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Matthew Keeley

Ben Marcus’s Challenging and Oblique Stories in Notes from the Fog

Notes from the Fog, the latest collection of stories by Ben Marcus, was initially announced as Speeding Pieces of Light. I think the final title is the more appropriate: light and fog are equally ungraspable, but Marcus proves fonder of shadows than of illumination. Readers and characters remain in the fog, and such beams of light that appear are precious indeed.

Ben Marcus is a writer who should be dear to my heart: in his twenty-odd years in American letters, he’s been a tireless advocate of fiction that is challenging or experimental, fabulist or fable-like, uncompromising and unnerving. He’s also a fine critic—his essay on Thomas Bernhard for Harper’s, for example, is wonderful—and he deserves a medal for the return to print of Jason Schwartz’s A German Picturesque, a book of sinisterly fluid babble forever hesitating on the border of perverse sense. All of this explains why I wish I could give Notes from the Fog an unqualified rave, and why I’m sad to write a thoroughly mixed review.

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The Inexorable Strangeness of Robert Aickman’s Compulsory Games

For far too long, Robert Aickman has resided in a bookish limbo. He’s not quite gone—small presses have kept his work available for readers with daring taste and deep pockets—and he’s certainly not forgotten—writers like Peter Straub and Neil Gaiman never fail to name him when asked favorite authors—but he’s not quite here either. Like his stories, which aren’t quite fantasy and aren’t quite ghost stories, and like his characters, frequently caught between the everyday and the impossible, Aickman has seemed stuck between here and there. New York Review of Books Classics has just published a new Aickman volume, Compulsory Games. At long last, American readers have easy access to one of the world’s great purveyors of the uncanny, the unknown, and the uncomfortable.

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Atomic Aftermath: Yoko Tawada’s Mysterious New Novel, The Emissary

Catastrophe is a popular subject for writers: what better way to show the true character of individuals or of a society than through examining how they react when faced with the perils, both physical and moral, that disaster imposes? And of course the action of the disaster itself is exciting: what better way to propel a plot and keep a reader holding their breath and turning their pages?

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor meltdown—the first since Chernobyl to merit designation as a Major Accident by the International Atomic Energy Agency—occurred on March 11, 2011. Although there were no fatalities, 50,000 households were evacuated, and seven years later, a miles-wide exclusion zone remains in place around the former plant. National traumas invariably inspire writers; Japanese writer Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary, recently published by New Directions, is her eccentric treatment of Fukushima. It’s a story of aftermath, but not one of heroic responders or desperate survivors. Rather, it’s about the new routine of a world that cataclysm has changed, diminished, and shrunk.

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The Demanding, Essential Work of Samuel Delany: The Atheist in the Attic

Sometimes it seems as if all the publishers and bookstores of the land are engaged in a conspiracy to make Samuel Delany appear less unusual than he is. All of his fiction, whether autobiographical, experimental, pornographic, or some combination of the three, is shelved under “science fiction,” and while a given edition of Dhalgren might or might not advertise its million-seller status, it’s unlikely that any back cover copy will address that book’s games with structure, experiments in typography, or literal unendingness. It’s not until you actually open the books that you realize you’re in the hands of one of SF’s great experimenters. Sometimes Delany himself seems to be in on this game of concealment. His author biography coyly states, for example, that “his four-volume series Return to Nevèrÿon is sword-and-sorcery,” as if he were a latter-day Robert E. Howard, eliding any sense that these strange books, with their disquisitions on language, their Matryoshka structures and their shifting narrators, might better be described as sword, sorcery, and semiotics.

How, then, to best introduce a reader to this strange and wonderful writer? I had hoped the book under review might fit the bill.

[It’s intriguing, but is it the best place to start with Delany’s work?]

Fear and Farce: Jeremy C. Shipp’s The Atrocities

If form follows function, as so many designers have attested, then Stockton House, the Gothic manse at the center of Jeremy C. Shipp’s novella The Atrocities, was surely built to be haunted. Let’s consider some of its amenities. On first arriving at the House, the visitor will find herself in a hedge maze; around any corner she may encounter the book’s namesakes Atrocities, the gruesome statues drawn from Biblical stories. They’re a tad unpleasant, but they’re useful signposts for any unlucky visitor who navigating the maze: “Turn left at the screaming woman with the collapsing face” and “turn right at the woman sliced into twelve pieces” are, after all, unusually clear directions. The unusual ornamentation isn’t confined to the grounds: when the new guest arrives, she’ll note that beneath the house’s pyramid spires, “dozens of headless figures populate the yellowing, weatherworn façade.”

