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Beautiful Blood by Lucius Shepard

July 7, 2014 6 comments

BEAUTIFUL_BLOOD_by_Lucius_Shepard

Beautiful Blood by Lucius Shepard (Subterranean Press, 2014) is, in a word, magnificent! It manages something only rarely seen in these increasingly less intellectual years. It takes a work of fantasy about a dragon named Griaule and contrives to make it about ideas. Under normal circumstances, no doubt even the most hardened fantasy lover would run screaming from the room. But this carries off the entire project with such panache, you can’t help but be enthralled by the chutzpah and emerge applauding at the end.

Way back in “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule” (1984) we were introduced to a large lizard. As a result of combat with an altruistic magician, concerned the dragon was becoming too much of a hazard for local people, the giant beast was, for the most part, frozen into immobility. Proving that humanity is remarkably adaptable, a settlement springs up around this beast in its magically-induced coma. In due course, the settlement becomes a village becomes a town becomes a small city. The few straggling lean-to hovels, develop a life of their own as some buildings extend up the sides and on to the back of the beast. Others become the essential ground-based buildings any group of people need from church to brothel, from militia compound to tax collection vaults. One of those who come to this new spawning ground for humanity is Richard Rosacher. He’s a man who pursues a dream of science and seeks to understand the body so obviously dominating the local landscape. Being a man who likes to work with blood, he pays a local to climb into the mouth of the beast to extract some of the life-giving essence from the beast’s tongue. Unfortunately, through circumstances outside his control, our hero ends up with a substantial amount of this blood injected into him. We spend the rest of the book watching what happens to the man and attempting to distinguish between evidence of determinism and free will.

Lucius Shepard

Lucius Shepard

So let’s get to some of the ideas. Going back to the origin of this enforced sleep, the beast has entered a phase of what we might term physical stasis, i.e. the body is not affected in any significant way by the passage of time. So Richard finds himself experiencing a form of dislocation in time. It seems he lives through the years but only fully inhabits his body at intermittent moments. This is sufficient to accumulate memories of what he has been doing but, only when he surfaces, does he pick up the thread of running the body in real time. At such times, he can receive warning messages in his dreams from contemporary or future individuals who have a “relationship” with Griaule, e.g. as scalehunters. In other words, he becomes a form of sock puppet for the dragon. Even when he’s autonomous, there’s still some doubt as to whether he’s truly free. Assuming the dragon to be a form of god, this may be inevitable since gods always manage to get their prophets to do what they are supposed to do. There’s a parallel model of this state in a child rapist called Frederick. He’s also transformed by Griaule and becomes altogether something more primal. The point of this counterpoint is to show both Richard and Frederick have different kinds of friend who offer guidance or direction, yet both in their own ways end up as forms of marauders.

In turn, this leads on to a consideration of the extent to which the beast should be considered a deity. At an early stage, we see flocks of birds and insects being influenced as they move around or fly close to the surface of the dragon. Even Richard finds he achieves a rather pleasing meditative state at some points on the dragon’s skin. During these times, he feels his mind can make sense of different factual elements in his life. Who’s to say whether he’s integrating these facts into a coherent understanding or telepathically communing with the dragon and listening to its thoughts. No matter who’s doing the thinking, the result is that Richard survives and the dragon’s existence is not threatened in any meaningful way (unless you count the poisoned paint and only the dragon knows whether it’s permitting the slow death to come). It’s therefore not unreasonable to believe the dragon is influencing the people who live on it and, to a lesser extent, around it. When a major physical beast or object can interact with those around it, promoting the interests of those who do its bidding and punishing those who defy it, characterising it as a deity is not unreasonable. Indeed, the otherwise powerful church feels threatened by the presence of the beast and would like nothing better than to dispose of it. Unfortunately, the fallible human beings in charge of the church lack the control over the people to sway them away from dragon worship (which can come with fringe benefits) in favour of conventional beliefs which have less provable benefits in a life hereafter.

