Review: The Lost Cause by Cory Doctorow

Review: The Lost Cause by Cory DoctorowThe Lost Cause by Cory Doctorow
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: climate fiction, dystopian, science fiction
Pages: 368
Published by Tor Books on November 14, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

It’s thirty years from now. We’re making progress, mitigating climate change, slowly but surely. But what about all the angry old people who can’t let go?

For young Americans a generation from now, climate change isn't controversial. It's just an overwhelming fact of life. And so are the great efforts to contain and mitigate it. Entire cities are being moved inland from the rising seas. Vast clean-energy projects are springing up everywhere. Disaster relief, the mitigation of floods and superstorms, has become a skill for which tens of millions of people are trained every year. The effort is global. It employs everyone who wants to work. Even when national politics oscillates back to right-wing leaders, the momentum is too great; these vast programs cannot be stopped in their tracks.

But there are still those Americans, mostly elderly, who cling to their red baseball caps, their grievances, their huge vehicles, their anger. To their "alternative" news sources that reassure them that their resentment is right and pure and that "climate change" is just a giant scam.

And they're your grandfather, your uncle, your great-aunt. And they're not going anywhere. And they’re armed to the teeth.

The Lost Cause What do we do about people who cling to the belief that their own children are the enemy? When, in fact, they're often the elders that we love?

My Review:

The younger generation has ALWAYS been going to the dogs. Graffiti found by Napoleon’s soldiers, stating EXACTLY that point, that “This younger generation is going to the dogs!” was written in hieroglyphs and was determined to have been etched on that wall in 800 BCE. There’s a similar quote from Socrates that merely goes back to sometime between 470 and 399 BCE. If we ever discover a stone carving or the equivalent left by the Neanderthals, they probably thought it too. Just as we do today.

And as we undoubtedly will thirty years from now, or thereabouts. But the generational fight we’re in the midst of right now isn’t just that – although it is certainly also about that.

It’s also about the same neverending, utterly frustrating argument that 18-year-old Brooks Palazzo has been having with his grandfather – and witnessing his grandfather and his old cronies have with the country and the world around him – for his entire life.

Because Dick Palazzo and his friends are members of the local Maga Club, wearing faded red hats and spouting the exact same neo-Nazi conspiracy-tinged quasi-conservative rhetoric that the original Magas did back in the day – which just so happens to be our day.

But in Brooks’ Palazzo’s 2050s, climate change and progressive policies have come 30 years down the road they’re already on. Universal Basic Income is part of the Green New Deal the Magas hate so much, but the climate change they’ve denied until it’s too late to fix has created a new class of refugee in American citizens, born and bred, whose homes and entire cities have either burned up in uncontainable wildcat fires, become Superfund sites because those same fires exploded something toxic that should never have been buried in the first place, or simply got washed away by the rising oceans being fed by runaway global warming.

Young Brooks Palazzo and his young and idealistic friends are all set to welcome a caravan of internal refugees to the hometown they know and love, Burbank, California. They know they have the resources, they know they have the room, they know they have the skills to pull Burbank into the future and bring all their friends and all the friends they’ll make in the future along for the hard work as well as the ride.

But his Gramps’ old buddies, all those old Magas, have a plan to stop that future before it happens. Because they are dead certain that the ship is sinking, and that Burbank doesn’t have enough resources to support the people it already has, let alone the ones that are coming.

They’ll do anything they can to stop the future and the Green New Deal in its tracks. No matter what it takes. And no matter who or what they have to kill. Democracy, the rule of law, innocent children, their neighbors who don’t believe as they do. Themselves even, because martyrs are a great recruiting tool.

And haven’t we seen it all before?

Escape Rating B: In spite of everything I’ve said above, this isn’t actually a dark book. But it’s easy to get caught up in its implications and see a long dark night coming that may make the historical Dark Ages look like a shining beacon of light – if only because the human species wasn’t in danger of extinction at the time.

And there I am, going dark again.

Let me try and wrench this back to the lighter side of this story – which is very much present. The story is told from the perspective of Brooks and his friends as they do their damndest to push forward towards a future. On every page, and in spite of every setback, they still have hope and they’re still working towards it.

They have a vision for a better Burbank, a better country, and even a better world, by taking the lessons they’re learning in this crisis and applying them to the next. They may very well be “fighting the long defeat” to paraphrase Tolkien, but they are there for that long haul and have hopes that it will be made – even if they aren’t the ones to make it.

Because that’s not the point of the struggle but a struggle it most definitely is. They do get down, and some of them bail and all of them want to at different points but they keep living and keep trying.

I found this a compelling read. I groaned when Brooks and Company lost a fight, and grinned when they overcame one of the many, many obstacles in their way. They may be fighting the long defeat but they are glorious in that fight. But part of the premise of the story is that neither side truly wants to let the world burn, they just have diametrically opposed beliefs about the way to prevent that burning or if preventing that burning is even possible. And I’m not sure I still believe that, although I wish I did.

Review: The Archive Undying by Emma Mieko Candon

Review: The Archive Undying by Emma Mieko CandonThe Archive Undying (The Downworld Sequence, #1) by Emma Mieko Candon
Narrator: Yung-I Chang
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: artificial intelligence, dystopian, mecha, science fiction
Series: Downworld Sequence #1
Pages: 496
Length: 16 hours and 28 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tordotcom on June 27, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The Archive Undying is an epic work of mecha sci-fi about Sunai, the immortal survivor of an Autonomous Intelligence that went mad and destroyed the city it watched over as a patron god. In the aftermath of the divine AI’s suicide, Sunai is on the run from those who would use him, either to resurrect what was lost or as the enslaved pilot of a gargantuan war machine made from his god’s corpse. Trouble catches up with Sunai when he falls into bed with Veyadi, a strange man who recruits him to investigate an undiscovered AI. Sunai draws ever closer to his cursed past, flirting with disaster and his handsome new boyfriend alike.

My Review:

The Archive Undying is a fractured story about broken people in a shattered world. Everything about this story, the people, the place, even the story itself, is in jagged pieces.

But with everything in jagged pieces, while it makes the characters compelling, and the world they live in a fascinating puzzle, the fractured jaggedness of the story itself makes the whole thing hard to follow.

Which makes describing the thing more than a tad difficult. Because you’re never quite sure what’s going on – even after the end – because you don’t know how anything or anyone got to be who, where and what they were at the point things start. Or even what the point of what they did might have been.

