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4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 08-06-18

Classic SF pulp adventure

This sci-fi classic was a dated yet still exciting and entertaining pulp adventure that broke ground and used a lot of tropes that were not yet well-worn back in the day.

Gully Foyle is not a likeable hero. He's a low-born, gutteral, uneducated feral man, aptly expressed in the dialect Bester creates for the lower classes. We find him stranded as the sole survivor of a space wreck, pillaging supplies to prolong his miserable and hopeless existence out in the void, when another ship cruises by. Foyle sends out distress flares... and the ship passes him by, leaving him to die. Consumed with rage, Foyle swears to survive and wreak vengeance on the crew of the ship that left him to die. "Kill you filthy!"

I used to be almost exclusively a SF and fantasy reader. One of the pleasures of expanding my literary horizons is that having now read many more classics and literary works than I used to, I recognize references even in my favorite genre novels. So I was a third of the way through the book when I realized that Bester was totally writing a SF version of The Count of Monte Cristo.

It's not a beat-for-beat copy with a space theme. Golly Foyle is a very different antihero than Edmond Dante. He's a brute, he's a liar and a swindler, he's also a rapist. And the people who did him wrong didn't care about his woman (he didn't have one) or his position (he had nothing). But like Edmond Dante, he turns from an uneducated sailor into a wealthy, refined gentleman who uses his immense wealth to train and equip himself and become a superhuman vengeance machine, while capering beneath the noses of his objects of vengeance without them realizing who he is.

The story goes weird places towards the end - time travel, multi-universe hopping, and psychic powers, all reflective of the era when it was written. (There is no real explanation ever given for how all of humanity just learned to "jaunt," or teleport.) But it's a great (short) epic and deserves its status as a classic in the field.

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4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 08-06-18

A fine new take on the old haunted house tale

It's easy to see the literary parentage of this book: a group of investigators spend a couple of nights in a haunted house, and bloody shenanigans ensue. Shirley Jackson wasn't even the first to do this, though The Haunting of Hill House is probably the most famous in the genre, and still one of the best. But Scott Thomas's debut novel Kill Creek still manages to retell this tale with enough verve and new twists to make it entertaining.

In Kill Creek, it's not paranormal investigators or psychics or skeptics investigating the creepy old Finch House: it's a quartet of horror authors, brought here by an Internet millionaire who offered them a bunch of money to do it as a publicity stunt. Each author comes with his or own reasons, and baggage.

One of the most interesting parts of the book was trying to figure out which real-life authors Thomas was basing his fictional contemporaries on. T.C. Moore is the chick, who writes raw, profane, pornographic horror, heavy on the sex and violence. The ironically-named Daniel Slaughter is a wholesome church-going family man who writes for a Christian audience: his horror novels depict horror as a consequence of sin, with evil always being punished in the end. He worries about losing his audience for going "too dark." Sebastian Cole is the horror emeritus, an old man whose books are classics of the genre, but whose name is receding onto the back shelves of dusty old used bookstores. And Sam McGarver is the up-and-coming contemporary bestseller, who's going through a nasty period of writer's block and marital disharmony.

Having read a fair amount of horror myself, I could certainly make my guesses about which real-life author each character is supposed to represent, though I'm sure Thomas didn't mean them to directly correspond to any real people, just made them composites of identifiable figures. But putting them through their paces, especially when they start critiquing each other's styles, must have been almost as big a meta-fictional kick for the horror author writing about big-name horror authors as proceeding to subject them to the horrors of an evil house.

While nothing was, strictly speaking, original (all the horror elements, all the supernatural twists, all the deaths and the who-will-go-nuts and who-will-survive guessing games, have been seen many times before), I still liked this all the way through even when I saw some twists coming. And the twist at the end was, again, in some ways predictable (standard horror trope) but still executed very well, and chillingly so. Scott Thomas is definitely a name to look out for in future.

