The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination

Mad-Scientist-Cvr_091312The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination: Original Short Fiction for the Modern Evil Genius. John Joseph Adams, Ed. New York: Tor, 2013. MP3.

Genre: Anthology

Summary: A collection of 22 positively witty and wicked short stories from a slew of talented authors including Harry Turtledove, Diana Gabaldon, Carrie Vaughn, and Austin Grossman, to name only a few.

Critique: Throughout the collection, stories explore an intriguing hypothetical to its inevitably surprising conclusion.

What if your girlfriend discovers and breaches your your super-secret underground evil genius laboratory? Do you forgive the violation of your private space and adult autonomy (not to mention countless passwords) or do you seal her up and doom her to a cruel atomic death?

What if you are the success coach and motivational speaker to some of the world’s worst bad guys? You know, the really inept ones who just can’t get their evil sh*t together and make a decent headline? Do you suffer under a crummy 15% commission for those rarely successful heists or do you steal every trick of the trade and turn yourself into the Mother of All Things Evil?

Or, what if you’re the personal assistant to a super evil genius who totally neglects to appreciate all that you do while the superhero’s personal assistant gets flowers on her birthday and regular salary increases? Would you sell out your boss and botch his next evil plan to take over the world?

Count on each story to take a fresh approach to modern villainy. Depend upon your heartstrings getting plucked and your thoughtomaton brain to purr with rumination more than once as tough interpersonal and ethical issues are dealt out and duked over. Most especially, expect to laugh out loud a lot!

For best results: read (or listen) to this book in a crowded public place!


Saga by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples

sagaVaugn, Brian K. Saga, vol 1. Illus. Fiona Staples. Berkeley, CA: Image Comics, 2012. Print.

Genre: Graphic Novel

Summary: Racial opposites, Marko and Alana, fight on opposing sides of a bloody interstellar war, until they fall in love. Defecting from the army, they run away and begin a family. With a new baby to care for, they escape danger after danger as they seek to lead a new life on a new planet anywhere else in the galaxy where they can be peaceful and happy.

Critique: All the books in this series are short, but don’t expect a quick read. The artwork is too exceptional to flip past. While the plot tends to follow familiar and comfortable archetypal patterns, the quantity, diversity, and originality of the worlds and creatures rendered in Staples’s poised drawings are dazzling, baffling, and amazing! Not since the living days of Jim Henson have feral minds been exposed to such an intoxicating wealth of believable and endearing fantanimals!


The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi


Bacigalupi, Paolo. The Windup Girl. 2009. New York: Brilliance Audio, 2015. MP3.

Genre: science fiction

Summary: A genetically modified girl inadvertently kicks off a political shit storm in her struggle to escape the brothel imprisoning her.

Critique: Bacigalupi, a fellow Coloradan, has won the Hugo, the Nebula, even the Printz awards for his excellent writing! In this book, he deploys a future world that feels inevitable and inescapable! He paints a staggeringly accurate picture of what lies ahead if our current global conglomerates cannot (or will not) curb their energy dependence and waste! In the world of The Windup Girl, petroleum is a thing of the faded past. It’s been tapped. Nuclear energy is also out of the question, given the depletion of the materials needed to feed it. As a result, machines run off of kink-springs, tightly wound devices that tick off spasms of energy. Smaller devices, like a computer, run off whatever energy you can kick up while drumming your feet on a treadle! Flight is a luxury made possible with dirigible airships. And for really big machines to run, you basically have to hook them up to megadonts (a genetically spliced super animal made from elephants and mammoths).

But that’s only just the tip of Bacigalupi’s worldbuilding iceburg! Food systems have been completely destroyed by the mega-mono-cropping Monsanto types and their genetically modified comestibles. Mass plagues super-pests, and destructive vermin infect and destroy. Gene rippers and genehackers, brilliant scientists, have to resurrect extinct plants from patchy fossil records. Nonetheless, micro-bugs with sweet, evocative names like “blister rust,” “cibiscosis,” and “genehack weevil” hide themselves inside the university-lab-made foods sold on the market, and government corruption makes any and all disease-free certifications useless!

Life in all forms hangs on a tatty thread.

