Title: Our Lady Of Chernobyl
Author: Greg Egan
Publisher: MirrorDanse Books (Australia)
ISBN: 0 646 232340 4
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Author: Greg Egan
Publisher: Millennium (UK)/Orion/Phoenix (UK)
Reviewed by: Stephen Dedman
Greg Egan is the author of Quarantine and Permutation City, and a regular in Asimov's, Interzone and The Year's Best Science Fiction. He has been hailed as "one of the genre's great ideas men" by no less an authority than The London Times, which is undeniably accurate if rather faint praise. True, most of Egan's stories are driven by strong ideas rolling towards some overwhelming question. Certainly he is generous, even profligate, when it comes to ideas, and Distress in particular is crammed with brilliant inventions and discussions on a huge range of subjects: biotechnology, international politics, quantum physics, sex and gender, and the nature of reality. And yes, it is these ideas that make his work so distinctive, and very likely it will be the ideas that draw you in and the ideas that you remember long after finishing the story. But at his best, Greg Egan is also as skilled and powerful a writer as any in the genre.
"Our Lady of Chernobyl" is a well-crafted and seemingly straightforward technothriller about a private investigator commissioned to recover an icon for which a courier was murdered. The real issue of the story, however, is not who stole the icon, or how or why, but a far more profound one about freedom of religion. "Beyond the Whistle Test" is a hard sf horror story about the commercial uses of music. "Transition Dreams" concerns the transfer of human consciousness into a machine, and its effect on dreaming. "Chaff," with which Our Lady of Chernobyl opens, is primarily concerned with technology as well as the nature of thought and existence. Modelled on Conrad's Heart of Darkness, it follows an assassin into a genetically engineered jungle to retrieve a bioweapons maker. The plot is simple, the characters not particularly interesting, and some of the dialogue unbelievable, but the ideas carry it, helped by some sly political commentary and clever use of language. Our Lady of Chernobyl, which also features a bibliography of Egan's fiction, is an excellent introduction to his work and highly recommended.
Distress, however, is even better. The first chapter (which begins "All right. He's dead. Go ahead and talk to him.") contains more ideas than many sf novels. Its narrator, Andrew Worth, is a science journalist in a world populated with ignorance cultists, voluntary autists, and gender migrants. Having finished the "frankenscience" series Junk DNA, he turns down an offer to tape a show on the newly endemic Acute Clinical Anxiety Syndrome (a.k.a Distress), to compile a profile of quantum physicist Violet Mosala, currently at work on a Theory of Everything, or TOE. Worth leaves Sydney and his marriage (both in ruins),and travels to Stateless, a utopian anarchy on an island constructed with pirated biotech. Plots against both Mosala and Stateless escalate as the novel heads towards an astonishing climax. Worth, though occasionally reduced to a passive observer in some of the more didactic scenes (he is, after all, a journalist, and a specialist in biotech rather than physics or politics), is a well-rounded character with his own opinions and motivation. Mosala is a welcome example of a fictional sane scientist, and the asex Akili Kuwale is a masterpiece of sf characterization.
Distress is not only the best of Egan's novels, but one of the most inventive and accomplished science fiction novels in many years.
Title: The Fortunate FallScience fiction has been graced with a number of excellent first novels in recent years. 1995 saw publication of Patrick O'Leary's Door Number Three and Ken MacLeod's The Star Fraction, and now Raphael Carter has given us another impressive debut in The Fortunate Fall.
Author: Raphael Carter
Reviewed By: Lawrence Person
Some three centuries hence, Maya Tatyanichna Andreyeva, a "camera" whose wired sensations are beamed into the datasphere, is doing a story on the history of the cybernetic group-mind-driven Unanimous Army's march through Russia. As if that assignment weren't trouble enough, she has to break in a new "screener" (something like an online realtime sensory engineer) in the person of Keisha Mirabara. It turns out that Maya has a supressor chip blocking out memories of an unknown crime (think Milena's "Bad Grammer" in Geoff Ryman's The Child Garden) against the vaguely authoritarian social order. During the course of her story, Maya stumbles across Pavel Sergeyevich Voskresenye, a victim of both the Unanimous Army and the American-run "Square Mile" concentration camps they liberated. But it turns out that Voskresenye and Keisha each have secret agendas of their own, agendas which attract not only the polite, ruthless scrutiny of the Emily Post cops (think the Brain Police in Pat Cadigan's Fools as programmed by Miss Manners), but also the attention of the Weavers, the feared transhuman guardians of cyberspace. Soon Maya finds not only her life in jeopardy, but her own suppressed secrets-secrets that are key to the novel's greater mysteries-threaten to be revealed before an audience of billions.
The Fortunate Fall is a clever book brimming with bravura innovation, not least of which is the world Carter has created. Using a skillful Show-Don't-Tell approach, the novel sketches the parameters of an intriguing future where Africa is a cybernetic superpower and the mechanisms of repression are disturbingly unobtrusive. Carter cannily controls the pace of revelation, giving just enough detail about the book's many mysteries to keep the reader hooked. The prose here is carefully crafted, a suitably lean conveyance for the plot's headlong rush. And the conclusion displays a toughmindedness all too rare in a genre plagued with cheap happy endings.
What flaws are visible to the naked eye are merely detail work. Voskresenye's final Revelation of All Mysteries, though wittily articulate in its invocation of Manichean Heresy (and cleverly disguised as a dialog), still has a whiff of John Gault's Speech about it. Maya's escape exploits in a Post Cop car (think Walter Jon William's Hardwired) unnecessarily strain credibility. The fictional world's sensory detail lacks the rich density we've come to expect from modern post-cyberpunk novels. And the solution to the African mystery (think Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, to which many nods are made) is less intriguing than we were lead to suspect.
The novel's biggest problem is still small, falling into the realm of "fictional ideology" rather than an actual flaw. For a world three centuries in the future, the milieu is entirely too redolent of our own, with too many icons (Emily Post, Humphrey Bogart, and even the cybernetic cetacean (think William Gibson's "Johnny Mnemonic") upon which the plot hinges) hailing from our own era. Likewise, the speech patterns and attitudes of the characters are firmly grounded in the late 20th century (in contrast to, say, Bruce Sterling's own Maya in Holy Fire). Given the rate of change in the world, this novel should take place no later than a century hence, not three.
But these are petty slights compared to the novel's overall achievement. To say a first novel has blemishes when compared to Bruce Sterling's finest work is no devastating criticism; to say that it's worthy of the comparison is no mean praise. Ambitious, articulate, and occasionally audacious, The Fortunate Fall heralds the arrival of a major new voice in science fiction.
Title: IdoruWilliam Gibson's Idoru is a sadly flawed book.
Author: Wiliam Gibson
Reviewed by: Dwight Brown
Part of the problem with Idoru is how Gibson chooses to structure the narrative. Colin Laney is an interesting enough viewpoint character (though he seems to be there so Gibson has a chance to meditate on the nature of the media and celebrity). I'd gladly have read an entire novel told from his viewpoint, or even one that switched between Laney and the man who hires him, enforcer Keith Alan Blackwell. Unfortunately, Laney only gets about half the space in the novel: the other parallel story involves Chia, a 14-year-old fan of the band Lo/Rez. Gibson fails to convince me that he's gotten into the head of a typical teenage girl in this society, and his teenage girl is frankly dull: I ended up paging through the chapters involving Chia, wondering when they were going to end so I could get back to Laney, Blackwell, and company.
Another problem with Idoru is that it's just not weird enough. Nanotechnology gets thrown around, but doesn't seem to have much impact on anything except building construction. Franz Kafka theme bars and frozen rivers of urine are as strange as Idoru's Japan gets, and, really, these are no more unusual than the (actual) disposible enema museum. (I miss the Gibson who would have pointed out that the disposible enema museum itself isn't weird: putting it up on the World Wide Web is weird.)
But the major problem with Idoru is plotting: the motivating force is that Rez, lead singer of Lo/Rez, wants to "marry" a virtual pop star. Laney is hired to try and figure out why: Chia is sent to Japan by the Lo/Rez fan club to find out what's going on. It appears that the virtual pop star has developed an intelligence of her own, and maybe even free will, but the "marrage" is basically presented merely as something Rez wants to do: no particular reason, no grand plan, just, "I'm going to marry a computer program." (And just what does "marry" mean in this context, anyway? Gibson clearly has no idea.) Chia's story is dragged out by her unconvincing involvement with a group of smugglers: they only seem to be there to pad out the novel and provide a handy climax. By the end of the novel, Rez and the idoru are building an island of their own with illegal nanotechnology, and, as far as everyone else is concerned, this is just spiffy, even though no one seems to understand why they're doing this.
