Theodore Sturgeon’s The Dreaming Jewels

“They caught the kid doing something disgusting out under the bleachers at the high school stadium, and he was sent home from the grammar school across the street. He was eight years old then. He’d been doing it for years.”

Couldn’t resist starting the review with that first line! It’s one of my favorites, along with the first line of 1984.

No, despite what lurid conclusions many modern readers may leap, nay, pole vault into, Horty was caught eating ants. The primary story arc begins as Horty flees his adoptive parents’ house, taking only a handmade jack-in-the-box called Junky1, after the husband smashes Horty’s hand in a door frame, severing three fingers. (The Bluetts took him in rather as a publicity stunt during the husband’s failed run for office.) With more luck than he realizes, Horty is taken in by carnies, members of the sideshows of Pierre Monetre’s traveling circus. One of the midgets, Zena, takes him under her wing, and he travels with them for ten years, posing as Zena’s kid cousin2.

In this first portion of the book, there are clearly dark elements largely pertaining to Monetre’s antipathy to humans, but we have to wait until about halfway through the book to learn the underlying cause: on this planet, there are thousands, perhaps millions of alien lifeforms, which resemble, at least to humans’ limited perception, clear crystals. These ‘jewels’ dream, and when a single jewel dreams, it creates a duplicate of a living thing, flawed to varying degrees: a tree that is stunted, a cat with two legs, a man with no limbs or sweatglands…a midget. When two jewels mate, their combined dream pervades a living creature, and recreates it as something more than what it ought to be. Monetre has traveled the country, collecting ‘one jewel’ creatures, and planting plagues and infestations throughout, seeded by a jewel; he is constantly searching for a two-jewel human which he can control to wreak vengeance on humanity.


Well, it would have been Horty if Zena hadn’t gotten to him first.

Outdated a bit—how many carnivals are there today of the sort Sturgeon is describing? Stilted, more than slightly; the characters seem to spend most of the last third of the book explaining things to one another about the jewels, and as an editor and librarian, I lost track of the number of places I’d flag as “Show, don’t tell.” And yet I keep reading it! Because Sturgeon is arguably in the top 20% of science fiction writers—I’m not committing myself to higher than that because (and I’ll be the first to admit this) quite simply…tastes vary. But the characters are memorable, though the backstory of the jewels is a bit awkward, due to all that ‘telling’ I mentioned. Coming back to it again, I can feel the clamminess of Armand Bluett’s hands, recoil at Monetre’s venom.

As for what to read next, I’m going to assume you’ve come to Sturgeon after having read the Classic Three Authors, Heinlein, Clark and Asimov. Not necessarily liking them, mind—as I mentioned above, tastes vary—but that you’re at least familiar with them. Once you’ve worked your way through Sturgeon’s work—he wrote quite a bit—try Bradbury, and Henry Kuttner/C.L. Moore, both singly and in combination.

Oh, and the ants? The process of being altered by a pair of mated jewels creates a craving for formic acid.

1Keep an eye on that jack-in-the-box.
2Bear with Sturgeon; he does explain both how a boy can pose as a woman for ten years and why Horty was eating ants in the first place.

Ashfall by Mike Mullin

Alex is preparing to enjoy a weekend alone. All by himself. Without his pesky little sister. His parents have decided he’s old enough to stay by himself while they drive off a few towns over in Iowa to visit relatives.

Unfortunately this is the weekend that the volcano underlying the caldera that we know as Yellowstone Park decides to release some pent-up tension, thus distributing several inches to several feet of ash across the majority of the United States.

Alex sets out to find his family, gone to a neighboring town that’s close enough if you’re able to drive, and a long hike in ideal circumstances. But cars can’t function with all the ash in the air, and the mix of ash and snow on the ground makes walking unfeasible. He slogs along on foot for a few miles, before he rigs himself a pair of skis, and traverses this newly transformed alien society, meeting a range of people. Some organized. Some scrabbling helplessly on their own. Some cruel. Some humane.

…and I’ll stop there, except to say that while the ending is not wholly bleak and inconclusive—he doesn’t find his parents and sister, but he does find a safe refuge, which welcomes the capable Darla on the pair’s own terms—it’s clearly a setup for a sequel or two.

I have to admit this was one of my favorite post-apocalypse books yet.

Mullin picked a more-or-less plausible trigger for the apocalypse. Yellowstone is a long-dormant but still-active volcano; hence all the pretty geysers splurting about. Its caldera is so huge that for decades and centuries, we’ve thought it was just a really wide indentation. He also thought through the physical effects of that much ash being dumped, with cataclysmic rapidity, into the upper atmosphere.

