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05-08-09: Stephen Baxter Unleashes a 'Flood' : Get Ready for a Flood of Enviro-Disaster Fiction

Stephen Baxter has a way of sweeping readers into a bigger world than the one they're accustomed to living in. He starts close to home, where we all live and then takes us one step at a time to our world transformed. Generally, by humans.

In the Destiny's Children trilogy, Baxter posited a sort of secret society in post-Roman Britain, using historical fiction to create a science-fiction vision of the present and the future. The changes within humanity brought about changes on the earth and beyond. His newest novel, 'Flood' (Roc / New American Library / Penguin Putnam ; May 5, 2009 ; $24.95) is probably the first of a new wave of eco-fiction coming down the pike now that we've taken our hands off our eyes and stopped pretending that global climate change is a political conspiracy and not a scientific actuality. Baxter springs four hostages from five years in captivity only to show them a world realizing with more certainty every day that the Apocalypse has come when nobody noticed. Now, all that's left is the destruction of the world as we know it.

End-of-the-world novels have a difficult task. It's easy to misjudge them, because though the point-of-view characters must of necessity be human, the novels themselves are essentially one long death scene for one main character who rarely appears in fiction; the world, as we know it, itself. For this reader, creating that fog of unstoppable despair is the primary task of a novel like 'Flood.' We have to look around us and wonder how we might cope if it all went away. Getting us to think in this manner is a more difficult literary task than one might at first suspect.

Sure, we have to start with the humans involved; they explain to us how we feel the pain. Think of the gardeners in Nevil Shute's 'On the Beach'; devoid of the context, they're not so interesting as characters, but Shute is an expert at focusing readers' perceptions on the larger picture. Every normal aspect of life becomes pointless, fruitless and Shute focuses our realization of this using the gardeners' actions in the context of an Apocalypse that has already come to pass; the folks we're looking at just haven’t quite caught up yet.

In Baxter's 'Flood,' it's our present world that has ended. We just don’t know it yet. He jumps a few years into the future shows us the futility of our lives now, in a world where everything done is for nought, as the water rises faster than anyone can expect. How we cope both in Baxter's characters and as readers of his apocalyptic vision, is where we take our perverse pleasure. Baxter knows how to cast a shill over the reader, sending our emotions into a very controlled downward spiral. This is one of those books that may make you call in sick to work so you can finish it. There's a whirlpool suction that turns the pages, quite unlike other reading experiences. Baxter knows how to work the atmosphere of the slow-motion Apocalypse.

'Flood' will be followed in a year by the unsurprisingly-named 'Ark' — and one suspects a flood of novels with similar eco-disastrous themes. Back in the mid-1970's, just as I was starting to discover science fiction, there was a similar bloom of novels; John Christopher's 'No Blade of Grass' comes to mind, as does an anthology, 'Nightmare Age' that scared the bejeebers out of me in 1970, particularly Paul Erhlich's "Eco-Catastrophe!" from, of all places, Ramparts magazine, where Robert Scheer was working. I can say with a fair amount of confidence that it was the only story from Ramparts ever to make a "World's Best SF" anthology. But what was really striking about the story was not the fact that the world's ecology was going to hell, as evidenced by algae blooms that were killing off the sea life. The scary part was how humans reacted, and I'll not forget the final line of the story which has China blaming Russia and sending troops over the border. And so to hasten World War Three, and thus Neville Shute's triumph of the lack of will. It’s tempting to think that everything leads to some sort of Apocalypse. But generally, it's humans.

05-07-09: Daniel Kalder Glimpses Life Through 'Strange Telescopes' : 'Following the Apocalypse From Moscow to Siberia'

Some books don't require that one read too far before one realizes that one must own everything the author has written. Fortunately, with Daniel Kalder, there's only one to catch up on; 'Lost Cosmonaut,' his "Observations of an Anti-Tourist." Kalder's my sort of travel writer, who, like Tahir Shah, goes places in a manner as much interior as exterior.

Travel writing is a tricky business. We live in a known world. On a bookshelf in my living room is a photo of my Grandmother and Grandfather Kleffel sitting on the Great Wall. Even a schmoe like me has relatives who were there back in the day. I'm sure I could go find an Imax movie whose images of any particular place I might care to visit would dwarf that place. And I particularly dislike air travel in its current incarnation. I'd almost prefer sipping myself via Fedex as opposed to getting on a passenger plane. At least the Fedex folks would treat me better.

