A Pilgrim Stranger

So how did I come to Mark Samuels’ just self-published novel A Pilgrim Stranger, “an ebullient satire of contemporary values”?

Through a link off Castalia House to his blog where I found him mentioning not only this novel but discussing his traditional Catholicism and his “low opinion of crass modernity, pessimism, and identity politics zombies, both of the left and the right”.

Well, I’m onboard with a critique of modernity. I’m afraid I’m a congenital pessimist though. As to identity politics, I think they’re unfortunate but inevitable.

While I’m not Catholic myself and never have been, I know some and read and listen to others, particularly Kevin Michael Grace over at the Grace & Steel podcast and find their diagnosis of modern ills insightful if not convincing in their solutions.

My “intellectual history” with Catholicism goes from reading how it was the “Whore of Babylon” and looking at the gruesome woodcuts of Fox’s Book of Martyrs when young to reading chunks of the Catholic Vulgate Bible (in translation), St. Augustine’s The City of God and Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy in my English major days. (My professor rightly concluded that reading medieval English literature was pointless without knowledge of the theological references. Certainly, the Harrowing of Hell was not in the King James Bible I read as a boy.) Out of college, it was reading about medieval heresies. (And I concluded it is very hard to invent a novel Christian heresy.) Then watching cable reruns of Bishop Fulton Sheen – entertaining and charismatic. I can certainly understand why, in the words of a Catholic friend, he casts a large shadow still. I’ve also listened to some Great Courses on early Christianity.

I’m afraid, though, I’m unlikely to ever be a Catholic. First I am very unspiritual. I say it not with pride, just an acknowledgement that my brain seems missing some common nodule. Second, if I were to become a Christian – and, by the doctrines of the church I grew up in, I never was – it wouldn’t be the Catholic faith. (I’ll be reviewing a couple of books, one old and one new, about the Church of my youth soon.) I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to shake my old antitrinitarianism. I’ve seem to have picked up a bit of pelagianism on the way too.

However, I have respect for the governmental structure of the Church if not its doctrines. I also believe that Christianity and its idea of an orderly and knowable creation descending from the mind of God made Western science and technology possible. The cultures of Asia now contribute to science, but they didn’t create science.

Now, Samuels is not some hack who had to get a rant off his chest. He’s a scholar of Arthur Machen and a fan of J. G. Ballard, Anna Kavan, and, like me, a Poe devotee. His fiction has been published by Tartarus Press, and PS Publishing, and he has a story in the massive anthology The Weird from Ann and Jeff VanderMeer.

So, I was interested in how Samuels would combine political beliefs I’m sympathetic to with a background in weird fiction.

Review: A Pilgrim Stranger, Mark Samuels, 2017.pilgrim-stranger

This “ebullient satire on contemporary values” gets off to a dry and unpromising start. It’s not particularly lively or funny in its first third.

That section takes place in Britain in the fall of 1981. It’s Thatcher’s England, a London of crappy streets and dog crap all over and litter and teacher strikes.

Our hero, Alfredo Salgado, orphaned and now under the care of his aunt, shows up at the Southwood Comprehensive School for Boys where he meets Dennis Spencer, resplendent in his “Trotsky beard” and attendant Marxist beliefs.

Salgado, as the name implies, is Spanish, or to be precise half-Spanish, his Spanish aunt relocating to England after the death of Salgado’s parents. Given the long history of Spanish villains in English literature, it’s an odd and I’m sure knowingly provocative choice on Samuels’ part. Salgado is also very Catholic. Old school Catholic as in not any time for popes after Pope Pius XIII and attending the Tridentine Mass at a church largely supported by that aunt.

Salgado is very precocious, and it’s not long before he’s arguing with Spencer over the legitimacy of Elizabeth I and the value of Whiggish history in a section that, for me, seemed warmed over Hilaire Belloc-style romanticism about the Middle Ages.

The book doesn’t follow just Salgado around. Characters we’ll see more of are Dorian Marsh, a drink-scrounging hippy and “professional occultist”, and Ernest Quinn, member of a swastika-wearing group of National Front skinheads handing out literature outside of Salgado’s school.

It is with Quinn we first hear of the “dead English Catholic writer called Sinclair Egremont Xavier”. (Xavier is fictitious; Samuels’ work sometimes features invented authors.)

