Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Review of The Machine in Shaft Ten and Other Stories by M. John Harrison

The more of M. John Harrison I read, the more I begin to believe he emerged from the chrysalis fully fledged.  Even his first published stories display a maturity, a poise that the majority of writers seek but can never find.   That emergence is captured in Machine in Shaft Ten and Other Stories (1975).  Like an artist’s preliminary sketches, many of the stories would later be developed into Harrison’s novel length work, notably the Viriconium sequence and The Centauri Device.  Bleak visions tattooed onto vivid wastelands and fantastical landscapes, Harrison’s awareness of the written word is bar none.

The collection opens with its most incongruous tale, the eponymous “Machine in Shaft Ten.” In fact a Jerry Cornelius story that (intentionally and perfectly) smacks of Moorcock’s style, which in turn smacks of the classic British gentleman story caught up in events over his head, it looks into a giant emotion converter discovered at the Earth’s core.  The second story, “The Lamia and Lord Cromis,” is likewise classic, but only in feel.  One of the most dynamically realized settings in the collection, it tells of the sword-and-sorcery anti-hero, Lord Cromis “who imagined himself to be a better poet than a swordsman” as he hunts a beast through wilds of Viriconium with the dwarf Rotgob.  The final showdown is the opposite of classic but fitting.

Review of The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers

Tim Powers is one of the most original and wide-ranging fantasy authors on the market. Unlike such writers as M. John Harrison, Ian McDonald, Elizabeth Hand, or Jeffrey Ford, however, he did not emerge on the scene fully fledged.  It took a few books for Powers to find his form and voice and integrate them with the ideas floating around in his head.  While singular, Powers’ third novel, The Drawing of the Dark (1979), remains part of this transition.  Pace and action are brisk and the scenes vivid, but the prose is as loose as the coherency of the overall story—a lot of rollicking fun, but very superficial (much like chunks of Roger Zelazny's oeuvre).

Working with Eur-asian history, Powers sets 16th century East and against West in a battle of the supernatural.  Sword-for-hire Brian Duffy the hero of the day, things start simply, even realistically for him: he’s given a bag of gold ducats for taking the bouncer’s role at a famous inn in Vienna.  And off Duffy goes on a trek through the Alps.  All manner of strange monsters and beasts slipping in and out of the mist, he also makes a few friends along the way.  Arriving at the inn, however, things turn really mysterious.  Hallucinations, Vikings from centuries past, and ghosts deep in the cellars shake the metaphysical realities of Duffy’s world.  And he needs to get things sorted out fast; the threat of war is arising from the west, all things seem to be centered on his inn, and for some reason, the special brew fermenting deep below ground.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Review of Crompton Divided by Robert Sheckley

For a while I’ve been meaning to write an essay about the real ‘big three’ of the Silver Age.  Arthur C. Clarke’s existence unredoubtable, I strongly question Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov’s positions in the triumvirate, however.  If popularity is the stick of measure, then I have no argument.  But if quality of prose, depth of concept, and underlying humanism are at stake, Algis Budrys and Robert Sheckley should be in the spotlight.  While only a light example why, Sheckley’s 1978 Crompton Divided (aka The Alchemical Marriage of Alistair Crompton) nevertheless possesses qualities that engage deeper levels of the brain than the works of Heinie or Azzie.

Channeling dynamic, vibrant prose a la Alfred Bester with a twist of wit, Crompton Divided tells the life travails of one Alistair Crompton.  His personality recognized as dangerous as a child, two pieces of his personality are cut out and distributed into android minds, leaving the real Crompton a cold, placid machine of a human.  Growing up to become the top creator of psychosmells (odors that touch the lizard brain in unique, pleasurable ways) for the universe’s most successful corporation, he grows bored being the best, and one day decides to reintegrate his personality pieces. The doctor who performed the surgery when he was young unwilling to undo his work, nevertheless gives Crompton the names and locations of the androids who have his lost parts. Crompton’s quest is soon underway, but it ends sooner than he—and the reader—expect.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Review of The Great Wheel by Ian R. Macleod

Toward the end of Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia Winter, the main character escapes certain punishment for murder by entering the Wheel of Kharnabar.  A massive, single gear turning underground, it has only one entrance/exit.  People who enter the Wheel must wait ten years for one revolution of the gear to bring them back to the entrance again.  A decade a long time, the experience brings the novel’s protagonist into a different plane of mind that, once he exits, allows him to live his life with new focus.  Less planetary adventure and more near-future noir, Ian Macleod’s debut novel The Great Wheel (1997) works with similar symbolism to bring about personal resolution involving the guilt of living in post-colonial Europe.

When guilt is a key subject, no better main character may be than a priest.  In The Great Wheel his name is John, and he has been assigned by the presbytery in England for a year to the Endless City, a third-world ghetto sprawling along the north coast of Africa.  A European and therefore privileged, John receives medical treatments protecting him against the variety of diseases and ailments that riddle the people who come to his church seeking help.  Seeing the suffering and waste on a daily basis, the simple medicines John dispenses do not have a larger effect, and so when noticing a pattern in the symptoms suffered by people who chew a narcotic leaf called koiyl, he begins to dig further.  Meeting a local named Laura, the two travel into the wastelands of Africa trying to get to the source of the contaminated koiyl.  Though the locals cast a wary eye on the pair as they travel, it’s after their return, however, that the troubles of John’s life come crashing down and the circumstances become too big to handle.  Or at least John perceives…

Friday, February 5, 2016

Review of The Extremes by Christopher Priest

In social work, there is much made of the enabler—the person who wittingly or unwittingly aids another’s self-destruction.  C’mon John, just one more drink...  Sure, we can wallow in your mother’s death for the thousandth time, just tell me what makes you sad…  Yes, it makes sense Sally; he shows his love by beating you…  And on and on go the scenarios wherein friends may actually be more hurtful than helpful.  But what about when the ‘friend’ is technology?  Christopher Priest’s late entry to cyberpunk, The Extremes (1998), is one such resonant tale.

