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The Man Who Collected Machen by Mark Samuels

The-Man-Who-Collected-Machen-Front-Cover

Now I’ve retired (except when people pay me to write which, perhaps surprisingly, remains moderately common) I get to spend my days doing what I like the best which is reading and writing for fun. For all I’m reading professionally most of the time, the motive remains the same — to find authors whose work is interesting. With tens of thousands of books published every year, there’s no way I can read them all, and with Sturgeon’s Law endlessly proved correct, it’s a case of serendipity or following the recommendation of others to find the good stuff. With The Man Who Collected Machen by Mark Samuels (Chômu Press, 2011) it’s a punt into the small press world to try someone new to me. We start of with “Losenef Express”. This is rather elegant as a piece of atmospheric writing. We’re so far off the beaten track, even the track has given up caring where it is. Eddie Charles Knox, a disillusioned human being, looks up from the bottom of a bottle and sees a man in the shadows watching him. When the man leaves and goes into the foggy streets, Knox follows. It may not be the most original of plot ideas but the execution works well as an exercise in existential despair. The titular “The Man Who Collected Machen” plays with another well-known trope as a poor man who’s fascinated by the author but can’t afford to buy collectible editions, meets a man who’s been able to put together an impressive collection of books and ephemera. The outcome is rather pleasingly Machenish as a veil is lifted.

Mark Samuels

Mark Samuels

“THYXXOLQU” is a quite wonderful idea. In many ways, language remains one of humanity’s greatest achievements — the perfect system for communicating meaning both face-to-face and over distances. If there’s a flaw, it’s that, as a species, we never agreed on a single language. Consequently, we’re left with a veritable Babel of different scripts, syntaxes and vocabularies. Would it not therefore be convenient if we could all agree to speak the same language? No more problems with translation. Just universal understanding. Life would be so much richer if there were no barriers to communicating ideas. And talking of universality, “The Black Mould” shows us a rather more cosmic version of the drive to bring the multiplicity into the singular form. This story shows pleasing self-discipline, spending just enough time on the set-up and development, and finishing before the idea runs out of steam. “Xapalpa” is a small town in Mexico which may have had a slightly less than savory reputation in earlier times, but may just be the place for an American ex-pat to retire to. Or not, as the case may be. So when our hero sits down in the most obvious bar and finds a friendly face prepared to talk to him, he hears a little of the town’s history. The result is nicely understated.

It’s somewhat ironic to find a story like “Glickman the Bibliophile” in a collection from any publisher. It’s message is that the annihilation of meaning is double plus good and, if you don’t agree, we haff ways of making you zink zo as Nazi book burners pursuing Säuberung in 1933 might have said. “A Question of Obeying Orders” is a delightful joke, albeit one based on a rather obvious confusion. As you might expect, a German soldier might balk at continuing to fight once the battle has been won. It’s only natural he should run away. It’s just unfortunate he chooses this particular path out of the forest. “Nor Unto Death Utterly by Edward Bertrand” is another very effective atmosphere piece in which a village doctor is called in to examine a dying recluse only to find something rather unexpected. It has a nicely judged Victorian air about it as the veneer of his medical detachment is pierced, leaving a mixture of superstition and religion to fight over the ruins of his mind. “A Contaminated Text” returns to the central notion behind the earlier “THYXXOLQU” and produces a very elegant variation on the theme. In this case, we have a Mexican library receiving a consignment of books from a local collector, recently deceased. When they are shelved, something rather interesting occurs. “The Age of Decayed Futurity” moves along a parallel track and speculates there might be some truth to the conspiracy theories of a secret cabal running Earth. In some of these theories, these are beings from the future. But such beliefs are just the product of delusional minds. And, finally, we come to “The Tower”, an original story, which takes a highly political view of the world and an academic interpretation of how we perceive it and attribute meaning to it, and produces a kind of postmodern or semiotic horror story. Obviously we are all surrounded by our own small plot of geography as it moves slowly through time from the past to the future. If we were to become alienated from the world, we might withdraw into a small subsection of our environment. At times we might meditate. Alternatively we might explore the remnant of our world in search of a symbol, something to inspire us. If we conceived a tower as that totem, how might we approach it — assuming it was possible to do so? The answer is given here.

