Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Book Hungry
June 2007

The Neddiad by Daniel Pinkwater
Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007, Hardcover, 307 pp, $16.00

Sheesh. Thanks to this Pinkwater guy, I've been forced to come to the startling conclusion that Native American shamans, little statues of reptiles, World War II, the La Brea Tar pits, and, of course, jelly beans are all inextricably bound together by Fate, God, the Universe, The Muses -- y'know, whoever -- in a vast web of Importance foreshadowing the End Of The World As We Know It.

Trust me, this is all completely obvious in retrospect.

Our dear protagonist Neddie has recently become the steward of a lovely little sculpture of a turtle. This is not, as one might imagine, an ordinary trinket; it is in fact the talisman held by he who will save the world. There are, however, a few concerns about the whole affair; you see, nobody is ever quite sure what it is that The Hero will actually do, or who he's fighting, or what the stakes are.

(Despite this, everyone is confident it'll all turn out fine in the end. C'est la vie.)

While moving with his family from Chicago to LA, Neddie is given his turtle by Melvin, the Native American part-time shaman/time-manipulator he meets at the train rest stop. And so begins a seemingly-random travelogue, in which Neddie gains both the companionship of the son of a famous movie-star and a sinister henchman on his trail. By the time the henchman catches up to Neddie, we're flying through the Grand Canyon in a Ford Tri-motor airplane with a ghost who gets airsick. Much hilarity involving jelly beans and the relative appropriateness of the phrase "a box of weasels" ensues.

This, brothers and sisters, is only the beginning.

(If it's not obvious by now, I must warn you that this is a completely bizarre book. It's being published for kids for the very good reason that many adults simply lack the sophistication needed to revel unashamedly in the uncompromising oddness of Pinkwater's worldview.)

And this stuff is absolutely made to be read aloud, perhaps in part due to Pinkwater's background in radio; he's a manic genius at blending completely random and off-the-wall anecdotes with amusing historical tidbits. So many side-characters with strange accents and even stranger stories about their pasts pop up throughout that you're hard-pressed not to give in and act the whole charming thing out in your living room.

The plot meanders around like a roadtrip, going down unexpected alleyways in history and getting lost in the culs-de-sac of myth without ever losing forward momentum. Indeed, the exposition flow in this very funny story (funny-haha and funny-weird) is extremely subtle, and without even understanding how much we know, we're completely submerged in the culture of Hollywood in the fifties. (But, uh, without being boring like all that made it sound.)

As far as I'm concerned, the single flaw in the book occurs on the very last page, where we're left dangling about the fates of Neddie's friends. After we come to care so much for the very individual charm and weirdness of the gang, Pinkwater gives us an ending that basically says: "Well, here's where we get off." I wanted to throw the thing across the room, but I didn't because I'm civilized in my disgruntledness. You, on the other hand, might have no such qualms.

Still, it is absolutely the journey that counts, as the secretly-wise-cliche goes. It's an extremely fast read, and I promise that you won't regret spending time seeing life through the lunatic funhouse mirrors of this book.

Above all, remember that you're in good hands, because Neddie is the Guy with the Turtle.

Saffron and Brimstone by Elizabeth Hand
M Press, 2006, Softcover, 241 pp, $14.95

Yeah, yeah, so all you wise readers discovered Hand eons ago. I can't read everything, right?

I discovered her just last month, with her story Winter's Wife in Dann & Dozois' recent Wizards anthology; a few pages in, and I knew I'd have to dig up more of her work. The unmistakable weight of reality is suffused throughout even the most fantastical of her writing, the unmistakable sense of having actually lived through the events she's talking about.

Saffron and Brimstone -- a little on the old side, I know, forgive me -- is a collection of Hand's short-form work, and it does not disappoint:

The first story, Cleopatra Brimstone, is an exceedingly bleak, almost Borgesian affair about the rape of a young entomologist who seems to be turning into a moth. Magic realism in punk London, it's sweaty and claustrophobic and violently dark. The other stories are similar in mood, and not for the faint of heart; though never gratuitous and always rooted in character development, the violence and eroticism in Hand's work are both somewhat explicit. Doesn't bother me, but delicate readers should take note that these stories are raw.

In Pavane for a Prince of the Air, for instance, a group of eccentric friends is transformed by the illness and eventual death of one of their beloved members. This is a sumptuously described story, rich in textures both diaphanous and earthy, emotions both muted and Dionysian. The way the characters cling more and more to their hodge-podge pagan rituals for meaning is heartbreaking and tender, and we are transformed right along with them in the metamorphosis of their little community of friends and lovers.

The Least Trumps and Wonderwall are in a way character-pieces about specific places, the landscapes that become lovers and the lovers that become mental landscapes. That sense of location, that sort of hopeless dusky melancholia where character is revealed in our interactions with the people and places we live with conspire against me to the point where I'm simply incapable of reading these stories critically, because they're so resonant with my own experiences of living in the country and the city.

A sequence of four stories running the gamut from modernist realism to post-apocalyptic science-fiction is collected in the separate section entitled 'The Lost Domain.' Just as emotionally devastating as the other stories, these are more variations on a theme, different extrapolations of aspects of, in the author's words, "memory, loss, desire, grief ... the land of heart's desire, a highly romanticized vision of youth and eros and daily life that is forever unattainable, irrevocably past." Verisimilitude has no line of reassuring demarcation; the fantasy is as convincing as the day-to-day, and the ordinary seems imbued with magic.

