New Old Friends

Books are old friends. Here is where I mention the new ones I've made.

Category: Book Reviews

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

Titus Groan is a chewy book.  While I’m one of those readers who can buzz through something by, say, Jim Butcher or Terry Brooks in a couple of hours, Titus Groan took me the better part of two months.  I don’t mean that as a knock; other books have taken me this long simply because I found them unbearably tedious (Dostoevsky leaps aggravatingly to mind) or frustrating (the first 5 chapters or so of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One), but not this one.  Simply put, reading Titus Groan is just hard work.  I chalk this up to multiple factors, the greatest of which is simply Mervyn Peake’s style of writing.  Peake was a poet as well as a novelist and illustrator, and it shows in both his voluminous vocabulary and his particularly evocative imagery.  He also makes use of long narrative and descriptive passages and often cryptic dialog, to the point where one cannot rush through it even if inclined to; it would be like trying to sprint through a rainforest without benefit of a machete.

The vast majority of the book is set in the twisting passages, dusty rooms and verdant grounds of Gormenghast castle.  Nothing ever changes in Gormenghast, to the point where even the life of the hereditary Earl is prescribed in a never-ending series of rituals that must be carried out without deviation, despite nobody having any idea why they evolved or what will happen if they are not carried out.  The entire existence of Gormenghast and all its inhabitants is one of crushing stagnation, and Peake heightens this feeling through constant images of rot and decay, crumbing walls and dust-filled galleries, and characters who go about their lives day in and day out for no reason other than that they know nothing else.  The book opens and closes from the point of view of Rottcodd, the curator of the castle’s Hall of Carvings, a sort of museum to the finest work of the otherwise-wretched tribe who lives in squalor outside the castle walls.  Every day he dusts the carvings, and they are immaculate…but the dust is piled inches deep around the bases of the displays, for he doesn’t bother with those.  Every day is the same, to the point where he realizes one day that an entire year has gone by during which he has neither seen or spoken with another human being; his existence is a microcosm of the life of the castle as a whole.  This carefully-maintained balance is thrown into disarray by two disparate events, one momentous and one trivial: the birth of the Earl’s long-awaited son and heir, the titular Titus, and the escape of the kitchen boy Steerpike from his culinary servitude.  While Titus’ birth briefly energizes the court, giving them new rituals to perform and relieving his melancholy father of his final unperformed duty (the production of an heir), his arrival is still expected and accounted for in the grand cycle of Gormenghast, but the ambitious and amoral Steerpike is an agent of chaos and disrupts castle life all around him through his unending social climb; his machinations provide the external impetus to a plot that would otherwise be entirely inertial.

Reading the book one feels as if in a dreamscape, where everything is slightly (or not so slightly) surreal, and this feeling is heightened by the strangeness of the dialog and even the names of the characters; you know you’re in for an interesting time once you’re introduced to Rottcodd, Nannie Slagg, Dr. Prunesquallor, and Sepulchrave the 76th Earl of Groan.  The cast of major characters is fairly large, yet never becomes unwieldy.  Partially this is because of the memorable and unique names that Peake assigns to them, and partially because many of them have very distinctive speech patterns that quickly and effectively aid the reader.  Dr. Prunesquallor, for example, punctuates his sentences with inane laughter; his sister Irma says almost everything twice; the Earl’s manservant Flay is taciturn to an extreme; Nannie Slagg is given to piteous cries and complaints.  It also helps that the physical descriptions of the characters, like of the setting, are vivid and descriptive to the point of caricature.  I can’t help, for example, but envision Flay as Gru from Despicable Me, or the countess Gertrude as the Witch of the Waste from Howl’s Moving Castle, or Nannie Slagg as the old woman from Blazing Saddles (she of the “Have you ever seen such cruelty?” line).  In fact it feels like the only character who doesn’t get significant face time is Titus himself, who spends the entirety of the book as an infant (he apparently is a much more active participant in subsequent novels).

The Gormenghast series (not a trilogy, although there are but three books, since Peake intended more before he died) is often cited by modern fantasy writers as an important influence, and it’s easy to see why.  The plot is tight, the characters memorable, and the language lush and gorgeously descriptive.  Titus Groan is about as far from the stereotypical elves-and-goblin, let-me-tell-you-at-length-about-my-D&D-campaign fantasy novel as one can get, yet fantasy it clearly is.  Peake stakes a strong claim that modern fantasy can hold its own with more “serious” literature, and no serious fan of the genre should go any longer without reading his work.

Advertisements

Railsea by China Miéville

I can understand, a little bit, how Gabe and Tycho feel.

