5 days ago

Secrets and lies in a young adult thriller, and it’s not science fiction

young adult thrillerThe Doubt Factory, by Paolo Bacigalupi

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Let’s start with a confession. I’ve been a fan of Paolo Bacigalupi’s science fiction ever since reading The Windup Girl, which I regard as one of the best sci-fi novels I’ve ever read. The future scenario the author portrays is compelling and strikingly imaginative, and I’ve found much the same evidence of creativity in his other science fiction novels. So I turned to another of Bacigalupi’s books, The Doubt Factory, expecting more of the same. It’s not. This one, set in the United States today, is a contemporary young adult thriller, pure and simple. Combining the author’s clever plotting and fluid prose with deft development of characters who are unique and believable, The Doubt Factory is an accomplished example of his craft. I liked it a lot even though it isn’t science fiction!

Alix Banks is a 17-year-old senior at an exclusive Connecticut prep school, daughter of the founder and chief executive of a public relations firm, Banks Strategy Partners. She lives with her parents and hyperactive younger brother, Jonah, in a luxurious suburban home near other wealthy executives and professionals. Alix is a top student and track star at Seitz Academy, but she has to work to get the top grades she and her parents expect. By contrast, her friend Cynthia effortlessly earns all As. Cynthia spends evenings and weekends “partying,” and routinely invites Alix to duck her parents and come along.

Meanwhile, a young man named Moses Cruz is somehow monitoring Alix’s every move at home and at school through surveillance devices that are obviously well hidden. Then Moses shows up in the quad at Seitz Academy in the midst of a massive prank that draws all eyes to him. Someone, somehow, has caused an enormous red tag (“2.0”) to show up on the side of the chemistry lab and released a prodigious number of white rats inside. As the rats scurry away over the quad, the headmaster attempts without success to detain Moses. A tall black man dressed in fatigues, he’s obviously out of place at Seitz, where students wear uniforms. Alix is fascinated and runs after him as he makes his escape from campus security and the police who’ve been called to the scene.

Moses calls his team 2.0. Like him, the other three are all brilliant teenage renegades: a Goth coder, a young gay man, and a 12- or 13-year old mechanical genius. They’re obviously up to something, but we won’t learn what until much later in the story. Whatever it is, it has something to do with the “Doubt Factory” of the title, but that name doesn’t show up until nearly halfway through the novel.

The Doubt Factory is an action-packed young adult thriller and the story of an unlikely romance as well. It’s all based on a monumental secret and the lies that are told to protect it.

FYI, my review of The Windup Girl is here: One of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read. Another novel set in the same imagined world is here: Another exceptionally good sci-fi novel from an emerging master. For my reviews of dozens of other thrillers, go to 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

7 days ago

Alien encounters of the strange kind in a captivating sci-fi novel

alien encountersRemnant Population, by Elizabeth Moon

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Stephen Spielberg’s iconic film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, appeared in 1977, starring Richard Dreyfuss and François Truffaut. Nearly forty years later, in 2016, Arrival covered similar territory with a cast headed by Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. Both films featured uniquely original ideas about the nature of the first alien encounter between the human race and an intelligent species on another world. In Remnant Population, originally published in 1996, American science fiction author Elizabeth Moon displays an equally imaginative idea about an alien encounter—on the printed page.

Remnant Population centers on the life of Ofelia Falfurrias, a widow who is seventy years old as the story opens. She lives with her unlovable youngest son and his demanding and disdainful wife, so it’s no surprise that Ofelia resolves to stay behind when the whole colony is shut down and the colonists shipped off to another planet. Ofelia revels in her aloneness, tending the vegetable garden, the sheep and cows, the “fabricator,” and the power plant that drives the refrigeration and stove in her home. For the first time in her life, nobody is telling Ofelia what to do. She loves it.

Months go by, then years. All of a sudden, a mission arrives on-planet to establish a new colony at a distant location. As the shuttles land, depositing teams of colonists, their landing site is viciously attacked and all the humans are killed in short order. The shuttles are destroyed by bombs some unknown species has placed there.

