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2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson Book Review

2312 is a bad book by a bad writer. It’s a pretentious book by a pretentious writer which is why it has a Nebula.

Kim Stanley Robinson can write well about terraforming. That is his whole career. Unfortunately he can’t write 11830394characters that you don’t want to punch in the face or come up with plots that are any better than those of a bad movie and he tries to disguise that with the usual scifi hack’s toolbox of orientalist references and random scientific terms.

2312 is the kind of book that John Varley’s Steel Beach should have killed. Not only did Varley thoroughly cover every new idea that Robinson holds up as if it’s a trophy he won at the fair, but he also showed why these neo-futuristic societies in which everyone sits around using super-technology to play with themselves in every sense of the word are dead. Kim Stanley Robinson didn’t get the memo. Neither did the writers who keep farting out the same crap.

But 2312 is worse than most of the bunch. David Brin’s Existence was deeply flawed, but it had new brilliant ideas in the mix. Kim Stanley Robinson doesn’t have those. 2312 has some great terraforming descriptions and that’s it.

Its plot makes so little sense that it would be unfair to blame it on drugs Its main character Swan is the most obnoxious main character in a novel ever. She’s either whining or throwing tantrums for hundreds of pages. The destruction on Mercury and the qubes aren’t a grand conspiracy, but petty fallout from something completely unrelated. There is no reason for most of the novel and its events to even exist. At one point the characters decide that the problem is income inequality on earth and so they dump a lot of wild animals on it. The wild animals eat some people in villages, but the characters explain that it’s okay and the animals also fixed all the poverty somehow.

You really have a problem when Philip K. Dick novels have plots that make more sense than yours.

To distract you from this, Kim Stanley Robinson inserts “lists” after every chapter to seem literary. But it would be more “literary” for him to construct a new plot instead of engaging in lit gimmicks that are as mediocre as his novel.

There’s not much to write about 2312 because despite its size, there is nothing there. There are some pretty descriptions of sunrise on Mercury. But if you want anything more than terraforming ideas and descriptions of sunrises, you’re out of luck. 2312 takes the kind of society Varley wrote about decades ago, subtracts anything that might be interesting and throws in annoying characters who still somehow lack the personality to be memorable.

2312 is a terrible book. By a terrible writer. I might have mentioned that.

The Unincorporated Future by Danni Kolin and Eytan Kollin book review

The Unincorporated Future by Danni Kollin and Eytan Kollin is an unimaginative mashup of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars the unincorporated futureseries, Tron and bits and pieces of Metaplanetary. Reading through it and John Varley’s Slow Apocalypse was a reminder that a talented writer can make a story where not all that much happens readable and untalented writers can take a war spread across the solar system and the destruction of entire planets and make it every bit as exciting as watching paint dry.

There were a whole lot of Unincorporated volumes before The Unincorporated Future that I didn’t read, but going by what I did read, I haven’t missed a whole lot. The story is one of those incredible never-done-before tales about outer planet colonists fighting the tyranny of evil corporations on earth. The blurbs compare this to Heinlein, but The Unincorporated Future has as much in common with Heinlein as Kevin J. Anderson has in common with Isaac Asimov.

The outer colonists are religious, not in the sense that it’s really a part of their lives, but every now and then they mention Allah and there’s a Rabbi who wanders around but does nothing useful. This gives them moral superiority when destroying planets. Moral superiority that the evil earth corporations lack when they’re destroying planets.

The Unincorporated Future is one of those showdowns between different Space-Hitlers, both of whom kill billions of people, but some of whom we’re supposed to root for, because they occasionally feel bad about it. Not bad enough to stop doing it. But bad. There’s also a Tron element in it that feels more like World of Warcraft, but that’s so lame it’s not even worth mentioning.

Some of this could be forgivable if either or both of the Kollins could actually write. They can’t. The dialogue is terrible. The cliches are rancid. And they can make destroying a planet every bit as interesting as ordering lunch. Most of the action manages to happen off-screen, even though it’s the only thing keeping the narrative going.

The characters are so one-note that they might as well be made of cardboard and hopelessly undeveloped. The dead savior is named Justin Cord. No, seriously. J.C. The villain does everything but twirl his mustache and rape his way around the novel.