Idoru has style to burn, but that style can't heat up an unconvincing narrative. Reading it is like going to see a washed-up rock band on their reunion tour: you can see flashes of what made them famous and popular, but you wind up wishing you had caught them when the music was new.
Title: River of DustRiver of Dust is a prequel of sorts to Jablokov's first novel, Carve the Sky. An expansion of his novella "Syrtis," it tells the story of brothers Hektor and Breyton Passman, sons of famous Martian political figure Lon Passman. Hektor, the younger brother, is pursuing the political career Breyton abandoned. Breyton, more passionate and exuberant than Hektor, is waiting for inspiration to strike and show him his path in life.
Author: Alexander Jablokov
Reviewed By: Hank Wagner
The Passmans live in Scamander, a city located underneath the hostile surface of the red planet. The subterranean populace of Mars is divided into two classes-the well-educated upper class, which includes the Passmans, and the rough and tumble working class. This centuries old caste system is experiencing upheaval, due to the radical philosophies of Rudolf Hounslow. Hounslow's followers, known as the Pure Land School, have launched a terrorist strike, assassinating a relatively harmless colonial official.
The assassination triggers a series of events which eventually find the brothers on opposite sides of a civil war. Breyton joins the Pure Land School, while Hektor deals with the political fallout, eventually designing a Machiavellian plot to crush the rebels. The conflict takes its toll on the Passmans, costing the lives of friends and family, and forcing the two young men even further apart.
Jablokov's characters are complex, colorful and believable, as are their relationships. The setting, the claustrophobic caverns of Mars, is intriguing, as are its effects on Martian society. Martians are a special breed, and Jablokov revels in their idiosyncrasies. Especially enjoyable is the Martian penchant for theatrical gestures, the catalyst for many memorable scenes.
The book's major problems stem from the author's failure to detail the underpinnings of the societal conflict at novel's center. Rupert Hounslow's beliefs initiate momentous events, yet are never fully expounded. The aristocracy's side (i.e. preserving the status quo) is reasonably clear, but the agenda of the Pure Land School is never fully explored. Was this a sizable movement, or merely a bunch of rabble rousers who succeeded in disrupting Martian society? The reader never knows what is really at stake.
However, these flaws are far from fatal. Jablokov delivers a finely crafted story with several well-drawn characters and intriguing plot twists. Having had a taste of Mars, discerning readers may hope that Jablokov will soon revisit this fertile territory.
Title: VurtI first heard of Vurt because Geoff Ryman was snarling in defense of the last copy in the dealer's room at the British National SF convention in 1994. It looked nothing like the rest of SF or Fantasy at the time. Everyone went nuts over the cover: a print of two feathers in Day-Glo colors, as if the artist were a sixties dropout on LSD. Readers went nuts over the contents, babbling incoherently into their warm beer about the frontiers of language and imagination like drunken French semioticians. It also won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for 1994.
Author: Jeff Noon
Publisher: Pan (UK)/Crown/St. Martins Griffin
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Author: Jeff Noon
Publisher: Ringpull Press/Crown
Reviewed By: Justina Robson
With hypnotic simplicity of language and the effortless insertion of the bizarre into the commonplace, Vurt envelops you in a new reality where it seems completely reasonable that there are five types of being: Human, Robo, Dog, Shadow and Vurt (the idea is, after all, far less strange or abhorrent than aerosol cheese). The episodic, first-person account follows lead character Scribble through a tour of inner-city Manchester and the Vurt as he searches for his lost sister. Vurt is the city of dreams, each color-keyed, drug-laden Vurt feather a key to a different dream, each with its own consequences. Scribble has already done Thermo Fish and Honey Suckers and even Skull Shit, but to find his sister he needs the elusive knowledge feather, English Voodoo ("Welcome to English Voodoo. Expect to feel pleasure. Knowledge is sexy. Expect to feel pain. Knowledge is torture."), only instead of the real thing, Scribble gets a pirate copy full of vipers.
Like Philip K. Dick's best work, Vurt makes but passing concession to any other reality, suspending the reader's disbelief with its weird, elegant logic. Also like PKD, all the characters are vulnerable and familiar in their humanity. The story from the horse's mouth is that Noon, a successful playwright, wrote Vurt a page at a time, not knowing what would happen next. The plot is quite simple, but the vision extraordinarily original, something sprung unhindered from the author's subconscious imagination. It has a tendency to take over your mind completely, due in large measure to the short, active sentences and the almost complete lack of passive voice. Sometimes subjects and even verbs get left out of sentences in the driving intensity of the prose.
There's a certain sixties/seventies feel to the book, faintly reminiscent of cop shows and seedy real-life docudramas overlaid with the smell of moldering wallpaper and the crunch of broken glass from Alice's mirror underfoot. It ends just in time, leaving you wishing there were more.
Fortunately, there is more (of the Vurt, and of Alice). Pollen takes place in the same altered Manchester, and is written in the same intense, idiosyncratic (but even more completely formed) style. As a result there are passages of great energy and artistry, but also hard-to-read patches where the writing is too self-indulgent, even hectoring, the stylistic flourishes overcoming narrative clarity. Sometimes it's noir, sometimes it's poetic, sometimes it's even like a John Wayne Western. But for the most part the style and the story skip along hand in hand. On the rare occasions they don't, the pretension factor produces an annoying, tickling reaction much like that experienced by most of the characters- AaaaChoo! Allergies. Hayfever, to be precise.
The story starts with a sneeze of mythic proportions, and a cab driver waiting for a mysterious pickup in Manchester's dangerous outer zones. Coyote, a Dalmatian dogman, suffers badly from the outpourings of pollen streaming from the Vurt. His passenger arrives just as they come under attack from zombies. She is a little girl, green and yellow. Her name is Persephone.
So begins a story of the first skirmish in the Looking Glass Wars, as thorny and tangled as any bramble hedge in its weaving of dreamers and dreams. It incorporates many elements, including the primeval, savage myth of John Barleycorn, the Green King, and his struggle to enter reality from the world of the Vurt. On a more human scale, the essential conflicts between the types of Shadow and Dog are also explored not only through Coyote and Boda but the central narrator, Sibyl Jones, a Shadowcop, and her partner the Dogcop, Zero Clegg.
The storylines in Pollen are much more complex than those of its predecessor. By the time you reach the end you can see where you've been, but during the novel it's sometimes difficult to keep track of events and relationships due to the multiple plotlines and the confusing nature of the warring realities. Though sometimes taxing, Pollen is well worth the effort. The writing's visceral power is thoroughly refreshing, and occasionally quite funny (there is a running joke about health warnings, such as those on packets of Napalm cigarettes: "Smoking Makes You Look Cool - His Majesty's Image Consultant"). There aren't many writers who could merge such diverse elements so convincingly. Despite the odd shortcoming and the occasional flashback to Sam Spade, Pollen earns its place on the recommended list.
Title: The Time ShipsThere are not nearly enough Sense of Wonder books being written in science fiction today. You know the type: Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men, Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, Greg Egan's Permutation City-books that explore Really Big Concepts with stunning intelligence. Stephen Baxter's wonderful The Time Ships follows in this grand tradition.
Author: Stephen Baxter
Publisher: HarperCollins (UK)/HarperPrism
Reviewed By: A. T. Campbell, III
The Time Ships is a sequel to H. G. Wells' The Time Machine. Baxter's novel starts where Wells' ended, with the Time Traveler returning to the future of the Morlocks and the Eloi to spend the remainder of his days with his beloved Weena. However, Things Do Not Go According To Plan. He shows up at the appointed future, but it quickly becomes apparent that he's not in the right future. This launches the story on a jaunty trek that goes from one end of time to the other, exploring all the tried-and-true time travel issues (causality, paradoxes, etc.) and inventing some clever new twists along the way.
It's hard to overpraise this book. In previous works like Raft and Timelike Infinity, Baxter wove his tales around fascinating physics, but his storytelling skills were not up to explaining his elaborate ideas. In The Time Ships, he consciously emulates Wells' writing style, and the discipline required by this approach has improved Baxter's prose immensely. The Time Traveler has no more or less personality than Wells provided, but Baxter develops some memorable supporting characters of all types: humans, Morlocks, and even intelligent machines. The novel has several wonderful touches: a Dyson sphere that fills the orbit of Venus, a visit to the Paleocene, and the catapult approach to interplanetary travel ("What if, now, we were to detect that were off track, by some mistake of our launch-that we were going to miss the earth?" "There has been no mistake...this capsule has no need of corrective propulsion."), among many others.
