Review: The Passengers (Paperback)

The_PassengersOne of the most successful things about The Passengers harkened back to my university days. I recall my lecturer, when discussing effective sci-fi, talked about extrapolating something from the current world into some extreme, and taking the story from there. It’s an approach I find a lot more rewarding than the usual galaxies and asteroids that science fiction is usually, inaccurately, ascribed to.

The Passengers extrapolates a multitude of prescient ideas from 21st century society that make for an engaging, believable and thrilling adventure. It’s a decent mix of ideas also, that may sound disparate but do gel together for a thrilling yarn.

Firstly, the idea of the driverless car – after over a century of innovation with automobiles, finally the human element is dispensed with. This is a technology that’s still in the ascendancy today, but taking strides ever closer to what is predicted in The Passengers. Indeed, one of the backstory threads – that all non-driverless cars have ultimately been outlawed – deals with one of the main teething issues experienced at the cutting edge of this technology – interaction with other cars, and the unpredictability of their human operators.

By removing this unpredictable element of human interaction, driverless cars are portrayed as the holy grail to an efficient personal transport system, largely devoid of the chaos and disorder that comes from having a human behind the wheel. The machinery and artificial intelligence simply runs to a set of rules, though an interesting twist that comes about toward the mid to latter stages of the book is quite what those rules are.

Of course, a decent sci-fi thriller takes an ordinary idea and asks one question: what if…? In The Passengers, this question is posed to be what if the driverless cars that have no manual override get hacked? We begin by following a group of seemingly-normal citizens from a cross-section of society getting in their cars, as Passengers, from therein the fun begins.

But the second societal notion that The Passengers plays with is social media and the mob mentality. Invariably, the “unhackable” cars are hacked, and the fate of the occupants is decided not just by the characters we interact directly with, but by a more intangible influence, that of social media. When lives are at stake, this quickly develops into a full-throated trial by social media with life and death at the hands of tweeters we never meet on an individual level but who only seem to exist as shifting masses, who prove feckless and fickle in the face of the evidence presented to them

This is all good stuff to chew on. But who do we meet as our cast of characters?

The main setting for The Passengers is the members of a supposedly-independent inquest into accidents regarding driverless vehicles, ostensibly to apportion blame. Our protagonist is Libby, a bog-standard everyman hero at first glance, introduced as the “token citizen” in the inquest. She’s forthright, fights for justice… all the characteristics you might expect. Indeed, her characterisation is a little thin, almost bordering on the trite; however the book acknowledges this toward the latter stages when we discover quite why Libby is even in the inquest.

We also have MP Jack Larsson, the antithesis to Libby’s good character – a shady, snide worst-of-the-worst politician, almost a caricature. And the mysterious Hacker, for most of the book an ominous (if slightly cliched) vocal presence throughout proceedings. We’re left to wonder what the Hacker’s motivations are – their initial opening is that they’ve taken control of the eight cars because they can, without making any demands. But this soon evolves into a sick game of life and death, with the participants of the inquest having to decide which occupants to sacrifice for the greater good, according to the rules of the game the Hacker decides to play.

On a conceptual and moral level The Passengers is a fascinating and gripping glance twenty minutes into our future – where autonomous cars are played in a sick game of trial-by-social-media, the purpose of which only becomes clear toward the very end of the novel. This collision of some thought-provoking, prescient social issues – driverless cars, social media power, even the art of spin and how facts are presented – in 2019 gels together well; considerably better than perhaps it might seem.

I’d be remiss to not acknowledge some of the weak points of the narrative and prose that are there – for me they weren’t inherent negatives to my enjoyment of the book. Firstly, the characterisation of the people through which the story primarily takes place through is fairly perfunctory – the characters exist for reasons that the plot needs them to, and we don’t learn a great deal about their personalities beyond tropes. This is fine – indeed, this shares a characteristic, that of the characters existing to help the plot, from one of my favourite technothrillers, Jurassic Park. The Passengers is refreshingly unliterary and plot-centric which results in a pacey, thrilling story that keeps delivering.

However I do feel that the narrative could’ve left the inquest room as a viewpoint more throughout the main thread of the hacked driverless cars – too often the societal impacts of the fast-paced change are merely reported as “thousands of Tweets” or a news report of “massed people”. It felt disconnected and a little subdued -I’d much rather be shown these events rather than be told about them by the social media advisor. But the main meat of the plot takes place over a couple of hours of narrative time so I understand if there’s simply not the space in the briskness of the plot to exit the room containing all the characters we experience the story through – who, conveniently, cannot leave – to adequately build alternate perspectives.

