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.

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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.

Review: One Way (Paperback)

One_WayI really enjoyed The Martian and it remains one of my favourite books. So, approaching One Way on the shelf at my local bookshop… it intrigued me. A skeleton crew working against the odds on the surface of Mars? Colour me fascinated. And the twist that they’re all convicts intrigued me further.

One Way pits Frank Kittridge, convicted of murder, at a crossroads: face a lifetime behind bars or serve out the rest of his sentence on Mars, helping to construct the first permanent base on the planet’s surface. There are no bones about the offer: it’s a one-way trip. Frank knows from the off that he’s being used, and we’re quickly established what skills it is that Frank has that made him eligible for the project.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves in terms of the plot. Frank is a relatable everyman that the audience at large won’t struggle to relate to. He’s also the most well-developed character – his backstory isn’t unique; he’s not a bad guy, but a victim perhaps of his own morals. He killed one man – his son’s drug dealer, a backstory that while plain vanilla is relatable, I suspect intentionally. This establishes Frank as a man who does things like this only at the end of his tether, when the cause is just enough in his eyes, if not the law’s. I didn’t dislike Frank as a character – again, a criminal with morals is an interesting dichotomy to take, but ultimately Frank is no career criminal, nor does he relish what he did.

The other characters we’re introduced to are less well-developed. Frank is joined by a crew of six other convicts that have made the choice to be sped across the stars than stare at the same four walls. Some of them are archetyles – Dee, the classic “boy genius gone bad” being one, but there’s certainly some interesting subversions of expectations – One Way is unusual in a book where the reader is genuinely shocked with a neo-Nazi, with whom we almost begin to sympathise, on a human level, is dispatched in mysterious circumstances.

This I feel is one of the key strengths in One Way – it subverts what we expect from the characters – yes, they’re criminals, but they’re also human beings. That’s not to say their crimes are waved off but it explores the depth behind the characters’ criminal status, and one of the most impressive things it leaves behind is whether we, the reader, judge too quickly on the basis of criminality. It’s certainly food for thought.

Supervising Frank and his posse is the inflexible superintendent Brack, whom harbours an open hostility to the crew; if you like, Brack’s attitude – dehumanising and shallow – counters nicely the impression the author seeks to make with the characters discussed above.

Naturally, with a crew of criminals on the surface of Mars, things begin to go awry fairly quickly. Bodies begin to pile up, as does the atmosphere – when there’s only eight humans on the whole planet, the tension really begins to ramp up. I did feel in a way that the supporting cast in this relatively concise book were a little disposable – most of the narrative effort is spent on building Frank’s character as a custodian of the other crewmembers, and the closest we see to Frank having a kindred spirit is the first to perish in what seems like an accident at first.

There’s a taut, choking feel to the narrative, especially with the crew dropping steadily. The unfortunate accidents that befall the crew, one by one, just as we think the characters have hit narrative stability, prove to be less “accidents” and more foul play. This realisation, and the finger-pointing that threatens the tenuous bonds between the crew, spins the narrative into a higher gear. The ante, and the tension, taughtness that defines One Way piques, and it’s gripping.

The whole atmosphere of One Way is cloying and claustrophobic and it works so well. It’s not a long book but packs a definite punch. Knowing that there’s a murderer on the loose on Mars really adds to the tension as the group dynamic breaks down as suspicions boil up. Marooning the crew on Mars is the ultimate no-escape situation, and the tension really builds up to the final confrontation.

One Way features a macro as well as a micro narrative that plays out through the emails and correspondence from executives of Xenosystems Operations, the “evil corporation” that controls swathes of the economy, including privatised prisons, that preface every chapter. Of course, the Mars Base is being built by XO, the company personified as your pretty standard amoral corporate giant, by convicts for one reason: cost. Clearly this is a message the author wanted to obliquely nod at, and while it’s not necessarily one I’d subscribe to, it works well in building up the tension. Notably, the dehumanisation of the crew by the company’s interest underlies that message – a powerful indicator of this for me was the fact that the crew can’t find their personal effects on the Martian surface; we the reader find out that the company, to save the cost of transporting that weight to Mars, incinerated the personal effects.

