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August 2003
 
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Books
by James Sallis

Altered Carbon, by Richard K. Morgan, Del Rey, 2003, $13.95.

Fat White Vampire Blues, by Andrew Fox, Del Rey, 2003, $13.95.

The Etched City, by K. J. Bishop, Prime Books, 2003, $16.95.

AT ITS BEST, science fiction—fantastic fiction as a whole—steps out of the frame to probe at man's place in the universe, to address questions of ontology and identity rarely posed by mundane, mimetic fiction. At its best, detective or crime fiction serves to critique the social order, to peel away layers of the seemly and seeming; it's always, at heart, a political fiction.

Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon well deserves the buzz afforded it: marvelous reviews in the U.K., predictions of major awards, film rights optioned by Joel Silver (The Matrix, Lethal Weapon). It really is a near-perfect, seamless meld of detective fiction and high-tech science fiction. This first novel worries at who and what we are and why, all the while musing (as David Soyka points out on the SFSite) that commercial and political interests forever pursue markedly different interests from those they call upon to fight in their behalf.

Throw in enough action for five or six novels, an intricate plot that ducks, turns, and twists page by page, a richly imagined if often unfathomable future society, and writing that never falters, by turns appealing to the senses, reflecting confusion, and carrying the narrative forward in powerful strides.

In the 26th century, every human at birth is implanted with a cortical stack that records the whole of that human's consciousness, everything he or she has known, experienced, thought, felt. In the event of death, this stack may be transferred into a new body, a new sleeve. Prisons contain no live prisoners, only imprints of cortical stacks. Actual travel is no longer necessary; travelers beam their stacks across stellar distances, slipping into new sleeves. Following death, the poor must make do with second-rate, even synthetic bodies. The well-to-do have multiple sleeves stored against use, rendering them to all effects immortal.

Takeshi Kovacs returns painfully to life to find himself on Earth, light-years away from Harlan's World where he'd been relegated to prison stacks, brought back and resleeved by an industrial giant who insists that Kovacs investigate his murder, passed off as suicide.

Former member of the Envoy Corps—"peacekeepers" for the repressive regime—Kovacs, neurochemically enhanced, has been trained to a fine edge.

"There are a lot of us out there, yes," he explains to the policewoman with whom he forms an uneasy alliance. "There's not much else to do once you've been discharged from the corps. They won't let you into anything that might lead to a position of power or influence. Nobody trusts Envoys, and that means no promotion. No prospects. No loans, no credit.

"…And the stuff we've been trained to do is so close to crime, there's almost no difference. Except that crime is easier.… And when you've spent the last decade of your life jacking in and out of sleeves, cooling out on stack, and living virtual, the threats that law enforcement has to offer are pretty bland."

Soon enough Kovacs finds himself set not only against the police but also against his employer, street punks, apparent allies, a social system he doesn't understand, and numerous underworld bosses.

Altered Carbon is, like all three first novels reviewed here, an extraordinary piece of work. Wonderfully written, faultlessly paced, it introduces a major new writer.

Everywhere there are marvelous Besteresque touches. An AI-managed hotel that, when new statutes struck, applied and won independent status, driven now to fill itself with guests and fulfill their every need—including gunning down attackers in the lobby, but only after they've registered.

Or the idea that, with death a mere hiccough, torture might be continued eternally.

Richard Morgan has said of his novel's origins: "I got into this huge and not entirely sober argument with a Buddhist one night about the injustice of a system of reincarnation where you end up with a karmic debt (or credit) for a previous life you can't remember and therefore, as far as the current you is concerned, a life you haven't lived. That got me thinking about where the exact parameters of self are, and how technology is inevitably going to reset them."

A second installment of the Takeshi Kovacs saga, Broken Angels, by every indication another fine novel, has just appeared in the U.K.

Is there really a ruler (with or without nun attached) to measure literary fiction against genre? I don't think so. A well-written vampire novel may represent alienation far better than any dozen tales of disaffected teenagers hanging about malls or a season's worth of novels from middle-aged white men thinking their sorrows are the world's.

It comes as no surprise that Andrew Fox, author of Fat White Vampire Blues, was a student of the late George Alec Effinger. Effinger staked a major claim to New Orleans as a place so fantastic by nature that little exaggeration was required. George was also among the funniest people I've known, his conversation filled with comic trip wires and satiric Brown Betties.

Fat White Vampire Blues is the same.

There's a great tradition of New Orleans vampire novels, of course: Anne Rice, Barbara Hambly, Nancy Collins. Poppy Z. Brite, who, line for line, word for word, remains one of the finest writers working today. In this very, very funny first novel, Andrew Fox bears the standard high.

