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Doyle After Death by John Shirley

August 17, 2014 8 comments

cover-doyle-after-death1

Doyle After Death by John Shirley (Witness Impulse, 2013) starts off as great fun in a metaphysical fashion and then grows slightly more serious towards the end as various characters are forced to confront the reality of their true selves. On the first page, our narrator Nick Fogg dies in Las Vegas. He’s doing his best to earn a crust as a private investigator but ends up with a big burden of guilt. No matter what your view of the afterlife (which may vary from angels strumming harps to a number of virgins waiting for you if you have killed an infidel or two), his spirit ends up in a new body beside a wine-coloured sea. Walking along the shore, he find the official greeter who duly introduces him into the local community which is called Garden Rest. As you will gather from the book’s title, one of the village’s residents is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and so begins the tale of Sherlock’s creator and a modern gumshoe who are caught up in an investigation of a murder. That’s when he’s not drinking, engaging in sex, and denying he brought any cigarettes over with him — tobacco is the one thing everyone seems to miss in this “place”.

So now you see why I said the book was metaphysical. All the people on this plane are already dead so it’s somewhat paradoxical to suggest more of more of them might be able to die again. The trick, if you can master it, is to control the elements from which the body has been constructed and deformulate it. The locals have the reverse process down to a fine art. If you want a new house, all you have to do is have a couple of experts thrust their hands into the soil on the site and, hey presto, the building is formulated out of ectoplasm drawn from the ground. Indeed, the first third of the book is a rather gentle ramble round this part of the afterlife with Nick Fogg being shown the ropes and introduced to the cast of local characters who are drawn from across time and racial divides.

John Shirley with an interesting view of the afterlife

John Shirley with an interesting view of the afterlife

This makes the book slightly uncharacteristic of Shirley who’s better known for hard-edged storytelling in the science fiction and horror genres. Although there’s a wealth of careful thinking invested in the creation of this plane of reality and the rules governing existence on it, this is more a fantasy. Yes there are moments when there are signs there may be slightly more horror underlying the operation of life after death, but this is a fairly amiable murder mystery with Doyle using some of the forensic skills he learned from Dr Bell to pick up clues. Only as we come into the final third when Doyle’s wife is kidnapped do we see something of the “larger than life” style that Shirley usually employs.

As to the mystery element, we know little of the two men who have died. It seems one was a homeless man back on Earth who didn’t change much when he crossed over. The victim found as Fogg arrives was a botanist, but we’re not given a chance to meet him or get any sense that Doyle and Fogg are engaged in seeking justice for him. It’s just a puzzle there to be solved as and when the peregrinations around this neck of the woods permit. Rather the focus of the book is the failure of both Doyle and Fogg to resolve their emotions relating to their earlier lives. In the afterlife, Doyle can have access to the two women he married when alive. So which one should he prefer? Similarly, through dreams, Fogg relives the key moments before he died and we get to see why he feels so guilty. By and large, these elements seem the strongest in the book. So as our detective duo move towards a form of redemption, they have the murders to solve and Doyle’s kidnapped wife to recover. In this, the birds and local wildlife offer words of comment and encouragement. And, in the end, there’s a reasonably fair resolution of the major plot elements. So this is a gentle book with occasional weird digressions. It’s not a Holmesian-style mystery with deductive reasoning festooning the landscape. They get the right answer because there’s no-one else left to chase. This makes Doyle After Death a fairly undemanding read with occasional fun and some interesting ideas about what an afterlife might look like.

For a review of a fiction collection by John Shirley, see In Extremis. There are two standalone novels:
Bleak History
New Taboos
and two novelisations called:
Borderlands: The Fallen
Resident Evil: Retribution.

New Taboos by John Shirley

August 28, 2013 1 comment

new taboos cover

When you’re born and bred in a country, you’re tuned into the social and political system and develop radar on meanings. For example, after only a few sentences, whether written or spoken, it’s often possible to tell which part of the country the person comes from, which class he or she belongs to, what political affiliation he or she has, and so on. But, as an outsider, it’s significantly more difficult to read the runes and decide how to interpret the available information. Of course, in fiction, it tends to be easier because although the characters will be showing off their beliefs, the plot is usually dominant. Except when you come to a chap book like this. When I buy an author’s work, I buy the next title without bothering to research what the publisher has to say about it. When this small offering arrived, I confess to being puzzled. So with great trepidation, I set off into the quagmire which is American politics. Anticipating the worst, I ask all American readers to have a little patience for this old man who knows nothing and understands even less. New Taboos by John Shirley (PM Press, 2013) Outspoken Authors is a collection of a novelette, two nonfiction pieces, an interview and an incomplete bibliography.

