Worst Books I Read in 2014 – Book List

I didn’t publish a list of my worst books last year, because I had such a good year for reading that it didn’t seem fair to consign so many 2-star books to a list of terrible books. This year has been pretty good too, but I think I’ve managed to scrap together just enough bad books to make a list. However, keep in mind that for the majority of books on this list, they are not that bad—just among the worst I read in the year.

Reviews

10. Mammoth Book Of Short Science Fiction Novels

by Isaac Asimov

Mammoth Book Of Short Science Fiction Novels cover image
ISBN:
9780948164224
Format:
Paperback, 574 pages
Published:
Robinson Publishing, 1986

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I picked this up while nosing around an antique shop. My copy is battered: its front cover is torn and disfigured; its spine is bent into a sadistic and perilous curve; its pages are bloated and distorted from what I can only guess is water damage. If it weren’t such a thick book, I’d have scoffed at the £2 I paid for it.

As it is, there is something familiar about The Mammoth Book of Short Science Fiction Novels. I feel like I’ve read some of these stories before—and maybe I have, since their inclusion in this anthology is doubtless because Isaac Asimov and the other editors felt the stories are good examples of the genre. So, I plucked my way through them, one or two at a time, reading other books as I went. Some have their own entries on Goodreads, and so I’ve posted separate reviews (they are novellas, for the most part, so I feel like they count as individual books read):

Individally, few of these stories stand out as being of high quality, in my opinion. Yet many of their authors are regarded as visionaries in the genre. Many of these stories—Who Goes There?, Enemy Mine (which, to be fair, actually was that good)—have served as inspiration for later works and adaptations. It’s part of the paradox of speculative fiction that a lot of its “greatest” or more influential works are also, in some subjective senses, just not that good.

Indeed, as its panel of editors and all-but-one male selection of authors might indicate, this anthology is a snapshot of only a corner of the science fiction community—a large, vocal corner, perhaps, but certainly not a corner representative of the wider community. The stories are actually more interesting in this format, presented together rather than read separately, for how their similarities in style and tone reflect the tastes and tendencies of an industry that was, by and large, quite male-dominated. Asimov explains in his introduction:

They differ in subject matter, in style, in everything you can think of but quality. They are all skillfully written, cleverly constructed stories, with ingenious ideas, as you will have to admit, even if one or two of them should happen, for one reason or another, not to be entirely to your liking.

I’m not as convinced as he is about the uniformity of quality, but I will have to admit that they are all cleverly constructed and full of interesting ideas. Science fiction is the genre for Big Ideas, and this book definitely showcases how the novella form can put such ideas to good use. In this respect, Asimov is completely accurate in his assertion.

His introduction is actually one of the best parts of this collection and rather deserves a review of its own. It is one of the reasons I feel like I’ve seen this collection or something similar in the past, because Asimov begins, in typical Asimovian fashion, with an itemized, categorical list of the different types of fiction by word length, from short-short story to novel. (Interestingly, he pegs a novella as being “30,000 to 50,000 words” and then a novel as “70,000 words and up”. I can only assume that, back in the 1980s, nobody ever wrote fiction between 50,001 and 69,999 words. That would just be silly.)

Asimov provides a brief insight into the way the science-fiction publishing industry evolved out of the pulp magazine, which naturally preferred short stories—novels were serialized. Novellas existed in a state of fragile equilibrium, for they were usually small enough to publish in one instalment, but they would take up the space of several short stories, which was a big risk for the publisher.

I belong to a generation that does not have these problems. We live in an age of plenty. Thanks to the Web and digital media, it is literally possible to publishe every single story one would like to publish, regardless of space constraints. (It’s not possible to read all such stories, of course, and so there is a curation factor involved in selecting and bundling them into things like ezines—but that’s another topic.) And it is ridiculously easy for me to get a hold of all but the most obscure books: I have libraries, bookstores, online retailers, all of whom are happy to find me the books I want.

So it’s hard for me to imagine the excitement that, as a youth, Asimov must have felt when he paid over his 25 cents (or however much such things cost back in the day) for a copy of the latest magazine. It’s hard for me to imagine the feeling of camaraderie that existed among science-fiction readers of the early and middle twentieth-century. (These days, we live double lives, treading the fine line where science fiction has become mainstream, but only in specific, commercializable ways.) The Mammoth Book of Short Science Fiction Novels seems very much a celebration of the ingenuity brought to bear by people who feel like they were casting words out into the world that might not be picked up and read at all, such was the tenuous nature of writing and of science fiction as a genre….

For all this sense of underground romance, though, I don’t regret missing out on the Golden Age or New Wave eras of science fiction. In fact, I feel very lucky to be alive right now. This is an exciting time for science fiction and fantasy. There is a diversity of voices and ideas in the field like we have never seen before. And I’m not just talking about the presence of women writers, writers of colour, queer or trans writers … I’m talking about the existence of a wider, more fluid and dynamic conversation happening within the public sphere. While a back-and-forth among authors has always existed, its public nature only extended as far as letters and interviews and convention conversations. Now, thanks to the Web, to blogs and Twitter and Facebook, these conversations increasingly default to “public”.

For a reader and fan like me, it’s very interesting to see the author engage in conversation about their works, and other works, with other authors and with fans. Sometimes the conversations get too personal, devolve into attacks on character that become far too heated for civilized discussion. We’re still far from perfect. The recent controversy surrounding the Hugo nominations is a case in point. Yet even these public disagreements are telling. Each time someone says, “No, I will not be silenced,” science fiction becomes stronger for it. The types of conversations we are having about books—about postgender representation in SF, the relevance of biopunk stories to our current global warming crisis, the ups and downs of the Singularity subgenre—are changing. I’m just very interested to see how they shape the next decades of science fiction storytelling.

In contrast, The Mammoth Book of Short Science Fiction Novels is an artifact from a bygone era. Its stories are “Big Idea”, yes, but they are also steeped in the tropes and prejudices of their time. With a few exceptions—as noted in my review—they tend to concentrate on the “gee wow” confluence of technology and social change, but their explorations of such problems isn’t always as deft or as sensitive to questions of diversity and personhood as we might like.

For hardcore science fiction fans who like reading historical science fiction and examining how it relates to the context of the genre, there is every reason to read this book. For the casual fan, there is less of interest. Although the stories remain thought-provoking, they are also very dated. There is much better science fiction, from all sorts of authors, that has since hit the shelves, and your time is probably better spent elsewhere. I hear that there is a Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women anthology coming out this year….

Anyway, here are my reviews for the stories not listed separately on Goodreads, in the order in which they appeared in the collection.

For I am a Jealous People, by Larry Niven

One of the obstacles I need to confront as I work through The Mammoth Book of Short Science Fiction Novels is the changing expectations by which we judge shorter fiction. In the past, if these stories are any indication, even the barest glimmer of a good idea, if competently executed, gets lauded as brilliant science fiction. Nowadays I suspect that most of these stories would have trouble finding a publisher, if only because “they’ve been done before.” That is to say, most rely on a gimmick or twist of some kind that is supposed to make them unique, rather than on their merits as a story.

