Review: Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons and Dragons and the People Who Play It, by David Ewalt (2013)

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books / role-playing games

Musical Accompaniment: “Ready to Roll”, by Flashlight Brown


I’m not entirely sure for which audience David Ewalt’s Of Dice and Men was written. Is the book intended to be picked up by absolute newcomers to the concept of Dungeons and Dragons, or tabletop roleplaying altogether? Is it supposed to be of interest to people who already play, but are interested in the story of the game’s creation? Or is it for readers interested in a memoir of a lapsed geek coming back into the fold, trying out different activities for his own edification?

Of Dice and Men combines three elements in an attempt to give readers a sense of Dungeons and Dragons’ past, present and future. Ewalt crafts a concise history of TSR, the company that first released the game, while laying out his own experiences coming back to tabletop role-playing after a long absence. In an attempt to help readers understand all facets of the gaming world, Ewalt visits a display of ancient boardgames, attends a wargaming convention, becomes a LARPer and finally visits Lake Geneva, the birthplace of D&D. Interspersed among these chapters we also find the fictionalized adventures of some of Ewalt’s own player characters, mostly focusing on his 15th-level cleric Westlock, who battles vampires in a dystopic future Earth.

Of the book’s three features, by far the most interesting and best-written is Ewalt’s look at the history of the game itself. Starting with a brief look at military wargame culture in mid-century America, Ewalt spins a solid yarn around the lives of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the two men whose combined genius in rules and story laid the groundwork for what was originally called “The Fantasy Game” and later D&D. Ewalt works at Forbes, and the facility with which he makes corporate intrigue around the later years of Tactical Studies Rules and the falling out between the two fathers of the game gripping reading is to be commended. Ewalt interviews many of the key players left over from the early days, and digests TSR’s press releases and sales data to give us a sense of just how big the D&D phenomenon grew in the late Seventies and early Eighties. Some great nuggets are dug up around the time of the “Satanic Panic” (one of the United States’ frequent lapses into moral absolutism), which in the early Eighties made parents around the country think that D&D was a gateway drug into occult rituals, human sacrifice and devil worship. This is around the time that Mazes and Monsters was released, a TV film now remembered mostly for being an early Tom Hanks vehicle, but at the time fuelling this supposed crisis around the game.

As can be expected, this massive outcry made the game irresistible to bored teens worldwide, and the company in turn became flush with cash. This led to some entertaining and extravagant purchases around the TSR office, as a bunch of nerds who started a game about pretending to be wizards are potentially not the most prudent financiers as it turns out. Ewalt’s ease at explaining the business narrative makes corporate power plays between Gygax and the company’s investors compelling reading, even if I would have liked a few more details on how the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon show came into being. I would even love to see a movie based on this material, actually.

Less successful for me, though, were the other two facets of the book, the combination of Ewalt’s re-entering the fantasy role-play world and the dramatizations of his own characters’ adventures. Of Dice and Men starts off incredibly slowly with an extended chapter which makes abundantly clear every bit of trivia about D&D readers could be expected to know for the rest of the story. Concepts like player characters, stat points, Dungeon Masters and the like are laboriously explained, and I feel like, in the wake of the massive popularity of MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, the average reader probably has at least some sense of what these things are. Given the fact that the cover features a large 12-sided die and marks Ewalt off as a “level 15 cleric”, I can’t see someone even picking up this book without having at least some sense of these concepts. Ewalt then relates his experiences as a young person playing D&D, and how he eventually quit playing in college for fear of being called a nerd. While he explains the things that brought him back into the fold as an adult, what he doesn’t do is really give a sense of how D&D is becoming less of a stigmatized hobby. He also has some weird prejudices, especially towards Live Action Role Playing (LARP), which fall by the wayside as he gains more experience in the modern-day gaming world.

Interspersed here are bits of dramatic fiction set in the various worlds Ewalt plays in. While they were relatively inoffensive to start, eventually these vignettes began to grate on me as they ham-fistedly tried to find equivalencies in Ewalt’s real world travels. It’s a cute idea, but I think it could have been scrapped. I worked at a comic book store for four years, so perhaps the novelty of having someone tell you how cool their elven ranger is has potentially worn off on me, but again, I can’t imagine an absolute newcomer being interested in this sort of material either. It all ties back to my confusion with who this book is actually for. It’s far too inside baseball on the history of TSR and the early days of D&D to really be of interest to a newbie, but it also takes great pains to explain the simplest of concepts, potentially alienating people who’d be interested in that history. It is trying to be all things to all people, and it should have just picked one concept and stuck with it.

