Tuesday, April 16, 2013

K.W. Jeter

Who is K.W. Jeter? I’m four books into this author’s oeuvre and I’m still not sure I have a grasp on what a “novel by K.W. Jeter” is going to be about or how it is going to feel or how it will connect stylistically or thematically with his other novels. And you know what? That is not a bad feeling. It is actually a rather thrilling feeling.

Here’s what I know. His first published book was Seeklight (1975). He coined the term “Steampunk” for his novels Morlock Night (1979) and Infernal Devices (1987). He wrote what was arguably the first Cyberpunk novel, Dr. Adder (1984 – although written many years prior to its publication date). He has also written various sequels to Star Wars, Blade Runner, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. My jury is still out on that last factoid; I’ll put a pin in it and think about it later. He is perhaps most at ease when detailing squalid, blighted, unpleasantly hallucinatory urban landscapes. And according to my best friend Wikipedia, Jeter is known for his “literary writing style, dark themes, and paranoid, unsympathetic characters”.

KWJeter-SanFrancisco-2011.jpgHe’s a happy combination of an interior writer concerned with the psychological clockwork of his strikingly cipher-like main characters and an exterior writer who knows how to craft a propulsive narrative, build tension, and deliver exciting action set pieces. He is one of those authors who seems positively disinterested in delivering characters that the reader can like, love, admire, or even empathize with as a fellow human. That disinterest creates a certain remove, a distance between reader and narrative that can feel alienating. In a good way? Well I suppose it depends on the reader. It certainly gave me the space to contemplate what exactly was going on beneath his novels’ dark surfaces.

The man knows how to write! Wikipedia pegged his writing style as “literary” and although I agree, I fear that may give a person the wrong impression of his style. He is not a wordy or verbose writer; far from it – his style is sinuous and hypnotic and, perhaps key to seeing him as a kind of jack-of-all-trades, he adjusts it to fit the topic on hand. His psychological thriller Dark Seeker combines kitchen sink realism with murky, hallucinatory dread. His cyberpunk classic Dr. Adder is all about harsh, brutal, snarky spikiness. Seeklight feels like a tense and often inexplicable fever dream. And in the wonderfully entertaining and comic Infernal Devices he manages to juggle plush, pitch-perfect Victorian language with moments of bizarrely anachronistic ‘modern’ dialogue spilling out of the mouths of a couple mysterious characters. I may have issues with some of his novels but I have no issue whatsoever with his skill and expertise at crafting quality prose and challenging narratives. Jeter’s cup runneth over with pure talent.

So perhaps there is a connecting factor between the four novels I’ve read… namely, those cipher-like main characters. When I think of his “protagonists” (and the quotes are definitely there for a reason), I get the feeling of there is no there there. Dr. Adder’s blank and sleazily ambitious young entrepreneur, Seeklight’s mild and vaguely tabula rasa boy-on-the-run, Infernal Devices’s blandly hollow and prim Victorian everyman, Dark Seeker’s drug-addled victim and former predator-who-wants-to-forget-the-past… each one is not just alienated from the world around them, they are alienated from themselves, from what makes them function and move forward, from what makes them who they are. Posing the question Who are you?  to any of these characters would probably get you a big question mark in return. They don’t know and often the reader doesn’t end up knowing either.  Each of them is a distinctly unsettling blank canvas, but one that I would hesitate to paint upon, let alone project any specifically human motivations or emotions. That canvas is better blank; it is meant to be an empty space; it is meant to trouble you. Perhaps it is covering something up that is better left unseen.

Following are some synopses and a few comments about the novels I’ve read so far.



Seeklight (Laser Books)Science fiction pulp or sweaty nightmare made real? You be the judge! Seeklight is about the son of a so-called traitor, his flight across a curiously lifeless colony full of curiously lifeless humans, his slow movement into understanding of his purpose and his powers. It has clones and fake angels and screamingly murderous robots. It has a low-key and downbeat style. It has a female character who in any other novel would be a romantic interest, but in this one is just as mindlessly, frustratingly, monomaniacally small-minded as every other character. It has a kind of theme: HUMANS ARE FUCKING MISERABLE BUGS. They are not worth the effort of saving them.

