Some thoughts on genre fiction and mental health depiction after reading Borderline by Mishell Baker

BorderlineScience fiction addresses almost every conceivable topic covering the human condition, from the obvious such as what it means to be human or are we as a species on a path to destruction via war or environmental impact, to evolution, consciousness, sexuality, religion, memory and almost everything else you can think of. Fantasy and horror are perhaps less concerned with deeper themes but of course, many works address ideas such as industrialisation, what is good or evil, racism and more. But they rarely cover, explicitly at least, mental health.

Of course, mental health is as difficult to define as genre fiction. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is the bible of such things, was first published in 1952 and unbelievably, included homosexuality. It was 130 pages long and had 106 mental disorders. The latest edition, from 2013, has 947 pages of definitions and descriptions. If you consider the many types of disorder (Neurodevelopmental, psychotic disorders, Bipolar conditions, depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, OCD, trauma- and stressor-related disorders, eating disorders, gender dysphoria, sleep disorders and all the rest) I’d expect to be able to name dozens of genre books I’ve read that addresses these issues.

I started thinking about this subject after I read Borderline (2016) by Mishell Baker. It features a character called Millie who is suffering from borderline personality disorder after a failed suicide attempt. She is also now physically disabled. She exhibits unstable relationships with other people, unstable sense of self, and unstable emotions. Millie is headhunted from her treatment centre into the Arcadia Project. This covert organisation, being urban fantasy, is a secret organization that polices the traffic to and from a parallel reality filled with what are generally known as fey. This is a typical innocent gets inducted into the so-called real world that contains magic (see the likes of Harry Potter, Rivers of London and The Magicians). It’s fairly enjoyable if unremarkable narratively, as Baker populates her novel with various mental disorders – it seems that those with these disorders are the best people to deal with magic. Baker doesn’t hold back on the effects and troubles of Millie’s disorder, which is what I think makes this novel stand out. The characterisation is enhanced because of the characters’ disorders.

Off the top of my head I wrote down (typed) all the fiction I’d read where mental health issues seemed to be explicit. I came up with Frankenstein, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Hobbit, A Wrinkle in Time, Breakfast of Champions, The Stars My Destination, A Scanner Darkly, and Oryx and Crake.

These novels feature:

  • an eccentric and grief-stricken scientist, and ‘creature’ suffering from isolation and trauma;
  • good and evil personalities;
  • narcissistic hedonism;
  • dissociative identity disorder;
  • madness;
  • deranged and delusional;
  • revenge fixation and stress-related disorder;
  • multiple identity and addiction;
  • unhealthy obsessions, and mad scientist.

I guess mad scientist is the most common concept in genre fiction, but I’m not sure that it is tackled seriously in most examples, but rather they are used as a cypher to create any given novel’s narrative MacGuffin (such as HG Wells’ Doctor Moreau).

What else is out there? What am I missing? And should genre fiction be embracing the issues of mental health. After all, in 2015, according to ICM Research, 30% of adults in the UK (over 18s) said that they have or previously had a mental health condition. [i]

I’m wondering about the mental health of ex-military personnel. How about the aging population? Gender identity issues in children. Self-harm? I’ve a personal interest in insomnia. I’d love some recommendations on topics of interest.

 

 

[i] Leading common mental health issues experienced over the past year in the United Kingdom (UK) in 2015. Statista. Accessed 13 September, 2017. Available from https://www.statista.com/statistics/505466/leading-mental-health-illnesses-united-kingdom-uk/.

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20 years of Buffy: top 10 vampire novels

Ooh, there’s a bandwagon passing by, may as well hitch a ride…It’s been 20 years since one of my favourite TV shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer aired in the US (March 10, 1997), so in tribute to all things vampire-y, here are my top 10 novels on said creatures of the night . . .

  1. I am legend by Richard Matheson (1954)

I am legendOK, so not your traditional vampire novel, Matheson’s classic is a post-apocalyptic survival tale. The ‘survivors’ are vampires however; only coming out at night and hoping to feed on the last man alive’s blood. Matheson is such a terrific story-teller and this book really captures the isolation and terror of being the prey. There was also very little like it before!

 

  1. Night Watch by Sergie Lukyanenko (1998)The Night Watch

There’s something oddly enjoyable and readable about this Russian clichéd-ridden nonsense. The dark and the light battle it out in and around Moscow, starring Anton on the light side, reluctantly protecting the ordinaries from vampires and other demons.  I read this for some fluff, but found it very engaging. Oh, there’s also a chosen one motif!

  1. Anno Dracula by Kim Newman (1992)

Anno DraculaApparently, Queen Victoria has married Vlad Tepes, otherwise known as Count Dracula. Newman chucks everything into this historical re-imagining of vampire and Dickensian classics, as ‘almost’ good vampire Geneviève Dieudonné investigates the so-called Ripper murders. This a rollicking tale with plenty of nods and winks.

 

  1. Already Dead by Charlie Huston (2005)Already Dead

And talking of almost good vampires, Already Dead constantly reminded me of Blade. Huston’s series of vampire novels is a horror/detective noir mash-up, featuring vampire detective Joe Pitt. Pitt solves cases using extreme violence and Hollywood sardonicism. Manhattan is as much a character in this novel as the humans and supernaturals, as Pitt battles against the various clans of New York.

  1. Lost Souls by Poppy Z Brite (1992)

Lost SoulsClassic gothic vampires here, set in the American south. These tortured souls hang out in the Missing Mile club all dressed in black and moping around looking for meaning. Brite’s evocative prose and stark outlook lead to a fascinating and horrific road trip to New Orleans. You can feel the heat in the night.

 

  1. Salem’s Lot by Steven King (1975)Salem_s Lot

It would be remiss of the universe if Steven King hadn’t written a brilliant book on vampires. In only his second novel, King manages to put moments of vampire into everyday cultural context, such as the idea of a vampire floating outside the bedroom window. The town of Jerusalem’s Lot is being infected with vampires. A writer returns to confront his childhood memories. Terror ensues!

  1. The Radleys by Matt Haig (2010)

The RadleysA different kind of vampire story here. The Radleys just want to be a normal family. Left alone. They are vampires but they abstain from feeding. However, the kids don’t know what they are. Yet. Haig really taps into what makes people normal in this increasingly bloody novel. Touching, but great fun too.

 

  1. Fevre Dream by George RR Martin (1982)Fevre Dream

Who knew Martin wrote one of the best vampire novels of all time? Another one set in the American south, this novel features life on riverboats on the Mississippi in 1857. Martin also writes about the idea of a good vampire, but in this case, a quest to unite the vampire race with humanity, which is against the odds of the bad guys. Fevre Dream is a brutal description of vampirism during one of America’s most romantic eras.

  1. Let the right one in by John Ajvide Lindqvist (2004)

Let the right one inWhat might it be like to really exist as a vampire? To be trapped in a 12 year old’s body but to live for decades? In Sweden? Lindqvist captures 80s life and the terror of changing from a child to something more in this classic. And what of being bullied for being different? And what if you could take revenge? This is an utterly brilliant book about so much more than supernatural creatures that only come out at night. Just like Buffy isn’t about a teenager who slays vampires at High School.

