Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Vonnegut Lost and Regained

Library of America, Facebook photos stream
Kurt Vonnegut: Novels and Stories 1950-1962
Kurt Vonnegut: Novels and Stories 1963-1973
Kurt Vonnegut: Novels 1976-1985
(Library of America)

Happy Birthday, Wanda June
By Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
(Dell, 1970; out of print)

Between Time and Timbuktu
Based on the works of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
(Dell, 1972; out of print)

     Few writers who could be claimed by the science fiction genre were as feted in their lives as Kurt Vonnegut Jr. During his lifetime his titles were sometimes put in the Literature section of bookstores. Not just fiction, but actual high-fallutin' lit'rature.
     He died just seven years ago last Friday (April 7), but already the prestigious Library of America has put out two volumes of his collected works, with a third scheduled for later this year. This is more impressive when you consider that most of his books haven't been in danger of being unavailable, although many are no longer in hardcover editions.
      The novels included are Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan and Mother Night in volume one; Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions in volume two; and Slapstick, Jailbird, Deadeye Dick and Galápagos  in the forthcoming volume three. That's a pretty good assortment of his novels, including all but his final three. 
     I wish there were more short stories included (there are six in volume one -- “Report on the Barnhouse Effect,” “EPICAC,” Unready to Wear, “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” 2BR02B, and “Harrison Bergeron” -- and three in volume two -- Welcome to the Monkey House, Fortitude (though this might be a play) and The Big Space F***), but perhaps the editors didn't consider enough of his short fiction worthy of preservation, or at least not enough for a separate volume.
     They also didn't make room for his play Happy Birthday, Wanda June, which is out of print and I think deserves preservation. 
     Based (as Vonnegut explained in an introduction) on the story of Odysseus returning home and slaying the suitors of his wife, Penelope, the play concerns another Penelope, the presumed widow of Harold Ryan, a Hemingwayesque adventurer, missing for more than eight years and now declared dead. She has a son and two suitors: Herb Shuttle, a vacuum cleaner salesman, and Norbert Woodley, a physician (with whom she is secretly affianced). Harold returns home, along with a friend who was also missing, Col. Looseleaf Harper (who is said to be the pilot who dropped the bomb on Nagasaki). 
     (By the way, although Penelope declares this play is a tragedy, it's a comedy.) 
     Who is Wanda June of the title? She's a little girl who died when an ice cream truck hit her, so consequently her parents never picked up her birthday cake. Coincidentally it is Harold's birthday also, and Herb buys the cake to mark Harold's birthday for the son. Wanda June appears as a ghost, speaking to the audience almost like a Greek chorus, as do other spirits, including Harold's dead first wife and a Nazi soldier whom Harold killed during WWII. 
     In the original cast (photos of which appeared in the book), Kevin McCarthy (from the 1957 Invasion of the Body Snatchers) played Harold, Marsha Mason (many Neil Simon plays and films) played Penelope and William Hickey (an elderly mob boss in Prizzi's Honor and a semi-frequent guest star on TV's Wings) played Col. Looseleaf. 
     It's a very stagy play, with the characters frequently speaking directly to the audience. In his introduction, Vonnegut says there isn't a villain, and that may be a problem for some readers. Worse, there isn't really a hero either. Harold is the obvious villain, but he's also pitiable. His main antagonist in the play, his wife's physician suitor, doesn't get out unscathed either. Penelope isn't quite active enough to be a hero. 
     The villain may be the whole idea of heroism. Harold is a hunter, proud of his he-man ways, but Woodley points out that he didn't kill them defending his home. Harold's dramatic and maybe heroic killing of the Nazi soldier didn't affect the outcome of the war and resulted in an entire town being destroyed in retaliation. Col. Looseleaf killed more people than Harold, thousands, with one bomb, but doesn't feel it was a heroic or significant act; he was just following orders. 
     There was a film version, which I haven't seen, with Rod Steiger, Susannah York and Hickey reprising his role. It's not currently available on DVD or Blu-ray.

