Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Bernard Cornwell's SHARPE'S RIFLES

"He might not be a born officer, but by God he was a born soldier. He was the son of a whore, bereft of God, but a God-damned soldier."

I've decided that the best way to approach the Sharpe series -- in which the publication order differs so radically from the publication order as to seem all but an exercise in randomization -- the way one does when reading stories about Conan the Cimmerian. There might be some narrative carry-over from novel to novel, but it's best to just regard them as discrete stories that happen to be about a guy with the same name and more or less the same character.

I say this because Sharpe's Rifles is the point where a lot of people who have chosen to read these books in chronological order start complaining about inconsistencies. The book was written some half a dozen years after those of the original core series, but cast as a prequel to them -- and the books I've read so far were written many, many years after this one, but take place earlier in Sharpe's career.

So in a lot of ways, the Richard Sharpe in Sharpe's Rifles bears little resemblance to the character I've grown to love through his adventures in India, at sea, and in Denmark, except in the ways described in the ur-Cornwellian sentence I quoted at the beginning of this post. He's still pretty uncouth and brutal, still an all but conscience-less and cold-blooded killer, but he seems only to have honed those qualities from his prior adventures* but not to have experienced the character building that came with them. To wit: he is unsure in his authority (though it could be argued that the years he has spent as a downtrodden Quartermaster for the 95th Rifles might have eroded the confidence he gained in India and Denmark), a complete sucker for anything in a skirt (see my asterisk below) and taking lessons in leadership from the Spanish major Bias Vivar that he really ought already to have absorbed from the good examples of his protectors in India like McCandless.

But these are small quibbles, and become meaningless once one has agreed to treat the novels as things outside of time and narrative continuity. Especially when the material at hand is so good, as it is here. For Sharpe's Rifles has everything I've come to expect from a Sharpe story: over-the-top adventure (here a ragtag band of survivors of a famous retreat across Spain is teaming up with a small-but-elite cadre of the Spanish army commanded by the aforementioned Don Bias on a mission to bring a Holy McGuffin to the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostella and thus create a new legend to inspire the Spanish peasantry to rise up against the hated French invaders), internecine bickering, inspired combat tactics, cold chivalry among enemies, and all the fighting, drinking and swearing (if not, this time, the whoring) one might expect from a good piece of military fiction.

Here, too, is an origin story of sorts, though its significance is lost to chronological readers who have not osmotically absorbed a certain level of meta-knowledge about the series -- for it is here that Sharpe and his gonna-be best friend, Sergeant Harper, meet for the first time. And it's a pretty good meet as those go -- Harper almost stages a mutiny against Sharpe! -- but it's still not as good as Aubrey and Maturin and the concert at Port Mahon. But that's maybe not a fair comparison, right? I'm sure back in the 1980s when only the original core Peninsular War books existed, fans of Sharpe/Harper were delighted to observe this meeting, but for us chronological readers starting in the 21st century, it will never have the same power.

Still, cracking good stuff. Again, lots of explorations of how the rifle changed warfare, and how swords still matter, even if one sword is in the hand of a guy astride a big horse and the other in the hand of a guy on foot who ran out of ammo or out of time to reload his weapon, lots of amusing ruses de guerre... and then there's the attack on Santiago itself, which doesn't hold a candle to the big set-piece battles we saw in India, but is still very satisfying indeed.

Truly, Sharpe never disappoints.

*At least, thank goodness, his prior adventures don't involve a lot of ret-conning; the allusions to his deeds in India, at Seringapatam and Gawalghur, etc. match up with the stories I've read. Well, except for Lady Grace, his lover from Sharpe's Waterloo who died after giving him a son before Sharpe's Prey. I'm pretty sure that once you've bedded a gorgeous noblewoman you're not going to be so terribly overawed by a mere member of the impecunious country gentry, however mischievous and cute.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Michael Moorcock's BEHOLD THE MAN #OneBookAtATime

Stop me if you've heard this one before. Jungian meets girl. Jungian loses religious/philosophical argument with girl. Jungian jumps into Time Machine to prove girl wrong about Jebus. Jungian blunders into being accepted as Jebus by denizens of the time to which he has traveled. Jungian further blunders by trying to reenact what he knows about Jebus. You know, to preserve history and biblical truth. Jungian gets crucified. Jungian never sees girl again.