Much later, a group of the “monsters” who killed the human party begin showing up in Ofelia’s village. To them, she’s a monster, too. But each soon realizes that the other means them no harm. The locals, who call themselves the People, are endlessly curious. They follow Ofelia everywhere, observing everything she does. As Ofelia learns to distinguish individuals among them and to appreciate their child-like inquisitiveness, they grow to respect one another. It also becomes clear the People are extremely fast learners.

Then a second new human mission arrives to investigate why the colony’s power plant remains open. The corporation that evacuated the planet had insisted they’d turned everything off to prevent any potential intelligent life from gaining access to advanced human technology. The survey team includes exobiologists and exolinguists as well as soldiers because the bombing of the earlier landing site suggests that, against all odds, there may be an intelligent species on the planet. As they arrive in Ofelia’s town, the prospects for a friendly encounter seem dim. Ofelia is determined to keep things peaceful and protect her new friends among the People.

Elizabeth Moon skillfully tells her tale, building suspense all the while she develops characters as complex as humanity itself. The novel starts slowly, dwelling on Ofelia’s thoughts and feelings over the initial months after her family and neighbors had left. But it’s worth the wait. This is a truly delightful tale of an alien encounter unlike any you’ve ever imagined before.

Not long ago I reviewed a very different novel on a similar theme: Saturn Run by the thriller writer John Sanford and Stein. My review is at First Contact: Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind. On a slightly different vein, I recently posted A brief look at 15 important dystopian novels.

last week

From Connie Willis satire that doesn’t make me laugh

satireBellwether, by Connie Willis

@@ (2 out of 5)

I’m a big fan of satire. For instance, I love Christopher Buckley‘s books. Some of them make me laugh almost nonstop. But there’s nothing worse than a satirical tale that. Just. Isn’t. Funny. Unfortunately, that’s what I found in Bellwether by Connie Willis. Apparently, Willis wrote the novel to satirize scientists and corporate bureaucracy. But the characters and their behavior are over the top. To call them outrageous might be a compliment. A little restraint would have gone a long way.

So, how did I get sucked into reading this book in the first place, much less read it all the way to the end? Connie Willis is an extraordinarily talented science fiction and fantasy author. She has won eleven Hugo Awards and seven Nebula Awards—more major awards than any other writer in the field. Years ago, I was greatly impressed by her 1992 Nebula Award-winner about time travel, Doomsday Book. And the cover of Bellwether characterizes her (justifiably) as “one of science fiction’s best writers.” Unaccountably, Bellwether, published five years after Doomsday Book, was itself nominated for a Nebula Award. Suffice it to say that if I had been voting—I’m a long-time member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, though no longer a voting member—I would have gone for something much more in line with my idea of science fiction. Bellwether doesn’t cut it.

The novel’s protagonist is one Sandra Foster. She calls herself a scientist and engages in lots of mathematical calculations to prove it. She is analyzing fads and fashions for the unimaginatively named HiTek Company, presumably in an effort to discover how fads start and “how scientific discoveries come about.” (The connection between these two lines of inquiry is not obvious to me.) Management (capital “M”)—a person, not a category—of HiTek is interested in her work, she believes, because he is eager to learn how to start fads himself. Sandy is plagued by the rudeness and incompetence of the “interdepartmental assistant” who misdelivers mail, starts ugly rumors, and refuses to take on routine assignments such as photocopying. Compounding problems for Sandy, Management is obsessed with impossibly long forms on paper, which are impossible to understand, and with the latest acronym-laden management theory, which changes every few days. As I said, the story is over the top. But the situation becomes even more intolerable when Management decides that the entire scientific staff must bear down in an effort to win the prestigious, million-dollar Niebnitz Grant.

Each chapter in Bellwether begins with a brief description of one or another fad that has captivated humanity through the ages, from the hula hoop to quality circles, miniature golf, hot pants, coonskin caps, chain letters, and many more. Some of this material is interesting. But there’s entirely too much of it.

Eventually, Sandy teams up with a researcher in chaos theory named Bennett O’Reilly. Absurdly, Ben is attempting to learn what sets chaotic conditions in motion, apparently believing there must be some logic in a complex system. Will Sandy and Ben fall in love? Will they win the Niebnitz Grant? You shouldn’t have to read this book to figure it out.

