For this review, I need to begin with a few brief thoughts about terminology. In another life, I might have considered the spirit of this matching pair of novellas to be a fairy story or fairy tale. This reflects the broad classification largely attributed to the work of Hans Christian Andersen and other later authors, which is largely considered suitable only for consumption by children. If we move back in time, the original folk tales and legends are often darker and more adult in approach. I suppose this means we distinguish between fantasy as fiction and the fairy story as fable because, in part, it’s intended to have an educational purpose, i.e. this makes it more appropriate for children. This is not to say The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince by Robin Hobb (pseudonym of Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden) (Subterranean Press, 2013) is about fairies but, as you will understand from the title, it does concern a Princess and there’s an underlying system of magic in operation although that’s only directly relevant for more political purposes towards the end.
I suppose the point of this rambling thought is confirmation that there’s real character development in operation. Not, you understand, so that we arrive at a “Happily ever after” moment. This is not a book in which things work out well for everyone. But there’s the idea that, through the telling, one generation can reach out and teach something of value to future generations. Perhaps, in that future time, the happiness everyone seeks will come to pass. For this to work, the events as told have to be inherently credible. The future generations are not going to be impressed by the quality of the message if it’s wrapped up in a supernatural context. There must be “truth” based in the reality we all know. So this story is essentially about real people with the same strengths and weaknesses we all have. The fact the key players are a doomed Princess and the bastard son she brings into the world should not distract us from the allegorical nature of the tale.
The structure of the novel is of two narratives told by different people but reported by the same individual. The first is the story told from her own knowledge by the woman who grows up with the Princess. The second is a slightly broader historical overview as told by her son, the Minstrel Redbird, but written down by his mother. Both documents, therefore, represent a more or less continuous story, but the authorship is divided because of a convention adopted by the local culture. Minstrels are oral historians, responsible for telling the truth as they have seen it. In their songs and written records, they are only allowed to set down what they have actually seen. There can be no guesswork, no embellishment. Only the truth as they know it can be passed down for posterity. When the task falls to the mother to write both documents, she adopts this convention for her own contributions to this jointly told tale. It’s made absolutely clear which voice is telling each part of the story and why the knowledge being reported is limited to that voice.
The first novella sticks very closely to the rather more intimate style we associate with classical fairy stories. We see the birth of the Princess and understand how and why she becomes something of a handful for her parents. In this, the machinations of the storyteller’s family are fascinating. The description of rising through the ranks of a court by wet-nursing the babies of the nobility is most carefully worked out. Indeed, the politics of childbirth are crucial to understanding this story and its implications for future generations, i.e. it all bears directly on questions about the succession to the throne. As the story progresses into the second novella, we move slowly from the more intimate family considerations to the broader movement of factions within the court. So we may safely say that the roots in the fairy story grow into a sturdy tree of political rivalry and treason, depending on whose side you happen to be on. All illegitimate sons face difficulties after the death of their mothers. You will understand from the broad sweep of our own history that the right to succeed to the throne claimed by bastard grandsons does not necessarily prevail over the claims of the King’s brothers and their legitimate offspring. It often comes down to a might-is-right resolution, assuming there’s a strong enough will to make the contest for the throne real.
Overall The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince manages to blend fairy story and historical fantasy into a most pleasing conflation. Except, in the final sections, I feel it’s a little rushed. Although it might have bent the convention of only reporting what’s actually seen, I felt some of the narrative was superficial. This inevitably comes from lack of a point of view. Had there been ways to get either the Minstrel or his mother into more relevant situations, we could have achieved a more rounded view of how this particular ending came to be. As it is, we’re left with considerable doubt over when certain events took place and exactly what the motivation of different individuals was. Despite this, the result is rather delightful in a fairy tale kind of way with some tough historical lessons for those with eyes to see them.
For a review of a collection by Robin Hobb, see The Inheritance.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Forbidden by Kelley Armstrong (Subterranean Press, 2012) is another story featuring Elena Michaels and Clayton Danvers in the continuing saga of the Women of the Otherworld. In the moment I write these sentences so full of certainty, it’s easy to forget this is my first look at this author and the only reason I’m able to appear so knowledgeable is because I’ve browsed her website and read the Wikipedia entry. I wish I’d done so before agreeing to review this book. I get lazy, assuming Subterranean Press does not publish Young Adult content. Most of the time, I filter out the fiction aimed at those barely able to read and whose sensibilities are so far removed from my senior years. But, yet again, another teen bestselling author has penetrated my defences so I must grit my teeth and offer my opinion (as if it’s not immediately obvious from these opening words).
The problems for me are many and manifold. I suppose they begin with my general lack of respect for the young. It’s not simply that they are inexperienced. That goes without saying and no generation springs from a god’s head fully formed and able to act like adults from drawing their first breaths. But the present young are so alien to me, they might just as well have been born on a different planet. Sadly, this is reflected in the books intended for them to read. When I was growing up, there were books for children, books written for adults but considered suitable for children to read, and then the books we waited to read. Frankly, what’s now marketed as YA fiction is adult fiction dumbed down. Just as the tests and examinations young students take today are significantly easier than those I had to take, so their fiction is emasculated fiction that patronising adult editors consider it appropriate to give the tender young minds to read. If these books represent what teens are genuinely interested in, I have little faith in the future of the human race. Indeed, I note a great irony. In many serious commentaries and newspapers, I see handwringing pieces bewailing the loss of childhood. It seems our young tots are turning into adults before their time. Well these books tell a very different story. They are beyond innocent, inhabiting some weird world of fantasy make-believe in which life can always become beautiful and fulfilling. Although some authors do use darker thematic material, it’s usually in an educational spirit, to suggest ways in which horrors can be mitigated and life made more bearable again.