The overall effect of this book is of a writer who loves ideas and the power of words to express them. Each of the stories is most carefully controlled. Young writers feel length is important and they overwrite. These stories which, I suppose, one classifies as supernatural, weird, or postmodernist horror are told with economy and therefore power. I’m pleased and relieved the recommendation given to me proved correct and I pass on the recommendation to you.

Other Seasons: The Best of Neal Barrett, Jr.

other-seasons_design

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.

Neal Barrett Jr still strong enough to hold up a building

Neal Barrett Jr still strong enough to hold up a building

 

“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.

 

The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman

November 15, 2012 Leave a comment

This review of The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman (Tor, 2012) needs to start with one of the oldest jokes in the form of a riddle I know. It goes, “What’s the mystery about the idiom, ‘A fool and his money are easily separated’?” The answer, of course, is, “Where did the fool get the money from?” It’s the “ . . .upon their backs to bite ’em, and so ad infinitum.” wonder of where the first dollar originates so that it may work its way up through the layers of stupidity until it reaches the hands of the one clever enough to accumulate the biggest pile of loot. If I were to put this another way, I would be speculating on whether it’s possible to get something for nothing. In a capitalist market, only them as has the money can buy. There’s no profit in giving things away. But in markets with a more socialist inclination, there’s an acknowledgment that, where the poor are disadvantaged, you can redistribute commercial profit by discounting the goods or services to those in need or by the government taxing the profit and using the money for welfare purposes. Either way, the wealthy subsidise the poor. To regulate this fairly, you need a Social Apparatus that takes some input and then, so long as it’s safe, it runs itself, giving back to the poor. As a model, think of a player piano. Once you’ve invested the capital in building it, it can make music out of nothing for others, i.e. the machine is just a means to creating what others perceive as beauty in sound.

The only problem is that the workings of any such apparatus in this fictional half-made world would be next to magic. Even the inventors might not truly understand how these machines would work except that it certainly wouldn’t simply depend electricity. It would be an interaction between mechanical parts, a programming system and a power source. For many observers, it would be as if the machines had somehow achieved some kind of independent existence and that the best of them could transmit value instantaneously over wide areas, perhaps even distorting literal and metaphorical gravity in the process. This would make some rather dangerous, particularly if there were instabilities in the machinery. Perhaps they should only be put into use right out on the edge of the world where everything is being continuously remade and, if a little bit of this new land should happen to come unstuck from the rest of the world, at least the rest of the world would feel a little safer. Or perhaps these independent machines could only work where the laws of science no longer truly apply and imagination takes over.

Felix Gilman reminding himself what was in the first book

This blending of science fiction, fantasy and a little weird leads us to the war between the Line and the Gun which is the same animism but taken to a whole new level. When you have something as radical as an Apparatus based on the Ransom Process while there’s a shooting match going on between two supernatural/metaphorical forces, this is just one more variable in an already uncertain world. A steadying or balancing force is needed, and it may come through the people. There’s the inventor of the Ransom Process that powers the Apparatus and the apparently reliable Carver who, for a short time, joins the team and then moves on. Then there are the waifs and strays picked up on the road like the “Harpers” who aren’t who they say they are (like John Creedmore and Miss Elizabeth Alverhuysen). In due course, more than a hundred dreamers and drifters who are infected by Ransom’s optimism might join in as part of a crusade. Except that does not mean patriotism and the war. Whatever Ransom may think he has invented, he knows it should not be used as a weapon, but as a way of fighting for a better way of life. Except there’s nothing in this half-made world that says the Line or the Gun has to leave him alone. If there’s one thing that does not come cheap in this life, it’s change. People will always fight over ideas and defy the prospect of progress.

