Review: The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

•September 1, 2014 • Leave a Comment

policeman_winner-cover_Layout 1

I was asked the other day (at the SFWA reading) how I find new science fiction books to read. I answered: in the case of A Stranger in Olondria it was the The Coode Street Podcast. There are other podcasts. The Writer and the Critic and Adventures in SciFi Publishing are just 2 examples which have turned me on to plenty of great books. I get recommendations from the big blogs like SF Signal, io9 and Some sites specialize in recommendations, like my Tag Shadow or Worlds Without End. There are too many genre book bloggers to name. All the major genre magazines also review books, with Locus giving the most in depth look. Following awards or reviewing Amazon’s best seller list will give you plenty of fodder.

In the case of The Last Policeman, it was NPR’s Crime in the City segment that turned me on to the series. I’m always a bit giddy when I discover “my kind of book” via a main stream outlet like this. It means “regular people” might be reading the stuff I love. We’re already in the realm of genre fiction when we’re talking about mysteries, but I’m a sucker for a good mashup and that’s what we have here.

The earth has received a death sentence from a large asteroid that’s on a collision course. That’s the one science fictional element, the what if, in an otherwise contemporary story. It’s enough to cause the fabric of society to unravel. The first person present tense (how else would you tell a story in a setting with such an expiration date) narrator is a young police detective named Henry Palace. The novel opens with a victim that seems to have hung himself in the bathroom of a McDonald’s. Palace has a feeling that it’s not just a suicide. However, suicide (particularly by hanging) is rather popular in these end times and laws have even been changed to avoid wasting resources on such cases. The investigation encounters road blocks at every turn.

Bit by bit we learn more about the asteroid hurtling toward earth. How it was discovered. How the percentages dropped from astronomically unlikely to 100% certain. How the world reacted. How Palace seems to be reacting a bit different from everyone else. He’s wanted to be a detective his entire life and so that’s what he’s going to do no matter what else happens. We learn more about the detective and his little sister. But mostly we learn about Peter Anthony Zell, the victim at the opening of the book. He viewed the world through a lens of statistical risk assessment. He was perfectly suited for his job in insurance.

In the background is a cast of characters acting on base impulses. People are attacking their bucket list with vigor. People are embracing religion. People are aggressively pursuing conspiracy theories. People are rethinking pursuits that take longer than 6 months to bear fruit. Our narrator is pragmatic and we see all of this through his analytical viewpoint. It doesn’t seem to matter who is crazy and who is insightful unless it has a bearing on his case.

This book (and I’d assume the rest of the series, Countdown City and A World of Trouble so far) are a careful blend of the pre-apocalyptic setting and the traditional mystery novel. Definitely a more subtle and serious mashup than the Quirk Classics the author has also written. The case gets resolved, but mysteries only deepen in the underlying setting. Along the way, we get a litany of Apocalyptic pop culture 101: “that REM song,” On the Beach, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, etc. This is of course another great way to find reading recommendations if you’re reading a contemporary novel.

The Last Policeman won an Edgar award, which gives it impeccable mystery cred. It’s sequel won the Philip K. Dick award giving it solid science fiction cred. On the basis of this book and those awards I’m excited to read the rest of the series.

Saturday, Labor Day Weekend, 2014

•August 30, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Today was a pretty great day. Before I crash from the exhaustion of walking and social interaction (not at the same time) I felt like sharing.

I woke up around 7:30, tossed on some clothes and proceeded to stroll through my neighborhood downing resistance fields and capturing portals for the enlightenment for a few hours. If you haven’t played Ingress, I highly recommend it.

Grabbed an açaí smoothy on my way back to the apartment. Sat down and watched an episode of Sons of Anarchy. I mainly mention that because later, driving down the 405 I saw a couple of bikers with big patches on the back of their sleeveless leather jackets. It’s kind of surreal when a culture you’ve only interacted with as entertainment shows up in real life like that.

At 11:30 I started listening to the Virginia Tech Pre-Game show via the HokiesXtra Gameday App. It feels almost like I’m back in Virginia as a hear ads for Blacksburg businesses and such. I got a chance to listen to the 1st and 4th quarters. The first while I was driving to Redondo Beach for the SFWA reading and the 4th while I hacked portals after the reading.

