Locus Online
Wednesday 29 March 2006

Selected reviews from Gary K. Wolfe's Hugo Award-nominated
Soundings: Reviews 1992-1996

published July 2005 by Beccon

Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson

    Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars — the first novel in a projected trilogy — is indeed the full-featured, brilliantly complex Martian colonization novel that you've heard about, and it's also the most self-conscious treatment of Mars as a utopian frontier since Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. One of the main characters, the semi-legendary first man on Mars, is named John Boone, and at one point he finds himself under investigation by a bureaucrat named Sam Houston. When Boone undertakes a long exploration of the emerging Martian colonies years after he first set foot on the planet, it carries echoes of the historical Boone's explorations of Kentucky. Martian colonization is pushed forward by a twenty-first-century version of trading companies called transnationals and by the pressure of growing population, exacerbated by the discovery (initially among the Martian colonists) of a technique to extend the human life span. Meanwhile, back east, the earth is rapidly sinking into economic and ecological chaos. Mars holds out the only hope for a new start, and in the speech that opens the novel, Boone sounds almost like de Tocqueville in his assertion that the new world is producing not merely an extension of the old, but an entirely new social order and a new kind of human.

    He's wrong, of course, and in a daring structural trick Robinson kills him off shortly after this speech, leaving us to backtrack to discover how what started out as an unstable mix of utopianism and opportunism leads to the assassination which is one of the novel's two climaxes. During its first half-century of colonization — roughly the period covered by Red Mars — Mars becomes a welter of special interests and ideological subcolonies. The novel's centerpiece is that long odyssey of Boone's, in a section significantly titled "Falling into History.” Boone's journey introduces us to colonies of Swiss, Australians, South Africans, Arabs, Japanese — even Sufis — all more or less intent on creating idealized versions of the earth societies from which they came. The most significant point of contention, not surprisingly, centers around the questions of terraforming and economic development, and the novel is not without its assortment of Greenpeace-style ecological terrorists. If all this sounds a bit Politically Correct, it's not surprising: unlike Ben Bova's Mars (reviewed here last August), in which a patina of PC was overlaid on what was essentially an engineering novel, Robinson builds his novel around these political and utopian questions, and derives his detailed and generally quite convincing scientific narrative from these same concerns. He seems to suggest that while terraforming may lead to more or less predictable results, human behavior is far less manipulable. His novel is a provocative epic of science versus history, with nature as the arbiter.

    Robinson's main challenge, then, is keeping his scientific and utopian narratives from going off by themselves, and he handles it masterfully by focusing on character, and to a lesser extent on the stunningly realized setting. His major viewpoint characters are all members of the First Hundred colonists (it's always capitalized like that), and they include preservationists, technocrats, pioneers, and visionaries of all stripes. Boone's main rival, both sexually and ideologically, is Frank Chalmers, who tries to represent a realpolitik approach to the various factions, but who finds that even this approach isn't dependable when the forces set loose on Mars go out of control in a spectacular and cataclysmic finale that recalls, on a considerably larger scale, the ending of Gregory Benford's Against Infinity. Robinson may have built his emerging Martian social order on extensions of current geopolitics, but his ending suggests this may have been necessary to provide a kind of intellectual archaeology for his next two volumes. Red Mars is an impressive novel in its own right, but it's also a spectacular stage-setting for what's yet to come.

The Norton Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ursula K. Le Guin and Brian Attebery; Karen Joy Fowler, consultant

    The more opinionated SF readers — those for whom an anthology is by definition a collection of the wrong stories — will find in The Norton Book of Science Fiction a target as big as a barn door. The authoritative combination of the names Norton (familiar to everyone who's ever taken an undergraduate literature survey) and Le Guin (familiar to everyone, period) give the book an unusually high profile both in and out of the SF community, as well as a good chance of staying in print and showing up in a lot of classrooms. You can already hear the litany of potshots to come: Writers Wrongfully Omitted, Writers Inexplicably Included, Writers Justly Included But Who Have Done Better Stories, Writers Included For the Sake of Political Correctness, Writers Included To Avoid The Appearance of Political Correctness, Writers You Never Heard Of But Who Are Bumping Writers You Admire, Writers Included By Special But Unstated Privilege, etc., etc. So the first thing we should try to establish is what the book pretends to be and what it does not pretend to be.

