I’ve probably mentioned before how rare it is for me to read a straight-up mystery (and not some sort of science fiction noir type thing) but that’s exactly what Ben Winters’ The Last Policeman is. A man died in the bathroom of a McDonald’s. The newly-minted detective is the only person who doesn’t think it was a suicide. Investigation ensues.
The only complication is that in just over 6 months the world as we know it will end when Earth is hit by a huge asteroid.
So the book is a twisty little mystery involving insurance fraud and drugs and bad coffee in police briefing rooms, but also a look at why even do police-work when the world will soon be ending. Who really cares how one person ended up dead when six months from now everyone will be.
Now that little complication might, in your mind, vault the book into the science fiction category, but it really isn’t. The asteroid is affecting people because they’re all aware of their mortality, but it’s not causing tidal waves or changing the weather or making people flee to the Himalayas or shooting Bruce Willis off into space. It’s something that’s happening, just like war is something that happens in other stories.
I really liked the book even though it’s not my usual science fiction and in spite of the fact it’s the first in a trilogy. (SPOILER: The case is resolved and the book ends still many months before the asteroid hits, leaving room for the next books to remain pre-apocalyptic).
I think I liked Legends of Zita the Spacegirl even more than the first book. And I liked the first one a lot.
Legends has Zita dealing with the tedium of fame. When she finds a robot who can take her place during all the autograph signings and such it sounds great. Then the robot takes her place on a mission that will let Zita go home again. Zita has to find new allies and get her life back.
The book has Zita dealing with awesome new characters and setting up seeds of connection for the future books. She’s clever and heroic and even though she’s out of her depth she doesn’t lose her head. It is a bit more explicitly a part of an ongoing series than the first was, but Hatke is doing a great job making it work on its own as well. Very recommended for the middle school crowd.
It seems fitting to review the second third and fourth books in Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series together because the flaws they have as stand-alone books make sense if you look at them as chapters in a longer story.
At the end of book 1 in the series we were up to date with Miriam Beckstein, tech journalist who is also a countess in an alternate universe where the geography is shared with Earth but technology and society has spun off on a very different track. Miriam and her clan are people who can hop between that world and our own (it’s set in the early 00’s U.S. homeland security paranoia).
In The Hidden Family Miriam has learned about a third world which is where there are more world walkers who are trying to destabilize the Clan’s power base in the medieval world. This third world is kind of steampunkish and hugely politically repressive. Miriam is trying to create a new economic base for her extended family in that new world.
In The Clan Corporate basically nothing happens. It’s an intensely frustrating book, to Miriam as well, because she’s basically just locked up while her family figures out how to sell her to the royal family to squirt out worldwalking babies. We also meet a DEA agent who’s dealing with the aftermath of one of the medieval spies turning on the Clan’s drug smuggling operation.
By The Merchants’ War the Clan is plunged into civil war and Miriam is on the run in the steampunky world and we’re learning just how genre distinctions between Science Fiction and Fantasy are kind of dumb.
I really like the story this series is telling. People are clever and behave like real clever people might. I just hate how it’s broken down into these separate volumes so you need to have recap time and setup time before the grand climax of the book, which in books 3 and 4 don’t even really happen. It’s the kind of series that’s crying out for a one-volume edition with some of the redundant bits edited out, since nothing is standing at all on its own. (You may remember that I had the same issue with Dance With Dragons. Too much like catching up with the characters and not enough story-structure for my taste.) But I’m looking forward to finishing the series because Stross writes great, thought-provoking stuff and the fact that it’s getting less and less like Zelazny and more like, well, Stross makes me very happy.
The Surrogates is a science fiction mystery set in a future where people can sit in the privacy of their own room and teleoperate a surrogate to go out and interact with the real world for them. When you’re operating the surrogate you’re feeling what it feels and doing what it does, but without exposing your real self to danger.
What makes this book great is how Robert Venditti gets into what this would mean for a world. It turns most of our major crimes into property crimes, since a murder of a surrogate is basically like totalling someone’s car. People took up smoking again because all of the carcinogens accumulate in the surrogate’s body, leaving the real you with lungs pink like the insides of babies.
The story follows a police detective on the trail of a murderer who might be a terrorist, and gets at the heart of what this technology means. There’s an anti-surrogate political group, and a murderer who can do things no one has ever seen before. Also, between each issue in the trade paperback there are news reports or advertisements or academic papers that help to flesh out the world (much like you might remember from Watchmen, though there’s no parallel pirate story going on here), which are done superbly.
Venditti and Wendele did a great job with this book. I know there was a movie version fairly recently but didn’t see it. It seems like it’d be very easy to simplify it too much for the sake of good visuals. If the movie’s worth seeing let me know!
Matt Ruff’s alternate history novel The Mirage is about a world where the United Arabian States are the global superpower, America is a factionalized bunch of small countries with dysfunctional despots in charge (including LBJ in America and the Bush clan in Texas) and Israel is in Berlin, far from the Holy Land. The idea is that back on 11/9/2001 Rocky Mountain extremists flew planes into a couple of towers in Baghdad and the UAS launched a War on Terror. It’s an interesting world and a lot of the fun in reading the book comes from the exposition handled through pages from the Library of Alexandria, the user-driven encyclopedia.
Plot-wise we’re following a couple of Homeland Security cops from Baghdad who are investigating some Christian extremist attacks and come to think there’s another topsy-turvy world out there where America is the superpower. Senator Bin Laden wants something out of that other world, and is trying to use our hero cops to get it. The plot isn’t the point here except as a vehicle for the setting.
My main gripe with the book is that the characters seem a bit too willing to believe they’re in an unreal reality. Otherwise it’s a fun puzzle to read through as you see Lebanon as the UAS’ version of California, and Britain as the Iran-analogue. It feels different, less science fictional and more Tom Clancy/fantasy-ish than The Years of Rice and Salt, but they have a number of similarities. Good book and a light read.
Captain Swing and the Electrical Pirates of Cinderry Island is the story of a London constable in 1830 who tries to solve the murder of a fellow Peeler (or Bobby as the police are sometimes known) and gets mixed up with pirates in a flying electrical ship.
Written by Warren Ellis, it’s filled with cursing and scientific emancipatory exultation. Raulo Caceres’ art is dark and bloody. I liked it a lot. One of the cool things they do is have pages with the pirate captain discoursing in prose (over schematic engravings) explaining all sorts of history and background. It’s more effective than putting it in as expository dialogue, and enhances the notion of this being a document of secret history.
I haven’t read enough of Doktor Sleepless, but the two books feel connected. I’m unsure how deep that connection is.
Awakening is a detective story that looks like it’s going to be a zombie story. There are people on the street being gutted and chewed on; there’s a crazy woman who swears Cline chemicals is behind it all; there’s a private detective who left the police force after disbelieving that his partner was a terrible person. Okay, that last bit isn’t a traditional trope of zombie stories, but still.
I wasn’t a big fan of the story. It moved very slowly and kept throwing itself around in time without a clear purpose. There were these interjections of the detective’s notes that didn’t add anything to the story, just recapped what we already knew. And the story didn’t get very far in this book (which is an in-character frustration as well).
The art though, the art was great. It has this vaguely photo-realistic mixed with rough as hell woodcuts and silhouettes and the whole thing could have been etched onto the rusted hull of a ship. I could look at this book all day.
It was okay. I wouldn’t strongly recommend it, unless you’re a fan of Ben Templesmith’s art (which this is reminiscent of).