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World War Z – Max Brooks’ Boring Zombie Apocalypse

war-z

If I had to choose between rereading World War Z and facing a zombie apocalypse, I would go with the zombie apocalypse.

World War Z by Max Brooks isn’t just a bad book. It’s an unreadable book. It’s like a zombie Tom Clancy without any understanding of plot or storytelling. Writing in conversational first person from multiple viewpoints would be a difficult enough trick for a professional writer. Max Brooks isn’t up to it and not just for all the obvious reasons.

Open a page, any page, here’s what you’re going to find.

Gagron rolls a cigarette, looks at the waitress

Then we brought down the T-Hawks in xa-320 time. Buenos Aires was spread open in front of us. The Dawbies (*Dawbies were the nickname given by Argentinian special forces to their purchased Russian A-260s) and Zebras were everywhere. I didn’t know what to do. We stood around for a bit. Then Zebra was on us. That’s where I got this scar.

Senor, I still have nightmares about it today.

World War Z would be defensible if it were an actual collection of stories about an actual war. But it’s a fictional collection of fake narratives about zombies that skips the zombie part more often than you would think for some kind of second rate war trauma narrative for a war that never happened.

Max Brooks spends too much of World War Z establishing global references for every country he hops to, but the actual zombie outbreak falls between the cracks except for an early scene in China and a battle in Yonkers. The references are supposed to lend authenticity to a story that just isn’t interesting because it’s buried in Wikipediaisms, in footnotes and factoids and footnotes in factoids.

World War Z might have made for a decent novel if it had tried to tell a third person story in real time. Instead its first person aftermath interviews are not only a pointless gimmick, like blood on the camera lens, to make a story seem authentic by adding a filter to it, but it bypasses most of the interesting parts of a zombie war.

That is what’s so strange about World War Z, from its fake classics book cover to its trauma case files it wants legitimacy that doesn’t belong to a zombie story. Like a movie about Lincoln killing vampires, a story about a zombie apocalypse is never going to be legit.

Max Brooks’ dubious accomplishment in World War Z is to make a zombie apocalypse seem boring by treating it like the aftermath of the Vietnam War, instead of a story about monsters that eat people.

Stories by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio

Some short story anthologies begin with an introduction, others with a manifesto, usually having to do with this being an astounding feat of genre bending in a marketplace where everyone else hews to genre. Stories, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, is the latter kind of collection, accompanied by a manifesto and a mission statement.

Stories draws from a list of writers that leans more to the lit crowd, and like most genre defying collections that draw together authors, many of whom have little experience with the genres, let alone bending them, the outcome is messy and amateurish.

There are quite a few stories about men going mad, in two of them they might either be mad or confronting an evil that no one else believes in. There are multiple stories of sibling rivalry between a dominating and mild-mannered pair, two of them are even twins. There are several Christmas stories, which must either have something to do with the timing or maybe the authors were at some point told this would be a Christmas anthology. How otherwise to explain several stories about Santa Claus.

The actual quality varies wildly. The worst of the stories, “Fossil Figures” from Joyce Carol Oates, is from a lit figure, and written in the usual clunky mannered style she’s known for, complete with a childish plot and political rants, reminding you of something a college freshman would hand in to class. The best may be Neil Gaiman’s “The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains”, which despite his genre bending manifesto, is solidly genre, or Michael Moorcock’s “Stories”, whose opening pages are a knowing or unknowing critique of this collection, complete with mentions of posh agents dumping off genre slumming stories.

A lot of the stories are so bad they could only have been dumped here. Richard Ford’s “Polka Dots And Moonbeams” is completely gibberish. Gene Wolfe’s “Leif In The Wind” is yet another “astronauts going mad on a long distance voyage” story. “Mallon The Guru” from Peter Straub is pointless and “Goblin Lake” from Michael Swanwick has the usual problems with his work.

But on the other hand there’s Roddy Doyle’s entertaining “Blood”, Stewart O’Nan’s “Land of the Lost”, Kat Howard’s “A Life In Fictions” and Jonathan Carroll’s :”Let the Past Begin” that make up for them. Not enough maybe, but it’s a start. And most of the rest are somewhere in between.

Do the stories in “Stories” fulfill Gaiman’s manifesto of making you want to turn the page to see what happens next? Mostly they don’t. Even the better stories aren’t pageturners, mostly they fall into the category of, “And things get worse from there.” There are occasional eye-opening surprises, like the ending of “Blood”, which shifts your perspective. Mostly though they do the expected thing and if you don’t know what’s coming next, then you haven’t read many stories before.