This is the first book I’ve reviewed on this blog that I listened to as an ebook. While a professional acts out the fantasy adventure sequences, Ewalt provides narration for the rest of the book, and he is a decent reader. While he’s prone to a bit of overeager excitement when talking about the extent to which peoples’ lives are shaped by D&D, and some of his pop culture references are annoyingly obvious, on the whole it was a good choice for him to read his own work, I think.

Review: Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer (2014)

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Musical Accompaniment: “Where the Wild Roses Grow”, by Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue

Annihilation cover

“If I showed you the roses, would you follow?”

The twelfth expedition set out thirty years after the mysterious appearance of “Area X”. All women this time out, the unnamed explorers numbered among them a psychologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a biologist, our narrator. The Area, which once featured a coastal town, is now an Eden untouched by human industry, full of interesting new flora and fauna, and potentially more secrets than that. The eleventh expedition ended in tragedy, much like many of the previous ones, but the four women (who numbered five before the linguist got cold feet) were determined to unlock the Area’s secrets for good. They could not imagine what lay in store for them…

Area X is under the control of an organization known as the “Southern Reach”, which gives this great new series by Jeff Vandermeer its title. Annihilation is the first of three short Southern Reach novels that will be released in 2014, and if the first one is any indication of quality, readers will be in for a treat all year long. Annihilation combines dread and cosmic horror like that found in the works of H.P. Lovecraft with interpersonal dynamics between characters and sheer visceral thrills reminiscent of Stephen King at his best. For whatever reason, the clinical depictions of nature gone mad in the Area recalled to me sequences from Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, much like the last book I read, The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya, although it also put me in mind of the dreamworld landscape found in Christopher Nolan’s Inception. The concept of a small area that suddenly changes and goes down its own evolutionary path also recalled an arc in Rick Remender’s excellent run on X-Force from a few years back, when the team returned to the world that gave Fantomex his origin.

All of this is to say that Annihilation is a very good book indeed, a slice of paranoia-inducing, creeps-giving horror that gripped me from beginning to end. I was initially a little put off by the dry, “by the book”-style narration delivered to us by the biologist, but I soon found it a comfort compared to what it could have been. Annihilation is definitely influenced by H.P. Lovecraft, but thankfully omits the overwrought vocabulary and hysterical feel of those stories, preferring instead to lay out its horror for readers in an easy to understand fashion that does not grate. Also like in Lovecraft’s work, journals make up a large part of the story, and I really appreciated how Vandermeer was never sidetracked by this device. He kept his focus on the biologist and her story throughout, and while it easily could have been a collection of journal entries this book never turned into a collection of found works like the annoying Night Film from last year did.

Vandermeer hits you with fascinating concept after fascinating concept, page by page. While we learn next to nothing about the Southern Reach organization in this volume, their management techniques in Area X are on full display in the person of the psychologist, who is revealed very early on as using post-hypnotic suggestion on the rest of the group to keep them in line. No sooner is this revealed, though, than the existence of new animals in the Area is discovered, and then writing made of living beings, and so on, and so on. It’s exhilarating to see so many fascinating new ideas spiraling through the book, each of which could easily have been a short story of their own, if not a novel. I also loved the dynamics between the four women exploring the area. They were instantly recognizable as a group of professionals who may or may not see eye to eye on everything, and this essential humanity is very useful as the plot becomes more and more crazy and weird. I’m intrigued to learn more about the previous expeditions, as the goal of the twelfth one seems mostly to be an offering to the Area, a new cross-section of humanity for it to interact with, and I’d like to see what the previous experiments in this vein were as well.

I don’t want to say too much more about this perfectly-sized volume, as I’d like to encourage all of you to check it out on your own. I’ve already got the second book in the Southern Reach trilogy, Authority, and I can’t wait to tear into it.

