Review: Ubik by Philip K. Dick

pkd setTitle: Ubik

Author: Philip K. Dick

Publisher: Library of America

Format: Hardcover

Where I Received the Title: Purchased

Review:

I have long-been a fan of Philip K. Dick, but I am ashamed to say that this is my first read of his wonderful novel, Ubik. It is one of his more popular titles and certainly one of the highest rated — and for good reason. Ubik is a psychological science fiction novel that crams so many ideas into a weird and mind-bending narrative that leaves you slack-jawed the whole way through.

The novel is about a technician by the name of Joe Chip who works with an organization that employs people with the special ability to block spies with parapsychological talents (such as telepaths and fortune tellers) in the sake of privacy. Chip is nearly broke when a woman by the name of Pat comes to his door, offering an unprecedented talent — the ability to change the past. Chip is wary of her, but is pressured to agree that her talents are too great to ignore. Shortly after their encounter, a large contract comes through, sending some of the corporations most-talented “inertials” to luna. Their trip results in a disaster and Joe Chip finds himself lost in time, not knowing who to trust or if the reality he is experiencing is even real.

I really can’t say enough good things about this novel. I LOVED it. I loved how every step of the way — just when I thought I understood what was going on — PKD peels back another layer, revealing a twisted and intricate world that Joe Chip has no prayer of figuring out. His friends around him are dying and the world and its contents are devolving from a “futuristic” 1992 to regressed and often useless products in 1939. Joe Chip’s discernment is top-notch, but he struggles at every turn to know who to trust. Heck, he doesn’t even know who is alive and dead.

I often see criticism of PKD’s prose, with a back-handed compliment applauding his story-telling while remarking that it’s no great literary work. This is a completely unnecessary comment and is as relevant as when I hear that epic fantasy writer, Brandon Sanderson, isn’t a great stylist. Some writers seek to wax poetically, describing vivid settings with lurid prose and alliteration. PKD cranked out fiction at a manic pace, throwing in so many great ideas that were harmonious in his story telling and he did this as a very capable and talented writer. I enjoy his prose — making use of quick scene changes and off-the-cuff dialog — which he demonstrates effectively in Ubik.

There are few writers who can pull off this mash-up of ideas. Iain M. Banks comes to mind, blending diverse future technologies in his Culture novels. Neal Stepehenson may be another. But more often, science fiction posits a future that could be, rather than bending reality and technology to make a story that barely leaves the reader with any familiarity to hold on to. This is my kind of story. One that tiptoes the line between utter confusion and brilliance. I haven’t decided if Ubik is my favorite novel of PKD’s works, but it’s darn near close.

Review: Peacemaker by Marianne de Pierres

peacemakerTitle: Peacemaker

Author: Marianne de Pierres

Publisher: Angry Robot

Format: electronic ARC

Where I Received the Title: NetGalley

Review:

In a world that has been over-consumed by civilization, Virgin “Ginny” Jackson presides as ranger over the last standing natural park — reminiscent of the Outback (or an Old West-themed desert). Drugs and murder lead to the recruiting of US Marshall, Nate Sixkiller, who is part of an agency that polices mystical events. His experience proves timely when Virgin receives an omen from a supernatural creature from her childhood. As expected, the two law enforcement agents clash, but work together through a series of calamities to bring justice with their peacemakers in hand.

This book truly defines genre blending. It certainly is the space western that is implied with the book’s cover, but don’t expect to find a Firefly spin-off inside. In fact, this book reads much more like an urban fantasy/mystery than a futuristic six-shooter. While the mashing up of genres has become common-place in the last decade, I find it often comes at the expense of the story. In Peacemaker, de Pierres weaves her Sprawl-like setting with the supernatural without jarring the reader.

The prose is sharp and the book is what you would expect from Angry Robot. The short sentences, active voice, and pulpy jargon reminded me of a science fictiony noir novel..

The characters are what help this novel shine the most. Aside from the diverse personalities in Virgin and Nate, Virgin’s friend, Caro, is a bridge between the law enforcers and the law breakers (of which there are many that work with and against Virgin). The individuality of these characters broaden the world that is very different from the one we know.

