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___MINI-VIEWS___

EXTREMELY INADEQUATE THUMBNAILERS OF BOOKS I'M TOO LAZY OR TROUBLED TO ACTUALLY REVIEW, OR, TOO BORED, DISTRACTED, MADDENED TO EVEN FINISH READING.

 

 

THE TOTEM by DAVID MORRELL, c.1979.

I don't read many of those Thrilling Bestsellers, so the name of David Morrell means nothing to me. However, I do respect his earlier achievement as something extra-ordinary, as not many writers give birth to a true exemplar in our living times as powerful as what came out of his debut novel, 1972's First Blood.

Rambo.

That's heady stuff, no matter what you think of the conduct or politics it's repping. And this author has gone on to write almost 30 novels with 18 million copies in print. That's a hell of an achievement, whether genre-laden or not.

Unfortunately, my take on this novel was hindered severely by several factors out of my control, one of which being that the last pages of my used copy were torn away so I am not privy to Morrell's concluding thoughts. In 50 years of reading, I have never fallen prey to this kind of impish mischief from a fellow reader, if that was their true motivation. But in 1967, worldwide movie audiences were delighted as Peter Cook—playing The Devil in Bedazzled—puckishly tore the final page from boxes of pre-distributed Agatha Christie's latest mystery novel. Life mirrors Art? Hmmm.

Secondly, and more importantly, it turns out that the original 1979 publication of Morrell's fourth work was hacked to half its size by the publishers. In 1994, the author released his first, unaltered version, and this is the one to read, as the chopped-shop copy stutters and spurts like a Chevy Vega with fouled plugs. This book has been called "one of the hundred-most-scary books of all time”* so it might be worth finding the right copy.

Or not.

This is a non-supernatural plague story played out in the small microcosm of a Wyoming township. Like countless others, a virus has somehow mutated a rabies strain and given “control back to the limbic brain [making] it act the way it once did several hundred thousand years ago” (Fawcett Crest PB, ISBN 0449208567, c. 1979, p.184). Think 28 Days Later in the Rocky Mountains. Morrell saws up his PofV, giving it to perps and would-be victims, as well as the authority figures such as the ex-Detroit cop now small-town sheriff, a coroner who likes the dead a little too much, a besotted, washed-out news reporter, and a stereotypical power-monger mayor. There's a mysterious cult of hippie-style, religious communers who disappeared decades ago. There's a lot of talk about the full moon. Then there's this thing, “that strange, half-human, antlered figure, part man, part deer, part cat” (p.162).

Before I discovered this novel's history, I found the read to be, well, choppy at best, with unopened characterizations, and a pretty silly mastermind antagonist who never shows up for the party. But if you saunter by H.G. Wells' Things to Come and Matheson's I Am Legend published well before The Totem, and try to forget the hundreds of viral infection/vampire plague/zombie afflictions (where's the werewolves these days, anyway? Regulated to Underworld?) of the past three decades, then you might get a retro whiff of horror and fearfulness.

Just make sure you read the director's cut.

 

*http://www.davidmorrell.net/books/

 

PERMANENCE by KARL SCHROEDER, c.2002.

Here is an example where the “science” overwhelms the “fiction”. The novel fires off lots of wonderful ideas, either with the conceptualizations through the characters or the history, evolution and participation of the cultures encountered. The plotlines are quite convoluted, exploring how technological advancement is used to subjugate competition and attitudes, thereby destroying vitality and individualism. In this case it is Transportation, as the Cycler Compact worlds are being cut out of the loop from the capitalistic dystopia Rights Economy. The RE has developed reality-altering guides called “inscape” that causes the citizens to only see what they have clearance for. Think of a navigational system in your head that blocks out all exterreanous streets, buildings, etc. except for your prescribed destination or particular worldview. All objects have “nanotags” that through implants in the human sensory system give vital information about the object—mainly economic and ownership data designed for sale or purchase. Through their technology “they have made it appear that the essence of things is money—that a thing only really exists if it can be bought or sold” (Tor PB, ISBN 0765342855, c.2002, p.223).

As antithesis to this materialism, there's a religious-like belief in the Supreme Meme. It states that after you die, you eventually cycle back through time and live your life over again, exactly as it was the last time through. This takes away the threat of an Afterlife entered only by moral judgment, but, more importantly, it focuses on the abstract and emotional aspects of your singular existence by asking, “how would you have to feel, to want it all again?” (p.259).

There are a number of fascinating questions that shine like info dumps, but act more like mental lightening bugs for later thought. Concepts like kami, which acknowledges every place has a spirit that can be accessed beyond its physical boundaries; that sentience and toolmaking are overrated for a species' survival, because being “well fitted to a given environment is one that doesn't need tools to survive in it” (p.179); the Chicxulub, the last pan-galactic civilization that hunted down and wiped out every sentient species then went extinct themselves millions of years ago.

