Blue Mars

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It took me two decades, but I finally did it. I read the final volume of Kim Stanley Robinson's landmark Mars trilogy. I had read the first two volumes, Red Mars and Green Mars, in college but then life got in the way and I never managed to start the third book. I do not often make New Year's resolutions but this year, I resolved to finish the trilogy. After so many years, I was concerned that I would not remember any of the characters or events of the first two hefty stories and the third volume would be nebulous and inaccessible. Kim Stanley Robinson adeptly reintroduces his loyal readers to the key members of the First Hundred, the original colonists of Mars, and of the pivotal moments of the previous two volumes, weaving in references to the discoveries, the betrayals, the revolution. Before too long, I was deep into book three, living on Mars with Sax and Ann and Michel and Maya, worrying with them about the future of their new home planet and the society they created.

The longevity treatments have successfully extended the lifespans of the First Hundred and those who followed them, with many of the original colonists living more than two centuries. Back on Earth, overpopulation and a great flood send hoards of immigrants fleeing to the new Mars with its forests, oceans, and clean air. So what happens when population booms and the elderly are living long lives in defiance of nature and not passing on like they are supposed to? Now you have a crisis of culture and ideology as well as population. Blue Mars explores these themes along with the environmental question of whether it is right to propagate to new planets in the name of human survival. As with the previous novels in the trilogy, chapters are presented from the perspective of alternating characters, giving readers an equal exposure to the variety of scientific ideas and socio-political philosophies that haunt the people driving the future of the planet. In addition to members of the First Hundred, readers also hear from their children, themselves now advanced in age thanks to the longevity treatments. They are Martians with full lifetimes lived as the first humans native to a planet that is not Earth and they have very different goals from their parents, conflicting ideologies for their planet.

During this time, we also learn that mankind has now successfully established colonies on other planets as well as Mars and that there are outposts in the asteroid belt. The scope of the story grows beyond just the conflict between Mars and Mother Earth as now multiple planets, each with their nationalistic pride and needs, compete for resources in a solar system that, due to improved interplanetary travel technology, is rapidly shrinking in size. It is analogous to the consequence of commercial air travel on Earth in the mid-20th century. When it takes less than a day to travel to the other side of the world when it used to take months, the world shrinks dramatically and cultures homogenize.

Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my favorite authors as I have stated in my articles on Shaman and Aurora. He explains enough of the science--or invents it--that the story sounds plausible and he then surrounds that science with developed characters with whom I find myself relating in so many ways. His science fiction stories are not just a speculation of wild possibilities. They are human stories at their core. The best stories are and Robinson's stories number among the best I have ever enjoyed.

Blades of Winter

During the Spring of 2016, I read a back issue of Analog (November 2014). The Further Reading section of the magazine suggested several novels including G. T. Almasi's debut Blades of Winter. Analog's description of the book interested me enough that my brain filed the title and tucked it into the fleshy folds of my brain. Nearly a year later, I was browsing the fiction section of my bookstore when I saw the title again, emblazoned across the image of a redheaded young woman, stylish and sexy in her black leather outfit, perched on a rooftop in Paris with her assault rifle. I felt that brief electric surge of recognition and knocked the book into my shopping basket.

Blades of Winter is the first installment of the Shadowstorm series. Through some awkward blocks of exposition, readers are informed that this is an alternate history. Hitler's Germany was one of four victors of World War II along with China, Russia, and the United States of America. The victors carved up the world, creating large swaths of territory operating as vassal states of these major powers. Do you recall the real nuclear arms race between the United States and Russia after World War II? In Blades of Winter, the new world powers engaged in an arms race like no other, involving human cybernetic modification. This is the adventurous aspect of the novel that most interested me. As the story opens, we are introduced to protagonist Alix Nico, a nineteen-year-old Level 4 Interceptor as she gets herself into some bad trouble in New York City. This opening scene is --if I may be blunt-- badass and a wonderful introduction to the setting and our hero. The author does a great job of dangling carrots, enticing the reader to charge forward so they can learn the truth about whatever Alix just did and how she possibly could have accomplished such an impossible feat. It reminded me of the first time I watched Neo dodge bullets in The Matrix.

Alix is a member of ExOps, an American shadow organization populated by skilled military operatives who have undergone invasive surgeries to enhance themselves with advanced cybernetics to increase their field effectiveness. The other major powers have their own organizations though, so Alix and her colleagues enjoy no significant advantage on the field of battle. ExOps agents are sent into the field in small strike teams. Team members are awarded levels commensurate with their experience and operational success and earn cool titles like Infiltrator, Vindicator, and Liberator that describes their battlefield role. How would you like to have Vindicator on your business card? Alix is young and brash, constantly pushing the limits of her ability, often endangering herself and her team much to the chagrin of her superior officers. Her behavior is understandable though, as her father was the most talented ExOps figure in history until he disappeared. Alix has big shoes to fill and a legacy to live up to.

