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How the World Became Quiet by Rachel Swersky

October 21, 2013 Leave a comment

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How the World Became Quiet by Rachel Swersky (Subterranean Press, 2013) starts with “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window” which won the 2010 Nebula Award for Novella, and was nominated in the Best Novella category for the 2011 Hugo Award and 2011 World Fantasy Award. It offers an opportunity to consider whether the roles society builds for different groups can ever find an objective justification. Except, of course, even the implication that it’s possible to formulate absolute reasons for being “right” is flawed. What may seem self-evidently justifiable to one culture, may seem crude oppression to another. Take slavery and sexism as examples. We could hold up a multitude of reasons for approving the intellectual and artistic achievements of Ancient Greece while turning a blind eye to its exploitation of slaves and the patriarchal treatment of women. Democracy may have been a good idea for the few men entitled to vote. . . So here’s a woman who achieves power and status as a magician in a matriarchy. Ironically, to maintain the population numbers, the leadership has to distinguish between women as leaders and women as brood mares. Just being the right gender does not entitle you to all the privileges the society grants. Our magician is then involuntarily forced to travel through time and encounters the range of cultures that follow. Not all experiences are without conflict, the point being to decide when the social rules that shaped each individual are to be upheld against all challenges and when it’s appropriate to bend or break those rules, e.g. should a woman teach a man or should a man use his power to force a woman to disclose what she knows? The answers given here are beautifully thought-provoking.

“Monstrous Embrace” is a nicely nuanced allegory on the nature of ugliness and its potential power to remove injustices and inequalities. When all are ugly in a kingdom, is the kingdom not immune to invasion — the invaders will fear they will become ugly simply by being on that land. When there’s no such thing as beauty, even the one-eyed hag can seem attractive to men. Such are the questions. But positively embracing ugliness. . . now that’s something likely to take more courage than anyone has. “The Adventures of Captain Blackheart Wentworth: A Nautical Tale” is whimsy in a style vaguely reminiscent of Edward Lear as different animals populate the shores and rat pirates, occasionally aided and abetted by a cat, plunder and pillage, and later run plantations bought with their treasure. It’s interesting but goes on too long. “Heartstrung” returns to the allegorical vein with a culture that externalises a woman’s heart — it’s literally carried on her sleeve — so she feels nothing for herself. Indeed, the ritual for acknowledging the arrival of adulthood requires the daughter to accept the father’s slap with a smile. “Marrying the Sun” diverts into fantasy with a mortal woman, whose PhD specialism is the study of the sun, responds favorably to a matchmaker’s suggestion she should marry Helios. The problem with gods is their essential narcissism. They revel in the idea of being the centre of attention. Let’s face it, in more ancient times, they were worshipped. So for Helios to find a lonely woman who lives to study him. Well, it’s a match made in heaven, isn’t it?

Rachel Swirsky

Rachel Swirsky

If we ignore the political context for “A Monkey Will Never Be Rid of Its Black Hands” and set aside the intriguing sequence of folk sayings, the heart of the story is whether we can accept traumatic injuries and develop sufficient will-power to adjust. It’s so easy to give up and fall into dependency without considering what might have been lost. “The Sea of Trees” is a fascinating and rather beautiful supernatural story set in Japan where, unless someone sleeps close to a suicide’s dead body on the first night following death, the ghost might return to Earth. In a fugue state, an individual cannot break into or out of the cycle without outside help. Sometimes, all it takes is a human touch, a sign someone else genuinely cares what happens to you. “Fields of Gold”* (nominated for the 2011 Nebula Award for Best Novelette and for the 2012 Hugo Awards for Best Novelette) is a delightful story about the afterlife. It’s remarkable how cosmopolitan it is and, given the company, how easy it is to find compatible people to spend eternity with.

“Eros, Philia, Agape” (nominated for 2010 Hugo and 2010 Theodore Sturgeon Awards) is an elegy on the search for love. When a daughter loses the father who slept with her, how does she grieve? Can she find someone else to love? Such questions assume undamaged human emotions. Perhaps if she had a parrot, or a robot with programming to make it attractive, or she adopted a human baby. . . no, that would would just be a recipe for a dysfunctional family. “The Monster’s Million Faces” wonders whether it would be possible to heal the scars left after a young boy is abducted. Obviously nothing can undo the facts, but could a psychologist find an emotional balm to salve the wound and enable a more normal future personality? “Again and Again and Again” ** demonstrates why we should never have children. It’s far better for the species to die out than to have to go through the endless torture of children. “Diving After the Moon” is the metaphor buried within the folk story used to create the means to recreate the same ending. It’s a particularly elegant piece of writing.