Anything with an internal combustion engine will cease functioning with appalling rapidity. Anyone who remembers driving through the ash cloud after Mount St. Helens erupted can attest to the effect that even a comparatively small amount of volcanic ash has on automobile engines, though in fairness to the likely readers, this is something that even their parents might be too young to remember.

The ash cloud’s effect on food crops and animals is also plausible. Plants can’t grow since the clouds block the sun permanently—no photosynthesis, not to mention the precipitous drop in temperature plays merry bleep with their ability to grow at all. Animals start getting silicosis as the ash erodes their lungs. Kale is the only plant that survives, and that only if the people are fortunate enough to have a greenhouse. (But I’ll stop there to avoid including spoilers in the review.) The absence of plants means the onset of something we haven’t seen since the advent of reliable canning: scurvy. I’m not entirely convinced that it’d get to the stage Mullin describes as rapidly as he describes it; he is, however, correct that it’s swifter than we might think, especially if the person’s diet hasn’t been great pre-apocalypse. Though I’ll draw a veil over the survivors’ solution again to avoid spoilers, I have to admit I think it’s an ingenious one.

I really liked how Mullin handled the relationship between Alex and Darla. (sorry. yes: that is slightly spoilerish) Darla’s not a screamer: she’s a tough survivor who has considerable mechanical ability.

I wasn’t too crazy about the FEMA camp; its corruption and pettiness is in disconcertingly stark contrast to the more plausible range of human reactions. It’s only a couple of months since the volcano erupted. I know we’re on more of a knife-edge, in terms of actual food supplies, at any given moment than most people realize. Also, there’s an issue of transportation: cars only go a few miles before the engines choke with ash. Rather, the rest of the book seems so well thought out, and so well realized, that stumbling into that morass struck me as a more than slightly unsubtle social commentary on the Woez and Ebils of Big Gummint. Especially since the local and municipal governments seem to manage to arrange things more peaceably and equably.

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

Now before anyone gets excited, no: this book has nothing to do with Fifty Shades of Grey. I’m also going to apologize for what may be a somewhat confusing review; the book has the same lightning jumping from detail to detail of Fforde’s Thursday Next series, but is much denser. Other science fiction writers would do well to take a look at the amount of world-building included here!

The basic plot device is a post-catastrophe dystopia, in which people can see only one naturally occurring color1, and society is stratified according to the color one can see through the visible light spectrum, from purple and ultraviolet at the top to Red at the bottom, with the completely color-blind, or “Greys”, in a sub-class. Some five centuries before the events in Shades of Grey, an event occurred to which the society refers simply as “Something that Happened”, and the people who lived at the time are called the “Previous”. The government controls information with “deFacting” and technology with “LeapBacking”; curiously spoons are in short supply to the point that those lucky enough to have this utensil get only one for their lifetime, and that one is marked with their barcode.

Shadows of Orwell, as the government of Shades of Grey has enacted rules governing even so fine a detail as how men’s ties are knotted and the line of women’s skirts. Transportation is by steam locomotive drawn trains. Houses are timbered and plastered. Lighting is by mirrors reflecting down into the house. Shades (forgive the pun!) of Brave New World, as there’s more than a few hints that people in the world of Shades of Grey are not quite as we, the readers, are. Just a touch of Flatland, with the genetic heritability of color vision and the blending of two visual capabilities to produce a range of colors and positioning along the saturation spectrum. In addition to the limitation on what colors are visible, we find out partway through the book that the residents of this future England have limited night vision; they cannot see the stars at night and the moon is barely visible. Given Fforde’s convolutedly whimsical writing style, his future comes across as simply amusing, at least until you stop to think about it.

Eddie Russett has been sent from Jade-under-Lime, in the well-mannered and -ordered center of the new society, out to East Carmine in the fringes, for a variety of reasons, not least because he lacks humility. The Powers that Be have decided he must do a Chair Census in the area, as the residents may be falling below the requisite 1.8 chairs per resident. His father is serving as holiday substitute for the town’s Swatchman, the society’s equivalent to a doctor using colors rather than drugs for treatment; his predecessor, Ochre, officially died of the Mildew (pretty much exactly what it sounds like), but scuttlebutt has it that he was fatally selfmisdiagnosed.