Jeter is not interested in making you happy and he is not interested in letting you understand the ins & outs of the human condition. He wants you to know about entropy, about the inherent piggishness of human nature, about quests that go nowhere, and answers that deliver questions that have no answer. He wants you to understand there is actually no hope. I hate that message and I didn’t particularly like this book. But I also really respected it, its choices and its insularity and its bleak and rather pure logic. Color me impressed! Alienated and saddened, but impressed.



Tohtori KyyE Allen Limmit is a disaffected young man, fresh off the giant-mutated-chicken farm, once a soldier and later the manager of the farm's mutated-chicken-whore brothel. A somewhat bland and often irritable lad with vague ambitions to be somebody, do something, whatever, just getting the hell off of the farm. Limmit travels to "The Interface" - a terminally seedy street that functions as a meeting place for the degraded, drugged-up, fuck-happy denizens of the counties Los Angeles and Orange. And he has brought a terrifyingly effective death-weapon with him - an instant-massacre machine. Woot! Guess who gets caught between a rock and a hard place.

The novel has admirable chutzpah when it comes to the sheer imagintion on display - the seedy 'Rattown' of L.A., the sewers beneath it, the mind-numbing & hypocritical lifestyle of O.C., the casually bizarre chicken farm, various vividly characterized cast members, a tremendous dream-battle, gruesome & revolting sexuality, a bloodbath on the Interface, even an extraterrestrial Visitor... all quite strikingly stylized, all of these things practically popping off of the page.

As I mentioned earlier, it is perhaps the first cyberpunk novel, being completed in 1972. It certainly has that grim, tarnished, dirty urban feeling that is key to the subgenre. It has the nonchalant violence and misanthropy, the cynicism, the snark. Its narrative includes violent corporate interests, casual murder & slaughter, bad-trip imagery, and a strange kind of psychic pre-internet that exists somewhere in between the mind and the electromagnetic static of radio waves & television transmissions. It is certainly a distinctive book: angrily snappy, grimly jokey, gleefully vindictive. An adventure and an excoriation.



L'ospitePoor Mike Tyler has a problematic past: once a part of a group of pretentious college kids devoted to a pretentious professor slash guru slash svengali, these kids and their prof decided to take it to the next level by regular ingestion of the highly illegal drug The Host - which apparently induces both hallucinatory effects and shared empathic group connection. The Host is 24/7 and it also features visions of a pointy-teethed lil' guy who wants you to kill kill kill. Its hallucinogenic qualities make participants want to tear limbs from bodies, bathe in blood and laugh like hyenas. Unfortunately for Mike, not only does The Host stay in your system permanently, but now a member of the group has come out of the woodwork to recruit Mike back in. Will more zany slaughter hijinks ensue?

Kids, just say no to drugs!

Jeter's individualistic vision encompasses the Los Angeles landscape of freeways and strip malls, a grim and sour misanthropy, the need for his characters to escape from various dark pasts, and a fairly expert use of parallel narratives that comment on each other in intriguing ways. And - surprise, surprise - this novel also demonstrates an ability to write compassionately about well-meaning and empathetic supporting characters. Okay, well, two supporting characters. The rest are miserable bugs. And the protagonist... an eerie, unnerving cipher. Of course. Jeter's gotta be Jeter.



Infernal DevicesSteampunk, ahoy! This is a retro-chic thriller full of tricky clockwork mechanisms, foggy nights and cobblestones, demented aristocrats and dodgy lower class types, inhuman creatures from the sea and their barely human half-breed spawn, creepy flights into darkness and sudden escapes, two brassy mercenaries who are strangely familiar with 20th century slang, and an automaton who comes equipped with all of the wit, intelligence, and sexual drive that his original human model - our strangely bland hero - appears to lack.

The writing is luscious and rather gleefully sardonic. It winks at you while delivering its narrative thrills in a delightfully vivid, semi-archaic purple prose package. And hey, it almost feels like Jeter is even sending up his own traditionally enigmatic heroes. The key to the mysteries swirling around the oddly placid protagonist is his very stolidity. That blankness is actually the answer to the mysteries behind Infernal Devices' central conundrums and contraptions. Clever! And the climax is a literal climax. Ha!

