THIS CENSUS-TAKER by China Miéville

China Miéville is an award-winning author, writing in the ‘weird’ genres – post-apocalyptic, fantasy, fabulism, specultive fiction, and of course, sci-fi.  But sci-fi covers such a broad spectrum these days that it is impossible to use it effectively as a category.

In this novella-length work, we readers are plopped right down in the middle of a world that is ‘after the wars’,  but just where its location is or the exact date or era is not given.  The locale is geographically located on the side of a mountain and its valley town. It features a young boy of 7 who comes running down the mountain into town, screaming because one of his parents has just killed the other.

Since the authorities in the town cannot take action without evidence, they go up the mountain to see for themselves, where they find the father, who shows them a letter purportedly from the mother saying she is leaving, to go back to her own people.  There is no trace of her, nor of any killing.

The boy is sent back to live with his father, a magical key maker.  But the father is also a mentally deranged man who kills animals and people just for the heck of it.  He then tosses the bodies into what seems like a bottomless pit inside a nearby cave.  The boy is sure his father has killed his mother and thrown her body into the pit.

One day, a stranger arrives in the town, a census taker, counting those scattered around the world of his people.  He comes to the remote house on the mountainside, has the boy wait some distance from the house after showing him the location of the pit, and some hours later, takes the boy with him to assist in the census taking.

In a flash-forward, or backward or something, we learn that the boy is now grown and is writing one of three mysterious books he is permitted (?)  forced (?) to write, having spent his years accompanying a census taker.  Who employs this census taker, what institution or what government, is never revealed.  The man now writing seems to be writing in a room that is guarded…..  and whether the guard is permitting no one in or keeping the man from leaving, is also not clear.

Is the census taker really an assassin, traveling world wide to locate and eliminate all those from the land of the boy’s father?  We never really know.

These are not my favorite kind of books.  I like things a little clearer, and a more linear plotline.  I really liked his Embassytown,  which was a more straightforward story.  Experimental literature is not really my thang.  I figure, after you are done experimenting, come see me.

 

THE FALL OF MAN by Rob McLean

A sci if offering somewhat in the style of the 50s and 60s sci if . By that, I mean it is built on the premise that the society is nothing but greed and self-interest, corrupt, with the people of great wealth having gained their wealth through corruption, stealing, and caring nothing for the common people. Their greed is destroying the earth, but they care nothing about this as long as they can continue to fill their pockets.

We are introduced to eight individuals who have become disenchanted with life, and are at some kind of crossroads in their lives. They are each approached by a well dressed, obviously wealthy, man or woman, who say they work for an organization that needs their services for the next two weeks, and will pay that person the equivalent of $50 million dollars. The people are from several different countries and walks of life. they are told their bank account will be credited immediately with several million dollars just for hearing out the person, and a quick check through their phones show that indeed, they now have the money. Without my going into the details of the conversations and money transfers, the eight agree, and leave immediately for California where they will gather and be taken to an undisclosed location. There is a lawyer, a therapist, a writer, a brilliant mathematician, a retired military special ops guy, a priest, a drugged out rock and roll star, and I forget what the other one was.

They are taken to a submersible vehicle, and are told they are going to a station that is 36000 feet deep in the ocean. It is a vast complext, mysterious, but contains a city and and lots of lab area. It even has a 20-some floor subbasement.

They are told they there because a mysterious man claims he has a virus which will destroy the entire population because it is complex on the DNA level, gives the infected person no symptoms, and suddenly, the person will simply drop dead. It has an incubation period of 6 months, so it is impossible to know someone is infected until they actually die. There is no antidote for this.

He says he will not release it if he can be convinced that there is still something worth saving in mankind, and is using these 8 as representatives to talk him out of it.

OK, it is a ridiculous premise, and leads inexorably to that deplorable parade of moralizing, and philosophizing which I truly dislike. I prefer my characters to live their particular belief systems, rather than sermonize about them. So we slog our way through a couple of the interviews with Mr. White, who is being housed in a glass cage, where he has a comfortable chair, a bed desk and chair, etc.

