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Category Archives: genre writing

We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us: A Better World by Marcus Sakey

With his Brilliance series, suspense writer Marcus Sakey is doing for adult science fiction what Suzanne Collins did for YA science fiction in the Hunger Games books and George R.R. Martin did for epic fantasy with Game of Thrones: He’s making it accessible to people who aren’t fans of those genres.

A  Better World

A Better World, A Better Book

Actually, I’m hesitant even to tell you that the Brilliance series is science fiction because you may decide not to read it on that basis alone, so try not thinking of it as science fiction. Think of it as a series of suspense novels that will have spectacular special effects when they get made into movies. The words “science fiction” create certain expectations in people’s minds, like starships and latex-faced aliens, and you won’t find any of that in Sakey’s work.

What you will find, as I discussed in my review of the first book in the Brilliance series — appropriately entitled Brilliance — is lean, muscular, intelligent prose with interesting characters and deftly executed plot twists. For those of you tired of the all-too-often bloated prose of fantasy writers like George R.R. Martin and Stephen King (both of them excellent authors who just never got the message that less can sometimes be more), you’ll find Sakey’s tight plotting and no-words-wasted descriptions a refreshing change. And if you’ve read the first book in the Brilliance series, you’ll be thrilled to discover that, after a somewhat slow opening caused mostly by the addition of some new viewpoint characters, A Better World is not only as good a book as the first in the series but actually a better one. The second half of this book is one of the most gripping thrillers I’ve read in recent years and Sakey sets up the third book in the series — yes, this is going to be at least a trilogy — so perfectly that I’m already wishing he’d finish it already and put it on Amazon, because I really don’t want to wait as long for it as I’ve been waiting for new books in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Fortunately, not only is Sakey a less verbose writer than Martin but a faster one.

In A Better World, the protagonist is once again government agent Nick Cooper, but he’s on leave from his job with the DAR, having developed serious doubts about their mission to keep watch on so-called brilliants, super-intelligent mutants of which Cooper is one. (If you’ve read the first book, you’ll know why Cooper is having doubts.) That doesn’t mean he’s sitting on his hands, though. He’s offered a job as a presidential adviser and he takes it, because he thinks brilliants deserve a voice in the White House. So, fortunately, does the president. Alas, this makes Cooper some powerful enemies, because not everybody who works in the West Wing is exactly who they seem to be, no matter how nice they all seemed during those seven years Martin Sheen spent as the PoTUS.

Cooper also returns to the city of Tesla, high in the Colorado Rockies, a town designed especially for brilliants to live in and therefore seen as a threat to normal humans by certain political advisers who want the president to take executive action of a particularly dangerous kind. As Sakey winds the plot tighter and tighter, the story heads into Tom Clancy political thriller territory, the kind where the fate of nations hangs in balance. Though several of Sakey’s characters are human beings that the reader feels deeply about, the climactic scenes of this novel involve a spectacular situation that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling for you.

I don’t want to go into more details about the plot because you shouldn’t be reading this review. You should be reading the book. You can buy the e-book for $5 from and it’s worth three times that much. Then again, you might want to wait until the third novel is out so that you can binge-read them in sequence, but I don’t have that kind of patience. Once I’d read the first book, I knew I’d read the second one the day it came out — and I did. (It’s taken me a while to review it, though. Life keeps getting in the way.) If you’ve read the first book, you should read this one as soon as you possibly can. You won’t regret it.


Several Items of Interest

Book #37 (October 19, 2010): Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (November 2010)
Book #38 (October 23, 2010): Analog Science Fiction and Fact (November 2010)
Book #39 (October 30, 2010): Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (November 2010)
Book #40 (November 13, 2010): Asimov’s Science Fiction (October-November 2010)

Although it’s hard to believe now, there was a time when there was a very large market for short stories, including both genre stories — science fiction, mystery, horror — and mainstream, even literary, stories. This market was primarily in the cheaply produced pulp magazines, where writers churned out stories rapidly for rates of one cent a word or less, but it was also in slick magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Redbook, which paid higher rates and attracted a more thoughtful breed of writer. Circa 1952, the pulp magazine market collapsed, having lost most of its readers to television. Around the same time, the slick magazines went into decline as a market for fiction. Those few pure fiction magazines that remained moved into the digest-sized market, which survives (albeit tenuously) to this day. Digest-sized magazines are smaller than pulps were and are printed on better paper. Few newsstands carry digest-sized fiction magazines any more, though30 years ago you could find them in most drug stores.