“A State of Imprisonment” is what, I suppose, I have to classify as political science fiction with horror overtones. Although, in the traditional sense, moderately horrific things happen in this near future scenario, the main thrust of the novelette is a discussion of the direction in which America’s policy towards the punishment of criminals may progress. It’s set in Arizona. The entire state has been taken over by a large corporation which has converted some 80% of the land into a single continuous prison with the occasional population enclave at strategic locations for prison personnel. By virtue of this specialisation, Arizona has become the lock-up capital of the world. Every state in the union and from around the world now outsources its prisoners to Arizona. Naturally, because this is a for-profit corporation, very few of said prisoners ever see the light of day again. Once you have your inmate population and begin receiving the per diem rate for keeping them, there’s no incentive to let them go unless the corporation can develop more profitable ways of exploiting those behind bars.

John Shirley with an interesting view of the world

John Shirley with an interesting view of the world

Of course, the selection of Arizona is inherently significant not only because of immigration and the somewhat notorious SB1070, but also because of the reputation of the Arizona Department of Corrections in the way it runs the Lewis complex in Buckeye and other max units. So when our heroine journalist is allowed through the gates at the border crossing and starts her guided tour of one unit, she gets invited to see what really goes on. The rest of the story flows naturally from her decision to accept the invitation. Although I find this type of fiction not uninteresting as a window into how opinion-shapers think about social issues like the use of prisons as punishment, this is rather clunky and, by my standards, incoherent. America already has some privatised prison units and there have been a couple of cases in which judges have been convicted of fraud for sentencing people to those units. Judges should not be allowed to hold shares in companies running local prisons. As a capitalist country, it should not be shocking that corporations are allowed to run prison facilities. It’s equally foreseeable that the system is open to manipulation and corruption with the maximisation of profits leading to the poor treatment of the prison population. Naturally, a private corporation would react aggressively if a journalist came into possession of embarrassing information. So, like Walter Mondale, I’m not quite sure where the beef is. Everything in this novelette is a reasonable extrapolation on what we have now. Although it’s unlikely a prison corporation could ever take over an entire state, it’s certainly not unreasonable to speculate that a major chain of prison service assets will be established around the world, offering a menu of everything the local state needs from standard cells to à la carte items like torture to match local customs and beliefs. It’s obvious this is a business opportunity no self-respecting capitalist corporation could resist.

Then the publisher takes me by the hand with “New Taboos” which is a political manifesto calling for the creation and enforcement of a system for social judgement and penalties for those found wanting. This clarifies and expands upon the subtext to the novelette. Intellectually, I empathise with the wish-list of practices to “abhor”. Unfortunately, no matter how desirable the implementation of the social system as proposed, the list is never going to gain sufficient acceptance to become a workable mechanism for modifying behaviour. It’s a shame but these features of human behaviour have become the accepted norms for achieving positions of dominance in our society and no matter how much we may resent the victimisation and oppression that follows, the average citizen remains powerless to make any difference. “Why We Need Forty Years of Hell” is a much more realistic discussion of the growing divide between the haves and have-nots, recognising things will get a lot worse before they can begin get better, i.e. there will hopefully come a time when even the most dimwitted of superrich power-brokers admits the need for a little restraint. We finish off with “Pro Is For Professional” an interview between Terry Bisson and John Shirley which shows the lead author in a favorable light.

Taken as a whole, this is a pleasing exercise in political pamphleteering. As an outsider, I find myself saddened by the label attached to the series. The featured authors are considered “outspoken” as if that’s somehow a “bad thing” in the land protected by the First Amendment. While it may not be mainstream in American, the centrism on display in New Taboos would be considered very uncontroversial in Europe. Perhaps this a radical socialism according to the right in America which is why this independent small press feels to give such views a platform. I can’t say, but I understand the philosophy on display and, as a European, would defend John Shirley’s right to say it.

