Thursday, May 30, 2013

The zombie war, through the eyes of the people who lived it

The world has risen from the ashes, and our narrator has gone out to collect the memories of those who lived through the collapse in Max Brooks' World War Z.

The origin of the infection is hazy, mainly due to the world's refusal to acknowledge what is now impossible to ignore: the dead have risen. At first attributed to a new form of rabies, those bitten have all the attributes of a classic literary zombie: dead, rotting flesh; no apparent consciousness, no reaction to pain, and an insatiable hunger for living flesh. Only the destruction of the brain stops them. Decapitation leaves a biting severed head, drowning creates an underwater menace and freezing only delays them until springtime when they thaw.

Due to this lack of early response, along with the globalization of trade and travel, not to mention human smuggling, the outbreak becomes out of control before anyone can get a handle on it. Even a decade after victory is declared in the US and China, more northern countries like Iceland are still considered a loss. Every so often, especially near bodies of water and in the springtime, a few zombie bites happen, but it's nowhere as bad as during the height of the fighting.

Our narrator works for the United Nations Postwar Commission. He traveled the world, getting first-hand accounts of how the war was fought from India to Cuba and everywhere in between. Unhappy with the dry presentation that the UN published, he publishes this account to tell the stories of the people who lived through the worst disaster to befall the human race. From a feral child who watched every adult she'd ever known be killed, to a hikikomori in Japan who has to face a real life full of infecteds, to the speculation about what the hell happened to North Korea, every group of people responded to the crisis in different ways.

Well known for his Zombie Survival Guide, Max Brooks already has a well thought out zombie apocalypse universe to work from and this planning shows in World War Z. Neatly sidestepping the scientific explanations by having the outbreak happen too fast for groups like the CDC to get a firm grasp on it, and letting the reader know quickly and clearly exactly what these zombies can and cannot do, Brooks never surprises the reader with information he should have had earlier or contradicts himself. While some of the stories work better than others, overall World War Z is a fun 'what if?' book that is more analytical than scary.

Highs: The responses that each country makes is completely in line with that place's culture and self-identity

Lows: Another author might have used this as a treatment for a series of novels, each focusing on one or two groups for the duration of the War, and perhaps that would have been a more satisfying format

Verdict: A fun read that is longer than it seems, and a must for the zombie enthusiast

Further Reading: Under a Graveyard Sky, Feed

Monday, May 27, 2013

Manga Monday: Clinging to the dreams of childhood while faced with adult problems

A group of 20-somethings come together to find themselves in Inio Asano's Solanin.

Solanin is a book that will resonate with a lot of people. This group of friends who met at their university's 'Pop Music Club' has graduated college and are now, supposedly, adults. Time for jobs, families, and perhaps putting aside the childhood dreams.

Meiko and Tandea aren't satisfied with this. Meiko looks around the office in which she works, and contemplates the other adults around her. Deciding that a 'who cares?' life isn't what she's destined for, and since this job has let her squirrel away enough funds to get them by for a few months, she walks out of the job that pays the bills but isn't what she loves. Taneda, having worked part-time as an illustrator but never offered a full-time position, decides to devote his time to the music that brought them all together in college.

But following one's dreams is harder than it looks, and it takes a tragedy to give them the final push to get their music out there.

There's a narrow window in which Solanin will really resonate with the reader. If the reader is too young, and still too idealistic, they won't really understand how hard it is to hold onto one's dreams when things like a mortgage and medical bills need to be paid. Too old, and the reader becomes jaded and simply wants to shake the characters by the shoulders and tell them to stop complaining. But if the reader is in the same place in their lives as Meiko and the rest, this story might be the kick in the pants he needs to follow his dreams, wherever they may lead.

Highs: The art takes a bit of getting used to, but Asano does a wonderful job, especially with the backgrounds

Lows: There's a bit of the 'First World Problems' issue that pervades the story

Verdict: For the target audience of this book, it's a punch-in-the-gut look at the realities of adulthood

Further Reading: Bunny Drop

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Steam, romance and the supernatural intertwined

Sir Merrick Hadrian's life is turned upside-down by five talented orphans - and the governess he hires to care for them - in Cindy Spencer Pape's first Gaslight Chronicles story "Steam & Sorcery."

