Friday, December 15, 2017

Book Review: The Alteration

Kingsley Amis
1976
Awards: Campbell
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

SPOILER ALERT

The Alteration is a novel of alternate history that makes us think in new ways—as the best speculative fiction does—about our own real-world society. Its subject matter is extremely personal and emotionally intense, which really helps to drive home Amis’s message about the true violence of tyranny and oppression. It can be, on occasion, wryly funny. But the plot takes such unrelentingly cruel and ironic twists that I would find it hard to say that the book is actually enjoyable to read.

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The novel is set in 1976, in an England where the Protestant Reformation never happened. Martin Luther, rather than being a heretic and a rebel, actually served as a pope himself. Since there was no split with the Catholic mother church, the entire English empire—which includes New England and Canada—is ruled by a king who answers directly to the Roman pope.

And the Catholic Church, in the person of the pope, rules with an iron hand. A rigidly hierarchical societal structure keeps everybody in line. High-status men are infallible and unquestionable; low-status men have next to no power, and women have even less. Science is prohibited by the severely conservative church, so people have no electricity, no advanced forms of communication, and only the barest approximation of motorized vehicles. And, to rub salt in everybody’s wounds, novels of science fiction—which Amis calls “time romances”—are banned as a form of entertainment.

Growing up in this world is Hubert Anvil, a ten-year old clerk in a primary seminary school near London. Hubert has the misfortune of having most beautiful singing voice anyone in the Catholic world has ever heard. Visitors come from all over the globe to hear him. And Rome is very interested in him as an exploitable resource.

So the abbot at Hubert’s school, seeing a way to weasel his way into favor with the pope, decides the boy should be castrated, so his voice won’t change and he can be farmed out to sing as long as possible.

The law requires the abbot to ask the permission of Hubert’s father for this to happen. Mr. Anvil is a little torn at first, having a shadow of a feeling that this might be somewhat bad for Hubert, but is won over by the idea that it will prove his faith absolutely to the church hierarchy.

Hubert’s feelings are, of course, irrelevant. And so are those of his mother, who objects strenuously to Hubert’s castration, and campaigns violently against it to her husband, but has no power whatsoever to prevent it. Hubert’s older brother also doesn’t like it, but doesn’t know how to help him.

The only person who really can and does step up to help Hubert is his family priest, who surprises everyone by publicly objecting to the idea, in courageous direct opposition to his superiors. (His squeamishness about it is probably largely due to the fact that he is perhaps a little more in touch with the taste of the carnal than a priest ought to be.) The priest tries to block the permission for the procedure, but is eventually brutally squashed (somewhat literally) by thuggish agents of the church.

Hubert himself is terribly confused. He has no real sense of what he’d be giving up. He is torn between the passionate objections of his beloved mother, brother, and priest on the one side, and, on the other side, the dictates of the church that he has been brought up to respect and obey above everything else. He has only vague feelings of resistance to the idea, which aren’t nearly strong enough to offset the fear that he will be eternally damned if he refuses.

To make the idea more palatable to Hubert and, perhaps, his father, the two of them get invited to Rome to get a glimpse of the cushy, opulent life he could lead. Unfortunately, this glimpse is provided by two aging eunuchs who aren’t very good examples of the long-term results of the procedure, and one of them even ends up begging Hubert’s father to reconsider; his father is freaked out by the whole scene and they flee back to London.

Meanwhile, while all of this is happening, Hubert gives a recital at the house of the New England ambassador, where he is exposed to a whole new possible attitude about the church and established authority. The New Englanders, living a little too far from the reach of the central church, tend to be a bit more irreverent towards authority and less strict about societal mores. They don’t seem all that bothered by the fact that disobeying the pope might endanger their mortal souls. And the ambassador’s young pre-teen daughter is particularly appealing to Hubert, giving him a bit of a glimmer of understanding about what he’d be losing.

At last, Hubert realizes he really doesn’t want this done to him, and that he has no option but to risk soul-damnation and to run away. When he does, he runs afoul of the criminal underworld, but is also helped by responsible strangers and friends, and he almost makes it to freedom—until an ironic turn of fate makes his whole plan fall apart with an awful thud.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Alteration is, on the whole, a well-crafted piece of fiction. Amis’s subject matter is certainly courageous. His characters are colorful and believable. And he creates a plausible 20th-century England that has evolved into its current form without almost any advanced science. Its technology is appropriate to his scenario; he does give the residents of this Europe express trains and some alternatively-powered omnibuses and dirigibles, but most people still primarily rely on horses and oxen for transportation.

Amis’s references to celebrities, both past and present, are sometimes smooth, sometimes jarringly cheeky. Alfieri Maserati serves as the pope’s chief inventor; Sir Francis Crick is a sad, mad, marginalized, heretical scientist; Benedict Arnold was not a traitor, but was instead a war hero, with a major town in New England named for him.

And Amis pays homage to alternate history legend Philip K. Dick with a really cheeky device: his most rebellious characters secretly read a banned alternate-history book called The Man in the High Castle, which is about an England where there was a Protestant Reformation, and where invention is allowed, and there are scientists and electricity and airplanes, and where its New England colony—called “America”—fought a revolution to gain its independence and became the world’s superpower. Needless to say, this book gives the rebels who read it much food for thought about how their own society could be.

This book-within-a-book is actually a relatively minor part of The Alteration, but it unfortunately seems to have obsessed William Gibson, who wrote about it in his introduction to my 2013 paperback version to the exclusion of most of the other, probably more important implications of the novel.

The most important implications of this novel being that tyranny and oppression will inevitably rely on a foundation of violence and cruelty, no matter how the subjects of that tyranny want to deny it, and no matter how the perpetrators of it try to sugarcoat it.

Amis’s characters desperately persist in going about their business as if everything was pleasant and idyllic. They are excruciatingly polite and deferential to each other. They use euphemisms to avoid talking directly about unpleasant or overly-personal topics (to the point where after about five people have tried to explain to Hubert exactly what will happen to him, he still has no idea).

But no matter how much the characters want to believe they live in a peaceful, painless society, the truth is that the church’s authority relies on unchecked violence and pain. At any moment, the men in control can strip away their subjects’ lives, liberty, and sensitive body parts. And if an individual resists, they are not just risking their body or their life; they are risking the damnation of their eternal soul.

The distressing truth of this novel is that Hubert never had a chance. I read in continual hope that he would find freedom. But the seeming inevitability of his fate—forced on him in the end, in spite of all his efforts, almost as if by God—casts a depressing, hopeless shadow over the whole book. And maybe that is Amis’s point, and his warning: in a tyrannical state, self-determination is impossible, and hope is pointless.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Book Review: Strange Bodies

Marcel Theroux
2013
Awards: Campbell
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

Theroux’s novel Strange Bodies starts in a tchotchke shop somewhere in Britain. A man comes in to see the shop owner. He claims to be her ex-boyfriend from long ago, Nicholas “Nicky” Slopen, and he can remember all sorts of things only her ex would know. The only problems are that (a) he doesn’t look anything like her ex, and (b) her ex is supposed to have died in a gruesome car accident a couple years before.

Nevertheless, the man claims to really be Nicky Slopen. And he leaves the shop owner with a flash drive that contains a troublingly credible story of what happened to him over the past few years. The rest of the novel tells that story—a story that will reveal whether or not someone has actually invented the technology to resurrect dead souls.

