Again, Dangerous Visions 1, edited by Harlan Ellison®

Again, Dangerous Visions was split into two for its mass market paperback release in 1973. This first half contains a few knockout stories, some pretty good ones, and lots of mediocre ones. At twice the length of the original Dangerous Visions, I can’t help but think that maybe Harlan Ellison® (who registered his name as a trademark in 2002) should’ve trimmed the fat a little more. Personally, I would’ve suggested starting with his overly long introductions to each story, a carryover from the original Dangerous Visions, and something I’ve written about previously here. One small book full of great stories beats two large mediocre ones any day.

If I average my scores for each story, the collection as a whole ends up just slightly lower than 2.5 stars out of 5. I’m rounding this up to 3, because the handful of terrific stories contained within—plus the unique opportunity for cultural examination of early 70s western social movements and politics through an SF lens—makes this a wholeheartedly worthwhile read, even in 2019.

The stories that either missed the mark for me, or don’t hold up any longer, seem to be those that valued shock over storytelling. What was shocking in the western world of 1972, isn’t always so 40+ years later. Good storytelling however, remains good storytelling.

The Word for World is Forest, by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Funeral, by Kate Wilhelm
When it Changed, by Joanna Russ
Monitored Dreams and Strategic Cremations, by Bernard Wolfe

Bottom of the Barrel:
Ching Witch, by Ross Rocklynne
Time Travel for Pedestrians, by Ray Nelson
King of the Hill, by Chad Oliver
Harry the Hare, by James B. Hemesath

Individual Story Reviews:
The Counterpoint of View, by John Heidenry: 1/5
Q: Who really wrote this story/essay, was it me The Author or you The Reader?
A: It was you, The (pretentious) Author. Somebody read Don Quixote recently. *sigh*

Ching Witch, by Ross Rocklynne: 1/5
Earth blows up, and it’s last remaining human goes to another planet to teach them various dances and live in luxury. Pointless and meandering.

The Word for World is Forest, by Ursula K. Le Guin: 5/5
Terrific novella, obviously influential to James Cameron’s Avatar (which I now believe can be 100% constructed from elements of Old Man’s War & The Word for World is Forest). Also very influential to the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. Read my full review of this novella here.

It’s a moralistic story, and it had some insightful things to say about dangerous ideas entering the public consciousness. Basically, there is no going back. Here, specifically in relation to the concept of murder.

For Value Received, by Andrew J. Offutt: 3/5
A short little bit of absurdism, entertaining enough, but not particularly great.

Mathoms From the Time Closet, by Gene Wolfe: 2/5
I usually like Gene Wolfe a lot, but this was just two little pointless stories filled with pretentious bullshit, sandwiching one that was sort of fun, almost a mermaid tale in the sky.

Time Travel for Pedestrians, by Ray Nelson: 1/5
Weird little hallucination of a story.

Christ, Old Student in a New School, by Ray Bradbury: 3/5
A poem, not sure the meaning exactly but it seemed to allude to mankind imprisoning itself through religion.

King of the Hill, by Chad Oliver: 1/5
This story tried way, way too hard and failed absolutely to be dangerous or remotely visionary.

The 10:00 Report is Brought to you by…, by Edward Bryant: 4/5
While it was overly obvious from the first couple pages what was going on, it was still a deeply disturbing vision of the possible future of journalism in a society like ours that fetishizes suffering as a spectator sport.

The Funeral, by Kate Wilhelm: 5/5
Another deeply disturbing story, but it had a genuine point to make, and it made it well.

Harry the Hare, by James B. Hemesath: 1/5
Totally pointless. Soapbox opinion bullshit about cartoons and copyrights. Literary equivalent of Old Man Yells at Cloud.

When it changed, by Joanna Russ: 5/5
Terrific. I need to track down more of her work. Very impressed with this one.

The Big Space Fuck, by Kurt Vonnegut: 3/5
Yep, it’s weird and Vonneguty all right.

Bounty, by T. L. Sherred: 2/5
Too self congratulatory. Not dangerous or visionary.

Still-life, by K. M. O’Donnell: 1/5
Terrible. Skip it.

Stoned Council, by H. H. Holis: 3/5
Lawyers do a ton of drugs and then battle their cases out with their minds. Sort of a proto-cyberpunk story. Original at least.

Monitored Dreams and Strategic Cremations, by Bernard Wolfe: 5/5
This is really two stories, 1. The Bisquit Position, 2. The Girl with Rapid Eye Movements. They’re both excellent, and exactly the kind of stories I was looking for in this collection. Vietnam social commentary, with some slight SF backings.

