Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Starla Hutchton's SHADOWS ON SNOW: A FLIPPED FAIRY TALE

First of all, let us take a moment to bask in the glory of this cover. Bask. It is glorious. The author is a graphic designer and has a whole side business in designing glorious book covers. I plan on using her myself, when I finally get some things finished and ready to publish again (soon, I promise! There will be seven. See what I did there?).

Second, let me just say that I'm pretty sure that pretty much everything that feminists and their sympathizers have ever found to hate about fairy tales in general, and the tale of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" in particular, is addressed and corrected in Starla Hutchton's Shadows on Snow: A Flipped Fairy Tale. And not just because the genders of the rescued and the rescuer are flipped. Oh no.

So yes, the innocent and beautiful Snow White is, in this book, an almost ridiculously handsome prince. And he gets rescued by a princess. Dur. But wait, there's more.

Because the dwarfs, too, are gender flipped, but are also turned into something much more than mere caretakers of/providers of refuge for the hapless victim character. The seven in this tale are women. Moreover, they are magic users. Moreover, they are princesses. And the rescuing princess is one of them.

Already we're seeing fantastic levels of agency in the characters and an enrichment of the original Snow White plot that is wonderful to see. For these seven magical princesses have a deep and plot-relevant back story; the wicked stepfather (yes, more flipping. Starla flips it all, yo) has done his dirty deeds before, has a pattern of wickedness and sorcery, and these seven princesses were orphaned and exiled from their wonderful kingdom in the wicked stepfather's last go-around.

But this is all just background to the drama of the seventh and youngest princess, Rae, and her prince, Leopold, he of the skin white as snow and hair black as ebony -- but also he of considerable wisdom, kindness, martial prowess and all around quality. Snow White in the original tale is beautiful and innocent and kind, but Leopold could lead an army into war, yo. But he still winds up needing saving, because he doesn't know much about magic. Good thing for him Rae does.

But Rae also is not just a magic user. She's a fully rounded kickass heroine in the Katniss Everdine mode, with outdoor survival skills, a talent for managing horses, and believable vulnerabilities that keep her interesting even as she enacts the obvious fairy tale plot.

And this is key, when you're retelling classic fairy tales and legends. We know the story. We know the plot twists, know how it's going to end. We need reasons other than suspense to be bothered with reading the story yet again, and really, for this reader, said reasons need to go way beyond just "well, what if Snow White was a boy and he got rescued by Princess Charming."

On this, Ms. Hutchton absolutely delivers. Every character (well, except maybe the Voldemort-ish wicked stepfather, who is more of a looming threat than an actual presence in most of the novel, perhaps to the book's slight detriment, but oh well) is well-developed and unique. The novel length gives the author the chance to really explore the story's world, its politics, its history, its sexual dynamics, its humanity.

I'm pretty sure this is my favorite thing Ms. Hutchton has done. I am happily ever after.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Greg Kisbaugh's BONE WELDER

Do you love Mary Shelley's Frankenstein a whole lot? Like enough to be one of those pedants who can't remind people fast enough that Frankenstein is the scientist's name, not the monster's? Do you also love Chicago a whole lot? Do you wish these two things could be brought together into a heartbreaking further chronicle of the most misunderstood?

Then Greg Kisbaugh is definitely your huckleberry.

The main conceit of Bone Welder is that Frankenstein's Monster was real, that Ms. Shelley got most of his story right but that she got the ending really wrong. The Monster didn't kill anybody, grew to become a noble and cultivated soul, but botched his reunion with his creator on the scientist's wedding night so badly that he had no choice but to head north and build what amounts to his own Fortress of Solitude.

That is until our man Jonas comes along. Ah, Jonas, long a widower, recently deprived also of his daughter, duped by a mad scientist into believing he can at least get the daughter back, but did I not emphasize the mad enough? Anyway, this scientist (no, not our monster's creator, but someone with an intimate connection to that tragic figure nonetheless) turns out to have duped a lot of people before Jonas, producing a huge population of botched re-animations that shamble about the darker, seedier bits of downtown Chicago, immortal imbeciles who have merged with the city's homeless population, and who now count (or would if they still could count) Jonas' beloved daughter among their number...

Yes, the soundtrack music for this novel would be heavy on the weeping, wailing melodrama of the violin.  But this is not a bad thing.

Anyway, said modern day mad scientist, one Lucius Angel, has convinced Jonas that Frankenstein's Monster (who now calls himself Victor) is the only person who can help de-zombify Jonas' daughter. So off our hapless Jonas goes to track down a legend.

Soon Jonas and Victor are skulking around Chicago, trying to put a stop on Angel's operation, but of course this proves insanely difficult. For Angel is as old and immortal as Victor, but has spent his centuries more profitably, building himself an empire with seemingly limitless resources. All Victor and Jonas have to draw on is, you guessed it, an army of Angel's mistakes.

Yes, this is all exactly as awesome as it sounds.

But wait, there's more. For it turns out Angel's efforts don't always result in mindless failures. Unbeknownst to him, two of the mistakes he's loosed on Chicago are lucid. One, Cooper Shaye, is working to ease the suffering of his fellow undead. As for the other, well, he's the one the book is (at least superficially) named for: Raymond Grimes, sound (sort of) of mind but decrepit in body, a disgraced surgeon in life, Angel's Bone Welder henchman in death. The scenes featuring these two secondary characters almost steal the show, with Shaye's heroic pathos nicely countering Grimes' chilling amorality. I'd read an entire novel about either one.

