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06-08-11: Andrea Hairston Liberates 'Redwood and Wildfire'

Magic Behind This World

Magic manifests itself as it can; as we wish; as we are able to see it. Oh sure, we'd like to think that it's all rainbows from the palm and levitation, tossing monsters in the abyss and summoning dragons on command. At least that's what the movies might like us to believe.

But magic weaves itself into every day of our lives, which is why we can sense it, paradoxically, just beyond our senses. And reading is perhaps the best way to engage that magic, as it too, works, just beyond our senses. It is the best magic we can find on a shelf.

If you're looking for magic on a shelf, you'd do well to Andrea Hairston's 'Redwood and Wildfire' (Aqueduct Press ; February 28, 2011 ; $20), an engrossing, hilarious, surreal history of magic as it is often practiced in the United States of America; that is, in those moments when we try to make movies, music, poetry, stories — entertainment. And just to keep everything self-referential, here's a book about entertainment that is more entertaining than most of the sorts of entertainment it describes.

Hairston's novel is set at the turn of the 20th century, as technology and art transform society, and the lives of Redwood Phipps, a black hoodoo woman, and Aidan Wildfire, an Irish-Seminole man. It's a simple journey; from Peach Grove, Georgia, in 1898 to Chicago in 1913. A mere fifteen years in which a nation and the characters are reborn, rising from rural swamplands to cities that exist in their present but clearly augur the future. It's also a simple love story; Aidan and Redwood meet in the opening passages, and a difficult relationship plays out over an era of epic change. Between the two characters and between the beginning and end of the novel, readers experience life, as imagination writ large.

Hairston is writing about magic, in all its forms, and she is able to conjure it with breathtaking prose, that is — and here's the real magic — excitingly readable. 'Redwood and Wildfire' is funny, surreal, and written in a very smart vernacular that trips off the page and infects the reading experience with the sort of visions that are usually accorded only to shamans. Like the best conjurers, she's something of a shape-shifter, so expect to find more than just prose; her characters are writers and artists, so there are embedded poems, songs, stories, even a screenplay, of sorts. Of course, the whole novel plays out like a movie in your mind, but it's much better than any you'll find in a real theater.

Hairston's novel is populated by characters who do not leave your side after you've closed the book, but instead remain right there, in your life, and in your mind. If they talk to haints and spirits and things most of us are not fortunate enough to see, then at least you get to do so as well. She wrangles a huge cast, befitting of the epic nature of the novel, and keeps everyone crystal clear in the process. And while the novel is essentially a journey, Hairston manages to create some unforgettable set-pieces. 'Redwood and Wildfire' is a novel about love and magic that bridges any gap one might suspect exists between the two of them.

06-07-11: Michael Cisco Searches for 'The Great Lover'

A Love Affair With the English Language

Michael Cisco lives in his own universe — of words. "You can hear my words," he tells us in the prologue to 'The Great Lover' (Chomu Press ; April 14, 2011; $17.50 / £13.00 / €14.50 ; 446 pages), "but you cannot hear the wild gaiety with which I peak them." He's wrong there.

We certainly can hear, literally hear, the joy with which Cisco writes. The prose flows, jumps and dances in the rot and putrefaction it describes with precision and poetry. The real miracle is that Cisco transcends the usual pitfalls of weird fiction written in ornate prose. 'The Great Lover' is, for all its prose frescoes and poetic interludes, a pretty straightforward novel, but set in a world so bizarre and intricately conceived that a line of words is in no way the shortest distance between two points.

We have then, a contradiction here, and it is not the first that any reader entering 'The Great Lover' will encounter. Cisco wants to immerse us in stories and dreams and rot, to forget the world that surrounds us and enter his world of words. Yet he also takes pains to remind us that we are in his world and that he and his characters are calling the shots. Reality and reading or love and death, Cisco offers readers the unique experience of exploring an underworld of words, of characters who know they are characters, of creations who are aware of their creator.

There's a certain literary formality to Cisco's novel, but he constantly undercuts it with genre-fiction japes and tropes taken to an extreme. You'll find mothers who pour flaming blood into the mouths of their vampiric daughters and an ingenious Prosthetic Libido, all rendered in prose that recalls the poetry T. S. Eliot. Cisco is meticulous and intelligent, but his willingness to indulge himself and his readers in wildly-described scenes of fantastic, surreal horror help him deliver an experimental, literary novel that is enjoyably odd.

At the center of this is not one character, but three; The Great Lover, our humble narrator, Michael Cisco and the world of words they inhabit, the world they create, one word at a time. There's a real and relentless sense of competition here, and this is the heart of the novel. Each of these characters is competing for the readers' attention. Each hopes the wrestle the readers to the ground and pin them here, in the book. The novel itself is nothing less than a Prosthetic Reality. Given the level of language, and Cisco's willingness to play, 'The Great Lover' is indeed a fine Prosthetic reality.

06-06-11: Daniel H. Wilson Unleashes 'Robopocalypse'

Fine Writing About the Robot Uprising

It is not a book of rocket science, and for that we can be thankful. The title pretty much gives away the game; 'Robopocalypse' is a clearly going to be a novel in which robots wage war against humanity. This is the worst-case scenario for the Singularity. There are no happy mutants here. On the first page, the war has ended, and we meet Cormac "Brightboy" Wallace as he is attacked by a swarm of explosive robotic beetles. Readers might well think it's not going to be pretty.