In turn, this leads to a meditation on the different forms of leadership and whether it’s ever going to be possible to have a human leader without faults. For these purposes, we’re offered many exemplars. At the apex, we have Breque, an overtly corrupt and not a little incompetent man when it comes to the management of finances. He runs the city forming around the dragon and, amongst other things is responsible for defence. Carlos is the king of the neighbouring state. He lives for and through his people. If there’s a local problem, he jumps on his horse and rides out to solve it. He asks no thanks, only that his people love him. Ah, so he’s a narcissist and while such men can go through a benign phase, they can get a little tricky to manage if they lose confidence the people actually love them. Some of the most interesting debates consider how best to motivate the mass of people into doing what you want. One might develop an opiate for the masses, i.e. leadership through the exploitation of chemical dependence, or another might rule through a primary emotion like love or fear, or someone might seek influence through the interpretation of faith, and so on. Power comes in many forms, whether between individuals in relationships or at wider levels. Curiously, the dragon’s rule (if such it be) is through passivity. This leaves its presence as enigmatic and, of course, that allows people to develop all kinds of superstitions about it. Perhaps that’s the most effective long-term way to control people. To allow them to deceive themselves into doing what you want. Put all this together and Beautiful Blood emerges as the most intelligent work of fantasy published so far this year.

For other reviews of books by Lucius Shepard, see:
The Dragon Griaule
Louisiana Breakdown
The Taborin Scale
Two Trains Running
Vacancy and Ariel

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Cormorant by Chuck Wendig

March 25, 2014 6 comments

TheCormorant-144dpi

In the beginning, so the story goes, we were all free to choose: to apple or not to apple. And, of course, being of a perverse disposition, we chose the latest model from the tree and got kicked out of the Garden. Since then, our track record as a species has been on a steady downward trend as more and more of us make bad decisions and have to live and die with the consequences. Except (there’s always an exception in these stories) some like to rewrite history. The way it goes it that this omniscience thing God has going for Him enabled Him to foresee we would eat the apple otherwise God’s knowledge would be imperfect and we can’t have that blot on the escutcheon of our deity. So, when He put us in there, he already knew we were going to fail the test. He just wanted to rub our noses in knowledge of how sinful we were. So predestination trumps free will. Well perhaps only on the big issues like good person/bad person. Yet even that’s controversial. Omniscience means He already knows whether we’re good or bad, and how we’re always more likely to make the wrong decisions when given the choice. That means some are doomed to perdition from the moment of their birth.

So perhaps the big picture is that we are bound by fate as to how we will end our days, but while living our lives, we have free will on little things like whether to wear a crash helmet while riding a bicycle. Of course, all but one or two individual humans have absolutely no insight into this philosophical conundrum that would have such profound consequences if it turns out God exists. They live their lives according to whatever beliefs and principles seem appropriate. The cautious choose to believe in a deity. The reckless deny it. But what about someone like Miriam Black? The Cormorant by Chuck Wendig (Angry Robot, 2014) sees Miriam caught in a very difficult position. It seems not only that someone knows exactly how her power of foresight works, but also how to use it against her.

Chuck Wendig

Chuck Wendig

For those of you not familiar with this powerful series, Miriam had a serious moment when she was a young woman. There was a tragedy. She might have died. But when she recovered, she discovered she had the power to see when and how people would die. All it takes is a touch, skin to skin, and she knows. In the first two books, she tries to work “within the system”. She may not understand all the rules, but she can at least experiment to see just how strong the shackles of fate can be. However, at the start of this book, she may have crossed a line drawn in the supernatural sand. Having foreseen a man is going to be shot, she follows him in the hours before the due time. She tries to talk him out of going to that particular place to use the cash machine. He, of course, won’t listen. It’s his fate to be shot by a mugger. So Miriam waits close by the machine, and when the mugger appears, she shoots the mugger dead. This is a radical departure. This is not just a minor intervention in the mechanism we call predestination. This is a full-scale monkey wrench thrown into the works. The powers-that-be cannot simply sit back spinning their threads and cutting them off when they think it right. They could be endlessly frustrated by this Miriam. She has to be disciplined in a way ensuring she will no longer interfere. Another figure is brought back from the edge of death. He knew Miriam. He can be persuaded to deal with her. He can be given a power of foresight that will enable him to beat her into submission — assuming that’s what fate has in store for her, of course. You see, that’s the big imponderable in all this. If the notion of free will is correct, then someone like Miriam can work outside the system fate dictates. In the final analysis, she would not be accountable. The only problem is that others around her, perhaps those she may have some feelings for, may not be so lucky. When fate fights back, there’s almost bound to be collateral damage.

