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Review of Black Trump edited by George R R Martin

22 November 2010 Leave a comment

None of the volumes in this internal trilogy within the long-running Wild Cards series compared well with ealier installments. This third book was probably the best of the three, however. Unlike the first two – which were presented as a series of interlinked short stories threaded together with one longer narrative, this one is a genuine ‘mosaic novel’ – all the narratives of the different characters and writers are set out as one seamless text (disregarding section breaks). In this case, the text is divided into long chapters counting down from Eight to the story’s climax at Zero.

One of the problems with the Card Sharks trilogy has been uneven character choice. In the first book, the main character was a pretty uninspiring arson investigator, a woman who wasn’t even a Wild Card victim. She is still present in the latter two books, but only as a minor character. In the middle book, a new character is introduced, and, in the context of that volume she’s pretty redundant, but in the final book she’s upgraded to main-character-hood. Unfortunately, she’s also quite whiny and her sections take up too much space.

I think maybe one deeper problem with the three books (apart from the fact that the basic premise of the story involves a partial reboot of Wild Cards alternate history) is that they seem to have been envisioned as a way of tying up a bunch of loose ends – in particular, the Jumpers – aces who can swap their consciousness into the body of another person – and Gregg Hartmann, the one-time presidential candidate and secret ace Puppetman. It also leaves a big loose end hanging at the end, with one of the main characters suddenly deciding to be evil. And the covers of the books are crappy; that’s not a major flaw, of course, but a book’s presentation does influence the way you think of it.

So now I’m faced with a quandary. The next book in the series, the sixteenth, is also the rarest, and will set me back about $100 to get hold of a copy. I’m not going to rush to buy it, but at the same time I do want to get up to date with the series, which appears to have found a new lease of life in the past few years.

Review of Marked Cards edited by George R R Martin

5 November 2010 Leave a comment

This is the fourteenth Wild Cards book and the second in an internal trilogy consisting of Card Sharks, Marked Cards and Black Trump. The first book wasn’t brilliant, being a disjointed, scene-setting, prequel-ish, rewriting of history sort of a story.

This volume was better, though. Instead of being focused on the past, the narrative here moves forwards consistently as things actually happen in the story’s present. The story adopts the usual format of a number short stories/novellas alternating with an episodic narrative about one central character – in this case, former Senator, presidential candidate and ace, Gergg Hartmann – an important player in several of the earlier Wild Cards novels.

This structure is generally effective and was, for the most part, in this book. However, the Gregg Hartmann sections tail off in interest towards the end. Most of the other stories are pretty strong, although, Sage Walker’s ‘A Breath of Life’, introducing a new and so far peripheral character, was fairly weak. The strongest part, I thought, was ‘Feeding Frenzy’ by Walter Jon Williams, where Croyd Crenson and Black Shadow embark on a mission to destroy the Card Sharks – with a fair amount of success.

The general thrust of the story isn’t much altered by Crenson and Shad’s efforts, though and by the end, all Wild Card-infected people are facing grave danger in the form of a deadly virus. This sets the scene for a potentially thrilling conclusion to the trilogy – which will be much needed, frankly.

Review of Retromancer by Robert Rankin

18 October 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve only just got round to reading last year’s offering by the world’s greatest teller of tall tales, and, to be honest, it was a bit disappointing. All the basic components of a Robert Rankin novel are there – one gormless hero taking on the forces of evil to save the world, a heady mix of science fiction and the supernatural, and much talking of toot.

This novel is a direct sequel to The Brightonomicon and sees Hugo Rune’s assistant Rizla (whose identity was revealed at the end of this novel’s predecessor) travelling back in time to prevent the Germans winning the war. Along the way Rune and Rizla must solve twelve mysteries, each one related to a tarot card (and each of these has a full page illustration created by Rankin), which see them dealing with ghosts and werewolves, the now-legendary Minstry of Serendipity, the spirit of King Arthur resurrected in a Bletchley Park computer, the technology behind the Philadelphia Experiment, and so on and so forth.

A lot of this book seemed like joining the dots. The characters had an arbitrary series of cases to crack before the inevitable show-down with the villain of the piece, Count Otto Black. The story lacked the usual verve – and even the narrator comments on a lack of the usual running gags (although there is a superabundance of devices powered by the transperambulation of pseudo cosmic antimatter). The fact that the narrator’s true identity is also known took away from force of the books, for me.

On the other hand, there are some interesting developments regarding Rune himself – we learn more about his relationship to Black, and there is a suggestion that he might retire himself.

All in all, this was not an outstanding Rankin book, so I look forward to this year’s effort, The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions, with a mixture of trepidation and hope.

Review of Card Sharks edited by George R R Martin

12 September 2010 Leave a comment

Card Sharks is the thirteenth book in the Wild Cards series and the first in ‘new cycle’ of three books.

For the uninitiated, the Wild Card virus was a disease genetically engineered by an alien race genetically identical to humans and tested on Earth in 1948. Its effects are to kill horribly the vast majority of its victims, to turn to mutants – ‘jokers’ – the majority of the rest, and, for the remaining minority of a minority, to bestow superpowers – these are the ‘aces’. The Wild Cards books are gritty, alternate history superhero stories, and, for the most part, quite entertaining. The series is the brainchild of George R R Martin (although he didn’t contribute, writing-wise, to this book) and some of his writing and roleplaying friends. Numerous authors have been involved in the project over the years.

