The Boogeyman’s Intern

A review by Bob Roman


The Boogeyman’s Intern by Matt Betts. Dog Star Books, 2018. 215 pages, $15.95

theboogyemansinternThe Boogeyman’s Intern, as its central concept, uses a plot device that has been floating around the science fiction / fantasy genre for decades: Gods are real, but their existence is almost entirely dependent on belief by humans. Betts extends this to all entities generated by humanity’s magical thinking, including boogiemen, imaginary friends, tooth fairies and the like. Move Valhalla or Olympus to a more generic Hill (very much a company town, like Hollywood), add a murder mystery and a parody of a police procedural: voilà! You have the basic recipe for The Boogeyman’s Intern. The blurb supplied by author Josef Matulich characterizes it as a mashup of two movies, Monsters Inc and Chinatown. That’s very nearly correct, except that Chinatown was a seriously noir mystery story. If you were to substitute Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or The Big Lebowski, you’d be much nearer the mark. Betts raises some serious questions about identity and agency and the state of popular culture, but this is intended to be a funny book. Just where the “Intern” in the title comes from, I don’t know. It’s a great title; it’s why I borrowed the book from the Chicago Public Library. Possibly Betts intended to write a book somewhat different than what appeared as the final product. It’s been known to happen.

Intern? The closest thing to an intern is the protagonist, Abe, at the beginning of the story. He’s an imaginary friend. If being an imaginary friend is not an internship then it’s a gig, a temp job. After all, it’s a constituency of one believer that does not last past childhood. Abe not happy and he is screwing it up with monumental self-sabotage. Things get weird when the powers that be yank him from his job (no surprise) and assign him to invent the role of policeman to solve what appears to be a murder. This is unprecedented. There are no police. What is there to steal? If anything on the Hill is coveted, it’s believers, the equivalent of ratings. Can the inhabitants of the Hill be killed? And is Abe really what he thinks he is?

As a story, The Boogeyman’s Intern is not primarily supported by conflict although there is indeed some drama. Humor is probably a larger element of the story-telling, but humor is not universal so not every reader will have the benefit of it. A larger element is simply ambiguity: What is going on here? This requires some attention to pacing, and while it worked for me, it may not for others. Finally, Matt Betts is more of a poet than a novelist. While this does not result in much of any lovely or lyrical prose, Betts does deliver a pretty consistently competent use of language: That kept me going!

This is a creative mix of ideas, tropes, devices, etc., from science fiction, fantasy and mystery genres. It’s funny and it’s a serious conversation about the state of popular culture, magical thinking and memes. The story is worth your time. If you have an opportunity to do so, read it.

Occupy Me

a review by Bob Roman

Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan. Titan Books, 2018. 361 pages, $14.95

Does Tricia Sullivan need an introduction? I do not recall reading any of her work until this book and she’s been publishing since 1995. I don’t claim to be hip, so maybe that’s it. It turns out that while she’s a New Jersey girl, she’s been residing and publishing in the United Kingdom. For good and for ill, national borders still mean something in fiction publishing. Maybe that’s it.

Occupy Me is Sullivan’s latest work, originally published in 2016 though the Titan Books edition is dated 2018, and it may be her last for a while as she is pursuing a PhD in Astrophysics. The book is essentially a science fantasy thriller with some fairly heavy philosophical subtexts. These subtexts are not necessary for the reader’s pleasure, but they are there if you like. It wouldn’t be good Sci-Fi without them.

The story begins with an excerpt from a users manual that seems a bit out of place and is excerpted once more in the course of the story telling. It’s there as something of a clue as to what is going on, but my not-so-qualified opinion is that it is more of a bug than a feature. Sullivan also shifts between first person, second person, and third person (omniscient narrator) depending on the character being tracked. It is something of a surprise that Sullivan makes this work as well as it does.