  1. Sunshine by Robin Mckinley (2003)Sunshine

I’ve already said a lot about Sunshine over here. I simply love this book. Mckinley’s writing and characters are evocative, awesome, fun to spend time with, intriguingly damaged and beautiful. Sunshine is a magical baker, but maybe something more supernatural too? When she’s imprisoned with the enigmatic vampire Constantine, she learns so much her life will change forever. Has the vampire fallen for her? Is this Buffy and Angel all over again . . . ?

And no, I haven’t read every vampire book so your favourite probably isn’t on my list and yes, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) is intolerably dull and I didn’t like it.

The end of my Winter of Weird: Thoughts on The Weird

the-weirdAnd so it comes to end. On 31 October 2016 I embarked on a mission to read the short story anthology The Weird (2012) – edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer – from cover to cover, averaging a story per day. I almost achieved the goal, hitting the 110 stories in 117 days. Not too bad, considering all the other stuff I read during the same period, too.

It feels, well, weird, now it’s come to an end. Stories of ghosts and monster, aliens and demons have been with me almost as a comfort blanket for the past 4 months. And yet, as I’ve said before as I’ve marked this quest, it didn’t have any kind of effect on me. I wondered if I’d get creeped out, or even have nightmares. I never get nightmares. Maybe because the stories didn’t get under my skin in the way I’d hoped. I certainly didn’t find a new favourite writer, although some of the authors featured within this anthology will be added to my to-read list.

The Weird, as mentioned, features 110 short stories. Not quite 110 authors as some are featured twice. It is the very definition of a weighty tome; my edition coming in at more than 1100 pages (and featuring two page 800s!). Some of the stories are relatively long: novellas or novelettes almost, depending on your definition. Others are just a few pages. Each story comes with a brief introduction about the author, their notable works and where-else they’ve been published. We have big names and relative unknowns, novelists and short-story specialists. Authors who are known for a particular genre writing in a different one; authors treading familiar ground. The first in this collection is Austrian Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side (1908) and the last is Australian K.J. Bishop’s Saving the Gleeful Horse (2010). Nations covered include Iran (Reza Negarestani), Czech Republic (Michal Ajvaz), Nigeria (Amos Tutuola, Ben Okri), Poland (Stefan Grabinski), Japan (Hagiwara Sakutaro), Benin (Olympe Bhely-Quenum), Italy (Dino Buzzati), Guatemala (Augusto Monterroso) and many others. This is truly a global story of weird fiction. Of course, the usual suspects are all present and correct too: Gaiman, Miéville, Kafka, Barker, Borges, Carter, Aickman, Lovecraft, Peake, Bradbury, King, Walpole, Russ, Ellison, James, Blackwood et al. The oddest name on the list might just be Joyce Carol Oates.

And in the 110 stories, there is something for everything I’m sure. But also probably something for everyone to not get along with too. Out of the pack, while I didn’t engage with a fair few, I can say only one left me completely cold: Singing My Sister Down (2005) from Australian Margo Lanagan felt like an exercise in confusion with no coherent message, plot or empathy for any of the characters, as a ‘weird ritual’ takes centre-stage. It would take too many words to describe and nod to each story on display here. Suffice to say that I enjoyed the classics: Don’t Look Now, Daphne Du Maurier (1971); The Snow Pavilion, Angela Carter (1995); The Brood, Ramsey Campbell (1980); The Willows, Algernon Blackwood (1907); Casting the Runes, M.R. James (1911); Mimic, Donald Wollheim (1942) and others.

A couple of nods should go to George R.R. Martin’s Sandkings (1979) and Daniel Abraham’s Flat Diane (2004). The former is a totally enjoyable and unexpected sci-fi romp from the master of fantasy, while the latter demonstrates that you can write about horrible and brutal subjects with poignancy, warmth and beauty. One of the best in this collection…Looking back over the list of stories here, I recall enjoying this little oddity (Hogfoot Right and Bird-hands (1987) by Garry Kilworth) or that complex exploration of weird writing (such as Finland’s Leena Krohn with Tainaron (1985)). In the end, however, there are just dozens of great, odd, disturbing or interesting stories that I will return to in time, such as Brian Evenson’s The Brotherhood of Mutilation (2003) or Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s The Hell Screen (1917).

While science fiction, specifically, evolves as a form of literature over time, reflecting the times and ideas of the culture it comes from, I found that many of the themes here haven’t evolved so. The writing styles have, for sure, and a willingness for experimentation in language and form. However, with one or two exceptions – such as the excellent In the Lion’s Den (2009) from Stephen Duffy that uses CCTV as a plot device – many of the stories that feature later in the anthology could easily have been written in years gone past. No evolution of theme or creepiness or weirdness. A rare comment on our times (war being the most obvious theme here). T.M Wright’s The People on the Island (2005) seems to feature a trapped colony that could just as well come from Kafka or Borges for example. Meanwhile, Hagiwara Sakutaro’s The Town of Cats (1935) could be a companion piece to Thomas Ligotti’s The Town Manager (2003). It is interesting, however, that I’m always on the lookout for original and unusual styles of writing, and yet it is often the most traditionally written that I’ve enjoyed the most. So maybe it’s the originality of the subject that I’m craving. Something I’ve never read before, such as Mark Samuels’ creepy The White Hands (2003) a metafictional gothic chiller or James Tiptree Jr’s witty The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Terrible Things to Rats (1976).

My absolute favourite: I couldn’t possibly pick one…

Enough! I can’t mention all these stories, although flicking back through my edition I remember some of them fondly and look forward to reading them again. Which probably says a lot about me. Stories of battling cities, creepy cages, ghoulbirds, mysterious strangers and stranger houses, death, captivity, rats, autopsies, devils and a whole lot more have had no adverse effect on my psyche. Which is both odd and deeply satisfying. My Winter of Weird doth conclude, but my personal weirdness continues.

Winter of (not so) Weird – Initial impressions

I don’t know if my expectations are skewed or my definition of weird is different to most, but 6 stories in (in 10 days, I know, I’m already slacking) and I’m barely getting the weird. Only Lord Dunsany’s very short story comes close to what I think is weird.

So, what do we have so far?

Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side is the utterly forgettable opener. In fact, without looking back at it I can barely remember what it was about. Some kind of sleeping sickness and maybe a plague. Or is it a dream? A bit Lovecraftian I suppose, but not at all what I would have hoped for to get my winter of weird under way.

Algernon Blackwood.jpgThe Screaming Skull by F. Marion Crawford is a much better and more memorable tale of a revenge from beyond the grave with a suitably grizzly conclusion. And this followed by Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows is a terrific one two. The latter is a genuinely creepy tale of two men lost in a flooded river surrounded by who knows what. Some great supernatural set-pieces and characterisation of terror. However, they are both – in my eyes – just great ghost stories. The mysterious creatures in The Willows might well be unknown inter-dimensional beasts, but ghosts would equally fill the role.