“Scenes from a Dystopia” blurs the line between fiction and commentary to ask a very pertinent question. In all social systems, there are winners and losers. So what may appear to be a dystopian society may actually be a technocracy protecting people against the possibility of being seen to fail. Why is a capitalist society which allows massive disparity in the distribution of wealth and opportunity not considered a dystopia when so many lead lives of misery? “The Taste of Promises” is a YA story with an emotional heart an adult can relate to. Although the premise is explicitly sfnal, the reality of sibling relationships where one child is disabled is all too true. “With Singleness of Heart” reminds us that bonding can sometimes only come through unpleasant rituals. “Dispersed by the Sun, Melting in the Wind” is a bold statement, “If you’re going to do apocalypse, do it properly!” quoth the raven. “How the World Became Quiet: A Post-Human Creation Myth” repeats the apocalypses, never quite managing to remove all life from Earth. Perhaps the insects and the trees can finally stabilise the situation (if they have a million or so years of peace). “Speech Strata” as a final gesture, words being of no importance in the distant future, suggests individuality might be a passing phase until everyone is subsumed into the dance.

How the World Became Quiet is a collection bristling with ideas and elegant prose. The one or two weaker stories are never less than interesting, and the vast majority are rather beautiful, exploring past, present and future in search of inspiration and enlightenment. It’s one of the best collections so far this year.

* First appeared in Eclipse Four edited by Jonathan Strahan.

** Reprinted in The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty-Eighth Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois

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

The Ape’s Wife by Caitlin R Kiernan

September 21, 2013 1 comment

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The Ape’s Wife by Caitlin R Kiernan (Subterranean Press, 2013) is the tenth collection of her shorter work and represents a snapshot of her fiction over the last six years or so — as she explains in the introduction, she’s quite prolific, these fourteen stories being drawn from one-hundred-and-seven published during this period. It’s a pleasingly varied selection with everything from steampunk to science fiction to fantasy and a little dabble in the horror end of the pool. If the essence of a good collection is variety, this very much shows off her range of storytelling to the best advantage. For those not familiar with her work, it’s perhaps appropriate to warn potential readers that some of the content is mildly unconventional when it comes to sexuality and relationships.

 

“The Steam Dancer (1896)” is a sad commentary on the position of women in society. Here’s someone who’s rescued from death and allocated a role where she’s entirely dependent on a man for her maintenance and, worse, can only earn a living by dancing for men without her clothes on. The only thing left to her to do is escape inside her head. At least she’s not been deprived of her dreams. “The Maltese Unicorn” is a delightful pastiche of early hardboiled classics. Originally written for Supernatural Noir, it subversively captures the spirit of the original falcon with an interesting unicorn relic in a PI/hitperson modern melange. Perhaps the gender balance is, for once, skewed in exactly the right direction. Given the function of the relic, an all-female cast is necessary to debate the nature of original sin and how, if at all, other women might follow the example of the Virgin Mary and be freed from the stain of sin, even if only temporarily. “One Tree Hill” is a nice change of pace to a carefully understated cosmic horror story in which much is hinted and everything, apart from the nature of lightning, is left unexplained. “The Colliers’ Venus” continues with the exploration of the inexplicable as coal miners unearth something that should not be there and, in their fear, give shape where there was none. Curiously, the men give their fear the shape of a woman.

