Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Some more seriously cool shorter fiction

It's summer again, a time when I'm torn  between whatever "theme" reading I've drifted into (this summer has turned out to be all about the Napoleonic wars, by land and sea) and some big sprawling reads (moar Lymond! Also an abortive re-read of Infinite Jest which I've had to abandon since because it now just reads like a giant suicide note and my mental health can't cope with that right now) and yet also seem to have a diminished attention span, so once again I've been taking breaks between novel-length works with some fun shorter fiction by my friends.

Once again, these are all cheap ebooks, and extraordinarily high value for the money, or I wouldn't be talking about them here.

John Urbancik's Zombies vs Aliens vs Robots vs Cowboys vs Ninja vs Investment Bankers vs Green Berets is the ultimate kitchen sink fantasy meets Paul Hardy's Last Men on Earth Club. The archangel Gabriel has blown the trump of doom and the end of the world is here. The question is, which end will prevail? For every world-ending power that is, seems to be reacting as though the signal was just for them. The dead start rising from their graves. Big mother ships full of aliens start herding the living into food processing plants. A mad scientist unleashes his self-determined automatons on a quest for vengeance against an uncaring and un-understanding world. Investment bankers in what amount to Jaegers are out to save themselves. And cowboys (and ghost cowboys, some of whom find themselves, deliciously, fighting the zombie versions of their former bodies), ninja and green berets are mankind's only hope. Meanwhile, the angel and our narrator just want to watch the show and get drunk on good scotch. You might have more fun binge-watching Venture Brothers or something, but I still say this would give any such activity a run for its silly, over-the-top money.

Jodi Cleghorn's River of Bones is a little bit more serious in tone, but offers its own kind of genre-mashing fun. On the one hand, we have the lost and decrepit town of Elyora, which is mysteriously stuck in the year 1974; on the other, we have a down-on-their-luck rock band, on tour and on the verge of breaking up when their road takes them into said town for a pit stop. Romantic tensions erupt even before they meet up with the creepy townspeople, and soon the slightly prosaic surface of this story is chipped away to reveal its roots in classic gothic horror (as in Castle of Otranto et al): all identities collapsing in on themselves, ghosts, regret, and everywhere decay, decay, decay. But where in classic gothic fiction this decay is largely a matter of centuries of damp, here its decades of pitiless Australian sun and dust and, just possibly, a sinister government something-or-other at work "across the river." Also as is common in gothic fiction, not everything is explained. Which is as it should be. Though it's a bit maddening. Why 1974?

J. Daniel Sawyer is a San Francisco writer through and through; he can't not write stuff that feels like crime noir, even, as here, he's exploring more supernatural themes. His Lombard Alchemist Tales, of which this one is my first but his fourth, center around a pawn shop in a sad old gambling town (which town reminds me of, say, Central City, CO but without the amazing opera house CC has), from which all manner of fascinatingly weird and sinister objects emerge. On the strength of The Serpent and the Satchel, I'm going to go ahead and read them all. In this tight little story we explore the dual implications of a satchel that grants subconscious wishes and sends its new owner on a phantasmagorical jungle safari through an ordinary city park, and the parallel adventure of an innocent little box python named (what else) Monty after his owner-friend falls asleep in that same park. Pith helmets are involved. And excitable little kids. And park rangers. And bullwhips and machetes. More quality cheap thrills!

Then there's Hugh Howey's little number, The Plagiarist, my first non-Silo read from the man. And it's about as un-Silo as a story could possibly be, except in that it has more than a tinge of regret and melancholy. We deal here with an academic whose specialty is in plumbing computer-simulated worlds for new literature, which he painstakingly copies out (he has an eidetic memory) in the real world and publishes as found classics. Quite conceptually dazzling and fraught with implications, eh wot? But wait, there's more, because our man has become quite attached to one virtual world in particular (one world out of a whole galaxy of simulated worlds), and, moreover, to one virtual woman living on that one virtual world. And his focus has narrowed to this world, this woman, to the exclusion of all else. Including the real world threat posed by all of the real world artists and writers who are getting crowded out of the field by the products of the ultimate infinite monkey/infinite typewriters experiment, and have decided that they know just what to do about it. Boom. And while yes, the twist ending is a bit telegraphed, it's all handled very satisfyingly. Bravo, Hugh!

And now I'm come full circle back to zombie fun again, this time with Jake Bible. Bible is another go-to guy for me when I want some plain old fun. He's perhaps best  known for his Apex Trilogy, in which he combines everything one might love from the mecha (as in giant robots piloted by people) and zombie genres -- answering that eternal burning question of what happens if a mech pilot dies while in his mech and is reanimated as a zombie therein (answer, OMG what doesn't happen?). In Let Old Friends be Forgot, Bible goes a somewhat more traditional route, delivering a series of journal entries penned by a survivor of the zombie apocalypse. This could just be grim and dreary (especially since the zombies in this story are a lot like the Reavers in the Firefly universe, in that their preferred method of killin' is rapin' ya ta death), but fortunately, this particular survivor is a bit of a wit, with a dry sense of humor, waxing lyrical over a peaceful vista one moment, then wishing for a diminished number of monsters ravening at the edge of that vista. Our narrator is definitely the kind of guy I'd want with me in a crisis, if only for the quips, though of course he's also pretty handy with the weaponry and the strategizing and stuff. This one also gets bonus points for a hilarawful ending.

So there you have it. Lots of fun for very little money, and my requisite ending asking myself why I don't make more of an effort to read short fiction when smaller bites are totally what my lifestyle seems to call for these days!

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