Visions of Paradise

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Eight

Two aspects of fiction which appeal to me are historical tales seeped in the atmosphere of the era in which they are set, and stories about passionate people involved in some form of art or science. Katherine Neville’s 1989 novel The Eight easily qualifies in both regards, although the characters are passionate about the game of chess.

The premise is that during his reign Charlemagne was presented by eight moors with a gift as a token for his assisting them in Spain. The gift was a supernatural chess set which seemingly took over his mind while imbuing him with supernatural power. Fearful of the set’s power, Charlemagne orders it hidden beneath the Montglane Abby in France.

The bulk of the novel follows two simultaneous storylines, both spearheaded by attempts to find the legendary Montglane Service. During the French Revolution the radical government decides to confiscate all Church wealth, including sending soldiers to Montglane to seek the chess set. The abbess is the only person who knows precisely the location of the service, knowledge which was passed down for one thousand years from abbess to abbess. She separates the set into its component pieces and orders various nuns and noviciates to take the pieces into hiding. This portion follows the activities of three people: the abbess who flees to Russia where her childhood friend has become czarina Catherine the Great; and novitiates Mereille and Veronica who take several pieces to Paris.

However, Paris is in the midst of turmoil and the infamous “Terror” during which chaos reigns and King Louis XVI is put on trial by the populace. The girls befriend Talleyrand, bishop of Autin and an important French leader, who assists their efforts to keep the chess set out of the hands of such dangerous people as Robespierre and Marat.

Eventually, Talleyrand brings part of the service to England, while Mereille flees to Corsica where she befriends another future leader of France, Napoleane, and his family.

Simultaneously with this story, in 1972 Catherine Velis is a computer expert who has fallen afoul of the leadership of her “Big Eight” financial firm for refusing to participate in illegal activities, so she is sent to Algeria to work as punishment. Meanwhile, she attends a major chess tournament with her friend, Lily, a rich, spoiled, flamboyant daughter of one of Catherine’s dearest friends. Participating in the match is Solarin, the “bad boy” of Russian chess, who realizes that his opponent in their initial match is cheating. Solarin demands a recess in the match and confronts his opponent in a men’s room. Shortly thereafter his opponent is murdered.

The Eight has a lot of strengths which make it fascinating reading. Neville is very strong at creating setting and ambiance. Both revolutionary France and modern Algeria are breathtaking, with the former truly frightening in his chaos. The portions set in those two countries were breathtaking, and worth the entire novel. I also enjoyed the portions about chess, and the people who lived for it.

There were some typical thriller flaws in the novel though. Everybody except Catherine seems to know what is happening in the clandestine hunt for the Montglane Service. All her friends seem to be involved in the plot somehow, all giving her mysterious hints and clues rather than actually share information with her. And the ultimate denouement is as much pseudo-science as an episode of Star Trek.

Fortunately, the novel’s other strengths were so well-done that the thriller aspect did not hurt it much, although, for me at least, the novel might have been even stronger without the mysterious deaths and assassins. But that is my personal bias speaking, and the thriller aspect might appeal to other readers moreso than it did for me. In any case, this was an exciting novel about history and chess which I recommend highly.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Brighten to Incandescence

For thirty years Michael Bishop has been one of my very favorite science fiction writers, perhaps only equaled by Robert Silverberg in my personal pantheon. I have 23 of his books, including all his collections, and although I first fell in love with his science fiction of the 70s and 80s, my feelings survived his transformation into a writer of mostly contemporary fantasy in the 90s.

His recent collection Brighten to Incandescence contains stories ranging from the 70s to recently, although the majority were published in the past decade. As usual for Bishop, they came from a wide variety of sources, including original anthologies, small presses and major prozines. I have always felt that Bishop cares more for his “art” than he does for financial success, although possibly he made enough money from his movie sale for Brittle Inning–which was never actually made into a film–not to have any financial worries. In any case, while his choice of markets can be a bit frustrating since it makes the stories difficult to find, it always makes the release of a new Bishop collection a pleasant occasion.

Needless to say, I enjoyed all the stories in the book because of a combination of Bishop’s wonderful writing, his feel for characters, and his thoughtfulness. Not surprisingly, some stories moved me more than others. “The Unexpected Visit of a Reanimated Englishwoman” was his introduction to a collection of Mary Shelley’s fantasy stories, written as a spectral visit from Shelley herself while Bishop is trying to write the introduction. It takes the form of a discussion between the two of them about her fantastic writing. Not a story per se, it taught me things I never knew about Shelley’s writings, and was very interesting.

