Thursday, May 24, 2012

Battle of the Books, Spring 2012, Second Round :: The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus vs. Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck by Eric G. Wilson

The Flame AlphabetEveryone Loves a Good Train Wreck
The second round of the Spring 2012 Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books continues with The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus against Everyone Loves a Good Train Train Wreck by Eric G. Wilson. Whichever book I most want to keep reading after 50 pages will advance to the semifinals.

The Flame Alphabet: Alfred A. Knopf hardcover, January 2012, 289 pages, cover design by Peter Mendelsund. Ben Marcus is a highly regarded mainstream author who often employs surrealism, but The Flame Alphabet is his first outright science fiction or fantasy novel. It reached the second round by defeating Mark Chadbourn's The Burning Man in the opening round.

The Flame Alphabet is set in the near future, as an epidemic that has somehow made children's speech toxic to adults threatens to wipe out society. The book began with our narrator Sam and his wife Claire fleeing their teenaged daughter Esther to save themselves. Then we flashed back to when the epidemic began, and they initially resisted believing that Esther was the source of their illness. The flashbacks continue over the next 25 pages, as Sam and Claire finally admit to themselves the truth. The epidemic is spreading, although seemingly concentrating initially on Jewish populations. Much of pages 26-50 are spent describing Sam and Claire's peculiar sect of Judaism, in which they go to a secret hut to listen to transmitted sermons, which they are forbidden to discuss even with each other.

Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Farrar, Straus and Giroux hardcover, February 2012, 210 pages, cover photo by Simon Lee. Eric G. Wilson is a professor of English at Wake Forest, who has written seven previous non-fiction books. Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck got here by prevailing over The Stolen Bride by Tony Hays in the first round.

Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck discusses why so many of us are fascinated by terrible things like graphic horror movies. Wilson analyzes the question through personal anecdotes and quotations from authors in many different disciplines. The first 25 pages of the book mostly framed the question, while the next 25 pages largely focus on whether morbid curiosity is a healthy or dangerous instinct.

The Battle: Over the second 25-page section, The Flame Alphabet has settled into its story. It is heartbreaking to watch Sam and Claire start to feel better and optimistic while Esther is away at horse camp, only to relapse as soon as she returns. I continue to find the dialogue and interactions with Esther very effective. I am a uncertain about the significance of the family's odd form of Judaism, but it certainly ties in somehow to the book's theme of the hazards of language:
The true Jewish teaching is not for wide consumption, is not for groups, is not to be polluted by even a single gesture of communication. Spreading messages dilutes them. Even understanding them is a compromise. The language kills itself, expiring inside its host. Language acts as an acid over its message. If you no longer care about an idea or feeling, then put it into language. That will certainly be the last of it, a fitting end. Language is another name for coffin.
While not all of the passages in The Flame Alphabet work for me personally, I am still very interested to see where Marcus is going with all this.

The second 25-page section of Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck grapples with the issue of whether morbid curiosity is a good thing. Wilson cites psychologist Colin Beer on the pro side, with a point that relates interestingly to The Flame Alphabet, that morbid curiosity is a byproduct of the sense of imagination that evolved as mankind developed more sophisticated communication techniques:
If Beer is right, then, our morbid fixations are connected to an essential component of language and imagination alike: the ability to relate to others in ways beneficial to a group. The trait most useful for forging these human relationships is empathy, the capacity to identify with the pleasures and pains of another. Our attraction to the macabre is on some level a desire to experience someone else's suffering.
This begs the question: why does our sense of empathy cause us to want to experience the pain, rather than only the pleasure, of others? Wilson doesn't answer, but moves on to the related question of whether experiencing the pain of others can play a cathartic role, or only triggers more violence.

I find this discussion rather cursory, with the most interesting parts often buried in the endnotes, and I wonder if I would get more out of the academic sources Wilson cites than I do out of this book. Since Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck is intended as an overview for laymen of a subject that others have examined in greater detail, I suppose it's to Wilson's credit that it leaves me wanting to read more. I came to this book, however, expecting it to be of interest to horror fans. Now I think it's better suited as an introduction to people who are not horror fans, and thus haven't already thought these issues through just as deeply as Wilson does here.


