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.
I’m not much of a YA reader. The times I’ve made forays into recent YA blockbusters I’ve always been put off by how aggressively and enthusiastically bland they are.
Also the self-absorbed whining.
Also the love triangles.
But honestly I’m not really that well-versed in the genre, at least in its prose format and would probably have an easier time with graphic novels dealing with the same issues.
All that said I was happy to find Mary Turzillo’s Mars Girls anything but bland. It’s a YA SF adventure story that’s quite fun. Best of all, there’s no dystopia nor reality TV bloodsports, only a couple of 23rd century teenage girls on Mars caught up in a mystery involving murder, cultists, corporate geeks, and stolen tech.
Much of the fun comes from the differences between our two teen protagonists: Nanoannie and Kapera Smythe. While Nanoannie is the older of the two friends, she’s certainly not the wiser and while she is the protagonist, she’s much more the propellant whose over-active imagination fuels as much of the plot as solves it. Kapera on the other hand is more thoughtful and reserved. Also she’s more in jeopardy as it’s her family at the center of the plot. She also needs to get to an Earth Orbital colony for medical treatment. And while Nanoannie’s assistance is not totally altruistic, the price tag she offers is one totally in keeping with her character.
The fact that the book isn’t a cruel dystopia is a point in its favor. Overall 23rd century teen life seems recognizably teenish. Nanoannie’s obsessed with dating, fashion, and not being the boring corporate contract workers her parents are. There’s a future internet and attendant social media, but all she wants is to see a bit of Mars before she settles down. That she and Kapera are technologically precocious I’ll let slide. What teen isn’t more technologically savvy than their elders and who am I to raise an eyebrow at the notion of decently home-schooled by scientists teens making easy adjustments to their home nuclear reactor?
Turzillo’s Mars is a consistently hazardous place that feels real and consistent. There’s very little that comes out of left-field and throws you for a loop at least as far as the physics goes. Maybe Kapera’s hoodoo/intuition borders on a telepathic sixth sense, but that’s a rather small piece of the overall plot. And while the story is confined to Mars there’s a definite sense of there being a populated solar system beyond.
Earth’s still there and seems to be doing all right (or maybe Nanoannie and Kapera just don’t care) and there are orbital colonies and Lunar colonies that have industries solvent enough to want to up-sell their products to the unwary. The bad thing in the world might be indentured servitude to corporations seems to be a thing, and corporations have done away with owners and are now run by AIs programmed to maximize profits, which, surprise, surprise, turns out to be a bad idea. And while there were times I wish Turzillo went deeper into her setting, I’m the type that would rather have too little than too much.
Being curious about an interesting idea the author throws away is a much better thing than getting inundated under interesting ideas brought to their uninteresting conclusions.
On the down side there were a couple of corny bits that grated, such as “nuke” as a slang word for “cool”, and the occasional name that bordered on the campy (Elvis Darcy), but they also kind of gave the novel an aesthetic. And there were better silly bits that added to the fun: little details such as the Facer cult wearing symbiotic bindis that display their mood or the oft-mentioned author Naussicaa Azrael whose books Nanoannie has internalized all too well. (This latter one reminded me of Martha Wells’s murderbot in All Systems Red and the “Narrative Disorder” idea Malka Older plays with in Infomocracy – Nanoannie would very well be the poster child for such a disorder.)
While it might be possible to say there’s something retro in Turzillo’s approach, I don’t quite think that’s the case. Sometimes I feel like a lot of genre fiction is trying too hard to be important or serious, and too often the structural bones writers are building their plots on can’t quite bear the weight they’re piling on. All of which leads to a bit of ponderousness when a lighter touch would be more suitable and advantageous.
This isn’t to say genre books should only be fun or humorous, but they can get a lot of mileage out of suggestion and throw-away gimmicks if only writers learn to harness and trust that energy. Stuff like Philip K. Dick’s kookier SF novels such as Clans of the Alphane Moon or Rudy Rucker’s novels – I miss that stuff, and while I certainly feel it’s receded or at least gone out of fashion in recent decades, it’s not altogether gone. I just want more of it. And much to my delight, Mars Girls gave me that and did it intelligently. So give it a shot. I recommend it.
