Thursday, March 5, 2009

Review - Glimpses

by Lewis Shiner
1994 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

Reading Glimpses was like riding a roller coaster. The dust jacket told me it was a fantasy novel about recovering the lost masterpieces of rock and roll so I approached with concern and trepidation; what I know about rock could fit onto a post-it with room left over for my grocery list. I expected a novel where no matter how well Shiner did I would be left out in the cold. Then I started reading it but found that Shiner was blending his exposition on the period smoothly into the text so that even if I was only vaguely familiar with some of the things being mentioned (and I certainly was not getting all of the references) I could still enjoy it. It had some rattles and bumps but I liked the set up and looked forward to where it was going.

Then things started heading downhill. It picked up speed rapidly as the focus of the novel changed. And then finally it jumped the tracks and crashed into the crowd because it was so poorly assembled.

The protagonist is a man whose dreams of rock stardom were crushed when he was dropped from his band. He goes onto a normal life in the suburbs and is trapped in a loveless marriage. One day he discovers that by focusing on the situation that could have surrounded a potential recording session he could make that lost audio play from nearby speakers. He records a lost Beatles track this way and sends it to a record executive who helps set up a bootleg operation for marketing the lost albums.

Oh, and then he takes a vacation to Mexico that runs for a large portion of the novel where the old plot threads are abandoned, he decides to have an affair, and discovers what a great religion wicca is. Really, the plot just stops dead for a very long section on this vacation.

Something I didn't mention in that brief plot description and it really has to be mentioned is that the protagonist's father died recently and a lot of the book is spent dealing with relationships between uncaring fathers and their sons. This theme quickly overwhelms the book despite not really having an arc of its own. As the novel drifted further and further off I wondered why Shriner didn't just make a novel completely about the father and sons theme rather than try to weld his narrative to it. It doesn't help that there is no development of the relationship as a plot until a moment of revelation at the end; that's not a plot arc, it's a speed bump.

Unfortunately by changing the focus of his novel that way Shiner abandons off-hand all of the complications introduced by his scenario. Let's say that you're in a loveless marriage and your spouse has suddenly demonstrated the ability to cause recordings that never took place play out of any speaker. There's a wide range of reactions that are possible to such a scenario: greed, fear, adoration, manipulation, and so on. There is, on the other hand, one that is not: apathy. Yes, the protagonists wife when confronted by someone she has known for years having awesome and easily exploitable psychic powers is to not care about it. Similarly recordings that could not possibly exist emerge and become distributed through underground methods and no one really follows up on it. Glimpses may have been written in the days before intellectual property rights for music recordings was at the forefront of public consciousness but that doesn't excuse ignoring all of the complications that would emerge in this situation.

I hate to say this but I owe an apology to Robert J. Sawyer. When I reviewed The Terminal Experiment I mentioned: "I've never encountered anything like it in published fiction and I don't mean that in a good way. It's the kind of thing that never comes up in writing lessons because it's so monumentally bad that it shouldn't even be considered." Glimpses was published the game year as The Terminal Experiment and there must have been something goofy going around SF and fantasy writers that year because Glimpses also features a character going to a psychiatrist, explaining their problem for half a page of dialog and having the psychiatrist spit out a handy break down of the character for the reader. So Robert J. Sawyer, I'm sorry. You are not the only person to have used this impossibly bad literary device.

Not that the characters are interesting even when Shiner isn't spelling out for the thickest readers their exact psychological flaws. They act more like puppets playing out parts rather than people reacting to the situation. The dust jacket provides a clue for why that may be as it informs me that the book is "part [...] autobiography". I didn't see any sign of that in the text (assuming that whoever wrote the jacket understood that when "autobiography" is made up it becomes "fiction") but if that's the case then it adds an ugly layer to the novel. It colors the novel as the author attempting to paint himself as morally justified hero. He has an affair an then breaks up with his wife but it's okay because his wife's life immediately improves, for example. He's the rescuer who swoops in to save everyone from themselves.

Finally let me take this opportunity to let those people who belong to small religions such as wicca that proselytizing in a novel is obnoxious no matter what religion is being advertised. It's bad when protestant christians do it, it's bad when muslims do it, it's bad when jews do it, it's bad when wiccans do it. The only ones who don't mind it are members of that same religion. It is possible to have someone hold a faith without spouting how wonderful it is to the reader all the time.

Glimpses started out promising but as it continued the flaws became more prominent and pushed to the forefront while the aspects that were interesting were shoved aside. This is a weak novel about unpleasant people. Even if you are interested in blending 60's rock with a fantasy novel it isn't worth it.