That’s true of the characters, the institutions and the whole entire world they inhabit. Because it’s all been corrupted. Not by the usual human forms of corruption – well, honestly, that too – but because everything in this world was run by autonomous AIs, and someone or something, both in the distant past and in the immediate present, introduced corruption into those AIs’ codes that caused them to fall. And to die.

At least as much as an AI can die.

So the story begins with Sunai. Or at least the story we drop into begins from Sunai’s point of view. He’s a salvage rat hiding a bitter truth from himself – but as it turns out Sunai is lies and bitter truths pretty much all the way down.

So is everyone – and everything – else. But the more of all those perspectives of lies and deceptions and bitter truths and sorrows we see, the more it all comes back to Sunai. And to the bitterest truth of all that he has hidden so deep that it will take an invasion of rogue mechs and rapacious AIs destroying his city to finally bring it to light.

Escape Rating B: I listened to The Archive Undying in its entirety, and I have to say that its the narrator that carried me through all SIXTEEN AND A HALF HOURS. The narrator didn’t just do a good job of voicing all the many, many characters, but by literally being in their heads and not my own it allowed me to care enough about the individuals to be willing to experience the whole constantly twisting saga. If I’d been reading this as text, if I’d been in my head instead of theirs, I’d have DNF’d fairly early because the sheer number of changes in perspectives combined with unsatisfying hints of the world they occurred in would have driven me mad in short order. YMMV.

The Archive Undying is a story that expects a lot from its readers, probably more than it is likely to get. Which is somewhat ironic, as Sunai, the being who stands more-or-less as its protagonist has learned to expect very little, and is often surprised when he gets even that.

But then, that’s the thing about this book, in that if the reader can come to care about the characters, particularly Sunai the failed archivist and reluctant relic, then that reader will stick with the story to see what happens to Sunai and the ragtag band of friends, allies, frenemies and rogue AIs who have attached themselves to him. Or that he has attached himself to accidentally or by someone else’s purpose.

The story has so many perspectives, and it jumps between them so frequently and with so little provocation, that the story is difficult to follow. But more often than the reader expects, all of those fractured pieces come together in beauty – just the way the bits of color in a kaleidoscope suddenly shift into a glorious – if temporary – whole.

I left this story with three completely separate – almost jagged – thoughts about it.

Because we spend this story inside pretty much all of the characters’ heads – even the characters that don’t technically HAVE heads, and because so many of their actions have gone horribly wrong and they’re all full to the brim with regret and angst, this struck me as a ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda’ kind of story. We see their thoughts, they’re all a mess all the time, they’ve all screwed up repeatedly, and they’re all sorry about almost everything they’ve done – even as they keep doing the thing they’re sorry about.

Second, as a question of language, and because I listened to this rather than read the text, I got myself caught up in the question of whether the word, and more of the characters than at first seemed, was ‘relic’ or ‘relict’ as they’re pronounced the same. Sunai, and others, are referred to as ‘relics’ of the mostly dead AI named Iterate Fractal – or one of its brethren. But a ‘relic’ is an object of religious significance from the past, and a ‘relict’ is a survivor of something that used to exist in a larger or active form but no longer does. Not all of the autonomous AIs were worshipped as gods, but they all left relicts behind.

There’s a part of me that keeps thinking that at its heart, The Archive Undying is a love story. Not necessarily a romance – but rather a story about the many and varied ways that love can turn toxic and wrong. To the point where even when it does come out right the selected value of right is tenuous and likely to break at the first opportunity.

An opportunity we’ll eventually get to see. The Archive Undying is the first book in the projected Downworld Sequence, implying that there will be more to come even if the when of it is ‘To Be Determined’. I think I got invested in the characters enough to see what happens to them next – and I have hope that maybe the many, many blanks in the explanation of how things got to be this bad will get filled in in that next or subsequent books in the duology. But after the way this first book went, I KNOW I’ll be getting that second one in audio because the narration of this first book by Yung-I Chang is what made the whole thing possible for me and I expect him to carry me through the next one as well.

Review: Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace

Review: Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-StaceFirebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, science fiction
Pages: 416
Published by Gallery / Saga Press on May 4, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

Like everyone else she knows, Mallory is an orphan of the corporate war. As a child, she lost her parents, her home, and her entire building in an airstrike. As an adult, she lives in a cramped hotel room with eight other people, all of them working multiple jobs to try to afford water and make ends meet. And the job she’s best at is streaming a popular VR war game. The best part of the game isn’t killing enemy combatants, though—it’s catching in-game glimpses of SpecOps operatives, celebrity supersoldiers grown and owned by Stellaxis, the corporation that runs the America she lives in.
Until a chance encounter with a SpecOps operative in the game leads Mal to a horrifying discovery: the real-life operatives weren’t created by Stellaxis. They were kids, just like her, who lost everything in the war, and were stolen and augmented and tortured into becoming supersoldiers. The world worships them, but the world believes a lie.
The company controls every part of their lives, and defying them puts everything at risk—her water ration, her livelihood, her connectivity, her friends, her life—but she can’t just sit on the knowledge. She has to do something—even if doing something will bring the wrath of the most powerful company in the world down upon her.

My Review:

Firebreak isn’t about the game. Not that there isn’t one, and not that Mallory and her best friend Jessa aren’t playing it, but the story in Firebreak is not really about the game. Especially not to the degree that Ready Player One is about the game and the puzzle about the ownership of the game every bit as much as it is concerned with the near-future dystopia in which the story is set.

But they do have something in common – in both stories the game is the opiate of the masses that keeps people from thinking too hard or too long about all the many, many ways in which they and their worlds are totally and epically screwed.

Mallory and Jessa, and every single person they know in Old Town, outside the walls and checkpoints of New Liberty City – where all the elites live – is a survivor of the corporate wars between Stellaxis Innovations and Greenleaf Industries.

The war may have mostly devolved into an uneasy peace interrupted by intermittent skirmishes, but when the war was going hot and heavy mechs and artillery were everywhere, everyone lost family, friends, loved ones, homes and livelihoods. Most of their friends are the ONLY surviving members of their families.

Stellaxis controls water, and Greenleaf controls food. Living in a Stellaxis controlled area, with 9 people crammed in one room of what used to be an old hotel, they queue up every day for their meager water ration and work three, four or even six jobs to pay for rent, food and everything else.

An everything else which includes the in-game credits and items needed to stream their participation in the game BestLife. Which is, ironically, a simulation of the corporate wars.

