The Dispatcher, by John Scalzi

The Dispatcher, by John Scalzi

I find that speculative fiction is usually best when married with another genre. Personally, I’m partial to a good mystery. Set that mysterious tale in a science fiction/fantasy setting, and I’m probably going to be on board. In my eyes it’s a longstanding recipe for success: Jack McDevitt’s Alex Benedict novels, The Gone World, Altered Carbon, Leviathan Wakes, Zero World, Gnomon. The list is great mystery/spec fic novels is unknowably long.

The basic idea: Would you murder someone if it also meant saving their life? The Dispatcher is a tightly constructed urban fantasy mystery, set in a world mostly like ours but with one key difference: When someone is murdered, they disappear and materialize at home, alive and well in their bed. This happens nine hundred ninety-nine times out of a thousand. This small change sets the stage for a truly unique murder mystery, with a main character and setting I desperately hope Scalzi returns to. If there were more stories set in this world, I would read them all. Come to think of it, there’s room on my shelf for a nice paperback collection of Dispatcher novellas. Got a nice little spot for it, all ready to go. Write, Scalzi, write.

John ScalziI’m not usually into urban fantasy, but this one is quite different. Most people hear urban fantasy and think werewolves and vampires and magical objects which, while technically true, isn’t all urban fantasy is capable of. The way I see it, urban fantasy has two rules: 1. The story is told in a somewhat contemporary setting, e.g., not middle earth and 2. The impossible happens. Everything else is just how the writer wants to use those building blocks to tell their story. Something Scalzi has done a terrific job of here. The fact that he usually writes science fiction serves to make his branching out into fantasy all the more interesting and rewarding.

The Dispatcher is a prime example of how quality fantasy world building can have far reaching ethical, societal, and industry specific ramifications. It also explores that impact pretty thoroughly for a novella. Like proverbial butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane, one little modification to the world we’re accustomed to changes so many aspects of human society and social norms. It impacts everything from the kinds of intimidation organized crime families utilize, to the methods detectives use to investigate them. Insurance policies, experimental surgical procedures, and even frat boy posturing are all changed.

“I know what side of the street I like better. But you don’t always get to choose the side of the street you walk on.”

I listened to the Audible audiobook version of this last year. Zachary Quinto provided the narration, and turned in a graceful performance—bringing each character to life with subtlety. It was nice to listen to a Scalzi book not narrated by Wil Wheaton for once. Not that I have anything against Wil Wheaton, I’ve just grown a little tired of his narrative style.

This year I read the hardcover edition published by Subterranean press. In addition to the text, Vincent Chong has provided several illustrations of key scenes. He draws in an almost airbrushed hyper-realistic style that’s difficult to describe, but it truly brings the story to life. Having experienced this story in both formats, it’s hard to recommend one over the other, so I’ll wholeheartedly recommend them both. Whatever form you enjoy your books in, the Dispatcher isn’t something to be missed.

Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid: The World Made Flat

Exit West, by Mohsin HamidMohsin Hamid has created something wonderful with this endearing, and perfectly formed short novel. What an evocative and striking way to discuss refugees, ideological war, tribalism, and love. This book broke through my exterior barriers and nurtured something tender inside of me. It seems for the most part, people are really the same, and we all want the same things regardless of where we come from: security, companionship, and the means to better ourselves. The things we’ve lived through, our experiences, coalesce and form us into who we are, shaping the basis of what we might become.

“We are all migrants through time.”

Windows and doors feature heavily in Exit West. The dangers of the ongoing war between the militants and the government in our protagonists’ unnamed middle eastern country, enter through windows. As the war grows more serious, every glass pane holds within it the potential to become lacerating shrapnel. The ongoing fighting perverts everything into something it was never intended to be. Windows into shrapnel. Streets into battlegrounds. Characters are killed accidentally through the glass windshields of their cars by misguided munitions. Windows are boarded up, taped up, or obscured for security, limiting the light available indoors.

Doors are where the magical aspect of the story comes into play. Most of the time doors operate as normal, allowing passage from one room to another, from outside to inside, or inside to out. But sometimes, at seemingly random and unpredictable moments, certain doors have started leading elsewhere, to adjacent doors in other lands. Offering a means of escape from local dangers, and passage to the relative safety and wealth of the West. Doors like these are opening up all over the world, and just as the relative size of the world was flattened and reduced dramatically with the invention of the internet, these doors literally fold and flatten the space between the Eastern and Western, Southern and Northern corners of the world. The myriad ways in which this change impacts the societies in the novel was the most interesting aspect of the story for me.