What is truly sad is that someone made the decision to publish four of these, even though they would have barely passed muster in the 80s. It’s a sign of how poor the Science Fiction part of the field has become that this didn’t get tossed out the door. And you can’t even blame the Kollins for that.

The state of Science Fiction is so poor that John Scalzi is considered a major writer even though the only thing he can write is scenery descriptions. Once he starts writing people, he’s operating at Kevin J. Anderson’s level. Cory Doctorow is now considered a writer, not a punchline. So why not the Kollins. They can’t write and they’re recycling things that were cliches 40 years ago. They’re not even hacks, because hacks can at least write.

Bring ’em on.

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is Lazy and Shitty Pandering. That’s Why it’s a Success

Ready_Player_One_coverErnest Cline’s Ready Player One is a YA Novel for middle aged men about a horrible dystopian future in which cities are being nuked and everyone lives in a giant MMO run by Will Wheaton, Cory Doctorow and the ghost of a dead Steve Jobs knockoff while listening to songs from the 80s.

Cline, a “spoken-word artist”, is a professional geek. Like Will Wheaton and Cory Doctorow. That means he’s a medium talent hipster frantically pandering to other hipsters who work in advertising, but buy Star Wars toys that they play with while drinking craft beers.

Hipsters are earnestly cynical. That’s Ready Player One, a pile of shameless fan service that starts its pandering on page one and never stops.

Ernest Cline panders to pals who can help him promote his novel. Will Wheaton and Cory Doctorow run his future MMO where most of the book takes place. John Scalzi is listed as one of the greats of Science Fiction between Roger Zelazny and Jack Vance.

He’s equally shameless about pandering to his audience. Ready Player One is mostly set in a giant virtual reality holodeck that’s equal parts D&D, EVE and World of Warcraft. It’s named OASIS and in this future world, which is cyberpunk without the punk, everyone spends their time leveling up. Unless an evil corporation named IOI or OIO or something stupid like that gets its way and makes everyone pay a monthly fee to play the game.

Cline could have just left it at that, but then Ready Player One wouldn’t have been a hit. Pandering to teens who think that a WOW fee hike is the worst thing in the world doesn’t get you a Spielberg deal. So even though Ready Player One is a YA novel complete with a whiny teen protagonist who lives on his own, is unpopular at school and has a crush on a girl, Ernest Cline took aim at the manchild demographic by dumping in 80s nostalgia.

If you know anything about Ready Player One, you know it’s all about 80s nostalgia. Ernest Cline does the least bit of work on worldbuilding that he can get away with. (Everyone’s poor, except the rich, there’s climate change, also cities getting nuked, now let’s reference three 80s movies.)

The plot has the inventor of OASIS, a Steve Jobs knockoff whom Cline admits in the book is a Steve Jobs knockoff (you know you’re derivative when you not only copy a character, but your description all but admits he’s derivative) run a contest to let anyone who solves his puzzles inherit his company and all of OASIS.

Since Jobs 2.0, a guy named Halliday, is obsessed with the 80s, The puzzles require watching War Games, playing classic arcade games and recognizing 80s references.

Cline describes Halliday as autistic and into geeky things, but he’s much more into John Hughes movies and generic 80s pop culture. Probably because Cline is. So Halliday becomes an obsessive nerd who collects SF and fires employees who don’t recognize a cartoon, but is also into Duran Duran, John Hughes movies and Heathers. He even lectures the protagonist on spending less time on the internet and getting out more.

(It’s a YA novel, even if it’s targeted at middle aged men, so it has to end with the main character learning and growing.)

The plot is predictable. He panders ruthlessly at every opportunity and the worldbuilding is hardly there. Even when he reveals the identity of Aitch, the character’s best friend, she’s a black lesbian because Cline has to check as many fake social awareness boxes as he can in one character.

And Cline is bad at characters. He’s bad because he doesn’t even try. Everyone is one note. The villain, Nolan Sorrentino, a game designer working for the evil IOI or EIO or IOO, could have been drawn as a more compelling villain with a little subtlety. Instead he twirls his mustache and acts like the dumbest hammiest villain in a bad movie.

The evil corporation brought back slavery and controls so much of the country that it can kill anyone who gets in its way, but will honor the results of an internet contest.