Late to the Party: The Slynx, by Tatyana Tolstaya (2000)

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The Slynx cover

Two hundred years after the great Blast, people still live around Moscow as best they can, they’re just a bit different now is all. Sure, there’s been some Consequences out there, but some of them are cool, like Nikita Ivanich’s ability to blow flames out of his mouth, or Head Saniturion Kudeyarov’s illuminating eye-beams. Not everyone is stuck with cockscombs growing out all over their body, or whatever the hell it is going on with that guys with all those extra appendages. Benedikt could even pass for a pre-Blast person, if it wasn’t for the stub of a tail sticking out from his pants… Benedikt’s got a pretty great job in the rechristened Fyodor-Kuzmichsk; it’s his job to recopy the poems, tracts and decrees laid down by the boss, Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe. Now if it wasn’t for that damned Slynx out there, in the woods, making everyone paranoid, things would be just about perfect in this post-Apocalypse. Just about…

The Slynx, which I picked up on a whim, is also the first book I’ve ever read from New York Review Books’ immaculately designed collection. It will definitely not be the last. I knew nothing about this book, but the cover copy referenced both Pale Fire and A Clockwork Orange and the setting sounded kind of like Roadside Picnic, so I was in. I could not have been happier with this decision. The Slynx delighted, surprised, and astounded me at every turn of the page.

The Anthony Burgess comparison is valid. Before the story starts there’s a brief glossary detailing a few of the new terms Tolstaya will use throughout the rest of the story. These words are simple, evocative, and soon become second nature to the reader. The rest of the vernacular spoken by the unfortunate denizens of future Moscow, though, is a quarrelsome, bouncy sort of speech, at once completely engaging, hilarious, but also monstrous when you think about it for more than five minutes. There’s a lot of talk of ridiculous games and violent occurences, but the engaging narration staves off what could have been a The Road-style exercise in murder-wallowing. Tolstaya’s use of language recallsthe best of Vonnegut, especially Cat’s Cradle, with its internal consistency that doesn’t put the reader off for not knowing exactly what’s going on at all times.

Benedikt is a fun character to follow around. He’s a braggart who’s deeply stupid, but also very endearing. As the story progresses, Benedikt’s true love of reading, first at his work being a scribe, later as an agent of the government confiscating books, becomes almost an addiction, much more important than the various women he lusts after, or the family he marries into. Every reader will see a bit of themselves in Benedikt, hoarding away volumes with zealous tsundoku abandon like that episode of The Twilight Zone. It’s endearing the way that he reads every single bit of pre-Blast literature with the same abandon and reverence, be it a nursery rhyme or one of the many works of Russian poetry found throughout the book.

That reliance on pre-Apocalypse poetry was really the only part of the book I didn’t love, but I realize that this is more of a personal failing than anything. I had the exact same problem with Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, references going way over my head. At least in The Slynx there’s an appendix telling you who wrote each poem, if you want to track it down, and there’s the nice bonus that few of the characters in the story would know any more than I do. I also feel like Tolstaya’s less interested in doing metafictional jokes with her references than Bolaño is, but again I don’t really know for sure.

I really like the lo-fi way Tolstaya increases the weirdness of the setting, chapter by chapter. First it seems like the only domesticated animal people have anymore is mice, which serve as primary foodstuff and currency. But then you start finding out about peoples’ Consequences, their mutations, and you have to add that to your mental image of the scene, that it looks like Mad Max meets Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Then you discover that the Degenerators people use as beast of burden are basically just men in horse costumes, and that people who survived the initial Blast haven’t aged anymore, and so on, and so on. Tolstaya combines this absolute mastery of her setting with an absolute defiance of “regular” heroic narratives of the Joseph Campbell/Hero With a Thousand Faces school. The story is full of twists and turns, and I’ll go on record as saying I didn’t see many of them coming at all. Maybe Campbellian monomyth never really caught on in Russia in the mid-90s?

The Slynx is a fabulous book, a must for fans of the above-mentioned authors, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, or Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, the video games based on Stalker, or even the Fallout video games. Basically, if you’re looking for a good time in the post-apocalypse and you’re getting tired of standard narrative conventions, seek this one out.

Review: The Weirdness, by Jeremy P. Bushnell (2014)

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The Weirdness cover

Billy Ridgeway’s not in the greatest shape at the moment by any stretch of the imagination. An aspiring author, he spends most of his time either making artisanal sandwiches for the better-off-than-he-is who frequent the shop he works at, or trying desperately to get his writing published. On the eve of his first launch party, after finally getting a story in at a small literary magazine, Billy wakes up to find a strange person in his apartment: the honest-to-badness Devil. The Lucifer Morningstar of legend turns out to be kind of cool though, having brought with him some fantastic coffee, and after a brief PowerPoint presentation he asks Billy a simple question: what would you do to become a famous author?

