Visions of Paradise

Sunday, August 28, 2005

The Killing Machine

I began reading science fiction 40 years ago as an escape from the real world in which I lived, and I still prefer fiction set either in the past or in the future. So after reading a few “slipstream” anthologies which, read consecutively, left me with a vague sense of dissatisfaction, I decided to follow them up with a colorful far-future sense of wonder tale. Who better to turn to than Jack Vance? I selected the second of his Demon Princes series, The Killing Machine. I start rereading this series a year ago, and my review of the first novel, The Star King, appeared here on 12/27/04.

Briefly, if you are not familiar with that series, they concern Kirth Gerson who as a child watched his entire community invaded by space pirates who either killed or kidnapped everybody, destroying everything that remained. Only his grandfather and he survived, hidden at a site from where they were able to watch the devastation.

The attack was organized by five interstellar criminals known as the Demon Princes, and Gerson’s grandfather spent the rest of his life training Kirth to exact revenge on the five criminals. In The Star King, Gerson sought Malagate the Woe, a member of an alien race known as star kings, and killed him. In the second book he goes after Kokor Hekkus, the killing machine.

As usual, this novel is partly a mystery since Hekkus keeps his identity concealed for security reasons, so that Gerson spends much of the novel seeking Hekkus’ hideaway on a distant planet so lost in legend that very few people even know of its existence, and very few of its inhabitants even realize there are other worlds than their own. Once there, Gerson must then discern the identity of Hekkus.

The novel is also part adventure, as Gerson travels from world to world, indulging Vance’s sense of wonder which is his strongest trait. One subplot involves a place named Interchange where kidnappers bring their victims for safekeeping at a combination prison-resort. The victims remain there, cared for almost as guests, until somebody pays their ransom. If nobody does, then their price gradually lowers until somebody ransoms them as slaves.

One of the inhabitants of Interchange is Alusz Iphigenia, who against her wishes has become desired by Kokor Hekkus. Fearing him, she realizes that her only safety lies in Alliance, where she, in effect, kidnaps herself and sets such a high price that nobody in the entire galaxy could afford to ransom her.

Thus Kokor Hekkus begins a series of kidnappings of the children of rich people, intending to raise enough money to ransom Alusz Iphigenia. Meanwhile Gerson realizes that his best chance of finding Kokor Hekkus lies in his ransoming Alusz Iphigenia himself, even though he could not possibly raise a fraction of the ransom price.

The pace of The Killing Machine never lags, nor does its sense of wonder. Vance is not a deep writer a la Ursula K Le Guin or Kim Stanley Robinson, but for a break from seriousness, or a relief from the workday, you can never go wrong with Jack Vance. This book is highly recommended fun.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Shadow of the Wind

Good authors tend to fall into two categories (yeah, yeah, I know, everything falls into two categories, and there are an endless series of what those categories are): storytellers and artists. An occasional writer can combine both aspects successfully, but primarily a writer who knows his or her strengths and sticks to them produces more satisfying fiction than one who strives for more than they can successfully accomplish.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón is a natural storyteller, and his acclaimed Spanish novel Shadow of the Wind succeeds very well on that level. But Zafón also tries to be an artist, and he is somewhat less successful in that regard.

Shadow is a melodramatic mystery sparked when a young boy named Daniel is taken to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books by his bookseller father where he discovers an obscure book entitled Shadow of the Wind by the even-more obscure author Julian Carax. Daniel immediately becomes obsessed with Carax and sets out to learn as much about the author as possible. Almost immediately this opens up a veritable Pandora’s Box of mysterious events, especially when Daniel learns that nearly every copy of every book written by Carax has mysteriously been destroyed. Determined to learn the reason behind this seemingly bizarre series of events, Daniel becomes involved with:

▸ Cara, the blind daughter of a respected bookseller, with whom Daniel falls head over heels in love, and to whom he spends many months reading Carax’s book

▸ Fermín, a beggar who soon becomes a valued employee of Daniel’s father’s shop and Daniel’s cohort in uncovering the mystery

▸ Lain Coubert, a character in the book Shadow of the Wind who in real life is a badly-disfigured night stalker trying to retrieve Daniel’s last copy of the book

▸ Fumero, the evil police official who is seemingly responsible for the scars riddling Fermín’s body, and who is also seeking the mysterious Julian Carax.

