And at last the season is at a close. Time to talk about the last episode Death in Heaven, and our final ratting for this Moffat two-parter.
The end of the season is closing in. So are the Cybermen, and an old enemy returns! P.S. Sorry to our YouTube viewers. Forces beyond our control have made us mute the opening.
Daniel Wilson is to the robot apocalypse what Mira Grant is to the zombie. At least, that's what I gather from my very, very short history with his work. I'm fairly certain I had heard of his 2011 novel Robopocalypse before I was given the sequel, Robogenesis, as a gift, but I had never read it. Indeed, the title is generic enough to blend in with the background noise even for a blogger who doesn't have the time to keep his ear as close to the ground of Sci-Fi literature as I'd like to. Still, I received the novel as a gift and it had a flashy cover and an interesting premise, so I dug into it.
The first thing I noticed about the novel was that it was probably a sequel. This wasn't just because it had “Bestselling author of Robopocalypse” plastered on the cover. A surprising (based on their starting points in this book, anyway) number of characters had a history with one another with only minimal reasoning within the book. As with any other clear sequel, I filed this fact away to be factored in after reading the book.
I don't know how much of the plot of Robopocalypse is explained in Robogenesis, but enough of it is. The important thing to know is that there was a war between
Skynet Artificial Intelligence Archos R-14 and mankind. Civilization was all but destroyed during the war, which lasted several years, and the recurring characters seem to be the heroes of it. I held out hope for a short time that these were minor players that had little to do with the resolution of the first novel and therefore had more of a character arc ahead of them, but unfortunately this doesn't seem to be the case. Anything else this story tells about the first book is window dressing, and when I eventually get to reading Robopocalypse it will be interesting to compare the two.
The premise of Robogenesis is that Archos R-14 was secretly preparing humanity for what would be called the “True War”, a war in which one of its predecessors was going to take up its own hand at challenging humanity, this time in order to wipe out all sentient life. In the midst of all this, new life – life that is not carbon-based, but is otherwise organic – is arising across the world and nobody seems to know why. The novel is split into three parts: one in which the threat is established, one in which its depth is explored, and one in which the “True War” occurs. Each of these parts introduces another character from the previous war, as well as a look at a different part of the world than where the majority of the action is taking place: part one looking at another AI in Russia as it discovers the threat, part two looking at the “freeborn” society of robots, and part three looking at the apparent “birth”-place of the freeborn mentality (program?) in Japan. These segments provide greater scope to the story, but I have mixed feelings about them in general. They come across clearly as the “B” story, and only occasionally intersect the “A” plot. A few more drafts working on combining these “okay” stories with the larger plot would have made them all the more interesting.
As for the main plot, I found myself heavily drawn into it. The world-building here is incredible, taking into account both how people would feel during the war and after, as well as how that influenced society as a whole. Unfortunately, it does seem to have some issues with looking at Points A, B and C on a map, and treating the area in between as a great white void that characters hop through between chapters. The parts that do receive attention in the narrative though are engrossing, and I could easily see a movie being made of it, despite covering ground that Terminator, The Matrix, and other films have covered.
Despite covering this ground, there are some original concepts here. The first is that Archos R-14 and Robogenesis's antagonist Arate (R-8) Shah are far from being the only high-level artificial intelligences in this world. Chapter 3 establishes that there are other, equivalent-level AI units all over the world, created by different governments. The names of the antagonists and some of the information they reveal indicates that they aren't even the only American units of their type to go rogue. R-14 stands for “Revision 14”, which is short for saying “Americans have produced Skynet 14 times, and lost control of it every time”. This is mind-blowing information. If you thought it was intense having one group of robots take over the world and either enslave or try to destroy humanity, imagine there being 20 or more such intelligences, each with their own agenda. With that many, I wouldn't be shocked if The Matrix's Architect isn't one of them.
Another new concept is the idea that R-14 was fashioning cyborgs. There are several versions of this throughout the novel, from humans that are enslaved and used as weapons, only to be given control of themselves at the end of the Robopocalypse's “New War”. There were also quite a few human children who simply had mechanical parts grafted to them, that had the added effect in the social climate of Robogenesis of making their thoughts part machine and turning them into a unique force that were immensely useful in the “True War”.
Robogenesis is a delight to read, introducing a unique version of an old conflict and filled with unique characters. My biggest gripe is that not all of the characters were given enough page-time to live up to their true potential, and this is from someone who hasn't read the book that half of them (if not more) were introduced in. I look forward to reading more in this series and I think that most people who enjoy Sci-Fi action novels will feel the same way.
