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AICN BOOKS! Adam Balm On William Gibson, Neil Gaiman, Brian Aldiss, And More!

Hey, everyone. ”Moriarty” here. I love the fact that we’ve got two regular book review columns going, and they’re so different. Today, we’ve got our SF/Fantasy guy back with a column full of reviews of new books by some of the biggest genre names. So dig in... it’s a great one:

So we've had a little over a week for the Deathly Hallows frenzy to die down a bit, and now the question industry folks are asking themselves is "Gee, what's going to happen to all those readers who artificially pumped up overall fantasy sales to record numbers? Will they stick around or will they all go buy nintendo wiis instead?' The next 12 months are going to give everyone an idea. Either way, we're going to see a continuing influx of titles declaring themselves to be 'the next Harry Potter' for a long while to come. At the same time we're seeing more authors offering their works for free via podcasts and downloadable under the creative commons license. All this is going to spell changes for the SF and Fantasy sections of bookstores, and I'm not dumb enough to try and forecast what those are going to be. But whichever way this goes, it'll be interesting times ahead. Right now I still have a little stack of leftover stuff that I'm making my way through, so you'll see a couple titles from way back around May/June here. Apologies for that. Anyway, here's the playlist:

SPOOK COUNTRY by William Gibson HARM by Brian Aldiss M IS FOR MAGIC BY Neil Gaiman SPACEMAN BLUES by Brian Francis Slattery SPOOK COUNTRY by William Gibson Putnam