     Hickey also starred in a teleplay based on Vonnegut's works. Vonnegut didn't write it (though he did have input), so it's understandable that it isn't included. It's also out of print but I think it worth preserving.
     Between Time and Timbuktu mashed together elements of almost all of Vonnegut's novels to date (plus Wanda June). Poet Stony Stevenson wins a cereal box top contest to become an astronaut and travel through space to the chrono-synclastic infundibulum (if memory serves), a spot where you can exist in different times and places simultaneously. Once he arrives, he becomes unstuck in time like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, and appears in scenes from other Vonnegut works, including Cat's Cradle (a meeting with Bokononon, played by Kevin McCarthy, and a discussion of Ice-Nine between a scientist and a general), the everyone-is-equal dystopia of "Harrison Bergeron" and an encounter with Wanda June in the afterlife, ending at Stony's tombstone that bears the epitaph: "Everything was beautiful, nothing hurt."
     It's at times very funny -- some of it was ad-libbed by comedy duo Bob and Ray, who play TV announcers covering the rocket launch -- but it's also a good, entertaining introduction to some of Vonnegut's concepts. 
     To  my knowledge, the telefilm has never been available on VHS, DVD or Blu-ray. Pity.

     The scripts of both works are available for borrowing through the Suburban Library Cooperative, including the St. Clair Shores Library. 

Postscript:
     While researching a post on Edward Gorey (who died 14 years ago April 15), I ran across a forthcoming Kurt Vonnegut title I had to mention.

     Kurt Vonnegut DrawingsIntroduction by Nanette Vonnegut (The Monacelli Press) features drawings (duh!) by the late author, I believe his illustratrations graced a few of his book jackets ion recent years, and he extensively illustrated his novel Breakfast of Champions (the original hardcover edition at least).  He wasn't Aubrey Beardsley or N.C Wyeth, and I don't think you could argue he should have given up his day job and become a graphic artist, but it's another interesting aspect of his creative muse to explore.




Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Review: The Constantine Affliction

Night Shade Books
The Constantine Affliction 
by T. Aaron Payton 
(Night Shade Books)

     I hesitated to purchase The Constantine Affliction in hardcover because I have been burned too many times recently by a book that sounded promising then goes off the rails. So I waited for the paperback. My life was not impoverished by the delay, but I wouldn't have been upset to pay hardcover price for this book. It is recursive, steampunk, intriguing and fun. It has some of the feel of Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate novels without the vampires, werewolves and ghosts, though there is occasionally a whiff of the supernatural (Cthulhu -- which you can argue -- Lovecraft did -- is science fiction, not supernatural, and even my particular bane, reanimated corpses).
    Constantine takes place in an England where science has advanced ahead of schedule, thanks at least in part to Sir Bertram Oswald. There have been consequences to this premature development of advanced technology, including a sexually transmitted disease that -- in its most benign form -- transforms men into women and vice-versa. Sometimes it stops halfway, and people die.
     Our protagonists include Adam, whose identity will be almost immediately apparent to anyone who picks up the book, Ben Drummond, a sometimes criminally inclined tough, Abel Value, a pimp whose stable includes clockwork women, Winnifred Pembroke, formerly a mechanically inclined man named Freddy before encountering the sex-changing VD of the title, Sir Pembroke "Pimm" Halliday, an amateur detective, and Eleanor "Ellie" Skyler, also known as journalist E. Skye. The fact that this first book by T. Aaron Payton (which is itself a nom de plume for Tim Pratt, an author whom I haven't read before but am now inclined to check out) is identified as a "Pimm and Skye" book should tell you who the main protagonists are. As this is the first book in the "series," knowing that they are the stars eliminates all worry that one or both of them will come to a bad end, rather decreasing the suspense in a few spots. But that's nit-picking.
     The book is competently plotted and well-enough written, but I confess that the main characters do not in and of themselves terribly interest me. Nor do I feel that the romance that is being cultivated around them is compelling. What I do love about the book is that, like my favorite steampunk, it plays with the tropes and characters of the period. In meeting a man who Pimm says is the greatest mathematician alive, the man protests that there might be a brighter one, a student whose analysis of the Binomial Theorem was setting Europe abuzz. It's a throwaway line, but it should bring to mind a certain arch villain of Victorian literature.
     Not all the allusions are to literature of the time; one character opines, "don't you love the smell of electricity in the morning?"

