I did some traveling over July and that meant a lot of time spent on planes, trains, buses, and even a boat for a few hours. Also a lot of time sitting in airport lounges and awake at odd hours from jetlag.
Long story short this meant I read a lot.
A Coffin For Dimitrios by Eric Ambler: I am a sucker for thrillers that involve little more than a nebbish protagonist traveling around the world so they can listen to various weirdoes monologue at length. Here a mystery writer gets fascinated by a death told to him by a Turkish police captain and out of nothing more than idle curiosity starts to investigate the dead man’s life. This promptly opens open a can of worms as the dead man had ties to international terrorism, human trafficking, and drug smuggling. Also fascinating glimpse into the 1930s.
We Are Never Meeting In Real Life: Essays by Samantha Irby: This is a collection of self-scathing essays by someone who got their start by being funny online. Cringe-worthy much of the time, but also very funny almost all the time. If you see this and you enjoy the David Sedaris/Roxanne Gay wry confessional style, read this.
Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett: No one ever talks about how Chine Mieville’s Bas Lag is just grimdark Discworld. For me Pratchett’s a bit like Agatha Christie. Each of them has lots of books that my friends adore and which I’ve read a little by, but have never done a deep dive into. Their books are also more or less ubiquitous and one of the easier things to score second hand, so their a bit easy to take for granted. ANYWAY, I read this and The Colour of Magic and enjoyed them both immensely..
Four Ways to Forgiveness by Ursula K. Le Guin: You ever notice how almost all Le Guin’s SF novels have titles that sound a bit like Spaghetti Westerns? I don’t know what to make of that, but I think it’s kind of cool. I also like how she swears in her books and writes characters who are quietly and respectfully down to fuck. This novel is a series of linked novellas taking place on a pair of planets, Werel and Yeowe, where the populations were once sorted into “owners” and “assets”, but then a revolution occurred. The characters have either lived through that revolution or have arrived in its aftermath as a new society emerges. Harrowing stuff at times, and in another writer’s hands I’d be worried, but Le Guin does a great job here. (I also reread The Tombs of Atuan and Tehanu from the Earthsea series and can still say I adore them.)
The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce: I adored this book! I want to call this folk horror, but it’s not quite horrific enough. I’ll call it instead folk horror adjacent contemporary fantasy. It’s the 1960s and Fern Cullen is the teenaged assistant to mammy, the local wise woman in a small English village. Most of their work is herblore and midwifery, but they also provide abortions where required. And it’s this that lands them in trouble. As the world changes around them and Mammy ends up hospitalized, Fern must decide whether she is willing to continue the work Mammy has taught her or adapt and change with the times. Like I said, I adored this book and wholeheartedly recommend it.
Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries #2) by Martha Wells: When we left Murderbot at the end of All Systems Red, they’d saved their humans but fled from their offer of sanctuary, choosing instead to learn the truth of their own past. And so that’s where we pick up here with Murderbot stowing away onboard ART, an Assholish Research Transport vessel, and returning to the site of the massacre they believe they committed. Of course this puts Murderbot in danger, bot only from humans but from other robots that see Murderbot as something of a role model. If you want fun, SF action entertainment these books deliver.
Yo. Here’s some of what I read and liked over the month of June.
The Ipcress File by Len Deighton: I like the spy novels that tumbled in on the wake of Ian Fleming’s James Bond and which positioned themselves as being distinctly anti-Bond. The nebbish cuckold of John Le Carre’s George Smiley and Len Deighton’s working class paycheck and expense account obsessed Harry Palmer. This is the first in Deighton’s Palmer series (which isn’t even the character’s name but the one Michael Caine gave him in the film version) and it’s an enjoyable spy romp involving nuclear tests, brain washing, and the international trafficking in prominent scientists. Sure, the scheming is topsy-turvy and the plot exhausting after a bit, but the voice carries you to the end. Dry, acerbic, and bemusedly aloof is my jam.
