Friday, October 26, 2012

John Dies at The End & This Book is Full of Spiders by David Wong

I’ve been meaning to read John Dies at the End for a while but finally got inspired when I found out that it had been optioned and made into a movie directed by Don Coscarelli.  Now I’m not going to say that Coscarelli is a great director or anything, but he did direct The Beastmaster and Bubba Ho-Tep, so let’s give him high marks for material at least.  (Actually I think Bubba Ho-Tep is a fantastic movie and if you don’t think so then there’s probably something wrong with you.  At any rate I think anyone would concede it’s the best movie ever made about Elvis Presley fighting a mummy in an East Texas nursing home.)  Also the movie has Paul Giamatti in it, which is pretty cool.  I like Giamatti, since he’s in all these solid, award winning films and then he’ll take some role as a crazed gunman or hammy villain or something, it’s clear he just loves to do that stuff.

I guess that’s just tangential to the book itself, which is by David Wong and features David Wong as protagonist, or at least the fictional Wong, since that’s really the pen name of Jason Pargin.  He chose the pen name to keep his online writing and personal life separate, but it says so right on the back cover, no breach of trust required.  I was familiar with Wong’s writing from, and generally consider him one of the stronger (and funnier) writers in the stable over there, one of the others being John Cheese, which isn’t his real name either but is the basis for the fictional John of this book.  Anyhow, David Wong.

I had no idea he could write like this.

This is a fantastic debut novel and an excellent seasonal choice, being both silly and scary as hell.  Again, I’m not going to say that this is great in every sense of that word, there are some pacing issues and spots where it’s maybe not as tight as it should be – but this is pretty solid.  Well done, Wong.

Despite the fact that it is almost entirely unlike Illuminatus! in plot, theme, or structure, that was the comparison my mind kept throwing up while I was reading it.  There’s some of the same neo-Lovecraft pastiche, and a lot of similar mind screws, plus stupid puns and low humor.  Reading it also gives you the same impression that you’re reading something by some poor guy who has completely lost his mind.  It’s immersive in the same way that Illuminatus! is; you’ve got the (perhaps) unreliable narrator who’s telling the story, and they keep going back and maybe what happened is just a little different than what he said the time before, and even though Wong keeps pulling that trick you think you’re on more solid ground than you are.  No matter how many rugs he pulls, you figure you’re on the last one.  And you never are.  Even after I just said that.

There’s also extremely effective use of alternating comedy and horror.  You’ve got this poor teenage kid who gets covered in demonic hell worms or something, and he’s shrieking and screaming as they burrow through his skin, and the description could be right out of Steven King.  Then it’s over, he’s fine.  Okay, he’s possessed by these demons or whatever, but he generally manifests this by going around punching people in the balls for a while, making him pretty low on the threat level and playing for laughs.  And then when you’re used to the dick-punching he goes and does something really bad.  That’s pretty good storytelling right there.

There’s also just some really effective horror elements throughout, and Wong puts you right in the middle of it.  There’s a great part where the fictional Wong comes to in his room after work, but it looks like it’s been ransacked and someone stole his gun, but then it turns out he’s actually holding the gun and the barrel is a little warm and there aren’t as many bullets as there should be in there and if he just came in from the garage he shouldn’t feel like he’s been walking around in the snow outside for half an hour and he’s pretty sure that if he goes out in his tool shed there’s going to be a dead body there.  Or when he’s with a guy and told not to look in the mirror, but he does anyway and there’s nobody there, and then the guy starts smiling and comes to choke him to death.

Stuff like that.

The frame story itself is not so great, I guess.  Wong is meeting a journalist at a restaurant to tell him about all the crazy stuff he’s gotten mixed up in, which means that we end up hearing the origin story maybe a few more times than strictly necessary.  Suffice to say that David and his friend John got the ability to see things Man Wasn’t Meant to See as the result of taking some drugs, or rather a drug, by a wacked-out Rastafarian who probably wasn’t really a Rastafarian, and maybe not even a person.  They call the drug “soy sauce”.  It isn’t soy sauce.  Instead, it unlocks the secrets of the universe.  Or kills you.  Sometimes both, not necessarily in that order.

In short, I liked it.  Funny, scary, well paced and surprisingly literate, it’s a great tale of the supernatural as narrated by a guy who sits around his house eating cheap burritos and playing video games.

