Thursday, April 10, 2014

Ian Tregillis' BITTER SEEDS

If Tim Powers and H.P. Lovecraft somehow managed to reach out to one another across the dark and malevolent vastness of time and space to write a cosmic horror story set in World War II, the result might be something very like Bitter Seeds, the first volume of Ian Tregillis' Milkweed trilogy (or triptych, as the marketers of these books seem to insist on calling it).

Of course, Powers did write a World War II novel all his own, the wonderful spies-and-genies romp Declare, of which it was difficult not to think while following the adventures of Milkweed (itself so very reminiscent of Mike Mignola's Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, of Hellboy fame) and their unspellable (I'm lazy and lacking bandwidth so I'm not gonna look it up) Nazi German counterparts. Fortunately, I was not making the comparison to Tregillis' detriment; Bitter Seeds is as enjoyable as any Powers novel, and as well written, even though it's telling a very different tale.

The story begins at the tail end of World War I, when unsavory types are scouring the battle-ravaged countryside of Belgium and surrounding lands, harvesting orphans like so many rotting cabbages. Some weird doctor, one Westcarp, is paying good money for young children delivered to his orphanage. Several children, including a brother and sister, Klaus and Gretel, are so delivered to their sinister and mysterious fate.

Meanwhile in England, a boy about their age is subjected to mysterious and unsavory experiences under the supervision of his noble grandfather, a duke, whose son one presumes was a casualty of war but at least died with the requisite heir and a spare. The boy getting experimented with -- Will -- being, of course, the spare.

The Germans, led by Westcarp, it turns out, are trying in their mechanized and industrial way, to duplicate the magical milieu of Will and his grandfather, who, we learn, are warlocks. Warlocks being humanity's self-appointed negotiators with the Eidolons*, who arrange the "blood price" that has to be paid whenever somebody wants to break the laws of physics. Usually it's just a fingertip, occasionally it's your sanity, etc. -- really just depends on how big a violation you're wanting to effect.

The negotiations are carried out in a terrible, mind-bending language called Enochian, which you can only learn if you start really, really, young -- hence Will's weird childhood.

But Westcarp is not down with that ish. Westcarp has decided that electricity can take the place of Paranormal Pimsleur. And so Gretel and Klaus and their fellows wind up with wires surgically implanted in their skulls, connecting their brains to batteries they have to tote around in order to use the powers they have honed through years of unspeakable experimentation.

So yeah, English wizards versus Nazi cyborgs. What's not to love?

And I'm not even touching on the character drama, of course, which is where Tregillis comes closest to Powers' style and substance. If you love Powers' stories, you're going to love this. If you love mid-century settings. If you love wizardry. If you love war stories. If you love Nazi Weird Science schlock. There's something for pretty much everybody here.

And it's all set up for the next novel, in which, naturally, the Soviets are obviously going to be much more involved. They want to violate the laws of physics too, you guys. Which path will they take? Or will they forge a new one as we head into a Lovecraftian Cold War.

I'm so down to find out. So very down.

Many thanks to the wondrous Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin on Twitter), who told me about these books over a cup of coffee on a whistle stop visit last summer.

*This is where the Lovecraft comes in, of course, in that the Eidolons are basically Great Old Ones, unknowably vast alien inimical Others who exist on such a scale that we are like bacteria to them, and they're pissed off because they're all out of hand sanitizer.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Tony Burgess' THE n-BODY PROBLEM

It just this second hit me that the title of The n-Body Problem Tony Burgess' disturbingly memorable follow-up to the disturbingly memorable PontyPool Changes Everything is a pun in like three different ways. This weeks after I actually read the thing*. And this insight is hardly the only one to club me over the head in the intervening time.

Like Pontypool, The n-Body Problem could superficially be categorized as zombie fiction, but also like Pontypool (but not really like the rapturously lyrical Zone One that I recently praised to the skies**), this novel has a lot more going on than standard zombie fare.