Caitlin R Kiernan

Caitlin R Kiernan

 

“Galapagos” was in Eclipse Three and is one of these extended tease stories of first contact. From the outset, we know the protagonist met something really scary. The only question is what. The answer is delayed while we go through the mad-woman-locked-up-in-a-mental-hospital trope. It’s somewhat pandering to stereotypes to have a hysterical female screaming her head off and being doped up to the eyeballs to maintain any degree of calm while the government tries to persuade her to tell what she saw. The psychological destruction of a stereotypical macho male might have made cultural sense. Men prefer to characterise themselves as heroic. The top female astronaut should therefore have called her bimbo husband up into space to receive the message. The experience denting the sangfroid of a man and leading to his sedation would have had more impact. “Tall Bodies” is a classic example of the craft of writing. It beautifully captures the lack of answers for both the woman and what she sees. Individually, they are inscrutable to outsiders although the human community has its own opinions. “As Red As Red” is another wonderful piece of writing which understates the potential threat of contemporary vampirism in Rhode Island, carefully alluding to the facts we know to be salient and then passing on before anything comes clearly into focus.

 

“Hydraguros” is an elegant atmosphere fantasy meets science fiction story with hints that what this mid-level gang member is seeing when not totally high on the latest chemistry is perhaps an alien parasite or something bigger. As Shakespeare said, “If you prick me, do I not bleed silver?” “Slouching Towards the House of Glass Coffins” reminds us we do many things out of love. Whether it’s requited, journeys are made, sacrifices are given unselfishly. It’s the way we feel closest to ourselves and others. “Tidal Forces” first appeared in Eclipse Four and continues the search for answers when one in a long-term relationship gets into trouble. She may even be dying. Even that’s not certain. All that’s clear is the need to do something before she fades away. “The Sea Troll’s Daughter” subverts the usual high fantasy expectations as the “barbarian” hero kills the Troll and then, Grendel-fashion, must confront the female of the species (assuming she’s sober enough, of course). “Random Thoughts Before a Fatal Crash” is the final days of the series character Albert Perraud in Paris as he paints a work which will be long remembered after his death. And finally, the titular “The Ape’s Wife” also deals with a kind of timeless immortality, retelling the myth of King Kong to explore the desolation following in the wake of humanity’s quest to understand the world. Sadly, this has meant the collection of artifacts and animals (usually dead), the destruction of local cultures, and the death of indigenous populations through the spread of disease. Even the primaeval forests are now slashed and burned to make way for plantations. It’s the end of the world as it was and a remaking of the world into something less interesting because it’s increasingly homogenised. What a relief it would be if the removal of one miraculous thing could trigger its replacement with something equally miraculous.

 

Taken as a whole, The Ape’s Wife is one of the best collections so far this year.

 

Dust jacket by Vincent Chong.

 

For other posts dealing with Caitlin R Kiernan and her work, see:
Blood Oranges (written as Kathleen Tierney)
Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart
Cover design for Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart

 

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

 

Jewels in the Dust by Peter Crowther

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For this review of Jewels in the Dust by Peter Crowther (Subterranean Press, 2013) I’m going to break my usual convention which is to write brief notes on the stories in the order they are printed. I think it will give you a better understanding of the collection, if I group the comments on the stories together by genre or theme.

“The Bachelor” is an elegant story to read alongside “Old Delicious Burdens”. Both are concerned with the nature of memories that can haunt us, and remind us of times as they used to be. Thematically, we’re not quite into the idea of ghosts as nostalgia. But if our characters are the sum of all the life experiences we can remember, ghosts may revisit when we grow forgetful. Of course, some of the events or sensations we might choose to forget. They are painful and might frighten us if we came across them unexpectedly. Others simply lack the salience to stay fresh in the memory bank. They fade as we age. So an old lonely man might be sustained by the ghosts of happy days past. A warring couple might reconcile if they realised the wealth of happiness they had enjoyed when younger and more innocent. This is not to say either story is sentimental. . . “Things I Didn’t Know My Father Knew” develops the theme by having the ghost of a father dead some twenty-seven years, return to talk with his son. This is a pleasingly atmospheric story that prompts us to ask what it might be important to remember about our childhood and, if we had the chance, what we might say to our parents after so many years. For example, if memory of the nickname cruel “friends” had given us when young, was refreshed, would that change us in any way? Would we feel less angry at our parents for giving us that unfortunate name at birth? Would we want to say we loved our parents, even though that might not be completely true?

