Monday, June 15, 2020

Plague Books: Requiem for a Dying Earth

Song of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance, by a LOT of people you've heard about, edited by George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois, with Art by Paul Kidd. TOR Books, 2009

Provenance: Christmas present, probably 2009 as well. I came to Jack Vance late in life, which is a bit of a surprise given that D&D is hip-deep in Vancian notions, tropes, and outright, um, borrowings. But once I struck his Dying Earth series, in the form of a massive compendium, I was delightfully hooked by his mannered approach to far-future fantasy, and of course, when a massive tome by a cluster of big-name authors came out in his honor, I had to get it and consume it.

And I did, eventually. I remember burrowing into it at full steam, enjoying the stories a great deal. But that steam dissipated over time, and the book became a denizen of my Shelf of Abandoned Books. And only with the recent seclusion, where I have suddenly two more hours in my day that I had when I had to commute, did I finally return to it.

Review: So let me tell you what all the shouting is about. Jack Vance was an author who wrote from the 80's up to his passing in 2013. As a writer, he wrote a LOT of stuff, but the stories that have kept his memory warm in SF&F fans' hearts were his Dying Earth Stories. These were set in the far, far future, where our world is not only reduced to dust but totally forgotten about. It is a world where magic rules, other supposedly vat-created creatures roam the land, and the sun is on its last legs. The stories are stylistically marvelous, and present a Wodehousian future of manners, where wizards are so powerful that they are effectively useless (because there is always a counter-spell and a counter-counter-spell, and so on), and conman get by with the skin of their teeth. Irony abounds and no good deed goes unpunished. If you haven't read Vance, or Dying Earth, go dig it up.

Songs of the Dying Earth is a collection by later-day fans who have made good in the SF bidness, gathered under one roof. A lot of those are names to conjure with - Howard Waldrop, Bob Silverberg, GRR Martin, Tanith Lee, Neil Gaiman, Dan Simmons. A veritable pantheon of SF literati gathered between two covers to sing the praises of a talent who, if not forgotten, does not get remembered as much as he should.

So how do they do, these later-day student of Vance? They did really well. Some writers take characters from Vance's stories and weave new tales about them. Some take the flavor of the world and give us new tales. Some are paeans that closely follow Vance's voice and tropes. Some tell their own stories that are factually part of Vance's world, but are told with their own voices.  Matt Hughes, who wrote the Vance-evoking Majestrum, acquits himself nicely in Vance's sandbox. The longest piece, from Dan Simmons, is pure Vancian. GRR Martin's contribution is very GRR Martin, in that it is sufficiently creepy, but still belongs in the house of Vance. And the Tannath Lee piece, which is where I abandoned the book years ago, is on re-reading has that sense of irony that makes Vance to worthwhile as a writer.

The art, by Paul Kidd, is also pretty cool, particularly considering that in his stories, Vance never gave a great description of what deodand or a pelgrane looked like.

So why did I bail? Well, to be honest, it is a much of muchness. There is so much stuff in this book (670-some pages) that even the sparkling nature and wry humor of the Dying Earth starts to run thin. This is one of those books which should not be read cover-to-cover, but rather in sprints. Read three stories, then take a breather. Cogitate on them, maybe bake some Kaiser rolls. Then come back. That way it doesn't feel like one long vista of writing. But you should really consider checking it out.

More later,

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Life in the Time of the Virus, Still Continued

I close out our third month of seclusion, and we are fine. A little tired of it all. A little worn out. A little grumpy. But fine.

In this period I helped ship a computer game. Call it my COVID project. Our entire team was working from home, and that in itself is amazing. But with shipping, even though there are about a bajillion things that still need to be done to support/evolve/fix the game, I feel that one of the great pressures on me has passed, and feel a little exhausted as a result.

Part of the recent tasks as we moved to release involved recording voices for future content. So I and my writers were all in our homes, my producer in HIS home in Southern California, our actors in THEIR homes, and our poor audio engineer in the studio in Burbank by himself pulling it all together. My audio guy says the result sounds pretty good. Yeah, I remain amazed that we managed it all.

In the larger medical world the curve is flattening, but our part of the state is not at Phase 2 yet (we are at a modified Phase 1.5, which is what happens when nerds do planning - we break things down into smaller and smaller components). We are getting there - new cases have dropped, death toll is down (but still with us). The whole point of flattening the curve has been not to avoid all risk of infection, but to not overload the medical system with everyone getting sick at once. We have succeeded, yet there remains more to do.