This time around the zombie-causing disease has a more straightforward vector, but its results are far more disturbing: the victim dies but continues to move, to flail, to twitch. It won't stay buried -- the earth churns up at sites of mass graves until the writhing dead resurface. It will burn but the disease is so virulent that the living can't keep up with the crematory duties. It can be dismembered and diced up, but the bits keep on hopping around like so many undead jumping beans. The twitching dead are a problem, yo,

As our story opens, though, someone has devised a solution. If we can't deal with the twitching dead here on earth, let's launch them into space! A whole industry has sprung up around this, has become pretty much the only way to prosperity in this damned world.

And at last our primitive notions of Heaven as a place in the sky where our beloved dead go to spend eternity is given real form. For a monthly fee you can even track your particular loved one the way we internet users in 2014 can track the International Space Station and thus know exactly when to rush outside and watch and salute its brisk journey across our own personal sky.

But remember what I said about volume. And industry. Yeah.

Some solutions can be as bad as, or worse than, their problems. And here's where the title looks like it's going to really come into play: In physics, the n-body problem is an ancient, classical problem of predicting the individual motions of a group of celestial objects interacting with each other gravitationally. And now we've launched millions of new ones into near-earth orbit to join all of the frozen astronaut piss and debris that we'd already flung up there. Stuff that, occasionally, eventually loses momentum, breaks orbit, and comes crashing back to earth to burn up as it streaks through our atmosphere.

Mmm. Zombie meteorites.

And that's not even the primary environmental problem they cause, you guys.

Meanwhile, this is still a Tony Burgess novel, which means all that is just unpleasant backdrop to a hideously grotesque and deranged and disturbing and I'm just going to run out of adjectives trying to convey the sheer ickiness so I'm just going to stop here, earthbound story of sort-of-survival in rural Ontario amid apocalyptic madness, doomsday cultism (on a suspiciously industrialized scale) and the twitching dead. Heaven is not the only thing that's been literalized here. And soon the hell gets very, very personal for our protagonist (emphasis on the "agon" here, if you know what I mean). N- body scans kind of like "nobody", and he kind of is, and then... ARGH MY BRAIN JUST SHUT DOWN I THINK I NEED THERAPY.

A lot of people are going to put this book down, if not throw it or the e-reader currently containing it at a nearby wall, in sheer disgust pretty early on, but those of you who tough it out are in for, well, an even more unpleasant -- yet nonetheless amazing -- reading experience. Burgess is an artist of great imagination, talent, focus and yes, grotesquerie, a 21st century master of the grand guignol, a Hieronymous Bosch and a Goya of prose, who finds in playing with the zombie genre a proper showcase for what he can do.

He can do a lot.

Now I think I need a lie down.

Many thanks to Popqueenie, whose own reactions to this book are quite entertaining, for the chance to read this one. And headvomit. And keep on reading.

*Life has been happening. A whole lot of it, yo. I left my high-stress-but-also-high-downtime-job and the city of Cheyenne for a lower-key type B life in my home town of Saratoga, WY. It's been chaotic.

**Ha ha! You'll see what I did there in a moment!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Clifford Irving's FAKE! THE STORY OF ELMYR DE HORY, THE GREATEST ART FORGER OF OUR TIME

I dearly love a hoaxer, and Fake: The Story of Elmyr de Hory, The Greatest Art Forger of Our Time, Clifford Irving's I-think-mostly-true biography of the Hungarian painter Elmyr de Hory who probably at one time had more of his art in the museums and tony private collections of the world than any other artist (just, you know, not under his own name), is part of a veritable matryoshka of fakery, flim-flam, and fabulosity the likes of which we'll never see again.

Technology may someday allow someone to achieve what Elmyr did materially -- there may already exist an algorithm that can create the perfect fake Matisse, Renoir, Picasso, etc and do in seconds what took Elmyr minutes todo -- but no one will ever duplicate anything like Elmyr's actual career, and that of his two ridiculous (and ridiculously awesome) partners in crime, Fernand Legros and Real Lessard.

