Review: The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar (2010)

The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar
Angry Robot, 2010

Rating: B+

In an alternate Victorian England where anthropomorphic lizard aliens from outer space are in control of the British monarchy, a young man named Orphan loses the love of his life in the crossfire between an anti-government revolutionary called the Bookman and Les Lizards, the name given to these strange lizard kings. The mystery deepens when, shortly after the death of his beloved, a blind beggar named Gilgamesh who Orphan often confided in disappears as well. The Bookman is essentially the story of this young man’s struggle to track down the Bookman and find a way to get his love back.

Angry Robot always seems to manage to put out books that generate significant interest on the strength of their book covers alone; novels like Beukes’ Zoo City and Dan Abnett’s Triumff would likely have never caught my eye if it weren’t for the absolute quality of the graphic design. Luckily, the strength of their literary output measures up to the perfection of their presentation. Lavie Tidhar is an extraordinarily talented writer, in terms not just of quality of storytelling but in pure prose; the writing in The Bookman is bordering on perfection. Even in the slower parts around the novel’s middle, the prose is consistently flawless and engaging.

It is easy to say that the first ten percent or so of the novel (leading up to the death of Lucy as detailed in the blurb) would be one of the strongest pieces of any science fiction or fantasy novel ever. The build-up of the story is picture perfect, with every word used to its absolute greatest possible output. If you are fortunate enough to have not read the blurb before hand (or in the case of this reviewer, not having read the blurb in long enough that I had no memory of it), the death of Lucy is an absolutely heart-breaking kick in the chest. Although perfection of the level achieved in the early chapters of The Bookman is hard to keep up, the novel as a whole turns out to be a wonderful steampunk adventure.

Victorian London has the tendency to be a bit of a dry setting; it has been done and done before by writers of all stripes since the era was actually current. It seems to be some kind of literary cultural obsession to remember fondly back to days that no one currently around was alive for, but Tidhar does it better than anyone in The Bookman. His lizard-led steampunk re-imagining of Victorian England is the perfect setting for adventure, and luckily a world he revisits in future novels.

There is a lot to say about the strengths of the book that would spoil too much, so to summarize: brilliantly written, strong characters, wonderful world, and an engaging story make for a novel that is absolutely a must-read despite a middle third that could have used a bit more excitement. Although the book uses borrows some other characters from fiction a la The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Bookman is far superior to that graphic novel series in execution. Here, the characters from Moby Dick, the various Sherlock Holmes tales, and otherwise, are used with much more restraint, but it makes the world of The Bookman feel much more its own. Absolutely a classic of the steampunk and alternate history genres.

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Review: Reich TV by Jeff Pearce (2010)

Reich TV by Jeff Pearce
Gallivant Books, 2010

Rating: A

Alternate history is a crowded and often quite useless genre. How much can we really learn from aliens from the future giving gamma rays to the Viet Cong? It may have entertainment value, but the best in alternate history takes a bigger approach than this. Classics like Philip K. Dick’s Hugo award winning novel The Man in the High Castle and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America spring to mind. Jeff Pearce’s Reich TV isn’t quite The Man in the High Castle, but it is just as good as The Plot Against America, if not better.

Unlike any of the alternate histories I had read prior to Reich TV, Pearce’s novel uses real life public figures as his main characters rather than his own creations. In one aspect, it makes the characterization process easier; you don’t have to create them yourself. On the other, though, it adds a lot of required research to a genre that by definition requires more in-depth study than any other genre of fiction. In the case of Reich TV, this use of real people is brilliantly executed. This is an outstandingly well-researched piece of speculative fiction.

At its core, Reich TV is a story about the way technology changes everything. Just in case it isn’t already obvious from the title and cover, Reich TV is set during World War II. The biggest technology advances of the century have come to be earlier than in reality, and this leads to a much larger influence of media on the scheme of things, on the ebb and flow of the conflict. Essayist and novelist George Orwell is a journalist from England, in Germany investigating the circumstances surrounding some mysterious deaths. The Marx Brothers are performing a weekly variety show in London being transmitted in Berlin that causes enough controversy to put their lives in danger. Dylan Thomas is their producer, who tears himself away from booze and women just long enough to focus on a new obsession: stopping the Nazis.

There are times in Reich TV where the pace could have been just a bit faster, especially around the middle third. It starts out very strong, and the story is attention grabbing very quickly. There’s a bit of a slowing around the middle, but it was still very enjoyable. Pearce writes wonderfully—so well that it is actually quite a surprise this wasn’t published by a more traditional, larger publishing company.