The Flame Alphabet moves on to the semifinals, to meet either James Renner's The Man from Primrose Lane or Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Battle of the Books, Spring 2012, Second Round :: The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod vs. The Faceless by Simon Bestwick

The Night SessionsThe Faceless
We continue the second round of the Spring 2012 Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books with The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod versus The Faceless by Simon Bestwick. The book I most want to continue reading after 50 pages will move on to the semifinals.

The Night Sessions: Pyr trade paperback, April 2012, 261 pages, cover art by Stephan Martiniere. Ken MacLeod is a four-time Hugo nominee among many other honors, and The Night Sessions won the 2009 British Science Fiction Award for best novel. The Night Sessions reached the second round of the Battle of the Books by defeating The Demi-Monde:Winter by Rod Rees in the first round.

The first 25 pages of The Night Sessions introduced us to J.R. Campbell, a Christian fundamentalist from New Zealand, in a future when Western governments have turned very solidly secular after the devastating "Faith Wars." In the next 25 pages, we see Campbell tending to the intelligent robots in a creationist park. Meanwhile, in Scotland, Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson and his robot sidekick lead the investiation of an apparent terrorist bombing that killed a Catholic priest. We've also briefly met Dave Warsaw, a night club disk jockey who combines music with virtual reality imagery.

The Faceless: Solaris paperback, February 2012, 470 pages, cover art by Luke Preece. Simon Bestwick is a horror and crime fiction author who has been nominated for the British Fantasy Award. The Faceless got here with a first round win over Shadow's Master by Jon Sprunk.

The Faceless is set in northwest England, where strange masked figures are wreaking havoc. In the first 25 pages, Anna Mason was left to care for her young niece after the mysterious figures killed her sister-in-law, leaving her brother severely depressed. Anna had her own bout of mental illness years earlier, during which she saw the same (imaginary, she thought) masked figures. Much of the next 25 pages follow Detective Chief Inspector Joan Renwick, who is investigating a series of disappearances, which she hasn't yet connected to the masked people. Several short flashbacks suggest that all this is somehow related to men who were badly injured in World War I.

The Battle: We have here two well-written novels, both of which are engaging from the outset. I have nothing the least bit negative to say about either, but the Battle of the Books forces me to choose only one to continue, so which one do I like that little bit more?

I like each book's central concept. They both involve police investigations related to an interesting genre premise. I enjoy a good creepy story, and The Faceless nicely ties in the horrors of World War I and a local legend about the masked "Spindlies." The Night Sessions has a lot of good science fictional scenery, and I find the future after a religious war involving fundamentalist Christians intriguing. Solid marks for both books, but I'm a bit more interested to see where The Night Sessions is going with its story concept.

The characterization is excellent in both books. In the second 25-page section, The Faceless had some charming and witty banter between Chief Inspector Renwick and a grizzled but kind-hearted Sergeant Stakowski. I'm slightly less interested in the cops in The Night Sessions, except I like their intelligent robot assistants. But I love the interplay at the creationist park in New Zealand between Campbell (who is a creationist), park guide Vermuelen (not), and an AI robot named Piltdown, one of the park's attractions. In this scene, Vermuelen comes upon Piltdown's detached head as Campbell tinkers with the robot's body:
"Back problem?" he said.
The head moved as if trying to nod. "Yes," it said. "Stripped a gear in my lumbar hinge. Fucking baraminologists."
"Language," chided Campbell, not looking up.
"From the Hebrew," explained the robot head, wilfully misunderstanding. "Bara min, meaning 'created kind,' a very flexible taxon indeed."
"I don't quite follow," said Vermuelen. "What have creationist taxonomists got to do with your back?"
"A few weeks ago," said the head, "they reclassified my kind from 'fully human post-Diluvial local variety' to 'extinct large-brained ape.'. . . So suddenly I've got to start shambling around like a half-shut knife, swinging my arms and grunting. It's demeaning, I tell you. And it's done my back in. I expect my neck will be next."
"Your neck's fine," said Campbell. "Just keep applying the WD-40."
It's nice to know that the ultimate answer to any engineering challenge remains the same well into the future!

As much as I'm enjoying The Faceless, it's The Night Sessions that I really don't want to put down.

