Letter From The Editor - Issue 65 - October 2018

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Strong Medicine
Books That Cure What Ails You
    by John Joseph Adams
May 2006

Monster Island by David Wellington
Thunder's Mouth Press, 2006, $13.95

David Wellington was initially unable to find a publisher for this zombie novel. So you might say Monster Island was dead. But then the novel came back to life, as an online serial, which eventually attracted the attention of editor John Oakes at Thunder's Mouth Press, thanks to Mark Frauenfelder of BoingBoing. Now it lives on as this handsome trade paperback and has even managed to spawn two forthcoming sequels, Monster Nation and Monster Planet. How's that for undead?

Dekalb is a New York born-and-raised United Nations weapons inspector who was stuck in Somalia when the world went to hell. Not literally, of course, but close enough: the dead have started coming back. That's right: zombies.

Somalia is under the yoke of a warlord who has been maintaining order despite the chaos caused by the dead rising up. The problem is, she's got AIDS, and the zombie epidemic is preventing her from getting her medication. Knowing that Dekalb works for the U.N., the warlord holds his daughter hostage and forces him to go out in search of the drugs she so desperately needs to stay alive.

So Dekalb boards a ship, along with a group of Somali "girl soldiers," to travel to United Nations headquarters in Manhattan, since that's the only place Dekalb knows for sure will have the medicine.

New York is about as bad as one might expect–completely overrun with zombies, so overrun, in fact, that one of the harbors they attempt to pull into is completely clogged up with corpses. Seeing this, and the rest of the island, makes it immediately obvious to Dekalb and crew that getting to the U.N. building isn't going to be easy.

Meanwhile, already in Manhattan is Gary–a survivor...of sorts. You see, Gary is a doctor–a medical student, really–who saw what was happening with the dead returning to life and decided that if you can't beat'em, join'em. But he doesn't just kill himself. Gary figures that the reason the newly walking dead are so stupid and brainless as zombies tend to be is because that when they died, their brains were deprived of oxygen for a sufficient amount of time to cause brain death. So Gary concocts a plan to "survive" the zombie apocalypse with careful medical planning. And it works–Gary dies but comes back to life with his body already decaying but his mind still intact. Which is exactly what he'd planned, but what he didn't plan on was the all-consuming hunger he found himself afflicted with.

The novel is divided into three parts, and the first part–the first eighty pages or so–is pure, unadulterated post-apocalyptic zombie fun. Which is not to say that the novel is without its flaws. There are several choices made by the characters that seem only to make sense if their intent is to forward the plot while leaving room for plenty of zombie horror. Also, a narrative revelation at the end of the novel comes off as a bit silly, as if Wellington realized that he should have told the story in third person rather than first person (with alternating chapters told from Gary's third person POV). The novel also loses a considerable amount of steam after part one, but it remains an enjoyable ride all the way to the end. Dekalb is an engaging and memorable protagonist, and Wellington's knowledge of Manhattan makes the setting lively and realistic.

What makes Monster Island stand out from much of the other zombie fare out there is that it puts several new spins on the old zombie tale. Not only is there Gary's clever "survival," but there's also a force at work behind the scenes, controlling the zombies, so that their endless pursuit of human flesh has some purpose behind it. Ultimately, the question of what caused the dead to rise remains unanswered, as it almost always is in zombie-fiction, but that doesn't make the book any less entertaining.

If you think the novel sounds interesting, but you're not sure you want to plunk down the cash for it, Monster Island and sequels Monster Nation and Monster Planet are all available online, as is Wellington's new ongoing vampire serial, Thirteen Bullets.

Victory by Susan Cooper
Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2006, $16.95

Susan Cooper is the Newberry Medal-winning author of the acclaimed and beloved The Dark is Rising series and many other fine books. Most of these were written for children and young adults, but her work tends to work just fine for grown-ups as well, and her new novel, Victory, is no exception.

In 2006, eleven year old Molly is an English city girl who has recently moved, unwillingly, to America with her family when her new step-father's job takes them across the Atlantic. Though there's nothing wrong with her new home in Connecticut, Molly longs for London. In a happy coincidence, Molly and her family stumble into a bookshop one day and there Molly discovers a very old book about one of England's greatest heroes: Admiral Lord Nelson.

