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Saturday, July 7, 2018

There Are Three Kinds of People in the World (Review of Robert Sawyer's Quantum Night)

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS. "There are two kinds of people in the world," runs the old joke, "those who divide people into two kinds, and those who don't." For Robert Sawyer, in his 2016 science fiction novel Quantum Night, the human race, like Caesar's Gaul, may be divided into three parts: "P-zeds," David Chalmers's philosopher's zombies, who are thoughtless drones who go through life without sentient awareness and comprise four billion of the world's seven billion people; two billion psychopaths; and one billion folks with both consciousness and conscience.
Sawyer calls himself an optimist and this is an optimistic novel because a technological solution having to do with quantum mechanics is proposed for the world's Psychopath Problem. The book is also a page-turning thriller that I finished in two days, its hero a utilitarian philosopher at the University of Manitoba named James Marchuk who discovers that as a college student nineteen years ago, he committed terrible acts as a result of brain damage from an unethical experiment conducted by a man he admired, a psychology professor named Menno Warkentin, who in a heavy-handed bit of symbolism is both religious and blind. As Marchuk explores his past and reconnects with forgotten old flame Kayla Huron, who just happens to be a cutting-edge quantum physicist, the world hurtles toward catastrophe under the leadership of psychopaths, and it is up to these oddball academics to save it.
I highly recommend this novel as the best kind of exciting and thought-provoking science fiction. This is despite serious philosophical differences. I would concede, broadly speaking, to the proposed breakdown of humanity into more than half thoughtless followers, enormous numbers of psychopaths, and smaller numbers of thinking people with consciences. However, I do not agree that these are fixed categories that are as sharply defined as electron valences. People are much more complex than that, though the "pure evil" of psychopaths certainly exists, as does altruistic good. I do not agree with labeling the majority of the human race non-sentient, literally thoughtless. This lets mass man or "the mob" off the hook far too easily. Nor do I concur with the implied mechanistic view of human nature, nor with the possibly tongue-in-cheek universal brainwashing at the climax of the novel. Moreover I hold no brief for the doctrine of utilitarianism, especially the repellent credo of Peter Singer cited here.
Still, it's no secret that our world is in desperate trouble, and getting people thinking about these issues is a public service.
Five "Phoboses"

Friday, June 29, 2018

Our Feathered Friend, T. Rex, And Other Shockers

If you think you learned everything worth knowing about dinosaurs when you had that unit in fourth grade, have I got a surprise for you.
Steve Brusatte's The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World is full of shockers about the way dinosaurs are understood. The past generation has seen myriad new species discovered and major changes in the scientific understanding of these beings that ruled the Earth for over 100 million years, changes that pop culture hasn't begun to comprehend. Even if you are somewhat better informed than average, you will find yourself astounded by such discoveries as that many or even most of the dinosaurs were feathered (including T. Rex!), warm blooded, fast-moving, and relatively intelligent.
Oh, and not only are birds true-blue dinosaurs, they belong to the same group, the theropods, as T. Rex, allosaurus, and many of the other most fearsome dinosaur predators. I challenge your imagination NOT to be stirred by the thought of that relationship, or of how alien the Earth was when dinosaurs first evolved and all the land in the world was lumped together in one giant continent.
Accompanied by gorgeous illustrations and Brusatte's infectiously vigorous prose, this book is a must-have for anyone who has ever wondered what life was like before that asteroid put an end to the real Good Old Days. Five "Phoboses"

Class Dividers (Review of Nancy Isenberg's White Trash)

After reading Nancy Isenberg's thorough, and thoroughly depressing, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, one can only reflect glumly that if the American elite had spent a quarter as much energy trying to eliminate poverty as they did thinking up insulting terms for poor people, we'd be living in a much better country today.
The book rose to prominence in the wake of Donald Trump's election, as if it were a Rosetta Stone for decoding the meaning of that event. Yet using class as a monocausal explanation for any such historical event is questionable, and the importance of the "white working class" in particular in electing Trump has been hotly debated since 2016. Sales of White Trash were undoubtedly boosted by this link, but this book would be an important one no matter who was elected president in 2016.
The title is slightly misleading because the book is not a complete exploration of America's class structure, but rather of the triangular relationship between elite white people, poor whites, and African Americans, and how this influences national politics. Isenberg comes as a mythbuster determined to destroy the legend of the American dream and equal opportunity for all, which is rather like exploding stationary clay pigeons once the evidence is marshaled. Certainly no student of American politics can fail to see all sorts of connections between the public image of a contemporary figure like Sarah Palin and all kinds of half-remembered figures Isenberg discusses, from Davy Crockett to Billy Carter.
I'm left with two major questions. On Isenberg's evidence, it's little better than wishful thinking to associate American founders such as Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson with the ideal of social equality. But is the persistence of this ideal in American politics and government only a hollow hypocrisy meant to legitimate the position of the elites? If so, why has it attracted such passionate devotion in America and around the world in the past two-and-a-half centuries?
The other issue, perhaps less important, has to do with the views Isenberg herself holds of poor whites. Are they merely victims of the white elites? Patsies who are willing to oppress their black brothers and sisters in exchange for not challenging the position of their white "superiors"? People with their own culture and history who accordingly deserve respect? It's puzzling to complete a major work such as this and be left with little idea of what the author thinks about its putative subject.

Five "Phoboses"

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Free Copy of "Day of Atonement"

My publisher, Silver Leaf Books, is running a promotion where the e-book of Book 3 of the "Days of Ascension" series, Day of Atonement is free, until Wednesday, June 27.

