There must be a thousand ways for civilization to come crashing down around our heads. You can always depend on good science fiction writers to come up with horrifying scenarios about a world reset. John Barnes has produced a doozy with his new Daybreak trilogy. The first two installments are out, and I’m going to have to wait until 2012 to read the third and final chapter. It’s the perfect time to get on board this exciting techno-thriller.
It’s the final Young Bill Young’s Summer Reads post for the year, and I can’t tell you how happy I am that the current temperature in OKC is a sweet 83 degrees! Labor Day really was the end of summer this year!
Barnes’s Daybreak series is part end-of-the-world horror story, part post-apocalyptic adventure, and part political speculation. The collapse of civilization in Directive 51 is caused by a movement known as “Daybreak”—an Internet-connected group of diverse people (ranging from eco-crazies to stewardship Christians to disgruntled techno-geeks) who have only one thing in common: they all want to bring the Big System down. The release of nanoswarm and biotes destroy rubber, plastics and oil products, and the destruction spreads rapidly around the planet, causing a dramatic and quick end to modern civilization. Following the initial collapse of modernity, Daybreak rears its head with additional poxes that are aimed at making sure Earth stays primitive, including radiation bombs that are set off in strategic locations.
While the reader is given some of the gore that follows America’s collapse, Barnes is more interested in what happens to America following such a scenario. Enter National Security Presidential Directive NSPD 51 (it actually exists), the plan that “claims power to execute procedures for continuity of the federal government in the event of a catastrophic emergency.” Despite the directive, it doesn’t take long for the two political parties to flex their muscle, with opposing governments set up in Athens, GA and Olympia, WA. Meanwhile, an informational and research arm of the “federal government” is operating out of Pueblo, CO, charged with disseminating information via steam train to pockets of people around the country. (Are you old enough to remember those Federal Citizen Information Center ads asking you to write to Pueblo for free federal government brochures? Turns out they still have all of that information!)
As the first novel nears its close, the two governments are actually contemplating war with each other, as if Daybreak wasn’t bad enough. It will take the wisdom of protagonist Heather O’Grainne (administrator of the Pueblo operation), the skills of a surviving reporter, and the Socratic Method to try to spare what’s left of America.
The sequel Daybreak Zero opens only two months after the final events of Directive 51, and one year since the first catastrophic events known as Daybreak. In this second installment, we learn that tribes have formed across the country to battle any re-emergence of civilization. We learn that a new Post-Raptural church has emerged that is preparing for the tribulation. More importantly, we learn that Daybreak must be the deadliest meme ever. Those who have incorporated the ideas of Daybreak actually have seizures when trying to go against the meme. And Daybreak is infiltrating the governments of Olympia and Athens, and the research institute in Pueblo.
Some reviewers criticize the “one-dimensional” aspect of Barnes’s characters, but I didn’t find them to be so. No, you will not read pages and pages of philosophical, social and psychological ruminating by the individual characters. But you do get enough insight into the characters to give a damn about what happens to them. And, anyway, this is a story about people who are trying to stay alive while they attempt to bring back some kind of stability to their crumbling world. The meaning of life for these characters, is the meaning of survival.
I read a couple of graphic works last month. One gets a thumbs up. One gets a sideways thumb at the most.
The Gist: If you’re following Fables–the best darn comic book out there right now–get ready for an epic battle between Mr. Dark and Frau Totenkinder. Meanwhile, Rose Red must put aside her grieving over the death of Boy Blue and pull herself together in order to organize the Fables for the coming conflict with the dark master. We learn about Snow White and Rose Red’s past, more is implied about Ghost (Snow White and Bigby’s invisible child), and Beauty finally births Beast’s baby! If you haven’t been following Fables, you don’t know what you’re missing!
Status: Devoured! Volume 15 includes the wonderful 100th issue of the comic book with lots of fun extras.
Summer Escapism: Yeah, baby!
Strength of Writing: A
Stimulation of the Little Grey Cells: B (I get totally immersed in this world when reading a Fables volume.)
Social Relevance: B (Yes, we’re talking about good versus evil, but Willingham’s Fable characters are too complicated and rich to be relegated to simple black and white.)
General Reaction: The best Fables story arc of the last couple of years. Can this comic get any better?!