Prior to lost boy lost girl, the only experience I had with the writing of Peter Straub was the two books that he co-wrote with Stephen King, The Talisman and Black House. Those were two rather good books, so I was a bit surprised when the person who handed it to me told me it was the worst book she had ever read. I was skeptical of this – the person wasn't known to be a fan of any horror, and there were quotes from Stephen King and Neil Gaiman on the cover proclaiming how good it was. Who to trust?
My feelings about this book progressed in three stages. The first was that of experiencing a good setup. The characters are introduced, as was a goal, and some strange occurrences. As we grow to know the characters, we were eased into plot elements such as the visions Nancy had before her suicide and the phone calls years before that. All of this was done well, if a bit slowly. I can handle that. The Shining and Pet Sematary had a slow buildup. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone had a slow build-up. It's a decision, not a flaw in and of itself.
The second stage was when I hit the halfway mark of the book and felt like I was still in the setup. The story was taking a leisurely stroll through the character's lives. It was clear that terrible things had occurred before and after what I was reading, but it was just as clear that those things weren't happening “now”. Thi sis where parallel stories can sometimes do more harm than good. While lost boy lost girl largely avoids the trap of interrupting at the wrong moments and breaking the tension, it does fall into the trap of divulging the wrong information too early. It's hard to feel suspense about a character running from room to room in an otherwise occupied house when you know that he was fine when he met his friend for drinks afterward.
Even the person investigating the disappearance – the narrator – didn't seem particularly inclined to hurry. This was no Sherlock Holmes mystery; this was an author walking behind an interesting story and taking notes. As that the audience was receiving information from several sources that were well out of the “present day” narrator's reach, the story never reached that moment of discovery where it felt like the story was finally catching up to the hints. By the time the narrator discovers that the late murderer-serial rapist had once kept and tortured a hidden daughter in his house, this plot point is already irrelevant because he has discovered that the missing boy was already in a sexual relationship with her ghost.
This is where the third stage comes in. You won't catch me pleading necrophilia or anything like that – I can tell the difference between a ghost and a corpse – and in context I'm fairly apathetic to the age difference between the nineteen year old spirit and the fifteen year old boy. No, my problem is that we are led to believe that a child who was kept hidden and tortured while chained to a bed by a man who was known to have raped and murdered many women of varying ages until he finally killer her became a ghost, kept aging and used bondage sex on the bed she died on as an icebreaker the very first time she was alone with a male who didn't happen to be a serial killer. Perhaps most disgusting of all is the fact that this is considered to be a good – possibly the best – outcome of everything going on. The narrator even goes so far as to say the bondage sex on the torture bed makes sense because you make do with what you have.
If you have even the slightest hint of empathy beyond “sex good”, you might see my problem with this. There are generally three types of people who have been through sexually traumatic experiences: ones who have a system of support and have worked through the scars of their abuse and are able to move on, ones who are terrified to even attempt intimacy (physical, emotional or both), and ones who have reached the point that they believe the natural order of things is for the person in a position of power in their lives to use and abuse their body any way they see fit. Lily Calendar, an undead recluse, is certainly not in the first category, and obviously not in the second, which places her in the third. The fact that this is considered to be a good thing, simply because the “lost boy” (who is even given top billing even within the story, despite the fact that she was “lost” well before he was) gets the answers to his questions (and some sexual gratification) is sickening.
Is there a deeper meaning to this that I'm missing. Yes and no. Yes, there is something deeper than this. Yes because, if you read into the context of the story, it is clearly intended to be written by narrator Tim Underhill who is following on his nephew's case. The novel consists of the bits that happened while he was absent, his speculations in novel format. No, because this clearly does not make it any better. This author character (who those familiar with Straub's friend Stephen King will recognize is more often than not a stand-in for the author himself) is perfectly okay – arguably overjoyed with this relationship. He is perfectly fine with the idea that his nephew went and – what, killed himself? Allowed the local serial killer to kill him? - in order to spend eternity with his ghost girlfriend, the most notable aspect of whose relationship seems to be the sex that they have in the bed that she was tortured, raped and killed on.
This bothers me, and it will keep bothering me, in the way that I may never be able to look at a Peter Straub novel the same way. The boring, bland novel doesn't bother me so much. Everybody puts one out eventually. Stephen King has put out stories that I've shaken my head, wondered what he was on when he wrote it, and I went on to read the next thing. But a novel like this that downplays the results of abuse to the extent that the abused girl becomes a prize is one degree away from glorifying the abuse itself, and no novel that somebody was paid to write, then read by an editor, and then charged money for should come that close to being that ignorant. Avoid this book at all costs.