When PATTERN RECOGNITION came out, the big selling point was that "the world has caught up with William Gibson", which, in fairness, was true to a certain extent. The hype was that for the first time William Gibson was now setting his novels in the present day. No need to make up an imaginary future anymore, the present is strange enough. This seemed to resonate, and PATTERN RECOGNITION was declared by many to be one of the first great literary works of the 21st century. In the four years since then, an increasing number of SF writers are setting their novels in the science fictional world outside our window. It's not entirely clear why. You could point to the mundane manifesto and its call to arms for real world SF without the magic and the bullshit. Or you could point to the fact that by disguising science fiction as a modern day techno-thriller, you move yourself up to the front of the bookstores and sell far better than you ever have before. (Although I highly doubt Gibson is doing this. He sure as hell doesn't need any help in getting his books to the front of the bookstores anymore.) But in any event, for whatever reason, now it's all the rage again to regurgitate what everyone was saying when PATTERN RECOGNITION came out. Just look at Cory Doctorow's familiar (yet at the same time, extremely well thought out) essay in July's issue of Locus, citing the accelerating pace of technological innovation, and the increasing difficulty in predicting the future. Some genre Hegelians have been taking this to the extremes and saying that SF is now obsolete, because the pace of change is too fast for anyone to 'predict' the future anymore. In the year or so that an SF novel takes to hit the shelves, everything in it could already be old news. This all sounds well and good, although you could argue that the declaration of obsolescence itself is already seeming obsolete. (Not to mention the irony in predicting that we can no longer predict.) It's not exactly a new thing that SF does a half-assed job at predicting the future. Prediction has always been slave to escapism, wish fulfillment, sensawunda, and drama. What's new is that a few are now using the accelerating change as a crutch to either write about nerd raptures and doe-eyed post-scarcity utopianism, or they're giving up altogether and turning to fantasy and far future space opera. This schism isn't necessarily bad, but it's here, and the good news is that it's far from being lethal. In any event, ranting aside, SPOOK COUNTRY returns us to the all-too-alien future present of today, and it is without a doubt Gibson's least speculative work. Here is his sociocultural commentary without the 'big ideas'. Here is also his cutting cynicism without the trademark nihilism or the bleakness. Consequently it's also probably his funniest and lightest work to date, and I'm not sure how intentional that is. Sometimes it sounds like Gibson is doing a send-up of Gibson. When it opens with a woman putting on a bulky helmet-visor combo and yelling 'virtual reality?!', my first thought was that Gibson must be doing a pastiche on himself. It's almost like he read Lunar Park and decided to get all meta on everyone. We're introduced to three characters, and the nebulous and shifting web that binds them together, all seemingly woven around a mysterious shipping container with an unknown cargo that no one can seem to locate. Hollis Henry, former rock queen and current struggling journalist for a magazine called Node (which doesn't exist, but may some day) is chronicling a new art form that is emerging called "spatially tagged hypermedia", or more commonly known as locative art. Whereas before William Gibson wrote about artificial realities that you can dip into and then come back to the real one, here he's moved on to augmented reality. Like a waking dream, you carry the artifice with you wherever you go, layered onto the real. And wherever there's a new mode of experience, there's artists who find a way to exploit it. One of which is Alberto, whose specialty is recreating the death scenes of celebrities. The potential of locative art, we are told, began in May 2000, when the government opened the GPS system to civilians. Like geocaching, it was one of a million uses people seemed to find for the new technology. Hollis is financed by Blue Ant and Hubertus Bigend, whose job here seems to be to show up and say "Hey guys, remember me back in Pattern Recognition?" Maybe he confused her for Cayce Pollard, the resemblance is so strong. Across the country from Hollis, we find ourselves following Milgrim, a benzodiazepine addict who was picked up and held prisoner by a man named Brown who may work for the government and may not, and forced to work as a translator as they track a man called The IF (Who we know as Tito), and his secret meetings with another individual, who we know only as The Old Man. This is without a doubt one of the biggest sources of humor in the book. It's impossible not to laugh at the odd couple relationship between Brown and his rants against the Liberal Conspiracy, and Milgrim whose only goal in the world is to get his next tranquilizer fix. Tito, described by Gibson as 'a member of the smallest crime family in the US' communicates with the Old Man in an obscure Russian invented language called Volapuk, and makes scheduled drops to him using iPods as covert information storage devices. Hollis does her best to track down Bobby Chombo, the man at the center of the locative art movement, who uploads all the art onto the servers. Never sleeping in the same GPS grid twice, he seems to have some connections to The Old Man, and Tito. And unfortunately for him, he's the only one who can track the cargo container. Tito, after making one fateful last delivery to The Old Man, if forced to flee, entering the crime world's version of the witness protection program. But his flight is all just set-up for an even bigger operation, as Brown and Milgrim chase him cross country, where all three subplots converge on Vancouver (Gibson's home, though this is the first time it's appeared in his novels.) Any interesting speculations fade into the background in this second half of the book, which turns into your standard garden variety, if well told, mystery caper. But it's a caper that's decidedly uneventful. This isn't a heist, so much as it is a prank. The stakes aren't high and the danger is never palpable. There's plenty of criticism of current power structures, the profiteering off of war and specifically the war in Iraq, but it's not particularly profound. Gibson has said that he didn't know when he started writing what exactly was in the cargo container, and I'm not surprised. While the ultimate revelation makes sense, it also underwhelms. (Not to mention reminding us a little too much of a James Bond plot from the 'golden' era of 007.) And seeing how all the Russian elements popping up go unexplained, I'm assuming that this is somehow related to the Russian mafia element we saw in the last book. (Maybe I need to re-read PATTERN RECOGNITION again to see how it all fits together.) I've seen more than a few critics fawn over this, singing its praises for every other reason than it actually being a great book, but in the end SPOOK COUNTRY is Gibson coasting. This is Gibson having some fun as he sets up the third book in a trilogy. It's also probably going to be one of the better spy thrillers of the year, just because it's Gibson we're talking about and he hasn't lost any of his talent, but he also doesn't reach the high bar he has always set for himself. Gibson has always written about the crucibles of change that societies pass through, the paradigm shifts where nothing will be the same again. With SPOOK COUNTRY, I kept waiting for that up until the very last page. I'm still waiting. SPOOK COUNTRY will be released on August 7th.