Slopen is a struggling academic, a specialist in the writing of Samuel Johnson. He has a loveless marriage and a strained relationship with his kids.

One day, a rich celebrity collector comes into Slopen’s bleak life to ask him to authenticate some papers that he is thinking about buying that purport to be lost letters of Samuel Johnson.

Slopen finds that the paper the letters are written on are only a couple years old, so he figures the letters must be forgeries. But the writing is absolutely, perfectly, undeniably, bafflingly Johnson’s.

Slopen insists on meeting the person who wrote the forgeries. The man appears to be an autistic savant: a Russian immigrant, Jack, who barely speaks at all, much less any English, but who produces an almost continuous stream of this very authentic Johnsonian material as Slopen watches.

Slopen starts visiting Jack regularly to try to find out more about him, and grows increasingly attached to him and his sister, Vera. Slopen’s attachment grows especially strong after his inevitable divorce.

Eventually Vera has to go back to Russia to see her doctor and leaves Jack in Slopen’s care. It is at this point that Slopen starts to put it together that Jack might actually be Johnson—or that at least his brain might be Johnson’s brain. And the more questions Slopen asks of the sinister people hovering around Jack and Vera—including the celebrity who asked him to verify the documents in the first place, and Vera’s “business associate” and bodyguard, who both live with her and Jack—the more he suspects something really unusual was going on.

Slopen confronts them all, one by one, and eventually learns that they are adherents of the philosophy of the 18th century Russian thinker Nikolai Federov, who theorized of immortality being possible for all humans. And that, following the theory that a person’s soul is present in their writing, they have developed a procedure to use a person’s collected writings to plant that person’s memories into the brain of another person.

There are just two problems with this (besides the fact that the idea that you can recreate a person’s whole personality from their writing is a shaky literary premise at best). The first problem is that they aren’t really giving a person immortality; they are creating a simulation of that person in another body. The original person still dies. (This has been explored to death in many other, better vehicles.)

And, second, in order to do this, they need to use someone else’s body as the vessel for the implanted memories. For all intents and purposes, this essentially kills the person whose body they are using.

Vera and Nicky are, to say the least, disturbed by all of this. And they know they have to stop the practice from becoming a way for wealthy few to perpetuate their personalities on the backs of unsuspecting working-class volunteers. But they know that no one else will believe their story, and that they are in mortal danger from the sinister forces behind the procedure, who will stop at nothing to shut them up.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

On the plus side, the story is well written and (mostly) unfolds at a breezy clip. Theroux also does a good job of giving you just enough information that you can guess what’s happening—including the central conceit that not only has Samuel Johnson’s soul been transferred into the body of a working-class Russian man, but so also has that of our main character—but not so much information that you know how it happened, or why. So you want to keep reading to find that out.

Theroux also does a good job of telling the story discontinuously, which seems to be difficult for many writers. The story line jumps back and forth in time between the near past (the story of how Nicky Slopen in his original body met the resurrected Samuel Johnson and got involved with the Russians); the far past (the story of how Slopen and Johnson were resurrected); and the present (the story of the resurrected Slopen in the mental hospital, actually writing the narrative). The discontinuity is a little crazy-making, but completely fits the story, since Nicky himself has been driven a bit crazy by what happened to him and all he has to process to come to terms with it.

Theroux also is able to make his resurrected Samuel Johnson amazingly authentic. It makes me think Theroux must be a Johnson fan himself, well-read enough in Johnson’s papers and steeped enough in Johnson’s style to be able to make his Johnson character speak and write like the real thing.

There are just a couple problems with the book, but they are big ones for me.

For one thing, I’ve never been a big fan of Samuel Johnson’s writing. Far be it from me to use the term “navel-gazing” about the writings of such a philosophical giant. But he does spend quite a bit of time agonizing over the meaning of life, and the universe, and the nature of the soul, to the point where, if one were so inclined, one conceivably could describe it as unproductive noodling for noodling’s sake.

And, perhaps as is natural with this subject matter, his writing tends to get depressing. Which brings us to the second issue I have with the book: the tone. Samuel Johnson always leaves me feeling unproductively melancholy and pessimistic.

In several places in the novel, Slopen raves about how great it is that Johnson is able to look unblinkingly at reality, recognizing that all the things we do on Earth are most likely completely meaningless, and that the ways we try to make ourselves feel better about that fact are just Band-Aids. In a passage near the beginning of the book, Slopen writes:
I’m poor in everything but ironies, and to be truthful, I’ve forgotten what’s so good about irony in the first place. It’s just the resting state of the universe. Johnson puts it best in a section I can recall from memory. “The real state of sublunary nature,” he calls it, “in which, at the same time, the reveler is hastening to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend; in which the malignity of one is sometimes defeated by the frolic of another; and many mischiefs and many benefits are done and hindered without design or purpose.”
But the truth is that the irony he describes in those easy pairings—revelers sharing the world with mourners, Wile E. Coyote foiled by the Road Runner’s cheery energy—is simply the last available meaning before the significance of anything decays to random chance. Many mischiefs and many benefits are done and hindered without design or purpose. Good becomes bad, bad good; love degenerates to dullness and senseless animosity. Irony is not order, but it gives a shape to things. We can’t believe that a rational God had a hand in this chaos, but we’re not quite ready to sign up to the devastating truth of Johnson’s last line. Our faith in irony is a sticking plaster to restore our loss of Faith in its larger sense. (Pp. 77-78)
Slopen and his idol Johnson both also have an ever-present feeling that our reality is fragile, and based simply on consensus. They are hyper-aware that the “facts” we take for granted—“the state of a marriage, artistic merit, a person’s true nature”—are liable to fall apart at any moment, simply because those involved might stop believing in them.

And, because they are aware of this, they stand ever poised on the precipice of oppressive gloom and insanity. They are just this side of mental breakdown. Slopen describes Johnson as the master of “keeping it real in spite of the danger of melancholy and losing your grip on sanity.” As Slopen says,
To me, Johnson’s recognition of that is part of his acute modernity as a moralist. I think he saw the relation between individual and collective delusion: the threat of madness to the human mind and the body politic. He knew that it was a small step from religious mania to religious wars. Madness is part of that turn away from the real that Johnson was so vigilant in confronting wherever he found it—not because of his confidence in reason, but because he knew from his own experience how fragile the rule of reason is.
No one more embodies the illuminating potency of reason. Johnson was devastating in his capacity to sniff out the fake in its different guises… But this very power was riddled with its opposites: melancholy and uncertainty; fear of his own loosening grip on the nature of reality.” (P. 148)
Years ago, I used to find this kind of thinking appealing. It seemed to cut through pretense and offer an unvarnished, honest view of the world. But I find that I have grown weary of it, and now it seems pretentious itself. I don’t have the patience any longer for maudlin, self-absorbed noodling about reality and the soul. I don’t necessarily think that reality is that fragile. I think it is possible to look at the world and be cynical and skeptical and honest without falling into a pit of despair. I want to find joy where I can, and to be able to acknowledge pain without being overcome by ennui and pessimism.

But Johnson doesn’t seem to be able to do that, and neither does Slopen. They remain stubbornly forlorn and depressed.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Book Review: The Lathe of Heaven

Ursula K. Le Guin
1971
Awards: Locus
Nominations: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

For one of the later editions of her novel The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a beautiful essay about how science fiction is powerful because it allows us to perform thought experiments—following exploratory premises to their ultimate end to see how they might play out.