The strongest aspect of Reich TV is the characterization. Pearce’s portrayal of all of these seemingly larger than life figures is picture perfect. In reading the novel, one could entirely believe that Dylan Thomas, George Orwell, and Groucho Marx were exactly as Pearce wrote them and participated in the events as written. Pearce did an excellent job of immersing this reader in the world, and completely squelching any disbelief that someone might have had reading another alternate history book.

Of particular interest, aside from the great novel itself, is the section at the end when Pearce explains how much of the novel is based on reality, and how much his own creation. The inclusion of this several pages of explanation really managed to deepen my appreciation for the novel and how it was written. It was certainly no small task, and not something everyone could do. Reich TV is a pretty special book. Pearce is a brilliant and talented writer, as well as being spectacularly diverse: he has a couple other novels out that are in completely different sub-genres of speculative fiction, but they intrigue nonetheless. Reich TV is definitely a must read for anyone with an interest in alternate history.

Four Science Fiction Books That Should NEVER Be Movies

There seems to be a compulsion in filmmakers to make movies out of just about everything in science fiction and fantasy that has any kind of success into a feature film. Producers see dollar signs, writers see easy work, and directors see the opportunity to probably ruin something a lot of people liked just fine the way it was. And the viewers pay to go see it, so everybody wins. There are certainly a few films in the canon of classic science fiction, however, that simply should not be adapted into film form:

  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin – This Hugo and Nebula award winning novel is not only one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time, but is arguably the first great feminist sci-fi novel ever written. It essentially follows the story of a representative of an interplanetary alliance making a visit to a cold planet called Gethen where all of the inhabitants change genders at will, and thus have no defined gender roles in their society. The Left Hand of Darkness is the perfect example of brilliant sci-fi with a message, and I can just see the fabricated action sequences jammed into the middle of the story, as well as the necessary plot elements lifted, in order to make a film out of it.
  • Foundation by Isaac Asimov – Readers will point out that there are already plans to adapt Foundation into a film, and those readers would unfortunately be correct. Asimov is the master of intellectual tales; most of the sections of Foundation have to do with politicians standing around discussing a problem that has come up. Despite the strength of writing, the novel is certainly dry at times, and would surely be ruined with some kind of action added in. Frankly, a faithful adaptation of Foundation would not please the average moviegoer, and it is easy to see for anyone who has read the novel that it won’t work as a film without so many changes that it is unrecognizable as the source material.
  • Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – Essentially, Rendezvous with Rama should never be a film because it would make for a painfully boring one. Even if it was faithfully adapted, it would end up being two and a half hours of waiting for an alien first contact that never actually manages to happens. That’s what the book is. Many science fiction fans swear by the quality of this novel, but the truth is that it just isn’t all that, and it is hard to imagine anyone liking a film of it.
  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick – The many works of Philip K. Dick have been frequent sources of material for science fiction films, and it is almost always a botched job that involves very little of the actual plot presented in the books. Blade Runner basically borrowed the aesthetic of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and the main character’s name but little else. Total Recall is essentially completely different from “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale”, the short story it is allegedly based on. In the case of alternate history classic The Man in the High Castle, it is hard to imagine a film at all. It is science fiction but there is no action, and alternate history in general is not a genre that often finds it way to film (Inglourious Basterds is the only film that even comes to mind). It is likely that it will eventually be done anyway because it would seem that slowly but surely all of Philip’s works are being adapted, but let’s hope it never happens.

 

Review: Lauren Beukes – Zoo City (2010)

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
Angry Robot, 2010

Rating: C

People of color in science fiction are rare. The genre is generally perceived as being something only for white people, no matter how many Samuel L. Jacksons show up in Star Wars films. It is an unfortunate thing, considering that the genre has been, in general, so forward thinking and ahead of its time in race relations and general civil rights. The first African-American woman to have a starring role on a television show was none other than Nichelle Nichols as Uhura on Star Trek. It seems that since the seventies and eighties, however, science fiction has become something of a white male’s club. With that unfortunate fact, it is refreshing to be able to pick up a sci-fi novel with two people of color on the cover.

Zoo City is set in South Africa, as racially divisive a place as there is in the world, where a young woman and ex-con named Zinzi makes a living as a tracker. She is what is referred to as a “zoo”, a person who has a sort of fantastical animal companion attached to her as a result of committing a serious crime. With this, she also has a gift of being able to track items down that mean something to her clients, and she is eventually thrown into a long chase for a piece of mystery. Readers will immediately compare the animal familiars to those of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and rightfully so; Pullman’s work is even referenced in the novel, so it is fair to say it was an influence.