These stories are not thrillers; Hand doesn't concentrate overmuch on white-knuckled plot. Instead, we're focused on exploring that dreamscape reality where lovers and inner demons become Muse and Purpose all at once. Motive is convoluted and enigmatic, and there are no heroes or villains. Hand's writing is especially noteworthy for an unusually quirky blend of grit and elegance, poetic sensuality mixed with hard-edged realism; she's a kind of punk-rock Neruda. Artsy and angsty and literate, but never, ever, boring or maudlin or overwrought, she weaves for us gossamer webs of delicate characterization and quenches our thirst for transcendent realism with heady drafts of description both mimetic and numinous.

Drink deep.

Farseed by Pamela Sargent
Tom Doherty Associates, 2007, Hardcover, 287 pp, $17.95

Let me emphasize that this sequel to Sargent's Earthseed is being marketed as a YA novel.

This is very, very silly on a fundamental level, because this book is more morally complex and engaging than many of the adult novels I've read all year.

Just ignore the cover art and imagine the typeset being a size or two smaller. Presto, perfectly respectable.

Nuy is the daughter of Ho, charismatic leader of the southern colony. Leila is the daughter of wise Zoheret, leader of the northern colony. The two tiny, struggling settlements have been wary of each other ever since they established themselves on a planet they named Home, deposited there by a colony ship their ancestors sent from Earth.

Nuy discovers a band of travelers from the north hoping to rebuild and reconcile relations with their alienated southern brethren. When things go horribly wrong, Ho's mental illness becoming violently apparent, the two colonies are drawn into reflexive battle; Leila is effectively in charge of leading a team -- composed mostly of teenagers -- hoping to rescue their parents. The book begins perfectly well, with action and intrigue and noble death, but it really starts to catch fire when the various plotlines Sargent nurses along separately for the first half of the book suddenly explode into each other.

Every character is the protagonist of his or her own story, and because we care about every single person we meet, even the "bad guys", the miscommunications are terribly painful to go through, piling up on each other as they do. Sargent doesn't have an unjust or unsympathetic bone in her body, because every character's justification for their actions is treated with absolute fairness. The small settlements are in this way made completely real, with wonderfully individualized casts; every death in the book is felt, the aftershocks lingering. Those unfortunate enough to be caught between communities have to choose which people are worthy of their allegiance when it comes down to hard physical violence. Which identity-story triumphs? It's civil-war on a tiny, intimate scale.

Sargent's handling of the perspectives of two teens from very dissimilar cultures is simply note-perfect, brutally unsentimental while managing to remain sympathetic, sliding us into their world with Butleresque ease of exposition. Young adults think of themselves as already being grown-ups in the real world, but in this book their decisions really are matters of life and death. It's inspiring to watch these kids tackle some very knotty ethical and strategic dilemmas. Nuy and Leila are from such different kinds of societies (Nuy's being closer to raw nature and Leila's being more agrarian) and have such different levels of education, that there's a delightful frisson when we learn how they interpret the behaviour of each other's tribes. Sargent's touch is gentle when describing (almost entirely through implication) the individual mores and shibboleths of each little community, and yet her world-building is all the more powerful for its subtlety.

I'm personally appreciative of the way that Sargent quietly weaves minority races, names, and traditions into the story as well; never blatantly, never in a way that calls attention to itself, because of course this makes their inclusion all the more powerful. The act of taking such traditionally-neglected people for granted as belonging in a story no questions asked does far more to improve equality than any number of more obvious works that deliberately make a show of pointing out exactly where and how the author is being so wonderfully inclusive.

Another neat trick I'm particularly fond of is Sargent's habit of giving us the complicated and nuanced thought-processes of a character without telling us how old they are right away; this makes it all the more poignant when we do learn the character's age (usually when we're submersed in the point-of-view of an adult) and see exactly how much there is below the surface of what might otherwise be dismissed as mere "teenage" behavior. Sargent is remarkably proficient at turning this constant shifting perspective into opportunities for fun plot-chewing and character revelation.

And I, for one, think this focus on power and group dynamics in otherworldly situations is exactly the right direction for written sci-fi to continue to head in; books simply can't match movies for sheer visual spectacle anymore, for the same reason that sight-gags are nauseatingly embarrassing when encountered in this medium in which everything must be told. This is frankly not a problem for Sargent, because instead of concentrating on "cool visuals" (though the book has its fair share), the core tension is derived from a web of fascinatingly complex relationships and excruciating moral dilemmas that drive the story forward at a relentless pace. There is action and adventure and romance, yes, but rather than concentrating on the outward forms they take, we experience them through the eyes of the characters. We get in their heads to a degree that is only possible through reading, we see how their actions influence the actions of others, the layers of motive and causality that are revealed.

I've heard good things about Sargent in the past, and I feel more than a little stupid for not picking up one of her books before now. Thankfully, I have some recommendations for where to start, and will be devouring The Shore of Women and her Venus series as soon as I can.

Because while I would have loved Farseed when I was in middle school, reassured that a grown-up somewhere out there in Authorland remembered what it was like to be in my place, I think it's likely that adults will be just as enthralled with this book -- if not more so.


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