At one point two of the 8 go exploring and discover more subfloors, and eventually the lab people tell them that this is a place where everyone goes when they die. There are two men operating two different virtual reality programs. One is pleasant and the other is basically a virtual reality hell. Where you end up is determined by some big mathematical program which assigns a rating to all your actions during your lifetime.

They are taken on a tour of the two virtual realities, and because hell is so awful, they come away with a different view of things.

Then Mr. White sets up what is simply a version of game theory, pitting the 8 against each other.

It was all very tedious, and if I hadn’t been working on reupholstering an office chair, and listening to the story on the text-to-speech option on my Kindle, I probably would not have finished the book. It has a predictable ending, and two more volumes in the series.

See, this is a good example of why there is chocolate and vanilla. I found it tedious, predictable, and annoyingly moralizing. My sweetie, however, LOVED it. This is why a review can never say a book is bad, or good, etc., but can only say it was good FOR ME, or bad FOR ME. I have read some books that I thought were absolute horrors, and checked out the reviews on Amazon and was amazed to find that people loved them.

So, final analysis:  too heavy handed in the moralizing department, too heavy-handed with the symbolism, and a B+ for the sci fi structure on the bottom of the ocean. and a B+ for the concept of storing brains to produce memories.    This is a trilolgy, and I cannot face slogging through two more of these.

I am not sure in what genre to place this, so I am calling it sci fi/speculative fiction.

THE THIRD POLICEMAN by Flann O’Brien

thethirdpolicemanThis was written in 1940 by Irish writer Flann O’Brien, but was not published until after he died in 1967.  It is what I would call absurdist speculative fiction.  Speculative fiction is a broad category of narrative fiction that includes elements, settings and characters created out of imagination and speculation rather than based on reality and everyday life. It encompasses the genres of science fiction, fantasy, science fantasy, horror, alternative history, and magic realism.   And of course, there is  “suppositional fiction”, which is sometimes used as a sub-category designating fiction in which characters and stories are constrained by an internally consistent world, but not necessarily one defined by any particular genre.

So, yeah, it could be anything.  Publishers need a genre into which they can slot the book so they can market it.  Bookshops need a genre so they can shelve the thing.  But so much wonderful fiction doesn’t really fit neatly into one category or another, but bleeds all over the place,  leaving us Gentle Readers scratching our heads after reading some of this stuff and muttering, “What the flapjacks WAS that thing?”

This story is set in rural Ireland in I suppose what was current time at the date of the writing.  A young man is orphaned while attending boarding school.  Somehow, he loses a leg, and is fitted with a wooden prothesis, none of which has anything to do with the story, but is just part of his description.  A caretaker is on the property which consists of a farm and a tavern.  When the young man graduates, he comes home to find the farm in deplorable condition, and the tavern not making any money.   He demands redress from the lazy and obviously thieving caretaker, but the man gives many excuses for why the place is in the state it is in, and promises to set it all to rights in a few months.  Months turn into more months, and the caretaker  tells the young man that what is needed is an infusion of money.   But where to get it?

The caretaker, Divney, muses on the fact that a miserly old man lives alone just down the road, and is reported to have a great deal of money hidden in his house. So Divney and the young man, whose name we never learn, plan to ambush him at night,  and then go to the house to steal the money.  This they do, with Divney whacking the old man comatose, and our protagonist giving him the final blow with a shovel.  They then bury the body.

When they go to the house to search for the money, Divney tells the kid he will wait outside while the kid does the search.  While bending over a floorboard,  the kid suffers a severe blow.  When he regains consciousness, he sees a figure sitting in a chair in the dark house.  EEEK.  It is the old man they had killed.  WTF?

They have a conversation, the kid tells Joe Mathers, the dead guy, he is looking for the box of money.  Joe suggests they go to the local police for assistance, and off they go.

On their way, they meet a character who directs them to the police barracks.

