The Doomed City by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

If someone asked me what The Doomed City was about, I’d probably say it’s like a Soviet Dhalgren. It’s also like a Cold-War Russian Dark City, but since this novel obviously came first, I’m inclined to say that at least one of these properties ripped off The Doomed City to some extent.

(It’s Dark City.)

The actual plot of The Doomed City is rather loose — the story follows Andrei Voronin and a selection of other men through their lives in “The Experiment.”

The Experiment is nebulously described at a variety of junctions, but basically it comprises everything that the characters experience and interact with. They live in a city, but one with no defined location, climate or demographic. The inhabitants of the city come from a variety of nations and time periods, though all seem to represent, in one way or another, different political viewpoints that would have been of concern to a Russian citizen in the 1970s.

One might think of the Experiment as a massive fish tank, controlled by some unknown race of superintelligent aliens, in which humans take part in the building and daily function of a society, one that’s an odd amalgum of the societies from which they came.

dark
Maybe they’re just floating on a rock in space?

The one key factor that seems consistent in The Experiment is that each subject begins his time on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder and slowly rises through the ranks of society. When we first meet Andrei, he’s working as a garbage collector along with a ragtag group of friends. As the novel progresses, he becomes a detective, then a newspaper editor, then a city councillor. His close friends become policemen, reporters, and fellow councillors in turn, maintaining a similar, if progressively more powerful, group dynamic.

As numerous characters remark throughout the book, “The Experiment is The Experiment.” The apathetic claim becomes something of a mantra, a short, faithful prayer, a confirmation that they know nothing, that everything makes sense because it just does.

When baboons run rampant through the streets, when a seemingly sentient building devours citizens, when an expedition to the outer reaches of this uncharted “world” devolves into a madness of walking statues, temporal anomalies, and mysterious ruins, “The Experiment is The Experiment.”

For all this strangeness, The Doomed City never seems to veer into the same “supernatural” territory that fans of the Strugatsky’s best-known novel, Roadside Picnic, are probably familiar with. It’s a bit odd — The Doomed City might actually contain more of the observable supernatural, but that isn’t its focus.

Rather than painting a landscape, in The Doomed City the Sturgatsky brothers paint a dense party scene, an interpersonal drama with countless players major and minor, each with their own wants, aspirations, faults and failings. Certainly, many of these characters are political mascots, straw men built to represent political ideologies and time periods.

There’s a distinct lack of women in the novel. Those who do appear could be replaced with either men or blow-up dolls without affecting the plot in the slightest.  The Doomed City is as much a product of its time as it is a comment on it. Does that make this particular flaw forgiveable? Maybe, at a stretch, although it does make it glaringly obvious that the Sturgatsky brothers are also the white men by and for whom history is interpreted — perhaps their coded opinion of events (for as much merit as it does have) should also be taken with a grain of salt.

There are a lot of grey areas here, and in the novel, and one thing that I can appreciate about it is that the authors do very little to try to adjust the contrast.

Is The Experiment the afterlife? Is it hell? A genuine scientific study by ultra-advanced aliens, or some kind of government conspiracy? By the end of the novel, you might have formed your own theories, which will either be shattered or supported by the novel’s deliberately ambiguous ending.

Read the book for its dense character studies and fascinatingly nihilistic social commentary — or put it down for its alienation of women and failure to build any real suspense.

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Mechanicum by Graham McNeill

Hey, it’s the second Horus Heresy novel that I’ve ever reviewed on the blog!

I’ve always been more partial to the Adeptus Mechanicus than the space marines or Imperial Guard, so I was expecting to enjoy Mechanicum. And it’s pretty good. My main complaint with it is its insistence on cleaving the plot into two (three?) distinct stories that don’t really overlap until the final chapter (and even then, it’s not particularly meaningful.)

The main plot follows Dalia Cythera, an Administratum transcriber with some latent psyker abilities who’s conscripted into helping Adept Koriel Zeth build a device called an Akashic Reader. Dalia’s not a particularly interesting character — her abilities come close to pushing her into Mary Sue territory and she doesn’t seem experienced or opinionated enough to really drive her own narrative. 

Zeth is more interesting — here’s a tech adept who actually values scientific knowledge and experimentation over faith in the Mechanicum’s “god,” the Omnissiah. (Of course, her values are ripped to shreds along with the rest of the planet, but, it’s nice of a 40K property to actually acknowledge the possibility of science over faith.)