When I read Feed, it was completely out of the blue. A reviewing colleague of mine, Jim Haley, came across a contest held by Orbit Books, and in his effort to draw my attention to it, ended up winning it on my behalf. The book sat in my reading list with nary a glance until I was able to pick it up and read it, at which point I realized it was the best book I had read in years. And that, my friends, was my introduction to Feed, Newsflesh, Mira Grant, Seanan McGuire, and zombie stories that were actually interesting to me.
Seanan McGuire is the author who crafted the book in question, Mira Grant is the name she attributes her Sci-Fi horror classics to, Feed is the book, and Newsflesh is the trilogy. Zombie stories that were actually interesting to me are what I found inside the book. Considering the oversaturated market for zombie stories we’ve been getting lately, that’s saying something.
I’ve long maintained that a classic book contains a story that can exist completely independent of its setting. Once you have an excellent story, you supply it with an equally excellent setting. I’ve often held that Stephen King writes sufficient stories that his repetitive settings can be overlooked. This is because, in such a story, character depth is taken to its extremes, as well as the plot, motivations and other narrative elements. If you take out the futuristic setting, Feed is still a great story. Same goes for if you take out the zombies. Those last two things just make it iconic.
The one thing that drew me in for years is how deeply Stephen King got into the mind of even the most insignificant character. Mira Grant doesn’t do that, but when it comes to the characters we see through the eyes of, we get all that and more. Feed is an example of that exact type of book. The story is told through the eyes of Georgia Mason, named for George Romero. Yes, the setting does inform the characters, but that’s only natural, and not any sort of indication of relying on the setting. Rather, there’s back and forth between the two, which makes the characters more believable as part of the setting. George is a journalist who, along with her brother Shaun, runs a blog by the name of “After the End Times”. To return to the Stephen King comparison, Grant uses King’s trademark maneuver of including excerpts at the beginning of chapters in order to give insight into the story and the characters without interrupting the narrative. Rather than songs or quotes, Feed accomplishes this with full blog entries, either from the Rising to establish the setting or from “After the End Times” to establish George, Shaun and Buffy. While George is the more traditional journalist of the group, Shaun is the thrillseeker (a group named after a certain celebrity from the 1990s) and Buffy is the “Fictional” of the group - the person who writes things other than strictly factual accounts.
These three individuals are shown to us in the detail of a journalist explaining herself, the most important person in her life, and her best friend. Her eye for details combines with the tragedy of the story in order to bear the truth about all of the supporting characters she meets along the way. Nobody has a point of view except for George (and. through blog posts, Shaun and Buffy), but within that limited narrator we get a clear look at every character.
This is largely because when you strip away the frills of Science Fiction and horror, Feed is a mystery thriller. The “After the End Times” crew is the first group of independent internet journalists - of bloggers - invited along the campaign trail. This makes them witnesses to a stream of attacks against the Presidential candidate whom they’re following. From day one people are dying, and these skilled and licensed journalists who are used to risking death in controlled circumstances find that their lives (and many others, besides) lie on the hands of their ability to do what they do best: expose the truth. But as with any political maneuverings, things aren’t always what they seem, and when people’s opinions and ideologies are called into question, even the most trusted individual of all could become a traitor in their midst.
I say “thriller” for a reason. Like when I read The Hardy Boys as a child, I didn’t want to solve the mystery before Georgia. The story didn’t hinge on who was responsible for the death and mayhem that plagued our heroes - it hinged on when they could expose it and use the truth as a weapon. The villainous monologue at the end implied that this mystery couldn’t have been solved only by seeing what the heroes saw, but that’s okay because the thriller is the point of the story more than the mystery, and it damn well did its job. What’s important is that the audience knows everything that Georgia does. Her helplessness is our helplessness. And there’s nothing more thrilling that being George - being someone with a defined sense of right and wrong, the confidence that she can use it to change the world, and the skills to actually do so - and being helpless.
I suppose helplessness requires us to discuss the setting, finally. While the things I’ve mentioned so far are a large part of what makes Feed so good, the setting is what gives Newsflesh its appeal and memorability. The story is simple enough. The Zombie apocalypse occurred in 2014, as a result of trying to cure cancer and the common cold. I’d consider elaborating, but as I’m writing this I’m also in the process of ordering a limited edition book which includes how this happens (which , as you read this, I have probably already published a review of. I’m a fan of publishing reviews linearly, even if I don’t think or read that way). Suffice it to say that the result of Kellis and Amberlee’s miracles was Kellis-Amberlee, the zombie plague virus. It’s in every human’s body in trace amounts, has resulted in spontaneous amplification, and can be weaponized.
