Thursday, October 30, 2014

Hidden Empire

There has been a lot of controversy about Orson Scott Card and his 'beliefs'. I personally don't care what I person does in their private time--unless it's against the law--as long as it doesn't affect or seep into the writing. Unfortunately, I can't say that's the case with Hidden Empire. Shame since OSC is not a bad author. He's imaginative and his stories are interesting. A lot of folks I know still love Ender's Game despite disliking the man who wrote it. Fair enough. The novel I'll be reviewing today was a gift. I probably wouldn't have picked it up on my own. However, I don't regret reading it even though sometimes it was a difficult task...


Hardback copy
The war of words between right and left collapsed into a shooting war, and raged between the high-technology weapons on each side, devastating cities and overrunning the countryside. 

At the close of Empire, political scientist and government adviser Averell Torrent had maneuvered himself into the presidency of the United States.  And now that he has complete power at home, he plans to expand American imperial power around the world.

Opportunity comes quickly.  There’s a deadly new plague in Africa, and it is devastating the countryside and cities.  President Torrent declares American solidarity with the victims, but places all of Africa in quarantine until a vaccine is found or the disease burns itself out.  And he sends Captain Bartholomew Coleman, Cole to his friends, to run the relief operations and protect the American scientists working on identifying the virus.  If Cole and his team can avoid dying of the plague, or being cut down by the weapons of fearful African nations, they might do some good.  Or they might be out of the way for good.


I wanted to like this book. I really did. The premise interested me. I was in the mood for outbreaks and deadly viruses. The world handling a crisis. It was even a timely read with this current Ebola crisis, but man was this heavy on the politics. If you are a right-winged, Christian who loves Fox News and don't believe in Global Warming, you'll like this a lot. If you like military jargon and vague action scenes, you'll love this novel. If you enjoy a lot of backstory and too many references to the previous novel (which I didn't know existed or read) then you'll enjoy this story. If you enjoy precocious children who are ridiculously wise for their age and who love to banter with Mommy, you'll also like this story...I could do this all day. Fact is, I didn't enjoy any of those aspects of the novel. I read to be entertained, not to be told what's right and what's wrong. This was supposed to be Science Fiction. It read more like wishful thinking on the author's part.

Anyhow, I'd like to believe that every novel has some good in it. So, I'll concentrate on what I did like. The novel starts with this little African boy whose whole family dies from an outbreak started by a monkey. I won't say more. Did I already say too much? A captivating start and I kept hoping the kid wouldn't die since he was so interesting. I also enjoyed learning about the different languages in the various African tribes.

The president of the United States wanted to quarantine the whole continent of Africa in order to prevent the virus from reaching the states. A lot of people found issue with that. As they should. A lot of folks wanted to go to Africa and help the sick. The whole thing is a PR nightmare for the president and his people.

About the president's people, Cole, a military officer, and Cecily, a mom who loves to bake cookies for her five kids and councils the president on the side. I didn't connect with the mother too much. Not with how she handled her eldest son's, Mark, whole do-good crusade. But I did like Cole. He was smart and knew what to expect and who not to fully trust. Before being sent to Africa to check out what the deal was, Cole knew the whole operation wasn't right. As a good soldier, he does what he must, but suffers deadly consequences. Action ensues and they find themselves trapped in a country they can't leave and sick. The Muslim bad guys are coming to get them! But are they really the bad guys, or are the bad guys 'friend's? The pre-ending was big. The real ending was anti-climatic. It should have ended several pages before it actually did.

Hidden Empire has its moments and all the epidemiology and author knowledge over how outbreaks occur was what made me enjoy it the most. Enough that I overlooked a lot of the other stuff that bugged me throughout the story.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Girl in the Road

A first novel by author Monica Byrne. She's a writer, playwright, and traveler. She holds degrees in biochemistry from Wellesley and MIT. Just mentioning all these things explains a lot about her novel, and the ideas used and the very vivid world she created.


Hardback copy
Meena, a young woman living in a futuristic Mumbai, wakes up with five snake bites on her chest. She doesn't know how or why, but she must flee India and return to Ethiopia, the place of her birth. Having long heard about The Trail -- an energy-harvesting bridge that spans the Arabian Sea -- she embarks on foot on this forbidden bridge, with its own subculture and rules. What awaits her in Ethiopia is unclear; she's hoping the journey will illuminate it for her.