Now you would be wrong to read this review as suggesting a philosophical tone for this book. In fact, it’s completely the reverse with a robust use of language and imagery throughout. Wendig is not an author who pulls punches. He’s developing a fine voice for delivering interesting ideas wrapped up in the mantle of violent supernatural horror. This makes him one of the most challenging of all the younger writers. Rather than drawing inspiration from some of the more established tropes and frames, he’s charged off into relatively uncharted territory. Obviously, there have been many who play with the idea that no-one can fight fate, or only The One (chosen or otherwise) can win the battle. Perhaps one of the more subversive books on this theme is Un Lun Dun by China Miéville in which the ostensible Chosen One is killed off early and the side kick has to take over when everyone else gets disheartened. This book breaks with convention through the character of Miriam whose defensive mechanisms make her extremely unsociable. Indeed, she’s arguably an anti-hero. This makes The Cormorant a very successful way of continuing the series and it’s recommended for all who enjoy supernatural books that push the boundaries of taste.

For reviews of other books by Chuck Wendig, see:
Blackbirds
Mockingbird
Unclean Spirits.

Necessary Evil by Ian Tregillis

July 15, 2013 4 comments

Necessary Evil Ian Tregillis

To get any value out of this concluding volume in the Milkweed Triptych, you should have read the first two books in order. I can say without fear of contradiction you will not understand a lot of what happens without knowing what has gone before. Ironically, the same applies to this review. I’m not going to repeat the discussions set out in the first two reviews. I’m going to focus on this book.

In Bitter Seeds, the first book by Ian Tregillis, the question is what the precog has foreseen. The Coldest War answers this question and tell us what she proposes to do about it. This leaves us with Necessary Evil (Tor, 2013) which allows us to watch how her grand design works out. From the outset, we’ve been considering whether any of these alternate timelines is deterministic. The presentation has suggested only one person has free will. Given the breadth and depth of her ability to foresee the future and pick which timeline to follow, the precog has been charting her path through the decades. In a multiverse, every decision point branches, casting off alternate realities but, up to this point, everything has worked out exactly as she has foreseen. Indeed, what she’s achieved is breathtaking. Given the scale of what she wanted to avoid, she’s had to work backwards from the one route to salvation and examine all the decision points to see how she can get there. In so doing, she’s been reviewing a potentially infinite number of alternate histories, seeking out the key moments and identifying the people she needs to influence into acting or not acting. Of course, I could invert this and say her fate was set when she was born. She was always going to arrive at the point representing the end of book two. She merely had the illusion of free will.

This would suggest others might have free will or that no-one ever has free will. But if that were the case, the very idea of a multiverse would be a paradox. If no-one ever has free will, there can be no alternate timelines. There could only be the one timeline that everyone is predestined to follow. This leads me to major problems with the plot. If this book deals with an alternate history timeline, the two people who are sent to this 1940 are from outside this timeline’s cause and effect. What has happened to them in their own timeline remains because it has already happened. It cannot be undone when the cause does not occur in the new timeline. Yet Ian Tregillis wants to play fast and loose with this issue. In this book’s timeline, the man who should survive to send them back in 1963 dies in 1941, yet the older Marsh remains in this timeline. But when the younger Marsh does not suffer the leg injury, the travelling Marsh’s leg is cured. You think that’s bad? Well here comes the nail in the coffin. In this timeline, there are two versions of Marsh but only one precog. If we have an older and a younger Marsh, why do we only have one young precog? What happened to the older version of the precog when being transported back? It’s this lack of attention to the logic of the plot that completely spoils the effect.