Card Sharks wasn’t one of the most entertaining books in the sequence. The format of the books generally varies – the first book was a set of short stories detailing various episodes in the world of the Wild Card virus, others have been true collaborative, ‘mosaic’ novels, a couple have been written by single authors. This one takes the most common form: one longer, unified narrative broken up by shorter episodes penned by different writers. The difference here is that each of the episodes is a first person narrative of things that have happened in the past. The book is set in the early nineties and the stories within the story go back as far as the fifties.

The book works well enough as a prelude to things to come later in the three-book sequence, but the heavy reliance on these backward-looking stories robs the book of emotive and narrative force. In other words, everything the reader learns has already happened, is history.

The story running through the book, appropriately named ‘The Ashes of Memory’, sees a young female fire investigator looking into the deaths of hundreds of jokers in an arson attack on a church, by following leads and interviewing various jokers and aces, she learns far more than she bargained for about the background to the attack.

Basically, it appears to be the latest incident in a conspiracy that has lasted for forty years or more. The problem is that, with the reader (this reader, at any rate) having already read twelve books about the fall-out of that fateful day in 1948, it strains belief that this conspiracy is only now coming to light, that those who have witnessed it in action are only now speaking out, that the conspiracy is only now taking action to kill Wild Card victims on a large scale.

The episodes narrated by the investigators interviewees are generally interesting and readable. There’s an alternate history version of the early stages of the space race, a tale of a centaur doctor unknowingly being used to infect poor jokers in Kenya with AIDS, an private investigator and ace being hired by Orson Welles to look after Marylin Monroe and prevent the film they’re working on from being sabotaged.

This latter story provides the book’s highlight – the detective and Monroe have a relationship – she seems to have sex with any man she meets. Then Monroe betrays him to save her own life. And, because this is an alternate history universe, Marylin didn’t necessarily die like she did in reality.

Card Sharks was a bit of a disappointment, but that hasn’t been uncommon with the first books in Wild Cards‘s internal trilogies. It certainly won’t stop me reading on.

Review of The Atrocity Exhibition by J G Ballard

21 August 2010 2 comments

A strange book. A short one, too. The first ten or so chapters are set out as individual, spaced paragraphs, each one starting with a bold title in line with the text. These paragraphs are linked, but they don’t read like the consecutive paragraphs of a conventional story. Each contains an idea or a scene. Each chapter functions (or is supposed to function) as a separate novel – but these novels are linked. They are about the same characters with the same preoccupations. One character, although he is the same throughout, changes name from chapter to chapter – Traven, Travers, Travis etc. The chapters, therefore, are very repetitive; they are modulations of the same idea. The last few chapters vary this form, but not by too much.

The subject of the book is at once extremely specific, yet disturbingly ambiguous. It is about the deaths of President Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and others, it is about fatal car accidents, it is about sex, it is about the media. There is a lot of sex in this book – but there isn’t. Sex and death are presented, interpreted, recreated in the form of auto-crashes, in collections of photographs and other documents, in the angles of stairs and walls.

Where it works best, the book is about the maniacal and surreal investigations of Traven and his alter egos into the deaths of Kennedy, Monroe – and his own wife. He does this by staging their conceptual re-deaths; simulating – or perhaps achieving – the death of a female character. He is endlessly searching for meaning in the angle of a woman’s thighs, in the wrecks of American cars. These first ten or so chapters are a portrait of a man in the midst of a breakdown. His story is like a mirror, smashed and then inexpertly pieced back together.

The remaining few chapters don’t add much to this story (such as it is). One is entitled ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Raegan’ and describes the politician’s rabidly reactionary views spoken in his friendly, reassuring voice – a voice that deafens listeners to his meaning. Another later chapter portrays the assassination of President Kennedy as a motor race.

The copy I read (which I bought at a branch of Fopp for the pleasingly small sum of £3 a few years ago while at university) was padded out somewhat with annotation written by Ballard for a 1993 edition. Each chapter concludes with notes on the author’s inspiration and memories relating to the content of the text. He talks a little about his experience as a child in war-time China, its liberation by the Americans, his love of things American, his wife who – like the main character’s – died. These notes are a little distracting, but for the most part are interesting and provide a much needed context for the book. There is also an introduction written by William Burroughs.

In the post-Warhol era a single gesture such as uncrossing one’s legs will have more significance than all the pages of War and Peace.

These words, written in the late 1960s, are scarily prophetic – just think of Basic Instinct. While The Atrocity Exhibition is bizarre, surreal, difficult, obscene, the above quote highlights the seriousness of its intent. It’s a satire of the fragmentation, mechanisation, sexualisation, trivialisation of modern society.