Mariama, a girl from a different time, is on a quest of her own. After witnessing her mother's rape, she joins up with a caravan of strangers heading across Saharan Africa. She meets Yemaya, a beautiful and enigmatic woman who becomes her protector and confidante. Yemaya tells Mariama of Ethiopia, where revolution is brewing and life will be better. Mariama hopes against hope that it offers much more than Yemaya ever promised.

As one heads east and the other west, Meena and Mariama's fates will entwine in ways that are profoundly moving and shocking to the core. Vividly imagined and artfully told, written with stunning clarity and deep emotion, The Girl in the Road is a true tour de force


Two girls. Two stories. Two different decades. One side of the story centers on Meena, an Indian girl--yes, the protagonist is Indian which was so refreshing--and the other pov was centered on Mariama, an African girl--yes, already liking the diversity here.

Right off the bet you get a sense that Meena is not right in the head, and that she's keeping a lot from the reader. First point of view. She thinks she's being followed and decides to leave the country to go to Africa, where her parents were murdered long ago. Meena is a smart girl and went to the best schools. She's a tad entitled with strong prejudices. This make sense since she grew up with a family and culture that looked down on certain races and lower classes. Meena also has a rebellious streak and has lots of sex with guys and girls. Doesn't matter to her. The one thing that was going well for her was the relationship with a transgender performer. However, as the story continues one starts to wonder why her girlfriend didn't come along. Is she even alive? Does she exist? Meena sees all types of things that aren't really there.

The midpoint of her journey has Meena walking a trail. And this concept was amazing to me. The trail starts from India all across the ocean to Africa. It's walkable but very unstable. It's like backpacking on ocean scales. I liked a lot of the devices that Meena took with her and all the names for the futuristic tools. Like the sunbits and scrolls. Very clever. Meena did often go into her head to think about her past and some parts in the middle got a little tedious because of it, but eventually something else would happen or she would encounter a person.....there's more here with Meena, but honestly, I thought her problems were just okay in comparison to Mariama's side.

I also found a lot of her decisions unnecessary. Like leaving the country in the first least it seemed that way to me for so long, and so it was hard to relate to her because I thought her leaving was a tad over the top, and she had no good reason. I think if there's one thing I didn't enjoy about Meena's story was how much the author withheld from us. Too much to the point that I just couldn't cheer for Meena. Like there was a bit where she intentionally tossed the equipment that filtered the water to make it drinkable, something she desperately needed on a trip from India to Africa on foot! Delusional or not, it just didn't seem like something Meena would do. However, she would sometimes redeem herself with her cunning nature.

Now for the fun part, Mariama. I loved her whole story. In fact, I often wanted to skip Meena's aka Durga's chapters just to get to her story. Unlike Meena who's a wealthy twenty something-year-old, Mariama was a slave little girl. Her mother was abused and raped and tells the little girl to run off and be free. To find someone who can take care of her. This is how this little girl's journey started. She does find two men who are on the road doing a delivery that will take them about six months--give or take. Mohammed and Francis. I liked these two. I liked that they were good to her. Mohammed was a tad more wary and Francis was a loveable character, probably my favorite of the side characters.

Another person that eventually joins the three of them is Yemaha. Little Mariama becomes obsessed with this lady named after a goddess, and Yemaha is kind to her. Teaches her a language, as does Francis, and sleeps beside her at nights. Mariama takes to her very strongly to the point that her entire pov is dedicated to her. She doesn't address the reader. She addresses Yemaha. It took me a while to get used to that, but once I did I found it interesting. A lot of adventures happen on their journey and the sights are beautifully described. Either the author did a lot of research--which she did. Or she visited some of these sights--which she also did. It was a learning experience for me and I loved the richness, the nuances, learning about other cultures. Even if the story does take place in the far future.

Overall, the two tales come together and a lot is revealed at the end. I do believe that my connection with Meena would have been stronger if I had known a lot of her issues a lot sooner. For Mariama I felt like I was given a very straight forward story and even though there were twist and bends and her ending was indeed surprising, I can't say the same for Meena. Mariama was more chaotic and wanted more out of life. Meena just wanted to find the person who killed her parents, an odd motivation since she'd never in her life really cared about it up until that point. Sure, she missed having parents, but nothing warranting a long trip. Again, there was more to it, but I didn't know at the time so I couldn't connect. By the time we are told all the truth, my attention had already shifted to Mariama and stayed with her. Even when I knew how Mariama's story was going to end, I still wanted to see how she would end up doing what we were hinted at throughout the novel. I cared to see. I cared about the character.