What makes the whole novel so fascinating is the picaresque style with disconnected autobiographical episodes from the life of the inventor, would-be entrepreneur Mr Harry Ransom, a man infused with the power of light while ill but not necessarily dying, edited for our consumption by Elmer Merrial Carson. He’s one of these Genius Jones type of men who are inspired by books to do great things, but aren’t entirely sure how to go about achieving them. This gives a slightly Micawber feel to their journeys of discovery, believing they will learn from their experiences and, in the end, hoping something will turn up to give the best result. In a world that’s making and unmaking itself at the edge, this is actually the perfect state of mind in which to travel across the landscape. For, surely, those who travel believing disaster will strike at any moment are likely to fall off the edge before too long.

The nice thing about this “sequel” is that it does follow on from the first, but only tangentially through a completely different point of view and with a radically different tone. In every way, it’s a delight to see the innocent Harry Ransom slowly learn about the world in which he lives and, to him more importantly, meet the man behind the book that so inspired him. The elegance in the irony of how that autobiography came to be written is just one more delight in a cornucopia of delights when you read this book. So watch as the hegemony of the Line fails. For all it has mass-production, organisation and ideology, it loses out to individualism. This is not to say capitalism has no place in the world when it has finished its initial burst of growth. There will always be a need for business and “profit” but it should always be subordinated to the needs of individuals. Think of it as a process of worship. Initially, the notion of capitalism or socialism seems so powerful, large numbers will uncritically worship. Other time, however, the worshippers begin to see flaws in the beliefs they hold. Their intensity waivers. Walls fall. Assimilation and integration occurs as the world slowly changes itself. But, of course, just as old beliefs fall from vogue, new ones replace them. Despite the centuries of human history, we’re still only half-made and there’s no end in sight. And that’s really the point of Ransom City. It’s the ultimately unattainable Utopia that’s always just within your grasp but never actually reached. It’s a metaphor for society’s holy grail with the quest described here as an allegory. As a final thought, this is a sequel and so you will not understand the real power of The Rise of Ransom City unless and until you have read The Half-Made World (and catch the simple elegance of the jacket artwork).

For reviews of other books by Felix Gilman, see:
Gears of the City
The Half-Made World
The Revolutions
Thunderer

Westward Weird edited by Martin H Greenberg and Kerrie Hughes

February 27, 2012 2 comments

It’s impossible to begin this review of Westward Weird edited by Martin H Greenberg and Kerrie Hughes (DAW Books, 2012) without mentioning the sad death of Martin Greenberg. Over the decades, he’s contrived to stay at the top of the editing pile by consistently producing anthologies of quality. Although he often shared the editorial credits, this is as good a memorial for his talents as you could hope to find. Now a word of reassurance. Yes, this carries the word “weird” on the jacket, but it’s wonderfully eclectic, combining science fiction with fantasy in a complete disregard for genre boundaries as anything and everything spectacularly odd comes to the Wild West and beyond. There literally isn’t a weak story in this anthology and, as befits anything with claims to supernatural overtones, you’re lucky to find thirteen such excellent stories.

“The Temptation of Eustace Prudence McAllen” by Jay Lake is a pleasing relocation of the long spoon trope to the cowboy on the range. This sees the Devil happily engaging in a little cattle rustling for BBQ purposes until he’s tracked down by an upright loner. Although we lack some of the sophistication of the storytellers who want to construct a powerful Faustian offer with a clever way of avoiding the soul-loss trap, this more than makes up for it with a nice sense of humour. “The Last Master of Aeronautical Winters” by Larry D Sweazy is a steampunkish city in the sky, partly built using Wild Bill’s savings. When the enterprise is overrun by demons, it comes down to two brave souls to see what they can pull out of the fire (so to speak). Again, this is delightfully knowing as our heroes prepare to ride the elevator of doom up into the sky. “Lowstone” by Anton Strout also has elegant biomechanical additions in this steampunk mining community threatened by zombies. It’s slightly more serious, but no less effective in bending the gender roles to fight the good fight.

