Paper Girls Vol 4: Finally revealing the bigger picture This is the fourth volume of Brian K. Vaughan’s PAPER GIRLS, and we are finally given enough Paper Girls Vol 4: Finally revealing the bigger picture This is the fourth volume of Brian K. Vaughan’s PAPER GIRLS, and we are finally given enough glimpses of the larger plot to make sense of what’s happened until this point.
After being thrown into the distant past and battling cavemen and befriending fierce natives, the girls once again in their future (and our past), namely during Y2K before the millenium. There are all kinds of strange things happening, not least of which are giant robots duking it out like Transformers in the streets of quiet Stony Stream, but for some reason only one of the girls can see them.
We also get far more details on who the old-timers and young ones are, and why they are fighting a war across multiple timelines. What made little sense and was totally disorienting in the earlier volumes now becomes more clear in hindsight, and Vaughn is having fun peeling back the curtains a bit but also implying that the larger tapestry is vast and complex indeed, enough to justify a long and fascinating run. So that early teasing is finally starting to pay off.
We also get more encounters betweens the girls and their older selves, which is always a fun opportunity for introspective and surprise/dismay at how things turned out. There are also some interesting developments in the relationships among the girls, but the less said the better.
Finally, I found the action sequences involving the old-timers and young ones to be quite intense and dramatic. Vaughan has been careful to not reveal which sides are “good” or “bad”, as they both have their own agendas and rationales for fighting this multi-timeline conflict. The girls of course are caught in the middle and sometimes have to follow their gut instincts in who to believe and side with, which changes as the story progresses.
The artwork by Ted Chiang remains precise, clean and skillful, and the coloring by Matt Wilson and letter by Jared K. Fletcher are also distinctive and add to enjoyment of this story. It’s a pleasure to read and the full-page panels are always used as dramatic reveals.
I found this volume to be the most satisfying of the series so far, and feel like things are starting to pay off finally....more
Paper Girls, Vol. 3: Story Shifts to A New Direction Entirely Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
This is the third volume of Brian K. Vaughan’s PapPaper Girls, Vol. 3: Story Shifts to A New Direction Entirely Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
This is the third volume of Brian K. Vaughan’s Paper Girls, and if you thought you were starting to get a handle on where the story was headed, think again…
[SPOILER TERRITORY AHEAD – DON’T READ UNLESS YOU’VE READ VOLUMES ONE AND TWO]
The four paper girls are reunited in a completely new place somewhere far off in the future or past, and run into a savage young women who looks vaguely native American except for the technojunk strung around her neck. She is a fierce warrior, but despite her youth is carrying a baby on her back, and thanks to an interpreting device the girls brought with them, they can communicate. In all three volumes, characters from different time periods speak unintelligible languages, enhanced by the creative lettering, and the future oldsters use an evolved form of English as you would imagine would happen over the centuries.
Then a new character from the future named Doctor Quanta Braunstein shows up in a fancy suit and cool hairstyle, while Tiffany and Erin start to bond with the primitive girl Wari and her baby Jahpo. It turns out that three men are after Wari for her baby, and somehow they all claim fatherhood. They look a bit like Uruk-Hai covered with mud, and they too have some technological flotsam to go with their stone axes. Anachronisms abound is this volume, as the theme of crossed time streams comes to the fore. These three cave-men run into and capture Doctor Braunstein, while the girls try to come up with a plan to get back to 1988.
Meanwhile, KJ and Mac spend some time having typical tween chats…in the distant prehistoric past. But when they encounter a weird futuristic construct and KJ touches it…she sees some disturbing things. Once again, Vaughn is very good at using varying panel sizes to build anticipation and delivery of the big reveals, just like in Saga.
The four girls finally reunite in the forest, and inevitably they encounter the three cave-men and the future woman being held prisoner. Lots more happens, and we learn a little about what is happening in the grander scheme of things, but it’s just tidbits of story breadcrumbs that Vaughan is doling out to keep us going. The story is interesting enough that I don’t mind, but this could potentially be a very long and involved series indeed.
In the final chapter of volume three, Doctor Braunstein and the girls discuss the merits of meddling with the ancient past, but then the three cave-men show up and force the issue. The episode ends with some climactic events likely to have major repercussions, and the girls are thrown into yet another time period with another unexpected and dramatic final image…TO BE CONTINUED....more
Paper Girls: If you thought things were weird before… Originally posted at Fantasy Literature This is the second volume of Brian K. Vaughan’s Paper GirlPaper Girls: If you thought things were weird before… Originally posted at Fantasy Literature This is the second volume of Brian K. Vaughan’s Paper Girls, and takes up the story right where it left off in volume one. The four paper girls from 1988 have found themselves in 2016, but still in the sleepy suburb of Stony Stream. And they are about encounter more weirdness and sinister characters that the first volume…
Paper Girls has been likened to a female version of Stranger Things, and while they both center on a group of suburban kids growing up in the 1980s who start to encounter strange and occult happenings in their town and have to take things into their own hands, with copious 80s pop references, Paper Girls is a lot edgier and intense, which is just what you’d expect from the creator of Saga.
Once again, Vaughan spins off new plot elements and characters without letting either the reader or the characters know who are the good guys or the bad guys, so it makes you wonder if he really can pull it all together over time eventually, or if he’s just winging it along the way. Considering that there are folds to other dimensions and time travel in the story, pretty much anything can happen and he can back-engineer things to make some kind of sense. Only time will tell.
In the meantime, Volume Two focuses on Erin meeting her future self in 2016, which presents lots of fun moments for the girls to marvel over the advances in technology since 1988, and for 12-year old Erin to meet her older self and vice-versa. It isn’t all happy times – young Erin probably didn’t see herself as a small-town journalist, and older Erin is torn between feeling responsible for these young girls in her charge, and seeing their youth and enthusiasm that she has since lost. The whole situation is pretty stressful for the older Erin.
Still, as KJ has disappeared along with the mysterious cloaked time-travelers from the previous volume, the girls convince older Eric to help them track her down, using the mysterious device with the apple symbol. It directs them to the “First Folding” at the old Stony Gate Mall.
Meanwhile, a mysterious new character in a futuristic red suit shows up in a parking lot, and when they remove their helmet things get even more disorienting. It’s quite a WTF moment, and I happen to like those quite a lot, which is why I enjoy Vaughan’s stories so much. With hardly a pause to catch our breath, a giant creature shows up in the parking lot, which looks very alien but is actually of terrestrial origin and if you’ve watched the new version of Cosmos hosted by Neil De Grasse Tyson, you will recognize it. The new character is also heading for Stony Gate Mall, so we know they will all cross paths soon. Once again, we’re kept in the dark as to whether they are good or bad, though they claim to be on the girls’ side.
The new character saves Mac and Tiffany from a nasty creature, while the old and new Erin have some bittersweet conversations about life, before they discover a mysterious field hockey stick dangling from a patch of nothing with a cryptic note. Then the interloper (see, I’m trying extra hard not to spoil too much) starts to reveal a bunch of info to the girls and older Eric, but if anything its just enough to create more questions in their minds (and the readers’). When the interloper offers to take them all to a future sanctuary and gives them a glimpse, its very tempting indeed. Our protagonists make a gutsy decision on who to trust…
Then things get even more bizarre, as the Oldsters start to get involved with a giant airship, some pteradactyls, and even more crazy stuff that clearly belongs in the future. Older Eric calls in unexpected help, and more exciting mayhem ensues. There are some great larger panels here, and the artwork by Cliff Chiang and coloring by Matt Wilson are truly excellent.
Despite all the new plot details and fleshing out of the world Vaughan has created, you’ll likely feel like your head is spinning from all the possibilities, but if you are comfortable being kept in suspense, then this series remains intriguing and unexpected....more
Paper Girls: Four 80s Teens get Entangled in Serious Weirdness Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
If you are a fan of Brian K. Vaughan’s amazing SaPaper Girls: Four 80s Teens get Entangled in Serious Weirdness Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
If you are a fan of Brian K. Vaughan’s amazing Saga comic series, you are likely to want to check out some of his other series as well. In addition to writing many stories for Marvel and DC comics’s well-known franchises, he has also written a number of original series, including Y: The Last Man, Ex Machine, Runaways, and Paper Girls. For Paper Girls, I rally liked the cover artwork by Cliff Chiang, coloring by Matt Wilson, and lettering by Jared Fletcher.
Paper Girls has been likened to a female version of Stranger Things, and while there is some superficial resemblance as they both center around a group of suburban kids growing up in the 1980s who start to encounter strange and occult happenings in their town and have to take things into their own hands, with copious 80s pop references, Paper Girls goes into far weirder and most outlandish territory, and while things start out out on a small scale about four 12-year old girls doing a paper route in Cleveland, Ohio, things don’t stay that way for long.
During her early-morning paper delivery route, Erin Tieng is accosted by some bullying teen boys who are chased off by three other female paper girls, Mac, Tiffany, and KJ. Mac is a tough-talking, cigarette-smoking tomboy who doesn’t back down from anyone while Tiffany and KJ are a bit more typical kids. Erin is the new girl, but gets thrust into their group when they get jumped by some mysterious cloaked individuals and have their walkie-talkie stolen.
The early morning pre-dawn blue colors and artwork are done really well, as are the 80s period details of clothing, hairstyles, manner of speech, and pop-culture references. However, these girls are a bit more street-saavy than their male Stranger Things counterparts, and when they discover a mysterious device in an under-construction house, you know things are going to get weird. If you’d rather discover the rest for yourself, stop reading and get yourself a copy right now!
Anyway, the girls get transported to a different version of their sleepy suburb of Stony Streams, and run into the mysterious cloaked figures, who speak a mystery language depicted with alien-looking lettering. They acquire a tiny device with an apple symbol on it, try to figure out what is going on, and very soon we’ve got winged pteradactyls with futuristic armored riders with power lances, weird light formations in the sky, and then things get very chaotic.
The girls end up with the mysterious hooded characters, people get injured, and they end up on the run from some very bizarre alien constructs, and get conflicting details and snippets of information just enough to confuse and tantalize us. Again, it’s not clear what’s going on and where the story is going, but compared to all the stories out there that are painfully predictable, I found this refreshing.
Vaughan throws in a steady flood of new plot elements and characters without letting either the reader or the characters know who are the good guys or the bad guys, so if you like your stories crystal-clear from the outset you may find it frustrating. I myself enjoy the disorientation of a new stories where nothing is yet clear, so I don’t mind. If you trust the creators of the story, you’ll be willing to go along for the ride. Much like in Saga, he likes to have smaller panels lead to larger reveal panels that build anticipation in the story. It’s a good visual technique and gets you trained to look ahead to the next one, very Pavlovian!
Because the events of Volume 1 are still so preliminary and confusing, I read the first three volumes before even attempting to write a review, but I can honestly say that while I’ve got a more detailed view of the larger plot and more details, I remain in the dark about where this story is going, but it remains very entertaining....more
Angelmaker: Zany mashup of thriller, doomsday devices, and clever repartee Originally posted at Fantasy Literature Angelmaker (2012) is Nick Harkaway’sAngelmaker: Zany mashup of thriller, doomsday devices, and clever repartee Originally posted at Fantasy Literature Angelmaker (2012) is Nick Harkaway’s second book, after his exuberant, clever, digressive and exhausting debut The Gone-Away World. It shares the same qualities with that wild and free-wheeling tale, with relentlessly clever dialogue, quirky and in-depth characters, an intricate but playful doomsday plot, more flashbacks than most readers can handle, and chock-a-block with clever and ironic observations of the weirdly-unique world he has created, and by extension our own less colorful one.
The story skips back and forth in time just like its predecessor, to a degree some readers will get irritated by, as we learn a great deal about the back stories of the main characters but very little of the forward momentum you’d expect from a “political thriller.”
Harkaway is in love with language and cleverness, and this time sets his sights on old-school English gangsters, WWII spy-games, secret agents, doomsday devices, evil arch-villains, dramatic fight scenes, and another mild-mannered protagonist, this time a quiet clock repairman who sets in motion a string of bizarre and potentially world-ending events. Many secretive and sinister characters come out of the woodwork and the whole thing is a bit overwhelming, though Angelmaker is slightly more tightly-plotted than The Gone-Away World, but not by much.
I found both this book and its predecessor to be sufficiently complex that it was difficult to follow the plot or lighting-paced dialogue, filled with anecdotes and carefully-crafted quips. It is probably much better suited to a proper printed page reading experience, absorbing all the various flavors that the cook has poured into his high-brow fusion of multiple genres. The narrator Daniel Weyman does an excellent job of capturing the many larger-than-life characters, including all the different accents, and I find that British accents are inherently charming for this type of humor, especially as I now recognize many locations that are mentioned.
Still, Nick Harkaway’s works are not to be shoveled down like a burger and milkshake, but rather, need to be savored like a multi-course French meal....more
The Gone-Away World: Relentlessly ironic, digressive, and clever Originally posted at Fantasy Literature The Gone-Away World (2008) is a post-apocalyptiThe Gone-Away World: Relentlessly ironic, digressive, and clever Originally posted at Fantasy Literature The Gone-Away World (2008) is a post-apocalyptic comedy/tragedy about our world before and after the Gone-Away Bombs have wiped up out much of humanity and the world we know. It is about Gonzo Lubitsch and his nameless best friend, who work for a special crew that is assigned to put of a fire along the Jorgmond pipeline, which produced the special material “Fox” that can eliminate the Stuff, the matter that is left over after gone-away bombs have removed the information from matter so that it no longer can form coherent form and structure. Stuff takes on the shape of the thoughts of people near it — nightmarish monsters, ill-formed creatures, and “new people.” Nightmares become real, and the world itself is a nightmare of sorts.
And very soon after the story begins, we are wrenched back into Gonzo and his friend’s upbringing and bizarre early years learning kung-fu from Master Wu. The Gone-Away World is a long story that absolutely revels in its digressions and manic humor that relentlessly attacks the insanity of the military weapons mentality and the soul-destroying nature of corporations and conformity. It devotes a lot of time to ninjas and martial arts and military training, the cruel absurdity of war zones and civilian casualties, weird desert nomad tribes, and then the surreal post-apocalyptic communities of Mad Max-like survivors and predators clinging to a precarious survival.
It is also about friendships and identity, as the characters fall into and out of different roles and situations, constantly shifting. Everything is maniacally sarcastic, filled with tragic irony and withering contempt for corporate rapacious greed. There are so many digressions that even the digressions have digressions. The story veers from one situation and tone to another, and then two-thirds of the way in, a shocking turn of the plot turns the entire story on its head and changes our understanding of everything that came before, and the final third of the book is truly different from what came before.
