Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
October 2017

Title: Autonomous
Author: Annalee Newitz
Publisher: Tor Books

Annalee Newitz’s arresting debut is a near-future thriller about patents, designer drugs, social activism, and the ideals of youth transfigured by the hard realities of multinational greed, “the slow-motion disaster of capitalism converting every living thing and idea into property.” In case that sounds too abstract, let me reassure you that it’s peopled by richly developed characters and the plot, which unfolds over a series of picturesque settings, never drifts far from their finely textured personal relationships. Our two main narrative strands are the story of Judith “Jack” Chen, a sort of patent and drug Robin Hood whom circumstances have paired up with a hot bot named Threezed, and the dynamic duo of International Property Coalition agents on their trail, the bot Paladin and the human Eliasz. In addition to alternating between the points of view of Jack and Paladin, the protagonists of their respective stories, we also get elaborate flashbacks regarding Jack’s early days and how she came to be a property revolutionary.

To illustrate Newitz’s skill in simultaneously “world-building” while developing her characters, consider this brief description from the first chapter, when we’re just getting to know Jack:

“Loosening the molecular bonds on her coveralls with a shrug, Jack felt the fabric split along invisible seams to puddle around her feet. Beneath plain gray thermals, her body was roughly the same shape it had been for two decades. Her cropped black hair showed only a few threads of white. One of Jack’s top sellers was a molecule-for-molecule reproduction of the longevity drug Vive, and she always quality-tested her own work.”

There’s a lot more inventiveness where that came from. The novel’s plot, for instance, hinges on a fictional drug called Zacuity, which doesn’t just boost your productivity, but instills a sudden addiction to loving your work. As such, this functions as an elegant metaphor for monomania and many of the compulsive behavioral traits we see on the rise in our society. This is the kind of science-fictional drug that, in a grand tradition going back to the 1930s, perfectly captures the zeitgeist. Meanwhile, Jack’s and Paladin’s sexual paths, which play a prominent role, are neatly and ironically counterpoised. None of this feels gratuitous though. The protagonists’ relationships with their own physicality, and what that does or doesn’t mean to them, illustrate their self-perceptions and their perspectives on the Other. At one point Paladin is reminded that “Everybody is an outsider, if you go deep enough. The trick is reassuring people that you’re their kind of outsider.”

Indeed, Paladin’s story arc, in particular, raises compelling questions. If Paladin were wholly autonomous, would he/it/she have made the same choices in order to experience a greater closeness with Eliasz? Or does intimacy with other sentient beings inherently change a part of who we are? How compatible are love and self-determination? The resolution of Paladin’s journey made me think of Martha Wells’s recent “murderbot” in All Systems Red, which likewise takes on complex themes of identity v. ownership, albeit in a more limited fashion.

While Autonomous’s roots can be seen to extend to cyberpunk, and even to robot fiction several decades before that, it’s more formally accessible than key cyberpunk texts, closer, say, to recent novels by Nancy Kress and Cory Doctorow. Do I agree with Neal Stephenson’s cover blurb that this novel is to biotech and AI what Neuromancer was to the Internet? In terms of creative specificity and thoughtful extrapolation, yes. But Autonomous doesn’t possess the stylistic pizzazz of Gibson’s masterwork. This is not a demerit. Here the otherworldliness emerges purely from the imagined future rather than its literary depiction. But the former is more than enough to provide stimulation and a truly vertiginous sense of what may be in store for humanity.

Title: Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of '70s and '80s Horror Fiction
Author: Grady Hendrix (with Will Errickson)
Publisher: Quirk Books

I discovered Grady Hendrix’s work through his fiction (specifically, the terrific story “The House That Love Built,” reviewed in this space in December 2016), which with a few clicks led me to his “Freaky Friday” posts for Tor.com. In these pieces Hendrix discusses once-popular paperback horror novels with an irresistible combination of enthusiasm, disbelief at what he’s read, and often hilarious acknowledgments-cum-celebrations of the absurdity of the work at hand. In April of this year, after devouring the back catalog of these posts and amassing several shelves of the unholy novels referenced therein, I asked Hendrix via Twitter if he could recommend a non-fiction volume specifically dedicated to the horror paperback boom. His response: “I’m writing one that’ll be out in Sept. Can you wait?”

