I’ve let the indie book review page get out of date. The reason is largely that the format of it is so clunky. Even with the hyperlinked genre listing, it’s still awkward to navigate a long list like that. And so every time I think I should update that, my next thought is Ugh, but it’s such a chore to use; I should fix that first.
But… nothing springs to my mind as to exactly how I can make it better. What do you think? What would make that page more visually interesting than just a list you have to scroll through?
I’ve known about this book for a few years, but I kept putting off reading it because the premise seemed so forbidding. It’s set on another planet—Vokhtah—and the characters are all aliens. Well, alien to us, I mean–they are the creatures that evolved on Vokhtah. Not a human to be found, is my point. It’s intimidatingly exotic and strange, and that’s why I didn’t read it for so long, even though I enjoyed Flory’s other, unrelated sci-fi novel Miira.
And for sure, Vokhtah is strange. The most intelligent creatures that inhabit the eponymous planet are a species—or really two closely-related species—with characteristics suggestive of birds, bats and perhaps insects. To make things even tougher, they don’t have names; only titles and ranks. There are traders, plodders, apprentices, healers, and a range of characters referred to only as numbers. Not only that, they are hermaphroditic—so, before mating, they have no defined genders.
Technology on Vokhtah is primitive—it appears to be largely what we would consider Stone or maybe early Bronze Age, although some references are made to machinery of some sort, but it’s not clear exactly how it works. There are different seasons that dictate the tribes’ customs, and time is kept according to the planet’s two suns.
And then there is the language. Obviously, the book is written in English, but the characters speak their dialogue with a different grammar. For example, instead of saying, “Are you hungry,” they would say, “Being hungry?” I don’t think the word “is” occurs once in this book. It gives you the feeling that you’re genuinely reading something spoken in a different language and translated into the closest approximation possible in our own tongue.
I’m telling you all this to prepare you up front: Vokhtah is not a typical or familiar book. The first half or so, you have to get acclimated to the alien planet and its population, their customs, and their ways of life.
Flory does a great job crafting a profoundly different world. Even though I will admit that in the first half I found the story hard to follow, it really didn’t matter because I was just enjoying experiencing the atmosphere. Although it was sometimes hard for me to tell who characters were and how they related to the larger thread of the plot, it didn’t bother me, because I was just enjoying reading these fascinating little vignettes of life on this world.
My favorite of these is the dramatic performance of an old piece of Vokh lore—the story of the Great Nine and the Rogue. We learn that there are actually two versions of this story, and finding out the differences between the two versions and why they exist is just a fantastic concept. I loved this part.
Over the second half of the book, things coalesce, characterizations take shape, and I found myself sympathizing with members of this bird/bat/bug species more than I ever would have believed possible. The journey of the Messenger and the Apprentice along the Spine of the World (great name) was riveting. There’s even a little bit of a mystery element to it as well, which I won’t spoil here.
Yes, this book is different and weird and unlike anything else I’ve ever read. But that’s the point!If intelligent life exists on other planets, it’s going to be bizarre and foreign and at least semi-incomprehensible to human intellects. Reading this book really did feel like being transported to an alien world, and that was fantastic. I wish I’d read it sooner, because it really is a master-class in world-building. Vokhtah is a haunting, vividly-constructed depiction of a fascinating world—one I’d happily revisit.
Ah, interminable wars waged by hegemonic powers in the Middle East! They’ve been the cause of unfathomable amounts of human suffering for centuries, but on the other hand, we’ve gotten some really good movies out of them. Lawrence of Arabia, The Beast of War, The English Patient… maybe it is home to the graveyard of empires, but it sure is good for showbiz.
All right, maybe I’m being a bit cynical and snarky here, and that’s something I try to avoid doing, but Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a war comedy-drama, so there’s inevitably a gallows humor quality to it.
The film follows journalist Kim Baker, (Tina Fey) who quits her desk job writing news scripts to cover the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan.She’s embedded with the Marines, and, after initially being perceived as a bumbling civilian, gradually wins the respect of the unit and its commander, as well as veteran reporter, Tanya Vanderpoel. (Margot Robbie.)
Slowly, Baker gains the trust of important officials in the Afghan government, and, with the help of her guide and translator Fahim, (Christopher Abbott) gains a better understanding of their culture. She also starts a romantic relationship with journalist Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman) after breaking up with her stateside boyfriend.