Given my attitude towards travel, it's not surprising that I would glom on to the "Anti-Tourist Manifesto" as promulgated by
Daniel Kalder for 'Lost Cosmonaut', and his new book, 'Strange Telescopes: Following the Apocalypse From Moscow to Siberia' (Overlook Press ; May 14, 2009 ; $26.95). Kalder's external journeys to the Russian pits of hell are only excuses for the prose journey he makes from sentence to sentence. That's the journey I as a reader have to make, and so long as Kalder's got a firm hold of prose, I'm happy to go.

Kalder's a funny guy mostly, with an acerbic and refreshingly brutal world-view that takes no shit or prisoners. He seeks a sort of blunt sensation and in his latest book, he finds it in a journey across the worst parts of Russia. Whether you're looking for Seventh Day Adventists or Russia's answer to the Mole People, or most appropriately, something so freaking weird you'll think Kalder's lying (and sometimes he does let his imagination run), it's Kalder's prose that's your mode of transport. In this case, literarily not literally, a mode of transport. Reading transports us much more effectively than planes, and generally involves more comfortable seating.

Like most travelers, Kalder doesn't exactly know where to stop, and to my mind, he might have yanked about three shorter books out of 'Strange Telescopes', but you know, his loss is our gain. Kalder's peculiar, post-punk travelogue and prose is perfectly suited for those who find comfort in discomfort. With Kalder, it’s so much easier to read than to travel, but such is the allure of his writing that he makes you want to undertake your own bit of anti-tourism. In point of fact, he makes you take a second look at just where you are, and perhaps wonder if you've ever really been there yet.

05-06-09: Simon Rich Raises 'Free-Range Chickens' : Thought-Experiments, Humor, and Blasphemous Rumors

Simon Rich has pretty much pegged his entire afterlife on the premise that God, if [he/she/it] exists, has a sense of humor. If that's not the case, then he's got to figure that Hell on Earth has been adequate prep for Hell in the Afterlife.

All I know is that as I read the selections in
'Free-Range Chickens' (Random House ; May 12, 2009 ; $13), I found God to be a regular and not necessarily comforting presence. Not that the book has one iota of religiosity about it — perish the thought. No, God just gets to play the straight man for Simon's yank-the-bucket-out-from-under-the-sap jokes on a regular basis. And every time I read another little jab in the side of the presumed Almighty, I could hear strains of an old Depeche Mode song .... "I don’t want to start any blasphemous rumors, but I think that God's got a sick sense of humor and when I die I expect to find him laughing..." For Simon Rich's sake, I can only hope that's the case.

But God isn't the only man here; Rich himself is usually his own target in what I might humbly suggest is the best bathroom book of the year thus far, and an unlikely but arguable entry into the world of genre fiction, that is science fiction. That's because 'Free-Range Chickens' is a series of easily-read short and amusing thought experiments by a writer probably better known for his work on Saturday Night Live. 'Free-Range Chickens' offers Rich the opportunity to unleash his wit in a prose form that is really quite unique, and disarmingly sweet. Each entry is an exercise in seeing the world from a different perspective, with a simple, often logical setup that is played out into the absurd. The skill and economy that Rich employs belie the intelligence behind the writing. It would be no stretch to consider this a very untraditional work of science fiction or fantasy.

Take for example, "Frogs," which imagines the conversation between two frogs discussing the whys and wherefores of the human predilection to use frogs for school dissection experiments. On one hand, Rich could simply offer up the perspective of critters terrified by their impending fate, and that would indeed be pretty funny. But just to add depth to the proceedings, Rich imagines that these frogs understand their fate and, terrifyingly, agree with it. They think it’s just dandy to end up in pieces to aid the cause of a kid who barely gives a hoot about what he is supposed to learn. Remember the cow-creature that was so happy to be sliced and diced in 'The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy'? These frogs come from that universe, and presumably, so does Rich.

Rich's book is in fact a collection of thought-experiments conducted with the sort of ruthless logic of the very young. (He's very young, apparently.) He mines the delusions of parents as well as deities, and explores the child's, tween's and teen's expectations of this world as if they might actually come to fruition. He imagines reasons good enough for him to check his email as frequently as he does. He imagines the conversation between processing chips in the next mega-chess playing computer. 'Free-Range Chickens' is truly a work of the imagination; in a seeming contradiction, Rich manages to get his best effects by constraining that imagination with the strictures of his experimental guidelines.