[She’ll find the interior just as foreboding…]

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Essential Internet Writing, Now Between Two Covers

No Time to Spare, a collection of nonfiction drawn from Ursula K. Le Guin’s blog, draws its title from a statement she made at the very beginning of her first full post: “I am going to be eighty-one next week. I have no time to spare.” Anyone looking at her career must wonder if she ever had spare time. After all, in addition to her science fiction and fantasy novels and collections, almost any one of her which could cap a lesser writer’s career, she’s published realistic fiction, a dozen volumes of poetry, several essay collections, a writing guide, and translations from both Portuguese and Chinese. I’m probably forgetting several things: the list of Le Guin’s publications that opens No Time to Spare, though it runs two pages, is far from complete.

Le Guin attributes her decision to start a blog to reading a selection of Portuguese Nobel winner José Saramago’s internet writing, though with, she avers, “less political and moral weight.” I do not know the Portuguese for “blog,” but perhaps it’s more euphonious than the English word, which Le Guin hates: “it sounds like a sodden tree trunk in a bog, or maybe an obstruction in the nasal passage.” In any case, the form suits her. Le Guin is, in fact, a better political thinker than the great Saramago, and even the essays she worries are most “trivially personal” are so animated and so entertaining that no reader can skip them.

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The Best Way to Approach The Book of the New Sun

In my last column on Gene Wolfe, I wrote that the sheer number of his publications can make choosing an entry point difficult, but that his masterpiece, The Book of the New Sun, was perhaps the best way for readers to make his acquaintance. Unfortunately, for many readers The Book of the New Sun’s reputation for quality is matched only by its alleged difficulty and inaccessibility.

I think that it’s difficult in only the most enjoyable ways, and far more accessible than commonly admitted, but for those who remain wary, I offer seven brief pieces of advice for reading The Book of the New Sun.

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How Gene Wolfe Starts a Story (and Where to Start Reading His Work)

The King of Hearts, not the wisest of monarchs, gives this advice on reading in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: “Begin at the beginning […] and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” That advice has never served Lewis Carroll’s readers, who delight in re-reading the Alice books and solving their puzzles, and it serves just as poorly for Gene Wolfe’s readers, many of whom don’t count a Wolfe book as read until it’s been re-read.

Still, whatever failings the King of Hearts might have had, there’s something to be said for beginning at the beginning, and so here follows my examination of Gene Wolfe’s opening sentences.

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Limitless Imagination: Karel Zeman’s The Fabulous Baron Munchausen

In 1968, the late Brian Aldiss published Farewell, Fantastic Venus! This anthology, which reprinted writers as diverse as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Carl Sagan, C.S. Lewis, and Olaf Stapledon, celebrates the image of Venus that had once dominated science fiction stories—a planet full of jungles, swamps, adventure, and mystery—and would soon be forever eclipsed by the lifeless inferno the first space probes discovered.

I admit that this description of a British science fiction anthology from 1968 may seem an odd way to open an article on a film made seven years earlier behind the Iron Curtain, yet Aldiss’s anthology kept coming to mind as I watched Czech director Karel Zeman’s 1961 Baron Prášil, better known to Western audiences as The Fabulous Baron Munchausen. Zeman’s film opens with Tony, a stolid astronaut (or cosmonaut—we never do learn his nationality), sensibly clad in a bulky spacesuit, exiting his space capsule to plant his flag and make his giant leap for mankind. He is, of course, perturbed when he sees a whole path of footprints stretching away from his capsule.

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Gloriana: Michael Moorcock’s Would-Be Farewell to Fantasy

There are several clichés at hand to tempt any critic who learns that a book was written in six weeks. If the book is earnest, angry, and topical, we might speak of the “rush of inspiration” that “propelled” the author’s pen or made his keyboard clatter. If it’s a first novel, we may express wonder at the “sudden” and “mysterious” “flowering” of the author’s imagination. If the book is a paperback original published under a pseudonym, we might sneer at “hackwork,” or, in a more generous mood, acclaim the “workmanship” of its “journeyman” author. Alas for the reviewer who comes to Michael Moorcock’s Gloriana, or, the Unfulfill’d Queen: Although Moorcock completed the book in just over a month, none of these standard remarks applies.

Gloriana was very far from being Moorcock’s first published book; although his bibliography is notoriously byzantine, full of revisions, retitling, and pseudonyms, a little research shows that he had published over forty individual works by the time Gloriana appeared in bookshops, a year before the end of his thirties. If anything, the book’s composition was remarkable for its relative slowness: he once completed a four-volume series in two weeks. It says a great deal of his talent that many of these books, rushed and uneven as some might be, remain in print.

