October 29, 2015

Book 52: Fortune Smiles

Fortune Smiles
Adam Johnson

First and foremost, a content warning: the story "Dark Meadow" centers on a pedophile and treats this character sympathetically; proceed with caution. While I believe that this story effectively accomplishes its goals, reading it is a profoundly disturbing experience, insofar as it plants the reader firmly in this character's mind. Johnson (and, indeed, his editor(s)) may have had good intentions when including this story in the collection, but it is unsavory and would have better been left out.

Otherwise, this is an interesting short story collection that operates primarily in a familiar mode: it consists mostly of "literary" fiction with a few hints of sci-fi-inspired intrigue that are always a little too ashamed to cross over directly into genre writing. This is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but Johnson seems too willing to go along with the traditional strictures of litfic rather than exploring the inventive elements that would otherwise lend this collection some desperately needed originality. Several stories simply fail to capitalize on the author's grand ideas, whether by coming into them with too little interest too late in the story ("Nirvana") or by failing to connect the fantastic elements effectively to the story's other themes ("Fortune Smiles"). Interestingly enough, the most effective stories are the realistically minded "Hurricanes Anonymous" and "George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine", both of which are grounded in strong, compelling characters who carry the narratives even when nothing much is actually happening to or around them; the latter story, especially, is a masterclass in engendering readers' sympathy for an unsavory character, offering as it does an exploration into the idea of the banality of evil without excessive moralizing or unaffected indifference. Overall, Fortune Smiles is full of excellent writing and grapples with several interesting themes, but fails to capitalize on its most intriguing ideas, settling instead for typical aimless litfic fare.

Grade: B-

October 25, 2015

Book 51: Masked

Edited by Lou Anders

I may not have read many superhero comics, but I nonetheless find the concept of powered individuals incredibly intriguing and rife with possibilities. Masked collects fifteen stories of superheroes and supervillains with a pleasantly wide variety of styles, subjects, and, yes, superpowers. Though the anthology is a bit uneven, as they tend to be, I appreciated each author's attempt to reinvent a trope that often seems to have worn out its room for originality and growth. The originality never ceased to impress me, particularly in Bill Willingham's "A to Z in the Ultimate Big Company Superhero Universe (Villains Too)". Willingham brilliantly utilizes a nursery rhyme structure to introduce a roster of 26 alphabetically categorized super characters, while simultaneously keeping his story moving at a fine clip. It is a silly conceit, to be sure, but the format feels appropriate and functions as both a (gentle) skewering of and love letter to the genre (which, to be fair, often relies on a good deal of silliness in all of its formats). More serious, but equally enjoyable, is Chris Roberson's "A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows", which introduces The Wraith in an adventure with thematic depth, written in a convincingly journalistic style that befits its mid-1940s setting; I only wish that I could read about more of his adventures. Other stories achieve varying levels of success, but each author offers an interesting take on the idea of the superhero, a draw that makes Masked as compelling as the very ideas it celebrates and thrives on.

Grade: A-

October 19, 2015

Book 50: Ghost Fleet

Ghost Fleet
P. W. Singer and August Cole

At its core, science fiction explores the (possible) effects of technological developments, no matter how minute or majestic, how realistic or ridiculous. Co-authors P. W. Singer and August Cole play at the genre's edges in Ghost Fleet, spinning a story of World War III using only plausible current technology (as the book's numerous endnotes attest). Moreover, the authors exploit current political tensions by choosing the United States, China, and Russia as the three primary combatants, a scenario that seems increasingly plausible by the day. This adherence to reality provides the book's core energy, even as the authors track a handful of influential individuals on all sides of the fighting. These personal stories are as convincing as they need to be in this context, offering readers additional emotional footholds alongside the ones provided by the very real, and effectively exploited, fear that the novel's events could easily take place in the near future.

Though the authors are, unsurprisingly, most sympathetic to the United States's point of view, they adopt an all-encompassing geopolitical outlook that significantly heightens narrative tension throughout the book. Expected sympathies aside, Singer and Cole carefully portray the conflict as a relatively even affair, in part by following sympathetic viewpoint characters on all sides. If the authors do have a blind spot, it is the everyday experiences of lower-ranking combatants and civilians; their story focuses, for better and worse, on the generals and other elite forces. The resulting story occasionally slides into hero worship, but enough scientific intrigue remains to make the experience worthwhile. The authors' tendency to focus almost exclusively on the big picture, even during the scenes that (almost) pass for emotional vignettes, does lower the emotional stakes somewhat, but the sheer probability of the events at hand make up most of the potentially lost ground.

Ultimately, the occasional nods to characterization do enough to keep readers emotionally invested in the viewpoint characters, even if the narrative is driven more by the impact of various technologies than any other factor(s). The novel offers little in the way of nuanced psychological drama or particularly beautiful prose, but its science is so solid that these omissions hardly matter. Somehow, the authors manage to focus on the science without losing too much of the fiction; they actively engage with, but do not become overly enamored by, the technology and avoid the kind of overwrought prose that exists merely to grasp at some "literary" cachet that books like this rarely even need. Moreover, the novel is accessible to everyone, despite the thorough research behind it, and the authors manage to portray the impact of technology without requiring their audience to sit through lengthy lectures. In the end, it all just works, and each of the books elements effectively accomplishes precisely what it needs to. Ghost Fleet is an excellent example of widely accessible hard science fiction that neither compromises its intellectual integrity nor grasps at unnecessary straws for so-called literary merit; steeped in uncompromising realism, it is a thrilling vision of a future that may be frighteningly close at hand.

