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AICN BOOKS! Adam Balm Hits The SF Shelves With DOCTOR WHOM, HALTING STATE, ELECTRIC CIRCUS And Kenneth Johnson’s V!

Hey, everyone. ”Moriarty” here. I love that Adam Balm has carved out his own identity as a book reviewer here at AICN, and his columns are always a great, informative read. He loves this genre and takes it seriously, and his writing really reflects his appetite for good SF. It’s another good one this month. Thanks, Adam!
Okay, let's get one thing out of the way first. Stephen King is editing this year's Best American Short Stories, and according to an article he just wrote, there's a few things he discovered in the process. In a nutshell, he found out that a) that literary magazines that contain short stories aren't selling, b) that the reason they aren't selling is probably because they're only read by writers who are only buying them just to see what stories editors are buying and c) because of this, most mainstream short stories are boring and pretentious, written to please an incestuous literati instead of being written because it's something they're burning to write. Now of course this pissed off a lot of people, because any time somebody points out the obvious it's going to piss off a lot of people. Personally, all I know is that every time I picked up BASS the last few years it felt like I was back in high school english class. But then again, I was just as disappointed in the latest Year's Best Science Fiction. So if you're as bored as I am by it all, then here's just a few recommendations that you may want to check out, if you're in the mood for something a little different and need some proof that not all short stories are a chore to read: Best American Fantasy, edited by Matt Cheney, Jeff and Anne Vandermeer- Without question, I really think this is the best genre anthology of the year. Best American Fantasy did something more ambitious than any of the others could even dare. It might have single-handedly disproved the notion of the 'SF ghetto'. You'll find stories from McSweeney's, the New Yorker, Zoetrope All-Story, alongside those of Analog. Yeah it's a mixed bag (some of these like The Whipping...I can't even tell what the SF element is), but that's kind of the point. You won't find a more diverse collection anywhere else. Just know what to expect. This isn't high fantasy. This isn't quests and elves and orcs and wizards and dragons, (okay, there's dragons)... This is fantasy from some alternate world, where Terry Brooks didn't emerge from the slushpile to turn it into a genre that just raped the corpses of Howard and Tolkien. This is Kafka's fantasy. This is Borges' fantasy. SFWA European Hall of Fame, edited by James and Kathryn Morrow- The market for translated literature is almost non-existent. There's a lot of reasons why, one of them is the cost of translation has gone up because of globalization, as it's more in demand. You'll find stories about a choreographer of dancers in space and space-time singularities, cosmonauts stranded on a planet where speaking a single word will kill you, tales of future horrors of imprisonment and dehumanization inspired in no small part by those that lived the real thing behind the iron curtain of eastern Europe, and some set almost entirely within the cosm of the human mind where the struggle to maintain one's fragile grip on reality is no less epic than the usual clash of empires and aliens and machines we're so used to seeing. The prose doesn't always flow as nicely as it should, but that's probably inevitable. Something will always get lost in translation. Speculative Japan, edited by Gene van Troyer and Grania Davis- To coincide with this year's Worldcon in Yokohama Japan, Kurodahan press has released an anthology showcasing some of the best of their country's speculative fiction. I was lucky enough to get sent a copy before it even went to the printers, and I'll never forgive myself for not having time to give it a full review. Japanese SF is kind of the embodiment of the whole 'innerspace vs. outerspace' dichotomy. For half a century, they had been content with copying merely anglo-american SF, until something very odd happened. As the editors of the anthology put it, overnight the old imperial sun god fell from the sky and a new one rose up in a mushroom cloud. They found themselves living in a real science fictional world all around them. The only country to have experienced nuclear war, they soon found themselves in the most accelerate state of technological change on the planet. In the midst of that kind of violent upheaval, they needed a new type of fiction that would allow them to make sense of it all. The new Japanese science fiction that was more interested in the metaphysics of identity, of consciousness, of social transformation and ideas of Stapledonian transcendence than gadgets and rockets. If you believe the 'westward trending' theory of SF, then you'll want to pay close attention because this is going to be the face of the future of the genre. So, for the ADD among us who don't have time/attention span for a novel, you now have no more excuses for not reading....