I might once have thought I'd learned everything I needed to know about Elmyr from Orson Welles' amazing sui-generis sort-of-documentary F for Fake, which not only tells a good chunk of Elmyr's story but that of his biographer, Clifford Irving, as well* and lets Welles indulge in the art a bit himself. Which is to say that here's where the matryoshka comes in. Here, just have a look at the trailer for the film:


But had I left it at that, my loving study of Elmyr, I would have missed out on the real joke of it all, which is that the great forger was himself kind of a patsy. For, well, let us just say that Legros and Lessard saw Elmyr coming, a goose laying golden gouaches and drawings and paintings, and penned him up and kept him hungry so he'd keep doing that while they made a fortune off his work, and lived in high, hissy-fit throwing style, as globetrotting art dealers to the well-heeled and the gullible.

It's all terribly, terribly entertaining. But really, none of it would be possible had not Elmyr really been that good, so good that one time when one of his forgeries was brought before the artist whose work it purported to be, the artist claimed to remember having painted it! Well, at least, according to legend...

Another way this book is fascinating to the 21st century reader is the extraordinary time capsule of lost freedoms it provides. Elmyr's and Legros' and Lessard's escapades would be impossible in our modern, globalized, internet-connected world. They traveled across mid-century Europe and the Americas at speeds faster than anyone but science fiction writers could have dreamed information would, one day. Found out, or in danger of being so, in one city/nation/continent/time zone, they could trip gaily across international borders with their easily forged passports, never having to remove their shoes, long before their victims could even begin to figure out who to tell. Not that too many of their victims caught on before the story finally broke in the early 70s. Not when the forgery of customs stamps and "expertises" certifying the genuineness of the work were so easy to create and come by. Not when the story of how that beautiful Derain came to be for sale sounded so wonderfully plausible -- a Hungarian aristocrat escaped from the Nazis with a small part of his family's art collection and is now selling it off in pieces to stay alive! How romantic! How wonderful! Why, you're almost a part of art history yourself in buying it from him!

Of course, Elmyr's buyer-victims have become part of art history, as some recognized right away when the scandal broke. One man who had been considering buying one when the news became public insisted to his surprised dealer on buying it any way, on condition that the dealer certify that it was a genuine Elmyr forgery.

Loving the man as I do, I, too, would love to have a genuine Elmyr forgery, but I would demand a provenance of how it came to be sold, by what chain of crooks and puffed-up authenticators and dealers and museum "experts" it had come to me. I would want to know who all it fooled, and which of Elmyr's partners in crime put it on the market. Alas, I'm priced out of the market for those, as we learn in Clifford Irving's author's postscript, in which he reveals that much of his knowledge of Elmyr's doings came first-hand; Irving lived on the Spanish island of Ibiza where Legros and Lessard kept Elmyr in luxurious semi-bondage, and was Elmyr's friend right up until Elmyr saw the page proofs of Fake! and disliked, not the admiring tone, not the all but hagiographical charm of the work, but the fact that he, Elmyr, was being admired as a successful crook.

No pleasing some people.

But I, I am very pleased.

*Who, it seems, was so inspired by his experience writing this biography -- and knowing Elmyr personally long before the biography project was hatched -- that he later perpetuated a famous hoax of his own, a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes. I include this note mostly for those of you who are too lazy to watch that nine minute film trailer I've embedded above. But really, you should watch it. It's its own little work of art.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Ian Sales' ADRIFT ON THE SEA OF RAINS

Now that I know that alternate history Cold War Apollopunk is a thing, I want more of it. Much more. Good thing Ian Sales' Adrift on the Sea of Rains is but the first of a quartet of novellas, then!

As the story opens, a small band of astronauts manning a permanent American base on the Moon (established as part of a natural progression from the Apollo missions, in that time frame and with that technology) find themselves marooned there when the USA and the USSR decide to go ahead and fight out World War III and destroy the planet Earth, rendering its glorious blue-white marble a desolate grey rock to match its satellite. The astronauts have (nuclear!) power, and thus life support, for 20 years, but only have freeze-dried astronaut chow to last them about two! Oh noes!

