Monday, February 27, 2017

Loosed Upon the World - John Joseph Adams

Last year I read Drowned Worlds (2016), a Jonathan Strahan's anthology of climate change fiction. It had a few good stories in it, but over all it turned out to be a mild disappointment. Climate change is a much used theme in science fiction however, and soon after I came across another fairly recent anthology on the subject. Loosed Upon the World, edited by John Joseph Adams, takes a broader approach to the theme. Where Strahan's anthology focuses on sea level rise, Adams selects stories that also cover shifting precipitation patterns, mass extinction, spread of infectious disease, atmospheric changes and all manner of adaptation and survival strategies. They also vary wildly in scientific accuracy. It makes the anthology as a whole more entertaining.

Two names can't possibly be missing from an anthology like these: Paolo Bacigalupi and Kim Stanley Robinson. Both authors whose work draws heavily on environmental themes. Robinson hasn't published much in the way of short fiction. Adams included an extract from his Science in the Capital series, which I read some time ago. What struck me most about this extract is that, while a catastrophic flood occurs, there is a sense in them that it is not beyond enduring, and is probably not beyond mitigating either. Humanity will adapt, Robinson seems to think. It makes me look forward to his upcoming novel New York 2140, where, judging from the synopsis, the city does just that.

Bacigalupi is present with two stories, both discussing the unsustainable practices in water management  in the American South-West. Shooting the Apocalypse is a story that features a character from his recent novel The Water Knife (2015). It is a brutal tale that probably makes more sense if you have read the novel. I had already read his second offering, The Tamarisk Hunter (2006). It appeared in the collection Pump Six and Other Stories and tackles an attempt to control an invasive species. The older story stands better on its own in my opinion. It was one of the ones I liked best in Pump Six and Other stories.

Since it is set in my neck of the woods, I suppose I should mention Jim Shepard's The Netherlands Lives With Water (2010). Shepard is an American author whose work sometimes crosses over into genre, but is mostly regarded as a main stream novelist and short story writer. This novel could be considered science fiction because it is set in the future, but other than that there is not much speculative about it. The story depicts a crumbling marriage, paralleled by crumbling flood defences. I must admit Shepard got an impressive amount of details on local water management right. In it's depiction of society it relies a bit too much on clich├ęs to be written by a local though.

One of the stand out stories for me was The Precedent (2010), by Australian author Sean McMullen. It does not look at the mechanism of climate change but more at the social consequences. McMullen, in effect, put a whole generation on trial for squandering the world's resources. The story highlights the many ways in which we are wasteful but also how hard it can be to actually find the most sustainable option. How many of us live up to the standard of Jason Hall? There is something surreal about the resignation in which the people on trial accept the judgement. It clashes rather forcefully with the opinion of climate change deniers and the interest of the corporate world. Given that this story takes place in 2035, a lot must change between now and then to so radically turn public opinion.

Angela Penrose's Staying Afloat (2013) looks at the challenges faced by developing nations. It is tempting to go for the large, dramatic technological fixes, but in places that neither possess the wealth, nor technical know-how, other ways must be found. The story is set in Mexico where shifting precipitation patterns have changed a once arid region into one where downpours are frequent.The main character is looking for low-tech, affordable ways to protect the harvest from washing away. This is another story that, despite pointing out the near insurmountable obstacles, leaves the reader with a sense of optimism. It is not just large technological fixes that is going to get us through this. On the local level, changes are necessary as well.

The last story I want to mention is The Eighth Wonder of the World (2009) by Chris Bachelder. The story is set in the Astrodome, Houston, Texas, which has been hit by serious flooding. Many people have taken refuge in the dome. It appears to be anarchy inside. A distinct echo of what went on in New Orleans' Superdome during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Bachelder is another author in the collection who probably doesn't consider himself a science fiction writer. The Eighth Wonder of the World shows us the slow rise of some kind of social order from the chaos immediately after the disaster. There is a sense of danger and fear, but bit by bit people start doing constructive things beyond mere survival. The author only names his characters by their occupation in the story, which creates a bit of distance to them, but also focusses the story on the transformation taking place. It is one of those things that works in a short story but would probably make for a dreadful novel.

Although there are some stories in this anthology that I didn't really do much for me, and one - That Creeping Sensation (2011) by Alan Dean Foster - that left me wondering how on earth the author managed to sell that heap of nonsense, most of the stories were at the very least entertaining. A few reached into the excellent category. Adams managed to gather a diverse set of stories and as such, the anthology is likely to keep most readers on board until the last pages. Both Bacigalupi in the introduction and Ramez Naam in the afterword mention how interlinked all these changes are. It is not just climate that changes but the entire world around us. If there is one thing this anthology succeeds in, it is showing the reader how complex an issue climate change really is. You may argue Adams' selection of stories of course, but looking at it from that angle, I consider it a job well done.

