessly, the technology feels cutting-edge and, perhaps most importantly, the book is filled with the kind of delicious expositionary material that I had until then only seen in science-fiction.  Being thirteen-year old, I’m able to read my way through Clancy’s back-catalogue in a few weeks.  By 1989, he not only has a small back-log of six novels (all stocked at the local library), but his success has also created the techno-thriller genre.

I’m not alone in discovering Clancy.  My small coterie of proudly nerd friends and I (“The Nerd Squad”, yup, we were nerd-chic a decade before it was chic to be nerd) find Clancy to be the best thing ever.  It helps that there’s a link with computer games (ah, the DOS version of Red Storm Rising: awesome!), that Clear and Present Danger is atop the bestseller charts and that the movie version of The Hunt for Red October is buzzing around.  I remember talking about specific chapters of Red Storm Rising at a hockey arena with friend Sylvain (hey, what’s two nerds to do when the school forces you to watch a game at the local rink?); I remember my dearly departed friend Yves (RIP) telling us about how a boating mishap sent the Rockland Public Library’s sole copy of Clear and Present Danger in the Ottawa River, where it “rolled in the water like a donut being fried” (the water-damaged version would stay on their shelves for years; I wonder if they still have it); or both of us arguing about whether it was OK to peek ahead at the last page of a novel as you’re reading it (he had read the last page of Patriot Games to make sure it wasn’t going to end badly).

In some ways, Clancy leads us small-town nerds to the wider world.  I remember all of us Nerds Squad members making a then-rare road trip to go see the film adaptation of Patriot Games in theaters (in Gloucester, 25 kilometers west) on its first weekend of release in June 1992.  We start picking up other techno-thriller novels and exchanging recommendation.  My first big new-book book purchase, at Place d’Orléans’ Coles bookstore, is three mass-paperback techno-thrillers in the Clancy subgenre by Dale Brown, Larry Bond and Harold Coyle.

At the time, Clear and Present Danger is the best thing I have ever read.  When teenagers tackle their first big adult novels, they feel insanely big and imposing, and so the details stick in my mind even though I’ve forgotten many better books in the meantime.  I still remember elements of the climax (such as Jack Ryan finding a long gash in his helmet, caused by a near-miss from a high-powered bullet) to be the measure of how thrillers should be written.  Heck, even without looking it up, I still remember the closing line: “Silence is the greatest love of all.”  (After checking: Aw, close: “silence was the greatest passion of all” [P.688, a page number I still remembered given the association with submarines.])

Given the scorn with which I reviewed latter Clancy novels on this site, I feel almost obligated to point out how good the first half-dozen Clancy novels actually were.  Mixing up my own impressions of the novels with a wider critical appreciation of the subgenre:

  • The Hunt for Red October (1984) remains the prototype for the techno-thriller genre.  There had been earlier examples of the form (such as Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1969), Craig Thomas’ Firefox (1977), Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre’s The Fifth Horsemen (1980)) but this is the one that codified the form and made it popular: Blend in real-world references, high stakes, cutting-edge technology, detailed information lumps, plain writing and straightforward characterization.  Even as a first novel, it’s amazingly self-assured: the plotting is tense, the pacing rarely flags despite the digressions and protagonist Jack Ryan’s heroic journey as an analyst forced in active operations is credible.  It’s a terrific book, and I hope to be able to revisit it someday soon.
  • As a novel trying to describe an entire World War III in less than 700 pages, Red Storm Rising (1986) may read today like hopelessly outdated alternate history.  But in 1989/1990, even as the Soviet Union was breaking up, it still read like a chillingly plausible scenario.  What still works, as long as you allow for the WW3 scenario, is the complexity of the plotting and the success with which Clancy and acknowledged-but-uncredited collaborator Larry Bond manage to depict a multi-fronted WW3 through a few viewpoint characters.  It compares very positively with other WW3 fantasies that appeared on bookshelves during the end of the Cold War, most notably Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War.  I have great memories of the book, and it’s another one I hope to re-read some day.
  • Patriot Games (1987) proves that Clancy can be just as good with smaller-stakes.  This time (with a story predating The Hunt for Red October, something that had blown my unformed mind at a time where “prequel” hadn’t become a cash-in staple), Clancy focuses on a man protecting his family from terrorists and keeps up the tension even without world-threatening stakes.  Even if I’d probably find the ending overdone nowadays (what with a terrorist assault, a storm and a birth all converging) it seemed at the time like a perfect little ending to a perfect little thriller.
  • The Cardinal of the Kremlin (1988) goes big once again, focusing on spying games between the US and the Soviet Union.  A direct sequel to The Hunt for Red October, The Cardinal of the Kremlin stands tall as a refined example of sophisticated late-cold-war spy fiction.  It blends together a number of political, military and technological elements that make it seem quite a bit more complex than the usual spycraft thriller.  Even today, there may not be a better late-cold-war spying novel.
  • Clear and Present Danger (1989) is discussed above, but I want to highlight how prescient it was at anticipating the post-Cold War era.  It may have featured drug-lord antagonists, but the real point of the novel was the tension within the US forces in authorizing operations running against public policy and ethics.  It’s probably Clancy’s most thoughtful novel, and the portrait of squad-level combat operations is still memorable.

