Review of Drew Magary’s Portal B (a teleportation love story)



Review of Portal B (a teleportation love story) by Drew Magary

Jonathan P. Lewis

Drew Magary. Point B (a teleportation love story). Independently Published, 2020. 461 pp. Paperback. $13.99. ISBN 9798637737680.


Drew Magary’s voice in his SF novels The Postmortal, The Hike, and now Point B, remains steadfastly blunt: he hammers and harrows his characters and his readers with to-the-point prose and blistering dialogue. He recently told me that “there’s a LOT of dialogue in Point B, because I had written a couple of novels already that were more spare in dialogue and wanted to go the other way. Dialogue is a blast to write.” Coming from the sports blogosphere into popular SF, Magary follows the long tradition in his fiction of posing interesting questions about the possibilities of technological revolution, and then measuring the fall-out of such novums as the end of disease and instant travel through space-time.

Magary, formerly of Deadspin, GQ, and other outlets, now writes for GEN, Medium’s cultural magazine, Vice, and SFGate where he can hurl bile at the inequities and cruelty of our contemporary world. But ultimately, Magary is a humanist in the Vonnegut tradition, looking at how bad actors will always pursue money and power at any cost to human lives, and Point B is a strong novel for the strange times we find ourselves in. 

Because of breakthroughs in “anti-hydrogen,” the novel tells us, people can use their smartphones to instantly teleport from nearly anywhere on Earth to nearly anywhere else on Earth—China, e.g. has locked down the country and so there is no access in or out—but while the tourism business booms for popular destinations, whole industries such as car manufacturing and airline travel have completely tanked. Global climate change is solved because who needs to burn fossil fuels to move about? Whole cities such as Cleveland are abandoned for who needs to live in Cleveland when work opportunities are everywhere and anywhere—temporary housing is easy to come by and travel costs are negated.

Point B follows the adventures of 17 year old Anna Huff as she enters Druskin, an elite preparatory school in New Hampshire. An accomplished diver and pianist, Huff is awarded a full scholarship to the school and finds herself rooming with the daughter and half-sister of the novel’s respective antagonists, Emilia and Jason Kirsh. Huff becomes quickly enamored of Lara Kirsh, but Lara leaves Druskin after just a few days after the girls are caught in a late-night swimming excursion in the on-campus river. Finding friends in two boys named Burton and Bamert, Huff tries to survive her time in detention as a test subject for Jason Kirsh’s attempts to broaden transportation weight-limits from 2 kilograms to 3 in teleportation. Kirsh is a sociopath who, Anna learns, tortured her sister into suicide by using secret teleportation protocols to stalk Sarah.

Point B has a great deal to say about stalking, sovereignty, security, and other techniques of domination in our seemingly always connected world and much of it should give us pause. Magary’s best moments in The Postmortal and The Hike asked us to consider the Faustian bargains we make every day in the name of convenience and connectivity and of life without disease or introspection that can rob us of real meaning. In Point B, when a boy dies on Everest because he can port near the summit without any mountaineering experience, most in the novel’s world take it as a dumb stunt gone awry—the thrill seeker getting his just deserts. But Magary takes it a step further, looking at how the boy’s death leaves a hole in his family and how his mother’s quest for truth leads her to be, the novel suggests, another of Jason Kirsh’s victims who asked too many questions of the purveyors of so-called easy happiness and infinite, instant, once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Point B also asks us to consider the impact and limits of education—especially elite educational state apparatuses—in creating responsible citizens when anyone, can step past the old velvet ropes and create Insta-stories formerly only available to the ultra-rich and powerful. How will the powerful set up new boundaries to keep the plebes out? Why spend time in a school when nearly anywhere in the world can be seen and experienced first-hand and what will those who run such powerful institutions as Druskin do to keep their privilege? For the novel, the answer is nearly anything—the Kirshes, mother and son, donate huge amounts of money to the school to buy access not just to power but to control how the powerful continue to exist at all. Magary further uses that cliché of prep school life, the monied dandy with a drinking problem at 17 because Daddy doesn’t love him, to look at the toxic values institutions like Druskin can promote and sustain. (For the record, I also went to a New England prep school and knew a few Bamerts who bounced from school to school with fine minds who only used them to scheme their way into securing alcohol and hiding their Kodiak addictions because why bother studying when the path to financial success was already set in stone through family connections?)