V: THE SECOND GENERATION by Kenneth Johnson DOCTOR WHOM by A.A.A.R Roberts HALTING STATE by Charles Stross THE ELECTRIC CHURCH by Jeff Somers V: The Second Generation by Kenneth Johnson Tor

So. One might be forgiven for thinking that with the relaunch of the Bionic Woman this past week, along with rumors that the new Hulk movie is going to be closer to the TV show, and with the on-again-off-again talk of a new V series (which never seems to amount to much), that the work of Kenneth Johnson is coming a bit back in vogue again, even if the man himself isn't getting his due props over it. Besides being responsible for the above, he also was a show runner on the Six Million Dollar Man and Alien Nation, and you could make the case that he single-handedly shaped the face of geek television for the 1980s. But since 1997---when he thought it was a good idea to put Shaquille O'Neal in a new movie he was developing called Steel---he's dropped off the map a little. V: The Second Generation was originally rumored to be the new series that the Sci-Fi Channel was producing, but then there were conflicting rumors that they probably wanted more of a Battlestar Galactica type re-imagining. Or not. The back cover lists this as currently being developed as a miniseries for Warner Bros. So who knows. In any event, for whatever reason, Kenneth Johnson has elected to present his follow-up vision for the V universe in novel form. And you can kind of tell that this was adapted from screenplay form, with character descriptions sounding like little asides in a script, and with it jump-cutting around between dozens of points of view, with camera work more in mind than narrative coherence. It's funny though, whenever I see V being brought up, even twenty years later, I never hear anyone talk about a miniseries like they do with this one. Even if mostly they're just talking about how hot Diana was. But, again giving props when they're due, it was unique for its time in its examination of themes you wouldn't normally find on network tv. Originally intended as a story about a fascist dictatorship movement emerging in future U.S. (the skiffy element was tacked on later in substituting aliens for Americans so as to be less controversial), it was unsettling then, and in the context of today, it's even moreso now. In most ways it still holds up nicely, even though in others it's simplistic and heavy handed. (But really, what TeeVee wasn't in the 80s?) I'm not really sure how long term fans are going to react to this. For one thing, Johnson pretty much ignores V: The Final Battle and V: The Series. This continuity only considers the original. It might piss off some of the die-hards, but it's a decision that avoids a lot of unnecessary exposition nicely side-steps potential franchise fatigue. Set in pseudo-modern day, it picks up around twenty years after the events of the mini. We find ourselves in a world of occupation, with the Resistance seemingly crushed in a great purge ten years ago that killed and imprisoned millions. A new generation of hybrids has come about (foreshadowed at the end of the miniseries), half visitor and half human. Called 'dregs', they're despised by both, but that doesn't prevent them from serving as a useful new labor class for the occupation. The oceans are continuing to disappear, and with the planet drying up, time is ticking down for the human race. The first memorable image is of the Golden Gate bridge standing over a barren salt flat wasteland that was once San Francisco Bay. (Which, by the way, is where the setting has moved, replacing LA.) But humanity's last chance for survival may have just arrived. We meet three mysterious strangers named Bryke, Kayta, and Ayden, who are obviously alien but not the Visitors. It soon becomes clear that these are those fabled enemies of the visitors who the Resistance had tried to contact the last time we saw them. Two decades later, they've finally received the message and have sent an expedition. At the same time, we're introduced to so many new characters it's almost impossible to keep track. There's Nathan, who steals a visitor fighter. There's Emma, a pop singer who eventually becomes sympathetic to the cause. There's the Elgins, a family of Scis who now live in quarantine (scientists still serving as the jewish analog to the Nazi reptilian visitors.) And of course we meet some old faces like Willy and Harmony, Bob Maxwell, Juliet Parrish, and Mike Donovan. So, with the arrival of these new allies (who we learn are called the Zedti, an insectoid race and the only species to ever defeat the Visitors) the plot is set in motion for a final act of rebellion. This is made even more urgent with the knowledge that the Visitor Leader is going to arrive to supervise a massive new plan to accelerate the timetable in draining earth's water, making earth uninhabitable in years, not decades. But this brings me to a little bit of a nitpick with their whole master plan. As we know from the miniseries, and as most of the world in the book hasn't figured out yet, the Visitors are reptiles from a desert planet here to steal all our water from us. Because they're some thirsty motherfuckers. But wait, why would a reptilian species that evolved on a desert world be so completely unadapted to their environment that they wouldn't be evolved to subsist on less water? We're given a somewhat better explanation this time around that they also need it for their fusion reactors, I presume for feedstock in the production of an isotope of hydrogen like deuterium and tritium. Which I guess is supposed to give it a topical feeling what with the invading somewhere and occupying it to steal its energy source. But then again, hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, why would they need to come here for it? Hell, just put a bussard ramscoop in front of your spaceship and you'll collect plenty on the way here. But this is political allegory, not science pedagogy. Still...readers are a different audience and genre readers at least tend to ask these kinds of questions, even when they aren't the least bit important to the story. (Some no doubt still own their 'Ringworld is unstable!' shirts...) In any event, the story moves along at a good pace and there's plenty of twists to hold your attention. Used to screenwriting, Johnson doesn't waist a moment and he does manage to create a bit of a page-turner. The suspense builds and builds and the revelation near the end (regarding the real reasons for the occupation of earth) all lead up to a satisfying conclusion, and the epilogue is a chilling reminder that while the enemy of our enemy may be our friend, enemies are always less complicated, and in that sense less dangerous. I honestly do hope they get someone with talent to handle the television adaptation of this, if they indeed are going forward with it. By that of course I mean I hope no one currently working at the Sci-Fi Channel will be involved with it. It's funny that with the Sci-Fi Channel working to make itself a global multimedia brand (Sci-Fi Essential series at Tor has actually built itself into a reliable mark of quality), the Sci-Fi Channel itself is just in freefall. After the final season of Galactica airs, I know I'll have no reason to watch it anymore. And seeing the fizzle that is Flash Gordon's ratings, I know I'm not alone. But wherever V: The Second Generation ends up airing (assuming it does air and doesn't get sidelined for some hip new re-imagining...) I know I'll be there watching. SF television is experiencing a new renaissance, in no small part because of the way that was paved by guys like Johnson. V: The Second Generation will be released on November 27th.