I hear reports that there is herd immunity. I'm not sure about that. COVID-19 is a corona virus, like the common cold. I haven't seen much in the way of herd immunity to that over the years. I am dubious.

I hear reports that the there are mutations that are making the disease weaker, primarily reports from Italy. While that appeals to me in a conclusion to The Andromeda Strain sort of way, I don't see enough movement to support the concept. I remain dubious.

And I have a nervousness that stems from the tendency to admit COVID-19 deaths only when they are absolutely sure that it was COVID-19. So a lot of deaths are now recorded as from pneumonia, with the result that we now have a PNEUMONIA epidemic as the yearly totals are now 3 and 4 times what they normally are. This echoes the AIDS epidemic of my youth, where a lot of deaths of young men were hidden under the guise of "pneumonia".

But we are finally getting the point of wide-spread testing, which is a good thing. We've been guessing for a while now, but of this I am not dubious about.

My plague beard has graduated from "scraggly" to "grizzled".

The robocalls are returning to their natural habitat. One woman keeps calling to tell me there is nothing wrong with my credit. That's nice.

The Lovely Bride and I have succumbed to baking. She has been trying to refine a Kaiser roll recipe that has been kinda of weird on her.  We are making pizza dough, the type that rises overnight, using a recipe from the newspaper. This recipe is clearly meant to just be read, but not implemented. The LB disagrees with about every step of the recipe, so discussion result. Fortunately, after it is all said and done, we get to eat the evidence (and, after all the prep, it really wasn't bad at all).

But people are tired of all this. I get it. I'm not particularly happy myself, and I've got it really easy. I still have my work and talk to my co-workers continually over the 'net. Shortages have been spotty (the latest - shower cleaner and mushroom soup). People have been distancing. Masks are more common than not, particularly at the farmers' markets that are slowly coming back. Less so at the Fred Meyers.

And yet I feel this low-level irritation and agitation. I have less patience on the road, going out for sundries, even though there is less traffic. I have less patience behind the inevitable person at the grocery store paying in loose change. And while I am sure no one has turned the traffic lights to red longer just to peeve me off, but peeve me off they do.

I feel a little bad feeling this way - as I say, I got it easy. No, I've got it REALLY easy. While I was in the basement recording voices long distance, workmen peeled off my back balcony and replaced it with a larger, wider, sturdier, non-rotting version (our other COVID project). Two weeks to get it to the present state, where a base coat is drying. We are delayed because the flooring guy disagrees with what the engineer had put down on his drawing for flashing, while the local municipality agrees but will only authorize doing it the contractor's way if the engineer buys off on it. So we are stalled for the moment. But seriously, this is the worst thing happening? We have it as dead easy.

We endure and we continue and we thrive.We row on.

More later,

Monday, June 08, 2020

Plague Books: Not-Quite-Dead-Yet Earth

Majestrum, A Tale of Henghis Hapthorn by Matthew Hughes, Night Shade Books, 2007

Provenance: NorWesCon, more than a few years ago, This was a rebellion purchase.

I attend NorWesCon, the great Pacific Northwest SF conventions, every few years, when they invite me (when they don't I have no hard feelings, but instead enjoy sleeping in on Easter morning). And whenever I attend, I hit the Dealer's Room, which usually has a couple friends who are repping for their respected game companies. But I also look for books when I am there, and this is what bothers me. There are usually more vendors selling Ren Faire hats than there are booksellers. No slam against those selling leather trilbies, but I feel my nose pushed slightly out of joint by a lack of booksellers at a convention that had its foundation in books. So I picked up both this volume, and its sequel - The Spiral Labyrinth, from the publisher out of sheer spite.

So there.

Review: Henghis Hapthorn is a discriminator, a form of far-far-future private detective., making his residence in the trendier sections of Old Earth but having the hundreds of worlds mankind has spread made available at his beck and call, accessible much like we would take a plane to another city. The human presence in the galaxy is old, the moon is gone, the sun is starting to fade. It is not quite Jack Vance's Dying Earth, but it evokes it strongly and intentionally, maybe an aeon or three before where Vance's writings are set.

