Archive for March, 2014

(This is a spoiler-free review of the advance review copy provided by the publisher.)

“The Forever Watch” by David Ramirez just might be one of the greatest dystopian novels of our time, though you wouldn’t know it by the way it begins.

The book takes place aboard a giant spaceship “Noah,” which carries the last surviving humans from Earth to the planet of Canaan. The voyage will last over a thousand years, but nobody minds it because life is good: cybernetic implants amplify people’s natural abilities and turn them into telepaths, healers, super-strong bruisers, etc. There is no war, no racism, no religious discrimination (mostly because religion has been quietly eliminated over the years) and everything is just peachy. Or is it?..

The main character is the administrator of the city planning bureau. The book begins with her waking up after her 9-month-long breeding duty. (In the wonderful space future, you just take a 9-month nap and wake up to find a large cash bonus in your bank account – somebody else will raise the baby for you.) Shortly afterwards, her friend, a bruiser with an enhanced metabolism, asks her to help him out with an odd case he’s been working on. As they investigate a bizarre murder, they discover far more than they’d ever expected to find.

At 336 pages, “The Forever Watch” is an impressive novel, especially considering it’s Ramirez’s first novel. The plot takes course over the period of several years, flowing smoothly from one key point to the next, evenly spreading the introspective chapters and the gory, bloody action scenes featuring telepathically enhanced characters.

The way the story slowly but surely descends from a verifiable Utopia into a dysyopian nightmare is remarkable – a hard sci-fi version of “Faust” if I’ve ever seen one. Ramirez uses all the genre tropes – spaceships, aliens, mutants, psychics, self-aware computers and so many, many more – and weaves them into the narrative filled with plot twists and surprises that even the most astute reader would find hard to anticipate.

“The Forever Watch” is not a nice book. It’s not a happy book. It’s definitely not the kind of book you’d want to give your 11-year-old. But it’s the perfect book for our age, with its grim, gestalt message about surveillance and secrets, rebels and revolutions, freedom and responsibility. It’ll make you think and weep and gasp and wonder, as all great books are meant to do.

Score: five stars

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Claude Lalumi√®re’s “Super Stories of Heroes & Villains” anthology is a must-read if you’re a fan of the superhero genre. (And judging by the success of the “Avengers” movie, there are millions of fans out there.) The anthology features 27 stories, many of them by lesser-known (but highly talented) writers, as well as stories by the omnipresent Cory Doctorow, Kelly Link and George R.R.Martin.

Although some of the stories aren’t quite about superheroes, most of them take traditional superhero tropes and have fun with them – or create strange worlds with their own mythology. I’m giving this anthology a well-deserved 5-star rating, with a small caveat: a couple of stories talk about the characters’ sex lives in great detail, so you might not want to buy this book for your nephew’s birthday.

And now, a brief guide to the stories:

“Ubermensch!” by Kim Newman: what if Superman crashlanded in Bavaria instead of Kansas? And what if he became a Nazi? The protagonist is a Jew who spent 50 years after WW2 hunting Nazis and who finally gets a chance to interview the captured Superman. Excellent story and a great way to start off the anthology.

“A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows” by Chris Roberson: a hero with mystical powers and not-so-mystical .45 Colts searches for a demon in a California town during WW2. Well written story that, among other things, features an unorthodox way to protect your secret identity.

“Trickster” by Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due: a great story (almost a novella, really) told from the point of view of an African tribesman who encounters an American college student after a botched alien invasion. The story is told in bits and pieces and it’s never quite clear what exactly happened in the outside world, but the ambiguity only makes it better.

“They Fight Crime!” by Leah Bobet: a very short, very unusual story about love triangles, secret romances, superpowers and using “fighting crime” as a euphemism for a certain adult pastime.

“The Rememberer” by J.Robert Lennon: a surprisingly realistic look at what would happen to a person with super-memory in today’s world. This story provides a rare glimpse at the psychological side effects of having superpowers.

“The Nuckelavee: A Hellboy Story” by Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola: Hellboy is tasked with protecting the last living member of an old clan from being killed.

“Faces of Gemini” by A.M.Dellamonica: twin sisters with an unusual origin story team up to rescue their captured teammates. The “bickering sisters” subplot is straight out of Buffy (of which the author is a huge fan), but the odd number of sexual innuendos and scenes where both sisters prance around naked and wear each other’s clothes make this an R-rated story, in my opinion.

“Origin Story” by Kelly Link: in a world where almost everyone has superpowers, a famous superhero comes back to his hometown for an annual parade and hooks up with his high school sweetheart. This story is great because it’s unlike anything else: snippets of dialogue during the characters’ pillow talk paint a world with bizarre arch-enemies, music-obsessed mutants who hide in the forest, cabarets where girls show off their quirky powers, etc. Nothing in this story is quite as it seems, though…

“Burning Sky” by Rachel Pollack: some of the stories in this anthology are about superheroes with occasional sexual overtones. Pollack’s story, on the other hand, is all about sex, with some superhero action in the background. Following in the footsteps of Charles Moulton (the creator of Wonder Woman), Pollack explores some of the more private aspects of liberated crime-fighting women.