As I came round the bend of the road an extraordinary spectacle was presented to me.  About a hundred yards away on the left-hand side was a house which astonished me.  It looked as it if were painted like an advertisement on a board on the roadside and indeed very poorly painted.  It looked completely false and unconvincing.  It did not seem to have any depth of breadth and looked as if it would not deceive a child. …. my gaze faltered about the thing uncomprehendlingly as if at least one of the customary dimensions was missing.

As the strange object began to acquire more dimensionality, Joe (who could not be seen by anyone) and our boy entered, to be greeted by a large policeman.

He had white enameled teeth which came, I had no doubt, from Manchester, two rows of them arranged in the interior of his mouth and when he smiled it was a fine sight to see, like Delph on a neat country dresser.

The policeman asks if they have come about a bicycle, and from here on, any semblance to normality ceases, although our boy constantly tries to adjust his thinking.

There is a great concern about bicycles, one policeman has made a series of nesting boxes, which become infinitely small, and cannot be seen with the naked eye.    One policeman claims that when one rides a bicycle for many years, the person becomes one with the bicycle, and the bicycle becomes part human.  You can tell a human who has become his bicycle by the way he stands propped against a wall on one elbow, and if not propped up, falls down.

Each day the police go to a secret place hidden deep in the earth to regulate the machinery which has to do with omnium, the fundamental energy of the universe.  This vast place exists where time stands still, or almost so.

Somehow our boy is accused of a crime and is sentenced to hang.  He manages to escape, goes to his home to find his old caretaker, Divney, now, 16 years later, married with children.  Divney can see the narrator, although the others cannot, and he has a heart attack from the shock. He shouts that our boy was supposed to be dead, for the black box was not filled with money but a bomb and it exploded when he reached for it. The young man leaves Divney on the floor, apparently dying.

He leaves for the police station and is joined on the road by Divney.  The approach to the barracks is in the same words as the first time, the story having circled back on itself.   And we now know, if we hadn’t guessed already, that our boy is dead, and that all that has occurred has happened in the afterlife.

A funny look at physics

Everything is composed of small particles of itself and they are flying around in concentric circles and arcs and segments and innumerable other geometrical figures too numerous to mention collectively, never standing still or resting but spinning away and darting hither and thither and back again, all the time on the go.  These diminutive gentlemen are called atoms.

Now take a sheep.  What is a sheep only millions of little bits of sheepness whirling around and doing intricate convolutions inside the sheep?  What else is it but that?

One of the side plots is how our young man wishes to write the definite critique of de Selby, a philosopher with bizarre ideas.  The book is written in the first person, so our narrator inserts quotes from de Selby from time to time, and in his musings on the efforts of de Selby to prove one esoteric point or another, even gives us footnotes that refer to de Selby’s greatest work.

At one point, after escaping from the police barracks, he sees a light on in Mather’s house, crawls through a window and finds himself between the walls, where the third policeman, heretofore never seen, has set up an office in the extremely narrow confines.   If you have seen Being John Malkovich, you will have some idea of what this entails.

It is absurdist lit, without I am sure, having that intention.  It was written mostly to have a laugh, and it is that, but since it toys with our notions of time, death, souls, the essence of bicycles,  matter, and boundaries,  it is so much more than just a giggle.

 

 

 

CEMETERY PLANET by J. Joseph Wright

cemetery planetYou want a little fun in your sci fi? Of course you do. Who doesn’t. And here we have a whole planet full of dead bodies. What could be more fun than that?

Harvey Crane is the caretaker on a planet full of graves and mausoleums. In fact

he was the lone inhabitant in the food court structure built to hold at least a thousand people, with a visitor center, souvenir and snack shops, several mausoleum levels, a nondenominational temple, a space elevator, and vacuum tube train lines circumnavigating the planet.

Here’s the deal. With billions on Earth dying, where oh where can we put them? Stack them up like firewood? No. Of course not. Now if it were me running the show, I would have required cremation for all, damn the pollution from the burning, but no, this bunch decides that shouldering the expense of building a high tech funeral parlor on some far away planet is the way to go.