Plus, look — a 40K novel with TWO female main characters! Too bad that Zeth gets an introductory description that spends more time on her “lithe, muscular physique,” “shapely armoured legs,” and “the curve of her thighs and the swell of her breasts” than on any demonstration of skill or personality.

Still, for all its failings, the book has charm. There are some great moments that express the conflicted humanity of the Mechanicum, and the age-old cyberpunk question of how much flesh and bone one needs to be considered “human.”

pain
Nice one, Graham

It’s also got a few moments where it’s clear the editor was asleep at the wheel.

 

 

Eye of Terror by Barrington J. Bayley

This is the oldest Warhammer 40K book I’ve thus far read and the tonal differences between the Black Library of the late 90s and the Black Library of today are palpable. This book was a thrift store find and honestly after reading it I’m not surprised it ended up there.

Eye of Terror includes (to its credit and detriment):

  • The old brand of Warhammer 40K that feels like original Warhammer (but in space!)
  • Visible, fully realized depictions of Chaos instead of subtlety and vague allusions
  • Characters that would easily feel at home in an actual tabletop RPG

If you like the above, you’re in for treat. This story is far less bogged-down in bureaucracy than a lot of the later 40K stuff.

The main plot follows a down-on-his luck rogue trader and a misfit psyker through some bad but ultimately fairly inconsequential misadventure. I mean inconsequential in the grander scope of the 40K universe, of course.  Pretty much everyone in the novel still ends up dead. Speaking of scope, though, it’s necessarily a lot smaller in Eye of Terror than in most of the Horus Heresy tomes and whatever Dan Abnett’s been up to for the last few years. 

And I think it works — in such a vast fictional universe, it feels refreshing to see something a little more focused on individual experience. And the aforementioned overtness of the supernatural aspects is pleasing, especially if you’re more interested in the mythology of 40K than the bureaucracy.

This book is also riddled with spelling errors, which I find speaks to an interesting era in the franchise, one of extremely bad sourcebook art and character classes that have long since died out for being too ridiculous to fit into the whole grimdark aesthetic. 

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

I’m not finished this book yet but there are so many small details in it that I could write essays about so I wanted to start that I guess. Let me look at how this book deals with an alien invasion, a hypothetical invasion at that, and its effect on the entire society of Earth.

In The Three Body Problem, humanity is made aware of an extraterrestrial presence — and made aware that that presence is on its way to Earth. The Trisolarans need a new home, and it’s obvious enough that they are headed toward us with violent intentions – whether the violence is inherent (because their plan is to destroy us to make room for themselves) or happens as a result of our unwillingness to coexist.

The very idea of extraterrestrial war tears humanity apart. The characters in the novel have no idea what they’re up against. They can’t know, because they’ve never had to conceptualize, let alone fight such an enemy. What they have to work with is their military knowledge, a great deal of speculation, and a whole lot of fear.

In the first novel we were introduced to the Wallfacers. These individuals came about as a U.N. plan in reaction to some of the potentially dangerous traits of the Trisolarans – they have long-range communications and incredibly advanced observation technology. They have also only recently been introduced to the concept of subterfuge, so they are hyperaware of humanity’s capacity for it. These combined factors mean that any counterattack plan that is collectively decided on by humanity will be quickly discovered and neutralized.

Enter the Wallfacers. Four individuals chosen by committee, then provided with unlimited funds and access to every conceivable military, political, and scientific installation on Earth, in order to each formulate an offensive or defensive plan that only they know the details of.

It’s a terrifying concept – to give a single individual basically infinite power, and encourage them to be evasive and dishonest about their intentions in every aspect of their dealings. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the plan fails quite spectacularly, leading to a great deal of lost time, money and embarrassment on the part of the U.N.

But the failure of the Wallfacer Project is not necessarily the author’s point, here. It’s easy to read this as a warning, Liu’s assertion that absolute power corrupts absolutely – that efficiency and effectiveness at this scale, for an individual, requires a pureness of mind and intent that no human actually possesses. That humanity is doomed because we cannot trust ourselves.

Or perhaps Liu’s point here is that leaning into these traits that we’re all aware of is what truly dooms us. The Trisolaran threat in the novel causes a reaction from humans that is to rely more heavily on dishonesty, cover-ups, and misinformation. Maybe a different approach is in order.