The Gist: Hapless geek Jimmy is a mama’s boy and librarian in Oakland who thinks he knows more than he actually does about computers and the Internet. When he loses his best friend Sara to an internship in New York, he realizes that he has romantic feelings for her. So… it’s off to New York!
Status: Read cover to cover
Summer Escapism: Meh…
Strength of Writing: C (Yes, it was satisfactory.)
Social Relevance: B (Jimmy has a job but he’s still a step or two away from being a self-actualized adult. He represents the Emerging Adult, an increasing trend in our country.)
Generation Reaction: Reading this made me feel as empty as Jimmy must feel. Oh yeah, I chuckled in a few of places, but it was generally a solemn read for me. Following Jimmy’s trip to New York and his last interaction with Sara, the reader is left with no idea if the protagonist will begin to gain confidence and take charge of his life. In reading a book, at the very least, I want to know that something has changed for a character, that some revelation about life has been earned. You won’t get that reading Empire State. (Jimmy is a continuing character for Shiga, so maybe we’ll be rewarded in future books.) I’m a great believer that every read does not have to leave you feeling good, and I suppose this story has something to tell us about the state of twenty-somethings in the world today. Maybe I’m just becoming an old fuddy-duddy!
By the way, Shiga continues to have great promise, despite my lukewarm review of Empire State. After all, he did create this! It features Jimmy, too.
Visit ShigaBooks to find out more about this talented artist and writer.
Well, we’re getting into the final days of summer, and hopefully the final days of triple digit temperatures. I’ve got to really step up my game to tell you what I’ve been reading before the season is long gone. Here’s the first of three posts on what I’ve been reading the past few weeks…
The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing
The Gist: Harriett and David Lovatt see themselves above the fray when it comes to the sexual revolution in 1960s England. They want a simpler, more traditional life surrounded by a large family. While there are problems pursuing their path—the expenses of a large home, multiple pregnancies, and the need for day-to-day help from Harriett’s increasingly resentful mother—they remain committed to their goals. When their fifth child Ben is born following a nightmare pregnancy, the Lovatts are visited by an unthinkable horror. Ben is alien, violent, almost inhuman in appearance, and inexplicable in his responses to normal human interactions. The family’s world begins to tear apart.
Status: This was my second read of Lessing’s modern day horror story. I came across it in a Texas bookstore with my sister earlier this summer and remembered how good it was. I bought her a copy and ended up reading it again over the weekend before leaving it with her.
Summer Escapism: The best! (A real “there but for the grace of God go I” kind of escapism.)
Strength of Writing: A (It’s Lessing. What do you expect?)
Stimulation of the Little Grey Cells: B
Social Relevance: B (Beyond the horror story, there are underlying themes of dreams broken and plans destroyed, maternal love vs. fraternal love, and the inability to control what life brings.)
General Reaction: I loved it the first time I read it 20 years ago, and I loved it when I read it again this summer. The Fifth Child works so well because the horror is not from the outside. Ben is not possessed by a demon. There are no supernatural reasons for why Ben is so alien and dangerous. Although Harriet believes Ben is a punishment visited on them for their “selfish” plans to live an idyllic life, both she and David begin to see this child as a throwback to a previous hominid form. This is nature at work. And it means the horror is in us.
Ben in the World by Doris Lessing
The Gist: In this sequel to The Fifth Child, we see how Ben perceives the world around him. He knows he is different, and he pines for a place where he is accepted and understood. As he makes his way across the globe, he is sometimes treated to kindness; but more often he is used and manipulated by the unscrupulous. The monster in The Fifth Child becomes the protagonist of a modern fable.
Summer Escapism: C (Not much, but that’s OK. While it is easy to relish a horror story, this fable was sometimes painful to get through. The reader is asked to sympathize with Ben, but his alien nature makes that a difficult process. That, in itself, could be considered either a flaw or an accomplishment, depending on what Lessing intended.)
Strength of Writing: A
Stimulation of the Little Grey Cells: C (I struggled through this book for the reason given above.)
Social Relevance: B (How do you apply the Golden Rule to a monster, even if the monster is part of us?)