Ultimately, Baker is forced to use all her wits, contacts, and knowledge of Afghan politics in order to save not only her career, but her lover’s life. And she is forced to come face-to-face with the horrors of war, as she interviews a young soldier badly-wounded after an IED attack.
I went into this film with low expectations. I like Tina Fey and Margot Robbie, but wasn’t expecting it to be anything more than “Liz Lemon goes to Afghanistan.” And that’s what it seems like at first.
But over the second half, nuances emerge. The characters show unexpected depth and nuance. As I said, I’ve always liked Fey’s comedy, but I gained new respect for her skill as a dramatic actress. As the CineMuseFilms review put it, “she nailed her part” by not playing it solely for laughs. Billy Bob Thornton is great as the commanding Marine officer, and Christopher Abbott’s performance is absolutely fantastic. His character’s friendship with Baker is one of the highlights of the film—frankly, I found it to be the real emotional core of the story, much more so than the romance thread.
There’s one dialogue between Fahim and Baker in which he warns her that she’s becoming addicted to the adrenaline rush of mortal danger. It’s a moment of real tension in their friendship, and a dramatic turning point in the film.
I mention it because addiction to the thrill of war was also the theme of the film The Hurt Locker, which is about a bomb disposal squad in Iraq. That film won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2010. Personally, I found Whiskey Tango Foxtrot to be a vastly superior war film compared to TheHurt Locker, and this more economical portrayal of the same basic theme is only one of many reasons why.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has humor, but never at the expense of characterization. It shows both the horror and the heroism that every war entails. It ended up being a far more thought-provoking film than I was expecting. I’m now curious to read the book on which it was based, The Taliban Shuffle by Kim Barker.
Assassin’s Heart is a romance in a medieval fantasy setting. The protagonist, Lillie, is a woman raised from a young age to be a ruthless assassin by an organization known as the Va’Shile. When we meet her, she is undercover as a palace servant, and all the court is awaiting the naming of King’s heir—whom the Va’Shile have assigned Lillie to kill once his identity is known.
While gaining the trust of servants in order to move freely about the castle, Lillie meets a handsome young stablehand named Nef, and the two soon fall in love. Despite her brutal upbringing, Lillie finds herself increasingly distracted by her new beau, as well as questions surrounding her past that nag at her mind—questions relating to her mysterious ability to communicate telepathically with animals, which troubles even the brave and handsome Nef.
The wheels of political machinations continue to turn. Complications ensue. Soon enough, Lillie and Nef find themselves fleeing the Va’Shile and hiding out at a brothel managed by a woman named Brava. But even as their relationship deepens, Lillie and Nef are increasingly drawn into a conflict with the Va’Shile which can only be ended with a lot of death.
Assassin’s Heart is first and foremost a romance. Once we get about a quarter of the way in, it seems Lillie and Nef are sneaking off every chance they get to fulfill their, ah, romantic desires. (Sometimes their romantic desires need fulfillment 3 or 4 times a day!) And they aren’t the only ones constantly running off to the bedroom, either; there are several other romantic sub-plots as well.
But Norse does a good job of balancing the sexy interludes with character development and plot twists. The story never grinds to a halt. Other things may grind to something, but never mind that now!
There isn’t a lot of description of the world in which the story takes place. Most of the descriptive passages are, as you might expect, about the physical attributes of the cast. Lillie and her red hair, Nef and his blue eyes, Master Jaidon and his… well, I don’t want to spoil everything!
All right, I’ll stop with the Nudge Nudge Wink Wink routine. There’s a lot of sex in this book, that’s my point. But there’s still a good story and a few other things that even those, like me, who don’t regularly read romance can find interesting.
For example, there’s a scene where Lillie is relishing finally being free from the confines of the Assassin’s Guild where she spent most of her childhood, and gets up in the middle of the night to dance in the moonlit corridors of the castle, with only statues and suits of armor for an audience. It’s very Gothic. Beautiful, but also slightly eerie, and Romantic in the artistic sense of the word, with a focus on creating a feeling rather than plot advancement. I liked it a lot.
Some of the reviews on Amazon—which are otherwise positive—bring up the issue that the characters often speak in very modern language. I admit, at first I noticed this and found it jarring. But as I kept reading, my attitude about it changed a little—because the story isn’t set in a specific time period, but just an unknown medieval-ish place, the modern phrases actually gave it a more distinct “flavor.” So, I guess it was jarring, but kind of in a good way, maybe? All told, I couldn’t make up my mind whether I liked this or not, but it certainly didn’t ruin the book for me.