As the effective distance between continents diminishes, the realities of the world that were once far away from the wealthy and fortunate, were once nebulous and ethereal to them, are made vividly real and close. Travel, particularly meeting and interacting with those unlike ourselves, is said to be one of the best ways to overcome existing prejudices and preconceived notions about those from human tribes different from our own. With these doors that have started connecting us, everyone, everywhere has now come into contact with several individuals unlike themselves. Millions begin fleeing from the poorer nations to the richer ones, and this starts to cause a rapid change and instability among the natives of the richer lands.

“Location, location, location, the realtors say. Geography is destiny, respond the historians.”

This change is met with a variety of responses: fear, compassion, intrigue, curiosity, hope, etc. What Exit West does so well is give a glimpse into the daily realities of refugees fleeing from war torn countries, the sorts of terrors they can be running from, the sort of hope they often subside on. It broke my heart, and I think will go a long way toward making me a better, more compassionate person.

In addition to the wonderful social commentary, Exit West is also a love story of the highest caliber, a magically real fairy tale, unafraid to shy away from the realities of love, loss, and the changes quickened or postponed by devastating circumstances. The relationship between Saeed and Nadia grows and expands as the narrative progresses. They are one thing to each other in the beginning and another thing entirely by the end. They meet as students of higher education in their country of origin, and I found it interesting to compare and contrast their story with that of a western couple meeting for the first time at a college in America. In a lot of ways, the extreme situations they find themselves in, possibly hold them together for longer than would be ideal had they been born into different circumstances.

As someone who has never had a similar experience, I found the ways in which Nadia was able to insulate and protect herself in a culture she felt somewhat apart from, particularly interesting. The ways in which a system sometimes inadvertently makes available tools with which we can protect ourselves from that system is a fascinating area to examine. I think it speaks toward the ingenuity of humans to utilize everything that is available to us to better our prospects and secure the future we desire.

“He knew how little it took to make a man into meat: the wrong blow, the wrong gunshot, the wrong flick of a blade, turn of a car, presence of a microorganism in a handshake, a cough. He was aware that alone a person is almost nothing.”

All of my friends who have previously read Exit West specifically mentioned to me that the ending crushed them, brought them to tears or reduced them into a weeping, bumbling mess. It didn’t have that effect on me at all. Instead, I found it unbelievably beautiful, and I sat in contemplative awe, marveling at how perfect the ending was, that the author had pulled it off so elegantly. How in retrospect it was the only possible real ending, and the one I hoped the book would arrive at. It was an evocative, emotionally satisfying scene to finish the story.

To me, Exit West is overall, a hopeful novel, but it touches on deadly serious themes and the brutalities of human existence. I found it moving and beautifully expressed. It is a book that I plan on revisiting many times throughout my life.

Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison®

Dangerous VisionsSomething clicked in my head when I turned thirty; I started devouring older science fiction stories. I was an avid reader during my teens, but I read very little during my twenties for whatever reason. I think I suddenly realized how many valuable novels and stories and how much interesting history and perspective I missed out on throughout my twenties. Catching up for lost time became a real priority in my thirties.

The Golden Age science fiction stories of the thirties, forties and fifties were a little less focused on stylistic prose or quality writing, and a little too culturally and scientifically removed from my era to interest me. Instead of beginning there, I jumped forward to the New Wave era that hit in the mid sixties. Story-wise, New Wave was much more inwardly focused, and valued style and prose as much as the Golden Age valued grand ideas and outward exploration. This was the beginning of what a lot of folks today call “Literary Science Fiction” or “Speculative Fiction”. It was a concerted effort spearheaded by Harlan Ellison® (yes, his name actually has a ® in it) to bring Sci-Fi out of the pulps and show the world the literary value of speculation in fiction.

Harlan EllisonDangerous Visions is the defining Speculative Fiction anthology of the New Wave era. Released in 1967, this anthology announced New Wave SF to the world. It contains 35 stories, each never before published. When assembling the anthology, Ellison had each author write a story that they thought explored a dangerous vision or concept. There are some excellent stories here, a few decent ones, and some real stinkers that are terribly trite and not at all dangerous or visionary. Then again, it’s hard to read these within the context of the time in which they were written. Free love, the civil rights movement, women’s lib, etc. Considering all of this, I was surprised by how misogynistic and backward some of these stories were. There has been a lot of progress since the sixties.