I’m not saying that I don’t like China Miéville; he is in fact one of my favorite authors and I find his work endlessly creative even though it has its shortcomings.  But I also can’t blame them for wanting to punch him in the face for using the word “moldywarpe”.  It does smack of über-cuteness and smug self-awareness.  And I don’t care, because the book totally makes up for it.

Sham Yes ap Soorap is an apprentice to the doctor aboard the moletrain Medes, on the hunt through the railsea.  Bear with me here: the world is nothing but earth and rocks; there is no ocean.  In its place vast tracts of land spread out between the islands of rock where the cities are, crisscrossed with countless railroads.  All commerce rides the rails, and not just on steam trains; some trains are pulled by animals, some run on clockwork or by wind, and a shunned few are slave-galleys.  Nobody will set foot on the ground here; the superstitious believe it to be poisonous to the touch, but really it’s just teeming with nasty burrowing critters who will tear you limb from limb, from the vicious naked mole rats (dog-sized, natch), to six-foot earwigs, to owls the size of a house who can pick up a train car and tear it to bits with their talons.  The grandest of all, though, are the great moles, who are hunted by the moling trains for their skin, meat, and blubber.  The Medes‘ captain is in pursuit of the biggest of them all, a bone-colored great southern moldywarpe named Mocker-Jack, who took her arm long ago.  Yes, it’s Moby Dick.  On a train.

Railsea is the second of Miéville’s works written for a younger audience, and it shares a number of characteristics with Un Lun Dun, his first.  The presence of a young protagonist goes without saying, but a general love with words and wordplay runs all through both works.  Railsea is a more mature work, though; characters get drunk and carouse, and wake up hung over; animals (obviously) and characters die; the descriptions of the railsea’s inhabitants, human and otherwise, is generally frightening and occasionally terrifying.  Where Un Lun Dun nods to The Phantom Tollbooth, Railsea nods to The Odyssey, and when Sham is taken by pirates it’s not the least bit romantic or swashbuckling; he is treated exactly as you’d expect a captive of real pirates to be treated.  Miéville doesn’t dwell on gory details, but he doesn’t pull a lot of punches either.  The result is a well-balanced piece of fiction; generally light-hearted, yet with a bit of shadow always lurking just out of reach and occasionally flashing directly into focus.  A mature ten-year-old can probably handle this one, whereas I’d recommend Un Lun Dun for anyone whose reading vocabulary is up to par.  It’s not as deep or weighty as, say, Embassytown, but it’s not supposed to be, and while it doesn’t feel as gleeful as Kraken, it’s still a hell of a lot of fun.

The Unreasoning Mask by Philip José Farmer

This will be more of a stream-of-thought review, because I’m still strugging with how to describe this book, and frankly with whether or not I like it.  On one hand, Farmer has obviously poured a lot of creativity into this novel, something that usually earns brownie points with me and can make up for shortcomings in the plot or dialog, but it doesn’t help so much here.  It could be because, after so recently reading The Ice Schooner and The Scar, and gearing up for China Miéville’s new Railsea, I’m burned out on Moby Dick homages (although I’ve since read, and enjoyed, Railsea.  More on that later.)

I think, boiled down, my biggest problem here is that the captain won’t shut up.

Ramstan (he has a first name, but frankly I couldn’t be bothered to page through again to find out what it is) is captain of al-Buraq, a living ship with a revolutionary new instantaneous drive. Mankind is most decidedly not alone in this universe, and Ramstan is on the run from another alien race from whom he has stolen their god when he learns that planet after planet is being completely annihilated by forces unknown, and he is is the only one who can put a stop to it.  It’s an interesting plot that touches on religion and the fuzzy line between obsession and compulsion, but it is continually undermined by Ramstan and his inability to stop complaining and take some damn responsibility.  And then, when he finally grows a pair and starts to confess to his crew about what he’s done and why they’ve been running, he launches into uninterrupted monologue (granted, it’s over shipwide loudspeaker, but still) that just seems to go on, and on, and on.  Frankly, nobody actually talks like that, and it breaks a lot of the verisimilitude that Farmer had otherwise skilfully established.

The Unreasoning Mask is not a bad book; its concepts are sound and their consequences logical and well-explored.  It’s just not a particularly good book either.  If you can get past the general clunkiness of the dialogue, you’ll likely enjoy the read.  I simply didn’t.

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

Education: None.
Skills: None.
Merits: None.
Recommendations: None.

So reads the personnel dossier of one Gulliver Foyle, protagonist (not hero) of Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination.  Gully Foyle is a nobody, a brute, Mechanic’s Mate 3rd Class aboard the spaceship “Nomad” with no prospects for promotion, cursing the gods in his thick gutter dialect as he ticks off his 171st day marooned alone in space.

