Sunday, October 14, 2018

Book Review: Armistice, by Harry Turtledove

It’s 1953 and Third World War has shuddered to a halt.

Armistice is the final volume in Harry Turtledove’s The Hot War trilogy. And as the title suggests (no spoilers here!) it is about the end of World War Three, which began in the first book of the trilogy, Bombs Away!, when U.S. President Harry Truman acceded to General Douglas MacArthur’s request to use atomic weapons during the Korean War. Truman’s decision proves catastrophic, as the war quickly escalates as bomb is traded for bomb and city for city.

Turtledove paints a picture of what is probably the most realistic and likely scenario of an atomic war being waged between the Soviet Union and the United States during the early ‘50s. 

The war is primarily being waged with slow-moving propeller-driven bombers delivering for the most part, comparatively low-yield fission-type nuclear weapons.  While capable of taking out a city, the damage is limited (if you can call it that). By now, both sides resemble prizefighters who have gone a full count with each other but are somehow still standing. They are just too tired, too worn out to keep going. And so, they sue for peace.


As usual, Turtledove’s cast of characters is drawn from every walk of life in a world on the edge is on full display here. Historical characters such as Harry Truman and Vyacheslav Molotov are mixed with the fictional. For the most part, these are all handled very well. 

This is based on an event, given MacArthur’s demands for the use of nuclear weapons, that very nearly happened. It is difficult to imagine, for example, that Stalin wouldn’t have retaliated and that events would’ve unfolded in a manner similar to that Turtledove suggests. I do have a little difficulty, however, in the way Turtledove has broadly shoehorned his plot into the timeline of the Korean War.  Would an actual war have gone on this long or would it have lasted longer? Thankfully, this is something we will never know. Perhaps Turtledove in his own way is suggesting there is a certain inevitability to history – in whichever universe you live in.

Armistice is a satisfying conclusion to The Hot War trilogy. Definitely worth reading.

What’s Next?
It has been a rough-and-tumble month around the old blog, unfortunately. Now it’s time to pick up the pieces and start again. Upcoming, I am now reading S.M. Stirling’s latest book, The Black Chamber.  I also have a few other things on the go…

In the meantime, you can help out a poor unemployed writer by purchasing Elvis Saves JFK! for just 99 cents and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History, for $2.99 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are free to preview). All books -- which are already on Smashword's premium distribution list -- are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Sony, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.  Thanks.

Monday, September 3, 2018

A Look at Philip K. Dick’s Radio Free Albemuth: A Book for Our Times

Long regarded as simply a first draft to the author’s later VALIS (1978), Radio Free Albemuth is perhaps one of Philip K. Dick’s more under appreciated works.  And it’s too bad,  given the current world we live in, it’s also one of his most eerily prophetic.

Dick wrote the book in 1976 and then set it aside and it used as a subplot in his later and more extensive VALIS. Radio Free Albemuth was rediscovered after Dick died in 1982 and published posthumously under its current title in 1985. At a little over 200 pages in my Avon paperback (1987) edition, it is a comparatively sparse work, but it is still charged with the same sense of urgency, anger, and wonder that Dick carried throughout all of his work and in my opinion, should not be given short shrift.

The book takes place in an alternate 1960s-70s America where an authoritarian president based on Richard M. Nixon (whom Dick detested), Ferris F. Freemont, rose to power and with the help of his secret police, the Friends of the American People (FAP), has all but destroyed civil rights in the name of saving them. In a turn that might be well out of our own history, this authoritarian president is discovered be a sleeper agent of Moscow. He is in single-minded pursuit of Aramchek, an organization he correctly believes is out to expose him.

One senses that the book is a very personal one for Dick, with the author assuming the role of a major character and partial narrator, but not the key antagonist, who is his friend, Nick Brady, an executive with a small record company in southern California. Brady is also the recipient of signals from a god-like orbiting alien satellite, VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligent System), which also reflects the author’s own recent conversion to Gnosticism. Through VALIS, Brady, Dick, and others are drawn into the Aramchek conspiracy.