I'm sure this was all very shocking back in the 60s when this was published. And I can see why Michael Moorcock got noticed for Behold the Man.* But really now it's just a curiosity.

I just couldn't resist the idea of reading this on Palm Sunday. And now I have. And yes, I got some chuckles; on the blasphenomenal humor scale this is somewhere between Monty Python's Life of Brian and Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. It's not as laugh-out-loud/thigh-slapping as the former, and not as intelligent and subtle as the latter, but it's a nifty way to pass an hour or two (at 124 pages, only those who try really, really hard to prolong the reading experience will find themselves spending any more time with it than that), provided you're not one of those types who take umbrage at, for instance, the suggestion that the real historical Jesus whom our time traveling Jungian backs into replacing was actually some kind of congenital hydrocephalic fetal alcohol syndrome imbecile, or that all of the cryptic sayings and parables attributed to Jesus are actually just half-baked, half-remembered scraps of folk wisdom, popular ethics and syncretic mysticism. Which yeah, this story does as well as any we might care to dream up as far as explaining why Christianity really seems like it stole the clothes of a bunch of earlier Eastern mystery cults and whatnot.

Not a bad read, but not one I'm going to press on people to read, either. And hey, I might even take a look at the sequel, Breakfast in the Ruins, sometime if it comes my way and I'm a bit desperate. But I'm not going to hunt it down or anything.

*And thank goodness he did. What would my life -- what would anyone's life -- be without Elric, Corum, Jerry Cornelius, Erekose, etc. etc. etc.? I shudder to contemplate it.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Tim Powers' LAST CALL #OneBookAtATime

"Last night I stayed up late playing poker with Tarot cards. I got a full house and four people died." - Steven Wright

While finishing with The Stand, the climax of which takes place in a haunting, demonic ghost town version of Las Vegas, I had to struggle not to compare King's version of bad magic in Sin City to Tim Powers' in Last Call, one of my all-time favorite novels. And the comparison was totally unfair of me to make, because as far as I'm concerned, Tim Powers is the sine qua non of making the ordinary strange, and the strange ordinary, and nowhere has he to date done it better than in this bizarrely awesome novel, in which the archetypes of the Tarot meet the warty fat man in the famous Mandelbrot fractal and Bugsy Siegel was once the Fisher King of the American West.

And it all happens because of poker. Well, poker and a special kind of demented hunger for power, the latter satisfied in an exceedingly strange way by means of an extremely strange version of the former. As in a poker game played with an exceptionally powerful Tarot deck. If you get a full house in this game, you don't kill people a la Steven Wright, but you do risk losing your immortal soul, or at least your body; you risk becoming a new host for an evil magician type who is doing his damndest not only to become the new Fisher King, but to stay king forever. Yowza.

Our hero is an aging beery bum of a semi-professional poker player, adopted by a poker legend as a young child after being deposited, Moses-like, in a trailered boat by a doomed mother frantic to escape her terrifying husband. Scott "Scarecrow" Crane is literally and physically scarred by this barely-remembered childhood trauma even before he is manipulated into joining a certain game played with a certain deck under the aegis of a certain mysteriously powerful someone who has been desperately seeking a way to become a metaphysical parent since he was thwarted in being a real one...

The dual nature of the relationship between our man Crane and the evil magician Georges Leon is the first of many neat parallels with the dual Fisher King/Wounded King motif in Arthurian legend, and is just one of the many delights awaiting the literary nerd, the student of nature and human nature, the math and probability geek, the gambling aficionado, the archetypal psychology fan. Powers' magical system, developed here and revisited in later semi-sequels/sidequels (Expiration Date and Earthquake Weather now marketed after the fact with Last Call as a trilogy called "Fault Lines") is the most compellingly believable I've ever encountered, logical and thoroughly imagined and plausible to the point where to this day if I happen to see people playing cards, I catch myself watching how cigarette smoke billows across the table or levels in drinks tilt or don't tilt, as clues to how the game is going, what the stakes might be, who is going to win -- and how all of this might somehow predict the future. And we won't even talk about what I think of a certain mathematical set, which gives me the creeps to this day.

