Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.
HEX, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Tor 978-0-7653-7880-4, $25.99, 384pp, hardcover) April 2016
The acclaimed Dutch author Thomas Olde Heuvelt was born around the same time cyberpunk was: 1983. If that could make a person feel old, said person should probably attempt to let another equally valid, more positive feeling triumph: one of happy reassurance. Olde Heuvelt’s youthful presence is a sign that new generations of writers are nobly carrying forward the Great Work of Modern Fantastika, which has been flourishing for a couple of centuries already through just such a succession of talents. As older authors fade away or retreat to the sidelines, they can be assured that their legacy and the field to which they devoted their own youthful days will live on.
According to Olde Heuvelt’s ISFDB entry, HEX is his fifth novel, but only the first the be translated into English. Indeed, aside from a couple of translated stories, he remains unknown to most SF readers, so this book will be his calling card. What readers will discover is a deftly crafted, darkly Gothic, at times surreal tale that is both innovative and traditional in parts. As someone who has avowed Stephen King as an early influence, Olde Huevelt is plainly intent on furthering that particular lineage of Modern Weird, but through the perceptions of a new generation. Additionally, to my sense, this project conveys a cinematic influence from such directors as M. Night Shyamalan. And considering explicit references in the text to The Blair Witch Project, other filmmakers stand behind Olde Huevelt’s esthetic as well.
The town of Black Spring, New York, lying along the upper Hudson River, should be a lovely bedroom community, housing as it does some three thousand well-off souls in a beautiful pastoral setting. But there is one factor which renders the place a miserable hell. The Black Rock Witch rules the town.
Originally a woman named Katherine van Wyler, she was executed in the year 1664. Later on, her corpse had its eyes and mouth sewn shut, and chains were wrapped around it. But mere death did not deter the Witch from reappearing as a ghost for the next three centuries, bearing the marks of her punishment and seeking mute revenge. And in fact, she is a most corporeal spirit, able to interact with people and animals and objects, should any of the former be foolish enough to touch her. Katherine’s random travels through the town—she might materialize in your bedroom, for instance—are tracked by the residents with the smartphone HEXapp, so that they can always be aware of avoiding her. HEX, we come to understand, is the agency that oversees the town and its horrid secret. The administrators of HEX ensure that all safety protocols and prohibitions are obeyed by the townspeople under pain of reeducation or death, and that no Outsiders ever learn about the Witch. Because the few times that Outsiders have gotten wind of the phenomenon and tried to interfere, people began to die in large quantities.
Oh, yes: anyone born into Black Spring or dwelling there for a certain time is forever doomed to remain with the borders, for their health. Native citizens can be away for short periods, but soon begin to face suicidal impulses if distant from home for too long.
Having set up this scenario, Olde Huevelt begins to pick it apart. Naturally, to portray the town during its periods of stability would constitute no exciting story. Instead, the author brings in as narrative engine the younger generation of kids who are chafing at these restrictions and want a revolution. A certain posse of teens is trying to “scientifically” suss out the Witch’s parameters and broadcast her existence to the world through the internet and some viral YouTube videos. Needless to say, this scheme does not go well. Madness, death and sorrow will fill the town.
Olde Huevelt creates a nicely representative and varied cast of characters, all authentically human (even the Witch, in her path of damnation), but he wisely limits his core viewpoints to a handful of folks. There is the Grant family, whose son Tyler is one of the ringleaders of the rebels. There is Robert Grim, HEX cadre, who is torn between sympathy for the villagers and his duties. And there is Griselda Holst, who has developed a strange fetishistic relationship with the witch, and whose son, Jaydon, one of the rebels, precipitates the crisis by physical interference with the Witch. (Is a family named “VanderMeer” a Tuckerization of a certain other fabulist author?)
Olde Huevelt is dealing with one of fantastika’s potent core tropes here, the Shunned or Secret Village that harbors a curse or tainted legacy. His book instantly resonates with scores of other texts, from Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life!” to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” to Lovecraft’s tales of Innsmouth. One of the primary tensions in such stories is the dynamic between tradition and change, which Olde Huevelt plays on in his intergenerational warfare. Another is the meaning of Original Sin, for it’s always some initial triggering event which launches the town on its fate. Lastly, this trope is useful for dramatizing the role of the community versus the contrarian individual. We are forced to examine the merits of communal wisdom versus a freethinker’s conceptual breakthroughs. And while most of the times we tend to side with the rebels in such stories, Olde Huevelt manages to show that community standards often exist for very good and practical reasons.
Olde Huevelt strikes me as a tad more old school than such current cutting-edge horror writers as Ligotti, Ballingrud, Tremblay, Nicolay and Barron. His straightforward, in-your-face effects lack the ambiguity of morality and narrativity that those other authors display.
Olde Huevelt is fully capable of creating many suspenseful, nerve-wracking scenes that lead inexorably to his planned, albeit unpredictable outcome. Moreover, his adoption of the North American venue is cannily done, with no false steps a writer working from Europe might be expected to make. The whole setting and events cohere beautifully. But your mileage may vary on how effective or justified or fitting you feel the apocalyptic ending of the novel to be. This is not a book of redemption and heroism, but is instead fueled by the worst elements of human nature and the unforgiving malignity of the universe, starkly limned in blood-red and grave-black.
Lastly, let me give all credit to Nancy Forest-Flier for a gripping, fluid, graceful translation.
Roadsouls, Betsy James (Aqueduct 978-1-61976-091-2, $20.00, 394pp, tp) March 2016. Cover by Betsy James. [Order from Aqueduct Press, PO Box 95787, Seattle WA 98145-2787]
Roadsouls, written and illustrated by Betsy James, starts with a prelude simply called ‘‘Two Stories’’, showing the main characters at key moments some years before they go on the road. Raím is ‘‘nothing but eyes and fire and bullshit, that boy – that man, not yet eighteen, red-haired, mocking the plaza girls with kisses, burning like a torch in daylight,’’ on the fateful morning when the bold young hunter leaps to a cliff that crumbles, resulting in the fall that takes his eyesight. Duuni is younger, visiting a village fair as ‘‘a brown girl in a brown smock… clinging to her mother’s hand and staring at a lion’’ (an image that continues to haunt her in various guises, throughout the book).