Overall, I recommend Point B and am surprised that Penguin, Magary’s publisher for The Hike and The Postmortal, passed on the novel. It’s a good diversion in these trying times, and like the best of mainstream SF, has a great deal more to say than celebrating a novum like teleportation and what it might offer to us.

Review of Nancy Kress’s Sea Change



Review of Sea Change by Nancy Kress

Jeremy Brett

Nancy Kress. Sea Change. Tachyon, 2020. Paperback. 191 pp. $15.95. ISBN 9781616963316.


It’s a singular book that begins with a runaway self-driving house, and Nancy Kress has mastered the art of the opening line. Sea Change begins with the words “The house was clearly lost.” It’s a funny, yet at the same time jarring, line that instantly tells the reader that something has clearly shifted in the world. And so it has. Kress gives us a United States where normal life is increasingly rare as the effects of climate change and man-made environmental collapse encroach more and more on society. Of course, in our age of climate change this is not groundbreaking in itself, but Kress puts a unique spin on it by avoiding a simple “Us (environmentalists) vs. Them (the government, or Big Business, or terrorists)”. Instead, in Sea Change Kress presents a bio-thriller with a multifaceted setting in which environmental groups battle the government but also compete amongst themselves with different agendas and tactics. The tendency of humanity to fracture runs deep through Kress’s book; however, just as strong is humanity’s endurance in the face of catastrophe. As protagonist Renata notes:

Most of all, I felt fear. Not for myself but for the organization that always hovered between detection and ineptitude, the organization made of dedicated amateurs up against both law-enforcement professionals and a stupid public, the organization that I would protect with everything in the world until we’d succeeded in our quixotic attempt to save that—probably unworthy—world from itself, whether it wanted that or not.

Sometimes the world doesn’t know what’s best for it.

17

Climate change fiction faces unique challenges. It’s easy and even seductive to simply write an apocalyptic dystopia where we’re all going to die and where humans in the last days of civilization carve out meager or desperate existences by feeding on others. That kind of dark pessimism has run through science fiction since its beginnings, carrying into the Cold War with its numberless tales of nuclear holocaust through the environmental disasters chronicled by Brunner and Harrison, into today’s endless, increasingly tiresome zombie apocalypses. However, writers like Kress are also finding a space in their climate change fiction for hope. We need hope, if we are to survive the existential and psychological crisis that climate change represents. We need stories in which humanity actively works to slow or repair the damage it has caused. We need them so very desperately, and as readers we are fortunate enough to have a cadre of hopeful authors such as Kim Stanley Robinson, Kelly Robson, L.X. Beckett, Neil Stephenson, and others who chronicle our drive to be better, to do better, to fix what we have broken. 

Sea Change is such a work, wrapped in the fabric of a well-paced biothriller. Kress chronicles a world suffering in the aftermath of “the Catastrophe”: a widespread drug is infected by a genetically modified bacterium that picks up a lethal gene; hundreds of children die as a result. In the aftermath, worldwide protests—many of them violent—against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) cause deaths, widespread economic collapse, and government overstrain and neglect. In Kress’s new world, GMOs are outlawed, their ban heavily enforced by the US government (through a powerful new Department of Agricultural Security), with the result that massive food shortages are endemic. And underground organizations fight back. Renata is a member of the Org, a resistance group working, as she says, “to restore genetic engineering to a country that had rejected it, and so feed the United States and the world as climate change, desertification, and rising seas changed the face of the globe” (71). One of the ways the Org fights back is through a covert, fragmented network of isolated farms that use engineered crops. It’s an unusual resistance strategy and one of the things that makes Kress’s book so unique. 