For a successful effort at satire, see Self-help gurus get their comeuppance from Christopher Buckley or Washington and Beijing get what they deserve in this satirical novel of politics and diplomacy today.

a couple of weeks ago

A promising start to a new John Scalzi series

John Scalzi seriesThe Collapsing Empire (Interdependency #1), by John Scalzi

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

It’s not hard to see why John Scalzi has so many fans in the science fiction community. His writing is unusually accessible, frequently profane, and often funny. If anyone is writing expressly for the proverbial 14-year-old sci-fi fan, it’s John Scalzi. And there’s just enough of the 14-year-old still in me to love his work.

If you’re a fan, then you know that Scalzi is extremely prolific and you’re probably familiar with his writing. He’s best known for his six-book Old Man’s War series. Scalzi has been nominated for many awards and has won some, including the Hugo Award for his standalone novel, Redshirts. (I loved the book. My review is here: Diabolically clever, and very, very funny.) He seems to be popular among his peers as well, having served as president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

The Collapsing Empire, published March 2017, is the first book in a John Scalzi series of at least two novels about a distant future empire called the Interdependency. The central character, Cardenia Wu-Patrick, is an illegitimate daughter of the reigning emperox. The emperox is not just the political and ceremonial leader of the thousand-year-old Interdependency but also head of the Church, a member of Parliament, and director of the realm’s predominant trading company (called a “guild”), the House of Wu. As the novel opens, Emperox Attavio VI is on his deathbed. Cardenia is his designated heir—and she’s not especially happy about it. Until recently, her half-brother was slated to succeed as Emperox, but he died in a racing accident. Now she must learn how to command a realm consisting of 47 planetary systems and billions of people.

The 47 planets of the Interdependency are scattered far from each other, often tens of light-years distant. Faster-than-light travel is physically impossible, but more than a millennium ago humans had discovered the Flow, a network of streams or tunnels through space-time resembling what other science fiction authors call wormholes. However, travel through the Flow is not instantaneous. The trip from Hub, the realm’s central planet, to End, the farthest away of the other worlds, takes nine months. Ever since the 26th century, a millennium ago, when the Interdependency was founded, the Flow has been stable. But now the Flow is beginning to collapse—and the Empire will collapse with it. Cardenia is destined to become the last emperox.

The trouble begins shortly after the death of Attavio VI. Midway through the ceremony of her coronation as Grayland II, a powerful bomb explodes at the imperial palace, killing her best friend and adviser and nearly killing Cardenia herself. Meanwhile, on distant End, a rebellion is underway against the reigning Duke. In the midst of the chaos, a Flow physicist is putting the finishing touches on the paper, years in the making, that predicts the collapse of the Flow. Jamies, Count Claremont, then charges his son, Marce, to travel to Hub and inform the emperox, an old friend.

The ensuing action revolves around the lives of Marce and Cardenia. Each faces peril at every turn as they strive to outsmart and evade the machinations of the supremely ambitious House of Nohamapetan.

Don’t think for a minute that everything will turn out all right in the end. The title of this novel is, after all, The Collapsing Empire. Space opera? Of course! But John Scalzi makes it fun from start to finish.

For a list of the sci-fi books I’ve enjoyed the most over the years, go to My 27 favorite science fiction novels. And here’s my review of the first book in another John Scalzi series: A sci-fi novel that harkens back to the bad old days of the pulp magazines. I didn’t like that one so much.

a couple of weeks ago

The Vorkosigan Saga: much more than a space opera

space operaBarrayar (Vorkosigan Saga #3), by Lois McMaster Bujold

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Captain Cordelia Naismith is one of the most compelling characters I’ve ever come across in science fiction: empathetic but tough, brilliant but self-effacing, loving mother and coldblooded soldier. In Barrayar, the third book in the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold, she is now married to Admiral Aral Vorkosigan. When the two met, they were enemies, both stranded on an alien planet. They came together to defend themselves against the traitors in Vorkosigan’s army who had seized control of his battleship. Now, months later, living in luxury on his home planet, Barrayar, Cordelia is reasonably content—until the Admiral is appointed regent for the four-year-old heir to the Barrayaran imperial throne, Prince (now Emperor) Gregor. As she soon discovers, the new position takes Aral away from home most of the time. Cordelia becomes increasingly unhappy. “She hadn’t married the regent of Barrayar, four months back. She’d married a simple retired soldier.”

