Monday, 29 August 2011

FALL INTO TIME BY DOUGLAS LAIN

I'd actually read two of these stories when they first appeared in online magazines. This is Lain's second book-form publication, the first was his debut short story collection, Last Week's Apocalypse. Lain's stories exist somewhere on the intersection of PKD, Kafka and a William Gibson who is more engaged with personal spaces and ideological possibilities than that funky data dance. I consider him one of the most exciting and intriguing writers I've encountered in the contemporary SF field, albeit one who does not press the buttons the bulk of genre fans expect their writers to. I'll try and weigh in with a more detailed version of this review sometime when it isn't a saturday evening and I don't have a bottle of excellent whiskey at hand.

*time elapses*

Right, it's Monday morning. You know, I used to spread drinking through the week, but lately I seem to get it all done in a few hours on Saturday evenings. Improved time management skills, I suppose.

I'd like to add a story-by-story review of this book which is easy because it only contains 4 stories.

The Last Apollo Mission: Lain parlays moon landing fraud theories and post-9/11 conspiracy paranoia into a story about a failed (or is she?) writer's intersection with a top-secret Kubrick project and the very bizarre aftermath. When you accept that everything's part of a conspiracy theory, what happens when conspiracies collide?

Resurfacing Billy: In a near-future where toxic waste is being dumped in public spaces and seeping out everywhere, a man tries to invent a miracle substance that will seal the garbage in for good. At the same time, the private franchise school he sends his son Billy to is attempting to find ways to curb Billy's supposedly anti-social streak, and is willing to use means that extend all the way up to lobotomy. Something about our increasingly counter-productive problem-solving strategies as a species, I think. The most emotionally poignant story in this set.

Alien Invasion/Coffee Cup Story: Dozens of SF fans love to hate this parody of the slice-of-life epiphany short story, spliced with an infuriatingly static alien invasion scenario. We expect too much from things, whether they're drunken conversations in bars or gleaming spacecraft hanging in the sky.

Chomsky And The Time Box: In a recent essay on Zizek, Lain says 'The only thing to expect from Zizek is that he challenges us to think and create new modes of Praxis. Not that we should stay at Zizek's level of political intervention, but rather that we should brutally test his ideas and criticize him so that we can discover to what degree the impossible is possible'. I think this story is of a piece with that sentiment, it's partly a commentary on our need to find gurus, using two such disparate figures as Chomsky and mushroom-mystic Terence McKenna to convey this point. It's also a hilarious, frustrating take on the history-changing time travel trope and there are one or two things here about our consumerist obsession with gadgets and gratification.

I may have made these stories seem like dry exercises in making points; in fact each of them has a richly textured narrative and is often downright hilarious. I'm a steadily-lapsing SF fan who finds that most current strands of the genre have very little to do with his own futuristic or literary interests. Lain is the rare writer who addresses my increasing need to read SF that engages with the currents that are really shaping our world in a mode that owes more to the 70s New Wave, for instance, than to Crichton-envy. Well done!

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

A newish story I wrote: http://unboxedwriters.com/2011/08/fade-out/


Friday, 19 August 2011

romans durs, anyone?

Do you know any fans of Simenon's non-Maigret books? I'd like to put together a site/community dedicated to these books as a counterpart to the excellent Maigret site at trussel.com/f_maig

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

killing the alien

Mrs. Radcliffe sought to tame the wild Gothic, tether it to reason and human nature. Leaving a back door for the restitution of strangeness and transgression depending on your paradigm of reason, human nature and reality.

Messers Burton & Gaiman have, cumulatively (they both have individual works or sequences that do not do this; the pop-cultural end-result is what I am getting at here) done much more damage to the power of such imagery to evoke the dark and numinous than Radcliffe or Reeve ever did. Through them, the trappings of Gothic are no longer barbaric, menacing or strange; Death is just a pale girl in black who knows all about you and loves you.

The work of transforming the Gothic into the psychological novel, the novel of manners, the detective novel and the science fiction novel was creative. The work of transforming the dark and alien into the safe, familiar and domestic is far more pernicious; instead of true disruption we are led to a universe where everything mirrors everything else.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Weird fiction's primal duty is to fuck [alternative word: debauch] your brain and kiss your sense of wonder.
 - W.H. Pugmire

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

'Where is the writer,' he began, 'who is unstained by any habits of the human, who would be the ideal of everything alien to living, and whose own eccentricity, in its darkest phase, would turn in on itself to form increasingly more complex patterns of strangeness? Where is the writer who has remained his entire life in some remote dream that he inhabited from his day of birth, if not long before?'
 - Thomas Ligotti, 'The Journal Of J.P. Drapeau '

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

a political tout

China Mieville, responding to a reader who asked if he would ever be willing to write something that did not 'tout' his 'Liberal politics':


The way I see the world is, among other things but very importantly, a political one, and I write fiction from where I see the world. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the concerns, interests, textures and tractions that inform the fiction are, to various degrees recognizably, related to my politics. Just as they are with many other writers, of all kinds of varying positions, for whom politics are important.