In The Dark Forest, our main characters wake up in the 22nd century, after having been cryogenically frozen for several decades. While the current world seems like paradise of medical and technological advancements, we learn slowly and subtly that this world came at a heavy cost.

The Great Ravine is not seen directly, but recounted through background information, and memories of characters who were not frozen. There’s no direct exposition, we never see it firsthand. Yet somehow in this fashion it becomes more real to the current reader. Most of us never lived through the atrocities of the 20th century, let alone earlier. This is Liu’s way of telling us: this was worse than anything so far.

So that’s it, then. An alien invasion is the worst disaster humanity’s ever seen – political strife, violence, famine, an overuse of resources leading to a barren landscape and further starvation and death – and the aliens are still 200 years away.

This poses an interesting question for when the aliens finally do show up. Will it be worse? Can it get worse? Or has the worst already passed? In the face of great upheaval, are we our own worst enemies? Or is Liu, in his series, subtly hinting at the utopian ideals that are staring his humanity in the face, from between the lines?

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three Body-Problem by Cixin Liu

I bought this book and made it halfway through before I realized it was part of a trilogy. I rarely have the patience for trilogies anymore so I tend to avoid them, but now I’m locked in for another two books so this should be interesting! Hah! Hopefully this turns out better than the time I attempted to review more than one Horus Heresy novel in a row.

Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem is a Hugo-Award-winning book that was on the “staff picks” shelf in Powell’s when I was in Portland back in November. It’s an Obviously Good ™ book, so I’ll admit I went in prepared to sing its praises.

Not that I’m disappointed, it certainly is good. I found that for a number of reasons the pacing of the novel tended to ebb and flow for me. There were bits where I devoured entire chapters, unable to put it down, and bits where it took me several days to make it through 10 pages.

Liu plants an extraterrestrial first-contact tale deeply in the mire of contemporary Chinese history. I’ll admit that my knowledge of the Cultural Revolution is vague at best, and the novel starts by presenting a not-entirely-objective interpretation of events so I still can’t call myself an expert. Liu’s focus lies with the impact of the revolution on academia and scientific research, particularly in the field of theoretical physics.

In Liu’s fiction, the events of the Cultural Revolution indirectly set in motion an extraterrestrial invasion of Earth by fostering a disdain and mistrust for humanity in the best and brightest of astronomers, physicists, and military personnel.

First contact reveals itself slowly as characters in two different timelines play their separate parts. Ye Wenjie, an astrophysicist who is sent to work at a military base using radio scanning equipment for tactical purposes during the revolution, discovers a novel method of amplifying radio waves, allowing a later transmission to be sent into another solar system.

Decades after this discovery, Wang Miao, a present-day nanomaterials researcher, stumbles upon a bizarre VR game in which players are unknowingly introduced to the aliens that Ye Wenjie opened communications with decades before, by attempting to solve a physics problem that plagues the in-game NPCs.

The aliens are called Trisolarans, as they inhabit a planet caught in the unpredictable orbit of three stars. These three stars (the three bodies identified in the book’s title) cause the planet to oscillate violently between periods of extreme cold, incinerating heat, and occasionally, an era of mild and predictable temperatures known by locals as a “stable era.”

The communication that Ye Wenjie opens causes a cascade of events leading to a sort of multi-tiered invasion, the first phase of which manifests in the individual minds of high-level physicists, and which is designed to culminate in a physical invasion some four centuries in Earth’s future. Humanity must coordinate and plan ahead on a scale never before imagined, or doom a distant future generation to certain death.

Phrased that way it seems like an apt metaphor for the climate change issues of today, but rest assured that I’m oversimplifying it.

Throughout the novel, Liu does an incredible job of evoking complex processes on magnitudes both extremely large and extremely small, using clever metaphor and visualization. The basic binary function of a computer, for example, is at one point depicted with thousands of pairs of soldiers raising and lowering alternating flags. In another scene, the unfolding of a photon into additional dimensions is described in beautiful visual detail, and reminded me of some of the more fascinating descriptions of life in six dimensional spaces, in Greg Egan’s Diaspora.