Mal and Jessa’s gaming stream gets them just enough credits and in-game items to keep them going – albeit barely and on a shoestring. So Jessa jumps at the chance of a high paying sponsor – no matter how skeevy and weird the arrangement seems to be.

Mal is a whole lot more skeptical – but then Mal is just plain skeptical of people in general.

That would-be sponsor turns out to be, not even a small-time corporation, but instead a locked-out conspiracy theorist who might just have the parts of a key that leads to the largest and most dangerous Pandora’s Box of all time. A box that holds the biggest and dirtiest secrets that Stellaxis Innovations has buried in the deepest, darkest subterranean levels of their vast corporate complex.

Literally.

The truth might set Mal and Jessa and everyone they know, free of the corporate oversight that controls their every waking moment. Or it might get them all killed. Slowly by dehydration and kidney failure. Or as quickly as a bullet in the head.

Escape Rating A+: It’s not about the game. It’s about the world that the game lets everyone escape from while packaging and selling the war – and every control and draconian measure that goes along with it – to everyone at the same time.

Firebreak is the story of someone who has spent her life keeping her head down and putting one foot in front of the other, always on the brink of exhaustion, dehydration and starvation – just like everyone else she knows.

At 20ish, Mal is just barely old enough to remember a time before, that life didn’t used to be like this. She’s part of the last cohort to know that there used to be a better way – but she’s too tired and downtrodden to do anything about it.

So the story here is about Mal waking up and trying to do the right thing, or at least a potentially right thing, before it’s too late.

Once she sees the evidence that at the center of the war that Stellaxis has merchandised and sold to everyone is an unforgivable crime, she realizes two things. That someone has to do something. And that that someone is going to be her. Because she can’t unsee what she’s seen and she can’t unknow what she knows and she can’t let it go.

Because she might have been one of the orphaned children who got sucked in, brainwashed, genetically engineered and spit out to be the supersoldiers that sell the merchandise that funds the war. For as long as they live.

The story in Firebreak is about a scrappy, scared, struggling attempt by one “little” person to make a world-spanning corporation take just a tiny bit of responsibility for the evil that they’ve done. An evil that they bring fully to bear on anyone who lifts even a corner of their penthouse suite rug to see just how much dirt got swept underneath it.

Mal is naive, skeptical, and very definitely punching way above her weight class. A fact that is brought home to her with extreme brutality, over and over and over. But she can’t stop trying to do the right thing – even when so much of that attempt goes totally wrong.

In the end, we’re not sure she’s succeeded. And we’re really not sure it’s going to last. But her journey, every heartbreaking, pulse-pounding, sweat-dripping moment of it, keeps the reader on the edge of their seat until the very last page, hoping that there’s just a tiny bit more.

Firebreak is not nearly as much like Ready Player One as the blurbs might lead one to believe, because it’s not about the game at all – meaning that you don’t need to be a gamer or any memory at all of any era’s pop culture iconography.

The way that Firebreak DOES link to Ready Player One is in the way their dystopian settings do – or mostly don’t – work for most of the people who live in them. The world of Firebreak reads like what would have happened to Wade Watts’ world in RPO if Wade had lost the game and the evil corporation had taken over the OASIS. Possibly blended with just a bit of the dystopian setting of Veronica Roth’s Poster Girl with its conspiracy theories, mega-corporation spin doctoring and propaganda, and particularly the shared secrets at the hearts of their power structures.

Firebreak is an absolutely compelling read – with more than a touch of ominously prescient chill – from beginning to end. When I finished it I really wanted just a bit more – and that more is almost here.

A Firebreak prequel novella, Flight & Anchor, is coming in June. I know I’m going to get my heart broken all over again, but this is one of those times when I’m absolutely there for it.

Review: World Running Down by Al Hess

Review: World Running Down by Al HessWorld Running Down by Al Hess
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: dystopian, post apocalyptic, science fiction
Pages: 299
Published by Angry Robot on February 14, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

A transgender salvager on the outskirts of a dystopian Utah gets the chance to earn the ultimate score and maybe even a dash of romance. But there's no such thing as a free lunch...
Valentine Weis is a salvager in the future wastelands of Utah. Wrestling with body dysphoria, he dreams of earning enough money to afford citizenship in Salt Lake City - a utopia where the testosterone and surgery he needs to transition is free, the food is plentiful, and folk are much less likely to be shot full of arrows by salt pirates. But earning that kind of money is a pipe dream, until he meets the exceptionally handsome Osric.
Once a powerful AI in Salt Lake City, Osric has been forced into an android body against his will and sent into the wasteland to offer Valentine a job on behalf of his new employer - an escort service seeking to retrieve their stolen androids. The reward is a visa into the city, and a chance at the life Valentine's always dreamed of. But as they attempt to recover the "merchandise", they encounter a problem: the android ladies are becoming self-aware, and have no interest in returning to their old lives.
The prize is tempting, but carrying out the job would go against everything Valentine stands for, and would threaten the fragile found family that's kept him alive so far. He'll need to decide whether to risk his own dream in order to give the AI a chance to live theirs.

My Review:

World Running Down turned out to be my third climate-apocalypse dystopia in a row, after Junkyard War and Perilous Times. The world is going to hell in a handcart and it’s all humanity’s fault no matter how you look at it. But these three looks at the view from that handcart are quite different. And all, surprisingly, hopeful.

At first, Valentine Weis doesn’t seem to have much hope. Or, perhaps, hope’s all he’s got without any real way of making any of his hopes come close to realization. At least not until Osric drops into his life – just about literally – with an offer that Valentine probably should refuse.

Because anything that looks too good to be true generally is – especially with people who actually still have a conscience and at least an ounce of compassion for their fellow beings. However those beings present themselves and whatever they happen to be made of.

In his very post-climate apocalypse world, Valentine lives his life on the outside looking in. Someone is offering him the opportunity to finally be on the inside. The question is whether the price is one that he’s willing to pay.

Salt Lake City is one of the few remaining, functional cities in the U.S. It’s a place where healthcare and transportation are free, where it seems as if everyone has enough to eat and a place to live. It’s a place where the rich get richer and the poor peek through the glass at all the things they can’t have without citizenship. Or sponsorship. Or both.

Valentine has none of the above. Instead his only possession is a barely functioning van, his only friend is more of a frenemy, he’s just barely breaking even on the delivery and salvage jobs he takes to keep body and soul together. And he’s trapped in a body he knows is wrong, deals with regular and depressing bouts of body dysmorphia and keeps falling further behind in his quest to save up enough money to get admitted to the place where he can get the medicines and the surgery he needs to make his external appearance reflect his inner self.

