Book Review: The Fall of the Towers

Book Review: The Fall of the Towers by Samuel R. Delany

Five hundred years after the old civilizations perished in the Great Fire, the Toromon Empire occupies all the known livable space on Earth.   But they are hemmed in by deadly radioactive belts and there’s nowhere for it to grow.  And yet–and yet, the Empire is not alone and there is something beyond the barrier…is it the enemy the Toromon government claims?

The Fall of the Towers

This science fiction trilogy is an early work by noted author Samuel R. Delany.  I have previously reviewed the first part, Out of the Dead City and it would be best if you read that review first.  To briefly recap, escaped prisoner Jon Koshar, the Duchess of Petra, and scarred giant Arkor are contacted by a disembodied intelligence called the Triple Being to battle another disembodied intelligence, The Lord of the Flames, which is interfering with humanity.  This is set against a backdrop of the Empire preparing for war with its unknown enemy.

The Towers of Toron:  It has been three years since the climax of the previous volume.  The war with the enemy beyond the barrier is in full swing, although it is impossible to tell how well it is doing, as none of the soldiers ever return.  The Lord of the Flames has returned to Earth, and must be rooted out again regardless of the cost.

The emphasis shifts somewhat in this volume, with two previously minor characters taking on new importance.  Clea Koshar, physicist and math genius (and Jon’s sister) is in hiding.  She is suffering what we would now call PTSD due to her war work, and is triggered by a common patriotic phrase, so has holed up in a boarding house under an assumed name and tries to avoid interacting with anyone.  Towards the end of the book, she begins to heal with the aid of circus acrobat Alter.

Runaway fisherman’s son Tel joins the army and is sent into the war.  Anyone who’s ever been through basic training (and quite a few who haven’t) will recognize that the training sequences don’t make any sense–which is only the first clue that something is very wrong here.  Once Tel is in the war itself, it turns out to be a murky affair, mists constantly concealing everything even a few feet away, constantly repairing machinery of unclear purpose, and random lethal attacks by an enemy that is never actually seen.

While banishing The Lord of the Flames is a necessary thing, it is not sufficient to stop the war.  That will take an unprecedented act of communication and understanding.

The City of a Thousand Suns:  A month after the events of the previous book, the war appears to be over, but one of the participants hasn’t put down their arms, and the consequences of the war are coming home to the island of Toron, where the Toromon Empire is centered.

On another front, actions taken by the Triple Being earlier in the trilogy have left their agents susceptible to influence by The Lord of the Flames, which is starting its endgame, to learn how to make war against the universe.  The Earthlings must finish their final mission without the direct aid of their sponsors.  That mission: collect three books that represent the finest thinking of humankind.

One of the authors comes directly on stage for the first time in the trilogy:  poet Vol Nonik.   He’s finally gotten out of the street gang he was in, but former rival gang leader Jeof still holds a grudge.  He and his minions attack Vol and his artist wife Renna, crippling the poet and murdering the woman.  This tips Vol Nonik over the edge into despair..which is good for his poetry…maybe?  He’s not so sure.

This volume is heavy on the Big Ideas as it wraps up the themes of the trilogy.  Creating new perceptions by forcibly moving a person from one setting to another, the question of whether it’s better to fix sick social systems or just let them go smash, and of course, the meaning of life.  One of the recurring images is the gambling game Randomax, which appears  as random as the name suggests, but is actually easily manipulated by those with higher math skills.

There’s more sexism as the trilogy continues, less, I think, from the author himself than from the social assumptions he’s working with.  There’s also a fair amount of “fantastic racism” as prejudice against the Neo-Neanderthals and the gigantic forest guards comes up every so often, and within the forest guard culture, how they treat their telepathic minority.

The closing chapters become clumsy, with hallucinatory paragraphs meant to show a poet plunging into suicidal madness, and a huge infodump by the Triple Being to explain what The Lord of the Flames really is and how it was working behind the scenes of the final book.  The Lord never becomes a character in its own right, and we will just have to accept the Being’s word that it is no longer a threat.

But then there is the city of a thousand suns, and perhaps there is hope for the future after all.

Recommended for Delany fans and those interested in the roots of New Wave science fiction.

Book Review: Legacy

Book Review: Legacy by J.F Bone

Sam Williams used to be a combat medic, until he got a little careless and had half his face radiated off during the Gakan “punitive expedition.”  After a punch-up with a pencil-pusher who got a little personal about Sam’s appearance, the battling medico was invalided out and sent back to Earth.  Except that a “clerical error” got him stranded on the desolate mining world of Arthe instead.

Legacy

While waiting for his paperwork to clear up, Sam gets his face partially fixed (the radiation damage prevents a complete restoration with the available technology), and joins the planetary police force.  As it happens, Arthe is having a problem with a drug named Tonocaine that is hideously addictive and drives the user out of their mind.  Soon, Dr. Williams is going undercover as a full-time doctor to find the source of the narcotic.  What he doesn’t know is just how big this drug ring is…or their terrifying true purpose!

