The Skinner, by Neal Asher

240297Aw yeah, this book has everything! Vicious wildlife; invincible sea captains; undead cops; hive minds; psychotic space crabs; smart-alecky AIs; and of course blood, torture, and gore, courtesy of a twisted monster named the Skinner who ain’t just skinning apples.

When a science-fiction novel is this overstuffed, it either falls apart or becomes totally awesome, and fortunately Neal Asher’s The Skinner takes the latter course. The main character in the book is really the planet Spatterjay, which Asher fills with an incredible array of horrible creatures, starting with the omnipresent leeches that mindlessly extract plugs of flesh from any organic being. I fricking hate leeches (seriously, their mouths belong on hellspawn), and Asher’s loving descriptions of their voracity sent chills through me.

But leeches are only the beginning because Spatterjay also has razor-edged prill (basically lethal lobsters), predatory whelks, roadkill-like lungbirds, and the putrephallus tree, which looks and smells exactly as you’d expect from its ingenious name.

There are of course also humans, and if you’re wondering how fragile meat sacks like us survive in a world full of predators, the answer is a bizarre virus that pervades the planet’s ecosystem and, when introduced into humans, warps physiology so thoroughly that flesh regenerates upon being stripped and life extends basically indefinitely, with all of these effects growing the longer the virus lives in the system.

Incidentally, combine this fact with the Skinner’s favorite hobby, and you can see why that monster is so feared. And that’s not the end of the horrors that Asher inflicts on the essentially immortal humans on Spatterjay who have nonetheless not entirely lost their ability to feel pain. The greatest enemy in the book is not even the Skinner, as grotesque as it is, but the Prador, violent crab-like aliens who make a habit of enslaving other species by installing thrall units on their nervous systems. (To be fair, they also enslave their own kind.) The dark back story to this world is that in the early days of Spatterjay’s colonization, a group of heartless pirates used their virus-given strength to sell millions of people to the Prador, leading to an intergalactic war and immense, lurid suffering. The actual story of The Skinner (well, the main one at any rate) involves a cop who has been reincarnated into his rotting body with the sole purpose of finding and killing the last of these depraved pirates — joined (of course) by a human agent of a hornet hive mind and a two-century-old xenobiologist.

When I said the book was bursting with crazy ideas I was not playing!

Mostly though The Skinner is just fun. There’s of course the fun of discovering yet another of Asher’s outrageous ideas. But a lot of the fun comes from Asher’s willingness to let stuff hit the fan. Spatterjay is a dark world with a dark history, and every bit of its awfulness gets dredged up during the story. But although much of what Asher recounts is stomach-churningly macabre, it provides a context for great heroics and literally world-changing decisions, as well as some kick-ass battle sequences. And hey there are even two sequels! I’m as happy as a leech on a heirodont.

★★★★★

The Ask and the Answer, by Patrick Ness

askI had some issues with The Knife of Never Letting Go but its sequel, The Ask and the Answer, is so good. So good. Indeed it is by far the best book of the Chaos Walking trilogy, which is unusual for a middle volume, but in this case the comparison isn’t even close.

As you’d expect there are a lot of spoilers of the first book so I’d stop now if you haven’t read it.

Basically at the end of the first book we found out that Mayor Prentiss, formerly the head of the murderous townsfolk chasing after Todd and Viola, had taken over Haven in a bloodless coup. The sight of the Mayor greeting Todd as he holds Viola’s dying body is the indelible image that propels us into this volume.

Todd is forced to work with the Mayor. Viola is taken to the healers, but most of them (including Viola) rebel from the Mayor’s reign and form a little militant group dedicated to getting back their freedom.

The battle lines seem pretty clear eh? Not even close.

The first thing I love about this book is how it twists who’s good and who’s evil. I totally expected a ham-fisted treatment about saintly freedom fighters who (gasp!) aren’t vegetarian and dastardly tyrants who (ooh!) love art, but Ness really ignores the little stuff and lets the contradictions fly.

There’s a well known trope (maybe it’s even an actual scene in some book) where an assassin with an indisputably just cause reaches his target, a monstrous ruler — only to discover the villain composing a tender letter to a beloved, innocent grandchild. The point of this trope is to introduce uncertainty into the reader’s sense of justice and desert, forcing him to recognize that even the bad guy will be mourned when he passes.