For I am a Jealous People! seems to fit this description. It is a prototypical entry into the “God is real, and He’s pissed” subgenre of science fiction. Since this genre’s focus on scientific accuracy as the backdrop of its storytelling typically puts it at odds with religion, the “God is real” twist is a very enticing prospect for a writer. Many use it to good effect, but usually because they are a little more subtle than Lester del Rey seems to be here. In particular, my favourite would be Arthur C. Clarke’s short story in which a Jewish priest ends up on an expedition to a supernova remnant that corresponds to the star of Bethlehem—only to discover that the supernova, and hence God, destroyed a burgeoning civilization.

In contrast, this novella asks the reverse: what if humanity is no longer God’s favoured creation, but another species is? Del Rey hits on an important theme here, because for centuries various peoples have been slaughtering each other in the name of God. There are three Abrahamic religions alone that tend to insist each is the “chosen” religion, and at various times, infidels have been everything from tolerated with open arms to ostracized to pursued and killed for their beliefs. So, as easy as it might be to think that God would just wipe us all out if we lost his favour, there’s plenty of historical precedent for one group killing another out of such beliefs. It’s not that far-fetched, therefore, to extend the idea to aliens on a galactic crusade to destroy all infidels in the name of God—who happens to be our God.

Del Rey favours splashy revelations and dramatic fight scenes over examining this concept critically. Reverend Amos is very quick to accept that the vision he has is genuinely from his God, and not some kind of deception. His crisis of faith doesn’t last all that long. And the bluster that he channels at the very end is just very … American, in the “America is God’s nation on Earth, and if God doesn’t like that, he can go to hell” sort of way.

So, For I am a Jealous People! is not a diamond, nor even a diamond in the rough. It’s more like some particularly shiny quartz: it’s pretty, and it could power a watch, but it’s also not that rare or special.

The Mortal and the Monster, by Gordon R. Dickson

This was really quite enjoyable. I haven’t read any of Gordon R. Dickson’s work in ages, and I really should. He just has such a delightful style of description and scenery building. The Mortal and the Monster is science fiction in its most fanciful, speculative mode: the Loch Ness monster isn’t just real; it’s an entire family of plesiosaur-like creatures stranded there since the last ice age. Once a plentiful species, they are, as far as they know, the last surviving four members, and they protect a precious clutch of eggs that may provide one or two more hatchlings.

When a diver gets too close to the clutch, one of the creatures—First Uncle—cuts his line. But the most inquisitive of the creatures, Youngest, saves the man by dragging him into a submarine cave. She warms him with her body until he recovers, and eventually, they enter into a dialogue—well, a dialogue as best they can, considering she communicates through “signalling” and he through strange sounds. In doing all this, she breaks most of the taboos of the Family about having contact with human beings, whom the Family recognizes as intelligent and therefore dangerous.

I love the culture that Dickson creates for the Family. They are the last survivors of a once-proud species. Their history and traditions are preserved through oral legends, which provide not just a connection to the past but also valuable knowledge about protecting eggs, childrearing, even the myth that a Father from another Family once crossed the ice from Loch Morar to Loch Ness. Dickson creates a credible case for these creatures as intelligent beings who have had the misfortune to be cut off from the sea for millennia.

Each of the creatures has their own personality. First Uncle can take action when necessary but is too canny for rash action. Youngest, contrastedly, has not yet developed such wisdom—though, over the course of the story, she matures noticeably as she considers the consequences of each action she takes. First Mother is old, maybe even ancient. She is wise, and patient. Second Mother tends to be anxious … her priority is her clutch of eggs, for which she has the primary responsibility. She desperately wants the clutch to survive and as many eggs to hatch successfully as possible. The future of the Family depends on it.

The main tension in the story comes from the interactions between Youngest and the diver. One wonders what the diver will do when the Youngest helps him return to the surface. Yet I feel like Dickson misses a few opportunities to at least mention some important considerations about the way the Family lives in Loch Ness. They are desperate to increase their numbers … but surely they cannot increase their numbers too much? To do so would guarantee discovery at some point; also, the Loch simply can’t support more than a certain number of such creatures, if Youngest’s appetite is any indication. I suppose that the mortality rate is high enough to make such considerations academic at this juncture, but it’s an intriguing thought.

Overall, Dickson crafts a really cool story from a cool premise. Its central characters are nonhuman but nevertheless three-dimensional and believable. It carries with it the qualities of a fairytale or a fantastic myth, yet it is grounded within the realms of speculative science. The Mortal and the Monster is one of the stories in this volume that holds up the best over time, and I suspect it will continue to do so for a while yet.

In the Western Tradition, by Phyllis Eisenstein

I love reading about history, so I can only imagine what it would be like to watch history unfold. Of course, time travel is difficult and poses all sorts of logistical and ethical problems … but what about time viewing? In the Western Tradition posits the invention of the Bubble, technology that allows us to watch past events cinematically but not affect them in any way. Phyllis Eisenstein uses this single novum to tell a story that is otherwise very grounded.

Barry and Allison are Bubble operators, highly prized for their skill at using the Bubble to locate and follow people of historical interest. They are also in a relationship. But when Allison’s latest project involves studying the life of Wyatt Earp with a client, she becomes obsessed with Earp’s protege Jimmy Logan. She begins dressing in Western-style clothing, becomes withdrawn and sullen, and eventually ends her relationship with Barry. Poor Barry is at a loss as to why Allison is behaving this way, and he goes through any number of increasingly desperate and paranoid scenarios as he tries to comprehend the situation.

Aside from the Bubble, and some ancillary technology like wall-based holograms, there is very little in this story that screams "science fiction." It would be possible to tell it without these elements. Allison could just be a history professor who becomes obsessed with Logan. Yet it wouldn’t have the same impact. Eisenstein is interested in exploring the connection that we feel when we can see people from the past, especially when we can observe moments that live down through history. This is probably easier to understand if one considers the effect of television on history. In the twentieth century, for the first time, we became able to record events and watch them again with perfect fidelity. Until then, we only had eyewitness accounts (unreliable) or audio recordings (not the same as actually seeing the event unfold). From coronations to assassinations, shuttle launches to sports games, we have the forerunner of the Bubble right now. These events captivate us, and sometimes they turn into obsessions.

Allison’s obsession is tragic because of how abruptly it seems to cordon her off from real life. She just cuts ties with Barry, switching shifts so that they are out of sync, barely acknowledging his existence even though they live in the same apartment. To be honest, I found the abruptness a little hard to believe. I would have liked to see her become more subtly withdrawn. But maybe that’s just me and my personal preferences in pacing. When it comes to the actual sequence of events, Eisenstein portrays a very believable transition from warm, loving partner to distant, distracted ex-partner.

The story isn’t all about Allison’s obsession, though. It’s also about how Barry deals with Allison’s obsession. Told from his point of view, In the Western Tradition is the story of how Barry discovers Allison’s problem and tries to help her, only to end up hurting her more. I wondered while I was reading whether he could have affected the outcome of the situation. If he had given her more space, accepted her changes and just let her obsession run its course, would it have helped? Or would it have led to even more serious disaster.

The downer ending is a sad reminder that, sometimes, it doesn’t matter how hard we try or how well-meaning we are: it’s just not enough. Sometimes relationships break down, and they cannot be fixed. People change as a result of their experiences, positive and negative, and it’s not always easy to predict those changes.

