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On Books


by Paul Di Filippo

The Royal Tenenbaums Meet
Uri Geller

“All baseline human families are alike; each wild talent family is wildly talented in its own way.”

If Leo Tolstoy had been a science fiction writer, he might have coined this aphorism. But since the famous Russian realist inexplicably failed to see the career wisdom in joining our genre, I have done the job for him. My inspiration for this paraphrase is Daryl Gregory’s charming, poignant, absurdist new novel, Spoonbenders (Knopf, hardcover, $27.95, 416 pages, ISBN 978-1524731823). The book is structured around just such a domestic dynamic, a household full of psi misfits.

The trope of a family full of wild talents goes back at least as far as Henry Kuttner’s Hogben suite of tales from the 1940s. Zelazny’s Amber books are a more recent and vital part of the canon. But these purely fantastical instances have of late been blended by adventurous hybridizers like Kathleen Ann Goonan with an affiliated naturalistic or mimetic strain. I am thinking of the vast influence of J.D. Salinger’s Glass Family stories on modern iterations of the theme. A book such as Jeffrey Ford’s The Shadow Year seems the perfect example of such a mix.

Gregory follows firmly in this particular fusion of the uncanny and the mimetic. His down-and-out Telemachus family are as recognizable and as finely detailed as any fictional clan from literature or the big screen—I am thinking in particular of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tennebaums for similar tone and heft—while at the same time their unique derangements stemming from their psychical birthrights are extravagantly imaginary and imagined.

It all begins in the 1960s, when Teddy Telemachus and Maureen McKinnon are thrown together during a scientific search for anyone exhibiting genuine sixth-sense powers. Teddy is a hustler and faker, looking for a free ride to riches, but Maureen is the real deal. They fall in love and start a family, becoming small-scale celebrities, all while Maureen does secret government work. (One thinks instantly of the factual milieu of The Men Who Stare At Goats.) Their children have powers, too. Frankie affects the physical world with his mind; Buddy sees the future; Irene can read the true intentions of people.

But after a crucial public-relations disaster on The Mike Douglas Show, their precarious lifestyle falls apart. By 1995, the “real-time” of the novel, widower Teddy is elderly and still a hustler, while the adult kids are all failures of one stripe or another. Irene is divorced and raising teenager Matty alone. Frankie is in hock to the Mob. And Buddy, like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, has become unmoored from the “now” and finds his consciousness bouncing up and down his personal timeline—with the terminus of one particular September day fast approaching, beyond which he cannot see. And it is during this crucial period that all the problems of the family will come to a head and either be resolved—or turn fatal.

Now, this rough précis of mine is crudely and sketchily given in a linear fashion. But Gregory is much more entertaining, subtle and clever. He launches us straight into the agreeably complex present-day web of the family, leaving us to puzzle out all the relationships. Then he delivers the backstory in segments throughout the novel (mimicking, one suspects, Buddy’s own flights of atemporality). Before too long, the reader is firmly in command of all the necessary material, and yet still experiencing many more revelations. It’s a technique that not every writer could pull off well, but Gregory does.

Of course, without great characters and emotionally resonant doings, this fancy format would be useless. But you can count on Gregory for those essential features as well. Every person in the book practically jumps off the page; the dialogue is often hilarious, and always pertinent and revelatory; and the amount of action is intense, including an occult heist à la Richard Kadrey’s latest thrillers. Did I mention yet that teenage Matty is gifted too, but that his unwieldy astral travel powers rely on the same neat gimmick employed in Matt Fraction’s Sex Criminals comic, rendering him endearingly humble?

In short, this book features heart, wit, weirdness, and laughs in equal measure, proving Daryl Gregory is a wild talent on his own merits.

