Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column


07-14-07: Preview for Podcast of Monday, July 16, 2007 : Where no lexicographer has gone before.

Here's an MP3 preview of the Monday July 16, 2007 podcast for The Agony Column. Enjoy!


07-13-07: Scott Sigler Unleashes 'Ancestor'

Re-Inventing the Family Tree

Monsters. LOTS of monsters.
Yesterday, I wrote about 'Mary Modern', a gothic tale of genetic experimentation that results in the re-creation of someone's ... grandmother. It's a beautifully written novel and a nice update on the gothic genre.

But that's what you'd expect from a girl. Let's a get a guy to take on this genetic experimentation gig. Do, that, you and you're lucky to get 'Ancestor' (Dragon Moon Press ; April 1, 2007 ; $19.95) by Scott Sigler, a rip-roaring bloodbath chock full o' monsters. Need I say more? I suppose I can, since there are some pretty interesting aspects of this novel beyond the monsters deal.

First off, let's note that the premise of this book is straight out of a non-fiction work covered here a couple of years ago, 'The Xeno Chronicles' by one-time horror auteur G. Wayne Miller. That book discussed the efforts to create pigs that could help facilitate what is called "xenotransplantation", that is, puttin' a pig liver in an aging but wealthy alcoholic's body. In Sigler's novel, the competition to create this technology is fierce, and we get some pretty action-packed pages with government agents putting a stop to some xenotransplantation gone very wrong. You see, the deal, you start creating chimera-pigs with some human genetic material, the fear is that diseases from the pigs will shift a bit and could rip through the human population unstopped. This is a bad thing, and in 'Ancestor' we know this because before you've made your way very far into the novel, you've encountered enough bloody corpses to satisfy a small town full of zombies.

So the genius in 'Ancestor', a pouty, dreamy Chinese brilliantine who has far too many bad dreams to be reliable, she cooks up this idea that you simply genengineer the ancestor of humans and all mammals. That way, no diseases and complete compatibility. It's like going back to DOS 2.0 to create an anti-viral agent for Windows what-the-hell-ever it is now. It makes some sense, and in any event, sense soon gets thrown out the window when these ancestors actually show and prove to be a) large and b) hungry. Mayhem ensues.

Lots of mayhem, the sort of fun monster-action that is often missing in monster novels. I mean look; you can sort of understand why monster movies are so frugal about showing you the monsters. They cost money to make and they tend to look fake unless you've got a lot of money and some real talent. But in a novel, there's no excuse, and this one needs no excuse. The monsters are on display fairly early, and you get to see them in variety of disgusting monster antics. Sigler has a peculiarly fervid imagination when it comes to gore, so expect lots of inventive bloodiness combined with pretty much non-stop action. Everybody is always in a hurry in this novel and look what it gets them. Eaten. Or at least torn to bloody pieces.

So there you have it. Girls bring back grandma, and have her face some serious, soul-searching dilemmas. Guys, well, they bring back summat you've never seen before and have it eat the character's faces. And all in the name of genetic experimentation. Good thing all this science is so dodgy, none of this is too likely to happen. No we can expect something different and if experience is any teacher, probably much worse.


07-12-07: Camille DeAngelis Makes 'Mary Modern'

The Gentle Goth

Not so throroughly modern Mary.
Science fiction is as chameleonic as an other artform. One writer might take the theme of gene splicing technology and turn out a toe-tapping monsterama. Another writer might take the same theme and spin a story in which she meets her own grandmother. In 'Mary Modern' (Shaye Areheart / Random House ; July 10, 2007 ; $24), Camille DeAngelis takes the second path with felicitous results, assuming you're up for a tale that combines sentiment and science. This is not ever easy to pull off, but DeAngelis has the kind of prose skills to create a day-after-tomorrow story that is full of the sort of details that draw you in and immerse you in an emotional world. This is the kind of novel that reminds you that indeed you live in an emotional world, a world colored, for good or for ill, by your own feelings.

