The Human Division, by John Scalzi

15698479I consider John Scalzi to be an outstanding science-fiction writer, a decent human being, and an owner of cats (that’s not just a fact, it’s a sign of character), so it pains me to say that The Human Division is not a good book. It’s a very Scalzi book, which means that despite its weaknesses it still merits two stars for some funny dialogue, clever shenanigans, and occasional stabs at profundity. But absolutely nothing of significance happens!

The basic story is about a mysterious conspiracy that leads to lots of surprise bombings and other miscellaneous acts of sabotage. You will find out basically nothing about this conspiracy. Instead, Scalzi gives us a lot of speculation, mostly in the form of endless expository dialogue between characters positing that the conspiracy is intended to pit the Colonial Union against the Conclave in a battle for the loyalty of otherwise-unaffiliated Earth. But that’s pretty obvious right from the beginning. (I mean, shadowy forces blow up a diplomatic ship and try to pin the blame on an innocent party!) What’s interesting is who is behind the conspiracy, what their ultimate aims are (chaos, or something more concrete), and what exactly their devious plan is. You will find none of these interesting details in The Human Division.

Instead, Scalzi gives us a lot of setup, and (my other problem) a lot of filler. The book was released in a series of thirteen “episodes” of varying lengths. About a quarter of them are basically useless: I’m thinking in particular of “Walk the Plank,” “A Voice in the Wilderness,” “The Dog King,” and “This Must Be the Place.” Are these stories totally disassociated from the main plot? I would guess not. But the connection is pretty tenuous, and there certainly would have been better and less tedious ways of getting across the same points.

Apparently Tor (the publisher) was so pleased with sales of The Human Division that it’s commissioned Scalzi to write a Season 2 that continues the story. In a way, I wish he’d just started there. The Human Division is less of a first volume than a preview episode for a series that hasn’t even really begun yet.

★★☆☆☆

Orbus, by Neal Asher

8721074With Orbus, the Spatterjay trilogy ends up so far from its thrilling beginning that this last book might as well be from a different series altogether. What made the original book so great was that it pitted fragile humans against horrible creatures on a planet full of freaks. Orbus, though, takes place entirely off that planet and removes the human element altogether. What’s left are the horrible creatures, who are left to duke it out in spaaaace.

Actually I’m getting ahead of myself because the duking doesn’t even start until the second half of the book. The first half — good god, but it crawls. Essentially Asher spends a few hundred pages getting all of his characters to the same place: the DMZ between the Prador (psychotic space crabs) and humanity. As I hinted at above, all of his characters are disgusting, from good old mutated Vrell, to the equally grotesque Prador king, to the Golgoloth, who rather unbelievably ups the ante on Prador insanity. (He raises little crablets for the sole purpose of harvesting their limbs and organs.) For a while I thought the sadomasochistic Old Captain Orbus might be the only feeling member of this circus, but no — as Asher reminds us in graphic detail, the poor man once carved up and ate a child while he was in Prador captivity.

After a lot of pointless maneuvering, the war between all of these miscreants becomes well and truly joined, but then Asher feels the need to introduce another element (SPOILER ALERT!): apparently the Spatterjay virus actually hides an aggressive nanomachine civilization called the Jain that decides this is the time to come out and play. What the duck?! Putting aside the fact that some of my best friends are Jains, so it’s weird to see a galaxy-swarming machine intelligence with their name, there had been zero hint of this lurking threat in the first two books of this trilogy. I mean, yes, the Spatterjay virus has been badass, but for other reasons that Asher has apparently forgotten.

Granted the resulting monster fight is not too bad (though Alastair Reynolds did a better job with a nearly identical enemy in his Revelation Space series). My problem is that it’s not what I was looking for in this book. Is Orbus unreadable? No. Is its story terrible? No. But Asher commits the cardinal sin of ignoring what was so great about his original idea, leaving us with…this.

