You Should Read: Mira Grant’s DEADLINE

I have just finished reading the second in a series of zombie-novels by Mira Grant (or, depending on your perspective, a series of political novels that have zombies in them, or, alternatively, a series about cutting-edge journalism in a world were politics are just as nasty as ever and oh, by the way, there are zombies too). Following in the style of the first, DEADLINE has a mostly-reliable first person narrator, if you can accept his cracking sanity doesn’t interfere with his ability to do his job. Shaun Mason is a journalist, and brother to Georgia Mason, who was the narrator of the first book, FEED. If you’ve read the first you’ll recognize the same basic cast of characters, though individuals have been replaced. Occupational hazard. More importantly, if you haven’t read FEED yet, why not? Go, buy FEED, devour it, be shocked, be sad, be happy not to have zombie eating your brains, and come back when you’re done. Or, if you’d rather finish this review first and then go buy (and read) both books, that’s fine too, but take a moment to watch the official FEED/DEADLINE book trailer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUXWlXK985U&feature=youtu.be. It explains some stuff. I’ll wait.

Ok then. Ready?

Ow, does this book have sharp edges. First, there’s the horrible thing at the end of the first book which Shaun is struggling to recover from. He’s failing pretty spectacularly, in case you were wondering. Then there’s the exciting knowledge that maybe things could have been done differently, which, btw, Grant? Yeah, that was mean. Brilliant, perfect for the story, and … hard to take. That the zombie situation suddenly gets worse isn’t helping the fact that once again, Shaun and his crew spend most of their waking hours trying to avoid the people who’re trying to murder them while simultaneously trying to crack open a news story that might just reveal enough to save the world. Grant moves into a slower arc with this book, allowing her characters to face a more certain kind of villain, and to endure fewer number of sudden shocks. This doesn’t mean she’s being nice to them, or going easy on you, because the shocks are still there, and when they do come, they’re massive. She remains an author I want to hug for being brave enough to do terrible (but necessary) things in the course of writing these novels. Also, I want to poke her with a pointed stick for the terrible but necessary things that she does, because, did I mention the ow?

BLACKOUT, the third in the series, isn’t due out til next year and I’ll have to wait, but with DEADLINE Grant has proven herself (again) a storyteller worth waiting for.

You Should Read: Kelly Link’s STRANGER THINGS HAPPEN (2001)

If you’ve all read and loved Kelly Link for the last decade it might surprise you to know that until about 6 months ago, I’d never heard of her. Thanks to some writers I admire pointing her out to me, I bought the .epub of her first short story collection, Stranger Things Happen, and read it all over a couple of days. (I’ve been bringing my nook to work with me, and this makes catching up on my To Read pile much easier, in little bits at a time).

“Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” – A dead man isn’t sure where he is, what his name is, or how he died, but is quite certain that dead people shouldn’t masturbate as often as he does. The story is told in a series of letters the dead mad writes to his nearly-forgotten wife, hoping for her forgiveness, with little footnotes about his emotional state and other activities. The story makes perfect sense if you can imagine yourself in a place built from old memory and surrounded by waiting. My first impression of Link is that she writes longing very well.

“Water Off a Black Dog’s Back” – “Carnation, Lily” lacked description in a way that fits a story about a man who exists nowhere and remembers very little. “Waters” mirrors that tale, in the way that a mirror reflects the same image back to you, but backwards. Link’s voice is clear but at the same time, “Water” is full of details and adjectives. There is sound and there are smells and the taste of strawberry wine and the prickle of a black dog’s discarded fur. Mostly, the story is about a boy who has never lost anything, falling in love with a girl who expects loss to find her.

“The Specialist’s Hat” – Sometimes ghost stories are stories told by ghosts, about people who might be alive or might be Dead or might just be plain old regular dead. Also, don’t ignore your children, because while you’re keeping them out of your hair they’ll find their own way into trouble without you there to save them.

“Flying Lessons” – A much better take on the “updating a Greek myth” trope than I usually read.

“Travels With The Snow Queen” – Oh, second-person present-tense POV, how I hate you. But it’s fairy tales we’re after in this story, and tales are told, unfolding conversationally as if you are the subject and the listener all at once. I can forgive the perspective on this because I get the importance Link feels this story has.