Harlan Ellison® writes an introduction to every story, and the author has a brief afterword. The introductions quickly became my least favorite part of the book, as Ellison gushes and extols endlessly about each author. It became a little tedious, like an advertisement by a stakeholder for their project right before experiencing the project itself. I eventually began skipping the introductions, only coming back to read them if I wanted more background about an author or story. I would much rather let each work speak for itself than hear the editor of the anthology tell me why it is valuable.

Some of these stories may have been dangerous visions in the late sixties. Now? Mostly not so much. I still immensely enjoyed the anthology, and there is a huge wealth of knowledge and historical perspective to be gained from reading it. I rated each story individually, with the average rating for the whole collection being 3 out of 5, rounded up.

 

Individual reviews:
Evensong, Lester del Rey: 4/5
A desperate God on the run from Man’s vengeance. The idea of man slowly becoming more and more powerful, until God must fear Man. Very nice prose.

Flies, Robert Silverberg: 1/5
Robert Silverberg completely botches the definition of empathy in the most pseudo-intellectual manner imaginable. I get what he was trying to say, but he failed miserably.

The Day After the Day After the Martians Came, Fredrick Pohl: 3/5
Probably really great in ’67, but it relied very heavily on cultural jokes that everyone at the time would’ve been familiar with; I’ve never heard any of them. Still a cool little story.

Riders of the Purple Wage, Philip Jose Farmer: 1/5
Nearly incoherent misogynistic rambling about a future where everyone is mentally deficient. He almost had an idea, but gets distracted by how women are fat liars and just want to have abortions all of the time. This is Ellison’s favorite story in the collection, which is uh… okay dude.

The Malley System, Miriam Allen deFord: 2/5
A future in which violent crimes are punished in unique ways. It didn’t really resonate with me.

A Toy for Juliette, Robert Bloch: 5/5
Terrific. Sadistic and disturbing, but written very well and with a nice cyclical tone.

The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World, Harlan Ellison: 2/5
A sequel to the previous story. Started out strong, but devolved rather rapidly. I find myself disliking Ellison more and more as I go on.

The Night That All Time Broke Out, Brian W. Aldiss: 3/5
Cool premise, uneven execution.

The Man who Went to the Moon Twice, Howard Rodman: 4/5
Not speculative fiction at all, but I really liked it.

Faith of our Fathers, Philip K. Dick: 3/5
This one had a lot going for it; a little let down by the ending.

The Jigsaw Man, Larry Niven: 3/5
Tackles the problem of organ shortages in a world were immortality is in reach…for some.

Gonna Roll The Bones, Fritz Leiber: 4/5
I nearly didn’t read this one after suffering through its terribly heavy handed first sentence. I’m glad I did. Like most old science fiction, it was too misogynistic for my liking, but the storytelling and prose eventually won me over.

Lord Randy, My Son, Joe L. Hensley: 5/5
My favorite so far. Great characters, and a captivating, sad story.

Eutopia, Poul Anderson: 4/5
Inter dimensional anthropology. I liked this one, although the language was a bit too ‘fantasy’ for my personal tastes.

Incident in Moderan, David R. Bunch: 5/5
Happy warmonger robots. Awesome.

The Escaping, David R. Bunch: 0/5
Terrible. Total gibberish.

The Doll-House, James Cross: 3/5
Like a twilight zone episode. One of those cautionary tales.

Sex and/or Mr Morrison, Carol Emshwiller: 3/5
I like her writing style. I didn’t quite get the story but the prose was beautiful.

Shall The Dust Praise Thee?, Damon Knight: 3/5
God’s vengeance may have been a little bit more than he bargained for. It seems that man could only take so much torment. This could’ve been executed a lot better, but I liked the concept.

If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?, Theodore Sturgeon: 5/5
So far, the only story that I would actually consider a ‘Dangerous Vision’. It’s disturbing, and pokes at deeply held moral and cultural constructs. It also really weirded me out. Disturbing.

What Happens To Auguste Clarot?, Larry Eisenberg: 1/5
Meh.

Ersatz, Henry Slesar: 2/5
Slightly less meh.

Go, Go, Go, Said The Bird, Sonya Dorman: 2/5
Post apocalyptic cannibals.