The future is a weird place.  Mankind has, purely by accident, learned to teleport (or “jaunte”).  All of the habitable planets and moons are inhabited, and there is a tense economic war/standoff between the Inner and Outer planets.  Corporations have mutated into noble families overseeing their chains of shops, their daughters and valuables shut away inside cunning labyrinths to protect them from jaunting intruders.  Society is undergoing the kinds of wholesale changes that leave it “trembling on the verge of a human explosion that would transform man and make him the master of the universe.”  And Gully Foyle couldn’t care less about that, or about anything else.  He’s been in space, alone, for 171 days in pure survival mode to the point where, seeing a passing spaceship, he can’t believe his salvation…or that the spaceship, the S.S. “Vorga”, after slowing and looking him over, accelerates away and leaves him to die.  It is this insult that snaps him out of his lifelong funk and finally gives him a reason to live: in his words, “Vorga, I kill you filthy!”.

There are few wholly original stories, and this is not one of them.  You can think of it as The Count of Monte Cristo in space, if you like, but there’s much more to it than that.  Foyle is one of the most anti anti-heroes I’ve read, at least in recent memory; single-minded, savagely violent, and despicably amoral, he nevertheless elicits grudging admiration for the sheer volume of energy he expends as his he tortures, rapes and murders his way along his search for the “Vorga” and her crew.  Meanwhile, a planet-wide search is ongoing for him as the last survivor of the “Nomad,” which was carrying the only supplies of an experimental superweapon that could turn the tide of the solar war for good.  Both hunter and hunted, Foyle is an embodiment of pure seething rage and determination, making for a truly memorable character, and his sheer bloody-mindedness propels the story at breakneck pace toward a synesthetic finale of literally cosmic scale.

Clocking in at less than 200 pages (in my copy, anyway), this book is tightly written and plotted and simply barrels along from the first page to the last, with many touches familiar from Bester’s other work: gutter dialects, dialog with no indication of who is speaking (sure there’s a word for this), synesthesia represented by switching to illustration and odd typefaces, and of course rape.  Not nearly as much of an acid trip as Golem100, this is generally regarded as Bester’s finest work and is often mentioned as one of the best science-fiction novels ever written.  I’m not sure that I quite go that far, but it is definitely a classic of the genre and a must-read for any fan thereof.

The Scar by China Miéville

Regular readers (both of you) know how much I like China Miéville.  His Kraken was the first book I reviewed here, and my reading of the collection The New Weird was prompted by the presence of his story “Jack”.  The Scar was the first of his books that I ever read, even before the better-known Perdido Street Station, and having since read all of his other novels I thought it would be educational to revisit this one and see how my perspective on it has changed.

On first glance, it didn’t feel like much had changed at all, as I found myself being pulled back into the oceanic world of Armada and its inhabitants just as easily as the first time.  The Scar is Miéville’s take on the sea epic.  The setting: Bellis Coldwine, academic and linguist, has fled the militia of New Crobuzon in the wake of the events of Perdido Street Station, bound for the colony of Nova Esperium where a new life awaits here with no questions asked.  She obtains passage in return for her services as translator in the cray city of Sakrikaltor, but things don’t exactly go as planned, and she finds herself press-ganged into the mongrel pirate citizenry of Armada, a floating city composed of countless captured ships and precariously ruled by two scarred Lovers.

In Perdido Street Station, Miéville showed what can happen when he lets his imagination run wild in an urban setting; the sentient constructs, all-powerful Weavers, and the Ambassador of Hell are just a few of his memorable creations.  In The Scar he is unconstrained by location and it shows.  In rapid-fire, almost dizzying succession we’re introduced to all manner of amazing and bizarre creatures, such as the cray (half human, half giant lobster, think aquatic centaurs), the anophelii (terrifying mosquito people whose females can drain a pig – or human – of all their bodily fluids in under a minute), and the three-mile-long whale-like avanc.  Miéville also excels in creating interesting secondary characters such as the twice-Remade Tanner Sack, the vampire Brucolac who openly rules one of Armada’s neighborhoods, the secret agent Silas Fennec, and above all the master swordsman Uther Doul and his Possible Sword, which uses Probability Energy to inflict all of hundreds of possible wounds at once.  Even the little touches, things mentioned only in passing, are fascinating, such as the sentient whirlpools and the beach whose red sands are entirely made of tiny gears, cogs and other bits of machinery.

