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Nov. 21st, 2010

Column Notification and Reviews

With all that's occurred over the past two months, I have been negligent in updating this particular sliver of cyberspace, so let me attempt to correct this gross oversight.

In the first place, we have Installment Eight of my monthly column Watching the Future, in which I try to figure out why, in light of Damien Walter's Guardian article, there aren't more cinematic science fiction masterpieces.

In 1994, I attended a panel at Armadillocon that discussed the failure of most sf movies to match the quality of its print counterpart. As an example, somebody made a derisive comment about Stargate (which I had just seen and hated) and a couple of members of the panel said, "Oh, you know, there was a lot to recommend that." I sat in the audience with my jaw dropped. Impossible, I thought. The panelists are bemoaning the state of sf cinema, which has been dreadful for most of its history, and yet they're making excuses for that particular piece of tripe? Really? How on earth do you improve sf movies if you continue to make excuses for the crap?

How does this happen? And what can be done about it?




Note that I do give warning about the impending film snobbery.

And I've got three recent reviews out. The first is of Gibson's newest novel Zero History, and I pride myself on not going too fanboy.

Looked at solely from that standpoint, Zero History might indeed seem absurd. But Gibson is after much more than a few playful jabs at the standard thriller plot, despite the effectiveness of those plot elements. In one sequence, Hollis and Milgrim wind up at a French fashion fair, where Milgrim tries to lose a paramilitary type who is tailing them. A ruse that involves dropping his cell phone into an expensive stroller pushed by the wife of a Russian mobster leads, in a roundabout way, to a kidnapping scheme. No, what Gibson is after is an exploration of not only fashion but lifestyle. For while the characters in Zero History operate in a civilian world, that world has co-opted the methods created by the military, thus making the separation between the two meaningless, an ironic Interzone where Federal agents receive intelligence dispatches via Twitter and penguin-shaped surveillance drones float above the streets of Paris.


I didn't say this in my review, but I was also glad to read a thriller in which the characters are those who actually act like they've read a thriller or two. Indeed, Hollis Henry is making her way through Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male early in the novel.



And of course there are movies. I review the new installment of the Harry Potter franchise, though my feelings are at best mixed.

Their search takes them through various forests and charmed cities, and at this point the movie drags. A shame, because this is the point where the movie should hold most of its emotional weight. The three have just lost their mentors through death or alienation, they have pushed away their families to protect them, and so have nowhere to go and nobody to show them what to do next: an apt metaphor for wandering through the interzone between childhood and adulthood. But the aimlessness isn't very interesting. Though I admire what writer Steven Kloves and director David Yates were trying to accomplish (and they certainly try), they dramatize it poorly. It doesn't help that Radcliffe, Grint and Watson wear the same dour expressions throughout, as if they've studied under the Derek Zoolander Center for Children Who Can't Read Good and Wanna Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too.




And we have a review of Gareth Edwards's first feature Monsters, which I found to be very good indeed. If any one recent science fiction movie deserved a large audience and wide exposure, this would be it.

Two scenes early in the sublime Monsters show that writer-director Gareth Edwards is, with his first feature, not only a master cinematic craftsman but one also schooled in showing his audience his world rather than explaining it. As photojournalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) and Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able) await transport to a ferry that will take them away from the Central American Infected Zone (where, six years before, a satellite carrying alien microbes crashed, causing new life forms to appear) and back to America, they stay overnight in the home of a Hispanic family. As they talk to the mother and her children, a television plays in the background, featuring an animated children's program that presumably explains the giant squidlike aliens. Another occurs when Kaulder and Wynden pass a mural depicting the aliens fighting jets and tanks. Both sequences are over very quickly, but they tell the audience nearly everything about the world Edwards has created.


Enjoy.

Mar. 13th, 2010

Works in Progress

Here's a quick inventory of things I need to finish before month's end.

A review of Mister Slaughter by Robert R. McCammon.

