Neuromancer: Case Is A Script Kiddie!

I’m re-reading Neuromancer, William Gibson’s sci-fi/cyberpunk classic. The book amazes me as much now as it did when I read it back in the ’80s. The writing is lean and sharp as a scalpel, the world is realized in exacting detail, and the pace moves the reader forward while still immersing the reader in different locales.

However, on this re-reading I realized that Case, the hacker protagonist, isn’t the uber-hacker he’s portrayed to be. He’s just a script kiddie; that is, he just uses pre-written programs that he had no involvement in creating.

He doesn’t uncover any weaknesses in the system he’s meant to be attacking. He doesn’t craft any exploits or discover software vulnerabilities. He doesn’t even social-engineer anyone to steal credentials or gain system access. Most of the computing work is either handled by Dixie Flatline, a virtual construct of one of Case’s teachers, or by virus software that was given to Case.

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In other words, Case is a bit of a passive protagonist. It seems like his primary role is look over Molly’s shoulder as she does the physical legwork of breaking into places and shooting people.

That said, considering this was Gibson’s first novel, it’s easy to forgive Case’s script kiddie status. The novel still stands as an exemplar of near-future, noir-drenched, sci-fi that’s a pleasure to read.

Book Review: The Bone Clocks

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell, is a supernatural thriller with a chilling dystopian coda. It’s also a bit of a disappointment.

Imagine if Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was alive and writing pop songs for Katy Perry or Robin Thicke. These tunes would have a masterly command of melody and a technical brilliance. But there would also be something not quite right about them.

You could feel, somewhere deep in the chord changes, Mozart straining to elevate the three-minute dance tune into something sublime. The problem is that the form itself resists such elevation.

A good pop song can be surprising and delightful and well-crafted. But it’s still just a pop tune, and if you try and force it beyond the natural limits of what it’s supposed to accomplish, you end up with music that may have moments of joy, but ultimately fails to satisfy.

That’s how I felt about The Bone Clocks. It tries to take its supernatural genre tropes and stretch them into something grand. Mitchell is a magnificent writer, but the supernatural world he’s created in The Bone Clocks feels less like the work of a master novelist, and more like an overheated D&D module.

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This isn’t the first time he’s incorporated elements of the supernatural into his work; The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet played with telepsychic abilities and immortality cults. But the supernatural was only hinted at in that novel.

The Bone Clocks pulls away the veil and makes his supernatural system the centerpiece of the book. It includes souls that migrate into new bodies, mind control, and psychic powers. As a reader, I’m not opposed to this kind of thing. In fact, I love it.

Unfortunately, Mitchell’s system doesn’t benefit from closer inspection or deeper explanation. Despite his magnificent gifts as a writer, he fails to make his supernatural system palatable.

Instead, you get lots of cringe-inducing pronouncements about “the Deep Stream” and “the Shaded Way” and “Anchorites of the Dusk Temple of the Blind Cathar.”If you have to initial-cap a concept to give it weight and grandeur, you’re trying too hard.

Part of the problem might be the design of the novel. Then engine of the plot is a war between Horologists (good immortals) and Anchorites (psychic vampires).

The main character, Holly Sykes, is literally nothing more than a vessel for the Horologists. Holly’s role as a vessel links her to events that drive the plot, but she’s merely carried along, rather than driving the story forward herself.

Holly’s involvement with the Horologists and Anchorites is more of a contrivance than an organic result of the choices that she makes in her life. For me as a reader, Holly’s lack of agency in connection with the war that drives the plot lowered the stakes of the outcome of the conflict. It’s a structural weakness that makes it harder for the book to support all its grandiose nonsense.

The novel’s climax is a pyscho-kinetic dual between the Horologists and Anchorites. It’s got a lot of flash and bang, but it feels obligatory, and perhaps written with the film adaptation in mind. In short, it disappoints.

However, Mitchell redeems himself in the final section of the book, where he draws an all-too-probable sketch of the collapse of civilization.

The world isn’t undone by a spectacular apocalypse; instead, the fall was caused by oil running out. Without cheap fuel to drive consumer economies and support highly centralized food production and distribution, societies crumbled.

