Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, by Philip K. Dick

October 5, 2013 at 09:13 (Book Reviews, Dystopia, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction) (, , )




Another of Dick’s non-science fiction novels, Humpty Dumpty is more notable for its carefully constructed style than for its story. It might not have mattered what Dick wrote about here; as much as how he wrote it. Indeed, there is the distinct feeling that the book might have been a hundred and fifty pages shorter, or six hundred pages longer, and with much the same set of results and level of enjoyment as in its actual form.

“What a waste it had all been. All the work. Devotion to fixing people’s cars…All those years, he thought. And before, trying different things. Had he learned anything?”

-Humpty Dumpty in Oakland

At times Dick appears to be emulating the voice of a latter-day Steinbeck, peeling back the shiny bakelite exterior of the postwar boom to point his spotlight at ordinary and irrational people making bad decisions and doing foolish things. Less sympathetic than the Joads, certainly; but easier to identify with, even if the reader recoils in awkward realisation at the identification.

Written before the majority of his science fiction work, it is truly interesting to see the similarities between Humpty Dumpty‘s Jim Fergesson and Al Miller, and later characters like Joe Chip or Rick Deckard, and even to speculate towards some of the stylistic choices that buoyed up Dick’s fantastic imagination and contributed so much to his success. Decades before a greasy and industrial aesthetic became a defining trait in the science fiction genre, Dick was already fascinated with the working class, the uneducated, the addicted and the vast multicoloured array of virtues and vices that they shared.

It is difficult to decide whether this book ought to be recommended to regular readers of Philip K. Dick and other speculative fiction, or for readers of Arthur Miller and shabby grey realism. It is remarkably far from the beaten track for the former, and doesn’t really compare all that favourably for the latter. Difficult, then, to decide for whom it ought to be recommended; but not difficult to recommend.


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The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

April 20, 2013 at 22:47 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Dystopia, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, Thriller) (, , , )




This is not a good book. The authors might have encyclopaedic knowledge of all there is to know about early Victorian England, but that evidently does not qualify them to write about it. In fact, the overwhelming impression a reader will be smothered with is that the pages are crammed with lists, compendia, tallies—endless nattering and gibbering—put down anything on the page, anything! So long as it looks period-authentic, and so long as it sounds old-timey, and so long as it’s got something to do with steam or antiques.

This book is packed to the gills with the sort of rubbish one might expect from people who think everything in the Middle Ages was “Olde”, and who imagine peasants to have spent their days doest-thou-ing and verilying. A lot of style over substance, but a mongrel, desperate sort of style. One only has to read Dickens or Melville or Stevenson or even Austen to realise that even in the olden days, people did not speak how Gibson and Sterling’s horrid pantomime mockneys and lords speak.

“Still, she did have some things she was ‘specially fond of, and these went, along with the undergarments, into her brocade portmanteau with the split seam she’d meant to mend. There was a lovely bottle of rose-scented Portland water, half-full, a green paste brooch from Mr. Kingsley, a set of hairbrushes with imitation ebony backs, a miniature flower-press with a souvenir view of Kensington Palace, and a patent German curling-iron she’d nicked from a hair-dresser’s. She added a bone-handled tooth-brush and a tin of camphorated dentrifice.”

-The Difference Engine

An unforgiveable sin in literature is an author’s laziness. In The Difference Engine another sin is laid bare: the sin of trying much too hard.

Quite besides the stylistic failings that make this book so painful and embarrassing to read, is the terrible state that the actual story itself tangles into. Absolutely nothing of any significance takes place within the first fifty or sixty pages. While a decent head of steam is built up shortly thereafter with a mystery to solve and protagonists and villains nicely lined up, the authors then make the inexplicable decision to bring everything to a screeching halt, and proceed with an entirely new tangentially-related plot. To crown the entire mess, the story finishes about a hundred pages before the book actually ends. The mystery is wound up, the villains despatched, the heroes safely accounted for…and the silly thing plods on, like a lumbering beast mortally wounded, yet too stupid to succumb.

