Review: Five Reviews, by Sean Melican

Review: Five Reviews, by Sean Melican

DeNiro, Alan. Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead. Small Beer Press ISBN: 1-931520-17-8

McDonald, Ian. River of Gods. Pyr/Prometheus ISBN: 1-59102-436-6

Bowes, Richard. Streetcar Dreams and Other Midnight Fancies. PS Publishing ISBN: 1-904619-39-8

Morris, Mark ed. Cinema Macabre. PS Publishing ISBN: 1-904619-44-4

Lambridis, Scott, ed. Brainchild: a collection of artifacts. Omnibucket ISBN:0-9774579-0-7

When you buy Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead, skip to “Salting the Map” first, then read, “Skinny Dipping the Lake of the Dead” and “The Fourth.” After that, read in any order.

“Salting the Map” is probably the only story that will feel familiar to (will be easy reading for) speculative fiction readers. Casey is a recent college graduate working as an editor in a vintage cartography company. His boss tells him to salt the index with phony towns complete with population numbers. Why? To prevent corporate theft, of course. Except that the real reason is much more, ahem, magical. There is a true narrative arc with identifiable heroes and villains, a love interest, a plot.

Likewise, “Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead” has a traditional narrative structure. The narrator (whose name is absent until the final sentence) describes with surprising brevity and wit a fractured world. The U.S. is in pieces, parents live separate from their children, some people (deaders) live across the lake from those who live in Suddenly, one of the fractured bits of Pittsburgh. The narrator’s life is fractured as well. He doesn’t know what he wants (whether to go to college where he thinks maybe he’d work in computers, which is more or less the equivalent of smithing today) until he meets a young woman from across the lake. She’s with his best friend but, well, you can probably guess. The pleasure of reading isn’t derived from the obvious triangle, but from the exquisite world-building and the unusual structure. There are numerous footnotes (mildly reminiscent of The Kiss of the Spider Woman) and the purpose of the narrative isn’t clear until the end, but there are plenty of references that will easily resonate with many readers: young love, uncertainty about the future, uncertainty about college, generational gaps, music, drugs, sex. Structurally, it is a bridge between “Salting the Map” and the rest of Mr. DeNiro’s stories.

“The Fourth” is less narrative, more comedy. Indigo McCarthy (note the name) returns home on the fourth of July (note the date) from the post office with “…a manila envelope with no return address and a Berkeley postmark (itself suspicious), which contained three small packages of Kool-Aid powder: Lemon Punch, Fruit Cocktail, and Wacky Blueberry. Oh, Indigo McCarthy must have been up to something, the agent knew.” This agent is only one of many tracking Indigo and determined to find out the reason for and sender of the Kool-Aid. What follows is a comic romp of government surveillance, failed marriage and sometimes both. (Indigo’s wife keeps her vibrator hidden in a hollowed-out copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince.)

After those, reading Mr. DeNiro’s stories work, but the kind of work that releases endorphins. Mr. DeNiro is also a poet and many of his stories use poetic structure more than narrative structure. Roughly, poetic structure collects symbols, motifs, metaphors and similes, double meanings, puns, and other literary devices into a coherent passage. Narrative structure uses plot, character, description, dialogue and other such devices to tell a story. Narrative can be poetic (see my review of River of Gods and poetry can be a narrative (see Dante, Beowoulf, The Iliad, The Odyssey) but even those last have heroes, villains, climaxes, denouements, morals.

The real pleasure in reading Mr. DeNiro is identifying the relationships between two seemingly unrelated values (algebraic, not moral.)

“Our Byzantium,” for example, is written to you (you the reader take on the value of a particular woman) a woman the unnamed narrator is desperately in lust (maybe love, maybe not) with, but she is unattainable, as she is desperately in lust (almost certainly love) with Todd, who isn’t very good for or to her. While she’s gone, the Byzantines invade their tiny college town. Other (not necessarily lesser) writers would have a field day with historical minutiae, probably setting up a heroic stand against or subtle infiltration of the Byzantine army or bureaucracy. There are fantastic elements: A picture of the Empress Theodora, the Byzantine leader, ripped from National Geographic, decorates the wall but by the time the story ends has become a mosaic. And yes, the narrator and Jerilyn (his friend) flee when they realize what chit the Byzantine soldiers have given him represents. But like good poetry, its meaning is as much figurative as literal.