There are two caveats that might bother Wells purists. First, Baxter's book is much longer than the original. What Baxter does with the extra length is impressive, but some might miss Wells' terseness. Second, the book uses science unknown when Wells penned The Time Machine, as Baxter decided, quite wisely, that it would be foolish to "forget" 100 years of scientific progress. (If modern writers using old-fashioned science is your cup of tea, stick with Colin Greenland or Richard Garfinkle.)
In The Time Ships, Baxter has accomplished the near impossible: writing a sequel to a classic that's respectful of the original, yet establishes its own worthy identity. Baxter is a writer with brilliant ideas and great ambition, and his next work should be eagerly awaited.
Title: Ancient ShoresJack McDevitt's work has frequently dealt with archaeology. His second novel, A Talent for War, flirted with the subject as the characters discover that the one of the legendary figures of their history may have been a fraud. His third, The Engines of God, featured archaeological digs unraveling ageless mysteries on an alien world. In Ancient Shores, he dispenses with the far future in favor of a contemporary tale featuring enthusiastic amateurs and scientists who seem almost paranoid about being scooped.
Author: Jack McDevitt
ISBN: 0-06-105207-8 (HB)/ 0-06-105426-7(PB)
Price: $22.00 (HB)/ $5.99 (PB)
Reviewed by: Lori Wolf
Tom Lasker and his son are laying an irrigation system on their North Dakota farm when they hit something that looks like a shark fin buried in the field. They keep digging, only to find the object sits atop the mast of a sailboat. Max Collingwood, an old friend of the Laskers, takes a sample of the sail for testing and the results are startling: the fabric is a previously unknown element with an atomic number of 161, far beyond the ability of modern science to create. April, the chemist who did the lab work, is thrilled by her discovery and wants to see the boat. She finds slivers of wood in the bowline, which prove to be 10,000 years old. Tom Lasker's farm was several hundred feet underwater 10,000 years ago, at the bottom of Lake Agassi.
The search begins for other evidence of advanced technology, turning up something buried in the side of a cliff on the Sioux reservation a few miles away. Major excavation work unearths a boat house also made of the same element. The boathouse turns out to be a gateway to other worlds, and Max and April discover more questions than answers as they begin to explore. One world, beautiful, unspoiled and apparently uninhabited, is dubbed Eden. At least one destination is now under vacuum, Max and April only surviving the discovery at the cost of a quick-thinking comrade's life. As they invite other scientists to Eden and the government gets involved, the world stock markets crash due to the startling new technology's potential. This economic collapse leads to a tense government versus Indians climax.
McDevitt's style is compulsively readable and his story utterly engrossing. The main characters are well fleshed-out and feel like real people, none of whom are completely good or evil. The wonder of archeological discovery portrayed may inspire a reader to grab a shovel and go dig. McDevitt evokes a real sense of the small town entrepreneurial spirit as people find a way to profit from the discoveries in their own backyards. And that only scratches the surface of what's wonderful in this book.
Less than wonderful are the plot angles that McDevitt lets disappear just as they start to get interesting. And the use of villainous government functionaries is a theme that has recently been done to death. The ending leaves our protagonists going off in different directions to do important things, with much of the wondrous worlds on the other side of the portal remaining unexplored. Still, these are minor flaws in a book where the story seems to end all too soon.
Discovering that ancient extraterrestrials used a large North American lake as a vacation spot leads to a great and inventive novel. Ancient Shores works as both an exploration adventure and a cautionary tale of the economic problems caused by sudden technological leaps. Definitely worth reading for sharp new ideas and McDevitt's amazing ability to tell a complex story without losing the details.
Title: God's FiresPatricia Anthony's God's Fires takes place in 17th century Portugal during the Inquisition. The protagonist is a Jesuit priest whose mistress is the local herbalist. In this small village there are reports of angels, flaming shields in the sky, and a virgin birth. The Jesuit tries to hush things up, but to no avail. The young simple-minded King of Portugal, while on a quest inspired by Don Quixote, sees a shooting star and a green beam of light. He believes that this is a divine sign, and decides to go to the place where the green beam hit. Of course, this turns out to be the same village. Meanwhile, three angels have fallen to Earth and are being held in an improvised jail. Are they from heaven or hell? Onto this scene arrives the outraged Grand Inquisitor, who, suffering from flatulence, punctuates his litany of oaths and curses with an arpeggio of melodious belches and farts. Now, to add to the already on-going strangeness, the King claims that God spoke to him in colors, explaining the birth of the universe from a cloud and that the Earth orbits the Sun. This is heresy! But worse still, God admits to being hurt and in need of repair.
Author: Patricia Anthony
Reviewed By: Henry W.Targowski
So much for the story, but no mere description will prepare you for the ideas intricately woven into the novel's fabric. The author deals with good and evil, sacred and profane, reason and unreason, human and nonhuman, all with consumate skill. Using language that moves the reader through this deep territory with ease, Anthony suffuses the text with layer upon layer of nuances.
The scale of conception is handled with great skill. Characters become voices for thoughts, expressing different facets of the human condition. The Idiot King (innocence), the Frock-Shedding Priest (guilt), the Outcast Herbalist (compassion), the Grand Inquisitor (misery), etc. But all is not what it seems ...
Is it science fiction? Well, yes, in a way. The angels are aliens, but only we recognize them (not that it matters). Is it historical? Well, yes, it's based on history (but that's not really important). Perhaps, we could say this novel is slipstream...or mainstream. Whatever. Anthony has written a brillant novel that entertains and illuminates. Rather than limiting it to one category, stock it in every department.
Simultaneously wicked, witty, humorous, clever, irreverant, sincere and insightful, God's Fires showcases a major talent. In an earlier age, Patricia Anthony would have been burned at the stake. In ours, she is a beacon.
Title: Silent Interviews: on Language, Race, Sex, Science Fiction and Some ComicsThere is always something thrilling about reading the work of Samuel Delany, from his beautifully crafted short stories to his ambitious and thought-provoking novels. His non-fiction is no less challenging. Like Stanislaw Lem and J.G Ballard, Delany has established himself as one of science fiction's authentic, home-grown geniuses. The written "interviews" collected in this volume add an exclamation point to the statement that Delany is one of America's pre-eminent scholars.
Author: Samuel R. Delany
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Reviewed By: Matt Nadelhaft
With titles like "The Semiology of Silence" and "Sword & Sorcery, S/M, and the Economics of Inadequation," the essays presented in this volume warn the reader up front: WORK. Samuel Delany gives nothing away for free. The twin towers of Dhalgren and The Mad Man present complex theoretical perspectives to those willing to tease them free of the texts. Though here Delany's observations and viewpoints are offered up without the mediation of plot and character, they still are not necessarily immediately accessible. Be forewarned that Delany tosses off references to Foucault and Derrida as easily and frequently as he mentions Ellison and Sturgeon. His arguments are dense and elliptical, academic and often didactic.
Nevertheless, reading this book is great fun. Each chapter is an extended conversation, and the effect of reading this book carefully is like having your own wide-ranging discussion with Delany. In "The Semiology of Silence," Delany plays with his long-standing distinction between SF and "mundane" fiction (and don't we science fiction readers love that term, "mundane fiction"?) as contexts for the differing interpretation of language. Delany's sample sentences: "Her world exploded," and "he turned on his left side" have one possible meaning in a "mundane" text, multiple ones in SF. The ultimate point is a liberating one for the science fiction community: SF is not defined by subject matter (space ships, aliens, time travel) but by how it is read.
And how you read Delany makes all the difference in the world, because he's an esoteric taste. You'll find in this book statements that range from "I like Raymond Chandler" (paraphrased) to "Since all human signs have their class associated aspects, anything we find erotic must be an eroticizing of 'class relations.'" If you read Delany passively you probably won't get much pleasure out of it. Maybe you care that he's a fan of Raymond Chandler (I'm pleased to know it); perhaps you agree with him that only class relationships are eroticized (that, in fact, only class relationships exist, or have primary meaning [Not bloody likely. - LP]): I don't. But in order to enjoy it, and learn from it, you should enter into this book as though you were entering into a dialog with Samuel Delany. I suspect, given the structure of this book as a series of written interviews, that that is exactly how Delany would like it to be read.
