Nova Swing is a semi-sequel to Light, set in the same universe. It is, succinctly, also a much better book than its predecessor.
Like Light, the storyNova Swing is a semi-sequel to Light, set in the same universe. It is, succinctly, also a much better book than its predecessor.
Like Light, the story takes place in a bitterly dark far future, full of ambiguous realities, systemic criminality, and fleshly urges. As an aside, Nova Swing will be much more difficult to understand without having read Light first. Also like the previous volume, Nova Swing is an ensemble piece: It knits together well over a dozen characters, many of whom have surprising depth, and relies on their shaky interrelations to provide the scaffolding for an even more uncertain world.
Briefly, Nova Swing is about those living on the periphery of the "Saudade Site," a pocket of alternate reality into which thrill-seekers venture (with black-market "travel agents" as their guides) and out of which other, stranger beings and artifacts emerge. The cast is a cross-section of every part of this strange ecosystem, and the novel is a success in large part because it conveys the entire setting so richly as its own "metacharacter."
This isn't to say that Nova Swing doesn't have its shortcomings. As in Light, author M. John Harrison has saturated his prose with sexuality that is generally uncanny and disturbing. This trend is justified to an extent by the setting, but Harrison employs it to excess, such that he overshadows many of the more important (and more interesting) kinds of relationships that the novel explores.
This is, in fact, part of a greater tension that Harrison seems unable to escape. He at once tries to pull the reader in by writing frankly (or, depending on your tastes, crudely) about the human condition, but at the same time pushes the reader away through his emphasis of the freakish otherness of his set dressings. In the end, Harrison wants us to feel empathy in spite of ourselves, but also wants to show off how refined as sense of Otherness he can portray.
Fortunately, in Nova Swing, Harrison opts for the former at the expense of the latter. That is to say, he ultimately explores humanity rather than exploiting dehumanization, a pleasant reversal of his priorities in Light. As such, while it has its lumps (as well as more mundane pacing difficulties stemming from keeping to many characters active in the story), Nova Swing is a worthy accomplishment....more
It's difficult to pin down what the correct yardstick for evaluating a book like Light. In the end, it negotiates an uneasy truce between poetry, concIt's difficult to pin down what the correct yardstick for evaluating a book like Light. In the end, it negotiates an uneasy truce between poetry, concept fiction, and narrative storytelling, doing so at the expense of all aspects. Light isn't quite a novel, and author M. John Harrison seems perfectly content with this.
If the book fails, it does so to the extent that the author playfully intermixes elements that have a narrative purpose with those that are mere emotional set-dressing. Much has been made, for example, of the book's prominent and generally dysfunctional sex acts. What is galling, however, is how capricious and unnecessary most of them are. They serve little function beyond shocking the reader or throwing them off balance, except possibly conveying a uniformly cynical perspective on sexuality. While the poetry of this is clearly a matter of taste, these spectacles do little to enrich the book's more fundamental themes of prophesy, created life, and revelation.
The book has its share of small triumphs as well. Because it adopts a three-protagonist alternating-viewpoint style, it it able to play with themes and references in clever ways. Many of its secondary characters display surprising richness. Concerned as it is with spectacle, it frequently paints tableaux rich with interesting ideas, even if many of these ideas prove to be superfluous. Many reader, I suspect, will come to favor particular storylines on the basis of which ones have the characters and ideas that successfully strike a chord, although I imagine few readers will find all three equally fascinating.
Overall, I'm satisfied with the book as a Work, to the extent that it challenges the reader to pay attention and rewards efforts to work things out in advance. But just because I'm willing to let a few such books sit on my shelf doesn't mean I need too many more of its ilk to follow....more
Widely praised, Connie Willis' Doomsday Book is a rare bit of time travel fiction: it tells a raw, powerful, and believably realistic story with a verWidely praised, Connie Willis' Doomsday Book is a rare bit of time travel fiction: it tells a raw, powerful, and believably realistic story with a very minimal appeal to the "speculative fiction" toolbox. Collins takes the principles of time travel outlined in To Say Nothing Of The Dog and uses them to outline a far more grave and ambiguous story, departing from the farcical comedy of the preceding novel to address the grim subject of epidemics, particularly the Black Death.
The story follows two tracks, one in the 14th century and one in a very familiar 21st century. Both stories focus on epidemics, but do so with the striking contrasts. In the 14th century, the time travel canard permits us the perspective of epidemics in a context of total ignorance and surprise; in the near-future, a state of almost-overpreparedness for contagion reigns. At the same time, the events of the 14th century are known to us despite local ignorance, while the outcomes of the near future are totally uncertain despite advanced epidemiological techniques.
