Letter From The Editor - Issue 62 - April 2018

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Writing Fantasy

  
Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
May 2018

Title: Space Opera
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Publisher: Saga Press

Aliens make contact with Earth and require us to perform at the Metagalactic Grand Prix, a sort of cosmic Eurovision contest. In order to be permitted to continue existing we can’t come in last. Representing humanity will be Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes. Fortunately for us, Decibel Jones, aka Danesh Jalo, is “a leggy psychedelic ambidextrous omnisexual gendersplat glitterpunk financially punch-drunk ethnically ambitious glamrock messiah”—which means we may have a fighting chance. I could attempt to recap the details of Catherynne M. Valente’s deliriously Get Schwiftian novel, which is divided into the sections “Earth,” “Water,” “Air,” “Fire,” and “Heart”, but doing so would likely cause my head to explode, and possibly yours as well, and given how effortlessly Valente rips ordinary spacetime causality asunder with her manic, prolix, outré, cosmic inventiveness, those cranial detonations might not happen in the order we’d expect.

In order to gauge your potential enjoyment of this uber-zany, Ziggy Stardust-esque take on Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the best thing I can do is share a few stylistically representative samples of Valente’s prose. Some of my favorite passages describe various observations about how the universe really works:

Evolution is ready to go at a moment’s notice, hopping from one foot to another like a kid waiting in line for a roller coaster, so excited to get on with the colored lights and the loud music and the upside-down parts, it practically pees itself before it even pays the ticket price.”

Life is beautiful and life is stupid. This is, in fact, widely regarded as a universal rule not less inviolable than the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the Uncertainty Principle, and No Post on Sundays.”

This is Goguenar’s Second General Unkillable Fact: For everything that exists, somewhere in the universe, there is a creature that eats it, breathes it, ****s it, wears it, secretes, perspires, exhales, or excretes it. If you want to argue with me on this one, consider the Brick-Breathing Beast of Ballun 4 and shut your cakehole.”

As anyone with a passing interest in self-help books knows, new quantum realities are being formed all over the place . . .”

I would love to go on in this vein and share with you Goguenar’s “longest, most controversial, and least profanity-riddled Unkillable Fact: the Fourteenth Special” but that would eat up my remaining wordcount.

I laughed out loud many times reading Space Opera. I also got quite tired. There’s so much comedy in this book that it can actually get in the way of the humor. Breaks are critical to regenerate one’s laughing faculties. As comedian Michelle Wolf recently said of Rachel Maddow, “Watching Rachel Maddow is like going to Target. You went in for milk, but you left with shampoo, candles and the entire history of the Byzantine Empire. ‘I didn't need this.’” Some of Valente’s excursions into history, like the events of the nineteenth Metagalactic Grand Prix, or for that matter those of the twenty-ninth Metagalactic Grand Prix, felt a bit like that. Imagining I was hearing the text being read to me by John Oliver helped.

If some of Valente’s digressions, especially those on imaginary lifeforms, perhaps read more like entries in an alien guidebook than chapters in a novel, we should applaud Valente for truly embracing the spirit of the title of Douglas Adams’s famous book, which is after all purportedly a hitchhiker’s guide. Unlike Adams’s everyman protagonist, Valente’s lead, while intrinsically fascinating in his own right, was at times hard for me to get a handle on. Seeing events from his perspective was like trying to marvel at the hypnotic patterns inside a kaleidoscope by studying them through an even more dizzying array of patterns inside a second kaleidoscope.

Writing about music, particularly using the language of science fiction, is hard. Paul Di Filippo performed a neat literary trick by literalizing the world of ‘‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’’ in his story “Lennon Spex,” for example, while Spinrad’s novel Little Heroes tried to show us the future of rock music. Valente cleverly focuses more on style than on music, like a kind of amphetamined version of Howard Waldrop’s “Flying Saucer Rock & Roll.”

Let us now recall Rick Sanchez’s words of wisdom on the subject of music: “Morty, good music comes from people who are relaxed.” How relaxed are Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes when push comes to shove? I encourage you to find out for yourself. In any event, Space Opera definitely hits a number of funny—as well as high—notes.

Title: Time Was
Author: Ian McDonald
Publisher: Tor.com

I came to Ian McDonald’s newest novella without even having read the back copy. I’ve enjoyed many of McDonald’s previous works and I figured the title referenced time travel; that was all I needed to know. Time Was, as it turns out, does indeed contain time travel, but readers should know at the outset that this isn’t really at the heart of story, though it does centrally inform the plot. Instead I would characterize Time Was as primarily a bibliophile mystery, and secondarily a wonderfully romantic, epistolary evocation of various historical times.

The narrative divides into two main first-person strands. In the current day we have book-dealer and book-lover Emmett, who specializes in the Second World War. In the novella’s opening chapter he discovers a quasi-anonymous book, published in 1937, that contains an intriguing letter, “a single sheet, still creased from the envelope despite years between pages,” that intimates a romance between two men by the names of Tom and Alex. In the next chapter we’re introduced to “Tom the Rhymer”, a poet of sorts, from Shingle Street, in 1938. It becomes clear that this is the Tom of Emmett’s letter, which in of itself wouldn’t be remarkable, except for the fact that Emmett soon discovers photographs showing Tom and Alex at two different moments of history over a decade apart but appearing to be the exact same age.

McDonald does a phenomenal job establishing the specificity of time and place for each of the novella’s two main worlds, the present and the past. McDonald once described the creation of his compelling fictional worlds as a kind of method acting, requiring great research and total immersion in a place’s music, art, and so on. His skills at this kind of intense and intimate psycho-geography are on full display here, achieved through flawless use of voice. Tom’s sections, for instance, are just as poetic as we might expect.

The novella’s mystery is constructed in an interesting manner. Emmett first befriends a woman named Thorn—“the thirtieth letter of the Icelandic alphabet”—Hildreth, who possesses historical evidence about Tom and Alex. Next he becomes acquainted with a series of increasingly fringe, esoteric characters who offer tantalizing half-answers to Emmett’s own increasingly bizarre line of questioning. Perhaps my favorite amongst this secondary cast is Shahrzad, a Persian “super-recognizer” who works at the Imperial War Museum and can remember any face she’s seen years after the fact.

I’ll admit, though, that my mere expectation of time travel put me several steps ahead of Emmett for at least the first half of the novella. Then too, as much as I enjoyed McDonald’s lovely, pitch-perfect prose, I found the ultimate fate of both central romantic relationships somewhat dissatisfying. I also thought Time Was’ invocation of quantum mechanics was a little, shall we say, fuzzy. Mysteries rely for their effects on the ingenuity of their resolutions, and on the psychological complexities of the characters involved in reaching such resolutions. Time Was, which can be read in a single sitting, may not excel at the former, but it does perform some magic with the latter.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro


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