Mars Girls by Mary Turzillo is published by Apex Book Company and set to be released on June 13th. You can order a copy here.
My simple review for Beautiful Sorrows by Mercedes M. Yardley is if you’re into the sort of thing these stories do, then you’ll like this collection, and if you’re not into that sort of thing, then you won’t.
Simple, right? Maybe.
Figuring out where you lie on that spectrum requires looking at what these stories might be doing and figuring out if that’s your thing or not. And an easy way of deciding that is asking yourself how do you feel about exquisiteness. Things delicate, beautiful, and potentially possessing more alluring surfaces than their interiors might warrant.
Beautiful Sorrows features twenty-seven stories, ranging from paragraph long micro-fictions to a single novella length. It’s a mix of the fantastic (Fairy Tale variety) and the dark (Neil Gaiman variety). But it’s the sheer exquisiteness of these stories that provides the through-line that holds them all together.
Whether it’s the painful briefness “Broken”, the macabre wryness of “The ABCs of Murder”, or the fairy tale tweeness of “The Boy Who Hangs the Stars”, these stories one and all are exquisite. What they might lack in substance they make up for in emotional content and taut shiny surfaces. So even if my impression of a story was that it was light and ephemeral like a bubble, the emotion that lingered after the bubble burst might be as much the point of the story as the pleasure that came from the words written on the page.
Or when the fae tweeness got so thick my eyes rolled back in my skull to rattle around for a bit, there was always this exquisiteness to keep my attention: the well-executed surface that I could admire. Although some stories did leave a bad taste after I’d finished them, and I suspect the reaction was not one Yardley intended. These however seemed to revel in those sorts of seductions that from my perspective border on the creepily abusive, but when presented in the book there’s no such rejection of that behavior. (“Sweet, Sweet Sonja T.” I’m looking at you.)
Overall these are well-crafted and richly imaginative stories. Whether they will remain in your mind once you put the book down I can’t say, but maybe not a requirement for you to enjoy or appreciate them. At least it wasn’t for me.
Back in October 2016 I was on twitter whining about the fact that I couldn’t find anything to read in my particular corner of genre interest (a contemporary, well-written space-opera novel but short) and this started an exchange between myself, Paul Jessup, and Joe McDermott swapping book recommendations, the upside of which was Joe sending me an advance copy of his latest book, The Fortress at the End of Time. I’ve been a fan of Joe’s stuff since I read his book Last Dragon, so gladly agreed to writing a review of the book after reading it.
(The downside of that conversation was its eventual, though not unexpected, wrangling over how good or bad a book Moby Dick is…)
The short answer then is I liked it. A lot. The Fortress at the End of Time is very much my particular corner of genre interest as it reads a bit like a mash-up of Walter M. Miller JR’s A Canticle for Leibowitz and Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppes. While it’s not much of a space-opera it does deal with a galactic civilization. I’d call it more military SF, if milSF were truer to the modern day experience of the military – a lot of boredom and drudgery with a sideline of diplomacy in a place far away from home – than, say, any iteration of Space Hulk. (Another book in a similar vein might be Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword.)
Here’s what Fortress is about: Ronaldo Aldo is a young military officer sent to a far away military outpost located in orbit above a desert world, the Citadel. Actually it’s not Aldo himself, but his clone that’s sent as intergalactic travel is conducted via ansible, which is a bit like a Star Trek transporter. About a century before the novel’s events a war took place between humanity and another intergalactic species with the other species disappearing beyond an empty expanse of space. The outpost where Aldo is sent serves as a forward listening base in case the aliens return, but in reality it’s a horrible posting full of drudgery, boredom, and a high suicide rate.
