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The Year in Books
Guilt-Trip Round-Up

 

I made an absolutely cast-iron New Year resolution in 2002: by December 31 I was finally going to have reviewed all those books I'd read for that purpose but hadn't actually gotten around to writing about. Please do not think I'd been an idle reviewer during the year -- I'd written about 45,000 words of reviews for Infinity Plus alone -- but there was nonetheless a little mountain of read books that somehow, for some reason, I'd never quite managed to… And the worst of it was that some of those were very good books. They'd not been left lying around because they weren't worth the effort. It was just that…well, you know how it is…

The resolution firmly implanted in the Command Control Center of my brain, I decided I needed a little reward for the virtuous act of having made it, so I went off and watched Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius instead.

Now, however, Crescent Blues's editor has, in her usual delectable fashion, pointed a couple of Uzis at my head, so I guess I'd better act upon my resolution, even if a little late. And I will, at some stage, get around to writing fuller reviews of all these books for Infinity Plus during 2003. I will.

Honest.

***

Book: vivian schilling, quietus
Vivian Schilling: Quietus
Hannover House (Hardcover), ISBN 0-9637846-1-7
You've all read or watched the story about the small group of people who, through some trivial quirk of circumstance, fail to get killed in an air crash but are thereafter pursued by the Angel of Death who wants to put Heaven's accounting straight by bumping them all off.

Well, that's what this long novel is about -- and if it were practically any other novel on the theme I almost certainly wouldn't bother reviewing it. However, with any standard theme in fiction there comes along, every now and then, a novel which seems to be the definitive treatment; and Quietus, I maintain, is it for this particular plot.

It's a very long book (small print on nearly 600 big pages) but it's utterly absorbing, and never for a moment does its plot display any signs of tiredness. Schilling has done her homework on the subject of the Angel of Death, and it shows. Moreover, her central characters aren't just the usual stereotypes -- not a scantily clad co-ed among them. These are real people, with genuine rather than stereotyped problems concerning booze, their marriages, their feelings towards others, their perceptions of their inadequacies and so on. This extends even to the particular Angel of Death charged with disposing of the main protagonist, Kylie O'Rourke, and with whom she establishes a loving and intimate relationship. She is not the standard two-dimensional nemesis.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and would have done so even more had it not been for the intrusion of countless small editorial and proofreading errors -- "sanctity" for "sanctuary", "peak" for "peek", "may" for "might", "eminent" for "imminent". One can only hope that Schilling has had stern words with her publisher, who should have done the better job of proofreading that her book so richly deserves.

***

Gene O'Neill: The Burden of Indigo
Prime (Trade paperback), ISBN 1-894815-49-1

Book: gene o'neill, the burden of indigo
Sometime in the not-too-distant future, after the Collapse of Everything, California is a waste of rusting autos and semi-barbarous tribes. Across this landscape trudges the Indigo Man -- indigo because the punishment for serious criminals, in this future, is that they're treated such that their skin becomes a color appropriate to their crime, a renewing stigma that can never be erased. Indigo is the color that identifies a child molester, and sometime years ago our protagonist did indeed commit such a crime -- or probably did, he can't quite be sure any more, but it was an accident, he's sure it must have been an accident…

From this brief summary you might expect that the novel would be an allegory on the theme of color prejudice. Not so. It's much more interesting than that.

The Burden of Indigo is not a novel itself overly burdened with event -- although there's a good sufficiency of plot to fill its 181 pages -- but where O'Neill triumphs is in his evocation of atmosphere and the total involvement of the reader. In this latter respect he is, of course, creating an additional plot element: one rooted not directly in the text but rather in the reader's experience of the text. Because eventually one does come to identify with the Indigo Man; and this identification does constitute an important theme of the novel -- not that one should sympathize with child molesters but that, however heinous the crime a human being has committed, eventually there must come a time when forgiveness is not just possible but the only humane option.

In other words, the dyeing of the skin (and the inevitable resultant ostracism) for the rest of the criminal's lifetime is too permanent a punishment; without the possibility that the stain will one day be removed -- and the Indigo Man is fully prey to quacks promising cures -- there can be no palatable outcome to the whole sorry series of events. The various other colored individuals whom the Indigo Man meets on his travels display a sort of uneasy camaraderie not unlike the occupants of Death Row, drawn together by their shared knowledge that their fate is sealed and their eternal hope that tomorrow may nonetheless bring news of a reprieve. Although they're tagged to ensure (hopefully) they can never repeat their crime, it cannot be thought that the judicial authorities have in any sense deployed the instruments of justice usefully.

Looking back on what I've just typed I realize that what makes The Burden of Indigo so powerful is that, in a way, it's not about the future at all: it's about today.