For a review of a new fiction collection by John Shirley, see In Extremis. There are two standalone novels:
Bleak History
Doyle After Death
and two novelisations called:
Borderlands: The Fallen
Resident Evil: Retribution.

Resident Evil: Retribution by John Shirley

February 10, 2013 1 comment

Resident Evil

When I was younger and a completist, I would always read the “other” books by the authors I collected. This included the novelisations. Many of these books actually proved quite interesting because, although they stayed within the broad framework of the scripts, they often shed light on the events only shown on the screen. Interior monologues also added depth to the charcterisations. These enhancements to the viewing experience gave the books a bonus quality. All that was more than twenty years ago. However, as an experiment, I thought it would be interesting to read a contemporary novelisation and, because he can write rather better than average, I picked Resident Evil: Retribution by John Shirley (Titan Books, 2012). I’ve seen two of the franchised films but, for reasons connected to my emotional health at the time, decided not to pay to see this latest addition when it did the rounds last year. As with the previous outings, the responsibility for the script fell on to the broad shoulders of Paul W S Anderson. In theory, this creative consistency should give the cinema franchise more heft. Except, of course, when the back themes under development are less than exciting.

For those of you who’ve been living in a cultural bubble for the last fifteen years or so, the Resident Evil phenomenon began life as a horror video game and then moved to take over all associated media. The cinema version personalises the original first- and third-person-shooter format by following the adventures of Alice as she battles to save herself (and the world) from an outbreak of the T-virus. Milla Jovovich has been battling flesh-eating zombies and other mutants throughout. Mr Anderson (no connection to The Matrix, of course) has been producing variations on this theme as the Umbrella Corporation’s genetic experiments produce a range of bio-weapons which then escape and cause an apocalypse. The hook is that Alice is the key to saving what’s left of the world. If she can survive and keep fighting, she will somehow find a way of either reversing the mutations or at least eradicating them so that the remaining humans can begin the slow task of rebuilding. All this is a not unreasonable premise but, somewhere along the way, it became complicated as different factions and groups, some independent and others formally within Umbrella, began to dispute what the final outcome should be.

John Shirley with funds in hand ready to get back to proper writing

John Shirley with funds in hand ready to get back to proper writing

When I began reading the novelisation of the latest film, I was hopeful the book would follow the conventions of other books written in a series. So as someone coming to the fifth instalment without having seen the fourth, I needed an update on what had happened after the third. Unfortunately, the book does not contain useful infodumps to bring naive readers like me up to speed. It’s sink or swim time. This forces a realisation that, without exception, the previous novelisations I had read were either of standalone films or I had always seen the preceding films in the series. I had no need of brief background notes to make sense of what I was reading on the page. In this instance, I was forced to Wikipedia so that I could try to make sense of the opening sections of this book. Frankly, it was all not a little incomprehensible. Being faithful to the screenplay is a wonderful brief when the only people you are writing for are the fans who know every last detail of who everyone is and how they came to be in these starting positions for the book to take off. I was lost and demoralised.

So here comes the inevitable bifurcated review. For those of you who are the guardians of deep wisdom on all aspects of Resident Evil, this book will no doubt broaden if not deepen your understanding of the script. There’s good forward motion in the plot leaving our two groups respectively in Washington and on Catalina. Neither group is entirely safe but Alice has had her powers restored so there’s hope. But if you’re like me and not well-versed in this gaming universe, you will think this beautifully written — John Shirley is incapable of writing badly — but not an enjoyable read. I prefer something capable of being understood in its own right and not depending on external knowledge to make it work.