The tone of the book shifts markedly as time passes. It begins innocently enough, having the lighthearted "British comedy of errors" flavor that the author employed in To Say Nothing Of The Dog. This, is appears, is really a means of getting the reader involved in and invested in the medieval and modern characters, whose social networks are appropriately convoluted. The consequence is that when the respective epidemics finally reach full swing, the many resulting deaths have a great deal more impact. While this is arguably a manipulative technique reminiscent of Cerebus Syndrome, my opinion is that it is likely the most effective method to convey the grief and hardship of terminal disease outbreaks. Collins is not trying to betray the reader, in this regard: she is instead trying to be honest about an awful reality. When people get sick and die, especially before their time, it is tragic at a personal level no matter what the statistical size of the outbreak.
That said, the book is not perfect. Its later chapters are emotionally exhausting (which is as it should be), but leave a number of crucial points unresolved. In addition to its shift in tone, the story traffics in red herrings to heighten suspense, which is perhaps necessary to raise the stakes for the reader, but feel a tad overmanipulative in retrospect.
I felt that the book is deserving of the praise it has received, in that it achieves something few works of genre fiction manage: it conveys universally understood human experience in a rich, believable way. The challenge of telling a story about characters on the one hand and about something has wide in scope as disease on the other is no easy task, and Collins' success should be lauded. However, that balancing act requires sacrifices, and in some (arguably small-scale) ways, the strongest human elements of the book suffered for it....more
Michael Chabon's most famous (and Pulitzer-prize-winning) novel comes so preceded by a miasma of hype that it seemed, when cracking the book for the fMichael Chabon's most famous (and Pulitzer-prize-winning) novel comes so preceded by a miasma of hype that it seemed, when cracking the book for the first time, impossible for the actual work to live up. Happily, this is one book that fully deserves the near-universal and almost fanatical praise it has often received.
In plain terms, it tells the story of a Brooklyn Jew and a Czech Jew (cousins) living in New York during a span ranging from pre-war to post-war America. This two-man team, composed of Sam Clay (the American, and a writer) and Joe Kavalier (a Czech artist trained in magic and escape artistry) join forces to create a comic book character named The Escapist, who stands in the golden-age superhero company of the likes of Superman and Batman. This collaboration is the foundation for their joint stories, as the inexorable currents of their lives are filled with triumph and tragedy.
The novel's central theme is that of "escape." Throughout, all of the characters seek fervently to escape from various difficulties, some beyond their control and some of their own creation. To go any further into the nature of those escapes (successful and otherwise) would rob the story of much of its impact, so I will say nothing more specific. The writing has considerable emotional power, and that forcefulness is all-the-more-powerful without a clear picture of what lies on the horizon. The structure and the ending are unpredictable going forward, but makes perfect sense looking back, a rare combination.
However, Chabon's writing is excellent precisely because of its ability to give us a sense of the future. Like an excellent soundtrack, Chabon's ability to use foreshadowing gives us hints about events about to take place. Nothing in the book is truly surprising (in that the reader is shocked when it happens) because Chabon hints at each twist as it unfolds. The result is a narrative that flows in a way that is deeply intuitive, even as it is also realistically chaotic.
It's probably the case that a certain Nerd contingent will feel as though the book is written especially for them (and some of the obtuse references Chabon presents are undeniably nerdy), but being completely ignorant of the world of comic books and pulp writing should present no difficulty to a mainstream reader. The focus is on the characters and their inner worlds, which are vibrant in their humanity. While comic books are uniquely suited to the themes of the novel, this is a book anyone can enjoy immensely, and everyone should....more
On the surface, there's a lot to like about Pirate Sun, the third of Karl Schroeder's Virga books. Unlike the second book (Queen of Candesce), which sOn the surface, there's a lot to like about Pirate Sun, the third of Karl Schroeder's Virga books. Unlike the second book (Queen of Candesce), which seemed to progress orthogonally from the plot of the first book (Sun of Suns), this new installment picks up loose ends established early in the series and resolves many of the driving conflicts that were established from that onset. However, upon closer examination, Pirate Sun begins to have the musty aroma of a formula.
The Virga books are well-described as "high adventure driven by hard-nosed science fiction." In this regard, the world in which the story takes place remains interesting and compelling. As in previous volumes, Schroeder keep throwing new twists into the setting, expanding on the foundation of reasonable science to catch the reader off guard and reveal the quirks of his distinctive world. Unfortunately, the number of "aha!" moments inevitably diminishes with each book (as the setting is further fleshed out), and soon the "high adventure" element of the narrative must support itself under its own weight.
In this important regard, Pirate Sun begins to sag a little. Schroeder's characters remain archetypal, to the point of being cliched, and unless they are able to surprise the reader, the excitement of the writing increasingly depends on getting the next "fix" of setting weirdness. To make matters worse, Virga's two most compelling prior characters (Hayden and Venera) are largely absent and the new protagonists are conflicted in such simple ways that they do not propel the story forward with the same kind of urgency.
