Paul Di Filippo Reviews Novellas by Spinrad, Gloss, McCleary, and Powers
General Strike, Norman Spinrad (Self-published 978-1091528574, $7.00, 61pp, trade paperback) March 2019.
Outside the Gates, Molly Gloss (Saga Press 978-1534414983, $24.99, 128pp, trade paperback) January 2019.
Too Fat to Go to the Moon, Rob McCleary (Zero Books 978-1785352317, $13.95, 160pp, trade paperback) April 2019.
More Walls Broken, Tim Powers (Subterranean 978-1596068865, $25.00, 136pp, trade paperback) February 2019.
The widespread interest in—and production of—novellas continues apace. Large firms and small offer numerous compact diversions, and much fine work seems to be gravitating toward that mode. So it’s only fitting to cast our eye upon a recent quartet of these mid-sized marvels.
Norman Spinrad’s last novel from one of the Big Five houses was The People’s Police in 2017. I know he was a bit frustrated with its packaging and launch and subsequent support campaign, so it’s no great surprise that his newest fiction is self-published. I would hope that a writer with such an awesome career would find his fans following him loyally into this brave new world.
Spinrad’s latest is a near-future, realpolitik excursion of the kind he does so well, and which has garnered him much acclaim. It has a playful yet fierce moral and tactical urgency to it, and the scenario it presents—cultural, geopolitical, and intimate—has great verisimilitude and believability. What it does not have is a huge amount of plot. For the majority of the wordage we take an illuminating tour of the world while riding the protagonist’s shoulders. Then, towards the end, he has a brainstorm, does a certain rebellious thing, and deals with the luckily positive fallout of his actions. That’s it. I have no problem with such a slice-of-life scenario, but those looking for an action-packed thriller will have to look elsewhere.
Our hero is slightly anomalous in SF, I think: a hardcore middle-aged military man, General Albert Pearson. Not a rebel, still basically a believer in the system, he’s just received a promotion for taking over a certain toxic global hotspot: the Eastern Central Asia Theater, or ECAT.
“Paghastan,”… was the area that had once more or less been “Pakistan” and “Afghanistan”… the “Big P” the Big Peninsula, the territory including what had been Malaysia, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Viet Nam, and other odds and ends… Secondarily, were “Islandia” and “Sealand.” “Islandia” was mainly Indonesia, a vast archipelago of hundreds of islands large and small where the most chaotic action was on both banks of the numerous ship channels infested with pirate gangs and mini-states on both sides. Sealand was everything else left over, the main battlefields being the Philippine islands and the jungles of Papua New Guinea.
The area has been a chaotic warfront for decades, and is deemed a perpetual wasteland. American troops die daily, but the world’s rulers are happy just to see the status quo maintained. But this does not sit well with our conscience-stricken hero. So after acquainting himself with the facts on the ground and with his subordinates, he conceives of a trick—with the help of his rambunctious trade union brother—to change things up. And his trick succeeds.
As I said, not a plot-heavy or suspenseful tale. Nonetheless, I was captivated by Spinrad’s portrayal of both the future venue and the people therein. It’s wry, fast-moving, sardonic agitprop, obviously modeled on the current eighteen-year-old war in Afghanistan. If you can point me to any other SF author extrapolating so boldly from current headlines and wearing his heart on his sleeve, I’d be obliged. Otherwise, Spinrad rules.
Saga Press is bringing back into print the work of a fine overlooked author, Molly Gloss. Debuting in the 1980s, she produced a compact but potent corpus of work. Let’s have a look at her short novel, Outside the Gates. At 128 pages, it’s of a size with modern novellas.
Although over thirty years old, Outside the Gates might have been written yesterday. That’s because it’s a timeless fable, so eternally suggestive of human verities that it will read afresh in every decade. The closest comparison I can muster is to Crowley’s Engine Summer.
The book opens with a zero-backstory bang. A young boy named Vren is exiled from his village, due to his unnatural “Shadow” abilities: the power to communicate with beasts. After sore wanderings, on the point of death, he is rescued by a man named Rusche, himself exiled as a child. The two live on the narrow yet satisfying edge of hard-won survival, together as father and son, for six years. And then one day Vren returns home from foraging to find all stability destroyed. Thus begins his odyssey across a land that is not overwhelmingly supernatural in its assaults, but instead a Grimm’s fairytale expanse of natural and human dangers.
