Void Star, by Zachary Mason

Void Star, by Zachary Mason

I’m notoriously picky, and it’s hard to find something that checks every one of my boxes: worldbuilding, prose, characters, and story. Usually I’ll find something that hits 2 or 3 of them; a great story, written well, but with weak worldbuilding or characters. Or a top notch world, with vivid characters, but only serviceably written. Void Star nails them all. It’s true literary Speculative Fiction, and a rare find.

It not only has that famous sense of wonder that only SF can do so well, but also elegant prose evidencing an author well acquainted with the great works of literary fiction, solid worldbuilding, an engaging story, and well developed characters that feel like they’ve genuinely lived their lives. It’s a novel of ideas, a hugely ambitious narrative, and a character novel all rolled into one. If elements of Neuromancer and The Diamond Age merged with an epic mythology poem and in the process became more than the sum of their parts, you would have Void Star. I’d call it post-cyberpunk, minus the noir element. There is a mystery present, but no tropey, down on his luck detective piecing it all together while chewing the scenery.

Zachary MasonInstead we have three main POVs, which build the narrative like three avalanches, accelerating as they accumulate, eventually converging violently and spiraling out in interesting and unexpected directions. The chapters are very short, often only five or six pages, seventy-seven chapters total in just under four hundred pages, which makes it really approachable. I would often sit down with not much time, intent on only reading a chapter or two, but the short chapters gave it a forward momentum that made it difficult to put down. The conclusion satisfies immensely, and I have a strong feeling that it’s even better on subsequent readings. If I didn’t have a few novels and novellas I still need to read before the Hugo vote this year, I would reread this one right now. I’m considering it a strong contender for the Hugo or Nebula awards next year. I do think it’s a little better suited for the Nebula though, as that award usually embodies novels with terrific prose.

Mason’s prose has an inherent beauty to it, and is a joy to read. It is poetically descriptive in a clever, nebulous way. He describes only just enough to jumpstart your imagination, leaving the hard-edged details for the reader to incorporate into the world themselves. You meet the novel halfway. It makes it highly engaging. It’s an approach that can backfire if handled by a less steady hand, but it’s wonderfully executed here. To me it’s a little reminiscent of Jeff VanderMeer’s prose.

The worldbuilding is so thorough: favelas that are nearly alive with their continually evolving construction by drone, layers of society and culture, poverty and wealth all clashing at their intersections, powerful corporations pulling strings, artificial intelligences that are as distant from us as we are to bacteria. It’s near(ish) far future, but the tech isn’t all state of the art. It’s presented in a much more realistic way; the way things have always been. You might have some tech that is cutting edge (your phone, or tablet, etc), but you still interact with other bits of technology that are nearing their obsolescence (maybe you drive an old carbureted pickup truck, or an antique motorcycle, maybe you use an ancient fax machine at work). In this world there is tech that is still far in the future for us, but to the characters using it, it’s a bit obsolete. This small detail makes all the difference in my suspension of disbelief as a reader, and makes this world that much more comprehensively thought out and impressive.

I love novels that tell a huge, satisfying science fiction story in a relatable world like this. Highly recommended.


Little Sister, by Barbara Gowdy

Little Sister, by Barbara Gowdy

“Get your own head straight before hanging around in someone else’s.”

Little Sister has a setup that hooked me in the first handful of pages. There is a well crafted, subtle symmetry at play in this novel. The story is teeming with thematic intrigue, and these themes mirror each other in creative ways as the story progresses. You could describe it as a feedback loop of sorts; the matching elements bouncing off each other and informing different areas of the story, creating a prism that resolves as it all comes together. It’s masterfully done. I’d call it a summer literary thriller with a touch of magical realism, and a lot of substance.

Our protagonist is a woman who never really got a chance to know herself. She’s been drifting through her own life as a passenger; never really taking an active role. She’s stuck in a lot of what I would call soft-traps: caring for her mentally deteriorating mother, running the family business: a movie theater that screens classic films, and then there’s her adequate (but never exciting) romantic relationship that she settled for after a string of bad ones. She has large choices to make, but she can’t see them yet. I really think it’s a novel about escapism, the many different ways we deal with and process grief, and what we can learn from each other if we could only walk a mile in their shoes. Reading between the lines a little, I also think it’s about how important fiction can be for our personal development.