*   *   *

The Big Space Heist

Although he has written two previous novels—Koko Takes a Holiday and Koko the Mighty (with a third in the series due in 2018)—Off Rock (Titan Books, trade paper, $14.95, 320 pages, ISBN 978-1785653384), a standalone, marks my first encounter with Kieran Shea, and a very enjoyable introduction it proved to be! It’s reminiscent of the sardonic off-kilter vibe of Robert Sheckley or the knowing acerbic worldiness of Harry Harrison, with a smidgen of Richard Morgan’s tough-guy stance.

The first thing to note about this novel, however, is not the crisp plot or decent characterization or other good stuff. Rather, it’s the fact that the book represents a kind of SF that does not, I believe, even have a name. Let me try to explain.

The book is set in the year 2778, in a milieu of interstellar travel. This future is some 750 years in advance of us, as far away as the Middle Ages is from 2017. There are no signs of any technological interregnum or unnatural locus of conservative stability. And yet in this far-off time, the card game of bridge is still popular. Language and personal naming conventions are the same as ours. A drone can be smart enough to serve drinks, and yet humans must perform mining industry chores that a robot could do better and more safely. And so on and so on, inconsistencies and incompatibilities and thwarted advancements in technology and culture.

In other words, we do not find—nor should we really expect to find—a Charles Stross or Stan Robinson or Greg Egan level of speculative cohesiveness or depth here. Rather, this future is intended to be a kind of exotic stage set with certain familiar genre furniture—narrative tropes that can be deployed for entertainment. Such a future is as fixed now in the genre as commedia dell’arte. It’s somewhat the same maneuver Shakespeare used, when he nominated the nebulous “forest of Arden” or “seacoast of Bohemia” as settings. But it’s not a “Bat Durston” copout—translating a Western tale to an SF mode—because the core SF tropes are used skillfully. It’s just a handy convention.

Taking this into account, we still discover very much to enjoy in this action-stuffed tale of how Jimmy Vik stumbled on a (smaller than anticipated) fortune in illegal gold on the mining station of Kardashev 7-A and then, with the help of co-conspirator Jock Roscoe, managed to screw everything up. Lots of the FUBAR chaos results from a deficiency of smarts and ethics among the crooks, but also from the opposition, intentional or otherwise, of such folks as Leela Pendergast, Jimmy’s ex-flame; Zaafer Daavi, devout Muslim and candy addict; and Piper Kollár, engineer-cum-killer for the criminal Chimeric Circle. As they bounce around the station’s confines—essentially the whole scene of action, save for a couple of concluding chapters—the caper develops along a dozen unpredictable vectors.

Shea has a nice way with Chandleresque descriptions and dialogue, and keeps all his plates spinning with dizzying precision. His characters are all pretty much disreputable in a delightful fashion. As mentioned, the SF furniture is deployed with care and skill. The result is a kind of Donald Westlake space heist that delivers rueful chuckles aplenty. Just don’t use it to map the next seven centuries.

*   *   *

What Happens on the Island,
Stays on the Island

Shakespeare as fantasy writer. It’s pleasant to imagine that if the Bard had lived today, he’d be a card-carrying member of SFWA. After all, his plays are larded with fantastical elements. Of course, paramount among his magically inclined works are two: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. Poul Anderson divined their centrality long ago, and gave us A Midsummer Tempest, detailing a world where Shakespeare recounted only the facts of an occult cosmos.

Of late, The Tempest has perhaps occupied more attention that its more frivolous companion—a fact due to our current times being more dark than light, I wonder? L. Jagi Lamplighter turned out a fine “sequel” with her Prospero’s Daughter trilogy. And now comes Jacqueline Carey with Miranda and Caliban (Tor Books, hardcover, $25.99, 352 pages, ISBN 978-0765386793) to further parse this bottomless fable.

The book opens with Miranda’s narration, starting at the self-confessed age of six. The voice is not that of an average child in that stage of development, being highly perceptive, intelligent, and knowing. But we soon come to accept her prodigal tones, especially due to some convincing areas of ignorance—sexuality? what’s that?—consorting with the wisdom. Caliban’s first-person voice will soon come to alternate, in chapters that chart his progression from mute unlettered savage (a kind of brute Tarzan figure) to someone blessed and cursed with a new and growing self-awareness and empathy.

