Pursuit Across the Panoply
Of course you know the work of Ian McDonald: big, complex, award-winning novels full of dense multicultural, near-future speculation. River of Gods, The Dervish House, that kind of thing. Deep and serious, deliberately slow-paced. Oh, what’s that you say? His newest one is out? Ho-hum, what’s it about this time? Iceland in 2035? Indonesia in 2050? Italy in 2079?
How about a sleek, swift, adventure with a young protagonist, set in modern-day London and then expanding out across a Keith-Laumer-Imperium-style multiverse, and it’s the first in a series.
Gotcha! That’ll teach you not to typecast a brilliant, daring author!
Planesrunner (Pyr, hardcover, $16.95, 270 pages, ISBN: 978-1-61614-541-5) approaches that fabled quality of Heinlein YA perfection so closely as to merge with the iconic state. As with all great fiction for young adults, it simultaneously transcends that limiting description, in the same way that Steven Gould’s Wildside (1996) did. Gould’s prior example of the multiverse “power chord,” so different from McDonald’s book, proves the infinite flexibility of this theme—especially when you toss in Stross’s Merchant Princes series (2004-10) and Paul Melko’s fine The Walls of the Universe (2009) as other datapoints.
We open with the kidnapping of young Everett Singh’s dad, who’s a physicist working on multiverse theory. As Everett soon learns, his father and others on the project have succeeded in leaping across the dimensions. They’ve contacted the Plenitude, an association of nine closely sheafed continua. (Our universe is E10.) But Tejendra Singh has done something the other nine societies have never accomplished. He’s created a map of all possible worlds—the Panoply—and a method for linking them point-to-point. No need for cumbersome and limited Gate-to-Gate transfers anymore. Just hop from any one spot to any other in the whole realm of possibilities.
But a corrupt E3 official named Charlotte Villiers—think young Cruella de Vil wearing Gaultier—is determined to have this secret—the Infundibulum—all for herself. She learns that Everett has been entrusted with the cosmic map—stored in his iPad—and goes after him. Everett escapes into her universe, in search of his father, and encounters—well, let’s just say plenty of adventure, so as not to spoil the fun. But I will reveal that his quest involves a giant hi-tech airship named the Everness, and its charming yet scary captain Annie Sixsmyth and her ragamuffin daughter Sen.
The charm of every multiple-world book comes at several levels. First is the creation of oddball timelines, delightfully or scarily skewed from our own. Second is the relations among timelines: diplomacy, war, alliances. And at the highest level of meta-interest is the nature of the multiverse, the secrets of its structure, and any hidden forces.
In this first book of his saga, McDonald focuses his storytelling on levels one and two. The society and history and cultures he builds for E3 are rich and clever and appealing. You’ll soon accept the exotic tangibility of Sen’s home, so close to our history, yet so far. (McDonald provides some chuckles when he alludes to certain shared touchstones between E3 and E10, including Quentin Tarantino.) A major part of the allure of Sen Sixsmyth’s world is its language, McDonald’s own adaptation of the polari slang found in our reality. Before too long, your mind is inhabiting another worldview, thanks to the change in grammar and vocabulary.
The relations between the members of the Plenitude and travel among them is explicated lightly but intricately. And as for the third level—well, there are but hints so far, especially in the book’s cliff-hanger ending.
McDonald’s foray into this vein of straight-ahead, actionfilled storytelling never falters, while still honoring literary virtues of characterization and stefnal values of speculation and worldbuilding. If we have to wait a little longer for his next iteration of a big Brunner-esque “adult” novel while he sends Everett Singh across the Panoply, then I for one will happily bide my time.
Jesus Under the Bodhi Tree
Having myself written a long novel that did its best, among other missions, to conflate Christianity and Buddhism in intriguing and irreverent ways (Ciphers, 1997), I could not help but be immediately and irresistibly drawn to Lavie Tidhar’s Jesus and the Eightfold Path (Immersion Press, hardcover, £10.00, 74 pages, ISBN 978-0-9563924-3-5). But in all objectivity, I think that any reader with a hearty portion of imagination and freedom from hidebound ideology, and harboring a spiritual flame in his or her bosom, will instantly leap at this inspired and fantastical effort to blend two strains of wisdom into one.
We begin with the familiar arrival of the Three Wise Men in Bethlehem, attendant on the recent birth of Jesus. But these savants are not Middle Eastern potentates, but rather three Chinese demiurges—Sandy, Pigsy, and Monkey—come to act as mentors to Jesus, whom they anoint as a reincarnated Buddha. Miriam and Joseph are receptive, despite certain unsettling carnal indiscretions on the part of the trio: Pigsy hits on Miriam, complimenting her postnatal glow.
