There’s a point midway through Dale Bailey’s novel In the Night Wood wherein protagonist Charles Hayden ventures out to the forest around the English manor where he and his wife Erin have relocated following a tragedy on the other side of the Atlantic. In his exploration, Charles discovers a part of the forest that seems somewhat different from the rest: some of that can be chalked up to a sense of fundamental wrongness, and some of that can be be ascribed to a difference in temperature. But the sense of two places bordering one another, similar but with fundamentally different properties underlying their very nature, is a convenient metaphor for this novel as well, which is both a story about literary obsession and a story whose twists and turns may well lure in literary obsessives.
For some writers, mechanical or otherwise technological changes to the human body are a way to examine the gulf between self-image and reality, or a means by which the nature of humanity itself can be discussed. The stories that make up David R. Bunch’s Moderan, first published in the 1960s and ’70s, take a somewhat different approach—one that reaches a much more pessimistic conclusion about the future of humanity, while also resonating uncomfortably with our own age of toxic masculinity run rampant. An earlier version of this collection was published in 1971; this new edition adds additional stories (as “Apocrypha From After the End”) and feels all too contemporary—both in its psychology and its vision of a ravaged planet.
Bunch’s book describes, in great detail, life in a future in which mechanical parts (known as “new metal,” which may temporarily confuse any Limp Bizkit superfans reading this) have taken the place of much of the human form. There’s more than a little overlap between Bunch’s “new metal” and the “new flesh” of David Cronenberg’s film Videodrome, from the discomfiting and visceral descriptions of its place in this society to the fanatical way in which its devotees speak about it.
David Peace’s literary career began with the Red Riding Quartet: four literary novels set in a specific period of time and a specific place, with a stylized and haunted prose approach that signified a penchant for the works of James Ellroy. In the years since then, Peace’s fiction has expanded in scope: he’s continued to tell crime stories, but he’s also brought his approach to fiction to bear on a number of different projects.
Chief among them are his pair of novels about soccer, The Damned United and Red or Dead. In these books, especially the latter, Peace uses language and structure to echo the rhythms and nuances of the game at the heart of the real-life subjects of the novels. It’s an unconventional approach to storytelling, but it’s one that fits its subjects well. All of which is to say that Peace’s latest novel, Patient X: The Case-Book of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, echoes his novels about soccer, even as it’s nothing like them at all.
So frequently, stories set after a catastrophic event that disrupts or destroys society concern themselves with a re-establishment of the status quo. It might be in rebuilding that which came before; it might come through the quest for some lost home, in the slim hope that some sliver of the past might be preserved. In those stories, nostalgia in the face of terror may be the only thing that keeps humanity alive.
Ling Ma’s Severance is not one of those stories. It’s a novel that sneaks up on you from all sides: it’s an affecting portrayal of loss, a precise fictional evocation of group dynamics, and a sharp character study of its protagonist, Candace Chen. It also features one of the most hauntingly plausible end-of-the-world scenarios I’ve encountered in recent fiction, one which folds in enough hints of the real to be particularly unsettling. “The End begins before you are ever aware of it,” Candace observes early in the novel, and much of Severance’s power arrives through this: the sense that something terrible and seismic might happen, and no one would even notice.
What do you call a ghost story that doesn’t feel remotely like a ghost story? Nicole Kornher-Stace’s novel Archivist Wasp brought together a host of seemingly disparate elements that would normally clash and turned them into a bizarre and compelling coming of age story abounding with surreal adventures in a postapocalyptic landscape. At the heart of it was a young woman then known as Wasp, who embarked on a journey to strange landscapes both tactile and metaphysical, assisted by the nameless ghost of a soldier.
Kornher-Stace’s take on ghosts departs from conventional portrayals of revenants and spectres. Some are largely dissipated, almost cartoonish shells of the people they once were. Others are as tactile as the humans with whom they interact: the ghost featured prominently in Archivist Wasp is a prominent example. The highly advanced ghosts also wear clothing, possess weapons, and can interact with the physical world in the same manner as the living. It feels somewhat reminiscent of the angels in the film Wings of Desire; additionally, the notion of ghosts possessing an energy akin to fuel recalls both Tim Powers’s Expiration Date and, more recently, Hannu Rajaniemi’s Summerland. But the uneasy coexistence of a ravaged future landscape and the presence of the restless and tactile dead sets this fictional setting apart, and makes it particularly memorable.