The premise is straightforward if somewhat on the puh-puh-posterous side of speculative fiction. Lucy Morrigan is a young scientist with a lab in the basement of her running-down but still vital Queen Anne house on a tree-lined street in H. P. Lovecraft's Massachusetts. It's the same house inhabited by her grandmother some 80 years earlier. Lucy finds she can't get pregnant, at least not by any normal means. So, like any good mad woman scientist, she decides to clone her dead grandmother. This proves to be something of a problem, as the genetic material she has comes from a 22-year old woman. The birth is not the baby she expects. Of course, nothing is as she expects.

Soft science fiction, as this kind of novel used to be called, lives or dies by the prose. 'Mary Modern' lives by virtue of DeAngelis' skill in creating the world of 1929 and the world of 2009 as seen through the eyes of a woman. On a sentence-by-sentence, word-by-word level, this is a gorgeously executed novel. Step back a bit and the structure is equally intricate and well-wrought, cutting back and forth between then and now and then-as-now. DeAngelis is delight to read, and it quickly becomes apparent that we're reading not science fiction, per se, but rather a gentle gothic.

Gothic fiction has all sorts of associations and tropes, but one of the strongest is that of the single, smart but vulnerable woman trapped in a remote setting. 'Jane Eyre' and 'Withering Heights' are probably the height of this, but Sheridan Le Fanu's 'Carmilla', arguably the first vampire tale is also key.

All of these influences come to bear in 'Mary Modern' but in a rather peculiarly science-fiction manner. For the title character, Mary, Lucy's grandmother re-created in the twenty-first century is a woman trapped in a baroque, bizarre setting from which she can never escape. She's been brought to life beyond the time of her death and is trapped in a future from which there is no escape to the person she never was. This is a classic gothic tale with a nicely wrought modern premise.

Here's where DeQAngelis deserves lots of credit. Even though she plays fast and loose with the science, she's smart enough to know Clarke's laws, at least the one that proclaims that a scientist who says something is impossible is almost always wrong. She uses this bit of uncertainty to create a situation in which a woman, an authentic soul, has been created by another woman. But the created soul is based on a woman whose experiences will forever be unknown to the newly-created version. DeAngelis takes this concept a lot farther than the reader might expect, using her skills as a writer to create a gothic, science fiction vision of the present. Imagine, she asks, if you could meet your grandmother when she was your age. What might you say? More importantly, what might you feel?


07-11-07: Eileen Chang Examines 'Lust, Caution'

Decision and Being

The scanner is in Aptos, the book here in Victorville. And the cover is ARC – text only. So here is a movie poster downloaded using an excruciatingly slow dial-up connection. Variety - as if!
We all have a history, a family story that haunts us. For me, the story is set in Shanghai, during the Second World War. My father's father and mother were traders; my grandmother had a beautiful house built with huge bay windows and an expansive, open plan. Of course, this was not to last. When Japan invaded China, and Shanghai, my grandparents, along with my father and his sister, were imprisoned in a camp just down the road from the one immortalized in J. G. Ballard's 'Empire of the Sun'. (My father found the book a bit florid, actually.) Eventually they were freed and started their lives anew in the United States. But the family has retained bits and pieces of that life in China; furniture, paintings, some robes. Pieces of a story.

It's not surprising then, that when I see a novel or a work that addresses that particular time and place, I find myself more immersed than usual. More moved than usual. Stories merge and blur. That was why Neal Stephenson's 'Cryptonomicon' was such an iconic novel for me. Where else would I read of systems administrators in Santa Cruz (my occupation for many years) and skullduggery in wartime Shanghai?

When 'Lust, Caution' (Anchor Books / Random House ; August 28, 2007 ; $9.00) by Eileen Chang showed up in the mail, I was immediately taken by the slim volume. I read the story in one sitting, at my parents' house in Victorville. From a hundred year-old trunk in the garage, I unearthed the photos of my grandparents' house in Shanghai; a photo of them sitting on the Great Wall. When China opened up in the 1980's, mny father returned to Shanghai and found the house he had lived in; when he tried to photograph the house, Chinese police plucked the camera from his hands, removed the film and exposed it. He was told the house was not the headquarters for the secret police and there would be no photographs permitted.