In chapters one and two he’s in his early twenties, trained now as a weaver but restless (planning escape despite the blindness that makes him horribly clumsy anywhere away from the loom), while she’s a teen sequestered with the Maidens in her own village (where she has also learned to weave, though she hates the task – preferring to draw decorative animals on children’s wrists with urda paste). The scenes that follow tear them from the only worlds they know, more brutally than falling down a rabbit hole or leaving Kansas on a twister. At first it feels like death, followed by messy rebirth when each is pulled (naked) into the chaos of a Roadsoul wagon reserved for kids and the newest strays to join the caravan.
When the largest settlements are towns – estranged and isolated outposts in a primal landscape of prairie, woods, and waste – this caravan of misfits from all over the place can resemble sassy urbanites: multilingual, eclectic, and skeptical enough to dismiss magic as the realm of charlatans whose sorcery consists of duping ‘‘townies.’’ The spirit seems to manifest as casual contempt in Nine (unofficial leader of the strays, known only by her age) as she gives our refugees new nicknames: ‘‘Pillbug’’ for Duuni, ‘‘Flea Butt’’ for Raím.
Yet Nine, the Roadsouls, and the novel as a whole are still open to wonder: genuine transformations that just happen, without rituals or spells. The process animates Duuni’s drawings, in her own halting description: ‘‘I… the being is there already. I lay down the line where it is. As I draw, it changes itself.’’ Some of that mystery arises even in Raím’s series of misadventures (both with and apart from the caravan, as plotlines intertwine).
In Roadsouls, Betsy James deliberately avoids the tropes and narratives typical of long fiction (mainstream, heroic fantasy, or romance). Chapter headings and brief quotations throughout come from a wild array of other forms, as her world expresses them – from hopscotch rhymes and graffiti to chants and scribbled prayers. In this column of hints and impressions, I’ll finish by citing parts of the quote that opens Chapter 1, from an anonymous ‘‘slip of paper.’’ It begins with the blunt admission, ‘‘The dark has a language. I don’t speak it,’’ then (after five lines of stress and doubt) ends in poetry:
The dark takes my hand
as if I were deaf and blind,
and holds it to his lips.
By itself, this may not tell you much, but words and images resonate with others in the reviews that follow.
The Spider’s War, Daniel Abraham (Orbit 978-0316204057, $16.00, 526pp, tp) March 2016.
Daniel Abraham has gotten a lot of attention lately, but mostly as half of the writing team James S.A. Corey (with Ty Franck). Their popular Expanse space opera is one of my favorite SF series, but it does tend to overshadow the equally good and quite different fantasy saga Abraham writes solo, the Dagger and the Coin. That series has just concluded with fifth volume The Spider’s War, and it’s hard to talk about the end without giving away details from the beginning and middle, so if you’re spoiler-averse, consider yourself warned.
The series is set in a world where, long centuries ago, dragons biologically manipulated baseline humans (known as ‘‘Firstbloods’’) to create a dozen other races of humanity, from the canine Tralgu, to the insect-like Timzinae, to the scaled Jasuru, and more. Centuries after the dragons annihilated themselves in a terrible war, those onetime servitor races have thrived, bred (and sometimes interbred), and carved up the world into their own kingdoms, with the dragons now remembered mostly as legends.
The series follows several characters through a time of war and upheaval driven by an ancient weapon of the dragons: tiny spiders that infest human bodies and give the infected the ability to detect lies and to compel listeners to believe anything the infected say. Most of those with spiders in their blood are zealots who believe they are the priests of a (wholly imaginary) spider goddess, and they convince the insecure and bookish Antean nobleman Geder Palliako that he is the goddess’s chosen one, destined to unite the world. Over the course of the series, Geder – a figure who is alternately pathetic, clownish, sympathetic, and terrifying – follows an unlikely path to power, eventually ruling the Antaean empire as regent to a precocious child prince. With the help of the spider priests, Geder sets out to conquer the world, and wages a campaign of genocide against the Timzinae, a race largely immune to the power of the spiders and thus deemed enemies of the goddess.
Opposing Geder is an unlikely group of allies including the legendary general and curmudgeon Marcus Wester; the young and brilliant banker Cithrin bel Sarcour; actor Master Kit, a former priest of the spider goddess who realized there was a difference between believing something was true and it actually being true; and Clara Kalliam, wife of a nobleman who unsuccessfully led a rebellion against Geder. There’s a late addition to that alliance, too: Inys, the last dragon, has awakened from his long slumber, and seeks to destroy the spiders, making him a powerful ally… except he also wants to bring back the race of dragons and turn all humanity into slaves again, which is less than ideal.
All those arrayed against Geder (Inys included) have suffered profound losses and setbacks throughout the course of the series, but as the Antaean army over-extends itself in the mistaken belief that the goddess won’t allow them to be defeated, and the cult of the spider goddess schisms into factions each convinced of their own absolute rightness, the disparate allies see an opportunity to win. One of the great elements of this series is the emphasis on economics (it’s the Dagger and the Coin, after all), and Cithrin’s genius is to fight a war with the tools of banking: negotiation, canny trades, starving the enemy of supplies by buying up materials, offering cash bounties for priests. (She also invents paper money, which helps a lot.)
Soon the allies realize it’s not enough to annihilate the spider priests and defeat Palliako’s armies. The justifiably vengeful armies of the conquered nations will doubtless destroy all of Antea, perpetuating the cycle of war and killing countless thousands of innocent people in the process. Cithrin decides they shouldn’t just focus on defeating their enemy: they should try to find a way to defeat war itself, or at least make peace more attractive. Ending war is a lofty goal, and probably impossible in the long term, but when your team includes a tactical genius, a banking prodigy, an actor who can make you believe anything, a noblewoman with courtly manners and an indomitable will, and a literal dragon, you can achieve amazing things.
