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.

If Only All Covers Could Be This Helpful

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Review - Last Call

Last Call
by Tim Powers
1993 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

Scott Crane was a professional poker player. Twenty years ago he played a unique style of poker in a high stakes game on Lake Meade but he didn't realize how high the stakes really were. There's magic in the cards and the best gamblers know that manipulating their patterns can bring great changes into the world. Now the marker is due and Scott is pulled back into the world of high stakes cards despite the fact that death is stalking him. His family has hidden from him since that game and he seeks them out to change the fate that has been dealt.

To touch on something that I'm sure bothers only me as a reader, Last Call is the only fiction book I've ever read that handled games correctly and it did it correctly while heading straight through the areas that are usually prone to fallacies by authors. Take poker, for example. A skilled poker player isn't revealed in one single hand. Writers like that dramatic final showdown where the hero happens to draw a hand slightly better than the high hand the villain has but in one hand of poker that is coincidence not skill. Real ability comes into play across dozens, if not hundreds, of hands. Powers knows that and uses that in the novel.

The other thing is when creating a fictional game writers tend to include an all or nothing goal for the hero to achieve so that victory will be dependent on them (see Quiddich in the Harry Potter series) or alternatively pile on overly complicated details to make it "more realistic" (see The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks). The variant of poker used for the mystical poker tournaments in Last Call is brilliant. The concept is that the players receive less than a full hand and must buy each others hands to build a better poker hand. While it is more complex it is not needlessly so; it is exactly the kind of variant that I could see experts playing since it makes their skills at manipulating the bidding and judging even more important. There is an all or nothing option but Powers makes the point that using it (from a game play standpoint at least) is a bad idea.

That's the kind of care that Powers put into crafting his story. Last Call is a massively complicated novel and events spin out fast but Powers never loses track of anything. I was extremely impressed at how well he managed to juggle the plot points and keep things clear to the reader. There are a half dozen factions who have business with Crane in one way or another and a few more at odds with at least one of them and the tension doesn't let up.

I do not like talking about plot elements deeper in than one-third of the way through a book. Still the climax of Last Call is so clever that I have to mention it. I can't say what it was or why it was so brilliant, it just is. I can promise you that the resolution to Scott Crane's problems is not the obvious one that I spent the majority of the book dreading. I was pleasantly surprised when the book made that final turn into the climax.

In addition Powers avoids explaining things too deeply. There's magic and tarot at the heart of Last Call but there's also details regarding which characters possess what information. Powers hoards this information; characters do not typically spend a chapter explaining things to each other. In fact at several points in the novel characters have become aware of things they didn't know before because presumably they had things that the reader already knew explained "off camera". So despite being a fairly heavy book it never feels padded.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention what a wonderful job Powers does with painting his characters. There are a lot of broken people populating Last Call each of whom is broken in a unique way that allows them to play off each other whether they're haunted, gluttonous beyond reason, ruthless, obsessed with masculinity, or seeing patterns in everything. It's a cast that I hated to see go at the end of the story because it was so interesting to see what they do next.

The worst thing I can say about Last Call is that it isn't a deep book. It wears its messages on its sleeve and there are no hidden philisophical layers. It won't be pondered over for generations to come or debated endlessly. On the other hand it is still a great peice of storytelling and if the worst thing I can say is that Tim Powers didn't attempt something that a lot of authors fail badly at then he's done everything right. I'll take an interesting plot over ham-handed philosphy any day of the week.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Review - "The Unicorn Tapestry" and "The Ugly Chickens"

I haven't posted the covers to the Nebula Award collections (sometimes called Nebula Award Stories, other times Nebula Winners, and eventually Nebula Awards) because to be frank they're hideous. The first seven years featured that drawing of the award using state of the art 1965 computer graphics and I posted that but after that it's almost always plain text with an occasional pattern background. The thirteenth collection had a small black and white photo of the award on it but by the time I reached that collection this one with it's better but still very 1970's style photo was coming up.

This was one of the rare occasions where I was already familiar with all of the winners that year. I even owned copies of all of the stories in other collections but I hate skipping a year when I'm building a set of the Nebula collections. Besides then I'd miss the amusement of an essay on the SF films of 1980 that mentions how much inferior Empire Strikes Back is to Star Wars since the director just wasn't as a good.
"The Unicorn Tapestry" by Suzy McKee Charnas 1980 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

The concept of this novel might not be as fresh in this era of poorly written vampire romances consistently topping the best seller list. I still like the hook though: a vampire goes to a psychologist claiming to be under a delusion that he's a vampire. He wants to convince her that he only thought he was a vampire and thus gain a reference from a medical professional to cover for an attack if he is caught while the psychologist (a vulnerable woman, naturally) tries to work out what her unusual patient is doing.

This is actually part of a series of stories Charnas did with this vampire character and she does a good job of exploring the psychology of a being who treats humanity as food. Obviously any story that is essentially a psychologist versus a vampire is going to be about how those characters interact and explore their psyches; Charnas avoids making things too pat and simplistic with their personalities. Their battle of wills is interesting and the only misstep that I think she makes with it is toward the end where she shifts things around to fit more of a vampiric metaphor theme than what she had used before in this story. I definitely recommend it.

"The Ugly Chickens"
by Howard Waldrop

1980 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette
1981 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Short Fiction

An ornithologist is commuting to work on a bus while flipping through a book on extinct birds when an elderly passenger sitting next to him says, "I haven't seen one of those ugly chickens in a long time." That innocuous comment sets the ornithologist off on a worldwide chase since the "ugly chicken" is a dodo a bird which was supposed to have gone extinct over two hundred years before.

I have to confess that this is one of my favorite hard science fiction stories. Someone familiar with the story might have just gone, "Huh? Hard SF?" Hard SF is in my definition about taking a possible scientific conceit and following the implications. Species thought to be extinct have turned up in limited populations from time to time and the idea that a small population of dodos could have survived in captivity where the owner was unaware of what they had is a reasonable leap.

The downside is that "The Ugly Chickens" is almost all exposition. The narrator goes one place, finds out more history of the dodo or explains a bit more to the audience and then dashes off to the next. The story exists solely for the exploration of that idea. I enjoyed it and I think Waldrop did a fine job with keeping the story moving and integrating the info dumps. It was a fun story and decently told.