She is brilliant at this herself, coming up with wild kernels of ideas and packing interesting characters and plots around them so she can explore their full consequences. She takes your mind places you never could go in reality—and, in doing so, reveals much about our real life on Earth.

The Lathe of Heaven is a perfect example of this. And it is a relatively short novel, but it plunges you right into the story and moves along at a fast clip, with every chapter advancing the central plot one more major degree until the final resolution.

George Orr, our main character, is a sensitive man by nature. And he carries a terrible burden: he knows that his dreams change waking reality. For everyone.

When Orr dreams, his dreams change the past. So everyone except him knows only the new, altered reality. Orr is the only one who carries both the memories of the original, defunct reality and the new, changed reality in his head simultaneously.

And Orr’s is a world that would be tempting to try to change. In perhaps one of the first ever appearances of climate change in a work of fiction, Orr’s Earth of the near future is one wracked by global warming and crowded with too many billions of people. Polar ice is melting, seas are rising, and entire coastlines of cities are imperiled. The weather in Portland, where he lives, is hot and constantly rainy; the city gets an average of 114” of rain per year, and it is 70° Fahrenheit in mid-March.

But Orr knows he doesn’t have the right to change reality for everyone—whether they are aware of it or not. So his conscience is making him miserable, and he tries to suppress his dreaming by taking illegal pharmaceuticals. When he is inevitably discovered, he is sent to government-mandated therapy.

His therapist, Dr. Haber, is a big man with an ego to match his size. Orr makes the mistake of being completely honest with Haber about his dreams. At first, of course, Haber thinks Orr is crazy, but after seeing his surroundings change during an induced dream state controlled by hypnotic suggestion, Haber realizes that he is telling the truth.

Haber doesn’t admit to Orr that he believes him, though. He acts like a dispassionate professional, diagnosing Orr with a severe psychological problem needing hypnotically-controlled dream therapy. Treatment provided, of course, by Haber himself.

Orr soon starts to suspect that Haber is actually using their dream sessions to remake the world as Haber wants it. And it is a scary moment indeed when we realize Orr is quite right in his suspicions. With each session, Haber becomes just a bit more powerful and famous; eventually he has become founder of his own institute of sleep research and influential with politicians and business leaders. But as things get better and better for Haber, they get potentially worse and worse for humanity.

The problem is that, even with the best intentions, Orr’s dreams have unintended consequences. Each one does what Haber asks for, but in unexpected and almost always worse ways. Each dream pulls humanity out of the frying pan and into the fire. (For example, Haber asks Orr to dream that people stop fighting wars with each other, so Orr dreams that human wars all stop… because we have had to band together to fight a terrifying alien foe.)

Eventually, Orr brings in a lawyer to witness the therapy sessions. During the session, Haber asks Orr to solve the environmental problems the world is having, and Orr dreams of a plague killing off six of the seven billion people on Earth. The lawyer is looking out the window as it happens, and sees people and buildings disappear, so she believes him too. But neither she nor Orr know how to stop Haber.

Orr tries to run away, but he can’t stop the dreams, and he can’t force himself to stay awake forever. And the pressure is turned up when he learns that Haber wants to replicate his brain waves, so that anyone can have “effective” dreams like his. And by “anyone,” of course, Haber means himself.

We have no idea how Orr is going to fix all of this, since the changes happen in dream states during which he has no control over his conscious thought. But it may just turn out that the very monsters he created with his dreams will be the source of his salvation.

There are two things that make Le Guin a seminal writer of science fiction. One is that she thinks extremely deeply, pulling all kinds of perceptive, unexpected insights out of what might appear to be a simple premise. And the other is that she has a clear, unpretentious, emotionally evocative way with words.

The Lathe of Heaven is based on an intriguing question: what would happen if you could alter reality with your dreams? The question seems fun and playful at first, but the more the story goes on, the more you realize how horrifying it could be. Dreams are uncontrollable, unpredictable, and subject to no laws of logic or law. You can make anything happen in them. And in the hands of someone like Haber, who is completely convinced of his own power and righteousness, it could result in global disaster.

By the end, you realize that the power to shift reality is a very dangerous thing. And that even if you do have the ability to do it and you think you’re doing it for humanity’s benefit, you shouldn’t. No one has the right to destroy reality for others, no matter how bad their reality is.

The Lathe of Heaven has a beautiful—and, at first, seemingly irrelevant—opening which looks at the world from the point of view of a jellyfish. The jellyfish is buffeted by the waves and directed by ocean currents. It has no real volition and no control over where it is going. It exists almost in a dream state. And it has no real problem with that unless and until it runs into rocky land.

Gradually, you realize that Orr’s state of being is akin to that of a jellyfish. He has very little control over what he does and where he is going. He is directed by the currents of his dreams when he sleeps, and by the currents of humanity when he is awake. This is particularly vivid at one point when he is riding the subway, hanging onto the strap, surrounded by people; he is actually physically held up by his fellow passengers, uncontrollably swaying to the motion of the crowd, like his spirit animal.

We might think at first that Orr and the jellyfish are weak and aimless. But I think what Le Guin wants us to see is that sometimes it is best to realize that you can’t control the currents surrounding you, and that you should flow with them instead, letting their energy propel you, judo-like, to where ever you are destined to go. And that, depending on the circumstances, this actually can be the strongest course of action—as it certainly is in Orr’s case.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Book Review: The Courts of Chaos

Roger Zelazny
1978
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

SPOILER ALERT (for the four earlier installments of the Chronicles of Amber)

It’s time once again for another Cliff’s Notes version of the latest adventures of Corwin, Prince of Amber, his hero’s quest to save his homeland and his family, and his own personal quest to find satisfaction within his unsettled heart.

The Courts of Chaos is the fifth book in Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber series. It is an important installment because it is the final episode of the first half of the Amber saga; it is the resolution of much of what the first four novels had been leading up to. 

Most of the book is taken up by the war between Amber and the Courts of Chaos—the final, open phase of a heated, bloody, intense, magic-strewn conflict that has been building for a long time. But the book also at last resolves the question of Amber’s royal line of succession, and allows Corwin to reconcile with his estranged family.

It also lays the groundwork for the next installment in the series, The Trumps of Doom, which nicely reboots the Amber franchise and starts it off again in a fresh new direction.

It’s also the only book for which I’ve ever seen this preface in the Wikipedia entry:

This article's plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed. Please help improve it by removing unnecessary details and making it more concise. 

Which makes me realize I’ve got to abbreviate if I don’t want to be too long and excessively detailed. Something that is all too possible to do with Zelazny. So, with no further ado…

The Courts of Chaos begins with the bombshell that ended the previous book: the revelation that Corwin’s ally and friend Ganelon was his father, Oberon, the king of Amber, all along. As Corwin and the rest of his siblings adjust to this information, Oberon offers Corwin the kingship as his chosen successor, but Corwin—surprising himself as well as us—realizes that, after everything he’s done to get the throne, he doesn’t want it.

And, in another surprise announcement, Dara reveals that she has a son by Corwin—Merlin—who therefore has royal relations in both Amber and the Courts of Chaos. This puts Merlin in a key strategic position (and will prove to be important in the next installment of the Chronicles, The Trumps of Doom).