The chapters with Todd and the Mayor’s people are like this trope except a lot better. It starts almost right away, with the Mayor giving Todd (and then the people of Haven) a very effective “I’m not the bad guy” speech. And it continues while Todd sinks ever lower into more and more monstrous things, especially regarding the alien Spackle, with the seductiveness of the Mayor’s approval and apparent good faith clouding all judgment about why he’s never trusted this guy.

I need to highlight in particular the book’s amazing treatment of the Mayor’s son, Davy, who you may recall actually shot Viola in the first book, starts out in this one as a total ass, but then gradually becomes this sympathetic and even likeable character! The thing is that many young people have had experiences with former tormentors mysteriously transforming into friends (the very thing happened to me during eighth grade for reasons that my former enemy, now good friend, and I find baffling) but Ness’s portrayal of this change in the Davy-Todd relationship is maybe the first really persuasive fictional version of this I’ve read.

On the other side of the ledger the rebels whom Viola joins turn out to be wholly justified in their cause and yet plainly ruthless terrorists in the al Qaeda mode. Are there human costs to this battle? Oh yes. And lies and betrayals are a small price to pay for a chance of regaining Haven.

I want to be clear. It’s not that Ness inverts black and white here. There’s really no question that the Mayor is the bad guy and the rebels are right to try to overthrow him. But is the Mayor redeemable? Is he sometimes right? Can he be a friend and not just an enemy? Maybe, says Ness. By the same token do the rebels properly judge when sacrifice is needed? Are they careful enough about citizens? Are they really so different from the Mayor in their singleminded devotion? Would they be any less monomaniacal as the rulers of Haven in pursuit of their own imperfect vision of the good?

Maybe not, Ness says.

The second thing I like about this book is how quickly and naturally things escalate. The entire book is a pitched battle between the Mayor and the rebels and it keeps getting uglier and uglier, with consequences that Ness doesn’t shy away from revealing. In particular Todd’s oversight over the Spackle turns grotesque — a twist with major implications — as does the Mayor’s need to get human intelligence and the rebels’ cold calculations over the importance of their members’ own lives. Todd and Viola are right in the midst of these escalations, sometimes merely witnessing them, but more often being forced to execute them. And Ness doesn’t spare us or them the ugly and bloody effects of their decisions.

The third thing I like about this book is the relationship between Todd and Viola. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a boy and girl in a YA novel who’ve gone through a lot together will fall in love (though the girl certainly deserves to catch the eye of a hunky competitor), and this book fits that mold with some twists. For one thing we get POV chapters now from both Todd and Viola (the previous book involved just Todd) and both are big feelers with big emotions, which they recount in a breathless stream-of-consciousness style that is a surprisingly accurate portrayal of how teens think they think. I suppose some people will find the writing annoying but I thought it was very effective at heightening the emotions that the two lovebirds feel for each other.

Another twist is that Todd and Viola spend much of the book apart even as they go through significant mental changes on their own. (It occurs to me that given their ages they must also be going through massive physical changes but Ness kinda leaves all that unspoken.) The narrative significance of this physical separation is that their mutual yearning reaches a fever pitch; but at the same time every rare encounter becomes a minefield because in their time apart each young’un has constructed from his and her memories and hopes elaborate expectations about the other — expectations that are rarely fulfilled. (Viola’s desperate need to hear Todd’s thoughts is particularly heartbreaking.)

The end of The Ask and the Answer is a mixed bag. On the one hand it involves one of those ridiculous “battles of the mind” that involve (e.g.) two characters grunting at each other in complete physical stillness as energies whip around them — an image that does not affirm anybody’s dignity and yet recurs with laughable frequency in speculative fiction. On the other hand the very ending, just like the ending for the first book, is flat out awesome. Ness has been setting up for this since book one, and heightening the set up through a series of atrocities in book two, and the end of The Ask and the Answer sets up a truly delicious conflict for the last and final volume of the Chaos Walking trilogy.

(Am I really giving a maximum rating to a YA science-fiction melodrama? Yes I am.)

★★★★★

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, by George Saunders

356404I came to this book already smitten due to a quirk of personal history. When I was (much) younger I was something of a short story snob in the modern MFA style. For me a “correct” story was a tedious little slice of life (because what is life if not tedious) about some unremarkable middle-class schlub (because what are we if not schlubs) agitating over what we would today call first-world problems, and written in a style somewhere between Hemingway and Carver.