There’s a lot to unpack with Radio Free Albemuth, far too much in this limited space. I do, however, heartily recommend it was an example of Philip K. Dick at the peak of his powers. Find a copy in your local used bookshop or online. It is a book for our times.

Since I’m talking about all things Philip K. Dick, I could not pass the chance to discuss the trailer for the third season for Amazon Prime’s The Man in the High Castle, which is already upon us. I’m only reflecting on what I’ve seen, but it seems that the Nazis will develop a technology to cross the universes - which looks like it came out straight out of the old Time Tunnel TV series. It also looks like that Juliana Crain and perhaps Tagomi will lead some kind of organized resistance to the Nazis. Perhaps most interesting, what will Obergruppenf├╝hrer Smith’s role be all of this? As the second season closed, he seemed to to be having second thoughts about the party line despite being thrust into the very centre of things thanks to his work in exposing the plotters in last season's closing episode. I think we're being set up for some very exciting developments. I'm very much anticipating this. 




What’s Next?

Forthcoming, I have a review of the latest book by S.M. Stirling, The Black Chamber; a review of the last book in Harry Turtledove’s The Hot War trilogy, Armistice.

In the meantime, as always, Elvis Saves JFK! for just 99 cents and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History, for $2.99 and The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are free to preview) are available for purchase. All books -- which are already on Smashword's premium distribution list -- are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Sony, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.  Thanks.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Book Review: Mecha Samurai Empire, by Peter Tieryas

As soon as I learned that Peter Tieryas has written a second novel that shares the same alternate universe as his previous United States of Japan, I was taken. The first novel had been such an enjoyable read, I immediately looked forward to cracking open this book.

I’ll tell you straight away: I wasn’t disappointed.  Mecha Samurai Empire is a successful follow-on (but not a sequel) to United States of Japan. Occurring a number of years after the events of the first book, it follows the exploits of Makoto “Mac” Fujimoto, an aspiring mecha pilot as he starts from a young cadet and moves into maturity.  The plot is very much character-driven as it follows the main protagonist as he moves towards achieving his goal.  Along the way, we are treated to equally well-sketched out characters whom he allies with, has conflict with, falls in love with, and sometimes, loses. These are after all, the steps into adulthood.

Author Tieryas also demonstrates some admirable world-building skills as he fleshes out the universe he first introduced to us in United States of Japan, where the Axis had defeated United States and Canada in 1948 and divided the Western Hemisphere between them. Since that time the world has been on a knife-edge of conflict between the two former allies. Now as a writer, I believe that showing – providing visual cues, giving us sense impressions, and showing how the characters are reacting to external stimuli, is the strongest form of storytelling and the mark of a mature writer.  Tieryas exceeds in this department. Where small details such as food – which seems to be something of a subtheme in this book – are looked after so you can practically taste it, you can readily accept the bigger picture. 

The novel draws from a number of inspirations, including Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, and the notion of the rebels that Mac encounters that somewhere there is an alternate world where the United States won the war. The character arc of the main protagonist also reminds me very much the one of the best of Robert A. Heinlein’s classic juveniles, Space Cadet, which follow the growth of a boy into adulthood. And that isn’t a bad comparison at all.

Ultimately, Mecha Samurai Empire is a hugely satisfying read. Entertaining and suspenseful by turns it kept me engaged from cover to cover. I am looking forward to the next book, which promises to reveal more about the forthcoming USJ-Reich war. 

Note: This review is based on an advance copy provided by author’s agent.

What’s Next?

I have several upcoming items in the hopper including – but not in any order – a review of the latest book by S.M. Stirling, The Black Chamber; a review of the last book in Harry Turtledove’s The Hot War trilogy, Armistice, and a look at Philip K. Dick’s last – and some say most under-rated work, Radio Free Albemuth.

