Short Reviews of Books I've Read Recently
The Fabulous Riverboat by Philip José Farmer (1971)
This book pretty much represents everything that is both good and bad about Philip José Farmer. On the one hand, it is full of wondrous ideas; it's the second volume of his RiverWorld series in which every human who has ever lived wakes up on an enormous river, and it's about Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) trying to build a boat to go up the river and find its source. He is aided by a giant proto-human, Odysseus, and Cyrano De Bergerac (who has, incidentally, shacked up with Clemens' wife) and fights against King John of England, Ieyasu of Japan and the Nazi Hermann Goring, who has joined a cult of pacifists. It's a wild book, full of antics, mayhem and crazy ideas, though it could probably lose a few scenes where the characters sit around talking about RiverWorld politics or in which Clemens gets all emo about Bergerac and his wife. Its main problems, however, are Farmer's lazy and clumsy prose style, which he seems to have inherited from his beloved 30's pulp fiction, and the constant repetition of things that are going on and that we already know, which probably stems from the book's original serialized form and should have been excised when it was collected. Still, a very fun book, and representative of the maturing and development of adventure fiction in the early seventies, when the full effects of the New Wave were just starting to be felt with their increased sensitivity to race, gender, sex (a subject in which Farmer was a pioneer in SF) and non-European cultural traditions.
Nova Swing by M. John Harrison (2006)
M. John Harrison on the other hand, is one of the great prose stylists and Nova Swing, stand-alone sequel to his triumphant Light, is a beautiful, marvelous book about people living on planet where a Roadside Picnic-like zone of weirdness distorts reality and dispenses, for no apparent reason, lots of black and white cats. The main character, Vic Serotonin (following the CyberPunk tradition of character naming which includes Johnny Mnemonic and Hiro Protagonist) functions as a tour guide through the zone, and the book is primarily concerned with how people try to live their ordinary lives in a world in which nothing can be relied on, in which reality itself might fall away from you. I already linked to a particularly moving paragraph from the novel that I singled out on my writing blog.
The Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks (1990)
This is probably the best "Space Opera" novel I've ever read. It's the story of an old mercenary who's is called back by his old masters in the Culture (a society of frighteningly powerful future humans ruled by a caste of AI, and the subject of many books by Banks) to perform one last, terrible job for them. This story is interspersed with chapters about the character's life, moving chronologically backwards, with each chapter illuminating some aspect of his history and character relevant to the forward-moving story in a way reminiscent of what was later done on the TV show Lost. Unlike that show, however, The Use of Weapons' ending is incredibly satisfying, forcing you to reevaluate everything you've just read in a new light, and Banks handles the tricky structure and staggered revelations with impressive deftness.
The Third Bear by Jeff VanderMeer (2010)
VanderMeer's latest collection of short fiction shows an ever-increasing maturity both in subject matter and in technical skill and I think this may be his best book so far. The novella "The Situation" is some kind of masterpiece for the way it disembowels life in the corporate world and transforms an office building into a strange and terrifying universe. The shocking thing about a story as good as that, however, is that it is shadowed by the novella "Errata", which is reminiscent of Borges and full of weirdness and metatextual deconstruction of the act of creation. The title story — which can be read here — is as haunting a version of a Germanic-style faerie tale as your likely to find. Really, there isn't a bad story in here, and the best of them easily rank among the best I've read in years.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1817)
Frankenstein is a book I've tried to read several times but, despite its short length, could never get through. There reasons are the ponderous asides about man and nature, the lunatic stupidity of Victor Frankenstein and his endlessly wearying emo whining about how terrible his life has become. One can't help but conclude if he'd just been nice to the monster from the start they would have gotten along splendidly, and it's only because the monster was treated like crap by his creator (as the monster himself declaims) does the creature go around murdering all his friends and family. The monster himself is wonderful, a tragic byronic hero full of tortured soul and maddening passions, but Victor is completely unsympathetic, and I just kind of wanted to punch him in the face. One's tempted to chalk these problems up to the Gothic style of the period, but I don't remember having this kind of reaction to the Gothic novel of Shelley's father, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, a book which I'd loved, and reading Frankenstein was spurred by a renewed interest in this period. I plan to read some more Gothic works, specifically The Castle of Otranto, Vathek and maybe The Mysteries of Udolpho and see how they compare.