Thursday, February 19, 2009

Beat the Reaper - Josh Bazell

So I'm on my way to work and I stop to watch a pigeon fight a rat in the snow, and some fuckhead tries to mug me! Naturally there's a gun. He comes up behind me and sticks it into the base of my skull. It's cold, and it actually feels sort of good, in an acupressure kind of way. "Take it easy, Doc," he says.

Which explains that, at least. Even at five in the morning, I'm not the kind of guy you mug. I look like an Easter Island scuplture of a longshoreman. But the fuckhead can see the blue scrub pants under my overcoat, and the ventilated green plastic clogs, so he thinks I've got drugs and money on me. And maybe that I've taken some kind of oath not to kick his fuckhead ass for trying to mug me.

I barely have enough drugs and money to get me through the day. And the only oath I took, as I recall, was to first do no harm. I'm thinking we're past that point.

I was in the middle of reading several other books when the review copy of Beat the Reaper dropped onto the mat. On my way to add it to the depressingly ever-growing Stack, I happened to glance at the first few paragraphs... and that was it, I was hooked. As you'd imagine from the quoted piece, this is a fast'n'furious hospital drama/crime thriller, full of black humour and medical terminology, as our brick-shithouse-proportioned doctorly protagonist finds his past catching up with him, and has just a few hours to try and save his own life.

Peter Brown, as he's now known, is our hero, and is working as a doctor under the Witness Protection Programme after turning on his Mafia bosses. He's not your standard ex-mobster, though; full of contempt for the wise-guy culture, we gradually find out how this nice Jewish kid was sucked in to the world of Sicilian gang violence, and it makes for some compelling and uncomfortable reading. With the extent of the story filling just a few sleep-deprived hours in a dirty, underfunded metropolitan hospital, the whole thing starts to feel like Kiefer Sutherland has wandered onto the set of ER, via the Sopranos, taking in a Holocaust documentary en route.

Punctuating the energetic narrative, particularly in the hospital sections, are a whole load of footnotes explaining the jargon; the usefulness ranges from some handy decoding of doctor-speak, to the occasional "Like you care what this means" against a particularly boring acronym. It's an interesting device that only occasionally derails the flow, as the sardonic conversational tone makes the infodumps seem like part of the story. This also serves to set it apart from most other similar thrillers, so despite the occasional obvious and familiar plot twist, the story feels fresh and funny and interesting. Definitely recommended for any fans of the genre.


Friday, February 13, 2009

Mammoth Book of Best New SF 21 - Gardner Dozois (ed)

This is a very superior collection. I've had a few gripes about short stories in the last few years as the art seemed to be declining, but I have only good things to say about this book, which contains a whole lot of fantastic stories by some of the biggest names in SF today. The range of styles and subjects is impressive, from near-future dystopia to far-future posthumanity, post-apocalypse and pre-apocalypse, time travel and alternate history, though the recent trend of stories about Jupiter's moons (and other in-system exploration) seems to have dried to a trickle. While there are only a handful of female authors represented, there is a whole host of good female protagonists, and some decent antagonists too.

Rather than review all the stories individually, I'm just listing them below, but there are a few outstanding pieces that get special mention. My pick of the crop, fighting off some strong competition, is Ian McDonald's Verthandi's Ring, a gorgeous piece of far-future cyberpunk with a South Asian flavour. Runners up are Neal Asher's Alien Archaeology, which is an enormously fun adventure story (think Indiana Jones In Space), and Ted Chiang's Arabian-Nights-Meets-Time-Travel story The Merchant And The Alchemist's Gate. Also worthy of note are the pieces by Robert Silverberg, Bruce Sterling, Michael Swanwick and Kage Baker, though there's hardly a dud story in the batch. The only ones I didn't really get on with were, firstly, Love and Other Monsters by Vandana Singh, which I started off enjoying but then got bored with halfway through, and secondly Tom Purdom's The Mists of Time; the story is interesting enough but the blatant "PC Gone Mad!" agenda is just irritating. In general, though, this is one of the best multi-author anthologies I've read in a long while.


List of contents

Finisterra - David Moles;
Lighting Out - Ken MacLeod;
An Ocean is a Snowflake, Four Billion Miles Away - John Barnes;
Saving Tiamaat - Gwyneth Jones;
Of Late I Dreamt of Venus - James Van Pelt;
Verthandi's Ring - Ian McDonald;
Sea Change - Una McCormack
The Sky is Large and the Earth is Small - Chris Roberson;
Glory - Greg Egan;
Against the Current - Robert Silverberg;
Alien Archaeology - Neal Asher;
The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate - Ted Chiang;
Beyond the Wall - Justin Stanchfield;
Kiosk - Bruce Sterling;
Last Contact - Stephen Baxter;
The Sledge-Maker's Daughter - Alastair Reynolds;
Sanjeev and Robotwallah - Ian McDonald;
The Skysailor's Tale - Michael Swanwick;
Of Love and Other Monsters - Vandana Singh;
Steve Fever - Greg Egan;
Hellfire at Twilight - Kage Baker;
The Immortals of Atlantis - Brian Stableford;
Nothing Personal - Pat Cadigan;
Tideline - Elizabeth Bear;
The Accord - Keith Brooke;
Laws of Survival - Nancy Kress;
The Mists of Time - Tom Purdom;
Craters - Kristine Kathryn Rusch;
The Prophet of Flores - Ted Kosmatka;
Stray - Benjamin Rosenbaum and David Ackert;
Roxie - Robert Reed;
Dark Heaven - Gregory Benford