Armed in Her Fashion by Kate Heartfield: It’s 1328 and the Chatelaine of Hell has besieged the city of Bruges with her army of chimeras and the widow Margriet de Vos is mad at Hell and not going to take it any more. Also her husband won’t stay dead and still puts claims on the property Margriet sees as her inheritance, an ill-gained hoard of riches and a magic weapon that just happens to be the key to Hell. This forces her to flee Bruges with an assortment of companions, nearly all of whom are wronged women like Margriet herself. For such a small book there’s a lot going on in Armed in Her Fashion and while there were a few moments where I wished Heartfield zigged instead of zagged, I overall enjoyed the ride. Novels based on Brueghel paintings are my jam. Check out Dulle Griet.
Apocalypse Nyx by Kameron Hurley: I am a huge fan of Hurley’s Bel Dame series and this book is a collection of short stories that serve as something of a tangential prequel to that series. Former Bel Dame, turned mercenary Nyx is still a battered and rebuilt veteran of the ongoing brutal war on her world, and here she’s putting together the team she’ll have around her in God’s War. If there’s something of a through line to the book’s stories, it’s Nyx’s struggle to be slightly less awful than the default awfulness of her surroundings. She might not have a completely functioning moral compass, but it works from time to time. Violent bug-fueled science-fantasy is my jam.
Close Your Eyes is a hallucinatory space opera, well, a nominal space opera at least. It reprints the 2009 novella Open Your Eyes and adds a continuation on to it as the misfit salvage crew find themselves in an alien world.
In this book language is a virus, but you likely heard that one before. What might be news is love is a virus too. It consumes and destroys as efficiently as any microbe-borne fever could.
A woman impregnated by a supernova, a man obsessed with an imaginary woman, a woman held captive by her love for her abuser, and another woman trying to resurrect her dead lover. These individuals compose the ship’s love-doomed crew as they scavenge across the stars and ultimately encounter an apocalyptic brain-melting alien language virus.
Things happen. Events spiral into chaos. Dooms are averted or not to catastrophic results.
One trope of space opera is that there are galaxy spanning hegemonies or polities, Federations, Empires, Cultures, and what not. In Close Your Eyes there’s none of that. There’s no there there. The galaxy is so big and the populations so distant that it’s like no one lives there at all. The technology too is at once familiar and incomprehensible. Characters walk the ship’s eiga armed with betadurs while their patueks back-up their brains in case of emergencies. None of these get described, but a lever on the wall does.
It’s jarring, but it also might be the point.
When setting is more atmosphere and mood than concrete details, the reader’s invited to take an active part in the story’s creation and fill in the gaps. But this also means the reader might make some leaps the author wouldn’t intend. The world depicted in Close Your Eyes is a world where predation abounds. The big fish always eats the little fish. And this applies to AI computer systems, alien language viruses, as well as simple interpersonal relationships.
And while all this is recognizable as space opera, the latter portions of Close Your Mouth are straight from Lewis Carroll. Just when you think you’ve figured out the rules, the novel pulls the rug out from under you and changes the rules, and we the reader emerge from one hallucinatory setting to another with suddenly different rules and different relationships. Where before you were on an awful space ship now you’re in a malevolent wonderland where the predation continues but events remain just as incomprehensible.
Is that a problem? I don’t know. Maybe for some, but others might find the weird, jarring imagistic stuff refreshing. I did. You might too.
Close Your Eyes is available from Apex Books and your usual monolithic internet retailers.
A manuscript hidden away for decades in a bottom drawer discovered after its author’s death.
Another manuscript lost when the suitcase it was stored in gets stolen from a train compartment.
Or another manuscript destroyed to protect the author’s associates and families from scandal. Not to mention the other, other manuscripts destroyed by their authors for not being good enough. Or even no manuscripts at all, just the rumors of them. Books that may or may not have ever existed but which still manage to haunt readers because they might have.
