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The Library of Babel: A Book Log

"This much is already known: for every sensible line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherences." -- Jorge Luis Borges


Sunday, April 03, 2005

Lucifer 2, 3, 4

Since my post on the first collection, I managed to find the next three collections of Mike Carey's Lucifer comic (Children and Monsters, A Dalliance with the Damned, and The Divine Comedy) in Borders' interestingly organized graphic novel section.

These are very good, indeed, though I don't think I'd agree with Emmet's claim that they're better than Sandman (Lucifer is just a hair too amoral for my tastes). And really, I don't have much to say other than that.

I'll be ordering the next volumes from Amazon Real Soon Now, because they don't appear to be re-stocking these at the local Borders, let alone ordering the next couple.

Posted at 8:02 PM | link |
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one comment


Saturday, April 02, 2005

Spin

I mentioned a little while back that I have a lousy track record as far as predicting or voting for the winners of the Hugo Award. Twice in the last few years, this has involved preferring a Robert Charles Wilson novel to the actual Best Novel winner, and while he's not on the ballot this year, I fully expect to be talking up Spin for next year's award. Whether the rest of SF fandom will come to their senses and agree with me remains an open question, but this is really an excellent book.

Spin is SF on a grand scale, covering several decades in the life of the narrator, and several billion years of the history of the Solar System. Tyler Dupree is twelve years old when he watches the stars go out in the company of Jason and Diane Lawton. The Earth has been wrapped in a semi-permeable membrane of some sort, that blocks out the stars and the Moon, but lets heavily filtered sunlight shine through. And soon after the appearance of the Spin membrane, put in place by powers unknown (those responsible are referred to as the Hypotheticals throughout), the disturbing truth becomes clear: time is passing faster outside the Spin than in-- for every year that passes on Earth, a hundred million years go by outside.

It's high-concept stuff. But this is, after all, a Robert Charles Wilson novel, and the plot that follows is as concerned with the personal lives of Tyler, Jason, and Diane as it is with the grand questions of who put the Spin in place and why. It's written as Tyler's memoir, with two separate plot threads describing events in the years after the Spin, and events taking place far in the future (the two plots eventualy converge), and Tyler is writing about his own life, and his own concerns.

The basic issue here is summed up nicely in an early passge (a lengthy, but necessary quote):

People younger than me have asked me: Why didn't you panic? Why didn't anyone panic? Why was there no looting, no rioting? Why did your generation acquiesce, why did you all slide into the Spin without even a murmur of protest?

Sometimes I say, But terrible things did happen.

Sometimes I say, But we didn't understand. And what could we have done about it?

And sometimes I cite the parable of the frog. Drop a frog into boiling watter, he'll jump out. Drop a frog into a pot of pleasantly warm water, stoke the heat slowly, and the frog will be dead before he knows there's a problem.

The obliteration of the stars wasn't slow or subtle, but neither, for most of us, was it immediately disatrous. If you were an astronomer or a defense strategist, if you worked in telecommunications or aerospace, you probably spent the first few days of the Spin in a state of abject terror. But if you drove a bus or flipped burgers, it was all more or less warm water.

That passage is really a capsule description of Wilson's work (at least, those books of his that I've read): Gigantic, cosmic, world-changing events happen, and people more or less try to get on with their lives. Over the course of Spin, the Earth moves billions of years into the future, Mars is terraformed and then enclosed within its own Spin membrance, and our knowledge of the Solar System is fundamentally transformed. Meanwhile, Tyler writes about failed romantic relationships, Diane's slide into a religious cult, and political jockeying between Jason and his domineering father. The world-changing events get their due, but the personal comes first.

I suspect this sort of approach hurts him with many Hugo voters, but I find it brilliant. And Spin succeeds on both levels (it's better than The Chronoliths and Blind Lake at balancing the cosmic stuff with the personal relationships): the characters are well-drawn and their relationships are believable, and the gosh-wow central conceit is very impressive in its own right.

This book is pretty much exactly what I think literary SF ought to be. The everyday details and personal relationships are handled as well or better than in most mainstream literary novels, and the SF concept has as much "sense of wonder" kick and careful future extrapolation as anything else you'll find on bookstore shelves. It ought to win every prize the field can throw at it.

Posted at 11:06 AM | link | one comment


The Final Solution

One of the smaller satisfactions of this year's Boskone was learning (from a conversation with Kelly Link) the correct pronunciation of Michael Chabon's surname. It's a small thing, to be sure, but at least I won't inadvertently sound like a cretin should I try to have a conversation about his most recent book, The Final Solution.

