“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!
It’s rare that a book I’m reading flat out and out sucks. So what makes me quit reading a book? Read on and find out!
- It’s Not You. It’s Me: That thing your book does is a fine and good thing, it just doesn’t happen to be my thing. So you do you. I’ll do me, and move on without any ill feelings.
- That Window of Opportunity Has Closed: I subscribe to the view that we have a finite number of slots for certain stories, and once you fill up those slots you’re less likely to respond to new stories drawing from the same well. This is a normal thing and not something to be lamented, as long as you’re not a shitheel about it and crap on other people’s books for not being those same books you’re crazy about.
- The Ham Sandwich Problem: While that plot thing your characters are tracking down might be vitally important to them, I, the reader, am not quite convinced why it is. It may as well be a ham sandwich for all it matters to me.
- Your Plot Only Works Because You Have Shitheels in It: This is akin to that frustration you feel when you watch a movie where the plot centers around miscommunication, and you want to scream, “Holy Hell, people! Can you all stop and just call each other for two seconds and clear up this mess?!?” It’s a fine line, because some shitheels in a book might be necessary, but not so many that they strain plausibility.
- Your Book Actually Sucks: Somehow it happened. A book with all the thrills and charisma of a plank of particle board got published and ended up in my hands. Meanwhile, someone somewhere said it’s not so bad, so I gave it a shot. AND IT WAS AWFUL. But even now I’m less angry at the book, than at all the folks that said it was good. What were they thinking those awful wrong people?
Here we are already into June and I haven’t told you what my favorite reads were for May. How can any of us possibly go on?
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson: A family memoir from an iconoclastic writer about having a baby with her transgender husband – it’s quite funny and brutal but also a bit up its own ass in that PhD sort of way where a conversation (or butt sex) isn’t satisfying unless you deconstruct the post-structural nature of Lacan’s concept of the Other while you do it. Fun fact: in the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, the ship, the Argo, was slowly repaired and rebuilt piece by piece, so the ship that returned home entirely different ship, despite bearing the same name.
Hellspark by Janet Kagan: First contact story. I loved it. I loved the worlds and all their cultures. I loved the science of “proxemics” (body language) and the nature of the protagonist’s abilities. If you think a book pitched somewhere between China Mieville’s Embassytown and CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner series might be a neat thing, then, yeah, track this down.
Cortez on Jupiter by Ernest Hogan: Loved this too. As much as I loved the world building of Hellspark, I suspect the future will be more like this with shitty fast food, everyone making micro-documentaries of their lives, and a reality TV show built around the high fatality rate of astronauts trying to contact the aliens that live inside the red spot of Jupiter.
The Destructives by Matthew De Abaitua: Theodore Drown is a recovering weirdcore addict and former accelerator currently lecturing on intangibles at the University of the Moon in the year 2060, forty years after The Seizure, the world-shattering event that saw the emergence of AIs. Someone’s been reading their PKD and M. John Harrison. Great cover by RAID71. I’m all for book covers looking like covers to weird comics. Great stuff.
Get Carter by Ted Lewis: A dudely, dude tough guy novel about a gangster coming home to bury his not a gangster brother and solving the mystery of the brother’s death. Even if you’ve seen the Michael Caine movie (or live in the horrid reality where there was a remake made starring some mumbler), the book still has a lot going for it. Very clipped. Very tense.
The bibliography in the back of the Numenera core rule book is pretty decent, but like most book lists, it could always use some expansion. Gene Wolfe, Michael Moorcock, and Jack Vance are only one way to look at the future a billion years from now. Here are seven more books to inspire your Numenera campaigns.
Dancing With Bears by Michael Swanwick: Darger and Surplus are a pair of conmen traveling across a “post-utopian” future. Here they are escorting gifts from the Caliph of Baghdad to the Duke of Muscovy. One is a young man. The other is a mutant dog. Sorta steampunk. Sorta cyberpunk. Picaresque through and through.
Celebrant by Michael Cisco: DeKlend is trying to reach the city of Votu where time runs backwards and gangs of pigeon girls battle rabbit girls in the streets. Not an adventure novel, so much as a travelogue to an utterly strange land populated by organic machines and the strange societies that worship them.