Meanwhile, the war between Amber and the Courts rages intensely. It continues to do so for most of the rest of this book, even as Corwin dips in and out of the fray.

Complicating the war is the fact that Oberon and Dworkin, Oberon’s father, have both gone a little bit nutty and are trying to destroy the Pattern, which would thereby destroy both Amber and the Courts of Chaos. This puts some of the forces of the Courts (e.g. Dara) into an odd and edgy alliance with the forces of Amber (e.g. Corwin).

Fiona admits that she had previously been allied with Oberon and Dworkin, but isn’t any longer because she realizes they are crazy. Corwin steals the Jewel of Judgement from them and tries to walk the Pattern, with the goal of defeating them by repairing it. But Oberon thwarts him, and commands him to go to the heart of the Courts of Chaos instead, which he does, for some reason—via one of Zelazny’s trademark trippy hellrides. Along the way, Brand tries to kill him, twice, and so does an army of hostile dwarf men, and he is also temporarily blocked by a violent supernatural storm.

Corwin also has a few pretty funny encounters with surreal—or perhaps, rather, absurdist—creatures in the shadowlands, including a sentient tree, a giant sunk up to his neck in a mire who is totally depressed and just wants the world to end, and an evil crow-type bird who engages Corwin in a twisted conversation about the futility of striving and the pointlessness of the human ego.

Corwin, who is anything but existentialist, eventually hauls himself out of these conversations, eats the evil crow-bird, and finally uses the Jewel of Judgement to draw a brand-new Pattern. He is buffeted intensely all the while on all sides, psychologically and physically, but does complete it—thus putting a near-fatal kink into Oberon, Dworkin, and Brand’s plans to destroy everything.

This would be a tremendous victory except that, of course, just as Corwin finishes the Pattern, Brand appears in the middle of it, steals the Jewel, vows to destroy both Patterns, and vanishes into the ether.

At this point, Corwin uses his new Pattern to teleport himself back into the war at the Courts of Chaos. He sees most of his Amber siblings fighting the good fight against the forces of the Courts, and Brand at the center of it all, fighting everyone. Eventually, Random, Bleys, and Fiona corner Brand on a ledge, as Brand holds Dierdre hostage. Corwin uses his attunement to make the Jewel of Judgement super hot so that it burns Brand, who is wearing it, and he and Dierdre both topple over the ledge, falling (theoretically) to their deaths.

And, with this, and the creation of the new Pattern, Corwin has essentially defeated all the forces that want to destroy Amber. But he has killed Dierdre in the process, which totally bums him out. His family gathers to comfort him, and then the unicorn arrives from the battlefield to present the Jewel of Judgement to Oberon’s second choice of successor: Corwin’s brother Random. 

So, in a way, all is happy and resolved. At least for now. Corwin is reconciled with his remaining family, and everyone agrees that Random is a great choice for king. But Corwin is exhausted, disillusioned, and needs a retreat. We get the feeling it may be a while before he is ready to be his old sarcastic, resilient, lusty self again. 

Luckily for him, Zelazny gives him a break in the next part of the Amber series, letting someone else—a very able someone else—shoulder the burden of the plot and all of the assassination attempts for a while.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Book Review: The Hand of Oberon

Roger Zelazny
1976
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

SPOILER ALERT (for this and the three earlier installments of The Chronicles of Amber

A lot more happens in this fourth episode of The Chronicles of Amber than happened in the previous three. 

Zelazny filled the third episode, The Sign of the Unicorn, with a lot of unspoken flashbacks and character-to-character retellings of what had gone on so far. In The Hand of Oberon, the plot suddenly surges ahead, story lines advance quickly, and several mysteries are unmystified.

At the end of The Sign of the Unicorn, Benedict, Corwin, and Corwin’s trusted aide Ganelon are led by a unicorn to another version of the Pattern. Ganelon, somewhat unusually (and, I may say, suspiciously) perceptively, suggests that this Pattern may actually be the real Pattern, and that the Pattern they know is just a copy.

This version of the Pattern, however, is damaged. Someone has stuck a dagger into the pattern, destroying it where the dagger struck. Impaled on the dagger is a Trump card of a guy who looks a lot like Random, but who none of them have ever seen before. Eventually they figure out that the mystery Trump card is that of Martin, Random’s son, whom he didn’t know existed.

At this point, in the form of a discussion between the siblings, Zelazny gives us a really helpful summary of the cabals that were angling for Oberon’s kingdom in the previous books. There were two—one of Bleys, Fiona, and Brand, and another of Julian, Eric, and Caine—actively working against each other, as well as against their other siblings.

After the cabal recap, Random goes off to find Martin, while Corwin goes to tell Random’s wife, Vialle, about the stabbed card. After telling Vialle, Corwin revisits his old dungeon in Amber, where he uses Dworkin’s old sketch on the cell wall to transport himself to Dworkin’s studio and confronts Dworkin. At this point, he learns two key things:

The first, as he had (somehow) suspected for a while, is that Dworkin is Oberon’s father—Corwin’s grandfather. And the second is that Dworkin and Oberon have a crazily evil plan to destroy the real, broken Pattern—and thus everything in Amber!—to start fresh. This is understandably appalling to Corwin, and he wants to try to repair the Pattern instead. The only way to do that, though, is to walk the pattern while wearing the Jewel of Judgement, and the problem is that if you do that, you might die.

While Corwin is debating this in his head, Dworkin attacks him, and Corwin is only able to escape by picking a Trump at random—which transports him right smack into the Courts of Chaos.

Corwin fights off a bunch of Chaos attackers and escapes again, this time via Gerard’s Trump. Corwin then finds out from Fiona herself that the Brand/Bleys/Fiona cabal was the one that found the primal Pattern and stabbed Random’s son Martin over it in an attempt to open the doors to the Courts of Chaos, with the somewhat misguided idea that they could ally with them to take the throne of Amber. Brand is the one who actually stabbed Martin.

If Corwin is going to use the Jewel of Judgement to repair the primal version of the Pattern, he needs the Jewel of Judgement. Which, as we may remember, he stashed in a compost pile next to his house in upstate New York. He rides through Arden on one of Zelazny’s patented psychedelic hellrides to get it, pursued by a crazy manticora, which is in turn killed by Julian, who tries to ingratiate himself, claiming he was only trying to save Corwin somehow by blinding and imprisoning him for all those years in the dungeon at Amber. 

Corwin shakes Julian off and keeps going. However, when Corwin gets to his house in New York, the compost heap is missing. Brand has been there first, and already has the Jewel!

At this point Fiona joins Corwin and claims that she and Bleys are back on Corwin’s side and aren’t working with the Courts of Chaos anymore, but that Brand is. She says Brand has gone off to walk the primal Pattern to destroy Amber. Corwin is able to stop Brand mid-Pattern-walk, but Brand escapes, still wearing the Jewel of Judgement. 

Ganelon then comes up with a (again, I may say, suspiciously) good plan: to have Benedict go to block Brand instead of Corwin, since Benedict can get there first and has an arm given to him by the Courts of Chaos, so it might be a more even fight. 

And just when we’re starting to get really suspicious about how Ganelon is coming up with all this brilliant planning and analysis all of a sudden, he reveals himself to be something entirely other than a simple faithful friend and servant to Corwin!

