The Best Speculative Fiction of 2009
Paul Di Filippo
Critics and scholars have many takes on what constitutes "the best" of any particular field; here you'll find Di Filippo's two-part take on the best of the previous year's work, along with context for the various movements he discusses. An abbreviated version of the following review-commentaries appeared on page 42 of the May 2010 print issue of World Literature Today.
Here are a few characteristic, albeit somewhat tendentiously chosen facts about the year 1984, courtesy of the invaluable tagging function of Wikipedia.
Twenty-five years later, Reagan, the Soviet Union, and the Challenger craft and its final crew are all dead. The policies of the first two political entities named above have been, to greater or lesser degree, thoroughly discredited, while the obsolescent space shuttle program is almost fully phased out. The movies and albums cited, while perhaps still watchable and listenable, have spawned no recent progeny or movements, have not become touchstones, and look and sound positively antique.
But William Gibson is still writing, perhaps better than ever, with Neuromancer remaining in print and being taught in many schools. The movement Gibson helped create and publicize stands tall alongside a legacy of fulfilled prophecy and groundbreaking artistic achievement. The movement has been taken up by a new generation of writers, at least the third generation of cyberpunks, if not the fourth, and cyberpunk's tenets and styles, attitudes and tropes have been to a great extent absorbed into all science fiction as foundational material - futuristic wallpaper, if you will.
Cyberpunk's style and outlook continue to exert an extraliterary influence in the culture at large, even among those unfamiliar with the core texts. The landscape of 2009 has become to a large extent the same wired, information-saturated, absurdist, multicultural, hardscrabble future predicted in Neuromancer and other cyberpunk works. My very use of Wikipedia to launch this article is, in fact, a thoroughly Gibsonian moment.
Twenty-five years onward from Neuromancer, then, the worth, prescience, and general ambience of cyberpunk seem utterly well known and widely distributed. But what goes somewhat overlooked in this success is that almost all the original practitioners - including, if truth be told, the writer of this essay, whose name can be found among the anointed in the canonical Mirrorshades anthology - are still productive, having adapted their work to post-cyberpunk realities in both the literary marketplace and the culture at large.
Here, then, is a look at three recent offerings by first-generation cyberpunks.
* * *
John Shirley was always among the most politically engaged of cyberpunks, with a raw Huey Long urgency to his rock 'n' roll - infused jeremiads. His Eclipse Trilogy (1985 - 90) postulated a right-wing fascist takeover of Europe, a Thatcherist fate that seemed likely at the time. So it seems a trifle odd at first to find him concentrating of late on supernatural fantasy, a genre often characterized by an airy-fairy disconnectedness from realpolitik. But readers of his newest, Bleak History [Amazon|Powell's], will discover Shirley still raging against the machine. (Oddly enough, another first-gen cyberpunk, Richard Kadrey, has simultaneously ventured into this same territory with his novel Sandman Slim.)
The abusive power structure in this scenario is a U.S. government black-budget organization called Central Containment Authority. Central Containment knows a secret: that magic is real, a kind of unexplored physics. They wish to bring all magic users under government control, ostensibly to prevent any kind of supernatural Chernobyl. But a corrupt president and a pawned general, utilizing a day-after-tomorrow terrorist attack as an excuse, are more concerned with their megalomaniacal personal goals.
Our hero is Gabriel Bleak, member of the Shadow Community. As one of the most powerful wizards around, Bleak is being chased by the CCA. His reluctant but oftentimes lethal response assumes a personal dimension when he discovers that his long-lost brother, Sean, has been co-opted by the CCA. Will assistance both mystical and practical from government agent Loraine Sarikosca, Bleak's "soul mate," be enough to turn the tide in favor of the rogues? And how does a mysterious artifact buried at the North Pole tie in?
With its conspiracies and factions and secret histories, Shirley's novel partakes of a Pynchonesque vibe. That particular postmodernist was always a model for cyberpunk. Additionally, Shirley precisely fulfills the capsule description of cyberpunk - "low lifes and high tech" - if we accept his equation of "magic equals technology." He abets this view by couching the supernatural in cyber terms: "Familiars . . . are like a computer program, that we put out to run in the Hidden." And don't forget the precedent of the AI loas that inhabited Gibson's cyberspace.
Shirley's novel will ultimately remind readers of Mike Mignola's Hellboy mythos. Although not generally included in the main lineage of cyberpunk, Hellboy, who debuted in 1991, has always struck me as owing much of his literary genome to the cyberpunk vision, a kind of lateral descendant. So it's intriguing to see one of Hellboy's godfathers blithely and gracefully waltzing with that particular mutant offspring.
* * *
From the start of the cyberpunk movement, Rudy Rucker's fiction has focused on complexity and on speculative, cutting-edge strangeness. And on gonzo behavior and style. Can't forget that last essential. His early critical theorizing about the nature of cyberpunk emphasized its bandwidth and bold inclusivity: fat pipes filled with mucho weirdness. The intersection of Rucker's interests with the generic Blade Runner future would typically involve brain-eating robots or sex spheres from alternate dimensions. The motto of the mega-popular blog Boing-Boing (itself a cyberpunk affiliate of sorts), "A directory of wonderful things," might very well be applied to Rucker's fiction.