Then one day in 1995 I opened the latest issue of Harper’s, which was an outstanding forum for the type of short fiction I thought was “proper,” to find this bizarre insert — I remember it being some sort of yellowish, artificially aged paper though I wouldn’t put any money on that memory — with the craziest novella I’d ever read. It was about a mutant in a theme park who journeyed across a dystopian America dodging slavers and losing his virginity to find a mutated sister whose despair at her condition had led her to prostitution. I very clearly remember reading the story with a growing sense of dismay. Science fiction, in this venerable east coast publication? Affected, orotund, but hilarious dialogue? And central billing to boot?!

This wacky mutant tale could not have been more shocking to my then-starchy sensibilities. But by the time I finished the story I discovered that its sheer ridiculousness had wormed itself into my heart. I loved it.

The name of the story was “Bounty,” and the author was a man named George Saunders. When I saw Saunders’ CivilWarLand in Bad Decline in the bookstore not too long later, and realized that “Bounty” was inside (and, indeed, its crowning achievement), I bought it and ate it up.

You might be wondering how I liked the book. Ha! The truth is I know not everybody does. And the reason for this divided opinion is Saunders’ jaunty, loose-limbed, and hilarious voice. If you like the way he writes then one book is just not enough. If you don’t then he’s intolerable.

For me the wonder of Saunders’ writing is how he’s able to tie together cliches and pop expressions and some of the most casual, slapdash dialogue you will ever see into this stream of pure comedy. And then how he’s able to direct that hilarity to some disturbingly dark areas. Nearly all of the stories in CivilWarLand deal with underdogs laboring under the weight of cheerfully arbitrary bureaucracies. By the end of the book — literally the last line of “Bounty” — Saunders hints that the underdogs might grow a backbone. But until then, man. A more heartily abused and debased collection of losers you will not see.

There is an afterword by Saunders in the most recent edition of CivilWarLand that is one of the most fascinating insights into an author I’ve read. It helps that it’s really funny but more to the point you can see how the collection’s focus on losers getting crushed arose from Saunders’ own feelings of inadequacy and mediocrity as an aspiring fiction writer mired in a dull job. (Somewhere out there are storm water reports written by this man.) The afterword is also a paean to writers discovering their own style, rather than merely aping their predecessors. As it turns out the bizarre comedic voice that is Saunders’ trademark is a natural growth, not a developed mannerism — albeit one that it took him years to have the courage to uncover. Write not how you expect to sound, but how you really are, Saunders says. The man would know.

★★★★★

Escape from Camp 14, by Blaine Harden

13604229I have thought for a long time that the modern world’s toleration of North Korea’s atrocities will be seen in hindsight as an abdication of moral responsibility greater than the Allied Powers’ lengthy refusal to respond to the Holocaust in World War II, or the U.N.’s reaction to the Rwandan genocide. Blaine Harden’s extraordinary Escape from Camp 14 shows the human cost of this abdication.

Escape from Camp 14 tells the story of Shin Donghyuk, who was born and raised in one of North Korea’s political prison camps. His life in the camp is a nightmare that almost beggars belief. There is of course the appalling torture meted out by sadistic guards; the public displays of cruelty, such as the execution that is Shin’s first memory; and the endless deprivation of food, water, and sanitation. But what is worse is the near total absence of personal warmth — or indeed any real human relationships at all. Shin’s parents display little affection for him; he was the product, not of love, but of a sexual liaison “rewarded” to two compliant prisoners. Growing up he saw his mother primarily as a competitor for food, not as a caretaker (he rarely saw his father). And due to the snitching encouraged by camp guards, Shin treated his fellow prisoners, and was treated by them in return, as potential betrayers, never as friends.

As the title of the book indicates, Shin is able to escape from this nightmare, in a daring expedition that is only less horrible than his confinement because of its promise of freedom. But Shin’s ending is hardly a happy one. Adjusting to a life of relative plenitude (in China) and then actual comfort (in South Korea) has been understandably difficult. But learning to like and trust others, and to come to terms with his earlier, brutal self, has been even harder. In many ways Camp 14 made Shin into a sociopath. That mindset was essential to his survival in the prison camp, but it is alien to the circles where he now lives and travels. Harden is sympathetic to Shin’s plight, and makes much of his attempts at reform, but I think it is clear that Shin still struggles to feel much guilt for what he did — including informing on his mother and brother, who were executed in front of him.