HARM by Brian Aldiss Ballantine Del Rey

"The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven...." There are a lot of Paradise Lost references in HARM, but that quotation seems to be the overriding theme. Paul Fadhil Abbas Ali wakes up in a cell, with chains around his hands and feet, and a hood over his head. He doesn't know why he's there, or even where there is. And when he's told he's in Syria, then Uzbekistan, we start to realize the gravity of the situation he's in. Soon he's informed that he's there because of a book he wrote a while back called "The Pied Piper of Hament", where a couple of drunks joke about blowing up the prime minister. At first I assumed this was going to be a commentary about the law that was passed forbidding artistic works from "glorifying terrorism" (prompting an anthology by British SF authors to do exactly that), but this was written far before that, and its scope is far grander. As Paul is tortured and interrogated by HARM (The Hostile Activities Research Ministry), his mind begins to fragment, imagining a world called Stygia (hence the Milton quote) where he exists as a man named Fremant. But wait, there's another layer here. The colonists of Stygia underwent a kind of file compression, in that for the voyage from earth they were reduced to their constituent genetic material and memory patterns, and consequently all the colonists are brain damaged in a way. It's for that reason that his life on Stygia may in fact be the real life, and the parallel narrative of Paul's torture may be a half-remembered mish-mash from another life back on earth, that he might have lived or might not have. Despite how convoluted that all sounds, I was actually surprised by how straight forward Brian Aldiss was actually being. The point he's trying to make is about as subtle as the techniques of Paul's interrogators. And if you missed it the first time, there's an interview with the author where he tells you again. Brian Aldiss isn't a fan of his government, but more importantly, as we already know, he's not a fan of human nature in general. This is evidenced by the world of Stygia, where the colonists are doomed to repeat the same mistakes humans have always repeated. On Stygia, we're still doomed to fanaticism, genocide, brutality, and always happy to install a new tyrannical regime to rule over us. Change the names and the setting, and the human saga is always the same story. As Fremant flees from the tyranny of a fundamentalist dictator, to a new city called Haven, he finds himself escaping one prison to land into another. Essanits, the hero who helped exterminate the native inhabitants of Stygia, who are called the Dogovers, seeks to wash away the blood on his hands by turning to barely remembered teachings of a prophet named Jesus. When he hears that there are still surviving Dogovers in an unconquered land, he orders Fremant to join him on an expedition to rescue them, restore them, and bring them to civilization. We learn that Paul Fadhil Abbas Ali's mental deterioration didn't begin with his arrest and internment by HARM. The abuse he suffered at the hands of his father created a dissociative disorder. He began writing as therapy. It's also implied that the splitting of his mind in two is rooted in the double life he had to lead as both a good Muslim and accepted as a British citizen. Eventually he seemed to feel he had to make a choice between one or the other, and so he chose to be a mainstream member of British society, forsaking his Muslim heritage, changing his name to an anglicized Paul Fadhill. But now he realizes he was never accepted as a British citizen. He would never be. Maybe he knew that all along, he wonders. Maybe his joke about the prime minister wasn't a joke after all. He comes to believe the lies they tell him about himself. They didn't find the terrorist they wanted, so they created him. The two threads seem to bleed together toward the end, the events that lead to the colonizing of Stygia are the same events that are happening in the first narrative. So on one hand, both stories may be true, but then again, both may be false. We're even less sure what is really happening than ever before. Scenes of Paul's release play out several times, and we have no idea if any of them are imagined or not. It's not the first time this kind of structure has been used, and plenty of other reviews have gone into detail describing all the other SF stories that involved characters dreaming up false realities to escape their circumstances. But that's a little beside the point. However ham-fisted the message may be, this is one of the first genre works to hold up a mirror to 'Rendition', to Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and the many others that don't even have names yet. HARM is looking to be controversial, and it will be, if it hasn't started to be already. I think it should be. I think this book should be talked about, debated, and argued for and argued against. At the very least, it'll make you think. And for a work of fiction, that's probably one of the biggest compliments you can give. HARM was released on May 29th.

