Tag Archives: science fiction

Providence: Max Barry

“You don’t want a world of absent gods. You want meaning and purpose.”

It’s rare for me to follow an author’s career, but I make an exception with Max Barry. There are two reasons for this:

  • his books are excellent
  • he’s evolved as a writer (more of that later)

Barry’s first novel was Syrup (1999), the tale of a young man who dreams up a new soft drink–only to find that his friend, Sneaky Pete, has trademarked the formula.

Then came the brilliantly imaginative Jennifer Government (2003)–sci-fi territory here. The novel is set in a dystopian future with the world ruled by corporations.

Company (2006) followed next. In some ways, this was a return of Syrup–lots of humour and lots more corporate malfeasance–and one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.

Machine Man (2011)–again a trip into the misty, harsh future. This is the story of a mechanical engineer who loses a leg in a work-related accident. One thing leads to another, and soon the engineer replaces all of this body parts with more efficient prostheses.

Lexicon (2013) delves into data collection and the annihilation of privacy with trained ‘persuaders’ who can ‘unlock’ the brain of any identified personality type.

And now Providence. I had this feeling that Barry was moving towards full-blown science fiction novel, and this is it. Makes my Best-of-Year list.

Providence

I’m going to say: think Alien on steroids. The novel begins with a team of four people preparing to head out into space in a three-mile long Providence battleship: their  four-year long mission is to encounter and destroy an alien race called Salamanders. As the newly formed crew prep for the mission–which is a huge social media event–the team members watch footage of the hair raising encounter between humans and aliens that started the war. …

You knew what you’d be watching today but you weren’t prepared for it to feel like this, like it’s wrong to be here. And wrong not only because you know what’s going to happen, and not even because there are four people who need your help and you can’t give it, but wrong like you’re intruding. They’re about the experience the worst moment of their lives, and you’ve come to watch it.

It’s an incredible beginning to an incredible book. The plot concerns the journey into space of the battleship and its hunt for Salamanders, and while there’s a lot of down time between alien encounters, the heart-pounding, nail-biting tension never lets up. We know that this ship is headed into something big and gradually it becomes apparent that not all the crew members are privy to certain information.

In some ways the crew members may appear to be cliches, but it all makes sense as the plot continues. Captain Jackson survived a notorious Salamander attack and was broken by the experience. Unable to adjust to civilian life, she’s hostile to AI and much more willing to put her faith in decisions made by humans. Then there’s Life Officer, Talia Beanfield, the most popular member of the crew with 311 million people “following the clips, and quips of Life Officer Talia Beanfield as transmitted from her Providence-class battleship in an undisclosed but, trust me, incredibly dangerous part of space.”

Anders, the Weapons Officer who appears to be a brainless jock, is a man whose transgressive behavior would seem to have negated his position on the crew, and this raises the question as to why AI selected him for the mission. Finally there’s the Intel specialist, civilian, Gilly who is perfectly comfortable with AI, and yet he’s still ambushed by the ship’s abilities. When it comes to destinations and encounters, the ship makes the decisions, and after one hard skip, they are in the fighting zone. Two years into the mission, with kills mounting, the ship takes another hard skip into the Violet Zone “an area devoid of beacons and relays.” There will be no contact with earth. It’s a “long time to go dark.

The realities and stresses of living on a space ship become evident over time. Life Officer Beanfield, who is privy to intelligence withheld from Gilly and Anders, is perhaps the best equipped emotionally to deal with the various emergencies and disasters that arise. Her intense training at Camp Zero, designed to motivate and manipulate the other crew members, involved playing various scenarios and role playing situations 

They’d told her back at Camp Zero: You will be the most important person on the ship and no one will know it. It was true. It was so true. 

Anders, the most volatile and unpredictable crew member, “couldn’t be left to his own devices. All his devices had built-in self-destructs.” Bored and frustrated by confinement and lack of relevance, seeking revenge for his brothers killed in the war, Anders goes into complete meltdown, wants to grab the guns and revert to destruction the only way he knows how. His actions have devastating consequences for the mission.