A Song of Ice and Fire: George R.R. Martin's Never-Ending Story

As I pack my bags and settle my affairs before I embark on my journey to my new home, the tent city on George R.R. Martin's front lawn, I think back to how it all began... 

I swore it would never happen to me. I was bound and determined not to read the Song of Ice and Fire for a variety of reasons.

  1. I am not a huge fan of today's fantasy novels, never-ending doorstop fantasy series in particular.
  2. The series is not yet finished and I don't want to be Dark Towered into waiting years between books or having Martin pull a Robert Jordan and die without completing it.
  3. Hype. Anytime someone tells me I have to read something, I almost always dig my feet in and resist. One of these days, I'll stop being stubborn when people recommend me books. Sure, most of them read probably 20% as much as I read in a year but there are reasons why certain books sell thousands and thousands of copies.
So after my girlfriend and I blazed through the first season of Game of Thrones in a weekend, I figured it was time to cave in and give it a try. My fears were unfounded. The Game of Thrones took over my life while I was reading it. Even after watching the first season of the TV series, I couldn't be bothered with things like cleaning house and eating properly. I was captivated by the tale of the Lannisters, the Starks, the Targaryens, and the rest.

  A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When the King comes to Winterfell, Ned Stark soon finds himself given the post of Hand to the King by King Robert. All is not well in Winterfell, however. Stark's son is gravely injured and signs point to the King's wife's family, the Lannisters. Stark will soon find out that when you play the Game of Thrones, you either win or die...

Okay, so it's way more complicated than that but it's hard to write a teaser for an 800+ page kitten squisher like this.

I read an interview with George R.R. Martin where he mentioned liking historical fiction but hating knowing the ending before he started. Game of Thrones feels way more like historical fiction than it does fantasy. While there are magical elements, they don't dominate the story. The story is the battle for the throne of the seven kingdoms and intrigue behind the scenes by various factions. It feels way more like Pillars of the Earth than it does epic fantasy.

For me, the main strengths of the Game of Thrones are the characters and GRRM's willingness to do horrible things to them. While fantasy is usually about good vs. evil, nothing is so black and white in the Game of Thrones. King Robert is a man with a drinking and whoring problem. Ned Stark fathered a child out of wedlock. The Lannisters are a bunch of well-meaning scumbags. Jon Snow looks down upon his companions because of his noble upbringing.

As for GRRM's willingness to do horrible things to his characters? Don't get too attached to anyone. There were several shocking deaths in Game of Thrones and I'm told it gets worse from here on out. I can't wait for someone to settle Joffrey Lannister's hash!

For me, one of the marks of a good book is if it makes me want to rush out and write something similar. It happened with the Dark Tower, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Elric, Hyperion, Amber, and now this. Speaking of Amber, Martin thanks Roger Zelazny in the acknowledgments. I already knew he and Zelazny were close. Now I'm wondering if the machinations in Game of Thrones were in any way inspired by the ones of the family in Amber.

Differences between the book and the first season of the show are pretty minor. One thing that really stood out was that a lot of the characters were younger in the book. Also, there weren't so many women being taken roughly from behind in Martin's text. Other than that, it was mostly chronology and a few minor scenes that were missing.

That's about all I can say since I don't want to give too much away. This book is a monstrous tome but it didn't feel like it. There's always something going on and everyone better watch their backs. After all, Winter is Coming...

A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire, #2)A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the wake of King Robert's death, four men lay claim to his crown. The Mother of Dragons builds her khalazar as magic slowly returns to the world. Jon Snow braves the wilds beyond the Wall. Tyrion Lannister struggles to hold the power behind the Throne. And Winterfell harbors a viper in its midst...

Like I said before, it's hard to write a teaser for a book this size. Look at it! You could club a narwhal to death with it if you were so inclined.