The resolution of the series is quite satisfying, particularly in regard to Palliako’s ultimate fate. He was undeniably a villain, but never an entirely unsympathetic one, and Abraham pens an ending for him that recognizes his humanity without forgiving his unforgiveable sins. All the characters receive endings that are, if not always happy, at least appropriate, and when I closed the book, I felt like I was saying goodbye to old friends. If you’ve been following the series, rest assured it ends well, and if you haven’t, pick up The Dragon’s Path and start reading.
The Core of the Sun, Johanna Sinisalo; Lola Rogers, trans. (Black Cat/Grove Atlantic 978-0-8021-2464-7, $16.00, 306pp, tp) January 2016.
Johanna Sinisalo seems to have emerged, along with Leena Krohn and Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, as a central figure in the ‘‘Finnish Weird’’, which like many such movements may be a coincidence, a plot, or even, as Sinisalo herself said in her introduction to last year’s Finnish Weird anthology, simply a ‘‘brand.’’ In any case, it seems to carry with it a celebratory feeling of having just rediscovered the possibilities of nonrealistic fiction, even as some of its major works come with pretty grim premises. Sinisalo’s The Core of the Sun, for example, is set in a repressive alternate Finland which will almost certainly draw comparisons with Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Women are classed from birth in Wellsian evolutionary terms, as either the airheaded but sexy ‘‘eloi,’’ suitable for reproduction, or the less attractive ‘‘morlocks,’’ who might have a shot at more than nominal education, but who are sterilized at an early age. Men are either ‘‘mascos’’ or the less fortunate ‘‘minus men,’’ and Finland itself has been turned into a ‘‘eusistocracy,’’ which claims the health of the citizenry as the central focus of government and disdains the decadent Western democracies that surround it.
But Sinisalo’s method of revealing this world, through excerpts from textbooks, advertisements, children’s stories, school essays, transcripts, dictionary definitions, and various other fragments, is often playful and sometimes darkly funny. The central character, Vanna, passes as a dim eloi though she’s educated and articulate, and it’s her sharp and sardonic voice, mostly through unsent letters to her eloi sister Manna, who has gone missing, that really sets the tone of the narrative. Other chapters are presented as direct narration either from her viewpoint or that of Jare, a male friend who gets her involved in the underground economy of growing and distributing what the government views as the most serious threat to civic order – which, of all things, turns out to be chili peppers. In fact, The Core of the Sun takes its title not from solar astronomy, but from the name of a legendary pepper under development with an astronomical Scoville count. Sinisalo almost convinces us that the pain-and-pleasure high from capsaicin is as literally addictive as the government claims, and her descriptions of the sensations of eating superhot peppers are gustatory gems. It’s that odd juxtaposition of the purely sensual with the satirically absurd that helps make The Core of the Sun the most original, unsettling, and weirdly comic dystopia that I’ve seen in some years – an approach that sometimes suggests Vonnegut, sometimes Brunner (with its collage of random documents), sometimes even Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo (with its equally absurd premise for a dystopia). In light of the grim rectitude of so many recent YA dystopias, it’s good to be reminded that the form itself was originally rooted in grown-up satire rather than teen angst.
Shooting the Rift, by Alex Stewart (Baen 978-1-4767-8118-1, $16, trade paperback) April 2016
Unless I am radically misinterpreting his bibliography, Alex Stewart has written upwards of a score of novels, all of them in the Warhammer franchise and under the penname of Sandy Mitchell. Shooting the Rift appears to be his first “independent” production under his own name. Except that he also began publishing short fiction as Alex Stewart as far back as 1982. And so he emerges into the arena of “creator-owned” SF novels (to port over a term from comics) as a seasoned, dual-track professional with what we must assume is a tale compelling enough to make him break his old patterns of work. And in my judgment, he is fully justified in singling out this tale for special exhibition, for he has come up with a genial, clever, colorful, rousing space opera that resonates with the classic work of Poul Anderson, James Schmitz and A. Bertram Chandler—not coincidentally, all of them past masters with Baen editions!
We inhabit the indefinite future so beloved and essential for this subgenre—however unrealistic a scenario such spoilsports as Charles Stross and Kim Stanley Robinson might deem it—wherein humans have spread out to colonize a fair portion of the galaxy—the Human Sphere, to be precise. Within this cubic tract are many polities, two of which are at our focus: the Rimward Commonwealth and the League of Democracies. Our narrator and hero, Simon Forrester (his surname being a nod, one assumes, to author C. S. Forester of Hornblower fame), is a member of the Commonwealth. His family is a well-regarded one that has contributed Naval officers for generations. In fact, Simon’s mother is a warship Captain, and his sister, Tinkie, might have become one also, had she not joined the Marines instead. When we meet Simon, he has just been booted out of his university for selling test answers and term papers, obtained thanks to his superior hacking skills. (The average citizen of this era is fully rigged out with neuroware, mentally linked to the immense dataverse and able to communicate more or less telepathically with anyone else so equipped.) Could Simon perhaps redeem himself by entering the Naval Academy and following in the family tradition? Unlikely, since he is after all a male!
Here is the first and most charming fillip of the novel. The Commonwealth is, if not a pure matriarchy, a society in which female privilege is the reality. By flipping the gender roles of Western society in the twenty-first century, Stewart gets a nice boost of cognitive estrangement so essential to good SF. And he never overplays his hand or engages in crude, reductionist satire. This is just the way such a setup would work, for all practical reasons.