    It does not pretend to be a definitive historical or typological anthology of SF. Le Guin makes this clear in her long and very intelligent introduction, and the title underlines it. Those vast historical collections you read in school were Norton anthologies; this is only a Norton book, although the distinction will likely be lost on most readers. (A similar fine line characterized Tom Shippey's Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories last year, which stopped short of calling itself the Oxford Book of Science Fiction.) The subtitle narrows the range even further: "North American Science Fiction, 1960-1990" (a half-dozen Canadian stories justify the "North American"). The putative reason for such restrictive coverage was simply to make the size of the book manageable, although 67 stories seems pretty roomy by most standards. Furthermore, more than half the stories date from 1981 or later, which suggests that the collection really is a generous overview of contemporary American literary SF. Taken in that more modest light, it's unarguably first-rate.

    Ah, but there is that conditional "literary,” which again carries the whisper of guns being drawn. Le Guin does not specifically characterize the selections as such in her introduction, but it's clear from the selection and from the editorial assumptions Le Guin outlines that she and her co-editors share a particular, more or less postmodern view of SF. SF is a literary tradition as broad as that of realism, Le Guin argues, but it draws on both realistic and fantastic narrative techniques to tell stories which refer, implicitly or explicitly, to the "mythos of science and technology.” Quoting co-editor Brian Attebery's Strategies of Fantasy, she sees the scientific world-view as a "megatext" or "nourishing medium" in which SF stories take place.

    This seems innocent enough, but it produces a radically different view of the field than you get from the Big Anthology from an earlier era, Healy and McComas's Adventures in Time and Space. That collection, drawn almost entirely from a single decade of Astounding when the short story was the principle medium of SF, showcased work in which the Idea came first, and the narrative followed — stories governed more by metonymy than by metaphor. Only a handful of stories in The Norton Book — perhaps those by Dick, Bear, James H. Schmitz, Poul Anderson, Octavia Butler, and Andrew Weiner — could remotely have made sense in that collection. Today, in a field in which novels and novellas very nearly outnumber short stories and from which consensus has long since evaporated, even the possibility of trying to represent SF in such a collection is problematical. Thus the cutoff date of 1960, when Le Guin tells us SF "changed" because both readers and writers gained new sophistication and new consciousness. In other words (mine not theirs), metaphor trumps metonymy.

    If the Campbellian ethos is pretty much invisible in The Norton Book, then it seems entirely reasonable to ask what has replaced it. A handful of more-or-less traditionally canonical authors set the stage for the collection, and three of these — Cordwainer Smith, Philip K. Dick, and Fritz Leiber — are singled out for special praise in Le Guin's introduction. Smith (represented by "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard") pioneered the morality play in ultra-exotic settings, which shows up here in stories by Bunch, Lafferty, Gene Wolfe, Suzette Haden Elgin, Michael Coney, and a few others. Dick (represented by "Frozen Journey") may not have invented the notion of reality-slippage, but he certainly made it a convention, and it's featured in various ways in stories by Ellison, Gibson, Shiner, Crowley, and Eileen Gunn. Leiber, whose "The Winter Flies" stretches even the editors' generous notion of what SF includes, is rapidly emerging as one of the pioneers of the whole notion of literary SF. (Leiber's "Coming Attraction" — far too old to include — seems to haunt several of the grittier stories in the book, and Bruce Sterling's "We See Things Differently" reads almost like a 1980s revisioning of it.)

    Other old masters seem to set certain tones, too. Theodore Sturgeon's alienated children and outcasts show up not only in his own "Tandy's Story,” but haunt well over a dozen other stories, more if you include the various portrayals of women as outsiders by Tiptree, Russ, Elgin, and others. Pohl's "Day Million,” though perhaps not particularly characteristic of his own fiction, heralds further explorations of media culture by Andrew Weiner, Malzberg, Sheckley, Gibson, Shiner, Michael Bishop, and Candace Jane Dorsey. Several other stories carry echoes of writers not present: Delany's "High Weir" suggests Bradbury's humans-as-Martians, and the alternate science history of Howard Waldrop's .” . . the World, as we Know 't" suggests Farmer's "Sail On, Sail On.”