It’s all like that. The teen heroes are aided by a Wozniak knockoff. The main character falls in love with Art3mis because she’s a girl. There’s zero subtlety or depth.

OASIS, the center of the book, is a ridiculous mashup of the internet and an MMO. GSS, the good corporation running it, makes users pay to travel beyond its portal. The heroes are fighting to protect a system where you have to pay to visit websites. People put on goggles and gloves to visit chat rooms. It’s all lazy, stupid and played out.

But while Cline may not get worldbuilding or any other aspect of writing, he does understand pandering, which is why Ready Player One is such a hit. It’s bad SF wrapped around a YA novel wrapped around a ton of 80s nostalgia making it the perfect BuzzFeed book.

Don’t think of Ready Player One as a novel. Think of it as fourth wall fanfic, a book about people mentioning the things you like. It’s unboxing the novel. It’s BuzzFeed lists with more of a plot. It’s that guy linking to people more popular than him in softcover.

It’s absolutely shameless. And that’s why it’s successful.

Willful Child by Steven Erikson Book Review, a Lame $25 Star Trek Parody

Willful Child by Steven Erikson is supposed to be a Star Trek parody, but its real joke is about the publishing industry which will put out a 50 year joke as a 25 dollar hardcover novel because its author has a few bestsellers under his belt.

Funny parodies have been written about Star Trek. Take John M. Ford’s How Much for Just the Planet? Or Peter David’s New Frontier novels which take the basic MPQAngag of Erikson’s Willful Child about a psychotic Kirk-like captain and play it straight while adding characters and deadpan comedy.

If you ever heard The Firm’s Star Trekkin’ with its chorus of “We come in peace/Shoot to kill” then you’ve already sat through Willful Child, but without reading through hundreds of pages.

That’s all there is to it.

Willful Child’s captain Hadrian Alan Sawbuck is a psycho who wears stretchy shirts, seduces female crew members and blows up aliens. And he’s the only realized character in this. He’s Futurama’s Zapp Brannigan without a Kif, just a bunch of disposable female sidekicks with names like Joss Sticks (Yes, Steven Erikson is a master of comedy) whose only joke is saying “Like” in every sentence.

And that’s just for starters.

If you wanted to read the kind of groundbreaking comedy about Star Trek that dates back to the 60s, Steven Erikson delivers. There are jokes about how fake the sets look and how other planets look like Northern California. Did you ever notice that?

But Steven Erikson also daringly ventures into the 80s and even the 90s by making jokes about how awful Celine Dion and Barry Manilow are.

This is material that Jay Leno would call lame. Guys doing standup in Branson would ask for something fresher. The only people who didn’t are Tor editors.

It’s a bunch of a Mad Magazine gags with a glowing recommendation from Robert J. Sawyer, because that’s just how the publishing industry works. And considering how old the jokes are, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if this was just a trunk novel/bunch of papers Erikson had lying around in his desk from high school that he handed over to Tor to buy some time. And they published it. As a novel.

Want proof? Sulu is renamed Zulu. I refuse to believe that an adult did that.

This is a 25 dollar hardcover novel in which the characters actually keep shouting that their adventures are “episodic”. They keep doing it like a standup comedian getting up off stage and elbowing you in the ribs to laugh at his joke about how white guys are all like this and black guys are all like that.

It’s not just that Willful Child’s jokes are lame. A lot of them aren’t even jokes.

Like the name of the ship. Willful Child. Or the rogue AI named Tammy Wynette. They’re placeholders for jokes. Or desperate randomness.

And those are the good parts. Two thirds of the way, Erikson loses whatever is left of his plot and begins randomly throwing out alien attacks. It might have made Willful Child worse if ‘worse’ was an option. It’s not.

Erikson interjects lectures on how social media is destroying our society. Willful Child is so bad that I can’t tell if he’s being serious. It’s so bad that I don’t really care.

The only joke here is what a miserable mess the publishing industry has become. The joke is that Tor will publish this, but it won’t publish actual Science Fiction. The only actual big picture SF novel I see in their new releases in John C. Wright’s Judge of Ages.

What Willful Child reminds me most of all is when execs chose to turn Batman into a bad TV gagfest because they refused to take the original material seriously. The last laugh was had and it wasn’t by the executives who refused to take comic books seriously.