I also got the sequel, This Book is Full of Spiders, and that one is head and shoulders better.  Wong’s writing is more assured, the plot is tighter without as much screwing around, and it’s both more funny and much scarier.  I don’t scare easy, but I actually found myself clenching up a couple of times.

Instead of the more freewheeling narrative of John Dies, this one is more of a coherent narrative about how the town gets infested by invisible, possibly extradimensional spiders that attack people, turn them into zombies and, you know, eat their soft parts and whatnot.  I’ve mentioned before that everyone feels compelled to do a zombie story these days and that I’m pretty much sick of it, but this very well may be the best take on the genre that I’ve seen yet.  For one thing, the scariest sequence isn’t actually about the zombies, but rather the one where Wong wakes up in a quarantine facility after losing a week of his memories, and then finds that the other inhabitants have been making use of his supernatural abilities to detect which other inmates are infected with the spiders.  The prisoners also come into the quarantine in either a red or green jumpsuit and have segregated themselves accordingly, for very little good reason.  One of the Reds has the only gun but the Greens have the best territory.  Eventually you find out there's more going on than you might have initially imagined, but even then the issues are not necessarily cut and dried.  As one of the characters points out, at any point past toddlerhood it's usually not that easy to know who to shoot at.

Like any good zombie story, the zombies aren’t really the issue.  Wong wrote a very good article about the  monkeysphere at one point; that’s what is going on here.  And while the extradimensional parasitic infestation is certainly a problem, it’s really the forces demanding its eradication that get out of hand.  It’s actually got a lot of seriously weighty stuff going on regarding social dynamics and the human condition, while still being laugh-out-loud funny and genuinely creepy.

I guess it’s a sequel in the sense that John and Dave are still in it and still basically assholes, but if you’d never read John Dies you’d simply pick the story right up.  It’s less of a continuing adventure and more of a stand alone, with a better novel structure to boot.  Also back is Dr. Marconi, who I’d say is something of Dave and John’s rival in the supernatural biz, except that he’s educated, poised, wealthy and somehow always wearing a tailored suit, even during the apocalypse.  I bet Dave and John would hate him if he wasn’t so awesome.  (In the movie I see they cast Clancy Brown in this part, which seems about right; or that guy from the Dos Equis commercials.)

These aren’t perfect, and they’re not for everyone, but I like this blend of low humor and research, so there you go.  There aren’t many books that I’ve read that have both explanations for video game logic as well as velvet paintings of Jesus Christ, but here I’ve found one.  If you just read one, read This Book is Full of Spiders, but both are worthwhile in their own way.  Or if you have a kid that is sleeping excessively, you could try using either as a bedtime story.  I guarantee that they won’t be sleeping much after that.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The First Emancipator by Andrew Levy

Robert Carter III played in a band with Thomas Jefferson (and sent bill collectors after him a few times too), was active as a patriot during the American Revolution and may very well have been the richest man in Virginia, which would have made him one of the wealthiest men in the newly-fledged United States.  He corresponded with a bunch of folks you’ve heard of from history class and would have been widely known by his contemporaries.  He also decided to free his nearly five hundred slaves during his lifetime, an event which was the single largest act of manumission in the United States until the Civil War ended slavery in the United States altogether.

So why hasn’t anyone ever heard of him?

Andrew Levy’s analysis of Carter and his times is a fairly masterful work that tries to figure out why he’s a forgotten figure.  Levy’s conclusion is that he simply doesn’t fit anyone’s narrative and therefore everyone just sort of nervously shies away from talking about him.

At the risk of painting with a broad brush, let me . . . actually, let’s just get out the broad brush here.  You’ve basically got two different pictures of antebellum slavery.  One side (the apologetic) portrays it as bad but not too bad; slaves were valuable property after all and the owners had incentive to look after them, slaveholders would have really liked to let their slaves go but just economically couldn’t manage to, and the social mores of the day were different.  On the other side (the abolitional) you’ve got a wicked institution that separated families, embraced authoritarianism and cruelty, and was overseen by moral monsters who were perfectly capable of telling right from wrong.  Personally, I’d lean more towards the second viewpoint, but the fact is very little that humans do is perfectly crystal clear.  (I would also state that given the lack of volunteers to become slaves, this particular area is clearer than most.)