Pete Crowther

Pete Crowther

“The Fairy Trap” is about the innocence of youth which might induce two boys to suspend disbelief long enough to help an old man in his efforts to trap a fairy. “Dei Gratia” (with Simon Conway) is a fascinating idea story. Let’s say, for a moment, that there’s a natural cycle in operation. We’re born, live here for a while, and then cycle to Heaven or Hell. Modern medicine has been seriously interfering with this for some time. If God had been expecting an influx of souls and suddenly found himself short, what would he do? Continuing in the same vein, we have “Circling the Drain” (with Tracy Knight) which wonders about personal fulfillment. As an individual, would we feel less unhappy at the prospect of dying if we had had children? Here’s a man in late middle age who suddenly only has a month or so to live. If he resists dying, how could he prove to himself and his wife what a good father he would have made? “Breathing in Faces” is a terrific novelette following in the footsteps of The Circus of Dr Lao by Charles G Finney. A petulant girl and her BFF explore the midway. As you might expect, the pushy one will just not be told to leave well enough alone. She will insist on going into the tent. The rest, as they stay, is all about gathering speed as momentum accelerates the reader down the slope. This is a beautifully sustained piece of horror suspense writing. Equally impressive is “Tomorrow Eyes”. The idea is not original but this is a beautifully worked variation on the theme as a compassionate man takes pity on a haunted man to make the right decision. “The Doorway in Stephenson’s Store” is a time travel story that flirts with sentimentality and avoids excess given that it proves to be a kind of moral message. I confess I’m always partial to a little travelling through time and this is particularly ingenious, focusing on the characters of the people involved rather than the mechanics.

“Boxing Day”, “The Musician of Bremen, GA” and the titular “Jewels in the Dust” are straight stories. The first deals with the decision of a not unsuccessful criminal whether to continue in the trade or settle down with his wife to raise cats. The second maps the life of a truly gifted jazz musician who joins a group only to find two of the players are committed to a life of crime. While the third offers positive advice on how to accept the prospect that every new day may be your last. All of which leaves me with the final story in this rather admirable collection. “Thoughtful Breaths” manages to combine everything good about the art of storytelling. It introduces us to the characters and gives us time to get to know and understand them. Then it begins to weave its magic. Now “magic” is a word, for better or worse, that tends to be associated with fantasy. No, wait, I’m confusing the story-telling with the story itself. That will never do. So what exactly is it I want to say about this final piece? I suppose I’m referring to the wish of one character, out of love, to create the appearance of magic for the others. Just as the author, out of love, creates magic for the readers. In a way, the theme of this collection is death. Not necessarily in an unhappy or negative spirit. Rather we’re given the chance to celebrate the phenomenon and appreciate the potential for redemption on the part of some, and rehabilitation for others. As an older reader who’s already had one close brush with death, I find Peter Crowther’s work pleasingly unsentimental and, in a secular sense, quite inspirational. I unhesitating recommend this collection to you.

Jacket artwork by Les Edwards

Jacket artwork by Les Edwards

The jacket artwork from Les Edwards is particularly fine.

For reviews of other books by Peter Crowther, see:
Darkness Falling: Forever Twilight Book 1
We Think, Therefore We Are

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

The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs by Daniel Abraham

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Nostalgia is a very strange beast. Many would have you believe that it’s a kind of sentimental attachment to the past — a romanticised and highly selective viewing of the past through rose-tinted spectacles. I would prefer to think of it as a mere acknowledgement of the volume of memories that occupy the mind. These are the times I’ve lived through, good and bad. When it comes to literature in the broadest sense of the word, I’ve been putting eyeballs to paper for more than sixty years and have seen stylistic fashions come and go. When I first began to take an active interest in fiction, some Victorian and a considerable volume of early Edwardian work was still very much in vogue. I suppose I cut my teeth on British adventure and American hardboiled when my reading really took off in the 1950s. Not that the two are even remotely compatible, but I still recall the highlights. At their best, there was an eerie blend of naïveté and violence. No-one stopped to think very hard about the morality of what was being done. Expediency and a stiff upper lip were the only requirements when deciding what was needed. I miss the uncritical simplicity of those days. Life was so much easier when you could shoot first and, if the mood came upon you, ask questions afterwards.