Although filled with fine characters aptly sketched, the plot demands more attention than it deserves. I went off road by not committing large tracts of uninterrupted reading time to this novel, thereby losing interest and my place in the story.

Dead at page 348 out of 471, but looking forward to reading Lady of Mazes, Schroeder's 2005 send-up. Depending, I might even try this novel again.

 

THE KEEP by F. PAUL WILSON, c.1981.

Last night I had a BBQ meatball sandwich for dinner. It was quite tasty, but there was too much thyme mixed in the meat. Every bite I'd think, “wow, this could be really exceptional except for the presence of that one, underlying flavor.”

That's this novel. The Keep is fairly well-known—and not because of the Michael Mann film version, that's for sure —but not in that first tier of, say, The Exorcist. It's more B-level, like The Other. It boasts a very serviceable plot twisting through the atmospherics of WWII Germans occupying a creepy castle isolated in the Transylvanian Alps that keeps ahead of its vampire clichés by battling the human, Nazi evil against a powerful, supernatural one. These military characters are as deep as they need to be for their center stage performances, as the real conflict lies beneath the abominable weltanschauungs and bloody posturings.

An old crippled Jewish professor is forced to the keep to unravel the reasons why—so hauntingly put in a dispatch to headquarters by the commandant—“something is murdering my men” (Berkley PB, ISBN 0425053245, c.1981, p.4). With him is his young, beautiful, and duty-bound daughter, Magda. Turns out the “something” is posing as Viscount Radu Molasar, a boyar of Vlad the Impaler from the 15th century. The careless and greedy German einsatzkommandos have unwittingly let him rise from his undead sleep. He strikes a bargain with Professor Cuza, promising to take out all the Schutzstaffel, even Hitler himself, if the old Jew will help him leave the keep. He proves he's a bad-ass demon by slaughtering a man a night in horrible, heinous ways. Everyone's fear factor pretty much goes off the charts.

Enter the tall, handsome stranger. He calls himself Glenn. He's got, gee, a hidden agenda and a whole lot of sex appeal for Magda. His entrance signals the clichés to storm the plot. This historical Horror novel turns toward a Fairy Tale, then ends in one of the sappiest Romances imaginable. It also destroys the subtle irony of an interesting hidden yet lurking intimation: The suppossedly-wise Jewish intellectual is willing to sacrifice himself and even his daughter to initiate mass murder on the Ayrans in an ethnic cleansing of his own devising. There's even another plot twist in there that's noteworthy, but so sticky in gush, it also loses any poinancy or impact.

Of course you're gonna root to end the scourge of the Swastika. That's not the point. By settling for mundane predictability in the third act, author Wilson debilitates the creative quirkiness and goose-bumped brilliance he's sustained throughout acts one and two.

It's like seeing a beautiful woman smile at you with a big glob of thyme stuck between her teeth.

 

EMPIRE OF BONES by LIZ WILLIAMS, c.2002.

I don't know why this read kept fading and fading, until there was nothing left of interest by page 127 out of 323. I've read two of her other works—The Ghost Sister & The Poison Master—of which this novel lies in-between chronologically. Now, Ms. Williams' writing can be over-dramatic and hammy at times—she's the daughter of a stage magician and gothic novelist, so what'd you expect?—but the premise appears highly serviceable and creative. She sets this one down in the India of 2030 AD, burying it into the convoluted metaphysics of Hinduism and the corrupted Caste system, using a poor and crippled female protagonist who is also a visionary and social revolutionist. And that's before the aliens show up and start filling her head with instructions.

Jumping off from A.C. Clarke's pet premise of First Contact, the inter-stellar civilization of the irRas is finally seeing some results from its seeding of Earth with genetic strands millions of years ago. They are the dedicated overseers of all budding, intelligent life in the universe, so, when Jaya Nihalani's mind suddenly taps into their communications, the irRas know it's time for humanity to join its vast galactic empire.

But, down on Earth, Jaya's peers are outraged then fearful. First of all, she's a nobody in the socio-political-economic scheme of things. Secondly, she's a member of the spurned Untouchable caste which is systematically being eliminated by the covert release of an agonizing and lethal disease. With this Selenge retrovirus mangling her body, she doesn't look that great on TV, does she? And now Jaya has become quite possibly the most influential person on the planet, with completely unknowable yet very, very powerful friends.

Sound like a winner?

What happened?

Shall we give up on Ms. Williams?

You tell me. I'm clueless on this one.