But if course, this is a book about Victor, and an elegant reimagining of his story and extension of its themes. Man, do I wish I, Frankenstein had used this storyline instead of the hot mess it had. I just needed to put that out there. Hollywood missed its chance, big time. When I am queen, etc.
I do wish, though, that the ending had been tighter. I can well understand the impulse to want to preserve the possibility of sequels in this publishing climate, but this book felt all the way through like a strong stand-alone. Good as this was -- and it's very good indeed -- I don't really want to read further adventures of Victor & Jonas. But maybe that's just me.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Paul Elard Cooley's THE BLACK: A DEEP SEA THRILLER

I like to see an author stretch himself, and stretching is what Paul Elard Cooley* is doing with his latest novel, his deep sea thriller The Black. On the surface an ocean-borne monster tale that has been described as Peter Benchley meets H.P. Lovecraft, The Black has more going on than just watching well-constructed characters getting et by a monster.

For starters, The Black has rather a unique setting -- a deep sea petroleum exploration platform, where roughnecks spend months at a time working hard and getting smelly, far from their families or anything like civilization. This particular platform is a locus of unusual excitement even before the horror elements set in: it's potentially on top of an oil find so big that it might allow the U.S. to tell the Middle East to pound sand.

Enter a crew of specialists, experts in fields like robotics and petroleum geology and ways to use the former to improve our understanding of the latter. They fit in poorly on the rig (even the ones who are not -- gasp -- women), and the tension between them and the roughnecks gives the novel a greater depth and substance than people usually go looking for in monster stories. Some readers have apparently complained of this a bit, but I find it only makes me care about the characters all the more when the excrement hits the air conditioning, as it does.

Oh, it does.

Cooley has also gone to the extraordinary trouble of creating a wholly new monster. I joked on twitter early on that oh, no, the robots were about to shave Cthulhu, but I was dead wrong. As it were. Actually, I'm still trying to sort out what matter of entity is disturbed to the characters' peril. It's not just big and black and aquatic; its biology is utterly alien (especially if I'm correctly understanding that what is causing most of the trouble in the exciting second half of the novel is pretty much just the entity's blood? lymph? anyway, some kind of body fluid), as is its level of sentience. And, spoiler alert, the mystery is maintained to the very end, but not without satisfying the reader's need for, you know, an ending.

I look forward most eagerly to its sequel, which promises to broaden the greater story's scope and threat, just as Cooley's pal (and mine) Scott Sigler's Infected trilogy did. Yowza. I just can't wait to find out what the Snape this entity/creature/thing IS!!!

*Reviewer's note: Cooley is a personal friend, so, you know, bias alert. But if I don't like a friend's books, I don't write about them. And if you haven't noticed by now, I'm a pretty demanding reader so, you know, don't let the bias alert scare you off, mmmkay?

Friday, September 19, 2014

Andy Weir's THE MARTIAN

You can keep your Heathcliffes, your Darcys, your Rochesters ; my literary boyfriend on whom I call dibs for all time is Mark Watney, almost-omnicompetent botanist, engineer, Martian.

Andy Weir's The Martian feels like it has a very familiar premise -- Robinson Crusoe on Mars anyone? -- but Weir's hero makes it a unique story all its own. Stranded on a newly-established Mars base after a sandstorm forces the rest of his crew to abort their years-long mission (an accident during the evacuation leads everyone to believe Mark has perished), he has to choose whether to give up and die and spare himself a slow suffering death from starvation after his NASA rations run out, or to outthink his situation and live. He chooses, of course, the latter, even though he is pretty sure no one is ever going to come to his rescue. And there is much rejoicing.

His story is told via his logs, in which he details his thought processes and his progress toward survival (making water, making [via a combination of Martian dirt and his own poop] garden soil, growing potatoes, hacking the expedition's exploration and sampling equipment to turn it all into a survival machine) as well as his occasional exasperation at his erstwhile crewmates' taste in culture; the mission commander had a serious Seventies problem, and her choices completely govern how Mark winds up spending his leisure hours while, e.g., waiting for batteries to recharge, for potato seedlings to grow, for hydrolysis to happen.

Intercut with Mark's journal entries are conventional third-person narratives detailing how NASA discovers he is still alive and the extraordinary efforts to which they -- and the rest of the planet, really -- go to get him home again. These characters are as vividly realized as Mark is, and almost as enjoyable to watch in action. Almost.

All this is very exciting and enjoyable, but really, for me it's the competence porn that makes this book the delight that it is. Mark is not truly omnicompetent -- he has some scary near misses and makes some nearly-deadly mistakes -- but he's close enough. Give me a man who can make his own soil, hack a Mars rover and maintain his sanity on a cultural diet of nothing but Three's Company reruns and I'll... no, just give me that man, all right?

And yes, I still want to go to Mars. Maybe my cadaver can go someday at least (which, see next review)...


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Mary Roach's STIFF: THE CURIOUS LIVES OF HUMAN CADAVERS

Ever since I learned it could potentially be a thing, to turn a human corpse into pencils, I've been absolutely certain that this is what I want done with my remains.

After reading Mary Roach's remarkable Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, though, I'm having second thoughts. Because, awesome as being turned into pencils might be, there are way more awesome things that might be done with this meat carcass of mine when I'm done with it. Things that might benefit all of humanity, rather than a few dozen of my friends who still write their grocery lists on paper.

Yeah, yeah, it might just be that all I'm good for is providing a head on which plastic surgeons can practice doing nose jobs and face lifts, but I might also do service as a human crash test dummy, making the next generation of cars even safer than the last. Or I might teach the next generation of crime scene investigators something new about how bodies decompose in soda ash or sand. Or I might see service as an awesomely gruesome movie prop in some fashion or other!

Oh, the possibilities!

Such are the thoughts a book like this inevitably inspires, even if it's not really good.