And oh, the characters. Especially the villains, of whom there are many, in a stunning variety. Al Funo, the social maladroit who thinks he's some kind of major smooth operator, whom Powers imbues with stunning creepiness, banal phrase by banal phrase. Ray-Joe Pogue, resplendent in Elvis gear (hey, this is Vegas, baby) and the Amino Acids (who else but Tim Powers could make a bunch of guys in El Caminos scary?). Vaughan Trumbill, the illustrated fat man with the world's weirdest case of Renfield syndrome.* Dondi Snayheever, raised in a series of Skinner boxes to become the world's greatest poker player, abused into becoming a demented psychic dowsing rod instead. And then there's the bad king, Georges Leon himself, tapped into all of the godlike power this archetypal kingship offers, using it only to prolong his life and keep swapping.

What really sells this novel, though, is the magic, rendered by Powers as a precise set of analogy and correspondence between will and result. It's consistent, powerful and, unlike what we usually see in the urban fantasy genre (I've argued elsewhere that Powers was writing urban fantasy before urban fantasy was a thing), contemporary, even as it also hooks into the good old Jungian archetypes represented by the Tarot and Arthurian legend. These are not people adhering to the rituals and rites found in some dusty 500 year old spell book; there is creativity and cleverness in what they do as a result of observing and learning and, OMG, thinking for themselves. No wise old man is handing out quests here. Hooray!

Since I last read this book, I got to visit Hoover Dam, where one of the climactic scenes of the novel takes place (just before Holy Week, yet, which is next week as I dictate these lines). So of course I shivered, looking out at Lake Mead and wondering if maybe Bugsy Siegel's head wasn't down in the depths somewhere. I watched the other visitors for telltale herky-jerky movements. I prayed I wouldn't see an Elvis. Even though I knew Diana had tamed the water.

Happy Easter, everybody!

I swear all of that will make sense if you read the book. All of that and more.

*There's an illustration by the brilliant J.T. Potter of him as the Mandelbrot Man in the deluxe hardcover edition that will scare the crap out of you.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Stephen King's THE STAND #OneBookAtATime

OK, we've pretty much established that Stephen King drives me batdung insane, but one of my best web-sisters loves him,* and insists that, since I liked Randall Flagg in all those Dark Tower books I read last year, I'll like The Stand. Even though the miniseries was kind of risible.**

So did I? Well, yes and no. Mostly yes, but not for the reasons most people like it, I suspect.

Once again, I am in complete awe of King's ability to create amazing characters and to write about them quite beautifully, even lyrically. Even in his mid-book series of slapstick vignettes in which a series of people who have survived the apocalyptic "superflu" (aka "Captain Trips") which is King's chosen instrument of world-ending destruction turn around and succumb to more banal and stupid ways to die like drug overdoses, electrocution, getting locked in a walk-in freezer, etc., the characters he kills off with such hilarious glee are vivid and believable and sometimes even sympathetic, even though some of them only live and die in a single paragraph. This is totally remarkable.

And his more important characters, whose stories he spins out over a good thousand and some pages, are just as stunning a set of creations. Trashcan Man, Frannie, Stu, Larry, Nadine, Lloyd, Glen, Ralph, Harold, Tom... they're all people you can believe really exist in the world, whole and flawed and trying to get by in the aftermath of the superflu. Watching them (well, most of them) trying to rebuild a democratic society when (again, most of them) finally come together in mid-novel is fascinating, believable and would come over as well-imagined even without the convenient sociological wisdom of Glen, who was, that's right, a sociologist before the superflu. Indeed, the rebuilding of the mini-America in the Free Zone of what used to be Boulder, CO is the best part of the book, for me. I would gladly have read a whole novel just about that. But alas, this is Stephen King, writing for his fans, and Stephen King fans demand horror and gore and big time morality play-flavored Good versus Evil. Which he more than delivers, ruining these great characters in the process in the way I have complained about before -- not letting them be themselves in all their awesome, complicated glory***, preferring to send them dreams and divine/infernal messages and mysterious knowledge he can't narratively justify so just punts and calls "intuition" or "gut feeling." Barf. And telegraphing fates way in advance of their actual occurrence, so we know, hundreds of pages ahead of time, that so-and-so won't ever see such-and-such again. Double barf.

But I knew I'd be running into that going in, since it was, after all, the miniseries of The Stand that first really rubbed my nose in how crassly King characters get manipulated into executing his plots. Fortunately, that wasn't all that was going on in these 1100+ pages; what really kept this book interesting for me, in addition to the rough and ready civics, was its status as a complete love letter to the geography of America, from Maine to the midwest, from Arkansas to Colorado, from Indiana to Las Vegas, even when the country is transformed into a giant graveyard of dead cars and deader people, King's love for the landscape comes through on every page. The man has obviously made a joyous, directionless road trip or two in his day.