Carter actually wasn’t too likeable, being insulated by his immense wealth from practical concerns and thereby not especially being able to relate to other people, even his peers.  This paradoxically helped him out in his later endeavors when he basically didn’t care what his neighbors thought of him, although he did try to space out the manumissions to not cause undue concern.  He really loved his wife and they had seventeen children, although many of them didn’t survive.  He had a series of religious epiphanies throughout his life, including at least one near-death experience, which caused him to join up with non-established churches like the Baptists at a time where there was an established church in Virginia and such things were Not Done.
In fact, some of the best things in this book simply deal with the sort of everyday life in colonial and immediately post-colonial Virginia that tend to get elided from the history books.  Baptist preachers got thrown in jail and beat up but kept on drawing crowds anyway; men and women spent their nights drinking hard and partying harder every single day until the scandals couldn’t be contained.  Everyone was suing each other and taking offense at everything all the time.

Anyway, Carter himself was a pretty paradoxical figure.  His religious leanings may have made him believe that he was theoretically equal to his slaves, but he never really acted like anyone at all was his equal.  Carter may have allowed his slaves to have more autonomy than most other slaveholders did, but he also didn’t really discipline his sons too much for sleeping with the house slaves (although he apparently never did so himself).  At some point he did send some of his sons out of Virginia so they wouldn’t be exposed to all the immorality around, and toward the end of his life he ended up leaving himself, eventually being buried in an unmarked grave.

At the same time you really want to commend Carter for what he was doing in deciding to free all his slaves, he never really gave a good explanation for it, treating it more like some task he had to complete rather than a moral crusade.  And he was still really, truly rich.  It’s not like he gave away everything he owned to end up in penury and he seemed to be personally offended when slaves he freed decided that they would really rather not work for him as freemen any more.  This strikes at the heart of why no one really likes to talk about him.  To the apologists, he’s a living counterexample to the notion that slaveholders didn’t know better and/or simply couldn’t make it without slavery.  To the abolitionists, he never gave any good justifications for his behavior and it didn’t exact a huge personal toll on him, plus he still seemed to have pretty reactionary attitudes.

Shortly after his death, the rules were changed so that manumissions of this sort wouldn’t have been possible any longer.  It doesn’t seem that it was a response to him as such, although his contemporaries would have certainly known about it and didn’t exactly approve.  There was just a general retrenchment in the slaveholding societies that eventually culminated in the Civil War.  It may seem strange to describe a system of slavery as a more gentle time, but Carter hit a particular window where he was able to do some good in an unusual way.

For students of colonial history, this is an engaging story that really humanizes some figures that could use some of that treatment.  It raises some bigger questions about modern society that I don’t think it necessarily addresses that well, and some parts do drag a little, but this is one of my favorite non-fiction books of the year.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

T.C. Vilabier’s 26-th String Specific Sonata For An Instrument Yet To Be Invented, catalog number MW1211 (a.k.a. "The Hydrogen Sonata"), is best played on an instrument informally called the antagonistic elevenstring, which ideally requires the player to have four arms and sit inside the cavity of the instrument itself.  One of the protagonists of this novel has had the extra arms fitted so that she can try to get through the piece, which is notorious for its complexity and also for being thoroughly unpleasant to actually listen to.  Incidentially, the elevenstring has more than eleven strings.  So that’s the sort of thing we’re dealing with here.

If you’re not familiar with the Culture series by Banks, then this being the tenth volume in said series may not be the best place to start.  If you are familiar with it, then this one will probably be pleasant enough, but somewhat more insubstantial than some of his other works.

The Culture novels have always been somewhat unique in their actual epic scale.  A lot of ostensible galaxy-spanning empires in fiction seem to have a relatively small cast of characters which actually accomplish everything which needs doing.  In contrast, the Culture is so vast that even if events are referenced from earlier novels, there tends not to be any overlap in personnel.  In fact the galaxy is so big that not even the alien species show up more than once or twice, so it’s not a Federation vs. Klingons kind of thing – each book can introduce whole new problems that you’ve never even heard of before since there’s just so much there.  In terms of continuity, this one takes place sometime after Excession and probably sometime before Surface Detail (they mention needing a Contact section which is actually in existence in Surface Detail).