Putting out Willful Child while boycotting actual blue sky Science Fiction is an act of contempt by Tor’s editors who refuse to take Science Fiction, the traditional kind, seriously. Science Fiction, with its spaceships and galactic empires and silly men in silly suits exploring the stars, will have the last laugh.

It’ll have to because there are no laughs to be had in Willful Child. Not unless you think jokes about Celine Dion hold music are as funny as it gets.

Terrible Books – A Barnstormer in Oz by Philip Jose Farmer

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Philip Jose Farmer was famous for writing unofficial sequels to famous works that no one wanted and would have paid money to pretend never existed.

A Barnstormer in Oz is probably the worst unofficial Oz sequel and considering some of the terrible ones that have been written, that’s saying a lot. But A Barnstormer in Oz might also be the worst sequel to have been written to anything.

How bad is it?

Around page 11 there’s a description of Glinda’s nipples. Glinda the Good. But for equal time, Farmer also offers horrified readers a description of the Tin Woodman’s nipples. And his cock.

But that’s not even what makes A Barnstormer in Oz so horrifyingly bad. Philip Jose Farmer was a writer who flew by the seat of his pants and he might have made a book in which Hank, the pilot son of Dorothy, visits Oz and lusts after Glinda while fighting off the armies of President Harding and made it work.

But no. It’s the Tin Woodman’s cock that’s the problem. Philip Jose Farmer decided that the best approach to take with a modern fairy tale about a fantasy world with talking animals was hard science.

Yes, hard science.

A Barnstormer in Oz sets out to explain every detail of the imaginary world based on some kind of science. The munchkins are humans who moved through an inter-dimensional doorway to Oz and then intermarried with neanderthals. The Tin Woodman, Glinda transferred his consciousness into a tin robot. With nipples.

People reach Oz because the air force is conducting experiments in inter-dimensional travel. In 1923.

Since there are talking animals, the hard science approach doesn’t get very far. But it does fill up huge chunks of the book. Instead of an adventure, A Barnstormer in Oz really follows Hank around as he tries to explain an imaginary world based on even more imaginary science with concepts that no one had heard of in 1923.

None of this is exciting. It is very boring.

Most of the Oz characters are not recognizable. Glinda dominates the book and the main character as a ‘good witch’ who rules as an immortal dictator who kills munchkins who don’t follow her One Child Policy and sends hawks after her enemies. What makes her different than a bad witch? Hank wants to sleep with her.

That’s basically it.

I gave up on A Barnstormer in Oz around the time that Hank writes a 5 page letter to President Harding renouncing his American citizenship. It was either that or renounce my sanity.

In a Barnstormer in Oz, Philip Jose Farmer manages to take a pilot from 1923 reaching Oz and fighting flying monkeys and makes it as boring as dry paint. And that’s not even mentioning the racism and sexism. The creepy sex. And the Tin Woodman’s anatomically correct buttocks on the cover.

Is Mr. Mercedes Stephen King’s Worst Book?

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Mr. Mercedes doesn’t read like Stephen King. It doesn’t even read like Dean Koontz. It reads like Mediocre Thrillerwriter from the four books for a buck shelf.

It reads like a trunk novel from 1992 when the internet was new and scary and a rash of books and TV movies about evil little nerds plotting to kill people with super computer magic were everywhere.

And it wouldn’t surprise me if that was exactly where Mr. Mercedes is from.

The title and cover of Mr. Mercedes strain to convince you that it’s going to be another complicated ride filled with allusions building up to… forget about it.

There’s nothing supernatural here. There’s nothing any deeper than the movie of the week here.

Mr. Mercedes is the story of a battle of wits between your stock character, the retired cop still haunted by a case (divorced, alcoholic, thinking of suicide – all the cliche boxes are checked) and an updated Norman Bates who not only has a sick relationship with his mother, but also works on the Geek Squad at Best Buy and has an evil command center in his basement full of laptops with a countdown running.

And he voice controls them by saying “Chaos”.

Stephen King has written bad novels before, but never boring ones. This isn’t Christine. This isn’t The Under the Dome. It’s just bland.

The writing is bad. The characters are bland. The plot is predictable. I skipped 100 pages ahead and sure enough, the Best Buy Norman Bates had killed his mother. I skipped ahead another 100 pages and the plastic explosive mentioned early on had been used to blow up the cop’s new girlfriend.