Doctor Whom by A.R.R.R. Roberts Gollancz

I first reviewed Adam Roberts earlier this year with Gradisil where, at the time, I had no idea that he had been also building a huge body of work in SF parodies with The Soddit, the Sellamillion, the McAtrix Derided, etc. Prose Tailor is a tailor of prose. He was a companion of the Dr, was there when he re-undegenerated, was there he uncovered the secret at the heart of the cosmos, and found out the true nature of time. When it all began, he had been looking for a career change. Tired of being a, well, prose tailor he finds himself applying for a job that promises plenty of travelling and overtime. (He hopes.) When he arrives for the interview, he meets the Dr and his female companion Linnaeus Trout, and of course their space-and-time-ship Tardy. (It's called the Tardy because out of synch with Standard Time, and consequently always arrives late. And because the Tardy's disguise mutation chip (i.e., chameleon circuit) never got stuck and locked into the shape of a 1950's police box, it takes the form of whatever analog it can find in the time period. For instance, if one were to materialize in the present day, the Tardy would take the form of a small nokia cell phone, which of course is a bit awkward getting out of. He finds himself swept away to Planet Garlicfree, home of the Time Gentlemen, where they discover that a superweapon, the Time Gentleman Violator, the only weapon that can hurt a Time Gentleman, has fallen into the hands of the dreaded Stavros. Stavros intends to equip his cyborg army (the Garleks) with these weapons, and surely bad stuff is surely sure to follow thereafter. This takes them back in time to the voyage of the HMS Icetanic, where they encounter the dreaded Cydermen, who have replaced their solid brains with a more adaptive fluid brain made of cider, and who are allergic to gold even though its inert and entirely unreactive. Their mission brings them into confrontation with the Sluttyteens (don't ask) and the renegade Time Gentleman known as The Master Debater. For my money, to be a successful parody has to rise above its subject matter. It's not enough to just say "Hah, look how dumb this movie/tv show/novel is. Aren't I smart for looking down my nose at this?" It's not enough to point out the obvious, the cheap sets or bad costumes in the show. It's not enough to say "LOL, Daleks can't climb stairs." Some of the best parodies are a kind of reductio ad absurdum. They take a subject's inherent logical assumptions, and takes them to the extremes to show where it all breaks down. The set-up for Doctor Whom is the old joke that technically “Dr. Who” is incorrect grammar. From there Roberts, an English professor, builds up a whole tautology of how language relates to time travel. As the Doctor explains "History, the life of the cosmos---it has a grammar." Time is "a kind of sentence." It's a narrative, a story. “And..” Prose Tailor goes on to say, “if the narrative gets all tangled up, it becomes impossible to follow.” That's where the Time Gentlemen come in. Because naturally someone has to go around, grammar-naziing the whole of space and time, to keep events in the right order. Just as a verb can't come before a noun, or to illustrate the point: A come can't noun before a verb. But what if the universe isn't as sequential as we experience it to be? What if time is more simultaneous, say it's more like a picture than a sentence? Then trying to impose a a linear order can end up actually being destructive. For instance, what if there's just one hydrogen atom, and it's zipping back and forth through time so as to appear to be all the hydrogen atoms in the universe. If I remember right I think this is a riff an idea once suggested to Richard Feynman that all electrons in the universe look the same because there's only one electron, traveling along different world lines. (When it's traveling forward through time, it's a positron. When it's traveling backward through time, it would be positrons.) As if to drive home the point, the chapters are arranged out of order, beginning with chapter 12: the end. Doctor Whom is a Gordian knot, an obscenely overcomplicated, recursively self-referential meta-joke that's probably all too in love with its own cleverness. But it's also a reminder that parodies can transcend their subject matter, mocking while simultaneously elevating. Doctor Whom came out last year in the UK, and was released in the US on September 1st.