In order to survive the zombie apocalypse, humanity turned to people like me: bloggers and fans of horror movies. Bloggers, because they’re the ones who can get the news out quickly and without the pesky FCC getting in the way, and horror movie fans, because they’re the ones who know where to hit the walking dead with maximum stopping power. Once that was over, rules and restrictions were put into place to prevent further zombie deaths, resulting in a world where you’re constantly looking over your shoulder expecting to see something coming to eat you and just as frequently submitting yourself to tests that will allow someone to legally shoot you in the head.
The interplay between all of these elements is astounding, and the world-building here is some of the best that I’ve ever seen. The prose doesn’t rely on specific items such as Twitter (or indeed, social media), preventing any of the setting elements from becoming dated as technology changes. This doesn’t prevent the story from losing some of its strength if 2015 arrives and we still have cancer, the common cold and a distinct lack of the walking dead, however.
To see just how the various elements of a world combine, you have to look little further than the political situation of that world. Luckily, we find ourselves starting out in a political thriller, which means that we can plainly see the candidate who gets by using fear of death as a motivator for his votes (something that readers weren’t entirely unfamiliar with - Feed was released at the height of the second Bush administration) . It also means that we can get a not entirely unbiased account of the third candidate - the one that uses the instant gratification politics of the internet to almost let lingerie put her in the White House.
Feed is the centerpoint of the Newsflesh setting, one that has been expanding by popular demand ever since its publication. It is the start of a trilogy, continuing with Deadline and Blackout to detail “After the End Times”’ further conflicts, following the traditional trilogy structure of standalone, cliffhanger, finale. It does so in another way as well. Equalist writers - LGBT ones specifically - have created an art of introducing non-conventional sexual practices into work at a gradual pace. For a popular example of what I’m talking about, look at the gradual introduction of homosexuality in Buffy the Vampire Slayer as it progressed from not being mentioned, to being almost-taboo, to being as accepted and visual as heterosexuality was throughout the series. In that manner, Newsflesh slowly allows the sexual identities of its character to creep in, with the most traditional relationships appearing in Feed and the less traditional ones being introduced over time in Deadline and Blackout. This also helps to make Feed less of a sexual novel; simply by not talking about what exists, we’re able to focus on the intrigue and the politics. It’s no accident that the biggest source of sex in the book is a political figure showing us how her world works.
In addition to the contracted sequels, Grant has published several novellas in the universe, helping to build the world and explain what happened prior. While she has no intention of returning to the universe, I still would find myself much more pleased than I would be surprised were she to introduce another full novel into the series.
Feed is a book that knows how to tell a story, knows how to portray characters, and knows how to start a sequel. At the time of publication, I felt that the book was so good it would be impossible to follow up on. Plot elements that I won’t go into here seemed to make the idea of any sequel seem inferior to what came before. The fact that this turned out not to be true does nothing to diminish Feed’s own quality - except, perhaps, to indicate that it was even better prepared for than initially seemed. If a thriller with well-crafted characters and excellent world-building and just a hint of some of the best zombies I’ve ever seen appeals to you, then pick up Feed. I’ve yet to meet anyone, horror fan or no, who regretted it.
Peter was a boy born to a normal mother and an unusual father, at a time when abnormality in an infant could get one killed. Somehow, he survived long enough to fight for his own survival, but the damage was done - Peter would forever be alone, unique, despite the family he would desperately try to build around him. But he was never lacking in mortal enemies…
Nick is a young man living in the slums of Brooklyn, the victim of a drug lord that’s taken over his home and from there much of his life. He takes some drastic action, has more bad luck, and needs to get away - fast. He’s saved by a faerie boy who takes him to another place. But this place isn’t the safe haven Nick was told it would be. Not anymore…
What hooks me most about Child Thief is the style of writing. I’m a big fan of the in-depth character studies, the ones that will give you every emotion, thought, and tidbit of history trivia of every character they touch. My favorite authors with this style are Stephen King, Karen Traviss, Clive Barker and, after Child Thief, Brom. I love the way this book is written, and if the rest of his work is like this, I will definitely be seeking more of his work out. It’s the story told by an artist who can tell an epic just by splashing a bit of paint in a character’s eyes. I haven’t seen much of his art, but again, if Child Thief is any indication, this is how he pans out.