    Recent SF's preoccupation with history is represented not only by Waldrop, but by Kim Stanley Robinson ("The Lucky Strike"), Connie Willis ("Schwarzchild Radius"), Paul Preuss ("Half-Life"), and John Kessel ("Invaders"). The Preuss and Willis stories also form a group with other stories which use science metaphors to illuminate character relationships, most notably Edward Bryant's "Precession" and Gregory Benford's "Exposures." A few other patterns emerge as well: feminism and sexual identity (which includes Michael Blumlein's "The Brains of Rats" as well as authors I've already mentioned); conflicts with native cultures (Kessel, Resnick's "Kirinyaga,” Card's "America,” Diane Glancy's "Aunt Parnetta's Electric Blisters"); even SF itself (in Kessel, Eleanor Arnason's "The Warlord of Saturn's Moons,” and Gibson's "The Gernsback Continuum").

    One nagging question is whether teachers assigning this book or their students (or any readers generally unfamiliar with the field's history) will be able to detect such patterns, or to discern any sort of meaningful context for what is essentially an ahistorical portrait of the field. Gone are the easy dichotomies that made the old SF seem manageable. There are no epics of technological optimism here — but nor are there any tales of nuclear doom. What was once a literature of heroes and villains here seems overrun with outcasts, victims, and invaders; it is, if anything, a literature of confrontation. Environments once ripe for eminent domain now fight back (ironically, the story that portrays this most directly is also one of the more traditional SF pieces in the book — James H. Schmitz's "Balanced Ecology"). If it's hard to find a center in all this, it may be simply that SF doesn't really have a center anymore, and doesn't seem to want one much.

    One thing the editors deserve considerable credit for is a great deal of winnowing and a fiercely independent judgment. Out of 30 years of stories, they've included only two Hugo winners (Butler's "Speech Sounds" and Resnick's "Kirinyaga") and two Nebula winners (Silverberg's "Good News from the Vatican" and Kress's "Out of All Them Bright Stars"). I counted fewer than a dozen stories which had appeared in the Dozois annuals of the 1980s, none which overlap with his Legend Book of Science Fiction (which covers a similar period and includes many of the same authors), and only one (Blish's "How Beautiful with Banners") which is also in Shippey's Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories. This selection of stories not often anthologized, together with Le Guin's useful and important introduction, are more than enough to suggest that the book probably ought to be on the bookshelf of every reader concerned with the shape of modern SF — it just shouldn't be the only SF book on that shelf.

Red Dust, Paul J. McAuley

    At first, Paul J. McAuley's Red Dust looks like it's going to be just another novel about Elvis-worshipping Chinese Martians. Some centuries after Martian colonization (first by Americans, later by Chinese with the aid of Tibetan labor), terraforming has led to a breathable atmosphere, a certain amount of free water, and a variety of genetically-engineered native species. But now the terraforming project has been abandoned, under the influence of a shadowy but powerful government called Earth's Consensus, which has pretty much grown hostile toward organic life in general, which it views as all but obsolete in the new age of artificial intelligences and computer-encoded personalities. Opposing this decision are "Sky Roaders" and asteroid-based anarchists, who would like to wrest control of Mars from its aging Chinese rulers, the Ten Thousand Years, and restore the terraforming process.

    Wei Lee works as an agronomist at a rural settlement called Bitter Waters, where he passes time listening to mysterious broadcasts from the region of Jupiter from someone claiming to be the King of rock 'n' roll. Although fearful of his powerful great-grandfather, he hopes to eventually learn from him what happened to his parents, who disappeared in some sort of political disgrace; his only aid is an AI "librarian" who appears to him in his dreams. But an opportunity seems to present itself when he rescues a crashed anarchist, Miriam Makepeace Mbele, who turns out to be a clone harboring various "fullerene viruses" that give the host all sorts of powers, from enhanced vision to super-acceleration to the possibility of surviving in other bodies. Convinced to escape with Mbele, Lee embarks on a series of adventures that take full advantage not only of the utopian and technological potential of this subgenre, but also of the flat-out adventurousness of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the playful inventiveness of Stanley Weinbaum. Captured by mad computer-controlled monks in an abandoned Tibetan lamasery, Lee barely escapes with his life — and with that of Mbele, partially transferred to him by the viruses when she gives him a kiss before dying. He takes up with a band of yak-herding cowboys (making this the second novel this month to feature a trail drive; have to keep that in mind when it comes time to sum up the year's trends) and makes his way to Xin Beijing, the sprawling capital — where he is received as a god by a group of fisherfolk who get their nanoviruses from dolphin-like creatures. After fomenting a revolution there, Lee sets out for the highest mountain on Mars, called here Tiger Mountain, where he meets his final destiny — and finds out who Elvis really is — in a conclusion that almost reads like an intelligent version of the ending of Total Recall.

