Sunday, July 29, 2012

Review of "The Last Castle" by Jack Vance


Winning the 1966 Nebula for best novella, The Last Castle is amazingly only one of few major awards Jack Vance won in his career.  It is surprising because there is nothing that really sets the Last Castle apart from any of Vance’s other work to warrant such a distinction.  The colorful imagination, the playful plot, the witty dialogue, the fantastical creatures—all are Vance through and through, leaving one in wonder. 

Sidestepping the lure of discussion on the inconsistencies of speculative fiction awards, The Last Castle is the story of Castle Hagedorn and its stand against a rebellious horde of aliens on far-far future Earth.  The incumbent humans living in decadence and useless d├ęcor for far too long, their slaves, the Meks, have revolted, taking the country by storm until only Hagedorn remains standing.  Xanten, a surly, aggressive personality (not a typical Vance hero), decides to take action facing the complacency of the ruling elite and sets out over the land to find how and why the Meks rebelled.  What he discovers is surprising, not to mention more disagreeable than any of the lords and ladies could have imagined.

Filled with the wit and creativity readers of Vance have come to take for granted, The Last Castle is no exception.  Though short (less than 100 pages), the story’s details and originality are more than enough to set the imagination alight.  Fleshing out Xanten’s story are Phanes, insect-esque humans, exhibited every evening by the lords of Hagedorn in a sort of “Whose peacock is more beautiful?” display.  Birds, impertinent pterydactyl-esque creatures, work as other-worldy taxi drivers.  And the Meks, though never developed beyond comic book presentation, fill the role of foil well enough—and weirdly enough—to make the story at least readable.  

Thematically, The Last Castle is one of Vance’s strongest stories.  Perhaps the reason it won the Nebula, slavery and the mindset underpinning the practice take center stage as Xanten pursues his mission on a sap-slurping power-wagon across the country.  Talking amongst the variety of classes and peoples inhabiting the land, he encounters perspectives that don’t always line up with Hagedorn’s view of propriety.  Drastic steps needed as the Meks draw closer, Vance’s solution to the slavery issue, while not exactly chiming with modern liberalism, is nevertheless practical.

In the end, The Last Castle is a superb novella from a Grandmaster of Fantasy (one of the few other awards Vance has won).  Available by itself in older publications, it is now included only in collections of short stories, or paired with Vance’s other highly successful novella, The Dragon Masters.  Fans won’t want to miss it, while those new to the author will find it a short and sweet introduction that exhibits the majority of Vance’s strengths.

Review of "The Dragon Masters" by Jack Vance

The Dragon Masters may be Vance’s most successful work of short fiction.  The novella playing out like a film or video game, the reason is clear.  Action, action, and more action, the story rocks to the smoke, blood, and battle of genetically modified dragons, their human masters, and a species of alien that has a surprise up their space-ship sleeve.  

The story is of Joaz Banthen, the wise and modest ruler of Banthen Valley.  Overseeing his land with aplomb, Joaz breeds dragons efficiently while ensuring the villagers have enough food, as well as a means of escape when danger comes.  The latter is needed as Ervis Carcolo, the ruler of nearby (ironically named) Happy Valley, spites everything Joaz does, and ultimately seeks to take over Banthen Valley and its dragons for his own.  Humans inhabiting the world for only a handful of generations, a species of alien patrol the neighboring galaxy and pop in to take slaves as needed.  Fighting off the malice of Carcolo’s on one side and the harvesting of humanity on the other, Joaz has his work cut out for him.

Action and entertainment taking center stage, thematically there is little to say about The Dragon Masters.  What can be said is that the hubris of working independently toward a goal common to all appears and reappears; Ervis is not the only one who refuses to join forces with Joaz to fight the aliens.  An underground group called the sacerdotes inhabit the land, secluding themselves, hoarding their secrets, and are unwilling to unite against their common foe.  Discussion futile, the smoke of battle drowns all.  

In the end, The Dragon Masters is full barrel Vance aimed at fun and entertainment.  The usual bits and pieces of moral and cultural insight exist, but are most often smothered by the carnage of Juggers, Termagants, Long-horned Murderers, Striding Monsters, and other genetically modified beasts duking it out in the valleys.  Like a boy in the sandbox with his collection of action figures, dragons, space ships, and ray guns, Vance fills the story with all manner of youthful imagination.  Short and sweet, the novella is recommended as light reading for Vance fans for this precise reason.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Review of "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy


Winner of the Pulitzer prize, Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 The Road is powerful storytelling.  Set in a post-apocalyptic America, the stark reality of the setting highlights the strength, love, and courage a father and son must sustain to not only stay alive, but remain true to each other in trying times. The mood dark and bleak like so many of McCarthy’s books, the speculative wasteland the duo cross only benefits from the author’s deft pen, striking harder at his thematic goals and telling a bittersweet story in the process.  

