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The Bitter Guide to Science Fiction

It's the Bitter Guide! Now MSG free!

Justin Mohareb
September 19, 2001

Greetings, Bitterites and neo-Bitterites! Welcome to the summertime hazy edition of The Bitter Guide (and the way I tend to submit these things, you should be reading it by October [Editor's note: not far off the mark, given that it was sitting on my desk languishing until I remembered about it.]).

This month's (fiscal quarter's, shurely!) Bitter Guide will consist of books I've read over the past year that were, in fact, relatively new when I got them, and any of them would have been a fine basis for a column. So you're getting a year of greatness in one column. How much do I love you, my faithful?

First off, however, I must direct you: you should quickly, and hastily, find your way onto http://www.badazzmofo.com, the website of Badazz Mofo, the greatest movie magazine in human history. HNIC David Walker has analyzed and deconstructed the blaxploitation genre, bringing information many of us would have gone to our graves lacking.

BAMOFO has also had articles that cover, for example, the action films of Walter Matthau (you're laughing. Why are you laughing? Have you never seen The Taking of Pelham 123? Quentin Tarantino has) and how Jesus Christ was, in fact, a Badass. The magazine delivers all of this (and more; I haven't scratched the surface) in a humorous style. Truly, BAMOFO is The Best Zine Ever. And it's only a LITTLE honky hostile these days. Try to skip the stuff written by his intern, though. Ich.

Now the books!

Shadow of the Pokemon by Orson Scott Card is the story of Bean, a young genius Pokemon trainer who must defeat Achilles, the evil trainer of AsianInvasion-achu. It's a rip-roaring adventure tale, with Bean traveling around the world in the company of his sexy assistant, Sister Carlotta.

No, wait. That's wrong. Shadow of the Hegemon is actually a sequel to Ender's Shadow. To be honest, it's better than Xenocide, which only means I was able to finish it. The book had interesting moments, with the leftover genius commander kids being used as secret weapons by the superpowers of Earth. But the characters just come across as stupid. If they're not a super-genius (which 90% of them are), they're a complete moron. As a result, the leaders of, say, Russia, India, Pakistan, and China all come across as pretty darn stupid.

Look at it this way: An Amway salesman comes to your door. He says he'll make you rich AND the master of a united Asia. All you have to do is X.

Now, suppose you, being a smart feller (or lady!) decide to investigate this Amway salesman. You find out that this fellow is actually a psychotic, who has escaped from a mental hospital where he keeps trying to kill people. And X, well, X will require you to leave yourself open to a HUGE attack from India/Pakistan/China.

Now, what do you do: A) lock him in the funny bin, or B) put him in charge of your country's plans for taking over the rest of the continent? In Ender-world, it would be B. For every country except Thailand. And the only reason the Thai government doesn't put Achilles in charge at some point is because Bean gets there first. Cause he likes their chicken, with the peanut sauce.

It's quite annoying. Everyone talks about characters who are really, REALLY smart. But when you don't have a strange, alien enemy for them to outwit, you have to fall back on boring, normal human enemies. And the only way to make them seem really, REALLY smart seems to be to make their human opponents really, REALLY stupid. It got to be that it seemed as if China & Russia were run by the Keystone Kops.

And, really. What's the deal with painting India as the great Asian aggressor, keen on consuming great swathes of the continent in some very spicy, vegetarian form of manifest destiny? I mean, they've spent 20 years on it and haven't even managed to get the Kashmir. Unless their secret plan for world domination involves vegetarian curry outlets and cranky computer programmers ('turn off your music!' Whatever, buddy), I can't really see them pulling it off. We'll just have the Brazilians ride their Mad Cow infected cattle cavalry (hey, I think I've just developed an expansion for Battle Cattle!) at them and they'll turn tail and run.

I'll admit, I want to see how the series turns out. I want to see how Bean defeats Achilles. I want to see if Bean lives long enough to get laid. I want to see if Sister Carlotta manages to survive The Battle of the Brains, grade school edition. But I won't lose sleep waiting for the next exciting chapter.

T2 : Infiltrator, by SM Stirling, does not suck. It isn't NEARLY as bad as it should be. It manages to squeak out of the Jaws of Media SF Suckage with nary a second to spare.

