Apr 28 2019

A Conspiracy of Stars (Faloiv #1) by Olivia A. Cole

I’m a confirmed omnivore, but this book made me seriously sympathize with vegetarianism.

But also, and especially when paired together with Hanna Alkaf’s The Weight Of Our Sky, it has a really good point about decolonization and basic tolerance and respect (tho, that said, I’m a firm believer in socio-economic progress requiring real socio-political representation.) I’m getting ahead of myself, tho. A Conspiracy Of Stars is about a sixteen year-old girl, Octavia Afua English, who’s lived her entire life on the planet Faloiv. Two earlier generations of primarily scientists had fled a dying Earth in search of a new home, but an unfortunate encounter with a meteor crash-landed their vessel on the already inhabited Faloiv. The native Faloii placed certain terms on the new arrivals in exchange for peaceful co-habitation, including vegetarianism and a no-expansion policy, and for most of the humans, that’s just fine. But others disagree and are gaining political power. Octavia spent her whole life wanting to become a scientist like her parents, researching the native fauna for scientific breakthroughs, but circumstances beyond her control will push her into learning far more about her home and herself than she’d ever imagined.

What I liked most about this book was its unblinking look at the way people will justify any cruelty in order to further their own ambitions, regardless of the morality of their actions or even of their own desires. It’s weirdly cathartic to watch from Octavia’s eyes as people whose opinions and intellects she’d trusted prove themselves to be venal even as they pretend that they’re doing things for “the greater good.” Olivia A Cole doesn’t ask you to sympathize with any of them, and that’s so refreshing. Octavia herself is a deeply (but not annoyingly moral) person caught up in a life far different than what she’d expected, but who rises to the occasion with aplomb. I also really enjoyed the interpersonal relationships — friendships, romances or otherwise — as well as the baseline diversity of the book. Ms Cole makes excellent narrative choices that sidestep the tired tropes of too much YA sci-fi.

My only criticism of the writing is that the sense of place occasionally lapses, particularly when Octavia and Rondo or Alma are walking around N’Terra. It’s like “oh, there’s a door/building here!” all of a sudden. It’s a very tiny flaw in an otherwise well-drawn novel, complete with realistic characters and vividly imagined biology. Oh, and I must admit that I’m a little confused by the choice of cover! It’s a surprisingly cold choice for a book about a hot planet teeming with life.

Anyway, go read this book, it’s awesome. And the sequel just came out, too, and oh what, it’s already available from my library click click borrow!

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/04/28/a-conspiracy-of-stars-faloiv-1-by-olivia-a-cole/

Apr 27 2019

The Lady of the Lake by Andrzej Sapkowski

The Lady of the Lake brings to a close the extended sequence of novels centering on the Witcher Geralt of Rivera and Ciri the child of destiny, although Sapkowski has written another book of stories, Season of Storms set earlier in Geralt’s personal chronology. The series has its ups and downs: I thought that Baptism of Fire, the third in the set, was “a middle book that does not seem to be aware there is such a thing as a middle-book problem.” On the other hand, the fourth, The Tower of the Swallow, seemed to collect all of the middle-book problems that Sapkowski had hitherto avoided and deliver them in concentrated form. I skimmed a lot of pages.

True to Sapkowski’s confounding of standard Anglo-American epic fantasy, the title of The Lady of the Lake is no sly allusion or crafty hint. The book opens smack in the middle of the Arthurian legend, with Sapkowski’s Ciri drawing a blush and a bit of a flirt from no less a flusterable person than Sir Galahad.