Like the city, Jules Duchon has been around a long time. But where the city's size is circumscribed geographically, Jules isn't. What he loves most is taking substantial black women out for a typical New Orleans meal—red beans and rice maybe, with smoked sausage, a fried oyster po-boy, side of cornbread—before feasting upon them. The taste is exquisite, bodies easily disposed of. But the cholesterol and saturated fat has made Jules thrice the man he once was, weighing in at 450 pounds.

And now some black vampire dude comes after him. Tells him to stick to feeding off his own kind or else, then turns to a panther and pees all over Jules's coffin.

As much as anything else, New Orleans is about being left alone. So that or else (or maybe the pee?) motivates Jules as he's not been motivated for most of his hundred years, takes him back into the labyrinth of his past: to the city coroner for whom he worked for years; to his first great love Maureen, the one who turned him and who, Jules-size herself now, still works as a stripper on Bourbon Street; to his old sidekick Doodlebug, late of Tibet and California, a cross-dresser. Here Jules and Doodlebug reprise past roles as superhero crimefighters.

"Doodlebug's new costume…consisted of a sunburst yellow leotard, metallic purple tights, a matching purple domino mask, and shiny black vinyl go-go boots. The white calf-skin gloves were a nice touch. 'I'm almost embarrassed to admit it,' Jules said, 'but this new outfit of yours looks a helluva lot better than the old one ever did. Thanks for remembering the old color scheme, though.'

"'Sure thing.' Doodlebug smiled. 'You know I'd never pass up a perfect opportunity to dress up.'"

Andrew Fox brings the city in all its immense variety, all its tastes, its smells, its customs and self-contradictions, darkly to life. Sharply plotted, witty in language and invention, Fat White Vampire Blues moves to a perfect if unsuspected conclusion.

Though Australian writer K. J. Bishop has published a handful of stories, The Etched City is her first novel, an ambitious and casually brilliant debut, erudite, lavishly written. Its unique blend of multiculturalism, political savvy, and hardnosed realism tempered by rebounding dreams and the possibility of redemptive art cries out for a new nomenclature. Though it borrows from both, this is neither heroic fantasy nor romance-fantasy chockfull of magic swords, witches, and wizards unaware. It's fantasy as high literature, our world skewed to a hard right angle, what Boris Vian, another great fantasist, meant in defining his method as "the projection of reality onto an irregulary tilting and consequently distorting plane of reference." Names such as James Branch Cabell, Lord Dunsany, Jack Vance, Jeff VanderMeer, and China Miéville come to mind in comparison.

Fleeing their pasts as freedom fighters, pursued still by agents of the regime, physician Raule and soldier-assassin Gwynn escape the Copper Country for the great river city Ashamoil. There Gwynn takes up work as cavalier for one of the ruling clans, while Raule, rejected by the city's medical establishment, signs on at a marginal clinic to care for the city's forgotten and misbegotten. Soon she is collecting misbirths.

"It had started with a single awry birth, of a girl with limbs like flippers.…The local midwives disposed of the corpses of these infants, who were customarily killed if they did not die naturally.... [P]ig swill makers paid five farthings a pound for the scrap meat. Raule made it known that she would offer ten pence a pound."
Gwynn, meanwhile, in the crawlspace between life as a dandy and violent assertions of his master's will (including betrayal and murder of a friend), takes up with a mysterious artist and begins to find himself humanized, as in this visit to inform a mother of one child's death.
"Emila played with some blue sequins. The girl arranged them in lines, circles and zigzags. She made a spiral on the floor, then the outline of a bird.… She was doing nothing less than conjuring, out of pattern and colour, a world which conformed to her desires and obeyed her will. The boy, on the other hand, showed with the whole attitude of his being that he knew there was only the one world and he would kill it if he could."
In that moment Gwynn sees himself clear, perceives the gulf between Raule's aspirations and his own lack of same.

One of the finest of hundreds of fine scenes takes up only a page and a half. Cruising the market late at night, Gwynn and artist Beth come across a man lying on a mattress wearing only a brief loincloth. A lotus sprouts from his navel. The con is this: one pays to try and pull out the flower. But of course no one can. The roots are deep within me, the man says. Beth is amazed, Gwynn ever the skeptic.

"'You wouldn't even think about believing that it's actually growing in him, would you?' Beth asks. '…You want too little from the world, Gwynn.'"
K. J. Bishop doesn't want too little of the world. She wants more—which well may be why she writes. Like all great novels, hers holds up a mirror to the world, a mirror by turns reflecting true and distorting, scooping up the world's grace along with its garbage, tripping the light fantastic over tightropes and slack wires, courting dailyness and the wonders ever beneath.

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