★★☆☆☆

Immobility, by Brian Evenson

12139894Brian Evenson’s Immobility is an odd little trifle of a novel that spends its whole time hinting at bigger and frankly more interesting ideas while telling an extremely straightforward story. The entire book is, in essence, a single fetch quest. The protagonist, Josef Horkai, wakes up from cryogenic storage without any memory of his past and is told to cross a toxic post-apocalyptic landscape to retrieve a mysterious red cylinder by whatever means necessary. He goes, he comes back, the book ends. Yawn.

Okay, there are a few added complications, starting with Horkai’s lower-body paralysis (hence the title of the book), but none of them really contribute much. I mean, what exactly was the point of Horkai’s immobility? As far as I could tell its only purpose was to give Horkai some companions on his quest, in the form of two bizarre clones named Qanik and Qatik who take turns carrying him. But couldn’t Evenson have introduced these companions while giving Horkai the use of his legs — perhaps Q/Q could have carried some vital equipment or something? More fundamentally, if you’re going to force the reader to spend half of the book on a seemingly endless trek through a barren wasteland, try not to make two of the only three characters idiot savants! They’re boring as hell! Although I’ll admit that Q/Q have a few good lines (“Never know when you’ll need a good head,” one of them says deadpan while storing away a recently severed specimen).

To the extent that the story has any interest, it’s all in the back story: What happened in the apocalypse? What is going on with the strange society that produced Q/Q? Is Horkai human or something stranger? And what exactly is in the red cylinder that he is trying to retrieve?

As much as I like mysterious settings, it is a pain to read a dull story whose sole merit is drip-by-drip exposition. What makes matters worse is that the book’s explanations are incomplete at best (for instance, we find out what is in the red cylinder, but not why Horkai is such a strange being), and not really that inventive. I mean, how many post-apocalyptic fictions involve small, stunted societies that have turned ever more macabre in their efforts to survive? Believe me: a lot. Immobility joins that crowd without standing out from it.

★★☆☆☆

11/22/63, by Stephen King

10644930If you could travel back in time to 1958, what would you do? I bet the last thing you’d do is try to stop JFK’s assassination. And yet that’s exactly what the protagonist of Stephen King’s 11/22/63 fixates on when he is introduced to a bizarre portal by a casual acquaintance.

Leaving aside why Jake Epping (the aforementioned protagonist) would upend his life on the word of a guy he barely knows, and leaving aside also why Jake wouldn’t just use his knowledge of the future to collect fabulous wealth and sleep with lots of women (as Biff wisely did in Back to the Future II) — why on earth would JFK’s life be the most important thing to protect? For one thing, JFK was not that great of a president — but Lyndon B. Johnson, who took over the chief seat after the assassination, was a great president. Without LBJ there would have been no Civil Rights Act of 1964, no Voting Rights Act of 1965, no Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (which opened the US to non-Europeans), no Great Society, etc. etc. King’s implicit counter argument is that there also might not be a Vietnam, but that’s really hard to say — the bright minds who pushed the US toward the Vietnam War were Kennedy’s people, and I’m doubtful he would have resisted their advice more than LBJ did.

Even if you want to focus on assassinations, why JFK? Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered not too long afterward, as was Robert Kennedy, JFK’s little brother. There are serious debates about how much of an impact either of these figures would have had — King was already being marginalized because of his opposition to the Vietnam War, and RFK was not a great politician despite his personal charm and idealism — but Epping engages in none of these debates. He takes it as a given that the astonishing miracle of time travel must be given to saving JFK.

Fine. Let’s suppose you do decide to do something major like prevent an assassination, or kill an evil figure, or whatever. When you return to the present, what do you think will happen? Traditionally there are two possible answers to this question. One assumes that history is stubborn and will snap back to its predestined course — so, for instance, Kennedy survives the assassination but then dies of a heart attack the next day. The other approach goes all “A Sound of Thunder” and assumes that the beat of a butterfly’s wing can cause a hurricane in China — i.e., a small change in the past leads to massive shifts in the present.