Grade: A

October 11, 2015

Book 49: Music for Wartime

Music for Wartime
Rebecca Makkai

All short story collections are potentially susceptible to derailment due to inconsistency of subject, theme, style, and/or quality, and it is often difficult to anticipate what awaits when beginning one. This is particularly true of single-author anthologies, even those that do turn out to have a common thread running through their individual components. Comprised partially of stories focusing on Hungarians' experiences during and after World War II and partially of wholly unrelated tales, Rebecca Makkai's Music for Wartime occupies a strange middle ground between thematic unity and narrative diversity. The opening story and three additional "legends" interspersed throughout the collection are ephemeral folk tales set in rural interwar Europe (likely Hungary) that offer some context for those stories that explore the implications of the war, at the cost of making the others seem hopelessly out of place. Despite their individual and collective ability to establish a setting and evoke a particular mood, these efforts to establish a common thread and theme serve more to highlight the collection's incongruities than to unify its disparate pieces into a coherent whole.

Makkai's laudable, if imperfect, attempt to add a wrinkle to the typical anthology format betrays another of the collection's flaws: repetition that fails to construct collective meaning. Several characters seem to be recycled among the war-inspired stories without any overt connections beyond a general connection to the conflict, however far removed. Moreover, these stories are scattered among others featuring such wholly unconnected elements as a traveling circus, a reality television producer, and a time-traveling Johann Sebastian Bach. Without providing stronger connecting tissue or even ensuring their physical proximity, Makkai fails to capitalize on the war stories' potential power. Even though many individual stories shine, both within and outside of the purported theme, the collection lacks the unity it apparently craves. Powerful examinations of vivid characters and compelling philosophical questions are lost amidst the book's attempt at a unified vision that it fails to create. Music for Wartime is an eclectic collection that suffers from its hesitancy to effectively embrace either its shared themes or its more unique elements, resulting in a group of strong stories that buries its own potential.

Grade: B

October 2, 2015

Book 48: Look Who's Back

Look Who's Back
Timur Vermes

Satire can often be a tricky prospect, for what should be obvious reasons, and it is difficult to imagine a trickier target than Adolf Hitler; this is especially true when the target audience is German. Timur Vermes accepts the challenge by dropping the historical Hitler into modern Germany, with all of his personality (and our real-world history) intact. Moreover, this time-transported Hitler narrates his own story, putting readers into the dubious position of seeing the modern world through his point of view and, more importantly, forcing them to reconcile that vision with the reality we (think we) understand. The resurrected Hitler is as stubborn and single-minded as he was in his own time, and he struggles to make sense of a Germany that is radically different from both the one that he lived in and the one he intended to create. Meanwhile, he cannot accept the reality of his defeat, and thus views every development as a natural consequence of a resounding Axis victory in World War II. The constant discrepancy between Hitler's assumptions and the actual facts of postwar history creates the cognitive dissonance that drives the novel and provides the backbone of its (often pitch-black) humor.

The primary result of this juggling is a very funny novel that pokes fun at the displaced dictator and at the absurdities of the modern world. Yet Look Who's Back offers, at its core, a stern warning about this same tendency to laugh at humanity's darker impulses. Hitler is recognized and celebrated, in part, because this is what he expects; what others see as impeccable method acting is, in fact, a life truly lived, and it slowly wins over the public (but not, in a nice twist of irony, the actual neo-Nazis, who likewise believe that Hitler is merely a committed actor in wolf's clothing). He ultimately catapults to stardom after going viral on YouTube and winning a gig on the late-night circuit, a would-be parody act who is funny precisely because he is the only one not in on the joke. Wisely, perhaps, Vermes doesn't offer a verdict on the main question that arises: whether Hitler's charisma or the audience's (our) susceptibility to the exaggerated illogic of extremism is responsible for his renewed rise to power. Whatever the answer, the book certainly invites readers to consider how easily Hitler (still) captivates audiences, and how easily we dismiss extremists as silly without fully recognizing the danger they pose.

While it is surprisingly deep for a book focusing so obviously on ts surface humor, Look Who's Back may fail to resonate fully with an expanded audience. The trouble with Look Who's Back, for American readers, anyway, is that much of its humor is very narrowly tailored to its German audience. Certain jokes are necessarily inaccessible, despite translator Jamie Bulloch's best efforts and an appended glossary offering biographical notes on former and current German politicians (including lesser-known figures within the original NSDAP), entertainers, and potentially obscure facets of the country's entertainment industry. These references force the foreign reader into a catch-22: to read the explanatory notes is to accept spoilers, but to ignore them is to dwell in ignorance and miss many of the jokes as they fly past unheeded. It is somewhat unfair to blame either Vermes or Bulloch for this, but the obvious disconnect did affect my enjoyment of the novel; the book sacrifices universal accessibility for a deeper dive into modern German culture, and as a result it is impossible for many (if not most) English readers to fully appreciate and/or understand its humor and underlying message. Even in this somewhat distilled form, however, Look Who's Back cleverly explores the ramifications of its interesting premise, offering plenty of slapstick and satire to entertain readers who cannot fully appreciate, or judge, its criticisms.

Grade: B+