In 1803, eleven year old Sam is a farm boy that escapes his mean-spirited father's tyranny by going off to live with his Uncle Charlie, a ropemaker. But just when things seem to be looking up, Sam and Charlie are taken by a forceful band of Navy recruiters known as a "press gang," and are made into sailors against their will. In this era, Napoleon is trying to conquer all of Europe, and so England is at war with France and needs all the sailors it can get. So Sam and Charlie are brought to His Majesty's Ship Victory, and are taught how to be sailors.

The narrative unfolds jointly through Molly's and Sam's viewpoints, and though they're living in very different times, they both go through a time of great change in their lives, and both come to love and admire Lord Nelson. At first, it seems as though the two narrative threads are wholly separate stories, but Molly eventually discovers that her book about Lord Nelson is no ordinary volume; glued between the front cover and the first page is an old letter from the book's previous owner–an Emma Tenney–and with it, a tiny piece of old Victory's battered flag, which Sam received over two hundred years ago, after the Battle of Trafalgar.

Though the cover copy describes Victory as an "extraordinary time-shifting adventure," there's no real fantasy element present here. There are hints at some supernatural connection between Molly and Sam, but nothing overt. But the lack of a fantasy element does not make this a poorer novel. Because I thought it was going to be fantasy, I kept expecting a temporal shift of some sort, for Molly to end up on board the Victory with Sam, but the novel worked extraordinarily well for me despite those expectations. The prose is evocative and effortless to read, the characters supremely well-drawn and authentic. Also authentic are the maritime details Cooper provides in Sam's narrative thread; through this young boy's eyes, Cooper paints a vivid picture of what life aboard one of His Majesty's Ships was really like, and requires no previous nautical knowledge to follow along (think of it as Patrick O'Brian-lite, if you will).

One of the most astonishing things about the novel is that Cooper somehow made Molly's relatively benign contemporary troubles seem just as compelling to me as Sam's historical woes. In a novel like this one, with alternating chapters of two wildly different viewpoints, oftentimes a reader might get impatient with one point of view because they're so eager to get back to the other. But that never happens here; Cooper so skillfully intertwines the narrative threads that the book flows smoothly from start to finish, and the result is a terrific read.

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge
Tor, 2006, $25.95

Vernor Vinge is a four-time Hugo Award-winning author, most widely known for his Hugo winning novels A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky, and for his essay "The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era" in which the idea of the Singularity–which has so dominated SF in the past few years–was first proposed. But while much of Vinge's fiction takes place in the far future, this new novel, Rainbows End, which is set in the same world as his Hugo Award-winning novella, "Fast Times at Fairmont High," takes place less than twenty years from now. (It is not, as Amazon.com claims, a Zones of Thought novel.)

It's the year 2025, and the brilliant poet Robert Gu has long been debilitated by old age and Alzheimer's. But thanks to recent medical science advances, not only is his Alzheimer's cured, his body is also rejuvenated, effectively making him into a young man again. The cure is no miracle, however; the damage caused by the Alzheimer's has left Robert unable to write, and the many years he was incapacitated by dementia have left him unable to function–what's a grown man with no appreciable skills to do with the rest of his life?

But medicine is not the only field in which there have been drastic advances. The Internet has become even more pervasive than it is now, thinning the line between virtual and reality to the point where what's real and what's not is almost indistinguishable. People walk around with "wearable" computers that they interface with via contact lenses, which allows people to walk around in virtual environments while walking around in the real world–essentially the real world with a virtual overlay. Being so completely wired also allows for "sming" (silent messaging) from person to person, which is akin to technological telepathy.

The world Robert knew was much like the world we're living in today, so waking up in the Vinge's 2025 is a bit of a future shock. Robert ends up at the aforementioned Fairmont High to learn how to function in this new world. And there he's drawn into a complex, clandestine operation enacted by various intelligence agencies, and he learns just how different the world he's now living in is.

