Aylett is the Mozart of science fiction: he descends from somewhere bearing complex, beautiful work that defies convention as strongly as it follows c...moreAylett is the Mozart of science fiction: he descends from somewhere bearing complex, beautiful work that defies convention as strongly as it follows conventional forms and he uses his language--words, in Aylett's case--with deft humor that hides how carefully-placed each piece is.
And some will look at it and declare there are "too many notes." Let them.
Only an Alligator is the first of the Accomplice novels: four stories set in the strange, mythical city Accomplice, cut off from the rest of the world by unknown catastrophes and devolving itself into some sort of clockwork parody of degeneration.
Our hero is Barney Juno, a kind and gentle soul who's sole goal is to care for the "winged and stepping creatures of the earth," which puts him completely at odds with everyone else in town. His friends include the town's most downtrodden, eccentric, and publicly artistic miscreants, but what else could he get with 500 eels in his front yard?
Okay... now we head off the main road a little and visit Aylett-land....
The action for the book--actually, the action for the whole series--is set up by Barney stepping into a creepchannel, a sort of nerve running through the earth and used by demons and some humans to travel. While he's there he rescues an alligator.
Yes, an alligator trapped in a demonic nerve through the earth. You're following just fine.
The alligator was left there by the demon Sweeney, who lives below Accomplice, in Hell. Sweeney had been basting the alligator for dinner that night and vows revenge on Juno.
And thus we have the setup: Sweeney and his demons become frustrated by Juno's simple innocence and how hard he is to destroy or subvert, even in a venal and corrupt town like Accomplice. Each failure makes Sweeney even more determined, leading through four books of epic confrontation. And no one in Accomplice finds any of this unusual.
Aylett's genius is misdirection. He puts a pyrotechnic display in one direction, such as his wordplay, and distracts you from the brilliance in the other, such as the morality play and the character development. When I first read the book, I read some sentences out loud to my girlfriend so she could appreciate the humor. After about 10 or 15--stopping for her laughter each time--she realized that these were consecutive sentences in the book. I had read her three paragraphs. Her response was, "It's like each sentence is its own unique thing." Similarly, scenes of surreal humor flew past me before I realized that I understood the plotting so far and recognized the characters and their motivations. Aylett got me laughing and gaping while a strongly-plotted book with well-thought-out characters and wry, if broad, social commentary slipped past my guard and dove into my eyes.(less)
If you haven't been exposed to the literary onslaught of Steve Aylett's genius, and if you're the kind of person who likes to get in at the shallow en...moreIf you haven't been exposed to the literary onslaught of Steve Aylett's genius, and if you're the kind of person who likes to get in at the shallow end of the pool first, Fain the Sorcerer is one of the better places to start.
Expect the usual Aylett bits: brilliant sarcasm on every page, nuggets of prose that make you stare at their beauty in every paragraph, and a plot, theme, and moral that sneak up on you while you're staring at all of the shiny words.
As an experiment, with one of the less-newcomer-friendly Aylett books, say Only an Alligator, you can read sentences aloud to a friend, laugh at their humor, and appreciate their construction for upwards of thirty minutes before your friend realizes you're reading sentences in the order they appear in the book. Around that time, you'll have gotten used to it and suddenly realize that there truly is a plot and that those are characters instead of things that say witticisms.
All of which sounds like he's show-offy and pyrotechnic for the sake of it, but he isn't. His language creates an altered world (and altered state!) as much as E. R. Eddison's, Pat Caddigan's, or William S Bourroughs. And the writing serves to distract you from how many new ideas he's throwing at you per page, letting them sink into yoru softened brain instead of bouncing off and stinging.
So, on to Fain. It has a clearly demarcated plot and it introduces characters one at a time--and even in roughly their order of importance. The story concerns Fain the Gardener, who manages to get himself into some trouble with the king and has to become a sorcerer to extricate himself.
In the first few pages Fain the Gardener has met the king, killed the king's fool, failed to awaken the king's daughter from her magical slumber (he was going to squish a lemon on her nose, which might have worked if he weren't being chased by the palace guards because he killed the fool) and escaped to a mystic cave where a he cracks the pot of a cranky crackpot (really, that's what he does) and therefore becomes the possessor of three wishes.
Fain is many things, but too-clever is probably in the top five. He uses the wishes wisely (the crackpot tells him so--time travel, knowledge of how to wake the princess, and an infinite supply of sardines do seem to cover all the bases) and the rest of the book follows from there.
It's typical of Aylett that the princess a) has only been in a magical slumber for one month and b) is kept there by boredom; only an original idea can awaken her. Fain can come up with the original idea, but he seems to have problems getting away from the castle with killing the fool....
The bulk of the book is a travel-tale as Fain leaves the kingdom and travels to learn the secrets of fools, sorcerers, and necromancers, using his new-found powers as needed (well, and a bunch of other powers, but that's the result of "too-clever" + "time travel" and meeting the crackpot the day before for three more wishes, and the day before that, and ...)
Along the way we get loads of Aylett's usual social commentary and generally cynical opinion of human nature, some classic fairy-tale-type puzzles and adventures, and a loop back to the beginning to face the necromancer.
Well, kind of. Let's just say that your understanding of "loop," "beginning", "necromancer," "save," and "confront" may have changed, but under the new definitions, a glorious victory capable of sending six-year-olds into peaceful slumber as you turn out the lights is had.
It's a great read. Fun, light (none of Aylett's books are heavy to read, but this one is probably as light as Bigot Hall), and--as always--infinitely quotable.
