Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

R.M. Meluch

Review © 2009 G.N. Jacobs

In Myriad, the first novel in R.M. Meluch’s Tour of the Merrimack series, I found a unique opportunity to expand my sense of the possible. I hadn’t thought that thoughtful concept driven science fiction and a fun military shoot ‘em up could exist in the same headspace at the same time. Not even Star Trek tried to do both in the same episode. Now, like Alexander the Great contemplating the Gordian Knot I have to change my perspective.

The U.S.S. Merrimack chases the dreaded Hive into a globular star cluster. The Hive is a barely sentient race of space insects that eat everything in its path because it can. Captain John Farragut is quite surprised to find three inhabited planets in the cluster where planets shouldn’t even form. And so the crew chooses to beam down to meet the natives. Sounds like a Star Trek episode doesn’t it?

Meluch expands the form to include wormholes, ancient artifacts that are older than the known universe and space battles with the aforementioned Hive. And there is a time travel element built into the climax. Causality as we know it is under threat as always with time travel.

And now the scorecard for the players on the political/military side of the series: the United States retained its status as the first among equals among the people of Earth. Naturally, the League of Earth Nations members are glad to run screaming to the United States when something or someone needs a beating. Depending on the outcome of the causality elements that enemy is either the Hive or the Neo-Romans of the planet Palatine.

Palatine was an American colony that broke away to complete independence from America. The Romans go for all of the scary technology most science fiction writers think should be banned until we become better people: cloning, cyborgs and nanotechnology. The Romans also have a habit of colonizing inhabited planets against the rules of the League of Earth Nations and they allow slavery. When combined with the United States’ outright jealousy at the brain drain caused by the Romans’ looting many intellectuals and secret societies for those that have kept the dream of Rome alive, we can see how the Americans and Romans would fight. Except when the Hive is near.

To deal with the Hive, Roman has agreed to temporarily halt hostilities and send to the Merrimack a patterner, an enhanced human with the ability to plug into computers and sift data for useful information. Augustus arrives as a man of mystery hated by much of the crew and takes his post as Intelligence Officer.

By rights this book shouldn’t have worked what with all the disparate elements at play: intrigue, romance, diplomacy and the action against the Hive. Meluch picked the right character archetypes fleshed out into people that allowed the story to seem whole and organic. We have female sluts described as the squadron welcome mat who fly into rages when their boyfriends are outed as being married. We have the usual mix of fighter pilot types with more guts than sense. We have Captain Farragut trying to get along with Augustus and a deepening relationship between the welcome mat and her CO, Colonel TR Steele, that breaks all the rules. Gee, the Hive almost doesn’t have to show up.

But, the Hive will always show up. The space bugs appear ready to eat everything organic in its way. They’re practically the product of the blender writers use to come up with ideas when stuck. Relentless eating machines with acid blood that can slip through energy screens will always get the readers’ attention even if we have seen the same movies.

I enjoyed the conceit of the book that humans had to be very circumspect in fighting the Hive. The bugs don’t think up new things, but they do learn to adapt to human trickery quite readily. Fighting the Hive usually involves shutting down excess electronics and pulling out swords to hack and slash under a rain of lye to counteract the acid. We really have seen the same movies.

I also enjoyed the wide range of personalities that come into play. Some people are apes looking for the next fight or hookup. Some joined the military for the educational benefits showing that it takes all kinds. Captain Farragut is depicted as the perfect warrior in that he fights as well as he inspires others to get through hopeless odds.

If there were something more that I’d want from this book it would be a deeper understanding of Augustus’ life as a patterner. But, I suppose some things should be left for the sequel.

Myriad is a great beach read for those of us that like science fiction with a little bit of everything for everybody.



By Max Barry

Review © 2009 G.N. Jacobs

How much is enough? Would you sell cigarettes knowing how many will die? Would you kill 14 of your own customers in a crazy marketing scheme designed to show how valuable your sneakers are? Such questions infuse Max Barry’s satire Jennifer Government with a dread of corporate misdeeds past, present and future.

Picture, if you will, a near future world where family surnames have been replaced by corporate names and there is no government to speak of, except a minimally invasive watchdog force that has to get funding before launching an investigation. Meet Field Agent Jennifer Government, a single mom armed to the teeth in the Melbourne office, out to stop corporate misdeeds wherever she finds them. Things don’t go well for Jennifer at the mall, NRA thugs subcontracted to Nike by way of the Police shoot up to 14 customers to make the latest shoe line no one can afford seem irresistible. Jennifer falls onto the windshield of a Mercedes seriously injured.

Jennifer becomes an anti-corporate avenger searching for proof that Nike hired the killings done. She needs to find Hack Nike, the lowly merchandising officer, duped into patsy status. Just enough hearsay says that John Nike, Vice President of Guerilla Marketing, is the officer responsible. Jennifer has powerful personal motives for bringing John Nike to justice stemming from the time they were John and Jennifer Maher when they worked for Maher Advertising. Perhaps Jennifer will also explain the mysterious barcode tattoo below her left eye?

I found Max Barry’s satire very nearly brilliant when looking at it in broad strokes. If the writer wishes to warn us about corporations in an over the top satire, then sure, a regional Nike executive will order ten killings to boost sales. This is no more ridiculous than filmmakers positing that reality shows and sports will logically expand to include murder as we saw a few years ago in Series 7 or the first and only Rollerball.