A recent review of Perdido Street Station that I read commented that Miéville seems to have trouble creating memorable well-developed protagonists, and after some consideration I have to give hesitant, qualified agreement, with emphasis on the protagonist part of that sentence.  As I indicated above (and the other reviewer agrees), Miéville’s secondary characters are imaginative, interesting, and as well-developed as one would expect a secondary character to be.  His protagonists, on the other hand, don’t seem to stick as much in the mind as one might expect they should.  Miéville is too obviously-skilled of a writer for this to be completely accidental, and some of his other works such as Un Lun Dun or Embassytown do feature interesting and fully-fleshed-out protagonists; it could simply be that Perdido’s main POV character Isaac de Grimnebulin is simply a locus around which things happen, rather than an active driving force behind the plot, and the novel doesn’t have a true protagonist as such.  My own opinion is that the real protagonists of his novels (at least the New Crobuzon novels, although you could make the case for Kraken as well) are the worlds and people he creates and the ideas that they embody, and the POV characters through which he relates these worlds are more meant to be vessels for the reader to vicariously experience them.  Whether or not this is a beneficial device is open to question, but I personally don’t mind.  I would note that this is less the case in The Scar than in Perdido; Bellis seems at first to be a similar passive observer that things happen to, but as the story unfolds she takes a more active hand in events and her motivations are made very clear.  (The third novel, Iron Council, is similar to Perdido).

In my review of Kraken I made the statement that Miéville doesn’t know how to end a story, and this statement was primarily driven by my first readings of Perdido and The Scar.  Upon re-reading The Scar I must retract that statement; I believe that on my first time through, I either blasted through the subtle lead-up to the ending (and therefore missed the important bits) or simply didn’t understand what had happened.  Probably both.  This time I found the ending entirely satisfying even though certain (intentional) ambiguities that I, again, missed the first time through raised more questions than they answered.  I loved this book the first time I read it, and it led me to immediately go find the rest of his work and give it a place of honor on my bookshelf.  The second time, I liked it even better.  The Scar is certainly the best of his early works and possibly the best of his works, period (I’ll have to re-read the rest of them, particularly Embassytown, before I can make that judgment).  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow

Full disclosure: I’ve never been to Disneyland or Disney World.  Honestly, that’s fine with me, I don’t feel deprived or have any remote desire to rectify this.  It does, however, mean that I have one fewer way to connect with Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.  Doctorow either loves him some Disney or he’s got some real stones, because setting a debut sci-fi novel in Disney World, even future Disney World, seems like an…um…interesting choice.

More power to him, because he mostly pulls it off.  In the world of tomorrow, death has been cured by means of complete mental backups and quick-grown clones, so as long as you back up frequently, death is little more than a mild inconvenience.  Despite sounding like a lecture from your wild-haired IT guy, Doctorow manages to spin this single technological advance into a number of creative plot points and background touches.  For example, some groups of people refuse to take advantage of humanity’s new immortality (the “Bitchun Society”), but nobody’s worried about them, because eventually they all die off and the problem solves itself.  Anyway, immortal humanity finds itself with a lot of time on its hands; many “deadhead”, or go into cryogenic fugue, with instructions to wake periodically to see if anything interesting is happening.  Others pursue multiple doctorates, and still others go to Disney World.

Again, I’ve never been there, so I can’t vouch for the fidelity of Doctorow’s descriptions.  I think we can take it as read, though, that the technology used in almost all attractions is far beyond even the Disney Corporation’s reach; the latest innovation is to push memories and experiences directly into the visitor’s mind to create a fully immersive experience.  This is pretty damn cool, but it doesn’t sit well with our narrator, who works in the Haunted Mansion and likes it the way it is, thank you very much.  I wouldn’t think that a novel about a hostile takeover of a theme park attraction could be interesting, but then I also didn’t think anybody could turn MMORPG gold-farming into a gripping read, and I was wrong.  It’s to Doctorow’s credit that he accomplishes this, mainly by getting the reader to identify with main character Julius’ overwhelming desire to keep just one thing free from the technological rat race, to not fix what ain’t broke.  It also helps that Doctorow doesn’t try to go into great depth with the motivations of any of the characters; the PDF version of this text clocks in at a brisk 115 pages or so, leaving little room for extraneous detail.  He does throw in little nuggets, almost as asides, to aid verisimilitude and keep the reader’s interest as well; characters casually smoke crack as others might smoke tobacco, for example, and doctors still exist but can’t do much outside of the “just die and restore from backup” paradigm.  It’s the little things, after all, that make the setting.

All in all, it’s a fun, light, and innocuous little read.  Certainly, after a steady, heavy diet of Herbert and Mieville, it’s kinda nice to flip leisurely through this kind of confection.  I see little subtext here; probably the most subversive thing about the book is that it was released under the Creative Commons license (like all of Doctorow’s works) and is therefore free to download and distribute.  (Obviously, if you want a paper copy, you need to buy it).  This was a very bold step for a new author to take, but it seems to have paid off for him since he’s released several more under the same license.  Anyway, bottom line is, Disneyphiles will probably adore it, but it stands up well for the rest of us too.  It’s good, light summer fun reading, so next time you’re sacked out in your hammock with your iPad or whatever in easy reach, you can do much worse than to WiFi this puppy over and give it a go.

