Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Book Review: ...And the Angel With Television Eyes by John Shirley

...And the Angel With Television Eyes by John Shirley

Hardcover, 240 pages

Published September 2005 by Night Shade (first published 2001)

I have not reviewed A John Shirley book in some time. With almost thirty books in print when you include the novels and various short story collections, I have written many words about his work. Almost all of those books have been reviewed here from the gonzo early masterpieces like Transmanicon to the recent Lovecraft Alive collection. For some reason, I had missed reading this book. It seems it is a lost book because it only has very few reviews. All of those reviews are positive it just seems odd to me that there are not more.

If you are not familiar with John Shirley he is my favorite living author who writes Science Fiction, Horror, proto-bizarro and pretty much is the first Cyberpunk. I mean William Gibson said that it is not just my opinion. He was the first Sci-fi writer to show up to reading wearing spiked dog collars. You can't read John Shirley without a sense of the dangerous feeling of his fiction, that said it is equally well written and at times beautiful and genius.

A prime example is "...and the Angel With Television Eyes." This is one of Shirley's weirdest novels and that is actually saying a lot. The novel was released in 2001 so it stands to reason it was written in the late '90s. It features a washed-up actor (I was thinking a Kevin Sorbo type) whose longtime fantasy show has ended and has turned to soap operas. After an experiment with a sensory deprivation tank, Max has his mind opened. Wide open actually. This is where it gets weird. Up until this point, we have a slightly comical but kinda sad look at Hollywood. This part of the novel is OK. There are some interesting parts particularly when Max deals with an apparently crazy stalker who cos-plays as one of his famous characters.

Once it gets weird is when you see why John Shirley is an underrated master. That is when the novel goes from good to great. Max discovers that there are beings that live in the subatomic particles who are struggling to free themselves called plasmagnomes. These creatures are cast off shed particles of our souls created by our fantasies. The Plasma world is in trouble because the increased technology in the form of electromagnetic energy is disrupting everything.

For Max the door between the plasma world and ours has been pushed open. There are incredible moments that take place in a bar that links the worlds built into closed tunnels of the NYC subway system. This part of the book when Max meets the various Plasmagonomes is beautifully weird. This contains some of Shirley's most tragic and beautiful descriptions of creatures so strange they are jaw-dropping. Like Clive Barker or Burroughs level weird with Shirley's razor-sharp edges that make this book somewhat unexplainable.

For example from page 177: "But all of the faces- Shifting across the front of her head in a kaleidoscoping ripple of three-dimensional projections-were spangled with glitter, were dopey with dream and drugs...And on her delicate little feet she wore pump action, puce Nike high top sneakers."

This book reminded me why Shirley is my favorite. A beautifully weird and unique novel that works on lots of levels not sure I understand all of. This is a pure weird masterpiece that has to be read to be believed.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Book Review: The Nine Cloud Dream by Kim Man Jung

The Nine Cloud Dream by Kim Man Jung

Paperback, 304 pages

Published May 2018 by Penguin (first published 1689)

Centuries before Philip K Dick wrote pulp science fiction that poked at our relationship with the concept of reality or Neo pondered taking the Red pill a courtesan in Korean wrote this novel. Who wrote this novel is actually somewhat in question when you consider that it was first published in 1689. The story goes that the author was a court official working with the royal family of Korea. He was sent in Exile and he wrote this novel in a series of letters to entertain his mother and assure her his suffering was not important.

Considered a classic of Korean literature this story is referenced in works ranging from Manga, pop songs to movies. On the surface, this novel appears to be a romantic fairy tale or fantasy. It doesn't appear to be just a story a son was telling his mother. The novel seems designed for the audience and has a clear message. The Buddist themes in the novel are spread through the novel but come into sharpest focus in the opening and closing chapters. Some might think the center of the novel as a pointless adventure but that itself is the theme.

I am not sure if "It was all a dream" was revolutionary storytelling device in the 17th century, but the waking dream parts of this novel in the middle were fun for me. When your main character is reincarnated in what he believes is hell. I could have used a little darker elements but the style evoked was similar to the more weird and gothy Wuxia movies I love. Movies like The Bride with White Hair and Chinese Ghost Story. One must remember the experience is meant to be Meta-fiction. Just as we read a book and try to engage with the illusion the POV in the novel is Hsing-Chen or his dream self Shao-Yu comes to realize he is engaging with Illusion.

Shao-Yu asks a monk to help him wake from the dream. "Why do you resort to magic and not show the truth." The answer is there a few lines later. "My Master knew of my wrongful thoughts and made me dream the dream to learn of worldly riches, honor and desire are nothing."