In the previous novel, Earth underwent a sea change known as Lazy Eight Day. Compacted dimensions of space-time became unfurled, giving humans godlike powers of telepathy and teleportation and matter control. Matter, moreover, became sentient - the new title is the defining adjective for this condition - with every atom and composite entity possessing at least a rudimentary mind, right up to Gaia, the supreme instantiation of the whole planet. Humanity now consists of post-scarcity slackers and those denialists who stubbornly pursue the old ways of living. Our heroes are husband-and-wife media stars Thuy and Jayjay, and Chu, the autistic savant child of friends. The three, with a little help from a transdimensional Hieronymus Bosch, will combat a dual alien invasion from the Peng and the Hrull, who are intent on colonizing our world.
Rucker's amiable, antic apocalypse is full of loose-limbed Beatnik / Firesign Theatre / Warner Brothers - cartoon goofiness. His rigorous extrapolation of quantum strangeness veers deeply into that territory identified by Arthur C. Clarke, where technology becomes magic, but Rucker plays square with the reader by imposing sharp boundaries of digital logic that encourage genuine narrative peril and suspense. His dialogue-heavy style lends a cinematic immediacy to the action. And just as cyberpunks were always happy to acknowledge ancestors such as Samuel Delany and Alfred Bester, so Rucker tips his hat to the comic genius of Robert Sheckley.
What's most energizing about the novel is how precisely it mirrors and valorizes our current condition. As all our revered and immemorial fiscal and cultural systems collapse about us, some of us stick our heads in the sand, but others creatively surf the chaos straight into the optimistic future SF has always held dearest.
* * *
Back in the day, we all called Bruce Sterling "Chairman Bruce." As chief ideological helmsman and theoretician of the cyberpunks, he juggled the cognitively dissonant tasks of enforcing the party line and simultaneously encouraging a thousand flowers of hip speculative fiction to bloom. He always handled the job with sardonic wit and ingenious prescriptions. Of course, his own artful prose and conceptual brilliance precisely exemplified just what needed to be done to drag science fiction kicking and screaming into the postmodern era.
Almost from his first published work, Sterling deployed a formidable, fully honed toolkit, which he continues to draw from down to the present. Assembling journalistic hot-button topics and bleeding-edge scientific research with an avant-gardist's sensibility and a historian's acumen, he manifested razor-sharp fictions that combined Heinlein-level verisimilitude with brain-boggling Big Ideas. If his characters sometimes seemed antiseptic - well, he's improved even on that deficiency, as any reader of his newest novel, The Caryatids [Amazon|Powell's], will swiftly observe. For underneath its scintillating, glittering futurist overlay, the book is all about character.
The caryatids are seven female clones of a criminal woman, a "Balkan Lady Macbeth" named Yelisaveta Mihajlovic. In the year 2065, only four clones survive: Biserka, Sonja, Mila, and Vera. Despite identical genomes, each woman boasts a unique personality: criminal, soldier, artist, worker. And it is through these four finely formed female filters that Sterling will shine a piercing light on his broken-backed future, a climate-disaster world where billions have died but where humanity's future is still full of glorious potential - if the species survives at all. Two rival globally distributed entities, the Dispensationists and the Acquis, as well as the last remaining nation-state, China, compete to impose their vision of proper living on the world, providing the impetus for a slambang thriller of a plot.
Sterling has imaginatively inhabited every finely polished inch of his subcreation, from the desert plains of Mongolia to a drowning, burning Los Angeles. His technological extrapolations are matched only by his sociological insights. His portrait of the caryatids is authentic and deep, serving as both anchor and sail for the vessel of his story.
Warm-hearted, big-spirited, grimly humorous, cynical yet hopeful, resembling Ursula Le Guin's famous "Nine Lives" retooled into a rap song by M.I.A., then condensed into a Twitter feed to amuse Somali pirates, Sterling's newest proves that when a cyberpunk is once truly plugged into the zeitgeist, the mere passage of twenty-five years does nothing to degrade his performance, relevance, or wisdom.
Before proceeding with this review, take a small quiz, if you would. Please link each of the two passages below with its correct source.
(1) "We are all philosophers where I am, and we debate among many other things the question of where it is that we live. . . . I live in the interstice."
(2) "[We] . . . already exist. We have pretty much always existed. But the growing Balkanization . . . is making it expedient - more than that, vital - for us to draw attention to ourselves. Those of us on [this] side of the border are not slipping through the cracks any more. We're falling into them and disappearing."
Your choices for the sources are:
(A) Delia Sherman's essay "An Introduction to Interstitial Arts: Life on the Border."