M IS FOR MAGIC by Neil Gaiman Harper Collins

I'd love to be Neil Gaiman right now. At Comic-Con he was mobbed with questions about Stardust and Beowulf, not to mention Coraline and Death: The High Cost of Living. He also had two books come out in the last month, the one reviewed here and InterWorld, co-written with Michael Reeves. I don't know if InterWorld has been optioned yet but if not, I bet it's only a matter of time. He's more successful now than ever and nobody better deserves it than him. Gaiman's novels get a lot of attention, with good reason, but his shorts...not so much. Which is a little sad because there's a lot of his shorts that I'd rate far above any of his longer work. They say there are no perfect novels, but there are perfect short stories and while Gaiman definitely doesn't have any perfect novels, he does have some damn perfect short stories. One of which, reviewed below, is up for the Hugo this year. Even from the beginning with his 2000 AD stuff and his Miracleman, you can see this gift, and in Sandman the most memorable stuff for me was always the stand-alone issues. In M is for Magic (An homage to Ray Bradbury's R IS FOR ROCKET and S IS FOR SPACE.) there's more than one story that reaches perfection. Those that do reach perfection all tend to float around Gaiman's best and most constant theme: an everyday person's encounter with the fantastic, whether the fantastic be a troll under a bridge, or an old lady finding the Holy Grail in an antique shop, or a chance meeting at a party with girls from another world. His shorts that take place in a world completely removed from our own like 'How to Sell the Ponti Bridge', 'Sunbird', or 'October in the Chair', are less effective. Pretty much all the stories in M IS FOR MAGIC have already appeared elsewhere, some have been collected before and some not. A couple of them appeared in ANGELS AND VISITATIONS, now out of print, and the rest can be found in SMOKE AND MIRRORS and last year's FRAGILE THINGS. Some have been adapted for audiobook. (Another lost art that Gaiman's a master of is in the reading of his own stories.) It starts to feel like someone's seriously milking these for all they're worth when they you have the same stories being published and republished within a year in two different collections, but oh well. Perhaps the fact that this is intended for the YA market is enough for them to justify it. Few kids, unless they're Gaiman fans, probably would've read these before. Strangely enough I had no idea that this was actually a kid's book until I read the dedication: "Writing imaginative tales for the young is like sending coals to Newcastle. For coal.". But then again, these aren't necessarily the stories I'd pick to introduce children to Gaiman's work, these being fairly a bit darker and more mature than what you'll usually find in the Children's section. The first entry is 'The Case of Four and Twenty Blackbirds', which sees Detective Jack Horner of Nurseryland investigating the death of Humpty Dumpty. It's fairly cute, has some clever puns and manages to somehow fit every nursery rhyme character in there somewhere. 'Troll Bridge' always felt to me to be a tip of the hat to H.G. Wells' Door in the Wall, at least structurally. Both center around a boy stumbling upon something from another world, meeting it several times over the course of his growing up. Both seem to be a little bit about leaving childhood behind. But I guess that's as much Bradbury as Wells. 'The Price' is surprisingly moving, about a mysterious stray cat who protects a house from an evil that returns each night, and the cost it takes. 'Don't Ask Jack' is only four pages, but it's still strangely unnerving. Maybe because Jack-in-the-boxes are second only to clowns in their pure creepiness. 'Chivalry' is classic Gaiman. It's also uncommonly funny. There's something hilarious about someone finding the Holy Grail, and not really caring that much. When Ms. Whitaker finds it at an antique shop, she takes it home and puts it on her mantle just because she thinks it fits nicely there. When asked what it is by a neighbor, she merely shrugs and casually mentions that it's the cup that held Christ's blood, in about the same way you'd talk about a souvenir you picked up on vacation. As I mentioned, 'How to Talk to Girls at Parties' is up for the Hugo this year, and I would put my money on it winning. For anyone who ever grew up thinking that the opposite sex was like they were from another planet, Neil Gaiman takes the idea literally. I must have read it half a dozen times and I still don't know if I entirely get it. Maybe it's the Dickens influence but more than one story focuses on a boy in a graveyard. In 'October in the Chair' we have a story within a story, where one of the months of the year tells of a boy who runs away and befriends a ghost. In 'The Witches Headstone' we meet a young boy who grew up in a cemetery, raised by the dead, as he makes his first journey out into the world in search of a headstone to mark the grave of a woman buried anonymously in unhallowed ground. Headstone is actually taken from his next novel, which would explain the one or two dangling plot threads. It ends with a poem titled Instructions, which tells us to remember that “Giants sleep too soundly; that witches are often betrayed by their appetites; that dragons have a soft spot, always; hearts can be well hidden, and you betray them with your tongue...”. Like I said, most Gaiman fans will already have most of these in some form, but that probably won't stop them from picking this up too. And I wouldn't blame them. I do wonder how many are going to miss out on this, though, with them stocking it in the Children's section instead of the SF and Fantasy aisle. But, then again, I guess that's where the coal is... M IS FOR MAGIC was released on June 26th.

