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Shambling Towards Hiroshima, by James Morrow, Tachyon, 2009, $14.95.
How to Make Friends with Demons, by Graham Joyce, Night Shade Books, 2009, $14.95.
The Last Theorem, by Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl, Del Rey, 2009, $15 (reprint).
City at the End of Time, by Greg Bear, Del Rey, 2009, $16 (reprint).
Implied Spaces, by Walter Jon Williams, Night Shade Books, 2009, $7.99 (reprint).
THIS month, my pets, I have a whole armful of pretty shiny new books for you. Interestingly, however—and this was completely unintentional on my part—none of them are by pretty shiny new writers. If this month's column has a theme, it's that old dogs still have plenty of tricks left in them.
In fact, the overload of new books from old favorites was so great that I'm having to put one off—and it's a big one. So here's fair warning for the faint-hearted: my next column will be a C. J. Cherryh extravaganza, not limited to currently in-print books (after all, why should it be, when we all have internet booksellers at our fingertips?) and centering on this year's Regenesis—the eighteen-year-awaited sequel to Cherryh's dark masterpiece, Cyteen.
Actually, I'm a bit regretful about the postponement because Regenesis offers fascinating parallels with Greg Bear's City at the End of Time. Both books showcase great hard sf writers revisiting the settings and themes that defined their most ambitious mid-career books. In Bear's case I find this backtracking particularly satisfying because I've always felt that the Campbellian cyberpunk-fantasy mythos of Queen of Angels was an underrated pivotal moment in our genre.
But more on that later. In the meantime, we have other fish to fry. They are big fish, dear reader, and we won't be gentle with them. So take these reviews with a bushel of salt. These are all phenomenal writers working at the absolute top of their game. No need for kid-glove first-novel treatment here. When you're dealing with gods, honesty is always the safest policy.
I know it's an accepted reviewing cliche to call any remotely humorous book a "romp," but Shambling Towards Hiroshima actually is one. In every sense of the word.
James Morrow, if you haven't yet encountered him, is the exasperatingly yet charmingly quirky author of a long line of metaphysical satires like Towing Jehovah, The Eternal Footman, and The Last Witchfinder. In Shambling Towards Hiroshima, he is up to his usual mischief. He parachutes us into the bizarro underworld of B-movie monsters and their groupies. When Syms Thorley, a.k.a. Gorgantis, is press-ganged onto a top-secret navy project to secure Japan's surrender with fake movie footage of the destruction of Tokyo by fire-breathing reptiles, he sees Operation Fortune Cookie mainly as an interruption of his "serious" monster oeuvre. However, things turn grim when the movie fails to convince the Japanese High Command and Truman is forced to use the A-bomb. Thorley plunges into a morass of regrets and self-recrimination. Was he somehow responsible for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? If his shambling had been better, would history have unfolded differently? In the midst of his existential despair, Thorley experiences a sudden improvement in his professional fortunes: rediscovered top-secret footage of Thorley's performance sparks a monster movie revival in Japan, including a slew of new Gorgantis movies. He becomes an international B-movie star, toasted at sf conventions around the globe. And yet, he stays true to his principles, accepting Guest of Honor invites only to harangue his bewildered fans with impassioned anti-nuke speeches in which he likens himself to the hibakusha, the "burned people" of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
Does this all sound unbelievably tasteless yet? If so, then I've probably done a decent job of describing the book.
None of which changes the fact that this book was a ridiculously fun read. God only knows why. I certainly don't. This is the sort of folderol that only James Morrow could pull off. Which he does. With a full measure of his usual exasperating charm.
The one flat note in this otherwise pitch-perfect satire is its curiously dated feel. It reads like a book that was written back in the Reagan era. The framing narrative pays lip service to the idea of a "lost" manuscript, but there is no real thematic heft to the conceit. Morrow's characters—from his straight-arrow G-men to his Swanson-esque horror divas—are clever riffs on atomic age stereotypes. But in the end it is the story itself that feels antique. Our big fears have changed over the last few decades. Nuclear annihilation seems almost quaint compared to humanity's other self-inflicted wounds. (Yeah, I'm talking about you, global warming, religious wackjobs, dying oceans, and that creepy thing that's happening to frogs lately.…)
In the end, reading this book felt like listening to an oldies station. And to the extent that Morrow fails to grapple with this disconnect, the book remains a charming and nostalgic romp and not the powerful political satire that Morrow is capable of delivering.
Still, there's a lot to be said for a charming romp. It's sure as heck more fun than sitting around thinking about six-headed frogs.
If we are picking our favorite literary fantasy writers, then I vote for Graham Joyce. Early and often. Okay, maybe Geoff Ryman can give him a run for the money. Maybe. But I wouldn't bet Auntie Em's farm on it.