However, Saki’s Sredni Vashtar is a nicely odd little tale of a personal god, and revenge. Which I liked a lot, especially the idea that a deity would understand a vague prayer. Both this, and Lord Dunsany’s How Nuth Would Have Practiced his Art are the shorter stories and all the weirder for it. In fact, having on read the later yesterday, I’m still not sure what it was about. Suitably odd and although I preferred Saki’s, this was the kind of thing I expected.

Sandwiched in between these oddities is the brilliantly classic Casting the runes by M.R. James. However, it is just a devilish tale, nothing too weird or different. Just a delicious read.

I’d heard of all the above authors except Saki, and had some expectations. The next batch from 1912 up to Kafka’s 1919 In the Penal Colony are all completely new names to be. Bring on the weirdness.

Image credit: Algernon Henry Blackwood By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31294059

A Kurt Vonnegut Reader – Vonnegut’s novels ranked and rated

vonnegutWhile Vonnegut’s individual novels are not amongst my absolute favourites, as a writer, he reflects my politics more than any other. I’m not sure why that is. As a collected body of work, I feel it’s pretty much spot on; matching my own world view. Last year, I decided to read all his novels in publication order, so I can see how his style progressed and why his writing resonates so much with me.

Was Vonnegut a cynic? He was cuttingly critical of many aspects of society for sure, and found failings in most aspects of humanity. Wealth, democracy in particular and politics in general, war (of course), art – both writing and painting – and the very nature of existence came under his critical glare. He wouldn’t have been surprised at the events of 2016, but I think he’d have been horrified all the same. So it goes.

Previous to this little adventure, I’d read The Sirens of Titan, Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions, Timequake and his non-fiction book A Man Without a Country (2005).

And so to his novels:

Player Piano (1952)

Player PianoSynopsis: In the near future, all labour is carried out mechanically, so that humans don’t need to work. However, there is conflict between the higher classes who are the designers and engineers and managers, and the lower classes, who no longer have a place in the world. Set after a third world war, Dr. Paul Proteus is a middle manager type who is becoming deluded with his factory and life. Meanwhile, the Shah of Bratpuhr – a kind of future Dalai Llama – is having a tour of America, trying to understand how it works.

Comment: Written not long after WWII, where Vonnegut served, this debut novel has classic SF tropes, while not really written in the style of science fiction of the time. Is a life worth the cost of war? Where’s is humanity’s place in a world of increasing mechanisation? Prescient themes even today. An average man finds himself increasingly at odds with the world he’s forced to live in. Vonnegut is struggling to find himself in post-war America. As I said in my review, “Vonnegut presents a seemingly perfect utopia…and tears it down with well-observed satire and effortless prose fiction.”

This is a startlingly brave piece of debut fiction, with wit and bite. It is fairly different in style to much of his later work, interestingly, having an almost traditional prose style, and none of the characters feature in subsequent books. It harks back to the likes of We (1921) and even Brave New World (1932). We now live in the future that Vonnegut feared!

3/14

The Sirens of Titan (1959)

Synopsis: Despite being a fairly short novel, a lot of plot is crammed into The Sirens of Titan. A lucky and rich man – Malachi Constant – is involved with a potential interplanetary war, and travels to Mars, Mercury and Titan. This is the story of his downfall at the hands of Niles Rumfoord. Another wealthy man, and another space explorer, Rumfoord enters a phenomenon called a chrono-synclastic infundibulum: “those places … where all the different kinds of truths fit together.” He exists as a quantum wave and can appear in multiple places in both space and time. When earth crosses his existence, he appears. He also meets a Tralfamadorian on Titan.

Comment: This was my first ever experience of Vonnegut, many years ago. I figured at the time that he was just a SF author. I didn’t really ‘get’ the book as more than just a bonkers space adventure. This time around, I enjoyed it less as a tradition science fiction adventure but a whole lot more as a satire on wealth and power. Of course, it was written during that golden age of SF when not much was known about the planets of the solar system and therefore aliens were often found living on planets such as Mars and Mercury. Most of the characters are pastiches of the rich, but don’t have a free will of their own. They are clearly puppets of Vonnegut’s and perhaps his first dalliance with metafiction, albeit disguised as a traditional SF adventure.

There is so much to admire about Vonnegut’s imagination here, especially his embracing of the burgeoning field of quantum mechanics and his bleak vision of free will. Some might say he is a misanthrope, but what liberty do we really have? I say he’s onto something here. The Sirens of Titan also marks the debut of reoccurring characters and ideas.

4/14

Mother Night (1961)

Mother NIghtSynopsis: Vonnegut finally nails his signature style in this complete turnabout from his previous works. This book is the story of Howard W. Campbell Jr. and is presented as a fictional memoir, edited by Vonnegut. This literary trick dates back to early gothic novels which were purportedly lost texts found by the author. Campbell is awaiting trial for war crimes in an Israeli prison, and he is recounting his last days in America after the war, before he came to be arrested.

Comment: What is it about bleak I like so much? Or is it only when utterly black but clever metafiction comes into play that it resonates? Campbell is a terrific character and the classic unreliable narrator. You sympathise but are sceptical. We never really know how truthful his accounts are. After all, he was a propagandist.

Vonnegut is now into the full swing of his re-occurring themes and motifs. He understands both writing as an art, and what it takes to keep the reader interested. He is a student of humanity and that’s why his misanthropy works throughout his oeuvre. “So it goes” makes its first appearance; his famous phrase – a musing on fate. Campbell reappears in Slaughterhouse-Five. War is a major theme, and harks back to Vonnegut’s own service. War is stupid (my naïve opinion). War is horrendously stupid (Vonnegut’s more learned opinion). It is a fake autobiography, as many of his later works will be. Vonnegut isn’t shy about telling the reader that this is metafiction as he deconstructs his characters from his ‘editors’ point of view.

6/14

Cat’s Cradle (1963)

Cat's CradleSynopsis: Author John wants to write a book about what some significant Americans did on the day Hiroshima was bombed. Felix Hoenikker is a fictional Nobel laureate physicist who helped develop the atomic bomb. John contacts Hoenikker’s children to interview for the book. John finds out about something called ice-nine, created by Felix and now secretly in the possession of his children. Ice-nine can turn water into ice on contact. If it ever gets into the planet’s ecosystem, all rivers and oceans will freeze. Meanwhile, John ends up on a fictional island of San Lorenzo, which has a nihilistic faith and a very unusual society.

Comment: Back into a more traditional narrative plot here, Cat’s Cradle still managers to rings all Vonnegut’s literary bells. And boy is it bleak. It is an incredibly complex novel – probably Vonnegut’s most challenging in terms of concepts and plotting despite its short length. Hence why I love it. It pushes all my buttons. A proper narrative, delightfully satirical prose and all of Vonnegut’s themes. I love the idea of the researched book as a plot driver and the characters are all cool. Vonnegut’s confidence in his ability and his handle on his beliefs are fully formed and that’s why this is such a delight. Discussions on free will (the artificial religion that delights in the inevitability of everything) and the nature of humanity’s relationship with science (the development of the apocalyptic Ice-9) make this proper science fiction satire.