2013: A Reader's Year in Review

     It's a little tardy, but here's my count and analysis of the books I read in 2013. In retrospect, it was a good year. Although the quantity is down a bit from last year, I enjoyed more of them.
     Bearing in mind this is in no sense a best-of list, here's what I read in 2013:
  1. The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi (Jean le Flambeur 1)
  2. Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright
  3. Pasquale's Angel by Paul McAuley
  4. Steampunk III: Steampunk Revolution edited by Ann VanderMeer
  5. Homunculus by James Blaylock (Langdon St. Ives 1)
  6. Doorways in the Sand by Roger Zelazny
  7. The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
  8. The Stainless Steel Rat ("Slippery Jim DiGriz" 1) by Harry Harrison
  9. The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge ("Slippery Jim DiGriz" 2) by Harry Harrison
  10. The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World ("Slippery Jim DiGriz" 3) by Harry Harrison
  11. The Gun Machine by Warren Ellis
  12. Desolation Road by Ian McDonald (Mars 1)
  13. Iron Man: Beneath the Armor by Andy Mangels
  14. Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure by Richard Lupoff
  15. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson
  16. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
  17. Night of the Cooters: More Neat Stories by Howard Waldrop
  18. Raylan by Elmore Leonard (Raylan Givens 3)
  19. Enigmatic Pilot: A Tall Tale Too True by Kris Saknussemm (The Lodemania Testament 2)
  20. The Shocking Story of Helmuth Schmidt: Michigan's Original Lonely Hearts Killer by Tobin T. Buhk
  21. The Martian War by Kevin J. Anderson
  22. The Constantine Affliction by T. Aaron Payton (Tim Pratt) (Pimm and Skye 1)
  23. Infernal Devices by K. W. Jeter (George Dower 1)
  24. Fiendish Schemes by K.W. Jeter (George Dower 2)
  25. John Dies at the End by David Wong (Jason Pargin) (John Cheese and David Wong 1)
  26. Swords of Lankhmar by Fritz Leiber (Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser 5)
  27. Swords and Ice Magic by Fritz Leiber (Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser 6)
  28. The De-Textbook: The Stuff You Didn't Know About the Stuff You Thought You Knew by The Editors of Cracked.com
  29. Heechee Rendezvous by Frederik Pohl (Gateway 3)
     I count a total of 29 titles, but three at least were quite short, and seven were re-reads. Six were non-fiction, 20 were science fiction or fantasy, and three were thrillers. Eight, maybe, are steampunk. Three are short story collections or anthologies.
     One thing I hadn't noticed until just now is that almost all of the novels are parts of series, even if the followup book wasn't released (in some case even conceived) until years later.

     There were only three I outright hated: Homunculus, The Martian War and Fiendish Schemes. On paper I should have liked them.
     Homunculus is one of the first steampunk novels by one of the genre's founders, but while its concepts were interesting, it was a mess. I think I have to give up on Blaylock.
     Fiendish Schemes was also by a steampunk founder, and a sequel to one of my favorite steampunk novels, but this was a very unnecessary book that diminished its predecessor. I can only assume it was done for the money.
     The Martian War was a recursive mashup of H.G Wells' life and his major works and characters, but to little effect.

     Favorites include The Quantum Thief, The Gun MachineThe Constantine Affliction and The De-Textbook.
     Quantum Thief is the first in a series (trilogy?) that mixes hard science fiction and literary playfulness with a a sense of mystery. I'm intrigued. The second book is already out, and number three is scheduled.
     Gun Machine is a police thriller, but a weird one. A routine police call leads to a dead cop and the accidental discovery of an apartment filled with firearms, arranged in seemingly purposeful patterns on the walls, every one of which turns out to have fired the bullets in an unsolved homicide. Who and why? The cop assigned to the car, the partner of the dead cop, needs to solve the case to redeem himself, with the help of some equally damaged forensic specialists.
     Constantine Affliction mixes historical and fictional personages in its Victorian/Edwardian setting (minor spoiler alert: one character is the Frankenstein monster, though he's never called that). It's steampunk without supernatural elements per se (zombies and other-dimensional demons are rationalized scientifically) The title disease sometimes transforms men into women and women into men (when it doesn't kill them), which has the potential to harm the social order as women weren't permitted to inherit titles and estates. It's billed as the first of a series, though no further volumes are strictly necessary.
     The De-Textbook debunks what everybody thinks they know about science, history and other such topics. It's not original (Mental Floss has some similar books), but it bears repeating, and this is an entertaining and informative gathering of such facts.


