SONG OF TIME by Ian R. MacLeod
They say the past is a foreign country where folks do things differently. The world constantly moves on, places change, affiliations fade, relationships end... and at some point in one's life social paradigms have shifted sufficiently that this becomes not so much an expression of bemused noncomprehension as a desire to go home. There is something of this pathos in Song of Time, Ian Macleod's Arthur C. Clarke Award winning novel.
Roushana Maitland, world-renowned violinist is nearing the end of her long life. Song of Time, set in the near future, is her story. As she contemplates technology's now-available option to go on living a sort of virtual life-after-death (details about this are vague, but then technology isn't the point, just the pretext prompting her to look back), an amnesiac man washes up on her Cornwall beach who may have a mysterious connection to her past.
Maitland lived in some very interesting times- to paraphrase the old Chinese curse. She grows up in Birmingham, England with a musical-prodigy brother who develops a mysterious new illness and eventually takes his own life. This illness proves to be the first salvo in a world about to be dramatically transformed by apocalyptic events, and Roushana guides us through the geopolitical, ecological and personal upheavals as she now looks back over her life.
Song of Time is an excellent portrait of an age, in this case an age yet to happen, and perhaps a glimpse of a future we may experience. It is a quintessentially English novel. In American dystopian novels, the future is often brutishly totalitarian, a suspension of normal life leaving little choice but abject servitude or active resistance- usually involving explosions and acts of heroic daring. In Song, with the Brit's richer literary tradition, one finds a more nuanced and subtle exploration of the mundanities of living in a cautionary future- after all, ordinary life does go on; careers must be forged and groceries shopped for- and it is infinitely more interesting and enjoyable to read for that.
If you are looking for a genre-centric dystopian adventure story, this isn't the novel for you. But if your taste skews toward the literary side of speculative fiction, I highly recommend Song of Time. I give it a rare 5-out-of-5-stars rating.
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The Gone–Away World by Nick Harkaway (twitter.com/Harkaway)
There are many fine, hardworking craftsmen of the written word, and the sum of the parts of their novels are very enjoyable to read, but then there are writers who also possess the skill of an artist. In their novels every word is perfectly chosen and placed in combination with every other word in an inevitability that makes structure disappear, and the whole is much greater than just the sum of its parts. The Gone–Away World by Nick Harkaway is such a work.
In it we follow an unnamed protagonist through childhood and college into a proxy “Un-War” in the Elective Theatre, formerly known as the prosperous and peaceful country of Addeh Katir. There he is reunited with his childhood best friend Gonzo. When the enemy launches a chemical attack, our side answers with “the most advanced weapon in the history of warfare,” The Go Away Bomb that disappears the enemy: “We are… feeling a bit superior and waiting for the order to do some more demonstrative world-editing, when our very own Green Sector vanishes from the map… like a sandcastle being washed away by the tide… The same thing is happening everywhere. Not just in the Elective Theatre.”
Predictably, the effects are unpredictable and uncontrollable; the tide that ebbs also flows, carrying back a recombinant and deadly genesis of the thoughts, forms, feelings, memories, dreams and nightmares of everything it supposedly erased. Most of humanity has been made “Gone-Away” and the survivors battle desperately: “this is not an attack. It’s an atmosphere.”
Protagonist, Gonzo and a ragtag group are rescued by Piper 90 (“love child of a bulldozer and a shopping mall”) which is laying “The Pipe” that contains the anti-stuff, called FOX, which makes the Gone-Away stuff go away, “making a strip of land which is safe to live in.” This is where the remnants of humanity begin to rebuild.
Fast forward a few years and this outfit of roughnecks is hired for a dangerous job of putting out a fire on The Pipe that looks like sabotage. Here the story takes a shocking turn that throws into question the protagonist’s entire history and future, and a horrible secret is found to underlie the system that keeps this strip of the old world, this “Livable Zone,” intact.
A rousing dystopian story with a terrific story arc that can be enjoyed on just those terms, The Gone-Away World is also a cautionary tale that confronts the endemic, species-defining stupidity and hidden moral equivocations of human life on Earth. Notwithstanding, Nick Harkaway is fundamentally an optimist, and quite funny; I will definitely be reading more of him. Highly recommended!
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THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE by Philip K. Dick
To the list of dystopian cautionary tales suddenly relevant again (as if they ever weren't!) in the trumpian, post-truth, authoritarian-leaning era I recommend adding Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, which answers the question, What if Germany and Japan had won WWII?
If you've seen the Amazon adaptation, there is little resemblance. Character names are the same but the plot is very different; the subversive video of the series is, in the novel, a novel. Germany controls Europe, the eastern U.S., is expanding into the solar system and has attempted a"final solution" on the entire continent of Africa. From The Home Islands Japan controls South America, Asia and the west coast. A nominal U.S. neutral zone separates Nazi and Nippon territories.