Barbara GowdyInstead of escaping into reality tv, soap operas, or novels, Rose’s escape is the main fantastical element of the story: during a string of summer thunderstorms she loses consciousness and finds herself inhabiting a different body. She has no control over this body, but feels and experiences everything that it does. These “episodes” as she calls them, have the feel of a mythological God toying with its creations. The woman she inhabits lives a much more exciting, soap operatic life, full of ups and downs that Rose has never experienced in her own life. She finds herself enraptured and confused, unsure whether she’s dreaming, losing her mind like her mother, or if something truly fantastic is happening. She becomes very invested in this other person, and begins a quest to confirm or deny this mystery woman’s existence, and regain her sanity.

In addition to the main narrative, there is a secondary story that unfurls in Rose’s past, involving her sister and a tragic accident she feels partly responsible for.

The prose is sober and clear; the story utterly captivating, and the characters well developed. There is a general sense of unease, making it suspenseful in the same way a good horror movie can be, without ever fully submerging into the horrific. For me, some of the main themes in Little Sister are reminiscent of the motifs of duality present in the best Christopher Priest novels, and Gowdy writes dialogue like a more reasonable DeLillo in his prime.

Little Sister is out May 23rd from Tin House Books.

 

 

We Did Porn, by Zak Smith

We Did Porn, by Zak Smith

“When death comes, it very often comes with eyes averted, and with interceding machinery.”

I don’t think anyone who has read this book would argue that there isn’t a fierce and creative intelligence at work here. Zak Smith’s memoir of working in the dual capital-a industries of Adult entertainment and Art scene in NY is pretty scathing, and as honest feeling as a memoir can hope to be. It also paints the alt-porn industry, as well as the greater Adult film industry, as pretty much exactly what you’ve always imagined them to be: complicated as hell. Things are never, not ever, black and white. Shades of grey abound.

Zak SmithI’ve read a few reviews of this book that spend most of their time talking about him specifically: He’s an asshole, or a misogynist, etc. All of which may or may not be true, I don’t really know enough to make that call, however, this isn’t a review of Zak as an individual, but of his book. I’m really not interested in an ad hominem angle. You have to separate the art from the individual. Look at George W. Bush for example, his paintings are just fucking adorable, and he’s literally a war criminal. Keep the individual separate from their art. It’s hard to do, but at worst it’s a good mental exercise, and at best it keeps you from being an asshole.

I always take memoirs with a grain of salt anyway, because seriously, you have to be completely bonkers to believe everything in them. Memory is mostly fiction. Just get together with some old friends or family and talk about the time you… or the other time when so-and-so… and see how often your versions of truth agree with each other’s.

“Give four art people a banana and they will say: It’s wonderfully yellow, it’s too yellow, it’s not yellow enough, I’m so glad it isn’t yellow, and then say it’s wonderfully squishy, it’s too squishy, it’s not squishy… and on and on until the banana gets so famous that they start getting paid to agree that the banana is yellow and good.”

Onto the actual content: This book is well written. There are some absolutely gorgeous sentences, metaphors, and sentiments presented, and I really want this guy to write some novels, because I would read them all. His published art project relating to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow aside, you can tell that Zak Smith’s literary influences swing heavily toward the postmodern side of things. I’m guessing that David Foster Wallace, and Zadie Smith, and Hunter S. Thompson were all influential in the intended direction for this book.

This is basically a three year slice-of-life character based story on those in the alt-porn industry in Los Angeles and New York from 06 – 08. Everyone’s names are kind of changed, and supposedly details have been altered and swapped around and shared to make it not so obvious who is who for those that are familiar with these real life people. If you’re like me, you’re not very familiar with porn stars, but there are a few stories in here that broke into the mainstream a little, that you’ll most likely recognize. If you are familiar with porn stars, you’ll have a good time trying to match these fake names with their “real” fake names.