Starting roughly in the 1970s, the most enthusiastic publisher of these digest-sized short story magazines was a company called Davis Publications, which quickly amassed a line of the most popular genre fiction magazines, some of which had started at other publishers: Analog Science Fiction and FactAlfred Hitchcock’s Mystery MagazineAsimov’s Science Fiction and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. (About the only major short story magazine that Davis never acquired was The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which is now published by Spilogate, Inc.) At some point while I wasn’t watching, the Davis line of magazines seems to have been subsumed in turn by Penny Publications, a company best known for publishing crossword puzzle magazines. A couple of months ago I discovered that I could purchase these magazines via the Nook for $2.99 a copy, so I set out to read the November issues of all four. (If it seems like cheating to count these as part of my 52 books for this year, remember that these are closer to anthologies of short stories than to what is generally regarded these days as a magazine.)

I was originally planning to write about the stories, but to catalog them all would take too long and I’ve already forgotten most of them. So I’ll talk about the magazines: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine has been around as long as I can recall and the fact that the cover of the latest issue (two issues after this one) reads “Our 70th Year” suggests that it’s been around considerably longer than that. Analog Science Fiction and Fact was born in 1930 as the pulp magazine Astounding Science Fiction. Starting about 1937, under the editorship of John W. Campbell, Astounding revolutionized the science fiction field by, well, paying more for SF stories than other magazines did. Campbell brought a stable of new writers into the field that included Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. In fact, of major science fiction writers in the period 1937 to 1948, the only one who didn’t write for Astounding was Ray Bradbury. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine has been around since 1956. Like Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, I’ve seen it on the newsstands since I was a teenager, but have rarely bought an issue and even more rarely read one. I remember when the first issue of Asimov’s SF was published, in 1977. It was a relatively high paying magazine and so it was disappointing that early issues weren’t terribly good. But after a change of editors the quality of the stories went up substantially and it published some of the best science fiction of the 1980s.

If I were to sum up most of the short stories in these magazines in a phrase, it would be “competent but uninspired.” The best story by far, and one of the few that rises above this level, is Rick Wilber’s “Several Items of Interest.” Not surprisingly, it’s inAsimov’s SF. It’s about a near future earth where humanity is being smothered with love by seemingly benevolent alien invaders. Wilber makes a lot of good choices in telling the story. The first person narrator relates events out of chronological sequence, leaving the reader to piece the story together from fragments. Perhaps the cleverest stroke is that the narrator’s estranged brother promises to tell him what’s “really happening,” but the obligatory scene where he does so never happens and the true horror of the situation is left to the reader’s imagination, which gives the story a haunting resonance that it wouldn’t otherwise have had. I would expect to see this nominated for awards next year or at least reprinted in one of the few remaining Best SF of the Year anthologies.

The second best story is also in Asimov’s, Will McIntosh’s “Frankenstein, Frankenstein,” a horror story for the magazine’s Halloween issue. It’s about a pair of benevolent conmen who encounter one another in the midwest either in the 1930s or the 1890s. (The only hint as to the time period is that there’s a Chicago World’s Fair going on, but I’m not sure which one it is.) Both specialize in passing themselves off to credulous yokels as the original model for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein monster. They team up, only to encounter…well, I’ll just say that the ending is genuinely disturbing and more than a little moving. The latter, at least, is unusual in a horror story.

I’d sum up the rest but — damn — I’ve already forgotten them.

Murder She Wrote…and Wrote…and Wrote….

Book #16 (April 30, 2010): And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Book #17 (May 10, 2010): Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie
Book #18 (May 17, 2010): The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie

Time was I used to have a couple of dozen Agatha Christie paperbacks on my bookshelf and would pull one down periodically for a bit of light reading. And light reading they were: Christie’s novels tend to be so airy and insubstantial that if you don’t hold on to them with both hands there’s a genuine danger that they might float away before you have a chance to turn the page. Not that this is bad. In fact, I think much of Christie’s charm was that she perfected a form of murder mystery in which murder didn’t have to be taken the least bit seriously. I mean, quite honestly, can you imagine anyone shedding a tear for one of her fluff-headed murder victims?

It had been a while since I’d read one of her novels, though, and I thought it time to read several in a row, to see if they still went down as easily as they did when I was in my 20s. The answer is that, yes, they do, but they don’t seem quite as much fun anymore. The fault isn’t really Christie’s. It’s that the form she invented has been so relentlessly imitated and parodied over the years that even reading a Christie novel you haven’t read before is like reading a book you’ve already memorized, if only because you’ve seen all of the movies and TV shows that have done her plots to death.

