Greetings to my fellow coach-class passengers aboard the StarShipSofa. My name is Adam, welcoming you to Cheapskates and bringing you reviews of free science fiction ebooks and audiobooks.
No extras at the top today – sorry all. I’m doing NaNoWriMo – or national novel writing month, where you try to write 50,000 words all in the month of November. At the time I’m recording this, I’m behind the pace for reaching 50,000 words, but well ahead of my usual writing pace of, well, nothing. So, yeah, it’s all good.
Still, by the time you hear this I’ll probably be in the middle of that most productive of states – last-minute panic, so today’s review is going to be rather to-the-point, I’m afraid.
By the by if you’d like to see what I’ve produced so far, look for a link on my blog cheapskates.wordpress.com for a free copy of my book as its written – more or less in realtime. The book’s called “Schrödinger’s Zombie: Seven Weird and Wonderful Tales of the Undead” and is a collection of seven short stories taking an unconventional spin on the zombie concept. It’s by definition a work in progress so, please be kind.
All right, so…It’s been a while since I’ve addressed that “free science fiction audiobooks” portion of my intro, so l’ll just get right to into it with a review of some free audiobooks on podiobooks.com.
Namely, I think I’m going to take on the “Andersson Dexter” series of audiobooks by Canadian author and two-time Parsec Award finalist M. Darusha Wehm: “Self Made”, “Act of Will” and “The Beauty of Our Weapons.”
Some of you might recall that the last of these – The Beauty of Our Weapons – was featured in the “First Chapters” segment on the April 25 edition of StarShipSofa this year.
I… honestly didn’t remember this fact, and it was only after I let Tony know my plans for the next episode that he brought my attention to its previous inclusion on the show.
As seems to be typical with me, after I’ve listened to a podcast, they seem to sink into the huge “wall of sound” if you will, and I’m hard-pressed to remember where or when I heard a particular story.
So I hope you can believe me that I feel like I stumbled across these honestly. If I selected this series because of their inclusion on First Chapters, it was only on a subliminal level. In my own defense, it did come at the end of a three-hour episode, and it was the first chapter of the third book in the set, so there was a big learning curve to this world, and plenty of opportunity for this first chapters installment to slide off my brain of teflon.
No, what I feel attracted me to the series was not the first chapters segment but actually the description of the first book “Self Made.”
I’ve struggled with how to introduce the world of the Andersson Dexter novels, so I think I’ll just start here, with the description on Podiobooks that first drew me to download them. Quoting:
“Ever wish things were different?
Ivy Velasquez did, so she became someone else. In the 3D virtual world Marionette City, you can be anything you want — but everyone still knows who you are. Driven by her desire for a new life, Ivy takes her future in her hands when she makes another identity for herself. A brilliant designer, Ivy works for one of the huge firms which control the online system the world relies upon for both business and pleasure. But one day, Ivy discovers that her alternate self, Reuben Cobalt, had been murdered.
Since alternate identities are forbidden by the firms which control access to the nets and to M City, Ivy has nowhere to turn — until she finds Andersson Dexter. Part private eye, part vigilante and part cop, Dex sets out to uncover Reuben’s killer. Since the firms control almost every aspect of life, including law and order, justice for average people comes only at the hands of the outlaw organization to which Dex belongs.
Self Made is a murder mystery set in a vision of a future that seems to lurk just over the horizon. But above all, it is a story of how people strive to control their own destinies, and how that desire affects them and the people around them in ways they could never imagine.”
I mostly agree with that description. However the series has much less to do with the character of Ivy than this introduction might suggest, and much more to do with Dexter – dex for short – and his relationship with a fellow vigilante slash cop named Annabelle whom he works with on the case. Annabelle, you might notice, doesn’t even get a mention here.
I also think the last sentence is a bit of authorial hyperbole – I just don’t see the story operating on that grand of a scale. But this is a small and forgiveable sin. It is, in fact one I’ve committed myself quite frequently in promoting myself. You have to do it.
But I see these novels as providing lots of pulpy goodness with a much lighter helping of quote “high literary merit.”
So, a bit more on the setting – I see the basic premise as being quite similar to “Ready Player One” – the real world in general sucks and can be dangerous, but there’s a virtual world that takes the edge off. However, there’s still an antagonist who just might ruin it for everyone that must be defeated both virtually and in the real world.
Some of you might remember my brief mention of Ready Player One when I was explaining how to get a free audiobook from audible.
I still heartily endorse the audiobook version of Ready Player One, especially because it’s narrated by the one and only Wil Wheaton – probably better known to you as Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation or possibly in his Evil Wil incarnation on Big Bang Theory, or if you’re a super-nerd, as the host of the web show Table Top which each week takes viewers on a tour of another great game for gamers. Table Space shares space with the matchless Felicia Day on the Geek & Sundry collection of web shows – this being the Felicia Day who starred as the heroine of “Dr.Horrible’s Sing Along Blog” – directed by the same Joss Whedon known for directing The Avengers and creating Firefly – and starring as the sympathetic villain Neil Patrick Harris, probably best known for his role as Doogie Houser on the classic show by the same name.
All right, I realize that was a rabbit hole of epic proportions, but those of you keeping score at home might note that I mentioned (counting) about a dozen awesome things right there… feel free to rewind and collect them all.
Ok, back to where I left the path to go tripping through the nerdy woods, where Andersson Dexter differs from Ready Player one I see mostly in two areas. First, that the technology to simulate virtual environments is not just external to the user, but implanted into their very cortex using customizable nodes. This can lead to an astonishingly realistic experience for those with enough upgrades, enough so that some come to prefer who they are in the simulation over the real world. There’s also some fun consequences of this – for example, I especially love the detail about downloading a large file makes their head feel heavier. This makes no sense from a physics standpoint, but somehow it still feels right to me.