Even though this book furthers the plot a lot more than the previous four, and more actual action actually happens, it still also contains plenty of the free-associational impressionistic imagery we expect from a Zelazny Amber offering. Corwin’s ride from Arden back to 20th century Earth is extremely trippy; time and space are distorted, with grass and cobblestones intertwining with meteors. At one point he rides a translucent trail over space, during which he sees multiple moons.

And there is an absolutely beautiful scene when Corwin at last arrives at the Courts of Chaos; half the sky at the Courts is night, with dancing stars, and the other half is full of shimmering, shifting bands of color, and the two halves spin slowly around each other as the sky turns.

The Hand of Oberon also contains plenty of Corwin’s sarcastic attitude and snappy, anachronistic modern analysis of fantasy events. The best example is when he finds out that not only was Dworkin his grandfather, but that the unicorn was his grandmother, and his only reaction is to say that he has “mixed feelings” about being descended from a unicorn.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Book Review: Jack Glass: The Story of a Murderer

Adam Roberts
2012
Awards: Campbell
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

MINOR SPOILER ALERT

Adam Roberts says in his acknowledgements that in Jack Glass he was trying to blend Golden Age science fiction (the era of Campbell, Asimov, and Heinlein when space-exploration sci-fi first began to capture a larger audience) with Golden Age detective fiction (the era of the classic Miss-Marple-type misdirection whodunit).

He has done an able job of it. His novel is a series of relatively fast-moving brain-teasers, and the puzzling circumstances surrounding each of the murders are clever and creative. He has also created a credible science fiction environment in which humanity has colonized several planets, moons, and asteroids. And, for the most part, the storytelling keeps you turning the pages.

Roberts breaks the story up into three parts, each one centered on a different murder, with each murder involving the notorious, elusive criminal Jack Glass in some way. The first part of the book is definitely the most gripping (and also the most gory).

In the universe of Jack Glass, our solar system is run by a set of hereditary oligarchs, the Ulanovs, who rule with a firm hand. In their criminal justice system, if you commit any crime short of than murder, your penalty is to be taken out to the asteroid belt and sealed into a hollowed-out asteroid with an air scrubber, a drill, and some food spores. They come back to get you in eleven years and if you survive until then, you’re free. If you don’t, well—you don’t.

In the first part of the book, Jack Glass, the notorious, legless criminal who, some say, has killed thousands (or possibly millions) of people, is captured for a lesser crime and thrown into an asteroid with six other convicts. The story follows them as they scrabble for life during the first couple years of their term, drilling for ice, growing food, and establishing a somewhat tenuous and ruthless hierarchy.

It is a horrific situation, especially for Jack, as one of the lower men on the totem pole. He’s clearly the smartest of the prisoners, and he has flashes of anger when the others behave idiotically and cruelly towards him and each other. But, for the most part, he is able to hold himself in, maintaining incredible control, realizing his life depends on patience.

The story gets progressively harder to take emotionally, even as the men are able to achieve some stability in their physical comfort. But, finally, Jack is able to escape in a brilliant (if gruesome, twisted, and murder-filled) getaway.

Many years then pass between Jack’s asteroid escape and the second part of the book, which is the weakest section of the novel.

In the Ulanov’s solar system, many specialized functions are done by noble houses of elites bred specifically for their jobs: transport, commerce, science, and so on. The Ulanovs need these noble houses, but are also wary of them, since they are all potential rivals for power.

The story slows to a crawl as we follow 16-year-old Diana, one of the daughters and heirs of the one of these houses: Clan Argent, the Transport House. Diana has been bred for creative problem-solving, so when one of her servants is murdered while she’s vacationing on Earth, the police defer to her to solve the murder. But she is a typical bratty, privileged 16-year-old—breathless, impatient, haughty, inconsiderate, self-centered, and full of aristocratic prejudice and cruelty. It’s difficult to find the motivation to keep reading through most of part two when Diana is the one you have to follow.

If you keep plugging, the story finally does start to pick up a bit when someone bombs the compound where Diana is staying and she has to flee. Diana and her servant Sapho are bundled into a shuttlecraft and rescued—by none other than the notorious, unassuming criminal Jack Glass.

Diana doesn’t realize it, but rumors have been swirling around the solar system that her clan has the secret to faster-than-light propulsion. The three escapees theorize that the other clans—or possibly the Ulanovs themselves—are trying to kidnap her in an attempt to get the FTL technology.

During their escape, cut off from her ever-present technology, realizing people are trying to kill her and that she has no more control over her surroundings, Diana finally starts to grow up. She feels ashamed of how she acted, and starts to take more responsibility for herself and others. This starts to make it a lot easier to read again, and somewhat more appealing again as a story…

…Just in time for part three of the novel (the second-best part), which lopes along relatively easily (albeit not as excitingly as part one) to the end of the book. This part starts with Jack, Diana, and Sapho caught up in the circumstances of yet another murder: this time, the murder of celebrated police detective Bar-le-Duc.

The third part starts with Jack, Diana, and Sapho fleeing from Earth to Jack’s secret bubble house in the “Sump,” the haphazard settlements beyond the moon where the poor subsist on spore-based food and recycled air. The Sump is also a hive of rebellion against the Ulanovs, which is why Jack has his house there; it is at this point that we discover that he is actually a highly principled anti-imperial activist who cares deeply about the entire human race.

And, it turns out, his rescue of Diana was not a coincidence at all. Jack knows that the physics of any FTL drive—including the one that Diana’s house theoretically has—by definition put it at risk of being made into an enormous bomb that could wipe out the solar system and thus the whole human race. Jack is willing to protect Diana with his life to prevent anyone from getting hold of it.

Thus they plan to hide in Jack’s house to prevent anyone from getting at Diana. Celebrated police detective Bar-le-Duc catches up with them, but, before he can bring them in, he is shot from inside the house, but by no one who was in the house at the time. And it is all caught on video by a robot.

They are thus faced with yet another mystery to solve, in a race against time before they are caught by authorities and accused of Bar-le-Duc’s murder. And, while they’re at it, they have to figure out who is behind Diana’s attempted assassination/kidnaping, if the FTL device really exists, and if they can prevent it from ever being used.

All three murders are “locked-room” mysteries, and all three are pretty clever. On the whole, Jack Glass is a good blend of classic sci-fi and detective fiction, as the author intended. Jack is charismatic and a good character to follow; a touch sinister but with strong, valiant political ideals. (Although, as I say, Diana leaves something to be desired.) The plot does step along apace, for the most part. (Although, as I say, the first section is definitely the most riveting and might have made for an excellent novella all by itself.) And one fun thing is that Roberts certainly is not hesitant about describing gore in incredibly creative ways—particularly the behavior of blood in zero gee (or in one gee, from the point of view of someone who has lived their whole life in space, which is a mind-warping way to look at it).

Friday, June 30, 2017

Book Review: The Sign of the Unicorn

Roger Zelazny
1975
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

The Sign of the Unicorn is the third book in Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber series. It doesn’t actually further the plot of the Chronicles much, except (a) to reveal that there is definitely a conspiracy within the family to kill our hero Corwin, and (b) to give us a little more information about the maze-like Pattern which seems to be the source of power for the royal family of Amber.