With a Finger in My I, by David Gerrold: 3/5
Very nearly a bedtime story; a comedy of errors and literal/figurative mix ups. Some social commentary about belief, and self fulfilling prophesy as well.

In The Barn, by Piers Anthony: 2/5
I get it, I do.. but it’s cliche even by 70s standards.

Feersum Endjinn: Iain Banks Dabbles in Cyberpunk (sort of)

Feersum Endjinn, by Iain BanksEven though his work was split about fifty-fifty between literary fiction and science fiction, Iain Banks considered himself first and foremost a science fiction writer. He cut his teeth on space opera, writing several novels in the seventies that went unpublished for decades. By 1984 he had shelved his earlier work and focused his attention on the world of literary fiction—what he referred to lovingly as “Hampstead” novels—hoping for better luck in the mainstream. The Wasp Factory, his first published novel, was a breakout hit that same year. He followed it with a string of successful mainstream novels in the mid-to-late eighties, publishing one nearly every year.

Iain BanksAt this point his publisher was hungry, Banks was hot and readers wanted more, so in the late eighties he began rewriting his earlier rejected science fiction work. These novels would become the first three novels set in the Culture (Consider Phlebas (1987), The Player of Games (1988), and Use of Weapons (1990)) and a standalone space opera Against a Dark Background (1993). They were published pseudonymously as Iain M. Banks and timed for release between his mainstream novels.

In conversation with Andrew Wilson, with regards to Against a Dark Background, Banks noted: “Against a Dark Background was the last of the old books to get redone, so it seemed like the end of an era to me.”

It was the end of an era in more ways than one. In the years since Banks was first published, cyberpunk had taken the science fiction world by storm and eventually given way to post-cyberpunk with Snow Crash in 1992, Neal Stephenson’s deconstruction, reinvention, and nail in the coffin of the genre as it existed in the eighties. By 1994, the cyberpunk literature bubble had mostly burst and wouldn’t see a real resurgence for another twenty years. If I may speculate a bit, I think that Banks looked at cyberpunk—a genre he missed out on participating in while working in the mainstream and rewriting his earlier work—and thought, hmm… I wonder what I could do with that?

Speaking with Andrew Wilson about what he wrote to start this new post Against a Dark Background era, Banks spoke of his desire at the time to write something entirely different, something not related to the Culture or his earlier work:

“I had wanted to write something I could cut loose on, something that wasn’t the Culture…

…I [ ] had the idea that what virtual reality would become eventually would start to resemble myth and legend.”

Feersum Endjinn grew from this “myth and legend” angle, and what a departure it was from his earlier space operas. Computers, nanotechnology, virtual reality—all mostly absent from his first four science fiction novels—are woven into and through every aspect of the societies illustrated in Feersum Endjinn. Far from a space opera, the story is entirely grounded on Earth and addresses themes common to cyberpunk (identity, oppression, etc).

I think the most important aspect of Banks’ storytelling was his tight grip on the differences between theme and setting. Something that is not as common among science fiction writers as you might think. Cyberpunk stories are primarily known for two things: 1. Themes of isolation, paranoia, and self-identity in an oppressive world grown out of control. 2. A dirty, high-tech setting full of seedy characters. The themes of Feersum Endjinn are cyberpunk through and through, but the setting—even in the entirely virtual Crypt—is much closer to that of epic fantasy. After all, it wouldn’t be a Banks novel if genre tropes and conventions weren’t completely turned on their side. Splitting cyberpunk themes from their usual counterpart setting, shows a terrific understanding of the genre and the unique power of the different storytelling tools available to writers.

Instead of the usual cyberpunk mega-corporations and seedy streets filled with high-tech low-lifes, Banks set Feersum Endjinn sometime in the far future after most of humanity has abandoned Earth, their tech becoming a somewhat mythical element to our point of view characters, themselves descendants of those who chose an Earth bound existence. A somewhat modified Feudalistic society now exists in the ruinous mega structures built by their ancestors. Underlying all of this is the Crypt—a virtual reality maintaining a near one-to-one relationship with the real world. In the dark corners of the Crypt lurk strange digital societies: monstrous chimeric beings, artificial intelligences, and the digitally migrated dead of the corporeal world. Some privileged corporeal characters have the ability to access the Crypt at will, and some Crypt lifeforms are able to force themselves into physical reality, terrorizing humanity via what is perceived as apparition and animal possession.

