A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Put this one on the list of venerated Science Fiction classics I’ve never gotten around to reading. But I found a neat (and cheap!) trade edition on a recent visit to The Strand bookstore in New York City and it felt like the right time to finally dive in.
And I’m delighted with this book thus far. Miller wrote A Canticle for Leibowitz in 1959, but his style and sense of humor show no signs of the hard aging I find endemic in Golden Age Science Fiction stories. Granted, I’m not that far in, but the initial chapters feel completely contemporary. And they’re funny to boot.
Set in 25th/26th Century post-nuclear war America, the story centers around Brother Francis, a young monk who finds a fallout shelter in the desert containing relics of the Beatified Leibowitz, which include an old blueprint, a shopping list, and a hastily-scrawled note. Just why an order of post-apocalyptic Catholic monks are venerating the memory of a (I’m guessing) rocket scientist from 1959 remains to be seen. But if these early chapters are any indication, the explanation will be an enjoyable one.
2013 So Far…
Kraken by China Miéville (* * ½)
After my positive experience with A Memory of Light, I want to keep the good reads going by turning to an author who has rarely let me down. Enter China Miéville, who has featured in my yearly “Best Reads” shows several times—most recently in January for his YA novel Railsea, which I named as my Best Read of 2012.
Kraken obviously revolves around giant squids in some form, though it’s not clear just how at 25 pages in—and since I like to remain as spoiler free as possible, I don’t even permit myself to read cover flaps with authors I trust. Call it a quirk.
But if you need more, here’s what I know so far. Set in present day London, the initial chapters of Kraken deal with the seemingly impossible theft of a giant squid from the Darwin Centre at the London Natural History Museum, told from the POV of curator Billy Harrow. Some suspicious characters and a mysterious symbol indicate that Billy’s about to descend into a mess of squid-centered Miévillesque weirdness. And if you need more than that to get you cracking on Kraken, you obviously don’t know Miéville.
VERDICT: So yeah, the discovery of a squid cult drives Billy into a mystical London underground of obscure/absurd religions rife with mystical occult powers and dangerous magical beings. This foray into real-world Urban Fantasy reads kind of like a mash-up of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Charles Stross’s Laundry series, and exemplifies both the best and worst aspects of Miéville’s writing style. Find out why in my full review, coming soon.
A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson (* * *)
At long last, the end is here. The final volume of The Wheel of Time arrived on my doorstep recently and I gleefully dove in to finish the sprawling fantasy epic that I stared way back when I was 19 (I’m 43 now, so yeah, it’s kind of a big deal).
But you know what? And after all my ups and downs with The Wheel of Time—my bitching about how terrible the series had gotten in the later volumes and my elation at its resurrection at the hands of Brandon Sanderson who took over after Robert Jordan’s death, my relief that there was finally a light at the end of the tunnel—after all of that, I felt a pang of sadness once I had truly settled into the narrative. Because it dawned on me. THIS IS IT. No more Rand. No more Mat or Perrin. The story is finally over. After two decades, I won’t have a new Wheel of Time book to read, and that’s kind of a bummer. I didn’t feel this way with Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, and I don’t anticipate feeling it with A Song of Ice and Fire—both of which I absolutely love(d). So I guess these characters have affected me more deeply than I realized.
In any event, I’m already about half way through A Memory of Light and a full review will follow. While you wait, check out the Featured Book Review box in the sidebar for my thoughts on the most recent volumes in The Wheel of Time series.
VERDICT: Well, it’s over. And was it good? A resound YES on that front. Sanderson wraps up Jordan’s magnum opus in grand style, fit for the scope and ambition of the late author’s vision. But does A Memory of Light redeem the Wheel of Time series over all? Find out in my full review!
Where or When by Steven Utley (* * ½)
Keeping the time travel/small press momentum rolling (see Timeswitch below), I decided to dive into this collection of time travel stories from writer Steven Utley—a signed, limited edition which I got from PS Publishing some years ago in my Mystery Box.
The initial stories in Where or When have proven interesting, but brief—more time travel notions anchored around forceful central characters rather than full-blown stories. But they’re entertaining, nonetheless. PS describes the collection as “mosaic” so it’ll be interesting to see how the stories begin to build upon one another.
Sadly, Steven Utley died from cancer on January 12, 2013, mere weeks after being diagnosed. Rest in Peace, Mr. Utley.
VERDICT: This was an enjoyable collection, and I wouldn’t recommend against it. But classifying it as a mosaic novel is a bit of a stretch. The method of time travel featured in the stories does evolve somewhat, and those forceful characters I mentioned are broadly-defined enough (strong-willed female time traveler, mysterious evil time traveler) that I guess you can pretend they’re the same people from story to story if you’re after a slightly more cohesive reading experience. But that’s a little beside the point. Utley purposely serves up vague archetypes in order to explore broad questions of the human condition. What’s really remarkable is how effective the stories are in that regard. I can’t remember any of the character’s names, but I’m still mulling over many of the ideas they expressed. A pretty neat trick.
