Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Review of Chance Maree's Undazzled

Subtitled: Planet of the – What?

As the planet Earth is dying, it appears that we've come full circle. We're again using beasts of burden for transport. However, these aren't earth hugging camels and mules, but space travelling “worm-moles” – so named because they bore worm holes to distant parts of the gallaxy. They're gigantic creatures, and they wear what would make up the rest of the space ship, like a collar. How were they discovered? Hold that question for the last and climactic chapter of the book.

The people best equipped to pilot a worm-mole are upper middle-aged women, dubbed “crones”. A part of the worm-mole's brain extends into the bridge deck like an easy-chair, and the “crone” sits naked in it as it engulfs her body, except for her face, so she can communicate with the creature through her skin.

Pots Khan-Anderson is a crone, who pilots Alpha Horizon – “Alphie” for short. Earth is dying, and the race is on to relocate as much of humanity as possible (or a chosen representation thereof) to three habitable planets in a different part of the galaxy. These planets are thought not to be already inhabited by intelligent life. The Alpha Horizon is taking the first load.

Something very surreal begins to happen along the way – in fact, very weird – which almost gives the story a fantasy edge. Then, when they arrive, they discover, they aren't alone. Another race, closely approximating humans, inhabits the planet – a primative tribe not much different from Native Americans (at least that's how they struck me as I read it). In fact, because of the surreal thing that happened along the way, they look more human than the newcomers.

There are a number of narrative points of view, each told in the third person. Each chapter is named for the POV. The first is Pots, followed by the commander, Gunner Dovmont, and then the teenager who is thought to be his son, Tyr Dovmont. Among later chapters are Ata, a pre-teen girl, a native of the planet.

Commander Gunner meditates on Taoist proverbs. Each chapter contains at least one quotation. Despite that, he's the villain. We find out early in the narrative what he intends to do about the native population – but not so early that telling you wouldn't be a spoiler. But from the first, we see that he and Pots definately don't get along. Since Pots isn't military personel – rather works directly for NASA, which has become privatised – that's okay. Montalbam, the captain of the Alpha Horizon is her boss. Commander Gunner's command is over the actual settlement on the new planet.

Tyre is a hybrid human, the product of an experiment that had to be aborted when the public found out about it. The other young subjects, believed not to be human, had to be put down. Gunner knew the doctor in charge of the project, and managed to keep Tyre for his own purposes. However, we soon find that Tyre, though a deadly weapon in the wrong hands (namely Gunner's), does have feelings and a mind of his own whenever he has control over his own actions.

Those who understand the history of Native Americans and the rise of the U.S., will get a lot out of this. While Gunner and his colleagues seek to avoid some of the same mistakes, things still go awry – human nature hasn't changed. There are the same questions: Whose land is it? How can we co-exist when earth-human survival is the priority? Plus a few more: Who are the fabled “people in the canyon”, whom the local tribesmen threaten will squash the newcomers like vermin if they infest the land? Are they no more than a local legend, or is there something more...? And that surreal effect I mentioned earlier...

Chance Maree handles her characters very well. One of my favourite scenes is the screening of The Planet of the Apes on the new colony. Things have happened, people are upset with each other for various reasons, and Chance masterfully plays two or three conversations at once while keeping us aware of what Charlton Heston is doing during the opening scenes of the film.

Over all, a good read. I give it five stars.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Review of R. Leib's The Negative's Tale

subtitle: brilliant fictional science in a tale within a tale

Allon Wu lives sometime in our distant future – far enough for people, having aged 300 with the help of their non-sentient clones, to have become bored with life – plus enough time for us to have developed that technology. Alternatively, one could figure in the time it'll take us to get around the barriers to faster-than-light travel, and then populate the farthest reaches of our galaxy.
The latter technology is one in which our protagonist plays an essential part, through his psychic ability. But first, let's start with how faster-than-light travel is possible to begin with: it's those factors that also make time-travel impossible, that are combined so as to complement each other, that make faster-than-light travel possible. When it's done right, computers can then be used to calculate the variables that will relocate the ship to anywhere in the universe – within certain limits. However, things can still go horribly wrong through various distortions in the cosmos, and that's where a navigators with psychic abilities comes in. Only they can detect those distortions so as to make the necessary mid-course adjustments. So, one or two such “navigators” are required for every interstellar flight.
Allon Wu's particular ability is rare. He's a dowser with negative orientation. As a “negative”, he's able to enter the mind of any psychic of “positive” orientation, and make use of their ability. His use of his ability as a dowser (finding things, or hitting on the right course of action) is also affected by his negative orientation. The right course of action is usually the one his normal intuition tells him is the most unlikely, so he has to learn act counter-intuitively – almost in a New Testament sort of way: becoming small in order to achieve greatness, losing your life to gain it, etc.
Leib's fictional science is brilliant. Not being a nuclear physicist myself, I don't know where the hard science ends and his ingenuity begins. Not having read every sci fi novel ever written, I don't know if anyone else has thought of this sort of work-around to faster-than-light travel – with the possible exception of myself (I used something I called “logical relocation” in one of my novels, but I didn't explain it in nearly so much detail – and I didn't use psychics).
The technical details are explained to 10-year-old Allon Wu by his aged instructor, Professor Billgore at the beginning of one of the two story-lines in this narrative. That's the other unique feature of Leib's novel; he's actually telling two stories.
The main story is the one in which the adult Allon Wu has been commissioned by his estranged wife, a Vice Admiral, to solve a suspected murder on board a space station cum city. The background story is told, initially through flash-backs, and then continued in the form of a story he tells his colleagues during pauses in their action – thus the “Negative's Tale”. The “tale” actually takes longer than the main story. It begins with a workplace accident that changed the direction of his career, then further back to the age of ten, when he began his education as a “second navigator”, then his romance with the Vice Admiral that began in the wake of his career change following the accident. The story he tells his two colleagues is of a trip to distant star system in pursuit of a murderous religious fanatic who has almost killed his admiral/wife, and is on his way to systematically kill more people. On this trip, he interacts with non-human extraterrestrials, which, interestingly, one of his old professors claimed didn't exist. Both stories come to a great finish.
Personally, I loved the innovative style of this book. I can see how some might prefer a more standard approach, but I loved it. Although there may have been a few non-standards glitches such as switching points of view in mid scene, a few over-long descriptions and a little bit of unnaturalness in some parts of the dialogue; the great story-telling carried it for me, so I'm giving it a fiver.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Review of Donna Jo Napoli's "King of Mulberry Street"

