Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Book Hungry
January 2007

NEXT by Michael Crichton
HarperCollins Publishers, 2006, Hardcover, 431 pp, $27.95

Michael Crichton just can't get no respect.

On the one hand, we've got our over-literary buddies huddled over there around a table in the usual hole-in-the-wall coffeeshop, praising the merits of the innovative and experimental (and fifty years old) work of real writers of Literature, who find that . . .well, they just can't seem to get into Crichton's stuff. His work is, after all, way too clear and fast-paced and bourgeois to contain anything of truly soul-plumbing depth.

On the other hand, we've got our other gang of hoodlums roaming around in the dimly-lit back-corner sci-fi section of the local secondhand bookshop, who deplore any books that are so mainstream as to neglect to have pictures of jello-faced aliens rescuing buxom Amazons from exploding rocketships on the cover. Crichton ain't sci-fi, he's just for those poor uninitiated souls who haven't sampled the fine delicacies of the bug-eyed space opera du jour.

I'm sure that our various elitist friends of whatever stripe are terribly upsetting to Mr. Crichton; on top of those piles of nasty cash that his books bring in from all those last-minute airport bookstores, he has to deal with the members of our lovably snobbish book group turning their noses up in his general direction.

Or maybe he knows something we don't. Maybe he's aware that readers of any fiction of decent length are already an absurdly elite group, and that he who goes for the apologetic, "Oh, I only read those at the beach" crowd is the one who actually has a chance at making a noticeable difference in the world, the only one who has a shot at affecting any change in real life.

NEXT will be deplored by our friends in the coffeeshop and the comic-shop both; it is at once far too weirdly, quirkily sci-fi to be admitted into the canon of Serious Work and far too relevant and contemporary for those of us in the sci-fi ghetto to just swallow hard and admit that Crichton really is One Of Us.

The storyline resists any real summation due to the fact that it's like something out of an Alejandro Iñárritu film on steroids; it is to exactly the degree that you find the plot contrivances believable that you will enjoy this book. Myself, I think that in a genre where aliens, timetravel, alternate dimensions, and the collective unconscious are all taken as legitimate grist for the sci-fi mill, transgenic gorillas swearing bilingually in both French and Dutch should be not merely tolerated but actively embraced. Your mileage, however, may vary.

Yes, there is a talking monkey in this book. Two, in fact. Heck, one is raised in reverse-Tarzan fashion in the home of the scientist who created him by splicing his own genes into an experimental procedure that was intended for something else until there was an unexpected consequence due to an outsider's infuriatingly evil meddling and then, and then . . .

. . . safe to say that Crichton is working hard to maintain his reputation as the guy with those slow-buildup-until-all-manner-of-bizarre-hell-breaks-loose books. Sure, it's the same formula that we've seen since The Andromeda Strain, but I truly do not care; even when you know you're being manipulated, Crichton's craft is so honed that it still works.

At heart, the book is concerned with the dangerous consequences inherent to the concept of private ownership of genes:

We meet a man who is on the losing end of a court case in which a University manufactures miracle drugs by artificially growing the naturally occurring cancer-fighting agents endemic to his illegally-obtained cells. We hear reports of how blondes are becoming extinct and wonder if it's just too good a story for the media to check the facts.

There are pedophiles whose DNA is stolen by disturbingly young secret agents, there are turtles showing up on the beach with genetically-enhanced shells that glow with iridescent-purple advertising campaigns, there's a miracle cure for immaturity with unforeseen and deadly consequences, there are recently-buried and then more-recently-unburied people whose body parts are rather unexpectedly missing, there are office sexual politics, religious fanaticism of a somewhat more subtle type than we're used to seeing in what is traditionally a hyperbolically anti-religious genre, teenage girls selling their fertility-drug-enhanced eggs for breast-implant money, a talking transgenic parrot who goes on a cross-country road-trip while quoting old movies and providing deeply surrealist social commentary . . .