Quiet, determined resistance is the hallmark of Sea Change (although the book certainly has its share of more dramatic actions, much of it hinted at or appearing ‘offscreen’, as it were). Renata moves forward in the face of unspeakable personal tragedy, including the death of a child, caused ultimately by effects of climate change. She and her compatriots operate an underground group, that seeks to change the world, not violently, but rather through the distribution of scientific achievement and accurate information. They operate with a hopeful belief that change is possible.

Near the end of the novel, following a massive pro-GMO information dump across cyberspace by different environmental groups, Renata notes that “seeds had been planted, and the harvest of changed perceptions might grow” (183). Here is Kress’s optimism, here is the hope that people can change their minds for the better, that they can overcome their fears and their distrust to make a potentially better future. This is not easy; Kress expertly and simply delineates what a society permeated by fear and suspicion looks like, and it is not an easy one to escape. But recall that the term ‘sea change’, taken from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, denotes a substantial change in one’s perceptions. If the change comes, as the Catastrophe did, it must be large-scale and it must produce a long-lasting alteration in people’s behavior. The future of the Earth demands it. Sea Change is a welcome addition to the growing subgenre of climate change fiction that bursts with hope. If nothing else, if we ignored Kress’s clever worldbuilding and her engaging characterizations, that belief in hope makes it worthy.

Review of Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century



Review of The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar

Jeremy Brett

Lavie Tidhar. The Violent Century. Tachyon, 2019. (Originally published Hodder & Stoughton, 2013.) Paperback. 316 pp. $16.95. ISBN 9781616963163.


Tachyon’s reissuing of older works (as well as the publication of new ones) by Israeli-British author Lavie Tidhar is an incredibly welcome gift. Tidhar’s concern with shifting perceptions of history is increasingly relevant in an age where an objective chronicle of facts seems increasingly like an outdated product of a more innocent age. In his 2011 World Fantasy Award-winning novel Osama, he told the story of a world in which the 9/11 mastermind is a fictional character. In the masterful 2014 A Man Lies Dreaming, World War II never happened because Adolf Hitler was never made Chancellor of Germany and fled to Great Britain, where he ekes out a noirish life as a ratty private detective. Tidhar’s most recent novel, Unholy Land (2018), is set in a Jewish state planted in East Africa (reminiscent of the real-life Uganda Plan of the early 1900s) where settlers clash with the natives they have violently displaced and which turns out to be only one of multiple potential realities. In Tidhar’s hands, history is a set of alternatives and reality is fluid; it’s an atmosphere that seems downright sensible, even oddly comforting, in a world where many of us would welcome potential different avenues for history to take.

Tidhar is certainly one of our more noirish sf writers working today, given his concern with investigating dark conflicts carried out in the shadows of the world (Dark both literally and metaphorically—the first line in the novel is “A gunshot in the fog,” and one of the opening scenes features a man walking along London’s South Bank, alone on a foggy night, in search of an obscure, out-of-the-way pub: quite noir, indeed). This also might very well earn him the title of SF’s John Le Carre, especially with The Violent Century, which has all the hallmarks of a Le Carre work—espionage carried out by world-weary veterans, shifting loyalties, and desperate attempts to remain human in a tense atmosphere of clashes among faceless international powers. Part of Le Carre’s genius has always been to show the deeply human, deeply ordinary side of espionage, and Tidhar matches him well in Violent Century (adding a dollop of superheroism to give it some spice).

The Violent Century is almost entirely set (except for a few flashbacks and a few scenes set in the present day) in an alternate World War II, fought in the aftermath of a 1932 experiment by German scientist Dr. Joachim Vomacht. That quantum experiment resulted in the creation, all across the world, of people imbued with superpowers. Naturally enough these heroes (or Ubermenschen) are brought into the worldwide conflict by the warring powers, fighting both on open battlefields and in the shadow realm of wartime espionage. This situation may seem similar to, for example, that depicted in the DC comic book series Watchmen (and its 2019 television sequel) or the George R.R. Martin-created and co-edited Wild Cards shared universe, both of which depict the political and social effects of superheroes on a “real” world. And those similarities are, indeed, present. However, those works—despite their frequent moments of bitterness and cynicism—are still rooted in a very American sense of colorful costumed personalities battling each other and who are larger than the ordinary lives around them. Tidhar’s protagonists, though, are, despite their powers, small people rooted very much in the ordinary.

