The Kaiju Preservation Society

The Kaiju Preservation Society
By John Scalzi

When one of the frothiest SF writers going decides to write a self-described “pop song” of a novel that’s only “meant to be light and catchy” it’s hard not to hum along. The Kaiju Preservation Society is nothing more than an amusement park ride, but if you’re looking for that kind of a diversion then grab your popcorn and climb aboard.

The fairground in this case is Jurassic Park. A dimensional doorway has opened between Earth and a parallel Earth where the apex predators are nuclear-powered kaiju (the Japanese name for giant monsters like Godzilla). By a series of coincidences Jamie Gray, a food delivery driver, gets a job at one of the extra-dimensional bases that have been set up on kaiju Earth (specifically in the steamy jungles of a parallel Labrador). This is where things start to go south in the best CGI-blockbuster style when an evil corporation tries to get into the kaiju business.

You’re not meant to take any of this seriously, or worry about the sketchy science. This is the fiction equivalent of ear candy. It’s hard to imagine a book as driven by dialogue, and the back-and-forth never lets up its relentless stream of snappy pop-culture references and fast-paced wisecracks. The big action scenes actually come as time-outs. But it’s all good fun.

Bad Actors

Bad Actors
By Ira Nayman

Bad Actors is the second part, or “second pi in the face,” of Ira Nayman’s Multiverse Refugees Trilogy, picking up on the misadventures of those inveterate vaudevillians, the blue-skinned crisis immigrants from Earth Prime 4-6-4-0-8-9 dash Omega.

That said, the dash Omegans, with their exquisite three-piece suits and cult of a trickster god known as the Audi Enz, are less central to the proceedings this time around. So you can expect fewer pies to the face  and less pratfalls. Instead the book takes more the form of a series of sketches – a noir murder investigation, a political satire, a James Bond spoof – separated by “educational interludes.”

But while the dash Omegans aren’t always the main character (Rodney from Good Intentions only features prominently in the first story), their impact is felt throughout. The result is a comic spin on matters topical, philosophical, and otherworldly, dressed up in Nayman’s signature madcap style.

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said
By Philip K. Dick

A messy, dog’s breakfast of a novel, but one that gives us Philip K. Dick at perhaps his most mind-bendingly Dickish. There’s the skeleton of a decent pulp-thriller plot, with a groovy ‘70s vibe, given a mystical overlay that finally resolves into a techno-apocalypse revealing man to be, once again, the plaything of fate.

Celebrity crooner Jason Taverner wakes up one day to find his fame, and indeed everything else about his life, has been erased. This is something that’s hard to imagine happening in post-Second Civil War America, where Black citizens are sterilized, university students wage a guerilla war from underground campuses, and police surveillance is everywhere in what has become a paranoid “betrayal state.” But it seems someone — not Jason — has been experimenting with the multiple-space-inclusion drug KR-3, which has the effect of bending reality.

The fact that the book is about Jason but it’s not his trip is what I find to be the most intriguing thing going on. Jason and his Javert, Felix Buckman, are the two main characters, but they don’t drive the plot. Instead they are flotsam caught up in the druggy fantasy of Buckman’s sister/wife Alys.

Flow My Tears is a novel of tricky depths that I keep getting pulled back into. Dick thought it was about the return of Christ, or about love, but neither explanation clicks for me. Both Taverner and Buckman remain dislikeable and unredeemed: the former a sleazy member of a genetic overclass and the latter a corrupt, self-absorbed official arrogant with bureaucratic power. They are two characters in search of an author, while God lies dead from an overdose on the bathroom floor.

Voices from the Radium Age

Voices from the Radium Age
Ed. by Joshua Glenn

Defining genres and literary periods can be a tricky business. As an example, in this new series from MIT Press Joshua Glenn looks to brand the science fiction written between 1900 and 1935 as the Radium Age, which he sees as an interregnum between the scientific romances of the nineteenth century and the golden age of the American SF pulps that took off in the 1930s.

Whatever you think of the Radium Age as a label, this first volume is a great launch, containing a good mix of stories from some big names (E. M. Forster, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack London, W. E. B. Du Bois) and a few that should be better known (Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, William Hope Hodgson and Neil R. Jones). The nature of the Radium Age, and whether these works can or should be read as proto-SF or something else, is a matter fans can debate. But even if you’re just looking for old-school adventure mixed with still trenchant social allegory this is a line-up full of winners. The rest of the series promises to be a just as big a treat, and with cover designs by Guelph artist Seth they’re nice to look at too.

The Young H. G. Wells: Changing the World

The Young H. G. Wells: Changing the World
By Claire Tomalin

Herbert George Wells may not have been the father of science fiction, but he was probably its single most influential practitioner, inventing types of stories that have gone on to become standards of the genre, from time travel to alien invasion. It’s also noteworthy that he did this in just a decade’s flurry of activity, from 1895 to 1905, before gradually moving on to other interests like politics and writing a history of the world.