In any case, denied a Naval career, Simon is left at loose ends and so is ripe for recruitment by his Aunt Jenny, a secret Intelligence officer, who has been impressed by his hacking skills and general brashness. She manages to get him enrolled onboard a Guild trader ship, the Stacked Deck, as cover story, and sends him out into the harsh and merciless universe to further the cause of the Commonwealth against the League. Captain Remington proves a fine mentor, and crewmember Clio Rennau an intriguing pal and potential if prickly love-interest. Meanwhile, Simon, who has never been absent from his home planet before, starts his galactic education by fire.
All of this occupies about the first hundred pages of the novel, and is delivered in such a smooth, engaging and even touching voice, leavened with wry humor, that the reader is pulled into the tale as if into a recitation by some old raconteur friend. Simon being an antihero and a bit of a rogue (maybe Harry Harrison’s Slippery Jim DiGriz and Keith Laumer’s Retief should be trotted out as influences at this point), we never get suffused with pretentious gravitas. The droll chapter headers—“In which Remington gives and receives a blessing.”—are plainly modeled on such literary classics as Tom Jones: “A short description of squire Allworthy, and a fuller account of Miss Bridget Allworthy, his sister.” Really, the picaresque novel of the eighteenth century—a time of analogous terrestrial empires and explorations—should be used more often for space operas, and Stewart gets big kudos for choosing this model.
The next exciting section of the novel finds Stewart honing his spy chops and his Guild craft on the world of Numarkut. After this, the ship runs afoul of the League, there’s a long stint on a fortress-cum-prison moon, and finally a slambang action climax and neat tidying up of all threads. We leave Simon in an intriguing new position, set for further adventures.
The title of the book refers to the common means of hyperspace travel in this future, and Stewart makes that technology as accessible and relevant as the neuroware, genetic engineering, anti-gravity, and other assorted techno-furniture of the milieu. His various venues—really only about three or four, which is perhaps the one aspect of sparseness in an otherwise well-stuffed book—are limned with vigor, vividness and vivacity. The personages are all true-to-life, delivering fine banter and plot-propelling dialogue, arising out of fully believable motivations and drives and desires.
Although I have made a lot of comparisons here to old-school SF, Stewart’s book does not feel like a pastiche or homage, is not creaky nor fusty. Perhaps not as quite as cutting-edge hip as Corey’s Expanse series, it nonetheless emerges authentically from the current moment in both the culture and the genre, representing the best of what ambitious adventure SF has always done and can plainly continue to do.
Transgalactic, by James Gunn (Tor 978-0765380920, $26.99, 224pp, hardcover March 2016
Two books that rose to the top of the stack on the dresser once again have me considering recent online discussions of the relevance of old or old-fashioned SF, of the value of historical perspective in reading a popular genre, of the appeal of deliberately retrospective stories, of the retreading of venerable tropes, and of whether some flavors of SF represent mere nostalgia. On one hand, SF traditionally sees itself as celebrating New Things so new that they haven’t even happened yet. On the other hand, there are the alternate history and steampunk subgenres (the latter of which quite deliberately adapts SF motifs and grafts them onto historical settings), so there is clearly an audience for retro-flavored entertainments.
And in any case, SF has worked and reworked its core materials since before the genre even had a name. With space opera, work by, say, Neal Asher, Iain M. Banks, Nancy Kress, Linda Nagata, or Walter Jon Williams is part of a tradition that goes back to E.E. ‘‘Doc’’ Smith and extends through Edmond Hamilton, Jack Williamson, Poul Anderson, and Jack Vance. Its story-space is a galaxy populated by exotic alien species, containing one or more star-spanning polities, possibly with a dizzyingly deep history. It is a setting made for explorations, intrigues, alien encounters, and wars – arguably a futureward projection of the condition of an Earth that still had blank spaces on the map, unknown peoples and societies, and tramp steamers to visit them.
This brings me to Transgalactic, the sequel to James Gunn’s Transcendental (reviewed in December 2013), which maintains its predecessor’s backward looks at earlier genre motifs and atmospherics. Transcendental echoes Olaf Stapledon in its embedded pilgrim-tales of alien evolutionary paths and ends with scenery and action right out of the SF-pulp version of lost-city adventures. Transgalactic continues that latter line, interleaving images and gestures from earlier cycles of science-fictional storytelling with more contemporary devices and shaping the whole concoction into an old-fashioned interstellar odyssey.
The Transcendental Machine that serves as the McGuffin of the first book has proved to be part of a transportation network scattered across the galaxy, a system of such great antiquity that its gateways have been incorporated into later structures, which are themselves sometimes ancient ruins. Two of the first book’s surviving characters, former soldier Riley and the mysterious woman Asha, are teleported by a Transcendental Machine to separate random destinations far across the galaxy from each other. Riley finds himself at the center of an abandoned pyramid that has been built around a Machine, while Asha is sent to a world close to the crowded galactic center, where she is honored by the population as the Chosen One, which might mean either goddess or sacrifice. Each needs to get off-planet and somehow find the other in order to bring the news about the nature of the Machines to the Galactic Federation that governs our spiral arm.
Alternate chapters follow their attempts to deal with the local inhabitants and find a way back to Federation space. Each also gains an alien companion. Riley’s is a dinosaurian predator (‘‘Rory,’’ for his roaring vocalizations) whose forebears built the pyramid before slipping back into a pre-technological level, while Asha negotiates a complicated dance with her hosts (‘‘Squeals,’’ for the way their language sounds to her) and a Federation representative charged with overseeing this world’s possible admission to that polity. Once back in Federation space, Riley and Asha’s separate travels provide views into that organization’s operations, the aftermath of the Federation-human war, and the role of the artificial intelligences – the pedias – that provide more than just logistical support for starfaring civilizations.