The book reads like it was probably a script; Stirling even manages to get Ahnold into the story, in a way that wouldn't be totally ridiculous onscreen (unlike Jean Claude VanDamme, who's made a career out of 'why does THIS guy have a French accent? He's a French Legionnaire who went AWOL to fight in street fights in New York?'). He writes in a character who (gasp!) looks JUST like a terminator, and has an Austrian accent, and he's actually a human!

It's a fun story, anyway. It builds on the stuff from the second Terminator film, and even takes into account the fact the planet didn't end on August 29, 1997 like the movies said it would. In this story, Skynet sends back in time a super-sexy death cyborg (something of a specialty of Stirling's, if I haven't been lied to) to ensure that it is created, because with all the temporal distortions and such, it's been having disk errors.

The super-death agent decides that it has to kill Sara & John Connor because, well, it's pretty much habit by this point. Stirling also involved Miles Dyson's brother as an FBI agent who becomes obsessed with being as stereotypical as possible. I mean, with avenging his brother's death.

The story is pretty good, and I'll admit when he's not producing masturbatory tales of the superior white race, Stirling's stuff can write a darn good action sequence.

Of course, the ending of the book is ruined when it jumps up and kicks you in the groin, screaming "Sequel, bitch! Snoooogans!"

Okay, let's get it out of the way: Neil Gaiman is god. He's a super-writer, and I still haven't read the copy of his last book my wife got me for our first Valentine's Day present. But American Gods... Man, I think there was something up there.

I mean, when you think about it, who's better qualified to write a book about the sacred in the world today that Neil Gaiman, right? I mean, 8 years of Sandman proved that. So why did American Gods disappoint me so? Okay, I admit, when I was reading it, it was a blast. It was great. I jumped from page to page, reading all the stuff, and there were some really cool bits. But afterwards, I just went "well, that was odd." The biggest thing was why, exactly, did God & Allah and Jehovah get left out of the whole thing? I mean, technically they're/he is still (a) God(s), right? Why wouldn't Media and Technology choose to go after what people really believe in, rather than faiths that are literally relics of past ages?

I also have issues with the gods Gaiman used for the new American pantheon (why does that sound like a car?). Where, for example, was Cars? You can't tell me for a minute there aren't a lot of people in the states who don't worship their cars. I saw The Fast and the Furious.

And why was there only "Media" (which has two cool things: A) it sounds the same as Medea, and B) it offers to show the main character of the book Lucille Ball's bosoms, pre Little-Ricky), when there should have been this great unholy dysfunctional divine family of TV, Radio, and Newspapers.

Hell, I would have loved to see an American war god with two faces: Gulf War (all video screens and collateral damage) and Old War (where people kill each other in large numbers for shockingly small amounts of real estate).

And another thing: Neil, we're not stupid. Many of us, while not as smart as you, are fairly bright. Which means we realize the first rule in the book of storytelling, in the chapter on divinity, goes as such: The protagonist will be the son of a god. What? You mean some people out there didn't figure this out in the first ten pages of the book? Then they likely had the book read to them by a kind stranger to prevent lip strain.

If there's ANY doubt about a character's heritage, and they get within 250 metres of a deity in the course of a book, they're half-god. Let's be honest here. If Charlie Brown had crossed over with Xena, we would have discovered that Chuck was really the son of Zeus, and was conceived when old Zee approached Mrs. Brown in the form of Snoopy (what, like it's any less gross than a swan?).

Terry Pratchett should have made an appearance as well, as the god of popular literature. Did you know that 48% of all books sold in England are written by Terry Pratchett? And that the other 52%, two thirds are Harry Potter books, and the rest are cookbooks that have a 2d4/2d12 San requirement and a single book on oral hygiene that gets ten copies sold every two years (statistics may be made up)?

Of course, the discworld books had been rather erratic lately, so when I got Thief of Time, I went in with a little apprehension. I mean, The Truth rocked, but he still had to rebuild trust after The Last continent.

Mission accomplished. Thief of Time is a book that many have termed Terry Pratchett's Superhero book. Okay, at least two people have called it that. Now, I wouldn't go that far. It does use the Monks of Time and Susan Sto Helit, Death's Grand-daughter (and that's not just a clever nickname).

