Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Stars My Destination

      

             
             Before this book, I didn't have a high opinion of Alfred Bester. The one book I'd read by him, The Demolished Man, came highly-lauded, but failed to capture my attention, and between a plot I was sure I'd already read before and a narrative structure that fell apart with the protagonist, I just couldn't get into it. It had some great ideas, don't get me wrong, people have been using that "earworm beats telepathy" gimmick for well over the fifty years since the book initially came out. But other than some fantastic ideas, Bester was kind of just one of those people I didn't get. 

                        That was, of course, until I was suckered in again by two things. First, that Bester is one of the originators of the "New Wave" science fiction movement, a movement that tried to merge lit-fic with genre fiction with a lot of great success*. Second, that out of all the people who have told me about this book, only Ellis has ever told me anything bad about it, and even then, it was a matter of taste. We'll get to that matter further down the page. So, because I found a free full-text version (sadly without the weird typographical experimentation) and it had been recommended to me enough times, as well as being (along with Gravity's Rainbow, The Crying of Lot 49, and The Space Merchants among others) a kind of proto-cyberpunk book that kickstarted several genres and conventions now used today**. So, with nothing better to do, I sat down to read it, since it was easy enough to get my hands on and keep coming back to. 

                          And my verdict is, we need more books like The Stars My Destination. It's a whirlwind of science fiction, some interesting ideas about obsolete technology, and more than that, it's a fable about human potential the likes of which no one's managed to replicate. Buy this book. Buy it for your friends. Buy it for your neighbors. Buy it for your enemies, who knows, maybe they'll start to appreciate you more. Not reading The Stars My Destination, this strange cyberpunk/horror/soft-SF novel, is a great disservice. Even if you hate it, it at least deserves your attention for the time you'd take to read it. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Wolf in White Van

     
            

        Occasionally, a book will hit you right where you live, and this one did. I can't tell you how or why, because that would give the book away and I really want you all to read this. But I need to tell you why and how. So...okay. Back when I was around fourteen or fifteen, I very nearly had an accident. It was small, and it was something I didn't have to go to the hospital for, but I very nearly had an accident. I wasn't being very careful, and I didn't pay attention because I was angry at my parents, and I almost had an accident. I wish I could tell you more about the whys and wherefores of what was going on, but overall, this book hit me where I lived. And hard. Very hard. 

                   But back around the time I almost had an accident, another thing also happened. This was around the time that play by email games were really taking off all over the place. A lot of homes had high-speed internet for the first time, and this was just starting to become widespread. And I, isolated for the most part as I was save for a few interactions with friends and a school that partly hated my guts because I had no way of explaining what the hell was wrong with me and refused to grow up all the way, found a new outlet. A new safe space. A refuge. And, at the time, though I was driven out of my refuge by the simple fact that, as Depeche Mode said, "people are people" (and I had issues with social stuff. And grammar.), the idea of a refuge from reality stayed with me. But I could always disengage. Go back to being in the real world. Even if I didn't want to sometimes. 

                    Wolf in White Van is about the people who couldn't disengage. The people who went a little too far, the people for whom their refuge is all they have. The people who aren't as lucky to have that disengagement, the way I don't seem to some days. It's a novel about people with a hyperactive fantasy life, because reality is just far enough out of reach. And even more than that, it's about the irrational acts people commit sometimes because the world doesn't understand them, it's about the grief felt when these things happen. 

And it is brilliant.

More, as always, below.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Pollen



John Barleycorn must die...
                         

                           Allow me to discuss the nature of a series of books. A series is a very careful thing. Especially when escalation is involved. It's fine to do sequels for the books, or even have to break up one book into a trilogy. But when writing a volume that is something of the conclusion to the whole mess, there are two very specific guidelines: First, that the book actually make some kind of sense, and second, that it actually concludes things in proper order, not some incredibly hallucinatory sequences that make the whole thing feel like some kind of horrid sideshow where the main plot isn't ever involved. 

                             Now, as Pollen stands alone, it doesn't necessarily have to follow these two guidelines. In fact, it's entirely free from these two guidelines, because it takes an entirely new story in the same universe, with entirely new characters. But in following the escalation patterns on from Vurt and presenting a world where the bleed-through between reality and Vurtuality has reached critical mass, Pollen's job would be to explore the bleed-through and conclude with some kind of cohesion. Instead, in telling its story, it gets too into the hallucinatory nature of the events, completely ignoring a cohesive story at certain points for an abstract and kind of aggressive surreality, culminating in a game of hot-potato with a black beetle representing groundedness in reality, and something of an anticlimax. 

But there's more than enough rope Pollen is giving me. Why am I having trouble? 

More, as always, below.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Vurt

                 
"A young boy puts a feather in his mouth..."

                      I found this book at random, which, for some reason, makes sense. It just feels right that my first introduction to Jeff Noon would be at completely random, a completely accidental collision with the insane genius behind...well, Jeff Noon books, as Noon lacks a genre he can be pigeonholed into other than maybe, say, science fiction. And since at its core Vurt is about a bizarre, sometimes macabre, often tragic series of accidents, it makes sense that while looking for another book whose name was lost to me I somehow stumbled upon a brightly colored book. The book's spine read, in descending order, "JEFF NOON - VURT - Crown", and at first I thought it had to be a pen name. I also hadn't seen a book this brightly colored before. Intrigued, I took it to the desk, figuring if I was about to read something tawdry or mundane, at least it was tawdry, mundane, and trying to be interesting in some respect. 