The Happy Breed, John T. Sladek: 4/5
People slowly turning their happiness over to machines. A really solid little cautionary tale, born of a fear of technology. It’s even more interesting thinking about how much more we depend on technology these days.

Encounter With a Hick, Jonathan Brand: 3/5
A fun little biblical/evolution bar conversation recounted to an authority.

From the Government Printing Office, Kris Neville: 1/5
Told from the POV of a 3.5 year old in the future. Boring.

Land of the Great Horses, R. A. Lafferty: 4/5
Cool little story about the origin of Gypsies.

The Recognition, J.G. Ballard: 3/5
Terrific writing, not speculative fiction at all. Not particularly dangerous either—maybe in the 60s—in the 2010s it’s a bit trite.

Judas, John Brunner: 5/5
Okay, I have to read more John Brunner. This story was incredible and exactly the type of thing I was looking for in this book. Solid solid solid.

Test to Destruction, Keith Laumer: 4/5
Political usurping, tyrany, sentient hive mind aliens, testing people’s limits and morality.

Carcinoma Angels, Norman Spinrad: 3/5
An overachiever sets his sights on cancer; takes it one step too far. This one is kind of quirky/fun.

AUTO-DA-FÉ, Roger Zelazny: 3/5
Man vs machine, told in a matador vs bull analogy. I liked it. It felt like a fairytale or half remembered dream of a mechanic.

Aye, and Gomorrah…, Samuel R. Delany: 1/5
A story about attraction between earth bound people, and neutered space dwelling people. Interesting concept, bad execution. It didn’t flow well, and was hard to follow.

House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski

House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski

“Passion has little to do with euphoria and everything to do with patience. It is not about feeling good. It is about endurance. Like patience, passion comes from the same Latin root: pati. It does not mean to flow with exuberance. It means to suffer.”

 

If you’ve ever wanted to read a novel about a group of editors who have re-compiled a second edition of a book, that was originally found (and edited) by a slowly mentally unraveling tattoo artist apprentice junkie, and was originally written in a mixed media form by his junkie friend’s neighbor (found when he died under mysterious circumstances), that is a written description, history and analysis of a “found footage” documentary (that doesn’t exist) about a family inhabiting and exploring a house that is (much, much) larger on the inside than the outside, and is told in such a nonlinear and disorienting fashion to the point of inducing trepidation, extreme boredom, claustrophobia, anxiety, and general unease, then I’ve got some great news for you! House of Leaves is all of these things and tells all of these stories. It’s also kind of fun if you’re into weird mental puzzles.

 

mark z. danielewskiI enjoyed it. Going into it, it was hard to deny the thematic similarities it shares with Infinite Jest, but as it progressed it started to diverge quite a bit from the direction I expected it to travel toward. Unfortunately, it doesn’t contain any of the amazingly beautiful prose or “new sincerity” of David Foster Wallace’s writing, but it has other qualities that make it very interesting. Mainly, the form of the novel mirrors the story. When characters are crawling through ever shrinking passageways, the margins on the outside edges of the text start to crawl inward. When characters are falling into ever deepening chasms, the text will angle or fall down the page, etc. It’s a very visual novel, and in that way I don’t think it could ever be an eBook. It’s a piece of art that is reliant on the exact physical specifications of the book containing it.

“He knows his voice will never heat this world”

Would I ever read it again? Nah, I don’t think there’s really much of a point. The story itself is overly soap operatic, the prose is good but it’s nothing amazing. The amount of cruft in this book is just mind-bogglingly excessive, and without the amazing prose or story to make that cruft serve a point, it’s just sort of there to make the experience disorienting, which I get is part of the form mirroring the story, but still, it’s the illusion of complexity rather than complexity itself. There are puzzles encoded into it that would probably be kind of fun to suss out, but I can pretty much guarantee that they aren’t going to provide some sort of satisfying answer to any questions left lingering. Reading it was an experience that I’m glad I had, and I have to admire the dedication and exacting nature it must’ve taken to bring something like this to life — it definitely rewards attention to detail — but, having read it, I have no desire to read it again.

