Monday, July 25, 2011

Bitter Seeds, by Ian Tregillis

Click to buy the book!

[If you're down for a toys-in-the-sandbox brawl between warlocks and superheroes, go let your mind wander for a bit while your grown-up eyes read the rest of this post.]

For the amount of books I read (all of which I used to post about on this blog, though lately that number has dropped to those that beg more thoughts or insight from me), I'm often surprised by how few of them grip me, grab me, snag me, and refuse to let go of me until I turn to the back cover and discover the promise of no more pages.

Bitter Seeds is that rare book, and it could hardly have been written by a friendlier guy.

Ian Tregillis was one of the science fiction and fantasy authors featured at this summer's Mythcon conference in Albuquerque. In coordinating these writers' track panels, I met and shot the shit with some of the authors (including Daniel Abraham--check out the interview below--and Ty Franck, who co-wrote a book I'll be posting about soon), all of whom are pretty cool guys. And as if anyone doubted the intelligence of solid fantasy authors, these panels proved just how sharp this collection of Southwest-based writers really is. (Shout out to Melinda Snodgrass, Carrie Vaughn, Robert Vardeman, and Jane Lindskold, too!)

Then there was Ian. If you saw him in a crowd and had to label him, you would say something like "physicist." Which he is. Abraham called him (and I'm paraphrasing here) a fucking genius, and he's hardly exaggerating. But on top of that, he was incredibly eloquent with his words, giving with his time, and open with his ever-increasing fan base.

And almost none of us had heard of him before Mythcon.

Okay, I'm done touting him as a person. You don't buy some stranger's book because he's a nice guy. But Bitter Seeds is excellent. It's the first volume in a trilogy (The Milkweed Triptych; the second book doesn't come out til summer 2012, and I'm already considering a pre-order), and what an opening salvo it is.

If I pitch the book as an alternate history of World War II, where the Nazis scientifically create superheroes and the British turn to warlocks, you may think it sounds hokey, a hapless mish-mash of fantasy and sci-fi. But it ain't. This book is excellently crafted, and it does what so much fantasy doesn't (and to its detriment): the powers of its characters are limited, and they come with severe cost.

This story isn't a young boy's sandbox dream clash between magicians and Superman. Each wizardly process demands British blood sacrifices. The superheroes last only as long as their batteries--and these orphans-cum-lab rats all have their own shortcomings. Doesn't that just ring true, despite the fantastical nature of it? So many great leaps we make as individuals and as a society come at some cost. Besides, what fun is a great achievement if it comes without any inherent risk? That, to me, is why Tregillis's book pulls off its alternate world so effectively.

Not to mention that the hardcover edition (can't speak yet for the paperback) is incredibly handsome. I hope the publishers make the whole trilogy match, because so few books these days look this good on a shelf. And so few books that look good on a shelf make for reading this fine.

If you buy one genre book this year, make it Bitter Seeds. And I say that with the painful realization that the next book on my list would deserve the mantle almost any other year, with almost any other competition.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

V for Vendetta, by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

How I have gotten this far on my nerd cred without having read this book is beyond me. Thank all things good that I was not mauled for ever saying "The only Moore book I've read is Watchmen. (And no, the movie of V doesn't count. Not even close. Not after reading this. Whoa.)

V for Vendetta is hardly the first story about a society where people don't stand up for their rights, those inalienable pieces of civilization that so often become classified as "privileges" and are pushed aside for "necessity's sake." The few seeking to control the many under the guise of order and safety, and sometimes even prosperity, happens all the time in the real world, that precise one in which we live. Moore just fabricates a new one, one that might have been conceivably possible at the time he wrote it.

Though the key has changed, the melody stays the same.

As is often the case, one voice raised does little good. A lot more than no voice at all, to be sure -- but one voice can be quelched. One voice can be silenced. One voice can be talked around and over until it sounds like mindless babble. Sometimes, when the drivel is loudest, it becomes reason.

By not raising our voices all at once, all together, to speak out and say "no," V argues, we relinquish control. We hand over freedoms and our liberties hilt-first.

In the story, the oppression comes in the forms of genocide, of pervasive surveillance, of an inability to speak up without being brutally muted. But really, how is that different than the America we live in right now? (Other than the pervasive surveillance. We might not be at Moore-level England, but we have already given up far too much right to privacy, and too much of it entirely willingly.) Our government (not to be confused with our executive branch, though that branch as a whole is playing far too nice and like enormous wusses) has been deciding and is continuing to decide that the privileges of the very few, very wealthy people and the biggest of corporations are to be preserved above and beyond the most basic rights of every working-class and middle-class woman, man, and hell, even child in the United States of America.

And what do we do? We bitch and moan, we gripe and complain. But those deciding that the richest cannot pay a little more in taxes, that we have to play chicken with our country's future in order that those least harmed by the latest recession continue to thrive, have not had the fear of the public put in them.

If all people in this country voted only by their financial interests in the next election, each and every one of those bastards would be run out of office by 90% of the vote. (And for once, I'm being conservative.)

If every person in this country would let it be known that they cared about what decisions are being made on the public's behalf and that every person were willing to do something about it, I guarantee the current financial "crisis" would be a non-event. It would be past. It would never have been existent.

This isn't about Republicans or Democrats. It's not about labels. V is labeled a "terrorist" by the English government because he fights against its interests. But what V has that modern-day terrorists don't is this: he is not fighting for an ideology, but for ideals. He is not blowing up buildings to make people afraid, but to open their eyes and bring them to action. He attacks symbols not for what they represent, but for how they have been corrupted from their origins.

Do we need to blow up buildings to be heard? Hell no. But our society is not as oppressed as V's England.

Not yet.