General Reaction: A frustrating experience (and I wasn’t the only frustrated reader), but that may be because I harbored expectations based on the earlier novel. Here’s what’s ultimately interesting about this book: Ben’s monstrous behavior can be explained by his true nature; but what can we say about the monstrous behavior of the humans in the book? Is that our nature? The answer is not what we would prefer to hear, but we know it to be true too well.
So those are two of the title I read recently. Your turn! What have you been reading lately?
A little break from my usual format for my summer reads. I was just so taken with this little book…
Many people think that a very abstract activity, like the playing of chess, would be best. It can also be maintained that it is best to provide the machine with the best sense organs that money can buy, and then teach it to understand and speak English. This process could follow the normal teaching of a child. Things would be pointed out and named, etc. Again, I do not know what the right answer is, but I think both approaches should be tried.”
We’ve all seen science experiment with the chess playing computer, but what about this second approach—to raise an artificial intelligence (AI) as you would a human child?
The book is the story of Blue Gamma software employees Ana Alvarado and Derek Brooks, and their digients (AI programs represented by avatars) named Jax, Marco and Polo. We “watch” as Ana and Derek help their digients develop motor skills, explore their emerging curiosity, learn human language, recognize themselves versus others, and socialize with other digients and humans. New hardware even allows the digients to “port” to physical robots to experience the real world versus the dataspace.
As the digients advance—and Ana and Derek develop parental affections for Jax, Marco and Polo—the standard upgrades inevitable in the world of software brings newer versions of digients to life. The discontinuation of a virtual world platform, and lack of support for Blue Gamma AIs in other platforms, threatens the very existence of Jax and his friends. To save Jax and other digients like him, Ana and Derek join with other Blue Gamma parents to create a private dataspace to protect the developing cyber life.
But the parents must solve a problem: how to upgrade the Blue Gamma AIs so they can rejoin other digient friends and continue their development. This quest for solutions ends up posing some interesting questions for the characters and the reader:
• At what point can an AI make a decision for itself?
• Are AIs on their way to being persons with similar rights as human beings?
• Should AIs follow traditional child development with the implementation of an adolescence and sexual awakening to reach their full potential?
• Should humans make the same sacrifices for digients as they often do for human children?
As the story progresses toward its conclusion, Derek and Ana find their paths diverging in the name of love: love for a fellow human in one case, and love for a digient in another.
I’m a fan of Chiang’s work. He’s not a prolific Sci-Fi writer, but his short stories are some of the best in the genre right now, and the critics and readers agree, as his long list of awards indicate.
Read what Ted Chiang has to say in this Locus Online interview about his motivation for writing The Lifecycle of Sofware Objects.
No respite from the searing heat, so I’m staying parked inside flipping pages. Here are my latest reads…
The Snowman by Jo Nesbo
The Gist: Oslo police detective Harry Hole investigates the disappearances of several women that have occurred over a number of years. All of the cases have a few things in common: the missing women are all mothers; each disappearance occurs during Norway’s first snowfall of the winter season; and a freshly built snowman is left in the wake of each disappearance. Meanwhile, Harry mulls over an anonymous letter he received earlier about the impending return of The Snowman. Could these disappearances be the work of Norway’s first serial killer?
Status: Read cover to cover.
Summer Escapism: A (The best! In addition to an addictive mystery, you’re treated to a chilly Nordic winter. That’s one way to beat the heat.)
Strength of Writing: A (Nesbo pulls you in and doesn’t let go until you finish. He’s a master at this kind of writing.)
Stimulation of the Little Grey Cells: B. (A crime thriller that doesn’t make you think isn’t really worth much. Nesbo keeps you guessing.)
Social Relevance: C (Good novels always have something to say about the nature of human existence. Readers are treated to some interesting stats about a couple of human diseases, as well as the promiscuous behaviors of the naked ape.)
General Reaction: A corker of a good read! Nesbo is being promoted as the “next Stieg Larsson,” and it’s easy to get on board this description. Harry Hole is a likable protagonist; flawed, obsessed, and a master sleuth. He struggles with alcohol. His relationships with the beautiful Rakel and her son Oleg are achingly relevant to the main plot line. There are red herrings galore in this book, but Nesbo makes them work. And there are some gruesome scenes; but if you like your crime thrillers served up bloody, then here’s your ticket!
Watch the book trailer for The Snowman.