In the Western Tradition is not a very overt science fiction story. It’s underwhelming, but I still think it’s quite powerful and interesting.

The Alley Man, by Philip José Farmer

Philip José Farmer is a science fiction icon whose work I’m not very familiar with. I’ve managed to read To Your Scattered Bodies Go, and that’s about it. Even so, this is not something I regret overly much. Though his ideas are indubitably intriguing, his style isn’t my favourite, and The Alley Man only confirms this personal judgement.

Farmer depicts the conflicted relationship between a man, known only as Old Man Paley, who passes himself off as the last of the Neanderthals, and Dorothy, an impressionable sociology student from a well-to-do family. Dorothy is quite impressed by Paley’s claim and wants to investigate it by hanging around him more often, much to the chagrin of Paley’s companions. They—quite rightly—see Dorothy as coming from a completely different world, one that isn’t suited to interacting with Paley, and fear that this intrusion will lead only to ruin.

On one level, I can appreciate what The Alley Man attempts to do. It provides social commentary on the class structure in the United States, which has the dubious privilege of being both more and less visible than it is in other countries. Dorothy is not just a university student but clearly one from a “nice” background. She has led a relatively sheltered life. Paley and his companions, on the other hand, are much lower on the totem pole. They eke out an existence on Paley’s ramshackle salvage business, which involves a lot of poking around junkyards and rubbish heaps. Paley’s nonconformity—whether through birth defects or true genetic heritage as a Neanderthal—marks him out as different, underscoring the hesitation or outright rejection that society often reserves for difference.

Farmer gloriously shows the misunderstandings and tragedy that ensues as Dorothy attempts to see the world through Paley’s eyes and determine whether he is crazy or sincere. As he does so, he constructs a mythology for Paley, who calls himself “Real Folk” and regular humans “False Folk.” It’s a bizarre and informal mythology about the Old Guy in the Sky, a religion of obscure rites and unflattering headgear. It fascinates Dorothy, who by this point is not exactly the impartial observer she should be.

On a structural level, then, I can really appreciate this story. But I still didn’t like it. Farmer’s unique cadence for Paley makes the dialogue harder to understand than it should be. Dorothy is wide-eyed and naive at first, and despite being an ostensible protagonist, she doesn’t seem to develop all that much. The other two characters are also pretty forgettable. I suppose the measure of your mileage here is whether you can immerse yourself into the microcosm that Farmer creates. I can see the effort he has put into its construction, but it doesn’t quite captivate me.

The Sellers of the Dream, by John Jakes

I can’t say that I’ve liked every story in The Mammoth Book of Short Science Fiction, but this might be the first one I despise on a critical and visceral level. The Sellers of Dreams lacks much in the way of finesse, but worse, it’s a paradigm case of the chauvinistic, masculine-focused type of stories that dominated the science fiction adventure magazines in previous decades.

John Jakes presents a world virtually ruled by corporations that “compete” against each other while colluding in secret to drum up business. Everyone is a consumer; it is a patriotic duty to buy things, and that means every year one must replace everything: furniture, car, and even your girl’s personality. That’s right. Both of the top companies sell new personalities for women, and if you want to stay popular, you better make sure your woman is this year’s model. Only this year, one of the companies has gone a step further and introduced complete physical makeovers. And the cordial espionage agent sent to steal their plans discovers that the prototype model is none other than his old flame, so he sets off on a daring mission to rescue her and take down the unjust system.

It’s a shame this story is so bad, because it could be so good. It has all the ingredients of a paranoid corporate-espionage thriller in the vein of William Gibson’s more recent stuff—and this was written in the 1960s, mind you, but the threats of mounting consumerism that it explores seem no less relevant today. Of course, Gibson still manages to write such stories with competent women characters too, rather than the flimsy damsel in distress who shows up here.

Finian belongs to what I call the “good ol’ boy” school of sci-fi hero, in the “good ol’ boy” school of storytelling. He is dashing, handsome, and clever. His antagonists are likewise dashing, handsome, and clever (though never quite so much as he), and they treat him with a sense of affable camaraderie, as if in a different life they could be brothers. But of course, they aren’t: Finian, for whatever reason, sees the light and is always right and has to stand up for his beliefs, no matter what the cost to himself or other people.

So Finian goes off on this adventure to take down the companies he used to work for and rescue Dolly. Nothing wrong with this so far, aside from the damsel aspect. But Jakes plays the whole “women as objects” trope straight, without a hint of irony or subversion to be seen. Finian isn’t upset that these companies are reprogramming or refurbishing women—no, he’s upset only because they happen to be doing it to his woman. Never mind the fact that Dolly signed up for the job in the first place; being a woman, she can’t be trusted to make her own decisions, and Finian has to rescue her from exploitation and make sure that she conforms to his ideals of a perfect woman rather than the company’s. It’s six of one, half a dozen of the other.

Jakes obviously just has a big gap here in his understanding of gender roles. He’s using the companies’ abuse of Dolly as an example of the extremes to which rampant consumerism has driven people. It is, essentially, the logical and most chilling end to the “we are selling you a better you” model of advertising. In more nuanced hands, this could have been a really intriguing, thought-provoking look at how capitalism reinforces and manipulates gender roles. (Earlier in the story, as the company Finian has infiltrated announces its new personality/physique lineup, the spokesperson explains that they are still working on breaking into the “male obsolescence” demographic—that is, Jakes implies that these companies would market personality changes to men too, which is refreshing. But he doesn’t take this any further, and in general the book remains staunchly a macho adventure.)

Googling “the sellers of dreams” and “john jakes” together reveals that this story has lapsed into deserved obscurity. Aside from another review of this anthology, The Sellers of Dreams seems to have faded from our collective consciousness. And that’s probably for the best.

In the Problem Pit, by Frederik Pohl

This is a story that I would have loved to love, if you know what I mean. The idea of recruiting a mixture of volunteers and draftees into an intimate underground think tank for an indeterminate period of time is clever and cool and provides an excellent premise for a short story. Alas, Frederik Pohl then tramples all over it by making sure it’s executed in the most boring way possible.

I am always suspicious of short fiction that introduces a cast of more than seven. Either many of them are due to die shortly, or else there is inevitably a terribly boring and lengthy list of the cast. Pohl resorts to the second option, providing the “files” on the people recruited to the problem pit group. My problem is that the majority of these people just aren’t interesting, and I don’t care about them. This is the most boring and laziest method of introducing people: it does absolutely nothing to advance the plot; the only effect it has is to make my eyes glaze over.

Once Pohl finishes putting me to sleep, he kicks the story into … middle gear? In the Problem Pit is clearly supposed to be psychological science fiction. The solutions these characters dream up in response to their own problems, personal or social in scale, are supposed to mirror the way their time confined to these caves and their interactions with each other help them grow and change. To some extent, Pohl is successful at the broad strokes of this: many of the main characters appear to achieve some kind of resolution. But it never coheres into a clear and purposeful structure. There are too many dissonant subplots, too much noise within my signal, for me to enjoy the overall story.

