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On Books by Paul Di Filippo


Quantum Boojum vs. the Clone Family
Having recently finished his massive Void trilogy with The Evolutionary Void in 2010, Peter F. Hamilton takes a real lazy writer’s break, producing Great North Road (DelRey, hardcover, $30.00, 976 pages, ISBN 978-0-345-52666-3) a mere nigh-unto-1000-pages-long standalone novel! Good Lord, when does he find time to eat and sleep?!? Oh, well, there’s no room for complaints, given Hamilton’s consistently high quality of writing and storytelling. And as for a cargo of ideas, this book is well freighted too.

Hamilton offers a timeline right at the start of the text, covering the years 2003 through 2121, and the era proves a jam-packed one. Instantaneous stargates are invented; a burgeoning family of clones descended from one Kane North become the Machiavellian Bill Gates-style figures of the period; human colonies proliferate across the galaxy; and some deadly aliens named the Zanth come calling. (And is that species name meant as an in-joke on Piers Anthony and his famous fantasy series?) Having established this outline very succinctly, Hamilton plunges us into the fully articulated and fleshed-out reality of 2143, with a police procedural opener.

Our first POV character is one Sid Hurst, a detective in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, who finds a murdered member of the North clan. The murder investigation soon opens out into an interstellar mystery. This new death appears to be connected to a mass murder among the secretive Norths twenty years in the past. Into the scene now steps a representative of the Human Defence Alliance, Vance Elston. He suspects that the real murderer is a new kind of non-Zanth alien, and he also believes that the woman falsely convicted of the old murder, Angela Tramelo, holds the solution to both old and new puzzles. She’s pardoned and released from prison, and made to accompany an HDA mission to the world of St. Libra, there to hunt the deadly creature from the stars.

Hamilton proves himself a master at the sheer architectural structuring of his massive tale, deftly juggling the two plot lines on two planets, and waltzing scores of characters on and off stage. With Sid on Earth, he constructs an Asimovian SF-detective tale, playing square with the reader and making the game challenging for himself. How, after all, can crimes go unconcealed in a world where every human is somatically wired with “smartcells” to record information, and the environment is saturated with intelligent dust? On the world of St.Libra, Hamilton gives us a kind of Aliens-meets-The Thing scenario, a pure dose of Astounding-style John W. Campbell suspense for a new century. The two plot threads converge, of course—rather, they have been fluidly interpenetrative for the whole narrative—and the climax happens in a bloody explosion of first contact misunderstandings and reconciliations. A lovely little coda extends the reach of the tale for another millennium.

Hamilton never pads his tale with unnecessary stuffing. Each scene is compact and well wrought and unrepetitive. But are they all essential? Despite my enjoyment of the tale, I could not help but speculate on how it could have been presented at half or even one-quarter of its length. I think market forces—as well as perhaps Hamilton’s natural instincts—dictate such epic tomes these days, and wonder if we will ever return to the glory days of the 1950s, where compression and density and the “short sharp shock” trumped sprawl.

Argosy and Blue Book Live On!
What is the difference between a pastiche and a homage? I tend to think of the pastiche as more or less a synonym for the term most often used to define it: an imitation. In other words, a creator identifies the most salient and characteristic aspects of a prior work of art and recreates them point by point, with trifling differences. As for an homage, consider that it is most often defined as a tribute. In other words, a creator, having been moved emotionally or intellectually or esthetically by some work of art, in turn fashions his or her feelings into an object that might be suitably offered to the original artist and his fans as a resonant personal thank-you. The essence is celebrated, not just the mere forms.

Let me put it this way, in an analogy I think almost everyone can readily comprehend.

Lin Carter wrote pastiches. Philip José Farmer wrote homages.

A good pastiche can be enjoyable, but definitely exhibits less originality than a homage.

Mark Hodder is inarguably on the PJF-homage end of the spectrum. (I’d say Matthew Hughes is there too, with his Vance-inspired work.)

We’ve seen some admirable steampunk novels from Hodder, and that is a medium which, by its very nature, is heavily into pastiche and homage. But with Hodder’s newest, A Red Sun Also Rises (Pyr, trade paper, $17.95, 277 pages, ISBN 978-1-61614-694-8), he’s branched out into a different realm. He’s kept some steampunk trappings while moving into the territory of Burroughsian planetary romance. Yet the resulting novel is utterly authentic and effective, delivering a story that, while it harks back to a vanished era, also incorporates the sensibilities and perspectives of twenty-first-century SF. You get nostalgia and forward-looking attitudes and speculations combined!

Our book opens with “Mark Hodder” telling us in a preface that this novel is the true account found in the recently retrieved journals of a vanished Victorian preacher, Aiden Fleischer. Of course, we will instantly flash on A Princess of Mars, and its similar famous frame-tale opening. And this affiliation is very apt. For, after a few nicely leisurely chapters, in which we get to really know and bond with Fleischer and his pal, the young crippled female savant, Miss Clarissa Stark, the pair will be transported by mystical/alien means to the bizarre world of Ptallaya. (The whole South Seas scenario that gets them there is evocatively Lovecraftian, a blend of science and horror.)

