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Talking about books: The strange and SF-ish. - The Lyorn's Den

Wed Jun. 25th, 2008

12:18 pm - Talking about books: The strange and SF-ish.

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I can't seem to write anything at the moment, so I'll try my hand at writing reviews. This time, three strange little Science Fiction books of roughly the same age, same length, and very un-same strangeness.

Douglas Adams: Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (1987)

This book didn't make anything vaguely resembling sense to me the first time I tried to read it 20 years ago. I didn't even make the kind of sense that "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" made, which had had me in stitches a year earlier. I kept waiting for a punch line that wasn't coming, while a strange professor performed magic tricks at a dinner in Cambridge, an Electric Monk believed everything he saw to be pink, and a confused computer genius pondered the mysteries of turning natural patterns into sound and how that sofa got jammed in his staircase.

But I recently got me a new fandom, and as you might have guessed (especially if you know me in person -- the heaps of DVDs are a dead giveaway), my new fandom is Doctor Who, and what can I say... after seeing some alien guy flitting around in a time travel machine to save the world from alien menaces, "Dirk Gentley's Holistic Detective Agency" made perfect sense, and I could really appreciate the dead-pan weirdness of the storyline and the amazing human-ness of the characters (the human ones, at least), who react to the weirdness they encounter with very understandable confusion and then either work very hard to deny it, or to make sense of it all -- something I won't try here.

The book has a dodo, a horse, a ghost, Coleridge, Bach (love the Bach!), and a lot of very 1980s computer stuff which made me grin in reminiscence.

Can I recommend it? Kind of. If you love the strange, and do not wait for the punch line, and can deal with a plot that is convoluted before time travel enters into it, it's a fun book. But really: watch a little Doctor Who first. This was meant to be a tie-in (literally, AFAIK), and it shows.

Steven Brust: Cowboy Feng's Space Bar and Grille (1990)

This book, on the other hand, does not belong into any continuity known to mankind, and its weirdness is all its own. It also has time travel, and music, but much better cuisine than the Adams' one, as is to be expected.

The story begins when an atomic bomb hits near to "Cowboy Feng's Space Bar and Grille" (a place where you get the best matzo ball soup in the galaxy, and great Irish music), and the pub, staff, resident folk band and all, bampfs to another planet and some years into the future. As that has just happened for the third time in a week, the musicians start to wonder what the hell is going on.

With that absurd a start, I expected the story to be something metaphorical and fairy-tale-like in a SF-y setting. Was I ever so wrong.

Between food, music, meeting girls, enjoying the pretty colony world they ended up in, an unexpected shootout or three, bombing and assassination attempts and heartbreak, we learn the back stories of (nearly) all the staff and the band members in a series of short character vignettes which are perfectly done and true enough to hurt. Slowly, conspiracy, counter conspiracy, means and motive take shape from the background of music, keeping the bar running, and staying alive.

Steven Brust puts not just a gun on the mantelpiece in act one, but the whole (metaphorical) armoury on the kitchen table in the first chapter (the literal armoury is put there a few chapters later), before you even notice. Only when the pieces come together you notice that everything was there the whole time. And that's what I love so much about Brust's writing, more than his amazing skill with style and voices: He's so damn clever that he makes being clever look easy.

Then there's more shoot-outs, betrayal, death, and, in the end, something like a victory, and All Is Explained. And the book manages to stick in my mind as capricious and light hearted, but at the same time as a tragedy and deeply melancholic. And like the Irish folk songs quoted at the beginning of every chapter (of which there are seventeen), it is exactly that.

Emma Bull: Bone Dance (1991)

Compared to the previous books, Emma Bull's "Bone Dance" is rather straightforward. It presents a classic cyberpunk setting: High-tech, low-life, only without the rain. Some time in the late 20th century when they still had VHS video tapes and Walkmans the size of a paperback, the "Horsemen", a military experiment gone out of control, pressed the buttons and destroyed civilisation. (Civilization = USA only in this book, but as the narrator isn't exactly a student of world history, the book is comfortable with the not-too-large scope.) The rich are still living in their glass-and-chrome palaces in the unnamed city where the story takes place and control access to energy, the rest of the people tries to scrape a living and some hope and dignity out of the ruins, or the surrounding countryside by means mundane or mystical.

Sparrow, the protagonist, mostly wants to be left alone and owe nothing to no one, but of course this is not to be. When your life gets saved by mysterious biker gals, some guy who helped you ends up dead in your flat for no good reason, and corporate goons and voodoo priests take an unhealthy interest in you, and you realize that you are caught in the middle of the last two Horsemen fighting it out, being in people's debt might get you in trouble, but trying to make it on your own gets you dead (or worse), as Sparrow finds out.

One of Bull's strengths is that the scenery she describes is very alive, you feel the heat of the city, and the bass from the loudspeakers in the dance club, and it's very easy to get into the story world. The way the city and its denizens are described makes mysticism, tarot and voodoo seem natural, especially as they are added slowly and organically. Behind the surface conflict in the book -- the one between and the "Horsemen", who are not the guys from Revelation, but a lot more voodoo than that -- other themes like identity, and the problem of trust when everyone has an agenda, are consistently done but unobtrusive.

Saying more is difficult, because the plot has the structure of a mystery, and saying too much would be spoiling it. So I'll just hint at the biggest spoiler of all: Bull does something extremely sneaky with perspective in this book. I never noticed until it was spelled out -- cyrna says she noticed right ahead. Don't know what that says about us.

Anyway, good book. Having the 1980s as the pinnacle of human civilisation seems strange when read today, but I had all of the 80s to get used to that, so it was kind of nostalgic for me.


What's going on in my life:

The electric door opener was broken this weekend and went bzzzt! constantly, audibly, and in irregular intervals all night. And the weather was way too hot (still is). So it was either, no sleep because of a noise that sounds exactly like the alarm on my mobile, or no sleep because with closed windows the room didn't cool down. Monday morning I was tired and cranky and got woken by the electrician who some neighbour who must have been less tired and more cranky had called at 7 am.

Little Cat has adapted OK to being the only cat in the house.

After I have lent out all my Doctor Who and Torchwood DVDs, Snow has bought a full set of her own. Which is good. It's less good that my access to the latest Doctor Who episodes seems to have dried up just in time for the upcoming season finale. Grrrr.