“Chihuahua Flats” is the story of a drifter who falls in love with the owner of a chihuahua kennel owner in spite of the fact that her beloved chihuahua despises him. They marry and persevere in spite of that, until the wife develops cancer and the husband faces the prospect of living alone with the spiteful chihuahua. Many pet owners could likely relate to the story’s premise, and Bishop pulls off a surprisingly moving story.

“Herding With the Hadrosaurs” tells the story of a family of four which relocates to a Late Cretaceous region which exists slightly west of the Mississippi. The family learns how dangerous such a region is almost immediately upon arrival when the parents are both killed by a rampaging t-rex, and the two youngsters survive by adopting a family of duckbills who protect them from most prehistoric life, but not necessarily from other migrant humans who live by hunting creatures such as the duckbills. This story is unusual in that it is Bishop as the not-so-common storyteller.

“Simply Indispensable” has a premise which seems ludicrous, and would likely have failed totally in lesser hands. It begins as a conversation between four near-future religious leaders on a televised talk show set in the Middle East, but it turns into a visit from an alien entity apparently recruiting mankind into a higher cause. Joe Way, the alien entity, is the most intriguing character in this entire book, and provides much grist for thought in what over the years has been Bishop’s periodic obsession with religious exploration.

Perhaps the book’s finest story, and one of the finest of Bishop’s career, is “With A Little Help From Her Friends,” a story which successfully combines political torture with nostalgia in the guise of a living saint who spent her life tending the sick, was tortured brutally as a result, and now is dying in a home for former torturees run by Amnesty International. I was amazed at how Bishop made me feel both outraged and warm-hearted, sad yet hopeful, and even threw in a reunion of the three-surviving Beatles in 2013 (when the story was written, George Harrison was still alive). Anybody who could write a story this powerful and caring is certainly a great writer.

Which is why I love Michael Bishop’s fiction, and recommend this book–and all his collections–as highly as possible.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Down These Dark Spaceways

When I started reading Down These Dark Spaceways, six futuristic mystery novellas edited by Mike Resnick, I realized it was not really my proverbial cup of tea. I prefer historical mysteries rather than either thrillers or crime mysteries. At least the stories in this book are noir mysteries influenced by the mysteries of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, which have a certain charm to them that police procedurals tend not to have (at least in my eyes). And the authors in this collection of six novellas included Robert Reed and Jack McDevitt, two of my favorite authors, so I could not resist trying the book.

“The Big Downtown”, by McDevitt, is quite different from his novels which tend to be historical mysteries concerned with investigating ancient ruins and ships which vanish mysteriously. This story only has a touching glance with history, as one of the main suspects is a famous explorer of alien ruins. The rest of it is typical mystery: a death which looks like a hurricane-related accident, but the lover of one of the two victims is sure his girlfriend would never do anything so stupid as ride in a sailboat during a global-warming induced super-hurricane. So he hires the female P.I. protagonist who investigates for 60 pages before wrapping up the mystery in the typical glib tying up of loose strands of most crime stories. Or at least that is my take on most crime novels. At least the scenery is interesting, and the pacing never lags, but this story is more of a pleasant time-passer than an involving historical mystery such as McDevitt usually writes.

Robert Reed’s “Camouflage” is set on his Great Ship, a huge interstellar ship larger than most worlds filled with millions of beings from numerous worlds who are traveling on a millennia-long journey across the entire Milky Way. Some of Reed’s best stories, such as my personal favorite “The Remoras”, is set there, and it is one of the most wondrous creations in all of sf so that a story need only surround itself with the alienness and otherness of the Great Ship to be successful.

“Camouflage” concerns a former disgraced captain of the Great Ship named Pamir who has disguised himself for many decades to avoid being captured and punished by other captains. He is approached by a current captain who knows of his reputation as well his current disguise and asks him to investigate a series of murders. It turns out that the ten husbands and former husbands–all nonhumans–of a human woman are being killed. The mystery is interesting, although irrelevant, since the real focus of the novella is the Great Ship and its alien races, and they keep the story interesting even though I did not really care who the murderer was.