The novel’s ‘heroes’ are British operatives who work for an MI6-like agency called the Bureau for Superannuated Affairs (no Avengers or Justice League here!). British superheroes are dull, with aliases that are stunning in their uncreativity. The two main characters are given the names Fogg (his power is, shockingly, generating fog) and Oblivion (whose power is to negate things and make them vanish forever); their colleagues include Spit (who emits saliva that can fly strong and hard like a bullet), Blur (super speed), and Tank (big and strong). The names are direct and uninspired, as gray as the declining British Empire they serve. By contrast, American heroes are right out of comic books, with bright costumes and names like Whirlwind, Tigerman, and the Green Gunman; Soviet heroes bear equally dramatic names like the Red Sickle and Rusalka, and German ones are called Schneesturm (Snowstorm) and Der Wolfsmann (The Wolf Man).

This very British understatement is part of the plan: as Fogg’s superior ‘the Old Man’ says to him, “We need men like you. Do not be tempted by the Americans, the loudness, the colour. We are the grey men, we are the shadow men, we watch but are not seen” (134). The word shadow is telling, and it recurs throughout the novel: Fogg and his colleagues are “the shadow men of a shadow war” (106). Fogg is called “the shadow man” by his great love, a German woman named Clara (which means “clear” or “bright”) whose power is to, essentially, bring things into the light. And the postwar period is only a pale reflection of that shattering conflict: “Everything else is a shadow of that war” (229). Tidhar’s use of the word stresses that his characters are only obscured reflections of some deeper reality, unlike traditional comic book heroes and villains that bring light and noise and thunder to their worlds. While they will never be mistaken for merely human, Tidhar’s characters are nothing but.

And therein lies the sadness and the fear at the heart of The Violent Century. Why is the century so violent? Because regular human beings have made it so, without the need for superheroes, who are almost afterthoughts to the struggles of real people. Because, as Cory Doctorow notes in his introduction to the novel, “[t]hat’s the real terror, after all: that our lives are tossed around not by the brilliant, all-powerful supermen, but rather by people whose pettiness, fears, and weaknesses are as bad as our own” (v). The real Hitler, the real Mengele, are more monstrous than any supervillain, and the inhumanity that ordinary men can wreak on each other is more powerful than any superpower. That may seem cliché, but it is no less true, as Tidhar works to make clear.

The traditional comic book hero has little place in Tidhar’s world, as the traditional James Bondian superspy has no place in Le Carre’s. There is a wonderfully meta scene set during Vomacht’s 1964 trial (based on Adolf Eichmann’s real-life 1962 trial), in which an American historian of superheroes, Joseph Shuster (in real life the co-creator of Superman), testifies to the definition of a hero, in the process setting apart characters like Fogg and Oblivion from Tigerman and Whirlwind.

Those of us who came out of that war, he says. And before that. From pogroms and persecution and to the New World. To a different kind of persecution, perhaps, But also hope. Our dreams of heroes come from that, I think. Our American heroes are the wish-fulfilment of immigrants, dazzled by the brashness and the colour of this new world, by its sheer size. We needed larger-than-life heroes, masked heroes to show us that they were the fantasy within each and every one of us. The Vomacht wave did not make them. It released them. Our shared hallucination, our faith. Our faith in heroes. This is why you see our American heroes but never their British counterpart. Ours is the rise of Empire, theirs is the decline. Ours seek the limelight, while their skulk in shadows…We need heroes. 

