And You Thought Your Job Sucked – Mur Lafferty’s The Shambling Guide To New York City

So I’m not huge into the urban fantasy genre.  I’ve enjoyed some author’s takes on it, most especially Gaiman’s Neverwhere.  But as a general rule, I find it kind of boring.  Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series is one that I never picked up after reading the first one, same with authors like Kim Harrison and Charlaine Harris (though at the Southern Vampire books really urban fantasy? Bah, close enough…).

That said, I’ve tried to remain open-minded to new additions to the genre, especially when the backbone of the novel is a focus on books!  BOOKS!  I love books, obviously. They stack up around me, more and more every week… and I’m not sick of them yet.  My wife might be, but… that’s a story for another post.

So… is The Shambling Guide to New York City the novel to drag me kicking and screaming back into the urban fantasy genre?

The Shambling Guide to New York City
Mur Lafferty
358 Pages
Orbit Books
May 28, 2013

Zoe Norris has returned to New York City after a disastrous exit from her last job in an attempt to rebalance her life and find some semblance of normalcy in the Big Apple.  Zoe finds a job posting for a travel guide editor posted on the corkboard of an extremely odd bookstore and decides to go for it.

Little does she know that Underground Publishing is a publishing house that caters to a very exclusive group… specifically zombies, vampires, succubi, incubi, and various other creatures of the night – referred to in the novel as the coterie.

Zoe interviews for the job with a vampire named Phil, who also runs the publishing company.  After getting the job, her co-workers are a couple vampires, some zombies, a death goddess, and a water sprite.  Oh and a succubus named John who doesn’t take no for an answer.

So far, so good, right?  If the rest of the novel following was about Zoe and her attempts to get in touch with the coterie and write the actual book that she gets hired to write… I would probably have enjoyed the novel a lot more.  But… things get convoluted and overstuffed pretty quickly for my tastes.

Instead of focusing on the writing of a travel guide for the coterie, the novel becomes a battle against the end of the world.  Now this isn’t entirely unprecedented, as Zoe is taught to defend herself against the more evil members of the coterie by a woman named Granny Good Mae and this seems to indicate the direction the novel will be going, but…

It just doesn’t work for me.  A lot of this comes from the sheer amount of coincidences that come together as the novel draws to a close.  Not only is Zoe’s hunky next-door neighbor Arthur involved in the weirdness that’s going on, but so is a member of Zoe’s previous life in Raleigh, NC.

That said… there’s good humor in the novel and the general plot works well enough.  I was entertained enough to keep on reading to the end and Lafferty does a great job of making Zoe feel distinctly uncomfortable in her role as savior of New York City.  She isn’t some kind of superhero, ably meeting every challenge presented to her.  Instead, she’s a spunky every-woman who only wanted a job editing and writing a book.  And I can respect that aspect of the character deeply.

I just feel that I’m not the target audience for this novel.

In fact, I’m certain that my dislike of this novel isn’t so much a knock against the novel itself, but of my general distaste for urban fantasy as a whole. If you’re a fan of the Sookie Stackhouse novels, or Laurell K Hamilton’s pre-porn novels… you will probably enjoy this.

And Mur Lafferty runs a fantastic website that houses her fantastic podcast I Should Be Writing, among other things.  Even if you’re not into urban fantasy, like me, there’s plenty to enjoy in that series!

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Physics, Comedy, And Alternate Realities – Tom Holt’s Doughnut

Previous to this, I had never read any of Tom Holt’s work.  In fact, I don’t know that I had ever heard of Tom Holt.  This makes me sad.  Mainly because he’s got such great titles, such as Snow White and the Seven Samurai, Djinn Rummy, and Grailblazers.

From what I understand, his books are a little odd.

In fact, from reading Doughnut, I think he’s easily comparable to comedy genius Christopher Moore, who writes with a similar recognition of how ridiculous the ongoing story is.  Holt also writes similarly to another sci-fi\humor genius Douglas Adams.  Holt’s British wit pours off of every page.

So the basics of the story are this: Theo Bernstein is a physicist, a very smart one.  So smart, that he works at the Very Very Large Hadron Collider (VVLHC) in Switzerland.  Or he did before a very minor error in calculation caused the entire thing to explode, taking with it his arm, his job, and (collaterally) his wife.