Also, I really liked the character of Brava. I usually find prostitutes and brothels in fiction to be pretty tiresome—largely because there are so many works of fiction where I swear it feels like the entire economy is prostitution-based. But Brava worked as a character for me—her no-nonsense attitude, coupled with her dirty sense of humor, was very amusing.
This is an enjoyable romantic fantasy tale with enough non-romance plot that it will appeal to non-romance readers as well.
This is a collection of short stories. If you read Mark’s other collection The Marfa Lights—and you should have, especially since this fellow said to—this will feel like picking up right where you left off.
My mini-reviews of each story:
Shady Acres: This story is the longest in the book, and interweaves the life stories of residents and staff at the Shady Acres retirement community. It’s a moving story, with many poignant moments, and some very funny ones as well. The “main” character does something rather dubious early on, but by the end, I felt more sympathy for him. I enjoyed this story, and would happily read more stories in this setting.
A Warm Body:A quick sketch of a post-apocalyptic world. I guessed the twist ahead of time, but that’s probably because I’ve played many a post-apocalypse role-playing game. It’s a quick glimpse into a grim, brutal world. Made me think a little of Harlan Ellison.
Gramps’s Stereo: In the afterword, Mark explains that this story was partly inspired by the film Gran Torino. That’s one of my favorite films, so maybe that’s why I liked this one so much.
Jeopardy: A young man returns home to his bickering parents with some surprising news. Now, here again, I guessed what the twist would be; but the story isn’t really about the twist as much as it is about the atmosphere and setting the scene. Of all the stories in this collection, this is the one that I could have most easily identified as the work of the same author who penned The Irrepairable Past. The tone feels very similar to me.
Forever: Now this one is peculiar. As explained in the afterword, it strikes many readers, including me, in a very different way than the author intended. Not to give too much away, but the protagonist’s behavior can be interpreted in a number of ways. And here’s the weird part: I was happy that the story turned out differently than I expected it to, even though it might seem more of a “conventional” ending. In other words, I was surprised by how unsurprising it was, if that makes sense.
Getting Through the Night: This story is about a man caring for his young daughter after a car accident leaves her on life support. I admit, I kind of hurried through this one.It was just too grim for me, but that’s not a criticism of the writing, which is quite good, of course. And the backstory of how Mark came up with the idea is really interesting. So it’s not that it’s a bad story; it was just…. too dark for my tastes. Your mileage may vary.
My First True Love: Probably the most relatable story in the whole collection—I think everybody probably has a story kind of like this one in their past. There’s a character in it named Luilu, which made me think of Leeloo from The Fifth Element, even though there’s really no connection otherwise—but still, aren’t those just fun names to say?
Sunbaked Sand: I view this story almost as a kind of companion piece to “Jeopardy,” but with this one, I totally did not see the “twist” coming. (By the way, calling these “twists” kind of cheapens it—it’s more like revelations about people that make us see them differently. I’m using “twist” as shorthand here.) In any case, this story is really good. It only has two characters who are in conflict for most of it, and at the end, you feel a ton of sympathy for both of them.
He Slept: This story epitomizes what I consider Mark’s signature talent, which is his ability to take a minor incident from life; the sort of thing that 99 out of 100 people would scarcely think about, and expand upon it to tell a compelling story. (To be fair, “Getting Through the Night” also does this, but if I were introducing somebody to Mark’s work, I’d recommend this one.)
Tentacles: A haunting depiction of how abusive behavior can ruin many lives. It’s dark, it’s powerful, and it has this other sort of weird, unexplained thing going on in the background that gives it a very unique vibe. Probably my second-favorite story in the collection.
Who Is Maureen Nesbitt?: I think this is the shortest story in the collection, which makes it ironic that it will be the one I write the most words about. Part of it is that it’s a big departure from Mark’s typical style of melancholic literary fiction. This one is sci-fi. And it’s funny. It takes place in a world where there are things called “Information Zones” or “izzies,” which are essentially artificial intelligences that with access to all the information on the internet—and then some. And the izzies have developed personalities of their own. They’re almost like mischievous ghosts. I’m not sure exactly when Mark wrote this, but I’m pretty sure it was before the rise of things like Siri and Alexa. Yes, this story is short, but I absolutely loved it. I want to read more stories set in this world—there’s so much potential in this concept. This is one of those that you read and just shake your head and go, “Damn, I wish I’d thought of that.”