A review of Leviathan Wept and Other Stories by Daniel Abraham.

A review of Indigo Springs by A.M. Dellamonica.

A review of Galileo's Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson.

A review of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland.

A review of the remake of The Crazies.

An interview with one of my favorite writers for Revolution SF.


And that's not counting an upcoming press screening for Repo Men, which I'll also need to review, to say nothing of the fiction in desperate need of revision, or even completion.

And how is your Saturday?

Oct. 21st, 2009

Pages That Deliver Shivers

Halloween is once again almost upon us, and once again some of us will want to prepare by tripping the dark fantastic. In that spirit, I’ve come up with ten books that I feel are truly worthy of being placed upon the shelves of those who enjoy this season.

There are, of course, some disclaimers. Not all of these books are, strictly speaking, horror. While I could come up with ten titles that one could more traditionally place in the genre, in my opinion too few of those books are genuinely scary, thus failing as "horror," so consequently hold little interest for me. In addition, many of those that do in fact provide a good scare are already so well known that you don’t really need me to recommend them. (Do you really need to hear from yet another person how creepy Blatty’s The Exorcist and Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby actually are? Do you really need yet another person to recommend that you read Shelley’s Frankenstein or Bram Stoker’s Dracula because they’re genre classics?) Worse still, some of the titles that are classics and are fairly well-known are unfortunately and inexplicably out of print and difficult to obtain, which is why I'm not listing David Martin's Lie to Me or Dennis Etchison's Darkside, though both are worth your time.

So, rather than list titles that are straight horror or hard to come by, I have decided to list books that meet my demands for this rather fluid category. They tend to cross genres, but if you’re in the mood for a good scare then you can do a lot worse than these. One or two might be hard to come by, but they should be easy to scare up on Amazon.

On to the fun.

Ten Scary Reads:




The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks. Banks’ first novel caused quite a stir when it was first published, and probably would do so today. Frank Cauldhame is a teenager living with his father on a remote island off the coast of Scotland. He is also responsible for the murders of three members of his family, making each look like a freak accident. Now his brother Eric has escaped from an insane asylum and is coming home for what seems to be a showdown with his brother. Great, disquieting stuff.




The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick. Yes, it’s science fiction, but it’s one of the most nightmarish novels ever to come out of the genre. Can-D is the drug of choice for most of the Earth’s inhabitants, allowing them to live briefly in the world of Perky Pat. But Palmer Eldritch has returned from an alien star system with the drug Chew-Z, which can completely—-and perhaps permanently—-alter the reality of those who take it. I don’t know if it’s Dick’s best novel, but it’s definitely one of the top three.




Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Not technically horror, Golding’s best known work remains a powerful, haunting tale of boys left alone on a deserted island after a nuclear war has broken out, and chronicles their descent into savagery. You always hear about classic works being stuffy and dull. This one isn’t.




Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg. In this wonderfully gruesome chiller, New York private detective Harry Angel is hired by a mysterious gentleman to locate missing crooner Johnny Favorite. Along the way he uncovers many bodies and more than a few Louisiana voodoo practitioners who don’t want Favorite to be found. A great melding of mystery and horror that was made into the quite good (if stylistically overwrought) Angel Heart.




The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. A true classic of supernatural literature, The Haunting of Hill House tells the story of Eleanor Vance, a shy loner who receives an invitation from supernatural investigator John Montague to take part in a gathering of those who have been touched by paranormal phenomena at Hill House, a foreboding estate in New England. Eleanor, it seems, is a supernatural magnet; none of the others attract as much attention as she. Richard Matheson’s Hell House is, in some ways, scarier but more overt, as is Stephen King’s The Shining, but both owe a great debt to this subtle, harrowing work.




High Cotton by Joe R. Lansdale. Lansdale’s excellent short story collection showcases a wonderful blend of humor (“Steppin’ Out, Summer, ‘68”), suspense (“The Pit,” “The Steel Valentine”), setting (“The Fat Man and the Elephant”) and just plain weirdness (“Bob the Dinosaur Goes to Disneyland”). And it features “Night They Missed the Horror Show,” one of the most disturbing horror stories ever written.




Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz Leiber. A mounting sense of dread permeates Leiber’s World Fantasy Award-winning novel about a writer and recovering alcoholic who investigates the life of a long-dead spiritual philosopher. With references to Clark Ashton Smith and Dashiell Hammett, it often reads like a prose version of Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which is high praise indeed.




I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. I could have chosen a half dozen of Matheson's novels, but opted, finally, for what is perhaps his best known, at least currently. It’s probably the most influential vampire novel of the twentieth century, and remains one scary read to boot. Vampires have overrun the earth, and Robert Neville, the planet’s only remaining human, fights daily for survival. Stephen King once cited this as his favorite novel, and it’s easy to see why.




The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers. Of all the fine books on this list, this novel by one of Philip Dick's friends is the only one that I can honestly say has it all: time travel, rich Dickensian characters, poetry scholars, Egyptian gods, secret societies, ancient mysticism, and spooky clowns. Brendan Doyle joins a group of time travelers to hear a lecture by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but finds himself among Gypsies led by an Egyptian sorcerer who wants to overthrow the English Monarchy. What's not to love? (Oh, and I understand that Powers's novel On Stranger Tides will be the basis for the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Now that is cool.)




Song of Kali by Dan Simmons. As is the case with Matheson, I could have chosen among several of this author's fine novels, but decided to go with his first. Simmons won the World Fantasy Award for this, his first novel, about a poet who journeys to Calcutta to track down the author, long believed dead, of a poem that could bring in the Age of Kali. It is neither his best work—-that, perhaps, is Phases of Gravity-—nor his most ambitious-—the engaging suspense thriller The Crook Factory-—but Simmons makes his setting a malevolent entity that lingers in the mind, and presents us with some truly chilling moments.

Nov. 30th, 2006

LOA Does PKD

This is all over the blogsphere now, but I couldn't help blogging it. Next year the Library of America will publish a volume of four novels by Philip K. Dick, selected by Jonathan Lethem. You can read the details here.

From the Library of America's website:

Known in his lifetime primarily to readers of science fiction, Philip K. Dick (1928-82) is now seen as a uniquely visionary figure, a writer who, in editor Jonathan Lethem's words, "wielded a sardonic yet heartbroken acuity about the plight of being alive in the twentieth century, one that makes him a lonely hero to the readers who cherish him." Posing the questions "What is human?" and "What is real?" in a multitude of fascinating ways, Dick produced works—fantastic and weird yet developed with precise logic, marked by wild humor and soaring flights of religious speculation—that are startlingly prescient imaginative responses to 21st-century quandaries.

This Library of America volume brings together four of Dick's most original novels. The Man in the High Castle (1962), which won the Hugo Award, describes an alternate world in which Japan and Germany have won World War II and America is divided into separate occupation zones. The dizzying The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) posits a future in which competing hallucinogens proffer different brands of virtual reality. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), about a bounty hunter in search of escaped androids in a postapocalyptic future, was the basis for the movie Blade Runner. Ubik (1969), with its future world of psychic espionage agents and cryonically frozen patients inhabiting an illusory "half-life," pursues Dick's theme of simulated realities and false perceptions to ever more disturbing conclusions. As with most of Dick's novels, no plot summary can suggest the mesmerizing and constantly surprising texture of these astonishing books.


It's wonderful to see Dick getting the critical attention he deserved in life, but I have to wonder if academics are ever going to come to terms with the fact that he was a science fiction writer.

Oct. 24th, 2006

The Top 15 Spy Novels

Peter Cannon of Publisher's Weekly recently compiled a list of what he considers the top fifteen spy novels. (The list itself I pulled from author Gayle Lynds's website.) It's an intriguing list (no pun intended...okay, maybe a little...), and one that certainly begs discussion.