And I'd love to have someone like him as a traveling companion, with or without the obstacles of a million stalled out cars on the highways. But the second he started talking about how he "just knew" we had to take a certain turn, or to try to talk me into feeling that way, boot. Outta the car. My life is my own, Jack. Er, Steve.

*Who else could I be talking about here but EssJay, the @PopQueenie?

**How risible? We had us one of our infamous drinkalongs recently.

***And seriously, the glory of some of these characters is awesome in its complexity. Two of these in particular come to mind: Larry Underwood and Harold Lauder. Larry, a recovering rock star, spends a lot of the novel wrestling with a dual identity/morality crisis with its roots in a childhood in which he was dismissed as a "taker" who is "missing something" essential to his development into a fully trustworthy, capable adult, in his mother's opinion. Thrust into a positions of ever increasing responsibility, he struggles with this outdated and inaccurate version of himself through early failings right on through his selection as one of the Free Zone's leaders and, ultimately, heroes. Harold is barely out of his teens and still bears all of the wounds of a youth in the shadow of a pretty and popular older sister; a whip-smart nerd blessed with none of his sister's gifts, his own struggle is with an equally outdated self image as the eternal outcast. It's pretty near impossible not to see Harold in terms of Eric Cartman in the South Park episode in which Dog Whisperer Cesar Milan almost succeeds in turning Cartman into a decent human being. Harold has all the potential in the world, and all the opportunity, but his own lack of confidence in himself defeats him. For me, The Stand is a study in contrasts between these two young men; ultimately a lot of what brings about their divergent fates is the quality of the women they encounter on their journeys -- and whether or not they get to leave certain other women behind. Larry's negatively projecting mother dies at the beginning of his journey, and he moves on to meet Rita (a helpless older woman who forces him into a caretaker role early on), Nadine (a troublesome figure with an evil destiny who chooses it over him) and finally Lucy, who loves him unconditionally and believes in him no matter what. Larry is lucky. Harold? Poor Harold is stuck with Fran, his sister's best friend, who knew him when and can't forget his nerdy fat boy origins, won't let him forget them, either, and is not a very nice person anyway (cue Fran partisans screaming for my blood, but dude, she is a popular girl who never got over herself, no matter how she kind of sort of sucks it up and grows up later on).


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

David Wong's JOHN DIES AT THE END #OneBookAtATime

If you've always dreamed of Bill & Ted reuniting to make a horror film, if you like the elaborate magical systems dreamed up by Tim Powers but think they're too well-planned and logical, if you think the head growing legs and crawling away gag in John Carpenter's remake of The Thing is the best SFX ever, if you love the combination of buddy comedy and demon hunting in Reaper... I believe I have found your new favorite book.

John Dies at the End is long on imaginative gore and slapstick horror, but short on sense. Part of this is, I suspect, by design; our protagonist Dave Wong (wink) and his friend John are shrewd but poorly educated working class stiffs who stumble upon a drug that allows -- indeed forces -- the user to see into other dimensions, most of which are way scarier than ours, menacing and gross and hostile to humanity, and thereby uncover a multidimensional conspiracy to take over and effectively destroy our world. Their grasp on what is going on is usually, therefore, on the slack side, and so, therefore, is our hero's narration -- long on pop culture references and descriptions of things as "stupid" or "retarded", short on sense.

But what John Dies at the End lacks in sense, it makes up for in sheer inventiveness and flair. Wong was at great pains to invent all new monsters, though he was obviously inspired by Stephen King's lobstrosities (but his monsters rarely ask nonsensical questions while they attack). I was particularly amused/sickened by, for instance, the "wigmonsters" that trash a famous paranormal hunter's floor show in a Las Vegas casino. They're quite Carpenteresque, multiform and multi-limbed and multi-eyed, and are, in fact, wearing jaunty little wigs complete with rubber chinstraps. And they are equipped with scorpion-like stingers that pump their victims full of the Drug of Dimensional Seeing.

There are body-snatchings, "alien" abductions, gunfights, sword fights (sort of), bombs and beer bongs. There is an abandoned shopping mall infested fire-breathing coyotes and deer with pincers at the end of their antlers. Exploding dogs and explosions of dog feces. Road trips. And then there's the Bill and Ted element: several times our heroes' bacon is saved by timely delivery of objects or information that could only be achieved via time travel. And John's spirit, or something, seems to be unstuck in time (as is their dog, Molly) and able to make cell phone calls to Dave even while Dave is sitting with the supposed real John. This is never explained but it's amusing enough to let it slide.

