Caleb Carr, Killing Time: You know you're in trouble when you reach page 40 in a book and are still wondering, "Is the author kidding?" Caleb Carr's story of a psychologist who stumbles (or is pushed) into a global conspiracy in 2023 is almost astonishingly bad, with wooden dialogue, improbable characters – especially the jumpsuited, silver-haired woman who never falls for a man, but does for Our Narrator – and situations Carr seems to have thought were clever extrapolations from current events, which just means they feel dated already. Somehow the Internet is to blame for the world's ills. Let me sum up with a quote from page 40: "All such cogitations [about the strange appearance of a newly introduced character] left my head when we reached the observation dome, which offered an unobstructed view in every direction—a view that stretched the limits of my credulity even further." I think this is where I say: Snap.
M.A. Foster, Waves: I read a number of Foster books as a kid, spurred by the gorgeous Michael Whelan covers. This one lacks a Whelan cover, as well as a point. An administrator comes to a frontier planet. He’s supposed to investigate strange happenings at a research outpost that’s supposed to be working on a defense grid but instead degenerated into a series of orgies. Also, an explosion killed the two team leaders. Along with the administrator, a strange and beautiful woman who is more than she seems (except we know that immediately, so maybe she’s just as much as she seems) comes along. This was the literary equivalent of rice cakes – boring and time-consuming, with not much to show for the work, since the mystery was muted and never fully solved, while the world-building – even though it kept interrupting the narrative – was never interesting enough to make me care.
George R.R. Martin, Fevre Dream: Vampires on the Mississippi in steamboats! Say this for Martin, he’ll try anything once. Years before the Civil War, a mysterious wealthy man hires a down-and-out steamboat captain to build the best boat on the river, subject only to the man’s occasional whims. As it happens, the whims are more than occasional, and they’re also more than whims, since the benefactor is huntin’ vampires. The captain is a decent viewpoint character and it’s a readable yarn, with power dynamics among the vampires that create some tension, but it’s not Martin’s best work.
George R.R. Martin, Quartet: Four pieces of writing from Martin, slapped together to feed the hungry maws (eyes?) of readers like me, who want more right now. The first is an unfinished novel that stops essentially midscene, featuring several reporters hot on the trail of a Jack the Ripper-like (or maybe not “like”) killer come to turn-of-the-century New York. Even bestselling authors occasionally have permanently stalled WIPs; Martin got to publish his. The second is a novella, “Skin Trade,” about an asthmatic and decidedly un-brave werewolf reluctantly investigating a series of werewolf killings. It was fine but probably not worth the price of the collection, and since it’s the only real story in the collection that makes this volume only for completists. The fourth piece (more on the 3rd shortly) is the Daenerys Targaryen parts of A Game of Thrones, and thus completely duplicative.
The third piece of writing is a pilot script for a show, “Starport,” that never got off the ground. All things considered, that doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. The premise was that lots of ETs show up and certain cities, like Chicago, become hubs of alien contact, with consular zones governed by alien law. I found the treatment largely hackneyed and uninteresting, with one big problem in particular. Martin's comic relief is an "Earth expert" alien who comes babbling fractured cliches, such as this version of the Miranda warning: "You are beneath arrest. You have the right to be hushed. If you are not hushed, speaking may be used to hurt you in tournament of justice …." Etc. This alien learned all about Earth from our TV shows. So what's the problem? Well, if it did learn from TV, it would know the goddamn formula! I mean, I don't make up my own dumb-ass retranslation of Frere Jacques just because I can translate it from French to English. The joke is cheap, it's not funny enough for a long-term character, and it's sloppy. Based on this evidence, Martin's better following his own vision in novels, bloat-prone as they are.
Max Barry, Company. I loved Barry’s Jennifer Government, a biting if-this-goes-on story about corporate sponsorship of every part of life. This book goes inside the corporation with a new hire in Zephyr Holdings’ training division. Jones, the new hire, quickly learns that his fellow employees are more than usually neurotic. The company is also undergoing a wave of costcutting and outsourcing, leading to more and more ridiculous situations. Eventually Jones discovers that Zephyr is very far from what it seems. I thought the satire worked less well in this book than in Jennifer Government, in part because most of the events seemed like they easily could happen, albeit in an unhealthy workplace, and then the structuring conceit was implausible in ways that triggered my lawyer’s skepticism. Still, if you like wincing over descriptions of coworkers driven nuts by management’s insane directives, Company delivers.
Pat Barker, Regeneration: Seigfried Sassoon decides he can no longer fight in the Great War. Rather than treat him as a war protestor/criminal, the British authorities – assisted by Sassoon’s well-meaning friend – decide that he’s just cracked; he’s sent to a sanitarium to be cured, where cured is defined as “convinced that it’s his duty to go back into horrible danger and be killed for no reason.” The man who’s treating him understands the ethical issues, but is convinced he’s doing the right thing. All the action is mental, yet the war permeates every moment. The writing is exquisite. What stood out most for me was an incredible description of young officers' fears for their men. They looked like poor mothers – totally responsible for other lives but totally incapable of protecting them
Pat Barker, The Eye in the Door: The third in Barker’s World War I trilogy, focusing on some of the same characters. This time the main action involves a lower-class man, raised by war into a position of authority but still looked down on by the aristos. He has a lot of sex with both men and women, but also seems to be losing time, perhaps even splitting into separate personalities. Barker does an amazing job of showing a psychological crisis in a man who lacks any words for what’s happening to him, and how that relates to the war and to his connections to pacifist activists – who were being brutally hunted down at home while the war continued on the other side of the Channel.
Connie Willis, Inside Job: Fairly standard Willis: Debunker to the stars, assisted by a gorgeous heiress, investigates a channeler who appears to have been taken over by the spirit of none other than skeptic H.L. Mencken – a circumstance distressing to both channeler and channelee. Will our hero Rob solve the mystery? Or will he at least come out of it with a date with the gorgeous Hildy? Willis fans can probably guess. It’s a mild diversion, but probably not worth the hefty price for the limited-edition hardcover, which clocks in at 99 pages.