“The Flower of Arizona” by Seanan McGuire brings a pleasing touch of whimsy to a hunt for a man-eating chimaera. This is a nice take on the problems faced by the old travelling circus companies when audiences were poor. “Surveyor of Mars” by Christopher McKitterick has us embark on a sequel to H G Wells War of the Worlds. It assumes Earth would have used the Martian technology to colonise Mars. Except, of course, the carpetbaggers would have followed the settlers. In situations where freedom is under threat, what you need is a man embodying the qualities of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The politics are a bit clunky to European eyes, but the spirit of the story shines through despite the fact that only Americans seem to have had the can-do mechanical skills to get to Mars. It would have been more interesting had the Brits also been able to compete for territorial rights. “Coyote, Spider, Bat” by Steven Saus is a powerful and dark story that sees cultural imperialism come grinding to a halt in the face of even older power. European vampires may think they’re at the top of the food chain but, if they come to America, even in disguise, they might be in for a surprise as they end up on the menu of the local Teddy Bear’s Picnic.

“Maybe Another Time” by Dean Wesley Smith plays with one of my favourite time travel themes perhaps best captured in The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold. In every respect, this is an unexpected delight to find in an anthology supposedly about weird stuff in the Wild West — whichever version of it you care to pick. “Renn and the Little Men” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is magnificently whimsical, rerunning the Rumpelstiltskin trope in a High Noon showdown to avoid rule by the trolls. Believe me, it makes perfect sense when you read it. This has just the right amount of nuttiness to qualify it as one of the best fantasy stories of the year. Continuing in the same vein, “Showdown At High Noon” by Jennifer Brozek has an earlier version of Bonnie and Clyde caught up in an interplanetary conflict involving Ancient Egyptian scarabs and a Norse shapeshifter. As you might expect, this is delightfully weird.

“The Clockwork Cowboy” by J Steven York is a very clever story Isaac Asimov would have enjoyed. The literal Biblical injunction against killing can be enshrined in the software. This will reflect the thinking of all sections of the community, no matter what its racial background or source of mechanical power. Except, as is always the way when one of the minority breaks the programming, the majority humans don’t take kindly to a killer. “Black Train” by Jeff Mariotte takes aim at the zombie theme through the potential use of technology for military purposes. As with every good invention, you always need an antidote or countermeasure. If you release gas, you need a mask. If you release a virus, you need a vaccine. This speculates on what you might need for a mould. Finally, “Lone Wolf” by Jody Lynn Nye manages to conflate werewolves, an Indian Shaman’s insights into soul mates, and a backwoodsman Edison who would would make even a sober Gallegher proud.

I confess Westward Weird is an anthology I resisted picking up, fearing the genre mixture would be indigestible. In fact, it’s proved to be tasty Wild West victuals for them as likes a hot spicy sauce with their eatings. I find myself recommending this as great fun from start to finish.

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

Enormity by W G Marshall

February 21, 2012 2 comments

For once, I’m going to start off with a headline. Enormity by W G Marshall (a pseudonym of Walter Greatshell) (Night Shade Books, 2012) is wonderful! No matter what your prejudices against science fiction or fantasy, you can’t beat a book that takes a theme and then explores all the implications with a detailed eye. That this happens to start off with a 1950’s film trope is just one of those accidents of nature no-one can predict nor control once they occur. Think of this as a tsunami of weird with a wave height that just seems to get bigger as the book goes on. For this book, I think we probably need a new label. Thanks to China Miéville we got New Weird. Perhaps this should start off überweird. Actually, I’m cheating a bit on the weird front. The problem is the alternatives that immediately spring to mind like wacky and goofy lack the necessary gravitas. If you’re going to spawn a new subgenre label, you want it to sound impressive. Somehow a genre named after a Disney character (ignoring the copyright issues for now) fails to inspire. Screwball seems to have been appropriated by the film industry. Absurdism is too academic. This is definitely not whimsical. All suggestions will be gratefully received.