All in all, this is a fine collection, with plenty of variety. Every story has its own unique “flavor,” and the notes at the end where Mark discusses the story-behind-the-story are quite interesting in themselves. Studying the way he draws inspiration from the most seemingly-insignificant things is a great technique for writers to cultivate. Give Shady Acres a try.
There’s a famous Twilight Zone episode about a man who loves to read, and who, upon finding himself the only survivor of a nuclear war, begins gathering all the books from the ruins of the library, eager to spend the remainder of his life reading without interruption. Then he falls and his glasses break, and he finds himself with plenty of time to read, but unable to do so.
It’s dark, it’s ironic, and it evokes Cold War fears of annihilation, so small wonder it’s practically the quintessential Twilight Zone episode.
But here’s an even darker proposition for you: what if we forget that we can read?
I don’t mean forgetting the basic act of reading written symbols and associating them with meanings; we can still do that. No, I’m talking about something more insidious than that.
I used to say I didn’t read as much as I wanted to because I didn’t have time. But then I thought about it, and I realized that wasn’t completely true. What about the time I spend watching TV? Or playing video games? Or—and this was by far the biggest time-sink—mindlessly scrolling through the internet, watching videos or looking at the latest news.
I decided to make a conscious effort to spend that time reading instead. And I mean seriously reading, as in focusing on a novel and getting absorbed in it, not the “reading-lite” that is skimming social media or most websites.
It’s important to remember that, not that long ago in generational terms, reading was one of our best forms of entertainment. As recently as the early 1900s, there was no TV. Netflix and Xbox and Twitter were unfathomable. The only remotely comparable entertainment was the theater, and that was largely for the upper-class. For most people, entertainment was reading, telling stories, and maybe playing some music.
It’s well-known that reading is very different than watching television in that it involves imagination to a greater extent. The less serious reading you do, the more your skills at translating written words into complex thoughts will begin to atrophy.
Put simply, reading is harder than watching TV or surfing the web. (I’m less sure about how it stacks up vs. gaming, but at the very least it seems safe to say it engages different parts of the brain.) It requires an active effort to put the mind in serious reading mode, although once you do it’s also much more rewarding. There is an obvious analogy with exercise here: it takes more of an effort to lift weights or go jogging than to sit on the couch doing nothing, but you feel better afterward.
I’m not saying that television or movies or scrolling through your timeline are inherently bad, by the way. What I’m saying is, these are the things we gravitate toward doing automatically, unless we make an effort to check ourselves. Until recently, I never consciously thought, Would I rather look at the trending hashtags right now or read a novel? The hashtag thing came easier, and so that was just what I naturally did without stopping to wonder if there could be a better use of my time.
It took consciously reminding myself I could be reading right now to change this. I’m still very much a work in progress in this regard; I skim the political news more than I probably should. But at least I’m now in the habit of considering the fact that there is a trade-off.
When I tell people I write books, they often shrug and say, “Nobody reads anymore.” While obviously an exaggeration, the underlying point is true: most people are spending their leisure time watching YouTube or Netflix or looking at Instagram, not reading novels.
I’m not here to judge anyone else for what they’re doing. But as the proverb says, “Physician, heal thyself.” So I’m trying to make sure that I, at least, frequently ask whether what I’m currently doing is more valuable than reading. After all, if we learn nothing else from the Twilight Zone, it’s that just having the time isn’t enough—you also need to be able to use it effectively.
I have seriously dialed back the politics on this blog. New readers might not realize that at one time, this blog was almost purely political. But I said good-bye to all that when I realized that (a) I wasn’t changing any minds, (b) book reviews are way more popular and (c) way more fun to write.
Today’s post, though, is going to be something of a throwback to an earlier era in the history of ARuined Chapel by Moonlight, even though it’s a book review. Because there is no way to talk about Kevin Brennan’s novel Eternity Began Tomorrow without talking about politics. Long-time readers will recognize some of the old standbys. Maybe, if you hold up your lighters and chant, I’ll even do charisma-is-making-political-discourse-superficial. We’ll see.