Henghis comes with baggage in this book, in the form of a collection of short stories that were published by ANOTHER publisher, So, much like Chili Palmer, I have to do some accommodating for stories told before I arrived on the scene. But worse, we keep calling back to those stories all the way through, so that I feel a little pummeled for the crime of not paying sufficient attention back in the '80s when these tales first showed up in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

For example, Henghis's AI assistant has been transformed into a cat-monkey. And Henghis now has an unwelcome boarder in his mind in the form of his intuition, which has manifested as a separate personality in the back of his brain. Both of these come from the fact that magic is slowly taking over the universe, which will replace his logic and rationality with sympathetic association. This bothers Henghis a lot, and he bemoans his fate to them.

That's one of the frustrations in the book - Henghis bemoans his fate a lot.  As he pursues his assignments, he argues with his transformed cat-monkey. He also argues with his intuition as his internal monologue becomes an internal dialogue. The problem is, that it is always the same arguments, drilling down onto the fact that Henghis' rational universe will soon be ending, and he cannot trust his intuition as it literally has a mind of its own.

I look at this one and think about Be Cool, which I slammed for not giving me any reason to support, or even identify, with the protagonist (a protagonist can be unlikable if that is point - even bad examples are examples, after all). Hughes avoids it with Henghis; he is hired almost immediately by an upper-cruster to whom Henghis feels he is morally and intellectually superior, to break up the upper-cruster's daughter's relationship. The fact he does so gets you on his side, a position he keeps throughout the book. However, his continual whinging about the end of his rational age, his upcoming loss to his intuitive self, and his fruit-eating cat-monkey is a bit repetitive.

The book also oversells itself, invoking Jack Vance and Sherlock Holmes.. Hughes' voice is Vancian but not overblown about it. As a Holmesian deductive mastermind, Henghis falls more than a bit short, but he has his moments. It is hardly rollicking and funny, but it is humorous enough to stand on its own merits.

All in all, its OK.  It gets down to cases quickly, and the writing is bright and touches Vance's style and tropes - a formal set of prose and mannered conversations against a fantastic environment. I don't regret reading it, but by the same token, I can go a while before getting the sequel. But it does make me want to read more Jack Vance.

More later,

Monday, May 25, 2020

Plague Books: Plague Book

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier, Vintage Books, 2006

Provenance: This is a re-read: I read it many years ago and thought well enough of it to hold onto as opposed to pass on to others, intending to write something about it. Now is the time.

I think this was one of the last books we got from the Quality Paperback Book Club. The QPB was (and maybe is, for all I know) one of those monthly book clubs where they mailed you the selection and gave you a catalog with other options. And we were pretty happy with it when we lived in Lake Geneva, but once we moved out here, we were less and less interested in their offerings and finally opted out.

Apparently, QPB is an extremely shadowy group, and no one knows who is really running the works (the Book of the Month club is handling fulfillment, and a query to the Wikipedia dumps us there). It is sort of a book club Illuminati, an interesting piece of the publishing industry, a vector for moving print like a virus, but that is only tangential to the book itself.

Review:  To all outward appearances this is a traditional work of fiction - simple, raised, embossed silvered title, "National Bestseller" running along the top margin,  pull quote from the Washington Post Book World, artistic photographic cover design that would put it at home next to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil on the shelves. A little digging even reveals that its first chapter was displayed in The New Yorker.  A confluence of traditional New York publishing tropes that declare " This is a modern novel."

But it is a science fiction tale that hangs on a fantasy assumption When one dies, one's spirit/
identity/soul/existence transposed into a limbo, a City, where it continues on in the much the same way as in life, until the last person who remembers the once-living dies as well. Only at that point does the spirit move on to an unknowable future. So what happens to The City when a world-wide plague destroys humanity?

The tale is told on two fronts - The City itself, and Antarctica, where the last survivor of the plague - "The Blinks" - struggles to survive.  Those within the city are swept up with a huge tide of the newly dead, then are confronted with people disappearing as quickly as they arrive, the only ones who remember them are themselves brought down by the disease. The City itself is shrinking as well, as no one still living remembers it.

The survivor is Laura Byrd, employee of the Coca-Cola company, stranded in a former research stations at the bottom of the world. The world of the (now-near) future is as expected - the large mammals are all dead, the sea levels are rising, there is continual warfare, and bio-engineered plagues are common. Laura is there because of marketing - Coca-Cola pushing the idea that their sweetened soft drink is made with the last pure water on earth (yes, similar to the various bottled-watered claims). Ultimately, the soft drink is the vector to kill the world. Her companions die and she is left alone to try to get off the continent while the rest of the world succumbs.