King boldly chooses yet another course. (Spoiler alert.) Forget about merely altering human history. Instead, changing the past causes volcanoes to explode! And Nazis to reemerge! And dinosaurs to roam the earth! (Ok the last isn’t true but that would’ve been awesome.) In all seriousness the ending of the book, in all its Revelations-like doomsaying, is truly ridiculous.

Fortunately only half of 11/22/63 is about the JFK assassination. The other half is a love story, and while far from a classic it’s actually a pretty decent one, if a little bit thick with the small-town Americana that only white people of a certain age remember nostalgically. (This book would’ve been really interesting if Jake were Chinese — or, heaven forfend, black.) I quite liked Jake’s love interest, Sadie, who is spunky and funny and kind, and not particularly subservient to men. And time-travel love stories have an inherent pathos that is hard for me to resist. This is no Time Traveler’s Wife here — I’m tearing up just thinking about that piece of inspired melodrama — but 11/22/63‘s love story made me happy and sad and wistful all at once.

Oh, and SPOILER ALERT again for my last thought. What I would’ve done at the end of the novel, if I were Jake, was go back through the rabbit hole, find Sadie again, leave JFK alone, and never go back to the future. I’m still not sure why this wasn’t a viable solution.

★★☆☆☆

This Republic of Suffering, by Drew Gilpin Faust

1283566This Republic of Suffering is a strange book, at once bloody and bloodless. It describes, in numbing detail, the lived experience of Americans with the carnage of the Civil War. As Faust makes clear, the scope of the carnage was sweeping:

The number of soldiers who died between 1861 and 1865, an estimated 620,000, is approximately equal to the total American fatalities in the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined. The Civil War’s rate of death, its incidence in comparison with the size of the American population, was six times that of World War II. A similar rate, about 2 percent, in the United States today would mean six million fatalities.

Faust’s book takes two perspectives on this bloodshed. First, the book describes how Americans at the time saw death, and how that perception was reshaped by the realities of modern war. To give one example, Faust explains how the mid-19th-century ideal of “the Good Death” required the participation of close family in one’s last moments — a final communion that remote battlefields obviously made impossible. (According to Faust, letters and a social contract — even between enemies — to inform the family became the replacement.)

Second, This Republic of Suffering outlines how the brutal reality of mass death — in just one killing field, for example, lay “a thousand blackened bloated corpses with blood and gas protruding from every orifice, and maggots holding high carnival over their heads” — forced political institutions to adopt new procedures for burial and identification of the dead, as well as vast governmental pension and healthcare systems for the survivors. “Execution of these newly recognized responsibilities,” Faust argues, “would prove an important vehicle for the expansion of federal power that characterized the transformed postwar nation.”

These are compelling points, and Faust backs them up with a wealth of research and reasonably clear writing. But despite the pathos of the subject matter, there’s just no music to this book.

Faust is an academic historian (also the president of Harvard), and the clunkiness of academic writing pervades This Republic of Suffering. The internal structure of the book — the research outline that I assume Faust used — is disconcertingly transparent: every chapter announces its thesis at the outset; and every paragraph begins with a summary of the evidence to follow. (Indeed, the book scans reasonably well if you just read the first sentence of every paragraph.) Moreover, the stitching language that academics use to transition between and organize disparate areas of research is incredibly obvious. That stitching language is more than just stylistically unattractive; it also highlights the underlying superficiality of Faust’s arguments. Rather than building on her points, Faust instead moves between them — a subtle distinction that, for me, distinguishes outstanding academic work from one that merely amalgamates a concededly impressive amount of research.

One other thing bothered me. Americans have long seen the Civil War as exceptional. In many ways it is — but not when it comes to the dead. Faust notes, for instance, that

More than 2 percent of the nation’s inhabitants were dead as a direct result of the war—the approximate equivalent of the population in 1860 of the state of Maine, more than the entire population of Arkansas or Connecticut, twice the population of Vermont, more than the whole male population of Georgia or Alabama.

