Thursday 28 August 2014

The Incorruptibles by John Hornor Jacobs

The Incorruptibles mixes a huge variety of aesthetics:

  • Steampunk (think Jules Verne and HG Wells inspired retro scifi)
  • Riverboat Journey in the US (think Huck Finn)
  • Western
  • Romans 
  • Demons & Possession Horror
  • Elves 

Seriously. This is a 19th-century-style universe where Romans.... pardon, 'Rumans', have conquered much of the world, and are in perpetual competition / conflict for dominance with the Chinese empire. We follow a bunch of Romans on their demon-powered riverboat as they travel, accompanied by our narrator and his friend, the cowboys / scouts. They encounter Injuns... pardon: natives (who have superpowers: unnatural healing, speed and strength, and who are extra tall). Their technology (guns and steam) is powered by demons...

This book throws a gazillion genres together (if Joss Whedon can do cowboy space opera, why not a steampunk Roman demonic horror story with elves?). Unfortunately, it does not throw them together in a particularly interesting story. The characters are fairly boring. The story spends an awful lot of time lacking direction. There is action, but not much tension, for much of the book. And ultimately the genre combo seems overly contrived. This book, with a super promising cover and exciting blurbs, sadly does not deliver the joy it promises.

Rating: 3/5

Monday 18 August 2014

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons by Sam Kean

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons is a slightly misleading title: there is not a single incident of dueling neurosurgeons in the book.

As a non-fiction, popular science primer on neuroscience, however, the books is splendid. I've heard quite a few of the anecdotes / case studies before, but this book pulls together all the incidents and anecdotes that have shaped neuroscience, and presents them in an engaging, fun way. It's like a "Horrible Histories" book for adults.

The book is not too bothered about chronological order; instead, it presents the knowledge obtained thus far by brain region and by type of brain functionality. This works very well - but it does give a somewhat more logical and structured impression than the history of neuroscience and its theories probably warrants. And there's always the sense that bigger, clearer discoveries might be just around the corner...

Many of the scenarios do resonate with me as a reader & movie watcher: clearly, the likes of Hitchcock and Philip K Dick were inspired very much by real conditions - and the effectiveness of uncanny stories is directly linked to how closely they resemble everyday (or not-so-everyday) brain misfirings...

I'd highly recommend this book to anyone - it is a compelling, entertaining and educational read: pop science as it should be done.

Rating: 5/5

Tuesday 12 August 2014

Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack

Random Acts of Senseless Violence is a novel in the form of a diary of a teenage girl living in New York. She receives it as a birthday present, and chronicles the next six months of her life. They are eventful six months, both for her, personally, and for the wider US: caught in a long-term recession and decline, stability is crumbling and pockets of violence and societal collapse are forming at the edges. Her own family is just about to descend from lofty upper middle class to struggling working class, as her parents' exuberant and careless spending habits and debts catch up with them.

It's a bit strange to read Random Acts of Senseless Violence. It was written in the mid-1990s, before the internet and mobile phones became truly universal, yet set slightly in the future, without any real technological advances. In some ways, this enhances the novel: it does not get caught up in the blips and fads and things that are quickly replaced in our lives. No Twitter and Bebo and Ello to be found. This makes it more universal. On the other hand, it makes it feel slightly old-fashioned, as characters rely on landline phones in ways that now feel entirely alien to most readers.

The universal feel makes the authenticity of the story - and its prescience - all the more unsettling. Our protagonist's family tumbles from debt-bubble-financed luxuries down to a fragile, easily exploited situation, and as reader, you realise just how precarious their situation was just before the tumble began - and just how rapidly things are sliding out of control. The downward spiral is mirrored - or perhaps caused - by the terminal decline of the entire US economy, but of course, our teenage narrator only perceives tiny glimpses of the wider world in her diary, snippets from the news and overheard conversations and adults' anxieties. We're presented with adults who are over-medicated, stressed to near-breaking point, and a sense of widespread, near-universal mental ill-health. Adults are cracking up, and the children are not sure what to make of it. At one point, our narrator notices that adults seem to be all crazy, and comments that she can't afford to get any more crazy herself.