Creative Commons BY-NC License

9. Blood and Iron

by Jon Sprunk

Blood and Iron cover image
ISBN:
9781616148935
Format:
Paperback, 428 pages
Published:
Pyr, 2014

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Blood and Iron, not to be confused with the urban fantasy novel of the same name by Elizabeth Bear, is the first entry in a trilogy by Jon Sprunk about fantasy nations at war. Our hero is Horace, a shipwright and carpenter stranded on the shores of a hostile empire, at their mercy, who suddenly finds out he can do magic. What ensues in the slow self-destruction of the capital city of this kingdom within the empire while Horace stands around making amazed noises at it all.

Horace is essentially an Idiot Protagonist (TVTropes), so your mileage is going to vary quite a bit here. He goes from being a prisoner to a magic-wielding-but-still-clueless leader of the Queen’s guard in about a hundred and fifty pages. If this rise to power isn’t unbelievable enough, all this happens without Horace taking any initiative. Instead, he just reacts to everyone else manipulating him like the pawn that he is. From Mulcibar to Byleth to Alyra, all the supporting characters push and prod Horace into the few actions he actually takes on his own.

Although there is nothing inherently wrong with having an idiot protagonist, when deployed the way it is here, it gets boring. Fast. I just had nothing invested in Horace. Instead of taking stock of his impossible situation and coming up with a plan, he just waits for things to happen and then hopes for the best. That’s not how a clever, commendable hero should act! Even if their plans don’t work out (and it’s often more entertaining that way) heroes need to make them! Horace learns the language (with surprising speed) but consistently fails to learn much about court politics, assuming instead that he can continue to blunder about and act on his own recognizance without much threat to his life.

Horace not making plans comes to a head along with the climax of the book itself: rather than, you know, making a plan to save the queen and all that, Horace decides to run full tilt at the bad guys and rely on his precarious grasp of his magical ability. The result is a series of interlinked scenes in which Horace continually pummels people with magic. There is no brinksmanship, no intrigue involved, just a straight-up no-holds-barred magical firefight. And while this might be appealing to some people, it once again left me feeling cold and unsatisfied.

Then there’s the fact that Horace seems to have no distinguishing characteristics other than being a brooding foreign carpenter who suddenly can do magic—yet the only two women in the book of note are immediately, hopelessly fascinated by him. Horace is not fascinating. Horace is a dolt who once built ships and now does magic with the finesse of someone trying to embroider a throw pillow using a fencing sword. Now, in the disgustingly chauvinistic types of fantasy books of yore that Blood and Iron unfortunately seems to be trying to emulate, the women all swoon over the hero because he actually is, you know, heroic. Not because he is the designated hero of the story.

Let me tick off a few more clichés while we’re at it. Evil priesthood? Check. Slave revolution? Check. (Actually, I was extremely confused by Jirom’s entire subplot, and I had no clue what was going on for most of it.) Embattled queen forced into marriage with a charmless ape? Check.

By no means do I want to suggest that Blood and Iron simply retreads the same, old grooves in fantasy without much to show for it. There are certainly some commendable aspects. Sprunk includes a pair of gay characters in an offhanded manner and in a way that makes it seem like no one else considers it a big deal (and I think that they might be the first to get a romantic kiss as well). The magic system is interesting. Sprunk clearly has it worked out, but he doesn’t dump too much exposition on us, and I admit he has piqued my curiosity. (I just wish that it weren’t used as a sledgehammer in the climax.) Although the two supporting women were indeed pressed in service as Horace’s admirers, they are also fairly three-dimensional characters in their own right, with problems and desires of their own. Byleth reminds me a lot of Elizabeth I; Alyra is an interesting albeit not very competent spy with a believable backstory.

One last quibble, and one which has absolutely nothing to do with Sprunk’s writing: my edition has absurdly huge headers consisting of the title on the verso and Sprunk’s name on the recto. I’m used to headers and footers being in a much smaller font size than the body text. These were larger and darker type, in all-capitals, and very distracting. It’s a shame, because the large-format trade paperback is otherwise extremely nice to read.

Blood and Iron is not a stunning new work of fantasy. I’m not really interested in reading the next book in this series. But it’s also not a bad book. It leans a little too much on the conventions of the genre and seems to think it is more clever than it actually is. But I can see how other readers might find it more to their liking. So while I won’t recommend it, it is nice to know there are other options out there.

8. Earth

by David Brin

Earth cover image
ISBN:
9780307573407
Format:
eBook, 704 pages
Published:
Spectra, 2009

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

The Large Hadron Collider is doing pretty well this early into its life. It has already produced compelling evidence for the existence of a Higgs boson. And it hasn’t produced a microscopic black hole that would sink into the centre of the Earth and devour us all. Yet.

David Brin wrote Earth around the same time I was born, long before the LHC was being built and its doomsayers were crying disaster. Even then, however, the idea of experimental physics creating a world-swallowing black hole was a potent one. At first, it seems like the black hole present in Earth is a sign of the ultimate hubris of humanity … yet as the story develops, it becomes apparent that perhaps the black hole is an interloper sent by others who aren’t happy about having new neighbours.

This sense of layers of revelation is typical, both of Brin in general and Earth specifically. In style, Earth is quite similar to the other works of Brin’s that I’ve read, particularly the Uplift trilogy. Since it is set closer to the present day—2038, a mere fifty years in the future from the time Brin was writing—it also has much in common with the hard SF thrillers written by authors like Ben Bova and Greg Bear. The main characters are, by and large, scientists, intensely passionate about their work and dedicated to ideals like “scientific inquiry” and “truth”. The antagonists are authoritarian or anarchical in their allegiances, out to preserve the old order or tear it down at all costs, with both sides looking to the latest and greatest in scientific discoveries to give them the edge.

So to distinguish it from other such books, Brin sets Earth in a near future where global warming has occurred slightly faster than most scientists have predicted. In this version of 2038, humanity is still paralyzed by a dependence on fossil fuels. Coastal regions are losing ground to the ocean even as inland areas find desertification has become a pressing issue. Though information technology abounds, obsession with the role of secrecy in last century’s ecological disasters has reduced an individual’s privacy. And sometime in the first decade of the twenty-first century (i.e., five to ten years ago, for those of us in 2014), the world declares war against Switzerland in a bloody-almost-nuclear debacle.

There is a lot to process here. Certainly Brin deserves credit for such an intricate and detailled vision of the future. As he explains in his afterword, he isn’t going for accuracy—which would be foolish because it is almost impossible—just plausibility. Each of the attributes of his 2038 is a consequence of the trends he observed in 1989, coupled with some creative speculation about what kinds of surprises might happen along the way. It has been a while since I read a book that so confidently and cleverly lays out the near-future— Nexus tries very hard but doesn’t quite make me believe, and Rainbows End increasingly feels like allegory rather than an attempt at extrapolation. So, in this sense, Earth is a very interesting work of science fiction.

It’s quite interesting to compare Brin’s vision of 2038 with our actual 2014, what with hindsight being what it is. Keeping in mind that he’s writing three years before the World Wide Web, but in 2038 the Net is ubiquitous and quite recognizable to readers in 2014. He predicts that we’ll have trouble advancing the space program beyond low-Earth orbit, despite the potential gains if we can tap asteroids for all their yummy resources. He speculates how the search for Earth-like planets will progress (or not).