If you're already an Aylett fan, you knew you had to read it when you heard it exists. If you haven't read Aylett, this is a great place to start. If you don't like Aylett... drop me a message and tell me why. I'm curious; I haven't met any recreational-reading-type-person who doesn't. (less)
Teresa Nielsen Hayden and her husband, Patrick, have been fixtures in the science fiction community for decades. They have published and contributed t...moreTeresa Nielsen Hayden and her husband, Patrick, have been fixtures in the science fiction community for decades. They have published and contributed to important fanzines through the community's rocky 70s and 80s. They then settled into editor positions at Tor, a major publisher of SF/F.
Making Book is a collection of Teresa's essays, fanzine contributions, and stories. It covers a lot of ground: her famous story of being formally excommunicated from the Mormon church, an essay about the trials and tribulations of working on the other side of the financial aid counter at a university, and the also-famous (and hilarious, and fascinating, and informative) guidelines for copyeditors editing science fiction or fantasy for the first time.
Throughout, Teresa's wit and knowledge show and through the essays, stories, and reports she and her husband wrote we get a glimpse into a world of authors, fans, and publishers that no longer exists in the same form but which still influences science fiction today.
Even if you don't care about SF, the stories and the humor are worth reading. The copyeditor section is brilliant and educational for anyone interested in writing or language. In short, it's a great read. (less)
Capsule Review: This is a funny, often-offensive book that winds up being more than it says on the tin. Our protag narrates his awful predicament (yes...moreCapsule Review: This is a funny, often-offensive book that winds up being more than it says on the tin. Our protag narrates his awful predicament (yes, he really is being eaten by a bear) and intercuts flashbacks and explanations as he tries to convince the reader to be sympathetic. It is short enough that the schtick doesn't get old and the real story is handled delicately enough that it works well. There is more here than simple laughs at the protag's expense and he is neither the simple schlimazel nor the Brett Easton Ellis-esque ass that he seems. This is a great book in the Unreliable Narrator space; it's also a good and accessible introduction to the Bizarro world.
Full Review: Simple summary: Marv Pushkin brought his employees, his wife, and his mistress into the woods on a team building exercise. Now he's trapped under his SUV (a jack slipped while changing a tire) and a bear is chewing on his foot. He narrates, explaining his circumstances and trying to explain how it happened without it ever looking like it was his fault, revisiting events as necessary when his omissions or outright lies fail.
I'm going to 5 stars on this one. I admit to being influenced by my love of Bizarro Lit, but there is more to it than that. The book has to work on several levels.
It's a joke, of course, and that has to stay fresh. Hansen keeps the joke going by mixing it up: the bear wanders off to do whatever it is bears do in the woods, the bear comes back, the bear eats the protagonist's beef jerky instead of the protagonist, a different bear comes by--and our protagonist is angry at the slight to his bear. He fantasizes about killing the bear but promises us that he would do so with respect. As the book proceeds the painkillers he's taking leave him less cognizant and more loquacious, giving us hallucinations, dreams, and paranoia to break up any monotony in the narration.
Of course, if it were just a joke, you'd give it about 15 pages and give up. We also get a mystery story. Marv intimates early on that something happened and that he had plans and goals that weren't obvious. He doesn't really want to reveal anything about these, but his urge to confess--or at least to explain, since he isn't always certain that he's done anything wrong--keeps revealing pieces of the story: What happened with his wife? What was done to his pants and jacket? Was anyone else in the car when he went to change the tire? How did the tire come to need changing? Why hasn't his team sent for help? The mystery is handled very well, with pieces revealed that lead to other pieces and Marv's awareness of how much he's revealing about himself varying with his medications.
That sort of mystery also leaves an opening for character study: Marv is a drug-addled, philandering, racist, narcissistic, power-mad ass terrified of being exposed as a fraud. As he reveals what led him to his predicament, both what he says and what he doesn't say reveal his deepest feelings of guilt, shame, and fear. To Hansen's credit, Marv stays an ass: there is no attempt to excuse any of his actions. If anything, we see how he's turned away from every offer of help and support. When we reach the end--a one-two punch of understated revelation and consequence--Marv's character study is complete. Rather than just the "this is the guy and this is why he is that way" that some stories offer, we have a more complete picture: Here is the guy and his past and his psychology, and here is a new situation for you to watch and see how it all affects him.
And there needs to be a story. A guy waking up, getting gnawed on, and going to sleep over and over is barely a vignette, much less a story. We have Marv's personal life story (which may be coming to an end, given the circumstances), his marriage, his career, his affair, and his potential psychological insight and transformation/breakthrough--as well as the bear's story, actually--which need to progress and, to some degree, resolve. These all do so successfully and some are much, much more than successful. The revelations ramp up towards the end of the story: Where was he driving and why? What was on his pants? What happened to his SUV? What will Marv do after he's rescued (if he's rescued)?
The resolutions are handled gently, without calling too much attention away from Marv. This is good, because we have two well-handled shocks in the climax that elevate this above the "joke" story or "shockingly foul" story and remind us that Bizarro literature isn't just being show-offy or reactionary or goofy.
At its best, Bizarro fiction mixes language and imagery into metaphors that let the author write about perception, belief, and interpretation directly and allow the reader to experience the metaphors rather than describe them. At the end of the book, Hansen can simply show us what Marv saw and what Marv's reaction was; we know his voice and his past and his fears well enough that trying to describe his emotions would get in the way.
So yeah. I'm going to 5 on this one. Two chapters from the end, I wouldn't have thought so. But the author came through way better than I expect.(less)