To prove how old I am, I confirm actually paying to go and see The Amazing Colossal Man, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and, at the other end of the scale, The Incredible Shrinking Man when they first came out. For those of us used to seeing giantism in insects and animals as a result of exposure to atomic radiation, it came as a welcome relief to have it affect humans as well. The shrinking was the most effective with the spookily metaphysical ending as our hero grew so small, he slipped between the atoms and disappeared into a kind of negative infinity. So with Enormity we’re jazzing up old themes with new variations. Move over Jonathan Swift, this book has Earth suddenly confronted by two giants. Now you should understand, these are not your common or garden 50 foot efforts or even Brobdingnagian. The man stands at 6,600 feet, give or take a few inches. The woman is only slightly shorter. Fortunately, their clothing expanded to match their physical size. None of the Hulk’s green body showing through his artfully torn clothing. This is a quantum supersizing to make even a McDonald’s look small. How come, you ask.

An artfully small photo of W G Marshall

Well, it’s all down to one of those archetypal mad scientists. This genius decides the best way of bringing forward the end of days is to give North Korea a super weapon. So he carefully wraps his quantum dark matter in some packaging held together with some string theory tied into a artistic bow, the whole left to marinate in a jar of kimchi as the fermentation process works its wonders. Unfortunately, the North Koreans smell a rat. They think this is a subtle American plot to make them look stupid. The man is too obviously insane to be credible, so they send him down to the beach for assassination by one of their top agents. Realising what’s about to happen to him, our nutcase triggers one of the weapons which rather neatly proves who is the least sane in all this adventure.

The result is the creation of our two giants: one poor American sap who happens to be on the beach with his wife, and our female assassin. Fortunately for America, Major Harley Queen is on hand to begin the process of trying to deal with this unusual situation. Surprisingly, this was left out of the gaming scenarios when he went through training at West Point so, when it all comes down to one man and his initiative, he just has to catch the ear of someone higher up and, suddenly, he’s standing on the shoulders of a giant, trying to make himself heard. If only he had a woman to hand, he could join the one-mile-high club in a novel way.

All this is a wonderful exercise in proving how disgusting the human body is when viewed from the perspective of an ant. Believe it or not, we are home to an array of different forms of life from bacteria upwards. If the body grows big then so do all the lifeforms we host, a distinctly disconcerting thought for any human who comes within range. Now scale up urination and other bodily functions. This gives a whole new meaning to “gross”. And all the while, these giants can cause massive devastation. Whether it’s wading through the sea close to shore or trampling through a city, there’s only one thing that might be in humanity’s favour. Sooner or later, these giants will run out of food and starve to death.

The full-size image from Cody Tilson is wonderful too!

At one level, this is an entirely serious science fiction novel about what could happen if someone was to develop and detonate a quantum weapon. It’s also “enormous” fun as W G Marshall explores the enormity of the problems caused by the giants and, more importantly, what military response might be possible. As a point of comparison, weapons have little effect on Godzilla and he’s only the size of a small office block. Now scale that up to a being more than a mile in height. However you want to view this book, it should win a prize. Not that a Hugo or Nebula would be on the cards. Enormity is too far off the radar for any conventional award. But the quality of inventiveness should be recognised and given some kind of prize. This is a book you should go out of your way to read. It will reward you in so many unexpected ways, you will be thinking about it for days after finishing.

Have a look at the work of Cody Tilson.

For a review of a book under the name Walter Greatshell, see Terminal Island.

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

Tempting Providence by Jonathan Thomas

So there’s me, sitting with a copy of Black Wings: Tales of Lovecraftian Horror and I come across this story by Jonathan Thomas called “Tempting Providence” and it’s so good, I immediately get hold of a copy of the collection, appropriately titled Tempting Providence (published by Hippocampus Press, 2010). So now I have the chance to take the measure of Jonathan Thomas at greater length.