1. John le Carre, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (1963)
2. Robert Ludlum, THE BOURNE IDENTITY (1980)
3. Frederick Forsyth, THE DAY OF THE JACKAL (1971)
4. Ian Fleming, THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1962)
5. Graham Greene, THE QUIET AMERICAN (1955)
6. Len Deighton, THE IPCRESS FILE (1962)
7. Ken Follett, THE EYE OF THE NEEDLE
8. Gayle Lynds, MASQUERADE (1996)
9. Joseph Finder, THE MOSCOW CLUB (1991)
10. Helen MacInnes, ABOVE SUSPICION (1939)
11. John Buchan, THE 39 STEPS (1915)
12. Norman Mailer, HARLOT'S GHOST (1991)
13. Daniel Silva, THE UNLIKELY SPY (1996)
14. Erskine Childers, THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS (1903)
15. Colin MacKinnon, MORNING SPY, EVENING SPY (2006)

First, a disclaimer. I have not read Colin MacKinnon's novel, but based on a few reviews I've read, I certainly need to add it to the already too-high stack of books on my end table. That said, I cannot help but concur with just under half of the choices, argue, in some cases heatedly, with others, and scratch my head at what's missing.

THE DAY OF THE JACKAL, THE IPCRESS FILE, EYE OF THE NEEDLE, ABOVE SUSPICION, THE 39 STEPS and THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS are all masterpieces of the form, and are absolute musts if one wants to become an authority on spy fiction. Placing THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD is understandable, perhaps even necessary, but I prefer the multi-layered, richly textured Karla Trilogy, which begins with TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY. Likewise, whatever one feels for the quality of Ludlum's writing, one cannot help but admire the sheer narrative drive of THE BOURNE IDENTITY. It may be a Big Mac to le Carre's filet mignon, but damned if it doesn't taste good going down.

Then there is the case of Graham Greene. He's a seminal espionage writer whose influence remains pervasive, especially when one remembers that le Carre's THE TAILOR OF PANAMA is an homage to Greene's hilarious OUR MAN IN HAVANA. So, while I can see him here easily, I have to wonder why Cannon chose THE QUIET AMERICAN over either HAVANA or THE THIRD MAN. Granted, Greene considered AMERICAN one of his "serious" novels, as opposed to his "entertainments" (which include the above mentioned, as well as A GUN FOR SALE), but, looking at some of the others on this list, I remain perplexed. If you're going to include Ludlum, if you're going to opt for le Carre's SPY, then why not go with a novel that more closely resembles a tale of intrigue?

The inclusion of Lynds, Finder and Silva are somewhat debatable. All three are competent writers, and the works listed are enjoyable (though in the case of Lynds I prefer THE COIL, and in the case of Silva, THE MARK OF THE ASSASSINS), yet I'm dubious of their endurance. It just seems too soon for them to be on a "best" list of this sort.

Two books that, in my opinion, should not be on this list are Fleming's THE SPY WHO LOVED ME and Mailer's HARLOT'S GHOST. Being a huge James Bond fan, I have no qualms with putting Fleming on the list, but I cannot understand why Cannon would choose Fleming's most experimental novel – and a failed experiment at that – over the elemental CASINO ROYALE or an acknowledged classic like FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE. And while I have enormous respect for Mailer and this work, I felt Cannon's selected it to make his list more palatable to the literary-minded. Charles McCarry covered similar material in his novel THE LAST SUPPER, which is just as literary as Mailer's book, and a thousand pages shorter.

And then there's the obvious omission: Eric Ambler. Ambler, in such novels as A COFFIN FOR DIMITRIOS, CAUSE FOR ALARM, JOURNEY INTO FEAR and THE LIGHT OF DAY, practically created the spy novel as we know it in the 1930s. He took all of the adventure of Buchan and Sapper (who wrote the Bulldog Drummond novels), added the complexity and ambiguity of character one finds in Greene's novels, and mixed them together with a healthy sprinkling of (then) contemporary realpolitik. The result was a series of novels that have often been equaled but seldom surpassed, and remain incredible, and incredibly readable, works to this day.