Little is known about the ancient human society that built the Crypt inhabited by our POV characters—their history thoroughly corrupted by time into the realm of myth. We’re thrown right into the world to find our way as the characters find theirs. You can tell Banks is having a blast using the cyberpunk toolbox to tell the story he wants in the way he wants to.

There are four main POV characters in Feersum Endjinn, including one who never properly learned to write. Banks represents these first person chapters in a phonetic style. Initially they were difficult for me to read or comprehend. The somewhat fantastical terminology written in a phonetic Scots prose made for a difficult reading experience. I ended up listening to the audiobook while reading those chapters in order to get a better idea of how the words were supposed to be pronounced, and just what the hell was going on. A strategy I’ve used often for Irvine Welsh novels written in Scots. After a few chapters of simultaneous reading and listening I was right as rain and could continue forward with just the physical book.

My favorite moment in Feersum Endjinn is a beautifully written chapter in which a character is psychologically manipulated through a series of increasingly elaborate digital environments designed to make it easy and even preferable for her to divulge the information her interrogators are attempting to extract. The section takes place entirely inside the virtual construct of the Crypt, and on its own makes little sense without the context provided in previous chapters. The way in which these scenarios are presented to the reader is a thing to behold.

Each situation is introduced in turn, without resolution, then each resolution is presented one after another after another at which point the narrative curtain is lifted and the impact is demonstrated for us in the physical world. The combined effect, presented in series like this is breathtaking to read, and speaks to the courage and singular sense of purpose present in this character. It’s a fantastic moment.

“She was the only speaker in a tribe of the dumb, walking amongst them, tall and silent while they touched her and beseeched her with their sad eyes and their deferent, hesitant hands and their flowing, pleading signs to talk for them, sing for them, be their voice.”

Of course not all of the story works flawlessly; there are a handful of plot-lines brought up that never resolve, the story drags somewhat through the middle chapters, and the phonetic writing style is sometimes extremely difficult to read. I wouldn’t suggest going into this anticipating a Culture novel. This is Banks in full on experimentation mode, and in retrospect, the book is odd, maybe too odd. It isn’t my favorite SF/F, it isn’t my favorite cyberpunk novel—I’m sure that several would argue it isn’t cyberpunk at all (is post-post-cyberpunk a genre yet?)—and it definitely isn’t my favorite Iain Banks novel, however…

If you’re a Banks completist, or up for something wild, something different, something completely left field, something so out there I initially assumed it was written under the influence of some sort of psychotropic, I’d highly recommend checking out Feersum Endjinn.

Paying For It, by Chester Brown: Sex Work, Regulation or Decriminalization?

Paying For It, Chester BrownI have a lot of conflicting thoughts about this book. On the one hand, Paying For It is a fascinating memoir detailing Chester Brown’s time soliciting prostitutes in Toronto from the late nineties through the late zeroes. It brings up all kinds of noteworthy questions about sex work, romantic relationships and the different kinds of love we experience. I have no idea what the answers to these questions are, but I love the questions themselves. Questions are almost always more interesting than answers, and sex work seems like a topic we should be talking more about right now. On the other hand, the way in which Brown approaches possible answers to these questions is at times shortsighted and irresponsible, something I’ll elaborate more on later.

I’ve long thought that prostitution should be legalized and regulated in a similar manner as other “vice” industries: tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, etc. It seems strange that it hasn’t happened yet. Prohibition has a long history of causing more harm than good (see Eric Schlosser’s Reefer Madness for several examples). Paying For It is pushing a slightly different option for sex work legalization that Brown suggests would be better than regulation: decriminalization. Brown argues that regulation would bring more negatives for sex workers than positives, and that the eventual normalization of sex work after decriminalization would follow as a natural result, given enough time. I’m still not entirely sold on the idea that regulation is a bad option, as I found Brown’s arguments against it not always sound, not to mention a little self-serving. He does however make some very valid points in this always entertaining graphic novel; enough I think, to make anyone consider the alternative he’s suggesting.

Chester BrownThe main idea from this book that I still find intriguing a few months after having finishing it, is Brown’s suggestion that we should abandon the concept of possessive monogamy, or in other words, propriety in romantic relationships. Putting aside whether the idea has merit or not, if we are able to change this about ourselves, the problem then becomes: how should we value sex as a society if we decouple sexual propriety from romantic relationships? Brown suggests valuing it directly with money. While it is possible that money might be the best option, that option is not without its own set of drawbacks. Money, particularly when combined with free market capitalism, often has an insidious way of ruining everything it touches. This is a complicated sociological and psychological problem to tackle, but fascinating to read and think about.

