book reviews

Science fiction
Reviewed by: T.J. Nelson

Manifold Time
by Stephen Baxter

A fter a mad math genius proves that humans have only two more centuries left to live, the humans of a near-future Earth, led by Reid Malenfant, the head of a commercial space company, decide to colonize space. Then they start receiving messages from the future, plunging Earth's population into the murk of existential gloom. Now the entire future of sapient life depends on their mission. But there was another problem: the crew would be ... not exactly ... human. And they had plans of their own ....

Manifold Diagram of a manifold from the Internet

In this imaginative hard sci-fi novel, America has abandoned space travel as too dangerous and too expensive. NASA has become bureaucratic and stagnant. The humans get a much-needed kick in the pants from a mysterious blue object, maybe from the future but never fully explained, and a vision of the universe's distant future courtesy of a plucky super-intelligent squid.

Alas, the space calamari are just a red herring. The threads go off in all different directions in this story. The super-intelligent Blue Children (and the humans' reactions to them) are not credible, and there are a few contradictions in the science, but Baxter's message is consistent: space might be devoid of intelligent life, and the future of humans and the future of the universe may be intimately intertwined. Get your azz to Mars, Baxter may be telling us humans. Do whatever it takes to colonize space before it's too late.

On the other hand, the message might be: don't let your kids play with particle accelerators, or the little brats will start punching holes in the space-time continuum. And for heaven's sake, don't send your mutant genetically engineered squid into space. That's good advice for anybody.

Vacuum Diagrams
by Stephen Baxter

I n this sci-fi novel, mankind has discovered a powerful, ancient, and mysterious race of beings called the Xeelee. The Xeelee created the Great Attractor, which is a real phenomenon: it is the point that our galaxy, and several of our galactic neighbors, appear to be drifting toward. In Vacuum Diagrams, the Great Attractor turns out to actually be a huge machine which the Xeelee are using, for some unknown reason, to suck themselves out of the universe. The humans, apparently no fans of anything that sucks this hard, go on a crusade against the Xeelee.

Vacuum cleaner diagram Fig. 1 Vacuum diagram

The term "vacuum diagram" is not related, as you might think, to the Great Attractor, which acts by gravitational force and not by suction, but rather it is a take-off on the Feynman diagram, with the addition of an extra arrow that goes back in time and creates the original event. Most people may not be aware of it, but vacuum diagrams are also real: I even found one on the Internet (Fig. 1) based, I presume, on the groundbreaking research of one scientist by the name of Dr. Hoover.

Although some of the more interesting characters, such as the anti-Xeelee, are inadequately explored, while others, such as the ciliated squid-like beings inhabiting the oceans of Mercury (see box), are merely improbable, this novel is classic escapist science fiction, and it's quite entertaining. The author is a former aeronautical engineer with an interest in mathematics; he throws in a great many mathematical terms, which gives the book an element of authenticity.

"Her cilia flickered as they plucked particles of food from the stream and popped them into the multiple mouths along her belly."

The math phrases can't completely make up for the occasional dangling plot line, and the not-always-completely-convincing characters (some human, some not), among whose point of view the story periodically jumps; but in sci-fi, it's the imagination, not the storytelling, that counts. In the category of inventiveness, this book excels. Of course, when your story covers a time span of 4,097,612 years, it's a tough stretch for one character to narrate it in its entirety. While it's true that mankind's war against the Xeelee, whom they barely comprehend, makes absolutely no sense, it might have been explained in the author's earlier works, which partially overlap the events here.

Great literature this may or may not be, but if you're from the planet Flurklenax it's a great way to pass an entire Bleem.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
by Robert A. Heinlein

I n this classic hard sci-fi novel, set in the years 2075-2077, the moon is a penal colony run by a totalitarian government. With the aid of a sentient computer named Mike, the protagonist plots a violent revolution. This novel was highly influential when it appeared in 1966 at the height of Moon Fever just before the first moon landings. It's not hard to understand why. But in 2010, many of Heinlein's predictions seem dated: for example, the idea of raising fish on the Moon and growing corn for export to Earth; the idea that people in 2075 will still be using books, paper, film cameras, money, typewriters and telephones; that there will still be Russians; and the idea, common in that era of single-tasking computers, that a talking computer would have a single personality. The characters also don't sound like real revolutionaries--they seem to know or care little about politics, government, or economics, and the reason they want to rebel, knowing the only result might be the Moon gaining a few extra craters, is not clear. TANSTAAFL, there ain't no such thing as a free lunch, says the protagonist. The revolution was free--ridiculously easy to win, or so it seems--but the Universe can be a bitch, and the characters are so stupid that even in the first few pages, it's clear they will all pay a heavy price, one way or the other, for their inability to understand her.

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter
by Seth Grahame-Smith

I hereby resolve to kill every vampire in America," says Abe Lincoln in this fictional history, after he learns the horrifying truth about his grandfather's death. The idea of Abe Lincoln, famed for his skill with the axe, using it to whack vampires, is mildly amusing for a while. Smith imitates Doris Kearns Goodwin's prose style perfectly, probably even pinching an occasional turn of phrase under Fair Use. The story is told straight, with historical realism but no particular wit.