That said, despite a couple of glaring errors (why would Level 5 driverless cars have no manual override to stop the engine at all?) I thoroughly enjoyed The Passengers; to the point where the potential weaknesses were there but ultimately became unimportant in my enjoyment. There’s a great, brisk plot that delivers in spades – a sprinkling of social commentary packaged in an engaging, pacey wrapper – a great, engaging read that makes you think (not too much), and is written in an easy, breezy and slick prose that I really dug quite well. This was another random Waterstones table find that caught my eye – fair to say I’ll be seeking out more of John Marrs’ work on the back of it!

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Review: Dogs of War (Paperback)

Dogs_of_WarMaybe I’m just not a dog person.

I picked up Dogs of War recently as a charity shop purchase – I was wary on buying it as I didn’t have a great experience with Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time at all. However, it was an inexpensive purchase and the premise of the book seemed intriguing, so I was happy to exchange some coins for it.

A book about biologically augmented dogs (and other creatures, but more on that later) being used in a dystopian near-future to fight humanity’s wars has the potential to be really quite gripping. And indeed, the opening parts to Dogs of War are quite effective as we follow bioform Rex and his cadre of augmented animals as they are used in a war in Campeche, Mexico against the Anarchista rebellion. This purpose is ostensibly that but the conflict quickly becomes the private war of the commander, Murray, who utilises the bioforms to commit a variety of quite brutal war crimes as he is left unchecked. Indeed, any attempt to interfere or provide oversight is met with hostility.

Had Dogs of War stayed in Campeche it would have been a very gripping, atmospheric and gritty book that explored the horrors of humans using augmented animals to fight wars that human soldiers aren’t to be “wasted” on. And indeed there’s plenty of ethical strife for Rex as his augmented intelligence clashes with his literal programming – he obeys his Master – Murray – because he craves the euphoria released by his feedback chip from being a Good Dog; likewise the fear of being a Bad Dog is tantamount in his mind, and there’s plenty of mileage in exploring what happens when Rex is unshackled from that hierarchy and has to make his own decisions.

However only the first quarter of the book takes place in the Mexican battlefield and this is where I feel Dogs of War quickly unravels.

The book pivots to be a political procedural of sorts that focuses on using Rex as a means to bringing Murray to justice and a more wider ethical exploration as to whether the bioforms are things (which can be destroyed) or sentient beings which deserve their own right to coexist alongside humanity.

Even writing that synopsis made me realise that the idea itself isn’t bad; however it is a quite trite and tired narrative thread. And once Dogs of War leaves the gritty battlefield of Mexico and expands to the civilian life of the bioforms – focussing on Rex as he battles with his new-found freedom from his hierarchies – the narrative completely seems to vent of momentum. Rex’s journey seemed immaterial as I felt he was a tool – a thing, if you will – for exploring thematic ideas rather than a solid plot.

To compound the triteness there’s a scene where Rex crumbles when questioned in court when presented with Murray, and the trial of his former Master collapses. I quickly began to be irritated by the stunting of Rex’s character.

There’s parallel narratives, much like Children of Time and the Rex chapters quickly started to bore me, honestly. Rex’s character hasn’t much depth – indeed, underneath the augmentations he’s just a dog, and the battle against his Good Dog/Bad Dog mentality, even when it no longer has any material basis on his actions. Honestly, Rex’s simplistic point-of-view doesn’t do the action portrayed any justice – it’s the narrative style given to Rex’s point-of-view that sells the story short. His perspective and recollection of events is so insulated from the brutal reality that the situations aren’t done justice.

Rex’s point-of-view seems more like a report or log of what happened rather than narrative with any sense of character and the prose of those chapters is too clinical and disconnected to be effective, ultimately. The prose’s insulation from the action it describes bleeds it very quickly of any impact and it becomes a hybrid of a report after-the-fact to a simple running commentary. It’s very tell-y; and the maxim that the author should show, not tell seems to have been purposefully ignored.

I am suddenly much happier. I am moving on all fours, working out where to take cover. Bees is mustering her units. Dragon wakes up and slithers into a stand of trees from where he can get a good shot.

All the not-enemy humans are still running. Some of them will still be in the way. The vehicles are coming very quickly. Already the enemy are shooting. They are only hitting other humans, though: they cannot aim at this range when they are moving.

Honey’s Elephant Gun explodes the lead vehicle. She is pushing through the not-enemy, and I tell her she should stay back to use them as cover.