“The fairy burst from the water, for a moment presenting herself to the night in all her alluring splendour. She darted towards the rock where her clothing lay. But rather than seizing a blouse and covering up modestly, the she-elf grabbed a sword and drew it from its scabbard with a hiss, whirling it with admirable dexterity. It lasted but a short moment, after which she sank down, covering herself up to her nose in the water and extending her arm with the sword above the surface.
“The knight shook off his stupefaction, released the reins and genuflected, kneeling on the wet sand. For he realised at once who was before him.
“‘Hail,’ he mumbled, holding out his hands. ‘Great is the honour for me … Great is the accolade, O Lady of the Lake. I shall accept the sword…’
“‘Could you get up from your knees and turn away?’ The fair stuck her mouth above the water. ‘Perhaps you’d stop staring? And let me get dressed'” (p. 3)

Galahad, bless his heart, eventually works out that while he has met an extraordinary lady in a lake, she is not that Lady of the Lake. Ciri, in turn, works out that she is not in any of the worlds that she might have expected to be in, for by the time she reaches this part of her story, she has spent time in several. Readers just arrived from The Tower of the Swallow might presume that Ciri’s escape through the portal in the tower has delivered her to this Arthurian lake, but they would be mistaken. She asks Galahad not to call her Lady of the Lake, and explains why:

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Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/04/27/the-lady-of-the-lake-by-andrzej-sapkowski/

Apr 26 2019

The Road to Unfreedom by Timothy Snyder

I wanted to like The Road to Unfreedom a lot more than I did. The book is billed as a “chronicle of the rise of authoritarianism from Russia to Europe and America.” Snyder is a well-regarded historian with big works of synthesis to his credit — Bloodlands and Black Earth — plus a volume On Tyranny that caught the zeitgeist in 2017. Certainly the topics that Snyder addressed in The Road to Unfreedom are crucial: Russian aggression and willingness to upend the European security order; European governments willing to turn back toward one-party rule; new paths to manipulation that the internet and social media have opened up; links among far-right groups across Europe; how less than 100,000 votes delivered the most powerful political office on the planet to an ignorant buffoon who is a probably unwitting asset of Russian secret services. Trying to tie these threads together is an admirable project.

Snyder brings some more virtues: the book is timely, a reasonable length at fewer than 300 pages of main text, detailed, and clearly written. I found it strongest in the middle, where he devotes considerable attention to citizen protests in Ukraine in late 2013 and early 2014. So much has happened since then, and the events in Ukraine changed so rapidly even at the time that it would be tempting, at a geographic and temporal remove to say, “Well, it was complicated, who can tell?” Which is precisely what the drivers on the road to unfreedom want engaged citizens in the West to say, it is why they have thrown so much chaff into the air and concocted so many cockamamie stories.

In November 2013, Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovich was poised to sign an association agreement with the European Union. This agreement had been several years in the making, as fine points were hashed out between Ukrainian negotiators and representatives of Brussels. It would define relations between Ukraine and the EU’s member states, setting up a path toward membership but without providing guarantees in that regard. Under pressure from Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, Yanukovich abruptly decided not to sign the agreement. As Snyder recounts:

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Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/04/26/the-road-to-unfreedom-by-timothy-snyder/

Apr 20 2019

Frederica by Georgette Heyer

Twenty-odd years ago, I would likely have rated this novel higher than I do now. I actually only picked it up because I was recently told that it’s considered a classic of the romance genre. I’ve read my fair share of Barbara Cartland and old school Mills & Boon, and was delighted in college to discover Julie Garwood and Jude Devereaux, but somehow never read any Georgette Heyer despite the many assurances I’ve heard that she is, to a certain extent, Jane Austen’s writerly heir.

And I can see where people might think that, in this Regency comedy of manners especially. Frederica has strong shades of Ms Austen’s Emma, with a young woman concerned more with the love lives of others than with her own, who finds herself falling in love nonetheless with an older man, distantly related. Unfortunately, Ms Heyer’s novel has less of the wry self-awareness that made Ms Austen’s work so compellingly readable. Emma was a busybody know-it-all who was still likeable in spite of her overbearing nature, but Frederica is an over-involved big sister (to Charis, at least, if not to her brothers) who martyrs herself whilst not actually giving a damn about what Charis wants. It wouldn’t be so bad if she weren’t also so hopelessly condescending to Charis. We get it, Charis has more beauty than wit, but it’s gross for Frederica to basically stage mom her entree to fashionable London society.

