You Only Live Twice

Waypoint Kangaroo
by Curtis C. Chen
2016.


Waypoint Kangaroo is the debut novel of Curtis C. Chen. It’s a science fiction spy thriller, and it’s quite a lot of fun. The title may puzzle, but it begins to make sense once you learn that the protagonist is a US spy codenamed “Kangaroo.” In classic Bondian fashion, the first chapter of Waypoint shows us Kangaroo just winding up a mission in Kazakhstan, trying to slip out of that country without attracting attention. He fails rather badly at this and winds up on the wrong end of a chase, though to his credit, he puts himself at risk to save the life of one of his pursuers. So he’s an ethical spy.

Kangaroo returns to Washington to get chewed out for sparking a diplomatic incident, and his superiors send him on an enforced vacation until the ruckus he’s created has a chance to settle down.

This being about two centuries in the future, “vacation” means an all-expenses-paid-by-the-agency holiday trip to Mars, aboard Dejah Thoris, the flagship of the Princess of Mars Cruise Line (Get it?), a Disney-esque company that has brought interplanetary travel to the middle class masses. That includes stuffing the ship full of food, drink, entertainment, and hundreds of ways to separate the passengers from their money. This would be the vacation of a lifetime for your average working stiff, but for Kangaroo, it’s hell on earth. Hell in space, I should say. He paces the ship, as restless and miserable as a tiger in a cage, and it’s hilarious.

You see, Kangaroo is deeply embedded in this spy business. His real name is so secret he won’t even tell you, the reader. He has all kinds of cool spy tech surgically embedded in his body. He can do things like scan a person or a piece of equipment with his eyeball or communicate with his superiors by blinking in the right pattern. If that isn’t enough to wow you yet, Kangaroo also has a unique psychic power: he can access another universe, which he uses for storage. He calls it his “pocket.” (His code name is “Kangaroo.” Get it?) He’s got a ton of gear in there, gear no one else can detect, but he can access at will.

But none of this is helping Kangaroo relax. His job is literally a part of him. It’s in the nature of his career that the quotidian pleasures of his fellow tourists—family, relationships, sightseeing—are like a foreign language to him. Hence his difficulty getting into the spirit of life aboard Dejah Thoris as he travels toward Mars in a ship stuffed with people he can’t relate to. How to relax and have a good time just isn’t part of a spy’s skill set. All Kangaroo can manage to do is eat too much and drink too much until boredom finally drives him back into espionage. He begins to play spy aboard the ship, scanning and studying the other passengers, trying to work out who they are and what they’re up to, because that’s the only real pleasure he knows.

His job is also his hobby, it seems. Still, it’s harmless enough. Until he discovers that something really is going on….

I’m not going to spoil the plot. It’s a well thought-out adventure taking place in a future solar system still recovering from a terrible war, where some people just can’t let go of the past. Plot twists abound as Kangaroo traces out a conspiracy that starts with murder and graduates into crimes far more horrifying, a plot that keeps Kangaroo (and the reader) guessing until the last chapter.

So instead of spoiling the plot, let me say a word about Kangaroo’s interestingly limited psychic power. I keep thinking of Larry Niven, who used to love to play around with this stuff in his early works. Gil Hamilton, for instance, who had the power of telekinesis, but in his mind it was a “third arm,” so he could only do with it what a hypothetical third arm could do. Or Matt Keller of A Gift from Earth, who had the ability to force other people’s pupils to dilate or contract, and thereby induce an increase or decrease of interest in whatever they were looking at. Early Larry Niven would have loved Kangaroo.

That’s all well and good, but I have a protest to make.

This is a fun thriller, yes. Complex mystery? Check. Pulse pounding denouement? Check. Fun and startling technology? Check. Every reviewer gives Curtis Chen credit for these things, and justly so. But I want to talk about character. Kangaroo is an intriguing and complex character, a fact which gets less attention than it deserves, because of all the fireworks going off around him. He lives his life so deep undercover that even he can’t seem to keep track of where his cover story leaves off and the truth begins. How do you get close to other people when you can’t even tell them your real name? It’s a question Kangaroo finds himself wrestling with. He is an orphan, and the brief flashes we get of his childhood are more chilling than heartwarming. He has no relationships. He doesn’t know how to enjoy himself. The only thing Kangaroo has in his life is his very special job. And when your work becomes your pastime, when your identity is something assigned to you by your boss, do you actually have a life at all? Even his face isn’t his own; it’s been surgically altered to be nondescript. Not too handsome; not too ugly.