(Spoiler alert.) The historical Empress Theodora is a typical fantastic heroine. Daughter of a bear baiter, she becomes a prostitute and actress (then and now, the difference is a broad, shaded gray line) before becoming the Emperor Justinian’s wife. (Oh! I see a trilogy!) She also advocated for women’s rights to adultery and abortion. She, like the pined-for love, never appears except as a symbol (not coincidentally), and this is the pleasure we read for. The Empress Theodora is a figure that cannot be reached, a beautiful, powerful, sexual woman. The unnamed woman is equally unreachable, equally sexual. Our hero (except he’s pathetic) is destined to physically be unmanned (a curious juxtaposition to the nutes in River of Gods, who wish to be unsexed) but he’s already been emotionally neutered. There are other women interested in him, but he can’t sexually perform for them. What does this say about heroines in fantastic literature, about love and lust, about unattainable women, about pornography? (That last might be a reach.) It is important to note that, unlike much of fantastic literature, the potent figure (knight, king) is not a man (the male figure is more or less impotent) but a woman. Sexual power structures are not limited to the traditional; they can be equally as damaging to either gender. But neither is Theodora a monster, a witch, a Gorgon, any of the traditional powerful women who are (almost invariably) hideous or monstrous or both. Mr. DeNiro has built a powerful fable, and moral argument, about the nature of sexual and power relations.

Other stories are quite powerful as well. “The Excavation” juxtaposes the, well, excavation of a house with the exploration of reasons for a failed marriage. “The Caliber” explores (and juxtaposes) the ulterior motives of cult leaders and high school cliques. “The Exchanges” is a nifty, fun fable on identity written, astonishingly, in a single sitting. “Child Assassin” is a dark, disturbing story with a fantastic underpinning that I didn’t discover. (Mr. DeNiro told me.) Analyses of power structures, particularly sexual, and an underlying rage at inequity are common: “The Fourth,” “If I Leap,” “A Keeper, “The Caliber,” “Fuming Woman,” “Our Byzantium,” the long and complex “Home of the,” and others; and the fluidity of identity is explored sometimes playfully (“The Exchanges, “Salting the Map,”) and other times with a curious anger: “Cuttlefish.”

Many stories resist easy analysis. But behind each story is a ferocious intelligence using fictional structures, poetic and narrative, for purposes of demythologizing (while simultaneously creating new mythologies), humanizing and demonizing the underpinnings of political (in the broadest sense of the word) structures. This book is not an easy read; but it is a worthwhile one.

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Ian McDonald’s River of Gods is another award-winning British novel brought to the U.S. by Pyr (like Silver Screen, reviewed in March) originally published in 2004. A heartfelt thanks to Pyr for bringing a novel of this quality to the U.S. reading public.

The most noticeable and notable quality is the setting – India, 2047. I’ve argued in other forums (double meaning intended) for more inclusion (mostly referencing the paucity of black writers and black characters) and while none of the character are black, the vast majority are Indian, Hindu, Muslim, all of which are as embarrassingly rare in science fiction as black characters. I can’t say how accurate Mr. McDonald’s portrayals are, not being familiar with India, its peoples or culture, but he seems to flesh out the characters without resulting to much stereotyping, save for a few instances where he lapses into dialogue reminiscent of The Simpsons’ Apu. The setting feels genuinely gritty, dirty, Indian (at least from what I’ve learned watching the occasionally documentary), not at all the flattened plastic-and-chrome futures of the early cyberpunks, who were brilliant if inaccurate in their belief that every city would echo every other.

The near future is well-imagined. The United States has outlawed aeais (AI) above a two point five intelligence rating through the Hamilton Act. Other countries have been persuaded or bullied into agreement. Think of the silly, knee-jerk anti-cloning laws recently enacted. In vitro science has advanced so that the sex of a child can, for a price, be chosen. In India, where boys (apparently) are preferred, this has led to a four to one ratio of men to women so that women are in such high demand they have their pick of any man, and a working woman, like the Prime Minister, is an egregious anomaly. (Desperate Housewives taken to a whole new level.) I’m not sure women as a group would agree to domestic servitude so docilely, but this is India, not the United States.

