18 October 2012

The Library of God

Science fiction short | Gabriel Fitzpatrick | Enki

Enki is a short story I got from Amazon a couple of weeks ago, and finally read over the weekend in one sitting.

There is a Librarian, defending (to the death) the books in the Library. It's a very science-fiction library, with all kinds of implied high tech. Lara Croft would feel at home--for a short while.

When we come in, the Librarian is explaining to his newest visitor why the visitor is not going to get his book. It starts as a monologue, in chirpy modern style. It's funny. It's funny despite the fact that the Librarian is cruel, horrible, mean, despotic and makes your hair stand on end. A petty tyrant wielding his powers like a mini-God. He's every little kid's nightmare of a librarian, and has every little kid's dream of super powers if they were a librarian. He's Calvin in tyrannosaurus mode in the sandbox, with real people to crush and rend, except that he's a lot lot older than Calvin, and ought to know better. He's weird.

I kept hoping the latest visitor would somehow escape the terror, and couldn't quite see how that was going to happen. No, I'm not telling you. You can read it for yourself.

As one of the readers who reviewed this said on Amazon, Gabriel, could you try to write it all in first person from the Librarian's point of view?

Anyway: TL;DR: This story grabs you like a flashflood and flows away with you. I liked it. I must be weird, too.

(I'm linking to the Amazon picture because that's the one I have, it being an e-book, and also because I want to overload their server--mwahahaha--since they didn't let me review the book there, after so charmingly inviting me to do so by email. Cheapies).

09 October 2012

Any sufficiently advanced technology

Science fiction / Steam punk? / History? | Matthew Pearl | The Technologists

Spring 1868, and the Institute of Technology has been set up in Boston, which will eventually become the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There are nineteen seniors who hope to graduate soon, and a Woman in the first year (who is hidden away in a basement and forbidden to interact with the male students; figures, they used to do things like that 150 years ago--for that matter, this is still done today in many places where they ought to know better).

Marcus Mansfield, an ex-machinist who hopes to be a 'collegey', a dream which he still doesn't believe will come true, Robert Richards, who didn't quite get into Harvard like the rest of his family, and Edwin Hoyt, who actually joined Harvard and then left as the teaching was too ossified for his tastes, team up with Ellen Swallow (over time, over time, hello, it took till almost the middle of the book for this teaming up to happen) to solve the worst catastrophes the fast-growing city faces.

It was these catastrophes which convinced me initially that this was steampunk (or maybe chemistry punk). First, ships run into each other in a fog, their compasses hopelessly fouled up. Then glass all down a street turns into vapour (yup, vapour, it melts, then vapourises, all at room temperature) and re-condenses. O-o-kay, that is not going to happen in real life, hence I conclude: fiction of the chempunk type.

The Institute is barely tolerated by a public suspicious of science and terrified of technology (I love accidental alliteration--mwahahaha!) and the police is enjoined by citizens of repute to appeal to Harvard Professor Aggasiz, a determined opponent of Darwinism and a paleontologist whose principal method of scientific enquiry is to take all possible specimens, clean them and label them. And then do nothing else.

Meanwhile in the Institute, the faculty, nervous that the Institute will be shut down because of association with the dread word Technology, passes a resolution that anyone investigating the catastrophes will be censured. Shortly after, Professor Rogers, the President of the Institute, is stricken by a stroke or heart attack, and moves out of the picture.

While at it, we are introduced to Marcus' past as a machinist in the Hammond works (the chairman of which funds Marcus' studies along with his son's), where his almost-due graduation perks up his Civil War friend, Frank's desire to be a 'collegey' too. We are introduced to other characters, too, a maid with Prof Rogers, a teenaged gofer in a bank, a Pinkerton detective, a sensible police sergeant, and assorted alchemists aka chemists with private laboratories, union leaders and citizens (pretty much low-paid extras, these last).

While our heroes are busy sneaking around, the evil genius strikes yet again, making buildings all over the city explode (I spare you the spoiler of how). Is the man with the terrible face a friend or a foe?

We are also introduced to the sheer nobility of working with technology (sorry, Technology). Our friends labour in laboratories in the basement and deduce what has caused the problems by doing things like determining which chemical compound would disperse at that speed, and then checking it for glass-melting properties; by bouncing iron in a tub of water to see how it impacts compass movements; and detect what the villain concocted by prodding their memories of the materials they saw for fleeting seconds lying on a table. Sure, you can look at something and know at a glance that it was chloride of lime (wh--?).

It's nothing short of magic, the way they work things out.

