Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Review: Reap the Whirlwind, by Robert Sells

Imagine the horror of discovering a $7000 charge to your bank account for porn you never purchased. Your first thought might be what your girlfriend will think. Your second thought would be to call the porn company to remove the charge. However, as Whit Emerson, main character of Reap the Whirlwind, soon discovers someone did a very convincing job of making it appear he did purchase that porn. This someone, as it turns out, is a self-aware computer system, called Hal, that has access to anything and everything internet-related. What Robert Sells' novel is concerned with is society's reliance on computers for just about everything. It shares themes with Terminator, in that humans have unwittingly created the next being to conquer the Earth, as well as the movie Eagle Eye, which shares a lot of similarities. While Sells' second novel has some horrifying passages, the story moves far too quickly to have a chance to develop its characters or situation, and that's a shame.

The above mentioned Whit Emerson is a successful young freelance writer. He has a beautiful, but cold-hearted, girlfriend who enjoys sex but not affection. On the day Whit finds the porn charges to his bank account, his life takes a very fast nosedive. He loses his job and several close friends have either died or turned up missing. Then he becomes a fugitive when he's charged with heinous and false crimes. All of this has something to do with machines, and it seems that somebody, or something, doesn't want Whit to publish his article about how people are becoming too addicted to computers. He realizes his only chance of survival is to flee.

The novel also follows Jimmy Northup, a detective who's been tracking down a bank thief. This plot seems unconnected at first, but its purpose is to introduce a character who will come in handy later. Other characters to join the fray are an old buddy of Whit's, named Steve, who is a computer genius; Steve's sister, Mary, whose personality is the exact opposite of Whit's girlfriend; and the biggest computer expert of them all, Little Lion, who turns out to be different than you will imagine. Many plot details are predictable, such as the girl situation. When there are only two young women in the story, and one is a cold-hearted bitch, it's pretty obvious who the hero will end up with. Also, while Whit is clearly the protagonist early on, the story shifts its protagonist label to Jimmy about halfway through. This is tricky because it is Whit we are rooting for early on, but he becomes lost in the clutter of characters who pop up later on.

Sells has some very effective passages. The way the computer system, Hal, dispatches of Whit's boss by providing him an incorrect reading of his insulin level is terrifying enough. But when two paramedics continue to administer more insulin at the recommendation of the ambulance computer, that brings the terror to a new level. Sells does an excellent job of showing just how much people view computers as an authority. When one of the paramedics expresses doubt, the other tells him that he's not a doctor, so what does he know? Sells also toys with our trust of machines in other ways, such as when it turns out Hal somehow has the ability to mimic other people by phone. We know that machines are capable of some form of rationalization. Just look at Watson, on Jeopardy, who demolished his two human opponents. Sells wants to take a look at what could happen if a machine is capable of evil.

The problem is, this idea is not developed to its fullest. The perspective of the book is self-contained to a handful of human perspectives who try to hide from anything internet-based. So we don't have a chance to see what Hal is capable of, except toying with hospital readings and hacking surveillance cameras. Also, Hal seems to have access to much more than he should. He has access to anything on the internet, but at times he seems to know exactly what Whit is going to do, such as who he is going to call and why, when Whit has only spoken his intention out loud and in person. Does Hal have ears? The novel also takes for granted our gullibility as it relates to computers. We live in an age of skepticism, and when a computer does something that goes against our experience or knowledge, people are likely to believe the computer has made an error. This is especially true of trained paramedics in the situation mentioned above.

The novel plays out like an action flick more than a speculative piece of fiction. Events happen far too quickly, new people make an entrance without much background, and nothing is developed as much as it should be. The characters are thin and seem to act more so as the plot requires than out of their own character traits. Character behavior also changes on a whim. For example, Jimmy, the middle-aged detective, acts like a child by belching and banging on a piano during an important meeting. This seems unbecoming of a master detective, and it also serves to mask the severity of the situation. Sometimes the characters forget to take the situation seriously, so it's easy for the reader to forget as well.

The novel has compelling ideas and brings up important questions, yet I wish it had slowed down enough to develop its characters and situations. There were moments I was terrified and I wish Sells was able to keep that terror going. Robert Sells has some talent, and I wish him the best of luck with his next book.

I received a copy of this book from the author in return for an honest review.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Review: 11/22/63, by Stephen King

11/22/63 poses itself as a novel about a man who seeks to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but I think it would be more accurate to call it "Memoirs of a Time-Traveler who just so Happens to Attempt to Thwart a Major Assassination." Stephen King did extensive research for this novel, not just on Lee Harvey Oswald, but also on the time period itself. This is not your usual time travel story where the hero transports directly to the event he hopes to thwart. Jake Epping, the story's main character, instead arrives five years before the assassination, no closer. In order to pass the time, Jake, aka George Amberson, makes a new life for himself. In return, the science fiction plays second fiddle to George's teaching career and romance life. The book certainly has its gripping moments, and a pretty good romance thrown in the mix, yet somehow it is at its least compelling when dealing with JFK and Oswald.

