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Tobias Carroll

The Many Faces of an Apocalypse: Alan Heathcock’s 40

The end of the world can take many forms. If you’re a reader drawn to the apocalyptic strain in fiction, you’ve probably encountered plenty, from zombie apocalypses to a Ragnarök with all the divine trappings. Broadly speaking, end of the world narratives generally fall into one of two categories: those that are scientifically plausible and those that take a more fantastical approach. And it’s usually easy to see which kind of book you’re reading: if a nuclear war ends civilization as we know it, you’re reading a book in the former camp; if the world ends due to the arrival of demons on this earthly plane, it’s likely from column B.

Alan Heathcock’s new novel 40 is harder to pin down. Elements of it seem especially drawn from the current state of partisan divisiveness in the United States; other aspects of it wrestle with more existential questions of belief, storytelling, and faith. It fits somewhere between Peng Shepherd’s The Book of M and Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital, tonally and stylistically speaking—and if you’ve read either of those books, you’re likely aware that that’s a challenging space to navigate.

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Horrors Moral and Otherwise: Gabino Iglesias’ The Devil Takes You Home

There’s a line from the second season of Twin Peaks that rattled through my head a lot while reading Gabino Iglesias’ The Devil Takes You Home. Several of the show’s characters are debating the nature of the nature of the murder they’ve just solved—and whether or not its cause is supernatural. “An evil that great, in this beautiful world. Finally—does it matter what the cause?” asks one character.

It’s a question to keep in mind when reading Iglesias’ novel. It’s eminently possible to read this novel as a work of noir fiction with supernatural elements lurking just out of frame. It’s also possible—in theory—to view many of the uncanny elements here as being visions born out of stress, a lack of sleep, or a lack of light. In some ways, that ambiguity fits this novel neatly alongside recent works by M. John Harrison (The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again), Laird Barron (Worse Angels), and Paul Tremblay (The Pallbearers Club).

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A Very Metaphysical Techno-Satire: Adam Roberts’ The This

In the years before social media turned into an outright nightmare most of the time and the algorithm powering YouTube veered past the uncanny valley and into something monstrous, there was a moment when random things would come up online that had the power to delight. Among them: people coming up with attack ad-style videos about 19th century philosophers. I have no idea what the context behind these was, but the Kierkegaard and Kant ones were and are hilarious. (There was also an attack ad directed at Nietzsche which seems to be lost to history.) You wouldn’t necessarily think that this combination would work, but it does.

Such is the case, too, with Adam Roberts’ memorably-titled The This. In his notes following the novel, Roberts writes that the writings of Hegel were a primary source of inspiration for him, and that this novel “follows, and is in some respects in dialogue with, an earlier Kant-novel of mine called The Thing Itself.” But while that novel was set in the recent past, The This is largely set in the near future—except, of course, for the scenes set in the bardo.

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A Beloved City of Music and Magic: The Ballad of Perilous Graves by Alex Jennings

There’s a point midway through Alex Jennings’ novel The Ballad of Perilous Graves in which Casey, an illustrator who is one of the novel’s central characters, looks at a sketch of a comic book character. In this case, it’s the magnificently-named supervillain Doctor Bong (so named because he wore a helmet in the shape of a bell), who was created by Steve Gerber and Marie Severin and debuted in the 1970s run of the Marvel comic Howard the Duck.

Casey observes that his take on the character is “more monstrous,” and goes on to describe it in greater detail: “More like something Richard Case would have designed for Grant Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol, but with the suggestion of Mignola’s deep shadows.” In one passage, Jennings has invoked a trio of iconic runs on various comics—encompassing the satirical verve of Howard the Duck, the surreal heroics of Doom Patrol, and the wide-ranging riffs on mythology and folklore found in Mike Mingola’s comics, especially Hellboy. And it may not come as much of a surprise to learn that many of those same descriptions apply to Jennings’s own novel.

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The Politics of Alien Contact: A Half-Built Garden by Ruthanna Emrys

The world of Ruthanna Emrys’ A Half-Built Garden is fascinating even before the aliens show up. It’s 2083 and humanity has fractured into a host of smaller social organizations, including weakened central governments, technologically-advanced micronations, and local networks that maintain distinctive technological and ecological presences.

It’s in one of these communities in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed that protagonist Judy Wallach-Stevens resides. What initially seems like odd scientific readings prove to be something different—the arrival of alien beings. It turns out that communications won’t be a problem, as the new arrivals have centuries’ worth of popular culture to learn from. But interacting with interstellar visitors soon becomes highly in demand—and given that Judy was the first to meet them, she soon finds herself at the center of numerous negotiations.

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Can’t Miss Indie Press Speculative Fiction for July and August 2022

The latest array of speculative fiction (and a few relevant works of nonfiction) on independent presses covers even more ground than usual. Among the highlights from indie presses in the coming months are lost classics from the early 20th century, a vision of a distant future gone feudal, and a bizarre investigation into a mysterious realm. Here are a few of the notable books that caught our eye for July and August.

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How Marvel’s No-Prize Helped Shape Modern Fandom

Welcome to Close Reads! In this series, Leah Schnelbach and guest authors dig into the tiny, weird moments of pop culture—from books to theme songs to viral internet hits—that have burrowed into our minds, found rent-stabilized apartments, started community gardens, and refused to be forced out by corporate interests. This time out, Tobias Carroll asks if Marvel’s No-Prize will be humanity’s downfall.