This is not to say Pirate Sun is bad, by any means. Many of the underlying concepts are sophisticated, highly strange, well worth serious thought. These are merely set dressing, however, for what is quite obviously popcorn fiction: not too filling, not too nutritious, but easy to eat and superficially (if predictably) tasty. Schroeder more cleverly concealed this superficiality in his earlier Virga books, but is less successful in this case. Without either an infusion of striking new ideas (the first book's strength), or a deepening and complexifying of the protagonists (the second book's strength), the Virga books may have officially gone into decline with this volume....more
Anathem is the story of a world in which most academic scholarship (including most pure science and most philosophizing) is done not by institutions oAnathem is the story of a world in which most academic scholarship (including most pure science and most philosophizing) is done not by institutions of higher learning, but by unisex monasteries that shut themselves off from the world to degrees. In this world, the preservation of knowledge is considered not on a scale of years or decades, but rather on a scale of centuries or millennia. Largely shut off from the world, these scholars keep the flame of knowledge alive while civilizations rise, fall, and rise again outside their walls. Until, that is, the monastic protagonists are swept up in a series of events that threaten to change the world as they know it.
On its face, Anathem seems like an impossible proposal: a science fiction epic about a bunch of monks who study Platonic philosophy. To make matters worse, it's one of those speculative works that insists on having its own vocabulary. The title, for example, is a term that fuses the words Anthem and Anathema. And instead of merely having a new meaning, it has multiple meanings, ranging from technical to colloquial. The book is riddled with this special vocabulary, and when combined with the weighty philosophical tangents, the book seems as though it should fall flat.
For some readers, in all likelihood, it will. But I found it fascinating. Instead of inventing scores of terms for no reason, Stephenson (in typical fashion) has a master plan, and his deviations from normal reality are all part of that plan. Because he is trying to build an entire world from scratch, the author's attention to detail rewards a very close reading. More than a novel, Anathem is a puzzle wrapped in the cloak of a novel.
Anathem also rewards readers who have a liberal arts education, particularly knowledge of philosophy and the humanities. This will sadly lock away some its cleverness from many readers. Seeing, for example, that a rule of thumb called "The Steelyard" is actually a disguised version of "Occam's Razor" will amuse and delight those readers who are in on the joke. Those who are not may appreciate the idea, but lacking insight into its source would seem to me to potentially diminish the impact of the book's ideas.
These factors, combined with the kind of methodically slow pacing (especially earlier in the book) that one would expect from a story narrated by a monk, will turn off many readers. It's tempting to say that Anathem is "too smart" a book for such readers, but it is unfair to conflate intelligence with the sort of "classical intellectualism" that the book resonates with.
For readers who are up to the task, however, Anathem rises to the occasion. Stephenson strives to present us with a world perhaps more perfect (and certainly stranger) than out own, and his careful attention in constructing this world is all the more striking when the reader takes a step back and considers the scale on which he is working....more
Shadows Over Baker Street presented me with a real dilemma, because I felt as though such a scattershot mix of stories couldn't really be boiled downShadows Over Baker Street presented me with a real dilemma, because I felt as though such a scattershot mix of stories couldn't really be boiled down to one rating. In the end, however, the sheer number of bad stories simply tipped things in favor of a two-star rating.
For the uninitiated, the book is a collection of short stories in which the formulaic "mythos fiction" of H.P. Lovecraft and others collides with the world of Sherlock Holmes. We are, in principle, to expect Holmesian deductive reasoning to be pitted against unfathomable eldrich forces, a face-off that (while hardly literature) promises to at least be good 'popcorn' reading.
To be clear, a handful of the stories are actually excellent. The principle piece ("A Study In Emerald") is very strong, but it can be acquired for free elsewhere in a much classier format, weakening the case for the anthology somewhat. While a number of other stories rise to the occation ("Tiger! Tiger!", "The Weeping Masks", and "Art In The Blood" were all entertaining), most are mediocre or worse.
The crux of the problem is that "The Mythos" and "Holmes Fiction" are two very specific sub-genres that follow well-established patterns. The cliche of Holmes deducing the character of his client at a glance during the opening is well known to fans of the Detective, as is the horror-narrative-told-through-the-lens-of-a-diary trope familiar to Mythos fans. These create expectations on the part of the reader.
It is, for example, easy to tell a Sherlock Holmes story wrong, which a distressing number of stories included do. The Holmes formula requires the story be told by Watson in the first person: failure to do so simply feels wrong. A clever story can dodge this bullet and innovate, but a clumsy story cannot.
At the same time, however, having to satisfy both formulas simultaneously presents a different problem: overly predictable storytelling. If you're familiar with the Deep Ones, you'll know the ending of various stories even as they begin. Indeed, the very approach Lovecraft took in his writing (slowly, through implication, building up to a shocking and otherworldly reveal) has largely been abandoned by writers who make the crucial mistake of re-using the same monsters and gimmicks. Few stories have that element of surprise precisely because the fans who will be drawn to this premise will be the best-equipped to identify the tired old monsters that have been recycled well past the point of horror, into the realm of cartoons and mockery. Or, for more than a couple of stories, the lowest tier of fiction: fanfic.