It's not, but 'Robopocalypse' is as gripping as you could hope it to be and filled with imaginative scenes of robot-versus-human mayhem. The real shock is how affecting this novel is. For all the fantastic and detailed imaginations of technology gone wild that frame the story, 'Robopocalypse' has, at its heart, many hearts, most of them human, all them laid bare in precise, fine prose that gives the novel an emotional wallop. The machines may have decided that we need to be (mostly) eliminated, but we made these machines. They are bringing about an end to civilization as we know it, and they are no less than mirrors of their makers.

Because it deals with the end of the world, 'Robopocalypse' has a global focus, which sounds a bit like an oxymoron; how can you focus on everything? Well you can't, but in order to get the right scope, Wilson carefully builds a huge cast of characters in short chapters. This is a pretty big challenge that he easily manages. From American grunts in Afghanistan (yes, we still have men there in his not-so-near future) to an elderly Japanese bachelor living with a humanoid companion robot, to a British phone phreak, to the Osage nation, Wilson picks and chooses well. The characters who tell this story are our anchors; we want them to survive, even if not all of them are (entirely) human.

The plot here, while quite straightforward, is certainly well handled. For all the great technological insight he brings to the novel — Wilson is a roboticist, so he knows his stuff — what we have here is a horror novel, and in that sense, it's extremely creepy and effectively terrorizing. Framed by a nice before-and-after device, the action begins when a powerful AI escapes into our networked world. In the months that follow, there are many hints that things are going awry, and these early scenes are easily as effective as the bigger scale set pieces that follow.

The big-scale scenes, as well as the smaller ones, are written in the same fine prose that makes Wilson's characters so involving. Wilson has a great sense of setting up his characters and location, then just lets things rip long enough to give us a sense of how bad it can be. He doesn't go into too much technical detail. He keeps his focus on the emotional experience of the humans.

Wilson's storytelling style is pretty complicated. Each chapter has opening quotes, sometimes from characters you've not yet met, and they close out with hints of what is to come, often explaining why what you've just read is important. It's the kind of stylistic turn that could easily backfire, but Wilson is so terse and focused on his characters, that these pointers — part of an attempt by both humanity and its robotic foes to put together a picture of what happened — work well. They enable Wilson to keep his eyes on the twin prizes of this book; great characters and non-stop, well-written, imaginative scenes of robotic mayhem.

Part of the reason that this works as well as it does is that Wilson has clearly built up a huge underworld of robotic development, both before and after the "Precursor virus" takes hold. He could probably write a non-fiction book about the science behind this one. Fortunately, he resists the temptation to include any of that book in Robopocalypse.' For all the obvious work the author did in creating a technological back story and backdrop, we hear very little about the technology. Instead, we see the end result from the human perspective, and we get that vision, entirely.

'Robopocalypse' bucks the current trend of happy or incomprehensible singularities in science fiction. It's very old school in this regard, which might be a problem if Wilson were less technically savvy or less focused on his characters. This is the robot uprising we all worried about. In some ways, it's what we expected, but Wilson is smart enough to surprise us with his imagination and engage us with his characters. 'Robopocalypse' is all good parts with good characters, most of whom are mostly human. You'll look twice at any programmable appliance you have after you finish reading this novel, and wonder if what you are looking at might instead be a mirror.

New to the Agony Column

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04-19-14: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE : Time to Read Episode 157: Lorrie Moore : Bark

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03-29-14: Commentary : Carol Cassella Mirrors 'Gemini' : Two Places at Once

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Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE : Time to Read Episode 154: Carol Cassella : Gemini

03-20-14: Commentary : Dave Barry Warns 'You Can Date Boys When You're Forty' : Five Star General Humor

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Dave Barry : " have the right to demand that they grope your genitals manually..."

03-19-14: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE : Time to Read Episode 153: Dave Barry : You Can Date Boys When You're Forty: Dave Barry on Parenting and Other Topics He Knows Very Little About

03-17-14: Commentary : Michael Marshall (Smith) Sees 'Bad Things' : Dark of the Heart

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03-11-14: Commentary : Ian Rankin Ordains 'Saints of the Shadow Bible' : Standing in the Shadow of the Past

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Ian Rankin : "...I knew that he would not want to leave the police force..."

03-10-14: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 152: Ian Rankin : Saints of the Shadow Bible

03-04-14: Commentary : Michio Kaku Foresees 'The Future of the Mind' : Form Follows Function

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Michio Kaku : "But I'm a physicist..."

03-02-14: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 151: Michio Kaku : The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance and Empower the Mind

02-25-14: Commentary : Annie Jacobsen Files 'Operation Paperclip' : History as Thrilling Literature

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Annie Jacobsen : "Hitler's top scientists became America's own."

02-23-14: Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Jeff VanderMeer, Part 2 : "...still clear distribution lines for books...."

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02-20-14: Commentary : Jeff VanderMeer Seeks 'Annihilation' : Creative Destruction

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Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE : Time to Read Episode 149: Jeff VanderMeer : Annihilation

02-14-14: Commentary : Jenny Offill Engages 'Dept. of Speculation' :The Domestic Descent

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02-13-14: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE : Time to Read Episode 148: Jenny Offill : Dept. of Speculation

02-10-14: Commentary : Kelly Corrigan's 'Glitter and Glue' : Remembering Forward

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02-08-14: Commentary : My Life in the Bush of Books : Life as an Internet Failure Edition

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02-03-14: Commentary : Jane Pauley Hears 'Your Life Calling' : Crossing an Economic Singularity

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Jane Pauley : " suddenly hit me; I almost cried..."

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