Wednesday, August 3, 2016

China Mieville's THIS CENSUS TAKER

As I've observed once or twice on this here blog, China Mieville is one of those writers whose work I buy just as soon as I hear about it, without knowing at all what it's going to be about, what genre he's messing with this time, or anything except NEW CHINA MIEVILLE. Were I a video game character, that would be the cheat code to make me drop my money on the spot.

(Except for Kraken, yo.)

This Census Taker gave me pause at first, though. It just seemed so unpromising once I read the description (after buying it, of course). A boy witnesses something traumatic and grows up with a deranged parent. That's too much like real life for a lot of people in this world. It's hot and yucky out and I'm living with chronic pain and no relief. Why would I want to read this thing?

Because China Mieville, I told myself. It's China. China has only let you down once. And everything else he has done has blown you away with awesome.

OK, self.

Quickly once I'd started reading This.Census Taker, I found myself imagining scenes from The Bed Sitting Room again (I found a few in-your-ribs references to that nutty masterpiece in Railsea) and realized I was pretty much just straight setting this book in that very messed-up world in my head. People are always asking the narrator's father to make keys for them, often keys to "open" impossibly abstract things. Then the boy watches dad go to work making them with various weird-sounding tools, polishing them with strange powders (of which he seems to have inexhaustible supplies) and then presenting them to his customers, who are never seen again. Do these keys actually work? Are they actually keys like we think of keys?*

Have I just seen one too many Yorgos Lathimos films?

Speaking of Lathimos and his artistic ilk, we have am unreliable narrator here, of a kind and quality that would do Gene Wolfe proud. This narrator, who warns us early on that he is writing a triple account of the story he's telling: one merely enumerating, in cipher, one "performing" for public consumption in collaboration with others of his kind, and a third meant to be kept absolutely secret. I have not, as of this reading, found the key (wink) to determine what passages are from what books, but perhaps the shift in narrative person has clues. Sometimes, you see, we get a pseudo-objective third person account of the Boy's childhood; sometimes he switches to first person. Sometimes this switch happens within a paragraph, which should be annoying, but isn't.

And this boy, who of course grows up to be This Census Taker, is a poor eyewitness with poor recall (like all humans, really), so we're never even sure if he is trusting himself, let alone expecting us to. Yowza.

Unfortunately, though, reliably or notThis Boy Who Becomes This Census Taker doesn't have a lot to say, and isn't interested in clarifying anything admit what he does say. There are hints that this is a post-apocalyptic setting, and that there are still some kind of lingering ethnic tensions going on (indeed, these census takers" job is specifically to count and collect narratives on everybody from the country that is the census takers' own point of origin. This is tantalizingly sinister, especially we face the possibility of a U.S. President who insists on creating a registry of Muslims, and not so he can market a halal version of his steak to them iykwim). Our boy has no knowledge of or interest in any of that, though, just wants to keep telling us about this thing that maybe didn't even happen. The effect is kind of like watching a really sophisticated and fascinating film but with a guy sitting in the seat in front of youth constantly getting up to shove his high school yearbook in his face, or something.

Ah, there, I've almost talked myself into hating this book, but I'm still kind of in the admirers' camp. But only kind of. I like the narrative experiment a whole lot; ditto the way this could fit into either a satirical or serious post-apocalyptic framework. But Mieville is capable of so much more, damn it.

Let's see what his next book brings.

*Especially since, pages later, the narrator refers to "keys" in the sense of typewriter or computer keys, as are arranged on a keyboard...


Monday, August 1, 2016

Tim Powers' MEDUSA'S WEB

My love for Tim Powers knows no bounds, as my readers probably know very well. From my very first reading of his basically perfect The Anubis Gates when I was a teenager to my most recent umpteenth re-read of his definitely perfect Last Call, I'm pretty close to saying the man can write no wrong.*

With his latest novel-length work, Medusa's Web, I'm even closer to saying that. Because holy crap, this is his best work since Last Call, and I really, really, really love Last Call, y'all.