While Slaughterhouse Five is a better book, Cat’s Cradle is a more complete work of fiction.

2/14

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965)

Synopsis: Eliot Rosewater is a millionaire who develops a bit of a conscience. He establishes the Rosewater Foundation “where he attempts to dispense unlimited amounts of love and limited sums of money to anyone who will come to his office.” He is, of course, a veteran of WWII. He basically spends the novel trying to help people while a lawyer tries to prove that Elliot is insane so he can take a cut of the Rosewater fortune by diverting it to a distant relative. Eliot spends a year in a mental institution after having a proper breakdown. He is then visited by his father, the lawyer and Kilgore Trout, his favourite science fiction author.

Comment: And now it’s time for Vonnegut to savage the rich and their class. Or more importantly, the difference between the haves and the have-nots, and the damage wealth can do to both the individual and society. Greed corrupts, obviously.

And welcome to Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut’s fictional alter-ego. And the lawyer visits the Rumfoords in Newport, from Sirens of Titan. However, there’s not much else about this novel that stands out for me. It has all the satirical bite and humour that you’d expect, but the plotting is a little uninteresting and the theme, while important, is as one-dimensional as Vonnegut gets. Not saying it’s bad, but not his best in terms of story and ideas. The characters are interesting enough, with altruistic Elliot being a particular standout across all Vonnegut’s fiction (and indeed features again as we shall see). I suspect Vonnegut sees his as the human ideal; generous, incorruptible and compassionate.

9/14

Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

Slaughterhouse 5Synopsis: The greatest of Vonnegut’s novels. Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death to provide the full title is the story of Billy Pilgrim. But it’s really the story of Vonnegut’s experiences during WWII in Dresden. Although Billy might be an unreliable narrator as he also recounts the time he was kidnapped by aliens and held in a zoo with a film actress named Montana Wildhack. He also claims to have travelled in time; or at least experiences flashbacks of his life as a prisoner in the Dresden slaughterhouse. While under psychiatric care he meets the aforementioned Eliot Rosewater, who introduces him to the novels of Kilgore Trout. It is a this point that Vonnegut introduces the alien Tralfamadorians, who experience all time simultaneously and see death as nothing particularly important.

Comment: So it goes. Mortality, war, free will, metafiction, re-occurring characters (Rosewater, Campbell from Mother Night, a relative of the Rumfoords, Kilgore Trout), humour, death, satire, religion, American life. This is peak Vonnegut. But throwing everything at this story isn’t the dog’s dinner it might have been. Vonnegut skilfully takes the reader on a journey through the horrors of war and been held against one’s will. Having really been beaten in a Dresden slaughterhouse, it is remarkable that he writes this tale with such humour and verve. It must have been painfully difficult to fictionalise the horrors he went through. Yet…Vonnegut’s fatalistic ‘so it goes’ brings both a wry smile and a shiver of bleak inevitability regarding existence – in an entertainingly witty science fiction romp.

1/14

Breakfast of Champions (1973)

Synopsis: Described as the story of “two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast”, Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday puts Kilgore Trout front and centre for the first time. Not the success he’d hoped to be, Trout is invited to speak at an arts festival where businessman Dwayne Hoover is kingpin of the city. Hoover might be losing his mind but takes an interest in Trout. After reading one of his novels, Hoover believes he is the only person in the universe with free will, thinking the novel to be factual and goes on a rampage! The book has a typically Vonnegutian piece of metafiction as a code, with the narrator bestowing freedom on Trout.

Comment: This is another complexly plotted satire from Vonnegut that dabbles in his many familiar themes. It is a dark as they come, with death and mental health at the forefront, along with of course, the idea that humans are not as free willed as they think. Are we nothing more than biological machines destined for nothing more meaningful than death? Probably. In previous novels, there has been a focus on bigger picture stuff (war, the universe, big business, wealth, etc) while Breakfast of Champions is a more personal story.

As it essentially features a couple of white men, this is as close to Vonnegut’s viewpoint portrayed in characters as you’ll find. Oddly, I found it less engaging than many of his other works because of this. While the themes resonate, and its ace to read a story with Trout as the main character, I was less interested in Hoover and his family than many of Vonnegut’s characters. Trout is an optimistic trier…always writing and always hoping for that great science fiction novel. More re-occurring characters pop up, including Francine Pefko, who was a secretary in Cat’s Cradle.

7/14

Slapstick (1976)

SlapstickSynopsis: Slapstick, or Lonesome No More! might be described as science fiction but only in the loosest sense of the term. Set in a near future when New York City is somehow in ruins, this follows Vonnegut’s now traditional style of being a fictional autobiography. This time it is by Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain. He lives in the collapsed Empire State Building with his pregnant granddaughter and her partner. Swain is cut off from the rest of society due to his ugliness. He has a twin sister, and they have an unusually creative bond; as if they were two halves of a superior brain. Eventually, Dr. Swain becomes the President, devolving the government as global oil runs out, while the Chinese miniaturise themselves.

Comment: I didn’t really warm to Slapstick and I’m not sure why. I didn’t buy the science fiction elements, especially the Chinese plans, even though I like that Vonnegut depicts society collapsing as oil runs out. I found this one a bit too scattershot, and failed to engage with the characters. Maybe that’s the point, however, as the main themes are loneliness and isolation.

The religious satire elements are fun, however. The Church of Jesus Christ the Kidnapped is a nice creation and allows Vonnegut to explore is fatalistic view of life with no afterlife.

11/14

Jailbird (1979)

Synopsis: Walter F. Starbuck had recently been released from prison after serving time for his “comically” small role in the Watergate Scandal (1972). It follows Vonnegut’s standard fictional autobiography trope. There’s not a whole lot of plot in this one. Starbuck spends the whole novel pontificating on both American history and on how he ended up in prison in the first place, talking about paranoia and politics in the 1950s and 1960s.

Comment: Jailbird was as close as I’ve come to losing patience with Vonnegut. There is almost no story here and I felt little sympathy for the character of Starbuck. Of course, Vonnegut’s ideas and rants and gags still make this a worthwhile read, but I just wish that like his earlier novels, he’d stuck to the idea of exploring them here with a decent narrative and interesting characters. His exploration of big business – exemplified through his fictional corporation, RAMJAC, which owns almost every other business in the book – is as cutting as ever. And there’s not enough bite in the buttocks of the Watergate affair either. It needed more comment and criticism of the whole debacle.

Interesting, a character in prison with Starbuck claims to be Kilgore Trout. But it probably isn’t, just someone claiming to be him. However, many of Vonnegut’s other traits are missing here. There is no science fiction or absurdism. In Vonnegut’s other novels, Trout is a great storyteller with wondrous ideas, but you never get any exerts of his writing – almost the opposite of Vonnegut here. There aren’t any characters of note that can be seen in other works. There’s a lack of black humour in the prose. It is, perhaps, simply not Vonnegut enough.