If you guessed 1-B and 2-A, good for you! You're obviously already hip to new movements in the literature of the fantastic, and have spotted the fact that Miéville's sixth novel functions (in a secondary, distinctly subtextual way) as a manifesto about - and exemplum of - interstitial, or "slipstream," fiction.
We'll take a look at that aspect of the book at the end, however, after we examine its pure narrative and imaginative triumphs - paramount virtues which are all that really matter to the average, story-loving reader, and without which no amount of clever allegory would carry the book.
The City and The City is a stand-alone tale, set outside the cosmos for which Miéville has received the most acclaim, his Bas-Lag universe. This earlier series illustrated - and in fact pretty much defined - the type of fiction known as "New Weird," a subgenre we looked at here some time ago.
Noted for its sense of radical estrangement and in-your-face bizarreness, the New Weird always faces a couple of hurdles in its conquest of the reader. First, too much oddity begins, paradoxically, to pall and seem stale. When all is odd, nothing is. Second, each bit of outrageousness demands to be topped, resulting in fiction that gets progressively louder and louder, within each book and from book to book inside the genre.
Interstitial fiction, however, is characterized by its heterotic promiscuity and salts its naturalism and verisimilitude with a calculated and unpredictable leavening of the unreal, producing a continually oscillating mix of homey and alien that is more subtle and insidious (but which also risks seeming wan and twee at its worst).
Luckily for the reader, Miéville's previous experience with the rigorous and exacting brutalism of the New Weird allows him to keep a steady hand on his interstitial tiller, so that he steers an undeviating and alluring course between the comfortingly familiar and the upsettingly strange.
The City and The City starts out as a Ruritanian police procedural (cue Avram Davidson's The Adventures of Doctor Eszterhazy). Somewhere in Middle Europe lies the city-state of Besźel - naturally not to be found on any map in your conventional atlas, although Besźel slots neatly into contemporary global affairs. Van Morrison made a tour not long ago, after all, and Canada and the United States send foreign aid and investors.
In these vividly echt-Mitteleuropan streets, we encounter our narrator and protagonist, Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. We watch as he starts to investigate the murder of an unidentified young woman with the help of his assistant, the spunky and occasionally abrasive and foul-mouthed Lizbyet Corwi. (Curiously enough, the affectionately thorny relationship between the two cops recalls that between Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim in Brian Bendis's Powers graphic novels, another interstitial outing.) Borlú faces the standard hurdles of cops on such cases: uncooperative witnesses, false leads, pig-headed bureaucrats and unsympathetic superiors, dangerous perps, nutcases and flakes, his own conflicted emotions. As police procedurals go, Miéville's venture is competent and engaging, but unexceptional.
Gradually, however, through subtle contextual allusions, avoiding entirely the dreaded infodump, the essential fantastical nature of the venue begins to assume coherent, startling, and dominating shape.
Besźel is overlaid in enigmatic, never fully explicated fashion by a sister-state, Ul Qoma, which possesses a distinctly different cultural and political setup. At some point millennia ago, the two states were one. But then came the inexplicable Cleavage, a climacteric both physical and mental. Ever since, the citizens of each "overlapping magisterium" (to contort Stephen Jay Gould's famous phrase about the separation of science and religion) are prohibited from interacting on a daily basis, even in the slightest fashion. From earliest youth, individuals in Besźel are taught to "unsee" any parallel structures and events and people in Ul Qoma. The citizens of Ul Qoma do likewise. Any accidental or deliberate interaction between the two realms is deemed "breach" and is punished severely by the near-omnipotent agency of that same name.
And as Borlú gets deeper into his investigation, which involves officially sanctioned travel to Ul Qoam, he finds that the woman's death threatens the entire ontological and epistemological underpinnings of the ancient system and also risks bringing breach down upon his head. Central to the mystery is an apocryphal third city, Orciny, which mythically lives in the interstices between Besźel and Ul Qoam.
Once the whole apparatus is made sufficiently comprehensible (although surprises continue to erupt right up until the end), Miéville juggles both the police procedural aspects and the fantastical aspects of his hybrid narrative with a deft vigor. Borlú's consciousness, steeped in this odd tradition of irritably tolerated self-hypnosis and self-deception, becomes as intimately familiar to the reader as his own, and serves as our passport to this strange realm. At the same time, the quotidian details of Borlú's work and life serve as a mimetic anchor to the reader.
In evoking this alien yet human mentality through sheer immersion, Miéville follows in the footsteps of such science-fictional greats as Robert Silverberg (A Time of Changes), Gene Wolfe (The Book of the New Sun), Samuel Delany (Return to Nevèrÿon quartet), and Jeffrey Ford (Well-Built City trilogy).
His deliberate employment of the twinned cities as a multivalent allegory for almost any polarity the reader cares to name - East and West; Muslim and Christian; religion and science; socialism and capitalism; feeling and logic; tradition and modernity - resonates with such metaphysically surreal and satirical authors as William Burroughs, Zoran ivković, and Rupert Thomson, specifically the latter's Divided Kingdom.
And Miéville's Phildickian messing with perceptions adds yet another layer to the cake.
