This was one of those odd books that you want to read really slowly, stopping regularly to re-read a particularly complex sentence or paragraph, which...moreThis was one of those odd books that you want to read really slowly, stopping regularly to re-read a particularly complex sentence or paragraph, which might be whole pages long; and yet both its brevity and the density of its storytelling more or less demand that you read it in as few sittings, and as short a time, as possible, because if you leave it alone for too long you risk losing the thread altogether.*
This was my second Samuel R. Delany novel. While the first, Nova, remains my favourite of the two - partly because, despite its equally complicated use of chronological skipping and unfamiliar terminology, I finished it more convinced that I'd understood what was happening - The Einstein Intersection is a lovely piece of writing. The surface of the story is easy enough to follow: in a post-human society, a mutant Orpheus loses his Eurydice to a plague that has been striking down "different" individuals (those who have evolved completely superhuman traits), and sets out on an appropriately epic quest to recover her to life. It's the multiple layers of classical mythology, '60s popular culture, science fiction and fantasy tropes, quotes from sources as varied as the Bible and Pepsi advertisements, and extracts (supposedly) from the author's own diaries that make this novel such an odd read: what Delany himself refers to as a palimpsest. I didn't understand all of it, and I couldn't tell you if that's because I read it too quickly, or too slowly (in the space of 24 hours). But it contained two aspects I really love - post-apocalyptic sci-fi and modern fantasy revisions of classical mythology - and I recommend it to anyone who likes weird science fiction that really makes you think, but never gives you all the answers.
The City, Not Long After was not precisely what I had expected from the premise. From nothing more than the title and a brief outline I'd got the impr...moreThe City, Not Long After was not precisely what I had expected from the premise. From nothing more than the title and a brief outline I'd got the impression it was sort of like The Stand on a smaller scale, but it's really quite different. First, the title is a little misleading: the bulk of the story takes place sixteen years after a plague wipes out most of the human population of the planet. That's not a very long time if you're a planet yourself, but from a human perspective it's a fair old chunk of a lifetime: characters who were in high school when the plague hit share their recollections of it but then are suddenly middle-aged, those who were toddlers remember almost nothing of the old world, and so on. This is very much a post-apocalyptic story, as opposed to one that takes place during an apocalypse, and enough time has passed that there's no real pain attached to the characters' memories of the world as it was. That's another thing: if you like your apocalyptic and dystopian stories gritty, this may not be the book for you. There's an air of magical realism as the broadly scientific approach in the build-up to the plague is replaced by a post-apocalyptic world whose inhabitants have grown used to sharing their living space with ghosts, angels, skies that randomly rain flowers, and streets that take you to different places depending on your mood and the day of the week. I'm not at all averse to this: I went in expecting a by-the-numbers story of the end of the world and instead read something unlike anything I'd encountered before, which is always a pleasant surprise.
I've only ever read one other Pat Murphy story, the novella Rachel in Love, and The City, Not Long After reflects a lot of the same themes, which I'll assume are particular interests of Murphy's: negotiating first love, the intersection of science fiction and fantasy, monkeys... it may just be coincidence, but both of these stories feature monkeys in important roles. Since I can't compare it to any of her other novel-length works, I keep finding myself being strongly reminded of Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas series: it has the same sort of gentle weirdness, focus on the love story as well as on harder sci-fi/fantasy/horror themes, and quirky-yet-lovable characters. The main drawback, from my perspective, was that the more interesting characters were sidelined in favour of the central couple, eighteen-year-old Danny-boy (an artist whose latest ambition is to paint the Golden Gate Bridge blue) and sixteen-year-old Jax (who is eventually named after a random assemblage of Scrabble tiles, her mother having refused to give her newborn daughter a name following a visit from an angel). Danny-boy and Jax were cute and there was nothing wrong with them exactly, but there were a number of other characters - particularly Ms Migsdale and Books, two now-elderly people who form a sweet friendship after discovering they are the only two librarians who survived the plague - who I would have liked to know more about. Plenty of interesting introduction is given for a lot of characters, only to have them play minor roles and then drop off the face of the novel entirely, which was vaguely disappointing.
Ultimately, it's a novel with a grand concept - San Francisco after a population-decimating plague taking on a life of its own, sheltering a community of artists under siege from militarists and raiders, who choose to fight back with their creativity and ingenuity rather than with conventional weapons. Reducing an idea so sprawling to only a couple of hundred pages is bound to necessitate a focus on a small group of characters, which in turn will never give the concept the epic feel which, in my opinion, it would have deserved. Still, it is in places a beautiful read, not especially demanding and quite rewarding if your tastes run to something gentler than a full-on sci-fi war.
I'd also like to mention the format of this book: it's long out of print, but I read it on Kindle courtesy of Gollancz's SF Gateway series. Basically they're buying up the publication rights to novels such as Murphy's, which will probably never be popular enough to merit a new print run, and releasing them as fairly cheap eBooks (usually £1.99 or £2.99) in the hopes of introducing them to a new audience. I think this is a great idea and like to share it with all my sci-fi reading, e-reader owning friends, and thought it might be of interest to the sort of people reading reviews of obscure twentieth century sci-fi novels on Goodreads too.(less)
Having barely made a dent in the TOS tie-in materials (I only started watching the show a little over a year ago), I was drawn to read this book out-o...moreHaving barely made a dent in the TOS tie-in materials (I only started watching the show a little over a year ago), I was drawn to read this book out-of-sequence by its reputation. I was amused and intrigued by its almost urban legendary status as the Kirk/Spock slash fiction story that actually got a brief publication run as an official tie-in novel, so I made sure to get a hold of the PDF of the "uncensored" first edition.