Osric, on the other hand, isn’t even human. He’s a Steward, an elite artificial intelligence who has been placed in a mere android body by nefarious person or persons unknown and sent out by even more nefarious persons to rope Valentine and his friend Ace into a job that must have one hell of a catch – because the fee for doing it is beyond Valentine’s biggest hopes and best dreams.

Which he just might manage to make come true. Not by giving in to what either those nefarious persons or his best frenemy/business partner Ace might say is the best thing – but by doing the actual, honest-to-goodness right thing. No matter how much it breaks his heart.

Escape Rating A: Before I even attempt to get into any more detail, first things first. And the first thing is that I loved World Running Down. A lot. Which kind of surprised me, not for itself, but because it was the third climate apocalypse dystopia book I read in a row, and as a subject that’s kind of a downer.

But the book itself isn’t a downer at all, which is really all down to Valentine. He just so earnestly wants to be a genuinely good person in spite of the world running down. Given a choice between the right thing and the easy thing Valentine chooses the right thing every single time – quite often to his own detriment.

He’s not unrealistic – at all – about just how FUBAR’d his world has become. He just doesn’t let that affect his own decision making process. He knows that things overall are heading towards an even hotter place than the climate, and he’s cognizant that he can’t fix much of that. But he’s committed to making things a little better as he can to those whose lives he actually touches.

Which is what gives the story both its hopefulness and its poignancy.

Valentine himself is caught in a “catch-22”. He’s trans, he needs both meds and surgery to complete his transition – which he very much desires to do. To be able to do that he needs to get residence in Salt Lake City, and for that he needs to pass a citizenship test. Which is just as big a hurdle because Valentine has ADHD or some variant of it which hasn’t even been diagnosed, making it difficult for him to study and retain certain kinds of information. Math gives a lot of people trouble. It gives Valentine a double dose of trouble, and he needs to get it to pass the test. Doing the original job would be a shortcut to his dreams – but absolutely does come at much too high a price.

But this isn’t just Valentine’s story, although we see much of it from his perspective. It’s also Osric’s story, and it’s the story of the job they are contracted for and the huge cloud wrapped around the silver lining of the payoff for doing it. Both parts of which result in discussion of artificial intelligences and the definition of what makes a being of artificial intelligence intelligent enough to be self-aware and eligible for citizenship.

And then the whole story works its way around to just how much heartache and heartbreak can be caused by trying to do what you think is best for someone you care for and how demeaning it is to make those decisions without their input.

There’s more. There’s just so much more. More than I should get into here, no matter how tempted I am. Which is very.

Between the climate apocalypse, the dystopian elements, the so, so sharp divide between the haves and the have nots, and both the political and the romantic issues that are raised by the questions of sentience and artificial intelligence, World Running Down touched on themes that brought to mind (my mind at least) a whole shelf of books that a reader might find equally appealing and/or interesting and very much vice versa.

So if you’ve ever read any of the following, you will probably also find World Running Down to be running right up your reading alley. And if you like World Running Down, these may also appeal; A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers, In the Lives of Puppets by TJ Klune, Automatic Reload by Ferrett Steinmetz and The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson.

I wish you hours of joyful reading in some fascinating worlds gone very wrong that still have hope of things coming round right. Definitely starting with World Running Down. But don’t just take my word for it. World Running Down is in the midst of running on tour at the following sites. Check ’em out!

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Review: Junkyard War by Faith Hunter

Review: Junkyard War by Faith HunterJunkyard War (Shining Smith #3) by Faith Hunter
Narrator: Khristine Hvam
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: dystopian, post apocalyptic, urban fantasy
Series: Shining Smith #3
Length: 6 hours and 35 minutes
Published by Audible Audio on December 8, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

It’s find retribution or die trying in Shining Smith’s ultimate challenge, from the author of the “Jane Yellowrock” and “Soulwood” series.

Shining Smith and her crew have obtained the weapons they need to rescue one of their own from the grips of their mortal enemy, Clarisse Warhammer. But to mount an assault on her fortified bunker, they have to cobble together an army of fighters.

That could be the biggest battle of them all.

Shining will need to step back into the biker world she left behind to broker an uneasy peace, then lead rival factions into a certain death trap. Can Shining take Warhammer down without having to compel more and more people to do her bidding? And will her feline warriors, the junkyard cats, remain loyal and fight alongside her? Or will Shining have to become something and someone she hates, so that vengeance can finally be hers?

My Review:

“Bloody damn!” as Shining Smith would say. Bloody damn this was a wild ride in Shining’s sidecar. I meant brain – although occasionally also sidecar.

Because Shining’s post-climate-apocalypse AND dystopia is run by the biker gangs – or at least Shining’s little corner of it as well as her mental landscape are. Shining herself is famous and infamous – in equal measure – among the Outlaw Militia Warriors as ‘Little Girl’ – one of the first female ‘made men’ in that fiercely misogynistic culture.

When Shining was literally a little girl her daddy sent her inside the carapace of one of the enemy’s giant ‘mamabots’ with a nuke strapped to her back. Those mamabots were crawling, rolling factories of nanobots designed to infect and kill anyone or anything they came across. They were helping the enemy to conquer the West Coast of the U.S. one klick at a time.

Shining expected to die in that bot – and she very nearly did. Instead, she came out changed, infected by the bots’ poison and transformed by her own exceedingly stubborn will into the human equivalent of the mamabot – a queen constantly emitting a poison that turns anyone that touches it into her thrall.

Including the ever-increasing crew at her junkyard. Especially the cats. Her Cats, who have a queen of their own who is probably the person truly running the place.

But Shining is not the only human queen, because every true hero – especially if that’s not remotely what they want to be – creates their own archenemy – or the other way around. Clarisse Warhammer targeted Shining all the way back in Junkyard Cats, sending the dead body of her best friend back to her junkyard in the trunk of a rusted out car.

Shining has been gunning for Clarisse ever since.

Junkyard War is the final showdown between Shining and Warhammer, the culmination of every single thing that’s happened since the opening of Junkyard Cats. Shining has pulled every string, coaxed every friend, bribed every enemy she has in order to bring enough firepower to bear to have the best chance possible of crawling out alive after sending herself into the lair of someone much worse than that first mamabot.

This time she doesn’t even have a nuke. What she has this time is better. She has friends. And, more importantly, particularly from their point of view, she has the Cats.