To compact all this harmoniously into a single book, eschewing purity of any one genre, is the ambitious game plan of interstitial fiction in general. Given Miéville's role as a bold and inspirational bellwether in the field, his tacit endorsement of this mode, championed by Delia Sherman et al., is an intriguing move in both his personal career and the development of the field.
But note the harsh lessons for any authors conveyed by the subtext. Borlú experiences lack of support and comprehension from everyone around him, battles those who would deny his synthesis or his very right to propose such a merger, and in effect is completely broken down and deracinated before achieving his final transformation. Whew! That's a heavy cross for any interstitial aspirant to carry. But Miéville makes it all look as easy - and as dangerous - as committing breach.
The Birth of a Notion
The debut of any new publishing firm is a moment characterized by hope, promise, enthusiasm, hard work, and dreams of success. New ventures in the production and delivery of books, whether old-fashioned hardcopy volumes or newfangled electronic files, are to be celebrated as widenings of literature, opportunities for new genres, new authors, new visions. And when the first publication of an infant publisher is particularly bold and accomplished, then even more excitement is due.
Such is the case with Panverse Publishing and their initial offering, Panverse One [Amazon|Powell's] (2009). Panverse One is (a) an original anthology; (b) first in a series; and (c) composed of novellas only. With this bold and courageous tripartite assault on expectations and conventionality - short fiction doesn't sell, launch your enterprise with a novel, etc. - editor and publisher Dario Ciriello merits our applause.
That is, if the fiction itself is any good.
Which it most certainly is.
But before looking at the five stories herein, let's take a moment to focus on the gorgeous cover by newcomer Vitaly S. Alexius. Only twenty-six years old, Alexius already possesses a unique style and technical mastery that should ensure him a long career.
The first entry in the anthology is "Waking the City," by Andrew Tisbert. This post-apocalypse story reads like some oneiric combo of Andre Norton, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Rudy Rucker, and A. E. van Vogt. In a hostile jungle that exhibits a group consciousness, humans sustain a precarious existence. They dream of reentering the last city of mankind, a mysterious redoubt to be made accessible by breeding up an avatar with certain mental powers. The young boy named Kuyo, our narrator, seems to be that scion. His adventures in search of his abducted lover, Liana, resonate both with John and Joseph Campbell.
Since Uncle River's story "Shiva Not Dancing" is partially concerned with the touchy subject of water rights in the American Southwest, it's tempting for the reviewer to say that the whole novella is a case of "still waters running deep." Uncle River's preferred storytelling technique is one of surface calm belying psychic turmoil and deep significance below. His tales are seldom filled with conventional pyrotechnics or Big Moments. Instead, they are closely observed slabs of life, three-dimensional and rich. In this instance, a woman named Elissa Maas, meditator at a "pagan" temple, crosses paths with an earnest young scientist, a greedy land speculator, a spoiled teen, a right-wing preacher, and a host of other well-drawn characters over the course of several months of sweetly and ironically depicted American life. The ultimate destinies of the characters are warped and altered by their interactions, but the real pleasures are in the journey.
Combine the lives of the famous Brontë sisters - and brother Bramwell - with Jerome Bixby's creepy tale "It's a Good Life!", then add a dash of the film Heavenly Creatures, along with a splatter of Philip Jose Farmer, and you might come up with something resembling Alan Smale's "Delusion's Song." In this gothic extravaganza, the British village of Haworth is translated to a strange milieu, where the subconscious roilings of the Brontës begin to churn the fabric of reality. Smale works cleverly in a manner akin to that of Rhys Hughes, and succeeds in building an odd landscape that mirrors our world in useful and entertaining ways.
Although Reggie Lutz chooses to christen her offering with the semi-ignoble title of "Fork You," the story itself is a splendid blend of comedy, pathos, and hillbilly shambolic fantasy. A feral child named Gladiola is adopted by a clan of inbred country folk, the Johnsons, and becomes a cat's-paw in a centuries-old feud. If Jeff Ford and Andy Duncan chose to rewrite Avram Davidson's "The House the Blakeneys Built," the result might resemble this compellingly oddball rural fable.
Finally, we get an exercise in one of SF's "power chords," the Big Dumb Object. Jason K. Chapman, in "The Singers of Rhodes," postulates an alien space station big enough to house a couple of million souls or so. Seemingly empty upon discovery by several rival human groups, its interstices are filled with what seem to be mere ET "rats," but which prove to be much more. Not neglecting the essential human drama, Chapman stages a stirring tale of reconciliation and self-discovery, with plenty of sense-of-wonder as well.
Editor Ciriello's broad and discerning tastes portend well for future volumes - and for Panverse Publishing as a whole.
