It’s been a while since I said much about the non-RPG-related books I’ve read lately—and in fact I missed doing a roundup of the best books I read last year. What can I say, having a newly-minted one-year-old around was pretty time-consuming. But he’s in the day care system now, so not only am I reading more again (phew) but also getting more time to write about it.
(Especially because I ended up taking a break from working on my book to deal with the Plague Upon Our House—a toddler ear infecion, mom with a sore throat, dad with bronchitis, and wait, that ear infection is back? And again? I didn’t get much serious writing done, but I had some time in the evening to bang out some thoughts on books I’ve read in the past year-and-two-thirds. By the time this post goes public, though, I hope we’ll all have recovered and my book draft will be finished. Fingers crossed.)
So… here’s a bit of a roundup on things I’ve either read recently, or read last year but enjoyed enough to still have something to say about them. And yeah, I’m skipping RPG books for now. By the time this gets posted, you’ll have seen enough of me posting about games for a while, I figure…
The Nickronomicon by Nick Mamatas. A collection of Lovecraftian stories from one of HPL’s more interesting advocates and fans, this collection could also be taken as a textbook on just how widely one can range while still writing Lovecraftian fiction. The stories are all darkly funny in their way, but some of them are also genuinely creepy, or mind-bendingly weird, or just plain unsettling. Nick is one of the smarter people out there writing Lovecraftian fiction, and he’s not scared to do wild things with it, venturing into post-Lovecraftian subversion and deconstruction of H.P.L. while celebrating the stuff about Lovecraft that we all love, and which he, too, seemingly can’t get out of his mind. Or maybe couldn’t? Here’s hoping the story “On the Occasion of my Retirement” is only lightly metafictional, and that Nick has more in store for us (despite his claim, around the time this book was published, that he was leaving our grungy village of misshapen weirdoes for good).
Oh, also? I dig the interior artwork. Innsmouth Free Press put this book together right.
I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas. The fact I was able to pick this up at WorldCon last year—and even get it inscribed by the man himself—just months after reading Nickronomicon was wonderful, but the book ended up being more delightful still. Any resemblance to real people, living or dead, is totally coincidence… wink, wink. It’s a who’s who send-up of the Lovecraftian scene, as well as a riff on Sharyn McCrumb’s Bimbos of the Death Sun. 1 A delightful blend of existential horror, murder mystery, and satire of of some of the most satirizable people on Earth, it’s hard not to dig it. I suspect it’s even fun for people who don’t get all the jokes… or, rather, for people who miss more of them than I did. (I’m pretty sure I didn’t catch every riff, after all.)
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter J., Miller. Yes, it took me until 2016 to get around to it, but man, what a novel. It’s pretty obviously a fixup novel, episodic in the way they usually are, but actually, Miller works that seam to perfection, using the cleft between the chunks to leap through hundreds of years of future history. He’s one of those authors who seems to be fundamentally ambivalent about Catholicism while still being very sympathetic to the Church, probably because whatever the Church gets wrong (and it’s plentiful), it’s right about one thing: humanity is flawed, dangerous, and often horrible to one another. This is one of those books that seems to have exerted and influence on a lot of the nuclear post-apocalyptic stuff that came after it, but which seems also to have survived only to a limited degree: I think people probably are uncomfortable with its overwhelmingly Catholic content, which is too bad, because in a way Miller’s using the Church to talk about stability of culture, its mutations and adaptations to the world around it, and about the transience of the somewhat naïve values and beliefs we take for granted now, in one of those bright moments where things seem like they’re holding together, before they fall apart again.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Humbert Humbert’s a masterful sketch of beguiling evil: he’s a horrible, nasty thing that belongs in prison (if not in the ground), and yet the monstrosity is also very human: he’s funny, charming when he wants to be, intelligent enough to see how repulsive he is (even if he seems to revolt against that at every step), and of course, a master of using words to say what seems to be one thing, when it’s really another. Of course, I think Nabokov was also punching America in the groin when he wrote this book… in the most clever and forceful way possible. In the days when Nabokov wrote this, after all, America was all about spectacle, and Lolita is the spectacle of evil, of consumption, of insisting words mean what suits one at the time, and of course, of everyone pretending things are hunky dory in those white-picket-fenced houses.
Inter-Ice Age 4 by Kobo Abe. This is a weird book, one with a long setup about a program that can calculate the future (or, at least, strong historical probabilities for future events). Just when you think you’re seeing the Japanese version of John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, the book veers off, leaving the computer app behind and revealing a different conspiracy: a massive operation by which supposed abortions are secretly used as a recruitment process for a program of breeding water-breathing superhumans of the future. Though it’s aged somewhat since it was published, it still packs home a punch in terms of hammering on one argument: that science fiction is about recognizing everything you value will someday be deep in the ground, forgotten and lost. (From what I remember—this was one of the books I read in early 2016—the culture being taught to these posthuman beings is… harsh and inhuman, by the narrator’s standards, and ours.)