The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin: Mixes the personal with the epic as Essun hunts her murderous husband across a landscape torn apart by cataclysmic forces. This is a world dotted with the ruins of countless previous civilizations, all of which have been destroyed by their own cataclysms to make a landscape alternately elegant, strange, and brutal.
Fain the Sorcerer by Steven Aylett: Fain’s your Cugel-esque rogue caught up in adventures, except Aylett’s imagination is weirder and stranger. You can open this short book to any page and encounter some wonderful insanity you’ll want to steal: “Fain walked among trees which bore fruit like resinous organic gems, until he reached a chasm of steam… the Bridgekeeper had an espaliered head, a bone lattice through which veins and tendons were woven like vines.”
A Double Shadow by Frederick Turner: the book with the lowest rating on Goodreads of all those listed here, it seems to generate the most ire against it, but I love it. A disgruntled terraformer on a future Mars writes a novel about an even further future Mars lampooning the vanities and psychosis of his current co-workers. The resultant novel depicts a society centered on a status economy and the status war that breaks out between the scions of two noble houses (the “top cocks”) when one insults the other.
Memory by Linda Nagata: Your teen on a quest to save a loved one through an alien landscape novel. Jubilee’s world is threatened by clouds of “silver” that alter the landscape and consume those unfortunate to be caught in it. When a stranger steps out from the silver searching for Jubilee’s missing brother, she sets out to find him and solve the mystery of her world.
Gilgamesh translated by Stephen Mitchell: As someone once said the remote past would be as strange to us as the far future. Or, as someone else once said, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” Gilgamesh is one of the oldest texts we have, and this translation by Stephen Mitchell is a great one that makes it read like it could sit side by side with Jack Kirby illustrations. The other great thing about Gilgamesh is it’s really short. The book on tape is only two hours long. Give it a listen here on youtube.
And feel free to add your own bits of far future weirdness in the comments.
The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar: Epic fantasy that doesn’t read like Epic Fantasy is my favorite Epic Fantasy (unless we’re talking about novellas, in which case I have more patience for 400 page “world building” tom foolery). The Winged Histories is that kind of Epic Fantasy. Less a sequel to A Stranger in Olondria than a continued journey into the same world of, in The Winged Histories we follow four women as each tells their stories and is caught in the turmoil of the Olondrian civil war. Some of them are archetypal Epic Fantasy characters such as the Warrior Woman, but Samatar manages to subvert and comment on these characters, as she delves deeper into her setting. I loved this book.
Hard Light by Elizabeth Hand: This is Hand’s third novel featuring the fascinatingly horrible person Cassandra Neary, who’s less an amateur detective than a destructive bystander. If you haven’t read any of these before this one is a decent one to start with, as Cass ends up in London and collides with various counter-culture victims and survivors, and a mystery straight off the Graham Hancock web page. There’s sort of this preposterousness to the novels, like who knew such attention to rock fandom from the 1970s would prove to be so important in 2015, but yeah, if you can swallow that and stomach Cass’s general awfulness the novels are great fun.
The Fortunate Fall by Raphael Carter: A latter stage cyberpunk novel from the late 1990s, The Fortunate Fall tells about a 24th century journalist on the trail of the truth concerning some 23rd century atrocities. It’s weird, smart, and fun while it gets at concerns regarding free will in a world of manufactured personalities. If you’ve read and liked Pat Cadigan’s stuff, you’d likely enjoy this. Unfortunately, it appears to have been Carter’s only novel (to date) and it’d be fascinating to see what they would publish now twenty-years on deeper into The Matrix. Are we still on schedule for the Unanimous Army to free us from conscious thought with their drill-bits? Or was that a best case scenario?
The Blackbirder by Dorothy B. Hughes: The other covers for this are a lot cooler, but this one was the one I read. The Blackbirder is a 1940s crime novel about a refugee woman from France in the USA illegally on the run from the Gestapo and the FBI when an old acquaintance gets murdered on her doorstep. The chase is fast and rich with paranoia as Julie Guilles flees across country from New York City to Santa Fe in the hopes of finding the mysterious “Blackbirder” who smuggles people across the US border. This is a good thriller, along the lines of Graham Greene’s The Third Man or The Ministry of Fear. This kindle edition was kind of shitty, but if you see a copy or anything else by Hughes, you’d be wise to pick it up.