 The Road, like McCarthy’s prose, is simple but highly effective.  The earth having been engulfed in a catastrophe that killed the majority of people, it is the story of a never-named father and son as they make their way across the destroyed land.  Ashes swirling in the air, the two push their shopping cart of meager possessions down empty roads and highways, heading south where they believe a group is forming a new government.  Grueling to exhaustion, the pair spend their days with one eye over their shoulder wary of the evils that roam the land, the other on their stomachs trying to avoid starvation.  The father’s belief in family tested greater than any parent’s rightfully should, every ounce of strength is required if he and his son are to avoid the lawless gangs and find hope once again.

Like Margaret Atwood and her narrow view of genre fiction, McCarthy has likewise implied his dislike of The Road’s categorization as science fiction.  Naturally debatable, the fact remains that the novel’s setting is as post-apocalyptic as the sub-genre gets. Along with the imagery of falling ash and empty highways, the majority of people who survived the world-razing catastrophe are reduced to animal status, scrapping for food, shelter, and even companions.  Macabre remnants of mankind await in run-down homes, bands of bandits roam the land, and feverish eyes burn in the dark—all the scenes the boy and his father encounter poster material for the sub-genre.  

McCarthy’s claim/hope that The Road is not genre fiction is founded on the belief his book has less entertainment and more substance than such works as Stephen King’s The Stand or Max Brook’s World War Z.  And he’s right.  Theme burns a hole through the novel.  Fighting off bandits, scrounging for food, and staying warm, everything the man does is for the benefit of his son.  And it is precisely these sacrifices which press home the importance of parenthood and family in tones that any zombie apocalypse never could.  

In the end, The Road is one of the best sci-fi books of the new millennium and something every father should read in preparation for children.  Unsurprisingly overlooked by speculative fiction awards but lauded by literary pundits, McCarthy’s background as a writer of literary realism plays a strong role in imbuing the novel with simple but strong dialogue and descriptions that fully flesh out the otherwise post-apocalypse setting.  Fully in the vein of Walter J. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, George Stewart’s Earth Abides, even Camus’ The Plague, McCarthy’s novel, whether he wants to admit it or not, is science-fiction—literary sci-fi, that is—at its best.  Readers can only hope that other writers of realism take more dips into the genre.

(An afterword on the film: Hillcoat’s adaptation of McCarthy’s novel is amazing.  He remains faithful to the story throughout, including focus on characterization, plot development, bleak setting, and the overall atmosphere of desperation and despair driving those still alive in the haggard world.  Viggo Mortensen is solid as the father and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the son is promising in his big screen debut.  The novel is still better, but Hillcoat has nothing to be ashamed of in transcribing the story to the screen, the film well worth watching.)

Monday, July 23, 2012

Review of "The Crystal World" by J.G. Ballard


After finishing the J.G. Ballard’s 1966 The Crystal World, I went online in search of not only what other people thought of the story, but also to see if I’d missed any of the hidden meanings or symbolism that seemed to always be lurking just below the surface.  I found articles about its parallels to hallucinogenic drugs, reviews pointing out its apocalyptic overtones, essays on its psychological allegories to the sub-conscious, comparisons to Heart of Darkness—and all mentioned a dystopian thread running through the story.  I relate this because, while these elements do play on the surface playing with the mind, the undercurrent of the novel seemed something more bittersweet than just another Brave New World or a Gibson novel.  Wanting a better view, I re-read the book (at 176 pages, it’s quite easy), and much to my satisfaction, discovered something deeper.

The Crystal World is the story of the doctor Edward Sanders and a trip he takes to visit an ex-lover in the jungles of Matarre, Africa.  The novel opens with Sanders on a ferry, arriving at the port which leads upriver to the jungle town.  Almost immediately he notices things are not as they should be.  The streets are deserted, what few people who appear keep to themselves, and strange, crystallized flowers are for sale in the dark recesses and behind closed doors of shops and kiosks.  When a dead body turns up in the river having an arm likewise crystallized in jewels, Sanders heads straight to Matarre to discover the implications behind it all.  The port just a hint, what he discovers in the jungle town may be more than he’s prepared for.