“The Vanishing Act” – Another story about what happens when parents forget their children are still there. Where “The Specialist’s Hat” ends on a dour note, “Vanishing” at least has hope, and green water, and photographs of far off lands. It might not be a happy story, but it has the potential to be one after the words have trailed off the page, and I like having the option.

“Survivor’s Ball, or, The Donner Party” – I’m wondering if Link imagines that no one has heard of the Donner party, and therefore her introduction of them has a novel quality? Aside from that, this story might be about survival, or it might be about the kind of men who follow a woman to the end of the world, too empty of life to find their own path … and moth-like, follow the first bright flame of a girl into darkness.

“Shoes and Marriage” – this is four flash pieces strung together, pretending to be a short story, and I’d have preferred she left them as flash pieces. Of them, my favourite was the one about the pageant girls. I, too, would sit with my love under the blankets and fall head over heels for Miss Kansas. I appreciated the nod to Lovecraft too.

“Most of My Friends Are Two-Thirds Water” – One of the most traditionally-formatted stories in the collection, Link allows a presumably-female narrator tell the story of how her friend Jak went mad, or, possibly, the story of how an invasion of blond alien women has really messed up his chances to get a date to have sex with him. Either one.

“Louise’s Ghost” – I’m not sure how necessary it was to make both of the women in this story carry the same name. I get that it’s a comment on the inter-changeability of women and all of that, and in the context of the story it’s possible to follow which is who, but only with some effort. It’s not that I prefer my stories to be simplistic, and I am willing to work at a good piece of insight, but it didn’t pay off for me. I didn’t learn anything about the human condition or being a woman or loss or … anything to make me feel that the purposefully convoluted characters were worth the effort. Perhaps if it had come earlier in the book I would have felt differently, but by this point we’ve already had ghosts (“Carnation, Lily” and “Hat”), unpleasant children (“Vanishing”), vague men (“Water” and “Donner Party”), strong women making all the decisions (“Flying Lessons” and “Travels”) and death (“Flying Lessons”, and again, “Carnation” and “Hat”). It seems the only new thing was the trick with the names.

“The Girl Detective” – When I started reading it, I didn’t realise that it was the last story of the book. Another rebooted myth, mixed with a little Nancy Drew, strongly in Link’s style.

One thing that stood out at me was the lack of a strong male character. Each man that appears is a wraith, a shadow of his potential, wrapped up in or around the women in his life. The women are the movers and doers and decision makers. Even when the main character is male, the women compel an action from them as if the men have no choice but the react. The closest one comes to a male-driven story is “Water”, where he does choose to chase after Rachel, but only to be able to settle into the comfortable stillness of letting her make the choices. He will subsume himself in her family and become part of the things which happen around her.

I don’t like Link’s men very much. I prefer strength and clarity of self. But, as characters, they do highlight their female counterparts in interesting ways.

Overall, I loved this collection. Link’s stories aren’t purposefully linear, as is she is remembering important bits while telling a different part of the story. She pauses delicately to tell you the piece she’d forgotten and then goes on with the piece she’d started with. Link is clearly a storyteller, letting you imagine the words falling from her lips instead of imagining yourself as a character in the tale. The whole thing has a rambling smoothness to it that turns even a chronologically fragmented piece of writing into one solid story. There were a few that I didn’t love as much as the others but I think that was more a case of too much of the same thing all in one place. Perhaps if I’d read them all, individually, with some months of space in between, I would feel differently. Perhaps not, but there are enough great stories in Stranger Things Happen that it doesn’t matter.

Kelly Link, Stranger Things Happen, Small Beer Press, 2001.

You Should Read: MACHINE OF DEATH, ed. by North, Bennardo & Malki !

The machine had been invented a few years ago: a machine that could tell, from just a sample of your blood, how you were going to die. It didn’t give you the date and it didn’t give you specifics. It just spat out a sliver of paper upon which were printed, in careful block letters, the words DROWNED or CANCER or OLD AGE or CHOKED ON A HANDFUL OF POPCORN. It let people know how they were going to die.