All of which brings me to The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs by Daniel Abraham (Subterranean Press, 2013), a novella featuring Balfour and Meriwether, two chips off the British block of Empire. For the record, this is the third in an emerging series which began with The Adventure of The Emperor’s Vengeance and continued with The Vampire of Kabul. Seeing two names on the tentpole, it’s tempting to characterise this as a Sherlock Holmes pastiche but that’s definitely not what’s intended here. Although there are books where Mr Holmes takes on Dracula, Dr Jekyll and divers other creatures of Earth, then moves on to fight the War of the Worlds and to crossover into Cthulhu Mythos territory, this does not feature a detective blessed with deductive reasoning skills with a sidekick companion for light relief. Rather this pair who share accommodation are more in the Allan Quartermain mould where the response to danger is to shoot it and, when the bullets run out, hack at it with a conveniently-to-hand knife. Although they obviously do think, it’s not what we’re supposed to be interested in.

Daniel Abraham using Victorian black and white photography

Daniel Abraham using Victorian black and white photography

So here comes a rather sly, tongue-in-cheek adventure story set in 188-, with a representative of the British Government coming to King Street to ask for a little assistance with a slightly delicate matter. It seems one of the men who work for the Empire has gone missing. He was supposed to make a simple journey to Harrowmoor to talk with an inmate of the local Sanitarium. Worryingly, there’s been no word of him since. Of course, since the British Government is asking, this can’t be a simple matter otherwise the local police force would be asked to investigate. With typical Britishness, Lord Carmichael doesn’t say what the problem is and our heroes don’t ask. When your country calls, you dare not refuse her. What follows is great fun as our pair ride a specially commissioned train to Harrowmoor. Having established a base in a local inn, one sets off to the Sanitarium, the other in search of word of the missing agent. In due course, they meet up for the big climax.

The essence of good fantasy is that you combine some level of credibility with a complete disregard for reality. As the White Queen fondly recalls, it’s good to be able to believe in six impossible things before breakfast, and having been fortified with plenty of food, rather more impossible things before lunch. So this is definitely not Baskervillian dogs nor are we into the Hounds of Tindalos. This is all pleasingly different and explains perfectly why Her Majesty’s Government might be a little reluctant to explain to our heroes what might be going on. I romped through this and now wait for more of the same. Even though it may be nostalgic in tone to me, this is sufficiently modern to pass muster for the new generation of readers. The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs is recommended.

Dust jacket illustration by David Palumbo.

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

For reviews of other books by Daniel Abraham, see:
Abaddon’s Gate written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
An Autumn War
A Betrayal in Winter
Caliban’s War written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
The Dragon’s Path
The King’s Blood
Leviathan Wakes written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
Leviathan Wept
The Price of Spring
A Shadow in Summer
The Tyrant’s Law.

Book of Iron by Elizabeth Bear

July 27, 2013 1 comment

Book of Iron by Elizabeth Bear

Book of Iron by Elizabeth Bear (Subterranean Press, 2013) is a second novella in the Eternal Sky series, a prequel to Bones and Jewel Creatures where we first met Bijou, one of the Wizards of Messaline. Her magical ability is as an Artificer. She makes creatures out of bones and jewels, animating then with her breath, guiding them with her mind. These creatures are more than mere puppets. They are extensions of her mind. In this elegantly produced book from Subterranean Press, we find her in a more stable form of relationship with Kaulas the Necromancer and Prince Salih as they are approached for help by a newly arrived trio: Maledysaunte, Salamander and Riordan. They want help to enter Ancient Erem in pursuit of Dr Liebelos who has has two claims to fame. She’s the mother of Salamander and a magician with the rare gift of Precisianism, the gift of making “things” orderly, sometimes permanently so. Although our heroine and her two companions suspect there’s a lot left unsaid in this request for help, they understand that anyone who has the power to enter Ancient Erem may be able to cause serious (and permanent) disruption to their world. Preparing for the worst, they therefore make arrangements to lead their visitors into this most dangerous of places.