12/14

Deadeye Dick (1982)

Deadeye DickSynopsis: Poor Rudy Waltz. Having committed accidental manslaughter as a child – he kills a vacuuming, pregnant woman by shooting a shotgun into the air – he lives his whole life feeling guilty and trying to make amends. Perhaps as a result of the guilt, he spends his life sexually neutral. Now, as a middle-aged man, he tells of how his hometown, Midland City, has been destroyed by a neutron bomb.

Comment: At least Vonnegut is back to storytelling and sympathetic characters here. There’s a lot to like about Deadeye Dick but the sympathy you feel for Rudy is perhaps the standout. It’s rare in a Vonnegut novel that the main character is more memorable than Vonnegut’s themes or satire.

Midland City is the place were Trout and Hoover meet in Breakfast of Champions and represents the blankness of middle America. Not a place Vonnegut has a lot of faith in. Or maybe it’s American society as a whole. I suspect you need a relatable character (not that we’re all accidental murders) if your sub-text is that society is so pointless we may as well nuke it. I do think that the plot gets a little meandering in places and loses its way towards the end, but I enjoyed spending time with Rudy as he tries to make up for his mistake.

10/14

Galápagos (1985)

Synopsis:  This is the story of a motley crew of souls collected in Ecuador, about to go on a cruise to the famous islands. The narrator is the million-year-old spirit of Leon Trout, Kilgore’s son. Having died on a ship that is converted into a cruise liner, he has unique viewpoint as a global financial crisis sends everyone into a panic. The mismatched band of travellers eventually end up shipwrecked on the island of Santa Rosalia as a pandemic renders Earth infertile. Their descendants evolve into seal-like creatures.

Comment: An odd one this, and my least favourite, although still with plenty of merit. Most of the novel, in which the characters are introduced and come together before the fated cruise, reads like a farce, or a series of blackly comic misadventures. None of the characters are particularly sympathetic, so when various tragedies strike, they have little impact on me as a reader.

Of course, it is the main theme that is the redeemer. Vonnegut’s main issue throughout his career might be called the stupidity of humanity, despite the big brain of the species. Here he addresses it directly. The last remaining humans evolve into swimmers, who have a suitably small brain. Nice. Kilgore Trout makes an appearance again. He tries to get his dead son into the afterlife (he fails, which leads to the narration), an unusual role for the elder Trout. Less is made of his writing career than in his other appearances in Vonnegut’s novels.

There is an interesting literary device which again elevates this book above the ordinary. Vonnegut puts an * before any character’s name if they are about to die. So it goes.

14/14

Bluebeard (1987)

BluebeardSynopsis: Fictional abstract expressionist Rabo Karabekian describes his later years while writing his autobiography, at the insistence of a strange woman who inserts herself into his life some time after his wife dies. Karabekian sees himself as a failed artist, although with great talent, after an incident with some paint that faded to nothing. He describes his apprenticeship as he’s writing his autobiography, while defending his secret project from Circe, his new and annoying house guest.

Comment: Vonnegut versus art. Something a bit different and all the more enjoyable for it. Bluebeard goes all meta on meta. Not only is this a fictional autobiography, but it’s about the writing of a fictional autobiography. What’s not to love? Vonnegut is his usually forthright self, but unusually focused. While he touches on war and death, this is Vonnegut’s change to critique the art of creation; both painting and writing. How important is perspective when judging talent? And what about commercial or other success? The relationships between characters are perhaps Vonnegut’s most inciteful too.

This is also Vonnegut’s statement that it is men who have screwed everything up, and now maybe the women should have a go.

Rabo Karabekian previously featured in both Breakfast of Champions and Deadeye Dick, keeping up the traditional through-thread, tying all Vonnegut’s work into a complete piece of fiction.

5/14

Hocus Pocus (1990)

Synopsis: Hocus Pocus, or What’s the Hurry, Son? is the non-linear story of Eugene Debs Hartke who is a Vietnam War veteran. After being recorded being jokily un-American by the daughter of a right-wing commentator, Eugene is sacked from his job as college professor. So he gets a job in a prison. There is a breakout and the inmates take over his former college. The college becomes a new prison, Eugene becomes warden and then an inmate. These events occur mostly because of serendipity, or by hocus pocus.

Comment: The usual themes of Vonnegut’s earlier works all come together in this oddly unengaging non-linear narrative. Through Eugene’s ponderings and wanderings, the Vietnam war, class, prejudice, sexuality, freedom and social exclusion are all covered. This is really Vonnegut speaking in this fictional autobiography (again, Vonnegut is editing the notes and writings from Eugene for this text). Vonnegut tries to make it interesting by using some familiar meta elements, such as talking to the reader, repetition of phrases, and the adding of coughing noises, as Eugene has tuberculosis as he writes. Perhaps Vonnegut was sensing his own mortality.

13/14

Timequake (1997)

timequakeSynopsis: From the outset, it appears that this is the story of a timequake, when the universe decides to have a moment and sends everyone back in time 10 years. Forcing everyone to relive their lives again but having no control over the actions until the moment time catches up with itself in 2001. In reality, it is a thinly veiled autobiographical polemic. There is no plot, other than Vonnegut describing events leading up to, and resulting from, a celebration that features his fictional alter ego, Kilgore Trout. Apart from that, there’s nothing to describe. He alludes to many of his other novels and the first draft of this book, which appears to have more of a plot.

Comment: While this is as sharp and black as most of Vonnegut’s books, it lacks any coherence. As there’s no true plot, it is much harder to engage with it than any of this previous novels. There is no thread to follow as such, other than Vonnegut’s own life. The fun is to spot the themes and smile knowingly when he mentions is previous works in particular contexts. His playful language and running gags are a joy as ever. In lesser hands, this would have been a terrible book. Obviously, free will is the key theme, as everyone must live 10 years again, and then deal with their actions as the first moment of free will kicks in. People are forced to watch their bad choices again, which is as black as it gets! This is an intriguing idea, but I wish it had been carried though with an actual narrative or characters you’d cared for. I think that this is a lost opportunity for another masterpiece.

8/14

 

Final thoughts

As a body of work, these 14 novels are remarkable in their consistency of thought and voice. The themes of social injustice and the futility of human exist resonate strongly with me, which is an odd dichotomy. Life is pointless, Homo sapiens are stupid (or at least the male half of the species), and we don’t have the free will and liberties that we think we do, but while we’re at it, can we all be nice and fair to each other and stop having wars?

While I love the reoccurring characters, themes, gags and phraseology, I feel that towards the end of his career, the fictional autobiography trope becomes a bit tired. The brilliance of Cat’s Cradle shows that a decent narrative works well for the messages Vonnegut has.

His reputation is deserved, of course, and I shall be returning to most of these books again, later in life. And again.

So it goes.

