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The big lie of American capitalism is that corporations work in their own best interests. In fact they’re constantly doing things that will eventually bring them to their knees. Most of these blunders involve toxic chemicals that any competent chemist should know to be dangerous. They pump these things into the environment and don’t event try to protect themselves.

In the opening pages of Zodiac, Sangaman Taylor snorts a bag of nitrous oxide and he describes the effect as being like having “half of an orgasm backfired in the middle of my brain“. The first time I read Neal Stephenson‘s novel Snow Crash, my reaction was comparable to Sanagaman’s druggy delirium. Here was a writer, I thought, who got *it*. Two years ago I was reading an article about Stephenson in Wired magazine, where in his latest publicity photos the author had begun to resemble a benign monk. His novels have broken out of the cyberpunk genre and his latest series the Baroque Cycle a remarkably ambitious fictionalised account of the history of ‘natural philosophy’.

The man is my guru.

Zodiac, as it happens, is a relatively early book of Stephenson’s, although still bearing the stylistic traces of ambition, humour and erudition so common in his writing.

Sangaman Taylor is a genius-level environmental activist working with a group known as GEE in the Boston area. Where other students that graduated from the same colleges as himself wound up working for the major chemical companies, S.T. became convinced that only he could stand in the way of rampant profiteering and the flagrant breaking of environmental protection laws. Not above snorkeling around punctured effluent pipe-lines, traipsing through sewer tunnels, and then holding the press conference with the chemical samples he manages to obtain, there is nothing he enjoys more than beating the corporate P.R. reps at their own game. Part intellectual Robin Hood cum media darling, S.T. enjoys the fruits of his labour, even if he has to whip the tree-hugging suporters of GEE into line every once and a while.

When a member of a family with connections to the number one polluter of Boston Harbour stands for election, S.T. goes on the warpath. Searching for evidence that connects Alvin Pleshy, nicknamed ‘The Groveler’, directly to the dumping of toxic waste by Basco, S.T. discovers a highly virulent polycarbon chemical present in the waters of the harbour. Lobsters that have absorbed the substance have been left with liquified livers. Humans who come into contact with the water themselves are coming down with a deadly infection, one that was previously seen in Vietnam, where Basco has also run factories. Then there is matter of thugs on S.T.’s trail whenever he visits the harbour in his Zodiac motor boat, a gang of murderous Satanists high on P.C.P., an attempted assassination and a corporate headhunter from a Basco subdivision who wants S.T. on their side.

Through it all S.T. makes sure to make time for beer and Vietnamese food, to keep his thinking fluid. Not even being framed as an ecoterrorist can stop his unwavering drive to put his intelligence to a good cause.

At times this book reads like a lecture on chemistry, with long discussions of covalent bonding and the degrees of toxicity we are exposed to in everyday life. Stephenson makes for an entertaining lecturer though and Sangaman is a witty tourguide on this hellish investigation of corporate irresponsibility. The environmentalist message of this book is ultimately a positive one. One man can turn the tide against systematic abuses of the law through an astute application of intelligence and cunning (it also helps to have a gang of South Boston Irish on hand as well).

There is a near-Pynchonian degree of humour and invective on display here. The book itself may well be described as an ecoterrorist tract, yet it makes a sincere appeal for greater transparency for the sake of the public good.

A punchy, complex and winningly intelligent political thriller, with a strong environmental message. Excellent stuff.

Hey kids. Do you remember this!? Ah. Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. I used to love that show. Now maybe you would think I wanted to take after Spider-Man. After all, he is the star. Or how about Iceman? But no, my favourite character was always Firestar. Not because I wanted to be a girl or anything…..let’s start again – fire powers are cool!

So I was always curious about her character. Imagine my surprise when I eventually started to read Marvel comics and discovered not only was she not ‘friends’, with Spider-Man – she did not even exist in comics before the show. Eventually she got shoved into the X-Men almost as an afterthought, but I don’t think my child self ever got over that disillusionment (cos…y’know…fire powers….cool!).

