Tag Archives: new weird

review – greensleeves

As brief as Greensleeves is, page for digital page it stands alongside the finest that Jeff VanderMeer has been consistently offering in his sublime satchel of strange.

It is a touching story of wearied librarian Mary Colquhoun in her comfortable complacency in life. Sequestered from the world, she surrounds herself with books, the occasional second floor cadre of drifters, and the solace of the library’s nearly intact stained glass canopy, in favor of the quiet consolation from her youthful impetuousness.

Until the day the eccentrically bedizened Cedric arrives, enlisting her assistance to locate his giant frog run roughshod in her library. I’ll say no more, other than note her bittersweet rejuvenation in the pursuit of said quarry.

Greensleeves is exquisitely written. VanderMeer’s tale floats about the reader like an early winter zephyr, carrying both the beauty and chill of the coming snow, each rapping about our ears, reminding us to savor it before it turns to memory. Thankfully, this story can be savored with a well timed rereading before that happens.

review – sensation

Hard to classify Sensation by Nick Mamatas without describing the work like some obscure underground internet radio station. It definitely falls within the parameters of contemporary urban science-fiction, a more American counterpart to the British labyrinthine imaginings of China Mieville, while faintly echoing the finer philosophical musings of The Matrix movies. On the other hand, it confluences in wild absurdity, paralleling a strange hybrid of The Hitchhiker’s Guide with Woody Allen’s New York state of mind.

The story doesn’t have much of a center as it’s more a series of falling dominoes, beginning with an atypical breakup between lackluster couple Raymond and Julia,  and the subsequent societal fallout both monitored and controlled from forces unforeseen. Such forces reveal themselves as the interplay between two warring super-intelligent species of spider and wasp, molding our reality as omnipresent observers of “indeterminate ethnicities”, policing society’s actions in their own war of survival.

Mamatas frequently references the butterfly effect in this work, using timely and humorous popular social references to illustrate the torrential effect of the small actions people collectively take, whether they be defacing newly constructed mega-stadiums, driving buses into the United Nations, or enacting “Plan Z” through the perfected strategy of web-based, pseudo-bourgeois “mutually assured confusion”. With all these accumulated acts, Mamatas eagerly invokes the free will argument, whether in this highly controlled universe or that of the interweaved, yet nebulous “Simulacrum” in which our players occasionally encounter themselves.

There’s a lot going on in Sensation. With creepy subtlety and detachment, Mamatas brilliantly narrates from the view of his hyper-intelligent spider species; his interweave of our reality and that of the Simulacrum is too underdeveloped for my taste though, as he focuses on the plight of an overeducated, insipid Raymond and his ubiquitous Julia. More time could have been spent on the hive-mind of his wasp species, for it too, was left wanting in relation to his spidey sense. The absurdity emanating from and surrounding his characters in an ever insane New York is quite enjoyable though; Mamatas deftly strangles our sense of self-importance, adding a much needed humility to our unquestionably mindless endeavors. It’s also an unquestionably worthwhile read.

review – museum of the weird

Amelia Gray‘s Museum of the Weird is concisely that. This little compendium of curios doesn’t mess around; nay, it’s a sucker-punch of surreal hurled straight to the breadbasket. While some of the stories in this collection are a slow time-release of quirk into the bloodstream, others are a full-on mainline of weird cooked freshly from Gray’s meth lab of imagination. But in a good way, I assure.

The great thing about this work is the quality, as a majority of the stories, each contained within just a few pages, can easily be novellas or even larger works in scope.  And while the sentiment typically flows from the wellspring of psychological insecurity of her characters, Gray’s talent shines from the reserved awkwardness in their behavior. A waiter serves an entrée of hair but it’s a matter of for whom, not if it’s eaten; the work required to maintain a modern snake farm of the highest professionalism; the un-reciprocated dedication to a bag of frozen tilapia or a paring knife; or even the uneasy barroom conversation between a penguin and armadillo.  Gray makes it work, no matter how strange the situation and delivers feeling, regardless of how absurd, creepily gothic or awkwardly sweet. 

The downside to the work is that it’s too bloody short. There’s a great spectrum of stories to sample, but they’re over too quickly. Throw in a couple of Gray’s intriguing writing exercises to fatten it out a bit and the reader will soon enough finish the book, noting not only the thoroughness of her weirdview but perhaps a hunger for something more.  Museum of the Weird is a freakishly well-written book, ideal for those geared for a reread in order to fully savor.

review – the windup girl

Paolo Bacigalupi is fast becoming one of my favorite writers. Not because he so deftly speculates on the more pressing social and environmental issues currently ignored by most of our so-called leaders, but that he does so with such an effortless ease in mixing his ominous messages with exciting and thought provoking stories. Readers like myself may just enjoy the escapism of a good, suspenseful dystopia without getting depressed that it might actually be true within a few decades.

Bacigalupi’s science fiction is odd in that there is an uneasy anachronistic feel to his near-future milieu.  His stories are set against omnipresent backdrops and/or rumors of rising seas, dissolving borders, and energy scarcity (coal,oil). The only energy available is that which humans expend or is inefficiently dissipating within their makeshift and inefficient coils and springs.

Such is the case with Bacigalupi’s novel The Windup Girl.  A longer exposition of two stories found within his collection “Pump Six and Other Stories”, The Windup Girl is a novel of totality in a new, yet stagnant-world order.  It is a story of scavenging and survival on multiple tenuous levels: of a kingdom, its government ministries, corporations, and its occupants.