Anyway, I liked it well enough to take the trouble to get my hands on the sequel, This Book is Full of Spiders, which I'll be reading in due course. But first, I have promises to keep.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Louis L'Amour's THE WARRIOR'S PATH #OneBookAtATime

It's a strange experience for a Wyoming girl, raised on Wyoming history but not so much U.S. history, to read historical fiction in which the east coast is the frontier. Strange and pretty fascinating. I know that later Sackett novels will bring me to more familiar territory, but right now, right now the most settled part of the United States feels downright exotic, even romantic, in this third novel, The Warrior's Path.

Man, is there a lot going on in this little book.

As we rejoin the Sackett family, its first American-born generation has reached adulthood and started getting married. Founding patriarch Barnabas, he of the antique coin find in the English Fens of Cambridgeshire who started it all, is now dead, cut down in his late prime in an honorable fight with some Seneca warriors. Wife Abigail, she of the wild seafaring life until Barnabas convinced her to go pioneering with him, has taken their son Brian (who would be a law student) and daughter Noelle back to England to get some civilizin', but their other sons, Yance and Kin-Ring*, ah, that's who we're following for this here novel (they had another son, Jubal, but we'll get his story in some other book. I have a feeling he's more of a full-on Grizzly Adams type than his brothers, who just refer to him from time to time as a wanderer).

The Sacketts and their friends have established a nice little mini-colony in the Carolinas, befriended some natives, be-foed others, and are enjoying their lives of hunting and fishing and farming. Yance has married a nice young lady from the Plymouth colony up north, somewhat against those Puritans' wishes, and its through the circumstances of his wedding that the story gets started -- though the story is really Kin-Ring's.

Word comes via a dying native that Yance's 12-year-old sister-in-law, Carrie, and another woman, Diana Macklin, have been kidnapped by some bad natives and Yance's in-laws aren't satisfied with their community's half-hearted efforts to get the girls back. Diana is a bit of a wild one, it seems -- whip-smart, independent, outdoorsy, knowledgeable about herbs and animals, literate, skeptical, all those things good Puritan girls aren't -- and no one seems too concerned at her loss. As for the little girl, ah, well, she shouldn't have been hanging out with Diana anyway.

Well, of course our Sackett boys spring into action. And quickly determine that 1. Diana and Carrie are not the first young ladies to disappear from their settlement, 2. The other disappeared girls have also been uppity types like Diana is and Carrie is likely to grow up to be and 3. It wasn't actually Indians what took 'em.

I love that L'Amour loves strong female characters almost as much as he loves subtly skewering the people who don't appreciate them. His princesses aren't entirely self-rescuing, but they come awfully close, really just needing to borrow masculine brawn on occasion to make their brainy schemes go (and satisfy some confining social norms). Such is Diana, who has already taken her fate into her own hands by the time the Sacketts locate her, and especially Adele, whom Kin-Ring meets in Jamaica (see, I said there's a lot going on in this little novel) as he tracks down the white slavers who are the real culprits in these abductions -- slavers who are not only profiting from the trade in pretty white girls, but are also doing their hometowns a favor by getting rid of uppity women that can't quite successfully be persecuted as witches. At least not yet.** Diana and Adele are never quite fleshed out as whole characters, and are definitely seen wholly through male eyes, but these male eyes appreciate the ladies for more than just their looks and their cooking and their ability to make more male with eyes. Sackett men want brainy, educated, can-do women, and if they're pretty, that's just a bonus.

So of the Sackett novels I've read so far, this one is my favorite, but I suspect they'll keep getting better. I'm pretty sure L'Amour's small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri would be real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri.

Really, the only flaw here is some weird narrative switcheroos that L'amour made earlier in the novel. About 90% of the story is told in the first person with Kin-Ring as narrator, but a few scenes from which he is absent are told from Diana's third person perspective, which is fine if a bit sloppy. When they first meet up, though, L'Amour inexplicably switches from one narration to the other in the middle of a scene, just for a few paragraphs, which is jarring and came across as downright amateurish. Since this book dates back to the days when major publishing houses generally made an effort at editing, it's all the more surprising to encounter here. But hey, even the greats screw up sometimes.