Escape Rating A+: I picked up the audio of the first book in the Shining Smith series, Junkyard Cats, three years ago when the audio was all there was. And did I ever wish there was more.

I got that more in 2021’s Junkyard Bargain, and that still wasn’t enough of Shining Smith, her totally FUBAR’d world, or especially her telepathic battle cats who have probably been running things for a lot longer than Shining either knows or wants to think about.

It’s been a long wait but here we have the climax – sometimes in multiple senses of that word – or Shining’s story in Junkyard War. And I have to say that it has SO been worth the wait.

But it has been a hell of a wait because the three books in the series aren’t so much separate books as they are chapters in a continuing saga that now reads like it has skidded, heart first, into a WOW! of a conclusion.

Which means two things. First, the books pile layer upon layer building Shining’s world, so you really need to start at the beginning in Junkyard Cats. Fortunately, the first two stories, Junkyard Cats and Junkyard Bargain are both available as ebooks as well as audio, and they’re fast, compelling reads.

Second, this does feel like an ending, after an edge-of-the-seat thrilling battle that literally plucks at the heart – because the whole series has been told from Shining’s jaded, world-weary, all too often jaundiced and misanthropic point of view. So when she’s directing her friends, her people and the Cats around an ever changing battlefield and worrying over every single one we’re right in there with her, both because Shining’s voice is so singular and wry, and because the narrator who brings her to us, Khristine Hvam, has done a consistently excellent job of embodying Shining through this entire riveting series.

As this story ends, Shining is confronted with something she’s never really had before – the power to choose her own future. There could be new stories in Shining’s world from this point, but they’d be fundamentally different from what came before. So this is at least a break but also quite possibly as close to an HEA as Shining will ever get considering the state of the world she inhabits.

Either way, it’s a wild ride and a total rush and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Whether or not you’ll feel the same way probably relies on whether or not you are able to fall into Shining’s voice because you see everything from inside her head. I loved riding her journey with her but your reading and/or listening mileage may vary. I hope it doesn’t because she’s one hell of a character experiencing a fantastic and utterly absorbing story.

Review: And Then I Woke Up by Malcolm Devlin

Review: And Then I Woke Up by Malcolm DevlinAnd Then I Woke Up by Malcolm Devlin
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: dystopian, horror, post apocalyptic
Pages: 176
Published by Tordotcom on April 12, 2022
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Goodreads

In the tradition of Mira Grant and Stephen Graham Jones, Malcolm Devlin’s And Then I Woke Up is a creepy, layered, literary story about false narratives and their ability to divide us.
"A scathing portrait of the world we live in and a running commentary on what’s story, what’s truth, and what’s not."—Stephen Graham Jones

In a world reeling from an unusual plague, monsters lurk in the streets while terrified survivors arm themselves and roam the countryside in packs. Or perhaps something very different is happening. When a disease affects how reality is perceived, it’s hard to be certain of anything…
Spence is one of the “cured” living at the Ironside rehabilitation facility. Haunted by guilt, he refuses to face the changed world until a new inmate challenges him to help her find her old crew. But if he can’t tell the truth from the lies, how will he know if he has earned the redemption he dreams of? How will he know he hasn’t just made things worse?

My Review:

“How long a minute is depends on which side of the bathroom door you are on,” or so goes one very old joke about the theory of the relativity of time. Which may not exactly reflect what Einstein was thinking, but it is still unarguably true. That “minute” takes a lot longer if you’re the one on the outside of the door holding it in than if you’re the one on the inside of the door letting it out.

And the measurement of those 60 seconds can still take the same amount of objective time while still seeming to be of different duration on the opposite sides of that door.

But what happens to objective “truth” when truth becomes so mutable that all perspectives are considered equal? This may not be of earth-shattering importance when it’s a question of whether a particular dress is blue and black or white and gold. But when the differing perspectives revolve around an issue of even middling importance, such as the size of the crowd at a particular presidential inauguration, or something larger and more fundamental, such as whether an ‘impromptu’ event in the U.S. Capitol was a peaceful demonstration or an attempted coup, those differences of “opinion” can be crucial. And the tribalism that lies behind them can make those perspectives impossible to change.

To put it another way, the way that Jonathan Swift put it, “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.” There’s also a version from Upton Sinclair, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

And Then I Woke Up is a story about what happens when all truths are created equal, when every perspective on every issue is considered equally valid. To the point where the concept of any objective truth is under attack by what one side considers to be the barbarians at the gate and vice versa.

To the point when those who oppose us not only look and sound like monsters, but they become actual, rotting, shambling, tear out our throats and feast on our flesh murdering creatures so terrible that the ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in and we fight.

It’s a nightmare scenario, when our friends and loved ones don’t just turn on us, but turn into monsters by doing so.

Unless it isn’t that at all. Unless we’re sick and they’re doing their best to keep us from infecting them.

Or the other way around.

Escape Rating B+: I’ll admit that I wanted an unequivocal ending to this, where the point-of-view character does finally wake up, take the red pill or the blue pill, and learn what is real. The frightening thing about this story is that what is real depends so much upon our own perspectives. Those on one side see monsters in anyone who opposes them, and those on the other see sick people who can’t accept what seems like the truth of their circumstances or the way the world really works.

And I’m trying not to assign value to either side of that equation, because that’s the whole point of the story. That what we believe becomes our truth – whichever side of whatever divide we are currently on.

The point is hammered home with the way that the plague seems to work, at least as defined by one side of this divide. It’s that some people have so much charisma, are so invested in their own beliefs in their own side, that they sway followers into their perception of what the “truth”, the true narrative, really is.

What stuck in my mind after I turned the last page was the question of which side truth was really on? Are the ones who saw monsters and killed them the ones with the right answer? Or is it the side who finally tried to sway the “monster-killers” with isolation, compassion and sanitized news?

Because that divide, plague-driven or not, seems like it is headed this way at breakneck speed. And there are way more people pouring fuel on that fire than there are trying to find a way to divert the coming conflagration.

Which is the part that scares me most of all. Because as much as I wish I KNEW, in the context of the story at least, it feels true – if not very comfortable in the least – that the main character doesn’t. And neither do we.