That, in fact, is why I wanted to read And Then There Were None. Although I’d never read it before, I knew the basic story pretty well, because there was a time when it was repeatedly pastiched in any number of media. In fact, a friend of mine pointed out that it’s the basis for most of the slasher movies of the last 30 years, as well as for the 1976 musical Something’s Afoot. (True confession: I ripped off the basics of the plot for my second Hardy Boys novel, The Dungeon of Doom.) It’s the one where a group of seemingly unrelated people are invited to a remote location and then killed off one by one, in imitation of the old nursery rhyme “Ten Little Indians.” (Interesting side note: The original British title of the novel was “Ten Little N–gers.” You can see why that was changed for the American editions.) As much as I wanted to enjoy this one, because I think it was at one time an immensely clever idea, I felt that Christie bit off more here than she could chew. The short length of mystery novels in the 1930s and 40s (the book was originally published in 1939) allows Christie very little room for characterization, so much so that even though Christie has the sense to hang easily identifiable labels on the ten characters — the hanging judge, the Bible-thumping spinster, the carefree bachelor — it’s sometimes hard to tell the characters apart. And the action is so rushed that there were times when I wasn’t even sure what was going on. But worst of all the convoluted nature of the story requires not one but TWO lengthy (and, frankly, boring) epilogues just to explain how the hell the book’s many mysterious contrivances could have taken place.

Appointment with Death is a considerably better novel. Christie creates a rather compelling setup about a family under the psychological domination of a monstrous mother, who not surprisingly turns up dead about halfway through. (Honestly, that’s not much of a spoiler. If you can’t see that coming from the first page, you must be a complete newcomer to the mystery genre.) Naturally our old friend Hercule Poirot is in the vicinity and is called in to consult. The situation is interesting enough to keep the pages turning, but…am I the only person on earth who finds Poirot an unbearably pompous jerk? (I’m probably not, because I think it’s his pompous jerkiness that makes the character so popular.) Presented with the bare facts of the case he promptly announces that he will have it solved, without the slightest possibility of failure, within 24 hours — and, of course, he does. This makes Poirot a fantasy character because such elegant solutions aren’t possible in the real world, where Christie isn’t pulling strings to make the clues fall together so neatly. But nobody reads Christie for realism, do they?

The Body in the Library is a Miss Marple story and it’s about as formulaic a drawing room mystery as I can imagine. Heck, it begins with a body turning up, quite literally, in a drawing room. Christie as always seems to have her tongue in her cheek here and you sense her winking at the reader and saying, “I know you love every one of these cliches as much as I do and that’s why I’m giving them to you in the most straightforward manner possible.” Fortunately, Miss Marple is the anti-Poirot. Where Poirot has an ego as large as Europe, Miss Marple fades into the wallpaper for much of the novel and only emerges politely at the end to explain the details the police have missed. She’s very sweet about it and you really can’t hold it against her that she’s every bit as much a fantasy being as Poirot is.

Stay Hungry

Book #3 (January 16, 2010): The Road by Cormac McCarthy

In his introduction to McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories (see my last post), Michael Chabon muses about the elusive nature of genre, which has as much to do with publishing convention as with the actual content of those books that are published with a genre label on their spines. When Robert Heinlein speculated about the future in Time Enough for Love and Stranger in a Strange Land, it was science fiction. When Margaret Atwood speculates about the future, it’s mainstream literature. To some extent this reflects the nature of the writing. Heinlein was a hardcore, in-your-face storyteller. Atwood’s writing is subtler and heavier on interior monologue. So maybe Atwood belongs in the literature section of the bookstore and Heinlein would be out of place there. But The Handmaid’s Tale is, nonetheless, science fiction.

So is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Not only is it science fiction but it’s very good science fiction, thrillingly conceived and beautifully written (though the ending strikes me as a little too pat). Writing in a stream-of-consciousness style that’s deliberately light on any punctuation that might slow down the flow of words, McCarthy gradually sets up a situation that not only qualifies as science fiction but as horror. A father and son wander along an unnamed series of highways across a North American landscape apparently depopulated by nuclear winter. The food chain has shut down in the eternal twilight and there’s nothing left to eat except the occasional forgotten cache of canned food. And, of course, human flesh. This is the line that both father and son refuse to cross, but plenty of other people have crossed it. The greatest threat in this post-nuclear world, other than starvation, is cannibalism and this tiny family is forced to skulk along the road, scattering into the bushes at the first sign of other humans, in order to avoid being gutted and served on a barbecue spit.

There are some terrifying set pieces in this book, like the scene where father and son enter a seemingly abandoned basement only to discover that it’s a prison for hapless captives gradually being dismembered by an extended family of cannibals. (In a world without electric power for refrigeration, it’s apparently more efficient to eat still-living victims than to kill them and let most of the food go to waste.) As a plot complication, the father is dying of some disease that causes him to go into periodic spasms of coughing. (Lung cancer? Tuberculosis?) He knows the son will have to go on without him at some point and watches the skies for some sign that the perpetual cover of stratospheric clouds is starting to dissipate, giving his child some kind of future that won’t involve perpetual flight through collapsing forests.

