This Just In...News
From The Agony Column
Here's an MP3
preview of the Monday May 21, 2007 podcast for The Agony Column.
05-18-07: Preview for Podcast of Monday, May 21, 2007: Death and taxes.
05-18-07: Steve Aylett Asks: 'And Your Point Is?'
Read Aloud, Drive Away
There are some books that simply do things to your mind. Properly sequenced
and arranged, words can have a powerful hallucinogenic effect, not unlike
drugs or alcohol. So ladies and gentlemen (actually, probably only gentlemen,
whom I suspect could use this book to drive away ladies [it worked for
me!]), 'And Your Point Is?' (Raw Dog Screaming Press ; December 8, 2006
; $10.95) by Steve Aylett is not a book you should read shortly before
getting behind the wheel. It's the sort of book that one might read and
subsequently decide that one's car would make the perfect vehicle for
conveying a message about the absurdity of credit cards that lack references
to two-headed ducks. And that can't be good for your insurance rates.
this book is beyond good and evil. Simply beyond.
When the book arrived, I had no intention of reading it. I had many
other books that were higher on my list, stuff required to prep for
and commissioned reviews. But 'And Your Point Is?' entered my brain
like a virus and would not go away until I'd finished it. Admittedly,
read the articles within in order. But every time I'd glance at something,
I found myself unable to look away until I'd finished it.
One might think that this was a white-knuckle thriller, or a selection
of attention-grabbing short stories. Far from it. 'And Your Point Is?'
consists of a selection of almost impenetrable essays of literary criticism.
All of them are about a non-existent science fiction writer named Jeff
Lint, created by Steve Aylett. Presumably he writes all the articles
in here attributed to a diverse selection of obviously fake names.
any random sentence in this book is going to make most readers feel
as if they have accidentally picked up a book specifically written
them feel stupid, with but one little niggling doubt. Perhaps the writer
is simply insane. Insane writer or stupid reader is not a choice that
is going to delight a huge swathe of the reading public.
But 'And Your Point Is?' totally delighted me. I could not get enough
of it and made the unfortunate mistake of thinking others (for example,
ever patient wife) would find it equally hilarious and pithy. This
proved not to be the case. I could have read the entire book to her
out of order, chuckling with delight, were I in the mood to drive her
from the house. Fortunately, my senses were still in good enough shape
her distinct ... discomfort. I felt like I was reading these little
gems of uproarious reason, and she looked at me like purple ducks were
from my nostrils, asking her to vote against the "Ermine Stoles for
Urban Moles" campaign. Eventually, I relented.
Instead, I immersed in Aylett's latest attempt to up the ante. I think
he's betting against reality itself, a bet that reality loses when the
reader lets Aylett's sequences of symbols, generally arranged to look like
the English language, enter his or her brain. These articles continue the
work Aylett began in 'Lint'. Aylett ruthlessly skewers genre fiction, affectedly
bizarre authors (including himself) and literary criticism by indulging
all three in sentences that seem to almost make sense, and probably would,
were we to live in a world where purple ducks regularly emerged from the
nostrils of self-appointed literary critics.
We do not live in such a world. Fortunately for the seven or eight
readers who will think this book is the greatest tome written, ever,
we do live
in a world where such titles are actually printed. Raw Dog Screaming
Press offers readers a fine trade paperback that is nicely printed
cheap. It looks just like a just like a regular book, and it has words,
printed in English that are correctly spelled. But Aylett writes sentences
that come from another dimension, sentences that would make William
S. Burroughs reach for the needle in an attempt to regain a foothold
Needles give me the heebies, so I'm safe in that regard. But Aylett's
language is so superbly created, so perfectly pitched at the edge of
sense and sensibility
that it is nothing less than a linguistic cuckoo. Looks like language,
but it drives you mad. If you enjoyed 'Lint', if you enjoy literary
criticism, if you like satire so ruthless it is indistinguishable from
it satirizes, then this is the book for you. Just don’t read it aloud
to someone you love. Don’t read it and drive. Find a safe warm
place to sit comfortably. Make sure that you are in a fine fettle.
Read a newspaper
beforehand. Speak the date aloud, the name of your country's current
ruler. It's Maytember 47, 3.042, and I live in the Untied Fakes of
currently managed by the Mindtoast Cabal, Ltd. I have just read 'And
Your Point Is?' by Steve Aylett. Here is a very funny sentence from
"Science fiction is a genre that makes use of the political, the historic
and the social to garb space gnomes in a cloak of glamour that they
are unlikely to have selected in actuality."
My point exactly.
05-17-07: Laura Dietz 'In the Tenth House'
Dishonesty As Science and the Science of Dishonesty
We humans are practiced liars, and we like to start with home and hearth.