This is a fascinating insight into the history of the relationship between the world and Erem, highlighting the way in which magic and technology remain intertwined. In the human world, the vestiges of oil-powered land and air transport remain functional but in such short supply, their use is only for those of high status and power. So Prince Salih, the second son of the local potentate, has a motor car for use when he needs to travel over distance at speed. But when it comes to entering Ancient Erem, they must ride on the backs of dead animals, reanimated for the purpose. Each side of the coin has its uses when something needs to be done. Within Erem itself, the ghuls or dog-men move around on the surface at night. Who knows what dangers may lurk below. From this you’ll understand there’s a curious transition between the human world and the entirely different Erem. Although it may have an oxygen environment similar to the human world, i.e. it supports life, the stars are different and the multiple suns are death to anyone caught out in the daylight. That leaves most of the life in underground caves. Fortunately, electric torches work as well as the more ancient forms of magic. As you’ll no doubt gather from the title, the point of the pursuit into Erem is to decide who shall control the Book of Iron, one of the oldest texts of magic ever created. As with all things magical, nothing is ever straightforward and sometimes painful decisions have to be made when the order of the worlds may be at stake.

Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear

At its heart, the Book of Iron is a story about relationships. In particular, it asks what precisely we might understand by the concept of friendship. Obviously, it’s rather different to the love a child might feel towards a parent because that’s not something originating through choice. Individuals choose to become friends. They come to care about each other, assuming some degree of responsibility for the welfare of each other. It’s possible this will involve some degree of intimacy but it’s not necessary for this to be sexual. Put the other way round, a couple could be lovers in the physical sense but not strictly speaking friends. Physical attraction and the need to possess another for a period of time is not the same as friendship which adds value by sharing ideas and interests. So here we have two trios, both of which have been stable until they come together in stressful times. The “adventure” they share and its outcome forces the survivors to reconsider their relationships. Perhaps existing friendships can survive, but sexual relationships might have to be rethought. Maybe new friendships might form as old friendships are destroyed. When it comes down to the survival of individuals and the fate of the worlds, hard decisions may have unexpected social consequences.

The result of this rumination is an acceptance of delight. Book of Iron is a most pleasing fantasy novella which balances action against the exploration of the human heart. Fortunately, it’s the heart that wins out.

For reviews of other books by Elizabeth Bear, see:
ad eternum
A Companion to Wolves (with Sarah Monette)
Range of Ghosts
Seven for a Secret
Shattered Pillars
Shoggoths in Bloom
Steles of the Sky
The Tempering of Men (with Sarah Monette)
The White City

The rather beautiful jacket artwork for this Subterranean Press edition is by Maurizio Manzieri.

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

Diary of a Dragon by Tad Williams

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Value is one of these rather annoying words where meaning can change quite significantly depending on the context in which it’s used. If we start off in personal terms, we may have moral or ethical values as the basis for deciding whether to do or refrain from doing anything, i.e. they represent a set of preferences against which we judge whether we should act. However, these values may take on a more imperative nature if they are shared by the majority of people in our community. Indeed Kant argues that if the given moral value is recognised as valid and applied by the majority, it becomes an obligation. If social enforcement is insufficient to ensure compliance, law-makers can enshrine the value in laws and use punishment as the means of enforcement or award compensation to those who are damaged by noncompliance. But if we move into economics, we begin to talk about measuring value by reference to a currency or equivalent medium of exchange, i.e. there is assumed to be a link between value and the price people are prepared to pay for the goods or services.

Tad Williams

Tad Williams

Applying this, I might well see aesthetic value in a work of art that few others might see. If there was little or no demand, I might acquire the object of subjective value for a small monetary payment. But if the majority see intangible value in the goods or services, they will pay more to acquire it. Going back through my collecting years, I think the smallest book I bought new was Ringtime by Thomas M Disch. It was published by Toothpaste Press and cost $35 in 1983 for 40 pages, signed and limited to 100 copies. In my defence, I was collecting Disch and it was a rather beautiful production. All of which brings me to Diary of a Dragon by Tad Williams (Subterranean Press, 2013). It sells as an ebook for $3.99. As a paperback chapbook limited to 750 copies, it sells for $15. It has 64 pages with the cover and extensive interior illustrations by William Eakin. But don’t let the advertised number of pages deceive you. This is a short story, spread out over the pages with a “nice” piece of design.