Second, there’s the flavor of pulp detective novels that the books are set in. This more than anything else I think is what drew me into the books as a good detective story in a sci fi environment is an irresistible combo for me. Take as exhibit A on my shelves Isaac Asimov’s Lije Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw novels – “The Caves of Steel,” “The Naked Sun” and “The Robots of Dawn.”
Exhibit B is a short story collection I continue to revisit: “The 13 Crimes of Science Fiction.”
These are what I consider the epitope of that new favorite buzzword – “speculative fiction.”
Let’s listen to a bit of Wehm’s podiobooks narration to give you just a little sense of the style and feel.
Dexter’s “real job” it turns out is working for a group called the Cubicle Men. These are folks ostensibly working menial corporation jobs – largely customer service – but who in their spare time and while they’re working at the mind-numbing tedium of their real job, use that extra brain capacity to solve crimes and enforce vigilante justice for those who can’t afford to approach corporations to find a solution. Dexter is a gumshoe detective in the Cubicle Men and seems to be pretty good at his work. In Self Made, he helps a Ivy discover who committed the virtual murder of secret multi avatar Reuben.
I have to admit the whole Cubicle Men aspect was enormously appealing to me. I’ve been stuck in my share of dead-end, cubicle-dwelling jobs myself, and I can relate to that sense of hopelessness, of asking yourself every day – just what the heck am I doing here, anyway? I can see how a group like this could supply intriguing work and meaning in an otherwise meaningless life.
I had trouble in this first book buying into the concept at first. I just really had a hard time why this society was having such a hard time accepting the idea of “multis.” In our Internet age, it seems perfectly natural to me that there would be different ways and even different names you’d present yourself under depending on the audience and purpose.
Then I realized that Wehm uses multis as a stand-in for all kinds of issues of identity in our society, mostly those of the LGBT variety. Creating a multi in this society would be akin to the effect that, say, coming out as transgender would have in our own. That is, it completely reframes a person’s identity in a way fundamental to that society.
I still don’t quite see a way that the world of today bridges over into the world of Andersson Dexter, but at least I can appreciate what Whem is going for here.
The second novel in the series – “Act of Will” – is a straightforward serial killer story. Someone is selecting people – who he calls “candidates” – to be killed at his hand. Apparently not wishing to inflict pain, he takes advantage of people’s cybernetic implants and uses a device that induces pleasure rather than agony with each cut as he reduces his victims to ribbons.
He of course makes the mistake of crossing Dexter, selecting one of our hero’s acquaintances as one of his victims. This gets our detective’s attention and pursuit.
I did rather wish that this story had gone a little deeper into the mind of the serial killer. He’s selecting his victims and the fact that his victim is his choice seems to be important, but it’s never really made clear what criteria he’s using in making that choice. I think part of what makes a serial killer tale so interesting is that it takes us to scary, unfamiliar territory and helps us to get a bit of understanding into the mind of a predator. It’s conspicuously absent in Act of Will, and I felt like the overall novel fell flat because of it.
Another problem I had was just how easily the pieces seem to come together for Dexter when he’s solving a mystery. Part of the appeal of a mystery story for me is seeing how the detective’s mind works – especially if it’s in ingenious ways that I would not have considered. I like being awed.
But with Dexter, the pieces just seem to fall into his lap. He rarely has a dead end and his usual solution to a wrong path is to let it sit and go get a drink. I think this is as a result of two factors in the story. First, in a world where information is ubiquitous and searchable, there’s very little pounding the pavement. You just set the search parameters, let them run, and come back a few hours later to have it spit out answers. Useful, yes, but not it doesn’t do much for driving plot.
The second issue seems to be, unfortunately, also the result of the most interesting relationship in the series – the romantic connection between Annabelle and Dexter. Annabelle also happens to be a crack programmer and hacker, so whenever Dexter needs those skills, he just hands them off to Annabelle and, again, waits a while for the answers to come back.
I would say the final book of the series “The Beauty of Our Weapons” is also my favorite of the bunch because Dexter does solve at least part of the mystery with his own logic and cunning, apart from the help of anyone else involved. I also like that it has a more complex and multilayered solution and that there’s more of an epic, if somewhat faceless, foe by the end.
The basic premise of this one, by the way, is that someone is out there vandalizing parts of Marionette City, or M City, and in particular an online church which has created an interesting religious idea around the idea of virtual worlds and their relation to reality.
This book also, unfortunately, has Dex dropping his day job to work as a freelancer detective full-time, so I feel like it reduces some of that wish fulfillment I always enjoyed in the first two books to get away from the day job.
There’s probably a lot more I could write about these three books. There’s a lot more sci fi elements I haven’t even touched here, including food bricks, extended lifetimes, virtual substance consumption, and so on. But, well, I should be writing my own words before I get more behind on this crazy novel project. Give these novels a try, I do think you’ll enjoy them, and if you don’t I think you’ll realize it pretty quickly. A word to the young and the squeamish, however: These books do require a pretty mature understanding of identity of all sorts, but especially gender and sexual identity – though the descriptions were never particularly graphic. There’s also a fair share of violence, though again, most is left up to the reader to fill in the blanks. If these kind of subjects aren’t for you, then you might want to think about whether these books are for you, either.
I’ll post up links to the free audiobooks as well as Wehm’s site on my own site: cheapskatesreview.wordpress.com.
That’s all today for Cheapskates. Theme music is from “Re: Your Brains” by the great Jonathan Coulton under a Creative Commons, attribution, non-commercial license. You can find Jonathan’s work at www.jonathancoulton.com. This is Adam, reminding you that free doesn’t have to mean cheap.