And then I put down the book for good.

That was the first time I put down a Stephen King book without reading it through. But before King had always put in enough hooks, enough verbal special pleadings, to keep you going. Mr. Mercedes is the first time his talent completely abandoned him.

There’s nothing here worth reading.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe after 300 pages the whole thing turns into a hidden mystical battle between his shopping list and his ghostwriter.

But I’m betting it doesn’t.

If you programmed a computer to write a Stephen King novel, it might spit out something like Mr. Mercedes. It’s unimaginative. It’s so unimaginative that it doesn’t even inhabit the same space as imagination.

There are some of Stephen King’s tics here, but they come off badly. The Best Buy Bates talks like an elderly 60s racist. Really, what twenty something today says “Darkie”. There’s a young black character who keeps saying “Massa”.

It’s embarrassing to read. It must have been even more embarrassing to edit. Except that it obviously wasn’t edited.

King tried to learn something about the internet in the process of writing or rewriting this, but it just makes the basic errors and the context of it even dumber.

The cop and the Best Buy Bates spar through a supersecret connection that sounds like a housewife’s chat room from the 90s. There’s talk about vacuuming crumbs out of CPUs. The Best Buy Bates is an inventor and computer genius who never heard of a Roomba.

I don’t know why Mr. Mercedes exists.

It’s obvious that Stephen King has been having some writing problems. He put out two trunk novels recently and a few sequels. The quality has been weak, but Mr. Mercedes isn’t weak. It has no merits.

There’s no reason to read it.

Is SciFi Lit Dead? The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirtieth Annual Collection Review

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It took me a while to get around to reading The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirtieth Annual Collection. I don’t like Gardner Dozois on principle, but the annual collections, despite the nepotism, were usually dominated by strong writing.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirtieth Annual Collection stinks of nepotism and mediocrity. There are few strong stories and few bad stories. The dominant theme is mediocrity.

Most of the stories are mediocre. The same five or six writers have two stories a piece in the collection. I never saw that before and it’s telling.

There’s the foreword with its phony confidence about the health of the industry. The pathetic attempts at inclusiveness. And the stories that are congealed masses of SciFi lit genre cliches.

Third world nanotech. Forgiveness and near death experiences. That’s the dominant impression. It’s like the genre hasn’t changed in fifteen years. And it needs a bath.

There are a few ‘different’ stories like Steven Popkes’ “Sudden, Broken, and Unexpected” and “Old Paint” that feel modern, but the rest is the usual post-cyberpunk trash clogging SciFi lit. And there’s even a Steampunk entry. And at least one zombie story.

“Close Encounters” by Andy Duncan has a certain charm, but doesn’t seem like a best of anything, though it comes closer to fitting the Sudden and Old Paint template of modern Science Fiction.

“Chitai Heiki Koronbin” by David Moles circles that same template, but is too mediocre to be here.

Some stories were so boring that they’re unreadable. They’re not bad. They just sit there. Like Holmes Sherlock or Lavie Tidhar, who gets two stories to demonstrate that she can write like it’s 1995. Or Carrie Vaughn’s Astrophilia.

Nobody sums up tired 90’s post-cyberpunk better than Pat Cadigan with “The Girl-thing Who Went Out For Sushi”. Thanks, we’ve done this already. Try a time machine to when computers ran Windows 95 and this story would have been edgy and fresh.

But Alastair Reynolds has his shot with tired Third World genre cliche “The Water Thief”. A refugee camp. Remote work. It’s so timely. In 1995.

Robert Reed’s Eater of Bone is dark and good. “In The House Of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns” by Elizabeth Bear is actually decent and uses the Third World setting intelligently. It’s the exception to the rule.

Indrapramit Das’ Weep for Day is used to market the book, but it’s a mediocre cliche with occasional bursts of style and about the only reason for the hype is the new diversity quotas.

Lavie Tidhar appears to be another diversity quota entry. “Tyche and the Ants” by Hannu Rajaniemi is another diversity quota and poor story. “Vainglory” by Alastair Reynolds would have been a much better substitute.

“Macy Minnot’s Last Christmas on Dione, Ring Racing, Fiddler’s Green, the Potter’s Garden” by Paul McAuley takes the prize for longest title and most worthlessly mediocre story.