Cheery, ain’t it?

Needless to say, the worldbuilding in this novel is stunning, toothsome, captivating! Never will you find yourself so eager to turn the page and learn more about the freakshow that is future ecology! Never will you be so riveted by the sustainability innovations keeping a civilization teeter-tick-tocking along the precipice of collapse.

If only the ensemble cast of characters populating the novel were equally gripping and compelling. Don’t get me wrong, they are believable, complex human beings (one of them is a g-mod super-human sort) and they all have deep-seated desires driving their choices from bad to worse. But, the author takes a long time to reveal their true motives, which leaves the reader wondering for far too long: why is everyone so hectic and desperate? Also, relative to the problems maligning this disastrously delicate and all-too-believable world, the character’s problems seem a bit…well, piddly.

Perhaps it is also possible that Bacigalupi spent too much time on the less compelling male figures: AgroGen business mogul Anderson Lake, his weasling double-dealing secretary Hock Seng, or the true blue officer of the Environment Ministry, Jaidee, a former god in the Muay Thai ring. These men definitely have complex motives, genuine emotions, and conflicted ethics. But their stories are nowhere near as engaging as the women: Emiko, a New Person grown in a lab and designed to move in stutter stops so that she will always be a second class citizen, and Kanya, Jaidee’s second-in-command, who double-crosses her boss and must redeem her sins if she is to keep the whole world falling to hell in a hand basket! Emiko breaks our hearts again and again, while Kanya drives much of the action in the last third of the option, and yet both ladies get little comparative page time.

Nonetheless, The Windup Girl is still well worth your reading time! If nothing else, you can let your inner eco-geek run as wild as a megadont!


Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov

Asimov, Isaac. Pebble in the Sky. 1950. North Kingstown, RI: BBC Audio, 2009. MP3.


Genre: science fiction

Summary: Robert Fass narrates Asimov’s first novel, and the story that kicks off the Foundation series in book form. Thanks to an accident in a nearby chemistry lab, unsuspecting Joseph Schwartz steps through a wrinkle in time. The retired tailor finds himself catapulted 50,000 years into the future. He doesn’t speak the language, he doesn’t know anyone, and he’s well over the age of “retirement.” Retirement here being a word that means the age when you are euthanized in order to preserve Earth’s precious few resources. Joseph begs a farming family for help and they take him to see a doctor. The doctor is really a brilliant scientist experimenting with neuron-boosting technology. He successfully accelerates the neurons in Joseph’s brain, effectively turning the tailor into a super-cognitive-being. He’s telekinetic, physic, learns languages mega-fast. And he can kill with a thought. Joseph is quickly entangled in a sinister plot that could destroy countless quadrillions of lives across the Galactic Empire. Earth will transition from a lowly pebble in the sky to the ruling intergalactic powerhouse.

Critique: A tremendous first novel. Ambitious ideas skillfully executed. Asimov employs deft omniscience — a point of view increasingly misused or neglected these days. What’s more, he masters omniscient narration with a psychic character who can see the future. And not a single drop of tension is spilled or wasted for the reader! Writer’s studying dialogue should not reference this work. Much of what Asimov puts down is corny, on-the-nose, and reminiscent of stuff Errol Flynn might say while clad in bright colored tights. (And no, I will not excuse the dialogue being a product of its time! The 40s and 50s were still part of the Golden Age of noir and hard boiled films with some of the sharpest dialogue ever to ring in the human ear!)

However, Asimov’s world building techniques are worth noting. In some ways, he barrages the reader with brute force science. In his “other life,” Asimov was a scientist. A fluent speaker of the language of physics and chemistry, he accosts the reader from the start in a sit-down-and-shut-up way. The reader does, like a student in a pass/fail high-stakes lecture. Asimov then establishes the molecular mechanics of accidental time travel and we go happily along for the ride, so pleased that our capable narrator knows it all.

Asimov also puts science fiction to its proper use, which is to show that which does not change easily in human nature. Tens of thousands of years in the future, we still deal with prejudice. We still have bigots. No matter how fast and far technology goes, we exert the same inertia to change. Perhaps that realization is as demoralizing as it is inspiring.