The worst material comes from the authors with the least experience writing the supernatural, horror, fantasy or science fiction, and that repudiates the genre bending manifestos, because to know how bend a genre, you first have to know it. Without that, attempts by Kurt Andersen or Joyce Carol Oates are not just poor, they read as if they were written by amateurs, because they are.

Imager’s Intrigue by L.E. Modesitt book review

Imager’s Intrigue by L.E. ModesittAs a writer Modesitt is an impressive human factory rattling off one book after another. The whole Imager series was a fairly obvious attempt to diversity his offerings after the Recluse series, but despite its early variations in the art scene and the fantasy French setting, by Imager’s Intrigue the books have hopelessly converged back to their Recluse origins with the same trajectory.

Sure all the books are basically the same. The brash youthful main character learns the study of magic, copes with a distant and uncommunicative mentor, finds a girl and marries her, and then gets down to working at some sort of job or running a business while developing skills that the other characters find ridiculously superhuman. But some still manage to be entertaining, which is more than you can say for Imager’s Intrigue which finds the main character, name long forgotten, working at his police job, married and with a kid or two, until the villains of one of the previous novels, evil capitalists, shell the Imager academy forcing him to root them out.

This sounds exciting, but really isn’t. The first third of Imager’s Intrigue reads like a log with the character getting up, going off to work and doing nothing much there. Then coming home and eating dinner with his family. The book picks up a bit after that, but not by very much. The villains are still the same old capitalists who want to overthrow a monarchy and this time there aren’t any wild cards.

By the end the main character commits genocide against them, wiping out millions of people, without even yawning. The author doesn’t find this too awful either. And even that moment happens off-screen while the main character is doing such exciting things as eating breakfast and checking in with the local police. The banality of evil would apply here, because it’s banal and evil. But mostly banal.

Heart of Veridon by Tim Akers book review

Heart of Veridon is three things blended together, steampunk, a fantasy universe and gangster noir. It’s not hard to guess which of these heart of veridon tim akersthree doesn’t fit.

Akers excels at world building, spinning out an ancient civilization with a completely different technology that dangles somewhere between magic and technology, he effortlessly populates the world with people, social classes and a working city. And then his characters open their mouths and sound like Edward G. Robinson on a bad day.

But the noir element provides the impetus for a plot that sends Jacob Burn, a thug and scion of a noble family, scrambling to uncover the secrets of his civilization. It works mainly as an excuse for taking us through the complex construction of Veridon, but it’s a poor fit with the universe.

Does Heart of Veridon make sense? Not the technology, in a universe where you have to surgically alter pilots to fly zeppelins, but the fantasy element, undeveloped as it is, holds it together. And even Born becomes tolerable after a while. The most compelling element in the book though is the theology and politics intersecting in betrayal and war.

11/22/63 by Stephen King book review

11/22/63 by Stephen King11/22/63 has movie written all over it. Take some Final Destination, stir in Mr. Holland’s Opus, mix with Pleasantville and just about every time travel movie ever made and there you go.

The problem with 11/22/63 is its title. To King’s generation that date may be as memorable as 9/11, but that generation and its self-obsession is fading away. Had 11/22/63 been the monomaniacal obsession with saving JFK that the title and cover suggests, it wouldn’t be worth reading. Despite the reams of research though, it isn’t.

What 11/22/63 actually is, is an unwieldy book. 11/22/63 isn’t a failure like The Dome, instead it’s unbalanced as if Stephen King doesn’t know what his own novel is about. An extended section in Derry which tries to piggyback on his vastly superior IT makes that obvious. But King finds his footing with a doomed love story set in a small town in Texas.

11/22/63 is at its weakest when following around Lee Harvey Oswald’s pathetic life. King attempts to fictionalize Oswald, but still can’t make him compelling or interesting. He attempts to turn Dallas into Derry and flirts with Oswald as demonically possessed, but seems to have enough common sense not to follow through with those ideas.

Instead 11/22/63 ends up telling the classic time travel story of a man from the future, a teacher named Jake Epping, who finds a better life in the past and a love that he has to give up. Unfortunately King doesn’t really seem to understand that this is his story until he has already told it. The entire novel reeks of being undeveloped, though not as badly as The Dome was. It moves jerkily around without knowing where it’s going until the end.

Too much of 11/22/63 seems to take it for granted that saving JFK will make the world a better place, without seriously defending it, that the “twist” which everyone who has ever read Science Fiction can predict, fits in awkwardly. The dreaded future that King belatedly takes us to is even more poorly written. And the entire conclusion of the novel is clumsy and clunky, only partially redeemed by an ending apparently suggested by his son.

The saving grace of 11/22/63 is that this time King has a main character with hopes and dreams, rather than a pasteboard target for scoring political points. King misses with Derry, he misses with Dallas, but when in doubt he goes back and breathes life into the cliche of small town Americana where the food tastes better, the cars run faster and where life is felt more deeply.

