Book Review: Nexus

Book Review: Nexus by Ramez Naam

In the not so distant future, technologies for human alteration and augmentation have advanced rapidly, so that many people are considered “transhuman” and there are a few that are possibly “post-human.”  One of the new developments is Nexus, a “nanodrug” that allows humans to communicate mind-to-mind to some degree.

Nexus

Kaden Lane and his friends have developed a new variant of Nexus they call Nexus Five.  It makes the effects of Nexus permanent and gives the user new capabilities that are near or at superhuman levels.  Young and idealistic, they want to help the world with this new technology.  Samantha Cataranes and the agents of the Emerging Risks Directorate want to protect humanity from the misuse of new technologies like Nexus Five, even if it means holding back progress by the strongest means available.  These two groups, and several more, are on a collision course.

After several horrible incidents (one of which Samantha was a direct survivor of) involving various new human enhancement technologies, the governments of the world decided that people who had passed a certain line were no longer human in the legal sense, and thus had no human rights.  In the U.S., the ERD has taken this to an extreme, censoring, imprisoning or even killing as necessary to prevent what they see as harmful alterations to humanity.  Of course, to battle criminals with these enhancements, the government agents themselves have to become transhuman, a bitter taste in Samantha’s mind.

Kaden and his friends are caught early on before they can spread Nexus Five beyond their immediate circle, and Kaden is extorted into working for the ERD.  It seems there’s this Chinese scientist, Su-Yong Shu, who is violating the international agreements on behalf of her government, and she’s taken an interest in Kaden’s work.  The ERD wants Kaden to go to a scientific conference in Thailand to be contacted by her and eventually infiltrate her laboratory.  If he doesn’t do what the ERD wants, his friends will be imprisoned incommunicado permanently.  Naturally, the agent assigned as his partner is Samantha, the one who busted him.  She is against her will dosed with Nexus Five to help in the assignment.

While firmly in the science fiction camp, this book has the structure of a techno-thriller.  Every so often, the action is interrupted for “Briefing” sections that fill in some of the future society’s backstory.  The technologies have both good points and bad ones–it’s pointed out by a minor character that because many of the enhancements are produced illegally due to the heavy restrictions, safety and side effects aren’t tested as rigorously as they would be if researching the technology was legal.

One of the things I like about this book is that most of the characters are at least trying to do the right thing.  The ERD really does good work pursuing criminals who abuse new technologies.  Kaden and his friends want to improve everyone’s lives.  Su-Yong Shu wants to protect her people, even as her government perverts her work.  A scientist-monk wants to invite people to live in harmony.  But these goals come into conflict, and there are a few people in the story whose motives are greedy and self-serving, and they force the story on to a violent path.

Kaden and Samantha both grow over the course of the story, Kaden learning to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions (and to think more carefully what those actions should be) while Samantha moves past the pain of her past to find a new way into the future.

Early on, there is a scene where a faulty “sensual enhancement program” turns a consensual encounter into involuntary sexual assault, and one character’s backstory involves rape and sexual abuse.  The abuse of mind control technology is a constant theme.

In the author’s note, he discusses the real-life technologies he’s extrapolating from–it’s fascinating stuff.

Recommended for science fiction fans up for discussions of transhumanism and the possibility of post-human people.

Book Review: The Queen of Zamba

Book Review: The Queen of Zamba by L. Sprague de Camp (Also published as Cosmic Manhunt)

It started out as a normal missing person case.  Victor Hasselborg was hired to find runaway heiress Julnar Batruni.  Her trail is easy to pick up, as she used her own name to buy tickets off-planet with her lover, one Anthony Fallon.  Victor pursues them to the distant world of Krishna, where he runs into a snag.

The Queen of Zamba

It seems that Krishna is under a technological interdict, to prevent the warlike natives from gaining the ability to destroy themselves (and others) before their civilizations advance to more peaceful methods of conflict resolution.  Thus Victor must shed most of his advanced equipment and disguise himself as a native to search for the lovers.  Can a man used to automatic pistols and fast cars survive with a sword and aya-drawn buggy?  And once he does find his targets, will he survive his encounter with the Queen of Zamba?

This story is part of the Viagens Interplanetarias setting, created by Mr. de Camp as a way to use many of the tropes of “planetary romance” in a more plausible way than had previously been the case.  (Edgar Rice Burroughs, the founder of the subgenre with A Princess of Mars, had focused more on the fiction side of “science fiction” and most authors writing in the same vein had stuck with that.)   So the Krishnans, while appearing close enough to Terrans so that they can easily disguise themselves as each other, can make whoopee with humans but not babies.  There’s a reasonable explanation for using swords and riding animals when more technologically advanced items exist.  And our protagonists can’t just zip between worlds–thanks to relativistic effects, voyages that take months for the traveling characters take years for the people left behind.  Even with improved human longevity and safe suspended animation, normal people with settled lives aren’t keen on repeated space travel.

Thus our protagonist, Victor Hasselborg.  In some ways, he’s a typical fictional private eye.  Disappointed in love, recovering alcoholic, tough talker, will kill if he has to.  But he’s also a germ-phobic hypochondriac who is skittish around attractive women who seem a bit too interested, and none too interested in the adventurous life.