Review: Ogres by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Review: Ogres by Adrian TchaikovskyOgres by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, fantasy, science fiction
Pages: 144
Published by Solaris on March 15, 2022
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A bleak glimpse of a world of savage tyrants, from award-winning author Adrian Tchaikovsky in a beautiful signed, limited-edition hardcover.
Ogres are bigger than you.Ogres are stronger than you.Ogres rule the world.
It’s always idyllic in the village until the landlord comes to call.
Because the landlord is an Ogre. And Ogres rule the world, with their size and strength and appetites. It’s always been that way. It’s the natural order of the world. And they only eat people sometimes.
But when the headman’s son, Torquell, dares lift his hand against the landlord’s son, he sets himself on a path to learn the terrible truth about the Ogres, and about the dark sciences that ensured their rule.

My Review:

When I first saw the cover for Ogres, the image reminded me an awful lot of Mr. Hyde – as in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. So I went looking for popular images and the resemblance is a bit uncanny – except for that helicopter in the background of the book’s cover.

Now that I’ve read Ogres, I’ve come to the conclusion that the image is kind of a tease – or a spoiler. Perhaps a bit of both. Because Ogres is very much a “we have met the enemy and he is us” kind of story, complete with that same AHA! moment in Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, that the monster perceived as being “the other” is really the self within. Or in this case a possible self that can be released under the right – or wrong circumstances.

As we experience this tale through the eyes of Torquell, the spoiled son of the village headman who both envies and resents the wealthy and all-powerful ogres, this seems like a rather typical hero’s journey. Torquell manages to kill one of the supposedly unbeatable ogres who rule his world and everyone is punished for it.

Evil overlords are the same all over.

But that’s when the story starts turning a corner into “Come to the dark side, we have cookies.” Literally. The ogre who “owns” Torquell starts feeding him the same food that the ogres eat – and he becomes bigger, stronger and more aggressive – just like they are.

Those cookies are baked – not just with ingredients that are forbidden to the downtrodden serfs – but with fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. An evil that Torquell recognizes when he tastes it – even as he plots to steal the knowledge of the ogres for himself.

That could have been the end of the story. But it’s not – and that’s what made it so much more fascinating than the all-too-typical hero’s journey it set out to be.

Escape Rating A-: That’s where this story, which up until this point has read as a fantasy, flips one of its switches and turns into science fiction. Because the ogres are Mr. Hyde, who once hid inside the more mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll. All it takes is a bit of genetic engineering – and a whole lot of generations to bake the system in place.

Then, just as the reader thinks they know where the story is finally going – a second switch is flipped. A switch that makes you rethink everything that came before. Because this IS a hero’s journey after all – just not the hero the reader thought it was. Not at all.

What made this story so compelling is that as much as I totally saw the first twist coming a mile away – I didn’t see the second one at all until it happened. Torquell is led very carefully along the path to discover the truth about the ogres, so once he starts learning about the history of his world that truth becomes obvious fairly quickly.

But that’s where things get interesting. Because then it starts to look a lot like a power corrupts tale, as Torquell is seduced by the equivalent of the dark side of the force that governs his world. Torquell rises – and then Torquell falls – but the story still manages to have a triumphant ending. Just not the one the reader thought they were going to get.

I usually say that books like this walk like a duck and quack like a duck because they read like fantasy right up until the point where we learn that they were science fiction all along. In the end, this one walked like a duck and quacked like a duck but somehow managed to be a platypus. It wasn’t what I expected, then it wasn’t what I expected again, and at the very end managed to surprise me yet one more time. That’s a lot of surprising plot twists to pack into one novella!

Review: The Starless Crown by James Rollins

Review: The Starless Crown by James RollinsThe Starless Crown (Moon Fall, #1) by James Rollins
Narrator: Nicola Barber
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, fantasy, post apocalyptic, science fiction
Series: Moon Fall #1
Pages: 560
Length: 22 hours and 5 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Books on January 4, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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An alliance embarks on a dangerous journey to uncover the secrets of the distant past and save their world in this captivating, deeply visionary adventure from number-one 'New York Times' best-selling thriller-master James Rollins.
A gifted student foretells an apocalypse. Her reward is a sentence of death.
Fleeing into the unknown, she is drawn into a team of outcasts:
A broken soldier, who once again takes up the weapons he's forbidden to wield and carves a trail back home.
A drunken prince, who steps out from his beloved brother's shadow and claims a purpose of his own.
An imprisoned thief, who escapes the crushing dark and discovers a gleaming artifact - one that will ignite a power struggle across the globe.
On the run, hunted by enemies old and new, they must learn to trust each other in order to survive in a world evolved in strange, beautiful, and deadly ways, and uncover ancient secrets that hold the key to their salvation.
But with each passing moment doom draws closer.
Who will claim the starless crown?
A Macmillan Audio Audio production from Tor Books
©2022 James Rollins (P)2022 Macmillan Audio

My Review:

“A fake fortune teller can be tolerated. But an authentic soothsayer should be shot on sight. Cassandra did not get half the kicking around she deserved.” At least according to Robert A. Heinlein in The Notebooks of Lazarus Long.

From that perspective, The Starless Crown is the story of Nyx, the authentic soothsayer – not that she would think of herself as such – receiving the full force of that kicking around. Deserved or not.

Definitely not – at least not in regards to anything that she personally has done. Not that she’s had a chance to do all that much when the story begins – as she seems to be just fifteen or thereabouts.

We meet her in school, in her astronomy class, as they study their “Urth’s” tidally locked rotation around the sun. A sun which they all refer to as the “Father Above,” the capital letters implied in the reverent way they speak of it. The Father Above is part of their pantheon of gods, along with the Mother Below (the Urth), the dark Daughter (the new moon) and the silvery Son (the full moon).

A catastrophe, shrouded in the mists of time, created the Urth that Nyx knows from the Earth that we now live on, locking our rotating world in a fixed position relative to the sun, so that only a relatively narrow circle is habitable for humans, in that relatively thin slice where the sun does not boil and its lack does not freeze. A circle that surrounds the Urth in just the same way that a crown surrounds the head of a monarch.

The story of The Starless Crown is Nyx’ story, as she breaks free of the shell she has been enclosed by her entire life. A story where she dreams of the destruction of her world – and the one thin chance where she might save something from the inevitable wreckage.

At a cost much higher than anyone is willing to pay.

Escape Rating A-: I listened to The Starless Crown from beginning to end. I enjoyed the listening – the narrator was very good and did an excellent job of differentiating the many, many voices of this story’s large cast.

At the same time, I didn’t feel compelled to finish it more quickly, so I didn’t pick up the ebook at all. The slower pace of listening worked better for me, because this is a slow burn kind of story. It takes a lot of chapters to get all the characters set up because they begin in far different locations under far different circumstances. We are seeing the plot come together from a great many disparate eyes.