The reactions of Fleischer and Stark (and should we be hearing echoes of Leigh Brackett’s Eric John Stark here?) to the dangerous, exotic, and surreal new planet are truly natural. No John Carter heroics here, just confusion and a quest for survival. This is not to say that brave and mighty deeds are not eventually undertaken by both Stark and Fleischer, once they get their bearings.

And then, after Stark undergoes a strange alien dunking, the plot takes off into even weirder dimensions. Somehow her consciousness has now infected the entire native populace in a kind of “hundredth monkey effect,” turning all the outré creatures into faux Victorians. At this point, those readers who recall the Hoka stories of Anderson and Dickson might imagine they know what’s coming. But they will still be in for a few surprises, for the strange ecology and astrophysics of the new realm feature many revelations yet to come.

Nodding in the direction of both Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and James Blish’s A Case of Conscience, this inventive hybrid tale offers pure Age of Storytellers fun with modern psychological veracity and speculativeness.

Portrait of Sophie
Tim Powers continues to astound. When he is not effortlessly delivering large-scale novels that brilliantly stretch the boundaries of what can be accomplished in the modes of contemporary slipstream fantasies or outrageous steampunk escapades, then he is tossing off accomplished novellas such as Salvage and Demolition (Subterranean Press, hardcover, $30.00, 160 pages, ISBN 978-159606-515-4), which manages to conflate Robert Nathan’s timeslip romance Portrait of Jennie with Robert Heinlein’s “—All You Zombies—.” Powers’s hybrid creation matches those two geniuses at their own games. And many striking illos by J.K. Potter are delicious frosting on the cake.

First, consider our lackluster, unpromising hero, Richard Blanzac, a rare-book dealer. Even his name sounds “bland.” We don’t expect much from him right from the outset, given that he likes a stiff drink well before noon, and that his latest commercial score is a bunch of crummy cardboard boxes containing the papers of a tenth-rate woman poet associated with the Beats, one Sophie Greenwald. (And her name, as we shall see, fittingly conjures up both the goddess of wisdom, Sophia, and a mythical golden pastoralism.)

One box has curious contents: an Ace Double novel, some loose manuscript pages, and the ancient contents of an ashtray. Blanzac idly begins reading the manuscript, and experiences some vivid hallucinations. He chalks it up to booze. But almost immediately thereafter, oddly enough, he gets a call from an elderly woman who claims a legal stake in the Greenwald papers. And then there’s a creepy fellow who wants to buy them—or steal them at gunpoint, if necessary.

Not much more of the plot can be revealed without spoiling the reader’s delight. Suffice it to say that Blanzac becomes unmoored from the present in a mind-boggling cat’s-cradle fashion. Billy Pilgrim’s got nothing on him. In the space of less—and more—than a day, he falls in love, loses his love, and saves the world from a bizarre apocalypse. Powers’s theological MacGuffin here is unique and ingenious.

Powers’s sophisticated narrative challenges the reader without frustrating him, delivering just enough information to allow us to have fun deducing the rest and guessing at the twists to come. (You won’t win against the devilishly clever Powers, though.) His evocation of the allure of writing and books, his depiction of the travails of authorship, and his all-round wry sympathy with the often melancholy human condition are all exemplary. And I must say that there has probably never been another fiction in which an Ace Double novel played such an important part.

Like many of Powers’s tales, Salvage and Demolition teaches that personal sadness and tragedy do not preclude satisfaction and happiness and victory on some more lofty plane.

Sophomore Success
A few columns ago, I reviewed Katy Stauber’s debut novel Revolution World, and said: “Fast, funny, frenetic, it has echoes of Cory Doctorow and Bruce Sterling (at his most light-hearted). If you pictured The Windup Girl re-imagined by a team of Alexander Jablokov and Donald Westlake, you wouldn’t be so far off.” Wow, I set the bar pretty high for her next outing, didn’t I? Well, I am thrilled to report that Spin the Sky (Night Shade Books, trade paper, $14.99, 308 pages, ISBN 978-1-59780-340-3) equals or surpasses its predecessor, along a lateral vector: not just more of the same good stuff, but different. It’s more mythic in tone, while still hewing to a believable, surprising, enticing future history.

Stauber’s concept, reduced to “elevator pitch” dimensions, is brilliant yet simple: retell Homer’s Odyssey in a stefnal way. In this, you might hear echoes of the famous New Wave strategy for creating “myths of the near future” (to borrow Ballard’s coinage), a mode employed by Delany, Zelazny, Petaja, and others. Your hunch would be quite accurate. I suspect Stauber has those icons firmly in mind, and good for her! Too often these days, I think, the New Wave is undervalued and written off. If some of its old goals and tactics and, for want of a better word, “soul” can be repurposed for twenty-first-century SF narratives, then we are all winners.