Catherine Asaro’s “The City of Cries” was a pleasant surprise. I had always assumed she wrote romances based on her reputation in that area, but this was a hard-bitten adventure mystery on a well-thought out alien world. Bhaaj is a detective hired by the royal family of her homeworld to recover one of the family’s princes who has apparently sneaked out of the family compound, which males are not permitted to do. The story combines Bhaaj’s dealings with the royalty who hired her–and who have the power to do anything to her they wish, should she displease them–as well as with members of the underworld in which she spent time as a youth. An old-fashioned adventure set on an alien world in Asaro’s Skolian Empire, this story is obviously the product of a natural storyteller, much more interesting than I had experienced. It made me realize it might be worthwhile seeking out more Asaro fiction.

The best story in the book is also the most frustrating one, David Gerrold’s “In the Quake Zone.” Set in a contemporary Los Angeles which has undergone a series of timequakes which serve as portals through a thirty-year period of time, the hero is a time-raveler who travels through time saving people’s lives from crime and accidents. The case he is investigating involves a serial killer who preys on young homosexual males. Most of the novella involves his investigation of that case as well as his own friendship with one of the young men, a friendship which seems to be gradually heading into a deeper, longer-lasting relationship.

What makes the story so frustrating is just when it seems to be reaching both its plot and relationship climaxes, it abruptly takes a left turn and becomes a totally-different story. While the second story was itself interesting, and did provide a resolution to the original story in an almost off-the-cuff way, I think the story could have been resolved similarly with less abruptness. Still it was a very good story, although it was a totally non-noir mystery considering the hero’s emotional involvement was its primary focus.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

A Reader's Delight

I have two loves in my writing: the love of writing fiction, and the love of writing essays. By essays I mean a fairly broad array of material including reviews of fiction, observations on the world, and journal entries. I have no illusions that I will ever be a particularly good essayist (any more than I am a particularly good writer of fiction), but after 25 years of practice I feel at least tolerable at it.

But there are certainly essayists who can write rings around me in their sleep. Such a writer is Noel Perrin. What Mr. Perrin does is review books. Not newly-published books, nor perennial classics or milestone works. What Perrin reviews are Forgotten Books, Remembered Books, Honored Books, Orphaned Books. At least that is his claim in the introduction to his collected reviews A Reader’s Delight. In the book he gathers reviews of 40 books that he feels have been unfairly neglected, either from their first publication or since their initial fame. As he claims in the introduction, the book’s purpose is to steer people towards a winter’s worth or a summer’s worth of unusually pleasing reading.

And steer he does! 40 delightful essays about 40 books that from reading Mr. Perrin’s warm sentences all seem wonderful indeed. The books range from a diary to nonfiction works to such SF/fantasy genre works as Lord Dunsany’s The Blessing of Pan, James Branch Cabell’s The Silver Stallion, and Peter Beagle’s A Fine and Private Place.

I hesitate to begin describing the reviews, lest my long-windedness gets the better of me and I pull a Samuel R. Delanyish trick of spending 200 pages analyzing a book of 200 pages. But I must say something about the wonders Perrin describes. Such as Henriette Roosenberg’s autobiographical The Night-and-Fog People, about her imprisonment by the Nazis as a member of the Dutch resistence movement. The book is not just another tale of perseverance and depression in a concentration camp, but rather about her experiences when the Nazis were overthrown and she was freed from the camp, since Roosenberg and her Dutch comrades were freed by the Russians who refused to allow anybody to pass through their lines.

Or George Templeton Strong’s four-volume, two thousand page diary, spanning his life from age 15 to his death some 50 years later. And what a diary it is, chock-full of observations on the progress of life in 19th century America, particularly in Strong’s local town New York City, as well as the opinions and feelings of Strong himself. Perrin’s description of the diary, as well as the few excerpts contained within, both awed and depressed a fellow diarist who realizes that my own recitation of daily events absolutely pale into insignificance by comparison. No wonder Perrin titles this chapter of the book America’s Greatest Diarist.

Naturally I wanted to run out and buy every single one of Perrin’s delightful books, but *alas* several of them are not even available in print. And, of course, I must retain a bit of rationale, knowing full well that adding 40 books would enlarge my Books to be Read pile so out of control it would probably never reduce to manageable levels within my lifetime. So I heave a slow sigh and resign myself to only buying an occasional one of Perrin’s recommendations. But even so, reading his delightful essays are a pleasure in themselves. I heartily recommend A Reader’s Delight to everybody in love with books, but especially to those of you able to resist temptation and not begin a lifelong search trying to obtain all 40 wonderful books. It might be easier to seek the Holy Grail instead.