While the novel is written and translated in an old school style that doesn't make it a breezy read the ideas contained are super powerful. I loved this line towards the back of the novel.

"You say the dream and the world are two separate things, and that is because you have yet to awaken from the dream. Chung Chou once dreamed he was a butterfly, and upon waking he could not tell if he was the butterfly dreaming he was Chung Chou."

When I was researching my Chinese Vampire novel (Hunting the Moon Tribe) in 2004 I wanted to read this novel badly. I had read about it, but couldn't find an English translation. At the time I read the Romance of Three Kingdoms and Journey to the West. My novel has many homages to those books and I have no doubt this would have influenced me heavily if I read it at the time. It is interesting as I do a Philip K Dick podcast now I thinking of the book now in this lens.

Really cool book and considering the age that makes it more impressive. The Nine Cloud Dream is a Korean Inception written hundreds of year before Christopher Nolan was a thing. Really cool book.

Book Review: Star Trek: Corona by Greg Bear

Star Trek: Corona by Greg Bear

Paperback, 192 pages

Published August 2000 by Pocket Books (first published 1984)

I don't always write full reviews for media tie-in novels. This one was one I felt deserving as I have a few things to say about it. There are a few really good reasons why I choose to read this Star Trek novel. It is a bit of lost novel that came out in 1984 around the time of the Search for Spock. The thing is I wanted to read because it was written by a very respected science fiction writer with a Hugo and Arthur C Clarke award and he went to college at SDSU here in town. As an author of 44 novels, he is very respected for high concepts.

I have also found myself wanting to read these old school Trek novels written by respected SF writers like Joe Handleman(Forever War), James Blish (Cities in Flight) and this one. The thing is these novels written even before The Next Generation are less hampered by the massive canon. There were just Kirk and the enterprise. In the case of Corona, it was the really big cool ideas at the heart of it.

Bear takes the science as seriously as he can in this novel and that was fun for me. The Enterprise is sent on a rescue mission after the Federation receives a distress call that took ten years to reach them. The Enterprise has to push the engines at maximum warp for two weeks and cross hostile territory to get there. Just that detail was something I liked. It gives the ship and space travel more tactile feel that just we give an order and bam were there.

The distress call was sent by Vulcan scientists who were studying the early universe. Not too different from what Dr. Brian Keating of UCSD is doing measuring the cosmic background radiation. (See my interview with him on the Dickheads podcast). What they discover is creatures that exist at the moment of cosmic expansion. In other words, they feed off the earliest moments of big bangs that ignite new multi-verses. This is a cool concept and paid off my interest in it. Modern Trek needs more stuff like this.

The book is short, Bear captures the character really well. Spock and McCoy act as you expect them. I had fun reading this quick and fun high concept science fiction novel that just happens to have characters and settings I recognized.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Book Review: Inspection by Josh Malerman

Inspection by Josh Malerman

Hardcover, 400 pages

Published March 2019 by Del Rey Books

Some horror fiction fits into neatly defined subgenres, and Inspection is one I find hard to pin down although there are some novels this put me in the same frame of mind. Very different in how they twist and turn, but this novel feels like it fits in with Sarah Pinborough's Death House or MR Carey's Girl With All the Gifts. It is basically coming of Age horror that is set in a dystopic like isolation, all three feature weird schools. In Death House the children are being isolated from global disease, in Girl with all the Gifts the threat the mystery gives way to a pretty typical but well done classic post-apocalypse event. One of my favorite things about Inspection is that Malerman doesn't answer every mystery. Know that going in and you'll be a happier reader for it.

I personally had no idea what the book was about, going in totally cold and spoiler free. I suggest that is the best way to go but if you need more let me tell you about it. Inspection is a dark novel about a group of boys being raised in isolation from the world. They are being raised in a Tower deep in the Michigan woods kept from the world in a school run by D.A.D. (what that stands for is one of the mysteries I don't think we got an answer on. The idea is if they are out of the world away from distractions then they can be trained to be genius level students.

One of those sides effects is that they know nothing of the outside world, and there is a lot of focus on the idea that they have no idea that girls or women exist. The boys, called Alphabet Boys don't even get names only Letters. The narrative early on goes back and forth for our main POV between J and D.A.D whose real name is Richard. J begins to see signs that his world view is based on lies. This is something D.A.D has worried about as the boys finally start to grow into young adults.

With his first release since the Netflix phenomenon and the meme that BirdBox became Inspection is a curious book for Josh Malerman. I really like that he is doing bold things and tell challenging stories. With novels like this one and Unbury Carol Malerman is coming up with original ideas that are not cookie cutter or generic horror. This novel has that strange dark vibe that is pure Malerman.

