World War Z

An Oral History of the Zombie War
by Max Brooks
ISBN: 0715635964

Monterey, California is an insanely beautiful place — perfect weather, blue ocean, barking sea lions — and when I was there recently, I kept thinking about zombies. Such is the fascinatingly creepy power of World War Z.

The book is a collection of stories that didn’t make it into the final cut of the United Nations official report, because they were “all too intimate” and had “too many feelings” which were not fit for an official document. They are the stories of the doctor who examined the first case, of bodyguards, soldiers, scammers, pilots, priests, and “regular” people who managed to survive the conflict. Each story comes from a unique perspective — sometimes wrenching, sometimes infuriating — and above all, each one is convincing.

That is because Brooks never cracks, never lets on, not even once, that this book is anything but what it says it is: stories collected in the aftermath of an apocalyptic conflict with zombies. In the world Brooks created, a world that looks and acts much like our own, a plague erupts that transforms the infected into zombies. Yes, the classic horror movie slow-shuffling, moaning, flesh- and brain-eating zombies. On a global scale.

The true eeriness doesn’t come so much from the survivor descriptions of their encounters (though many are harrowing) but in thinking about how realistic the documented responses and failures are. What would governments really do if a rapidly infectious but previously unknown to science plague emerged? Would they understand what was happening fast enough to take action, or would bureaucracy and disbelief it was that serious get in the way? Would global travel, not to mention the rumored international organ trade, be complicit in the spread of disease? Would the United States government approve an essentially useless but psychologically pacifying medication for distribution? Could a country effectively quarantine itself if it understood what was happening before others did? Could governments enact plans that called for sacrificing many so that some would survive?

In this way, reading this book is a lot like getting caught up in Battlestar Galactica or the Harry Potter novels: you get so sucked in to the world being created, you find yourself having discussions about what will happen next, analogies to present-day political realities, and what it really means. Brooks managed to create this feeling by having his stories masquerade as modern history, as nonfiction, and it is a genius move.

If you are the kind of person who thinks you can’t possibly read or enjoy a book with zombies in it, this book will surprise you. (On the other hand, if zombies are your thing, well, you’ve probably already picked this one up, and you loved it. Highly recommended for fans of alternate history, fiction-as-nonfiction, and readers who enjoy being a bit scared. Highly recommended — just not as bedtime reading.

The Last Dancer

by Daniel Keys Moran
ISBN: 0553562495

After reading The Long Run early this year, I said it may be one of the best science fiction books you’ve never heard of before now. At this point, I feel confident saying this is probably true of the whole Continuing Time series.

What do you do when rebellion against an unpopular and arguably authoritarian global government is doomed to failure? What do you think when you find out the human race is descended from exiled heretics and their keepers? When you discover your long lost telepathic twin is an addict with no hope of recovery? Keys Moran’s characters struggle with these questions, among others. And as you’d expect with any good story, the answers are not obvious, easy, or comfortable. As you might not expect (but should!) many of the strong characters are women. (Trent the Uncatchable and Ralf the Wise and Powerful both appear, but the story is more about Denice Castanaveras.)

The book practically begs to be talked about in clichéd terms — space opera, compulsively page-turning, gripping, thrilling, etc. Those things are true, but the story still isn’t a cliché. It’s a great story that is hella fun to read. Highly recommended.

Note: If you liked Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky (with their zones of thought and epic reach) and The Peace War or Marooned in Realtime (with Bobble technology) you will probably be interested in the Continuing Time books.

The Long Run

by Daniel Keys Moran

The Long Run may be one of the best science fiction books you’ve never heard of before now. (Bantam published it in 1989, and it is is now, bafflingly, out of print.)

I got my hands on it because a co-worker recommended Keys Moran and happened to have copies of several of his books. He suggested I start with The Long Run. It is one novel in a series about something called The Continuing Time.

It is also one absorbing ride through a relatively-near (~2070) future. It is full of names that grab you (Trent the Uncatchable, Ralf the Wise and Powerful), chases, and cyber-spacey problems like datastarve. The environment is plausible enough — as with any story set in the future, you need to be willing to suspend your disbelief at how things turned out — and the ideas catchy enough, I really wanted see what would happen next.