So here we have our young adult protagonists. Elena is getting a little long in the tooth for this role but the loyal fans have been following her for many years. She’s now the proud mother of two children but, on this winter’s night, she gets a telephone call which brings her to a small town called Westwood where a young man called Morgan Walsh has been locked up in jail and could do with a little help. She therefore puts down the mantle of motherdom and takes up her role of Alpha of the Pack. She and Clayton, her bodyguard, set off on an adventure with a limited number of characters and no more than 250 pages in which to reach a positive resolution. Well, this is a YA adventure with werewolves as the central characters. This could be scary, if not gory, but we start off with scenes of domestic tranquility. Having seen our central character being all maternal, this is not going to suddenly morph into a book in which she goes to Westwood and, at the first opportunity, takes hold of the throat of a human. “With her teeth sliding into the yielding flesh of her victim’s neck, she rips out a chunk of flesh. Arterial blood from his torn carotid pumps over her muzzle, whetting her appetite. With a casual surge of strength, she hoists him into the air and leans forward to breakfast on the low-hanging nuts.” No, we’re never going to get anything along those lines in a book like this.
Instead, no-one plays nice. Person or persons unknown rip the tyres of their vehicle stranding them in this hick backwater and then exciting stuff happens. At least this is what’s supposed to be exciting to one of today’s teens. Frankly, I couldn’t wait for it to be over, but dutifully read it to the end to see precisely what was forbidden. Was it a major Satanic ritual calling up demons that would fight our werewolves tooth and claw? Or perhaps it was handbags at dawn with the zombie cheerleaders from the local high school? Well, if you’re a fan, you’ve no doubt already added this book to your collection and know the answer. If you’re not a fan but are a young adult as defined by modern marketers, you may find Forbidden exciting. If you’re a curmudgeonly senior like me, death would be preferable to having to read another book by this author.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
The Incarceration of Captain Nebula and Other Lost Futures by Mike Resnick (Subterranean Press, 2012) is a very pleasing collection with one or two outstanding stories all rather beautifully bundled together by the good folk at Subterranean.
We start off with an African story, “Seven Views of Orduvai Gorge”, which poses two interesting questions. Suppose we have a race that develops intelligence and tool-handling ability. In due course, it develops the capacity to travel to the stars and builds an Empire. Later, when it has died away, a team comes to its planet of origin, Earth, to examine the historical record. What can six random snapshots of the past tell us about the history of such a race. Second, as the one with the power to interpret the evidence and inform the team of his findings, what duty does He Who Views have to pass on what he sees? Is it the role of a “historian” to filter what is communicated? Should he impose his own moral standards in deciding how much to tell those in the team? “Barnaby in Exile” is a rather thin story about a chimp that’s reared in a lab and encouraged to think and communicate by signing. When the funding for the experiment is lost, he’s sent out into the jungle, the unsympathetic humans assuming he’s somehow genetically aware how to survive in such an environment. Continuing with animals, “The Last Dog” just about avoids sentimentality as the last man befriends the last dog and then loses out to the alien that’s been going round killing everyone. As a story, it actually makes little sense. Is this alien one of these dedicated, do-it-the-hard-way types that wants to track down the last man without the benefit of his advanced technology? If it knows this is the last man, it must have a way of scanning the Earth and finding no other human alive. Why does the last man seem to know the alien? I could go on but you should understand from this that it’s not very good.
“Article of Faith” makes a serious attempt at a difficult subject. For those who believe in the practical reality of souls, it would come as a shock if it were to be suggested that robots could have one. Mike Resnick is to be commended on having the intellectual honesty to describe the outrage the evangelicals might feel, particularly if high rates of unemployment were caused by their arrival in local factories. Unfortunately, I find the result competent but unexciting. But “The Big Guy” turns that round neatly. One of the other rather clichéd robot plots is the problem of the “emotion” chip. Machines can’t be programmed to feel although they can simulate the more obvious emotions in their behaviour if this is required. This story produces a very ingenious way of looking at the phenomenon of free will and investigates how a robot might go about learning how to feel. “The Boy Who Yelled Dragon” is a rather slight fantasy story written for the YA market.
“Alistair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders” is the best story I’ve read so far this year. Admittedly the year is only a few days old but it’s going to take something outstanding to beat it. In tone, it reminds me of Peter Beagle as two old men set off on a final trip down memory lane before taking the fast elevator to the Pearly Gates. On the way, there’s just enough magic to make their final days less painful. “Distant Replay” is another old fogey story but it doesn’t work quite as well. There’s a sense of wonder about the set-up but the pay-off is just too pulpy to be satisfying. “The Bridge of Frankenstein” continues in this slightly sentimental sequence of stories, this time avoiding mawkishness by creatively engaging with the problems of Mrs Frankenstein as she learns to accommodate Igor and accept the monster as a marriage guidance counsellor. This has a delightfully wry sense of humour about it. And talking about humour, “The One That Got Away” explains why the howls of some coyotes are just a little bit more frustrated than you might realise.
“All the Things You Are” is a wonderful set-up but it fails to deliver because Mike Resnick does not follow the logic of the story. If we have a telepathic alien who can read everything in the target mind, it knows exactly why the hero has come to this planet. For it then to say that our hero has caught on more quickly than those who went before is absurd. His forerunners were innocent victims and might never understand what had happened. I also find it less than satisfying that our hero is not immune or less addicted. He’s gone into this situation with his eyes open. There’s no reason for him to follow the pattern. More interestingly, why does he not kill the pilot and leave himself on the planet but with a lifeline? I could go on but you should understand my frustration from these sample thoughts.
“The Incarceration of Captain Nebula” is a rather pleasing story in which everyone tells the truth as they perceive it within their own terms of reference yet, paradoxically, the man calling himself Captain Nebula is as crazy as a loon (or not as the case may be). And, finally, “Six Blind Men and an Alien” presents us with a rather elegant version of the old story of the elephant and the sample “feels” taken by each man. One of the most difficult of all choices made by an author is the length of the finished product. This is a very clever idea and each of the “feels” is interesting. Fortunately, the author has the good sense to stop before the interest runs out. Put all this together and you have one of the better collections of the year.