So begins The Weirdness, the appropriately weird first novel from Jeremy Bushnell. The story read to me as a combination of the metaphysical world posited by Richard Kadrey (Sandman Slim) and Toby Barlow (Sharp Teeth, Babayaga) mixed with the mumblecore-hipster sensibility of Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture. The characters are for the most part very self-centred aspiring artists, with Billy’s girlfriend Denver being a notable exception as she’s already been recognized as a talented filmmaker. I reckon I would have got a bit more enjoyment out of this facet of the book had I more experience of the Brooklyn literary scene, but the determination and hustle showed by some of the characters in the story were pretty recognizable from people I know in the book world. I don’t know what it is about New York City novels that kind of turns me off, perhaps it’s the need to have everyone be a neurotic stress case all the time? I never get tired of this sort of thing in Hollywood stories, though, so I really have no idea.

I also appreciated the exaggerated influence of blogs and the bad buzz they can generate in this aspect of the story. It begins with Billy’s writing being panned by Anton Cirrus, editor of “Bladed Hyacinth”, even before his debut reading even goes off, and then descends from there. The pettiness and posturing of some aspects of the “literary” blogosphere read incredibly true to me, especially with the overly verbose and preening voice used in the first post.

The titular “weirdness” worked a bit less for me overall. I appreciated the shaggy dog aspect of the story, with things starting off relatively strange (having Satan show up in Billy’s house, a literary magazine with sinister motives) and getting even weirder from there. I felt by the end though, once superpowers have developed and magic incantations start flying all over the place, that the seriousness required by the premise had been lost. The characters, perhaps reflecting the mumblecore-tinged world in which they live, are just so damn blase about everything,  it started to drive me a little nuts. There’s not much in the way of anyone having to reconcile their psyches with the amazingly over-the-top events of the story, they all just take it in stride, even though they’ve changed physically in many ways by the end.

The book also does that kind of strange thing where at the beginning of the chapter a few key phrases are highlighted before the prose starts again, which is something that you’d see more often in a story from a hundred years ago, or at least in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I often wonder what the point of this stylistic technique is in a modern-day story, but I do admit I kept a finger at the front of the chapter to flip back and see what the connections were.

Overall, if the idea of a book that posits getting ahead in the overly dramatic and cutthroat NYC lit scene against the literal end of the world sounds like fun, this bit of Weirdness might be up your alley.

Late to the Party: The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks (1988)

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The Player of Games cover

You could say I’m a fan of games. I’ve played video games for as long as I can remember; one of my earliest memories growing up is going to buy an NES with my parents at a toy store down in the States. We had to climb a fence to get in the store, as we were on the complete wrong side of the building and didn’t have a car, and it was pretty intense for a three-year old. When I worked at a comic book store, I got heavily into tabletop role playing games, chiefly Dungeons and Dragons, but also some lesser-known games like Unknown Armies, and Paranoia. I own a fair amount of board games now, mostly Fantasy Flight products, but the sad thing is I can’t point my finger at one and say that I’m very good at it. If I had to choose, I’m probably better than average at Twilight Struggle and Ticket to Ride, but apart from that I’m kind of an easy mark. I’ve never stayed awake through a whole eight-hour game of Twilight Imperium, and the endless dicking around that accompanies the supposedly fast-paced The Resistance bores me to tears every time.

The second book in Iain M. Banks’ Culture cycle (following Consider Phlebas, reviewed previously here), The Player of Games, is about someone who’s my polar opposite in this regard. Jernau Morat Gurgeh is a master gamer: indeed, the “Morat” in his name even means as much in the Culture’s language, Marain. As noted in my last review, the Culture is a far-future human society which has melded almost entirely with machines. Great AIs known as Minds run the show for the most part, and humans spend their time in search of hedonistic pleasure, swapping genders almost at will and drugging themselves with whatever genofixed concoction suits their fancy. Gurgeh lives on a Culture “orbital” named Chiark, a gigantic structure that resembles Larry Niven’s Ringworld, or the place all the rich people lived in last year’s film Elysium, and there he’s the champ at basically every game imaginable, even teaching game theory to students. In the post-scarcity world of the Culture, you can focus your entire existence on these sorts of pursuits without worry, and while he seems happy on the surface, Gurgeh is looking for something that will prove a challenge.

That challenge comes in the form of the Empire of Azad, a rival civilization whose existence the Culture has kept under wraps to the general public. The Empire’s entire society is controlled by use of a game, also called Azad,  played every few years. Your status in the Empire is determined by how well you did at the last tournament, and whoever wins the whole thing becomes the Emperor. The rapacious, competitive nature of the Empire is cultivated by its higher ups all being skilled game-players, and this unorthodox system is exactly what compels Gurgeh into action, as it’s so different from the anarchy and seeming carelessness of the much more decentralized Culture.