227

It is a beautiful, heartfelt statement about the importance of heroes. However, as Tidhar shows, it is also completely wrong. American heroes help the CIA conduct its secret war in Laos and Vietnam. Russian heroes succumb to alcoholism and are considered abominations by the mujahedeen in Afghanistan who fight Soviet occupation. Former Nazi ubermenschen are reborn in the US as advertising shills for children’s breakfast cereals. And no hero anywhere flies out of the sky to stop the crashing of two planes into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. “That day we look up to the sky and see the death of heroes” (229). The Violent Century recognizes the very human emotional need for superheroes but hammers home the idea that those same heroes ultimately have little effect on history’s onrush. In the latter part of the novel, Tidhar provides brief passages concerning historical events: despite the existence of heroes, nothing really changes. Atomic bombs are dropped on Japan, the Vietnam War grows and rages, the Berlin Wall is built, the Soviet Union invades Afghanistan. In a particularly telling passage, the comic book industry establishes the Comics Code Authority in 1954—just as it did in our world—which chains the very notion of superheroes to suburban, middle-class respectability. In any world, it seems, heroes can be tamed. Someone from our world dropped into Tidhar’s universe would see very little difference between the two.

The Violent Century, like much of Tidhar’s output, is an excellent addition to the literature of shifting perceptions of reality, most obviously represented by Philip K. Dick. It is also an effective counterexample to the artificiality of “genre”—the novel is at once an alternate history, a spy novel, a story of superheroes, and a war novel. Fitting many boxes and at the same time none at all, Tidhar’s novel (indeed, his entire literary career) demonstrates the imaginative power of fluidity to give us insights into the complex nature of our historical reality.

Review of Lavie Tidhar’s Unholy Land



Review of Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar

Amandine Faucheux

Lavie Tidhar. Unholy Land. Tachyon, 2018. Paperback. 264 pp. $15.95. ISBN 9781616963040.


The protagonist of Lavie Tidhar’s Unholy Land, Lior Tirosh, is a science fiction/detective fiction pulp writer who leaves his home in Berlin to visit his sick father in Palestinia, the Jewish state nestled between Uganda and Kenya, before getting involved in an increasingly complex plot of parallel universes. The story’s narrator, gradually revealed to be Special Investigator Bloom, addresses a mysterious second-person character named Nur, who turns out to be an agent trained to move in between the worlds. Bloom follows both Tirosh and Nur from afar, although at times the narrator takes on omniscient powers, as it becomes clear that in travelling from Europe Tirosh has crossed more than international borders, but the border to another world.

The novel’s mirror frame—an author-surrogate protagonist to whom Tidhar attributes his own novels, including Osama (2011) and Unholy Land itself—invites the reader to lose herself into its composite worldbuilding, in which walls and borders and identities both possess the same meaning they do in the real world, and at the same time don’t. Tidhar bases his what-if thought experiment in a real historical moment, the early 20th century Uganda Program, which proposed to create a Jewish nation in East Africa (a land “unholy” but a land all the same), but in his novel, like in the best sf stories, it is our own world’s reality that suddenly appears strange. Like Tirosh, the reader must follow along without ever being securely anchored in either reality or fantasy, history or alternate history, the past or the present. In this country, too, Palestinians (a noun Tidhar no doubt uses ironically) erect a wall to keep out the indigenous people that were forcibly removed from the land; in this story, too, the PDF (Palestinian Defense Force) brutally harasses refugees and uses surveillance against young revolutionaries. But this is also a story in which ‘only’ a “Small Holocaust” happened (since European Jews moved to Palestinia before the rise of the Third Reich) and in which Hitler was assassinated in 1948. Tidhar’s incredibly vivid worldbuilding unveils a wealth of intriguing details: Palestinians speak Judean (at the end a character calls modern Hebrew “archaic” by comparison); old European Jewish families have become diamantaires; children read the story of the Judean Tarzan. 

