Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Daybreak 2250 A.D.

Daybreak 2250 A.D.Daybreak 2250 A.D. by Andre Norton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Let's get one thing right out of the way - this is not high literature. It is a pulpy story, well-written. "Solid" is the word that comes to mind, but not mind-bending by any means. If you're looking for a golden age scifi post-apocalyptic book that fills your need for post-atomic mutants and radiation porn, it's adequate to the task.

That said, this is one of the earliest examples of post-nuclear holocaust fiction. One can see how other books, movies, and even games dipped deeply into this work. It is seminal.

It is also an interesting example of an early attempt at addressing race-relation issues in science fiction. When I caught these undertones, then, later, overt criticisms of the cultural climate, which was contemporary with the work, I was surprised to see that the book was published in 1952. Norton was ahead of her time in this regard. Only the year before did the nascent civil rights movement make news of any appreciable kind. Remember: Brown v. Board of Education didn't get decided until 1954. It's clear from Daybreak 2250 A.D. that Norton was aware of the underground sentiment, the warm coals of dissent that hadn't yet fanned into full flames. I'm not sure how many people would have read the book at that time, but it had to have come as a revelation to some readers back then. A case of fiction as political tool for action.

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Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales

The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird TalesThe Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales by Mark Samuels
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am becoming convinced that Mark Samuels is incapable of writing a bad story. No writer is perfect, and there are a couple of "misses" in this collection, but none of the stories are bad. And while I didn't find The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales to be as strong as The White Hands and Other Weird Tales, it is still essential reading for lovers of "weird" fiction (whatever that means).

Unfortunately, this collection got off on the wrong foot for me. Thankfully, it recovered gracefully and continued on in a remarkable manner. The opening story, "Losenof Express" is a predictable, pedestrian effort for a writer of Samuels' caliber. I expected much better. I can only give this story 3 stars. I'll be honest, this was an inauspicious start that caused me to put my guard up with repeated chantings of "please don't suck, please don't suck, please don't suck".

The title story soon resolved my concerns, and in a very powerful way. I thought that Samuels had stumbled again when I read the rather abrupt, and particularly jarring phrase: I had the bizarre notion of having entered into occult territory, a phrase that seemed to artificially "push" the story in a self-aware way that smacked of railroading the reader. But while this sentence seems to tear the narrative structure asunder, it also serves as a segue into a very different voice that ultimately resolves in a most satisfactory way. It's the closest thing I've ever seen to a literary Hegelian dialectic. I am not certain if Samuels did this with intent or not, but either way, it is extremely effective in pulling the reader down the rabbit hole, shedding disbelief the whole way down and transforming the mindscape in such a way that one feels fully immersed in strangeness. I had wondered why this story was used as the title for the collection, but after feeling the sheer muscle of this story, I now know why this 5 star tale should lend its name to the whole collection.

Of course, stories after the titular tale are always disappointments, right? Wrong. In fact, "Thyxxolqu" is a perfectly-paced story about language and its corruption. It is a dark revelation, a creepy peek into forbidden enlightenment. You speak into the abyss until the abyss speaks back and you come to a full understanding of its words. This reminds me of the game mechanic in the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, in which a character sees dreadful things or is given unholy revelations that drive her sanity over the edge. If she sees too much at once, the game dictates that she must do what is called an "idea" roll. Usually, you want to pass your idea roll, as it gives you insights into things you might not otherwise realize. Unfortunately, when faced with cosmic horrors, you want to fail your idea roll so that you do not come to the full realization of how awful the universe and its shadowy denizens are, in reality. You want to fail that roll so that you do not come to that full realization, saving you from potentially permanent insanity. To put it in these terms, the protagonist of "Thyxxolqu" . . . well, you'll see. 5 dreadful stars.

"The Black Mould" is the most "Lovecraftian" story I've read by Mark Samuels. Or, maybe that's "Ligottian". In any case, it's a baroque non-story of existential, even nihilistic dread. Beautifully written, yet it tries so hard to be significant that it becomes insignificant. I'm still giving it 4 stars for the writing, though. The writing is amazing, and if there were a bit of plot, it would have received 5 stars.

It seems like every horror short-fiction author just has to write a scary story about Mexico and strange old cults. They can't help it. Simon Strantzas' collection Burnt Black Sons has a couple, I believe the collection The Gods of HP Lovecraft has one, and I could probably point to a few more with little effort. "Xapalpa" is Samuels', and it's very, very good. 5 stars.

Once in a while, an author seems to be trying to mimic another author's style (note I said "seems" - this is not to say that this is intentional) when the other author has already done something so perfectly as to ward off all pretenders. I got this feeling while reading "Glickman the Bibliophile". While it is a good piece of conspiracy literature with a philosophical bent, it isn't up to snuff with Brian Evenson's works (whom it seems Samuels might be imitating, though I don't really think he was intentionally doing so) in the same vein. Here, Samuels' work is a shadow of Evenson's, I am sorry to admit. Still, a good story, well written, if a little rushed and somewhat hollow. 3 stars.

"A Question of Obeying Orders" finishes with a nice O'Henry ending. And while that twist can get old, if overused, it hit all the right spots for me here. Prussian soldiers and seances, a sense of twisted cosmic justice, and abominable things-that-should-not-be. Vampyres? Fah!!! 5 stars.