(The widespread mental ill health rings worryingly true in these times of London riots, Islamic State, post-Arab Spring civil wars, and rise of UKIP, Britain First, Tea Party, and other extremist movements throughout the wealthier world...)

Meanwhile, there's the matter of puberty (the diary carefully notes each instance of her period, as a teenage girl perhaps might), and sexual awakening, and peer pressure, bullying, domestic abuse, isolation...

Random Acts of Senseless Violence is a masterpiece of writing craft: its characters and story developments are absolutely believable and authentic, echoed worryingly in things that have come to pass in recent years: the debt bubble, recession, collapse of the Rust Belt / Detroit and New Orleans, the riots in London and the Occupy Movement, the political leaders who seem impotent to turn things around and who look increasingly haunted by their own impotence, holding on to power despite widespread disillusion and protests... but a much more compelling feat of writery craftsmanship than its prescience is the gradual, subtle and entirely radical shift in the narrative voice. This teenager is meeting new people, and her vocabulary, her sentences, her speech patterns, her entire language changes. At first, she simply reports the dialogue, but slowly, one tiny step at a time, her own lines of dialogue, and then her entire writing voice, shift, until by the end, you are reading something which is unrecognisable when compared with the start. The later diary entries are the writings of a different person who somehow emerged by coming of age in that time and that place and through those events...

...all of which does not mean the book is actually fun to read. It is enormously talented, clever, a masterpiece of craftsmanship - but the sort of work you appreciate, rather than enjoy. I cannot praise the genius of the book highly enough, but I can't claim that it made me feel good while I read it. And, to me, the entire point of reading is about enjoyment (even if a story is dark or harrowing). This book is simply a bit too relentlessly troubling for me.

Rating: 4/5

Friday 8 August 2014

Dream London by Tony Ballantyne

Dream London is a book unlike any I have read before. It's as if the author had thrown together Dark City, Brazil (the Terry Gilliam Movie), a dash of Yellow Submarine, and a dose of Neil Gaiman style urban fantasy into a concoction that is dream-like, unpredictable, surreal, and yet strangely hypnotic and quite readable. Female readers be warned: the dream-world presented here is quite misogynistic and definitely extremely sexist in its aesthetic / tone / fundamental architecture. But it's also aware of the fact, and this is being highlighted many times in the book (just as all the 'ethnics' are being condensed into stereotypes).

The basic plot is that Captain James Wedderburn, former soldier and current pimp, suddenly attracts the interests of various entities - a Cartel, a crime overlord (the Daddio), spies, and Angel Tower - the building where Dream London is being made. The city has somehow been sold, and is shifting, geographically, but also in time and flavour, and people are changing. Everyone is becoming a stereotype. The women become whores and cleaners and other archetypes. The men become football hooligans or pimps or men in suits. Everyone finds their humanity shrinking as existing traits become honed into archetype-level one-dimensionality, and Dream London has a certain, sleazy, seedy, almost steampunky aesthetic it is growing towards. And in that strangely drifting London, some people want to reverse the drift, return to modernity, while others want to capitalise on the changes, and everyone suddenly has an interest in getting Captain James Wedderburn to act as their catalyst / agent / hero.

But, as any dream, the story ebbs and flows and shifts and changes. It circles around, but when it revisits a location or a character, they are different from the way they were before, and like any nightmare, there is no way to escape, just a slowly building sense that something ominous is about to happen.

Dream London became harder to stick with the longer the story continued, because the dream-like nature is not just authentic but also frustrating. Just as movies like The Fall and Brazil and perhaps even Casino Royale slowly drift into surrealism and with it, narrative discomfort, so Dream London flows steadily away from a clean premise and into an atmosphere that isn't quite right. The grand finale is perfectly dream-like, too.

I thought the book was very well-written, imaginative, and authentically dream-like - in some ways, a masterpiece. But, just like a semi-nightmarish dream of running and frustration, it has an aftertaste. There is much to enjoy here, and much cause to cringe and fret, too.

Rating: 4/5