This book is not all about my girl Firestar. In fact it is a ‘non-team’, comic, focusing on several random young superheroes who have all been somewhat forgotten. First off there is Gravity, one of Sean McKeever‘s own creations, a nominally cheerful young hero, who has begun to question the legitimacy of arrested superpowered criminals, as they only just escape to wreck havoc again. Then there’s Araña, recently depowered and so unknown most people call her Spider-Girl. Nomad is a girl from an alternate world where she was a highly trained sidekick to the most famous superhero on her Earth – here she is no one. What’s worse she had a friend on this other Earth named Benito Serrano, who has his own counterpart in her new home. Though he takes the same superhero name, Toro, and has the same abilities, he has no idea who she is. What’s more only Araña is capable of speaking Spanish with him (at one point Gravity mutters regretfully that he took German in school).

What brings these heroes together is a violent gang of young villains, the aptly named Evil Bastards, who torture and kill New Yorkers for fun and then upload the footage online for their ‘fans’. Gravity in particular is horrified by the callousness of the gang and is pushed to the edge, in danger of himself becoming a killer in retaliation. In their first encounter with the Evil Bastards, one of the villains detonates a massive explosion on the site of Ground Zero itself.

McKeever has stated that the theme of this book “was that [the Young Allies are] fighting for the soul of their generation”. In a neat piece of meta-commentary it is made clear that what McKeever is referring to is the morals of comic books themselves. The Evil Bastards (sounds like a Warren Ellis rock band) claim to be the sons and daughters of supervillains themselves. Their contempt for the value of life, to my mind, reflects the persistence of shock tactics and ultraviolence in contemporary comics. As the older villain Electro comments, to violate the sanctity of Ground Zero itself would be unthinkable for him. It is a horrific moment in the book itself, but Gravity’s obsession with finding justice for the victims properly addresses the true horror of this event.

I found myself comparing McKeever’s use of an actual site of tragedy, with what has been revealed in the trailer for the  upcoming X-Men movie. The plot will involve the superheroes in an actual historical event – the Cuban Missile Crisis. I think ultimately McKeever is respectful in his use of 9/11 as a feature of the plot. The Evil Bastards are reminiscent of message board users making horrible jokes about actual tragedies. One of them even describes her crimes as being like playing an MMO. Marvel Comics frequently used nuclear radiation as a plot device and McKeever refers to this again throughout the book. Firestar, for one, suffers from her constant exposure to incredible temperatures and is in fact a cancer survivor. It is a neat reversal of the comic-book science that allowed for characters such as The Hulk, or Spider-Man gaining superpowers from radiation.

This flirting with realistic concerns and comic book absurdity is ably managed by McKeever, who has a great partner in crime in penciller David Baldeon. The art reflects the threatened innocence of the characters. I particularly like his designs for the Evil Bastards themselves, all quite creative in their callbacks to the absent parents they draw inspiration from.

So Young Allies is that rare thing – a quietly ambitious superhero comic with a lot of heart. Recommended for comic book fans looking something less cynical than certain popular titles out there.

It’s Valentine’s Day! So I have a few errands to run, a dinner to cook and a mission to make myself look presentable for when my breadwinning wife comes home from work. So a comic book review for today and I’ll return to some larger text for tomorrow’s review.

As it happens, this comic features my favourite supervillain – Harley Quinn. Poor Harley is quite demented, but also quite sweet in a strange kind of way. She does see herself as the Joker’s companion/number one fan, so a touch of madness is to be expected. I mention my interest in Harley, because when I first visited Stephanie, I saw that she had painted her own portrait of the former Arkham Asylum staff member (FYI, Harley is the one on the right lighting a bomb with a cigar). I took this to be a good omen, an indication of our suitability for one another as a couple.

I was not wrong.

Arkham Asylum: Madness is unusual in that it is set in one of the most famous landmarks in the Batman mythology, but does not feature the character at all. In fact he is barely even alluded to by the book’s cast. Instead, the story focuses on the ordinary staff at the Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane, in particular a young nurse named Sabine, and their fraught interractions with the dangerous psychopaths locked up behind its walls.

Sabine works the day shift at Arkham despite its reputation, so that she can afford to pay off her family’s debts. The one thing that allows her to get through the day is the thought of returning home to her son Ozzie. She has few friends working with her, with an elderly janitor named Eddy and a fellow nurse Randy, managing to make her smile now and then, despite the oppressive atmosphere of Arkham itself.