Halting State by Charles Stross Ace

So this is Charles Stross's long touted 'mundane' work. For those that still don't know, the mundane movement is to written science fiction what Dogme 95 was to film. It's an attempt to strip away all unnecessary bullshit that might have built up over the years (Flights of fancy and impossibilities like telepathy, faster than light travel, god-like AIs, nano-magic, etc.) and try to write about real people living in a real world with real possibilities. I.e., writing about stuff that could actually happen, not stuff you wish could actually happen. The most interesting development so far in the movement hasn't been the stories themselves, but the bitterly hostile reaction within the science fiction community to these upstart Bolsheviks and their Assault On Wonder. One of the first to make such an accusation, well, he didn't exactly go that far but it was the general impression you got from reading him---was Charles Stross. And now here he is, a couple years later with his own Mundane work. And while I don't think they had the future of online gaming in mind when they wrote their manifesto, I can say that I'm glad he took up the gauntlet. And even though it's calling itself 'mundane', it's anything but. It's one of the most insane reads I've had all year. It's not up to the level of Glasshouse or Accelerando in its scope or inventiveness, but it's far more bizarre, and it's bizarre precisely because it feels all too real, all too possible for comfort. I saw one review that said that Halting State is the book that Gibson's Spook Country was trying to be, and although I can refer to the case of apples vs. oranges, I can't disagree. The year is 2018, and the place is the future People's Republic of Scotland. A multinational called Hayek associates has just been burglarized, but not in the sense we'd think of the word. Hayek runs the virtual economies for MMORPGs, one of which is Avalon Four, where a group of players seems to have broken into the game's central bank and cleaned it out. Which seems about as exciting as investigating the case of the missing cloudsong. But things aren't so simple for two reasons: 1) The sophistication of the attack is such that it would've been impossible without some kind of outside help and 2) Hayek as a public company, and the timing of this robbery seems to have the intent of depressing Hayek's stock price. This isn't just some kids exploiting a flaw in an roleplaying game, this is insider trading, this is sophisticated cyber-fraud, and it just gets worse from there. This becomes even stranger when Nigel MacDonald, a programmer at Hayek, has gone missing. When the police raid his flat, all they find is network equipment. It's unclear if someone came in and cleaned everything up, or if no one actually lived there at all. Jack Reed, a game developer is enlisted by the company insuring Hayek, and teamed up with Elaine Barnaby, a forensic accountant. Together they track the stolen game items to auction houses, to a convention in Glasgow, where a cornered thief demands protection from the Chinese secret service (before then proceeding to stab someone.) Gradually the scope widens to include secret quantum eavesdroppers, peer-to-peer blacknets where you trade illegal favors in a kind of Mario Puzo Overdrive, government fronts to keep tabs on illegal activities in MMORPGs, and finally to a plot where the keys to the entire network infrastructure of the western world may be at stake. Some of the ideas explored seem to be an extension of those raised in Cory Doctorow's Anda's Game (which for those who don't know, was about a sweatshop where players had to build up characters in roleplaying games so they could be sold to the highest bidder.) One of the more interesting twists will remind folks a little of the Joker alternate reality game that was played this year at Comic-Con. Remember how hundreds of people were mobilized with the promise of enlisting in the Joker's private little army? Also remember that the best agent is the one who doesn't know he is one. A couple things make Halting State harder to read than it should've been. For one thing, it's told in the second person present tense, I guess to make it feel “more RPG-like”, which was annoying and gimmicky at first but somehow ended up working. Another reason for the difficulty in plodding through this is...well, when you include half a dozen neologisms on each page, it's sometimes helpful to the reader to include a glossary in the back. Greg Egan does it. Ian MacDonald does it. And now that I think about it, besides a glossary, a Scottish to English phoenetic dictionary would've helped too, because half the time I feel like I'm listening to Brad Pitt in Snatch. Worse, I feel like I'm listening to Brad Pitt from Snatch talk about the future of MMORPGs, using lingo that seemingly only a hardcore WoWer would recognize. I wondered at first if the title 'Halting State' might refer to a reader's tendency, when reading this book, to stop and set it back down every couple of paragraphs wondering what the hell everyone's saying. But density and complexity of ideas has always been Stross's appeal, so why should he stop now. Ultimately, after putting Halting State down, you get the feeling that the future really is one big joke to Stross. The future is going to be ridiculously absurd precisely because the present we find ourselves now in is ridiculously absurd. We just don't know it yet. Halting State was released October 2nd.