As a travelogue to a dismal London I never saw, it’s interesting but has an air of earnest caricature about it in the characters. Salgado seems a bit too-good, the debates sterile, the satire muted.

That’s only the first third though. Things kick off with a bang for the remainder of the novel.

Well, actually it’s the thud of a hit and run car accident that puts Salgado out of commission until 2015. Continue reading “A Pilgrim Stranger”

Year’s Best SF 6

And the Norman Spinrad series concludes.

I’ve read his collection The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde and the novel Bug Jack Barron, but I made no notes on them. The notes I did make on his novellas “Journal of the Plague Years” and “Riding the Torch” really aren’t very useful even by the standards of my Raw Feeds.

Raw Feed (2001): Year’s Best SF 6, David G. Hartwell, 2001.years-best-sf-6

“Introduction”, David G. Hartwell — A bit more information than Hartwell usually gives in the introductions to this series. He talks about the importance of the Scottish and English sf magazines and important new, non-English language, sf writers emerging.

Reef“, Paul J. McAuley — This story had most of what you need for an entertaining sf story: interesting scientific speculation, adventure, and interesting social speculations. The science part was provided by an experiment in trying, through accelerated evolution, to develop lifeforms which live in the vacuum of deep space. The wreck of an old research facility is infested with those lifeforms which have developed, through a parasitic intermediary, a clumsy but effective means of sexual reproduction which has greatly facilitated adaptive radiation. The interesting social speculations comes with a typical asteroid society, supposedly resembling an old Greek city-state, in which the citizen shareholders live in luxury while the real work is done by poorly paid maintenance workers and scientific contractors, both of whom are played off against each other in competition for better wages and living conditions. (The citizens manipulate the money supply and conduct massive surveillance, amongst other things.) The adventure comes in when scientific contractor Margaret Henderson Wu tried to penetrate to the depths of the titular reef in space, the fissure in the Enki habitat where the vacuum organisms have evolved to their highest state. Wu is not only, by the standards of her time, an ugly and sickly woman, not being genetically engineered and born on Earth, but the child of disgraced parents who fell from citizenship status when they, as environmental engineers, allowed an alien fungus to destroy the ecosystem of a space habitat. (McAuley, in passing, does a nice job outlining some of the complexities of designing artificial ecosystems for space habitats.) Her insistence of exploring the reefs depths cause her to not only run afoul of the ambitious geneticist Opie Kindred, who wants to become a citizen by sucking up to the ruling elite of the habitat Ganapati, but also Dzu Sho, head of the habitat, who seems to think that the lifeforms of the reef might break the monopoly habitats like Ganapati have in supplying the carbon necessary to plant colonies on the planetoids of the Kuiper Belt. Wu is successful at the end, but the only complaint I have at the end is that McAuley should have provided an more precise economic explanation as to how the lifeforms of the reef enabled a revolution against social setups like Ganapati.  (Oct. 20, 2001)

Reality Check“, David Brin — Hartwell’s introductory notes claim this story, one of several sf stories the science journal Nature commissioned for 2000, is a humorous tale. I saw little evidence of that. I also found it a bit obscure. It’s premise, if I’m reading it right, is rather clever — addressing the reader directly as a citizen inhabiting a vast computer simulation of the Transition Era which is to say a simulation of our 20th Century, that time of drama and myth where the future — and cataclysmic failure — and much else seemed possible. A time much different that The Wasteland of Reality Prime Level, that is a world of plenty and longevity and access to all knowledge and also a world of boredom where the possibilities have been mined for life’s purpose. It’s an interesting notion, and it’s thematic relationship to the film The Matrix makes me wonder if Brin intended this story has some rejoinder or playful reinterpretation of it. Brin also postulates that the vast retreat into colorful simulations of the past is the reason behind Fermi’s Paradox —  other alien races have felt into the same decadent trap. That answer for Fermi’s Paradox may be new, but the idea of man decadently retreating into a virtual reality playground has shown up elsewhere: Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars, James Gunn’s The Joy Makers, and, to a certain extent, Charles Platt’s The Silicion Man. The story’s narrator challenges the reader to wake from his dream. The story’s last four sentences do have some wry significance from being printed in the context of a scientific journal: “Go back to your dream. Smile over this tale, then turn the page to new ‘discoveries.’ Move on with the drama, this life you chose. After all, it’s only make-believe.” Continue reading “Year’s Best SF 6”

Songs from the Stars

The relative popularity of my last post confirms what book publishers have long known. Put a swastika on the cover!