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5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 08-06-18

Fascinating real-life conspiracy mapped in detail

This was far more fascinating than I ever expected.

The short version of the story: In 2007, Gawker Media outed Peter Thiel, the billionaire investor who founded PayPal. Angered by this, Thiel embarked on what became a slow, patient campaign to destroy Gawker. The instrument of his vengeance, improbably, was Terry Bollea, better known as former professional wrestler "Hulk Hogan," who had launched a suit against Gawker for publishing a sex video of him banging his best friend's wife. Backed by Thiel's deep pockets, the Bollea lawsuit eventually ended the Gawker empire, driving it and its owner, Nick Denton, into bankruptcy.

That's the short version, but the long version turns out to be detailed, fascinating, and a far-reaching epic story that touches on political biases, the culture wars, and meditations on the nature of conspiracy and revenge.

Many people have opinions about the case based entirely on what they think of the principals. When Bollea aka "Hulk Hogan" first won his lawsuit against Gawker, public opinion was generally in his favor. The trial had shown amply that Gawker didn't care in the slightest about truth or journalistic ethics. They would publish anything without regard for the impact on its subjects. The rich and famous were favorite targets, and everyone enjoyed the schadenfreude of seeing yet another celebrity being humiliated. Worse, they operated on the principal that they were essentially untouchable. "Never start a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel" - they relied on strong First Amendment protections coupled with the fact that even for a rich celebrity, taking on a multimillion-dollar media empire was doomed to be a losing fight.

But when it was revealed that billionaire Peter Thiel was behind Hogan's lawsuit, essentially providing infinite funds in a deliberate effort to destroy Gawker, opinion turned. Thiel was not beloved by the media, and the fact that he was a libertarian, and later a Trump supporter, cast the case in a new light for many. Now it was a story about a vengeful billionaire crushing the freedom of the press for hurting his feelings.

Any such simplistic summary does not do the story justice, and Ryan Holiday, who interviewed both Peter Thiel and Nick Denton, among others, for this book (and in fact was asked to convey messages between them) does an excellent job of plumbing the psychology of everyone involved and laying out all the complexities.

Thiel, for example, wasn't just a thin-skinned billionaire out for revenge. At the time Gawker "outed" him, his being gay was already an open secret, known to pretty much everyone who knew him. So why was he so upset at the brief story on the Valleywag blog titled "Peter Thiel is totally gay, people"? There were a number of reasons, and none of them involved embarrassment or shame at being gay. Thiel, rich and powerful as he was, was genuinely afraid of Gawker, which seemed to be picking on him, and everyone told him there was nothing he could do about it; media organizations like Gawker could expose, humiliate, and mock anyone they wanted with impunity. He came to see Gawker as a genuine societal problem, and eventually, he was persuaded that not only should someone do something about it, but that he was that someone.

And yes, if you're wondering about all the other creative ways a billionaire could inflict retribution... Thiel thought about them, and discussed options with the chief architect of his campaign. Not purely out of scruples, they elected to follow a 100% legal strategy, eschewing even legal gray areas that Thiel could easily have funded.

Terry Bollea, meanwhile, comes off as very sympathetic and vulnerable in this tale. Sure, he was rich and famous. But he was also busted up after years of pro wrestling. His marriage went to hell, his wife ran off with a younger man and took most of his assets, his son was in prison, and when he went to his best friend's house for comfort and support, his best friend's wife essentially seduced him, and unknown to Bollea, the two of them were taping every encounter.

Bollea didn't know this until years later, when the video fell into Gawker Media's hands, and they published it. Not only did he learn in the worst way possible what his ex-best friend had done to him, but everyone accused him of being just another fading celebrity who'd released the video intentionally for publicity. And Bollea wasn't just taped having sex; he'd vented to his lover, said horrible things about his family in what he thought was intimate privacy, and most infamously, dropped a lot of n-bombs when talking about his daughter's boyfriend. When this came out, it essentially cost him what was left of his career.