But it is, in fact, really good. Mary Roach ( I find myself wondering if that's her maiden name or if she had to hunt down a guy named Roach and marry him in order to have the best name EVER for a journalist who investigates things no one else has the stomach to) has a lively, somewhat gruesome curiosity, a courage abd honey badger-saque lack of concern about how she might be perceived for indulging it, and a knack for framing the results of all of this as satisfying and entertaining narratives. In other words, she is fun. 

I bet she's a blast at cocktail parties. 

What an enjoyable read!


Monday, September 1, 2014

Tim Butcher's THE TRIGGER: HUNTING THE ASSASSIN WHO BROUGHT THE WORLD TO WAR

Not since I first encountered Simon Schama's wonderful Landscape and Memory have I experienced a book that so powerfully evokes the power of place as Tim Butcher's The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin who Brought the World to War. For while the book is ostensibly concerned with Gavrilo Princip, whose murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 touched off the First World War, I would argue that the region itself -- the lands occupied by Princip's beloved "southern slavs" that would be united (more or less) as Yugoslavia for much of the 20th century -- is the real "trigger" for World War I and many subsequent conflicts.

It's Butcher's uniquely haunted perspective on the region that lets the brutal realities of the landscape eclipse the story of its most famous son. The result may disappoint seekers after a mere biography of Princip (but hey, details on the man's life are scant enough to where such seekers should be used to disappointment -- but should be delighted by Butcher's encounter, early in the book, with Princip's modern relatives, who cherish a sort of folk memory of their famous great-great uncle that is, as far as I know, all new-to-us material), but readers who can get over that small disappointment will still be rewarded by a remarkable book.

Butcher was a journalist on assignment in the Balkans during the horrific conflicts that broke out after the Warsaw Pact gave up the ghost and the nation of Yugoslavia (the name means essentially, southern Slavs, implying a union of same that might have been dear to Princip's heart, though one wonders what he'd think of Tito as a replacement for the Hapsburgs/Ottoman Turks/etc) dissolved into bloody ethnic conflict. As he follows Princip's journey from his poor and remote home village to Sarajevo, Belgrade and back to Sarajevo, Butcher can't help but recall how the vistas he encounters and the people he (re-) connects with in 2012 looked back in the 1990s, even as he tries to imagine his way back to the early 1910s.

This sounds like a recipe for maudlin mourning or peacenik preaching, but Butcher doesn't let either flavor spoil the dish. For every scene of survivor's guilt or tragic and harrowing story behind a destroyed building or a desecrated monument, there is a scene of enduring charm (Fishing with the Imams) or of newly adopted, moving and meaningful rituals (the march commemorating the escape of thousands of Bosnian Muslims from Srebrenica).

The result is a difficult but rewarding read, and one I would recommend to absolutely anyone.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Ian Tregillis' THE COLDEST WAR

I was hoping that The Coldest War would at least be as much about the Cold War as Bitter Seeds, Ian Tregillis' first Milkweed book, was about World War II (I mean, look at this cover!), but, well, we don't always get what we hope for, do we?

Unless, of course, we're Gretel, the Nazi-engineered precog whose machinations are at the heart of this second book (and, I guess, the first, more than seemed the case at the time), about whom this book is much more deeply concerned than about any mere historical backdrop, alt- or otherwise. She pretty much always gets what she hopes for. She just doesn't really hope for that much. Or so it seems. As such.

A lot of this novel wound up being a bit of a tough slog for me, to be honest. I even put it aside entirely to devour the previous novel covered in this blog, and returned to it more out of a sort of determined resignation than any real desire to see how it ended. Gretel's sparse but significant scenes aside, the first half, perhaps even two-thirds, is bogged down in a lot of dreary domestic soap opera as we see some of the more quotidian consequences of the events of Bitter Seeds. Marriages and families have fallen apart. Glamorous damaged antiheroes have found redemption in the love of good women to whom they get forced to lie. Etc. And just the tiniest soupçon of the promised hints of good old Cold War secret service drama, but not enough to flavor anything.

The Sandbaggers with warlocks this ain't*. But man, it could have been. Ah, me.

Fortunately, there is Gretel, whose motives remain inscrutable and whose near-omniscience remains irritating as hell as she flaps her greying be-wired braids through an escape from a Russian magic-gulag (yes, as hinted would be the case at the end of the prior novel, the Soviets are mighty keen on continuing Westcarp's work, but no, there's not much of that stuff in this novel, except as something from which Gretel and brother Klaus can escape, and as can function as a sort of paper tiger-cum-red herring when things finally get going) and back to England, where she was once a prisoner of war and now hopes for asylum (and, of course, gets it, because duh, omniscient precog precogs her way out of everything).

And there is what's left of Milkweed, when it's not having sad little kitchen sink tantrums at home. It's been no more idle than the Soviets, but just as the Soviets have sort of out-Westcarped Westcarp, the New Men of Milkweed have found an even crueler and creepier way to raise a new generation of warlocks.

Which leads us up to the last third, in which things finally start happening, and boy do they happen. I'm still not sure if this last section redeems the earlier plodding. It certainly would have had there been, say, even one Soviet character in the book, even a cardboard baddie, to provide some actual tension and, you know, villainy beyond the faceless, unknowable threat of the Eidolons**. As it was, well, while the very ending is plenty interesting and satisfying and does give a certain poignancy to all the tedium that preceded it, The Coldest War wasn't really what I'd wanted it to be at all.

That being said, I'm still keen to read the third book, Necessary Evil, sometime soon, just to see where all this is finally going.

I just hope it gets beyond the drawing room a bit sooner.

*But DUDE I WOULD READ THE SNAPE OUT OF THAT SO SOMEBODY PLEASE MAKE IT A THING.

