content by

Matthew Keeley

Playful Metafiction: Paul Park’s A City Made of Words

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. 

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Ikarie XB 1, Based on the Fiction of Stanislaw Lem, Is a Fascinating Obscurity

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.

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The Iron Dragon’s Mother Is Michael Swanwick’s Triumphant Return to Faerie

“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.

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Liu Cixin’s The Wandering Earth Is Now a Striking SF Film on Netflix

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.

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Remembering the Great Opening Sentences of Gene Wolfe

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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Haunting Puzzles: Leanne Shapton’s Guestbook

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.

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A Future in the Author’s Backyard: The New Edition of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home

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 Illusionworlds, 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.

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Sandra Newman Soars to The Heavens

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.

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Multiple Choices and No Good Answers: Sylvain Neuvel’s The Test

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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Absurdist Allegory Unclay is Back in Print at Last

T.F. Powys’s novel Unclay holds the unwelcome distinction of being triply obscure. The first level of obscurity: you’re vanishingly unlikely to meet anyone who knows of an author named Powys—I’ve met three, and two were publishers of authors named Powys. The second level: those who know the name are most likely thinking of John Cowper Powys, elder brother to Theodore Francis. The final level: most everyone who has heard tell of, or even read, Powys, knows only his 1927 allegorical fantasy Mr. Weston’s Good Wine. Unclay, the final novel Powys published in his lifetime, last received an American issue in 1932, four years before Harvard underclassman and steel heir James Laughlin published the first title under the New Directions banner. Eighty-six years on from its last appearance in the US, New Directions has revived Unclay.

I’m not sure how or where they found it, but I’m glad they did: this book deserves to be in print.

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Unnerving and Unusual: Bedfellow by Jeremy C. Shipp

Some words don’t like to get out on their own. You can’t be spick without being span too, while “nitty” pines away unaccompanied by “gritty.” Similarly, “bedfellow” has hardly ever appeared without a preceding “strange.” Like its one-word title, Jeremy Shipp’s new novel, Bedfellow, is unnerving and unusual. And like a bedfellow without its strange, there’s something missing.

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Giants, Saints, Chickens, Hobos, and Hobbits: Andy Duncan’s An Agent of Utopia

Andy Duncan may not be the fastest or the most best-known writer in science fiction and fantasy, but he’s one of the best. His books might not fill an entire shelf—he’s published just two prior collections and a handful of chapbooks—but the awards he’s won, including a Sturgeon Award, a Nebula, and three World Fantasies, could easily fill a bookcase. His first two collections, The Pottawatomie Giant and Beluthahatchie, are currently out of print, so Small Beer Press’s publication of An Agent of Utopia: New & Selected Stories, is an occasion to celebrate, and cause to hope that this fine writer finds a broader audience.

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Night of the Demon: M.R. James Reinterpreted as a Classic ’50s Horror Film

Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon begins, like so many of the best ghost stories do, on a dark night in the English countryside. A panicked man—we soon learn he is the skeptic and debunker Professor Henry Harrington—speeds along empty roads until he arrives at a grand country house. He pounds at the door and is admitted by the great home’s owner, of whom he begs forgiveness and pleads for mercy. Dr. Julian Karswell, calm and collected, offers vague promises of help, and sends his victim home to a terrible fate. The police, when they find Harrington’s body the next morning, claim that he backed his car into a utility pole and electrocuted himself; the horrible marks on his body must have been inflicted postmortem by an animal. But we viewers know better: we’ve seen the demon.

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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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