Samuel Delany is nothing if not contentious. Many, many times in the course of "reading" this book I found myself shaking my head and formulating contrary arguments. That's just the point. Contentious and opinionated as he is, Delany is just as much open-minded. In Silent Interviews, he invites you to participate in your own silent debates with him. You'd be hard-pressed not to enjoy-and learn from-a conversation with Samuel Delany.
Title: Lovecraft: A LifeIf you like a writer, you get their books. If you love a writer, you get one or two critical studies of their work. If you are obsessed with a writer, you own more books about them than they wrote over their entire career. Of the ten or so books about Lovecraft on my shelves, Joshi's (excuse me, this book of Joshi's) is the most dear to me.
Author: S. T. Joshi
Publisher: Necronomicon Press
Reviewed by: Don Webb
Lovecraft is generally marginalized as a maladjusted recluse who wrote tales about weird-sounding entities that wake up and eat humanity amidst a storm of adjectives. He didn't make very much money, spent the greater part of his life cranking out letters of enormous length, and spent his death doing bad collaborations with August Derleth.
Joshi not only dispels these myths, he re-creates Lovecraft in a way that no previous biography has done. He doesn't shy from the parts of Lovecraft we don't like (such as his racism), or that we don't understand (the lengthy involvement in amateur journalism), or the cold treatment of his wife. He shows where and how Lovecraft's aesthetics arose, beginning with the books and attitudes of his family and progressing to Lovecraft's creation of a society that could appreciate him.
The later feat, given the amazingly dysfunctional family that he sprouted from, is as awesome as any of the long dead gods that awaken in his stories. He created a myth of himself as shy, unhealthy and haunted by the aesthetics of eighteenth century prose. He connected that myth with a passion for letter writing that helped him create a circle of correspondents both learned and estranged from society. Some writers escape from the world into their works; Lovecraft created a world - his fiction writing was only one segment of his desire to instill certain aesthetic and cosmic values into the culture at large.
Joshi does an admirable job of explaining Lovecraft's idea of the Cosmic as the only suitable subject to write on. Lovecraft had a healthy hatred of mankind, coupled with the belief that the most uplifting aspect of man was the occurrence of the artist who could conceive of things vastly greater than the span of man's life. Lovecraft's heroes -Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Nyralathotep - are not monsters, but symbols of artistic transcendence.
The precision with which Joshi has crafted his 700-page book, with notes on everyone and everything that touched HPL's life, is nothing short of amazing. If we can't have Lovecraft himself to spend long night walks with whilst looking for antiquarian sites, at least we have Lovecraft: A Life.
When I sent a letter to Mr. Joshi, I received back a postcard written in tiny letters with phrases that suggested Swift more than of the sparse prose of the twentieth century. I thought of all of Mr. Lovecraft's tales of remanifestation, and I wondered for a long, sharp moment: Who is this Mr. Joshi really?
Title: The Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the EyeJonathan Lethem's first novel, Gun, With Occasional Music, was an energetic mixture of hard-boiled detectives and oddball science fiction, enjoyably eccentric if unevenly paced. His first collection, The Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye shows that Lethem is just as skilled at shorter lengths.
Author: Jonathan Lethem
Publisher: Harcourt Brace
Reviewed By: A. T. Campbell, III
Family relationships play a major role in several of the stronger stories. In "The Happy Man," a disc jockey is resurrected so he can support his family, but there's a catch-every few weeks he's snatched away for a visit to Hell. It's a personal Hell, a nightmare derived from a deep, hidden trauma. The story's structure, which alternates effectively between The Real World and Hell, recalls Jonathan Carroll's similarly structured Bones of the Moon. In "The Hardened Criminals," a man is sent to a prison constructed from the living bodies of capital criminals, including his own father. Lethem makes good use of the clever premise, develops finely nuanced characters, and finds lots of humor in this potentially grim situation. "Light and the Sufferer" is a fairly standard crime story about a sibling pair of small-time crooks, the only twist being that they're followed around by a goofy alien.
"Vanilla Dunk," a science fiction basketball story, is one of the strongest sports stories in any genre. A future NBA creates exoskeletons programmed with the skills of past legends, and the title character is a white player gifted with Michael Jordan's abilities. The story is narrated by one of Vanilla Dunk's less fortunate teammates, a player stuck with Ralph Sampson's talent (as a Rockets fan, I found this hilarious!). It's interesting to see how the story's young athletes, after years of developing their natural abilities to get to the big leagues, react to the Talent Lottery that determines their ultimate success. The inevitable Big Game ends the story on a satisfying, yet unexpected, note.
A few of the stories, while skillfully written, don't quite work. "Sleepy People" is a short and minor story about an illness that causes narcolepsy at inopportune moments. "Five Fucks," despite its provocative title, is a sterile literary experiment about two lovers who meet each other again and again, in all kinds of parallel dimensions, realities, or whatever. And "'Forever,' Said the Duck" didn't make any more sense than it did when I originally read it in Asimov's. As far as I can tell, it has something to do with a party thrown in cyberspace, but the story, if there was one, eluded me.
I was disappointed that this book contains no ancillary material. There's neither an introduction nor any story notes, and the insights these might provide into the author's unique creative processes are sorely missed. Jonathan Lethem's first collection is filled with intriguing ideas and fine writing: several stories are excellent, and even at his worst he's still interesting.
Title: As She Climbed Across the TableOn the evidence so far, Jonathan Lethem is one of those writers who never do the same thing twice. His latest novel, As She Climbed Across the Table, is a love story, a satirical portrait of contemporary Academia, and an account of a physics experiment that assumes an unexpected life of its own. There's not a talking, gun-toting kangaroo anywhere in sight.
Author: Jonathan Lethem
Reviewed By: Bill Sheehan
Set on the grounds of a Berkeley-like campus in northern California, She Climbed... is narrated by Philip Engstrand, an anthropologist who has created his own academic specialty: the study of his native environment, of the politics, territorial disputes, overlapping disciplines, and esoteric rituals of the modern university. Philip is in love with Alice Coombs, a particle physicist participating in an experiment which attempts to create a kind of pocket universe, tangential to our own, by manipulating compressed matter. The unanticipated result of the experiment is the creation of a void, an actual, measurable hole in the universe, around (and within) which the various elements of the novel revolve and collide.
The void, christened "Lack" by its creators, quickly demonstrates the rudimentary aspects of a personality or, at least, of an entity with tastes and inclinations of its own. It accepts certain offerings-argyle socks, fertilized ducks' eggs, pistachio ice cream -and rejects others-paper clips, potassium, aluminum foil- based on a set of arbitrary and unpredictable criteria. Lack studies proliferate. It (soon anthropomorphized to "he") becomes the still center of a whirlwind of analysis, speculation, obsession, and competing academic activities. It becomes quickly apparent that the person most in thrall to Lack and his disembodied mysteries is Alice Coombs.
Alice is in love with Lack, and thus out of love with Philip, who must now confront a void of his own. Much of the subsequent action centers around Philip's stubborn attempt to understand the nature of Alice's relationship with Lack, and to win back her love. His pursuit of these goals will lead him toward an act of unprecedented personal transformation.
En route to that transformation, we are treated to a generous display of the virtues that have brought Lethem so quickly to prominence. The prose is fresh, funny, and brightly observant. The insular world of the university, with its slightly deranged denizens (The Deconstructionist, The Feminist Professor of Gender Studies) and its archetypal events (The Faculty Party, The Student Protest) is captured neatly and concisely. The story of Lack and his constellation of orbiting academics is both imaginative and weirdly believable. And throughout, Lethem never loses sight of the personal issues-the persistence of love, the need for a sense of human connection-that gives his novel its emotional center.
Much of As She Climbed Across the Table seems to have been written under the direct, clearly acknowledged influence of Don DeLillo. DeLillo's voice is as central to the tone and ambience of this novel as Raymond Chandler's was to Gun, With Occasional Music. White Noise, with its strikingly similar university setting, seems to be the major influence, with Ratner's Star, an account of a team of scientists attempting to decode the first alien communique, a more distant second.
