The NEGATIVE ZONE #006: LITERARY SCIENCE FICTION SMACKDOWN
by Andrew Neal
Okay, okay, it’s not really a smackdown, but I thought that sounded better than “Reviews of a couple of books that are sort of thematically similar but also really different.”
As far as “literary science fiction,” I’m talking as much about the marketing and presentation of books as much as I am the content. These are science fiction novels which you’re more likely to find in the Fiction & Literature section of your library or bookstore than in the section with all the rocketships and robots. I used to have a chip on my shoulder about the fact that there are folks who will read and enjoy a science fiction book as long as it’s not called science fiction. However, I’ve come to terms with that and now think that whatever taxonomy you need to use to get someone to read a book is great. How mature of me!
I just finished reading The Testament of Jessie Lamb, by Jane Rogers. It won the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke award and was long-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, so hey: SF and mainstream fiction recognition all rolled into one package! In this novel, a biological weapon has left the population of the world with a disease which kills pregnant women. The protagonist is Jessie Lamb, a sixteen-year old girl who wants desperately to help the world and the human race.
Rogers perfectly captured the confusion, intensity, and raw emotion of being a teenager. I’m a long way gone from that period of my life, but not so far gone that I can’t remember what was important to me then. Notice I didn’t say “what I thought was important.” All that awful stuff really was important! It’s just that very different things are important to me now, because I’m a grown, married man with a business, a cat, and way too many dead friends and relatives. Things change, but that doesn’t mean that what you feel or felt as an adolescent isn’t real or important.
Why am I writing about my feelings on being a teenager? Because I think your feelings on this matter will affect how you view this book. After finishing it, I logged into Goodreads to check out some reader reviews, and was startled that so many of the folks who have posted there were lukewarm about The Testament of Jessie Lamb. Reading the reviews, a lot of the complaints I read stated that the reader couldn’t understand Jessie’s choices in the book, but these were people writing from the perspective of adults who at least try to use logic to help them make their important life decisions. Most teenagers I’ve known aren’t like that. They’re bundles of energy and emotion who just don’t know what the hell is going on half the time no matter how smart they are. I think that if you can honestly recall your own adolescence without viewing it through your adult-colored glasses, you’ll recognize the truth in Jessie Lamb.
I was very impressed with the ability of Jane Rogers to express this truth, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t hard for me to make it through the book sometimes. I got fed up with Jessie just like a lot of readers seem to have. Why? I’m pushing forty! Of course I’m going to get frustrated when reading the conflicted and repetitive thoughts and emotions of a sixteen year-old girl! This didn’t mean I thought the book was bad, though. I thought it was an excellent and accurate representation of what it’s like to be a teenager.
Let me tell you how un-frustrated I was reading Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, though: It’s my favorite book of 2012. The Dog Stars is a post-apocalyptic exploration and adventure story starring Hig, the pilot of a 1956 Cessna, and his dog Jasper.
Hig is a survivor. He survived a disease which killed off most of humanity, leaving behind an utterly ruthless but beautifully quiet world. Like Jessie Lamb, it’s a near-future fable about the potential end of the human race, but the two narrators are so different that the books feel completely different. In fact, The Dog Stars reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road more than anything else… except that I actually liked The Dog Stars.
What? That’s right. I’m the one guy who wasn’t into The Road. It’s not just that The Dog Stars is much more hopeful. I’ve been known to get down with some really miserable, nihilistic books. It’s just that both books seem to have come from a similar place but achieved very different results.
For one thing, both writers eschewed traditional English grammar and punctuation for a much more choppy narrative. In The Road, it seemed to me to be more of a “look what I can do” type of thing, but in The Dog Stars, it perfectly suits the character and the situation. Hig narrates the book in choppy sentence fragments, not just for the sake of literary cleverness, but because his thoughts are different after living in a world mostly devoid of other people for nine years, after having his brain cooked a bit by a horrific flu.
It’s probably jerky of me to bring up another book which I didn’t like that much here, but I’m assuming McCarthy can take it. Still, I’ll get back to just talking about The Dog Stars: It was beautifully written, and Hig is now one of my favorite characters in fiction. In some ways, he’s remarkably highly suited to living in his post-apocalyptic world, but not past the point of believability. This is partially because Heller really sells it; I never felt like Hig made it through a dangerous situation just for the sake of keeping the story moving. Plus, Hig’s not exactly undamaged; he’s suffered loss on a scale that none of us have: he’s not just lost his loved ones, he’s lost his world, and over the course of the book, he loses more of it. How he handles that ongoing loss is a big part of why I enjoyed the book.
I really loved The Dog Stars. I also really respected The Testament of Jessie Lamb. I highly recommend them both, though you probably need to have different mindsets as you read them. Not all near-future post-apocalyptic literary science fiction novels are cut from the same cloth, and that’s a good thing.