By the time The Sum of All Fears was published in 1991, all of us Rockland nerds were ready to jump on the book.  My parents were kind enough to get me a brand-new shiny hardcover from the local Price Club as a gift: I devoured it in days.  If you chart Clancy’s career and critical success, you can make a case that his first five novels are all unchallenged successes, and that the slide down begins with The Sum of All Fears.  That’s certainly my thesis, and even at the time I noted that the novel took almost forever to begin and went nowhere while the plot strands were assembled.  The spectacular last 150 pages, taking the world all the way up to the brink of nuclear war even as Washington is paralyzed by a snowstorm, more than made up for the lacklustre rest of the book.  Still, even today, I think of the “timber” subplot as an example case in savvy plotting.  (ie; something like thirty pages, throughout the novel, are spent setting up a freakishly coincidental collision between a nuclear submarine and a piece of timber.  The whole thing starts with the lumberjack that fells the tree.  It works spectacularly well.)

The next book, Without Remorse (1993), would be a return to an earlier time and simpler stakes, but not quite as effective.  As a Vietnam-era blend of combat and urban revenge story featuring another character from latter books, Without Remorse seemed a bit too simple even while it was, at a significant 639 pages, quite a bit overlong.  My friends and I still liked the book, but I was wondering about a few questions: Did we need the story to take place in the same universe as the one launched by The Hunt for Red October? Did the novel need to be so long?  Was anyone editing Clancy anymore?

Knowledgeable readers here recognize the early trends that would send Clancy into a critical tailspin in latter books.  By the mid-nineties, Clancy had nothing left to prove.  He’d made his money, beaten down reviewers and conquered a loyal audience (such as myself) that would buy his books on sight.

Debt of Honor (1994) was, I thought, a return to partial form: it moved the story back to modern times, and speculated a limited war between the US and Japan, with a big spectacular climax that not only predated eerie similarities with 9/11, but thrust once-analyst Jack Ryan to the presidency.  Bold, big, maybe highly implausible, but a heck of a conclusion nonetheless.

Meanwhile, I had (more or less) escaped from the confines of Rockland, attending university in central Ottawa and suddenly having access to quite a bit more reading material.  While this would have disastrous consequences (some college freshmen can’t tolerate suddenly-easy access to alcohol, parties and partners; my own first-year grades were terrible because of too many books and early access to the Internet.) an upshot was a reading regimen that allowed for a bit more discernment.  I started reading SF by the bucket-haul and even publishing reviews online.  Along the way, I acquired all of Clancy’s mainline novels in hardcover editions, even a prized copy of The Hunt for Red October in its original Naval Institute Press edition.

I soured on Clancy in 1995.  My parents were excited to report that Clancy had a new book out!  I was surprised to learn of it, and even more to learn that it was an average-sized original mass-market paperback.  Wasn’t Clancy supposed to write big hardcovers?  Well, it turned out that Tom Clancy’s Op Center was the first in a long, awful and unexplainably long-lived series of ghost-written “apostrophe” novels that carried Clancy’s name and none of his strengths.  The accompanying TV series wasn’t much better.

(What were a bit better were the non-fiction trade paperbacks that, in seven installments from 1993 to 2001, gave an insightful look within elements of the US armed forces.  I’m still not sure that Clancy wrote most of those, or that they didn’t take away time and energy best spent on novels, but they were interesting to read.)

When Executive Orders appeared in 1996, I’d started a reviewing web site –you can read my reaction to the book as I wrote it.  The review is a bit embarrassing to re-read more than fifteen years later –it’s one of my earliest entries and I wasn’t even 21 at the time.  This being said, I still stand by the overall critical assessment (“it isn’t Clancy’s best effort”) and note, while re-reading the review, that I’d started picking up on the right-wing politics, tepid pacing, loose editing and dubiousness of trying to keep up the Ryanverse.  Still; it wasn’t an embarrassing novel for Clancy, even if it was far from the best.

What would be embarrassing is SSN, a 1996 minor videogame tie-in that has none of the flavour or interest of Clancy’s mainline novels.  My review (also embarrassing to re-read) started badly with “Tom Clancy wants your money. It’s as simple as that.” and then uttered the fatal “The sad thing is, he used to be my favourite author.” It’s so different (and worse) than his usual novels that I still doubt whether Clancy did more than contribute an outline.  Considering that Clancy was, at the time, moving toward video game conceptualization and had already started franchising his name, it’s a possibility that I’m not discarding.

