Sunday, November 30, 2014

Ghosts and gods

I haven't read Gibson's trilogies as trilogies. This is the first time I'm sitting down and reading all of the books in order and in their proper groupings.

That being said, Count Zero could almost be part of a different series: clearly it involves the Sprawl and the third book in the trilogy makes it clearer that Count Zero is strongly connected to Neuromancer, but you can't really tell that if you read it out of context. There are just a couple of points in common between the two books - a meeting with the Finn and the brief mention of a razorgirl in orbit.

I think Count Zero is sort of the inverse of Neuromancer: the plot is much clearer but it doesn't leave very strong impressions. I didn't inhabit the Sprawl and its periphery the same way that I inhabited Chiba and Straylight. I can probably tell you more about the individual characters in Count Zero than I can the ones in Neuromancer, but I don't care about them as much. Count Zero is also lacking the smoky noir feel that penetrates every page of Neuromancer.

That is not to say that Count Zero is a bad book, by any means. I don't think that most books look good when you hold them up next to Neuromancer and when looked at by its own light instead of the bright neon shine of its predecessor Count Zero is pretty damned good. It's full of jive and chatter and filth and action. It does a VERY good job of explaining the zaibatsu power structure that hums along in the background of the Sprawl Trilogy and sets the sage beautifully for Mona Lisa Overdrive.

In fact, I think it's a little unfair to think of Count Zero as a standalone book because (even though Gibson didn't plan on making a sequel to Neuromancer) it isn't. It's the middle book in a trilogy and even if that trilogy is rather informally defined it is all part of the same narrative. A lot of what's missing from Count Zero is found in the other books of the trilogy. The parts that aren't in the other books are, I believe, down to the fact that Count Zero was only Gibson's second full-length book and it happened to follow an exceptional but also very foreign first novel.

Either way, whatever's missing from Count Zero isn't enough to put me off reading it again. So it's not Neuromancer - guess what, nothing is. But it's a good story in its own right and it's interesting to have gentler perspectives of the Sprawl.

     - Alli

Gibson, William. Count Zero. Ace Books. New York: New York. 1986.

Tactile neon

I don't remember much of my first impressions of Neuromancer beyond knowing that I absolutely wanted to see the world it took place in and that William Gibson was some kind of awesome and terrible magician who found a way to look at a twisted future and bring it back for us to read about in the present.

I do know that Neuromancer was the first Gibson I read, though I don't recall if I read it because one of my hackers pointed me in its direction or if I read the book and it turned me toward the hackers. Time is like that. Memory is like that. You're left with impression but missing their sequence which, coincidentally, is a perfect way of describing Gibson's writing.

There's something magical about how he puts a book together. I can sit down and tell you what happened in the story, how things progressed from page to page and how the plot layered in on itself, but that's not what I remember or treasure about this novel. What I hold onto when I'm thinking about Neuromancer is a television colored sky and lenses like mercury looking through a haze of neon at a man holding a weapon he doesn't know how to use. Neuromancer calls up spider-like robots and dub in zero-g. Neuromancer is a piping, inhuman contralto moving through a head of platinum and precious stones, telling stories about biz and beaches tinted silver.

The book isn't long, the plot isn't particularly original, and as much fun as the noir genre is it isn't exactly fresh in our cultural psyche, but in spite of the fact that Neuromancer is a short book that covers common ground it's also a massive book that always has more to look at, more to feel and share with the reader. It is tantalizing and whole and empty and reaching. I want so badly to see its world but know it would be a bad world to live in. I want to reach out and feel these people and their lives and the vastness of the situation they're living through, but I know it would frighten me terribly to do so.

That's probably the best thing about Gibson as a whole and Neuromancer in particular. It's not a book about good people doing good things, and it's not a book about normal people doing things that normal people can do: it's a book about the possibility of being extraordinary and it makes you long to be more than yourself, even if that concept is terrifying.

     - Alli

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. Ace Books. New York: New York. 1984.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Wistful winter

Blaze is a Richard Bachman trunk novel - an oddity. Stephen King retired Bachman decades ago so the decision to publish an old Bachman book in a new century seems strange, but it's nice to flesh out the body of work.