The story flies through some powerful and grim examinations of war, destruction, greed, and societal collapse, and yet retains a dogged insistence on making an ironic and ultra-clever quotable comment on the whole glorious mess. It is self-indulgent and digressive and deeply morally-insistent all at the same time. The relationship of the narrator and Gonzo is a fascinating thing, and changes dramatically and suddenly mid-way through. The book could have used a much tougher editor — it’s like listening to your brilliant friend talking a mile a minute, both exhilarating and exhausting. It reminded me somewhat of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, with its larger-than-life characters, lengthy descriptions and elaborate language and humor.
If you are in the mood for a completely different and bizarre literary SF satire on our world, this may be worth a try. The audiobook is expertly by Kirby Heyborne....more
14: A fun mashup of hard times in LA, a creepy building, the occult, and horror It's very easy to see where Peter Clines got the inspiration for this s14: A fun mashup of hard times in LA, a creepy building, the occult, and horror It's very easy to see where Peter Clines got the inspiration for this story of a mysterious, creepy, and way-too-cheap apartment building in Hollywood and all the struggling LA misfits who live it in it. As a Hollywood screenwriter himself, he writes with great confidence and pathos about the daily grind and struggles of fringe people trying to make a living in crappy temp jobs, working in the movie business, battling for parking spaces and the daily traffic grind, and searching for the cheapest apartments to make ends meet. There is a camaraderie of poverty that provides rich material for irony and snark and snappy dialogue. The mystery of the creepy building with all the locked rooms, incongruous apartment dimensions, weird tenants, 7-legged green cockroaches, and tons of spooky Cthulu elements is carefully built, and the timing of his reveals is carefully designed to build the suspense before all hell breaks loose in the third act. It's done very well, and has a similar structure to his equally-popular mashup The Fold, though I much preferred 14 because of the scuzzy LA setting and knowing banter of the characters over the eidetic memory of the genius protagonist in The Fold and the various paranoid scientists. Overall, it's easy to see why Clines has become a very popular author, though the reviews for his third book Paradox seem mixed. I enjoyed both of them as skillfully-wrought entertainment, but would say 14 was the better of the two....more
Saga, Vol. 8: Unafraid to mix space adventure with difficult topics Originally posted at Fantasy Literature It’s been six months since I read Vol 7 of SSaga, Vol. 8: Unafraid to mix space adventure with difficult topics Originally posted at Fantasy Literature It’s been six months since I read Vol 7 of SAGA, and after moving to London last summer we recently popped into Forbidden Planet in Soho, and that store is an absolute treasure trove of SF comics, books, and other fan goodies. There are so many enticing comics on offer there, you could spend your entire salary in one wild shopping spree. When I saw Vol 8 of SAGA with Wild West cover art among the new releases, I knew I had to have it.
SAGA is my favorite comic series, because it is always pushing the envelope in terms of content, themes, gorgeously assured and sometimes shocking artwork, and characters so charming, honest and flawed that you can’t help but cheer for them. If you like intelligent, snarky, sometimes profane space opera with a vast cast of star-crossed lovers, bounty-hunters, humanoid robots, tabloid reporters, terrifying monsters, and oddball creatures all caught up in a galactic war between the technology-based Wings and magic-wielding Horns of Wreath and Landfall, this series is guaranteed to captivate.
In Vol 8, Marko, Alana, Hazel, Prince Robot, and Petrichor find themselves on a remote Wild West planet. The traumatic events on planet Phang are still lingering, and they are in desperate need of an emergency medical procedure (any more details would be a spoiler). Once again writer Vaughan is unafraid to tackle a sensitive subject with the opening panel. And while I thought this time the story sometimes felt like it was purely a vehicle for political debate and hurt the story’s momentum, I applaud his willingness to put his characters in contentious moral situations. It’s a trademark of the entire series, love it or hate it.
While Petrichor encounters some Wild West outlaws, Alana, Marko, and Hazel hitch a ride on a train and meet up a very unexpected new character that quickly bonds with Hazel. In fact, Alana has discovered some surprising new powers that may be connected to this. Finally Alana and Marko reach their destination and the doctor they’ve been seeking. The dialogue sounds like something from a TV talk show debate, but then that’s what Vaughan wants to talk about, so that’s what we get. I thought this part of Vol 8 dragged, as the characters debate the merits of their actions. Likewise, Petrichor and Prince Robot are another odd partnership and have many arguments over gender, war, and politics. I liked the story of Hazel and her new friend Kurti better. There were a number of poignant moments as they innocently discuss the world of adults, and this section will appeal to parents, siblings, and those aspiring to become one. Again, this part is very well-written and didn’t feel as forced as their earlier parts.
In the next chapter, we once again see what The Will has been up to, and he’s not in a good place. Seems that one of the many individuals he’s casually killed during his illustrious freelance bounty hunter career had a loved one who has tracked him down to exact revenge. This person has decided to really torture him by going through his old memories. We get to see some scenes from The Will’s childhood and early days as a bounty hunter with The Stalk. Artist Fiona Staples treats us to the ultra-violent action that the series generally features. I’m sometimes unsure if Vaughan & Staples show gruesome violence for the vicarious thrills, or as a technique to highlight that killing is not clean and anonymous like storm-troopers in Star Wars. Considering that his old sins are now catching up with The Will, I would hazard a guess its’ the latter. Eventually, his tormentor unearths a very valuable secret from his memories, though it’s no secret to readers.
In the final chapter, we rejoin Upsher, the gay tabloid journalist, Ghus the little prairie-dog warrior with a sense of justice, and the innocent young son of Prince Robot, Squire. They have an adventure in the forest, seeking the fearsome Dread Naught, and Ghus and the young robot have some interesting discussions about what situations justify fighting and killing to protect yourself. Vol 8 ends on an upbeat note, quite the opposite of the dark final panels of Vol 7.
Now that the series has reached 48 episodes and eight volumes, it has settled down to a more thoughtful pace, and while I think it does lack the intensity of the first four volumes and over-indulges in overt political themes that didn’t really carry the story forward much, I think Vaughan feels that he’s earned the loyalty of readers enough to be able to explore such themes with less propulsive action and more discourse. Again, I really appreciate that SAGA is not about escapism, its about our messy world, war, injustice, intolerance, innocence and cruelty, and most importantly the decisions we must make each day to get to the next day. That’s what keeps the series relevant and fresh – it’s real and funny and heartbreaking, often in rapid succession. Give it a try if you haven’t yet....more
This series just gets better with each installment. I gave City of Stairs and City of Blades 4 stars each, but I think having listened to all three, tThis series just gets better with each installment. I gave City of Stairs and City of Blades 4 stars each, but I think having listened to all three, the trilogy as a whole deserves 5 stars for incredible world-building, complex mystery plots, and above all its damaged and conflicted characters.
City of Miracles is centered on fan-favorite Sigrid, the Nordic berserker assassin and all-around badass, but much of the plot revolves around the secret machinations of Prime Minister Shara Komayd, who starts off the book in explosive fashion. It's a very cinematic opening sequence worthy of Luc Besson or Michael Mann, and its alternative Eastern European urban flavor is perfectly evoked. Though Bennett adopts the same structure of a murder mystery that unfolds into a much more complex tapestry of dead gods who never fully stay dead, diabolical plots to harness divine powers for various political ends, and in this book the numerous offspring of the gods, carefully hidden away in society as mortals, often with the children themselves unaware of their heritage.
What Bennett does best though is refuse to let his characters stay the same. They undergo traumatic adventures that leave physical and psychological scars that DO NOT GO AWAY. It's a direct refutation of the usual pattern of indomitable heroes who decimate their enemies, feel a twinge of remorse, and then move on to the next adventure with a jaunty swagger. Not so in THE DIVINE CITIES - Shara, Turiyan, and especially Sigrud carry the baggage of all the killings and schemes they have been involved in throughout their lives, and all the loved ones they were unable to protect from harm. Not only that, but their harrowing life journeys age them, so that we see characters that not so much grow in stature as get worn down, like weathered stones being battered by the sea, shaped by events into fantastically contorted patterns, yet still recognizable.
The themes of colonialism and its legacy remain front and center, and this time the theme of children and how they are often exploited for the purposes of adults is a key plot element, particularly as it pertains to the children of the gods and one particularly damaged godling that uses his own abusive past and takes a terrible revenge on his brethren and the world, seeking to envelop everything in everlasting darkness. He is both pathetic and terrifying, a man-child who is lashing out at those he feels wronged him.
The plot is as intricate as the previous books, and suffice to say that Bennett is adept at mixing intense action, complex intrigues, emotionally-charged relationships, and speculations on divinity, war, and oppression in a completely unique and organic way that I haven't seen done before in the genre. That's saying quite a lot considering how much derivative product is churned out year after year. This series deserves plenty of accolades and book sales, as the author has created something quite special and worthy of repeat readings. Though each book can stand on its own, the three form an integrated whole that is one of the most impressive works of the last decade, on par with N.K. Jemisin's BROKEN EARTH trilogy....more
The Library of Mount Char: Way Better than American Gods Originally posted at Fantasy Literature The Library of Mount Char has gotten heaps of praise foThe Library of Mount Char: Way Better than American Gods Originally posted at Fantasy Literature The Library of Mount Char has gotten heaps of praise for from a vast number readers and reviewers, and the plot has been discussed in detail by many already (too much, in some cases). This is exactly the type of book where the enjoyment comes from the careful reveals that make you think back to earlier, seemingly-innocuous details. So when I hear so much praise for a SFF book (or movie, for that matter), the first thing I do is try to avoid finding out anything else about the book and try to read it without any spoilers sneaking past my defenses. It’s a lot like when I record the Super Bowl here in Japan on Monday morning and try to get through the whole day without finding out the score so I can watch that evening without knowing the result.
I was able to do this with The Library of Mount Char, and I’m glad I pulled it off. All I knew was that it was about some powerful beings, a library of mysterious knowledge, a sinister character named Father who was missing, and a lot of creepy stuff that happens to them. Perfect! Because Scott Hawkins has thought through this book carefully and lays out his breadcrumbs very carefully, with great glee. You can imagine him smiling as he sets out scene after shocking scene, laced with both blood, guts, and ironic humor.
Because both the powerful super-humans and regular people caught up in the events are generally in the dark as all sorts of lethal enemies come after them. I like it best when both readers are characters are kept in suspense, it makes for a much more enjoyable read. Have you ever read a story (or seen a horror movie) thinking, “How could that character be so colossally thick-headed as to not realize who’s behind…”. Well, this book is structured as a series of flashbacks with the various powerful beings growing up with the frighteningly-unpredictable Father and his bizarre love of his BBQ grill shaped like a giant bull. He is truly inscrutable, at times kindly and nurturing, then suddenly turning cruel and vindictive in the blink of an eye.
As promised, I will reveal no further details of the story so you can enjoy it as I did, with an open mind (though some scenes may well may you cringe - it’s not for the faint of heart). I did repeatedly think to myself that the overarching storyline has many parallels with Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, but I was frankly unimpressed with that book despite all the awards and popularity. The Library of Mount Char is a much better book, both in pacing, characters, intensity, and mystery. In particular, the ending ties things up elegantly but also prompts the reader to reinterpret the events of the story to the point where I’m sure some will be eager to re-read it with foreknowledge of what will happen. It’s that kind of book. I have high expectations for Mr. Hawkins’ future work....more
The Lathe of Heaven: An early 1970s classic of reality-altering dreams with Taoist undercurrents Originally posted at Fantasy Literature I love Ursula KThe Lathe of Heaven: An early 1970s classic of reality-altering dreams with Taoist undercurrents Originally posted at Fantasy Literature I love Ursula K. Le Guin’s novels from the late 1960s and early 70s. She just couldn’t go wrong during this period. Although The Lathe of Heaven may not be the first book that comes to mind as one of her masterpieces (that honor would likely go to The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, or the EARTHSEA TRILOGY), it was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula Awards and won the Locus Award in 1972. It’s what I consider one of her smaller books, but still one of her best.
What makes The Lathe of Heaven great is that it can tackle some of the biggest issues of the time — overpopulation, environmental destruction, war, racism, the lost soul of the modern world, exploration of the dreaming mind, alternate realities, and the urge to shape society for the better — all in under 200 pages. I really feel that is a lost art in this day of massive doorstoppers, multi-book mega-series, and self-indulgent info-dumps.
The story is also simple in concept, with a very small cast of characters, so it could easily be a stage play and has been made into a film twice, once as a PBS production in 1980 and later as an A&E Network film in 2002. It centers on George Orr, an unremarkable man who happens to have “effective” dreams which alter reality. Horrified by this, he tries to suppress his dreams with drugs, but runs afoul of the law and is given the choice between therapy or a mental asylum. He chooses therapy, and is assigned Dr. William Haber.
The early parts of the story detail the therapy sessions of George and Dr. Haber. George is a very passive, almost timid man. He doesn’t want to be in this situation, and certainly doesn’t want to be altering reality with his unconscious dreams. Dr. Haber is the polar opposite, a confident, brash, and aggressive man who quickly recognizes the potential to harness George’s dreams to shape reality in the ways he wants.
Although he makes repeated and valid arguments as to why he should utilize this unique ability to do good and improve society and the world, each time he inserts suggestions to George such as “let’s imagine a world without overpopulation, war, pollution, racism, etc.,” the outcomes invariably are not what he expected and include some serious unforeseen side-effects. Notably, with each new iteration, Dr. Haber’s status and career seem to also improve.
The middle portion of The Lathe of Heaven then explores a serious of alternate realities dreamed up by George’s unconscious with prompting from Dr. Haber. The ways in which things go wrong are quite ingenious, and it’s clear that Le Guin does not subscribe to the power fantasy that someone with the means has the right to shape society and reality to their liking without consultation, even with the best of intentions. As the worlds get stranger and more distorted, Dr. Haber hatches an idea that if he can replicate the process on himself, he can cut the reluctant George out of the equation and dream the world himself exactly to his specifications. This forms the climactic final events of the story.
What adds interest to The Lathe of Heaven and places it firmly in the late 60s & early 70s is not just the political issues of the time, but also the underlying elements of Eastern philosophy, specifically the Taoist quotes at the beginnings of chapters from Chuang Tzu, as well as Tao Te Ching, The Book of the Way and Its Virtue by Lao Tzu, along with western philosophers such as H.G. Wells, Victor Hugo, and even Lafcadio Hearn. You can see how well-read Le Guin is and how much Eastern philosophy was gaining prominence and popularity in the West as an alternative to traditional Western philosophy, especially on college campuses and in intellectual circles. This is similar to the profound influence of the I Ching, The Book of Changes, in Philip K. Dick’s dystopian masterpiece of alternate reality, The Man in the High Castle.
Taoist thinking can be found in the character of George. From many perspectives, this protagonist is very frustrating due to his passivity, reluctance to take any action to change the world around him, and instinctual distrust of authoritarian behavior. Whereas some people might seek to harness their powers to shape reality through dreams, George is repelled by this. Taoism is one of those slippery, non-dogmatic philosophies that espouses the pursuit of The Way though natural, uncontrived living. Disciples seek to discard the ills of civilization and material desires and pursue the simple, unadorned joys of a basic agrarian existence. One key concept is called Wu Wei, which is defined as “effortless action,” “non-action,” much as the planets orbit the sun without any effort, just following the natural rhythms of the universe.