I also found the hero of the piece, Lord Alverstoke, to be a tremendous bore. His main flaw, according to the book, is that he’s easily bored, which only makes me think him an overgrown child. He falls in love with Frederica because she has a lively wit, and while I’m ordinarily down for the whole intellects-attracting thing, I found it pretty hard to care about them because of the prevailing tone of snobbery throughout. Literally everyone who isn’t as conversationally vivacious as these two (and her younger brothers) is considered somehow deficient, whether morally or intellectually or in understanding. It’s super gross. As a younger miss, impatient with others not being as smart as I am, I might have found this entertaining, but long years in the trenches of having to deal with others kindly makes this sort of thing repugnant to me. Those who identify with such superiority aren’t as smart as they think they are, and are 100% more tiresome than they believe.

Otherwise, it was well-written and certainly engrossing, even if I got tired of Felix even more quickly than I did his sister. An alright read, but I’d rather revisit the Austen oeuvre with my time.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/04/20/frederica-by-georgette-heyer/

Apr 18 2019

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad is a hell of a book. Like Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters, Whitehead’s book was published in 2016 and takes a slightly science fictional look at slavery in the United States of America.

Winters’ narrative brought slavery into the 21st century and imagined what the peculiar institution would be like in a world of smartphones and high-tech manufacturing. Whitehead leaves slavery in the 19th century, but imagines that the Underground Railroad was exactly that: a set of tunnels extending hundreds of miles through the earth into the wicked hearts of the slave states, capable of whisking runaways into completely new situations in new states. The one thing the stationmasters can’t do — besides survive, for some of them — is predict when the next freedom train is coming, or where it will go.

Whitehead opens his story with Cora, a slave, turning down an offer to try to escape. In the second sentence, Whitehead turns to Cora’s grandmother, how she was captured by Dahomeyans and sold several times on the way to Ouidah, a major slaving port in what is now Benin. In a crisp six pages, Whitehead lays out Ajarry’s life, how many times she was sold, what happened to her owners, how her three husbands went away — one was sold to a sugarcane estate in Florida (where he was surely worked to death), one passed from cholera, and one had his ears bored for stealing honey, “The wounds gave up pus until he wasted away” (p. 7) — and how four of her five children died before they were fully grown. Ajarry drew some conclusions and stayed on the Randall plantation in Georgia cotton country until the end of her life.

“Ajarry died in the cotton, the boils bobbing around her like whitecaps on the brute ocean. The last of her village, keeled over in the rows from a knot in her brain, blood pouring from her nose and white froth covering her lips. As if it could have been anywhere else. Liberty was reserved for other people, for the citizens of the City of Pennsylvania bustling a thousand miles to the north. Since the night she was kidnapped she had been appraised and reappraised, each day waking upon the pan of a new scale. Know your value and you know your place in the order. To escape the boundary of the plantation was to escape the fundamental principles of your existence: impossible” (p. 8)

Her granddaughter draws some conclusions, too. Here is Whitehead’s very next paragraph:

“It was her grandmother talking that Sunday evening when Caesar approached Cora about the underground railroad, and she said no.
“Three weeks later said yes.
“This time it was her mother talking.” (p. 8)

Cora’s mother escaped. She told no one of her plans, least of all her pre-teen daughter. Unlike most runaways, who were caught and then brought back to the plantation to be tortured and then executed for the edification of the other slaves, forced to witness the spectacle, Cora’s mother Mabel is never caught. The Randall plantation never hears of her again. Mabel’s escape leaves Cora isolated among the other slaves; Whitehead does not hesitate to depict how enslaved people turned on one another for slight advantages, how the brutal regime of the masters was replicated further down the hierarchy. Nor is he shy about how some people found joy in some things anyway, about how they did their best to live and love under a system designed to break them completely. Cora grows up angry at her mother for abandoning her; at the same time, though, Mabel’s escape demonstrates that freedom is a possibility.