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Exploring Elizabeth Hand’s Many Voices

Some authors have a very distinct brand; their individual works, whether major or minor, are all of a type. If they publish enough, readers tend to make an adjective of their name—so “Ballardian” evokes crashed cars, empty swimming pools, and accelerating entropy, all clinically described, while “Vancean” writers evince a fondness for abstruse vocabulary, ponderous elegance, and gloriously improbable societies. An “Asimovian” story might sacrifice prose and characterization to the rational working out of a Big Idea, while a “Phildickian” tale proceeds by way of shattered realities and paranoid revelations.

Other writers, though, seem almost to begin anew with each new book; so restless are their subjects, styles, and preoccupations that readers never feel entirely settled or comfortable with them. Elizabeth Hand is one such author. She is far too mutable a writer for “Handian” to ever become science fiction shorthand.

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Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker: Tracking the Unknowable

After the trailers ended and the lights went down, the first image that greeted the moviegoers who caught Stalker in 1979 was the logo of the USSR’s Mosfilm studio., which shows the famous socialist realist statue Worker and Kolkhoz Woman. Sculptor Vera Mukhina intended the two figures, who reach towards the sky and the future bearing hammer and sickle, to inspire pride in the present and hope for the future, and perhaps they are beautiful when viewed without context, but it’s hard not read them as icons of totalitarian kitsch and state-enforced taste. Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, however, provides none of the comforts of kitsch or the assurances of dogma.

Stalker was the first adaptation of Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s influential novel Roadside Picnic, one of the very few Soviet science fiction novels to make it over to the West during the Cold War. Both film and novel tell the story of the Zone, the barred and blockaded site of a mysterious alien visitation, a once-inhabited area as inscrutable and dangerous as it is alluring. Barbed wire and machine guns guard the Zone, yet still treasure seekers, true believers, and obsessives continue to seek entry. Nature thrives in the Zone, but nothing human can live there for long. There are no monsters, no ghosts, no eruptions of blood and horror, but the land itself has become hostile. The ruined tanks, collapsing buildings, and desiccated corpses that litter the Zone should be ample warning, but they are not.

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Predicting the Future and Remembering the Past with John Crowley

At Readercon a few years ago, I attended a panel on favorite science fiction and fantasy books. One author, one of the best working today, talked about the near-impossibility of writing a book so perfect as John Crowley’s Little, Big. There were wistful sighs from writers in the audience and nodded agreements from other panelists. Everyone in the room at that most bookish convention recognized that competing with Crowley was impossible.

Yet in many fan circles Crowley remains unknown. This literary master of the hermetic, hidden, and esoteric has for too long been as hidden as the obscure histories, gnostic theorists, and addled visionaries that populate his work. Despite the many awards; despite the praise of luminaries both inside the genre community, like Ursula K. Le Guin and Thomas Disch, and outside it, like Harold Bloom; despite his inclusion in both Bloom’s Western Canon and Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks, most fantasy readers don’t read him. Perhaps this is the year that changes.

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Swords, Lances, and Innuendo: James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen

Prosecution for obscenity has historically been one of the best ways to ensure literary posterity. For decades, getting “banned in Boston” was a surefire way to boost sales everywhere else in the States; in the United Kingdom, 200,000 copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover sold in a single day when the uncensored version appeared. James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice went before a court in 1922 and became a bestseller, but today Cabell has met the fate of many “writers’ writers”: He is best remembered for being forgotten.

Though some writers go into and out of fashion, and into and out of print, every decade or so, Cabell seems to have settled into obscurity. When Lin Carter reissued several Cabell novels in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series in the sixties and seventies, his introductory remarks included the observation that some of these novels had gone forty-five years without a new edition. Since the Ballantine books have fallen out of print, most of Cabell’s works have gone without mass-market re-publication, though, since Cabell has entered the public domain, there have been print-on-demand editions. But perhaps that trial did help preserve Cabell: Jurgen has remained in print.

[So why was it banned?]

Series: Genre in the Mainstream

A Walk Around Inland: Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker

Russell Hoban said that he was a good speller before he wrote Riddley Walker and a bad speller after finishing it. The first sentence shows why: “On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the last wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadn’t ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.” Two thousand or so years after an atomic catastrophe—“the 1 Big 1”—civilization and the English language hobble on, the language marginally healthier than the society.

Riddley Walker, just twelve during the story’s action, is supposed to be his tribe’s “connexion man,” a seer or shaman who interprets the world and its signs. Riddley gives his first connexion the day after his father’s death; its failure—Riddley falls into a trance, goes silent, and disappoints his audience—soon leads him out from the people he has known and into the wilds of “Inland.” He encounters mutants, vicious dogs, scheming politicians; he sneaks through enemy encampments, rifles dead men’s pockets, and witnesses old acquaintances die, but the action is more melancholy than exciting: Riddley senses that his adventures have a shape, but he can’t comprehend it. He knows that he is in a larger story, or perhaps repeating a past story, but he does not know the storyteller or their purpose.

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Series: Genre in the Mainstream

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