And while it does include Zelazny’s trademark unique and dazzling surrealistic imagery, it is the most disjointed of the books in this series so far, with the story line jumping from character to character and from land to land somewhat at random. A little too randomly even for this Zelazny fan, anyway. I need a bit more of a string to follow.

At the end of the previous book, The Guns of Avalon, Corwin’s brother Eric died waging a valiant battle to save Amber from an attack by the evil forces of the Courts of Chaos. As he died, he gave the magical Jewel of Judgment that he was wearing to Corwin, essentially deeming him the next King of Amber.

Unicorn picks up soon after Guns left off, with Corwin having had possession of the throne of Amber for just about a week. His reign hasn’t started out well. It turns out that during the events that took place back in book one, his brother Caine was murdered by spur-handed, heavy-jawed beast-men in the shadowlands outside of Amber, and someone has arranged the evidence to make it look like Corwin did it.

Corwin then remembers that his other brother Random was being chased by these same spur-handed beast-men when he arrived begging for help at their sister Flora’s door. So, to try to follow this lead to find Caine’s murderer, and thereby exonerate himself, Corwin makes Random tell him the complete story of how he came to be chased by the beast-men in the first place, which was:

Yet another brother, Brand, was trapped in a surreal land of stormy, shifting rocks, where dying creatures floated up into the sky. While trying to rescue Brand, Random fought a really cool clear-bodied snake beast and was eventually able to kill it, but then was pursued by its spur-handed beast-men masters.

The beast men pursued Random all the way through one of Zelazny’s trademark psychedelic scenery-shifting hellrides to a bus stop restroom in California. Along the way, he lost all his trumps, so he wasn’t able to use them to jump to another location or even to call for assistance. He finally made his way to Flora’s house in Westchester, where he was able to escape, thanks to Flora’s and Corwin’s help.

Corwin adds what Random has told him to the other things he knows about: the disappearance of their father, the king; the appearance of the black road; all the beast men and strange creatures traveling along it to attack Amber; and the revelation that Dara is some kind of evil queen from the Courts of Chaos. It all points to there being some kind of conspiracy by the Courts of Chaos to take the throne of Amber and/or destroy it.

To try to get a better handle on it all, Corwin decides to walk the Pattern again, this time to awaken the Jewel of Judgment, which supposedly has unbelievable untapped powers that nobody knows how to unlock. He does this and then decides to go see Flora, intending to browbeat her into revealing who asked her to be his overseer on Earth.

His now (suspiciously) faithful brother Gérard goes with him. On their journey, Corwin and Gérard get lost on the slopes of Mount Kolvin and see a unicorn, which Zelazny is somehow able to make seem awesome without being hokey. The unicorn leads them through distorted cubist scenery to the Grove of the Unicorns, which contains an alternate version of the Pattern. Gérard hypothesizes that this may be the real Pattern, and the one in Amber only a shadow.

After this discovery, Corwin goes back to Amber and starts to gather up his remaining brothers and sisters to try to hash out exactly what is going on. Together, they use the trumps to find Brand, who is locked in some kind of prison, but while they are rescuing Brand, one of them stabs Corwin. The scene is so scattered and disjointed that no one manages to see a thing, including Corwin himself.

At this point Brand wakes up and tells us and Corwin a bunch of important backstory, including that two separate cabals (Eric/Julian/Caine and Brand/Fiona/Bleys) both had plans to depose their father and take the throne. Both of the cabals have been thwarted, whether by each other or the attack of the Courts of Chaos.

Corwin is then attacked yet again while in Amber, but the Jewel of Judgment lets him escape to his house in upstate New York. After all this craziness, Corwin understandably decides to go to the ghostlike, floating, moonlit land of Tir Na Nog to heal his wounds.

Again, this book feels disorganized. It reads more like a free-associational, surreal piece of art, rather than a part of a larger linear plot. I’ll grant that this kind of writing can be fun to read, and certainly many of the individual scenes and conversations in Unicorn are creative and colorful and often funny. Especially when Zelazny juxtaposes modern technology like intravenous feeding with the fantasy sword-and-sorcery world of Amber. But, as a whole, the book isn’t all that rewarding if you are looking instead for more furthering of Corwin’s story line, or more answers about the forces arrayed against him.

I will say, however, that Unicorn is an extremely helpful book for those who weren’t paying complete attention to the twists and turns of the first two books, because it is filled with a huge amount of rehashing and backfilling of what has already happened up to now. It also includes a very detailed explanation of the line of succession to the throne of Amber, which Corwin relates to help Ganelon, but which is helpful for us, too. 

Friday, June 2, 2017

Book Review: The Guns of Avalon

Roger Zelazny
1972
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – – 

The Guns of Avalon is the second of ten books in Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber fantasy series. This book feels less organized and is less satisfying than the first one; the plot is more herky-jerky. But Zelazny continues to keep his writing trippy and intense with hypnotically surreal imagery. And his main character’s dry, incongruously modern attitude keeps it from getting too drearily romantic.

The Guns of Avalon picks up right where the first book, Nine Princes in Amber, left off, which is when our plucky hero, prince Corwin, has just escaped from a deep, dark, disgusting dungeon. He had been thrown into the dungeon by his brother, Eric, in retaliation for challenging Eric’s claim to the crown of Amber. Eric had also burnt out Corwin’s eyes, which was painful and inconvenient, to say the least. 

Fortunately, Corwin’s powers of regeneration allowed him to regrow his eyes while he was in prison. And, while incarcerated, he also happened to run into Dworkin—the artist who had created the magical tarot cards that enable the princes and princesses of Amber to communicate with and teleport to each other—and convinced him to use his magical drawing powers to transport Corwin out of prison to a shadowland called Cabra.

Cabra is peaceful and far, far away from Amber, and is therefore the perfect place to recuperate after you’ve spent four years in a dungeon regrowing your eyes. After a time, though, Corwin feels like he is rested enough, and it is time for him to resume his pursuit of the throne. He heads towards Avalon, one of the many shadowlands he has lived in before (and one of many of the Chronicles’ overt nods to Arthurian legend), where he hopes to raise an army. On the way, he runs into Sir Lancelot du Lac, severely wounded from an attack. He carries Lancelot to the closest fort, the Keep of Ganelon, for medical care. 

At the Keep, he rekindles his friendship with Ganelon, whom he was kind of a jerk to many years before, but who doesn’t harbor a grudge (and who will turn out to become a steadfast friend and companion). Ganelon tells Corwin about a mysterious Circle of blackness that started somewhere in the hinterlands but is expanding steadily towards Avalon and Amber, and which spews death and horrifying monsters. Corwin, Ganelon, and Lancelot stage a brief effort to attack the Circle; they aren’t able to drive it back, but they do find out that the Circle and the evil beasts within it come from the Courts of Chaos, a sort of rival evil counterpart to Amber.

Corwin and Ganelon then continue on to Avalon, whereupon Corwin runs into another one of his brothers, Benedict, who is raising an army to fight the Circle. Corwin also meets a woman named Dara who claims to be Benedict’s great-granddaughter, and he develops kind of a crush on her. Thinking she is family, he teaches her about the trumps, and about shadow worlds and how to model them. He also tells her about the “pattern”—a maze-like construction in the palace that only descendants of the royal family of Amber can walk, and which grants them certain powers when they do. (This will prove to be a big mistake.)