“The Night Chicago Died” by James Lowder: a phenomenal mix of pulp action, superheroes and zombies set in the 1920s Chicago. One of the longest – and best – stories in the anthology.

“Novaheads” by Ernest Hogan: I had no idea that lucha noir even existed, and I think I’m hooked now. This story’s cyberpunk world features a Latino version of the United States, with an omnipotent corporation (“Better living through mind control!”), its genetically-enhanced 8-foot-tall wrestlers and street drugs with rather messy side effects.

“Clash of Titans (A New York Romance)” by Kurt Busiek: a hilarious story about a never-ending feud between a brilliant villainess and a goodie-two-shoes superhero (think “My Super Ex-Girlfriend”). The protagonist is a hapless guy in charge of New York City’s tourism PR who just wants to find an affordable condo in the city.

“The Super Man and the Bugout” by Cory Doctorow: what if Superman lived in Canada and had an overbearing Jewish mother? And what if there was no more crime left to fight? Short, funny and quirky.

“Grandma” by Carol Emshwiller: even superheroes can grow old and feeble. A little girl’s story about her formerly-superpowered grandma.

“The Dystopianist, Thinking of His Rival, Is Interrupted by a Knock on the Door” by Jonathan Levin: sometimes all you need to be a supervillain is industrial-strength misanthropy, some writing talent and a vivid imagination. So vivid, in fact, that some of your creations may come to life…

“Sex Devil” by Jack Pendarvis: this isn’t a superhero story per se – it’s a teenager’s pitch to comic book publishers, filled with Freudian overcompensation and a young teen’s lexicon. Funny in a “meta” way, but that’s about it.

“The Death Trap of Dr.Nefario” by Benjamin Rosenbaum: it’s not easy being Gotham’s top psychiatrist. A fun and unusual perspective on Batman’s and Robin’s relationship.

“Man oh Man – It’s Manna Man” by George Singleton: what if you had the power to temporarily hijack somebody’s vocal cords? The protagonist finds a creative way to use his strange and seemingly unremarkable power.

“The Jackdaw’s Last Case” by Paul Di Filippo: I don’t know much about Kafka, but after this great story, which features him as a superhero, I want to know more!

“The Biggest” by James Patrick Kelly: a country bumpkin with superpowers travels to New York City to make a name for himself during the Great Depression. The story also features a cameo appearance by King Kong!

“Philip Jose Farmer’s Tarzan Alive: a Definitive Biography of Lord Greystroke” by Win Scott Eckert: I’m not entirely sure what to make of this story. It’s not fictional and it doesn’t feature any superheroes. It describes a genre of real-life biographies for fictional characters and talks about the most prominent writer in that field. So, basically, this is a story about stories about stories. Very meta, if you’re into that sort of thing.

“The Zeppelin Pulps” by Jess Nevins: an unusual mix of fact and fiction, this story is an article on zeppelin noir books that never existed.

“Wild Cards: Prologue & Interludes” by George R.R.Martin: if you’ve never heard about the “Wild Cards” series, this story is a great introduction. An alien “wild card” virus released in New York in 1946 kills 90% of the population, turns 9% into deformed freaks (jokers) and gives the remaining 1% (aces) godlike powers. As a result, the world’s history is forever altered. If you like realistic superheroes and/or alternate history, give this story (and series!) a shot.

“Wild Cards: Just Cause” by Carrie Vaughn: an action-packed and somewhat said (but oh-so-well-written) story about Wild Card superheroes wroking for the United Nations and trying to save the world, one disaster area at a time.

“Bluebeard and the White Buffalo: A Rangergirl Yarn” by Tim Pratt: a short story set in Tim Pratt’s fictional 19th-century United Stats, where Wild West is wilder than you can imagine, with cowboys who ride unicorns, with steampunk and magic, with vague prophecies of a miraculous buffalo birth…

“The Pentecostal Home¬†for Flying Children” by Will Clarke: a quirky story about a small Louisiana town dealing with a generation of kids with superpowers.

“Pinktastic and the End of the World” by Camille Alexa: a short piece of Young Adult fiction, with superpowers and unrequited crushes.

“The Detective of Dreams” by Gene Wolfe: a strange story told by a detective in pre-WW2 Europe investigating abnormal nightmares.

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“The Space Needle” – 3,060,000 search results on Google
“The Space Button” – 2,530,000 search results
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“The Space Threader” – zero search results

“The Cleansing” is the first book in the “Earth Haven” trilogy by Sam Kates – and it doesn’t disappoint. H.G.Wells was the first author who wrote about an alien invasion in his 1897 “War of the Worlds.” Today, 117 years later, that concept seems almost mundane, but Kates managed to find a few new angles that make his book stand out.

For one thing, the alien invasion in this book begins in a very low-key way. There are no spaceships and lasers – in fact, the aliens have lived among us for a very long time and they’ve come up with a great way to get rid of the pesky humans. (I won’t post any further details to avoid spoiling the book for you.)

The book’s pace is deceptively slow, with just the right amount of foreshadowing and quite a few gory details that show how 99.98% of mankind died out. One of the main characters is a British schoolteacher who is one of the lucky 0.02% that survived. The book switches between his point of view and those of the aliens who have spent far too much time on Earth and, in some cases, became a bit too attached to humans.

