Mike’s Prattle


Larry Niven “Wait It Out,” “There Is A Tide,” “Death By Ecstacy;” Vernor Vinge “The Blabber;” Paolo Bacigalupi – “The Calorie Man;” George R. R. Martin – Dreamsongs Vol. 1; Jeff VanderMeer – Shriek: An Afterword; Laird Barron – “Hour of the Cyclops;” Adam-Troy Castro – Tangled Strings; Richard L. Tierney & G. Arthur Rahman – “The Wedding of Sheila-Na-Gog”

Posted by Mike on June 29, 2010

Well this post should push me a little closer to what I’ve currently finished reading than usual. I appear to be going more quickly and deeply into the Niven “Known Space” catalog than I would have thought, but this seems to be the period where most of the stories are gems, at least of old (or somewhat old) SF.

“Wait it Out” is a bit bleak, featuring a man marooned on Pluto with no hope of mistake, it seems to have a strangely cosmic ending for a writer I wouldn’t think have used such a device. “There Is a Tide” features Ringworld protagonist Louis Wu’s meeting with an alien on a planet with an abnormally small and heavy object in orbit. And “Death By Ecstacy” kicks off the Gil Armstrong series collected now in Flatlander, with what amounts to a murder mystery based around organlegging.

I’d realized somewhat late that I hadn’t read all the Vernor Vinge material in the Zones of Thought universe (based around “A Fire Upon the Deep” and “A Deepness in the Sky,” books I read perhaps a decade ago at this point and really liked). “The Blabber” actually introduces the race of pack intelligences found in the former book which ended up being a prequel of sorts, by way of a single pack member that starts the story the “pet” of the protagonist.” It ends up something of a mini space opera with an almost movie like segment towards the end as the protag more or less tries to get to space while protecting the alien.

I actually read the first (published) Paolo Bacigalupi story in Fantasy & Science Fiction in the short period where I had a subscription (“Pocketful of Dharma”) although I don’t remember it at all (even if my notes said I liked it a lot), but after another ten stories, he seems to be one of the most critically acclaimed short writer of the last decade. Since reading “The Calorie Man” in one of the Dozois’ Year’s Best SF collections, I’ve picked up and almost finished his first short story collection and I’d have to agree with the acclaim, certainly he’s one of the most inventive dystopic writers going at the moment and there’s not a slouch in the book (but more on that next installment). “The Calorie Man” seems to be the first story in a universe that produced his first novel and it’s a dystopia where corporate concerns have more or less created an environment where energy is counted by calorie and food stocks are being obliterated by created viruses and such. In it a man is given the job to hunt down a scientist before he’s captured, introducing all sorts of cool concepts, such as swarms of cats that are genetically modified and turn invisible. Most importantly and like some of his other stories, there’s this almost heavy pressure hanging over the work, the extrapolation of unregulated corporate science having practically eliminated the middle class in a future running into a dead end.

“Dreamsongs Vol. 1” is the first half of a book split in two for publishing concerns. It contains a good portion and likely the best work of Martin’s shorts through the early 80s. And it probably includes one of the worst stories I’ve ever read, due to Martin bravely including his early work in the first section. But it’s not for that this is worth buying, it’s for stories like “A Song for Lya,” “Nightflyers,” “The Pear Shaped Man” and the like (I only skipped “Sandkings” as I’d already read it twice elsewhere) several of which are classics (for me, particularly “A Song for Lya” which is just amazing). So even if Martin might be the best of the modern crop of epic fantasists, this shows he was already well established on a number of fronts well before A Song of Ice and Fire was underway. I’ll skip the details as it could take me hours to go through all these.