This was a ripping good read as, unlike Consider Phlebas, this time out we are subsumed right into the strange and exciting world of the Culture, and are able to live vicariously through its people. Gurgeh is a relative innocent in many respects, at least compared to the people of Azad, who are continually scheming and plotting against one another. In fact, one of the reasons Gurgeh leaves Chiark to go participate in the game is because he’s blackmailed into it, and this is such a rarity in the Culture that the very concept must be explained to him!

The world of Azad will be familiar to us, as its barbarity is not too far removed from our own miserable existence, at least as compared to the Culture. While it is initially an exciting place for our sheltered hero, as the veils come off and he gets more involved in the game he soon experiences the abject misery and inequality most of its people toil under. In an especially intense sequence, Gurgeh’s handler during the game, a sentient drone named Flere-Imsaho, shows him the varying levels of depravity the upper classes enjoy watching on television as they move up the ranks. It’s basically the endgame portrayed in the movie Videodrome, violent entertainment breeding more violence except even more explicit somehow. The stakes are pretty high for our main character.

There’s an interesting use of voice in certain sections of the novel, as the heretofore unseen narrator butts in and starts explaining concepts to the reader that will make for dramatic irony later on. This includes fun stuff like how the three-sexed Azadians carry children to term, and how they’re to be addressed when speaking about them (short version, male, female, and the bisexual “apex”, plural “apices”). It jarred me out of the story at first, as it’s different from the strict third-person narration found in Consider Phlebas and the only other Culture novel I’ve read so far, Surface Detail. I wonder if this writing technique brings Iain M. Banks closer to the style he uses in his non-sci fi persona, Iain Banks. I’m not entirely sure, but I’m game to find out once I lay hands on some non-“M.” books.

Like Consider Phlebas, I found Player of Games to be an intensely cinematic reading experience, and even though Banks doesn’t find himself able to completely explain the Azad game (with good reason, I think), I was still imagining how it’d look “onscreen” throughout. The story is a bit more cerebral than the swashbuckling adventures found in Consider Phlebas, but Gurgeh’s metamorphosis into a more Azadian, more brutal person mimics Horza’s gradual reconciliation with the Culture’s worldview. Where I found the previous novel to be a new spin on the pulp tropes of the Astonishing Tales era of science fiction, Player of Games is more of a novel of ideas in the mode of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books, although with much more interesting use of language, character and etc. than those staid tomes. Highly recommended, even if you’ve never read a Culture novel before.

Late to the Party: Anno Dracula, by Kim Newman (1992)

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Anno Dracula cover

I’d heard about Anno Dracula for a long time before actually getting my hands on it. When I was in high school, one of the big genres I liked to read was alternate history. I worked my way through Harry Turtledove’s work up to that point (Guns of the South and Ruled Britannia were especially good), devoured Philip K. Dick’s masterwork The Man in the High Castle, and found one of my favourite short stories of all time in Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner’s “Mozart in Mirrorshades”. By far the best in my opinion was a novel by Eugene Byrne and Kim Newman called Back in the U.S.S.A., which chronicled the state of the world after America’s Communist revolution in 1917, where Eugene Debs takes the Lenin role while Al Capone is cast as the U.S.’s Stalin. In the back of that volume, I saw an ad for a book called Anno Dracula, which has only recently come back into print.

Anno Dracula is another work of alternate history from Newman, one that provides a lot of the same pleasures as Back in the U.S.S.A., where part of the fun was figuring out who was a real person and who was fictional. In the 1888 of the novel, Victorian England is in the throes of becoming a vampire-run state after the wedding of the Queen to Vlad Tepes, aka. Dracula, a couple of years earlier. As Prince Consort, Dracula has made vampirism fashionable amongst the upper classes, and the more physical advantages of increased longevity and strength have also filtered down to London’s poorest in an example of trickle-down necronomics.

Charles Beauregard, a  still-“warm” spy working for an organization known as the Diogenes Club, is brought into an investigation into the murders of vampire prostitutes in Whitechapel by a maniac known only by the nom de guerre of Silver Knife. During the course of his investigation Beauregard meets Genevieve Dieudonne, a French vampire from a different bloodline than Dracula’s, who runs a halfway house/hospital for newly-turned vampires and joins forces with him to crack the case.

Much like the comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, Anno Dracula is a rollercoaster ride through Victorian-era and Victorian-set genre fiction, although in this case primarily vampire fiction for obvious reasons. Unlike certain recent volumes of League (Black Dossier and Century: 2009 especially), I found Anno Dracula to be a coherent, engaging story and not just a list of knowing in-jokes waiting to be explained by footnotes.