The scenery of The Crystal World is at times breathtaking.  Ballard’s prose agile and descriptive, images from the story hang in the reader’s mind long after.  The alligators, lepers, homes, palaces, and chapels hidden in the jungle are all described in rich, sensual detail.  Moreover, the descriptions are amazingly never repeated, only echoed, despite that the motif remains relatively the same throughout.  As such, Ballard is able to create the most strangely beautiful of pictures in the mind’s eye; at once dazzling for the surreal feeling it sends tingling up the spine, at others haunting for the dark visage seeming to underlie it all.  

Near the outset of the book, Ballard makes mention of the Isle of the Dead.  Anyone who has seen the Bocklin paintings (or listened to Rachmaninov’s composition based on the painting, for that matter), knows that despite the overt nature of the title, a sense of life quietly permeates the dulled image.  The Crystal World, both in form and substance, is the same.  At quick glance, a brooding mood superimposes the scenes, but upon closer inspection, a positive energy subtly infuses the story that transcends the apocalyptic in favor of something more personal.  While it’s difficult to write further without giving away major plot points, suffice to say the decisions Sanders makes during his time in Matarre, while surreal in appearance, have real meaning for his spiritual and psychological health.  (If this is the first review of The Crystal World you have read, I highly recommend that if you are intrigued thus far, don’t read any other reviews.  Most spoil major points, some the whole plot, save the final moments.)

Along with the vividly realized setting, Ballard’s other method of expounding theme is symbolism embedded in character.  Some may disagree, however, Sanders is the only fully fleshed character in the novel.  The others who appear, the journalist Louise, the priest Balthus, the madman Ventres, and others, merely act as foils for Sanders’ actions and behavior.  Presenting choices, they come and go on emblematic rather than empathetic terms, hinting at Ballard’s intents in the process.  Characters are thus representative rather than emotive, distance rather than understanding needed while reading.

In the end, The Crystal World is a beautifully strange enigma that requires a bit of puzzling out.  With so many factors in play (time, space, life, death, and so on) the true nature of the story is open to a wide variety of interpretations.  Though the novel’s prose is precisely in line with Graham Greene’s, Ballard moves deeper into fantasy for its substance, a metaphysical tale of surreal proportions the result.  More literary than entertaining, the book comes recommended for those who appreciate vibrantly described settings, psychological puzzles, and storylines that reach at more than just telling a good yarn.  Like the Isle of the Dead, it has the power to both haunt and invoke a sense of wonder. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Review of "The Affirmation" by Christopher Priest

I’ve heard Christopher Priest’s 1981 novel The Affirmation described as regressive, an ouroboros eating its own tail, a Moeibus strip.  While there is undoubtedly an M.C. Escher quality to the book—a blurring of reality—the beginning and end are simply too different to form a contiguous whole reverting back on itself.  Opposite ends of a spectrum in fact, the appeal of the novel is immersing one’s self in the subjective reality Priest slowly unwraps and getting lost in the world of memories as a result.  

The true nature of The Affirmation requiring thought, the easy part is relaxing throughout the journey.  Priest patiently and precisely lays down the text—words like railroad ties on a Sunday train to the countrythe story moving effortlessly along.  Novel as art, the sublime prose lulls the reader into the deceivingly mundane story of Peter Sinclair.  Though seeming an ordinary man, a rash of bad luck forces him into a cottage in the country to rethink life.  His father’s death, a bad breakup, and being made redundant at his London job all combine to drive him into a retrospective of sorts, trying to discover what brought him to such an impasse.  The details of memory hazy, Sinclair decides to write his autobiography in the hope the words manifested on paper will clarify his problems.  Family, girlfriends, and lovers all converging as he writes, Sinclair’s real troubles only begin sitting down to the typewriter.

For those who enjoyed the Nolan brothers’ film Memento, The Affirmation will be a delight.  Limitations of the written word innately less imposing than film’s, Priest fully utilizes the novel form to examine the relationship between memory, the past, and reality.  One way in which he takes advantage is to use a plot device literati everywhere love: the text within a text.  Dangerously pretentious, Priest’s use of Sinclair’s autobiography as a tool to comment upon the human condition is brilliant and is every reason why the usage of the device is so highly rated.  In an intra-textual fashion not unlike Nabokov’s Pale Fire (though with less exotic language), Sinclair’s autobiography plays a key role in relating the theme of memory to the examination of character, proving Priest’s talents well founded.

