Saturday, March 28, 2015

Our place in the universe: Martin Amis's "The Janitor on Mars"

Blinded, betrayed, and bereft, King Lear's Duke of Gloucester cries out, "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods./They kill us for their sport."

That pretty well encapsulates the theme of Martin Amis's short story "The Janitor on Mars," appearing in his collection Heavy Water. In the middle of the 21st century, Earth is contacted by an alien intelligence, a Martian "janitor"; the term's full implication is unclear until late in the story, but our point of view character back on Earth is an actual janitor, a largely chaste pederast who works at a facility for at-risk youth . . . if I've understood the organization properly. Things are morally muddy, as consensual relationships, no matter how imbalanced in terms of power, are encouraged and protected. Someone has assaulted one of our main character's charges, however, and he presses the nearly speechless, victimized boy to give him a name. Meanwhile, all of Earth is riveted to TV screens showing the arrival of the human delegation at the appointed meeting place on Mars. It's a juxtaposition that shouldn't work, in part because the science fiction aspect digs deeper and deeper—and for a sizable portion of the narrative—into certain "hard" SF premises having to do with the history and purposes of powerful sentient species. Just when you think the story can't get more grim, it takes another step down its dark path, unrelenting in the logic that governs its universe. Our Earth janitor, for his part, wants to protect one damaged boy from the terrible encounter the whole world is watching.

The story is rich with mordant humor as well as science fictional ideas, and it's deeply humane as well, despite the hopeless framework. What connects the narratives on Earth and in the heavens are the story's ideas about power. Perhaps there is something that makes us stand out against the dark infinitudes, and perhaps, Amis posits, if it's our frailty and weakness, then that may be a good thing.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Oh, it's a trilogy: THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM, Liu Cixin

 . . . or, rather, if you're looking for it on Amazon or in a bookstore, it's by Cixin Liu.

The Three-Body Problem combines politics, international skulduggery, serious physics, computer gaming, and a first-contact event in ways that alternate between creative and clunky. Not only the plot, but the characters and the writing, too, shift from profundity to something that reads like middle-school fan fiction. A penultimate section of the book, containing information that no one in the book should reasonably possess, seems to have been separately imagined and composed, a physics-laden, high-minded space opera that might have been the seed for the rest of the novel . . . or not.

If you're an SF reader, you'll certainly enjoy much of the book, which throws together a host of ideas and which, at least to this layperson, takes its science seriously. That it is a work originally in Chinese, planted in a culture unfamiliar to most American readers, gives it a refreshingly unfamiliar shape—mostly. The Cultural Revolution gives impetus to some characters' actions, but some characters seem to have walked out of Hollywood central casting. Several thought-provoking concepts—political, moral, ecological—lie at the heart of the story, but several truly dumb ideas also propel the plot. Some dialogue is fine, but some is unspeakably bad, the kind of thing one imagines hearing in Communist propaganda films—long-winded, discursive speech no one would say and no one would tolerate hearing. The game that's so important to the novel—a vivid world that fails to prosper in its chaotic three-sun system—doesn't coherently connect with the larger story (obviously, the writer thinks it does, but I found it unconvincing) and also proves disappointing by being more literal than metaphorical in its purposes.

The central character, a woman who, as a young girl, saw her physicist father killed for the sake of the revolution, is compelling, though she leaves the stage quite often, and the characters who displace her never take on the same heft.

The first book in a trilogy (I didn't know this until I'd finished it), the novel can nevertheless stand on its own—unless you're hoping the author is aiming for a happier ending in the long run.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Winningly full: Harkaway's TIGERMAN

A joy.

Tigerman's hero is straight from Graham Greene (say, The Comedians or The Heart of the Matter): profoundly engaged with his own interior life, posted to a spot on the map that his British mind finds impossible to comprehend, the protagonist can't see himself as a hero, but he has to rise to the occasion for pressing moral reasons. Unlike a Greene character, however, Nick Harkaway's Lester Ferris is a man who must, in these times, act boldly in the physical world. He cannot change things for the better through an ambiguous gesture or by speaking the truth or a lie at a given moment; rather, he must, while also using such diplomatic means to achieve his ends, be what he frequently terms "a sergeant," a man who knows how much force to apply when encountering resistance as well as when to yield to stronger forces.

The less said about the plot, the better, but I'll provide this: on a dying, lawless island off the African coast, Sergeant Ferris's friendship with a wickedly smart young boy drives Ferris to build a counter-narrative to the failing world around him. Harkaway provides vivid depictions of the characters we truly need to know; it's an uncluttered novel because Ferris's world is so interior, unlike the wild island whose recesses and people he has mostly come to know through departures and destruction. The story feels utterly modern—through both the openly darker politics of the post-9/11 world and the internet-and-comic-lingo-savvy boy who shadows Ferris— but remains moored, texturally, in the recent British post-colonial past. Harkaway toys with the responsibilities and behaviors of lost empires, all the while providing proof that there's still room for the kinds of heroic thinking that formed—and malformed—those empires. Indeed, the narrative twines life and death about each other in a hug that is like the hugs that form the novel's central motif: sometimes people reach hesitantly for each other; a few times, a hug is suggested but not given; at key moments, the hug is a desperate grasping after life.

And how long should we hold on to what must pass into oblivion?

Smart and exciting, and featuring that rarity, a third act that pays off in every way, never neglecting the themes it has set in motion, Tigerman is, in its words, deeds, and deeply felt passions, a joy.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Overview review: The Old Man stories

Writer and Cambridge-dweller Jay O'Connell (author of Dystopian Love) gives a nice overview of my in-process Old Man series here.

I've been poking and prodding at the final story, but I've also been working on an unrelated piece of short fiction. More news soon.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Free Fiction

Till 5/25, "Vox ex Machina" (Asimov's, Dec. 2013) and "A Crisis for Mr. Lion" (Zoetrope: All-Story prize-winner, 2006) are free (and together).

Thursday, May 8, 2014

And here's another story

"Each in His Prison, Thinking of the Key," the fourth story in my Old Man series, recently published in Asimov's Science Fiction, is now available as an e-book via Amazon.

Friday, April 25, 2014

More stories via Kindle

I have joined together two stories that, really, have no business being together . . . except that I wrote them both. "Vox ex Machina," which ran in the Dec. 2013 Asimov's, and "A Crisis for Mr. Lion," which won the 2006 Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Award, are for sale (less than a buck!) via Amazon as one e-book. I believe Amazon Prime users may "borrow" them for free, but perhaps I've misunderstood something about the process.