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02-05-10: DC Pierson is 'The Boy Who couldn't Sleep and Never Had To'

The Insomnia Vibe

We seem to be swept up in a sea of the sleepless, and frankly, it's just fine with me. I've suffered from insomnia all my life — even as a small child, I used to wake up at 2 AM and look at the ceiling. Through frankly for me, suffered is not the right word. I benefit from my inherited (my mother's side of the family) insomnia. I'm not that tired; I need less sleep. But I do still need some sleep. This needn't be the case in fiction. We know of course, that there is Charlie Huston's 'Sleepless.' But wait – there's more.

The case in point is 'The Boy Who Couldn't Sleep and Never Had To' (Vintage / Penguin Putnam ; January 29, 2010 ; $14), by
D. C. Pierson, an altogether entertaining look at how to be a nerdish type in high school in the 21st century. Darren is the artist type, Eric is his friend. Both are looking for a hook into some kind of social standing. Both are outcasts, for a variety of reasons.

Pierson nails the perfect tone of high-school perception for an adult audience with great prose and entertaining insights into high school now as opposed to whenever most of the readers of this book last saw high school hallways (outside of a re-union). Pierson gets the sense of trying on identities, of experimenting how to be in this world when you don't feel that you have a natural place. He gets how music fits into this world, and (importantly) girls. He has the right combination of comedic and cringe-worthy instincts. He understand how an why boys like science fiction, horror, and just generally weird stuff, be it experimental theater or artsy girls. You like the characters, you like the prose, and you get a nice vision of this young man's world.

But Pierson is up to more than "High School Confidential, 2010." When Eric confides to Darren that he doesn't sleep — ever — Pierson takes a nice left turn. The achingly realistic characters we've come to know start experiencing the sort of things they've only seen on tv in the movies, the sort of things we read about as readers of oddball fiction. What's nice is that Pierson takes readers into a science fictional direction that manages to be entertainingly self-referential — of course it's the nerdy outcasts who get mixed up in this stuff — without naval gazing. In fact, he manages to pick up the pace nicely without leaving the pithy, entertaining visions of youth behind. They jive with the characters' and the readers' perceptions.

While we may be living in a bad science fiction novel, Pierson's characters are living in a pretty damn good one. Yes it's still dangerous, but it's entertaining. And if we are living in a bad SF novel, at least, in our bad SF novel, as characters, we can be lucky enough to read a good SF novel. One that might keep us awake a bit longer than usual.

02-04-10: David Grann and 'The Devil and Sherlock Holmes'

An Obsession with Obsession

David Grann knows a bit about obsession. For him, it's really part of the job description.

Grann's a staff writer for The New Yorker who gets to pretty much assign himself to the subjects that more than interest him. They possess him. And given the subjects he chooses, readers can easily why. In his first book, 'The Lost City of Z,' Grann dug deep into both Percy Fawcett, the man who went missing in the Amazon basin looking for an ancient civilization, and into David Grann, who followed an equally obsessive and dangerous quest looking for Percy Fawcett.

Grann's new book is 'The Devil and Sherlock Holmes' (Doubleday / Random House ; March 9, 2010 ; $26.95), a collection of — well, I want to call them short stories, or novellas, because they read like fiction, even though they are all non-fiction. And it's not just the outré subjects that Grann chooses that makes them seem like fiction. It's the way he tells the story. You'll note that I called Grann a "staff writer" in my introduction. I did this because even though he might be thought of as a reporter, in that he deals in utterly verified facts and carefully researched truths, his style is not reportage. David Grann may be an obsessed man, a man obsessed with obsession; he and I talked about this last year, when we discussed his book 'The Lost City of Z.' But he is first and foremost a very fine storyteller.

There are a dozen stories in 'The Devil and Sherlock Holmes,' each of them, to a one, really quite odd. You could easily imagine them showing up in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction as fiction, were they not in fact true. For example, look at the opening story, 'Mysterious Circumstances,' about the death of Richard Lancelyn Green, the world's foremost expert on Sherlock Holmes. Green was looking for a set of papers from Arthur Conan Doyle, and while there is some sentiment attached to them, there's a $4 million price tag as well. And rumors of a curse.

Or how about 'The Chameleon,' the story of Frédéric Bourdin, "The Chameleon of Nantes"? A man who insinuated himself into many lives, under many names, and who upon being caught, claimed that, "I am a prisoner of myself." I love these kinds of stories, these tales of people who re-invent themselves under new identities. It is they who give rise to the legends of shape-shifters and werewolves. The monsters within are, alas, all too human.

But then, there are the monsters outside as well, that rise from the depths of the ocean as well as the depths of the human consciousness. In "The Squid Hunter," Grann joins Steve O'Shea, who has embarked upon a quest to capture a Giant Squid, Architeuthis. But he's not looking for the giant adult. No, O'Shea wants to capture a baby, called a paralarva, and raise it in captivity.

But to my mind, it really doesn't matter what Grann writes about. It's how he writes that matters. And he's equally adept at the short form as he is at the long form. He knows how to pull in the reader quickly, how to set the scene so that we get the characters and are engaged in the action. Forget that these stories are true. Forget about everything except the story, the worlds that Grann creates and explores. Let the reading, the stories possess you.