Mourners by the hundreds used to flock to the planet to pay their respects. Heck, they had holographic displays wherein the deceased would appear at the grave with a message for the loved ones. How cool is that? But almost no one came anymore. Not for 50 years or so. So DeepSix, the holding company, now had only one caretaker a tour, each tour lasting a year.

Harvey Crane was bored. He was not bothered by the isolation or being the only one there, well the only live one there. He played video games and generally was able to amuse himself pretty well. But he got this idea to upgrade an AI with all kinds of features so it was like having a companion. Who seemed to be getting smarter and smarter, and more and more independent.

One evening, Harvey gets a signal from the security system that something is amiss in a far section. So he gets on the train and after quite some time, arrives at the trouble spot, to see a hologram playing. What the deuce? You have to push a button to start them up. And there is no sentient life on this planet, except him. He asks the system computer to scan for sentient life. Nada. Scan for any movement. Nada again. Hmmm, thought Harvey. In all the time he has been on duty, there has never been an incident. OK, maybe the mechanism is on the fritz, seeing how this place is centuries old. He, being a mechanic, checks it all over, can’t find anything wrong, shrugs his shoulders and goes back to his station and the chess game with his AI.

A few days later, another trouble signal shows. This time to a really far away section, one to which Harvey has to take the planet train. Again, no sign of any problems, except for the hologram playing in which the deceased is ranting about how his heirs are going to receive NOTHING, NOTHING. hahaha.

I bet you are dying to know what is going on, right? (See what I did there?) Well, I am not going to tell you, but rest in peace knowing (I did it again. I can’t help myself) that it is a doozy. One thing I like about sci if and speculative fiction are the creative and unusual ideas, and a planet that serves solely as a burial ground is certainly interesting, you must admit.

HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE by Charles Yu

How to live safelyKind of an odd, quirky novel.  Science fiction, but not quite.  A tale of a relationship between father and son, well, OK, yeah, that.  A musing upon life, liberty, free will, memories, and time. Definitely that.

I snagged this book mainly on the basis of the title, without delving much into the plot, because I thought, hey, sci fi, how to live in a sci fi universe.  But although there are plenty of sci fi elements — we have time travel, space, and lots of nifty gadgetry,  a closer reading of the title reveals it to be a science fictional universe.  I confess to having a bit of a problem understanding just what was going on.

The basic story is this:  the father of a young boy — our protagonist — is an engineer, and is working on inventing a time travel machine.  Then spends the rest of his life trying to get it to work.  He finally does, and one evening, he just disappears, never to be seen again.

The son then spends his life trying to find his father.  A large corporation has bought up the rights to the machine and has gotten it to work.   Our boy gets a job as a time repairman.  He travels in a TM-31, and tells us that

transport through some amount of space-time  is a physical process.  Even if it has metaphysical and fictional implications, it is still a physical process.  Time travel takes time.

It is well established within the field of diegetic engineering that a science fictional space must have an energy density at least equal to the unit average level of a Dirac box, multiplied by pi.

He travels around, fixing rents in the space time.  People experience these as double vision, hallucinations, etc., and are terribly grateful when he shows up.

Well, turns out the universe where he lives is some kind of alternate universe, one of many.  It is a grammatical universe and that

Weinberg and Takayama each working independently and without any knowledge of the other, set forth the proposition that a universe, in order to sustain the conditions necessary for the development of narrational sustainability, can be no bigger than a certain maximum size.

Yeah, I don’t understand it either.

Well, he gets himself involved in a infinite loop where he sees himself getting out of his TM-31 and himself shoots him, and he rushes past himself to get into the ship, and then becomes involved in this loop thing and decides to write a book that has already been written about what happens to him in the future and that is already happened and the book is already written and…..

He does tell us that when engaging in time travel, you can’t get to the past and change any of it. Then there is a lot of mulling about time, how it is a massive flow, a self-healing substance,  that nostalgia is just an underlying cosmological explanation for Weak but detectable interaction between two neighboring universes that are otherwise not causally connected.  It manifests itself in humans as a feeling of missing a place one has never been, and can never know.