Giorgio van Straten hunts for these books here, exploring eight of their stories and the mysteries that surround them. From certainty to speculation, from the lost manuscript Van Straten read but later learned was destroyed, to those he wonders if they’ve ever existed at all. There’s the Hemingway manuscript lost when his then wife had her suitcase stolen. There’s Lord Byron’s memoirs burnt by his associates to spare them from scandal. There’s Gogol burning the later parts of Dead Souls because they weren’t “good enough”, and then there’s Walter Benjamin, Sylvia Plath, Bruno Schulz, Malcolm Lowery, all of them with rumored “lost” manuscripts out there.
We start in Italy and the manuscript that in many ways typifies them all. This one written by Van Straten’s mentor, the Italian writer Romano Bilenchi. Here he knows the book existed. He saw it and read a copy, only to learn years later that Bilenchi’s wife destroyed the manuscript to protect her husband’s legacy. The second has Lord Byron’s associates meeting with his agent to burn his memoirs and keep them from publication to silence any possible accounts of homosexuality (less Byron’s and more their own). Then there’s the famous Hemingway’s lost suitcase and Walter Benjamin’s lost suitcase too, although maybe his was empty. We read of Gogol’s and Lowry’s self-destructive perfectionism and how this as much as any thing destroyed their work. Last, are the tantalizing ones: Bruno Schulz’s novel The Messiah lost in the chaos of World War Two (even now hints of its possible discovery can generate plots that resemble spy thrillers), and the potential books by Sylvia Plath kept out of the public sphere by Ted Hughes’s control of her estate.
Overall this is a very enjoyable set of essays about an author’s obsession with an obsession-worthy subject, and the bug that’s as much fool’s quest as the object of wishful thinking on what might have been. If you can track down a copy, and are the kind who enjoys a good fool’s quest, this is definitely worth a read.
Imaginary Lives by Marcel Schwob: Schwob’s one of those decadent fin-de-siecle French fellows I’m crazy about. Here he plays with biography by writing a short set of in-depth profiles of various ne’er-do-wells, nobodies, and the corrupt. While the profiles aren’t absolutely accurate, they dig deep into the mundane and dredge up moods and ideas that resemble truths.
A fun little book, it’s easy to read this and see how its influence on later writers such as Borges.
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland: Zombies rise in the middle of the Battle of Gettysburg and pretty much put a stop to the American Civil War. Now years after the War’s end some semblance of society has returned. In the wake of the Native and Negro Reeducation Act certain children get combat training so they might serve the wealthy as attendants, protecting them from zombies and other threats. Jane McKeene is one such woman studying at Miss Preston’s Combat School in the walled enclave of Baltimore where she ends up stumbling upon a conspiracy that soon puts her life and those of her friends in jeopardy.
While the larger setting here feels vague and put in with broad strokes, it’s the day to day stuff and the picture of Jane and her friendships that I found most endearing.
Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente: This is one of those books that has a buy in. So if the notion of a washed-up glamrock act having to compete in an intergalactic “Eurovision” style contest to prove humanity’s worth a damn sounds like something you might want to read, then yeah, this is that book. This is that book in spades. Part Ziggy Stardust, part Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s fun and funny, and even when it’s not you only have to read a few more pages for the funny fun to return. And if David Bowie Douglas Adams, doesn’t sound fun at least the book didn’t try to fool you by pretending to be anything other than what it was.
The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks: Hooks as always is insightful and unflinching, but there’s a lot of love and kindness in her words as she attempts to provide a frame work for men whom she feels have been either maligned or left behind in a lot of feminist theory. What she creates then is a call to action for men that instead of prioritizing patriarchal dominance and hierarchies challenges us to the heroic task of creating lives of integrity as nurturing presences within our communities.
Jade City by Fonda Lee: Wow. This book takes Game of Thrones and Hong Kong action movies, mixes them together, and makes a Kung Fu gangster epic around dueling families of magical jade-fueled warriors as they vie for dominance in the imaginary island nation of Kekon. This is secondary world fantasy, but set in a time period that feel like the 1970s/80s in a place somewhere like South East Asia. Whether the city of Janloon is Hong Kong, Saigon, or Singapore doesn’t really matter so much as the world Lee creates there is unique, vivid, and masterfully executed, so that by the end when she pulls back some to depict the brewing Cold War elsewhere in the world we have a clear understanding of what’s at stake.