Let’s start with a few thoughts about what it means to write weird fiction. The use of the word “weird” to describe strange or unusual events has been around for centuries but, as a description of a style of writing or the content, it spins off the concept of Gothic by dropping the romantic element, refining the terror element, and occupying a niche between the rock of horror and the hard place of fantasy. As the Enlightenment took hold and we came to value rationality over faith, there was still a need to discuss the inexplicable — those situations in which the primitive flight or fight instincts were roused. No matter how tough we like to think ourselves, there’s a limit to what materialism can provide and cynicism may help us believe. Hence, fiction that described events going beyond what we can easily understand grew in popularity as a kind of safety valve to release our more primitive fears. Characters on a page could engage with the unknown and offer us vicarious thrills as they survived encounters with the eldritch. Except, of course, many turned out to have no defence against these dark forces. This proves the old adage. Without deaths, there can be no terror.

“Dead Man’s Shoes” shows this in action. A casual walker gets off the beaten track and finds himself caught up in a funeral. For reasons he cannot explain, he goes to the wake in a small village. People talk to him as if he’s the dead man reincarnated. He plans to leave. He wants to leave. But something, perhaps it’s fear of the village headman, or something they put into the wine, or something unknowable, keeps him there. He feels his old identity slipping away. Jed is dead, long live Jed. Except our hero never acknowledges himself as Jed. He refuses to be sucked into what he considers a group delusion. Yet he stays. Time passes in tending the land to provide food. Although this is displaced into a weird context, we all know what it’s like to be trapped by circumstances in a role we never looked for. Think of all those who wake to find they are suddenly carers for family members. All it takes is an accident or illness. In this story, all it takes to change the role from civilised man to country bumpkin is an accidental meeting with a funeral cortège. Now that’s weird!

“Into Your Tenement I’ll Creep” is more overtly supernatural in that a man who worms his way into the affections of an accommodating young lady learns something new about his vocabulary. Most people use “tenement” as referring to a building or piece of land which has multiple tenants. Yet there’s no reason in principle why the word should not apply to any vessel that may hold many different occupants. This may seem, at first sight, to be unremarkable until you remember how destructive some tenants can be. Some have no respect for the buildings they occupy and allow everything to fall into a great state of disrepair.

“Tempting Providence” appealed to me so strongly because it roused a memory of a story I read back in the 1950s in which a man awakes to find a really strange-looking new toaster on a work surface in his kitchen. Rerunning the same idea in an elegantly described Providence with recognisable academic characters produces an entirely more satisfying result. “A Different Kind of Heartworm” asks and answers an uncomfortable question for all of us who marry or enter what we hope will be stable relationships. Must there be a full disclosure of all our faults and weaknesses, or can we hold things back? More importantly, should a failure to disclose creep like a worm into our heart and kill the love that was there? “Gumball Man” also tackles a difficult subject. Parents who shout and scream at each other create the wrong environment for a small boy growing up in their home. With role models like that, could the boy develop real social skills as the years go by? Perhaps he would stay an alienated outsider or become an axe murderer. Who can say. . .

“The Silence in the Copse” is a beautifully atmospheric piece in which we speculate on genetic heritage. If we are predestined by our genes to particular likes and dislikes, it’s only a matter of time before they manifest themselves. For me, this is the stand-out story. “The Lord of the Animals” is less substantial although it’s an interesting example of minimalist weird, doing no more than is needed to introduce the uncanny and then move on. “The Salvage Saints” is a more or less straight piece of historical fiction where one of the corrupted looks for wealth in the incorruptible. It interprets and so fictionalises the past in a way allowing the sea to judge saintliness for the benefit of those who follow the faith of the day. It’s altogether more arbitrary than the modern system for assessing sainthood, but no less reliable. “Passenger Bastion” is a kind of future steampunk where the oil has peaked, but air travel is still desirable. It ponders on what makes a hero and what rewards are reaped for those who answer the call.