There are the usual problems ensuing from settling into a new house in any new environment, getting to know your neighbors and the local real power stratification. Additionally, there is an Apocryphal living in their house. The Rules, though extensive and all-controlling, do not cover everything; the only solution to things not covered in the Rules is pretend the thing not covered isn’t there…meaning the Apocryphal has the protection of false invisibility to do what he pleases. Eddie, though hoping he’ll get a good score on his Ishihara test, in this world a method of testing precisely where the young person falls on the color vision spectrum and thus their place in society, and return to his beloved Connie Oxblood, heiress to a string factory, finds himself sucked ever deeper into the world of his servant, Jane Grey.

I’ll stop there before I confuse the people who aren’t going to read this, and before I inadvertently include spoilers for the people who will.

Unlike The Eyre Affair, this is clearly intended to have sequels; the book begins with Our Protagonist in a thoroughly untenable position, but ends with his safe return to East Carmine—while it’s possible Fforde’s enough of a money maker that his publisher’s willing to skip the editing process entirely, I’d hope that he was too conscientious a writer to commit such a flub…or it’s a hook for sequels, in other words. Unlike The Eyre Affair, sequels have been slow to follow; there’s a prequel slated (sorry! but I had to include the pun) for 2015, but two years in the life of a writer is a long time. In fairness to Fforde, however, I as a reader and a fan would much rather he took his time over novels than forced an inspiration that does not exist. That’s the surest way to lose me—I can think of several authors who should have stopped several novels earlier in their series….Fforde included.

The Guardian
Los Angeles Times

1artificial dyes are visible to those not of your own color-class

Necklace of Kisses by Francesca Lia Block

Twenty years later…how many fairy tales have the nerve to return to their protagonists so many years after that first flush of magic, dreams and romance? Overall, this strikes me as the ideal book for Valentine’s Day, if you’re in a dreamy state of mind.

Weetzie Bat and her Secret Agent Lover Man have been together for twenty years and then some, and frankly both are having what the less charitable among us would call a mid-life crisis, both as to their own lives and futures and the futures of their life together. Weetzie and Max are no longer living with Duck-and-Dirk in the magical cottage left to them by Dirk’s grandmother Fifi. Ping and Valentine Jah-Love are drifting away physically, though Ping and Weetzie are running a vintage clothing shop together. Even Cherokee and Witch Baby have grown up and away and begun the separation from birth family into their own adulthood as the two girls begin college.

As the book begins, Weetzie packs up an overnight bag with a few select outfits, her favorites from the shop and from her life, and checks into the ‘Pink Motel’. (What else in the candy floss fairy land of Weetzie’s and Lia’s Shangri-L.A.?) For Weetzie, this hotel holds special meaning, as it’s where her high school prom was held, and where she met the boy who might have been her Certain Special Someone; she can’t help but wonder whether he was truly The One For Her, now that all the kisses have gone out of her relationship with Max, her Secret Agent Lover Man given her by the genie in Fifi’s magic lamp.

It’s as magical as we might expect from a sequel in the Weetzie Bat series. The desk clerk is blue. The housekeeper is invisible, having learned that art as the ultimate protective camouflage in El Salvador. The room service waiter is a faun…and the guests are equally strange, from the supernatural and mythical—a mermaid, forest sprites, tree spirits—to the mundane—a transvestite who throws smashing parties, a wedding party. Weetzie has a series of quasi-romantic encounters with the other guests, culminating in the kisses mentioned in the title, and from each of these kisses she gets a jewel: a pearl, a ruby, an emerald, an amethyst, a sapphire. In the end, she does tie up the threads of her wondering about the prom, when she meets her date, now grown to a man, and realizes that this would not have been right for her after all; they close the main plot arc with a kiss and a jewel of their own for him, a diamond.

In fairness, I can see why the fans of Block’s previous Weetzie Bat books were so dubious about this one, both from a literary standpoint and a stylistic one. Written fifteen years (or nearly so) after Block wrote the first five tales in this sequence, how could her writing style do anything BUT change? How many of us haven’t grown and changed in that time span, and with it our reading skills and tastes and wants and needs? Were you really expecting to return to the magic of the first books? Well, in fairness, yes, so did I the first time I read the book. Coming back for a second read-through…I appreciate it much more for what (I think) it is: Weetzie Bat grows up. As we all do. As we all must, unless we’ve had fairy dust sprinkled on us by Peter Pan. But wasn’t that also the point of Peter and Wendy: everyone grows up but Peter? If you’re longing for more magically carefree magic realism books about being young in L.A., who wants to read about being middle-aged in L.A. when all the dreams might be dying? Not so much. In that case, I suggest you stick with the first five.