Timeswitch by John Gribbin (* * *)
Continuing the theme of unbeatable small press sales (see Empties below), I’ve cracked open my recently acquired copy of Timeswitch from PS Publishing. I’ve gotten a lot of books from PS over the years, but I’ve never shelled out for one of their ultra-high-end editions—until now, anyway. The deal was too good to pass up: only £12.99 for a tray-cased, signed, limited edition, jacketed hardcover (which works out to about $30 when you throw in shipping). And Timeswitch is just one of two books I snagged.
Speaking of which, Timeswitch opens up in an alternate 1960s England, where the world is besieged by global warming, and environmental disaster threatens humanity—a byproduct of the scientific-industrial revolution of the 16th and 17th Centuries ushered in by the likes of Kepler and Newton. Erstwhile physicist-turned-historian Jan Ricardo is brought onto a secret government installation called The Complex, where his old college buddy has discovered a microscopic black hole that he hopes to use for time travel—which is as far as I’ve gotten. Judging from the title, I’d say it’s a safe bet that Jan will become the traveler, charged with averting the Earth’s environmental catastrophe. I’ve barely begun, but so far Timeswitch has really sucked me in. And since Gribbin has several advanced degrees in science, I’m thinking his speculations about time travel should be plausible as well as enjoyable.
VERDICT: I enjoyed Timeswitch, despite knowing where it would end up even as it began. One of the most gratifying aspects of the book is that Gribbin adheres to a scientifically plausible model of time travel, including a multiverse of ghost realities all vying for existence. And Jan does indeed become the time traveler, tasked with delaying scientific advancements in order to offset the climate change destroying the planet. It’s a lot of fun, and I’m surprised I can find almost nothing on the Internet about it outside of the publisher’s website. Timeswitch deserves a wider audience. The book also includes the funny bonus article, “A Do-it-Yourself Time Machine.” Gribbin is now on my list of authors to buy.
Empties by George Zebrowski (* *)
I picked Empties up during a recent half-price sale at Golden Gryphon Press, one of my favorite small presses. I will always be indebted to them for introducing me to Charles Stross in general, and his Laundry series in particular. And Jeffrey Ford as well. Unfortunately, I don’t know if they’re long for this world. The website has been static for months, and no new titles have been announced for quite some time. The good news is that the half-price sale is still going on, so you can still get some great deals on some unique titles that you can’t get anywhere else. Please support them if you can. I don’t want them to go away.
Anyway Empties is about a New York City detective trying to solve cases where bodies are turning up without brains, with no indication of how they’re being removed. It’s a supernatural horror that’s gotten good reviews. I go in with tempered expectations however, since police procedurals tend to leave me flat. But based on a few of the passages and observations in the opening chapter, I have a good feeling. And I haven’t even gotten to any of the neat stuff yet…
VERDICT: There is much to like about Empties. Many of Zebrowski’s observations are truly thought provoking. And once I got into the groove of his laconic, socially phobic and oftentimes ponderously obtuse main character William Benek, I really grew to like him (it finally clicked when I started seeing him as actor Misha Collins’ character Cas on Supernatural—a perfect fit, right down to the rumpled raincoat).
But it wasn’t enough to compensate for the story, which was initially interesting and creepy, but ultimately devolved into a jumble of repetitive ruminations and a series of inexplicable (in)actions by Benek and his adversary. It was as if Zebrowski got through exploring the novel’s central theme about two-thirds of the way through and just ended up spinning his wheels. Unfortunate.
Rain in the Doorway by Thorne Smith (* * ½)
It’s a new year, so what better way to kick things off than with some madcap alcoholism and misogyny courtesy of Thorne Smith? Most people know Smith for his Topper novels, but he wrote a string of risqué comedies throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s that involved copious amounts of drinking, sex and vaudeville style dialog between the characters. And Rain in the Doorway is the raciest one I’ve read yet.
The main character Hector Owen is standing in a department store doorway in the rain waiting for his horrible, unfaithful wife, when the door behind him opens and a hand emerges, yanking him out of the rain—and, apparently, life as he knew it. Owen is quickly made partner, given a line of credit and unfettered access to all of the salesgirls, all of whom are far more aggressive than he is. It’s good, old fashioned, dirty fun.
An extra bonus for me is that I found this affordable 1933 first edition copy of Rain in the Doorway at the Argosy Book Store in New York City last week during a wonderful year-end visit with my beautiful wife. It’s gonna be a good 2013!
VERDICT: This is flat-out midlife crisis, middle-aged male gonzo fantasy, where all the women are running around in various states of undress and literally asking for it. Oh, except for when Hector needs some comfort during a hangover, in which the lead bimbo turns into a saintly mother figure that cradles his aching head to her soothing bosom. I’ll leave it others to sort out the rampant Oedipal psychosexual subtext on which Rain in the Doorway is built and just say that I enjoyed this romping comedy for what it is—a lascivious lark. The jokes are corny and drag on for far too long in most cases, but Smith remains in a loony class by himself.
Want more book picks? Check out what I read in 2012.