For those with even the slightest interest in reading Light by M. John Harrison, two words of caution…be patient. Be patient with three seemingly (and I stress seemingly) unrelated (in time or space) storylines, be patient with the author’s constant digressions into the semi-erotic genre, and be especially patient with the endless stream-of-consciousness like spew of space-pop jargon, regurgitated with often scant explanation. Be patient with it all. Or, think of it as a roller coaster ride, whereby one can enjoy the rush of it all in their face rather than getting caught up in any one loop or curve. Do that, and you might just find a handful of brilliance in this work, other than referencing the title.
What Harrison does really well in this novel is his ability to provide glimpses of a future where everything looks different, but retains the essential human condition. For all the advances in quantum physics and popular chemistry, the hazy lure of the twink-tanks, interstellar travel and adventures of the K-captain, Harrison essentially writes of the frailty and fear that humanity just can’t seem to shake. That, and the sheer wonder of the connections between time, space and the human brain’s potential.
Unfortunately, what Harrison takes for granted is the casual reader’s attention span given an ultra thick space-stew of components that comprise the mystery of the Kefahuchi Tract. While it still remains mysterious after reading, I don’t think he quite pulled it off by rapid-firing its components rather than aiming at the whole. The impulse and insanity of human beings is accelerated to the nanosecond, but the Tract in its obscurity remains.
That being said, if one is patient, there is a fine reward in seeing the connections blossom between Seria Mau, Ed Chianese, and Kearney, culminating in the mystery surrounding everything around and beyond The Shrander. It’s a really imaginatively conceived story, if you are willing to survive the whole ride.
In both setting and character, Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris is an enigmatic destination. It’s just fantastical enough for the reader to suspend their belief in the existence of the murky and unnerving gray caps, while just as believable as an obscure and unstable, equatorial locale reminiscent of perhaps a newly colonized (relatively) New Guinea. Either way, Ambergris is an immersive epicenter of weirdness that’s completely engrossing as depicted in VanderMeer’s Shriek: An Afterword.
The story revolves around the lives of a pair of siblings, Duncan and Janice Shriek, and their absorption into Ambergris, particularly its academic fabric, as told by means of memoir and revision. The stories are of their successes and failures in a time of warring academics set within a warring city known for its tendency to inexplicably implode. On the surface, it is a city possessing a magical element that lends an unnerving flavor to its mystique. When the annual and oft-terrifying Festival of the Freshwater Squid is in repose, the battle for both literal and literary dominance of the city is viciously fought through scholars and their powerful publishing houses. Beneath the surface, the ever elusive, cryptic and unfathomable gray caps are waiting.
VanderMeer superbly creates a multidimensional depth for all his characters while clearly delineating the protagonists from the antagonists. The only drawback was his over indulgence with Duncan’s relationship with the character Mary Sabon; more time could have been spent on the relatively peripheral but intriguing characters of Sybel and Sirin. Otherwise, his pacing between the emotive narrative and the omniscient description (especially of all things fungal) is flawless. His movements between the mysterious, mundane and the insanely horrific are precisely paced as well. Shriek: An Afterward is a thrilling and frightening work of modern weirdness and quasi-steampunkery.
As simultaneously funky and disconcerting as Demon Days was/is, Gorillaz have raised the stakes with Plastic Beach. Thematically, the album is a philosophical musing that we can’t ever really separate ourselves from that which we discard or dismiss. Musically, Plastic Beach is at first glance a stark mismatch of distinct talent scrounged the world over by Damon Albarn, though ultimately fitting together seamlessly. It is a perfect amalgamation of seemingly disparate genres and musicians when listened as a whole, thereby raising the bar for music in this 21st century. It’s an ominous, carefree, thumping, melancholy and affirming mix of something that possesses both humility and gravitas.
Sure, everyone knows the talent that contributed to Plastic Beach, but one of the greatest strengths of the album is that it is a gestalt piece, where everybody contributes to the theme rather than focusing on their own impact. Albarn managed the talent impeccably, especially with relative newcomers like Little Dragon, Kano and Bashy. About the only thing I could have done without was the advert-like effects on Superfast Jellyfish. Other than that, every single track is a well-conceived standout. Plastic Beach is simply immaculate.