A solid, enjoyable first novel, despite its tendency to veer into wordy technological discussions.

Virtual Vengeance

A JOURNEY FROM MAN TO MACHINE

In Starr’s debut cyber-thriller, the future is here—and it wants to sell you things.

Professor Yuri Petrov, who teaches graduate-level computer science at the University of Illinois, is a throwback to the days of human teaching. The Russian native was himself taught by people, not by the teaching machines that are now ubiquitous throughout the United States. Teaching isn’t the only thing that’s computerized; indeed, most people’s lives are ruled by automation—and the advertising that goes along with it. Corporations now use nearly everything to advertise their products, including elevator music, toilet paper, food, and as it turns out, even the teaching programs themselves. Yuri accidentally discovers that an ad agency called Sellco has been placing subliminal messages inside every teaching machine in the country, and they’re not just advertising Pepsi and weight-loss drugs. They’re feeding something far more sinister to the American people, and the people don’t even know it. Yuri must get off the grid and hide in order to expose Sellco while protecting his own life. However, even the best-laid plans go awry, and he soon finds himself in an altered state of consciousness no one had ever dreamed possible—until now. Starr weaves a thought-provoking tapestry of future tech and hypothetical concepts, although it sometimes requires his characters to be unnecessarily verbose and explanatory. The plot covers the standard bases regarding government conspiracies and evil corporations, but Starr manages to make it feel fresh by highlighting the professor’s old-fashioned yet sprightly personality. A thoroughly enjoyable protagonist, Yuri never quite falls into the category of curmudgeon, but instead balances his enthusiasm for technology with his love of doing things in traditional ways. Starr keeps his focus on the human element, and as such, the novel never devolves into horror; rather, it gently prods at questions of what it means to be human, and how people can retain their humanity in a world of rigid control and materialism.

A solid, enjoyable first novel, despite its tendency to veer into wordy technological discussions.

Pub Date: March 2, 2014

ISBN: 978-1492236757

Page Count: 314

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2014

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

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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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A haunting fable of a lonely, moribund world that is entirely too plausible.

KLARA AND THE SUN

Nobelist Ishiguro returns to familiar dystopian ground with this provocative look at a disturbing near future.

Klara is an AF, or “Artificial Friend,” of a slightly older model than the current production run; she can’t do the perfect acrobatics of the newer B3 line, and she is in constant need of recharging owing to “solar absorption problems,” so much so that “after four continuous days of Pollution,” she recounts, “I could feel myself weakening.” She’s uncommonly intelligent, and even as she goes unsold in the store where she’s on display, she takes in the details of every human visitor. When a teenager named Josie picks her out, to the dismay of her mother, whose stern gaze “never softened or wavered,” Klara has the opportunity to learn a new grammar of portentous meaning: Josie is gravely ill, the Mother deeply depressed by the earlier death of her other daughter. Klara has never been outside, and when the Mother takes her to see a waterfall, Josie being too ill to go along, she asks the Mother about that death, only to be told, “It’s not your business to be curious.” It becomes clear that Klara is not just an AF; she’s being groomed to be a surrogate daughter in the event that Josie, too, dies. Much of Ishiguro’s tale is veiled: We’re never quite sure why Josie is so ill, the consequence, it seems, of genetic editing, or why the world has become such a grim place. It’s clear, though, that it’s a future where the rich, as ever, enjoy every privilege and where children are marshaled into forced social interactions where the entertainment is to abuse androids. Working territory familiar to readers of Brian Aldiss—and Carlo Collodi, for that matter—Ishiguro delivers a story, very much of a piece with his Never Let Me Go, that is told in hushed tones, one in which Klara’s heart, if she had one, is destined to be broken and artificial humans are revealed to be far better than the real thing.

A haunting fable of a lonely, moribund world that is entirely too plausible.

Pub Date: March 2, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-31817-1

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 27, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2020

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