Anyway, continuing Corwin’s anti-Eric vendetta: gunpowder will not burn in Amber, making normal firearms useless there. But Corwin has secretly discovered that jeweler’s rouge, which is neutral everywhere else, behaves like gunpowder in Amber. So he and Ganelon set off on a series of journeys to a past version of southwest Africa to get a whole lot of diamonds, then to World-War-I-era Antwerp to sell the diamonds and buy the rouge, and then to Switzerland to buy weapons with which to fire the rouge. He also raises a new army of hairy, fanged, clawed men from reliable shadowlands to wield those weapons.

The whole venture is head-spinning and feels a little too haphazard as they jump randomly from place to place and time to time. But, fortunately, each journey is a trademark surrealistic Zelazny hellride across shadowlands with features like lemon-yellow skies and striped, feathered houses and red-and-black striped horses.

They come back to Avalon only to discover that Benedict is pissed off at Corwin for raising an Army against Eric. Benedict pursues them as they ride at breakneck speed to Amber, the whole time running parallel to a black road, an arm of the evil Circle, that now stretches all the way to Amber. Benedict catches up with them close to Amber, and Corwin defeats him in a truly excellent swordfight on the black road.

At this point Corwin gets a tarot card message from Eric to please delay his attack, because the forces from the evil Circle have finally reached Amber and all hands are needed to defend it. As if, thinks Corwin! He rides to Amber with his forces and discovers Amber being beset by manticores and wyverns and razor-billed birds. His brothers Eric, Julian, and Caine are all fighting—and losing. Corwin feels a twinge of remorse at the carnage, and decides to use his forces to defend Amber after all, using up all his jeweler’s rouge fighting off the evil monsters.

Anti-climactically, Eric ends up getting mortally wounded in the battle. Before he dies, he gives Corwin their father’s Jewel of Judgement, symbolically granting the throne to Corwin. (The Jewel allows the wearer to control the weather, and possibly has other powers that have not yet been revealed.)

After all of this, Dara reappears; she has been tailing Corwin. And it turns out she is not Benedict’s great-granddaughter after all! She is an evil wraith from the cursed Circle and she was only following him to find the way to Amber! She races into the palace and walks the pattern, whereupon she turns into a terrifyingly evil hellbeast, threatens to destroy Amber, and then disappears. 

All in all, The Guns of Avalon feels less like a novel unto itself, and more of a bridge from one book to another. Its plot is less coherent and more like a series of randomly connected incidents than the books that precede or follow it. And the battle to defend Amber and the way Corwin takes the kingship from Eric are both oddly unsatisfying after all the buildup to them. 

But the visual intensity of Zelazny’s writing still makes it worthwhile. In this book, also, we get to hear fun snippets of Corwin’s adventures on our own Earth, which is one of his particular favorites of the shadow worlds—one where he has befriended several Earthly celebrities and lived for hundreds of years (including a few years in a prosaic two-bedroom house with attached garage in upstate New York). 

And Zelazny always keeps it funnier than the usual medieval romantic fantasy with Corwin’s wry breaks into modern thought. At one point, for example, Corwin is starting to feel like maybe neither he nor any of his siblings are really fit to take their father’s throne, and he thinks to himself, “I would have liked to blame Dad for this inadequacy, but unfortunately I had known Freud too long not to feel self-conscious about it.” When his brother Benedict is pursuing them across the plains on the way to Amber, driving his horse like crazy, Corwin describes him as “moving like something in the Kentucky Derby.” And when Corwin finally gets to Amber and sees his brothers defending their homeland from demonic creatures, he says, “The invaders were strong, numerous. I had no idea as to what Eric might have in reserve. At that moment, it was impossible for me to gauge whether war bonds for Amber would be a good investment.” 

The book is also relatively short, and it certainly keeps you going enough to get through it to book three, The Sign of the Unicorn, where we hope to at last see Corwin take the throne of Amber. But, of course, for Corwin, nothing will be easy.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Book Review: Little Brother

Cory Doctorow
2008
Awards: Campbell
Nominations: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

MINOR SPOILER ALERT

Little Brother is a story about hackers. But it is not a cyberpunk novel. It is about innocent humans targeted by a repressive police state, fighting for their civil rights, their freedom, and sometimes their lives.

Yes, the main character, Marcus Yallow, has a wry, cocky, hacker-appropriate attitude. And, yes, he does lots of hacking, in which he uses real hacker techniques to burrow into the tightest security systems, and the techniques don’t come off as cheesy as they so often do in works of fiction. But Marcus’ unwarranted arrest, and the way U.S. government officers treat him while he is in their custody, and the way he is mercilessly hounded even after he is set “free,” are far from the world of cocky hacking, and very scary.

Marcus is a seventeen-year-old high school student living in San Francisco. He is irreverent and smart, mainly using his hacking skills for fun.

One day, Marcus and his friends cut class, as they often do, to join a live-action adventure game. Unfortunately, they happen to be out on the street with no legitimate excuse and a bunch of suspect-looking technology when terrorists attack the city. The group of friends are swept up in the Homeland Security crackdown that follows and are thrown into a secret prison, given no food or bathroom, hog-tied with zip cuffs, and interrogated with all the force the DHS has to muster.

When Marcus at first refuses to unlock his phone they accuse him of being a terrorist, torture him, and then leave him soaking in his own urine for hours. Eventually, he cracks—as the vast majority of us would—and agrees to give them all his passwords if they will just let him go home. They let him go, but they stay on his tail, threatening to bring him in again for good if he strays off the path of correct behavior.

Their degrading, dehumanizing treatment terrorizes and cows Marcus, and that fear stays with him. But gradually his fighting spirit comes back, too. His outrage grows as the security crackdown gets harsher and DHS surveillance gets more widespread and insidious. And, as time passes, one of his friends still is not released by DHS, and may be, for all he knows, dead.

Marcus decides he has to bring down the people who tortured him and his friends. He discovers that DHS has (clumsily) bugged his laptop, so he hacks his internet-enabled Xbox and turns it into a secure communication device, and spreads the Xbox crack code to his friends, eventually turning the Bay Area into a network of under-20-something hackers and gamers called “the Xnet” that are ready to help tear down the repressive regime with him: a scattered, disorganized, and passionate virtual army.

When the police and DHS become aware of the Xnet, they use it as an excuse to increase their strategy of harassment and surveillance. They send spy vans and helicopters roaming throughout the city, looking for Xbox signals; they track every person’s movements around the city through the RFID chips in their Muni and toll passes; and they install facial recognition cameras everywhere. Whenever someone is determined to have an “unusual” pattern of movement, they are questioned and intimidated.

In spite of all of this, the vast majority of the adult population are okay with having every one of their movementsonline and offtracked, recorded, and analyzed by authorities. This is one of the most frustrating and realistic parts of the book. Yes, it is inconvenient and can be annoying, they say, but it is all to keep us safe. If you aren’t doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.

And the mainstream media does nothing to change that opinion, reporting on everything with a security bias—so, for example, a concert where a bunch of kids are beaten and gassed by police is reported as a “riot” started by the concert-goers. Even Marcus’ parents are convinced that these measures are there for a good reason, even as kids (and, increasingly, sympathetic adults) get pepper-sprayed, arrested, and subjected to “questioning” (a.k.a. torture, including waterboarding).