That being said, the medium is the book’s only real fault.  Novels needing to be read in linear fashion, one sentence, one word, one letter at a time, that is, rather than viewed as a whole, the transition points of plot are raw and exposed, nothing any author can do to completely disguise them.  Priest doing the best with the tools at his disposal, there are nevertheless jumping off points in The Affirmation that a visual artist could easily blend into other parts of their image with few the wiser.  Without spoiling the major premise, suffice to say if the narrative had attempted to slip smoothly back and forth between the selected plot points—like merging red to purple to blue in a color wheel—the novel would have become abstract poetry.  Thankfully, Priest prioritized the transparency of his message and sided with clarity toward progressing the story.  The individual transition points may glare, but upon finishing the novel, the connect-the-dots form a meaningful picture.

In the end, The Affirmation is a cerebral read examining the subjectivity of existence in a manner defying categorization.  Despite being shelved alongside Priest’s other sci-fi work, genre presence is limited.  Existential in nature, the novel uses one or two tropes of Philip K. Dick, but thankfully none of his style; Priest’s prose is literary and a pleasure to relax into.  Like Robert Louis Stevenson, it is clean and smooth, the right word forever pulled out of the bag at the right time, the reader’s understanding both ex- and implicit as a result.  From the Yeat’s quote at the outset yearning for something more, to the Proust-like sobering conclusion, literary science fiction does not get much better than The Affirmation.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Review of "Veniss Underground" by Jeff Vandermeer


There are a few red lights that go off when reading an author’s first major published work.  A main character as an artist or Greek myth used for plot structure are signs that the next bus to Literary Pretense may be boarding, a mind fresh from English 101 behind the wheel.  Avoiding the trappings of these fragile motifs, Jeff Vandermeer’s debut novella—err, novel—Veniss Underground shows every sign of a writer who received the praise of his professors and is confident in his ability to put a fresh perspective on such well-worn tropes.  Thus, Nicholas may be a Living Artist (more later) and the framework of Veniss Underground based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the setting and imagery remain wholly original.  Scenery twisted like cyberpunk on acid, its details macabre to the bone—a surreal dream, Vandermeer seems poised to make a place for himself in fantasy of the 21st century.

Veniss Underground is a window of time in the lives of three characters: the twins Nicholas and Nicola, and Nicola’s ex-boyfriend, Shadrach.  A far-future, unnamed city—called Veniss by Nicholas—is the setting, and technology, including genetic and biological engineering, have permeated society to the point life is as pliable as putty.  Divided into three sections, the book begins with Nicholas and his despair that life in their post-revolution city will get better.  The despondency so acute, Nicholas gives up his career as a virtual artist and goes to work for the underworld persona Quin as a living artist—a bioneer, someone who genetically engineers creatures, animals, nightmares, dreams, and all manner of biological material between.  Her brother fading from society, Nicola goes looking for him, only to be swallowed by the same business.  Shadrach is the only one remaining and must do his best to find the two and solve the mystery of what Quin is doing in the underworld.  Life in the multiple levels below Veniss’s streets having had millennia to fester into the deepest, darkest nightmare the outcasts of humanity can make of it, Shadrach’s mission requires every ounce of fortitude he possesses to bring the mystery of the twin’s disappearance into the neon of day.  

The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in the bedrock of Veniss Underground, there is also a strong undercurrent of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness flowing beneath the story as Shadrach plunges ever deeper into the underworld.  The “Kurtz” he finds truly a twisted remnant of humanity, descending Vandermeer’s river is like entering a nightmare of the sub-conscious.  The prose is fluid and sharp along the journey, and the descriptions drip with some of the most phantasmagorical imagery fantasy has produced this century.  The smells of animals and garbage fill the streets, and visuals of oozing liquids and throbbing organs fill the void.  Like William Gibson, Vandermeer’s sparse tone cuts the scene open like a razor, letting the reader’s imagination wander excitedly through the scenes—the dystopia, the underworld, the nightmares, and most certainly the weird.  The animals Quin and his crew create (the Living Art) lend a circus touch the story, the reader having to fully suspend their belief when talking meerkats serve crab for dinner.  Be warned, Veniss Underground’s feet are not set in our reality.