Jeff VanderMeer’s Shriek continues the mosaic-like unfolding of the Ambergris series, which covers the history of a city that really deals with some brilliant plotting ideas. So much of the city seems to have been learned from prior pieces of fiction and metafiction, including bios and tour guides and other pamphlets, all of which give really creative voices  that describe things from different angles. In Shriek, we have a biography by Janice Shriek which is then informally annotated by her brother Duncan and further edited by the publisher to create a really unusual narrative, one that seems to piggy back the great Nabakov work “Pale Fire.” The Shrieks have shown up in some of the previous fiction in “City of Saints and Madmen,” and their lives seem to span from after the early history of Ambergris, a city left with the haunting legacy of a period when the entire population of the city just disappeared on through to what seems like a much newer mystery in the Shrieks’ older years. The central plotting device is that the Ambergrisian humans share the city with a baffling mysterious race of sentient mushrooms which are completely beyond the understanding of most humans, although ertswhile historian Duncan Shriek attemps to do so only to slowly find that understanding is akin to transformation. But overall it’s the endlessly creative almost psychedelic rendering of the effects of mushroom spores that is so arresting, these are ideas that seem so obvious in retrospect but so original to this series, including fungal bombs, glasses whose lenses unveil secrets and other umveilings of the mushroom kingdom. And naturally the whole narrative is grounded by the complicated relationship of brother and sister, their individual rise and fall, and the uncertain and ambiguous viewpoints of both as the siblings seem to continue not only a biography but an ongoing debate as well. Perhaps if I had any complaint, there are segments where the prose appears to be pushing it a little, but this is never a feeling I have when things wax mycological, the segment towards the end where Janice finally puts on Duncan’s revealing glasses was stupendous. And by the end I wanted to hop onto Finch right away, which probably says everything I need to at this point.

If Paolo Bacigalupi is considered one of the hot young SF short storiest then the same could be considered so for Laird Barron in horror. I mentioned a story of his earlier in Lovecraft Unbound, one of the book’s best pieces and naturally that’s led me to his two short story collections “The Imago Sequence” and “Occultation.” I’m about halfway through the first now (and yeah, brilliant stuff) but in searching his bibliography I realized only the book’s limited edition included “Hour of the Cyclops” so I tracked it down on the net and gave it a read. Clearly the stuff I’m reading now is more mature and sophisticated, but I’ll always have a soft spot for a story so brazenly like a piece from 30’s Weird Tales, slightly updated with modern tech in mind.

Castro’s “Tangled Strings” is a collection of five stories well out of print right now and reaching almost 4 digit prices from the usual rip off joints via Amazon. I managed to find mine for $20 and within a day of realizing its rarity managed to spill a soda on the pages. Anyway this has two of Castro’s Marionette stories, the first of which is a really good piece about a race of aliens whose deadly dance rituals start attracting human participants, as well as the first Andrea Cort story which is part of the same universe. I’m definitely a fan of the alien being really alien type of stories so I enjoyed all of these, but the story that really tugged on my emotions was “Sunday Night Yams at Minnie an Earl’s” which was a really neat take on the Heinlein and Varleyian lineage, about early moon colonists who have a secret both baffling and fortunately in the end unexplained. Told from the perspective of one of the colonists in his later years, this has a wistful punch that I found quite wonderful. The remaining story is very much in the vein of Joe Lansdale’s fantasy western tales and was much shorter than the other four. In the end it’s a solid collection that probably deserved a much wider publication than this one and hopefully in the end the stories will end up getting one. But I do like my novellas…

And finally, the Tierney/Rahman collaboration is part of the confusingly collected Simon of Gitta series and the one short that doesn’t seem to have ended up in a Chaosium book that I know of. Most of them are in the Scroll of Thoth collection and the remaining one (a collaboration with Robert Price) is in the Azathoth Cycle book. And there now appears to be two more full length novels, The Gardens of Lucullus and The Drums of Chaos. I scooped up the former when it was reissued in May, so both seem to be available. Anyway the series revolves around a fictional Lovecraft/Howard hybrid concerning the Simon Magus mentioned in the bible and the story here comes from The Crypt of Cthulhu. In the end I wonder why this didn’t fit in the Shub Niggurath cycle which seems to be where it belongs as Simon takes on a dark druid sect and the Romans who are hunting for him, both collaborating to make Simon an unwitting sacrifice. It’s not a work of genius, but considering so few write stories in this vein, it was still quite enjoyable. And now I only have the two novels left to read.


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