And it's about us.

***

Adam Roberts: Salt
Gollancz (Trade Paperback), ISBN 0-57506-8973

Book: Adam roberts, salt
A string of almost-generation starships, each bearing a different dissident culture, goes to colonize the habitable-but-only-just planet called Salt -- so-named because that is what the land is largely made up of, with a consequent lack of vegetation. The two cultures upon which the story focuses are diametrically opposed: one is a sort of U.S. market-oriented pseudo-democracy taken to manic extremes (its spokesman produces an eloquent justification for regarding the straightforward, legalized buying of votes as the purest form of democracy) while the other is a benevolent, cashless communism/anarchism. There are social difficulties between the cultures through misunderstanding of conventions: one person's expression of common courtesy is another's deadly insult. Despite the fact that there are virtually no resources on Salt to squabble over, so that the only sane option is for the cultures to cooperate, the crazed pseudo-democracy declares war for ideological reasons.

The book was first published in the United Kingdom in 2000, with U.S. distribution occurring a while later. But the power of its satire could hardly be more relevant today, with a pseudo-democratic U.S. administration using every doublethink technique to proclaim its adoration for freedom on the one hand while introducing increasingly anti-democratic legislation on the other, all the time using the threat (and perhaps the reality) of war to paper over the cracks. This is not to say that Roberts's satire, while obviously political, is directed at specific political targets; just as Orwell satirized not communism but totalitarianism in (particularly) Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Roberts is really dissecting human stupidity, as expressed through political insanity, rather than any particular political ideology, be it capitalism or anarcho-communism. The problem with his capitalist culture is not that it is capitalist per se but that its movers and shakers are, at a fundamental level, intellectually and morally corrupt, justifying their most despicable actions through the abuse of such terms as "peace" and "freedom".

In many ways this is a brilliant piece of work, and it lives long in the mind. As a novel, however, it is less successful, in that the scenarios it sets up, perhaps inevitably, seem artificial. Or, at least, one would hope they are. Looking around today, one sees whole bevies of real-life scenarios that would have seemed artificial if novelized just a few years ago. This is a book I'd strongly advise you to read: almost certainly you'll hugely enjoy it…albeit not as a novel.

***

Molly Brown: Bad Timing and Other Stories
Big Engine (Trade Paperback), ISBN 1-903468-06-X

Book: Molly brown, bad timing and other stories
The 21 stories in this collection by the ineffable Brown -- a U.S. ex-pat domiciled in the UK, and an award-winning story writer there -- all lurk on or around the boundaries between science fiction and fantasy and are almost all characterized by a sort of bouncy vivacity that is tremendously appealing and is Brown's customary hallmark. All of this should make for an enormously entertaining book, and Bad Timing is just that if taken in relatively small doses. Reading the book from cover to cover, however, one eventually becomes -- or, at least, this reviewer eventually became -- irked by the fact that such an eminently capable, intelligent and skilled writer as Brown seemed ever to fight shy of the challenge of taking on any theme of serious import. A writer this good ought actively to be searching out big issues to get her teeth into, not (seemingly) consciously avoiding them. At the end of each story I found myself thinking: "That was good fun, and I surely do admire her skill, but…er…so what?" So I'd hotly recommend this book to anyone who doesn't think it likely they'd be irritated by this constant superficiality; if you like the first Harry Potter novel you might well like this.

***

Kage Baker: Black Projects, White Knights
Golden Gryphon (Hardcover), ISBN 1-930846-11-8

Book: kage baker, black projects, white knights
Before I talk about the book, a few words about the publisher. If I had to vote for which is the best publisher currently operating within the genres, I'd almost certainly opt for Golden Gryphon. (In nonfiction Prometheus would win hands-down.) Their books are produced with such care and love -- not just for the subject matter but for production standards -- that it gives a genuine thrill just to hold a Golden Gryphon book in one's hands. They're almost worth buying (and they're not expensive, millionaires-only collectors' items, or anything like that) even if you don't want to read the contents. Long may this publisher continue its success.

And, almost always, the contents live up to the rest, so I had high hopes of this collection by Kage Baker, an author with whose work I am (to my shame) otherwise unfamiliar.

Most of the stories are in her series about Dr. Zeus Inc., otherwise known as The Company -- a shadowy super-technology organization that could be thought of as lying at the heart of most of the relevant conspiracy theories. There are also some stories in another, slightly linked series concerning a prodigy known as Alec Checkerfield.

The newly penned opener to this volume, introducing Dr. Zeus Inc. to the unacquainted reader, is a truly firecracker piece of writing; the appetite left unwhetted by the end of this piece is truly anorexic. But thereafter the feeling is much as per the Molly Brown collection above. Each of these stories is a highly competent piece of magazine fiction, but none of them seems to be outstanding. Always one is left with that exasperated "nicely done, but so what?" feeling.

