Saturday, December 20, 2014

Ballroom of the Skies: A Review

Copyrighted in 1952, John D. MacDonald's Ballroom of the Skies is a post-apocalyptic novel set in a mid-1980s world semi-recovered from World War 3.  In this world, the United States is a third-rate power, with Pak-India, Brazil, Northern Chinas, and Iran being the new, feuding great powers.  This novel is often packaged with two non-related novels in Time and Tomorrow.

John D. MacDonald (1916-1986) is best known for his Travis McGee series private detective series.  published seventy novels and more than five hundred short stories in his lifetime.  Early in his career, he published three science fiction novels.  This novel being the only one with a post-apocalyptic flavor.
As noted at the top, this world of the 1980s has different super powers.  The novel starts with an idealistic Dake Lorin, a former newspaper man, now diplomat, working as part of a secret peace conference that will bring about a negotiated world peace.  When his boss, has a very strange in personality, and torpedoes the whole deal, he becomes suspicious that something odd is going on and begins his own investigation.
The novel is an odd alien invasion type story.  It has a little in common with the "aliens among us" type themes so popular that younger audiences might remember from television shows such as the X-files, but actually go back some way.  The UFO/alien invasion phenomena in film and fiction has been noted as being something of a shadow theme to nuclear apocalypse: similar to the way the zombie apocalypse can stand in for more "real" forms of societal collapse.
The novel has some odd twists and turns.  Various forms of advanced psionic (mental) disciplines are used by the aliens, and fairly early on, we learn that the aliens are not exactly trying to conquer the earth, but to keep it unstable.  The aliens make an effort to recruit our would be whistle blower, and the story proceeds from there.
Did I enjoy it?  It is obviously very dated.  The author has much more modern sensibilities on race, and environmentalism so he is not too jarring in those respects. But a lot of relevant points, the United States plundering its resources, Malthusian style issues with overpopulation, or the cyclical nature of war, turn into meaningless chatter against the background of alien designs. It is interesting to note, that this is another case of a deeply cynical apocalyptic view coming very early after the war.
It is no worse than many self published e-books of today, but is a unevenly written, and confusing at times. So I will give it a qualified negative recommendation.  It has some interest as a nostalgia piece, and has some entertainment value, but you can get these same light stories so readily in a more modern dystopian format, that I don't see why you would go out of your way to hunt this one up.
 We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high.  Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting.  Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation.  Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.
Realism?  Is there any?  It is both too fanciful, and too dated of science fiction to easily see ourselves in Dake Lorin's situation.  The off planet excursion and psionics brings us into magical territory.  It is a 1.
Readability?  It is a short novel at 147 pages: but a confusing one.  There is a reasonable amount of not unentertaining philosophizing.  That the author in 1952 is preaching against the evils of television is amusing.  With the confusing nature of the story, I am going to call it a 3.

The novel is commonly found in this collection grouped with two of the author's other short science fiction novels.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Noise: A Review

Darin Bradley's Noise is an apocalyptic novel set in the college town, Slade, Texas (a stand in for Denton, TX near Dallas) in the near future.  The action occurs within a short time frame when a severe economic crises is collapsing the U.S. economy.  Retrospectively, the novel covers the much slower progression toward that tipping point.  The author has a second novel, Chimpanzee,  that also has apocalyptic elements, but is not part of this story line. 

The marking on the cover is based on the graffiti tag used by the group in the book

Darin Bradley went to school in Denton, Texas, and after a brief stay in Greenville, SC, has returned there. Although he has spent a considerable amount of time teaching at the university level, he appears to be working as a writer, and  software developer at the moment.  As noted, the college town Slade, is a slightly reworked Denton, Texas.  There is an interesting video of a reading from the book which I think tries to give a flavor what the intended effect of the writing.