So while from a Western perspective George is a spineless man, afraid and reluctant to do anything with his powers of dreaming, from a Taoist perspective he might be a very dedicated individual trying to avoid doing harm to the natural order of the world around him. Of course this becomes an interesting point of debate in the story — if Taoists look to the ancient past of a simple existence as the ideal, does this principle still apply in the dystopian future society of George and Dr. Haber, living in massive towers packed with millions of people living on minimal rations due to overpopulation, a deteriorating environment, wars throughout Europe and the Middle East, and a general spiritual malaise? Faced with such conditions, is it wrong for Dr. Haber to want to change that? And is it right for George to resist any such manipulations? As always, it is the questions that Le Guin raises that are more important than the answers. The Lathe of Heaven is a concise, though-provoking journey into multiple realities and the dreaming unconscious, but is in no way an escape from reality....more
The Ends of the Earth: Luminous, powerful stories of war, exotic locales, and supernatural horror Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
Lucius ShepardThe Ends of the Earth: Luminous, powerful stories of war, exotic locales, and supernatural horror Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
Lucius Shepard had already created one of the best short story collections in the genre, The Jaguar Hunter, which won the 1988 World Fantasy Award and Locus Award for Best Collection, with “Salvador” winning the Locus Award in 1985 and “R&R” winning the Nebula Award in 1987. His work is steeped in magical realism, supernatural horror, Central America and other exotic locales, and hallucinatory depictions of futuristic warfare. In my opinion, Shepard is one of the best stylists to ever work in the genre. That’s why I can’t help including a writing sample from some stories in The Ends of the Earth — they’re just so good.
It’s always tough to come up with a sophomore effort that lives up to the hype of the original. Fortunately, when you’ve lived as dramatic and eclectic life as Lucius Shepard, working a host of random jobs to support years of exploring obscure corners of the planet, that makes for fertile ground for great, memorable, and frightening stories. I’m always amazed by authors who can come up with fantastic tales just living in a quiet house in the suburbs, where the biggest event is when a squirrel sneaks onto the bird feeder or the neighbors’ dog gets loose.
It’s a testament to the power of the human imagination, but nothing beats having BEEN to Central America and the Carribean, drinking rum at a beach-side shack with the locals late at night, and hanging out with the burned-out expats trying to escape our modern materialist society. And when you actually have the writing skills to craft stories that fascinate, repulse, and entertain, then you’ve got it made. And like The Jaguar Hunter, The Ends of the Earth also won the World Fantasy Award for Best Collection in 1992.
“The Ends of the Earth” (1989): This is a classic story that is immediately recognizable as a Shepard story. A successful writer named Ray has a failed affair with a married art gallery owner in New York and decided he needs to flee his life and civilization, and chooses an obscure town called Livingston in Guatemala. Being an author, he is fully aware of the artistic pretentious of seeking to escape to the ends of the earth to find inspiration in his own emotional pain along with the new environment so different from the busy streets of Manhattan.
The bar — Café Pluto — was set in the lee of a rocky point: a thatched hut with a sand floor and picnic-style tables, lit with black lights that emitted an evil purple radiance and made all the gringos glow like sunburned corpses … I was giddy with the dope, with the wildness of the night, the vast blue-dark sky and its trillion watts of stars, silver glitters that appeared to be slipping around like sequins on a dancer’s gown. Behind us the Café Pluto had the look of an eerie cave lit by seams of gleaming purple ore.
There he discovers the expected mixture of disillusioned ex-pats, impoverished locals, and drug-taking bohemian would-be artists. It’s all according to script, until he meets a rather unpleasant Brit named Carl who has set himself up as the top dog in the bohemian community, claiming to be writing an obscure academic work on local folklore and black magic, but supporting himself by selling drugs to other foreigners. Ray takes an instant dislike to Carl, not least because one Carl’s followers is an alluring young French woman named Odille, whom Ray is attracted to and who has her own emotional issues she is fleeing from. The scene is set for a classic love triangle in a tiny Guatemalan village, until one night Ray discovers a set of strange dolls that Carl has acquired from a local shaman. Supposedly they are part of an ancient game that Carl is studying, but he is very reticent to reveal more details, and when they all decide to get high on hashish and play the game, things quickly take a sinister turn…
“Delta Sly Honey” (1987): Here is another Shepard story set in a war setting, this time behind the front lines in Vietnam. Randall J. Williams is a skinny and shy young Southern guy who transforms into the “High Priest of the Soulful Truth and the Holy Ghost of the Sixty-Cycle Hum.” Randall’s job is mainly to handle the bodies of dead soldiers, but one day a lifetime sergeant named Andrew Moon decides to make meek Randall his target of bullying. One day someone using the tag line Delta Sly Honey answers Randall’s broadcast, and he freaks out and goes AWOL. As the narrator investigates, things get more bizarre and horrific…
“Bound for Glory” (1989): This is definitely a strange and memorable tale of a nightmarish train trip to Glory, a town in a post-apocalyptic Wild-West type of landscape where desperation triumphs over hope. The train passes through a strange series of border towns but the biggest danger is when it goes through the Patch, an area where the laws of physics, mysterious fauna, and behavior of the passengers all change unpredictably. Anybody who has read Jeff VanderMeer’s SOUTHERN REACH trilogy will recognize the eerie echoes of that occult sense of dread.
The train guard Roy Cole patrols up and down the train cars, looking into the eyes of each passengers for the telltale signs of madness, and doesn’t hesitate to use his shotgun if he feels it is justified. When the narrator and his female companion Tracy go through the Patch and Tracy starts to transform, he is torn between protecting her from herself and Roy Cole, but he should really be more concerned about the changes that are happening to himself. The ending of the story truly turns things on their head, but you’ll have to read it to find out why.
“The Exercise of Faith” (1987): Here’s a story that doesn’t resemble other Shepard stories I’ve read. The protagonist is a priest that heads a small group of parishioners. But he has an ability not generally available to men of the cloth. The opening paragraph describes it well: From my pulpit, carved of ebony into a long-snouted griffin’s head, I can see the sins of my parishioners. It’s as if a current is flowing from face to face, illuminating the secret meaning of every wrinkle and line and nuance of expression. They — like their sins — are an ordinary lot. Children as fidgety as gnats. Ruddy-cheeked men possessed by the demons of real estate, solid citizens with weak hearts and brutal arguments for wives. Women whose thoughts slide like swaths of gingham through their minds, married every one to lechers and layabouts.
Knowing the innermost thoughts and sinful urges of his flock leads the priest to pursue some very deviant paths and deliver possibly the most perverse sermon of all time. Depending on your temperament, you may find it either hilarious or blasphemous. A very unusual story.
“Nomans Land” (1988): This is the story of several sailors who get caught in vicious storm off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard (which also features in Shepard’s story “How the Wind Spoke at Madaket”) and who find themselves stranded on a tiny deserted island appropriated named “Nomans Land”. The only survivors are Bert Cisneros, a mean-spirited Portuguese man, and the Irish cook Jack Tyrell.
There is little friendship between the two, but they take shelter in an ominous bunker overnight. The next morning, Jack encounters a strange, haunted-seeming woman named Astrid who sees to be living alone on the island, an entomologist studying the ubiquitous tiny white spiders that seem to make their webs in every corner of the island. Jack and Astrid develop a lonely and desperate relationship that suddenly takes a turn to horror (Shepard’s favorite technique), and then goes far beyond, bringing our tenuous understanding of reality into question, as the little white spiders swarm over the island.
“Life of Buddha” (1988): This is the first story in this collection that I just didn’t like. It’s the story of a heroin addict nicknamed Buddha that basically spends much of his time in a drugged-out stupor in a shooting gallery, ostensibly serving as security for his dealer. He has decided to shut out the painful memories of his family by losing himself in drugs, and encounters another lost soul who is also living in the margins and struggling with gender issues. There are some fantasy/horror elements, but I couldn’t care about the characters or the story much.
“Shades” (1987): Here is a return to form for Shepard, as a Vietnamese man named Tom Puleo returns to Vietnam to cover a story about a young soldier named Stoner who died in a village called Cam Le. A Marxist mystic has invented a device that can summon ghosts, and Stoner’s ghost has come back to haunt the village, scaring the residents away and attracting foreign attention. As a fellow soldier with Stoner, the machine inventor wants to see if Stoner’s ghost will respond more to Tom. The story is filled with intense paranormal confrontations between Tom and Stoner’s ghost, and the ending is poignant.
“Aymara” (1986): This was one of my favorite stories of the collection, another seamlessly-crafted take of revolution in Central America and the take of a gringo named Captain Lee Christmas who becomes deeply embroiled in Honduran politics at the turn of the century. The framing narrative is told by a political journalist named William who is fascinated by the story of Christmas and also looking to write a story about a mysterious US military facility and the growing presence of CIA agents around the town. As always, Shepard captures the details of the steamy daily life in the city, and when William begins a torrid love affair with an exotic dark-haired local woman named Ivie. The mystery behind the military facility involves scientists, exotic experiments, revolutionaries, and the two lovers in the middle of it all. The ending is wonderfully enigmatic, a great story.
“A Wooden Tiger” (1988): Another classic Shepard tale of supernatural horror, embittered CIA agents, incarnations of the goddess Kumari, and sordid goings on in Katmandu. An ex-CIA chief named Clement decides to track down the most recent incarnation of the dark goddess Kumari, who regularly inhabits the bodies of young girls who are treated like goddesses until the spirit moves to the next one, at which point they are discarded and shunned. Clement tries to track down a former incarnation, now a mere mortal, and encounters his former mentor D’allesandro, who taught him all the dirty tricks in the book, but who was now gone rogue Lieutenant Kurtz-style. It’s all very murky and intriguing, exactly the type of story Shepard excels in without repeating himself.
“The Black Clay Boy” (1987): This is a short and creepy story set in small-town Ohio, narrated by an old woman named Willa Selkie. She is a recluse, harassed by neighborhood boys with petty pranks. Then she reminisces back to hear early days as a beautiful young woman forced to marry a wealthy older man when she was just 18. Turns out Willa has a very intense libido that cannot be satisfied by her distant and old husband. When he discovers her pleasuring herself, he basically has a heart attack and curses her with his dying breath. She goes on to remarry, but again can’t get no satisfaction, turning to part-time prostitution just to get her fix, eventually setting her sights on a sexually-frustrated Reverend. As we flash back to the present, Willa turns now eyes on her Black Clay Boy, a type of voodoo doll, hoping for one last moment of pleasure…
“Fire Zone Emerald” (1985): Another atmospheric and intense Shepard tale of high-tech soldiers in a Central American war zone, this time in the Guatemalan rain forest. The story begins with Quinn, a soldier injured and separated from his unit after an attack and explosion, finds himself alone in Fire Zone Emerald. He is hardly able to move, and when he gets an unexpected call on his com unit from someone named Mathis of Special Forces who seems sympathetic but may have gone rogue, Quinn is suspicious. The story becomes a cat-and-mouse game as Quinn tries to evade Mathis, with some very tense action sequences. What’s that you say? Where is the trademark dark supernatural element that distinguishes Shepard’s stories? Well, you should discuss that with the queen, who takes the shape of a tiger and can place thoughts in your mind…
“On the Border” (1987): This was one of my favorite stories — a desert-based tale of desperate and marginalized hoodlums who try to rise above their origins, the classic pursuit of a reward for the kidnapping of the beautiful daughter of a rich man, and some magical realism in a surreal brujo in the desert and a bizarre mountain village that may be a total head trip into a psychedelic and violent denouement. It’s a taught tale with a lean and mean James Ellroy feel, but with the empathy of Shepard’s love of outcasts and the glimpses of sublime spiritual mysteries hiding in the sordid corners of our world.
“The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter” (1988): This is one of the longest stories in the collection and is part of Shepard’s ongoing series of fantasy stories about Griaule, the giant dormant dragon who has been trapped by a magician’s spell and has become a part of the local geography, but still exerts a subtle and sinister influence on the human communities that surround it. This story is about Catherine, the daughter of a scalehunter in Hangtown who makes his living chipping away loose scales to sell in the nearby town. She is beautiful, as the title states, but also vain and selfish, toying with the hearts of the young men and stealing them away from their girlfriends just for the malicious fun of it. One day she is resting alone and is assaulting by a village thug, and in the struggle to resist his attempted rape, she accidently kills him with her scaling hook. She is then forced to flee into the dragon’s mouth as his vengeful brothers try to kill her.
Thus begins a very surreal odyssey inside the body of Griaule, which turns out to be inhabited by all sorts of bizarre and disturbing creatures much like something from Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth or Michael Shea’s Nifft the Lean, and more importantly a lost colony of humans called feelies, descended from a pair of retarded villagers many generations past. They have formed a strange and degenerate society that seems to be swayed by the inscrutable and dark influence of Griaule’s thoughts. Catherine is taken into this society and gradually falls into the rhythms of this subterranean world, a prisoner of both the feelies and the dragon’s pervasive presence. Then one day a young scientist enters her world, changing everything.
This is one of those tales with metaphorical overtones that dares you to interpret both the situation and events and discover the hidden themes and messages. However, much like his award-winning story “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule,” while the story is fraught with meaning, the exact interpretation of what the dragon represents is elusive and will vary from reader to reader. Is the dragon a dormant god, exerting a sinister influence on human affairs for his own unknowable reasons, or an embodiment of a more subtle evil that is not divine in nature? Themes of free will, self-determination, and imprisonment are also explored, and the will to adapt to captivity. Guilt, revenge, love, escape, freedom, and good/evil; it’s all there in a fairytale format that also reminded me of Ursula K. LeGuin’s short stories.
“Surrender” (1989): The final story is a confluence of all Shepard’s favorite elements: a dismal Central American military conflict, corrupt militia groups involved in nefarious scientific experiments, jaded journalists who discover things are even more screwed-up than their cynical outlooks were prepared to handle, and dark gun battles against subhuman creatures in dark and dangerous jungles and caves. The narrator gives the story its sarcastic attitude and challenges the reader to have an opinion of the endless miseries of US involvement in Central American wars and state-building, its failures and hypocrisy, and what we think of it while kicking back with a cold one from the comfort of our sofas in front of the TV watching ABC news and Monday Night Football....more
The Complete Cosmicomics: Cosmic Tales of the Universe’s Origins Originally posted at Fantasy Literature Along with his brilliant Invisible Cities(1972The Complete Cosmicomics: Cosmic Tales of the Universe’s Origins Originally posted at Fantasy Literature Along with his brilliant Invisible Cities(1972 in Italian, 1974 in English), one of Italo Calvino’s most enduring creations was his series of whimsical and erudite stories inspired by the origins of the universe and scientific principles, labeled Cosmicomics (1965 in Italian, 1968 in English). They are narrated by a mysterious being called Qfwfq, who tells of the Big Bang and the time before that when the universe was a single point without space or dimensions. Qfwfq has a refreshingly frank and humorous attitude towards such momentous moments as the birth of our universe, the origins of life, the extinction of the dinosaurs, the first animals to crawl onto land, the early days of the Moon, etc.