The main plot, with a black hole threatening to devour the planet, seems like something out of the tabloids from a year or two ago. Again, Brin is slightly ahead of his time with this “prediction”. And if the LHC is any indication, then who knows? Perhaps by 2038 we will indeed be playing with black holes as a possible source of power. As far as black holes go as a threat in Earth, I like how Brin develops the tension very slowly. This is a planetary-scale disaster, but Alex and his companions manage to keep it under wraps for most of the book. They don’t go running to the media or initiate a full-scale panic. (Of course, when it does get out, the consequences are disastrous.)

Unfortunately, like much of the hard SF of that era, Earth spends a little too much time navel-gazing. Brin once again follows several different characters, many of whom never meet up yet whose experiences provide the reader with a slightly different perspective on the plot. They are also a way for Brin to explore his 2038 future, in addition to the somewhat random infodumps that he includes at the end of every chapter. Alas, I feel like some of these characters and story arcs could have been eliminated without adversely affecting the story too much.

Similarly, while Brin’s characters all come across as earnest, they can also be very flat. The antagonists are two-dimensional in their single-mindedness, and this effect is only amplified by Brin’s tendency to tell rather than show. This is particularly evident when it comes to the relationship between Daisy and her daughter, Claire. It’s not enough that we see the way Daisy neglects her daughter and her house. No, Brin has to remind us, and show us Daisy’s own thoughts, to emphasize that, yes, Daisy has lost the plot.

Sometimes I felt in danger of losing the plot myself a few times. Earth is just a little ponderous for what should be a sleek, high-stakes thriller. Brin spends the first three-quarters establishing the setting, characters, and stakes. And then in the last quarter, he introduces twists that seem to come from nowhere. Specifically, I’m ambivalent about Jen’s fate and Pedro’s possible true identity. In both cases, these twists make a certain amount of sense—and I hate admitting that, because they also feel like bad storytelling. Jen is literally a deus ex machina, while Pedro’s twist just seems like one more complication we don’t need if Brin isn’t going to explore it in more detail—and, this being the denouement, there is no time for such things.

As a result, the ending is somewhat messy and disorganized after a long, slow lead-in. Earth is a bundle of interesting ideas, clever predictions, and stock characters involved in a doomsday scenario. I’m surprised, in fact, that SyFy hasn’t optioned it for one of its awful TV movies yet. (The book isn’t as bad as a SyFy original movie, but it has all the ingredients to make such a movie.)

Reading Earth has been an interesting experience in an anthropological sense. It’s not what I would call essential Brin, though. I really enjoyed the Uplift series, in which Brin has the space to develop his ideas on a much grander scale. (Though, as with the conclusion here, the conclusion to that series seems to include one-too-many new ideas that weren’t really mentioned earlier.) If, like me, you come across Earth and are in need of a new book to read, then you could do much worse. I can’t muster too much enthusiasm, however, for books that are brimming with good ideas yet in need of so much refinement. Once again Brin demonstrates his strengths in big ideas and his weaknesses in creating connections in people to make those ideas matter.

7. The Butcher of Khardov

by Dan Wells

The Butcher of Khardov cover image
ISBN:
Format:
eBook, None pages
Published:
Skull Island eXpeditions; First edition, 2013

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

This is something I probably never would have read had it not been nominated for a Hugo Award. I generally eschew tie-in fiction—I have enough fiction set in original worlds to read. The Butcher of Khardov is set in the world of Warmachine, which Wikipedia reliably informs me is a “tabletop steampunk wargame.” So, Dungeons & Dragons on steroids.

The cover art and illustrations scattered throughout the story reinforce this perception. Orsus Zoktavir is a big—really big—and strong—really strong—man—a manly man!—with a serious psychological scar after losing the love of his life in the village of his childhood. Dan Wells tells Orsus’ story thematically, out of chronological order, as Orsus wrestles with the concept of loyalty at various points in his life. From witnessing the death of his parents at the hands of the cannibalistic Tharn raiders to working as the muscle for a logging baron, Orsus sees his fair share of death and fighting. And he proves to be really, really good at it. But the woman he loves declares herself unable to be with a killer. So what is a dude to do?

The story culminates through two parallel climaxes. Although it becomes apparent early on that Orsus loses his way after he loses Lola, we have to wait until the very end to witness the actual event. Years later, having joined the Khadoran Army and formalized his talents as a warcaster and controller of warmachines known as “steamjacks,” Orsus loses control and butchers an entire village for “treason” (hence the name of the novella). This earns him a tense, heavily-fortified conversation with the Queen of Khador, in which she questions Orsus’ motivations and he has a chance to explain how fucked up his ideas about loyalty, morality, and just action have become since losing his parents, girlfriend, and basically any sense of normal human empathy.

I will give it this: The Butcher of Khardov inspired me to consider why we give fantasy warriors so much of our love and allegiance despite the fact that they are essentially sociopaths with big swords. The only sane character in this story is Lola, who is 100% correct when she points out that killing people is, you know, wrong. But we write big fat blank cheques when fantasy warriors do it, far more than we are willing to do for characters in any other setting. Somewhere along the way, the narrative of the fantasy warrior shifted from the hulking image of self-absorbed Conan to the noble, smokey-eyed Aragorn or Legolas; the antihero became just a straight-up hero.

In a way, Wells is stripping away all of this pretty packaging and getting back to basics: Orsus likes to kill, and he is good at it. He admits this freely. He just so happens to also want to remain loyal to a cause bigger than himself. These ingredients are the perfect recipe for an effective warrior, but that first one—liking to kill—is one we tend to ignore. We like to pretend that our nobler, almost Disney-fied warriors of these modern days are somehow reluctant killers. They kill “in self-defense” or “to protect” their loved ones. And we can debate the ethical justification for killing, for any reason, as much as we like. I’m just wondering why we are so willing to label as heroic such killers….

So, that’s the thought-provoking aspect of The Butcher of Khardov, and I will give it that. Everything else about it is just ridiculous, though. Over-the-top hulking brutes who need six steam-powered soldiers guarding them? And the ending, with the Queen essentially letting Orsus go free because “Oh, well, you did it to show your loyalty to me!” is repugnant. (Then again, I guess if you are the ruler of a country at war, you need to do repugnant things once in a while, and she recognizes Orsus as a valuable weapon, albeit one that is likely going to come at the cost of a few more villages here and there.) This is a brutal, almost grisly story—perfect as a companion to a brutal and grisly tabletop wargame. But my projection of my philosophical hang-ups about hypermasculine warrior worship in fantasy literature onto it aside, I’m not sure what else this story has going for it.

6. God Stalk

by P.C. Hodgell

God Stalk  cover image
ISBN:
9780425060797
Format:
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published:
Berkley, 1983

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

So, God Stalk is the first book in a series by P.C. Hodgell that seems to have a cult following but otherwise is shrouded in obscurity. I can’t remember where I first saw it mentioned, but it sounded interesting. I read the omnibus edition of the first two books.