Because of the offbeat, some find it off-putting, nature of the novel, the author was forthcoming about the psychology of what he is trying to produce. In this first case, the interview is actually occurring at a very early stage in writing the novel.
My work typically addresses the "weird" as an operating metaphor for alienation, but I sometimes work with more straightforward, mythic themes. I'm fascinated by dissolution, decay, and the unstable nature of "self."...
When asked about the music he was playing while he wrote the novel (then being titled Amaranth):
I chose these particular artists and albums because the novel I was working on is very bleak. There is only one arguably "happy" scene in the entire story (which is really more of a textual artifact than a story), and I wanted a writing environment that reflected the ambient solitude expressed in the text. Some of these albums are experimental "noise music," and others are simply wild audio recordings of vast, bleak places. I found writing some of the material both challenging and disturbing, and this playlist helped me echo that . . . troublesome nature of the project. It made for some somber writing periods, but they were all ultimately rewarding.  Author Interview: Darin Bradley, Writers and Their Soundtracks, 8 April 2008

In an interview explaining the fully written novel:
I wanted to explore how environments destabilize identity, including our feverishly held beliefs about life, the universe, and everything, to intone Adams.  
So, I decided that an otherwise normal person, when thrown into a social environment that no longer supports (or makes room for) the conveniences and niceties of social coexistence that we know now, would have to re-examine his or her personal mythologies to re-purpose them for a more violent environment. I mean, what good are the lessons you learned playing T-Ball when you’re concerned about people kicking in your door to steal your flour? What does it matter if you excelled at finger-painting when you spend all day hunting for desiccated potatoes in the barren earth? How could one change the meanings of these identity-building experiences so that they rationalized violent, survivalist behavior? What we know, what we think, about our selves and those around us is really just convenience. A lot of it doesn’t mean anything, even though we’d desperately like it to. Interview with Darin Bradley, author of Noise, Samuel Snoek Brown, 31 August 2010
Specific to the story line, the author describes it as such:
Noise is a story about the collapse of American society. It follows a handful of characters in their early 20s–people who are just coming of age in college when the world they’ve been studying falls apart. The novel concerns itself with what one has to do to establish and maintain a survival group as society descends into barbarity. In fact, the novel includes “The Book,” which is an instruction manual for building a newer, stronger nation-state around your survival group on the other “side” of the collapse.

So understanding that the story is delivered  a bit disjointedly, as the narrator, the self-named Hiram, is looking back on what has transpired.  So we know that he has survived, but we don't know how exactly, and as we come to see, we are not sure to what extent they will remake themselves in their effort at building a new culture for these apocalyptic times. Hiram flashes from the recent past, to the distant pass as he tries to build a narrative that  makes sense of what has happened. 

Anyone who has ever tried to look at a detailed narrative of life events that have gotten "off schedule" knows, that the events are much more confused, the information much more limited, than the simple explanatory stories we come up with later.  Hiram, to his credit, does not attempt to simplify or disavow his/the groups actions. In yet another interview, the author notes, Hiram and his friend, Levi, take a no holds, hard-line, no-exceptions, survive-at-all-costs attitude to the collapsing world around them. They have given themselves Old Testament style names, not because they are Christian or Jewish (Hiram was raised Southern Baptist), but because they are founding a new social order. So the "Noise" is the effort of pulling together a coherent story line out of the chaos. And as the old testament identities implies, it is going to be brutal.   Amaranth, the name of their destination, is a type of flowering plant that holds onto its blooms for a long time. The name of the comes from the archaic Greek, amaranton, which means unwilting, and thus by extension immortal. They are not playing for low stakes.

In planning for their survival, the two friends, Hiram and Levi, have written out a book which is their outline plan of what to do in the coming collapse.  As noted, it is a horrifically brutal approach, something like what Hitler might write without any of requirements for social justification. It is an exercise in pure-survival, and for the neo-tribal group, power.  It is this book, which they follow closely in spirit, but less so in detail, which is the core backdrop to the novel.