And therein lies the problem with this book. M Pearl claims in the afterword that his characters are based on real people in the Institute, including Ellen Swallow and Robert Richards, while other characters are amalgams of real people. He also, more preposterously, claims that the catastrophes described are also based on real incidents that occurred in those years. Yeah, right. A second year engineering student in the 1860s would certainly be capable of inventing a 'steam man' and a working submarine weighing 30 tons, all in his spare time on weekends. By touching a container of mysterious material and finding it cold to the touch, you can easily deduce that chloride of lime, heated (how hot and how long, too) and then powdered, and then having a couple of other chemicals added would result in instant freezing mix. And an invisible gas that is inert to brass can waft around and vapourise glass temporarily, just enough to trap people and/or chop them to bits. Well, how come we don't see this stuff around today if it is so real, then?

It's almost as unbelievable as someone saving on clothes and spending it on exotic chemicals, which, combined judiciously, can produce almost anything you need, glass-vapourising things, galvanic cells, you name it. Ellen Swallow faces bias and bullying on a daily basis, the type which I have seen in fractional form drive people away from engineering colleges in real life, and withal is a strong and sensible person, on whom all these things have zero impact. She's probably from the planet Vulcan. Nothing else can explain her preternatural abilities.

It would have been a decent chempunk novel, but for this exaggerated claim of foundational fact, and characters so exaggerated that they are caricatures or stereotypes.

I cannot bear not telling you about 'reversing electric current' so that the explosion occurs at the other end of the city--even if it's a spoiler. This is just .... aargh, spare me! stuff. There's a writer who knows zero about electricity for you.

So what is this? It's a story of magic, apprentice wizards and all, placed in the 1860s, painted hurriedly and with the cardboard below showing through, with pulp-fiction-grade 'Technology'. Many a Hollywood movie has used these tropes (weren't there several recent ones with burning trains headed into cities?), but there, special effects and fast action convince you to suspend disbelief for a few hours. Alas, my disbelief is running around screaming and ranting and pushing out of its way in peevish fashion any praise for characterisation or twists in the tale. No, no, a thousand times no, it cries.

Now, if you say it's a chempunk novel, then it's an okay read in a predictable enough fashion, suitable for impressionable mid-teens. Just don't expect those teens to become engineers later in life, though.

08 October 2012

Bridging the divide

Fiction | Louis Sachar | The Cardturner

Don't you hate it when you pick up a book from a genre you don't normally read, open the first page (what were you thinking? couldn't you just stop at the back cover, idiot?) and then you can't let go because the book has grabbed your eyeballs and found a sneaky way into your brain?

Yeah, neither do I. :) It's such a delight to find a book that grabs you on page one, and lets you off gently 336 pages later, with your head just that little bit expanded while at it.

So, grab this book if you want to read a story about a teenager and his granduncle, or you want to learn about the card game bridge, or how a generation gap can be, ahem ahem, bridged. Or even if you don't want to learn about bridge (he marks the sections you can skip if you want just the story, but it's no hardship to go through them).

Alton Richards' parents want him to drive 'your favourite Uncle Lester' to and from his bridge tournaments, now that he cannot see any more and cannot drive himself. Uncle Lester's favouriteness is due entirely to his exceeding richness and paucity of wife or kids.

Of course, you know that Alton will get to like his Uncle for himself, and vice versa. Ha ha, maybe not. Anyway, Alton is roped in as a cardturner. What's that? His job is to turn over onto the table the card his uncle tells him to. He is ideally suited to this critical but dumb as a pillar job, as he doesn't know the b of bridge. So how come Trapp, as he starts calling his Uncle, doesn't want his other helper, his grandniece Toni, around any more? Because she asked him 'Are you sure?' and thereby leaked his hand to the competitors. Aargh, the horror! Serves her right. But wait, she's now back as his partner? Alton's mother, in the obvious and horrid style of adults everywhere, brightly talks her into admitting schizophrenia. Ouch. Alton feels that's not fair. Moms. Roll of eyes here.

Wait, why am I on the side of the teenager, here, instead of the parents?

Anyway, Alton's parents are really getting desperate. And Alton is learning bridge instead of badgering his Uncle. Stupid teen, why can they never do as they are told? That's more parental, whew. Yeah, sounds forced, doesn't it?

There is a fascinating backstory which comes out slowly, as slowly as you get to know and like Alton. Plus a twist in the tale towards the end.

What can I say? It grabbed me on page one. I totally blame the book for assault and battery. The worst of it? I might start playing bridge. Help! Mummmmmmeeeeeeee!

Terrorists from different angles

Thriller | Kyle Mills / Stella Rimington | Fade / At Risk

OK, this one is going to be fast, as I've got to write three more (what a nice problem to have!). I'll write about Horizon by Lois McMaster Bujold later this week.

Fade by Kyle Mills is about an ex-Navy SEAL (USA) named Salam Al Fayed. He was named Fade because he could fade into the background, and because nobody in the rest of the team wanted their back to be had by someone named Al Fayed. Somewhere early in the book we get to know that Al Fayed is a second-generation American of Christian Arab parents. That made me wonder if a Muslim Arab in the same situation would not have become a SEAL, or whether some marketing person said the novel wouldn't fly in the market.