The problem with the machine is that nobody really knew how it worked, which wouldn’t actually have been that much of a problem if the machine worked as well as we wished it would. But the machine was frustratingly vague in its predictions: dark, and seemingly delighting in the ambiguities of language. OLD AGE, it had already turned out, could mean either dying of natural causes, or shot by a bedridden man in a botched home invasion. The machine captured that old-world sense of irony in death — you can know how it’s going to happen, but you’ll still be surprised when it does. (More at http://machineofdeath.net/about)

I picked up a copy of MACHINE OF DEATH about a month ago, in a bookstore which was closing (but now, isn’t) in another state while wandering around my favorite small town. “I’ve heard good things about that,” the man I was with said to me, looking down at the antholgy. I picked it up, trusting his judgement about books. It was thick and had a lot of names on the back and was edited by a couple of guys I was certain I’d never heard of, but a dystopian collection of short fiction about a machine which ironically predicts the exact manner of your death? I was sure I’d love it.

Turns out I was only right about one of those things.

MACHINE OF DEATH was at least 1/3 edited by Ryan North, based on an idea he’d put into one of his comics a while back. While I couldn’t place the name of the guy, the name of the strip was DINOSAUR COMICS and upon realizing that I did a happy little dance. I love T-Rex and Utahraptor and Dromiceiomimus! and follow them on Twitter and I even tolerate the regular appearance of GOD, who in this comic is usually high anyway. (What, no one else thinks that? It’s just me? Hmm.) I belatedly remembered the strip in which the idea appeared, where T-Rex decides he’ll eventually write a story on the idea that a machine can predict your death, which in the case of cows just means there were a lot of prediction cards which read MADE INTO DELICIOUS CHEESEBURGERS.

It could have stayed a joke. It could have, even after submissions started rolling in and the idea became an anthology, stayed funny, and maybe even veered into ridiculous.

It didn’t.

MACHINE OF DEATH is, when you get down to it, pretty brilliant. There are a few funny stories and a few silly ones and a few which take an alt-history view of the world but for the most part this is our Earth and our frail and brittle humans and a machine which does only one thing but does it perfectly. What do you do then, when you know how you’ll die? When everyone everywhere knows how, but almost never when they’ll shuffle off this mortal coil (and to be honest those perfectly right predictions are vague in a sort of unhelpful way)? Whether the characters hide, plead, bargain, grieve, and refuse to live what time they have left, or use it as a way to live recklessly by indulging in every whim except the one attached to their prediction slip, the stories in this collection show you something worth thinking about.

What if you knew? What would you change about the life you’re living right now?

In a way, I think that’s the best part of this anthology. It acts as its own memento mori, holding up its artifice and saying, “Remember your death – it’s coming,” but by shrouding it in fun and whimsy, you get to feel safe about it. It’s almost like getting bad news while being wrapped up in comfy blankets, snuggled with your favorite person/pet/stuffed animal, while cookies bake in the oven, and knowing that if you don’t like the news, you can always put it back on the shelf and look at it again later when you’re ready. We all die, kids, most of us faster than we’d have liked, and it’s refreshing to be reminded of it every so often. It could be CANCER or LOSS OF BLOOD or a CRASH of some kind or even something interesting like MURDER or EXHAUSTION FROM HAVING SEX WITH A MINOR but one way or another, we all go. No matter who you are, there’s a death in there for you, and a story which will make you consider your own choices.

And if you’re not up for that, there’s always FLAMING MARSHMALLOW.

You Should Read: Stephen Elliott’s MY GIRLFRIEND COMES TO THE CITY AND BEATS ME UP

Synopsis: Fiction or memoir? Stephen Elliott’s blistering new collection inhabits a mysterious area in between. As with all his work, these stories have the raw ring of truth filtered through Elliott’s downbeat poetic sensibility. No subject is too controversial, no image too taboo to put to paper in these brilliant first-person narratives. (From Cleis Press)

I almost don’t think I should review this book, because I’m not sure what needs to be said about it. Elliott presents a collection of short stories, all based on his real life, though fictionalized to different extents. He doesn’t dress it up or down or sideways, he just presents it. Here you go, he seems to say. Do what you want with it. Then he hands you the book, and doesn’t stick around to find out what you thought. The book just is. It’s simple. It’s honest. It is almost pedestrian, the way Elliott describes being tied up, beaten, cut, abused, and loved. His stories, though probably more extreme than most people’s, aren’t that unusual either. They’re familiar, if you’ve been there, and that’s kind of what adds to their brilliance.