Entire subplots are woven into this book for no satisfactory reason, other than to showcase things. Elsewhere in this review site, it has been mentioned that authors of alternate histories fall so much in love with their own cleverness and adroit reconfiguration of history, that the tail begins to wag the dog, and any pretense of telling a good story utterly vanishes. The Difference Engine does not make it quite so far, but not for lack of trying. There are artefacts and truncated plot lines and characters littered like dross through the book. Pages at a time could be cut out without consequence, because they introduce ideas or characters with no bearing whatsoever on the story.

Any author might be excused for mentioning unrelated details offhand. Tension must be built, scenes must be set, characters must be developed. Shakespeare had his gravediggers, Hugo his Waterloo. But Gibson and Sterling suffer from a rather catastrophic collaboration of crises: their asides are frequently more interesting that the fifty pages of dead space that precede them; their insignificant intrusions come typically just as tension has finally reached some paltry critical mass, and stifle any chance of a revival of the story; their tangents introduce questions that are unanswered, clues that go unsolved, promises that are not kept. Frankly, they are an annoyance that this weak book cannot afford, and ought to have been edited out at the first draft.

There are occasional sparks of light, though they often serve to illuminate only the shoddy work surrounding them. For those interested in the bric-a-brac of a time gone by, Gibson and Sterling provide a rich table. The adjective “rich” could here describe a banquet, a bank account, or an overpowering odour, and its richness will be of limited interest to most readers. There are the buried germs of an interesting (though not brilliant) sort of Victorian thriller; perhaps a facsimile of one of the Penny Dreadfuls that they make sure to reference a few times, so that their readers know they’re really getting authenticity. The only remaining virtue of this book is its honest conjecture on an age of mechanical computing, and some geopolitical, scientific, and sometimes jocular ruminations on the world that Babbage and his ilk might have made. It seems that it was this core around which an unprofessional and unlovely story was wrapped. Unwrapping it might not be wise.

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Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank

November 18, 2012 at 17:57 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Dystopia, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mediocre Books, War and Politics) (, , , )


A deeply interesting and occasionally exciting piece of speculative fiction, with some surprising and rather drastic swings between poles of optimism and pessimism. The lure of this book is the story and the hypotheses, not the quality or skill of the writing, but Frank does a better job than might be expected of him under the circumstances, and comes away with something better than the common-or-garden airport novelist. As thriller writers go, he is a good sight better than Ludlum, and might be ranked between Puzo on a bad day or Clancy at his best.

“Edgar rocked in his chair, furious. It wasn’t a reason. It was a riddle. He repeated Randy’s words. They made no sense at all, unless Mark expected some big cataclysm, like all the banks closing, and of course that was ridiculous.”

-Alas, Babylon

Considering the bleak and horrific subject of the story, the book is extremely mild, and would make an excellent choice for teenage readers, perhaps as part of a curriculum. That is to say, it is neither provocative nor grotesque, and is at least as sociological as it is geopolitical. There are more questions of small-town politics and living off the land than there are of tactical decisions or ethical dilemmas.

It ought to be asked: should a book be panned, simply because there is little sensational about it? Should a story remain unexplored, simply because the problems and crises faced by its inhabitants generally last no longer than one of the chapters? Alas, Babylon is heavier on the speculation than on the fiction, and Pat Frank is not the most imaginative of writers, but for all its mildness this is an interesting book, and one which succeeds in keeping a patient reader on his toes, and even sometimes surprised. Those left disappointed or wanting more must stop and wonder if Pat Frank has cheated out of a more meticulous story, or if he has neglected to tell the sort of story they were expecting. The choices he makes particularly in the omissions of certain details and subjects are blinders he chooses to wear out of respect for his blinkered and isolated protagonists, not necessarily because of his inability to tell a more holistic story, but because of his keen interest in his smaller scope.

