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A Summer's Worth of Reading, Pt. 1
From classic science fiction to modern pulp horror, here's what I read during the summer
I had a reasonable amount of time to dedicate to reading this summer, between rainy days, long stints at various airports and about various airplanes, on the train commute to work a few times a week, and simply relaxing at home. As is usually the case, my selections lean very heavily into science fiction and horror. So let’s get into the first three of nine, shall we?
Century Rain, Alastair Reynolds
I was a huge fan of Reynolds’ “Revelation Space” series, except for one book (sorry, Absolution Gap), but including all of the spin-offs and short stories. However, I’d never ventured into any of his books beyond that series. Cue Century Rain, which I loved quite a lot. It’s set in part on an orbital habitat above a post-apocalyptic Earth that was rendered uninhabitable after a well-meaning plan to repair climate damage using nanobots goes horrifyingly awry, and in part on Earth circa 1959…sort of.
Verity Auger is an archaeologist combing through the ice-encased ruins of Paris for any and every piece of history she can find, humanity having lost almost all records of their history from before the migration into space. Wendell Floyd is an American who has lived in Paris for much of his life, a failed jazz musician who, in 1959, is struggling to make ends meet working with his friend, Custine, as a private detective. An accident in Verity’s time and a potential murder in Floyd’s will bring the two together despite the gulf of time and space. Oh, and there’s a civil war brewing in Earth’s solar system, lots of creepy kids with corpse face, and a terrifying doomsday weapon. Great characters, a cool plot, and a lot of fun action make for a top-notch sci-fi adventure.
Foundation, Isaac Asimov
One of the cornerstone classics of science fiction, I read Foundation (and its sequels, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation, and uh…part of Foundation’s Edge) in high school (that was the 1980s, folks). Other than “Hari Seldon appears from time to time,” I could remember nothing about the book. So I decided, having reread the entire Dune series two years ago (which I remember much better), it was time to do the same with Isaac Asimov’s galaxy-spanning epic. First, Foundation is, given its reputation and importance in the history of science fiction, surprisingly short and quick to read. The plot, disjointed as it is, is about a brilliant psychologist, Hari Seldon, who uses his understanding of human behavior on the macro scale, with a dash of mathematics, to predict and prepare for the collapse of a massive galactic empire over the span of centuries. His foresight is perhaps a bit far-fetched but roll with it.
What follows after a short set-up is a series of episodic (the story was originally serialized in a pulp magazine) adventures as various groups face a “Seldon crisis”—those moments when the fate of humanity hangs in the balance. Some of the stories are better than others (and none of them involve women—although one guy has a wife who shows up for a chapter and does very little other than belittle the guy). It’s not as profound or complex on reread as I found the Dune series to be, and while I found concepts interesting, I was never interested in any of the characters. When you are told over and over that they are fated to succeed, and then that success so often happens between chapters, and we deal with so many characters spread out over several generations, it makes it a little hard to really root for them. But it remains engaging enough that I am down for more.
Wrath of N'Kai, Joshua Reynolds
Wrath of N'Kai is based loosely on the game Arkham Horror, which is in turn inspired by the weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, his fictional town of Arkham, and the various creepy cults and goings on related to ancient gods and incomprehensible terrors that populate his most famous short stories. In much the same way that Chaosium spun their Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game into a series of books collecting weird fiction from Lovecraft and his contemporaries (sadly, almost all of which are out of print, so good hunting) as well as modern authors, Fantasy Flight Games released a series of novels and short story collections (happily, most of which are still in print and available as ebooks). The main difference between the two is that the Arkham Horror-inspired books more directly reference the game’s characters and setting, and they’re written entirely by current authors.
I know very little about the game, but that didn’t impact my enjoyment of Wrath of N'Kai, which I loved enough to add the game to my shopping cart. Modern takes on Lovecraft are a mixed bag, but then Lovecraft’s original stories were a mixed bag. That said, it’s a genre that is so nebulous and open to interpretation (not to mention blending with other mythos, such as the Carcosa/King n Yellow stories by Robert Chambers) that it yields an awful lot of really good stuff, from cosmic horror to folk horror and, in the spirit of At the Mountains of Madness and a few other choice selections, straight up pulp adventure (albeit with a dash of horrific gloom).
Countess Alessandra Zorzi specializes in stealing items of an occult nature for wealthy dabblers in things esoteric. On occasion, she’s even hired to steal back for an original owner something she previously stole from them for someone else. Despite the occasional bit of bad blood as a result, it seems rather a gentleman’s game sort of thing since no one she works for has anything in the way of actual skill or power in the dark arts. That’s until she’s hired by a shady character to steal a mummy recently discovered in Utah, dating to a time long before any humans should have been in North America. The mummy, as it happens, is being unveiled in the town of Arkham, Massachusetts. Bootleggers, warring cults, cops, private investigators, rival thieves, and mobsters all complicate Zorzi’s life considerably.
While it focuses primarily on slambang action and adventure, Wrath of N'Kai is not without its genuinely creepy moments, such as when Zorzi finds herself stalked by a shadowy something on the fog-choked backstreets of one of Arkham’s more disreputable parts of town. It’s a highly enjoyable, spirited affair that has made me excited to read more books in the series (especially those also written by Reynolds and featuring the return of Alessandra Zorzi).