I also do not understand the absence of Joseph Conrad's THE SECRET AGENT or W. Somerset Maugham's ASHENDEN. These may not be to everybody's taste –contemporary thriller readers might find them slow going – but they are influential works, and worthy of consideration on anybody's list. (And, admittedly, they do not show up on my own list below.)

In addition, I'm also surprised by the absence of Geoffrey Household's ROGUE MALE and Adam Hall's THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM. Though modern audiences do not better know these works, both contain enough action and intrigue to satisfy the most cynical and jaded reader. They are also tightly written and exquisitely plotted. Why they aren't here is a mystery to me.

And then there are personal favorites such as Charles McCarry's THE TEARS OF AUTUMN, Trevanian's THE EIGER SANCTION, and Robert Littell's THE AMATEUR, that Cannon doesn't select, but then, why should he? They are personal faves, and perhaps not to his taste.

So, in response to Cannon's list, allow me to provide my own. I'll admit to some degree of idiosyncrasy on my part – I tend to like everything from the pulpy adventure stuff to the most literary tome – but I feel that someone looking for a good read could do worse than these. Rather than giving each novel a ranking, I'm listing my choices in alphabetical order. Those marked with an asterisk also appear on Cannon's list.

Eric Ambler, A COFFIN FOR DIMITRIOS (1938)
John Buchan, THE 39 STEPS (1915)*
Erskine Childers, THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS (1903)*
Len Deighton, THE IPCRESS FILE (1962)*
Ian Fleming, FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE (1957)
Ken Follett, EYE OF THE NEEDLE (1978)*
Frederick Forsyth, THE DAY OF THE JACKAL (1971)*
Graham Greene, THE THIRD MAN (1950)
Adam Hall, THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM (1965)
Geoffrey Household, ROGUE MALE (1939)
John le Carre, TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY (1974)
Robert Ludlum, THE BOURNE IDENTITY (1980)*
Helen MacInnes, ABOVE SUSPICION (1939)*
Charles McCarry, THE TEARS OF AUTUMN (1974)
Trevanian, THE EIGER SANCTION (1971)

Go read.

Oct. 17th, 2006

How to Get Me Eternally in Your Debt

Buy me this.

Tom Piccirilli says, "So what do you get when you plunk down your lucre for Dark Harvest? Listen up: you get a powerhouse thrillride with all the resonance of Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery.' You get a dark fantasy-hardboiled fusion that makes for the wildest hep-cat reading this side of Joe Lansdale. You get a pumpkin-headed scarecrow with a butcher knife (driving a Chrysler), a twisted town full of rampaging teenagers, and one seriously demented bad boy cop just itching to cap a few asses. You get a chop in the throat, a kick in the guts, a shot of whiskey and an icy cold beer to settle your head. What you get with Norm Partridge is simply the best."

How can it frakkin' miss?

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Aug. 27th, 2006

The One-Book Meme

Nothing like a meme to get me to update over here. I borrowed this one from Claude Lalumière. Thanks, man.

1. One book that changed your life?

The Abolition of Work by Bob Black. Even though I have pretty much jettisoned many of Black's conclusions, his call for what he refers to as the ludic lifestyle remains refreshing.

2. One book you have read more than once?

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick. A complete mindfuker.

3. One book you would want on a desert island?

I'd like to fudge and say the entire Parker series by Richard Stark. Instead, I'll go with The Dark Descent edited by David Hartwell, the classic horror retrospective.

4. One book that made you laugh?

Bloodsucking Fiends by Christopher Moore.

5. One book that made you cry?

Hard to say because I don't generally cry when I read books. I could say Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, but that was only because reading it was physically painful. (You're still going to hell, Paul.) However, for this one I will say Song of Kali by Dan Simmons. I can't tell why without giving away a spoiler.