(As an aside, I feel I should point out that Lovecraft himself relied on a narrative formula rather than a consistent setting. He rarely used the same antagonist more than once. Consequently, most of his imitators in this collection and otherwise have spectacularly missed the point of "cosmic horror.")
The bottom line is that this collection is, for the most part, a team composed of cripples, with the exception of a handful of genuine athletes. Finishing the collection (a requirement I held myself to before reviewing it) was a chore, and not one I would wish upon others. Absolutely, read "A Study In Emerald" (available from the link above, or in the collection Fragile Things), but otherwise give this bundle a pass....more
Kurt Busiek has done something unusual with Astro City. Unlike workaday comic book authors who treat their subject matter as trivially as much of the Kurt Busiek has done something unusual with Astro City. Unlike workaday comic book authors who treat their subject matter as trivially as much of their readership does, Busiek is interested in what superheroes mean as ideas. With this, the first entry into a superhero setting of his own creation, he can get right to the guts of the superhero metaphor.
Life In The Big City tells six separate tales, each from a different perspective. Most strikingly, only two of the stories are told from the viewpoint of the heroes themselves: the rest are told through the eyes of victims, journalists, lowlifes, and other spectators. Instead of asking us to suspend disbelief (as most superhero comics do with their over-the-top action and avoidance of day-to-day life), Busiek forces us to put his world under a microscope.
While the execution isn't what I'd call perfect, I was still floored by the grace and fluidity of Busiek's storytelling. Unlike so many other talented authors in superhero comics, Busiek's objectives aren't subversive or cynical: he wants us to use his narrative to ask moral questions without treating the negative as a foregone conclusion. While he may be eroding the simplistic idealism or nostalgia of old comics, he does so only to replace it with something more serious and heartfelt.
The bottom line is that Astro City's first volume speaks of enormous potential. I recommend it highly to anyone who thinks superheroes are more than Saturday-morning cartoons....more
Queen of Candesce is the direct sequel to Sun of Suns by the same author. And, like a solid Hollywood sequel, it provides a very similar experience tQueen of Candesce is the direct sequel to Sun of Suns by the same author. And, like a solid Hollywood sequel, it provides a very similar experience to the first volume.
One could split hairs and discuss the pluses and minuses compared to Sun of Suns. Queen of Candesce mostly (but not quite fully) abandons the multi-character storytelling that helped make Sun of Suns a page-turner. Instead of leapfrogging all over the exotic setting, the author tucks in for a detailed examination of a specific slice of that world. Some of these innovation make Queen of Candesce a better book by virtue of its more coherent story arc, but also detract somewhat from the sheer unpredictability that made the initial offering so engrossing.
However, two of Karl Schroeder's book in a row now have made me more aware of the common elements than of the distinctions. The author is telling a very specific kind of story, populated by lively (if flat) characters and moving forward with relentless vigor. Reading this book is very much like a roller coaster ride: you know what you're in for right away, and the experience is reliable and exciting. At the same time, if you take a step back and look at how it's built, the way it works is completely obvious.
This is not to say the book is bad. I found it very entertaining. But it's also the least challenging novel I've read all year. I read it in a single sitting and came away with the same feeling I get watching a marathon of TV-on-DVD: satisfied but hardly awed....more
Schroeder's Sun of Suns bears the trappings of hard science fiction, but in reality it belongs to a much older genre: "Adventure." Like great popularSchroeder's Sun of Suns bears the trappings of hard science fiction, but in reality it belongs to a much older genre: "Adventure." Like great popular works of yestercentury (such as Treasure Island or Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea), Sun of Suns takes a compelling premise and applies continuous leverage to the plot. On the short side, I finished Sun of Suns in one sitting precisely because I couldn't put it down.
The story is set in an extremely unusual setting: a planet-sized bubble of breathable atmosphere, in which hundreds of floating cities are warmed by dozens of artificial suns. With its focus on airships, air pirates, and, territorial politics, the book feels remarkably like it was inspired by the critically acclaimed video game Skies of Arcadia, albeit intended for a more mature audience.
Like Skies of Arcadia, the book's characters are passionate, textured, and one-dimensional. We all know the archetypes well enough (the orphan-seeking-revenge, the ruthless-conniving-vixen, the bureaucrat-assassin-sociopath), and Schroeder demonstrates adeptly that working with archetypal characters lets the story drive forward unrelentingly. The story's roller-coaster pacing is facilitated by the simplicity of the characters, as relatively little time is spent on exploring the characters and far more is spent on accelerating the story.