It’s a story of archetypes more than anything.  Amid the wondrous, giant lolling megodonts and overcrowded towers of crime lords and suffocating tenants, The Windup Girl describes the ebb and flow of power-hungry generals and governmental ministers, the infiltrating genehacks of farang agri-corporates, the unpredictable order infused with terror by the incorruptible white shirts, the “yellow-card” immigrant Chinese fighting for scraps within a so-called welcoming Thai society, and the not-so-human consorts trying not to overheat in the incessant, sopping humidity.  It’s a story that sparks with every intermingling among these factions, inevitably bursting with the sad disappointment of human predictability, better termed samsara, that Bacigalupi has such a firm grasp of.

The genius of Bacigalupi’s writing is found not just in what is necessarily written, but equally in what is evoked by his speculation. Massive societal contractions and expansions in Asia, Finnish anti-corporate insurgence, and the ascendancy of potential seats of power in Iowa, of all places, all due rising hunger and seas. It is inspired with the tension and vision of the Blade Runner worldview, but for a new generation of science fictioneers that is entirely original and engrossing.

review – the sad tale of the brothers grossbart

In all my recent page turning I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a more adventurous, weirdly pensive and violently juicy work of speculative or historical fiction than I have from Jesse Bullington’s The Sad Tale of The Brothers Grossbart. As a chronically slow reader, I’m amazed with the rapid rate at which I cannibalized the literature.

Most superficially, this tale is a bloody romp through the carnage that’s burned, crumbled, or spurted in the wake of a pair of medieval entrepreneurs, Hegel and Manfried Grossbart.  Just two brothers sensibly trying to stay on task pursuing their utmost grave robbing quest. They’re not to be confused with those silly protagonists we call “heroes”,  “honorable men”, or perhaps even “likable persons”.  Nay, I think Bullington says it best when he aptly heralds his brothers as “bastards at large”.  Their tale is as straightforward as gnawing roast mutton, or perhaps even live mutton, from its fleshy, dripping chop.

Bullington’s tale is settled within the fourteenth century, specifically the bubonic plague and it’s equally carnal wreckage across Europe.  The Pestilence, vividly depicted through pulsating, pus-filled buboes and projectile vomiting, is fictionalized through the demoniac spirits initiating such attributes; the plague itself is not propped against the Grossbarts as some boring good vs. evil dualism, but possibly a metaphorical pondering for the reader, forced to consider which may be a greater evil, life’s external diseases or those internal ones exhibited in our worst manifestations. It’s a fleeting observation, to be sure, carried behind the entertainingly violent whimsy with which the story progresses, however looming and ultimately reaching its cathartic coda in the sands of Gyptland.

Progress it does though, mainly through unabashed beatings, cleaving, projectile spray of every fluid imaginable, and just about every other way to incur slow maiming. A refreshing touch of equanimity, as no one is spared from perpetual suffering in this spew-fest, not even the protagonists Grossbart. Just as engaging is Bullington’s clever use of dialogue, both between the brothers and outwardly directed.  Sparse, rational musings brilliantly balanced between the almost piously pragmatic and the foul-mouthed; incidentally, the use of the curious term “mecky” is sure to cultivate a resurgence, if it truly ever existed prior. The narration is equally leveled between a quick pacing and an academic adherence to the milieu, as evidenced by an extensive bibliography. Similar to Jeff VanderMeer’s careful and documented treatment of his fictitious Ambergris, this trend of quasi-academic application within speculative fiction is something readers need more of, showing that authors actually care about the details and accuracy of their worldview. Finally, treatment of the fantastical is eerily earthy without falling upon ubiquitous or popular description. Possessed pigs, “mantiloups” and witches, especially the story of Nicolette, is tremendously unsettling though unavoidably engaging.

In sum, The Sad Tale of The Brothers Grossbart is literally, in every sense imaginable, a smashing, gross, and fun read.

review – finch

It’s too bad that Finch is purportedly Jeff VanderMeer’s current completion to his Ambergris cycle of novels. A shame, really, as this work raises more questions and definitely more curiosity with the fungal, brutal and mysterious imagery he populates his city with. The exploration of new ideas, and more importantly characters morphing themselves throughout the story seems too tease-worthy of VanderMeer to so easily flip his shroom switch to the off position.

The idea of Ambergris is built upon its continual bloodshed and rebirth exhibited by the competing factions du jour. An anachronistic place where ordinary citizens constantly live in fear of the next coup, but for some reason, ultimately choose to remain there, nonchalantly carrying their gas masks about town and displaying a fondness for fungal narcotics and black market soirees. This heightened duality of normality amid instability is one of the main characteristics of the societal disconnect established by VanderMeer. People go about their lives normally despite the constant danger either blooming or exploding around any particular corner.

Coupled to this strange duality is the ever increasing variety of characters and factions. In addition to the houses Hoegbotton & Sons, Frankwrithe & Lewden, and the ever mysterious gray caps, VanderMeer adds a few more to the mix, including the unsettling, all-witnessing Partials, as well as a completely new group of rebels competing for the affections of the city. All interconnected around the actions of Detective Finch in his attempt to detect not just a murder case, but his own fate. As with the impermanence of the city itself, the characters are depicted similarly. Nearly everyone is more than who or what they claim to be, and those who aren’t are more darkly enshrouded in shadow.

This success is also where the author fails, as there is simply too much uncharted territory for VanderMeer to leave his world alone. The stories of the Dogghe and Nimblytod clans are worthy of their own separate narratives, as is the full story of the gray caps. Furthermore, VanderMeer employs unusually vivid detail to the fungus growing everywhere. When it’s not dispensing drugs like an ATM, it serves as ammunition among the factions, even emanating upon or within the locals; it’s one of the more brilliant devices detailing a setting that needs more room to bloom, I should think. In any case, Finch seamlessly picks up where Shriek left off, delivering an engorging explosion of adventure, suspense, and a fine bit of stylistic writing.

PS – It looks like there’s more Ambergris to come. Huzzah!

review – shriek: an afterword

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.