I do feel, though, that I would have gotten more out of it had I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula recently, as many of the main characters are survivors of that book; hilariously in the AD universe Bram Stoker himself is declared an enemy of the state for his relationship with Abraham van Helsing, and is shipped off to a concentration camp. An extensive list of the book’s references can be found on its wiki page; I was especially pleased to have been right on the money with my guess regarding Blacula.

I enjoyed learning about the day-to-day workings of an England controlled by vampires in much the same way as I enjoyed the first part of the underrated film Daybreakers. It’s fun to see the restrictive Victorian mores and taboos opened up ever so slightly to accomodate feasting on blood, but still leaving things like handing your calling card to a footman, or gentlemen’s clubs where not a word is to be spoken. You can really tell that Newman has done his research, both into pretty much every vampire book and movie currently in existence, as well as general Victorian life.

The new printing of Anno Dracula comes complete with an extensive afterword, footnotes for the myriad references, an alternate ending, a short story set in the same world, and a snippet from a screenplay of the book. While a nice addition, I can’t say that any of these were really big selling features for me, but they might be of interest to those who read the original incarnation. I did really enjoy the short story, “Dead Travel Fast”, as it featured Dracula learning how to drive a car and that idea’s pretty damn adorable.

There’s three books that follow Anno Dracula in the series, and I’d like to pick them all up, starting with this world’s take on the First World War in The Bloody Red Baron. If you’re a fan of well-thought out vampire fiction and alternative history that respects the intelligence of the reader, I’d definitely recommend this book.

Late to the Party: Old Filth, by Jane Gardam (2004)

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Old Filth cover

Some long-time readers of this blog may recall my struggle to finish reading Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, a twelve-book long cycle of books taking place mostly in London between the two World Wars. The short review of Dance? Don’t bother. I read six out of the twelve books and was basically bored silly the whole time, as Powell was much more interested in looking at different social strata of England pre-1939 and characterizing them poorly than actually telling any kind of story. Last week I tore through much better book, that in 250-some pages accomplishes what Powell couldn’t in his thousands, Old Filth by Jane Gardam. Old Filth is the first of a trilogy of books set in the declining British Empire that just concluded last year with Last Friends. After this book, I am eagerly awaiting picking up that one and the second, The Man in the Wooden Hat.

The aged Sir Edward Feathers is better known as “Old Filth” to his fellow Queens Counsels of England, FILTH being an acronym that stands for “Failed In London, Try Hong Kong.” Filth began life as a “Raj Orphan”, the son of a colonial administrator sent back to England for his education and safety. This great novel follows Filth from birth through to his tough interaction with the modern day after the death of his beloved wife Betty. Along the way he gets mixed up with public schools, Oxford dons, a brief (and hilarious) Army stint and eventually success in Hong Kong. It recalls the humour of Kingsley Amis and Evelyn Waugh, the exotic colonial locales of Graham Greene and E.M. Forster, and is equal to them all in quality.

As I noted earlier, I really loved this book. It is at turns hilarious, incredibly sad and a fascinating glimpse at a culture I know very little about. Raj Orphans, who I’d never heard about previous to the book, had a pretty tough go of it, as in addition to being taken from their families they were often put in foster homes and often mistreated. Filth forever feels torn between his two nations, as he was happiest in Malaysia (Kotakinakulu) with his native friends, but he never truly belonged due to his status and his race. He goes on to ping pong between social groups and organizations for the rest of his life, in a matter not too different from Jenkins, the ostensible main character of Dance to the Music of Time.

There’s some uproariously funny stuff here; my favourite part was when Filth finds himself a part of Queen Mary’s protection retinue during the Second World War, as his stutter would make it tough for men to understand his orders, and his social standing makes it difficult to use him as a grunt. It’s a fun interlude, and another look at something I’d never even thought about before: of course the Royals had to have been secreted away in case the Germans reached the mainland. This is again tinged with tragedy, though, as it’s while he’s ostensibly protecting the Queen that his first love affair falls apart like skeins from a ball of yarn. He also learns to drive using a tank, the only vehicle around.

I do wish I’d seen more of Filth’s success in the Far East, as his Hong Kong adventures are often alluded to but never fully explained. I’m hoping to see more about this time period in the second novel, The Man in the Wooden Hat, which tells the story of his wife Betty. The third book, Last Friends, is the tale of Filth’s great nemesis of his courtroom days, the delightfully named Terry Veneering, who only appears a couple of times in this one.