Cavalcade by Alison Sinclair. First contact, with a twist. I liked this book a lot, though sometimes I found myself wondering whether Sinclair gave her feminist separatists a fair shake. Not that feminist separatists aren’t ever known to be loonies, but the more mainstream groups tended to be much more sensible about adapting to life in the alien ship than this group. I liked the characters, the enigma of the ship, and some of the dilemmas that Sinclair poses for the characters, as well as the unforgiving nature of the alien ship that they find themselves upon. 2 I think the ending will either please or frustrate people depending on how they feel about having the enigmas resolved. Personally, I’m happy to accept that there are things human minds simply cannot parse, so I liked it.
John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is rightly considered a classic of the spy genre, and by that people mean it’s how actual spying worked. (Le Carré ought to know, since he was an unhappy cog in the MI6 machine when he wrote it.) It’s Kafkaesque without being overtly so, and it somehow uncovers the almost Lovecraftian monstrosity of the web of secrets that grew up in the shadows of the public narrative of the Cold War. Individual people being crushed under that? That’s a tragedy, where whole cultures being warped and corrupted, that was just news. It’s very strange to say but the weariness and horror is fascinating, and infectious enough somehow to make one want to read more of Le Carré.
His own epilogue mentions one of his books (The Looking-Glass War) that my friend Justin recommended to me when loaning me this book, and A Perfect Spy has also been recommended, so I guess those are next for the queue when I come back to Le Carré. Incidentally, I was happy reading something I knew my father had once read: when he wasn’t reading Wilbur Smith and Tom Clancy, he dug his John Le Carré for the very British, professional sensibility it had, and I can see why. Unlike certain other major spy novel/film franchises, Le Carré’s interested in pragmatics, and in how the cost for solving any problem in espionage doesn’t go away because some clever nerd thought up some clever gadget that comes into use: the cost, almost always, turns out to be unavoidably paid in human life or lives.
Resumé With Monsters by William Browning Spencer was an odd book to revisit: I really liked it when I read it in my early 20s, but it was slow going when I came back to it. I might have enjoyed it more if I’d read in a more concentrated dose, but it was a very busy time when I took it up. Spencer’s funny, he’s just not as funny to me now as I remember him seeming to my younger self, and I wonder if maybe more experience with the misery of grown-up life and dead-end jobs and insane coworkers has something to do with it?
I think I wonder what’s become of him in the years since this. Looking around online, I see put out a second collection of short stories about a decade ago, which was well-received, but all I have on hand is The Return of Count Electric (a short story collection) and Zod Wallop (a novel), both of which date back to the same period and which were published (or reprinted?) by White Wolf’s Borealis fiction imprint.
Molly Tanzer’s The Pleasure Merchant is an historical mystery set in what seems to be the mid-to-late Georgian era. (Hilariously, this is the setting in which she riffs on that subset of gothic novels that dominated a bit later, which were all about the dilemma of whether the mysterious phenomena in the book are actually supernatural or something more scientific but mundane.) She does some interesting, sometimes unsettling things with character sympathy and point of view; while I have mild reservations about the epilogue, I enjoyed the novel overall, and found myself thinking about how other Georgian novel protagonists would look from the point of view of the minor characters of novels they star in. (Lemuel Gulliver already comes off as an ass, of course—Swift made him that way for satirical purposes—but would anyone really want to go for a beer with Robinson Crusoe?) There’s something about narrative ethics here that Tanzer’s playing with that’s subtle, weird, and interesting, in part because her book seems simultaneously to endorse some Georgian-era values while repudiating others.
Evelyn Waugh’s Black Mischief is an exercise in mean-spiritedness, but then Waugh seems at first to be mainly mocking other mean-sp[irited people. That is to say, up to a point, the English and Europeans in his imaginary version of Ethiopia seem to be the most monstrous and horrible people in the country. It’s a tempting out, to argue that the Europeans come off looking much worse than the Africans in the book… or even, when that argument finally falters, that everyone comes off looking bad. (Even some Ethiopian readers have argued that, apparently.) In the end, though, it’s almost as if the Europeans are nastier because they’re more refined in their human evil, where the Africans (for Waugh) are either more bumbling or more animalistic, something Waugh can’t resist playing for cheap laughs. I’ll admit that probably Waugh relentlessly undercuts every character he writes, but given the flavor difference, I think I’d prefer to read him undercut people in his homeland. This is, I should note, the first of his novels I’ve read.