But first, let me introduce EBT’s protagonist, Molly “Blazes” Bolan, a reporter for the up-and-coming San Francisco-based online news magazine Sedan Chair. The book begins with Blazes being sent to cover a rising new cultural phenomenon: a movement known as “Eternity Began Tomorrow,” led by the engaging speaker John Truthing.
Truthing’s core message is a familiar environmentalist one: we’ve got to wake up and save the planet now, before it’s too late. But Truthing is no Al Gore-type who can be mocked as an intellectual snob; he’s more like a rock star, with flash-mob style rallies and adoring followers, most of whom partake of a mysterious new drug—or vitamin, or something—called “Chillax.”
Blazes and her struggling jazz musician brother Rory head to one of Truthing’s gatherings—Blazes for her job, her brother largely for kicks. Soon, Blazes gets her story—and the promise of more in-depth scoops from Truthing if she’ll attend a big event he’s holding at his New Mexico retreat. (Calling it a “compound,” though fitting, feels like it’s leading the witness slightly.) Rory, meanwhile, becomes drawn into Truthing’s movement, though whether he genuinely is moved by the message or is simply using it as a way to meet women is ambiguous.
Blazes’ editor, BB, wants her to dig up all the dirt she can on Truthing—to make Sedan Chair famous as the publication that exposed him for the con artist that it seems he must surely be. Starting with one of Truthing’s old high school flames who reveals his true name, and culminating in a trip to Europe with her German sort-of boyfriend Niels, Blazes digs up quite a lot of troubling information on Truthing, particularly his relationship with the ominously-named Lebensraum Enterprises, the manufacturer of Chillax.
As Blazes readies her story, Truthing prepares to make a major announcement: that he is going to run for President in the 2020 election. He intends to declare publicly in Sedan Chair, but after his interview with Blazes at his New Mexico goes sideways, his plans change rapidly.
As Blazes tries to unravel the puzzle of Truthing’s rapidly-swelling movement, Rory becomes ever-more deeply drawn into it. At the same time, Blazes’ life is further rocked by the collapse of her parents’ marriage and… well, no; I won’t spoil everything that happens in her personal life. Let’s just say the story builds to a shocking climax, with one stunning twist following another, culminating in an ending that is both as satisfying as the solution of a good mystery novel and as thought-provoking as literary fiction. I have one lingering question, but to discuss it would be too big a spoiler. So I won’t say much more about the ending, except that I kept thinking of a line from the film The Brothers Bloom: “The perfect con is one where everyone involved gets what they want.”
It’s a dark book, in many ways, but, as in his earlier novel Fascination, Brennan has a knack for clever description and witty banter. There are plenty of laughs despite the serious subject matter. Like this marvelous line from Niels (my favorite character, BTW):
“No, darling. I’m German. We don’t sleep because we have to. We sleep to glimpse the void.”
There’s lots of wit here, even if many of the themes in the book—collapsing relationships, drug addiction, sexual assault, and, in the background, the possible extinction of humanity, are anything but light.
It’s a fast-paced story, as befits a thriller. I blazed (no pun intended) through it, and just when I thought I’d hit The Big Twist, it turned out there were still more coming. It’s a well-written page-turner with philosophical heft, which is truly an impressive feat. Go check it out.
Oh… right. The politics.
Okay, I admit it: as I read the book, I couldn’t help thinking to myself, Would a movement like the one John Truthing creates actually work? Could this really happen?
After all, we know that huge political movements can be organized around a charismatic leader. That’s been proven quite thoroughly, I think. But Truthing’s movement is a little different than, say, ultra-nationalism. For one, it concerns everyone on Earth, so it inherently has wider appeal than nationalism does. It’s also effectively a doomsday cult—except for the fact that this doomsday cult really has a lot of evidence for why the end actually might be near.
My gut feeling is that, yes, something like this actually could happen. Brennan got mob psychology pretty much right. Again, I’m veering perilously close to the Zone of the Spoilers, but I think EBT’s treatment of how a popular movement evolves and becomes almost like a new political party would earn the much-coveted approval of Ruined Chapel’s favorite social scientist, Max Weber. (And no, I don’t care that he will have been dead for a hundred years this June, he’s still my go-to authority for most political questions.)