All of this played out as a backdrop to the story told by the celebrated Chang (Zhang Ailing). Born in Shanghai in 1920, Chang studied literature in Hong Kong, but returned to Shanghai in 1941 during the Japanese occupation. She wrote two works, 'Romances' and 'Written on Water', that established her as a literary writer. She moved to America in 1955 and continued to write; she kept revising and returning to the story 'Lust, Caution' throughout her life. The biographic similarities between the author and the character are fascinating, but one is advised to recall that all writing is an act of invention. Writers decide to bring a character into being.

'Lust, Caution' is a story of both warmth and cruelty, set during the occupation, concerning a female student, Wang Chia-chih, who inserts herself into the life of a man who assassination she will help engineer. It is her decision. It is his life.

Chang's language, translated by Julia Lowell, who provides a very helpful introduction, is gorgeously detailed and clinically precise. The details are physical, the precision, emotional. The cumulative effect of the story is as a series of small blows to the soul, reverberations of a history that has never stopped playing itself out. Life during wartime. The seduction of youth and age. Men of power and women of power. It all seems so simple and yet it plays out in a manner as complex as life.

You might wonder what would impel Anchor to release a novella-ish short story as a standalone book, and of course the book answers that question in the form of a short essay by film director Ang Lee, who has chosen to adapt the story as for his forthcoming film. Lee's insights into the story are themselves fascinating and co-screenwriter James Schamus provides a look at both the character of Wang Chia-chih and the author. Granted, this is a movie that is likely to be worth your valuable time. But the story came first. The story existed before it was written. It will continue to exist long after the lights have dimmed in every theater in the world. Decide for yourself; read and bring it into being.


07-10-07: Ibrahim S. Amin Unlocks 'The Monster Hunter's Handbook'

HOWTO Kill an Evil Critter

Apparently, Arkham House has Abdul Alhazared locked into some Elder-Sign contract.
Let's presume, you've got a big backyard – say, several thousand acres. Were you to live in California, you might well have a problem with coyotes, or say, rattlesnakes. Or even, if your patch of heaven was big enough, Hydra. You know, the giant nine-headed snake memorably, or at least ostensibly, slain by Hercules in about a million movies? Perhaps you have Roc problem. Out here in the west, we'd call one of them-thar-thangs a Thunderbird, but it all sorts out to be the same vexatious problem. You got a huge bird, big enough to carry away a cow, a car, an elephant, and inclined to do so. You can imagine the dropping problem, right? Well, now that I mentioned it you can.

If this sounds like a situation you’re likely to encounter, or even if that's not the case, then let me suggest that you run, don’t walk to purchase 'The Monster Hunter's Handbook' (Bloomsbury ; September 4, 2007 ; $15.95) by Ibrahim S. Amin. Bloomsbury seem to think that they have a little gold mine in these goofy guides illustrated by Richard S. Horne, and for a certain sort of reader this is in fact the case. Here's the formula: Take weird theme, break it down into discrete little bits, write up those bits with a gloss of humor and a firm appreciation for the literary background(s) from whence they emerge, get Horne to do his deal and presto – an instant bestseller for the pocket protector set. Of which I am a card-carrying, if not protector wearing, member. And I have the set of white, short-sleeved shirts with little ink spots blooming underneath the pockets to prove it.

In this case, Amin has made some interesting decisions. An introduction explains the setup. The first is to divvy up this book into two major sections. You want monsters, you've got monsters. Lots of 'em, in a section he titles: "Monsters: A Guide to Aggressive Cryptozoology". Amin's tongue is firmly lodged in cheek, so it’s going to be hard for the real cryptozoologists of the work, like the ever-present Loren Coleman, so take offense. I hope. Certainly, this is not the serious work that Coleman and the folks at the CFZ (the Centre for Fortean Zoology) undertake. Well, I suppose it is serious, but Aggressively so. What you get is an A-Z (well, actually "Basilisk to Zombie") series of short articles on the sort of monsters that generally aren't seen as friendly and seem to be likely fodder for the "sportsman" monster hunter. Yes, you read that right, the sportsman monster hunter. In a brief intro to the "Aggressive Cryptozoology" section, Amin suggests that, "Any fool with a gun can shoot a deer, but only the greatest of sportsmen will be able to overcome the Hydra." Can't argue with that logic, can you? Or, "Even if you do not plan to go searching for a monster, there is no guarantee that a monster will not searching for you." He suggests that someone may not know how to kill a vampire, but come on, really; if you don’t know how to kill a vampire in this culture, you deserve to be drained. And with this book added to the canon, you've got just one less excuse.