A Fortress Around SF's Heart
Another optimistic soul: Warren Lapine, recently in the news for saving Realms of Fantasy magazine from extinction, has founded Fantastic Books as an imprint of his parent firm, Wilder Publications. The remit of Fantastic Books - guided in part by the capable and knowledgeable Marty Halpern, of Golden Gryphon repute - is to make worthwhile out-of-print SF available once more. As of this writing, their website features ten pages of titles, some of which are bound to appeal to readers of Asimov's. One novel that I am almost certain will retain its appeal is James Gunn's This Fortress World [Amazon|Powell's].
Originally issued in 1955, this book marked the start of Gunn's long and prestigious career. The author was thirty-two years old at the time, having served in World War II, and the book reflects a certain maturity, despair, and worldly savvy based on the veteran circumstances of the writer.
This Fortress World is pure noir. It stands shoulder to shoulder with contemporary paperback originals by John D. MacDonald, Bruno Fischer, Guy Brewer, and David Dodge. The book just happens to take place in a lively, convincing, and non-negligible SF milieu.
Now, too often people think "noir" means simply "stories involving private detectives." But this is not the case, and there is no detective character in Gunn's book, although there is certainly a mystery of galactic import. Rather, noir is the portrayal of corruption, decadence, betrayal, selfishness, avarice, and shortsightedness. It's about power and the abuse of power. Gunn's work fits this description perfectly.
The Second Empire of our galaxy has collapsed long ago, leaving interstellar traffic of a reduced nature among isolated "fortress worlds" whose rulers foster ignorance and xenophobia among the rabble. On one such, Brancusi, Will Dane is an acolyte in the ruling church. One day, an object that could crack open the stasis of the fortress worlds falls into his hands. His life becomes instant hell.
Gunn sets Dane on the run almost immediately, and he never stops running for the duration of the story. He is propelled from one catastrophe to another, a string of defeats climaxing in an ultimate bitter victory. He always survives by sheer will and force of character, although his character is not of the best. He brutally kills friends and enemies alike, and conceives a prejudicial attitude toward the one woman who loves him, for reasons of inbred social convention. Gunn employs the pulp technique of a constant stream of cliffhangers and setbacks magnificently, creating a kind of harried, fox-running-from-the-hounds atmosphere that keeps the reader tense and in suspense. The first-person narration supplements the violent action with philosophical and societal speculations, couched in a black, emotional ambience. Gunn's prose is a kind of brute proletarian poetry.
The symbolical usage of the fortress motif is splendidly done as well. The sheltered, callous, brain-numbed lives of the citizenry are depicted in terms of a protective, self-devised fortress around each individual's heart. Even such a minor incident as Dane being stripped naked is milked for its allegorical value, with Dane referring to his lost clothing as a kind of everyday fortress.
In a foreword, Gunn speaks of his motivation to write a kind of anti-epic, counter-space opera. He succeeded 100 percent. The book is a refutation of the glory of empire building, offering a from-the-gutter perspective on humanity's overweening ambition and lack of compassion.
Gunn also mentions that his first novel received scant attention in the SF world - perhaps because it was indeed too overwhelmingly against the romantic, utopian, goodness-triumphant impulses of the genre. Given this apparent lack of influence, it's hard to say that the book should be seen as a pivotal forerunner to much of what was to come. Yet one can retroactively detect in This Fortress World everything from Bester's Gully Foyle, to some of Algis Budry's early stories, to Laumer and Brown's Earthblood, to the work of Delany and George Martin, to cyberpunk, and down to M. John Harrison's postmodern space operas. Even if these later authors never knew of the Gunn book, its presence, one likes to imagine, was a kind of psychic node in the field, radiating out waves of change.
And now, thanks to Fantastic Books, a whole new generation of readers gets a chance to appreciate Gunn's neglected minor masterpiece.
Live Long, and Prospero
The debut of an individual novel is fraught in a similar fashion to the birth of a new publisher, although on a smaller scale, impacting fewer people. But to the one person most affected - the author - such an event looms just as large. So it's pleasant for me to report that L. Jagi Lamplighter (who in another incarnation is married to the accomplished SF writer John C. Wright) has distinguished herself with the appearance of Prospero Lost [Amazon|Powell's] (Tor, 2009), the first book in a trilogy to be continued with Prospero in Hell and Prospero Regained.
Lamplighter's premise is disarmingly simple, yet full of narrative potential: Shakespeare's play The Tempest represents a mostly factual account of real wizardry and historical personages. Now, longtime readers might recall a similar riff in Poul Anderson's A Midsummer's Tempest (1974). However, that novel was much more deracinating and estranging, insofar as it postulated an entire timeline where Shakespeare was the "Great Historian."
In Lamplighter's scenario, The Tempest slots neatly into our familiar world as a bit of secret history with implications down to the present, creating a ripe field for urban fantasy. Because Prospero and his children - yes, children plural: Miranda has six brothers and a sister now - are immortal, and walking among us in the twenty-first century. Not merely walking, mind you, but pulling arcane levers of the physical world, to govern such global matters as climate change and in fact the very nature of physics itself. With spirits from the vasty deep at their command, they are the secret masters and/or guardians of our species.