This is also a novel that, at least when it focuses on Tirosh, develops complex and piercing emotional realities. Throughout the story, Tirosh is haunted by the (never quite described) death of his young son Isaac. His constantly resurfacing grief through memories of simple moments with the toddler showcases the talent of Tidhar’s prose. This is not the only thing that haunts Tirosh. His brother Gideon was killed in the war; his father is ailing and Tirosh is so reluctant to visit it only happens at the end of the novel; his niece Deborah is missing and her mysterious disappearance drives the action; and Tirosh’s memories are also increasingly conflicted as the story progresses.

Tidhar’s novel is a powerful, labyrinthine story reminiscent of China Miéville The City and The City (2009) and, in a much more subtle and controlled way, some of the best of Philip K. Dick. With its careful and intelligent treatment of some of the most difficult questions arising from the Israel-Palestine conflict, it will undoubtedly become a staple of postcolonial science fiction courses. Its straightforward prose and short format will provide for a productive introduction to discussions about border conflicts, nationality, nationalism, and imperialism while also allowing teachers to outline some of the key features of the best of sf. As Tirosh himself explains during a reading at a bookstore: “What we do [when writing stories of alternative realities] is literalise the metaphor…We construct a world of make-believe in order to consider how our own world is constructed, is told.” (113-4). 

Some of the novel’s shortcomings could come from Tirosh’s own pulp detective stories. When Bloom ceases to be the narrator in the background and acts as a character especially, the plot turns cartoonish and awkward. To give an example, when Bloom and fellow soldiers storm a refugee camp and harass a family, Bloom reflects to himself: “I did not enjoy humiliating [the woman]. I was merely carrying my duties. I was a professional” (148). The missing-girl plotline of Deborah, with its stereotypical mobster characters, ends up leading nowhere. It is actually quite hard to pinpoint, even by the end of the novel, why certain scenes took place (like the different assassination attempts on Tirosh or his search for the theodolite) or why some characters are introduced (like Melody, a woman who seems to be here simply for Tirosh to sleep with). Overall, Tidhar’s beautiful, almost poetic prose and the fascinating worldbuilding propel the reader to keep reading on in spite of some of the story’s somewhat vulgar plot points, and some of the transition scenes between the worlds have a Ubik-esque quality that I will not forget any time soon.

Review of Wade Roush’s Twelve Tomorrows



Review of Twelve Tomorrows edited by Wade Roush

Dominick Grace

Wade Roush, editor. Twelve Tomorrows. MIT Press, 2018. Paperback, 276 pp, $19.95. ISBN 9780262535427.


Twelve Tomorrows is volume five in a series begun in 2011 with TRSF, and the first to be published in book form rather than as an issue of Technology Review magazine. A more accurate if less streamlined title might be Eleven Tomorrows and One Yesterday, as the book includes only eleven new stories, and a new retrospective on the life and career of Samuel R. Delany. The remit of the series, as explained on the series website is to offer “original stories that explore the role and potential impact of developing technologies in the near, and not-so-near future.” A Delany retrospective might not seem to be the ideal fit for that remit, since Delany’s importance is arguably more for his innovations in style and in social extrapolation, rather than specifically in speculation about scientific innovation, but on the other hand, he is one of SF’s major figures, and more can always be said about him. The eleven stories come from diverse hands, including several well-known SF names (e.g. Elizabeth Bear, Liu Cixin, Paul McAuley, Nnedi Okorafor, and Alastair Reynolds) as well as from upcoming figures and writers not usually associated with SF. The overall quality of the anthology is consistent, but perhaps more narrow in focus than its stated goal would suggest. While it is unsurprising that implications of computer technology innovations should loom large, the anthology would be more diverse and more fully meet its aim of speculation about developing technologies if the stories tackled a more broad range of topics. Roush indicates in his introduction that he generally banned dystopian stories because he likes his “SF with a dose of hopefulness. […] Pessimists don’t invent vaccines or build moon rockets [ix]; however, several of the stories here are more cautionary than celebratory, and a few are outright dystopian. 