Check out other Nordic Crime Thrillers.
Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit, Volumes One through Four, story and art by Motoro Mase
The Gist: My friend Sadie wrote a review of Volume One on her now defunct Extremely Graphic blog. I’ll let her give you the gist: “In Ikigami: the Ultimate Limit, the government has developed a vaccine that can protect the population from every single known disease. However, to keep the citizens’ appreciation for life, a small percentage of vaccines kill the child before he or she turns 25. A day before their death, a man delivers an ikigami or death card to the victim. Fujimoto delivers these cards.” Yep, that sums it up rather well. Each volume contains two stories about a character who receives an Ikigami, and shows us what happens during their last day on Earth. An overarching storyline concerns Fujimoto’s discomfort over his job as messenger of death.
Status: I’ve read the first four volumes of this series
Strength of Writing: Volumes One and Three get a B; Volumes Two and Four get a C (Volume One is rated highly because of the originality of the idea and the explanation of how the Ikigami program works. Volume Three has the two best stories so far in the collection.)
Strength of Art: A (If you like Manga art, which I do.)
Stimulation of the Little Grey Cells: C (What would you do if you were told you had 24 hours to live? Would you do what the characters do? Yeah, there’s a bit of stimulation and neural activity.)
Social Relevance: ummm… OK, I’ll give it a C-
General Reaction: While reading about the reaction of people who receive their death notices is interesting (the stories in Volume Three really are very good), I am more interested in Fujimoto’s growing distrust of the Ikigami program. The introduction of psychoanalyst Dr. Kobo, Mr. Fujimoto’s attraction to her, and my suspicion that she may be working against the Ikigami program despite appearances, are intriguing. But this overarching plot needs to develop faster. If it never does, or if it’s ultimately disappointing, I could end up rating the series a fail. Will I keep reading? Yeah, probably.
Read Ikigami online for free!
Wonder if we’ll get to see the Ikigami movie here in the USA?
OK, folks, now it’s your turn. What are you reading this summer?
Good Lord, is it ever hot!! But what a great excuse to stay in the cool, or find an exceptionally generous shade tree to park yourself under, during the extreme heat. And what better friend to bring along than a book? Here’s what I’ve been reading…
The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States by Gordon S. Wood
The Gist: Putltzer Prize Winner Brown takes a page from both the traditionalist view (An Idea drove us toward Revolution) and the early twentieth-century progressive view (Ideas don’t create revolutions; cultural, social and economic conditions do) to plot a middle ground in these essays exploring the birth and early years of the Republic. Yet, in doing so, he reveals how the “idea” and “ideals” of a self-governing country remain America’s strongest suit. Indeed, in much of the world, America is an idea to adopt, and an ideal to strive for.
Status: Read intro, conclusions and selected essays.
Summer Escapism: C (This is not a bad thing. You can’t help but reflect on our current government and economic woes while reading this book. You’re learning and thinking. You’re not really escaping. And that’s a good thing.)
Strength of Writing: A
Stimulation of the Little Grey Cells: A
Social Relevance: A+ (In the Post-Great Recession, as in so many other times of crisis in our country, Americans often turn to America’s beginnings for renewal. Would that they also were inclined to turn to our country’s historians and read more to enlighten themselves about our great land before shooting their mouths off.)
General Reaction: For Brown, the beginning and early formation of America remain the most important events in our country’s history, and he presents a convincing case for this through his essays. The intellectual and ideological values we hold dear, the creation of both a public and private sphere of rights (which our courts must traverse), and our feelings about America’s place and role in the world, have all been influenced (and continue to be) by the Idea of America. Brown’s specialty is the American Revolution, and you know you are in the company of a great mind when reading this book.
Embassytown by China Miéville
The Gist: Humanity has colonized space. Embassytown is a human settlement on the planet of the native Ariekei, sentient beings with a language unique in the known universe. The problems of communication between Ariekei and humans lead to catastrophe and, ultimately, revelation and transcendence for the Ariekei.
Status: Gobbled it up!
Summer Escapism: A (For sci-fi fans, that is.)
Strength of Writing: A
Stimulation of the Little Grey Cells: A (Interesting take on language and its impact on culture and progress. Plus, you’ll never look at lying the same way again!)