For my other reviews of books by John Shirley, see:
Bleak History
Borderlands: The Fallen
Doyle After Death
In Extremis: The Most Extreme Short Stories of
New Taboos

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Borderlands: The Fallen by John Shirley

Well, in the spirit that, when I follow an author, I tend to read all he or she writes, here goes with Borderlands: The Fallen by John Shirley (Simon and Schuster, 2011). The critical piece of information for those of you who, like me, live in a book and not a box, is that Borderlands is a first-person shooter/role-playing video game produced by Gearbox Software. For once, I actually called up Wikipedia — I tend to assume it’s reasonably reliable on popular culture — and see that this book features one of the four characters a player can elect to “be”. Hence, I was introduced to Roland who used to be a member of the Crimson Lance Army, the mercenary force employed by the Atlas Corporation. Following the game, we’re on Pandora which, like Harry Harrison’s Deathworld series, has predators that prey on predators that prey on humans when given half a chance. So, since there are a lot more critters than there are humans, most humans actually stand no chance except when it’s inconvenient for the plot. The lure for anyone to be on this planet is there are “ruins”. Yes, like Kilroy, aliens were here and left signs of their passing through. They also left “vaults” in which people with the right skills can find “treasure”. It may just be weapons or it can be new technology to improve the quality of life in the human universe. So, in the titular Badlands, bands of treasure hunters and mercenaries fight each other and the local wildlife in the hope of finding this treasure lying abandoned or, if they are really lucky, locating a vault and then being able to open it without having a small horde of guardians emerge and slaughter everyone.

John Shirley pleased to receive the cheque

With all that essential background now squirrelled away wherever you keep such nuts of information, we boot up (those laces are a pesky nuisance, but do them up tight and they keep out the predatory ants and other nibbling nasties) and roll out of Fyrestone in pursuit of treasure. Meanwhile, just coming into orbit is a ship of fools, one of whom actually plans a covert landing. As a result of sabotage, the ship crashes and burns which is quite difficult in the vacuum of space, but three members of the same family are distributed around the planet by random escape pods. Naturally, they are possessed of basic survival skills and some specialised knowledge. Zac is the idiot who thought it would be a breeze to drop in. However, he’s an engineer and, who knows, his ability with a screwdriver may come in handy. His son, Cal, is great playing electronic games — presumably he’s seen how this one comes out so starts with an advantage. Like Mario Bros., he also runs and jumps which is an asset when being chased by something hungry. Finally, we have Mummy Marla. Her weakness is that, having the right body parts, she’s highly desirable to the mercenaries and other random creatures with a male aspect on the planet. They will fight to keep her alive for their own pleasure. However, she has been studying the planet’s wildlife and may be able to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the various beasties. Or she may just be able to shoot which may be more useful.

So Zac teams up with Berl, Cal with Raymond, and Mummy with Vince. For slightly different reasons, they are all heading for the same co-ordinates and they ain’t gonna let nothing get in their way. This is not a book dealing in nuances. It’s all kill or be killed and be quick about it. There’s a slight veneer of intelligent life because Raymond gets to be a surrogate Daddy to superkid who can shoot and drive like a professional because of all his VR experience, and Mummy gets to compare Vince with her missing husband and finds Vince a not unattractive companion for a few fleeting moment. As to Zac and Berl. Well, they’re both somewhat ornery and cantankerous. Naturally, after an initial exchange of opinion, they achieve a kind of grudging mutual respect. Put another way, the book is actually about trust. The chances of survival are significantly increased if people can work together effectively. Sadly, Vince proves a hollow reed and Marla must negotiate with the tunnel rats which is a rather embarrassingly bad section in the book. And, at that moment, it came to me how dim-witted I am today. If I had been wearing my high-powered and patronising brain, I would have realised this epic masterpiece is written for the teen boys who play these electronic games. The vocabulary and sentence construction are indelibly fourteen in spirit. So nothing outrageously bad can happen. Yes, people get shot and eaten — there are cannibals who tire of snacking on the local meals on legs — but none of our primary characters are ever seriously at risk during the early to middle stages of their journeys. You will have to read it to see what happens at the end. Not everyone survives (gasp of horror!). If Wikipedia is reliable, John Shirley has not produced a novelisation of the game. This has a different ending.

So Borderlands: The Fallen is John Shirley wearing his commercial hat. There’s a proven market for books based on games, comics, films, and so on. The loyal fans collect associated materials and there’s no doubt a mortgage to keep up-to-date. Not unnaturally, an author accepts these commissions. Frankly, it’s completely untypical of Shirley’s usual writing style and should only be attempted either by a Borderlands aficionado or a die-hard fan of John Shirley (like me).