Despite the book’s dark and gloomy atmosphere, the author maintains just the right balance: the aliens aren’t omniscient (and, on occasion, screw up just like a baseline human would) and the human characters react to the near-extinction of the human race in very believable ways. There are occasional gems, too: the author explains the origin of vampire myths and the true purpose behind the Stonehenge. (The latter makes just as much sense as any of our current theories.) Although most of the book doesn’t feature a lot of action, Kates does a great job of painting a “what if” scenario. Here is hoping the next two books are even better!

Score: five stars

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“The other day I was pondering some crazy Japanese game show and I came to the realization that we probably have little hope of understanding an Alien race, because I can’t understand Japanese pop culture at all.”


(Oh, Internets, how much I love thee!)

Some science fiction books have dozens of characters and giant, space-opera settings. Tony McFadden’s “Have Wormhole, Will Travel” is from the other end of the spectrum: it tells a single story with only six characters and few plot twists.

The premise is definitely original: the aliens live among us, and they’ve been monitoring our scientific development for the past 400 years. Why? Because if we manage to develop space-flight technology, we’d most likely visit their planet and try to conquer it. (Humans don’t have a very good record when it comes to playing well with new neighbors.) The undercover aliens are tasked with sabotaging some of the more dangerous inventions. If that fails, there’s always the nuclear (or gamma, to be precise) option.

The main characters are two aliens that could almost pass for humans if you don’t look hard enough. They live in a suburb of Sydney and stalk a physics professor at the local university. They, in turn, are stalked by three local girls who are convinced they’re vampires.

The “Men in Black in reverse” premise is creative and the book has occasional hilarious gems such as: “the neighbour’s cat, a tabby male with the personality of a permanently pissed off high school teacher” or “You know there are no such things as vampires. The mythology about them has been around for centuries, but they are no more real than the Loch Ness Monster, werewolves or honest politicians.”

The author also knows his science – or knows somebody who does. There’s a brief history of breakthroughs in physics, a basic explanation of the string theory, wormholes, etc. This science fiction book actually pays attention to science!

The book’s plot moves fairly slowly, driven mostly by dialogue where the characters rehash the things the reader already knows. (If you liked the pace of Orson Scott Card’s “Xenocide,” you will love this book.) There isn’t a whole lot of action until the very end. The ending itself is very iffy from the ethical point of view. (Not unlike the ending in the “The Last of Us” video game.) It’s hard to root for the alleged good guys when they substitute one catastrophe for another instead of truly saving the day. Although the author put a fair amount of effort into fleshing out his characters, the “bad guys” in the book don’t seem all that bad and make some valid points.

Overall, this book’s strengths and weaknesses cancel each other out. It would make for some good, slow reading on a rainy day or during a flight, when you just want something amusing to pass the time.

Score: 3 stars

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“Across the Universe” by Beth Revis is one of the best sci-fi books I’ve read lately. The premise is simple: a giant spaceship is sent to a potentially habitable planet in Alpha Centauri. The voyage should take 300 years, which is why all the essential personnel are cryogenically frozen, while the crew of 3,000 people (and their descendants) keep the ship running.

The main character is a 16-year-old girl Amy. She is one of the frozen passengers on Godspeed, since both her parents are essential to the colonization effort. (Her mother is a geneticist and her father is a high-ranking military official.) Amy is also the first frozen passenger to be thawed out due to an act of sabotage. She wakes up 50 years before she’s supposed to and she can’t get frozen again. She is stranded on the spaceship and forced to live with its people, discovering one creepy, disturbing secret after another. Who sabotaged her cryogenic chamber? Why is everybody acting strange? Who is killing other frozen passengers? And can she trust the boy destined to become the ship’s future leader?

This book is a rare mix of hard science fiction and young adult fiction. The first chapter is profoundly disturbing as the author describes (in excruciating detail and through Amy’s eyes) how Amy’s parents get frozen alive. It’s followed by a fair bit of exposition as we meet Elder, the spaceship’s future leader. Once we’re introduced to all the main characters, the novel really takes off and culminates in several plot twists. I could see some of them coming from a mile away, but the ending still shocked me.

I didn’t expect this book to explore political and philosophical questions (what’s the best way to govern thousands of people with no future?), so it came as a pleasant surprise. The only other sci-fi book that I can think of that made politics an essential part of the plot was Frank Herbert’s Dune.

I normally don’t comment on book design when I write my reviews, but I’m glad I got my hands on the hardcover edition. The cover design is gorgeous, the tagline (“What does it take to survive aboard a spaceship fueled by lies?”) is eloquent, and the inside of the dust jacket features the spaceship’s blueprints! I usually donate the books I’ve read to Goodwill in order to conserve the valuable shelf space, but I think I’ll hold on to my hardcover because of the design eye candy.

“Across the Universe” is the first book in the trilogy, and the sequels (“A Million Suns” and “Shades of Earth”) are already out. If this book is any indication, the followup novels should be just as good.

Score: 5 stars

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