McCarthy’s style is straightforward but occasionally graced by images that are achingly beautiful or beautifully sad. It’s a short book, barely more than a novella, and if it interests you, you can probably read it in an evening or two. (It took me two.) Interest in the science fiction and horror genres is, obviously, not required here because you won’t find this book in those sections of the bookstore. You’ll find it in the literature section, not far from Margaret Atwood.

Fantasy and Science Fiction and Horror, Oh My!

Book #2 (January 14, 2010): McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories edited by Michael Chabon.

I’m a great fan of genre fiction, especially science fiction, fantasy and horror. I am therefore going to make an unfair generalization: It sometimes seems as though these genres, along with mysteries and thrillers, are among the few remaining forms of fiction where authors bother to be entertaining or to engage in something that used to be called (and, in fact, still is called) storytelling. At some point in the last century the literature of entertainment (and I use the term “literature” deliberately) forked off from literary fiction (which, as Michael Chabon notes in his introduction to this anthology, is as much a genre as any other, with its own well-worn genre conventions) and became mildly disreputable. I’ll have more to say about this in upcoming weeks, especially if I get around to reading Chabon’s collection of essays Maps and Legends (which is sitting, in actual book form, on my shelf), where Chabon engages with this subject at book length, but for now I want to talk about what Chabon has put on the table in this particular anthology.

One of the things I like about Chabon is that he’s a literary writer who is willing to take genre seriously. This short story anthology is a sequel to his earlier McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, which was originally published as a special issue of Dave Eggers’ quirky literary magazine Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern. Chabon’s aim, according to his introduction (about which more in a moment), was to play with the concept of genre and to assemble a collection of writers who produce fiction somewhere in the margins (or would that be median strips?) between genre fiction and literary fiction, including literary writers like Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates who frequently spill over into genre writing and genre writers like Stephen King and Peter Straub who occasionally manage to achieve literature.

Chabon’s introduction is one of my favorite parts and I’m tempted to quote from it at length. It’s about the tricky, indistinct boundary between genre fiction and literary fiction and how it’s mostly a matter of publishing categories, not actual content. I’ll indulge in a single (albeit lengthy) quote:

“Genre, in other words, is–in a fundamental and perhaps ineradicable way–a marketing tool, a standard maintained most doggedly by publishers and booksellers. Though the costly studies and extensive research conducted by the publishing industry remain closely guarded secrets, apparently some kind of awful retailing disaster would entail if all the fiction, whether set on Mars or Manhattan, concerning a private eye or an eye doctor, were shelved together, from Asimov and Auster to Zelazny and Zweig. For even the finest writer of horror or sf or detective fiction, the bookstore, to paraphrase the LA funk band War, is a ghetto. From time to time some writer, through a canny shift in subject matter or focus, or through the coming to literary power of his or her lifelong fans, or through sheer, undeniable literary chops, manages to break out. New, subtler covers are placed on these writers’ books, with elegant serif typefaces. In the public libraries, the little blue circle with the rocket ship or the atom is withheld from the spine. This book, the argument goes, has been widely praised by mainstream critics, adopted for discussion by book clubs, chosen by the Today show. Hence it cannot be science fiction.”

This is a longtime complaint of genre fans, especially fans of fantasy and science fiction. Not only does a large portion of the literary world refuse to take even the best work in these genres seriously, but on the rare occasions when some work of fantasy or science fiction is so unquestionably well written that even the snobbiest of critics can’t fall back on calling it hackwork, they simply deny that it’s genre fiction at all. It’s as though the very definitions of science fiction and fantasy contain the term “poorly written.” When that term ceases to apply, so does the genre label.

I’ve wandered a bit far afield, which doesn’t leave me a lot of room to talk about the stories in this anthology, but I’ll talk about them anyway. My favorite is David Mitchell’s “What You Do Not Know You Want,” which reads like something Hunter Thompson might have written if he were trying to be Elmore Leonard. It’s about an antiques dealer in Hawaii trying to locate the knife that writer Yukio Mishima used to commit seppuku, and from this already bizarre premise Mitchell concocts something not only very dark but darkly funny. It left me interested enough to want to know more about David Mitchell’s writing and I’ll probably read one of his novels sometime later this year. I also liked Stephen King’s “Lisey and the Madman,” which is apparently a portion of his novel Lisey’s Story, though that novel hadn’t been published (or, as far as I know, even completed) at the time the Chabon anthology came out. I greatly enjoyed “Minnow,” a clever horror story by Ayelet Waldman, who happens to be (though the editor sneakily neglects to mentions it anywhere in the text) Chabon’s wife. And “Reports of Certain Events in London” by China Miéville, a slight, quirky, highly original story about feral, time-traveling alleyways. That’s certainly not an idea that’s been done to death.

Chabon never actually assigns these stories a genre, which I suppose is the point, but most of them fall into a niche that I’d call hyperliterate horror, which is exactly the kind of horror fiction I like. The whole collection is excellent.