11/22/63 is not a great novel, or even a particularly good one, but it has its moments. Unfortunately it also has Stephen King, whose Uncle Stevie title now seems a little too fitting, delivering random political diatribes. The experience is a little like that family dinner where your crazy uncle begins ranting about his expected targets. It’s not that he’s necessarily wrong, it’s that his diatribes are boring and narrow-minded.

King’s politics are pat. His good people are Catholics, his bad people are Baptists. 11/22/63 has no shortage of racist stereotypes, but takes its bows for denouncing racism. His worship of JFK is weird and off-putting when we know a little too much about him to believe it. 11/22/63 tries to go for political commentary, but knows enough to back off, but not enough to scrub the whole thing.

Like The Dome, 11/22/63 is a mistake. Not quite a revived trunk novel, but a trunk idea, badly managed. Still it has its charm and that charm is in Jolie, Texas. When it leaves Jolie, its reason for existing goes with it.

Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis book review

There’s the bare bones of a good novel in Ian Tregillis’ Bitter Seeds, but it hasn’t been thought out well enough. From a great opening, Bitter Seeds founders on its basic premise that everything that happens in this alternate history of World War II where the Nazis have deployed technologically enhanced supermen and superwomen with special gifts and the British have turned to demonic spirits, depends on the ability of Gretchen, one of the superwomen, to predict the future and act in accordance with it.

That doesn’t seem like so much of a problem at first, but increasingly nothing can happen in the novel except following Gretchen’s agenda. That means nothing really matters and the story has nowhere to go. The British put their efforts into soliciting demons and paying a blood price to blockade the English Channel, but none of that really goes anywhere. The Nazis zip around Europe and besiege England, but don’t seem to get around to pushing into the USSR.

Rather than the battle between technology and mysticism that the novel’s blurb advertises, it’s more of a pointless stalemate with none of the characters really accomplishing anything. Tregillis proves the paradox that knowing the future leaves you helpless but that doesn’t make for much of a story. It’s not Tregillis’ writing that fails here, or his ability to tell a compelling story, it’s the plotting that locks him into a novel that goes nowhere. By the end the war has ended, with little intervention from any of the characters, and nothing really seems to matter.

The Best of Gene Wolfe book review

The Best of Gene Wolfe The best way to read The Best of Gene Wolfe is to open the book, read the first story, The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories, and then close the book and put it away. Not only doesn’t it get any better from here, it gets much worse.

The cover blurbs on the book boast that Wolfe is Melville, Dostoevsky and Dickens all rolled into one. Truth be told he’s a second-rate Theodore Sturgeon and Avram Davidson rolled into one, and The Best of Gene Wolfe is his idea of what his best stories are. Which with authors is rarely a good thing.

I’m not a Wolfe hater. The man has written some great stories and most of them are in here, so are stories that should never have seen the light of day. If you’ve read the usual Best of the Year and Hugo and Nebula collections, then you’ve probably seen the good ones. You may have also seen some of the terrible ones like The Dream Detective, an upscale Catholic version of a Jack Chick tract.

The Fifth Head of Cerberus is in here, so is The Tree is My Hat and Seven American Nights. Unfortunately so is Forlesen, an endless story about how awful working for a corporation is, along with numerous stories that just aren’t stories. Take The Death of the Island Doctor, which Wolfe in his afterword mentions that he is pleased it is nothing like a story. But maybe it should have been.

The Best of Gene Wolfe is filled with stories that aren’t really stories, but probably should have been stories. Or the space taken up by them should have been filled by stories. Some like From the Desk of Gilmer C. Merton, On the Train or The God and His Man are wankery, there’s no better word for it.

For every adequate story like Westwind, or And When They Appear, there’s a Game in the Pope’s Head or The Parkroads. And the rare good ones like Straw, are more than offset by all the rest. The average quality of the collection is not good, but anyone who’s a fan of Wolfe will eat it up. Those who aren’t, might want to consider just buying a couple of old Hugo and Nebula collections for a better overall quality mix.

Warriors I edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois book review

Aside from Martin’s name on the cover and despite his introduction going on about the wire spinner rack and the diversity of genres inside, Warriors I is like most anthologies. Gardner Dozois, the man who helped push Science Fiction deeper into the same inbred pseudo-literary ghetto, being on the cover is the tip off. Warriors I utilizes some historical fiction stories, but that’s not exactly unheard of. And it would be more objectionable if they didn’t look good compared to the genre entries.

Warriors I has several vaguely science fiction stories from top drawer authors, another Dunk and Egg tale from Martin and a few historical warriors george martin bookfiction entries. The latter are the only stories in the book that don’t suffer from abortive endings. While Martin gets to fill the collection with a novella, most of the other stories feel like novellas abruptly cut down to story size.