Bollea was genuinely crushed by all these events. When he sued Gawker, though, he didn't really have a hope of winning. He wasn't nearly rich enough to take on the Gawker empire. Until Peter Thiel came along.

The ins and outs both of what preceded the Bollea lawsuit and what followed are truly a Machiavellian tale, because this really was a conspiracy. Bollea himself didn't know who the mysterious backer was who was pushing him to take his lawsuit all the way. Gawker was overconfident and would never have been destroyed this way had they known what was really behind the lawsuit; they assumed Bollea would eventually settle, because he had to. They made strategic errors that exposed them legally and financially because they didn't realize this wasn't a faux-outraged celebrity trying to get an apology, this was a billionaire trying to destroy them.

Enter GamerGate and the culture wars and then the 2016 election, and the judgment against Gawker became fraught with implications that went well beyond the politics of outing and whether or not it's okay to publish someone's sex video without their consent.

I listened to this book mostly because I was a bit curious about the story, but it turns out to be truly an epic of modern journalism, American culture, and yes, illustrative lessons in how real conspiracies work. While years from now, this story may become dated as a piece of history from this particular moment in time, I highly recommend it to anyone with any interest in contemporary politics, culture, journalism, Silicon Valley, celebrity media, or the mind of Peter Thiel.

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4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 04-23-17

Summary of better books

For the complete story, I recommend Harry Markopolous's book "No One Would Listen." This is a series of interview and news soundbites, with a bit of dramatization. The Madoff story is a fascinating and cautionary one - this series just scratches the surface.

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4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 04-13-17

Plot keeps boiling

The second book in The Dagger and the Coin series continues Daniel Abraham’s Game of Thrones-like epic fantasy about politics and scheming in a low-magic medieval fantasy kingdom.

Abraham, one half of the writing team for the Expanse series, has a similar style in this series, though he has a few writing ticks that are so repetitive as to be annoying in dialog. People are always replying “You are,” or “It is” or just “Is” to rhetorical statements. E.g.,

“It’s raining.
“It is.”
“We’re going to get wet.”
“We are.”

Okay, that’s not quite an actual conversation from the book, but a lot of them sound like that.

The King’s Blood continues the story begun in The Dragon’s Path. Geder Palliako, a minor nobleman who through a series of unlikely events has risen to become Lord Regent of the empire, is now the most powerful man in Antea, and step by step (urged on by the sinister priests of the spider goddess), he continues taking situations that could have ended peacefully and reasons himself into turning them into bloodbaths. Never with any explicit malicious intent, and despite the hints of cruelty as the former abused fat kid begins reveling in his power, he almost seems to be stumbling towards the dark side without meaning to. Yet everything he does makes things worse and darker. Geder Palliako is the banality of evil.

The multiple POV style shifts between Geder Palliako, Cithrin Bel Sarcour, the banking prodigy who is one of the few to recognize how dangerous Palliako is; Marcus Wester, the ex-soldier who winds up being enlisted to save the world from the spider priests, and Clara Kalliam, wife of the disgraced Baron Kalliam. Much of the book is fairly standard epic fantasy, complete with Marcus’s quest for a magic sword. But Daniel Abraham is playing a bit with the standard tropes, leaving us in suspense as to which ones will be played straight and which ones are subversions.

This not a brilliantly original series, but it’s a long story with a lot of interesting characters and multitudes of plots and subplots being laid down to be developed later. So far, nothing really “epic” has happened - we’ve got hints of a dark goddess who may or may not be real, several wars brewing, and of course, the long-dead dragons who are constantly being referred to, and who may or may not show up before the end of the series. It’s enough to keep you pulled in and interested in the next book.