There were so many layers to this novel, and you have to pay attention to everything because if you miss something, you really missed something. I enjoyed reading it. I enjoyed the world and the tools in it. The diversity. The places explored. I enjoyed it. Good stuff.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Brave New Worlds

John Joseph Adams has also edited another anthology which I enjoyed a great deal: Wastelands: stories of the apocalypse.  I enjoyed all the shorts a great deal, most of them. A little bit about the editor, John has been called, The reigning king of the anthology world with numerous anthologies under his belt, and he's the founder of Lightspeed Magazine. He's a writer, editor, publisher...the man does a lot. Today, I'm taking a look at another one of his anthologies, one about dystopian futures: Brave New Worlds.


My copy
You are being watched.

Your every movement is being tracked, your every word recorded. Your spouse may be an informer, your children may be listening at your door, your best friend may be a member of the secret police. You are alone among thousands, among great crowds of the brainwashed, the well-behaved, the loyal. Productivity has never been higher, the media blares, and the army is ever triumphant. One wrong move, one slip-up, and you may find yourself disappeared -- swallowed up by a monstrous bureaucracy, vanished into a shadowy labyrinth of interrogation chambers, show trials, and secret prisons from which no one ever escapes. Welcome to the world of the dystopia, a world of government and society gone horribly, nightmarishly wrong.

When the government wields its power against its own people, every citizen becomes an enemy of the state. Will you fight the system, or be ground to dust beneath the boot of tyranny?


I'm only going to mention the shorts that I enjoyed. The first of that was the very first story: 

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

A haunting tale about a village that has a peculiar yearly ritual where all the members of the town gather to pick out a name, and whoever is chosen, well, is chosen. To what? Nothing pleasant. What I interpreted from the tale is that sometimes we get so caught up in the routine of it all that no one really questions if what were doing is right. It just is what it is, what we've always done.

Red Card by S.L. Gilbow

Probably one of my favorites. In this particular dystopian future the right to kill is a law. However, its also a drawing. You don't get to decide when you are given that right, but once you have it, you carry the card for as long as you want. No one is supposed to know who has the card. Some suspect. Some dissect and talk about the reasoning or how much the killed person deserved it. 
Linda kills her cheating husband and then has to deal with the temporary celebrity status that killing someone gives you. A sad ending, but an interesting look at human justification. No different than the death penalty. Basically, one person deciding that you don't deserve to live and the world agreeing. Chilling. 

Ten with a Flag by Joseph Paul Haines

Another one of my favorites, this one is centered on a world where you are let know in advance what type of child you are going to have and how successful he or she going to be, ahead of time. Like those tests that determine if your child is going to have an afflicting disorder.
The couple in this story gets told that their son is a ten, the highest, the smartest, the most successful. They should be happy, right? But that's ten with a flag. A flag means that their is going to be something wrong. But they can't know what it is. So the decision becomes, to keep this child with great potential or not because whatever the flag signifies isn't worth the risk? Does knowing really change anything? My answer to this is, it shouldn't, unless you just have to know everything.

Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment: one daughter's personal account by M. Rickert

I found this one fascinating because it has partly happened in some places in the world. In this story, women have lost most of their rights, especially their reproductive rights, and if they don't abide by the new world order, they are killed. A daughter has had a normal life up until her mother disappears and they know that she is one of those 'traitors' that needs to be hung. The daughter is angry at her mother for causing her father and her so much grief. The daughter doesn't know what she's lost, what freedom her mother had once enjoyed and so can't sympathize. Very sad story. And makes one wonder about what you're passing over to your kids, what type of world. A world with less freedom? More. About the same. None...

The Funeral by Kate Wilhelm

Here's another one where girls do not have many rights. They are given tasks and jobs and they must obey and live the life that is appointed to them, but one girl discovers through a senile old woman that there's another place where life doesn't have to be that way. Can she figure it all out in time? Fun story told through a young girl. I like how the elders twist certain jobs, to make everything that isn't what the child is supposed to be doing in life seem terrible in comparison. "You don't want riches and fame those people are miserable. And everyone knows your job (insert job here) is so much more satisfying." Oh, the lies we tell ourselves.

O Happy Day! by Geoff Ryman

This one is the opposite of the last two. Men have no rights. And the more violent ones are sent to concentration camps and killed. The only ones who don't get killed are the gays. The gays have to assist in the killing of straight men. The story's focus is on the group of men that have the terrible job of assisting in the death of other men. They have to say and do without protesting until one guy comes along and questions it all. But how much do others want to change? How much can one person do? Is it better to live miserable in an unjust world or die? Is it worth living if you're miserable? Or does one hope a change will come along? Who starts that change? Why don't you? Tragic story about being so close but having others sabotage you. 

