David Tallerman. Giant Thief. Angry Robot Books 2012.
Giant Thief. The ambiguity begins with the title and spreads slowly through the text. Is it in fact a thief who is a giant, or a thief who literally steals a giant?
As it turns out, it is the second. Easie Damasco (note that first name) steals a giant and the means of controlling it. Damasco is a thief and, remarkably, he might almost be fantasy fiction’s first slacker hero. There is little magic in the faux-Medieval Spain setting, and that is an unusual choice, worth a comparison with K.J. Parker’s secondary-world-fantasies-without-magic novels.
But what’s interesting about this novel (the first in a loose trilogy) is the reluctance of agency.
The Western tradition of genre writing has certain demands. It requires plot – it requires action – it requires active, not passive, heroes. And while Giant Thief fits into the recognisable mode of traditional Western fantasy it also… doesn’t.
I’ll call it Slacker Fantasy. I’m not quite sure what to call this novel. It might have the feel of sword and sorcery, but it has little interest in either sword or sorcery. It isn’t really a Biblical epic. It isn’t really epic in any sense of the word, certainly not Epic Fantasy with its multiple cast of characters and large scale fantasy-world (usually the size of Wales, admittedly) conflict.
There isn’t even much conflict as such in this book. There’s just Damasco, the thief, dragged along into events he has no control over and no real interest in. Even Bilbo Baggins set of to steal a treasure of his own volition. Easie, here, just wants to be left alone.
And this is interesting to me. This is not Thomas Covenant battling the question of reality, and it isn’t the everyman character who discovers a magical London or wherever and is dragged into its mysteries.
More than anything, what Giant Thief does with its reluctance of agency is resemble a host of slacker movies, featuring sympathetic but essentially passive characters. Dude, Where’s My Car? or Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure seem to me to be the precursors to this tale of slacker fantasy.
I’ve been trying to think of other examples of this sort of book but I can’t (perhaps you can suggest some in the comments?). It seems to me that Tallerman is doing something deceptively clever in this book or, at any rate, something new to fantasy. The novel’s reluctant to engage with the essential mode of Western fantasy lends it a strange appeal, its very half-assedness a meta-comment on a genre filled with bloated tales of action men and wicked wizardliness. This is Fantasy Mundane, and I am curious as to what Tallerman is planning with a further two novels. Will he choose to embrace agency, to turn his endearing slacker hero into a proper man of action and the series into properly-accepted capital-F Fantasy? Or will he continue to turn his back on convention with more novels that fall, quite deliberately it seems, between acceptable modes of genre?
And will we see other examples of emergent slacker fantasy, or mundane fantasy (two separate and distinct terms, but both of which apply to this novel) , coming out in future?
I will be very curious to find out.
Note: this is the latest entry in a loose series of critical looks at some SF novels, preceded by Evil and Mortality in Philip Palmer’s Version 43 and Artemis, Shall I tell you the Problem with Adam Roberts?, Embassytown considered as a post-modernist collage, Cold War Paranoia: Ian Sales’ Adrift on the Sea of Rains, and The Irresistible Mixture of Banality and Melodrama, or, Why Dance with Dragons.
Al-Qaeda Zombies and American Vampires: On Christopher Farnsworth’s Blood Oath
The words “bug fuck crazy”, one sometimes feels, get bandied about too often by careless reviewers, yet I feel no hesitation in applying them to Christopher Farnsworth’s remarkably screwy series of thrillers featuring Cade, the titular President’s Vampire. These encompass Blood Oath, The President’s Vampire, and Red, White and Blood.
I came across Blood Oath by seeming accident. A friend handed me a pile of recent SF/F review copies for me to “catch up on what people are doing”. The truth is, I read little science fiction these days, and so this year I’m making something of a conscious effort to read more, somewhat to my regret. The pile included such glorious contributions to recent literature as an anthology titled ZOMBIES!, and then it had Blood Oath, which I opened on the train back out of idle curiosity before being struck, like a terrorist facing a squad of elite US assassins, by the sheer and awesome brilliance of Farnsworth’s conceit.
