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03-27-09: Firesign Theatre Opens A 'Box of Danger' : The Complete Nick Danger Casebook

Reading is a pretty mind-intensive experience. We have to read the language, then through some mental gyration that is not well understood, turn those words into some form of mental movie, a story — the experience takes place within us, and is imposed, or incited solely by language. Because movies and television are so profitable, they are prevalent, and because you cannot get away from them, the inclination is to segue from books to movies. Yes, books are made into movies, but the experience is very different. Watching movies, the visual-audio experience is used to induce the story experience. When we read, the reading experience is used to induce the story and visual-audio experience. Because we make up the bulk of the experience when we read, the involvement and the intensity of the experience are greater in the long and short run when we read. You work for your entertainment and you get a big fat mental paycheck.

I'm using the made-up-by-me phrase "visual-audio" because in movies and television, the visual experience overwhelms everything else. Movies and television (and video games, I guess) are currently in the process of crowding out books as a form of entertainment and enlightenment. But in terms of affecting our outlook, they just can't compete with books. On the other hand, there is one medium that can compete with books — radio. But radio has been overwhelmed by the news. It's effectively a non-fiction only environment now. That wasn't always the case. Radio used to be the province of The Shadow. But the pinnacle of radio fiction was without doubt The Firesign Theatre. That was audio that could give books and movies and television a run for their money.

Using just words and sound effects, in their heyday, the four man ensemble that called themselves The Firesign Theatre — Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman and Phil Proctor — created the closest thing to a reading experience that did not involve reading. On vinyl albums like Everything You Know Is Wrong and I Think We're All Bozos on this Bus, Firesign Theatre employed a complicated, dense web of words and sound effects to create multi-layered, surreal worlds within the minds of its listeners. Like the reading experience, listening to The Firesign Theatre required that the audience process language and then create both story and visual worlds. They were masters at using the medium to create surreal mindscapes that devoted fans could often quote verbatim.

As I trust my readers can guess, I was one of those who could quote whole sections of Firesign Theatre albums. And now I may have the chance to once again immerse myself. Sitting next to my computer is 'The Firesign Theatre's Box of Danger' ( / ; September 30, 2008 ; $49.95), four CDs that comprise the entirety of the Nick Danger stories, with entries ranging from February 1969 to June 2008. There is really nothing else that compares with this material. It's simultaneously funny, thought-provoking, and exceedingly surreal with an authentic emotional heft that one rarely finds in fiction of any format. Especially fiction that makes you laugh out loud, early and often.

The Nick Danger material here includes the original track, "The Further Adventures of Nick Danger", as well as live cuts, older radio shows and other works, some scripted and some improvised. Some of this material is almost Shakespearian in density, but even when they're totally winging it, doing what they call "Word Jazz", the Firesign Theatre is never less than compelling listening — and the closest experience you can get to reading without opening a book. A spoof of the radio detective serials that proceeded it, the Nick Danger oeuvre is probably the most accessible of the Firesign Theatre's work. It's a great gateway drug to the rest of their material, in the way, say that Harry Potter might lead readers to J. R. R. Tolkien. If you think that there is no experience that can compete with reading, then you'll want to pick up this Box of Danger. It will indeed put you in harm's way — of turning off the television and turning on the radio — tuned to the peculiar sounds channeled by the Firesign Theatre.

03-26-09: 'The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009' Edited by Laura Furman : Literary Horrors

He's hallucinating. That's what the flap-jacket will tell of the main character in Graham Joyce's "An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen," the Jury Prize winner for this year's 'The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009' (Anchor Books / Random House ; May 5, 2009 ; $14.95) edited by Laura Furman. Because you know, in literature it is forbidden that aspects of the supernatural could be considered as "real." Nope, if you've got a ghost, monster, demon, what the hell ever, it's got to be a literary device and only a literary device.

I suppose that's true by virtue of the fact that any written monster is indeed written, and thus by definition, literary. But it still sort of frosts me that genre fiction has to undergo some sort of genre-fictional shape-shifting in order to gain admission into the halls of Litrachur. That said, at least genre fiction is getting a foot in the door, though not, from what I can tell, as a result of the efforts from those who publish it. You know, here I am huffing and puffing about how genre fiction gets left out, and then with a quick flip to the back of the book, it becomes apparent; the editors or publishers of periodicals like The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction or Asimov's, so far as I can tell, don’t bother to submit their magazines for consideration. That explains that.