Several are about AI, or variations thereof, again unsurprising at this juncture. One of the few overtly dystopian tales here, McAuley’s “Chine Life,” offers a far future in which AI has mostly supplanted humanity and has split into factions, one of which wants humanity eradicated and the other of which ostensibly wants to help, but literally colonizes the bodies of human beings in order to do so. McAuley here offers a neat sort of twist on invasion/colonization. Somewhat differently, Clifford V. Johnson’s “Resolution” (told in comics format, a welcome innovation, though John’s style is functional) offers something of a variation, imagining a future in which an alien invasion goes unnoticed because the aliens (who are apparently incorporeal) have passed themselves off as the AI the protagonist thought she had developed. Bear’s story, “Okay, Glory,” is about a wealthy recluse whose AI is hacked into believing there has ben a catastrophe in the outside world, so confines him to his impregnable fortress of a house, until he pays the hacker/extortionists $150,000,000. The cautionary tale about the susceptibility of computer tech to hacking is competently enough handled, if not new, but the story suffers from a major plot hole: if one expects to be paid a huge pile of money, one must leave the person they are extorting a way actually to get to the money. Sarah Pinsker’s “Caring Seasons” also involves smart tech (whether actually AI or not is not spelled out) run amok, as it presents a retirement facility in which the medical protocols designed to protect residents instead become the tools that imprison them. J.M. Ledgard’s “Vespers” imagines the first interstellar spaceship, run by an AI that spends the story ruminating about its situation. Almost half the stories here, therefore, are essentially variations on a theme. As such, this group represents a suite of stories that might be considered in tandem in a classroom to discuss how SF deals with AI.

Most of the rest of the stories also play on the implications of computer tech, in one way or another. Ken Liu’s “Byzantine Empathy” presents an intriguing story about attempts to co-opt cryptocurrencies to serve charitable ends—or, conversely, to allow one charitable organization to become the most powerful charitable organization in the world—by melding social media and giving. Liu Cixin’s “Fields of Gold” (which might also be connected to the AI stories) posits that the accidental launch of a woman into space on a doomed voyage may become something that would unite the world in an attempt to reach the stars, but we ultimately learn that the real woman is long dead and replaced by a computer simulation, when the rest of Earth catches up and sends out a ship that can catch up to hers. Reynolds’s “Different Seas” carries remote control to an extreme by positing humanoid helpers that can be inhabited remotely to aid people in crisis. The story includes an ironic twist that is perhaps unnecessary. Malka Older’s “Disaster Tourism” might be seen as a complementary piece, as it involves the use of drones in rescue work, when an inexplicable infection breaks out.

Only the remaining two stories carry us any distance from computer tech, S.L. Huang’s “The Woman Who Destroyed Us,” and Okorafor’s punningly titled “The Heart of the Matter.” The former deals with a medical innovation that allows for the tweaking of brains, which can allow for the cure of mental conditions, or simply for self-improvement. Whether such tech makes one more truly oneself or whether it transforms people into something else—whether this is an advance created by a Frankenstein, or a genuine boon to humanity—is treated with some nuance. The story is neither a stereotypical warning about science daring to tread where it ought not, nor a paean to advancement, though it perhaps skews in the latter direction, as it is narrated from the point of view of a woman who initially views it as the former and hopes to destroy its creator but who comes ultimately to see value in the procedure. “The Heart of the Matter” explores age-old fear of scientific advancement by representing the replacement of a Nigerian President’s heart with an artificial one as something that inspires superstitious fear in some—a fear exploited by a would-be usurper, who takes advantage of credulous equations of new technology with witchcraft.

Overall, then, this is a strong volume that does indeed offer speculations about new and emerging technology. The stories are all solid, if thematically and stylistically for the most part fairly staid (I imagine many readers will have recognized familiar themes and plot points in the brief precis above). The book is possibly useful for a course on SF and tech, or on contemporary trends in SF.

Review of Stephen King’s The Institute



Review of The Institute by Stephen King

Dominick Grace

Stephen King. The Institute. Scribner, 2019. Hardback, 576 pp. $30.00. ISBN 9781982110567.