If you seek out these stories, you will find that the most recent edition includes much more than the original 12 stories. Now, for the same price you can buy in print or e-book all 34 collected Cosmicomics stories, published as The Complete Cosmicomics (2009). This comprises the original Cosmicomics (1965), t-zero (1967, also published in English as Time and the Hunter), and World Memory and Other Cosmicomic Stories (a collection never published in a single English volume, with eight new stories, seven of which are translated into English for the first time for the 2009 collection).
It’s an overused expression, but these stories truly defy easy description. Calvino believed that modern fiction was not addressing the most important new developments in cosmology and science in the context of the mid-1960s and amid the space race between the US and Soviet Union. So he took it upon himself to address these topics with a literary approach, and on top of that add a whimsical tone to otherwise obtuse concepts like the Big Bang and dimensionless space.
He also added a romantic element to these stories, as his protagonist Qfwfq is often pining after an elusive female companion, pursuing her across lunar landscapes, deep in the primordial earth, or in the farthest corners of the universe. So the big distinction with science fiction is that Calvino is fascinated with our origins, and at the same time uses the lens of literature to inform his comic tales. I will split my review into three parts to do justice to each section.
Cosmicomics (5 stars)
These are probably Calvino’s most accessible and enjoyable stories, and the first US edition translated by William Weaver won the National Book Award for a Translation in 1969. The first story in particular, “The Distance to the Moon”, combines all the elements I’ve described in a delightful tale of the early days when the Moon was much closer to the Earth, and the poignant love story that enfolds around it. It’s tells the story of Qfwfq, Captain Vhd Vhd, his wife, and Qfwfq’s deaf cousin, who took little boats on the ocean to harvest the milk of the Moon using a ladder, big spoons, and buckets. The distance between the Earth and Moon is so short that a tall ladder is enough to get there, and gravity reverses midway so you are drawn to the Moon past a certain point, and appear to be hanging upside down from the Earth perspective. Calvino’s descriptions of this bizarre and fantastic situation are wonderful:
In reality, from the top of the ladder, standing erect on the last rung, you could just touch the Moon if you held your arms up. I would cling first with one hand, then with both, and immediately I would feel ladder and boat drifting away from below me, and the motion of the Moon would tear me from the Earth’s attraction. Yes, the Moon was so strong that she pulled you up; you realized this the moment you passed from one to the other: you had to swing up abruptly, with a kind of somersault, grabbing the scales, throwing your legs over your head, until your feet were on the Moon’s surface. Seen from the Earth, you looked as if you were hanging there with your head down, but for you, it was the normal position, and the only odd thing was that when you raised your eyes you saw the sea above you, glistening, with the boat and the others upside down, hanging like a bunch of grapes from the vine.
There they harvest the milk of the Moon, which is a truly unique and somewhat stomach-churning concoction:
Moon-milk was very thick, like a kind of cream cheese. It formed in the crevices between one scale and the next, through the fermentation of various bodies and substances of terrestrial origin which had flown up from the prairies and forests and lakes, as the Moon sailed over them. It was composed chiefly of vegetal juices, tadpoles, bitumen, lentils, honey, starch crystals, sturgeon eggs, molds, pollens, gelatinous matter, worms, resins, pepper, mineral salts, combustion residue.
There develops a strange love triangle between Qfwfq, the Captain’s wife, and Qfwfq’s deaf cousin whose only passion is harvesting the Moon’s milk and exploring its scaly and alien terrain. I was surprisingly moved by the ending of this story, as I had initially expected Calvino’s story not to be centered on human relationships. This story is creative, literate, whimsical, and magical, and if you are interested in this collection I think it will win you over.
The remaining 11 stories are of equally high quality and charm, and explore a wide range of concepts and themes. Taken as whole, they are an amazing achievement and unique in the annals of fantastic literature.
Time and the Hunter (2 stars)
This set of stories is a very different creature indeed. It consists of three parts, “More of Qfwfq”, “Priscilla”, and “t zero”. These stories are far more experimental, formalistic, complex, mathematical, and frequently impossible to follow. In many ways they bear little resemblance to the stories from Cosmicomics, so in reviewing them I gave them a 3 star rating. I will separately review each part.
“More of Qfwfq”
This part consists of four stories, “The Soft Moon”, “The Origin of the Birds”, “Crystals”, and “Blood, Sea”. These stories ostensibly are narrated by Qfwfq, but his presence is fairly limited, and the stories often occupy modern environments, but still exploring Calvino’s themes of the romantic pursuit of the Moon, the evolution of birds shown via cartoon strip, the elements that make up the Earth juxtaposed onto New York, and the story of how life in the oceans made its way into our bodies via blood cells. It’s a much more cerebral literary experimental, and much of the playfulness is gone, but it does represent Calvino’s tireless drive to reinvent literary conventions to tackle modern themes.
This is a set of three linked stories, “Mitosis”, “Meiosis”, and “Death”, and I found these stories almost impossible to read or understand, as this passage will show:
So I am speaking then of the initial phase of a love story which afterwards is probably repeated in an interminable multiplication of initial phases just like the first and identified with the first, a multiplication or rather a squaring, an exponential growth of stories which is always tantamount to the first story, but it isn’t as if I were so very sure of all this, I assume it as you can also assume it. I’m referring to an initial phase that precedes the other initial phases, a first phase which must surely have existed, because it’s logical to expect it to exist, and also because I remember it very well, and when I say it’s the first I don’t in the least mean first in the absolute sense, that’s what you’d like me to mean but I don’t; I mean first in the sense that we can consider any of these identical initial phases the first, and the one I refer to is the one I remember, the one I remember as first in the sense that before it I don’t remember anything. And as for the first in the absolute sense, your guess is as good as mine, I’m not interested.
My mind was reeling after pages of this type of exposition. It just went on and on, without any conceivable storyline. It’s very much a literary experiment, but for me these stories had no appeal.
This is the set of four stories that really go off the deep end of mathematical experimental literature, and I challenge anyone other than a theoretical mathematician with an advanced literature degree out there to make any sense of the stories at all. It was so completely impenetrable that I just skimmed through the pages until they became a blur. You’re welcome to give them a try, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. Again, a sample may help to illustrate what I mean:
I find myself in a random space-time intermediary point of a phase of the universe; after hundreds of millions of billions of seconds here the arrow and the lion and I and the bush have found ourselves as we now find ourselves, and this second will be promptly swallowed up and buried in the series of the hundreds of millions of billions of seconds that continues, independently of the outcome, a second from now, of the convergent or divergent flight of the lion and of the arrow; then at a certain point the course will reverse its direction, the universe will repeat its vicissitude backwards, from the effects the causes will punctually arise… it will be forgotten in the dispersal of billions of combinations of neurons within the lobes of brains, so that no one will know he’s living in reversed time just as I myself am not now sure in which direction the time I move in is moving, and if the then I’m waiting for has not in reality already happened just a second ago, bearing with it my salvation or my death.
World Memory and Other Cosmicomic Stories (4 stars)
These stories represent a welcome return to the tales of the world’s early days, narrated by Qfwfq in his inimitable style. After the incomprehensible mess of “t zero”, it was nice to read more of the fables of how the moon formed from the sea, waves of land thrusting themselves up from the primordial seas, carrying various odd characters on their crests (“The Mushroom Moon”), a very haunting story of the decrepit old Moon and it’s encounter with a modern-world junkyard and the efforts of an army of young women in an ultra-modern ultra-consumerist New York to save the Moon (“The Daughters of the Moon”). Here is a memorable image:
We crossed one of the bridges that link Manhattan to the mainland. Now we were going along a multi-lane highway, with other cars alongside us, and I kept my eyes fixed on the road ahead, fearing the laughter and crude comments that the sight of the two of us was no doubt prompting in the cars on either side. But when a saloon car overtook us, I nearly went off the road in surprise: crouched on its roof was a girl with her hair spread out in the wind. For a second I thought my passenger was leaping from one fast-moving car to another, but all I had to do was turn my eyes round ever so slightly to see that Diana’s knees were still there at the same height as my nose. And it was not just her body that glowed before my eyes: I saw girls everywhere, stretched out in the strangest of poses, clinging to the radiators, doors, mudguards of the speeding cars—their golden or dark hair was the only thing that contrast with the pale or dark gleam of their skin. One of these mysterious female passengers was positioned on every car, all stretching forwards, urging the drivers to follow the Moon.
He also includes “The Stone Sky”, an inversion of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which two being dwell within the Earth’s core, but the female named Rdix has this irresistible urge to explore the upper layers near the crust where ephemeral beings (like humans) dwell. Calvino’s imagery here is again unique and refreshing - he delights in inverting our conventional perspectives and examining non-human perspectives:
Border areas, passages between one earthly layer and another, gave her a mild vertigo. We knew that the Earth is made up of superimposed roofs, like the skins of an enormous onion, and that every roof leads you to a roof higher up, and all of them together prefigure the final roof, the point where the Earth ceases to be Earth, where all the inside is left on this side, and beyond there is only the outside. For you this border of the Earth is identified with the Earth itself; you think the sphere is the surface that wraps it, and not its total volume; you have always lived in that flat, flat dimension and you don’t even imagine that one can live elsewhere and in a different way. For us at that time, this border was something we knew existed, but we didn’t think we could see it without leaving the Earth, a prospect which seemed to us not so much frightful as absurd.
That was where everything was flung out in eruptions and bituminous spurts and smoke-holes, everything that the Earth expelled from its innards: gases, liquid mixtures, volatile elements, base matter, all types of waste. It was the world in negative, something that we could not picture even in our minds, the abstract idea of it was enough to give us a shiver of disgust, no, of anxiety; or rather a stunned sensation, a kind of—as I said—vertigo (yes, that’s it, our reactions were more complex than you might think, especially Rdix’s), into which their crept an element of fascination, a kind of attraction to the void, to anything double-faced or absolute....more
Ninefox Gambit: Careful or You’ll Catch Calendrical Rot Originally posted at Fantasy Literature I’m just going to add my two cents here, as a heretic whNinefox Gambit: Careful or You’ll Catch Calendrical Rot Originally posted at Fantasy Literature I’m just going to add my two cents here, as a heretic who refuses to conform to the calendrical hierarchy that forms the basis of this mathematical military hard SF space opera with some gender-bending thrown in for extra flavoring. Ninefox Gambit has drawn favorable comparisons to Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lighting, because this book not only throws you off the deep end, but chains you up in neologisms, a complex future society that is not gift-wrapped neatly with a bow, and then chucks you in the magma of an intergalactic battle between the Hexarchate and heretics who refuse to follow the consensus reality, which powers the exotic technology and weaponry with which this empire maintains its vice-grip on its subjects. As others have observed, replace high-level mathematical formulae with magical spells, and voila, you’ve got a space-fantasy novel.
Of course Ninefox Gambit is far more complicated than that, but the basic story is of Kel soldier Charis teaming up with an immortal, homicidal, and totally insane undead general named Shuos Jedao to put down a heretical rebellion that has captured the supposedly-impregnable Fortress of Scattered Needles. Great names throughout, by the way, for that classical Three Kingdoms Chinese-fable feel but plugged into a hyper-militaristic future empire. You can react one of two ways — either your mind will rebel at the relentless stream of weird and confusing neologisms and mid-stream action opening sequence and say, “WTF was that?” Or … no that’s probably the standard response. The question then becomes, “Do I stick with it and hope that things will fall into place in time?” or “Do I ditch this book even though everyone is raving about how brilliant it is and I don’t want to be the loser who couldn’t handle the steep learning curve?”
Well, one thing about audiobooks is that even if you’re in way over your head, unlike in the print version where eventually you just cannot carry on any further, unless you click stop the audiobook keeps playing. And since 11 hours isn’t really THAT long, once you’ve gone halfway it would be silly to give up, so just let those bizarre events flow past your ears, and pluck a couple words here and there and try to figure them out. I found the exchanges between Charis and Jedao to be the most interesting, and the exotic and muddled futuristic battle sequences and protected siege to be the most boring. I mean, who couldn’t love an insane undead homicidal general who doesn’t even act apologetic for killing a million people and shooting his own officers in cold blood? Now that’s a character that will stay in your memory for a while.
Charis is a much more measured person, a soldier who is trying to do her duty, but knowing she is playing with a primal force that cannot be contained but is a “necessary evil,” that old chestnut. I found interesting echoes of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, particularly, in the subtle subversion of genders that are casually sprinkled at random moments. Yes, we’re pretty sure Charis is female and Jedao used to be male (he’s just a computer program now), and as audiobook narrator Emily Woo Zeller chooses to use “cigar-chomping drill sergeant” for every male military character, it’s clear from the voices who should be male and who female. But then out of nowhere sexual scenes don’t play out in the usual way, and there is the same obsession with gloves and the military found in Ancillary Justice. Is this a “thing” now? I hadn’t realized.
In any case, I haven’t even bothered to describe the plot because a) it’s quite complicated, b) other reviewers have done that already, and c) I just don’t have the discipline this time. But suffice to say I was of two minds about Ninefox Gambit. One the one hand, I did like how Yoon Ha Lee just decided “screw it, I won’t explain anything – you do the work.” But that puts a lot of stress on the reader/listener, and if the events you are describing are not gripping (like Dune, for instance, equally baroque and complex but also a rip-roaring space opera extravaganza), then your attention is going to wander … like a heretic! So I found myself stopping and rewinding again and again, over and over, till I decided it wasn’t worth doing that anymore. And while I struggled to follow the storyline at many points, I appreciated the exotic world-building and mathematical magic, and the love-hate relationship of Charis and Jedao....more
(Review and Author Interview) Between Light and Shadow: A prodigious study of SFF’s most elusive writer Originally posted at Fantasy Literature Last yea(Review and Author Interview) Between Light and Shadow: A prodigious study of SFF’s most elusive writer Originally posted at Fantasy Literature Last year I tried twice (unsuccessfully) to finish The Best of Gene Wolfe: A Retrospective of His Finest Fiction, giving up in defeat. Gene Wolfe is frequently described as one of the most brilliant SFF writers in the genre by critics, authors, and readers alike. Some fans prize his books above all others, and there is a WolfeWiki page dedicated to discussing his work. But there are also many SFF readers that are baffled and frustrated by his stories because they are packed with metaphors, literary references, and hidden themes, and require extremely close reading to understand and appreciate. So I didn’t expect to make any more attempts in the near future.