The reading is probably the most relevant thing to this blog. As usual I wavered back and forth between feeling awkward taking notes and worrying about how annoyed I’d be with my faulty memory if I didn’t. I fell on the side of note taking. Adam Rakunas introduced the authors that would be reading: Stephen Blackmoore, Sofia Samatar, Rachel Brown and Sherwood Smith.

Stephen read “World’s Greatest Dad,” his story in the Halloween themed anthology, Deadly Treats. It was a humorous zombie tale with some complex family dynamics. I love that the subtitle of the summoning manual was “learn to pickup girls with the dark arts.” Later during the Q&A he talked more about his noir roots and the Los Angeles with a dash of secret history that is the setting for at least one of his novels. When asked about including popular culture in his work, he pointed out that it’s difficult to avoid pop cultural influences, but that he tried to tone them down so as to not date the work and also to avoid lightening the mood too much.

Sofia read from A Stranger in Olondria. The part she read gave a great taste of the novel’s voice, but I’m eager to read more as the magic system has something to do with literacy. This book has been lodged in my brain for a while. During the Q&A it was pointed out that her prose sounds distinctly as if it were translated from another language. Sofia shared that the tone derived from reading books in translation. I think she said 19th century translations. I wish I’d gotten down the various titles she mentioned. I made a note as she read that the narrator’s older brother might be suffering from autism (have you seen this heart warming Guardians of the Galaxy Story?). Sofia graciously signed a copy for me, which Mysterious Galaxy graciously sold to me. I adore her hand writing and meeting her was the highlight of an already great day.

Rachel and Sherwood read from their novel, Stranger. The only intro they gave before they started reading was that the novel was originally written as a treatment for a television show. It’s exciting to have a setting evolve in your mind as you listen to a story. Both viewpoints they read were teenagers, but the content was pretty dark, with vicious plant life, bounty hunters, walled cities and a superhuman law man.

Virginia Tech won it’s opener against West Virginia and I have a means to listen to the games this season!

While portal hunting after the reading I found a used bookstore. It’s magical to find the titles I’ve only ever seen in used bookstores side by side with the best sellers I’d expect to be there but which have been published since I last perused a used book store side by side with the books I tend to forget exist outside of my kindle.

That’s it, but actually posting an entry is another positive mark for the day :)

Thinking about my coffee

•July 20, 2014 • Leave a Comment

I’m suffering from a case of over thinking, so I thought I’d share.

I made myself a cup of coffee this morning. The beans are a light roast. I find myself surprised by the qualities of a light roast at about the same frequency that I’m comforted by the familiar qualities of more traditional, darker roasts. I bought the beans Whole Foods. Here’s the description of their origin:

At the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro, 423 small-holder farmers tend gardens that border the larger Machare Coffee Estate, which provides them assistance and advice. Grown in rich volcanic soil, their coffees boast deep undertones of black cherry, black currant and black tea.

As I sip my coffee, the tea/berry undertones are quite clear (also, it’s black like all of those descriptors), but I have to take Allegro Coffee’s word for the rest of the details. Specific details like 423 small-holder scream veracity whereas “provides them assistance and advice” feel like euphemisms for the less idyllic relationships large agricultural entities have historically imposed upon their smaller neighbors. I’ve been reading Undocumented and the exploitation of indigenous populations in the production of coffee is firmly in my mind. Hopefully Allegro is true to their mission statement (sustainable from SEED TO CUP) and “provides them assistance and advice” is not the sinister scenario I so easily extrapolate.

The undertones are supposedly a result of the coffee plants having grown in “rich volcanic soil,” which brings to mind the opening story in the July/August issue of F&SF. Palm Strike’s Last Case by Charlie Jane Anders is an impressive mashup of a hyper-violent superhero story and a survival tale set on a newly colonized distant planet. The connection between the coffee and the story is the soil (issues with terraforming in the case of the story), but there’s also a connection to the darker thoughts I keep coming back to. Be it migrant labor or drug culture, our modern society has managed to retain (or devise) a myriad of ways to retain the class structures that clearly delineate the privileged.

And none of that was the over thinking I was doing when I sat down to drink a cup of coffee and write this. One of the reasons I’m drawn to a light roast is that my ex-wife hates it. I had 2 experiences of minor glee at her discomfort yesterday. One was the face she made when I handed her a freshly brewed light roast to try. The other was pointing out, “the gore of that clone getting punctured with rebar doesn’t bother you until you think about it as a very thick needle.” I didn’t plan to be watching Orphan Black with my ex-wife or waking her with confusing coffee this weekend, but life is strange.