    McAuley draws on a wide variety of SF sources — Mars adventures, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, terraforming — while maintaining firm control of both his narrative and the consistency of his complex environment. While the political intrigues, the debates over terraforming, and the historical background invite us to consider the book in light of other recent Mars novels by Robinson, Bear, Bisson, Bova, and others, it's clear that McAuley is up to something quite different from any of these. His Mars is not only a convincing hard-SF environment, but the kind of playground for adventure and imagination that it was for the writers who first discovered it (in fact, McAuley's nanotech, VR, genetic engineering, and artificial intelligence would be enough to rationalize even Burroughs' more farfetched daydreams, and in her own way McAuley's Miriam Makepeace Mbele is a distant descendant of Dejah Thoris.) A small example: while on the run in the desert, Lee hides out from a storm in the eyesocket of a gigantic skull, the remains of an ancient failed effort to introduce genetically engineered "archiosaurs" to Mars. Burroughs would have been proud of the sheer wonder invested in such a detail, but in McAuley, it makes sense.

Bloodchild and Other Stories, Octavia Butler

    Four Walls Eight Windows must be thinking they've lucked out beyond their wildest dreams by signing Octavia Butler, and I hope they have. Not only did last year's Parable of the Sower gain considerable attention outside the genre, but now Butler's much-publicized MacArthur Foundation grant (reported in the July Locus) stands a good chance of vaulting her to a level of recognition comparable to that of Le Guin and a handful of other SF writers. (What may be more important for the field as a whole is that the MacArthur citation didn't shy away from using the term "science fiction" to describe Butler's work, and that Butler herself has never hedged her identity as an SF writer.) Blood Child collects all of Butler's short fiction, and it has to be the tiniest volume of collected fiction in recent memory: five stories, only three of them SF, buttressed by a preface, story notes, and two short essays on writing. Butler obviously writes little short fiction, but it's a testament to her skill that of the three SF stories, one ("Bloodchild") received a Nebula and another ("Speech Sounds") a Hugo. The third, "The Evening and the Morning and the Night,” is equally powerful, and appeared as a separate chapbook in 1991 after its original 1987 appearance in Omni.

    What this means, of course, is that the SF in Bloodchild is likely to be already familiar to most SF readers, and thus the main interest in this collection would seem to be the nonfiction pieces and the non-SF stories. But that's not the case; in fact Butler seems to be the kind of writer who's uncomfortable in talking about her own work, and one of the essays ("Furor Scribendi,” from a Writers of the Future volume) consists of bland advice for aspiring writers. The other, a short piece from Essence on the beginnings of Butler's own career, is far more interesting. Nor are the non-SF pieces particularly revelatory. "Crossover,” Butler's first published story, shows a woman coping with the hopelessness of her life and job, while "Near of Kin" approaches the theme of incest in a novel and sympathetic way. Both are finely crafted if slight stories.

    Which brings us back to the familiar territory of the SF stories. As widely reprinted as they've been, having these stories together in one volume does seem to make a difference. Given Butler's tendency toward complex large-scale series, it's likely that Blood Child may join Kindred as the book most likely to attract new readers wanting to check Butler out, and I can't think of a better introduction to her strengths as a writer. The visceral power of "Bloodchild,” with its disturbing yet convincing portrayal of a genuine bond of love between an alien and the human male whose body will serve as host for her grub-like offspring, remains startling on successive readings (and in her afterword, Butler reminds us that this is not a story of slavery, but a "pregnant man" story). "The Evening and the Morning and the Night,” about a terrifying genetic disease that causes self-mutilation (and that is derived from elements of several real diseases) recapitulates the theme of alienation from the body, and how commitment and responsibility can become survival techniques. "Speech Sounds,” about a world devastated by the loss of spoken language, reminds us that communication keeps us civilized, and serves to highlight this theme in the other two stories as well. In other words, these stories tend to echo each other's themes in synergistic ways, creating reverberations that give the whole collection a sense of depth and power that belies its brevity, and enhances its considerable power. It also makes you wish Butler would offer us more of these gems.