So when you ask if I’m ‘willing to write anything that doesn’t tout’ my own position, how I have to interpret that is ‘Are you willing to write a book that is not written from a position of seeing the world the way you see the world?’ To which, the answer, of course, has to be No. How could I possibly do so? I don’t want to do so, either, even if I could, which I cannot. The things you say you like in the books come from the same place of which the politics are an inextricable component. I don’t say they’re coterminous – but they are inextricable in my head, and I don’t want to extricate them.


From this thread on goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/566606-ask-china-mi-ville?format=html&page=1

Saturday, 6 August 2011

JUNIPER TIME BY KATE WILHELM

Mostly very good, even if, purely as extrapolation, a lot of plot elements haven't held up. A very canny and thoughtful derailment of a carefully built-up first contact motif set against a near future world where international conflict and ecological crisis prevail.

Where the novel failed for me, right at the eleventh hour, was in the excessively expository manner in which the conflicts and resolutions of the last 20 pages are played out, all tell and no show. Wilhelm has points to make about human motivation, the dehumanising nature of obsession, our pathetic management of the environment, our addiction to one-upmanship and our counter-productive attachment to seeing things as binaries. She also creates at least one fascinating central character; but he is not sympathetic, and one sympathetic character; but she is too good to be true. The rest of the characters are like stock figures in a passion play. Despite which there is some very beautiful writing that displays an admirable sense of place and grasp of metaphor.

A wise book, but not enough of a novel. By way of contrast, see Ursula Le Guin's The Lathe Of Heaven, which exemplifies why John Clute describes Le Guin as a 'wise teller of tales'.

Friday, 5 August 2011

THE SKULL OF TRUTH BY BRUCE COVILLE

Good children's books deserve to be read by adults as well. If it's really good, the story will appeal to readers of any age. If it's downright excellent, it can re-awaken the child within for the space it takes to read the book. Maybe it's because I went to a pre-school run on the system of Maria Montessori, whose watchword was 'follow the child', but I can't help but see that as a beneficial exercise.

Bruce Coville is a prolific American writer of fiction for children whom I first discovered in my 20s, with the 'My Teacher Is An Alien' books. I was impressed by how real and believable his characters are, children, grown-ups and aliens and how well his imagination conjures up situations and settings that invoke a sense of wonder. I also noted how he handles larger messages and themes in a way that's not preachy or intrusive and is alive to the many sides of any given issue. Most of all, I was taken by Coville's obvious joy in the art of storytelling.

In this book, Coville tackles one of the big issues any fictioneer has to grapple with at some point: truth. When Charles Egglestone stumbles into a mysterious shop and winds up shoplifting a talking skull, he finds that the skull's magical powers have made it impossible for him to lie anymore. At first, disaster follows, because the truth is not always the convenient or even the right thing to blurt out. Gradually, he gains a deeper, richer sense of what truth is all about, how it can be found both in fact and fiction and how it can be used for good, although it is in itself morally neutral. I was particularly glad that Coville keeps that last point very clearly in sight. Truthfulness isn't a magic key to virtue - it's still up to us to keep our eyes open and work out the ethics of everything we do. I can think of vast tomes written for a putatively grown-up audience that miss this point.

That exposition of the book's themes probably sounds dry. But this book isn't. It's hilarious, poignant and inventive, and manages to invoke a character from Big Bill Shakespeare's plays - see if you can guess which one - and give him a back- and front-story, if I can put it that way, which is as resonant and memorable as anything from the Bard's plays. I get a real kick out of a piece of fiction that can engage with one of the classics and emerge enriched rather than simply bested by the experience, and the former is certainly the case here. (Neil Gaiman has done this sort of thing well at points in his career -  Sandman for instance - and not so well at other points - the Beowulf film). If I had a child between the ages of 7 and 11 at my disposal, I would entreat him or her to read this book. But since I don't, I'm just as happy to have had the chance to read it myself.