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A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick

September 9, 2012 at 11:53 (Book Reviews, Dystopia, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Science Fiction, Thriller) (, , , )


It might be difficult to assign this book to a genre, had not Philip K. Dick done the world the service of establishing himself so thoroughly as one of the world’s most skilful writers of science fiction. And so there it is, and after briefly pausing to note that this book is indeed set in a dystopian future with technology foreign to true life, it can be determined. Another pulp sci-fi paperback, by another pulp sci-fi author. Easy, quick, and almost entirely wrong.

“Once a guy stood all day shaking bugs out of his hair.”

-A Scanner Darkly

Philip K. Dick strayed occasionally from “his” genre, it is true. But what he excelled at was writing engrossing and detailed stories with occasional science fiction dressings draped over them. The Man in the High Castle is more of a spiritual and religious quest than it is either historical or science-fictional; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep might have been written in 1950s America or in the distant future; and A Scanner Darkly, as its title suggests, is a hard and gritty crime-noir with plaintive and deep questions about the human experience, long before it could ever be called a science-fiction story.

This, then, is a science fiction novel for those who are not immediately attracted by science fiction. It is intelligent and exciting, if a little anticlimactic. The story is clever, but this is mostly a semi-autobiographical reimagining of Philip K. Dick’s own experiences with drugs, and lacks closure and occasionally some coherence. Among the best that Philip K. Dick has to offer, and maybe the most representative of his style and revealing of his view on life.

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Anthem, by Ayn Rand

June 23, 2012 at 21:09 (Book Reviews, Comedy, Dystopia, Fiction, Philosophy, Poorly Rated Books, War and Politics) (, , , )


It is important to not mince words. Ayn Rand was a hack, a shuddering and grating alarm blaring a single-noted siren with a stygian monotony. She never knew Dante, but if she had, she would surely have figured in his magnum opus as one of the particularly graceless staff of his infernal establishment. It would not be an exaggeration to say that she represents the absolute bottom rung of the tiresome ladder of the written word, pasting up antisocial complaints and hideously self-satisfied whining and expecting it to be hailed as literature.

But let the philosophers judge her defunct philosophies for what they are! It is for the students of literature to pick over the carcass they have left, and see if there remains an actual story beneath the epistle of this raving prophet. In Atlas Shrugged, the clear answer is no. In Anthem, the answer might be a little more complicated.

“I do not surrender my treasures, nor do I share them. The fortune of my spirit is not to be blown into coins of brass and flung to the winds as alms for the poor of the spirit. I guard my treasures, my thought, my will, my freedom; and the greatest of these is freedom.”


In her favour, there is a story to be found: a light dystopia such as Lois Lowry might have penned for children; a simple parable with an equally simple message behind it. Never mind that the message in Rand’s case is abhorent. At least it is a story, and told in a consistent if petulant voice. She aspires to Orwell and ends up with a juvenile pulp novelette, but although the product is trite, rushed and muddled, it is at least not nauseating.

A great deal of this changes in the penultimate chapter, which is the light version of John Galt’s speech in her more famous book. There are no apologies, no warnings, and if ever there were a distilled version of Rand’s own ten verbose commandments, they would be found starkly inscribed here. A tedious chapter and a predictable and shabby end for a book, but the fact that this one chapter is so noticeably worse than the others, is a pyrrhic point in favour for Anthem.

