Molly Crosses the Rainbow Bridge

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Here’s another sad memorial post. We’ve lost another member of the family. Molly sat at my sister’s doorstep for 17 years, which made her 119 in dog years. She lost a foot to a mower in her youth and didn’t walk well, so she stayed close and concentrated on becoming the world’s best watchdog. She was dearly beloved and we miss her a lot.

Molly

Review of The Furthest Station by Ben Aaronovitch

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This is a paranormal novella published by Gollancz in 2018. The story is set after the fifth but before the sixth novel in the author’s Peter Grant series. This review contains spoilers.

Commuters on the Metropolitan line are reporting strange encounters, oddly dressed people who seem to be trying to deliver a message. The travelers call police, but tend to forget the whole thing before response can get there. Sergeant Jaget Kumar calls Peter Grant, investigator for London’s Special Assessment Unit (a.k.a. the Folly). Peter brings along the unit’s summer intern, his teenaged niece Abigail, plus Toby the dog for the ghost hunting operation. Can they figure out the message and lay the ghost to rest? And what about that odd child that turned up part way through the investigation?

Good points: Aaronovitch creates very warm and engaging characters. His vision of London is diverse, and the police are actually concerned about your problems—we’re sure they’re going to take care of all those things that go bump in the night. Besides that, the narrative features a lot of dry humor, beginning with the name of Grant’s unit, and continuing along in like vein. The story is engaging and carries you to a satisfying conclusion that also sets up future installments of the series.

On the not so positive side, there nothing memorable here. It’s a warm, feel-good story without anything much in the way of depth or social commentary. The diversity itself is a kind of comment, of course, but like the humor, it’s understated. As someone who doesn’t follow this series, I’d liked to have a little more background on Abigail, who seems to be positioned in this installment for a future with the police.

Three and a half stars.

Review of John Wick, Chapter III: Parabellum

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I’m not sure you’d class this as speculative fiction, but we’ll go with that. It’s a neo-noir flick about a nebulous underground organization and features a lot of fight scenes. This follows the films John Wick (2014) and John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017). It’s directed by Chad Stahelski, and written by Derek Kolstad, Chris Collins, Shay Hatten and Marc Abrams. It stars Keanu Reeves as John Wick, Halle Berry as Sofia, Laurence Fishburne as the Bowery King, plus Mark Dacascos, Asia Kate Dillon, Lance Reddick, Anjelica Huston, and Ian McShane. Visual effects are provided by Method Studios, Image Engine and Soho VFX. This review contains spoilers.

Ex-hitman John Wick is the run after he is “excommunicated” by the High Table and a $14 million contract is put on his head. He goes from place to place asking for help, and is followed by a non-binary Adjudicator for the High Table, who extracts the organization’s vengeance on anyone who appears to have helped him. Wick calls on Sofia in Casablanca and she takes him to the desert where he meets an Elder who offers him a chance for reinstatement if he will kill Winston, manager of the Continental Hotel in New York City. Wick at first agrees, but then balks and makes a stand at the hotel. He and Winston prevail and Winston shoots him as a show of faith to the Adjudicator. Wick falls from the roof and is rescued by the Bowery King, who wants to start a war against the High Table.

There are three stand outs in this movie. The first, of course, is the fight choreography, as this is pretty much what happens, only briefly interrupted by conversations. Keanu Reeves seems to do most of his own stunt work, and Halle Berry gives is a serious try, which adds a lot to the authenticity. The action line and intensity escalate to the climax, followed by a slight twist when Wick gets shot. The second stand out is the visual style. Production moves to different venues as Wick looks for help, and as background, we’re treated to pouring rain, dark warehouses, pulsing nightclubs, desert dunes, and even a brief, atmospheric ballet performance. This artistry serves as a foil for the brutal fight scenes, and makes sure we have something to look at when they’re not fighting. The last stand out is the dogs. The film features Belgian Malinois, Belgian Shepherds and, of course, Wick’s pitbull, which he leaves with a dog sitter when things get brutal.

On the not so positive side, there’s nothing much but fight scenes here. Otherwise it’s pretty empty. Wick presents a lot of desperation and clings to memories of his dead wife and her puppy, but that doesn’t bring much to the film. The fight choreography was pretty decent, but eventually you catch people waiting to get hit or shot.

Three stars.

Review of Permafrost by Alistair Reynolds

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This is a novella published by Tor.com. It is hard science fiction and runs 176 pages. This review contains spoilers.

In 2080 an event called the Scouring started with the death of a few insect species, leading to a cascade of extinctions that eventually destroyed human food production. Seed banks have failed; most animal species have died out, and now humans are also facing extinction. A group of scientists establishes a base on the edge of the Arctic Circle in Russia, hoping to retrieve self-pollinating seeds from a research project in the past. They mean to implant half of a Luda pair in the brains of people in 2028 through MRI machines, and then install pilots from 2080 who can drive their bodies to successfully obtain and hide the seeds for retrieval in the future. One of the pilots drafted for the project is Valentina Lidova, whose mother was the mathematician who laid the groundwork for Luda pairs. Valentina successfully implants into the brain of a young woman named Tatiana, but very quickly the project starts to go wrong. Can the pilots and their subjects save humanity? What if they change history for the worse instead?