Ironically, the actual terrorists continue to escape justice, while more and more innocent people are bullied and jailed. Thousands of people are swept up in this security farce as DHS tactics grow more intense. And Marcus and his legions of Xnetters engage in steadily more confrontational hacks and actions—with varying amounts of success—until Marcus is finally face to face with his torturers once again.

Technically, Little Brother has a happy ending. But it also makes it clear that any victory for justice is always a temporary one, and that the defense of civil rights is a constant fight. The authoritarian forces that would ask us to give up our liberty in the name of security are always there, waiting for the least crack in our will to creep back in. Marcus and the hackers and the lawyers and the teachers and the reporters must remain ever vigilant to make sure it never happens again.

Part of the reason this book works so well is that Marcus’s hacker techniques are all completely authentic. The social engineering methods to discover passwords; the conduct of ultra-secure conversations by tunneling through DNS; the “borrowing” of RFID chip signatures from innocent bystanders nearby—all of those are real. And even though these techniques can be complicated, Doctorow explains them clearly and understandably without being superior or silly. He’s clearly someone who knows what he’s talking about (a fact backed up by the fact that he has hackers and security experts writing his afterwords).

Doctorow and his afterword writers also explain why hacking is necessary, and actively encourage his readers to think about how to hack things. For one thing, it’s fun. For another, it’s educational; you learn how things work. And for another, when you publicly expose security flaws, you make people have to tighten up their security, making security stronger. There’s no way to make systems as secure as they can be without testing their limits.

The other, more important reason that Little Brother is powerful (and anxiety-producing) is because it is set in a surveillance state that is very much real life. Doctorow wrote this book at the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, when that administration was actively demolishing civil rights in the name of protecting us from terrorists, and doing it with the unquestioning support of most of the populace and mainstream media. It was very relevant then, and is, unfortunately, even more relevant now.

It’s a dangerous book, too, because Doctorow calls into question all the things we have had to adjust to following the formation of the DHS: increased x-ray screenings, ID checks, taking your shoes off at the airport. All of which, he says, are actually pointless in actually preventing anything from happening. These tactics are less about actually catching criminals and more about keeping a population intimidated and fearful so that they can be more easily manipulated.

The main question this book raises is, I think, one of the most important of our time: when you are faced with an unjust, militaristic, authoritarian regime, how do you respond? Do you keep your head down, trying to keep yourself and your family safe, and hope it gets better on its own? Or do you fight back, risking your liberty and possibly your life?

It’s critical to think about this now that the U.S. is faced with the most schizophrenic, authoritarian regime I’ve seen in my lifetime. I know what I’d like to think I would do. But I don’t honestly know how far I’d be willing to go if my life was at stake.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Book Review: Nine Princes in Amber

Roger Zelazny
1970
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

Nine Princes in Amber is the first of ten books in Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber series. I knew I was going to have to read the sixth book in the series (Trumps of Doom), because it won the Locus award for best fantasy novel. But I love Zelazny, so I rationalized that I needed to read the whole series to properly appreciate Trumps of Doom in context.

When I first read Zelazny’s books, I had no idea that there was a science fiction subgenre called New Wave, and that he belonged to it; I just knew that I loved what he was doing. Wikipedia describes New Wave sci-fi this way:
“The New Wave is a movement in science fiction produced in the 1960s and 1970s and characterized by a high degree of experimentation, both in form and in content, a "literary" or artistic sensibility, and a focus on "soft" as opposed to hard science. New Wave writers often saw themselves as part of the modernist tradition and sometimes mocked the traditions of pulp science fiction, which some of them regarded as stodgy, adolescent and poorly written.”
Zelazny is, without a doubt, one of the best of the New Wave writers. In Nine Princes in Amber, as with the rest of his work, his writing is both literary and artistic; his settings and characters are unique, creative, weird, beautiful, funny, and sometimes ominous and unnerving. There is a certain amount of surrealism in his imagery, which makes it occasionally seem to come totally out of left field, or like the expression of his unconscious.

But, in keeping with his New Wave sensibilities, he never lets anything get too detached from reality. At some point, when things seem to be getting too dreamy, he will stick in a sarcastic, modern, self-referential remark that lets you know that he is perfectly aware that he’s writing from the real world, in the twentieth century. He will be coasting along describing a fantastical scene with transparent people living in a glass city, or a landscape of purple skies and blowing blue grasses, or an attack by a fleet of manticores, and in the middle of it he’ll have his main character drop a term like “chutzpah” or a snappy comment about Freudian mommy complexes that whips you back to reality. It’s completely refreshing.

Nine Princes in Amber starts out with a Bourne-Identity-like amnesia device. The main character wakes up in a hospital room, clearly recovering from a serious accident but with no memory of who he is and an instinctive feeling that something is wrong. He senses that somebody is conspiring to keep him drugged and in the hospital. So he breaks out and follows a series of whisper-thin clues to the mansion of one of the people who was keeping him locked up, which turns out to be his sister Flora. She is shocked that he was able to break out of the hospital, but she lets him stay with her.

At Flora’s house, he quickly puts together some key pieces of information about himself, including that his name is Corwin; that he is one of 23 original children of Oberon, the missing king of a land called Amber, a fantastical realm in another dimension; that he has superhuman strength, can regrow body parts, and has lived for hundreds of years; and that he and his surviving 16 siblings are all vying with each other for their father’s throne. His brothers and sisters have a twisted and changeable set of alliances and enemies—and some of them would kill him instantly if they knew where he was.

Poking around in Flora’s desk, Corwin also finds a pack of tarot cards, and remembers that these cards allow the brothers and sisters not only to communicate with each other, but also to transport themselves to different places. (This will come in very handy later on.)

The truly mind-twisting thing about the whole novel is that Amber is the only real location in the universe. All other places—including our own Earth—are “shadow” places “shaped” mentally by the princes and princesses of Amber for their own enjoyment or refuge. Corwin admittedly likes some of these shadow worlds very much, and has spent a lot of time in them, hanging out in the Middle Ages or World War II or the French Revolution with Napoleon and Einstein and other of our Earthly celebrities—but none of them are real.

To briefly summarize the rest of what happens: Corwin’s brother Random shows up at the door, pursued by a horde of terrifying wraiths from some other dimension, and Flora and Corwin protect him. Corwin admits his amnesia to Flora and Random, and convinces them to help him. The three of them use their innate dimensional-space-shaping abilities to travel through a series of surrealistic lands to Rebma, the underwater mirror world to Amber, where the queen of Rebma helps restore Corwin’s memory (and sweetens the experience by sleeping with him).

At this point, Corwin fully remembers his desire for his father’s crown. He rejoins his (currently) most trusted brother, Bleys. The two of them put together an army of oddly-shaped and furry, clawed humanoid fighters from other dimensions, and they all march on Amber to try to prevent their brother Eric from crowning himself king.

It doesn’t go well. Their army of 150,000 is whittled away to zero by Eric’s forces combined with the forces of other brothers Julian and Caine; Bleys falls off a mountainside into an abyss, presumably to his death; and Eric burns out Corwin’s eyes and throws him into jail. When his eyes are burnt out, Corwin curses Eric, which will turn out to have pretty nasty implications in the later books.

After four miserable years (during which his eyes re-grow), Corwin is eventually able to escape through magic and trickery. He flees far from Amber to regroup and fight another day.

And that other day, and the fight, are taken up in the second book: The Guns of Avalon.