02-03-10: James Rollins Unleashes 'The Altar of Eden'

Monsters at the Zoo

Here's why you go to events like those held by SF in SF. I'd seen lots of James Rollins books and, I admit, been pretty interested. But I didn't have a sense of the writer, of who he was and how he managed to get the weird-fictional-looking books published in such a manner that they were shelved with the dime-a-dozen thrillers. But when he showed up at SF in SF, I got a chance to hear him read and speak with him. I was immediately intrigued, and now he's published just my sort of book. Monsters in the zoo, what more can you ask for?

You could for one, ask for that to be just the beginning of the book. And indeed, that is just how 'Alter of Eden' ( Wm Morrow / HarperCollins ; December 29, 2009 ; $27) fires off, with a bit of high-tech burglary in the flaming ruins of the Baghdad zoo. Shaitan is loose we are told. This is generally held to be a Bad Thing. Before a reader can even finish his first beer, we're in Louisiana, looking at a shipwrecked fishing trawler. Aboard are some very rare and very weird critters. Deformed, perhaps — or genetically engineered? OK, by now we're on our second beer. But still. That's a lot of monsters before you've had time toss back a couple of brews.

Rollins is a brew-bustin' madman, who tosses is liberal amounts of science, drenches them in fiction and then starts loading up the high-tech artillery. Lorna Polk is the vet who finds the Noah's Ark of monsters, and Jack Menard is the de rigueur ex-Spec Ops who now works as a Border Patrol agent. This time around, he's guarding the borders of what it means, exactly, to be human.

As Joe R. Lansdale once put it, this is not a book of Big Thinks, though it has a nice veneer of thought-provoking science; genetics, fractal (huh?) and paleontology tossed in with the gunplay at a level your three-beer brain will surely appreciate. All this faux-science covers up the real science of this book, which is Rollins' ability to keep you glued to your chair, your beers getting warm while you try to figure out who killing who for what reason and why the monsters are in the mix. It's the sort of thing that, to be honest, sucked me in to the reviewing business back in the Jurassic Period (See? I'm into paleontology too!), when I first read Dean R. Koontz's 'Watchers' and thought, "Holy shit, this shit rocks! Am I out of beer yet?"

So far as the science of writing is concerned, Rollins appears to be on his way to inventing the literary equivalent of the perpetual motion machine. These books require no real horsepower to read, yet they satisfy immensely. You may not want to live on a steady diet of such reading, lest your lizard brain take over and send you careening into the city to knock over skyscrapers, then reach down and pull the tiny people out like candy spilled from a piñata. I've fond that by the time you get there, your head is hurting and you need a cup of coffee to wash down the aspirin you need to make that throbbing headache recede long enough so that you can sit down and finish, say, 'Altar of Eden.'

Rollins is not just a scientist of page-turning plots, he's also a veterinarian, and that makes the science in his books just plausible enough to go down smoothly. You can tell that he's having just as much fun as you are. You can tell from page one that here be monsters. What more can you ask? I suppose, if the publishers wanted to do a promotion, they could do worse than to offer readers a discount on a sixer of Spaten Premium. But that would be an irresponsible support of consuming alcohol, and no, no, we'd never consider that, ever.

02-02-10: Michael Shea Hires 'The Extra'

The Last Job You Ever Have

It was 1987 and I took a chance on a book by a little-known science fiction and fantasy writer. It's been more than twenty years since I bought the Arkham House edition of 'Polyphemus' by Michel Shea. He was one of those writers who could seemingly handle any mood, any subject, any genre with ease.

The stories in 'Polyphemus' show an incredible range. 'The Autopsy' is a modern classic, in many ways the ultimate story of an alien infiltrating a human body. 'Pearls of the Vampire Queen' is a full-blown fantasy adventure, with great characters, stylish humor and well-crafted action scenes.

There there's 'The Extra,' a science fiction satire about what we'd now call, perhaps, "reality movie-making," a sort of Jackass meets Aliens, in which starving middle-class men sign up as extras in horror movies where the monsters are all too real. Cut to the year 2010, and we're on the verge of bringing Shea's vision to life. Fortunately, he's done it first with 'The Extra' (Tor / Tom Doherty Associates ; February 2, 2010 ; $22.99), what we are told is the first in a trilogy of novels set in Shea's unpleasant vision of the future, or the present, as it were. We're living in his future at the moment, alas.

'The Extra' takes the premise of Shea's short story and strikes out fearlessly to explore the world he's created. It's not a happy place, which is unfortunate, because it bears more than a passing resemblance to the world we currently inhabit, only worser and badder. 'The Extra' follows Curtis, Japh and Jool, three middle-class men of a certain age (read: not young) who must scrabble to find work, and enter the hazardous but potentially lucrative world of the extras, working for Val Margolian. They're hoping for parts in Alien Hunger, which features giant spiders with detachable eyes — which double as cameras. Grab an eye and toss it up to one of the rafts, and you;ve made yourself a tidy sum. Assuming you live to spend it.