Half-way into the novel, there is a twist I felt I should have seen coming. The narrative is well down despite some serious challenges for the author. With the majority of the characters having only letters for names, it is hard to keep some of the boys straight. Malerman does as good a job as possible. The structure of the story and the prose are great.

I am not sure every single moment worked for me but that comes down to things about the concept I couldn't quite get with. At it's heart, I didn't understand the motivation of the scientists behind the experiment at the heart of the novel. Besides that, I just rolled with it. I was very invested by the final act. I can recommend this book, I liked it just not sure it will be on the year end list. Great novel overall, Malerman proves again the hype is real.

Book Review/Podcast: The Penultimate Truth by Philip K. Dick

Dickheads episode coming early June!

The Penultimate Truth by Philip K. Dick

Paperback, SF Masterworks, 191 pages

Published February 2005 by Gollancz (first published September 1964)

PKD's Post nuke dystopia is about class, labor, and manufacturing of consent. With robots and simulacra leaders than Chomsky would ever have done. There are some weird story threads that come out of and go nowhere but this is great political PKD. Should make a fun podcast but we are not recording until June. Sorry for the delay.

Twitter: @dickheadspod

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Book Review: Unamerica by Cody Goodfellow + Podcast interview

Unamerica by Cody Goodfellow
Paperback, 448 pages

Expected publication: June 2019 by King Shot Press

I have reviewed most of Cody Goodfellow's books and I normally kick off the review with a paragraph on who Cody is. I feel like should not have to do that at this point plus I did just that three book reviews back when I wrote about the book set to come out after this one called Scum of the Earth. This book is a very different tone, but both are pure Cody Goodfellow. This one is more of a dark and serious novel and in the vein of Cody as I think of him. Not to say there are not fun moments as there certainly are. Most reading experiences from Goodfellow have equal moments of pained laughter and cringe-worthy unsettling doses of weird.

It might sound like exaggerating to say that I waited 10 years for this book but I did. Goodfellow has been working off and on Unamerica for that long, and once told me the concept during a conversation at Bizarrocon. I have several times since asked Cody when I was going to get this book. My bar was incredibly high so I was a little afraid that this book could not live up to the hype. So let's dig into this and figure out was this book worth the wait.

Unamerica is a story seen from several points of view but our main character is a former illegal raver and drug dealer Nolan Hatch who is trying to sneak his way back over the border after a few years aboard. It is amazing how ripped from the headlines this novel feels even with a ten year gestation period. Hatch gets taken by Border Patrol like commandos and is dumped in an underground city made mostly of stacked up storage containers.

In this underground city, it is basically anything goes, you don't have to work, the parties never end and drugs are endlessly available. Once in Unamerican Nolan reverts to his former ways. He can move drugs, and makes himself useful to the gangs but why does this city exist? What is the reason this place exists?

At the same time, religion rises in the form of several street preachers and the two forces rise not unlike the King classic The Stand, the way the drug acts seems very influenced by the Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. For my money that is a great combination of influences. The street preachers give this novel a chance to explore religion.

There is a lot going on in this novel in this novel and I think Goodfellow may have been trying to express many political ideas that were rooted in the Bush Jr. years when it was conceived. This novel explores the way ghetto-style segregation and drugs affect targeted areas of communities. It also explores the idea of how and why the government benefits from pumping drugs into these neighborhoods. It is very much about prison-like conditions the residents in these neighborhoods have to deal with. One of the most interesting elements is the corporate government partnership that runs the underground city. In that sense, it explores the ills of capitalism in underground economies.

I know that sounds like a lot of different messages and ideas, It is true this novel explores religion, drugs, capitalism, social Darwinism, and probably more I didn't catch. It is a lot to take in but it is OK because Goodfellow fills the 436 pages with texture and swag. Underrated as a writer Goodfellow is a diabolical genius who balances strong political messages subtle moments of bizarro insanity. For every jaw-dropping speech about how the human brain works there are just as many scenes like the one with the cannibal complaining of needing maple syrup for his human meat. The line between high brow and low brow as never been thinner and it is one of the things that makes this author one of my favorites.

