Tuesday, December 26, 2017

What the Hell Did I Just Read by David Wong

Continuing on the cosmic horror kick is What the Hell Did I Just Read, which doubles as both an effective title as well as a pithy summary of most people's reactions, including my own.  This, the third entry in the John Dies at the End series, is sublime and infuriating in about equal measure.  I think that's intentional.

The second entry in this series, This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don't Touch It, was one of my favorite books of 2012.  I was worried that this one wouldn't live up to that, and frankly I'm still thinking about it.  I can say that I didn't enjoy this one nearly as much as Spiders but on an objective level I don't know if I can say it isn't as good.  We revisit our "heroes" John and David as they return older and . . . older.  This one also focuses a lot more on Amy, still dating David.

If you're not familiar with Wong's work on this series, it's a dizzying combination.  Quite a bit of all of these novels focuses on really lowbrow toilet humor, mostly on the part of David and John.  While you're looking at that, Wong manages to sneak in some fairly trenchant social analysis and commentary.  And then when you think you know where things are going, he blindsides you with all sorts of legitimately scary and incredibly fucked-up shit.  I first noted these abrupt shifts in tone in the original John Dies novel, and Wong's continued to hone them as a signature style.  I was almost aghast at how totally vile and awful some of the situations get in this novel, almost thinking that the narrative hadn't earned the right to invoke those sorts of images.  But upon reflection, I began to consider this may be the whole point.

After all, this is billed as a cosmic horror novel.  The nature of cosmic horror is that it's not malevolent by any human understanding, it's just that it's completely indifferent to humanity.  People often make fun of Lovecraft's protagonists going mad at the drop of the hat, but forget that what they'd realized is that there was no malice but also no pity on the part of the vast forces beyond Earth.

So anyway, let's look at Dave and John.  They're high school graduates, and they're pretty smart.  But they didn't pursue any formal education and they have only spotty employment.  David in particular hasn't been able to find any work since the video store he used to manage shut down, and the only reason he has food and a place to stay is because Amy works at a call center for $9 an hour.  David drinks too much, and John does everything too much.  They hunt monsters, but the only reason they can see through the veil of reality is because they do a bunch of drugs.  This gig also doesn't pay very well.  Even Amy, who is more sensible and grounded, takes a lot of pain medication, subsists on a diet mostly composed of sugar and caffeine, and doesn't sleep so she can play her MMORPGs.

I don't know if Wong read The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman or not but I was thinking that these series are considering the same sorts of issues from wildly different perspectives.  Quentin Coldwater is also a depressive malcontent, but when his life doesn't meet up to his expectations he manages to fall upwards into a sinecure so he can wallow in his misery in comfort.  This is the difference a college education and social status makes, I guess.  There's not really that much between their mental states, but society has written David off entirely and as of this one he's basically writing himself off, as well.  Sure, there are dimension-hopping alien monsters to contend with, but the slow grind into oblivion that's claiming this whole Midwestern town is just as bad if not worse.

As for the main action, what's to say?  There's some missing children involved.  But remember that some of the antagonists in these books can mess with you past all understanding.  Case in point: Amy's missing a hand from an accident she was in as a child.  Except that she had two hands in the second book until she was touched by one of these extradimensional horrors, at which point not only did she lose the hand but she had always been missing a hand.  So things can not only change, but change to the point that you can't remember it being any different, and if you have any expectations that you know what's going on, prepare to set them aside.  Wong doesn't play fair, John exaggerates, David omits some important facts, and all three narrators occasionally outright lie.

Again, it's not for the squeamish.  Aside from depictions of horrible atrocities to every sort of sympathetic persona imaginable, there's body horror, relationship horror, poverty horror and a simulacrum of a Korean porn star made of insects.  And yet despite all that it manages to end up on a note of hope.  Ish.  Hope-ish.  Happy 2018.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Book of Cthulhu and The Book of Cthulhu 2 (edited by Ross Lockhart)

“After all that, you came here and brought a woman as well. Could it be, sir, that you are not too bright?” “I didn’t believe all them stories then.” “But you do now?” “I do."