Social Relevance: B (It’s always relevant to explore differences, and the importance of finding common ground.)
General Reaction: I have to tell you, I wasn’t sure that Miéville was going to be able to pull this off. But he does, and it’s a wonder to read. The book has mystery (why are the Arikei trying to make “figures of speech” out of neighboring humans?), excellent characters (especially human protagonist Avice Benner Cho), adventure, conspiracy, war, and an intriguing and satisfying conclusion. He just bats it out of the park!
OK, it’s your turn. What have you been reading during this hellish summer?
While Kitty is getting through the heat by turning up the AC and losing herself in a cozy mystery, my reading habits have been all over the place since Memorial Day weekend. I’ve been to the Nursery Crimes police division in Reading, England (alternative universe England, that is), on an Aussie football field in Melbourne, and in a sick generational ship in outer space. (I told you I read weird stuff!) Here are some quick reviews of my latest reads…
The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde.
The Gist: Nursery Rhyme characters are real! (And so are Greek gods, and aliens.) Humpty Dumpty has a great fall and the Nursery Crimes Division, headed by DCI Jack Spratt and assisted by DI Mary Mary, is called in. Turns out Mr. Dumpty didn’t just fall. He was shot! It was murder!
Status: Read cover to cover.
Summer Escapism: A
Strength of Writing: B
Stimulation of the Little Grey Cells: B (It helps to have access to Mother Goose Rhymes as a reference. Fun!)
Social Relevance: Uh… er… OK! C+
General Reaction: You already know I love Jasper Fforde if you read my reviews of The Eyre Affair and Shades of Grey. While reading this first Nursery Crimes mystery, I often thought that Fforde was trying to hit the reader with too much weirdness. But weirdness is what Fforde is all about. The Greek gods and aliens don’t add anything to the main plot, but they do make for some great laugh-out-loud moments. Despite the gimmick-taken-to-extreme nature of the book, the mystery itself is solid, and just when you think it’s all solved, there’s the weirdest last reveal you could imagine. Priceless Fforde.
Tigers and Devils by Sean Kennedy
The Gist: Gay romance centering on the outing of a Australian Football player. Oh, and… boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy gets boy back; the basic formula, except this time with rainbows.
Status: Read cover to cover.
Summer Escapism: B
Strength of Writing: C (You know there may be a problem when the writer has the football-crazy protagonist ask why an injured player has to travel with the team. For team support, doofus! Even I knew that.)
Stimulation of the Little Grey Cells: C (Well, it did inspire me to learn a bit about Aussie Football.)
Social Relevance: A (Lots of talk right now about gay athletes in pro sports, so, yeah, it was pretty relevant.)
General Reaction: I’ve read plenty of gay novels, but I had never read a gay romance. It’s interesting to see this variation of the classic romance formula. See if you recognize it: Protagonist is sarcastic and a loner, thinking he doesn’t need love, but he really does. Meets Mr. Wonderful. Mr. Wonderful pushes all the right buttons but seems too good to be true. Personalities clash during a crisis. Mr. Wonderful has faults! Love is slipping away. The idea of love lost puts the crisis in perspective. Love is reaffirmed. Fireworks. Happy ending.
Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear
The Gist: Mystery and terror on a generational space ship. Our narrator is awakened from a deep sleep to find himself naked and freezing inside a giant spaceship. He is having trouble recovering his memories, and some of the monstrous creatures around him want him dead.
Status: Three-quarters of the way through!
Summer Escapism: B
Strength of Writing: B (This book is turning out to be a fast read, but it takes a bit too long to really get started, despite the intriguing set-up.)
Stimulation of the Little Grey Cells: A
Social Relevance: B (Poses the intellectual, ethical and moral questions you expect from good Sci-Fi.)
General Reaction: I’ve never reviewed a Bear novel on Okie Reads, but his Blood Music is a favorite Sci-Fi classic of mine. Although I’m still reading Hull Zero Three, I can tell you that the revelations to the mystery thus far are as big, strong and provocative as you would expect from this master of the genre. Three-quarters of the way through, I’m very pleased with this book. I’ll certainly let you know if it falls apart for me in the end.
OK, that’s what I’ve been reading. What have you been reading during this late spring/early summer heat wave?