Other Seasons: The Best of Neal Barrett, Jr. by Neal Barrett Jr. (Subterranean Press, 2012) leads me to ask one of these silly-clever questions. When you’re publishing a collection of the best of an author’s work, the editor has a choice. Either the running order of the stories selected can be chronological so we can observe the writing styles or authorial concerns evolve, or it can group the stories by theme (all the vampire stories together — only joking). This collection groups by decade, but not in strict chronological order. What advantage is derived by the reader? Apart from putting two historical fantasies back-to-back, I see no benefit, only confused editorial thinking. Normally, this would not matter but, when the author offers up such a wide range of content, why not formally separate the SF from the crime from the alternate history? Or would this detract from the fun of unexpectedly passing from humour to seriousness, from post-apocalypse to contemporary crime, from straight SF to weird, and so on?
“In the Shadow of the Worm” (1964) is one of these deceptive stories about the “end of humanity” that manages to cram a short novel into 40 pages. Why might our species end? For generations, we’ve gone forward, always pushing on to see what’s on the other side of the horizon. But suppose we came to a vast ocean and were overtaken by fear of the unknown. What would happen to our “soul”? Would we only experience spiritual degeneration or might we lose the essence of what made us giants? If the latter, would we fall back down to a level more like the animal? “To Plant a Seed” (1963) plays the Hal Clement game of allowing us to watch over the shoulders of a pair of humans whose job it is to observe an alien race. Naturally, our happy couple have no idea what the lifecycle of these aliens is so, when it looks as if they are all about to commit suicide, their duty of noninterference is challenged. In terms of semiotics the story is also making the point that humans don’t interpret signs and signals in the same way of the locals. What may look like a half-empty glass to one, might be a half-full glass to the other.
“The Stentorii Luggage” (1960) is typical of stories from the Golden Age of the magazines. There was an honourable tradition in presenting heroes with a puzzle and then watching them solve it. In this case, a hotel acquires an infestation of chameleon-like pests. The staff then have the problem of tracking them down. This is fun. It’s a little like Keith Laumer writing the preview of The Trouble With Tribbles (1967). “A Walk on Toy” (1971) asks a very pertinent question about identity. How far should a society go to eradicate differences? Through peer socialisation, we try to create the next generation in our own image or in an image we hope will be better than ours. But what do we do with the square pegs who won’t or can’t fit into the round holes we so carefully craft? I suppose, in the days when we still had land to explore and colonise, we could send off all our misfits and become the perfectly homogenised society. But would that actually be an improvement for those left behind?
The Flying Stutzman” (1978) is the kind of story you used to see on The Twilight Zone in which a man finds himself on the way home but by a rather devious route. In terms of human endeavour, you should never do anything unless and until you can do it right. In “Nightbeat” (1975) we learn of a new set of responsibilities for the police when nightmares come. For the minor outbreaks, shoot drugs into the body. For the older first timer, a physical bridge may be needed to bring the patient back to awareness. “Hero” (1979) is one of these timeless stories about the frontline soldiers who survive the traumas of war and wonder what to do with themselves when they have a chance for a little R&R. While “Survival Course” (1974) reflects all the frustration we non-computer-literate people feel when we can’t quite persuade a machine to do what we want — in this case, save us from death. There can be similar problems in debating the nature of the precise nature of the afterlife with aliens as “Grandfather Pelts” (1970) so perfectly demonstrates.It reminds me of “Beyond Lies the Wub” by P K Dick.
“Diner” (1987) captures the desperation survivors feel post-apocalypse when their local community comes under the control of the Chinese military. The locals rub along, tolerating each other’s eccentricities. With language and cultural divides, the Chinese are less sympathetic. How will can-do, collaborator mayors cope? “Sallie C” (1986) is an rather engaging alternate history fantasy in which a young Rommel witnesses the Wright brothers first flight as Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid watch from the wings, as it were. Pursuing this alternate history, “Winter on the Belle Fourche” (1989) is a wonderful story of a trapper who comes across Emily Dickinson in the wilderness, fights off a few Indians, and explains his need to carry written poetry. “Stairs” (1988) is weird, suggesting a world of high-rise living that’s broken down but not in the hard SFnal or traditional post-apocalypse sense. It has a slightly trippy, LSD-downer feel Burroughs or Ginsberg might have crafted to show the breakdown in capitalist systems. “Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus” (1988) was shortlisted for the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards for Best Novelette — I can’t think why unless all the men who read it thought a speeded-up fantasy might be fun to try and damn the danger. This is how post-apocalypse should be with dog-eat-dog or possum-skin-dog as the scavengers of the world unite — they have nothing to lose but their independence.
“Highbrow” (1987) shows that, during courtship, the man who can not only turn a girl’s head but also take her hundreds of feet in the air, stands the best chance of success. “Perpetuity Blues” (1987) is wonderful. I read it years ago when Gardner Dozois picked it up for The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Fifth Annual Collection and it’s as good today as it was back in 1988. Suffice it to say you should always trust the man who tells you his spacecraft disintegrated over the Great Salt Lake and he’s stuck until he can recreate the technology to get himself where he ought to be. “Tony Red Dog” (1989) is a great crime story about a Red Indian trying to make a living working for the Mafia in New York. This is not a place he can relax because no-one likes him, except the women. For some reason, they do like him until circumstances change. “The Last Cardinal Bird in Tennessee” (1990) is a one-act post-apocalypse play which is something you see as the titular bird. As a professional, you always want everything to go off exactly as you’ve planned it. The “Hit” (1992) shows the flip side when everything that can go wrong, does go wrong — even the dog thinks you’re a sex object. “Cush” (1993) is another wonderful confabulation where the Kuttner/Moore Hogben stories get religion (and not in the strict Lovecraft sense although some knowledge of Dunwich would be helpful).