Let us begin with the cover. One could have hoped for a suitably lurid cover but Blood Oath is marketed as a thriller, so it has one of those dull, non-specific thrillerish covers. But then there’s the blurb!
If Dan Brown wrote a vampire thriller, this would be it.”—Mitch Horowitz, author of Occult America
Has ever a blurber damned more with faint praise?
If Dan Brown wrote a vampire thriller!
Thankfully, Farnsworth is not Dan Brown. Thankfully several billion people are not Dan Brown, but I still hold a grudge having been stuck on Eurostar from Paris with nothing to read but the second half of The Da Vinci Code. My general philosophy is, when in doubt, blame the French, but in this case the French are, dare I say it, blameless. But anyway. I’m sure they can be blamed for something.
And then you start reading the book.
Let me sum it up for you: Cade, the President’s vampire, must save the United States from an Al-Qaeda zombie attack.
Perpetrated by Dr. Frankenstein.
Who is an ex-Nazi.
And the best part? The very best part? There’s a moment in the book when Cade has to get from somewhere back to Washington in time to save the President. From the zombies. Who are made of the body parts of dead US Servicemen. I am not making this up! But he can’t make it back in time. It’s a three hour flight by conventional airplane.
So he rings up the US Air Force. And they send over a plane designed from alien technology recovered from the Roswell crash.
As you do!
It’s genius. It’s sheer, bloody genius, a gloriously screwy pulp novel about the War on Terror as conceived by H.P. Lovecraft’s deranged teenage neighbour, who was into corpse-robbing but ended up acquiring a typewriter instead.
Now, there are all kinds of pulps, and meta-pulps. One of my favourites has to be Paul Malmont’s The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, a marvellous novel about a group of 1930s pulp hacks, including Walter Gibson, Lester Dent, H.P. Lovecraft (as a zombie!) and a young L. Ron Hubbard solving one of their own pulp mysteries in New York, all the while cranking out stories for the pulps (in one scene Dent’s typewriter breaks. Without breaking stride he reaches for another and we realise he has typewriters all stacked up in his room, for just such an eventuality).
Indeed, the Guardian‘s own Damien Walter has been trying to encourage a conversation recently on something he calls New Pulp (Neo Pulp? Pulp Nouveau?). It seems a bit redundant – how does new pulp differ from old pulp? Is it the quality of the paper? But, were we to look for appropriate candidates, none would come better qualified than Farnsworth, who is actually doing something very interesting in this series.
Blood Oath – and its sequels – are novels about American politics as filtered through a pulp lens. If my own novel, Osama, is a sort of metafiction – the War on Terror viewed as a pulp novel – then Farnsworth’s is the War on Terror as a literal pulp novel – as if Mike Longshott, the fictional pulp writer in Osama had sat down to write the novel instead.
One of the key elements of the series is the conspiracy within the American government and its institutions, a Shadow Company working, one suspects, for Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones, whose tentacles reach everywhere and who direct American (and by extension, the world’s) history for their own nefarious purposes. There is a secret war within the war, a supernatural war waged by both the Americans and their enemies (we’ll talk more about Osama bin Laden in a moment).
In one way, of course, this reduces the current conflict to a crude and unrepresentative conflict of Good vs. Bad. But of course, that has already happened, as Bush’s famous speech on the “Axis of Evil” has long shown us. This is, rather – within the gloriously lurid pulp iconography of the text – also a subtle critique of the power of both institutions and individuals, an essentially paranoid view of the way power is both used and misused.
It is filled with numerously knowing and affectionate references to genre and pulp – to Lovecraft, to Charles Fort – but its genius is transposing those pulp elements into our own modern-day reality, our wars, our terrorists and freedom fighters, our fear of science (in the same of the monstrous Frankenstein) and our trust in military force. One cannot so much review Blood Oath than simply point and say OMG! at the sheer chutzpah of the conceit, but it works. Perhaps it shouldn’t, but somehow it does.