Keyes Moran picks up extra credibility points for making his characters multidimensional. For example: the repressive government may have taken things too far, but even the hero can see that with current reality, certain functions — like population control — can’t be done away with.

The Long Run delivers what I most want from science fiction stories: a view of the future with a twist, complete with resonant ethical problems, that asks more questions than it answers. Highly recommended.

Black Glass

by Karen Joy Fowler

ISBN: 0345426533

When I read Fowler’s two novels, Sarah Canary and The Sweetheart Season, I did not know she was well-known as a science fiction story writer. Black Glass is a collection of the kind of stories that built her genre reputation.

In the title story, Fowler manages to skewer the DEA and use voodoo to bring back Carry Nation. “The Faithful Companion at Forty” reveals Tonto’s dark humor and a different side of the Lone Ranger. “The Brew” puts an unexpected spin on drinking as “the only way to live through living forever.” The closing story, “Game Night at the Fox and Goose” gives the kind of shock at the end that Fowler specializes in — that is to say, a suprise, but not a cheap trick. The extra punch at the closing shows up in stories as different as “Shimabara” with its 17th century Japan setting, and “Go Back” with its Uncle Wiggily board game.

Fowler is preoccupied with relationships, with they many ways men and women come together or fail to do so, with questions of obligation and love. This is probably why people who don’t usually like genre fiction will enjoy her work. And folks who do like genre stories will be happy to find in Fowler someone with an imagination who can also write. Recommended.

Solitaire

by Kelley Eskridge

ISBN: 0060086602

Eskridge’s writing is a serious cut above what I think of as standard genre-fiction quality. This book (her first) is full of vivid descriptions, real conversations, and little bits that make her characters seem human. This is a well-paced story — Eskridge made me want to know how things were going to turn out.

The story takes place in a quasi-dystopian, near-future world. A global government (EarthGov) is pulling together and one very powerful company (Ko) is looking to be a nation-state. There’s a lot in here about the power of symbolism, the power of corporations, and the power of social networks, all of which is more interesting that I’m probably making it sound right now. There are also questions about authenticity, relationships, and identity.

The main character, Jackal, is both extremely naive and highly trained — understandable given who she is and how she has been raised — and this makes her problems more interesting than they would otherwise be. At first her problem seems to be she is a living symbol with a screwed-up mother; then it becomes apparent that her problem is that as a living symbol, she makes a convenient fall guy, so she winds up a convicted mass-murderer. Jackal is locked away in experimental solitary virtual confinement, and the fun really starts after that.

A side note: this book is the only kind of lesbian fiction I’m interested in reading — the point being it isn’t lesbian fiction at all — it is a good story in which two of the characters happen to be women who have a relationship that works (or doesn’t) just like any other relationship in any well-written book.

If creepy near-future worlds, virtual reality, or corporate machinations in fiction hold any appeal for you, read this book. Highly recommended.

Stories of Your Life and Others

by Ted Chiang

ISBN: 0765304198

Chiang has won numerous sci fi awards (Nebula, Sturgeon, etc.) and all but one of these stories have been previously published, but that didn’t stop me from not having heard of him before I picked up this book. Thank God for paperback collections of stories, so those of us who missed out on great stuff the first time around have another chance to read it.

Chiang is a smart writer: his stories are inventive, engrossing, and thought-provoking. They ask intelligent questions, yet still manage to feel like they are “about” something and not just written as intellectual exercises. There is maximum bang for your buck in these 300+ pages. “Liking What You See: A Documentary” and “The Evolution of Human Science” both play with the form of a short story. “Division by Zero” and “Understand” are two very different takes on a mind struggling with a new reality. There is even a chapter of story notes, where Chiang talks about writing each story, at the end of the book.

While the collection as a whole is quite strong, two of the eight stories really stand out: “Story of Your Life” and “Hell is the Absence of God” are some of the best short stories (sci fi or otherwise) that I’ve read. They are the kind of stories that you are hooked into when you are reading them, you think about once you’ve finished, and then you go get someone else to read so you can talk about them.

Highly recommended — one to buy, not borrow from the library, because these are stories you’ll want to read more than once.

Super Flat Times

by Matthew Derby

ISBN: 0316738573

This thematically linked collection of stories is twisted, disturbing, and compulsively readable.