For the vast majority of the novel, I enjoyed the experience but in the early chapters, I found myself criticizing the author's writing in isolated pockets. At one point, Alix is under enemy gunfire and has taken cover behind a "crate of stuff". Stuff? I was irritated that Almasi cheated me out of a better picture of the situation by plopping a nondescript "crate of stuff" in the scene. Similar descriptions are used elsewhere, but I finally understood what was happening. It was not Almasi being lazy, it was narrator Alix being a teenage superspy concerned more about being shot than reading the shipping label on the crate of stuff to find out whether she was hiding behind a box of teddy bears or replica 15th century Ming Dynasty vases. Alix cares about survival, earning more powerful and cooler cybernetics, and taking out the bad guys. She does not care a lick about what is inside the crate of stuff behind which she is hiding. Once that realization clicked, I instantly forgave Almasi for what I had decided was bad writing and gave him credit for character development.

Throughout Blades of Winter, readers are treated to a globetrotting adventure as Alix and her team are deployed to exotic locations in an attempt to unravel a conspiracy that may reveal the true fate of Alix's father. The info-dumpy alternate world history blobs aside, Almasi does a good job of setting the tone and style of his novel through the use of chapter interstitials such as of newspaper articles, data files, and operation reports. These brief excerpts provide useful information and are a welcome break in the fast and frantic pace of the story.

I do not often read action novels like this, but I found myself enjoying Blades of Winter and plan to seek out the second volume of the series, Hammer of Angels. It is popcorn cinema in print form and just as I leave a fun action film feeling entertained, so did I feel as I read the last page of Blades of Winter.

Wastelands

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I do not often read short stories. There is no good reason for this other than I find myself picking up a full-length novel most of the time when I am in the mood for fiction. On rare occasion though, I find myself with a short story collection in my hands. I discovered Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse edited by John Joseph Adams sitting on the New Science Fiction Releases shelf at my local bookstore… X number of years ago. Holy smokes, I just opened the book to the publisher page to check the book’s publication date and found the retail receipt, yellowing and so faded that the print is barely legible. February 23, 2008.  Okay, so I have owned this book for nearly ten years. Like I said, I do not often read short stories.

A couple of years ago, however, I decided to read a short story between each book or two. This would allow me to continue reading something while putting my thoughts together for my blog entry about the previous long-form work. The practice has worked rather well and I have read some excellent short stories recently, be they in short story collections like Wastelands or in literature magazines like Tin House or Analog.

Wastelands is an impressive anthology of post-apocalypse stories written by some literary stars like Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, and Octavia Butler. It also introduced me to several writers who may be known to more prolific readers than I but who are new to me. Discovering a new writer is such a treat and that is the greatest benefit of anthologies such as these. All of the stories in Wastelands are good and some are downright great. I read the book over the course of a few years and do not recall every story, but a few notables stand out in my memory. “Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels” by George R.R. Martin was the first story in the collection that elicited a palpable emotional reaction. Cory Doctorow’s “When SysAdmins Ruled the Earth” is funny, not in a comedic way but rather in its truth and plausibility. I suppose that makes it frightening as well, but all of the stories in Wastelands are frightening in one way or another. “The Last of the O-Forms” by James Van Pelt and “Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus” by Neal Barrett Jr. follow resourceful wasteland entrepreneurs traveling from town to town with their carriages of curiosities, trading pleasure and fascination for another gallon of rare gas or a hot meal. I found myself amused that, when civilization falls and society reverts to tribalism, there may still be traveling showmen doing what they know how to do to, hoping the people they meet want what they have to offer enough to pay for it. “Killers” by Carol Emshwiller tells the story of a young woman struggling to survive in a remote town years after a domestic war has plunged her nation into a pre-industrial period. Maybe the war still wages. They do not know because the men who went off to fight it more than a decade ago have not returned and the modern society and infrastructure has collapsed so there is no news, no radio. Then a mysterious man appears at her window one night, filthy and starving. Who is he? Dale Bailey’s “The End of the World As We Know It” was a different kind of apocalypse story. It was deeply personal and the second story in the collection to cause some feels. I loved Bailey’s writing style and would like to read more from him. There are many more stories in this anthology, all of them well worth reading.

The most terrifying aspect of apocalypse fiction is that so many of the situations presented in the stories can actually happen. Perhaps these tales can serve to as a warning and help us prepare. Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse is a great anthology, the first compiled by editor John Joseph Adams. He has opened my eyes to the true value of story anthologies and you can bet I will more willing to grab one off the shelf if I see his name on it. I highly recommend it for fans of the apocalypse subgenre, but I think any science fiction fan would enjoy it. Even readers of more mainstream novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road will find a lot to like in this collection even if they claim to not enjoy genre fiction.