I found the book enjoyable and fast-paced, but it would be an exaggeration to say that I loved it. There is a lot of action, but ultimately I didn’t form an emotional attachment to the characters and the mystery wasn’t intriguing enough for the plot alone to carry it through. This comment may be a reflection on me as a reader more than on the novel itself, since I am unable to pinpoint any flaws that left my reading experience to be any less than stellar.

But don’t be dissuaded in the least by my favorable, albeit tepid response. Angry Robot continues to put out good fiction and Marianne de Pierres demonstrates in Peacemaker her ability to write engaging fiction that seamlessly spans the entirety of what science fiction and fantasy have to offer.

Must-Read Manga: Naoki Urasawa

I go through Manga spurts — typically gravitating toward the SF story lines with titles such as Akira, Ghost in a Shell, and Cowboy Bebop. But SF fans would be remiss to pass over Naoki Urasawa. He interweaves intricate plot lines, has deep characters, and has a skill at writing with suspense. They are the kind of stories that leave you thinking about the psychological thrill-ride that Urasawa brings you on.

There are two series in particular that are, in my mind, required reading — and a third that I hope to start shortly:

monster

Urasawa kills it in his manga, Monster. Forgive my pun, for it’s the suspenseful tale about a serial killer and an altruistic doctor who is on the run, accused of committing the killer’s crimes. The characters, the plot, the pacing, the art, the suspense, the dialog — every element of this manga — is just spot on. I am only four volumes in, but am completely addicted to this series.

Dr. Kenzo Tenma is a Japanese surgeon who goes to make a name for himself in Germany to avoid working in the shadow of his adept, but older brother. His talents are unmatched in his new hospital and he soon finds himself operating on people deemed more important rather than those in the greatest need. This conflict of morals come to a pass when he saves a young boy against the administrations direction, leaving the mayor to die fatally in the hands of a lesser surgeon. The outcome of this decision has grave consequences for his life, his career and for a stream of future events.

This is a brilliant piece of work that deserves to be read by anyone with even a slight interest in manga.

20th century boys

For those with a bit more patience and a penchant for the strange and speculative, Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys is nearly equal to the much more straight-forward story arc of Monster. The story flashes between the late sixties, when a group of friends formed a secret club, to the nineties, when their childhood comes back to haunt them. It’s a story about how these boys band together to save the world, although the apocalypse and their role in it are in the early stages little more than a conspiracy. I’m still early into this series and it wasn’t until the end of the first volume that this one started to resonate with me.

pluto

I haven’t read Pluto yet, but I figured I’d toss in another popular series by Urasawa. This is on my to-be-read pile, with even a deeper sci-fi element about a future where robots pass as humans. Given that I am a big fan of books like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, I expect that I will love this series as well.

Review of Star Wars: Honor Among Thieves by James S.A. Corey

18209565Title: Star Wars: Honor Among Thieves (Empire and Rebellion #2)

Author: Joe Schreiber

Publisher: LucasBooks (Random House)

Format: electronic ARC

Where I Received the Title: NetGalley

Review:

I have long been a fan of Star Wars and the expanded universe and have also been diligent and enthusiastic in reading both James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse space opera series and Daniel Abraham’s epic fantasy series, The Dagger and the Coin. So to say I have been anticipating Honor Among Thieves is an understatement.

To make things even more compelling, this novel is about Han Solo. A man’s man. An I-shot-first, fearless rogue who if given the chance, every 1980′s kid would want to be if it wasn’t for Boba Fett’s sweet mech armor. So here I am, finally with an electronic copy in hand, ready to don a set of Star Wars jammies, with a Han Solo action figure to my side, and read this novel in one sitting.

The first thing that jumped out at me was the writing was not quite typical of the Daniel Abraham/Ty Franck duo that penned the wonderful novel, Leviathan Wakes. The punchy dialog that I am used to reading in Jim Holden seems almost artificial when it is transplanted on Han Solo. The Star Wars favorite talks tough, but seems completely unsure of himself in his head, which in a way is inconsistent with the Han Solo character of the expanded universe.