The setting is San Francisco and the neutral zone, the reader learns of life in Nazi territory only from secondhand reporting.
The IChing or "oracle", the ancient Chinese book of wisdom, features importantly for all the main characters, and is in a way, another character through which Dick explores the themes of fatalism and enduring in a world in which there is no shining light on the hill, no safe refuges left to flee to- or take hope from. All is authoritarianism- of the brutish Nazi stripe or the more civilized Japanese variety.
Into this reality of despair is dropped the surprisingly bestselling novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, an alternate fiction in which the allies won the war, defeating Germany and Japan. A fiction unimaginable for some, a revelation of Truth for others.
As one would expect, the novel is contemplative, internal, philosophical, and the ending ambiguous (perhaps a disappointment to readers weaned on flattering sales pitches and attention-eroding tech gadgetry who find their way to the novel from the Amazon series), but Dick's The Man in the High Castle sheds insightful, unsettling light onto life under totalitarianism. A light very much needed these days. Highly recommended!
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SOUTHBOUND by Joseph Ferguson
"Society everywhere is in a conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members" wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in Self Reliance.
The protagonist of Southbound has assuredly never read Emerson but he knows whereof Emerson speaks. Cruising the literary highway of counterculture anti-heroes, Basement Man, transplant from Alabama, pulls up to a bar in New Jersey and we hitch a ride for this episodic portrait of his lifelong, booze-fueled rebellion.
From the tragicomic death of his friend on the docks of Hoboken to beaches a little less respectable for his presence ("Avast ye scurvy lubbers!") to a retirement home, Basement Man is aware but not resigned (to paraphrase Edna Millay). I've heard it said that 'your integrity to yourself is more important than your immediate life,' and that's a sentiment Basement Man would drink to: "Better a bottle in front of me, than a frontal lobotomy, spider!"
Southbound by Joseph Ferguson makes us look around and perceive the poetry in life. And that is a very good thing.
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In 1978 Passing for Human was published.
Also published that year was Natural Shocks by Richard Stern.
Jody died at the age of 84. Richard Stern died at the age of 84 a few years later.
Stern was called by the New Republic, "the best American author of whom you have never heard." Jody was called by the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction "The best unknown science fiction writer."
Random, insignificant coincidences to be sure, and interesting only because in 1978 Jody was also writing reviews of books and one of the books she reviewed was Natural Shocks.
Her career as a book reviewer was short-lived. She kept telling the truth about what she perceived as slice-em-off schlock being foisted upon the reading public by publishers and the toadying literary press. But as various book review editors kept trying to explain to Jody before firing her, 'our function is to sell books.'
Here is Jody's review of Natural Shocks by Richard Stern:
"Celebrity," writes Richard Stern, "is the vengeance of the unfamous. They turn the famous into stage settings. It's a way of paralyzing them."
Maybe this is what happened to Stern himself. He has been supported by Guggenheims and Rockefellers, has been gorged with plums and approval. His dustjacket fluoresces with praise from Bellow, Burgess, Richler, Roth, the roster of men who, because there are no Fitzgeralds or Steinbecks around today, are at the top of the American heap.
Did any of them really read this book? Roth tells us that Stern exhibits "a sweet purity of felling." I'd say he has about as much feeling as a piece of Portnoy liver. the only time the hero Wursup feels anything much, is when he discovers that his dying girlfriend's hair has all fallen out after her hospital treatment. What he "feels" then is a semi-prurient survivory thrill.
And Stern is no Camus delineating "lack of feeling" with a powerful grace; he's just another drudge mastering a few dull routines and repeating them for audiences who don't demand any better. His skill in developing a character runs to, "Dolly was a woman of rough intelligence, but the intelligence produced nothing but malice, like a machine which undoes at one end what it assembled at another."
Here is Stern describing a character he really loves, a rancidly "brainy" lecturer at Columbia: "There was Benny, in his party outfit, his great persimmon head coming from a steak-colored turtleneck... Benny had been chewing a salami; there were meat flecks on his large lips, and he exhaled spicy aromas."
Stern's male characters are blubbery fatcats, his women are wind-up dolls. ("Perfect little teeth spread in her wonderful cheeks, gleaming amidst the small lights hopping off her desk.") A good novel should enhance life (even if by satirizing it mercilessly as a Burroughs does) but for me, Stern and his admirers have the whole thing reversed: they strip the life from life and leave a slimy coldness that reeks of emptiness.
I contend that this honors-encrusted tribe of mendicants has been over-pampered for years. They are accepting the gravy without doing the honest work. Natural Shocks is a thoroughly rotten novel. It is a Book of the Month Club Alternate selection. This may say something about the state of "letters" in our country today.