A  second core idea, beyond the book, is the local and national, anarchist-style underground group: Salvage. Salvage has taken over the tiny amount of bandwidth left over from the analog to digital television conversion, and much like the earlier pirate radio, various groups use it to publish their various personal agendas.  Through the use of repeaters, the Salvage network spreads through a variety of locations, but one suspects mostly centered around liberal arts colleges where the students might have both the time and inclination to parse out the often cryptic messages. Within the greater confusion of the collapse storyline, the Salvage broadcasts are a beacon, but also with a fair amount of noise peculiar to its own delivery form.  The anarchistic nature of the groups, sometimes working in parallel with each other, but often at somewhat competing purposes, adds additional noise. 

As far as the small group that is the focus of the novel, the novel follows a fairly simple bug-out novel time line:  Go to central meeting point in town (named the House of Cards), gather up supplies, go to bug-out location.  But events don't exactly transpire as planned.

The supply gathering is required because they are not wealthy and don't have a supply of guns and ammo at their disposal.  Of course, as we come to see, some of this "poverty" is simply a factor what they choose to accumulate and work on, rather than purely a factor of money.  Even at the planning level, which Hiram views retrospectively, a lot of money was spent researching the local situation as they debated the tactics of bugging-in versus bugging-out.

Most of the novel involves the snatch and grab portion of the storyline.  The actual bug-out is not ignored, but by this point the narrative is at freight train velocity and their is a certain numbing momentum toward the conclusion.  I wouldn't say the conclusion is a let down, but the power of the novel is in the getting there.

Did I like it?  Yes.  A lot of people don't like it because they object to the character's being sociopaths, or evil, or both.  To me, calling every brutal person with an agenda a sociopath, is a cop out.  If the world collapses do you want your family, however you constitute it, to survive.  If you do, what are you willing to do?  The author came to the conclusion that he would pretty much do anything, and given some time to think it out before hand, the results get scary.  The novel is far more realistic than the many prepper wish fulfillment novels where the preppers take the place of the gunfighter heroes in some gritty Western novel.

An example:  if you are going to survive a total collapse of society, you might come to the conclusion that it is better to be sharing resources with fewer people.  There are a couple of ways you could do this.  You could kill your non-preparing neighbors, you could destroy competing prepper groups, or you could accelerate the collapse time line so that the non-prepared have less time to work out partial, but ultimately futile, solutions.  All of this is explored to some degree in the novel in very brutal terms.

Mind you, you don't have to take Hiram and Levi's solution as being the correct one for the end times.  But if you reject it, you would need to come up with a plausible alternative for survival. Because if the Hiram/Levi's of the world are the only people left standing, they will get to dictate the storyline going forward.

We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.

The time frame of the immediate action is relatively short.  Some of the combat strikes me as being a little overly proficient of neophyte combatants.  But given that even the National Guardsman, who make an occasional appearance, may not have tons of combat experience in a built up urban area, it is not completely unbelievable.  Obviously, the group, in its own unique way, has made a lot of plans, and thought through a lot of contingencies.  The world is very close to that of our world today.  It is a seven.

Readability is uneven.  As you would expect a college student writing a memoir, there is a bit rambling going on.  But in general, the author gives you the information you need to figure out what is going on.  So while it is not a linear narrative, it is not a complete mass of confusion either.  There are points where the storyline is a bit of a page turner.  As a fast moving 222 pages, I will call it a 5.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Fugue in Ursa Major: A Review

