Tag Archives: thriller

Better Living Through Chemistry? (Book Review: Limitless, by Alan Glynn)

15 Nov

Put away your half-started manuscripts and tragic hopes, creative writing minors. In an economy like ours, your chances of publication are bleak – unless, that is, you have unlimited access to a mind-enhancing “smart pill” called MDT-48. That’s the premise of Alan Glynn’s novel “Limitless,” anyway (originally published as “The Dark Fields” in 2001).

You might remember “Limitless” from theaters last spring – or maybe not, judging by its lukewarm critical reception. In any case, it was the movie with Robert DeNiro and that guy from “The Hangover,” and I guess it was pretty good. Some of the visual effects that critics like to describe with words like “stunning” or “experimental” were in keeping with the movie’s billing as a techno-thriller, sure, but in the end they just left me dizzy.

What I found truly stunning – dizzying enough to reverse that age-old tradition of reading the book first and seeing the movie second – were the ideas.

“Limitless” is a novel about human enhancement. And while our trans-humanist hero Eddie Spinola’s journey might end up in some unlikely situations (convincing a shady Russian loan shark to give him half a million dollars by promising to write him into a screenplay about the Mafia, for example), in terms of believability Glynn’s novel is light-years ahead of old-school science fiction that couldn’t see beyond evil cyborgs or disembodied brains in jars. Chances are, the future’s going to look a lot more like “Limitless” than “I, Robot.”

Eddie Spinola starts the novel writing his own novel (that’s right, it’s meta from the very first page), with a day job as a copy editor at some podunk publishing firm. There may have been a point in the distant past at which he had his life together, but it certainly isn’t now, fifty pounds and one failed marriage later.
Lucky, then, that his ex-wife’s brother hasn’t changed at all. When they serendipitously meet on the street one mediocre morning, Eddie’s drug-dealer-in-law gives him a sample of a mysterious substance that propels the intelligent but unmotivated Eddie to the stratosphere of genius and productivity. Lucky, also, that Eddie gets his hands on the entire existing supply of MDT-48 when his supplier gets offed in a very messy scene that I’ll happily leave to Alan Glynn for description.

Taking half, then one, then two or three pills a day, Eddie finds himself playing the stock market like a true Wall Street One-Percenter – with the spare time to wax philosophical about the global trading network as a “template for human consciousness” or “humanity’s collective nervous system.”
On a tangential note, that’s something I liked better about the book: like its original title, it’s deeper, darker and includes quite a few more discussions about the nature of free will and determinism.

You don’t have to have seen the movie to guess that with great power comes great responsibility, and even greater plot twists (involving many, many terrible things happening to our Eddie Spinola as he spins out of control). But even if you did see “Limitless” in theaters, the original, words-only iteration is well worth the read. In fact, it might not be fair to compare the two versions at all: the book is so much more nuanced – subtle where the movie is showy – that it makes you think even while calling itself a techno-thriller.

Along those lines, what’s most impressive is how Glynn makes an apparently far-fetched plot completely believable – from the ideas about boosting human intelligence to the political context of the United States invading (pardon me, “liberating,”) Mexico (from drug cartel tyranny, ironically enough). By the end, you get the feeling that not only could this book happen – it could be happening right now.

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100 Suspicious Acts in Progress (Verdict? Tag, by Simon Royle)

13 Jan

If microscopic tracking chips, or “tags,” sub-dermally embedded into the body of every citizen of a global nation-state doesn’t sound scary, it’s probably because you live there.

In his sci-fi thriller Tag, author Simon Royle shows readers a frighteningly Orwellian world where even the brightest legal minds happily concede it’s the “right” of the state to know who you are, where you are, what you’re doing, and when–with an efficiency that allows agents in Trace Operations (what used to be the FBI) to monitor and track how many suspicious behavioral patterns are happening at any given time.  And with the conspiracies rocking Royle’s 22nd-century globe, I’d be surprised if there were only 100.

Royle’s prose and characterization is strong, but where he truly excels is in building the world of Jonah James Oliver and the “Tag Law.”  The politics, society, and technology of New Singapore in 2110 are not only believable, but thought-provoking as well.  I’m not about to shut down the blog, but it makes you think about what kind of privacy one can reasonably expect in a modern world.

Reading Time: 2+ weeks (it’s 7,000+ locations on the Kindle, which would roughly translate to 700 pages in the real world)

Recommendation: Somewhere between hard SF and police dramas…along the lines of Fringe or The Event, with less biological mutations and more sinister backdoor politics.  Did that make any sense?

