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Monthly Archives: December 2013

Review: Doctor Who: Mad Dogs and Englishmen

Doctor Who: Mad Dogs and Englishmen
Doctor Who: Mad Dogs and Englishmen by Paul Magrs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The problem with Doctor Who novels is the same as with a lot of franchise-based stuff: you never know what you will get. And not all of them are good. Funnily enough though when they actually are good they sometimes are quite excellent. The literary medium allows authors to play with things in their stories that would never have been able in a low-budget TV series (even though they tried, oh god, how they tried…).
Mad Dogs and Englishmen starts with The Doctor (number 8), Fitz, and Anji arriving in a hotel hosting a congress about Terran pop culture in the 20th century. The three of them soon become embroiled in a sordid affair around literary infighting. The issue is a famous 20th ct. fantasy epos: The True History of the Planets, by Reginald Tyler. The Doctor knows it well, but he fails to see how a story about Elves and trolls might be the reason for murder.
But But here he is soon corrected in his mistake, after all everyone knows the book is mainly concerned with poodles. Something is not right, the Doctor realizes, and off they go to investigate into different parts of the 20th century.
The book is both Doctor Who time travel fantasy, as well as sheer satire. Reginald Tyler is a rather unfavourable version of J.R.R. Tolkien (although Tolkien must exist as well, as there is a reference to a LOTR movie in drag), his best friend Cleavis is quite obviously C.S.Lewis, and John Fuchas, biggest director in the world, is quite obviously George Lucas. The book tells its story in a breakneck speed, which especially in the beginning makes the writing a bit sketchy. We barely can digest the idea of a humanoid boar as a hotel manager and a murder plot in there, when we are thrown on a space station with poodles in charge, and then meet poets and warlocks in 1940s England, the mob in 1960s Las Vegas, and mad filmmakers in 1970s LA. Oh, and then there are cameos of Miss Marple and Professor Challenger and a few other characters.
The strange thing about this is that it works. After a short while the novelty of anthropoid poodles wears off, but there is so much fun stuff happening that it doesn’t really matter.

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Review: The City & the City

The City & the City
The City & the City by China Miéville
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It starts as a typical noirish murder mystery: Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crime Division in the Ruritanian city of Beszel is investigating a murder: a young woman has been found murdered in one of the even more derelict places in Beszel. After a few false leads his investigation soon brings him into contact with nationalists and other nutters who had in in for the victim, and it becomes apparent that the crime has roots and connections to Beszel’s sister city Ul Quoma. He has to cross the border and work with his counterparts there to make sense of this crime, which turns out to touch, but not quite breach, the sublime borders the two cities have between each other.

And this is where the problems arise: Beszel and Ul Quoma are geographically the same place.

In a weird kink of history two different cities have developed in the same place, sharing many of the same streets but not interacting at all, except as foreign, neighbouring countries. When seeing something of the other city a citizen is supposed to “unsee” it and work around.

There is a border crossing point in the middle of the city which lets people out on the same streets they were just in, but now in another country. Both cultures are different, and use different languages, culture styles, and even traffic laws.

Beszel is a derelict Eastern European nation with a more or less democratic government and some embarassing nationalists in charge, Ul Quoma is a more modern city with Turkish overtones, a prospering economy, and a military dictatorship in charge. There is some resentment on both sides. They even had some wars that were, unsurprisingly, disastrous for both sides.

Miéville manages to introduce all these things quite masterfully in a noir mode, written as if the main character was writing himself in competent but not flawless English. For the first few chapters our narrator does not even acknowledge the other city too much, and even when he does the reader can’t really be sure if this might just have been another sign of his level of skill in English. It is noticeable that after the whole nature of the cities is revealed his English improves drastically.
After a while it became clear to me that the mystery plot just is an excuse to explore the thought-experiment of two cities overlapping even further, testing out the boundaries and sounding out how far this story could be driven.
The story is well-crafted, and is used masterfully to explore the different quirks a setup like this would have, some glaring problems in the book’s internal logic notwithstanding. And it still works as a crime story/thriller.