**The Lovecraftian Old One analogues who are the source of all magic and have to be cajoled and bribed-with-bloooooood by batshit crazy human wizards into letting pesky little humans break the laws of physics.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

T.J. Bass' THE GODWHALE

An absolute kitchen-sink classic* of more-or-less-mid-century science fiction, T.J. Bass' The Godwhale is one of the most enjoyable reads I've had this year, even while it was also, broadly, pretty bleak.

The story starts firmly in  overpopulated, dystopian Stand on Zanzibar territory, with our sort-of-protagonist, Larry Dever, quickly and stupidly maneuvering himself into becoming a medical time traveler by getting himself cut in half. The medical science of his near-future time still isn't up to making him whole again, or at least not whole enough to suit him, so he elects to go into suspended animation until it can, gambling on Progress to give him back his legs, internal organs, and fully functioning tallywhacker. As one does.

Oddly enough, his gamble pays off in a way -- he becomes the ancestor to pretty much everyone else that matters in the rest of the story. But only in a way.

Seemingly irrelevant at the time but, as it turns out, crucial to the novel's denouement, Larry is first revived by a world in which his many-times-great-grand-nieces and nephews are getting ready to "seed" other planets, sending out genetic arks into outer space, and while they still can't bring him back to cherry-poppin' full functionality, they can still make him a star-daddy, after a fashion -- he's got wonderfully "primitive" genes compared to what's around in his new time -- humanity is starting to degenerate as only people who can handle overcrowding are able to/allowed to breed, resulting in a loss of hybrid vigor and good old fashioned paleolithic-ish awesomeness of which our man Larry is a last surviving example, even though he's now just a "hemi-human." They'd love to graft him onto a clone-grown lower half and send him into the stars, but when he finds out just how they'd accomplish this, he elects to go back to sleep. They can use his clone-grown material as well as his own sweet self to seed the stars.

All of this is just prologue, though... and then he wakes up again, more or less by accident, into the world of The Hive, in which Bass' other novel Half-Past Human, is set (apparently The Godwhale is a sequel thereto. Oops). A world in which humanity now averages about four feet tall (if that) lives by the multi-billions in one giant, continent-spanning, computer-controlled underground city in unbearably close quarters, below vast Gardens of the kind only Monsanto could love (as in the food plants cannot pollinate themselves or in any way breed, and have to be synthesized from the amino acids up) that exist solely to provide calories for the teeming masses crammed in below, in which no animal life apart from the Hive's stunted little denizens exists, and in which the oceans are completely, lifelessly sterile.

Except for the titular Godwhale, a Harvester, a cybernetic whale remnant of some civilization that existed about halfway between Larry's first awakening and his second, in which giant artificially intelligent cyborgs gathered all the fish and plankton and sea greens and protein from the sea and existed to serve man. This one last cyborg, who lends the novel its title, seems from its having that honor like it's going to be more of a personality within said novel, but alas, the Rokal Maru serves more as a setting-cum-excuse than a partner in protagonism to Larry. I would have loved to have her as more of a character and less of a plot device. Alas. Anyway, she's spent hundreds of years beached on a reef somewhere until suddenly her little robot friend Trilobite discovers not only that there are still people on this here planet, but also maybe some other things are starting to show up, too. Almost as if a cache of biological samples somehow broke open or something. Hmm!

This all probably seems super spoilery, but really, I assure you, it isn't. This is all milieu I'm explaining here, a setting in which a complex and varied plot told in a series of vignettes over decades takes place and which I'm not going to divulge except to say that, well, yes, Larry's genes got around really good for a guy who didn't even have gonads by the end of the first chapter.

Author T.J. Bass, who sadly died in 2011, thus preventing me from fangirling him on social media because I'd not yet heard of him, was a medical doctor by profession, meaning there is enough hard sci-fi content here to satisfy the most grognard among us (provided he considers medicine and biology to be science-y enough), but it almost never overwhelms the story, or the action, of which there is plenty.

I've never so enjoyed being so disappointed in humanity, you guys. Ever.

*Seriously. From its titular cybernetic whale/ship to its medical time travel to its status as another finger-wagging parable to its post-apocalyptic (and post-post apocalyptic, and post-post-post apocalyptic)(remember, it's sort of a time travel tale, though all the travel is in one direction) settings to its The Man Who Folded Himself identity-collapsing (half the novel's characters are pretty much clones of its sort-of-point-of-view character) to its reverse Planet of the Apes ending, this novel is going to remind you of everything while still being its own unique thing. Quite a feat, that!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Joseph D'Lacey's THE BOOK OF THE CROWMAN

I really enjoyed last year's Black Feathers, Joseph D'Lacey's first half of the saga of Gordon Black (what is it with Angry Robot Books and people named Black and blackbirds these days, by the way? It's impossible not to think of Gordon and Miriam Black as siblings of some twisted and horrible kind), but I gotta admit, this second half, The Book of the Crowman, was kind of a slog, you guys.

And that makes me really sad. Even as it suggests rather strongly (ok, more like shouts, for reasons I'll get to below) that in appreciating the subtlety, ambiguity and lack of preachiness in the first volume, I was appreciating Black Feathers all wrong. Either that or I was being set up in the first volume for the rhetorical bludgeoning I got in the second. I think I'd almost rather have been appreciating it all wrong.

For The Book of the Crowman takes all of the things I liked best about Black Feathers and throws them onto the compost heap. Gordon is now explicitly a hippie Christ figure (although yes, he kills a lot more people than Jeebus ever did) (well except all the ones that Jeebus has indirectly killed over the centuries) (but maybe not, 'cause dude kills a lot of people with his little lock knife). Megan becomes less of a Lemmiwinks but still manages to be boring. And the chilling villains of the first volume, Skelton and Pike, stop feeling quite so much like Neil Gaiman/BtVS villains (they totally reminded me of The Gentlemen in Black Feathers) and more like Satan and Saddam Hussein in South Park.

