Four Short Reviews


The Last Emperox by John Scalzi, TOR books, 2020

This is not a book that I would have ordinarily reviewed. I mean, it’s basically brain candy; one could as easily do a bong or a shot. But it’s good for what it is. Scalzi is what I would call a genre writer not simply because he writes mostly within the genre of science fantasy but because he is capable of writing well enough in just about any genre, even if the product is not necessarily great literature. And The Last Emperox is not great literature, it’s biggest weakness being that much of the dialogue sounds like Scalzi talking to himself. There are a few plot-holes, though none that will damage your tires. Also, the book is the final entry in a space opera trilogy, and great literature rarely appears outside of where literary critics expect to see it.

As a reader, I can tell you that trilogies are a special problem for authors, especially in Sci-Fi: How to tell the story that has gone before and to introduce the characters to-date. Too often it’s lots and lots of (quite possibly boring, staged) exposition. I was totally overjoyed with Scalzi’s use of action to set the stage. I mean, there’s nothing like a ground-to-air missile headed in your direction to inspire a life-passing-before-your-eyes introspection. My delight in Scalzi’s execution of this plot device carried me through the first part of the book. The rest went down more slowly.

The central drama of the trilogy revolves around an interstellar empire (a sort of corporate feudalism) that becomes embroiled in a leadership crisis (with good guys and bad guys of various genders) right when it becomes apparent that the aptly named “Interdependency” is facing a something of an existential ecological crisis, the end of FTL interstellar travel. As you might suspect, elements of the setup are borrowed from the present; conservatives may have some difficulty with that. Want more? Read the damned books. Or at least the publisher’s blurbs.

The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem, Ecco / HarperCollins, 2020

Speaking of literature and genre fiction, Jonathan Lethem is one of those authors who has successfully done both, getting his start with science fiction then drifting into the mainstream. With this latest book, Lethem returns to science fiction though it could equally be argued that he has gone further into literary territory with magical realism.

The basic set up is a post-apocalyptic New England wherein modern technology has ceased to work. This has a long history in science fiction. I first encountered this plot device in a 1945 short story by Fredric Brown, The Waveries, and it has popped up every now and again since. Lethem’s story spans both sides of the apocalypse but not the event itself, focusing on three individuals: Alexander Duplessis, mostly referred to as “Journeyman” or “Sandy” in the text; Alexander’s old college chum, Peter Todbaum; and Alexander’s sister, Maddy. The protagonist of this story is Alexander Duplessis, who could easily be a not-so-funny version of Douglas Adam’s Arthur Dent in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. While the focus of the storytelling stays on Alexander, the real conflict, the drama, is actually between Peter Todbaum and Maddy Duplessis. What is it about? I never did figure that out, though maybe there is herein some sympathy for the “unabomber,” Ted Kaczynski.

A City Made of Words by Paul Park, PM Press, 2019

This short book is an anthology of some of Park’s short stories, plus an author interview, and it is an entry in PM Press’ “Outspoken Authors” series. Paul Park is another science fiction author who has literary chops. Geez Lueez! What mighty teeth hath this talent! But unfortunately for most of the time, he’s just better than average and so I am usually disappointed when he’s merely very good. This collection has some fancy writing that I should love, but mostly I was bored. Great title, though.

The Expert System’s Brother by Adrian Tchaikovsky, TOR Books, 2018

Adrian Tchaikovsky (a pen name, I’m given to understand) is an award-winning U.K. science fantasy author. I’m sure I’ve read at least some of Tchaikovsky’s other work, but none of it has stuck with me. The set-up for this short novel is the problem of human settlement on habitable worlds other than Earth. What do you do about incompatible biomes? How do you preserve knowledge in the face of its irrelevance? This is a coming of age and rebirth story, a journey with a number of interesting twists and surprises and a few predictable plot devices as well. I would regard all of the above as a spoiler, except you’ll get a bit more from the publisher’s blurb and so there. Nice work plus another great title.

I’ve not been posting reviews lately for a variety of reasons. Mostly it is because I think of reviews primarily in the context of books. The COVID plague has been a boon for the reading habits of some, but for those of us as are library-dependent, not so much. But now things, including libraries and used book stores, are beginning to open up. Another reason has to do with my perception of the reviews’ utility. But if these serve as at least a memo to myself, maybe it’s worth the effort. There are other reasons that I’ll incorporate into any reviews henceforth.

Photo by Roman.

Author: rmichaelroman

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