Sun of Suns is a very entertaining read, and its unique setting guarantees that it will be remembered. While it is unlikely to inspire much soul-searching, it will keep any but the most demanding reader turning pages from start to finish....more
Viriconium is, nominally, a series of short stories and novellas set in (or related to) a city of the same name. In practice, the author is trying toViriconium is, nominally, a series of short stories and novellas set in (or related to) a city of the same name. In practice, the author is trying to more than that, and unfortunately the result is that the collection is somewhat the lesser for it.
The first novella, entitled The Pastel City, is an entertaining adventure in a land far past its prime. The standard hero tropes are in play, albeit set against a more dark backdrop (reminiscent of Jack Vance's Dying Earth), and the story does a good job giving the reader a sense of familiarity with the setting. This first story is also the last in the collection that "plays by the rules."
The second novella (entitled A Storm Of Wings) is dense, deeply confusing, and seems at odds with the initial setting. The author's descriptive style is radically different, and slightly surreal twists that introduced us to the setting explode into a phantasmogoric stream of consciousness so vivid and unsettling that it wasn't until about halfway through that I was able to figure out what the hell was going on. Subsequent stories show a similar character to the second novella, albeit to a more controlled degree.
What Harrison is trying for in the first novella is obvious: a standard science fantasy romp with heroism, peril, and skullduggery, flavored with postmodern nihilism. What he trying for in the rest of collection is a more devious game. By his own admission, Viriconium deliberately frustrates the reader. Tired of the "fantasy tourism" made popular by Tolkien, Harrison sought to write a world that was always familiar but never the same. Making repeated use of the themes of a world in transformation, Harrison's protagonists are usually as confused as the reader.
From a literary perspective, Harrison's efforts are probably laudable. Speculative fiction is an oddly stagnant genre in which most authors introduce us to their various worlds in the same ways. The literary is often overwhelmed by the "escapism formula" and Harrison's world is difficult, textured, challenging, and rich.
At the same time, however, Harrison's writing is often pretentious, overwrought, and stultifying. As a work that is entertaining, Viriconium often stumbles. There's something annoying about a story that is written to make a point, but the point that it's making is a reflection on (or criticism of) the reader rather than anything to do with the story itself. Like the artist who presents a blank canvas as art just to see the reaction of patrons, Harrison is writing a story while implicitly shaking you at the shoulder and shouting "You get it? You get it?"...more
Orion is one of the most frenetically bizarre graphic novels I own. Author Masamune Shirow's work has always been quirky, but Orion frequently straysOrion is one of the most frenetically bizarre graphic novels I own. Author Masamune Shirow's work has always been quirky, but Orion frequently strays far beyond that into the worlds of the baffling and the absurd.
Orion is set in a world in which Hindu/Buddhist cosmology is a scientific fact (the underlying particles of the universe, for example, are "yinrons" and "yangrons"), and magic is not only real but has been mastered by science. The central conflict of the story is a three way battle between the forces of science, religion, and greed. On the one hand, psychoscientists have a plan to purge the galaxy of bad karma through an elaborate ritual, which on the other hand offends the will of the celestial heavens. Susano Orbatos, god of destruction, descends to put mankind in its place, only to face a third force: the avatar of the bad karma itself.
Confused? Welcome to the party. Orion is a dizzying pastiche of references, presented as a surprisingly coherent setting. Fortunately, the details of these references aren't important. What's important is the continuous and often peculiar violence. Once Susano descends and starts laying waste to his enemies, the story mostly consists of a string of elaborate fight scenes, mixing traditional violence with the setting's distinctive style of magic.
Orion is, at the end of the day, a guilty pleasure. It's essentially The Fifth Element of the manga world: an action movie with a rich setting and continuous crowd-pleasing action, all the while never taking itself especially seriously. And precisely like The Fifth Element, Orion is unlikely to be remembered as a great work of literature. Instead, it's likely to be recalled by a handful of fanboys who want their stupid violence to be as smart as possible....more
Masamune Shirow was once of the heavyweights of the American market of import comics, a status he earned almost exclusively with his remarkable opus GMasamune Shirow was once of the heavyweights of the American market of import comics, a status he earned almost exclusively with his remarkable opus Ghost In The Shell. What most people forget is that Shirow authored a variety of other pieces varying wildly both in quality and in seriousness. Dominion: Tank Police is almost certainly the least serious thing Shirow's ever published, and also one of the least interesting. It certainly isn't bad, but it's only shot at being remembered is for its campiness.
Dominion: Tank Police tells the story of a hyper-violent police unit who drive tanks, causing massive amounts of property damage as they battle a ragtag gang of criminals. The logic, physics, and overall tone is one of slapstick (a sort of Looney Toons with guns and tits) that actually reminds me more of the 80s cartoon C.O.P.S. than anything else.