The epic of The Song of Ice and Fire continues to unfold in the second volume. Robb Stark, the King in the North, continues his campaign to avenge his father and take the Iron Throne. His sister Sansa remains in King's Landing, still betrothed to the vile Joffrey. Arya, well, she has quite a bit going on. Jon Snow continues being my favorite character as he ventures beyond the wall, probably marking him for death sometime soon. I'm wondering if the Starks will ever be reunited.

In non-Stark news, Tyrion Lannister continues being the best character in the series and pulls the strings behind the scenes. The conflict between Robert's brothers Stannis and Renly came to a head much earlier than I thought. Jaime Lannister is still in the clink and I'm hoping he and Robb Stark get more screen time in the next book. And Theon! What a colossal douche! Cercei Lannister has a lot more facets to her character than I originally thought.

Much like the last book, most of the action happens near the end. I love the constant intrigue behind the scenes. The battle of Blackwater Bay was my favorite battle in the series so far.

Since I read this without seeing season 2 of Game of Thrones, I'm looking forward to the following events being depicted on the show:
1. Jon Snow beyond the Wall
2. Tyrion's dialog with Cercei early on
3. the battle of Blackwater

That's about all I have to say. I liked Clash of Kings almost as much as the first book.
A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire, #3)A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Three kings contend for the throne and King Joffrey's wedding day grows near. Can he hold the throne with Robb Stark and Stannis Baratheon nipping at his heels?

Yeah, that's a woefully inadequate summary but it's not laden with spoilers, either.

The third installment of Weddings, Beddings, and Beheadings is my favorite one so far. Martin outdid himself this time.

First of all, there were quite a few deaths in this one. I wasn't expecting Robb Stark to go out like that. Tywin and Joffrey more than had it coming, however. The Red Wedding was pretty surprising, as was the trial by combat for Tyrion's fate. Speaking of Tyrion, his wedding to Sansa was also quite unexpected. I'm still not sure where things are going with Davos Seaworth but I'm already itching to find out.

Jon Snow continued to be my favorite character, from his stint with the wildlings to his defense of the Wall to his imprisonment and eventual election to commander of the Night's Watch. The prospect of Snow becoming Lord of Winterfell is an intriguing one and I'm anxious to see how it unfolds.

Another plotline I'm particularly enjoying is that of Arya and the Hound. The Hound could easily be a scene-chewing villain but is a surprisingly deep character. Arya is shockingly bad ass for a preteen.

One character I'm surprised I've grown to like is Jaime Lannister. He's an arrogant unapologetic bastard and I love him for it. I'd read a whole book of Jaime's exploits.

Also, how about Petyr Baelish? What a bastard!

I'm giving this five stars with an exclamation point next to it.

A Feast for Crows (A Song of Ice and Fire, #4)A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The throne of the Iron Isles is contested. Queen Cercei conspires to keep King Tommen's young queen from influencing him. Jaime Lannister adjusts to having only one hand. Sam Tarly and Gilly head south. Brienne quests for the missing Stark daughters. Littlefinger holds the Vale. A lot of stuff happens in Dorne. Arya Stark continues being one of the more interesting characters in fantasy...

After a years-long void, the Song of Ice and Fire returns. Well, they can't all be home runs. Sometimes you have to settle for a triple.

Aside from the lack of Jon Snow, Dany and the dragons, and one Tyrion Lannister, I enjoyed A Feast for Crows as much as the previous volumes. At this point, Jaime Lannister is hot on the heels of Arya, Jon Snow, and Tyrion as my favorite character. I could read a few hundred pages of Jaime Lannister walking around being an asshole. Sam got some time to shine and I think he'll do big things before the series is over. I love what's going on with Arya. I still don't care about Sansa or Catelyn Stark.

The bits with the Iron Isles and Dorne got a little wearisome, feeling like Martin might have wanted to keep the biscuit wheels on his gravy train for a little while longer. Still, I liked where things went despite not involving any of my favorite characters.

It's a testament to Martin's skill that he has made me care about the Lannister twins, first Jaime and now Cercei. I'm chomping at the bit to find out Cercei's fate and to see if Brienne is really dead.