The thing is, there are two kinds of people drawn to the BDSM scene. Of course, there a million kinds and everyone is special and no one wants to be pegged (unless that’s your thing, in which case, there’s nothing wrong with that), but the truth is, it’s those two kinds that make up the biggest population. The first are people who’ve experienced it all before, in nothing like a good way, and are eroticizing their abuse in order to get a happy ending to an event or a lifetime which scarred them badly. The second people are the ones who don’t feel enough, who want to feel more, and they’ve tried everything else. They weren’t loved enough, or wanted enough, or desired enough, and they’ve usually given up, and maybe don’t even think they deserve it anymore, to feel something so strongly, but they’re still hoping. In a way, Elliot’s book is like a good scene – you get what you wanted out of it. Either you read through to the end, past the hurt and fear and subjugating your body to the whims of crazy people, and you find the happy ending, or you feel what you’ve been longing to feel. You experience this man’s alternative history. While in the pages of the book your heart has raced, you’ve been scared, disgusted, compassionate, aroused, and curious, depending on the page. Either way you got what you came for.

Would I recommend the book to others? If you’ve read this far and aren’t certain this is a book you need to read, maybe you don’t. It’s too personal to force onto people, too specific in its kink to pass around to the mass market readers. It’s a book for people who look at it, and know.

MY GIRLFRIEND COMES TO THE CITY AND BEATS ME UP. Elliot. Cleis Press. 144 pages. ISBN 978-1-57344-255-8

 

You Should Read: THE BEST SHORT STORIES OF J. G. BALLARD

First published in 1978, this collection of nineteen of Ballard’s best short stories is as timely and informed as ever. His tales of the human psyche and its relationship to nature and technology, as viewed through a strong microscope, were eerily prescient and now provide greater perspective on our computer-dominated culture. Ballard’s voice and vision have long served as a font of inspiration for today’s cyber-punks, the authors and futurist who brought the information age into the mainstream. (Amazon)

I think I’m going to let my friends tell me what to read for a while longer. Fresh off finishing Ted Chiang’s amazing collection, the same friend who recommended that book also gave me this one. Next up on the review list is John Joseph Adam’s Brave New Worlds, suggested to me by a different friend. My advice to you: if you want to read great books, befriend readers.

J.G. Ballard is one of those authors I can’t believe I didn’t know about. What he writes fits so perfectly with the kind of hard-science, dystopian, speculative fiction I’ve loved from writers like Clarke and Asimov and Niven. Taken as a group, it’s clear to see the guy was worried about overpopulation, unchecked capitalism, and government control, but his forays into the science of sleep make for some interesting fiction as well.

“The Concentration City” starts the collection off with a great story about a possible future where space – up, down, left, right – is valued at a price per foot, and the city itself is a huge mass of buildings clustered together. Ballard’s male protagonist (and they’re always men, it should be noted) is one of the forward-thinking types he favors, and this fellow has the idea to ride the train out of the city, just to see how far he can get. The story is meant to make us think about space, government, inbred agoraphobia, and mob mentality, and it does all of those things well. This might be my favorite story except for the existential twist Ballard throws in at the end, which in my opinion he didn’t need to do at all. It turns the tale from a brilliant look at the mentality of an overgrown city-state into a “oh, look, it’s spooky!’ morality play. Didn’t care for it.

“Manhole 69” looks at what happens to men who no longer need sleep. Again we’ve got Ballard looking at science as a way to explore psychology, and I like what he does here, though I felt the end was a bit rushed. We could have used a few more pages about the subjects’ descent into madness, instead of “oh, look, it’s scary!” But unlike “Concentration City” the twist at the end of “Manhole” actually makes perfect sense, if thrown in earlier than feels comfortable.