Rainbow Six (1998) would, at least, be a bit better.  It may even be Clancy’s last decent novel, although that assessment comes with a number of caveats: More than any one of Clancy’s mainline novels at that point, it would showcase increasingly right-wing politics, seal itself more firmly into the increasingly fantasy-based Ryanverse and display an author scarcely reined in by editors.  The writing got worse, the story got duller and Clancy got caught embarrassingly believing manufactures’ press releases with the DKL LifeGuard fiasco.  If there are a few good moments in the novel, they don’t amount to much in the aggregate.

By the time the world saw the massive The Bear and the Dragon (2000), the decline was unmistakable, and Clancy was teetering on the edge of “bad”.  I wasn’t impressed: The novel has good moments, but they came at the expense of considerable time wasted, bad writing and a cumbersome attempt to reconcile the real world with the Ryanverse.  Unlike many of Clancy’s previous novels, it felt like a chore to read.

Red Rabbit (2002) tried to deal with 9/11 by going back in time for another increasingly far-fetched prequel that contradicted much of Jack Ryan’s early history, messed up a number of key historical facts and simply didn’t add up to much.  It had the virtue of a slightly lower page count, but not much more action.  The writing got even worse.

The last straw, as far as I was concerned, was 2003’s The Teeth of the Tiger: I spent nearly all of my review pointing with laughter at the book’s problems, from the writing to plotting to ludicrous attempts to reconcile the Ryanverse with real-world history to the crazy political stance that ran counter to Clancy’s previous better novels.  It hadn’t helped that 9/11 sent me politically leftward while Clancy grew more and more stridently right-wing.  (Or, more generally, that 9/11 sent nearly all military fiction authors into right-wing lalaland, leading me to lose touch with the genre.)

Following The Teeth of the Tiger, I basically swore off Clancy, which was auspicious given that Clancy himself seemed to swear off writing.  For reasons that, I hope, will be elucidated by competent biographers, Clancy handed over his series to collaborators, retreated in non-writing pursuits and paradoxically saw his fame increase due to a well-received string of videogames sporting his name.

By the time he died in October 2013, I hadn’t seriously thought about Clancy in years.  I haven’t bought or read a single Clancy book since The Teeth of the Tiger.  I don’t live in Rockland any more, I’m married, I’m raising a daughter and consequently don’t have as much time to read.  The Nerd Squad has long disbanded (one member dead far too soon, the other ones having moved on in their separate orbits despite occasional contacts throughout the years.  Half of the Squad have become video-game professionals.)  I’m reviewing movies professionally.  I stopped playing videogames due to lack of time.  Despite my voluntary sabbatical from reading, I still have a long list of favorite authors… but very few of them write techno-thrillers.

But I would still like nothing better than to find an author who writes like Clancy at his finest.   I still do like the concept of techno-thrillers a lot, and I bemoan that much of the genre now seems so stupidly right-wing and insular.  I still own three linear feet of Clancy books, the earliest and best of them (from The Hunt for Red October to The Sum of All Fears) even adorning the “prestige” bookshelf meant to impress visitors.  In my own thankfully-unpublished fiction writing, I can recognize the mark left by Clancy’s clean prose and straightforward exposition.

Like it or not, I’ve been shaped in some way by Tom Clancy, and the memories of his best books (alongside what they meant at the time) will remain with me.  His critical trajectory was an exemplar of the so-called “brain-eaten” bestselling author, but he’s hardly unique in this regard.  While I may have soured on his latter output, I’m still just as eager to suggest his first six novels as essential reading for thriller fans.  If you haven’t done so already, have a look at The Hunt for Red October and keep going until The Sum of All Fears.  Those are still books for the ages, and no amount of latter-day critical souring should change that.

A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson

Anchor Canada, 2004, 560 pages, C$23.00 tp, ISBN 978-0-385-66004-4

It’s hard to find out a book that lives up to its hype, especially when the hype is near-unanimous.  For years, I’d heard about Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything in numerous book-recommendation lists, usually accompanied with superlatives about it being an exemplary work of science vulgarization, and the kind of book fit to expand minds.

So imagine my surprise in finding out that A Short History of Nearly Everything lives up to its intimidating hype.  The most surprising thing about the book’s success may be that Bill Bryson is not a trained scientist.  Nor was he, prior to the book’s publication, known as a science writer: His output until then focused on light-hearted travel books and other personal essays.  A Short History of Nearly Everything was designed to be something else: A 500-page behemoth taking on all of creation, doubling as an exploration of the state of scientific knowledge and where much of what we know about the universe comes from.  In the book’s introduction, Bryson flat-out sates that he wrote the book for himself, to self-learn what he through he’d missed in his formal education, and to patch the holes left by dull science textbooks.