Tag is available as an ebook on Amazon for $2.99

100-years-new (review: SF thriller Tag)

13 Jan

I was some single-digit age, watching a movie with my mother.  What age, exactly, or what movie, I really can’t say.  It might even have been a tv show, or a complete stranger, or Colonel Mustard in the library with a candlestick.  But someone, somewhere, commented: “This movie won’t ever be a classic.  With so many pop culture references, it’ll just get dated.”

Dated.  That’s a heinous word for some people.  A feller getting on in years looks back at his high school prom photos and finds that the violet tuxedo at the height of fashion once upon a time is dated now (here’s looking at you, Walter Bishop).  A woman makes reference to a band that her kids have never heard of dates herself (and that one’s for mom).  These incidents of dating and datedness might include the occasional faux pas or flashback, but the central idea’s kind of fascinating: You can tell when something was made, watched, worn, or born by its discrete characteristics.

I think that’s kind of awesome.

Reading books and documents for my history work, I think all the time about “dating” the past–about all the political, social, and pop cultural references contemporaries would have taken for granted but that I’d completely miss if I somehow managed to travel back in time.  Reading books and stories for this podunk science fiction blog, I think too how one might “date” the future.

In his novel of the 22nd-century, Tag, author Simon Royle does just that.  He transports readers one-hundred-plus years into the future and plonks us down in a world with its own culture, politics, and set of societal givens.  When our hero Jonah James Oliver (JJ for short) pulls out his Devstick to punch in his PUI, a 21st-century reader’s as lost as Mark Twain would be surfing the web (although I have a suspicion that Samuel Clemens would have been one badass blogger).

Simon Royle doesn’t burden the reader with excessive exposition–no time traveler, after all, would have an omniscient narrator explaining ever piece of brave new tech.  At the same time, we’re not inundated with acronyms to the point of incomprehensibility.  Instead, we’re along for the ride, learning through dialogue and plot action what the 22nd-century looks like from the perspective of its denizens rather than third-person exegesis.

Using that element of the unfamiliar to draw the reader into a future world without locking her out is a delicate narrative balance to strike.  Science fiction literati call it “world-building,” and Simon Royle is a world-builder par excellence.

Zenon, Girl of the 21st-Century, might not be familiar with the United Nation Personal Unique Identification (PUI) Law of 2073, or the similar “Tag Law” of 2110, but (cetus lapedus!)* she’d have to be a hermit or a history major not to recognize privacy and technology as central themes or conflicts of her own particular slice in time.

*This reference is an example of me dating myself to the 1990s Disney Channel, btdubs.

Royle’s novel Tag is a SF thriller with global conspiracies, shadowy government surveillance units, and all sorts of personal and political drama.  But it works because the world-building is so strong: Tag’s technology is fresh enough to be 100-years-new and familiar enough to have roots in today’s.

Tag is available as an ebook on Amazon for $2.99

Literature in a Facebook Note (review: Isobel, by Darren Scothern)

7 Jan

Let’s talk about Facebook.

Like most people, my list of friends includes the requisite number of half-remembered acquaintances who managed to creepily track me down despite the fact that my profile picture is Ben Linus’s face and I’m pretty sure I never gave them my name anyway.  They’re the people whose statii overflow with cliched observations about the transient nature of love or heartache or whatever.  They’re the kind of people who post their terrible rambling poetry on their profile as notes and get comments like “omg i know exactly what u mean!!!1!!1” or “you’re so brave!” or “UGH get over yourself” (and before you ask, no, that last one isn’t my comment… not to say that I don’t like it).

I’m not a fan of those people.  I’d even come to the conclusion that Facebook notes were useless and pathetic by their very nature until yesterday, when I read Darren Scothern’s novella Isobel. Darren Scothern is an award-winning horror/science fiction writer who’s bringing back the Facebook note in a big way–posting Isobel in serial installments on his wall before publishing on the Kindle platform in November 2010.  I still don’t quite know what’s going on–but whatever it is, it’s freaky and fantastic.  As the book description on Amazon says: “Take a trip into insanity.”

Isobel follows our narrator on his confused quest to research a peculiar rock band–but that quickly gives way to hallucination, madness, blood, psychosis, blood, sex, and a mysterious woman named Isobel powering a wheelchair (or is she?) and grinning from under her copper hair.

And that’s as coherent as I can get.  The fact that the narrator’s a horror writer writing in first person doesn’t clear anything up either.  As he writes in the intro:

How much of what follows in what you are about to read is true, and how much is just fantasy, I can’t tell you.  But, there is some of each.

That’s all.