Late to the Party: Consider Phlebas, by Iain M. Banks (1987)

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Consider Phlebas cover

Bora Horza Gobuchul is a Changer, a member of a humanoid species with the ability to shape-shift into the identity of another person over the course of a few hours. This unique ability makes him a perfect spy for the race that controls his section of the galaxy, the long-lived, three-legged religious zealots called Idirans. The Idirans are engaged in total war with another galaxy-spanning force known as the Culture: a technocratic, anarchic and hedonistic society whose pervasive acceptance of artificial intelligence is seen as the ultimate insult by Horza’s Idiran spymasters.

When a Mind (one of the immensely powerful AIs that directs the Culture’s policies) is forced to land on the dead planet called Schar’s World, a place that is impassable to both Idirans and Culture, Horza is uniquely placed to capture this valuable new asset with his shape-shifting powers. If he is to do so, however, he must come face to face with everything he hates about the Culture, as well as everything he hates about himself.

Consider Phlebas is a whirlwind tour through the universe the recently departed Iain M. Banks would go on to flesh out in the rest of his Culture novels. Stripped of the evocative and charmingly vulgar language, as well as the well-thought out political and cultural world-building, the book could easily fit in with Star Wars-like pulpy space opera as Horza finds himself in increasingly dangerous and exciting situations throughout the story: he’s shanghaied into joining a pirate attack on a religious fortress, shipwrecked on a living platform that is due for destruction, menaced by a degraded group of cannibalistic cargo cultists, and must effect a daring escape from a gigantic battleship, and that’s all before he even gets to Schar’s World! I did feel the book dragged in some sections though, as it seems like Banks was a man brimming with ideas, and wanted to fit each and every one of them into this story. I could have done with a lot fewer descriptions of Culture weaponry and ships, for instance, even though I know they will become important in later books.

It’s an interesting technique to start off your sequence of books by placing the Culture as the opposing force off the bat, as the rest of them would have you take their side. Over the course of the story Horza, who like his Idiran masters hates everything the Culture stands for, begrudgingly must accept some of their more outre beliefs as his own if he is to survive his mission. Rather than taking the easy route and presenting us the Culture as the idealized version of humanity’s future, we are instead invited, like Horza, to make up our own minds about big topics like AI rights, hedonism and anarchy. There are some pretty heady concepts thrown around in the book, and the outsider’s perspective is useful for readers.

By the time the next book in the cycle rolls around, we are then able to appreciate some parts of the Culture from outside as well as in and immediately have the privilege of not having to accept everything in this far future story at face value. A similar technique is used to great effect in Frank Herbert’s Dune, which presents the adventures of Paul Muad’dib to us in “real time” while simultaneously providing snippets from the “official” histories written by Princess Irulan years after the fact, creating entertaining dramatic irony.

While reading Consider Phlebas, the book I’ve recently that it reminded me of most of was John le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the ColdIn both books we find ourselves delving head-first into a conflict we don’t have all the resources to fully understand right away, alongside a spy gradually becoming disillusioned by his country and increasingly having to rely on his own principles rather than party doctrine. Like Alec Leamas, Horza is an engaging and complicated protagonist, one whose adventure is well worth seeking out.

Review: Vampires in the Lemon Grove and Other Stories, by Karen Russell

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Vampires in the Lemon Grove cover


While I was on vacation this summer, I had the pleasure of reading Karen Russell’s first novel, Swamplandia! If you haven’t checked that book out yet, I would really recommend it: it’s alternatively hilarious and depressing, has an amazing sense of place and time, and the insistence on using the exclamation point every time the Swamplandia! park is named makes me chuckle even now. So it was with great anticipation I dug into Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Russell’s second book of short stories, and on the whole I was not disappointed in the slightest. It really makes me want to check out her first collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.

The worlds Russell conjures in the eight stories featured here are similar to our own, but each is off-kilter in a specific way that recalls the best works of Stephen King. Of these, my favourites were “Reeling for the Empire”, “Proving Up”, and “The Barn at the End of Our Term”. “Reeling for the Empire” is a creepy, David Cronenberg meets Mike Mignola-inflected story of a group of young women who metamorphose into silk-bearing worm-people for the good of the Empire of Japan in the early Nineteenth Century. Coming after the titular “Vampires in the Lemon Grove”, “Reeling” proves that Russell is capable of working with the inborn ideas readers have about “monsters”, in basically any place or time you can give her.