. . . all of which is really just the tip of the iceberg. All of the intertwining stories can be boiled down to a few simple quotes by William James and Jean-Paul Sartre that Crichton conveniently gives us at the start of the book: "The word 'cause' is an altar to an unknown god," and "What is not possible is not to choose." Crichton is putting forth the alarmingly uncommon thesis that no matter what the "cause" of our behavior, we must still act on and form our communities around the ultimately-unprovable story that we're responsible for our own actions.

The reason this book exists is to let the characters have conversations in which the necessity of choosing to be culpable for our own actions becomes apparent; it's a cry for people to grow up and stop putting the blame for everything on their genes, the most current variation of the "devil-made-me-do-it" excuse.

In other words, for people who are inclined to jump on Crichton for his "controversy of the month" subjects and "preachiness," this book will probably be the perfect opportunity to get on the bandwagon and attempt to smearingly link NEXT with the non-consensus view of global warming propounded in his utterly unrelated book State of Fear. For those of us on the slightly more relaxed side, though, the book is a fun, fast read.

Of course, when I say that the book is filled with enough tension to make your eyes bleed in your futile efforts to read the next page before you've turned the current one, I'm not trying to imply that it's great art. There are definitely more than a few groan-inducing moments when the plot strains under the weight of about ten different storylines struggling to make a coherent whole. You just know you're in for something particularly hoary when a mother and her friend have sons with the same name and a bounty hunter of all things is on the trail of one of the poor kids; yeah, that's a situation in which nothing will go wrong . . .

Ignoring the fact that true history is so laughably implausible that the only people who can predict the far future are those who do so by accident, NEXT does strain plausibility on occasion while trying to juggle too many concerns, stuff too much in. But Crichton is good enough that even those plotlines which don't come to much, like the aforementioned talking-ape incident, are still great fun to read.

Everyone has a different level of tolerance for the "coincidences" that happen in books, of course -- but even the most natural and seemingly "unplotted" story is still inherently an attempt to name and order events in a causally meaningful fashion. The point of this novel is the ways in which the random coincidences and connections between characters intersect, so I don't think it's fair to criticize it for being too densely-plotted.

Some will criticize this book for it's lack of "characterization," but that completely ignores the fact that it is not a tale structured on self-conscious character revelation; in reality, we get exactly as much "characterization" as is needed to move the plot along, and in those cases, the people are as detailed as is necessary.

True, the good-versus-evil line is drawn pretty sharply in most cases, and it seems like every character is either having an affair or considering one, which is annoying, but these are such minor flaws in a book which is not about exploring such things at all that it's just not worth getting upset about.

And really now, if the thought of a transgenic parrot being made heroic by spouting old Clint Eastwood lines in a women's restroom at an enraged and deeply confused bounty hunter doesn't earn even a tiny grin from you, you need to have your funny-meter looked at, 'cause honey, it is broke.

The Tourmaline by Paul Park
Tom Doherty Associates, 2006, Hardcover, 350 pp, $24.95

Peter Gross, Miranda Popescu, and a strange girl named Andromeda haven't been themselves lately. Or rather, they've been more themselves. Or rather, they were themselves, until they kind of weren't for awhile. And now . . . well, now they're almost as confused as the reader is. But never mind that; all will be revealed in time.

The Tourmaline is the second book in an open-ended science-fantasy series that began with last year's A Princess of Roumania. Potential readers who are worried about sequelitis -- being dropped uninitiated into a confusing plot in which nothing is important because we lack the context that imparts meaning on the events in the novel -- shouldn't be too worried. Park does an admirable job of providing subtle dollops of backstory through skillful manipulation of exposition for new readers who, like me, haven't read the first book in the series. There are a few scenes in which the impatient reader will be momentarily confused about what causes the characters to act in such ways, but for the most part, we're given what we need to know.