The New Weird by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer (editors)

ImageConsidering that the overwhelming majority of what I read is genre fiction, I read surprisingly few short stories.  I seem to gravitate more toward novels, which allow me to immerse myself more fully in an author’s creation, but this tendency has two deleterious side effects.  First, I miss out on the concentrated punch that good short stories can deliver; they often will have as much background as a full novel, but due to the constraints of the form they will start the reader off running, in medias res, which can result in an exhilirating read.  This goes double for stories that take place in a setting established earlier in an author’s work, often in a novel, allowing the author to revisit some underdeveloped facet of his world without the commitment of building a long work or the temptation to rewrite an earlier work to fill space (I’m looking at you, Terry Brooks).  Second, I tend to miss out on lesser-known (to me) or younger authors whose long works are either still unwritten or haven’t made it onto my radar screen, or those who work best in the short story format; I live in the sticks, I have two children and a job, and my local library is small, so it takes real effort and a real commitment of my nonexistent free time to explore new authors in the numbers that I would like.

The New Weird scratches both of those itches very nicely, thank you very much.

What is the New Weird?  The introduction poses this very question and proceeds to trace the development of this new mini-genre from its roots in Lovecraft’s weird fiction, 60s New Wave fantasy and the horror renaissance of the 80s through the gestation period in the 90s and its explosion in 2000 with the publication of China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, mentioning a number of seminal works along the way (of which I will be making careful note).  Basically, according to the VanderMeers,

New Weird is a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy.  New Weird has a visceral, in-the-moment quality that often uses elements of surreal or transgressive horror for its tone, style and effects … New Weird relies for its visionary power on a “surrender to the weird” that isn’t, for example, hermetically sealed in a haunted house on the moors or in a cave in Antarctica.  The “surrender” (or “belief”) of the writer can take many forms, some of them even involving the use of postmodern techniques that do not undermine the surface reality of the text.

It’s an accurate and surprisingly precise definition for a slippery movement still alive and evolving.  Indeed, it effectively delineates the differences between these authors and others who, while capable of genre-blending with the best of them, don’t have that little frisson of, well, weirdness that sets these folks apart.  Dan Simmons, for example, can create serious fantasy/sci-fi/horror mashups (Ilium and its follow-up Olympos leap to mind) but lack the grittiness and Cronenbergian body-modification undertones that mark the New Weird.

The anthology itself is creatively set up.  The first section, “Stimuli”, is made up of a handful of older stories that can be seen to have influenced more modern New Weird works.  There is almost uniformly stellar work here, from Michael Moorcock’s Apocalypse Now-like WWIII story “Crossing into Cambodia” to Clive Barker’s Eastern European WTF-fest “In The Hills, The Cities”, to Simon D. Ings’ startlingly funny “The Braining of Mother Lamprey”. Thomas Ligotti’s “A Soft Voice Whispers Nothing” is more atmospherically creepy, while M. John Harrison’s “The Luck In The Head” manages to evoke both New Crobuzon and Videodrome.  I found only Kathe Koja’s “The Neglected Garden” disappointing; although the tale of a bound woman merging with the overgrown backyard was undeniably weird, I was unable to become invested in the characters and I found it, frankly, a little boring.

These were, however, simply appetizers for the second section, “Evidence”.  Here we have nine original works of pure New Weird deliciousness, leading off with China Mieville’s “Jack”, which is as far as I know his only short story set in the world of New Crobuzon (setting of his Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council).  It’s not only a tight, muscular work that illuminates a bit more of the origins and fate of one of his more memorable bit characters, but a masterful piece of deceptive storytelling that makes you immediately want to go back and read it again with fresh eyes.  I’ve been a Mieville junkie since I was turned onto Perdido and The Scar by a good friend and fellow cross-genre fiction junkie, and I confess the presence of “Jack” was what pulled me into this book; had Mieville not been there, I may have missed it completely.  But the following works are nearly as gripping: Jeffrey Thomas’ “Immolation” follows a clone laborer who has escaped from the (figurative) plantation; Jay Lake’s “The Lizard of Ooze” weaves sly references to L. Frank Baum into his subterranean dystopia; Brian Evanson’s “Watson’s Boy” is a bizarre and disturbing portrait of childhood obsession.  There is a tonal shift into less grubby territory with “The Art of Dying”, K.J. Bishop’s study of melodramatic duel-artists, as well as Jeffrey Ford’s be-who-you-are fable “At Reparata” and the surprisingly-touching denouement of Leena Krohn’s insect-people travelogue “Letters from Tainaron” (translated, I believe, from the Finnish).  The section should have ended with “The Ride of the Gabbleratchet”, an excerpt from Steph Swainston’s Dangerous Offspring, but unfortunately it stumbles on the last selection, Alistair Rennie’s previously-unpublished “The Gutter Sees The Light That Never Shines”, which takes a promising premise and grinds it to a halt with clunky dialogue and imagery that is distractingly disgusting but not in an effective way; the whole thing reads like the first draft of what could, after much polishing, be a very effective and imaginative piece of work.