In his defense, Shirow doesn't take himself seriously at all, and this is some of his earliest and roughest work. The stakes aren't very high, so when Shirow aims low he still hits most of the time. Expect bawdy humor, visual gags, and gleeful rampage - someone looking for these probably won't be disappointed. Also, as silly (and stupid) as Tank Police can get, Shirow's forward-thinking vision is at work even in this early volume, hinting at his more direction musings about artificial life as explored in Appleseed and Ghost In The Shell. But these considerations are generally drowned out by the sound of cannon shells....more
It's difficult to articulate how profoundly Wayne Barlowe's Expedition influenced my thinking on science fiction. I have always been drawn to the notiIt's difficult to articulate how profoundly Wayne Barlowe's Expedition influenced my thinking on science fiction. I have always been drawn to the notion of "world-building," that exercise in reasoned extrapolation that can populate a society or an ecosystem, but Expedition's genius forced me to re-examine my thinking and become a lot more hard-nosed about it.
The premise of Expedition is simple: a team of scientists are making the first journey to a hitherto unknown planet brimming with strange and exotic life. Among them is an artist, whose mission is not merely to document the animals but to capture the tone of the planet. Barlowe's anatomical expertise (first demonstrated in his Guide To Extraterrestrials) is put to full use here, thinking through the logic of a planet in which (for example) the entire ecosystem relies on sonar rather than any form of eyes.
Barlowe writes as himself, a practice he would later use for his works set in Dante's Hell. Consequently, even as he paints the fantastic and peculiar animals of Darwin IV, he conveys the stories, the surprises, and the twists of his adventures there. It's an unusual approach for an artist: to produce fantastical art while at the same time providing a type of fictional behind-the-scenes look at how a person for whom the work would not be fictional would interpret the work. Imagine Bosch writing commentary about his depictions of the underworld as if he were a war journalist, and you can get a sense of how surreal this can seem at times.
Anyone who enjoys fantastical worlds without needing a contrived conflict as an excuse for reading will find Barlowe's vision of an alien ecology fascinating....more
Mark Danielewski's debut novel House of Leaves is an ambitious, unique creation that challenges many of the basic storytelling conventions we, as readMark Danielewski's debut novel House of Leaves is an ambitious, unique creation that challenges many of the basic storytelling conventions we, as readers, are raised to expect. Perhaps best described as a "surreal existential thriller," House of Leaves is one of those rare works of fiction that blurs the line between fiction and reality so heavily that it leaves the reader fascinated and disoriented.
The structure of House of Leaves is its most distinctive quality. The book presents itself as a manuscript discovered and edited by Johnny Truant, an LA lowlife. The manuscript in appears to be an academic critique of a documentary film called The Navidson Record, written by "Zampanò," a blind man now deceased. Within the documentary, we are told of the remarkable and frightening experiences of the Navidson family, whose house appears to be larger on the inside than it is on the outside. Truant tells his own story through the footnotes he leaves throughout the manuscript (which sometimes become large enough to subsume the page), the Navidsons have their story told through the description of the documentary, and Zampanò's story is implied by the intersection of the two.
Ostensibly a sheaf of loose-leaf pages in its manuscript form (we are told by Truant), House of Leaves doesn't just upset the traditional 'narrator' model. The contents of the pages themselves are sometimes printed at an angle, or as a spiral, and occasionally pages contain only a handful of words. These 'visual tricks' evoke a reaction from the reader, helping to convey the claustrophobia, agoraphobia, and suspense of various passages. These tricks could be described as "cinematic," the the lack of overt illustration makes that a misnomer.
These various challenges to the reader have a profound effect. Disorienting the reader could be considered a cheap trick (and has been by much of the literary establishment), but it is nevertheless exceedingly effective. House of Leaves is the first book I've read since I was a teenager that I can unironically call "scary." The book feels, in many respects, the way Twin Peaks (for example) feels, where an alarming sense of unreality pervades even the most mundane scenes.
Fortunately, despite this tone, House of Leaves still works at a page-by-page narrative level. Less intellectual readers will enjoy it as a supernatural thriller, cynics will enjoy it as a tongue-in-cheek look at literary criticism, and literary wonks will find many layers of symbolism to pick apart and interpret. In the end, it is all of these things and something else besides. As we are faced with an increasingly digital world, it's easy to think of "books" as a list of words in sequential order. House of Leaves is a reminder that some stories can only be told by a brick of paper in your hand. It's a reminder of the book as an artifact rather than merely a medium, and that the medium hasn't yet been "played out."...more
Le Sommeil Du Monstre (titled The Dormant Beast in its English translation) is the opening act of author Enki Bilal's most recent epic, "Le Monstre" (Le Sommeil Du Monstre (titled The Dormant Beast in its English translation) is the opening act of author Enki Bilal's most recent epic, "Le Monstre" (or, in English, The Beast). Despite being the start of a story, Le Sommeil Du Monstre is a remarkable piece of fiction that stands alone, mixing Bilal's most experimental style to date with several challenging storytelling techniques. The result is a stunning narrative tapestry.
