LOGGING OFF

McKenna’s (My Big Fake Irish Life, 2011) first foray into science fiction mixes romance with techno-thriller in a dystopian world where “thinking for yourself caused death.”

McKenna develops her central conceit uncomfortably well by extrapolating today’s world into 2095, when computers manage humanity via barcodes embedded in their wrists. The computers create a society we often wish for, wherein everyone is employed at a job perfectly suited to their abilities and temperament, and no one is sick or hungry (with a lifespan over 100 years and youth lasting into middle age); where parents custom-design their children, relationships are ideally balanced and war and environmental disaster are unknown. But the cost of this painless life is loss of passion and freedom. Fortunately, groups of individualists have withdrawn to live the old-fashioned way with all its sufferings. These folks, along with an isolated group of psychics and sages, covertly work against the governing computers to stop them from reducing humanity to a slave race and stealing our physiology in order to create a super-race of computer-humans. The opposing forces are destined to battle in an uprising predicted by the sages since 1971. One preordained person from each culture—beautiful Britannia from the ideal society, rugged John from the primitive outcasts and innocent but gifted Kendall from the psychic students—must combine their special talents in a preemptive strike to trigger Armageddon, although none of the sages can foresee who wins. McKenna tells her story in alternating voices, weaving them together from a startling prologue to a predictable ending in a calm and steady voice of her own that suggests the machine world she envisions. This voice beautifully portrays the chilling future but flattens out characters and action into clichés. The book is further weakened by amateurish production, including repeat typos, incorrect grammar and usage and simple formatting bloopers. Nevertheless, the book is a compelling story that pulls the reader along while feeling like a screenplay disguised as a novel. It begs for richer treatment, which perhaps McKenna will tackle in a sequel. Despite some flaws, McKenna delivers a fascinating look into a chilling future firmly rooted in our present.

 

Pub Date: Dec. 5, 2011

ISBN: 978-1466331433

Page Count: 302

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Feb. 2, 2012

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A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.

DEVOLUTION

Are we not men? We are—well, ask Bigfoot, as Brooks does in this delightful yarn, following on his bestseller World War Z (2006).

A zombie apocalypse is one thing. A volcanic eruption is quite another, for, as the journalist who does a framing voice-over narration for Brooks’ latest puts it, when Mount Rainier popped its cork, “it was the psychological aspect, the hyperbole-fueled hysteria that had ended up killing the most people.” Maybe, but the sasquatches whom the volcano displaced contributed to the statistics, too, if only out of self-defense. Brooks places the epicenter of the Bigfoot war in a high-tech hideaway populated by the kind of people you might find in a Jurassic Park franchise: the schmo who doesn’t know how to do much of anything but tries anyway, the well-intentioned bleeding heart, the know-it-all intellectual who turns out to know the wrong things, the immigrant with a tough backstory and an instinct for survival. Indeed, the novel does double duty as a survival manual, packed full of good advice—for instance, try not to get wounded, for “injury turns you from a giver to a taker. Taking up our resources, our time to care for you.” Brooks presents a case for making room for Bigfoot in the world while peppering his narrative with timely social criticism about bad behavior on the human side of the conflict: The explosion of Rainier might have been better forecast had the president not slashed the budget of the U.S. Geological Survey, leading to “immediate suspension of the National Volcano Early Warning System,” and there’s always someone around looking to monetize the natural disaster and the sasquatch-y onslaught that follows. Brooks is a pro at building suspense even if it plays out in some rather spectacularly yucky episodes, one involving a short spear that takes its name from “the sucking sound of pulling it out of the dead man’s heart and lungs.” Grossness aside, it puts you right there on the scene.

A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.

Pub Date: June 16, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-2678-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Del Rey/Ballantine

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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An almost-but-not-quite-great slavery novel.

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THE WATER DANCER

The celebrated author of Between the World and Me (2015) and We Were Eight Years in Power (2017) merges magic, adventure, and antebellum intrigue in his first novel.

In pre–Civil War Virginia, people who are white, whatever their degree of refinement, are considered “the Quality” while those who are black, whatever their degree of dignity, are regarded as “the Tasked.” Whether such euphemisms for slavery actually existed in the 19th century, they are evocatively deployed in this account of the Underground Railroad and one of its conductors: Hiram Walker, one of the Tasked who’s barely out of his teens when he’s recruited to help guide escapees from bondage in the South to freedom in the North. “Conduction” has more than one meaning for Hiram. It's also the name for a mysterious force that transports certain gifted individuals from one place to another by way of a blue light that lifts and carries them along or across bodies of water. Hiram knows he has this gift after it saves him from drowning in a carriage mishap that kills his master’s oafish son (who’s Hiram’s biological brother). Whatever the source of this power, it galvanizes Hiram to leave behind not only his chains, but also the two Tasked people he loves most: Thena, a truculent older woman who practically raised him as a surrogate mother, and Sophia, a vivacious young friend from childhood whose attempt to accompany Hiram on his escape is thwarted practically at the start when they’re caught and jailed by slave catchers. Hiram directly confronts the most pernicious abuses of slavery before he is once again conducted away from danger and into sanctuary with the Underground, whose members convey him to the freer, if funkier environs of Philadelphia, where he continues to test his power and prepare to return to Virginia to emancipate the women he left behind—and to confront the mysteries of his past. Coates’ imaginative spin on the Underground Railroad’s history is as audacious as Colson Whitehead’s, if less intensely realized. Coates’ narrative flourishes and magic-powered protagonist are reminiscent of his work on Marvel’s Black Panther superhero comic book, but even his most melodramatic effects are deepened by historical facts and contemporary urgency.

An almost-but-not-quite-great slavery novel.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-59059-7

Page Count: 432

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

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