Life in a militaristic patriarchy plagued by factional fighting

Barrayar is a hierarchical and militaristic patriarchy riven with factional disputes. Aral, an aristocrat with the title “Lord” as the son of General Count Piotr Vorkosigan, is a rare example of tolerance and flexibility in a society that is stubbornly resistant to change. Only 80 years earlier had Barrayar emerged from its Time of Isolation and “made contact with the wider galactic civilization again.” Prince Gregor’s grandfather, Emperor Ezar Vorbarra, had been largely responsible for suppressing the factional fighting and reintroducing contemporary technology to the planet. However, by Cordelia’s standards, Barrayar is a primitive place compared with her home world, Beta Colony. The society’s relative backwardness proves problematic when she gives birth to a son months later.

Not long after Aral’s appointment as regent, a near-successful assassination attempt upends his and Cordelia’s lives. But even that horrific event pales by comparison with the civil war that breaks out some time later following a conservative revolt against his “progressive” rule as regent. The struggle that follows tests both Aral and Cordelia to the limit. Though we’re confident they will triumph in the end, the path to victory will be strewn with costly losses.

Much more than a space opera

Superficially, Barrayar is a space opera. But it’s much more and better than that. What sets Bujold’s writing apart from that of most other science fiction authors is the depth and complexity of the characters in her stories. Cordelia is at once strong enough to best some of her most fearsome enemies, a loving mother, a homesick off-worlder, and a leader who inspires both respect and affection from those she commands. Her internal dialogue is colorful, full of internal inconsistencies, and all too believable. She is truly a unique character. Aral, too, often surprises, as do several of the soldiers who surround them. Barrayar is superior science fiction.

For links to my reviews of other science fiction novels I’ve enjoyed go to My 27 favorite science fiction novels.

About the author

Lois McMaster Bujold has won multiple awards for both science fiction and fantasy. The only other author who has won four Hugo Awards as she has, is Robert A. Heinlein. The Vorkosigan Saga, one of the three book series she is writing, consists of 30 novels to date, spanning the 30-year period from 1986 to 2016.

4 weeks ago

Sudden wealth, arranged marriages, and class envy in India today

class envyThe Windfall: A Novel, by Diksha Basu

@@@ (3 out of 5)

In The Windfall, the debut novel from Indian writer and actress Diksha Basu, a struggling middle-aged, middle-class Delhi family strikes it rich and moves across town to a wealthy neighborhood in the suburb of Gurgaon. Anil Jha had strained for years to build an online business, earning just enough to send his son to an upper-class school, when a surprise offer to buy his site led to a $20 million windfall. Mr. Jha’s immediate response was to purchase a Mercedes and a large and expensive home in an exclusive neighborhood, leaving behind the family’s cramped quarters in an aging high-rise development in East Delhi. His wife, Bindu, is less than enthusiastic about either purchase. Now, the two are moving into their new quarters—and Mr. Jha’s primary concern is to impress the new neighbors with how much money he has. The old neighbors, jealous about the Jhas’ good fortune, are unhappy about the move.

Meanwhile, Basu’s other key characters enter the stage. The Jhas’ son, Rupak, is flunking out of an MBA program at Ithaca College in New York. He’s infatuated, and maybe in love, with a beautiful young American woman named Elizabeth, a student at Cornell. But Rupak is terrified of letting his parents know he’s dating an American, and he has been procrastinating about telling them. Bindu’s friend, Reema Ray, a widow at 37 and now 42, is pretending to be happy living alone. And the Chopras, who live next door to the new house in Gurgaon, are fretting about whether their new neighbors have more money than them.  Their own wealth has permitted Mrs. Chopra to buy a large quantity of flashy and expensive jewelry and their adult son, Johnny, to live at home, chase girls full-time, and avoid work.

The Windfall is what critics are fond of calling a “comedy of manners.” It’s at times an amusing tale, but it would be a stretch to call it comedy. Though the dominant themes are class envy and the corrosive effect of having a great deal of money, Basu also shows belief in the possibility of romantic love—as well as her fondness for the practice of arranged marriages. Under the story’s surface lies the tragic reality of India’s poverty and the yawning gap between rich and poor in the country’s fast-developing economy.