Fortunately, one of their number is not really an astronaut but a mad scientist plucked from Nazi Germany and secretly put to work continuing his experiments travel between parallel universes. He's obnoxious as hell but he's their only hope once he's completed his masterpiece (which would only work in a vacuum, hence his presence on the Moon), allowing them to start jumping from universe to universe in search of one where nobody ever actually decided to play a game of Global Thermonuclear War.

And then the fun begins. Because our astronauts have to jury-rig and re-start all that wild old Apollo-era technology to try to get themselves to their new home!

The story of this mighty effort is intercut with the previous test piloting-and-espionage experiences of the Moon Base commander, Vance Peterson, in a series of cleverly arranged flashbacks that also tell the tale of how the disaster came to be. It's good storytelling, no doubt, but what makes this novella really stand out is its visceral conveyance of the experience of trusting the analogue tech of the late 1960s and early 1970s to keep people alive and hurl them across space. Famously, the Eagle that landed in Apollo 11 had less computing power in it than the smartphone in your pocket, but that's just the beginning. Paper-thin hulls. Huge banks of switches. Ring binders full of gnarly math and densely printed instructions. Slide rules and pencils. It's utterly, utterly glorious.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Colson Whitehead's ZONE ONE

Admit it. You've always wanted to know what it would be like if E.L. Doctorow wrote zombie fiction. Could it be lyrical? Could it be beautiful? Could it be moving and produce a book for the ages?

Yes, yes it could. And Colson Whitehead's heartbreakingly lovely Zone One is Exhibit A. It may wind up being the only exhibit, mind...

But what an exhibit it is!

The zombie apocalypse has engulfed the world, has been going on for a few years now, as the novel opens and we start getting to know our point of view character, whose real name we never learn and whom we only ever know as Mark Spitz, an ironically bestowed nickname, given after he refuses to jump into the water and swim to safety as he can barely tread water. A Long Island boy who has always dreamed of growing up to be a Manhattan Man, he is finally getting his wish, but his Manhattan is merely the corpse of what he longed for as a young'un:
"He tried to orient himself: Was he looking north or south? It was like dragging a fork through gruel. The ash smeared the city's palette into a gray hush on the best of days, but introduce clouds and a little bit of precip and the city became an altar to obscurity. He was an insect exploring a gravestone: the words and names were crevasses to get lost in, looming and meaningless."
There are still fragments of civilization struggling to rejoin and reclaim the world, however, and Mark Spitz is a part of that mighty effort, a "sweeper,", member of a three-person crew who patrols a section of the city block by block, mopping up after the Marines whose zombie-killing sprees have caused as much destruction, perhaps, as the zombies and the struggling survivors did, ridding the city of perhaps 99% of the "infected" but that pesky 1% that's left, ah, there's the rub. For about 1% of the population who are infected with the disease that makes zombies do not turn into ravenous undead psychotic killing machines, but instead become "stragglers', mindlessly and poignantly fixated on a specific location and activity, three-dimensional freeze frames of filling mylar balloons or making photocopies or waiting for a bus or a ball game to start. And some psychotic undead regular zombies still lurk here and there as well. Both types must be disposed of, systematically and dispassionately, room by room, office by office, building by building, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, zone by zone, because the ad hoc government in Buffalo has decided that Manhattan is the ideal location to try to re-establish civilization when it's finally time to let the small shuddering populations of uninfected humanity out of the highly fortified and militarized refugee camps.