Images and scenes evocative of the pulps continue to run through the narrative. In addition to the ancient-ruins and devolved-species motifs that carry over from the previous book, there is the administrative planet Federation Central, with its ‘‘few open areas breaking the flat roof that covered almost everything’’ (echoes of Trantor in the Foundation series). Asha suspects that the Federation is less a grand, benign font of galactic wisdom than a ‘‘tangled web of bureaucratic bungles, dead ends, and corruption.’’ And when she gets back to Earth, she finds a planetary-Pedia-run material utopia (echoes of Jack Williamson’s The Humanoids) with a secret underground of dissenters who hope to bring down the machine and restore fallible human freedom (and there’s a secret underneath that one). Riley’s path takes him to a classic thieves’-den planet; a multi-level Dantean pleasure/hospital/rehabilitation-ward world to deal with some personal unfinished business; and the secret laboratory of a not-entirely-mad scientist whose reaction to Riley’s tale is, ‘‘That sounds like some ancient space romance…. Full of incredible adventures and near-death escapes.’’ The book’s kicker (and promise of a third volume) is an epilogue that I will almost spoil by revealing that as soon as I read it I thought of the 1955 Williamson & Gunn space opera Star Bridge.
One of the more old-fashioned traits of this kind of large-scale story-space is the elevation of issues and conflicts toward abstraction – not quite allegory, but something like the classic Western’s near-ritual casting and action. Most of the aliens in both novels are less individuals than exemplars of alien psychologies shaped by evolutionary forces. (Though Asha’s Squeal companion gains some individuality once he gets some lines.) Nor are Asha and Riley that strongly individuated – they are also types, defined by the familial and personal traumas visited upon them by the war with the Federation. Even though passage through the perfecting filter of the Machine improves their physiological and mental processes, their emotional lives remain conventionalized, and there is a sense of distance even when we share their thoughts.
This is not character-driven fiction, but a deliberate revisiting of some of the genre’s most enduring features across a century or more: the cosmic-history vistas of Wells and Stapledon (and the non-fiction speculations of J. B. S. Haldane or J. D. Bernal); the far-future strangeness of ‘‘Don A. Stuart’’ (John W. Campbell in his quieter mode) or very early Arthur C. Clarke; the hairbreadth heroics of all those gaudy-covered pulps. I’m not sure that this kind of literary-historical backward glance is going to appeal to readers whose history does not extend to those stories – I see too many on-line critical characterizations of even 1960s SF as past-it to think otherwise – but I think there’s plenty of life in the old stuff yet.
An Inheritance of Ashes, Leah Bobet (Clarion 978-0544281110, $17.99, 400pp, hc) October 2015.
In Leah Bobet’s new fantasy, An Inheritance of Ashes, there is an early scene that could have come from any history of the U.S. Civil War. The teen protagonist, Hallie, is working the fields of the farm she and her older sister are struggling to hold onto, in a setting reminiscent of late 1865 America:
The wind stirred my hair, stirred the edges of that ragged silhouette in the broken barley fields. Please, I thought, be Thom. Not some man two inches too tall who walked all wrong, who didn’t wave to me –
I let myself believe it for thirty delicious seconds before I let the truth in: It wasn’t Thom. Just another veteran coming up the road, with a family who was waiting and wouldn’t have to wait much longer. Just another stranger.
Sadly, the man on the road walking her way isn’t Hallie’s brother-in-law Thom, husband to the very pregnant Marthe, who left months before to join the war against the Wicked God Southward, his desperate followers, and the awful unworldly creatures he commanded, the ‘‘Twisted Things’’. It is instead a veteran called Heron who is looking for a place to hunker down for the winter. Heron offers to work for room and board even though he knows he, and the secret he’s keeping, should move on. Heron stays, and soon everything in Hallie’s world is blown apart.
On one level, An Inheritance of Ashes is about the obvious: the aftermath of war. Everyone in the local community has been touched by the conflict, from the wounded who have returned maimed and suffering from PTSD to those who are waiting for someone like Thom, who is still missing. Bobet weaves all of the fear and anger that seeps out of a war throughout her plot, eventually having Hallie erupt with frustration at stoic Herron:
‘‘You and Cal and James and Tyler, you all act like you can protect us from ever knowing there was a war, or Twisted Things.’’ I gestured wide, at the burn marks in the brush he couldn’t see. ‘‘I’m trying to help you. Don’t insult me by pretending I shouldn’t know what that might cost.’’
Hallie’s life is further complicated by all that lies unsaid between her and Marthe; between the fears that a long family tradition that sees the farm only belong to the eldest will mean that Hallie has to leave soon, and within the fallout from their own violent childhood. The sisters have survived since Thom’s departure by hunkering down and trusting practically no one, except their nearest neighbors. But the terrible silence that has grown around them has gotten darker and more poisonous – everything that is unsaid is making it impossible for them to understand each other. Their little family started falling apart when Thom left and now, months later, it is very nearly too far gone to save.
This quiet drama is nothing however compared to the cascade of events that occurs after Heron arrives. A Twisted Thing, one of the dark and deadly creatures from the vanquished Wicked God Southward appears at Hallie’s window. And then another and another is found on the farm. The neighbors are called and no one can figure out what is happening. Everyone knows that Southward was killed by the soldier John Balsam with his dagger; everyone knows the war is over. But the Twisted Things have come to the farm, which means… something. And then there is the fact that the victorious army is on the march, looking for John Balsam, who vanished after the battle. The army wants its hero and if it finds the Twisted Things then it will set fire to their farm, destroying everything to save the earth. The army will not listen to reason. So Hallie and Marthe must find a solution, must reach out for help and save the farm, must keep the army at bay and also confront a ghostly mystery that might mean Thom is back, or something far darker.
Fans of Bobet’s short stories will not be surprised to find a tour-de-force in this novel. The writing is strong, the world-building subtle but intense, and the diverse characters are enormously appealing. An Inheritance of Ashes is a gorgeous book about the ignominy and foolishness of war, the enduring love of family, and the brilliance of true friendship as well as all the many many – many – reasons why we should never turn our backs on science. Absolutely unforgettable and not to be missed.