The nature of identity is at the heart of an abundance of speculative fiction. It can be one of the best ways of exploring what makes a person unique and what sits at the heart of a particular person’s identity. In some fiction, this can be approached via heated philosophical discussion or rich metaphors; in the realm of science fiction and speculative fiction, these questions can be approached far more literally.
This year has brought with it a trio of books—two new, one in a new edition—that use surreal and speculative takes on memory and language to explore fundamental questions about the nature of humanity. The imagery and language in these books sizzles with uncanny takes on the nature of life and consciousness, but as far from the mundane as they go, their concerns remain deeply rooted in primal anxieties. Who are we? What makes us us? Is there a certain point beyond which I might become someone else, or forever lose my sense of selfhood?
Sometimes a narrative begins in a familiar place: with someone embarking on a journey, for instance. Nikhil Singh’s novel Taty Went West is like that—the first sentence of the second chapter seems to usher the reader into familiar territory. “The piggy bank bought her a bus ticket to nowhere fast,” Singh writes, tapping into a longstanding tradition of young people venturing out into parts unknown. (As if to make this more explicit, Singh includes a nod to the Beat Generation later in the novel.) Taty is a young woman frustrated by suburban life, tuned in to her favorite songs on her Walkman. She’s in search of something bigger, a larger and more compelling world. This is a familiar story, right?
It’s not a familiar story. That bus ticket’s bought in the second chapter. The one before that sets up an altogether stranger milieu, and one that hints at the bizarre scenarios to come.
What happens when tales of the paranormal and supernatural are shot through with an air of melancholy? Rita Bullwinkel’s new collection Belly Up does a fine job of answering that question. Bullwinkel covers a lot of stylistic territory here—some of these stories deal with the uncanny, while others fall in a more realistic vein—but the emotional consistency that carries through the book helps it to achieve a welcome unity. Alternately, consider these variations on a theme regarding mortality and isolation: timeless themes, rendered in an unpredictable manner.
How does our knowledge of genre play into our expectations of a narrative? Imagine the same book under two different conditions. This is a novel in which the supernatural element doesn’t make itself known until halfway through. Add a “fantasy” tag on the back cover, and that delayed release might feel like effective management of narrative tension; have that tag be something more neutral, and the shift out of outright realism can feel more like a shock.
I once got into a heated debate concerning the speculative elements of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go with someone who hadn’t expected them to be present, and who was frustrated by the novel’s shift into a more science fictional realm. Going back even further, there’s the Robert Rodriguez film From Dusk Till Dawn, which appears to be a tense crime drama until 75% of the way through, at which point it turns out to be a horror film featuring an abundance of vampires. And much of John Wray’s The Lost Time Accidents leaves the reader ambiguous as to whether a device constructed for traveling through time actually works. Clarity regarding genre elements can make some narratives click, even while others grow more obfuscated.
How do you translate the transcendental into words on a page? Is there a way for enterprising writers to convey the way that a highly evolved being might move through time and space in a way that those of us who are merely human might comprehend? Sometimes prose can be at a disadvantage: consider the hallucinatory climax of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the more reality-bending moments of the comic book The Invisibles. In her debut novel Origamy, Rachel Armstrong endeavors to do exactly this: writing from the perspective of someone who manipulates space and time the way that a potential reader might drive a car, bake a loaf of bread, or mold clay.
Go back a few decades in the realm of pulp storytelling, and they abound: stories of adventurers far from home, investigating ancient structures and discovering mysterious events there. There are entire subgenres dedicated to this, and the form has endured. While it’s not nearly as prevalent as it was in the early and mid-20th century, plenty of its DNA shows up in the Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider franchises. But the narrative template of a (generally white and male) hero uncovering lost cultures or artifacts from somewhere in Africa, Asia, or South America is one that hasn’t aged particularly well, and for good reason.