Oh, but his arm is still there.  But invisible.  Why?  Nobody knows!  And Theo, as he’s out on his ass with no money, no job, and no family to fall back on, doesn’t have much time to think about it  He works in a slaughterhouse for several weeks until he receives a letter telling him that’s he has inherited his old college professor’s safe deposit box.

His professor, Pieter van Goyen, must had a really sick sense of humor because the deposit box contained a small empty bottle, a powder compact, and an apple.  Oh and a rather odd note explaining how he had managed to set up a job for Theo and that the bottle might end up somehow killing him.

What a friend!

From there, things go from bad to worse.  Pieter’s letter explains that there’s this guy with a job opening that Theo would be an absolutely dynamite fit for, so Theo reluctantly seeks out this position.  And who could blame the guy? His alternative is trucking cow parts from one side of a hot, smelly factory to another… how bad could it be?

Well…  when he arrives at the hotel, it seems… closed.  Or if not closed, then going through some major renovations.  The hotel’s proprietor, Bill, and the only other staff member, a young woman named Matasuntha, are extremely odd.  In fact, they’re awfully interested in the bottle small bottle in Theo’s possession.

This is where the novel takes a turn for the weird.  On night, after solving on a massively complex formula he discovers at the bottom of the empty bottle, Theo is transported to a new, different world.  Upon arrival, sky-writing informs Theo that he now resides in a “hand-held portable pocket universe” known as YouSpace.

That’s where I’m going to leave the plot.  Suffice it to say, it gets weirder.  Theo soon joins in on a hunt through YouSpace (multiple YouSpaces, technically) searching for answers to why the VVLHC exploded, what happened to his arm, and where his brother disappeared to all those years ago…

Holt is exceptionally clever in the plotting of a story that becomes increasingly complex as Theo begins traveling into further and further dimensions and it all works.  Or seems to…  I was an English major, not a scientist.

And the humor!  There’s a lot of dry dialogue, of course, but much of the humor comes from the narration.  My favorite gem comes about when Theo is on the precipice of learning a crucial bit of information.  Holt writes, “He had to ask, but he already knew, with the resigned foreboding of an infant at the font who knows that his three elder brothers are called John, Paul, and George, what the answer would be.”

The best recommendation of this novel I can make is that it reminds me intimately of many Kurt Vonnegut novels that I loved greatly in college.  The humor, the complex mixture of literary and sci-fi moments…  Just a great novel from start to finish.  Check it out if you’re on the hunt for a sci-fi novel with a heart and more than a dash of humor.

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A Twenty-First Century Holden Caulfield – Dora: A Headcase

I’m going to preface this by saying that I have an absolute minimum of knowledge in regards to Freudian psychology.  Similarly, all I know about Freud’s own “Dora” case is the very, very brief piece that Wikipedia has on it.

That said, there’s plenty to be enjoyed in Lidia Yuknavitch’s latest novel Dora: A Headcase even without knowledge of the subtle (and not so subtle) Freudian slips. In fact, I’m going to come right out and say it… best book I’ve read all year!  Big apologies to Alif The Unseen, A Hologram For The Kingand Redshirts!

Dora: A Headcase
Lidia Yuknavitch
Hawthorne Books & Literary Arts
234 Pages
August 7, 2012

I’ll be honest… a lot of what drew me to this book was the introduction by Chuck Palahniuk.  Though I haven’t enjoyed every book of his, I’ve found his writing to be consistently interesting even if I can’t get into the plots themselves.  Plus Fight Club and Survivor were a blast!

But I actually haven’t read it yet, even though I’ve finished the novel.  I skipped it because introductions are excellent ways to spoil a novel’s plot.  For instance, I know everything about Anna Karenina and War & Peace thanks to overzealous introductions.

I feel a bit disingenuous playing the Holden Caulfield card in the title.  It almost feels too easy. And it also seems a bit unfair to Yuknavitch to compare her creation to Holden Caulfield, mostly because Ida is only similar in how both novels resonate with me.

I simultaneously love and loathe Holden (and by extension Catcher In The Rye), and I feel the same about Ida in Dora.  The book is very well written, with an electric wit and an  originality of voice that I haven’t felt since I read Broken Glass Park a couple of years ago.  And the main character, Ida\Dora, is endearing… to a point.