However, when the 2016 Hugo Awards were announced, I noticed that Marc Aramini’s Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951 to 1986 was the runner-up in the Best Related Work category. It’s an 826-page analysis covering Wolfe’s output through 1986, including all of his short stories (no matter how obscure, including his earliest works) along with his novels The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Peace, Free Live Free, and The Book of the New Sun. It is truly a work of dedication, a painstaking analysis of symbols, names, literary references, and themes of each story, and yet clearly the work of a fan rather than a dry scholarly study.
I recalled that someone by that name had posted a number of very helpful and insightful comments on my initial, frustrated review of The Best of Gene Wolfe. Indeed they are the same person. And so here I am, making a third attempt to scale Mount Wolfe, armed with some serious firepower. My technique was to read the Wolfe story first, read Aramini’s analysis of it, and then, if it felt worth it, read the story again. This often revealed a great deal of insight as I picked up on many of the clues and allusions buried in the text, previously unrecognized.
Each review in Between Light and Shadow contains a summary of the story, commentary on its themes, literary allusions, significance of character names, unanswered questions (there always are, even after exhaustive analysis), and connections with other works. Aramini even includes bibliographies that reference sources as wide-ranging as the Urth Mailing List, the Bible, The Wizard of Oz, The Arabian Nights, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Goethe’s Faust, Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, Marcel Proust, Gerard Manly Hopkins, Edgar Allan Poe, James Branch Cabell, Gore Vidal, along with scholarly works about Wolfe like Michael Andre-Druissi’s Lexicon Urthus, Robert Borki’s Solar Labyrinth: Exploring Gene Wolfe’s “Book of the New Sun,” and Peter Wright’s Attending Daedalus: Gene Wolfe, Artifice and the Reader.
What this suggests is the incredible depth of literary knowledge Wolfe brings to his stories. It’s hard to imagine even the most well-read literature professor or critic catching most of Wolfe’s oblique references, so it’s incredible the amount of research and analysis that Aramini has done, of course with the assistance of the other contributors to the Urth Mailing List. I’m sure many of these insights came after years of discussions on the meaning of his stories. I wonder just how many of these references most of Wolfe’s fans pick up on.
What’s equally impressive about Between Light and Shadow is that he brings this level of attention to every single story Wolfe has written between 1951 – 1986. The early stories, in particular, I didn’t even know existed. Aramini has indicated he plans a second volume to discuss more recent works like The Book of the Long Sun, The Book of the Short Sun, Latro in the Mist, The Wizard Knight, etc. It’s the effort of a lifetime, and deserves to be read by anyone with an interest in Wolfe’s body of work.
Below I’ve listed some of Wolfe’s most notable stories that would be a good entry point if you want to give Wolfe a try. I gained great insight into them from the analysis of Aramini, a truly dedicated Wolfe scholar and fan. He also has a series of YouTube videos explaining Wolfe’s major works — here is the first one with a general overview: Marc Aramini on Gene Wolfe and Literature, Part 1. If you think you might be interested in Between Light and Shadow, perhaps you can listen to some of Aramini’s YouTube videos first to get an idea of his erudition and enthusiasm. For detailed reviews of these stories, please see my review of The Best of Gene Wolfe: A Retrospective of His Finest Fiction.
“The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” (1970) “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” (1972) “The Death of Dr. Island” (1973) “The Hero as Werwolf” (1975) “Seven American Nights” (1978) “A Cabin on the Coast” (1981) “The Tree is My Hat” (1999)
INTERVIEW WITH MARC ARAMINI
Stuart Starosta: First off, congratulations on publishing this massive study of the first half of Gene Wolfe ’s body of work. It’s a tremendous achievement, clearly a labor of love. I assume it took shape from numerous discussions on the Urth Mailing List over many years. At what point did you actually start writing down your thoughts about his work, and when did you decide that you wanted to make this into a book-length analysis?
Author Marc Aramini: I encountered Wolfe quite by accident in the fourth grade when my father’s friend, knowing I loved science fiction, gave my a box of books from the SFBC which included The Claw of the Conciliator. I had to track down a used copy of The Shadow of the Torturer, but the disparate attitudes of my immediate family, with my mystical and superstitious grandmother, my staunchly religious Catholic mother, and my pragmatic father, drew me in to the numinous and tense atmosphere of the book.
When I was at college in the late 90s, I came across the postings of the Urth Mailing List and began to intermittently post, on and off, for years. I felt some of my insights were unique, but I had no idea that anyone would think much of my writings about Wolfe until I attended the Fuller Award Ceremony in Chicago in March of 2012, in which Wolfe was honored in an amazing ceremony. When I introduced myself to someone, a gentleman nearby recognized my name and came over to speak with me, and the sense that, at least in this small circle, I was well known, produced a vivid realization.
As I talked with other prominent fans like Patrick O’Leary, Michael Swanwick, James Wynn, and Michael Andre-Driussi, among others too numerous to name here, we lamented the fact that all of the discussion seemed focused on the New Sun books, when the early work was also very rich and, at least in our opinions, important. I vowed to go home and start a chronological study of the neglected short stories, imagining myself as a facilitator on the Urth List. After about a dozen of those, I realized true discussion required thorough research and the willingness to make strong thematic claims, and by the time I got to about the sixtieth story or so I had started to normalize the format and realized I had enough for an actual book … which would require some serious editing for those first sixty entries in terms of both format and quality – something which became a little bit of an unending nightmare.
Gene Wolfe’s works are notorious for being difficult for beginning readers to understand. The narrators are generally unreliable, and the surface story usually hides a wealth of themes, allusions, and hidden agendas. What type of reader is likely to become a Gene Wolfe fan? How much knowledge of classical and modern literature is needed to really appreciate his work? Do you immediately pick up his literary references or do you have to research them while or after reading? Does Wolfe really expect his readers to be as well-read as he is?
Wolfe’s difficulty is real, and his attitude is one that requires a certain level of real engagement from the readers. I would by lying if I said he doesn’t enjoy tricking the reader: sometimes he isn’t telling you the story that you think he is, and this genre confusion is even present in The Book of the New Sun, which reads so much like a fantasy while playing with the tropes of SF, autobiography, and religious narrative (perhaps even hagiography). Sometimes you can just enjoy the book, but the vast historical backdrop behind a story such as “The Sailor Who Sailed After the Sun,” with its wealth of mythical and literary allusions, really brings home the beautiful theme of the story: all things pass away from their physical forms in time and risk being lost, but many things cast into the vast immensity of the sea, somehow, are still rediscovered, their oblivion but temporary.
I must do research, though I fancy myself well-versed in both the history of SF and Fantasy and in English and American Literature. The most unfair thing Wolfe ever did was refer to a volume of Guy de Maupassant’s short stories in “In Looking Glass Castle” … I had to read a ridiculous amount of them before I realized he was riffing on “The Horla,” about a shadowy thing driving the main character to suicide. In that same short story, he refers to obscure works on mathematics by Lewis Carroll, the works of Kafka, The Cradle of the Deep by Joan Lowell, and is also in a dialogue with James Tiptree Jr and perhaps Joanna Russ as well – and one could easily imagine him throwing in a particularly Catholic symbol or two if he were so inclined.
That requires an erudition and breadth of interest that I think is beyond the vast majority of readers, and I, too, have to do a fair amount of research at times, some of it coming to nothing (though I am a Catholic ex-scientist who loves classic literature, puzzles, and pulpy SF and Fantasy as well – I think some of my appreciation for Wolfe is in that close overlap of interests – though Wolfe is trickier and smarter than me, with a much firmer grasp on the currents of history). Wolfe’s stories are fun even if you don’t understand them, at their best. I don’t think Wolfe expects his readers to get every puzzle, but he does throw down a gauntlet. The irony is of course that many otherwise competent critics and readers seem to think that there is nothing behind the artifice: you are dealing with a Catholic engineer here, who uses symbols like a concrete scaffolding.
Gene Wolfe has always been open about being a Catholic SF writer, and I believe his religious beliefs strongly influence his stories, particularly The Book of the New Sun. However, I think his ideas of sin and redemption, and the Christ-like role of Severian as a potential but flawed savior for the dying Urth, are much more complex than the overt Christian overtones of C.S. Lewis ’s Aslan in THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA. Do you think Wolfe explores these themes for his own personal reasons, or because he wants readers to think about them? Is there an agenda?
The difficulty here is that Wolfe, unlike most extremely religious writers, is actually a brilliant and practical man. He can look at the world and see both the capacity for good and for evil in human beings, but he also focuses on something that Naturalistic fiction has suppressed: no matter the conditions, no matter the pressure, a human being has the ability to make choices which have real consequences, but also has the capacity to deceive themselves almost infinitely to justify those decisions, good and bad.
I have always argued that if Wolfe deconstructs anything, it is actually subjectivity. The author or demiurge leaves his readers free to make subjective interpretations, all the while knowing that the backdrop of reality has been carefully constructed, and that Truth lurks somewhere, silent, and, even if unknown, not entirely unknowable. I think he loves symbols, but can’t help creating such complicated systems and narrative tangles, sometimes making allegories so complex that they lose the simplicity we associate with the form.
At other times, especially in his short stories, he is clearly being allegorical, as the giant in “The Legend of Xi Cygnus” represents the natural world and its exploitation at the hands of evil dwarfs who even mine its blood for selfish resources to make their lives more indolent until some force greater than nature, which we should respect lest we perish, takes notice. The mythical creatures in that who serve the giant are of course the myths that hold a great respect for the natural world, and so forth. Somehow, even that isn’t obvious on a first read. His agenda is complicated, but first and foremost he wants to tell a rich, deep story that can be appreciated more than once.
The entire SOLAR CYCLE constitutes 12 volumes, including The Book of the New Sun, The Urth of the New Sun, The Book of the Long Sun, and The Book of the Short Sun. I have read The Book of the New Sun twice and recognize it as a masterpiece that rewards repeated readings and listenings. However, when I tried the Long Sun series I found it a struggle to get past the first two books. The pace seemed painfully slow and the events unengaging, particularly the extended break-in of Blood’s house that stretched for 100 pages. Would you say that these latter two series are not as accomplished or reader-friendly as The Book of the New Sun series? For example, the The Book of the New Sun books have a total number of ratings in the thousands (from 14,872 ratings for Shadow of the Torturer to 3,790 ratings for Urth of the New Sun), but only 625-991 ratings for The Book of the Long Sun, and 905-1,113 ratings for The Book of the Short Sun. Can you explain the gap?
I actually think Wolfe was trying to be MORE reader friendly in The Book of the Long Sun by dropping the archaic vocabulary and twisted sentences, as we can see a definite change in his style and a shift towards more minimalist techniques. However, his very need to do something different (save, of course, being cryptic as hell) every single time can alienate readers. I read The Book of the Long Sun when it first came out, and remember thinking, gosh, is this the same author who wrote The Book of the New Sun? However, the second time I read the entire cycle, after the release of Exodus from the Long Sun, I realized that it was just as deep, symbolic, and rewarding as The Book of the New Sun, without the baroque excess, and that this fit Wolfe’s new goal. They are all great novels, but Wolfe’s increasing reliance on subtext rather than text, moving the miraculous behind the scenes, definitely, in my opinion, keeps readers from truly appreciating these later works. (Which is a shame, because The Book of the Short Sun is the best thing he has written, in my opinion, working on every level.)
The truth is that Peace, The Fifth Head of Cerberus, and The Book of the New Sun are OBVIOUSLY great even if the reader puts in no work beyond the surface, and the wealth of analysis and help along the way make it quite clear that they are dealing with an author of genius, while Wolfe’s later works trade in the pyrotechnics and ornate embellishment for an ever increasing subtlety and economy of expression that is almost antithetical to our initial impressions of Wolfe as an artist from The Book of the New Sun: he is far more literary than we at first supposed.
I believe you are planning to publish a second volume to cover the second half of Wolfe’s work, but I noticed in a recent comment you made in the Gene Wolfe Fans group on Goodreads that you might have to split volume 2 into two separate books due to length. What do you think is a rough timetable for the next two volumes, and what works are they likely to cover?
This has been a difficult year for everyone. I had planned to be done by July with everything, but while I was busy with those plans, life happened, as they say. I have finished the analyses of all of the short stories, and am working on finishing up the Latro in the Mist and The Book of the Short Sun essays, which will be the capstone of the second volume, and thus need to be as perfect as I can make them. Luckily, I know exactly what I want to say and each of them is about halfway done. The second volume, Beyond Time and Memory, will contain write ups on Latro in the Mist, The Urth of the New Sun, The Book of the Long Sun, The Book of the Short Sun, There Are Doors, Castleview, Pandora by Holly Hollander, and all of Wolfe’s short fiction from 1987 to 2001.
The project was simply getting too long to fit in one volume. The third, as yet unnamed, will have everything else up to now. For that, I must finish a write up each for The Wizard Knight, Soldier of Sidon, An Evil Guest, The Sorcerers House, The Land Across, and A Borrowed Man. So eight essays left total. In a project which spans almost 250 essays, that doesn’t seem like much, but the novels have to be as strong as I can make them, so I really can’t give you a time table yet considering that my editor must also look over the second volume.
Luckily, I have done a much better job of editing as I composed this time and have also written in a format which can be immediately translated into an ebook with individual entries for a table of contents, something which had to be done after the fact last time. On my end, little editing is left. I hope to have them as soon as possible, but that will also rely on my editor Matthew King’s workload. I owe him a special debt – the first volume would have been a truly complex, dense, and impenetrable mess without his painstaking attention and patient effort. I hope this time around he will have to do much less....more
Death: The Deluxe Edition: That perky goth-punk girl named Death Originally posted at Fantasy Literature I’ve loved rediscovering the world of mature coDeath: The Deluxe Edition: That perky goth-punk girl named Death Originally posted at Fantasy Literature I’ve loved rediscovering the world of mature comics thanks to one of its most beloved and well-respected series, Neil Gaiman’s 75-volume SANDMAN epic. What to do when done, though? When I first picked up Sandman: Overture in Deluxe Hardcover last Christmas, I noticed an understated volume next to it simply called Death. Sounds fairly grim, I thought. But the cover artwork (by Dave McKean) was intriguing, muted colors, a dark-haired women in profile, with the hint of a dark wing behind her, some blue roses superimposed, and other unidentifiable but haunting images. On the back it simply said “You’ll See Her Again,” with a white ankh symbol floating in darkness. Since there was a 3-for-2 sale going on, I grabbed this just to make 3 (the other one was Alan Moore’s Watchmen), knowing only that Gaiman wrote it and guessing it had some relation to the SANDMAN series.
