Escapology, by Ren Warom

Escapology, by Ren Warom

This novel changed my perception of what modern cyberpunk could be. I have to apologize in advance because this is going to be a little long-winded and meandering for a review. In order to approach my feelings on Escapology, I first need to share some thoughts about genre and how it can inform expectation.

Modern cyberpunk stories are operating in an interesting retro-futuristic narrative space these days. Cyberpunk had its big moment in the mid-to-late eighties, right at the convergence of rapid technological growth, reaganomics, corporate overreach, and heightened cold-war tensions. In addition to this collection of odd ingredients, the world had a general ignorance regarding computers and micro-technology, but had the knowledge that these things were coming toward us at breakneck pace. Tech was a sort of magic – in the Clarkesian sense – that was unknowable to the general public. Cyberpunk was a reactionary genre to all of this, and an extrapolation of a possible future that we might soon all be subjected to – shadowy mega corporations, invasive rampant technology, and the value of human life plummeting as a result. High-tech low-life was the general idea.

Of course, these things did eventually come to dominate our modern lives, but in entirely different ways than cyberpunk predicted. Because of this, most modern cyberpunk feels like it takes place in this “future of the past” that is firmly rooted in misunderstandings about technology. It’s more alternate history than plausible future at this point. I could go on and on about the woeful inefficiency of wasting CPU/GPU cycles in order to render an overly complicated GUI for every user’s interaction with a system while “jacked in”. Don’t get me wrong, I love that concept, it’s such a wonderful visual way to describe digital actions, but it just doesn’t make a lot of sense in a real world context. I would, however, be missing the point if I pushed this, a point which I didn’t realize until reading this novel: modern cyberpunk is no longer science fiction, but fantasy, because we’ve passed the point where it’s scientifically plausible.

This might not be an important distinction for most readers, but I think we subconsciously allow genre to inform the expectations that we have when we approach a piece of fiction, so let’s take a step back and define the differences between fantasy and science fiction in simple terms: In fantasy, the impossible happens. In science fiction, the impossible but theoretically plausible happens. Cyberpunk as a genre was theoretically plausible to the world of the eighties, mostly because we misunderstood how computer technology functioned. Today, we understand quite a bit more, and I think that some aspects of the genre may no longer be. I think it operates under the umbrella of fantasy now, and therefore allows a lot of interesting possibilities and growth.

Ren WaromWarom gets this, but I didn’t at all going into this book. Something happened about halfway through Escapology that broke my suspension of disbelief. It was something that just isn’t scientifically plausible and I had an atavistic reaction against it, initially not understanding why; it just bothered me at a deep level. It took a while to realize that I felt like it broke the genre rules I had imposed on the story. It was then that I realized I had been mistakenly approaching the novel with a narrow angle of allowances. Warom wisely approached this story from a wider angle, or rather approached it without those rigid genre rules regarding what can or can’t happen in a story. The plausibility rules of science fiction do not apply here. When I realized this, it all clicked and I was able to get out from underneath my expectations and just let the story take me along for the ride. That was when I started to enjoy it for what it could be: a much needed stretching of the boundaries that readers have imposed upon cyberpunk as a genre. Of course, it would be much better to just approach all fiction without any thought of genre expectations beforehand, but I have a very difficult time doing that. It’s something I’m working on.

Escapology has one of the more interesting representations of avatars in a shared virtual world (the “jacked-in” state) that I’ve seen in while. It seems that Warom took inspiration from underwater earth life to represent this element of the story; the world that exists below the surface. I think it’s a fitting analogy, especially considering the protagonist’s dual avatars, each representing an element of his sexual identity and/or history. I also liked the land ships and the concept of the world literally having its crust broken apart at some point in the past. I’m hoping there’s more info about that in the sequel.

Conceptually, Escapology is a breathe of fresh air for the genre, and I have a lot of respect for what it accomplished in the genre stretching/meshing department. It also had a strong weird fiction vibe going, which helped inject a heavy sense of wonder. It feels like Warom is trying to shock some new life into a genre that has long been stagnant, and I commend her for it. I thought the characters were a little thin, and the narrative got a little overly melodramatic for my taste, but all in all it was a fun story.

