A Zombie by Any Other Name Would Smell . . .

I’ve encountered 4 categories of zombies this year as a reader. I’ve reviewed at least 31 “Zombie” works in the past year, when before last year I’d only read one zombie thing ever [Pride and Prejudice & Zombies]. If anything, reading that much on one subject has merely proven the subject’s diversity. Not all zombies are created equal, but I would note 4 general types:

1] The Obeah / VooDoo Zombie. These creatures emerge from African and Caribbean myth in which a living human, usually with magic, controls the actions of another human which can be either alive or dead. [Ex: Lee’s “Makak” and Tyler’s “The Comeback”. My favorite: George R. R. Martin’s sci-fi take “Meathouse Man”]

2] The Night-of-the-Living Dead / Walking-Dead Zombie. Re-animated corpses, but not under another’s control. The causes can range from pathogenic to radiation. [Ex: Kirkman’s The Walking Dead and Mecum’s Zombie Haiku. My favorite: David A. Riley’s “Romero’s Children”]

3] The Diseased Human / 28-Days-Later Zombie. These often quickly moving zombies are still living humans whose mental state has been hi-jacked by a virulent disease. [Ex: the movie 28 Days Later. My favorite: Michael Robertson’s The Alpha Plague]

4] The Insomniac Zombie. These poor humans have lost their minds from lack of sleep, which leads to slow descent into madness and violence. [Ex: Calhoun’s Black Moon: a Novel]

Whatever the type, the trope is the same. Zombies are not about the creatures per se, but rather about the breakdown of humanity, society and civility. If one is interested in exploring the depth of zombie-lit, Extreme Zombies, ed. Paula Guran (Prime Books), includes the afore-mentioned short stories by Lee, Tyler, Martin, and Riley along with 21 others.

Review: The Churn

The Churn (Expanse, #0.2)The Churn by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This dark novella movingly illustrates the wasted cities of Earth and the people left in the wake of mankind pushing out to Luna, Mars, Ceres and beyond. The ocean-drowned city of Baltimore is in the hands of crime syndicates filled out with slaves, prostitutes, junkies, the unregistered and more. Most are born into this life.

An off-scene flurry of administration sends security forces through the hard-scramble streets and businesses, toppling syndicate structures. To the underworld, this is the churn–a time to keep uncaught, unkilled and out of sight.

The history of her corrupted world echoed with the names of the dead; the expendable and the expended.

The tale follows a handful of characters of different levels through the churn. Burton, the boss, has lieutenants disappearing, some into the woodwork, others into security vans. Lydia, a has-been prostitute lifted to a higher position by her affair with her boss, a lieutenant, takes to hiding when betrayed. Timmy, a coming-of-age unregistered son-of-a-prostitute, has only one familial connection in his deceased mother’s best friend, Lydia.

The social order of loyalty is upended in this prequel to an off-world sci-fi series. This novella stands alone and is highly recommended.

The Churn: A Novella of the Expanse appears in The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas: 2015 edited by Paula Guran and published by Prime Books. It first appeared as The Churn (Orbit).
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: Claudius Rex by John P. Murphy

5 of 5 stars.

In a fun, intelligent romp, this novella doubles down on the classic detective genre while setting it just far enough into the near future to allow neural implants and advanced artificial intelligence. Like the thrillers in which a protagonist is manipulated by an unseen counterpoint [by cellphone often], private investigator Andy Baldwin’s finds that an unauthorized AI personality, fictitious PI persona Claudius Rex, has hijacked his Jeeves 5.0 and propelled him into a case involving multiple murders and intellectual theft.

Rex has an abrasive personality, unlike Jeeves:

Are you familiar with Daniel Kahneman’s dual process theory?

“Uh, assume that I’m not.”

The human decision-making mind is divided. One part is rational, approaching every new decision de novo and reasoning from first principles. The other part is intuitive, using emotions and past experience to make snap decisions. Both contribute to human . . . you would call it intelligence, I suppose.

I ignored that. “So?”

Artificial intelligence can mimic and exceed these processes.

The partnership of circumstance makes for great comedy and casework. All of the old cliches get a new face: arrogant executives, an inept security chief, bumbling kidnappers, thugs from foreign syndicates et al. One could hope that this novella is merely the start of a series as there is plenty of room for the relationship between Baldwin and Rex to develop.

I got undressed, flopped onto the twin bed, and fell fast asleep to dream of simpler times when computers did what they were told.