What kept me going was the writing itself, the one quality that truly does carry over from the prior volume. D'Lacey really lets himself rock out this time around, with great escape sequences, action scenes, whole set-piece battles (longbowmen versus tanks, y'all. S'all I'm saying), and also some more of those powerful, quietly emotional scenes that stay with you long after the last page of the book is read.

Ultimately, though, all of that beauty and excitement wound up not being enough when weighed against the feeling of being preached at. It's an open question for me whether it's people with whom one agrees (as is pretty much the case here) or people with whom one disagrees who are more annoying when they just won't shut up about their cause, but the experience of reading this book has added extra weight to the former notion. When you're drinking/talking with an earnest hippie friend who feels passionately about this cause -- nature versus industrialism, pastoralism versus exploitation, tribal egalitarianism versus macro-societal authoritarianism -- sooner or later you can get them to shut up and realize that they're wasting their breath and energy trying to convert the already converted. One cannot, at present, tell a novel to just shut up and enjoy the sunset though. So far. Ah, me.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Justin Robinson's GET BLANK

Justin Robinson's Fill in the Blank series has the makings of a classic except for one small but significant flaw: it is a bit too much a product of the moment, that moment being early 2014, during the grand epic swan song/swan dive of that remarkable but possibly not unforgettable TV series Mad Men*. Which is to say that I'm a bit concerned, regarding this second volume, Get Blank, that it's not going to stand up quite as well as it deserves to in the years to come, when that show and the other pop culture ephemera of this moment are distant memories. And make no mistake, these books deserve to stand up. They deserve to stand up a lot. And that's not any kind of double entendre. Or at least not much of one.

But you know, perhaps early readers of Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson had similar concerns, back in the day.

All questions of long-term survival of the book aside, Get Blank is a worthy successor to the book in which our conspiracy-juggling hero was introduced, 2012's thigh-slapping romp Mr. Blank. It has all of the qualities I enjoyed most in that first book, without feeling like the mixture same as before; Robinson importantly proves early on that "Bob" Blank is far from being a one-note character, even as again he goes to a familiar crime/noir plot well, that of the getting-too-old-for-this-ish, it's-somebody-else's-turn wannabe retiree who is sucked back into his old life by forces he can't control and complains about it entertainingly.

Robinson wisely narrows the focus, this time around, on his protagonist/narrator's amusing narrative voice, resisting the temptation to fill this second volume chock full of MOAR. MOAR CONSPIRACIES! MOAR VILLAINS! MOAR SURREALS! MOAR PUNTASTIC DIALOGUE! MOAR MOAR MOAR.

Instead, we rather a more restrained and thoughtful look at Blank's weird world through his grudgingly maturing eyes.** As Bernard Black (perhaps my only pop culture hero that doesn't get a sly mention or allusion in this novel) would say, he's a boytfriend now; he's got duties, responsibilities, lots of hand-holding and sighing... except unlike Bernard, Blank really is a boyfriend now, whether people believe him or not; the buxom bombshell who shared his adventures last novel, Mina the gorgeous plus-sized model, saw something special in him that no one else seems to (except for us, of course) and decided all he really needed to be a suitable partner was some decent clothes. It's sweet!

Alas, the damsel no sooner won is lost again, framed for murder in an obvious but effective ploy to draw the supposedly retired Blank back out into his former, laughably complex, orbits. As plot devices go, it's a bit ho hum, and it deprives us of a character that really enriched the prior novel, but really, how the hell else are a bunch of conspiracy nuts going to suck their favorite gopher back onto the sacrificial goat delivery circuit? I can't think of a better, can you?

Taking Mina's prior-novel place as sidekick/helpmeet-cum-source of bafflement is one Victor Charlie, a genuine Man in Black, complete with old-fashioned-looking car that can speed like a rocketship, but who is way more bizarre than anything Lowell Cunningham et al imagined for the comic book/film franchise of that name. VC is one weird amalgam of person and program, popping off stock phrases like "hubba hubba" at inappropriate times, taking instructions like "hang on a second" too literally, and generally both helping and hindering Blank's progress, often at the exact same moment. I wish he'd come into the story sooner, though. Ditto Elias. O, Elias, O VC. I would read the crap out of the adventures of Blank and Elias and VC, I really would. 23 Skiddo.

Did I laugh out loud on every other page like last time? No. But what I did do was begin to feel for Mr. Blank, to understand what a life like his might actually be like, and to root for his romance. And that's no mean feat when dealing with a cranky reader like me.

Bravo, Justin! Bravo, Blank!

*Remusly, lots of references to Mad Men here, and I'm not just talking about the main female character/quest object (yes, sadly, the magnificent Mina is more of an absence than a presence in this second Blank novel) being pretty much a role crafted expressly for Christina Hendricks in all her stacked and begirdled red-haired Marilyn Monroe sex-bomb glory.

**Lest this make the book sound too po-faced, though, let me assure you, there are still bits that are funny as hell. A running gag in which Blank keeps enlightening us on the seekrit conspiratorial messages hidden in a litany of pop songs Mina has loaded onto his iPod is lots of fun, for instance. And yes, one of them is by R.E.M. and yes it's probably the one you're thinking of.

Friday, June 6, 2014

K.W. Jeter's MADLANDS

K.W. Jeter is probably best known (at least in my circles) as the guy who invented steampunk, or at least the guy who named it. And his Infernal Devices is one of the earliest and, for my money, best examples of the sub-genre.

Others know him as an author of novelizations, franchise works and authorized sequels to famous works by other, better known authors. And that's fine.