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5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 04-02-17

Why the SEC should be decimated

Harry Markopolos is seething with anger. You realize this by chapter two, and by midway through the book, he has fully given vent to his rage and contempt. If his version of events is correct, he has good reason. His anger is particularly directed at the SEC, which he repeatedly calls inept, incompetent, ineffective, inefficient, unqualified, corrupt, and just about every other insult he can think of, sometimes even descending to schoolyard zingers. But he also indicts the entire financial industry, which basically knew what Bernie Madoff was doing long before his scheme collapsed and nearly brought down the economy with it.

The short version, for those who only vaguely remember Bernie Madoff as a big Wall Street con-man: for many years (from the 90s to 2008), Madoff, an "financial wealth manager," ran a huge Ponzi scheme in the form of a hedge fund. He promised a 1% rate of return every month. Every month. Without fail. As Markopolos points out, this is essentially impossible. No fund, no investor, no financial analyst, can run a portfolio that never has a down month for ten straight years. Yet Madoff did it, and this incredible rate kept the money flowing in. He had the backing of large banks. It turned out later that entire funds were basically invested 100% in Madoff's fund. There was a huge amount of overseas investment from Europe, the extent of which we'll never know because much of it was money being invested by organized crime and rich tax evaders.

It was all a Ponzi scheme. Madoff was never investing anything. He was just taking money from new suckers and using it to pay returns to old suckers. It worked until the financial crisis of 2008, when suddenly his investors needed their money and he couldn't pay them all.

Ponzi schemes are nothing new on Wall Street, of course, but the sheer scale of Madoff's scheme is what made it remarkable. There were hundreds of billions of dollars invested in him, and when he went down, it was mostly rich people who lost their shirts, but not a few individual investors who'd invested their retirement savings with him. Pension funds were also destroyed. As a member of New York's wealthy Jewish community, he was trusted by everyone in that community and so he also shamelessly looted synagogues from New York to Florida.

Madoff, who is now serving life in prison without the possibility of parole, has in many respects done more damage to America, and the world, than Osama Bin Laden ever did.

How did he get away with it? A combination of trust, ineptitude, and greed.

Harry Markopolos was a small fish on Wall Street. He was a financial analyst for a Boston firm. He first became aware of Bernie Madoff when his bosses asked him to come up with a financial product that could compete with Madoff. All of their clients were looking at Madoff's returns and asking why they couldn't do the same thing.

(Incidentally, one of the things I find particularly telling about Wall Street is how all sorts of bizarre, complicated, and downright fraudulent investment schemes are called "products" - as Markopolos points out, anyone can create a "product" that you can get someone to invest in. People can invest money in your "product" that is based on trading according to the tides and astrological signs.)

Markopolos began looking at Madoff's fund, and the numbers didn't add up. The more he studied it, the more he became convinced that something fishy was going on.

It turns out that Markopolos wasn't the only one, though he was the only one who made a thorough, documented study of Madoff. Basically everyone knew that Madoff was running some sort of scheme, but they were okay with it as long as it kept paying them off. Most people did not think Madoff was running a Ponzi scheme - they thought he was doing something called "front running," which is a complicated form of a short-term "insider trading" that is technically illegal but almost impossible to catch.

Markopolos went to the SEC, multiple times, and each time the SEC blew him off. When the SEC finally investigated Madoff after he confessed to his sons what he was doing, it was far too late.

Harry Markopolos, who spent years being the boy who cried wolf in the eyes of Wall Street and the government, finally got his vindication, and he describes the utter delight he felt as Congress raked the SEC over the coals in the wake of Madoff's downfall. He ends the book was a set of prescriptions for reforming the SEC. As far as I can tell, very few of these have been implemented. All the SEC officials in charge at the time have resigned and "moved on to other opportunities," of course, but no one was fired, or went to jail (except Madoff), and the SEC of course made a lot of noise about reform and reorganization, but I have little confidence that anything has really changed.