Indian writers have contributed a great many award-winning novels in English. Among those I’ve enjoyed greatly are Amitav Ghosh (reviewed at A brilliant Indian novel about the first Opium War), Neel Mukherjee (The human toll of social change), and Manu Joseph (A comic novel about India today, and Big Science, too).

last month

A murder mystery set in the Holy Roman Empire

holy roman empireWolf on a String: A Novel, by Benjamin Black

@@@@ (4 out of 4)

Except for the title, which I found unfathomable, I enjoyed this novel immensely. The author, Irish writer and Booker-Prize-winner John Banville, writes murder mysteries under the pen name Benjamin BlackWolf on a String is indeed a mystery, and a puzzling one at that, though it’s more intriguing as historical fiction. It’s the first of his novels I’ve read in that genre, but by no means the first he’s written. In fact, the book’s 16th-Century setting in Prague is familiar territory for Banville. He wrote at least four previous novels grounded there, including the Revolutions Trilogy about scientists Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton.

The action in Wolf on a String unfolds during December 1599 and January 1600. The narrator, Christian Stern, relates the tale in old age, many years later. As a young man, Stern had traveled from his hometown in Bavaria after leaving his father’s funeral. He has come to Prague, capital of the Holy Roman Empire, in hopes of gaining a position as an adviser to the Emperor Rudolf II. Unfortunately, on the very day of his arrival in Prague, Stern stumbles (drunk) upon the corpse of a young woman in a narrow street under the shadow of the imperial castle.

As Black writes in opening the novel, “Few now recall that it was I who discovered the corpse of Dr. Kroll’s misfortunate daughter thrown upon the snow that night in Golden Lane. The fickle muse of history has all but erased the name of Christian Stern from her timeless pages, yet often I have had cause to think how much better it would have been for me had it never been written there in the first place. I was to soar high, on gorgeous plumage, but in the end fell back to earth, with wings ablaze.”

Black could hardly have picked a more interesting time and place to set his novel. Rudolf II was moody, unpredictable, indifferent to rule, and probably insane. He was surrounded by sycophants and cunning criminals who were at war with each other for the emperor’s favor. Many historians credit Rudolf’s misrule as having paved the way for the tragic Thirty Years War (1618-48) in which Protestants and Catholics murdered one another on battlefields and in towns all across the European continent. However, Rudolf’s obsession with alchemy and the occult arts led him to attract many men to his court who would later prove to play major roles in advancing the scientific revolution. Among them were the astronomers Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe, both of whom make cameo appearances in the novel.

Christian’s misfortune is to be drawn into the treacherous intrigue in the imperial court and forced to deal with the two most senior officials in the Holy Roman Empire as well as the empress and the court physician, Dr. Kroll. All four have interests that conflict with each other’s—and with the emperor’s. When Rudolf impulsively charges Christian with responsibility for discovering who murdered the young woman, he finds himself at the mercy of all four. This is not a game that Christian can win.

Now about that title. Despite Black’s explanation midway through the novel, I couldn’t figure it out. So I looked the phrase “wolf on a string” up on Wikipedia. Here’s what I found: “A wolf tone, or simply a ‘wolf,’ is produced when a played note matches the natural resonating frequency of the body of a musical instrument, producing a sustaining sympathetic artificial overtone that amplifies and expands the frequencies of the original note, frequently accompanied by an oscillating beating (due to the uneven frequencies between the natural note and artificial overtone) which may be likened to the howling of the animal. A similar phenomenon is the beating produced by a wolf interval, which is usually the interval between E and G of the various non-circulating temperaments.” Got it? Not I. I’m more confused than ever.

Banville writes general fiction under his own name and mysteries under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. Earlier, under that name, he wrote a series of seven novels set in 1950s Dublin that feature the curious coroner, Dr. Quirke, who finds himself embroiled in knotty investigations of crime along with his collaborator, Inspector Hackett. I’ve posted reviews of all seven books on this blog.

