Tuesday, 14 July 2015

The Bookcase Of Fear #9: Redshirts by John Scalzi

By John Scalzi

Here's an example of not judging a book by its cover.  Glance at the artwork or the blurb for John Scalzi's Redshirts and you'll see a sci-fi spoof – and you know what, let's call a spade a spade.  It's a Star Trek spoof.  Very much in the vein of Galaxy Quest, it's clearly aimed at the tropes and conventions of everyone's favourite space exploration show, making a particular bugaboo of those hapless extras who tend to die for idiotic reasons.  And there's nothing wrong with that.  Goodness knows there are plenty of conventions and clich├ęs to choose from, and why not make a book about those unfortunately mortal joes?  There are laughs to be had.

For a while Redshirts goes after the gag, savagely mocking the illogical and unsafe away missions that plague your average episode of Star Trek.  And it's funny, but also kind of limiting.  Spoofs are tough to maintain, just as satire makes it difficult to tell a good story.  The more you remind us of something we are familiar with, and/or point out how silly it is, the further we feel from the characters as people, the harder it is for the story to say anything for itself.  It's just a satire.  Nobody loves Airplane! for its plot.

Fortunately, John Scalzi – who I'd never heard of pre-Redshirts – has numerous tricks up his sleeve.  The joke evolves.  It's not just about how silly it is that people die in certain ways and at certain times, but how other characters deal with it, whether they even notice it, and just why it keeps happening.  Before long, Redshirts is working on a whole other level of meta self-awareness, and rather than loiter cheerily in Star Trek's allegorical shadow, it highlights the comparison.  And... that's about as far as I can go describing the plot before I get into spoilers.  Incidentally, thank you, the people who designed the cover and wrote the blurb, leaving Redshirts looking like Star Trek Spoof 101.  I was not expecting it to go where it went, so I was pleasantly shocked when it did.

There is a downside to this.  Some people may dismiss Redshirts as a spoof.  If they do, they'll miss a complex and funny story which celebrates (and mourns) the life of small and unsung characters, and ponders what we can learn from them.  It has dizzying things to say about creativity, writing and life – all of which is supported by an extensive knowledge of sci-fi silliness that will make Star Trek fans chortle, but that's still just the hook.  It was the book's heart and mind games that made a lasting impression on me.

Do I have any complaints?  Well, it's quite short, but then that might be another way of saying "it's voraciously readable".  I've spent longer, and had less fun with thinner books.  Oh, but here's an annoying niggle: those redshirts in Star Trek tended to be the security guys.  That's why they always went on away missions and why they always barrelled into danger.  They were literally protecting the main characters.  It's not universally true of every episode, and they were still written as blundering suicidal oafs, but it's still a basic piece of internal Trek logic that people love to ignore or forget.  (See also, Captain Kirk's grossly exaggerated libido, which thankfully does not appear in any shape or form here.)  It's a shame to devote all that energy to the minutiae of sci-fi and still miss that detail.

Nonetheless, Redshirts is hugely enjoyable and rewarding.  A creative, thoughtful and while-he's-at-it hilarious piece of work.  You should read it!

Mr Mercedes
By Stephen King

A retired cop with drink and dark thoughts for company.  A one-time killer he never caught, determined to drive him to suicide, and maybe to resume old habits as well.  Both men are hunting the other.

I'm sure Stephen King would agree his book has something in common with... too many hunt-the-killer thrillers to mention, actually.  Mr Mercedes is such a textbook example of "cat-and-mouse" that the cop and killer even share the same initials.  I'm forcibly reminded of a line from Adaptation: "You explore the notion that cop and criminal are really two aspects of the same person.  See every cop movie ever made for other examples of this."  And we know King reads and watches other examples, because his heroic ex-cop likes to list them and point out the inaccuracies – always within the shadow of Dirty Harry, or what have you.