And therein lies the genius.  Like Mark Z. Danielewski’s famous House of Leaves, Isobel is a highly stylized piece of writing less about the plot than the literary effect: surreal, confusing, dissonant, dark, dreamlike (or druglike), and utterly, utterly disturbing.  It’s the perfect example of cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling’s definition of “slipstream”–a quote, by the way, I have on my Facebook page:

“This is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.”

When done wrong, you get the worst type of postmodernist fiction.  When done right, you get the horror/SF amalgamation of Danielewski or Scothern.  And needless to say, it’s not easy to do right.  I don’t throw around the word “brilliant” very often (unless I’m talking about myself, naturally), and I almost never call something I review “literature,” but Darren Scothern’s writing fully deserves both descriptors.

I’ve heard it said somewhere that you know a book or a story is “literature” when you walk away from it feeling changed.  Isobel does that–in the most disturbing way.  Who’d have thought you could get that from a Facebook note?

Reading time: An hour… two hours… It took me longer, but then, I felt compelled to read the story twice.

Recommendation: This is one of the best (if not the best) piece of indie fiction I’ve reviewed on this blog, ever.  This post (if you couldn’t tell already) is an unqualified recommendation.

Availability: Isobel, along with Scotthern’s other short story collections, are available as Amazon ebooks (Isobel for $2.99).

Now Reading: Dream War, by Stephen Prosapio

24 Jul

Just a couple weeks ago, Inception hit the big screen–flooding Facebook and Twitter with obscure, dream-related references as awestruck audiences fuzzy on exactly what had just happened left the theaters.  Something about Leonardo DiCaprio infiltrating people’s dreams and extracting information, anyway.  That was two weeks ago.

Three years ago, Stephen Prosapio’s science fiction thriller Dream War made the final five in Gather.com’s 2007 “First Chapters” conference.  Dream War in it’s full form hit the presses on July 14, 2010, just two days before the U.S. Inception premiere.  From the product description on Amazon:

Decades ago, the CIA developed the technology to enter our dreams and extract information. It was just a matter of time before they took things a little too far…

1980. Hector Lopez joins a CIA enterprise capable of entering dreams and extracting information. Lopez saves hundreds of hostages’ lives by dream-linking to terrorists and foiling their plans. When the Red Brigades, an Italian terrorist group, kidnaps a US General, Lopez and his team execute every technique available for extracting information—including one that links our world to a dimension never meant to be discovered.

Present Day. The Sogno di Guerra—a Red Brigades sect—plans the slaughter of millions. And they’ve the help of Luzveyn Dred, the entity ruling the dimension the CIA inadvertently opened a portal to—the Spatium Quartus.

Aided by an aging expatriate, a recovering alcoholic, and a mysterious girl, Lopez must overcome memories of past failures and defeat evil—in this world as well as in a dimension of nightmares.

the Scattering will let you know how like or unlike Inception this oneiric novel of former fantasy football sports reporter Stephen Prosapio turns out to be.

Verdict? Pale Boundaries, by Scott Cleveland

7 Jul

The jury’s in:

Pale Boundaries is a great example of how a creative author and strong writing can bring realism to a literally out-of-this-world concept.  Realistic characters live in a world of realistic technology–Cleveland’s description of Terson Reilly’s hydrojet made me feel I knew its propulsion systems inside and out, and I don’t even drive a car.

In fact, I don’t know that I’m even comfortable calling the novel science fiction: the adventure, detail, and high-seas action puts me more in mind of Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt than any literary spaceman.

Reading time: One week at a leisurely summer pace (though maintaining that gets hard about halfway in, when the real action starts to build)

Recommendation: For general fiction readers, not just SF fans

Available: In both paperback and ebook form– and at the $0.99 Kindle price, readers get a major return on their money

For more commentary, see:

The more things change… (review 1)

Beyond the Pale (review 2)

Beyond the Pale (review 2: Pale Boundaries)

7 Jul

The universe is full of bastards, Terson Reilly tells his probation officer.  And in Scott Cleveland’s novel, we meet a lot of them: from the vigilante Reilly to the shady poacher Neil Sorenson to the Hal Tennison, head of the Nivian mafia, Pale Boundaries gives readers a cross-section of an alien world’s underworld.