Billennium by J.G. Ballard

Overpopulation, the more people, the less space. This story takes a look at what a crowded world looks like, if you had little room to move to and fro, and your apartment was so tiny it’s basically a closet. I felt claustrophobic reading this tale. There was no room to walk or breathe, almost. And every so often more space was taken from the people. I actually thought the tale was a tad optimistic in its report of how a crowded world would even think to sync that well without chaos. But a warning tale nonetheless.

Pop Squad by Paolo Bacigalupi

In this one, the cure to old age has been invented and nobody dies. But if nobody dies that means that no one else needs to be born. It's against the law. If you break the law, your newborn, infant, toddler gets killed. Theirs a police squad specialize in getting rid of unwanted children. Do people really want to live forever? Would it really be living? Those are the questions this story asks. And isn’t one of the points of human nature to procreate, passing down genes, teaching the new the ways of life. This dystopian future had the illusion of a utopia. I enjoyed the struggles some of the mother’s faced when just wanting a little baby to hold and love is against the law. Another one of my faves.

Dead Space for the Unexpected by Geoff Ryman

Productivity at the work place and using time wisely. Here we have a stressed out boss who can’t be stressed out because his heart rate is being monitored and his skills, how to handle firing an employee, or how to best manage every second of every hour that he works. Give a whole new meaning to work being one’s life. Interestingly enough, I found his workload quite perfect in the perspective of a corporation. You get more for your buck out of your employees...

Just Do It by Heather Lindsley

What if companies could legally shoot darts at you to make you want their product. The ultimate in advertising. You get hit with a little sucker and everything in your body tells you that you just have to eat in that restaurant or buy those shoes. Works every time. But what if they wanted to take it a step further? In an age where websites monitor our buying habits is too hard to fathom a world where they could chemically induce us to want their junk? 
This short unnerve me because there was no escape to consumerism, and then I look around and think, well, there isn't an escape now. We just let it happen. Complain a bit, but accept. 

Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonegut. Jr.

Everyone is finally equal! No one is smarter or prettier or more accomplished than you. No one talks better or has more. We are all the same. EQUAL. However, the price to pay is to dumb all the smart people down with loud chips in their brains and place bags in the faces of the pretty ones. I liked the theme and what the story was trying to say. However, I did disagree with a few points. Maybe intelligence can be measure, or can it? And Beauty certainly isn't universal. I think the entire time reading this one I kept thinking, who gets to decide who are the prettiest in the population?

Caught in the Organ Draft by Robert Silverberg

It's already known that the old decide the future of the young. They control the senate and congress and all those important positions of power, but what if the old never died. What if because they get to decide for the rest of us, they decide that the young have to donate organs to the old. An organ draft. The old live longer lives, more years of servitude, while the young get treated like cattle. Doesn't seem so far-fetch when you see the amount of young bodies whose lives get gambled with in war. They don't get to decide much now. This little tale is one to warn us that our elders don't always know best.

Of A Sweet Slow Dance in the Wake of Temporary Dogs by Adam-Troy Castro

This one was bitter sweet. Imagine if you can live in paradise for nine days. The most fun and the most happy you have ever lived for nine days of dining, drinking, music, festivals, hiking...what ever you love to do, you get to do all day, every day, for nine days. Sounds perfect, right? Then comes the tenth day, and then you live through utter horror. The worse imaginable horror. Slow death, torture, rape, slaughter, bombings...the worst. The character in this story has to decide if the nine days of utter pleasure are worth the one of unimaginable pain.
Personally, I think that decision is quite easy for me. No. I hate pain. All pain. And I'm pretty sure that I'd spend every second of those good nine days dreading the tenth, and so I wouldn't fully enjoy them. Others might disagree. It depends on your personal experience. If you already live a life of misery then maybe those nine days are worth the tenth. This one was a great one. Really enjoyed it. 


In between the shorts I did like, there was a ton of others that I didn't enjoy or was indifferent to, and so I’m not going to mention them, but here are some of the honorable mentions:

Independence Day by Sarah Langan
The Minority Report by Philip H. Dick
Geriatric Ward by Orson Scott Card

Get yourself a copy of Brave New Worlds if you're also a lover of dystopian stories.