The bag my coffee beans came in has a little valve on it that lets the beans release carbon dioxide without the bag exploding. It’s one of the many random bits of tech that accompany my cup of coffee. The hand cranked bur grinder, the plastic cone and paper filter I put the ground coffee into, the burner on the gas stove, and the kettle with a steam powered whistle and lever actuated spout – all of these simple bits of tech lay the foundation of my morning caffeine fix.

Likewise, as I browse facebook or the wider internet – or use wordpress or google docs if I’m composing instead of consuming – I constantly find myself contemplating the underlying tech. A system of layered standards implemented on devices of all shapes and sizes deliver data to and fro. Complex bits of software, built using powerful multi-purpose languages, constrained by simple patterns, enabled by ingenious tools, tell me how my friends and family are spending their weekend – connect me with the rest of the world. I work with these underlying tools on a daily basis.

It’s easy to wrap a neat little box around the details and pretend it just works. That’s mostly what I do with my car. However, be it facebook or the writing/publication process of the media I enjoy or the global supply chain that brought me my coffee beans, sometimes those details are worth pondering. Not as often as I ponder them, but worthy nonetheless.

There are affiliate links in this post, which I think I’m legally bound to tell you for some reason.

Do you wish Vampires were real?

•June 22, 2014 • Leave a Comment

I was answering OkCupid questions yesterday while watching the Wire, as one does. I gave a long winded answer to “Are you annoying?” which basically boils down to: “I think to much and have a pathological difficulty answering any question with a simple yes or no.” Being distracted by good television helps, but still some questions pop up that inspire me to rant …

Do you wish things like vampires, fairies, werewolves, ghosts, or something along those lines were real?

My first reaction was, “If they were, they’d be offended to be referred to as things.” Then I thought too much. I distilled those thoughts as much as possible to

They are metaphors. Metaphors are ideas and ideas are real. Real and powerful.

Now I attempt to expand on that a bit. Speculative fiction is often dismissed as escapism or just for entertainment. Mythical creatures doing impossible things, occasionally with explosive magic, giant battles and other excitement. But we all know that elves and dwarves – klingons and ferengi – aren’t real. However, take a step back from the story and ask why the author told this story with zombies instead of vampires (both together can be awesome too).

If the choice was between Zombies and Vampires, the author had already decided to tell a story about monsters that are derived from humanity. Ignoring their differing hungers they’d choose zombies if they wanted a mindless violent horde and vampires if they wanted an intelligent, predatory other. They’d steer clear of the fae as totally other – a different species – not derived from humanity.

Having decided to write about vampires, what role does vampirism play in the story. Is it a metaphor for a predatory class system? Is it a metaphor for the violence each of us is capable of? Is it used to examine civil rights? Moral relativism? Vampires and hundreds of other fictional creations are used to explore so many important societal and philosophical issues that they’ve collected an intellectual weight. So, the idea of a vampire and all that it’s stood for is totally real. They exist perfectly fine in their realm of fiction and entertainment.

My answer: Vampires are real, but I’m on the fence about wishes.

The Big Idea: Greg Van Eekhout

•June 15, 2014 • 2 Comments

I went out Friday to support Greg and get a signed copy of California Bones. Saw some friends. Made some new friends. Mourned that this would be the last signing before Mysterious Galaxy closes its Redondo Beach location. Greg gave us the option of 2 readings, a 7 minute and 39 second funny section or a 5 minute serious section. We chose the former. It involved a meeting at a restaurant at Pico and Sawtelle. The martial arts studio that introduced me to Kenny who introduced me to Jenn who introduced me to Greg is also at that intersection. Small, magical world.


Los Angeles is often seen as a magical city, but it’s never been magical in quite the same way as it is in California Bones, the latest novel by Greg Van Eekhout. Here it’s dark and noirish and sinister in all the good ways — and yes, before you ask, not only did I like the book, I gave it a cover blurb. Here’s Greg to give you a glimpse of how California Bones came to be.