But even such demiurges are not immune to predators. Our story opens with a bang, as Prospero goes missing and Miranda is attacked by supernatural beasties unleashed by her own father's misguided experiments. Her only recourse for survival appears to lie in reassembling her bickering, far-scattered siblings into a cohesive family again.
This "Get the Band Back Together" motif is a potent one that allows for lots of globetrotting across different exotic and intriguing venues. Lamplighter exploits the possibilities very well, hustling Miranda and her assistant spirit Mab (the sprite in this case being housed in the artificial body of a male who looks like a stereotypical 1940s private eye) from New England to the Caribbean and beyond. Lamplighter nicely alternates heavy-duty action scenes with more contemplative and discursive ones. She's particularly good at filling in the Prospero family's backstory in both explicit and implicit ways so that the reader feels the weight of their history and long lives. Her dialogue is crisp and effective, ranging from humorous to touching. And the Prospero kids we do meet are all delineated in distinctive fashion, sharing a familial aura yet distinct from each other.
My two quibbles are these: we don't get to meet the entire family in volume 1, thus preventing us from grokking and assessing the crucial family dynamics in their entirety. If I recall my Nine Princes in Amber (1970) correctly (and that book is an obvious template for Lamplighter), we got to meet all the major players by novel's end, despite future surprises. Second, I felt that once in a while the book's fantasy elements drift from genuinely awesome to animation-cute. I can hear echoes of the bickering cast of Shrek (2001), for instance, in certain scenes, the dynamics among the characters, and that detracts from Lamplighter's otherwise original conceits.
I can hardly pretend that the following text will constitute an impartial review. But on the other hand, I am sincerely not wasting your time by touting work of dubious merit for personal gain. The book in question, by a world-acknowledged master, is a beautiful achievement well worth your precious dollar. You will not be disappointed.
The volume under discussion is American Surreal [Amazon|Powell's] (Last Gasp, 2009), the latest compilation of recent paintings by Todd Schorr. I have been lucky enough to have Todd's fantabulous artwork appear on the covers of two of my books. I wrote the text for his last coffee-table opus, Dreamland (2004). And I consider the artist and his equally talented wife, Kathy Staico Schorr, to be my pals. But all this does not bias my perception of his paintings as magnificent canvases stuffed to the brim with fantastical touchstones of our favorite literature and cinema. Their objective glory outshines simple friendship.
First, though, let us speak of publishing production values. Last Gasp has delivered a book some fifteen by ten inches big, so that Todd's artwork can receive at least some of the resolution it demands. The biggest canvases he works on are some six by eight feet or larger. (On the other hand, some paintings in this volume are reproduced life-sized.) Heavy stock and gorgeous, chromatically vibrant printing allows these reproductions to convey a significant portion of the majesty of the originals.
Todd's work, a fantasia of popular culture filtered through Boschian dynamics, has never been stronger, in both its conceptual audacity and rigor, and in sheer technique. His combination of classical virtuoso brushwork and postmodern pop motifs, all cemented together by surreal logic and allegorical heft, produces art that is both timeless and of the moment. At the center of this rich volume are two huge projects: A Pirate's Treasure Dream and Ape Worship. Both depict overwhelming panoramic narratives that are at once personal and universal. These paintings boast fractal depths that reward minute scrutiny.
Todd's text detailing the history and methodology of these works, as well as a fine general assessment by scholar Susan Landauer, add prose icing to this sumptuous cake of "lowbrow cartoon realism."
The Other Side of Several Worlds
Do you know the name of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya? Don't feel bad if you are ignorant of her byline. I, too, was similarly benighted, until I received a copy of her story collection with the lengthy title There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby [Amazon|Powell's] (Penguin, 2009). This appearance of her fiction is certainly the most prominent showcase of her work in the United States to date, after decades of nonexposure, and thus we all remain nonculpable in our ignorance. But not henceforth. Because this little volume introduces a unique and essential voice in fantastika, akin to a blend of Margo Lanagan with Zoran ivković, with which you must become intimate at once.
In their introduction, Petrushevskaya's deft translators, Keith Gessen and Anna Summers, hail her as perhaps the best-known fiction writer currently working in Russia. But Petrushevskaya is no spring chicken, as she was born in 1938. Yet for many years she was silenced by the Soviets, who found her surreal fables and allegories too threatening, thus partially explaining her low profile abroad.
Although the editors divide her stories into several categories - "Songs of the Eastern Slavs," "Allegories," "Requiems," and "Fairy Tales" - Petrushevskaya's work possesses a unity of vision. She depicts the hidden backside of our reality, where the border between death and life is permeable, identities flow and shift and meld, and apocalypses are difficult to distinguish from quotidian existence.
In "Hygiene," a mysterious plague leaves its victims as black mounds of corruption, while those who survive possess "a bald scalp covered with the thinnest layer of pink skin, like the foam atop boiling milk." In "The Fountain House," a father endures dream perils to resurrect his dead daughter. "The Cabbage-Patch Mother" owns a Thumbelina-style daughter who lives in a matchbox. And in "Marilena's Secret," two separate women are magically blended into a single giantess, "a girl-mountain . . . with a chest like a big pillow, a back like a blow-up mattress, and a stomach like a bag of potatoes."