As the day progresses tension continues to build, a tension that the inmates are far more receptive to. Small things like a hallway clock marking the time left for lunch slowing down, or Dr. Hurd’s unusual health issues, are ominous hints of some threat approaching.

The Joker, Arkham’s most feared patient, acts as a barometer for the rising anxieties within the building. The staff are terrified of him and he, in turn, enjoys nothing more than to increase their fear of what he may be capable of. His latest scheme is to follow to the letter a suggestion by one of the attending doctors to take on a hobby, like collectibles. Joker seems to have become obsessed with an innocuous collection of comedic props, but the true nature of the items is far less innocent.

Then disaster strikes for Sabine as she is ordered to stay on for the nightshift. Prevented from spending the evening with Ozzie, she falls into a depression, seemingly reflected by the asylum itself. The clock in the hallway begins to bleed, Joker springs his trap on Dr. Hurd and then in the ensuing choas the inmates make an escape attempt. The attendants and guards are the only thing between the psychopaths and freedom.

This book is a genuine treat for fans of Sam Kieth. I first discovered his art style through the MTV adaptation of his comic The Maxx, before tracking down his excellent miniseries Zero Girl. I love his punk/painterly aesthetic, the contorted bodies and smooth faces. Sabine is for all intents and purposes a traditional Kieth heroine, innocent in appearance, but possessing a hidden inner-strength, in this case the intensity of her love for her son. This book also features fantastic redesigns of Harley Quinn and a less-than-dapper Harvey Dent.

Arkham Asylum: Madness completes an unofficial triptych of stories set in this Lovecraftian Bedlam. The first, by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean, was a fantastic artistic showcase for the latter, with Batman’s righteous heroism eroded by the condensed madness of the asylum. The second, by Dan Slott and Ryan Sook, marginalised Batman in favour of a new inmate, the White Shark. Kieth disposes of the caped crusader entirely, creating a terrifying vacuum.

It is unfair for the likes of Sabine to be trapped in this hell with criminal psychopaths. The book shows how her spirit is crushed over the span of an exhausting twenty-four hours. The Batman series has always been party to a certain sadism and Kieth demonstrates the cost of the popularity of these villains on such ordinary people as Sabine.

Chilling and gripping, with wonderfully kinetic art.

Another beautiful Miami day. Mutilated corpses with a chance of afternoon showers. I got dressed and went to work.

My friend Linda over at Tapetum Lucidum recently challenged me to review today’s book. I guess I have been putting it off for a few weeks. Can’t think why, although I avoided the television show as well for a couple of years too. That too was only because my then-girlfriend-now-wife Stephanie insisted on my watching it with her. It has one of the most impressive title sequences of any show I have seen, and the heat and sweat of the Miami setting conspires to create an unusually manic tone to the episodes themselves.

Slowly but surely I have grudgingly come to like it. Still there is this reluctance to get to grips with Dexter on my part, which is difficult to explain to friends who are fans. Is it that I am squeamish, me, who would happily sit through a marathon session of brain-chomping zombie movies? I guess I have issues with the notion of a human monster. Monsters for me are creatures of fantasy. Psychopaths on television make a pretence at realism, all the while seeming utterly inhuman. That’s hard for me to get my head around.

Dexter has no such confusion in his life. He is a monster. He even enjoys it. Throughout his adult life his bloodlust has been spurred on and contained by two competing presences in his mind: the entity he refers to as his ‘Dark Passenger’, and Harry, the worldly wise cop who took him in as a child and taught him the rules of how to hide his murderous nature. Harry gave him a code, one that would allow him to sate the urge to kill, while at the same time only directing him to target other murderers. He is a human-monster slayer, if you like, on the hunt for paedophiles, abusers and killers much like himself. Think an apex predator who is fiercely territorial of his ‘patch’.