Every few months, like clockwork, I’ll look at what’s trending on Twitter and see people debating whether or not Marvel’s television shows that predated Disney+ are canonical. It is an endless debate and I hate it, and I also hate both the fact that I hate it and the fact that I care enough to hate it. Reading an argument about how Mahershala Ali being cast as Blade means that Luke Cage is definitely out of continuity, or what the bit with the watch at the end of Hawkeye means for Agents of SHIELD, gives me a migraine—sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally.

This is a frustration that goes far beyond the hate-click economy, though. My frustration kicks in because of its implications for reading and watching things—that kind of uncanny projection that happens when everyone is now an expert in the continuities of various storylines. What it makes me think of, above all else, is that the Marvel Comics No-Prize is somehow responsible for this entire state of affairs.

Maybe you’re nodding along, or maybe you’re bewildered right now. Let me explain.

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Series: Close Reads

Immortal Combat: Nicola Griffith’s Spear

If revisionist takes on all things Arthurian are your cup of tea—or, perhaps, your cup of mead—it’s likely been a good couple of years for you. Lavie Tidhar’s novel By Force Alone comes to mind as one recent work that took an intriguing approach to a familiar story; Kieron Gillen and Dan Mora’s comic Once and Future blends a deconstruction of myths with intense action sequences.

There’s also Sword Stone Table, an anthology of Arthurian retellings edited by Jenn Northington and Swapna Krishna—which, it turns out, is part of the origin story for Nicola Griffith’s new novella Spear.

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A Museum in Space and Time: Adrienne Celt’s End of the World House

It’s fair to say that if you’re working on a novel that’s suffused with the surreal, setting it in Paris is a good place to start. Much of Adrienne Celt’s End of the World House is set at the Louvre—best friends Bertie and Kate, on vacation from the Bay Area, are en route there when the book opens—and that seems like a wise decision for a work of fiction that takes a concept that’s become a full-on trope and steers it into something far more ineffable.

I don’t normally go for mild spoiler warnings, but I’m going to insert one here. Like Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi—a novel that shares a few qualities with this one—it’s a story best experienced knowing as little as possible going in. The first few chapters give Bertie, who soon emerges as the novel’s protagonist, a sense of something inherently off about the world; Celt eases the reader into this same sense of subtle wrongness before the full nature of what precisely is wrong comes into focus.

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Everything Versus the Void: Premee Mohamed’s The Void Ascendant

It’s no small achievement to tell a compelling story across the three books of a trilogy. That’s challenge enough, but for a handful of writers, simply doing that isn’t quite enough. I can think of a handful of examples of this, which takes the already-difficult task of following a novel with a sequel done in a new genre and further complicates things. Jeff VanderMeer’s done it twice, with the Southern Reach and Ambergris trilogies.

And having read Premee Mohamed’s The Void Ascendant, I can confirm that she’s pulled it off as well with her Beneath the Rising trilogy.

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Post-Human Connections and Dystopian Dating: Kate Folk’s Out There

Is it bad form to confess to finding a typo where none existed? Let me explain. In the opening story of Kate Folk’s new collection Out There—which is also the title story—the narrator recounts her frustration with online dating in a way that’s likely to resonate with anyone who’s spent time on The Apps. And then, something stood out.

“To further complicate matters,” the narrator states, “it was estimated that men on dating apps in the city were now 50 percent blots.” Blots? I thought. Shouldn’t that be bots? No, actually. That’s the gist of the story: in its near-future settings, a group of uncannily handsome artificial men known as blots have arrived on the scene. Their mission involves sleeping with women, stealing their personal data, and then evaporating into the æther.

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Space Races and Other Pursuits: Sylvain Neuvel’s Until the Last of Me

There are different ways to make a narrative gripping. One way is to give a sense of the bigger picture—to show how a particular character’s choices and actions have an impact on a much larger scale. Another is to zero in on something much more specific and showcase a highly limited perspective—something where the why of it all matters less than the breakneck pace it requires to get there.

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Chosen Ones Are Overrated: Kel Kade’s Destiny of the Dead

Let’s talk about narrative expectations for a second. Earlier this month, I watched director Takashi Miike’s 2015 film Yakuza Apocalypse. The opening 20 minutes are, in some ways, about what you’d expect from a crime drama focusing on a young gangster and his mentor, a beloved crime boss who faces an existential threat. Except that in Miike’s film, the crime boss is also a vampire, and ends up passing that condition off to his young protege.

Suddenly, the familiar narrative beats no longer applied, and the story was free to go off in its own direction. (That direction also involves a villain clad in an absurd frog costume—and even that isn’t the strangest thing about the film.) What this film demonstrates memorably is the value of taking a sharp turn into the unexpected. That, too, is something Kel Kade is exploring in their The Shroud of Prophecy series, of which Destiny of the Dead is the second book—a work that both embraces and upends certain genre tropes. And sometimes, like the aforementioned Miike film, it heads off on its own strange path—which makes for the book’s most memorable sequences.

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Can’t Miss Indie Press Speculative Fiction for March and April 2022

There’s a lot of great science fiction, fantasy, and horror published every month by large presses. But indie presses are also publishing plenty of great work—some of which can go under the radar. With that in mind, here’s a look at some notable books due out in March and April 2022 on independent presses. It’s not everything, but it might point you in some unexpected directions with your spring reading. [Read more]

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