Agony Column Home
Agony Column Review Archive

Beach Lit 101: No Slow Parts

The Agony Column for Monday, April 15, 2002

Commentary by Rick Kleffel


We've hardly left the rainy season behind, but the next summer's Beach Lit is already crowding the shelves. Yes, there are surely lots of books that we know to look forward to. There's the new Alastair Reynolds, 'Redemption Ark', the new Adam Roberts, 'Stone', and a host of new works from Dan Simmons.

I'm already plotting the ilnesses that will force me to lie down and read Alastair Reynolds' sequel to 'Revelation Space'.

How much mystery can the SF genre take and still be SF? Adam Roberts offers a protagonist who is also the perpetrator of planetary extinction in 'Stone'.

This book arrived yesterday! Thanks to Subterranean Press, just for being there. Where's the Frequent Buyer card, folks?

I find mysdelf a bit surprised by how much I look forward to this book. Could it be that it's just guaranteed top-quality writing?

Clive Barker reportedly has a new 'Book of Blood' coming out in addition to the long rumored 4-volume Arabat quartet. 'The Scar', China Mieville's followup to 'Perdido Street Station' is so close I can practically feel the weight in my hands. (Since I wrote this line, the email from has arrived letting me know it's been sent! Not that this will deter the signed version from various vendors...)

Well, at least there's a front cover for the long rumoured Arabat Quartet. At this rate, I'll be buried before the final volume comes out.

China Mieville has been hailed as the next -- er, never mind. I've been remiss in mentioning this novel, much of which I read during a stay on a US Aircraft carrier with my son's Cub Scout Troop.

An oceanic theme seems to be in the air. Mieville's latest is set on the same world as 'Perdido Street Station' and is winging its way towards me from the UK even as I write.

Ramsey Campbell's newest supernatural novel is coming from PS Publishing, a publisher that has a hot list of new stuff in their own right. Look at the small presses -- they're positively burgeoning. But these are expected! Expected, planned, on the map! Such are the riches of the discerning reader. It's almost embarrassing, and would be if all the authors weren't rock-solid known-for-quality masters. I'm not kidding about the literature part of the equation here. This isn't guilty pleasure* material. The work is not just enjoyable and readable, it's no-hold-barred analyzable-in-English-class, RE-readable, shelve-it-and-save-it litrachur. OK, so, none of these guys have quite made it into the textbook list -- yet. And your high-falutin' TV book clubs aren't going to feature these writers yet either. That's a plus.

*(If you factor in the guilty pleasure material, you'll probably have to give up a significant portion of your life just to keep up. And you'll probably want some GP material. The best thing about reading is that even sticking your nose into a GP brick is time better spent than time spent in front of the Great Satan^H^H^H^H^Hcompetitor, TV and movies. Moreover, you might need to cut out that pesky cable bill to afford the wealth of new books coming out. On the flip side, nobody ever sold a video tape recording of a first run episode of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' for $900, whereas you can sell a first edition Anne Rice novel for that price. 'Buffy' has a lot to recommend it, but not cash back on your time investment.)

But the expected deluge is as nothing compared to the UNEXPECTED. That's right, the guy whose first (or maybe second, third, fourth, or fifth) book just blows you out of the water without warning. Of course, the new author thing seems like it's the best experience you can ask for. Remember the first of the 'Books of Blood' by Clive Barker you read? How about Alastair Reynolds' 'Revelation Space'? Or the sublime joy of Dan Simmons' 'Song of Kali'? Where were you when the sky first took on the color of a "television, tuned to a dead channel"? Sometimes from the very first sighting you know that you've struck gold, and can put the writer on your auto-buy list for years to come. What a wonderful feeling!

But other authors you come by gradually, enjoying their books until the light breaks through the clouds and the heavenly choruses bring forth their Hallelujahs. Frank Herbert was a great writer before 'Dune' and something quite different afterwards. Neal Stephenson stayed under the radar until 'Snow Crash'. Joe R. Lansdale had to publish more books than he could karate-chop through before he finally hit 'The Bottoms'. China Mieville's 'King Rat', well written, nominated for prizes, prepared no-one for his stop at 'Perdido Street Station'. Following an author from first novel to first masterpiece is always an enjoyable road.

I've got one of each category for readers of this column today. In the first category, there's Richard Morgan's 'Altered Carbon'. Until I heard about it from an online bookseller, I was in a Sergeant Schultz state -- I knew nothing. I bought it, read it, and bought three more copies, to salt away for Tough Times. Seems like we've got a lot of those ahead. Then I suggested friends buy it. It was that good, and I'd do it again.

It's hard to believe that the author shopped this novel to US and UK publishers and nobody leapt on it.

On the face of it, 'Altered Carbon' offers nothing particularly new. How many cyberpunk noirish mysteries are there out there? More than I've read, or care to read. One of the Science Fiction plot points of 'Altered Carbon' is straight out John Varley and Walter John Williams. The mystery tropes he excavates range from Hammet to Chandler to Elroy. And none of that matters a lick, because this is a novel where there are No Slow Parts. Or: You can still paint a nice picture of a smiling girl even though a Mona Lisa hangs in the Louvre.

