book review: zone one

I’ve read a few reader reviews (as opposed to professional reviews, or reviews by writers, or literary critiques of somewhat higher worth than oh say this one you’re reading here) of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, and it appears that I am the exact audience for this zombie novel about ennui.

First off the three days of “the present” are cut up with tonnes of flashbacks, giving the reader the pieces of how we got to this point. Characters all have the “Last Night” (before the world changed) story and the versions and variations we witness are a big part of the story. So structurally it wasn’t “this happens, then this, then this…” which is something I enjoy.

Second, while there was zombie killing action, the scenes were short and brutal. In books that’s how I like my action. Dwelling on how bullets penetrate undead flesh holds little interest for me, since one of the strengths of the novel is the interiority of the whole experience, how the characters feel about and are changed by the actions they’re taking. Whitehead’s writing dwells on the parts I care about, and can be damned pretty at times (even if there’s a bit of an emotional detachment to the whole thing).

Third, the protagonist was a self-proclaimed average person who ended up being good at surviving. He was not a badass. He was lonely and disaffected, middle class and black. He resembled a Murakami narrator, but one who drifted into a zombie war. The moments when he has to do something besides drift feel earned.

Fourth, I loved the choice to set the main story in the “rebuilding the world” phase. The characters aren’t the first wave of marines clearing out zombie hordes from the streets, buildings and subways of New York; they’re the civilian clean-up crew taking out the last stragglers. They’re more pest-control than soldiers (though they’re being directed by military types for the greater glory of the American Phoenix). It felt more like Bringing Out the Dead than The Walking Dead.

Fifth, the worldbuilding of the war against zombies had exactly the right amount of Catch-22 ridiculousness for me. There are strict anti-looting regulations enforced by the growing bureaucracy holed up in Buffalo, which mean that companies looking for an in when society builds back up again sponsor the rebuilding effort by allowing their products to be looted. I loved those kinds of details. And the language the characters use that doesn’t get explained until you’re used to them using it didn’t feel out of place.

In short, this is now probably my favourite zombie novel.

book review: master and commander

I have friends who really enjoy Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books. After reading the first one, Master and Commander, I’m sorry to say I don’t understand the devotion. Maybe it’s like how Star Trek is for me, where what happens on screen/page is understood as only a shorthand for the coolness we don’t actually see but understand somehow.

Jack Aubrey is the Master and Commander of a little ship. He gets a doctor, Stephen Maturin, onboard and they go off having adventures attacking French and Spanish ships. I think part of what I dislike stems from the first impressions of them both being petty assholes, one stamping along badly to music and the other elbowing him for making the concert less enjoyable for everyone around him, and then suddenly they’re best friends. It’s like introducing your hero as being the jerk who’s talking on his cell phone through the movie. Sure he might be enjoying it, but he’s also a jerk.

I also have issues with the naviness of everything. All of that military hierarchy and Aubrey’s desire to climb within it don’t make him an appealing character to me. I feel similarly when I read some of the Miles Vorkosigan books, but those, to me, are far more fun.

And there’s all the sailing terminology which never gets explained. I’m all over that in science fiction because no one knows exactly what you’re talking about, since the writer is making a lot of it up. O’Brian isn’t making up tacking and rigging, just talking about it like of course we understand how sailing works because only idiot landsmen wouldn’t.

So yeah, I guess this series just isn’t for me. I’ll stick with spaceships and characters I don’t want to punch in the face.

book review: ender’s game

I remember reading Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game a long time ago. I remember liking it, but rereading it now made me realize just how good it is.

Ender Wiggins has been bred to be a genius and maybe go to learn to be a genius military commander. He is a gifted child who’s forced into difficult situation after difficult situation in training to become a gifted strategist. He is 6 years old when the book begins.

The Game is about battle simulation and learning to become a leader. There is no romance in this book. There isn’t even real camaraderie, just the isolation and pain of duty and becoming the best. I don’t agree with the military glorification that happens throughout most of the story but the ending redeems even that for me. While they try to make Ender into a tool, so incredibly tough and lethalm he also remains human.

This humanity despite the fact that he acts little like any child I ever knew. The main strategic thesis of the book is that you respond with overwhelming force so you never have to fight the same battle twice. This is something that makes sense tactically but as the novel shows, it doesn’t make for a very happy life.

I’d always thought it was written before I was born but it wasn’t. One thing I really appreciated was the description of the simulations in the Battle Room. They’re like zero-G laser tag games, but they feel much better than that. Supposedly they’re making a movie but man, that’s going to feel so dated with all the CGI. The simulation technology in a book is so much better in its infinite upgradeability, no remake required.

book review: the sirens of titan

I think Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan is the most old-school science fictional of his books I’ve read. It’s kind of like Stranger in a Strange Land, with its messianic outerspace weirdo, though in Sirens of Titan he was a human space explorer who got caught in an anomaly that spread him out and made him much less situated in space and time. He also starts a war between Mars and Earth for a very convoluted reason. The entire thing is convoluted really (though I figured out how they could escape the labyrinthine tunnels of Mercury long before the characters did).

It’s about luck and the way things seem to work out. And about the stupidity of the military. And war and religion. And the point of all human existence is revealed in the book, so that’s something.

book review: zero history

Last night I finished William Gibson’s latest book, Zero History. I’ve read some reviews saying it is his best book, but I’m not sure (I’m partial to the old cyberpunk novels, what can I say?). But I did really like this one, much better than Spook Country. Which is interesting because Zero History is a sequel, the third in the Bigend trilogy. Hollis Henry, the protagonist from Spook Country and Milgrim, a character from Pattern Recognition (which I really love) are both hired by extravagantly wealthy and curious businessman Hubertus Bigend (he’s Belgian originally, so you can pronounce his name the way it looks or kind of frenchified) to investigate some jeans.

What’s cool about the book is how it deals wish fashion and military contracting. The plot itself is pretty simple, but the worlds that Hollis and Milgrim are moving through are strange but entirely in our branded present. The book’s filled with iPhones and Macs to such a degree that when a character uses a no-name computer it’s really notable. There’s discussion of the recursion of military influenced clothing on fashion and how boys wear clothes to try and have themselves mistaken for people with skills they don’t have, like they’re special forces or something.

The plot, well, it pushes the characters along. I don’t read Gibson novels for the plot. This one was especially odd because the protagonists are both working for someone they don’t really like and don’t really care about, so there’s a distance between them and needing to reach their goals. As it goes on they do have more of a stake in the resolution but the value here is seeing this military-fashion complex kind of world.

It made me want to care about my clothes more than I do.