Dogs of War, Chapter 6, page 47

I feel Dogs of War fails because it’s cramming too many thematic and ethical ponderances into a short book. The final fifth of the book was a race to the finish, ultimately, and I found myself caring less and less for Rex’s point of view. Indeed it was only toward the latter stages of the book that I learned that Rex’s fellow bioforms are not all dogs – he is accompanied by Honey, a bear, Dragon, whose species I never quite nailed down and more ponderously Bees, a literal hivemind of augmented bees that just doesn’t get the weight of attention that such a concept deserves.

Indeed, the character of this group of animals is expressed solely, it seems through the “telepathic texting” that was solely expressed through Rex’s point-of-view chapters. I didn’t quite understand this – were they communicating through aforementioned telepathic texting in real time? How did that work? This confusion just added to the sense of deep disconnect from the characters that Rex’s chapters were.

Ultimately I think Dogs of War worked less as a novel but more as a bit of an indulgence of the author’s desire to explore this well-trodden path of the ethics of utilising augmented animals and determining where the difference between beings and things seems to lie. But more fatally I didn’t come out of it convinced – the plot was ultimately predictable in its denouncement of humanity’s instinct to use its ingenuity to figure out a both more “acceptable”, marketable way of dealing with human problems that remains totally inhumane.

Humanity comes out the bad guy here and unfortunately the limited narrative in Dogs of War just can’t sustain that. Ultimately the themes that drive Dogs of War prove to be an old dog, and there’s no new tricks on show here to speak of.

In Children of Time the narrative enters a stall in the midsection of the book from which it was unable to recover; in Dogs of War the thematic weight behind the narrative forces it out through a puncture in the constraints that kept it taught and once it escapes into atmosphere, it quickly dissipates into nothingness.

Review – The Blinds (Paperback)

The_BlindsThe Blinds is one of those books that piqued my interest on the table in Waterstones ages ago that I only just decided to bite the bullet on. And I’m glad I did; as I devoured most this book in the course of two train journeys. That was fun.

I recall the premise of The Blinds caught my eye. A sleepy, forgotten town in the middle of a desert inhabited by people who’d chosen to have their memories wiped, and given new identities.Eight years of anonymity rocked by a series of murders. A killer in their midst. This is just the sort of thirty-minutes-into-the-future science fiction thriller that I’m trying to be better at reading. But The Blinds isn’t really a science-fiction book – yes, how people’s memories are selectively wiped is touched upon and explained. Instead the book focusses more on why people have had their memories wiped, and the repercussions what this does to the human condition.

The book takes perhaps the more interesting perspective of examine what this technology does to people. Indeed throughout I took away the sense that the story wouldn’t have a happy ending. Certainly from the off we’re presented with an unusual take on the crime techno-thriller that weeps with foreboding and leaves a definite imprint on the mind. I recall the first chapter being intriguing, urging me to dive in.

But enough about themes for now – let’s dive into the nitty-gritty!

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Discovering The Blinds in Waterstones, amongst other great books!

The Blinds is powerful, atmospheric and tense. The town of Caesura, the location for the tale, is a remote outcrop set up to house the “volunteers” in the experiment. Already the story is being kept away from the rest of the world, and the isolation is palpable, ostensibly for the protection of the residents but also it serves as a narrative device to keep the characters in a confined space. And yes, despite being in the midst of the Arizona desert, the setting of the town, a run-down, almost-forgotten collection of bungalows and chalets, feels contained. The events of the story are clearly never meant to leave Caesura, and it’s when they begin to spill out that trouble brews.

Indeed, whenever the residents of Caesura have any interaction with the outside, trouble comes knocking. The premise states that residents, with their memories erases, are indeed free to leave the settlement, they do so at their own risk, and some are never seen again. Early on we learn that The Institute administers the programme, and quickly we become suspicious. What is the Institute? And how at-arms-length are they keeping, how benevolent are they and what are their motivations? Early on I became fairly intrigued to learn how they stood to gain from the programme – it couldn’t entirely be a philanthropic application of new science? And this leads on to the liaison with the government between the town of The Blinds and the Institute. And even the new arrivals that we the viewer follow as they are inducted into the programme. As the plot progresses, these outside influences converge to really impact upon the town.

The premise of having selectively wiped one’s memory (ostensibly as an alternative to prison, to somehow absolve oneself from their crimes; a plot device that reminded me very much of One Way, which I read previously) allows for a unique opportunity in character development. The characters choose their own new names, from a list of former Vice Presidents and movie stars, which is a cool and innovative way of naming characters. But there’s always the interest in revealing these people’s real names, almost more so than their crimes, that does drive the reader on. And none of these characters, as we discover, is a white night or a dark horse; indeed, some of the expectations we have are reversed as the mystery unwraps.