The collection closes with two unusual sections.  In “Symposium”, a number of editors and others hold forth on what New Weird is, where it’s been and where it’s going, sort of a response to the introduction (or, more likely, the introduction is a response to these essays).  It’s an interesting read but somewhat repetitive…it’s hard to say that many original things about a literary movement that had (at time of publication) only been really roaring for 8-9 years.  Every one, without fail, pays homage to the movement’s protector “Battleship Mieville,” name-checking China with reverence and near-awe.  The most interesting of these was a short piece by German editor Hannes Riffel who candidly admits that New Weird (and Fantasy in general) simply doesn’t sell well in Germany and they don’t really have any authors worthy of putting up there with the foreigners.  It’s a refreshing bit of candor in the midst of otherwise-uniform bright-future optimism and a little bit of self-congratulation.

Finally, the volume wraps up with “Laboratory”, a seven-part exercise in round-robin storytelling, with an initial setup story leading to six vignettes adding detail and color to the proceedings.  These are, uniformly, brilliant, although the conclusion (available on the publisher’s website, not in the book) feels rushed and somewhat incomplete.  It was an original and satisfying way to close the compilation.

I’m thankful that this collection crossed my path, especially with its recommended-reading section at the end (a hyperlinked version can be found here).  New Weird is not China Mieville and a bunch of hangers-on, mainstream appearances notwithstanding.  The near-uniformly high quality of the work in this volume gives me hope that there is plenty of good stuff out there, and that the creators of genre-crossing, creative, interesting fiction are numerous and determined enough to stand in the face of the continuous stream of cookie-cutter Tolkien clones that clutters up chain-bookstore Fantasy sections.  Battleship Mieville sails with an Armada, and it’s under full steam.  I can’t wait to tour the rest of the fleet.

Note: for another take on this collection, see here.

The White Plague by Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert has the semi-misfortune to be one of those people like da Vinci or Soundgarden, who created something so monstrously famous that, despite the high quality of their remaining body of work, nobody seems to know about anything else.  Herbert is synonymous with Dune, rightly considered a classic, if not the classic, work of epic philosophical science fiction and one that holds up to this day without seeming dated or quaint.  But even leaving aside the uniformly excellent and increasingly weird series of sequels (there are five and only five, despite the efforts of well-meaning son Brian Herbert and incompetent hack Kevin J. Anderson to suck every last drop of milk out of the Atreides teat), Herbert the Elder has a strong and diverse body of work in which the speculative fiction aficionado can happy immerse him/her/myself.  The White Plague is such a semi-overlooked classic.

Like in his Hellstrom’s Hive (a future subject for this column), Herbert sets this story in the present day (i.e. the early 80s), but unlike in Hive he doesn’t need to tweak the actual world to create the setting he wants.  Irish-American geneticist John Roe O’Neill is in Dublin to present his research, along with his wife and twin children, when an IRA bomb obliterates everything dear to him in a single moment.  O’Neill snaps under the strain, and he creates and unleashes a virulent new disease that is uniformly and quickly fatal, but only to women, releasing it in Ireland (for condoning the violence), England (for giving the Irish a reason), and Libya (for training the bombers).  So far nothing particularly groundbreaking about the plot, but all of that is covered in the first 50 pages or so, leaving 90% of the book for what Herbert does best: ruminations on the reactions of the people and institutions in power to situations beyond their imagination or control.  Unlike a lesser writer who would focus on the details of the spread of the disease and the methods used to combat it (I’m looking at you, Tom Clancy), Herbert paints the spread of the plague with broad strokes, mentioned almost as asides by the scientists, politicians, and clergymen that he instead chooses to follow.  Despite O’Neill’s threatening letters, nobody takes him seriously until it is far too late to contain the spread, and the scale of the devastation his work creates is rivaled only by the scale of the devastation caused by the world’s response.  Entire cities and regions are obliterated, either nuked or put to the Panic Fire, while politicians try desperately to hold things together and scientists work feverishly to identify and then counteract the work of The Madman, as O’Neill comes to be known.