We can consider this novel to be more or less Miranda’s journal or diary, and while it humbly yet vividly charts the daily life of the small family on the island, it also functions as a kind of detective account.

*   *   *

It is the question I want to ask him, a question that breaches the pent-up dam of a hundred other questions. Why, why, why? Why not grant the wild boy the freedom he craves? Why do I dream of a time before the isle? Where is the house with stone walls that I half-remember? Who were the ladies who put slippers on my feet in the morning and kissed my cheek and sang me to sleep in the evening? Where did we come from and why are we here? Where did the wild boy come from? Who do you suspect were his mother and father? Who was my mother? What is the spirit in the pine, and what has the wild boy to do with it?

*   *   *

When Ariel enters the menage, rather like the Serpent in Eden, moral, practical, and ethical quandaries ramify.

By the mid-point of the book, Miranda is fourteen years old, and only a little closer to answering her questions. She discovers her talent for painting, and Prospero puts her to work. Her mature relationship with Caliban deepens, and they eventually realize they are in love, but can never have each other. The final chapters segue neatly into the beginning of Shakespeare’s play, and resolve tragically—but not fatally—for both would-be lovers.

Carey does not attempt to mimic or include any of Shakespeare’s actual language, yet her prose commands a corresponding level of gravitas, simplicity, and beauty. Amazingly, with only three characters onstage for the majority of the pages, she succeeds in holding the reader’s full attention and never repeating any situations, but instead layering the emotional resonances deeply. Her portraits of Miranda and Caliban, the engine of the book, are rich and moving, calling up echoes of works such as The Blue Lagoon and Beauty and the Beast. But most revolutionary is her depiction of Prospero, who emerges as a cross between B.F. Skinner, Doctor Moreau, and Machiavelli.

The only reason to play this kind of metatextual game is to enhance and explore the original seed-work, recast it afresh. Carey succeeds in these aims admirably.

*   *   *

Uneasy Lies the Head
That Wears A Crown

I have always derived strange and unsettling antique images of bizarre time-lost rituals from two nonfiction books: The Golden Bough, by Sir James Frazer, and The White Goddess, by Robert Graves. They both evoke prehistorical rites and myths congruent with the most primeval subconscious desires and fears of humanity. Michael Johnston’s debut solo novel, Soleri (Tor Books, hardcover, $27.99, 368 pages, ISBN 978-0765386489), earns some of those same reactions from me, with its panorama of weird customs and Ur-impulses of lust, betrayal, and survival. In addition, it provides some of the same barbaric majesty and splendor and harshness of Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age.

The world of Johnston’s creation features an empire ruled from the city of Solus. For three millennia the god-like rulers known as the Soleri have dominated the confederation of lesser kingdoms. No man except the First Ray of the Sun can even see these rulers. He communicates their wishes to the populace. One method of keeping the kingdoms subjugated is to take the male heir of each throne and imprison that boy in a foul prison called the Priory. There they languish until the currently ruling king/father dies. Then the heir is released, to take the throne.

Our focus is on the realm of Harkana. In that land, the ruler is still the middle-aged Arko-Hark Wadi. His two daughters aid in the day-to-day administration of the kingdom. Elder daughter Merit is Machiavellian and brutal. Younger daughter Kepi is something of a tomboy, and basically just wants to be left to her own destiny. Unfortunately, she has been betrothed to Dagrun, King of the Ferens, circumscribing her life seemingly forever. And finally there is Ren, the son and future king. Sequestered in the brutal Priory at age three, he is now thirteen, and desperate to be free. When he is actually released—his father has gone missing and is presumed dead, triggering Ren’s ascension to the throne—he can hardly believe his good fortune. But since Merit wants him killed so she can rule, this new freedom is exceedingly fraught.

Lastly, on the periphery of the royal family, comes Sarra Amunet, the Mother Priestess of the state religion—and also the biological mother of the three royal children, who abandoned them when they were all young.