We'll lie to ourselves first and foremost. Once that's done, the
rest of our deceptions are able to unfold without undue exertion. And
lies we tell ourselves are not small, no; we like to lie about the
big stuff. Our core beliefs are based on breathtaking falsehoods, on
we hope that life shall one day confirm, unless of course, we die
first. Or go mad.
Jupiter aligns with Mars. Sorry, couldn't resist it!
As much as we might like to think that we possess actual knowledge,
that's generally not the case. Science has the admirable trait of
itself as new facts come to light, even when it at first seems intuitively
and obviously true. It was not that long ago when spiritualism seemed
the order of the day, a science that was just 'round the corner from
confirmed by the evidence gathered from mediums and séances. Julian
Barnes had a go-round with the times in his wonderful novel 'Arthur & George'.
This atmospheric and rich novel immersed readers in the Victorian age
of Arthur Conan Doyle, who created the world's most famous fictional
Sherlock Holmes, but was himself a rather gullible spiritualist.
Now first-time novelist Laura Dietz gets into the fray, letting the spiritualists
mix it up with the blossoming art-as-science of Herr Sigmund Freud with
her debut novel 'In The Tenth House' (Crown / Random House ; May 22, 2007
; $24.95). Cons who believe and scientists who question themselves inhabit
a past that has not yet escaped us. No, we're not so Victorian as we might
like to be. In the intervening years, the science that has seen the most
significant advances is the science of falsehood. We're much better at
lying to ourselves these days than we ever were back then. But we can still
learn from the past.
The past as presented by 'In the Tenth House' is fraught with Internet
fraud. Now, wait, there was no Internet at the end of the nineteenth century
to make fraud easier. Instead, fraud is an up-front and personal experience,
especially for Lily Embly, a fake medium who believes that she may be a
real psychic. She meets a stranger on train, one Dr Ambrose Gennett, a
man on a crusade against superstition who believes in the nascent science
of Doctor Sigmund Freud. It's not a meeting that will bring about betterment
for anyone involved.
Dietz handles her Victorian setting with nicely detailed prose and a brisk
pace. She's excellent at the gritty period points and crime-novel aspects
that are integral to her plot. She has lots of fun, as will readers, with
her science versus superstition themes. The distant future in which many
spiritualists foresaw themselves being vindicated has arrived, alas, and
without that vindication. But interestingly enough, we're now seeing the
science of Freud being re-defined as literature. Dietz plays with the supernatural
themes, but don't expect any ghosts to rise beyond the ghosts of past mistakes.
Of course, those are far more frightening than the shades of the dead.
Readers will be reminded of many books that have passed through these
portals. The non-fiction version of the events re-counted herein was
by Nancy Rubin Stuart in 'The
Reluctant Spiritualist: The Life of Maggie Fox'. We've mentioned
Julian Barnes' ethereal leanings and it's hard not to invoke the almost
overwhelming spectre of Caleb Carr's 'The
What is it that makes reading about the early days of psych[iatr /
olog]y so fascinating to us here in the future? Well, none of that
is quite settled
yet, though once again, we’ve got ourselves a science that promises
the world of the mind, quantified, sliced and diced for your repeatable-experiment
satisfaction. That would be neuroscience, and for that we'll look to
Mary Roach, who with books 'Stiff' and 'Spook' spoke to the whispering
of spiritualism. And we should not forget Steven Kotler, who surfed
'West of Jesus' to scare out the bits and bytes behind belief. Nor
ever forget Heidi Julavits' evocation of Freud as a literary icon in
of Enchantment'. Damn her for putting that bee in my bonnet!
won’t go away.
For all the 'In the Tenth House' reminds us of a variety of things we've
read, it's clearly on its own path. At 356 pages, her novel is more a toe-tapping
tale of tension and terror than the sort of immersive slabs written by
Barnes and Carr. Interestingly enough, Dietz is (or has, depending on how
you view these things) an identical twin who is a neuroscientist. She denies
a psychic connection, even as her fiction treads the same thin veneer between
knowing and feeling, between mind and spirit. We'd like to think we're
too sophisticated for such superstitions. But we'd also like to find a
scientific basis for them. We have to tell ourselves a story. We have to
read stories such as these in order to get the balance right. If we are
to be liars, we'd best be good at it. Fortunately, it is a skill that all
humans possess. The ability to believe in the invisible.
05-16-07: Christian Jungersen Finds 'The Exception'
Think the Unthinkable
Most of the time, we live a dialed-down life. In any given day, we're
likely to see a small number of people, and usually the same people.
or four people we work with. The three or four people we live with.
That's it. Small scale. Nothing big.
are all so very small-scale.
And yet, somehow all those little lives add up. For all the micro-lives
we lead, big things happen. War, famine, genocide. We can imagine the thronging
crowds, but are unlikely to spend a lot of time in them. How do we mediate
between the two extremes, our little lives and the world writ large?