And so it was with high expectations indeed, after months of anticipation, that I opened the covers of his handsomely-produced, lavishly-illustrated, oversized paperback. Finishing it a few minutes ago, I can aver that I was not disappointed. In fact, the book turned out to be even more absorbing than I’d imagined. In the same way that Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great was a culled selection of her Tor.com essays on some of her favorite science fiction and fantasy novels, I’d envisioned Paperbacks from Hell as an assembly of Hendrix’s columns, re-sequenced into some kind of chronological narrative. There is this element, but even here, the columns have been condensed, edited, and polished for mostly seamless transitions, so they don’t feel like re-reading. Also, these parts of the book, while still boasting Hendrix’s irrepressible humor, are not quite as colloquial as their prior online incarnations, a subtle but wise tonal choice. But there’s so much more.

Beyond the meaty plot recaps, Hendrix does an excellent job of placing writers and their works in context, offering fascinating biographical glimpses and laying out many social anxieties (Satanic Panic, fear of role-playing games, misinformation about AIDS, and so on) and how they inform the paperbacks here resurrected. I have to mention the artist biographies too, which rightly shine a light on many influential industry figures (e.g. Rowena Morrill, Ron Sauber, Jim Thiesen, Jill Bauman or Lisa Falkenstern) who in some cases barely received credit for their work upon publication and are generally unknown today. In fact, there are even a few instances of previously unpublished art—kudos to Hendrix for his diligence in what was clearly a labor of love.

Anyone interested in the history of genre should read this book. What caused the decline of the once massively popular Gothic romances, which flourished between 1960 and 1974? What triggered the paperback horror geyser of the ‘70s and ‘80s? Amid this frenzy, what particular tax reform initiated the blockbuster phenomenon? What led to the eventual collapse of prolific horror publishers like Zebra Books, and how did horror fragment into a plethora of sub-genres? What were some of the key overlaps between horror and romance and science fiction and even young adult books? Hendrix offers concise explanations for these and other publishing trends, often with startling behind-the-scenes details. To acquire all this insight, Hendrix must have doggedly researched secondary sources and also interviewed the players involved who are still around and were willing to tell their war stories. Bravo.

Because the book is both an in-depth look at the many tropes common in horror paperbacks (with chapters on thematic groupings like “When Animals Attack” or “Inhumanoids”) and an utterly absorbing chronicle of their related artwork, there’s some tension between the former tendency to lovingly retell the plots of preposterous novels and the latter pull towards a more streamlined coffee-book presentation. Precisely because the book so effectively champions now-forgotten horror fiction, I was a bit rankled that oftentimes when book titles were mentioned, the names of their authors were omitted. In some cases the artwork gives it away, but in others the authors remain absent. For example, we get a tantalizing line of description regarding the 1981 novel Peregrine, but the author is not identified (William Bayer). If you have your smartphone nearby, you can fill in the blanks. Then too, certain authors are perhaps under-explored. For instance, we get about half a page on Ramsey Campbell (“The Crazy-Maker,” p. 122–123) but this focuses on his early work and little effort is made to place it in the context of his overall career or to trace his influence on other writers. Richard Laymon published at least ten novels during the ‘80s and his name doesn’t appear once in the text (though one of his book covers is included). I only saw one reference to Peter Straub (p. 137) in the main body of the book. It’s understandable that Hendrix couldn’t cover everyone, and these omissions may have been for the best, opening up room to examine the seedier, more gonzo titles of yesteryear that are not represented elsewhere, but this compromises the book’s thoroughness. I recommend reading the updated edition of Stephen King’s Danse Macabre to solve for this. Because it does the opposite of Hendrix’s book—probing in depth a few key works rather than passing swiftly over hundreds—it’s a perfect complementary text.

After reaching the end of the book’s “Epilogue,” deciding you want to hunt down some of the books so lovingly chronicled throughout Paperbacks from Hell may feel like an overwhelming proposition. Where to start? Two tips: Return to the helpful summary of Hendrix’s favorite authors (from Elizabeth Engstrom to Michael Blumlein) on page 9. And don’t miss out on Will Errickson’s “Recommended Reading” Afterword. Not only is it a valuable compendium in and of itself, it acts as a wonderful coda, highlighting this volume’s spirit of fun and literary exploration. Sure, there’s nostalgia at work here, but primarily a sense of adventurous discovery. Hendrix and Errickson have crafted an invaluable resource that will take a permanent spot in the history of horror non-fiction, and is also a loving tribute to many notable figures of yesteryear.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro


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