SPACEMAN BLUES by Brian Francis Slattery Tor

Call it what you want; surrealist, transrealist, post-modern, absurdist, slipstream, fabulist, literary fantastic...whatever, there's no word that does justice to SPACEMAN BLUES. A few here might remember me mentioning a promise to review what I thought was one of the most original novels of the year. Well, here it is. I've had SPACEMAN BLUES sitting around since early spring, but I kept putting off reviewing it. Probably because I knew that once I reviewed it, I'd have to put it in my 'finished' pile, and move on to the next batch. The lie I told myself of course was that by keeping it and re-reading it, I was doing more research, making my analysis better. But in truth, I just didn't want to let SPACEMAN BLUES go. The first book by Brian Francis Slattery, you wouldn't know it by reading it. I get so many debut books every month from first time authors that are just painful to read. Even more painful is the catch 22 of publishing that it often takes a couple of tries before people find their footing and produce a good novel, but at the same time in this competitive and shrinking market, it's more and more difficult to get a second or third novel published if your first one doesn't sell. So despite that, and no one is more disappointed than me, I end up reviewing almost no books by first time authors. Because almost all of them suck balls to a certain degree, and I have no desire to write an ass-tearing review that's just going to help smother a burgeoning career in the cradle. Our story begins one night when Manuel Rodrigo de Guzman Gonzales disappears. All people seem to know for sure is that after getting thrown out of at least a dozen bars over the course of his final day on earth, he was last seen on a pier on Coney Island, drunk off his ass and staring up at the sky. For over the next day or so, no one even noticed he was gone. He was one of those guys that everyone seemed to know, and so when he wasn't around, everyone assumed he was with someone else. But when his apartment explodes, it sends a shock wave rippling throughout the city, and then throughout the world. Slowly now the knowledge seems to dawn on everyone that he's gone, and that he's not coming back. Slowly the mourners gather, and slowly the mourning turns to partying, and the partying spreads. Most won't know why it is they're drinking or who the parties are in honor of. Those who do know why they're there, still don't know enough to have a clue as to what happened to Manuel. But they think they know who does. Everyone's convinced that Wendell Apogee has the answers. Wendell was the only one who really knew him, they all say, the only one he confided in. And no one would like that to be true more than Wendell. The night before he disappeared, Manuel came to him, sat on the bed and sobbed. It's said 'Manuel told him many things that night, piteous and cruel, but it was nonsense.' “It's too much”, Manuel said. “I'm leaving everything and going.” And as he watches the 'Witnesses of the Ascension of Gonzales' all trying to make their peace with their loss, something gnaws away at him, and he realizes he won't be able to make his peace until he knows himself what happened to him. His journey to uncover what happened to Manuel will take him to the illegal world of human trafficking, to cockfights, and finally into Darktown, the city below New York where lost things are found. But the more Wendell comes to know, the more he realizes what he doesn't know about the man who shared his life with him. All the while he'll be hunted by four giants with three legs (later called 'The Four Horsemen'), who can shoot green flame and share a strange connection to both Manuel and to the strange flying objects that have been seen. All the while he'll be pursued by two detectives named Trout and Salmon, who will investigate the links between Manuel and the Church of Panic, and their apocalyptic message of the alien extermination of earth. It will take him to the Ciphers, a subculture who have given up their identities completely, who will train him and remake him into Captain Spaceman. I guess part of the uniqueness is the third person omniscient present tense, which we don't see too often in novels. And of course, not all questions are answered, and they aren't meant to be. It's not about what happened to Manuel or who these strange invaders are or why they've come here to destroy us. Even the end of the world is just the backdrop for the dozens or so of some of the most memorable characters we've seen in years. SPACEMAN BLUES is about too many things to list. It's about a New York in the summer time that always seems like "the sun is coming closer, a tendril of a nuclear fire reaching out to lick the surface of this hapless planet, run a scorch mark a thousand miles across a continent, string up a chain of smoking cities, ashen farmlands..." It's about a city with a thousand stories that can never be fully told, as much as they deserve to be. It's about love. Sub-titled 'A love song', it's not a love song for Wendell and Manuel, it's a love song that Slattery's singing to New York. And like the great love stories, someone dies, although it's not really a surprise. Slattery destroys that which he loves. New York will burn, and "bands will play until their fingers break open and bleed, until their lips split, until their throats run out of speech; people will dance, hands in the air, arms around each other until their legs give out and they buckle over in ecstasy..." The end of the world was never so fun. SPACEMAN BLUES will be released August 7th. So in the next couple weeks I'm going to take a look at what happens when reptilian shapeshifters come back after a twenty year hiatus, and I'll be giving everyone their first peek at a very Ender Christmas in July in... um, August, and a whole lot of short story collections that always seem to pile up faster than anything else. Until then, tell me why I'm wrong, tell me what I'm missing out on, or tell me to shut up Adam Balm

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