Ian Tregillis

Ian Tregillis

So putting that to one side, what are the consequences when the precog is to some extent able to reset the clock? In theory, this new timeline should unfold according to the master plan. The younger version will guide events to avoid the catastrophe she has foreseen in all the other timelines. This timeline will survive. Except, of course, there’s one small change. Up to this point, she’s been the only one with an overview of time. Now there’s a second person and he understands both the strengths and weaknesses of the precog. So he can share the precog’s desire to avoid the looming catastrophe, but not be prepared to pay the same price to achieve it. More importantly he can also work backwards and understand what would need to happen to ensure the safety of those he cares about. Ah, so now we come to the heart of the Triptych. From page one of Bitter Seeds, we’ve been watching how individuals have reacted when they learn the price to pay to get the results they want. At a national level, governments at war cannot be concerned about the individual. They are fighting for the majority of their citizens and if that means sacrificing the few, that’s a price worth paying. At the other end of the scale, the individual wants to survive but may be prepared to sacrifice him or herself if the price is right. So a loving father might sacrifice himself to save his child, a spy threatened with capture might commit suicide to avoid betraying his country.

Of course, this is talking about sacrifice in physical terms but individuals may also sacrifice their principles if that’s necessary to save themselves or others. Hence, the title of the book. History shows us that some people have fought with honour, maintaining their personal integrity and protecting the reputation of their country for fair play. History also shows how often those who play fair are beaten by those who ignore the rules of chivalry and play to win regardless of the cost. It’s been a sad theme to see how often the honest are surprised by the extent of the dishonesty around them and how easily that dishonesty can strike them down. So an individual who recognises the full extent of all the risks may well be put to the choice. When there are dishonourable options, will the decider pick the least evil or do what’s necessary to win?

You’ll have to read the book to see how it works out but, as you might expect, it’s not clear cut. When we all know exactly what price has to be paid for ultimate success, there’s a certain degree of irony in how the final element of the price is collected. Perhaps that’s how fate actually works. If there’s a sine qua non and several people are aware of it, it doesn’t matter who fulfills the condition so long as the precondition is met, i.e. the necessary evil occurs.

This leaves me with an issue I referred to in the first review but it grows significantly worse in this book. Let’s start with the practicality of life described as Britain in 1940. Early on, our hero from the future needs some local cash so he gets on a bus with some future bank notes in his wallet. The idea that a bus conductor could change a five pound note is absurd. Ignoring the physical difference in the size and colour of the future note which would be spotted immediately, the average annual pay in the UK in 1940 was about £200. So even on the busiest routes, no conductor would collect and keep more than £5 in loose change. That’s 1,200 pennies except the average bus fare around that time was a hapenny (i.e. £5 = 2,800 coins). So the conductor would be weighed down with farthings and hapennies, perhaps some thrupenny bits and sixpences, and the occasional shilling. During quiet times, the conductors used to bag the excess loose coinage and either lock it in a cabinet in the stairwell or give it to the driver for safe keeping in the front cab. Even if this conductor had enough to give change for more than one’s weeks pay, consider how long it would take to count out more than one thousand coins and how much they would weigh. This is symptomatic of a cavalier attitude towards all things British, particularly its language. I know and appreciate that this is a book written by an American for the American market, but it’s aggravating that the vocabulary and vernacular attributed to British and German characters comes out as modern American English. Scattering one or two British colloquialisms does not make this book even remotely realistic. Oh but wait. This is fiction so it doesn’t have to be credible.

I was really looking forward to reading Necessary Evil but the reality has proved a major letdown. Once you set out to write a time travel or multiverse story, there are rules to be followed. This happened in the construction of the first two books. It’s such a shame the rules were mostly thrown away in this concluding volume. If I’d known it was going to be this bad, I would never have paid for my own copy.