The focus of this novel is on Sublimation, the ultimate end state of most advanced civilizations in Banks’ work, wherein they withdraw from the physical universe we’re familiar with and hang out in higher order dimensions.  For all intents and purposes it’s a one way trip.  The very, very few entities that do come back find themselves somewhat limited in what they are able to convey about it, but apparently no one ever suggests that it’s a bad idea to go.  The Culture is highly suspicious about the whole thing, and it’s not them talking about taking this trip; in this case it is the Gzilt, a humanoid civilization that was actually one of the founding members of the Culture but didn’t join in at the last minute.  The reason that the Culture has been down on the idea is that it smacks of coercion; as we discover in this one when a species decides to Sublime it's all over in about an hour after the process begins.  The Gzilt have set a time to departure, and they're wrapping up what matters they have left to tend to in the span they have remaining (about three weeks).

In terms of plot structure, this one reminded me a lot of Excession.  There’s the cabal of Minds that comes together as an ad-hoc committee to try and solve a potentially high-profile problem (although this cabal is not quite as aggressive or murderous).  And let me say that the reason I can’t entirely get behind this book is because of the fact that I considered this story, somewhat like Excession, to be kind of a shaggy dog tale.

I won’t spoil the secret, because that would be unfair.  Suffice to say that there is a bit of information out there related to the Gzilt that some of their high-ranking members don’t want known, and will go to pretty extreme lengths to conceal, especially just before the Sublimation.  Nonetheless, both the reader and most of the Culture characters have a pretty good idea what the secret is right from the very beginning.  When the wild goose chase gets especially frustrating about halfway through, the Minds that are working on the problem actually have a vote as to whether it’s actually worth even trying to figure out the mystery anymore, or if they should just assume they know the score and go back to what they were doing beforehand.  The vote comes pretty close to passing.  Towards the very end they have another vote regarding whether they should actually make use of what they’d learned or not, and that one sort of sums up what they actually accomplished here.  When even the characters are openly questioning whether what they’re doing is actually worth their time, you’ve got to wonder if the story is really going anywhere.

There’s also a fair bit of plot digression, as in Banks’ last couple of Culture novels.  You get characters set up, asked to help out in doing something or other, and then their participation abruptly ceases or just sort of peters out without resolution.  This can be somewhere between irritating and soul-crushing, depending.

I also have to say that there’s a little bit of a missed opportunity in the subject matter.  One of the plot threads centers around an individual who claims that he was actually there at the negotiations which resulted in the formation of the Culture about ten thousand years prior to the events of the novel, a claim which, if true, would make him older than any other Culture citizen (even drones or Minds).  I thought we might get some insight around how the Culture actually came together.  There have been hints here and there throughout the series about the heartless steel behind the Culture’s space-hippie veneer - even over and beyond the obvious retaliations that they make against those who interfere with them.  I've always felt that there was more skullduggery and outright violence behind the Culture’s founding than anyone lets on, and possibly even quite a bit more unpleasantness going behind the scenes in the current Culture era than even Special Circumstances wants to acknowledge.  That’s still maybe true, but if so, we don’t find out here.  It’s not the Culture’s secret that is at stake, at least this time.

Reviewing the previous paragraphs, I realize that this is all pretty negative stuff, and that’s maybe unfair.  I tore right through the book, and generally enjoyed it anyway.  Banks is on form here, and there’s a lot of outright humor.  This is possibly the outright funniest Culture novel to date, at least in parts.  In addition, while there is some occasional grimness, on the whole the work doesn’t dip into the darkness of some of his Culture works where everyone is suffering from ennui and existential despair.  Sure, nothing of much consequence happens, but at the same time it’s a pretty entertaining romp.  And aside from a cranky old drone and a couple of humans, most of the Culture characters are Minds, who are always more interesting to hear about.  There aren’t any characters quite as memorable as the Falling Outside the Usual Moral Constraints from the last one, though the Mistake Not . . . has its moments.

So, summing up, my frustrations with this one are mostly based around the fact that this could have been a great book, but ended up being just okay.  Banks is such a good writer that he can get away with a mess of a plot and still have something worth reading.  But although I’m happy to see him writing Culture novels again in fairly rapid succession, I do have to wonder if he’s ever going to give his universe a proper challenge.  I know it’s hard to surprise the Minds, but still.