Capsule Reviews – February 2019

(“ indicates a high recommendation)

Rewrite: Loops in the Timescape, by Gregory Benford (Saga, January 2019)

rewriteDisaffected, middle-aged college professor Charlie Moment suffers what should be a fatal car accident in the year 2000, but instead wakes up as his 16-year-old self in 1968, with all his previous memories intact. So he does what anyone would do with a second chance at his adult life: he steals ideas for yet-to-be-made movies and becomes a rich Hollywood mogul. Along the way he meets other (famous) people who have had the same experience—including Philip K. Dick, Robert A. Heinlein, Albert Einstein, Casanova—and becomes enmeshed in a conflict between competing factions who want to shape history to their liking.
Rewrite gives hard SF stalwart Gregory Benford the opportunity to revisit the premise of his most famous novel, Timescape, where scientists use faster-than-light tachyons to send messages about an impending disaster to the past, while trying to tip-toe around the Grandfather Paradox. At one point, Charlie meets with James Benford, the author’s real-life twin brother (who is the author of Timescape in this rewrite of history), seeking an explanation of how his own mind could transfer to his past self. At one point Charlie suggests that he would prefer to adapt Timescape without all the complicated scientific explanations, to which the physicist replies “Then what would be left?” The irony of this is, that in acknowledging its debt to similar “if I knew then what I know now” time travel stories like Peggy Sue Got Married and Ken Grimwood’s Replay, Rewrite posits that these plots work just fine when they hand wave past the science and focus on character and action.
On the downside, while the action and science in Rewrite work, the character doesn’t. Charlie’s cynicism in his approach to reinventing his life—and the world—is not unexpected for a middle-aged divorcee, but the novel doesn’t bother offering any critical distance from it. Charlie steals ideas from actual creative minds and produces successful facsimiles without consequence as if the idea divested from its author is interchangeable with the original. This callousness infects every aspect of his life. With a satirical approach, Benford may have been able to get away with having such an unlikeable character as his hero. That’s not how it plays out. While Charlie learns and grows by the end and takes steps to correct his mistakes, I had little sympathy for him by then and no desire to absolve him of them.

 Arkad’s World, by James L. Cambias (Baen, January 2019)

Arkad's WorldBaen Books often touts itself as a purveyor of old-school sci-fi, but James Cambias’ new novel is the first I’ve read in a long time that could actually pass for something written four or five decades ago. Teenager Arkad is the lone human on a diverse world populated by star-faring races from all over the galaxy. Arkad’s expertise in navigating the planet’s physical and cultural terrain comes in handy when four people from Earth show up looking for the ship Arkad arrived on as a child. They think the ship contains artifacts important to Earth’s resistance to an alien occupation force, and though Arkad’s memory of the ship and its location is fuzzy, he believes he can help them find it.
Cambias’ world-building is breathtaking in its depth and detail, right down to the unique psychological makeup of each alien race. With each passing sentence the scope of this universe expands from a planetary adventure to a galactic epic. The plot is episodic, with cliffhanger-style suspense and heroics, though it’s not as straightforward as it first appears: little inconsistencies and contradictions pop-up throughout, leading to a perception-altering twist. With its memorable characters and setting and lightning-fast pacing, Arkad’s World is the first great sci-fi treat of the new year.

Here and Now and Then, by Mike Chen (MIRA, January 2019)

Here and Now and ThenMike Chen’s debut novel Here and Now and Then begins with a man out of time. Kin Stewart is an agent for the TCB (Temporal Corruption Bureau) who gets stuck in the late 1990s when his retrieval beacon gets damaged. It takes two decades for the Bureau to find him, and by then he’s broken their cardinal rule not to mess with the past by marrying his wife Heather and fathering a daughter, Miranda. Corruption to the timeline is negligible, so the TCB allows him to return to his job and agrees to let Miranda live, as she had little effect on history. Kin longs to know how his daughter’s life turned out, and the actions he takes when he finds out puts both their lives—and the world as he knows it—at grave risk.
Here and Now and Then succeeds at all the fundamentals: strong premise, likeable characters, focused plotting, steady pacing. The novel takes few risks though. It ignores intriguing dramatic possibilities in favor of the standard action movie scenario of a father trying to rescue his daughter from certain peril, and there is minimal pulse-raising in terms of suspense and upping the stakes. It’s a pleasant and emotionally satisfying time-passer, if not very distinctive.

Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones, by Micah Dean Hicks (John Joseph Adams, February 2019)

break the bodiesIt’s refreshing to run into a genre novel that carves its own path, and that’s what you get with Micah Dean Hicks’ debut Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones. The novel’s setting is Swine Hill, a town so saturated with ghosts that literally everyone has at least one haunting them. Jane has a good relationship with her ghost, who feeds her the secrets others hide from the world. Her boyfriend Trigger is haunted by the ghost of his own brother, whom he accidently killed. And her brother Henry’s mad scientist of a ghost helps him create, Doctor Moreau-style, a pig person called Walter Hogboss, who ends up running the local slaughterhouse. When the company that owns the slaughterhouse creates more pig people to staff the place, the townspeople turn on their monstrous new residents, leading Jane to believe they must flee before the town overflows with violence.
Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones is a surreal horror story about “economic anxiety”, which has been a buzzy media term the last few years. It doesn’t work as a political allegory but as an exercise in sustained dread, I found much to admire. the story unfolds with a captivating spontaneity, and while it sometimes felt unfocused this mostly works in the novel’s favor. Those looking for an offbeat read may find this rewarding.

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