The aliens themselves are interestingly thought out – with characteristics that would be plausible for their extreme environment, as well as others that seem deliberately designed to reflect the worst aspects of human nature back at the reader. While the scope of the novel is massive – in some cases too massive to easily relate to – I appreciated that it did not extend all the way to preemptively describing the physical appearance of the Trisolarans. They remain enticingly alien through the very end of the book.

I’ve started reading The Dark Forest at this point already and it so far holds to the same level of scope, in which the story spans the entire globe, yet will occasionally stop to focus intently on the tiniest minutiae of Earth, or spend pages on the inner thoughts of a single character. It’s an interesting strategy, one that allows for a large number of threads to eventually come together, even if they take their sweet time getting there.

Pick up this book if you want to contemplate the destruction of the human race as a psychological, rather than a physical process. Read it if you want to feel small, or to lament the heartbreaking shortness of the human lifespan – and the daunting idea of continuing to operate as a unit despite the routine death and replacement of every aspect of a system.

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer

The Southern Reach is a weird series of novels – part science fiction, part magical realism, part classic horror. I acquired the compilation volume so thankfully I was able to read all three of them in one go. I find the older I get the less patience I have for committing myself to entire trilogies.

That said, I did enjoy the clear tonal distinction between each of these books. Annihilation, certainly, could function as a standalone novel. Authority and Acceptance less so, but they still each have a tangibly different focus.

At the center of the stories, a mystery – a bizarre stretch of landscape where some unspeakable cosmic event took place, now quarantined by a government body. A series of expeditions sent in to attempt to study the area, with results ranging from unexplained death and disappearance to expedition members in zombie-like states of Zen upon returning.

When the novel first introduced Area X I started having very strong flashbacks to Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic, and naturally, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. A bizarre thing has happened, but what exactly occurred is decidedly less important than the lasting effects of the event.

Vandermeer’s decision to withhold the names of most of his characters, having the reader know them instead by their job title, is one that I found really helpful for enforcing that focus on landscape. Characters have their own human dramas, definitely, but always within the larger context of an overarching biosphere of moving parts.

So, Annihilation is incredibly creepy. I will freely confess that it kept me awake for several nights until I finally had to stop reading it before bed. I may startle easily, but it takes a lot to leave me genuinely uneasy in the way that this book did, so I have to give it major points for that alone.

I won’t tiptoe around the Lovecraftian aspects of the story. Spoiler alert: the events of Area X are not of this Earth. Possibly not of this dimension or universe. Indescribable cosmic horror unfolds in a way that’s more believable than most of the explicitly Lovecraftian fiction that I’ve come across.

The entire trilogy leans heavily into that uncertainty, that deep tension between being intensely curious about something, while understanding that you’re probably better off not knowing. There’s an unavoidable sense of despair, as well. Despair over relationships, despair over ones’ own mortality, the despair of realizing how truly powerless we all are.

I also have to say that I really enjoyed the way gender and sexuality was employed, (or, successfully ignored) by Vandermeer. Which is to say, gender dynamics are hardly a focal point, and I don’t want to reward mediocrity here, but I still feel the need to mention what a breath of fresh air it was to read a novel with so many believable, fully realized, uncompromised female characters (including the Main Character, at least in Annihilation.)

There’s a gay character, and a bisexual character, both of whose orientations are completely incidental to their roles in the story. There’s even a brief mention of the existence of non-binary individuals. It may not be much but when this kind of thing is as rare as it is, I have to take a moment to offer encouragement for what it’s worth.

For a novel about terror from beyond our galaxy, it’s a story that suffused with incredibly believable human experiences and reactions, one that manages to maintain a small scope despite the immense measure of its primary conflict. The trilogy may be about horrors of the highest magnitude, but serves to remind us that there’s horror inside every one of us, as well.

Diaspora by Greg Egan

Have you ever loved a novel so much that you wanted to get every word of it tattooed on your body?

Allow me to introduce Greg Egan’s Diaspora.

This is speculative fiction at its absolute finest, in my opinion: the type that’s grounded in what seems scientifically plausible to feeble yet physics-loving minds such as my own, while also doing what I have yet to see a pre-1990’s sci-fi story do, which is to recognize that not only the medium, but the nature of human interaction, can change.

(This is ’98, so it’s close, but no dice.)

The novel starts about 800 years into our future, with a large portion of humanity having voluntarily given up their physical bodies in order to live as sentient software programs inside servers buried deep under terrestrial ground. Each different server is called a polis, named after, presumably, the original creators. We’re introduced to Konishi Polis and Carter-Zimmerman Polis, and it’s implied that there are more.