There are enough superficial similarities between this work and LC that a reader might at first start suspecting that the wells to which Powers likes best to go are finally starting to run dry -- the hero's name is even Scott, you guys (but the reader discovers midway that it's Scott for a very punny-but-plot-relevant reason) -- but quickly it becomes apparent that said similarities are superficial indeed. Powers is not done coming up with weird new ways to mix science and magic and human creativity, and this is one of his weirdest yet.

Medusa's Web, which also in its setting and cast of closely related characters has even more of the flavor of a gothic novel than Powers' stuff usually does, begins with an uncomfortable reunion of cousins, gathered back to the sprawling Holywood estate where they were all raised by a legendary actress/model/bodice-ripping novelist named Amity. Who recently died. By committing suicide. By going to the roof of her monstrous house and blowing herself up with a grenade. And oh, by the way, because her monstrous house and its grounds are sort-of-haunted in a very timey-wimey way, that particular explosion keeps repeating itself at odd intervals throughout the subsequent story as her son and three of his cousins try to sort out what to do now that the old girl is gone.

And that's not all. Because this is Tim Powers. So, no, there is no Time Machine whisking people to and fro, nor is the repetition of Amity's spectacular suicide just a ghost story. There is a really weird sort of magic at work here, magic triggered by very simple but weirdly potent line drawings that suck observers right out of their bodies, into an identity-less, sort-of-dimensionless space and then dump them into vignettes from the lives of other people who have looked at those drawings. And there are lots of those, generally, because this trip is pretty addictive. But that's not all, either.

Let's just say you're not just a passive observer of the vignettes you might witness. And that there's maybe some reciprocity. Which makes a kind of time travel possible. Kind of.

And there's yet more. Because this book takes place in Hollywood. Yes, the bulk of it in 2015, and yes, in kind of a romantic ruin of the past, but also in Old Hollywood. As in the silent movie era. And the great Rudolph Valentino is a character (kind of the way Bugsy Siegel was in LC, but he gets to do more). And there's a whole thread woven in about a classic silent pic, Salome**, which I'd not heard of before but now totally want to see.

And but so, GLAMOUR.

I think this is going to warrant a repeat read very soon, because, too, in some ways this reminded me a bit of a Gene Wolfe novel. Once you know its secrets, the meaning of some baffling early bits might just turn from baffling to brilliant.

Don't forget your bullseye specs, kids!

*I say "pretty close" only because I am not a huge fan of his sequel-that-tied-two-previously-unrelated-books-together-to-make-an-after-the-fact-trilogy, Earthquake Weather. It's not terrible, but it's not up to his usual mark, either, and reeks of something cooked up by his agent or publisher. Meh. But otherwise, yeah, he can write no wrong.

**Which is a silent adaptation of the great Oscar Wilde's famous play about Salome and John the Baptist and Herod. Yeah, that Salome. But it's also, because Powers is a genius, warped into being a key to the mystery of these weirdo spider drawings. Because Powers is a genius.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Laline Paull's THE BEES

To compare Laline Paull's entomological fantasy, The Bees,to Watership Down is an almost irresistible temptation, and probably made a pretty good elevator pitch for the book, but to do so, to simply say "bees instead of rabbits" is to sell both novels short. Yes, they're both magnificent novels that are much, much more than human stories acted out by animals, but that's pretty much where the similarities end.

The Bees concerns the life-span of one individual worker bee, Flora-717 (Flora is her "kin"; there are hundreds of Floras and she is but one. But...) within the larger life of a domesticated hive kept by a human beekeeper to pollinate his orchard (his sole "Visitation" to collect some honey is a terrifying scene I'd pit right up against the harrowing extermination scene from the animated film version of Watership Down, but it's somehow more horrifying because the reader knows the beekeeper believes he's a kindly husband to his hive, its benevolent father-god just collecting his tithe).

