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08-21-09: A Review of 'Inherent Vice' by Thomas Pynchon : Days of Future Passed

I remember a moment in 1970 when I was about to make a telephone call. I looked at the white dial phone in front of me and thought that now, 1970 was the future. It had finally arrived. But I also knew — having seen the movie and read the book — that 2001 was the future, and that chances were, I'd be alive then in that future as well. And my futuristic 1970 would be the past.

I actually lived in the South Bay setting of Thomas Pynchon's newest novel, '
Inherent Vice,' in that novel's future — starting in 1982. I don't suppose much had changed in the intervening ten or so years; well, except for our entire culture. Everything really. But not the physical locations, which Pynchon nails in his dreamy, flowing post-60's noir prose. For me, 'Inherent Vice' was a return to my old haunts in the time before I ever haunted them.

Reading 'Inherent Vice' was an experience to savor, slowly, and it’s something I look forward to re-visiting, yes, like snapshots from a life I never lead. All the power of Pynchon's formidable writing career is concentrated here and the distillation is a pure, heady wine of joy and beauty and just a touch of cosmic terror at the world being birthed. Of all the things one might have thought to say about a novel by Thomas Pynchon, "I hope there is a sequel," was pretty low on the list. Not that we don’t love his work, just that it has never before left itself so open to amendment. You can read my review of 'Inherent Vice' here. Just know: this past has a future.

08-20-09: Neal Asher Sets Sail with 'Orbus' : Old Captains Die Hard — and Often

Reading is a game of balance, in my book. Thus, the rather wide scope of this column, bouncing around from one sort of book to another. Only by going back and forth between fiction and non-fiction, science fiction and fantasy, horror and mystery, literary realism and unhinged weirdness am I able to appreciate the virtues of each type of writing.

But I do admit that there are certain books I home in on. Long ago, at the beginning of this column, practically, I had just picked up the first novel by Neal Asher, titled 'Gridlinked.' It was among the books that really inspired me to follow through with this column, to take it daily, to start the interviews, and eventually, to turn the interviews into a five-day-a-week podcast that wraps up its second year of podcasting this Friday. That's a big launch. And I must admit that if books have a food equivalent, then Neal Asher is well ... meat as dessert. Because as much as I like some desserts (a family recipe orange meringue pie, for example), truth to tell, I look forward to a nice pan-fried and broiled ribeye, or roasted lamb shanks as much or more. There's a dessert-level of enjoyment for those meat portions, as well as Neal Asher. And Asher is certainly chock full of meat.

His latest, the forthcoming
'Orbus' (Tor UK / Pan Macmillan ; September 4, 2009 ; £17.99 HC, ; August 4, 2009 ; £11.99 TPB) is most precisely slotted in as the third in the "Spatterjay" series that began with 'The Skinner' and was followed up in 'The Voyage of the Sable Keech.' But it's also a Polity Novel, so you can slide it in to that long series as well. The upshot is that Asher has been expanding his universe in a logical and utterly entertaining manner for quite some time. He knows what his readers want, he knows where he wants to go, and getting there involves monsters. Lots of monsters.

In an introduction to 'Orbus', Asher writes about his youth — how, at the age of ten, when others were drawing the still life with an apple the teacher had set out before them, he showed his teach a page, "...filled with pterodactyls and other strange monsters. He just nodded, said something complimentary and moved on. It seemed that there were adults in this world, other than my parents, who didn't think it strange to like this weird shit."

And there you have a clue as to the appeal of Asher's work. Here is a guy who has written some fifteen books, who has a solid career going. And the reason this is so is that he understands that the core of his appeal is the child-like sense of wonder we all experience in the presence of carefully imagined monsters.

Oh how we love our monsters, as does Asher. More importantly, he knows how to put them to work in a novel, in this case, 'Orbus,' where the main character, the title character is a creature that most normal humans would say is utterly monstrous. But he's just the tip of the iceberg here. What Asher excels at is giving readers sympathetic monsters, giving us the comic relief characters who are AI "subminds," sprouting tentacles and spewing bile. These are the "good guys" in Asher's universe. And the good are just as grotesque and deformed as the bad; sometimes they’re also as bad as the bad. Situational ethics have permeated the fabric of Asher's Polity universe.

Though 'Orbus' is a "Spatterjay" novel, it gets loose from Asher's watery, parasitic ecosystem and explores some enchanting new terrain. "The Graveyard" is a particularly well-drawn spacescape. But what, a reader who trends towards realistic literary fiction and non-fiction might ask, is the point of all this surreal, unreal, over-the-top monsterific strangeness? Isn’t this just beyond vapid, and thus, not so entertaining at all?

I don't think so and I believe that most readers, if they availed themselves of Asher's fiction, would think so either. I mean, to quote a favorite album title by the band Nomeansno, just look around. You think a cosmic carnivorous whelk is unrealistic? Watch the 24 hours news channels! I'm pretty sure if you do, you'll see that a landscape of monsters, a world of monsters, a universe of the grotesque, good and bad, is just around the corner from you. Asher's utterly horrific visions are in fact rather calming, and beneficent. In the Polity universe, everything has evolved to the point where the internal turbulence is expressed in the pliable, plastic flesh. At the end his introduction to 'Orbus,' Asher warns us: "Here be monsters."

To which I respond. "Just look around."