These kung-fu advisors will remain with Jesus right up to his death, teaching him martial arts moves and the steps of the Eightfold Path. Imbued with Zen koans, Jesus lives out the famous highlights of his career more or less as they have been traditionally designated. But each stage of his voyage is tinted with a Buddhist perspective and altered language that history has failed to record. For instance, when Jesus visits Hell, it’s the Buddhist conception of nineteen levels of torture, ruled over by a rather Lovecraftian demon.
Perhaps the most brilliant syncretism occurs when Tidhar rewrites the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the followers of the path, for they shall achieve nirvana. Blessed are the meek, for they shall rise in the next turn of the Wheel.” And so forth, including some passages unchanged from the Bible, but which suddenly stand in a new light.
Tidhar’s approach is lighthearted yet serious, nothing like the silliness in my novel, or in Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal (2002). Rather, Tidhar’s tale reminds me of Paul Park’s two novels about an alternative interpretation of Jesus: The Gospel of Corax (1996) and Three Marys (2003). This is reflected in Tidhar’s language, which is not King James diction, but not slangy either. He’s chosen instead a kind of fable or fairytale or mythic intonation that blends intimacy with the remoteness of legend.
Apocrypha about Jesus’s connection with India and Buddhism and the Far East is an actual flourishing field of religious (or at least New Age) study, but such theories have seldom been delivered in such witty and entertaining, yet thought-provoking form.
This novel was once free to read online, where some of you might have seen it. But my searches seem to reveal that its digital incarnation has been withdrawn for this lovely edition. Which is a fitting and proper and delightful action, considering the handome production values involved in the physical object, including Melissa Gay’s knockout cover illustration. And besides, what looks more impressive in your hands when you’re preaching from the Revised Christo-Buddhist Scriptures: an iPad or the ancient revered form of a book?
Asaro in Six Voices
Catherine Asaro receives her first short-story collection with Aurora in Four Voices (ISFIC Press, hardcover, $30.00, 260 pages, ISBN 978-0-9759156-9-1), and it’s a winner on all counts. Putting aside the fine fiction for a moment, the whole package is a classy small-press presentation. Nicely made hardback; beautiful cover painting by Joe Bergeron (who, I think, has modeled the human in the painting slyly on himself); an introduction and an afterword by knowledgeable fans; story notes by the author; a bibliography; and a small sampling of Asaro’s non-fiction. This level of craft and creativity gives one hope for the future of independent presses.
Author of almost twenty novels, most set in her Skolian future, Asaro’s never been known for her short stories, since they are so scarce. That’s a darn shame, and with luck this collection will remedy that public oversight.
The title piece is a Byronic outing full of artistic struggle and emotional catharsis, akin to the early work of Roger Zelazny—“A Rose for Ecclesiastes”—or perhaps George R.R. Martin in the period when he wrote Dying of the Light (1977). On a nighted world populated by decadent Dreamers—self-styled supreme artists with a mathematical bent—a lone baseline human named Jato serves as a pet and whipping boy, until the arrival of an Imperial secret agent named Soz. Asaro has a great time limning the eldritch beauty of the world, as well as the weird art forms, and delivers suspense and romance to boot.
“Ave de Paso” is a slighter tale, but still affecting. Two orphaned cousins conduct a kind of vision quest in the desert, meet the malign Earth Lord, but escape his grip with the realization that love is stronger than death.
Having won a Nebula Award, “The Spacetime Pool” is one story of Asaro’s that doesn’t lack for recognition. Its well-deserved trophy might derive partly from its archetypical theme: sudden, unintentional adventures in another dimension. That’s been a “power chord” in SF ever since A. Merritt, and down through Jack Williamson, de Camp & Pratt, and Heinlein’s Glory Road (1963), just to mention a few. Janelle, a bright young woman, is snatched away by a handsome stranger and taken to a seemingly backward plane of existence where she is to play a key dynastic role, according to old legends. Employing the figures of two rival brothers, Asaro has some fun swapping the gender of the usual Good Girl/Bad Girl pair found in such exploits. Not only does Janelle meet plenty of blood-and-thunder moments, but this new universe itself represents an intellectual conundrum, which she eventually unriddles. Beauty, brains, and bravery in one package!
Asaro’s first sale, “Light and Shadow,” has been lightly “polished up” for this appearance. The story of a test pilot and his relativistic perils, mitigated by his near-AI computer, has a Poul Anderson flavor to it. It should also be mentioned, at this point, that Asaro generously highlights her role as a Stan Schmidt discovery, showing us how important editorial perceptiveness is in the growing of our field.
The volume closes out with Asaro’s longest short piece to date, an eighty-pager titled “The City of Cries.” It’s full-blown space opera noir, with a feisty female private eye named Major Bhaajan tasked with finding a runaway scion of a noble family. For most of its length, aside from some climactic violence, it has a Ross Macdonald vibe, Ross Macdonald being the king of tangled dark familial tragedies. A bit of Jack Vance in his “Galactic Effectuator” mode pertains as well. And as with the title story, Asaro shows a sure hand in establishing her six-thousand-year-old exotic venue, with its subterranean portions, as almost a character in its own right.