From this promising start, the narrative moves through many exciting scenes, intermingled with more quiet and contemplative and emotional moments—such as a reunion between Sarra and Arko-Hark. To reveal too much would be unfair to the readers of this book. Suffice it to say that Ren survives many trials to eventually reach Harkana and prove himself, before returning to Solus to settle old scores. Kepi is wed unwillingly, but comes to discover new feelings towards her husband. Merit stumbles in her plans for conquest. Father Arko-Hark is brought to Solus and learns the biggest secret at the heart of the empire. Sarra, undertaking a laborious expedition, discovers the same shocking truth, and finds her own ambitions growing. The book ends with major changes and open plot lines, as well as some startling fresh information, presaging a welcome sequel.

While the dense yet swift-moving plot of Soleri is highly satisfying, as are the evocations of the players, ultimately the atmospherics are what appealed to me the most. Here is a description of the interior of some ruins.

*   *   *

Inside, by the glow of Dasche’s torch, she found an arcade. Dense carvings covered the walls, inscriptions similar to those she had seen in the map chamber. The columned hall opened onto a round-shaped room with a vast dome. Crumbling frescoes covered every column and alcove: a jungle, a forest, a panorama depicting wild beasts of unimaginable shapes—tiny exotic birds, gray-winged kites, the eld. Sarra pressed onward, she was close, she could feel it. There was something here—but what?

*   *   *

What Sarra is feeling is what we are feeling: the weight and gravitas and eldritch otherness of the past, pushing our sense of wonder to its peak.

*   *   *

Twenty Thousand Vampires
Beneath the Sea

According to ISFDB, Cynthia Ward began her writing career in 1991 with a sale to a fondly remembered zine of some appreciable note in its day, Midnight Zoo. Since then, she’s placed many a well-crafted tale, including some in these very pages. Yet she has suffered a certain lack of attention due to not having any solo book publications. That unfair situation is remedied by the appearance of The Adventure of the Incognita Countess (Aqueduct Press, trade paper, $12.00, 126 pages, ISBN 978-1619761193). It’s grand and smashing recursive steampunk in the manner of Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and a splendid romp indeed.

We begin our adventure, recounted in the first person, by following Lucy Harker into the office of M, head of the UK’s Secret Service Bureau. There she receives her assignment: to guard an American named Major Butt as he delivers some crucial papers. The pair are to sail on a ship named the Titanic. (This is the year 1912.) One small codicil: this version of the Titanic is powered by captured Martian technology (as famously seen in our timestream in Wells’s The War of the Worlds). And in the background are German spies intent on purloining the secrets of the submarine Nautilus (per Verne, of course). Oh, and Lucy happens to be Dracula’s daughter, natch: a hybrid of human and supernatural, a dhampir.

Onboard the ship, she immediately meets another vamp, of a different strain, one Clarimal Stein, who hovers between friend and foe, before ultimately becoming the object of Lucy’s affections. Also onboard is a certain barely civilized Adonis, a British Lord, who just might have been raised in the jungles of Africa. . . .

And so begin days of intrigue, confined to this one cloistered liner, of much politesse and subtle hints and stealth, with knives (and ashwood stakes!) metaphorical and literal concealed behind one’s back. But by the time the Germans onboard make their move for the Nautilus plans, and the Titanic meets its fated collision with the iceberg, Ward pulls out all the stops and stages some rousing, suspenseful action scenes. The wonderment and enigmas continue even unto the delivery of a rescued Lucy to New York (hardly a spoiler, I think, since we know from the start she’s survived to narrate the tale) and we learn the ultimate disposition of the Incognita Countess Clarimal Stein.

Ward fills her tale with piquant period touches. In addition, she establishes her counterfactual world in believable depth. Her delineation of all her characters is full of pulp vigor; they don’t need Flaubertian subtlety, these icons. Nonetheless, much satisfactory catharsis and pathos is obtained. Ward’s work reminds me of that of Leanna Renee Hieber in her Eterna series.