That all sounds like fairly standard zombie-novel fare, though, doesn't it? What's different here is Whitehead's skill as a crafter of prose and a sharer of feeling and nuance. The bare bones narrative covers just three days (albeit highly significant ones) in the effort to clean out one zone of Manhattan, but the story ranges back and forth in time and tone, Ragtime-like, as we experience the start and the early days of the disaster alongside Mark Spitz as he goes from ordinary schmo coming home from a gambling spree in Atlantic City to find his parents eating each other, to hunted survivor sleeping in the suburban trees, to part of an organized effort to clear Interstate 95 of abandoned and wrecked cars so that traffic and commerce and contact can resume someday (for my money, re-establishing physical mobility is way more important and significant than the standard hopeful moment set-piece of getting the lights back on that is such a cliche of post-apocalyptic fiction; Whitehead's recognition of this -- humanity survived for thousands of years before electricity, but has never done too well without being able to get around -- is another of the many reasons why my respect and even awe for this novel is almost without limit), to sweeper.

As we go, Mark Spitz's experiences and perspectives drive home the idea that the disease is just a heavy-handed literalization of what had already been going on in 21st century society: many of us were already basically zombies, deluding ourselves with notions of individuality and individual importance even as we buy identical consumer goods from identical stores the nation/world over: "They had shambled through the identical outlet showrooms and tested the same sofas with their asses... mentally arranging the merchandise according to the same floor plans." And the city is constantly referred to as a machine that "required people to make it go." Or this description of Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder (which every survivor has): "'Survivors are slow or incapable of forming new attachments,' or so the latest diagnoses. droned, although a cynic might identify this as a feature of modern life merely intensified or fine-tuned with the introduction of the plague."

Zone One, if you can't tell, is not at all a hopeful read; in its way it's as bleak as, if not bleaker than, The Road. But where The Road and its ilk are just dreary individual survivor stories, Zone One has subtle tricks up its sleeve. For instance, it simply shines as a love letter to Manhattan, past and zomibe-riddled present, and to cities as a whole, even when the tone is at its most depressing, as when Mark Spitz observes an oncoming zombie horde, all still dressed in the remnants of the clothing each person had died in:
"All the misery of the world channeled through this concrete canyon, the lament into which the human race was being transformed person by person. Every race, color and creed was represented in this congregation...As it had been before, per the myth of the melting-pot city. The city did not care for your story, the particular narrative of your reinvention, it took them all in, every immigrant in their strivings, regardless of bloodline, the identity of their homeland, the number of coins in their pocket... They had been young and old, natives and newcomers. No matter the hue of their skins, dark or light, no matter the names of their gods or the absences they countenanced, they had all strived, struggled and loved in their small, human fashion. Now they were mostly mouths and fingers..."
See? Depressing as hell. But also glorious. Even if you are, as I am, sick to death (hee hee) of zombies, this book is not to be missed. Many effusive thanks to SJ the PopQueenie for this one!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Adam Christopher's HANG WIRE

My friend Adam Christopher is a bit of a circus performer himself, of the plate-spinning variety, and loves to see just how many he can keep going (answer: a lot, an he doesn't care if the plates he's grabbed to spin having matching patterns), so it was just a matter of time before he took on a creepy circus motif for a novel. And so while he eschewed the Scary Clown plate (for which I'm grateful), most of the other plates from the Creepy Circus collection are up there and spinning for Hang Wire.

But lots of other plates from other collections are up, too. Quite a lot from the Murder Mystery collection, one or two from the Disaster Porn collection, and of course, since this is Adam Christopher, a bunch from the Godpunk/Superhero collection -- but since Adam is also a guy who likes things that look nice, he didn't use any cracked and chipped Graeco-Roman or Norse ones, but grabbed a bunch of lesser-used Hawaiian and Korean and Chinese god-plates for his act.

If the combination sounds like a bit of a hot mess, well, maybe it is, sort of, but the key is that this is a plate spinning act, which isn't really about the patterns on the plates at all, is it? You might occasionally glimpse the image of a Tiki or a Police Line Do Not Cross or a Scary Dance Troupe as those plates whirl about, but if you do you're maybe missing the point of the act.