▸ Nuria Monfort, a former lover of Carax who seems to be involved in the entire mystery, and obviously knows more about it than she is revealing

The story has aspects of a thriller, as well as a mystery, and the pace never falters as plot complications become more and more complex. Daniel falls in love with the sister of his best friend, which somehow turns her entire family against him. 300+ pages in, the plot seems so complicated that it might never unravel.

The plot unravels too easily though when Daniel receives a very long letter–90 pages long, in fact–from Nuria which explains the entire mystery to him. This was a bit of a cheat, since everything Daniel and Fermín were trying so hard to decipher was suddenly handed to them on a platter. It still left another hundred pages of denouement, since knowing the why of everything did not resolve the what of it all.

The ending itself was melodramatic, offering few real surprises, but every plot element was tied up successfully, and fairly neatly at that.

Overall, I enjoyed reading Shadow of the Wind because of Zafón’s storytelling talents. It was when he tried to be an artist that he got in a bit of trouble, but his storytelling skills saved him in the end. I recommend this book, especially for readers who enjoy old books and their mysterious authors.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Snow Falling on Cedars

At the turn of the new millennium, I bought a desk calendar had a lot of little features devoted to books and writers, including a listing by Michael Bishop entitled 104 Really Cool Books. It was akin to those “best of the century” lists which were popular at the time, but his list made no claims to be any type of “best of...” but only 104 books which Bishop really enjoyed and which had not made any other lists he had seen or had gotten much recognition.

Quite a few books on the list were either by SF writers or SF themselves: Brian W. Aldiss’ The Malacia Tapestry; J. G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun; Gregory Benford’s Timescape; Ray Bradbury’s A Medicine for Melancholy; Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed; John Crowley’s Little, Big; Samuel R. Delany’s Atlantis: Three Tales; Bradley Denton’s Blackburn; Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle; Thomas M. Disch’s 334; Harlan Ellison‘s Deathbird Stories; Karen Joy Fowler’s Sarah Canary; R.A. Lafferty’s Nine Hundred Grandmothers; Ursula K. Le Guin‘s The Left Hand of Darkness; C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet; James Morrow’s Towing Jehovah; Paul Park’s The Gospel of Corax; Joanna Russ’s The Female Man; Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow; Geoff Ryman’s Was; Lucius Shepard’s The Jaguar Hunter; Lewis Shiner’s Glimpses; Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside; James Tiptree, Jr.’s Her Smoke Went Up Forever; Ian Watson’s The Embedding; Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang; and Gene Wolfe’s Peace.

I’ve read nearly all the sf-related books, and thought them all at least very good, and some truly wonderful. But those books comprised barely one-quarter of the entire list. Surely some of the non sf-related books must be equally wonderful, no?

One of the first books I sampled on the list was David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars. On the surface this book is a mystery: in the mid-1950s on an island near Seattle where a Japanese-American is accused of the murder of a European-American. Set around the trial itself the bulk of the novel dips into the lives of the murder’s main characters, devoting a chapter to studying each of them: the accused murderer, his wife, his wife’s parents, the victim, his mother, the police chief, the local reporter.

As the lives deepen, we get a growing sense of how people lived on the island. We learn about leaving one’s native land and trying to assimilate in a totally foreign land, and also about how it is to suddenly share one’s small world with foreigners who are obviously different in culture and even in values than onself. We learn about racism, both blatant racism on the part of old-timers on the island and on the part of the federal government which strikes at Japanese immigrants at the onset of World War II, but also more subtle racism on the part of both Europeans and Asians.