The Shrinking Man, by Richard Matheson

It’s rare that the title of a book so exactly describes the book—all too often, authors (or rather their publicists) feel they have to come up with an intriguingly catchy title—but here the book is exactly as the title describes: a man, shrinking by 1/7″ per day, has to deal with the psychological and then physical effects of shrinking away to nothing.

It’s a simple enough plot to describe: Scott Carey is exposed to pesticides, and shortly thereafter, radioactive spray. The combination causes him to start shrinking; he gets shorter at a rate of 1/7″ per day, being reduced proportionately in his other dimensions at the same time. At first, he and his wife are no more than normally concerned, but as medical science fails to find any way to stop the process, the Careys become increasingly concerned. How are they going to support themselves after he becomes first too notorious, then simply too small to work? How will he manage to get about in a world designed for…well…human-sized humans? And in the end, when he shrinks below the size at which he can attract his family’s attention by calling to them, then what?

Structurally, the book is not a literary straight line following Scott Carey’s diminution. The framing story is his last week, when at less than an inch, he’s faced with purely pragmatic problems. Being pursued by a spider now larger than he, breaking off crumbs from a forgotten cracker under the stairs, trying (and eventually failing) to overcome the surface tension of water absorbed by a sponge for something to drink…and of course wondering what happens when the last day comes and he loses that last seventh of an inch? These chapters alternate with the weeks leading up to this predicament, during which he and the family realize what is wrong, try (and fail) to stop the shrinking and come to terms with his growing inability to deal physically (and psychologically) with the world around him. The chapter in which his wife buys him a dollhouse in which he may stay, as a structure now more suited to his stature, makes me shudder; the practical issues of dealing with a house that actually isn’t meant to be lived in–no fourth wall, the appliances do not work, and the furniture isn’t meant to be sat or slept on, is, for me, worse than trying to understand his fretting about his wife working.

At 57 years old or thereabouts, the book’s showing its age a bit stylistically–writing styles have changed a bit since then–and it never was terribly complicated or introspective to begin with. Indeed, now the concerns the Careys have date the book to the point of setting many modern readers’ teeth on edge; Scott Carey—he finds his inability to work among the hardest things to deal with, at least in the intermediate stages of his shrinking. He feels unmanned by the fact that his wife is supporting the family and he’s forced to stay home and care for their daughter. I’m glad I found a copy of it though, as it’s still one of the Titles in science fiction. I think.

If you like simpler plots, and older science fiction, you’ll probably like this one. If you want long introspective interior monologues from a psychologically tormented character, keep looking.

Red as Blood, or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer, by Tanith Lee

Just as a disclaimer at the beginning, Lee’s stories aren’t all based on the Grimm brothers’ collection of folk tales—the ballet Swan Lake is based (so far as I can tell) on several Russian folk tales, and Beauty and the Beast is French, first set down by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve—but in the main, she’s selected fairly well-known tales:

Original story/Tanith Lee’s tale:
     1. The Pied Piper/The Paid Piper
     2. Snow White/Red as Blood
     3. Rapunzel/The Golden Rope
     4. The Frog Prince/The Princess and her Future
     5. Sleeping Beauty/Thorns
     6. Cinderella/When the Clock Strikes
     7. Little Red Riding Hood/Wolfland
     8. Swan Lake/Black as Ink
     9. Beauty and the Beast/Beauty

There are hints of Hans Christian Anderson in some of the religious symbolism, and Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Chambers in the horror/supernatural aspects herein, but all filtered through a modern feminist sensibility and bedded in a vocabulary much lusher than the originals on which Lee’s based her tales. (Many of the fairy tales are disappointingly sparse in their terse setting down of the plotline.) Additionally, the stories diverge from the originals in their settings in locale and period; they’re arranged chronologically, according to Lee’s settings, from “The Paid Piper” set in Asia in the first (or last) century B.C. stretching forward to “Beauty”, set in an unspecified but fairly distant future and an unnamed but northern country.

