Review of Amped by Daniel H. Wilson

Title: Amped
Author: Daniel H. Wilson
Published: 05 June 2012
Publisher: Doubleday, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday
Genre: science fiction
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 5/10

In a near future, the world has cured many mental and physical disabilities using cybernetic enhancements. However, the technology doesn’t only correct dysfunction – it can also amplify people’s abilities, hence the term ‘amp’ for the enhancements and the people who possess them. In the United States however, religious groups and other conservatives have come to fear and hate amps.

Owen Gray is an amped highschool teacher who for some reason has blinded himself to these social developments, but suddenly the changes hit him like a sledgehammer. One of his students jumps from the roof of the school building after deciding that she no longer wants to live in a world that hates people like her. On his way home, Owen sees evidence of how anti-amp society has become, and before the end of the day he’s lost his job and his home because the government has revoked amps’ rights to enter into contracts.

Owen goes to see his father, the surgeon who gave him his amp in the first place. With things becoming more dangerous by the minute, Owen’s father reveals that his amp is not just for correcting epilepsy as Owen was made to believe. The truth is that Owen once suffered severe head trauma,  and to save his son’s life his father gave him “something extra” – stolen hardware that was powerful enough to compensate for Owen’s injuries. With the authorities coming to confiscate his research, Owen’s father has no time for explanations, but sends Owen to find a man named Jim who can tell him more.

So Owen goes on the run and travels to Eden, a trailer park that has become an uneasy haven for amps and the loved ones willing to stand by them. It’s there that he learns of a militant group of amps who want more than just equal rights. Owen is not certain that he wants to get involved, but with the powerful tech he’s carrying, he might be obliged – or forced – to take part in the fight.

Amped moves with blinding speed at the beginning of the novel and maintains a brisk pace throughout. One moment Owen is trying in vain to save a student from killing herself and the next he’s on the run after losing almost everything that defines his life as he knows it. It’s a quick, easy read, but not a particularly good one.

While the fast pace is nice, the downfall of Amped is that it’s too familiar a story to be really enjoyable or get a good rating. The story goes like this: A majority fears a minority for being different, and in this case also for being physically and mentally superior to other human beings. The first group reacts by making the second group socially inferior and institutionalising discrimination against them.

The oppressed minority – and the protagonist who represents them – is faced with the moral dilemma of whether or not to react with violence. It’s the obvious, natural reaction, since they are angry at being treated in a cruel manner and most people would agree that the oppressors deserve to have their heads kicked in. However, violence just plays right into the oppressor’s hands by making the oppressed look like the moral degenerates that society claims they are, thereby justifying further violence against them.

So, patient diplomacy or blood and bullets? Well, whatever your moral position, we all know which option is more entertaining. To make things easier on the characters and more palatable for the reader, circumstances force the protagonist to fight even though he’s not that keen on violence, and thus he gets to kick ass on the moral high ground.

And that pretty much sums up the plot of Amped. The tech and its social consequences are plausible, but the resulting story is conventional. No innovations, no great insights, real surprises. Owen is revealed to be the archetypal ordinary-man-turned-hero when his amp turns out to be top-secret military-grade stuff that turns him into a supersoldier. As a result there’s plenty of action, but sadly not much worth thinking about.

The novel focuses too much on martial capabilities, and not enough on more interesting things like super-smart amps (who apparently can’t come up with any ideas for dealing with this conflict) or the more day-to-day changes that amps would cause in society. For example, how would the job market change when amps can be so much smarter and stronger than normal people? Should amp children be allowed to compete with normal children in school? Wouldn’t normal people want amps too? It’s a shame that the book doesn’t get into these issues.

The only debate about the ethics of amps is in the crap that comes from extremists like the rednecks who love any excuse to beat the shit out of people without having to worry about the law, or Joseph Vaughn, who campaigns against amps in a bid for political power and uses religion to argue that amps aren’t human and constitute a threat to “the moral foundation that our civilization is built upon”. The novel mostly sticks to a simple black and white story of pro-amp vs. anti-amp where pro-amp = good and anti-amp = bad. There’s no sympathetic anti-amp character who’s just a normal person with reasonable concerns about this technology, only violent fanatics raving about human purity. There are some bad pro-amp characters but they’re portrayed as freaks with older or military tech that basically turned them into mutants and killing machines.

This kind of moral simplicity is boring. You need a few snags and snarls to get caught up in. On the whole, there was nothing about Amped that I found engaging enough for me to care much about the characters or the outcome of the story. The novel is decently written and its core idea is sound, but I think Wilson wasted its potential by letting it play out in such a conventional, uncomplicated manner.