So here comes your decision. As short stories featuring a dragon and a princess go, this is elegant and quite witty. The artwork genuinely contributes to the aesthetic value of the production. Indeed, the final sepia panel completes the story in a way words would struggle to match. In other words, this is worth reading and seeing as artistic content. But when we come to economic value, I find myself in trouble. When I bought the limited Toothpaste edition, I realized it was a calculated gamble as to whether it would hold its value. Looking it up on Abebooks, I see a fine copy offered at $350. I’m not convinced it will sell for anything like that (less than $100 is more likely), but you get the idea that it has more than kept its economic value. I don’t believe a paperback chapbook selling for $15 will hold its value. Since I don’t own a Kindle or Nook, I can’t say whether many will buy this at $3.99. But what I can say is that electronic versions cannot be resold, so there’s no residual value. I therefore arrive at the conclusion that only the diehard collectors will buy this slight piece and not worry about the economic cost. For them, just owning it will be value enough.

For a review of another book by Tad Williams, see The Dirty Streets of Heaven.

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

The Gist by Michael Marshall Smith

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When I was young, there was a very famous story about miscommunication during the First World War. Allegedly, the original message sent was, “Send reinforcements. We are going to advance.” but by the time the relay radio operators had finished transmitting and retransmitting it, the message became, “Send three and fourpence. We are going to a dance.” Although this is probably apocryphal, it spawned many variations like, “Enemy advancing with ham-shanks. Send three and four pence.” There are also references to wild Italians and the need for pants to be pressed. It’s improbable that any of the stories are true. Even in the fog of war, people would not make such fundamental mistakes. The least competent message retransmitter would ask for clarification if what he thought he heard made no sense. The most likely explanation is bored copyrighters in newspaper offices were relieving the tedium of spinning out stories from the trenches by adding a little humour. It’s a process shadowing the game Chinese Whispers in which a group of hopefully well-lubricated people sit in a circle. One whispers a message in the ear of the next person and so on until the final person in the circle announces the message received. The opportunities for hilarity are obvious.

Michael Marshall Smith

Michael Marshall Smith

The Gist by Michael Marshall Smith (Subterranean Press, 2013) is a very brave publishing experiment which I applaud. Since I speak and read French quite well, it proved an interesting hour or so of study. The point of the exercise is simple. Michael Marshall Smith writes a short story about a man tasked with extracting the gist of meaning from a book thought untranslatable. The story is then translated into French by Benoît Domis and then back into English by Nicholas Royle. The translators were only allowed to ask technical questions. The English translator was not allowed to talk to the author.

The point is to see how far the second English version drifts from the first. It’s a classic exercise in semiotics. The meanings one group of people choose to give to groups of letters is initially arbitrary, but through consistency of usage, significance accumulates. Indeed, as the story itself points out, meanings for individual words drift so what begins its life as a signifier implying a responsible person can morph into a signifier implying an individual with a criminal purpose: the example given is henchman. By studying the context, it’s possible to date a work by deciding which meaning is intended for the given word. Moving from the immediate decoding level of attributing meaning to individual words and rising to a meta level, the reader can aim for an overview. At such a level, the individual words of the source become less significant as we strive to capture the gist of what was written. This need not be a mechanical summary. It can actually ignore much of the text and communicate an underlying truth about it. We can call this analysis or interpretation or, if you want to get technical, deconstruction. Whatever words we use, the point is to encapsulate an element of the meaning and make it stand for the whole.

The good news is that The Gist is a reasonably good short story. It’s certainly not the most original and, in a way, I think it’s a little too preoccupied with setting up the philosophical basis for the publishing exercise rather than allowing the natural “horror” to emerge. I’ve read many better variations on this theme. Perhaps that’s why it changes only slightly when retranslated back into English. Both translators would be familiar with this trope and with the necessary apparatus, e.g. the double-sided desk. It would have been interesting if the work could have been translated into cultures which lack such specific artifacts or locations. In saying this, I’m not taking anything away from the translators who worked on the text. Indeed, we should offer them both a sustained round of applause for having most faithfully processed the words to preserve meaning. The only difference is in the length. As a language, French prefers to use more words to carry the essential meaning. English is inherently more pithy. Thus when Nicholas Royle translates back into English, the result is that the text becomes slightly fuller. That’s really all I need say about this interesting experiment, if you get my meaning, that is.

For a review of a collection by Michael Marshall Smith, see Everything You Need.

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

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