June 23, 2015

Book 32: Fiction River: Pulse Pounders

Fiction River: Pulse Pounders
Edited by Kevin J. Anderson

Writing a compelling, well-paced thriller is difficult enough when the intended output is novel-length, and to succeed in shorter formats is nothing short of exceptional. Achieving the proper proportions of characterization, action, and stakes is a delicate balancing act, but the possibilities and rewards are almost limitless when everything clicks. Each of the stories in Pulse Pounders is calculated and crafted to offer a mix of action and intrigue, and editor Kevin J. Anderson has selected a varied assortment of short fiction pieces that showcase a number of different approaches to the genre. Stories utilizing science fiction and fantasy elements are interspersed among more realistic tales of suspense and derring-do, but the combination enhances the reading experience. The collection's strength is enhanced by its intuitive order, which stations similar stories throughout the book rather than piling them together; remarkably, Anderson accomplishes this without inducing whiplash. Certain similarities inevitably arise, as do differences in quality, but Pulse Pounders is remarkably even and entertaining throughout.

Despite the authors' general, and expected, reliance on straightforward prose and their shared tendency to rely on more direct exposition than is strictly necessary, neither do they become bogged down by ill-fitting forays into literary aspiration. Pulse Pounders is intended to entertain, and for the most part it does. Even those stories that are situated within extant or intended series are easily accessible to newcomers, and each conveys its own sense of originality. Those that rely most heavily on elements of speculative fiction are as inviting as the more strictly realistic tales, focusing as they do on adrenaline-fueled plots that fit within the collection's stated theme. In many cases, these elements effectively heighten the tension; the foreboding ending of Peter J. Wacks and Kevin J. Anderson's "Change of Mind" or the emotional impact of Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "Sole Survivor" simply wouldn't be as effective were the stakes not raised by the settings, despite a somewhat cliché approach to some narrative elements. "Fraternization," by Ron Collins, is easily the most emotionally resonant story, due in no small part to the effects of a scientific breakthrough and its effect on the protagonist.

The book's pair of time travel tales is excellent, with each successfully navigating the trope's inherent difficulties while providing a thrilling, time-sensitive sequence of events. Thomas K. Carpenter's "Tower One" may not convincingly convey the emotional depth to which it aspires, but its vision of September 11 and overtures toward exploring the nature of regret and the effects of loss and grief are nonetheless compelling. One senses that a truly great story lurks somewhere in the margins, even if it succeeds more as a leaping-off point than as a standalone narrative. Chuck Heintzelman's "Three Strikes" is much more compelling, relying as it does on a countdown that effectively mimics real time without slowing the story down and on flash-forwards that ratchet up the emotional tension. As the book's strongest offering, it provides a more than worthy conclusion. Pulse Pounders may not contain life-altering flights of literary fancy, but it does include a plethora of interesting ideas and thrilling adventures that accomplish their goal of entertaining interested readers.

Grade: A-

June 17, 2015

Book 31: The Violent Century

The Violent Century
Lavie Tidhar

I have always found stories featuring alternate and parallel histories somewhat enticing, with their visions of a past that, despite being somewhat similar to our own, is not quite right. At their best, these stories open up worlds of alternate possibilities, asking and allowing us to reexamine the ways in which we affect the world around and beyond us. Lavie Tidhar's alternate 20th century, which he aptly terms the "Violent Century", hinges on the presence of Übermenschen, ordinary humans who acquire superpowers after a mysterious quantum event in the early 1930s. Though World War II and subsequent conflicts proceed more or less as expected, the book effectively utilizes narrative tricks to evoke a sense of chaos that parallels the effect of the century's many wars. With its short (and often punchy) sentences, shifting points of view, and occasional flirtation with first- and second-person narration, to say nothing of its constant time-jumping structure, The Violent Century often provides a sense of disorientation that, somehow, doesn't feel out of place. The book quickly settles into a pattern, of sorts, and though the framing narrative and other details occasionally get lost it delivers necessary information at a reasonable pace. The book certainly rewards lengthy spells of reading, as certain bits of information become easily forgotten or lost, but it is remarkably accessible given its inherent complexity.