-From "The Crawling Sky" by Joe R. Lansdale

There's a lot of things you can say about H.P. Lovecraft, many of them negative.  I ended up getting a copy of his complete works during the sale when Borders went out of business.  It's a pretty nice book, too, hardbound with a built-in bookmark and fancy pagework, with some editorial commentary in there to help make sense of it all.  I couldn't afford the edition bound in human flesh, but that's okay since they don't really do basements in North Texas and I couldn't give such a volume the solemn, freaky crypt that it deserves.  And so it sat, for some time, as I found excuses to do many other things rather than read it.  Finally, back in July 2015, I actually read through it.  And . . . it was pretty okay?  I guess?  I mean, I'd read "The Call of Cthulhu" and "The Colour Out of Space" before, so I knew what I was getting into there, and some of the others were about as tedious as I expected.  But although I wouldn't end up describing myself as a fan, I found some of the stories ended up growing on me.

I don't really think that I have much to say on the subject of Lovecraft himself, aside from just a few generalities.  That field has been plowed and planted and replowed, and I have very little to add to the work of actual scholars and literary critics.  There's really two things everyone has heard about him: first, even by the standards of the era in which he lived and worked, Lovecraft had really outlandish views on race; and second, he was prone to write prose which skips right through "purple" and into ultraviolet, possibly even into the X-ray spectrum on occasion.  Both of these things are, in fact, absolutely true.  There was a third thing which I didn't know about him before reading this omnibus, and that's that he could actually display a sense of humor when he set his mind to it - the story "Sweet Ermengarde" is legitimately funny.

That said, it's possible to read this stuff and come away with inspiration quite aside from the flaws of the source material.  He was writing at the right time to have a theme about a pitiless and indifferent universe.  I don't know if there's really a fine dividing line between horror and cosmic horror, but serial killers and your basic monsters are horror; fighting them may be tough, but you can see your angle.  The ocean or the force of gravity are cosmic horror; if the ocean drowns you it's not like it hates you, it doesn't even have what you could regard as a mind to hate you with.  It just doesn't care.  Lovecraft mined that feeling so well, everyone who's anyone in the fantasy/SF field has written at least one Lovecraft pastiche and many of them are better at it than he was himself.

But, you know, Sturgeon's Law applies to that as well as to anything else.  There's a possibly undeserved reputation that Lovecraft-style horror stories will be narrated by a protagonist writing to a journal just before they commit suicide, go mad, or are slain by a horrible cult, about how they ended up in the situation that they are in.  I say "possibly" because that actually does happen a bit.  It even ends up a bit here, in this two-volume collection of various stories by a wide variety of authors.  Despite the title, the stories aren't all about Cthulhu or even about named monsters from the Mythos, although many are.

The authors here run the gamut and so do the stories themselves.  There are some that are pure horror.  Some that take a different tack and go for pure comedy.  Others go for both (Joe R. Lansdale's story, quoted above, is a prime example of that.)  They take place in many settings - dead cities on alien worlds, live cities on alien worlds, dead cities on Earth, Mexico in the 1950s, post-Civil War East Texas, present day New York City, Massachusetts in Lovecraft's time, a futuristic interplanetary space pirate ship.  Some name-drop H.P. himself as an author, or as a visionary; some don't have anything to say about him at all.  You get some that delve into where exactly all these evil cults come from, some that take them as a given, some that ignore them entirely.  And of course there's some that end humanity when the stars come right - and some that give humans another day to carry on.