When Cora changes her mind and accepts Caesar’s offer, they begin to plan their getaway. And none too soon. Not only has Old Randall passed some years hence, the son who inherited the half of the plantation that Cora labors on, and who does not try to wring every last penny of profit from the system, has reaped the reward of a life of dissipation in New Orleans. The surviving brother has no patience for the alleged softness of his sibling’s stewardship and proceeds with tightening the screws. Cora and Caesar plan carefully, and make their escape one night when all the factors seem to align for a good getaway.

But in the close-knit world of the slave cabins their preparations have not escaped everyone’s notice. Lovey, a friend of Cora’s, catches up with them in the middle of the fields and demands to be taken with them. She slows them down. The alarm had been raised earlier than they thought. Slavecatchers find the little group. Cora and Caesar get away, but Lovey does not. In the melee that leads to the pair’s escape, Cora kills a white boy. Now they will have a price on their heads, with death a certainty if they get caught.

Still, it wouldn’t be much of an Underground Railroad book if the characters were caught and brought straight back to their plantation, and indeed they are not. Cora and Caesar are out of the frying pan and into various fires, for each of the states Cora makes her way to has chosen to deal with slavery in a different way. In South Carolina, they find what appears to be an enlightened approach. Whitehead is having some ironic fun with history. South Carolina has been memorably described by Charles Pierce as “the home office of American sedition,” it was the first state to attempt to secede, and the first shots of the Civil War were fired there. Its firebreathing politicians led their state and nation into the conflagration, so to find South Carolina as the home of a near-socialist, scientific attempt at solving slavery is a satisfying twist. In Whitehead’s book, human property in the state has been nationalized. There are no more individual slaveowners; instead, the government has purchased all of them, provides housing and services, and arranges their labor. Public institutions also encourage enslaved women to be sterilized, and public health authorities are conducting syphilis experiments on enslaved men.

Cora and Caesar decide to take the next Underground train to wherever, but before they can flee a slavecatcher who also pursued Cora’s mother catches up to them. Cora makes it to the Underground, but has to leave Caesar behind. Her travels take her to North Carolina — where slavery has been “solved” by executing any black person who was in the state after a certain date — and then to Tennessee — where the slavecatcher who has been tracking her relentlessly since she left the Randall plantation captures here for a while — and finally to Indiana — where Cora finds a nearly utopian community of runaways, free people of color, and a few whites who extend protection and humanity.

Whitehead captures the feel of societies wrestling with a great evil that brings wealth and position to those in the dominant caste, societies taking what they have convinced themselves are more moral paths but failing utterly to see what matters most: that enslaved people are as human as those who are or would be masters. His spare prose is unsparing, and he’s also very good at showing how such a dehumanizing system hurts everyone involved. The Underground Railroad is no mere catalog of horrors, it’s a taut thriller of someone trying to escape not only the odds, but all of history. She has some allies, some hopes, and even to some extent the respect of her greatest adversaries. Will she make it to the end of the line?

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/04/18/the-underground-railroad-by-colson-whitehead/

Apr 17 2019

The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

I finished this book in two compulsive sittings, and if I’m being perfectly honest, I think I would have liked it better if I hadn’t had to break concentration a little past the halfway mark to go do life stuff. Because The Weight Of Our Sky is the kind of book that grabs you by the throat and suffocates you in its anxiety-laden embrace, just as effectively as the djinn that plagues our heroine, Melati Ahmad (tho in the reader’s case, this is hopefully a voluntary experience.) Breaking that spell then coming back to it makes for a weird readjustment period, tho I can absolutely understand some readers needing that break. I’m a fairly neurotypical person and even so, the immersive depiction of OCD is extremely harrowing. This is a book that 100% deserves the trigger warning that Hanna Alkaf begins it with: if you’re in a bad place wrt mental health a/o racism, TWoOS is more likely to exacerbate your symptoms than alleviate.