subtitle: Homeless Children as a Literary Genre
In my opinion, there should be a new genre added to the list, called "street kids" or "homeless children". It would be a sub-genre to others, such as memoirs and true life experience, for example, Justin Reed Early's Street Child: A Memoir which I've downloaded and plan to read next, Fr. Joe Maier's Welcome to the Bangkok Slaughterhouse, whom I had the privilege of working with in Bangkok; science fiction/cyberpunk, such as my own Pepe; or current or historical fiction, such as Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, Fallen Angels: Stories of Los Gamines, and, definitely not least, Donna Jo Napoli's The King of Mulberry Street, which I've just finished reading. While accepting it as a literary genre, however, let's be careful not to romanticise it too much, remembering that these things really do happen to real children in many parts of the world.

Whether historical, futuristic or present, certain factors always remain the same. Human nature hasn't, and will probably never change. Cruel opportunists exited in Dicken's time, they exit now, and will exist in the future (judging by the way things are going). Examples include the "padrones" in Dom Napoli's late 19th century New York, where they helped children to emigrate, but kept them as slaves, working them on the streets. And what about futuristic technology? The street kids are too busy trying to keep themselves fed to worry about that, let alone afford any of it. If anything, it makes their lives worse. Street kids of all ages don't even wear shoes -- with the exception of Dom Napoli, whose mother thoughtfully bought him a pair shortly before sneaking him on board a freighter to America.

When I refer to Dom Napoli, I mean the main character of the narrative written by author Donna Jo Napoli. Dom, the character, is a nine-year-old Italian Jewish boy from Naples, and is based on what the author, Donna, imagines her own ancestor to be (who emigrated at the age of five). Like Donna's ancestor, Dom finds himself totally alone in America. He chooses the surname of Napoli because that's where he's from. He doesn't know a word of English, but he's heard that Mulberry Street is where there are people who speak Italian with the Napoli dialect. He follows a man whom he heard asking directions to Mulberry Street, until he arrives there. Maybe, he hopes, he'll find an uncle he knew to have emigrated there previously. He doesn't. Instead, he sleeps in an old barrel not far from a dead dog -- at least no one bothers him all night. But what next...?

Dom seems to be quite an intelligent and resourceful boy for his age, and he actually makes it, and becomes successful at selling sandwiches and helping out his friends. One might be tempted to think that the story isn't very realistic on this point, but it has happened before. At least the author's great-grandfather survived on his own as a five-year-old immigrant and, although the details of that are sketchy, did eventually start a similar business. One rule of writing fiction is, "Truth is stranger than fiction" – meaning that regardless of miracles that may happen in real life, fiction has to remain believable. Donna Jo Napoli, at least, kept this rule by making her main character a nine-year-old instead of a five-year-old.

In a street kid's everyday life, there are plenty of obstacles to overcome -- enough to fill up any literary genre. Life on the streets can be as dangerous as jungle warfare, or laser battles in an alien landscape. There's plenty of possible action to draw on. If anything, the writer's challenge is deciding whether he/she has made it too easy on the main character, or made life too dismal for the reader to enjoy -- I speak from experience. In reality, some people do survive a childhood like that, but in fiction there must be a balance between reality, believability, and maintaining it as a pleasant read. Remember, “truth is stranger than fiction (and must be kept so)”. On the other hand, I don't think any realistic story about homelessness can be told without relating at least one tragedy, as also happens in The King of Mulberry Street. Donna Jo Napoli has handled all these factors like a pro.

As historical fiction goes, Donna Jo also pulls it off well. Not only does she portray street life in New York, but also nineteenth century Naples – including some things one doesn't find in fiction. Back then, it was actually normal to see kids skinny-dipping in the river or seaside both in Europe and in America, as we also see from the paintings of that era, by the likes of Joaquin Sorolla Bastida and George Wesley Bellows, and the photography of Francis Sutcliffe. But one of the last things Dom's mother told him, besides things like “Watch and learn”, “Get an education” and “Simply survive”, was don't undress in front of other people. That was to hide his circumcision, which would lead to another hazard of that age – anti-Semitism. That, and keeping kosher is another of Dom's challenges in the New World. Not only is he resourceful, but his vulnerability on one hand, and his generous heart on the other, make him an endearing character.

All of it is narrated from inside Dom's head. It's in first-person past-tense, but it could have just as well have been present tense. Donna Jo puts us right there in Dom's shoes. Yes, I get it – he did have shoes.