It seems like God Stalk is a book that provokes one of two reactions: either one loves its rich, evocative characters and environment, or one hates the confusing and vague style of writing that leaves one constantly feeling like one is missing important chunks of the story. Alas, I fall into the latter camp. As much as I can recognize the imagination behind this book, I found reading it more of a chore than anything resembling pleasure—and unlike many books that are, perhaps rightfully, chore-like in their reading, this one did not reward me with much in the way of substantive, thought-provoking themes.

There is so much going on here that it’s difficult to examine the book without slipping into summary mode. I’ll restrict myself to two things: Tai-tastigon and the Kencyrath. In these Hodgell creates some of the best examples of a fantasy city and a fantasy culture that I’ve seen in a while.

Tai-tastigon is the city in which Jame finds herself after she stumbles out of Perimal Darkling and flees the Haunted Lands. She falls in with the owners/inhabitants of a local tavern, the House of the Luck-Bringers. Eventually she becomes a thief, which is a paradoxical position for a Kencyr who values honour above all things. But even thieving in Tai-tastigon isn’t straightforward. There’s a complex system of guilds and guilt to make it all work, just as there are formalized systems for having guild wars and trade wars and religious wars while keeping the city largely intact and functional.

Fantasy cities are hard to do right without slipping into medieval tropes, and Hodgell does a good job here. Tai-tastigon is fantastic enough that it shouldn’t really exist—it’s a cosmopolitan mish-mash of temples to all sorts of gods and a maze of streets that would never work in reality. Yet this very liveliness is an important part of the plot; it’s what allows Jame, as an outsider, to make such a distinctive mark on the life of the city.

Jame is a Kencyr, one of a group of three peoples who are not indigenous to the world of Rathillien. The Kencyrath came to this world from a parallel one, fleeing the expansion of Perimal Darkling. Jame believes herself at first to be Kendar, a warrior, but gradually recovers memories that reveal her to be a Highborn—a different caste entirely. And as she remembers more of her life within Perimal Darkling, Jame wonders whether she is on the right path. She believes she should reunite with her long-lost twin brother, bring him a book and a sword she recovered from the dark—but the more she learns about what has happened on Rathillien, the less she likes it. So she spends God Stalk living in Tai-tastigon, taking in the local culture, and learning to be a thief.

Hodgell’s attempts to juxtapose Jame’s Kencyr honour and honesty with her newfound apprenticeship didn’t work for me. This is just one example of an uneasy balance between humour and deadly self-righteous seriousness (on Jame’s part) that makes God Stalk difficult to enjoy. Every time I think I’m just about to sink into the culture of the city and enjoy the absurdity of it, Jame lapses into another one of her serious moments where she meditates upon the seriousness of all the serious things that are going to happen. Seriously.

I can see why other people laud this book for its depth and detail. Yet these are the reasons it doesn’t hold much appeal for me. There is too much detail, to the point where I regularly found myself getting lost and having to re-read page-by-page because I thought I had missed something (I hadn’t). In this respect the narrative resembles something like Dhalgren in its confusing tendency to introduce twist after twist without much in the way of foreshadowing or warning.

God Stalk is incredibly clever and definitely original. It’s a shame it’s so obscure. But I don’t feel all that enriched for having unearthed a copy and taken the time to read it. Though I went on to trudge through The Dark of the Moon, I’m ambivalent about investing any additional time in this series. For ongoing stories like Jame’s, it’s all about the characters—and I just don’t feel like spending much time with these ones.

5. The Prince Of Mist

by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Prince Of Mist  cover image
ISBN:
9780297856429
Format:
Hardcover, 202 pages
Published:
Weidenfield & Nicolson, 2010

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I saw this on a library shelf and fell prey to their assertion that, having read The Shadow of the Wind , I should read this too. Blair’s review is spot-on when she says “the story begins promisingly” but then “the book soon begins to get quite silly and more and more plot holes and unanswered questions pop up”. The Prince of Mist suffers from being, ultimately, a story without a heart. Carlos Ruiz Zafón tries to create characters for the reader to care about, but the central conflict and antagonist are so nebulous and ill-defined that the story ultimately languishes in the liminal space between sinister childhood mystery and cautious fairy tale.

Max Carver’s family relocates to the oceanside to avoid the worst of the Second World War. They move into a house that stands out for its troubled history, and Max meets Roland, who likes to dive around a shipwreck with its own grisly story. Max finds nearby a garden of statues of circus performers—which would be creepy by itself, but the symbol on the gates of the garden is the same as the one on the sunken ship. Soon, Max and his sister and Roland find themselves in the middle of a fight against an old and powerful foe who is not willing to die.

It’s a terrifying, almost invigorating prospect. And Ruiz Zafón does almost nothing with it. Cain’s origins are never explored; he remains little more than a bogeyman with a good backstory. The end of the book, which involves a sacrifice so that everyone else can escape, passes so quickly, and without enough explanation, that the sacrifice lacks the significance it should have. I’m not averse to stories with dark or tragic endings, but they need to earn it.

Then there’s the incredibly contrived and unbelievable way in which Max’s parents leave him and Alicia alone for days on end. Max’s younger sister, Irina, falls down the stairs and enters a coma; so, his parents accompany her into town to the hospital, where they stay by her side, occasionally phoning Max and Alicia to check up on them. Um, what? Last time I checked, there are two of them. Couldn’t they take turns in shifts sitting by Irina and taking care of two thirds of their children? But no, instead they leave Max and Alicia alone to undergo this strange adventure all by themselves. Again, I’m not averse to the need to get the parents out of the way in this type of story so that the young protagonists can face evil on their own. But when it’s done in such an unbelievable manner, it pulls me out of the story.

The Prince of Mist is definitely more fantastical and magical in terms of content than either of Ruiz Zafón’s novels for adults that I’ve read. Yet those novels are by far superior and by far more magical works of literature. That this is Ruiz Zafón’s first published novel does not surprise me, but it doesn’t leave me inclined to be any more charitable to it.

Though its length precludes it wasting one’s time overly much, I still don’t recommend it. The Shadow of the Wind and others are definitely worth a try, but The Prince of Mist has very little to offer a reader, be they younger or older.

4. The Philosopher's Apprentice

by James K. Morrow

The Philosopher's Apprentice cover image
ISBN:
9780297853435
Format:
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published:
George Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2008

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

What is this I don’t even.

Argh, my brain hurts. Where did it all start going so wrong? Was it when the sexually ambiguous cadre of private female shock troops seized the recreation of the Titanic in order to force its first-class passengers to toil at menial labour in an effort to rehabilitate them? Or was it earlier than that, when the ludicrously one-dimensional antagonists unleash a clone army of aborted foetuses on unsuspecting would-be parents? Or maybe even earlier, when a lone philosopher discovers that his tutee is in fact a sociopathic clone of his employer?

The Philosopher’s Apprentice is just … odd. And not good odd, like Christopher Moore or Nick Harkaway or Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. All of those authors’ writing has something in common with James Morrow’s slightly absurdist deconstruction of Western morality … but they manage to create a coherent story while they are being absurd, whereas Morrow seems more interested in sandwiching in yet another layer of plot twists.