“Power of Midnight” takes us back into the distant past where we were young and obsessed by the obscure in music, always pawing through boxes of LPs in the hope of finding that one rarity. But suppose that ultimate grail was inherently evil, a gateway to doom. Would we be cursed if we found it or, worse, were given it? Would our world end immediately or would the destruction of our world come more slowly? “The Men At the Mound” catches the Anglo Saxons on the cusp between the old religion and the invading Christianity, between different times and different perspectives. Finally “Three Ounces over Advent” provides us with extremely unreliable narrators, one of whom may be in possession of more than a few ounces of street drugs.

This is an elegantly restrained book both in terms of the content, and as a physical production. Indeed, it’s pleasing that a small operation like Hippocampus Press can make a good job of design. Overall, this is a very interesting collection and signals an author to watch.

The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman

February 26, 2011 1 comment

In two recent reviews, I’ve been underwhelmed by an allegory (1) and a postmodernist novel (2), finding their execution without real meaning or purpose. In a single sentence, my objections would be: there was no internally consistent explanation of what was going on and why. The title, The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman, captures the problem in the construction of any allegory or metaphor. All authors of fiction send out their characters to explore an imagined “place”. Publishers impose limitations on word count. We readers only have a limited amount of time. The result? Authors exploring every last nook and cranny would bore us to tears with their attention to detail. With a limited number of words to describe this fictional “world”, the poor writers cover as much ground as possible offering mere hints and allusions. The best pick their areas of interest carefully and then ruthlessly explore them. As an example of the best in allegory, Smallcreep’s Day by Peter C. Brown gives us a factory as a simplified model of society with two or three clearly-drawn individuals as archetypes for major groups of people in the real world. The whole becomes a microscope through which to view the world.

In this book, Felix Gilman offers us a world that, at its Western edge, is literally still being made. This is a physical process with land being created out of “nothing”. The idea that something is not yet complete tempts us to believe there cannot be a consistent explanation of what is happening. Yet, even with everything unfinished, we can look beyond the physical process and see underlying principles at work.

However, since this is another duology like Thunderer and Gears of the City, we have to wait for part two to see exactly what Gilman says has been happening and why. This review is therefore provisional just in case I need to be wise after the event when I get to the end.

For now, I take the central metaphor to be that all cultures and subcultures are works-in-progress. Societies are dynamic and continuously evolving as different factions and groups compete for dominance. Underpinning this process are the forces of the mind. Both consciously and unconsciously, we are driven by primal emotions. Fear of attack by outsiders encourages unity. Love of an idea like “democracy” or “libertarianism” drives political movements. Jealousy of others’ success leads to ghettoisation and pogroms. As Gilman explains, the volksgeist or spirit of the people creates reality out of these emotions.

“We made Gun out of our spite, and Line out of our fear, and this poor thing out of our sorrow.” p. 233

This is a parable about America. It began life on a small, and so manageable, scale in the North East. But, when explorers reported a wilderness in the West, the “country” was thrown into a ferment. It has been continuously remaking itself, trying to integrate all the different contending forces into a single nation. The railways physically opened up the wilderness by enabling rapid transport across vast distances. The lines symbolised progress and a commitment to future expansion. Settlements were founded and the discovery of mineral wealth encouraged further Western migration. Industrialisation began to accelerate the growth of wealth. Capital relies on freely available labour with just enough education to serve its ends and no more. Knowledge for its own sake is unnecessary and potentially encourages labour to be dissatisfied with its lot. Slavery and indentured labour maximise profits. And the gun has major cultural significance. It’s the means of independence, having driven out the European states that would have continued their old dominance in the New World. With the development of the revolver and winchester, one man could have the firepower of a small army. It was also the means of suppressing the aboriginal inhabitants as settlers demonised the Red Indians, scapegoated and then exterminated them.