“Under Old New York” (1991) is another post-apocalypse story, this time an economic collapse in which no-one has any real work except the chance to rebuild some of what the lost generation burned down. “Rhido Wars” (2001) is back into the more experimental, slightly weird mode as a group are forced to leave their forest where the grub is good and go out on to the plains where the sun is hot and danger lurks. While, in “Slidin’” (2008), we get to visit Dallas so we can be reminded what it was like in the Time Before. And if your world had all gone down the crapper, you’d still want news and a little light music to help you through the day. “Radio Station St. Jack” (2008) would fill the need and it will stay that way if only it can produce a miracle. “Tourists” (2004) is a kind of companion piece to “Stairs” as trippy visitors come back as passive observers and remind themselves not to remember so they can continue the trip. “Getting Dark” (2006) continues a more general preoccupation with memory and reflects on how we make life palatable for ourselves by remembering times in which we felt safe and happier. “The Heart” (2006) is one of the best pieces of straight humour I can remember reading this year. It’s not laugh-out-loud but it has such a view of human nature, of that inherent willingness to suspend disbelief otherwise known as gullibility, you just have to smile as the layers of onion are pealed away to the essential truth within. And finally “Limo” (2009) finishes us off in a magnificently macabre style.
No matter how you view this collection, it’s mavellously entertaining and eclectically satisfying as you turn from one genre to another, never quite knowing what’s coming next but sure it will be worth reading. Other Seasons: The Best of Neal Barrett, Jr. is terrific value for money! Thank you Subterranean Press!
Suitably evocative artwork from Vincent Chong.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Time travel is one of the more commonly used science fiction tropes. For some reason, writers of all hues seem to believe such stories are easy to write whereas the reality is rather different. This year has seen a high point in The Coldest War and a low point in Looper. No doubt future years will contain similar extremes but, for once, it seems 2013 is going to start off with a high in the shape of Salvage and Demolition by Tim Powers (Subterranean Press, 2013). In terms of tone, I’m reminded of Bid Time Return by Richard Matheson which is a wonderfully melancholic story of a man dying because of a brain tumour. He becomes fascinated by an old photograph of a woman and finds romance with her in the past. The evocation of the Hotel del Coronado is delightfully detailed with the woman readily accepting this stranger as a lover because two psychics have foretold his arrival. If you have not read this book, you should. It deservedly won the 1976 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel.
Moving to this new novella by Tim Powers, we have a dealer in rare books who receives three boxes of books and manuscripts to sell on consignment. It’s the third box that proves the trigger for travel back from modern times to the San Francisco of 1957. When he touches a manuscript and begins to read the first pages, the first disorienting harbinger comes in the form of a sudden physical and auditory illusion that he’s out of doors in the rain. He can also hear some music playing. Seconds later, he realises the walls and ceiling of the room he uses as an office are still securely in place and everything is reassuringly dry. Without spoilers, we then have various shuttle movements between the two times. In a sense, it doesn’t matter what the mechanism is. Unlike both Time and Again by Jack Finney and Bid Time Return which rely on a form of self-hypnosis, the force for this movement has its roots in ancient magic. But how this works is irrelevant. There are neither marvellous machines with flashing lights to impress nor ancient spells to chant in suitably declamatory style. We’re intended to focus on the people involved. Suffice it to say, there are physical and personal relationships at both ends of the time loop that entwine in a carefully choreographed way. Indeed, the particular magic of this plot is how meticulously the detail is introduced and then dovetails together as we watch the key players in their respective times.
Then there are some enticing questions to ponder. For example, when in 1957, why should our traveller give his name as Vader (aka Darth) and explain his “profession” as dealing in salvage and demolition, when he’s actually Richard Blanzac, a rare book dealer? In a contemporary setting, there can be innumerable reasons for concealing identity, but when our hero goes into the past. . . And then we have the following lines in the opening verses of the manuscript he reads,
His own will, print himself on this world!
He chose — and bit — and dimmed each future dawn.
Does this suggest our hero can manipulate the world in some way but, if he does so, that the outcomes will be bad? Obviously dimming the future dawns leaves everything in darkness. If taken literally that would be a disconcerting outcome. It might make Matheson and Finney’s movement by self-hypnosis sound rather safer. Then there are the following lines,
Two Streams: one flowing South, the other North,
As if from mirror’d Springs they issu’d forth. . .
Perhaps these words are somehow a metaphorical reference to the publishing practices of Ace Books. The series termed Ace Doubles sold two novels in tête-bêche format, i.e. bound so that each novel is presented head-to-tail and vice versa. Or it suggests everything should be in pairs as in the original and its reflected image. This could, of course, mean there must be a return for every going through time, or it could mean there should always be an even, not an odd, number of journeys to preserve symmetry and balance. Such uncertainties are a source of real delight.
As we’ve come to expect from Subterranean Press, this is a beautifully produced book and it’s delivering what looks to be one of the novellas to beat in the 2013 race to the awards. More importantly, Tim Powers has written another of his genre-defying stories. Salvage and Demolition is for everyone who enjoys science fiction mixed into fantasy with real world historical figures dotted across the fictional landscape in a not quite alternate history. No matter how you try to classify it by genre, it’s tremendous fun!
The dust jacket and impressive interior illustrations are by J. K. Potter.
For the review of another book by Tim Powers, see Hide Me Among the Graves.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Zeuglodon by James P Blaylock (Subterranean Press, 2012) takes me back to the world of my childhood where I cut my reading teeth on adventure books by Enid Blyton. As a word of explanation to those not lucky enough to have discovered series like the Famous Five when young, the books are about children in danger: the titular five are Julian, Dick, Anne and Georgina (George) and their dog Timothy. They were always having adventures and catching criminals, hopefully always being back home in time for tea. To get this current team changed around so they can participate in this homage to Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Charles Fort and others, picture yourself standing on a sprung wooden floor in a thick fog — I know it’s a challenge to imagine adverse weather conditions inside a building, but bear with me. This is the game being played in this book. You can hear the movements of anyone in the room but cannot see them. You now hear ten pairs of footsteps so, naturally, you assume five people are approaching you. Imagine your surprise when it proves to be three children and a dog. It’s this kind of intensely logical and utterly convincing analysis that appeals to both young and old readers who want to experience a kind of affectionate nostalgia. A view of a past full of gentle wonder as filtered through fantasy rose-tinted spectacles.