Some events do seem to get lost, not the least of which is the appropriate character building necessary to lend the book's central relationships an appropriate level of plausibility. Tidhar is also prone to distractions; though his visions of the various superheroes' postwar ventures are as compelling as the depictions of World War II, it is not immediately clear how they are thematically relevant. Likewise, one character's deus ex machina appearance toward the book's climax comes across as incredibly disingenuous, given the vast possibilities offered by their unique abilities; it simply beggars belief that it would not have previously been relevant, even given the novel's chaotic narrative structure. The book is jam-packed with excellent and intriguing ideas, and Tidhar employs a deft hand in bringing them to life, but the book clearly has larger philosophical aspirations that it cannot quite live up to. The questions are posed, if meekly, but the reader is never able to properly consider the implications.

Nevertheless, the book's set pieces are so convincing and impressive that it succeeds on the level of pure entertainment, experimentation aside. From the snows surrounding besieged Leningrad to the steamy jungles of Laos and the concrete maze of September 11-era New York City, the set pieces match the best in the business. Even more impressive is Tidhar's ability to seamlessly weave his Übermenschen into the fabric of oft-studied history, creating a slightly altered world that is as utterly convincing as any that I've recently encountered. What the book lacks in philosophical depth it more than makes up for in pure spectacle, his alternate 20th century a mirror on our own that invites, even if not in a wholly satisfying manner, a fair share of reflection. The book is eerily plausible in the way that it interweaves real and imagined histories, and it is a shame that the characters and their relationships cannot quite match the book's base level of surprising realism. Even if the story is ultimately disappointing, the worldbuilding deserves utmost admiration. The Violent Century may not deliver on all of its aspirations or promises, but it does invite readers to carefully consider the nature of heroism and, besides, offers a compelling alternate history that at times feels far more real than the actual chain of events that led us to today.

Grade: B+

June 10, 2015

Book 30: Soccer and Philosophy

Soccer and Philosophy: Beautiful Thoughts on the Beautiful Game
Edited by Ted Richards

With the women's World Cup currently underway in Canada, I figured that now was as good a time as any to grab Soccer and Philosophy. Having read the series installment about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I had an idea of what to expect: a surprisingly successful blend of serious philosophy and pop-culture passion. This is, much to the editor's credit, precisely what the book delivers, with very few exceptions. Ted Richards balances a healthy number of heavily academic papers with more casual offerings, increasing the book's appeal to a broad audience; indeed, the myriad references to soccer's most famous personalities, teams, and games may provide a greater barrier to entry than similar references to philosophers or particular schools of thought. This sense of purpose and passion, combined with a sensible thematic organization, results in an academic book that is welcoming and remarkably readable, particularly considering the inherent complexity of many of the ideas explored within.

Whether by editorial direction or their own benevolence, most of the contributors manage to introduce and engage serious philosophical inquiries without overwhelming the uninitiated or resorting to condescension. Their universal appreciation of soccer is evident throughout their work, and the book is doubtless better for it. One senses that each chapter is, in its way, a labor of love, and numerous references to personal experience serve to humanize and illustrate concepts that are otherwise entirely abstract. It is clear that each author plays, watches, and thinks deeply about the beautiful game just as their audience does, and it is a pleasure to examine it alongside them. This is, perhaps unexpectedly, most evident in the biographies that follow the primary text. To say that they are wildly entertaining would be a tragic understatement, at best, and if this is the philosopher's idea of a serious academic biography I fear that I have chosen the wrong field.

Intended more for philosophically minded soccer fans than for those who don't understand the appeal of a game with so little scoring (and not infrequently none at all), the book rewards close reading and consideration even in its drier moments. Plenty of famous thinkers, from Plato to Nietzsche, make cameo appearances, often in several different chapters, and the net effect is to render philosophy accessible to readers who may identify first and foremost as sports fans. Neither lightweight nor impossibly obtuse, the book examines such weighty concepts as the role of the individual and state in determining and enforcing the law, the literally revolutionary impact of the Magical Magyars, and the ways in which soccer reflects the entirety of human experience and, in its way, life itself. In seeking to answer the most basic and most complex questions about our engagement with this of all sports, Soccer and Philosophy offers an engaging experience for fans who want to dig deeper, to question the obvious, and to share their appreciation for the beautiful game.