From my viewing and reading, I see Han Solo as a hardened, but still intrinsically good man. A.C. Crispin fleshed out his character beautifully in a trilogy that told of a young boy who had to deal with death and losing a mother figure and then later, a lover that he would have spent the rest of his life with. This portrayal of Han Solo showed how his character struggled to deal with the feelings of loss and how it led to a life as a smuggler and nearly a life-long bachelor. Timothy Zahn also captures his essence well in Scoundrels and Choices of One, giving us some filler adventures from the same period as Honor Among Thieves. And then of course, the original film trilogy first captured Han in his many shades of gray, showing his allegiance first to himself, and then to the Rebel Alliance. It finally took a princess who could match his courage and wits to open his heart to others beyond himself.

In the first book of the thematic trilogy, Razor’s Edge, Martha Wells brought Leia further into the spotlight, showing us her undeniable courage and intelligence. Good characters often struggle to make difficult decisions and Wells put Leia in these types of situations, allowing her leadership abilities to shine. It had an exciting plot with lots of action.

In contrast, Honor Among Thieves was at times dull, with very short action scenes. The book failed to draw on the expanded universe and ultimately left me with a forgettable story that I could barely finish. I really hate to write negative reviews, but given that this book will likely be one of the highest selling science fiction books this year, I feel compelled to mention that science fiction novels can achieve so much more. As can James S.A. Corey (an author combo I still will continue to read without reservation). Maybe my expectations were too high or maybe I was too tired/distracted when I read it, but each page was a chore and much of the story is already lost on me. If you are going to read a book in this series, pick up Martha Wells’ book first. If you are new to the expanded universe and are longing to read of Han Solo, pick up A.C. Crispin’s trilogy. This book is probably good for Star Wars or James S.A. Corey completists, but you will be much more satisfied if you delve into The Expanse series that the duo is writing. In fact, I highly recommend you do — it’s one of the best space operas being written today.

New Books in my TBR Pile

While I prefer paper over plastic, most of my reading these days is on my iPad. In a sense, this is convenient. I can pick up the light-weight device and hop from title to title without moving more than a finger. Four new titles have recently been added to my eReader, making my ever-growing TBR pile even taller (so to speak). Here are the titles I have received recently:

20174424

Robert Jackson Bennett gets a lot of love around SF book-blogging circles. Most of it is justifiable and when I saw this was available on NetGalley, I made it a point to request it immediately. The only novel I have read by Bennett is The Troupe, which I found to be a very good read. I know nothing about City of Stairs and I made it a point not to read the publisher’s description (if one has even been released). This is exactly how I like to go into books and I plan on reading this novel shortly.

peacemakerI spy a Joey Hi-Fi cover! While he is easily one of my favorite cover artists in the biz, this cover leaves something to be desired. The artwork is well-crafted and aesthetically pleasing, filled with the classic Joey Hi-Fi image overlays. But… The western, pistol-wielding woman comes across as cliche and the juxtaposition of an eagle over a futuristic city leaves the cover a bit discombobulated instead of harmonious. The very fact that I am discussing the cover means it is doing something very right.

I have been a fan of the publisher, Angry Robot, for a while now and when I see titles from them come out, I pay closer attention. Sci-fi Westerns have been around for a while and there is a sense of nostalgia that I enjoy, whether it is reading a novel or watching Firefly or Cowboy Bebop. I am not familiar with Marianne De Pierres, but I intend on giving this one a shot too.

roma

Rob Steiner, an author who I learned is a fellow-Michigander, sent along his novel that blends Roman history and space opera. Umm. Yes, please. While I haven’t read Dan Simmons’ (one of my favorite authors) books Ilium and Olympos, this novel’s description sort of reminded me of a Roman version of Simmons’ Greek dualogy. Ugh — too much to read, but I want to get to this one as well. It only has a few reviews on Goodreads, but they all are really good. Hopefully I can add another one to the mix.