For my other reviews of books by John Shirley, see:
Bleak History
Doyle After Death
In Extremis: The Most Extreme Short Stories of
New Taboos
Resident Evil: Retribution

In Extremis: The Most Extreme Short Stories of John Shirley

December 25, 2011 2 comments

Connoisseurs have been nurturing a clichéd idiom for some time, waiting for it to blossom. Some years ago, people could actually say, “push the envelope” without flinching in shame. Now those of us who remain sane (and who have yet to succumb to the lure of digital correspondence) just wish we could go back to using envelopes to send letters. The usage has become so common it’s actually quite difficult to avoid the phrase in so many different contexts from mathematics and engineering through to that fake management consultancy language where tremulous directors are encouraged to take a risk to make some money. So, when you see someone titling a collection, In Extremis: The Most Extreme Short Stories of John Shirley (Underland Press, 2011), you know you are in the presence of death and other extreme events, metaphorical or otherwise.

I like John Shirley as an author. There’s a pleasing directness about his writing style that gets you to the point of the story with minimum fuss and bother. In this case, he offers us a collection of stories in which he was consciously pushing the boundaries of taste. Now that, in itself, is a bit of a moveable feast, is it not? Taste is essentially ephemeral, constantly shifting depending on the audience and the context. In some places, it’s impossible to have a conversation without using “fucking” as a noun, adjective or verb in almost every sentence — and that’s before you get to all the other anglo-saxon words we all love to reserve for outbursts where we want to create an effect. The use of these words is routine in some cultural niches. So, if an author declares he’s attempting to be “extreme”, this rather “begs the question” (deliberately misusing the phrase), where is he hoping to publish these stories and who is to judge whether they are actually extreme? Actually that’s two questions, but we can pass that by. Obviously, if an editor accepts a story for publication, he or she judges the story will appeal to the target readership. So, by definition, the story is not too extreme. It’s just what the readership wants.

John Shirley looking extreme in a hat

Given this contradiction, let’s survey what John Shirley serves up as his most extreme. In fact, it’s rather an odd mixture and many of the stories are, by my standards, quite amusing. There’s the usual amount of swearing, none of which is even remotely extreme. Many of the characters are regular drug users and this, again, has been a routine part of “edgy” fiction and nonfiction once the Beat Generation of writers really got going in the 1950s and spread their more hedonistic lifestyle into the drug-soaked hippie culture of the 1960s. There’s also quite a lot of sex — perfectly natural as an activity — and some interesting cruelty — attempting to microwave the dwarf is a pleasing idea, albeit not for the dwarf, of course. One or two stories flirt with the notion the Christians can be outraged. Nothing can upset the heathens and atheists, of course. They’ve been immune to outrage since they abandoned the conventional paths our society expects and espoused divergent beliefs. Then there’s the odd piece of body-modification. . . But, after a while, there’s a certain monotony about this collection. We have a lot of shortish short stories, all striving to be extreme and therefore shocking in some way. But the reality is rather different from that intended. It all gets a bit boring.

I’m not saying John Shirley is lacking inventiveness. Some of the ideas are quite provocative. It’s just there’s no real attempt to develop the characters or the situations in which they find themselves. We have the idea, see how it works and then move rapidly on to the next. It’s all a bit perfunctory except, in one or two cases, we do get a stand-out stories like “You Hear What Buddy and Ray Did?, a really pleasing noirish story of wrongdoing, “Raise Your Hand If You’re Dead”, as good a science fiction story as you’ll find, and “The Gun As An Aid To Poetry” which is vastly amusing when a muse goes missing and a poet’s output dries up. The ending is somewhat clichéd, but it’s a great way of resolving writer’s block.

Overall, this is not a collection I would recommend you try reading in one sitting. I ended up dipping into it over a period of days, consuming the stories in sequence, but stopping before I tired. In Extremis is not a patch on Black Butterflies, a wonderful collection of short stories that rightly won both the Stoker and the International Horror Guild Awards in 1999. If John Shirley is new to you, don’t start here. If you’re already a fan, add it to the collection.

For reviews of other books by John Shirley, see
Bleak History
Borderlands: The Fallen
Doyle After Death
New Taboos
Resident Evil: Retribution.