While this kind of book-inspired recursive fiction is far from a brand-new thing, Ward invests her tale with a freshness and vigor that shows the mode has lots of mileage still in it.

*   *   *

Space Operas in My Pocket
Like Grains of Sand

Masterful editor Neil Clarke has assembled an exotic, bountiful treasure chest of reprint tales dedicated to that mode of SF that can arguably be said to constitute the very core of the field, the space opera. Borrowing its title from an earlier Brian Aldiss assemblage on the same theme, Galactic Empires (Night Shade Books, trade paper, $17.99, 636 pages, ISBN 978-1597808842) joins other recent volumes by Dozois and Hartwell to demonstrate that the space opera tale is not all surface pyrotechnics and mindless fun, but can also deliver the more subtle and sophisticated virtues of literary fiction.

In this small venue, it’s impossible to allude to more than a handful of standout entries among the nearly two dozen. So let’s get to it! But first, a few general observations. Many of these tales are novelettes or novellas, which seems to me an almost essential length to really build a dense future. None of them resemble Star Wars or Star Trek to any great degree, thus confounding or enlightening anyone who immediately thinks that such franchises are all there is to this kind of SF. Many of the tales fit into larger future histories by each author, a fact indicative of the large scope of space opera. And lastly, warfare, while often in the background and sometimes foregrounded, is not essential to playing the galactic empire game.

The book kicks off with a superbly info-dense yet thriller-slick piece by Paul McAuley, “Winning Peace,” in which an indentured ex-soldier has to play fast and loose with his murderous boss and other factions to win his freedom and wealth. The classic trope of predecessor alien races who leave behind mysterious artifacts gets its first airing here as well.

John Barnes’s “The Lost Princess Man” starts with a low-life scam artist, then eventually ends up in pure Doc Smith territory: “Thirty-some stations flashed and were gone; an asteroid mass of vacuum-energy receivers had popped out of jumpspace inside each one, converting instantaneously to relativistic neutrons. About forty million people . . . gone in less time than it takes a signal to cross a synapse.”

Neal Asher’s “Alien Archaeology,” set in his Polity series, is like some kind of wild-eyed Itchy and Scratchy cartoon, wherein two ruthless types, Jael and Rho, battle each other across the starways. “She released the hammer and saw it had punched a neat square hole straight into [Rho’s] skull. . . .” Rho gets better from this, by the way.

Paul Berger’s “The Muse of Empires Lost” reminds me of one of my favorite space operas, Earthblood, by Keith Laumer and Rosel George Brown. “The Colonel Returns to the Stars,” by Robert Silverberg,deploys that great conceit of the retired master summoned back into the arena of struggle. Its wistful melancholy ending resonates: “At the Service’s behest he had returned to the stars one last time; and now, at no one’s behest but his own, he had at last lost himself among them forever.”

Like some mad combo of Lovecraft, Stephen Baxter, and A.E. van Vogt, Robert Charles Wilson brings us “Utriusque Cosmi,” which blends the macrocosmic and the microcosmic to stunning effect: “The universe has finished its current iteration, all its history is stored in transdimensional metaspace like a book on a shelf. . . .” I only need to say that Robert Reed offers us a fresh Great Ship tale with “The Man with the Golden Balloon” to send most readers clamoring for more. Ruth Nestvold harks to early Le Guin, whose journeyman space operas set new standards, with “Looking Through Lace,” where a female xenolinguist must chart her perilous way through an alien culture. Steve Rasnic Tem, a fellow whose name is not generally associated with space operas, mordantly investigates the hollow myths at the core of empire with “A Letter from the Emperor.” And finally, Ian McDonald’s “Verthandi’s Ring” closes out the terrific tome with a kind of wry posthuman excursion of uploading and reincarnating.

Clarke’s selections might have included, some would say, offerings from Baxter, Reynolds, and Banks. But that would have made the volume unwieldy, and we are well-served by the current table of contents as our Baedecker to the Federation and beyond.