The entries on the monsters entertainingly enough written and even contain some nice information, well-organized. You get a description, an illustration, a passage on "Killing Methods" (I'd like to see a passage on methods of capture, just because), and best of all, a bullet-pointed Summary including, when applicable, Dangers (always applicable), Weaknesses, Souvenirs, and most interestingly, Selected Sources. This latter bit means you get some nice literary sources for the critter in question; it's fun to see how he handles these sometimes conflicting reports.

The selection of monsters chosen is not exhaustive but is nonetheless entertaining. You get the best of the Greek myths, some movie monsters, horror fiction tropes and OOPC. (Out of Place Cryptid - Sasquatch, to be precise. Nobody's supposed to hunt Bigfoot! He's our hairy, smelly friend.) Books such as this live or die by the humor, and truth to tell, Amin can be pretty funny in a very un-PC manner. Check out his entry on the joys of hunting zombies in packs ("...a team of hunters can select their favorite weapons and spend all day massacring in a variety of inventive ways.") Sort of puts a whole new spin on the zombie movie massacre genre, doesn't it?

But wait, there's more here. The most original part of this book is the second part, "Enchanted Steel: A Guide to Cryptohoplology". The "killing methods" in the first portion of the book generally presume that one has access only to ordinary weapons, and offers instruction accordingly. The second part of the book is a compendium of all the magic armor and armaments you'd really want were you not to enter stage right, wearing a red shirt for your hunting garb. You get a similar format; illo by Mr. Horne, history and description, then "Combative Applications", ie: HOWTO kill a monster with it. Here's where Amin gets his humor out, and he's actually pretty funny. Of course, for folks such as me, the Selected Sources listing is the best part of all, beyond the scope of the weapons listed here. It's impressive, and goes well beyond Greek myth. I can imagine that several readers out there will eventually get a story out of the weapon descriptions in this book.

Everyone else just gets a good time, perfect for nightstand or coffee table stacking if you have the sort of house that has a coffee table stacked with literature. Now, it will say something about you as a person to have 'The Monster Hunter's Handbook' on your coffee table. If nothing else, it means that there are not likely to be any monsters in the vicinity, so in that case, it provides a sort of welcoming feel. Assuming you aren't a monster yourself.


07-09-07: A 2007 Conversation with John Burdett

"The idea of original sin seems sick, morbid, depressing and calculated to cause psychosis in the people who hold to that view."

John Burdett relaxes at KQED.
Nothing is more refreshing than a writer who can casually demolish your carefully constructed worldview while giving you as a reader a rockin' good-time story that combines horror, mystery and suspense. In this case, that writer would be John Burdett, who latest novel is 'Bangkok Haunts'. He managed to make himself leave his new home in Thailand to promote his latest novel, and I had the opportunity to speak with him at length about his most supernatural work yet.

As he's lived in Thailand, Burdett told me, he's become more and more of a Buddhist himself, which no doubt explains why the voice of his Buddhist cop Sonchai Jitpleecheep rings so true. Sonchai is easily one of my favorite first-person cops ever; he's funny and his worldview is so causally alien that it really makes the fantastic seem like an everyday part of the reader's world. Or at least, fantastic reading.

You can hear the conversation in MP3 or RealAudio format, but I'd recommend buying, if not reading, the book first. I've prefaced the interview with two readings from the novel, which will give you an idea of Burdett's wonderfully transparent style, and probably draw you into his world without original sin. Just prepared for some straightforward talk about subjects that may make you feel a tad uncomfortable. And prepare to fall into the culture of guilt or the culture of shame. Or both. Embrace the contradictions – lest they devour your soul.


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