Zak Smith DrawingIt seems like he really wanted to give another angle on the people involved in the porn business. Something different from what’s already out there. There is so much misinformation, bad information, and downright obfuscation on the subject, from a lot of different camps. Pornographers have been very unfairly pushed into categories of sluts, whores, and victims (the women), and misogynist abusers (the men). Well, if I have to point out just how sexist that demarcation is, then you probably should read this book, or maybe something more along the lines of The Woman That Never Evolved, by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, or really just any Feminist writing (please just make sure it’s not Tumblr feminism, go for the legit stuff). Not to say that there aren’t abusers, or victims involved in the Porn industry, I’m sure there are, and probably a lot. But again, things are never black and white like that.

Between the memoir bits there are a few sections with scans of his artwork; mostly drawings and paintings. Personally, I really like his art, but completely understand why someone else wouldn’t. He spends some time contrasting the art world with the porn world, drawing similarities and differences among the two. He’s very aware that both industries are kind of bullshit. He also seems very aware of how incredibly lucky he is to be able to make a living from his artwork.

It has one of the best ever descriptions of how bizarre the middle-zeroes were, which I think was intended to read as a “look at how strange things were then in comparison to how much better they are now” vibe, but in hindsight it works very well as an illustration of the starting point for exactly when our current issues (Trump, “alt facts”, not agreeing on objective reality, etc) began and stem from. It’s pretty disheartening that things seem only to have gone downhill from there on:

“I’m not sure future generations, comfortable with all the names in their history books, will appreciate the degree to which, in the mid-zeroes, everything even remotely resembling public life in America felt like a crudely mounted shadow-puppet play smoke-screening some unspeakable underlying soul-death.”

Zak Smith drawingI love what this had to say about sexual abuse, and abuse of all kinds. There are a disproportionate amount of porn stars that have experienced some kind of abuse in their past. And if you’re like me, you have a hard time understanding why anyone who had been abused would want to be in the porn business, especially in some of the darker or more kinked corners of it that more closely resemble their abuse. But, it really makes a lot of sense when it’s all laid out. This was one of my favorite sections of the book. Really, anyone who chooses a life on the fringes or edges of what’s considered mainstream or normal society is utterly fascinating to me. There are all kinds of people, and just because the majority of people behave in one way doesn’t necessarily mean that way is right, and all others are wrong. Again with the black and white reference.

“Things that are supposed to make ordinary people happy or sad are molehills in the shadow of a morbid, thousand-mile-high monument to suffering and shame at the center of the city of the brain.
“The abused person then not only wants to not be abused–but she also wants to try to set up experiences of pleasure that equal or exceed the mental and emotional peak of pain that, otherwise, will be the highest and clearest peak in the history of her feelings.
“So she goes to the place the heavy bad thing came from–the sex place–and tries to see if there is a heavy good thing there, too. Because nothing else has that weight. You can’t erase pain from life, but you can get enough pleasure that life seems worth living anyway.”

I know quite a lot of people who are sexual assault survivors, probably more than I realize. It’s a widespread problem, and the victim blaming platitudes that I hear constantly from politicians and religious leaders infuriate me to no end. It appears that this double standard also pisses Zak off, and I can appreciate that. There are some sections in here talking specifically about the ways that politicians (esp. those on the right), and religious leaders have perpetuated and exacerbated the cycle of abuse through their rhetoric and actions. It’s very satisfying to hear someone lay it out so clearly.

In conclusion, a lot of this book is pretty vulgar, but then again it is about pornography and those in the industry. I think it’s important to talk about these things in our society rather than just push them off to the side and pretend they don’t exist. They exist. These people exist. And yes, they are people. I think the whole point of this book is to maybe force people to acknowledge this world that he’s familiar with. It’s real and we should talk about it.

 

 

Hostage, by Guy Delisle

Hostage, by Guy Delisle

I’m convinced that graphic novels are the perfect form for historical accounts and memoirs. Like film it’s partly a visual medium, but it’s free from the tropes, narrative boundaries, and language of film. It’s also firmly in the realm of literature, but free from the usual trappings of that medium as well. It has all of the strengths of both, and few of their weaknesses. The story can be presented in a simpler language, straightforward and raw, and this often gives it a lot more emotional impact. In several ways historical accounts feels more real, and more personal when presented in panels. There’s a long history of doing just that: Persepolis, Maus, and last year’s March for example were all exemplary, and Hostage belongs right alongside them.