Bleak History by John Shirley

November 7, 2010 1 comment

Reading is a strange process. You think you have it all worked out and then, suddenly, it surprises you. When I started reading this book, the first thought was how quickly it reads. Having just staggered through an anthology with some stories distinctly challenging to finish, I was immediately seduced by the transparent, albeit noirish, style. John Shirley has a flair for cutting everything back to basics and getting on with the story. The eye seems drawn through the text as if all bumps in the road have been smoothed away. The mood improves. There’s a greater sense of enjoyment. And yet. . .

I have to start with an admission of prejudice. I’ve been a fan of Shirley ever since I read City Come A-Walkin’ some thirty years ago. Wow, you say to yourself. Was it really that long ago? And you smile because you can still remember the plot. Sometimes, good things just stick with you. So when I start reading an urban fantasy whose hero prefers independent action against bad guys, I feel on familiar territory. OK so this is a bounty hunter rather than the physical manifestation of a city’s consciousness, but there are resonances. And yet. . .

And yet, this is not quite as good as it threatens to be. It has all the elements that should be there for a successful witches brew of terror, except it’s all rather matter-of-fact. Take our hero. He’s had traumas to deal with. His brother died (or at least went missing) during childhood. He finds he’s got supernatural powers (disconcerting to even the most calm of people). His bible-bashing parents can’t stand having him around and send him off to a military school. From which he joins the army and learns all about survival (a little supernatural power here and there helps him through on the physical side, but he’s left with emotional scars). And then he’s chased by the usual government agency that wants to lock up all mutants as a threat to national security.

But, as is predictable, this government agency is run by an out-of-control megalomaniac who wants to use the people with supernatural powers to rule the world.

And only our hero can stop him. I have seen this kind of plot before.

It all starts off quite well as our hero meets the girl, but I’m immediately curious to understand how this magic system works. It seems he can draw on power to form “bullets” or transfer this power into real bullets which then act like grenades. He can also levitate and has this neat ability to know when he’s being watched. And he can talk to ghosts which is useful if you want someone to look inside a room for you and warn you of possible danger. But how does this bullet throwing thing work? He’s something of a softball pitcher and obviously has a good arm. But instead of being to guide these little packages of energy to their targets, he can miss. Except, when confronted by men with guns, he can suddenly fire at will and hit the guns (not the men holding them) every time without apparently taking serious aim. It’s all a bit frustrating for the reader because slightly more time is taken in explaining how Gulcher, one of the bad guys, interfaces with a comparable power. I would feel better about the hero if I understood the strengths and weaknesses of his abilities. He seems to prefer human fighting to solve his problems. Why is he so reluctant to explore and use his supernatural powers? If he can bend tranquiliser darts away from himself and shield himself from an exploding fragmentation grenade, why is there a problem with bullets? Put another way: for someone who has had years to live with “powers”, he does not seem that comfortable in using them. He could see a fence and walk over it. He could break down doors or knock holes in walls. It could all be so casual. Yet he seems to have to steel himself to do any of it. Indeed, even those with comparable powers express frustration they have never really seen him in action.

This seems to cast a shadow over the tone of the book. Our hero is not that convincing. Worse, he’s been set up by fate to be manipulated through his relationship with the girl. This leads to a somewhat curious situation in which, eventually, the girl shoots someone important to him. And his reaction is muted, ending up with them getting in some sack time. OK, so we know from the out that the hero will get the girl, but his reaction to the shooting is curiously numb.

The major threat from Moloch is also understated. Even though only a small portion of this being is able to get through the barrier, it seems content to feed on a few people in a casino until taking over a key General with access to the President. There’s very little mayhem even though we are told other “bad guys” have been affected. I suppose evil prefers to move quietly until a positive foothold is established, but this is all very small scale.

So we have Shirley’s trademark prose whizzing us effortlessly through the story, but have a story that’s a bit thin. It’s a case of almost a great book. With slightly more thought invested in the development of the ideas, we would have had real drama and tension. As it is, I was interested to see how it turned out and, when I finished, I picked up the next book with hope in my heart.

For a review of a new fiction collection by John Shirley, see In Extremis, a standalone novel, Doyle After Death, plus a chap book fiction/non-ficton collection New Taboos. There are two novelisations called:
Borderlands: The Fallen
Resident Evil: Retribution.

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