Reviews by eknapp
Illogical plotting trumps great world-building.
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A few decades into the future, the mass production of androids has revolutionized the world. They do manual labor, creative work, pretty much everything short of management. They have virtually no rights. Bot/human tensions are high; bot/human relationships tend to be a death sentence for both parties. Against this backdrop an android is kidnapped, dismembered, and sold as spare parts. Her human boyfriend scours the state for her components in a longshot attempt at reconstituting her.

The world and history Trichter has assembled was fascinating, the high point of the book. In short, the android revolution came about suddenly; a massive recession results from the abundance of cheap labor; the predictably brutal exploitation of that labor leads to great social unrest; tribalism and systematic dehumanization provoke a cataclysmic "race" war between bots and people.

The characters were fairly well drawn. The hero is a limp, drug-addicted corporate salesman, driven by love to greater acts of clumsy courage than he'd normally capable of. He compares himself repeatedly to Orpheus (and if you're a book that wants to get on my good side, DO incorporate Greek mythology; yum). His bluff blowhard brother rings true. They're pursued by an exhausted, dying detective who's somehow both an idealist and a realist. He pulls it off.

That's where the good stuff ends. While the historical events hold together well, internal logic and plausibility take a holiday for the duration of the protagonist's story.

[SPOILERS]
The action bits are routinely awful. In one instance, the overmatched hero defeats an evil-doer by yanking a power cord, causing a circular saw to jump through a window, fly across a room, and neatly sever said evil-doer's gun-brandishing arm. The book takes no notice of how stupidly unlikely each step of that sequence is.

The protagonist keeps finding himself stuck with potentially interesting moral dilemmas (his girlfriend's eyes are in the adorable face of a cheerful, innocent little girlbot) only to be saved by lucky happenstance (a train crash kills her but leaves her eyes undamaged and accessible; it'd be a gosh-darned sin to let them go to waste...)
[END SPOILERS]

Trichter contrives a succession of situations that allow him to shine a light on aspects of systematic oppression. There's an android recycling plant where the need for profit drives horrific working conditions. An anti-bot activist making an android torture/snuff film. A blind, sexless bot model driven by her prospects to suicide. Wretched, bottom-rung android prostitution. Bot coyotes who take advantage of the desperate "spinners" who come to them for help. If he had anything original to say it might be interesting but it came off as clumsy and simple.

And in creating a world full of deconstructible racial injustice, the author makes up whatever rules of law or physiology or psychology are convenient to his immediate point. Limbs that are sawn off can be easily reattached, though at other times reattachment requires ports and tools and locking mechanisms. Androids are almost universally sexual--and in pretty vanilla human fashion--even though they don't get pregnant or worry about STDs. They have no childhood or altricial period, their parts (even heads?!) are interchangeable and easily removeable, and instead of being motivated by survival and reproduction they're simply driven to stay powered up. Yet in the book they're virtually identical to humans, psychologically and behaviorally. They love, fear, hope, get high, get laid; they're brave, cowardly, short-sighted, visionary, enraged by social injustice, indifferent to social injustice. It's senseless. Trichter missed a huge opportunity to imagine a culture that would necessarily be vastly different from those of humans.
Excellent internal logic, terrific first chapter.
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The world is a toxic wasteland and what remains of humankind is bottled up in a mammoth underground silo. (It's implied that whoever built the silo in the distant past also scoured the earth of life with nukes). When a conscientious and gifted engineer is executed for suspicious reasons, her peers rebel against the silo government.

Wool kicks off with one of the best hooks I've ever read:

SPOILER
A hazmat-suited man leaves the silo, expecting the noxious gray wilderness that's been displayed on the silo's cameras his entire life. He steps instead into a sunny green meadow full of birds and bunnies, warm breezes and happy trees. Ecstatic--and shocked at the deception wrought for so many decades on the silo's citizens--he removes his helmet...and dies choking on the virulent atmosphere. It wasn't the silo's screens that had been tampered with. It was the suit's visor...and by extension the visor of everyone who'd ever tried to leave before him.
END SPOILER

One of the most reliable indicators for whether I'll enjoy a book is strength of internal logic, and Wool's is superb. The author apparently worked in construction and as some kind of ship's engineer in previous lives, and this was apparent in the way he built the silo. (I don't know how to explain why his mildly Orwellian society worked so well. Maybe he was a sociologist at some point too.)

