The Death and Life of Schneider Wrack

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 10 Aug 2017

Member Reviews

This book wasn't for me. I found it disjointed and uninteresting but I really like the concept.
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I was interested in this book after seeing many tweets about it by its author and publisher. I was pleasantly surprised to receive the arc from Netgalley, and was NOT disappointed. It lived up to everything it boasts, and then some. It was a delightfully gross read, full of humor and, uh, guts. Literally.
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I tried to read THE DEATH AND LIFE OF SCHNEIDER WRACK with my speed reading app but there were so many words that were gigantic or outright invented there was no way that my eyes could keep up at 300 and 400 words a minute. I'm glad I slowed down; when I did I started really enjoying this book that is more akin to Alice In Wonderland than it is to most other zombie books.

Zombies in this book are one part steampunk wonder, one part magical mystery, and all horrific. They bear the marks of their execution method but also the wear of the work they do. They are sun baked, missing limbs and often preyed upon by the giant ocean creatures they are tasked with hunting. It was so much fun to have them evolve from creatures described as "one arm" or "the fat man" into characters with names and personalities; even if in one case, all he could say was "Fawk offff!!!".

In a book where the main characters are passionate and real, it's strange that it's the setting that steals the show. The world of Ocean and the fishing boat expands, bit by bit, as Wrack and his commerades fight back, learning new things about the various people, fauna and unknowns that inhabit their world.

THE DEATH AND LIFE OF SCHNEIDER WRACK is a trip, a book to read carefully but not too slowly. If you're the kind of person who looks up words in the dictionary, don't bother. If you love imagining massive creatures with names you can barely hold in your brain, dive in.
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I don’t often have this sensation while reading, but while I read Nate Crowley’s The Death and Life of Schneider Wrack, my mind kept dredging up images of one person in particular. She and I share a love of zombie fiction, and Schneider Wrack can be technically counted as one of the undead: he awakes to himself one day, rotted and scrabbling in dead flesh, on the deck of an enormous ship, in a besieged place called Ocean.

Wrack can’t remember much of his life, but he can remember he was a librarian, before being convicted for sedition and put to death. He doesn’t even remember if he’s guilty of his crimes. In the lacuna between his death and reawakening, his undead body was used by a government at war to fish the monstrous seas of Ocean. Scads of the undead, grill-mouthed overseers, scary robo-manta rays, and incalculably large leviathan people this horrific landscape.

The simple inclusion of the undead wasn’t enough to get me thinking of my fellow zombie-phile, but the spongy, gloopy gore splattered all over the novel was—and its sense of gleefully off-kilter comedy. I was also reminded of Tony Burgess’s The n-Body Problem, another weirdo zombie novel my fellow reader and I bonded over. Both books are hideously disgusting, just absolutely playing in guts, and other stuff better not looked at too closely. Both are also riotously funny, in that weird way splatstick films (that’s not a typo, but a a portmanteau of slapstick and blood-splatter) can be funny—think Evil Dead or Shaun of the Dead.

Like the best splatstick, Schneider Wrack is self-aware and has something to say, rife with sly genre commentary and a brutal social sense. I can find over-the-top gore funny in and of itself, but I like it a whole lot more when there’s a reason behind all the insides turned outside. Schneider figures if he’s going to be guilty of something, he might as well be guilty of something, and works toward a sort of undead uprising on the inhospitable ship. He awakens his fellow undead, many of them little more than smeary piles of bones and offal, and sets them against their overseers, and then the ship itself.

This isn’t a drear stealth treatise on labor conditions, or a one-to-one allegory, but something weirder, grosser, and more fun. For example, the undead go whaling, Moby Dick-style, for an alien monster on an ocean without a bottom. While there’s a sly invocation and then near-dismissal of Melville’s classic novel—the undead are just as tethered to Ocean’s inexplicable desires as the crew of the Pequod to its captain, though they’re the ones looking for revenge—there are strange, beautiful moments of horror in the mix: an undead man gives up his fight and sinks, sinks, down through the blackening water, as Wrack gives witness.