Brutal Pantomimes, by Rhys Hughes (Egaeus Press 978-0-957160699, $39, 256pp) February 2016
Heart of the Original, by Steve Aylett (Random House UK 978-1783520916, $16.95, 112pp) April 2016
Transreal Cyberpunk, by Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling (Transreal Books 978-1940948140, $15.95, 310pp November 2015
Nowadays, much of the most exciting work in the literature of fantastika appears from the small or independent presses, and from self-publishing ventures that are funded either on a solo basis or communally. Publishers like Tachyon, Word Horde, WordFire, Small Beer, Prime, Wildside, Underland, Aqueduct and many others promote new voices and, along with more traditional tales, a fair amount of experimentalism. Platforms like Kickstarter and Patreon allow individual visionaries to craft their volumes to taste. Quite often, books produced this way are works of art in presentation, unlike their merely serviceable mass-market cousins. And with some frequency, writers who will become mainstays of the genre and award ballots emerge here first.
Today we look at three volumes from some well-known authors who have chosen the small-press route as their current path. To my eye, all three books would have merited adoption by the Big Five publishers, if only the motives and goals of the Big Five had been just a little more broad-minded.
* * *
The irrepressible Rhys Hughes is approaching his eight-hundredth published story, well on his way to his stated goal of writing one thousand tales. Not quite as many short publications as folks like Silverberg and earlier pulpsters produced, but pretty damn impressive nonetheless. He recently issued an ebook titled The Million Word Storybook, which is exactly what it purports to be: one million words of his fiction. Oh, yes, it comes in “Male” and “Female” editions as well, as justified by a slight variance in contents between them. So approaching his new hardcover, Brutal Pantomimes, which Egaeus Press has rendered as a beautiful objet d’art, we expect big vistas of fiery-eyed creativity—and are not disappointed.
Only three out of the ten stories in this collection have previously seen print, so even the hardcore fans of Hughes’s work will be in for a treat.
Hughes’s prose is always poetic and evocative without being baroque or lapidary. “A man lay next to him, curled up tight, blinking and mumbling as if his tongue was draped with cobwebs which dissolved slowly until his words came free and clear.” The assurance of his voice, as he conducts the reader through his labyrinths of fable, is always astonishing. And his startling turns of phrase keep the reader on his or her toes. “It landed on the grass with a sickening and slightly sad squelch, as if a squonk had been stomped by a clumsy centaur…” Whether presented in the first person or otherwise, his narratives are seductive and dreamlike, with the plots moving in organic, unpredictable fashion. His finished tales resemble strange flora and fauna more than they resemble clockworks or statues, as so many other fictions do. His natural consorts are folks like Borges and Aickman, Leena Krohn and Zoran Živković, Lafferty and Bayley, Kafka and Lem.
Here are just a few of the incredible conceits Hughes generously disburses. In “The Jam of Hypnos,” a man is gifted with one strange talent: whenever he dreams of edibles, those edibles will materialize. A silly premise? Then how does Hughes manage to make a suspenseful life-or-death adventure out of it? “The Private Pirates Club” is like a Dunsany Jorkens tale on LSD, as members of a select group try to outdo each other with anecdotes of terror on the high seas. Captain Marlow Nothing accidentally drives his wheeled boat from the sea deep inland, only to become “shipwrecked” and involved with an unlikely pneumatic building in “The Inflatable Stadium.” “The Knees of Kionga” finds an entire African village undertaking a journey a la Baba Yaga’s walking hut en masse to Portugal, in a satirical manner that Swift might have been proud to conceive. Finally, the closing story, “The Impossible Inferno,” manages to blend Avram Davidson with James Blaylock as it recounts the investigations of Professor Mouse into the tropical yeti of Haiti, and their incursions into the unprotected British homeland.
As Michael Cisco says more elegantly in his fine introduction to this collection, Rhys Hughes possesses an imagination and story-telling verve which is as natural and miraculous as breathing or the circulation of the blood. We are all extremely lucky that he does not hide his talents away like some saintly wilderness hermit, but instead shares them like Buddha in the marketplace.
* * *
Steve Aylett, I suspect, would enjoy, or does enjoy, the fiction of Rhys Hughes. I make this reasonable deduction based on Aylett’s new book, Heart of the Original, which is the first non-fiction issuance from the nonpareil surreal master of the Beerlight saga and other splendid contrivances. This book is a brawling meditation on “originality, creativity and individuality,” to quote its subtitle, a take-no-prisoners slugfest between Aylett and every lazy hack, commodified unit-shifter and cynical paper-waster who has ever soiled the hem of the Muses’s gowns with their obscene effusions. Much of Aylett’s attention is turned towards literature, as we shall see, but his thesis also involves societal customs, mores and the fate of nations. This an aphorism-filled, pungent, house-of-horrors ride through human nature. If you picture Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing mated with Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, or some mad collaboration between Robert Anton Wilson, Terence McKenna and Ralph Waldo Emerson, you’ll have a good idea of what Aylett has achieved.
In twelve ultra-compressed chapters, Aylett seeks to distinguish what makes a life or a work of art truly authentic. He dissects all the traps of conformity and staleness that the human mind is prone to, unless it is pushed or pushes itself out of its ruts. But the amazing thing is that Aylett does not merely preach, he literally embodies his thesis, for the book itself is written in accordance with its own precepts. Its language demands to be quoted in nearly every sentence, and I’ll have to give just a couple of examples. “Real creativity is a ferocity of consciousness. It can be as small as the firestarter spark produced by those two words that have never been next to each other before or as stomach-rolling as translating yourself sideways into adjacent dimensions….” “Before the fractures of continental drift, Earth held a single land mass shaped like a giant ultrasound of the creepiest baby in the galaxy.” And so forth, redoubled and redoubled again.
Like Lovecraft in his monograph Supernatural Horror in Literature, Aylett gives a taxonomy of what he admires. For instance, his tracing of themes from After London through Day of the Triffids to The Drowned World provides high insights.