If you ever wished John Woo put more magic in his gangster films, then this is the book for you. For serious.
A woman found brutally murdered in a locked room. A chemically preserved corpse discovered in a steamer trunk. An audacious robbery committed by a masked and tuxedoed thief in a grand Paris hotel. Nothing connects these crimes, only the suspicion that the same perpetrator committed them all. Who? Fantômas!
Written between the years 1911 and 1914 by the writing team of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, the Fantômas serial ran for a total of thirty-two novels. In that time, the title character eluded the forces of justice and committed increasingly daring crimes to satisfy an urge for “beautiful-compulsive” violence. To read a Fantômas novel is to enter a fast-paced, bewildering world loaded with violent imagery. Where ultimate evil is never defeated, but escapes every time.
Fantômas was the prototypical supervillain. He had no goal beyond the desire to wreak havoc, a hybrid of Edmond Dantès (the Count of Monte Cristo) and the Joker; not so much a character as a phantom, an invoked spirit: the Lord of Terror, the Master of Crime, the Genius of Evil.
From the opening exchange of the first novel, there is no doubt as to his powers:
“What did you say?”
“I said: Fantômas.”
“And what does that mean?”
“But what is it?”
“Nobody…. And yet, yes, it is somebody!”
“And what does the somebody do?”
The novels’ popularity cut through social classes. They were read avidly by the public, as well as championed by the surrealists who saw in the series a predecessor to their own work and a key to the imagination. Raymond Queneau, Blaise Cendrars, Magritte, and Pablo Neruda all admitted to being fans. Guillaume Apollinaire called the series “inestimably rich” and suggested that in order to achieve the full poetic effect the novels should be read straight through as quickly as possible (a habit he also recommended for the works of Dumas and Paul Féval, the originator of the “cloak-and-dagger” genre and the author of a series of vampire novels that predate the works of Bram Stoker). James Joyce described the series simply as, “Enfantômastic!”
However, Allain and Souvestre had not set out to create anything of cultural import when they began the series.
The pair had met while working for the automotive magazine Poids Lourdes (“Heavy Trucks”). They were veterans of Paris’s pulp trade: the cheaply produced and poorly printed paperback novels called feuilletons. Souvestre was impressed by the young Allain’s ability, especially after seeing Allain churn out a seventeen-page article in two hours about a truck he had never seen before. They had no artistic pretensions and were in it entirely to earn their living. The characters are flat, the plots beyond hackneyed, and the dialogue overblown and bombastic. Allain and Souvestre ripped off other novels by the cartload and plagiarized their own works. They came up with the plot one week, wrote the prose over the following week, each one writing an alternate chapter, and then spent a week grooming the manuscript into a cohesive whole. Meanwhile, the marketing department arranged the cover artwork. An assignment handled by the Italian artist Gino Starace, whose lurid covers provided the perfect graphic milieu for the narrative. These presage the grisly aspects of EC comics and artists such as Johnny Craig and Bernie Krigstein.
It was three o’clock when Juve arrived at the rue Lévert, and he found the concierge of number 147 just finishing her coffee.
Amazed at the results achieved by the detective, the details of which she had learned from sensational articles in the daily papers, Mme. Doulenques had conceived a most respectable admiration for the detective of the Criminal Investigation Department.
“That man,” she constantly declared to Mme. Aurore, “hasn’t got eyes in his head, but telescopes, magnifying glasses! He sees everything in a second—even when it isn’t there!”
But why did Fantômas capture the imagination so strongly? The novels are not whodunits, nor even whydunits (as is the work of George Simenon), but howdunits. We know who did it: Fantômas. We know why: Lord of Terror, etc. But it’s the how that hooks us.
How did he get into the Marquise de Langrune’s bedroom after the door was locked?
How did he escape the Paris hotel after the Princess Sonia notified the authorities?