Our hero, Yatima, is a Konishi polis “orphan”—a parentless, genderless being created from what could be called a glitch in the software that makes up reality within the polis. Essentially, Yatima’s birth was an immaculate conception in programming terms. Egan never truly leans toward a Messianic interpretation for the character, though I suppose that reading would be there, if you wanted it to be.

An aside, here: Yatima is far from the only genderless character. In fact, the majority of the characters use the pronouns ve/ver/vis, and at no point is the reader assaulted with explicit reasoning for this (though there’s plenty of implicit reasoning.) It feels natural, and I love it, and it’s great.

The remainder of humanity has split off into sects of “fleshers” – a fairly self-explanatory term. Naturally there are extremes within the fleshers: those who opt for a ton of genetic modifications and augmentations to make them essentially superhuman, and those who reject these opportunities—while paradoxically using them—to regress back to a more primitive state.

In the grand scheme of the novel, the fleshers don’t really matter. They are wiped out fairly early in the story by an unexpected cosmic event, something that shouldn’t have been possible according to the laws of physics as they are understood in the novel’s future (the Theory of Relativity has been replaced by Kozuch theory, which without giving too much away is a once again, entirely-too-plausible-sounding explanation for some of the weirdness that physics as we know it can’t definitively explain.)

The polises, buried deep under the Earth and backed up on other galactic worlds, survive the event. The remainder of the novel is focused on the Diaspora, the journey of the citizens of the Carter-Zimmerman polis (including Yatima) away from earth and into uncharted territories of the universe, across several more millennia and shifts into areas where our understanding of time no longer holds up.

This book really excels at telling a compelling story of massive, exponential progress in technology and social design, while remaining mostly aware of the bits of human nature that can and do tend to confound such progress. The scope of the story is vaster than that of any novel in my recent memory, yet Egan grounds it well by filtering through the experiences of a small, tight group of characters.

The polises are predictably hyper-advanced and allow their citizens to think and act hundreds of times faster than humans in the “real” world, yet polis citizens still fall victim to the type of overthinking and emotional blindness that frequently plagues today’s interactions.

In Konishi polis, autonomy is valued above all else, leading to a localized reality in which citizens are unable to touch each other, as even the slightest sensory intervention by another being is considered a loss of autonomy for the one being touched. Naturally, sexuality and romantic love have fallen deeply out of fashion and are largely considered outdated and off-putting, a point that I consider a refreshing turn away from the tropes of 60’s and 70’s sci-fi in which everyone is banging hot space babes with the help of off-world alcohol and massive leaps in birth control science.

Early in the book, attempts at saving what remains of the flesher population are mostly thwarted by the fleshers themselves fearing the unknown, refusing to accept the severity of the threat, and misconstruing the polis citizens’ invitations as some sort of invasion plot. Fairly topical issues.

In Carter-Zimmerman the focus is heavier on artistic pursuit and sensory experience, making it fitting that it should be the polis that creates thousands of cloned copies of its citizens and sends them off to distant planets. Which is where the story gets cool. Egan’s descriptions of life, and “life” on other planets are incredible, especially his descriptions of life that exists in more than four dimensions.

Technological advancement isn’t demonstrated with floating cities or Dyson spheres or FTL drives, but rather with the ability to physically change and manipulate the atoms in a planet’s atmosphere – to leave decipherable messages in the form of isotopes, for example. There’s the underlying idea that sufficient advancement would lead to technologies that are increasingly unobtrusive, difficult to detect, a contrast to the constant race to build the biggest, the tallest, the strongest.

Eventually, the pursuit of an ultra-advanced non-human civilization, following clues that have been left throughout the universe, leads the citizens of C-Z out of Earth’s universe, into exponential higher dimensions and physical descriptions that are dizzyingly difficult to picture.

The end of the novel is almost disappointing, if only because by that point I half expected that Egan would be revealing some sort of undiscovered, unifying universal truth. In reality though, the story reaches its logical conclusion when it becomes clear that there isn’t any point in continuing. The Diaspora discovers multitudes, but in the end what it truly reveals is the ambivalence of the universe at large, the sort of optimistic pointlessness of attempts to map or fully understand the extent of the universe, to even know what reality is.