But it's a lovely, lovely book, from its splendid J.K. Potter cover all the way on through. If you find it in a bookstore you may well want to buy multiple copies on sight.

***

Lani K. Thompson: The Red Dance
Blue Stocking Productions (Trade Paperback, no ISBN)

Book: loni k thompson, red dance
Every so often a fantasy comes along that's so much at the cutting edge, that's so unbelievably individual, that's so much what fantasy literature ought to be all about -- that's so just plain out-and-out good, in other words -- that it's virtually impossible to review. This short novel -- probably no more than 25-30,000 words -- is a prime example. Somewhere within the confines of a mythology and pantheon that seem to bear no clear relation to any existing ones, various characters from lofty to lowly enact ventures whose purpose is not immediately clear to the reader rooted in our reality. More than that I cannot really say about the plot(s) without becoming so enmired that I'd end up producing a summary that was perhaps, well, 25-30,000 words long. One has to concentrate really hard to work out -- if in fact one does correctly work out -- what is going on; The Red Dance is no light read.

All of these events are described in the most vibrant manner possible. Paragraph after paragraph stuns the inner senses. The temptation to read the text slowly out loud, even if only to an empty room, is almost irresistible. The vividness of the coloration of Thompson's prose really must be experienced to be believed.

So why didn't I review the book during 2002, saying all of this? Well, the truth is that I really need to read it again. By the end of the first reading things were beginning to become a bit plain, but I still don't feel that I have a proper handle on the book -- I need to experience it all a second time to catch everything that I missed first time through. I'm very much looking forward to that reread; now all I need is a spare evening during which I'll be free from all other distractions so that I can concentrate fully on the text.

The Red Dance is a small but superbly shaped jewel, but it's not one you can appreciate with just a glance: you have to study it, touch it, feel it, experience it.

***

Kim Stanley Robinson: The Years of Rice and Salt
Bantam (Hardcover), ISBN 0553109200

Book: Kim Stanley Robinson, the years of rice and salt
From the small to the huge: this is a monster alternate-history novel which takes as its "dividing point" the thesis that the Black Death didn't just kill about one in ten of the European population but instead virtually annihilated it -- and in so doing extinguished Christianity (and indeed virtually all white-skinned humans). The account of how the rest of the world gets along without the WASPs over the centuries from then until now is episodic, these long episodes being linked by a set of shared characters.

Shared characters in scenes separated by decades and centuries? Well, yes. The artifice that makes this possible is the Buddhist notion of the jati, or group of souls that cyclically reincarnate together, in each new corporeal lifetime having to identify the individual members of the group. Between each episode on Earth we have shorter accounts of the procedures the group members go through in order successfully to renew their mundane activities. This artifice in the main works extremely well.

As do the episodes -- although they each have their different characteristics, which makes for a patchy read. Probably the most enjoyable is at the same time the most artificial: "The Alchemist." The central figure of this section, the alchemist Khalid, is a sort of alternate-world Super-Leonardo, but possessed also of a greater practical bent. Khalid and his team invent practically every technological device we can recognize with the possible exception (I may have missed items) of the digital computer, MTV and Britney Spears. At the same time they make scientific conceptual breakthroughs likewise without number. This is of course a preposterous conceit, and it's thus impossible to suspend one's disbelief and accept the episode as a "real history". At the same time, though, rather like a poetic truth, one can regard it as a mythopoeized history, with all the products, attained by countless nameless individuals, of a scientific/technological revolution being ascribed to a single semi-legendary figure. And, anyway, the section is a lot of fun, so who really cares if it's plausible?

Other sections are more of a curate's egg. Those dealing with the interactions between the oriental races and the Native American cultures are especially successful, while the final section -- set around now if not a smidgen into the future -- is truthfully a bit of a mess, with two stories starting and neither reaching completion (which may be highly realistic, but not what one rightly expects from fiction).

This is a book that is vast in its ambition and indeed just plain vast. It is for the most part beautifully written, although there are a few short (two- or three-page) sections that seem to have been dashed off in a hurry, and the omission of hundreds upon hundreds of question marks is astonishingly irritating. There's been talk of its being the ultimate alternate-history novel, the benchmark against which all others will in future be judged; and such talk is not entirely hyperbolic. To do both its virtues and its flaws justice requires far more than just a standard 1,500/2,000-word review; rather, a full-scale thesis is required…which is why, er, I didn't get round to reviewing it in 2002. Perhaps 2003 will see more relaxed times.


John Grant

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