So, this is creative, character-driven, and also rates pretty high on the Ideation Scale. Plus, it’s also that rara avis, real, hard science fiction. I’ve reviewed a couple of Reynold’s books now, and I’m starting to think he’s going to be reliable for good, solid, character-driven SF stories. The idea of using particle pairs for time travel is real science. Einstein’s relativity and quantum states actually allows for this. Then Reynolds has created a crisis with particle pairs as the solution, plus sympathetic characters willing to stake their lives on carrying it out. These aren’t the usual story elements, either: the characters are Russian and Chinese and the protagonist Valentina is 70 years old and apparently in poor health. The action line starts with ugly events, clearly makes the point that this is a desperate situation, and the setting also contributes to the feel and atmosphere of the story, the Arctic base, the military presence and austerity recalling the Soviet Russia of the Cold War.

On the not so positive side, I didn’t connect very deeply with the characters. There were events here with a lot of heart that left me touched and impressed, but I didn’t get a good enough feel for the characters to carry the story into their future, for example. It could have been a little bit longer to allow for more of Valentina’s inner thoughts, desires and feelings, and something of what motivated the project director Cho. There are self-aware AIs here, too, that could have raised the stakes on sacrifice. I would have loved to have heard more from them.

Recommended. Four and a half stars.

Winston crosses the Rainbow Bridge

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This has been a really bad couple of years for our family pets. RIP sweet Winston. We’re all the better for knowing you.

Winstonsmall

Review of Barry’s Deal by Lawrence M. Schoen

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This novella is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It was published by NobleFusion Press, and is the fourth novella-length installment in the adventures of the hypnotist Conroy and his loyal buffalo dog Reggie. This review may contain spoilers.

Conroy and Reggie travel to a casino hotel on Triton with Conroy’s old friend, the gambler LeftJohn Mocker. Conroy is interested in an auction of Stonefish liqueur and Mocker is expecting to investigate allegations of cheating as an agent for the Probability Guild. The suspected cheater turns out to be Angela Colson, a young girl whose life Conroy saved a few years back, who has won $10 million from the casino. The auction turns out to be not exactly what it seems, which Conroy suspects. Can he unravel the mysteries, handle the auction and get Angela some legitimate work?

Good points: This work is strongly plotted and leans to potty humor. The characters are adequately rounded, and I’d probably be able to visualize a buffalo dog (aka buffalito) a little better if I’d read previous installments of the series. There’s a certain psychological element, as Conroy puts together clues to reveal the behind-the-scenes antics and tries to influence events.

Not so good points: This falls on the science fictions side, but there’s not really much in the way of SF here. All these events could have happened on Earth instead of Triton with just some minor adjustments in the story. Angela’s powers seem fairly magical, and the good guys were easy to separate from the bad guys right at the beginning. Because the work is so obviously plot-driven, I was expecting a definite twist ending, but it didn’t happen. All we got was Conroy’s revelation of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans and what he meant to do about them.

Three stars.

Review of Wrap Your Body in Time by David Neil Drews

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This is a first novel, self-published in October of 2017, and runs about 750 pages. David Drews is a Jewish writer and suffers from multiple identity disorder.

Arron has esophageal cancer. He has watched his dad die slowly of chemotherapy and makes the decision to refuse it. Instead, he sets out to really live in the time he’s got left, to exercise, to see the world, to enjoy friends and family—and to deal with the ghost of his abusive father. On the journey he meets his schizophrenic grandfather, finds a potential wife. Can Aaron defeat his own demons before he reaches the end of his road?

This is a pretty sweeping novel that chronicles the bout with cancer on the one hand, while providing human interest through absorbing characters on the other. It didn’t have much of a hook, but by chapter 2 when we got the cancer diagnosis, the book had hit its stride. There’s a touch of magical realism here, including chatty animals and the various ghosts that lurk about. There’s a sort of wry humor that runs through it, and a lot of play-by-play for sports fans.

Four and a half stars.

In Memoriam: Mattie K.

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Mattie

We had a death in the family yesterday. Please spare a thought to help lift her over the Rainbow Bridge and into heaven. RIP sweet Mattie.

When Is a Dog Not a Dog?

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Master Minds coverIt’s been a long time since the first wolf made the fateful decision to hang around a human’s campfire. It’s an odd decision when you look at it. After all, humans are more likely to be prey—especially the little ones who can’t run very fast. The benefits are obvious, of course—an easy life as a watchdog and a daily dinner of leftovers without the difficulty of hunting it down. Still, you have to wonder about that kind of vision shift.

The end result, of course, is the family pet we’re all familiar with. There are also working dogs, of course, the retrievers, hunters and herding dogs that are a little bit of a tougher fit for the family home. Dogs have about the intelligence level of a human two-year-old, but in the house they’re a little bit different from a human toddler. They don’t have hands, for one thing, and they have different responses based on their canine instincts.

There are always news stories about how scientists could increase human intelligence levels. Genetic engineering would be one possibility, or maybe connecting people digitally to the Internet. But what would happen if man’s best friend could be made more intelligent this same way? What if scientists could breed a dog that could think on a human level? Meet the working dog of the future.

“The Cabin” is a science fiction story (by me) about a dog that’s not quite a dog. Look for it in Master Minds, an anthology from Third Flatiron press, edited by Julianna Rew. The anthology is currently available in either electronic or print editions. Full disclosure: This is shameless self-promotion.

Third Flatiron website: http://www.thirdflatiron.com/liveSite/pages/current-issue
Juliana Rew on Twitter: @julirew

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