The second half of the book brings to the fore a character who’s been, until now, perhaps the one reputable, law-abiding man in the novel: Maalan “by-the-book” Bragg (and that’s actually his nickname, albeit from probatee Reilly).  When Bragg becomes a material witness in the murder of Reilly’s wife (oops, did I give that away?), his entire world comes crashing down.  Nivia, remember, is the organized, ordered, regimented and squeaky-clean planet of environmental zealotry and strict population control.  Shiny happy people, all.  But Bragg quickly discovers that the world is not such a civilized place as he imagined–something Terson Reilly’s known his entire life.  Culture is a veneer, and it’s kill-or-be-killed in the Algran Asta bush once more.  Bragg has some trouble adjusting.  Shoot, he gets ill at the thought of possibly killing a man.

Halsor Tennison has no such qualms.  And before I say anything else, let’s get this straight: as much as I’m inclined to call him a badass (okay, fine, I already do), he’s definitely public enemy number one and Pale Boundaries‘s scariest bastard, period.  Terson Reilly might break the law for the sake of survival, but it’s Hal’s way of life–and his is the friggin’ creepiest sociopathic demeanor on Nivia.  Though Hal wins the reader to his side up to the dramatic climax build in the fourth quadrant of the book–convincing me at least that his Minzoku rival Den Tun must be the epitome of scheming evil–Hal’s pretty damn quick to use a needle beam.  The best Hal Tennison, Murderer scene?

“I think that’s all I need,” Hal growled as he raised his arm and put a needle beam through the back of [censored for spoilers]’s head.  The man’s skull vented its contents though his eye sockets, spraying chum across the surface of the pool.  His body fell into the pool next to his son.  Spasms shook his body as he sucked in water, lost buoyancy, and sank.

“You shouldn’t have done that!” Tamara gasped.

“The gaijin betrayed Hal-san,” Dayuki declared approvingly.

Right, Dayuki.  The culture and history of the Minzoku unfolds elegantly through the course of the novel (about halfway through, we get an interesting explanation of the causes of humankind’s “Exodus” to the stars–something a blogger named after Frank Herbert’s diaspora is always interested it) and makes Dayuki a believable character in all her cold counsel and religious fanaticism.  In sum, Dayuki’s a pretty impressive sociopath herself, which is great: no science fiction novel can succeed without a couple seriously creepy characters.

Clever criminal or cold-blooded killer (too much alliteration there?), loyal second to seriously disturbed consort… these are some of the lines that our heroes (and bastards) cross in Scott Cleveland’s Pale Boundaries.  Beta Continent is one of the gray areas on the borderlands of Nivia’s strict black-and-white morality.  But ambiguity is nowhere greater than in the person of our protagonist himself, Terson Reilly.  He uses the titular terminology in his thoughts about the clash of cultures he represents on Nivia:

Guilt stabbed Terson under the ribs with such ferocity that he flinched.  Ultimately no matter who did the deed or the degree that Virene willingly participated, her death was Terson’s responsibility.  He was the one who led her beyond the pale of her society, made her the target of criminals… he who didn’t protect her when she needed him most.

And it’s not just Terson personally–it’s the entire set of survival assumptions he brings with him that pushes him over a cultural boundary:

Commonwealth law held that self-preservation was insufficient excuse to hazard another vessel or habitat and that doing so subjected the offender to the possibility of capital punishment.  The concept of death through voluntary inaction went beyond the pale of human instinct, but it was pounded into the head of every ship’s crew until their ears bled.

I imagine the very thought made Terson Reilly’s ears threaten hemorrhage.  This is, remember, the frontier man who was shot in the head at such a young age that his skull plates hadn’t yet fused.

I won’t give away the ending, but let’s just say that the resolution doesn’t disappoint.  But be aware: any book with a title like Pale Boundaries is bound to leave some ambiguity itself.

The More Things Change… (review 1: Pale Boundaries)

6 Jul

The year 2709 sounds a long ways away.  But in Scott Cleveland’s science fiction thriller, space colonization and interplanetary crime syndicates don’t seem so alien when they’re populated by the highly realistic characters of Pale Boundaries.

Although the first couple chapters and their in-depth explanations of the social hierarchy and political landscape of planet Nivia struck me as a bit expository, the pace picked up considerably when the story turned from introductory stage-setting to a more character-driven plot.

Pale Boundaries’s hero (maybe antihero’s a better word) Terson Reilly arrives on Nivia a rough man from a rough planet—Nivia proves nothing like the dangerous bush of Algran Asta, where Reilly risked life and limb as a smuggler (four men die in the prologue, for goodness’s sake).  But while Algran Asta shaped his character and gave him heightened self-preservation instincts—he’s the consummate survivor—this foreign world he’s been exiled to turns all that upside down.  Poaching, after all, ranks somewhere between incest and murder on this hyper-environmentally-conscious planet.