I’m really glad I got it. It turns out to be a collection of stories that focus on perhaps the most popular member of the Endless other than Dream. Normally people think Grim Reaper, black cloak and hood, skeleton face, and sickle in hand. Well, hand it to Gaiman to come up with something more original, and much more fun. After all, Death is generally a serious subject and we shouldn’t be flippant about it. Most people don’t want to think about or confront death, other than the cheap thrills of horror films or the guilty relief that we feel hearing news reports of car accidents, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters. How tragic, we think. How terrible for the victims’ friends and families. And thank goodness it wasn’t us or anyone we know. That last thought is rarely vocalized, but I think it’s generally there.
In any case, Death of the Endless is hardly what any of us expect to meet when our time comes. First off, she is a woman. Second, she is young, spiky-haired, attractive in a punk/goth way, and has a knowing and wistful smile. Initially those she encounters try to pretend they don’t recognize her, but they know. And despite having an extremely busy schedule, she doesn’t seem to be rushing at all. Just a gentle insistence, given with a glance, that your time is up, as you look at your prone body, and her outstretched hand. She will listen to the usual questions, like “Why now?”, “Can’t I have more time?”, “What Happens Next?”, “Am I going to Heaven or Hell?”, etc. But don’t expect a detailed answer. You have to punch your ticket to find that out, folks.
This collection contains a number of well-known stories about Death that have previously appeared in the main SANDMAN series, such as “The Sound of Her Wings” (from Volume One: Preludes and Nocturnes), “Facade” (from Volume Four: Dream Country), and “Death and Venice” (from Sandman: Endless Nights). But it also includes two major independent story arcs, “The High Cost of Living” and “The Time of Your Life” that feature characters from SANDMAN. They are definitely of interest to anyone who is a fan of either Death or SANDMAN. It even contains a very extensive gallery of different artists’ renditions of Death — she sure is popular! And last but not least, a little sex education from Death with a cameo by Constantine. A bit awkward, but better safe than sorry!
Read as a whole, our cute goth-punk goddess represents a very different philosophical view of Death. After all, all living things die at some point, and most of us do not control the timing or circumstances of our death. But Gaiman is keen to explore the varied responses of people, both mortal and slightly more, when their number is called. Some are upset, some accepting, most anxious and uncertain, but what unites them all is that, deep down, although they think they know what is coming, actually they don’t.
Sure, all the religions of the world claim to know about the afterlife (if there is one), and generally teach that your behavior and beliefs during life will determine if you get a deluxe room for eternity or perhaps something a bit less comfy. Some people live their lives in trepidation of this, many millions have been terrorized with images of burning hell-fires and tortures for the sinners and damned. Others believe they will re-enter the cycle of reincarnation, with karma from the most recent life determining your position in the next. And yet others think that’s end of the line. Finito. Done.
I don’t pretend to have the faintest idea, but I certainly wouldn’t have pictured such a sweet and understanding escort to the Sunless Lands. Because it seems that Lady Death is mainly in charge of coming to fetch you and escorting you there, but after that it’s still a big question mark. The 60 million dollar question. And the answer is probably not 42, I’m afraid. You’ll have to read this volume to draw your own conclusions, but all I will say is that maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Instead of worrying about death and what happens afterward, perhaps we should spend more time thinking about living a meaningful life instead. I’m just sayin’....more
Sandman: Overture: Stunning artwork enhances an excellent story I re-entered the world of comics after a 30-year hiatus thanks to fellow FanLit review Sandman: Overture: Stunning artwork enhances an excellent story I re-entered the world of comics after a 30-year hiatus thanks to fellow FanLit reviewer Brad Hawley’s impassioned Why You Should Read Comics: A Manifesto! and his 10-part essay on Reading Comics. It was clear that Neil Gaiman’s SANDMAN series was the gold standard for sophisticated, intelligent comics for adults. Having read Brad’s review of the entire series, Welcome to The Dreaming: An Introduction to THE SANDMAN, I embarked on the 76-volume epic.
At that time, my only dilemma was whether to read it in hardcopy or digital. There are plenty of purists who would insist that comics must be read in physical form as originally intended. But having discovered Comixology, I learned that comics could be enjoyed anytime and anyplace on an iPad or iPhone, whether on lunch break or even while clothing shopping with the family (it saved my sanity many times over), with the ability to focus on each panel separately using Guided View. In the end, convenience won out.
But last Christmas in Hawaii, my daughter and I were enjoying the rare privilege of shopping at Barnes & Noble, the only English bookstore still surviving in Hawaii, which we can visit once a year since we live in Tokyo. We spent much of our time in the comics section, and when my eyes lit on the Deluxe Hardcover Edition of Sandman: Overture and opened it to a few random pages, the artwork just stunned me with its incredible richness and detail. I wanted to read more, but at the same time I didn’t want to spoil the story. In the end I bought this beautiful volume but carefully saved it until I had finished the entire 76-volume series, because I knew that I would appreciate the story more if I knew all about Morpheus before reading this prequel. I’m glad I waited - this comic is an amazing achievement, one of the most impressive stories I’ve read in a long time.
The story centers on why Morpheus found himself so weakened at the beginning of Volume 1: Preludes & Nocturnes that he could be captured by mere humans casting ancient spells. What takes shape is an epic adventure that goes well beyond anything that occurs in the 10 volumes that come afterward. The scope is huge, ranging throughout the universe, time, space, and numerous dimensions. There are very few mortal characters other than a little girl named Hope Beautiful Lost Nebula. The majority consist of immortals like Morpheus (quite a few of him, in fact), his siblings, various alien beings, and even stars themselves. Most interestingly, we meet the parents of the Endless - it didn’t even occur to me that was possible. But these parents are fairly distant from their children - the disfunctionality runs deep here.
The plot gets going properly as we learn that a star has gone mad and is disrupting the balance of the universe. Furthermore, the reasons for this have to do with Morpheus and the decisions that he did and did not make. Once again the theme of duties and responsibilities take center stage. It also sheds much light on Morpheus’ dogged insistence on doing his duty later in the series. Decisions, consequences, and sacrifices - these ideas drive the characters of this big-canvas morality play.
The artwork is so luxurious and hypnotic that it may overshadow the story somewhat, or make it seem better than it really is. I would prefer to think that Gaiman crafted his story to take full advantage of the amazing skills of J.H. Williams III and Dave Stewart. There are so many fantastic things that happen in the story, it’s clear that Gaiman wanted to push them to their artistic limits, and the results are truly awesome. I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time simply poring over each page and panel of any comic before. It’s a visual feast with a color palette so rich it can be overwhelming.
This could not have been done without advanced digital software like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. In fact, the Deluxe Edition includes a treasure-trove of extras at the back of the book in which the artistic process is discussed in detail by J.H. Williams III, Dave Stewart, Todd Klein, and Neil Gaiman. It’s like magicians revealing their secrets, and is really fascinating for anyone who may be considering a career in comic book illustration and design. It’s truly a collaborative effort, much more than novel writing.
In writing this review, I thought I would just page through the chapters to choose particular parts worth noting, but the pictures and story were so enthralling that I actually ended up reading the entire book again. In fact, this is one comic I can see myself reading again and again since the artwork and story complement each other so well. It might be my favorite Christmas book purchase ever....more
Sandman, Vol 11: Endless Nights: Individual tales of the Endless Having just finished the 10-volume epic SANDMAN saga, it’s hard to imagine anything t Sandman, Vol 11: Endless Nights: Individual tales of the Endless Having just finished the 10-volume epic SANDMAN saga, it’s hard to imagine anything that can top this achievement. In aggregate, it is certainly the most ambitious comic of its time, and having depicted the character arc of Dream, also known as Morpheus and the Sandman, there is isn’t much to add to that. At the same time, since the Endless have lived for the lifetime of the current universe (and perhaps previous iterations), there are an infinite number of side-stories that Gaiman could conceive. So it was inevitable that he would choose to pen some stories that featured each of the Endless - this project itself could be endless, if there’s enough demand from Sandman fans.
Endless Nights has a story about each of the Endless, each penned by different artists who Gaiman chose to best represent the unique aspects of each Endless sibling and their stories. As such, your impressions of the story will be greatly affected by the artists, and in the case of Despair (“Fifteen Portraits of Despair”) and Delirium (“Going Inside”), the stories are suitably grim and disorienting, respectively.
The writing is also fragmented into poetic and cryptic snippets, so their stories are not so much stories as montages. In the case of Delirium, it makes perfect sense the the images and worlds are chaotic, disturbing, and somewhat crazed. It doesn’t make for easy reading. In the case of Despair, I just couldn’t understand what the story was about, but the artwork is suitably creepy.
My favorite stories were about Death (“Death and Venice”), Desire (“What I’ve Tasted of Desire”), and Destruction (“On the Peninsula”).
The story of Death is a haunting one set on an island off the coast of Venice, where a disillusioned soldier on leave recalls his brief encounter with Death as a child, and his second encounter with her as they crash the idyllic party of some decadent immortals who think themselves immune to death. The artwork by P. Craig Russell is precise, evocative, and pleasing, which is no surprise as he also did the legendary “Ramadan”.
Desire’s tale is definitely the most sexually-charged, a fable of a young woman in early Britain who desires the handsome but playboy son of the village leader. She cuts a deal with Desire, but in typical fashion, the passions that are ignited do not conform to expectations. It reminded me a bit of the Wildlings of the North in Game of Thrones.
The story about Destruction features my favorite, by Glen Fabry, and is a mysterious story about a remote island in the Mediterranean, where some archaeologists have unearthed some strange objects apparently from the future. The story actually features both Destruction and Delirium, and just like in previous Sandman stories, Destruction is a deeply thoughtful being, nothing like what you might expect, and is always ambivalent about his past life.
The final story about Destiny (“Endless Nights”) is more of a brief coda or book end, and hardly counts, thought that is understandable considering that Destiny is a passive figure who knows the life of all people based on the book he carries, but he does not create or affect these life paths but merely observes. It always struck me that his role was fairly pointless, for that reason....more
Sandman, Vol 10: The Wake: Incredible artwork and a moving coda
Don't read this unless you've already read the previous volumes. It's the last volume oSandman, Vol 10: The Wake: Incredible artwork and a moving coda
Don't read this unless you've already read the previous volumes. It's the last volume of the epic SANDMAN saga, and one of my favorites. You’d think that it being a wake, a celebration and remembrance of the passing of someone, I found it filled with not only with melancholy, but an equal amount of empathy and gentle humor at the lives of all beings both mortal and immortal, god or faithful companion. It also has, by far, the most radiant and evocative artwork of the entire series, courtesy of Michael Zulli, which really blew me away with its incredible range of detail in both character expressions and background. Why was he not asked to participate earlier? It almost made up for the dreadful artwork done by Marc Hempel in Vol 9: The Kindly Ones, which almost ruined my enjoyment of that climactic story arc.
If you have read all the previous volumes, you know by know who this wake is for. It has been foreshadowed throughout the series, especially at the end of Vol 8: Worlds’ End, and explored in detail in Vol 9. So what is left to tell? A lot, as it turns out. With the passing of one aspect of Dream, namely Morpheus, a new aspect takes on the duties of Dream, the young child Daniel. He declines the name of Morpheus, content to be called Dream, and this volume details his experiences as he deals with the aftermath of Morpheus’ passing, the huge host of mourners and well-wishes, reviving many of Morpheus’ loyal servants, and finally meeting his siblings for the first time, if that makes sense. As he says, “This is very new to me, Matthew. This place, this world. I have existed since the beginning of time. This is a true thing. I am older than worlds and suns and gods. But tomorrow I will meet my brother and sisters for the first time. And I am afraid.”
One of the best relationships is between Matthew, who is still deeply upset that Morpheus chose to face his death at the Furies’ hands alone, and the new Dream, who is just getting his bearings. Matthew does not feel he owes anything to Dream, and wishes to have died along with Morpheus, but when he sees how much help the new Dream will need to assume his duties, his attitude changes. The young Dream is so vulnerable and unsure of himself, which is beautifully conveyed by the artwork of Michael Zulli, who gives him a younger appearance but the same deep black pools of eternity for eyes, with that spark of life and intelligence. Each time he speak with someone known from his former aspect, he pauses as if to retrieve their info from his inherited memories, and then act accordingly.
The tone of the story has shifted completely, as all the beings and former lovers of dream who bore grudges have gotten what they wished for. Now everyone seems contrite and solemn, as it it was all done in a pique of madness. And yet we know just how inevitable those events were, as did Morpheus and the Furies themselves, along with his brother Destiny. The question arises, why is there a wake if Dream lives on. Cain answers, “Nobody died. How can you kill an idea? How can you kill the personification of an an action?”
During the wake we again meet so many of the people touched by Morpheus, including former lovers like Calliope, the mother of Orpheus, the faerie Nuala, even Queen Titania of Faerie. Then there is Lyta Hall, the mother of Daniel who triggered the whole crisis in her mistaken quest for vengeance, as well as Rose Walker whose story was told in Vol 2: The Doll’s House. We even get some surprising revelations from the witch Thessaly. Finally Morpheus’ siblings speak of him at the wake, each in their own unique way, and their behavior is quite funny. The new Dream is not allowed to attend the ceremony, but receives a very unexpected visitor to his castle instead. I loved their conversation, it just opens up so many interesting possibilities. Matthew the raven and Death, Morpheus’ sister, give some very touching tributes. It really feels like a proper remembrance. And there is a final meeting between Lyta and the new Dream, who was her son Daniel, and much of import is discussed.
But this last volume contains more. The next segment is on my favorites, called “An Epilogue - Sunday Morning”. This is one of the most humorous sequences in the whole series, centered on the seemingly immortal man Hob Gadling, who is attending a Renaissance Fair with his black girlfriend Gwen. He goes by Robbie, and having actually lived through those dirty, grim, and altogether barbaric times, the whole cheapness and lack of authenticity puts him in a foul and antagonistic mood. There is nothing worse than a foul-tempered Englishman who gets deep in his cups, which is exactly what happens.
His comments to the fair participants are priceless, especially with the server wench. But when he takes a brief break in an abandoned building, he encounters someone who suddenly puts it all in perspective for him. It’s quite a chilling sequence, not least because the artwork is absolutely incredible, conveying complex emotions via the characters’ expressions with a subtlety I have rarely seen before. The dialogue too is filled with deep insights delivered with such ease - some of Gaiman’s best work, in my opinion.
Then Gaiman gives us a little gem called “Exiles”, about a Chinese elder who has served as advisor to the Emperor and enjoyed great success, only to lose it all and face exile across a desert at the far corner of the empire. This happens because of the actions of his son, which enraged the emperor. Astute Sandman fans will recognize this desert from “Soft Places” in Vol 6: Fables and Reflections. He encounters a certain gothic figure in the desert, and they have a long-ranging and fascinating conversation that subtly references many of the climactic events of The Kindly Ones and The Wake. It’s a very illuminating window into the thoughts of both Dream and Morpheus, and the artwork by Jon J. Muth is truly dream-like and haunting.