Everyone who reads this blog (hi Dad!) knows that I'm a little crazy for King - what a lot of people don't know is that I may actually like Bachman more than King, at least when it comes to the ratio of books by that author that I've gotten completely completely obsessed with. Rage, The Long Walk, and Running Man are totally amazing stories written in a way that is endlessly fascinating and exciting. Roadwork is similarly engaging but a bit too depressing for me to totally dig my teeth into. Thinner is a Stephen King book published by Bachman, and it's a good King novel but it's not a Bachman Book. I know that's a little confusing, but the King readers out there get me.

Blaze clearly belongs to Bachman, dead lo these many years of Cancer of the Pseudonym, Stephen King's more hardboiled half. The story has the same sort of depraved futility of Running Man and Roadwork with the horrifying and misplaced innocence of Rage and The Long Walk. The elements are all there. Blaze is clearly a Bachman book. But, even though I adore Bachman, I can see why this remained a trunk novel for so long.

In the introduction to the novel King admits its faults - and there are many, and they are large - which helps. Knowing that this is a book that languished in a box and was written by a pen-name that died thirty years ago and wasn't revisited because it was remembered as bad gives some perspective on the story. It's not great, but at least you go in knowing that it's not great so it doesn't sting so much.

But there is one aspect of the book that is wonderful. Blaze is a good character: you want him to win, you understand why he can't, and watching him make mistakes that he can't help but pulling for him along the way is painful and sad and BURNS, and that is fantastic.

King-as-Bachman makes you pull for this sad, stupid, small-time crook while still seeing the inevitability of his failure and being helpless to help him.

And that's what's great. Everyone who CAN read this book is more capable than its main character and that means that all of us behind the pages will WANT to help him, want to make his broken life better, and so King-as-Bachman manages to brilliantly reduce his readers to the same incapable state as Blaze.

Well damn done, especially for an imaginary dead man's trunk novel.

     - Alli

King, Stephen. Blaze. Simon & Schuster. New York: New York. 2007.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

I hope you're well, Mr. King

I'm pretty sure that Stephen King has written at least two characters who were novelists with the idea to store up novels like nuts for winter, writing two a year but keeping one back to publish during spells of writers block. I mention this because for the last two years King has had a summer and a fall novel release whereas for the better part of the 2000s he's published maybe one novel a year. I do know that he was publishing as Richard Bachman for a while so he could put out multiple novels each year. But now he's publishing under his own name and this makes me a bit wary.

Here are the possible reasons that I'm able to come up with:
1 - Stephen King is even more terrifyingly productive than the reading public has been giving him credit for and is going through a good spell, publishing whatever he writes.
2 - He's rotating through his trunk novels and updating them before technology changes enough to leave his plots in the dust.
3 - He has taken a look at his pile of nuts and realized that it'll outlast any dry spells he could reasonably anticipate and has decided to go for broke and publish them while he's still around to do the publicity tours.

Stephen King is not an old man, and the sudden glut of publications makes me worry a little because I feel like he's either sitting on a massive pile of unpublished novels or he's worried that he's going to die soon. So, Mr. King, I really hope that you're well and just way more prolific than any of us have given you credit for. Please be well.

Because you're writing kick-ass books and I'd love to see them keep coming.

Revival is another novel that I happened to surprise myself with. I was scanning titles on Amazon, saw a King book I hadn't read, and said "dammit, I hope I'm not too late!" I feel left out if I miss a publication by more than a month or two, so I was pleased to see that it was only a week after the release date. I drove out to the bookstore, grabbed a copy, got an awful cold, and found that I had time to sit down and read.

It's a damn good story. Really good.

The plot follows the patchy life of a guitarist turned drug addict turned producer as he meet up with an electricity-obsessed preacher. Both characters are interesting and have their various ups and downs as you follow them through five decades of their separate but occasionally convergent lives.

One of the things that I missed so much in Mr. Mercedes was the deep character development that's so typical of King's writing, and I certainly didn't miss that in Revival. It's not a very full world that these characters inhabit, because it's mostly our world and doesn't need that much filling-in, but their lives are intricate and lovely and unlovely.