These folks, if not straight Super, do get to do fun and interesting things, like step between time and beat up imaginary monsters (which, on the discworld, aren't quite that imaginary). The characters in ToT are all up to their snuff, and the stuff with the History Monks is particularly rich. Just remember rule #1 (never, ever, challenge a smiling old man).

The story is nice, and there's a great curve thrown in. All in all, very enjoyable. I look forward to the next discworld book, which at this rate will be out in a week.

Heralds of the Storm is a book that, quite frankly, should have sucked. Hard and long. It's game fiction, for one thing. That, right there, is a bad idea. Worse, it's World of Darkness game fiction that interweaves no fewer than three different varieties of beasties from within the WoD. Ouch. But author Andrew Bates manages to do something I never would have imagined. He takes that ill-fated design, and makes it work. Heralds of the Stormis the first book in the Year of the Scarab trilogy. The cover is very interesting, depicting the novel's main character, Thea Ghandour, in low cut shorts. Lemme tell you, if I'd been able to find an Egyptian girl like that, my mommy and daddy would have been happy (<whipped> not, of course, to insinuate that either they or I could be any happier with my choice of mate than we are with Mrs. Bitter. Sweet Jebus, no. <whipped>).

The book follows the adventures of a group of Hunters who find their paths crossing that of a Risen wraith by the name of Maxwell Carpenter. Now, I think Mr. Carpenter was actually a signature character for Wraith that Mr. Bates created, but I could be wrong. In which case, this is actually a 'write a story about my character book', which makes its lack of suckitude even more miraculous.

The only complaint I have about the book? The Mummy content is shockingly low. I mean, you don't even GET a mummy until the last 30 pages or so. Depressing, indeed.

The sequel, Lay Down With Lions, proves the first book wasn't a fluke. It even manages to succeed with FOUR supernatural type critters in it (Hunters, a Mummy and his crew, A Risen (and his knife), a Vampire, The professor, and Mary-anne). Sure, it spends way too much time following Ace Vampire Archaeologist Beckett around, as he seeks the truth about the Vampiric condition.

The back cover of the book is fairly bad, actually. Whoever wrote should know two rules (not guidelines, mind you. Rules) about writing the back cover copy of a novel: A) If something hasn't happened until after the first 100 pages of a book, don't mention it on the back cover. B) If it doesn't happen at ALL by the end of the book, DON'T FRIGGIN' MENTION IT. Case in point? The back of Lay Down with Lions mentions how Beckett lets slip vital information that clues Khalid el-Uglyface into the existence of the Mummies. Uhhhhh... No. It doesn't look like any such thing happens in the book. But thanks for playing; we have lovely parting gifts for you.

Otherwise, it's fine. No Shakespeare, but no Clan Novel: Toreador either. And so, that ends this installment of "Books that were new when I read them." Now go out and buy copies of them. I need a new pair of pants.

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What do you think?

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All Bitter Guides to Science Fiction by Justin Mohareb

Ha ha! I lied! #1-7 are up at his site, and I haven't added a link yet. Here are his most recent, though.

  • Because it's been too long January 15, 2002
  • It's the Bitter Guide! Now MSG free! September 19, 2001
  • And it's all verbal June 25, 2001
  • The official, Millenial, Party-licious Wes Smiderle Bitter Guide (with a sprinkling of Buffy and little chocolate toppings) April 4, 2001
  • The Bitter Guide: Pants Optional November 16, 2000
  • Not Suitable for Pregnant Women or People with High Blood Pressure August 31, 2000
  • Saludos, Amigos, a bitter greeting to you! May 4, 2000
  • I am the Bitter Guy! Watch Iron Chef!, April 7, 2000
  • The Bitter Guide to Books I Couldn't Finish, January 14, 2000, plus special bonus The Bitter Guide to the new Moe-llennium
  • Squirrels Eat Parsley, Yum!, December 6, 1999
  • Second Anniversaries and Weddings, June 29, 1999
  • Begin Witty and Trenchant rantery, April 13, 1999
  • #10 November 24, 1999
  • #9 September 29, 1998
  • #8 July 28, 1998

    Other columns at RPGnet

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