And you know by now that I’m a sucker for endings that resolve nothing.

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

This book almost broke me.

It’s excellent in nearly every way and yet when I think about it I still feel a vague sense of disappointment or anger. As I said to a friend in response to their beginning to read Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson is an excellent writer in every way – except in writing female characters with more than one dimension.

Which is to say that in this sweeping, deeply informative, pleasantly convoluted, century-spanning novel, you could still more or less replace every female character with a blowup doll and have the same amount of impact on the plot.

(This is excepting the instances where Stephenson seems to mistake psychotic, red-flag jealousy for the behavior of that mythical beast, the Strong Female Character.)

All that said, I actively hate myself for being a feminist nitpick when the overall structure of the book is so. Fucking. Good. I just want to unabashedly love it for its manly wartime swashbuckling and fascinating descriptions of hacking and math. The writing is tight, it never drags. I hate historical fiction and Cryptonomicon somehow turned WWII into an endlessly interesting setting.

Is it the non-female-identifying aspects of myself that make me think I should be able to just set aside the flat, lazy, women-writing and focus on a classic fucking story? Maybe?

Anyway, I’ve been trying to write about this book since I finished it literally months ago and I haven’t been able to come up with a review that I can fully stand behind. I’ve read other things and I want to move on with my life so here it is. Read Cryptonomicon yourself. Make up your own damn mind.

I can’t even begin to tell you how to feel about it.

Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky

If there’s one thing I’ve learned while keeping this blog, it’s that it’s much harder to be snarky about books I actually liked. Which is why it took me so damn long to write about Dmitry Glukhovsky’s Metro 2033.

But I dug deep, and mustered enough ennui for a small rant, so here goes.

This book is essentially billed as a straight-up sci-fi/horror story – but there’s a lot of nuance to Metro 2033 and that’s exactly what makes it so good. Not only that, but Glukhovsky manages to pull off horror writing that’s actually legitimately creepy.

Quick plot rundown: Metro 2033 takes place, conveniently, in the year 2033, in the metro train tunnels underneath what used to be Moscow. The entire surface of the planet, (presumably; the scope of the story is fairly small and the characters for the most part have no way of knowing what the actual conditions are on the surface of the planet) was rendered uninhabitable a couple decades prior to this by the events of a third world war.

The main character of the novel is a man in his early 20’s named Artyom, who was but a wee baby when they nuked the world, and has spent most of his life in an underground train station, growing mushrooms for sustenance. The Moscow metro is vast – extensive enough that a communist revolution already broke out at some point prior to the events of Metro, with the requisite social upheaval. A number of stations have been taken as territory by the reds, complete with ongoing border skirmishes and prejudice-driven executions.

Aside from humans continuing their grand legacy of being just, so awful, there’s a new threat from the so-called “Dark Ones,” a new race of super-beings that nobody’s really seen but are assumed by everyone to be pure evil and out for blood. Are they horribly disfigured mutants from the surface? The next step in human evolution? Aliens? There’s probably a fan theory about aliens. Nobody knows.

There’s also the threat of a plague and the possibility that Satan himself lives in the tunnels, which are almost certainly haunted by… something, not to mention uncanny numbers of rats. The story makes it very clear how little fun is to be had in the metro.

So a rant: way before I actually picked up this book I watched someone play a demo of the videogame version on the Xbox 360. I was mildly annoyed with the game after only a couple hours’ worth of actual gameplay because it had the player just shooting weird mutant creatures crawling through the tunnels.

Now, I realize the limitations that the developers were working with. Metro 2033 (the game) is a first-person shooter and one of the most fundamental aspects of an FPS is having something to shoot at, and there are a lot of reasons for inserting a non-human foe to fill that slot. I guess it’s a pet peeve of mine that sci-fi horror writers of late frequently seem to fall back on “monsters” that, while certainly unpleasant, still appear to be carbon-based life forms with all the accoutrements like skin and some type of blood, and… eyes maybe.

What I’m saying is these things aren’t really that scary anymore because while they might be super strong and have extra-thick skin or plates of exoskeleton or whatever, you can still fundamentally kill them with guns. In some cases you may need to upgrade to a rocket launcher but I believe my point stands.