This year, Furman is complemented by a great "antijury." She calls it an antijury because she asks the members to choose the prize-winner without consulting one another or the series editor. The jury consisted of A. S. Byatt, Anthony Doerr and Tim O'Brien, a fine selection itself and a perfect example of the series editor's art and skill. Their essays on why they chose the stories for the prize offer insight into how writers read – not what we usually hear. It's the kind of reading that makes the act of reading more enjoyable. Furman puts together a book that is worth buying, reading, and loaning – so long as you insist on getting it back.

So, on to the good news, which is that Furman and her antijury have selected not just Graham Joyce, but a whole volume of fine, fine stories that will delight just about anyone who is willing to read short stories. Don’t let the literary aura put you off; Furman and her staff focus on powerful, involving and entertaining fiction. Joyce's story, "An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen," is the testament of a soldier who returns from the Gulf War with something in tow ... something publishers of literary fiction would clearly prefer not to believe in. On the other hand publishes clearly believe in the author, who is working on a novel grown from the seed of this story. When you read it, you'll find it’s just got a great storytelling voice that clearly has more to say.

Other notables for this reader include Junot Diaz's "Wildwood," imbued with a deeply mythic feel, while Andrew Sean Greer's "Darkness" has a slippery storytelling style that casts everything in a peculiarly entertaining light. No matter what your literary or genre preferences are, you can prepare to have them shredded as you read these stories; in the final analysis, they are quite simply, all good. Moreover, reading them you'll find new writers whose oeuvre you can mine, and yes, perhaps it is possible that ... you'll find new genres you can enjoy. Imagine that — but if you must write about it, make sure you give it a psychological justification rooted in character experience and don’t expect the reader to believe it just because you wrote about it. Supernatural experiences — like reading — are always easily explained by psychological means.

03-25-09: Tony Ballantyne 'Twisted Metal' : A Mind is a Wonderful Thing to Twist

Tony Ballantyne is no stranger to the world of mind-twisting cyberpunk, but he's always had a unique approach. In 'Recursion', 'Capacity' and 'Divergence', Ballantyne created a world in which virtual reality had become an actual reality. Ballantyne proved himself to be a master worlds-within-worlds fiction. So what's he doing with a new novel that looks like a digitized update of the Rock'em Sock'em Robots?

If you've read Ballantyne's mind-warping trilogy, you know that he's quite surreal and intellectual in his approach to science fiction, even if he works entirely within the genre. 'Recursion', 'Capacity' and 'Divergence' all start out seeming like one thing and all end up being quite another. He's anything but a stand-issue science fiction writer.

But his latest novel, 'Twisted Metal' (Tor UK / Pan Macmillan ; May 1, 2009 ; £16.99) looks pretty much like every other battling robots bore-fest you can conjure up. You've got the fancy-schmancy digital art with a design snagged from Dan Simmons' 'Hyperion.' You've even got a tagline on the bottom that is practically stolen from the execrable Transformers trash that was fired from the Hollowood sewer-pipe onto IMAX screens, fercrissakes. The publishers make it clear that they're hoping to cash in on summer sequels.

The blurbs don’t make this sound much better, alas. They describe battling robots duking it out in a metallic wasteland. Ballantyne managed to write three sophisticated and yes, twisty novels about the implications of Artificial Intelligence and virtual reality where what Hollowood execs would call the "Big Bad" was a smart lorry. 'Twisted Metal' may look like a metal-ballsy sell-out, and to this end, we can hope it sells like one. Because, just like his other three novels, appearances are indeed deceiving, especially the appearance of 'Twisted Metal' as a novel divorced from the writer's previous series.

From the get-go, 'Twisted Metal' does indeed deliver on what the cover promises: battling robots. The robots of Artemis are marching on Turing City. The former are pitiless conquerors, the latter are, well, as individualist as robots can be. Karel is a citizen of Turing City who is captured and sent to what passes for Cyberia, no Siberia. Again, none of this sounds a) promising b) anything like the writer's previous novels.