But Jeter is his own man, and his own stand-alone work is brilliant. He may never completely emerge from his friend Philip K. Dick's shadow (Jeter has also achieved literary immortality by serving as the model for the character of Kevin, he of the dead cat fame, in Philip K. Dick's VALIS; that's how tight he and Dick and their friend Tim "David" Powers were, yo), but he still manages to shine brilliantly within it, uneclipsed.

It's books like Madlands that demonstrate this most brilliantly. Yes, it has strong Phildickian and, for that matter, Tim Powersful*, qualities, but this book has an angry, noir-ish edge to it his friends' works mostly lack, together with a wonderfully baroque, Grand Guignol sensibility that makes reading it a wickedly enjoyable pleasure.

Jeter's dystopian future Los Angeles is quite literally the product of a deranged imagination; it is a sort of projected construct of the City of Angels' mostly fanciful celluloid past onto a weird void that seems to be all that's left of the world after some unspecified disaster. Reality isn't what it used to be in the Madlands, a zone in which thrill-seekers can come and experience multiple versions of reality all at once, see things their ordinary human eyes can't, etc. etc.** Weirdly, though, nobody who takes a day trip into this zone seems ever to feel like leaving, which has profound consequences for their long-term survival in that the field or wavelength or whatever that lets them experience other realities also messes with people's very cells, very molecules, and destroys their ability to remain organized as human bodies. So everybody who's been there for a while develops multiple cancers as a precursor to eventually becoming a slurpy pile of goo with vestigial eyes that plead for passersby to end the misery with a gun or sledgehammer.

See? Baroque.

Presiding over all of this is a giant egomaniac known as Identrope, who is somehow immune to the effects of the Madlands field, probably because he is somehow the source or cause of it. He is a literal and figurative cult figure, the ultimate TV star-cum-religious leader, who offers a weird and limited but very real (or at least "real") form of immortality to his followers that is the only way for ordinary people to avoid dissolving into protoplasm. And he has lots of takers.

Overlaying all of this weirdness is a plot that will seem almost wearily familiar to anyone who's read a lot of fiction: a crime noir betrayal and doublecross story. Identrope isn't the only guy in the Madlands who has weird powers within it, you see, and he seems to have nursed some vipers at his breast. But that's a good thing.

A very good thing.

And this little bit of familiarity actually winds up feeling pretty welcome among all the weird. Noir is a great anchor for storytelling like this. And this level of weird, well, it needs some anchoring.

The book is an absolute pleasure. Don't miss it!

*Madlands would make a wonderful companion read to Powers' early and underrated Dinner at Deviant's Palace. Identrope and Reverend Jaybush would have a lot to talk about over drinks of worshipper's cerebrospinal fluids or somesuch.

**I imagine this as something like the effects of the machine H.P. Lovecraft's Crawford Tillinghast creates to allow himself to perceive alternate dimensions in "From Beyond" writ very, very large. And permanent. And with much worse side effects.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Gene Wolfe's THE LAND ACROSS

Gene Wolfe novels should come with a set of cheat codes, I sometimes think.* For The Land Across (a literal translation of the storied place name of Transylvania, kind of, except I think a better translation of that name would probably be The Forest Across, but hey), the text would then be full of useful hints embedded in the text like "this is probably Dracula" and "whoa, do you think that's the disembodied hand doing stuff again?" and "hey, dummy, if you haven't guessed, this guy's name pretty literally means town of the Count so he might also be Dracula or a close relative."

So yeah, in lots of ways, The Land Across is Gene Wolfe's Dracula story. And that's reason enough to run and go get it right away, right there. But there's more.

The Land Across starts out threatening to seem like a Kafka pastiche/homage. Our (as usual, unreliable) narrator is (supposedly) a travel writer who has decided to write the definitive guidebook on a tiny, unnamed, formerly Communist Central or Eastern European country that no one from the West has really visited yet (damned hipster!) but who gets arrested on an unknown and never explained charge right at the country's border, whisked off his train and forcibly billeted on a local married couple whose lives are to be hostage to his cooperation and good behavior. For good measure, the town (called Puraustays, a name I'm still reckoning with) has no street names and these nameless streets are not exactly straight and there's not much in the way of transportation aside from the good old shank's pony unless you're the cops, which, get ready for the cops in this story by the way.

And that's before things get weird. Because remember, Dracula is involved, although to what degree the individual reader will perceive his involvement/to what degree Dracula is supposed to actually be involved is, I think, going to vary wildly with the individual reader and the amount of interpretive work, discussion and digging he/she is willing to do for the sake of seeing just what the hell ol' Pringle's Face is up to this time.

Soon our narrator is involved in several efforts to unravel several conspiracies, some involving the police/secret police, some involving allegations of Satanism, some involving a long-ago murder that may have had direct consequences on our daffy, impatient narrator's own personal life, some involving the creation, dissemination and marketing of various voodoo supplies, and possibly some involving the overthrow of the government, or of Dracula, or of both because Dracula and the government might well be one and the same, or maybe Dracula is trying to stage a coup d'etat? Maybe? Kind of?

Further confusing matters is a whole new level of Wolfe messing around with language; if the reader is to believe the surface interpretation of the narrative, our narrator is an American abroad, writing in English for an American audience and just doing his best, as he relays the speech of the characters he has encountered in his adventures, to convey the flavor of their speech and the effect said speech has on his doubly-translating brain. The other characters mostly talk in their own language or German, and our narrator has tried to preserve the cadence, word choice and order of their speeches, resulting in things like "that would be most good" instead of "fine", for instance. That's a paltry example of what is saturating this novel and making it a strange read even before the dual ideas of the narrator not being who he claims at all and of machine translation are introduced. We might, in other words, be reading an extensive propaganda piece, imperfectly translated into English by a mystical or mechanical gadget. Oy.