The problem here is that while Markopolos, in his book, walks us through the reasoning he used and the evidence he gathered to prove Madoff was running a Ponzi scheme, it's not immediately obvious and intuitive to anyone except a financial analyst who's good with math. Markopolos had to convince people by showing them graphs, charts, and spreadsheets. The evidence was there, but as long as Madoff could confront his accusers with a plausible-sounding alternate explanation, it's all just a bunch of numbers. SEC investigators evidently do not have the background to crunch those numbers. And Madoff appears to have been a stone-cold sociopath who was unfazed by any accusations and able to placate anyone who questioned him.

No One Would Listen really is a fascinating and dramatic book, much more interesting than you'd expect from a book by a math geek about a Wall Street hedge fund. Markopolos gets personal quite often, and his anger and frustration is palpable. Although he is never directly threatened, some of his friends are, and he spends years fearing that Madoff might literally send hit men after him, or that the SEC would raid his house to confiscate his evidence proving their ineptitude. So when he finally gets to unleash in front of Congress, he tells us his goal was to make sure that the SEC had a very, very bad day.

Understanding what happened in the Bernie Madoff scandal should be a wake-up call to everyone involved in the financial industry (and we all are, one way or the other). Markopolos is quite sure there are other Bernie Madoffs out there, and the government watchdogs that are supposed to be protecting us aren't. And as with several other books I've read about Wall Street, this one leaves you with the unsettling realization that the biggest fish in the market, the people who handle billions of dollars and can shake the economy (and wreck your pension fund), more often than not are not the wise investors we'd hope, motivated to take some responsibility out of self interest if for no other reason. No, they are greedy, short-sighted, and sometimes downright clueless.

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3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 04-01-17

Good but starting to get old

I've enjoyed Marko Kloos's Frontlines series, but this book, while okay as a military-SF romp with lots of stuff blowing up, felt a bit like the author is just milking the ongoing war with the Lankies to keep the series going.

The first few books had more stuff about Earth politics, with the protagonist, Andrew Grayson, rising from a hard-knocks existence in future-Earth's city-sized ghettos to a senior NCO in the North American Commonwealth's space forces, fighting off both aliens and Russian and Chinese rivals. Eventually the Commonwealth, the Russians, and the Chinese ally against the common threat - a race of kaiju-sized extra-solar invaders who have been landing on Earth's colonies and terraforming the human inhabitants to extinction.

The fifth book in the series picks up where book four ended, with the Lankies occupying Mars. Book five is all about the campaign to retake Mars.

Aside from a brief excursion to Grayson's wealthy in-laws' home on Earth, where we learn that rich people are still living in comfortable upper-middle-class bubbles protected from both poor people and aliens, oblivious to the existential threat to humanity, Fields of Fire is basically one long war story. Kloos tells this story well, and he continues to keep us invested in SSG Grayson's life, as well as the growing cast of secondary characters, like his gay Russian counterpart and his fighter jock wife. But book five, despite its climactic ending, basically ended with the war against the Lankies being stuck in stalemate. Presumably it will continue in the next book, but there were no big revelations, no radical changes in the status quo, nothing to indicate that the series won't continue to be "Earthlings go fight aliens, blow 'em up, some of them die, wash, rinse, repeat."

I don't want to sound too negative as I still enjoy this series, but a bit of staleness is beginning to creep in, as is often the case with a series that goes on for book after book without bringing the main story arc to conclusion. Step it up, end the war, and begin another series, Mr. Kloos!

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5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 03-26-17

Epic space opera heavy on ideas and characters

A Big Ideas book that harkens back to authors like Niven, Pournelle, or Asimov, who created grand galaxy-spanning plots governed by hard science. Cixin Liu pays more attention to the people who inhabit his universe, though. Even though The Dark Forest spans centuries and involves a conflict between two civilizations that will literally engulf stars, the main characters are actually people, not the physics and technology.

