Thursday, February 18, 2016

Speculiction on two-week vacation...

To you, the faithful thimbleful who regularly visit my blog, I will be away for two weeks in Thailand.  Those things resembling reviews will re-commence when I return, and perhaps a few photos of the country...

Review of At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson

Encountering Kij Johnson’s short fiction as it pops up in a year’s best or in the random anthology, here in a magazine and there on Clarkesworld, one never knows which face will appear.  One sharply literary, the associated works have abstract poetic dimensions that dissolve into images and ideas connecting in the mind even if they seem to defy comprehension on paper.  The other face is one more traditional and charming; a classic storyteller cognizant of tone resides within Johnson.  Poetic and charming a vibrant pair of ideas in themselves, her 2012 collection At the Mouth of the River of Bees (2012) exemplifies these qualities, and as I was to discover, additional faces.

Johnson’s poetic face is best captured in the story opening the collection, “26 Monkeys, and the Abyss.”  Lurking behind an obtuse little tale of a woman who buys into a traveling monkey show are the personal issues she is dealing with in real life, just visible off-screen.  Showcasing the fact genre authors can indeed produce quality, literary material, spec fic at short length hasn’t come much better.  “Story Kit” adheres more literally to the title than one might expect.  Opening with Damon Knight’s six story types, Johnson examines, in prosaic fashion, the elements that go into writing via references to Greek tragedy and contemporary, though unnamed, fiction.  Seeming to evolve into a narrative more personal than universal, the (meta-) story can also be read as a feminist text for Johnson’s goals and struggles with pen in hand.  A post-modern, abstract gem, it will not be enjoyed by all precisely for those reasons. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Review of A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar

Reading the premise of Lavie Tidhar’s 2014 A Man Lies Dreaming, several questions immediately popped into mind.  Didn’t Tidhar already play literary games with a pulp private eye in Osama?  Is he just hoping to cash in again on the same idea? Moreover, didn’t Norman Spinrad already write an alternate history wherein Hitler was a pulp writer in The Iron Dream? And didn’t Brian Aldiss already have a discussion with Hitler in London in “Swastika!”?  Is Tidhar’s novel really going to be such an original work? 

I’ve since finished the novel, and my answers to those questions are… ambiguous.  Indeed both Spinrad and Tidhar’s novels are alternate histories wherein Hitler never had the chance to form the Nazi party or take power in Germany, and instead became involved in pulp fiction.  But where Hitler was the writer of pulp fiction in The Iron Dream, he is a character in pulp fiction in A Man Lies Dreaming.  Wish fulfillment, in other words, is in the hands of the fictional author in Spinrad’s novel, and in the hands of the real author in Tidhar’s.  Headed in different directions, Spinrad achieves historical and social commentary while Tidhar gets revenge on one of the most infamous historical figures known (yes, in the same vein as Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds).

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Review of Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

I have come to realize Guy Gavriel Kay is the sneakiest, sliest, deadliest writer of fantasy on the market today.  Oily smooth prose the primary weapon, he tells fascinating mytho-operatic tales from ages past.  The dagger of bittersweet drama his killing blow, the reader is entranced before they have a chance to realize their politically correct toes have been stepped on.  Silently from the shadows, 2011’s Under Heaven displays the fine degree to which Kay has perfected the art of killing.

Like the majority of Kay’s fiction, Under Heaven uses the details of real-world history as its backdrop.  Changing the names to protect the innocent, Under Heaven uses Tang Dynasty China, particularly the An-Shi Rebellion, rendered as the Kitai and An-Li Rebellion respectively, as its story analog.  An event that overturned the greatest civilization the world had seen, the drama started at the top and affected everyone to the bottom, millions uprooted or killed, including the emperor.  Under Heaven, while skipping the bottom, contains all of the tragedy and drama of the Rebellion’s unraveling in tragic, fantastical form.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Review of The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard

Pablo Picasso had his “blue period,” Max Ernst his “American years,” and Georgia O’Keeffe her later “door-in-adobe” phase.  For J.G. Ballard, the early part of his career could be called his “psychological catastrophe years.”  Using environmental disaster as a doorway to viewing minds under duress, novels like The Drowned World, The Drought, and The Crystal World unpacked the underlying subject matter.  For the next phase of his career, Ballard moved into the world of celebrity, media, violence, sexuality, and how they distort and are distorted by reality.  Like any good artist, Ballard produced preliminary sketches prior to delving into the longer length works of Crash, Concrete Island, and High-Rise.  Arguably as experimental as literature can be, this initial feeling-out of mass media’s effect on the individual is 1970’s The Atrocity Exhibition.

A collage of Marilyn Monroe, fast cars, Vietnam War imagery, pornography, and numerous other symbols of the 60s shredded into bits and pasted randomly back together, The Atrocity Exhibition is as much art as literature. Presentation literally mimicking a gallery exhibition (i.e. the ability to walk in and let your gaze fall where it will), readers looking for traditional storytelling should run.  Like a later novel The Unlimited Dream Company, Ballard presents the same variety of images, symbols, and conceptions from different angles, forcing the reader to take a step back to view the larger whole.  There are thus recurring characters, but it is not their story, rather the multi-perspective view to their experiences which address Ballard’s concerns.

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.