How did he trick Inspector Juve even when the detective practically walked him to the steps of the guillotine?
A recapitulation of the plot is irrelevant. A series of unsolvable crimes are committed. The detective Juve believes they are the work of Fantômas. In his pursuit of the villain he is assisted by Jérôme Fandor, a young man wrongfully accused of one of these crimes. The pair adopt various disguises and track Fantômas, who is also disguised, through the Paris underworld. There are set-piece scenes consisting of deathtraps, criminal locales, and a number of courtroom episodes. Severed heads and hands abound, as do bells dripping blood and disasters such as trainwrecks and shipwrecks. Colorful characters appear for a chapter and then disappear into the background. Identities are mutable, and in any given chapter one or more characters might remove their mask and reveal themselves to be Juve, Fantômas, or Fandor (or, after the eighth novel, Hélène, Fantômas’ opium-smoking, pistol-toting, cross-dressing daughter). This gimmick gets played so often that it goes well beyond the plausible, bypassing absurdity, verging on the pathological. The characters have no identity, and it’s only by wearing masks that they become real.
In this fact one can possibly see why the series appealed to the surrealists. Not only was the plot propelled by the actions of a nihilistic antihero at war with society, but the characters were only “real” when they pretended to be someone else. The results when attached to breakneck plotting and violent imagery approached a sort of pulp delirium that directly affected the imagination.
Fandor saw that Juve was staggering and seemed about to faint. He rushed toward him.
“Good God!” he cried in tones of anguish.
“It isn’t Gurn who has just been put to death!” Juve panted brokenly. “This face has not gone white because it is painted! It is made up—like an actor. Oh, curse him! Fantômas has escaped! Fantômas has gotten away! He has had some innocent man executed in his stead! I tell you, Fantômas is alive!”
Pierre Souvestre died of Spanish Influenza in 1914. Allain was sent to the trenches of the First World War, but survived to pen eleven more Fantômas novels (he also wound up marrying Souvestre’s widow). In 1913, Fantômas made the leap to movies in a series of serials directed by the silent-film pioneer Louis Feuillade (best known for his later serials Judex and Les Vampires). A 20-episode American serial followed in 1920; and Fantômas movies, television shows, and radio serials were made well into the 1980s. Later films resembled James Bond-style capers and featured technological gadgets and hidden bases. They also gave Fantômas blue skin.
Around the world Fantômas spawned a variety of supervillains. Throughout the rest of his life, Allain continued to churn out Fantômas-style characters such as Tigris, Fatala, and Miss Teria. The 1960s saw various Italian, French, and Spanish publishers competing with ever-increasing doses of sadism to follow the Fantômas model. The character had sunk so deep into pop culture as to be largely invisible. European comic characters Diabolik, Kriminal, Killing, and Satanik can all trace their heritage back to Fantômas. Other characters, such as Dr. Mabuse and the Joker, owe a fair debt to the Genius of Evil and his love of “beautiful compulsive” violence. In a strange character reversal, Fantômas even went on to become a hero. When the Japanese anime Ogon Bator was syndicated in Brazil the character was renamed Fantômas and protected the earth from alien invaders.
If all this sounds fun, you’re in luck. Tracking down Fantômas novels is fairly easy. The first novel is readily available as a Penguin Classic, and a variety of small presses and print-on-demand publishers produce translated reprints of some of the series in varying quality. There’s also an apocryphal storyline where Fantômas goes to England and fights Sherlock Holmes.
But, what is most intriguing in the Fantômas-myth is the notion that popular fiction can be intoxicating and serve as a catalyst to the imagination. It suggests the possible inspiration residing within soap operas, comic books, and mass-market paperbacks. By their very ubiquity and devotion to the trends of the present these items overcome our judgments and speak to our unconscious.
I believe there’s a charm in the violent popular melodrama of earlier eras. Whether it’s The Monk, Vathek, The Werewolf of Paris, or Flowers in the Attic. This stuff is shocking in wholly unsuspecting ways, and Fantômas is no different. Even all this won’t prepare you for how unstintingly absurd it all is. It needs to be experienced first hand.