You might be able to tell from the tiny samples of Petrushevskaya's prose I've given that her work exhibits a sly gravitas, a homely poetry that is never show-offy, but always in service to the tale and its beauty. She reminds me sometimes of Isaac Bashevis Singer in that regard, as well as in her affection for the daily rituals and routines of her protagonists. Reading the stories here that are set in a recognizable Russia (others occur in timeless, far-off lands), one gets a poignant portrait of the endurance and despair of that nation's oft-beleaguered citizens.
Heir to Kafka and the Brothers Grimm, Petrushevskaya also aligns herself with the great modernist writers of fantastika, and thereby makes herself one of our genre family.
I would imagine that for any writer to be repeatedly referenced in public as the last, best hope of the future of genre fiction must feel like an extremely heavy and wearisome burden to carry - rather like the alluringly poisoned mantle worn by Barack Obama right up to his actual election. The sensations experienced by the unfortunate icon are probably a mix of those of Shakespeare's King Henry IV in his speech that culminates with the line "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown," and those of the clichéd veteran gunslinger constantly watching over his shoulder for an even Younger Hombre ready to challenge him.
Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem have both undergone this unasked-for savior treatment with regard to mainstream/slipstream literature - to the point where they were parodied in comic strip form as the only superheroes who could rescue the fair maiden fiction from extinction. But contemporary fiction is so sprawling and diffuse that there are always additional foci of hope, and a Dave Eggers or a Zadie Smith can be summoned by signal-watch to share the duties, acting as a kind of Justice League of Literature.
In science fiction, however, the pool of hip, youthful, happening, fresh-eyed, keen-witted, media-savvy, broad-shouldered, accomplished, extroverted and talented writers, blending both revolution and tradition in just the right proportions, is noticeably shallow at the moment. There's Neal Stephenson, but he's rather too distant and hermetic, with a low profile and unfathomable, mutating goals. So these days, when pundits and fans alarmed over the prospect of SF's demise want to point to a knight in shining prose who can defeat all the dragons besetting the genre and guide it to the Shining City on the Hill, they invariably point to Cory Doctorow.
Not that Doctorow's commandeering of the spotlight is due only to the absence of rivals from the stage. He'd stand out even if suitable candidates were thronged thick as locusts: he's that good. And despite all the generally unsolicited attention and hype and expectations, Doctorow remains, to all outward appearances, an optimistic, sanguine, hyperactive, enthusiastic, altruistic, whimsical whirlwind of creativity. This is, after all, a man who, with rock star audacity, chose to name his firstborn child "Poesy Emmeline Fibonacci Nautilus Taylor Doctorow."
It's enough to make you think he really is the Chosen One.
Doctorow's new novel, Makers [Amazon|Powell's], will certainly confirm his high standing in the forefront of a fresh school of science fiction that is attempting simultaneously to honor the long lineage of its speculative ancestors and to reclothe all the old tropes in ultramodern dress, tossing out shabby conceits and shopworn attitudes.
Unlike Michael Chabon or Jonathan Lethem, who express a reverence for pulp and pop culture that extends only to its classiest elements - homages to Philip K. Dick are fine, but any reference to A. E. van Vogt, a predecessor whom Dick admired and learned from, is considered déclassé - Doctorow unabashedly embraces the totality of science fiction, working hard to extricate its core storytelling virtues, predictive techniques, and accumulated wisdom from the garish debris of lazy hacks that encumber the medium's ability to offer a clear and interesting vision of the future.
Symbolically befitting its subject matter, Makers incorporates bits and pieces from almost every era of SF's history into its innovative bricolage, along with a journalistic topicality and trendiness. The result is a synthesis that is at once traditional and revolutionary, an upgrade or rebirth of the genre that still leaves the product recognizable yet improved. But before identifying some of the historical components of this sparkling new machine, a précis of its plot.
The time is the day after tomorrow. America's economy is in shambles, hollowed out, leaving millions in poverty and homeless. Suzanne Church is a feisty, middle-aged journalist who pokes around in odd corners of the cultural wreckage. At the behest of eccentric millionaire Landon "Kettlebelly" Kettlewell, she takes on the assignment of covering two young genius "makers" in their Florida favela: Perry Gibbons and Lester Banks. Before you can say "venture capitalist," Perry and Lester, bankrolled by Kettlewell, have radicalized 20 percent of the faltering U.S. economy with a paradigm called "New Work." But even their best efforts can't stem the domino cascade of global failures, and their enterprise collapses.
Several years pass, with the principals of the New Work all scattered. But the gang gets back together again around the nucleus of a strange kind of amusement-park ride invented by Perry and Lester, a ride that conveys a subliminal story of the zeitgeist to tourists. But because the successful, quickly franchised ride incidentally incorporates bits of proprietary Disney merch, the tinkerers end up against Uncle Walt's corporate behemoth, in the form of nasty Sammy Page, VP for Fantasyland. The realpolitik, culture-jammer war that follows culminates in unexpected fashion, and a coda, set some fifteen years later, wraps up emotional loose ends.
