You might not expect a novel about the Thirty Years’ War to be entertaining, much less funny. Those three decades of massacre, starvation, plague, and pillage littered central Europe with eight million corpses; it wasn’t until the twentieth century that the European nations once again achieved such sheer horror. And yet, despite its grim subject and despite its jacket-copy endorsement from Michael Haneke, bleakest and most depressing of bleak and depressing German directors, Daniel Kehlmann’s new novel Tyll is a rollick and a delight.
She wrote Ice and then she died. She used prescription heroin for half of her life. She took the name she’s remembered by from one of her own early novels. If you’ve heard of Anna Kavan, and most likely you haven’t, chances are that these are the few things you know about her. Though she wrote more than a dozen novels and collections, though she was a journalist and a painter, Kavan is remembered for a single book and for the dramatic or disreputable portions of her biography.
This month, New York Review Books issues Machines in the Head, a volume of Kavan’s selected stories. It’s a slim book of weighty emotion that will leave readers perturbed. I admire it, but I can’t say I enjoyed it.
John Crowley’s readers have great capacities for patience. Twenty years passed between the first volume of his Ægypt series in 1987 and its last entry in 2007; after his realistic historical novel Four Freedoms appeared in 2009, Crowley’s fans waited seven years for another major publication. With the 2016 publication of The Chemical Wedding, Crowley’s translation of an obscure seventeenth-century hermetic allegory, something changed. Whatever the cause — Perhaps the author’s retirement from teaching at Yale — Crowley has become prolific. A year after Wedding, he published Ka, a thick historical fantasy, alongside Totalitopia, a slim volume that combined fiction, essay, and criticism. And this month Crowley has released two thick hardbacks. The first, story collection And Go Like This, I reviewed a few weeks ago. Now Subterranean Press has released Reading Backwards: Essays & Reviews, 2015-2018.
Jurassic Park appeared in theaters in June of 1993, when I was five years old. I was dinosaur-obsessed to an intense degree; I played with toy tyrannosauruses, ate dinosaur-themed candy, and read dinosaur picture books. Somehow I contrived to learn the Latin names of various saurians; I figured it was good training for my inevitable career as a paleontologist. In pursuit of that future, I even dug up the backyard in search of dino bones. Given this level of obsession, I was heartbroken to learn that my parents would not let me go see the new dinosaur movie. I didn’t quite understand that Spielberg’s film was about people running from dinosaurs that wanted to eat them. Who needs menace and suspense when there were dinosaurs? I would have been perfectly happy watching a dinosaur movie where nothing went wrong and no one was imperilled. I just wanted to see dinosaurs in motion. It took more than twenty-five years for me to discover that the movie five-year-old Matt really wanted to see was Czech director Karel Zeman’s Journey to the Beginning of Time.
If pressed, I’m sure that Nina Allan would say that her new novel, The Dollmaker, takes place in the here and now. I don’t know that I would believe her. The book’s world looks like ours, complete with smartphones and Google Earth, but it’s a planet where trips are still planned by surveyor’s maps, where hotels are selected according to a printed almanac’s recommendations, and where long-distance relationships are conducted by page upon page of handwritten letters. Fairy tales are a motif. “What,” Allan asks her readers, “if a long, long time ago were today?”
The quality of John Crowley’s short stories is inversely proportional to their quantity. His two brief collections, Novelty and Antiquities, were combined and expanded into Novelties & Souvenirs in 2004; one collection, not unduly thick, collected thirty years of short fiction. The publication of a new collection by John Crowley is a rare occasion; I’m happy to report that his new one, And Go Like This, was worth the fifteen-year wait.
Paul Park’s A City Made of Words is the latest volume in PM Press’s Outspoken Authors line of short science fiction collections. We’re now twenty-three volumes into the series, each of which combines an interview with the author, a bibliography of varying completeness, and some combination of new and reprinted writing—and until I read this new book, I thought I knew how they worked. There were, on the one hand, the collections that might serve as introductions, books like Elizabeth Hand’s Fire or John Crowley’s Totalitopia, concise proofs of the author’s value. On the other hand I counted such books as Samuel Delany’s The Atheist in the Attic and Michael Moorcock’s Modem Times 2.0 as essential reading for the committed that would challenge, mystify, or scare off neophytes.
With A City Made of Words, Park eludes my categories. I can’t decide whether this book is a perfect entry to the author’s work, or written for committed Park readers only. I suspect that the author intends this. Let me explain.
The myth of Icarus isn’t about flight; it’s about falling. Daedalus’s callow son flaps too close to the sun; the glue of his wings melt, their feathers flutter away, and Icarus plummets seaward. He is the first to soar through the sky, but also the sky’s first victim. Personally, I wouldn’t name the first ship to traverse interstellar space after our fallen predecessor, but perhaps the people of the year 2163, as depicted in Czech director Jindřich Polák’s 1963 Ikarie XB 1, have conquered superstition. Or perhaps they’re tempting fate.