“Chronopolis” I loved. Ballard’s future city here is one that saw the rise of the government culture, fed on organization and efficiency, and rebelled against it. The protag’s rebellion then isn’t against the oppressive regime but against the unorganized society which arouse from those that had overthrown the past. In Newman we get a kid who’s seen the future and the past both, and makes it his life’s work to get back to a kind of interwoven lifestyle he feels we should never have left.

“The Voices of Time” was about the science, for me. The interpersonal moments, of which there are more than usual, seem to be there to support the science. The core idea is that when the world is ending, we’ll sleep more before we die. This takes us back to “Manhole 69” in a way, Ballard playing with the idea of sleep, and of the two stories I prefer “Voices”. It may be the difference in the way that “Manhole” internalizes the actions of the main characters and “Voices” allows them to be affected by external forces.

“Deep End” wasn’t as moving for me. Perhaps it’s that the moral of the story – stupid boys ruin everything because mankind is inherently destructive – is one I’m all too familiar with. It’s a dystopian staple to have the enlightened main character be hurt at the end because other humans just don’t “get it”. Ballard does it, everyone does it. Before you point out that this collection is 30 years old, yes, I do acknowledge that, but this particular idea was old even in the 70s.

“The Overloaded Man” is a lot of fun, if you enjoy darkness and not being able to tell if the main character’s discovered a super power or has gone insane. Personally I prefer to think of it a la Twilight Zone, and imagine that Faulkner has found the ability to destabilize form from function into idea. One of my favorites.

“Billenium” reminds us that we are our programming. It was so sad for me to see that at the end, Ward succumbs to the idea that it’s better to live in a closet than to have room enough to breath. He doesn’t rebel, he doesn’t struggle against the system, he just quietly lets it roll over him. The character’s actions made perfect sense, given his society, but personally I’d have loved for him to have his secret room and to have been the one person who understood freedom.

“The Garden of Time” is boring. There, I said it. It feels more like a writing exercise than a story. What are we supposed to be emotionally invested in?

“Thirteen for Centaurus” is another one of Ballards thought experiments. He takes a psychological problem and explores the minds of the subjects who’re part of the testing process. It reminds me of “Manhole 69” though they’re set in completely different facilities. Again, Ballard feels the need to do the “shocker” twist ending, which neither feels twisty or shocking, but sort of a reasonable ending given the story. (You can tell it’s meant to be shocking because it’s in italics!)

“The Subliminal Man” takes the theme of unchecked capitalism and agressive government thought control and nails it. It’s pitch-perfect, start to end.

“The Cage of Sand” – This story felt longer, as if Ballard had more time to let the story unfold naturally, even though it’s about the same size as several of the other tales. I think it much more effectively explored the dying world theme than “Deep End”.

“End Game” – By this point I was a little tired of Ballard telling me how fascinating his own ideas were, but if you can ignore that, it’s a exploration of a mental game to see how long it takes a prisoner to break.

“The Drowned Giant” – Ballard does his best work when he’s dealing with external factors – government, science, mutated creatures …. It’s also an fascinating look at a story written entirely in exposition, as there’s no dialogue in it anywhere.

“The Terminal Beach” is one of only two stories in the book to be written as a set of notes, broken up into tiny sections, complete with headers in bold type. I enjoyed the change in style.

“The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D” Ballard takes his characters off the ground and into the sky and the result is beautiful. One of my favorite stories, and one of the few that actually ends on a basically happy note.

“The Assassination of John Fitzegeral Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” tell you, right there in the title, exactly how irreverant and darkly humorous this flash fiction piece is going to be. Also, the story’s not much longer than the title.

“The Atrocity Exhibition” is the other index-card style story, and I think it’s more successful than “Beach” because the subject matter is more interesting. There’s a small mystery unfolding in this tale, in segmented pieces and without all the facts. “Atrocity” is an excellent choice to end the collection.

While I didn’t absolutely adore every single piece of every single story, the overall collection is amazing and shouldn’t be missed. I know so much more about writing than I did before I started the book. Taken as a group of stories, it’s easy to see why Ballard is as oft-recommended as he is. If you haven’t read him, you should.

ISBN 0-312-278446, PICADOR