In the meantime, you can help out a poor unemployed writer by purchasing Elvis Saves JFK! for just 99 cents and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History, for $2.99 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are free to preview). All books -- which are already on Smashword's premium distribution list -- are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Sony, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.  Thanks.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Book Review: Taylor Anderson’s Devil’s Due

Taylor Anderson’s Devil’s Due is the latest instalment in his by-now 13-volume (including the forthcoming River of Bones) Destroyermen series. (Note this is a review of the paperback edition.)

In case you are not familiar with the Destroyermen series, it is about the crew of an aging “Four-stacker” American destroyer, the USS Walker, that along with a few other friends and enemies, have somehow crossed over an alternate world at the onset of the Second World War in the Pacific.

Devil’s Due, as is the rest of the series, is a slow reveal, showcasing more Anderson’s world-building talents that have underpinned the series. It adds new details about new a new enemy, the fascist League of Tripoli and an ally, the New United States.  I must say I’ve grown to be a big fan of Taylor’s world-building skills, which is something that all serious fiction writers – no matter what subject or genre – need to learn.

One of the highlights of the series is the character arcs that run throughout the novels and the development of both protagonists and antagonists undergo - warning, spoilers ahead!  Long-time readers of the series know that it’s Anderson’s habit of knocking off several major characters per novel, and Devil’s Due is no exception with some very major, major developments in this regard.

I admit I am a continuing fan of the series. Author Anderson maintains the same steady narrative drumbeat he established in the first book of the series, Into the Storm and continues with his latest effort. The result is a fun, engaging ride, with characters you find yourself caring for.

Highly recommended for all the right reasons.

What's Next?

I have a few things that I plan to bring to you over the next while. First, I will review Philip K. Dick’s Radio Free Albemuth, which was discovered and published only 
after his death. Second, I will follow up with a new novel (in trade paperback) by the ever-talented and thought-provoking S.M. Stirling, Black Chamber, which is set in an alternate First World War.  Third, I am also looking forward to reviewing Mecha Samurai Empire, a novel by Peter Tieryas, set in the same alternate universe as his earlier United States of Japan, which I reviewed earlier in this space.

In the meantime, you can help out a poor unemployed writer by purchasing Elvis Saves JFK! for just 99 cents and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History, for $2.99 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are free to preview). All books -- which are already on Smashword's premium distribution list -- are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Sony, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.  Thanks.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Looking at Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

This isn’t going to be a conventional book review.  In terms of how great a work of speculative fiction The Handmaid’s Tale is, too much has already been said that I really can’t add to it.  Published in 1985, the novel has gone on to be ranked with other classics of dystopian fiction, including Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, and It Can’t Happen Here.

Think of this as more of a meditation on The Handmaid’s Tale in The Age of Trump.

Most people know the basics of the plot.  The Handmaid's Tale takes place in a near-future America, where, thanks to series of environmental disasters, the birthrate has crashed. A group of religious fundamentalists, the Sons of Jacob, have staged a coup and have assassinated the president and much of Congress and replaced the Constitution with the dictatorial Christian theocratic state, the Republic of Gilead. Civil rights are heavily curtailed, and you're out of luck if you're a woman.

Offred, a young woman, is the protagonist.  She is the titular handmaid to a Commander, a high-ranking member of Gilead’s elite. Because of the decline in the birth rate, Handmaids are tasked with producing the offspring for the higher-ups. We know she was married with a child in The Before Times, but after she was intercepted at the border with her family, trying to escape to Canada, and she lost all contact with them, not even knowing if they are still alive.

So, what do we make of The Handmaid’s Tale? Certainly, in the wake of the election of Donald Trump in 2016, it was tempting to use the book and the television series to mirror then-current events. The election in November 2016 and the subsequent swearing in of Donald Trump as 45th President of the United States seemed to grant The Handmaid's Tale added relevancy. I think what was perhaps most shocking was how suddenly it turned, from The Before Times, and the logic and sobriety of Barack Obama, to the Long Present, and the willful autocracy of Donald Trump.