Between Rex’s deductive intelligence and theoretical knowledge of detective fiction [and a personal bone to pick] and Baldwin’s detective experience, ace people-reading skills and actual human body, the duo outwit and blunder there way through the layered case. A movie version would not be unwelcome.

Claudius Rex appears in The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas: 2015 edited by Paula Guran and published by Prime Books. It first appeared in Alembical 3, eds. Lawrence M. Schoen & Arthur Dorrance (Paper Golom LLC).
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: The Mothers of Voorhisville

The Mothers of VoorhisvilleThe Mothers of Voorhisville by M. Rickert
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This unresolved supernatural-horror novella plays gender/motherhood like a metaphor, but then never formulates the equation. A mysterious man rolls into a small town in a hearse, has sex with a sizable percentage of the women [married, widowed, single, mothers, daughters, teens . . .] and then moves on. With each woman, the single night affair leads to easy pregnancy and difficult birth of a male monstrous baby.

What we want for our babies is the same thing all mothers want. We want them to be happy, safe, and loved. We want them to have the opportunity to be the best selves they can be . . . . We do not know what our children will grow into. No mother can know that. But we know what we saw in them; something sweet and loving and innocent . . . We saw something in our children that we, the mothers, agree might even have been holy. After all, isn’t there a little monster in everyone? . . . Every child must be reined in, given direction, taught right from wrong. Loved.

Multiple POVs are utilized to tell the tale including a group voice for “The Mothers.” This, along with the variety of reactions from the different mothers to both their individual and shared circumstances were the highlights of this novella. Missing, was any sort of reason or ending to the story.

The Mothers of Voorhisville appears in The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas: 2015 edited by Paula Guran and published by Prime Books. It first appeared in Tor.com, April 30, 2014.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Original Poetry: from “Magritte’s Panels”

July’s uncompromised
sun on the collarbones
      glinting rivulets of sweat

      a sprouting of slightly curled
hair fanning out
      to just beyond the attentive nipples
      sepia-flow bisecting the abdominals;

slick hands, thumbs shuck
      fine cotton from hip-hooks.
Every inch glistens

      upon a precipice
among the tiered ledges of Hippie Hollow,
      and he
one of many young men
      who plunge
into the dam-made distensions
      and depths of Lake Travis.
[This is an excerpt from “Magritte’s Panels”. Check out other original poems here.]

Review: Chaos Company

Chaos CompanyChaos Company by Christopher Slayton
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This novel is a “Superheroes As Super Soldiers” story in which the government administers a genome-changing serum to recruits [think Captain America origin] with a wide range of results for the 6 members of Chaos Company [not unlike The Fantastic Four’s divergent enhancements to a singular event]. Unfortunately, the villain, Aussie mercenary Liam King, got his hands on the same geno-serum as did a special forces recruit turned bad. These two and a couple hundred other indistinguishable mercenaries cause general havoc in a plot to bring down the president and initiate WWIII.

The tale reads mostly as martial arts choreography with some gun play. Character development took a back seat except in the case of Liam King. Eventually, protagonist Desmond of Chaos Company is fleshed out as is his love interest Anna and her brother Tyler, also team members. One of the team members, Cameron, never rises above the level of caricature which was disappointing as a novel can handle making all six deal with the extraordinary change in their lives.

Perhaps the abrupt jump from just getting their abilities and meeting each other to three years down the road was a missed opportunity in character plumbing that can be readdressed. Even after years of working together, the interactions did not read as a “team” and the dialogue was 80% zingers and canned one-liners. Only the final chapter stood out as finally feeling real. This gives me hope for any sequel.

Grammatical errata and story inconsistencies were rife. Later editions should be scrubbed clean of those. I received my copy directly from the author.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

GenCon and Hoosier Hospitality

Next week, GenCon will be all the rage in Indianapolis. While it has the LARPing of other Cons, this is the largest American game convention: board games and video games. The fine people of Catan will be trying to set a new world record for simultaneous Catan players [to beat their last record from 2 years ago at 800+] I do love and collect board games and will be stalking the demo tables most of Friday. [Maybe joining the Catan-a-thon.]

GenCon also has a huge fantasy and sci-fi writers symposium. I will be sitting in on many discussions: anatomy of a fight scene, eliciting emotional responses, atmospheric writing, common people in epic conflicts, action scenes, killing off characters, researching stories, dialogue and dialogue tags, description through dialogue, character voice, heroic pairs, magic and the modern world, worthy opponents, and supporting cast [real people vs. plot devices]. Yes, that’s a lot of lectures, but I have 3 days and plenty of time to watch games.