Children can be, for a much greater price, be engineered. These are known as Brahmins. Rather than inventing a term, Mr. McDonald abducts (if I understand Umberto Eco’s terminology) an already existing word so that the reader has to determine the meaning from context. (Brahmin is the highest caste, a priestly caste.) He also abducts sundarban, which is a tiger-infested jungle but also, in the future, places where outlawed aeais, and other black- or gray-market ‘ware is built, used, sold. It is a stroke of genius to abduct words from an alien (and by alien I mean a not-me, an Other, not necessarily creatures from another planet) culture and alter them the way that words do get altered. It adds the important aspect of plausibility and subtracts the distancing effect of invented language.

Again for a price, a man or woman can become an nute. Mr. McDonald not only imagines the reasons for doing so, but the remarkable efforts necessary to biologically, chemically, and psychologically eliminate all factors that internally (the way we perceive ourselves) and externally (the way others perceive us) identify our sex and gender.

I make much of abduction and language because much of the science fiction I’ve read in the past few years has felt poetically flat (and Mr. McDonald writes beautifully) and poorly imagined, a sharp contrast to the rich and resonant sentences that make up this wonderful book. Many would give grammar software conniption fits, but the rhythms are superb.

There are nine major characters, some more major than others, and a great many minor but important players. Mr. Nandha is a Krishna cop, a literary descendant of Javert dedicated to hunting and excommunicating unlawful aeais. Note the abduction of an overtly religious term to disguise what is truthfully an act of murder, much as neutralize, terminate, and collateral damage have been abducted by the military to hide what it is they do. (Sidenote: Soldiers are important for a nation, but denying or pretending what soldiers do – kill in the name of defense and national identity – with disguising terms is dishonest at best.) Parvati is his unhappy wife, a near-prisoner in his (not her) lush home.

Shaheen Badoor Khan is an assistant to the Prime Minister with a wife and a socially unacceptable sexual desire for nutes. Tal is a nute who will unman him. (On language again: the pronoun for nutes is yt, which is awkward to read, but notable in that every bit of our language is polarized sexually. There are no words that can easily be abducted for use in referring to a third gender. Er, non-gender?)

Vishram Ray is a former stand-up comic and one of three brothers whose father divides his successful power company between them. Vishram will find discover a secret that could potentially save the world. (Alas, there are entities who have other ideas.)

Shiv is a criminal, but notably not a killer, in heavy debt to figures in the underworld. Yogendri is his subservient and brutal partner. What Shiv can’t do, Yogendri can. Najia is a blossoming journalist (ruthless but with a heart of gold) who will uncover multiple conspiracies. So, all right, some of the characters are more cardboard than others. N.K. Jivanjee is the figurehead of an extremist anti-government group.

Lisa Durnau and Thomas Lull are Americans geniuses in the field of artificial intelligence. Lull has picked up along the way a prophet, seer, telekinetic, telepathic prophet name Aj. Who is she? The American characters are, honestly, unnecessary. Is their appearance an effort (calculated or not) to draw in American readers who are notoriously self-centric?

Town and Country is the Indian soap, composed entirely of CGI actors who have invented identities and lives outside the soap, and much of the drama from the soap is about the ‘lives’ of the ‘actors’ and entirely unrelated to the storylines of the soap itself. Town and Country is an important character. (I wish I could explain how fun it is to write that sentence but it would ruin the story.)

There is a heavy drought taking a physical and political toll, and the Indian government is floating an iceberg into the bay, but there may be rain. The river of gods may be literally and figuratively flooded. And, oh yeah, why is there a seven-billion-year-old asteroid containing pictures of Lisa, Lull and Aj? (Can’t have a science fiction novel without the Big, Enigmatic Object.)