For the first few chapters, I wanted to choke Ida with a spoon.  I think a lot of it comes from seeing too much of teen-aged myself in the character (which is why Holden irritates me so much too).

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Dora tells the story of Ida, a 17-year old filmmaker living in Seattle who is on the receiving end of some truly questionable therapy (the name of her therapist, of course, is Sigmund Freud).  Like his namesake “Siggy” (as Ida refers to him) sees dicks everywhere.  Everything is sexual in some manner, or another.

While dealing with an overbearing therapist, Ida also has to endure her father’s affair (with a woman she finds strangely attractive), her very eclectic friends (general hoodlums constantly in pursuit of art… or at least “art”), and a constantly unpredictable mind which seems to want to rebel against anything life throws at her.

Ida’s “posse” includes Ave Maria (a rich teen getting high and drunk on her parents’ dime), Little Teena (a cross-dresser who is also a trained concert pianist), and Obsidian (a Native American who has gone off reservation after being attacked and raped by her step-dad).

Oh and another of Ida’s best friends is another pre-op transsexual named Marlene (formerly Hakizamana Ojo of Rwanda) who gives Ida explicit sex books written in foreign languages.  Marlene is by far my favorite character in the book.

Through the first few chapters Ida is somewhat insufferable, what with her constant need to rebel against everything (coughing over her father’s attempts to communicate seriously with her, flashing her bits to her therapist, drunkenly stripping naked in a Nordstrom’s), but eventually… she starts to become endearing.  Her love and respect for her friends shines through and what once was annoying comes across as oddly refreshing.

There’s a certain point in the novel when tragedy strikes Ida and she transitions from an angry, angsty teenager, to a near-adult enduring a great deal of suffering and sorrow… deep-laid pain that is only beginning to bubble to the surface.

This sadness and pain transitions to the second half of the novel, whereupon we learn that Ida has lost the ability to speak.  I can’t get into much plot after this without delving too deeply into spoilers, but there’s a Viagra overdose, emergency surgery, pushy and violent reality TV producers, and a massive breakout from a juvie detention facility.

The only real flaw in the second half of the novel is the epilogue.  It takes a strong, emotional ending… and ties up all the loose ends in a very frustrating way.  In fact, I’m going to tell you right now just to skip it.

You know those movies that end with a song and a text box for each member of the cast, telling what happened after the movie’s story ends?  That’s this epilogue.  The whole thing is clunky, unnecessary, and rather annoying.

But definitely, definitely read this book.  Lidia Yuknavitch is now one of my favorite authors and I can’t wait to recommend her at every opportunity at work.

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Surfing Mind Waves – Rio Youers’ Westlake Soul

I love going to a book repository of any kind -a library, a book shop, a friend’s house- and just exploring the shelves.  I’ve often found new books just by sniffing around in areas I wouldn’t expect to find things.

This is how I came across Westlake Soul, a surreal, wonderful novel by Rio Youers.

Westlake Soul
Rio Youers
ChiZine Publications
250 Pages
April 10, 2012

I had checked out a bunch of books from the library already (including Dora: A Headcase by local author Lidia Yuknavitch, which I’m eagerly anticipating) and was browsing the new release\recent returns shelves when I saw bright red title above the Science Fiction category sticker on the spine.

Westlake Soul.  Interesting, I thought to myself.  I may have actually thought more than just that, but I unfortunately haven’t compartmentalized my brain enough to remember.  But I picked it up and was intrigued by the plot description.

A surfer with a brain injury, whose brilliant mind is engaged in an epic battle against an evil madman known as Doctor Quietus? And he does this from within a permanent vegetative state?  Am I dreaming? Does this truly exist?  If so, how quickly can I read this.

I was pawing at Rowling’s new one, A Casual Vacancy, drowning in the characters, plot explication, and the use of “cunt” on every other page (an exaggeration, to be sure) and thought… this is a good book to read in-between chapters\lines\words.  Still haven’t finished A Casual Vacancy

But yes, the book tells the story of Westlake Soul, surfing champion and child of flower-children parents who never met an odd or unpronounceable name they didn’t like (seriously, his sister’s name is Niki, short of Phereniki).  One day, Westlake gets cocky and is tossed by a large wave.  He nearly drowns, but is saved by a random beach-goer.