Add to this many of the usual elements of a thriller: secret societies, corporate malfeasance, thugs in the service of white collar megacrime, chases, monumental fights, missing persons, engaging (more or less) characters, deadlines… My goodness! Sullivan tries to keep it moving fast enough to skim over the plot holes as any good author of a thriller should. She mostly succeeded for me, and the “what’s going on here?” question also helped my engagement. But I don’t think I would have finished the book with much enthusiasm if there hadn’t been, scattered like video game easter eggs or a book binding decorated with semi-precious stones, some occasional hair-raisingly lovely writing, for example:

“The creature looked like forged emptiness. It breathed smoke and the vast unlit places between stars. On the ground it seemed amplified. Its wings made a hard wind with even the most casual movement, and its breath rebuffed the waves. A pheromone fume seeped from its fur. There was a disturbing hum in my occipital bone, a sensation of drag on my consciousness. Like magnetism. The sensation was out of all proportion to my physical body. I felt I could be reeled, wings and all, into a single one of quetzlcoatlus’ black-hole pupils and never be found again.”

If you don’t like that paragraph, well, there’s no accounting for taste. But for me, the prospect of more writing like this kept me going even on those occasions when the pacing dragged or the plot seemed unlikely.

With other authors, I’ve encountered a page or two of really brilliant writing. Rarely it will be most of a book. But regardless of whether it’s the now and then paragraph or a page or an entire volume, writing like this makes my day.

If that isn’t enough of a recommendation for you, allow me to recommend three other reviews: Tricia Sullivan – Occupy Me by Steven Shaviro, “Talk About A Lost Cause”: Tricia Sullivan’s “Occupy Me” by “danhartland”, and Occupy Me – Tricia Sullivan by Paul Kincaid.

Read this book. It’s good.

Red Moon

a review by Bob Roman

Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson. Orbit Books, 2018. 446 pages, $27.00

Image from Orbis Books

I have a mental list of authors who have annoyed or bored me enough that I really do not care to read any more of their work. Despite being a more than competent writer who shares a good deal of my politics, Kim Stanley Robinson keeps coming close to being added to the list. For me, his latest work, Red Moon, was partly an adventure in seeing whether he would end on it or off it. But that’s just me.

Some of my problems with Robinson are more generally relevant, though. His novels, after his first few, have acquired a distinctly didactic quality to them. He’s not at all unique in this, even in science fiction and fantasy. From the other end of the political spectrum, Robert Heinlein comes to mind, and Heinlein even did one about the moon: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. But you do need to be a very good writer to make didacticism palatable to readers who do not share your perspective. There is also the temptation, for any artist, to play to the true believers, trusting in their instinct to give a hurrah for our side, whatever side that may be and however lame the execution. Whatever sells, after all. Robinson is good enough, usually, to keep it interesting while having enough integrity to not simply pander.

But that gets rather more difficult when one writes what should be a thriller, as Red Moon should be: Sometime around the middle of this century, Fred Fredericks travels to the moon, specifically to a Chinese research settlement at the south pole. His job is to deliver to his employer’s customer, the head administrator of the research settlement, an encrypted cell phone. This turns out to be the occasion for an assassination plot directed at the head administrator with Fredericks as the means of delivery. It very nearly kills Fredericks as well, but he ends up on the run with another person on the run, Chan Qi, a highly privileged (and pregnant) daughter of a top rank Chinese Communist Party and government official. Her dad is indeed one of the candidates for the top job at the pending Congress. She’s not having any of it and has slipped her leash, both from Daddy and the Party. Throw in a highly siloed government and Communist Party (rogue bureaucracy on the loose!), a chase across the Moon and across China, an emergent artificial intelligence, nonviolent citizen uprisings in both China and the United States (sort of a cross between Occupy and the various “color revolutions”), block chain alternative currency, diplomatic intrigue, and you should get a roller coaster thriller, a page turning experience where one does not notice the plot holes until they are long past, indeed probably after you close the covers of the book.