Book Details
Title: Loosed Upon the World
Editor: John Joseph Adams
Publisher: Saga Press
Pages: 565
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-4814-5307-3
First published: 2015

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The People's Police - Norman Spinrad

Norman Spinrad made his name as part of the New Wave in the 1960s. It is the period in science fiction where things start to get interesting to me. I am not that much of a fan of Pulp or Golden Age material. It is somewhat surprising that I never actually read anything by him before. When Tor offered me a review copy I figured it was time to do something about that. The People's Police is his first published novel since 2011. Spinrad self-published the English edition of his previous novel Osama the Gun (2011) after a string of rejection notes from US publishers. The topic was deemed too controversial. Controversy is something Spinrad clearly never tried to avoid in his career. The People's Police is bound to rub some readers the wrong way as well. Then again, it wouldn't be a good satire if it didn't.

New Orleans is not doing so well. After being struck by hurricane Katrina, the city has never regained its former glory. With increasingly powerful hurricanes hitting the city every year, much of the city's surroundings have reverted back to the swamp it once was. To add to the city's misery, a new economic crisis started by the meteoric rise of the value of the dollar has hit the nation. Police officer Martin Luther Martin, brothel owner J. B. Lafitte and Voodoo Queen MaryLou Boudreau all suffer the consequences of yet another economic failure. Something needs to be done. Each in their own way, will contribute to a series of events that will upset the politics and economics of the state of Louisiana severely.

Spinrad is clearly not impressed with the political and economic state of the US at the moment, and in this novel he presents a crisis that is an extension of the one we are currently crawling out of. It boils down to an extreme rise in the value of the dollar, which is nice in the short term because products get cheaper. In the long run it depresses wages however, which is not good for people trying to pay off a mortgage, closed before the rise of the dollar. A new round of foreclosures quickly ensues. I'm a little hazy on the mechanism that causes the dollar to rise and how realistic that development is. Economics is not exactly my area of expertise.

Whatever the exact economics of the situation may be, the message that the financial and political elite has failed to learn the lessons from the 2008 crisis is loud and clear. Spinrad argues that market economics cannot work without a large and stable middle class, and that the current direction of the US economy is not going to provide that. Since it is also very obvious that the economic elite is not about to change their ways, change must come from the bottom. And there we hit on a second issue Spinrad takes aim at, the deeply rooted mistrust of career politicians and the, in my opinion, somewhat naive belief that putting people in charge from other walks of life would yield better results. Looking at this novel in that light, the election of Trump as president couldn't be more fitting.

The main characters in the story are all people just trying to get by. They have opinions on what needs to be changed, but rarely are able to think more than a few steps ahead, or beyond their immediate surroundings. They are often shamelessly selfish in their motivations as well. Their actions quickly expose some of the divisions in US society. They clash with the religious conservatives, with the anti-union sentiment that has become so prevalent in the last decades, with the close ties between big business and the political establishment, and with the abuse of the system of checks and balances to endlessly block decision-making. It is, in other words, a revolution that meets with stiff opposition.

Spinrad swings all over the political spectrum in this novel. From police union actions that would make Joseph McCarthy turn in his grave to sending in the National Guard to end the anarchism caused by a lack of police enforcement. There is more than a bit of irony in the role of the religious and conservative National Guard commander in the story. Through his religious convictions, and more than a bit of common sense, he ends up doing things that are perfectly in line with his convictions but not by any stretch of the imagination in line with conservative orthodoxy. Whether you approach the problem from the right or the left, so Spinrad seems to argue, the conclusion that the balance between capital and labour needs to be restored is inevitable.

Being set in the Big Easy the dialogues are in a kind of Southern Vernacular English. Spinrad plays with the preconceptions associated with that variety of English, as well as with various stereotypes associated with the rural population of the Mississippi delta, and preconceptions of crime, drug use and race. He constantly tempts the reader to fall into one of these preconceptions and think of the characters as backwards, uneducated and dumb, only to have that character make a move that shows them not quite as simple as the stereotype would have it. This contrast is sometimes downright hilarious but can also be very confronting. The Voodoo queen is probably the best example of that. She is 'ridden' by the spirits but do not think her a puppet.