David Dalton's Fugue in Ursa Major is an apocalyptic novel set in modern day and the mountainous corner of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee, and the Charlottesville, VA, the home of the University of Virginia.  Although most of the story time is spent in the buildup to the apocalyptic events, when they do come they are in the nature of a conspiracy theory generated nuclear war.
David Dalton, born in Salisbury, North Carolina, starting in North Carolina before moving to San Francisco in 1991, he seems to have worked in various operational and administrative roles in the newspaper business.  He has retired to the hills/mountain area of Stokes County, North Carolina, just north of Winston-Salem, and east of Mount Airy (aka Mayberry). 
There are a couple of threads in this run up to an intentional apocalypse story.  The main one, by word count, is the story of a young architect, Jake Janaway, awakening to his homosexual desires for the elderly man that will become his mentor, Phaedrus Bartholomew.  The other major thread is, from hints he picks up from Phaedrus, his research and discoveries about a coming collapse that a lot of Washington insiders seem to be preparing for.
There are of course a few subplots, but most of the rest of the story is filled with various rants, generally delivered in monologue form, about various issues of our modern society.  Oddly equating them as being near synonymous, the author hates Christianity and Imperial Romans in particular.  He seems to mostly hate them for their invasion and quashing of much of the various Celtic group's culture.   And he hates Christianity, which he views as the Roman Imperial religion, because of its persecution of homosexuals.  That Christianity picked up its anti-homosexual flavorings from Judaism, and further as a revulsion to the (then) modern Roman Imperial culture under which it formed, long before Christianity became the official religion, does not seem to have entered into his thought process.   As for his supposedly lovely Celts from Gaul, it is ironic that one of the earliest written books in the New Testament, Galatians,  gets its name (Galatia ~ Gaul) from a group of Celtics who came stomping into Asia Minor (what we now call Turkey) and took over the place. The  Galatians, before their culture was absorbed by the greater numbers, hung around for some time, being famous for their berserker-like naked charges and the late use of chariots.
What is head-spinningly odd is that at the same time he is beating up some folks for being foolish and closed minded, he is promoting the concept that a forced mass die off of ~90+% of the population, by a well connected (but not billionaires-he kills them off too) political/academic types through a rain of nuclear weaponry.  Although neither, Jake nor Phaedrus are part of the conspiracy, they are obviously not overly upset by the outcome, and are willing to work with the folks that caused all the destruction.  As Phaedrus notes at the end the world will be run by a technocratic elite, with presumably the non-technocratic rural survivors action as the new peasants.
The supposed points of wisdom that aren't extended rants includes bits from Star Wars, and Tolkien, with the occasion reference source pointers (Tainter, Berry) thrown in for good measure.  Jake spends a lot of time complaining about his girlfriends, and women in particular.  And we get his extended phallic (he seems to be more interested in being the catcher rather than the pitcher so to speak) about homosexual love, that never actually get anywhere by the books conclusion.
So did I like it?  Well it was unique.  If the author's points more concisely, and with a little more sense as presented, it might have at least had some curiosity value. He is after all not the inventor of evolutionary socialism after all, maybe he could have cribbed some better arguments from the Fabians.  It would also have been nice if there had been a little more of a plot.  There is a little bit of a two-stage bugout, but because the author is so busy representing Jake as superior to the masses, particularly those dumb ignorant folks at Liberty University, that there just isn't enough room for a plot.  So in the end, I didn't like it.  It represents itself as a work of philosophy, when it is really just a long, poorly thought out rant.  It is about on par with what some of the militia folks will inflict on, just coming from the other side. 
As an aside, in this urban dominated genocide that the author seems to be encouraging, who exactly would be heavily represented in the death toll.  Well African Americans are a large group in many major cities.  Many gays seem to gravitate to an urban culture where their live style is more acceptable.  Most of his friends that he had back in San Francisco would be dead.  In fact, if rural America is the group that is more likely than most to trend conservative, his nuke-the-masses strategy would appear to leave a relatively large proportion of his arch-enemies alive, relative to his supposed allies.  Of course he has retired to a rural area, so he himself would be safe for a little while. And of course.
We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.
We must remember that the cause of the collapse is not generally part of our realism test.  Although some form of nuclear catastrophe would not be a shocker, the one postulated is a little unlikely.  It is not clear how you would get so many military folks to blast their own families, or get the born-again dominated U.S. Airforce to go along for the ride.  So the situation as it stands, a wealthy prepper in his mountain retreat with a young adult who want to get close to him, is not particularly unrealistic.  The realism is marred by the occasional appearance of flying-saucer like UFOs that appear to have no actual part in the plotline, but none the less do take up almost as much page space as his figuratively erotic stallion dream.  So with a point deduction, its a six.
Readability is low.  There is a whole lot of close to incoherent rambling and not a ton of plotting.  High rambling to plot content is pretty much the inverse to being a page turner: particularly at 320 pages of it.  The homo-erotic symbolism is rather easy to figure out, so we will set readability at a 2.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Each New Morn: A Review

L.G. Thomson's Each New Morn is a pandemic apocalypse with some zombie-like elements set in contemporary Scotland, starting in the area of Dundee, and settling in at a rural area somewhere south of Inverness along the A9 (highway).