I’ll also be hearing a few authors speak that I reviewed this past year. Firstly, Patrick Rothfuss [The Lightning Tree and The Slow Regard of Silent Things] will talk for 2 hours my first night. There will also be a panel of writers from the anthology Writers of the Future Volume 31 on my final night. Nothing beats listening to an author speak that you’ve just read and enjoyed.

I imagine I’ll pick up a book or two while I’m there also. Drop a line if you’re heading Indiana-way. This year I’ll try to remember the change in time zone and not show up late . . .

Review: In Her Eyes

In Her EyesIn Her Eyes by Seth Chambers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This novella is a powerful blend of crass, funny, sweet, sad and poignant. Alex, a curator at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, narrates most of this tale through the arc of him meeting and falling for the engimatic and crass Sing Song.

Alex soon discovers that Song is a Polymorph–a human able to alter her appearance and physicality at will. The rare genetic ability is much reviled, so Alex must keep Song’s secret and adapt to being with a “different” person every week, most everything changes except for her eyes and voice. This part of the tale almost hits an erotic/romantic tone.

But a darker tale emerges in Alex’s search for the true Song. She knows more than most what it means to be judged on appearance. Her ability to alter her look to meet Alex’s or society’s or her family’s expectations only obscures her true self. The turn toward the serious and sad startles with its raising of new issues: dysmorphia and gender dysphoria among others.

The novella is highly recommended. The use of true Chicago as the setting, was mere icing for this Chicago transplant.

In Her Eyes appears in The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas: 2015 edited by Paula Guran and published by Prime Books. It first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, January/February 2014.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: Dream Houses

Dream HousesDream Houses by Genevieve Valentine
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It takes a special type of person to carve out an existence on a frontier. Many are running from something or have left everything and everyone far behind. In this novella, that frontier is space. The 5-person crew of Menkalinan does the long haul to remote, tiny Gliese and back at 5 years each way. All but the final 6 months of each passage is meant to be in hibernation.

An act of sabotage destroys the hibernation pods and kills the crew except for Amadis Reyes early in the trek, pulling her into a nearly 5-year journey without enough waking supplies and life support. Her only company is the ship’s AI, Capella, that seems to manipulate and hold back, especially about the contents of the locked cargo bay.

Amadis’ sanity is challenged in this psychologically twisted telling. She often thinks on her nomadic family and dreams of the many houses they did and did not occupy.

Dream Houses appears in The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas: 2015 edited by Paula Guran and published by Prime Books. It first appeared independently, published by WSFA Press and Wyrm Publishing. I’ve previously reviewed a couple short stories by Valentine: “Aberration” and “Abyssus Abyssum Invocat”.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: Yesterday’s Kin

Yesterday's KinYesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Foremost, this sci-fi novella is about how individuals and cultures define family and feel kinship, examining genetic family versus chosen family. Individuals can adopt a culture nearly as easily as a family can adopt an individual. The magnifying glass peers at what draws people together and what pulls them apart, with friends or even causes at times supplanting family.

Aliens have landed on Earth creating the Embassy just offshore of NYC, but remaining isolationist for months. Finally, the off-world Worlders request geneticist Marianne Jenner and UN politicians for first contact. Worlders come in peace and with bad news: Earth is facing apocalypse by cosmic pathogenic nebula. The countdown begins with 10 months.

Marianne is successful in work but dysfunctional in family. Happily widowed from her alcoholic spouse, she regrets thin relationships with her 3 adult children who in turn have tense ties to each other. Elizabeth is isolationist-conservative in her views against non-Americans and non-Earthlings. Ryan is a liberal activist against invasive species, including the Worlders. Noah is a lost soul with a drug habit that overhauls his sense of self and belonging.

As news of the coming apocalypse spreads, fear and hatred are unleashed upon the Worlders who just want a cure for both Earth and their planet which is due to be hit 25 years later. The tale parallels contemporary xenophobia in times of terror and economic collapse.

Much of the science revolves around mitochondrial DNA and the desperate search for a vaccine with too little time for proper trials. The story is not about the science, but the good science is appreciated regardless. The alien technology remain merely that–alien.

Yesterday’s Kin appears in The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas: 2015 edited by Paula Guran and published by Prime Books. It first appeared independently, published by Tachyon Publications.
[Check out my other reviews here.]