From her emergence from the cell in which she metamorphosed from a larva to an adult worker bee forward, Flora-717 (or just Flora; other members of her kin group are referred to as floras with a lower case "f" for clarity) is marked out as different. A member of the lowly sanitation caste, she is already considered ugly and brutish, but she's also huge for a worker bee, so huge that the "fertility police" almost kill her as deformed. Only the experimental kindness of a high-caste "Sage" (of royal kin) saves her, and sets her on her unique path.

Flora gets to be a nurse in the royal nurseries for a while, then goes back to janitoring, then gets the opportunity to join the elite corps of "foragers" -- the bees who fly out in search of new sources of nectar and pollen and come back to the hive to dance out not only directions but also detailed stories about how they found the food and what terrors they encountered -- crows, wasps, spiders, cell phone towers* -- on the way there.

All of this is presented with great attention to our current actual scientific understanding of bees and beehives, which lends a lot of plausibility (and earns a lot of willing suspension of disbelief) to Flora's story. At times, though, Paulli can't help herself. These bees "talk" in perfect English sentences and, furthermore, have a powerful form of telepathy that is kind of top-down in that higher caste bees seem to have greater ability than lower but also allows our heroine to download a whole load of knowledge from a dying forager bee at one point. One may snort at this, but let it go.

The prose is lovely, and so is the emotional journey of our Flora as she experiences both a sexless and sexual life of a kind, motherhood of a kind (only the Queen is supposed to breed, but as we've established, Flora is special -- and her origins, if not how she learns of them, plausibly explain her specialness) and life as a tiny part of a greater whole. I'm not at this stage 100% sure that I'm going to read this one over and over again as I have the rabbit book, but since I do happen to love insects rather a lot more than I do rabbits, well...

Anyway, as the best entomological fiction to hit the book world since Clark Thomas Carlton's Prophets of the Ghost Ants, this one is not to be missed!

*A whole thread that entertains all of the suggested and accepted factors that contributed to colony collapse disorder is present here. Paulli wisely favors none of the theories specifically, nor does she get didactic about it all; it's merely texture, background detail on what the life of bees must actually be like. Well, what it would actually be like if they "spoke" and all.

Seth Harwood's EVERYONE PAYS

First off, why isn't every motherfolklore among you reading Seth Harwood? Seriously, he is one of the best we've got, and the crime genre he so loves to write in is lucky to have him. Any genre would be.

Harwood has proven this time and time again, in a sound and unflashy way, and then later in a spectacular way (seriously, if you are one of those types still crying that The Wire is all done and dusted, you owe it to yourself to go have a look at Young Junius, in which Harwood had the balls to go where the admittedly spectacular writing staff of that show never went, right up into the project towers).

And the guy keeps improving.

With Everyone Pays, Harwood returns to his beloved San Francisco to bring us what looks on the surface like a straight-up cops'n'killers story: a homicide detective and her partner find themselves on the trail of a serial killer. I yawn just typing that description. I cocked an eyebrow when I realized that's what my boy had written. But of course this is my boy Harwood, so lots more is going on.

For one thing, the serial killer in question is killing low-lifes who abuse prostitutes, so, Dexter-ish, he could almost become a sort of hero-villain. But that twist is not what makes Everyone Pays so special.

It's special for two reasons.

First, the way it's structured. Now, alternating points of view between hero and villain is not a new trick, and Harwood knows this, but he's gone that structure one better in a way that feels strange at first but subtly gives the experience of reading this novel more depth than I would have ever expected. As our hero, Sgt. Clara Donner, begins investigating the case, she and her partner come across crime scene after crime scene as they start piecing together who this guy is and what he's all about. Emphasis is placed more on Donner's interaction with her team members than on the gruesome details -- except, usually, for one unusual one (that's not necessarily gruesome, but is unusual enough to be the one thing you might expect these people to feel worth mentioning later on when they tell their tales at the bar or in the locker room. Aagain, not to unusual.