There’s also some inventiveness in the general setting–after World War 3, the Soviet Union was gone and the United States crippled to the point it had to merge with Canada to survive.  And Brazil became the world’s leading power, aided by having invented starships.  On the other hand, people still smoke cigars in this 22nd Century, and the number one occupation of Earthwomen is “housewife.”  (A Krishnan woman expresses her desire to become one as the rumors she hears of Earth romanticize the position.)

During the story, Victor runs into treachery and eventually must team up with another Terran in disguise to prevent technological horror from being unleashed on Krishna.

Originally written in the late 1940s, this story was reprinted by Ace Books under the title Cosmic Manhunt and with the ethnicity of one of the characters changed due to politics.  This “Asimov’s Choice” edition restores the original title and character.

To fill out the volume, a longish story entitled “Perpetual Motion” has been added.  Con artist Felix Borel comes to Krishna to fleece the natives with a twist on the technology ban.  He can’t introduce any innovation that is beyond current Krishnan science or technology, but since perpetual motion machines are impossible, they don’t count, right?  Felix is not a good person, though he can twist events to make himself look better–right up until his luck runs out.  This story shares a minor character with the main event.

This is light adventure and fast reading; even with the added plausibility, you shouldn’t think about the science too hard.  Recommended for planetary romance fans.  There are quite a few Viagens Interplanetarias stories; I also recommend Rogue Queen if you can find it.

Book Review: Jewish Noir

Book Review: Jewish Noir edited by Kenneth Wishnia

Many of the themes of noir fiction, alienation, hostile society, darkness and bitter endings, resonate with the experience of Jewish people.  So it’s not surprising that it was easy to find submissions for an anthology of thirty-plus noir stories with Jewish themes.  (Not all of the authors are themselves Jewish; see if you can guess which ones.)

Jewish Noir

The volume opens with “Devil for a Witch” by R.S. Brenner.   A man caught embezzling for what he thinks are good causes has his death faked by the FBI so that he can go undercover in the Klu Klux Klan.  The title comes from an old saying about trading a known danger for an unknown one, and this assignment turns out to be perilous indeed.  The author bio mentions that this is an excerpt from an upcoming novel.

Most of the stories in this collection are appearing for the first time, but two are not.  “A Simke (A Celebration)” by Yente Serdatsky was first published in Yiddish in 1912, and this is its first publication in English.  It’s a melancholy tale of a woman whose refusal to conform to the social norms of Russian-Jewish immigrants made her popular in her youth, but isolates her now that she is middle-aged.  Harlan Ellison® contributes a story first published in 1960. “The Final Shtick”, about a comedian returning to the small town he had good reason to flee, and his feelings concerning this.

As one might expect, several of the stories concern Nazis, neo-Nazis and/or the Holocaust.  “Feeding the Crocodile” by Moe Prager is perhaps the strongest of these–a writer tells stories to a death camp commandant in hopes of surviving just a bit longer.  But the crocodile gets greedy.

There’s a fairly wide variety of protagonists in these stories.  Good people who do bad things, bad people who try to do good things, evil people who sink even lower, men and women, religious Jews and secular ones, Jews of different sexual orientations and skin colors.  Ethnic slurs and antisemitism are peppered throughout, and there is mention of child sexual abuse, suicide and rape.

“The Golem of Jericho” by Jonathan Santlofer is on the borderline with supernatural stories.  A bullied boy and his grandfather build a golem, which may or may not have killed the bullies; it’s certainly a mysterious coincidence.

The weakest story is “Her Daughter’s Bar Mitzvah: A Mother Talks to the Rabbi” by Adam D. Fisher which is just one long kvetch.  (My spell checker doesn’t flag that word, interesting.)  No crime, no hopeless ending, just complaining.

It should be noted here that this volume published by PM Press has no connection to the series of regional noir anthologies put out by Akashic Books despite the very similar presentation and book structure.

Most of the stories are good; recommended to noir fans who are willing to stretch their focus a little.

 

Comic Book Review: The Batman Adventures Volume 2

Comic Book Review: The Batman Adventures Volume 2 written by Kelley Puckett, pencils by Mike Parobeck, inks by Rick Burchett

Batman: The Animated Series ran on Fox 1992-1995, and is considered one of the best animated TV series of all time, as well as one of the best adaptations of Batman outside comic books.  It spawned an entire DC Animated Universe set of series with its unique look and strong continuity.  The series also influenced the comics it had spawned from, creating the madcap Harley Quinn and her friendship with Poison Ivy (and suggesting they might be very close friends) and a new sympathetic backstory for Mr. Freeze, who had been a flat character before.

The Batman Adventures Volume 2

But more directly, there was a tie-in comic book series, The Batman Adventures.  It was written for younger readers than the mainstream DC Comics universe, although it could still handle some subject matter that the TV series had to shy away from.  The art was meant to evoke the style of the show, and frequently succeeded.  Rather than copy scripts from the TV series, most of the issues tell stories in between episodes.