He succeeds admirably well.  A Short History of Nearly Everything is supposed to start at the Big Bang and end at the dawn of human history, but the entire book is a celebration of the human drive for knowledge.  In discussing Earth’s formation, for instance, Bryson spends as much time telling us how scientists came to understand what we know about the Earth.  There are numerous anecdotes about the early days of science, and the heroic sacrifices required to find out things that we now take for granted.  Disastrous expeditions seem to be the norm for 19th century science, even (especially) when they lead to comparatively mundane innovations such as topographical map contour lines.  A Short History of Nearly Everything presents the scientist as a hero, and well-chosen portraits make it clear that even ordinary people can make extraordinary discoveries.  Little of it is dull given how the scientist-as-an-eccentric becomes a constant through much of the narrative.

Even for readers with a good general scientific background, the list of new and unexpected nuggets of information and overarching links between disparate fields to be gleaned from the book is astonishing.  Nearly every page has a fascinating snippet or two, and Bryson’s generalist instincts serve him well in drawing evocative parallels between dissimilar areas.  It helps a lot that Bryson knows how to write smooth and easy yet factually-dense prose.  He’s as insightful as he is hilarious, and the resulting blend is simply intoxicating.  A Short History of Nearly Everything is a fantastically well-written book, and the prose style is just as entertaining as the subject matter.

More than celebrating science, though, A Short History of Nearly Everything is perhaps at its most interesting when it charts the circa-2005 limits to human knowledge.  He acknowledges the limits of what we know and the ways we think we figured it out: It turns out that our understanding of fossils is based on a far small sample than you may expect, and that several areas of human knowledge remain curiously under-explored.  Rather than cast doubt on science itself, those gaps and paper-thin inferences only serve to inspire: There is still a lot of science left to be done, and the way we’ve been able to learn so much from so little, is nothing short of awe-inspiring at our own human cleverness.

Nearly ten years after the book’s writing, and at a time when it seems that nearly every scientific popularization is riddled with errors and simplification, you may expect A Short History of Nearly Everything to be similarly undermined by a long list of errors.  But a look through reviews and commentary about the book merely reveals a distressingly short list of errors for such a big book and general praise from knowledgeable audiences.  (Although I’ve been able to find a few strongly dissenting voices, most of those are in the form of forum posting, not well-argued reviews.  Leave any in the comments, please..)

Frankly, A Short History of Nearly Everything is such an exceptionally good book that the worst thing I can say about it is that I’m already mad at having forgotten a substantial chunk of it.  Get the book, read it and be amazed, not only at the prose, but what it tells us about ourselves.  Then don’t be surprised to find yourself praising its merits to others.

Above, Leah Bobet

Above, Leah Bobet

Arthur A. Levine, 2012, 368 pages, C$19.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-545-29670-0

I really should preface this review by saying that I’ve had a decade-long nerd-crush (in the most geeky platonic sense) on Leah Bobet, and so anything I write about her debut novel Above is likely to be highly subjective.  But time has come to pay tribute to Leah, and this review might as well be the best way to do it.

It started, appropriately enough, at a Science Fiction convention. (If you don’t come out of a major SF convention with at least half-a-dozen nerd-crushes, you’re not attending them correctly.)  August 2003, Toronto: The much-maligned Torcon 3 worldcon.  I was attending a panel about Artificial Intelligence, featuring several genre big-time writers when the discussion veered severely off-topic.  After a few minutes of this nonsense unchecked by the moderator, a voice from the audience prompted panelists to get back on topic, please?  As someone who gets exasperated at bad panel moderation, I silently tipped my non-existing hat at the young woman who had brought back the panel on-track.  Reading a post-convention report by Cory Doctorow gave me the name to go along with the person.

And that, with a bit of hindsight, was how I became aware of Leah Bobet.

Not that I could have avoided her, given that over the following years I kept seeing her name attached to a growing number of fascinating short stories.  As if being a remarkable new author wasn’t enough, she also worked as a bookseller at the legendary Bakka-Phoenix genre bookstore and became a regular panelist at a number of Toronto SF conventions I also attended.  When you go to a lot of SF conventions, you learn how to pick panels by participants rather than subject matters.  Leah quickly became one of my reliable makers for good panels.  At some point we started greeting each other in that “Oh, you, from that other convention!” fashion.  Most seasoned SF fans have this weird proprietary sense of “I knew that author way before the rest of you”, and I suppose that Leah is one of “my” discoveries in that way.  When Above was announced, I was thrilled to re-enact the classic fan-paying-for-author’s-drink convention ritual on her behalf.

So, if you only get one thing out of this review, it’s that Leah is awesome, you should read what she writes and if you find yourself at a convention where she is on the participant list, make a point of attending her panels. (Also, don’t be shy and say hi: she’s friendly.)