How to Make Friends with Demons is the story of William Heaney, a man who has lived his entire adult life convinced that he is under a curse. He tries to neutralize the curse by living a rational "demon-free" existence and performing convoluted (and not always legal) acts of charity. When a scheme to sell counterfeit first editions of Jane Austen throws him into the path of a demon-possessed Gulf War vet, Heaney's carefully constructed life comes unraveled and he is forced to resurrect his past in order to figure out where things went so terribly wrong for him.
This novel builds up a powerful head of steam—but it does it slowly enough that I wondered at times how Joyce was going to pull all the threads together by the end of the relatively slender volume. This is typical of Joyce's novels. They aren't zero to sixty in point six seconds Ferrari-style books. They're more like old-style Soviet tractors: the kind that run on bear grease at eighty below zero, plow a straight furrow in solid rock, and can be conveniently retrofitted as tank chassis the next time the Germans invade.
Also vintage Joyce is the book's slightly off-kilter narrative arc. His novels always have an odd little hitch in their get-along that keeps you from ever truly relaxing into the story. Every time I pick up a new Graham Joyce book I'm terrified that some idiotic editor will finally have put the thumb screws on him to "fix" these "mistakes" …which of course aren't mistakes at all, but elegant crimes against reader complacency committed with malice aforethought.
Happily, Mr. Joyce seems to be fairly resistant to thumbscrew-wielding editors. But just in case he ever wavers—where do I mail my check in support of the Keep Graham Joyce Just the Way He Is Foundation?
I hope I get old like Frederik Pohl and Arthur C. Clarke. In fact, I hope we all get old like these guys. If we could figure out how to do that we could probably end war, stop global warming, and maybe even fix that thing with the frogs. Sorry to say, most people are already on the wrong track by the time they're about seven.
Be that as it may, The Last Theorem is a genuine and highly satisfying blend of these two great writers. True, it does not have the austere majesty of early Clarke. True, it didn't really pan out as a novel about number theory. True, there isn't really any Big Sexy New Science Idea in the book. And true, the science ideas and social mores of this book feel rather quaint at times. Sometimes the quaintness is charming. ("Hey, look, Myrtle, it's a Sky Hook!") At other times …not so much. (For example, the hero's homosexual affair with his college roommate is written off as a "youthful indiscretion" from which he recovers with about as much emotional conflict as most people recover from a head cold. And then his suspiciously June Cleaver-ish wife gets her Ph.D. from MIT and then uncomplainingly takes ten years off to stay at home with the kids because—as she explains it—that's just the way life is, and sensible women just try to keep up with the professional literature in their spare time. I know this is going to make me sound like a shallow and trivial person (which I am), but I spent a distressing amount of time wondering just how apocalyptically bad this couple's sex life was.…
Honestly, though—who cares about all that? This is a genuine Frederik Pohl and Arthur C. Clarke novel. It's a worthy addition to both men's works. And, best of all, it's a chance to sit down one more time with a pair of old, old friends and find them just as sharp, witty, and wise as they ever have been.
I haven't been paying enough attention to Greg Bear lately. In theory he's one of my favorite hard sf writers. But lately he seems to have abandoned sf in favor of mainstream-ish near-future technothrillers. And reading airport books by Greg Bear is sort of like listening to Glenn Gould play the Boston Pops. He writes them so well that it seems downright churlish to complain. But for cripes sake…doesn't the guy who wrote Slant and Blood Music and Queen of Angels have better things to do?
Or anyway, that's my excuse for letting City at the End of Time languish unread on my desk for several months before I got around to looking at it.
What was I thinking?
City at the End of Time is about the furthest thing in the multiverse from an airport novel. It's also true hard sf. Reviewers who've characterized the book as Miéville-esque urban fantasy haven't just missed the boat—they're still staggering around in the fog trying to find their way down to the water.
In essence, this book is a vast, oceanic riff on Jorge Luis Borges's "Library of Babel." Bear is not the first writer to pen a meditation on this seminal story. However, this is the only "Babel" variant I can remember that has enough intellectual and emotional muscle to read like an independent story, rather than a mere retelling.
It all begins with a map, natürlich. Thus far we are still in the domain of fantasy. But this is not one of those "worlds with square corners" maps that Ursula K. Le Guin likes to make fun of. Instead, it is a forbiddingly abstract set of interlocking circles: a cryptic image that challenges readers to produce their own explanations. On first seeing it I wondered if it might represent a mitochondria's eye view of the world outside the sheltering cell walls. Or perhaps the sort of inside-out, topsy-turvy cosmology that might be conceived by beings that inhabit the mantle of a star? Or, maybe…well, my other speculations were all even more embarrassingly off target.
The map is a tease, of course. But Greg Bear is an honest tease—as are all great writers. He keeps the mystery alive not by stingily withholding information but by presenting rich, vivid, wonderfully polyvalent clues that challenge readers to come up with new hypotheses and test them against the unfolding story. It is a gauge of Bear's mastery that the book never feels like a cheat and that he manages to craft a reading experience that blends the rigors of scientific method with the more homespun pleasures of good gossip.