Should we have been surprised? Not really. The autocrats have been on the march for a long time. Most famously in Russia, where Vladimir Putin has established a kleptocracy, bent on enriching himself and crushing his opponents.  It is all but certain that Putin meddled in the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections, which brought Donald Trump to power. The great divide and stalemate in U.S. politics – red states vs. blue states and a gridlocked Congress – is a logical outcome of the U.S. two-party system. Putin and others took advantage of that, gaming a broken system.

So, what’s that got to do with The Handmaid’s Tale?


I’m getting to that. Whenever there is a time of perceived uncertainty, people look for an individual on a white horse offering simple solutions to complex problems. In the universe of The Handmaid’s Tale, the solution was the false comfort of prepackaged religious fundamentalism. In our history, much the same thing has happened. In the 1930s, as the Depression took its toll, people turned to men like Hitler and Mussolini to provide those easy answers. (It almost happened then in the U.S., as per my novel, War Plan Crimson.) Flash forward a few decades: many Americans, frustrated by government gridlock, the loss of good-paying jobs, and the feeling that somehow their country has lost its way, have turned to a man on a white horse. This time, he is a man who played a billionaire on television and claims he can make their country great again.  

No authoritarian would be without their scapegoats, their outsiders.  In The Handmaid’s Tale, “unwomen,” and other undesirables are scapegoated and brutalized by the state and either are exiled, executed, or sent to be worked to death in the Colonies. In the America of Donald Trump, the scapegoats and outsiders are mostly Latino migrants who are illegally crossing the border. I don’t deny for a moment this is a problem, and nations must be able to enforce their immigration laws. But there are ways and then there are ways of doing things. And surely separating migrant children – some as young as only months old – from their parents and putting them into camps is not the way to do it. It is inhumane and brutal. Donald Trump’s partial climb-down earlier this month only leaves this ghastly spectre hanging over our heads without resolution in sight.

We are nowhere near the universe of The Handmaid’s Tale, thank God. So perhaps we should be grateful to Margaret Atwood for providing us with both a mirror and a warning. Hopefully, we got the warning in time.

What’s Next?
I will be working on few things over the next couple of months. First, I will review Philip K. Dick’s Radio Free Albemuth, which was discovered and published after his death. Second, I will follow up with the latest paperback edition in Taylor Anderson’s long-running Destroyermen series, Devil’s Due. Third, I am also looking forward to reviewing Mecha Samurai Empire, a novel by Peter Tieryas, set in the same alternate universe as his earlier United States of Japan, which I reviewed earlier in this space.

In the meantime, you can help out a poor unemployed writer by purchasing Elvis Saves JFK! for just 99 cents and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History, for $2.99 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are free to preview). All books -- which are already on Smashword's premium distribution list -- are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Sony, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.  Thanks.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Book Review: Gestapo Mars, by Victor Gischler


As a novel, Gestapo Mars doesn’t try to take itself too seriously. And that’s a probably a good thing, given that it takes place in a distant future of a parallel universe where the Nazis somehow emerged supreme. And that’s also likely a very good thing because such an explanation would likely make your brain hurt. 

I won’t even try to figure out when and where the histories diverged.  For example, there's a city on the moon called St. Armstrong,  plus numerous other historical and pop-cultural references to keep your head happily spinning.

But that's not the point here. Gestapo Mars is one helluva fun read.  It’s got space Nazis, beautiful women, dinosaur Nazis, plots and counterplots, cyborg Nazis, aliens, and did I mention, Nazis? 

The protagonist, one Carter Sloan, is a secret agent/troubleshooter for the Third Reich, which is since spread off-world, across the solar system and beyond.  He has spent the last 258 years in suspended animation. Like some high-priced fire extinguisher, Sloan is only brought out in case of emergency, which in this case, is a biggie. The Reich is threatened not only within by rebels but also without by the Coriandons, who as much resemble giant blobs of protoplasm.  Sloan’s mission is simple: track down the leader of the rebels, the Daughter of the Brass Dragon.  Whether he has to kill her or rescue her remains the big question. 