And L'Amour is great.

*I do not understand the naming of this character at all. Anyone who knows WTS this guy's name is supposed to refer to, enlighten me, please!

**This story takes place a little while before the Great Witch Craze really caught on in North America.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Timothy Zahn's HEIR TO THE EMPIRE #OneBookAtATime

What a strange thing it is, to be spending time with Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, Artoo and Threepio after all these years. I've not read any of the Star Wars spinoff-novels before, you see, though I've heard plenty about them, even have a friend who basically reads nothing else. But yes, I must sheepishly admit to Heir to the Empire being my first Star Wars read since The Star Wars Storybook back when I was eight.

The narrative starts off a few years after the destruction of the second Death Star. A fledgling New Republic is slowly establishing itself; the Empire is in tatters but there are still pockets of loyalty to the old regime here and there, mostly on the edges and fringes. Leia is a diplomat, making contact with planets and offering them help and aid and protection from Imperial renegades in exchange for loyalty to the Republic; Han is now her husband and sort of just tooling around doing stuff that is sort of helpful to the cause; they are expecting twins. Luke is around, again, without any particular role except in teaching Leia to be a Jedi and developing a curriculum for his yet-unborn niece and nephew. The droids are the droids. Everything seems to be going well enough...

But remember what I said about the fringes. An Imperial warlord, Admiral Thrawn, more or less the titular heir, has been seething out in space and developing a plan to take back the Empire. He's not quite a Sith lord, but he's got some uncanny abilities and a whole blue-skinned, red-eyed head full of military strategy, tactical genius, intelligence and patience. And some animals, the ysalamir, that project a sort of "anti-Force" useful for neutralizing Jedi. Mind-bogglingly useful creatures, those ysalamir, surely the Babel fish of the Star Wars universe.

For most of the novel, we watch Thrawn and his forces gather strength and spring trap after trap that Leia and co. keep narrowly escaping, which is fun and satisfying in the same popcorn-chomping way the original film trilogy was fun and satisfying. More satisfying is the introduction of an important new character, Mara Jade, who has a most unusual past and promises to have a most interesting future, especially if the flavor of bickering mistrust that characterizes her exchanges with Luke portends what I'm sure it portends, wink wink. I mean, come on, we can't expect Han and Leia to shoulder all the burdens of making new little Jedi, can we?

So all in all, Heir to the Empire was a fun little palate cleanser, much needed after a lot of dark and depressing fare so far this year. Jar Jar Abrams would do well to work with this material for his films. If he gets someone decent to play Mara Jade, I might even forgive him some lens flare.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Cheap Thrills - THE BURNING MAIDEN Anthology is on sale for a short time

The book features deeply disturbing short fiction and poetry by an astonishing array of authors, including yours truly. Seriously. I'm chuffed as hell to be in this company.

And, for another two days, the ebook edition can be yours for a whopping 99¢ American.

Go, and as below Burnt Babe Mike Oliveri likes to say, make with the clicky:

Thursday, March 7, 2013


This it's my year for completely bugnuts reading, it would seem. Pontypool Changes Everything is a bizarre maelstrom of language-drunk Ontario gothic in the vein of the famously gory and disgusting Avatar comic Crossed. Deep in that vein. Tearing that vein out with snaggly bloodstained teeth and flinging it around like a mad dog. A mad dog that quotes Ovid and makes weird puns.

It has some of the trappings of a (yawn) zombie story -- probably just enough of same to piss off serious zombie fans looking for the mixture, same as before -- but it is so much more interesting than that, that I refuse to use the Z word again in this post.*

For one thing, it's very interestingly, sometimes surreally, written, with lines like "The tofu cube of brain walks down the wall on its slippery corners and covers the black spider hole left by the bullet."
I can totally see, in my mind's eye, what a Jacen Burroughs drawing of that would look like. Totally. But there are humdrum zombie novels full of lines like that.

No, what really sets Pontypool Changes Everything apart is the weirdo literary accomplishment it represents, for not only does it depict a highly virulent disease that is transmitted via spoken language (yeah, if the nam-shub/meme/language games were your favorite part of Snow Crash, here's a new book for your favorites shelf), but it also puts the reader pretty much directly takes the reader inside the subjective experience of the infected; every single viewpoint character (at least until the weirdo pseudo-pastoral last chapter or so) is in some stage of losing his or her grip on ordinary thought processes and language (the first symptom of the disease is aphasia), and once the strangeness of the resulting prose settles into the reader's brain, well, we're already slavering through suburban Toronto and the forests beyond the 'burbs, our necks snapped, our jaws slack, looking for someone's face to attack.