I can't say that every story in the collections is a complete winner, but there are some extremely good ones overall and even the more disappointing ones are usually only that way by comparison.  I didn't really know that I was in the mood to read something like this, but I ended up having more fun reading these stories than pretty much anything else I've been trying to get through lately.  In short, if this remotely sounds like something you'd be interested in, you probably will be.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Delirium Brief by Charles Stross

It's time to revisit the Laundry Files series; I did an overview of the first five at one point, but it's now time for the eighth volume in the series, followup on The Annihilation Score and The Nightmare Stacks.

I've overall been a fan of the Laundry books, although I did think that overall the third and fourth books were the best of the bunch.  The first two were written before Stross had an overall arc or overarching plot in mind, and with a couple of exceptions the events of those books are generally glossed over as the series continued to find its own voice.  And while I liked many things about the more recent ones, I also felt they came with serious drawbacks and plot holes.  Therefore while I was always up for reading a new Laundry novel, I wasn't considering them entirely essential.  So I was pretty happy to discover that The Delirium Brief was the best one in years, and may be the best one yet.

However, it also requires a pretty thorough knowledge of events occurring in books 3-7; it's possibly the worst starting point that you could imagine.  And I'm going to proceed to talk about why I liked it so much, which involves ruining the (well done) plot twists, so if you want to read it without spoilers please go do so now and then come back when you're finished.  This will be here when you get back, after all.


All right.  One of the things that I've always liked about Stross is that he's one hell of an idea guy, and also one hell of a logical implication guy.  He comes up with some pretty nutty stuff, and he's also prepared to follow chains of reasoning to likewise unusual ends.  Unfortunately, the thing that I tend to like least about him is that he will get more interested in a new idea and drop what he's working on.  The last couple of Laundry books have had endings that can charitably be described as "abrupt" and uncharitably described with worse invective; they've also suffered from a tendency to info-dump and build unreleased tension.  As a result you tend to look forward to the next one as resolving some of these issues and then it just . . . never ends up happening.  It also seems like at least some of the recent ones have been early drafts without much revision.  For instance, in the recent case of The Nightmare Stacks this led to a frankly bizarre love subplot.  In order to work properly, the characters needed weeks or months to interact, but the demands of the main plot (an invasion of alternate-dimensional humanoids) made it happen over the course of days.  There are other issues like this throughout books 5-7, although overall they're pretty interesting.

Here, however, Stross had to go back after the Brexit vote and do a substantial rewrite of this one.  I'm not sure what exactly he needed to change (since the book takes place in an alternate 2014, before even the Scottish independence referendum), but he felt that the political situation called for it, and as a result this one is much, much better flowing than the last few have been.  It begins right in the aftermath of book 7, where over ten thousand have died following the destruction of Leeds following the invasion of the alternate-dimensional elves.  The UK government looks really bad and now they've come to have knowledge of the Laundry, that secret, hidden agency which deals with occult defense.  Accordingly, the government promises to bring them to heel and to accountability. 

For a cosmic horror novel, this one also hits a fair bit of everyday horror as well.  Bob Howard starts out by meeting with a US Postal Inspector (occult text division) who basically states that the US government has already fallen.  To what, we don't know, but apparently it's so bad that even other horrible monsters are afraid of it.  No saving throws, no additional warnings, no last-minute desperate fighting.  Just a fait accompli.  Perhaps this was the subject of the rewrites, and the comparison to modern politics is depressing.  You just turn around and suddenly your government is under the control of eldritch abominations.  I can relate to that.

Before long, Bob's been called in to testify in Parliament and on TV.  At first this looks like the civilian government is going to reassert control in a staid bureaucratic fashion, but then the decision is abruptly made to shut the whole thing down and hire external contractors to perform these functions.

As omniscient observers, we can tell this is a really awful idea, for two main reasons - first, we know and love all those scamps who work at the Laundry, so we know that they've really got the best interests of the realm at heart.  And second, which is a pretty big one, is that the proposed contractor is affiliated with Reverend Raymond Schiller, who is (gasp) an American and (double gasp) the slave of the extra dimensional soul-eating horror known as the Sleeper in the Pyramid.  Schiller even being on this plane is bad news since as of the end of book 4 he was stranded on a dead plateau on an alien world.  As it turns out he's not dead, but he's not exactly just Schiller anymore in there either.  (Schiller's also got version 2.0 of brain-controlling parasites that have moved on from just eating tongues - there's some really awful body horror going on in this one.)