Holly Sykes, now an old woman, lives a pastoral existence in a small village in Ireland. Folks grow their own food, mend their clothes, and trade with one another in a basic barter economy. The global communications network has mostly collapsed. What little electricity there is comes from solar panels, and what little fuel there is goes into the community tractor.

Mitchell doesn’t romanticize this reversion to a pre-industrial existence; people work hard, suffer discomforts, chafe against the confines of the community, and go hungry. But folks seem to get by through their own labor and ingenuity.

At the start of this section there’s still a vestige of government order: a local council with a mayor, backed by a central authority. But that central authority collapses, and we see how fragile democracy, justice and human rights really are. Rule reverts to vicious men with weapons and the willingness to impose their own order through violence.

I would have much preferred Mitchell to spend more time here than elsewhere. He doesn’t need supernatural tropes to craft a great story. He could write a kick-ass post-civilization book that would be gripping and frightening because of its plausibility, not because Anchorite disciples of the Shaded Way lurk in dark corners waiting to drink your psychic essence.

Summer Reviews Praise Wasteland Blues

Several new reviews for Wasteland Blues were posted in August, and I thought I’d share some excerpts. I read every review with a bit of trepidation because you never know how your work is going to be received, but so far the feedback is encouraging.

The book got a four-star review recently from a reader named Samantha. Thanks Samantha! You can read the full review on the Wasteland Blues book page at Goodreads, but here’s a couple of highlights.

Samantha’s review starts off pretty good, though with a bit of a back-handed compliment:

Oh this book. I’m really glad I read it, in spite of no hype around it and an almost seemingly boring plot. [Hmmm. Seemingly boring? Scott, we may need to work on that.]

Overall, the review is positive. This paragraph made me happy:

It has most things I love in books: interesting characters (everyone in this book is legit crazy which just makes it more perfect,) exciting surprising things that happen on their journey without being ridiculous, and a slightly confusing world that you get absorbed in.

And this is a great line:

…you can picture everything so clearly, from the dust caked on your face to the debris from the Before Times you have to maneuver over.

Last but not least, I was really pleased to read the conclusion:

In short I loved this book, and the only reason it’s missing half a star is because I felt it ended too soon. I wanted more awesome things to happen.

New reviews also showed up on Amazon. LeaG wrote:

This was a great read that was hard to put down.

And Joyfulintaos wrote that the book:

…easily belongs with the likes of Howley’s Wool, McCarthys, The Road, and King’s Gunslinger series. A surprising array of travelers and events keep the reader enthralled. I HOPE this is the first in a series because I did not want my adventure with this crew to end.

Thanks to everyone for reading and taking the time to share your thoughts! It’s encouraging to hear that readers want more of the story. Scott and I are working on the next book, so stay tuned.

Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep: Therapeutic for King, Dull for Me

Doctor Sleep, Stephen King’s latest novel, is a disappointment. King set himself a high bar in writing a sequel to The Shining, one of the most famous horror novels of our age. Unfortunately, he fails to get over this bar, or to even get anywhere close to it. The book suffers from multiple flaws, including a dull protagonist, a wasted villain, and an unsatisfying climax.

There’s a reason for these flaws: I think Stephen King needed to write this book for himself more than for his readers. King’s real interest in this book is healing of past trauma and recovery from addiction. All of the fantastical plot elements that he surrounds it with (mental powers, ravening ghosts, predatory vampires of psychic essence) merely serve as scaffolding. Unfortunately for me, I showed up expecting a complete edifice of the fantastical.

Dan Torrance, the protagonist, is remarkably dull. I say “remarkably” because Torrance is a rage-filled alcoholic with telepsychic powers who is haunted by the evil undead. You’d think those traits would make for a compelling lead character, but all the sharp edges of Torrance’s persona are sanded smooth by his earnestness.

Torrance is a sinner trying hard to repent, and a significant portion of the book tracks his journey of healing and recovery. And he needs healing. On top of a difficult childhood with a hard-drinking parent, Torrance suffered serious physical and psychological harm, including murderous ghosts, carnivorous topiary, and a father who went insane and tried to murder him and his mother. Dan has some shit to work out.