Ultimately, Aylett has produced a “self-help” book if you will, the kind of inspirational text that any writer or reader or sheerly existential, in-search-of-enlightenment soul will return to again and again for a necessary cosmic kick in the pants.
* * *
One writer whom Aylett explicitly praises is Rudy Rucker, allowing us to segue straight to Rucker’s newest book, the collected collaborations between him and Bruce Sterling, Transreal Cyberpunk, a title which yokes the two separate essential strengths of these complementary writers. On Rucker’s part, hot gonzo autobiography; on Sterling’s part, cool conceptual audacity. Although of course, each man plays deftly in both arenas. These nine stories have all had high-profile appearances, in Asimov’s magazine and at Tor dot Com, but now you get them in their impressive cumulative force, along with generous slabs of ancillary material.
Appearing over the span of thirty years, with the final contribution, “Kraken and Sage,” being original to this volume, these stories embody the essence of hip, cutting-edge modern SF. Alternate history, genetic engineering, cosmic armageddons of several sorts, entrepreneurial paradigm shifts—wherever SF goes, Rucker and Sterling have been there and left their mark. The level of story-telling excitement, juicy language and ideational mind-blowingness is extremely high here. The two authors play fast, slick and deep.
But perhaps of most interest in this collection are the authorial notes which detail the nuts and bolts of the co-writing experience, and which also muse on exactly what it means to be two working SF writers in this strange day and age, attempting to chart new territory side by side. The personal and cultural aspects of the three-decade-long Lewis and Clark expedition made by these two men, which they generously share with us, is perhaps the most affecting meta-tale of the whole project, and well deserving of your attention.
The Brotherhood of the Wheel, R.S. Belcher (Tor 978-0-7653-8028-5, $26.99, 384pp, hc) March 2016.
Though Tor calls R.S. Belcher’s The Brotherhood of the Wheel an ‘‘urban fantasy,’’ it also describes the novel as set on ‘‘the haunted byways and truck stops of the US Interstate Highway System.’’ Roads – both real and metaphorical – are crucial to this dark fantasy, focusing and expanding the power of magics that range from the latest trends in ghosts and weird critters discussed on bad-ass websites, to entities transplanted to the New World from pre-Christian Europe and points beyond.
We begin with big rig truck driver Jimmie Aussapile, one of what proves to be a wonderfully miscellaneous bunch of people who oppose the forces of evil in tense scenes that gradually reveal connections between events in towns, suburbs, and cities of the Midwest and the South: Illinois, Kansas, Tennessee, Louisiana. Appearing near the mid-point of Belcher’s previous novel Nightwise, Jimmie, his tractor trailer, and a passing mention of the Brotherhood prompted Belcher’s literary agent to urge him to write more about them, as noted in the Acknowledgements here. I’m delighted that he followed her suggestion, in his own devious way. He has a masterful ability to move between assorted viewpoint characters in multiple plotlines kept separate long enough to become distinct: just hinting at links that may strengthen, but don’t become full alliances until hard action with shared danger breaks down the barriers between them.
At first, few of these people entirely believe in the occult. Though Hector ‘‘Heck’’ Sinclair – a striking young man whose accent holds ‘‘a touch of North Carolina by way of Glasgow,’’ while his ‘‘spiky mane of bright red hair’’ suits a volatile temperament – was adopted as a boy by one of Jimmie’s old pals and joined his biker gang of Dixie Gaels, he knows little about the Brotherhood when he’s sent to become Jimmie’s ‘‘squire,’’ after his stepfather’s death. Not till many chapters later (after Heck saves him from assault by weird enemies), does Jimmie try to describe their mission:
Do you have any idea how much the U.S. economy relies on goods moving across the nation by truck, airline, and train? That’s all Brethren turf. Truckers, state troopers, outlaw bikers, mobile-home caravan cults, gypsy cabbies, airline crews, railroad men, sailors, teamsters – we have members and affiliate members everywhere, all of them sworn to protect the passages between. We’ve grown as the world has grown. We guard all routes of transport these days, not just physical paths – that includes the Internet, what they used to call the information super-highway, and telecommunication networks, too.
For the Brotherhood of the Road, ‘‘the passages between’’ extend past ordinary state lines and media links, connecting worlds.
Louisiana State Police investigator Lovina Hewett doesn’t know the full strangeness of the forces that murdered her sister years ago, although she has managed to become a cop, catch the killers, and work with an agency that investigates the most mysterious cases of Missing Children. In Chapter Three, her first encounter with the phenomenon of Black-Eyed Kids (known on websites as BEK) unnerves her without revealing just how radically they’ve been transformed; again, the truth must wait.
Chapter Four approaches the nexus of evil, the small town of Four Houses – which exists both within and somewhere outside Kansas, but doesn’t seem at all like Oz – via clueless 20-something college students who cross the boundary on a road trip that will leave some of them dead, others captured, and only one girl free to find out more from a canny old survivor about the primal powers that once ruled here.
While later scenes mostly deal with these protagonists, together or apart, notable viewpoint characters continue to appear. One is glimpsed in Chapter 10 (and doesn’t become crucial to a major plotline until two chapters after that), yet even here The Brotherhood of the Wheel doles out and joins its revelations at a satisfying pace.
The whole thing comes with something like a soundtrack of song titles that challenges readers to make a private mix tape: encompassing more than a half-century of music, ranging from rockabilly and Death Metal to some modern rock, and invoking memories of Howling Wolf, Elvis, Led Zeppelin – even the Moody Blues’ ‘‘Knights in White Satin’’! Food is also prominent, a menu tending toward roadhouse/southern fried, to the point where you may start imagining that your clothes reek of deep fat and barbecue sauce.
But Brotherhood never entirely yields to the lure of Americana, pop cultures, or regional cuisines. Deeper, older currents of dark fantasy and myth run through the book: the Forest and the Horned God; the Triune Goddess (Maiden, Mother, Crone). Although Heck and Lovina have heard of such things via shows on the History Channel or Dan Brown novels, Belcher makes sure to give them a more intimate connection, too: Lost Children in the family, or a potential heritage (damnation?) that could prove crucial, under the threat of universal doom.