So Hang Wire is a murder mystery, and a first rate one in that the reader is kept guessing nearly to the end which of the bewildering array of characters is the killer; and its a sinister quest tale, in which a genuinely frightening figure with an unnatural life span trips through history reassembling his great Machine of Doom (which was originally created as a set of sinister carnival rides) that was taken apart and scattered after it started working a bit too well and put the circus it was originally part of out of business;  and it's a superhero/god story in which a few leftover deities from a few different pantheons team up to try to save the world, or at least San Francisco. And it all works.

Some bits work better than others, of course. The sinister quest story, in which one Joel Duvall visits all of Christopher's favorite weird moments in American history and manages to make them even weirder, is fantastically chilling, Joel a deeply creepy character who has moments of pure and brilliant evil. His story is Ted Sturgeon's The Dreaming Jewels as written by the Stephen King who brought us "The Mangler." I demand that Tom Clancy play Joel in the film adaptation someday.

And speaking of casting dreams and whatnot, Bob.

Hey, hi, how are you. Wanna foxtrot?

Bob first turns up in the novel's harrowing prologue during the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906, shirtless and barefoot in a pair of blue jeans, saving people on the sly with his supernatural powers. When he's not subtly intervening in natural disasters, he's a fixture at the city's Aquatic Park, where he lives, still shirtless and barefoot in blue jeans, in a tiny hut and gives ballroom dance lessons on the sand to all and sundry. An enjoyably enigmatic and laid-back figure is Bob. As with Joel, I would happily read a whole novel just about him. But one mustn't get distracted trying to get a good look at the design on a spinning plate...

So yes, Christopher keeps all his plates spinning through his whole act, and ends without breaking a one. It's quite a feat. And it's a lot of fun to watch.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Chuck Wendig's THE CORMORANT

Everybody's favorite batshit highway witch is back, and she's got more and ickier troubles than ever.

In The Cormorant, Miriam Black, foul-mouthed, psychically cursed heroine of Chuck Wendig's searingly and sickeningly awesome Blackbirds and Mockingbird, finally leaves the Jersey Shore where most of her violent and trashy adventures have taken place to date and heads to sunny Florida, on a mission to earn $5000 just for telling some rich weirdo how he's going to die. What could be finer?

Lots of things, as it happens. For starters, Miriam, who thinks she's a solo act since she's gotten rid of her trucker-love Louis, is less alone than ever; not only is the malign supernatural Trespasser still along for the trip in the crappy 1986 Pontiac Fiero she buys for $160 and telling the car salesman (truthfully for once) that he's going to die fairly nicely, but the FBI has noticed her. Oh have they noticed her. And since in Mockingbird she switched her M.O. from simply robbing the very recently deceased to trying to prevent the deaths she sees -- but she can do this only by killing the killers -- they think Miriam is just an exceptionally imaginative serial killer.

Meanwhile, figures from her past return to haunt her -- and not just as manifestations of the Trespasser. We get to meet Miriam's mother, and she's even better than one would think he or she has the right to hope. And then there's Miriam's earthly nemesis, a drug dealing murdering jackwagon whom she's thwarted more than once (and whose "heart" she may have "broken"), who seems hip to her power and is turning it frighteningly against her. Oh yeah.

Meanwhile, Wendig has not let up one bit on the profane rapid-fire poetry of Miriam's dialogue and internal narrative. The tougher the challenges she faces, the sharper, meaner and more glorious her wit becomes; it has to: it's all she's got, unless she's managed to stumble across a gun again. But which each desperate act of self-preservation, her next such becomes that much harder. By even the start of The Cormorant, Miriam is responsible for quite a few deaths and maimings. And while she is perfectly capable of remembering them all, the Trespasser is always there to impersonate them at awkward moments to make sure the burden of guilt never lightens up.

Make no mistake, this is an ugly, desperate, gut-wrenching read. But it's glorious all the same. I would hate to meet Miriam in person. I'm sure she would not have a single kind word for me, and I don't really want to know how I'm gonna die. But lordy, do I love reading her stories.

I'm really glad this isn't the last one. Bring on Thunderbirds!

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