The narrative is told mostly in two parts, that of Nick, and that of Peter. There are other voices, but they’re telling different parts of Peter’s and Nick’s stories. As with many stories told in two different parts, Child Thief falls victim to (or takes advantage of) convenient parallel stories. Each relevant part of Peter’s story just happened to occur in the correct sequence that it’s revealed to us, in sequential order, in the same order that it’s needed to avoid boring exposition in Nick’s story. Of course, there is some exposition, but not only is it told in an inspiring and subjective way, it’s also countered by the opposite side’s point of view describing the exact same point. It definitely did a good job, and this gives me an in to explain one of the great strengths of this novel.
One of the most basic literary techniques, probably older than literature itself, is to dehumanize the antagonist. This allows wanton destruction of the enemy to be cheered by those who would normally mourn the loss of life. Child Thief does this, to a point. The Flesh Eaters are no longer human, they’ve become monsters, they kill wantonly and eat the flesh of the dead, their skin is blackened and they have claws, etc. But then, it throws you for a loop. It shows you the human side. The Flesh Eaters, UIfger, Peter, the Witch…they all have their human side, and they all have their side of the story. Just like no character is perfect - everybody has their flaws, to the point that it’s up to the reader who is truly the protagonist and who isn’t. This isn’t a perfect grey novel, however, as there are definite villains. Ulfger, for example, despite his occasionally noble goals, does not commit a single act that is anything less than tyrannical. Certain Flesh-Eaters are villainous enough to potentially place Brom in the company of such authors as either Stan Nicholls or Clive Barker, depending on how deep the rabbit hole goes. Suffice it say that the villainous Captain is more Peter’s grey area counterpart than either of them believe, contrary to popular Disney lore.
The plot works nicely around these characters, allowing the characters to control it but moving drastically. The structure of the story is akin to Highlander. Rather than experiencing the story from beginning to end, Peter’s story details what might be Act Two of a five act play, introducing the first great changes to Avalon, while Nick in at the start of Act Five, centuries after the war with the Flesh Eaters has dragged on. The entire story is building to a climax the whole time, and Nick shows up just in time to watch the climax unfolding. As in the Fifth Act of any great work, the fantasy world of Avalon will never be the same again, and as the novel closes we’re left to imagine what will happen next.
That’s not to say there’s not a whole story. Nick’s story, for example, includes his meeting Sekeu, who would fill the role of a mentor, as well as Cricket, the closest thing this book has to love interest, not to mention the rival in Leroy, and of course his ongoing conflict with Peter. Unfortunately, there’s no real climax relating to any of these personal relationships - the climax focuses more on the overarching plots and casts Nick aside much the way Chewbacca was cast aside by the Yuuzhan Vong.
Mixed in with the characters and the plot is the setting. As fantasy settings go (excluding science fantasy), there are a few well known ones. There is the fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien, which not only redefined the meaning of “elf“, but also set the precedent that would go on to create the fantasy settings of Dungeons and Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, and countless others. Then comes the fantasy setting of Harry Potter, which is a more recent blend of the mythology of dozens of cultures taken relatively more directly from the source material. There’s a little bit of Tolkien in Rowling’s setting (the example that comes easiest to mind is the trolls in the first book), but most of it is admirably precise to the original myths. After this, you usually get a wide variety of spin-offs of either of the above, either for familiarity or research reasons, or smaller, more exclusive settings that don’t really buy into a more general mythology (such as novels about vampires or the like). Second and third least common, you get completely original fantasy worlds based on absolutely nothing at all, and more exotic, often non-Euclidean fantasy worlds that have branched off from the works of H.P. Lovecraft.
Finally, you get the fantasy settings that would stand up with Tolkien and Rowling if only enough people were aware of them. Child Thief is one of these (Stan Nicholls’s Orcs trilogy is another). These are the ones that separate the humans from the fantasy, and build upward from there, using the same source material that both of the aforementioned well-known authors had. In the case of Child Thief, the only thing I recognized as “borrowed” from a more modern setting is the Tolkienesque elves which are introduced farther into the novel. The trolls, the pixies, the witch and her daughters, all of this seems unique… and yet familiar. It just touches on enough cultures to tell us this is nowhere near the medieval culture of the fantasy we’re familiar with. It brings out a different feeling, one that works perfectly with the story of Peter Pan and the Devils.
Child Thief mixes these elements of character, plot and setting the way an expert illustrator mixes his paints. Almost all of the characters are relatable, and all of them are memorable. The plot is high energy, but difficult to get lost in, flowing like a waterfall until the big plunge. I heartily recommend this book to any fantasy enthusiast, and even the odd social scientist. This new look at Peter Pan is worth it.