Certainly The Blinds is dealing with some hefty themes – but I was most pleased to realise that the plot behind these themes is strong enough to motor through without becoming too self-indulgent. The story lasts about as long as it needs to in order to convey those themes enough so they persist, ironically enough, in the mind of the reader. Overall the plot itself is interesting enough that readers who may be less attuned to picking up thematic riffs can still enjoy the book – it’s a solid, atmospheric thriller with a dash of Western and a dash of science fiction.

It’s also partly an interesting ethical tale – we have characters that are neither black or white, and the book itself openly ponders why this amazing technology is being used for the lowly task of giving criminals a second chance when there are so many more “worthy” applications. Purportedly there are “innocents” that have been seeded in with the guilty or the witnesses to atrocities that are escaping those memories. But as the book progressed we start to question whether what we’ve been led to believe can be taken on face value. And soon enough nothing we may have assumed as the tale progresses can be trusted. It’s riveting. Overall I found it just added to the unsettling, not-quite-right tone that struck a chord for me.

Prose-wise… it was perfunctory without being overwrought, and I don’t mean that derogatorily. The Blinds employs a light, transparent prose style that I do approve of; it allows the story to flourish through it without wrapping itself up. It’s light enough to carry the action and the plot as demands but not flimsy; it conveys the themes that the author’s clearly putting across – that of what it means to lose one’s sense of identity, and as the back cover states: “identityloss [and] meta reality” – quotes that did somewhat concern me, as I am not really a massively literary reader but there was plenty of plot meat on the bones, so I came away pleasantly surprised.

Give it a read.

Book Review Double Feature: Misery and The Shining

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I’ve recently been on a little bit of a horror binge – not surprising given that the annual witching hour has been upon us. Accordingly, I saw the beautiful new Halloween editions of some Stephen King novels and treated myself to The Shining. The film is widely regarded as a seminal moment in cinema history, especially horror. And as the adage goes, the book is always better than the film, I was eager to see how this storied text stood up…

But before that, a note about today’s review. Immediately after I completed reading The Shining, I re-read King’s other horror novel from a decade on, Misery. The 1990 film adaptation of Misery (snapshots of which I use in this post) is similarly well-regarded as The Shining’s. My experience with both books was, frankly, night and the day, and while I’ve been planning this review for a little while, my good friend Charlotte’s post spurred me to finally (metaphorically) put pen to paper.

Misery is a taught, suspenseful psychological thriller whose characters, of which there’s a gloriously limited cast, make a lasting impact. The premise is also gloriously simple – novelist Paul Sheldon crashes on a snowy Colorado road and is rescued from the wreck by Annie Wilkes, his “number one fan”.

On re-reading Misery, I was surprised how the tension remained, despite my foreknowledge from my previous reading of how events broadly transpired. There’s a brilliantly claustrophobic sense to the story, confined not just to Annie Wilke’s house, but a single room in her house that quickly becomes a prison for Paul Sheldon, who quickly realizes that there’s more to Annie than the officious housemaid. Indeed, the interplay between these characters – Paul’s initial submission to Annie’s increasingly-explicit mood swings and episodes of psychotic behaviour brings out a glorious tension. It’s as if these characters are mentally playing chess against the other, each trying to gain the upper hand, and there’s a ratcheting up of the tension when Paul realizes that the chess game ends in both his and Annie’s death, so much so that the eventual confrontation between Paul and Annie is thrilling, gripping and just brilliantly portrayed.

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King’s prose in Misery helps this a great deal – it’s fluid, lean and punchy. Each line seems expressly constructed to further the tension or the story. There’re moments like Paul’s italicised thoughts that add context to the prose, but not too much to be overbearing or impactful on the pace of the book. A pleasure, too, is the in-world extracts from Paul’s book that he finds himself under duress to write, Misery’s Return. Being able to read part of this in-world work, that’s a central plot point to the whole book – is a judicious treat from King, and it allows the tense prose of the real-life happenings of Paul Sheldon to really simmer. Ultimately, it just adds another layer of believability to the whole work without unnecessarily padding Misery out.

And that brings me to my first contrast from Misery to The Shining. The Shining, in my opinion, is about 200 pages overlength. Where Misery is lean and tense, The Shining is lethargic and meandering. Indeed, it shares some overall plot elements to be found later in Misery – namely the isolated location, heck, even the fictional town of Sidewinder, Colorado (Misery makes a few explicit references to The Shining) and the ensuing descent into madness the antagonist (in The Shining, this is Jack Torrence) and the helplessness of the protagonists to escape from the isolation into safety. There’s even the same sort of-hapless third party intervention that both fails to expedite the salvation of the protagonists and also marks the crescendo of the tension and suspense – for Misery it’s the investigation of Annie Wilkes house by the state trooper and his gruesome disposal with the lawn mower; in The Shining it’s the reappearance of Dick Halloran, called back to avert disaster by Danny Torrence’s shining – across the books.

