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Thursday 18 December 2003

XXX: Parental Warning: Some Political Content

by Claude Lalumière


The X President, Philip Baruth (Bantam, 2003)

Deus X and Other Stories, Norman Spinrad (Five Star, 2003)

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume II, Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill (America's Best Comics, 2003)

In Philip Baruth's The X President readers are presented with two timelines. Similarly, this peculiar time-travel/alternate-history novel provoked in me two different, yet coexistent, reactions.

Here's the scenario. In 2055, the USA is in deep trouble, losing a decades-long war with the rest of the world. The Secret Service is convinced that the root of the current situation rests in the cigarette laws passed by a former president in the 1990s — referred to only as "BC" throughout the book (although we eventually learn that his first name is "Bill"). As president, BC was both charismatic and controversial, eventually impeached for one sexual scandal too many. In 2055, BC is still alive, and he's hired biographer Sal Hayden to write his definitive life story. Her work, however, is cut short when she is forcibly recruited by the Secret Service. They need her deep knowledge of history and of President BC in order to fulfill a most radical mission: alter history so that the USA is no longer on the brink of military defeat on its homeland.

Notwithstanding parallels with the real world, this is a great read. The characters are engagingly quirky, the speculation is fascinating, the various eras in which the action occurs are deftly evoked, the pacing is thrilling, and the respective stakes at play are intelligently interweaved. Also, the complexity of the politics involved is not underestimated, and the novel offers no simplistic right-and-wrong solutions.

In other words, this is an excellent book. I loved reading it. And yet... I could just as accurately say that I found The X President laughably naïve and propagandist, ridiculously in love with its barely concealed subject, Bill Clinton.

There is no question that "BC" is Bill Clinton. Everything matches. The X President gives many details about BC's life, and they're all — up to the historical divergences during his presidency that splinter the book's history from our own — precise facts from Bill Clinton's life.

With that in mind, it's pretty hard to take this book seriously. The Bill Clinton presented here is of almost godlike stature — although, commendably, like the Greek gods of old, he is shown as far from infallible. But, still, his charismatic aura is worthy of Apollo, his sexual glamour worthy of Adonis, and so forth. Are we supposed to take this seriously? There's no hint that we shouldn't. In The X President, BC's presidency, for all its stated problems, is nevertheless imbued with a magical aura (granted, in the current era of an overzealously warmongering, oil-grabbing, civil-rights-abusing presidency, almost any other administration would seem like a golden age). And the Democratic Party's recent history is referenced with such loving, almost fetishistic, adulation that, again, the author's credibility suffers.

Through my foreign (Canadian) eyes, Bill Clinton has always appeared more buffoonish than charismatic, so Baruth's portrayal of the former president comes off as a ridiculous distraction rather than a realistic detail — much too jarring, ultimately, for me to be able to be fully swept up by the novel. Nevertheless, this is a skillfully told tale that kept me interested till the end, despite my misgivings.

Norman Spinrad's collection Deus X and Other Stories brings together three longish tales from the mid-1990s, each of them fun, witty, and energetic.

The title novella, "Deus X", is a post-environmental collapse cyberpunk adventure whose descriptions of the evolution of the online world, even after a decade (the story originally appeared in 1993), are surprisingly still pertinent (and mordant). The weed-smoking cyber/rasta detective Marley Philippe (this story doesn't even try to pretend to be subtle) is hired by the Vatican to find a dead priest, lost in an electronic afterlife during a papal mission: trying to determine if AIs have souls. This is a rollicking social satire — although it does lose a bit of steam near the end as it indulges in some less-than-convincing spiritual babble that didn't even seem to engage the author. On the whole, though, "Deus X" a fun piece with a lot of memorably amusing moments and laudably pointed politics.

Despite the title, there's not a bloodsucker in sight in "The Fat Vampire". This is an another social satire, this time taking on the thinness craze that's conquered North American White culture and set in the geographic heart of the malady, California. A deliciously merciless tale, "The Fat Vampire" examines a clever variant on the idea of parasitic vampirism.

In "Vampire Junkies", Spinrad brings Dracula to New York and has him inadvertently feed on a heroin junkie. The ensuing comedy of manners makes all kinds of humorously bittersweet connections between various addictions: blood, lust, love, heroin, fame.

These stories aren’t masterpieces — Deus X and Other Stories is not as strong or as engaged a collection as, say, Spinrad's brilliantly subversive Other Americas — but they're all delightful entertainments. As such, they form a well-matched trio, while each of them is distinctive and original.

Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill return for a second foray into the postmodern steampunk world of their decidedly unheroic antiheroes, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. In the tradition of Kim Newman's unsurpassably brilliant Anno Dracula, this comics series mines the rich heritage of imaginative literature to create a thrillingly resonant brand of politically savvy neo-pulp adventure fiction.

In their first case, Mina Murray (Harker), Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man, Allan Quatermain, and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde were caught in the middle of gangland war between Professor Moriarty and an unnamed Asian mastermind, whom readers nevertheless recognized as Fu Manchu. This time, our "heroes" are called upon by the British government in the campaign against invading extraterrestrials believed to be Martians, thus revealing the "true" story of the conflict described by H.G. Wells in The War of the Worlds.

Powerfully evocative and unyieldingly savage, chapter 1, "Phases of Deimos", is set on Mars and ties together various fictional dreams and interpretations of the red planet, revealing that Wells's tripods are far more sinister than previously believed. Guest-stars from more than a century's worth of imaginative fiction abound.

Once tripods begin their invasion of Earth in chapter 2, the League comes into play, eventually recruiting the help of the eccentric geneticist Dr. Moreau. Before the Martians can be defeated, the League will have to deal with treason within its ranks. Not every member survives this adventure.

This is an even more satisfying story than its excellent predecessor. The humor is darker still, the pacing more assured, the characters explored with more perspicacity, and Kevin O'Neill's depictions of a war-ravaged Mars and of London's devastation by the tripods are awesomely horrific and yet strangely beautiful.

There are several great moments throughout — the anti-imperialist Nemo's reaction to the methods used by the British to vanquish the alien invaders and the bedside dialogue between Quatermain and Murray quickly come to mind — but the high point of this second League adventure is Moore's characterization of Mr. Hyde. This story's most engaging and complex character, Hyde, the most unlikely of heroes, surprises everyone (including, possibly, himself), while not relinquishing an ounce of his scrumptiously relentless brutality.

In addition to the story of the alien invasion, the volume includes several extras. The most substantive of these is "The New Traveller's Almanac", a prose description of Mina Murray's travels around the world in the years following the events depicted in the comics story. Unsurprisingly, Murray voyages to the countries, islands, and lands that exist only in myth and literature. The spot illustrations by O'Neill are fabulous, ranging from horrifically funny to awesomely mythic. Unfortunately, the text, while displaying superhuman erudition, is ponderously impenetrable, much of its treasures of humor and wonder buried in a morass of overlong and uninspired recitation.

Other bonus features include an amusing board game based on the League and a gallery of various promotional artwork, much of it quite funny and clever.

This second League adventure, as did the first one, hints at both past and future stories that will one day be revealed. I'm certainly eager for more.

Claude Lalumière edited three 2003 anthologies: Island Dreams: Montreal Writers of the Fantastic, Open Space: New Canadian Fantastic Fiction, and, in collaboration with Marty Halpern, Witpunk. His criticism is featured regularly in The Montreal Gazette, Black Gate, Flesh & Blood, and Infinity Plus. He's the editor and publisher of the webzine Lost Pages. In Autumn 2003, his fiction will appear in Intracities, On Spec, and the final issue of Fiction Inferno.

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