The final story is called “The Tempest”, and follows up his brilliant story “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, as William Shakespeare confronts writer’s block in his later years, but must finish a final play as part of his bargain with Dream in exchange for artistic inspiration. Much like the previous story, there are many levels to the story as it explores the sacrifices that writers make in terms of family life, artistic integrity, and also celebrates the difficult creative process that writers must struggle with. It’s also a tribute to the genius of Shakespeare’s skills with the English language, and a form of meta-commentary by Gaiman the writer. Like “Exiles”, the main character engages in a meaningful conversation with Morpheus, both his benefactor and tormentor.
Overall, the quality of writing throughout this volume is very high, and the two extra stories at the end demonstrate that Gaiman can craft stories from almost any subject matter and seamlessly weave in his mythology of the Endless to make thought-provoking stories. Complemented by excellent artwork, this is definitely one of the highlights of the series. There is another volume called Endless Nights featuring a story about each of the Endless, along with stand-alone companion pieces like The Dream Hunters, Death, and Sandman: Overture, so there is still more to look forward to.
If I had one complaint, it’s that Gaiman never explains why the Endless came about, who the Creator is, what the purpose of the Silver City is, or any of the unseen forces that have established all the rules that bind even the most powerful immortal beings. I basically figured that he would not go there, but waited until the full sequence before passing judgement. In some sense it’s disappointing, but I think Gaiman’s main point is that it is humankind who can created its own mythologies and explanations for the universe, so any answers can only come from our own imaginations....more
Sandman, Vol 9: The Kindly Ones: The climax we all saw coming
If you are reading this review, I’ll assume you’ve read and liked the previous eight voluSandman, Vol 9: The Kindly Ones: The climax we all saw coming
If you are reading this review, I’ll assume you’ve read and liked the previous eight volumes. If you haven’t read them, I suggest you start with Volume 1 and go from there. Otherwise, this review will be full of spoilers and I don’t want the Furies or Corinthian to visit me in my dreams in retribution.
The entire series shifts between collections of short stories and single longer narratives, and some of my favorite Sandman stories have been the stand-alone stories such as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, “Three Septembers and a January”, “The Song of Orpheus”, “Ramadan”, “Hob’s Leviathan”, and “The Golden Boy”. Sometimes I think Gaiman does his best work here, as some of the full-length Sandman story arcs were not as satisfying, particularly “A Game of You”. At the risk of being pilloried by Sandman fans, I felt that “The Kindly Ones” was a bit too long and tried to tie together too many disparate story threads and characters to be a cohesive and effective story.
I also have to say that having really admired most of the artwork in the series, the drawings of Marc Hempel that dominate this volume were amateurish and distracting, to the point where I couldn’t recognize the characters even if they appeared in previous volumes. It made it hard to follow and was far below the high standards of the many other Sandman artists. I’ve read other views and there are a lot of Sandman fans who feel similarly. It’s unfortunate since this is probably the most important volume in the series, and it’s the reason I gave it a 4-star rating.
The other key point about The Kindly Ones is that any astute reader will know what inevitable end the story is leading towards. This had been foreshadowed throughout the series in more subtle terms, but explicitly at the end of Vol 8 during the reality storm outside the Inn at Worlds’ End. That was a very poignant and powerful moment in the series. The sense of impending and unavoidable doom and tragedy infuse almost every moment of this volume, not least of which being the fatalistic and passive attitude of Morpheus himself. Despite his seeming immortality and dream powers, he seems fairly helpless and resigned to his fate as a host of different characters with grudges against him for past offenses line up to take shots at him. And when one of the them enlists the vengeance of the Furies, the Kindly Ones of the title who are anything but, events have been set in motion that can only end with one outcome.
The buildup to this is fairly slow, as Gaiman visits almost every human, faerie, and immortal character who has been affected by Morpheus and might have an axe to grind. Morpheus, with his dogged insistence on carrying out the responsibilities of his office, sanctimonious attitude toward his fellow Endless siblings, callous treatment of lovers, and repeated snubs of other immortal beings, has made a surprising number of enemies, and it seems they all choose the same timing to deliver payback to him. The only ones on his side are his loyal servants, especially Lucien the librarian, Matthew the raven, Merv the pumpkin handyman, the guardians of his castle, and most unexpectedly a resurrected figure from Vol 2: The Doll’s House. Arrayed against them are certain pranksters, Norse gods, witches, fallen angels, and plenty of jilted lovers. It hardly seems a fair fight, especially when Dream is not inclined to fight back. He seems almost to court this informal judgement against him, as if he deserves their censure.
So the dramatic tension is sometimes lacking. As the Furies close in on Dream’s realm and his servants, he seems to hardly be making an effort to thwart them. In response to queries by the faerie Nuala of why he does nothing, he replies “There are old rules, Nuala. Rules that were old when time was young. The [Furies] have power to avenge blood-crimes…And I killed my son. The [Furies] are empowered to hound those who spill family blood. I have Orpheus’ blood on my hands, Nuala.” In a sense, he may feel that he deserves punishment at their hands.
Again, when questioned by Lucien as why he did not protect his other faithful servants, he replies, “Rules and responsibilities: these are the ties that bind us. We do what we do, because of who we are. If we did otherwise, we would not be ourselves. I will do what I have to do. And I will do what I must.” The whole story is modeled on the ancient Greek tragedies, but this attitude most reminded me of King Arthur in The Once and Future King as he goes to confront Mordred and certain death.
The climactic confrontation between Morpheus and the Furies is not a battle in the usual sense of epic fantasy, with blasts of magic, armies clashing, and the final clash between the hero and arch-villain. In fact, it is more a battle of attitudes and moral stances, with both sides bound by their natures and those ancient rules we keep hearing about. So who made the rules? The Creator, yes, but why? And will he intercede in such conflicts? What does this say about the free will of the Endless? Destruction chose to exercise that free will and walk away from everything, but Dream is woven from different cloth. Again, much to contemplate, and still a final volume awaits…...more
Sandman: Vol 8: Worlds' End: "The Golden Boy" is a bittersweet fable of leadership After Vol 7: Brief Lives, which focused on Morpheus’ dysfunctional fSandman: Vol 8: Worlds' End: "The Golden Boy" is a bittersweet fable of leadership After Vol 7: Brief Lives, which focused on Morpheus’ dysfunctional family and a road trip in search of Destruction, Vol 8: Worlds’ End is another stand-alone story collection similar to Vol 4: Dream Country and Vol 6: Fables and Reflections. Once again the Endless retreat to the corners of the stage, making way for a cast of characters gathered at the Inn at Worlds’ End to tell tales to while away the time during a fierce storm. The initial characters we meet are two young co-workers from our world who are driving to Chicago to save money. Suddenly it begins to snow in June (!) and the man swerves to avoid a strange beast in the road, and after crashing the car makes his way to the Worlds’ Inn.
The Inn is filled with a motley assortment of guests, including mythical creatures like centaurs and some desiccated-looking types who aren’t very human in appearance. But they are all amiable travelers, and decide to trade stories to pass the time. This provides the Chaucer-like framing narrative for Gaiman’s stories, and he delivers some very memorable ones.
As has been the case before, in additions to sprinkling allusions to various fantastic stories from literature and history, his favorite game is to embed stories within stories, tell stories about story-tellers telling stories, with those stories often featuring or critiquing the art of story-telling itself. This self-referential moebius strip-approach seems designed to make us more conscious of the story-telling process, and to highlight people’s desire (compulsion?) to tell stories that point to greater, more profound truths and ideas than we encounter in our daily lives.
The first story, “A Tale of Two Cities”, is an allegorical story of a man in a nameless city, working a dreary office job, living a solitary life, commuting from the suburbs each morning, then heading home in the evening in order to do it again the next day. The only distinguishing behavior for him is that during his lunch break he explores the city alone, observing other people in the city, and this makes him happy. Gaiman captures his feeling elegantly in the following passage:
“All these sights, and many others, he treasured and collected. Robert saw the city as a huge jewel, and the tiny moments of reality he found in his lunch-hours as facets, cut and glittering, of the whole.”
One day Robert takes a different train and finds he has been decoupled from his drab reality and placed in an empty, unfamiliar city. This existential moment becomes his new reality, as he is trapped in the new place and explores it as much as possible. Eventually he does encounters some other people, which reveals more about his reality, but I’ll leave that for you to discover.
The next story is a fable about the lost city of Aurelia, one of the greatest cities of the plains in ancient times. The story is told by Cluracan, the faerie man who gave his sister Nuala to Morpheus in a previous volume. He is a bit of a knave, and has been sent to the city by Queen Titania on a mission to interfere with a corrupt ruler who has seized control of both government and church. This story is a lot of fun, as Cluracan initially underestimates his opponent, but eventually with some help finds ways to undermine the Psychopomp (what a great title!), who is quite odious in his power-mad quest. This harks back to other stories about various rulers in Fables and Reflections, especially “Thermidor”, “August”, and “Ramadan”.
Following more discussion amongst the travelers in the Worlds’ End, we begin the next story “Hob’s Leviathan”. Its a very beautifully-illustrated tale of adventure on the high seas, with many sailing ships and even a sea serpent, but the story is more about the secrets that people conceal from each other. We even have a cameo from a man granted a powerful gift by Morpheus in a previous volume. I liked this one quite a lot.
The next tale is my favorite one, a bittersweet story, called “The Golden Boy”. It’s about an alternate America where an ambitious but idealistic young man named Prez Rickard is determined to make the world a better place via the presidency. Thanks to his efforts, he is elected president at the incredibly-young age of 19. Before that, he encounters two sinister figures who take an interest in his meteoric rise, Boss Smiley (whose face is a smiley face like the iconic symbol, but who reminded me more of Yellow Bastard from SIN CITY) and Tricky Dick himself, Richard Nixon. They want some influence on Prez, but the young phenom is confident of his own abilities to make a real difference and rebuffs their approaches. There is a classic exchange with Nixon in which the latter extols the virtues of pure power, at which point Prez simply says, “Sir, what about making the world a better place?”, to which Nixon replies, “I, uh…I’m not following you.”
Prez does miraculously transform America into a utopian place, negotiating a Middle East peace treaty, avoiding the Oil Shocks, and ushering in prosperity and equality for all. It’s all very moving, as I was thinking how wonderful a world that would be, and how incredibly far away we seem to be in this world, our own reality, especially in light of the endless series of tragic, senseless terrorist attacks and racial conflict in the US, Europe, the Middle East, Bangladesh, and Africa. Sometimes it takes a seemingly-simple fable to make us question why we can’t have this glorious dream of peace and equality.
The story itself has a very ambiguous and tragic final act, as Prez retires after 8 incredibly successful years. Gaiman is interested in what happens to leaders when the reach the end of their tenure, especially successful ones. However, I couldn’t help thinking, when is the last time the world has truly seen a successful leader who has made the world a better place for everyone?
Thinking back to the enormous enthusiasm and swell of popular support for Barack Obama, and seeing all the tribulations and opposition he has faced during his presidency, along with the worsening geopolitical climate of the world, it makes me wonder, if he can’t achieve his aims and policies, who can? And have people truly become so ignorant or mean-spirited that they would choose to support a monstrous personality like Donald Trump? It just makes me despair for humankind.
The last story is “Cerements”, a very complex tale with stories within stories, ostensibly about a Necropolis called Letharge and some of the dutiful servants who tend to all the ‘clients’ who need to be properly disposed by one of the five proscribed methods: earth burial, burning, mummification, water burial, or air burial (that was a new one for me). There is much discussion of death and giving proper tribute to those who have died. We even have a very unexpected appearance from one of the Endless, who provides some insight into the history of Letharge before leaving.
At the end of the embedded stories, we are brought back to the Worlds’ End, where the travelers are treated to a sublime spectacle in the sky, which illuminates the previous discussion of death and commemoration in unexpected ways and really highlights the skills which Gaiman applies to this complex story. After this cathartic event, the travelers discover that the storm is past and they are free to return to their respective worlds, but not all of them choose to do so.
Once again Gaiman brings us closer to the final stages of his meta-story, with subtle foreshadowing and hints (some very tantalizing talk of watchmakers in “The Golden Boy”, for instance), whetting our appetite to know more about the Endless. When I initially heard all the hype surrounding the SANDMAN series and how amazing it was, I was skeptical at first, but I’ve come to understand the level of craftsmanship and love of storytelling that Gaiman has brought to bear, and it is worthy of the praise. Now on to the final two volumes....more
Sandman, Vol 7: Brief Lives: Even the Endless must change Originally posted at Fantasy Literature After the stand-alone story collection Vol 6: Fables aSandman, Vol 7: Brief Lives: Even the Endless must change Originally posted at Fantasy Literature After the stand-alone story collection Vol 6: Fables and Reflections, Vol 7: Brief Lives brings the focus back on Morpheus’ dysfunctional family, the Endless. For a group of avatars representing some fundamental concepts that underpin human existence (but only those that start with ‘D’), they can’t seem to get along or understand each other much of the time. So it’s no surprise they also have trouble empathizing with mere mortals and their brief lives. In fact, as we learn from Death in this volume, each of us is only allotted a single lifetime, and whether we consider it brief or long in human terms, it is less than the blink of an eye for the Endless, who fulfill their duties according to higher rules than we can fathom, in a strange relationship with humans in which neither is ruled or ruler, master or slave, and yet they are inextricably linked.
In Brief Lives, the youngest and most unstable of the Endless, Delirium (who was once Delight) decides that she must seek after her long-lost brother Destruction, who left his duties for whereabouts unknown 300 years ago. She tries to enlist the aid of Desire and Despair with no success, and finally approaches her elder brother Dream, who is very much the opposite of her scattered madness, a cool, aloof, and overly-proud individual who takes his duties very seriously (unless he is entangled in another troubled romantic relationship). Dream agrees to help her out, but his reasons are not made clear.
What ensures is a very strange road-trip indeed, in which Delirium and Dream track down a strange list of long-lived beings, some previously divinities of note now facing hard times, who might know the whereabouts of Destruction. However, not only do they discover no viable leads, but bad things seem to happen to those around them. Eventually Death abruptly decides to end the quest, putting Delirium in a sulk, and it falls to Death to set Morpheus straight and on the path to reconciliation with his emotionally fragile younger sister.
They resume their quest, but the only viable source of information is one that Morpheus is loathe to pursue, since it will require that he face up to some harsh decisions he made in the past (see “The Song of Orpheus” in Vol 6). Nonetheless, Morpheus does soldier on, and in the process we see that even the Endless can change, for “Endless” is not the same as “Unchanging”. Throughout the series we have seen Dream being forced by various circumstances and people to face up to his rigid and inflexible attitudes and brittle pride, and admit fault.