Part of me worries that I dislike this book not for its merits (or lack thereof) but because it didn’t turn out to be what I expected. From the description, the premise sounded like an Emile-inspired take on Sophie’s World . I was looking for another romp through the history of Western philosophical thought, this time with a focus on morality and ethics. Instead, Morrow discards this pretence of philosophical discourse fairly early on. Mason discovers Londa’s true nature, and he quickly concludes her moral education so that the rest of the story can happen (if that is, indeed, the correct word for the train wreck that follows).

It’s one thing to write a book steeped in philosophical thought that also stimulates a reader’s own thoughts. Sophie’s World accomplishes this through its overtly didactic tones. Umberto Eco’s numerous novels are similar, with his characters wrestling over philosophical dilemmas that are integral to the plot. Morrow, on the other hand, keeps his philosophical discourse on the surface. The Philosopher’s Apprentice is a volatile headache of intertextual allusions and philosopher name-dropping. And while this is consistent with the idea of Mason’s character—one wouldn’t expect a doctoral candidate in philosophy to explain the nuances of various philosophers when he is narrating his life story—it does the reader no favours. Reading this made me feel like what someone a few decades from now will probably feel when they listen to the pop-culture–laden dialogue of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer: a mixture of annoyance and confusion because they don’t understand the references.

Now, I could get past that if, beneath this surface layer, there were a more compelling story into which I could sink my teeth. Alas, nothing like that seems apparent. Mason reminds me of Michael Youngs from Making History : delusional and self-absorbed, obsessed with achieving his place in academic history through a masterpiece thesis of staggering genius. I don’t really feel sorry for any of the things that happen to Mason, as absurd and undeserved as they might be. I don’t really feel sorry for many of the characters, because they don’t feel like real people.

I want to call The Philosopher’s Apprentice allegorical, because that’s the only way to excuse the naked characterization that happens here. There is no attempt to make any of these characters seem like actual human beings; rather, they are a hodgepodge of caricatures, plot devices, and set pieces. They seem just as lost in this illogical and convoluted tale as we readers are; at least we have the option of leaving the story. Mason and his companions are trapped within the confines of these pages, doomed forever to live out this story over and over. Is Hell perhaps becoming a character trapped in a terrible story?

I just don’t get this book. Maybe I’m not smart enough, not well-read enough or well-studied enough in philosophy, so I don’t deserve to get it. I’m the last person to charge that literature needs to be accessible to be good. But I want to believe that, issues of accessibility aside, the story within this book just isn’t very good. Morrow makes a big deal of the fact that Mason is supposed to be Londa’s conscience, that her actions flow inexorably from an inconsistently developed code of ethics laid over her innately sociopathic mind. As far as I can tell, though, her actions seem arbitrary and driven more by plot than character motivations.

The Philosopher’s Apprentice is a hot mess, but not the kind of hot mess you want in your bedroom. There are far better books that manage to mix philosophy with good story telling—just indulge in a little of The Name of the Rose , Foucault’s Pendulum , or Sophie’s World to see what I mean. I’ll give Morrow credit for some of his ideas here, but it took a lot of effort to eke out much enjoyment from this book.

3. Time Safari

by David Drake

Time Safari cover image
ISBN:
9780671698126
Format:
, 258 pages
Published:
Baen Books, 1989

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I mean, really. It’s called Time Safari. Do I really have to explain it to you? It’s “A Sound of Thunder” but without the butterfly and with more sexual tension.

At some point in the future, the Israeli government has developed time travel. With a margin of error plus or minus 5000 years, it is useless for rewriting the recent past, but hunting expeditions to the Cretaceous provide a useful source of funding for the project. Henry Vickers is an experienced guide with the company. With this latest expedition, however, a jealous manbaby of a husband puts everyone’s lives in jeopardy, stranding them in the Cretaceous.

Actually, now that I write the summary out like that, I could see this becoming a compelling full-length novel. It just needs a subplot set “meanwhile, in the future” with Stern and Dr Galli discussing the various machinations of the time travel institute. And the interactions and motivations of the characters in the hunting expedition could be better explored. Most of the characters are mere stock caricatures pasted into the story because they need to be there. Aside from Vickers and Adrienne Salmes, the characters tend to be shallower than a wading pool at low tide.

Time Safari is action-adventure science fiction at its most lush. Drake doesn’t waste any time with any of that paradox temporal logic bullshit; he ignores the entire question of altering the future by hunting dinosaurs because they are hunting fucking dinosaurs. The plot itself could reasonably be set in a hunting expedition in the present; the time-travel conceit merely allows for an increased sense of isolation and more exotic source of danger. Really it’s about a straw person of an “anything you can do I can do better” woman who married a man who “isn’t man enough for her” and deals with this problem by sleeping with other men, who are presumably manlier and therefore more acceptable. Because strong, capable women only want stronger, more capable manly men, amirite? Actually, maybe the best thing about Time Safari is how Drake demonstrates that a man can try to write capable, three-dimensional characters and still fail spectacularly.

If one ignores the gratingly chauvinistic romance subplot, then what’s left is … well, not much. There is a modicum of pleasure to be had in Drake’s descriptions of hunting dinosaurs. Being neither a hunter nor a gun enthusiast myself, these descriptions did very little for me; your mileage my vary. That being said, Drake does a good job when it comes to the more tense action sequences, such as the showdown between the tyrannosaur and the helicopter.

Depending on the scientific explanations one lobs at the respective stories, Time Safari is still probably more believable than Jurassic Park….

Read as part of The Mammoth Book of Short Science Fiction Novels .

2. The Unincorporated Man

by Dani Kollin

The Unincorporated Man cover image
ISBN:
9781400111725
Format:
Audiobook, 0 pages
Published:
Tantor Media, 2009

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Do you have a brick wall handy? Because hitting your head against that would be a more productive and more enjoyable experience than listening to The Unincorporated Man as an audiobook. This was the only format in which it was available through my library. Audiobooks are not my preferred format for reading. They can definitely be great if you have good material and a good narrator. The narrator here, Todd McLaren, wasn’t bad—but even he couldn’t make this book sound interesting. Even at 2.5x speed it took me a week to get through this, because I did not want to subject myself to yet another sermon. I only finished it because I knew I would enjoy writing this review—call it necessary catharsis—and, yeah, I kind of wanted to see how it ended.

The Kollins’ writing … let’s see, how can I best describe this? Imagine Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein having a dinner party together. (They each brought their own meal because it’s in their enlightened self-interest not to take food from their own mouths to share with another. Little did they know that they would suffer from food poisoning because the unregulated food market cut corners.) Terry Goodkind would be proud of the length of some of the speeches in this book.

Surprisingly it isn’t the philosophy itself that makes The Unincorporated Man so unequiovcally awful. I’m not as libertarian as Justin Cord or, presumably, his authors—but I certainly balk at the idea of personal incorporation. I share Justin’s repugnance at the idea of owning stock in another human being, collecting dividends on their earnings, having a say in where they live. The Kollins chose a great time in which to write and publish this book, because I am one of many people concerned about the way in which corporations exercise their power in our society. Personal incorporation might sound silly right now, but this is a dystopia I could see happening in one of our possible futures. So in this respect, the Kollins have certainly created a credible bogeyman.

But their terrible writing ruins any chances the book has of being compelling science fiction.