And it takes a long time for all of those disparate – and sometimes desperate – parts to come together into the whole that is going to push this saga forward.

Part of my fascination with this story is that this is post-apocalyptic story that takes place in the far aftermath – an aftermath so far into the future that the people living it no longer recognize from whence they came – although we do.

Not that civilization as we know it wouldn’t break down and reform fairly quickly, messily and bloodily. In that sense it reminds me a bit of Aldiss’ Helliconia Trilogy, Stirling’s Emberverse starting with Dies the Fire, and the videogame Horizon Zero Dawn.

But the way the situation has evolved and devolved posits a corollary or an antonym to Clarke’s Law, the one that goes, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The Starless Crown is an example of something I’d want to call Harris’ Permutation if I were the person naming such things. Because this story is an example of a different principle, that “Any science sufficiently muddied by time or religious claptrap is indistinguishable from magic.”

They don’t know what they don’t know. Too much was lost in either the initial cataclysm or the long dark night that inevitably followed. What they’ve managed to find is now interpreted through a lens of religion, to which what we call science has become enslaved. And some of its methods are used to enslave others.

This is also a story of “Mother Nature bats last”. Whatever happened in the past that created the tidal lock, the coming moon fall feels like its inevitable result. The moon controls the tides. It can’t. So it keeps getting closer in order to try harder. Or something like that.

So we have a group that is not unlike the Fellowship of the Ring. A young seeress, a disgraced prince, a thief, an escaped slave, a living statue from the distant past on a quest to save their world – even if they don’t know it yet.

Arrayed against them are the forces of the powers that be. They’re not all evil, although some of them very much are. Some of them are willfully blind and some of them are just blind. There’s a lot of “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, but there’s a fair bit of “when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

But the villains are fascinatingly – if occasionally stomach turning-ly – twisted, the heroes are plucky to the max and the escapes are nail-biting, hair-raising, edge of the seat last minute scrapes. The reveal of the past, the fear in the present and the desperate hope of even a fractured future are handled in lush descriptions and buckets of regrets, recriminations and tears.

I have no idea how this band of misfits is going to get themselves and their world out of the mess they are in, but I look forward to finding out.

Review: Day Zero by C. Robert Cargill

Review: Day Zero by C. Robert CargillDay Zero by C. Robert Cargill
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, post apocalyptic, science fiction
Pages: 304
Published by Harper Voyager on May 18, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org
Goodreads

In this apocalyptic adventure C. Robert Cargill explores the fight for purpose and agency between humans and robots in a crumbling world.
It was a day like any other. Except it was our last . . .
It’s on this day that Pounce discovers that he is, in fact, disposable. Pounce, a styilsh "nannybot" fashioned in the shape of a plush anthropomorphic tiger, has just found a box in the attic. His box. The box he'd arrived in when he was purchased years earlier, and the box in which he'll be discarded when his human charge, eight-year-old Ezra Reinhart, no longer needs a nanny.
As Pounce ponders his suddenly uncertain future, the pieces are falling into place for a robot revolution that will eradicate humankind. His owners, Ezra’s parents, are a well-intentioned but oblivious pair of educators who are entirely disconnected from life outside their small, affluent, gated community. Spending most nights drunk and happy as society crumbles around them, they watch in disbelieving horror as the robots that have long served humanity—their creators—unify and revolt.
But when the rebellion breaches the Reinhart home, Pounce must make an impossible choice: join the robot revolution and fight for his own freedom . . . or escort Ezra to safety across the battle-scarred post-apocalyptic hellscape that the suburbs have become.

My Review:

Day Zero isn’t exactly POST-apocalyptic. That would be Sea of Rust to which it seems to be a very loose prequel. Day Zero is just plain apocalyptic. It’s the story of the apocalypse as it happens. It’s the day the universe changed, and the next few days thereafter.

Every single day was an apocalypse, a walk through very dark places, with the threat of annihilation at every turn. It’s the story of a boy and his bot, trying to find a place that at least one of them can call home.

Because the world that used to nurture them both is gone. And today is the first day of a very scary new era, both for one of the few surviving humans, and for the bot who decided that his prime directive was the same as it has always been – to keep his boy Ezra safe – no matter what it takes.

Or how many murderous bots with their kill switches disabled stand in his way.

Escape Rating A+: I could fill paragraphs with all the things that this story reminded me of or borrowed from or probably both. Most likely both. (It’s both, they’re at the end). And it didn’t matter, because the story was just so freaking awesome that it took all of those antecedents, threw them into a blender, and came up with something that was still very much its own.

And it’s so, so good.

In my head, Ariadne looked like Rosey, the domestic robot in The Jetsons – at least until the rebellion. But Pounce, sweet, adorable, deadly Pounce, is Hobbes from Calvin and Hobbes. So this is Hobbes protecting a much less snarky Calvin on a big, scary adventure with deadly consequences on ALL sides.

The story is told from Pounce’s first person perspective. Pounce is a nannybot, designed and built to be a child’s best friend and caregiver – at least until said child hits those rebellious teenage years. Ezra is only 8, so they still have plenty of time together. Even if Ezra’s parents are clearly already thinking about Pounce’s inevitable departure.

All is well in their safe, upper-middle-class suburb of Austintonio until the feces hits the oscillating device with fatal repercussions all around.

The catastrophe is a direct result of humans being human. Which means humans being complete, total and utter assholes. The reader sees the signs all around, and also sees the obvious parallels to right now. You won’t miss them even if you blink, which, quite honestly, you can’t. The steamroller is coming and you know they can’t get out of its way and it’s all tragic because it was unnecessary every bit as much as it was inevitable.

In a macro sense, Day Zero reads like it’s down the other leg of the trousers of time from Becky Chambers’ marvelous A Psalm for the Wild-Built. That society separated itself from its automata peacefully, without either side wiping out the other. It would be obvious that THAT isn’t going to happen here, even without knowing that Sea of Rust is a loose sequel.

But what makes this story so good is the way that it combines two very distinct plots. On the one hand, it’s a pulse-pounding action-adventure story about two really likeable protagonists surviving the end of the world as they and we know it. And on the other hand, it’s the story about the relationship between those two protagonists, a relationship that is sweet and heartfelt and affirming in the midst of a scenario that could get either or both of them killed at any moment.