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Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

February 18, 2012 at 15:52 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Dystopia, Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , , , )


It is important for a reader to be able to trust an author. Sometimes this is easy, and from the very first line of a book, a reader will relax in the knowledge that this is a writer who will not let them down, and whose every sentence is lovingly crafted and set into place with careless ease and sensational beauty. As a contrast, sometimes a reader will read tensely, silently and unconsciously praying that a writer will not drop the ball, and will make it to the end without tripping over and breaking something. This matter of trust does not necessarily affect the quality of the book. Bad authors can begin with undeserved confidence only to ruin their book chapters in, and good books can begin stiltingly. Dickens, for instance, can begin his books very precariously. And Suzanne Collins began this trilogy with two very pleasing entries, both above-average novels. Throughout The Hunger Games, a lot of the mistrust was wrapped around her tenuous and shaky writing whenever she wrote about her dystopic society. When she managed to convincingly describe this dystopia in Catching Fire, a lot of the nervous feeling was focussed on whether or not she could write a second gladiatorial book without ending up with a pale shadow of the first.

“Within seconds, a low-flying V-shaped formation of Capitol hoverplanes appears above us, and the bombs begin to fall. I’m blown off my feet, into the front wall of the warehouse. There’s a searing pain just above the back of my right knee. Something has struck my back as well, but doesn’t seem to have penetrated my vest.”


Finally, this trust deficit has caught up with her. It is impossible to miss the feeling that Collins has constantly been on a precipice with her writing, and that she has extended herself just a little too far. Although not necessarily a bad piece of writing, Mockingjay contains some very palpable flaws, and brings this series to a disappointing and anticlimactically lukewarm end. The problems begin almost immediately: apparently not satisfied with the cliffhanger she left herself with at the end of the last book, Collins quickly and awkwardly wraps up all of her loose ends, before launching the story in a new and unpredictable direction: mental instability. Writing a breakdown for Katniss makes for uncomfortable reading, and is seldom convincing. The result is a hundred-page tantrum, interspersed with unsettling episodes where the suspension of disbelief is deucedly difficult.

It did not look in the first book like Collins could write dystopia. She wrote marvellously. It did not look in the second book like she could write romance. She did. Strangely then, it is the sort of writing she has already proved that gives another stumbling block here. Having taken gladiatorial combat in her stride, Collins redirects this book into some sort of juvenile special forces narrative, falling rather flat. It is Mockingjay’s ending, then, that provides the only light in this dingy tunnel. A handful of rather intriguing twists and turns make for an unnecessarily preachy but exciting and surprising conclusion, and a vague sense of regret that the ending was connected to the earlier storylines (the mental breakdown and the special forces assault) by the most tenuous of links. A mixed bag, and a flawed ending to an otherwise good series.

Related reviews:
The Hunger Games
Catching Fire

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Waverly Hall: Relois, by Brian Melton

January 14, 2012 at 17:42 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Dystopia, Fantasy, Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , , )


Brian Melton is a strong writer with some truly moving and poetic descriptive writing. He also seems to have difficulty in deciding what sort of story he wants to tell. The basic premise of Relois appears to be a mixed homage to C. S. Lewis, with an uncertainly sketched protagonist finding her way into one of the many worlds hypothesised in The Magician’s Nephew. Melton is strong when writing originally–the Hall where the story begins is exciting and fresh, and begs deeper investigation, for instance–but the crutch he uses in adapting existing works ends up hobbling him whenever it is given too much attention.

“‘I like you,’ she said, ‘I’m sorry you’re gonna die tonight.'”

-Waverly Hall: Relois

The story changes abruptly about a quarter of the way through, and Relois becomes a gentle dystopic adventure. While his pen flows as lyrically as before, the sudden change in subject and in feeling can only be disconcerting. In the second act, the reader is hurried from one location to the next without being given a great deal of time to absorb or have any real tactile encounter with the fantastical world. Obviously a slow and gentle exploration is not mandatory in a story, but given where Melton’s strengths and weaknesses lie it feels like an opportunity has been missed here.

The chief verdict when considering this book must be that Melton is an able writer who has not yet discovered how to plan a convincing or compelling plot. There are pacing problems and wooden portrayals around every corner, and he seems to distractedly flit from one character to another without really landing on whose story he is telling. A further frustration comes in Melton’s Christian message, which is laid out without much subtlety or care, and is an exasperating obfuscation that even a Christian reader will be constantly banging his shins against. These flawed asides are misconstrued, and are some of the lowest points of the book. Melton gives the impression that his book is an opportunity for a lecture rather than an invitation to a conversation.