The faults of the novel are a matter of taste.  More a fix-up of two short stories bookended by a throw-away intro and epilogue, never does the narrative expand into novel scope.  Nicholas’ story told in the third person, Nicola’s in the second person, and Shadrach’s once again in the third person, one wonders what Vandermeer was attempting to accomplish beyond experimenting with style.  Nothing is gained from Nicola’s part by having her dictate to the reader what you are doing.  That being said, nothing is lost, either.  Her jaunts through the Snow Crash-esque enclaves of Veniss are just as visually affecting as the third person description of Shadrach’s trip to the underground cathedral.  Again a matter of taste, certainly some readers will enjoy the change of pace and narrative distance separating the character sections.  Vivid imagery the heart of the novel, most will be able to forgive the rather shallow characterization that comes with.

In the end, Jeff Vandermeer’s debut, whether novel, novella, or fix-up, is an eye-catching piece of art written in savory prose that promises of great things to come.  With an almost ghoulish delight, his far-future, genetically displaced underworld of Veniss comes to life in terms Dante, Homer, even Dali never imagined (Vandermeer describes it as: “when beauty and horror could be synonymous”).  The character Quin highly reminiscent of Mr. Motley from Perdido Street Station (the idea of bio-alteration suffusing the novel in general), fans of Mieville will want to check out Veniss Underground.  Likewise, those willing to open their minds to an acid trip interpretation of a William Gibson visit to Hades may also want to have a go.  Not the first scratches of a recent English major graduate, Vandermeer’s first published work indicates a craftsman at work, and one readers on the modern fantasy scene will want to check out.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Review of "Martian Time-slip" by Philip K. Dick


His output hit or miss, it’s easy to be skeptical cracking open a book by Philip K. Dick.  The psychotic craziness of Dick’s personal life so often leaking into his writing, on more than one occasion his works feature plots and themes derailed by a chaos seemingly external to the text. In the rare moments Dick was able to focus his drug and paranoia fueled energies into a synergistic story, the sci-fi world benefited. Martian Time-slip, just falling shy of The Man in the High Castle or A Scanner Darkly, is one of these occasions.

The setting Mars thousands of years in the future, the red planet is experiencing its second wave of civilization.  The Bleekmen (Dick’s less than subtle name for Africans) are being pushed to the wastelands while those of European descent terraform the planet in capitalist fashion.  The main character is Jack Bohlen, a recovering schizophrenic electronics repairman (sound Dickian??) whose day to day life can only be described as quotidian.  Spiritually and morally grey, his dull love affairs do not prevent him from sympathizing with the Bleekmen, the group treated poorly by Union bosses like Arnie Kott.  The moderately sized cast revealed slowly, readers are eventually introduced to Bohlen’s bored wife, his uncle Leo the land speculator, Otto the salesman, and Steiner the suicidal importer whose autistic, perhaps schizophrenic son may hold the key to Kott’s plays for power as Mars develops one parcel of land at a time.

Unlike such novels as Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said that feature plots wandering digressively, Dick maintains focus throughout Martian Time-slip.  Though seeming to tread close to no-plot land on a couple of occasions, he never crosses the border.  The conclusion fully cohesive and satisfying, 1964 must have been a good year for Dick.  Making this statement all the more complimentary is the successful manner in which he experiments with the center of the book’s narrative.  Shifting viewpoints like building blocks (imagine an asterisk), the resulting narrative structure may look like an M.C. Escher creation, but is fully supportive of the story—a profitable gamble that pays dividends at the conclusion.  

Minor themes of Martian Time-slip include the treatment of disabled children, suicide, schizophrenia, and artificial intelligence (a la Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?)—all under the umbrella concept of colonial dystopia on Mars.  The main theme of the novel, however, is materialism (in the commercial sense) versus traditional ways of life, particularly Africans and their perennial philosophy.  Like our world, encounters between the development-minded colonists and the nomadic hunter-gatherer Bleekmen prove awkward and one-sided.  Though not in-depth, Dick weaves voodoo magic, time warps, and wisdom of the ancients into the novel’s satisfying conclusion, drawing in the ethnic concerns of his, and unfortunately still, our time.

In the end, Martian Time-slip is in the upper echelon of Dick novels.  The story well-conceived and presented, only typical Dickian complaints remain, e.g. poor prose, wacky anachronisms, etc.  These, however, can be overlooked given the strength of the thought provoking storytelling.  While stylistically perhaps most similar to Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, thematic content is, however, of a different mold.  Ethnic values and capitalist conceits often taking backseat roles in other Dick novels, they come to the forefront in Martian Time-slip.  The result is story featuring a dystopian Mars with many other elements Dick fans will enjoy, paranoid schizophrenia, sentient androids, and for good measure, a little voodoo…