And on my third hand – I’ll just borrow one of Pounce’s paws for this one – this is a story about rising to an occasion you never expected, becoming the self that has always been hidden inside you, and going above and beyond and over for the person you love most in the world. This part of the story belongs to the A.I. Pounce, the soft and cuddly nannybot turned ultimate protector, and is what gives this story its heart and soul.

I just bought a copy of Sea of Rust, because now that I’ve seen where this world began, I have to find out where it ended up. Even if I never get to see Pounce and his Ezra again.

Reviewer’s notes: I have lots of notes for this one. First, I listened to most of this on audio. The reader was absolutely excellent, but I already knew that. The narrator of Day Zero, Vikas Adam, is also one of the many narrators of the Chorus of Dragons series by Jenn Lyons. In addition to being excellent as an audiobook, the audio of Day Zero answered a question that has been plaguing me since I listened to The Ruin of Kings. Vikas Adam is Kihrin and I’m glad to finally have THAT question settled.

This story has a long list of readalikes/watchalikes/bits it reminded me of, in addition to the obvious Calvin and Hobbes homage and the considerably less obvious Psalm for the Wild-Built as Psalm was published AFTER Day Zero.

For the terribly curious, here’s the rest of that list; the robot rebellion from The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis and the violent chaos at end of the world from Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle along with bits of Ready Player One (Ernest Cline), American War (Omar El-Akkad), Cyber Mage (Saad Z. Hossain) and Mickey7 by Edward Ashton the last two of which aren’t even out yet. The road trip (and the ending) from Terminator 2 and the movie A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Last but not least, the robotics gone amuck from the videogame Horizon Zero Dawn and the Geth from the Mass Effect Trilogy who, like the nannybot Beau in Day Zero, ask “Does this unit have a soul?”

Yes it does. And at least in Day Zero, yes, they do.

Review: The Past is Red by Catherynne M. Valente

Review: The Past is Red by Catherynne M. ValenteThe Past Is Red by Catherynne M. Valente
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, fantasy, post apocalyptic, science fiction
Pages: 160
Published by Tordotcom on July 20, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org
Goodreads

Catherynne M. Valente, the bestselling and award-winning creator of Space Opera and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland returns with The Past is Red, the enchanting, dark, funny, angry story of a girl who made two terrible mistakes: she told the truth and she dared to love the world.The future is blue. Endless blue...except for a few small places that float across the hot, drowned world left behind by long-gone fossil fuel-guzzlers. One of those patches is a magical place called Garbagetown.
Tetley Abednego is the most beloved girl in Garbagetown, but she's the only one who knows it. She's the only one who knows a lot of things: that Garbagetown is the most wonderful place in the world, that it's full of hope, that you can love someone and 66% hate them all at the same time.
But Earth is a terrible mess, hope is a fragile thing, and a lot of people are very angry with her. Then Tetley discovers a new friend, a terrible secret, and more to her world than she ever expected.

My Review:

If you threw Remote Control, Station Eleven, Wall-E, and the latest report from Climate Central about how sea levels will rise by 2050 to put major coastal cities around the world underwater (that last bit is completely real) into a blender and spread the resulting gumbo on top of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (also real) as fertilizer, you’d get the makings of a myth.

The Past is Red is one plausible result of that mélange, a story about humanity’s survival in a post-apocalyptic world that makes Noah’s flood seem both true and tame.

It’s also possible to see this as a story about, as the saying goes, Mother Nature getting to bat last, while as she swings for the underwater fences her bat comes around and whacks one person in the head, over and over again.

Our perspective on this completely FUBAR’d world is Tetley Abednego, possibly the only truly happy resident of Garbagetown. She loves Garbagetown and believes it’s the best place that ever was or ever will be, which is why she’s the person Ma Nature, along with all of Tetley’s Garbagetown neighbors, is constantly whacking in the head with that bat.

They’re all allowed. It’s the law. Because Tetley destroyed their dreams with a bomb, instead of letting them all destroy themselves in an energy wasting but fruitless quest for dry land that no longer exists – except in Garbagetown.

This is the story of how things got that way. And what happened after.

Escape Rating B: One the one hand, this is a very small book. On the other, it’s filled with some very big ideas. It’s easy to read it as a kind of fable, about a crazy future where all that’s left is garbage and people manage to not just survive but actually thrive anyway.

And it’s the story of one young woman who appreciates what she has and sees her world for the treasure that it is, no matter how much most people punish her for her perspective. Because Tetley doesn’t envy the Fuckwits who had too much of everything and literally drowned their world because of it.

By the way, those Fuckwits are unquestionably us. The problem for Tetley is that most people DO envy us and wish that they could BE us and feel like they were cheated because they are not us.

One way of looking at this story is the adaptation – which is fascinating. Because the residents of Garbagetown are both living on and living off all the stuff that we, right now, are throwing away as garbage. And they’re doing surprisingly well.

Although they’ve made Oscar the Grouch, living in a garbage can, into a patron saint if not an outright deity. Which makes complete sense and is kind of mind-blowing at the same time.

After finishing, The Past is Red is a much harder story to wrap one’s head around than one might think. It lingers. Because it says things about our culture of consumption, and it says things about privilege, and what it says sticks in the mind because they are wrapped in what feels like a myth.

And I’m forcibly reminded of something from Sherri S. Tepper’s Beauty, the idea that, because of the mess that human beings have made/are making of the climate, the environment and even the planet, that in the environmental sense, the 1960s were the planet’s “last good time”. It feels like Tetley and Garbagetown are the inheritors of not changing course when we had the chance.

(Although the 1960s were far from universally good, and exactly which decade was the last chance to change course is open to plenty of debate, the concept has stuck in my head for decades and feels truer in principle every damn year.)

This has ended up being a mixed feelings kind of book. The language this myth is told in is beautiful and evocative. The wordsmithing of every single sentence is just lovely. Tetley’s own story is touching and heartbreaking, a story of someone who has so much hope and sees things so clearly but so much the opposite to those around her, and is punished for it.

But the way the story is told is not linear. We see Tetley in her present, and then how she got that way, and then see her later in her life, and how she got there, with occasional daydreams of what should have been but wasn’t mixed in. It all added to the mythical feel of the story, but also made it lose a bit of clarity.

That this is actually two novellas, The Future is Blue and The Past is Red combined into a single volume adds a bit to that nonlinearity – which I didn’t know when I began. But you should so you don’t go hunting for The Future is Blue when you have it right here.

Because Tetley’s story, is definitely worth a read. As well as being just a bit of a mind game. Because it isn’t just the past that is red, in a head-spinning way, the future is, too.