In “The Paid Piper”, the titular character steals not the living children of Hamelin, but the as yet unborn in the town of Lime Tree, where the rat god Raur is worshiped. In “Red as Blood”, Snow White is the daughter of a witch, and her father has married a Christian woman, who drives out the evil witchcraft in her stepdaughter by arranging for her to be confirmed in this new religion. In “The Golden Rope”, Rapunzel is taken down to her betrothed in Hell…which is not the Hell her captor believes it to be but a beautiful haven for her. “Thorns” is a fairly straightforward take on “Sleeping Beauty”, until the prince realizes that despite having woken the princess, she and her court are still dreaming of their own time a century before. Well, think about it: would you really want to marry someone from 1913, who’d slept through the intervening century? Imagine explaining World Wars, mustard gas and nuclear weapons, iPads and flying to the moon! “When the Clock Strikes” always reminded me of “The King in Yellow” and “The Red Masque”, though it’s intended as a retelling of “Cinderella”, in which it is ‘Ashella’ who is the evil servant of the Nether Regions, and her stepmother and stepsisters truly good people who are ashamed that they cannot reach out to the girl who appears a mad simpleton. “Black as Ink” is a fairly straightforward (at least for this book) retelling of “Swan Lake”, in which the swan may is transformed into a beautiful and unaging girl, who must learn human ways but upon whom the human mannerisms rest uneasily

As with many collections of short stories, readers will inevitably prefer some stories to others; I’ve never been crazy about Lee’s take on Swan Lake, not least because I wasn’t familiar with the ballet when I first read the book. Of the seven, I’m inclined to like the two longest, “Wolfland” and “Beauty”. In “Wolfland”, a variant on “Red Riding Hood” (complete with red cape), the grandmother who lives within the deep dark woods is not threatened by the Big Bad Wolf…she IS the wolf; she has become a werewolf, with the aid of a liqueur derived from the yellow flower that grows only in these woods, in order to preserve herself from her brutally abusive husband. She recognizes in her granddaughter Lisel the one to replace her as mistress of the chateau and the wolves in the woods. “Beauty” is interesting in that it has a futuristic setting, combining the world of folk lore with that of science fiction; the Beast is one of an alien race, which came bearing benign gifts, and left members of its race on Earth. Unlike other tellings, it is not the Beast who transforms literally into human shape, but Beauty, here Estar, who finds that she is a figurative Beast.

What to read next? This time, I’ve got a suggestion, other than the obvious collections of Hans Christian Anderson, Grimm Brothers and Perrault. Angela Carter, specifically her collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber And Other Stories. She’s the only author who, I think combines the fairy tale ambiance with modernization and feminism that is…twisted or kinky is too strong and too suggestive in a variety of ways, and indirect too subtle. Updating, perhaps.

Go-go girls of the apocalypse by Victor Gischler

When the end comes, chances are it’s going to be a series of events; no one thing is quite enough to destroy the structure of society completely. The collapse of the world as we know it today will bring about a great many changes, and here the possibilities are wide enough to boggle even the wildest of science fiction authors. Go-go Girls of the Apocalypse doesn’t stint in either category.

Mortimer Tate has spent the last nine years holed up on his own in a cabin/cave well hidden in a state park. He didn’t intend to stay quite that long—just long enough for his almost but not quite ex-wife to give up hunting for him in order to get his signature on the divorce papers. Instead, the Earth-destroying apocalypse came, a combination of natural and man-made disasters. “The Big One” hit the West Coast of the United States, producing the expected destruction to the land and tsunamis to the sea; the combined effects of the earthquake cut off the seaports on the West Coast, and with them much of the supplies shipped through these ports: food, gasoline, machine parts, you name it. The resulting panic caused Wall Street to crash, taking down much of the world economic activity with it. To cap things off, a Saudi terrorist detonated a powerful bomb on the steps of the Federal Capitol Building in Washington, taking out the President, his cabinet and most of the House and Senate. The Secretary of the Interior, as the highest ranking official left, is sworn in…which doesn’t sit too well with a four-star general. Civil war ensues in the U.S. and unrest spreads to the rest of the world…

Fortunately, Tate had recognized the seeds of the world society’s destruction for what they were, and maxes out three credit cards in the course of supplying his hideout. He does run out of a few things, not realizing he’s going to be spending nine years in the place—the coffee and batteries run out in the first year—but he is left with a goodly supply of first aid equipment and that best of trading goods in a lawless world: liquor. And lots of it.

He realizes the time has come for him to rejoin what remains of the rest of the world when, in his ninth winter in the hidey hole, three men stumble across his cabin. He kills them in self-defense but realizes where some have come, more may follow, and he packs up a sled load of supplies he thinks likely to have trade value or be in short supply in the outside world and heads down the mountain before the snow melts enough to make sledging difficult. He emerges into a world not only not quite what he was expecting but not entirely like that the readers of more conventional post-apocalypse literature may be expecting.