This book clips along. The author writes at a brisk pace, daring the reader to keep up with him. Gestapo Mars is character-driven with Gischler making Sloan a cynical protagonist we actually can care about.  By turns, Gestapo Mars is broadly satiric and action-packed, with a lot of nice plot twists that keep you glued right to the very end.


Highly recommended.

In the meantime, you can help out a poor unemployed writer by purchasing Elvis Saves JFK! for just 99 cents and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History, for $2.99 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are free to preview). All books -- which are already on Smashword's premium distribution list -- are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Sony, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.  Thanks.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Book Review: The Massacre of Mankind, by Stephen Baxter


“…And yet, across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely, they drew their plans against us…”  H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds.

Immediately after The War of the Worlds was first published as a serial in Pearson’s Magazine in 1897, the first of many sequels were published, starting with the quixotic Edison's Conquest of Mars by Garrett P. Serviss, in which Thomas Edison leads an invasion fleet to counter-attack the Martians. Perhaps not surprisingly, a number of authors have written sequels that have tried to shoehorn The War of the Worlds into the alternate history genre. Some have worked out quite well, and some have not.  The Great Martian War, a 2013 coproduction of the BBC and The History Channel, for example, is one the former, is an alternate history documentary that had the Martians land in a Europe on the eve of the First World War. 

The War of the Worlds is not just a favourite science fiction novel of mine. It was my gateway to the literature.  So, anyone who comes along with an alternate history sequel, better get it right. Fortunately, I can report that Stephen Baxter’s The Massacre of Mankind, as both a sequel and a work of alternate history, works on both those of levels and more.

Without giving too much away the novel begins in 1920. It’s been 17 years since the first Martian assault on England in 1907, which failed, as we all know, because of the invaders’ exposure to earthly bacteria.  Since then, the earth has become an armed camp, watching the skies at each direct opposition of Mars to the Earth for the firing of the massive gun that would signal the renewed onslaught.  The British Isles are ruled by a military government, while in Europe something resembling World War One has happened. France is under German occupation and a protracted war with Imperial Russia drags on in the east. While humanity’s technological level may have benefited from the reverse-engineering of what the Martians left behind, the Martians themselves have been learning from their mistakes and have also been adapting.

The initial Martian landing in England in 1920 is followed by a second wave which straddles the world. A true war of the worlds then begins, with Baxter not only giving sly but affectionate nods to Orson Welles’ radio broadcast, the 1953 George Pal movie, and a couple of other literary sequels. The book is also a great spot-the-H.G. Wells-reference game as Baxter gleefully slides in references to other works by Wells.

Baxter’s novel, “authorized by the estate of H.G. Wells” benefits from his brilliantly-executed plot, its prose, and its cast of characters. While several characters from the first novel are present, such as the “unreliable narrator” of the first novel, now identified as Walter Jenkins, and the darkly pragmatic cockney artilleryman, it's Jenkins’ sister-in-law, Julie Elphinstone, plucky girl reporter, who provides the main narrative focus with a decided 21st Century point of view. 

This is an excellent novel.  Not only is The Massacre of Mankind a worthy and careful sequel to H.G. Wells’ original, touching on many of its themes, while adding a couple of its own, it also stands a superior example of the alternate-history genre.  Most highly recommended.

Up Next:

I will be reviewing the delightfully zany Gestapo Mars, by Victor Gischler, which is exactly like it sounds.
  
In the meantime, you can help out a poor unemployed writer by purchasing Elvis Saves JFK! for just 99 cents and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History, for $2.99 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are free to preview). All books -- which are already on Smashword's premium distribution list -- are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Sony, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.  Thanks.