In Stauber’s scenario, we are one-hundred-plus years into the future. The backstory: Earth, having exhausted itself with a series of planet-confined “Worlder” wars, next turned its belligerent attentions to the scores of peaceful orbital habitats, and launched the Spacer War. That conflict ended when Cesar Vaquero, grizzled and wily warrior and our hero, nuked Mexico from above. After futzing around for several years afterward, an ailing and aged Cesar gets a hankering to return home to the orbital called Ithaca, and the cattle ranch run by wife Penelope and Trevor, their son. There he passes unrecognized, going under the name of “Jonas Ulixes.” The daily rituals of Ithaca, detailed with clever futuristic naturalism, sustain the delicious and duplicitous tensions of his return. Then a deadly crisis arises, as you might suspect, in which Cesar gets to shine.

Stauber makes a wise decision in her telling. She realizes that all the real human drama comes when Cesar/Ulixes returns home, and must confront his wife and son and all his bad life choices, and learn how to move forward as a person, with his sins and transgressions acknowledged and repented. But, on the other hand, she does not want to throw away all the glorious hell-raising incidents of his wandering years (such as the time, for instance, that Cesar and crew ventured onto the Poppy, an orbital dedicated to synthetic lotos eating). So the realtime narrative is set on Ithaca, while the pre-return adventures are told as flashbacks, either by Cesar himself or other relevant witnesses in a variety of charming voices. It’s an innovation that grants the best of both milieus.

Stauber’s prose is pure delight throughout. She establishes a rollicking folktale/ tall tale/bardic tone right from the get-go, conjuring up a blend of Lafferty and Heinlein (“The Green Hills of Earth” in particular), with maybe some of Laumer & Brown (Earthblood) as well. Actually, what the book most reminds me of is the Coen Brothers film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? George Clooney as Cesar? Yes! Humor and pathos share equal billing. She never belabors her parallels with Homer, and feels free to diverge when her sense of good dramaturgy demands divergence. And all the myths are cloaked in very apt speculative raiments.

Thus Stauber’s fine second novel blends the ancient and the postmodern, showing that certain human archetypes will be with us forever, affording us very pleasurable lessons and joys in new space-going dress.

The Inhabiter of Souls and Sanity-defying Schemes
You know how singer-songwriter Randy Newman often dons the lyrical guise of weirdos and oddballs when he sings, inhabiting those personae of his imagination so fully that naïve listeners often mistake his songs for flat-out declarations of Newman’s own beliefs? (Castigating “Short People”? Who does he think he is!) Well, Kit Reed and her fictions remind me very much of Newman and his songs. She invents hypnotically eccentric and off-the-wall characters, often placing them in utterly bizarre, Kafkaesque situations, then dons each protagonist like a second skin for the duration of the story. Next time around, it’s a totally different mask. But somehow, by gracing these grotesques with her sympathy and intelligence, she affirms their undeniable, existential commonality with the “normals” (are there really any such creatures? Reed seems to slyly inquire) and with her readers.

And also, paradoxically, just as with Newman, the essential gestalt of Reed emerges from the ofttimes savage and satirical impersonations. You feel you know her and her “preoccupations,” as she labels them, intimately and clearly. Another writer who could do this was Tom Disch, although Disch’s impersonations were always more cool and distanced and skeptical and cruel, the renditions of a lonely thespian ultimately aloof from humanity. Reed, however, is always right down there, reveling in the muck and mire of shared human existence.

Her career-spanning new collection, The Story Until Now (Wesleyan University Press, hardcover, $35.00, 464 pages, ISBN 978-0-8195-7349-0), illustrates Reed’s talents in a big impressive package. This is a book you want to shelve right next to similar compilations by Ellison and Ballard, for instance.

The arrangement of classic stories here—six that have never before been reprinted show up as well—is not at all chronological, but instead usefully follows the roadmap of authorial “obsessions.” For instance, the first three stories—“Denny,” “The Attack of the Giant Baby,” and “What Wolves Know”—all revolve around child-parent relations, while another trio—“Automatic Tiger,” “Piggy” and “Song of the Black Dog”—concern mythic creatures and their role in human lives. Bopping from one of these thematic sets to another is like journeying through an archipelago of dreams, to borrow Christopher Priest’s notion.

Besides being able to perfectly evoke modern speech and environments, Reed also exhibits a Shirley-Jacksonish love of the Gothic—“Family Bed”—and a flair for surrealism. Consider just the opening sentence to “Perpetua”: “We are happy to be traveling together in the alligator.” Her early stories, while neatly and cleverly constructed, might very well be surpassed by the looser, wilder, crazier stuff of recent years. That’s the kind of career progression all too seldom seen, as writers tend instead to get fossilized and timid.

Finally, for grace notes, Gary Wolfe supplies a cogent introductory essay, while husband Joe Reed’s eye-catching painting of a tiger looms boldly on the cover, making for one fine, must-have package.

Copyright © 2013 Paul Di Filippo

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