book review: the world that never was

Alex Butterworth’s The World That Never Was is not as phantasmagorical as its title might imply, but if you add in the subtitle – A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists, and Secret Agents – you get a bit closer to the matter. It’s a history of anarchists and revolutionists in 19th century Russia and France primarily. I don’t read a lot of history so I don’t know if it was tremendously accurate. It gave me a bit better an idea of some of the political challenges going on at the time and how the secret police used agents provacateur to try and manoeuvre naive folks to serve other political ends. I liked it because it was about the people who were leftist but not Marxist, which is something especially historically I am very capable of forgetting.

book review: white fever

White Fever: A Journey to the Frozen Heart of Siberia isn’t exactly the travelogue I expected from reading the back blurb. It’s about a Polish journalist, Jacek Hugo-Bader, who travels through Siberia in a truck in the middle of winter, but that aspect of the trip only appears in the first and last chapters of the book. The rest is arranged more topically about the people he interviews in these Siberian communities.

Once the realization that this wasn’t going to be a wacky journey tale set in, I quite enjoyed the book. Hugo-Bader talks to AIDS patients, hip-hop wannabes, shamans, religious communities and alcoholics. His european perspective on the Siberian aboriginal people gives those sections quite a different tone from the way you’d write about them in North America. Not better, but it was different enough to make me notice and try to analyze why it felt so foreign. Would it have felt more natural if I was a white Canadian forty years ago? Maybe, but maybe that’s just me thinking these Eastern Europeans are a bunch of assholes.

Anyway, problematic aboriginal discussions aside, I liked the book for its alternative perspective on the parts of Russia that don’t make the news. I’ll talk to my Russologist friends about how accurate this Polish journalist was, but for a non-expert it was an interesting read.

book review: wolfhound century

Peter Higgins’ Wolfhound Century is kind of a spy/detective novel mashed up with a fantastical element in a world whose moon has shattered and angels fell to earth. I liked it, but it didn’t grab my innards the way I’d hoped it would.

There are two parts to the book. The first is about an investigation in this fantasy-tinged Russian city filled with agents-provocateur, anarchists and artists. This stuff I loved. The powerful people are assholes and Lom the detective is a prototypical noir detective in this pseudo-Soviet state. It’s great.

Then it spins into something overtly mythical magical and blatant rather than tinged with magic. This big magical plot doesn’t resolve itself and I assume it’s planned as a trilogy at least. That bugs me. The change in Lom 3/4 of the way through the story also bugs me a bit. He starts off as a hard-boiled provincial detective out of his element but pursuing leads in the case he was given. By the end he’s definitely not that any more. There’s a lot of stuff that happens that undermines the “lone man against an impenetrable totalitarian fantasy state” vibe I wanted out of the book (and got from the beginning).

But it’s a decent beginning to a story that I’ll probably like when it’s all put together eventually. As it is, it’s too much of a first act for my liking.

book review: the great railway bazaar

I read The Great Railway Bazaar long after reading Paul Theroux’s book about revisiting his journey thirty years later. I liked the revisiting book better, possibly because the society Theroux was writing to in the 2000s is more like the society I think of myself a part of.

The parts I liked were the parts about the trains themselves. I too am a lover of trains and riding on them and could gladly let riding a train be the entirety of a vacation. I also appreciated the Vietnam chapters because this was written so close to the war and things felt weird and on edge there. But this book had more than just riding on trains. It had a lot of grand statements by a white guy about the cultures he was passing through. I can see a lot of similarity to myself there too, and, well, it was kind of ugly.

Theorux makes all these sweeping statements that seem to have no compassion for any of his subjects. I didn’t get that feeling from his book as an older man. Maybe I’ve just heard enough of what people who look like me have to say about travelling through Asia. And maybe that’s why I liked the Vietnam sections; his compassionless comments were directed at Americans and other foreigners instead of the people whose homes he was cruising through.

book review: saint germaine – shadows fall

I was primed by my love of Greg Stolze and John Tynes’ RPG Unknown Armies to really like Gary Reed’s Saint Germaine comic. I mean a story about the great immortal wandering the earth, dying a thousand deaths, but always returning to witness more of humanity is bound to be kind of awesome. Well, no.

There doesn’t seem to be much of a story here. A writer is summoned to the immortal’s home to write his tale. He’s attacked by shadows of Lilith, the immortal’s companion. There are scenes from the Spanish Inquisition and Moscow, pre-Napoleon. The writer is consumed by shadows and used as a weapon against Lilith. That’s what I’ve got.

Maybe it would reward a more careful reading, but nothing about the art or the writing really drew me in to say, here’s something great. And with my preconceptions about the First and Last Man (and let me say again that Unknown Armies does really cool stuff with this bit of myth), this book needed to be great instead of meh.

book review: red mars

Photo Credit: Mars, once by kevin dooley, on Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/pagedooley/4410885928/ shared under a cc-by-2.0 license

I’m one of those people who loves a good frontier story. The idea of going somewhere new and pushing the edges of what the people you know have seen appeals to me. I’ve also heard that idea being described as a Western-centric colonialist/racist perspective so yeah, there are problematic issues there. But the beauty of science fiction is getting to do some of that bold infinitive splitting in places where there are not cultures to feel superior to. Which brings us to Mars.

I love a good Mars story. Ian McDonald’s Desolation Road, and Kage Baker’s The Empress of Mars are the two I can see on my shelves, but I’ve got my own Douglas Quaid thing going. Which makes it weird I’d never read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. I have now begun.

The first novel, Red Mars, begins with a murder once a colony on Mars has been established, then it jumps back in time to show us the trip from Earth and the training the First Hundred went through, then the work of starting a colony and the politics of science. Eventually the story takes us past the opening murder into greater politics and dust-storms and mysticism. The whole book spans decades (they also develop longevity treatments on Mars, while Earth is tearing itself down in overpopulated war).

We read about these decades through the perspectives of a bunch of the first settlers, and their perspectives are all very different. What I really liked about the book was that the political choices were real and taken seriously and not very much was solved easily. Getting into these characters’ heads made a difference and it was very clear how few villains there were, just people trying to make life work in a cold harsh place.

One of the things I found disorienting was some of the 1990sishness of it. There was still an assumption that in the 2040s the important nations would be the Americans and the Russians. There’s literally one Asian person in the first 100 colonists, and she becomes a mystic orgy saint pretty quickly. Hm. Maybe that’s not such a typical ’90s thing. There’s definitely a bunch of otherization going on with the Sufis and Bedouin that feature in parts of the story, which does get in the way of some of my pure enjoyment (this is a problem that Ian McDonald’s Mars books don’t have, FYI).

The science in the book was intriguing. Robinson really delved into what it would take to make Mars habitable and how that changes the unspoiled nature of a lifeless rock. That geology (sorry, areology) has purpose beyond being fit for people and commercial interests.

Very good book, though I’ll wait a while to read the next ones. I like to make this kind of story last.

book review: supergod

Supergod is the story a British scientist tells of how the world was destroyed by nations putting their trust in hugely powerful beings who can fly. It’s an interesting read for the ideas and the pictures of superbeings reshaping the world.

There aren’t really any characters to get attached to apart from the narrator, who basically takes the place of Uncle Warren telling creepy tales of mushroom sex and soviet robots. Also, because it’s a Warren Ellis comic, of course the British space program plays into the story.

It’s a different take on superhumans than something like Black Summer; a much bigger picture story, and one that highlights how badly people would really deal with that kind of thing.