And that’s because it’s a shockingly honest, surprisingly liberal look at a real life event in Malaysian history. Melati is a 16 year-old Malay Muslim girl living in 1969 Kuala Lumpur. She loves Paul McCartney and music in general, and adores her single mom, who works as a nurse at Kuala Lumpur General Hospital. Melati is also hiding a secret from the world: she has an obsessive compulsive disorder that convinces her that her counting and tapping and rituals are the only thing saving her mother from a grisly death. Being the 1960s, treatment of OCD is iffy at best, and mental health awareness degradingly poor, so Melati learns to hide her symptoms even as she does regular battle with the djinn that she believes must be possessing her. Things are manageable… until the race riots break out and Melati is caught in a situation that would be overwhelmingly stressful even for people without mental health challenges.

Ms Alkaf presents a view of the horrors of the time with an eye at once unflinching and compassionate. She has clearly done her research, and I honestly feel bad for her having to state as such in her foreword. I suspect that that came about from needing to preemptively defend herself from critics at home — I want to believe that the general trend of Malaysian thought is towards inclusion and acceptance rather than tribalism and control, but I no longer live there for a reason.

My only quibble with the novel itself is that the climactic scene outside the van where Edgar lay felt more rushed than it should have been, and that was less a product of the narrative than of Melati’s interior process. We’d been so privy to her thoughts up till then that for her to suddenly discard thinking was a somewhat jarring experience. And it’s probably too much to ask for suggestions for a way forward at the end of the novel — the content otherwise is quite clear that all citizens should respect each other as equal contributors to progress and stability — but it did feel as if Ms Alkaf was content only to apply her critical eye to the past instead of the present, one sardonic sentence in the foreword notwithstanding.

Anyway, this is certainly one of the most important novels ever to come out of Malaysia and Ms Alkaf is a tremendous talent. I can’t wait to read more of her stuff.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/04/17/the-weight-of-our-sky-by-hanna-alkaf/

Apr 16 2019

All My Colors by David Quantick

Every aspiring creative knows that inspiration is that most fickle of creatures. The Muse will not be forced… but what if she does show up? And what if she’s out to get you?

Todd Milstead is an asshole. A literary wannabe who sponges off the fortune of his long-suffering wife Janis, his main asset is his eidetic memory, that he often wields as a weapon against the small circle of friends who gather to drink his booze for the price of putting up with his overbearing egotism. He’s amazed one night to discover that none of them are familiar with a book he can recite chapter and verse, a novel called All My Colors written by one Jake Turner. Turns out they’re not the only ones: no one he meets has ever heard of this book. When Janis has finally had enough and leaves, Todd, facing poverty and homelessness, decides to type out All My Colors and submit it for publication under his own name.

Despite a rough creative period, fortune seems to favor Todd. All My Colors is picked up, launching a suddenly sober Todd on a seemingly stratospheric trajectory. But he still can’t get over Janis, not because he cares about her but because he’s convinced she’s seeing someone else despite his own serial adultery being grounds for their divorce. Then the hallucinations start, and people around him keep dying in shockingly grisly ways. What is the truth behind All My Colors and how it’s been revealed to Todd, and what is the price he’ll have to pay for claiming it as his own?

This was a compulsively readable novel, which I found especially amusing given how compulsively written the book within the book was. Speaking of books within books, I enjoyed the literary gift box nature of this novel, and rated quite highly the excerpts included. Too many novels about fictional stories do a terrible job of convincing the reader that the subject matter is actually worthwhile: this is one of those rare books that creates a wholly convincing novel on which to hang its plot.

Thing is tho, I actually felt bad for Todd. I know he’s an asshole but he didn’t seem especially extraordinary in that respect to merit the treatment he received. But I suppose that is the point of the novel — or of any decent horror novel, really — that life can be arbitrary and unkind. It’s certainly the kind of book that will have you second-guessing where your ideas come from. In that respect, All My Colors is definitely more a book about every writer’s nightmares and less about a pompous jerk getting his comeuppance and taking his poor friends down with him in the process.