Farnsworth is one of several Hollywood screenwriters recently to move sideways into novels. Another is Ernest Cline, whose recent Ready Player One (also in that pile of books I got alongside Blood Oath) has been well received, and whose film Fanboys is an affectionate comedy about sci fi fans.
Both Blood Oath and RP1 share a sort of filmic writing style, an easy, accessible way of storytelling. Blood Oath reads very much like a thriller or a film script. It has short punchy chapters, a smooth and essentially invisible way with words that mean you must focus on the Story rather than on the way it is told. It does not offer depth in the way of its characters, or any beautiful passages you might want to hold on to with starry-eyed admiration as though you had just run into China Mieville in the men’s loos. The women characters in Blood Oath are weak: the girl vampire infatuated with Cade, the evil Shadow Company woman who blows Dr. Frankenstein in the hope of eternal life (no, really!), they follow a well-prescribed 1950s Narrative for Women. This is a Men’s Book.
Which is, of course, part of the point. This is Men’s Adventure updated to the new millennium, and one can make the suggestion – only half-seriously, admittedly – that Farnsworth is also making here a point about the role of women in American politics. Perhaps. But the other question is, does the book make a point at all? That, I’m afraid, is something for each reader to decide on their own.
I should also add that I’m aware of the problematics of women’s roles in my own writing, which is very much its own brand of Boys’ Own fiction updated. When one criticises one must apply it equally, however much it stings. Similarly, I’m painfully aware that the reviews posted so far have all focused on men’s writing. As I am currently reading both Danie Ware’s forthcoming Ecko Rising and E.J. Swift’s just-released Osiris, I hope to begin to redress the imbalance soon, but it is there nonetheless.
Incidentally, Ready Player One does make several points towards the end. With a sledge hammer. So perhaps a little less point-making does not go amiss. Not that I am always averse to making points with a sledge hammer. And I did enjoy RP1 a great deal, in the end.
Anyway, the main point to be made about the Cade series is that it is bat-shit crazy in the best possible way. When I mentioned my enthusiasm for Blood Oath, Jared from Pornokitsch went all glassy-eyed and said, “But… but… did you read the second book?”
“No!” I said. “Why?”
“Cade goed to Afghanistan!” Jared said. “And he fights Osama bin Laden!”
“Who is a demon!”
“And that’s just the first chapter!”
As I write this, I’m half-way through The President’s Vampire (the second volume in the series). And what I discovered to my utter joy is that Jared wasn’t kidding. Cade goes off to Afghanistan and kills Osama bin Laden, who is indeed, literally, a demon, and that is just the first chapter.
The second chapter has lizard men.
I cannot think of a higher recommendation than that.
No sooner did I talk about Nazi steampunk than Ian Sales sent me his story “Wunderwaffe”, which seems to have come out directly from the pages of A Lexicon of Steam Literature of the Third Reich.
Actually, I lie. Ian sent me the story earlier, as it is a precursor (of sorts) to his novella, Adrift on the Sea of Rains, which I recently reviewed. The story was published in an e-book anthology called Vivisepulture, which is apparently Latin for ‘burying alive’. A fate, it must be said, that befalls many more stories than just “Wunderwaffe”.
Anyhow, when I pointed out to Ian that, like the vast majority of people in the world, I don’t have an e-reader, Ian, with remarkable adroity and aplomb, turned “Wunderwaffe” into Wunderwaffe – that is, he created a limited edition chapbook version of the story. I had assumed mine would be one of a kind but I am, in that, sorely disappointed: this is a limited edition of 12 signed and numbered copies, and I believe Ian may be planning to sell the other 11 (for all you collectors out there!).
Wunderwaffe, like Adrift on the Sea of Rains, features the mysterious Bell, a product of occult Nazi science based on a supposedly-real Nazi artefact of unknown purpose discovered at the end of the war.
