Mike’s Prattle


Charles L. Grant – The Sound of Midnight; Lucius Shepard – “Shades,” “Life of Buddha,” “The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter,” “Jack’s Decline,” “Nomans Land,” “A Wooden Tiger,” “The Way It Sometimes Happens,” “The Ends of the Earth,” “Carlos Manson Lives;” Fritz Leiber “Do You Know Dave Wenzel?;” “One Station of the Way;” stories from Gardner Dozois ed. – The Year’s Best Science Fiction Vol. 1

Posted by Mike on January 26, 2010

Been too busy to do a lot of posting of late, particularly because my home computer went down for about three weeks this month thanks to the latest rootkit du jour. It meant a restoration of my computer which hasn’t gone totally smoothly, the good part is I managed to save all of my old data except possibly old e-mails. Things are working OK now, but my old Feurio CD burner program doesn’t work on the new machine, so I’m hoping to get Nero 9 up and running soon. Other than that I think everything’s working fairly well again.

The best part about not having a computer, perhaps, is not seeing news as much, as when I returned to learning about our current corporatocracy, I learned of the devastating Supreme Court decision to make corporations human beings, which may have been one of the worst events in politics to have happened in years. Whether you vote Republican major or Republican minor (aka Democrats) today, the only truisms seem to be that the banks and major corporations are always the winners. But enough on this, there’s really nothing all that new about the rich and powerful getting their way, King Richard or CEO Richard.

But of course another good thing about not having a computer is more reading time. So onto trying to catch up with some fiction reviews. First up the second in a series of books and stories in Charles Grant’s Oxrun universe. I’ll admit that reading this group probably relates more to my sense of organization and completism than a real wish to go through these, they’re sort of part of the way I end up getting to read award winners and such (Nightmare Seasons being the book in this chain that won the World Fantasy award many years ago). The first three in this series seem to be crosses between romance and horror and they’re kinda pap. In The Sound of Midnight the owner and inheritor of an Oxrun toy store comes under the suspicion of murdering a child who dies under strange circumstances, the child part of a family who has a father who has an unusual chess set. As it turns out the set’s part of some Celtic myth cycle and the toy store owner and romantic interest end up being chased after by various entities. It’s all fairly clean and light for the most part and not all  that different in tone from The Hour of the Oxrun Dead, a quick and light read without a great deal of depth. And certainly someone like Charles De Lint does something like this with greater emotional and spiritual resonance.

The run of Lucius Shepard stories, mostly novellas in this group, on the other hand is obviously one of his most incredible runs (mostly in the 1988-89 region), nearly every story in this group is utterly phenomenal, among some of the best writing I’ve ever witnessed. Not only is there a psychological depth to this work uncommon in most fiction (in particular the way personal motives are dissected and analyzed as intensely as possible) but the stories are rich in environmental detail and the story ideas are tight and always hang sort of on the verge of the fantasy and science fiction they evoke. That is, I still find it difficult to think of Shepard as a genre writer in any way, despite the fact that nearly all of these do use genre devices. But ultimately none are really about genre, they’re about the lives of people often on the downside of their lives. And that they have literary aspirations yet are eminently readable is really the mark of a rare talent.

“Shades” follows a journalist in the southeast who ends up witnessing a ghost as the aftereffect of Vietnam War and in this case the ghost is personal, someone he knew from the war. Dissected here is the relationship between him and the man the ghost once was and the analysis of how humans often treat each other with disregard and callousness only to look back on these feelings with distaste after maturity.

“Life of Buddha” is an incredible short about the underground in Detroit and the relationship of a man to a transsexual friend, all of the characters part of the drug world. What’s really clever about this one is how the protagonist’s viewpoint and world reflect Buddhism to a certain extent and on a very subtle level alongside the narrative. As always Shepard evokes powerful emotions even without having to be obvious or overt about them and there really is a beauty to the relationship even in a milieu where you might not expect it.

“The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter” is the second in the Dragon Griaule series and puts a lot of high fantasy to shame. I thought this journey taking the said daughter into the very Vancian (or Michael Shea-like) environment within Griaule was as epic as any large trilogy while remaining at a novella length. The daughter herself ends up embroiled in the machinations of the dragon when she’s trapped between the dragon’s jaws and members of the nearby village who are out for revenge and ends up living a large portion of her life in a strange and original environment. But even though this reads so differently in tone and style from the greater Shepard work, it shirks its reponsibility not a bit in analyzing the daughter’s motives as she lives months with the mystery of her new situation only for it to come to a head much later in a way that seemed both surprising and well planned for. Just a brilliant piece of work, this one.

“Jack’s Decline” comes from an anthogy of Jack the Ripper stories and tells of what happens to the man after the murders stop, who ends up living in Europe as a world war looms. Naturally it’s about a man who still lives with the demons who drove him to horrible acts and what happens when he’s given the chance to become a “hero.” Naturally the results aren’t what you expect.

“Nomans Land” introduces an Irish man and a Portuguese man who survive a shipwreck and land on an island off of Nantucket. It seems that both survive the night, but things become a lot more complex as the Irishman meets a woman living on the island and both encounter what seems to be lots of little white spiders. In many ways this as science fictional as Shepard often gets, but to explain why this is so would be to ruin the plot and there’s a greater secret to what happens here that gives the whole idea of “Nomans Land” an entirely new definition. This one was also seriously brilliant.