6. One book you wish had been written?

Charles Willeford's fifth Hoke Mosley novel. Supposedly it was supposed to be very dark.

7. One book you wish had never been written?

I could say anything by Nicholas Sparks, James Patterson, Dan Brown, and so on, but I'll go with Claude's choice of the Bible.

8. One book you are currently reading?

Outside the Dog Museum by Jonathan Carroll.

9. One book you have been meaning to read?

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.
Tags:

Jul. 19th, 2006

Two Additions to the Bookshelf

I should not be buying books right now. I admit that. I have too much going on: trying to get resettled, reacquainting myself with the Austin area, submitting resumes, attending interviews (I have another one tomorrow; woo hoo!). All of which is eating through gas money and cellphone minutes. But this time I really could not help it.

For starters, we have a new translation of Yevgeny Zamiatin's We, published by the Modern Library and featuring a foreward by Bruce Sterling. Critic and poet Adam Hill provides us with this review.

We're fortunate to have "We" in this new translation by Natasha Randall because, though there are at least two other English translations available, the novel is still not widely known. It should be.

"We" is considered the archetypal dystopian novel, a book that directly influenced two very famous works of this kind, Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" and George Orwell's "1984." Huxley denied having read it before writing "Brave New World," but not Orwell. He read it in French and reviewed it for a British newspaper only a few years before writing "1984."

(snip)

An advocate of permanent revolution, Zamyatin understood that any system, especially a political one, was inherently inclined toward stagnation and entropy — things would inevitably begin to fall apart. Leaders will resort to crushing means of repression, but there will always be rebellions when the deepest demands of human nature have been thoroughly subjugated.


The other big purchase is the recent English edition of the novel Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko, the basis for the movie of the same name. It is the first of a trilogy, and I'm hoping that the other two volumes hit bookshelves quickly, because thus far it's amazing.

Go read.




Jul. 17th, 2006

(no subject)

(From Locus.)

First off, if you haven't read The Prestige, Christopher Priest's amazing novel of dueling magicians in turn-of-the-century London, then you have missed one of the singular fantasies of the 1990s, and must correct this error immediately.

If you have read the novel, then you need to see the trailer for the film adaptation directed by Christopher Nolan, the man who helmed Memento and Batman Begins.

I, for one, cannot wait.

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Jul. 14th, 2006

"What Is Wrong With His Vision Is Not the Book He Tells It In"

I had never heard of Michel Houellebecq or his new novel The Possibility of an Island until I read John Clute's review of it on Scifi.com. Now I wish I hadn't spent any money on things like, say, food or gas.

The first flat unremitting truth from Houellebecq about the Human Condition is a scatological reiteration of what Darwin began to tell us long ago: that everything we humans plead to high heaven about ourselves—shouts of faith, hope and charity, etc., have echoed throughout human history against the walls of Nada—is nothing but background noise, because in raw truth everything we do, except the performance of those acts of sex which further the gene, is froth and delusion; "an animal, any animal, [will] sacrifice its happiness, its physical well-being, and even its life, in the hope of sexual intercourse alone." The second flat unremitting truth about the Human Condition is that the obscenitites of aging soon exile us from being able to do the only real thing in the world, which is begetting or bearing.

(snip)

None of this may be very good nor very original SF; but it is, all the same, the genuine article, which is manifestly appropriate to Houellebecq's project: because if he had treated the future that follows Daniel1 grim world as wetdream or metaphor or delusion, Island would have collapsed into mere sourness. But it does not. To repeat: Daniel1 is diagnostic of the future. The outcome described in The Possibility of an Island is literally the case of the book. It is pure SF. To write an SF novel about the contemporary world is to say: I mean what I say.

(snip)

There may be a lot wrong with Houellebecq's vision, but what is wrong with his vision is not the book he tells it in.


Great. Now I have to scrounge up $24.95 for a hardcover of this thing.

Go read.

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