Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Lit Geek
  Book Reviews by James Maxey
October 2008

Terminal Mind by David Walton

Terminal Mind is set in a not-so-distant future America.  Following a nuclear war, America has split into powerful city states.  Order is maintained by mercenary armies hired by powerful corporate interests.  Philadelphia has been destroyed, then rebuilt within the crater where it once stood.  The wealthy members of society live high on the rim of the crater and are known as Rimmers.  Down within the crater live the dregs of society in the area known as the Combs. 

The primary conflict in this novel is one of class.  The chief protagonist, Mark McGovern, is child of wealth with an affinity for hacking the computer networks built into every aspect of the society -- even into many of the people.  Wealthy people are seldom satisfied with the bodies and brains they are born with, and a whole host of high tech modifications help them be as smart and pretty and athletic as they wish to be.  Mark finds most of his peers in high society to be vain and shallow; his best friend is a radical named Darin Kinsley, a child of the Combs, a genius hacker in his own right. 

The novel opens with the two of them collaborating on a project to hack into a satellite for a little mischief.  Unfortunately, this mischief leads to fatalities when they accidentally unleash a sophisticated AI into the world.  The AI is known as a slicer -- it was created by taking a living child and slicing his brain open and destructively recording it one synapse at a time to create a simulation of human intelligence that can grow and evolve in the strange, bodiless environment of the networks.  The slicer can go almost anywhere a computer signal can flow -- including into the brains of the wired-in citizens.  It gives the person controlling the slicer almost unlimited power as he can literally see through the eyes of the most connected people on earth and learn their secrets. 

Mark and Darin's friendship is put to the test when the police come looking for them.  Though they didn't create the slicer, all trails point to them.  Since he's from a wealthy family, Mark's name is almost instantly cleared as his father pulls strings.  Darin, however, is now a fugitive who Mark's family will gladly pin the blame on once he's captured. 

This alone would provide more than enough dramatic tension to drive the plot, but there's also a subplot in which the mother of the four year old who was killed to create the slicer follows a series of clues that reveal that the cover story she was told, that her husband and son died in an automobile wreck, is false.  Her plot line has an emotional intensity that makes the book truly heartbreaking at times; since the reader knows the truth of what happened to her son, it's painful to watch her hopes rise and fall with each new clue. 

Terminal Mind is high-intensity human drama set in a thoroughly imagined and highly plausible future.  The writing is crisp and clean, and Walton shows a masterful hand in slowly unpeeling the onion of his plot and setting, as seemingly disconnected events and characters are all revealed to be part of the larger whole.  If I have one gripe about the book it's the jet bikes.  What is so loathsome about wheels that authors keep wanting to imagine the future without them?  Even Darin, the poor kid, is scooting around on a jet bike. But, of course, this is a pretty trivial complaint about what is otherwise a really solid work of hard SF. 

Schlock Mercenary by Howard Taylor

This is actually a review of three books: Schlock Mercenary: The Tub of Happiness, Schlock Mercenary: Under New Management, and Schlock Mercenary: The Blackness Between.  They are print collections of a web comic written and drawn by Howard Taylor.  When his wife emailed me upon learning I was now doing reviews for IGMS, I politely told her I intended to only review "real" books in my column, but if she wanted to send me a collection, maybe I'd mention it on my personal blog (jamesmaxey.blogspot.com). A week later I got all three Schlock Mercenary collections in the mail.  About half-way through the first book, I knew I had to review them here.  What changed my mind wasn't that this was a good comic strip -- which it is -- but that it was also excellent science fiction.  I don't know much about Taylor's background, but he writes science fiction with the same confident hand that classic SF authors like Asimov and Niven brought to the genre. 

While the tone of the strip is unmistakably humorous, Taylor takes his science seriously as well.  I was particularly impressed with one strip where characters are visiting a solar system where two gas giants have collided, and they piece together events to discover that one of the gas giants was actually being used as a space ship.  He plausibly works out the engineering for turning a gas giant into an enormous rocket while the life-supporting moons that orbit it are carried along for the ride.

In strip after strip, "big idea" science fiction is tossed out as the driving force of the adventure.  I judge my science fiction mainly by how many times in the course of a book I think "Now THAT'S cool!"  I would say I had this reaction about every twenty or so pages in Schlock Mercenary, while in most books I'm happy if there are even two or three such moments. 

That said, the strip is far from perfect.  One disadvantage of getting all three collections is that I can see some disappointing trends in the series.  When the series first started, Taylor's artwork was unpolished.  Downright crude, even.  But, the writing was really sharp and funny and the characters had distinct personalities and agendas.  As the series develops, the writing is still funny, but I find that the characters have tended to merge toward a central default characterization of gung-ho wise-cracking mercenary.  Some are smart gung-ho wise-cracking mercenaries, some are dumb gung-ho wise-cracking mercenaries, some have big bodies and little heads, some have large breasts, and some have tentacles.  But, if you erased the drawings (which have become very sleek and professional as the strip progresses), you'd probably have a difficult time figuring out who was talking.  One problem is that the strip has become diluted with the sheer number of characters.  There are dozens of named characters in the cast and all get their moments on the stage.  Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of time spent on the few characters with actual personalities, like Schlock himself (a shape-shifting slime mold who's a gung-ho, wise-cracking mercenary with a heart of gold) or the ship's priest, who is just about the only character not waving a gun around. 

One reason that these characters are cluttering the strip is that Taylor seems reluctant to permanently kill anyone off.  Again and again, you have characters getting blown up or meeting some other horrible fate, only to be alive a few strips later with their rescued heads popped onto newly cloned bodies.  It's a trick that worked well in the earlier parts of the series, but in later volumes it gave me the feeling that there wasn't much really at stake in the fights. 

Despite these objections, I still think these books are worthwhile reads for any fan of hard SF.  They will also satisfy comic strip fans of serialized adventures, an art form that has mostly faded from the comic pages.  When reading these strips, I couldn't help but think that the strip they most closely resembled in tone was E.C. Segar's Thimble Theatre from the 1930s, the strip that is best known today as Popeye.  Modern readers familiar only with animated versions of Popeye have no clue about the magical blend of high adventure and humor that propelled a toothless, one-eyed, foul-mouthed sailor to world-wide fame.  As someone who owns the complete series as collected by Fantagraphics back in the early nineties, I can assure you that there's been nothing else quite like it -- but Schlock Mercenary comes closer to capturing the spirit of those strips better than anything else I've read.  Check 'em out. 

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