Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Book reviews: “Crimson Meniscus” & “Defragmenting Daniel” An intriguing & frenetic dystopian world from the delightfully twisted mind of Jason Werbeloff

It’s time for the semi-annual post. Just for grins, and because I’ve been promised a tweeted link (I’ve never been tweeted about before!), I decided to stop with the recipes already and combine two of my favorite activities (reading & writing) by posting a review of a couple of books by an up-and-coming writer I recently stumbled upon. (As a disclaimer, I’m not being paid, though I did get a free copy of the second book, Crimson Meniscus. I think I forked over a whopping $.99 for the first book in the series, Defragmenting Daniel. It was worth it.)  The inside of Jason Werbeloff’s head must be a fascinating & wee bit scary place….my favorite kind.

Defragmenting Daniel is the first book in the Bubble/Gutter world, and it would be a good idea to read DD before diving into the 7 shorter works of Crimson Meniscus. Otherwise CM is going to be very confusing, and it would be very difficult to not end up feeling fairly lost because the Bubble/Gutter world is unlike most any other in SF. I say this as someone who’s been reading SF since 1969 (including the SF Golden Age, back to Jules Verne & even earlier works, such as The Golem).  The good news is that DD is in this collection, tho’ at the end. So if you haven’t read that yet, you’ll probably want to start there.

Werbeloff’s writerly mechanics are, thank the universe, strong. This alone puts him well ahead of many e-published authors these days. And he clearly proofreads well & has someone else do the same (it’s very hard to effectively proof your own work), so the plethora of typos & grammatical idiocies & random bits of earlier drafts that tend to clog other new authors’ ebooks is virtually non-existent. Dialogue nearly always sounds like actual people, another rarity in both new and ‘established’ authors. Cliches aren’t. Sly humor pops up in sometimes seriously unexpected places. This world he’s built is, like I mentioned, very fresh; it is a twisted twist on the whole dystopia idea.

The short works of Crimson Meniscus:
“Manufacturing Margaret” is a simultaneously hilarious & horrifying work, at least for those with a sufficiently dark sense of humor. Again, those unfamiliar with DD are probably not going to be able to figure out what’s going on; the narrator is an artificially intelligent taxi that’s addicted to soap operas & has a rather shaky grip on reality. As I read “MM” I couldn’t help thinking of James Thurber’s piece about radio soaps, where the actors & studios would receive hundreds of cards & gifts when characters got married, or the “other woman” actresses would get threats mailed to them for being despicable homewreckers from listeners who couldn’t distinguish entertainment from reality (that sort of thing didn’t stop with the advent of TV soaps). So, the taxi was no more screwed up than a lot of humans. What the taxi does, however, is a tad more extreme than sending some cards & letters.

“Investing Isobella” This is one that taxed even my very flexible suspension of disbelief, though not to the breaking point. Being a biologist & researcher, I just couldn’t shut up the internal critic that kept clearing its throat & asking how the scenario that drives the plot could work (I have similar problems with some of the VR-ish/”phase” issues that appear in many of the Bubble-verse, but step harder on the voice then because I’m not nearly as well versed in VR or physics). But for those who aren’t complete bio-nerds, or even for those who are, this is another arresting, scary scenario, one that carries risk-taking to drastic new levels. If you think it’s risky to gamble on the stock market now….! Heh heh.

“Oscillating Olaf” relies heavily on the “phase” concept mentioned above. The story is a neat idea if you can wrap your head around the whole phase shift concept. I also found myself repeatedly wondering if the Russian translations were accurate…I may have to adopt some of the phrases. At any rate, Olaf, the protagonist, is a guy you feel sympathy for while wanting to reach in & smack him (well, I did at times). He’s kind of a down-trodden worker who gets a big, though not necessarily great, idea for climbing out of his rut.

“Patenting Peter” Hoo-ee. The rules of the Tokyo Bubble society in this piece are extreme even for the extreme world of the Bubble. Werbeloff gives a reasonable explanation (within context) for them, though it would have helped me cruise along through the story more easily if the explanation had come a bit earlier; I was pulled from the story several times as I wondered why in the world those rules were made –then I got the story behind them, as it were, and they made more sense (in a bizarre sort of way). As in Werbeloff’s other works in the Bubble/Gutter society, the depths of human cruelty that can arise from indifference can make even me a bit queasy, & I don’t have a real high vision of the wonderfulness of the species anyway. On the other hand, if you’re feeling bad about your spouse, this could make things look great in comparison.

“Severing Sidney” Another extreme in the extremes. This story seemed more creeping horror within the SF context, though much of the “Bubble-verse” has strong horrific undertones anyway. And I (cynic that I am) had no trouble believing that tech could change marriage so drastically while religion kept divorce verboten; societies that try to wed science with religion have come up with some screwy ideas, but nothing like this. The story gives the whole concept of “separation” a savage new twist.

