Saturday, August 23, 2014

Book Reviews: Under the Dome, Black Pulp, No Hero

Under the Dome
by Stephen King
When you're one of the world's greatest writers sometimes even your older ideas are still golden compared to everyone else's. Under The Dome, as King explains, is an idea he had way back in the 70s if my memory of his author's note serves correctly. He published it a few years ago. I just recently got around to reading it a few weeks ago. A television miniseries has also been made from it. My understanding is that the TV series is quite different from the book.
As usual King has a tremendous and unerring capacity for creating believable characters who are mixes of love and hate, good and evil. He's quite the people observer. 

Many of his characters have ugly little resentments mixed with their moral constraints and beliefs. With a few exceptions most of the "good guys" also have some bad mixed in them, whether it be a woman preacher who's unsure if she still believes in God but KNOWS she has a holy terror of a temper or an Iraq war veteran who's a decent enough guy back home but turned a blind eye to some horrible things during the war. 

There's a specific shout out to Lord of the Flies. That whole Things fall Apart element suffuses the entire story. Some people are walking monsters. Others didn't recognize their neighbors' evil because the law hindered their ability to do harm or forced them to confine their malice to smaller or secret misdeeds. How would such people behave in an enclosed environment with no rules or responsibility? What would you do if money, logic or decency no longer matter but viciousness and brute strength are what count? I read this story in two parts: two softcover books that were each around 600-700 pages. Even by King standards this was quite a lift. It reminded me of his earlier sagas like The Stand or The Talisman (with Peter Straub). However I thought that there were way too many characters (King has gotten almost like George R.R. Martin in this regard). The story sagged in the middle somewhat. 

After thinking about it I still dislike the ending although the penultimate catastrophe was diabolical vintage King. I thought the book was well researched though a person with a physics/science background might find a few holes. There are some warnings, subtle and otherwise, about the dangers of bullying, of hurting people just because you can, of going along to get along, environmental degradation, and of the Bush-Cheney regime.

The book's title is accurate. An invisible dome descends over the town of Chester's Mill, Maine. The dome extends up into the sky and far beneath the ground. It's really a sphere. Planes and automobiles crash into it. A woodchuck is halved by it. Light (albeit refracted), other electromagnetic signals, and sound still pass through the dome but air does so only weakly. Water and other physical matter won't get through. 

Approaching the dome causes headaches. Near the dome Pacemakers explode. Children show precognition. Chester's Mill is completely cut off from the outside world. When the police chief Duke Perkins dies, the overly and overtly religious and power hungry Second Selectman and used car salesman Big Jim Rennie thinks that he should control the town, for its own good of course. The elder Rennie (he has a morally empty son named Junior) wields massive legal and illegal influence in Chester's Mill. Big Jim prefers to work through other people. He has a heart condition. He's utterly contemptuous of opposition. Just imagine Dick Cheney ruthlessly cementing his grip on Mayberry. Big Jim is much smarter, more corrupt and more cunning than people realize though even he doesn't know how dangerous his son is. 

Big Jim is opposed by a drifter named "Barbie", aka decorated former Army Captain Dale Barbara, and the town newspaper editor Julia Shumway, among others. When President Obama invokes emergency powers and puts Barbie in charge neither Rennie is pleased. 

Big Jim has been expanding the police force by hiring thugs eager to abuse people. He's also hoarding food and water. Murder is just a tool for him. But even while Big Jim plots, the town's smarter residents realize that the true danger is the slow oxygen depletion and rising temperature within the dome. Some citizens search for what created the dome while the military and scientists outside the dome try to break through. 