This idea that even the Endless can change is perfectly illustrated by Destruction, who abandoned his duties three centuries previous, and now leads a quite and secluded existence painting, cooking, sculpting, and various other forms of creation. Is it a surprise that the Lord of Destruction also takes such a keen interest in creation? It’s a nice literal reminder of the dual nature of creation and destruction. Who would have though he was such an agreeable character. It’s interesting that we never really see him ‘on the job’ on the battlefield, triggering natural disasters, etc. Even when he is briefly seen on the Earth during the Black Plague, his feelings seem subdued. Is he a classic case of burnout, perhaps?
In any case, the volume ends with the fateful meeting of Dream, Delirium, and prodigal brother Destruction. His reasons for abandoning his duties are quite compelling, and her reveals a number of insights on what the Endless themselves are, though he again dances around the topic of why they exist and who created them. This is true throughout the series - it plays fairly coy when it comes to mentioning the Creator of the Universe, though his presence is indirectly felt. And the climactic decision of Destruction leaves plenty of room for further reflection, if not directly answering those questions. However, there is a sense that we are approaching the resolution of some major plot elements in the coming three volumes....more
Sandman, Vol. 6: Fables and Reflections: Luminous tales of rulers, adventurers, dreamers
After Vol 5: A Game of You, my least favorite Sandman volume sSandman, Vol. 6: Fables and Reflections: Luminous tales of rulers, adventurers, dreamers
After Vol 5: A Game of You, my least favorite Sandman volume so far, I’m happy to report a resounding return to form in Vol 6: Fables and Reflections, a collection of stand-alone stories centered on various prominent figures in different periods of history, including the Emperor of the United States in 19th century San Francisco (“Three Septembers and a January”), Robespierre in early 18th century revolutionary Paris (“Thermidor”), a mysterious huntsman deep in the forest (“The Hunt”), Augustus Caesar in ancient Rome (“August”), Marco Polo roaming in the desert (“Soft Places”), Orpheus and Eurydice in the Underworld (“The Song of Orpheus”), Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden (“The Parliament of Rooks”), and finally Haroun Al Raschid, Caliph of Bagdad (“Ramadan”).
It’s hard to easily summarize the disparate stories of this collection. I found the quality of the narratives and artwork to be very high, but the themes were so rich and varied that it would wrong to say what, as a whole, the collection is “about”. As with all of Gaiman’s SANDMAN series, the art of story-telling itself is a central feature, along with various mythologies, dreamers, powerful rulers, and of course dreams. The way these themes are interwoven is what gives the collection a unified “feel”, even though each story is unique. Frequently there is a framing device, an overt narrating voice, that sets the stage for the stories, but some of my favorite stories keep the identity of the story-teller deliberately concealed in order to be revealed at the end and force us to rethink the story’s overall message.
My particular favorites in this collection were “The Hunt”, which has a timeless appeal as a grandfather tells a story to his teenage granddaughter, who would rather watch MTV. The longest story is “The Song of Orpheus”, which takes the traditional tale and incorporates The Endless into the story for a very different interpretation. It is quite a powerful story with a shocking ending. Morpheus has a major role to play here, as do his siblings.
“Ramadan” is the centerpiece of the collection, an amazingly illustrated story that is so beautiful to look at that you simply have to read it more than once. The artist’s name is P. Craig Russell, and his drawing of the towers, mosques, minarets, and markets of Bagdad are strongly reminiscent of the art of Moebius. It’s story of the mighty King of fantastic Bagdad, who despite his limitless power and wealth is troubled deep in his soul. It is very much in the vein of The Arabian Nights, but once again Morpheus is a seamless part of the tale, and the ending…ah, that is truly sublime.
Interspersed within and between these stories, we continue to learn more about the nature of The Endless, including the missing sibling who makes his first appearance in “The Song of Orpheus”. So in that sense it has more continuity with Vol 4: Season of Mists than Vol 5: A Game of You. One of the best things about SANDMAN is how Gaiman can explore traditional mythology in such fresh and unique ways by overlaying The Endless and their heretofore hidden roles in the stories that humankind has created throughout history.
There are so many tantalizing hints dropped by Morpheus and his siblings about their various roles and duties, which again begs the question of “Who made these rules and why?” If The Endless came before the gods, then who created them? Clearly these questions point us to the Creator, who remains behind the scenes even in Vol 4: Season of Mists, when his Angels are they to represent his will. Will he ever make an appearance before this series ends? Only one way to find out…...more
Sandman, Vol 5: A Game of You: Challenges our childhood fantasies
After the excellent Vol 4: Season of Mists, the Sandman once again retreats to the shSandman, Vol 5: A Game of You: Challenges our childhood fantasies
After the excellent Vol 4: Season of Mists, the Sandman once again retreats to the shadows in this unified story arc. Instead it focuses on Barbie, the vapid-seeming blonde who was married to Ken and lived in the same house as Rose Walker in Vol 2: The Doll’s House. She has since split with Ken and moved to NY. She lives in a building with several unusual characters: Wanda, a pre-operative transsexual woman; a mysterious and timid-seeming girl named Thessaly; a lesbian couple named Hazel and Foxglove; and a creepy guy named George. All these people share two things - they are marginalized members of society, and they also hide various secrets beneath their surfaces.
One of the big themes in the story revolves around Wanda, as she has consciously sought to discard her identity as Alvin, growing up in an intolerant small town in Kansas. Wanda is an upbeat, supportive friend to Barbara, and in typical New York fashion, they are regularly broke but try to look out for each other. The story is clearly sympathetic to Wanda’s attempt to make the physical changes that will allow her to be fully female, and shows the prejudices she faced growing up when Barbie visits her hometown in Kansas. As a reader I’m also sympathetic to her plight, but I wasn’t sure how this fit in with the largest context of the SANDMAN series.
I won’t summarize the plot details, other than to say that the story has a lot of horror elements and some really gruesome moments involving nightmares. Barbie and her friends are drawn into a quest to save some fantasy creatures in a place called the Land, which is being menaced by a sinister creature called the Cuckoo. This fantasy world intrudes into our real world, and overlaps slightly with Morpheus’ world of the Dreaming. But it is largely self-contained.
This volume is all about the fantasy worlds we create in our minds, and the purposes they serve. It is also about appearances and how deceptive they are. Finally, and most punishing to the reader, it deconstructs one such fantasy world, the Land that Barbie has visited in her dreams since childhood, in a very cruel manner. I was initially unsure exactly what I didn’t really like about this volume (and later read that for many readers this is also their least favorite Sandman story), but after some reflection I think it was this aspect of destroying childhood fantasies and suggesting that they need to be dissolved in order to move on into adulthood.
Neil Gaiman is a master of storytelling, mythology, dreams, horror, and the fantastic, so having Barbie’s world attacked by the villainous Cuckoo was surprising. Fantasy stories certainly have strong elements of escapism, especially epic fantasy tales, and although the urban fantasies of Gaiman are less so, they all suggest fantastic elements lurking beneath the mundane and drab details of the ‘real’ world. So I wasn’t expecting him to essentially go after such fantasies is such ruthless fashion.
Is it really so childish and wrong to create fantasy worlds in our heads, often to escape from unpleasant reality? If so, does that not negate much of the genre’s worth? Or did I just misunderstand the message of this volume. Either way, it didn’t seem to mesh well with the other volumes, though I admire Gaiman’s willingness to explore a range of themes and be unafraid to turn off fans in some cases. That is the mark of a true storyteller - one that does not simply cater to our expectations, but challenges them instead....more
The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists: Deities scramble to fill a vacancy in Hell
After the stand-alone stories of Vol 3, many of which only feature MorThe Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists: Deities scramble to fill a vacancy in Hell
After the stand-alone stories of Vol 3, many of which only feature Morpheus in the background, in Vol 4 the Sandman takes center stage once again. The Prologue sets the stage for a new story-arc, as Destiny strolls through his barren garden, in his monk’s cowl and with his huge book, and encounters the three Fates. As usual, they drop some cryptic clues that big events are afoot and then depart. Destiny checks his book, and learns that the Endless must hold a family meeting. And so the story begins…
Neil Gaiman’s love of stories, mythology, deities, demons, and mysterious unseen forces is plain to see. In Season of Mists, he treats us to a very unique perspective on these things by lifting the curtain that mortals rarely see beyond, and switching the perspective to that of the deities and mythological creatures that have populated the minds of mankind since time immemorial.
There is something fundamental in humanity that strives to personify such forces in anthropomorphic form, and Gaiman gleefully takes elements of some of well-known belief systems such as Christianity, which appears to have top billing (including oblique references to the unseen Creator), but includes cameos from an impressive A-list of deities such as Odin, Thor, Loki (Norse), Anubis, Bast, Bes (Egyptian), Susano-o-no-mikoto (Shinto), Azazel, Choronzon, and Merkin (demons from Hell), a Lord of Chaos and Lord of Order, the Faerie siblings Cluracan and Nuala, and two Angels from the Silver City named Duma and Remiel.
You see, all these supernatural beings have come to call on Morpheus’ palace at the heart of The Dreaming because Lucifer, the fallen Angel, has decided after uncountable millennia that he has tired of overseeing the punishment of the damned, and has driven out from Hell both the damned (his clients) and the demons who torment them (his staff). Morpheus only discovers this after deciding he has wronged his former lover Nada, the African queen he damned to hell 10,000 years earlier. When Morpheus arrives in Hell to free her, Lucifer is just tidying up some stragglers and has a convivial chat with Morpheus (who was prepared for a fight), ending with him handing over the key to Hell and heading off to parts unknown (which is the start of a spinoff series called Lucifer).
What a great story idea - Lucifer quitting his job and handing it off to Morpheus unexpectedly. So the bulk of the story involves all the various divinities entreating Dream why they most deserve to take over Hell, as Morpheus clearly isn’t keen on overseeing it. They offers bribes, threats, and stratagems and confidential negotiations abound. It’s all done marvelously and matter-of-fact. I’m not sure how a religious reader would react to this - would this story be offensive? Within the context of the story, Gaiman grants equal weight to each god’s pantheon, but clearly the Creator and his Angels have power and authority above the others.
Which raises some very obvious questions - why does the Creator stay in the background? If we go by the number of believers in the world today, why are Jesus, Allah, and the Buddha not present? And how do The Endless fit into these pantheons? Who sets the hierarchical rules among these competing deities? Clearly there are some hard and fast rules that the Endless such as Destiny, Dream, and Death must follow. They have their duties that must be carried out.
But who made these rules? Are all these deities simply manifestations of humanity’s imagination? Or fundamental concepts that predate humanity? Are they fundamental elements of the universe, or do they only exist on Earth because we believe in them? Would all these powerful beings disappear if humanity stopped believing in them, or if humanity wiped itself out? Gaiman’s SANDMAN series raises all kinds of fascinating philosophical questions while still delivering quirky, frightening, and melancholy stories. It makes me very curious how many of these questions he might answer in the course of the series. Can any such questions ever really be answered to everyone’s satisfaction?
In the end, I think human religions are mostly inward-looking, giving theological ideas human form, scale and relevance. In my opinion, none of them adequately address the observable universe, let alone our Milky Way galaxy, filled with uncountable stars, black holes, dark matter, and empty spaces, things that make human spiritual affairs and the Earth itself look very tiny indeed. If I were to ever believe in a religion, it would have to take all those things into account. The only SF philosophical treatment of the universe I have found compelling remains Olaf Stapledon’s two masterworks from the 1930s, Last and First Men and Star Maker. But I digress. The SANDMAN is focused on the supernatural manifestations of humankind’s imagination, giving them real form in a higher realm, and it is an impressive and thoughtful series that I am enjoying a lot....more
The Sandman, Vol 3: Dream Country: Four excellent stand-alone stories
Vol 3 features four stand-alone stories in the Sandman universe, “Calliope”, “A DThe Sandman, Vol 3: Dream Country: Four excellent stand-alone stories
Vol 3 features four stand-alone stories in the Sandman universe, “Calliope”, “A Dream of a Thousand Cats”, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and “Facade”. After the introductory Vol 1, in which we learn about Morpheus and his quest to regain his position and powers as Lord of the Dreaming, and Vol 2, in which the young girl Rose Walker is at the center of a mysterious power struggle because she is a dream vortex, in Vol 3 Gaiman treat us to several very different stories in which Dream is continuously lurking in the corners of each story but rarely take center stage. For an insightful and comprehensive view, read Brad Hawley’s review of Vol 3. I’ll just add my own brief impressions.
“Calliope” is a story about a writer who runs into writer’s block after a successful first novel. He seeks help from an older, established writer who is willing to share his ‘Muse’ for the price of a ‘trichinobezoar’. What’s that, you ask? Well, you’ll have to read to find out. And when we talk about having a Muse, this is a very literal manifestation. Gaiman’s Sandman is infused with classical mythologies, writers, storytellers, and the often heavy burden of the artist to create stories. What sacrifices must a writer make to come up with a steady flow of stories to remain successful?
This story is a fairly extreme metaphor for the creative process, one that I don’t feel qualified to weigh in on since I have always been exclusively a consumer of stories, not a creator. It strikes me as a very painstaking process, and it takes great courage to put your work out there for the public to either love or hate, praise or pillory, or perhaps worst of all, ignore. It may take a year or more of daily sweat, blood & tears to write a book, a couple days for someone to read it, and just an hour or two for a reviewer to trash it. So if you saw a shortcut available, the temptation would be great indeed.
“A Dream of a Thousand Cats” is a very dreamlike fable about the history of cats and humans told from the cats’ perspective. It’s quite quirky and whimsical and features Morpheus is a feline guise. You won’t think of cats the same way again, nor the power of collective dreaming.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is the centerpiece of this volume, a multi-layered retelling of Shakespeare’s famous play, in which the Bard himself is one of the players, while the audience includes Auberon and Titania of the Faerie kingdom, watching and commenting on Shakespeare’s dramatic interpretation of themselves. The whole performance is orchestrated in English countryside by Morpheus, a relationship that first developed in “Men of Good Fortune” in Vol 2. It’s wonderful to see how Gaiman carefully staged the beginnings of this story earlier without revealing what was to come. Just as in Calliope, the theme of the artist and what he must sacrifice to produce great works is explored, with an unexpectedly personal touch at the end.
“Facade” is strange and ghastly story, quite different from the first three. It’s about a deathly-looking woman name Raine who sits in her dank and lonely apartment, festooned with white masks. She looks both pale, scaly, and corpse-like. Later we see her body is even stranger and more powerful than initially hinted at, and only after reading Brad’s review did I find out she is a DC character named Element Girl. But this is no super-hero tale.
Raine is pathologically afraid of going outside, interacting with people, or doing anything other than smoking and brooding. She calls her case-worker to ask when her monthly check is coming, just to alleviate her crushing loneliness and despair. It’s pretty grim stuff, and I wasn’t sure where the story was going, but then a surprise character shows up, and has the most fascinating conversation with Raine about life, death, and choices. It reframes the story completely, and the ending is thought-provoking and ambiguous. It’s definitely hard to assess this story, but it does have thematic ties with previous volumes....more