It’s easy to read Stephen King’s own struggles with alcohol in the character of Dan Torrance, and it seems to me that this influenced the way King wrote the character. King wants Torrance to become a better person because it’s the story King wants to tell about himself. It also offers hope for those who struggle with addiction. This is a laudable aim, and if the book helps someone in need, that’s great. But as a selfish reader who wants thrills and chills, the healing journey fails to satisfy as entertainment.

Part of the problem is that King gives Torrance a Dark Secret to bear (that is, a Dark Secret other than alcoholism, telepsychic powers, ongoing torment by decaying corpses, and all of the hideous experiences he endured at the Outlook Hotel).

This Dark Secret concerns some unsavory behavior after a drunken binge. Torrance definitely acted like an asshole, but as Dark Secrets go, it doesn’t at all measure up to the horrors that we’ve become accustomed to in other fictional characters (Walter White, Dexter, and so on).

However, Torrance rattles around with this Dark Secret through the bulk of the book, as if it weighs on him like Marley’s chains. He ponders his Dark Secret as he skulks dark autumn streets. He’s haunted by images of it. He all but swoons on a divan, one hand clapped to his brow, in Byronic misery.

He refuses to unburden himself of this secret, even though it’s part of the Alcoholics Anonymous protocol, and even though he hears other AA members talk about much more terrible things they’ve done. Oh reader, will he ever be able to reveal how this one time he acted like a scumbag?

Yes, he will. And none of the people he cares about give a shit. So why did we readers need to spend some much time with him as he moped around with it? It’s merely a device to demonstrate the character’s transformation, and it’s pretty lame.

As for the villain (or in this case, a troupe of villains), King concocted an interesting race of mysterious creatures that prey on psychic energy. They’re nomads who call themselves the True Knot. They wander the country in search of victims (usually children). They capture and torture their victims to release the victims’ psychic essence, which the True Knot inhales. The True Knot are hideous and despicable and you can’t wait to see them get their asses kicked.

However, King only gives us a little taste of the True Knot. I would’ve loved to have learned more about them. Supposedly they’ve been around a long time (hundreds if not thousands of years), and more backstory would enhanced their menace.

Only one member of the True Knot, Rose, gets any significant authorial attention, so the overall effect is a group of interchangeable bad guys with quirky nicknames, whose only role is to get picked off, one by one, until the final battle.

The True Knot fix their sites on a girl named Abra, who happens to have enormous psychic powers. The True Knot want to capture Abra and drain her of her psychic energy. Abra connects with Dan, who becomes the girl’s mentor. When Abra and Dan become aware that Abra is in danger, they plot together to fight the True Knot.

This leads me to the climax. Torrance must face Rose, who also has mental powers, in a telepsychic duel. A duel sounds great! The True Knot have survived for hundreds (if not thousands) of years, snatching victims all along the way without ever getting caught. They have amassed a great fortune and computer hacking skills. They have psychic powers. They are pure predators and will not hesitate to kill. You’d think they would be wily, clever, and formidable.

However, the True Knot are outwitted by a few silly tricks and maneuvered into a position of stupid vulnerability. Dan and Abra exchange a few psychic punches with Rose on a wooden platform at the top of a mountain, and then Rose gets knocked off a cliff. Game over.

In the afterword to Doctor Sleep, King acknowledges the challenge he set himself, and admits there’s no way this book could match the memories people have of being scared by The Shining.

I think that for his own personal reasons, Stephen King wanted to guide Danny Torrance to a peaceful shore without rocking the guy’s boat much more than he already has. I think King wrote this book with his own needs in mind rather than those of his readers.

If that’s the case, I won’t hold it against the author. Stephen King is one of my favorites, and his work has provided me with much joy (and terror) over the years. If this book was for him more than me, well, he’s earned it.

That said, if you’re a hardcore King fan, get Doctor Sleep from the library or borrow it from a friend rather than pay for it. If you’re a casual King reader, this is one to skip.