Gilly spends hours working on his theory that the aliens are learning from each encounter with the humans, only to realize that the ship’s AI system is way ahead of him. Gilly, who continues to hold firm to the idea that AI is superior to human intelligence, realizes that the ship will defend itself in unimagined ways. At one point in the novel, Beanfield and Gilly debate about the ship as an alternate life form. The Ship said “hello” when the crew boarded, and Gilly insists it’s a pre-programmed message, but as the mission continues, it becomes clear that the ship’s abilities are beyond human comprehension and therefore unpredictable.

Providence on one level is a story of man vs alien, but there’s a lot more at play here. The book examines the reliability and fallacies of both AI and human intelligence, while showing a war in which social media grants the crew members celebrity status which is pumped by edited transmissions back to home. It’s part reality TV for those at home and almost like a video game for those who think they operate the ship. Providence illustrates the place of human ingenuity in the world of AI; humans and AI share a fragile partnership.

One of the most marvelous things about this book is the way the crew members–all damaged in various ways–somehow manage to find what they are looking for, a sort of redemption. But as the old saying goes: be careful what you wish for. This is both a gripping and a haunting read.

Absolutely brilliant. Providence is a spectacular, absorbing, relevant achievement.

Providence makes my Best-of-Year List

Review copy

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Lexicon by Max Barry

Everyone’s making pages for themselves. Imagine a hundred million people clicking polls and typing in their favorite TV shows and products and political leanings, day after day. It’s the biggest data profile ever. And it’s voluntary. That’s the funny part. People resist a census, but give them a profile page and they’ll spend all day telling you who they are.

Back in 2002, I stumbled across the Australian author, Max Barry’s book Syrup. It was out of print at the time, but I snatched up several used copies and sent them to people who needed a good laugh. The feedback was unanimous, and Max made a few more fans. In 2003, he published Jennifer Government, a dystopian novel in which the planet has corporatized rather than globalized. Then came Company in 2006–a novel that returned to the humour to be found in skewering corporate culture. Machine Man in 2011 took us into science-fiction territory with a scientist who begins replacing his body parts with better, factory-made replacements. Max Barry’s novels mine society’s paranoias and the issue of individualism within a society/corporate structure that endorses, encourages and rewards conformity. And this brings me to 2103’s Lexicon, Max Barry’s fifth novel.

LexiconYou’d have to be deliberately avoiding the news not to hear/read recent stories about privacy. The battle for ‘Privacy’ is over, so we can shed a tear and feel a bit nostalgic. Privacy is a nebulous term, and anyone suspected of a crime loses that thin veil that kept their private life out of the public eye. Ok, so you’re not a criminal; these days with terrorism as the argument, we are all suspects. I’m thinking here about data mining and data collection: our phone conversations, our e-mails, anti-war protests, even our routines and habits:  Carnivore, Prism, NasrusInsightMagic Lantern, the MQ-9Reaper (great name btw). We live in fantastic times; it’s the sort of world imagined by Philip Dick.   Trust Max Barry to mine this rich field and produce a prescient, brilliant, intelligent, dystopian novel:  Lexicon: a nightmarish look at the ultimate privacy invasion–a book that pushes the boundaries of reality, and yet is so close, too close to an uncomfortable truth that the last frontier of privacy, the brain, is under assault. But we still have free will, don’t we?

The fact was, if you paid attention, people tried to persuade each other all the time. It was all they did.

And what if those persuaders had an unfair advantage, an incredible ability into the insights of your personality and decision making. What would happen if you could be persuaded to do anything?

Emily is a homeless 16 year old, hustling with cards on the street of San Francisco when she’s approached by a stranger who poses as a market researcher who claims he’s looking for “people who are persuasive and intransigent.” Emily accepts an offer to do “a round of tests,” and if she passes, she’ll attend a private school that teaches “persuasion.” The school, run by a shadowy organization, is a vetting ground for those with an exceptional talent for persuading others, and Emily is told this isn’t a regular school, the usual “government-run child farms” with a predictable curriculum. But neither is this school for salespeople; it’s something much more sinister:

She learned Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which was the order in which people optimally satisfied different types of desires (food-safety-love-status-enlightenment). She learned that leverage over people’s desire for knowledge was called informational social influence, while leverage over people’s desire to be liked was normative social influence. She learned that you could classify a person’s personality into one of 228 psychographic categories with a small number of well-directed questions plus observation, and this was called segmentation.