Just when you think every stinkin' person in the WHOLE WORLD has turned (in the zombie sense) into a conformist, bourgeois SQUARE, and literature is about as well-coiffed and dead as Ivanka Trump, or one of those old-timely photos where folks propped up dead Uncle Horace and taped his eyelids open to be included in a formal family portrait, you stumble upon works such as Baby Jesus Butt Plug and Trump Chicken.
If you order and enjoy these books, please leave a reader review. That's the best way to thank an author whose work has brought you pleasure.
TRUMP CHICKEN: A Tale of the Grotesque
by bobbygw @bobbygw, bobbygw.com
A gourmet satire for sophisticated palates, Trump Chicken reminds me of Jody Scott's short satirical skewerings. And skewer Chicken does- gleefully!
In a folksy, shambling parlance worthy of the orange man himself author bobbygw's protagonist explains in a monologue just exactly how unpalatable Trump really is. A sort of Hannibal Lector meets Julia Child!
Hilarious and highly recommended!
By the way, there is this on the copyright page: "This fiction contains elements of visceral horror, black humor, the grotesque, and the monstrous. Due to its appalling content, it should not be read by anyone." You've been warned.
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THE BABY JESUS BUTT PLUG, a Fairy Tale
by Carlton Mellick III @CarltonMellick3, carltonmellick.com
Unnamed narrator and wife Mary answer an ad for a free baby jesus- but no using baby jesus as a sex toy! "If you stick this child in your butt, you'll damn yourself to hell" warns the old woman they get him from.
An acid-trip-gone-bad, comedic nightmare of emasculatory disquiet at the superfluousness of husband once baby comes into the picture; at the trivializing absurdity of corporatism; at the impotence of self in the form of clones who not only do not save the day, but can't stop themselves from fucking like bunnies and turning into zombies and eating each other in a house transformed into living internal organs.
Is Baby a surreal and macabre satire from the fevered imagination of one very sicko individual, or a true and factual tale of an old-lady curse come deservedly true on two perverts who do in fact use baby jesus as a butt plug? You decide.
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SPINWARD FRINGE, ORIGINS
A trilogy of novellas by Randolph Lalonde
In an era when most of the Galaxy is under the control of militarized, ruthless mega-corporations, one of the few remaining free societies is the remote Freeground Space Station. But events are threatening that independence.
When a group hacks into top-secret battle simulations and cleans the clock of the military's top trainees, Freeground brass recruit them for a secret "shadow ship" assignment to gather intel, new technologies and potential allies for the battles to come.
Author Lalonde describes Origins as "backstory, scene setters, the prequel I'll never have to write" for the Spinward Fringe Series (12 books so far). I haven't read the rest of the series, so i can't speak as to how it serves that function, but on its own Origins stands as an enjoyable, well written space opera.
The characters are likable enough and their interrelationships engaging enough that one is happy to cruise into battle with them. Lalonde wrote he wanted to create an experience that would "resemble that of watching a television show or movie." In that he succeeds.
There is a dark twist at the end (semi spoiler alert!) that leaves the fate of the main character unresolved, and this may disappoint some readers (maybe subsequent books in the series provide that resolution, maybe they don't), but I applaud Lalonde's willingness to take that bit of commercial risk. Recommended.
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UNIVERSE IN FLAMES
First Trilogy & Second trilogy by Christian Kallias
After generations of stalemate in the war between the Star Alliance and the Obsidian Empire, the Empire springs a surprise attack with powerful new allies and all but wipes out the Alliance.
The survivors flee blindly through hyperspace and end up near an unknown planet at the edge of the Galaxy. Soon a new Earth Alliance is formed with judicious lobbying by Olympian Goddess Aphroditis, who appears in a vision to Chase that sets him on a journey to discover his own destiny and previously-unsuspected fury powers. His success will be crucial to the survival of the new Alliance.
Enter Olympians, Furies (released from long imprisonment by Chase's twin brother and nemesis Argos), Asgardians and a dark unknown foe as Chase and the Alliance face one seemingly insurmountable challenge after another, losing ground while searching frantically for allies and answers.
I enjoyed the first trilogy, but on starting the second the formulaic construct of the novels became more obvious: Chase gets into impossible battles that he should lose but manages to find a brilliant way to win- usually via some previously unknown aspect of his Fury powers; the enemy inflicts devastating losses on the Earth Alliance, but it manages to survive and regroup and adapt. There are lots and lots of space battles.
Author Kallias does the formula very well and when I finished the second trilogy I wanted to continue journeying with these characters and find out what happens with the new enemy (not part of either side of the war) introduced toward the end of the second trilogy. The blending of space opera and mythology is a nice touch; if the third trilogy ever goes on sale I will buy it. Recommended for space opera lovers.
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