He sits in a coma for days and days, only to reawaken as a genius… but his body and conscious brain are atrophied and he remains a vegetable, unable to fully take advantage of his newly minted SuperBrain™.

All is not lost though.  Wes’ genius mind allows him to astral project himself anywhere in the world (and he’s certainly more honest and less perverse than I would be given the same situation).  He’s also able to penetrate the minds of most people.  It isn’t mind-reading, per se… more like mind-interpretation.  Westlake receives the information almost like binary data and is able to translate it into a more understandable form.

The crux of the novel deals with Westlake’s ongoing battle with Doctor Quietus.  At first, Wes plays it off like a typical superhero\supervillain battle, but it becomes evident just a few chapters in that Quietus is the way Wes sees his battle against death.

Youers does a great job of balancing the humor with the serious and he’s especially adept at funny similes.  The prose overall carries a certain seriousness (which isn’t shocking given the subject matter), but Youers makes sure to give Westlake’s internal monologue just the right amount of snark and cleverness to stop the tone from getting too somber.

The emotional core of the novel comes about half-way through, when we discover that Westlake’s new caregiver, Yvette, is in an abuse relationship.  Though he’s incorporeal, Wes determines that he has to help her fight back.

I can already see those gears turning, but the story doesn’t devolve into sappy prose, or cliched plotting.  Youers imbues Wes’ struggles to help Yvette with the same humor and charm he shows in the rest of the story.

And the ending!  This is how all writers need to write their endings, especially within the confines of a non-series title.  All I’m going to say is that interesting ambiguity will always trump a straight-forward boring answer.

In my Odd Apocalypse review I complained about the pop culture references Koontz put into his character’s mouth that felt forced.  Westlake Soul has its own share of these that felt less forced, but only because Westlake is more in tune with the pop culture world, given he’s lived in it (unlike Odd Thomas who routinely reminds you of how outside of the real world he tends to be).  A minor flaw in what is an otherwise fantastic novel.

If this sounds like your cuppa, you could even buy the novel directly from the publisher (and I think you should!).

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Failure Of The Salesman – Dave Eggers’ A Hologram For The King

Ah Dave Eggers… Is there any greater American author writing now?  I think he’s pretty hard to beat.  He gave us Zeitoun and What Is The What.  He made a fully featured novel out of Where The Wild Things Are, which was not necessary… but excellent.  Then there’s McSweeney’s, the publishing house, and McSweeney’s the literary magazine which had stories from Etgar Keret, Neil Gaiman, and Adam Levin all in one issue!

Oh and he did the introduction to Infinite Jest which is what first drew me to the novel in the first place.  Well, his introduction and the, while I’m being perfectly honest, size of the rack on the girl who initially recommended it to me.

But I digress.

A Hologram For The King
Dave Eggers
328 Pages
McSweeney’s
June 19, 2012

I’ve been putting off writing about this novel for about a month.  At first, I wasn’t sure why.  I mean… it was part of a long string of downer reads (The Fault in Our Stars, which I finished just a couple of days before, some Dan Fante short stories, and I’m currently fighting through the last third of Adam Ross’s Mr. Peanut), so I definitely needed some down time away from the subject matter.

I don’t know if that’s it though.  I read dark books fairly often.  I read depressing books fairly often too.  Typically, they don’t get to me that much.  After all, I’ve been reading all kinds of off-kilter stuff for years, since I discovered John Fante and Charles Bukowski in college.  Happy endings?  Not so often.

And not so in A Hologram For The King either.  But considering most of the early part of the novel does it’s best to portray the main character Alan Clay as a sort of 21st century Willy Loman… it isn’t terribly surprising.

At the start, Alan is in Saudi Arabia, attempting to set up a meeting with King Abdullah so he can feature the tech company Reliant’s amazing new hologram communication technology.  The hope is that the King will be impressed and use Reliant for all aspects of the new city’s technological expansion.

The King’s city, known as King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC, for short) is to be a marvel of the highest order.  It will serve as a major economic, educational, and cultural center, with various opportunities for people and businesses… if it is ever completed.  Many of the characters Alan speaks to throughout the novel voice skepticism that the project will ever see the light of day.

Alan has a particularly high stake in this deal because Reliant has made it clear that if he doesn’t come through on this job, it will be his last job for the company.  Combine that pressure with the looming foreclosure on his house, his daughter wanting to go to a prestigious (and expensive) college, and the strange lump that has developed on his neck… well, Alan’s serious about getting things done right.