Once the undead denizens of the monster ship Tavuto take charge of it, and their destinies, things really take off. Wrack and his first mate of sorts, Mouana, are given their backstories, which sometimes rub against their undead lives. The technology and sense of Ocean and the other planets (realms? places?) they visit have the strange alternate-sense of Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, a novel in which strict physics is eschewed for a more emotionally resonating architecture. Which is an altogether dorky way of saying that the weird world of The Death and Life of Schneider Wrack works, but it works on its own terms.

This book won’t work for every reader. The grand guignol sensibility alone is going to turn off those who take no joy in such a project. But it’s the kind of book that makes me think of one reader in particular, and she’s probably going to love it. The Death and Life of Schneider Wrack makes me think about how disgust and empathy are intimately intertwined, and how one can overcome the other, but that it’s oftentimes a close thing. May all pulp be as smart.

The Death and Life of Schneider Wrack is available now.
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I really wanted to enjoy this book, but unfortunately, I found it a bit of a slog to get through! It tells the story of Schneider Wrack, who wakes up one day and thinks he's in hell, only to realise that he's actually a zombie. This is a wonderful premise and led me to think that this would be a funny story. What it actually is, is a very cerebral and serious (with brief moments of levity) story dealing with a rebellion and subsequent voyage. I just found large sections of it quite boring, but I did really like the character of Dust. As a villain, she was really interesting and I thought she could have been explored a little bit more. There are some epic fight scenes here and a lot of militaristic episodes that I know will definitely appeal to some. Unfortunately, it just didn't work for me.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.
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Schneider Wrack wakes in hell.

Then he revises his opinions; he’s on a factory ship.

Then he re-revises – this is Hell, and he’s not out of it. He is dead, and has been reborn as a zombie, condemned to work until he rots, Wrack is part of an undead workforce, slaving to carve up the great sea creatures of the planet Ocean to feed his native city, Lipos-Tholos. On decks slick with blubber, in the driving rail, they toil ceaselessly until, too decomposed to work, too cursed to die, they are left stacked in charnel heaps. All this takes place on the great ship, the Tavuto.  Lipos-Tholos has been besieged for generations and depends on the sea - and especially the Tavuto - for food.

In this far future, there has been time for humanity to spread across the planets, to form a civilization ("the lemniscatus") which is now in decay, but, in its prime, opened gates between far locations - gates forgotten to worlds forgotten, gates and worlds rediscovered and lost again. So the great whale-like creatures that Tavuto (a "nightmare in steel, floodlights and scale") hunts, disassembles and renders, flow back through the gate to whatever world that city's on - while the zombies and their human handlers face the horrors of Ocean: they have "lips like salted dogs" and experience "the piercing, ammoniac stench of a sharkmonger's stall at midsummer".

It's a very vivid, stark novel, the sights, sounds and - especially - smells being rendered viscerally. You can taste the salt, smell the decaying blubber, the fraying flesh of the zombies, feel their despair as they sink into the dark dreams that keep them under control.

But Wrack wakes from these dreams, and the first part of the story is then about how he finds himself again, striking up an improbable friendship with a woman, Mouana. There are limits to this friendship ("no point in holding hands like lovers; we're both far too rotted in the funbits to care about that") - but what they do both have an appetite for, is fighting.

So the story proceeds with Wrack's and Mouana's revolt against the powers that zombified them. It's a long road and it takes a great number of twists and turns, bringing in both Wrack's past (he may have been one of the rebels - the Pipers - who oppose Lipos-Tholos's government. Or he may be an innocent bystander) and Mouana's (spoilers!) All around are the hints of an older, higher technology – like the zombifying process – which present-day societies are clumsily trying to use.

All this leads, after many adventures, betrayals and revelations, to another world entirely, a jungle world - Grand Amazon itself, where the zombies are eaten dead by bugs and fragments of an even older civilization - the hulk of a burned out starship, a city of lizard people - loom and are then forgotten.

Only at the end of this quest, in High Sarawak, will the pair find what they need.

This book is in three parts - The Sea Hates a Coward, Fisheries and Justice and Grand Amazon - which have previously been published separately (do bear this in mind if you've read, or especially bought, them separately). I hadn't read those books so I don't know if Crowley has reworked the material at all to bring the stories together but they do read very much as a single narrative, with puzzles and mysteries from the earlier parts (such as what happened to Wrack to get him on Tavuto) explained in good time. It's an intense read, very sensual as I noted above, but also very distinctive in style, both evoking great adventure stories by writers like Rider-Haggard, Conan Doyle and, of course, in the Ocean sections, Melville and also adding a distinct sense of darkness, of unease.