For reviews of three of the novels in the Dr. Quirke series, check out 1950s Dublin: murder and the ChurchDublin’s answer to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson?, and A murder mystery from the pen of a master stylist.

last month

A chilling tale, lucidly told, of a Second American Civil War

American Civil WarAmerican War: A Novel, by Omar El Akkad

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

In American War by Omar El Akkad, the Second American Civil War erupts in 2074 when Sara T. (“Sarat”) Chestnut is six years old. Four states in the Deep South have seceded in response to federal legislation banning the use of fossil fuels—and a Southern “homicide bomber” has assassinated the President of the United States in Columbus, the country’s new capital. The Reds and Blues are now at war. And much worse is in store for the unfortunate people of this once-democratic nation.

In previous decades, rising seas and monster storms have submerged large swaths of the Eastern and Gulf Coasts, driving millions of people far into the nation’s heartland. Boston, New York, Washington—every low-lying city on both coasts—they’re all now under water. Elevated temperatures have eliminated countless animal species and destroyed huge areas of formerly rich farmland. Mexico has seized Texas and most of the Southwest, governing them under a Protectorate. And the United States has long been isolated on the world stage. “[T]he 2030s and 2040s [were] the last decades before the planet turned on the country and the country turned on itself.” The “newborn superpowers” are China and the Bouazzizi Empire that spans North Africa and the Middle East.

What’s left of Louisiana is neutral territory, considered Purple, wedged between Texas and the core Southern states that are called the MAG (Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia). There, Sarat, her fraternal twin sister Dana, and her older brother Simon live in deepening poverty with their parents. In hopes of obtaining a work permit and the means to move his family to safer ground, their father sets out for the North—and there at a federal courthouse he falls victim to another Southern terrorist bomb.

American War spans the years from 2074 to 2123. The story is narrated in old age by Benjamin Chestnut, Sarat’s nephew, whom we meet by name only late in the war. Benjamin regards the tale as tragedy in the classical sense. “Some people are born sentenced to terrible inheritance,” he writes, “diseases that lay dormant in the blood from birth. My sentence was to know, to understand.” Interspersed with Benjamin’s narrative are brief excerpts from speeches, official documents, and interviews with incidental characters that broaden the scope of the tale beyond Sarat and her family. But Sarat is the tightly focused subject of this chilling tale.

At times, the action in American War is almost unbearably raw. A massacre scene that’s central to the story conjures up memories of survivors’ reports from the 1982 invasion of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in southern Lebanon, when right-wing Christian militiamen were unleashed by the Israeli commander Ariel Sharon. Those reports haunt me to this day.

Sadly, the scenario El Akkad paints in his novel of a Second American Civil War comes across as all too credible in today’s darkening political environment. His portrayal of the toll taken by the rising sea level may be exaggerated, since current scientific projections foresee a much more gradual process. But the fanaticism on both sides of the Second American Civil War—the standoff between Reds and Blues—is little greater than the polarization that has come to dominate the country’s politics in recent years. And the heated dispute over the use of fossil fuels is by no means beyond belief. Dystopian fiction is typically cautionary. American War is a perfect example.

The author, Canadian-Egyptian journalist Omar El Akkad, has reported from around the world for the Toronto Globe and Mail. American War in his first book.

For reviews of other dystopian novels I’ve reviewed in this blog, see A brief look at 15 important dystopian novels.

a couple of months ago

A powerful feminist story in a dystopian landscape

feminist storyThe Book of the Unnamed Midwife, by Meg Elison

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Meg Elison‘s debut novel, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, won the prestigious Philip K. Dick Award and was included among the Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year, 2016, and Amazon Best Books of the Year, 2016. It’s another sign that science fiction has come of age, no longer confined to a readers’ ghetto. The novel is a powerful feminist story set principally in the US in the near future. An unstoppable “plague” has killed off nearly all the human race but has proven far more lethal for women and children than for men.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, a registered nurse-midwife at the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF) has awakened after a weeks-long bout with the illness, only to find that her lover, a physician named Jack, has disappeared and everyone else in the hospital is dead. We never learn the midwife’s name: as she staggers through the desolate world, encountering other living human beings only occasionally, she introduces herself under a series of assumed names. “The book” of the title is her diary, a searing account of her feelings and experiences in a world gone mad. A diligent diarist, she incorporates stories from others she meets along the way. Several generations later, the midwife’s book represents for at least one community the only full account of the collapse that followed the plague. In a twist reminiscent of Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, the book is treated with reverence by the survivors, who are gradually building a new, matriarchal civilization.