Grade: A

June 3, 2015

Book 29: Touch

Claire North

One of the things that I find absolutely electrifying about speculative fiction, in the hands of skillful writers, is its ability to derive the deepest senses of meaning from the most absurd of premises. The idea behind Claire North's Touch- that there exists a type of "ghost" soul that can move from body to body at the merest meeting of their skin, leaving the previous owner wondering where the time could have possibly gone- is not, to be fair, particularly ridiculous. It does, however, pose a plethora of scintillating possibilities, both practical and philosophical. That North manages to convincingly posit a world in which this is possible, covering all of the minor details and major sticking points in due course while simultaneously exploring ontological issues without resorting to condescension or tidy answers, is a testament to her immense talents; that she successfully dresses her inquiries into the many meanings of identity and the ethics of borrowing bodies in the fabric of a compelling, fast-paced thriller replete with the requisite twists and turns almost beggars belief.

Though she is somewhat susceptible to the kind of uneven pacing and suspiciously convenient coincidences that occur in even the most tightly plotted novels, North more than makes up for it with the unique narrative diversions that naturally arise from her body-swapping premise and the deftly employed flashbacks that humanize her characters and enhance readers' understanding of the alternate Earth that includes her ephemeral, drifting souls. The story flows effortlessly between past and present and, in doing so, heightens the emotional tension, significantly raises the story's stakes, and rounds out the nameless, body-hopping narrator. The flashbacks imbue the villains with extra menace via their deeply intertwined (but never unrealistic) histories with the entity they call "Kepler" while also introducing readers to the variety of ways in which North's ghosts approach, take advantage of, and suffer because of their peculiar abilities. Touch presents a rich world of possibilities, tackling the most difficult questions with a sense of unease, as even the more moral ghosts recognize that, merely by seeking to survive, they almost inevitably leave those they inhabit confused, violated, and shaken, never to retrieve the time they inexplicably lost.

North never shies away from the moral consequences of the world she imagines, and her book is indisputably better for it. The ghosts and those who oppose them (from outside and within their ranks) have a range of personalities and individualized motivations for behaving they way they do; indeed, it is the ways in which they envision and rationalize the consequences of their actions that most effectively define them. The book invites (and almost requires) characters and readers alike to ponder the multiple meanings of identity, love, and, to a certain extent, life itself. That one of its central questions- whether a ghost can ever morally justify the actions they must take to survive- remains tantalizingly unanswered is a testament to the complexity of the ambiguities she explores and to her willingness to tackle them head-on. Though Touch does not lack its fair share of rationalizations and competing rhetoric from multiple perspectives, North nobly resists the temptation to overextend and provide a neat solution. Instead, she trusts readers to reconcile these various points of view.

Touch is a rare specimen, a book whose greatness lies in its subtleties, in the million minor authorial touches that add up to an exhilarating experience. Its greatness lies in the repetition of a key phrase (though I felt incredibly cheated that it wasn't the book's final sentence), in the varied experiences of those who borrow bodies and whose bodies are borrowed, and in the tight plotting that alternates between high-octane, gun-fueled chase scenes (made all the more exciting due to the ghosts' ever-shifting physicality) and Kepler's haunting soliloquies without causing excessive whiplash, or even much at all. The book's inherent moral ambiguity lingers pleasantly beyond its final pages, begging to be prodded and discussed. With Kepler's immersive first-person narration, a carefully weighted balance of action, anticipation, and reflection, and a surfeit of philosophical implications to consider and revisit, Touch provides a captivating reading experience that is truly rewarding at multiple levels of engagement; I could hardly ask for more than this brilliant book consistently provides.

Grade: A