Martin Berman-Gorvine

Friday, June 8, 2018

Meet Some Murderous Chicks!

At this point in the history of our culture, no one should need to be reminded that girls can be as amoral as boys, but the three short stories in the mini-collection Mean Streaks: Three Short Mysteries, by Kimberly G. Giarratano, provide that reminder anyway. The best is the last and longest story, "Peach Party Dress," a classic murder-mystery setup with a closed cast of characters at a house party, updated to feature some truly awful teenagers and lots of heedless sex. My favorite quote: "He’s got that devil-may-care attitude in that he doesn’t give a shit about anyone but himself."
Five "Phoboses"

Thursday, June 7, 2018

A Read Vital to the Survival of Our World

Daniel Ellsberg, who ought to be a hero to all Americans for his role in exposing the lies that led to the catastrophe of the Vietnam War, presents his insider's knowledge of an infinitely greater catastrophe that has been waiting to happen for the better part of a century: global nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia--in The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.

Ellsberg rightly calls the nuclear arsenals possessed by our two countries a dual Doomsday Machine that would lead to the extinction of all or nearly all human and animal life on Earth if ever put into operation--and he points out that the U.S. has used nuclear blackmail dozens of times since the atom bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Don't imagine, either, that the danger has gone away in the twenty-five years since the Cold War ended.

I will never forget how almost thirty years ago my late grandfather, a World War II veteran, told me the civil disobedience of the Berrigan brothers against America's nuclear arsenal was justified. We the people must put an end to this madness, before it puts an end to us.

5 "Phoboses"

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Exciting Adventures Through Interdimensional Doors (Review of Ariele Sieling's All In)

My faithful readers know I am a sucker for a good portal story, having written a few myself, so I am thrilled to stumble across a new series based on such a premise, Ariele Sieling's "The Sagittan Chronicles."
All In is the prequel, and a gripping one it is, too, a fun yarn involving flawed yet attractive protagonists Quin Black and Jo Nash. Quin's job is to explore unauthorized "Doors," portals to other worlds that the government of Pomegranate City has declared illegal and confiscated. But Quin is compromised by a weakness for illegal gambling, and when he rescues Jo, the daughter of the organized crime boss who runs his favorite gambling den but yearns to study horticulture, they both find themselves in a mess of trouble.
It is a little jarring that the setting of Pomegranate City seems thoroughly American contemporary although it is on a distant planet in (presumably) the far future, as if the series can't decide whether it wants to be straight-up sci-fi or urban fantasy. But that quibble aside, it's been a while since I enjoyed a story this much. Also, I'm dying to know whether the rest of the series reveals what a "fudge lizard" is!
Rating: 5 Phoboses

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Join Me at Balticon!

Come one, come all, and join me at Balticon this weekend for a launch party for my new horror novel, Day of Atonement! Also I'm on lots of fun panels. Here is my schedule:
Location: The Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel, 202 East Pratt Street, Baltimore

Friday, May 25, 9pm
Panel: Post-Apocalyptic Fiction
Guilford room

Saturday, May 26, 10am
Panel: Alternate History Worldbuilding: Not Just Evil Goatees
Club Lounge

12pm: Reading from my novel
St. George room

2pm: Autographing my books
5th Floor Lobby

5pm: Book Launch party: Day of Atonement
Club Lounge

Sunday, May 27, 11am
Panel: Jews In Space: Jewish SF On and Off The Page
Guilford room

7pm: Panel: Fictional Works of Fiction
Guilford room

9pm: Panel: How Contemporary Fears Shape Apocalyptic Fiction
Guilford room

Monday, May 28, 2pm
Workshop: Writing Intriguing Characters
Mount Washington room

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

My Horror Jaunts Around the Web!

Get a taste of two of the main characters from my new horror novel Day of Atonement, Amos and Vickie, which Meghan Shena Hyden (@Raiyine on Twitter) was kind enough to host on her fabulous blog. And check out my essay on "Horror and Religion" on The Scary Reviews. Preorder the paperback, out 7/3/18.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

This Is Art, Friends (Review of Meg Eden's Post-High School Reality Quest)

Post-High School Reality Quest is a coming-of-age story that takes place among the geek-video gamer set in suburban Maryland circa 2010. The conceit is that it is written in the form of a 1980's era "text adventure," a dialogue between a sarcastic narrator and the main character, Elizabeth-alias-Buffy, or more likely a dialogue between different aspects of her own personality. (Non-gamers, like me, should look past the occasionally off putting jargon.) We are given to understand in flash-forwards that the heroine has suffered a nervous breakdown and is now a psychiatric inpatient reliving the disastrous events of her high school graduation and freshman year in college.
There are many flashes of wit in this story, but what comes through is an overwhelming sadness. You can't help feeling sorry for the characters, who despite being academically gifted can only express themselves in an emotional pidgin shaped entirely by video games, TV shows, Internet memes, and other trashy pop-cultural influences. Their capacity for friendship, let alone love, has been pixilated. The text-adventure conceit is a telling one because in such games the player can only enter pidgin commands, e.g. "out" for "go outside." Buffy keeps making "choices" that supposedly get her killed, only to be "resurrected" at a point a few minutes earlier, with the game proceeding relentlessly onward while her life just gets worse and worse. The choices she makes are no choices; her free will is a bad joke that is lost on her. You might think there would be a limit on the pathos such an emotionally stunted character could inspire, but not in author Meg Eden's hands. This is art, friends.

Rating: 5 Phoboses