The stories are supposed to be recovered from victims of future atrocities; recovered by those who lived through the times and were allowed to remember them.

The future pieced together in this book is a dark one: vegetables disappear and even popsicles and chocolate are made out of meat; polluted clouds take on solid, window-scraping form; eggs are harvested; people are thrown into pits of wet concrete; races are segregated by technical and disturbing methods; wars have numbers or letters; and a whole range of behaviours, thoughts, and words just aren’t supposed to exist anymore.

What does continue to exist is the human search for love and meaning, the need to ask why, the desire for answers, and the need for values.

This collection is different, absurd, and highly recommended.

Everyone in Silico

by Jim Munroe

No Media Kings

Jim Munroe writes fun science fiction novels: people turn into insects and become unlikely superheroes (Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask), teach English on a planet with a liquid atmosphere (Angry Young Spaceman), and in this, his latest book, upload their minds.

Munroe’s pacing, character development, and biting satire just get better with each book. In Silico, he offers a frightening world in which marketing permeates society and corporations have literally taken over the world. History is being revised so that business is king; the environment is an afterthought, money is all important, and everyone’s motivation is supposed to be a drive for more.

You experience this world through the eyes of disaffected artists, corporate marketing hacks, a “grandmother” who is much more than meets the eye, a twelve-year-old programming wunderkind, and a business man with a complicated agenda. In fact, many of these perspectives are doubled: the corporate “coolhunter” is also a parent; the “grandson” is also a clone. This means the story can be a bit confusing until you have everyone sorted out, but not so much that it detracts from the story.

The story really pulled me in and kept me reading. There are so many little details that “just work” like the flukes, the daughter’s reaction to boy band marketing, Eileen’s being duped in her secret life.

Munroe has written a book about manipulation that doesn’t leave the reader feeling cheated, but entertained as well as a bit angry. Highly recommended.

Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask

by Jim Munroe

ISBN: 0380810433

As you might guess from the title, this is a fun book. It is the second of Munroe’s books I’ve read (Angry Young Spaceman was my intro to his writing) but the first he wrote.

That shows a little — the first-novel-ness does. I think this is because Spaceman is really good at what it does, and Munroe got better at getting his points across within his narrative. There are times here that the narrative is a little less than smooth, because he wants to make sure we get the culture-jamming points he is making. These moments read more like education than narration. Since they fall into an otherwise interesting story, and the characters are college students or college-age for the most part, it is pretty forgiveable.

Munroe is good with the ludicrous — both the ludicrousness of being a twenty-two year old virgin with a crush on the hot waitress at the local diner and then finding out she likes you back, and the ludicrousness of turning into a fly, making things disappear, and having an alien father a baby.

Ludicrous can be fun. Flyboy and the disappear-er form the Superheroes for Social Justice, and they issue press releases explaining their actions. There are also sexual politics, twenty-something relationship negotions, and a possibly terminal illness. Munroe has a knack for making all of it seem not just plausible, but believable in his world. This makes Flyboy worth reading.

Angry Young Spaceman

by Jim Munroe

ISBN: 1568582080

This was a fun book.

Munroe has taken 1950s science fiction elements, extended corporate greediness to a logical conclusion, thrown in humor, put it all in a blender and hit the “satire” button.

If you only like your sci-fi served up serious, or with hard science, you will not like this book; if you are looking for something different and playful, you probably will. The main character is Sam Breen, a disillusioned young man who has turned his back on his mother’s wealth and connections in order find and follow a more ethical path. He winds up teaching English on a distant liquid-atmosphere planet populated by beings with eight tentacles.

The reader follows Sam as he navigates the expected and unexpected terrain: feeling different, finding meaning, finding friendship and love, and figuring out how to have sex with an alien species. Toward the very end of the book, I got the feeling Munroe was trying a little too hard to wrap things up. Though the end is believable in the context of the rest of the story, events just felt a little bit rushed in comparison to what came before. Since I was enjoying the book, I would have been content for Munroe to take a little more time getting to the end.

Bottom line: greed run amok with flying saucers — plus robots — made me laugh out loud and nod my head when I read this. Enjoyable and recommended.