I feel like the more interesting question is whether sex and love can even be decoupled from one another. Personally, I don’t think they can—not entirely at least. Like most of this book, it seems like a libertarian ideal that is decently sound in theory but falls apart in practice. Of course, that is just my subjective opinion, and speaking more in a sense of utilitarian ethics, I see nothing wrong with the separation; It may actually be better for the world, but I remain unconvinced of the concept’s large scale feasibility. On a case by case basis, sure, I can see it working for specific individuals, but beyond that, I think it wouldn’t be possible without a radical restructuring of western society.

Chester Brown, Paying For It
All of these questions are brought up and examined fairly well in the main narrative of the comic as Chester Brown introduces himself to the world of prostitution. In addition to this, about 1/5th of the book is a set of appendices and notes containing information and arguments against potential counters to the idea of decriminalized sex work. Unfortunately, the appendices are where you start to see some of the blind spots in Brown’s perception and reasoning. I think his argument would have been more effective without their inclusion. Most of the logic is sound, but several sections, especially the Drugs, Pimps, and Human Trafficking ones, are entirely too reductive on extremely complex, nuanced issues. At one point he dismisses drug addiction as a myth, and clearly has no solution to the issue of human trafficking, so he brushes it aside as a non-issue. This is insanely irresponsible.

Brown argues his point against easily defeatable straw men of his own invention. If often feels like he is more interested in being right than arriving at the best possible conclusion, which suggests he is someone who has too much personally invested in the argument. One aspect of sex work under decriminalization that Brown seems entirely blind to, is its potential for the emotional manipulation of sex workers as well as other psychological abuses. Brown appears to be a highly logical, reasoning person, which I believe partially blinds him to the reality and experiences of those of us who may be further toward the emotional, feeling side of the personality spectrum. I would love to read some perspectives from sex workers themselves on the different legalization options. Decriminalization vs. regulation arguments aside, Brown’s blind spots aren’t doing his argument any favors. Whatever the solution to the issue ends up being, it needs to first and foremost address the safety and security of sex workers. That is the priority and the entire reason for suggesting a change to the legal status of the oldest profession in the first place.

Paying For It, Chester Brown

All in all, Paying For It was a fascinating, thought-provoking read. I enjoyed the visual aesthetic provided by Brown’s minimalistic, clinical illustrative style. There’s a lot of cartoon sex, and after a while it became a little visually comical, but it is presented in such a straightforward manner as to never feel over-the-top or exploitative. It made me question several preconceived notions about sex work, love, monogamy, relationships, and other social norms and introduced me to several experiences and perspectives I have never considered. If you are interested in any of these topics, especially from an epistemological or sociological angle, it’s definitely worth a read.

Persepolis Rising (Book 7 of The Expanse), by James S.A. Corey

Persepolis Rising, James S.A. CoreyThis one changes things. I assumed that the pace was going to quicken, since Persepolis Rising is moving us into the final three Expanse novels, but I am in awe at how much this book moved the series forward from where we left off in Babylon’s Ashes. We are now nearing the end of the long Expanse arc that began with Leviathan Wakes in 2011, and it is thrilling to see where we’re heading.

“Your empire’s hands look a lot cleaner when you get to dictate where history begins, and what parts of it count.”

As far as the story goes: The only constant is change, and empires aren’t built overnight. That rise to power is fraught with great and terrible things. There are good and bad people on multiple sides of every argument. History is full of grey, contradictions, and passionate people with good intentions committing atrocities for their causes. Persepolis Rising feels like the story of the necessarily messy history between A and B. The history that usually gets rewritten by the victors.

This narrative also brings with it some unique adaptation challenges for the Amazon television series. Thirty years have passed between the end of Babylon’s Ashes and the beginning of Persepolis Rising, making most of the crew of the Rocinante at least in their seventies. Of course, these are “future humanity” seventies, and it is hinted that there is regenerative medicine available. Seventies may be the new thirties.

“It seemed to her that the real sign you were getting old was when you stopped needing to prove you weren’t getting old.”

As much as I want this series to last forever, I’m a firm believer that good stories end, and great stories end well. Persepolis Rising is setting up the Expanse saga for inclusion in the latter category.

I can’t wait for Tiamat’s Wrath in 2019, with the final Expanse novel to follow in 2020. I believe a tenth book which collects the short stories and novellas together in print for the first time is scheduled to follow in 2021.

