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Writing Fantasy

  
Princess Alethea's Magical Elixir
  Book Reviews by Alethea Kontis
July 2012

By guest columnist Jamie Todd Rubin

I miss standalone novels. Series books are de rigueur these days, it seems, but I find myself drawn more and more toward books which stand alone and don't require you to go out and immediately buy the next two or five or nine books in the series. Market forces, however, love series, and so authors are often compelled to write them, unless they have enough clout to do things their own way - or are fortunate enough to find a publisher willing to do a standalone. Because of this Puckish desire to read more standalone novels, both books I review this month are standalones. One is by a well-known and bestselling author in science fiction. The other is a debut novel. Both demonstrate the freedom that standalone novels allow an author, not caged in by the world-building and characters of two or three or ten previous books.

Title: Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas
Author: John Scalzi

First up is Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas by John Scalzi. Any description of the plot of Redshirts is dangerous without giving too much away. The basic premise of the book is the discovery by Ensign Andrew Dahl of the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid that certain members of away teams always seem to be killed, often senselessly. Dahl, along with some of this other crew mates, begins to investigate this strange phenomenon and it takes them - well, to say any more would spoil things for those of you planning to red Redshirts.

But read Redshirts you should. Redshirts is much more than a neatly-wrapped science fiction mystery. It is also a wonderful piece of meta-fiction whose technique gives the story an entirely unique perspective. Meta-fiction in science fiction is nothing new. L. Ron Hubbard played with meta-fiction in his novel Typewriter In the Sky. Anthony Boucher used meta-fictional techniques in his locked room mystery Rocket to the Morgue. Barry N. Malzberg nearly single-handedly created the subgenre of recursive science fiction, and perhaps Redshirts falls most closely into that last bucket. Scalzi takes this one step further, however, giving Redshirts not only meta-fictional elements, but making it a funny story, too.

Isaac Asimov once said that the target for writing humor is all bullseye; you either hit the mark, or miss entirely. Fortunately for us, Scalzi has excellent aim. This is not slapstick humor, but instead, Scalzi uses the events of the story to create the humor. We, as the readers, know some things going into the story that the characters don't know. We have a kind of shared cultural background, but we come to it from very different perspectives. The strange situations that Andy Dahl and his companions find themselves in are funny because they are both inevitable and completely avoidable. Scalzi takes a Wodehousian approach to the humor in this respect, often saying funny things with a straight face. The humor and meta-fiction combine to make for a unique story that moves quickly. I found myself breezing through the book, only to be disappointed that there wasn't any more to the story when I reached the end.

Except, there was more.

The book is called Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas, and indeed, after the novel ends are three codas (what else would you expect with that title). These codas are short stories that, while not tied directly to the main narrative, give different viewpoints of the events of the novel itself. The codas work as another layer to the meta-fiction Scalzi has created, and they are themselves very meta, one told from first person, one told in second person, and the last told in third person. While it seems that the novel is self-contained, the codas add additional insight to everything that happened.

Redshirts is a fun read, fast and humorous, but with big philosophical implications for the reader to struggle with. It would certainly come as no surprise to me to find Redshirts on the award ballots for 2012.

Title: Taft 2012
Author: Jason Heller

I don't exactly remember when I first came across Jason Heller's debut novel, Taft 2012, but I know that I was intrigued from the start. I'm a bit of a presidential history buff, and have read numerous biographies and memoirs of United States presidents. So the notion of the book was fascinating to me: What if William Howard Taft suddenly appeared, alive and well, right here in 2012?

That is exactly what Jason Heller tackles in Taft 2012 and the book absolutely charmed me. Taft, if memory serves me correctly, is the only U.S. President to have served as both President and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. But in Heller's book, we quickly discover that the world that Taft finds himself in is a kind of alternate history to what we know ourselves. In this world, Taft never attends Wilson's inauguration. Instead, while walking away from the White House, he lays down to rest and awakens to find himself on White House property in 2011. According to that time line, Taft disappeared after he walked away from the White House, never to be seen or heard from again.

Heller's novel follows the events beginning with Taft's rather startling reappearance in 2011 and through a potential grass roots presidential campaign for Taft in the 2012 election (with Taft running as an independent). Along the way, Taft makes friends with his secret service protection, Agent Ira Kowalczyk. To help him make the transition from the early 20th century to the early 21st century, Taft historian Susan Weschler is teamed up with Taft and becomes a kind of confidant for him. Taft also discovers that his great-great granddaughter is a senator and through her is able to reconnect to his family -- and politics.

Taft 2012 is a fascinating look at contemporary U.S. politics through the eyes of a man who was president a century earlier. Through Taft's eyes, we see some of the madness of our hyper-connected, ubiquitous media; we see the fractioning and partisanship that frustrate and annoy us; and yet we also see how some things never change, particularly in politics. Perhaps my favorite parts of the novel are those in which we gain insight into our 21st century rush through the eyes of a well-connected early 20th century president. Then, too, there is no way to really appreciate how far we have come technologically in one hundred years except to witness it through the viewpoint of someone who has lived it.

Taft 2012 was a quick, but immensely satisfying read. I found Taft as the voice of reason on the polarized political landscape and I was rooting for him throughout the story. He is the kind of monkey-wrench we wish would find its way into the gears of our system. He represents the greener pastures of the past returning to the present to make everything all right. Through Taft, Heller tells a compelling story with just the right mixture of politics and humor to make the book an enjoyable, and thought provoking read. 

Read more by Alethea Kontis


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