The Dream Cycle of H.P. Lovecraft: Dreams of Terror and Death

    Stylistically, there's good and bad news with Lovecraft. The good news is that he avoided dialogue as much as possible, since he seemed to sense he wasn't having much luck with it. In "The Statement of Randolph Carter,” one of the key works in the current collection (which includes the entire Carter cycle of this story, "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” "The Silver Key,” and "At the Gates of the Silver Key"), an explorer enters an ancient tomb while his companion — Carter — remains above in telephone contact. When the companion hears the explorer's screams and asks for more information, another voice comes on the line — "deep; hollow; gelatinous; remote; unearthly; inhuman; disembodied" — announcing "'You fool, Warren is DEAD!'" Part of me wants to say this is the voice of the impatient reader, as usual one step ahead of Lovecraft's thick-brained explorers, but part of me recognizes that Lovecraft knew something sophisticated about the value of offstage action in horror. The bad news about Lovecraft, of course — at least in terms of gaining new readers — is all those words. As in the sentence quoted earlier, no adjective is permitted where seven will do just as well. And he has an almost self-destructive fondness for words like "gibbering,” "hysterical,” "feverish" — words which, like cheap handguns, are too easily turned against those who wield them. When he tries for a patina of pseudoscience, he often misses entirely; in "From Beyond,” the narrator is shown a machine which generates a "pale, outré" color which is explained as ultra-violet. But Lovecraft's infelicities as a stylist have been fodder for critics as far back as Edmund Wilson, and it must be admitted that his style seems to attract as many readers as it repels. In the end, it probably isn't style at all that makes Lovecraft unique, and that keeps him being reprinted for each new generation since his death. What more likely keeps Lovecraft alive is the undeniable seductiveness of his imagination, and this is where the new Ballantine volume shows him to be far more compelling than many more modern horror writers. The Dream Cycle collects twenty-five stories that are supposed to make up Lovecraft's "dream cycle,” as opposed to his more familiar "Cthulhu mythos.” It's never been entirely clear to me what Lovecraft actually had in mind by connecting so many of his stories in various ways, but it lends a kind of unusual authority and power to the individual stories by implying an underlying consistency. The stories here range from early fragments to substantial novellas like "The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath" and "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" — still one of the most compelling and best-plotted of Lovecraft's tales — and what they have in common is a sense of real conviction, a worldview which gives a kind of moral substance to horrors which otherwise might seem irredeemably goofy. Such a worldview — a kind of deterministic paranoia — seems crucial to the effectiveness of much early horror fiction, in which the special effects made an eerie kind of sense, deriving from some unholy system of which we could gain only occasional glimpses. In a crazy way, Lovecraft was reaching for the sublime, and not just for the gross-out.

Quicker Than The Eye, Ray Bradbury

    After decades of collecting, Ray Bradbury finally owns all the exclamation points. He is the most irrepressibly enthusiastic of all major living American writers (Walt Whitman would have given him a good tumble), and for more than half a century this attitude has helped shape what is probably the most unmistakable prose style ever to escape from the SF pulps (even though that style has long since demonstrated more influence outside the SF field than within it). In his new collection Quicker than the Eye, you only need to read the first story — no, the first paragraph, the first sentence, the first clause — to know you're in Bradburyland: "They drove into green Sunday-morning country . . . " This is the sort of warmly reassuring baritone that has fed a generation of breakfast cereal commercials, Ronald Reagan campaign ads, theme park "villages" with fake front porches, and movies from Big to E.T. (not to mention the oddly unsuccessful attempts to translate Bradbury directly to film or TV). If the voice has largely faded from the SF world (which Bradbury himself all but abandoned decades ago), the reason isn't lack of affection for the man or his work — it's simply that he never belonged there in the first place. His aesthetic owed less to Heinlein or Stapledon than to Thornton Wilder or Aaron Copland (whose music, incidentally, has been appropriated for some of those same breakfast food ads). He's an American author who got out in time, escaping the small-town midwest before it could turn him into Sherwood Anderson (or David Lynch) and the decaying boardwalks of Venice, California before growing into the cynicism of Nathanael West. He's the only author to destroy the world in a nuclear holocaust and turn it literally into a picnic.

