Monthly Archives: December 2007

Richard Morgan – Black Man

Is it yet another borderline sociopathic protagonist from Richard Morgan? Yes it is. Carl Marsalis is a “Variant 13” – genetically engineered to match the profile of the aggressive hunter-gatherers before civilization took a proper hold on the hard-wired parts of our psyches. His job: to hunt down other Thirteens, who have been declared illegal. He is recruited by COLIN, the agency behind the Mars Colony Initiative, to hunt down a particularly nasty specimen who has managed to escape from Mars, and is now blazing a bloody trail across the Pacific Rim.

Yes, it’s all a bit screechingly brutal and violent, but I think this is deliberate on Morgan’s part: by stripping his protagonist of social conditioning, he creates a viewpoint with which to coldly evaluate and criticize behaviours and mores that have become acceptable, but maybe should not be.

Or maybe it’s just a balls-out futuristic action thriller with some great characters and spectacular plot twists. Hey, what do I know.

Scott McCloud – Understanding Comics

A must-read for anyone who enjoys comics (or graphic novels, if you must), but curiously the book also has tremendous relevance for the Web, and people writing (and developing) for it. One of the fundamental points that McCloud makes is that comics are a medium of transitions. In comics, the space between panels is your mind takes over and fills in the blanks that are not explicitly shown. The web functions in a similar way: you can click on a hyperlink and be transported to the next page in a sequence, or into a completely different scene or context.

The book also features a chapter on mastery, that is equally applicable to to any craft, be it writing and drawing comics, or playing an instrument, or woodworking.

But it is mostly about comics. Three-panel funnies or multi-book series: they all speak a common language. McCloud picks this language apart, and breaks it down into parts that you will immediately recognize, but probably had never thought about before. By closely examining ubiquitious patterns, he shows just how complex and fascinating they are, and what kind of subtle cognitive leaps our minds make when we read comics or view infographics. A must-read if you are interested in visual arts, or even if you just enjoy reading Tintin.

William Gibson – Spook Country

I love Gibson’s style – his writing is sparse and cool, and he never misplaces a single word. Almost every sentence is finely crafted and judged to perfection. Spook Country is not science fiction, but it blurs the line between present and future by means of an avant-garde art form, which eventually has a bearing on the shadowy spy story that is plays out across LA, New York, and Vancouver. It’s subtle and wonderful – savour and enjoy.

Max Brooks – World War Z

Max Brooks’ previous book was The Zombie Survival Guide. It is written in the format of a volume in the “Worst Case Survival Guide” series, and at first glance it looks like a humorous parody of those works. But it is isn’t: the authorial persona lives in a world where zombies have appeared throughout history, but where their incidence is on the rise. He fears that we are on the brink of a global outbreak, that governments are suppressing reports for fear of mass panic, and The Zombie Survival Guide is a very serious look at how to make it through such a situation alive.

In World War Z, the worst has happened. There was a zombie pandemic, and mankind teetered on the brink of extinction. But we fought back, and slowly, and at great cost, reclaimed the planet.

It would be easy to set a zombie thriller in such a world. But Brooks doesn’t take the easy route. The authorial persona here is a researcher who helped compile the United Nations’ Postware Commission Report, but who was disappointed by the Commission’s decision to strip the report to the bare facts and figures. The book’s subtitle is “An Oral History of the Zombie War”, and that’s what it is: a selection of transcribed interviews with people who survived. Some of them are key figures, political and military. Some of them are just ordinary people, who somehow managed to find their way through the horror.

They are not exciting stories about heroic deeds – they are painful memories of people shattered and scarred by a war they initially didn’t understand, and later thought they could not win. The traditional military apparatus does not work, and conventional strategies leave battalions of soldiers open to an enemy that does not care about–or even always react to–being shot or blown up. The tide is eventually turned by people thinking outside the box, often with cold dispassion bordering on cruelty. But what effects do those decisions have on the people who have to make them, and what kind of a world do they leave in their wake?

As well as overflowing with well-rounded characters, the book is also full of details about places and procedures. It feels gritty and factual, stripped clean of cinematic polish and traditional zombie tropes. All you have are real people, facing doom on the deserted streets of the places they called home. But in the end–we win. It’s harrowing and uplifting. And it’s as much of a milestone in the literary horror genre as Shaun of the Dead was in the cinema. A real masterpiece.

David Wellington – Monster Island

After having read Max Brooks’ World War Z, this unfortunately feels like “just” a zombie thriller. I didn’t dig its particular supernatural twist on the nature of zombies, and it didn’t tingle my spine. Nothing here to induce me to read the rest of the trilogy.