Mike’s Prattle


Kage Baker “Black Smoker;” Michael Shea “The Extra,” The Extra; Caitlin R. Kiernan “Between the Flatirons and the Deep Green Sea,” “The Comedy of St. Jehanne d’Arc,” “Hoar Isis,” “Tears Seven Times Salt;” Larry Niven “The Handicapped,” A Gift from Earth; Jack Womack – Ambient

Posted by Mike on March 4, 2010

I read the Kage Baker short not long after she passed away, and in fact I’ve started Mendoza in Hollywood where I left off as well. I’d always meant to get back to the Company sequence, but was spurred on by Baker’s unfortunate death. Black Smoker’s quite good too, picking up the story of Company operative Kalugin relating a story about a future virus from a submarine that’s trapped below water. I believe this one later got incorporated into The Children of the Company as part of a larger narrative, but I started reading the shorts well before this happened and still intent to try to mix everything up chronologically.

Michael Shea’s been writing short stories since the late 70s but has been rather short on novels. He did a fun Dying Earth/Cugel sequel in the early 70s, which was a foreshadowing of his own erractically published Nifft trilogy, but even that first Nifft book is more like a fix up book, despite that it’s really one of the greatest fantasy books of all time. I mean that, I adore the whole Nifft trilogy and it’s very much why I’ve been a Shea fan since.  There was also the near novella length Lovecraft sequel The Color Out of Time (which shows up in the big Autopsy collection and is way more Shea than Lovecraft), as well as a standalone called In Yana, The Touch of Undying, which I’ve nearly held myself back on. But other than all these there hasn’t been any more novel length stories until, surprisingly, now. Back in the day, Shea wrote a neat little story called “The Extra” (or “The X-tra”), it’s the story of a near future where the down and out are given a chance to make money by becoming expendable extras in an alien invasion movie, all they have to do is stay alive against all odds in a vicious onslaught created by creative movie makers. The short’s tight and really well done, and it’s quite a surprise to find out that Tor picked up an expansion of this story (apparently into a trilogy) as a series. The first book was released a few weeks ago, one I immediately picked up. The new book carries over the main idea and a couple characters from the first book (the two buddies if you will) but other than that the whole thing is completely rewritten, with a number of other characters added in and a much more expanded and thought out future world, as well as telling a good deal of story from the movie maker perspective.

Anyway it’s Shea as populist which is something I’d never seen before and given his adeptness in handling different styles over the years, it’s not a surprise he’s done well with this thriller. Perhaps the commonality here is, well, Shea loves (or fears) his spiders, a theme you see in The A’Rak and The Colour Out of Time and the aliens invading in this future movie are created spiders who are loaded onto a set along with 100s of extras and who are let loose on what are a bunch of rather poor individuals hoping to survive and maybe make a future life for themselves. It’s got all the hallmarks of a great movie, fast paced, lots of buddy buddy jabber, a romantic interest, lots of explosions, impossible odds, and of course a hoard of spiders that have the ability to paralyze the extras and suck them dry. In the end I really was looking forward to the upcoming sequel as this was an idea well worth expanding on. And hopefully this will be optioned pretty soon as it deftly handles the irony of Hollywoood without sinking into preaching. Quite frankly I’m pretty excited Shea was handed a deal like this and long may he continue.

I continue my chronological excursion into the work of Caitlin R. Kiernan, whose story in Lovecraft Unbound so impressed me, and indeed these few stories are quite good for early work, and they show a knack for a unique style and prose that I think will easily propel me through an increasingly impressive bibliography. Both Flatirons and Hoar Isis are post apocalyptic near futures, the former set in the Rockies, now part of a seaside, with scavengers as protagonists. The latter is set place in a frozen Chicago, where a lonely girl tries to stay alive and it roughly follows part of the Isis and Osiris myth in an unusual way. “St. Jehanne d’Arc” is set place in White Wolf’s vampire role playing game mythos and tells an alternate history where Joan is manipulated by the world’s undead-influenced politics. And “Tears” reflects a slightly Lovecratian like transformation as a goth girl obsessed with fish and water looks back on the creepy and prophetic words of her grandmother as she takes a journey into the underworld.

The next group of Niven stories continues, chronologically, his future history and I think it’s really at this point they take a level up and get a lot more interesting. “The Handicapped” is a great short once again featuring a favorite theme of mine, encountering new alien life that’s completely different and almost incomprehensible to human kind, in this case what appears to be a sentient life form that can’t move. As it turns out it fits nicely into the whole scheme of the history, as the protagonists try to figure out how evolution would have led a race to this type of dead end. A Gift from Earth is a novel which came from the serial Slowboat Cargo about one of Earth’s future colonies that has turned into a dictatorship of a smaller, powerful group over the rest of its colonists. Naturally the protagonist comes across a group of secret rebels at a party and during a raid ends up motivated to rescue members of this party. However the man has a secret ability, from childhood, that makes the impossible task possible and leads to a number of break ins and escapes that are tautly plotted. This does seem to be early enough to be slightly problematic in the character department, that is most of these people are drawn lightly, the motivation of the protagonists are somewhat glossed over, and the female characters don’t particularly ring true as real people (especially the protagonist’s first erotic encounter whose motivation is later explained along the lines of “I do this to keep the spirits of the rebels up” or some such nonsense). But as a novel I thought it was a lot more gripping that Ptavvs and Protector and more consistent. You can see the peak to Ringworld quite clearly at this point.

I was fairly knocked out by the first book in Jack Womack’s Dryco series, a number of books that posit a pretty awful future United States that seems to reflect the current news almost presciently, where the power ends up residing in the hands of corporations and the recent history seems to show what happens when the capitalists end up getting what they want (well that’s my interpretation, Womack isn’t quite so explicit). The protagonist here is the bodyguard of the head of Dryco, the world’s biggest corporation who is behind the power behind the world and controls everything from the President to future countries. Things become complicated when the head of Dryco comes up with a plan for his bodyguard to knock off his father and when the attempt is set up, things go badly and the protag makes his escape with his romantic experience. There’s some great twists in this and a number of fascinating sequences where a history of the world not only is explicated in the near future but explains events ranging back as far as  the Gospels. It’s easy to see why there are more books in this series, it’s a fascinating universe that shows its political and social sides quite well. I’m looking forward to the rest. And for once this had at least one or two future dialects that were almost poetic in their rendering and very creative. Definitely a bold debut.


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