    Yet among non-SF readers, Bradbury is still the name that most often comes to mind when SF is mentioned, and one of a handful of writers anywhere who can command a first printing of 50,000 copies (according to the promotional material for Quicker than the Eye) for a volume of short stories. So even if, by a fairly generous stretch, there are only three or four stories here that could remotely be called SF, the book commands attention as Bradbury's first collection of recent stories in many years. And for those who had long since concluded that Bradbury had forsaken the short story form in favor of ill-conceived detective stories and appalling poetry, it may come as something of a pleasant surprise. There is, to be sure, a fair measure of cloying sentimentality (such as "Remember Sascha?,” about a poor couple in Venice, California — he bears the trademark autobiographical-signature name of Douglas Spaulding — who get cheery messages from their unborn child), and there is precious little of the hard-edged young Bradbury of Dark Carnival (although "Free Dirt" strives for the horror-story tone), but there are a good number of lightly entertaining tales that often recall earlier stages in Bradbury's career. The book isn't a retrospective collection of stories, but it is of themes.

    For all that's been written and said about Bradbury, I don't recall ever seeing him discussed as a ghost story writer, even though ghosts of one sort or another figure in several of his most memorable tales, as they do here. "Night Meeting,” one of the most popular stories from The Martian Chronicles, gets recast in Dandelion Wine country in "That Woman on the Lawn,” about a cross-time encounter between a grown man and a young girl who turns out to be his mother. Earlier tales like "The Exiles" and "Usher II" grew out of Bradbury's fear that some of his favorite imaginative writers might be banned or forgotten; in "Last Rites,” he sends a time traveler back to assure Melville, Poe, and Wilde that this hasn't been the case. The ghosts of Laurel and Hardy get similar assurances in "Another Fine Mess.” In "The Witch Door,” one of the few tales to echo Fahrenheit 451, a fugitive in a dystopian future hides in an ancient cubby once used to hide witches — and trades places with a witch hidden there centuries earlier. There are distinct echoes of "The Million Year Picnic" in "The Other Highway" in which an overgrown road almost lures a family to spurn their fast-paced urban life. And Bradbury's favorite haunted places are here as well: small-time carnivals ("The Electrocution,” "Quicker than the Eye") and libraries ("Exchange").

    While there has always been a mordant humor to some of Bradbury's more grotesque tales (one thinks of "The Handler"), his later attempts at comedy (dating perhaps from his stint in Ireland with John Huston) have seemed far less edgy and often just too damned jolly. His attempt to blend a Sherlock Holmes homage with an Irish tall tale in "The Finnegan" succeeds as neither, while "The Ghost in the Machine,” his latest tribute to the bicycle (also celebrated in several of his Irish tales), lays out its one idea and then pounds it into pavement grease. The conceit in "At the End of the Ninth Year" is so lame it doesn't even need the pounding. Humor requires a certain amount of bile, and Bradbury only occasionally manages to subdue his cheerfulness long enough to bring it off. "The Very Gentle Murders" is a genuinely funny story about an aging married couple trying to do each other in but getting innocent bystanders instead, and "Zaharoff/Richter Mark V" features the grandly loony paranoid fantasy that earthquakes are caused by architects to drum up more business. "Unterderseaboat Doktor,” with its magic periscope and U-boat captain turned psychiatrist, is so off the wall I'm not sure what it's meant to be.

    It's both reassuring and dismaying to think that on the basis of the evidence in Quicker than the Eye, Bradbury has hardly changed as a writer in decades. As always, it's virtually impossible to speak his dialogue aloud with any hint of conviction — people simply don't talk with all that boisterous punctuation. As always, he views plots as optional accessories, like adjustable lumbar seats, while the main business — the chassis — of all his fiction is that famous cadenced language. There's no denying that the language works: it's marketed an evanescent dream of a Waukegan that probably never was to generations of readers and a handful of genres; it's finessed its way past the second dumbest Mars on record (Burroughs gets the honors) and probably the dumbest Venus; it's colonized high-school creative writing classes the way kudzu colonized Georgia. But it must also be said that no one can do it like Bradbury, that Bradbury can make it work a surprisingly good part of the time, and that the best device for imposing some restraint and discipline on this ebullient voice is the short story. There are no masterpieces in Quicker than the Eye, but there's some good innocent fun, and a master's voice.