The humor in 'Free-Range Chickens' is pretty understated and low-key. Rich posits a doctor's office or a burger joint employing cameras in the same manner as amusement parks, offering you a money shot of your most intense instant; it's not a pretty picture. He talks a lot about God, who crops up now and again until he gets his own section. In short pieces like "God has a plan for all of us" and "Why do bad things happen to good people?," Rich pursues the Godless path of ruthless logic as applied to the omniscient, with consistently thought-provoking results. Now none of this is too thought provoking; it is, as I mentioned earlier, sort of a perfect, er, bathroom book. You just can't (and probably don’t want to) imagine how many times it'll get read there.

In fact, here's a book that I suggest readers buy via the Internet, albeit using some independent bookseller, of course. One of the problems with 'Free-Range Chickens' is that you could probably read a good chunk of it before you got home from the bookstore. Of course, in the days and months to follow you could re-read it and everyone who comes to visit will dip in as well. Given the use it's going to get, at $13 it seems like a bargain. Rich could probably write a thought experiment about how his book is used – and where.

05-05-09: Richard Kadrey Hangs With 'Sandman Slim' : Hitman from Hell

I once read a description of writing types by an editor who suggested that some writers were like machine gunners, pumping out books like bullets on a pretty regular schedule. In fact, this is a pretty good description of most writers you find on the bookshelves it seems, those bestselling-thriller authors who reliably crank out one book per year. (Unless you’re Neal Asher who got permission to crank out more than one book per year.)

Another writer type the editor described as being more like a sniper, taking single, well-aimed shots at lengthy intervals. I think we can count Richard Kadrey among the latter. Yes, I remember 1988, when 'Metrophage' came out and de-populated LA, where I was roaming the bookstores, engaged in my first phase of book collecting. Got a batch of UK-Orbit versions of Philip K. Dick novels, and an accompanying shelf of yellow-spined DAW versions as well. And of course, the Ace Specials, designed for the compulsive SF collector, and one of editor Terry Carr's finest hours.

This year, 'Metrophage' is 21 and old enough to buy itself a drink in the city it tried to kill. And soon enough, Richard Kadery will unleash another finely-aimed sniper shot in the form of
'Sandman Slim' (EOS / HarperCollins ; August 2009 ; $24.99). Though he burst onto the scene with the "cyberpunk" brand, 'Sandman Slim' makes it particularly clear that Kadrey isn’t so much of a cyberpunk as he is a citypunk. Kadrey likes his mean streets and is not afraid to make them meaner, even if it means bringing a little bit of hell to earth.

Like many a great novel, 'Sandman Slim' starts from a simple premise. Jim Stark fell hard and far — straight into Hell, eventually. That's where magic will get you if you’re not careful. But, if once there you are careful, you can get out. Which is where 'Sandman Slim' begins, with a still-flaming Jim Stark putting himself out and hoping his escape remains unnoticed long enough to set up shop. But as he's settling in he finds out that he's still in the hot seat. Bad for him; good for readers.

Kadrey knows the strength of the noir vibe. He knows how to make it happen, and not just with tough-as-nails plotting and casual ultra-violence. For this writer, the prose style is the distinctive marker. Kadrey is the sort of writer who makes writing look easy by virtue of his effortless and finger-snappin' prose. You feel like he's just there, hunkered down by a trash can on fire and almost rappin' out his story to no-one and everyone. He'll grab you from the first page and then you'll take the book home as if it were a particularly fine beer. It's just as heady and not so likely to damage your clothes. 'Sandman Slim' brings with it an enormous chunk of city to the citypunk genre, and more importantly, the kind of enjoyable snarling wit that burns. Sometimes even others.

05-04-09: Andrea N. Richesin Edits 'Because I Love Her' : Mothers, Daughters and Mirrors

What results is 'Because I Love Her: 34 Women Writers Reflect on the Mother-Daughter Bond' (Harlequin ; April 1, 2009 ; $13.95), a collection of short, sharp essays, memoirs, rants and ruminations about mothers and daughters, often as seen in the mirror of a woman who is both a mother and a daughter. In the introduction, Richesin describes her own mother, and to this reader she sounds pretty damn ideal(ized). Richesin's mother was in the PTA, did Meals on Wheels, sewed inventive Halloween costumes for young Andrea, baked this, brought that — it’s kind of storybook, really. Faced with a daughter of her own, Richesin did what any good editor would do. She sent out a call to writers, and put together a book that covers just about every sort of motherhood, childhood and neighborhood you can imagine and an impressive number that you cannot imagine.