But there are constant barriers to his success.

For one thing, no one ever knows when the King will be in his shell of a city.  Because of his status, no one can know his movements until they happen, to avoid assassination attempts.  So instead of specific times and days, Alan and his crew are shacked up in a hotel about an hour away, waiting for their moment to perform.

For another thing, Alan can’t seem to get the customs of the country correct.  Though he has a good rapport with his driver, a man named Yousef, Alan doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the Saudis he interacts with.

And finally, Alan’s confidence as a salesman has been shot after being majorly responsible for the downfall of Schwinn as a major power in the production and sales of bicycles.  Because of his insistence that Schwinn join the global movement, Alan made himself (and most American workers) irrelevant to the process… from production to sales.

Still, Alan tries his best to fit in, especially as the arrival of King Abdullah seems to be more and more mythological, like spotting Bigfoot in the forests of the Pacific Northwest.  He spends a night overnight with Yousef at Yousef’s childhood home: a fortress miles and miles away from any large city.  But Alan, with all the comedic timing of a fart in church, jokes that he’s taking photos for the CIA while begins to unravel the new friendship.

But Alan, despite his tendency for self-pity, doesn’t let much get him down.  He pursues a relationship with a fellow transplant from Denmark, as well as the doctor who eventually operates on his neck lump (is it serious?).  This comes after many moments when Alan drunkenly recalls the various problems he had with his ex-wife Ruby.

In the end, though, the novel is about failure.  Alan has been failing his entire life and seems to be at rock bottom.  He’s already lost his wife, is losing his home, and will probably lose his daughter if he can’t pay for her college tuition.  He suffers from low self-esteem, erectile dysfunction, and the general ravages of middle-to-old age.

Despite all this, Eggers manages to end the novel on the bit of an uplift.  We’re hopeful for Alan as he continues his negotiations… But where will it all end up for Alan?  Eggers is wise enough to not let us know.  Instead, we have to be satisfied that Alan’s story has ended for us… and that it continues for him, if only briefly.

This book has it all, really.  Humor, social commentary, a bit of allegory here and there, and an extremely unlikely main character… though for post-modern writing, Alan Clay isn’t terribly atypical.  What really surprised me was how much I liked him by the end.  There’s something to be said for his bulldog tenacity in the face of what seems to be an inevitable ending.

That said… it isn’t Eggers’ best.  I enjoyed What Is The What and Zeitoun much more.  But Alan’s story is compelling, interesting, and well written, as one would expect from Eggers. Plus, the art design by the incomparable Jessica Hische (who has also done a great collection of leather classics for Barnes & Noble) is beautiful… one of the best designed books in my collection!

So what’s next for Books and Bits?  Well… I’m gonna be working from now through the 20th on an entry for a McSweeney’s essay contest, but I’m still going to try to fit in another blog post (or two).

But since I’ll be busy… I bet you can look forward to a Top # list!  How wonderful for you!

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Only The End Of The World Again – The Age of Miracles

Once you get about sixty or seventy pages into The Age of Miracles, you’ll notice something.  It sneaks up on you, much like the plot where the earth’s rotation slows.  Suddenly, you’ll realize that you’re reading a coming-of-age tale… with a little apocalypse thrown in for good measure.

And the end result is rather brilliant.

The Age of Miracles
Karen Thompson Walker
273 Pages
Random House
June 26, 2012

A co-worker noted that, despite the title of the novel, nothing particularly miraculous happens in this novel.  And this is true, at least insofar as the positive connotations of the word “miracle.”

After all… if it were a negative experience, it wouldn’t be a miracle.

And yet… The Age of Miracles has many moments that brush on the miraculous, with a simple prose that will occasionally brush on the divine.

Our story is told by twelve-year-old Julia, living in the suburbs somewhere in southern California.  One day, when Julia’s mother turns on the news, scientists are announcing that the rotation of the earth has begun to slow.  They don’t know why and they don’t know if it will continue to slow.  But already, days are gaining extra seconds, extra minutes.

What follows is as much a tale of the changes that happen to Julia and Julia’s family as it is a science-fiction tale of the Earth going haywire.  And, despite my early skepticism when I began reading… I ended up really enjoying it.