The Norman Spinrad series continues. Don’t you love the Eighties cover?

Raw Feed (1994): Songs from the Stars, Norman Spinrad, 1980.songs-from-the-stars

Spinrad once said there were only a few themes in literature. They were, as I recall, love, death, sex, and transcendence. This novel has them all.

There is the love between Clear Blue Line Lou and Sunshine Sue (such psychedelic names). There is death in the post-holocaust background, Harker’s suicide, and the remains of the Ear’s dead crew. There is certainly, as in all Spinrad novels, sex, and only Spinrad would probably conceive of a menage á trois as a political solution to put two lovers from conflicting tribes back together. As for transcendence, that is the very theme of this book. Not only is there political/moral transcendence as Sunshine Sue and Clear Blue Lou find a higher way that reconciles white and black sciences, the Tribes and the sorcerer spacers, but spiritual and psychological transcendence as Lou and Sue jack into visions of alien life and see what mankind is capable of doing in the universe. There is also the possibility of social transcendence as promised by Sue’s new broadcast network.

This novel – even more so than the other two Spinrad novels I’ve read, Little Heroes and The Iron Dream – works on many levels.

First, there are the signs, mainly in the first seven chapters, that this is a novel by the Spinrad that really does seem to believe in the redemptive power of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll (though music is not heavily emphasized here). Lou, Perfect Master (sort of a judge and spiritual guide), and the tribes of white magic practice free love and mind-expansion via drugs. Spinrad has also said this is a sort of political novel though it doesn’t contain any really specific condemnation or praising of a particular type of political or economic system. Capitalism seems to be the order of the day in the trade between the tribes yet communes also exist. Justice is administered, at least in the city of La Mirage, by Lou. He administers justice based on his intuition of a person’s heart as well as their actions, tries to consider a parties karma (constantly, we are reminded – humorously – that Clear Blue Lou can see both sides of the issue and that if he couldn’t he wouldn’t be Clear Blue Lou), and his ruling tenet is that justice must be sweet to all parties and that no justice not willingly accepted is sweet. This idea of justice as something that can be non-coerced is silly and indicative of Spinrad’s ‘60’s idealism.

The politics of the novel mainly concern themselves with technology. The white tribes of this post-holocaust world regard the only good technologies as being based on the way of wind, water, sun, and muscle. Thus they have only very primitive transportation and communication though a rich knowledge of natural pharmacopia. The black sorcerer – spacers of the trans-Sierra regions practice more arcane, powerful and forbidden arts. What is unacknowledged by most in the appropriately named town of La Mirage is that their highest forms of technology (a very primitive chain of radio relays run by Sue’s Sunshine tribe and solar and muscle powered – but still sophisticated – ultralight planes) are the product of black or at least gray science. Lou and other officials of La Mirage acknowledge this but don’t make a public issue of it. They resent the self-righteousness of some Whites and believe that the good hearts in their town can take the evil out of black science. (Spinrad also briefly mentions the Remembers – people who determinedly hang on to cultural and technological remnants of the pre-war past. At the very least, they are despised and mistrusted. At most, they are subject to occasional pogroms.) However, a deliberate plot by the Spacers destroys this tacit political arrangement and maneuvers Sue and Lou into the lair of the Spacers. The Spacers want to bring a New Age of Space about and, in a plot reminiscent of van Vogt, they have been working for centuries to not only preserve and build upon man’s pre-war knowledge but to reclaim space. They want to reclaim some hardware – a space station, a satellite broadcast network, and a radio antenna – the Ear – that captured extra-terrestrial’s signals right before the war. They are confident that once Lou sees what they are up to he will rule in their favor, get the Aquarian whites to accept the Spacers, and heal the rift between the two cultures so man can reclaim space and together hear the Songs from the Stars (interesting that Spinrad again uses the metaphor of music to describe the transcendent messages of aliens). Lou and Sue find the spacers, except for their passion to reclaim space, a rather unspiritual, bound up lot who aren’t as happy or communal as the Aquarians. However, they both believe that the Aquarians need technology to foster their development, to bind them closer together. The alien messages provide the rationale to unite the two strains of man; technology will help not only man to become more of a family but also to help join the broader community of life in the galaxy.