And we see the difficulties of the most forbidden relationship of all, a love affair between a European male and a traditional Japanese girl.

This is a powerful, moving novel which combines wonderful characters, an exciting mystery, and love of the land in which it is set. I agree with Michael Bishop in recommending this novel highly.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

On Writing

One of my bookshelves is devoted to books about writing. After all, I devoted nearly 20 years to writing science fiction, and I still spend a portion of my writing time writing fiction–although much less time than previously. So when Stephen King published On Writing, I was naturally intrigued by it.

I am not a fanatical Stephen King fan. Although he is a fine writer, he tends to overwrite at times, and his subject matter doesn’t always appeal to me. I enjoyed both The Shining and The Stand a lot, and thought the collection Different Seasons was superb. But I was disappointed with both Christine and Cujo, considered them both single punchlines padded to outrageous length. Since then I’ve only bought two of his collections Nightmares and Dreamscapes and Four Past Midnight. The reviews of Hearts in Atlantis intrigued me, but I have not read it yet.

So when Ben Indick–whose opinions I respect since he has never disappointed me so far–recommended On Writing, I took his advice and bought it. On Writing is a relatively short book, which immediately pleased me since one of King’s main faults is his long-windedness. Its first third contains a brief autobiography of King. My enjoyment at reading memoirs depends more on the writing style of the author than how exciting their live is, so while King’s childhood was not particularly exciting, King’s telling of it was brisk and pleasant, as well as quite informative as to how he became the writer he now is.

And I learned a lot about why Cujo was such a bad book. King wrote Cujo during the peak of his “drug years,” stuffing his nostrils with cotton swabs to prevent cocaine-induced bleeding while typing, confessing that he does not recall any of the actual writing of that book. King claims that Misery was his personal drug-nightmare book, in which he was represented by the James Caan character (in the movie version) while the Kathy Bates character represented drugs.

Although King did not say so, I suspect that Cujo was really his drug book. Think about the plot: the main character is trapped with her child against a big, life-threatening monster whose major form of aggression is blocking the heroine from getting any help for her problem. That sounds like drugs to me, and since King admits he wrote the novel in the throes of a drug haze against which he felt helpless, so what else could the novel have been but a cry for help? That also explains why the novel was so bad.

The remaining two-thirds of the book are King’s advice on writing. In many ways it is no different than all the other writing books I’ve read, and he repeats a lot of familiar advice, although it definitely does not hurt to read some of it again. King’s advice is a lot snappier than that of most writing gurus, as well as a lot more enjoyable reading, and his enthusiasm is so infectious that periodically you find yourself anxious to run off and do some fiction writing yourself.

But for me the writing advice came crashing to an immediate halt on page 142 when King gave his two theses, one of which was while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.

All the years I’ve been writing fiction–thirty and counting now–I’ve basically assumed I am a competent writer trying to make the transition to one good enough to publish. I’ve certainly been dedicated (especially for the first 25 years before I started devoting most of my time to nonfiction) and done lots of hard work, but I still am unsure whether I have ever made the jump from “competent” to “good”. If my lack of success at enticing editors is any indication, I have not done so. Why is that? Haven’t I worked hard enough? Or been dedicated enough? Perhaps I haven’t had sufficient “timely help”?

Well, King suggests that I’ve been fooling myself. Perhaps I’ve been living under a delusion that I am competent as a writer of fiction when I am actually trying to make a transition King claims is impossible, that I am really an untalented (bad) writer trying to make the unsurmountable leap to competence.

I recommend On Writing highly to beginning writers or wannabe writers. If you are already “good” or disinterested in writing it might not have much to offer except the first one-third, and the concluding section about King’s recent life-threatening accident. It might be a steep price to pay for one-third of a book, unless you buy the mass market paperback. But for the rest of us, it’s a damned good book which makes me want to buy a copy of Hearts in Atlantis and read some post-drugs, post-accident Stephen King fiction.