Specific titles aside, there are a number of more general DeLillo-like (DeLillovian?) riffs at work here. For instance, there is the shared concern for the way in which different disciplines, different professions, help to alter and even warp the ways in which the English language is deployed. Here is Professor Soft, Nobel prize winner and initial leader of the compressed matter experiment, describing a critical process to a spellbound audience: "In order to adhere the Schwarzchild space to DeSitter space, we had to develop a pair of anti-trapped surfaces, in an asymptotically Minkowskian background...The key was the quantum expectation value of the energy-momentum tensor." Got that?
And then there are Evan and Garth, blind participants in a study of observable reality, whose condition requires them to orient themselves to their environment by obsessively documenting the spaces between objects, the distance, direction, and details connecting them to the sharp edges and invisible contours of the world. DeLillo's characters do this over and over again, meticulously defining their positions within the spaces they inhabit, as though only this can keep them from drifting off into the infinite strangeness of the surrounding universe.
DeLillo would probably enjoy this novel, and admire, maybe even envy, some of its deftly managed comic flourishes, such as the scene in which a class of freshmen, panicked by their professor's unexplained absence, interpret that absence as a final exam cast in "an arcane and menacing new form" and spend their class time furiously attempting to answer the unasked questions his non-attendance represents. (Another void heard from.) And then there's the story of the graduate student who receives funding to study "the geographic spray of bodies on a playing field following an injury," using the "disbursement of bodies around the epicenter" and "the sympathy or skepticism implicit in the stances chosen" as the basis for a probability study centered on each observer's potential for serious injury. The clearer the expression of sympathy, the greater the individual's vulnerability. Now there is a statistical lesson to take to your heart.
Whether familiar with DeLillo or not, As She Climbed Across the Table should light up an evening or two. It's funny, eccentric, and right out of that imaginative left field where all the best books originate, the product of an artistic sensibility that manages to startle and amuse in a different fashion every time out.
Title: Silicon EmbraceJohn Shirley is the author of A Song Called Youth (the Eclipse trilogy), Wetbones, City Come A-Walkin' and (with David J. Schow) the screenplay for The Crow. He is also, according to Bruce Sterling's foreword to The Exploded Heart, "the first and only punk science fiction writer in the world" and "a total bottle-of-dirt screaming dogcollar yahoo." The stories and song lyrics in this collection, and many of the autobiographical asides in the accompanying notes, makes most cyberpunk seem as clean and optimistic as Tom Swift.
Author: John Shirley
Publisher: Mark V Ziesing Books
Price: $29.95 trade HB/$65.00 signed, limited edition
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Title: The Exploded Heart
Author: John Shirley
Publisher: Eyeball Books
ISBN: 0 9642505 0 0
Reviewed By: Stephen Dedman
Except for the epilogue, the stories in The Exploded Heart are presented in chronological order, from 1972's "What He Wanted" to 1991's "A Walk Through Beirut." "What He Wanted," a protopunk "agony rock" story, already displays many of Shirley's strengths-beautiful use of metaphor, a feeling at once gritty and surreal, and a powerful ending-as well as some of his favorite themes. "A Walk Through Beirut" shares the same strengths and many of the same themes; it tells of a riot in a balkanized New York as seen through the drug-fucked perspectives of an aging ex-rock musician and a possibly transgendered fashion-plate, and is one of the few stories with a distinct aftertaste of hope. The stories in-between vary from the violently satirical, dark future "Tricentennial" to the surreal erotica of "When Enter Came." "Shadow of a Snowstorm" sends up economic rationalists with its world of Mandatory Employment and guilded humannequins. "Seams" is a streetwise but strangely sentimental ballad with a Grand Guignol choice of a murder weapon. "Parakeet" and "The Incorporated" deal with behaviour modification-an ideal subject for Shirley's dark, surreal style-the first in warfare, the second in business.
"The Prince" and "Where It's Safe" are rather similar stories of business execs taken captive by their victims, but different in tone. The characters in "The Prince" are generally more sympathetic, with even Haji, the exec, being capable of redemption. The businessmen in "Where It's Safe" make the villains of The Crow look about as evil as shoplifters or jaywalkers by comparison, but Shirley also makes them utterly believable. The darkest tale in the collection is "V, H, and You," a modern horror story in which everything but the supernatural element is painful and evil. The didactic tone of these three pieces only adds to their considerable power.
The Exploded Heart will not appeal to everyone, but it's a must for readers who appreciate the craft and power possible in the short story form and aren't afraid of the dark.
In novel form we have Silicon Embrace, set in a famine-struck, ecologically devastated, no-longer-united America in the aftermath of a second civil war. Provisional martial law exists in ten states, and California has been balkanized by Christian and Muslim fundamentalists and the Hispanic nation-but the darkness of this future is relieved by Shirley's take on conspiracy theories and UFO cult credo. The reader is given fair warning in the words of a 3D tattoo worn by one of the major characters: BORN TO BE IRONIC.
After the humdrum xenophobia and rehashed urban myths of ID4 and Dark Skies, when even a mainstream thriller such as The Rock refers to Roswell, it's a delight to see some inventiveness and irreverence applied to such neo-icons as Area 51. Farraday, a middle-aged PR man, is brought to hangar 18 of Majestic 15's "favorite, shiniest underground base" to plan a promotional campaign. There he is introduced to the Zetan Jaron, a Calvin Klein jeans and Arrow shirt-wearing "classic Grey" with a weakness for chocolate. The scenes in which Farraday, Jaron and the MJ15 masterminds work on the "Embrace," the public revelation of the Zetans interaction with the US, are almost as grimly funny as the PR scene from Salvador or CNN coverage of the Gulf War. Meanwhile, outside Area 51, the novel's heroes are trying to rescue media terrorist Black Betty from a Federal Control Penitentiary, and various other conspiracies and subplot tendrils are converging towards a climax.
The novel is unevenly paced and gives the impression of having been written quickly, with occasionally jolting 1990s topicality. There are references to The X-Files, Independence Day, AlienNation, Deep Space Nine, even Johnny Mnemonic (which survives as a video game long after the movie as been forgotten) and 70s relic Zardoz, as well as contemporary SF authors (including Marc Laidlaw and Neal Stephenson). And many may find Shirley's half-earnest embrace of "New Age" spirituality towards the novel's end incongruous and disappointing.
Silicon Embrace is unlikely to go down in history as Shirley's best work, but it's an enjoyable and refreshing read, especially for those of us tired of watching the skies and trusting no-one.
Title: Godmother NightWriting this review almost feels like pissing in the wind; there are too many people out there who won't read anything that deals honestly with "alternative lifestyles" or homosexual relationships. It's unfortunate that so many SF&F readers have such a narrow worldview, because Godmother Night is one of last year's best novels.
Author: Rachel Pollack
Publisher: St. Martin's
Reviewed by: Jerry Hewett
Ever since Alqua Dreams in 1987, Rachel Pollack has merited attention for her ability to create unusual worlds and populate them with interesting and likeable characters. But with Godmother Night she's finally stepped up to the plate and belted one right out of the park. This novel is unlike anything else in recent memory; the quality of Pollack's dialog, her finely polished prose, the tightness of the plot, and the charisma and believability of her characters place her in a class with Jonathan Carroll and Joe R. Lansdale.
The basic (with significant stress on the word "basic") premise of Godmother Night is quite familiar: Death takes a personal interest in the success and well-being of mortals, in this case two women, Laurie and Jaqe (pronounced "Jake"), who meet at a college mixer and fall in love. But how many people picture Death as a sweet little old grandmother shepherded around the countryside by five red-haired, leather-clad female bikers, or imagine "her" assisting in the immaculate conception of a child?
Many of Godmother Night's scenes linger in the reader's mind long after the last page has been turned. Jaqe as a very young girl who suddenly realizes that not everyone can see the dead; Laurie's conversations with Mark, her employer and the owner of an eclectic bookstore; Jaqe sitting on a crate in the middle of a frozen lake with a complete stranger, dangling a fishing line through a hole cut in the ice. A blending of the everyday and the surreal alŠ Tim Powers, as seen from a new perspective.
Even though Laurie and Jaqe's relationship is the focus of Godmother Night, Pollack does not neglect or caricature their male counterparts. All of the men are well drawn and admirable role models of normal male heterosexuality. Well, almost all-to say more would snag one of the many wonderful threads that run through the story.
The book's only problem-and it's a minor one-was a scene in the middle of the novel with a new born baby. "The baby won't stop crying." OK. "The baby won't stop crying." I said, OK. "The baby won't stop crying." Allright, for Christ's sake! I get it! "The baby..." In hindsight it's necessary to the storyline, but man, it was harder than hell to work through at the time!