Much of the book is devoted to a travelogue of sorts, as O’Neill returns to Ireland under an assumed name and walks through Ireland incognito observing the fruits of his labors, accompanied by a priest, an orphaned boy, and the man whose bomb killed O’Neill’s family.  There follows a quietly desperate game of cat-and-mouse as the powers that be, not being idiots, suspect O’Neill’s presence but fear revealing their suspicions either to him (for fear of additional plagues) or to the rest of the world (who would probably reduce Ireland to a radioactive sheet of glass in order to kill him).  Herbert uses the conversations held during this journey to rumination on guilt, fatalism, and the endless cycle of vengeance.  It’s a slow burn, leading up to a finale that is literally insane.

Because The White Plague was both written and set in the 1980s, some of its technobabble does seem dated and quaint, but it detracts none from the story because the story is only tangentially about the plague and how to fight it. Instead Herbert sticks to his strengths, leaving the tech as a framing device and instead focusing on the world’s large-scale reaction and the small-scale people caught up in it.  The POV chapters with the world’s (formerly) most powerful men play almost like a montage, glimpses into the aftermaths of the terrible decisions they are forced into, where entire countries are written off as lost causes while underlings bicker over venal grudges, unwilling or unable to realize that pre-Plague politics have become meaningless.  The book is chilling to read and even more so to contemplate after the fact, as the reader is forced to consider the ephemeralness of political power and how much said power depends on the ability to do violence on a scale sufficient to catch the enemy’s attention; when the people you threaten are no longer impressed, what do you do?  How far will you go to maintain control?

The White Plague is no Dune, but it never tries to be.  It abandons the future for the present, the bombastic for the bleak, and the epic for the intensely personal.  O’Neill is one of the more interestingly conflicted antiheroes that I have run across; he’s done monstrous evil, yet even in Ireland they still manage some sympathy for what pushed him over the edge.  I recommend this book without reservation, especially if you are one for whom the name Frank Herbert conjures up only heat, sand, and the cinnamon smell of Spice.

Golem100 by Alfred Bester

OK, so bear with me here: there’s this group of bored housewives in near-future New York, right?  And they’re bored enough that they’ve decided to try invoking the Devil through a ritual they’ve pieced together featuring Latin chants, backwards Hebrew, and the hand of a dead man coated in the fat of a virgin.  Or something.  Anyway, it doesn’t work, only it does work and they summon some force from a parallel universe that goes around killing people in very, very inventive ways, and only a blind Jamaican private investigator, a Vietnamese biochemist with an extraordinarily sensitive sense of smell, and a phlegmatic Indian police captain can stop it.

Trying to summarize Alfred Bester’s “Golem100” is, probably, pointless, because the book is more of an experience than a story (yes, that’s “Golem to the 100th power”).  It has features that should be familiar to readers of his better-known “The Stars My Destination,” such as fragmented rapid-fire dialog with no indication of who is speaking, illustrated sections demonstrating a character’s becoming disjointed from time and space, nigh-incomprehensible gutter dialog, and a disturbing amount of rape.  It also takes some getting used to the typographical methods he uses to demonstrate a character’s speech patterns without having to actually describe them; it’s a bit jarring, but extremely effective, for a character to exclaim something like “You mean those BEAUTIFUL things were actually all !!!handmade!!! by H*A*N*D?” rather than for the author to spend a paragraph describing how dramatically said character is given to speaking.  Bester tries very hard to break the reader out of his groove and force her to pay attention to how things are said, which for characterization is often more important than what they’re saying.

That’s not the only way in which the book can be a difficult read.  There are, for example, the aforementioned rape scenes.  The book manages to be extremely sexual  while staging nearly all of it offscreen, but much of the sex is either violent or deviant or both, and makes one feel rather squidgy.  Also, although the book seems very progressive in the diversity of its cast, Bester still succumbs to a good deal of racial and sexual stereotyping; many of the characters are referred to (albeit generally either by unsympathetic characters or self-effacingly) using ethnic slurs, and homosexuals get a rough time in general (“I knew you weren’t [a] fag…you’re a man!” exclaims one character non-ironically).  Sometimes the two are combined, such as the Jewish lesbian who calls herself “Yenta Calienta” and needs to get the best deal possible on everything.  On the other hand, it’s very difficult to tell when Bester is being ironic and when he isn’t; face it, you can’t call a character “Yenta Calienta” and take it seriously.  And some parts of the book are just laugh-out-loud “WTF” ridiculous, such as when the Jamaican PI goes to the Palestine Liberation Organization and talks her way past the guards in Yiddish, pretending to be an Ethiopian Jew (the PLO, you see, took over narcotics distribution after the collapse of the Italian mob, and since Israel is the only country left that condemns drugs, they now love the Jews).  There’s also the psychoanalyst who pretends to be a diabolist because the ritual evil lets his patients relax so he can read them better.