It's hard to be a governess. Never mind the children; even when they're spoiled brats there's usually something to work with. No, Miss Caroline Bristol's problem has been with the master of the house. Specifically, when she (rather firmly) refuses their advances, she generally finds herself tossed out of the household. Thankfully Sir Hadrian, while certainly the most attractive of Miss Bristol's employers, seems completely oblivious to her.

Perhaps that's because Merrick has his hands full. Besides the fact that he found this group of street urchins while breaking up a den of Vampyres, there's some magickal-ness to them as well. The oldest is obviously a Knight, and the girl has a way with mechanicals that seems almost magickal as well. Out of an obligation to children of Knights, whether acknowledged or not, he takes young Thomas in, and along comes the rest.

But even the household of a lord isn't perfectly safe. In fact, in searching out the origins of the vampyres Merrick encountered, he and Caroline must seek out London's seedy underbelly. And with Jamie's visions warning them that death is in their future, it will take all of their talents combined to come out whole.

Cindy Spencer Pape creates a world rich with European traditions interwoven with a London that never was. Steampunk elements are little more than window dressing in this story, but even as such, they add to the rich descriptions of the era and the talents of the characters. Steam & Sorcery is one of the better 'Steampunk Romance' novels out there, written by someone who understands that the fantasy element and characters are at least as important as the more...steamy scenes.

Highs: It's wonderful how Pape starts out with generic character types (street urchins, attractive governess, Lord of the manor) and fleshes them out into characters that the reader really cares about

Lows: As much as I love Merrick and Caroline, I wish there was more to do with the kids

Verdict: A very well-written 'Steampunk Romance' that never quite falls into the traps of more poorly-written romances

Further Reading: 'Photographs and Phantoms', Soulless

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

If the human body is inefficient and messy, why not replace parts?

Engineers tend to be a funny breed. Oftentimes identifying with their science better than the other humans they work with, they see the world from a much more analytical and logical viewpoint than people whose focus is on the arts, or even the 'softer' sciences.

Therefore, the premise of Max Barry's Machine Man makes a certain twisted sense. An engineer like Dr. Charles Neumann is exactly the type of person to be fixated on misplacing his cell phone to the exclusion of everything else. Including putting on pants before going outside to check his car (although one would think he would have a tracker app on it...). It's this single-minded intensity that leads him through his lab and into the Clamp.

It's also this tunnel vision that lands him in the hospital, sans one leg.

The prosthetic legs that the Lola Shanks brings to fit him with vary. The cheapest, little more than a bucket on a stick, is an insult. There are more aesthetically pleasing options, but Charles has never been one for trading function for form. But that last one, the Exegesis Archion with the microprocessor in the knee...that's something he can work with.

Because engineers fiddle. They simply can't leave well enough alone, especially where technology is concerned. So it's not long before Charles has completely taken apart his new leg. As always, it takes a little longer to get it back together again, but he ends up making some pretty sound improvements to it. And since he works with other engineers, they're nothing but encouraging regarding his new side project. There's just one problem: his flesh-and-bone leg can't keep up. It's obsolete, so to speak. But that can be taken care of.

While the end result of this process may be a bit predictable, the path that the story takes to get there is quite fun. The situation, both with Dr. Neumann and his company as a whole, escalates to a degree that is almost incredulous. And yet, given the characters that Barry has introduced us to, it is in keeping with their personalities perfectly. 

Throughout the novel, a dark humor peeks out. This is not a book that takes itself too seriously. Many of the characters are fairly one-dimensional caricatures of positions such as 'HR Lady,' 'Over-Enthusiastic Engineer' and 'Superfluous Middle-Manager.' This lack of characterization doesn't detract from the story; rather, using known tropes helps to move along the plot without bogging it down introducing the reader to a whole company of employees.

Max Barry has created a hugely funny, dark comedy look at where technological advancements could lead when factors such as an irrational attachment to the physical body is replaced with a seemingly logical desire for efficiency and advancement. Neumann is the logical extension of the classic science-focused, asocial engineer, and people with friends or coworkers like him will be smiling throughout as the recognize some of the traits.

Highs: The contrast between Dr. Neumann's response to the addition of the 'enhancements' and another characters' response really shows how far off the deep end Charles gets.

Lows: It's almost a certainty that some people will be upset at what they see as a mockery of the less socially-apt 'geek' character, but to me it seems like it's all in good-natured fun.

Verdict: This is hardly great literature, or an in-depth examination of the use of technology to enhance the human form, but it's not trying to be.

Further Reading: 'The Perfect Match', The Mad Scientist's Daughter