Earthbound 1Earthbound 2Despite my 2014 reading list being filled with Urban Fantasy, this is not typically a sub-genre I gravitate toward.  I received two titles in the Earthbound Angels series by Elizabeth Corrigan and thought it would be worth looking into them. I had just finished a good angel-themed noir fantasy, Something More than Night by Ian Tregillis, when these books came to my attention. The Earthbound Angel series takes place in a world where humans interact with angels and demons and the first two books have received good reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. From the description, I am getting the vibe that it is more adventure than paranormal romance (a genre I try to avoid with my engineering-minded tin heart). I’m a little on the fence on these titles, but may give them a chance in the coming weeks.

A Fantastic SF Author Only Rich (or Resourceful) People can Read

900 grandmothersIf you think of some contemporary greats in the genre field, names like Gene Wolfe and Neil Gaiman come to mind. And in interviews with these men, or in discussions with the esteemable SF critic, Gary K Wolfe, you may hear of a short story/novel writer by the name of R.A. Lafferty.

I have only read a couple short stories by R.A. Lafferty, but have found in my readings that he has fantastic ideas and a magnificent control of the language. He is the kind of author that science fiction readers would want to point to when the literary elite look down upon genre fiction.

ral1So where are his books? The short answer is they are out of print. If you want to pick up a copy of one of his more popular collections, Nine Hundred Grandmothers, you are probably looking at spending $30-$50 for an old, ragged mass market paperback. Or if you have the patience, Centipede Press is coming out with a limited edition series with each book selling for $60. I do not criticize Centipede Press or their price. It is a limited run and the books come signed by the person writing the introduction and the cover artist. The price is competitive for what it is. It would be nice if they matched the limited edition with a trade paperback version that had a higher print run.

If we are to try to promote science fiction and literacy, it is time we make great works available for people to read. I could afford to purchase the new Centipede Press title and will strongly consider it, but it shouldn’t require a book collector or a person of financial means to be able to read good writing. Or maybe I am just picking out an author that just isn’t on the populace’s radar.

Review of Something More than Night by Ian Tregillis

SMTNTitle: Something More than Night

Author: Ian Tregillis

Publisher: Tor Books

Format: eBook

Where I Received the Title: Amazon.com

Review:

The great archangel, Gabriel has been murdered and like a shooting star, he burns across the night sky. A fallen angel by the name of Bayliss, who has made the Earth his home, is tasked with finding a mortal to replace the slain seraphim. While wandering through a crowd of humans, he manages to knock an innocent bystander, Molly, in front of a street tram. Rather than suffer the fate of death, she is transformed into an angel. Molly tries to come to grips with her new reality, uncover the mystery behind Gabriel’s death. But she still clings to her past, which haunts not only her own memories, but the lives of those she loves.

Tregillis’s novel is written from two very distinct viewpoints, which I will say is the strength in the book. Bayliss is told in heavy noir form, using words that only can be found in classic pulp detective novels. Molly, who recently broke up with her girlfriend and tends to her addict brother, has a more modern narrative voice. The differences in voice help to differentiate two very distinct people. Bayliss is essentially an antihero demon. He is not filled with completely evil motives, but he does have a secret or two and he makes no apologies for his sins. Molly, on the other hand, has a big heart and cares for those around her. She puts up with Bayliss’s antics, likely because she has no one else to turn to.

There is no lack of description in the book and Tregillis writes with elegant prose. At times, the wordiness of the setting bogged down the narrative, but overall I found the writing a delight to read. It is intelligent and witty and his use of language helps build empathy for Molly’s character. One scene in particular involves Molly returning to her past lover, only to discover that her efforts to intervene only cause destruction. Each touch and emotion Molly feels brings the reader a sense of hurt and longing that is difficult to describe.

While angels and demons are the subject of the novel, it largely is an invention of Tregillis’s own mythology. Specific orders of angels (cherubim, seraphim, powers, etc.) are borrowed from Biblical and medieval texts, but liberties are taken with the theology to make it pure fantasy.