The standard things have happened, resulting from the collapse of what most readers would consider ‘society’, not to mention law-abiding behavior. With no gasoline, cars are useless, as are any other transport vehicles which similarly use petroleum products. With mass starvation rampant in the first years, post-collapse, the majority of edible animals have been eaten, meaning there are no longer any horses, mules, oxen, donkeys, llamas or any of the other animals used for draft purposes, pre-apocalypse. With the death or flight of many technicians from this crumbled culture, not to mention the physical damage resulting from the earthquake, power generating facilities and the grid to ‘transport’ electricity’ have vanished too. It’s people power or nothing. With the collapse of the world banking system, printed paper money is useless. When the factories closed, many consumer goods, from clothes to liquor, washing machines to train couplings, have long been used up or disintegrated from lack of maintenance.

People being what they are, some things have been reinstated. Liquor, for starters; there’s a mysterious “Freddie” who produces several lines of whimsically named alcohols, from wine to vodka, though distribution is something of an issue. Or rather, ensuring that enough of it gets to its final destination after the decimations of brigands en route. Perhaps most importantly, there is a chain of “Joey Armageddon’s Sassy A-Go-Go” franchises, which combine strip club, bar, restaurant and hotel rooms after a fashion; Motel 6 has nothing to fear from these, but in a world devoid of any of the comforts available today, even Freddie’s Panther Piss and hot running water begins to look pretty good. Not to mention the fact that the guards are armed more heavily than your average Marine: these venues are an oasis of safety compared to the outside world.

Tate’s stockpile brings him 7,000 “Armageddon dollars” and a lifetime platinum membership in the Joey Armageddon chain. With this money and membership, and two companions, Buffalo Bill who is at heart a cowboy and Sheila who was only a child when the apocalypse came and thus knows no other world than the present one, Tate sets off to find his wife, purported to be at a branch of Joey Armageddon’s Sassy A-Go-Go in Atlanta. They find, not a wife who needs the protection of her Man, but rather a woman who’s quite happy on her own after nine years and doesn’t even want divorce papers any more. Who needs them now?

…and they find a battle with the mysterious Czar. The book has a happy ending of sorts, in that the three main characters survive, and as the book ends, they’re planning a trip down to the coffee-producing regions of South America to see what they can bring back. Coffee’s at $300 a pound with the collapse of international commerce, and Hawaii quite out of reach with the collapse of mechanized transport as we know it today, so travelling hundreds of miles through war torn countries isn’t quite as implausible as one might think.

No soothing post-apocalypse book, this. Perhaps the fact that Mort spends a fair bit of time vomiting in reaction to the horrors he’s seen may serve as a warning for the queasier readers out there. The collapse of a society as a result of a multi-part apocalypse will bring about a great many unpleasant things. Substantial increases in violence, and that often of the sick-making variety, is a more than plausible result of the removal of law and order as we regard it here and now. Using human power to generate electricity is not unreasonable. Definitely an adult post-apocalypse tale, given the nature of the pre-eminent businesses; somehow it doesn’t surprise me that the two most successful enterprises, post-apocalypse, would be strip clubs and liquor distilleries; Jack Daniels is one of the few businesses that survives the apocalypse intact.

What to read next? Oddly, I’d suggest Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide ‘trilogy’, if you liked the irreverent nature of this one, though the humor is a bit different. If you didn’t like that lampooning tone, try one of the more serious Post-Apocalypse Works, such as Margaret Atwood’s books Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid’s Tale.

Lockdown by Alexander Gordon Smith

Under Heaven is Hell. Under Hell is Furnace.

Alex Sawyer has been set up.

He started going bad at age twelve, holding up other kids for their lunch money. The odd pound here and there proved insufficient as his ambitions grew with his stature, and he’s moved on to housebreaking with his mates. They heard tell of a house left empty in the poncy neighborhood, with a wad of cash left lying in a coffee can or something similarly (un)subtle…and they break in. No such luck. Alex is upstairs, hand on the bankroll, when he hears a scream from downstairs where his friend Toby was keeping a lookout.

Men in black suits were waiting for him downstairs, along with a single person, face concealed behind a gas mask and twitching as if in the throes of a seizure. One of the men in black is holding Toby…another shoots Toby and casually tosses the gun to Alex, who without thinking catches it. Realizing what this means, Alex flees, only to be caught by the police, arrested and put on trial. He is, of course, sentenced, as everything was rigged, and he is sent to Furnace.

Furnace is the new high-security facility for juvenile offenders, set up as part of the societal backlash against teens who’d gone on a summer-long rampage of crime and violence. Built deep underground in a natural crevice and capped with a fortress preventing escape upwards, there’s no escape from Furnace. Or is there? Well, of course there is or we wouldn’t have a plot…or is there? Readers will just have to read the sequels, now won’t they? Given the subtitles of the series, it’s pretty much a given that the main characters at least try, or there wouldn’t be much of a plot.

