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Book Review: Un Lun Dun by China Mieville

In recent years, young adult fiction has morphed from Fear Street thrillers and gothic romances into books that transcend age. From books like The Hunger Games to The Book Thief, young adult books have attracted the notice of critics and people way too old to be shopping in a section that also peddles Gossip Girl novels.

I myself enjoy the Chaos Walking Trilogy and Leviathon and recommend them to people who like dark science fiction and steam punk, respectively. I also fervently recommend Un Lun Dun by China Mieville. I’ve mentioned Mieville before and he’s one of my favorite writers. He’s a bit tricky to recommend whole-heartedly however. His writing style can swing wildly between the gritty and fantastical, the hyper-descriptive and the dry and monochromatic. Most of his books end with the reader being both depressed and in awe.

Un Lun Dun is less depressing, but just as fantastic as his other works. It’s Mieville playing nice. While there are moments of darkness and despair, for the most part Mieville is not trying to crush all of your hopes and dreams. What he has done, however, is create a fantasy work that is fundamentally about thumbing your nose at convention.

And this isn’t just the theme of the novel, although Mieville is less than subtle about his anger at politicians and the businesses that drive them. The very structure of the novel tweaks the nose of every fantasy trope. Everything from the protagonist to the central quest she embarks on is a big wet raspberry at the cliches of the genre. The hero isn’t what you expect, the villains are monstrous in surprisingly realistic ways, and the world they inhabit is an original and novel place.

This is a good place to start with Mieville, a way to see his extraordinary imagination at work with less of the nightmare-tinged despair of Perdido Street Station.

A billion stars or something.

Dylan Charles

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Book Review: Area 51 by Annie Jacobsen

I’ve never been a fan of the idea that the government is hiding space aliens from us. Partly it’s because the people who espouse this particular brand of paranoia always strike me as two hairs away from batshit insane. Mostly though it’s because I’ve never seen any good evidence for it. I haven’t seen good evidence that any U.F.O. is alien in origin. The locus of most of these theories is the mythical military base Area 51, a place I’ve wanted to know more about, but without having to wade through five-hundred pages of paranoid rambling.

So when I heard that Area 51 was less a book about alien ships and cigarette smoking government agents hording alien corpses in the basement of the White House and more about the actual history of the base, I decided to give it a chance. I was hoping for a grounded, well researched book based on history and not just baseless conjecture and that’s exactly what I got.

Jacobsen does a great job of tying together the multiple points in history that led to the creation of Area 51 and following its role in the American government throughout the years. It’s where the Blackbird and drones were developed. It’s where they reverse engineered the MiG and finally figured out how to beat the Ruskies’ plane. During the later half of the 20th century, Area 51 lurked in the background of history, quietly doing its part. It’s a very levelheaded book. It’s as if Jacobsen wanted to counteract the hysterical paranoid tone that usually surrounds Area 51. She manages to strip a top secret military base of most of its mystique and does it methodically, piece by piece.

Throughout the book, Jacobsen raises several points about the scariness of the lack of government accountability for black ops projects, such as when government scientists nearly blew a hole in our atmosphere with nuclear tests that accomplished nothing scientifically. She acknowledges that the government most certainly does not need to tell the public everything, but that there’s a problem when even the president doesn’t have access to records.

My one problem with the book is toward the very end. After teasing the reader for the entire book with the secret about what really happened at Roswell, she reveals what happened with a flourish of melodramatic camp that is better suited for The X-Files than for what was a very reasoned and grounded book. She talks about secret Soviet plans to undermine the United States, which involves a devil’s pact between Mengele and Stalin. She talks of an anonymous man who speaks in cryptic comments and refuses to reveal everything he knows. It’s such an abrupt departure from the rest of the book that I have trouble believing what she’s saying. The whole chapter feels like she’s inserted herself into a Tom Clancy novel.

Aside from that one brief departure, Area 51 is a great history of the most talked about secret in modern U.S. history and I recommend it to any modern history buffs.