But then, after each crime scene, we get the crime from the killer's point of view. The strange detail gets put into context, the killer's story and motivations deepen and become (kind of sickeningly) more comprehensible, and while the first few times this happens it feels like a weird choice for Harwood to have made, it gives the novel a rhythm all its own that makes it stand out.*

So, that's pretty cool, but what really is going to make this a memorable read for me for a long time to come is how masterfully Harwood constructed a narrative about a female homicide investigator and made it work. Sgt. Donner is blue-blooded but her homicide investigator father insisted forever that homicide is no place for a woman. She became a homicide investigator anyway, but doesn't carry a chip on her shoulder about it. She gets stuff done, lives her life, seems to enjoy it, passes the Bechdel test fairly well, encounters some sexism but doesn't get distracted by it, is kind of constricted within a sexist world within her narrative but fights it with weary excellence. She's got to be twice as good and she knows it, but she doesn't resent this, just accepts it as part of her world and displays considerable skill in getting things done anyway. She's a great character and I kind of love her.

Then her quarry becomes aware of her. Her quarry who thinks God has commanded him to punish sinners and protect women from them. Her quarry whose understanding of women traps them, pacing like animals in an old-fashioned zoo, in the smallest possible space, and tries to force Sgt. Donner into a role he has imagined for her. The tension between who Donner is and who this most patriarchal of killers tries to make her be is powerful, and drives a lot of the second half of the novel.

So Harwood, in other words, is a white male novelist who has worked very, very, very hard to Get It. He's dared and succeeded to write inner city black characters with sympathy and plausibility and skill in other books; now he's turned that same sensitivity to a female character, and his work rings just as true.

And it's a hell of a good crime story. Good enough, once again, to make me wonder if maybe I shouldn't be reading more crime fiction. I run through this set of thoughts every time I finish one of Harwood's books, with the answer being "I probably should" but honestly? I have such a monstrous pile of TBR in my lifelong favorite genres (science fiction, science fantasy, weird fiction, etc), to say nothing of all of my other projects, that I just don't know how I'd ever fit in another whole genre with its own set of classics (and I've read the serious classics of the genre already. Dashiell Hammett forever, yo) and must-reads and newcomers and all that. Perhaps if I live beyond my century mark I'll pull it off, but man, do you know how much stuff I still haven't read in my chosen genres? To say nothing of the books yet to come? Motherfolklore.

But always, always, I will make time for Seth Harwood.

*At least for me, but I don't read a lot of crime fiction. It's just not my thing. I grew up in a law enforcement family, worked in the field myself for a decade, and so I just can't stand cop shows or novels. So I can't be considered an authority on them. But still, for me, this technique made the book special. Your mileage may vary.

Laline Paull's THE BEES

To compare Laline Paull's entomological fantasy, The Bees,to Watership Down is an almost irresistible temptation, and probably made a pretty good elevator pitch for the book, but to do so, to simply say "bees instead of rabbits" is to sell both novels short. Yes, they're both magnificent novels that are much, much more than human stories acted out by animals, but that's pretty much where the similarities end.

The Bees concerns the life-span of one individual worker bee, Flora-717 (Flora is her "kin"; there are hundreds of Floras and she is but one. But...) within the larger life of a domesticated hive kept by a human beekeeper to pollinate his orchard (his sole "Visitation" to collect some honey is a terrifying scene I'd pit right up against the harrowing extermination scene from the animated film version of Watership Down, but it's somehow more horrifying because the reader knows the beekeeper believes he's a kindly husband to his hive, its benevolent father-god just collecting his tithe).

From her emergence from the cell in which she metamorphosed from a larva to an adult worker bee forward, Flora-717 (or just Flora; other members of her kin group are referred to as floras with a lower case "f" for clarity) is marked out as different. A member of the lowly sanitation caste, she is already considered ugly and brutish, but she's also huge for a worker bee, so huge that the "fertility police" almost kill her as deformed. Only the experimental kindness of a high-caste "Sage" (of royal kin) saves her, and sets her on her unique path.