The social and technological elements of his society reinforce one another and allow for some unsettlingly subtle methods of populace control. The cost of digital communication is artificially inflated, inhibiting the spread of ideas and dissemination of information. There are no elevators, making group assembly difficult. The more powerful units (like law enforcement and Mechanical) are located far from the seat of power. Different professions are dressed in different brightly colored uniforms, fostering clannishness and distrust. Parts are engineered to fail, ensuring people's continued reliance on the government. And the bodies of those who are banished from the silo are forever onscreen, a constant reminder of what happens to troublemakers.
Intrepid Wild West steampunk prostitutes heroically battle an evil politician with a mind control machine, a Jack-the-Ripper-esque serial killer, and a foreign conspiracy to undermine the USA in 1880 Washington Territory. Somehow it's not as wacky as it sounds.

The world building is pretty cool. It quivers with frontierish grit, independence, determination, racism and sexism and good old-fashioned Christian sanctimony. It's narrated first-person by one of the fearless strumpets, and her uneducated voice is wonderfully unassuming and sympathetic:


"Being a growed woman, it turned out, was harder work than it looked. But that's a thing, too, ain't it? Them as work hardest get no respect for it--women, ranch hands, sharecroppers, factory help, domestics--and them as spend all their time talking about how hard they work have no idea what an honest day's labor for nary enough pay to put beans in your family's bellies is all about."


Except for the abundant disparaging observations on the nature of "men", her perspective and quirky musings are a lot of fun to read. (Karen wonders at one point who she'll see first in Heaven, her long dead parents or her recently deceased friend; does it go in order of closeness or recency of demise? In Karen-speak it was movingly adorable.) In this book at least, that writing was Bear's greatest strength.

The action bits on the other hand are highly implausible. Downright silly. [SPOILER]One plucky heroine takes out a hulking sailor with half a bobby pin. I mean, maybe...if in addition to being a spunky 95-pound genius steampunk whore she was also a ninja. But she's not. [END SPOILER] A lot of the action sequences are resolved in ways designed to maximize ocular rotation.

Karen Memory's plot structure really has the feel of an old Hardy Boys book. Evil lunges into their lives uninvited, they get captured three or four times, always make clever but unlikely escapes, there's a slight twist at the end--not too big--and cue the happy ending. Straight out of Franklin W Dixon.

But it's worth the price of admission for the world, the characters, and Karen Memory herself.
Terrific action writing; too much coincidence to be great.
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Terrorists attack a Disneyland-style theme park. A special ops team must take them down, disarm the dirty bomb, and save the hostages. You know, the usual.

Very action-oriented. Basically a 292-page strategic and tactical blueprint for how to run an anti-terror operation in a theme park. Rucka is very very good at this stuff...

...but in this case he relied on coincidence to a surprising and unfortunate extent to drive the story. Hero's daughter just happens to show up on Terrorism Day, and Chief Bad Guy's girlfriend just happens to be called in as ASL translator.....for none other than Hero's daughter. They become fast friends during the hostage crisis, just to complicate things.

I love stories about using training, intelligence and superior strategy (as opposed to stupid grunting Ramboesque badassery) to outgun bad guys. While Alpha was satisfying, the level of contrivance was a shame. Rucka kinda phoned it in; what was a good book could have been a great one.
Everything about this book made me happy.
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Two stories are interspersed. First, Emily, a street girl with a gift for getting people to do what she wants, is recruited by an organization that specializes in persuasion. Second, an average guy named Will is hunted for unknown reasons by said organization, from California clear to Australia.

Fantastic. Barry uses Lexicon to explore timely themes of privacy and compulsion, the dangers of disseminating personal information, the sneaky ways in which corporations and governments control and pacify us without using physical force.

In spite of all this cautionary tale-ing, Lexicon is a sharp, smart actiony romp, rife with Barry's characteristic dry wit and slick turns of phrase. There's a lot of pertinent, very-well-researched linguistics and sociology that thrilled my inner wordie.