All that, and this is a "zombie uprising" story told from the perspective of the zombies themselves... and it makes them sympathetic (and at times funny). It is also, though, a ruthless book, with innocent blood poured out in torrents and, for a long time, seemingly no moral centre. But do hang in there.

I don't know whether I should call this SF, fantasy, adventure, or a combination of these, or something entirely different. For me it read as very new, very different and I'd strongly recommend it.
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A solid tale set in a world that needs more exploration. A slight sag in the middle of the second half, but nothing drastic. Not sure where the 'Hitchhikers/Shaun of the Dead' comparisons are coming from, didn't get that at all. Would recommend.
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This book looks like a kind of horror book, and horror is not my taste.
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The sick genius behind the Daniel Barker birthday tweets is unleashed at book length; to what should be the surprise of nobody, the result is as grand as it is grotesque. The setting is an enormous factory ship, hunting deep-sea gigafauna on an ocean world and crewed by the walking dead; the protagonist is one zombie slave who undergoes an In the Flesh-style awakening. Rotting corpses, weird benthic life and the word 'flensing' are surely among the most stomach-turning things you can find in a book, and this one has plenty of all of 'em, so don't read it over lunch. Moby-Dick is obviously in the mix, but for me there seemed to be a stronger influence from the great dystopian dyad of British SF, 2000AD and 40K - I could really picture these scenes of violence and general ghastliness on alien seas illustrated by Belardinelli, or in the style of the Realm of Chaos artists. Wonderfully ghoulish. 

Amazon is very good at recommending me sequels to books I only looked at because the title amused me, or items I already own from elsewhere (obviously, these latter appear particularly within the Kindle app, rather than anywhere I can actually edit the recommendations to tell it so). Yet somehow, when the sequel to a book I did buy and read on Kindle comes out, it remains mysteriously silent, and I only find out when Netgalley offers me the omnibus edition of the two. Though within said omnibus, the division is tripartite: The Sea Hates a Coward is part one, of course, but the longer Grand Amazon is presented as two books. The first part, Fisheries and Justice, follows directly from the conclusion of Coward, with the mighty city-ship steaming vengefully back towards the city that zombified its insurgent crew, Wrack himself now the consciousness of the mighty vessel and dead soldier Mouana taking the vaguely humanoid lead role. It's less thoroughly grotesque than its predecessor, though still not really for the squeamish, what with the undead and their semi-tame cyborg sealife taking revenge upon the living who sent them out as fisher-slaves. And if the grossness has been slightly dialled down (I didn't spot the word 'flensing' once), not so the comedy, particularly in one brief scene which I'm certain is an homage to cult cephalopod subterfuge game Octodad.

After that, Grand Amazon proper, which exists in the lineage stretching from Humboldt via Conrad to Herzog and Apocalypse Now, where the vastness of the jungle dwarfs the human cruelty in the foreground, though both share a certain quality of uncaring brutality. And as those comparisons might suggest, here the laughs are fewer. The zombies' revolution, as revolutions so often will, has reached the point where they're machine-gunning refugees in the name of the greater good (not that it's only revolutionary states which can reach this point, of course, as witness modern Europe, a parallel I'm sure we're meant to draw in that especially harrowing scene). Just as the jungle consumes the living and their technology, so it speeds the decay of the undead, their rot feeding into the feculent bounty of the environment. And hard on their heels the whole time is Dust, the rogue mercenary commander who was probably my least favourite part of the whole series. The overseers in Coward were brutal, but it was a believably capitalist brutality, the standard indignity of labour. Dust, on the other hand, teeters over into pantomime villain stereotype, forever doing away with her own subordinates or massacring the irrelevant and innocent for shits and giggles. It's the sort of role the right actor can carry off on screen or stage, but it tends to feel like a bit of a placeholder on the page. And yes, she's given a background whose inventive awfulness goes some way to explaining it, but still. However, I can forgive it all for the suitably epic finale.
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