“Nightfall On The Peak Of Eternal Light” seems like a Heinlein story. Except more mediocre. It’s a decent depiction of lunar life, but not really very interesting. Not sure why it’s even here. Ditto for “Nightside On Callisto” by Linda Nagata with a different setting.

Michael Bishop’s Twenty Lights To “the Land Of Snow has its moments of charm, but it’s too long and directionless. Again, mediocrity.

There’s “Steamgothic” by Sean Mcmullen which is every bit as awful as it sounds.

“Ruminations In An Alien Tongue” by Vandana Singh. See quotas, diversity.

“The Wreck Of The Charles Dexter Ward” by Sarah Monette And Elizabeth Bear is somewhat intriguing, but it’s a technophobic zombie story with an interesting setting and no background.

“Invisible Men” by Christopher Barzak is an “I’m so clever I’m writing about class as a metaphor” reworking of The Invisible Man. It would have been mediocre even in 1955.

The overriding theme is mediocrity. It seems as if SciFi Lit, despite being more vocal and more editorially powerful than ever, has run out of steam. It’s unable to jettison its tired cyberpunk gear and its attempts at diversity just make a bad thing worse.

Existence by David Brin book review

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Every now and then, David Brin pops out with an overstuffed novel full of characters and ideas set in a near-distant future. Existence is built on the same template as Earth, but the Kiln novel tag is appropriate since it feels unfinished.

Existence reads like a first draft of a promising novel. There are a lot of brilliant ideas, but the novel is unfinished in ways that become obvious once the final third jumps years into the future, becomes truly interesting and collapses in a tangle of plot elements.

Its basic premise of an intelligent alien chain letter powered by the manipulative agendas of the consciousness of countless species propagating themselves like a virus is brilliant and ought to have made for a much better novel than this one, but Brin pads that out with a lot of unnecessary human characters and plots and then abruptly fast forwards it to the future discarding a lot of the excess elements. And then he does it again.

Applying the insane logic of internet wars and social collapse on an interstellar scale with spammers and botnets stretching across stars and civilizations, trolls and hackers passing themselves along through copies that are sent among the stars, is a great idea. And someone ought to do something with it.

There are echoes of Vernon Vinge’s brilliant Rainbow’s End and Fred Pohl’s Gateway series in Existence, but Brin’s future is less grounded and less ambitious, a splintered society whose celebrity journalists and their online information posses are plausible and dry, as are the battles between different factions whose motives and even agendas are poorly sketched in.

A lot of Existence’s plot involves a best-selling luddite novelist working for a cause whose renunciation agenda is never properly clarified. The same thing happens again when we reach outer space to encounter different alien robot factions fighting each other only to once again be left without an explanation for what the factions stand for and what the agenda of the alien probe narrator is.

A big chunk of Existence’s plot threads involve a rich playboy who survives a water landing with the help of dolphins and then never figures in the rest of the story except as a possible call forward to Brin’s Uplift stuff.

Things like these make Existence feel unfinished. The novel wavers between a handful of brilliant ideas that aren’t expanded and a lot of dry material that goes nowhere.

If Brin had the sense to embrace his ideas and build a novel around them instead of relying on the same tired old formula of trying to use a handful of diverse characters to sketch out a future world, Existence could have been a bold and brilliant novel.

Instead it’s a pile of literary rubble with some very interest things glittering in the ruins.

Directive 51 and Daybreak Zero by John Barnes book review

Most of what sits on the Science Fiction section bookshelf these days is fairly predictable. There are categories. Urban fantasy. Steampunk. Heinlein teen novels for adults. Dystopian space operas. Space Cop sagas. But John Barnes is an offbeat writer whose work is usually hard to categorize. How do you categorize Kaleidoscope Century, Finity or A Million Open Doors? But that lack of categorization has probably held Barnes back from also being a successful writer.

Directive 51 and Daybreak Zero look a lot more successful because they’re easy to categorize in the glancing way that a genre plot daybreakzerousually is. We all know what’s going to be in an end of the world novel or a teenage girl in love with a vampire novel. The contents are the details of a known quantity. And that is and isn’t true of the Daybreak series.