This may be the least appealing cover, even a Kindle self published one, that I have run across yet. The novel was accidentally published early, and this is actually the revised cover The novel's trailer is howlingly campy as well.

L. G. (Lorraine) Thomson (1964- )was born in Glasgow, and grew up in Cumbernauld. Dundee, the novels starting point, is where she graduated from Art School. She has two daughters, and now lives in Ullapool on the northwest coast of Scotland. 
The basic plot instigator is that a sudden global pandemic, a rogue prion causing what is called the Falling Down Flu, wipes out  90-something percent of the population.  A small fraction of the "survivors" come down with a rabies like disease giving them a nasty zombie-like personality.   As is fairly common with contemporary zombie fiction, the zombies fairly quickly get replaced by nasty people as the ultimate threat.
The plot line starts with two separate survivors that eventually, as is obviously going to happen, meet up in the middle portion of the story.  The man, Shaw, is a collector of wayward survivors.  Realistically, a lot of these folks wind up being more a nuisance than a help.  The secondary die-off count is pretty large.  The second survivor, Chrissie, has various scary adventures before she finds a little cottage to hole up in.
I would say that there are three general threads to the plot line, all of them related to survival possibilities.  The first thread, is that group dynamics, and individual personalities, are probably the largest single factor in survival.  A small group of cooperative folks can generally make a go of it.  But getting a collection of strangers, suffering from the psychological impact of the death of family, society, and forcing to rough it a little for the first time, is a difficult accomplishment to achieve.
The second issue is whether is best done in larger, more cooperative numbers, or smaller more tightly knit groupings.  Shaw wants to collect people and skills.  That doesn't always work out.  Chrissie wants to hide away somewhere and avoid discovery.  That is also problematic as it is very difficult to eliminate all possibilities of discovery over the very long haul.
The final issue, is surviving the marauder types.  Within the story line both of the first two issues relate back to this one.  Group cohesion is important because the marauders can take over a group through infiltration as well as they can attack it.  Also collecting groups of survivors, along with larger encampments are most likely to attract the farthest roving, and thus largest groups of bad guys.  Of course little hidden groups, once found, will get stomped.  To add to all that is finding the balance between size, location, and site layout/defenses, that give the best combination of success. Of course in a place like Scotland, there are left over fortifications to be found that will help you along the way.  Granted if you had to choose, an early medieval site, smaller and often very hard to get to if it is an old refuge location, is probably more workable than the more spread out gunpowder era spots.  Or, you can, much like in Alex Scarrow's Afterlight, try hiding off shore.
Did I like the novel?  I would call it good, but not great: a conditional recommendation. The zombie-theme seemed heavily forced, and the bad guys you get to meet come of as simplistically evil.  Both elements tend to signal that, even within the Scottish glass is half-empty attitude, that the evil forces will not prevail.  On the plus side, the other is unusually, a glass half-empty sort of writer.  So it isn't a happy bouncy bunny wrap up at the end either.  The author is not into firearms or tactics, but doesn't try to push the details either, so she avoids the common technical mistakes.
We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.
Realism?  Well as I noted above, the screamers are a bit forced.  Zombies in Scotland no doubt have helped the book sell, which it has done, in Scotland.   The author doesn't seem to be aware that gasoline ages out pretty quickly.  But the author invasions the pandemic aftermath being dominated by the people that don't care anymore. They are going to loot and burn, and cut amount of left-over supplies down drastically.  So if short term supplies can be had at risk, the long term is much more questionable.  It is a five.
Readability is easier.  It is not a page turner.  Group dynamics dominates far more than the action scenes.  If there is any extraneous literary symbolism, I did not detect it.  Again, it is a five.