Then there is a whole 'nother theme of possession. We meet one important character who, it turns out, is an exorcist, and lots of passages might sneak by the inattentive reader until he or she realizes that our protagonist doesn't always seem to be in control of himself, fearing, for example, to fall asleep at one point because he might shoot the lady he's in bed with if he does. Um, whut? But you know, what's a voodoo/vampire tale without a little of that here and there?

So, big surprise, this looks like another book that is going to reward careful re-reading. Just like all the rest of Wolfe's stuff. I'd better start researching longevity therapies, because I need a whole lot of time yet. Hurry up with those cheat codes, children.

*And if you think that would spoil the fun, well, don't look at the cheat codes, dur. Cheat codes aren't for everyone. Cheat codes are for people who want to experience the game's story fully but who lack the manual dexterity/time/skill to jump through all the hoops and overcome all the impediments (driving levels are my Achilles' heel, personally) to get to the end in their own lifetimes. Or who have a lot of other books to get through before the bucket at the end of the list gets kicked, yo. But yes, I like figuring some stuff out for myself also. So I took great pleasure in SPOILER ALERT seeing the possible metacommentary inherent in the name of one of the novel's many cafes, Cafe Tetrasemnos, being as it's located near the Church of St. Barachisius. Tetrasemnos basically would mean "four revered things" and St. Barachisius was martyred for refusing to worship four things: the sun, the moon, fire and water as the King of Persia commanded. I haven't had that much fun with researching weird religious ish since my first time reading Foucault's Pendulum, yo.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

J.G. Ballard's HELLO AMERICA

While the Planet of the Apes' iconic Statue of Liberty Buried In The Sand is an old favorite, I think I prefer J.G. Ballard's Lady Liberty: Navigation Hazard (see the Dutch cover for this novel, in the lower right corner of this post), upon whose crown which the good ship Apollo (named for, of course, the famous lunar expeditions) tears open its hull as its already mad captain takes it full steam ahead toward the glittering golden dunes engulfing New York City as depicted in this brilliant cover art.

I can't exactly call Hello America post-apocalyptic; the rest of the world is just fine, thanks (albeit yes, culturally and technologically ebbing from the high water mark of mid-century civilization). America, though, is a hundred years dead, victim of its own excess (the fossil fuels ran out) and of other countries' questionable decisions, chiefly that of the USSR, which dammed the Bering Strait to improve its own climate and make of Siberia the world's new bread basket. Altering ocean currents so profoundly has left (most of) North America a scorching desert, one which Ballard of course describes vividly and beautifully:
Half the Appalachians had been destroyed by the sun to yield this deluge of rock and dust. Street signs and traffic lights protruded from the sand, a rusty metallic flora, old telephone lines trailed waist-high marking out a labyrinth of pedestrian catwalks. Here and there, in the hollows between the dunes, were the glass doors of bars and jewelry stores, dark grottoes like subterranean caves... In the centre of Times Square a giant saguaro cactus raised its thirty foot arms into the over-heated air, an imposing sentinel guarding the entrance to a desert nature reserve.
We see this surreal future cityscape through the eyes of one of Ballard's more active protagonists, Wayne, a Dublin-born descendant of Americans who fled back to Europe when America became uninhabitable. Wayne starts his journey as a stowaway aboard the Liberty-crashing Apollo, which is bringing a scientific expedition to America to investigate the source of some worrisome radiation readings that are coming from the continent's interior -- the last one who left did not turn out the nuclear lights, if you know what I mean. True to Ballardian form, Wayne is driven by a strange obsession, or set of obsessions, as is each member of the ship's crew. For Wayne, coming to America is both a search for his half-imaginary missing father (a scientist from a prior expedition that never returned) and for his own destiny, for young Wayne fantasizes about being the 45th President of the United States.*

Wayne crosses the continent with a strange crew of scientists, paramilitary wannabes, the usual Ballardian cast, right down to the token female, physicist Anne Summers, who is, as usual, stuck carrying all the men's bullshit anima projections across the desert and into the Amazonian jungle that has encroached into the American Southwest (now as lush and overgrown as the East is dry and Saharan, because deliberate climate change). So the ship's captain and most of the other military types assume she'll be their submissive sex-kitten once the desert has softened her up and teased loose that severe hairdo, which happens soon enough: "and there emerged, like a flare of light from a grenade, the long blonde hair that now shadowed her from the sun... This white mane made her resemble some beautiful nomadic widow, endlessly crossing the desert in search of a young husband."

Of course that second fantasy is Wayne's. He's going to make her his First Lady, don't you know. A gallant, gallant soul, is Wayne. And never mind what Anne might actually want for herself. No, really, never mind, because (sigh) her character pretty much devolves the second she sets foot on the "golden" sands of Manhattan. She's a nuclear physicist of enough importance to be selected for this potentially vital expedition, but get her near a derelict department store and all she wants to do is loot ball gowns and cosmetics counters so she can play dress up. Oh, Anne.

So yeah, Wayne (and Ballard, dammit) could probably do better.

Ah, but so many things stand between Wayne and his goals (goals! A Ballardian protagonist with goals!), not the least of which is the new Great American Desert**, still sparsely populated by the weird, half-savage descendents of the people who couldn't get/keep it together enough to evacuate the continent when everyone else did; these post-American Indians are divided into regional tribes with names like The Professors (from Boston), The Executives (Manhattan) and The Bureaucrats (Washington DC), who engage in bizarre cargo-cult imitations of mid-20th-century civilziation and name themselves after major international brand names.*** So soon Wayne finds himself in the company of freaks named GM and Pepsodent... and the reader finds herself wondering when he's going to encounter Mrs. Etheyl Shroake and establish diplomatic relations with England-after-the-nuclear-misunderstanding.