The reading experience was not wholly gripping on a page-by-page level. At least not for me. But slack moments are inevitable in a long novel whose core subject matter has more to do with quantum physics than human emotions. And when I did catch myself skimming it was almost always because I was impatient to find out what was happening in the other storyline. That says volumes.
I also felt another kind of impatience while reading this book—one that is characteristic of the experience of reading really great hard sf. I wanted to know what Bear was after. I wanted to get to the end of the book in order to be able to look back and take stock of the whole territory. And not just the territory of this particular book. Because of course much of the pleasure of reading fine work by a writer deep into his career is the chance to see how each new book fits into the larger picture of the writer's work as a whole.
In many ways, City at the End of Time represents the fruition of the strand of Bear's work exemplified by Queen of Angels. I confess, I feel vindicated by this, since I've always felt that Queen of Angels deserves more attention than it gets. That novel's major weakness—both internally and in terms of its wider reception—was Bear's overt reliance on voodoo mythology. For reasons that had nothing to do with the book itself, it became hard for readers to separate the loas in Queen of Angels from their opposite and better known numbers in William Gibson's neuromancer trilogy. But Gibson's loas are largely arbitrary names overlaid onto the fundamentally alien processes of emergent artificial life. Whereas I've always thought that Bear was after something else—some Straussian web of meaning flexible enough to encompass all of our worlds, internal as well as external, artificial as well as organic.
I think—I think—that this is what he's still after. And in City at the End of Time, he successfully recasts his quest in terms broad enough to encompass quantum cosmology, modern theories about galactic evolution, and even Buddhist and Hindu mythology. The result is a novel as intellectually challenging and aesthetically satisfying as anything he has ever written before.
And now we come to the last old dog on our list: Walter Jon Williams.
I guess I ought to give you the most important news first: this book was by far the most entertaining read of anything I looked at while preparing this month's column. Its send-up of gamer culture is a hoot. The plot charges ahead like a bullet train. (This is, of course, always the case in Williams's books, but sometimes one needs to say even the things that go without saying.) The characters are intelligent and charismatic enough to resonate long, long after the last page is turned. And I haven't even gotten around to mentioning Williams's masterful deployment of the infinite narrative possibilities of pocket universes.
I complained in a prior column that NASA killed Science Fantasy. But happily technology giveth as well as taketh away. And everything we lost when NASA made Mars boring has been recouped in spades on the VR frontier. Want sword-slinging Amazons riding giant telepathic lizards? You got 'em—and all at the low, low price of a little painless handwaving about Vingean singularities, Matrioshka arrays, and pocket universes.
Williams has taken full advantage of this technopoetic license to weave together a world that combines the sensual thrill of slumming it in the science fantasy badlands with the more cerebral joys of working out just how those lizard-straddling Amazons got there. Best of all, he has placed at the center of his book a hero uniquely conceived to illuminate the landscape: a "scholar of implied spaces" who charts the evolution of artificial universes.
This is where Implied Spaces makes the jump from mere space opera (not that there's anything wrong with that!) to full-fledged hard sf. This is new—to the best of my knowledge. And it's important.
One of the great structural weaknesses of most current hard sf is the failure to grasp the true scope of evolution. It's not really anyone's fault, strictly speaking; it's just that sf writers, albeit Very Smart Persons (VSPs), are still members of the human species. And our species still hasn't quite wrapped its collective mind around Darwin. (For more on this, see Dennett, Dawkins, Wilson, Szathmary, and a lot of other VSPs.)
All systems evolve. Including systems of information. Artificial, organic, biosphere, noosphere. It's all information. It all evolves. Even the very cogs and flywheels of evolution itself evolve. (After all, what is natural selection but a marvelously honed system for the transmission and preservation of genetic information?)
The failure to appreciate the arbitrary nature of our habitual division between natural and artificial information systems has resulted in a sort of unspoken notion among many sf writers that post-Singularity minds and bodies will somehow be subject to different rules of evolution—or perhaps not subject to evolution at all. Oh, no one says it. But it is the ghost in the machine—or rather, the absence of a ghost. It is there in the overly tidy political systems, in the static biospheres, in the absence of mosquitoes, in the general sentiment that stuff, including the stuff we're made of, is going to work better in the future.
Life without mosquitoes (or some artificial version thereof) wouldn't work. More to the point, life without mosquitoes—and all their biospheric and noospheric equivalents—would be boring.
Walter Jon Williams grabs this fundamental truth two-fisted—and runs with it. I won't rob you of the pleasure of watching his meditation on artificial evolution unfold through the course of this masterful novel, but I have one word that should perk up the ears of any reader of Gould and Dawkins:
Okay. That's it then. Get off your duff and go read the book.
And happy squinch hunting.…
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