He has even found a profession that gives him an additional outlet for his compulsion, working in a Miami police department crime lab. His expertise is blood analysis. Except for the lab’s latest case, there seems to be nothing for him to work with. A new serial killer has hit town and is carving up prostitutes. The bodies are left in public spaces, dismembered, with no traces of blood. Dexter finds himself fascinated with the methods employed by this new challenger to his title, even curiously excited at the prospect of meeting someone as good as himself.

Meanwhile his foster-sister Deborah is desperate to solve the case and make sergeant. Unfortunately she has no head for local politics, despite Dexter’s attempts to guide her through the choppy waters of backstabbing superior officers and the station pecking order. She recognizes that her brother’s strange hunches often tend to land the case, pushing down any concerns as to how it is so easy for him to think like a murderer. Before the case is closed, Dexter will find his loyalties to the memory of Harry and Deb, his only remaining family, tested as never before, as the killer’s behaviour seems so close to his own. Perhaps he is the killer, the Dark Passenger having finally won?

What I enjoy about this book is how well Jeff Lindsay employs what I call the ‘Humbert Humbert effect’ (as with Love in the Time of Cholera). We are invited to share the same headspace as a monster, who charms us and attempts to win us over with deadpan humour. He seems honest, revelling in his torture and murdering of other ‘monsters’, but in fact how he presents his actions to us is subtly leavened – he becomes the hero. At one point he even self-applies the word ‘avenger’.

Then there’s his delicate relationship with Rita, a battered woman who is looking for an emotional relationship, but too afraid to take the next step. As Dexter has no real sex-drive, this suits him perfectly. To again emphasise this inverted notion of a murderer-as-innocent, he finds himself pulled between three demanding women. His eagerness to meet this new slasher is described as being comparable to a teenage girl waiting for a boy to ask her out.

As all of this is framed by Dexter himself, the reader cannot trust any of it. With lashings of gallows humour and perversity, this is a quirkily entertaining read.

I stared at the leaflet in my hands. CAN A MACHINE SAVE YOUR SOUL? it demanded of me rhetorically. The word ‘machine’ had been printed in script designed to resemble an archaic computer display. ‘Soul’ was in flowing stereographic letters that danced all over the page. I turned over for the answer.

NO!!!!!

Folks before I get started, several folks have let me know there was a problem with yesterday’s post. Apparently the image used at the top of the article did not display properly. Please refresh the page with ‘https:’, to view the post correctly. I’ll have to investigate why the site is not displaying images properly.

Today’s book felt quite familiar for the first half. I realized it was because Richard Morgan‘s brand of intelligent cyberpunk/dystopic futurism reminded me of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Even the main character, Takeshi Kovacs, is reminiscent of that other book’s protagonist, um, Hiro Protagonist (yes that is his name. Like Joyce’s Stephen Hero, but with ninja hacking skills).

Not only though does Kovacs have kick-ass fighting skills and the conditioning of a cold-blooded military assassin – he is functionally immortal. Which is a good thing too as in the opening pages of Altered Carbon he and partner Sarah are shot to death by a hit-squad.

Reborn in a new body, on an alien planet, Kovacs finds himself acclimatising rapidly. He is an Envoy, a specially engineered soldier, hardwired to be the most efficient killing machine possible. He can consciously control his emotions, how he feels pain, as well as an impressive rate of data retention. In effect he is an unstoppable killer with eidetic memory. Envoys were created to be expendable soldiers who learned from their experiences and could cope psychologically with repeatedly returning to life. Kovacs is relieved to find his new body shares many of the capabilities of his last form on the planet known as Harlan’s World.

Now though, he finds himself on Earth, that moribund birthplace of the expansionist human race. An incredibly wealthy ‘Meth’, which is short for Methuselah and denotes the social standing of a business aristocracy that can afford to have stored clones increasing their lifespan into hundreds of years, has hired Kovacs to solve a murder. His murder in fact, although the police are convinced that it is suicide. Kovacs quickly understands that he is not an employee, or a private contractor in this case. The ‘client’, Laurens Bancroft, effectively owns him. If Kovacs cannot unravel the mystery, the callous Meth can just fling his ‘stack’, the device that stores his personality, right back into storage.