In some ways, Furnace is similar to what readers know of prisons today. There are ranks of open-grilled cells around a central courtyard, which are spartan in the extreme–large enough only for a pair of bunks and a toilet. Days are spent at hard labor, nights locked in their cells. Guards watch the inmates and gangs rule what freedoms the guards permit. Rules and regulations govern the inmates’ days: lights on, meals, work, leisure, lights off are all done to a rigid schedule which must not be broken.

In many ways, it is not at all familiar, starting with the prison guards and warden. The routine guards are nicknamed “blacksuits”; not surprisingly, they are dressed in black suits, looming large over the inmates as the inmates go about their daily duties. Modified dogs, implied to be based on Dobermans, but bulging with muscles that no normal dog ought to have, chase down prisoners not where they ought to be. The warden is a supernally threatening man–Alex’s eyes slide off his face when the warden is present, and on the telescreen, the warden’s eyes are pits into unimaginable depths. Worst of all are the “wheezers”. Figures out of nightmare, it’s not entirely clear if they’re still human; they are cloaked in full-length black leather dusters and their faces covered with antiquated gas masks which appear to be surgically embedded in their flesh–only their eyes, beady and black, can be seen. They move twitching swiftly, as if seen in a badly made film, run fast-forward, and their only vocalization is a raspy scream. To complete the horror, they’re armed in a manner of speaking, with bandoliers of rusty old hypodermic needles with which they inject the prisoners they’ve selected for removal.

Alex and his friends, such as can be made in a hellhole like Furnace, are determined to escape. Fresh air seeping into the cavern they’re excavating leads them to a passageway, and natural gas siphoned from the cookstove tanks into rubber gloves provides an explosive needed to widen the crack down to an underground river

I appreciate that the guardians of Furnace–the wheezers, the blacksuits, the Warden and the dogs–are not here fully explained, though we find out more about them in the sequels. The lack of information heightened their creepiness; the wheezers alone are enough to give me nightmares. Unfortunately, the occasional mentions of popular culture–Indiana Jones, Al Pacino–were somewhat perplexing: is this an alternate history? If it’s set in the future, how would the characters know about them? I’ll wait to read the sequels before deciding what I think of the books as a whole; the cliffhanger ending of this book would put the Saturday serials to shame.

Splinter of the Minds Eye by Alan Dean Foster

The Star Wars syndicate has probably received more attention than I could touch on in anything resembling a blog post of the length I’ve been doing in the past 15 months…so I’m not going to try to reinvent the wheel, just write a comparatively brief reaction to a book I read not too long after it originally came out.

For those who haven’t been paying attention to the Star Wars canon literature, the basic synopsis is this: Luke is escorting Leia to the fourth planet of the Circarpous star system, in order to allow Leia to sway the government of that planet to join the Rebel Alliance after said alliance’s success in destroying the Death Star. Leia’s ship is damaged in transit, and the two are forced down on the fifth planet of the system, Mimban, about which little is known by the Rebel Alliance. It proves to be a sparsely populated mining planet, largely swampy, which is controlled (surprise, surprise) by a secret governmental arm of the Empire. Luke, the ‘good’ protagonist in this novel, convinces Leia to follow his lead as he attempts to come up with a cover story on the fly; the best he can do is that he is a miner1 and that she is his servant2.

The two take shelter in a bar, where they are approached by a seemingly demented old woman, Halla, who shows them a splinter of what she claims to be ‘the Kaiburr crystal’, a gem which serves as a focus of the Force. Halla indicates that she knows where the parent stone is, but before they confirm their agreement, Luke and Leia encounter a group of dubious miners, who pick a fight with Luke out in the street outside the bar. The miners and Luke-and-Leia are arrested by stormtroopers for violating local laws, and the two outlanders are interviewed by the (corrupt evil) Captain-Supervisor Grammel, who tosses the two into a high-security cell with two Yazzem, large furry aboriginal creatures which prove friendly after Luke speaks to them in their language.

With Halla’s (and the Yazzem’s) help, Luke and Leia escape from the prison and set off across the swamps of Mimban to the Temple of Pomojema, where the intact Kaiburr Crystal is said to be held. After a number of entirely too damp for comfort adventures, including a ‘wandrella’, a lily pad paddle across an underground lake, hand-to-hand combat with cavedwellers, the group reaches the purported temple…just as Vader, summoned by Grammel’s superior, meets them at it. Luke and Vader duel…and I’ll leave it there. No sense ruining the plot with spoilers for anyone who hasn’t managed to read the book in the 35 years since its publication.