Literary Fiction: Five Short Reviews

Euphoria Heinz HelleEuphoria, by Heinz Helle
I was absolutely blown away by Superabundance last year, and resolved to read anything Heinz Helle wrote then and there.  His stories are philosophical ruminations told through tight, clean prose. This followup was slightly different territory than Superabundance, but still recognizable for its quality and conceptual vision. Euphoria was bleak and highly disturbing. I love the way the characters’ lives before and after “the event” were juxtaposed. They were never particularly good people, it just wasn’t as obvious before everything went to hell. If you would like to lose your faith in humanity, this one is the ticket. Fantastic prose, extremely depressing, but it gives you a lot to think about.

 

 

Ice, by Anna KavanIce, by Anna Kavan

It’s difficult to determine which parts of Ice are actually happening and which are hallucinated by our unnamed protagonist. Making it even more disorienting, the point-of-view dips away from first person occasionally, capturing events that happen (maybe?) when he isn’t present, only to snap right back to our protagonist’s perspective as if nothing happened. Although, maybe he was actually there the whole time, he’s not really sure himself. Sometimes, mid-book, his character takes on attributes and personas that are entirely new, (he is an invading military figure for a few paragraphs), only to suddenly not be anymore. There’s an almost omniscience to him that becomes rather disturbing. It feels highly metaphorical, but not quite so easily reducible to just that.

Ice becomes harder to label the more that you think about it. Not quite fantasy, not quite science fiction, not necessarily straightforward mimetic literature; it may be something new where those three converge. It perpetually defies classification.

I think Jonathan Lethem says it best in his forward to the 50th anniversary Penguin Classics edition:
“The whole presentation is dreamlike, yet even that surface is riven by dream sequences, and by anomalous ruptures in point-of-view and narrative momentum.”

Amen to that. It’s definitely strange, but oddly, instead of coming across as abrasive and unrefined storytelling, these tactics work to draw the reader into a multifaceted, disturbing, kaleidoscopic, fever-dream that unfolds.

 

 

Animals Eat Each Other Elle NashAnimals Eat Each Other, by Elle Nash

A story about the myriad ways we consume one another and ourselves in an effort to get what we need to feel whole. Elle Nash is a hell of a writer. What I loved most about this book, is that it’s possible to view each main character as both protagonist and antagonist. It’s all a matter of how closely you look at their situation. They’re all terribly selfish and acting only in their own interests, but it’s hard to blame them when you think about things from their individual perspectives. They do what they think they need to. Each character in Animals Eat Each Other suffers from a discrepancy between what they possess and what the need, and they use each other mercilessly to narrow that gap.

 

 

Universal Harvester John DarnielleUniversal Harvester, by John Darnielle

This was leaps and bounds better than Wolf in White Van, which I thought showed a lot of promise, but ultimately didn’t deliver on it. The plot strayed just a little bit from what I was expecting, but I feel like the detours eventually built the foundation for the path to the climax/ending. Fantastically clever storytelling, with just enough of a resolution to satisfy while still leaving a few threads unexplained. I feel like this novel would heavily reward a second reading. Something I definitely intend on giving it myself.

Darnielle’s prose reminds me a little of Paul Auster, or maybe Don DeLillo and J.G. Ballard would be a more apt comparison. The whole affair has that just slightly postmodern/magical realism/horror genre tinge to it, but ultimately remains in the realm of mainstream literary fiction.

The prose is clear, the characters vibrant, and the story just creepy enough to really be engaging. I’ll be reading everything that John Darnielle writes from here on. I feel like he’s only going to improve in the future, which is a very exciting thought.

 

 

Pond Claire-Louise BennettPond, by Claire-Louise Bennett

What a fascinating story collection/novel, and honestly I’m not sure which it is. If you read between the lines, you can put together a narrative of sorts. The character seems to be working things out for herself, possibly some past trauma, through these short musing and ramblings about everything and nothing all around her. It’s a unique window into rural life in an Irish village. It works just fine as a story collection as well. I think it’s probably all in how you approach it.

I try to judge books on whether or not they are what they were intended to be, and not so much based on whether I, one opinionated reader, enjoyed them or not. I did enjoy this one, and I believe that it is exactly what it was intended to be. I also think that Claire-Louise Bennett is a phenomenal writer, and I’ll be paying attention to her writing in the future.

That being said, I had a hard time with the voice of this character. “If you must know” she seemed to find everything “really” “very” something “actually”. Over and over and over. It’s written in first person, so I’m hoping this is meant to be a tic of the character; a hint at her wandering mind. Perhaps it’s an Irish thing? I haven’t read much Irish literature. I still had a hard time with it, and think the fault entirely my own, but thought it worth mentioning.