So let’s meet the cast of characters. This is a first-person narrative by Katherine Perkins. She’s twelve and already an expert in everything but most especially in cryptozoology. She has two younger cousins, Brendan and Perry. The dog is called Hasbro (which is presumably a reference to his love of games with the kids or the Langdon St Ives’ valet — your choice). With mother missing in acton, Katherine is in the care of John Toliver Hedgepeth. He’s a genius, a member of the Order of St. George, and an inventor in the Heath Robinson style, being able to make a radio out of the junk laying around in his attic. In distant LA, Aunt Ricketts is convinced this is an unsuitable arrangement: a nutty eccentric man in charge of three children. So she gets Child Services on the job to see whether she can bring the children to a safer, more caring environment. To that end, Ms Henrietta Peckworthy appears on the scene to investigate the quality of care the children are receiving. Unfortunately, her arrival coincides with unusual weirdness so the whole issue of custody has to be shelved while the adventures move into high gear as one or more villains kidnap a mermaid (well, that’s not quite right but close enough for these purposes) and make demands. That gets our team on to the SS Clematis and off through the fog to the rendezvous with one or more of the bad guys. Yes, I know this is confusing but half the fun of all this is not knowing who’s on which side and what their motives are. After all, when you’re observing the world through the eyes of a twelve-year-old cryptozoologist in the making, you can’t expect her to know everything (including how fog gets out of glass jars so quickly even though you put the lids on as fast as you can). So think of her as an unreliable narrator or as a reliable narrator in an unreliable world. In such a story, lacking one for a Blyton full house, we’re off to Morecambe Bay and nearby Lake Windermere (which has a big fan installed to keep the fog away).
As a novel, Zeuglodon fits into the same story cycle as The Digging Leviathan with a shared villain Hilario Frosticos, and we’re ultimately in ERB land. As a pair, it fits into a broader set of novels which are called the Narbondo series, featuring Ignatio Narbondo and Langdon St Ives in a steampunk version of history rewriting Victorian events for comic effect. The essence of these stories is that much of what Verne, ERB, Fort and others described is actually real and, using new technology, hero and villain fight over Earth’s future, even travelling through time when necessary. Because of its point of view, Zeuglodon is actually a rather ingenious way of adding to the mythology and showing a different view of how the Victorian inspired future is working out. It’s not quite as steampunkish as earlier books but compensates by trespassing into fantasy dreamscapes where the zeuglodon or basilosaurus might put in an appearance should you be able to penetrate through to the hollow Earth. James Blaylock has managed something rather clever, maintaining a childlike point of view which, by implication, deals with some rather adult issues about relationships and responsibilities, about the difference between the real and the places we see in our dreams, and whether it would ever be right to disturb the world’s understanding of itself by collecting evidence of a different reality.
For a review of another book by James P Blaylock, see The Aylesford Skull.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
The Best of Robert Silverberg: Stories of Six Decades (Subterranean Press, 2012) is a wonderful trip down memory lane for me and, with the newer stories, a reminder of just how good a writer Robert Silverberg has been and remains today. I put it in this way because fashions and writing styles change over the years and, with many authors, what passed muster fifty years ago, is not readable today. Yet the stories reprinted here from the 1950s are still good by modern standards. Indeed, even when he’s sermonising, Robert Silverberg remains highly readable and anyone interested in the craft of narrative should read him. For those wholly dedicated to the cause, there’s a run of seven volumes of collected stories. Subterranean Press is sometimes a treasure trove of nostalgia. This particular collection is Robert Silverberg’s own choices with fairly extensive notes about each decade and the stories selected.
We start off with “Road to Nightfall” (1954) which is still interesting today as a frank assessment of the likely cannibalism if world order was to collapse. It’s somewhat darker than Make Room, Make Room by Harry Harrison, but less successful than either the anti-war The Men in the Jungle by Norman Spinrad or the political/religious parable in Donald Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite, but very good as an example of work thought controversial in the mid-1950s. “The Macauley Circuity” (1955) is also ahead of its time in predicting the capacity of machines to replace human workers. With some prescience, it foresees we’ll all be relegated to lives of enforced leisure, i.e. we’ll be redundant — a theme repeated for one rather important job in “Good News From the Vatican” (1971).
“Sunrise on Mercury” (1956) is a mechanical first contact story in which psychological despair comes down to a majority vote. “Warm Man” (1957) is an unexpected biter-bit vampiresque story which strikes a real note of pathos as our “hero” first finds balance and then overdoses, followed by “Flies” (1965) in which conscience and the resulting guilt are given an on-off switch. “Nightwings” (1968) finds a world at the end of times when a long-feared invader finally comes from the stars. This upsets the current order of things which is not inherently a bad outcome because it had grown hidebound and unsympathetic to need. In such a reversal of fortune, some would become collaborators and others would passively help those of high status who were deposed. Such has always been the way of the world when change is forced upon it. Some years later in “Beauty in the Night” (1997), we get another invasion and, by one of these great ironies on which short stories are based, it takes an abused child to kill one of the invaders. The result, of course, is massive retaliation, unlike “Passengers” (1967) which pursues the idea that the external agency might deliberately seek to cause the maximum distress and humiliation individual by individual. This contrasts sharply with the mirror image in “Sundance” (1968) which rehashes the guilt we should all feel if, to terraform a planet for our occupation, we had to wipe out an intelligent species. It’s like the guilt we feel for eradicating the Red Indians and other indigenous people on our own planet. Moving to social engineering, “Schwartz Between the Galaxies” (1973) is a thoughtful piece about homogenisation, the process of rendering all Earth’s cultures the same. Although the majority may not mourn the loss of the Eskimo from the ice or the headhunter from some jungle lair, society is actually enriched by diversity and impoverished by the desire to dumb everything down to the lowest common denominator. This theme of the role of creativity born out of threats and challenges is pursued in “The Millennium Express” (2000) where the argument against the complacency and lethargy of Paradise is made. Finally in this section, “To See the Invisible Man” (1962) nicely shows the irony of how the emotional pendulum swings from a generalised lack of interest in one’s fellow man to an empathetic desire to reach out and comfort the distressed. It’s a classically hypocritical use of legal power in the fruitless pursuit of a society where people naturally reach out and care for each other.