Of course, there is one issue with the book that Brennan had no control over, and Blazes herself acknowledges throughout: that is, after everything that has gone down over the past few years, John Truthing, his fanatical followers, the sinister corporation, etc. don’t feel that extreme or dire.
I wrote a somewhat-humorous poem about this a few years ago, but it really is true that writing good thrillers is hard these days because it’s tough to come up with something that’s more outlandish than reality. Truth has long been reputed stranger than fiction, but lately, truth has become stranger than a fever dream after watching an Oliver Stone film marathon.
But that’s not Brennan’s fault. And the direction that he takes the story, especially in the last quarter or so of the book, raise compelling and relevant questions about human psychology—both individual and collective. How far will someone go for a cause? And why do they feel the need to have a cause in the first place?
Eternity Began Tomorrow is a timely, topical thriller that will make you think. I recommend reading it sooner rather than later, since most of the action takes place in late 2019-early 2020.
The First Protectors is a fast-paced military sci-fi novel. One night in the New Mexico desert, Navy SEAL Ben Shepherd encounters a crash-landed extraterrestrial being, which endows him with nanomachine augmentations to turn him into a nearly-invincible super-soldier.
The alien also imparts the history of its species, the brin, a race that fought a brave but ultimately doomed war against another alien species, the mrill, that eventually conquered the brin’s planet. Indeed, the brin who provides this information is killed by a pursuing mrill shortly afterward.
And, Ben learns, the mrills’ next target is Earth. A scout force is already on the way. Ben races to inform his superiors in the military of what he has learned, and provide them with the schematics the brin have given him for how to build weaponry that just might give humanity a fighting chance against the coming invasion.
Earth is plunged into chaos, as the governments of the world scramble to prepare. Ben and some of his SEAL buddies ready themselves to lead the way with their technological enhancements, while politicians, generals and scientists throw all their resources at building technologies they scarcely understand. Of course, not everyone on earth believes the alien invasion story, and soon there are rebel groups trying to seize the moment for their own ends.
All too soon, the mrill arrive, and Ben and company are thrust into massive space, air and ground battles against a terrifying, implacable enemy.
It’s a fast-paced novel, with major battle sequences that unfold at breakneck speed. Godinez’s prose reminds me of Carrie Rubin’s knack for writing easy-to-visualize, thrill-a-minute action scenes. What limited description there is focuses on the military hardware that humanity and the aliens put into the field—from A-10 warthogs to M1 Abrams tanks to futuristic starfighters. Think Tom Clancy meets Robert Heinlein.
It’s a classic alien invasion story, evoking everything from “War of the Worlds” to Mass Effect and Halo. (There’s even an explicit reference to the latter.) The basic concept might not be anything new, but it’s so well-done you can’t help but enjoy it. There might not be a lot of depth or nuance, but that’s okay. It’s not that kind of book. It’s a thrilling adventure story with tons of explosions, big guns, and wise-cracking heroes.
I sometimes hear people say it’s hard to get young boys to read, but I bet they would read this. Godinez tells the story so well you can practically see it unfolding like a movie or video game in your mind’s eye. Though admittedly, the language may not be suitable for kids—the Navy SEALs talk pretty much like one would expect Navy SEALs to.
It was interesting to read this shortly after one of Lorinda J. Taylor’s Man Who Found Birds among the Stars books. Both are sci-fi, and I enjoyed both a great deal, but they present a tremendous contrast in styles. Taylor’s books are deep character studies, with a heavy focus on world-building and characterization. About the only chance anyone has for introspection in The First Protectors are during brief lulls in battle, or tense minutes of reflection before cataclysmic decisions must be made. (Not to spoil too much, but if anyone remembers back to when I reviewed the non-fiction book Raven Rock… well, let’s just say there are some scenes that take place deep within US government bunkers that feel quite nerve-wracking and eerily plausible, quite apart from any alien threat.)
My complaints about the book are quite minor: a few phrases that are re-used (e.g. the construction “If not a sitting duck, then at least a [something else] duck” is used more than once.) But for the most part, the writing is crisp, with some clever turns of phrase. I found only one actual typo—which is extremely good for an indie book.
Also, the ending felt just a tad abrupt, although it’s quite clear that it’s setting up a sequel. You can be sure I’ll read that whenever it comes out.