It's a very slight volume (only 131 pages), more of a vignette than a novel, covering certain events in rural Britain in July of 1944, involving the murder of a slightly mysterious boarding-house lodger, and the theft of an African grey parrot belonging to a mute Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. The police call upon the services of a local beekeeper, a retired old gentleman who is never directly named, but is instantly identifiable from the descriptions of his past exploits:

The old man had visited Gabriel Park once before; sometime in the late nineties, that would have been. Then as now it was a question of murder, and there had also been an animal concerned, then-- a Siamese cat, painstakingly trained to administer a rare Malay poison with a brush of its whisker against the lips.

The great old house's fortunes appeared in the intervening years to have declined. Before the last war a fire had destroyed the north wing, with its turreted observatory from whose slitted eyelid the Baroness di Sforza-- that grand and hideous woman-- had leapt to her death, with her precious Siam Queen clutched yowling to her breast. Here and there one still saw blackened timbers jutting from the tall grass like a row of snuffed wicks. The main hall, with all the surrounding pasturelands, had been taken over just before the present war by something called the National Research Dairy; its small, admirably healthy herd of Galloways was the subject of immense skepticism and amusement in the neighborhood.

It's an interestingly indirect book. Very few things are stated outright-- like the old man's name, they're talked around in a way that makes clear what's going on, but never states it outright. And while the murderer and bird thief is apprehended, the deeper mystery of the meaning of the strings of numbers the bird is prone to reciting remains a mystery to the characters (though the answer is available, indirectly of course, to the reader).

It's a fascinating literary exercise, and it's beautifully written. I'm not entirely sure what the point is, but it's worth a look.

Posted at 10:38 AM | link | 4 comments


Friday, April 01, 2005

Life Expectancy

(This is getting bumped ahead of a few other things because it's due back at the library today.)

My sister went through a horror-reading phase some years back, reading a whole bunch of books by Steven King, and a new-to-me author, Dean Koontz. I read a few of his books, found them mediocre (Servants of Twilight wasn't bad), and then ignored him for the next fifteen years or so. He's produced a ridiculous number of best-selling novels since, but I figured I wasn't missing anything.

Given what I'd read of his way back when, I was a little surprised to see one of his latest books, Life Expectancy, turn up in the book review section of either the Washington Post or The New York Times (I don't recall which, now). I was even more surprised to see it given a positive review, that said (I'm paraphrasing) if this had been written by anybody else, it would be almost guaranteed to be a smash hit in the literary set. This, I had to see.

The opening paragraphs set it up pretty well:

On the night that I was born, my paternal grandfather, Josef Tock, made ten predictions that shaped my life. Then he died in the very minute that my mother gave birth to me.

Josef had never previously engaged in fortune-telling. He was a pastry chef. He made eclairs and lemon tarts, not predictions.

Jimmy Tock is a lummox of a pastry chef, born to a family of pastry chefs. At the moment of his birth, his grandfather awakes from a stroke-induced coma, names five dates on which terrible things will happen to Jimmy, and drops dead at the moment of Jimmy's birth (he also correctly predicts Jimmy's name, birth weight, height, and that he is born with syndactyly).

Shortly after that, the maternity ward is shot up by a deranged clown, whose wife had died giving birth at the same time. That clown, Konrad Beezo, and his son Punchinello will figure prominently in Jimmy's five terrible days.

The book is Jimmy's autobiography (with one small bit narrated by his wife), and is structured around the five terrible days of Josef's prediction. It's a quirky and charming tale, full of deapan humor, the occasional bit of slapstick, and a few moments of real tension. I'm not sure it would really be a huge literary hit, but it's certainly not what I expected from Dean Koontz-- it's almost as surprising as One for the Morning Glory. The plot gets a little silly with the last of the five days, but remains compellingly readable throughout.

I don't know that I'd recommend running out to buy it in hardcover, but it's certainly worth checking out of the library. And I'll probably pick up a copy when it comes out in paperback.

I looked at the Amazon page for this book, just to see what his fans thought of it, and was pleasantly surprised to find mostly positive reviews, with only a couple of "This is a terrible horror novel" comments from people who missed the whole point. Interestingly, a number of the better reviews said "It's good, but not quite as good as Odd Thomas," so now I've picked up a copy of that to read on the plane next week. Maybe I have been missing something by ignoring Koontz.

Posted at 8:16 AM | link | no comments


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