Still, the race to catch "the Mercedes Killer" is an exciting one, despite (or maybe because of) King's craving for giving us information ahead of time.  Even writing it in present tense (possibly to add flavour to what is, for King, a new genre after all) does not alleviate the random spurts of future info that have plagued his novels since Carrie.  Perhaps it's a Hitchcockian device, showing us the bomb under the carriage.  It certainly adds tension, but sometimes we're talking about a lead time of a couple of pages, and sometimes it simply removes the tension.  Sometimes I want to say: Stephen, just let me get there.  The present tense doesn't add a great deal; I stopped noticing it after a while.  Chopping between Bill (cop) and Brady (killer) gives the thing an atmosphere.  It is as unpleasant as you would expect to inhabit the killer's mind.

I'm not sure the catch-him-even-though-he-won't-do-it-again aspect was really utilised (as per the blurb: he'll do it again), but perhaps that wouldn't have been as exciting a story.  And while it's limiting to think of King as a horror author, this brand of fiction (although compelling) is a little limiting too, since there's arguably less call for imagination in the characters.  Certainly these ones.  You could whip up Bill Hodges from any cop movie ever, and Brady's psychosis is altogether garden variety.  (Take one young mega-misanthrope, add Oedipal frosting.)  A scene where he's haunted by his younger brother comes reassuringly close to horror territory, but it's not one of many.

Elsewhere, King's frequent pre-occupation with sex rears its head – sigh – but his concerning fascination with racial stereotypes is the novel's loudest bum note.  Jerome, a brilliant and articulate young [black] man, insists on adopting an old-timey persona called "Tyrone".  He's a racist caricature, no one in the book finds him funny and it doesn't add anything at all to the story.  I have no idea why it's here and I winced every single time.  It's one of those things an author might defend as "more of a reflection on racism", but he's still a white guy writing a black guy that says "massa", so uh, no, it should go.  Of course it should.  It was published in 2013, for god's sake.

I often find myself listing complaints even when I've enjoyed a book.  For good measure, yes, I enjoyed Mr Mercedes, but it's plot-driven and there's really not a lot to say when it works – it's a thriller, it can be quite thrilling.  King's back-and-forth narrative is a fun setup, even if the novel's e-mail correspondence conceit, like Brady's initial taunting promise never to do it again, ultimately falls under the steamroller of Hunt The Killer Thriller, there to reap familiar rewards.

By Stephen King

There's something inevitable about 11.22.63.  (And before we get started, the title sucks.  Say it out loud.  Catchy it ain't.)  The genre-guzzling Stephen King was bound to do a time travel story eventually, and his fascination with Americana leaves the Kennedy assassination looking like 2001's monolith.  It's really no surprise that he's had this in mind for years.  However, the wound was a little too fresh in 1972, and he was busy at the time, so we got it in 2011.

It's a pity he waited, as "Go back and save Kennedy" is an idea I've heard a few times.  Quantum Leap spent three miserable episodes on it, Red Dwarf went there, Doctor Who tipped the wink...  Where time travel is concerned it's simply a hard one to miss.  11.22.63 must do a memorable job, and maybe avoid the pitfalls of time travel fiction along the way.  It does a goodish job of both, for the most part.

The early pace is so fast, it's more like a novella than (oh boy) a 740-page King brick.  Shortly after you've met him, schoolteacher Jake Epping discovers a time portal in the back of a diner.  The owner is dying, and he has a plan to impart.  You already know what that is, so why mince words?  This kind of succinctness is missed during the book's chunky midsection.  It's rarely dull, but there is a lot of it.

And it's mostly exciting.  Jake averts a few other disasters before that big day in Dallas, turning 11.22.63 into a sort of epic Groundhog Day.  (Which is okay, I adore that movie.)  Plus he falls in love – how could he stay here and not? – which is where the book plants roots and puts on weight.  He must juggle two lives, teaching and living in a small town and carrying out you-know-what in Dallas.  Both feel like novels in themselves, and that's after a few hundred pages in Derry, the It place.  (Yes, it's exciting to remember that story, and there's yet another novel's worth of good stuff to be had there, but the further you get from this bit the more out of place it seems.  He really squeezed in an It sequel?  Oh well, I guess in 1958 it was too good to pass up.)  The characters are not his richest or best, but it's difficult to invest all that time and not care about them.  You'll get to know Lee Harvey Oswald pretty well.