However, the Laundry has always worked in the shadows and the critiques made of their operations and methods are actually pretty reasonable.  They've never managed to get any support from the press, from Parliament or from the public, and much of what they do is frankly not believable.  What did they think was going to happen on that inevitable day that they were forced into the spotlight, with no allies?  They knew that day was coming - they had Pete working on the civil defense plans - but they never adequately prepared.  And they came to widespread public attention following a massive disaster that killed thousands of people, so they look incompetent as well.  Although the government is making a very serious and in fact existential mistake, it's not done entirely without reason.

This leads back into my previous observation that Stross is good at implications; he's also good at misdirection.  He's led us into this false sense of certainty that the Laundry are the good guys here.  Yes, they are defending humanity against creatures that would happily devour the lives and souls of every person on earth.  No, they don't go to the extremes displayed by their American counterparts (the OPA, a/k/a the Black Chamber) which extensively uses demons and violence.  But we've always known that they make their employees take a binding oath which compels them to both secrecy and obedience.  At first this seems like a joke on overbearing workplace practices and maybe played for laughs a little bit, but if you really think about it that's amazingly scary and obtrusive, not much different from the slavery of the Black Chamber.  And as it turns out when the organization disbands the very first priority of the senior-most members is to figure out how to re-bind all of their employees.  You know, with soul-destroying oaths.

Bob quickly finds himself on the run, using the organization's remaining resources to accomplish a couple of missions and try to prevent Schiller from taking over (first) the government of the UK, and (subsequently) the entire remaining population.  He takes the new oath administered by the Senior Auditor and obeys his mission directives.  Here's a few things he doesn't consider - becoming a free agent.  Approaching the media.  Renegotiating the employment agreement that he's got, or reconsidering how the Laundry is organized.  Even choosing to die is an option.  But no, he simply does what the Senior Auditor tells him to do, which is probably his reflex by this point since he hasn't really had any choice in the matter up until now.  And in so doing he crosses his own personal event horizon from which there's probably no going back.

There's no good guys left in this novel, so at the end it's a pretty hefty gut punch when you realize that they've managed to stop Schiller but only by utilizing methods that are - at best - equally extreme as the threat they averted.  And we've confirmed that Bob maybe isn't really Bob anymore, or perhaps more accurately that he's still Bob-shaped and was once Bob.  I have been more annoyed than anything with the cliffhangers and non-endings but this book managed to wrap up its primary plot and still tease effectively.  I eagerly await the stories to come of Bob under the New Management; although, at this point it's pretty clear that when they talk about the end of humanity when the stars come right, they really mean it.  There's no more shutting-down-the-portal-at-the-last-minute safety to be had.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone

Interesting - it's been exactly one year since my last post.  Naturally I knew it had been a while, but just couldn't bring myself over to check.  It was about that time that I was really getting concerned about the election, and then following the election I wasn't really motivated to do much of anything for a while.  Plus we had a new baby to look after, and a larger not-baby who still needed some affection and assurance she wasn't being replaced, and entropy in the house, and work, and one thing and another.  In other words, typical life stuff.  Still no excuse, I suppose.

Nonetheless in the interim I did at least read sufficient stuff for another few years of posts.  Having utterly failed to finish up the Hugo nominees of 2016 I'll just move forward and talk about something that I enjoyed immensely and didn't know that I wanted to read until I did.