That said, I was quite conscious throughout the reading of this book that it was translated from Chinese. The style, the way in which people are described, in terms of infinitely nuanced facial expressions, emotions conveyed through mediums not often emphasized in the Western literary tradition, was different, as was the pacing and dialog. Cixin Liu is obviously a aficionado of Western science fiction (there are numerous call-outs to Western literature in the book), yet this novel had a different "flavor" in the same way that I've noticed Russian science fiction and fantasy novels (of which I've read a few) are also recognizably distinct in character.

The Dark Forest is a sequel to the Hugo-winning The Three-Body Problem. That book ended with the Trisolaran invasion fleet heading to Earth from four light years away. Since their fleet is traveling at sub-light speed, that gives Earth several centuries to prepare. Plenty of time, right? Except that defense plans are complicated by the fact that thanks to quantum trickery, Earth is already monitored by omnipresent "sophons" that give the Trisolarans instant real-time intelligence on everything Earthlings do.

The one advantage humans have is that Trisolaran thoughts are transparent to one another, and thus they have a poor understanding of deception or hiding one's intentions. To them, to communicate is by definition to openly reveal all one's plans.

To prepare a defense that the Trisolarans can't anticipate, the UN institutes the "Wallfacer" project, in which four men are appointed to become Wallfacers. Given almost unlimited resources and authority, their jobs are to independently conceive and execute a plan to defend Earth without telling anyone what they're up to.

The Wallfacer storylines are strange but interesting, requiring a lot of suspension of disbelief even if the physics behind their schemes seems somewhat plausible. They develop grand plans to launch super-megaton stellar hydrogen bombs or robot space fleets, each of which is eventually revealed to be a devious scheme within a scheme, all of them extraordinarily unlikely and yet believable. Opposing the Wallfacers are human collaborators, who create a "Wallbreaker" assigned to oppose each Wallfacer.

The primary protagonist of the book, Luo Ji, is a lazy, greedy, gambler and failed academic who, quite to his own shock and dismay, is made one of the Wallfacers. Naturally, he becomes the Wallfacer upon whom the survival of the human race will ultimately depend.

There are lots of recurring themes in The Dark Forest that only occurred to me later in the book, and more that will probably occur to me as I think about it some more. The way in which the very act of communicating can be a threat, for example, is revealed in the climax of the novel, where the title is also explained, and then you will realize how cleverly the author foreshadowed this in the first book.

The Dark Forest is an alien invasion story, a space opera with epic spaceship battles, a far future scientific romance, and here and there a bit of modern political allegory. I enjoyed it more than the first book, and I quite liked the first book. This is the second of a trilogy, and given how this volume ends, I am really not sure what to expect in the third book. But I'll be reading it soon.

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4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 03-23-17

When Harvard boys go bad

This is one of the most cringe-inducing books I've ever read. You can almost feel sorry for the protagonist throughout his self-serving narrative as he describes his freshmen year at Harvard, increasingly consumed by his obsession with a hot Manhattanite older girl, except that he's such a complete louse.

David Federman is a perfectly dull, if smart, Jewish boy from New Jersey. He's already a walking cliche when he arrives at Harvard - he was the smartest kid in his high school class, and good grades always came easily to him, but he is unable to grasp the fact that in Harvard, he is no longer the smartest guy in the room. Everyone was at the top of their class. He settles in with an equally nerdy roommate, and almost immediately is introduced to Sarah, a nice Jewish girl who is obviously interested in him right away.

But Sarah's roommate is Veronica Morgan Wells - a gorgeous socialite from a wealthy Upper West Side family. David is smitten with her. Not just smitten, but obsessed. His life soon centers around impressing her, insinuating himself into her life, winning her.

Loner is full of painful episodes. Painful because you are wincing at the stupid stunts David pulls, the obliviousness with which he pursues Veronica (who, despite her seeming indifference, the reader is certain knows exactly what he's up to even before the final act). And as I said, one could almost feel sorry for David, the poor schmuck, lost in the pursuit of the hot, unattainable girl who is clearly manipulating him.