The haunting “Proving Up” would not look out of place next to Cormac McCarthy’s works, as a young man attempts to formally stake his family’s claim on Western land through the use of a strange bit of legal trickery. It gives us a beautifully stark portrayal of 1800s homesteaders, always walking the razor’s edge, one bad harvest away from failure, or worse, death.

My favourite story in the collection is “The Barn at the End of Our Term”, which posits that a horse farm is actually the final resting place for the spirits of United States presidents, who continue their political machinations even when turned equine. Our viewpoint character is Rutherford B. Hayes, now a “skewbald pinto with a golden cowlick and a cross-eyed stare”, who attempts to stave off the madness that threatens to take over his horsey existence while pining after his wife Lucy, who may have been reincarnated into the body of a sheep. Again Russell’s sense of humour is omnipresent, as the various presidents scheme and assign titles to one another while attempting to parse the motives of their seeming owner Fitzgibbons, and his delightful niece Lucy, who likes to ride the horseys and brush them and give them apples … and you get the point. Delightful.

I was not as enthused about some of the other pieces collected here, especially the title story which I felt was a little too oblique in its use of vampire mythology (although the image of the creatures sustaining themselves off of lemons is pretty indelible). Overall, though, this is a fantastically strange collection of unforgettable stories, well worth checking out.

Review: Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh (2014)

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books / film noir

Shovel Ready

In a near-future New York City that has been ravaged by dirty bombs, climate change and massive depopulation, a former garbageman-turned-hired killer named Spademan plies his trade for a modest fee. The philosophically bent Spademan is somewhat understandably leery of learning too much about his clients and their targets as this could lead to complications, and what does it really matter in the end when his boxcutter is up against their throat? Most of the people that matter have either left the city, or retreated into the digital realm known as the “limnosphere”, anyway. But when he’s hired to track down and eliminate the daughter of a wealthy fire and brimstone mega-preacher, Spademan finds himself caught up in a case that will challenge him in every way, even ones he didn’t know were possible.

I’m a little bit torn on the world shown to us by this book. On the one hand, I really appreciated the subtle way that Sternbergh weaved in details about the decrepit state of the city without beating us over the head about it. Things like taxi-mounted Geiger counters, flooded, though still inhabited sections of the city and the complete lack of any dogs whatsoever really add to the creepy, cadaverous vibe he’s crafting here. It really resembles the kipple-strewn streets of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (although in that one people were leaving town for a new life on the off-world colonies) and I found this to be very satisfying. While Spademan prefers to stay across the river in his native New Jersey, most people who remain in the city either live in heavily-guarded fortresses, or in the ruins of palatial apartment buildings, giving the book a very cinematic quality as you can easily imagine these well-realized places in your mind. The reference to Occupy Wall Street in the form of a ragged and ineffective “protest” camp in the middle of Central Park was also a nice touch.

On the other hand, I could have done with a lot more detail about the limnosphere, the Second Life-esque virtual world that is the new haven for the rich, who’ve left their physical bodies behind in high-tech beds, tended by nurses and subsisting on IV bags. The rules of the linmosphere (and how to hack into it) are nowhere near as coherently laid out as Shovel Ready‘s cyberpunk forebears, William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. In fact, with all the religious iconography and powers floating around, I was actually reminded more of Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim books, which concern a badass kicked out of Hell after a lifetime spent in the fighting pits. When a significant chunk of the latter half of the novel takes place in a realm in which we’re not entirely certain how anything works, the effect is not an increased tension or anticipation, it’s just confusion.

Spademan is a great character, a self-proclaimed “psycho” whose moral code is flexible enough for him to kill men and women (“I don’t discriminate”), but not children. Perhaps this is the new Marlowe we deserve these days, in the wake of “good” serial killers like Dexter, Hannibal, et al.? I enjoyed his gallows humour, and his musings about the state of the city being reflected back in terms of garbage. No one else is as fully-realized, though, with the possible exception of Spademan’s former evangelical-turned limnosphere hacker buddy Mark. I must admit I did like the reference to an on the cheap limnosphere den as being “Rick’s Place”, though, and I think I saw a nod to Neuromancer in the person of Mina Machina, recalling Molly Millions? She could have just as easily been a reference to any number of Warren Ellis characters as well, I guess.

As mentioned on the back by Austin Grossman, Ellis’ superb comic series Transmetropolitan is a great comparison to this book, as would his novels Crooked Little Vein and especially Gun Machine. Just make sure you have time to take a shower after reading this one.