Together with the help of wary cop Kristin Ortega and a sophisticated hotel A.I. named Hendrix who is addicted to guests, Kovacs is on the case. But he is a rogue factor that certain elements would prefer not to get too close to the reasons behind Bancroft’s ‘death’. His Envoy analytical prowess and fighting skills are the only things that give him an edge against assassins with multiple bodies, a duplicitous widow/wife and a criminal mastermind from his past.

Morgan fashions a narrative that is one part Neal Stephenson, one part Charles Stross and one part Raymond Chandler. In effect this is a detective mystery, complete with that favourite trope of mine – the investigator with a much damaged body, except that it is set a far flung future. There is even the requisite femme fatale, a love triangle, chase sequences through derelict streets – this book has it all.

Thankfully, for all its familiarity, Altered Carbon represents not only a well-told story, but an excellent debut from Morgan, who has since spun the guilt-wracked Kovacs into a series of novels. The vectoring of personalities courtesy of clones and a process known as ‘sleeving’, (as in to wear a sleeve) where the original persona of a body is replaced with another, is well sketched. The plot is focused mainly on the exploitation of the poor, with Kovacs blundering through brothels and illegal surgeries, where the bodies and minds of the helpless are stripped apart. The material is bleak, but leaved with Kovacs’ own gallows humour. There is even a fantastic scene with a character split into two bodies debates the progress of the story so far – although to reveal more would spoil the fun.

Thrilling science fiction with a gritty aftertaste.

Henry told Carson about Marleen.

Carson wanted to know if he got into her pants.

Henry told him no, but that he probably would before long.

“What? You probably will?”

“I don’t know. I’ve changed my ideas about a lot of things.”

“What happened?”

“I started reading the Bible.”

Have you ever read the Book of Revelation? It’s top. Like many bookish teenagers I suspect I first sought it out because it is quoted so liberally in poorly written sf dystopias. See also for Yeat’s The Second Coming. This is what the apocalypse was for me – an entertaining mythological fantasy. It’s got monsters and vast armies and cataclyms. Great stuff.

Of course the Bible on the whole, as observed by both Douglas Rushkoff and Alex Droog, is filled with fantastical creatures and horrific violence. Not quite the stern moral text familiar to us from childhood religion classes.

This novel touches on the ambiguity of the Bible itself as an analogy for the seeming innocence of its principle character, Henry Dampier, a young Bible-salesman. Henry is picked up by Preston Clearwater, a professional car-thief and con-man on the look out for a gullible mark to help him rip off a number of cars. With his polite Baptist manners and folksy stories about his family, the criminal believes he has hit the jackpot.

He tells Henry that he is an undercover FBI operative, on the trail of a car-theft ring, operating between North Carolina and Georgia. The young man swallows the lie whole and excitedly promises not to reveal to anyone Preston’s secret. Together they scope out likely targets, steal cars and divide the proceeds – all, Preston assures his young ward, in the aid of preserving their cover.

What he does not realize is that Henry is actually quite a deep thinker. For one thing, he’s been reading his Bible and begun to notice a number of inconsistencies. His whole moral compass has become thrown out of skew. When he meets the charming Marleen Green, a girl working at a fruit-stall by the side of the road, he figures if sex outside of marriage is good enough for Abraham, it’s good enough for him.

I really enjoy how this book plays with stereotypes of the naieve young man with devout beliefs and then turns them on their head. Henry is introduced to us as this simple-minded Bible salesman, but slowly as he comes to question the word of God, we learn more about his past and his complicated family history. His Baptist background, once again, is assumed to be dominated by religion, but he is encouraged by his Uncle Jack, for one, to notice how people who identify religious curiousity as blasphemy generally don’t know the answer to the question.

Cleverly the judgement call made by Preston Clearwater is linked to the reader’s initial perception of poor Henry. By challenging this, Clyde Edgerton transforms a seemingly simple yarn about a con-artist and his dupe into something more thoughtful.

Personally it called to mind my own adolescent hero-worship of Bill Hicks, born in Georgia, fiercely intelligent and fond of claiming that he was not just a comedian, but a modern-day preacher. When he died at age 32 he had single-handedly created a critical ethos that transformed contemporary political satire.