Also, if this is how you formulate your monster I have to assume that the monster doesn’t actually have any concept of malice or vengeance because it’s basically just a dumb animal, otherwise it might display the trappings of human-level intelligence, namely some form of combat strategy, external weapons, or perhaps an ability to be reasoned with.

Therefore, I posit that this type of creature isn’t really a scary monster, it’s just a large, angry dog. And I know Cujo was a hit but that was the 80s and I think animalistic monsters like werewolves or swamp things have at this point been distilled into tropes of either harlequin romance or cheeseball black and white horror films.

What I’m getting at is that I picked up Metro 2033 fully prepared to be disappointed that the main antagonist was a big ugly dog, or several big ugly dogs.

I was, however, actually thoroughly impressed with the antagonist forces present in the novel. Glukhovsky seems to understand that part of what makes horror horrifying is to have the character, and the reader by proxy, left uncertain about the true nature of the antagonist. Though Metro sits very comfortably in the “plausible” post-apocalyptic dystopia section of sci-fi, the horror elements are presented as mostly paranormal. This could totally fucking destroy all the scientific plausibility of the setting, but it’s executed with such an expert hand that it works beautifully.

There’s no final boss battle with these supernatural forces – they appear throughout the novel and while a number of possible explanations are explored at various point, none is presented as being specifically correct. What is “certain,” as much as anything can be certain, is that the forces are inherently malicious, and the kind of thing that you could never hope to kill with a gun. Maybe it’s a metaphor for human hate. Maybe the metro is actually purgatory, and the forces are just voices rising up from hell. Maybe a bunch of people living in dark tunnels with hardly any food, medicine or running water will eventually become paranoid enough to start giving physical shape to their anxieties. What is clear, is that the bad things happening in the tunnels are comprehensively unsettling.

At its heart, Metro 2033 is a pretty formulaic hero’s quest, wherein our boy Artyom must travel from his home on the outer reaches of the inhabitable metro, into the very center of human civilization and conflict, to kill the Dark Ones once and for all. You could easily re-skin this as fantasy and it would basically be Soviet Lord of the Rings.

But that’s okay. The structure of the plot falls into the background compared to the tight writing and character development. Artyom is such a pure cinnamon bun that you can’t help but root for him, and the occasional really convenient escape from certain doom is somehow improved by your pure love for a Kalashnikov-toting, gas-mask wearing main character who is, at his heart, an adorable and soft little kid.

I think part of what I loved about this book is that it somehow manages to seem somehow optimistic, in a world where you get a free ski mask with your purchase of an AK-47. The clearest available moral of the story is that humanity is irredeemably stupid and awful and that we deserve everything we have coming, and yet it never becomes an existential slog.

That said, I will say to make sure you’ve got your favorite whiskey in the house, because you’re going to need a drink when you finish this book.

Dhalgren by Samuel Delaney

This book is 800 pages long and still manages to have an abrupt ending.

I don’t know that I’ve ever read a sci-fi novel with such strong character development. If you want to nitpick, you could remind me that this isn’t technically science fiction, but magical realism. Whatever – it was in the science fiction section of the bookstore.

This is a really talk-y novel, but in a good way – I know I said that Honor of the Queen was talky, but it’s a palpably different kind of talky. Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren unearths your deepest thoughts and opinions on all aspects of humanity, putting them on a pedestal or crushing them.

I don’t know where to start with this novel. Definitively post-modern, its plot isn’t so much an arc as a straight line. Every moment is equally weighted.

So, I’ll try to explain. The novel is set in Bellona, a made-up city somewhere in the continental United States. It’s also the location of a recent but unspecified disaster of near apocalyptic proportions. This event has destroyed not only large parts of the city’s infrastructure, but its entire socioeconomic hierarchy as well.

Basically, Bellona is an anarchist’s paradise. Money and property have virtually no meaning or utility, there’s no organized justice system, no jobs, no schools. You get the idea.

Depending on who you are, this is either a dream come-true, or an absolute nightmare.

(I’m still on the nightmare side, though this has more to do with my own personality than the novel’s actual portrayal of the circumstances.)

Bellona is occupied, it seems, by drifters with nothing else to do and nowhere else to go, plus a few stragglers who didn’t immediately leave when the city was demolished. Many of the drifters have taken to travelling in roving gangs, calling themselves “Scorpions” and going by individual nicknames.