Most of the chapters start by updating us on either the Earth’s rotation, or the effects the slowing has had on the planet, the people, the animals.  Trouble begins with birds.  They start dying off, crashing into things.  The sports are affected as the gravitational pull changes.  Things are heavier, even if just barely.

The changes happen in people too.  Some people, against the US government’s wishes, decide to live according to the planet.  While a majority of the country stays on a 24 hour time system, these time rebels are ridiculed and ostracized for choosing to live according to the more natural rhythms of the planet.

The satire really picks up when we hear about these characters.  Some, like Sylvia, Julia’s piano teacher, make out alright, at least at first.  Others, like the aging hippies that live on the same block, are picked up for growing pot plants inside their house (ah, anonymous tipsters!).

While all this is happening, Julia continues to grow and develop, all the while, her relationships are changing.  Her best friend, Hannah, is gone.  Julia chooses to socialize less and less while simultaneously pining over Seth, the skateboarder with the dying mother.

What is truly remarkable is that through all this… life goes on.  Julia and Seth dance around each other endearingly.  Julia makes and loses friends, sometimes heartbreakingly.  And Julia learns a lot about her parents… some things that she wishes she wouldn’t.

In fact, if you took out the science fictional aspects of the plot… the book would be a perfectly entertaining work of literature in its own right.  But the slowing of the earth allows Walker to really play with the reader’s emotions.

Would the things that happen to Julia still happen if the Earth weren’t slowing?  Probably.  Puberty is a volatile time in any child’s life and when you add in all sorts of family drama… it can be downright maddening.  And as Walker writes, puberty and middle school can be the most affecting time of a person’s life:

This was middle school, the age of miracles, the time when kids shot up three inches over the summer, when breasts bloomed from nothing, when voices dipped and dove.  Our first were emerging, but they were being corrected.  Blurred vision could be fixed invisibly with the magic of the contact lens.  Crooked teeth were pulled straight with braces.  Spotty skin could be chemically cleared. (page 43)

Despite these sorts of miraculous advancements (as well as large leaps forward in technology), scientists never discover exactly what caused the slowing, nor do they find any way to fix it.

There’s further social commentary, especially as we see the rich of the world making out well, even with the pending apocalypse.  There’s a few comments from various sources about how lucky America is, especially in consideration of Africa.  Julia’s grandfather is an excellent lampooning of conspiracy nuts, as he doesn’t believe in the slowing at first… only to start hoarding gold when he finally does believe it.

Beyond all that… the writing is excellent.  Walker has a crisp, clean pose with a lot of funny and\or thoughtful similes.  There’s a tenderness to much of Julia’s inner monologues that is generally free from bitterness, as she tells her story more than a decade later.

Overall, the book is quite good.  The reading was fast paced, the characters are interesting and three-dimensional, and the commentary comes through without coming off as overdone, or extreme (see The Sugar Frosted Nutsack).  I’d definitely recommend this to anyone looking for a quick, thought-provoking read for the summer.

On top of all that, Walker will be at Powell’s on July 19 and I’m pretty excited.  Signed copy, here I come!

Death of (Several Thousand) Ensigns – Redshirts by John Scalzi

What surprises me most about John Scalzi is that it has taken me so long to read one of his novels.  I read his non-fiction book Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded a year or so ago and loved it.  Scalzi was smart, erudite, and hilarious.  I looked at Old Man’s War and The Android’s Dream several times at both work, and the library, but never bit the bullet.

After following Scalzi on Twitter some months ago, amongst the promise of nude buttercream  frosting pictures (long story, don’t ask) and stuck with him because of his frequently random, funny thoughts.  A solid addition to my Twitter line-up, but I still hadn’t read any of his other novels.

That has now changed.

Redshirts: A Novel With Three Codas
John Scalzi
320 Pages
Tor Books
June 5, 2012

Redshirts is a novel that I really have no business liking.  For one thing… I’ve always hated Star Trek.  No matter which iteration… movies, TV, video games, whatever… I’ve never enjoyed any aspect of the franchise (well, except for the most recent reboot by JJ Abrams… that was fun!) and I don’t typically enjoy a lot of traditional science fiction (Arthur C Clarke being a lone exception).

But Redshirts… is so much fun that I just have to love it.