 

Buy Amped at The Book Depository

Review of Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale

Title: Edge of Dark Water
Author:
Joe R. Lansdale
Published:
25 March 2012
Publisher:
 
Mulholland Books, an imprint of Little, Brown
Genre:
 adventure, thriller, drama
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 7/10

Sixteen-year-old Sue Ellen lives in a small town in the old American South, a place characterised by poverty, racism and domestic abuse. One day she and her friend Terry find the body of another friend – May Lynn Baxter – at the bottom of the Sabine river. She’s clearly been there for a while, weighted down by a Singer sewing machine ties around her ankles.  Sue Ellen’s father and uncle want to push the body back into the water and forget about it, but she and Terry convince them to call the police. When Constable Sy reluctantly drags his bulk over to the scene, he asks why they didn’t just push May Lynn back in. Everyone could just have assumed she’d followed her dream and run away to Hollywood. No one wants to go to the trouble of finding out what happened to her and no one is obliged to bother. She had no family except a drunken father who probably hasn’t even noticed she’s missing.

To honour May Lynn, Terry suggests that he, Sue Ellen and their friend Jinx burn the body and take the ashes to Hollywood. The journey will also give them the chance to escape their miserable home town and the dead-end lives they’re living there. It’s a daunting endeavour and they have almost no money, but then May Lynn’s diary leads them to buried treasure – a stash of stolen money from a bank robbery. With the money and a stolen raft, the trio head down the Sabine river, joined by Sue Ellen’s mother, who’s decided that she no longer wants to spend her days being either beaten by her husband or passed out drunk in bed.

But in making their escape, the three friends have made enemies. Constable Sy and Sue Ellen’s Uncle Gene are after them. May Lynn’s father wants the money and sends a man known as Skunk to track them down. Skunk is the stuff of nightmares, a psychopath who lives alone in the woods and can be hired to hunt people down. He finds pleasure in causing pain and death, and he chops off the hands of his victims to take back to his employers as proof. No one ever gets away from him.

It only took a few pages for me to decide that I liked this book. It’s told with rich Southern wit, bringing a very dark humour to the harsh realities of life in the American South and the dangers of the journey that the main characters embark on. Sue Ellen makes for an excellent narrator who picks up on those little details that make a good story great, like how she takes a thick piece of wood to bed at night, in case her father tries to come into her room, or how the wire around May Lynn’s ankles was tied in a bow. She also has personal qualities that immediately made me like her:

I’d already been doing women’s work for as long as I could remember. I just wasn’t no good at it. And if you’ve ever done any of it, you know it ain’t any fun at all. I liked doing what the boys and men did. What my daddy did. Which, when you got right down to it, didn’t seem like all that much, just fishing and trapping for skins to sell, shooting squirrels out of trees, and bragging about it like he’d done killed tigers.

 

I didn’t like that Mama thought she deserved that ass-whipping. She thought a man was the one ran things and had the say. She said it was in the Bible. That put me off reading it right away.

Accompanying Sue Ellen is a strong cast of characters. My favourite is Jinx, a black girl who seems to have been strengthened rather than crushed by the racism of the society she lives in – a particularly ugly prejudice that his novel frequently exposes. Unlike the other characters, Jinx has a relatively happy home life, with a loving, hard-working parents. She’s reluctant to leave them, but knows that if she stays she’s “gonna end up wiping white baby asses and doing laundry and cooking meals for peckerwoods the rest of my life”. According the Sue Ellen, Jinx has “a sweet face, but her eyes seemed older, like she was someone’s ancient grandma stuffed inside a kid”. She’s highly opinionated and never hesitates to share her thoughts, like when she tells a Reverend what bullshit she thinks religion is. Jinx is so sassy that she refuses to hold her tongue even when there’s a gun in her face. Terry, although he’s white, has to deal with prejudice as well, because there’s a rumour that he’s a “sissy” (gay). We also learn a bit about May Lynn, who possessed an angelic sort of beauty, but is by no means glorified just because she’s dead. We learn about her flaws as well, such as how she could be manipulative and self-centred.

I like the antagonists too. They’re all utterly loathsome men who enjoy violence and cruelty, but they’re good characters in that Lansdale really makes you feel the threat that they pose. The most dangerous of course, is Skunk. That man is creepy. The kind of creepy that makes you wonder what that noise upstairs is and double check that the doors are locked. This isn’t what I’d call a horror novel, but Skunk undoubtedly brings that element to it. He’s like a myth – some people don’t believe he exists, while the stories about him have surreal, disturbing details. We don’t actually ‘see’ very much of him, but for most of the journey he exists as a sinister presence, watching, chasing and preparing to attack. When he does attack, the results are always gruesome.

In terms of plot, the journey and the river serve traditional literary purposes as life-changing forces for the main characters. Initially I thought this would be a mystery novel (who killed May Lynn?), but it’s not. It’s more of a dark adventure and character drama with a touch of horror. My only complaints are that there are times when the narrative drags, but mostly I just enjoyed Lansdale’s storytelling. It’s well-written, detailed and has emotionally engaging characters. I’ve heard several times that this is a new direction for Lansdale, who typically writes horror and mystery novels. If he brings this kind of quality and disturbing atmosphere to those genres, I’d very much like to read more of his work.