The results are pretty felicitous, especially for those looking for a decent book to hand their mothers come this Sunday. Some of the writing is tart and funny, some is poignant and pretty, and some is even a bit harsh and surreal. Richesin claims to have edited with the lightest of hands, and her writers confirm this, but the consistency in terms of length and impact is impressive, and I suppose, preternatural. You'll meet madwomen and adult children, and selections across the sexual spectrum. Some women write essays, some memoirs, all do so quite well and — as mentioned above — at a length that suggests two, perhaps three pieces to read at night when the book is plucked from the nightstand.

It's fascinating the number of pieces wherein those who are not mothers, daughters or parents, those standing on the sideline, offer sage advice to mothers on motherhood, to daughters on daughterhood and to parents on parenthood. Everybody seems to think that this is all so easy, so natural that no experience is required in order to act as a guidance counselor. The exception is anyone who actually is a mother, a daughter or a parent. They know there are no certainties, no platitudes, no generalities; only the specifics of experience.

New to the Agony Column

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Erik Larson : " "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

03-01-15: Commentary : William Ury on Getting to Yes with Yourself: And Other Worthy Opponents : To the BATNA, Robin!

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William Ury : ...he proceeded to shout at me for approximately 30 minutes..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 198: William Ury : Getting to Yes with Yourself: And Other Worthy Opponents

02-22-15: Commentary : Jennifer Senior Experiences 'All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood' : Reading Fun for the Whole Fambly!

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jennifer Senior : " becomes a source of enormous tension once a baby comes along..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 197: Jennifer Senior : All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood

02-09-15: Commentary : Stewart O'Nan Looks 'West of Sunset' : Twilight of the Great

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Stewart O'Nan : "...we see him as a tragedian because is life is a tragedy..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 196: Stewart O'Nan : West of Sunset

02-04-15: Commentary : Armistead Maupin Maps 'The Days of Anna Madrigal' : Swiftly Flow the Years

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Armistead Maupin : "I could see what silliness was going on while it was happening..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 195: Armistead Maupin : The Days of Anna Madrigal

01-31-15: Commentary : Christine Carter's Path to 'The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work' : Neurohabits

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Christine Carter, Ph.D. : "...a real tipping point..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 194: Christine Carter, Ph.D. : The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work

01-23-15: Commentary : Jake Halpern Pushes 'Bad Paper: Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the Underworld' : Non-Fiction 21st Century Noir

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jake Halpern : "...he goes to Las Vegas to this debt-buyers' convention..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 193: Jake Halpern : Bad Paper: Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the Underworld

01-19-15: Commentary : David Shields and Caleb Powell Assert 'I Think You're Totally Wrong' : The Power to Bicker

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with David Shields and Caleb Powell : "I read no book reviews any more; the level of discussion is really pedestrian." David Shields "I'm just saying it's a conflict of interest!" Caleb Powell

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 192: David Shields and Caleb Powell : I Think You're Totally Wrong

01-17-15: Commentary : Charles Todd Expects 'A Fine Summer's Day' : We Interrupt This Program...

Commentary : Charles Todd Engages In 'A Test of Wills' : The Politics of Passion and Policing

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Charles and Caroline Todd : "...let them be themselves and sort it out..." Caroline Todd "'s more on a personal level..." Charles Todd

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 191: Charles Todd : A Fine Summer's Day

01-13-15: Commentary : Rosalie Parker Unearths 'The Old Knowledge' : The New Old World

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Ray Russell and Rosalie Parker : "I thought I'd write something for fun.." Ray Russell "..there was a side of me of that was interested in the strangeness..." Ros Parker

01-12-15: Commentary : Richard Ford 'Let Me Be Frank with You' : The Default Years

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Richard Ford : "...most of our politicians are morons..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 190: Richard Ford : Let Me Be Frank with You

01-06-15: Commentary : Bessel van der Kolk 'The Body Keeps the Score' : Human Trauma

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Bessel van der Kolk : "...being able to see what happens in the brain really helps us to understand certain things..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 189: Bessel van der Kolk : The Body Keeps the Score

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