It is important to be clear: Melton is not a Tolkien or a Dickens. He is not a Dosteovsky or a Rushdie, and he does not seem to want to be. He is writing a relatively simple children’s story, and judged by that criterion Relois has a degree of excitement in the right places, and is an interesting venture into a competently-written world. It aims at a certain mark, and it strikes near enough to satisfy. This book will probably not interest adult readers–particularly those adept enough to pick out Melton’s manifold and unwelcome “homages” to other works–but will be a pleasing (though not necessarily groundbreaking) diversion for younger readers.

And yes: X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter is, at one point, mentioned.

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Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

December 14, 2011 at 15:16 (Book Reviews, Dystopia, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Science Fiction) (, , , )


From the outset it is rather clear that for Ishiguro, the most important aspect of this work is its atmosphere; even before the decidedly dystopian plot, and even ahead of his devotion to sculpting intricate and interesting characters. In what is certainly a character-driven work, the most important character is Hailsham, the 1950s-styled boarding school, transplanted effortlessly forty years into the future and overlaid with dark secrets that are only darker for being so carelessly discussed and so frivolously and blithely made peripheral. Hailsham, with its grey and peeling facade and its feeling of being overcast even when sunny; like a half-remembered memory even when described in the present. It is this atmosphere, with its overtones of a long-past childhood memory of innocence, suddenly sullied, that pervades the book and remains throughout.

Speaking of innocence sullied, it is also worth noting that as this book dips into romance and, more properly, becomes a coming-of-age story, and although it deals with all sorts of sexual encounters between various characters, Ishiguro is gracious enough to do so at a distance, and without the sticky and graphic depictions that have become so fashionable of late. His focus, of course, is one of development, not of gratuitous sensuality.

“In any case he soon stopped and stood there, glaring after them, his face scarlet. Then he began to scream and shout, a nonsensical jumble of swear words and insults.”

-Never Let Me Go

It is admittedly difficult to find a niche in which to place this book, or a genre to define it. It is obviously deeply offensive to lovers of all literature when critics stand aghast and wonder why a “real” writer would dare to write in an unworthy genre (Sarah Kerr of the New York Times pedantically suggests Ishiguro is attempting to “upend [science fiction’s] banal conventions”). As if there were topics that “real” writers were unable to explore–or worse, that they were above exploring. But in what is quite clearly a science fiction masterpiece, Ishiguro remains rather distant from any of the tropes common to his chosen genre. He remains, in fact, stubbornly quiet on any real detail of his clone-filled dystopia, staying so far inside the heads of his characters as to offer only the vaguest hints: and then to offer only what they might have discovered.

It is once again that air of a guilty family secret that nobody–not even the author–dares talk about, and that nobody–not even the reader–wants to know the details of. That is the true measure of the success in this novel, and one of the key ways in which Ishiguro so successfully builds his atmosphere. It is real and frightening not only because of its verisimilitude, it is engaging not only because of Ishiguro’s melodious and poetic writing; but because the reader and writer partake of the same conspiracy as the characters and the world created in the book. An excellent novel, and well worth reading.

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Children of Men, by P. D. James

May 24, 2011 at 13:31 (Book Reviews, Dystopia, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Science Fiction) (, , , )


James writes a very imaginative premise, and carries it out very competently. Her ideas and her science are, unfortunately, significantly better than her writing, and the most immediate of her irritating habits emerges almost at once, and must be mentioned in any serious review of this book: her pathalogical need to draw detailed, grotesquely clinical and entirely unnecessary portraits of each and every character. Heaven preserve us when her sulky protagonist enters a room full of people.