                          By the time I was walking home, I'd opened the book and found...well, a bizarre mix of abstract visuals, Irvine Welsh-style grit, well-disguised gnosticism, slang, and the feeling that one has left an electronic dub soundtrack on and one does not know where. The first chapter alone whiplashed between mood, tone, and sometimes even genre at dizzying speeds. After that, the book swirled into a rabbit hole of horror, black comedy, and what's best described as "post-cyberpunk" if it could be pigeonholed into a genre at all. By a third of the way through the book, I found it weird but engaging. By two-thirds, bizarre and a little uncomfortable. And by the end? Well, I'll leave that up to you. Suffice it to say, the book may be ten shades of cracked-out-- and it is-- but it's well worth a read, and one of those books that I've wanted to own for years but simply haven't gotten the chance. I heartily recommend you own this book. In fact, if you don't have another tab open to Amazon looking for a good edition of this right now, I strongly suggest you do.

Why? Well, read on...


Monday, September 1, 2014

Nymphomation


                        It astonishes me that Jeff Noon has flown under the radar in this country for this long. His bizarre mix of post-cyberpunk, bio-punk, and hallucinatory fantasy is certainly unconventional in places, but in a genre fiction market where we've obsessed over victorian fantasy, zombies, vampires, and gritty medieval political fantasy for far too long, a voice like Noon's could be a breath of fresh air. If, that was, it wasn't drowned out by louder, more well-known voices. With his work, Jeff Noon creates brightly-colored and unsettlingly dark worlds that just border on assaulting the senses with colors, smells, sounds, and tastes. He layers these on top of bizarre crime stories about things that don't exist yet, like an illegal trade in hallucinogenic dimension-bending feathers or trying to hack a national lottery using black magic and unorthodox math. The result is a disorienting mix of weird visuals, strange plotlines, and despicable characters that comes together in something incredibly readable. 

                      And Nymphomation is easily the most accessible of his books, barring his tripped-out short story collection Pixel Juice, a strange mix of experimental stories. Its lack of jargon, more sympathetic cast, focused plot, and a more conventional, grounded approach to plotting than his free-associative works like Vurt and Pollen. But more than being just "most accessible", it's a well-written introduction to one of genre fiction's most criminally underrated authors. It's an odd look at cyber-culture that barely sets foot online. And, above all else, it is brilliant. It's twisted, unsettling in places, and flat-out wrong at times, but I've never read nothing else like it. 

More, as always, below.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

100 Bullets

     


          As many of you may have guessed, I'm a huge fan of crime epics. Most of my consumption is in the form of TV-- I'm a huge fan of The Wire due to its tight writing and its handling of characters, for example, and Boardwalk Empire for the same reason-- but I like the books and comics that deal with the form as well. A good, gritty crime story with a lot of characters and conflicting motivations slamming together at high speeds over a longer period of time than usual and I am hooked. Similarly, a good mystery with a slight edge that could be weirder than normal is another thing I'm a sucker for. 

             And a crime epic, as a form, is a much different animal than its mythological cousin. Where a mythological epic follows a group of people or a single faction in the overall events, a crime epic is a lot more overarching. The characters involved can be criminals, police officers, independent operators, or just about anywhere on the spectrum. Similarly, the crime epic's events don't always have to be as closely related. The idea in a crime epic is to show that everything has ripples and effects that move outward from the central premise, a series of wide-ranging and often tiny events that have huge consequences later on. While it can sometimes follow a central group, it prefers to examine all the elements of crime in various ways until it leads to a climax that, more often than not, is a question rather than a conclusive answer. 

            100 Bullets is, in this mode, fairly by-the-numbers. It examines criminals, cops, the upper class, the lower class, and everywhere in between. But the book's brilliant execution, bizarre underground-comics art style, and tight-as-a-drum writing push it above and beyond the usual crime books, a slowly-unfolding and sometimes grisly story of power and responsibility that is so markedly American and darkly, scathingly funny at points that it's well worth a read, and even a re-read. It's a story of what happens when power corrupts, and it deserves your attention*.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Lucifer

     
   

       I'm going to be honest, the first time I ever heard of Mike Carey was through his Felix Castor series of supernatural procedurals. Even then, I heard about the novels through an Amazon review that (like all Amazon reivews) vanished up its own ass in disparaging Richard Kadrey's exquisite Sandman Slim while singing his praises. It didn't give me a good impression of the Felix Castor books or their fans. I hadn't even heard that he'd written comics until two years later, when I suddenly discovered that in the vast recesses of my various collections, I happened to have a copy of the critically-acclaimed Hellblazer story All His Engines*, which, despite being bleak and nihilistic (and if you have a problem with bleak nihilism, don't read Hellblazer because unless it's written by Neil Gaiman and thus drunk and stoned off its ass**, this is all Hellblazer is.) was optimistic and very well-written. And then I'd heard he'd written an entire series about Lucifer, one of my favorite characters in Sandman due to his immensely sympathetic nature and status not as a villain, not as a hero, but as a character who could easily be each.

                            And, well, it was brilliant. The characters, even the villains, have at least some kind of motivation that's understandable. It weaves together several stories, and actually surprised me when I thought they were going to end poorly. Which isn't to say that there's a lot of winning-- it's a series about Satan, after all, his winning would mean some very odd things about existence and God-- but there are enough wins that it doesn't wind up in crushing despair. The series structures itself as a very odd epic poem, with the start of the arc being the creation of a new world, and the end being, well, I'm not going to spoil that in the opening paragraphs. Rest assured, you should read Lucifer. But why? Well, read on...