“The Far Side of the Bell-Shaped Curve” (1980) is a nice biter-bit time travel story where jealousy proves our traveller’s undoing. And punning on undoing, we have time-editorialising in “Needle in a Timestack” (1982) with our hero determined to recover the woman he loved and lost. This embraces paradox and allows positive manipulation to succeed. “Hunters in the Forest” (1990) also depends on time travel, but as a means of exploring our fears and frustrations. If you had the chance to give up modern civilisation, go back to some quiet valley and build a cabin, you would jump at it, wouldn’t you? “Against the Current” (2006) is a fantasy rather than an SF time travel story in which an attempt to drive home leads in a rather unexpected direction.
“Capricorn Games” (1972) offers an indication of the consequences of telepathic contact. Seeing behind the mask, to the essential person inside the body, is not always what you expect — particularly if you later discover the exchange is two-way. “Born With the Dead” (1973) reminds us that, sometimes to beat someone, you have to force him or her to join you. Only then can he or she see the world from your point of view and decide to leave you alone. “The Pope of the Chimps” (1981) is a rather clever story about what anthropologists should do when the chimpanzees they are working with not only slowly develop intelligence but also grasp the nature of religion. In particular, what should the “animals” be told about death and what happens after it. And talking of death and how we should approach it, or not as the case may be, “Death Do Us Part” (1994) shows us the selfish if not predatory side of what we call love. People’s motives can make us feel very uncomfortable which is the sign of a very successful story.
“Sailing to Byzantium” (1984) remains one of the all-time classic stories about love and the meaning it can bring to two rather different lives. Indeed, while all around them is constantly being rebuilt, their emotions are the one true unchanging thing. “Enter a Soldier: Later, Enter Another” (1987) reminded me in spirit of John Brunner’s Timescoop (1969) except, instead of having a time machine to bring people forward for a meeting, this has computers create simulacra of historical figures. Although it lacks Brunner’s sense of humour, it does have a reasonable intellectual heft which makes it fun to read.
“With Caesar in the Underworld” (2001) is a slightly dour alternate history novella, forming part of a series describing the perseverance of Rome. It says interesting things about the nature of power and why some people covet it. There’s also some subtlety in the lazy failure of apparent friends to see beyond the surface to the reality beneath. “Defenders of the Frontier” (2007) recognises that empires may come and go but the soldiers may stoically persist, often in outposts long forgotten by central command. For such remnants, the issue is always how to react to the abandoment (this first appeared in Warriors edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois). Finally, in rather the same way cinemas used to run continuous cycles of films during the time they were open, “The Prisoner” (2009) starts in media res, encourages us to watch through the ending and start until we can leave where we came in. It’s a variation on a very old idea but it works quite well here, if only because it’s short.
For a review of another Subterranean Press collection, see Multiples (1983-87): The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Six by Robert Silverberg.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
In my review of Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart by Caitlin R Kiernan, I expressed the opinion, “For once in a discussion of a Subterranean Press book, I have to say I find the jacket artwork from Lee Moyer rather cheesy.” In a blog posting, Caitlin R Kiernan greeted my one-line comment with the equally dismissive assertion that I’m “dead fucking wrong”. I think my original comment had marginally more class than the consequent riposte.
The word “cheesy” is a word of fairly precise meaning but it has connotational layers of pejorative meaning. At a denotational level, it means the food tastes of cheese. However, the scope of the word has slipped to imply that, despite the taste, the food does not actually contain cheese. It merely sports the flavour. As now applied to any situation, it implies that, no matter what the superficial impression, the product is of poor value or fake in some material way. As applied to human behaviour, it implies insincerity.
How to approach critiquing a jacket design and its artwork
I need to start by saying how undervalued the work of the jacket artist is. Many people discount the jacket as part of the overall design without thinking through the contribution the artist and book designer make to the decision to buy. Although there will always be a hard core of buyers who routinely acquire the latest titles by their favoured authors without regard to the physical package, the design of the book more generally encourages us to pick it up and enhances our appreciation of its potential value. In effect, we’ve been trained to become consumers of the pictures used, the choice of font, the placement of title, author and blurb quotes, and so on. All these elements are signifiers in the process of communicating meaning to us.
So, for example, the signified central image might take the form of an old woman holding a broom but, in order to decode its meaning, we need to look at the style and, more importantly, at the context. On a book whose design signals a historical saga set in a Victorian village, the signified might be intended as a farmer’s wife or a maid at the country house of the lord of the manor. On a book presented as fantasy, we would provisionally attribute the characteristics of a witch to the old woman and look for other visual evidence to confirm or deny the hypothesis, e.g. the presence of a cat or other familiar. So there’s a denotational level of interpretation where we take a conventional and literal meaning from what we see. That’s followed by our assessment of the connotational meanings depending on a multiplicity of other signs and signals constituting the book’s physical design as a set of meanings for us to decode.
This makes all meanings relative and, to some extent, dependent on multiple factors not under the control of the artist or the publisher. For example, as an elderly British man, the sum of my cultural experiences accumulated over the years may predispose me to interpret an image in a way completely different to a young American woman. Everything we see is filtered through the lens of our own preconceptions and adjusted according to our personal tastes. In this I separate aesthetics as a set of abstract norms of what I take to represent “beauty”, “cruelty” and other intangibles, and my subjective attitudes. We can hold up yardsticks and make a subjective assessment of whether we like that colour choice or the way the light is used to create a particular effect without it changing our overall assessment that the picture shows, say, a megalomanic in full flow and so delivers the right message in the right context.