All of these characters will (of course) come to a gigantic, splashy, fun and tragic climax which unfortunately isn’t as original or revelatory as I’d like to see (some of the twists are obvious) and doesn’t quite stand up to reason. Aj in particular is more of a nod to form (and an obvious moral) than a true character.

Despite that single, structural weakness, this is an excellent book and one which reminded me, after a long, dry spell, why I read science fiction.

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I was not familiar with Rick Bowes’ work when I read Streetcar Dreams and Other Midnight Fancies, but I’ll look for it in the future. I started it primarily because Jeffrey Ford wrote the introduction, and finished it because it was good.

Initially the stories blend together as they all bear several hallmarks: gay or at least sexually ambiguous characters, child molestation, promiscuous, anonymous sex and heavy drug use, (but, it should be noted, the sex is usually desperate and neither are at all romanticized), New York and Boston between the 60’s and 90’s, AIDS and cancer. (Mr. Bowes is a gay male and a cancer survivor. He knows of what he writes.)

But slowly the stories define themselves and while they are have substantial similarities, they are equally separate. Brothers and sisters, but not twins.

The penultimate scene in “Circle Dance” ends with “Writing is the place where I can be as bold and compassionate and wise as I choose,” and it seems as if Mr. Bowes himself is talking to us. He writes about being poor, being gay, nearly being killed, watching his brother die. But while it is all of these things, it is also painful, as Mr. Ford says, “Honest.” There are no heroes, only survivors.

“Someday I Shall Rise and Go” is something of an anomaly, a story written from a woman’s perspective. (And my favorite.) Chris Thayers is a young woman hanging onto her worthless boyfriend (soon to be initiated into heroin and crime) and literally nothing else. Even the clothes she wears are borrowed. But her lack of ownership empowers her and, like a dark, powerful and not at all whimsical Alice, she can move through the looking glass to be a heroine.

“Transfigured Night” is a hard story to read. The Guest (who has no name for a long time and good reason) shows up on the porch of two married friends who live the suburban life, steady and safe jobs, steady and safe sex, home cooking, dinners. Slowly we are drawn into a much darker and much, much more dangerous life of sex, drugs, Satanism of a sort, and snuff films. The story turns on a rather common device, but by then there is nothing common at all (how many stories have you read with explicit sex in snuff films?) and what a jaded reader would think is common is horrific and powerful.

“A Huntsman Passing By” uses a rather common idea – fairy tales from a unique perspective – but in this case it is the huntsman, a figure without a name, a spear (or, I suppose, a bow or crossbow) carrier who is also a private detective. The story takes us through the art world of New York and into the darkest of fairy tale territory: revenge.

“Streetcar Dreams” is my least favorite, perhaps because I’d become somewhat tired of New York and drugs and so forth, but “My Life in Speculative Fiction” is excellent. The narrator (if he has a name, I don’t remember and can’t find it) discovers blowjobs and maybe love and rebels against ROTC and his father in the late 60s, but through it all he fictionalizes his life: he is Bobby Shafto, a time traveler and hero. It seems at once a statement and a counterargument: Mr. Bowes’ stories are both autobiography and fiction (which is which I couldn’t begin to guess), but fiction can only shallowly mirror reality in its complexity and tragedy. Don’t take his fiction too seriously, the story tells us. But how can we not? His characters are survivors, rarely heroes, men and women who we most certainly would not want to be, living lives we would rather not. (Compare and contrast to other fantastic stories: wouldn’t you like to be Frodo or Aragorn, or a wizard or king or whatever?) These are the rarest of speculative fiction stories, the sort that describes (it certainly doesn’t prescribe) the darkest parts of our lives and doesn’t let up, not once, to tell us that somewhere over the rainbow is a better world. This is all we’ve got and if there’s something else, it sure as hell ain’t heaven.

If you’re looking for adventure, go somewhere else. If you’re looking for a truth (not the truth, but something close), read Rick Bowes.