* (This essay first appeared in April 2009 on the soon to be shuttered Internet Review of Science Fiction website. It’s been and edited and tidied up some for reprinting here.)
Here we go with what I liked and loved in the way of books for the month of March.
Lotus Blue by Cat Sparks: This is a fun, picaresque science fiction novel. Star and her sister Nene are orphans living in a wagon caravan that travels between the far flung outposts of a blighted post-apocalyptic landscape. Star has hopes of ditching the caravan as soon as they reach the next big settlement, but events interfere with her plans and soon she’s traveling across the Obsidian Sea to do battle with a recently awakened war machine. The thing I liked most about this was that the world feels populated by all these characters and the plot’s not so much what they want, but how they react to this bigger event outside themselves.
So you have caravan scavengers, sheltered collapsing technological societies, half-dead super soldiers, and decadent merchants all put in motion and trying to make sense of this one war machine returning to life.
Child of Fortune by Norman Spinrad: There’s this old RPG called Fading Suns that I never played but devoured every book I could find for it. It’s basically an intergalactic medieval society and while I’m not a 100% sure I would like to play it, as a setting I love it. Anyway, Child of Fortune is sort of like that. I love the setting, but not sure I completely love the execution. In more than a few ways I wish someone else had taken whatever notes Spinrad had for the setting and written their own novel for this.
On the other hand, I did really, really like this. It’s basically people in rockets traveling the universe looking for drugs, and that’s a sub-genre I can get behind.
So, in the far future people have figured out faster than light travel (via orgasms natch, because this book’s very much in the Hugh Hefner school of SF) and it’s become a rite of passage for youngish people to enjoy a wanderjahr after their main education is over but before they commit to whatever their adult work may be. Moussa Shasta LastnameIcan’tremember is a young woman who sets out on her own wanderjahr and in true classic bildungsroman sense grows from being a callous youth into a full-fledged adult. Along the way she joins a youth gang, the Gypsy Jokers, seduces their leader, Pater Pan, and barely escapes a planet made out of drugs, the Bloomenveldt, before she discovers the true purpose of her life as a ruespeiler.
Part of this book had me rolling my eyes, and part of me adored it. I suspect if I had read this book between the ages of 16 and 23, I would have loved it.
Silent Hall by N.S. Dolkart: I described this as a smarter Dragonlance novel and the more time that passes from when I read it, the more I am impressed by how smart it is. Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s still very much Dragonlance, with a Breakfast Club‘s worth of unlikely heroes brought together to complete quests for a wizard, BUT within that framework Dolkart has fun and subverts with the conventions by bringing some ugly reality to the tropes. The character injured early in the quest is permanently disabled by it, the character trained as a warrior is unnerved by killing, and the character “chosen” by a god is completely twisted by the event that he second guesses everything he encounters as being a further sign from his god. Not to mention the character raised by wolves who has a decidedly cavalier attitude towards sex and menstruation that fuels at least a few chapters worth of subplot. And none of which takes into account the dragons, the elves, the wizards, and the quests. Overall, if you have fond memories of David Eddings, Terry Brooks, and Weiss and Hickman, but wish they were a little bit more socially engaged and relevant, you might be surprised by how much you like Silent Hall.
Wagner the Werewolf by George W.M. Reynolds: I can’t even. Literally, I can’t. This book… this book has plot enough for maybe four or five other books.
To say this book is a mess is to insult both it and messes. To say it’s some of the worst prose I ever read with some of the most breakneck thrilling plot I’ve ever encountered is another matter. Both those things are true. This book was both a delight and a chore to read. All of which I feel is spot on for something that’s an actual, honest to god, Penny Dreadful. There are evil nuns, bandits, pirates, werewolves, demons, assassins, nobles, the Inquisition, and progressive Victorian views of the Other that are still racist, but slightly more palatable than their contemporaries. While I do think The Monk is a better book, Wagner is dizzyingly enjoyable as long as you don’t get hung up on the actual words and just keep turning pages.