I’m going to warn you now… heavy spoilers from this point on.  And, despite recent studies showing that spoilers don’t necessarily detract from the enjoyment of a story… Well, fuck that noise.  I hate spoilers.  They’re annoying and detract from my enjoyment of the story.

HEAVY
F’N
SPOILERS
BELOW

Seriously, spoilers ahoy.  Just sayin’.

Our story begins with Andy Dahl, an ensign who has just be assigned to The Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union.  From the get go, he notices strange things.  How does everyone in Dahl’s Xenobiology lab seem to know exactly when a senior officer is incoming?  Why is the important work always done without science, but instead with an item that looks like a microwave of some sort and is referred to, almost reverently, as The Box?

The weirdness doesn’t end there!  When comparing notes with the ensigns he entered the ship with (Finn, Duvall, Hanson, and Hester), they discover even more strange inconsistencies (and sometimes  consistencies!).

For instance, why do the same floors get damaged whenever the ship is attacked?  Why do the ship’s officers come back from “away missions” (that is, missions on hostile, alien worlds, missions to derelict ships overrun with killer robots, etc.) while the ensigns do not.

And what in the cool blue hell is an ice shark?

After several close calls, Dahl and his friends start making a concerted effort to avoid away missions (unless an officer named Kerensky is there… he seems more apt to be injured, which may or may not save an ensign or two from death).

At this point, Dahl and his fellow ensigns set up a plan.  They want to track down a yeti-like man named Jenkins who seems to know everything that happens on board the Starship Intrepid.  But when they find him, things are worse than they thought…

Jenkins reveals that they are part of a world that is directly affected by the plot of a sci-fi television show from 2012.  And worst of all?  The show wasn’t even that good.

As would anyone… the ensigns refuse to believe it.  And who could blame them?  Television hasn’t even existed for hundreds of years… how could a crappy show from the stupid ages possibly have any affect on them?

But as time goes on, and more of their friends fall victim to what Jenkins has labelled “The Narrative” (i.e.: a plot twist from the show that will invariably leave an ensign dead, Kerensky injured, and the rest of the crew miraculously unharmed), Dahl and co. realize their days are numbered and concoct a plan to go back in time, stop the shitty writer from killing them off, and return to their time triumphantly… and alive!

The first problem: they have less than a week to do it… because The Narrative had already set up that in their Universe, time travel will kill anyone if they stay out of their timeline for more than a week.

Of course.

While much of the book is funny up to this point… when Dahl and his rag-tag crew of ensigns (and Kerensky… since they’ve got to bring an officer to ensure their survival) arrive in 2012… the real humor begins.

This ends my long-winded plot explication.  A lot more happens in the final third of the novel, but… you’ll just have to read the book to find it out what.

The events that take place in Los Angeles are my favorite. They’re funny, touching, and a lot more real than most of what occurs on the Intrepid.  And the three codas at the end of the novel?  Well… I loved ’em, which is in direct contrast to many of the reviews I’ve read so far.

The codas, told from the POV of a different “real world” character, are the most philosophical, funny, and imaginative parts of the book and I think they really allow Scalzi to give his themes a stronger emotional punch in ways that couldn’t be as successfully explored in the ridiculous universe that Dahl and his friends existed in.

The favorite of these themes comes up in the first coda.  What sort of responsibility does a writer have to his characters?  Does a writer have to treat a fictional character with respect?  Should an author be allowed to kill off characters on a whim, even if it doesn’t affect the story in any way?

The codas are thought-provoking and provide a much-needed glimpse into the real world of the novel.  Additionally, the first coda is absolutely hysterical, and reads like one of Scalzi’s Tweets (or blog posts).

As I said before, I have almost no direct knowledge of Star Trek.  I’ve never seen any of the movies (well, except for the recent reboot which I loved), and I’ve only sat through a handful of episodes of any iteration of the popular TV series.

Despite this, I feel I was able to enjoy a large number of the jokes (thanks Futurama audio commentaries!), and the book itself felt like a complete entity, even if I couldn’t tell the difference between a horta and a tribble (OK, I know those… once again, thank you Futurama audio commentaries!).

So, even if you’re not a fan of Star Trek… pick Redshirts up.  There’s humor, heart, adventure, and death by ice shark.  What else is there to a good summer read?