“A Wooden Tiger” encounters a CIA agent in Nepal who is now undergoing the process of finding a conscience. He learns about various younger girls who for a time in their life were the avatar of a local goddess and sets out to find one of the ex-avatars for personal reasons. Naturally, given CIA machinations, the people in his life who aren’t what they seem and both the supernatural and the spy world collide and a very unique and horrifying manner.

“The Way it Sometimes Happens” is a short short about a jazz group and does a pretty credible job of picturing the thought processes that go through a band mid improvisation. In this one the band verges on something almost Lovecratian during a jam. Almost like The Music of Erich Zann in an entirely different patois.

“The Ends of the Earth” is another major work, about an expatriate writer in Guatemala who becomes involved with several other characters in the area, one of which is a man attempting to translate the Popol Vuh and who owns a very old Mayan game that, naturally, is much more than any board game. Almost distractedly the two play the game which ends up causing heavy dreaming on the protagonist’s part of a somewhat horrific desert landscape. As in many Shepard stories, things get much worse from here.

“Carlos Manson Lives” is a more modern Shepard short, written originally for one of the Polyphony volumes under the pseudonym Sally Carteret. It’s also part of his new Viator Plus collection and was posted at the Inferior 4+1 blog in December at some point (don’t have the link). Like “…Happens” it’s a musical story, this time about a famous musician, her coterie and what happens when a swim in the pool brings her into contact with a slightly menacing figure who wants her to write him a song.

The next couple stories comes from the pen of Fritz Leiber and take me up to the chronological point just before his novel “The Green Millenium.” “Wenzel” is about a man who starts to act unusually (from the perspective of his wife and family) when visited by an old college friend, however noone who knows the husband has ever seen the friend and the very mystery of this starts to draw on greater curiosity. “One Station” is a bizarre analogy of the Nativity story in a far future science fiction milieu, with millepede like forms inseminating various planets with a “saviour.” In some ways it reads almost as much like some Arthur C. Clarke story than Lieber expect for an incipient creepiness.

The next group of stories are all from the first volume of Dozois’ long running Year’s Best Science Fiction series. In this case I read all the stories I didn’t have copies of elsewhere, had already read, or which were part of some series I wanted to read from the beginning. Ian Watson’s  “Slow Birds” envisions a future where towns gather around communities trying to avoid what happens when the eponymous Slow Bird explodes and glasses the town. The story starts with protagonist about to play a game on the glass as part of several village’s larger contest with the narrative changing when the man’s brother decides to take a ride on of the slow birds, which disappears taking his brother elsewhere. The brother then attempts to find out what happens to him, something that unfolds over a much longer scale of time.

Poul Anderson’s “Vulcan’s Forge” entails scientists working on Mercury who are studying the inner planet Vulcan where a successful scientist shows up who has lost his wife and works with the protagonist. Personally I haven’t had a great deal of personal affinity for Anderson’s work and this didn’t really change my mind, although I do think that character development and science fictional idea all seem to work pretty well in tandem here.

Greg Bear’s Hardfought is an amazing far future story (in the vein of Stephen Baxter or Greg Egan – or perhaps vice versa) where humanity still fights a massive war against an alien race which has cause it to lost its humanity in the process. Why this happened is unfolded in the second half from the alien perspective who has captured some of these archetypes in a virtual reality sort of environment and as is often the case love has some responsibility.

Joe Haldeman’s “Manifest Destiny” revolves around a witch who declares a man won’t die while he stays in Mexico during the US-Mexican war and the outcome from the perspective of the man’s friend. I found this one fairly predictable in the way the prediction naturally turns out to be true, but the story is in how this happens.

Jack McDevitt’s “Cryptic” is about a man who finds evidence of a found SETA alien signal in an old vault and works to find why it was covered up. M0re typical of earlier McDevitt in that everything’s pretty strong except for the ending.

R. A. Lafferty’s “Golden Gate” is a weird story about a man who frequents a certain saloon where the villain in the play played there every night becomes the man’s target for real. This had the unusual quirkiness and individual voice and tone of someone like Avram Davidson which will probably cause me to end up searching out more of Lafferty’s work. Dozois calls this something of a tall tale and I’d have to agree.

Jack Dann’s “Blind Shemmy” is an innovative cyberpunk story about gambling for organs, with a somewhat Zelazny-like tone to it. Tanith Lee’s “Nunc Dimmit” is about an ancient vampire’s servant who knows he is dying and wishes to find her his replacement. Leigh Kennedy’s “Her Furry Face” is about a man who teaches orangutans who gets a little too close to one of the orangutans he’s teaching. WAY too close. Rand B. Lee’s ” Knight of Shallows is a great story about a man switching parallel universes trying to find someone who’s killing his parallel personalities off. Very fast moving and unique and something of a precursor to the Sliders television show (but, naturally, a lot better). John Kessel’s “Hearts Do Not in Eyes Shine” is a future story where people can have their brains altered to forget bad experiences and what happens when such a thing is applied to a broken marriage. Vernor Vinge’s “Gemstone” involves a young girl staying with her grandmother who discovers and experiences an alien object’s mood altering abilities.


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