Enter one Charles Manson, who has deliberately adopted the name of the 20th century's most famous psycho killer and has beaten Wayne to the job of being POTUS #45. A most Kurtz-like figure might Manson seem to be, except it's pretty obvious that he was looney-tunes long before he set up his kingdom in the jungle and started up a program of bizarre Phildickian robot-building and nuclear-missile-recommissioning with the help of a scientist who got stranded in America a generation or so ago...

So yes, of all the Ballard I've read to date, Hello America is the most nearly plot-driven. Story elements come together, as do characters. Loose ends get tied up. A story gets told. The work is every bit as vividly hallucinatory and allusive as the elemental apocalypse books, every bit as beautifully written, every bit as hiply magical, but it's more of an actual story than I've grown used to coming from him. Which is awesome.

But even so, the plot is not really the point, for above all else, Hello America is a meditation on the emptiness of mid-century dreaming, of our culture's enduring fixation on Presidents and movie stars and madmen, in which we seem wont to indulge even at the expense of sustaining the civilization that produced these idols. Somebody else clean up this mess; I wanna have a martini and look at Playboy. And shut up about Peak Oil. What are you, a Russki?

And it's also an indulgence in that most seductive of fantasies, that of infinite elbow room. Everybody who comes to this America has a dream of having a continent to him- or herself. Perhaps everybody always has. Hell, as Sartre observed, is other people. So the gleaming golden shore of a dune-submerged metropolis must look a lot like heaven.

At least until your camels die. Or you run out of lipstick. Or you find yourself staring down a scrum of robotic Presidents.

Ballard, man...

*The 44th, of course, having been Jerry "Moonbeam" Brown, who spent out the remainder of his term and days meditating at some Japanese zen center after his nation and his presidency dissolved into a state of non-being.

**Which, this landscape and the remnants of human attempts to maintain the status quo ante for a while within it make Hello America feel almost like a direct sequel to The Burning World, as Wayne and his party keep encountering sad little examples of pathetic attempts to survive that world's new normal -- water reclamation stills built out of spare parts, kluged-together steam engines hastily mounted into classic Detroit-built automobiles, etc.

***More stuff to tick off the feminist in you: not only is there an all female tribe called The Divorcees who are pretty much just a multi-form parody of mid-century womanhood, but then there's this cultural tidbit from the Executive tribe: all Executive women are named Xerox, because they make good copies.

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 Clancy Brown 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!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Scott Sigler's PANDEMIC

What if Alastair Reynolds' Inhibitors found us back when we lived on just the one planet, and instead of harnessing the destructive power of stellar physics to destroy us, were masters of biotechnology instead and just hijacked our own brains and bodies into doing it?

Such is the malevolent force Scott Sigler has created for his Infected series, my fondness for which I have covered elsewhere. The machines working to wreak apocalyptic havoc on humanity refer to them as The Creators, but we could really maybe call them Space Republicans, for their knee-jerk reaction to the idea that the universe might contain sentient life other than themselves is to seek to destroy that life utterly before it evolves to the point of developing space travel and the ability to destroy The Creators. See also Douglas Adams' Crikketers.

The result is a combination of first rate body horror and disaster porn, rather than space opera, but the comparison stands. As Reynolds draws on a prior career as a professional astronomer, Sigler draws on the expertise of his rabid fanbase (known as "Junkies" the ranks of whom include the likes of Bad Astronomer Phil Plait, who gets a hilarious cameo-tweet mid-story) and his own formidable attention to scientific detail, again almost to a fault. Reynolds' books occasionally threaten to drift into becoming astronomy primers; this series of Sigler's has passages that might stand up in a college biology textbook -- but it's all the service of selling the story. And lots of people are buying, including your humble blogger.

Pandemic, the third and final volume in the series takes all of the bio-medical creepiness, apocalyptic threat and heroic angst of Infected and Contagious, turns the volume up to 11, and rips off the knob. With each novel, the Creators' semi-sentient minions have learned more about human biology on both the individual and the social levels and have exploited that knowledge to nearly destroy humanity, only to be barely thwarted by the combined efforts of a team of scientists, soldiers and politicians who contain the threats posed in the nick of time, and through the individual bravery of a few early victims like washed-up football hero Perry Dawson, patient zero in the first novel, who still looms larger than life after death in this third one.*

Dr. Margaret Montoya, the woman who failed to save Perry, but who saved a lot of other people at great cost, is more or less the hero of this one, or at least she's supposed to be, but once again, despite her scientific brilliance, her strength, her crippling guilt and her marital problems, she's the least interesting character in the book. But this isn't because she's a badly drawn or boring character; she's just got a lot of competition, not the least of which from the disease itself, whose "point of view" Sigler relates in several interludes of frightening plausibility and maximum grossness (seriously, trigger warning for you germophobes out there. If someone blowing his/her nose in your presence squicks you out, if you're one of those people whose hands are constantly drenched in hand sanitizer, this is maybe not the book for you). And the other characters, including Ancestor's Dr. Tim Feely, still yucking it up even as he fights to save the world again. And the plot. And the colossal world-wide scope of the problem she faces, a plot so apocalyptically epic that the most vivid and compelling character in the world would pretty much get lost in it.

The fact that she doesn't, nor do the new characters introduced in this novel, says everything about Sigler as a writer; he achieves a near-flawless balance between character moments, dire exposition and insane-to-the-point-of-thigh-slapping ACKSHUN. The result is a compelling and ickily plausible read even before the climactic hijinks.

I expected nothing less.

*As well he should. He and his chicken scissors are unforgettable.