Not all satires and other predictions of our social future have to come true for them to hold power. If we let things be we may end up in such dystopian futures where the NRA becomes a paramilitary force that can kill anyone and get away with it unless the victim’s families can pay for prosecution. Or we can choose to continue that blissfully inefficient and entertaining government that stands between our sins and those that would exploit them. Jennifer Government fills this literary niche with great skill and with a lot of firepower.

Max Barry chose in many places to gloss over the small details of the minutia of regular lives set against this wild romp that spans Melbourne, London and Los Angeles. There could have been a slight bit more of interaction between Jennifer Government and her daughter, Kate Mattel (named after the school). I didn’t feel the frustration of a mother who has to keep breaking a promise to get a dog as much as another writer might have created. But still, as I like to say, “if you’re looking at the scenery you’re missing the story.”

If Barry were to do a book without the science fiction overtones I would suggest getting on more planes and visiting places. I didn’t feel like the scenes in Los Angeles or London really reflected the cities I remember and know. But, then the point of this book is that unchecked corporate greed will turn the whole world into carbon copies of some hypothetical bland city that doesn’t exist, yet.

What I really appreciated was the bare bones of the police procedural underlying the warning. Jennifer Government is not some super-cop investigator because, as always, the foot soldiers in the vast corporate war are very nearly morons that escape by sheer luck. Her ability to survive promiscuous gunfire was impressive and equally lucky. I could almost pretend that Jennifer was a real cop doing battle with evil corporate officers bent on nothing less than world domination.

The element that tickled my ribs the most was the reveal of the Big Bad. The case becomes more than a sneaker marketing campaign or a brutal hostile takeover fight between Shell and ExxonMobil. Let’s just say, I will never look at customer loyalty programs like frequent flier miles and discount cards quite the same way again. Actually, I think I was already suspicious of these programs, which is why this element tickled me so much.

Jennifer Government raises the bar for all of us who like to satirize corporate behavior in hopes someone will listen and spend a little more time off the corporate fast track. Neither your time nor your money is wasted.

The 10-cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America

By David Hajdu

Review © 2009 G.N. Jacobs

Stop me if you’ve heard this weepy song heard at least once a week in many comic book stores nationwide: “I used to have X title, but my Mom accidentally (or intentionally) pitched the books out.” Those of us that like comics all have all sung that song. For me it was the first printing of the Star Wars movie adaptation, a few Sergeant Rocks, an equal number of Howling Commandos and a representative sample of Batman, Spiderman, Avengers, Ghostrider and Superman.

No, I wouldn’t solve any financial problems with my collection and I don’t really blame Mom, because like most ten-year old boys I didn’t really understand what I had beyond something fun to read until I lost it. I do blame a certain stepfather who cut up my Star Wars books for the pictures to paste up on a board that was intended to encourage me to work out more as discipline for stupid petty crap no one remembers why it was important. What made comic books so hated among adults even in the 1970s that it was OK to appropriate things we bought with our own allowance money and perpetrate nothing less than a property crime?

I had to grow up and get back into comics as an adult to learn the name I sought: Frederick Wertham PhD. Pity, the man is long dead, but the hate and anger is very black. It would almost be worth committing grievous sins to get assigned to his room in Hell. Well, at least David Hajdu captured the silly and frightening times of the 1950s where we hunted Reds (almost) and comic books into extinction in his book The 10-cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America.

I became progressively angrier with long dead people with each passing page as my mind made connections to other examples of American fear mongering that are more recent. Witch hunting didn’t just die out when Sen. McCarthy embarrassed himself on TV; turn on the news and see if there are parallels. The principles are the same: lie about the enemy, exaggerate the threat and play to parents who aren’t monitoring their own kids. That I got angry says all that needs to be said about the technique in the book: excellent.

I spent a whole night in one sitting reading this book on my Kindle racing through first person accounts of the poor kids coerced by people willing to believe anything written by a man with a PhD. Hajdu makes his case very clear that Wertham’s book The Seduction of the Innocent was based on almost no actual science with double blinds or other responsible study. Simply put, the “trusted expert” blamed comic books for bad kids, when all kids good or bad read comic books invalidating the thesis in any responsible experimentation regime.

But, it was the 1950s and who needs responsible science that may rock the boat in a society still at war with everybody? Parents didn’t even try to understand that societies change or they die and that comic books popular with their children were just something different, not bad. I kept my eyes open for the inevitable hypocrisy of black and white doctrinaire platforms whether it was comic books or a strict interpretation of Islam. People still collected and hid their comics from parents while Dad hid his Playboys.

Hajdu’s best scenes came out of the interviews with the kids who burned their books, because someone twisted their arms, and the comic book creators ruined by the televised hearings. However, as fascinating as the book is retelling what happened and possibly why, the book didn’t make as good a case for comic books being good as is now the accepted opinion. While some of the reasons for comics being positive things are included in explanations of why comics became popular in the first place, I felt an epilogue chapter that explains with footnotes how American thought on comics has changed now that the fear mongers changed gears to go after in order: Rock, TV, The Passion of Christ, Rap, Video Games, Muslims and now healthcare reform was in order.

I wanted to hear from the experts who’d been voices in the wilderness during hearings that use such phrases like Catharsis, Emotional Preparation for Adulthood, Interim Step to Full Literacy and Mythic Archetypes. These words are said about all art forms that show works that don’t always conform to the silly and safe notion that we must protect our kids from everything. Well, the one omission aside The 10-cent Plague is one must read book.

Now, where did I leave my time machine for going back to rescue my comics?