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08-09-12: John Shirley and Peter Heller Break the World

Unspeculative Fiction

Fiction set in the future, or fiction that posits some event in the future, and its aftermath, is generally both thought of and shelved with "science fiction." But there are a new batch of titles by writers both inside and outside the genre that qualify as future fiction — in that they are set in the very near future — but not as science fiction or speculative fiction. For me, what is interesting about these titles, which include recent masterpieces like Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road' and James Howard Kunstler's non-fiction work 'The Long Emergency' and his novels 'World Made by Hand' and 'The Witch of Hebron,' is that they are to a degree unspeculative.
What unites these works is a dislike of the science fictional elements of today's world. Kim Stanley Robinson has said that, "We're living in a science fiction novel." Alas, it is proving to be a rather unhappy and dull dystopian novel. A new wave of writers led by McCarthy and Kunstler (at least in recent times, look back to Neville Shute's 'On the Beach' for an earlier example) is positing events that disable or remove all the science fictional elements of today's world; an interconnected, omnipresent media; cheap and easy long-distance and international travel; limited, frustrating space travel; and mass production of consumer goods, foods and electronics. Essentially these writers set out to level the playing field and take us back to the time before mass human travel. In so doing, they get at humanity's more basic, or base, depending on their outlook, nature.

Compared to the average post-apocalyptic setting, Peter Heller's 'The Dog Stars' (Alfred A, Knopf ; August 7, 2012 ; $24.95) is positively sunny. Heller does not waste any words, putting us right into the aftermath with Hig, one of the few who has survived the superflu. Just like that, not with a bang but a whimper, the world has ended, leaving Big Hig, as he calls himself, The Beast, his 1956 Cessna, Dog, the co-pilot and Bangley his survivalist neighbor who watches out for the more kind-tempered Hig. Of course, he never strays far from home. It's the smart thing to do. Of course, he hears a voice on the radio.

What follows is best read in Heller's unadorned snapshots, episodic cut-clips that patch together into a powerfully rendered story of what's worth living for. Heller doles not worry us about what has come before, or with some super science to upgrade what comes after. Instead, having wiped the slate clean, he looks at raw humans, the man in the wilderness with sadness, and more importantly, with awe at the emotions humans are capable of even when faced with extinction. And while plenty of novels have dealt with the so-called post apocalyptic landscape, none have consider the emotional apocalypse with the prose skills that Heller brings to this novel. If you read this book faster than you wish to, then don't worry; it is worth re-reading and savoring every fine word.

John Shirley, on the other hand ends not the whole world but just a part of it, no whimpers whatsoever. Shirley has spent more time after the end of the world as we know it than most have spent in the world as we (think) we know it, and in 'Everything is Broken,' (Prime Books ; January 24, 2012 ; $14.95) he performs one of those thought experiments that science fiction is so good with, just without an overdose of the actual sort of "science fiction."

Shirley sets his novel in the town of Freedom in Northern California. (There's actually a town of "Freedom" literally next door to my town of Aptos; Shirley's fictional Freedom is in the north-of-San-Francisco part of Northern California. In Freedom, Shirley posits, the ideas that are behind the new American political "Tea Party" are allowed to run roughshod over the local government. The result is that everything is privatized, including fire and emergency services, saving someone some money. But when the bang comes in the form of a spectacularly rendered earthquake, the shortcomings of this become clear, and the true faces of humanity shine through; some brightly, some not-so-brightly.

Regardless of your politics, 'Everything is Broken' is a ripping yarn that will keep you engrossed as it deconstructs the thin veneer of civilization. It's a perfect example as well of unspeculative fiction. Shirley, who has written lots of great novel that involve well-imagined speculation, here employs those talents to explore the emotional arcs of characters good and bad. This is not a happy novel; Shirley explores the darkness with acuity and an unflinching stare at just how awful we can be to one another. But he manages to do so in a manner that makes for a compelling reading experience.

Now that we have our science-fiction future — with three-D spectacle movies, space travel, robots on Mars and death-dealing viruses in third-world nations, first world authors are using the toolkit of science fiction to subtract science from the present and give us the past as the future. The future, of course, is indifferent to our human literary predictions, but the literature can help us shape the future in a manner that is ever more human.

08-07-12: Alan Cheuse Visits 'Paradise'

Consider the Alternative

It's easy to associate action with motion and not emotion. But the actions of our emotions have every bit as much consequence as the actions of our motions. A car crash can throw you face-first through the windshield. A broken heart can make you think that's a good thing. With his latest collection of novellas, 'Paradise, or, Eat Your Face' Alan Cheuse takes his readers to Bali, to elder care, and then beyond life itself in an emotional tour of the American mindset. The stories are gripping, engaging, funny and every bit as weird as we are. Cheuse follows emotions as action, and builds powerful portraits of his characters' lives as they stride towards or find that they have already experienced passed a personal apocalypse.

In the first novella, "Paradise, or Eat Your Face," we meet troubled travel writer Susan Wheelis, who has spent her life adrift, her hand barely on the rudder to keep her from running aground. When she is assigned to travel to Bali, she has every right to think that fortune has smiled on her despite her deep and persistent unhappiness. Cheuse effortlessly immerses us in a character who is compelling and unfinished, then proceeds to finish her, so to speak, in a manner that manages to be shocking, realistic and yet tinged with the fantastic. Told with emails, therapy sessions, excerpts from articles and narrative, this story of a writer becoming a travel writer is itself a nice bit of travel writing, in place and in personality. Susan is going to seem like someone you know, someone memorable you met on a vacation, a woman whose face comes back to haunt you.

In "Care," Rafe Santera, a teacher described by his students as a "better looking Carlos Casteneda," is laid low by a stroke. The women he loved, who loved him, are lining up to provide him with care as his virtually disembodied mind skips through the past and his present and the English language like a tape recorder playing at double-speed. Cheuse's characters are full of details that bring them to life. In "Care," Rafe's complicated heritage forms a large part of the story, giving the novella a rich, textured feel as you read it. "Care" twists tighter and tighter, with flights of psychedelic poetry that beg to be read aloud.

The concluding novella, "When the Stars Threw Down Their Spears and Watered Heaven With Their Tears," is a nuanced, intense, classic American ghost story about Paul Brunce, a writer of convenience, whose chosen path has given him mid-level success and a comfy life that is easily blown up. Here Cheuse deploys his full arsenal as a writer, alternating portions of third-person narration with first person. Set in the San Francisco Bay area, he uses the terrain as both mirror and mystery. The language is gorgeous as well as compelling. He knows his way around the supernatural well enough to have his character feel as if he is in an H. P. Lovecraft story or a Stephen King novel. But he brings his own take to the proceedings, a mournful clarity based on the emotional travels of Paul Brunce.

'Paradise, Or Eat Your Face' is available both as a limited edition trade paperback and as an e-book. The trade paperback is very nicely printed with a cover image nearly as striking as the title. At just under 200 pages, it's pretty much the equivalent of seeing three great movies. If you enjoy reading e-books — and the ability to increase font size is certainly a reason to do so — then buying the e-book gives you the chance to read the material and keep your limited edition pristine.

In all three stories, Cheuse uses the novella form to its fullest advantage, offering works that are rich in texture, life and detail, yet compact and powerfully structured. And though the stories vary greatly in character and setting, Cheuse's interests and his language give the work a unity. These are stories of family and character, the families we choose and those we are given, stories the emotions that move us and move through us, sometimes as mysterious as the weather. We are always at our own mercy in these stories and in our lives. The moves we make, the choices we make, can take us to Paradise, or back into our own broken lives — if these don't prove to be in the same.

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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