The metaphor Sue seeks to bring about – the electronic global village, is thus to be writ large on a galactic scale. Ironically, Spacer Arnold Harker – instigator of the whole chain of events that bring Sue and Lou to hear the alien messages – can’t stand their content. He fears both the content of the messages for their potential to destroy man’s culture, possible ability to corrupt man, or as a sign of alien malevolence – and man’s worthiness to receive those messages. He kills himself after listening to all the wonderful alien songs that Lou and Sue love and see as signs of man’s wonderful future in a galactic brotherhood – and one other message they didn’t listen to from a race that died after their galaxy was devoured by a central black hole. For Harker, the idea that even advanced superscience can’t save the race from ultimate death is to much to bear. But, as Lou wisely notes, life – whether the individual or the race’s – as always been a brief period between two eons of blackness, and the alien message does not change this truth.

In his “Rubber Science” essay in The Craft of Science Fiction [edited by Reginald Bretnor], Spinrad talks about how an sf writer should acquaint himself with all types of hard and soft sciences. Spinrad does show a knowledge of aeronautical research in his depiction of Aquarian fliers and Spacer shuttle craft, and he has clearly researched the physical details of extraterrestrial radio-communication. (Though his notion of trinary logic as being more rich and better than binary logic for communicating complex information seems wrong-headed. I don’t know what difference a logic format would make transmitting a given amount of information.) In that essay, Spinrad makes reference to Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media as “the single most consciousness expanding book of the decade”, and Spinrad makes specific reference to it when a young Sue finds a copy in a Remembers’ cabin. I particularly liked the novel’s bit where Lou, Sue, and Harker – under Sue’s tutelage – create a media event They go to La Mirage and, Sue, through her news network, begins to emphasize story’s involving alien contact with humans. This creates public interest which is further heightened by alleged second-hand stories, whose credibility Lou and Sue don’t vouch for, of a similar nature. This creates a feedback cycle of heightened interest creating more stories creating more interest, all of which psychologically prepare the populace to believe the reality of a faked alien landing in La Mirage. It’s a nice, plausible explanation on how to change people’s perceptions of reality and manipulate the news. In the alien messages, Spinrad throws out some sf ideas that he may not have been the first to use but have since become more popular – aliens transferring their consciousness to digital form and now haunting cyberstructures, alien reverentially sowing and maintaining life in the desolate universe, alien cyborgs inhabiting space, and giant black holes in galactic centers slowly devouring everything.

It was a good read and – like all Spinrad – surprising in its richness and twists and turns of plot.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

The Iron Dream

The Norman Spinrad series continues

Raw Feed (1991): The Iron Dream, Norman Spinrad, 1972.iron-dream

This novel took awhile to get into because it comes across exactly as advertised: a novel by Adolf Hitler. It took me awhile to warm up to it, to read it in the gulps necessary, but, towards the end, I enjoyed it a lot.

This is sf as Hitler would write it right down to a wishful plot that partially mirrors history — here Feric Jagger justifies the cynical killing of Sons of the Swastika leader Stag Stopa as Hitler justified killing Ernst Rohm and the SA who performed a similar function in history. Here author Hitler treats us to constant references to urinating, defecating mutants; a novel where “fanaticism” is a complimentary term; where military maneuvers are improbably conducted like a parade or opera; where there are constant, obsessive references to the colors of red, white, and black and swastikas (even in floor tiles); and genocide and forced sterilization are portrayed as merciful acts. But most pervasive, most hilarious is the constant, not-so-hidden sexual imagery from the awkwardly described motorcycles (Hitler goes on at great length in describing a machine whose appearance is presumably known to the reader) with their throbbing engines slung between the riders legs, to the super-phallus of the Steel Commander, to the barely disguised homoeroticism between Feric Jagger and Best, to the descriptions of the Helder army penetrating and pushing aside the Zind forces to the numerous towers and rockets, to the final scene of Jagger clones and Jagger seed rising to the stars on a rocket as a barely disguised orgasm.