Ben Aaronovitch's Peter Grant returns in 'Broken Homes'

DAW Books
Broken Homes (A Rivers Of London Novel)
by Ben Aaronovitch
(DAW Books, 2014)

     Ben Aaronovitch's series of novels featuring Peter Grant, rookie policeman and wizard's apprentice, moves from Del Rey to DAW with Broken Homes, the fourth volume, and things are looking up for the series. Not only is it the best installment since the first, with a cover taken from Stephen Walter's The Island - London Series (as was every volume of the British edition but not the original U.S. editions of the first two books),  but for the first time the series is identified as Rivers of London.
     This is a big deal to me because that was the title of the first book in the series in England, but not in the U.S. (where it was retitled Midnight Riot for reasons I've yet to see explicitly stated).  As I've stated in an earlier post, I only read the first book after reading a review of it under the British title, which I found evocative; Midnight Riot does nothing for me, seeming more like the name of an '80s metal band than a fantasy novel. Now I have hope that DAW will acquire the rights to the earlier books and they will get the attention and promotion they deserve.
     Since discovering that he could see ghosts in the first book, Peter Grant has been working with Inspector Nightingale, apparently the last wizard in England and the only man protecting Britons from supernatural menaces and criminals. Grant has been learning magic, but he's a little too much of a rationalist to excel at it. Instead he is trying to apply scientific methods to the study of magic, serving as a bridge between the police and Nightingale.
     Much more adept is Lesley, a former fellow police officer (she was more adept at police methods, too) whose face was mutilated by the menace in the first novel.  Since the end of the second book,  she has been a co-apprentice.
     Also since the end of the second book, Grant and Nightingale have been looking for an evil  magician whom they call the Faceless Man because he uses a spell that makes it impossible to remember what his face looks like. He was a background threat in the third book, but he takes a more central role in this one, with explicit reference to him being a magical Moriarty.
     Broken Homes revolves around a strange housing project, seemingly designed by a madman  but actually built for a purpose that the Faceless Man intends to co-opt. We again meet some of the Rivers of London, a wood nymph, fairies and other characters of or with sorcerous intent.
     My only complaint is that there is a lot of backstory that new readers probably can't pick up without going back to the earlier books, which are from another publisher. With the current state of brick-and-mortar bookstores, the odds of finding them in stock is poor (they rarely keep series titles that old unless the series is a bestseller), and if you do, they probably have the moronic tough-guy covers the previous publisher used initially. Ideally I would have liked a prologue summarizing the first books, at least the relevant points. (Even fans of the first books might have benefited from a refresher.)
     Still, that's their lookout. I have all of the books, and I'm pleased to be benefiting from the products of Aaronovitch's imagination. If you're curious, visit Aaronovitch's blog, in which he discusses his books, books he's reading and offers advice to would-be writers. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Kris Saknussemm's fractured Lodemania Testament

Cover images from KrisSaknussemm.com 
The Lodemania Testament 
by Kris Saknussemm:

     Zanesville
     (Random House/Villard Books)

     Enigmatic Pilot
     (Random House/Del Rey Ballantine Books)

     Eat Jellied Eels and Think Distant Thoughts
     (PS Publishing)

