Life on Mars

LIFE ON MARS
By Lori McNulty

None of the stories in this debut collection from Lori McNulty are set on the planet Mars, but nevertheless that destination is invoked in nearly all of them, most often as a way of alluding to feelings of distance and strangeness.

McNulty’s subject matter is grounded in a gritty lower- and working-class reality, but the Martian influence is never far away, sometimes being felt as a gentle tug and other times warping reality in surreal ways. The weirdness is most obvious in stories like “Prey,” where a fellow is directed by a squid to take a cross-continent trip from California to Newfoundland, or “Polymarpussle Takes a Chance,” where the narrator is transformed into an Indian deity. It is also, however, noticeable in McNulty’s style, which often goes for jarring metaphors rather than gentle similes. Sentences like this keep the reader on their toes: “Midnight is a flame tip in my skunky mouth, loitering near the Albert Street underpass, watching cars spit out of this shadow hole.” “Markus was a broken bridge over a spent creek.” “Tu’s thin and crooked, a dark, jagged line against the chalky white kitchen.”

“Metaphor” etymologically refers to a carrying over or across, and in its direct equation of one thing with another it performs an act of metamorphosis. McNulty’s style suits her theme here as metamorphosis is very much in the air. In “Ticker” a heart transplant recipient also becomes the host of the spirit of his deceased donor. In the aforementioned “Polymarpussle” story a man becomes a three-eyed god. In “Gindelle of the Abbey” a married member of the bourgeoisie transforms himself into a homeless man through the power of wardrobe and makeup. And in the best story, “Monsoon Season,” the main character is a new woman recovering from gender reassignment surgery she’s had done in Thailand.

People start off as one thing and end up something else, adding to a pervading sense of alienation and strangeness. You never know where you’re going with these stories, nor, after they’re over, can you be sure of where you’ve been.

The collection’s other focus is on relationships, and the way personal bonds are tested and transformed along with all the other changes going on. There is no “normal” state in play but only dysfunctional families and mid-life crises. And again we feel the call of the strange. The story “WOOF” draws its title from an acronym, “Wild Ones Over Forty,” and it deals with a woman of a certain age having a breakdown that seems to end in her going feral in an almost supernatural way, as though she’s become a lycanthrope.

Alienated from their significant others, and even to some degree from life on this planet, many of the characters are themselves off-putting. However, we feel, if not sympathy, then at least a kind of respect for their powers to adapt and endure in such unstable environments.

Notes:
Review first published in Quill & Quire, May 2017.

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The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

THE RISE AND FALL OF D.O.D.O.
By Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland

Successful collaborations between novelists are rare, as they require a meeting not just of minds but of voices to avoid becoming awkward.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland is one such successful hybrid. It’s also more than the sort of time-travel story you’d expect from the collaboration between an SF author and a writer of historical novels.

Instead of a hybrid, it’s like a variety show: a comic-romance serial with SF, historical, and fantasy elements. Even the time machine – or Chronoton, as it’s styled here – is an incongruous mix of ideas: inspired by the quantum box that Schrödinger’s cat was stuck in, but powered by witchcraft.

Yes, witchcraft. Magic and science are working, if not hand-in-glove, then at least on parallel tracks in a kind of time-travel arms race. How it all works is left deliberately woolly, but the analogy that’s invoked the most is that of time as a bundle of threads representing different streams that can be accessed at certain points, and even disastrously “sheared” if there is a significant disruption. When this happens it’s as though reality turns to Jell-O and a knife is cutting through it.

The main thread of the novel is set in a timeline just slightly off-kilter from our own and tells the story of D.O.D.O., which stands for the Department of Diachronic Operations (it’s a military operation, and their love of acronyms is a running gag). Tristan Lyons is the hunky intelligence officer who gets D.O.D.O. up and running and Melisande Stokes is the brainy student of ancient linguistics who is his first hire. It turns out linguistics is a handy field of study when journeying into the past. As is skill at sword fighting.