My verdict as to its aforementioned reputation: yes, there is some significant homoerotic subtext there; but, on the other hand, nothing much more outrageous than you're going to find in some of the canonical material (especially the movies), not to mention the near-infamous passage from Star Trek: The Motion Picture: A Novel (which, in attempting to put the issue of the exact nature of Kirk and Spock's relationship to rest, actually added considerable fuel to that particular fire). Van Hise's (tongue-in-cheek?) claims that there's no truth to the rumours about this book's original content seem pretty unlikely after actually reading the first edition - any time Spock attempts to mind-meld with Kirk is played up as a pretty blatant metaphor, and there's even some vaguely unsettling stuff with Spock performing said action on a sleeping Kirk and then justifying his actions because his friend was "practically asking for it"... I still can't decide if that's being subtly satirical of the K/S slash following, or straightforwardly just plain creepy. Or both. But, ultimately, the novel ends on a rather sweet note between Kirk and Spock's alternate universe counterparts. I won't give anything away, except to say that I think 'shippers who don't mind things staying (just barely) subtextual will like it a lot, but there's nothing so blatant as to detract from the enjoyment of fans who are happy to view the characters as just very good friends. Either way, it's a surprisingly heartwarming conclusion to a novel with such a risque reputation attached to it.
However, it's important to remember that, regardless of Van Hise's actual intentions with regards to Kirk/Spock, Killing Time is first and foremost intended to be a Star Trek novel. In that regard, I found it to be very much like other media tie-ins I have read. With very few exceptions, they are not particularly outstanding works of written fiction, and more than a few are really dreadful, whether it be the poor quality of the prose or the failure to capture another creator's well-known characters. This novel is far from being one of the dreadful examples, but neither is it one of those rare outstanding ones. Van Hise demonstrates a good understanding of the characters and their particular styles of dialogue, and whenever Kirk, Spock and McCoy are speaking you can more or less hear the actors' voices. Scotty, Uhura, Sulu, Chekov and Chapel all play minor roles and are similarly well written. (I was happy to see Van Hise resist the temptation to render all of Chekov's dialogue in distracting phonetics, which some Star Trek authors do instead of trusting their readers to know what the character sounds like; though she did lose points with me again for doing so with Scotty for some reason.) There's a nice use of (if I'm identifying the character correctly) the guy who sits at the helm whenever Sulu or Chekov isn't there in Season 2 (here called "Richardson" and identified as the swing-shift relief for both): Van Hise gives his personality some development and utilises him very cleverly as a significant character in the alternate universe sections of the book. Having not seen all of the TOS episodes yet, I'm not sure to what extent some other major characters were borrowed from one-off guest appearances or created specifically for this novel, but they were all compelling enough that I'm actually hoping a few of them do pop up somewhere along the way in the TV show. Characterisation was definitely one of this novel's strengths; and, while the prose was nothing special, it served its purpose well and moved the plot along without becoming bogged down in description, even if this resulted in a few phrases being repeated so often as to get oddly jarring.
The plot: Van Hise claims that the 2009 Star Trek reboot borrowed heavily from this novel, and there would seem to be considerable justice in that assertion: a Romulan time travel plot creates an alternate continuity wherein Spock is the captain of the Enterprise, Kirk is an ensign assigned to him primarily as punishment for an infraction committed at the Academy, and Vulcan may or may not have been destroyed by the Romulans. Sounds pretty similar. Of course, there are differences as well: the Romulans' hijinks in the fourth dimension have wiped out most Terran contributions to the formation of the Federation, which is now Vulcan-led, leaving most humans with considerably lower status than in the main continuity. Furthermore, Kirk's history is considerably darker: suspected of the murder of one of his tutors, he's spent time in prison before a torturous stint in a mind-reading machine concludes that he has no memories of the night in question, but most people still believe in his guilt, resulting in his assignment to Spock's crew as something like supervised probation, and the torture he underwent has resulted in an addiction to a mind-numbing drug. These last three plot points promise to be very interesting; unfortunately, they are badly under-used, and if you're hoping to find out more about who framed Kirk (since that's clearly where that was heading), you're out of luck. However, though there are a few such dangling plot threads and inconsistencies (has Vulcan been destroyed by the Romulans or not? Spock doesn't seem sure), the story moves at a good pace, and is very entertaining. It would have made a very good episode of TOS, which in my opinion is all you should really ask of a spin-off novel - and, of course, they more or less made it into a movie, which says a lot about the potential of the story itself.
Van Hise also gets in a couple of hilarious nods to the danger of wearing a red shirt: while in the main continuity everyone seems blissfully unaware of the mortality rate of security personnel, the AU characters have apparently developed a certain superstition requiring you to borrow a friend's blue or gold shirt during your first away mission, which is regarded not only as good luck but a sensible precaution. Fans of John Scalzi's Redshirts will doubtless appreciate the feeling of in-jokey humour the novel has at times.