I should have reviewed Above when it came out in January 2012.  Instead, I was… otherwise preoccupied in taking care of a newborn daughter and taking an extended sabbatical away from just about everything, including reading and SF conventions.  Now that I’ve managed to read the novel and am now paying my dues with a review, it’s 18 months later (24 months later considering that I’m posting all 2013 reviews in a yearly January 2014 lump) and the chances of this review helping the novel’s sales numbers are approximately close to nil. 

And I feel guilty, because you really should read it.

Gloriously set in and under Toronto (have you seen that gorgeous cover art?), Above is an acknowledged re-thinking of the old city-underneath-a-city premise, where marginalized outsiders come together and build a community of their own by living off the scraps of the city overhead.  While treatments of such an idea run the risk of growing overly sentimental (or worse, romanticized), Above takes a harder-minded stance and adds just enough urban fantasy to make things interesting.  In Above, Safe is a place underneath Toronto where people who can’t fit in normal society can gather.  This being a fantasy novel, their differences run deeper than usual, with body deformities and supernatural powers that clearly can’t be reconciled with consensus reality.  Our protagonist is a young man who has lived all of his life in Safe, but that soon ends when the refuge is attacked by someone it once exiled, and survivors have to seek refuge… above.

Mix well with a tough romance between two dysfunctional characters, and the result is a tough, gritty, fascinating and uncommonly mature debut novel.  It’s at its best in quieter character-driven moments: As I edit this review months after reading, my strongest memory of the book is an awful epiphany during which the protagonist recognizes that he has badly hurt someone he loves.  It’s a novel filled with terrible moments, sharply-defined characters, a bittersweet conclusion and a strong sense of place.  It growls ominously when other debut novels shout, and it’s that kind of admirable restraint that makes it work.  The ending has the maturity to acknowledge that self-isolation is not the answer to co-existence problems, and it’s too smart to glorify the outsiders at the complete expense of the white-coated mainstream.  It’s unfortunate that the style of writing may be a bit too difficult for casual readers (I had to slow down, and ignore my growing resistance to Capitalized Meaning), but once you get used to the prose, it delivers on the way it chooses to tell the story.

On a somewhat grander genre consideration, Above feels like a novel from a new generation of fantasy writers: street-savvy authors who have grown with a strong sense of connection to others thanks to the various social networks that weren’t available to older writers.  There’s an innate sense of social justice and inclusiveness to Above that simply feels different from the fantasy norm, and it’s a set of values and ethics that have far more to do with ongoing online discussions than genre conventions.  Leah Bobet is far from being the first (or only) author to take this attitude and mesh it with the conventions of genre fiction, and I can’t wait to see where this trend takes us.

Similarly, I may be 18 months late in reviewing Leah’s first book, but I’m also 18 months closer to the appearance of her second.  That means that you too can catch up!  Read it now!

2312, Kim Stanley Robinson

2312, Kim Stanley Robinson

Orbit, 2012, 576 pages, C$29.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-316-09812-0

I’ve spent the last year-and-a-half doing things other than reading voraciously, and as a result I’m not as up-to-date on the state of written Science-Fiction as I used to be.  Gone are the days when I could read a just-published book and justifiably call it one of the year’s best: Now I’m not even keeping up with the slate of Hugo-nominated novels.  Years ago, I would have read Robinson’s 2312 within a week of publication: Now, I’m belatedly coming to it after it winning the Nebula and being on the Hugo short-list.  But then again, years ago I would have given it unqualified praise.  Now, with a bit of perspective, I have a few doubts to share.

The good news, without any doubt, is that 2312 showcases Robinson in heavy-duty Science Fiction futurism mode, harkening back (sometimes ironically) to Robinson’s Mars trilogy.  It’s the kind of sweeping mid-future tour of the Solar System that makes up the core of the written SF genre, and yet seems so rare nowadays.  It’s a vision of the future that’s big and grand and optimistic and filled with complexities.  It’s a big fat novel designed to show ideas –there’s a plot somewhere in the novel, but it’s not nearly as important as seeing our protagonists experience life circa 2312.

Our protagonist is Swan, an impulsive artist/ecodesigner who gets involved in a system-wide investigation following the death of her grandmother and an attack on her Mercurian home-city.  She soon comes to spend a lot of time with Fitz Wahram, a cool diplomat who is in many ways opposite to her personality.  This fire-and-ice romance ends up being one of the book’s plot driver, the other being the quest to unearth a conspiracy designed at taking over the various political entities of the Solar System. 