On a final note, there were way too many characters whose names started with the letter E in the same chapter. Mix it up a little, George.

Four stars, although I'd probably give it a high three if I'd been one of the people who had to wait years between books.

A Dance With Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire, #5)A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Stannis Baratheon marches on Winterfell from the Wall. Daenerys's empire is threatened from within. Tyrion finds himself enslaved. Cercei finds herself in chains. The Crow's Eye desires Daenerys for his own but so do several other would-be suitors. And Jon Snow faces dissent from his brothers of the Watch...

In the latest installment of Incest and Intrigue, more of the pieces are placed on the board. Daenerys can't trust anyone. Jon Snow can't trust anyone. Iron Lords cannot trust their own brothers. Sellswords in general cannot be trusted. In short, no one can trust anyone while the Game of Thrones is being played.

This one had its share of memorable moments, both good and ill. I really like how Arya's story is developing but I don't see how it's going to tie back into things. The revelation of Young Griff's true identity was a game changer and its repercussions will be felt in the next couple books. I liked that Brienne is still alive and that Jaime Lannister chose to follow her instead of rushing to Cercei's defense. Jon Snow getting knifed on the Wall by his sworn brothers didn't sit well with me. I'm really hoping he's still alive come next book, whenever that may be.

It looks like Theon is headed for redemption but I'd rather see him dead or taking the black. Bran is progressing nicely. Whatever happened to Ricken and that bastard of Robert's that isn't Gendry? And who is Cercei's new champion Robert Strong, the Mountain, perhaps?

And that brings us to our current situation.  I honestly don't think Martin will be able to wrap things up in two more books, not with all the balls he has in the air. Plus, it would be all too easy for him to throw more players into the mix to keep the saga going. Still, with A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin has made an Oathbreaker out of me. I once swore I'd never get caught up in a neverending fantasy series. In fact, I believe I said I'd rather eat my own testicles. However, I'm pretty caught up in this one.

So, what happens now?  Even if they split books 3-5 into two seasons each, the Game of Thrones television show is going to catch up with the books in a few short years.  Then what?  I've heard that Martin is considering adapting the novels set in the GoT world for additional seasons.  Also, he's wanting to work on other projects.  Maybe it's time to farm out some of the work to a James Patterson-style sweatshop of authors.  Just give each one a couple characters and an outline and let 'er rip.  Either that or die before the series is finished.  Whichever you're more comfortable with, George.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to join the tent city.  I'm hoping to get a spot next to the garbage cans so I can get first dibs on any discarded fragments George sees fit to bless his subjects with.  Or maybe I'll try to fight my way close to the house and pray I'll get a glimpse of the king himself when he chances by one of the windows...

Lives of Tao

The Lives of TaoThe Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu
Dan's rating: 4 of 5 stars
Publisher: Angry Robot
Price: 7.99
Available: est. April 30th

When secret agent Edward Blair is betrayed and killed, Tao, the alien symbiont that lives within him, must find a suitable host to continue the centuries long war between his faction, The Prophus, and their archenemies, the Genjix. Too bad he winds up inside overweight IT worker Roen Tan instead. Can Tao whip Roen into shape before the Genjix find him?

When Angry Robot offered an ARC of this book in their weekly newsletter, I jumped at the chance to request one. Two alien factions waging war against each other using humans as hosts and pawns? What's not to like?

Nothing, as it turns out. Lives of the Tao is an engaging read from start to finish. Roen's journey takes him from being an overweight, weak-willed shlub to a major player in a war for Earth's future. Not bad for an IT guy who hasn't had a girlfriend in ten years.

The relationships in Lives of the Tao are what drives the story forward, most notably Roen's relationships with Tao, the alien living inside his head, and Sonya, the Phophys host assigned to help Tao whip him into shape.

It's a fun read. One of my favorite parts is how Tao related a paragraph or two of the history between the two Quasing factions, the Genjix and the Prophus, at the beginning of each chapter, sometimes paralleling events in the story.

The ending, while somewhat predictable, was perfect for the story and left it open-ended enough for future adventures of Roen and Tao. Four easy stars.

Also on Goodreads