When it comes to commercial art, nothing should happen by accident. Whereas fine art may allow for the possibility of serendipity and accident to play a part in the final composition, people paid to supply art to market a product have to understand how the majority of people will understand the picture. So, for these purposes, we examine the artwork as presented to us.
An analysis of the jacket design
Let’s start with the title, Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart. The human heart only has four chambers so the source of the heart cannot be a human body, i.e. as depicted, the purple demon cannot have removed it from the woman in front of her. Now as to the context, the content of the book may legitimately be classified as erotic dark fantasy. So the brief given to the artist might be to signal eroticism as the dominant theme. Yet that could pose commercial dangers. If artwork is too explicit, it probably deters the more casual buyers who prefer their dark fantasy without anything tending to what they deem pornography. So what do we have? The purple demon is obviously female so this is a same sex couple albeit interspecies. The demon’s right hand rests on the woman’s shoulder in a position suggesting dominance and control, yet her eyes are looking directly at us as viewers. One possible interpretation might be that we are voyeurs invited to draw satisfaction from what’s about to happen. Notice the demon’s smile. It’s conspiratorial. We and the demon are assumed to know what will happen, hence the clear way in which the heart is being held up for us to examine. Except, of course, we’re not in the conspiracy. No-one has told us what the heart is for.
What makes this scene surprising is the passivity of the woman. Neither by physical resistance nor facial expression does she register objection. She appears indifferent even though she’s in the presence of a demon. If this scenario is intended to show actual or anticipated sexual activity between the two individuals depicted, the eye contact would be between the partners and their expressions would reflect their respective points of view. We would expect more animation from the woman, but her expression and body language does not signal the anticipation of sexual satisfaction from the use of the heart. Indeed, the pose does not even fit the paradigm of an S&M session staged for the benefit of a voyeuristic audience. The whole point of S&M is for the submissive partner to signal her fearful agony at the prospect of what’s about to happen. She should be looking at the heart with horrified anticipation. This would give the more sadistic among us the chance to vicariously enjoy toying with her fear and then subjecting her to whatever adverse effect the heart has. As it is, the woman’s expression looks more like, “I’ve paid a lot of money to have this heart poultice applied to my hair and I wish this demon would just get on with it.”
In other words, my decoding of the signifiers suggests they do not add value to the marketing of the book. They do not show unambiguously lesbian activity to highlight the book as erotic. There are many legitimate reasons for two woman to hold this pose including a session at a beauty parlour or hairdressing salon. The fact the demon is looking at the viewers is also equivocal. She may be demonstrating the health spa techniques to trainees or there may be potential customers watching this demonstration treatment in the expectation they will be signing up for treatment next Tuesday. From her smile, the demon has obviously just told a slightly risqué joke. Similarly, it’s not an S&M session because the expression of the woman in the submissive position is all wrong.
So taken as a whole, the artwork as a part of the book’s design is not signalling the presence of conventional horror, more traditional fantasy, Lovecraftian horror, a science fiction element, nor overtly sexual content. I don’t think the artist could decide exactly what message he wanted to send to those who view the finished product. Worse, as a title, Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart is unhelpful. Is this the true life confessions of the heart itself? You know the kind of thing: the places I’ve been, the things I’ve done. . . Or is it intended to signal confessions from the demon or the human woman on the uses she’s made of the heart? Thus, to my mind, the picture does not match the title and, by not characterising or defining the nature of the book’s content, does not add value to the marketing of the book. In my vocabulary, that makes the jacket design cheesy because no matter what my appreciation of the aesthetics of the picture, I have no clear idea of what meaning the publisher intends me to draw from the totality of the signifiers. In reaching this conclusion, I do not necessarily attach any blame to the artist. Indeed, he may very well be the victim of an equivocal brief from the publisher or have been given specific directions on what to paint. Ultimately, the publisher carries the responsibility for what I take to be cheesiness because nothing appears on the jacket without the publisher’s express approval.
Having seen a draft of this explanation, Lee Moyer responded:
Thanks for elucidating your brief comment about my cover.
My cover was drawn from the story “Dancing With the Eight of Swords”. I had supposed that readers would find that my illustration the tall violet demon with glassine horns unmistakable and that after reading the tale, they might find cover recontextualized. Maybe in surprising ways. I don’t wish to say more lest I spoil the superb story, but suffice it to say that even the misty background of the cover is specific.
I’m sorry the cover didn’t work for you, but I’m glad to hear your thoughts thereon.
As a final thought from me:
Functionally, the design of the cover should communicate appropriate meaning before the book is read. In the case of a collection where disparate themes may be present, I concede this is a challenge but, to my mind, it’s a challenge the artist should accept. Whether a person who has read the book later recognises the scene from one of the stories is not entirely relevant. For the publisher, the proper consideration is how many potential readers might not be induced to buy and read the book. In this case, both the artist and publisher knew the picture took one scene out of context, but nevertheless incorporated the image plus the other signifiers into the cover design to communicate a more universal meaning. Frankly, I did not and do not find the image in any way representative of the contents of the book. Accordingly, I confirm my opinion that both the artist and the publisher produced a cover design that is, not to put to fine a point on it, cheesy.
When you look at the world of dark fantasy or horror (depending on the way you apply labels), it’s sad there are so few women who get the recognition they deserve. I suppose if we stretch the boundaries, we have to include Anne Rice among the really well-known. Of the “midlist” crowd, my personal favorites are Poppy Z Brite and Lisa Tuttle. All of which is probably not the best way to begin a review of Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart by Caitlin R Kiernan (Subterranean Press, 2012) but I thought I should make the point that the mass market is not given the chance to appreciate the quality of the dark fantasy or horror fiction that women write. Whereas the men are heavily promoted, women are not picked up by the mainstream publishers and so are less well-known. This denies the majority the chance to read work by Caitlin R Kiernan and others. Not only does she produce such good prose, but her work gives a fascinating insight how fiction written by a woman differs from the male version. In this collection, we also see a conscious effort made to blur the line between the “dark” and the “erotic”, i.e. to make explicit what many of the male writers tend to leave implicit. Those of you who know Caitlin R Kiernan will understand she has an insight into the spectrum of gender and so her fiction tends to approach sexuality and eroticism from less usual directions. This makes her work all the more interesting to read and, once again, we’re indebted to Subterranean Press for supporting her work.