During Emily’s second year, she learns how to categorize people into types and identify which “persuasion techniques are more likely to work” on the various personalities. While learning how to identify types and manipulate other people, Emily is taught not to reveal anything about herself to others as personal information can open you to ‘persuasion.’ Graduates of the school are renamed and become “poets,” the most talented, gifted persuaders with an incredible ability to identity people by segmentation, and they are given a set of words that can ‘unlock’ the brain of any identified personality type. Naturally, for poets, desire is seen as a weakness and relationships are forbidden, and this is where Emily makes a mistake….

Alternating with Emily’s story is the story of Wil, an Australian who enters a bathroom and is sucked up in a battle for power between rival poet factions. Kidnapped by a poet named Eliot, Will is told that “eighteen months ago you survived something you shouldn’t have,” and that because he survived the incident at Broken Hill, a town declared a toxic disaster zone, he is an “outlier“–someone who is “immune” to segmentation and persuasion. Eliot believes that Wil, who has no memory of Broken Hill, holds essential, key information that will stop the power-grab of the much-feared rogue poet, Virginia Woolf.

Throughout the novel, Barry introduces conspiracy theories and various paranoias to fuel the tale, and the narrative is interspersed with forum comments, news articles, and various incidents that make the headlines

I’m not saying that there’s something here with this specific incident, but I see this ALL THE TIME. If you watch TV news, every story is like this: ‘There was a fire and the owner was in financial trouble.’ They’re not saying he burned down his own place. But that’s what they’re trying to tell you.

That bothers me because we think we’re being clever, putting the pieces together, but it’s a set-up. We’ve only been given pieces that fit together one way…..”

While I miss the humour of Company and Syrup, Lexicon is the most original book I’ve read this year. The novel is a brilliantly conceived novel of ideas that are fresh, bold and just imaginative enough to feed our concerns regarding the invasion of privacy. Towards the end, when the novel became pure chase & kill thriller, the plot seemed to lose control, but this may be an issue with my kindle version more than anything else as I was unsure of the timelines for some of the chapters.

It’s been interesting to watch Max Barry’s career over the years, and Lexicon is a fascinating entry in this unique writer’s oeuvre. Max Barry always surprises and he always delivers. Well done, Max. 

Review copy

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Machine Man by Max Barry

As a long-term fan of Max Barry, I’m pimping his new book Machine Man. It’s the story of a lonely scientist, Charles Neumann who loses a leg in an accident. Unhappy with the clumsy, rudimentary capabilities of the prosthetic device, he embarks on a quest for improvement. If you are at all familiar with Max Barry’s novels, then you know to expect dark humour.

Anyway, the full review is here at Mostly Fiction

and SCORE!! for the interview go here

But here’s a quote from the book, one of my favourites that should have you either dashing to your local bookshop or putting the book in your virtual shopping cart.

This is Cassandra Cautery, from the company Better Future talking to Charles Neumann:

“I’m a middle manager,” she said. “Some people think that’s a pejorative, but I don’t. There are people above me who make business decisions and people below me who execute them and those people live in different realities. Very different. And my job is to bring them together. Mesh their realities. Sometimes they’re not completely compatible, and sometimes I don’t even understand how someone can live in the reality they do, but the point is I mesh them. I’m like a translator. Only more hands-on. And that’s what makes the company work. Middle managers, like me, meshing. So let me take a stab at your reality, Charlie. Do you know how much money there is in medical? A lot. And more every year, because you invent a better heart and it doesn’t matter how much it costs, people want it. because you’re selling them life.” She blinked.  “You’re selling them life.” She patted her jacket pockets. “I need a pen. But what’s the problem with medical? The market is limited to sick people. Imagine: you sink thirty million into developing the world’s greatest artery valve and someone goes and cures heart disease. It would be a disaster. not for the … not for the people obviously. I mean for the company. Financially. I mean this is the kind of business risk that makes people upstairs nervous about signing off on major capital investment.”