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HORRIFIC QUICKIES:

What I expected from Cinema Macabre was a collection of sentimental reminiscences, mostly about the first time the writer (usually on the cusp of adolescence) saw his or her first horror film and yes, there are those in spades. There was also the risk of reading dry academic analyses (the sort that equates zombies with capitalism, communism, McCarthyism, Jason Voorhees with STDs – the sort of brilliant reasoning that is anything but deductive, that is entirely inductive), but the writers are writers, thank God, not dry academics. What I found was a detailed analysis of exactly how horror, or more accurately terror, is achieved through dialogue, viewpoint, setting, the accretion of details. Pick any single monograph and it would be pleasant but hardly analytical, but read them all and patterns emerge.

Horror isn’t gore (I suppose it’s futile to wish today’s horror movie maker would learn this lesson since every third movie at Blockbuster is Saw, or Saw II, or Hostel, or some other piece of schlock) but develops (that’s the key word; character development is too much work, too hard today) from the implications of dialogue or set pieces, what’s off-screen matters as much as what’s on, and the inevitability of the climax.

Rather than view movies as weak allegories, the writers as a rule stuck to the strengths and flaws of the story – unnecessary scenes, poor acting, logical disconnects. Several even know historical details – lost scenes, censorship issues – of which the absence in the final product is as telling as what’s left in. What emerges is not only a technical analysis of fear, but a rather loose history of the horror movie genre.

Some choices struck me as odd: Really, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me? Yes, King Kong is a monster movie, but is it in the same genre as Nosferatu and Psycho? And I’ve never seen it, but the “mixed reviews” of The Blair Witch Project Justina Robson mentions were only negative from what I remember. However, she does make a convincing argument. Tim Lebbon does mention Aliens in his analysis of Alien but the sequel is surely better technically and substantially more frightening than the original. A shame that no one wrote about it. For my part, the one movie I cannot, even as an adult, watch for more than twenty minutes is Candyman. Alas, no one wrote about that one either, and so I’ll never know the end.

But the project was never meant to be a balanced study, only a compilation of writers telling you what scares them.

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Scott Lambridis, editor of Brainchild: A collection of artifacts, put a great deal of time and effort (as far as I can tell) into getting this book into the hands of reviewers, and into the book itself, which is on heavy, glossy paper in full color. Which is a shame, because the stories themselves (I’ll discuss the art in a moment) are not particularly original or well-told. The conceit of he book (from the back cover) is that it is a collection of artifacts from a zombie outbreak: Stories, fragments really, told be (almost) survivors. Drawings.

Most of the stories involve lots of running, fear, adrenalin, standard and, later, contrived weapons – in other words: the usual – ending in the narrator surrounded and waiting for the army of zombies outside to break through whatever barriers were hastily erected. Out of breath, out of bullets, out of time. Zombie stories can be told well, of course; but when using an overused trope, the only way to tell a compelling story is to fill it with unique characters or ideas. Sadly, these stories are far too short and too poorly written and the ideas warmed over at best save one.

That one bright spot (or at least notable idea) is from Scott Lambridis’ “Finnegan’s Scoop: An Interview with Sgt. Phillip McDougal,” which features this paragraph:

The four holy truths of the undead: primal hunger, rudimentary balance, minimal motor control and an insatiable mindless relentlessness. If the rest of you dies, but the brain stem remains, that’d be your religion too… Remove the brain stem from the equation and even the dead go dead.

Ah! A scientific explanation for zombie-ness. That’s unique. It would even explain why zombies have a lust for brains: they want to replace what they’ve lost. But that’s as far as it goes. The rest is the usual.

I’m not qualified to speak to art (finishing a game of Hangman is an artistic challenge), but the art seems fairly well done, if of the same creepy sameness as the prose. The notable exception is a drawing by Justin Mills, age nine, features a porcine zombie wielding bloody weapons, pierced with bloody wounds and standing over a decapitated corpse. The drawing looks like it was made by a nine-year-old. At first, I took it for verisimilitude (remember the book’s conceit); after all, some survivors would be kids. But to find out it really was made by a child who should be watching cartoons and Harry Potter movies, not George Romero or Danny Boyle, that was the scariest moment in the book.

If you would like to have your book reviewed, contact me at ideoreviewguy@yahoo.com. If you bought a book because of me, please let the publisher and I know. If you’ve passed on something, don’t tell anyone.



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