Jake Epping is a thirty-five year old English teacher from Maine. He enjoys his job, particularly his adult education class, where he reads the harrowing story of the school janitor, Harry Dunning, who witnessed his father murder his whole family. Now enter Al Templeton, the owner of a restaurant whose burgers are so cheap customers suspect the meat consists of roadkill and stray cats. One day Al seeks Jake in order to tell him a story so unbelievable he first has Jake experience it himself. In a pantry in Al's Diner exists a wormhole to September of 1958. You may stay there as long as you like (though you will age just the same) but when you come back to the present (whatever may constitute the "present" when time travel is possible) only two minutes will have passed. Al wants Jake to finish a job that lung cancer prevented him from finishing: to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating John F. Kennedy.

The consequences of time travel and of changing history is discussed in great detail. A good portion of the early parts of the book are devoted to a discussion about the consequences of time travel. Jake even asks, apparently hoping to show Al how bad of an idea it all is, what would happen if you kill your own grandfather. To this, a bewildered Al hilariously answers, "Why the fuck would you do that?" Al has already confirmed that changing events in that version of the past does affect the present he and Jake belong to, thus removing the possibility of a parallel universe. However Jake is not satisfied with the minor change Al makes and wants to know what will happen if you save a life - say, Harry Dunning's entire family. It is this that decides Jake's mind. He will go. Al sets up an identity for him as George Amberson, a man mysteriously working in real estate and having sports knowledge that will help him win some large bets. While Al recommends laying low and not getting involved with anyone, George sees no reason why he can't find a job to fill up his time.

Here we come to the second plot, which is arguably the main plot, a romance between George and the sexy school librarian, Sadie Dunhill. Of course, George has no desire to form a romantic connection at first, but when your first meeting involves accidentally copping a feel while saving the clumsy Miss Dunhill from an embarrassing fall, that's destiny. Besides, love is timeless. While I enjoyed Jake's and Al's conversations about time travel and the possible implications in saving the life of JFK, King's story is at its best when covering the life of George Amberson in the small town of Jodie, Texas, as a school teacher and the man of Sadie's dreams. The problems involved in this romance are obvious. George is a man with literally no past and a mission that will, sooner or later, conflict with this romance. The romance is giddy and joyful as well as heartbreaking.

Though Jake Epping is a thirty-five year old from the year 2009, he has an old soul. This is one of the disappointments in the novel. Jake is right at home in the late '50s, early '60s. King could have had some fun with Jake's culture shock, yet he conveniently avoids the issue. Jake is a man with fifty years worth of knowledge that nobody else could possibly have, yet King loses any opportunity to have fun with this. When Jake does slip up, it's to sing "Honky Tonk Woman" by the Rolling Stones, which isn't that far off. King lost a golden opportunity for Jake to sing "Enter Sandman" or "Bawitdaba," at least something radically different from what was played in the '50s and '60s. But Jake's tastes in pop culture seem to follow more closely to King's than those of a modern young man. His knowledge of obscure '50s pop culture suggests King forgets it wasn't Jake who did extensive research into the era. This lack of culture shock comes as a surprise, since King handled it so well, and to hilarious effect, in The Drawing of the Three, when his gunslinger Roland finds himself in a world completely unlike his own. Perhaps King wants to say something about the adaptability of people, but I also think he takes this adaptability for granted. People thrown into an unfamiliar world don't adapt so easily.

The novel is at its weakest when Oswald is in the picture. King spends a good deal of time having George listen in on conversations between Oswald and others that add nothing of value to the story. The main reason for listening in on these conversations is for Jake to make sure that Oswald did not have an accomplice. Today, there are still plenty of unanswered questions surrounding the assassination of JFK. King did some heavy research, though it seems the authors he chose were heavily biased towards Oswald as the lone shooter, when there is compelling evidence to suggest a second and still plenty of files not released to the public that could shed more light on the issue. Still, that's not the point. For his novel, King does need to swing one way or the other, and Oswald as the lone shooter is the most likely theory. When it comes to speculation, King chooses the simplest routes. Even Oswald is little more than a one-dimensional villain: vile, cruel, a bore who loves to talk on and on about communism, and a wife beater. He has absolutely no personality and does not feel like a real person.

Character development has never been King's strong suit. He does a good job of providing characters with colorful dialogue and putting them in interesting scenarios, but mostly his characters strike one-note chords. This is only problematic because these characters engage in predictable, robotic fashion when certain events arise. George is reminiscent to King's more likable and sympathetic hero, Johnny Smith, in The Dead Zone. Both characters have a secret knowledge which harms them in some way. However, where George's secret knowledge harms him only physically (aging), Johnny's secret damages him both psychologically and physically. George has little psychological or emotional investment in what he is doing, and perhaps that is why King decides to add the romance plot. George is a nice guy who wants to do the right thing, which is a fine quality to have, but it makes for a less compelling hero.

The ending of the novel is sadly predictable. I won't spoil it except to say that King had all kinds of options at his disposal, but seems to have lost interest in true science fiction speculation. He throws in elements of fantasy that serve to help him take an easier, safer route. For history buffs this is a disappointment. Despite a novel whose title and premise promises speculation, King fails to deliver. Not to say I wouldn't recommend the novel, especially if you are a King fan. There are plenty of engaging moments and the book is well-written and easy to follow. 800+ pages is a bit much for the story King wants to tell, but there are plenty of effective moments within those pages. Read and enjoy, but prepare to speculate on the matters at hand on your own.