That’s bad. But the world had already seen worse. The Taiping Rebellion, which occurred at roughly the same time, claimed twenty to thirty million deaths. And centuries earlier the Thirty Years’ War had essentially depopulated vast swathes of Europe

So great was the devastation brought about by the war that estimates put the reduction of population in the German states at about 25% to 40%. Some regions were affected much more than others. For example, Württemberg lost three-quarters of its population during the war. In the territory of Brandenburg, the losses had amounted to half, while in some areas an estimated two-thirds of the population died. The male population of the German states was reduced by almost half. The population of the Czech lands declined by a third due to war, disease, famine and the expulsion of Protestant Czechs.

This isn’t meant to diminish the awfulness of the American Civil War, or its cataclysmic effects on American life, culture, and politics. Nor did I really expect that Faust, in this slim volume, would touch on or even recognize all of the other killing that has long been a hallmark of human civilization. But reading Faust’s painstaking, even exhausting, analysis of the human costs of the Civil War made me uncomfortably aware of how every problem she highlighted was probably exacerbated in other, more brutal conflicts. America suffered grievous wounds in the fight to end slavery, but at least we got something beautiful at the end of it. Other peoples, in other places, and from other times, were far less fortunate.

★★☆☆☆

The City & The City, by China Mieville

6303125-LThe premise of China Mieville’s The City & The City is intriguing, but wasted. Basically, there are two cities, Beszel and Ul Qooma, that somehow exist in the same geographic space — they are “grosstopically coextensive,” to use the novel’s terminology. There is only one approved way to cross from one city to the other (through a government checkpoint), but in fact the loose boundary between the cities is breached thousands of times a day. A Beszel resident might see an Ul Qooman billboard; an Ul Qooman car might veer away from the sudden manifestation of a Beszel truck; or a restaurant patron in one city might try to summon a waiter before suddenly realizing that the waiter is not really “here.”

The idea of overlapping cities that are separate despite occupying the same space is a clever one because it seems absurd but is in fact commonplace. For example, bankers and busboys are often within touching distance but might as well live on different planets: they don’t know the same people, they don’t use the same transportation, they don’t eat the same food, they don’t consume the same entertainment. On trains, you can see the same phenomenon: riders ignore each other so completely that they might as well be living in different worlds. The root of the separation is emotional distance: we “know” that we will never have anything to do with certain people, and so the concerns that stress them are meaningless to us (and vice versa).

Mieville is, as far as I now, a dedicated Marxist, so at first I thought that he would take this literalizing of social separation in an interesting direction. But he doesn’t. Instead, he adds so many fillips to his idea that it becomes too remote from reality to serve as a plausible allegory. For example, not only are the two cities separated, but any “breaches” between them are forbidden (aside from the government-approved checkpoint). Breaches are policed by a mysterious force known, appropriately, as Breach, whose shadowy agents exercise occasionally superhuman powers, like making cars disappear. To avoid being caught by Breach, residents of both cities have developed a habit of “unseeing” — basically, ignoring any sight, sound, smell, or other sensation that they may get from the other city.

These are some colossally stupid ideas. Why would the most insignificant breaches between the cities be outlawed? What conceivable harm could come of it? And if breaching is in fact a serious concern, how could “unseeing” — basically, averting your eyes — help at all?

Also ridiculous: Mieville gives Breach awesome powers of intervention, as well as the intimidating social status that comes with such power, but in the end all that Breach does is police piddling transgressions of a rule against appearing to see. Seriously? You have a secret police force that can materialize out of thin air, paralyze people with stun guns, and move massive object seemingly without effort — and all it does is ensure proper etiquette?

And a final insult: to the extent that Mieville is trying to say something about the way in which different classes in this world are “grosstopically coextensive” but still separate, what do Breach and its odd rules signify, if they’re intended to signify anything at all?

Needless to say, my frustrations with The City & The City‘s main conceit sapped my enjoyment of the rest of the novel, which features a reasonably interesting murder mystery. Every time that mystery returned to a discussion of the odd relationship between the two cities (and believe me, it veers in that direction a lot), my inner implausibility alarm would begin to blare. Look, I’m willing to suspend disbelief. But The City & The City requires readers to suspend not just disbelief, but common sense.

★★☆☆☆