As good as Godmother Night is, I'm certain it won't fly off of the shelves at the local Book-O-Rama because it can't be conveniently pigeonholed. It's not quite a mainstream novel, but it doesn't cater to the delicate sensibilities of the elfie-welfie crowd or the borderline retards that suck up the latest media-spawned hackwork. But readers of truly original fantasy should be utterly enthralled.
Title: Exquisite CorpseWith Exquisite Corpse, Poppy Z. Brite has written a nerve-wracking, razor-edged novel from which squirming readers will be unable to escape. Using Jeffrey Dahmer as a template, Brite presents serial killers Andrew Compton and Jay Byrne as intimately as they know their victims, creating murderers who revel in the buttery slicing of muscle and the sensual worship of peeled flesh.
Author: Poppy Z. Brite
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by: Delores Goodrick Beggs
Serial killer Andrew Compton sits for three years in his London cell filling notebooks-20 his first year, 31 the second, 19 the third-with detailed descriptions of the deaths of his first 23 victims. After that, he begins to write about things that interest him, then exercises his freedom of choice by engineering an escape.
Compton leaves the grimy streets of Picadilly Circus behind for America and New Orleans. In the French Quarter he strikes up a friendship with another gay serial killer, playboy Jay Byrne, and they move from the nightclub to Byrne's house on Bourbon Street, an avenue lined with well-preserved homes of gay men in their 40s and 50s.
Enter Tran, a runaway Vietnamese-American boy whom Compton and Byrne deem to be the perfect victim. Tran is pursued in turn by radio talk show host Rush Rimbaud, Tran's dying, AIDS-infected ex-lover, and the stage is set for the final ritual of murder and love.
This is a gutsy, no holds barred tale told in compelling, knife-sharp prose. The author treads the outer edge of taboo: cannibalism, necrophilia, and a major cast of all-gay characters freely sharing HIV+ bodily fluids in a risky dance that succeeds very well indeed. Only Compton's escape from prison strains credibility.
One thing gives the killers pause. When Birdy latches up with them to alleviate his loneliness and need for love, they discover his diseased body full of soapy white growths and rare fluids instead of hot reds and pinks and the steamy juice of blood. Andrew says, "I felt like a starving man led to an exquisitely set table, titillated with luscious smells from the kitchen, then informed (just as the first steaming delicacy is set before him) that the cook has laced the banquet with weed killer."
Exquisite Corpse is sure to fuel Brite's meteoric rise. The realism of her subject matter is more horrific than the ghosts and vampires in her earlier works, and limiting the cast to gay men gives the novel a tighter focus than her previous novels. But the pervasive theme of her work, loneliness, runs through all.
Exquisite Corpse leaves readers reeling to an interior cacophony of senses, sounds and conflicted feelings. By crafting her killers with such tender, sensual care, Brite has turned murder into a delicate ritual of caring and sharing, a testimony of love the characters can obtain no other way. It's a shocking, nervy performance, carried off only by Brite's masterful prose, and one no reader of extreme fiction should dare pass up.
Title: GlimmeringElizabeth Hand emerged as major talent with her fourth novel, Waking the Moon, which William Gibson called "a potent socio-erotic ghost story for our looming Millennium, rooted in ancient nightlands of myth and yesterday's politics of gender." Like its predecessor, Glimmering is a ghost story of sorts. It is also a bleak and disturbing vision of the forthcoming Millennium, rooted, this time, in next week's potential for environmental disaster, cultural collapse, and social and spiritual decay.
Author: Elizabeth Hand
Reviewed By: Bill Sheehan
A novel bursting at the seams with images, ideas, characters, and events, Glimmering takes both its title and its primary impetus from a disastrous confluence of events which occurs in March, 1997. A series of sub-oceanic avalanches in Antarctica release vast quantities of methane into the atmosphere just as three thousand gallons of an experimental refrigerant and heating agent called BRITE are released. These events, in conjunction with a massive solar storm, combine to alter the earth's magnetic field and accelerate the depletion of the ozone layer, resulting in a poisonously beautiful atmospheric display known as "The Glimmering."
Two years later the world stands teetering on the edge of entropy. Extended power failures, with subsequent breakdowns in all major communications media, have become pandemic, and social anarchy is now the order of the day. The damage to the ozone layer has resulted in the presence of toxic levels of ultra-violet light, leading to the rise of new and uncontrolled forms of disease. Alterations to existing weather patterns lead to crop failure and widespread famine. Against this background of global disarray, Hand sets in motion two independent, ultimately intersecting narratives of love and loss in the waning moments of the world.
Jack Finnegan, scion of a once wealthy mercantile family and publisher of The Gaudy Book ("the world's last literary magazine") is dying of AIDS. From the vantage point of Lazyland, his decaying family mansion, he watches the outside world slide steadily toward its end. Trip Marlowe, a young Xian (i.e. Christian) rock star, is a slightly tarnished innocent about to become famous as a virtual reality pop icon. The fates of these two very different people become entwined through their shared connection with two other members of Hand's large and distinctive cast.
The first is Marz Candry, orphan, refugee, enigmatic teen-aged seductress. Marz spends one wild afternoon with Trip, at the end of which Trip is no longer a virgin and Marz, as we eventually discover, is pregnant. Afterwards, alone and adrift, she fetches up on the grounds of Lazyland, where she is taken in by Jack Finnegan and his ancient grandmother, and given a temporary harbor in which to await the birth of her child and the near simultaneous arrival of the Millennium.
The second connection is provided by Leonard Thrope, photographer, entrepreneur, and "socio-cultural pathologist." Leonard, not so affectionately nicknamed "The Lord of Misrule" by Jack, his former lover, is one of the wild cards in the deck. He routinely interferes in the lives and destinies of those around him, and positively thrives in the atmosphere of imminent apocalypse. It is Leonard who engineers the VR recording session which launches Trip's career as a virtual icon. It is Leonard who provides Jack with an experimental antidote to the AIDS virus known as FUSAX 687, a drug which does, in fact, alleviate Jack's symptoms but also seems capable of altering the nature of human consciousness.
These are the basic elements of Glimmering, but such a bare bones recitation does little to suggest the density of detail Hand brings to her vision of the apocalypse around the corner. Glimmering is a kitchen sink kind of book, gathering in as much as it can hold, focusing with equal intensity on the grand and sweeping events of global cataclysm, and on the small, personal details that illuminate individual lives. The result is a paradoxically old-fashioned narrative, in which the history of the Grandfather clock that stands beside the staircase in Lazyland becomes as important, in its way, as Hand's carefully detailed scenario for ecological disaster.
Glimmering is also, among many other things, a book made from other books, and it displays its influences openly. John Crowley, E. M. Forster, Thomas Disch, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, and T. S. Eliot are all present to some degree, adding their peculiar flavor to the book without ever overwhelming Hand's singular narrative voice. (Her sex scenes, which are graphic, forthright, and no holds barred, are particularly striking. Like Poppy Z. Brite, she strides fearlessly across once forbidden sexual boundaries, and her descriptions of gay male sex are as convincing and empathetic as her descriptions of more "traditional" sexual encounters.)
There are, along the way, occasional glitches and questionable plot points. For example, the pyrotechnic climax, which involves a Japanese multi-national's attempt to launch a fleet of space platforms designed to repair the ozone layer, and the corresponding attempt of the "Blue Antelope" ecological terrorist group to sabotage that launch, is marred when everybody with some foreknowledge of the sabotage, Jack Finnegan in particular, remains so completely silent about it. We are, after all, dealing with The End of Life As We Know It, and it feels like something significant has been left out.
But for the most part Hand holds it all together with high style and impressive narrative energy, ending on a note of ambiguous optimism in which, despite the almost total failure of the human race to counteract the slide toward global dissolution, a glimmer of hope (there is no other word for it) remains unaccountably alive. Or so it seems.
In the face of the inevitable flood of apocalyptic fiction which will be heading our way as the end of the century draws near, it's good to see standards set this high early on, as Glimmering is the work of a real writer with a dark and authentic vision. It isn't pleasant and it isn't comforting, but it is frequently powerful and always deeply felt. It's another large step forward for a novelist whose intelligence and ambition could, and should, make her a major figure, both inside the genre and beyond.