Embracing this narrative unconditionally can mean embracing a whole lot of racist, sexist, and/or colonialist baggage—not the greatest of storytelling decisions. More recent tales of adventure in distant lands have sought to correct this: a whole essay could be written about the arc of the Uncharted series of video games, the latest of which centers the narrative around two women of color. Mat Johnson’s Pym riffs considerably upon Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, but abounds with an implicit critique of the racial politics of Poe’s original story. Nevertheless, it’s also about a scientific adventurer facing impossible odds and uncanny adversaries while on a journey halfway across the world. Johnson’s novel is a prime example of how these older storytelling conventions can still charge a narrative in the present day, as long as a writer is willing to address the aspects of it that haven’t aged well.
And so, this brings us to the case of Ned Beauman’s Madness Is Better Than Defeat, which on the surface has plenty of familiar pulpy elements. There’s a mysterious temple in a remote jungle in Honduras, abundant secrets and duplicity, warring factions within the espionage community, betrayals, violence, and struggles among the wealthy and powerful. In telling this complex story, has Beauman found an equally deft way of bringing pulp tropes to the present day without stumbling, or are we dealing with a complex structure around a potentially retrograde plot?
What happens when the end of the world sneaks up on you? Many a narrative of civilization in ruins cites an inciting event—a war, a natural disaster, a pandemic—as the root cause of devastation. These are narratives where characters can point to a date on a calendar and say, “There. That was when everything changed.” But life isn’t always like that: sometimes change can come without any warning. Sometimes there are no portents of war; sometimes there are no gradually increasing reports of a strange medical condition. Sometimes something terrible just happens, and a society is forever changed.
The beginning of Simon Jacobs’s Palaces is, as the openings of many novels are, an introduction to the style in which the book will be told and an explanation of its milieu. Here, though, it’s something else: the first part is a brief interlude that feels more like the end of an earlier work, a post-script to a story that’s already reached its end. At the book’s center is a couple, John and Joey—though they’re more commonly referred to in the book as “I” and “you.” They’re part of a music scene in a college town, and then they aren’t; soon in to the book, they’ve moved to a larger city, ditched their phones, begun squatting (“our aspiration is to the appearance of abandonment”), and settled into a life there. And then things turn ominous.
Series: Genre in the Mainstream
It’s logical to think that societal progress will line up neatly with the progression of time, to believe that life will get better as we move towards the future. At least, it’s something to hope for: that, just as most lives are better now than they were a hundred years ago, so too will the lives of our descendants (literal or metaphorical) be equally better than our own. But there’s also a pressing fear that things could go the other way—that, instead of a better tomorrow, humanity might have to deal with a vision of the future that looks suspiciously like its own past.
Evoking the past in stories of the future can make for an unsettling read, and it’s a device that certain writers have found useful to tap into a collective anxiety over the collapse of progress.
Series: Genre in the Mainstream
There are certain expectations that a reader might have when reading novels billed as sequels or as part of a series. Chief among them: that a novel will fall into the same general category as its predecessor. The third book of a high fantasy series is unlikely to be a cyberpunk romance; the sequel to a novel set in a dystopian hellscape after the collapse of a futuristic civilization probably won’t be about secretive missions on a pre-cataclysm Atlantis. One volume largely sets the ground rules for a world going forward; the works that follow hew to the existing worldbuilding.
Except when they don’t.
Series: Genre in the Mainstream
What happens when we can no longer trust our memories? Who are we when we’ve lost our sense of identity? Not surprisingly, science fiction can turn these questions into gripping narratives, taking the stuff of neuroscience and psychology and turning it into thrilling, sometimes unsettling stories of the mind tipping into something uncanny, mysterious, or fully unknown.
Adding a speculative aspect to a narrative about memory can also turn a familiar story on its head. A tale of identity theft, a narrative about a community wondering who they are, or the story of a law enforcement officer dealing with a spate of unsolved crimes are all examples of ways in which familiar plots can be deepened and made profoundly unsettling when a detour is made away from strict realism. The following five books use a host of devices to explore bold questions about the nature and function of memory, venturing into uncharted territory along the way.
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