THE NEGATIVE ZONE #005: TAFT 2012 by JASON HELLER
by Andrew Neal
So I had this really great idea where I’d review a political book because Election Day is next week. Who wants to be in charge of stopping me the next time I have a really great idea?
Let’s start with the good. Taft 2012, by Jason Heller, has a really great cover, and is based around an excellent idea for a book: President William Howard Taft mysteriously awakens in the year 2012 and finds himself thrust into the political spotlight. This was a great idea because Taft was a really interesting man and political figure. He was thrust toward the presidency by Theodore Roosevelt and his wife, Nellie, despite the fact that he didn’t want to be president.
I’ve done some reading about Taft, and I’ll confess that I was drawn to him because of his mustache, an awesome photograph where he’s riding a water buffalo, and the fact that he was so obese he got stuck in the white house bathtub. Once I began researching the man, however, I was enthralled by his personality and moral code. Taft was a really interesting dude, but I probably never would have learned about him if I hadn’t been excited to learn about the fat guy in the tub.
So that’s the good, and most of what I have listed in the good category is that Taft was a really interesting character in real life.
Unfortunately the book itself just doesn’t have any meat to it. The author doesn’t go far enough down any of the roads he starts on. Here’s an example: When Taft meets the President of the United States, the President is described as a tall, thin man. The most interesting thing Taft notes is that he isn’t wearing a waistcoat. There’s no mention made of the fact that the President is black. This would have been an excellent opportunity to pit Taft against himself: he was politically progressive for his time, but the experience of meeting an African-American US President could certainly have challenged him. What’s that, you say? Maybe this is an alternate timeline in which the the President in 2012 is not Barack Obama? Well, he’s not named as such, but the folks who held the office before him are named, up through George W. Bush. It feels exceptionally cheap, as though this is maybe too much of an important subject for the author to deal with.
To be fair, the author does try to address this issue later, when Taft meets his great granddaughter’s African-American husband, and feels weird for a whole scene until he meets their bi-racial child and falls in love. This very speedy resolution seemed only to exaggerate the avoidance of the issue in regard to the current US President, as far as I was concerned.
The rest of the book felt the same to me, though there was nothing as egregious as the fact that race of President Obama was completely thrown to the wayside… until the epilogue.
In case you intend to read this book: here comes a spoiler.
The epilogue of Taft 2012 is a quote from William Howard Taft, who is being sworn in as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in the year 2021 after being appointed by his great granddaughter, President Rachel Taft. I believe this is supposed to make us happy, because this is the position that Taft truly wanted for himself, and here at the end of the book, he finally receives his fondest desire… except that he also achieved it in real life, and it wasn’t through nepotism! The real Taft was appointed to the seat by President Warren G. Harding. Maybe someone with no awareness of the real Taft’s life trajectory could have enjoyed this ending, but to me, it seemed like a less impressive way to get Taft to the same place he got in real life, just presented without the fact that he actually deserved to be there.
Here’s my recommendation: Don’t read Taft 2012. Do pick up some books about the real Taft. His real life was much more strange and fascinating than this fictional analogue.
by Andrew Neal
You know who I love? I love Brandon Graham. Well, I love his comics. I don’t know him very well… yet. If you know me from the comic industry, either as my customer or as another comics professional, there’s a really good chance you know how hung up I am on Brandon Graham’s stuff.
But check this out: I’m writing a column for a science fiction magazine now, so it’s chance to preach, not only to a ton of folks who don’t know how much I love Brandon Graham’s comics, but who might not even know who he is! Let’s fix that situation right now.
The story in Prophet is fairly different from the story in King City: Graham has described it as being like Conan in space, and it’s tough to get away from that description, because it’s so apt. This is science fiction, but not hard Arthur C. Clarke stuff. This is Thousands of Years in the Future Pulp Science Fiction. It’s full of monsters and mutants, and John Prophet eats a lot of them. Monster meat has a lot of protein! This series is ongoing now, and the first six issues are collected in a full color paperback for just ten bucks. Another great value.
Wait, there’s one more comic I want to talk about. It’s called Multiple Warheads: Alphabet to Infinity. It’s not out yet, but it will be at the end of October. This one is about an organ smuggler named Sexica with a werewolf boyfriend. Graham is writing and drawing, and this one should be more similar thematically to King City than Prophet. There was actually a Multiple Warheads comic several years back. It is unfortunately out of print now, but you won’t need to have read it to jump into this series.
