apocalyptic

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Date read: 8.24.10
Book from: Borrowed from my cousin
Reviewer: Emera

In brief:  ZOMBIE OUTBREAK etc. Global pandemonium ensues.

So I assumed at first that this was in novel form, and was mildly intrigued since I’d never read a novel-length zombie survival story. (ETA: Oh wait, I have: Warm Bodies.) Turns out it’s actually in the format of interviews with various survivors of “World War Z:” soldiers, community leaders, doctors, lone survivalists, a feral child, etc., brought to you by the author of The Zombie Survival Guide. Most of it is schlock, especially any part of it that aspires to any emotional or philosophical depth and the so-called “satire,” which amounts to making very obvious fun of Corrupt Politicians, Shallow American Suburban Housewives, and so on. (Also, I must salute Brooks for his incredibly creative choices in making two of the three or four total Asian characters, respectively, a blind samurai zombie-whacker and a former otaku turned “warrior monk” (barf).)

But what fun schlock it is! The interview format gives Brooks an excuse to play out as many obsessively detailed scenarios as his zombie-nerd brain can churn out, from panics fueled by the failure of a fraudulent zombie-virus vaccine, to reappropriated medieval castles under siege, to all the intricacies of anti-zombie warfare and weapon design. (Possibly my favorite section: a long interview regarding the training of military dogs to track, and sometimes lure, zombies. It tickles the part of me that insisted on using attack dogs when playing Red Alert against my brother.) There are also numerous satisfyingly suspenseful episodes and creepy moments: the narrative of an American soldier who is ejected from a damaged plane and lost, alone, in a zombie-infested forest; the realization of a submarine crew that that odd sound is the clawing of dozens of submerged zombies that have surrounded their vessel. (Brooks’ zombies survive drowning, and can re-reanimate if thawed after being frozen, which leads to the fabulously grisly image of a world with its polar regions abandoned to hordes of half-frozen zombies.)

All in all, World War Z made for some great summer reading. I suppose it’s a little late to be reporting that, but there’s always room for a little brainless (pun?) entertainment. If you’ve ever discussed zombie outbreak contingency plans with friends, you’ll likely enjoy this.

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Max Brooks: bio and works reviewed

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Date read: 9.8.10
Read from: Clarkesworld Magazine
Reviewer: Kakaner

Every station must have its doctor.

The first doctor was a collection of wetware and delicate machinery designed to serve deep-space astronauts. He was built because human doctors were too expensive, doing little most of the time while demanding space and oxygen and food. The modern doctor was essential because three Martian missions had failed, proving that no amount of training and pills could keep the best astronaut sane, much less happy. My ancestor knew all of tricks expected of an honorable physician: He could sew up a knife wound, prescribe an antipsychotic, and pluck the radiation-induced cancer out of pilot’s brain. But his most vital skill came from smart fingers implanted in every heroic brain—little slivers armed with sensors and electricity. A doctor can synthesize medicines, but more important is the cultivation of happiness and positive attitudes essential to every astronaut’s day.

I am the same machine, tweaked and improved a thousand ways but deeply tied to the men and women who first walked on Mars.

This is the narrator, half-human half-robot. More of which? We never really know. “The Cull” blends a slice-of-life snapshot aboard a space station with a dark insight into the methodology and sustenance of this future humanity incubated from, but at the same time reeling towards destruction. Reed paints the combination of human emotions and bleak reality in firm, knowing strokes yet never steps out of his narrator’s character. I wouldn’t necessarily say there are many hidden levels to this story, but I love that there’s at least one that examines the human psyche in a desperate society as well as a machine’s inability to refuse its programming. I’d go as far as to say this is one of my favorite sci-fi short stories I’ve read in a while, largely because its simple and elegant deliverance leaves enough room for the tragic beauty of the world’s circumstance to shine through.

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Robert Reed
Read “The Cull” at Clarkesworld Magazine

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Date read: 5.5.10
Book from: Borrowed from Kakaner
Reviewer: Emera

On an Earth whose surface has been scorched into uninhabitability by the expanding sun, a lone, gun-toting traveler arrives at what may be humanity’s last outpost. At the bottom of the former Marianas Trench, a group of scientists have established a settlement complete with gardens and a space shuttle equipped for escape from the burned-out planet. The new arrival, who simply calls himself the Pilgrim, is at first welcomed as a much-needed defender against the various mutated beings that prowl the trench, but his fanaticism-fueled taste for destruction may bring unwanted consequences.

This mini-series (a sequel to the 2001 Just a Pilgrim, which I realized only belatedly) got a big meh from me. While the concepts and imagery are gratifyingly ambitious, the overall direction of the plot is way too obvious if you know anything at all about Garth Ennis and his pet topics, i.e. have read Preacher. As much as I love Preacher, Ennis’ expression of his anti-Christianity is so extreme and lacking in nuance that I had no interest in swallowing it twice. Just a Pilgrim was pretty hilarious to read shortly after seeing the recent film The Book of Eli, though, which is diametrically opposed in its message and about as lacking in depth – I think if you put a copy of Pilgrim and a recording of Eliin the same room, they’d explode each other.

Artwise, I did like Ezquerra’s monumental vistas and Paul Mounts’ mucky textures and bruised, sweltering color palette of intense purples and oranges, although occasionally the color choices did end up being hard on the eyes.

For the record, I also tried to read the original series but couldn’t maintain interest, for about the same set of reasons that I had a hard time getting through Garden of Eden, but also because the art had a much cruder look to it, despite the artistic team being the same.

Conclusion: if you’re looking for Western grit, post-apocalyptic atmosphere, and fairly mindless violence involving mutant jellyfish and hammerhead sharks, you may like this. Just don’t expect depth or anything approaching meaningful commentary on… anything, really.

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Garth Ennis
The Boys, by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson (2006-200*) E

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Date read: 1.26.10
Book from: Borrowed from Kakaner
Reviewer: Emera

Jeanne DuPrau - The City of Ember

“The city of Ember was made for us long ago by the Builders. It is the only light in the dark world. Beyond Ember, the darkness goes on forever in all directions.”

At the age of twelve, every child in Ember is assigned a job. Curious, bright-spirited Lina Mayfleet longs to be a messenger, but is instead assigned to dreary, dirty work in the underground Pipeworks. Doon Harrow, her classmate, is convinced that the sporadic blackouts of the great lamps of Ember – the only lights in a world of immeasurable darkness – forebode worse troubles for the city. He longs to investigate the enormous generator in the Pipeworks that provides the city with all of its power, so when he receives the job of messenger, he and Lina eagerly swap their assignments. As the blackouts increase in frequency and fear spreads among Ember’s citizens, Lina soon comes to share Doon’s suspicions that Ember is a dying city. Together the two embark on a search to uncover Ember’s origins, and to find a way to lead their people to the bright city that Lina is sure exists somewhere in the Unknown Regions beyond Ember.

I didn’t enjoy The City of Ember nearly as much as I thought I would, for all that it’s a rather endearing book. The characters and setting are warmly evoked, with detailed and frequently beautiful descriptions, and of course the concept is fantastic to begin with – Ember is one of those fictional realms you wish you could visit, and more often than not end up carrying around with you in your head after reading. (I imagined it looking like a less anarchic version of the city in the film La Cité des Enfants Perdus/The City of Lost Children, and would pay a large amount of imaginary money to run along its streets and peer into its shops.)

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Date read: 4.29.08
Read from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

As the world economy crashes and the majority of the human race begins to plunge to its end, half a dozen oblivious individuals  make their way aboard a luxury cruise liner. The ship will indeed reach its ultimate destination – the Galápagos Islands – but rather than enjoying the “Nature Cruise of the Century,” its passengers will instead become the progenitors of a new humanity.

I felt a little foolish reading Galápagos since it’s heavily interwoven with references to other works in Vonnegut’s canon, in particular referencing Slaughterhouse-5 stylistically, when the only other Vonnegut novel I’ve read to date is Cat’s Cradle. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, which, in typical Vonnegut style, is a loopy, frightening, and brilliant satire that manages to be utterly compelling sci-fi without necessarily hewing all that closely to little things like scientific reality.

The narrative is executed with almost dizzying meta-playfulness (the meta aspect actually being explained by events later in the book), jumping from character to character while variously concealing, foreshadowing, and fragmenting the events of the plot. And though I sometimes find it hard to actually care about the characters in satires, I found the brittle, desperate cast of Galápagos strangely lovable. Much of this is thanks to Vonnegut’s tone, which is sad, funny, bitter, and loving in a way that makes you suspect he half-regrets loving anyone in the first place, but he can’t help himself, either.

Both novels of Vonnegut’s that I’ve read have a unique perspective on the absurdity of human life – both times, I’ve gotten a sense of actions that are simultaneously tiny and monumental, meaningless and all-important, cascading across a vastly bleak landscape. Here, Vonnegut asks the question of whether humanity will survive once we’ve done our best (unintentionally or otherwise) to destroy it – and if so, in what shape. And would the planet be losing anything anyway, if humanity as we see it now were to disappear? Vonnegut doesn’t quite say yes or no, which is one of the aspects of Galápagos that most make it worth reading.

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Kurt Vonnegut

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Date Read: 11.22.07
Book From: MITSFS, now Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

Robot Dreams is simply an amazing work of art. I’ve always believed there really is no other science fiction author who has managed to capture the emotional and ethical plights of robotics, and indeed, Asimov was the first to invent the concepts themselves. Robot Dreams is a collection of soft sci-fi stories that examine all sorts of aspects of a futuristic society in which humanoid robots exist. Now on to… story by story! (get ready.. there’s a bunch!)

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Date Read: 8.11.09
Read In: Night Shade Download
Reviewer: Kakaner

Exhalation is one of those special gems of short fiction that comes along only once in a while. The story belongs in a pocket of science fiction that not many people write in, and really stands out from the usual space fiction, sci-fi/fantasy meld, dystopia, or cyberpunk. It is about a world encased in a chromium bubble, in which the inhabitants are walking, living metal machines that survive on argon air, and one doctor sets out to discover the truth about their bodies.

The prose is fresh yet straightforward, very fitting for a scientist narrator. It’s also one of those stories that never drags but only continuously draws you in. I think the best part about Exhalation is its own “temporal ambiguity”– you really can’t tell if it’s supposed to be futuristic sci-fi, an AU, space fiction, or perhaps even “historical” sci-fi, and this quality lends the entire story a delicate air of surrealism. The conclusions drawn at the end by the doctor also indicate that this account, although short and delivered by one man, has serious implications and ramifications against the backdrop of the universe. Yet despite all the positive attributes, I didn’t feel an incredible emotional connection to the story. Perhaps it was the very precise narration, but I definitely felt like an observer instead of a participant.

I can’t say yet whether I believe this was the right choice for the 2009 Hugo Short Story winner. I feel like I understand one of the main reasons why it won, and that would be the cleverly crafted hard science fiction of the story. It’s been hard to find hard sci-fi like that of Exhalation in contemporary sci-fi. With cyberpunk on the rise, despite what I suspect to be at least half its readership having no background in cryptography or computation theory,  I think it’s been a while since people have found truly great and accessible science fiction. Chiang’s fiction is logical, with great attention to detail, and the technology in his story is definitely based on science while still allowing every person to understand the mechanics of his world, and it is this accessibility makes Exhalation real and relatable. I am going to read the other Hugo nominations for a stronger basis of comparison.

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Ted Chiang

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Date Read: 2.17.06

Book From: Personal collection

Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Looking for Jake is Mieville’s first published short story collection, containing tidbits of every lustworthy genre– weird and urban fantasy, sci-fi, noird, horror, and of course, baslag. The collection is an extremely welcome contrast to Mieville’s previous works– one, his first novel, and the other three a sprawling epic trilogy. Mieville definitely clings (and I suspect will always cling) to the urban setting, which in my opinion, is the best type of backdrop to broil all types of conspiracies, folklore, and war. In the case of suspense and horror literature, I feel the urban setting also lends itself very well to relatability, and while you as the reader might find yourself soaring to distant lands and imaginations with high fantasy, urban fantasy brings the weird and excitement directly to you. My reactions to the stories in this collection range from indifferent to eyes-glued-to-the-page drooling– here I have some thoughts and mini-summaries of each story:

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FreakAngels is an ongoing sci-fi/steampunk comic by Warren Ellis, syndicated online for free in weekly, six-page installments. It was begun in February of 2008, and I’ve been following it since then (I think I first saw it publicized on Coilhouse, my favorite blog). It follows the adventures of a group of young psychics who’ve dubbed themselves the FreakAngels, and hold down a corner in a Thames-inundated London.

It’s variously a futuristic survival story and a character-based drama, with a cast of somewhat cliché (one of the characters is basically a clone of Delirium from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman; unsurprisingly, she seems to be the fan favorite) but likable protagonists. The cool, clean art, by Paul Duffield and a team of colorists, tends to be shaky anatomically speaking – noodle fingers are frequently in evidence – but the characters are attractively drawn and the backgrounds are very satisfyingly detailed, especially when it comes to architecture. If some of the FreakAngels’ outfits (and hair colors) are somewhat improbable given their living circumstances… can’t have steampunk without fun clothes. It’s also clear that Ellis has put a good amount of thought into his characters’ survival strategies, so it’s fun to see their efforts at scavenging and rebuilding society via a mix of past and present technology – steampower and solar panels have both come into play.

All in all, FreakAngels will probably appeal to fans of Firefly and similar tales of scrappy, foul-mouthed, hyper-competent, and-therefore-you-must-love-us families thrown together by circumstance. (I personally have mixed feelings about that particular formula as perfected/beaten to death by Joss Whedon, but clearly am susceptible to the charm anyway.)

I suspect I might be hooked in part because of the method of delivery – getting my FreakAngels story kick is a fun way to start a Friday. Print collections are also being issued as the comic goes on.

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Warren Ellis

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Reviewer: Emera
Date Read: 3.31.09
Book From: Personal Collection

Warm Bodies is the tale of a zombie in a society of zombies. R (he can’t remember the rest of his name), originally the entirely nameless protagonist of Marion’s beautiful “I Am a Zombie Filled With Love,” here has his story extended: during a raid on a human encampment, he inexplicably makes the decision to shelter a living human girl, so that they make their way together in a stagnating world.

I would primarily describe this novel as cinematic, both in good and bad ways. Good because so many of the scenes are uniquely vivid and striking and just beg to be visualized – zombies swaying back and forth in “church;” R riding an airport’s moving walkway and coming to a stop just opposite his soon-to-be zombie wife; the Stadium that is the center of life for a surviving human community. Bad because most of the plot and execution is cheesy as hell.

This really just needs to be stripped down and rewritten, or at least have a stronger editing hand. It’s not just some of the questionable language (“the sun stood over us like a royal guardian,” “my mystique has thickened and intensified like balsamic reduction”), it’s the overall plot concept. A rebellious, artsy-bohemian girl who Changes Everything by having the protagonist fall in love with her? [SPOILERS FOLLOW; HIGHLIGHT TO SEE] Humans literally being so soulless that they turn into zombies? Please. Pleeeeeease.

The original short story was charming and likable because it was quirky, lovely, and unexpected – this beats all of its loveliness and unexpectedness into a sticky, saccharine pulp. I read most of this with a sort of mild curiosity as a result, rather than real interest, despite the many excellent individual concepts. Still, I love Marion’s work in general, and am extremely excited to see his career take off,  so I’m very happy to own one of the few copies (I think about 220 were printed in the end) that he designed and self-published. Signed, too!

Go to:
Warm Bodies (2009) [K]
Isaac Marion
Some words (and exploding high-fives) with Isaac Marion

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