In Adrift, the Bell acts as a device for moving between alternate realities. In Wunderwaffe, however, it turns out to be a time-travelling device. Gunter Erlichmann, a physicist and devout Nazi, is summoned to Adolf Hitler’s presence. In this world, we find out, the land of Ultima Thule was discovered by Nazi explorer Ernst Schafer, in the North Pole. The Thulans have advanced technology and assist the Nazis in the war. ”Months?” Hitler says, winning over this reader forever. “I need my flying saucers now!”
Hitler sends Erlichmann to check up on secret experiments carried out by a scientist called Rotwang. Erlichmann arrives to discover Rotwang working on the Bell. He sends through a slave, Maria, a woman from the concentration camps, having turned her first into a sort of metal monster. She disappears. Erlichmann follows her through – and finds himself in a futuristic city (not unlike Metropolis), which may have inadvertently been the source of Ultima Thule…
This has the same sense of ironic – and inevitable - denouement as Adrift on the Sea of Rains, and Sales is having a lot of fun with his alternate world Nazis. If you read A Lexicon of Steam Literature of the Third Reich you’ll find many of those elements present – the Black Sun and Ultima Thule being just two of them – but at the same time, like “Lexicon…”, Wunderwaffe is a comment on both pulp and the fetish elements of pulp, rather than a fetishized pulp story in itself. It is ironic, playful, and knowing.
At the same time, Wunderwaffe is less carefully written than Adrift. Where in the novella each sentence is carefully, delicately crafted, and its ending feels both inevitable and rather poignant, Wunderwaffe does feel at times like the self-same pulp stories it parodies. It feels hasty, less weighty than its successor.
At the moment, I am looking forward to the author’s second Apollo Quartet novella. I’d highly recommend getting the first one, and if you get a chance to pick up the limited edition chapbook of Wunderwaffe, I think it makes for a lovely little collector’s item.
Currently reading: Chris Wooding’s The Iron Jackal.
Note: this is the latest entry in a loose series of critical looks at some SF novels, preceded by Evil and Mortality in Philip Palmer’s Version 43 and Artemis, Shall I tell you the Problem with Adam Roberts? and Embassytown considered as a post-modernist collage.
The Irresistible Mixture of Banality and Melodrama, or, Why Dance with Dragons
Two questions arise when I come to write of A Dance with Dragons, the latest instalment in the hugely-popular Song of Ice and Fire series. The first is, is there really something new to add to a discussion that’s going on everywhere from newspapers to blogs? And the second, and to me the more interesting one – why A Dance with Dragons? Sitting on my shelves waiting to be read are such debut novels as E.J. Swift’s Osiris, James Smythe’s The Testimony, and Genevieve Valentine’s Mechanique - not to mention the latest China Mieville, Railsea. Why, then, am I reading A Dance with Dragons?
Let me contextualize: I first learned of George R.R. Martin from an Isaac Asimov introduction to an anthology – a Hugo or Nebula Showcase perhaps? – in which he said he didn’t know much about this young writer but always thinks of him, due to the double-R middle initials, as George Rail Road Martin. I suspect the story was Martin’s Hugo Award winning story “A Song for Lya”, though I could be wrong. Certainly, up to Martin’s neverending story of dragons, he was the sort of American genre writer one is used to seeing about – of modest commercial success, of the usual bevy of genre-specific awards of little interest to anyone outside the field, and with a workman-like application. I next came across a volume of his long-running, shared-world anthology series Wild Cards, which usefully exhibited the same workman-like competency and of which the only story I vaguely recall is by William F. Wu.
In 2008 or thereabouts, however, I was living in Laos when I came across the first four volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire. The mythical fifth volume was still hotly anticipated at that time, and remained so for a further 3 years. Earlier, I had picked up an early collection of Martin’s – 1976′s A Song for Lya? or 1985′s Nightflyers? I confess I do not remember which. It struck me as a representative example of late 70s American SF – of moderate interest and a certain competence, but without the vibrancy of a Zelazny or a Delany, without their memorableness, if you will.