The Electric Church by Jeff Somers Orbit US

Avery Cates is a gunner in post-unification New York. A fast gun for hire, he's one of the few people in the System underworld who can actually be trusted. But sadly, he's run into a bad bit of luck. If it's not bad enough to live in a world where the life expectancy isn't much higher than voting age (if people could still vote that is), or that the only legal job you can get is as a 'crusher', which is a nice way of saying you're a hired thug for the System, forcing most of the population into illegal lines of work----if all that isn't enough to deal with, he's just accidentally killed a cop. On top of that, he's just witnessed a murder by a member of the Electric Church, the fastest growing and most powerful religion on the planet. This all around creepy-ass transhumanist cult promises immortality by shedding your mortal coil and having your brain put in a robot body. (Giving you the strength of five gorillas, but you can only be five feet tall.) But his luck changes when he's taken into police custody and Dick Marin, head of System Security Force Internal Affairs (and for all intents and purposes God-on-earth) makes him a job offer. He's the only one who knows why the Electric Church is growing so fast: The murder he just witnessed by a monk was how people are converted into the Church. And each new convert who then becomes a monk, also becomes a high tech assassin, prowling the streets for easy prey that's ripe for an upgrade. The offer is to find and kill Dennis Squalor, founder and cult leader of the Electric Church. If he can accomplish this, not only will he be as rich as a small third world country...he'll have also have his record wiped clean. He assembles his team: Kev Gatz, a 'pusher' (a "psionic" who has the ability to control people with his mind, so lets all insert the standard Patrick Stewart/naked women joke.); Ty Keith, a techy who insists on talking about himself in the third person; the twins Milton and Tanner; and finally a guy who may or may not be Canny Orel, the greatest Gunner who ever lived. I couldn't remember why the idea of monks in an electric church sounded so familiar, until I read the interview in the back, where Somers recounts how it all was inspired by the “Electric Monk” in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency to whom you can outsource all your believing duties. Now, in the interests of full disclosure, one of my pet peeves in SF literature has been the “badass in mirror shades and a trench coat, armed with only with a gun and tons of 'tude” archetype. A man can only stand so much Poochie. It's one reason why early Gibson makes me cringe and why later Warren Ellis makes me yawn. It's an adolescent rebellion and power fantasy...but then again, aren't they all? So I've been trying to hang up for good this little hang-up of mine lately. It's more snobbery than anything else, and if you can't enjoy entertainment for entertainment's sake then you really are in a sad state. Luckily, EC makes the job somewhat easy. It's a quick read, and seeing how most of it is gun fights, it's never a boring one. Somers says that this was written and stuck in a drawer 15 years ago. I'm not sure if this hurt or helped the book. On one hand, if this was published when it was written, then a lot of the ideas and tropes set pieces in here wouldn't have been so well worn by the Matrix and video games and it would've felt a lot fresher. As it stands now, it feels a bit more derivative than it probably was in its creation. But on the other hand, the thinly veiled social commentary on religious fundamentalism is probably as timely as it could ever be. Not that this is any kind of a screed or anything. It's not supposed to give you profound insights into the world around you, or make you a better person. It's a video game world where everyone who dies does so because they deserve it, and where all problems can be settled at the end of a gun, and where there's nothing more important than sticking it to the man and looking cool while you're doing it. The Electric Church was released on September 25th. So that's that. I guess if all goes well, I'll be back in a couple of weeks with an advance look at the new History of The Hobbit, the long overdue new Ender book review, among other stuff. In the mean time, if there's something you'd like me to take a look at, you know where to find me: Drop me a line!