Dylan Charles

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Book Review: The Long Fall by Walter Mosley

Walter Mosley has been one of my favorite writers for a while now. I’ve only read one of his science-fiction novels (The Wave, good read),  but I’ve read a goodly portion of his mysteries. His stories are always uniquely his, even the ones that take place in a cliche-raddled genre like Detective Fiction.

And this is especially true in The Long Fall, the first in a series of books about Leonid McGill. McGill is a New York based private eye and an ex-boxer, so he’s already rife with qualities that make me happy. He’s trying to make up for his less-than-angelic past and stick to the straight ‘n’ narrow. Unfortunately, everyone around him seems hellbent on making sure that doesn’t happen.

While the main mystery is not something that’s going to stick with me past the end, Mosley’s strong point here is the cast of characters and the relationships between them all. Leonid and his son Twill, Leonid and the cop Carson Kittredge, Leonid and the ex-hitman Hush; Leonid and his “friends” frequently steal the spotlight from the mystery.

In fact, this novel seems more like Mosley is setting the stage for Leonid McGill. He’s introducing the characters and elements that will define this world. Which makes me want to read the second (and soon to be released third) novel all the more.

Out of all the characters Mosley has created, none have been quite as likeable or as enjoyable to follow as Leonid McGill and I’m definitely going to continue to follow the series.

Dylan Charles

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Book Review: The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

I thought I would have few problems with this book. There’s little to no reason where I’d be annoyed by a book where I agree with the fundamental, underlying principles of the work. I fully believe that it’s possible to scientifically determine moral values. And look! It’s a book about scientifically determining moral values. We should get along famously.

Except that’s not what ended up happening.

Instead I found myself getting progressively more and more annoyed by the general tone of the entire book. I found myself arguing against what Sam Harris was saying, even when I agreed with him. He has such an insufferable, condescending way of putting things that I didn’t want to agree with him. And if that’s how I reacted, I can’t imagine how much he’d put off people who already disagreed with him. He hasn’t really mastered the persuasive part of the persuasive essay.

Then there’s the fact that by the end, he had strayed so far from the point that I had completely lost interest in what he was talking about. It had devolved into an attack on attempts to reconcile rational scientific thought with religious beliefs and faith. Which wasn’t really the point of the book or, at least, I didn’t think that was the point. I picked up the book so I could learn “how science can determine human values”, not look at a vomited up pile of Sam Harris’s bile.

While I appreciate that he seems to consider himself the lone voice of reason in an increasingly insane world, the man needs to actually talk to people and not rant at them in a thinly veiled attack on his critics.

Dylan Charles

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Book Review: Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

I’ve had a long history with Stephen King’s books. When I was twelve, I read my first King book (It, I chose it because it had a monster hand coming out of a sewer grate) and I wasn’t able to finish it for six months because it scared the shit out of me.

I’ve read (pretty much) everything he’s written since then, so keep that in mind when I say that Full Dark, No Stars is one of the grimmer books he’s written.

As he says in the afterword, the stories are all about people in difficult and trying circumstances and what they have to do to get out of them. There are four novellas, starting with “1922” which opens with a farmer confessing to the murder of his wife and what happens to him and his after the crime’s been committed. The cheerfulness factor maintains at about that level throughout. “Big Driver” is a revenge story, “A Fair Extension” is about a deal with the devil, and “A Good Marriage” asks how well you can truly know the person you’re married to.

And it’s a grimness that I could dig. Both “1922” and “Big Driver” are creepy and entertaining, though it’ll probably be a while before I reread either. And “A Good Marriage” is my favorite King story to come out in a while.

“A Fair Extension” was, for me, the weakest of the lot. It was dark without any real weight behind, feeling more mean for meanness sake than to drive a plot home. And I didn’t get the references to major events and tabloid news stories throughout the story.