And here’s Charles meeting physical therapist, Dave:

Then came the physical therapist. The second he bounced in I realized I was back in gym class. He was fit and tan and wore a hospital polo shirt small enough that his biceps strained the seams. Tucked beneath one was a clipboard. The only thing missing was a whistle.

And finally here’s Max on Youtube with a preview of Machine Man:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kEN10axDJtA

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Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse by Victor Gischler

“It’s a hard world to be good in.”

With the title Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse, how could I resist reading this novel by American author, former English professor, Victor Gischler? I read this wild roller-coaster ride of a novel in one sitting and enjoyed every page. Yes, I know, it won’t win the Pulitzer, but who cares?

The glorious front cover includes a quote from author James Rollins: “Part Christopher Moore, part Quentin Tarantino, Victor Gischler is a raving badass genius.” I’d say Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse is Duane Swierczynski on a trip through Mad-Max territory.

As the title suggests, this is a post-apocalypse novel set in the near future. The protagonist is Mortimer Tate, a 38-year-old insurance salesman. Correct that. Former insurance agent. And here’s how civilization ended:

No single thing had doomed Mortimer’s planet. Rather it had been a confluence of disasters. Some dramatic and sudden, others a slow silent decay.

The worldwide flu epidemic had come and gone with fewer deaths than predicted. Humanity emerged from that long winter and smiled nervously at one another. A sigh of relief, a bullet dodged.

That April the big one hit.

So long feared, it finally happened. The earth awoke, humped up its spine along the San Andreas. The destruction from L.A. to San Francisco defied comprehension. The earthquake sent rumbles across the Pacific, tsunamis pounding Asia. F.E.M.A. immediately declared its inadequacy and turned over operations to the military. The death toll numbered in the millions, and nothing–not food nor fuel–made it through West Coast seaports. The shortages were rapidly felt across the Midwest. Supermarkets emptied, and no trucks arrived to supply them.

Wall Street panicked.

Nine days later a Saudi terrorist detonated a nuclear bomb in a large tote bag on the steps of the Capitol building. Both houses of Congress were in session. The president and the vice president and most of the cabinet were obliterated.

The secretary of the interior was found and sworn in. This didn’t sit well with a four-star general who had other ideas. Civil war.

Economic spasms reached the European and Asian markets.

Israel dropped nukes on Cairo, Tehran and targets in Syria.

Pakistan and India went at it.

China and Russia went at it.

The world went at it.

It was pretty much downhill from there.

When the book begins, our hero Mortimer Tate is holed up in a well-stocked cabin on the top of a Tennessee mountain. He retreated to this remote site with a pile of supplies nine years ago as a way of refusing to sign his divorce papers. In the meantime, civilization went to hell in a handbasket, and since the portable batteries for his radio ran out the first year, Mortimer has no way of knowing what is going on in the world beyond his refuge. Mortimer is getting bored and lonely when 3 stragglers from the outside world invade his zone. As a result, Mortimer decides to head back, check out what is going on and find his wife, Anne.

Big mistake.

Mortimer discovers that the situation is worse, and far more dangerous, than he could have imagined. Some people have banded together to form roving tribes of marauders. Other people band together in isolated, bizarre utopian groups. Still others have turned to cannibalism. But there’s a burgeoning form of society in a chain of Joey Armageddon Sassy-A-Go-Go clubs strung out across America. Joey Armageddon’s oases of fun and pleasure are basically economic trade zones. The clubs feature home-made hooch (Freddy’s Piss Yellow, Freddy’s Piss Vinegar Vodka, Major Dundee’s Slow-Motion Gin), its own currency (Armageddon dollars–a piece of metal with a “primitive stamping” of a mushroom cloud on one side), and go-go girls. The club lights and music are powered by chained prisoners who are forced to pedal stationary bicycles that generate power (remember those Roman galley slaves? It’s the same sort of philosophy here). With rare goods to trade for Armageddon dollars, Mortimer becomes a card-carrying, platinum member of Joey Armageddon’s go-go clubs. 