 

NATURAL HISTORY by JUSTINE ROBSON, c.2003.

Right now—midway through the year 2009—I want a read I can crawl into and pull the covers over my head. I have the flashlight and the desire, but this is not the right book. Not to say this is not an important read; her second and previous novel—Mappa Mundi of 2001—convinced me of Ms. Robson's literary sophistication. I definitely plan on returning when I feel equal to her intellectual challenge. Because this is Space Opera at its most desirous: where ideas become objects as characters replace ideas without losing personable facets. Since Science Fiction invariably occurs in the future using that universal trigger, “I wonder”, good Space Opera should metamorphose its driving ideas from the present while putting up appearances that the engineer is the plot.

At first impression, the brilliance—and difficulty—with Natural History is comprehending a world where sentience can exist in practically anything*. Our introductory character—Voyager Lonestar Isol—is a spaceship. She (ships are female, right?) has been Forged by the Unevolved—regular flesh-‘n'-blood humans—for the purpose of interstellar travel, but like others Forged who can be rockcrushers, dumptrucks, terraformers, battleships, even organic beasts, Isol is rebellious against the functions she's been designed for.

Then there's the Degraded.

And Stuff.

There's a whole buncha Roddenberry-style, big ideas here. Whether Ms. Robson turns them into “The Cage”** I'll hafta wait to discover.

Dead at page 39 out of 325.

 

*I don't mean talking soup cans a la PKD.

**“The Cage” is the original, discarded pilot episode of TOS Star Trek sans Capt. Kirk, and is later fed back to us as “Menagerie, Parts I & II”, bookended with all our favorite characters. Thematically, it is about leading a self-determined life of challenge as opposed to one of foisted-upon ease directed by others' purposes. I am not demeaning Ms. Robson by comparing her to the often-burlesque TOS Star Trek, but referencing to the nascent profundity of what I wished from the TV series on a more regular basis.

 

THE HISTORIAN by ELIZABETH KOSTOVA, c.2005.

Finally, after 570 pages, we get the introduction worth waiting for:

“I am Dracula,” he said. The words came out cold and clear . . . “Come, you are tired and hungry after your journey. I have set out a supper for you.” His gesture was graceful, even courtly, with a flash of jewels on his big white fingers.

—Little Brown, ISBN 0316011770, c.2005, p.570

If you are looking to satisfy a pining interest within the current crop of rage-on an' ramped-up trendy badboy/girl celebratory blood-cravers, look elsewhere. This is the unconstructed Dracula--a legend lost into himself. After battling on to the final 642nd page, one wonders if Dracula is not better served by leaving him alone. This is not a condemnation of the book, but a reflection on the focusing character of this fiction. The irony of the title—The Historian—is that it applies equally to the hardy interests of the hero, heroine, and villain, and thereby attempts a non-discriminatory objectification of the discipline it denotes. But Dracula speaks of history as being malleable, not immutable. “I vowed to make history, not to be its victim” (p.584). He has amassed a personal library to prove his version of past, human affairs. It is a compelling argument, as there are a myriad of examples that “the nature of man is evil, sublimely so” (p.586).

Destroying Dracula, then, becomes almost secondary to the discrediting of his personal assembly of History.

The novel is fascinated with this quest, emphasized by the flesh-an'-dead Dracula's very anti-climatic departure. The effects, discoveries, and interpersonal relationships revealed through historical sleuthing are more important than any realtime, vampire malfeasances. In less-focused writers, this would make a slumberfest of a read, but Ms. Kostova's forays down the antediluvian highway of facts, dates, and actions are as captivating as her characters, especially the engaging and resilient triangle of mother, father, daughter.

Vlad the Impaler wants to be the ultimate spinmaster, usurping the likes of German Nazi Joseph Goebbles, or American anti-semite Willis Carto, but his motivation is not power but pride. His pursuer believes in a more charitable approach to the past, yet Dracula's library gives him “a horrible pleasure” (p.589), indicating there is the slight biased whiff of the zealot here, as if the perceived innocents must be saved from such vile decimations and butcherous temptation, but not by balance so much as by elimination.

However, modern sensibilities tell us that there are no absolutes anymore. In that sense, the history of civilization can be seen as a dilution of any polarized values represented by black and white into infinite shades of gray. If, as Alex Haley reportedly contributed, “History is written by the winners”, then it is time to swap books and see what the losers are doing with the same set of historical facts.

As for the Count, his continual resurrections and re-inventions strongly dramatize the fixation with his point of view. But his realm is that of the imaginary, isn't it? Or, is it like Plato said in his Ion, that “poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.”

You decide.

 

Copyright 06/02/2009 by Larry Crawford

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