The plot is whimsical and chaotic. D.O.D.O. operatives are sent to various points in the past – 17th century New England, Elizabethan London, Constantinople back when it was still called Constantinople – on bizarre missions that have them running afoul of a powerful banking consortium and a coven of witches who might not be the helpful kind.

It’s all mindless fun, but ‘tis the season for beach reads and books for the cottage. Crack the covers and the time will seem to slip away.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star June 23, 2017.

The Accusation

THE ACCUSATION
By Bandi

Fiction in the English-speaking world is mostly post-political, perhaps recognizing that it can’t compete with the spectacle of a reality-TV star as president of the United States, and perhaps just because there are so few meaningful differences between the major parties in our democracies. We have novels that address individual political issues, but few that are interested in exploring the nature and operation of government and the role of the state in our lives.

The fact that The Accusation is the first work of fiction to be smuggled out of North Korea, and had to be published under a pseudonym (“Bandi” means “firefly”), gives some indication of just how different a world North Korea is.

The Accusation takes us across a deep cultural as well as political border. Even the texture of the writing, which has been translated by Deborah Smith – a British translator of Korean fiction who was a co-winner of the Man Booker International Prize last year – gives us a chilly sense of the Cold War era. Bandi is a realistic writer, but from a twenty-first century Western perspective it may seem like he’s describing some dark fantasy set in Mordor, or a futuristic dystopia.

The stories, written between 1989 and 1995, constitute a passionate J’accuse: a political polemic written against North Korea’s communist dictatorship, headed at the time by the “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung (grandfather of North Korea’s current leader, Kim Jong-un).

The picture Bandi draws is unrelievedly grim. His stories have been compared to Solzhenitsyn’s revelation of life in the Gulag system, with the main difference being that in The Accusation all of North Korea has been turned into a giant prison labour camp. Fear has to be instilled at birth if one is going to survive (a process we see happening in the most disturbing story, “City of Specters”). It is a state choked by tyranny, “a den of evil magic, where cries of pain and sadness were wrenched from the mouths of its people and distorted into laughter,” “a barren desert, a place where life withers and dies!”

As you can tell from this, the political message is not subtle. The stories make it painfully clear how awful life in North Korea is, with grinding poverty and an economy that at times seems little advanced from the Stone Age. Key themes are the family divided against itself, a world turned upside-down, and false appearance (or propaganda) vs. reality.

The word “totalitarian” gets thrown around a lot these days, which makes it worth seeing what living under such a regime looks like from the inside. The essential point is that the party is everywhere, controlling every aspect of the lives of the people that we meet, mainly through the operation of an army of minor officials that make up a petty and at times sadistic bureaucracy. These functionaries are sinister, alien figures, almost impossible for a Western audience to understand. We certainly have our own time-serving bureaucrats and corporate drones, but the party officials in these stories are totally dehumanized creatures of the state. These are people who have lost their souls.

Big Brother is firmly in charge, and black is white, light is dark. This disjunction between truth and lie is hammered home again and again, beginning with a prefatory poem where Bandi talks of communism’s promised “world of light” and how it has resulted in North Korea’s “truly fathomless darkness, black as a moonless night at the year’s end.” In case you miss the point, which won’t be easy, each story usually winds up with a trumpet blast of climactic rhetoric aimed at the cruelty of the regime and the monstrous hypocrisy of its ideology.

There’s a famous satellite photograph of the Korean peninsula at night that shows North Korea as an empty gap sandwiched between a brightly lit South Korea below and China above. It’s as though the country is a black hole from which even information cannot escape. The Accusation is an angry book, composed in “pure indignation,” but it shines a necessary light on what remains one of the darkest places on Earth.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star March 12, 2017.

The Winter Family

THE WINTER FAMILY
By Clifford Jackman

The de-mythologizing of the Wild West in popular culture began with the Italian “Spaghetti Westerns” of the 1960s. These movies eschewed the idealized and heroic Hollywood vision of the West and instead emphasized violence, moral ambiguity, and dirty realism.