Gloss’s elegant delivery of weather and textures, primal sensations and one-on-one human interactions is poetic and elegiac while being matter-of-fact. There’s no hyperbole in matters of life and death, and yet the powerful concussions on her small troupe of players is undeniably felt by the reader. Vren’s sacrifices to regain his life with Rusche are as consequential and impactful as those of Odysseus or Frodo, although outwardly minute by comparison. And the boy’s dealings with his wolf friend Trim are epic. The tale ends as all good fairytales must: virtue and sacrifice rewarded, but nothing ever the same and losses tallied with grief. Meditative, heroic, simple yet deep, this first novel by Gloss should rightfully stay in print forever from this point onward.
In the far-off year of 1996, Bryan Cholfin’s Crank magazine featured a story titled “Nixon in Space” by one Rob McCleary. The tale earned some acclaim at the time, and big things were expected of its author. Then McCleary vanished from print. Until now. His long-delayed follow-up, Too Fat to Go to the Moon, issued by Douglas Lain’s contrarian press Zero Books, is finally upon us. And the wait was worth it, for it’s the best gonzo post-collapse tale since Ron Goulart’s After Things Fell Apart. If you liked Chandler Klang Smith’s The Sky Is Yours or the movie Idiocracy, you’ll dig this one too.
Our narrator is Stanley Astor Jazzhands Van Krupp III. Scion of a secretive billionaire family of little people—yes, he’s only three feet eleven inches and a fraction tall—Stanley has been both the President of the Remaining States of America (after key pieces of the country were sold outright to the Chinese) and later King of New York. (His Tarzan-like upbringing on the fabled family estate of Pontactico, where fabulous macaroni-and-cheese bushes grow, has something of Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy about it.) He’s presided over the shambolic ruins of a country whose last surviving industry was lofting garbage into space. But then came a plague of giant mutant Trees that completely destroyed the physical, utilities and cyber infrastructure of the land. Now Stanley sits in non-tech-equipped Albany, New York, composing his memoirs on a manual typewriter from the Eisenhower administration.
How Stanley got there is a tale which McCleary conveys through loopy, looping, roundabout recitals in Stanley’s unique voice. Stanley circles and darts from and returns to key incidents—the Great Funk Crash, the Basketball War, the creation of Blivit currency—in a melancholy yet idiotically self-affirming way. Every modern ailment and malaise that we suffer from in 2018 is carried to its ultimate extreme, often hilariously. Narcissism, reality TV, degradation of language, rampant consumerism, pollution—it’s all maxed out in these pages. But McCleary does not neglect to give us a satisfying arc to poor Stanley’s own life, which culminates back at Pontactico amidst a host of big reveals.
“Human history is one giant blind spot.” With the naive wisdom of Vonnegut fused with the off-the-cuff extrapolations of a brain-damaged Neal Stephenson, Too Fat to Go to the Moon paints a picture of the USA’s decline and extinction that is too truthful to ignore, and too painful not to evoke “the laughter with the bubble of blood at the end.”
In More Walls Broken, Tim Powers continues his enjoyable agenda of ringing beautiful, clever changes on the traditional ghost story. In this case, he hauls in the theory of the multiverse to create a tale at once spooky and funny, dire and comic. I was reminded of John D. MacDonald’s classic, The Girl, the Gold Watch & Everything, not necessarily for any particulars of plot or tropes, but just for the shared air of joyful chaos.
Three men are in a cemetery to raise a ghost. Two are elderly professors, greedy for power. The other is their pawn, young associate professor Clive Cobb, who is participating reluctantly. Cobb was a protege of the dead man whose ghost they hope to invoke. And he knows how to work the “magic slide rule” gadget which the dead man himself created. And so the ritual is enacted, but with unanticipated results. They raise not the intended spirit, but a living human relation, his daughter. But daughter from which timeline? That’s the rub which propels the rest of the tale.
The story benefits from maximal overstuffed compression, full of witty off-kilter dialogue and precise descriptions. Everything happens in a few hours on one fateful night. You cannot possibly predict events, because Powers zigs and zags like a maestro. And yet all outcomes feel totally authentic and organic. As usual with Powers’ fictions, a mix of melancholy and rueful humor abounds. Life is too important to be taken seriously might be his motto, and so long as he continues to gift us with stories like this one, magic will shine forth from beneath the soiled counterpane of reality.
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