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Walter Mosley
The Gift of Fire and On the Head of a Pin
Tor Books / Tom Doherty Associates
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-765-33008-6
Publication Date: 05-08-2012
288 Pages; $24.99
Date Reviewed: 05-16-2012
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2012

Index:  Fantasy  Science Fiction  Horror  General Fiction  

Walter Mosley is best known for his Easy Rawlins mysteries, but he's a versatile talent who also writes mainstream literary novels, science fiction, even non-fiction — whatever form best suits the story he intends to tell. His latest book is 'The Gift of Fire and On the Head of a Pin,' two short novels packaged in a hardcover version of the old Ace double paperback format; Mosley calls them "flip books." When you finish one short novel, you can flip the book over and read the other, which is printed upside-down and backwards to the first.

That slightly disorienting format is not a bad indication of what you're going to find when you start reading. With these two stories, subtitled "Two Short Novels from Crosstown to Oblivion," Mosley uses elements of fantasy, science fiction and even supernatural horror to undermine reality, as we know it. Tight, taut, exciting and superbly well written, "The Gift of Fire" and "On the Head of a Pin," are tellingly dedicated to Philip K. Dick. Mosley keys into Dick's and other mystics' visions of a world beneath, beyond, or just outside of our frame of vision. He brings these worlds to life in two ripping yarns with lean, poetic prose.

My take is that "The Gift of Fire," the story with the colophon page attached, is the one to be read first; it's also slightly longer than "On the Head of a Pin," but don't let the size of either of these "flip books" fool you. When you read these stories, you'll likely do so in one sitting, but you'll feel like you've read a rocking 300 plus page novel. These are not YA fiction; they offer some insights into relationships that one is not likely to find in that genre. They're stories of the imagination for adults.

As far as mystics go, you'll need to back a bit farther than PKD to find the inspiration for "The Gift of Fire," in this case, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French philosopher and Jesuit priest who spent much of his life trying to reconcile Catholicism and evolution. From Teilhard's "The Evolution of Chastity," we get this: "The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides, and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, we shall have discovered fire."

Mosley's novel is a sequel to the Greek myth of Prometheus. After three thousand years, the bringer of fire manages to escape, intent on giving his second gift of fire. He's incarnated in South Central Los Angeles, and quickly tossed in jail. He finds friends and allies on the ground, and a means of spreading his message. The remaining gods aren't happy about all this, and neither are the authorities in charge. Both want Prometheus and his message stopped.

Mosley works well in the urban fantasy genre, leading readers from pure fantasy set in the world of Greek myth to the modern setting, and ultimately to a rather science fictional finale that partakes of another of Teilhard's ideas. It's an exciting and even inspiring story with strong echoes of the Occupy movement, though it was written long before.

"On the Head of a Pin" introduces us to Joshua Winterland, who is not having a happy life. His girlfriend jilts him as his Silicon Valley job goes up in flame. He finds himself underemployed, documenting the work in a startup dedicated to VR renderings of real people indistinguishable from film. The project succeeds, but what the display shows is virtual surreality, glimpses from worlds that don't exist, or from the minds of those who made the device — with no input attached. Before you can say H. P. Lovecraft, that window becomes a portal, and the beings that emerge are not friendly to human kind.

This story keys around racism in a manner that is admirably direct without being heavy-handed. The theme is threaded through the story in a variety of manners. Mosley never forgets that he's writing pulp fiction, and keeps the revelations coming. The prose is superb, the characters have depth and the ideas are excitingly handled.

'The Gift of Fire and On the Head of a Pin' flip book offers readers the feel of two full novels for the price of one. It honors the work of Philip K. Dick, but is not derivative; Mosley makes this material and these ideas his own. There are unaccredited illustrations in the stories that offer just the right level of pulp feel to the narrative and presentation.

The only drawback is that the covers don't follow suit. These books need to look garish and frightening, with gods, monsters, scantily-clad women and men wearing torn t-shirts in battle, painted crudely in bright colors. They need taglines like, "WHEN GODS WALK THE EARTH, MAN WALKS IN FEAR!!!" That doesn't really affect the reading experience though. 'The Gift of Fire and On the Head of a Pin' is Walter Mosley's gift to the science fiction genre, and the genre should, one hopes, recognize just how lucky it is.

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