There’s hardly anything left of Kangaroo (whoever he is) underneath the accoutrements of his career. And the thing is, it sometimes seems as if he’s not even very good at that. But you have to be careful here. Waypoint Kangaroo is told in the first person, which means the narrative is filtered through Kangaroo’s own insecurities, which appear to be many. So maybe he’s just being hard on himself. He covers his insecurity as many people do, with a nonstop patter of jokes. These range from clever to cringeworthy. (He actually considers using the old “If I could walk that way…” chestnut, which must be 300 years old by Kangaroo’s time, but thankfully, he thinks better of it.)

In other words, Kangaroo is just like your conversation partner at your last party. You forgive the clunkers because the next one will be better, just as you forgive Kangaroo when he screws up a mission, because you know the next time, he’ll do better. And that’s what makes Kangaroo so endearing. He has no identity, apart from his work. He tries hard, even though he’s not sure he knows what he’s doing, and if he fails, he tries harder, all the while wondering who he is and how he wound up in this mess. (Sound like anyone you know?)

But you can’t help but wonder what drove him to give up a shot at a normal life for this. Was he running away from his awful upbringing? If so, he has exchanged a stunted childhood for a stunted adulthood. How long can he keep mingling with happy vacationers, pretending to be one of them while silently acknowledging theirs is a life beyond his reach? How long can he keep lying to everyone? How long can he keep covering up the contradictions of his existence with one-liners?

Waypoint Kangaroo ends without answering these questions, but this is the first book of a series, so happily there will be plenty of room to explore these questions in future books. Thrilling plot, exciting twists, and imaginative gadgets are always fun, of course, but I’m looking forward to learning more about Kangaroo, because underneath the plot fireworks, there’s one very intriguing character here. Let’s not forget to give Curtis Chen credit for that as well.

 

Kangaroo Too
by Curtis C. Chen
2017.


And while I was writing the review for Waypoint Kangaroo, I went ahead and read Kangaroo Too, which continues the adventures of Curtis Chen’s marsupially-codenamed spy. I’m not going to write at length about the plot, as that would only spoil the adventure. I’ll just say that this book is a worthy follow-up to its predecessor, and it probes more deeply into Kangaroo’s character and background, which is what I was hoping for after I finished the first book. This character examination comes in a surprising way; I don’t want to spoil the surprise, so I’ll just note that it is hinted at in the title. Read Waypoint Kangaroo first, of course, but after you do, you’ll surely want to pick this one up as well.

A Hard Man Is Good to Find

Exo
by Fonda Lee
2017.


Exo, a young adult SF novel by Fonda Lee, is a great illustration of three of the things a science fiction story can do really well.

One is fantasy fulfillment. Exo is set 150 years in our future, and its protagonist, 17-year old Donovan Reyes is a soldier with a difference. He is an “exo,” meaning that his body has been modified so that he can exude at will a hard exoskeleton, tough enough to stand up to bullets. Don’t even try to hit him with your bare hand. In the time it takes you to swing, his armor will go up and you will hurt yourself worse than him.

It’s high concept, and a great metaphor for a young adult novel. What adolescent wouldn’t want emotional armor that snaps into place when things get tough and lets all the hurt just bounce off you? But this is science fiction, so there’s a catch. Earth of the mid-22nd century is a complicated place. A hundred years earlier, humans were defeated in a terrible war by a non-humanoid alien race called the zhree. Now zhree colonists rule the planet, in cooperation with human governments. Their rule seems benevolent, or at least gentle, but then we are seeing it through Donovan’s eyes, and Donovan is one of the elite humans whom the zhree have admitted into their complex caste system. What life is like for the majority of humans who are not among the chosen is left largely for the reader to speculate upon. Donovan himself isn’t much interested; he seems pretty divorced from the concerns of ordinary humans. His father is a high-ranking official in the collaborationist government; his exo armor is zhree technology. Donovan’s role as a soldier-cop seems mostly to hunt down Sapience, a well-organized anti-zhree resistance movement. Is it that most humans who are not among the elite support Sapience, as the novel makes it appear? Or is this a consequence of seeing his world through Donovan’s eyes, where most of the humans he meets are either the elite or Sapience troublemakers?