Goodfellow can break unwritten rules and get away with it. For example, no one should get away with paragraphs that are basically lists of elements that make up a setting. Goodfellow does this all the time in this novel Hatch’s introduction to Unamerica walking in has a long list of the various things he sees. They generally work. Goodfellow is one of the smartest writers of my generation and it is impossible for me to read his work without marveling at his skill, intelligence, and ability on page after page. Unamerica is the best thing I have read this year and I have read a few masterpieces already. This is a must-read for fans of weird fiction that lives on the border of science fiction and Horror. Goodfellow's most assured work is a dystopia not to miss. I hope the people behind the Philip K Dick award pay attention as it is worthy.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Book review up: Infomocracy by Malka Ann Older

Infomocracy by Malka Ann Older

Hardcover, 380 pages

Published June 2016 by Tor.com

So this is the book that has lead me to decide that I need to make a shelf for books that I learned about on Geeks Guide to the Galaxy. I heard Malka Older on a episode about political activism and was totally sold on the concept. This might be a short review as I finished this when I was in the final stage of edits for my next novel, and my brain was a bit fried. I also have finished a book since and that is not my favorite way to review a book. So sorry if I didn't give this book the attention it deserves

This novel at times has a cyperpunk feel just in that much of the novel place in our future where all things online mingle with real life. Don't go in expecting Cyberpunk, there is little punk about this novel. That is fine because this story needed a straighter approach. It has more in common with political thrillers than saw the weird works of say Sterling or Gibson. Think the Ryan Gosling movie Ides of March meets Leguin. It is part political and part spy thriller. Some of the characters are thinly depicted but not the two leads Mishima and Ken who develop a relationship despite coming from different forces. They are well written and engaging characters that I was interested and invested in.

The world building and ideas conveyed about this possible futures use of Micro-democracy was interesting. It was the strength of the novel for me. I certainly see why Older is planning to revisit the setting. There is action, and even swords that might be a little out of place but I choose to go with it. You see in this future the world is divided into micro democracies that are spread around the world to represent voting blocks not just by countries or ideals but sometimes by corporations. You can move around the world following the voters who connect to your ideas. If I remember this all correctly.

The pace of the novel starts a little slow, and it took me a little while to get comfortable with the world building once I did I was glad I. This is an impressive novel, even if it was not totally my jam. This was the first novel published by Tor.com's excellent line of books that until this were all novellas. They tend to be great. I will keep my eye out for the author.

Book Review: Doomsday Morning by C.L. Moore

Doomsday Morning by C.L. Moore

Paperback, Golden Age Masterworks, 256 pages

Published January 2019 by Orion Publishing Co (first published 1957)

This year I decided I was going to read a lot more golden age Science Fiction, one of the books I have already read and reviewed was the Future is Female edited by Lisa Yasek. There were many authors I discovered from this book who I wanted to explore. First on my list was C.L. Moore. The reason I wanted to read her is like me she is a Hoosier. Born in Indiana early in the twentieth century Catherine Moore published her first works in the student journal the Vagabond at Indiana University journalism school just blocks from the house I live in grew up 60 years later. She left IU to support her family during the great depression but published many stories in the early pulp magazines. Later she would publish many works co-written with her first husband Henry Kutter. They met because they were in a circle of friends who met because they all wrote letters back and forth with THE one and only HP Lovecraft.

So I was interested in reading more of her work and when I saw that our library had a battered and worn first edition I jumped on it. The first thing I feel the need to comment on in the almost 70 years this book has been in and out of print it been consistently packaged in covers that have nothing to do with the book. There are no spaceships, or lazer guns, no giant robotic spiders. This is a serious dystopia that apparently is a follow up to her 1943 novel Judgement Night. That novel was not the basis for the silly 90's gangster movie. That short novel was actually more of a space opera.

Doomsday Morning is about a post-America 50 years in the future although no exact date is given. The country is run by what appears to be some form of AI called Comus (short for Communications of the United States). This book is really the essence of out of date Sci-fi written just before TV took over as a popular entertainment. Our window into this future comes from the POV of Howard Rohan a washed up actor. Comus sends him out to California to spread propaganda and accidentally out the forces of resistance against him. It is hard to imagine this type of media as propaganda in the future being down by traveling theater.

Much of this novel is about the theater, I don't know much about that subject but I believe the author did. The play they are touring with is called Crossroads. Those parts gave me a somewhat tongue-in-cheek feel. I thought of those scenes having a Terry Gilum or Coen Brothers feel. It was a interesting change of pace from the majority of the book that has many dark moments. The rebellion eventually falls into riots and chaos.

There is plenty of weird out of date attempts to predict technology like "Hedgehoppers" and really Comus itself is AI before the term really existed. This is not a read for everyone. It didn't age well but anyone serious about reading golden age sci-fi can't go wrong. This was the last work of an important author. While she returned to conventions to be remembered and honored for her contribution Catherine Moore never wrote in the genre again. I am glad I read it but outside of Golden Age completionists I not sure about the appeal 70 years later. I certainly respect the work.