“She didn’t know that the dragons were coming for her.” With good reason: Dragons rarely intrude into American hospital wards, but it’s in that incongruous setting that Michael Swanwick begins his new novel, The Iron Dragon’s Mother. We meet Helen V. at the end of an interesting—she’s “gone scuba-diving in the Maldives [and] found herself inexplicably judging an air guitar competition in an unlicensed slum bar in Johannesburg [and] spent a summer trying to convert a rusty old Ferrari to run on vegetable oil because she’d fallen in love with a boy who wanted to save the world”—but ultimately unsatisfied life. She’s dying in a hospital with no visitors, little grace, and few consolations. She derives her scant pleasures from tormenting her caretakers with snark and allusion; they retaliate by delivering sermons or withholding morphine. She’s a lifelong walker-out and escaper-from; since she can’t leave the hospital, she’s immersed in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which posits “an instant of freedom” at the very moment of death. She doesn’t believe, but she’s willing to try: “Crap and nonsense” it may be, but “still, escape is escape.”
And so Helen dies, and Helen leaps, and Helen finds herself in another person’s head in another person’s world.
When Chinese science fiction film The Wandering Earth appeared in U.S. theaters earlier this year, very few people saw it, but just about all of them liked it. Critics lamented that this movie, which grossed nearly as much as Avengers: Endgame worldwide, received only a few days’ booking in the more discerning arthouses and the most diverse big-city multiplexes. Now that The Wandering Earth has made its way to Netflix, it has a new chance to find a wider audience. Many lesser films have thrived on the streaming service—let’s hope Netflix helps this movie find the American viewership it deserves.
The Wandering Earth is adapted from a novella—though some say it’s more a long short story—by Liu Cixin, author of The Three-Body Problem. Since this particular work isn’t yet available in English translation, I can’t vouch for the faithfulness of the adaptation. I can merely express my admiration at Liu’s audacity in fitting such a large story into such a small space.
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.
What are we to make of the line illustration on the cover Leanne Shapton’s Guestbook: Ghost Stories? You’re unlikely to guess the subject, as the image is an uneven blob somewhat resembling an unmarked and upended Texas, or perhaps an untalented child’s first attempt to trace their hand. In fact, the image is a drawing of the iceberg that sunk the RMS Titanic, made by George Rheims, a survivor of the disaster. Paradoxical though it may be, sometimes an old cliché is the best way to describe something new. Icebergs are proverbially ninety percent underwater; ninety percent of what makes this new collection so remarkable is what occurs off the page, in the blank places between its sparse text and its abundant images.
However believable you find Ursula K. Le Guin’s imagined worlds, you cannot visit the planet Gethen and cross its frozen plains, nor can you join the commune on Anarres or sail the archipelagos of Earthsea. The town of Klatsand, from Searoad, has an address in Oregon, but you can’t drive or fly there. You may, however visit where the Kesh people “might be going to have lived a long, long time from now.” They’ll perhaps live in Northern California, in the Napa Valley, and one of their towns might sit where the Le Guin family had a summer house. In Always Coming Home, her longest and strangest novel, just reissued by the Library of America, Ursula K. Le Guin built a utopia in her backyard.
A warning: If you read solely for plot, Always Coming Home might seem an exercise in Never Reaching the Point, and I’d encourage you to read The Lathe of Heaven or a volume of Earthsea in its stead. This novel represents a culmination of the anthropological or societal bent in Le Guin’s fiction. Le Guin’s first three novels were republished as Worlds of Exile and Illusion—worlds, not tales or stories. The Left Hand of Darkness alternates plot chapters with bits of Winter’s lore and excerpts of its stories; while The Dispossessed, “An Ambiguous Utopia,” announces its social interests in its very subtitle. Always Coming Home doesn’t abandon narrative, but it comes close: This is a book that aspires to placehood.
How rare and wonderful it is to find a book that surpasses already high expectations. Sandra Newman’s The Heavens is one such title. It’s a fantasy about reality and it’s one of the best new novels I’ve read in ages.
Where did my high hopes come from? First, Newman’s previous novel, The Country of Ice Cream Star, a post-apocalyptic epic apparently far less sweet than its title suggests, was a critical favorite said to bear comparison with Riddley Walker. Second, Newman’s Twitter feed is a marvel of casual surrealism, trenchant commentary, and memorable remarks; entire books I’ve known possess less originality than one of her tweets. Finally, I’d heard editors on both sides of the Atlantic sing its praises months before publication. I worried it wouldn’t live up to the praise I’d already heard; within twenty pages, my doubts evaporated.
Few things can disrupt a schedule more than a good book; my first encounter with Sylvain Neuvel’s fiction cost me a whole day. When I picked up his debut, Sleeping Giants, I had no intention of reading the entire book in a single sitting, and yet I did. Those three hundred pages, packed as they were with giant robots, ancient secrets, conspiracies benevolent or sinister, shocking deaths, and stunning revelations, kept me glued to my chair all through a sunny June afternoon. I immediately ordered the second book of The Themis Files; it too disappeared a day.
The nine hundred or so pages of Sleeping Giants, Waking Gods, and Only Human took their characters around the world, off the world, and through more than twenty eventful years. So it’s a surprise to see that Neuvel’s latest book is a novella largely set in a single room on a single day. Perhaps the author is testing himself: Can he write a short book, about a man in a room, and make it as compelling as his trilogy? I’m happy to answer that he can.
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