In any case, the process of restructuring reality to form a coherent worldview out of seemingly disparate elements is perhaps the most unique and important thing about reading science fiction, so if you leave some of the momentary confusion of the opening in abeyance, the story very quickly draws you in.

Peter, Miranda, and Andromeda have just discovered that our world is nothing more than a fantasy-land within a supernatural book, created solely as a safe haven for Miranda -- who is much more than her fragile teenaged body would suggest. As the three friends are transported back to the real world, the magic that kept them in stasis at highschool age disappears, aging them five years and causing a series of disconcerting changes to begin within their bodies. Strange memories and fever dreams bombard them as they gradually transform back into their original bodies, and they begin to remember who they were in their "previous lives."

In the real world, Peter was the famous Pieter de Graz, a celebrated warrior. Miranda is a princess caught between rival powers in a civil war in the great country of Roumania, assailed from without by Germans and Russians and from within by two rival conjurers. Andromeda, strangest of all, has reverted into a were-dog, constantly shifting forms from a beautiful woman to a ferocious canine.

We first follow the characters as they lose Miranda in the woods of a barely-populated, wild and untamed North American wilderness. Miranda has been spirited away back to Roumania, where she attempts to stop the two conjurers -- the Baroness Nicola Ceaucescu and the Elector of Ratisbon -- from tearing the country apart in their jealous struggles for power. Pieter and Andromeda must somehow find their way back to Miranda, traveling through many strange lands, all the while trying to maintain and reconcile their grasp on who they are and were.

Peter begins as a relatively naive young man, always quoting the old poetry and literature that he and his mother used to discuss, but he gradually loses himself in his previous memories as a battle-hardened people's champion. The struggle between his warrior side and his artificially-induced innocence is often touching, as we're forced to undergo the same confusion of identity with him. Andromeda's change is explored to a somewhat lesser extent than the other two teens, but her struggle is no less for poignant for it.

There are many powerful scenes in this book: when Miranda attempts to call the spirits of the dead back for advice, she must use her traveling companion, Luda Rat-tooth, as a kind of willing ur-sacrifice. She also invokes a goddess while nearly drowning in an underground pool of water, in a hair-raising effort to escape the relentless pursuit of the Baroness's soldiers.

There are images that linger in your mind long after you read them, such as when the "spirit animals" of the newly-deceased escape from their casing as if struggling and breaking free from a transparent human bag. There are fun set pieces involving everything from vampires to were-dogs (which are used in far from traditional ways), and the settings are richly imagined and compellingly described.

However, what I found most compelling a good portion of the time was the relationship between the Baroness Ceaucescu and the Elector of Ratisbon. They are both struggling to gain control of the Tourmaline, a jewel that purportedly encourages the allegiance of the populace towards whoever is in possession of it.

The Baroness, once a stage legend, slowly forms a dependency on the magical stone, thinking that it is the only reason people continue to love her as she ages. The Elector is a smallpox-ravaged sideshow of a man, and he too imagines that possession of the Tourmaline is the only way the people would support such a diseased-looking monster.

The combat between these two insecure personalities is deliciously ironic, as Park gleefully shows the reader how both conjurers are unwittingly already as charismatic and influential as they imagine they need the Tourmaline to be. In the character of the baroness especially, Park has created a sympathetic villain by showing us how her scheming plans for the country are really nothing more than a delusional perversion of artistic inclinations, a warning against self-aggrandizing arteests who infect the others around them with their perpetually-introspective and self-absorbed narcissism.

As far as craft, Park successfully walks that fine line between truly elegant writing and purple prose, between literary merit and fast-paced action sequences. If he doesn't quite achieve the Gene Wolfe-ian heights he appears to be reaching for, it's still a very entertaining and moving effort.

The book closes on a firmly satisfying note, as this particular adventure ends and the seeds for the next are tantalizingly sown. And near the climax, when some of the characters are reunited with old friends, Park succeeds in transforming the whole tale into something genuinely tragic and bittersweet, as the companions realize that nothing will be the same for them no matter how much they might wish to return to simpler times.