A second thing science fiction can do well is illustrate for the reader the experience of being othered. Sapience extremists believe soldiers like Donovan are traitors to their species, and that exos are not merely modified physically by the zhree but also mentally, and have been made into mindless slaves. Killing an exo is to them no crime. It may even be an act of mercy. The zhree colonists on Earth like humans well enough, but we also meet zhree from other worlds who find human appearance repulsive and question whether humans are worth all the trouble they cause. Donovan believes in himself and his work, yet as his story unfolds, he must endure abuse—both emotional and physical—from both zhree and human extremists.

Yet conflicts come in shades of gray, another lesson science fiction, and Exo, present effectively. Not all Sapience members are cold blooded; some see Donovan as a likable young man led astray by the aliens. Some zhree fully embrace humans as their equals; one of the zhree characters even covers for Donovan when he goes rogue. It helps that Lee has given us a cast of well-drawn characters to illuminate the full spectrum of views in this complicated world she’s created.

This world is big. It’s no surprise that a sequel is in the works, as there’s plenty of room left for more stories. Though the canvas is broad, Exo is a personal story. It is Donovan’s story. At first he seems pretty confident in his understanding of the world and his place in it. I might even call him “hard bitten”; surprisingly so in such a young man. But then when you follow him from the warrens of Sapience to the highest levels of zhree government, you discover along with him that there is much more to his world, and to Donovan himself, than either of you suspected.

Exo is just the kind of story that got a lot of us started reading science fiction. It would make a good gift for a young person interested in science fiction. It might also be just the gift for that young person you’re trying to get interested in science fiction.

Barbarian at the Gate

Arslan
by M. J. Engh
1976.


(Warning: This review contains spoilers for a forty-year old book.)

Arslan was written in the late 1960s and was first published in paperback in 1976. It must have come and gone with little notice: I certainly didn’t notice it. But some important people did, because in 1987 it was reissued in a hardcover edition by Arbor House. Algis Budrys, who did a book review column for Fantasy & Science Fiction at that time, wrote an extensive and enthusiastic review that motivated me to buy and read Arslan. I only read it once, thirty years ago, but I never stopped thinking about it. Once Arslan gets into your head, he’ll never leave. This is an amazing and horrifying work. It doesn’t surprise me one bit that those important people who read it in 1976 were agitating for a reprint eleven years later.

From time to time I’ve wondered what became of Arslan. Recently I got an email plugging the book and learned that yes, Arslan lives on. It’s still drawing reviews; there are some good ones here and here and here. And so, I decided to read it again after thirty years, and see how it stacks up after all this time.

Engh is a scholar of ancient history. If you know even a little ancient history, you probably heard stories of peaceful, prosperous civilizations suddenly confronted by an irresistible barbarian army led by a charismatic commander. Think Attila. Think Genghis Khan. Think Tamerlane. Think, an army of people who respect nothing but raw power. And they have all the power. We think of this sort of confrontation as something belonging to the ancient past. Arslan asks a simple but hard question: What would it look like if middle America of the 1960s encountered a modern Genghis Khan and his horde?

I can’t honestly “recommend” this book. It is powerful and memorable. It is also deeply disturbing. Whether you ought to read it depends on how you feel about a deeply disturbing book that will haunt your thoughts for the rest of your life. Some people rave about this book; others report throwing it against the wall after the first chapter. I should give a trigger warning here, because this book contains, well, just about every awful thing you can imagine one human being doing to another. To paraphrase Nietzsche, beware of looking too deeply into Arslan, lest you find Arslan looking deeply into you. Follow me to the other side, if you dare, but don’t say I didn’t warn you….

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Narrator, Unreliable

character, driven hc.indd

Character, Driven
by David Lubar
Tor. 2016.


 

DISCLAIMER: I am going to say some mildly spoilery things about this book farther down in the review. If that bothers you, you should bail before you get there. Don’t worry; I’ll warn you.

I was not previously acquainted with the work of David Lubar. Now I’m going to have to correct that oversight. Character, Driven is a masterful coming-of-age story that, incidentally, is also something of a catalog of literary devices, as the title implies.