Many  of the stories in this second volume revolve around secondary characters rather than Batman himself.  There are stories for Batgirl (taking place before her first appearance on the show), Robin and  the pair together.  Man-Bat, Talia, and Ra’s al Ghul each get a spotlight story, as does Commissioner Gordon.  There’s even an issue from the viewpoint of the Professor, a brainy guy who teams up with schemer Mastermind and reluctant master of violence Mr. Nice to steal nuclear weapons.  Their plan is foiled by one unexpected glitch….

The cover story is from issue #16, “The Killing Book.”  When the Joker discovers that the Gotham Adventures comic book depicts Batman always defeating him, the Clown Prince of Crime kidnaps an artist to draw the true-life stories of the Joker’s triumphs.  This one has a lot of meta-humor, from the titles of the chapters to the comics creators being roughly based on the real ones at DC.  The lighter nature of this series is shown by the Joker not actually killing anyone, though he tries to remedy this with a deathtrap for Batman.

The Scarecrow story in #19 is darker, as fear of the Scarecrow spreads over Gotham City, far in excess of his actual threat level.  He’s even invading Bruce Wayne’s nightmares of the death of his parents!   It turns out that Jonathan Crane isn’t the only ethically deficient scientist in Gotham this month.

Some bits in this series may be too scary for the youngest readers, but most ten year-olds and up should be fine.  Older readers will enjoy the in-jokes and references.

Recommended to fans of the cartoon, and parents of young Batman fans who aren’t ready for the very dark mainline comics.

TV Review: Decoy | The Shadow

TV Review: Decoy | The Shadow

Decoy is a 1957-58 series about Casey Jones (Beverly Garland), a female police officer in New York City.  She often goes undercover, thus the series title.  This show is noteworthy as the first TV cop series to star a woman in the lead role.  Like Dragnet, the series fictionalized real cases.

Decoy

As an undercover cop, Officer Jones often deals with the very human side of the suspects–many of them come off as sympathetic, or at least their friends and relatives do.   Jones narrates the episodes, and frequently addresses the audience directly at the close of a case.

Many of the episodes are in the public domain, and I watched six on DVD.

  • “To Trap a Thief”  After a robbery suspect is caught and the money recovered, it’s discovered that over half the money in the satchel isn’t there.  The arresting officer is one of several suspects, and Officer Jones goes undercover as a blackmailer to see which one has a guilty conscience.  The ending is happier than expected.
  • “High Swing”  A mysterious series of muggings takes a lethal twist when one of the criminals dies of a drug overdose.  Officer Jones attempts to take her place in the small gang.  Notable for its portrayal of a marriage that is both loving and extremely bitter.
  • “The Sound of Tears”  The only episode where we learn something about Casey’s personal life.  A man is shot six times by an unidentified woman,  and Officer Jones must work through the reminder of her own slain beloved.  It’s suggested that the remaining pain from this is why she never shows interest in any of the men who hit on her during the series.
  • “Night Light”  A ruby necklace is stolen, and Officer Jones poses as a representative of the insurance company trying to buy it back.  But the real story is that one of the criminals has a young son who he is putting on the path to crime, whether he means to or not.
  • “Fiesta at Midnight”  A recent arrival from Puerto Rico is mistakenly identified as a robber and murderer.   His only alibi is a young woman he talked to at midnight, who said she was getting married on Sunday.  Too bad she seems to have disappeared!  The solution to the mystery was fairly obvious to me, but it takes Officer Jones longer to catch on, in large part because one of the witnesses is outright lying to protect the real killer.
  • “The Come Back”  Counterfeit winning tickets are being passed at the racetrack, so Officer Jones poses as a crooked cop muscling in on the racket.  The criminal operation turns out to be bigger than suspected.  This episode is most notable for its guest star, Peter Falk, as a crooked racetrack cashier.

This is an interesting little series, and I especially recommend “The Sound of Tears” and “The Come Back.”

 

The long-running Shadow radio show and pulp magazine inspired an attempt at a television show as well, but only a pilot for The Shadow was made, “The Case of the Cotton Kimono.”

The Shadow

Lamont Cranston (Tom Helmore) is a criminal psychologist who is an on-call adjunct to the police.  He’s kept very busy, much to the chagrin of his girlfriend, Margot Lane (Paula Raymond.)  In this instance, Commission Weston is calling Cranston in on the murder of a woman who was dressed in a cotton kimono at the time.

The police have gotten nowhere, even having an officer from the woman’s home town come in to assist them.  Cranston is able to locate two likely suspects, the boyfriend and the woman’s music teacher, but not enough to positively link either of them to the crime.  So he calls on “our old friend” the Shadow.  Interestingly, the story never actually establishes that Lamont Cranston and the Shadow are the same person (though they have similar voices and never “appear” at the same time.)

The Shadow’s arrival is indicated by a flashing light, and those whose minds he clouds not only don’t see him, but become distracted and lose focus.  it’s a nice touch.

The leads are good, but the story is kind of plodding.  With the state of special effects on television being what they were in 1954, it might have been just as well this never made it into a full series.

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