"Nor Unto Death Utterly by Edmund Bertrand," despite it's somewhat overwrought prose, is an existential tale worth the read. It pulls primarily from the 19th-century decadent tradition interwoven with threads of very modern cosmic horror. If you can stomach the first few treacle-smothered instances of narrative extravagance, the read is extremely rewarding in the end. 4 stars.

"A Contaminated Text" is a simultaneous ode to and metatextual subversion of Lovecraft, Borges, and Bierce. It is a story that invades the reader's brain, but only once one is finished reading it. I think this one bears a few re-readings. It is, structurally and thematically, a labyrinth. One doesn't realize where he is in the trap until it is far too late. 5 stars and my favorite story of this collection.

"The Age of Decayed Futurity" is a pop-culture conspiracy-cum-contagious-paranoid-fantasy that provides a peek "behind the curtain," a'la The Matrix, but with an even more sinister antagonist: the spirits of the dead from the future who work through Hollywood celebrity to create a world of TV-entranced zombies. Now, I'm not a big TV watcher to begin with, as I'd much rather be reading and writing and playing games than watching TV most of the time. And I'm a bit of a snob when it comes to knowing everything about celebrity lives, who was in what movie, blah, blah, blah. Honestly, I couldn't care less, for the most part (there are exceptions). But I don't know that I've ever felt that the Illuminati have infiltrated Hollywood. But now I wonder. Suddenly, late night TV static has a much more sinister connotation. 5 stars.

While I typically love stories with strong philosophical underpinnings, particularly those of existentialism, I felt that "The Tower" might work better if stripped altogether of any pretense of "plot" or "story", rather than being a mass of philosophical muscle hung on an etiolated skeleton of prose fiction. Still, it is a solid piece with great eerie moments that warrants 4 stars.

While the average star rating of the stories, collectively, is 4.45, I have to round up based on the strength of a couple of the stories. The title story and "A Contaminated Text" alone give reason to push this one up into 5 star territory. If you haven't read Samuel's work before, I'd recommend going with the stronger collection The White Hands and Other Weird Tales first, then take in The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales.

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Monday, April 3, 2017

Umerican Survival Guide KS, Part Deuce

I’m a child of the Cold War. I was born on an Air Force base in Germany in the late ‘60s. My entire childhood was spent on or very near bases that housed, delivered, or directed weapons of mass destruction. I can tell you the difference between a yellow, red, and black alert siren by merely hearing one. Those “duck and cover” drills you see in the old black and white reels? Yeah. We did that. In elementary school. All the time. Tuck your legs up under yourself, put your hands over your head, and whatever you do, make sure your genitalia are away from the blast so you can preserve the human race. I’m dead serious. That’s what we were taught. I lived in Omaha, NE, Ground Zero (the first place in the US that would have been struck by enemy nuclear missiles, if it came to that) for several years. In fact, while I was there, a made-for-TV movie entitled “Ground Zero” was released. It was a pseudo-documentary about what would happen if a 5-megaton bomb were to fall on Offutt AFB, about 5 miles from the military housing where I lived. Part of it was filmed at Peter Sarpy Elementary, a block from where I lived. Since CGI wasn’t a thing yet, they filmed kids playing on the monkey bars. As the nuclear bomb exploded on my television, I saw these kids, some of them only a couple years younger than me, melt on the playground as the thermal pulse passed through. A few weeks later, my family took our vacation to Kansas City to a large theme park there. We were in the hotel room one night, and what should come on the TV but another made-for-TV movie entitled “The Day After” which showed – you guessed it – a nuclear attack on Kansas City!

I was 13 at the time.

And people wonder why I am the way I am. :)

But this was my reality. AND it was my fantasy. It might surprise you that post-apocalyptic roleplaying was a very positive thing for me. But I loved it. Ironically, it gave me some hope! I was introduced to Gamma World in 1980, the same year that Thundarr the Barbarian crashed through my TV screen (and a year after Mad Max and a year before Heavy Metal and a year before The Road Warrior and . . .). Though I had started seriously roleplaying in 1979, the leap from the then-present ‘80s world was not as much of a stretch as that really famous fantasy game that I had picked up the year before. In my mind, fantasy and reality became conflated. Post-apocalyptic roleplaying was my window to the future.

Post-apocalyptic roleplaying was (and still is) for me, in a word, therapeutic. It gives me some measure of control over the future, even if only imagined. Of course, humor and horror are bedfellows, so having a good laugh (which I *always* do at the gaming table) was not out of place at all.

The prospect of nuclear war faded in the late ‘90s, but it seems to be back again. The time is ripe for more post-apocalyptic roleplaying, and Crawling Under a Broken Moon is among the best settings I know to indulge in it. I am extremely excited about the possibility, the timely possibility, of completing work on Killer of Giants and getting it in your hands; my ode to the threat of nuclear destruction that saturated my childhood and seems to be coming back just in time for a mid-life crisis filled with visions of mushroom clouds dancing in my head. I'm laughing death in the face!

What you'll find in Killer of Giants is a delve into some of the iconic structures of the Cold War, the underground missile silo complex. But these are replete with all the weirdness and fun you already associate with Crawling Under a Broken Moon! You see, nuclear destruction can be fun!!!

Did I mention therapy? Well, as I’ve said to many who have asked, writing is my drug. And I need a fix. Bad. This time, you get to be the beneficiary. Welcome to my post-apocalyptic nightmare. Let's laugh it in the face!

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