Vampire stories are generally vague on technical details: why are vampires susceptible to wooden stakes through the heart, while carbon fiber and titanium have no effect? Are they allergic to tannins or what? Are vampires terrified when they get a sliver? What is it about natural sunlight that is lacking in a full-spectrum fluorescent bulb? The truth is, all these things are just symbols, so it's only natural to worry that this book will deteriorate into a simple-minded symbolism: vampires = slaveowners or vampirism = slavery. To Smith's credit, he avoids this; there were, it seems, vampires working for both the Yankees and for the Rebs, and there were good ones and evil ones on both sides. The idea is, if history isn't interesting enough for you, try replacing it with vampires. The story is mindless fantasy: you won't learn much about Lincoln, 19th century America, or the Civil War. It's a cute concept, but not much more.

This is the second in a series that started with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a book whose concept was almost, but not quite, amusing enough to induce me to read it. I'll wait for the SyFy movie. Maybe they can get Nina Dobrev.

World War Z
An Oral History of the Zombie War
by Max Brooks

T hrough interviews with survivors of a near-future global zombie holocaust, Max Brooks tells how various countries (China, Greenland, USA, South Africa, Israel, Germany, Russia, etc.) would deal with a plague of man-eating zombies. The plague, he says, would transform the geopolitical and economic landscape. The massive chaos, confusion, loss of life, and eating of brains would turn some nations into virtual survivalist camps, spark civil war in others, and obliterate others entirely. In such a world, no one, not even the Queen of England, is safe. Brooks's indirect method of storytelling allows readers to use their imagination. Each of his characters gets two to four pages to tell his or her story; some of the characters are courageous, some are cynical and corrupt, some are cold and calculating, while others are mere stereotypes, but they all contribute to the dramatic pace, making the story riveting and highly readable.

However, in this book Brooks reveals his strong aliveist bias. Once again, the side of the aliveness-challenged persons is being suppressed. Even one word from them—and I guess we all know what word that would be—would "Brains," he replied, unthinkingly. —Nowhere in the book have made a more balanced portrayal. This book also might have been more effective if Brooks had used a more realistic disease, but then we wouldn't have gotten all these silly zombie books that followed it (see below for examples). Read it soon before AMC finishes killing off the whole genre.

The Zombie Autopsies
Secret Notebooks from the Apocalypse
by Steven C. Schlozman, M.D.

I n this short novel, humanity is struck down by a plague of zombiism. This disease, which the characters refer to as "ataxic neurodegenerative satiety deficiency syndrome" or ANSD, has wiped out two thirds of humanity. Even worse, the humans' attempts to eradicate the virus have led to an increase in global warming. The situation is indeed dire. Three doctors, infected with the virus, try to find a cure by performing autopsies on the No Longer Human.

Most of the book consists of blood-stained "handwritten" notes made by one of the three doctors, Dr. Stanley Blum. (Blum's handwriting is amazingly good—proof that he's not a real doctor). According to Dr Blum, the zombie virus is very unusual: it contains a prion, like BSE, but spreads through the air like influenza. Zombiism is quite unlike BSE or any other ordinary neurodegenerative disease, and closer to ebola or postmortem decomposition, where the membranes deteriorate and cellular fluids seep out (or spray out, depending on how well the plot is going).

There is also a disease in marine animals called Spontaneous Cephalopod Cranial Explosion (SCE). Is it the same? Is ANSD caused by a single pathogen or something else? Why does it spare the hypothalamus? The doctors make only a little progress before turning into zombies themselves. Unlike a real autopsy report, it's pretty non-technical, and there's little information on the neuropathophysiology of this fascinating disease. It's just a good science fiction story, but unlike The Andromeda Strain this novel seems only half finished.

Don't confuse this with The Neuropathology of Zombies, which, despite its promising title is just an ordinary traditional-style novel. As the main character says, "There's no real science in there." A better candidate is Theories of International Politics and Zombies (reviewed below), which considers the geopolitical ramifications of a zombie apocalypse in the context of various theories of foreign policy. Since many of our leaders are already showing early symptoms of zombiism, it's also highly relevant.

Theories of International Politics and Zombies
by Daniel W. Drezner

S ay what you will about zombies, at least they like people with brains. Plus, they dislike small talk. That makes them okay by me.

Despite the clever title and cute concept, this book is not really as imaginative as it sounds. Drezner uses the hypothetical attack of "the differently animated" as a college prof would use it to keep their class awake while explaining current political belief systems, much the same as an economics professor would use "you have two cows" to explain macroeconomics. It might have worked, except Drezner only makes fun of ideologies he dislikes. The other chapters are just dull. There are numerous footnotes, including many to World War Z, (reviewed above) which seems to have been his inspiration.

The Wanderings of Alhazred
by Donald Tyson

T he first rule in writing fiction is that things that happen must be possible. That makes it tough for books like the Necronomicon which pretend to be ancient classics; it only takes a couple factual bloopers to dispel the suspension of disbelief. Several writers have tried to create H.P. Lovecraft's mythical book of ancient Arabian Cthulhu mythology. This one blows it on almost the first page. Lovecraft fans may want it for their collection. I couldn't even finish it.