Yet I picked up A Game of Thrones that same year and, when I had finished it, promptly picked up the other three books, which were luckily floating about in Vientiane’s few second-hand bookshops at the time. I did that, moreover, with the knowledge that the series was not only incomplete but most likely never to be completed.
Which, it occurs to me, is kind of the point of the whole thing.
A Song of Ice and Fire is a fascinating exercise in soap opera. To all intents and purposes it is a soap opera – a rather magnificent one. The series is not interested in resolution, and to hope for one is to be misguided. It follows in minute details the lives – and deaths – of its primary characters, each of whom may, at any point, die or disappear and be replaced with new characters, who come on screen, perform their deeds and die or vanish only to be replaced by yet other actors.
The hope of resolution – of secrets learned, of mysteries revealed – may drive the plot, yet it is inherently banal. Take Bran’s journey. After thousands of pages, after a Lord-of-the-Rings-like quest complete with its own Ranger, Bran arrives – somewhere – to meet – someone (the Greenseer), to learn – something. Who knows? Who really cares? The point of Bran’s journey is his journey, which goes on, and on, and on, prompting us to turn the pages, to follow Bran’s life in the same way we follow the latest contestant on Big Brother.
It occurs to me I sound dismissive, which is not my intention at all. Martin is doing something very clever with the entire series, it seems to me. He has come under heavy criticism for the elements that make up the book – for the Fascist assumptions of the nature of Royal Blood, for the misogyny, the rapes (oh, the rapes!) – but I think to complain of these elements is also to miss the point.
What Martin is doing in this series is combining two things. Melodrama – gruesome murders, incestuous relationships, conspiracies, torture, starcrossed lovers and what have you – with the utter (and utterly fascinating) banality of a reality show. Reading the series exerts the same sort of hypnotic fascination as watching the Kardashians – with all the over-the-top elements of Days of our Lives. One readily expects that, were Cersei Lannister to die, it would only be to be replaced by her long-lost twin sister, or for Tyrion to turn around to Jon Snow only to proclaim, “I am your father, Jon!”
I find soaps fascinating. In Twin Peaks, David Lynch has effectively created a surreal sort of soap opera, complete with its own soap-within-a-soap, Invitation to Love, which both informs and comments on the events taking place in the primary show. Soaps soothe us by allowing us to follow the lives of imaginary, yet compelling, other people, with the sure knowledge that there is no end in sight, that everything is a cliff-hanger and yet each resolution merely keeps us in statis, never to achieve a sort of nirvanic escape-velocity, some profound resolution. James Joyce’s “The Dead” may offer us mundane boredom followed by a moment of transcendence. Soaps offer us transcendence in the mundane.
I was struck by this half-way through my reading, in 2008, of A Game of Thrones. Why do I keep on reading? I remember wondering. The prose is serviceable, plodding, lacking grace. It exists merely to tell us the story, and the story, like the sea (or, it seems to me at this moment, this blog post), goes ever on. I knew I was reading a soap – and I was happy, I realised, to continue to do so. I found it – in the same way I found the first few seasons of Big Brother – I found it soothing.
And I find it soothing still. Take, for instance, Tyrion’s journey from Westeros to Exotica-I-mean-whatever-that-other-continent-is-called. Tyrion arrives. He finds shelter with a merchant. He looks around the merchant’s house. He drinks wine. He thinks in Italics (have we lived and fought in vain? Christopher Priest asks, in one wondrous flourish on the nature of Italics thoughts). He goes on a journey on a barge. Nothing happens. Nothing at all. And yet I follow each minute detail, each bottle of wine drank and each thought italicised like a sharpened knife. Why not? Did Scott get Kourtney pregnant? Does he drink too much? What does Kourtney’s mum think of all this?
