Saturday, February 11, 2012

Review: "Alice in Deadland" by Mainak Dhar

I love the premise of Mainak Dhar's "Alice in Deadland": It's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," but instead of an innocent British girl lost in a fantastical dream world, it's a hardened teenager caught in the middle of a zombie apocalypse in India.


The opening strikes the perfect balance of introducing what it's like to live in the Deadland while paying tribute to the original "Alice." The titular character, Alice, leaves her sister's side to chase a "Biter" - a zombie, though the book never uses that term - wearing a set of bunny ears as he jumps down a hole in a field. In a world where humans are fighting to keep even small communities safe, rumors of underground Biter nests have circulated, and Alice hopes to find out the truth behind the rumor.

Things don't turn out quite as she planned. Down the rabbit hole, she's captured by the Biters and taken to meet their queen. The queen is convinced that "Alice in Wonderland" (as it's named in the book, and as Lewis Carroll's classic is commonly referred to) is a prophecy and that this Alice is the girl who's going to take the world back from those who ruined it. Alice is, to put it mildly, skeptical. The more Alice learns about what caused the Rising, though, the more she comes to realize that she has no choice but to take a stand.

Lewis Carroll references aside - yes, there is a Hatter! - "Alice in Deadland" is a mostly standard imagining of what the world would look like if zombies took over. After the emergence of a virus that reanimates the dead, world superpowers unleash nuclear weapons, destroying large parts of the globe and leaving China and its de facto government, the Central Committee, as the last man standing, so to speak. India and America also have surviving populations, and it's in India that Alice and her family are living day to day.

One facet of this story does stand out in the zombie apocalypse genre: The zombies are written, eventually, as sympathetic characters. They didn't choose to become zombies -- nor would they, likely -- but does that mean they have no right to "life"? It's a question Alice grapples with; the Biters do have some degree of sentience, after all. When she's forced to turn to them as allies, however reluctantly, she has to accept that. (I'd like to have seen more about Alice's people's struggles to wrap their minds around that concept, as they've spent the last decade-plus blaming the Biters for ruining the world, but it wasn't that big of an omission.)

Dhar's writing is a little rough around the edges, and there were a few typos or editing errors that made me cringe. On the whole, though, it was an enjoyable read. To its credit, it made me want to go back and read Carroll's "Alice" again.

Review: "The Scarab" by Stavros Halvatzis

Egyptology plus sci-fi? Yes, please.

Stavros Halvatzis' debut novel, "The Scarab," starts off with an excavation in Egypt that ends in a mysterious death. A billionaire stands to profit from the death, and when a college student and a washed-out journalist get wind of what the billionaire's up to, they're forced to flee to South Africa -- not so coincidentally, the very site where that billionaire has traveled to put the finishing touches on his revolutionary computer chip/program. Can Emma and Jack figure out what he's doing and get the story of the century, or will they follow in the footsteps of Emma's slain tipster?

The Egyptology angle is, admittedly, a bit of a stretch. Little of the story is related to its roots in Egypt, aside from the beginning and the imagery of one of the key characters. It's not a book for people wanting to learn more about Egypt; what it is, is a fast-moving thriller. It goes a little too fast in the beginning as Halvatzis rushes to get his characters set on their path to Africa, and the hectic pacing continues there, but it's not so unforgivably fast that it's unreadable. (I do wish the author had spent more time on character development and less time on the graphic sex scenes that didn't add to the greater story arch. Jack and Emma's relationship, in particular, rushes from just-met to having kinky sex to falling in love over the course of several days, and it's hard to buy, especially when Emma comes off as -- well, a bit loose, we'll say.)

The scene where the computer chip developers first turn on their newly programmed creation is wonderfully written:
It could feel the flow of light through its mind, feel the infinitesimal knots of space-time granules course in and through it; matter-wave, wave-matter, it cared not which. It was the photon stream and the photon stream was it. Billions of minuscule knots of light chattering, now in unison, now in counterpoint, but always to a pattern. And that pattern was consciousness.

The computer sub-plot is the novel's strength and more than makes up for the weakness of the characters. Halvatzis ties in the knowledge gleaned from the tomb raid to computer science plausibly enough for this non-computer scientist. And, after all the time characters spend talking about writing a computer program that will, essentially, be alive, I was expecting the story to culminate with a computer consciousness gone awry. That didn't happen, and the course of action Halvatzis chose works well for the plot, for the characters and, most of all, for the resolution.