“The Wolf Who Cried Girl” is an elegant story about the socialisation process. No matter how they first present as children, we intend to transform our young into adults we can be proud of. For the elite who are strong and the average, this works reasonably well, but when the non-standard have to contend with the prejudices of the peer group and authority figures, it’s very difficult to stay true to the inner personality. Those with gender issues are only too aware of this problem. This is the story of a wolf who’s magically transformed into a girl. Hospitals and counsellors attack her instinctive feral identity, forcing her to assume the appearance of a woman. Her decision to have sex with a man proves the final step in the magic driving the process of social change. The voluntary acceptance of the new identity is inevitably the surrender of the old. Except, of course, wolves never like to surrender and always fight to the end, particularly if they believe they have been tricked. The reverse is “Unter den Augen des Mondes” in which a female werewolf finds herself a prisoner and unable to transform into her human body. Living as a caged animal, all she can hope for is the opportunity to kill the man who taunts and abuses her.
We then have a genuinely macabre allegory. “The Bed of Appetite” makes literal the cliché that people can be consumed by love. This inevitably involves one or both parties accepting some reduction in their individuality. They give up their freedoms, accept new responsibilities. But, as the relationship moves towards termination, what will be left of each person? “Subterraneus” is a simple but powerful Lovecraftian story. “The Collector of Bones” reminds us of the idiom that some people talk you to death. These three stories also consider the difference between dominance and submissiveness depending on the gender role. “The Bed Of Appetite” is particularly interesting because the woman begins to write the story, but it ends as the man dictates. “Beautification” continues the theme of submissiveness and self-sacrifice, except it’s not at all clear what benefit will accrue to the woman from this sacrifice. “Untitled Grotesque” returns to the world of gender mutability in a story of voyeurs where it’s important to understand who’s watching whom with the greatest interest. At least, in “Flotsam”, there’s an obvious pay-off for the submission. The victim longs to give blood to a vampire because it’s an ecstatic experience. Unfortunately, the sexual high emphasises the dominant loneliness and frustration because the donation comes only when it suits the convenience of the vampire. “Concerning Attrition and Severance” completes this small section by moving us from voluntary submission to sadism for the greater enjoyment of the sadist and her watchers.
“Rappaccini’s Dragon (Murder Ballad No. 5)” shows us that, with good preplanning, revenge can achieve the desired result, while “The Melusine (1898)” demonstrates that if you live in the moment, you can suddenly find your rational defences overwhelmed as love beckons. But if you hesitate, the magic is lost and the mundane rationality of the world reasserts control. “Fecunitatem (Murder Ballad No. 6)” asks if you have a close relationship with nature, will a death of your own choosing lead to a different view of the world? Perhaps a seed might take root and prove you as fertile as the rich earth. Moving into science fiction, “I Am the Abyss, and I Am the Light” describes a process whereby a human and an alien surrender their individual personalities and merge into a single being. In so doing, the individuals become something different, neither human nor alien, but a third species. During the process, both overcome the inherent loneliness of being one individual in a body, never knowing what others around them are thinking. Through this surrender of individuality, they accept each other in a form of relationship that’s intimate and permanent. Similarly, “Lullaby of Partition and Reunion” suggests that true love implies the two people will intermingle, will fuse both physically and intellectually — even become soul partners like siamese twins albeit with different parents.
“Dancing With the Eight of Swords” thinks about a serial killer who, while alive, believes the voice of another is guiding every action. Would it not be remarkable if, upon death, the killer might find a different way of relating to that voice, perhaps even of breaking down barriers to become a single individual who can make her own choices. “Murder Ballad No. 7” raises the possibility that, if a man could see past a glamour to the fairy below, he might be considered worthy of being a mate, albeit only within the fairy ring, of course. “Derma Sutra (1891) offers a Lovecraftian potential for two coming together through the application of various tattoos and the use of words from Ancient Books, while “The Thousand-and-Third Story of Scheherazade” is a nice inversion of the original Arabian Nights to keep a different relationship going. “The Belated Burial” suggests an intermediate step in the metamorphosis from dead human to vampire. “The Bone’s Prayer” reinvents the old trope of the message in a bottle and wonders how a small piece of soapstone with signs of the Elder Gods carved on to its surface might serve the purpose. “A Canvas For Incoherent Arts” has a couple playing S&M games based on sensory deprivation. What does the submissive partner become when she’s actually afraid? “The Peril of Liberated Objects” is a powerful Lovecraftian acceptance of dreaming as a form of voyeurism, showing an unexpected price paid out of sight. “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” was reviewed in Black Wings. “At the Gate of Deeper Slumber” continues the Lovecraftian theme with a wonderful box that offers the use of a portal if only you have the courage to open it. Finally, “Fish Bride (1970)” completes the frame of the first story. A woman is slowly going through the metamorphosis to become one of the Deep Ones. Unfortunately, she falls in love with a human man. As her gills begin to show and the call grows stronger to join her mother in the city beyond the Devil Reef, she realises the loneliness that awaits her without the man she loves. Here acceptance of the process produces the mirror image result but without the option to pick up a knife and strike with any meaningful purpose.
Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart is a collection of densely written stories, often with challenging content. As such, it rewards those who take their time to engage with the author and think through what underpins each story. Because of its frankness and some eroticism, it will not be to everyone’s taste. This is a shame because, regardless of the superficial descriptions, the underlying themes transcend physicality. Almost without exception, the stories are about the mind and how it relates to the world around it through the agency of the body. Yes, some of the stories are disturbing, but is one of the functions of art not to disturb, to challenge our safe view of the things around us we perceive as mundane?
My opinion on Lee Moyer‘s contribution to the cover design provoked some debate so I’ve written a more detailed critique of the artwork at Cover Design For Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.