The story focuses on three protagonists (Nike, Amir, and Leyla), all orphans of the war in Yugoslavia. Of the three, Nike is the predominant protagonist, and is gifted with a remarkable memory that is not only perfect, but that he is in the process of "rebuilding" back to the day of his birth. Nike (the savant), Leyla (the scientist), and Amir (the mercenary), living independent lives, are drawn into a conspiratorial conflict against the Obscurantis Order, an obfuscated monotheist cult built using strange technologies by Optus Warhole, an enigmatic, Luciferian villain.
The brilliance of Le Sommeil Du Monstre is not only in its exploration of themes of religion, science, identity, and memory, or its successful juggling of three parallel story lines. The central scaffolding of the story are Nike's memories, which (despite being rebuild in reverse chronological order) offer important thematic parallels to the story. This, combined with a surreal, visceral artistic style (reminiscent of the work of Francis Bacon), is powerful and evocative.
Without question, Le Sommeil Du Monstre is a difficult. Made even more complicated is the subtle interplay of language that is lost in translation (Nike, for example, was raised in America, and his imperfect understanding of French emerge when he becomes angry). It is a story with many layers, and readers are likely to find getting to the bottom of them a challenge. In my opinion, this mature piece of literature is Bilal's best work to date, and challenges even the stuffiest literary critic not to be astonished by its storytelling and its symbolism....more
Surreal, gritty, and supremely strange, the Nikopol Trilogy is a loose three-part epic spanning 12 years of author Enki Bilal's career. Nikopol helpedSurreal, gritty, and supremely strange, the Nikopol Trilogy is a loose three-part epic spanning 12 years of author Enki Bilal's career. Nikopol helped to make Bilal a household name in Europe, where the trilogy's oblique storytelling and signature artistic style both work against a reader's expectations.
The three volumes of the trilogy differ from one another markedly, both in their writing and as Bilal's style evolved. Rather than thinking the stories as mere sequels, each additional chapter surrounds and engulfs the scope of the previous tale.
The first chapter is entitled The Carnival of Immortals, and introduces us to a France overtaken by a regressive fascist regime in negotiations with the gods of the Egyptian pantheon. When a capsule containing a frozen astronaut named Alcide Nikopol falls from space, the future-shocked everyman is possessed by the renegade god Horus. Struggling to retain his free will, Nikopol finds himself swept into the physical and political violence of a world he no longer knows. Think: Directed by Ridley Scott.
The second chapter, The Woman Trap, taking place some years after the events of the first, centers on Jill Biskop, an exotic-looking journalist whose experimentation with mind-enhancing designer drugs is beginning to unravel her sense of reality. Her delicate grasp of reality receives a shock when her story becomes entangled with that of Nikopol and Horus. Think: Directed by David Lynch.
The third chapter, Cold Equator, follows the stories of Nikopol, Horus, Biskop, and Nikopol's son to a bizarre African free trade zone where the sport of the hour is chessboxing (which, as an aside, has become a real-world sport inspired by the comic). The most abstract of the three chapters, it is at once allegorical and satirical. Think: Directed by Guillermo del Toro.
Throughout, the Nikopol Trilogy is frustratingly opaque but rewardingly deep. Bilal (like many French-language graphic novelists) places a much heavier emphasis on art than the written word, showing much but telling little. This enables him to tell stories that can (perhaps must) be read at multiple levels. His use of visual metaphor is extensive and often overt, especially in the last chapter. Each image is meant to be lingered over and turned back to, as the reader tries to make sense of the story as an artistic object.
This storytelling style will, unsurprisingly, be a turn-off to many readers. Unlike most comic book authors, Bilal doesn't feel obligated to present a story with clear antagonists, clear resolutions, or much expository. the reader is on his (or her) own, and must make of it what they can. I find this sort of puzzle engrossing, but more casual readers may turn the final page and ask "What the hell was that?" without going back to figure it out....more
I'll be the first to admit it: I'm a fan of popular fiction. I desire enjoyment from certain factors of pacing and style that the literary elite consiI'll be the first to admit it: I'm a fan of popular fiction. I desire enjoyment from certain factors of pacing and style that the literary elite consider "common" and I, in turn, generally find "literature" to be incredibly pretentious. This has led me to hold what some might consider "uncultured" opinions about various great works.
Which brings us to Don Quixote, which many in the literary elite consider to be the greatest novel ever written.
Did I love Don Quixote? I wouldn't go that far. Does it deserve to be called the greatest novel ever written? I'm willing to put it on the short list.