Title: Sandman: Book of DreamsBetween 1988 and 1996, over the course of seventy-five Sandman comic books (plus various specials and mini series), Neil Gaiman told the complex, moving story of Morpheus, the Lord of the Dreaming, and his family, the Endless. Taken as a whole, the series constitutes a tale about a single character (Dream, a.k.a. Morpheus) and, as Frank McConnell points out in his excellent introduction, "an intricate, funny and profound tale about tales, a story about why there are stories."
Editors: Neil Gaiman and Ed Kramer
Reviewed By: Hank Wagner
Dream is the central figure of the story. Tall, thin, pale, always dressed in black (the image of his creator?), he is truly a flawed hero, a godlike figure subject to the emotions and weaknesses of mankind. Able to create and destroy worlds on a whim, he fails as father and husband. Seemingly invincible, he can be brought down by the righteous anger of a distraught mother.
For eight years, Gaiman mined this rich vein, only to stop at the height of the series' popularity, at a point in time when he felt the story he had in mind from the beginning had reached its natural conclusion. Gaiman's creations live on however, in DC's new series The Dreaming, and in this anthology, written by several mainstream (i.e., non-comic book) writers.
Given the brilliance of the original comic, and with Gaiman co-editor, Sandman aficionados and novices alike might approach this anthology with high hopes. Unfortunately, they are likely to be somewhat disappointed. Perhaps the writers had to operate under severe restrictions; perhaps they didn't feel comfortable working within someone else's universe-it's hard to say. Although the stories are uniformly well crafted, they fail to break any new ground or provide novel insights into the rich cast of familiar characters. This is not to say that the anthology is entirely a waste of time-many of the stories are excellent, and all are readable. But the writers might have done more with the material.
Enough negativity. The best story in this collection is Susanna Clarke's "Stopp't Clock Yard," a tale that could easily have been part of the "World's End" story arc from the original series. (Gaiman himself comments "I wish I had written this story.") Clarke tells the amusing tale of magician Isaac Trismegistus and rogue John Paramore, a pair who invade Morpheus' realm to bring the deceased back to their loved ones. Morpheus is rendered perfectly, a distracted deity, swift to anger, but patient in the extreme. Dream waits out his tormentors, only to have his revenge stolen away by one of his siblings.
Other strong entries are Will Shetterly's "Splatter" (set at the infamous Serial Killers Convention seen in The Doll's House), George Alec Effinger's "Seven Nights in Slumberland" (a delightful tribute to both The Sandman and Little Nemo), Barbara Hambly's "Each Damp Thing" (a scary, funny piece featuring Cain and Abel), and Brenda W. Clough's "The Birth Day" (wherein Dream visits a storyteller who may be too clever for her own good). Honorable mentions include Colin Greenland's "Masquerade and High Water," Tad Williams' "The Writer's Child," Delia Sherman's "The Witch's Heart," Nancy Collins' "The Mender of Broken Dreams," and Gene Wolfe's "Ain't You Most Done?".
One need not be familiar with the series to enjoy this book, but it helps. Most of the writers here seem content pursuing themes Gaiman has already visited rather than developing their own. It's hard to recommend the hardcover to general audiences, but the trade paperback is an elegant solution-for twelve dollars, most will be able to spend a few pleasurable hours with Dream and his kin. Rabid fans of the series may be disappointed, but general readers should enjoy the time they spend in The Dreaming.
Title: Serial Killer DaysWhat's up with these quiet boys from the Midwest? Is there something in the water that makes them take the smooth surface of small-town life and rip it off like a scab, all the while making us cringe and laugh? A few years ago we got Brad Denton's funny and horrific Blackburn, and now there's David Prill's Serial Killer Days.
Author: David Prill
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Reviewed By: Caroline Spector
Once a year, for the last twenty years, a serial killer has struck in Standard Springs, Minnesota. Always in July. Always a teenage girl. The killer has never been caught. So, what's an enterprising town to do? Why, establish a rollicking, feel-bad, traditional-style festival celebrating (and cashing in on) the event, by golly!
Debbie Sue Morning is a contestant in the annual Scream Queen Festival for Standard Springs' Serial Killer Days. She wants to win, but suffers from a small problem: she's just not scared. It's hard to summon up that pageant-winning scream when you're not afraid, gosh darn it. And though she tries to get into the spirit of the season-telling her brother all about the Anti Claus, working on the Scream Queen float for the Parade of Fear, attending shrieking lessons, and going to the fairgrounds for rides on the Scary-Go-Round, The Dark Pond, and The Open Bedroom Window-she isn't even able to work up mild apprehension, much less fear.
In the meantime, her father is worrying about pulling off the parade, the town council are hotly debating changing the name of the town to Serial Killer, and the local deputy, Dan, actually thinks he may have caught the killer-and nobody is happy about that.
I'd tell you more, but isn't this enough? By gum, if that doesn't get you ready for a trip to Standard Springs, I don't know what will. And I'd spill the beans by giving anymore away (wouldn't want to rile the Anti Claus). Like his first novel, The Unnatural (embalming as a competitive sport), Serial Killer Days is centered on a conceit. However, Prill never confuses the conceit with the storytelling. It's a hell of a tightrope walk, and he pulls it off with great aplomb.
There are, however, some weaknesses. Though Prill's ending is understandable, the shift in tone from satire to coming-of-age story is a bit jarring. And there are moments when the book drags; in a novel this short and tightly written, that shouldn't happen.
Serial Killer Days comes across like a Daniel M. Pinkwater novel filmed by David Lynch. Prill, like Pinkwater and Lynch, takes the normal and makes it seem bizarre, then takes the bizarre and makes it seem normal. And as America slouches toward the millennium, it appears Prill's vision may not be far off the mark.
Prill will, no doubt, soon be getting a reputation as one of those "quirky" authors. Unfortunately, Serial Killer Days will only make the marketing types more eager to continue pigeon-holing him. And that's a shame, because Prill's lovely lean prose and dark humor deserves better.
Title: The Panic HandJonathan Carroll is the author of eight novels, including The Land of Laughs, Bones of the Moon and Outside the Dog Museum, but I first encountered his work via the title story's appearance in Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. After reading it, I rushed off my train and into a bookstore in search of his novels.
Author: Jonathan Carroll
Publisher: HarperCollins (UK)/St. Martin's Press
Reviewed by: Stephen Dedman
I still haven't read all Carroll's novels, and haven't loved all that I've read; nor do I love all of the stories in The Panic Hand, and reading the collection all at once was probably a mistake. Carroll has a genius for making the most disturbing situations seem real by his loving attention to detail, the normality of his settings, the credibility of his characters, and a quietly intimate tone which is most effective if you treat each tale as a shared secret. Unfortunately, twenty Carroll stories taken en masse is rather like a cocktail party dominated by erudite and well-mannered upper-middle-class urbanites who've noticed something weird about the world but aren't necessarily comfortable discussing it in public. Sometimes you may find yourself reading a story without realizing that the previous one has finished...or didn't finish.
That said, the collection has some undeniable gems. In "The Sadness of Detail," a woman visits her favorite cafe and is recruited by a man named Thursday (shades of G.K. Chesterton) into re-creating small details of the world to assist an amnesiac God. "Mr Fiddlehead" is a wonderful piece of magic realism about a woman who finds herself falling in love with her best friend's very real "imaginary friend." "Friend's Best Man" is more equivocal about its fantasy elements-a girl who talks to a canine Cassandra-but is also gently twisted. So is "The Panic Hand," the story of a computer salesman and fairy-story collector who meets a glamorous woman and her strangely attractive daughter on a train; its strange vision of creation and reality is reminiscent of Lewis Carroll at his most frightening.
"A Wheel in the Desert, the Moon on Some Swings" and "A Flash in the Pants" (new to this collection) are beautifully written tales about memory and souls. "The Jane Fonda Room" and "The Dead Love You" give us different glimpses of Hell. "Postgraduate" and "Tired Angel" are effective little chillers. "The Zoondel" was too short, and feels like the first few pages of an abandoned novel, while "Uh-Oh City" seemed too long. "The Life of My Crime" gives the impression that Carroll devoted so much space to creating wonderfully detailed portraits of his characters that the plot tired of waiting and went home...but if you like characterization for its own sake, read it anyway. The characterization in "Black Cocktail" is better still, magnificent even by Carroll's high standards, and I'm not sure why I didn't like the story more than I did.
If you're already a Carroll fan, you'll want to buy The Panic Hand anyway, if only for the previously unpublished story. If you're not familiar with Carroll's work, this book is an excellent introduction.
Title: Infinite Jest
Author: David Foster Wallace
Publisher: Little, Brown & Co.