Idoru, William Gibson

    William Gibson's most famous sentence remains his first: "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Knowing when he's on to a good thing, Gibson doesn't let us out of his new novel Idoru until we've seen a sky like a "paint-chip submitted by the contractor of the universe," a sky "like mother-of-pearl," a sky crawling with "oil-slick colors," a "serious sky," a "gasoline sky," endless gray skies that are pressing down, and at least one rare sky that's "beautiful but empty . . . like pale turquoise." Mostly, the skies are rainy, and the rain generally ends up in greasy puddles on streets, casting distorted reflections of neon lights in seedy retrofuture cities. In short, Gibson knows his territory, and it's a territory as distinctive — and by now as familiar — as that of Hammett or Chandler. But for all its sardonic edginess, Gibson's world is seldom quite as tough or ruthless as those of his hardboiled ancestors, and never as heroic. When he shifts fully into hardboiled mode — as he does toward the conclusion of Idoru — the result is deliberately comical, as much parody as homage. It may be that all the grimness and the glitz have caused readers to overlook the considerable wit underlying Gibson's deadpan hipness, but in Idoru it's impossible to ignore.

    Like Virtual Light, Idoru is more user-friendly, and thus more likely to appeal to a broader mainstream audience, than the earlier novels. Instead of a complex multilevel plot involving worldwide conspiracies, we get a simple two-track narrative focusing on a problem of daunting tabloid triviality: why has the lead singer of the rock band Lo/Rez announced his intention to marry an idoru, or computer-generated "idol singer"? (These artificial-personality media stars are compared to similarly constructed "synthespians" in the movies.) Instead of burned-out cyberjockeys, we get a spunky teenage fan from Seattle and a grown-up orphan whose youthful exposure to an experimental drug has given him a kind of psychic ability to perceive "nodal points" in vast fields of information, making him a useful data detective. And instead of brutal shadowy villains, we get B-movie molls and gunsels.

    The young rock fan Chia has been sent to Tokyo by her chapter of the Lo/Rez fan club to make contact with the local chapter and get to the bottom of the rumor that Rez intends to marry a data construct, or "software agent,” named Rei Toei. The detective, Colin Laney, who had established a reputation with Slitscan (a kind of reality-TV program turned international megacorporation), is hired for a similar mission — to examine Rez's data fields in order to get clues to his intentions. Exactly why all this is important to anyone is unclear, but skewed perspectives are an important part of the Gibson universe. As Laney moves through theme bars devoted to Kafka or chewing gum, landscapes of Giger-like nanotech buildings, or a decadent club called the Western World in a ruined building caked with solidified urine, we get the impression that no one in this future delves much beneath the surface: what is important is what is in front of you. Part of the reason Gibson hinges his plot on a rumor barely worthy of a minor gossip-column item is to show us a society in which it really seems important.

    Chia represents a kind of innocent idealism unusual to the Gibson universe. She spends time in a virtual Venice given to her by her father, and meets her fellow club members in richly textured virtual environments; her world retains both color and promise. En route to Tokyo, however, she naively agrees to carry a suitcase for a stranger, and inevitably gets mixed up with spies trying to smuggle nanotech generators, which are as illegal as nuclear weapons. For a while — for a long while, actually — it seems as though we're in the middle of a bizarre conflation of young-adult suspense and fin de siecle techno-decadence: Harriet the Spy turned bladerunner. The novel's tough-guy villains — an ex-con bodyguard named Blackwell (nicknamed "Toecutter") and a blowsy blonde named Maryalice who totes a cigarette lighter in the shape of a gun — add a note of comic-book excess to a narrative that seems increasingly slapstick. By the final confrontation — Chia trapped in a love-hotel by Maryalice and her partner, with Laney racing to find her — the dialogue has turned into full-fledged parody and the action into something resembling screwball comedy. Although lightweight by comparison with almost anything else he has written, Idoru is entertaining, funny, and slyly subversive of the whole cyberpunk aesthetic.

© 2006 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.