The novel follows one of the aforementioned drifters named the Kid, who is so called because he can’t remember his real name, but has a pretty intense baby face – everyone thinks he’s 17 when in reality he’s at least a decade older (though anyone’s age in Bellona is a point of some contention.) Kid hitchhikes his way to Bellona, presumably out of curiosity and a lack of anything better to do.

The citizens of Bellona are extremely easygoing and open, not only from a social standpoint but from a sexual one as well. Beginning the moment he arrives in Bellona, the Kid falls into a number sexual relationships, whether temporary or ongoing.

He falls in with the Scorpions, who, in spite of being feared by the non-Scorpion residents, are instead a loose group of people who live together and function as a sort of “gang” out of necessity. They have no one and nothing else, and take on a pack mentality, living in dens, and appointing unofficial “leaders” not by diplomatic vote, but through unconscious, animalistic shows of dominance and submission.

The Kid’s bisexuality is introduced circumstantially. His first encounter with another man happens early in the novel and doesn’t seem entirely consensual. At the time, I was unsure if I felt it was because Kid isn’t into men, or if he just wasn’t into that man and that circumstance in particular. Kid doesn’t openly discuss his own sexuality until about a third of the way into the novel, and even at that point there’s no definitive “label.” He just notes that his encounters have always oscillated between genders. I enjoyed, and I think a lot of readers will enjoy a character who could be labelled bisexual, but is never actually defined.

Dhalgren’s plot has no arc because it’s not so much a story as a case study, a hypothesis for a social experiment. Bellona is not only a fictional place, but a fictional circumstance, wherein all the arbitrary social laws and dances that we’ve built up are torn down, and humans are allowed to interact with each other as they might, without considerations for class, race, compatibility, relationship structure, or any number of other apparently false restrictions.

The result is interesting and sort of heartening. Dhalgren is definitely an exploration of a spectrum of human sexuality, not only in terms of orientation, but in terms of how much our desires are dictated and repressed by societal rules, and by that measure, the wide range of formerly deviant activities that become normal once you remove constructed stigma.

Kid almost immediately falls into a relationship with a woman, Layna. Circumstance adds a third – Denny. Despite vastly different pre-Bellona backgrounds and a wide age gap (Denny is only 15), for the rest of the novel the three are the sweetest and most ideal example of a poly triad that I’ve ever come across in any media. It was lovely.

Again, the three never strictly define themselves as anything, though there’s no strict denial of a structured relationship, either.

An aside – apparently at some point or region in the 70’s, “balling” was slang for having sex. At some point in the novel, about halfway through, Delaney starts using this word almost every time sex is mentioned by anyone in any context.

I, as a millennial, had previously ONLY heard this word as a slang term for being, basically, “cool” (wealthy, talented, lucky, well-dressed, whatever constitutes coolness) i.e. wish I was a little bit taller/wish I was a baller, etc.

This lack of context made the term jarring at first, and slightly annoying thereafter. I still don’t like it as a term. It seems kind of silly. I mean, I can see the connection, obviously balls are frequently involved in sex, but it’s clear to me why this didn’t catch on.

ANYWAY.

If someone asked me what Dhalgren was about, I’d say: human interaction, and writing. While in the city, the Kid is struck by a sudden compulsion to write poetry and by virtue of community isolation and being basically the only actual writer in the city, his book of poetry published. There are many passages that seem to come directly from the psyche of the author, meditating on the price of having your writing recognized, the reasons one writes, the constant balancing act between begrudging compulsion and actual enjoyment of the craft. As a writer myself, I was surprised that these all managed to be interesting and insightful, and only once or twice, for a brief moment, did they feel overly masturbatory.

Especially important are the moments in which Kid realizes that perhaps people are being dishonestly “nice” with their opinions on his writing. He asks for honesty, but is hurt by the response. It’s a very telling struggle between blissful ignorance and the knowledge we’re led to believe we actually want.

The last 100 (200?) pages of the novel devolve into a simulacra of a “found journal,” with different trains of thought overlapping in different fonts on the same page. In order to read each page fully, the story itself became necessarily fragmented. I found these extremely annoying to read, which I take to mean they were extremely effective.

I won’t say how it ends partly because I don’t want to give it away and partly because I still don’t really know how it ended. It’s as if Delaney was working with a set number of pages and he ran out before he was able to tie things up.

The ending of Dhalgren left me gasping and certain that I would have to read it again.