The Craft Sequence encompasses five novels (for now, there's a sixth coming soon), which are written out of chronological order but have helpfully indicative titles to let you know where you stand in the order of things.  Three Parts Dead, the first written book, is therefore the third sequentially, while Last First Snow, the fourth written, is something of a prequel.  They're all available on the Kindle store at really reasonable price points.  I suppose that the genre that you'd classify these under would be "urban fantasy", but what Gladstone has done here is explicitly analogize magic to the corporate form.  I've seen books where magicians are ninjas, kings, computer programmers, even just generally geeky, but I've never seen one before where they're explicitly lawyers or CPAs.

I'm not the sort of attorney that works at a large corporation or a huge corporate firm, but I'm familiar enough with the pressure to constantly bill more hours.  Admittedly my clients pay in good old American money and not souls, but the concepts is there.  In the backstory, there were once gods that ruled the land, and granted their worshipers with various blessings in exchange for their prayers.  And, in at least some cases, sacrifice.  The priests of these gods got some explicitly supernatural powers and Applied Theology was where it was at.

Until, of course, some enterprising souls discovered that pure human will and the power of starlight was able to perform Craft, allowing the supernatural with no god required.  The subsequent God Wars saw the gods broken and many even destroyed, and the Craftspeople ascendant.  At this point they had to sit down and actually rule the land they'd taken.  The most powerful of them transcended their mere flesh and became the Deathless Kings and Queens, immortal, unbelievably potent liches of pure magical might.

Most of this is experienced from the ground level, as it were.  The main protagonist of the first novel, Three Parts Dead, is a recent <ahem> "graduate" of one of the Craft schools, owing student loans of several dozen souls and hired on to a firm to perform a resurrection of a dead god, a task she has to worry is somewhat beyond her.  An experience totally familiar to anyone in their first professional job, if not exactly in details.

What I really liked about this series is that it tries very hard to be even-handed.  The Craftspeople definitely had some legitimate beefs about the gods, particularly those where human sacrifice was performed, so it's easy to assume that they're the good guys here.  However, there's a streak of Nietzschean will-to-power pervading the practice of Craft; many practitioners aren't especially ethical or moral, and at least some of them rule as harshly as the gods ever did.  Plus Craft is really cool and all but it runs on entropy, so heavy Craft use is making the world gradually uninhabitable.  Divine magic (being magic) doesn't have that limitation.  Some of the most unscrupulous Craftspeople are actually trying to hasten the destruction and reach out to the stars - leaving the rest of us in the lurch.

One interesting geographical feature is the desert city of Dresediel Lex, formerly ruled by sacrifice-demanding gods who also enforced a strict caste system.  They probably didn't notice or even care too much when selecting the lover of some low-class schmuck named Kopil for sacrifice; if they'd known he would become the infamous King in Red they might have maybe thought about it a little harder.  But unlike the gods, the King in Red can't just make it rain by divine will and his city is constantly growing.  As a result he's burning out more and more surrounding water and hoping to continue to buy time to do . . . something.  Do Phoenix, Las Vegas or L.A. ring a bell?

Kopil's actually something of a standout character.  He's first seen in Two Serpents Rise as a generally benevolent figure, but you have to reconsider him after Last First Snow where he puts down a revolt with excessive force, albeit for somewhat understandable reasons.  Despite his incredible power he's got a bunch of complexes, and most of his friends don't call him back anymore.  If you've ever wanted to read a book about a depressed, gay, immortal skeleton mage then this is the series for you.

I do have some questions about just how powerful the practitioners of Craft can be - even fresh out of school they're so mindbogglingly tough that it borders on unfair.  And, for that matter, like most books involving magic, some of the conflicts are resolved in unsatisfying fashions by methods that weren't previously explained to be possible.  Nonetheless, I liked many of the characters, I liked the world, and I liked the idea that first-years at Craft firms have to work nights and weekends to get enough billable hours to satisfy their dread masters.  And there's enough analogy to think about but not so much it beats you over the head, or even really gives you the suggestion of an answer for that matter.  Definitely good beach reading, if there's a beach in your future.