I would characterize this novel as a mid-twentieth century urban fantasy with a more literary flavor than the paranormal romances that consume a majority of the shelves. Thematically, I found the premise interesting, but I am not particularly attracted to noir, which runs throughout the novel. Bottom line — if the story sounds interesting, I think you will love it. I liked it well enough and certainly plan to see what other novels Ian Tregillis has in store.

Review and Interview of Hang Wire over at Adventures in Scifi Publishing

Hang-Wire-CoverMy first book review at Adventures in SciFi Publishing is now up. The review is of Hang Wire, a new urban fantasy from Adam Christopher, published by the good folks at Angry Robot. I was also fortunate to have the opportunity to ask Adam a few questions about the novel. He has some unique thoughts on the various sub-genres of SFF and discusses a different standard between American and British fiction.

Overall, Hang Wire was a joy to read and Adam Christopher has the skill to create a world that appears much larger than what is in the text. I look forward to see what he has in store for us in the future.

Meta Perspectives in Speculative Fiction (and why I love the genre)

Readers are drawn to speculative fiction for different reasons. For me, it’s not merely escapism, nor is it to imagine how our world might be one day. I think what draws me most to speculative fiction is that it can examine the human condition without the restriction of our natural world. Genre authors will often use alien species or demigods or sentient technology to transcend and look at humanity beyond our mortal bodies. In this sense, their viewpoints become meta; their words and actions often echo the sentiments of a minority group on a personal level without being confined to that population or its shackles.

star trekIn some stories, the allegory is subtle. In fact, it may even be apparent without the author drawing an intentional connection. In other stories, the correlation is so obvious that it is almost insulting to the reader. I’ll give an example that was shared with me recently. In the Star Trek episode, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” we are introduced to an alien species that is half-black and half-white. One of the races has their whiteness on the right side and another has it on the other side. An argument ensues about what race is superior and the crew of the Enterprise must intervene to prevent a war. Now I wasn’t alive at this time, but I’ve got to imagine that even the most obtuse of viewers wouldn’t fail to see the episode’s commentary on the civil rights movement.

17333324I think there are many better examples where the use of meta perspectives is handled much more elegantly. One recent example is Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. In this novel, the language of the Radch does not distinguish gender with its pronouns. In fact, they use “she” as an inclusive term to include both male and female. This is apparent to any attentive reader, but what Leckie is doing is more than commenting on gender equality. She is challenging language assumptions all together. In fact, there are other anomalies to the Radch language. The word civilized speaks to the notion of having an advanced culture that is organized and under control. A civilized culture can thrive on any continent with any race of people. But in the novel, the Radch only apply the term to themselves. They cannot apply the term to another race, for they see themselves as the most advanced and any other group is lesser. I am really hoping that Leckie continues to examine language on a broader scale in subsequent novels, because I think there is a lot we take for granted with the use of our own language.

The ability to take a character and transcend them from human bodies and human culture is precisely what I love about speculative fiction. An SF story allows the reader to step into another person’s shoes without the preconceived biases that come with real-life characters. This alone makes speculative fiction both unique and important in literature.

A Second Home at Adventures in SciFi Publishing

AISFP_144x144

I am pleased to announce that I will be blogging over at Adventures in SciFi Publishing on a hopefully regular basis. One of my goals this year is to get better connected in the genre community and I see this to be a good opportunity to cross-pollinate with other fans that may not venture over to my humble blog.

It is no exaggeration when I say that Adventures in SciFi Publishing is the podcast that got me into podcasts. This was before I had a smart phone and I used to download episodes to my computer and transfer them over to my old iPod classic. Tim Ward, who took over the primary podcasting duties from Shaun Farrell, has done a good job of keeping the podcast going with some great interviews.  If you haven’t listened to this podcast, I recommend a recent interview with James S.A. Corey, for starters.

I don’t like talking too much about myself, but for those who are interested, I was featured in an interview yesterday on the site. I am looking forward to getting more involved and hopefully to continue in their vision to bring fans of Science Fiction and Fantasy real life stories from their favorite authors.

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