Of course there's always a third choice, which in this case, is that 'Twisted Metal' is every bit as twisted as its predecessors, and is in fact very much a part of Ballantyne's master plan to upend our understanding of so-called "cyberpunk." Like 'Recursion,' 'Twisted Metal' takes simple building blocks and puts them together in a very unexpected manner. Ballantyne's a super-smart writer, providing reading satisfaction at a visceral, blow-em-up level and at an intellectual, sense-of-wonder level. Suffice it to say that 'Twisted Metal' lives up to all the implications of the title. And yes, while you can read it as a standalone beginning to a new series, you'd be well advised to reach back to the first three books. Recursion is your friend.

03-24-09: 'Dancing on the Head of a Pin' With Thomas E. Sniegoski : Hard Boiled Angels

Noir is not the sort of fiction one reads for subtlety. So I suppose it come as no surprise that Thomas E. Sniegoski has taken the remarkably unsubtle step of naming the protagonist of his noir series Remy Chandler. What's more, he's got a dog named Marlowe. But in Sniegoski's world, those are the subtle touches. That's because Remy Chandler happens to be an angel, exiled to the earth, and it so happens he can talk to his dog Marlowe.

Welcome to the world of Remy Chandler, private detective and ex-angel. In the second book of his series, 'Dancing on the Head of a Pin' (Roc / New American Library / Penguin Putnam ; April 12, 2009 ; $14), Sniegoski aims the ultimate straight-arrow at a cache of supernatural weapons and Fallen Angels who want to use them for less-than-heavenly aims. Sure, it's a classic noir, just with monsters, demons and a dash of free will for the humans in their general vicinity.

Here's the warning; first you want to read 'A Kiss Before the Apocalypse', which introduces Remy and his supernatural predicament even as it ruins his life on earth. Oh well, no good noir PI was ever happy anyway. But even if angels don’t have to eat, like all good PIs walking the mean streets, they do have to follow the path laid out before them, even if in this case, it leads straight to hell.

Sniegoski's a good writer, and he has a fine grasp of the two genres he's thrown into his own prose mixmaster. He takes his mystery milieu seriously, and plays the supernatural with a straight face. This isn’t to say he doesn't mine the humorous potential of his characters' lives, but what emerges is pretty deadpan. 'Dancing on the Head of a Pin' is a fine urban fantasy so grounded in reality, it becomes appealing to an audience much wider than those who enjoy their mystery infused angelic.

Not that Sniegoski dwells on the good that men — and other beings — do. No, he gives Remy plenty of monsters and demons to dispatch. Marlowe the talking dog could be corny crutch, but instead, he proves to be a low-key sidekick and a surprisingly effective emotional foil for Remy. But most importantly, Sniegoski knows how to play the elements of the fantastic against the elements of the mundane mystery in a manner that allows him to complicate both plot and character. For all the jokiness of the title, 'Dancing on the Head of a Pin' trends towards understated as opposed to overblown. It is, after all noir, and yes, night is appropriately eternal.

03-23-09: Christopher Moore is No 'Fool' : A Review of Christopher Moore's 'Fool'

I recall vividly sitting the KQED studio for my last studio interview with Christopher Moore. He was in the early stages of working on 'Fool' (William Morrow / HarperCollins ; February 10, 2009 ; $26.99), and I have to admit that it sounded like a stretch at the time. The proof is in the pages, however, and the pages of Moore's latest novel prove it to be his best yet. It's consistently funny, mind-bogglingly filthy and one of those books that you’re going to read aloud to whomever is in your general vicinity. Here's my review; but I do have a few comments as well.

I started 'Fool' with some trepidation. I've grown to love Moore's work, but taking on Shakespeare is a daunting proposition. Plus, part of the appeal to me of Moore's work, is the presence of the supernatural. He's one of the few writers who can really work the supernatural as comedy, and here he was taking on Litrachur-with-a-capital-L. When I turned to Chapter One and discovered it was titled "Always a Bloody Ghost," I knew it was going to be all right.

I read the book in one sitting, really, over an afternoon that was utterly delightful. I was literally drunk with words, with humor with the most graphic and startling sex I'd ever encountered in a novel where the sex didn't seem graphic and startling, just kind of classy and funny. In our interview, Moore told me that this is his best seller yet. It's just the kind of crazy thing that might happen in one of his novels. Comedic writer pens novel after novel of great comedy, then hits it big when he turns the world's greatest tragedy upside-down. I think that speaks to a certain truth buried in this novel, and in the truthfulness to be found in an absurd approach to this world. The truth hurts, but pain is funny. Here's another link to my review of 'Fool.'

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