I made slow progress on a few book but didn’t finish them, put down others, read some short fiction, and so here we are.
I went on a binge of old school space opera. “A Planet Named Shayol” by Cordwainer Smith is some seriously gross, bizarre stuff about a man convicted to live on a horrifying prison planet. It’s a crazy ride and well worth reading if you like weird, SF, or weird SF. The picture above is the Virgil Finlay illustration for it. Smith has some notoriety for being an early CIA agent and writing a manual on Psychological Warfare. An interesting guy and his stories are always interesting.
Second short fiction binge: James H. Schmitz. Have I blathered about the Witches of Karres? That’s a fun space opera and Schmitz by and large delivers fun space opera. Agent of Vega offers more of the same. Intergalactic secret agents foil various threats from hostile alien invasions to crimelords that are nothing more than the puppets of telepathic alien parasites. Stuff like that. I’m have a fun time working my way through Agent of Vega and Other Stories. One thing I really like is Schmitz’s a much more compassionate and a lot less hard-edged than his peers without coming across as being naive or sentimental.
Third short fiction binge: Elmore Leonard’s When the Women Come Out To Dance. Mostly crime short stories with some more literary and a few westerns pitched in. This book made me understand why people love Leonard’s stuff. His range from short and clipped to long and dense is amazing. I plan on getting a copy of his collection of Western stories, cause the ones in here were pretty great.
On to a novel:
The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe by DG Compton: A 70s SF novel about a world where most illnesses have been cured and people mostly only die from old age. This has led to a sort of despair in the society that’s being countered by reality TV shows centered on the rare young and middle-aged individuals who suffer from terminal diseases. Katherine Mortenhoe is one such individual, and the novel centers on her coming to terms with her mortality while a media empire tries to maximize her suffering to their profit. And I would probably go on about that and mention how much I love NYRB’s stuff… except over the weekend NYRB doxxed an author who has gone to great lengths to maintain their anonymity and even said they’d likely quit writing if their identity was revealed. So I don’t know what to think except fuck NYRB.
A theory of assholes:
You aren’t an asshole. You are being an asshole.
That’s an important distinction. Being an asshole isn’t a state inherent to your identity, it’s not who you are, but simply the state of being you are passing through at that moment. At some later moment, you may not be an asshole.
Now it’s possible you have a low resistance to being an asshole and the asshole path is so clearly blazed and marked it takes an act of extreme willpower not to go full asshole at the slightest provocation and your average state of being manifests asshole so often that it takes on the appearance of permanence. Or maybe you’re a performance artist and have decided that it’s much easier to perform being an asshole at all times as a mask to hide your social anxiety and feelings of inferiority and resentment than actually engage with people as people.
These are the easy paths, the lowest hanging fruit. You don’t have to take the easy way. Learn to read the road signs and get past that first off-ramp that takes you to asshole.
And if your identity and money stream requires you to maximize instances of being an asshole, well, I got nothing for you. Go eat shit.
But I’ll highlight that being an asshole isn’t such a horrible thing that being one must be viewed as a complete evil to be avoided entirely. In certain circumstances it’s advantageous to be an asshole. Or at least know a good one. I’d certainly want any lawyer I’d hire to be able to go full asshole on my behalf in court. And when setting and maintaining boundaries being an asshole helps – at least being thought an asshole, because those susceptible to assholery in your life will think you’re an asshole when you cut them and their nonsense out of your life. Good on you. Be that asshole. Make the filter work. Because you’re only being an asshole, it’s not who you are.
So to recap: if you’re accused of being an asshole, take heart because it’s not who you are, it’s just where you are at that moment, and if you have to be an asshole from time to time it’s okay because it’s what you’re being and not who you are. Unless you’re a lazy performance artist going for the low hanging fruit in which case, eat shit.
The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley: In a world where all women have died, a group of men live out their last lonely days in The Valley of Rocks, listening to young Nate tell stories that weave their past and remaining years into a cohesive whole – then the strange mushrooms start growing in the cemetery and everything changes. At times gory, at other times sublime, and definitely weird The Beauty’s a creepy read.