Reilly as the rugged individualist dropped down into a disapproving society strikes an interesting note in the cultural climate of 2010 America.  Pale Boundaries is by no means a political manifesto (even if the law enforcement/environmental law enforcement officers on Nivia are called the EPEA), but there’s an interesting premise here: what happens when “civilization” comes head to head with basic human nature?  One of the best examples is the environment-protecting policy that drives not only Reilly but his probation officer Captain Bragg completely crazy: mandatory contraception, pregnancy-by-application, and strict population control.

The colonists of Nivia has made a prize of the most basic biological drive and began fighting for their children’s lives before they’ve even been conceived.  Terson knew, without a doubt, that somewhere in the room was a person willing to destroy a friendship, betray a spouse, and perhaps even plot murder if they believed it could get them a child.

It’s Reilly’s realism confronted by the “naïve realism” of Nivia—best represented by another strong, fleshed-out character: Terson’s wife Virene.

Though they meet at Captain Bragg’s office (Virene’s not quite squeaky clean herself), the pretty dark-haired barmaid affecting the posture of a rebel (favorite pastime: taking up four spaces in a parking lot for her sports car), Virene’s a Nivia girl at heart—just as Reilly chafes under the strictures of this highly-ordered society, Virene blushes furiously when Reilly jokingly calls her “my horny little poacher.”  Virene can’t quite adapt to her husband’s criminal tendencies, however attractive she finds the bad boy archetype.

“Their world was certain, stable and uncomplicated,” Reilly thinks, “A condition that ran completely counter to the environment of rugged self-reliance that produced Terson’s pessimistic realism.”

It’s kind of a commentary on the values of a complacent, comfortable American culture today versus that heroic image of the frontiersman who tamed the West.  When Reilly comments on the “environmentally zealotry of youth,” I can’t help picturing the Go Green! posters plastered around my University’s residence halls every move-in day.

But let’s get back to the heart of Pale Boundaries.

Cleveland crafts a number more believable characters with their own engaging storylines.  There’s Halsor Tennison, legacy boss of a powerful criminal organization on Nivia’s Beta Continent—a rougher place than Nirene’s tame Saint Anatone.  Hal’s a sharp, enterprising thirty-something whose “only regret was not accomplishing as much as his predecessors.”  For him, that means crime, counterfeiting, and general villainy.

Pale Boundaries, you might have gathered, isn’t just a ride to the future, but to the future’s underworld—the rebels, criminals, and disenfranchised.  Surprisingly, they’re all sympathetic.  (My favorite so far?  Cormack MacLeod, the Scottish space hobo whose scenes are a guaranteed laugh out loud, every time).

Hal might plot the overthrow of a rival or destroy scientific research labs via arson, but he’s a good foil for Reilly: Halsor Tennison isn’t the most patient man in the Nivia Prime sector, but he’s not about to go on a shooting spree in a fit of rage (for the record, Reilly’s rage is pretty damn justified at the part I’m thinking of).  With the uber-rational—not to mention beautiful—Lieutenant Dayuki by his side, Hal’s going to pursue his self-interest just as determinedly as Reilly, but with a lot more subtle scheming and a lot less visits to a probation officer.  His cool encounters with Dayuki are parsecs away from the passionate Reilly and Virene, but the characterization of the Beta continent criminals is no less realistic.  In fact, Dayuki might be the most fleshed-out character of them all.

Early descriptions of Nivian culture were a little heavy, true, but the complex relationship of the Family and their until-now submissive Minzoku allies.  The honor-obsessed world of Dayuki is revealed through dialogue and plot, not blocks of explanation—and it makes the Beta Continent chapters some of my absolute favorites.  The Minzoku have a history, a language, and a distinct way of life that Cleveland reveals slowly and subtlely.  But once again, it’s believable because it’s not too foreign.  A Japanese-founded colony on a new world that preserves continuity from the Pacific islands of ancient Earth is a ton more believable than the my-name-is-a-number futures of so many science fiction books.

So here I am at the halfway point, enjoying the characterization and sensing a tension build as the unrelated story threads of Reilly and Virene, Hal and Dayuki, even Cormack and a fellow baffle-rider (kind of like a train-hopping hobo… in space) slash snotty rich kid named Philip Sorenson begin to weave together.

But best of all is the fact that even as the determinism of an author’s pen draws them together, nothing feels contrived.  The cultures are realistic, and the characters are real–even in 2709.

Just goes to show–the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Review part 2 on the way.  Just as soon as I figure out why the hell Hal’s crazy ex-girlfriend Tamara just order a hit on… never mind.  On to chapter 12!