The armature on which these events are soldered is an amalgam of so many essential SF touchstones, here presented in historical order.
The utopianism is pure H. G. Wells, while the scattershot myriad-ideas-per-page is all Hugo Gernsback. Suzanne's descent from privilege into the shabby world of the oppressed workers summons up silent scenes from Metropolis. From the pulp era, John Campbell's Arcot, Morey and Wade, peerless breadboarding, scrapheap-searching inventors, salute Perry and Lester with a wink. (This "bromantic" motif finds expression in the current work of Rudy Rucker as well, a figure allied to Doctorow's sensibilities.) Meanwhile, Doc Savage and his merry band of variegated followers applaud the similar familial vibe that the tribe of makers exudes.
Of course, Robert Heinlein sits Buddha-like at the core of this novel, as he does of all SF, even that which protests and denies his influence. His famous "competent man" archetype has actually been fractionated here: Perry and Lester possess the technical smarts, but are naïve otherwise; Suzanne sports the media, social-engineering chops; and Kettlewell boasts the financial acumen. (It should be noted that "Kettle Belly Baldwin" was an actual Heinlein character, found in "Gulf," 1949, and Friday, 1982.) Damon Knight's A for Anything (1959) deals with some of the same issues of social upheaval via distributed means of production found here, and the insidious animatronic toys in Dick's short-story "War Game" are evoked almost specifically in Doctorow's "Disney in a Box" gimmick. William Gibson's cyberpunk maxim that "The street finds its own uses for things" embodies the maker ethos as pithily as any formulation. Finally, some of Vernor Vinge's succinct futurism found in his novel Rainbows End (2006) seems inspirational as well.
But to adduce the usage of all these templates and models is not to diminish Doctorow's insights and originality and skillful handling of his material. He has simply adapted these older SF tools and tropes to an insightful exegesis of our current dilemma, a highly entertaining fictional modeling of a path forward from our current sociopolitical, cultural impasse. To have generated the deep insights into our dilemma and then found clever ways of dramatizing his findings is Doctorow's unassailable accomplishment.
I found Doctorow's characters to be a well-fleshed assortment of folks and their interactions plausibly nonlinear, although they do all possess an identical fluidity of gab that seldom leaves them wordless. He has an empathy for Kerouackian actors, "the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, etc., etc." Makers=techno-beatniks is an easy, albeit facile equation. And indeed, the epilogue that reunites Perry and Lester proves surprisingly touching. Doctorow's overstuffed plot never leaves the reader buffing her nails. His prose is always colorful and humorous. In fact, his sense of the comic and a propensity for satire are two of his secret weapons that seduce the reader into falling easily into this future.
In the end, Makers feels like a personal, cultural, and literary milestone: "This is my best portrayal of the way the world actually works, employing the full SF toolbox as it should be used."
If only every genre author set out with the same high ambitions, there would be no talk of SF's failures, only triumphs.
Of all the hot-button topics that SF can address, religion surely has to be Number One. Consider Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) or James Blish's A Case of Conscience (1958) as examples of provocative thought experiments about God and the afterlife. Then add Nancy Kress's latest, Steal Across the Sky [Amazon|Powell's], to that honor roll of theologically explosive novels.
Kress starts with a simple yet deep premise and then unfurls it to a wide, enigmatic banner. An alien race calling itself the Atoners arrives at Earth in the year 2020. (In a clever conceit, First Contact is achieved through a website!) They ask for volunteers to visit a variety of planets on which reside our human cousins, "kidnapped" and relocated by the Atoners themselves ten thousand years ago. The Terran volunteers have one mission: to witness some specific wrongfulness inflicted millennia ago upon the human race. When this knowledge is finally gained, it proves to be sheer dynamite. I won't give away the surprise, except to say that the revelation regards the human soul.
So much for part 1 of the book, which resembles a kind of Man Who Fell to Earth (1963) in reverse, or perhaps the anthropologically inclined novels of Michael Bishop and Ursula K. Le Guin, or even Gardner Dozois's Strangers (1978): a grim catalog of cultural misunderstandings, culminating in a shocking truth.
Part 2 documents the chaotic, paradigm-shattering effects the discovery has on human civilization - and on the private lives of the Witnesses who returned. Kress employs a clever "multimedia" approach, shifting among character POVs and fake "documents," to create a dazzling patchwork impression of global upheaval.
In the end, the ultimate nature of the revelation is left in some doubt, as is the future of humanity. But the lesson remains: contact with the larger universe is bound to expose us to concepts our puny human brains are almost unable to process.
Providence, Rhode Island
Editorial note: Earlier versions of these reviews first appeared in the Barnes & Noble Review, May - December 2009, and SCI FI Wire, February 2009.