He has a dog which is not real.  In fact, it does not actually exist, except it does.  It travels with him on his repair jobs.

Ed [the dog] sighs.  Dog sighs are some form of distilled truth.  What does he know?  What do dogs know?  Ed sighs like he knows the truth about me and loved me anyway.

Ed wants to see the meson-boson show, so we cross the street and stand outside for a while, watching a replay of the Big Bang.  At the top of the hour, they open a box and every color in the universe comes pouring out, refracted and reflected, bouncing around inside the window display.

If you have come for the plot, it is kind of fragile and disappears from time to time.  But if you have come for the philosophical ruminations, you have come to the right place.

We are all time machines.  We are all perfectly engineered time machines, technologically equipped to allow the inside user, the traveler riding inside each of us, to experience time travel, and loss, and understanding.  We are universal time machines manufactured to the most exacting specifications possible.  Every single one of us.

I think I will leave it at this point.  It is the kind of book you will either like, or hate.  Or something in between.  I am on the ‘like’ side of the equation.  I have gotten comfortable over the decades with not fully understanding things.

MIDNIGHT ROBBER by Nalo Hopkinson

Nalo-Hopkinson_2000_Midnight-Robber-e1341837629858Classified as sci fi, but really, it seems more like fantasy fiction.  No, not even that.  Let’s call it speculative fiction.  Dang.  Now I have to make another new category.  Life is so much easier to pigeonhole if you just stick to crime fiction, thrillers and romance novels.  I know, right?  Like life should be that neat and tidy.  Pffft.

Let me see if I can lay out the basics for you.  It is set in some far future, on another planet to which have traveled several (generation?) ships of people from the Caribbean. We don’t know exactly why.   To have a better life?  Could be.  Anyway, manual labor is now looked down upon, and they rely on A.I.s which connect to them through nanobots or something implanted in their ears when they are babies.  They have a number of robot devices which do the work, however, there are some humans called runners who pull rickshaw type vehicles, and who prefer to live totally without the technology.

Granny Nanny is the quantum computer web that oversees everything and overhears everything ….. but in a benign way, as a way of keeping order and peace.  If someone has done something horrific, such as child abuse, or killing, they are either imprisoned or sent into exile, which is by way of  a device which sends them to Half Way Tree, a prison planet or dimension.

The Nation Worlds does ship them all to New Half-Way Tree, the mirror planet of Toussaint [the planet where Tan-Tan lives] on the next side of a dimension veil.

So is it  a planet or a dimension?  Whatever, this is where  the exiles must make a home by their own two hands and deal with the native inhabitants there, a kind of bird/lizard creature.

The protagonist is Tan-Tan, the daughter of her city’s mayor.  Although he has apparently had a number of women, when his wife cheats on him, he becomes enraged an engages in a duel with his rival, the rules of which are only until one fighter or the other cries enough.  However, he secretly poisons his sword, nicks the guy, who subsequently dies.  He is then sent to prison.  While Tan-Tan is visiting him, she gives him something a runner friend has made which allows him to escape his cell, and grabbing Tan-Tan, he runs through the prison until he comes to the room with the device for exile.  He pulls her in with him, and off they go to the new place.

The second half of the book is all about her struggles on the new planet/dimension or wherever they are, and becomes a kind of coming-of-age story, which gets darker than indicated in the first half of the book.

The entire narrative is told in a kind of Caribbean patois, or Creole, and bless me chile if I know if it is authentic or made up, but it is beautiful and rhythmic, and some reviewers absolutely hated it, but I found it gave a wonderful flavor to the whole story.

Men make things and women magic them.  Is so the world does go, ain’t, doux-doux?

It is an interesting read.  I mean, how often do you find Caribbean-based sci fi?  Not so terribly often, I’m thinking.  So, yeah, total thumbs up, 5 stars, and topped off with a hearty “You go, girl!”