Persona by Genevieve Valentine: SF novel about a world where celebrity “Faces” represent countries and perform international politics while all actual politics are hashed out behind closed doors, except one Face is starting to take her job seriously and actually aid her constituency. Persona’s light on world building and heavy at times on breathless melodrama, but it’s even heavier on the speedy pulp paranoia that I enjoy.
My Father, The Pornographer by Chris Offutt: Book about Andrew J. Offutt, science fiction and fantasy writer (he created Shadowspawn for you Thieves’ World fans) who had a longer and more lucrative career as a writer of paperback porn. Meanwhile his son, Chris Offutt, grows to be a well-regarded lit writer and screenwriter who’s trying make sense out of his father’s output while also coming to terms with his dysfunctional relationship with his dad. This book crawled under my skin, because the portrait it crafts of Offutt the Elder’s petty, hair-trigger temper. The fandom bits are particularly chilling.
Lady Sings the Blues by Billie Holiday (with William Dufty): Harrowing but great autobiography of Billie Holiday. There are a lot of sad and bitter details here. Not only in regards to the racism she had to bear, but the harassment she encountered while trying to seek treatment for her heroin addiction. But all that was what I expected. The bit I didn’t expect and left me shocked was that she smoked a carton of cigarettes a day. A CARTON!?!
The Glory of the Empire by Jean D’Ormesson: Fake history full of fake metaphysics and fake conflicts that purportedly shaped the ancient and early modern worlds. I LOVE BOOKS LIKE THIS! It starts back in the ancient era with a legendary feud between brothers, tumbles forward through the ages, detailing wars, uprisings, and eras that never happened, speaking of kings and queens and personages who never existed – but might have, making something of a shadow history of the world. It’s a wee bit stodgy at times, but take it slow and it’s worthwhile.
Books took a backseat to graphic novel trade paperbacks this past month. Most of this stuff has been out at least a year or so – but I’m only catching up with them now since I’ve been back in the USA and am still in the Stone Age because I like to read my comics on paper.
Low: The Delirium of Hope by Rick Remender and Greg Tochini. I’ve been delighted by the recent trend for more science fiction and fantasy style comics. And while I’ve slipped behind on Saga and wasn’t so impressed by Empress (Saga vs. Immortan Joe), I quite liked Low. Maybe even more than I expected. The art’s great. The story’s pretty neat (a bit like Henry Kuttner’s Fury, which is pulpy madness), full of sea monsters, weaponry, and dysfunctional family dynamics.
DMZ: On the Ground by Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchelli. I’m very late to this party, but I’m here. A buddy of mine in Korea had a stack of assorted issues that I devoured, but it was all scattered throughout, so finding the beginning was my prime objective when I came here. Second US civil war. Manhattan as a demilitarized zone with factions competing for power within it. This book’s great, and I’m looking forward to the eventual TV series.
Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda. Weird science-fantasy with weird monsters and weird soldiers fighting among themselves and a main character trying to solve the mystery of her origin while cats lecture on philosophy and natural science, yes, I’m on board and looking forward to where this goes and don’t need the lecture from some nerdio about how this is totally derivative of their precious favorite manga series.
Corto Maltese: Under the Sign of Capricorn by Hugo Pratt. HOLY SHIT NEW HUGO PRATT CORTO MALTESE REPRINTS!!! WHY ISN’T THIS HUGE NEWS!?! WHY DO I HAVE TO HEAR ABOUT SHITTY SUPER HERO MOVIES WHEN THIS EXISTS!?! WTF PEOPLE WHY ISN’T EVERY ENGLISH LANGUAGE COMIC READER IN THE WORLD PROCLAIMING THEIR THANKS TO THE UNIVERSE THAT WE MAY LIVE IN SUCH TIMES!?! Umm, if you’ve never read Corto Maltese, you totally should.
“The problem with conducting your own reality testing is that sometimes the people you’re surrounded with are not all right in the head either.”
STAY CRAZY’s a book in the vein of those Philip K. Dick novels written when PKD believed an alien satellite orbiting around the Earth was beaming thoughts into his head and telling him the truth he needed to hear. But instead of being about burnt-out science fiction writers, Gnosticism, and the evils of Richard Nixon, Stay Crazy’s about schizophrenic teens, interdimensional entities, and the evils of big box superstores.