There are plenty of heart-in-your-throat moments, but Jake marks time between them, either compiling research on Oswald or worrying away at Sadie's (his girlfriend's) past.  The latter indulges the author's love for the era; the former is where his deep research is most obvious.  (Authors suffer in research, and misery loves company.)  That's a fat stack of waiting, although there's plenty of colour too.  Momentum builds and pays off, and you will race through the last hundred pages, at least until the ending comes along.

I won't spoil it, but in a story like this the ending is always going to be a make-or-breaker.  (There's that inevitability again.)  In my case, we're talking break-like-a-TV-out-of-a-high-window.  Okay, semi-spoiler: it's a bad ending, an almost apologetic, bubble-bursting, effort-wasting Twilight Zone switcheroo that has really, really been done before.  It casts a shadow over everything that came before, all 700 research-filled do-it-all-again pages of it, and I wish it didn't.  The only reason I can think of is that it's "inevitable" – a time travel story just has to go there, right?

But y'know what?  There's no such thing as time travel.  All the "rules" are arbitrary, made up, they vary from writer to writer, or they should.  I'd be more surprised and certainly more satisfied if we avoided, say, a lesson on the Butterfly Effect.  Because we've heard it.  Jake is a savvy narrator, he strikes off all sorts of outcomes just as they occur to you – so why ultimately go for one that's just as obvious, and while we're at it, super lame?  Just what's so wrong with having your cake and eating it?  If you've seen the movie Frequency, or obviously Back To The Future, you'll know how good it can be.  We expect that time will take its grim toll, because that's how life is and how so many stories end.  We come to you, Mr Writer, for the unexpected.

It's just too bad.  With a strict editor and a serious talking-to about what it all means and where it's going, this could have been The Great JFK Time Travel Novel.  Instead it's an exhilarating wait for a terrible punchline; a regrettable choice that, thanks to our humdrum linear world, nobody can go back and fix.

Doctor Who
Book Two: Hour Of The Geek
By Lawrence Miles

There isn’t much I can say about Interference: Book Two that I didn’t already say about Interference: Book One, since it is merely the next 300 pages of the same book, but here goes.

Lawrence Miles continues to confuse “ideas” with “story”.  Banging on endlessly about his evil Faction Paradox (or are they!) and his vaguely technology-satirising aliens, the Remote, and what both of them stand for and what they want out of life, is not a substitute for narrative.  The sheer misery of following their exploits is not something that needed to span two books.  It might not be so bad if the ideas themselves were more interesting, but they just didn’t grab me the way they obviously do the author.  Right now, I don’t ever want to hear the words “remote”, “media” or “signals” again.  600 pages of it.  Good god.

But it’s not all about faction this and signal that: there are characters in here too.  Sarah Jane continues to entertain the most, along with her Ogron pal, but the modern Doctor-and-companion bunch (the, er, main characters) fare less well.  The Doctor’s out of prison at least, but what took him so long?  Sam finally says goodbye, and maybe it’s because I haven’t read all the books with her in, but it didn’t make much of an impression.  Fitz gets up to some depressing nonsense on the sidelines – Fitz who? – and the guest cast are a pine forest, including the no-you-must-be-joking next companion.  Meet Compassion: a person so stunningly unscintillating, Miles might as well pass a bomb to the other writers in this series.  Good luck, folks.

Events finally return to the Third Doctor, and they do pick up a bit, as Miles clearly has a soft spot for that incarnation.  (Conversely, the younger Sarah Jane is reduced to frowning in the background.)  There are some very neat ideas here – although that’s not always a good thing, see above – and Doctor Who history gets memorably changed.  Spoiler alert: Jon Pertwee has an entirely new death scene.  Not a bad idea in theory (and it somehow doesn’t affect the rest of the TV series), but it’s only there to set up events for the Eighth Doctor which – and I can hardly believe this – haven’t happened yet.  Tune in next week?  You must be joking.

Interference is a big gamble, and it doesn’t pay off.  Simply put, despite a few bright spots, this is one boring book for the price of two.