Between the corruption of his fellow officers, the institutionalized sexual harassment, and the feud between the military outpost and the civilian monastery on the planet’s surface, Aldo quickly finds himself at a loss in dealing with those around him. Part of his problem is that he’s more than a bit of a sanctimonious prig who alienates those around him even when he’s doing the right thing. The other problem might be a bit more meta, in that the book is a first person confession by Aldo regarding a crime it takes over two hundred pages for him to come straight out and confess. As another reviewer on Goodreads said, “sometimes you wish you could punch Aldo in the nose” and that’s the truth. Even when Aldo commits his justifiable from the reader’s perspective defiant act of rebellion, he can’t escape that priggishness that makes you dislike him.
Now, like I said this book is very much in my little area of interest. Whether other folks enjoy 1st person Miller/Buzzati* mash-ups that have a good bit of crunch to them, but no answers (and you can’t riff on The Tartar Steppes and simply provide answers…) I can’t really say. When I finished the book, I had to wonder who else would go for something like this besides other weirdos like me, and we’re not much of a stable niche market. That Tor/Macmillan would put this out makes me immensely glad and continues my impression that the Tor.com novella series is a fascinating experiment, and The Fortress at the End of Time fits well in that list.
* Wasn’t Buzzati a Fascist? Yes. Yes, he was. If you feel weird reading him, you can always read Gramsci alongside him.
“If you ask, she must answer. A steerswoman’s knowledge is shared with any who request it; no steerswoman may refuse a question, and no steerswoman may answer with anything but the truth.”
So last month I breezed through all the books in Rosemary Kirstein’s The Steerswoman series. And now I want to tell you all about them because they’re smart and fun.
The Good… They’re limited in setting, POV, and scope. This is definitely a pet peeve of mine, but I much prefer stories set against a local area than one that sprawls. These books don’t sprawl. They’re smart in their presentation of their world and philosophy. I can’t say enough about how great it is to read a speculative fiction novel that digs deep into a place and way of life and not send its characters careening across the landscape like tourists or anthropologists for hundreds of pages. And this is even though the Steerswomen do approach their work like anthropologists would, studying their society and the world they live in – but it’s presented as part and parcel of a developed milieu.
These are very much books about people in places and not about broad political movements or the internecine strife between nations or kingdoms. Those things are present as are elements of the sword & sorcery genre, only their brought down to the level of neighborhood politics and local actions. Their perspective is not the Epic but the Realist. Rowan the Steerswoman is on a journey of discovery and we learn as she explores different places and communities. Even the map in the front of the book is an artifact of her journey towards a greater understanding of her world, as each book opens with a different map encompassing her explorations up until that book.
The Bad… It’s a series and it’s not done yet. The first book was written in 1989 and the fourth in 2004. The author has said there are likely two more books to go. So coming into the series now, you need to know ahead of time that while each book is self-contained and short, the main story-line is yet to be fulfilled. All those plots and adventures and slow reveals of wider world details have yet to pay off. That’s a drag. But to let that stop you would be to miss out on some very good and very smart adventure fiction.
The Ugly… There’s a reveal. It’s not well hidden. Look at the covers to the first two books, The Steerswoman and The Outskirter’s Secret, you don’t even need the author to tell you she’s writing science-fiction not fantasy. (But if so, it’s the science fiction of Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia and not so much Non-Stop.) The fact that there is a reveal isn’t such a bad thing, but don’t get hung up on it. Really, it’s not a secret. It’s on the covers after all. The rest of it is all good, so check’em out!
“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.
My review of Lisa Shapter’s novella A Day in Deep Freeze is up over at My Bookish Ways. The book reads like a horror-themed slow-burn Philip K. Dick in the mode of Time Out of Joint with a narrator slowly crumbling beneath his paranoia and inability to confront hard choices about who he is. It’s one of those books where if the hero succeeds and gets what they want, it’s the worst possible solution they could achieve.
Anyway, I blather.
Check out the review. Check out the book.