“Aborting Andromeda” It occurs to me that to keep saying this or that story is ‘extreme’ is fairly silly because there are extremes all over the place, frequently layered atop one another. I’m guessing this story will generate a lot a froth, given that the basic idea is “Post Natal Abortion,” i.e. “abortion” up to the age of 25. Can’t deal with an offspring/loved one? Scrub ’em from existence. Part of me loves the idea because I have a prime candidate or two. But it’s just one of the eye-popping/stomach churning options available in the world of the Bubble, where credit really can buy anything. The story is not exactly a ringing endorsement of the concept, just as reassurance for those who might be inclined to avoid the story altogether just on principle.

And since Defragmenting Daniel is sort of a pre-req for fully appreciating Crimson Meniscus, here’s my review of DD:

I’m always excited to discover new authors, especially as I read so fast I’m constantly on the prowl for another book. I stumbled onto this one totally by chance, and was very happy as I read along. The writing was vivid & coherent and the idea well executed. Though I am a biologist & very long-term fan of hard SF, I was okay with the fact that some of the more extreme elements of Webeloff’s world didn’t have explanations and stood on rather shaky scientific underpinnings; this is more of a sociological SF than a hard biological SF (if you physics types will permit me to phrase it that way). The drastically futuristic tech (biological & computer-related) pretty much saturates the book, so if you’re not able to suspend disbelief on a society based on tech that borders on magic, beware. The tech ranges from organs switched as easily as our socks to programmable clothing that changes at the wearer’s whim (both in appearance and at the tactile level) to VR-type glasses that operate everything to flying/hovering taxis that are invisible unless you have the glasses, up to the entire Bubble, which operates on a certain ‘phase’ & virtually ceases to exist if you put yourself in a different ‘phase.’

There are very disturbing elements to the book; if you’re a reader who has trouble with blood or violence, or casual cruelty, you might want to give this one a pass. This world is a pitiless and vicious place. I wish I could say I couldn’t believe that people would be so depraved that they’d pay to hack up children for fun ‘n’ recreation if it were legal, but I’ve read too much history and seen too much reality to doubt it. Once one group of people views some other group as a subhuman “Them,” there’s no limit to the atrocities they can –and will– commit upon Them. And feel just fine & perfectly justified about doing it. I actually had more difficulty believing that Gepetto would so quickly & casually take in a total stranger off the street in this scary world.

Daniel is at first a very sympathetic character; orphaned, dumped out into a nearly totally unknown world on his 18th birthday, filled with crappy generic replacements for the body parts that’ve been taken from him to ‘pay’ for his room & board & the privilege work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week cleaning out organs yanked from other Gutter inhabitants. As he begins indulging in some cruelty of his own to regain his body parts, it is a little harder to love him, but given the world he inhabits, his behavior is not particularly surprising.

I loved Daniel’s cat, Odin, and the fact that Daniel sacrifices what little he has to share with Odin, and I don’t care if Odin only exists to provide more warm & fuzzy feelings for Daniel. Odin actually reminded me a lot of a real-life cat, Norman, the Scottish Fold who traveled the world with his human. Odin was a very nice touch, as well as being a cool cat.

I had some problems getting warmed up to Kage, the former Kassandra, but only because I couldn’t figure out who he was trying to impress (other than himself, and he clearly had some self-image issues). He says (well, he thinks) that he dislikes women, he gets really angry when people think he’s a gay man, but he really loves the way it feels when a man puts his hand on Kage’s back, and is thrilled when an impulsive dinner invite to a woman is accepted. I assume this contradictory behavior was supposed to be indicative of how conflicted Kage is, but I wished there was some better clarity; what does Kage really want, besides bigger muscles & a more manly voice? Ambivalence toward this character is sort of a problem since he’s the protagonist’s foil, or possibly nemesis.

General mechanics notes:
-Hallelujah for Werbeloff, because he proofreads & has professional proofreading done. This makes him a very rare bird these days. There are almost no typos or grammatical errors or dangling bits of sentences cluttering up the landscape like blown trash.
-Dialogue sounds like actual humans talking; another rarity & one of the harder aspects of writing to do well.


The round-up:

As my tagline Bradbury quote indicates, I am very much in favor of reading. When I was teaching I would sometimes get into arguments with other educators, the classic “They should read Quality Literature” vs “Let ’em read whatever grabs their fancy; it’ll spread” debate. I was firmly in the “whatever” camp; get kids interested in reading by letting them pick an interesting subject. Once the act of reading becomes easy for them they’re much more likely to expand their literary horizons, even unto Quality. And I have no patience for snobs who think SF (or “speculative” or SciFi or whatever the term is) is a waste of brain cells; there’s good SFm & SF that really is a waste of brain cells. Luckily, there comes along new writers who build onto the edifice of good, interesting, gripping SF. Though I don’t claim that Werbeloff is another Bradbury (nobody is), his writing is good, interesting, gripping hard/sociological/biological SF with a dash of horror that can keep you up nights, maybe even after you’ve put the book down. Dive into a new world…it may be even scarier than the real one, but it sure makes a good diversion from the real one.

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