I guarantee you haven’t read a cyberpunk novel like this. Just remember to go into it with an open mind, as I didn’t. We all need a good mind fucking now and again. Escapology definitely filled that quota for me.

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, by Cherise Wolas

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, by Cherise Wolas

Finishing this magnificent novel was a bittersweet affair. Sweet because it was a powerful joy to read; experiencing what a writer that possesses such a mastery of her craft can do with words, continually in awe at the bravery of this story, and how she approached it. Bitter because I’ve lived with her character Joan Ashby these past couple weeks, judged her a little unfairly at times, learned as she did, gotten to know her well as she grew and adapted, and now we are forced to part ways because the book is done. She’s such an interesting creation, and I want to keep her around a little longer. Most especially, I want to read the rest of her stories, and novels that she wrote during her life inside of this book. I’d be 100% okay if Wolas chose to write and publish them eventually.

Cherise WolasThis is Cherise Wolas’ debut as a novelist, but it is so well formed you would never think it her first published novel. It has none of the usual shortcomings that early efforts often do. I’m thinking she has always written. She is obviously very practiced, and a remarkably skilled storyteller to have put together something this comprehensive. If this book doesn’t get shortlisted for several big awards next year, I’d be shocked at the injustice. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if it wins more than a few of them.

Her prose is beautiful and flowing, and her characters contain multitudes, especially Ashby as we get to see her create her own characters (some of them writers as well) and bring them to life with flowing prose. Wolas’ ability to write as herself, as her characters, and as her characters’ characters is just breathtaking. The subtle shifts in style as the novel dips into and back out of Ashby’s writing, were handled with grace, and they added some postmodern flair to the whole thing. It’s like a novel that contains a short story collection, and reminds me of reading both at the same time, breaking up the main story with little miniature ones that interject here and there, never taking away from the momentum. It just works.

My favorite part of this is seeing how Ashby learns about herself, and deals with events in her own life through her fiction; through the characters that take on some of the traits of those around her; never directly putting her own life, events, and acquaintances directly into her work, but borrowing bits here and there and reconfiguring them into new dramatic events and characters. It’s refreshing to see the creative process stripped bare and represented accurately like this. Everything is a remix of our influences, and our lives, blown apart and amalgamated. In the latter half of the book, we even start to get a small glimpse into one possible future direction for Ashby, through the fiction that she creates. It’s subtly done and I love it. We see her working things out, coming to terms with traumatic events, and coming out the other side, all part of her process of creation and renewal.

Read this novel. It’s out August 29th from Flatiron Books in the US, and Sept 7th via The Borough Press in the UK.

The Dark Dark, by Samantha Hunt

The Dark Dark, by Samantha Hunt

“…voices that insist on being heard, stories that demand to be told, writers who are compelled to show us something new.” is how FSG Originals describes the books they publish, and I would absolutely describe Samantha Hunt’s writing in this way. Her stories are brutal yet beautiful, magical but grounded, sincere, horrific, and essential. Her characters have such unique perspectives on their lives and the events surrounding them; a lot of the time these were perspectives that I’d never fully considered, but instantly empathized with once exposed to them.

Samantha HuntThese are stories I obviously needed to read. Stories about women and men of all walks of life passing through stages of the fantastic and the mundane, learning about themselves and the world(s) around them. While reading this book I was reminded of that old saying about how reading someone’s book is like having a conversation with them, or getting to know them a little better. With Hunt’s writing, it felt like getting to know several different women at the same time. It’s extraordinarily powerful stuff. Seeing things from these many new perspectives was fascinating for me.

There isn’t a bad story in the bunch, but the standouts for me were: The Story Of, All Hands, Love Machine, Wampum, & The Story Of Of. Her prose is tight and expressive. She manages to say so much in so few words, and her writing often dips into the magically realistic, with postmodern sensibilities.

I think it’s past due time for me to pick up her novels, and I’m kicking myself for not paying attention when friends were telling me that I should. Oh well, better late than never!

P.S. I need to sing a few praises for this cover as well. Book designers have really been outdoing themselves this year, and this one is no exception. This cover fully subverted my pattern recognition engine by using it against itself, that is until I plopped it down on my coffee table absentmindedly and accidentally saw it from a different angle as it lay there sideways, smirking at me. Clever clever.