It means without exception that each one of them will in turn be given the James treatment. Wide mouths, freckled olive skin, pixie ears, classical necks, or even just like that fellow from that movie in the ’30s. Remember him? No? Well, this character looks just like him. James needs to learn that readers don’t want this. Even readers who think they do, do not. Even without the entirely deviant adaptation of the book (with all its colouring and shaping of the characters it portrayed), these bizarre diversions into fotofit description are entirely unnecessary, and will drive the most patient reader to distraction.

Beneath this distracting obsession, there is a distinct absence of cheap science fiction props in the story. James seems to have made the decision to focus on the moods and attitudes of people in a post-apocalyptic world rather than the types of scooters they use, and even the strange tribal divisions of society play a clear second fiddle to the questions of the semi-voluntary euthanasia, the depression and anxiety, the boredom and the nihilism that is starkly opposed to the Christianity of Luke and Julian (not that their faith really means a great deal in the larger context of the story).

While this choice does go some way to boost and enhance the story, James’ vain attempt to make this a story of two men is as unfortunate as it is clumsy. Theo and his estranged cousin Xan (who is not, all evidence to the contrary, a klingon–apparently it’s an old English name) are written from the start as eternal rivals. Theo is a rich protagonist, although we have more backstory and time spent in his head than we really need to understand him. Xan, on the other hand, is nothing more nor less than another faceless dictator, and every link between the two is strained and unlikely. Despite the brave effort to show Xan’s motivations and his ruthless adherance to his unknown and unmentioned “principles”, he is simply too much of a nonentity for either his plight or his wickedness to really strike home. The lacklustre duel at the climax of the book is the final nail in the coffin of that second, cheaper story of two brothers in conflict, leaving readers mourning the stagnation of an otherwise cleverly written and much more cleverly imagined novel.

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The Giver, by Lois Lowry

April 12, 2011 at 13:36 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Dystopia, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Science Fiction) (, , , )


The Giver is, quite honestly, a bit of a fraud. It is very nice to think that in a world of sterilised memories and a tableau of soma-induced sameness, one boy’s borrowed experiences can shatter the brittle mirror of illusion, and send him plummeting headfirst into the real world, and into an adventure that will either refine or kill him. We like stories like this, filled with purgatory and a phoenix soul rising above the dross of temporal darkness; stories where it is so difficult and yet so simple to find a quick fix, nestled down in the back of that marvellous lump of fat, the human brain.

There is very little, however, that sets Jonas apart from those around him, who also live with the same experiences of death and trauma and agony, euthanising the old and young and disobedient with the placid grins of automatons, with their conditioning seemingly quite unaffected by the dark side of their world. It seems inconceivable that Jonas is able to so quickly, and with so little soul-rending, reject The Community; even more so that The Giver himself is equally ready to tear apart the utopia he has propagated. Suspicious minds will see clumsy fingerprints of a pedagogue author all over this charming and unbelievable happenstance.

It is a very pleasing tale of humanism that works, and of the innate good in all of us bubbling to the surface and sprouting butterly wings, or somesuch rot. Huxley and Orwell, Heller and Bradbury knew that people just aren’t like that.

Jonas’ easy evasion of The Community’s watchdogs, his own binary acception of The Community as wicked but misguided and his crusade to save Gabriel’s trebly worthless life (in what by all accounts ought to be his view) are all nice in a warm and fuzzy sort of way, but are rather hard to swallow.

We are left with a world of evil in which everyone is good, and a world of conformity where everyone is a secret rebel in masque, and nobody is conformed. The Community is one of the more organic dystopias imagineable, held up by a bizarre social contract, where Big Brother does not lurk behind monitors, but behind the faces of every schoolboy and parent; an intriguing concept, were it not for the inexplicable exception of the key characters. Read another way, this book gains a little more power when the frightening fact crops up that its heroes are things of fluff that cannot (and could never) exist; but the earnest attempts of this short story can be lauded only as a brave attempt to bring the dystopian genre to a younger audience, and will find it very hard to stand up on its own merits.

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