I’ve read a few J G Ballard books, and this is the first one I’ve read since his death a year or two ago. His earlier ones, like this, are not easy to read; his later ones, while taking similar topics, are much more conventional narratives. I think, with the benefit of greater age and maturity, I’m better able to appreciate works like The Atrocity Exhibition. Which isn’t to say I loved this book; I respect it greatly, but it is, nevertheless – by its very nature – cold and alienating.

What has always most intrigued me about Ballard is his interpretation of and position within the science fiction genre. As he wrote in his introduction to Crash – a novel that this one closly prefigures – he is not interested in the science fiction of outer space – laser guns and spaceships and the like – but in the science fiction of inner space – man’s relationship to techology and its effects. The Atrocity Exhibition demonstrates that interest in ways that are both crude and subtle.

Review of Sea of Silver Light by Tad Williams

The fourth and final book in the Otherland series – and not a moment too soon.

In the first book, Renie Sulaweyo, !Xabbu, Orlando Gardiner, Sam Fredericks, Martine Desroubins, Paul Jonas and others find themselves trapped in a massive and massively realistic secret computer simulation called the Otherland network. Outside the network, a number of other people are caught up in its mystery. All of them are trying to find something – the truth about relatives who have become comatose after going on-line, the truth about their own lives, the truth about Otherland – or they are trying to use, subvert or bring down the network.

In a later book, the reader learns that Otherland is a kind of immortality machine, possibly powered in some way by the comatose children. At the end of the third book, Felix Jongleur, the network’s master becomes trapped along with the others and Orlando Gardiner dies.

In the fourth book, most, but not quite all, of the characters’ questions are answered. And it all has a happy ending that I think aimed to be bittersweet.

I read the first three books nearly consecutively and enjoyed them a lot, although by diminishing amounts. I waited a while before reading book four because I didn’t want Otherland fatigue. Unfortunately, that seems unavoidable.

The big problem with the series is its length. It consists of four long books and not enough really happens in much of that time. It’s almost as if Tad Williams had designed a certain number of the virtual worlds that make up the Otherland network and he was damned if he wasn’t going to squeeze them all into his series. Throughout the four books, the characters who are trapped inside Otherland are constantly travelling through world after world achieving little more than finding another virtual realm through which to journey. I think the series could have been completed in two books, and should have been no more than three.

In addition to all that, Williams’s writing is journeyman-like at best, so finishing the final book was a fairly pleasureless exercise. Especially at the end, it was full of infodump – long explanations of what had happened and why – mostly, perhaps exclusively, delivered by Sellars, a man with cybernetic implants that give him godlike powers to interact with and investigate the network. Sellars and !Xabbu’s infinite patience and good humour make them two pretty boring characters – who are absolutely crucial to the good guys’ efforts to achieve anything.

The revelations about the network’s true nature (when they are revealed by Sellars) make some sort of sense, but a lot of the set up of the characters’ dilemmas require a great suspension of disbelief. The idea that people can be trapped on-line, and put into permanent comas through simple VR equipment, the idea that the world’s wealthiest people could build such a network and then rent out space to a number of less wealthy but still rich people and keep it a complete secret, the true secret of the network’s power – it’s all too much to swallow.

I think if Tad Williams could write this series again, he may well choose to write it differently. In the first book, Renie is very much the central character, but by the end it turns out that the most important character is Sellars – he’s the one who seems to solve everyone’s problems.

In short, it’s not so much Otherland as Overlong.

Gap series book titles question answered

A little while ago I submitted the following question to Stephen R Donaldson via his website:

What made you decide to give each book of the Gap series two titles (or a title and a subtitle)? It’s quite unusual for novels to be subtitled like that – was there anything you drew inspiration from for that? And what was the attitude of your editor/publisher to it?

Thanks.

The Gap series is gripping space opera of five books:

  • The Gap into Conflict: The Real Story
  • The Gap into Vision: Forbidden Knowledge
  • The Gap into Power: A Dark and Hungry God Arises
  • The Gap into Madness: Chaos and Order
  • The Gap into Ruin: This Day All Gods Die

Stephen Donaldson just answered:

I did almost the same thing with the “Mordant’s Need” books. My intent was to let my readers know that there was more than one book to the story (without going through endless repetitions of Book One, Book Two, etc.). And in the case of the GAP books, I also wanted to suggest the progress of the themes from book to book. The technique is actually fairly common: for example, my edition of “Lord of the Rings” uses it. My editors/publishers had no objection–although my UK publishers have felt compelled to attach numbers to the paperbacks.

Source: Stephen R Donaldson Official Website.

Actually, I don’t quite get his answer. This is from the Wikipedia entry on The Lord of the Rings:

For publication, the book was divided into three volumes: The Fellowship of the Ring (Books I, The Ring Sets Out, and II, The Ring Goes South,) The Two Towers (Books III, The Treason of Isengard, and IV, The Ring Goes East,), and The Return of the King (Books V, The War of the Ring, and VI, The End of the Third Age, plus six appendices).

Each subdivision (volume, book, chapter) of TLotR has a separate title, but my point was that each whole volume in the Gap sequence has two titles (I don’t count ‘Book I’ to be a meaningful title).

Oh, well. I have another couple of questions for Stephen Donaldson waiting to be answered. We’ll see what comes of them.