We are introduced to Cliff, the first-person narrator of the story. Cliff (as in “on the edge”) is a clever, witty, charming young man who comes to life on the first page, and makes you feel sorry to say goodbye on the last. I speak from personal experience when I say that creating an adolescent character who is charming and authentic at the same time is no small feat, but Lubar makes it look easy.

Cliff has the usual sort of teenager problems. He’s a high school senior who doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life. There’s a new girl in the school that Cliff is interested in, but he’s afraid to ask her out. He is not popular (odd, considering how likable he is, but we’ll get back to that), although he has the usual circle of offbeat friends. He’s working two part-time jobs and having trouble staying awake in class. And he is brutally honest with the reader, sharing his deepest, most shameful thoughts and bravely recounting his life’s greatest embarrassments.

His honesty aside, Cliff has a playful streak, and he lets it run loose with you, the reader. He indulges in word play that ranges from sophisticated to eye-rolling. He gives the characters in his story Dickensian names that reflect their natures. (A teacher with a drinking problem is Mr. Tippler. A super-competitive classmate is Abby Striver. A classmate who has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is Jimby Fasborne.) And he plays with every literary device you can think of, often in the context of denying he’s doing it:

I was almost at the door at the rear of the gym when something smacked the back of my head. I could try to craft a clever literary device to convey disorientation total my but that thing of sort is half too clever by. So, it with on get let’s.

Speaking of literary devices, let’s not overlook the Unreliable Narrator. I suppose that’s slightly spoilery, but before you condemn me, consider that Cliff opens the book by describing himself being beaten within an inch of his life by a stepfather in an alcoholic rage, then picks himself up, dusts himself off (metaphorically speaking), and asks you, the reader, “Do I have your attention? Good. That’s crucial. Grab the reader with the first sentence.” It turns out he doesn’t even have a stepfather; he lives with both his biological parents. His dad is an accountant.

If the self-conscious literary devices and the made-up names and the fanciful opening scene aren’t enough to drive home the point that Cliff isn’t quite as honest as he seems, he concludes the opening chapter by proclaiming that his story better have a good plot, because he is not strong enough of a character to drive the novel himself. Apart from the meta-fictional novelty of watching a character draw his own conclusions about how strong a character he is, in truth Cliff couldn’t be more wrong. This is absolutely a character-driven story, as, um, Lubar told you in the title. So that Cliff is not a 100% trustworthy narrator is obvious early on.

I suspect any teenage boy who likes to read will see a lot of himself in Cliff, and I would recommend the book highly to any and all of them. As well as to any teenage girl who might be wondering what makes boys tick. I also recommend it to older people, like me, who enjoy a good young adult story. This novel made me feel like a teenager again, and at my age, that’s quite a feat. A greater one, even, than creating a likable and authentic teenager.

Also, though I can hardly imagine a worse thing an old person like me might say to a young person to induce them to read a book than, “It will be good for you. You’ll learn something,” it is nevertheless true. The self-conscious style makes Character, Driven a good choice for young people (even not-so-young people) with an interest in writing, or interested in examining the craft of writing.

Okay, it’s time for you spoiler-averse people to bail now. I have one more thing to say. A mild spoiler follows.

I read this book twice in the first week. Why twice? Because there is a revelation on page 277 (out of 290) that made me blurt out “Oh, my God!” to the empty room I was sitting in when I read it. Because, though Cliff has been brutally frank with the reader up to that moment, he has one secret he shares with no one, not even you. As Character, Driven progresses, the reader will begin to pick up that there is an inexplicable sadness in Cliff’s core that comes through in spite of his attempts to laugh it off. Sure, he’s got the usual teenager problems, but when he spends a chapter toying with the idea of suicide, we know something is way wrong.

Cliff eventually comes clean. Not only is there something important in his life that he has been keeping from the reader, he’s even gone so far as to make tweaks to the story, in order to distract you from the one thing Cliff can’t face up to. When he finally finds the courage to tell you (and everyone else), his life changes dramatically.

And so does the book. Most of what’s already happened is now revealed in a new light. And now you have to read it all over again, in that new light. The only other work I can think of to compare this to is The Sixth Sense, the 1999 film by M. Night Shyamalan. Not because Character, Driven has any supernatural elements (it doesn’t), but because, like the film, once you know the reveal at the end, it becomes an entirely different story. And that is David Lubar’s greatest feat of all.