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.

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.

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.

The Island of Doctor Moreau

The Island of Doctor Moreau
By H. G. Wells

The Island of Doctor Moreau is a novel that set up shop in my head as a kid when I purchased the cheap paperback tie-in to the 1977 film version, and it’s gone on to be the work by Wells that I most often return to. It’s so simple in outline and yet so ambiguous.

The narrator, Edward Prendick, is both an upper-class lightweight and the island’s sole survivor. He’s also a paradoxically spiritual materialist, seeking at the end of the book to transcend through science a humanity that now disgusts him. Dr. Moreau, at least in his own estimation, has more of an “artistic turn of mind,” being a sculptor of living flesh who is seeking “to find out the extreme limit of plasticity in a human shape.” He wants to transcend humanity as well, but not for any utilitarian purpose or “intelligible object” (an “unspeakable aimlessness” which is what upsets Prendick the most about his experiments). No, the cruel doctor carelessly and irresponsibly pursues art for art’s sake, and in ways that go far beyond vivisection. He knows a creature’s “mental structure,” including its psychology and morality, can be shaped as well. A humanist Prospero then? A tyrannical Kurtz, much like Kipling’s Dravot or Nuñez in Wells’ own later story “The Country of the Blind”? Or just a colonial loser, another popular character type of the time?

And finally what is the state of nature that everyone, not just the Beast People, is in danger of reverting to? Because the Ipecacuanha is hardly an ideal state, Montgomery dies a miserable, drunken sot, and Prendick’s going native is foreshadowed from his first night on the island, long before he becomes one with the creatures that both sicken and terrify him. It’s hard to read his signing off “in hope and solitude” as anything other than a failed attempt to cheer himself up. He’s looked into the hellish abyss of the Beast People’s shantytown and seen “the whole balance of human life in miniature.” Not our evolutionary past then, but our future.

The Every

The Every
By Dave Eggers

The Every is the sequel to Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel The Circle, with the hegemonic Big Data company known as the Circle rebranding as the Every after having just swallowed Amazon and become an even more bloated, and dangerous, corporate giant.

The plot is very similar to that of the earlier novel, only this time the new recruit on campus, Delaney Wells, is a reverse Mae Holland (the main character in The Circle, who is now CEO of the Every). Delaney has plans to bring the Every down from the inside by developing absurd and threatening apps that (she hopes) people will rebel against.

There seems little chance of that. As Delaney’s co-conspirator points out, no idea for an app can be crazy or evil enough not to become popular. And resistance isn’t just futile but fatal.

Much of the bleak satire is very similar to The Circle, but it’s all on point and the fact that it plays so well is testament to Eggers’ facility with sending up tech culture as well as how target-rich an environment such a culture is. This is a zany, dark, and necessary look at the ongoing construction of our digital prison-house.

Good Intentions

Good Intentions
By Ira Nayman

Good Intentions is the first part, or “first pie in the face,” of the Multiverse Refugees Trilogy, which is set in Ira Nayman’s Multiverse . . . Universe.

This isn’t essential background, since the Multiverse has no end or beginning. It’s more a funhouse that the Multiverse Authority watches over. Things kick off here with an alarm being sounded as one of our spin-off worlds, Earth Prime 4-6-4-0-8-9 dash Omega, is about to implode. A decision is made to try to rescue its inhabitants by bringing them to (our) Earth and setting them up in foster homes.

The star of the show is Rodney Pendleton, a native of 4-6-whatever. Since his home planet is a comic Toontown where the natives protect themselves from falling pianos and safes with an assortment of umbrellas, Rodney is a classic Roger Rabbit figure: three-feet tall, blue-skinned, dressed in a three-piece suit, and never without a magical briefcase (or Sub-atomic Matter Utter Transmogrifier) from which he draws forth an inexhaustible supply of vaudeville props. In particular, pies. I’d say you can imagine the misadventures he gets into, but in fact you probably can’t.

The name of the game here is wordplay. Non-stop, unrestrained, groan-worthy and even sometimes inspired wordplay. Wordplay that one of Rodney’s fellow refugees likens to ice cream . . . and “a successful scronflitzz’ dream.” If you know what that’s like, or even think you know, then you’ll be at home anywhere in the Multiverse.