It’s a little odd coming back to read this thirty-five years after its publication,and thirty years after my original reading of the novel. Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was commissioned from Foster before the original movie came out, and was published less than a year after the original Star Wars movie came out; apparently, it was supposed to be a pre-novelization of a potential sequel, but movie #1 turned out to be such a smash hit3 that Lucas decided to splurge on official script writers. I’d have to go back and re-read Foster’s other novels written about that same time before I comment on whether the writing style’s more stilted than his usual oeuvre. However, given all the, er, romantic tension between Luke and Leia, this is clearly long before Lucas’s writers got around to coming up with the dynamic of Luke and Leia coming to grips with their sibling relationship. Now, I’d call it an amusing afternoon’s diversion for people who are mildly interested in the Star Wars universe, but possibly a matter of hot debate for aficionados of the subtleties of Canon Literature. It’s definitely an interesting might-have-been, suggesting rather Lucas’s earlier drafts of the original Star Wars than the later movies and in-universe novels.

Summary from the Star Wars wiki
Sci-Fi description

1not implausible given his farm boy background
2a smidge less convincing given the lack of calluses on her hands and her general attitude–thoroughly appropriate for the princess she is, but quite insubordinate for a servant girl
3slight understatement, yes…

The House of Scorpions by Nancy Farmer

As the book begins, Matteo Alacran lives alone with his “mother” in their cottage; this is clearly part of a substantial estate, but as Matteo remains almost exclusively in the house during his early years, we know little of this. There are only hints that Celia is working in a large house as cook. Two of the children of the ‘manor house’ discover him one day, and thus is his presence revealed to the family. Or rather, the specifics of his upbringing.

The “estancia” is revealed to be part of a country run by drug lords, who control massive estates of opium poppies. These fields are worked by what Matteo calls “eejits”: human beings with an implant in their brains that leaves them no free will whatsoever–they do whatever they were last told to do until they’re told to do something else. Work. Drink. Rest. Eat. It doesn’t matter. Cloning entire human beings is possible, if you’ve got the money; the law requires the clone be rendered incapable of cognition. El Patron, however, has the money and the influence to get away with NOT doing this, and this is how Matteo came to be in the household.

Matt (and the reader, presumably) is appalled to discover that he is a clone of “El Patron”, the 140-year-old (literally) paterfamilias of “Opium”, a country cum family business raising and selling opium to the drug cartels in the future equivalent of the United States…and clones are loathed as subhumans by the naturally born in this future world. The woman whom he considers his mother is in fact the caretaker assigned by El Patron, his genetic parent, to raise him in isolation until he is of an age to be useful to El Patron, though it’s not clear whether Matt is merely a reservoir of spare organs, as other clones are, or is destined for more. Matt struggles to fit in this alien world, learning what he can of its society while gaining an education as we’d consider such today; he retains the emotional maternal attachment to Celia while gaining a similar paternal attachment to Tam Lin, one of El Patron’s bodyguards, and a sibling attachment to Maria, daughter of the household.

As familial resistance increases against the presence of a clone who is not merely an organ replacement but rather an heir to the family business, Matt escapes successfully…so he thinks. Instead he lands in the territory of child labor factories; they are ostensibly orphanages caring for the offspring of parents who’ve disappeared into the “Opium” territories, but are rather yet another form of forced-labor institution, relying this time on children too young to understand how to resist rather than adults artificially controlled. Matt eventually returns to Opium, relying on the fact that as he is genetically identical to the ostensible ruler of this estancia, the computers controlling the community will not be able to distinguish between the two and therefore repulse Matt as an intruder.

This is a future (and possibly alternate history) world, in which Mexico and the United States have split off a strip between them, to slow the foot traffic between the countries. Ruthless drug lords do what they consider necessary to raise and market their crops.

Farmer does touch on several topics of potential interest to readers: drug smuggling, international relationships, Hispanic culture, prejudice and justification thereby, child labor. The book spends as much time on developing these issues in the science fiction melieu as it does on plot and character development; I’d say this book might be better for middle grade kids who like the science more than the relationships in fantasy/science fiction. Unfortunately, she touches on so many different issues that I’m left feeling she might have been better off splitting the book into two parts–Matt’s life on the estancia and that after he’s fled. The two stories might allow a better development of the various agendas and sub-plots.