Saturday, June 24, 2017

Book Reviews: Sacculina, The Age Of Zeus

by Phillip Fracassi
The various life cycles of Earth's fauna are amazing, wonderful, disgusting and full of horror. It all depends on your point of view. Certainly if cattle, hogs and chickens had the ability to communicate as we do and write down their thoughts for posterity they would all agree that humans are the walking embodiment of evil. What sort of sick b******s raise living beings, nurture them, feed them, ensure that they don't get sick, pump them full of antibiotics and growth hormones and then shove them into the slaughterhouse where they're shot in the head and ripped apart. Hmm?

Caterpillars wouldn't have nice things to say about wasps, while bison and deer would express nothing but white hot hatred for wolves. And yet in a very real way, morals are not as important as continuing to live and to reproduce. We place our lives and those of our children or loved ones or other humans above lesser beings. If I find an insect or rodent nest in my home I eliminate it without considering the morality of slaughtering those creatures. If a dog bites someone we often put down the dog, even if the bitten human broke a rule that was obvious to any self respecting canine. As humans we get to set all the moral rules and make every other creature on the planet subject to them, even if we are the only ones who are aware of them. We can do that because we are the most advanced creatures with a consciousness and a morality. We can also do that because we're at the top of the food chain. 

Sacculina is a novella, really more of a long short story that considers what might occur when that last condition is no longer true. I was reminded of the Cronenberg film They Came From Within. Sacculina is a taut thriller that also puts one in mind of some of Stephen King's or Michael Crichton's early work. The difference is that the characters are not quite as fully developed. But this is not a character driven story. The plot is what matters. 

Jim, a California twenty something software developer, is happy that his older brother Jack has just been released after doing a six year prison sentence for burglary. Their family has never been the same after Jim's imprisonment and their mother's prior extended painful death from cancer. Jim decides to take Jack, their father Henry, and Jack's best friend and fellow hoodlum Chris on a fishing trip. Somewhat pitiably, Jim wants to do this even though he doesn't fish and has never even been on a boat before. He just wants to be around his big brother and father. He can't think of anything else suitably manly to do. Henry hasn't been seeing anyone since his wife died. Jim isn't exactly super popular with the fairer sex and Jack has obviously been in prison. So it's just gonna be a boys' night (day) out. Jim hopes that this outing will bring back some of the family feeling that's been missing in his life.

Things don't quite go as planned. The crusty old boat captain doesn't like the look of the ocean or the sky but Jim insists that they proceed. That was a mistake. If you insist upon knowing exactly what sort of menace the men face you could just google/wiki the book's title, which describes a real world inhabitant. This is body horror stuff that may make you shudder and recoil.  Until the conclusion most of the nasty stuff is implied, not described. The story is just over 100 pages without many wasted words. You can zoom thru this. I wouldn't mind seeing the author revisit this theme at a more leisurely pace in a hospital or city a la Crichton.The reader might squirm even more. 

The Age of Zeus
By James Lovegrove
Whereas Sacculina is a short novella with very limited character development, The Age of Zeus is a long novel of around 700 pages in which plot and character are both equally important. I thought the novel was a little padded out, thought. It could have dropped a few pages and still been just fine. Or maybe I am just feeling that way because my free time seems to keep getting reduced. Hard to say. 

In the Bible Satan and God have a bet about whether some hapless schnook named Job will still be faithful to God once Job has experienced some misfortune. When Job has the temerity to ask God if allowing this sort of suffering is really a good thing to do, God basically tells Job that such questions are above his pay grade. So he should shut up and take it. After all it's not like Job can do anything about it. His arms are just too short to box with God. You don't get to fight with the Creator. God can kill, maim, torture and do anything he pleases to humans. And that ends that particular tale.

But what if that wasn't the case. What if humans could fight back against their Gods. This book imagines a future in which God or rather gods, are very real. The Greek Pantheon or Olympians, led by Zeus, have appeared. And gifted with the mythical powers for which they were famed, they have taken over the world. The primary change is that the Pantheon doesn't tolerate wars or terrorism. Humans who get out of line will in a very short time wish they hadn't, though they won't live long enough to truly have regrets. Of course you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. Occasionally when one of the Pantheon or their enforcer monsters like The Lamia, Sirens, The Minotaur, The Cyclops or some other creature is making an object lesson of a rebel or protester, non-combatant humans might get killed. The Pantheon generally couldn't care less. Do you care about the ant you stepped on or the bacteria you washed off your hands?

But of course humans do care when their loved ones die. And they care about other things as well. Regis Landesman is one of the world's pre-eminent arms dealers. Fully 10% of the world's weapons originated in one of his factories or design modules. But since war and other mass violence have become unthinkable, Landesman's business has diminished to almost nothing. Concerned about this and supposedly filled with a new love of freedom, Landesman recruits several people who have lost loved ones to the Olympians. The people he rounds up are all former military, intelligence or law enforcement types. Landesman claims to be able to offer these people not only revenge but a chance to remove the godly yoke and actually kill the Olympians. He has secretly built nanotech enabled battle suits which should permit the humans to fight the Olympians on something close to equal footing. In a nod to his love of Greek mythology, Landesman calls his team The Titans. His two top recruits British police officer Samantha (Sam) Akehurst and African-American Marine Rick Ramsay are excited to lead the Titans into battle and even more excited by and interested in each other. But after a while Sam, who has been elected as leader of the Titans, starts to notice some ghosts in the machine or glitches in the matrix. She starts to add one and one together and come up with three. She doesn't think that Landesman has been truthful or upfront about his motives or what the Olympians actually are. And Sam doesn't like it when people lie to her, even if they think it's for a good reason.

This was a pretty fun book to read. It was intriguing to think about how people might deal with seeming real life evidence that their particular belief system is pure hokum while someone else's is real. I don't know if it was purposeful or not but the Titans' approach of going after the smaller and less dangerous monsters firs before working their way up the food chain to individuals like Hercules and Ares reminded me of a great many seventies blaxploitation movies or Starsky and Hutch episodes when someone is gearing up to take down Mr. Big. All in all a little longwinded but this was an enjoyable story. It considers the interesting philosophical/political question of whether world peace or any great ideal is justified by the removal of freedom.  
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