But before jumping into The Extremes, we should back up a little. Priest’s fourth novel, A Dream of Wessex, featured a young woman attempting to deal with personal issues by getting involved with a virtual reality project.  Manipulated, the choice turned out to be something quite horrific in the end, an experience much more than she expected.  Apparently not satisfied with the outcome, Priest revisited the premise in The Extremes. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Review of The Empire of Ice Cream: Stories by Jeffrey Ford

Emerging in the late morning of an overcast day (one novel in 1988 and a handful of short stories over the decade that followed), there was not much indication Jeffrey Ford would become as prolific as he has.  In 1997 he produced The Well-Built City trilogy which did well critically, but was not a commercial success.  A deluge of short fiction followed, however, and since 2000 he has produced more than ninety stories amidst a couple of novels.  Quantity and quality often quarrelsome bedfellows, Ford proves harmony is possible, a fact wonderfully exemplified by his second collection The Empire of Ice Cream: Stories (2006).  What else do you want on a warm, sunny afternoon?

The best of the second quarter of Ford’s oeuvre to date, The Empire of Ice Cream: Stories contains a wide range of tales, all written in attentive, quality prose.  While style varies only slightly to accommodate the story being told, the subject matter broached is far-ranging.  Faery, explorations of the act of writing, Americana, synesthesia, dreams, (superb) barroom storytelling, Weird, the mythological, tall tales, folk tales, dark fantasy—the stories are rooted in a wide variety of modes and moods, which make the collection all the more satisfying.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Review of Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

There are times that you encounter such a charming, delightful book that you only realize it after finding your head floating in the clouds.  Colorful, imaginative, fun, layered, unique, pitch perfect prose—these are some the main attributes you look back upon having drifted away.  One such story must certainly be one of the most immersive fantasy novels of all time, Diana Wynne Jones’ superb Howl’s Moving Castle (1986).

Distilling the pure essence of fairy tale and creating a sub-text involving relationships, gender, and maturation in a contemporary storyline, Howl’s Moving Castle is a novel that perfectly straddles the fence between modern and traditional with nothing lost between.  Borrowing the best of both worlds, there are wizards and witches, spells and magic, but these familiar devices are deployed in a story that transcends even the notion of stereotype.  Howl is a young wizard of extraordinary talents, but prone to wallowing in self-pity.  Sophie is a quiet, unconfident young woman who feels herself trapped to one path in life, unable to escape while those around her have all the fun.  And the Witch of the Waste, well, she just might be as classic as evil in fairy tales gets.  But I get ahead of myself.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Review of Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys

John DeNardo on SF Signal decries Algis Budrys' 1960 Rogue Moon for its character development and focus on existentialism, opining that “too much of the book centers on the characters of Hawks, Barker, Claire,, and Vincent Connington. While their stories are somewhat interesting, I really wanted to see more of the BDO.”  It’s precisely superficial attitudes like this which have kept much of sf in the gutter, my friends.  Gimme cool death machines rather than exploration of human nature…  Yeah.  But I get ahead of myself.

From its title to the central plot device, Rogue Moon is an enigma.  Is it satire on the American system and what it demands of a person before they die?  Is it a meditation on death from the point of view of numerous character types?  Allegory to the subjectivity of existence and the variety of responses to that notion?  Or just an obtuse idea presented as conceived without deeper significance?

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Review of Breathmoss and Other Exhalations by Ian R. Macleod

Ian Macleod is, point blank, one of the best sf&f writers in the field today.  Each piece, from short story to novel, comes fully considered, polished til shining, imaginative, multi-layered, and persistently focused on humanity—no matter how wild the speculation may get.  So why haven’t you read him?  Macleod’s 2004 collection Breathmoss and Other Exhalations is an excellent palette of stories to dig into.  Perfectly representative of the author’s range and talent, there may be no better starting place.

Breathmoss and Other Exhalations opens with its title story.  We meet Jalili as a young girl in the midst of a major family move from the sparsely populated highlands to its more dense coastal lowlands of the planet Hebara.  The move tough, Jalili nevertheless sees and experiences things she’d never dreamed—rocket ships take off, new cultures and peoples, and, as is strange in her all-female family, men.  “Breathmoss” a touching coming-of-age story that eschews most any paint-by-the-numbers idea the reader could throw at such a story type, tragedy and comedy are only stepping stones to Jalili’s self-realization.  (For extended review, see here.)

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Review of The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway

It’s always something of a disappointment in my post-reading about a novel to discover a review which has summarized it so precisely as to render any opinion or words I can conjure, secondary.  Such is the case with Nick Harkaway’s 2009 The Gone-Away World.  In The Guardian, David Poole writes the novel is“…a bit like spending a week with a hyperactive puppy: there are delightful moments aplenty, but it's slightly wearing over the long run. Still, any author who has come up with the beautifully silly plan of melding a kung-fu epic with an Iraq-war satire and a Mad Max adventure has to be worth keeping an eye on.” Summing it up perfectly, this review will, accordingly, be brief.

As Poole insinuates, The Gone-Away World is exuberant fun.  Foremost linguistically, I feel I should capitalize EXUBERANT FUN.  Bending and twisting characters and dialogue into lexical elbows and knees, meaning is always clear but the approach angles and result are linguistic loops and swirls—anything but ordinary.  From scene to syntax, there seems no digression untaken, which can be really engrossing, but also annoying.  Here is one such digression (leading to several other digressions, before getting back on track):