Reviewed By: Hank Wagner
"Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy..."In David Foster Wallace's gargantuan (1088 pp.) novel, Infinite Jest is the title of a movie so enthralling it leaves viewers mesmerized, unwilling to wrest their gaze from the screen. Audiences don't care about anything else, and literally die of pleasure (the descendant of Monty Python's Killing Joke, perhaps?).
-from Hamlet, by William Shakespeare
Infinite Jest (the novel) is set approximately eighteen years in the future, and deals with a society obsessed with entertainment and amusement. The former NAFTA states have been reorganized as the Organization of North American Nations, or ONAN. The President of the United States, the titular leader of ONAN, is a somnambulant ex-crooner named Johnny Gentle, who's most original idea is to offer large corporations sponsorship opportunities-thus, each year is now named for a commercial product, resulting in the Year of the Whopper, the Year of the Trial Size Dove Bar, and the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, during which most of the novel is set.
ONAN is under siege from wheelchair bound Quebecois terrorists, who are pissed that their province is now used as a toxic waste dump (the waste is hurled there from Massachusetts by giant catapults). Their master plan: obtain a copy of the lethal movie (code named "the Entertainment"), and make it available for the mass consumption of the largely lethargic American populace.
Searching for the master copy of the film, the terrorists focus on the sons of the film's deceased autuer, J. O. Incandenza, Jr. (who committed suicide by sticking his head in a specially rigged microwave oven shortly after completing the film). Icandenza's progeny are Orin, a skirt chasing professional football player, Mario, mentally deficient and physically deformed, and Hal, a brainy tennis star at the Enfield Tennis Academy, an institution his father founded before embarking on his film career.
The majority of the action in the novel takes place at the Enfield Academy and at Ennet House, a rehab center located just down the block from the tennis school. These institutions yield dozens of humorous asides and a plethora of quirky, memorable characters. Enfield provides opportunities to comment on celebrity and obsession, while Ennet House gives Wallace a chance to hold forth on addiction, self control, and Alcoholics Anonymous.
Wallace's primary theme is that America is slowly amusing itself to death. Obsessed with entertainment and self gratification, America is sliding into the abyss. Are there answers to this dilemma? Wallace seems to think so, constantly emphasizing the need to balance freedom with authority (his admiration for AA is obvious). Yet, he demonstrates that no answer is perfect: witness Lenz, in rehab to kick a drug habit, responding to the rigid structure of AA by killing domestic animals (you'll never hear the word "There" again without thinking of him).
Reading Infinite Jest is an ambitious undertaking. Don't be intimidated by its size (the hardcover weighs in at 3.3 pounds)-just be sure to set aside a few weeks to get through the thing. An unabridged dictionary and Physician's Desk Reference will also come in handy, as five dollar vocabulary words and pharmacological references abound. (And I haven't even mentioned the footnotes.) The original manuscript was reportedly some 300-500 pages longer and in need of severe editing, which may explain why the narrative just seems to end. The abrupt ending need not discourage you, however, as obsessive readers have reported that the novel is recursive, appropriate in light of its title.
Witty and deep, Infinite Jest is science fiction in the vein of John Barth's Giles Goat Boy or Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, a massive showcase for Wallace's writing talent, intelligence, and oddball sense of humor. Is it the great American Novel? Beats me. Some critics compare it to Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, but they say that about any book over 600 pages that you actually have to think about (I find it ironic that critics cite a book few have read to explain a book that even fewer will have the patience to read). Is it funny, erudite? Yes. Is it worthy of your attention? Most definitely. But be warned-Wallace's writing is as addictive as the movie Infinite Jest, and you may experience withdrawal pains upon finishing.
Title: Time FamineLance Olsen is a well-known critic with six insightful books on postmodernist themes ranging from Lolita: A Janus Text to William Gibson. He has two books of short stories, a volume of poetry, and three other novels. In Time Famine, Olsen's smooth prose crafts a delightful, mulitlayered study of cannibalism and its discontents which works on several levels, from adventure story to metafiction. His work is well salted with references to our favorite cyberpunk writers and has a questioning-of-reality voice that resembles (and occasionally rivals) Dick and Pynchon.
Author: Lance Olsen
Publisher: Permeable Press
Reviewed by: Don Webb
The novel begins with a kaleidoscope view of a reactor meltdown in a Southern California theme park, Belsen-land. The society of the late twenty-first century has eaten itself, all its cultural activity based on devouring history and vomiting it out at an ever-increasing rate, with any transmundane thrill (such as concentration camps) as the fodder.
This savage lampooning of current American culture hits dead on, and a business meeting on how to cover up the disaster is one of the book's funniest sections. The corporate bigwigs never use such a tacky word as "death." Instead they discuss "negative market impact" while consuming a tasty pork-like meat. Corpse-sickles are the flesh of choice for the rich, while the rest of the world makes do with cockroach burgers.
The meltdown at Belsen-land has an unforeseen side effect-Chrono-Unific Deficiency Syndrome, a sickness that causes people to become unstuck in time and drift into periods that resonate with the world's current decayed state. The book's hero, Ulysses Sysop-of-the-Plains Stray, finds himself having to survive the winter with the Donner Party. In the nineteenth century section the prose goes from Dick to Dickens, then returns to Olsen's fast pasted, hallucinatory prose as it follows the attempts of Krystal, Ulysses' mom, to save him amidst the corporate cover-up. She discovers a sort of transhumanist vampire living vicariously through the experiences of humanity, strange horrors that are both a hopeful vision of a sort of non-specific, immortal self humanity can evolve into, and a devastating portrayal of the novel-reading public.
The novel ends with a proclamation of return to normality by the most corrupt government figure in the book, Neiman-Marcus Converse, Environmental Protection Agency Adviser to the President and CEOs of North America. We know such pronouncements are false, used only as ritual to avoid the harsh truths of the day. Lance has boldly painted America as it is, with only a little brightening of colors and darkening of shadows to make it into a Bosch-like hell.
"And now back to our regularly scheduled reruns already in progress . . ."
Title: Final ImpactJudged by its packaging, Final Impact aspires to be sold on supermarket shelves; judged by its content, Ms. Navarro aspires to higher things. The question is: if Andy Warhol could succeed in taking boxes of Brillo off of supermarket shelves and transforming them into art, can Yvonne Navarro, a reputable writer but no Warhol, rescue into respectability a product the final destination of which may lie somewhere to the right of the candy selection at the check-out counter?
Author: Yvonne Navarro
Reviewed by: Matthew Nadelhaft
The book's premise isn't promising: A "rogue planet"-the presence of which is never explained-careens into our solar system and, torn apart by the gravitational field of Jupiter, speeds towards cataclysmic collision with Earth. Not hackneyed enough? This planet, due to arrive in the summer of the year 2000, is named "Millennium."
There are many things Navarro does well, but they simply aren't enough to save this book from the weight of its predictable, creaky premise. Navarro creates and juggles multiple characters, some of them, like the blind, precognitive Gena, memorable. Some of their relationships are interesting and believable (when mind-reading Simon meets healer Mercy, his bumbling attempts at a "normal" first date are endearing). But there are just too many characters, and the relationships between them too contrived. The ways in which everybody in the book ends up connected to everybody else are outlandish even assuming that the main characters comprise half Earth's population. Navarro gives the impression that the end of civilization will be a giant blind date, because pairing off and producing babies is the major preoccupation of her characters. Even given Navarro's spurious, mystical explanation about fertility leaping in response to the impending disaster, there are better things her strong female characters could be offering the shattered world than fertile wombs.
Navarro's use of multiple viewpoint characters is in keeping with the tradition of apocalyptic horror novels-the basic model might well be The Stand. But King and others use this structure to build sympathies and leave readers bereft when characters die; Navarro's characters seem too precious to her (granted, there will be a sequel) ever to face any serious threat. Civilization may come crashing down (although it takes far too long to do so), but Navarro's characters, though repeatedly struck on the heads by all kinds of flying objects, come through miraculously.
It is, in the end, the implausibility of this book that keeps its handful of interesting characters from elevating Final Impact above supermarket fodder. The far-fetched mechanism of stopping the Earth's rotation to create a "dark-side" where vampires and werewolves can "evolve" is much less interesting than the better defined relationships that weather the novel's melodramatic events. Navarro is aware that only interesting characters can carry a work of this length. On the other hand, had the work not been of such length, it might not have weighed too much for Navarro's characters to carry.