I'll be picking up the first volume and in line for the next; The Tourmaline is a good story, well-told.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu (and Other Stories) by Susanna Clarke
Bloomsbury USA, 2006, Hardcover, 239 pp, $23.95

First, a confession:

I have yet to read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

I know, I know . . . Hugo, World Fantasy, the epic book you give to all your non-fantasy-reading friends to prove it's possible for a normal person to like something from that trashy "I don't read those" genre . . . somehow there was always something that looked just a little more pressing on my to-read list.

In other words, I have no idea whether the stories in The Ladies of Grace Adieu that are spin-offs from that big book reveal anything new about the characters or change their relationships or revise our understanding of the events of the novel. What I do know is that this collection is easily my favorite book this month; the delightful little stories contained within manage to form a surprisingly cohesive whole, despite the very disparate strangenesses involved in the individual tales themselves.

You want to read them by candlelight to your spouse on a cold, snowy night -- and the fact that I have at the moment neither a spouse nor any snow handy does nothing to dim my enthusiasm for this prospect. Clarke's prose dances with a subtle grace and gentle wit that never sneers but rather remarks offhandedly at the amusing foibles of human character. The spark of life running throughout imbues the whole book with a sort of good-natured charm, even as events slide naturally between flat-out farces and disturbingly dangerous scenes of truly dark magic.

We begin the collection with a hilariously self-deprecating fictional introduction by one Professor James Sutherland, director of Sidhe Studies at the University of Aberdeen. He draws the stories together into an overall framework as he introduces each one, and gives the first clue to the uninitiated that we're in for a grand evening of fairy-tales of the best sort.

It's understandable that Clark named the book for the first story that appears, The Ladies of Grace Adieu; it's easily one of the most powerful in the collection. The tale of two sisters and the woman who raised them, it throbs with undercurrents of incredibly dark magic even as the surface veneer of a sort of Jane-Austen-meets-the-brothers-Grimm quality crumbles around the characters.

What appears to be a charming tale of innocent young girls looking for a suitable husband transmutes so softy into a dense story of macabre happenstance that we're hardly aware of how high the tension really is until it spills out of the narrative in gushes and takes us along with it. It ends ambiguously, but the inclarity is never unclear, if you get my meaning. Who was it that left the remains of little mice in their coatpockets, and did it have anything to do with those mysterious people who flank the Raven King? The clues are subtle, but sprinkled throughout.

The entire book is filled with similarly strange little gems, in which the mundane details of what feels like genuine nineteenth-century prim-and-proper society are made just as fascinating as the swells of arcane magical lore that wash around us. Lickerish Hill, the second story in the collection, is told by an uneducated young girl who has a run-in with the fiendish fairy Tom Tit Tot. The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse recounts how a chance meeting between the Duke and a girl who seems to be weaving tapestries in which the future is revealed through intricate embroidery determines his tragicomic fate. Mr. Simonelli is a truly dark tale, dealing with the horrific family secrets between fairies that are uncovered when a new doctor rides into town. It's one of the most memorable stories in the collection, followed by a few more tales of slighter but still delightful weight. We close on what is perhaps the funniest story I've read all year, in which the humblest of the Raven King's subjects manages to trick his majesty and get the upper hand in their struggles involving a . . . well, a pig.

Throughout, there are sharp moral undercurrents and observations of human character just as biting as anything in Jane Austen. The conversations are witty and entertaining while never feeling anything but natural. The magic is woven into the background and never supersedes the often hilarious human stories, instead offering amplifications and clarifications of the highly personal tales. It is, above all, a very humane book, filled with affection for the unimportant people all around us who nevertheless shape the world.

And now you'll have to excuse me; for those of us who have yet to delve further into Clarke's world, there are copies of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell sitting pitifully alone and unread in the bookstore, crying for us to snatch them up and dive in.

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