     There is something irritating about authors who begin series and then take years to finish them, or sometimes never finish them. But what if they don't acknowledge that the books are part of a series to begin with?
     Kris Saknussemm is a funny guy. His first novel, Zanesville (2005), is a gonzo future fantasy or science fictional whatsit that a dedicated website, now apparently removed (though it was still up and running a couple of years ago, many years after the book was published), indicated it was part of something called The Lodemania Testament. In 2011, an apparent second part of that series was finally published, Enigmatic Pilot, with no explicit mention of the previous novel or The Lodemania Testament series, although there are many links -- part of the book takes place in Zanesville; Lloyd Meadhorn Sitturd, the main character, was mentioned in Zanesville, and that character has a dead twin sister who was named Lodema -- to connect the two books. In interviews, Saknussemm has placed Enigmatic Pilot close to the beginning of the story arc, with Zanesville near the end. (A third book, Eat Jellied Eels and Think Distant Thoughts, is apparently also part of the series, but I haven't read it). 
     Some readers and reviewers have taken exception to there being no mention of the connection
between the two books, but I think they are a little out of line. While there is some pleasure and joy to be derived from the knowledge, the books are separate entities. In Zanesville, Lloyd is mentioned on only four pages, in a prologue section titled "My Life is Wind," set in 1838-1913. The rest of the book's almost 500 pages never refers to Lloyd again, and it takes place more than a century later.
     Likewise, Enigmatic Pilot has no mention of Elijah Clearfather, the main character of Zanesville. It's not necessary to read one book to understand the other. At this point, it might just be confusing. Each book is confusing enough on its own without dragging the other book into the mix. Saknussemm is actually doing the reader a favor by putting in the links without stated connections, except in interviews. 
    A bigger problem is that Enigmatic Pilot is hardly a complete work in and of itself. First, it begins with a prologue set after the Civil War, sets up a mystery, then jumps back several decades and never returns to that prologue. Someone who might be Lloyd appears in that prologue, though it's not made explicit. 
     Second, the main story is set up by a mysterious letter and offer to Lloyd's father by his brother, requesting he relocate to Texas from Zanesville, OH. The family's journey to Texas looks like it's going to be the plot of the story, or perhaps the offer itself when they get there. Instead, we only make it part of the way through the journey to Texas before the book ends. 
     A lot happens, more than enough to set up future volumes of The Lodemania Testament, but it doesn't even scratch the surface of the backstory established in those four pages of Zanesville. At this rate, The Lodemania Testament, if completed, will take a dozen volumes or more, and Saknussemm doesn't seem to be that fast a writer (though he might be if he didn't spend more time posting on Facebook -- sometimes fascinating posts, granted -- than a teenage girl). 
     He's written three other books, not apparently part of The Lodemania Testament (though I could be wrong about the out-of-print Reverend America.) Lloyd's story alone looks like a trilogy at minimum, probably longer, before we get from the late 19th century to the 21st century or beyond of Zanesville
     I look forward to future installments, but I understand why Saknussemm might not want to draw too much attention to the fact it's a series.





      

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Lavie Tidhar's Les Lezards, Part 2

Angry Robot Books
Camera Obscura
by Lavie Tidhar
(Angry Robots)

The Bookman Histories
by Lavie Tidhar
(Angry Robots)
 
      Lavie Tidhar's The Bookman was an ingenious variation on steampunk science fiction and recursive fiction, but I didn't enjoy it. I didn't like the writing or the plotting especially, but I did like some of the ideas. So when I learned he had written a couple of books with a common background but different characters, I thought I'd give another one a try.
     The Bookman introduced the idea that a race of intelligent, technologically advanced reptiles, Les Lezards, emerged centuries ago from Caliban's Island (from Shakespeare's The Tempest) and conquered England, replacing its rulers with reptilian analogues (there is a Queen Victoria, but is is a lizard Queen Victoria, which begs the question of why she has the same name as the human English Queen would have). Probably these are extraterrestrials, but I can't recall if that's been definitely stated. This has introduced advanced technology to the world and changed history in some ways. America is known as Vespuccia, for example.
     Tidhar populated the book with a mix of real and fictional characters, following the adventures of Orphan, a young poet, who runs afoul of the titular character, a terrorist who blows people up with exploding books.
     Camera Obscura shifts the main action from England to France, and the protagonist from Orphan to Milady de Winter, a name familiar to fans of Alexander Dumas' The Three Musketeers, but this is a different character of the same name, possibly based on a real performer with Barnum's circus known as Cleopatra. Other characters include Tom Thumb, another Barnum performed, Mycroft Holmes, a Gascon possibly based on D'Artagnan,  the real-life serial murderer from Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, a scientist involved with resurrection named Viktor and a masked villain referred to as either Tomas or the Phantom (apparently based on the French character Fantomas, though the name may be under copyright).
     Unfortunately I found the plot overly complicated, long and boring. It involves some murders and a search for a mysterious artifact, but also some silly B-movie details (Milady loses her arm at one point and gets a mechanical replacement with a built-in machine gun instead of a hand).
     I also found the book hard to read because of a particular and peculiar stylistic choice, also evident in The Bookman:

     She said, "Where does it come from?" and he said, "That, Milady, is what the Council hopes you could tell us."

     Yes, Tidhar stars a sentence with one character speaking, and shifts to a second character's reply in the same sentence! That's not acceptable in the same paragraph, let alone the same sentence! I find that vexing. Traditionally, and for clarity, it should look like this:

     She said, "Where does it come from?" 
     "That, Milady, is what the Council hopes you could tell us."

Angry Robot Books

     There is a third book in the series, The Great Game, but I haven't read it. It's also available in an unwieldy omnibus of all three books, The Bookman Histories (which is a less expensive way to purchase the whole series).
     I wish I liked the series. In the abstract, there is so much about it that I do like. The execution, however, seems lacking to me.


'Murdoch Mysteries': Gillies murders the season

     Murdoch Mysteries has gone on sabbatical for the month of February, but not before James Gillies returned from (what Murdoch assumed was) his watery grave to hector Dr. Julia Ogden. Last week, he sent her a letter promising to kill William Murdoch if she didn't break up with him, and to kill both of them if she tells Murdoch that Gillies told her to. This week, Julia attempted to sleuth out Gillies' location herself, but received a further warning to stop or he will kill both of them. Then, at the end of the episode, Murdoch proposes to Julia, who tells him she can't, but not why.
     I was so frustrated and irritated at this that I posted on the Murdoch Mysteries Facebook page that I'm sick of this Gillies-dominated season, and speculated that if the producers are that intent on keeping Murdoch and Julia apart that they need to raise this juvenile delinquent to the level of master criminal, then they should kill her off as a less odious alternative to more Gillies. I've had three people agreeing, and only one questioning why Julia should have to die.
     I blogged earlier about how I didn't think Gillies was up to being the Moriarty of the show -- he's been mentioned in just about every episode this season -- and hoping that they would let him die off-camera and anti-climatically. My only hope now is that since Gillies hasn't actually been seen since he jumped off the bridge, that someone has been impersonating him for some reason. A forlorn hope, and one that would only complicate an already too complicated storyline.
     Confession: I have read none of Maureen Jennings' books about Murdoch, so I don't know if Julia Ogden is even a character in them or how deep her relationship with Murdoch is. I also don't know if Jennings cares deeply about how the show deviates from her originals or considers the show a separate universe that can progress as the producers wish.
     Personally, I like Julia (though my wife doesn't), but think it odd the way the show keeps inventing ways and reasons to keep them apart, only to remove or rule the obstacles irrelevant, then find new ones. She's not Catholic? No problem. She had an abortion? Umm ... no problem, I guess, maybe. Murdoch's met someone new to whom he's attracted and seems more compatible? Not good enough reason to dump Julia. She's left town for a better job? Wellll ... she could move back. She's married? Anullment or divorce or death could remove that obstacle. Guilt over being the reason for her husband's murder? They'll get over it.
     So, now, Gillies has to interfere, risking his life and freedom, just to bedevil two people who have threatened his super-man self-image. That might be good enough motivation for Lex Luthor with Superman, or Joker with Batman, but it seems pitifully poor for Murdoch Mysteries. It's just a symptom of how poorly this past season has been developed (and that's without mentioning the ridiculous earth-drilling vehicle a couple of weeks back).
     If this is the best the producers can do, maybe it's time to end the series altogether. Let us pretend that after Gillies was caught at the end of season 6, Murdoch and Julia got married and lived happily ever after. Or maybe have a full-season reset as with the infamous Dallas shower scene.
     I'll take any way out.