Flora gets to be a nurse in the royal nurseries for a while, then goes back to janitoring, then gets the opportunity to join the elite corps of "foragers" -- the bees who fly out in search of new sources of nectar and pollen and come back to the hive to dance out not only directions but also detailed stories about how they found the food and what terrors they encountered -- crows, wasps, spiders, cell phone towers* -- on the way there.

All of this is presented with great attention to our current actual scientific understanding of bees and beehives, which lends a lot of plausibility (and earns a lot of willing suspension of disbelief) to Flora's story. At times, though, Paulli can't help herself. These bees "talk" in perfect English sentences and, furthermore, have a powerful form of telepathy that is kind of top-down in that higher caste bees seem to have greater ability than lower but also allows our heroine to download a whole load of knowledge from a dying forager bee at one point. One may snort at this, but let it go.

The prose is lovely, and so is the emotional journey of our Flora as she experiences both a sexless and sexual life of a kind, motherhood of a kind (only the Queen is supposed to breed, but as we've established, Flora is special -- and her origins, if not how she learns of them, plausibly explain her specialness) and life as a tiny part of a greater whole. I'm not at this stage 100% sure that I'm going to read this one over and over again as I have the rabbit book, but since I do happen to love insects rather a lot more than I do rabbits, well...

Anyway, as the best entomological fiction to hit the book world since Clark Thomas Carlton's Prophets of the Ghost Ants, this one is not to be missed!

*A whole thread that entertains all of the suggested and accepted factors that contributed to colony collapse disorder is present here. Paulli wisely favors none of the theories specifically, nor does she get didactic about it all; it's merely texture, background detail on what the life of bees must actually be like. Well, what it would actually be like if they "spoke" and all.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Matt Wallace's ENVY OF ANGELS

So, if you've always wanted to know more about the pink slurry that is formed by varied and largely unknown means into chicken "nuggets" or if you think there's not enough speculative fiction about the highly competitive world of professional catering, OR if your favorite H.P. Lovecraft story just happens to be "The Festival", well, you're slightly nuts but Matt Wallace has you covered anyway, though not so much that maybe you deserve it but rather that you absolutely deserve it and the extant sequels already come and coming down the pike and ready to violate your little eye-holes.

S'all right? S'all right.

But also.caveat clowns. Possibly worse than Pennywise clowns. OMG clowns, etc

But so, Envy of Angels is the first entry in Wallace's Sin du Jour novella series, which focuses on the eldritch adventures of the owner and staff of a catering company with a very unusual (even diabolical) clientele whose tastes require extraordinary effort to satisfy. So, for instance, the crew involved in procuring ingredients are all half Indiana Jones, half Harry Dresden and half Repairman Jack. And yes, that's three halves and what part of "eldritch" weren't you understanding?

This first entry introduces us to a pair of new hires who are immediately sucked into a near impossible effort: finding a way to prepare a meal that tastes exactly like the expertly prepared flesh and blood of an angel but doesn't actually.contain any angel because who wants to kill and cook an angel?

And yes, this leads to adventure and horror and hijinks, because how could it not, you guys? How could it not?

Bonus points for some gawdawdful humor at the end, too. Holy shih!

Friday, July 8, 2016

SUNS SUNS SUNS Program Note, Or Whatever You'd Call It



Just letting y'all know, since I've had more questions about this posting series than about anything else I've ever done on this blog -- I have not abandoned this, oh no! In fact, I'm going on pseudo-vacation pretty soon (I say "pseudo" because as a person with increasing chronic pain issues, it really just means I'm going to be severely limited in my daily activities in a different location) and I'm planning on resuming this right where I left off, er, quite some time ago. So keep your eye on this space, Wolfe-ites! More junk analysis of Book of the New Sun (and, someday, Book of the Long Sun and Book of the Short Sun) is coming soon!

For those of you who want to brush up on this (as I had to do, to find my place), here is a link to the entire series to date. As always, because this is Blogspot, start at the bottom and work your way up.

Grab your sunglasses!