Shea's talents are as quickly and as violently deployed as the APP's (Anti-Personnel Properties). He plunges the reader into a world of action, danger, satire and humor, assuming you get a laugh out of seeing humans consumed by giant spiders in the name of entertainment. Of course, that's the deal; you're reading a horrifically-violent novel that satirizes horrifically violent entertainment. They might as well print the thing on mirrored-paper, so you could super-impose your own image on the words you're reading. But it goes further, because Shea's protagonists are not the teenagers who used to read science fiction, but the middle-aged men who currently make up a lot of the audience. And yet, the action and horror will, not surprisingly, have a lot of appeal to the teenagers that science fiction needs to keep selling. And finally there are the cover blurbs, featuring Stuart Gordon (the director of Re-Animator) and Patton Oswalt ("comedian and the voice of RATATOUILLE").

As the first volume in a trilogy, 'The Extra' grabs you by the throat, sinks in its fangs and liquifies your brain, all generally positive attributes. It does keep the vision pretty close to the ground, and readers are going to want to see more of Shea's unpleasant world. Assuming they can afford to buy the book in the one they inhabit.

02-01-10: 'He Walked Among Us'

Cassandra, John Titor and Norman Spinrad

The future arrives far too slowly; one second at a time. We humans are an impatient species. We want to open up our Christmas presents early, and our parents set pots and pans in front of our bedroom doors. As the moment approaches, we grow increasingly restive, and strive for the knowledge of not just the moment itself, but more importantly, the moment after. What will happen? But when we are told what will happen, we refuse to believe. Certainty is the enemy of potential, and by and large, we prefer the latter to the former.

This desire for potential as opposed to certainty is as old as humanity. Cassandra, of Greek myth, was given the ability to see the future by Apollo. But when she refused to return his love, he placed a curse upon her so that no one would believe her predictions. Arguably, that might have been unnecessary. Her predictions themselves might have changed the future she foresaw. And thus we enter the paradoxical realm of time travel.

Those who would claim to predict the future are still among us. But there are as many who, though they would deny that they are trying to predict the future, end up doing a pretty good job of it anyway. Science fiction writers are often accused of trying (badly) to predict the future, though few of them would make that claim. Most of them are simply trying to tell an exciting story set in the future, which is often a thinly-disguised version of the present.

Let's step back to the early 1970's, when for something like 75¢, you could pick up Norman Spinrad's 'Bug Jack Barron.' Like many impressionable readers of the time, I know I did, to find myself immersed in a chaotic, media-drenched future where talk show hosts acted with borderline insanity and wielded enormous power. Spinrad's science fiction was strewn with drug use and sleazy sex. It was somewhat off-putting, though entertaining as all get-out to read.

Fast forward some thirty-plus years and we seem to be living in a version of 'Bug Glen Beck Jack Barron.' And Norman Spinrad is still around — as are those who claim to travel through time. The best case is point is the lamented John Titor. Somewhere around late 2000, someone who called themselves, at first Timetravel_0, and later John Titor, appeared on the still nascent "Internet," claiming to be a time traveler from 2036. He had a whole version of history, replete with world wars and civil wars, and photographs of a time machine that looked to be put together with technology straight out of Get Smart. (Oh, the irony had he arrived only to be trapped in a time-travel transported Cone of Silence.) He posted around and you can still find his website, now populated by Gleen-Beckian imagery. It's pretty much beyond ugly, and plummeting well beneath stupid. But in its inception, it made for a pretty neat performance science fiction story.

By the time I found his stuff via the Fortean list, the end was near for John Titor. His predictions were already proving to be hurtling towards the ridiculous, even if just the upsettingly ridiculous. But I did like that story.

Norman Spinrad, who certainly could more convincingly claim to be from the future than most of us, seems to have channeled the John Titor story in 'He Walked Among Us' (Tor / Tom Doherty Books ; April 2010 ; $27.99). You have Dexter D. Lambkin, a hackish science fiction writer who gets advice from Harlan Ellison and "Tex" Balaban who discovers "Ralf." Ralf claims to come from the future, and from his description, it sounds like a much better place to be from than head to. The world is going to hell, Ralf tells us. Balaban, Dexter and new-age guruette Amanda Robin conspire to turn Ralf in a means of saving us from ourselves. This proves to be, at the very least, problematic.

Spinrad lays it on thick and greasy, with a side order of sleaze that you can probably meet with ease should you work in the media business for longer than it takes you to wash your hands. He's had this novel percolating for more than decade, according to his website.

Now here's the frightening thing, the kicker, as any one of a number of characters in 'He Walked Among Us' might say. John Titor claimed to be from thirty years in the future while sporting technology from the 1960's. Norman Spinrad did a decent job of predicting the present some thirty years ago. Titor falls off the edge of the universe and who pops up with a ten year-old novel about a very Titor-esque figure?

Norman Spinrad, that's who. Here's a man who has a great piece on transformation. Now look his website, and at John Titor's. Coincidence — or conspiracy? Quick, someone get me my cone of silence!

New to the Agony Column

09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William T. Vollman : "...a lot of long words that in our language are sentences..."

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

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

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 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 2015 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

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