I am reminded of For Us, the Living, a Heinlein novel I read in my halcyon youth long before Goodreads. I don’t remember much about it, except that younger!Ben was super-impressed by Heinlein’s economic philosophies that appeared to create a utopian future. I suspect that present!Ben would be less impressed were I to revisit it. Superficially, The Unincorporated Man is strikingly similar: a man wakes up after a few centuries of stasis and discovers a supposedly “better” world with radically different economic policies. He then spends most of the book being lectured by a female companion, who is happy to explain not only the differences but the intricate details of how the systems function and how they came about.

It has been a long time since I’ve seen such a textbook example of terrible exposition. Justin, understandably, has a question about how this brave new world works. His companions don’t deliver the simple, curt answer one might expect. Oh, no. They initiate multi-page Socratic dialogues. Scenes that should be short and sweet play out like first-year university lectures on political science or economic game theory. Every character in this book is incredibly well-versed in the economic underpinnings of their society and willing to spout on about those underpinnings at length to Justin without much prompting whatsoever. The end result is that one can’t get more than a page or so ahead without hearing a lecture about how market forces are superior to government intervention or blah … blah … blah.

Look, the point of a philosophical novel is to edify through the plot and characters, not use them as transparent mouthpieces. Only Sophie’s World can get away with that shit, and that’s because it’s Norwegian and awesome, OK?

The Kollins also make the classic Goodkind mistake of letting their hero make big speeches about how his libertarian views are inherently superior to everyone else’s. Also, this gives him the moral superiority that allows him to ignore explicit threats to his friends and loved ones and shrug off any possibility that they might be harmed because he does whatever the fuck he wants—’cause he’s a libertarian badass, yo. Justin Cord could give Richard Rahl a run for his money with some of these speeches about how it’s tyranny to force an individual to do anything “for the greater good”. So what if Neela or Omad get hurt in the process? At least he has his principles!

Seriously, by the end of the book I was actually hoping Justin would give in and incorporate. I hate the idea of incorporation, but I was starting to feel uncomfortable hanging out with this guy. He strikes me as the sort of person who would let the Joker blow up that boat of refugees just because he doesn’t want to let the Joker impose his will on Justin. (I know Justin explicitly condemns violent acts, but he seems fuzzy about this whole violence through inaction concept.)

Related to this pervasive problem of infodump is the Kollins’ inexcusable abuse of the omniscient narrator to compound the problem with yet another layer of exposition. As a fan of Victorian novels, I’m more used to the omniscient narrator than readers of more modern novels might be. Yet even I was shocked by the heavy-handed way in which the Kollins use their narrator to flesh out characters’ backgrounds, thoughts, and feelings. Much in the same way that a single question from Justin could trigger pages of explanation, a single, unasked question from the reader would somehow prompt the narrator to go on—at length—about history or politics or current events.

The one lesson about writing you must take away from The Unincorporated Man is that less is more. The hard part about writing is not transmitting information to the reader but deciding what information to leave out to make the story work. The Kollins clearly haven’t mastered this yet.

Speaking of narration, can we talk about how, upon introducing a new character, the narrator immediately comments about their appearance? I don’t mean the narrator describes how the character looks; the narrator gives a judgement about the character’s looks and sex appeal. The women are invariably objectified through the male gaze. I question the Kollins’ conviction that cheap and abundant nanotechnology means everyone is going to be young and beautiful—if anything, it seems to me like that’s a recipe for allowing people to “let themselves go,” secure in the knowledge that nanites can fix them up and make them beautiful again at any point. But that’s their choice, of course, and I digress. I just wish they could introduce a woman without talking about how she’s, you know, average-level good looking for that society, but people would totally sleep with her anyway. Thank you, so much, for that crucial information.

I was looking for a book that imagined a future in which corporate capitalism has been taken even further than it has in our world. The Unincorporated Man is such a book. It is also boring, terribly written, and not worth your time.

I leave you with a rare image, because the Robot Devil really does say it best:
Robot Devil says, 'You can't just have your characters announce how they feel! That makes me feel angry!'

1. The Art of Thinking Clearly

by Rolf Dobelli

The Art of Thinking Clearly cover image
ISBN:
9780062273840
Format:
Trade Paperback, 384 pages
Published:
Harper, 2013

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

This book is the dead tree equivalent of a BuzzFeed post. Its title could be “I Got 99 Cognitive Biases But a Psychology Degree Ain’t One.” Or maybe not.

Rolf Dobelli enumerates 99 thinking errors, or cognitive biases, in The Art of Thinking Clearly, dispensing as he does tips for leading a more rational, less error-prone life. Anyone who has done even the least amount of reading in this subject will recognize many of the cognitive biases that Dobelli describes here. Unlike most popular cognitive psychology books, however, this book makes no central argument and does not examine these biases within a larger context. It is literally just a list, with extended descriptions, of the biases. At times, Dobelli occasionally ascribes the bias to some evolutionary origins, and he will quite often cite some interesting experiments conducted by psychologists (he is not, by the way) that revealed or provided insight into the bias in question. In his introduction Dobelli explains that the book began life as a personal list kept for his own benefit, and I can believe that.

Dobelli covers 99 biases in 300 pages, so he can’t spend much time on each bias. Not every bias is as interesting or worthwhile as the next. But from the very beginning, I was frustrated by the brevity of each chapter. Just as I read something that intrigued me, Dobelli shepherded me on to the next bias like some kind of frantic tour guide worried that we won’t have time to see all of the art. Please stay with the tour, no cameras.

I wanted to be mollified by dazzling prose, but I had to settle for somewhat dull attempts at wit. I wanted to be satisfied with lucid, if too concise, explanations of these biases, but I had to settle for somewhat tepid attempts to demonstrate these biases without getting drawn into the bigger discussions of the cognitive and behavioural science that underlies them. Dobelli ties his own hands here, to poor effect.

To be fair, it is clear that Dobelli is well-read in this field. He has done his research (even if the “note on sources” section frustratingly places the sources under headings by the bias name but not the chapter number, and there is nary an endnote to be seen). It’s clear, judging from the number of times he quotes from or references Thinking, Fast and Slow, that he has been heavily influenced by the work of Daniel Kahneman. In fact, one could say that The Art of Thinking Clearly is little more than attempt to distil the biases and only the biases mentioned in Thinking, Fast and Slow and similar such books.

The thing about blog posts like this is that they seldom linger in one’s short- or long-term memories. They are space-filling exercises, attempts to get eyeballs to the page and clicks on ads. It doesn’t work well in book form; I don’t, as a general rule, enjoy books of lists all that much. There are some exceptions for lists compiled and enumerated in a hilarious manner, but that isn’t the case here. Yet with the cognitive biases removed from a larger context and reduced merely to a checklist of errors to avoid, Dobelli robs them of their greater meaning.

So if you’re truly interested in this subject matter, why not just skip The Art of Thinking Clearly and go read Thinking, Fast and Slow? I have. It’s much better than this book and much more informative, and it’s written by an actual psychologist. This book, like the BuzzFeed post it resembles, is a pale imitation of something more meaningful and accomplished. Imitation flowers have their place, but life is too short to waste it on imitation books.