Instead, what is delivered to the reader is more akin to a 19th Century visit to utopia, where the protagonist (and thus the reader) is given a tour of a brave new world… Think of Aldous Huxley’s Island (granted, a 1930s novel) or Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. Most of those utopias, even the most classic, are pretty lame examples of story-telling. Robinson, at least, can use the conflicts built into his plot to keep things moving with some drama, but he doesn’t really enter the thriller mode of story-telling until the end of the novel. And the ending is either brilliant or a set-up for volume two. If it is the latter, it is not brilliant and I think I’ll take a pass.

A lot of science fiction really ought to be called science fantasy. Robinson does stick pretty close to the real world in his speculation. If there’s much speculative violence done to science, it may be in biology rather than the usual suspects of physics or information science.  Robinson’s Moon has far more in common with modern Antarctica than it does with a nostalgic fantasy of the American (or the Siberian, for that matter) frontier: a dangerous, expensive place mostly only good for research or for novelty. And if Robinson’s Mars trilogy had mountain climbing as a visceral experience, Red Moon has the simple difficulty humans will have learning to maneuver in the Moon’s low gravity.

I think Robinson has gotten the Moon approximately correct, or at least he compliments my prejudices. China is this book’s other big obsession. If he’s gotten the Moon about right, what about China? I haven’t much basis for judging that except that anything written about China, even in the present never mind several decades from now, is likely to be wrong at least in part. And I suspect Robinson would agree. In a interview, he noted: “China is really interesting and important and nobody understands it — and I mean not just Americans, who definitely don’t understand it, but even the Chinese people themselves. It’s a big, powerful society in rapid flux. It’s unstable and dynamic and it’s super interesting.” And more to the point, anything happening there will have consequences here, but if you need Red Moon to make that point, you haven’t been paying attention.

Caught between being a thriller and a visit to Erewhon, I don’t think this is one of Kim Stanley Robinson’s more successful efforts. But I liked it well enough that Robinson is not yet on my shit list and I liked Red Moon well enough to write this modest review of it. And he does have some interesting things to say about the future of humans on the Moon and about China. But I don’t like it well enough to hope for a sequel.

Spirits of the Vasty Deep

a review by Bob Roman

Spirits of the Vasty Deep by Brian Stableford. Snuggly Books, 2018. 297 pages $17.95

stablefordBrian Stableford has been around for a long time. He’s been on my shit list for a long time, too, though for not as long but long enough for me to have forgotten why. Occasionally, an author will cop an attitude or pander to an ideology or write very poorly or write something otherwise irritating and: Enough! Time is too short and swift to bother with any more. In the case of Stableford, possibly it was his 1970 novel, The Blind Worm. Or perhaps not; I mention that novel because I have a copy that was issued as an Ace double novel and I can’t otherwise imagine what the problem was. I picked up Spirits of the Vasty Deep because I had forgotten about The Blind Worm. And that was a good thing because this is a good book, a good gothic novel: terror and medievalism with science fiction elements and some modern add-ons from The Da Vinci Code.

Gothic is not a genre that I’m particularly fond of at all. And the novel begins in a pretty standard Gothic way. Author Simon Cannick, having lost his Bristol apartment to a new landlord and sky-rocketing rent, moves to isolated St. Madoc in coastal northern Wales where he had, to his surprise, inherited a cottage. And then there is the partially ruinous Abbey and the secretive family that has for time out of mind resided there. Is there anything not Gothic in that set-up?

Well, the protagonist is not a helpless and to-be-victimized female, but a geezerly obscure author, possibly based somewhat on Brian Stableford himself. The terror is pretty mild and there is more humor than might be typical. Much of the early part of the book is basically dialogue in a pseudo-scholarly, nerdy Da Vinci Code vein. Somehow I did not find that boring. Stableford wrote well enough to bring it off.

Stableford does play some misdirection games regarding who the important characters are and who are secondary. It maybe helped, for me, that the characters are mostly geezers. Being one myself, there’s a certain pleasure to be found in identifying with them.

So what happens? Read the damned book: seriously, this is a good read, folks. Brian Stableford is now officially off my shit list though The Blind Worm hasn’t gotten any better.