Buy a copy of Edge of Dark Water at The Book Depository

Review of Snuff by Terry Pratchett

Title: Snuff
Author:  
Terry Pratchett
Published: 1 October  2011
Publisher: HarperCollins
Genre: humour, fantasy, crime and mystery
Source: Review copy from publisher via NetGally
My Rating: 6/10

His Grace, the Duke of Ankh, Commander Sir Samuel Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, is being dragged against his will, at the demand of his wife and to the great amusement of his colleagues, on a lovely country holiday at Lady Sybil’s family estate, Ramkin Hall. Actually, it’s now Vimes’s estate -Sybil “had transferred all the holdings of her family […] to him in the old fashioned but endearing belief that a husband should be the one doing the owning”.  Poor Vimes, however, can’t quite settle into his position as a member of the aristrocracy, as he demonstrates by trying to treat the servants as equals, to their complete and utter horror.

And of course he can never stop working. Whatever Sybil’s hopes for her holiday with her husband and young son, you couldn’t beat the copper out of Vimes with a truncheon. From the moment he arrives he can’t help but look for something amiss. And of course he finds it. And a hell of a lot of trouble. But Sam Vimes wouldn’t be Sam Vimes if he wasn’t pissing someone off in the quest for justice. In Snuff  he boots the aristocrats off their comfy cushions by investigating their suspected involvement in slavery, smuggling, drug trafficking, kidnapping, and murder, (especially after they try to frame him for the latter).

Pratchett’s Discworld novels typically feature some kind of social commentary and with issues like those it’s particularly heavy here. Vimes has always fought against discrimination, particularly between classes and species, and thanks to him the Watch includes dwarves, trolls, vampires, werewolves, an Igor and a Nac Mac Feegle.

In Snuff it’s the goblins’ turn to get the equal rights treatment. As the Discworld’s most osctracised race, they are widely considered to be vermin. When Vimes finds out that a goblin girl has been murdered, most people assume that you can’t actually murder a goblin in the same sense that you can’t murder a rat. It isn’t even considered illegal. But Vimes knows the difference between right and wrong and he learns more about the goblins, who are revealed to a sensitive, artistic people who, unfortunately, have internalised all the terrible things others have believed about them. Goblins have always been associated with rubbish to the extent that they essentially think of themselves as rubbish. And they are a bit of a tough case when it comes to being accepted by society. They’re ugly, stinky, known for being violent, have a habit of stealing things, they live underground and their language “at its best sounded like a man jumping up and down on a very large packet of crisps”. The goblins have a strange, somewhat religious, practice called Unggue, according to which “everything that is expelled from a goblin’s body was clearly once part of them and should, therefore, be treated with reverence and stored properly so that it can be entombed with its owner in the fullness of time”. This includes “earwax, finger- and toenail clippings, and snot” (but luckily not urine or faeces) all of which are stored in stunningly beautiful pots made by the goblins.

But these oddities serve to throw into sharp relief the way difference is translated into discrimination, and how discrimination turns prejudice into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Vimes is determined to change society once again, and this includes changing the way people think about goblins and taking down the local council of magistrates who have redefined the law the suit their own interests.

With all this between its covers, Snuff turned out to be the darkest of the Discworld novels I’ve read so far. It has a lot less humour than the others, and anyway the humour tends to be downplayed by the more sombre elements. My opinion on the matter was sealed when Vimes told an anecdote about a man who chopped his dog’s back legs off with an axe. I certainly hadn’t expected something that gruesome and disturbing.

Rest assured, it’s still mostly a comedy, if not quite as funny as fans might expect. Some of the best humour comes from Young Sam, who is now six years old and obsessed with poo. I feel a bit childish admitting this, but his poo comments almost always got a giggle out of me.

“Do you know,’ said Young Sam, as if imparting the results of strict research, “cows do really big floppy poos, but sheep do small poos, like chocolates.”

As always, there are some great characters too; my favourites were Willikins, Vimes’s butler and general manservant who possesses some incredible talents when it comes to weapons; Lady Sybil, whose kind but domineering nature never fails to amuse and impress me; and Wee Mad Arthur who I love for being so angry and crazy. Vimes himself has never been one of my favourites – I admire him but I just don’t find him all that funny or particularly endearing.

So what do I think of Snuff in general? It’s good, but not Pratchett’s best. To his credit, I don’t think any of his books are bad – they range from decent to fucking brilliant and hilarious. As I’ve mentioned, this one is certainly not hilarious and I’m not sure that I like it being so serious. Towards the end the novel turns into a kind of dire action sequence (with a lot of jokes based on the word ‘fanny’) and then winds down and takes a bit too long to wrap everything up, a lot like the last Lord of the Rings movie – there are a bunch of things that need to be sorted out, but somehow it still feels like the story should end now, only to have it keep going.

It might be unfair to judge a book based on my expectations of how fun and funny I expected it to be, especially as this is a good book in its own right. On the other hand this is the latest (the 39th) in a long and much-loved series that’s defined by its unique style, and Pratchett usually has a better balance of social commentary and humour. I’ve often heard people speak of the Discworld series as their go-to books when they’re in a reading slump and want something light, or just want to relax and have a laugh with a favourite series. If that’s what you’re looking  for, Snuff might not be the best choice. Rather just enjoy it as a new story in the Discworld universe.

 

Buy a copy of Snuff at The Book Depository