It is strange to live in a world where I can type these words in a climate-controlled skyscraper, surrounded by more food than I can eat, and supported by friends and family whom I would trust with my life; while not so far away hundreds of thousands of fellow human beings suffer and struggle and despair in an endless gray existence without even a glimmer of hope. I suppose that has always been true. And I suppose too that even a regime as entrenched as North Korea’s cannot last forever; within my lifetime, I anticipate, we will see its worst excesses quashed, whether by external force or internal reform. But that happy ending is at best years, more likely decades, away. And for the millions who have already suffered — and even for those, like Shin, who have escaped — any change may be too late.

★★★★★

TV Review: Game of Thrones, Season 2

agot2I had serious doubts about HBO’s ability to translate George R.R. Martin’s sprawling series A Song of Ice and Fire to television. The books are so complex and eventful that a mere ten episodes did not seem like enough time to capture each volume. And frankly Season One of the show — renamed Game of Thrones, after the first book — did little to allay my concerns. Although the acting was surprisingly good (the kids in particular were fantastic), I thought that the show felt more like a synopsis of the books, rather than a freestanding creative work.

Season Two of the television series is very different — and much, much better. The deviations from the books have gotten greater, but almost invariably the changes are improvements. In particular, the scenes between Arya and Tywin Lannister, the two best actors in the show, are a delight. The characters never meet in the books. But in the show Arya becomes Tywin’s servant at Harrenhal, giving her access to his war councils, but more importantly giving us access to Tywin’s more human side. It is clear that Tywin becomes very fond of Arya, to the point of divulging more and more about his most private thoughts. And it is equally clear that every word Tywin speaks, however kindly, is poison to Arya’s ears. In one scene Tywin speaks longingly of his children and of the burdens and joys of being a father — and the camera flashes to Arya, who remembers very well her own father’s treatment at the hands of the Lannisters.

In other areas the show improves by subtracting from, not adding to, the books. The Night Watch’s expedition beyond the Wall, for instance, is treated in far more summary fashion, at the expense of Sam’s development, but to the benefit of accelerating Jon’s relationship with Ygritte. Theon’s storming of Winterfell, and the Stark boys’ escape, is told surprisingly well despite occupying only a few scenes. And the tense relationship between Tyrion and his sister while they await Stannis’s siege of King’s Landing takes only a few minutes but loses almost nothing in the translation.

There’s no question that the television show lacks the books’ rich texture, including much of the mythology that makes the Night Watch sections such a pleasure to read. But overall Season Two’s condensing of the second book is so successful that it makes me wonder whether Martin could have edited his own story a bit better. I am aware that Martin is scripting many of the television episodes. Hopefully he will take back from that experience an impulse to prune away at some of the books’ growing excesses.

★★★★★

Farthing, by Jo Walton

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Jo Walton’s new alternate history novel Farthing manages the incredible, heart-rending trick of being a quiet little story about quiet, brave people while simultaneously conjuring the kind of haunting dystopia that rips your guts out.

Farthing is clearly a parable about Britain and America in the wake of the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks, when commonsense, humanism, and a commitment to liberty and justice has been easily set aside in a fury of bloodlust and a dismal, shrugging apathy. Walton’s deft touch is like Orwell’s, tender but unflinching, and it’s easy to see why she won the Campbell Award and the World Fantasy Award.

(via Farthing: Heart-rending alternate history about British-Reich peace – Boing Boing)

I have a huge backlog of books that I just don’t have time to review. To take the lazy way out, I’ll try to find reviews that I agree with and highlight them.

This is one example. I loved Jo Walton’s Farthing — a successor of sorts to 1984, transplanted to our modern paranoias. The murder mystery in this book (and similar mysteries in its two outstanding successors, Ha’penny and Half a Crown) is really peripheral to the book’s main achievement, which is the chilling depiction of comfortable accommodation to fascism. Better than any other recent book I’ve read, Farthing shows how easily prejudices insinuate themselves into polite society, leading otherwise ordinary people to support the most shocking atrocities — and a brave few to resist.

★★★★★

“A Dry, Quiet War,” by Tony Daniel

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I cannot tell you what it meant to me to see the two suns of Ferro set behind the dry mountain east of my home. I had been away twelve billion years. I passed my cabin, to the pump well and, taking a metal cup from where it hung from a set-pin, I worked the handle three times. At first it creaked, and I believed it was rusted tight, but then it loosened, and within fifteen pulls, I had a cup of water.

(via) Bleak, epic, and yet intimate — this is one of my favorite science-fiction short stories of all time.

★★★★★