Aside from “A Fair Extension”, I really enjoyed the collection. It made me giddy and happy and depressed and creeped out all at once, and I think that’s the best one can expect from good horror.

Dylan Charles

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Book Review: Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds

It’s been a while since I’ve read any new science fiction, meaning anything written in the last twenty years. Usually I just stick with Neal Stephenson, with occasional flirtations with folks like William Gibson and Orson Scott Card. Most of the time though, I stick with the old timers: Bradbury, Asimov, Heinlein, those guys. They’ve got brand name recognition. Delving into science fiction unguided leads to reading stuff, like Island of Fear.

So Chasm City was an unknown for me; I had no expectations about quality. Luckily it turned out to be extremely well-written.

The science fiction that resonates best with me is the kind that uses these fictional worlds to examine humanity. It’s not the tech or the aliens or the newest pop science ideas crammed rudely into the plot: it’s how the author imagines people responding in these strange new worlds.

For Mr. Reynolds, people act, more or less, as they always have. It doesn’t matter that (for the very rich anyway) immortality is a distinct possibility. It doesn’t matter that near-light speed travel is a real thing or that nanotech is commonplace. People are still people and the technology has little to do with it. His cast of characters would fit into any time period, in spite of their genetic modifications or extra long lifespans.

They’re a wide collection of ne’er-do-wells, heartless bastards, desperate poor, cynical optimists and bored aristocrats. Reynold’s future is not exactly hopeful but nor is it apocalyptic. Humanity is surviving, as it always has. The only thing that has changed is the location.

Chasm City also spends a fair amount of time talking about memory and its effect on personality. What truly makes up a person? Are they just the accumulation of their memories or are they more than that? It’s a topic that authors like, say, Philip K. Dick have talked about at length. But Reynolds put together an even more intricate scenario than even Dick, a plot strand that’s almost hard to track at times, which is fine by me.

Everyone has something to hide and everyone has secrets, the main character having the most to hide, even from himself. Figuring out the main character’s past and not quite knowing the main character’s past was done so well and added so much to the general theme of the book, that it didn’t strike me till just now how big of a cliche it is to have a mysterious past.

I’ll be going back to the rest of the series at some point, I think. Mr. Reynolds has shown me that the genre still has more to offer.

Dylan Charles

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Perdido Street Station: A Review

I’m not sure how to talk about Perdido Street Station (written by Mr. China Mieville). It does not want to be carefully tucked into a genre. It resists against it, in fact, violently if necessary.

It’s not quite fantasy, though there are magicks and strange creatures. The magicks are described in half-mystical and half-scientific terms, like 19th century descriptions of faeries.

It’s not really Steam Punk, or at least my limited understanding of “steam punk”. There is steam, yes, as well as clockwork-men and dirigibles and perhaps individuals who may be described as “punk”.

And it’s not science-fiction either, in spite of the aforementioned science. There are cyborgs (clockwork cyborgs), a sunpowered death ray and genetic tamperings.

China Mieville, I imagine, sat down at his desk and then bled out this world, whole and entire, from the local flora and fauna to the political machinations to the afterlife. He stared at it, plucked out a few characters that he had developed a fondness for and then wrote down their stories: Isaac, the self-absorbed and self-important scientist. Lin, the bug-lady artist. Yag, the bird-man, on a quest he won’t be shaken from.

He wove their narratives together, a subtle spider touching their stories and altering the course of things like a mad dancing god.

It’s an almost overwhelming story, with characters that appear and then disappear (or are viciously removed). There are unfinished plots, though the main arc is always touched on in some way. It only feels right that those threads are left unmentioned. Their part in the story is done, so why mention them? They haven’t been forgotten, they’ve been dismissed.

It’s a book that refuses to be encapsulated, just by the simple scope of the world. A rich, teeming, vibrant, disgusting, dirty, horrible little world, filled with petty awful people and terrible deeds and betrayals and insanity. Here, China Mieville has created a whole world and shared only a piece of it with the readers.

Dylan Charles

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