Except David is such a creep. He starts dating Sarah, and letting their relationship get serious, all the while viewing it purely in terms of leveraging him into a relationship with Veronica. He views all interactions in terms of how it will improve his standing with Veronica. He has some self-awareness, as when he describes with painful accuracy their likely future if he and Sarah get married, two dumpy middle-aged parents shuttling rugrats to soccer practice and living banal lives in suburbia. That's not for David - he wants the hot girl from Manhattan, who has cool, sophisticated friends, who brings him along to Final Club parties where he has his first taste of cocaine... whom he actually follows to Manhattan in his hapless pursuit of her.

At some point, David goes completely around the bend, and even though you still want to feel sorry for him, it just never stops being any less painful reading about what a creepy, obsessive headcase he becomes.

This was a surprisingly good book, with believable characterization and a story that zooms along comically and tragically to its finale. It is also believable as a glimpse of college life in the modern day (to those of us who were college students, ahem, quite a while ago).

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3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 03-18-17

Literary dystopian fiction

Chang-Rae Lee's dystopian story of an America in decline, occupied generations ago by "New Chinese" who have displaced the Anglo and African-American residents of the major cities and pushed them out into the surrounding, anarchic "Counties," reads like one of those dystopian novels written by a literary author who's decided to try his hand at dystopian novels. I could compare On Such a Full Sea with Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, or Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, or Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower. All of these books are similar - they depict a world in which economic and environmental collapse has brought down the old governments, and new peoples, new orders, have filled in the gaps. The haves and have-nots are more sharply divided. Outside the enclaves of the privileged is lawlessness and a grinding fight for survival.

On Such a Full Sea is well-written literary fiction that covers all of this ground in an engaging story, but it never convinced me that Chang-Rae Lee is more than a visitor to the genre. There isn't a lot of imagination in his post-collapse story, no technological speculation, very little in the way of reimagined futuristic society, just some issues of identity and class and racial divides that still exist even in a reconfigured landscape, and a heroine who is an impressive, admirable, yet very ordinary young girl who sets off into the Counties looking for her boyfriend, who has disappeared.

Fan, the main character, is a diver for fish in B-Mor (formerly Baltimore). The story is ostensibly told after the fact of the events described, in which Fan has become a kind of legend, an inspiration for the people of B-Mor. The B-Morans, descendants of Chinese workers who came to the East Coast after an undescribed collapse of the United States, are the "working class" of this future. The "Charters" are the privileged wealthy who still live the equivalent of middle class to affluent lifestyles, though as the book progresses and Fan and meets several groups of people from various walks of life, it becomes apparent that even for the Charters, the economy is such that a fall from grace, consignment to the laboring class or even banishment to the Counties, is always a worrisome possibility.

Fan's adventures take her through some harrowing (but much less harrowing than some dystopian writers would depict) adventures in those Counties, which really aren't Mad Max wastelands but more like a Wild West in which some towns have well-regulated law and order, others are ruled by despots, and others have no law at all. Then she goes through a series of stays with Charter families, some of them kindly, some of them creepy, all of them a bit blinkered by the privilege of their own existence.

Then there is an ending, which was, I suppose, a literary ending.

It's a good book in the sense that it was well-constructed, with a lot of prose that waxes more elegiac than usual for sci-fi, and Fan is a likeable, sturdy, determined girl.

Still, I have a bit of a bias against authors who give the impression they are slumming with sci-fi. Cormac McCarthy did it with The Road. Kazuo Ishiguro did it a little with his book, whose science fictional premise was thin and nigh-on unbelievable. Margaret Atwood actually writes SF even if she's taken some flack for eschewing the label. David Mitchell is a literary author who embraces the genre.

Chang-Rae Lee seemed to be telling another story, with dystopian fiction as his medium. It's a good story, but it did not really embrace the elements of the genre, and so to me it lacked the imagination to be truly brilliant. It's a good book for those who like some literary-flavored speculative fiction, but it is not likely to impress veterans of the genre.

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3 of 3 people found this review helpful