Interview with David Quantick to come soon!

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/04/16/all-my-colors-by-david-quantick/

Apr 15 2019

Lost Kingdom by Serhii Plokhy

Having recently written a national history of Ukraine, Plokhy turns his attention to the history of the junior eastern Slavic nation, Russia. A fair portion of Lost Kingdom describes how and why my opening sentence would outrage Russian ideologues, rulers and historians. The titles of the book’s sections reveal important aspects of his argument: Inventing Russia, The Reunification of [Kyivan] Rus’, The Tripartite Nation, and so on.

“The Russian elites’ for the Kyivan inheritance developed from a largely dynastic and religious concept into an ethnonational one with the start of the modern era.” (p. ix) Then that ethnonational understanding morphed into a semi-open imperial one that accepted “today’s Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians along with imperial elites of non-Slavic origins that were Russified in political and cultural terms.” (p. ix) Then the Revolution came and tried to subsume the nations into a class structure, while simultaneously setting up polities that signified the nations’ importance. Contrarily, and also simultaneously, the USSR centralized power in Moscow to a far greater extent than the tsars had done and pursued Russification more stringently (and successfully) than the empire had managed.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 raised the questions of Russian nationhood and statehood anew, acutely. Coming up on 30 years later, the questions are still open. “Do Russia’s present-day political borders coincide with the borders of the Russian nation? The answer depends on the way in which Russian political and intellectual leaders and Russians in general imagine their nation. The question of Russian identity and its geographic extent is of more than academic interest, as it influences issues of war and peace along Europe’s eastern frontiers today and will influence them for generations to come.” (p. x) Russia’s is not the first empire to crumble, nor will it be the last, and other nations have faced questions of their imperial legacies and post-imperial roles, including what to do with people once considered part of the center who no longer want to be part (if indeed they ever did). “[B]ut what makes the Russian situation unique is that none of those empires shared common historical roots and myths of origin with their foreign subjects, as had been the case with Russia throughout a good part of its imperial history.” (p. xi)

The only comparable situation in contemporary Europe would be if England is compelled to give up rule over Scotland. Even there, the English debt to the Scots is nothing like the Russian relationship with its Kyivan inheritance. The English did not justify centuries of conquest as the regathering of the Scots lands, as Russian rulers did with Rus’.

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Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/04/15/lost-kingdom-by-serhii-plokhy/

Apr 14 2019

The Everlasting Rose (The Belles #2) by Dhonielle Clayton

So on the one hand, I didn’t get anywhere near as mad at this second (final?) book as I did at its predecessor, The Belles. There were still a few moments of “oh, come on” but they faded into insignificance next to the real problem with this book: it feels entirely rushed. It’s not even a matter of pacing, tho events are compressed into a rather short span of time, it’s just that things don’t feel properly explored or are just stated plainly instead of built up to. For all its first person narrative, it’s not a whole lot more than “and then this happened, and then this happened.” There’s some real potential in the throne room climax, but the fact that I can barely even remember, less than a day since finishing the book, what happened after is hardly a testament to how interesting the rest of it proved to be.

Which is a shame, since Dhonielle Clayton’s world-building is a lush, wonderful thing. It’s just that very little of it feels thought through. If it doesn’t advance the plot, then there’s barely any explanation: it’s very “here are superficial descriptions of cool things!” There were also a few points in the book where I couldn’t tell whether she was paying homage to other books in the genre or just ripping them off. And I couldn’t take the Iron Ladies at all seriously. While I was intrigued by their philosophy and would like to learn more about how they control the madness that supposedly descends upon the Gris, I thought their hierarchy suspect and their calls and responses absurd, as if they were trying far too hard to look important.