The Institute, Stephen King’s most recent novel, is one of his few books that might arguably be regarded as SF, or at least SF-adjacent. King’s work usually falls squarely into the horror category, but SF tropes occasionally assume central roles in his books (e.g. though clearly horror, The Tommyknockers’ monsters are the aliens—or the ghosts of aliens—associated with a spacecraft that has been buried for millennia, a plot device many will recognize). Of these, the most frequent are paranormal abilities such as telepathy, telekinesis, precognition, and other powers of the mind, which are usually permitted in SF despite having little in the way of scientific justification. Indeed, King’s career began with Carrie (1974), ostensibly horror but focusing on a teen-aged girl with telekinetic powers, rather than on fantastical creatures or monsters. The Institute is another such novel, this time focusing on children possessed of telekinetic or telepathic power who are being kidnapped and dragooned into the service of a shadowy organization for ends that remain obscure until well into the book, providing a modicum of expense. Surprisingly, the organization in question is not The Shop, as long-time readers might have anticipated, since it was The Shop who came after pyrokinetic Charlie McGee in Firestarter (1980) and who turned up to mop up at the end of The Tommyknockers.

Thematically, though, the novel most clearly hearkens back to The Dead Zone (1979). Johnny Smith, that novel’s protagonist, acquires a precognitive ability that allows him a glimpse onto a potentially apocalyptic future, one that he decides to prevent by assassinating Greg Stilson before he can become President and begin a nuclear war. Smith’s solo mission is institutionalized in this latest novel, as the unnamed Institute kidnaps children with paranormal abilities and experiments on them (in ways that effectively amount to torture) in order to use their precognitive abilities to foresee potential future catastrophes and then their telepathic and telekinetic abilities to kill those who will cause said catastrophes. Doing so quickly uses up these children, effectively destroying their conscious minds, leaving behind only shells whose remaining mental powers serve as the battery for weaponized telepathy and telekinesis.

The idea of using precognitive abilities (or of other ways of gathering information, such as time travel) to engage in first-strike prevention is far from new in SF. Nor is the idea of children with special abilities being used (whether with their consent or without) being trained to intervene in world events—Marvel’s X-Men perhaps being the pre-eminent example. King’s take on these ideas is perhaps less original than it is a synthesis of possibilities. He uses it to comment on the extent to which ostensibly good ends can be used to justify increasingly horrifying means. The argument Institute leader Mrs Sigsby, among others, makes, is that the work they do has saved the world multiple times, because by combining the knowledge they glean from precognitives with the powers they can exploit and enhance in the telepathic/telekinetic children, they can use those mental powers to kill those who would create disasters.

However, King’s focus is on children who have been kidnapped, and who have also usually also had their families murdered during the kidnapping—protagonist Luke Ellis has been represented in the media as a runaway who slew his family, as a way not only of eliminating parents who would look for a lost child but also as a way of tainting Luke should he ever escape. Their training is often indistinguishable from torture. As a result, readerly sympathy is clearly aligned with them, to make the figures running the Institute (and, we can assume, those running the numerous other facilities around the world, that we learn about later in the book) come across as monstrous. And since for much of the book, we do not know why these children are being used the way they, we are readers are further encouraged to side with the children. Furthermore, all the characters on the side of the Institute, with one exception, are depicted, to a greater or lesser extent, as sociopathic or otherwise morally corrupt. That their essentially evil (for want of a better word) behavior may itself be caused by or at least enhanced by toxic psychic contamination bleeding into their own heads as a side effect of the experimentation and exploitation they inflict on the children may be read as a metaphor for how power corrupts.

King therefore largely games the system, leaving little room to consider whether the ends do indeed justify the means. Here, they clearly do not. In the current world of rising nationalism and authoritarianism (and King is vocally anti-Trump) this is not necessarily a bad message. It’s just not a very subtle one. But then, King has never been renowned for his subtlety.