Eileen Gunn’s Stable Strategies and Others is also full of satire, but without the mean-spirited bigotry apparent in Waugh, and Stable Strategies is an incredible collection of short stories I read one bit at a time, over years, until finally I decided to stop saving it up and plunge through. Gunn’s sensibility for humor, telling detail, and satirical undercutting is just so brilliant, her imagination is so wild—there’s a heartbreaking story about a sock that goes missing in the laundry, another one that merges The Metamorphosis with the horrors of corporate life (something Gunn knows about from experience), and she even manages to do something compelling with that subgenre of alternate-history stories where major historical figures play a role, in a way that’s engaging for a non-American reader. Gunn’s work is just astonishingly good. It may be the best book of short stories I’ll get to read in 2017. Go get it. And pick me up her next book while you’re out, okay? (Okay, okay, I’ll get it myself.)
The Art of Memory by Frances A. Yates is a book I discussed in a post earlier this year, but it’s worth a mention here. It’s an odd book in that it’s very scholarly, but also very readable. Yates was a scholar who specialized in the Art of Memory, a memory-boosting system about which Yates was herself deeply skeptical. It’s primarily about the competing systems and how they became a part of European culture, learning, mysticism, and art. A lot of the book deals with the systems themselves, and is stuff you won’t get by reading biographical accounts of the major figures who espoused these systems. Worth a read, but best if you digest it in big chunks rather than all at once. There are obvious, natural shifts in the text indicative of the best places to take a break and do this.
Tim Pratt’s Briarpatch is an odd, sometimes dark but often funny modern fantasy about travelers between worlds. For me, the book came along at the right time, demonstrating a couple of lessons I needed to learn while writing what I was working on at the time I read it. It’s a quick read, breezily populated by the characters who were all fun and engaging (and even a somewhat relatable villain), but the main attraction of the book is “the Briarpatch,” a sort of meta-reality crammed with wonders and dangers and more. Perhaps Pratt’s success in writing RPG tie-in fiction has something to do his instinct for building worlds like this: I felt like the Briarpatch would make a wonderful setting for a certain kind of contemporary fantasy RPG. There’s a kind of cartoony fun about it, too, with one of the major artifacts from the Briarpatch being a sentient car that, yes, sometimes eats people. I don’t often gulp down novels, but I did this one.
Graham Greene’s A Gun for Sale is, on the one hand, yet another novel about a nasty rich Jewish capitalist who wanted to start World War I—man, this trope was pervasive—but it is on the other hand a tightly constructed countdown of a novel. It’s actually something of a textbook in terms of how clashing motivations move a novel forward. As I read it, I took notes, and pretty much every scene can be broken down into who wants what and whether they get it fully, get it partly, or get foiled (either by another character, or by the environment). While that’s something we can see in all novels, it’s really close to the surface here, and so much easier to recognize on a scene-by-scene basis. Unfortunately I suspect that also holds the book back—it’s not Greene’s best work—but then it is an early novel, and seeing him work out structure like this early on sort of made it clearer what Greene’s doing in later novels, with much more subtlety.
Donald Westlake’s 361 is a grungy crime/thriller about grungy criminals and the people who are worse than grungy criminals. I found a copy of the Hard Case Crime series edition in a Book-Off! shop in Fukuoka and figured I’d seen Westlake mentioned enough times for it to be worth a shot. When I picked it up a few days after we got home, I pretty much inhaled it in a sitting or two. If you get a kick out of reading about terrible people doing terrible things and often suffering terrible consequences, it’s fun, and Westlake definitely has a gritty style that suits this kind of story. (And in that way, it’s kind of similar to A Gun for Sale, where terrible people also do terrible things and suffer terrible consequences, but the Greene feels more overtly constructed where the Westlake seems to sort of lope and sprawl toward its horrible incidents. It’s more small-group jazz, where A Gun for Sale is like bloodstained chamber music.) I can see why people who dig crime fiction praise Westlake, even if this is—I have the feeling—a relatively minor work within his oeuvre.
The Prague Papers by Nik Morton. (Seemingly rereleased under the title The Prague Manuscript.) The first in a series of espionage thrillers about psychic spy Tana Standish: very pulpy and 007 in flavor, which probably is harder for me to enjoy after reading Le Carré for the first time. The emphasis is on timeline-hopping plot, action, and menacing twists, and honestly the prose is mostly functional (or, well, close enough), but I think it’d make an interesting film franchise, if you could only get Hollywood to take a chance on a 60s/70s-era telepathic female superspy. I wouldn’t envy the screenwriter the task of constructing a screenplay out of it, though, with all those twists and flashbacks to have to contend with!
McCrumb’s novel has been on my radar since it was published by TSR when I was a kid, but which I’ve never managed to stumble upon in any bookstore.↩
I think it’d actually make a cool alternate setting for a Metamorphosis Alpha-type game: instead of characters finding themselves waking up from cold storage on a generation ship that’s off course and falling apart, characters opt to join a population of people aboard an alien ship that drops by Earth, and discover the setting is dangerous, baffling, and filled with scientific and technological mystery, alongside the petty and not-so-petty human conflicts they bring along with them. In fact, I suspect it’d make a great Powered by the Apocalypse game.↩