Here's the thing: Cervantes published Don Quixote in the early 17th century, while Shakespeare was still working through his "tragic" phase (Hamlet & whatnot). By rights, it should be like so much other "classic literature:" dense, slow, utterly irrelevant to modern life, and soporific. Instead, it's dense, slow, engaging, and surprisingly relevant. Cervantes manages, almost continuously, to be clever in ways that transcend the 400-year gap and resonate with us now. There's no question that adapting to the writing style of that era is a challenge, and Don Quixote will be slow going to readers accustomed to modern pop fiction. But most intelligent readers will consider this a price worth paying.
Why Don Quixote still works stems largely from its having taken the formulas of "heroic knighthood" (which we are still vaguely familiar with as legend today) and showing it to be cartoonish and absurd. Despite the cultural gap, modern readers will still get the gist of the parody, even if they haven't read the chivalric literature that it is an explicit parody of.
The other reason the story works is because, strangely, we find ourselves continuously at odds with the author over the character of Don Quixote himself. We are told, at every turn, that Quixote is a fool, a madman, and a sinner. Cervantes breaks from the traditional role of a passive narrator to make constant judgment on Quixote's failures and flaws. And because we see Quixote so maligned by both his own author and everyone in the book, we as the reader fall in love with him. By writing a book about a dreamer with unassailable ideals but using the narrative voice of a vitriolic cynic, Cervantes forces us to stand up for the nobility and purity that Quixote achieves. Cervantes has, in effect, martyred his own protagonist in such a dramatic way that it falls to the reader to elevate Quixote to the status of saint.
And any book that can pull that off is worth the difficult prose....more
I'm very much torn over The Ballad of Halo Jones, and would give if 3.5 stars if I could. On the one hand, The Ballad has a choppy narrative, murky chI'm very much torn over The Ballad of Halo Jones, and would give if 3.5 stars if I could. On the one hand, The Ballad has a choppy narrative, murky characterization, bipolar thematic shifts, and engages in more than a little borrowing from classic sci-fi without ever making clear whether it's parody or mere imitation. On the other hand, it is also deliriously inventive and constructively challenges many comic book conventions, most importantly with its strong sympathetic female lead (an especially important quality for a comic originally published in 1984). Author Alan Moore was clearly experimenting a great deal at the time, and learning a great deal, but it wasn't until his later works that the fruits of his experimentations really matured.
When The Ballad of Halo Jones works, its works extremely well. The setting is an absurd black-comedy skew on the futurist model so popular in the late 70s, and breathes with a life of its own thanks to its distinctive euphemism and slang. When the story falls flat, it falls hard, leaving the reader in the lurch. Its characters are well-thought-out, but the lack of clear exposition can make their behavior confusing. In short, Halo Jones is a prototype, with its share of glitches and trend-setting innovations.
I decided, finally, to give it four stars because its failures are understandable but innovations are remarkable. It stands up well to re-reading and has plenty of surprises in store. As long as you don't go in expecting work on par with Moore's very best, you'll have a good time. ...more
From Hell is a brick of a book by legendary author Alan Moore. It presents one theory (since discredited) about the Jack The Ripper killings, and in sFrom Hell is a brick of a book by legendary author Alan Moore. It presents one theory (since discredited) about the Jack The Ripper killings, and in so doing presents us with the story from every conceivable angle. The result is an exhaustive (albeit fictional) account of a sweeping slice of Victorian landscape.
From Hell is dense, multi-layered, and overflowing with an obsessive connect-the-dots tone that fancifully associates the events to everything from Aleister Crowley's childhood to Hitler's conception. The murders are, of course, the central events of the book, and are depicted as an elaborate Masonic ritual by the killer (with pages and pages of Masonic theory to boot), but devotes considerable time to even the minor characters, a sort of pantheistic character study of an entire society.
There is little doubt that From Hell is a "great work" from a strictly literary perspective. Its devilish intricacy and boldly experimental approach make it a pioneering achievement. At the same time, it is not an enjoyable read. Setting aside for a moment its most uncomfortable moments (most notably a gruesomely detailed depiction of every step involved in the Ripper's most famous killing), large patches of the text are dull and technical. Other tangents, presumably included for "completeness," seem superfluous and distract from the central focus of the story.
Making matters worse is the artwork of Eddie Campbell, which can kindly be called "pen-and-ink impressionism" and less kindly be called "chickenscratch." Apart from robbing much of the story of the shading a black-and-white style needs to really breath, it also often makes it extremely difficult to recognize characters. Readers must depend on gross physical characteristics (weight, facial hair, outfit) to keep track of which character is which in many cases.
Ironically, the best part of the book is an appendix comic-essay called "The Dance of the Gull Catchers," which explores the difficulty of studying the history of the killings. Moore and Campbell also provide an exhaustive overview of which parts of the story are fictionalized and which have some basis in reality, an exceptionally rare move in historical graphic fiction.
On the back cover, Moore states, "For my part I am concerned with cutting into and examining the still-warm corpse of history itself." This, we can all agree, he has done. The sad truth, however, is that this examination, while epic and masterful, still isn't especially rewarding to watch....more