The Night Sessions advances to meet another creepy book from Solaris, Christopher Fowler's Hell Train, in the semifinals.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Battle of the Books, Spring 2012, Second Round :: Tempest by Julie Cross vs. Hell Train by Christopher Fowler

TempestHell Train
After a short hiatus, the 2012 Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books resumes with the second round of the Spring Bracket. Our initial second round match pits Tempest by Julie Cross against Hell Train by Christopher Fowler. The winner will be the book I most want to continue reading after the first 50 pages.

Tempest: Macmillan audio, 9 CDs / St. Martin's hardcover, 334 pages, January 2012, cover photo by James Porto. Tempest advanced to the second round by defeating Forbidden by Syrie & Ryan M. James in the first round. Tempest is the debut novel of Julie Cross, which we received in audio format, featuring solid narration by Matthew Brown.

The protagonist is Jackson Meyer, a college student with the ability to travel a few hours backward in time. The first 25 pages ended with Jackson seeing his girlfriend Holly shot by myterious intruders, just as he made a jump. In the next 25 pages, we learn that this particular jump took Jackson back two years, the first time he ever jumped nearly so far, and he doesn't know how to get back to his own time. He experiments with more time jumps, in one of which he learns that his father is some sort of spy. Through 50 pages, it hasn't occurred to him that since he's in the past, he could go see Holly. (But it willI cheated and read ahead.)

Hell Train: Solaris paperback, January 2012, 319 pages, cover art by Graham Humphreys. Hell Train got here by defeating Greatshadow by James Maxey in the first round. Christopher Fowler has written some thirty books, mostly horror and mysteries, and is a five-time British Fantasy Award winner, among other honors.

Hell Train opened with a screenwriter in 1966 receiving an assignment to write a new horror movie for Hammer Films involving a train. Then we saw a young girl who opens a very dangerous board game called "Hell Train." The first 25 pages ended with British con artist Nicholas Castleford, who gets off a train in a strange Eastern European village during World War I. The next 25 pages have stuck exclusively with Nicholas. He encounters villagers who are all rather hostile, except for the beautiful innkeep's daughter Isabella, who seemingly has been waiting for a stranger to come take her away. Nicholas considers spiriting Isabella off on the midnight train, but has been warned to avoid that train at all costs. The first 50 pages end with Nicholas and Isabella running for their lives from enraged townsfolk. Although Fowler hasn't said for sure, I suspect Nicholas and Isabella are characters in the screenwriter's movie.

The Battle: Both of these books make for engaging reading. But in pages 26-50, both authors moved away from my favorite aspect of their books' respective openings. With Tempest, I loved the chemistry between Jackson and Holly in the first 25 pages, but Holly is absent from the next 25. With Hell Train, I especially enjoyed the Hammer studio setting, but that has not reappeared since the first chapter. So the battle comes down to which author could keep me absorbed in the story without that favored story element.

Even though I'm still enjoying Tempest and I really like the teenage voice ("Time travel was kicking my ass!"), I felt a significant drop in dramatic tension in the second section. We've already seen Holly get shot, which makes some of Jackson's subsequent dilemmas in the pastfor example how Jackson can explain his sudden appearance when he's supposed to be in the middle of a semester overseasfeel unimportant.

In Hell Train, even without the Hammer studio setting that I liked so much, Christopher Fowler was quickly able to ratchet up the tension to suck me into the Nicholas and Isabella storyline. Staying true to the Hammer style, he creates a nice forbidding atmosphere. I expect the two young lovers to make an escape from the surprisingly dangerous townspeople onto the midnight train, and I am most interested to read what they experience on that (surely eponymous) train.

THE WINNER: HELL TRAIN by Christopher Fowler

Hell Train advances to the semifinals to take on either Ken MacLeod's The Night Sessions or Simon Bestwick's The Faceless.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

2012 Hugo Nominees for Best Novella

Here's a list of this year's six Hugo nominees for best novella, with some links to the stories.

"The Ice Owl", Carolyn Ives Gilman (F&SF 11-12/11)

"Countdown", Mira Grant (Orbit Short Fiction) - link to buy e-book

"The Man Who Bridged the Mist", Kij Johnson (Asimov’s 10-11/11)

"Kiss Me Twice", Mary Robinette Kowal (Asimov’s 6/11)

"The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary", Ken Liu (Panverse Three)

Silently and Very Fast, Catherynne M. Valente (WSFA)