 

kurt_vonnegut_1972The books in order:

  1. Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
  2. Cat’s Cradle (1963)
  3. Player Piano (1952)
  4. The Sirens of Titan (1959)
  5. Bluebeard (1987)
  6. Mother Night (1961)
  7. Breakfast of Champions (1973)
  8. Timequake (1997)
  9. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965)
  10. Deadeye Dick (1982)
  11. Slapstick (1976)
  12. Jailbird (1979)
  13. Hocus Pocus (1990)
  14. Galápagos (1985)

Image credit By WNET-TV/ PBS – eBayfrontback, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38530410

Welcome to my Winter of Weird

the-weirdSo this is the plan. Read 110 short stories from The Weird over a period of about 100 days, which should lead to mid-February. Why? Well why not! It’s Halloween and I fancy setting myself a challenge. I’ll be blogging about it as I go, occasionally reviewing a story, occasionally commenting on the experience.

What is The Weird? I was given it as a gift a few years ago and I’ve dipped into occasionally, but not read the whole lot. Edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, it contains 110 short stories covering just over a century (1908 to 2010) of weird fiction. Lots of ‘deca’ notation going on here. Weird fiction might be described as a bit indescribable. Apparently, Lovecraft himself came up with the term, but I guess it really is that area of speculative fiction that can’t be described as horror, science fiction or fantasy. It is something ‘other’.

I’m hoping to discover, amongst all other considerations, a few new authors to explore from this collection. If read a few of the stories here, such as the Lovecraft, Gaiman, Miéville, Barker, Carter and others, and I am of course, familiar with many of the writers presented in this glorious collection. There are other authors that I know but have not read (Michael Chabon, Karen Joy Fowler, Lucius Shepard, Robert Bloch and Daphne Du Maurier – looking forward to reading Don’t Look Now especially – for example) but there are dozens of authors that I’ve not come across: Jerome Bixby, T.M. Wright, Kelly Link, Donald Wollheim, Reza Negarestani, Marc Laidlaw, Fritz Leiber…the list goes on.

I won’t be reading a story every day. Some are short enough to get a couple in on any given day (H.F. Arnold’s The Night Wire is only 4 pages long for example). However, I will be reading them in chronological order. So, it’s Halloween. Time to cosy on up on the sofa with a glass of whiskey and enjoy, the Winter of Weird.

Favourite 7 literary monsters

I’ve only read one piece of fiction, if memory serves, about a Mummy. Interestingly, it was called The Mummy, and it wasn’t very good. By Jane Loudon, it was originally published in 1827, and set in the future, which is at odds with many concepts of the Mummy as a horror icon. I mention this only in passing as momentum starts to build towards to the new Universal Monster share universe. I’m a huge fan of some of the original Universal movies, especially Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) (which of course, as everyone knows, should be called Bride of the Monster), and the later Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) – sadly I’ve never read a book featuring a gill-man.

FrankensteinSo, as news trickles through of these films, I got to thinking about what were my favourite monsters in literature – the classical kind, that is. So here I present, the forgottengeek guide to monsters that I’ve read. So not at all comprehensive then!

We will start, naturally, with one of my all-time favourite books and winner in the category of man-made monster. Not much more can be said about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). My original review is here. What many people don’t realise (those fools that haven’t read it), is that much of the classic cinematic imagery of the good doctor in his laboratory building the creature isn’t at all in the book. The monster is a fairly sympathetic character until his encounters with people make him a monster.

We, as a species, are good at making monsters. In fiction at least. There are supernatural and there are man-made zombies. My recommendation for the latter type is Feed (2010) by Mira Grant. The first book in her ‘Newsflesh’ books, the zombies Grant creates are a result of the mixing of two initially beneficial viruses. Set in the future, the story of the apocalypse and how it came about is told via media-savvy bloggers. The zombies themselves are fairly peripheral characters – attacks are rare. As in the best horror, the humans are worse monsters…Plus it has a character called Buffy! What’s not to love.

kalixI’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again, but there is no better depiction of the werewolf than Kalix and her clan in Martin Millar’s Lonely Werewolf Girl (2007) and sequels. Kalix is a loner but is surrounded by an absolute menagerie of colourful characters. Millar’s imagination and skill as an author are formidable, and Kalix is a werewolf everyone should spend time with. There is plenty of horror in this series as well. Werewolves, hunters and others regularly destroy each other. Kalix is a lot more complex that you might think. She’s not just a miserable teen goth, but a unique and special person trying to understand her place in the world.

Again, there are elements of both horror and humanity in Sunshine (2003) by Robin McKinley. This novel is my favourite vampire book and features the enigmatic Constantine as the vampire who comes to find a connection with Sunshine; a baker and magician who narrates this tale. There is an ethereal darkness and a surreal brightness to Sunshine that might be seen as an exemplar for vampire tales. Constantine can be interpreted as a sympathetic vampire – a bit like Angel in Buffy the Vampire Slayer perhaps? But that’s how the reader can relate, and how Sunshine becomes his friend. And by the way, Stoker’s Dracula (1897) is boring!

The Golem and the DjinniI’ve only read one work of fiction featuring a Golem/Gollum. I talked about Helene Wecker’s The Golem and The Djinni (2014) before over here. Of course it also features a djinni, another classic horror monster.           There is little horror here at all; only fear of loneliness and of being a migrant in a strange city. Like Kalix, both the golem and the djinni are finding their way in a strange world. Wecker’s depiction of the golem having to hide its inherent golem-ness even though it would mean an easier life is poignant. The djinni is a creative character who again must come to terms with being different.

Are ghosts monsters? Any more than a golem, for example? In The Haunting Of Hill House (1959) by Shirley Jackson, you might ask, are there even ghosts? Is the house itself evil and malevolent? Too many questions. What I love about Jackson’s short novel is that the tension and creepiness is palpable. Whether or not Eleanor is being haunted by a ghost, a house, or whether it’s all in her mind are irrelevant. It is the power of Jackson’s writing that sends shivers down your spine and means you sleep with the lights on.

Again, I’ve not read too many books with a witch as a monster but Hex (2015) by Thomas Olde Heuvelt stands out. The witch in this Kingian tale of small town America is a human creation – a woman persecuted back in the day, and now taunted by bored teens. Like many of the monsters here, you side with her at times, or at least understand her motivations. Humans are the bad guys once more. Olde Heuvelt’s writing is enjoyable. A proper horror page-turner in tune with the modern age. As all good horror fiction should be.

Monsters of a less tangible nature that get the nod in this list are The Stand (1990) by Stephen King, of course. Man makes the plague that wipes out most of humanity, and evil comes to town in the undefinable presence of Randall Flagg. A demon, a man, an evil wizard, or something else? Perhaps a little like Jackson’s The Haunting Of Hill House, and Steven King’s The Shining (1980) – ok, a hotel but still a building – it is the house itself (maybe) that is the monster in Mark Z Danielewski’s remarkable House of Leaves (2000). Hard to describe, it is a work of metafictional genius that creeps the hell out of me! Read it. A nod of course must go to another Universal monster, the classic The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson. It is much weirder than you might imagine and although short, highlights the inner struggle between good and evil, and the external struggle between classes in Victorian Britain.