Strange Dogs, by James S.A. Corey

Strange Dogs, by James S.A. Corey

Holy shit. This changes things.

I love that we get these short stories and novellas between the main Expanse novels. If the novels are considered big, pulpy action movies with great characters, then the short stories and novellas in The Expanse are tightly focused character pieces, in smaller stories. But this, this is something special in addition to all that. It stands incredibly well on its own as a self contained story, but in the context of the larger narrative happening in this series, it’s extremely exciting as a taste of things to come. If this is the direction the series is heading, then sign me the hell up!

What always impresses me about The Expanse, is that these guys can seemingly write from any point of view, any perspective, and they completely nail it. They’ve demonstrated this over and over again: A pampered daughter of the richest businessman in the system out for revenge against what she perceives as a wrong orchestrated against her family? They nailed it. An ex Martian Navy pilot who abandoned his wife and turned renegade pilot in an effort to find his true self out among the stars? Yep, they nailed that too. A botanist growing soybeans on Ganymede? A priest presiding over a small congregation on Europa? A washed up detective living in a spun-up ceres station, looking for some sort of salvation? Nailed it with all of ‘em. They’re either extremely empathetic, extremely in tune with the human condition, or extremely creative – probably a combination of all three – because these characters are just too good

James S. A. Corey

 

The narrative in Strange Dogs unfolds through the eyes of another entirely new, unique point of view: Cara, a 10 year old Earther girl living a life on Laconia, a science colony in a remote part of the milky way galaxy. She moved there with her scientist parents when she was very young, and their stay has been made indefinite due to calamitous events unfolding back in the Sol system, and an unexpected arrival of a military presence on Laconia. The things she discovers on Laconia have the weight to potentially change the entire direction this series is heading. Because of that I would say this is the first of the shorter Expanse fiction that may be absolutely essential to read. The others have been incredible, but this one feels like required reading; like a longer than usual prologue to a huge story to follow.

What I really enjoyed about Strange Dogs, is that this same story told instead from the perspective of either of her parents, or some other secondary character, might belong more comfortably in the horror genre. But, because we’re seeing events through the youthful eyes of Cara, there is instead a childlike wonder to it all. Her perspective also brings an ambiguity, and slightly unreliable narration to everything, which combines to set a tone of general unease in addition to that wonder.

December, or whenever Persepolis Rising comes out, cannot get here soon enough.

 


Escape Velocity, by Jason M. Hough

Escape Velocity, by Jason M. HoughThis is the second half of and conclusion to the Dire Earth duology that began with Injection Burn. This duology itself is also a follow up to the Dire Earth cycle, a trilogy of novels published a few years back. I haven’t read the Dire Earth cycle novels, but these books do a wonderful job of filling in any gaps that may be present for readers new to the series. I never felt like I was missing anything, but undoubtedly there are little character details that are probably improved by a more complete understanding from having read the trilogy.

If Injection Burn was basically “get there”, Escape Velocity is very much “get it done and get home in one piece”. It hits the ground running at the same breakneck pace established in Injection Burn, and never really hits pause. At the end of Injection Burn our characters have been forcefully separated, thrown in different directions by their AI ship in a last ditch effort to accomplish their collective goal. We have three main group POVs to follow, each fighting for survival on a hostile alien world, trying to find each other, trying to gather their bearings and figure out how to do what they need to with nearly everything (even the air) trying to kill them.

It’s a great conclusion to this story, but leaves the universe open enough for more. I’m particularly interested in what may come after this. There’s a lot of potential for some really interesting far future Earth society stuff, as well as more information about some of the alien societies present here.

Jason M. HoughI was introduced to Jason M. Hough through his fantastic sci-fi spy thriller Zero World a couple years back, which I absorbed (and need more of! Don’t be shortsighted Del Rey, make it happen). It was the most original science fiction novel I’ve read in a long while. He writes really straightforward prose that gets out of the way and lets the fun flow straight to the brain. You often forget you’re reading a book, instead you’re just experiencing the story. It reads so effortlessly.

I’d recommend these books for fans of the The Expanse novels for sure. They’re very much written in a similar style: huge, narratively driven ideas, delivered in a fun, highly-readable package. Like classic era science fiction for a new generation. Blockbuster page-turners with great characters, adventure and thrills. These are great summer reads.