But reading 2312 for the plot (or the strangely off-putting characters) is a bit of a waste when the novel seems to be built around experiential set-pieces.  The novel is structured as a series of episodes as Swan makes her way throughout the Solar System, living life to its fullest by taking advantage of the various opportunities offered to her.  She hears opera on Mercury, surfs Saturn’s ice-rings, drops animals over the Canadian wilderness, and runs with the wolves within traveling asteroids.  There are a lot of big ideas on display along the way (some of them recycled and updated from previous Robinson works, such as the roving city of Terminator), facilitated by the explicit encyclopedic passages that are an essential chunk of the structure of the novel. (Thanks, John Dos Passos!)

For seasoned SF fans and Robinson enthusiasts, it’s hard to read the book without missing the various shout-outs to classic SF works dropped without ceremony in the text itself.  There’s a self-referential bit of plotting in that for a writer best known for his Mars trilogy, Robinson never allows his system-spanning plot to go on Mars except at the very ending of the novel, once the conflicts and contradictions have been resolved.  Anyone familiar with Robinson’s work will also see that the characters’ hobbies (in particular their tendency to go trekking in the wilderness at the slightest opportunity) seems to be a direct extension of the author’s interests.

You can see what kind of reception this core-genre SF book may receive.  Seasoned old-school Science Fiction fans are likely to love this book.  It feels like an updated and beefed-up version of the kind of plot-light futuristic travelogues that Arthur C. Clarke did so well thirty years ago, or the kind of solar-system tour of wonders that John Varley attempted in his heyday.  It’s a kind of SF that feels familiar, comfortable and positively inspiring after the genre’s recent fascination with the apocalypse in all of its forms.  I have no qualms to state that I loved most of 2312 and wish that they would be many more SF novels in the same vein.  Robinson can be a frustratingly uneven writer, but this novel is one of his good ones.

On the other hand…

Reading the online chatter about the book has been both illuminating and exasperating.  For every bad review where the reader approached the book antagonistically, there has been comments reminding me that Robinson’s aims with 2312 are centered at a fairly narrow group of core-SF readers.  Info-dumps are features for the kind of readers Robinson is writing for, but I can see why more casual readers may be put off.  Heck, Robinson’s interests aren’t exactly mine, and when his characters go out of their way to enjoy pastimes typical of wealthy educated left-leaning upper-middle-class Californians, it’s hard not to feel left out or, worse, feel that this shiny view of the future doesn’t necessarily reflect everyone else’s.

This idea ties into the “irrefragable Africa” passage that so rightfully annoyed and enraged some readers.  To sum up the controversy: In the middle of a Solar System bustling with activity, Robinson’s protagonist goes to Earth (where things are usually bad, as the planet staggers under the impact of global climate change and entrenched political/economic systems), and then to Africa where she finds herself stymied by a continent that seemingly refuses help from well-meaning richer people.  She leaves in frustration, concluding that Africa is forever doomed to act against its own self-interest despite the righteous intervention of people who (from the protagonist’s perspective) know much better.

It’s hard to know where to begin in taking down this small piece of the novel.  Perhaps by pointing out the terrible legacy of colonialism and then the neo-colonialism that took its place?  Perhaps by pointing out that this vision of a self-defeating Africa ignores the real and tangible progress being made continent-wide for the past few decades?  Perhaps by reminding first-world readers that their hopes and aspirations should not be imposed on a continent?  Robinson gets half-points for mulling that all of Earth in 2312 is just as self-defeating, but he should understand that he’s writing at a time where SF’s shortcomings in matters of class, inclusiveness, racism and sexism are under intense scrutiny.  Any slip-up is likely to be criticized, let alone a spectacularly dumb passage like this one, which feels like a rich Californian punching down at a less-privileged target. 

This, in turn, easily leads to a contemplation of the current state of the Science Fiction genre.  I have an awful suspicion that 2312 may be one of the last big hurrah of the genre at it used to exist, in particularly the WASP Southern-California school of SF as it shined most brightly in the 1970s and 1980s.  Writers such as Bear, Benford, Brin, Niven and Robinson: save for Robinson, who has earned some general literary renown, most of those writers aren’t the dominant voices they used to be.  Science Fiction is changing profoundly and rapidly, shattering in a million pieces that reflect the increasing diversity of its authorship and audience.  We should be welcoming this change for the better SF it brings, but at the same time it’s becoming obvious that some of the older guard is having trouble keeping up. 

2312 wouldn’t have earned half the disappointed comments it got had it not explicitly positioned itself at the cutting edge.  It’s supposed to be as inclusive a vision of the future as it can be (and for his slip-ups, Robinson has at least presented a joyously polymorphous future when it comes to gender and sexual preferences), meaning that it invites non-inclusiveness criticism by default.  I may think that Robinson has done a pretty good job –but then again I’m pretty close to Robinson’s demographic profile.  It may take another kind of writer to write about a future that acknowledges and celebrates a greater audience.  And as I read less and less SF, it dawns on me that it may take another kind of reader to best appreciate it.