And this is an entirely superficial complaint, but wtf is with that cover? The Belles had such a gorgeous design, and while I’m glad they kept the same model, bronze on navy is just so blah. I get that they’re going for something more “serious” but dullness doesn’t have to signify import. Which is also a problem I had with the content of the novel: it never really resolves the moral dilemma of beauty that it promised to in the first book. Sophia is clearly a monster and while The Everlasting Rose details the battle against her, it’s entirely flat when it comes to exploring the significance of her kingdom’s obsession with physical appearance. This is a shame, because this was a very promising series that turned out to be as shallow as anyone who judges a book by its cover. There was so much that could have been explored in the world of Orleans, but instead we get this weirdly rushed-feeling coda. It’s so ironic that a book seeking to question the value of beauty should turn out to be so shallow, in the end.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/04/14/the-everlasting-rose-the-belles-2-by-dhonielle-clayton/

Apr 07 2019

Head On by John Scalzi

Head On follows Lock In as a near-future, science fictional mystery in a world in which a pandemic (“Haden’s disease”) has killed many millions of people and left millions more alive and conscious, but with no control of their voluntary nervous system, locked into themselves. A crash research program has delivered enough advances in the understanding of consciousness and brain-computer interface, among other fields, that people who are locked in can use a neural net to direct an anthropomorphic surrogate. In the book, these are called “threeps” and the people who have survived the disease are often called “Hadens.”

Chris Shane, Haden, FBI agent, and beloved only child of a wealthy African-American family returns as the first-person narrator of Head On. The novel’s plot concerns a new professional sport called hilketa. The name comes from the Basque word for “murder,” and it’s a game that would not have been possible before the development of threeps because the object is to remove the head of an opposing player and transport it across the goal line or, failing that, to kick it or throw it between the goalposts. All the bodies on the field are robotic, so losing a head isn’t a huge deal. At least it’s not supposed to be. During an exhibition match, a player’s threep is victimized for the third time in the same game, and that player — a Haden whose body is located far from the field — dies.

The death could hardly come at a worse time for the North American professional hilketa league. This particular match is an exhibition for potential investors who might take the game global. Chris Shane’s parents are there, as potential owners of a future Washington, DC franchise. Suddenly, the league looks really bad when it wants to look really good. The PR people panic and pull the online stats of the dead player; now it’s starting to look like a cover-up. Chris is at the game as an adviser to his parents — and Scalzi gets in a few jabs about how wealthy, privileged people are likely to treat threeps — and so he is on the scene early after the player, Duane Chapman, dies. Then one of the PR people really panics and hangs himself; or does it just look like he did?

Head On, like its predecessor, zips along with the mystery getting deeper and more dangerous before Chris and his partner, Leslie Vann, begin to make sense of what’s happening and have a chance against the people who stand to profit from the aftermath of Chapman’s death. Here’s what I said about Lock In being harder to write than it appears: “[Scalzi]’s also doing a number of things that are more difficult than they look, and at least as difficult for an author to pull off as something that is more ostentatiously ambitious. First, near-future science fiction is tricky; there are lots of ways for it to go wrong, not least of which is getting overtaken by events. Second, it’s funny, and funny amidst murder and mortality walks a narrow balance beam. Third, he’s writing a police procedural in a science fiction setting; he has to keep on the right side of the conventions of both genres for the story to work. …”

I raced through Head On in about a day and a half, so he clearly got the balance right for me. The machinations made sense, as did the motivations. I was surprised by some of the violence in the story, but that is as it should be. Bad things are seldom telegraphed in real life, there’s no reason why near-future crime should be any different. I don’t think that Scalzi would kill off Chris or Vann, but other characters (with the possible exception of Chris’ parents) are not under authorial protection, and the antagonists have shown from the beginning that they are indifferent to people’s lives when scads of money are involved.

Along with Scalzi’s trademark snappy dialog and fast reversals of positions, there’s also a good look at corruption in business in general, and sports in particular. Many thousands of people get emotionally attached to their teams. Some dozens make vast sums of money off of that attachment, and some of those people are not particularly scrupulous about what it takes to keep the money flowing.

Will Chris and Vann find and catch the culprits in time? Only if they keep their heads on.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/04/07/head-on-by-john-scalzi/