The prose rises to a shriek like one of Hitler’s speeches. The afterword is hilarious in revealing not only a literary critic’s naiveté in the book’s alternate world (he thinks it improbable a Jagger leader could take over a nation with parades and phallic symbols) but Spinrad’s satirical intentions. The afterword discusses the book’s plot holes (including an improbably rapid technological progress during the war), its sexual symbolism, and the underlying pathology — a compelling pathology — of its author. It’s a fun book, but I don’t think Spinrad ultimately convinces us of his points. Nazi symbols are compelling, but I don’t think they’re sexual images. Nor do I think Spinrad makes good his contention of a connection between the fascist mindset and the plots of some power-trip sf pulp stories. I have read Spinrad say elsewhere that this book (and this isn’t really brought out in the Afterword) is a satire on the hero-discovers-innate-magic-powers-and-saves-world plot of so much fantasy. Jagger discovers (in a strange twist on Arthuriana when he wields his Steel Commander) his racial purity and saves the day and will populate new worlds with his seed. It’s the logical, solipsistic, egomaniacal extension of that plot idea. Continue reading “The Iron Dream”

Countdown to Midnight

It’s Bobbie Burns’ birthday. Grandpa MacDowall would not be happy I’m not doing anything to celebrate it.

Sorry, instead of something Burns related material, you get this, a continuation of the Norman Spinrad series.

Raw Feed (1991): Countdown to Midnight: Twelve Great Stories About Nuclear War, ed. H. Bruce Franklin, 1984.countdown-to-midnight

Nuclear War and Science Fiction“, H. Bruce Franklin — I read this book after reading Peter Collier and David Horowitz’s Destructive Generation which included a perhaps apocryphal story about leftist Franklin saying he was taking up scuba diving because the revolution will need frogmen. I wanted to read it when I’d be most sensitive to Franklin’s insinuation of politics into the collection. Franklin talks about the early (pre-1945) sf depiction of nuclear weapons and the feedback between sf and science, and vice versa, in the development of these weapons. (Franklin has also written an entire written book on this subject.) That part’s interesting, but Franklin’s politics began to show. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg become “alleged” spies. Franklin makes the patently false claim that the U.S. did not warn Japan prior to using the first A-Bombs. In fact a warning and appeal to surrender were given before each of the two detonations. Various military officials, including Eisenhower, are quoted as stating that the A-Bombs were unnecessary. Their saying this does not automatically make it true. The claim, probably partly true, that A-Bombs were used to have a better bargaining position with Russia is made. The tacit assumption here is that Russia was no real threat to U.S. or world freedom when the opposite was proved true before and after WWII. It is alleged that the U.S. could have ended nuclear terror by destroying its bombs when only it had some. This ignores other nations’ research efforts which had, or would have, started and the effect of spies like the Rosenbergs. [To say nothing of all the other Soviet agents who had penetrated the Manhattan Project.] Franklin sees no difference between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. The U.S. is chastened for its efforts to maintain superiority in nuclear weapons. Franklin apparently choses to ignore Soviet post-WWII belligerent imperialism. Its disarmament efforts are sincere while evil America threatens the whole world, in Franklin’s eyes, by not capitulating. Franklin also cites the hard to believe assertion that American military thinkers were convinced each technological advance in nuclear weapons systems would lead to permanent superiority. I doubt they were ever that naïve.

To Still the Drums“, Chandler Davis — This very political story (circa 1946, I suppose the title’s “drums” are war drums) has not dated well. It involves a soldier stopping a military plot to involve the U.S. in a war — with atomic weapons much like ICBMS — against Congressional wishes. This story cites the old chestnut that preparing for war and building weapons ultimately leads to war and the use of the weapons, not necessarily consciously but almost as an inevitable social dynamic and metaphysical precipitation. More than forty years of atomic cold war has proven this supposition wrong as has the almost universal restraint in the use of chemical and biological weapons. As for Congress being a naïve dupe of alleged militaristic technophilia for nuclear weapons, that most definitely is not true. Congress has often said no to new nuclear weapons systems. Continue reading “Countdown to Midnight”

Other Americas

The Norman Spinrad series continues.

