Haunted, by Chuck Palahniuk

22288I don’t get the point of this book. It’s ostensibly a collection of gross-out stories billed as the sickest you’ll see in print. But it’s not even close. Maybe I’m jaded but despite being relatively sheltered from the depravities of online forums like 4chan and parts of Reddit I didn’t feel nauseated even once reading these stories. It’s a little funny citing this as a weakness (I generally prefer my reading to be at peace with my eating), but I approached this book and its hyperbolic marketing with the thrill of the forbidden and it ended up being a bunch of warmed-over camp tales.

The first story – the most infamously gross, I gather – is about an unfortunate onanist whose autoerotic swimming pool exertions lead a vent to suck his intestines out of his ass. This is a genuinely grotesque thought, but that’s all there is to these stories: they mix sex and excretions and nasty little people and expect the mix to shock you. Later stories somewhat up the ante by having people abuse each other in horrible ways. A shameless journalist fabricates a horrible child porn fetish about a source and then kills him after strewing incriminating evidence all around. A progeriac adolescent swindles women into sleeping with him and then uses that single act of indiscretion to blackmail them into more degradations. Etc.

Like I said: unpleasant. But if the purpose of the collection is to gross you out, these stories pale in comparison to the shock material available in the dark corners of the Internet (see the last paragraph of this article, for example). And if the purpose of the collection instead is to say something profound about the debasement of the human condition, then the stories still fail to live up to the horrors that real life has to offer: North Korean prison camps; the Rwandan genocide; Unit 731; children held in hopeless captivity for years; etc. etc.

Whether your goal is titillation or a better understanding of the nature of evil, you’ll find better sources for these objectives than Haunted.

★☆☆☆☆

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.

★★☆☆☆

The Voyage of the Sable Keech, by Neal Asher

9329581Neal Asher’s The Voyage of the Sable Keech raises an important question: how many extremely graphic episodes of giant whelk rape is too many? As the book conclusively demonstrates, the answer is: even one.

But, asks Asher — pursuing this intriguing line of thought — is it perhaps acceptable to recount a rapacious male whelk “extruding the long, tubular, glassy corkscrew of his penis” and using it to “grop[e] around between her organs” while the female uses her “four tentacles” “to snap harpoon shafts one after another” into the male’s surging body, if this climactic (so to speak) episode of alien-on-alien BDSM tentacle porn is preceded by endless chapters about the female whelk’s pointless pursuit of a ship? Again, The Voyage of the Sable Keech provides a conclusive answer: no way.

Yet consider this variation on the question, Asher cleverly posits. Add to the giant whelk’s meaningless story a hive mind avatar’s dorm-room obsession with “killing death”; a standoff between two space crabs that plays down their entertaining psychotic-ness in favor of some mechanical puzzles; and a wholly inert story about a reif-staffed cruise that is literally pointless because the ship slowly chugs its way to its destination no matter what happens on board — can an author miraculously transform an entire collection of such tedious narratives into a single compelling whole? Once again, the answer is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt: not even close.

And finally Asher poses the most vexing philosophical question at all. Suppose that in a previous book you had concocted an outrageously entertaining tale, filled with florid violence, outsized events, and larger-than-life characters; suppose that the best part of that book had been your ability to one-up every crazy idea page after page and give the reader every major confrontation that you had been teasing from the start; and suppose you took all of these amazing features away. What would be the result?

The Voyage of the Sable Keech: res ipsa loquitur.

★☆☆☆☆

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.

★★★★★

Wool, by Hugh Howey

wool-uk-cover-finalI’ve read up on the back story behind Hugh Howey’s Wool, and I feel great personal warmth toward the author and his tremendous ascent from the slush pile of self-publication to an actual publisher, rabid fans, and (I sincerely hope) material wealth, but the actual book at the center of this heart-lifting tale is terrible.

There are so many issues I’m not even sure where to begin, so let’s just say there are some big problems and some little problems, with the biggest big problem being the basic concept behind this book. I have no issues with the idea of a massive underground silo being built to house the survivors of some apocalypse. I can accept that the survivors might have a deep fascination with the outside world, even if their only view of that world is through a fuzzy video camera. I don’t even really have a problem with the idea that such a society would devote extremely scarce resources to maintain computer servers for a purpose that most of the population doesn’t know.