Finally, some readers might be turned off by the relatively high price of The First Protectors. It’s currently going for $9.27 on Kindle. This is definitely expensive for an eBook, but personally, I don’t mind paying this price. It’s almost exactly the same as the average cost of a movie ticket, and it takes about 5-6 hours to read the book, whereas the typical movie is over in about two hours. I’m not saying that time-per-dollar is the final determinant of quality, but it’s not a bad measure. Especially in this case, when the book feels like the literary equivalent of a summer blockbuster.
Frankly, I’m glad to see someone charging this kind of price for a book, because there’s no doubt that most indie authors feel pressure to sell fantastic work at bottom-of-the-barrel prices. That said, everyone has their own budget constraints for entertainment, so it feels only right to mention this. But speaking for myself, I got more enjoyment for my $9.27 spent on The First Protectors than I have from some films. If you like military sci-fi, this is for you.
I heard about Little Red Reviewer’s Vintage Science Fiction Month thanks to my friend Lydia Schoch, whose own post about Philip K. Dick’s novelette Second Variety you can read here. It so happened I had recently read TheCaves of Steel by Isaac Asimov, and so this seemed a perfect chance to give my thoughts on it.
The Caves of Steel is an interesting blend of genres: it combines many of the tropes of hardboiled detective fiction with sci-fi elements. It’s set in the distant future, when humanity has colonized other planets and turned the Earth into a kind of sprawling city.
The humans who have colonized the outer worlds view the people of Earth with trepidation. These “Spacers,” who are regarded as nearly super-human, with exceptional physical conditioning, nevertheless fear Earth-borne diseases and so have isolated themselves in a place called, appropriately enough, Spacetown.
Earthlings, for their part, view the Spacers with distrust bordering on hatred, seeing them as arrogant elitists who look down their noses on the good citizens of Earth. And then there’s the Spacer’s routine use of robots, which are already despised on Earth because they threaten to take jobs away from human beings.
Indeed, the first character we meet is R. Sammy–the “R” is for robot, and he has taken the job of a man who worked at the police station, much to the annoyance of our protagonist, Elijah Baley. Baley is a classic detective character–a good, honest, somewhat curmudgeonly-but-basically-good-hearted man.
Baley is assigned to investigate the murder of a prominent Spacer, Dr. Sarton. With tensions already rising between the people of Earth and the Spacers, the murder could prove politically devastating if it is found to have been committed by an Earth-person. However, the Spacers have agreed to allow an Earth policeman to investigate the case–as long as he is partnered with one of their own personnel, by the name of R. Daneel Olivaw.
Yes, you guessed it–the “R” again stands for robot. Baley is required to work with an extremely human-like robot, and their early investigations are a classic buddy cop story, with the two first clashing, then gradually learning each other’s styles.
Baley and Olivaw uncover the activities of a group known as the Medievalists–a luddite-like outfit whose members despise robots and other aspects of modern life, seeking to cultivate and preserve habits of the distant past. Some more radical elements of the group seem capable of carrying out the crime that occurred at Spacetown. Then again, as Baley repeatedly argues, perhaps the Spacers are trying to frame the people of Earth to further their own agenda.
It all builds up to a conclusion that, I have to admit, I didn’t see coming. And that’s always the key element in a successful mystery.
There are a lot of elements to the story that seem highly-relevant today: political and terrorist movements motivated by nostalgia, automatons replacing human laborers, prejudice against foreigners, colonialism… the list goes on. Asimov was a keen observer of human nature, and that’s why his books still feel so fresh today.
That said, not everything about the book rang true. The idea of underground cities where millions live packed together, never venturing out into the sunshine and open countryside, feels like a hellish dystopia to me, even if Asimov himself loved the idea.
Also, there’s a subplot with Baley’s wife, whose name is Jezebel, a fact which is of more significance to her than I would think is normal. It’s not a bad sub-plot, it’s just… odd. The depiction of female characters here was not great–women are mostly portrayed as irrational gossips, to the extent they are portrayed at all.
Still, it was an enjoyable mystery with a lot of fascinating social commentaries woven into the world Asimov built. Baley’s dry, sometimes cynical musings are the most enjoyable thing, followed closely by his interactions with Olivaw.
I originally read this book because Ben Trube mentioned that its combination of the science-fiction and detective genres influenced his own novel Surreality, which I love. There is a certain comfort in being guided through an unfamiliar futuristic world by a recognizable stock character like the Grizzled Veteran Detective. It makes an excellent foundation for a story.