Raw Feed (1988): Other Americas, Norman Spinrad, 1988.other-americas

Street Meat” — More sleazy, more disgusting, and with more violence than Spinrad’s novel Little Heroes set in the same universe. Spinrad once again uses his favorite device of multiple-viewpoint narratives (here in the third person). There is more than a little of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine in the story what with the economic stratification of the rich above ground  and the poor, animalistic, cannibal streeties inhabiting the dark subway tunnels. The rhyming rhythm and cadence of the story seems to owe something to rap music.
The Lost Continent” — A poignant and powerful story where once again Spinrad uses multiple viewpoints this time in the first person. It works well here to not only characterize but show how each of the three cultures, African, American, and Amero-African respond to the ruins of the Space Age Americans. Once again, Spinrad uses the imagery of the New York subway to represent degeneration into bestiality. I liked the reversal of the common “they were sure primitive and/or weird” story cliché that usually occurs when future historians and archaeologists look back on our culture. Here they were not only not our descendants but technological inferiors. I liked our culture being held in great awe, and it helps to greater appreciate our immense, casual feats. However, like the characters who think of us as gods and demons with “souls not like ours” (it is a cautionary tale) the reader wonders. The story does have some dated material in the concern with smog, specifically a smog bank that persists for two centuries. Still, the story has an emotional grandeur in its portrayal of the strange insanity of Space Age America.
World War Last” — A vulgar, caustic, and occasionally quite funny satire which targeted, seemingly, the Reagan Administration. Putting whores on the U. S. Presidential cabinet was a touch worthy of the Golden Age of Satire.

Continue reading “Other Americas”

Little Heroes

Since I just discovered MPorcius Fiction Log and he just did a review of some early Norman Spinrad stories, I thought I’d get out some Spinrad material.

“Bug Man” Spinrad, as a friend who hates his work calls him, is somebody I’ve liked enough to hope to read more of. I also like the long review essays he does for Asimov’s.

Unfortunately, I never wrote a real review of a Spinrad work.

Yes, I know I don’t really have a plot synopsis here. You can find Gerald Jonas New York Times review here.

Raw Feed (1988): Little Heroes, Norman Spinrad, 1987.little-heroes

A fun book that causes me to respect Spinrad’s writing greatly.

The sex may have been tedious at times and the segment dealing with Cyborg Sally and her perverse influence on Paco Monaco dragged on a bit too long but those are the only quibbles I have.

The concerns of Spinrad’s review columns (especially his columns on the themes of the cyberpunks and Neuromantics) on cyborg themes, rebellion, the technosphere, romanticism through technology, and characterization are all here.

Spinrad’s major theme is computer technology cyborged onto humans to produce new insights (the Shunt) and to make up for biological shortcomings (the VoxBox and the Image Organ) in artistic expression.

In fact, a central theme is the nature of reality like Philip K. Dick’s works or Aldiss’ Barefoot in the Head (which Spinrad is a fan of). The Shunt seems to be an ideal psychedelic which opens up “doors of perception” and potentialities of a personality. It makes more of people.

Yet, as with his revolutionary anarchism, Spinrad sees the good and bad of the technology. It helps Paco and Bobby Rubin mature and realize hidden potentialities. However, Sally Genaro is trapped in virtual psychosis with Cyborg Sally. Continue reading “Little Heroes”

Out on Blue Six; Or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Review: Out on Blue Six, Ian McDonald, 1989.out-on-blue-six

There are several problems with this story of a failed utopia 453 years after “the Break” that brought our world to a close, but the main one was that McDonald’s prose and conceptions are untethered to the historical, cultural, and geographical realities he must extrapolate from in his rightly acclaimed later novels set in various parts of the world like India, Brazil, and Kenya.

The plot follows the adventures of Courtney Hall, cartoonist, whose satiric work runs afoul of the Office of Socially Responsible Literature of the Compassionate Society. She eventually finds herself in an underground kingdom and on a quest to go beyond the wall outside the city. The parallel plot follows Kilimanjaro West, an amnesiac man who shows up in that city and falls in with Kansas Byrne and her guerilla theatre troupe of the Raging Apostles. Of course, he has a destiny.

As is his wont, McDonald samples a bunch of cultural artifacts and mixes them into his story. I detected the Statute of Liberty, Mutant Ninja Turtles, Exorcist the movie, Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, Alice in Wonderland, and the movie Brazil. Continue reading “Out on Blue Six; Or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax”

Terminal Cafe

Since I’m working on a review of another Ian McDonald novel, Out on Blue Six, I thought I’d bring out this.

Raw Feed (1995): Terminal Cafe, Ian McDonald, 1994.terminal-cafe

A very impressive novel both stylistically and intellectually.

McDonald does more with the implications of nanotechnology than anyone except Greg Bear in Blood Music (taking a wide definition of nanotechnology). McDonald goes right to the heart of nanotechnology’s attraction: its potential to offer immortality. (McDonald calls the notion that “the first thing we get with nanotechnology is immortality” Watson’s Postulate after sf writer Ian Watson who set him straight on nanotechnology’s core importance.)