There are a lot of key strengths to Zoo City that would seem to lend to it being a standout novel. The urban fantasy world of South Africa that Beukes has developed is a wonderful playground, and characters like Zinzi and Benoit are memorable for their qualities both good and bad. It is refreshing to have characters that are not just vessels for plot, but that actually feel like genuine people with likable qualities and real flaws. Beukes also writes very well, with prose that is never too flowery but also keeps from ever feeling pedestrian.

The key problem with Zoo City is simply that the plot never really feels that exciting. As much as the characters grab the reader’s attention and as well developed sociologically and aesthetically the world of Zoo City is, the story itself leaves so much to be desired that in the end the novel doesn’t really manage to get all that much past average. Memorable characters and a wonderful setting are hard to come by, but without the story to drive it forward, there isn’t a lot to get excited about. Beukes is still a worthwhile writer who will certainly have better novels than this, as her gift for character will be the primary asset of her future output in fiction. Unfortunately, Zoo City is a little bit of a letdown.

Indie SF/F Names to Know: Jeff Pearce

Since independent publishing became so easy thanks to websites like Smashwords and Amazon, the ebook community has been inundated with an endless pile of novels. There aren’t any hard statistics to back up this claim, but I believe that it is fair to say that more than 95% of what is published through this medium is garbage that would never have seen the light of day through traditional publishing means. There are definitely a fair few writers who have either published independently or started their own small press publishers however that are extraordinarily talented and worth taking a look at. One of them is Jeff Pearce.

Pearce started his own book publishing company, Gallivant Books, and has published books in a handful of genres. What is perhaps most remarkable about Jeff Pearce, aside from his pure writing ability that includes quality prose, dialogue, and plotting, is the diversity of stories he tackles. In The Karma Booth, which has been reviewed by Frida over at Adarna SF, Pearce tackles horror in an effort that, if the opinions of those I’ve seen can be taken as gospel, is as strong as anything published by any of the big speculative fiction houses. Reich TV, which follows George Orwell, Dylan Thomas, and the Marx Brothers in the middle of World War II, is one of the strongest alternate history novels ever written, second perhaps only to Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Pearce has also published the first of a series in what is best described as literary superhero fiction with Bianca: The Silver Age.

There are a handful of writers in independent speculative fiction who are in the same ballpark as Jeff Pearce in terms of quality of writing, but none who manage to dabble so perfectly in such a diverse array of genres. He is an extraordinary writer of science fiction, thriller, horror, and super hero action, and it is kind of a head scratcher as to why he isn’t writing for Tor or something as big. Pearce is definitely a name to know. Read about his various works at Gallivant Books, and read some reviews of his novels at Adarna SF.

Getting Steampunk Out of the Closet

Today's version of steampunk.

It has been a few years now since steampunk made the jump from quiet subgenre of sci-fi to the new “it” thing in speculative fiction. Much in the way of the grunge music movement went from metal and punk influenced alternative rock to $99.95 for a flannel shirt, steampunk has quickly transitioned from Victorian adventure crossed with steam technology to goggles as an accessory to corsets. Novels like Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, and Scott Westerfield’s Leviathan show that the genre is capable of greatness (or at least pure enjoyment), but the genre has been flung far from its roots; chances are that most steampunk fans have never even heard of K.W. Jeter, let alone actually read Morlock Night or Infernal Devices.

The origins of steampunk are basically just a modern manifestation of the aesethetic of science fiction that was actually written during the Victorian era, specifically the works of H.G. Wells (The Time Machine) and Jules Verne (Around the World in Eighty Days). Writers like Jeter and James Blaylock started writing stories with similar elements in the late 1970s and early 80s, with William Gibson and Bruce Sterling doing a similar thing a bit later in The Difference Engine. More recently, there have been basically two kinds of steampunk that pretty much cover 95% of the genre: purist steampunk set in Victorian England, and more western steampunk set in the same era but in America instead. Boneshaker would fall under this heading, and the television show Firefly definitely has an “Old West” steampunk feel (despite being set in the future).  It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what caused the crossover from minor interest of sci-fi fans to full on mainstream obsession, but the literary aspect of steampunk has really become an afterthought.

How does the genre move forward? By reminding the general population that it is not just a dress up game. Writers appearing dressed in Victorian clothing in their bio photos is all well and good, but is it really necessary? Publishers like Tor are doing a good job of pushing their steampunk lines, but it seems that the only course of action is a sort of literary steampunk evangelism; if you see someone tweeting or posting about how much they love steampunk, challenge them on the books. “Have you read Boneshaker? What about Homunculus? Oh really? Then do I have a treat for you…”