But here’s the really stupid idea (note that I’m about to spoil the first story). The principal purpose of these servers — their principal, super secret purpose — is to create a virtual reality program. That program is used in the helmets of hazmat suits worn outside the silo, displaying to the user a verdant scene of renewed life rather than a barren wasteland. The users of those suits are criminals or crazy people who have expressed the forbidden desire to leave the silo. And the point of the deceptive view is to trick those people into cleaning the lenses of the cameras that beam a view of the outside world to the silo’s residents.

Jesus, that idea sounds even stupider now that I’ve typed it out.

There are just a lot of things that don’t make sense about all this. Why are people so obsessed with these cameras? If the cameras are so important, why are only criminals or crazy people sent outside? And is it really the case that a deceptive virtual-reality program is the best use that people can imagine for super-powerful computers and a staggering amount of electricity?!

This is not even to mention that the point of this entire scheme is apparently to maintain social order. I’m afraid to even explain exactly how that’s supposed to work.

Pile onto this silly concept some terrible writing (including an excruciatingly extended passage about knitting) and an unconvincing love story (“I told my mom about you,” the male lead says dramatically at one pivotal moment) and you have a book whose big problems are only the beginning of its troubles.

Because there still remain the little problems, which I’ll address in a series of questions:

  • Where does this very resource-limited silo get manufactured products such as manila envelopes?
  • How can the silo’s mayor — essentially the president — have so much free time and so few responsibilities that she can spend days away from her office just interviewing people?
  • In the last story, is Juliette really going to abandon the people she found, at the very moment when they need serious medical care?
  • And why, in God’s name, doesn’t the silo have an elevator?!

★☆☆☆☆

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.

★★☆☆☆

Jack Glass, by Adam Roberts

13235961Jack Glass is Adam Roberts’s best book by a long shot, though in hindsight it has some serious flaws. I think of Roberts (whom I’ve followed since his first book) as a genius premise-generator and so-so storyteller with a particular weakness with endings. The good news about Jack Glass is that (as usual) it is based on some sweet ideas and (not as usual) it is a terrific yarn. The bad news is that, yet again, it has a really disappointing ending — though here the problem isn’t execution so much as incompletion.

The book is divided into three parts that tell two stories. The first story is a prison breakout with the craziest prison and the freakiest breakout I’ve ever read. An asteroid reconstruction company purchases prisoners and then deposits them with minimal supplies and some mining equipment on some godforsaken rock in the middle of nowhere — for eleven years. The idea is that the company will send a ship back after that time, to discover one of two things: either the prisoners have out of horrid necessity carved out a habitable space, in which case the company frees the prisoners and sells the now-liveable asteroid at a healthy profit; or the prisoners are dead, in which case the company writes off the loss and (I would guess) claims a nice tax deduction.

This is a darkly hilarious premise, but somewhat unfortunately Roberts plays it straight. A legless prisoner named Jac [sic] is thrown into one of these asteroids with ten other reprobates, and what ensues could come straight from one of those prison exploitation films complete with brutal maulings, psychological torture, and degrading rapes. The story follows no particular arc except to show how Jac endures while others, rather horribly, do not, but as nasty as the story gets it’s told with a certain panache. More importantly, by the end Roberts gets around to hinting at bigger mysteries just before a spectacular explosion of violence transitions to the second story.

Now before I get to that second story I want to make clear that while I did enjoy this prison tale it basically has nothing to do with the rest of the book, and it leaves unanswered a huge huge question, which is — SPOILER ALERT — how the hell does Jac, moving at sublight speeds in a samizdat spacesuit, get anywhere near civilization?

The second story is in the Golden Age genre of far-future science fiction, and concerns the young daughters of a wealthy and powerful family vacationing on Earth when suddenly a murder takes place. At first the daughters (who are genetic geniuses) treat the murder as nothing more than a pleasant diversion, but the investigation spirals into a deadly political struggle and a thrilling escape.

This story is very good except that it focuses on the wrong thing and ends too abruptly. The conceit of the entire book is that it presents several “mysteries,” and in the second story Roberts does nothing more than answer those mysteries (mostly having to do with how various people died). But it turns out that what’s really interesting about the story is the broader political struggle, both between the families that rule the solar system and between the rulers and the proletariat. These tensions are brought to a boil by the added complication of rumored faster-than-light technology — which must be a fantasy, according to the laws of physics, and yet which is enough as a mere idea to trigger devastating machinations.

I would have loved a book that really wrestled with this political story. But Jack Glass is content to be a mere clever puzzle box of a novel — hinting at all of this delicious conflict but doing little more with it beyond providing a background for its mysteries.

★★★★☆