The Italian influence continues to this day on both screen and page. In literature it reached a zenith with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, the operatic saga of a bunch of brutal outlaws blazing a path of murder and destruction across the nineteenth-century American frontier.

Clifford Jackman’s The Winter Family is very much a work in this same vein (Jackman names McCarthy as an important influence), and closely follows Blood Meridian with its story of a gang of psychopaths led by an almost mystical figure named Augustus Winter. Winter, like McCarthy’s Judge, is a Nietzschean superman who represents a brutal natural philosophy beyond good or evil, justice or law. As one early witness to Winter’s nihilistic “force of will” puts it: “What could you do with will like that? Where would it take you? What could stop you? How would it all end?”

Where it takes Winter and his adopted “family” is through an episodic plot that has them first joining together during Sherman’s march through Georgia, resurfacing to play a role in the murderous Chicago ward politics of the 1870s, fighting both natives and settlers in Phoenix and Oklahoma, and finally arriving, at least in some spiritual afterlife, in a California landscape dotted with oil derricks.

Such a broad canvas means that in addition to being a rousing novel full of exciting action sequences, Jackman’s book is also offering an interpretation of American history. His characters can even get rather talky when it comes to presenting their thoughts on the matter. At bottom, however, is the fairly simple notion that the Winter family are the manifest destiny of American culture and Darwinian capitalism in microcosm. They don’t represent the last breath of freedom before the closing of the frontier so much as the germ from which the larger chaos that is “civilization” will follow.

Jackman can’t match McCarthy’s overwrought rhetorical style, but he has nevertheless written a book that stands in that company, which is high praise indeed. It’s a philosophical Spaghetti Western that doesn’t stint on the tomato sauce, served up with flair.

Notes:
Review first published in Quill & Quire, April 2015.

A Desolate Splendor

A DESOLATE SPLENDOR
By John Jantunen

It may have become too easy now to invoke the name of Cormac McCarthy when discussing a certain strain of contemporary fiction, but when the shoe fits such comparisons are unavoidable.

John Jantunen’s second novel is firmly set in McCarthy country. The time and place are indeterminate, but the social, physical, and linguistic landscape are very much borrowed from the master.

A great war, or some such collapse, has destroyed civilization and thrust humanity several hundred, or even thousand, years back into a preindustrial, indeed barely agricultural, wasteland. It is a reflex American frontier, with the course of empire running in reverse over a burnt-over district of mythic savagery.

The figures in this landscape have degenerated in a similar way. They are not intellectual or spiritual beings, their morality scarcely advanced beyond Bronze Age concepts of loyalty to one’s family or one’s hounds. There is no God in heaven but only “the desolate splendor of the world beyond ours,” meaning the stars. Meanwhile, back on Earth, life has been reduced to the rudiments of survival: gathering food, rutting, and fighting off wild animals (including murderous tribes of other, even further devolved humans).

The language has the poetic twang of McCarthy’s folksy-archaic-Biblical style. It sounds like this: “Above the camp, the moon peered through a haze drift of smoke and the stars were but motes coruscate against the void, indifferent and laggard in their contemplation of the mortal world below.” A man stands beneath these stars in “sullen recompose,” listening to a woman “break into baleful lamentations.” The direct speech – unencumbered, as in McCarthy, with quotation marks – is rendered in a rustic dialect that’s a generation removed from book learnin’. One of the characters complains that “I’ma tryin ta read” when in fact he is only describing pictures in books.

This is the world of A Desolate Splendor, and if it sounds like a McCarthy novel, right down to the archetypal characters – centrally, “the man” and “the boy” – that’s still some achievement.

In addition, however, Jantunen is a talented storyteller in his own right, with a real gift for describing the richness and magical qualities of the natural world. There is something remarkably romantic and pagan in his evocation of the post-Apocalyptic wilderness. Though the characters seem at times to be little advanced from the mud or trees they emerge from, that natural environment is itself a thrilling, animistic place, where even the rocks seem to have a monstrous life of their own and “frogsong trill[s] in a nebulous thunder.”