A Song of Ice and Fire must exist within its faux-European world to be effective, where Exotics live in a faux-Asian/faux-Middle Eastern continent, where royal blood is literally different to common blood, where Tyrion can endlessly ask “where do whores go?” as if it were a philosophically weighty question, a world of garish blood and guts and endless pillage and rape. Because it seems to me to argue against these elements is to miss the point of it all. These books provide escape, into a distorted mirror reality of our own, a place where bad things happen to both good and bad people who are not real. Our own world has an American invasion of a sovereign state that has left hundreds of thousands of people dead; it has an economic recession with profound effects on all of us; violent riots in Greece, a despotic dictator killing his own people in Syria, and a Queen celebrating her Jubilee in the UK in opulence while homeless people sleep rough on the streets just outside her palace. It is a world where sexual abuse and rape are just as common as in Martin’s books, it is a world just as violent, just as unpleasant, and the books reflect our own inherent racism in their own way, too.
Yet it is also an escape from our world, to one where dragons roam and murder and rape happen to other people. When we read the books, we are safe.
And then there’s this: does the world of the books really believe in the right of kings? There are all kinds of small inexplicable things. What exactly is Stannis’s flaming sword? Where does that Roger Zelazny homage, the Red Woman’s Lord of Light, fit in? For that matter, what difference does it really make about the Others? Do they have a purpose at all, these zombies from across the Wall? Winter is coming, sure, but after winter comes spring, and so however bad a zombie invasion of Westeros is going to be surely it will, sooner or later, end? And does anyone on Exotica really care if zombies are going to overrun Westeros? They’re hardly likely to come across the water. And does anyone care who ends up on the Iron Throne? Already several kings have come and gone. Does the book lead anywhere? Who cares if Daenerys and her dragons make it across the British Channel to London-I-mean-King’s-Landing or wherever?
I can happily imagine a world in which A Song of Ice and Fire simply keeps on going, like the little engine that could. I can imagine a world in which Brandon Sanderson endlessly continues the story of these kings, queens, knights and soldiers well into the 22nd century or as long as there’s money to be made, whichever ends first. A world in which the children of Jon or Tyrion or whoever’s still alive continue to conspire and fight and think pointed thoughts in italics, where the new banner of the Lannisters simply asks “Where do whores go?” and it takes five chapters for someone just to go to the toilets. A world that stretches its tiny mysteries – the weirwood, the greenseer, dragons, Others, the Lord of Light – across many more volumes without ever answering for them.
And why not? They are not important and, if they’re answered, surely new mysteries will be introduced, new complications ensue, new families will rise and fall, and so on and so forth, amen.
Picking up A Dance with Dragons, I can barely remember what went before. Davos? That rings a bell. Stannis, yes… wasn’t there something with Stannis before? The Wall? I remember something happened there. But it doesn’t matter. I’ll just rejoin the story where we last picked off, and follow, happy to let my mind rest in this most magnificent re-enactment of The Kardashians-with-Dragons.
There are better books, and there are better writers, but sometimes a hot dog is better than a steak, and a budget holiday is still a holiday, and there’s a new season of Big Brother coming up. And like the promise of a hot dog served by the swimming pool of a 2 and a half-star hotel in Cyprus full of German tourists, A Song of Ice and Fire is irresistible.
Comics Heroes have recently reviewed Going To The Moon, giving it five stars:
A tender, touching, merciless and heartbreaking book that does an awful lot to your emotions over its 38 exquisitely-rendered pages … it’s not just something to be admired by grown-up comics fans; it’s something that should be given to kids and those touched by Tourette’s, and held tight for its wisdom and clear-headed sentiment … Paul McCaffrey’s art is beyond superlatives; he meshes seamlessly with Tidhar’s words to remind us all what it is to be young and powerless and at the mercy of others, but that at the end, there’s always hope. A triumph.
Copies can be ordered directly from the publisher.
Adrift on the Sea of Rains is a novella by British writer Ian Sales, self-published by the author under his new imprint Whippleshield Books.
Sales, active as a reviewer and blogger, has been publishing short stories for some time, mostly in small-press magazines and anthologies. This novella is his most substantial piece to be published to date. I have to admit I had not expected to like – let alone admire – this book.