Directive 51 and Daybreak Zero are part political thriller, end of the world survivalist tale and speculative futuristic semiotics. In terms of interest level, it goes something like 3, 1 and 2, but in terms of content, it’s more like 2, 1, 3 so that there’s a whole lot of scenes about people trying to maintain and rebuild civilization after its collapse, a lot of political wrangling and not a lot about the emergence of a meme.

The story is simple enough. A group calling itself Daybreak operates out of an online community (Barnes calls it an online game at one point but never describes it) and then uses everything from nanotechnology to nuclear bombs to wipe out civilization and then forms into stone age tribes to wipe out the human race. But the group is really run by a meme.

The concept of a meme war trilogy would have been a lot more interesting and plausible set in a framework of modern tech, but instead the Daybreak series follows its usual bunch of characters from these types of novels (the plucky female FBI agent, the nerdy programmer, the stiff government official, the creative journalist) through the end of the technological world and the beginning of a 19th Century broken America.

Barnes has never done characters well. They always fall into the category of being almost, but not quite there, and the Daybreak novels are no different. The civilization story has been done too many times and Barnes doesn’t have much new to offer there, especially since he’s covering a lot of the ground that S.M. Stirling just covered. It’s Daybreak that’s interesting and it’s what we see the least of.

The politics are occasionally interesting, because while Barnes never really makes his heroes come to life, he does better with the secondary characters who populate the political background. They’re still types, but they’re also flawed ambitious people with good and bad instincts trying to do the right thing, which makes them more real and more interesting than his main characters.

There’s some politics of the current kind, but Barnes balances out both sides so it never turns into a preaching contest, and after taking the requisite amount of shots at tree-huggers and bible-thumpers, spends more of it looking at the political system and the consequences of handing out that kind of power to people. Unlike his main characters, the presidents and players behave with human unpredictably. They’re born out of stereotypes, but occasionally transcend them. The naive Liberal Vice-President dies foiling a terrorist attack and the fanatical Christian candidate turns into a moderate leader in the middle of a crisis.

Still that’s not a show that really is worth showing up for. Daybreak however is and while Directive 51 doesn’t provide enough Daybreak, Daybreak Zero does begin showing the bigger picture and some of the bigger ideas that we would expect in this kind of story.

An end of the world story is only as good as its apocalypse and the Daybreak Zero has a very human and inhuman apocalypse at its center as the online community becomes a global terrorist network and then a genocidal stone age cult that turns its old online programming into a tribal play and replaces instant message flash mobs with spirit stick barbarians. It’s a compelling concept that is never developed all the way, but that the success of the first two novels will hopefully enable Barnes to more fully execute in The Last President.

21st Century Dead edited by Christopher Golden

A zombie anthology is dead from page one. Like most gimmicky anthologies it’s limited by its topic, and zombies, despite the 21st century deadsheer number of movies and comics about them are not very interesting.

21st Century Dead is supposed to be a more modern anthology. Forget those countless anthologies with punny names all edited by the same guy that you’ve seen on the spinner rack. This is trade paperback size. It has a splashy cover with lots of gore that looks like a movie poster. And it has a punny title. And its story quality is even worse.

There are the screenplay treatments that the authors and editor pretends are stories. There are zombies as a metaphor for poverty and for television. (Yes, there are a few of each.) There are a lot of stories about family members coping with their loved ones becoming zombies, including a few stories about people feeding other people to their family members who have turned into zombies. And there’s a novella in the middle about a ghost dog protecting a little boy from an evil alien spirit or something.

But it’s hard to blame anyone involved for 21st Century Dead. Christopher Golden has bad taste as the editor, but the topic is also on the hopeless side. What do you really do with zombies? Not a lot. There’s a virus. Everyone turns into zombies. Everyone else runs away or reacts in dysfunctional ways.

The Walking Dead can do a lot out of human reactions, but that’s not enough for an anthology, and there isn’t much that can be done. A few of the stories project a rebuilt society that finds ways to harness or cure zombies and that’s as clever as it gets. A few stories aren’t really about zombies, including Orson Scott Card’s initially funny story about a wife who comes home to her henpecked husband, but that then goes off the rails, but mostly they travel the same old territory. Virus. Bite. Depression.

There really isn’t much you can do with zombies and there’s not much cleverness on display in 21st Century Dead, an anthology that exists because zombies are popular, not because there’s anything more to write about them.

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