Okay, okay, you want to know what happened to Fade. Fade did all kinds of assassination missions for the CIA, until he was finally shot in the back. The bullet lodged near his spine. His best friend, Matt Egan, tried to get him some experimental surgery, which the bureaucracy couldn't process. Bitter, Fade worked for some Columbian drug barons as an enforcer, to get the money to pay for the operation, but by the time the bullet was inoperable.

In terror of falling down dead any day, he starts making furniture (of all things) for a living. Until Matt's new boss in Homeland Security (CIA not happy with Matt, so he has to move) decides to form a new crack team, and decides Fade can be induced to join up by getting threatened with jail time for the drug stuff. Voila: an anonymous tip to the police.

Enter Karen Manning, a SWAT team leader whose boss is convinced that a woman in that position is a big mistake and seems to dedicate his life to running her out or running her down, whichever works when he gets up in the morning.

Karen's team hits Fade's house to arrest him, and he thinks Homeland Security is there to kill him. Uh oh.

Now Fade is on the run, hunted by all, Karen is thrown to the media wolves, well muzzled herself, and Matt and Hillel Strand (the boss) are on Fade's shortlist of people whose lives he must shorten immediately. Karen is trying to protect her reputation, Matt his family, and Hillel his career. Fade is just trying to kill Matt and Strand and then himself.

So they now all try to do the right thing by their own lights, and very different lights these are.

The bad guys get their comeuppance, is all I'm going to say, since you expect that. As to the good guys, they get different kinds of resolution each.

Read and enjoy!

Oh, wait there is At Risk to tell you about, too. I promised terrorists from different angles, didn't I? Stella Rimington's qualifications to tell this story are that she used to be M, the head of MI5. Okay, she was never called M, but the James Bond on-screen boss became a woman around the time Dame Stella became head of MI5 (I'm not 100% sure she is a Dame, but hey, artistic license, and you can google, too, if you try). So that means that you won't get any really stupid bloopers, the type that have real agents rolling on the floor, laughing their heads off.

There are different terrorists, here, not the fake ones of Fade where venal careerists manipulate who gets called a terrorist. The ones in At Risk include a Pakistani-trained import into the UK, and a home grown 'invisible'. Clues creep in to indicate something big is going down. The forces of law and order get unexpected help from a greedy people-runner who thinks the new illegal immigrant can be easily robbed. His lesson otherwise lasts only a millisecond. Now the police are after our friend the terrorist. And the 'invisible' woman. And I always thought you couldn't have a truly silenced gun. Live and learn.

Of course that's not a spoiler! Bah, you can read the back cover.

Now, Liz Carlyle of MI5 and her surprisingly supportive boss (most such books have the protagonist trying to outsmart their boss as well) are trying to track down the villains. Yet the villains are smart, too. And committed. The 'invisible', who grew up a rebellious teen from a broken home, finds her true faith in Islam, converts, and then concludes the world is too bad and needs improvement. OK, she's a Pakistan-trained terrorist, too. (Oh, come on, less of the 'spoiler' howls, this is less than a quarter of the way through the book., and it's not like I told you her name and you went and checked her facebook profile. Sheesh). Step by step, all the people involved go down the paths of their own choices and the destinies they thereby choose.

Liz is 'assisted' by a flashy MI6 compatriot, Bruno Mackay, who fancies himself a romantic seducer, and completely rubs her the wrong way in many head-shaking ways.

And of course, as you might expect, they all conclude the terrorists will attack the wrong target. Last minute breakthroughs mean that England continues to be safe. Yay and all that.

This book is different from most thrillers. There's no shortage of the usual stuff: characterisation, building up motives, and the most obvious of villains (Islamic terrorists have completely supplanted communist Russians). Yet, the story has a steady, relentless pace--no terrific suspense scenes, just a systematic unfolding of the uncovering of the plot. It's not breathless, yet it's not leisurely. You feel for the characters, all of them, even the terrorists. Yet black is never whitened and white is not black. It's got several tropes in it, yet is more than the tropes.

Yes, it could happen this way. It may well have, in many ways. The novel has a real presence that most writers cannot manage. Maybe Frederick Forsyth, but maybe not even him.

I don't think S Rimington will write a whole lot of other novels. She's not a professional novelist, after all. And that's a real shame. I'd read more about Liz Carlyle any day. Or any other agent.

Read and enjoy!

TL;DR: Fade has the better dialogues, and the appallingly cynical look at reality that comes with such a person's background. It has friends, and good guys and bad guys. At Risk lets you feel the mud and sea spray, and you know it could well happen this way in real life. You get not the whole persons, but the slice of their life when this event happened.

And the bad guys lose and all questions are answered. What more do you want?