Anyway, like I said, trying to summarize the plot is near pointless and it’s better to just describe impressions; either you like this sort of read, in which case you’ll probably enjoy it, or you don’t and you won’t.  As I mentioned before, it feels in many ways like an expanded version of “The Stars My Destination,” which is surprisingly short for a work of its influence.  This one clocks in at nearly 400 pages, but large sections are devoted to visuals so it actually reads faster than that.  Bottom line: if you’re a fan of science fiction that puts its energy into pure imagination and balls-out craziness, then this one’s worth a shot if you can find it (it is out of print).  Otherwise, probably best to give it a miss.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

ImageI read this book with two minds.

One mind is that of the action junkie, one who can escape into a Tom Clancy kill-the-terrorists novel or watch and enjoy Battle Royale, the easiest and probably laziest comparison to The Hunger Games. And, truly, the comparison is apt; decadent societies force large groups of children to fight one another to the death, with the last one standing as the sole victor, for the entertainment of the general populace. For the benefit of the two people reading this who are not already familiar with the plot, that’s the setup. In The Hunger Games, every year the Capitol of Panem exerts its complete dominance over the rest of its country by conscripting a boy and a girl from each of its subservient Districts, celebritizing them to the point of absurdity, then dropping them in some remote wilderness filled with cameras to brutally murder each other. No rules, no mercy; think Survivor taken rather more literally, complete with reward challenges and rule changes. Despite not being chosen by the annual lottery, sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen (an accomplished hunter and backwoodswoman) volunteers to take the place of her twelve-year-old sister and is shipped off to almost certain death. Glitter and carnage ensue. And, honestly, author Suzanne Collins hits nearly every note perfectly, from the squalor of coal-mining District 12 to the opulence and frivolity of the Capitol to the almost casual brutality of the Games themselves. And, make no mistake, the Games are brutal indeed; despite showing commendable restraint when it comes to graphic description, Collins pulls no punches with the inevitable whittling down of the playing field. And therein lies the problem.

You see, the other mind is that of a parent, one with a nine-year-old daughter (who desperately wants to read this book, by the way). And, as a parent, The Hunger Games is going to haunt me, probably for days. With due respect to Battle Royale, I don’t think the theme of children overtaken by violence has been done this well since William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and the perspective shift that the reader goes through as characters morph from frightened children into callous adults and back to children again is very similar to Golding’s novel. Children as young as twelve are chosen for the abbatoir, thrown in blithely with their nearly-adult counterparts to battle against contestants twice their physical size, and are expected to hold their own with no concessions. It’s easy to lose track of this while reading, because the story whips along at such an impressive rate that some of the implications get left behind, but the central concept of the story bears emphasis: 24 children are sent to fight each other to the death. Even now, just writing those words turns my stomach upside-down. Although most of the deaths happen offscreen (so to speak), those that do not are heartbreaking; the memory of one in particular makes me want to cry right now.

The one criticism I would level is that Collins’ cultural satire is very blunt and lacks subtlety (this could be intentional; I’m not certain there’s much room for subtlety in a book like this). Katniss’ stylist Cinna is really the only person from the Capitol we get to spend much time with, and therefore the only one to develop any depth. The rest are basically flat caricatures representing the most vacuous parts of American media culture, where particularly through reality TV we’ve essentially turned celebrity into yet another blood sport. The thing is, I basically agree with her; our national pastime is no longer baseball, it’s schadenfreude, and it sometimes seems inevitable that without concerted effort in the opposite direction we’ll end up a nation of desensitized libertines waiting with bated breath for the next Videodrome transmission. It’s not a great leap from our current collective obsession with fame and death to staging this kind of morbid spectacle.

And so, as I was going into this, I’m of two minds regarding my final opinion. The detached, objective part of me greatly admires the plotting, pacing, characterization, and creativity of this truly excellent novel. The parent, on the other hand, is disturbed to the point that I’m not sure I’ll be able to continue reading the rest of the trilogy. I’m intellectually curious to know how the big picture turns out, but I honestly am not sure that I’m willing to put myself through this sort of emotional wringer again in order to find out. I guess I’ll have to sleep on that. I can say that, although I have no doubt that it’s excellent, I have absolutely no interest in watching the movie; the very last thing I want to do is have the events of the Games played out for me onscreen. And if my daughter thinks she’ll be reading this anytime before she reaches an age with the word “teen” in it, she’s greatly mistaken.