Delisle has done admirable work capturing the disorientation of Christophe’s hostage experience. The language barrier between him and his captors keeps him entirely in the dark as to why he’s been kidnapped, where he’s being held, what the status of negotiations (if any) for his release are, etc. His world is reduced to 4 walls and a ceiling. The reader is kept in the dark right there along with Christophe, experiencing his story as he tells it. Noises and events occur outside of his view and understanding, and he’s left only to guess what they are; constructing his greater world from fantasy. His mind escapes through his love of military history, as he attempts to lose himself in some of the great battles of Napoleon and the American Civil War.

The illustration uses subtlety and simplicity to emphasize how slight the differences in Christophe’s day-to-day life become while in captivity. For example, the thin light moving across the wall shows how his perception of time has been drastically reduced. It’s absence after he’s moved to a more tightly controlled area, is devastating. This isn’t said, but subtly shown. There’s a story unfolding in the words, and more detail unfolding in the illustrations. They meld together, and create the greater story where they overlap. It’s fantastically well done.

Guy DelisleOccasionally a new person feeds him, or forgets to, or leaves him uncuffed at night. Sometimes he’s allowed a shower, sometimes his captors offer him a cigarette. The most heartbreaking part of this for me was the hyper excitement that Christophe experienced at the most basic of pleasures; things I take for granted every day of my life. Finding some Garlic in a storeroom that he’s kept in, and eating it after months of the same soup and bread day after day puts him into a state of euphoric bliss unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. That hit me really hard. When your life consists of being handcuffed to a radiator for months, any little deviation from the norm is the highest peak imaginable. At one point he’s given an omelette, and nearly forgets that he’s a captive, it’s so indescribably delicious to him.

Christophe obviously lived to tell his story to Delisle, but I’ll leave that resolution up to you to discover for yourselves. I will say that it’s quite a nerve wracking ordeal, and the most thrilling part of this book. I highly recommend checking it out. Hostage is available from Drawn & Quarterly.

 

 

Not the End of the World, by Christopher Brookmyre

Not the End of the World, by Christopher Brookmyre

A fundamentalist Christian TV mogul, an ex-pornstar, an awkwardly oversized Scottish photographer, a cop who doesn’t want the job, and a failed abortion clinic bomber walk into a foreign distribution event for American B-movies in Los Angeles at the tail end of the twentieth century. That setup alone sold me on this one, and it all plays out to hilarious effect. The fact that it’s written by the brilliant Scottish crime fiction/satirist Christopher Brookmyre, pushed it to the top of my to-be-read pile. Seriously, this writer is completely unknown in the US, and that needs to change.

Christopher BrookmyreI’m impressed with the depth of character development present here, especially in the antagonist(s). Most crime fiction I’ve read had fairly cookie cutter characters, or comically one dimensional bad guys. But Brookmyre took some of the people I despise the most, and made me empathize with them to some extent. That’s good writing. It’s still abundantly clear where they’ve gone wrong, but you can see why they made/make the decisions that they do, however misguided. In our protagonists, particularly in the retiring pornstar, he’s done a wonderful job of demystifying a profession that is generally demonized. And the writing during the sections dealing with her past, internal conflicts, and struggles are some of the best in the novel.

I tend to read a couple books at a time, usually one novel, and one non-fiction book on some subject that I’m interested in. I unintentionally started reading this one around the same time as We Did Porn, by Zak Smith, not knowing that the two books would inform each other splendidly while reading them together. Both dealt with the pornography industry, Los Angeles culture, fundamentalist Christians, and the republican party at length. I’ve heard others say that this book came off as too preachy for their tastes, and I can understand that sentiment, as the story was probably a bit too heavy on the wish-fulfillment for a general audience, but it satisfied my inner liberal, socialist, atheist, feminist, godless heathen heart to no end.