The book is written with a dry sense of humour, with several comical moments notably involving cats. The character of Mrs Albright enjoys ventriloquism and throws her voice so that her many cats, named after the apostles, seem capable of speech. There is also a hysterical burial scene, which gives an early hint at Henry’s powers of improvisation.

However, at times the narrative is too dry, the plot progression too sedate. I never really felt Henry was in any danger. Everything just resolves itself quite nicely, as if in a easy-going Biblical parable set in the American South. What starts as ostensibly a two-man story about Henry and Preston quickly comes to concern the former almost entirely, with the con-man shoved to the narrative margins.

To my mind this creates an imbalance in the story and I found myself wondering what Patricia Highsmith would have made of similar material. Something more poisonous no doubt, but wickedly funny.

All in all this is a pleasant and diverting satire, with a wise young hero whose inquisitiveness introduces much of the humour. Good fun.

When I was eight, my mother lost me to zombies in a one-card draw.

Some first lines do not fool around. In a  short burst they let you know straight away what you’re in for by choosing to read this book. There are lines that grab your attention (“Mother died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.”), lines designed to raise a wry chuckle before the action commences (“When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.”) and then there are writers like Marjorie Liu, happy to deliver a one-line manifesto for the fun she has in mind.

Maxine Kiss has lived with whole life with the knowledge that the world is full of dangers most people will never have to face. She, unfortunately, has been raised for precisely that purpose. The last in a long line of women known as Hunters, she has grown up to expect nothing more than a short life of pain and violence. Her enemies are a host of demons who hide in human skins, possessing them and transforming innocents into zombies, foot-soldiers in a millenia-old conflict. Maxine’s job is to hunt them down, give them no quarter. She is not unarmed, she has powers of her own in the form of five demon tattoos that come to life at night and protect her. During the day they sleep, but the tattoos themselves act as a shield against any harm.

Unfortunately for the world Maxine has found a reason not to fight anymore. She is beginning to doubt her mission. And her timing could not be worse.

Hunters do not typically allow men into their lives, but Maxine’s is going to be made far more complicated by several. First there is her lover, the ex-priest Grant with mysterious abilities of his own relating to synaesthesia. Then there is Jack, an elderly archaeologist who knew her grandmother and seems awfully familiar with her history. Tracker, a creature who looks like a man, centuries old and bound to Maxine for reasons he refuses to explain, also enters her life unexpectedly (he pushes her in front of a bus – but he apologises later). Finally there is Byron, a homeless boy who witnessed the murder of a private detective who was on the trail of Maxine herself. She has no idea who paid the detective to track her down – in fact the police are curious about that very same point – but she recognizes that the boy himself is special. It is rare for her to see demons and zombies fighting over anyone else beside her self.

Not only has Maxine’s personal life dulled the edge of her mission, a creature from behind the Veil, the crumbling barrier between this world and the realm of demons who have not walked the earth for thousands of years, has escaped. It wears Maxine’s face, it hunts her friends, taunts her with the secrets she has not yet been told and it cannot be harmed by any weapon she has.

In order to beat this creature – in order to survive – Maxine will have to face up to some painful facts about her own family.

Marjorie Liu‘s first novel in her Hunter Kiss series does a fine job of establishing Maxine Kiss as a modern day heroine, but also delivers some impressive world-building. By the last chapter there are plenty of mysteries still to be resolved, but many questions have been answered. Liu’s own mythology borrows liberally from several sources, but still retains a sense of novelty.

As such the action proceeds with thankfully few gratuitous fight scenes. In fact at one point Maxine breaks away from her own troubles to help out wth a natural disaster in the Middle East. It is an interesting moment. So often novels involving a hero fighting to save the earth from the apocalypse seem painfully insulated from very real catastrophes that happen every day. Liu also returns the concept of the zombie to its vodun roots, a body possessed by an evil spirit, or demon.

What is at times unusual is the lack of female characters in the book. There are two demonesses, Blood Mama the zombie queen and the creature that escapes the veil; a madwoman cared for by Grant; and a colleague of Jack’s who is fond of unicorns. Maxine herself refers to her constant companions, the demonic tattoos, as ‘the boys’. She’s surrounded by testosterone.

An entertaining and punchy yarn.

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