Were you to be paying attention to bestselling fiction in Denmark in
2005, you might have had an answer in the form of 'The Exception' (Nan
/ Doubleday ; July 10, 2007 ; $26), by Christian Jungersen, now translated
into English and coming out for the middle of what is likely to be
'The Exception' is the sort of novel that could make a summer seem
relentless, with its laser focus on the banal absurdities that can
drive us to the
sorts of acts we'd otherwise read of dispassionately in newspapers
while sitting around the break room at work.
The setup for 'The Exception' is itself both banal and exceptional. Four
women work in an office in Copenhagen; Iben and Malene are academics, Anne-Lise
is a librarian, and Camille is a secretary. Of course the concerns of the
office are a tad out of the ordinary. They work at the Danish Center for
Genocide Information. Still, it's just a job isn't it? Not for long. Between
writing about death and updating stories on mass graves, the women find
themselves the recipients of emailed death threats. Of course, it must
be the horrible men out there, the perpetrators of mass murder and their
henchmen sending the emails, right?
Or not. Told in rotating narration from the point of view of each of
the women, 'The Exception' offers a Rashomon-style narrative so that
know what each of the [pro / an]tagonists is thinking at any given
moment. As the threats roll in, as the women attend John Cassavetes
as the reports of "Europe's Largest Ethnic Cleansing Operation" roll
in and are duly noted, the women begin to suspect that the enemy is
within. Once the seed is planted, it grows. Dialed-down. Small-scale.
Should you enjoy claustrophobic, unpleasantly realistic thrillers in
which office politics take a decidedly deadly turn, then 'The Exception'
to definitely be your choice for reading immersion this summer. Jungersen,
as translated by Anna Paterson, knows how to ratchet up the psychological
suspense until you just wish the damn piano wires would wrap themselves
round your neck and get the beheading over with. Of course, he writes
from his experience at a Danish ad agency, though one presumes that
murder nor genocide were directly involved. Still, if you've ever worked
in an office atmosphere poisoned by distrust and venomous hatred, then
you'll find yourself uncomfortably at home in 'The Exception'. Just
presume that you are the exception. Instead, be glad that you are reading
about other people's discomfort instead of experiencing your own version.
05-15-07: Alastair Reynolds' 'Galactic North' UPDATED
I guess it was a
long time ago when Alastair Reynolds' 'Revelation
Space' changed the
way I felt about the science fiction genre. But
experience of 'Revelation Space' is still fresh in my mind. I don’t
know why I ordered the novel from *.*; I just did. At the time, science
fiction and fantasy did not seem all that interesting to me. But
once I entered Reynolds' baroque, carefully crafted universe, I decided
perhaps science fiction was worth another go-round. If this guy could
knock a first novel so far out of the park, I reasoned to myself,
then perhaps the genre did have some life in it; perhaps the literature
science fiction was worth my valuable time.
covers on these as well. This damn ship looks like a bedbug.
Reynolds has always been worth my time in the intervening years. The 'Revelation
Space' novels were indeed a revelation. Of course, the universe behind
those novels did not arise in that first novel. Reynolds had been working
on stories set amidst those worlds for years before the publication of
'Revelation Space'. 'Galactic North' (Ace / Penguin Putnam ; June 5, 2007
; $24.95) collects many of those stories and offers them up in chronological
order. Together they create a peculiar and powerful portrait of two universes;
that created by Reynolds and the universe in which Reynolds' future was
created. The real and the imaginary, seamlessly entwined and rejiggered
into a surreal reading experience, puzzle pieces from a future history
and our own recent past.
The stories start with "Great Wall of Mars", created for Peter
Crowther's 'Mars Probes' paperback original anthology, and I have to say,
it's nice to have this one in a more easily-readable hardcover version.
This story is set in a nearly-recognizable future, and encompasses conflicts
we're beginning to imagine as real in our time. It also offers an inception
point for one of Reynolds' best characters, Clavain. It's powerful and
polished. The collection concludes with "Galactic North",
a series of steps into a future so distant as to be almost unimaginable.
some of Reynolds' most recently written works, and they demonstrate
his ability to provide readers with clean prose that presents a future
as complicated as the present.
In between, you'll find six other stories that range across both Reynolds'
universe and his writing career. For this reader, at least, one of
the best things about Reynolds' future history is that it offers pieces
a picture larger than the reader can hope to see, at least in the words
themselves. Reynolds lets the reader do a bit of universe-building
work, with the help of prose that often verges on poetic. He understands
awe and mystery are as much about what we don’t see as they are about
what we do see. Of course, when he wants to show us something interesting,
he puts us in the picture. As a monster hound, I was most happy to encounter "Grafenwald's
Bestiary", though I wouldn't want to encounter the critters therein.