The book's signal theme is that evil is morally and physically blind. We all can do things that hurt others without thinking twice. We're not monsters like Rennie, his son and company but no one's hands are 100% clean. When you kill that trespassing spider or watch as that terrified cow in the slaughterhouse is shot through the head would an objective observer describe you as "evil"?  Certainly a cow or spider would. The objective observer might agree with that description if they were as far advanced beyond you as you are advanced beyond cows or spiders. Cows and spiders want to live too. This book has an extended visceral description of a rape and a few other threatened sexual assaults as well as numerous gruesome murders and deaths. A few loyal dogs die. So if that's not your cup of tea you know what to do. As mentioned I found the book longwinded. Stephen King definitely knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men (and women too for that matter). 

Black Pulp
edited by Hancock, Phillips and Minor
I've written before that I truly enjoy many vintage pulp stories, old time radio and film noir. When I recently purchased a new vehicle and associated satellite radio subscription I was delighted to listen to the old time radio station. The problem with many of those classic tales is that they were written when racism or to be more precise white supremacy was much more widely accepted. Although there were a few authors who ignored or downplayed this convention, many pulp writers took it for granted in their writing, while a sizable minority positively glorified in creating racist tales and subhuman black characters. 

It wasn't just black people stereotyped in these stories. Arab, Persian or Turkish characters were often swarthy, untrustworthy backstabbers. Italians were over emotional gangsters or operatic lotharios. Irish were honest if dim policemen or singing drunks. East Asian women were Dragon Ladies while East Asian men were fiendish yet effete Fu Manchu types. One good punch in the nose from our admirable Nordic/Celtic American hero and the Chinese villain usually folded up like a wet paper bag. Stretching the genre limitations even for his time, one of Robert E. Howard's created protagonists was (briefly) a slave ship captain. So it goes. Times have changed. It is now legal to write stories in which black characters exist, are not ignorant savages who worship a white person as a god, and can even be the story's hero or heroine instead of a loyal but slow-witted and dialect prone sidekick. So that is a good thing.

Black Pulp is a short story collection which features pulp or noir stories with black protagonists. This has been done before by such black genre authors as Chester Himes, Rudolph Fisher, Clarence Cooper, Donald Goines and others. Of course who cares who wrote a story. What ultimately counts is story quality. Well this collection is a mixed bag on that front but I am happy to say that there are more hits than misses. "Decimator Smith and the Fangs of the Fire Serpent"  by Gary Phillips is a pre WW2 noir concerning the titular character, a middleweight boxer, who must do some detective work when his sister is suddenly murdered by person or persons unknown. 

"Dillon and the Alchemist's Morning Coffee" by Derrick Feguson has a dashing black secret agent undercover in a North African country where an item of incredible power is up for auction. "Drums of the Ogbanje" by Mel Odom dips into Darkest Africa Robert E. Howard Solomon Kane territory to have an African anti-slavery crusader and his loyal Irish sidekick face off against a brutal Portuguese slaver and his African ally, a wizard of decidedly malign intent. 

Gary Phillips
In Joe Lansdale's "Six Finger Jack", a bounty hunter decides to try some assassin work. It doesn't end well. "Black Wolfe's Debt" by D. Alan Lewis is a classic detective tale featuring a babe walking into the hero's office and trouble following her. "Agnes Viridian and the Search for the Scales" by Kimberly Richardson, shows a smooth talking black woman private detective who operates in 1930s Memphis and gets entangled in an Indiana Jones type adventure. "The Lawman" by Ron Foriter is a fictionalized retelling of real life escapades of Old West Black Federal Marshal Bass Reeves.

"Rocket Crockett and the Jade Dragon" by Christopher Chambers is a Korean War era story which features a black fighter pilot haunted by his older brother's lynching who has to manage racist commanding officers, Japanese war criminals, yakuza, legendary Korean relics and old girlfriends. "Jaguar and the Jungleland Boogie" by Michael Gonzales is a tongue in cheek story set in late 80s Harlem where a supervillain inspired by real life rap hater Stanley Crouch is out to destroy all Harlem rap clubs, rap musicians and any avant-garde jazz musicians who work with rappers. This collection is about 300 pages. The nice thing about short story collections is that something new is coming up soon if you don't like the current tale. Noted author Walter Mosley wrote the introduction. 