Interest in horror has always been high and there appears to be a resurgence of interest in the classics. Read these books as a starting point, then go and explore.

Ripley: “You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage”. Aliens (1986).

I must read Cabal (1988) by Clive Barker at some point – Midian sounds like a fun place!

The Comfort of Books

I never venture far without a book in my bag. I find it slightly disconcerting if I don’t have one near, even if I won’t need one for a particular journey. Someone once said to me that I hide behind books. There is possibly a sliver of truth in that, but I think I take comfort in them. They are my windows and mirrors: a glimpse on the world, and a reflection of me. They allow me to experience emotions I might not otherwise and allow me to find a community of people just like me.

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These are some of the books I easily find comfort in, for particular reasons.

The world is without doubt a mysterious and complex place to live in. There are as many ideologies as there are pebbles on a beach. We all see the world differently and whatever we have inside us alters the view of the world outside the window. Most people read books that reflect their particular viewpoint – or is it their viewpoint is shaped by the books they read?

BeteOn the beach (1957) by Nevil Shute is a bleak apocalyptic novel, offering a worldview of the cold war but also how people feel about death. In Shute’s story, set in Australia after a nuclear war, the protagonists know they will almost certainly die, sooner rather than later. Death is something rarely discussed in society, so fiction allows that exploration in comfort. What it means it live and exist in the world is perhaps the primary concern of science fiction. The Humans (2013) by Matt Haig features an alien on earth who takes the identity of a university lecturer. However, the book is mostly centred around the home life and how humans suffer in the mundane. Mental illness is one of the hardest things for anyone to comprehend and Haig helps with magnificent storytelling and prose. There are dozens of books about political philosophy that I find push my buttons, from the obvious classics Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) to the more recent Bete (2014) by Adam Roberts, which investigates human rights and how society treats nature. Political fiction is one of the most personal choices there is. I recently read BS Johnson’s Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry (1973) which I found ideologically spot on, and a perfect experiment in fiction.

But how do other people see me? Indeed, how do I see myself? How do other people see you? Perhaps surprisingly, there are so many books out there that reflect part of my personality or mirror my feelings or beliefs. The much missed Graham Joyce released The Year of the Ladybird in 2013. Set in 1976, the story is about a young man, working over summer while at college, trying to figure out his relationship with his Dad and trying to understand love. Meanwhile, the wonderful Kalix the Werewolf series (which kicks off with Lonely Werewolf Girl, 2007, Martin Millar) is about someone alone and lonely on the streets of London, far from where she was brought up. Kalix struggles to fit in, with anyone, and fails to understand the world she lives in. Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift books also spoke to me as she uses magic to explore London.

on the beachImagine a selection of characters with traits and experiences at the edge of imagination: sentient creatures that fly; artists and scientists exploring form and the limits of knowledge; ganglords and demons; hive minds and multi-dimensional beings. I think I have a decent imagination, but nothing compared to the world China Miéville creates in Perdido Street Station (2000). How can these things, these beings come to life in a fiction. Miéville’s skill is that in the Bas-Lag universe, the bizarre and the perverse seem normal. I can experience, through him, what he thinks it would be like to be a de-winged flyer or to experience an hallucinogen secreted by giant moth-like beings. But I can also experience how a scientist works and how an artist thinks. In fiction, I can experience fear while being safe. I can be creeped out while knowing there’s nothing hiding under the bed that wants to hurt me. House of Leaves was also published in 2000. I would suggest it was produced – as opposed to written – by Mark Z. Danielewski. It is an extraordinary work and I’ll bang on about it relentlessly if I need to. The plot summary is complex and perhaps unnecessary to know in detail. A self-confessed unreliable narrator discovers a manuscript that turns out to be an academic study of a documentary film called The Navidson Record, though there is no evidence that the film or its subjects ever existed. The book is mostly a report on the fictional film which contains the description of a family moving to a house in Virginia. The house changes. There are doors and spaces that shouldn’t exist. It is changing size. Meanwhile, the family starts falling apart. It is hard to describe the narrative, but the feelings it engenders are easy: amazement at the achievement, wonder at the imagination and being genuinely creeped out but the prose. I really find an odd sense of joy in Danielewski’s achievement, and solace in knowing these things aren’t real. Maybe.

Hitchhikers-Guide-171x300But if I’m not in the mood to be freaked out, books of course, bring humour like no other medium. While Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams, 1985) works well on radio, and less so on TV and film, for me it shines in print. “The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.” Utter and hilarious genius. Books take you on so many journey’s and Adams’ one is full of wit and verve, and is also damn proper science fiction too. Not just a pastiche or a piss-take.

Another safe space for me are old favourites with beloved characters. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1996) features such heart-warming, joyful relationships between the central characters as they head off for first contact with aliens, that I just love spending time with them. Despite knowing what happens, I re-read the book every 10 years or so. When you think that there are so many books out there, re-reading – especially more than once, might seem like an odd thing to do. But it is about comfort and familiarity for me, and not just exploring new things. So reading a favourite is like drinking proper hot chocolate stuffed with marshmallows. I will always be happy to pick up Never Let Me Go (1995, Kazuo Ishiguroor Ammonite (1993, Nicola Giffith) for example.

Reading is, perhaps, the most solitary of pursuits (which suits me), but sometimes it is vital almost, to know there are other people out there who feel just like I do. A couple of recent books that I’ve talked a lot about before exemplify this. All the birds in the sky (2016) by Charlie Jane Anders and A long way to small angry planet (2015) by Becky Chambers – which are both about accepting the differences in people – have received such a community buzz that it is simply awesome to know that a bunch of strangers enjoy the same things you do, and probably think in similar ways too.

The great and still missed Bill Hicks had a routine:

“I was in Nashville, Tennessee last year. After the show I went to a Waffle House. I’m not proud of it, I was hungry. And I’m alone, I’m eating and I’m reading a book, right? Waitress walks over to me: ‘Hey, whatcha readin’ for?’ Isn’t that the weirdest fuckin’ question you’ve ever heard? Not what am I reading, but what am I reading FOR? Well, goddamnit, ya stumped me! Why do I read? Well . . . hmmm…I dunno…I guess I read for a lot of reasons and the main one is so I don’t end up being a fuckin’ waffle waitress.”

That’s one reason, and brilliant reason at that, to read. But the main one is to find comfort. That’s me in the corner. Behind a book. Not hiding, living.

 

Image credit: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Toffee Maky

Tell not show – Favourite re-reads: Sunshine by Robin McKinley

SunshineI’m always surprised, on reflection, that Sunshine by Robin McKinley isn’t as well known and well-loved as it should be! Originally published in 2003 it could have ridden on the back of the Buffy wave and came two years before Twilight. I think that fans of vampire novels and fans of fiction generally who haven’t read this book are seriously missing out on something which is (almost) very special.