He bases the central idea of his book around an obvious notion: resurrecting the dead. MacDonald envisions an expensive process of resurrection paid for by making the resurrected dead (simply referred to as the dead) indentured servants with no legal rights or legal existence (nevertheless, they exist in a shadow economy connected to the land of the willing). Like the androids in the movie Blade Runner, the dead are primarily the product of one man, Adam Tessler, and linked to one corporation, Tessler-Thanos. Like the dead of Robert Silverberg’s “Born with the Dead”, the dead of this novel often feel little connection to the family, friends, and lovers of their previous life. As in Blade Runner, there is a fatal meeting between a band of dead from space (androids from space in the movie) and their creator. [In Traveler of Worlds, Robert Silverberg said of this novel, referring to its original UK title, “McDonald did do a version of ‘Born with the Dead’, a brilliant reworking of it called Necroville.”]

MacDonald creates a vivid world of wonderful imagery described with wit as he shows some of the more outré results of widespread nanotechnology running the gambit from virtual reality “bodygloves” (MacDonald has a real knack for creating plausible future jargon slang, and words) which hook molecular feeds up to the body’s optic nerves, inner ear, and the olfactory part of the brain) to shapechanging prostitutes and people engineered to live underwater or glide through the world to dinosaurs analogs running amok over the California landscape. (They are escapees from a disastrous Walt Disney project – the resulting lawsuits shut the company down, one of my favorite background bits.) His depiction of war in the nanotechnology age, while brief, was convincing and well thought out. The only objection I had to his depiction of how nanotechnology would work is I think the speed of some of the processes he depicts is exaggerated, and he seems to forget that all these processes require energy and the dumping of waste heat. Continue reading “Terminal Cafe”

Some Parallax Views on Kathe Koja

No, I’m not quite done with Kathe Koja. I just ordered a Kindle copy of her Strange Angels, so I’ll be reviewing that at some point. (Another parallel to my Ambrose Bierce series in that I found just one more title I wanted to look at after I thought I wrapped it up.)

So I did some research on other perspectives — meaning things I either didn’t think of or expressed less well — on Koja’s early works.

However, before returning to Koja again, I will first be reviewing — and it won’t be a happy review — an early novel by a certain famous Irish science fiction writer.


Will Erickson’s Summer of Sleaze: The Alternative Horrors of Kathe Koja is a stylish look at Koja’s The Cipher and Bad Brains.

A look at the rise and fall of Dell’s Abyss line of horror in the 1990s discusses Koja in that context. It cites the emphasis on body horror and interior life in Koja’s fiction as well as her reliance on characters involved in various triangles.

In an April 2002 interview, Barry Malzberg said this in passing about his collaborations with Koja:

I had what I call a ‘great autumnal run’ between 1990 and 1993, publishing about a hundred short stories (alone and in collaboration with Kathe Koja), which I think are the best work I ever did.

Locus Material

But metaphor can be thin stuff, while Koja’s book is rich with the minutiae of life, precisely down to earth as she depicts the horrible futility of entanglement with the medical system, the sad detritus and odd little triumphs of life on society’s margins, the weird, isolated world of long highway journeys.

Faren Miller’s review of Bad Brains in the January 1992 issue of Locus

Edward Bryant is my all time favorite book reviewer, and the only one I’ve seen that could be funny and accurately summarize a work.

In his review of Bad Brains in the February 1992 issue of Locus, he is explicit about a theme less acknowledged in Koja’s work: the failure to communicate:

Austen’s failure as a portrait artist seems to be linked to his inability to depict his clients in any way they consider realistic. Communication has failed; Austen simply hangs up his brushes.

Miller, in a December 1992 review of Skin, said:

The sexuality may be ‘modern’ (butch, hip, punk, whatever), but the tragedy dates back to Shakespeare, complete with a disguised Iago type driving the plot toward the bitter end.

Yes, I called Malcom in that novel an instigator, manipulator, and agitator. It would have been simpler to call him an “evil counselor”. It’s not like I haven’t read enough Elizabethan and Jacobean drama not to know the type or term.

In his review of Skin in the April 1993 issue, Ed Bryant even mentions David Skal’s Antibodies in passing. Perhaps I subconsciously remembered that coupling when I wrote “Breaking the Skin”.