Mortimer hooks up with a man named Bill– a latter-day cowboy, a man who dons a cowboy outfit, complete with a black cowboy hat, an ankle length duster, and a pair of pistols. Bill is one of the few good guys left:

“I don’t know why I did it at first,” admitted Bill. “I always liked westerns, John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, you know? Think about what a cowboy is, what he represents. The new order rolling across the prairie, right? Even when he was slaughtering buffalo and red indians, he still left civilization in his wake, towns and railroads and all that. I guess maybe I thought we needed cowboys again. Maybe not. Hell, I don’t know. Probably sounds stupid.”

Bill and Mortimer team up together to find Mortimer’s missing wife, Anne, who’s rumoured to be in Chattanooga. Once they leave the semi-safe Armageddon zone with its almost pathetic pretensions of civilization and order, Bill and Mortimer discover just how awful the world has become. It’s non-stop action all the way as the two men pick up stripper Sheila as the third member of the group, and together they travel to Chattanooga to find Anne. There’s no petrol available–although there are rumours that refineries may be working again, so Bill, Mortimer and Sheila find a range of ways (most of them dangerous and unwise) to travel to their chosen destination.  You couldn’t pay me to ride on the Muscle Express.

Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse was bought on a whim, but this won’t be the only novel I read by this author. The novel is firmly rooted in pulp, and in spite of the fact that some of the action does stretch the imagination, this is a very visual tale. As I read, I found myself wondering just what would happen, what would become of ‘civilisation’ if the world ended? After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, we got a glimpse of the potential problems the world would face with the collapse of civilisation: police shooting unarmed black Americans (and then hiding their actions), rumours of rape and murder, allegations of euthanasia of aged patients, animals abandoned, looting, & thousands of people stranded the Superdome. Even the governor made statements about the deputized troops sent to the area who would shoot and kill (with their “Locked and loaded M-16s”). What would happen to the world if a disaster such as Katrina were repeated but on a much broader, more destructive scale and then extended over years?

I read the novel, I decided that Gischler was probably spot on with some of his predictions.

This brings me to one of the complaints I read about the book. Some reviewers found it sexist. Women are bought and sold, kept in bikinis, and they also titillate the male customers of the Joey Armageddon’s Sassy-a-Go-Go chain. But since the novel is set post-Apocalypse, somehow I don’t think PC values would survive through the New World Order. Gischler seems to have a lot of fun imagining just what would survive the Apocalypse, and it is funny to note than humankind quickly resurrects strip joints, slavery and rotgut booze–after all, these are the rudimentary necessities, right? This is a savage, violent world in which people cling to each other to survive but the shared values of most of the loosely-formed groups are based on very practical principles. In Gischler’s world, there’s no time for sensitivity, but still time for humour. But lest readers should think that all the female characters exist as sex objects, here’s Tyler Kane:

A slender figure appeared atop the crates in front of them, looked down on the two passengers in the theater seats. The newcomer’s face wasn’t clear at first, a dark silhouette against the morning sun. Mortimer held up a hand, shaded his eyes to get a look. A woman.

“Don’t puke on my train,” she said.

Mortimer looked down, closed his eyes. It took too much energy to hold his head up. “Your train?”

“I’m Tyler Kane. I’m the train captain.”

She hopped down from the crates, and Mortimer got a better look at her. Athletically thin, hard body like a track star. She wore black leather pants and a matching jacket too light for the cold, a white turtleneck underneath. A nickel-plated revolver sprung from her waistband. Her hair was burgundy red, cut close on the sides and spiked on top. A black patch covered her left eye, and a thin white scar leaked from under the patch and ran straight down to the edge of her angular jawline. Her one eye was bright and blue as an arctic lake. She had the palest skin Mortimer had ever seen on someone still alive.

“You’re paying passengers, so you don’t have to do anything except stay out of the way,” Tyler said. “If we’re attacked, be prepared to repel boarders. If you vomit, stick your head over the side. Any questions?

And guess what? This is in production. Here’s a clip:

Go Go Girls of the Apocalypse

Can’t wait.

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