This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously Dude, Don’t Touch It, David Wong aka Jason Pargin

This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously Dude, Don’t Touch It, David Wong aka Jason Pargin

Thomas Dunne, 2012, 416 pages, C$29.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-312-54634-2

When I end up reading a book at its sequel back-to-back, my review of the sequel is usually appended, capsule-style, to the review of the first volume.  Usually, this is enough: most sequels are attempts at recreating the feel of the original book, after all, and a review can simply say whether it was successful at that goal and then take off for holidays. 

The case of This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously Dude, Don’t Touch It (don’t you love this subtitle?) is different, though.  While it’s definitely a sequel to David Wong’s John Dies at the End, it’s also remarkably different in atmosphere, and flawed enough to warrant specific discussion.

A good chunk of the difference between both books can be explained by fairly dull real-world considerations: The original John Dies at the End was developed over a period of years as a web serial, and it displayed a pack-rat’s accumulation of ideas, genre elements, plot twists and creative impulses.  It was filled with the kind of narrative hooks and summersaults that come from a loose writing process without a clear ending in mind.  This Book is Full of Spider was developed over a much shorter period of time to capitalize on the success of the first book, was not (as far as I know) subject to public feedback as it was written, and was clearly conceived as a coherent whole from the get-go.

As a result, This Book Is Full of Spiders feels quite a bit different from its predecessor.  The rhythm is considerably slower, the density of ideas similarly sparser and the plot can indulge in a bit of leisurely scene-setting rather than being an accumulation of one-damn-thing-after-another.  As the novel begins, our two protagonists David and John are roughly where they were at the end of John Dies at the End: stuck in [undisclosed], more or less subsisting on their slacker’s lifestyle when they’re not reluctantly pressed in service as paranormal specialists.  But as This Book Is Full of Spiders begins, they’re soon confronted with something far deadlier than occasional monsters from nowhere: Brain-parasite spiders turning their unfortunate victims into zombies. 

For a while, This Book Is Full of Spiders treads extremely familiar grounds: The zombie-outbreak narrative model, slightly tweaked for laughs (here, it’s the protagonists who arguably let the zombie outbreak spread) but otherwise followed with a reasonable degree of familiarity.  Adding to the handicap, This Book Is Full of Spiders side-lines John’s character for a very long time, which becomes a problem once you remember that John is the most interesting character of the series, one who makes things move through sheer lack of sensible instincts.  As David is stuck in a prison hastily created to contain the growing zombie contagion, This Book Is Full of Spiders doesn’t evoke the first book’s freewheeling fun as much as yet another dreary “man’s inhumanity to man” nightmare.

That goes on, with minor variations, for almost two-thirds of the book.  After the quasi-anarchic inventiveness of John Dies at the End, it’s easy to wonder where the magic went.  It’s not that This Book Is Full of Spiders is in any way bad or dull: It is, however, markedly less interesting than its predecessor for most of its duration.

Fortunately, the last third brings it into focus.  For the zombie outbreak in [undisclosed] is closely watched by the rest of the nation via the Internet, and most people seem positively delighted by the presence of zombies, including a group of trigger-happy nerds pretending to be tough zombie hunters.  At another level entirely, the presence of zombies makes it really easy to justify the complete eradication of [undisclosed], no matter the collateral damage.

And as This Book Is Full of Spiders wraps to a conclusion, the author serves us with an unexpected thought-piece: the development of zombie in pop culture as this irredeemable evil to be destroyed at all costs carries a hideous cost: the ability to brand someone a zombie and justify its extermination.  The creation of pure evil brings about the need to complete destruction, argues Wong, and that’s an exceedingly dangerous weapon in itself.  From hum-drum zombie fare, This Book Is Full of Spiders develops into something much rarer: a humanist critique of horror fiction.

It helps, of course, that the last quarter of the book is filled with a bit more of the expected David & John craziness: From John finally ramping something, to a heavier use of Soy Sauce, to a penile joke literally writ large, to another narrative game involving a policeman, to the presence of the series’ shadowy antagonists.  The end of the book is quite a bit more satisfyingly than its beginning and anyone still dissatisfied by the novel should finally get their time’s worth at the end.  That’s the beauty of strong finishes: they forgive almost everything.

Still, there’s little that needs to be forgiven in the novel’s explicit intention to deconstruct the zombie trope and dispatch it with a big humanistic smooch.  It’s a fantastic conceit, and one that should be taken up more often at a time where horror fiction seems hell-bent on presenting evil in its purest form.  Our attitudes toward the world are shaped by fiction and there’s something insidious in letting narrative constructs take the place of critical or even empathetic thinking.  [December 2013: Case in point being public apathy to the slew of revelations following Edward Snowden’s release of confidential NSA documents: Many see this as confirmation of decades’ worth of paranoid thriller fiction, and so not worth getting bothered about.  That in itself is an outrage: Are we letting thrillers condition us to accept pervasive and intrusive surveillance programs?  What is wrong with us to let our brains being altered that way?]