The book opens with King thanking his teachers, notably HP Lovecraft and Mary Shelley, and there's a strong influence from the great horror-writers of yesteryear that can be palpably felt throughout the novel. It's clear that those spooky old books are gone from the charts but not from our hearts as King channels the writers who influenced him and gives modern readers a shocking story about veils that should not be peeked beyond.

     - Alli

Dome for the holidays

I don't really know why I haven't read Under the Dome since it first came out, but here we are. I'm kind of an idiot for skipping it all these years, though. Under the Dome is a pretty fucking good Stephen King novel.

I do feel like I need to add that qualifier, that it's a Stephen King novel, because I'm not sure this is a book that fits neatly into any genres. There's suspension, science fiction, horror, humor, and bedroom drama but all tied together and just a bit downstate from Derry so I guess the only place it really feels at home is in the literary universe of King.

I don't really like adding those kinds of qualifiers, but I'm not sure that anyone whose first experience with King was Under the Dome would feel like they got it. I think they'd kind of sit up and go "what the hell just happened" because there's a fair amount that happens that I'm not sure other authors could get away with: hell, I'm not all that sure that King gets away with it.

At one point in the book King references the journalist's basic "W"s - the who, what, when, where, why, and how that a local (or regional, national, and global, really) newspaper reporter should turn to before all else. I think that, when King was writing this novel, he could have safely abandoned the last two questions of his fictional journalist. Why and How cause problems in Under the Dome. Why and How aren't things that the audience really needs answers to and I think the answers that King gives are the only problematic part of the story.

I'm trying to dance around giving bits of the book away, here, and there's a good reason for that: I'm not worried about spoilers, I'm worried that the why and how of Under the Dome will be enough of a turnoff for some readers that they won't even bother with the book. Why and How feel like a cop out, like the easy answer, and like the things that define UtD as a Stephen King novel instead of a political apocalyptic horror story.

This book is over 1000 pages. It's a great book for 985 of those pages but there are just a couple thousand words that feel really problematic to me. The rest is AWESOME so I don't have that much of a problem ignoring the flaws, but I'm also a fangirl and I don't know that new readers or people who are critical of King will be as happy to overlook the frustrating answers to Why and How.

But they should. The characters in this book are stunningly crafted and the unearthly universe King plops into the middle of central Maine is fascinating. The plot is perky and keeps you going through a few draggy spots. There are plenty of people to love and hate and be incredibly frustrated by as you move through the pages, so if you have a day or two to kill Under the Dome is a good way to take care of that time.

     - Alli

King, Stephen. Under the Dome. Scribner. New York: New York. 2009.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Getting into the season early

As incredibly frustrating as I find it that the Christmas season is starting earlier and earlier each year, I'm not ever going to thumb my nose at an opportunity to see Edward Scissorhands on a big screen. If my parents took my sister and I to see it during its original theatrical release (I would have been four so I doubt it) I don't remember being there, though I do vaguely remember seeing the film on a screen at some point (maybe a drive-in?). So when my sister asked if I wanted to go and my parents decided to come back from vacation early to join us, I was delighted to be all-in with my family to watch the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp masterpiece and get a little ready for Christmas.

I think what I appreciated most seeing Edward Scissorhands on the big screen was the incredible attention to set decoration, costumes, and locations. Edward Scissorhands only works as a story because of how different Edward is from the people of the community - this is reinforced at every level, down to the amount that each character speaks (the spoken words to screen time ratio for speaking characters in this film may actually be a good way to illustrate sympathy to Edward - chatterboxes like Joyce and blowhards like Jim are the most dangerous to Edward, while the relatively quiet Boggs family are the ones who take him in and try to keep him safe) but is perhaps most obvious in the rainbow-sherbert colors of the town and its citizens when contrasted to Edward's dark house on the hill and the dark clothing that he covers up as soon as he arrives. The houses, the cars, the clothes, the decorations - they all do a beautiful job of framing Edward as strange while still appearing disconcerting and strange themselves. We see Marge quietly smoking in a gold room next to an empty playpen, we see Esmeralda in her dim living-room obsessively playing organ and surrounded by candles, we see Joyce's joyless kitchen where she's the only spot of color in yellow and pink and mint green (hilariously Joyce is almost always accompanied by Tom Jones, and she's the only character who gets her own pop music soundtrack), and all of these grotesque caricatures and locations make Edward seem out of place in his universe but more at home in ours. Edward's strangeness in that peach and lavender and periwinkle town is why we identify with him: he looks more like us, wears clothes more like us, and thinks his new home is as strange as we do.

