Mike’s Prattle

Miscellaneous

Archive for June, 2006

Books Received; Lucius Shepard – “Black Coral;” “A Traveler’s Tale;” “The Storming of Annie Kinsale;” etc.

Posted by Mike on June 30, 2006

Some stragglers have come in, including a couple gifts from a friend: 

  • C. L. Moore – Jirel of Joiry
  • Michael Swanwick – Tales of Old Earth
  • Don DeLillo – Underworld
  • Isabel Allende – House of the Spirits
  • Vladimir Nabokov- Invitation to a Beheading
  • Edward Whittemore – Jericho Mosaic
  • Terry Carr, ed. – Universe 16

Reading a lot lately, especially now I’m caught up with Deadwood and not in the mood for TV lately. Been still going through Shepard’s work in chronological order. Both “Black Coral” and “A Traveler’s Tale” are both set in the same milieu, an island off the coast of Salvador that has an unusual spiritual heritage. In “Black Coral” an American on the island is offered an opportunity to smoke black coral, a plant with unusual hallucinogenic (?) properties that puts him on a trajectory with the principles behind the island. These principles are further explored in “A Traveler’s Tale” through a different protagonist. Both are in his World Fantasy Award winning The Jaguar Hunter. I found “Annie Kinsale” in an anthology entitled Strange Dreams, it’s uncollected by Shepard himself, a mystical/romantic encounter between an Irish witch and a Chilean soldier, that rings of a merger between Celtic myth and Marquez-like magical realism.

I’m on the home stretch of Christopher Priest’s “The Prestige,” the World Fantasy Award winner in 1996, which is a brilliant piece of work and preventing me from getting back to a lot of other stuff at the moment, including House Hook and Iain Bank’s Consider Phlebas.

All else is quiet, although I recently stocked the cabinet with a few fine single malts including Aberlour A’Bunadh, Bowmore 17, and Caol Isla 18. Not rye or bourbon but definitely inspired by Deadwood nonetheless.

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Books Received; Lucius Shepard “The Etheric Transmitter;” Italo Calvino – The Castle of Crossed Destinies

Posted by Mike on June 21, 2006

  • Lucius Shepard – Colonel Rutherford's Colt
  • John Fowles – The Magus
  • Theodore Sturgeon – Killdozer! (Collected Stories Vol. 3)

You never know unless you ask, but given that "The Etheric Transmitter" was a Clarion submission (Clarion being a speculative fiction workshop), I assume it's probably the earliest of Lucius Shepard's published stories. It's an intriguing one, picking up the interest in the ether of the early 20th century and using it as a time travel device through potentiality. It's definitely different in tone from what I usually expect from Shepard, although it again deals with an unusual occult idea in a new way. The protagonist transmits her voice into the future (or the present) through the Eiffel Tower, her relating of her story causing massive political shifts as people listen to it over several days. It's not a bad story, even a little pulp-era like.

Calvino's Castle is an experiment of writing pictorially through tarot cards and actually contains two collections of interrelated stories, the title and "The Tavern of Crossed Destinies." Calvino uses the card pictures literally rather than symbolically (kabbalistic etc) to recreate myths that interweave with the other stories. I'd say my interest in tarot probably got in the way more than helped, as the interpretations of the pictures were often vastly different than the card meanings. It's my second Calvino, I read The Baron in the Trees many years ago, and enjoyed it much more than this. I found some of the liberties taken, even interpreting the cards pictorially, to be distracting, although given the pictures' various symbolic definitions, I'm not sure why. But in a certain way it was pretty clever, mostly in the way the various stories would create a map using all the cards where you could read a story vertically and horizontally. But the stories themselves were often fairy tale like and not very interesting in their own right, so it succeeded less in the read and more in the experiment. Thankfully it was pretty short.

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Meaning

Posted by Mike on June 21, 2006

The following thoughts are somewhat preliminary to say the least, but they're something of an attempt to observe linked synchronicities at a remove. I'm defining the synchronicity here less as a meaningful coincidence and more as a coincidence that is seemingly meaningful.

Aleister Crowley once said (and I paraphrase) that in esoteric work one is likely to encounter a lot of strange things and that one shouldn't attach meaning to them. I have an urge to want to elicit meaning from every synchronicity that occurs, to use any tool available to try and interpret a symbol or weird event and to give it meaning. These efforts tend to create more synchronicities and solve none, linking outward in an ineffable grid of coincidences. I managed to create or manifest a grid like this about 4-6 weeks ago starting with a particular symbol that arose subconsciously that ended up taking me through a number of astonishing links, some through research of various types, some occurences in real time that are inexplicable. 

It demonstrates to some extent how the brain tries hard to derive meaning from the environment and how one has the tendency to attach some sort of meaning to weird occurences. And in doing so it's like you construct boundaries around the event and hem it in, perhaps curtailing the experience and devaluing it. It's as if the mind has its own detective, an investigator that can't live with a mystery. One that wants to know for sure that Professor Plum committed the murder with a monkeywrench.

One can only relate to the environment (inner or outer) through one's own prior experience. Even if the mind encounters something outside of experience, it tries to interpret the experience through what one already knows and the result is almost always incomplete in some way. To remain the detached observer is far more difficult than I would have expected, especially with the "what's it all for?" question ringing in your ears. Getting used to the idea that the envelope in the middle of the board is actually empty demands application and reapplication. In many ways this blog entry is a calibration of sorts and to remind myself of Uncle Al's important statement.

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Books/Lucius Shepard – Green Eyes/Deadwood

Posted by Mike on June 20, 2006

Got some more stuff in:

  • Alexander Theroux – Darconville's Cat
  • Richard Matheson – Collected Stories, Volume One
  • James Patrick Kelly – Think Like a Dinosaur & Other Stories
  • Rikki Ducornet – The Jade Cabinet
  • Rikki Ducornet – The Fountains of Neptune
  • Richard F. Burton (translator) – Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night, Part 1
  • Stephen R. Donaldson, ed. – Strange Dreams
  • Franz Kafka – Collected Stories
  • Harlan Ellison – Angry Candy
  • Frances Sherwood – The Book of Splendor
  • Theodore Sturgeon – Microcosmic God, Collected Stories 2
  • Theodore Sturgeon – Thunder & Roses, Collected Stories 4
  • Alasdair Gray – Poor Things
  • Alfred Kubin – The Other Side
  • Lance Olsen – Girl Imagined By Chance
  • Amanda Prantera – The Cabalist
  • M. John Harrison – Light

Also finished Lucius Shepard's first novel called Green Eyes. It's probably one of his longest works, which isn't big by today's standards at small font and 275 pages (most of Shepard's work falls in the novella length or shorter). It's about the intersection of Voudoun and science, about zombies (although not your Romero type, those here seem post-human) revivified through bacteria. Some great ideas overall and generally well written except that the flow of the book seems a bit awkward at times and the last section of the book was a bit rushed in comparison to the rest of it. But the concept of the revivification in voudoun terms was a pretty fascinating area where science and mysticism meet, in fact some of the explanations were almost hard SF, something I wouldn't have necessarily expected from Shepard. However, this is a novel probably considered minor in his canon and I'm about to go through some of his better short stories soon.

Watching Deadwood a second time through (Seasons 1 and 2) before I dive into the Season 3 episodes that started just over a week ago. Probably my favorite show on television, gritty and realistic.

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Jorge Luis Boges – A Universal History of Infamy; Lon Milo Duquette – The Key to Solomon’s Key; Robert Silverberg “Getting to Know the Dragon”

Posted by Mike on June 19, 2006

I'm reading Borges' Collected Fictions, the Andrew Hurley translation, and The Universal History of Infamy is the first collection in the book, a relatively small one at 60 something pages. It cleverly melds history and conjecture to tell the story of a few infamous people from several cultures, I think the only one I'd heard of before was Billy the Kid. Great little stories, although it's nice to have the translator's story notes to fill things in, as Borges would often start with a small article and then embellish or recreate parts of the history. Entertaining, but I suspect minor Borges.

Duquette's new book is a grave disappointment and this comes from someone who has read his last 4 or 5 books and really got a lot from them. I'm not really sure what the purpose of it was except to follow on the heels of the popular Da Vinci Code as this goes over the same tedious Templar/Masonic speculation that Foucault's Pendulum was the final word on. One difference is that Duquette does maintain his rationality and is honest on what is history and what is legend, but it all seems to be a set up to introduce "the world's most dangeous secret" which is the kind of statement I mistrust by nature. We go over masonry and magic and then, apparently, it's all a ploy to introduce what is basically an abbreviated Goetia, that Solomon's big secret was the evocation of evil spirits. Now I understand Duquette's idea that the Goetia is a magical/psychological method of dealing with inner darkness and bringing it under control, but to introduce it in such a manner seems somwhat irresponsible despite his warnings. I would think that most well read in esoterica are going to find the obvious tie-in to Templar mythology to be unbearably shallow, while those who are in it for the conspiracy theories will be scratching their heads or running in terror, reading the last section of the book with the 72 Goetic seals. Hey, all you have to do is get some masking tape for the circle and triangle, some placards for the protective names, memorize three or four long invocations with several barbarous names, a few magical tools and you can evoke your own personal demons into the triangle! It seems utterly strange to recount these seals and procedures while suggesting the reader looks in another book for a banishing ritual. In summary, the book isn't by Duquette's normal publishing company (Weiser) which could mean his contract is up or maybe that they thought the book was as lousy as I did.

And finally, another Silverberg story from the "Roma Eterna" sequence that introduces Rome during another period of decadence when the Empire is mostly Greek. "Getting to Know the Dragon" recounts a historian's interest in an earlier Emperor who was the first to sail around the world, while trying to appease the current Emperor's son who wants to embark on an outrageous construction program. Like most of the sequence it's a solid entry even if the long historical sections can be fairly numbing at times.

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Why Lucius Shepard is one of the great movie critics

Posted by Mike on June 13, 2006

Right here.

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Vernor Vinge “Fast Times at Fairmont High;” Jeff VanderMeer – City of Saints and Madmen; etc.

Posted by Mike on June 13, 2006

I gave precedence to Vernor Vinge's novella "Fast Times at Fairmont High" after buying his newest novel Rainbow's End, which is his first full-length since the Hugo-winning A Deepness in the Sky. He's a must read writer, possibly one of the few in the science fiction field, and this novella is a precursor to the novel, set in a near future where internet/virtual technology has advanced to a degree where junior high school children are being tested at a level unheard of today. Like Vinge's far futures, his near future scenario is cleverly laid out with a lot of plausible advancements in technology that boggle the mind, including advances in computer and medical technology and the movie industry. Like his last two novels, this novella also won a Hugo and it's easy to see why, as the ideas are huge and the plot believable with moderately filled out characters.

I'd talked about the novella "Dradin, in Love" several weeks ago, the opening salvo in this bizarre collection by writer and critic VanderMeer, who has been a source in many ways of a lot of recent reading (especially the Whittemore and Carter novels). City of Saints and Madmen includes a number of other stories, three that follow "Dradin" in the table of contents and then about half a book of metafiction including a hilarious scientific treatise on King Squid, a glossary of Ambergris and a number of shorts all attributed to various characters in the Ambergris world. Having started the collected fictions of Jorge Luis Borges, it's easy to see the influence, especially in the glossary. However, the strongest material is definitely before the appendix (which might be larger than the book itself), with a history of Ambergris, the World Fantasy winning "The Transformation of Martin Lake" and a surreal piece about a man in an insane asylum who believes he's in Chicago and has dreamt up Ambergris, which increasingly impinges on his reality. The writing is pretty amazing, especially some of the stylistic switches between his "writers." The tonal difference between "King Squid" and, say, the history of the Hoegbottoms is pronounced. While I found some of the appendixes a bit tedious (I might have found them more digestible as paged stories or maybe it was the glossary at the end) and some of the prose verging on the overwrought, the imagination that has gone into this world is virile and endless in permutation. I'll definitely be grabbing a copy of his next Ambergris novel, Shriek, when it comes out in August.

Bought a few books last weekend, the first in a long while:

  • Hal Duncan – Vellum
  • Vernor Vinge – Rainbow's End
  • Flann O'Brian – At Swim-Two-Birds
  • Salman Rushdie – Midnight's Children

And I'll be spending part of the weekend finishing up my liner notes for the Water Records reissue of Alan Sorrenti's Aria, which is the first thing I've written about on music in quite some time. Another album that defies the need to canonize a definition of progressive rock.

Spending time watching TV stuff as well, mostly Blake's 7 and Deadwood episodes (redoing the first two seasons to refresh my memory for the new season). All sort of comfort food for an extreme paradigm shift.

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Gordon R. Dickson – Soldier, Ask Not; Angela Carter – The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffmann

Posted by Mike on June 6, 2006

Soldier, Ask Not is the third (chronologically written) of Dickson's Dorsai series and the events take place parallel to that of the first. Dickson poses a future where various types of humanity have evolved to a more pure state, the Dorsai being the bred warriors of this future. In Soldier, Ask Not, the protagonist Tam O'Lyn is from Earth and through a series of unfortunate events seeks to revenge himself on what seems to be a barely disguised fundamentalist race called the Friendlies. Like the other Dorsai novels, there are some interesting philosophical speculations that seem to be more the focus than the future setting itself. Chapters 22+ of the novel are the novella of the same name that won the Hugo award, made obvious by the summaries of preceding events that set up the novella itself. It's a solid, if dated work that probably pales a little bit next to other books I've been reading…

Like Angela Carter's …Doctor Hoffmann. Carter was a tremendous writer, bringing a literary gravity to the fantasy story, in this case the travels of the protagonist affected by a man (magician? physicist?) who seeks to unravel the rational laws of the world. It's somewhat episodic, in that most of the middle chapters focus on a particular part of the journey, including new races, characters and social constructs that are endlessly fascinating and intelligent. One of these chapters has more information and philosophical discussion than most fantasy novels 10 times the length of the book. In fact, classifying this as fantasy does it something of an injustice as throughout the narrative there are almost impalpably dense explanations of the science and ideas behind the world. The characters and races that inhabit this ever-mutable, surreal world are vivid in their descriptions and most are larger than life. Overall, it's a tragedy and scenes of great suffering are almost glossed through at times due to the overwhelming nature of a world where time and place bleed together in inventive proportions. The world creation here is consistently interesting throughout, from the beginning where protagonist Desiderio's town begins to decay into irrationality to the final encounter with Doctor Hoffman and his daughter and Desidero's "heart's desire" Albertina, a very tight ending that was presaged early on. It's a fever dream of a novel and a masterpiece of a literary fantasy and I have no doubt I'll be checking out more of Carter's work.

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