And that is finally why This Book Is Full of Spiders is worth discussion by itself, and not just as a mere follow-up: It tries something just as ambitious as its prequel, but in a different direction.  It’s still a great read, but it’s also trying to get us to think about innate genre prejudices.  Don’t expect exactly the same as its predecessor, and it will be a great read.

John Dies at the End, David Wong aka Jason Pargin

John Dies at the End, David Wong aka Jason Pargin

St. Martin’s, 2010 reprint of 2009 original, 480 pages, C$18.50 pb, ISBN 978-0-312-65914-1

Ever since the rise of the Internet, the expression “cult novel” doesn’t mean what it used to.  Once upon a time, it conjured images of a battered paperback passed from one set of hands to the other, its hushed-tone reputation growing through the yellowed pages of mimeographed fanzines or late-night college-dorm conversations.  Nowadays, it’s almost too easy for things to earn cult status.  Quasi-forgotten novel from the sixties discussed by half-a-dozen readers on Goodreads?  Cult.  Mid-list writer with fifty comments on her latest blog post?  Cult figure.  Episodic novel published at irregular intervals on an out-of-the-way web site and discovered by a growing number of readers thanks to blog-of-mouth?  So-cult-it-hurts.

And that takes us to John Dies at the End, a horror/humor hybrid which was written and self-published on the web by Jason Pargin, a writer best known as “David Wong” for incisive essays such as the famous “Monkeysphere” piece.  Having attracted a devoted following, Wong added material to the story for years before wrapping it all up for publication.  The result is quite unlike anything you’ve read so far.

The adventures of John and David, two twenty-something slackers who find themselves involved in paranormal affairs despite their best intentions, John Dies at the End blends stoner comedy with existential horror and ends up as a hip mix of cool things.  Thanks to Wong’s irreverent narration, the novel recycles, twists and extends familiar tropes in a potent mixture of dread and comedy.  For seasoned horror/fantasy readers, John Dies at the End is particularly interesting in that while it’s clearly aware of genre antecedents, it’s clearly not beholden to the genre in its narrative construction.  The web-serial origins of the story are clearest in considering its structure: the novel divides itself into two major adventures, interrupted by a shorter interlude episode.  Perhaps most significantly, Wong has a decidedly irreverent attitude toward familiar plot conventions: The protagonist’s narration is rich in self-awareness, peaking in a late-book refusal to further investigate a troubling mystery.  (A good thing too, since he admits that had he done so at that time, he would have killed himself.  By the end of the story, we readers understand what he means.)  When I say that John Dies at the End is a delightfully profane novel, I’m not speaking as much about the harsh language of the book as much about its willingness to embrace irreverence in dealing with genre ideas.

On a related note, John Dies at the End is also particularly good at maintaining both the laughs and the chills that a hybrid novel should ideally contain.  There are at least two deeply troubling ideas embedded in the very narration of the novel, challenging our ideas about unreliable narrators.  Otherwise, Wong doesn’t hesitate to laden on the graphic descriptions when talking about the horrors that confront John and David on a near-constant basis. 

It helps that the funny parts are almost laugh-out-loud hilarious.  I have a particular affection for a chair fight between the heroes and supernatural demons, in which the hits only stop when the characters run out of chair-related fighting puns. 

It all amounts to an engrossing, hilarious, chilling and unique reading experience.  John Dies at the End is almost the definition of a break-out first novel: You can see here the culmination of years of development, ideas piled upon each other as if the writer had put everything he’d ever wanted to say between two covers.  The pacing has to be frantic to keep up with the inventiveness, and if the structure suffers a bit from the development process, who cares?  It’s one more welcome quirk for a book loved for its quirkiness.

And from quirks, we quickly go back to cult.  Of course, few things truly stay cult these days, and so it is that John Dies at the End was successfully adapted for the big screen in 2012.  The film is quite enjoyable, but the legions of new fans who will come to the book after the movie will be delighted to find out that the film has maybe only half the plot of the novel: Save for the first third and the last tenth, there’s almost an entirely new film’s worth of stuff in the novel, including some of the most disturbing material in the book.  (The film, for all of its qualities, is considerably funnier than horrific.)  This review may have begun by suggesting that the death of old-style cult status is somehow a bad thing, but let’s be clearer: At a time where everything is cult thanks to immediate electronic communications, nothing is cult.  Which is fortunate, given that nobody is a completely mainstream individual.  We are all of our one-person cult culture.  Given that, doesn’t it make you positively gleeful that something as strange and enjoyable as John Dies at the End can be written, published and enjoyed by exactly its rightful target audience?