So which is the best system? The order imposed by a Republic, the communal or hive-like social structures surrounding resources or factories, or the rugged individualism that explores new territory? Think of the Luddites who burnt down mills and destroyed the machines. The movement grew out of the discontent of the English working class in seeing the destruction of its lifestyles and enslavement in factories. It only takes one or two agitators to tap into this anger and you have an army. Maverick individuals like John Creedmore will always be a destabilising force, undermining the structural hierarchy that best supports the capitalist system. They are usually idealists who become focussed on defending themselves from the organised world and, in their own self-interest, defending others from exploitation.

Lowry has been socialised into a world of work. You might expect him to show symptoms of alienation or anomie, assuming Marx, Durkheim et al were correct, but he’s determined to fit in and get ahead. Even though he knows the system expects depersonalisation and the subordination of self for the benefit of the owners, the practical reality is that the owners need people who can think for themselves and show initiative when the unpredictable happens. Worse, the owners expect their operatives to be ruthless in suppressing, if not exterminating, the cause of any problems. So Lowry is monomaniacal within the structured environment of the stations. Send him into the field and he has no conscience when it comes to collateral damage, destroying whole towns and communities. He’s even prepared to lead from the front in a little hands-on torture. This is the ultimate soldier, prepared to read the Riot Act and lead his troops in a killing frenzy when faced by unarmed civilians. But what happens when he is pitched into an environment where technology does not work? Strip away his lifeline of communication with the owners and deplete his troops, what are we left with?

Our third principal is Liv. She comes all unworldly from the ivory towers of education, full of presumption to believe her knowledge can reshape the as yet unmade social world. When she finds a rump of the old Red Republic, she’s told, “There in the old North, the world is long since made and ordered, and perhaps you may take it for granted.” (p 364) In the dynamic world being remade, the fixed political structures of the Red Republic were a hindrance. What holds back progress must be pushed aside by those with the wealth and power. Think about a modern banking system out of control, ignoring the political structures and wrecking a country’s economy in the pursuit of private profit at any cost. Equally, there may be others with a different political philosophy who fight against the order and structure of big government. Their fears and suspicions fuel a desire to dismantle the apparatus of a state, to return to a simpler version of life in which people can be more self-sufficient.

Psychology can take a mechanical view of the mind, defining it in terms of different cognitive functions, or it can be skewed towards behaviour and the interpretation of how people interact. While in the House Dolorous, Liv meets different archetypes who see the conflict outside as merely the product of their own imagination, or whose behaviour becomes so autistic that they cease all interaction and, when they tire of the world, they will themselves to die. People are the sum of their life experiences and, as groups, they are socialised into conformity with the prevailing norms of society. If this means “leaders” can convince the group they are being stalked by terrible beasts, their fears will make those beasts seem real. They will modify their behaviour accordingly. Perhaps a major symbol from the past, like an old General, long thought dead, could rekindle interest in reforming the systems in play. Before the half-made world is finished, it might be nudged into a more benign form, say, through a process of death and rebirth.

The Half-Made World is completely fascinating, cloaking some very sophisticated ideas in a reimagined version of the Wild West. The hidden hands of wealth and power are represented through animism — engines and guns are the physical presence of supernatural agencies that dispute control of the land and its people. Our three leading characters (plus the General) come together in the partly made land, leaving everything to play for in the concluding volume. Judging by Gilman’s performance so far, each book has been an improvement on the last. I am hopeful he will prove to be one of the best of the writers of what we might call fantasy shading into weird. I had the same hope for China Miéville, but that’s not looking so good these days. Gilman may avoid Miéville’s self-indulgence and become the more reliable purveyor of edgy and thoughtful fantasy.

Jacket artwork showing an evocative ornithopter by Ross MacDonald.

For reviews of other books by Felix Gilman, see:
Gears of the City
The Revolutions
The Rise of Ransom City
Thunderer

(1) Meeks by Julia Holmes.

(2) The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer.

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