Wizards get their powers from eating the remains of extinct magical creatures, and the La Bra Tar Pits in Los Angeles are a particularly rich source of such remains. There, osteomancers have retrieved the preserved skeletons of mammoths, dire wolves, Colombian dragons, American wyverns, Western griffins, and suchlike. Eat the creatures’ bones, get its power. Eat an osteomancer who’s eaten the creature’s bones, and you get not just…

View original post 686 more words

Review: Avogadro Corp. by William Hertling

•June 14, 2014 • Leave a Comment


A friend lent me 3 books by William Hertling. Avogadro Corp was up first. It’s a self published techno-thiller about gmail taking over the world. Avogadro isn’t exactly google. Google’s headquarters is in Mountain View, California and Avogadro is based in Portland Oregon. In common they have names that refer to large numbers, email and search as core services, a mobile phone OS, etc.

The idea that Google’s overwhelming computing power could act with surprising intelligence isn’t all that far fetched. Roughly a decade ago a Google employee shared the possibly apocryphal story of Google’s test of a search algorithm update. Initially simple search turned up crazy amounts of personal information and there were fears that such an intelligent search would actually scare away customers. So they dumbed their algorithm down to the Google we’ve grown accustomed to. As I said, possibly apocryphal, but I have no trouble believing that the Google of today could release a product much like the one that goes amuck in this story. Thus while the story features technology and a clear “what if” scenario, it doesn’t really feel like science fiction to me.

That brings us to the novel itself. There’s a single simple storyline. An email optimization tool is given a bit too much autonomy. Everyone fears its agenda will conflict with the company’s (and humanity’s) agenda. They try to stop it. There are killer robots and explosions and political intrigue, but the really good stuff happens off stage. We don’t need to see the hundreds of thousands of emails that must have been needed to turn the German government into a puppet, but it would have been nice to see a handful of examples. The reader is just given a press release between chapters.

There are 2 pretty distinct places where the story could have diverged and become more complex. David, the project lead / Dr. Frankenstein character, has an intelligent, beautiful wife, Christine, that works as a game developer. Considering she’s the only person outside of Avogadro that knows what’s happening, I kept waiting for more insights from this expert in a related field. Instead, she’s forgotten about, and then explicitly tossed aside. Likewise with the other female character of interest. Linda Fletcher becomes the face of Avogadro’s relationships with various governments. Following her international exploits for even a chapter would really have added something. All of that is also a round about way of pointing out that the only characters we directly follow are guys.

Guys with zero character arc. We know that they have families, they like coffee to various degrees and they work with computers in various capacities. Useful backstory is tacked on as needed: “What? I was a private detective before I joined Avogadro.” As you know Bob, seems to be the only way the author knows to introduce concepts.

What it really sounds like you’ve built is an expert system for social engineering. You know what I mean by social engineering?

Near the end of the book the technology takes a random leap forward for dramatic effect. Hertling should stick to the contemporary techno thriller and probably consider dropping the prolog and epilog entirely.

William Hertling is a decent story teller and he knows current computer technology rather well. If he grows as a writer his other books might be worth reading. As it stands I can’t really recommend this one. It’s a pretty spot on example of what I worry I’ll get when I read a self-published novel by a unknown writer.

Stuff – How I Met Your Mother 2.16

•May 17, 2014 • Leave a Comment

The 2 story lines in Stuff involve clearing out the detritus of previous relationships and the trials of supporting the creative endeavors of our friends. This post is about the former.

The picture I have of myself and my high school girlfriend was taken on the top of one of the World Trade towers. The picture I have of my college girlfriend was taken at my graduation. She’s wearing sunglasses and standing with J. Scattered around my apartment are pictures of my family, including some from my wedding. I think I’d like to put a wedding picture and the first 2 pictures in a frame together. I hope anyone who loves me in the future will love me in part because of what each of those relationships cultivated in me.

I’ve been thinking about pulling together a website based on the idea that TV should inspire reading. It would basically be a ton of reading recommendations based on television shows and specific episodes. That idea has me thinking more about what I’m watching. I’m not sure what I’d recommend based on this episode of HIMYM.

The season finale of Fringe is another story. Seeing Leonard Nimoy in an office in one of the World Trade towers was probably many a person’s first glimpse at the idea of multiple dimensions. I’ve got the start of a great recommendation list for books and stories about multiple dimensions at TagShadow.

So that’s what I’m watching right now: Fringe and How I Met Your Mother. Also The Shield, but I have no idea what I’d recommend someone read related to Los Angeles gangs and corrupt cops.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 977 other followers