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Review: Ready Player One

Ready Player One
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There was one point in this novel where I was grinding my teeth. It was spelled out for the characters how to find the Jade Key to go further in their treasure hunt, and somehow I got it in an instant and those ubergeeks who knew everything about the creator of the treasure hunt and his way of thinking keep on missing it for weeks. Old run-down house and collecting trophies! How hard can it be?!

Which means most likely that I am a bit too geeky in some way. At least I can’t quote WarGames from memory, but at least the Monty Python challenge later would have been able for me.

Ready Player One is about a treasure hunt in a virtual reality (OASIS) which by the point when the novel takes place has taken over all other MMORPGs and works as most peoples’ workplace, school, entertainment, and what-have-you. There is a reason for this of course: the real world is rife with hunger and desperation, slavery has been reintroduced by way of indentures for debtors, gasoline has run out so quickly that whole streets are filled with useless cars, and trailer parks have grown into stacks of trailers all over each other. There is a good reason why the people in this world prefer the virtual reality to their own. And then the founder of OASIS dies and leaves a game as an inheritance: a treasure hunt inside OASIS, whoever manages it will gain control over the company; in end effect whoever wins will be the richest person in the world.
This leads to a subculture called the gunters who hunt for this treasure, and for a revival of 1980s pop culture (because the hints for this treasure hunt are made up of obscure pop culture references). And then nothing happens for a few years, until the main character (a kid from the stacks with a pithy 3rd level avatar called Parzival), manages to get on the high score board as its first entry.

The book reads like a well-written 1980s adventure movie, and it is easy to imagine all the different characters and places described in it by virtue of them being references to 1980s American culture. Sometimes these references are laid on a bit thick, but in most places they read just fine. The issue with the plot is that the reverence it gives to 1980s movies also extends to itself: there were barely any surprises in there, all the plot turns and twists were visible from far ahead, and it was sometimes a bit too clear when something would happen, even if I didn’t know what exactly it would be. In the end the moral of the story is that not everything can be online, and that there must be a real world for people as well, which is just such a 1980s cartoon moral. Of course its fitting.

The novel might not be the classic that it has been heralded as (I gather most of the reviewers are from the same generation that is celebrated in it), but its a nice, fast science-fiction adventure.

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Review: Shadows Over Baker Street

Shadows Over Baker Street
Shadows Over Baker Street by Michael Reaves
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the collection Neil Gaiman’s famous, Hugo-award winning Sherlock Holmes/Lovecraft Pastiche/Alternative History fanfic “A Study in Emerald” was published in.
This is a bit of a problem.
Neil Gaiman is one of these bold writers who can make even fanfiction into something special. Putting him in front of an collection of similar stories written by people that are not him… makes for a startling drop in quality. Especially when his story is followed by one where the author clearly just replaced one character’s name with Irene Adler’s and hoped nobody would notice.
So, yes, the collection is a mixed bag. It is situated thematically in the curiously large intersection between non-canon Sherlock Holmes and Cthulhu Mythos. Both areas have had a large amount of fan-written and professionally published stories, with a dash of crossover between those two that goes back to at least the 1980s. And it mostly works quite well: there are some genuinely creepy Lovecraftian stories in there, and there are some that catch the spirit of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and some stories actually manage both. Some even mix in some other characters and elements for good measure, H. G. Wells features as a Watson substitute in one story for example.
Others are not so great. Some are clearly fix-fics for Sherlock, some clash with canon (both Sherlockian and Lovecraftian), and at least one has a blatant Mary Sue touted as Holmes’ “ideal woman”. And they all would have been better if the authors had tried to have some internal consistency at least. Having a dozen stories in a row in which Watson encounters the Necronomicon for the first time does not help.
All in all not bad, no complete stinkers, and with some real pearls in between.

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