Sunshine by name and sunshine by nature, our sun-loving protagonist slowly tells us the story of her post-Voodoo Wars life. It is from the outset, a fairly mundane life – of which she’s glad – but after a trip to her childhood lake house, well, everything changes. Sunshine is captured by a vampire gang and offered as a kind of prize to a chained-up vampire, revealed to be called Constantine – the enemy of this gang’s leader, Bo.

I picked this up again because I’ve not come across a decent vampire or original horror lately. I’d remember that Sunshine had a weird quality to it but forgotten that supernatural was common and integrated into society; integrated except for the vampires of course. The eternal enemies. There is a Global council and global information network similar to the internet. This is very much not our world, despite the occasional cultural reference (a mention of Einstein and The Borg as examples). And Sunshine talks about it a lot.

There is the famous maxim in writing of show don’t tell. Give the reader insights into the plot and the characters by their actions and relationships. McKinley spins this concept on its head. Sunshine narrates most of the plot and character development in the first person. This is how she perceives the world and the events that are happening to her. She tells us about the plot and the characters she comes across. She is our window. This storytelling device is perhaps the only way that the otherworldly weird quality of book can work. Sunshine’s world is revealed to the reader very slowly. It is only on page 67 of my edition (476 glorious, smelly pages) that we learn Sunshine’s name – Rae is her name, Sunshine is a nickname. And even towards to coda, we still learn new things about the world she lives in.

What of that world? It is a very interesting one. Sunshine is a baker. Her existence revolves around a coffeehouse and the people who orbit it. Her boss is married to her mother. Her father is estranged. Her boyfriend is the chef. Her best friend is the librarian over the road. The world is full of Others – demons, weres, vampires, ghouls, magic and such-like. But in other respects, it is like our own. People have lives and jobs and hangovers and rubbish cars. It is this mundanity that makes Sunshine’s life so fascinating.

The vampires in Sunshine are fairly typical in how they move, exist and can be killed. They do have some interesting features for the reader to discover…However, you completely buy into Con’s character, as it is from Sunshine’s perspective, and her internal monologue. McKinley cleverly makes the book about us, the reader. It is probably how we’d react in these situations.

The clash of the ordinary and fantastical are of course well-worn tropes but McKinley delivers them with brilliantly heartfelt writing and some pretty awesome characters. The prose is full of wit and verve, even though it is mostly exposition. I love how Sunshine finds out who she really is. And she’s not Buffy, suddenly becoming a superhero. She’s always vulnerable and unsure. Even at the end, she’s horrified by what she has done. I felt a little sorry for Mel, her boyfriend. Out of all the characters, he is short-changed the most. Hints at something deeper are offered but in the finale, he his left by the wayside. All the other characters are great. And there’s a lovely section – when Sunshine meets an old woman called Maud in a park – about the kindness of strangers that has no real relevance to the plot, but is just really, really nice.

I really love the way that this is a standalone book. There’s nothing else which can diminish the magic of Sunshine and her relationship with Con and the patrons and workers of Charlie’s Coffeehouse. It’s a place I’d love to visit and the people are people I’d be glad to know. But not in the diminishing pages of book 7 or whatever. So maybe I should be glad that Sunshine is not so well known. Maybe it’s my secret. But what a secret!

On reading short story collections: Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville

Three Minutes of an ExplosionShort fiction is a very particular art which can stand or fall by its presentation – within either the collection or the standalone. Great collections, where every story hits the mark are rare, and rarer still from a single author. Three Moments of an Explosion is the latest collection by literary master of the imagination China Miéville. Best known for his complex science fiction, this body of work might be seen to be exploring a different side of his mindscape.

Presented here are 28 short stories of varying length, style and quality, from what amount to narrative poems stretching for just over a page, to transcripts of trailers for (yet to be made?) films (on 3 occasions) up to much longer explorations of the human condition and the world around us.

Very few of these stories could be called science fiction. What you have, in the majority, is a version of us, and our planet and our existence, but just off kilter; slightly or sometimes totally outré. There is fantasy and horror, surrealism and just plain weird. Which I love. There are some classically styled stories and others that can be only be described as experimentation in language and understanding. Which is, to this reviewer, a slight problem. Some of the stories, most notably The Dusty Hat, are almost beyond comprehension. Sure you follow the plot but some of the sentences are filled with either gibberish or words of such obscurities than renders them almost pointless. Descriptions are beyond the ken of most. I imagine, however, most critics who would fawn over Miéville would not admit their own ignorance with this admission. It’s a shame, because the majority of the stories are excellent: thought-provoking, highly imaginative, almost like nothing you’ve ever read before. Miéville either sees things we don’t see, or describes those things we do from a completely new perspective. Witness:

The opening eponymous description is 2 pages of, well, I’m not so sure. While The Condition of New Death is almost reportage of horror which is beyond description. In the Slopes is a glorious take on the rivalries of scientists which focuses on bizarre techniques and unexpected outcomes. Interestingly, many of Miéville’s stories don’t end in the expected way. There is often no clever twist or neatly wrapped up conclusion. Repeatedly, they are almost introductions to a wider story and he lets our own imaginations ponder on what might happen next. Säcken being the perfect example, when the disappearance towards the conclusion is only the beginning of the genuinely creepy and disquieting story. The animal horror of the twisted future in After the festival and the creative brilliance of The Bastard Prompt are my favourites in the collection, showing Miéville off at his peak. These tales show thoughts and constructs almost beyond comprehension, but based in a relatable and readable narrative. Well written characters allow the reader in to the bizarre musings; while the oddities of the zombie animals and medical training practices become clear. A final nod to the genius of A Second Slice Manifesto – literally looking at art from a new perspective – and Covehithe, which perfectly taps into a child’s darkest imaginations and draws it to a spectacular conclusion, as inanimate objects become animalistic, returning to draw from the earth what we taught them.

Not all these stories are brand new, but the important thing is that they work well as a collection. This is partially because of the commonality of Miéville’s descriptive style and ideas (even the complex stories with seemingly made-up words and nonsense sentences) – floating icebergs above cities, burning stags, feral humans wearing a pigs head and one of the few genuine pieces of science fiction which features decaying space-elevators. As noted, there are a variety of styles of prose – some more successful than others. It feels more natural when he is telling stories rather than playing with language. Although the writing is generally terrific; featuring wit, social concerns, intelligence, beauty and flair. But strip away these facts and concerns and Three Moments of an Explosion represents what all good fantasy and horror does: what is that shape in the dark corner; what lies just beneath those waves; where did that disease come from and what was that, just over there, beyond our understanding? The horror works, the fantasy works, the collection of short stories works.

This is a collection I would like to come back to in the not too distant future. Like that difficult second album from a favourite band, it is a collection of stories that at first read (listen) makes you nod in appreciation most of the time, but frown on occasion (does this really work, is this a story(song) experiment too far?). However, sometimes a little effort is required and I expect a re-read of Three Moments of an Explosion will bring ever greater rewards. But I’m still not bringing a dictionary!

Original review version: http://www.nudge-book.com/blog/bookgeek/2015/08/12/three-moments-explosion-china-mieville/