Which is all the more reason I’m glad I read it: because Adrift on the Sea of Rains is very, very good indeed.
It comes in a minimalist, yet attractive, paperback (as well as a Kindle edition) with, moreover, a host of additional material which in itself adds to the narrative (and of which more later).
In Adrift…, the American moon mission did not end with Apollo 17. By the time the story takes place the United States has a space station in low earth orbit - Freedom – and a small moon base with a handful of men. The story follows Vance Peterson, the commanding officer of the lunar base, in a world where the United States and the Soviet Union are locked in an escalating no-longer-Cold War; and by the time the story opens, in fact, we learn that the long-dreaded nuclear war had finally broken out on Earth. The men on the moon base are trapped, looking at a no-longer-blue marble on the horizon, a dead Earth. They have enough food and air for a couple of years but, after that, they, too, will die.
Sales does a remarkable job maintaining the sense of isolation and alienation the astronauts experience on the moon. Told partly with flashbacks, we follow Peterson’s career path (could he be responsible in part for the start of the war?) as a pilot, and the sense of Cold War paranoia, of 1950s Mutually Assured Destruction, is expertly evoked.
But alongside the 1950s vibe, Sales introduces the central conceit of his novella: the Bell, a Nazi wunderwaffe, or Wonder Weapon, a mysterious device discovered after the Second World War and taken by the Americans to the moon, the better to be studied. The Bell, it turns out, is able to shift into parallel realities; and the men of the lunar base pin all their hopes on finding a world where the Earth was not destroyed in a nuclear war – their only possible escape. But when, in one of the novella’s most superb moments, a blue Earth reappears on the lunar horizon, their problems only just begin…
This is a slow, meticulous novella, lovingly and carefully crafted, combining incredibly realistic depictions of the day-to-day life of astronauts on the moon, their slow disintegration in the face of despair, with the sort of alternative history I’m a sucker for, and with the added bonus of Occult Nazi Science which shows Sales’ love for – and fascination with – the lunar landings, but also a sense of fun, of playfulness, which combine together – Hard SF and Pulp – into a bewitching story. The ending, when it comes, feels inevitable, and the whole thing punches way above its modest (20,000 word) size.
It is not entirely without fault. The numerous technical terms (given their own appendix at the end) could have been more smoothly integrated, perhaps, and the use of italics for the past sections could have been avoided. The appendices are amusing – particularly the time line which begins in our reality but slowly evolves, matter of factly and without comment – into a space programme that never was – yet a part of me wishes the novella would have been allowed to stand on on its own (though the extensive bibliography is certainly fascinating, and will send you to Google, if only to learn more about our world’s real-life fascination with the wunderwaffen).
Having read it, I really can’t rave about this novella enough. It is 1950s science fiction as could only be written by someone in the 21st century, a knowing, smart, ambitious story where hardly a word is out of place. I came to it ready to mock, and came away with admiration instead. This is probably the best piece of science fiction I’ve read so far this year, and would be a more than worthy nominee for a BSFA Award next year. I urge you to read it.
I’m glad I got one though, because by page one I was hooked. We meet Jimmy as he prepares to walk through the school gates, and the text tells us “Jimmy goes to the fucking school”. And there we have it; the clash between the innocent image of the schoolboy in his pristine uniform, bag on back, and the reality of the terrible disorder Jimmy suffers from.
We learn about how the condition affects Jimmy. He has ticks that make his face and arms move outside of his control. He also uses bad words and has no way of stopping himself from swearing even when he doesn’t want to. Apart from his Tourette’s though, he is just like the other kids. Perhaps that is what really helps to deliver the message in this book; he is just a boy. Jimmy has a dream. He wants to be an astronaut and land on the moon. Just like countless other boys his age.
The story follows Jimmy from his dream to the reality he has to face everyday: bullying because of his Tourette’s. The other kids just don’t understand why Jimmy says the things he says. His words are not intended to hurt but theirs are, and they do. But this does not dissuade Jimmy from his dream and the reader can only admire him for that as he continues with school and deals with his bullying as best he can.
