Category Archives: Fiction

What I’ve Been Reading – Spring 2017

I have been looking forward to penning this entry to my online journal for a while. The intent of this post is to provide a little overview of my reading adventures for the first half of 2017. This blog exists as a manifestation of my commitment to being productive, and everything- my consistent writing output, my sleeping patterns, the attrition to my anxiety, my new work ethic, and my overall increasing levels of happiness- stems from my reading. For me, reading is the way out of the snake-pit of depression. It’s the best starting point, because all you need to do is sit down and do it. And then everything snowballs. The more I read, the more ideas for stories, poems and blog posts I got. Working towards the goal of finishing a book gave me a sense of purpose. I will detail my previous struggles with reading in a later post. But for now, here is a selected overview of my reading journey for the last few months; three books that have helped me in different ways. There are others I have not included because I have either blogged about them already, or I am planning a more in-depth post about them. Enjoy!

 

Starman Jones – Robert A. Heinlein

Publication Date: 1953

Country: American

Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction, Space Opera

19622667_10211673321806762_578847398_n

This book is special to me because it signified two things: my return to the genre of science fiction after a long hiatus, and the beginning of my attempts to escape from the snake-pit. At the time I was in a bad way. I couldn’t sleep and part of the problem was the fact I was watching Youtube videos until 4am every night on my smartphone. My roommate Aaron said, “You need to stop watching Shaqtin’ a Fool and start getting some good sleep”. For the first few nights, given that my body clock was already messed up, I decided that I was going to use the time to listen to an audiobook on Youtube. There are tons of them. This one was about 8 hours or so. No problem, right? I could just listen for two hours every night and be done in a few days.

This was very appealing to me because at the time I was a weak reader. I was like a rusty athlete trying to get his stamina back. The quality of the audiobook was excellent. The skill of the one recording the book is such an important factor. It literally makes the difference between me turning off the video after a minute. A good narrator will get you hooked.

This book is set in a futuristic United States that captures the optimism of the 1950s. It’s very much how they imagined the future to be back then- the technology is exciting and efficient and wondrous, and the American character is largely unchanged. Instead, space represents the new frontier to be tamed and explored. I think that is part of what drew me to the novel; it’s quintessentially American spirit. Reading it, one is quickly reminded of Mark Twain. The protagonist is a sympathetic character- a young farm boy with a lousy home and a thirst for adventure- a fascination with discovering the stars. The novel has a picaresque quality to it- we are taken on a wondrous and whimsical voyage through space, encountering all kinds of alien life forms and futuristic technology. There is just something very charming about its clean, golden view of the future, and the fact that the sci-fi elements are for the most part aesthetic. The conflict of the novel is emphatically human. I am sure the story could quite easily be remade in a real world setting. The boy has to suffer a greedy stepfather, a jealous boss, and his own self-doubt. It’s a beautiful coming-of-age novel with a fantastical backdrop, and some very interesting and intricate descriptions of the mechanics of future technology.

I am so pleased to finally experience the genius of Robert A. Heinlein. This guy deserves your attention!

 

Crónica de una muerte anunciada (Chronicle of a Death Foretold) – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Publication Date: 1981

Country: Colombian

Genre: Literary Fiction novella, Crime Fiction

17818776_193337177839443_1511296766945787904_n

I have been desperate to try some Gabriel Garcia Marquez for a long time. A few years ago I enjoyed reading several books from the Latin American scene- a book of strange philosophical short stories by Jorge Luis Borges called the Book of Sand, and a highly experimental novel by Julio Cortazar called Hopscotch. Both of them are Argentine. I enjoyed their work; even if I didn’t entirely understand it, there was just something mesmerizing, intriguing, poetic and mysterious about the way they wrote. They left a distinct impression on me, and though I often try to write in an experimental style, I don’t think I would ever have the balls to try and emulate their work. The very idea is frightening. Instead I just admire it as an outsider.

My desperation to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez was intensified when he passed away in April 2014, and one of my favorite all time Chelsea players- back-to-back player of the year Juan Mata- sent out a poignant tribute to the literary giant on twitter.

I got my chance to read a novella of his just a few months ago. Even though the end is given away in the title, I found it utterly compelling. It’s fictional, but reading it was like watching a documentary of a tragedy you know is coming, and yet despite its already having happened, you grow nervous and wish your truth is incorrect, that the film might provide a happy ending and rewrite history. It reminded me of when I watched the HBO series Rome, and I knew that Caesar was gonna get shanked, but I hoped against hope that he would survive and history would be rewritten. And then, when the violence occurs, it is so graphic and ghastly it leaves you literally nauseous. Another good example is the recent Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. Marquez’s novella had me squirming at the end. I was sad. The book is short but it is so powerful. It really captures the atmosphere of small town Colombia, and the descriptions are some of the most beautiful and perceptive passages of writing I have ever read. The modest, tropical town is infused with these raw, larger than life themes of chastity, suppressed desire, femininity, the nature of machismo, and ultimately the collective responsibility and complicity of the town in the butchery that occurs. The style is very straightforward and somewhat journalistic. Everything about this book is intriguing. I can’t recommend it enough.

 

Cabal – Clive Barker

Publication Date: 1988

Country: British

Genre: Horror

18252335_138646173343315_8082844201546416128_n

This was an attempt on my part to try something new! Prior to reading this, I had never delved into Horror Fiction before. I’ve got a copy of Misery by Stephen King on my bookshelf but I still haven’t read it yet. I became intrigued by Barker’s style and decided to give this a go. In short, it’s about a guy in Calgary (Alberta, Canada) whose mental health issues and reliance on medication leaves holes in his memories. He starts to suspect he might be a serial killer, and decides to stop himself from hurting anyone else by seeking out a mythical commune in the Canadian wilderness that is a place for monsters, murderers and bloodsuckers to live in acceptance of their true nature.

I won’t spoil anything, so I shall leave it at that. But this book is definitely a page-turner. It’s a straight up thriller, complete with twists, suspense, horrific violence, and graphic sex. But I don’t want to make the book sound cheap. It is expertly written, and the kind of suspense that Barker creates (and which authors like Stephen King are celebrated for) is an aspect of creative writing I am extremely envious of. I hate that thrillers might be admonished as “popular fiction” by the snobs of the literary scene, for supposedly focusing on plot as opposed to character development. Everything is not so black and white. The two protagonists Boone and Lori are fascinating characters with memorable journeys and inward struggles. I just find the whole craft of engineering a reader’s sense of fear and panic so amazing, and I truly envy the writers that can pull it off, using their pens to manipulate the emotions of their readers.

Although the book is categorized as a horror, it made me think more of a dark fantasy, a thriller with Gothic elements. Back in the day I dabbled in the works of Gothic fiction, enamored for a brief time with the prose of Ann Radcliffe and John William Polidori. I feel like this book played with those motifs, appropriating mausoleums, graveyards, catacombs and fiends of the night. You should definitely try some Clive Barker if you are looking for a grim and dark page-turner that is at the same time nuanced and wildly imaginative.

Advertisements

The Witcher is Being Made into a Netflix TV Drama!

Hov

O, what news! I was practically shaken out of my sleep this morning by my younger brother, with his news that The Witcher was going to be adapted for a Netflix TV drama. I am a huge fan of the franchise, and I proudly hang a map of the Northern Realms above my bed, and I lovingly adorn my aging laptop with the game’s complimentary stickers of the School of the Wolf’s sigil. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is my favorite game of the current console generation and perhaps second only to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic in my all-time power rankings. I was blown away by the poignant character-driven plotlines and the game’s dark, sinister twists on Slavic folklore. It completely restored my faith in high fantasy games providing nuanced writing that examined the human condition, and not being merely pretentious, unambitious attempts at Tolkien in which all the character’s might have had heads filled with Styrofoam for all we knew. The world of Geralt seemed rich and so alive. To help feed my addiction, my brother bought me a copy of Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Last Wish for my 23rd birthday. I’m a fan. And how gratifying it is to live in an age where to be a geek is all of a sudden trendy. I swear, back in my school days if I had skipped down the hall with a copy of The Last Wish clutched to my breast, humming the epic tones of Marcin Przybyłowicz’s soundtrack, I would have quickly been gang-banged by no less than a dozen chain-smoking rough lads, taking it in turns to stamp on my trachea with studded boots until I stopped breathing.

But we’re getting off-topic, aren’t we? Let us return to the news of the day! The Witcher is indeed getting made into a TV drama. It should be pointed out that it is the books that are getting adapted, not the games of CD Projekt Red. Therefore the show will be much closer to Sapkowski’s original vision. We will be seeing the world of Geralt of Rivia much closer to how he conceptualized it. Sapkowski, who had no input on the popular game series, will in fact be serving as a creative consultant for the new show.  It should also be noted that Tomek Baginski, who did such a wonderful job directing the intro cinematics for all three Witcher games, will be directing one episode per season.

It is good, I think, that The Witcher is being made into a TV drama and not a movie. Movies don’t have the time necessary to build the slow-burning character arcs that more finely approach those of books. I don’t trust a Witcher movie not to be a complete turkey, at least in the current climate of Hollywood blockbusters- the kind of movies more interested in making its audience masturbate over increasingly extraordinary levels of CGI than in engaging with the inner conflicts of its characters. I am encouraged by the successes of TV dramas such as Game of Thrones– perhaps the best indication of how a Witcher TV show might turn out- given that they are both dark fantasy narratives, based on novels written since the early 1990s. And that is a series that has enjoyed widespread popularity, from people of all ages and consumers of almost every genre. Netflix too, I would argue, is a good home for the series. Those folks have been absolutely ballin’ recently, giving us a range of exciting dramas- such as Daredevil and Stranger Things– all with the liberal creative license seldom afforded by the big TV networks.

Of course, it is early days, but why not get some discussion going amongst the community? Who would you like to see in the roles of Geralt and Yennefer? What would you like to see incorporated from the source material? Let me know!

The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

Like the novel with which it will be discussing, this review-come-journal entry will be apportioned into three distinct parts. In the first, I shall discuss how Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus ended up on my reading river, in the second I’ll give a spoiler-free profile of the book and what to expect, and in the third I will be offering some analysis and interpretation of the content therein. That way, I feel like I can write something that is inclusive to both those who have read the book and those I hope to tempt to pick it up on their next bookstore and fro-yo run.

Why Wolfe?

I got my copy of the book in a little store called Fopp in Bristol, England- which is near to where I currently live. It was December of 2016 and I had just that afternoon gone to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story at the local movie theater with my kid brother. We had a few minutes before our ride home would be ready to meet us, and so we decided to hit up this small indie store that sells DVDs, CDs and such for a discounted price. There is a small section of books and I went over to check them out as we enjoyed the warmth the store offered us from the frigid outdoors. By the time our ride had come I was leaving Fopp with three books under my arm. They each cost five pounds- which is pretty damn good for a book these days. My purchases were as follows: Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Martian Time Slip by Philip K. Dick, and The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe. Back in the day I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy. I considered it my primary genre and would now and then dip into the classics of literary fiction for the purposes of gaining some knowledge of what I then considered to be the “essence” of something timeless; the craft and structural engineering of writing about the human condition. I read books like Dune by Frank Herbert and I wrote what my grandma called “space stories”. But then around the age of 18 or so, I abandoned science fiction altogether. I shed myself of it like a rotting carapace and never looked back. I focused exclusively on non-genre fiction and developed a particular worship for the works of Literary Realism. Why this sudden metamorphosis occurred I don’t really know, but perhaps no book was more influential on me- and more indicative of my new literary appetite- than Henry Miller’s outrageously debauched (and horrifically mistitled) novella Quiet Days in Clichy. It’s a fictionalized memoir of the author’s days as a struggling writer in Paris- and I won’t go too much into it here- but my days spent reading it on the bus I took to college marked the event horizon so to speak, of my abandonment of science fiction. Several years later and it is Christmastime 2017. There is a change in the winds. In recent months I have been craving some science fiction. I bought this book and Martian Time Slip in December but I didn’t start reading them right away. No, my return to reading science fiction actually came in the audio book version of Robert A. Heinlein’s Starman Jones– which I decided was a better use of my insomnia than watching endless videos of Shaqtin’ a Fool and Zero Punctuation on Youtube. I have taken a much more disciplined approach to reading recently (a subject that, perhaps, deserves its own blog post). In short, I found that being in a constant and continuous state of reading helps to keep me fulfilled and to keep the gnawing mongrels of anxiety at bay. The most effective and enjoyable way of achieving this, I discovered, was to share my reading adventures and keep myself accountable to an online blog. And that is the long version of how I ended up reading Gene Wolfe last week!

Six-limbed lobotomites, cannibalistic aborigines, & those robobrain things from Fallout. What’s not to like?

I took the time, before reading, to look over the introduction and the little bio they have for the author. What struck me straight away was that Gene Wolfe was an industrial engineer by trade. In fact, during the 1960s he developed the machine that cooks Pringles and ensures their hyperbolic paraboloid curvature. So I wondered for a minute if I might be in for one of those heavily scientific, hardboiled science fiction novels. But this was not so. I encountered much more scientific theory in Heinlein’s Starman Jones– in which every action was preceded by a paragraph of explanation. The descriptions of space travel- however dated they may seem to modern readers- I remember were very intricate. The Fifth Head of Cerberus felt like the opposite approach. Robot prison guards passed by without any exposition- and I liked it. There was something fleeting about Wolfe’s insights into the world he created, and there was no assumption on the part of the text that we wanted even the slightest clue into the more superficial details of its inner workings. Starcrossers are repeatedly referred to as being the primary mode of interplanetary transport, but since the specifics of their engines are a vestigial element to the story, Wolfe doesn’t waste our time going on about them. This brings me to what, in a nutshell, The Fifth Head of Cerberus is about. Well for starters, it’s actually three stories that coalesce thematically. When I first got it, I expected it to be a singular plot with three overlapping perspectives. I then learned, after finishing the first novella, from which the book derives its title, that it had been published a year or so earlier in Orbit 10, an anthology edited by one of SF’s legendary grandfathers- Damon Knight. After being advised to expand upon this novella, Wolfe then added the two other stories that make up the book. It is true that each story is a tight, self-contained narrative and that each stands up on its own. However, having now finished the book, it is clear that it can be read very much as a cohesive whole. While there may not be any long passages pertaining to quantum physics and futuristic mechanics, this is not by any means a casual or an easy read. It’s a book of absolutely exorbitant depth and boundless complexity. Many people who enjoy Wolfe confess to having read the book several times. Online there exist forums in which readers debate the subtext and the mysteries within. I think the best adjective to describe the book is “layered” . There’s a plethora of subtle repetitions and motifs that contribute to the creation of mysteries that will occupy the reader’s thoughts long after he or she has put the book down. And that’s what made reading this novel such a rewarding experience for me. Although it may be slow in some parts- and for sure it is not a “page turner”- the payoff at the end is very fulfilling. I could spend hours going over the little details hidden away in this book, or reading through the analyses of others in internet forums. I enjoyed this book. It was a sinister, disturbing narrative of two French-inflected human colony planets that orbit each other. It’s crazy imaginative and just plain crazy.

The Fifth Head of Bookworm

I will assume at this point that those reading this section are Wolfe fans and those who, like me, are interested in getting the interpretations of other readers upon completing the book. It’s definitely one of those layered stories- like Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury– that the instant you finish it you start mashing your thumbs into the Google search bar of your phone just to see if you “read it right”. I wanted to know what I was missing- since there is no way, as a first time reader of Wolfe, having read the book only the once, and having to power through some of the less thrilling sections, that I was going to pick up every little nuance of this absolute behemoth of creativity. And of course, there’s the fact that the mystery of the fate of the aboriginal Annese and the true identity of the John Marsch character are never explicitly revealed at the end. This is a novel in which the answers are given to you piecemeal throughout in little clues and hints. It is a novel which punishes the lazy reader. The completion of the novel requires a very active role on the part of the reader, insofar that the inferences made by the reader are a crucial element of the story. Therein lies the genius of Wolfe, and this, I think, is why I have seen his fans refer to him with such adoration as to liken him to the Michael Jordan of his field. To Wolfe fans, he is the GOAT, and I have seen no shortage of superlatives attached to his name. I’m not gonna go that far, but I will agree that you’d be hard pressed to find a science fiction novel that outmatches it in literary ambition. We marvel at the artful structure of the book and rightly so. The piece of evidence I have seen most fans draw attention to as proof of Marsch’s being an “abo” is the wound he sustains in “V.R.T” by the feral cat, which every time the narrator brings it up seems more and more like an excuse for his shabby handwriting- a trait firmly established earlier in the story being the natives’ poor grasp of hand tools. Of course there’s a mountain of other clues that reinforce this, such as the long gap in the Doctor’s journal after the boy supposedly dies. However this whole discussion is rendered somewhat obsolete by Gene Wolfe’s confirmation in an interview that a “Shadowchild” had replaced John Marsch. I think- at least based on my own reading of the text- that the version wherein the Annese are NOT extinct and where the real John Marsch died in that gorge in the outback is the only real conclusion we are encouraged to reach, as opposed to the more psychological interpretation that examines the events as a kind of hallucinatory parable. The doubt, I believe, is meant to reflect the uncertainty of the characters within the book. In my opinion (let me know if you agree!) the narrator in the closing stages of the book is not certain himself that he is either John Marsch or the beggar’s son.  I have seen other readers mention the way several passages at the end seem to mesh together, dreamlike, and it becomes hard to determine whose head we are in. Although I believe that the beggar’s boy has replaced John Marsch, I don’t think he is knowingly deceiving those around him. I think he believes that he is Marsch, and that we see him struggle with his sense of identity during the latter stages of his solitary confinement in the Citadel. The novel had likened the Annese to being kind of half-animal in the second novella, and later in “V.R.T” the narrator even describes himself as such when he pens his legal defense. Therefore, my interpretation of the boy’s shapeshifting process is that it is an instinctive, natural one, rather than some cunning scheme. Maybe I’m wrong. The real mystery that persists, I believe, is whether the beggar’s son murdered John Marsch in that gorge or whether the death was an accident. I have to admit that the boy’s earlier declaration that he would love to be an anthropologist (and the Doctor’s informing him of the many years of work it would take) does offer some hint of premeditation. What do you think?

 

Verdict

I don’t know if it is so easy to give a numerical score to something as nuanced as a novel, but just for fun I’ll go ahead and give it a rating. On a scale of one to ten, one being 50 Shades of Puke and ten being Faulknerian perfection, I’d give it an 8.7! Definitely worth your time if you like unconventional science fiction mysteries!