The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch

The Book of Joan, Lidia YuknavitchWhat exactly is atmosphere in fiction? For me, it’s the specific headspace a story creates as I read and process it. Reading The Book of Joan, that headspace became an ocean of calm reflection, concealing currents of boiling anger just below its surface. I think of it as the literary equivalent of Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, an album I like to describe as anxiously calm.

In the future, our Earth is ravaged—torn apart through warfare and ecological collapse. The most affluent of the most affluent followed their cult leader to the orbital sanctuary CIEL where they have remained ever since. The remnants of humanity have mutated into hairless, pale white, near androgynous simulacra of their former selves. No longer able to function sexually, they have mythologized their past sexuality. Grafting, their predominant art form, involves branding stories in intricate patterns into grafted flesh with specialized instruments—using their own bodies as canvases for self-expression.

Lidia YuknavitchA part historical/part mythological story within a story unravels through a clever nesting mechanism as our main character starts her newest self-graft. She sears the narrative of Joan of Dirt—revolutionary to some, bio-terrorist to others—into her skin. Earth’s song entered Joan as a girl and gave her a quest: act as nature’s violent emissary, bringing about dirt’s will: destruction and renewal. The Joan of Arc analogies abound in this retelling, as she passionately rages forward. Back on CIEL, our protagonist leads a new revolution with her band of misfits, carrying Joan’s song within her and Joan’s story in her skin.

“Two things have always ruptured up and through hegemony: art and bodies. That is how art has preserved its toehold in our universe. Where there was poverty, there was also a painting someone stared at until it filled them with grateful tears. Where there was genocide, there was a song that refused to quiet. Where a planet was forsaken, there was someone telling a story with their last breath, and someone else carrying it like DNA, or star junk.”

This story is uncomfortable in the best way, meaning it contains a lot of hard experience and truth, but the poetic beauty of its language insists on being read. It unfolds, persists, and you need to know where it’s going, because it feels like it could go almost anywhere. It’s a page-turner of the rarest variety: one that is propelled forward not just through story, but by thematic intricacy as well. A book you will want to read again and again because it disturbs as it harmonizes dissonantly with something inside.

At the risk of making a sweeping statement: for whatever reason, I’ve found that disturbing or unnerving books are often much more impactful for me when they are written by women. Women seem to have a unique ability to tell stories that affect me deeply. Dangerous stories, or more often than not, just a perspective that I haven’t been exposed to. It’s easy to see new or different as dangerous. I think this might come from the vast majority of Western literary canon being written by men, so whole gamuts of possible theme and experience are absent from the ideas we internalize (see Joanna Russ’ excellent How To Suppress Women’s Writing for a terrific history of the censorship of women’s writing). Speaking from my own experience, when I read a story written by a woman, there’s a much higher likelihood it will knock me on my ass and give me a lot of new things to think about.

The more I venture outward, the more I want to read books written by those unlike myself—more books by women, more translated works, more writing by people of color, more genres I don’t usually expose myself too, etc. There is just so much possible growth precipitated through experiencing art created by those different from ourselves. The more removed we are from a perspective the more potential that perspective has to influence us. One of my favorite aspects of this, is how new ideas can upset our own; sometimes my ideas are bad and need a good upsetting. So, bring it on, I want to be exposed to wild new ways of thinking! I think that’s a terribly exciting place to be.

The Book of Joan is heavily interested in false opposition and symbiotic nature present in divisions and dualism: nature and humanity, love and hate, creation and destruction. It’s more interested in theme, subtext, and character than narrative cohesion. It’s not quite an environmental cautionary tale, but one could interpret it along those lines. I’d say it’s more a call to exist corporeally, to exist in and love one’s own self—or, to borrow a phrase from Yuknavitch’s The Misfit’s Manifesto: to use one’s own body as a “site of rebellion.” The Book of Joan is a celebration of the power of art, and particularly the role that stories play in who we allow ourselves and others to be.

“Joan knew one thing we never learned: to end war meant to end its maker, to marry creation and destruction rather than hold them in false opposition.”

This book is awesome, and absolutely brimming with possible interpretation. It reads like it was born fully-formed, and fought through a sea of monomyth for its right to exist. It feels alive through sheer force of will. It contains special treats for anyone intimate with Joan of Arc’s story or the thirteenth century French writer Jean de Meun. I highly recommend it for any fan of speculative fiction, but especially those who enjoy disturbing or macabre stories, or those familiar with Joanna Russ, Octavia Butler, or Kameron Hurley’s work, particularly The Stars are Legion.

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