08-19-09: Simon R. Green Hunts 'The Spy Who Haunted Me' : A Tangled Web We Weave

When it comes to Simon R. Green, I'm prejudiced. For my money, he's got the best bead on the sort of supernatural detective, or in this case, spy series out there. Yes, he has all the ingredients that the competitors have; a sardonic sleuth, a complicated back-story and a fairly well-organized mythology. He's got the friggin' vampires and werewolves, but he doesn't lean too hard on 'em. I really appreciate that. There's one thing that he does better than any of his ilk.

In his "Secret Histories" series, and in his Nightside series, Simon R. Green knows just how seriously he should take himself. Not so much.

The books are funny yes, but not a send-up or out-and-out satire. It's a delicate balance this, that Green achieves in his urban fantasies, a matter of voice and choice. Simon R. Green has for this reader the pitch perfect, world-weary detective down to an art. And that world-weariness plays well when the world in question includes heaven, hell, all the critters of both, none of them inclined to be friendly, and more as well. For me, the more is important, because Green doesn't limit himself to the horror genre. Without effort, he'll take his updated Arthurian quest off to Roswell, there to contend with exactly what you don’t expect to find in a series like this. And he does it all with a sort of suspicious, cautious sensibility that is both funny and sensible. When you don’t know whether you'll be dealing with nasty aliens of recalcitrant angels, you have to be flexible.

'The Spy Who Haunted Me' (New American Library /Signet / Pengin Putnam ; July 2, 2009 ; $24.95) is the third book in the Secret Histories/Shaman Bond series, which has always seemed to inhabit the same universe as that of Green's Nightside books. In general, these are bigger and a little bit more serious than the Nightside books. They’re like the Director's Cut. Now, it’s official, as the two cross-over in an entertaining fashion. It was really only a matter of time and voice. This time around, Eddie Drood finds himself in a competition that he needs must win, but at a potential cost to his family. If there's a cultural or supernatural or science-fictional myth or trope doesn't make it into this series, I'd be hard-pressed to find it. Fortean readers will certainly enjoy the visit to Loch Ness, and probably, Green's whole shebang, because Green is really willing to go the whole route. Yet his mixing of genres – science fiction, horror, fantasy, urban fantasy and noir — always congeals into his own unique world.

Voice, as I said, is an important key here. Over the course of his Nightside series, Green has perfected a first-person hard-boiled monologue with a delightfully dry sense of humor. Eddie has to take the threats that are allied against him, and occasionally with him, seriously. But Green and Eddie both understand the absurdity in inherent in the setup of the books, and they play that absurdity off against the wonderfully cinematic scenes that Green creates. "I hadn't even reached the skull, never mind the brain...Assuming the monster had such things."

Monsters, faerie, aliens. Hard-boiled prose and wildly imaginative settings. If Green writes enough books, it starts to see like summer all year long.

08-18-09: Paolo Bacigalupi Clocks 'The Windup Girl' : The Future is an Ecosystem

The future is not a plan. It's not a blueprint or a straight line. There are lots of ingredients to go into the mix. I think it's best to think of the future, if you want to get an idea of what life will be like, as a character arc. Or perhaps, an ecology.

Paolo Bacigalupi has been working on the future for quite some time now. With stories like "The Calorie Man" and "The Yellow Man," he's been edging his way into a future that gets created one human story at a time. But each of these character arc is as unpredictable as any human life, and the world he's created as a result seems to pulse with the stuff of truth, with the sort of chaotic overdrive of conflict we find ourselves in at this moment.

Now he's exploring that world at novel length in
'The Windup Girl' (Night Shade Books ; August 2009 ; $24.95), and if you've got the gumption to take a long, hard and frighteningly entertaining look at what he's discovered, you’re going to find it as shockingly true — in the inner sense — as his previous forays have been. The setup is pretty simple; Anderson Lake is an employee of AgriGen, working undercover to help steal food genes thought to be extinct. Working the street markets of Thailand, he meets Emiko, the Windup Girl, a gen-engineered geisha, essentially. Love and life thereafter become ... complicated.

Bacigalupi writes science fiction that reads like headlines from a foreign country, translated but those who care for those who can almost comprehend. This novel will strike many mainstream readers in the same way that Blade Runner struck mainstream moviegoers, almost 30 years ago; that is, a frighteningly accurate portrait of a nearly comprehensible future. It's beautifully written and intensely researched, but don’t let either of those stand in the way of enjoying a classic science-fiction reading experience; plunge into a frightening new world.

This novel plunged science fiction as a literature into a new world as well. Look at this rocking hardcover, with a lovely if sort-of scary painting by Rachel Lacoste, from Night Shade Books. These are the sorts of things that you might have seen in a seventies style for 'Stand on Zanzibar' or 'Dhalgren,' though this book is considerably shorter than either of those. It's very nice hardcover, with a great price and check out the colophon page — edited by Juliet Ulman, one of SF's premiere editors. This is a superb follow-up for the soon-to-be-scarce 'Pump Six,' also from Night Shade. They’ve been Publisher, Interrupted for a brief moment in their history, but they are clearly back and more importantly, taking the kind of chances that tend to pay off. Especially for readers. Publishing and the future are an ecosystem, inexorably intertwined in the genre of science fiction. Here’s your chunk of the future.

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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