The afterword gives additional background information about the authors and their blogs, websites or twitter handles. Some stories are excerpts from series or selections from longer novels so I am interested to read more. There are entire universes for us to discover. I am always happy to find new ones.

No Hero
by Jonathan Wood
Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for this book. I may read it again to see if I change my mind. But I just didn't see this as anything that was super special. This was first in a trilogy but the ending gives the impression that each story will be complete in and of itself. This is yet another British story of urban fantasy. The hero is suddenly drawn into a world in which he finds out that monsters are real and there really are things that go bump in the night. At this point it would almost be more interesting if something from a more fantastical world was drawn into our world, in which magic does not work and the rules of physics apply. At its best this book reminded me of the Simon Pegg movie Hot Fuzz, at its worst this was sorta of a low rent Big Trouble in Little China takeoff. Arthur Wallace is a British police detective and Kurt Russell fanatic. Although he rarely has the opportunity to boot people in the head, fire off massive amounts of ammunition, show off huge biceps or save the girl, he is nevertheless a pretty good detective. He even has an "interesting" relationship with his primary female subordinate, one that could possibly go "live" if he wasn't a stickler for rules around harassment and workplace romances. Arthur and his team have been assigned to find out who is leaving dead, usually decapitated, bodies all over Oxford. They apparently have a serial killer running loose.

Via deduction and research Arthur predicts the time and place of the next murder. He shows up just in time to see an impossibly fast and inhumanly strong woman leap in the air and cleave apart a man's head with what looks like a Claymore sword. But if that's not odd enough, it's when Arthur sees tentacles and eggs spray from what should be a human head, that he realizes that his understanding of reality is incomplete. Arthur was the only one to see the tentacles and was unable to stop the woman from fleeing the scene.

Afterwards Arthur is forcibly recruited into MI-37, a supersecret British organization designed to deal with "special" threats to humanity in general and the UK in particular. The director of MI-37, one Felicity Shaw, is looking for talent. Unfortunately because supernatural threats can't easily be monetized or explained to the public MI-37 is short on funding. REALLY short. It was difficult for Felicity to hire Arthur because her bosses are talking of shutting down her organization. Along with the thoroughly confused Arthur, Felicity only has three other employees:
  • Clyde, a nebbishy researcher, unwitting comedian and powerful magician who talks too much to hide his nervousness, social ineptness and his increasing romantic attraction to:
  • Tabitha, an acerbic researcher, computer expert and undercover operator who doesn't mind showing her generalized annoyance to most people including:
  • Kayla, a Scottish woman and team muscle, who has somehow gained inhuman strength, speed and healing abilities. She's the one that Arthur saw. She doesn't like many other people and has a special disdain for Arthur, thinking him both incompetent and stupid. She's upset when Felicity explains she's putting Arthur in charge. Kayla's default response to Arthur is "F*** off!".
There is an other dimensional Lovecraftian threat called the Feeders who wish to enter and consume our reality. Currently they are unable to do so but have sent across their spawn, known as the Progeny. The Progeny infect/possess humans. They seek to open our reality to the Feeders. MI-37 tries to prevent this. Kayla is an expert Progeny killer. The balance of the book involves Arthur learning how to lead a team where everyone is more talented than he is, thinking of telling his previous friends what happened, seeing if Felicity likes him in a non-platonic way, and trying to do what old Jack Burton would do when the earth quakes and the poison arrows fall from the sky. 

This was a decent read I guess but nothing that hasn't been done before in the Repairman Jack or Harry Dresden series. YMMV. Arthur is too often severely self-deprecating, so much so that sometimes you find yourself agreeing with Kayla's or Tabitha's poor assessments of him. I did like the book's realism insofar as subject matter experts often can dislike the clueless project managers tasked to oversee their work. And upper management types often lack patience for middle/lower management drones ordered to get up to speed yesterday on projects they knew nothing about before the status meeting ten minutes ago.
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