Month: February 1997

The Fortunate Fall, Raphael Carter

Tor, 1996, 288 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86034-X

The adventure of discovery! The thrill of the new! The excitement of excellence! The perils of plunking down a sizable chunk of real money for a hardcover!

Who would want to go bungee-jumping when such thrills are so readily available to the average reader? Why go white-river rafting when a trip to the local bookstore can provide such exciting minutes of agonizing decisions?

Just in case you’re wondering, I’m talking about the rewards of reading first novels. This is where the local library comes in handy: At the worst, you’ll waste only time, not time AND money.

Which brings us to the subject of this review, a perfectly acceptable offering by Minneapolis, Minnesota resident Raphael Carter: The Fortunate Fall (In case you’re wondering who Carter is, you’re not alone, and not about to be satiated by the author’s blurb, which was reproduced here in its informative integrality.)

In a publishing world where every first novel is “the best book I’ve read in my life” or “the best look at postmodernist whatever since…”, It’s refreshing to find a first work that lives up to most of the quotes on the cover: There was no “better first novel published in 1996,” so Emma Bull won’t have to “eat [her] hard drive.”

The elements of the plot aren’t exactly new: Human cameras have been around for a while in SF (most famously in Gibson’s Count Zero) and avid readers of recent works in the genre will have a certain kick comparing this book to Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire. (both taking place mostly in a complexly fractalized near-future Europe and sporting female protagonists named Maya)

But Carter manages to do some impressive things with the concept: One camera must work with a Screener, which filters most of the unwanted peripheral sensations. The novel begins as Maya Andreyeva has to switch Screeners, only to end up with a female partner (an unusual occurrence.) Soon, Maya is dealing with a political coverup, an incarceration, long-distance love with her Screener and the biggest scoop of her life.

But never mind the plot. As with many new authors, it’s the details that are fascinating. Maya’s “objective” reality doesn’t exist any more. She is so wired that she can choose to see images, experience sensations… Perhaps the best passage in the novel is early on, when she tries to convince her rental automobile that the alcohol she’s taking is for medicinal purposes. (nanobots refuelling, actually) The car doesn’t see it the same way, and soon tries to stop, since drinking and driving are incompatible. The situation is resolved by the almost-literal appearance of Maya’s Screener and an instance of creating reprogramming.

It may sound boring, but Carter recounts it far better than I have. Surprisingly, his style is distinctive without being overwhelming. The prose is mostly uncluttered but assured, wry, confident… cool. If only for this quality, Carter has managed to get a “To Watch” rating on my mental Author Scoreboard. Unlike many new authors, Carter doesn’t have the impulse to show us how smart he is at the expense of good storytelling.

Yet, Carter’s work is smart. He mixes sociological insights with musings about the nature of love, life and everything… It’s an interesting mélange. The books succeeds more than it falters, and one couldn’t ask more.

I was a bit disappointed by the conclusion, where we go back to the time-honoured tradition of having the villain talk about his evil plan in front of billion of people (but this is excusable, since Maya is a camera, duh!) The finale is… interesting.

The book is full of “good bits”; the already-mentioned car argument, Maya’s interrogations by two “policemen”… but the background details are also interesting without being flashy: North America is a backward (“I could always emigrate [there] and spend my live seeing nothing more technologically advanced than a pitchfork”) continent, but Africa has brilliantly combined ancient traditions with high-technology.

The medium length of the book and the easygoing prose makes the readers breeze through the novel. I do get the feeling that this is one book I won’t avoid re-reading in a few years.

This is Good Stuff. Just when our bookstore’s shelves are covered with TV tie-ins and derivative trash, it’s refreshing to see original material like this. Kudos to The Fortunate Fall, its readers, Tor Books and Raphael Carter.

Besides, paperback books are way cheaper than bungee-jumping. And you can read The Fortunate Fall in the bathroom, instead of going to the bathroom before your unfortunate fall—

okay, so you got the point.

Dragon’s Egg, Robert L. Forward

Del Rey, 1984, 309 pages, C$2.75 mmpb, ISBN 0-345028349-X

(Or: Too much of a good thing. WAY too much of a good thing…)

I adore Hard SF.

You see, SF for me stands for Science-Fiction, not the recent wishy-washy labels “Speculative Fiction”, “Sociological Fantasy”, “San Francisco” or even (the pain!) the all-inclusive “Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Horror and all kind of stuff we just call SF because we really don’t have the IQ to know better.”

(It’s all a plot, I tell you: People without the technical qualification came in, found that they couldn’t compete with Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke on their own terms and resolved to change the rules of the game so they wouldn’t get beaten up so badly. Tie this with the decline of the American Empire and receive 5,000 bonus points.)

Generally, the harder the SF, the better I like it. It’s no accident that my favourite books last year were Red Mars, The Ascent of Wonder and Tau Zero, all heavily-hard SF. Pushed at the extremes, I’ll grab a science non-fiction book rather more quickly than a non-science fiction book.

(This is the point that I choose to remark that not everyone is mentally equipped to follow science non-fiction books… heh-heh-heh.)

I remember reading a Robert L Forward novel (Timemaster) a few years ago, and being embarrassed at the characterisation, which is quite a feat for someone who’s proud of being style-deaf. On a whim, I picked up Dragon’s Egg, resolved to find out if Forward was really as bad as I remembered.

He is. In the words of David Pringle’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of SF: “ill-written novels” Forward is a terrific idea generator, but can’t dramatize them for beans. In the tradition of the worst B movies, some of the dialogue is so bad, it’s hilarious. Here’s an instance, chosen at random: [Page 32 of the paperback edition]

“The pulses could be high frequency bursts that are higher than the nominal design frequency for the low frequency radio antennas,” he said. “Can you calculate the antenna pattern for a higher frequency?”

And this is one of the better ones. I am not making this up.

Yet, it would be too easy to blast this novel on poor drama, laughable dialogue and cardboard characters. These three literary qualities are not why this novel was published. And allowances must be made, for Dragon’s Egg was Forward’s first novel.

What is impressive about this book is the rigorous scientific extrapolation underlying the story: A race of sentient beings evolve on the crust of a neutron star, where gravities and magnetic fields are enormously more powerful than on earth. These beings, called Cheelas, live about ten thousand times more rapidly than humans. During one human hour, 5 cheela generations pass…

As it happens, one human scientific mission is there just at the good time and place to give a little help to the cheela. In twenty-four hours, they go from roman-type empire to FTL flight…

Most of the book is very, very boring. This is one of those few novels where the alien passages feel more natural than the human scenes. (See my gripes about dialogue: I can believe in aliens talking that way, but humans??? Nah….) But the scientific stuff is fascinating, and the last few pages are gripping; pure hard-SF candy for the mind.

It won’t surprise anyone that there’s a technical appendix at the end. Also not surprising is the usefulness of such an appendix. In a hurry, just read it and skim the remainder of the novel.

This surely isn’t a book for everyone. I had a few problems following the most abstract concepts, and I can’t expect everyone to slug through two hundred pages of polysyllabic words for a few pages of sensawunder and a technical appendix.

But if you’re able to handle it, go ahead…

Bestsellers Guaranteed, Joe R. Lansdale

Ace, 1993, 207 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-05502-8

Stephen King makes me laugh.

And I do mean this literally: I have a very high resistance to horror nowadays, and tend to laugh like a madman at supposedly “scary” movies. Part of the problem is a self-avowed tendency to make fun of everything video ala MST3K. But in the case of horror, the source material doesn’t help either: the transparency of the typical horror plot is the epitome of cookie-cutting: An evil concept, a troubled protagonist, a kill-the-sinners mentality. This is essentially King’s weakness: One can easily peer into the intentions of his fiction without going too deeply in the structure.

Apologies if I’m getting too academic, but the bottom line is simply that Stephen King doesn’t scare me, as much of the horror floating around these days.

This being said, I picked up Bestsellers Guaranteed for the wrong reasons: It was cheap, it had a wacky cover (librarian-type dragon lying on a pile of books) and the back-cover blurb was even wackier (Sample: “BOB THE DINOSAUR GOES TO DISNEYLAND: An inflatable toy dinosaur takes a dream vacation… that’s full of hot air.”)

If you don’t mind, I’ll take this occasion to present my “all-time most misrepresentative cover” award to Ace, for putting humorous jacket copy on a dark horror collection.

For this book is almost all-horror. Not the evil-thing-eats-them-all-up kind of horror, but the true, evil, dark stuff that will make you squirm and wince even though you can’t stop reading. I wasn’t creeped out by straight razors before, but now…

People gets eaten up a lot here, but they also get beheaded, chomped, sliced, quartered, stuffed, bludgeoned… Scary stuff, less predictable than King, and written in style, too! Despite -or maybe because- the subject matter, this book was read very, very quickly.

This is pure, undiluted good stuff. I was horrified, terrorized and grossed-out (for you who remember Stephen King’s degrees of horror). Joe Lansdale is an author with edges, a lot of them.

A last word of advice for just about everyone: Read the book during a day with plenty of sunlight, okay?