Monday, August 11, 2014

Ian Tregillis' THE COLDEST WAR

I was hoping that The Coldest War would at least be as much about the Cold War as Bitter Seeds, Ian Tregillis' first Milkweed book, was about World War II (I mean, look at this cover!), but, well, we don't always get what we hope for, do we?

Unless, of course, we're Gretel, the Nazi-engineered precog whose machinations are at the heart of this second book (and, I guess, the first, more than seemed the case at the time), about whom this book is much more deeply concerned than about any mere historical backdrop, alt- or otherwise. She pretty much always gets what she hopes for. She just doesn't really hope for that much. Or so it seems. As such.

A lot of this novel wound up being a bit of a tough slog for me, to be honest. I even put it aside entirely to devour the previous novel covered in this blog, and returned to it more out of a sort of determined resignation than any real desire to see how it ended. Gretel's sparse but significant scenes aside, the first half, perhaps even two-thirds, is bogged down in a lot of dreary domestic soap opera as we see some of the more quotidian consequences of the events of Bitter Seeds. Marriages and families have fallen apart. Glamorous damaged antiheroes have found redemption in the love of good women to whom they get forced to lie. Etc. And just the tiniest soupรงon of the promised hints of good old Cold War secret service drama, but not enough to flavor anything.

The Sandbaggers with warlocks this ain't*. But man, it could have been. Ah, me.

Fortunately, there is Gretel, whose motives remain inscrutable and whose near-omniscience remains irritating as hell as she flaps her greying be-wired braids through an escape from a Russian magic-gulag (yes, as hinted would be the case at the end of the prior novel, the Soviets are mighty keen on continuing Westcarp's work, but no, there's not much of that stuff in this novel, except as something from which Gretel and brother Klaus can escape, and as can function as a sort of paper tiger-cum-red herring when things finally get going) and back to England, where she was once a prisoner of war and now hopes for asylum (and, of course, gets it, because duh, omniscient precog precogs her way out of everything).

And there is what's left of Milkweed, when it's not having sad little kitchen sink tantrums at home. It's been no more idle than the Soviets, but just as the Soviets have sort of out-Westcarped Westcarp, the New Men of Milkweed have found an even crueler and creepier way to raise a new generation of warlocks.

Which leads us up to the last third, in which things finally start happening, and boy do they happen. I'm still not sure if this last section redeems the earlier plodding. It certainly would have had there been, say, even one Soviet character in the book, even a cardboard baddie, to provide some actual tension and, you know, villainy beyond the faceless, unknowable threat of the Eidolons**. As it was, well, while the very ending is plenty interesting and satisfying and does give a certain poignancy to all the tedium that preceded it, The Coldest War wasn't really what I'd wanted it to be at all.

That being said, I'm still keen to read the third book, Necessary Evil, sometime soon, just to see where all this is finally going.

I just hope it gets beyond the drawing room a bit sooner.


**The Lovecraftian Old One analogues who are the source of all magic and have to be cajoled and bribed-with-bloooooood by batshit crazy human wizards into letting pesky little humans break the laws of physics.

Saturday, August 2, 2014


An absolute kitchen-sink classic* of more-or-less-mid-century science fiction, T.J. Bass' The Godwhale is one of the most enjoyable reads I've had this year, even while it was also, broadly, pretty bleak.

The story starts firmly in  overpopulated, dystopian Stand on Zanzibar territory, with our sort-of-protagonist, Larry Dever, quickly and stupidly maneuvering himself into becoming a medical time traveler by getting himself cut in half. The medical science of his near-future time still isn't up to making him whole again, or at least not whole enough to suit him, so he elects to go into suspended animation until it can, gambling on Progress to give him back his legs, internal organs, and fully functioning tallywhacker. As one does.

Oddly enough, his gamble pays off in a way -- he becomes the ancestor to pretty much everyone else that matters in the rest of the story. But only in a way.

Seemingly irrelevant at the time but, as it turns out, crucial to the novel's denouement, Larry is first revived by a world in which his many-times-great-grand-nieces and nephews are getting ready to "seed" other planets, sending out genetic arks into outer space, and while they still can't bring him back to cherry-poppin' full functionality, they can still make him a star-daddy, after a fashion -- he's got wonderfully "primitive" genes compared to what's around in his new time -- humanity is starting to degenerate as only people who can handle overcrowding are able to/allowed to breed, resulting in a loss of hybrid vigor and good old fashioned paleolithic-ish awesomeness of which our man Larry is a last surviving example, even though he's now just a "hemi-human." They'd love to graft him onto a clone-grown lower half and send him into the stars, but when he finds out just how they'd accomplish this, he elects to go back to sleep. They can use his clone-grown material as well as his own sweet self to seed the stars.

All of this is just prologue, though... and then he wakes up again, more or less by accident, into the world of The Hive, in which Bass' other novel Half-Past Human, is set (apparently The Godwhale is a sequel thereto. Oops). A world in which humanity now averages about four feet tall (if that) lives by the multi-billions in one giant, continent-spanning, computer-controlled underground city in unbearably close quarters, below vast Gardens of the kind only Monsanto could love (as in the food plants cannot pollinate themselves or in any way breed, and have to be synthesized from the amino acids up) that exist solely to provide calories for the teeming masses crammed in below, in which no animal life apart from the Hive's stunted little denizens exists, and in which the oceans are completely, lifelessly sterile.

Except for the titular Godwhale, a Harvester, a cybernetic whale remnant of some civilization that existed about halfway between Larry's first awakening and his second, in which giant artificially intelligent cyborgs gathered all the fish and plankton and sea greens and protein from the sea and existed to serve man. This one last cyborg, who lends the novel its title, seems from its having that honor like it's going to be more of a personality within said novel, but alas, the Rokal Maru serves more as a setting-cum-excuse than a partner in protagonism to Larry. I would have loved to have her as more of a character and less of a plot device. Alas. Anyway, she's spent hundreds of years beached on a reef somewhere until suddenly her little robot friend Trilobite discovers not only that there are still people on this here planet, but also maybe some other things are starting to show up, too. Almost as if a cache of biological samples somehow broke open or something. Hmm!

This all probably seems super spoilery, but really, I assure you, it isn't. This is all milieu I'm explaining here, a setting in which a complex and varied plot told in a series of vignettes over decades takes place and which I'm not going to divulge except to say that, well, yes, Larry's genes got around really good for a guy who didn't even have gonads by the end of the first chapter.

Author T.J. Bass, who sadly died in 2011, thus preventing me from fangirling him on social media because I'd not yet heard of him, was a medical doctor by profession, meaning there is enough hard sci-fi content here to satisfy the most grognard among us (provided he considers medicine and biology to be science-y enough), but it almost never overwhelms the story, or the action, of which there is plenty.

I've never so enjoyed being so disappointed in humanity, you guys. Ever.

*Seriously. From its titular cybernetic whale/ship to its medical time travel to its status as another finger-wagging parable to its post-apocalyptic (and post-post apocalyptic, and post-post-post apocalyptic)(remember, it's sort of a time travel tale, though all the travel is in one direction) settings to its The Man Who Folded Himself identity-collapsing (half the novel's characters are pretty much clones of its sort-of-point-of-view character) to its reverse Planet of the Apes ending, this novel is going to remind you of everything while still being its own unique thing. Quite a feat, that!