Right now you may be asking yourself, “Where will I get these fine comics and graphic novels over which Andrew is going completely bonkers?” and that’s when I slap you with some cold hard knowledge: BAM! I have a comic book store in Chapel Hill, and not only that, my comic book store will be hosting a signing for Brandon on October 27, from 5pm until 7pm (That “yet” in the first paragraph wasn’t just hopeful)! We’ll have copies of Prophet, King City, and Multiple Warheads (including an exclusive Multiple Warheads Launch Tour cover) as well as some of Graham’s previous work.
That’s right. I just co-opted my science fiction review column to tell you about a signing at my comic book store. It’s like I’m getting paid to advertise for myself. Is this the finest example of synergy to be found in the annals of Bull Spec, or just an example of how I have absolutely no shame in my game? It’s both, y’all.
But seriously. Even if you don’t live near my store, you should hunt these comics down. I love them, and I bet a lot of you will as well.
THE NEGATIVE ZONE #003: LOOPER, WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY RIAN JOHNSON
by Andrew Neal
The timeline has changed. The promised review column I wrote for the comics of Brandon Graham will run in two weeks instead of today.
In another timeline, I overheard several phone calls made by folks working on the production of the movie Looper. Something has happened in my past self’s present which is causing my memory to blur, but I have recorded the ones I can remember here. There are some mild-to-moderate spoilers here, or if you haven’t seen the trailer, I guess there are some major spoilers:
“Do you think people are gonna buy that Joe and Bruce are playing the same guy? Yeah, yeah, I know they’re good actors, it’s just that people might not get that they’re playing the same guy. So here’s what I’m thinking: in order to make it a little more clear that they’re the same guy, we’ll put Joe in that mask I have that looks kind of like Ray Liotta as Frankenstein. Cool?”
“Hey, I’ve been looking over the script, and I’ve got to say, there’s a really significant issue with the flow of the movie. Specifically, you get to the middle of the movie, and it’s moving along and we’ve finally built up some momentum, and I’m worried people are going to get too caught up in the flow of what’s going on, so here’s an idea: about halfway into the movie, maybe a little more, we’ll introduce two new important characters in such a way that it just slams all the action to a halt. That ought to just confuse and bore the hell out of people, which would really bring us back to where a time travel movie ought to be.”
“Hey, man, I’m kind of freaked out and I don’t know what to do. Yeah. Yeah, okay, I’m calm. I’m cool. Okay. Thanks. Thanks for cooling me down. So here’s the problem: remember how at the beginning of the movie, we had this whole thing about telekinesis? Yeah, well, we completely forgot about it after that, and now we’re almost done with the movie! So, okay… yeah… oh, wow, great, I like that idea. So what you’re saying is that we can just jam the whole telekinesis thing back in there at the end, and the whole end of the movie can be about telekinesis. Right? Awesome. Thanks.”
“Hey, could I speak to Mister Oldman, please? This is Bruce. Bruce Willis. Yeah. No. Willis. Yes, I’ll hold… hey, Gary, it’s Bruce! Yeah, listen, do you still have that hairpiece thing you wore in The Fifth Element? Yeah? Hey, that’s great. I’m working on this new thing where Joseph Gordon Levitt and I are playing the same guy, and… what? Yeah, it’s a time travel movie. No. Not like Twelve Monkeys. But yeah. We’re playing the same guy. Anyway, so you know frogs? Yeah, frogs. Like the reptile. Okay then, amphibian. You get what I mean. Frogs. So imagine Joe is the polliwog, and I’m the frog, right? No, I’m not playing an actual frog. This is conceptual, Gary. Pay attention. Okay, so Joe is the polliwog, and I’m the frog, but we need a shot of that in-between phase where it’s like a polliwog with little frog legs coming out the back, and for that, I’m thinking if you still have that Fifth Element hairpiece thing, I could throw that on and it would be perfect for showing that intermediate phase. So yeah, I’ll be over to pick that up, let’s see, when? Would eight o’clock work for you? Great, great. I can burn you another CD of my harmonica stuff to bring over if you… Gary? Gary, are you there?”
THE NEGATIVE ZONE #002: THE DROWNED CITIES by PAOLO BACIGALUPI
by Andrew Neal
When I was younger, I never would have thought I’d get tired of post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, but the rest of the world caught up with my tastes and now it’s all over the place. Turn over a rock and out comes a zombie. Roll over a log and discover a plucky, heroic young girl surviving the harsh future against all odds. Dredge the flooded streets of an ancient ruined American city and find an almost indestructible man-animal hybrid named Tool.
Actually, wait. That last one sounds pretty cool. Count me back in on the post-apocalyptic thing.
Tool is one of the characters in Paolo Bacigalupi’s latest book, The Drowned Cities. He’s a half-man, or a dog-face, depending on which character is talking about him. Tool is one of several important characters in this book. Some of the others include Mahlia, a not-really-very-plucky, heroic young girl surviving the harsh future against all odds, Mouse, Mahlia’s dear friend who is in fact rather plucky, and Ocho, a sergeant in a squad of warboys who serve a warlord based in the ruins of Washington DC. None of the characters struck me as unique on their own, but by weaving the characters’ story threads together and apart, Bacigalupi created tension, character growth, and an exciting story.
