Mike’s Prattle


John Varley – “Blue Champagne;” “The Manhattan Phone Book (Abridged);” “The Unprocessed Word;” Zoran Zivkovic – Time Gifts; Ellen Datlow ed. – Lovecraft Unbound

Posted by Mike on December 17, 2009

Blue Champagne’s a novella that sits roughly in the Anna-Louise Bach timeline, although only features her as a side character in her early days as a lifeguard in the environment for the story, a huge spherical body of water in space. If Persistence in Vision looked at the deaf and blind from a science fictional point of view, Blue Champagne looks at the severely paralyzed from the partial perspective of a woman who uses a device to be able to move after an early accident left her paralyzed. The story comes from the perspective of a male lifeguard who she becomes interested in, who is also casually paired with Bach and through the story not only do we learn about her accident and how she became mobile again but about a very unique technology, perhaps similar to virtual reality in a way, that might allow a computer to capture the moment someone falls in love. Interwoven are issues of fame and relationships in a future where sex has long ceases to be a taboo, one of the major aspects that tends to find these stories mixed up with the Eight Worlds lineage. Another great one from Varley, in fact I suspect this one didn’t make the Reader due to its length more than anything else.

The other two Varleys here are minor shorts, one a unique take on nuclear war (from an anthology regarding such if I’m not mistaken) and the other a cute series of letters between author and publisher decrying the need for the new (then) word processing software just hitting desktops.

Zoran Zivkovic’s Time Gifts was, I believe, his first work translated into English and seems to be a novella length story cut into four parts about three different people displaces in time visited by a mysterious figure who gives them a greater perspective on the outcome of their lives work by way of an unusual time machine. Each of the three are affected in the same way and the fourth and concluding part tie them all together in a metafictional way that probably won’t work for everyone, indeed, it was one of those stories conscious about the writer itself and I’m not sure there are all that many ways to get away with that. In the end it posits a lot of interesting questions, which continues to make Zivkovic’s work of interest to me.

Ellen Datlow’s latest anthology covers the influence of H. P. Lovecraft’s work on many of today’s more literary and between-the-genres sort of writers and as such, it was one I was greatly looking forward to, after all, so much of post-Lovecraft Cthulhu pastiches are poor, ridiculously imitative or overall too self conscious to capture anything of the style that makes Lovecraft such a beloved horror writer despite his many detractions (and today that would be misogyny, racism and verbosity, at least the first two unfortunate products of his era). Of course with Datlow in the driver’s seat we’re coming from a much more modern viewpoint in many of these stories and I was happy to see there aren’t any poor ones here and a few well worth writing about. I’ve read a few prior reviews of this anthology and I appear to be one of the first who really admired Anna Tambour’s “Sincerely, Petrified,” perhaps a story more resonant for those who’ve ever visited a petrified forest. Although it was perhaps one of the least (overtly) Lovecraftian stories in the book, I thought it was devastatingly clever as we look through the viewpoint of a conspiracy of two people, a professional and amateur scientist who become later embroiled in their own myth used to scare forest theives from stealing petrified wood. On the other hand I seem to be in full agreement with previous reviewers that Caitlin R. Kiernan’s House Under the Sea (one of the book’s four reprints) was outstanding, the thoughts of a Lovecraftian scenario after the fact from a man peripherally but heavily, emotionally involved with a cult’s leader. Like all great Lovecraft the grandness and coldness of the universe is only seen in fleeting glimpses and is so much creepier for the sake of it. This is the type of story that will make me want to get more familiar with the author’s other work. The third of the really brilliant stories was Laird Barron’s “Catch Hell,” a story about a couple, perhaps on the last legs of their relationship, who visit an out of the way rural Washington hotel in what seems like an innocent getaway but ends up being the result of occult interests on the part of one of the couple. I almost wish I had read this story 10 or 15 years ago when the story’s dovetailing of occult/satanic mythology with Lovecraftian pagan horror would have really frightened me, but all in the same it was brilliantly constructed with the type of heated and horrifying ending that seems to be rarer in modern literary horror (on the other hand I get a little weary of the tying in of hermeticism with satanism, but I’ll put that aside for now). Oh and I almost forgot, perhaps my favorite story of the lot, Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear’s science fictional take on a future where the incursion of extra-dimensional horrors is a very practical problem, fought with a near-symbiotic relationship between a man and his “Mongoose,” another alien, mysterious being whose name perhaps reflects almost everything about the story. This was the kind of milieu I wish a whole series was written for, it seems too perfectly constructed for a novellette alone.

To be honest there’s just a lot of really good stories that don’t quite come up to the previous four. I’ll take a new Michael Shea short any day, and “The Recruiter” with its story about an old man who makes a bizarre deal with a lich is true to form. Marc Laidlaw’s “Leng” mixes Tibetan motifs with the famous Lovecraftian “Lost World” and mycology to superb effect and fantastic imagery, certainly I’ve never read anything from Laidlaw I didn’t really like. Even the classic sorts of Lovecraft tales here, including the Arctic “Mountains of Madness” turns like Dale Bailey and Nathan Ballingrud’s “The Crevasse” and Holly Phillips’ “Cold Water Survival” are well done and capture the right spirit (impending doom, mystery and vastness rather than lists of  books), not to mention the Innsmouthian “In the Black Mill” by Michael Chabon and the slighty “Whisper in the Darkness” like “Din of Celestial Birds” by Brian Evenson, a title perhaps the old Mahavishnu Orchestra could have used. And I’d be remiss not mentioning the collection’s final short, which is one of the most unique and original takes on Lovecraft here, the story about a few survivors in their last moments reflecting over the oncoming Cthulhian apocalypse. Nick Mamatas does a lot with very little here and it would be a shame to forget this, especially given that it follows Barron’s tour de force.

A great collection overall and a credit to everyone that it’s writing much better than usually found in Lovecraftian collections without verging too purple. It’s tough territory to mine, but even the stories I don’t mention do well with it.


5 Responses to “John Varley – “Blue Champagne;” “The Manhattan Phone Book (Abridged);” “The Unprocessed Word;” Zoran Zivkovic – Time Gifts; Ellen Datlow ed. – Lovecraft Unbound”

  1. Thanks for the great review.
    Just fyi, there is at least one other story in the Bear/Monette milieu: “Boojum” which appeared in Fast Ships, Black Sails, the pirate anthology from a couple of years ago, edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer. I agree that it’s a wonderful world and I hope they write more stories in it.

    • Mike said

      Hi! Thanks a lot for taking the time to let me know about the other story, I’m very happy to know there is another one and will definitely have to check it out. Look forward to it and your next anthology!

  2. You’re welcome. I believe it’s in at least one year’s best (probably an sf one).

  3. I would have loved to send you a personal note, but see you’re not keen on unsolicited email, so I’ll just say thank you here. I’m not just happy about what you say re Lovecraft Unbound. Your sites are finds. I’m looking forward to more postings by you in your Religion, Politics, and Science sections, too.

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