*   *   *

Danger on the Obsidian Sea

Although there is an early phantom novel attached to the name of Cat Sparks —Effigy, supposedly issued in 2011, but nowhere available and quite possibly never actually published—I think we can safely regard Lotus Blue (Talos, trade paper, $15.99, 388 pages, ISBN 978-1940456706) as her first real appearance at this length. And given Sparks’s Australian heritage, it’s no surprise that the book is a raw, devastating, post-apocalypse tale mildly evocative of Mad Max and kin, while being all its own story. This innovative hybrid has echoes of China Miéville’s New Weird; of classic cyberpunk; of New Wave “Myths of the Space Age” stuff; and of Herman Melville, of all things! It’s a wild, exhilarating ride that never veers totally off its rails while still keeping the reader off-kilter.

We will make our journey through Sparks’s tortured landscape by metaphorically riding the shoulders of a large assortment of characters, each one given a vivid portrait and unique sensibility. Here are the main ones.

First comes Star, a young girl who is affiliated with the Van. The Van is a kind of circuit-riding ritual caravan of some thirteen wagons that goes up and down the Verge, a strip of barely livable greenery, trading goods and services to survive. Nene is Star’s sister, a healer, and essential to the enterprise. She and Star have their disagreements, yet hang together. But for how long is the question, since the Verge is dying slowly, less green every trip.

Next in our purview is Kian, an exiled citizen from the techno-refuge city of Axa, traveling incognito. He and his companions are looking for a chance to redeem themselves and return to Axa, and will stop at nothing to earn a sufficient prize.

Quarrel is a cyborg, a Templar, a hibernating soldier from the deep past. He is awakened by the stirring of another war machine, Lotus Blue, which, unlike Quarrel, has no remaining mortal qualities or compunctions. The self-directing juggernaut will wreak devastation on the tattered human settlements—it’s already pulling “angels” out of orbit to impact the planet.

Beyond these three are a dozen other major protagonists and a handful of lesser figures. They all exhibit the hardscrabble utilitarian ethos engendered by their environment, with varying degrees of compassion and pity. Needless to say, Star, our Little Orphan Annie heroine, is the most empathetic—when she’s not trying to avoid a myriad unpleasant deaths.

The environment that bred our tatterdemalion cast is also a player, in effect. The world has been charred and made poor by a series of earlier wars, and now remnant technology is a scavenger’s prize, especially when stolen from the “tankers,” behemoths that are hunted like whales of yore. They exist on the Obsidian Sea: “a thick, flat tongue of charcoal ice. Most tankerjacks agreed it had been a city once, a forest of high and mighty towers that had liquefied and spilled like milk in the Angel wars. It had hardened fast . . . scratch-polished by relentless angry winds.”

Onto this unforgiving plain, eventually, come Star and Quarrel, riding the ship Dogwatch. They are racing Kian, who has stolen the ship of a rich merchant, kidnapping the merchant and his daughter Allegra as well. Out at the edge of the Obsidian Sea waits Lotus Blue, to be killed, unleashed, or conquered.

Sparks’s relatively short chapters—almost eighty—ensure that the tale whipsaws effectively amongst the various factions, giving us tidbits of information as we need them, and building up suspense and cliffhangers. We watch Star go from ignorance and helplessness to knowledge, vision, confidence, and capability. By the end of the book, a victory has been won—not cost-free. But there are no easy Messianic reversals of the world’s fate—merely the chance to do good for another harsh day.

Raising the pleasant collegial specters of such landmarks as Delany’s The Jewels of Aptor and Saberhagen’s The Broken Lands, as well as the voices of Mark Geston and Ballard (“Night fell across the boneyard of planes. Flame crackled in a rusted, cut down oil drum where Hackett had built a fire.”), Lotus Blue ultimately escapes all easy comparisons on its own trajectory. 

Copyright © 2017 Paul Di Filippo

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