Readers Talkback
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  • Oct. 20, 2007, 6:29 a.m. CST


    by ironic_name

    meow is the new first

  • Oct. 20, 2007, 6:36 a.m. CST

    steven colbert

    by ironic_name

    is the new will ferrell

  • Oct. 20, 2007, 6:53 a.m. CST

    hooray for zoidberg!!

    by ironic_name

  • Oct. 20, 2007, 9:42 a.m. CST

    "V: The Second Generation"

    by 24200124

    Dude! You totally suck for getting an early copy of this!! Can't wait 'til November 27th... Thanks for the scoop!

  • Oct. 20, 2007, 9:53 a.m. CST

    Dr Whom

    by 2LeggedFreak

    Frankly anyone who thinks the idea of Parody is to slightly change the names of characters and places so that they sound amusing is a dumb twat and this book won't be coming anywhere near my bookshelf.

  • Oct. 20, 2007, 10:05 a.m. CST

    Nicely done Adam Balm

    by CarmillaVonDoom

    Especially on the 'V' review; can't believe they haven't started PRODUCTION on it already. Not sure if I want to read the book 1st or not....keep these books reviews coming! (And send me one of those 'Ringworld' shirts') ☺

  • Oct. 20, 2007, 10:12 a.m. CST

    Also thanks for pointing out the 'mundane movement'

    by CarmillaVonDoom

    Interesting stuff

  • Oct. 20, 2007, 10:27 a.m. CST


    by ButtfuckZydeco

    mocked the sitting president for 20 minutes, 8 feet away from him. The dude is hilarious and spry as a motherfucker, but there's only so much you can do on that show of his. Hope he moves on, and not just to some other fucking talk show.<P> Some of Strangers With Candy was absolute genius. Dinello at the chalkboard in the fake marriage episode is one of the 6 funniest things I've ever seen.

  • Oct. 20, 2007, 10:08 p.m. CST

    Bring back the original V cast!

    by MrMysteryGuest

    Let there be continuity!

  • Oct. 21, 2007, 6:09 a.m. CST

    eat a cat!

    by ironic_name

  • Oct. 21, 2007, 5:29 p.m. CST

    original cast

    by kabong

    let there be June Chadwick and Jane Badler

  • Oct. 21, 2007, 7:16 p.m. CST


    by TheNorthlander

    Chadwick is 56 and Badler 54. Can you say "Basic Instinct 2"?<br> <br> Let's hope they bring their daughters.

  • Oct. 22, 2007, 11:26 a.m. CST

    Nice reviews, Adam Balm.

    by raw_bean

    Although I curse you for tempting me towards adding yet more books onto my 'to-read' stack that only seems to grow!