This stripping of the humanity of the convicts is a powerful, if somewhat didactic, plot device. As I said, I identified it as a clear narrative choice, perhaps pertaining more to the sci-fi tropes of Evil Incorporated, it worked for the purposes of the narrative. It’s a good counter to the spirit and camaraderie that is plain to see through the convict crew, with some moments of genuine heroism and character connection that tug at the heartstrings just enough for the tension that follows to really hammer home.

The cliff-hanger at the very end of the book, when the tension of the plot reaches a crescendo, already has me looking forward to reading No Way, the recently-announced sequel. Overall, I was very impressed with One Way, and I look forward a great deal to picking up from the brutal conclusion in the sequel sometime very soon!

Book Review – Altered Carbon

Altered_CarbonIt’s a bad sign when a book takes me two weeks to complete. It’s especially troubling if it’s a book I’ve read before. This review took even longer.

Going back to an earlier post, I recently purchased Altered Carbon in paperback form; a number of years ago I ‘d read it on my Kindle. So, approaching the paperback for a re-read, it was going to be plain sailing, right?

Unfortunately, after a pretty crackers first act, Altered Carbon gets stuck in the mud. The first act does an excellent job of immersing the reader in the futuristic world, with a gritty action scene that seems to show the protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, meeting a grisly end. But then the twist of the book’s core concept – that of resleeving, where consciousnesses are downloaded to new bodies at will, essentially creating technological immortality – is introduced, and the subtle nuances of how this technology affects and moulds human society is laid bare. Amongst this we are thrown into a murder mystery story with this technological, cyberpunk twist.

For most of the book, though, the actual mystery, the reason the protagonist finds himself where he is, is essentially sidelined. I’m pretty new to reading noir fiction but I’m persevering on the recommendation of a friend and university classmate. Recently I read Sirens which went on a similar detour through the world – that of Manchester’s gritty underbelly – so this is a staple of noir fiction I’m gathering; however, Altered Carbon seemed to be falling into the fatal trap I experienced with Ancillary Justice – I just wasn’t engaged enough with the characters exploring their own issues and backstories which I honestly experienced trouble relating to and keeping up with.

Fundamentally, in Altered Carbon the narrative seemed to veer wildly around (Sirens was more a gentle meander; I saw the context of the exploration of the world and the characters) and ultimately after all this exploration of the characters and the world. We learn a lot about Kovacs’ various foibles – there’s a lot of hints to a deep past, but ultimately I cared not for the character; rather I found myself quite irritated by his self-absorption. I just wanted the plot to remember the reason it existed: the murder mystery with a cyberpunk twist.

Ultimately even the core plot that I was enticed in proved bunkum; the assumption about the mystery made right at the start, that is asserted by the characters couldn’t possibly be what happened… is exactly what happened; it just g gets some grey, amoral window-dressing. I was very disappointed after persisting with the book to find out that the answer had been on page one all along.

Sadly however, the re-read of Altered Carbon made me feel that it was a classic example of an intellectual novel masquerading as genre fiction. Some readers may indeed find the book stimulating – I would agree the concept proved considerably more interesting than the execution belied – but if I had to describe my experience it would be one of tedium and bewilderment. There was a lot of pace – which I usually like in a story – but a lot of it I feel was firing in several different directions at once.

The concept of “sleeving” is very interesting – especially when amalgamated into the elitist/class-based system that this technology is controlled by and accessible to but unfortunately the cast of characters we experience this world with in Altered Carbon just didn’t do the concept justice. Ultimately with Altered Carbon it became a book I liked for its setting and visceral prose but by no means did I love it; the characterisation and plot was just too erratic. The narrative for me seemed to get stuck in gear – the book has an excellent first act, setting up the story to come but instead delivers more on inward-looking character and worldbuilding than propelling that story along, and I left deeply disappointed. There’s cool action sequences (some complain that the use of sex in this book is gratuitous; perhaps so but I found myself feeling nothing either way) but that underpins my concerns and misgivings: light on plot, heavy on action, heavy on backstory… with Altered Carbon your mileage may indeed vary wildly.