The People's Police is a very politically charged novel. It questions, it mocks, it satirizes and it challenges. The book is quite cynical about the world of politics and business in particular. You have to be able to appreciate a strong political message in the book to like it. Spinrad does not hide his own opinions, which border on the anarchistic at times, in the novel. I suspect this goes for a lot of his other books as well, so for readers familiar with his work, that will most likely not be a surprise. Personally, I enjoyed his sharp criticism and unapologetically cynical observations. It makes me curious what Spinrad has to say on terrorism. I may have to seek out Osama the Gun some time.

Book Details
Title: The People's Police
Author: Norman Spinrad
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 284
Year: 2017
Language: English
Format: E-ARC
ISBN: 978-0-7653-8429-4
First published: 2017

Sunday, February 12, 2017

High Stakes - George R. R. Martin and Melinda M. Snodgrass

High Stakes is the 23rd book in the shared world series Wild Cards, and the final book in what has become known as the Mean Streets Triad. The triad started with Fort Freak (2011), which combines a police procedural with comic book heroes inspired characters. This final volume is quite a different beast though. It takes us far from the streets of Joker Town in New York and pits an unlikely bunch of heroes against a malevolent foe capable of destroying the world. It is pure Wild Cards alright, but probably not the ending of this story arc people were expecting.

Detective Franny Black manages to crack the case of the disappearing Jokers. He tracks them down to a casino in the city of Talas, Kazakhstan, where Jokers are forced to fight to the death in an arena. Franny's intrusion puts a stop to that but it soon turns out the casino hides a much greater threat. The jokers do not just serve as a sick kind of entertainment. The deaths of the Jokers slakes the thirst for blood and suffering of a creature waiting to unleash its terrible power upon the world. Franny may have solved a crime and destroyed the world in one move.

The Wild Cards series swing back and forth between short story collection and traditional novel. High Stakes is what Martin calls a full mosaic. It was written by six authors: Melinda M. Snodgrass, John Jos. Miller, David Anthony Durham, Caroline Spector, Stephen Leigh, and Ian Tregillis, all of whom have contributed to the series before. Where, in the previous two novels in the triad, the authors all had clearly defined sections, this book is edited in a different way. You can still recognize the various contributions by the point of view, but they are worked into seven long sections with contributions by all the authors instead of individual chapters. The editing is decent, some minor continuity errors but nothing that really bothered me. There must have been quite a bit of rewriting involved. The copy-editor could have done another pass though. If I spot typos there's a lot of them.

I suspect that quite a lot of people will not particularly like this novel. It breaks from the police procedural and launches into full-blown Lovecraftian horror. The horrific element of the novel is, as one would expect from a comic book inspired series, very much over the top. The authors don't shy away from describing events in gory detail. I felt the copious descriptions of the nightmarish scenes in Talas padded the novel quite a bit. I suppose with six authors you need to give them some space to do their thing but this book definitely could have been shorter. If this gory kind of monster horror is your thing, then you will want to read this book. It is such a break with the two books that have gone before, and the reader has to have read Lowball (2014) to make sense of this one, that for many readers it will be a disappointment.

Here and there, a fine bit of characterization can be found in the novel. When the horror does not rely on monsters, it is actually truly horrific. The influence of the creature the Aces are fighting makes the darkest thoughts, hidden in the deepest recesses of their mind, surface. The shift between the face they normally show the world and the murderous monsters they can turn into is often rapid and very disturbing. Especially Molly, who swings between the lonely and selfish kleptomaniac she has shown herself to be and the murderous fury she can turn into several times in the book, is a good example of this. A lifetime of therapy probably won't be enough to deal with that kind of trauma.

While the novel is well padded and over the top, the authors do manage to keep it compulsively readable. The reader will want to know how they manage to defeat the monster lurking under Talas. To do that, the authors reach back to a character that has not appeared in the Triad before. For readers who have not read the other novels in the series, it may feel like a deus ex machina ending. I guess one of the advantages of having so much material to draw on, is always being able to drag in an Ace with useful powers.

High Stakes left me with pretty much the same feeling as Suicide Kings (2009), the final novel in the Committee Triad. The triad starts out interesting but then doesn't live up to the promise. This book was very readable, fun even at some level, but it was not a good book. High Stakes manages to make the triad feel unbalanced by so completely changing the nature of the story. It makes the book feel like a story attached to the previous two books at a later time rather than a continuous narrative. I guess there is a trade off between leaving the authors space to be creative and agreeing in advance on a story arc. Martin has sold three more Wild Cards books to Tor. I hope they manage handle to this obvious limitation of their modus operandi better in those novels.

Book Details
Title: High Stakes
Editor: George R.R. Martin and Melinda M. Snodgrass
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 555
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-3562-3
First published: 2016