The Golden Age of Reprints
As many fans and reviewers have recently observed, we are currently in the Golden Age of Reprints for comics, whether the source material derives from the original Golden Age itself (approximately 1938-1955), or the Silver Age (1956-1970) or the Bronze Age (1971-1985). (The Modern Age is the designation for the present era. Having read my first comic in 1961, I’ve lived through all but the very first Edenic period.) Practically anything of merit from six decades of comics is now available, with new volumes coming down the pike faster than they can be read (or purchased, given the ofttimes hefty pricetags for these full-color, frequently oversized volumes). Rare items that were once mere inaccessible legends—Polly and Her Pals, for instance—are now one online-shopping click away. And items overlooked so far are continually being suggested by fans, such as the bloggers at Robot 6, with their “Collect This Now!” feature.
This book affirms that Joe Kubert’s Golden Age is whenever he sets pencil to paper.
Few publishers are doing more to foster this wonderful trend than Fantagraphics Books. For instance, they are embarked on the Complete Carl Barks Library, a long-desired object of lust, and the Complete Pogo, with the first volume of each already out as I write.
Two recent books from FB should appeal to SF readers, offering both historical treatises and four-color narrative thrills, each book displaying opposite ratios of text to drawings.
Setting the Standard (trade paper, $39.99, 432 pages, ISBN 978-1-60699-408-5) collects a mere two years’ output (1952-54) from the fabled Alex Toth, when he was working for second-tier publisher Standard Comics. Upfront, a fanzine interview with Toth from 1968 serves as a pretty adequate introduction to the man and his career—though not a patch on the three-volume biography of Toth that IDW Publishing is currently doing. Then come 62 stories—nearly 400 pages of art. That’s a page of finished work produced roughly every day and a half. And the quality and creativity never drop. Toth was in a groove.
These stories range across all genres: romance, war, horror, SF, fantasy, crime. Toth creates a planet’s worth of faces and body types to populate his tales. His heroes are bold and assured, his heroines gorgeous and dramatic, and his villains ratty and venal. He never repeats himself, but makes every setting and cast fresh, with his inimitable linework.
The fantastical tales are top-notch. Just a sampling: “The Shoremouth Horror” is a proud addition to the Cthulhu Mythos. “Triumph Over Terror” goes meta, as it looks at an alien invasion stymied by pulp SF writers. “Outlaws of Space” is pure Doc Smith. A Bradburyian automated domicile features in “The House That Jackdaw Built.” The stylings of the now-vintage rockets and “futuristic” clothing are nostalgia-provoking, yesterday’s tomorrows at their best. Copious endnotes by editor Greg Sadowski complete the package.
What’s interesting to observe about these mid-century SF strips is how widely and deeply the furniture and tropes of the field had already spread. Twenty-five years after the birth of genre SF in Gernsback’s magazines, tales aimed at ten-year-old boys and girls could easily offer complex ideas in toss-away form, memes on which earlier writers had labored long and elaborately. Thus does the field advance.
Editor and historian Mike Ashley has compiled a list of the longest writerly careers ever. The first-place holder, one George Abbott (a generally forgotten playwright and screenwriter) labored for some 82.5 years. Making it even to Slot #20 takes a career of some 70 years (P.G. Wodehouse, at 73+ years).
If we accord our still-living National Treasure Joe Kubert the badge of writer, since he did indeed script many of his comic-book and graphic novel tales, then he’s inching into those ranks. He sold his first work in 1938, at the age of twelve, and is still gloriously active, for stats of some seventy-four years. Long may he run!
You can see a representative catalog of this immense output in The Art of Joe Kubert (hardcover, $39.99, 224 pages, ISBN 978-1606994870). As I implied earlier, this volume reverses the proportions of the Toth book, while still offering lots of eye candy. Only six complete stories are included. But instead you get a book’s worth of fascinating biography and analysis by the perspicacious Bill Schelly.
We follow Kubert’s life from his childhood ambitions, through his Golden Age journeyman years, and into his masterful Silver Age work for DC Comics. Anyone who has ever thrilled to Hawkman or Sgt. Rock will know how grand this material is. (As a kid, I had a crush on Hawkgirl, a far more interesting and sexy figure than Lois Lane, Supergirl or even Jean Grey from rival Marvel Comics). Kubert’s sophistication of SF imagery in the Sixties is evident when you look at one of the complete stories here, from the 1950s, “Corsairs from the Coalsack.” It’s pure Buck Rogers at best, only hinting at how streamlined and modern his drawing would become, true Space Age moderne.
In addition to founding a school for artists that turns out accomplished virtuosos to lead a new generation, Kubert continues to produce his own creative work, limned here in the later chapters, including further adventures for his prehistoric hero Tor, in that rousing SF subgenre, speculative caveman adventures.
Copyright © 2012 Paul DiFilippo