For reviews of the first two in the series, see Bitter Seeds and The Coldest War. There’s also a free-standing Something More Than Night

Typical Day by Gary K Wolf

Typical Day

Let joy be unconfined! I waited years and then two satirical books came along together (thinks happily of the same joke applied to buses on the circle route around Birmingham fifty years ago). Having just enjoyed some wonderful short stories in a collection from a Catalan author, I’m back in a future America with Typical Day by Gary K Wolf (Musa Publishing, 2012) an ebook @ $3.99. This future world has seen a remarkable “scientific” advance. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to the world of the LifeMaster. Everyone’s signed up for this remarkable service on birth although they have to wait until thirteen to pick up their cube. When they’re old enough, the cube is slotted into a machine and the day’s game begins.

I have a little piece of software on my Mac that, if I was so inclined, I could use to map out my day, noting appointments and things to do. Well, think of that upgraded by several thousand percent by the ultimate in interactive design. When the game starts off, you’re playing your future day for points with almost all the rest of the population linked together. At every key moment, there are decisions to be made, e.g. on how much time to spend on daily ablutions, what to eat for breakfast, and so on. This affects whether you catch the usual bus to work. Take too long shaving or eat too heavy a breakfast, and your desperate run for the departing transport is in vain. You get the idea. Once the day’s game is over, you check the points. Hopefully, you’re adding to your life savings. Then you go through the day you planned out for yourself in real time. Because all the individual game experiences are slaved together, everyone gets to see his or her day as part of the greater whole. So everyone due to be on the bus sees your feeble run in advance, and they all know what to expect when they look out of the window. It’s a perfect existence for those who enjoy risk taking and play to get ahead. For the more timid, it’s drudgery with low expectations fulfilled. Now suppose an accident destroys the link between man and machine — in this case a lightning strike while he’s at work takes out his pathetic living accommodation and cube. Cast adrift in an unplanned world, how is he to survive when he has no idea what’s supposed to happen next?

Gary Wolf and Jessica but no rabbit in view

Gary Wolf and Jessica but no rabbit in view

Except, of course, the manufacturer has a lifetime guarantee in operation and, within a day, he’s back in an apartment almost identical to the one he’s lost, equipped with a new cube and a machine to put it in. He relaxes. Everything’s going to be alright.

Except, of course, it isn’t.

Or perhaps, it is.

It all depends on your perspective when you play the game of life in default mode, i.e. you make it up as you go along.

I could say all kinds of clever things about free will vs determinism and why cookies taste best when someone makes them for you with tender loving care, but you should already have got my drift. As novellas go, this is a wonderful confection of sly humour and gentle wit all harnessed in service to a nice piece of satire on the way we live our lives. Typical Day is all too short, flashing by with all the speed of a video game in full flow. When you’ve finished it, all you have to do is put what you’ve learned into practice and start racking up those Life points. Satire in action!

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis

December 1, 2012 1 comment

The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis

I’m going to break one of the unwritten rules about reviewing by mentioning a short story I read in the last book. Supposedly you only talk about the immediate book and don’t look back but, in this case, there’s a pleasing coincidence. “The Empress Jingu Fishes” by Kij Johnson* delivers a nicely judged parable about what almost every woman foresees for her life. She will marry a man who will most likely die before her or run off with a younger woman when he tires of her. This will delegate the fairly thankless task of bringing up her son knowing he will leave her as soon as he’s able to pay for his own independence. How can she love a man whom she knows will leave her? How can she care for a child who will abandon her as soon as he possibly can?

If we look to philosophy for help in answering these questions, ontology would have us not only consider whether such a woman exists, but what meaning her existence has. This ignores all accidental and transient attributes like her physical appearance or a state of mind such as love, and focuses on her essential properties, the most important of which is the role of bringing the next generation into being. This defines her identity in its current context. A slightly different and less abstract approach to answering similar questions comes in existentialism. It was Søren Kierkegaard who first suggested that it’s for each individual to give his or her life meaning and Friedrich Nietzsche who introduced the notion of Übermensch, i.e. moving up to society as a whole, the most important goal for humanity is to give meaning to itself by producing new generations of ever more perfect human beings. Of course, some people have interpreted this as a call for a formalised eugenics programme, i.e. you arrive at superbeings by selective breeding. But it’s equally the case that a society can slowly improve itself so that the characteristics we now deem signs of weakness no longer appear. This recognises you cannot breed for perfection of temperament. The nature side of the equation may be determined by genetic factors, but the nurture side encourages the development of intelligence, creativity and the other intellectual and emotional components we think part of the package comprising a superior person. In all this, note that the mother is not the Übermensch. As an individual, she’s no more than one of the many through whom children or grandchildren may become the Übermensch. She’s the means to the end.