A creative run that lasts for about ten years is typical of most authors, and veteran biographer Claire Tomalin has wisely written a short book focusing on this hyper-productive period in Wells’s life, which was fueled by his passion for sex, socialism and science (in that order). It’s better to give us Wells at his most vital and just skim over the long decline that followed.

Battle of the Linguist Mages

Battle of the Linguist Mages
By Scotto Moore

One of the hottest subgenres in SF today is what might be called videogame fiction. These books can be thought of as the children of Ready Player One (though there were earlier standard-bearers) and are addressed to a gamer culture that now drives a big chunk of the entertainment industry.

Battle of the Linguist Mages is videogame fiction taken to a weird extreme. Isobel Bailie is at the top of the leader boards of a popular virtual-reality game called Sparkle Dungeon. There’s more to Sparkle Dungeon than rainbows and glitter though, and as the novel kicks off the company that makes the game gets Isobel involved in a real-world plan to exploit morphemes: words that have magical power based on how they are articulated. Also worth noting: punctuation marks are aliens that have escaped into our brains from another dimension.

All of this has the effect, common to most videogame fiction, of erasing the line between the real and virtual worlds. Unfortunately it also requires a lot of exposition, and for all its flights of whimsy Battle of the Linguist Mages comes in feeling heavier than it should. Videogame fiction is a light genre and you don’t want to spend this much time reading the rule books.

A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange
By Anthony Burgess

Few things date as quickly as teen speech and fashion, but the outrageousness of Anthony Burgess’s dystopian satire of the state of England in 1962 (by most accounts a rather glum place), especially when combined with Stanley Kubrick’s rendering of the same, make A Clockwork Orange nearly as fresh today as it must have been sixty years ago. Where Burgess’s made-up Nadsat still has a fierce intelligence and energy to it, Valspeak, for anyone who still remembers that, just seems stupid.

What has always impressed me the most about the book though is the humble narrator Alex’s presentation as someone who is both glib and charming but also thick as a brick. He fancies himself the leader of his gang of droogs, but even the hulking Dim manages to stay a step ahead of him all the time. Then there’s his surprise at figuring out that those aren’t vitamins he’s being injected with, and that the political do-gooders don’t have his own best interests at heart. Oh, to be so wicked and so naïve. Not a good combination, especially given what I think is the book’s most important political statement: that everyone is authoritarian in an authoritarian state.

The specter of a clockwork humanity was something Burgess thought “too didactic to be artistic,” an assessment that might also be leveled at the novel’s Sixties bunkmate One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, published the same year. Randle Patrick McMurphy and Alex are birds of a feather, free spirits broken by the system. In America, however, being anti-authority had less of a dark side. The Merry Pranksters weren’t raping and killing people (though Murphy does have statutory rape on his rap sheet). In England young people might have been seen as a more direct threat to the public. Or at least to the sad old codgers who use the biblio as a kind of senior center. Because Alex has a passion for classical music, but reading isn’t his thing. And that’s probably for the best.

How High We Go in the Dark

How High We Go in the Dark
By Sequoia Nagamatsu

A collection of linked short stories dealing with the effects of an “Arctic plague” of alien origin released by melting Siberian permafrost might seem very timely in 2022. This makes it all the more remarkable that How High We Go in the Dark was mostly completed before 2020 and the outbreak of COVID.

The actual working of the plague — which causes organs to start copying the function of other organs, with predictably disastrous results — aren’t as important as its human impact. These are stories (calling it a novel seems more about marketing) that deal with the subject of grief and loss, especially as felt by parents and their children. Broader considerations also come in to play, however, as the pandemic impacts on both a personal and political level. The funerary industry, for example, becomes a major growth sector almost overnight. It turns out that mass die-offs are good for some parts of the economy.

In the face of so much death, science throws up various surrogates for lost loved ones and family members: talking pigs, robot dogs, and even plasticized corpses. Given the subject matter, Sequoia Nagamatsu has to occasionally walk a fine line to avoid falling into sentiment. That he does so is a tribute to his imaginative range and how finely he explores the psychological ramifications of the end of our world.

Mickey7

Mickey7
By Edward Ashton

In Mickey7, I’ll get to the title in just a bit, Mickey Barnes, a young man with little in the way of employment opportunities who is also on the run from debt collectors, signs up in a state of desperation for a mission to colonize a new planet. Alas, the only job he can get is that of “Immortal,” which is a euphemism for “Expendable.”

What Immortal means is that Mickey is the colony’s disposable man. Since flesh is cheaper and easier to recycle than robotics, the job of an Expendable is whatever dangerous or downright suicidal stuff needs to be done. When (not if) he gets killed his consciousness is reloaded into a clone body pulled from a vat of protein paste. All so that he can be killed again.

It’s a silly but effective premise, and Edward Ashton has a lot of fun with it in this lively SF action-comedy. Things kick off with the seventh iteration of Mickey being prematurely declared dead, thus leading to Mickeys 7 and 8 having to hide the mistake of there now being two Mickeys, as duplicate Expendables are against the rules. Meanwhile, the colony is under threat from killer bugs called “creepers.” But then, just as with Mickey, all is not what it seems.