Review: June 2009 books, reviewed by Sean Melican

Review: June 2009 books, reviewed by Sean Melican

Byrd, Tim. Doc Wilde and the Frogs of Doom. G.P. Putnam’s Sons: 2009. ISBN: 978-0-399-24783-5

McDonald, Ian. Cyberabad Days. Pyr: 2009. ISBN: 978-1-59102-699-0

Bacigalupi, Paolo. Pump Six and Other Stories. Nightshade Books: 2008. ISBN: 978-1-59780-133-1

Reviewed by Sean Melican.

I grew up on the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, the Three Investigators, Encyclopedia Brown, and Tom Swift. Tom Swift belonged in this group of intrepid teens, but unlike the others—teen versions of Agatha Christie novels, Sherlock Holmes, and Ellery Queen—Tom Swift was a juvenile version of the Hugo Gernsback hero-template, and arguably my first brush with science fiction. Within the sf community, there are tired arguments about the graying of the readership, and one of those tired arguments is the lack of gateway stories. It’s a fallacy, as there the legions of J.K. Rowling, Christopher Paolini, and Stephanie Meyer fans can attest to. Those, however, are all fantasists.

Into this mix comes Tim Byrd and his Doc Wilde series, starting with Doc Wilde and the Frogs of Doom: partly a gentle pastiche as the Wilde family is described as “… long-limbed and golden: golden brown hair, golden tans, and large eyes with glittering irises that seemed composed of layered gold leaf.” But like the Tom Swift series, and unlike the popular novels listed above, there is solid, hard-core science driving the story.

This is science fiction. Is it gateway literature? I hope so. Specifically, dark matter and the global disappearance of frogs are linked to… .

.. well, the Dark Gods of H.P. Lovecraft. Which makes it science fantasy, I suppose.

This is good, heady stuff. The writing flows beautifully, with occasional forays into laugh-out-loudness: “Bartlett [the proper and requisite butler] was familiar with lots of quotations.” The characters are properly drawn, interacting with one another and the story in the best of juvenile scientifiction molds. The science is artfully articulated and seamlessly stitched into the fabric of the story. There are good guys and bad guys, car chases, cliffhangers, betrayals, action sequences to rival Indiana Jones, and an explosion of frogs that defies taxonomy. Oh, and did I mention the name of the Dark God?

Frogon. (Oh my.)

May Doc Wilde live as long as Tom Swift and do for kids what Tom Swift did for me.

*

Somewhere between today and tomorrow is an indeterminate series of events that connects the two which allows sf writers to explore internally consistent worlds without worrying about external plausibility. The danger in doing so is exactly that charge of escapism. (And so, the Mundane movement: mundane-sf.blogspot.com.)

But two of our writers do make a very solid attempt to link the possibilities of tomorrow with the realities of today.

Ian McDonald’s collection of near-future India stories builds on the world created in the brilliant River of Gods. The stories don’t break much new conceptual ground: “Sanjeev and Robotwallah” echoes the Ender universe; “The Little Goddess” bears the marks of William Gibson; and the new novella “Vishnu at the Cat Circus” (and what a fabulous title!) starts with a setup similar to “Beggars in Spain” and ends with shades of Greg Egan.

But what he does do well and marvelously is map the familiar tropes of science fiction onto the alien concepts of Indian culture. ‘Brahmin’, for example, shifts linguistically to signify the genetically engineered. And Mr. McDonald lovingly extrapolates the consequences of such engineering. Gestation is twice as long because growth is half as fast, a sort of progeria-in-reverse. So what does an a healthy hormonal-adolescent do when trapped in a healthy physiological-ten-year-old when he marries? In “The Little Goddess” he employs mechanical devices, a story which teaches us how else schizophrenia and Gibson’s “Johnny Mnemonic” would play out in an alien milieu.

In “An Eligible Boy” we learn that the long term consequence of such engineering brings about a four to one male to female ratio; Mr. McDonald carefully extrapolates the social ramifications. “The Dust Assassin” treats us to a world where water is precious because of global warming. (And let us hear a critic elaborate how sf is here an escapism).

My favorite extrapolation is the one that does not have an easy parallel, the concept of ‘nute’, a person who chooses to become neither male nor female. Mr. McDonald’s nute characters cannot explain the difference, which is so wonderfully alien that it can only be explained as ‘stepping away’. The social milieu shifts: nutes do not fill a void or become a replacement for an aware but timid vision (the Star Trek episode, “The Outcast”, for example, dares all to tell us some people might want to be—gasp!—heterosexual.) Instead, they create a new social niche, one that does not easily map onto any currently known phenomenon.

If I have any complaint, it is that the stories tend to be wrapped up with a bow tied neat as you please. But it is the solid extrapolation from today to tomorrow, without the familiar and easy lacunae, that raise Mr. McDonald’s stories from the familiar to the important.

*

But they are also comforting: even in great change and upheaval, Mr. McDonald’s stories tell us, human social structures and behaviors will remain the same.

Paolo Bacigalupi does not subscribe to the idea of comfort. Where McDonald softens the blow of a global water shortage by giving us characters too wealthy to be affected, in “The Calorie Man” and particularly “Yellow Card Man” Mr. Bacigalupi dives into the hardships of the have-nots, extrapolating a world without petrofuels AND without a miraculous discovery of some new form of energy – cheap fusion or balonium. Instead, engines are powered by wound-up springs and the major consortiums are those who own the patents to genetically engineered crops.

“Pop Squad” (such a great double meaning) explores the notion of literally violent reproductive control while “The Fluted Girl” demonstrates the extremes of human behavior when wealth is consolidated in the hands of a few – a story that takes on a whole new level of horror in the recent months of the economic downturn. “The Tamarisk Hunter” stays very close to now, when water is a precious commodity; unlike Mr. McDonald’s comfort in the wealthy, Mr. Bacigalupi shows us what the vast majority of the world will face.

“The People of Sand and Slag” is a proud descendant of Harlan Ellison’s “A Boy and His Dog.” “The Pasho” is a simplistic but evocative exploration of religious intolerance. “Pump Six” again explores human behavior in the face of change. Violent change begets violent behavior. The future is not comforting; unlike Mr. McDonald’s future, Mr. Bacialupi’s future does not have assume continuity of human behavior. Finally, “Little Offerings” explores Mr. Bacigalupi’s almost obsessive themes of the plasticity of behavior and reproduction.

These are not escapist; they are a reminder that the choices we face tomorrow depend on those we make today, and today, says Mr. Bacigalupi, we are making poor choices. To read this book is to realize the true nature of the future.



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