Rainbows End features some really incredible speculations. Its tagline of "a novel with one foot in the future" feels as if it might actually be true, and if it is–if in twenty years time the world will look remotely like the one depicted here–we're all in for a major future shock.

The conspiratorial plot seems too Byzantine for its own good, but the Gu family dynamic, on the other hand, saves the novel and gives the reader something concrete to hold on to and identify with in the midst of this strange but plausible future.

In short, you'll come for the mind-blowing concepts, you'll tolerate the conspiracies, but you'll stay for the characters.

A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore
Read by Stevens Fisher

HarperAudio, 2006, $39.95, 12 hours, Audio CD (Unabridged)
Audible.com, 2006, $27.95, 12 hours, digital audio (Unabridged)

You know how when you're a kid and you see all those department store Santas and your parents tell you that those guys are just Santa's helpers, and that the real Santa lives at the South Pole? Well, Death needs helpers too, and that's Charlie Asher–one of death's little helpers.

Charlie wasn't always that way though. A self-proclaimed "beta male" (as opposed to alpha male, king of the jungle-types), Charlie settled into a happy existence with his lovely wife Rachel and his family-owned second-hand store. But his world is turned upside down when Rachel goes to the hospital to give birth to their baby daughter only to successfully deliver the baby and then quietly pass away of a rare, but non unheard of, complication of pregnancy.

Soon after Rachel's death, strange things start happening to Charlie. First of all, he starts seeing a red glow around certain objects. And when he attempts to confront a man on the street carrying such an object, the man stumbles away from Charlie only to be run over by a bus.

Turns out Charlie is what's known as a Death Merchant–or that's what he calls it anyway. It's the job of Charlie, and others like him, to collect what are known as "soul vessels," from the dearly-departed, and then to make sure that they end up in the right hands.

Sure, it sounds like a tough job, but Death Merchants have the handy ability to be invisible when they're in the process of collecting a soul vessel, and they know them when they see them by their crimson glow. Death Merchants, however, have little room for error. If they miss out on collecting a soul vessel within the time frame allotted, Bad Things could happen. That's a capital B, as in Armageddon bad. And to top things off, all the while he's trying to do his job, Charlie's harassed by some underground-dwelling demons he refers to as "sewer harpies." They hiss insults at him and threaten to use his entrails to weave a basket...or maybe a hat.

There are also lots of crazy rules involved with being a Death Merchant, and The Great Big Book of Death forbids Death Merchants from speaking with each other...though that doesn't stop Charlie from conversing with a few. When he does, he learns that there might be something special about him, that he might not be your run of the mill Death Merchant. Not to mention that his daughter might be involved with all this too. Not only do her pets have an extremely high mortality rate, but a pair of gigantic hell hounds appear out of nowhere to protect her when the sewer harpies come calling, and then they stick around to hold vigil over little Sophie and to make sure Charlie doesn't neglect his duties....

Stevens Fisher is an ideal narrator for Moore's work; he really nails the irreverent tone of the novel and its characters. He has a great deadpan delivery that lets Moore's jokes do all the work, and his voice seems a perfect fit for Charlie's beta male nature. Fisher subtly alters his voice to distinguish between characters so that who is speaking is never in doubt. The slow-talking and careful annunciation of Ray is especially noteworthy as are little Sophie's joy-filled shrieks, which delight instead of cloy and the menacing cackles of the sewer harpies.

A Dirty Job is a damn funny novel. I was trying to think of a funny death pun to use–it's terminally funny, or you'll die laughing–but the truth is, while it's pretty hilarious at times, it's not quite so funny as to make you keel over from laughter. That's probably a good thing, or else I wouldn't have been able to write this review, and Christopher Moore's fan base would be drastically diminished. Plus, neither of my puns were particularly good. But the point is, Moore lays his shtick on a bit too thick at times, and while that doesn't prevent the book from being a good one, it does prevent it from being a comic masterpiece. However, since A Dirty Job is not just about the humor–there's a fairly interesting plot here, along with some inventive twists to the Death-as-an-entity trope–it ends up being a fun and worthwhile read...even if you're sick to death of Death.

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