Interior Darkness: Selected Stories, Peter Straub (Doubleday 978-0-385-54105-3, $28.95, 496pp, hc) February 2016.
Except for a couple of small press editions, it’s been 16 years since Peter Straub’s last major story collection Magic Terror, and it was ten years before that when his first collection, Houses Without Doors appeared. We can correctly deduce from this that Straub is not a particularly prolific writer of short fiction, which in turn means that the retrospective collection Interior Darkness: Selected Stories gives us a pretty complete overview of his shorter work, even if a few favorites might be missing. Four things become apparent at once: first, Straub’s shorter fiction is not really a sideline to novel-writing. Although some of the stories here, like ‘‘Blue Rose’’ or ‘‘Mallon the Guru’’, help illuminate novels with some of the same characters, each story is carefully crafted to its own demands, and sometimes those demands result in substantial, complex novellas. Second, the stories remind us that even though Straub’s novels may at times seem convoluted with multiple viewpoints, time frames, and embedded tales, the core of his fiction lies in the observation of character and the core of his style lies in the carpentry of sentences, which can at times be stately, ironic, and terrifying all at once.
Third, the labels that conveniently attach themselves to Straub’s work (and the work of some writers he has influenced) – labels like ‘‘literary horror’’ or ‘‘dark fantasy’’ – don’t really work anymore. ‘‘Literary horror’’ has always struck me as either redundant or patronizing or just stupid, like ‘‘musical jazz,’’ while ‘‘dark fantasy’’ is belied by the actual contents of most of the stories here, which may be profoundly disturbing, comical, or surreal, and which are certainly dark enough, but which seldom contain much in the way of supernatural interventions in human affairs. Straub, who once edited an anthology called Poe’s Children, shares with that progenitor the insight that the dark forces within ourselves are perfectly poised to create murderous chaos without the help of elder gods or pesky revenants, and hence my fourth observation: Interior Darkness is not a convenient metaphorical catch-all title, but rather a precise description of the motivations and desires that set most of these tales in motion.
This is nowhere more apparent than in the two earliest stories here, ‘‘The Blue Rose’’ from 1985 and ‘‘The Juniper Tree’’ from 1988. Straub fans will recognize these as part of Straub’s ‘‘Blue Rose’’ series, which includes a couple of other stories as well as the novels Koko, Mystery, and The Throat. But even those who aren’t aware that the boy Harry Beevers of ‘‘The Blue Rose’’ will show up in Koko will find it hard to forget his blithe psychopathy toward his innocent younger brother, while the unwavering and genuinely horrifying description of child abuse in ‘‘The Juniper Tree’’, conflated with a favorite film noir in the mind of the narrator, a novelist remembering the events from decades later, is equally unsettling. In ‘‘The Buffalo Hunter’’, it’s literature rather than film noir that frames the protagonist’s reimagining his lonely life; as he drinks vodka from his odd collection of baby bottles, he calls to mind a Walter Mitty who might have been invented by Melville. But then, Melville will get his own pride of place later on with the long novella ‘‘Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff’’, the longest single piece in the book, a now-almost-classic tale of a revenge plan gone horribly wrong, which carries weird echoes of Melville’s Bartleby and a finely tuned narrative voice that owes as much to Henry James as to Poe or Melville.
Straub’s smooth manipulation of narrative voices has always been a strength of his fiction, and as a result that fiction is often more experimental than it seems on the surface. ‘‘A Short Guide to the City’’ begins as exactly that, a chamber-of-commerce piece that grows apocalyptic as it begins describing a serial killer still at large, the ‘‘remains of the city’s museum and library’’ after the ‘‘disturbances’’, and the unfinished bridge span that hangs in mid-air as a symbol of the city’s actual fate. ‘‘Ashputtle’’ reimagines a version of Cinderella from the viewpoint of an overweight, resentful, and increasingly ominous elementary school teacher who moves from city to city for reasons that gradually become all too clear, and ‘‘Pork Pie Hat’’ – to my mind one of the very best stories about jazz – is a tale within a tale, as the narrator recalls his days as a graduate student in New York, meeting the legendary saxophonist Hat, learning a strange tale of what happened to Hat on a long-ago Halloween in Mississippi, and finally, years later, piecing together the meaning of Hat’s story.
In the stories published after 2000, sometimes in journals like Conjunctions and sometimes as standalone novellas, Straub’s voices become more pointedly experimental in nature. ‘‘Little Red’s Tango’’ is in the form of a kind of positio, complete with alleged ‘‘miracles,’’ for the beatification of the title figure, a mysterious and reclusive New Yorker who seems to be able to get for people whatever they need. ‘‘Lapland, or Film Noir’’, is an often hilarious send-up of many of the conventions of crime movies, while ‘‘The Collected Short Stories of Freddie Prothero’’ is the most adventurous stylistic game of all, a kind of Pale Fire for preschoolers, as a pompous scholar presents the fragmentary efforts of a four-to-eight-year old boy whose creative spelling, when decoded, reveals the actual story beneath. But, to my mind, the most impressive of these later fictions, and the strangest story in the book, is the enigmatic fantasy novella ‘‘The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine’’, which describes the paraphilic relationship of the title characters over a period of more than twenty years, mostly on a series of Amazon river cruises in which they seem to be the only passengers, on which the unseen crew speaks a weird, bird-like language, and during which the river piranhas demonstrate an insatiable appetite for Victorian novels. For years, Straub has been recognized as a pretty slippery character when it comes to reader expectations, one who ‘‘defies and blurs literary genres,’’ as Lorrie Moore says in her blurb here, but it seems that, in Interior Darkness, the very idea of genre has become little more than a grammar for constructing fictions that follow their own rules.