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In both cases, I’d say that these excursions by other characters into the duopoly of the antagonist/protagonist spaces doesn’t really work, and if anything serves to deflate the tension by distracting the reader’s attention a little. In Misery, this is more acceptable as the state troopers slowly draw the net in on Annie Wilkes (which makes sense given we slowly learn more about her torrid past to make this line of enquiry more plausible); whereas in The Shining, Halloran seems to be recalled out of nowhere to ride through the snow to salvation. It’s an appreciable break in the tension because Halloran, at this point in Florida, many miles away, seemingly reappears just in time to attempt to act as the deus ex machina. But like the state trooper in Misery, it’s a doomed effort.

Simply put, I found The Shining to be largely incoherent in terms of the actual prose. The middle four-fifths of the book simply trudged along. I just found the action, interspersed with italicised inner thoughts of the characters, hard to follow. Jack Torrence’s descent into madness… the ingredients of this are laid out on the counter, so to speak, but the mixing and combining of these into something new, done at the malevolent whim of the Overlook Hotel simply sailed past me through King’s incoherent and meandering prose. I hate to be so harsh but compared to Misery, where King does similar things in terms of inner thoughts and actions, inexorably leading onto portray a confrontation after a character’s steady descent into madness, The Shining simply doesn’t, in my opinion, stand up.

There’s a lack of exploration for the Overlook’s malevolence in The Shining, it just exists because it exists. Misery’s core malevolence – the backstory behind Annie Wilke’s past that leads her on the path we the reader experience – is much more finessed and laid out in a way that slowly builds up a sense of terror and dread. Quite frankly, a lot of the notable moments that come to mind when thinking of The Shining exist in the film only – it was something I tried hard to put aside mentally as I read the book but the more I read, the more the book seemed to deviate from the film adaptation in an inferior direction.

King may not have approved of Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of the story but it absolutely nails the elements King laid out at the start of The Shining in a way the prose version simply missed the mark on.

Indeed, there’s some common elements I noticed across the handful of King books I’ve so far read (I want to read more) – a similar impact of the backstory on the characters. In The Shining we have the influence of Jack Torrence’s father on his childhood, and his fear that he will become that kind of father to Danny; this echoes into the journey of Arnie in Christine; after buying the eponymous car Arnie slowly transforms – both in character and even mannerisms and appearance into it’s owner and the source of its core malevolence, Roland LeBay. And in Misery we have Annie’s backstory as a nurse and the specter of mysterious deaths and an attempted conviction that we discover through Paul Sheldon’s excursions that there’s more to Annie than her kooky, thickly-veneered sense of warped sensibilities that manifest themselves as her petulant, and increasingly psychotic rages.

To me, Misery seemed the more personal book of the two I’m comparing today – there’s an obvious author avatar (literally, an author avatar) of King in Paul Sheldon, and as a writer too I identified with the pain that must come with being forced under duress to burn the only manuscript of his new book. But there’s also aspects of King clear in Paul – his addiction to novril, especially; King at the time was battling addiction himself but also in Paul’s desire to break away from the genre he felt he’d been painted into (King experimented with the Richard Bachman persona that Misery was intended to be published under to see if his ‘fame’ was a fluke).

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A good point brought up my friend and classmate Charlotte in her review of Misery is that Annie criticises Paul for using cheap narrative tricks in his forced assignment to revive Misery Chastain; saying this deus ex machina is ‘not worthy of him’ and isn’t fair; yet King himself uses these narrative hacks himself in Misery! How else would Paul return to his room just in time as Annie returns from an outing? Reflecting back this is a great example of King’s self-awareness.

Overall though, Misery is easily the more compelling read, in my opinion. It’s a tense, simmering tale that reverberates on the mind long after the final page is turned, and it rewards the reader on every reading. I devoured it for a second time in days; The Shining had, unfortunately, none of the finesse I found in the 1987 offering. Indeed, I’m glad I read Misery first – had I started with The Shining, I’d have been hard pressed to exempt King from my unofficial rule that my first experience with an author’s work will be their last for me should that first work I read score two stars or less for me.

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My wholehearted recommendation? Check out Misery for a breathtakingly effective piece of thriller/horror fiction. As for The Shining? Watch the film instead.

Misery: Highly Recommended

The Shining: Not Recommended