An afterword by Burgess expresses his regret at having written this novel, half grand Guignol, half post-modern experiment. I can't really say I regret reading it, but I think I can understand where the author is coming from. His experiment is not entirely successful, but it's interesting and unusual and (mostly) entertaining, and worth a look if you're in the mood for something a little different. I was, and had fun reading it, until the really pretty incomprehensible ending anyway.

*I submit that "cannibal berserker" is a better term for what the characters -- and, vicariously, Burgess' readers -- become, anyway.

Monday, March 4, 2013

John Brunner's THE SQUARES OF THE CITY #OneBookAtATime

The Sheep Look Up utterly devastated me when I read it for the first (and definitely not the last) time earlier this year, and I realized that John Brunner was a guy whose books I would definitely need to track down one by one until I had read them all.

Then my pal Paul Weimer and  a relatively new Twitter friend, Fred Kiesche, applauding my resolution, told me that if The Sheep Look Up was "death by pollution", The Squares of the City was "death by chess". As in the structure is modeled after a World Championship game in 1982 between Wilhelm Steinitz and Mikhail Chigorin. I thus knew that this one would have to be my next Brunner, because if there is one thing I love, utterly hopelessly*, it's chess. And people who are obsessed with chess.

And I also like a good jaw about urban planning and cities. So, um, as they say nowadays, hell yes.

The city in question here, Vados, is a relatively newly founded capital city in a ficticious South American Republic, Aguazul, to which our hero, the delightfully named Boyd Hakluyt,** has been summoned to help improve its traffic flows. Vados might be the most modern and well-planned city in the world, but the problem of moving people and goods around is never really solved, is it?

But of course, it's not really a traffic problem our hero has been brought in to solve. See, the circumstances behind the founding, just 20 years ago, of the city of Vados, are troublesome. Aguazul's president, Vados (yes), did not trust his people and their meager resources to create the perfect city he dreamed of, so he threw it open to the global elite as what amounted to an investment opportunity with big returns -- the biggest return being a place to live with a guaranteed high standard of living, elegance, order, and freedom from riff-raff. Yeah, he sort of built Galt's Gulch.

But wait! In order to assure the city had adequate water, most of the nation's water supply was diverted. Water that peasants and villagers and small farmers depended on. Water that said peasants etc. wound up having to follow to Vados, even though Vados had no place for the likes of them, resulting in unsightly slums and shanty towns and the general presence of riff-raff in this perfect city. Oh noes!

So what Hakluyt is really there to do is come up with a "traffic improvement plan" that requires the city to eliminate said slums and shanty towns, thus forcing the riff-raff back "onto to the land" where they belong. Any plan he might come up with that does not require this will be rejected; he is there to provide an excuse and act as a scapegoat.

It takes him a while to discover this, of course. And once he does...

Here is the source of the novel's real interest and tension (the chess plot is really just window dressing, though it's kind of fun to track plot developments -- deaths, arrests, kidnappings -- and see how they map onto the moves of the famous 1892 game): Hakluyt spends a lot of this novel trying to rationalize his presence in Vados, to justify to himself and a few key others his dogged determination to do some appoximation, at least, of what he's being paid for. Among those key others is one Maria Posador, leader of a small faction of native-born privilege who have taken up the cause of the slum-dwellers. If there is an opposite term for "femme fatale" that term would apply to Maria, who is constantly trying to get our hero to do the right thing and tell his employers to pound sand.

Lots of others would like him to do so as well, and many of them are less subtle than Maria, which means there are some decent action scenes, conspiracy elements, even a bit of a mystery plot woven in with this meditation on haves and have nots and what the former might be seen to owe to the latter. Which is to say that once again, Brunner showed a great deal of prescience -- but this time his work has not achieved anything like the status of self-denying prophecy that The Sheep Look Up has.

And of course it's a bit of a dig at the history of the New World in general, isn't it?

Well worth a read.

*As in I adore the game and never miss a chance to play but pretty much suck at it to a hilarious degree.

**I suspect his name is a nod to Richard Hakluyt, an Elizabethan era writer who promoted the settlement of North America in his work.