What 'Altered Carbon' offers in spades is Great Writing. You're hooked from page one until page 404. When you hit 404, you're going to start asking what else Richard Morgan has written. Alas, the sad half of the answer is (according to an interview at Computer Crow's Nest[Watch out for the pop-up!]), not much that you can find. The glad half is that he's halfway through a sequel that looks to answer a fair number of the question that any great SF novel leaves in its trail. In this case, the questions have to do with the wonderfully suggested "universe" behind the novel. There are a lot of tantalizing hints about alien civilizations and the philosophies of the various colonized worlds offered in 'Altered Carbon', but Morgan wisely sticks to his rocket ship of a story and his fascinating characters.

That Great Writing referred to above enables Morgan to give us a grim, vicious violent lead character who walks the line of being nearly hateful, but whose honorable behavior brings him back from the brink of unlikable to the edge of interesting. It also enables him to keep a reader's butt glued to whatever surface is convenient until the book is finished. He deftly pops between wonderful insights into human character via 25th century technology and classic mystery motives and scenes. The Powerful Magnate, the Ambivalent Wife, the gutsy cop -- they're all there, shreds of the recognizable present buried in the technologically transformed future. Morgan manages to get around the problems of a lot of SF novels. One dichotomy that has always struck me and every other SF reader is the number of novels which were written in a past not much different than our present, which portrayed our present as a transformed future. Yet our present isn't that transformed future. It's the past with a few new bits of technology crammed in. Morgan grabs that idea and shakes it until a great story comes out. It's Beach Lit 101, Grade A plus. Out of nowhere and straight to the top.

Neal Asher definitely hasn't come out of nowhere. I've already reviewed 'Grindlinked',which I greatly enjoyed, and now I can officially claim to have Increased Enjoyment. I've read 'The Skinner'.

Those who liked 'Perdido Street Station' should definitely check out Asher's 'The Skinner'. Complex, grotesque and imaginative -- never a dull moment!

I first encountered Asher in my Tanjen days, advertised in the back of books by Derek M. Fox. But I didn't pursue 'the master of SF Horror' simply because I hadn't established my current set of UK mail-order houses. When 'Grinlinked' popped up last year, I snapped it up, and then, empowered by book search engines and a lot of great booksellers, tracked down the rest of his books. It was worth the trouble. Asher's been working on his universe for a long damn time, painstakingly building it and reinforcing it with every release.

Now here's one of those weird, Rick Kleffel sort of stories that crop up from time to time. Here in Santa Cruz, California, there's another human who comes into possession of the kind of British SF and horror novels I happen to like. They tend to sell them to the same store, Logos books, downtown on the Pacific Garden Mall [not the glassed in monstrosities, but an honest to goodness set of nice shops and vendors and restaurants lined out in the California fog]. In the past few years, I've come across first edition hardcover Phil Rickman novels, first edition trade paperbacks of the recent James Barclay fantasy series, UK editions of 'Chasm City', and yes, 'The Engineer' by Neal Asher.

As it happens, 'The Engineer' contains two stories which help set up 'The Skinner'. 'Snairls' is the tale of Janer, a human who works for the other intelligence on Earth, the insect Hive Minds of wasps. Full of subtly distressing imagery, it's the kind of story that only gets to the edge of your mind, because you really don't want to give it a full admission ticket. The first story set on the world of 'The Skinner' (that I've found) is 'Spatterjay', which introduces Erlin the researcher, Captain Ambel, one of the 'Old Captains' of Spatterjay, and The Skinner. Both stories were quite good, but frankly they didn't prepare me for the novel that would follow.

"The Skinner" turns out to be another book with No Slow Parts. Well, in a way. In that there is never a part where the invention flags, where the background fails to be painted in vivid colors, where the characters fail to continue building surprising layers of interest that endear to the reader what might be otherwise simply, nasty, horrifying monsters. When parts of the background start taking on character and taking control of their lives within the novel then you know you've got something special in 'The Skinner'. It's that kind of book where the reader can tell that the story took over and dropped out of the writer. It almost feels channeled. It's also rather surprising given that Asher doesn't play his card in anything remotely resembling a "literary" fashion. Furthermore, for a book filled with violence and one godawful monster after another (some of them human, some of then alien), it has a rather melacholy, wistful tone that really works. The settings are vivid and you can practically smell the salt of Spatterjay's sea. But don't get too close to the water. Here be monsers.....


Serious Business

As usual, just when you thought the deluge of great science fiction had frankly outstripped reality, that darned old reality pokes itself back in and demonstrates that it always has the upper hand. This story of the plan to build a spaceship powered by atomic bombs is positively mind-boggling.

Readers who browse back in the commentary columns will know that I'm returning to the column after dealing with some serious business, so there's a bit of catching up to do. Coming columns will finally get round to talking about some books I mentioned Way Back When. John Shirley's latest from Night Shade Books, '...And the Angel With Television Eyes' finally made it's way out of the queue. Apparently, I wasn't hallucinating enough. And in one of those Santa Cruz moments, I latched onto a non-fiction book which demanded to be read. It's titled 'Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship', by George Dyson (son of physicist Freeman Dyson). It's a mind boggling piece that almost reads like alternate history. And finally, finally, I got to the John Courtenay Grimwood books. What a revelation! They are really, really weird, and perfect fodder for readers of this column. Fortunately for me, by the time I had started the first, I had ordered the second.



Rick Kleffel