The midwife slowly makes her way, partly on foot, partly by car or bicycle, and later by snowmobile, from San Francisco through Northern California, Oregon, Idaho, and Utah. She frequently encounters violent, sex-crazed men who victimize every woman or girl within their reach, typically enslaving them. Much more rarely, she comes across a woman or a helpful man. She survives by plundering abandoned homes, avoiding the rotting corpses of the dead—and by using the guns and rifles she manages to accumulate from time to time. (Her father had taught her to shoot.) As the months go by, remaining food, fuel, weapons, and ammunition become ever more scarce. From time to time, she joins one or two others and settles down temporarily, but those connections don’t last. Later, she comes across a new phenomenon: a “hive” in which a single woman rules over a household of several or even dozens of men, doling out sexual favors at whim. Most of the small towns she visits are abandoned. The midwife chooses to avoid the cities, where greater danger lies. Eventually, after harrowing experiences that force her to kill without compunction, the midwife arrives in a peaceful and thriving community, where she takes up her practice as a nurse and midwife once again. Since the plague struck, no babies have survived birth. In fact, many of their mothers die as well. The midwife has lost hope—but prematurely so.

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is a rewarding read, but it’s flawed. I found myself wondering who was telling the story. The tale unfolds in a series of excerpts from the midwife’s book, interspersed with a third-person narrative. For much of the book, the narrative focuses only on the midwife. Then the narrative’s scope widens, first to other people and other parts of the US and later to the entire planet. Perhaps it’s irrational of me to expect that a contemporary novel would follow all the dictates of logic. Maybe I’m just too old.

a couple of months ago

Terrorism. Homeland Security. Teenage rebellion.

Teenage rebellionLittle Brother, by Cory Doctorow

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Welcome to dystopia. In Little Brother, the Department of Homeland Security runs amok in San Francisco after terrorist bombings take out the Bay Bridge and the cross-bay BART tunnel with the loss of more than 4,000 lives. The city is flooded with heavily armored agents who seize anyone who looks suspicious to them. This seems to mean mostly teenagers and people of color. 15-year-old Marcus Yallow, a talented programmer and gamer, is out on a walk with his three best friends when they are all roughly apprehended by DHS agents, trussed up and tossed into the back of a huge truck, and moved to a secret jail ten minutes away from the city. There, Marcus is subjected to abusive questioning that verges on torture before he is released, days later, shaken and furious.

This, we soon learn, was all a big mistake. DHS has taken on the wrong 15-year-old.

Using his advanced programming skills and intimate knowledge of online security and encryption, Marcus sets out to organize a teenage rebellion to take back the city. Drawing his friends into his net, along with their friends and their friends’ friends, Marcus soon becomes the coordinator of hundreds of teenagers. This is a force that proves formidable even against the massed might of the Department of Homeland Security—and the resources of the White House, which unsurprisingly has instigated the DHS coup. With civil liberties suspended and the government’s goons acting more and more brutally as resistance mounts, the rebellion predictably spreads to the more thoughtful adults in the city. We can all guess where things are going—but we’ll still be surprised by the ending.

Cory Doctorow is widely viewed as one of the leading lights of the new generation of science fiction writers. As of mid-2017, he has written ten novels and at least seven works of nonfiction. He’s also a prolific blogger on copyright law, digital rights management, file-sharing, and post-scarcity economics. Little Brother was Doctorow’s fourth novel.

In his review for the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Austin Grossman treated Little Brother as a young adult novel—a natural instinct given the teenage protagonist and the peripheral roles of adults. Like so many contemporary YA novels, however, Little Brother can be rewarding for readers of any age. Grossman wrote, “An entertaining thriller and a thoughtful polemic on Internet-era civil rights, “Little Brother” is also a practical handbook of digital self-defense. Marcus’s guided tour through RFID cloners, cryptography and Bayesian math is one of the book’s principal delights. . . . This is territory the author knows well . . . His grasp of the implications of present-day information technology is authoritative. . .”

 

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