The writing is first-rate, and the story carries through both from Laura's viewpoint and the community of the dead, who come to realize that their continued existence hinges solely on Laura's survival. They vary from long-time friends and colleagues and family to individuals she saw once and remembered afterwards - Laura's gaze is all-encompassing. While the plague burns the world, those who live on in her memory congregate in The City. But Laura is herself dying.

Back when I first read this, I was talking to a friend who worked in the New York publishing. "Why is is marketed with the monotone photos of New York's version of literature?", I ask. "Set in the then-future, talking about bio-warfare, discussing the afterlife. How is this not an SF novel?"

"Vintage does not publish science fiction," he responded simply.

Indeed. Yet even shorn of its physical similarities, the book holds forth with the vibe of  Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up, and other end-of-the-worlders. In bringing it tightly into the orbit of Laura and the citizens of the City, it has an attraction that makes it worth reading, and then re-reading years afterwards.

More later,

Friday, May 15, 2020

Plague Books: Magic City

Passing Strange by Ellen Klages, TOR Books, 2017

Provenance: This was in the big box of books I got from someone at TOR. I told that story here, when I reviewed Network Effect, so I won't go into the who rigamarole on that. But I still had a pile of books, and I picked this one off the top. It is the sort of book I might pick on recommendation or based on a review, but in all honesty it was on the top of the pile, and had an odd title and it was short.

Review: Wow, this is a gem.

This is one of those books totally make it worth the risk of reading an author you've never read before. Magical, mystical, and sweet.

The novel opens with an elderly Asian woman diagnosed with a terminal condition, putting her affairs in order. On the final days of her life, she rescues original piece of pulp art from its hiding place in the basement of a building she owns. It is the last piece of a legendary pulp artist, and she sells it to a rather repellent dealer for a great deal of money. Then she goes home and takes an overdose.

But that's not the story. Actually we go back to 1940 in San Francisco, and into queer subculture of the era and tell the story of the artwork. The artist is question, Haskel, has been midgendered by time - she is a woman drawing sensational pulp covers. She has a collection of friends, about half-a-coven, that include a scientist and her girlfriend, who has a bit of mystical ability in folding maps. The Asian woman in question, Helen, is there, who is both a lawyer and a dancer at a local tourist restaurant that caters to racial stereotypes near Chinatown. Into their orbit falls Emily, a young woman, newly arrived from back East with a wonderful voice and a talent for cross-dressing as a man named Spike. The artist, Haskel, falls hard for Emily. It is a love story cast against the background of San Francisco in the shadow of the war.

And the writing is wonderful. Klages makes San Francisco come alive. David Dodge gave us a collection of street names and called it San Francisco, but, Klages brings entire neighborhoods alive. You get a sense of wonder and delight, and yes, magic, that only belongs to certain places in certain times with certain people. It lifts you up and carries you forward and makes you really care about the characters.

Her writing about San Francisco sparked whole sequence of pleasant memories for me.. I am on the record of being neutral about LA, but San Francisco is one of those cities that I visited and said "yeah, I could live here." I remember visits and conventions and just wandering through this city and visiting friends and relatives in the Bay Area. San Francisco has always been magical and chimerical. It is Nova Albion and Emperor Norton and Sam Spade and Vertigo and the Cliff House and Tony Bennett. I have gone on record as being LA-Neutral, but San Francisco holds a particular charm for me, its own magic.

But there is darkness in the magic as well, as shown in the book. The local lesbian club, Mona's, solely exists by being a tourist stop for moralizing mid westerners, on the barest fringe of acceptability. The cops are crooked and the law is stacked against them.. Both the artist Haskel and the dancer Helen cater to public trafficking in racial stereotypes to make their living. Women in general, and lesbians in particular, are either invisible to the greater world or targeted by it. They are both integral to the world and outsiders to it.

The heart is the romance between Haskel and Emily. It is not just a slow burn. It smolders like exotic spice in a brazier. The fantastic elements of the tale are hinted at early, but actually arrive only towards the end of the book. In the meantime, we get a sweet, sweeping romance in the shadows, mature in a positive sense in that we are dealing with grown-ups and real feelings and all the messiness that that involves.

Passing Strange is one of those books that I want to press into the hands of others, because I think they will enjoy it. It has been out for a while, so it can be probably found easily. Treat yourself to it.

More later,