Why does Kim, a senior in high school, have a yellow gingham canopy waterbed covered in hand-made and very creepy stuffed animals? Did Peg make the toys? It seems unlikely (she's the only woman in the city, aside from a teacher who appears in the show-and-tell scene for ten seconds, who appears to have a job) that she'd have had time to make all the creepy toys on Kim's bed. What the hell did Joyce use to turn the ambrosia salad that color? Where are these people's dogs for the rest of the movie - Kisses and Alexis are the only ones we see more than once but it seems like everyone in town has their own doppelganger hound so where are they the rest of the time? Why does everyone have some variety or other of gigantic hedge somewhere on their property? If these aren't questions that Edward has these sure as hell are questions that I have, and his confusion in the face of a scrap-skinned stuffed hippo is all that I need to know he thinks this pastel development is as creepy and yet as giddily inviting as I do.

Seen on the big screen Edward Scissorhands is all textures, the metal and leather of his artificial skin contrasted with shag carpet and chiffon of the little town. The delirious juxtaposition is startling and funny and strangely moving - we don't fit in with these people either, we feel dislocated also, and Edward is our avatar, reaching out to a world he wants to be part of and realizing that he can't hold on.

Ugh, it's hard to believe how much I love this movie. In spite of my general aversion to the Christmas season Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas do a good job of getting me in the holiday spirit, and I'm glad I got to go see it as it was meant to be seen with my family.

     - Alli

Farfuture/Splitfuture coolness

I don't remember exactly why I got into William Gibson. I think I may have read Neuromancer and started getting into cyberpunk before I started hanging out almost exclusively with hackers, but I could be off by a couple of months. Either way I know it was around when I was 18 years old which means that I've been a Gibson for about ten years, which in turn means that I've only been able to anticipate the releases of his most recent three novels. I stumbled across the release date for The Peripheral on Amazon and then basically camped out at the bookstore until October 28th to get my copy. I really love anticipating Gibson books because they're always wonderful and there's always almost-too-much time between novels to lose interest or get frustrated but that never happens because you know the book is going to kick ass when it finally drops.

Now that I've said my bit on anticipation, I'm going to do a little begging: please, please, please, please Mr. Gibson, please let The Peripheral be the start of The Spur Trilogy, or The Haptic Trilogy, or whatever it's going to be called or however many more books there will be in it. Please make more in this universe because it's beautiful and scary and insightful and spooky and I want to spend more time in its spaces and faces.

There is an awful damn lot I want to say about this novel but I'm afraid I can't yet because this is one of those times that I actually do worry about spoilers - the book hasn't even been out for a full month so I don't want to destroy any part of the plot for any readers but I do want to commend Gibson for his continual subversion of typical gender roles and attitude toward people of different races, genders, sizes, ages, and abilities to get a lot done.

Gibson writes some of the creepiest institutions that I've ever read, but he consistently writes the best and most inspiring characters that anyone's seen in SF in the last four decades. Yes, he's got plenty of straight white men in his novels; but Gibson's heroes aren't the Han Solos of the world, his heroes are the everymen, everywomen, and everychildren who people his pages but could also be sitting right next to you. That's what I love so much about Gibson - he doesn't teach his readers to aspire to be a particular character, he teaches his readers that everyone can be a hero but it frequently comes down to making some hard and dangerous choices.

Please go out and buy The Peripheral. It's delightful. And please, Mr. Gibson, please keep writing. You're doing a lot of good for my generation and I don't even think we realize that yet.

     - Alli

Gibson, William. The Peripheral. Putnam. New York: New York. 2014.