But no, that's not exactly true. Reynolds' future, for all the rot, for
all the chaos and decay is enticingly appealing. But then, so is the present – with
all its rot, with all its chaos, amidst all our decay.
For all the rigorous intellect and smarts that go into Reynolds' work,
one of his most appealing aspects is his utter unpretentiousness. On one
hand, Reynolds' is willing to show you the dank, grungy outlines of the
ultimate. But when he steps back into himself, in the Afterword, he is
refreshingly frank, pointing out the inconsistencies in his own future
history. Of course, all history is inconsistent. It's just stories, after
all, and we're supposed to take the words as gospel in some cases, while
in others we want the rigor without the reality. The stories we live could
be as artfully written as those in 'Galactic North'. That future, alas,
will never come to pass. By writing the fiction, Reynolds has put a rent
in reality that prevents his visions from becoming real. Or at least, what
passes for real. What passes for history.
UPDATE: An Astute
Reader wrote to inform me that the story published in Peter Crowther's
'Mars Probes' was, in fact, 'The Real Story',
not 'The Great Wall of Mars', which according to Reynolds' home page,
was first published in Spectrum SF. Said AR also mentioned something
been nagging me, but I hadn't picked up on, to wit, that this book,
while it includes many fine stories and Reynolds' own entertaining
essay on his
work, does not include a publication history of the stories anywhere.
I looked on the colophon (I love that word) page, the usual location
such information, and found nought; and at the end of the book, the
other usual location, again, zippo. Why this information was excluded
me, but if there's a nit to pick with this book, this is that nit.
Please, publishers, save errant reviewers from their own laziness and
with this information in the book. I will confess that I did try to
scare up 'Mars Probes' yesterday morning, and again this morning, to
Given the number of titles in the stacks, and their state of slight
organization (Reynolds does have his own two, count 'em two shelves,
copies of his books), it would prove easier to locate the story information
in a book that does not actually include the story information than
it would be to find a single paperback tree amidst the forest. And
is a small forest lurking on the shelves of my house. We now return you
to your regularly scheduled look at books worth your valuable time.
05-14-07: A 2007
Interview With John Marks UPDATED
a world that is satirizing itself every single day is a very difficult
How do you make fun of death? Lots of death. Maybe you shouldn't.
your teeth into the news.
But probably you have to. "I think we can only be scared, terrified,
so much, " John Marks, the author of 'Fangland', told me, "before
we need to release the pressure of that feeling, and laughter, absurdity,
is one of the best ways to do that."
When you start poking about and realize that humans, oh we are such "practiced
executioners", murdered 187 million humans in the 20th century,
then that sort of hysterical, just-before-crying humor is called for.
The sort found in 'Fangland'.
Let me suggest to all my readers who enjoyed Elizabeth Kostova's 'The
Historian' that they hie themselves hence to yon bookstore, find this
immediately. It's a delightful book, dark, complex, funny and really,
really creepy. Plus, you'll learn enough about how our news is put together
to scare you all over again. If you thought sausage and legislation were
created out of the stuff of nightmares, then you've not heard tales from
the backroom of 60 Minutes.
Until now. Marks was a producer for this esteemed show, and he worked
with Ed Bradley and Morley Safer. "I went to shoot a 60 Minutes piece with Morley Safer about the Dracula tourism industry in Romania.
I had already begun to think about writing this book," he told me, "but
we went over there because there was a Dracula theme park that was going
to be built and we thought it would be a fun story to take Morley to
Transylvania and have him talk to all the crazy characters who are involved
in the tourism business over there...We shot absolutely stunning footage
in Transylvania, we got wonderful interviews, we had a moment where Morley
was in a graveyard at dusk with the dogs howling and the lightning flickering,
and the village priest running into the graveyard to tell us to get out,
it was all on camera..."
One should not presume that 'Fangland' is simply satire. It is actually
chilling horror that inspires the sort of laughter that immediately precedes
death ... or serious injury. Marks is a serious researcher with an original
imagination. I've read a lot of horror, and not much has been as chilling
UPDATE: Marks just wrote
to tell me that: "I just
got news this week that Hilary Swank has optioned the book as a producer
and star, so who knows? Maybe one
day we'll see Evangeline on the big screen."
Marks also talks about a movie he's made called Purple State of Mind,
which is a dialogue between Marks, once a born-again Christian who is
now an Atheist, and his friend, filmmaker Craig Dettweiler, who became
a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. And just because he hasn't
made his own life complicated enough, Marks takes the time to tell us
about his forthcoming book on faith. One can imagine how a book by a
believer-turned-non-believer will be received by the religious community.
You can hear this conversation from the MP3 or the RealAudio files. It's
not a life or death decision. I hope.