Ian Tregillis looking relaxed and warm

Ian Tregillis looking relaxed and warm

The central character in The Coldest War, Volume 2 of the Milkweed Triptych by Ian Tregillis (Tor, 2012) has achieved an unmatched level in the field of of precognition. She has a precisely tuned ability to watch all the future possibilities play out and to see exactly what will happen. She can then be standing in the right place at the right time to give herself the opportunities to get the result she wants. This means she plays a very long game, planning and executing her behaviour to take advantage of the events on to the tracks leading to. . . Well, that’s the big question, isn’t it. In theory, she could be following us into a future in which the Übermensch are born and come to rule us. And who’s to say whether such a future would be good or bad? Even though we might fear what that future might be like, it’s entirely possible that many of the alternatives are far worse. Rule by superior beings may be humanity’s salvation and far better in this alternate history than the stand-off between the British, Russians and the other militarily-inclined nation blocks. So it’s premature to demonise her. We should always wait until her real motives are disclosed.

Indeed, I would go so far as to say most of the other reviews I have read which cast her as the series villain are entirely wrong. These reviewers seem to be assuming that she’s actually in control of humanity’s destiny. This denies the power of determinism. It’s assuming the future can be changed, that she has free will and her exercise of this will directs where the rest of humanity shall go. But, so far, we have not seen any causal determinism at work. All we have seen is a single chain of events from her point of view which has worked in the way she foresaw. Nothing she does necessarily implies she has control over cause and effect. She’s subject to the law of gravity and will always fall if pushed. Similarly, what has gone before determines what will follow and, to that extent, she’s subject to the passage of time. The other reviewers are confusing self-determination with determinism, assuming her motives and desires are somehow translated into reality for everyone else, no matter whether she’s aware of them. This would require her to be godlike and omniscient. So far, there’s no sign of this. But, of course, this excludes the fictional possibility of an eidolon ex machina, that a supernatural agency or Satanism, if you prefer, can have sufficient power to divert the future. Let’s put this another way. Let’s assume the future can’t be changed on this timeline. No matter what anyone does, this is a deterministic world. If that’s the case, you would need a way to cheat the system. And that’s why this book as book two of three is particularly pleasing.

The whole point of science fiction, with or without horror tropes, is that it allows us the opportunity to play with ideas. In particular, time travel stories can explore both the linear and nonlinear ways in which time might move. Although deterministic or multiverse scenarios may be given prominence in each story, they are really just a way of considering what prices we might be prepared to pay for changing outcomes. In Source Code, for example, we have the completely amoral extermination of people in sequential versions of Chicago until just the right combination of circumstances is discovered in which it can be saved. This is wildly contrary to Utilitarianism because the many die so that the few can survive. But that’s the price the developer of the system is prepared to pay. Ian Tregillis is asking a similar question in this trilogy and, in The Coldest War, we see the future to be avoided. This leaves our “hero” with the decision on whether he’s prepared to pay the price to avoid it. At every level and in every way, this is better than Bitter Seeds, the first in the series. But you absolutely cannot read this as a standalone. The way the plot fits together is like a finely crafted mechanism and you cannot understand the real significance of where we finish up in this book unless you started on page 1 of the first. Some of it is wonderfully coldblooded but, when you look back, you can see why it was absolutely necessary. Assuming, of course, that you approve of what our precog is trying to achieve.

For reviews of the first and third books in the series, see Bitter Seeds and Necessary Evil. There’s also a free-standng Something More Than Night.

* The story is contained in At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson.

Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig

September 20, 2012 Leave a comment

Earlier this year, I waxed lyrical about a violent supernatural horror novel. It was called Blackbirds and penned by Chuck Wendig. Well, he’s emerged in sequel land with Mockingbird (Angry Robot, 2012). We’re now one year further on and Miriam Black is not quite playing the part of the trailer park trophy wife. She’s not actually married, only living with Louis but, thanks to his entrepreneurial skills, he’s driving the roads with his truck, salting away saving for that rainy day, while she’s scanning goods at a local convenience store. It’s the kind of life the brain dead enjoy but, as you can imagine, it leaves our heroine with a seething pile of resentment.

So where are we with the story? Well, not that I always want to show off my classical education, but we have to dive into the mythology of Ancient Rome to understand the big plot point at work here. You see those Romans believed you could tell what the Gods (sorry, there were a lot of them to keep track of) wanted you to do to stay on their right side — remember, if you pissed off any one of the Gods, he or she could turn you into an animal or chain you to a rock and have a big bird eat out your liver. I mean, what’s the point of having god-like powers if you never use them? So it was important to know what you were expected to do. The priests of the day identified these messages in a variety of ways, but one of the most popular was watching the flight patterns and general behaviour of birds. This was the study of the auspices, part of the general trade of augury. In these books, we’re concerned with the oblativa, i.e. the Gods send the signs and signals, usually in the hope of achieving a better balance in society. In more recent times, societies defined different types of omen, a natural phenomenon that suggests what will happen in the future. In theory, such events can be foretelling good or bad outcomes but, such has been the pessimism of the ages that we largely think of omens as ominous, i.e. favouring the bad. If you check out superstitions, you’ll find blackbirds are associated with death, often signifying the presence of souls who are trapped on Earth. It’s also appropriate to remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird (courtesy of Harper Lee) albeit, in the novel, the birds are valued for their song and are inherently good — not quite how they are portrayed in this book.

Chuck Wendig daring you not to like the book

The issue is one of Fate or, following the Enlightenment, determinism. Miriam Black has the power to see how someone will die. For years, her attempts to prevent the deaths she foresees end in disaster. Then she makes a breakthrough. The survival of Louis is a testament to her new understanding. Except she’s not entirely sure what she understands, particularly as she’s now afflicted by visions. These voices are just so annoyingly cryptic. Just what is she supposed to do? More importantly, why is she supposed to do it? Surely, these predictive birds don’t really care how many people are killed? I mean, looking at matters objectively, many of the people who die are leading worthless lives, mired in poverty, engaging in petty crime and often abusing drugs. What value could there be to society to give such people an extra few years? They blight the lives of those they rob and burglarise, they burden the state if they fall ill and need hospital treatment. How much easier life would be for everyone if responsible citizens culled the worthless spongers. And just think how much more efficient this culling would be if those citizens were led by an auger who could see their future lives, who could be certain just how worthless these lives would be. Perhaps Miriam Black should join forces with these citizens, contribute her supernatural gift to ensuring a better future for the majority. This is determinism in service to utilitarianism.

I like the way the story is developing. It’s carefully advancing the moral debate about the way we react to death. We’re a selfish species, fighting to prolong our own lives, using every reasonable opportunity to get medical treatment to keep ourselves healthy. This reflects the broader biological imperative of competition. The fittest survive and tend to do well. We’re quite often comfortable with the notion the less fit die younger because they receive only second-class care. Redistribution of resources to give everyone access to the same quality of care has never worked. The wealthy, i.e. the powerful, have always used their money and authority to jump the queues, to get the best doctors and the most effective treatments. There’s always been a self-perpetuating elite from Roman times when the lifestyles of the rich depended on the exploitation of the slaves, to modern societies where the less advantaged are wage-slaves, offering both direct and indirect support to the lifestyles of the rich. So why should there be Gods sending birds to warn Miriam Black of death on a semi-industrial scale? Anyone with eyes can see death all around them.

I think Chuck Wendig has slightly toned down the intensity of the prose in Mockingbird. There’s a more melancholic feel to this narrative as our heroine struggles to define herself as a person. She’s agonising over her relationship with her family and Louis while trying to act rationally as the “Trespasser” keeps interrupting her dreams, both sleeping and waking. It’s enough to make even a saint weep and, sure as eggs is eggs, Miriam is no saint. So this is highly enjoyable and cleverly advancing the plot. It’s going to be interesting to see how the series develops.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

For reviews of other books by Chuck Wendig, see:
Blackbirds
The Cormorant
Unclean Spirits.

Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

March 13, 2012 1 comment

This is a wonderful piece of work (in all senses of the idiom). It’s a straight up-n-at-em style that hits where it hurts and takes no prisoners. From this you will gather two fundamental truths. I found Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig (Angry Robot, 2012) vastly enjoyable and I’m attempting to break the page speed record for the most clichés in a column inch. Welcome to the world of Miriam Black. She’s developed an unfortunate ability: precognition. With her first touch, skin to skin, she can tell exactly when and how a person will die. This is not a little distressing so, for a while, she harbours the hope she can be an angel of mercy and avert these foreseen personal disasters. Unfortunately, she runs into three problems. The first is that Fate is inflexible. Second, that she has no idea where the deaths will occur. Third, if she tries to intervene or is merely present, she can often be the cause of the effect. Take death as a result of epilepsy as an example. She foresees a man will die in a motel room. Later, she finds herself in that room with the man and they have an intense argument. This precipitates the fit and he dies — not that he doesn’t deserve to die, of course, but the fact she stayed in the room, knowing what was going to happen. . . Morally, she also crosses the line because she takes money and credit cards from those who’ve died. It helps pay her bills as she runs from herself across a grim and unromantic America as seen from highways, truck stops and motel rooms.

She endures, fighting off unwanted attention when it arises, but her lonely journey suddenly becomes hazardous. There’s an evolving situation in which some distinctly unhappy drug dealers are trying to recover their stolen product. They don’t care how many they have to torture or kill to get their drugs back. It’s the principle of the thing. No-one steals from them and lives! And Miriam? Well, Fate throws her together with the man who stole it. Ah, now the widening pool of victims could include her and a “white knight” who’s briefly by her side. Ironically, her ability tells her the thief will die of old age. . .

Chuck Wendig being a Klingon with the aid of a mask

In some author’s hands, determinism can be a bit plodding. Characters have given up. Their precognitive ability tells them what will happen and all they can do is watch as it happens. Consider the four Final Destination films in which a small group of people are saved only to realise you can’t cheat death. Except, of course, the scriptwriter usually allows one or two to survive. Well, Miriam is stuck in a comparable situation. From her point of view, it’s hopeless and all she can do to stay sane is avoid touching other people. Yet we readers have one thing going for us. Chuck Wendig has a sense of humour about all this. Here’s a really neat way of summing up the complexities of determinism as applied to a nine-year old boy called Austin. “You realize, all of life is written in a book, and we all get one book, and when that book is over, so are we. Worse, some of us get shorter books than others. Austen’s book was a pamphlet.” This captures a flavour of the prose which is electric. It’s stripped down to the wire. One touch and it carries the current directly to the brain. Although it’s good to read dense prose every now and again. Indeed, sometimes, the complexity can have its own beauty. There’s nothing better than the bare minimum where every letter is pulling its weight. Many people try to write this way and most fail miserably. Chuck Wendig has it down to a fine art. It’s tough, mean and, at times, firing enough four-letter words for the film rating agencies to insist on an R rating. He’s also got the knack of thought-transference as the images he had in his mind when writing come whiplashing into yours. Indeed, however I look back at this reading experience, it was so good, I want it again.

The best way to sum this book up is simple. Objectively, with one exception, people do terrible things to each other, but the way it’s all described is so exuberant, you get carried along and, at times, actually smile. This makes me think of those ads for chocolates, “So good, it’s sinful!” Except, from what I’ve written, you should realise this book is not for everyone. You have to be able to accept very graphic violence both in descriptions of death and in torture scenes. If this is going to be a problem, walk away. For everyone else who enjoys violent horror, this is the best so far this year. Better still Blackbirds is actually set up so there could be a sequel. Now, if that’s what Fate decrees, I say, “Bring it on!”

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

For reviews of other books by Chuck Wendig, see:
The Cormorant
Mockingbird
Unclean Spirits.

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