Laser Books was a short-lived science fiction imprint from Harlequin (better known for their category romance) and edited by Roger Elwood.  They had a very standardized packaging–a precise length requirement, covers by Kelly Freas, and a bowdlerization clause in the contract that allowed Mr. Elwood to remove elements Harlequin did not approve of without consulting the author.  That last bit angered some writers when they saw the finished product.

Dr. Jesse Franklin Bone was a military veterinarian (Lieutenant Colonel) as well as a science fiction author, and he does a reasonably good job of making Sam Williams convincing as a doctor/fighter.  What Sam isn’t very good at is being a detective–he keeps making impulsive judgments, which land him in hot water (often admitting these mistakes in the narration!)

There’s definitely an E.E. “Doc” Smith influence here with the description of Tonocaine, and the legacy of the title, an alien object so fearsome yet desirable it is known only as “The Power.”

Much is made of Sam’s love interest Sofra being a virgin before marriage, in a way that may make modern readers cringe a bit.  (Meanwhile, Sam’s virginity or lack of same comes up not at all.)

While actual sex is not on-stage, it’s made clear that prostitution is rife in the mining town where much of the action takes place, and an even nastier trading community Sam spends some time in.  A subplot concerns a man who has impotence (never directly called that) who beats women half to death as a substitute.  Sadism is treated as an evil trait.

There’s a lot of regular violence in addition to the sexualized variety mentioned above, including a lovingly described and brutal hand-to-hand struggle at the climax that goes on for pages.

Also, what SF fans call “fantastic racism.”  The “natives” of Arthe are human colonists who were isolated for a couple of thousand years, became severely inbred, and adopted a primitive nomadic lifestyle.  There’s a substantial subculture of “Breeds,” people who are the offspring of liasons between the natives and more recent visitors from off-planet and considered inferior by both.  At the beginning of the book, the lizard-like inhabitants of Gakan are referred to by ethnic slurs.

All that said, Dr. Williams running around like a medical version of Jonah Hex is kind of cool and this is definitely a men’s adventure book.  Worth having for the Freas cover, if nothing else–check used book stores and garage sales for this and other Laser Books.

Manga Review: Akuma no Riddle Volume 1

Manga Review: Akuma no Riddle Volume 1 story by Yun Kouga, art by Sunao Minakata

Azuma Tokaku is the star student at  Private Academy 17, secretly a school for assassins.  As such, she’s being temporarily transferred to Myojo Private School, to participate in Class Black.  Supposedly, Class Black is a game disguised as an ordinary homeroom class–twelve assassins compete to see which one of them can  kill the thirteenth student.

Akuma no Riddle Volume 1

The target is Haru Ichinose, a bubbly girl who doesn’t seem to have a care in the world.  But we soon have hints that her past is dark indeed, and she’s much harder to kill than she appears.  Azuma begins to have second thoughts about her mission…perhaps she should be protecting Haru instead?

This manga (“Devil’s Riddle”) has been adapted into an anime series as well.  (I am told the anime compresses the series and cuts out several subplots.)  The author’s notes mention a “social game” but it’s not clear if this series was adapted from that or vice-versa.

In the tradition of dystopian YA, it is readily apparent that the teenage assassins have not been told the entire truth about what’s going on, and some of what the adults have led them to believe is completely false.   Azuma’s teacher at Private Academy 17 tells the reader as much, and looks forward to her figuring that out.  Most of the characters have very dark backstories, most only hinted at in this volume.  (Haru’s body is covered in nasty scars, and “Tokaku” means “rabbit’s horn”, aka “a thing that does not exist” like a jackalope.)

Most of the first volume is given over to brief introductions to the characters; there are thirteen girls in Class Black, a homeroom teacher who appears to be oblivious to what’s really going on, Azuma’s teacher, and the mysterious person who set up Class Black.  Azuma and Haru get the most characterization as “trying hard to be an emotionless professional” and “overly cute girl who refers to herself in the third person.”

The art is decent but relies heavily on hairstyles and uniforms to distinguish the characters.  There’s a couple of fanservicey scenes in aid of the plotline.

The book’s primary weakness from my point of view is that it seems overly calculated.  Each of the young women is designed to fit into a particular “appeal category” (the big-breasted one, the one with glasses, the one that looks underage, etc.) and I would not be surprised if this was originally published in a magazine with a primarily male reader demographic.  Also, the premise kind of unsuspends my disbelief.  Yes, I can accept for the sake of the concept one small private school that trains assassins, but here we have twelve teenage girls who come from twelve different schools and are all trained assassins.  Plus we’re given to understand that Class Black has happened at least twice before without the outside world noticing.

I do not think I will be picking up a second volume, but if teenage female assassins are your thing, and the plausibility issues aren’t a dealbreaker for you, you might enjoy this.

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