Forever Bound by Joe Haldeman, the opening story, is yet another recapitulation of his most famous book, with co-eds drafted into a senseless war, this time to merge their minds together into a gestalt that controls virtual robot soldiers. It’s interesting enough until the abrupt ending cuts off just as the story was on the verge of showing us how this might work in actual combat. The ending to Tad Williams’ Ministers of Grace isn’t that abrupt, but the story is slick, shiny and dumb enough that it really doesn’t matter. And Williams hasn’t bothered to learn the definitions of things like Pagan and Zionism while writing a story about religion. Defenders of the Frontier by Robert Silverberg features another aborted ending, but the story is too inert and has few places to go so it’s a mercy killing.

The only thing half worth reading in Warriors I, except for Martin’s Mystery Knight, is Saylor’s The Eagle and the Rabbit, a piece of historical fiction that has enough fantasy to almost qualify and is a complete and detailed story within a minimalist setting. It contains a lesson for all the other contributors, but it’s not likely that they’ll learn from it.

City by Clifford D. Simak book review

When Simak wrote the introduction for City in 1976 he assumed that it would be the book that would define him. I’m not sure it has but Clifford Simak The Citythat’s only because unlike Bradbury, he never got his own Fahrenheit 451, that defining book everyone knows you for because it seems to say something IMPORTANT about where we’re all headed as a civilization.

City might be Simak’s own Fahrenheit 451, but it isn’t. It’s more like his On the Beach. Fahrenheit came off as a rebellious blast, but Simak’s City has no rebels. Just the Websters who are inept, weak and full of bad ideas. The Websters are meant to be heroes, but by the time the earth has been abandoned to the ants by a pacifist animal brotherhood which can’t even defend itself, they seem more like villains. To read City is to slowly watch humanity die off by people who have taken Simak’s philosophy and applied it. Simak may have meant City to comment on the destructiveness of nuclear war, but its comment on pacifism as a dead is much more decisive.

Like most of Simak’s works, City is patient and loving, filled with nostalgia and characters who love the land and its streams and rustic homes. It begins with the end of the city, twice, as humanity leaves the cities for a decentralized life in the country with atomic planes and cheap rural houses, and then gathers in a city when there are only a handful left to hibernate in a virtual reality. It begins with men who can’t leave the place they live and ends with their robot who can’t do it either.

There is insight in City, but much more sentimentality. Simak’s search for a path away from violence puts an end to the human race, when a Webster is unable to pull the trigger even to save the human race (or come up with a more elegant non-violent solution). The robots and dogs who are extensions of humanity go on, but humanity vanishes into alien bodies on Jupiter, another dimension and virtual reality in a closed city.

Worlds Enough and Time by Dan Simmons book review

Worlds Enough and Time by Dan SimmonsI’ve always been somewhat neutral on Dan Simmons. Hyperion impressed me, as it did a lot of other readers, but the sequels left me cold and nothing else I read by him ever managed to make me feel much of anything. He’s not a writer I hate or like, and that may be because his grandiose mythic space operas never really seem to connect.

Worlds Enough and Time takes five Simmons stories, some novella length, some not, and combines them with a heap of introductions and leaves me liking Simmons, but not his fiction.

Usually I hate excess introductions, and Worlds Enough and Time, which has two introductions, an introduction to the collection and an introduction to the first story, should have tripped some alarms, but the introductions read better than the story, a potentially promising concept that turned out to be an update on the little boy who can do anything, except with a troubled teenage girl. The same experience repeated itself with the next story, an update on the Hyperion universe that started as a Voyager pitch and sort of stays as one.

What I found was that Simmons may be a better essayist than a writer. As an essayist he has an immediate tone and wraps together disparate concepts into an organic whole. As a story writer, he takes good writing, combines it with a mediocre plot and ties the whole thing together with a last minute transcendent event which takes the characters and the human race to a whole new level of enlightenment.

In Looking for Kelly Dahl, there’s a bonding moment with shared memories. In Orphans of the Helix, a character suddenly displays telepathy and allows a lost branch of humanity a chance at joining the new evolution of humanity. On K2 with Kanakredes, a mountain climbing expedition with an alien ends with the main character and the human race suddenly being able to hear the song of the world. The Ninth of Av is a dark inverse version of the same. The End of Gravity is more confusing, but again some revelation appears at a crucial moment. And it’s really the only worthwhile story in the bunch.

But I didn’t leave Worlds Enough and Time resenting Simmons for wasting my time, just wishing that he had brought the authorial voice in his essays to his characters and the originality in them to his plots.

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