This book is aimed at young adult readers, but it had a good amount in common with Bacigalupi’s adult novel, The Windup Girl. Both are set in a world (possibly the same world) in which the planet’s oil is used up, both feature genetically modified plant and animal hybrids, and both deal with the concept of beings created by man who struggle against genetically-induced loyalty to their masters.
Most of the differences between the novels are matters of degrees: for example, both books include instances of violent, dehumanizing sex. In The Windup Girl, it’s explicit. In The Drowned Cities, the reader sees the before and after, but not the act itself. Bacigalupi doesn’t shy away from the atrocities of war in his book for young readers, but he doesn’t go into all the details. I appreciate this. I think it’s important for an author not to lie when he’s writing. This is Bacigalupi’s book, and he could have written it any way he chose, but he embedded the elements of war so strongly in his fantastic setting that it added a level of truthfulness that may otherwise have been missing. He convinced me.
I don’t mean that he made me believe that dog-men are real or that Washington DC had been flooded; I mean he convinced me that the world he created was consistent and real, and that the characters within acted and reacted in as truthful a manner as possible considering their fictional surroundings. This is the highest praise I can give to a book. I highly recommend The Drowned Cities.
And hey: I haven’t even mentioned yet that The Drowned Cities is described on the dust jacket as a companion piece to Bacigalupi’s previous young adult novel, Ship Breaker. I haven’t read Ship Breaker yet; I decided to read The Drowned Cities first so that I could find out if it works on its own. This is something I am obsessed with in genre literature: the tendency toward publishing “books” that are actually just really long chapters. If you’ve read the previous six paragraphs you know I think The Drowned Cities is a fantastic book, and not just a chapter or addendum. I intend to read Ship Breaker very soon; hopefully I’ll get to recommend it just as highly as The Drowned Cities.
The Negative Zone #003 (Friday October 5) will be about the comic series Prophet by Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple, and Giannis Milonnogiannis.
THE NEGATIVE ZONE #001: SORRY PLEASE THANK YOU by CHARLES YU
Hey there. My name is Andrew. I sell comic books and graphic novels for a living. I also draw and write. The Negative Zone is my new review column for Bull Spec. My friend Carr D’Angelo suggested the title, and I thought it was funny. My qualifications for writing this column are that I read a lot, and I suffer the delusion that everyone is interested in my opinion. It’s nice to meet you! Here’s my first column:
Last year I read and enjoyed Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. It took a while to pull me in, but once it got me, I didn’t stop reading until I finished the book. If you want to be really literal, I guess you could say it’s a book about a time machine repairman, but I’d say it’s a book about all the overwhelming emotions one faces in life. It’s full of some of the most overt and literal metaphors I’ve ever encountered in science fiction, but that’s very purposeful, and well done; it never struck me as either thoughtless or too cute. It’s a lovely and funny book. You should read it.
I just read a new book of Yu’s short stories, Sorry Please Thank You: Stories. The elements present in How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe which worked so well for me are here, too, but I didn’t respond as positively this time around. There is a sameness to the stories which is apparent when you read them all at once. I suspect that if I had read them in bits and pieces, I’d have enjoyed them more.
My favorite story, “Standard Loneliness Package,” involved a worker whose job was to experience other people’s emotions for them, to make it easier for them to cope with tough situations. I enjoyed the basic concept, as well as the interplay between the character’s own emotions and those he felt for others. Plus, it was the first story in the book, so I wasn’t yet burned out on thoughtfully humorous self-aware metatextual-slash-metaphorical science fiction stories about emotion, love, and loss.
All the stories in the book were well written, but a few of them struck me as a little too cute. There’s one which is basically a clever Star Trek deconstruction, and another narrated by a self-aware character in a computer game. They were both well executed, but the concepts overpowered the writing. I think a lot of folks will like them better than I did, though. If you’re the type of person who would consider ordering one of the tons of Star Trek “redshirt” tees floating around out there, you’ll love “Yeomans.”
Yu is a good writer, it just seems like he’s writing the same story over and over again. I recommend the stories in Sorry Please Thank You, but not necessarily as a book. Read a story, then put the book down for a while before you read another one. Make sure to leave a bookmark in there, because the stories are similar enough that when you revisit the book, you might think you’re caught in a time loop. And make sure to leave a bookmark in there, because the stories are similar enough that when you revisit the book, you might think you’re caught in a time loop.
Editor’s note: The Negative Zone is set to appear every first and third Friday. Stay tuned for #002 and Andrew’s review of The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi.