Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme. These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.

This column’s theme: That screen will rot your brain: books where electronic devices do bad things.I know we’re all spending a lot of time on screens these days, and not everything coming through them is good for your sanity. For sure, it’s very easy to connect and find something that can turn the most innocuous of people into a raving lunatic or completely disassociate them from reality, and I know I’m not the only one wondering how much further this can possibly go…because this month’s Shelf Care features three books where this concept gets taken to it’s logical conclusion.

And yes, I do realize the irony in using a website to deliver the suggestion that you might want to spend a bit less time online, but before you log off, consider the following books…

So if you like:

Cyberspace
The satirical tone of David Wong
Video games
Linguistics

You might like

Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson

Overview

In a corporate dominated future, a programmer hunts down a virus that’s gone a level up from wiping hard drives, and moved on to wiping the brains of other programmers.

Sample passage

The Deliverator used to make software. Still does, sometimes. But if life were a mellow elementary school run by well-meaning education Ph.D.s, the Deliverator’s report card would say: “Hiro is so bright and creative but needs to work harder on his cooperation skills.”

So now he has this other job. No brightness or creativity involved—but no cooperation either. Just a single principle: The Deliverator stands tall, your pie in thirty minutes or you can have it free, shoot the driver, take his car, file a class-action suit. The Deliverator has been working this job for six months, a rich and lengthy tenure by his standards, and has never delivered a pizza in more than twenty-one minutes.

Takeaway

This is the funhouse mirror reflection of William Gibson’s Neuromancer. There are coders, mercenaries, and criminals but it’s also completely over the top take on the world around cyberspace, where governments have given way to corporations and city states, and high tech violence is common. Its hero-hacker starts out delivering pizza for the Mob, and ends up tracking down something called ‘Snow Crash’ that’s leaving programmers brain dead. The how and the why of this introduces some characters that wouldn’t be out of place in a Bond film and yet the book somehow manages the balancing act of retaining plausibility while being an outrageous ride.
Tip: if you’re considering a career involving computers, this book is also required reading.

Or if you like:

Stephen King (I think by now he’s published enough to become his own frame of reference)
A cell plan that will drive you even crazier
Post apocalypse survival
Books made into movies

You might like

Cell, by Stephen King

Overview

A cell phone signal gone bad turns everybody into zombies, complicating a father’s search for his son.

Sample passage

“Okay.” The cop handed Clay the card he’d been holding between his fingers. “I’m Officer Ulrich Ashland. This is my card. You may be called on to testify about what just happened here, gentlemen. What happened was you needed assistance, I rendered it, I was attacked, I responded.”

“You wanted to kill him,” Clay said.

“Yes, sir, we’re putting as many of them out of their misery as fast as we can,” Officer Ashland agreed. “And if you tell any court or board of inquiry that I said that, I’ll deny it. But it has to be done. These people are popping up everywhere. Some only commit suicide. Many others attack.” He hesitated, then added: “So far as we can tell, all the others attack.” As if to underline this, there was another gunshot from across the street, a pause, then three more, in rapid succession, from the shadowed forecourt of the Four Seasons Hotel, which was now a tangle of broken glass, broken bodies, crashed vehicles, and spilled blood. “It’s like the Night of the Living Dead.” Officer Ulrich Ashland started back toward Boylston Street with his hand still on the butt of his gun. “Except these people aren’t dead. Unless we help them, that is.”

Takeaway

I gotta give it to this book – two pages in and everything’s falling apart. No waiting around for ‘human happy meal’ to become a thing. King is not afraid to just get on with it here, and if you’re a fan of King’s post-apocalyptic fiction, you’ll probably enjoy Cell. It hits some of the notes that The Stand did, while being more grounded in the technical than the spiritual. There’s a disaster, a road trip, an encounter with crazies acting expressly against their self interests for the most trivial of reasons– and might I just insert a giant apology here to King for my initial criticism of how unrealistic that behavior would be. Current events have, sadly, proved him right.

Taking a broader view here, the concept of information as virus has been explored in a number of ways, it was not nearly as prevalent in 2006 as it is today, with the prevalence of memes being just one example of this. I’d imagine, in hindsight, there are a few oddly prescient metaphors here… 

Or if you like:

Disney buddy animal movies written by Seth MacFarlane
Watership Down with cursing
The animal view of the zombie apocalypse
Road trips
Seattle

You might like

Hollow Kingdom, by Kira Jane Buxton

Overview

A crow and a bloodhound go looking for survivors and purpose in the zombie apocalypse.

Sample passage

“Easy, Dennis. Easy, boy,” I said, mimicking Big Jim every time he loaded Dennis into the bathtub as I hopped onto the sink to avoid a tidal wave of water. Big Jim was always too busy wrestling the hound and camouflaging the bathroom in soapsuds to listen to me explain Dennis’s predicament. It wasn’t the bath Dennis was afraid of—it was the plughole. He was afraid he would get sucked down into the dark and we wouldn’t find him. Dennis was onto something; I once cached the house key down there and it was never seen again.

Dennis let out a tight growl.

“Good boy, Dennis. It’s okay. I gotcha,” I whispered, shuffling toward him. Pain was licking up my wing in electric streaks, and my injury wasn’t half as bad as Dennis’s. Other than a sharp whine, he didn’t protest anymore, seeming to trust me, to accept my medical assistance.

“Brother Blackwing,” came the imposing voice. I grimaced. Both titles bothered me. I don’t fully identify as a crow, finding the label to be overly simplistic. And I was not his brother.

I kept quiet, unsure of what to say or whether I wanted to say anything at all. Dennis and I were outnumbered, weak, and exposed. I waited, resisting the temptation to flutter so as not to give away my emotional state.

“Blackwing,” the voice continued, this time like the chiming of cathedral bells, as a large black corvid dropped from the sun and onto a low maple arm. I cocked my head at him, hopping onto one foot. No, this wasn’t your run-of-the mill trash-raider. This was a bold and charismatic presence with a perfectly polished charcoal beak. I saw his game—this sneakster was out to disarm me with charm.

“Are you alright, Brother Blackwing?”

“We are fine and I’m not your brother,” I answered.

The beautiful crow bobbed his head, a submissive offering. “We see that you have command over the dog.” Ahhhh, there it is, I thought. An angle. Big Jim says there’s always an agenda, that’s why you’ve got to batten down the hatches, fight for what’s yours, and look out for numero uno. That’s why you don’t let anyone in. Big Jim’s philosophy, sound and clear as Windexed glass: everyone wants to steal your Cheetos®.

Takeaway

So picture any number of Disney movies, where the plucky animal gets separated from their owner and goes on a road trip of discovery to be reunited with them. Now, if:

  • The owner was a very crass very single dude, who is now a zombie.
  • The animal raised by him is a foul-mouthed smartass crow who loves everything people brought to the planet, and is now watching it crumble away.
  • The journey was to find He Who Opens Doors – an unaffected human who could free animals trapped in houses.

…then you’d have Hollow Kingdom, which despite the initial tone of the book, does come with some surprising twists, and solid writing that makes the reader feel for these characters, along with the odd emotional gut punch or two. It’s a fresh take on an old trope, and well worth checking out.

So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and stay tuned for my next column.

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