Emmeline “Em” Kalberg is a nineteen-year-old living in Clear Falls Pennsylvania, a former mill town trying to survive by pretending to be a remote Pittsburgh suburb. Em’s just being released from a mental institution when the novel starts, a hospital where she’s been since her nervous breakdown during her freshman year at college. Once home she takes a job at the only remaining store in town, Savertown USA, a place part cult, part Walmart, and ostensibly all American if you overlook the fact that everything in it is made overseas (but they do make their employees wear red, white, and blue uniforms).
Soon the frozen foods and other merchandise begin broadcasting to Em, all the transmissions claiming to be from Escodex, an interdimensional investigator inhabiting a higher level of reality. Escodex needs help. An evil entity seeks to destroy our dimension and it plans on using a dimensional nexus point inside Savertown to do it. Em’s the only one willing to listen to Escodex, although she’s not quite sure if this is simply another schizophrenic episode. Soon the only thing standing between our universe and annihilation are the minimum wage earning and battered-down by life stockroom staff at that one shitty retail store.
Stay Crazy’s a weird and fun little novel. Em’s engaging as a mess of a character and her arc from miserable, arrogant, self-centered teen to slightly less miserable and less arrogantly self-centered teen is enjoyable. It’s not a perfect novel. There are some rough bits, not in the content sense, but more mechanical stuff, and once or twice I wished things were tighter. Some character interactions could have been expanded, and there were a few moments where events happened between scenes that I wish had been depicted for the reader.
But overall it’s that mix of the weird and the downtrodden that makes Stay Crazy fun – maybe not ha-ha fun, but fun of a kind all the same. It would be a slipstream novel, except no one knows what Slipstream is. It could be science fiction or horror, except it’s not. It’s one of those weird novels that sits oddly in the joints between categories. Resume With Monsters mixed with Bubba Ho-Tep with some Kurt Vonnegut by way of Nick Mamatas added in. And that’s all great stuff. So if any of that sounds interesting to you, don’t hesitate to check it out, you’ll enjoy the trip.
Favorite reads for June. I put down more books than I finished… or am still stuck in the middle of them. Of the few I finished here are the highlights:
A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh: Probably the book I liked the least here. That’s not to say it’s bad, but it’s a mix of neat/cool facts and un-neat/un-cool rhapsodically waxing architectural that had not enough of one and too much of the other. But as a quick read, skimming to the neat bits such as monastic book thieves, tunneling bank robbers, and the guy they dubbed Spiderman who lived in a secret apartment he built in a Toys R Us, it’s a lot of fun. Added bonus feature! If you read it before bed it might give you home invasion nightmares!
The Looking Glass War by John LeCarre: A sad spy novel that the former CIA head Allen Dulles believed depicted what spy work actually was like. If you’ve read the George Smiley/Circus books you might like this one, because here they’re the villains standing aside as another British intelligence agency attempts to field a mission a bit too far beyond their capabilities.
Company Town by Madeline Ashby: A cyberpunk novel set on a city-sized oil rig about a body guard and her new assignment looking after the heir apparent to the corporation that bought the rig. It’s cyberpunk in the good way, focusing on those undermined or otherwise on the bad side of progress. I’ll warn you that I don’t think Ashby quite sticks the landing, but she’s close enough that I can appreciate the ride and the ambition she had attempting to pull it off.
Black Wine by Candas Jane Dorsey: I grew up reading a lot of fantasy, but have come around to not standing it in 99% of its modern forms (Epic, Grim, Sword & Sorcery, it’s all *blerg*). But when I find a book that sits in that 1%? Holy shit! I’m in love. This is one of those books. It’s brutal, but from the first sentence I was hooked.
There is a scarred, twisted old madwoman in a cage in the court yard.
I leave tomorrow for a month long trip to the USA. As is always the case I’m stressed out and anxious, and one of the things that stresses me out the most is having the identical bullshit conversations with people about living in South Korea and Asia in general.
So, as one does, I made a bingo card of all my anxieties. This way even if I have a panic attack while listening to someone drone on I can still feel like a winner!