Going to the Moon is alive with themes, and even for people who have no real world experience with Tourette’s syndrome there are elements of loneliness, unjustness, suffering and sadness in here that everyone can relate to. Bullying, friendship, growing up, family life, ambition, and restriction by circumstance are all things that affect Jimmy as the story progresses, and by the end I found myself very connected to the hero and thus moved by the tale.
McCaffrey’s artwork is arresting throughout this story. Facial expressions and body poses have been used to full advantage to contort Jimmy and depict visually just how little control he has over himself and how unnatural he can appear to the ignorant. Aside from that the full-page illustrations are beautifully coloured and stylised perfectly to reflect the prose. Indeed the prose itself has been displayed in a very visual manner with the use of font, emphasis and colour really helping to drive home just how much Jimmy is restricted and hindered in life by his condition.
In a similar vein, Tidhar’s words are just as important here in helping the reader to understand Tourette’s syndrome, and thus to understand Jimmy and empathise with his situation. There are some fantastic lines in this novel, which I would just be spoiling to quote them here without their visual counterpart. The essence of this book is that the words are in the art and the art is in the words; together they are more powerful than any other method I have seen before to both educate a reader and provoke an emotional response at the same time.
I highly recommend Going to the Moon, as I think there is something in here that every reader will take away with them.
Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, has recently reviewed Jesus & The Eightfold Path:
Jesus and the Eightfold Path began life as an irreverent brain-nugget: the story of kung-fu Jesus. The final result is less cheeky than you might imagine, fusing classical Chinese novel Journey to the West with the life of Christ as recounted in the New Testament. Plenty of liberties are taken, of course; in Tidhar’s take Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing (“Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy”) do not travel to India to protect the Bodhisattva on his quest to retrieve sacred scrolls but instead voyage to Judea to find the child who is the reincarnation of the Buddha. They are the three wise men who witnessed the newborn Christ, although in this version they eschew excessive wisdom, preferring to indulge vices: food, fighting, women, the usual heroic stuff. The story spans the life of Christ from before birth to shortly after his death, touching upon many of the most memorable Biblical fables – overturning the tables of the moneylenders, now with added kung fu; his love affair with Cleopatra, which was definitely in there somewhere; and ruining the livelihood of local farmers by filling their pigs with demons.
The book is a characteristic example of Tidhar’s writing and storytelling; it repurposes the mythic with a deft touch that retains some degree of familiarity yet introduces enough difference to produce a stark sense of contrast. It also has his characteristic lightness of tone juxtaposed with gravitas and respect for his subject matter. It’s rarely wildly funny but produces plenty of wry smiles. Readers who enjoy laughter lines will find this book does actually crease them up.
However, it inevitably feels episodic; a side-effect of re-telling the life of Christ in under 70 pages. We leap from one set-piece to another and Jesus rarely feels like more than the fulcrum around which the story pivots; even his kung-fu skills provide only intermittent thrills. Still, Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy prove to be fun characters, Roman-Judean agent Josephus Flavius helps lend the last act some thematic weight and the conclusion rings true to its Judaic and Buddhist roots. As a story it could have been longer but that may have led the concept to overstay its welcome. As a result we have this enjoyable compromise.
SF critic Cheryl Morgan reviews Osama, calling it
a phenomenal achievement. I’d have no hesitation recommending it to a wide audience, because it is just the sort of science fiction that a mainstream audience would find easily accessible.
The Weekly Take reviews Osama:
In his new novel, Osama, Lavie Tidhar does something extraordinary: he takes the War on Terror and puts it in a pulp novel. That might sound dangerously insensitive to anyone who has lost someone in terrorist bombings or in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Tidhar treats his subject matter with sensitivity and the weight it deserves. … Osama is a wonderfully crafted alternate noir-ish tale that, despite its subject matter and its meta-flips, actually works. I highly recommend this.