The story is an odd piece of work, consisting of several different narrative blocks that bump into each other in bloody ways. The main characters are the boy and his father, who are homesteaders. The other groups include a gang of desperadoes, a pair of neo-native warriors, and a gathering of female breed stock. Also in the mix are feral packs of humanity who decorate their bodies with bones and paint. Instead of resolution the novel moves toward an affirmation of continuity, albeit at the lowest level of the continuance of the species. Civilization doesn’t seem likely to experience a rebound.

As familiar as some of this terrain has become, A Desolate Splendor surveys it with bleak confidence: a forceful, visionary novel written in passionate and sensual language.

Notes:
Review first published in Quill & Quire, December 2016.

Take Us to Your Chief

TAKE US TO YOUR CHIEF AND OTHER STORIES
By Drew Hayden Taylor

Drew Hayden Taylor admits that “First Nations and science fiction don’t usually go together.” In the popular imagination they tend to occupy different mythic poles, making Native science fiction a “literary oxymoron.”

Taylor, however, is a fan of hybrids and so took up the challenge of wedding the two. As with most mash-ups the tone is mostly comic, playing off of incongruities. The idea that dream catchers might be part of a mind-control conspiracy is just one example. Because let’s face it, there has to be some sinister explanation for their popularity, doesn’t there?

The dream-catcher story has serious undertones though, reflecting Native distrust of government agencies. The best science fiction always hooks into contemporary issues in this way, its vision of the future a commentary on the present. And so Taylor is able to weave familiar SF tropes together with traditional Native narratives throughout, as with the experience of “first contact.” This is a story Natives have heard before, so they’re immediately on their guard when the alien Zxsdcf arrive. Do these visitors want to make treaties with Earth, or just go for genocide?

There may also be a deeper philosophical message involved in Taylor’s hybrids. In several stories the idea of animism is introduced, the belief that everything is alive or has a soul. One young man’s suicide is even derailed by the various objects in his bedroom coming to life, led by an old toy robot named Mr. Gizmo.

Such a world view is very different from that of SF, which is more driven by technology than a spiritual kinship with nature. The story “Lost in Space” plays with this contrast, portraying a Native astronaut named Mitchell who feels out of touch with Native traditions in an environment where everything, even the gravity, is manufactured and artificial.
Like all of us, Mitchell is lost in modernity, drifting alone through space, unattached to anything real. And yet it’s his shipboard Artificial Intelligence that comes to Mitchell’s rescue by providing Aboriginal drum music and old videos of his discussions with his grandfather in order to overcome his sense of rootlessness and isolation.

Finding links to our past in the future will be an important task. And for good or ill, technology will have to be our guide.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star October 9, 2016.

Minds of Winter

MINDS OF WINTER
By Ed O’Loughlin

When the wrecks of the expeditionary ships HMS Erebus and Terror, lost while searching for the Northwest Passage in the mid-nineteenth century, were finally discovered (in 2014 and 2016 respectively), it was an event that marked the final mapping of some of the most mysterious geography in the Canadian subconscious.

The fate of the Franklin expedition is one of this country’s founding cultural myths, its very mysteriousness adding to its historical resonance. At the end of Ed O’Loughlin’s Minds of Winter the two main characters – Nelson Nilsson and Fay Morgan – watch a news story about the discovery of the Erebus on a television in a bar in Inuvik. The bartender responds in a manner that goes a long way to summing up the novel’s theme: “So that’s the end of that,” he says bitterly. “HMS Erebus. They had to go and find her. They had to solve a perfectly good mystery.”

What makes a mystery “perfectly good” is its power to work upon our imaginations. The search for Franklin’s missing ships did more to map the Arctic than Franklin himself ever could have on his own, and the mystery of what happened to his expedition has been an abiding subject in Canadian arts and letters. If the history of exploration is the story of a shrinking world, Franklin’s expedition offered, in O’Loughlin’s formulation, “something magical, a hole in the map, an escape from dull causality.”

Nelson and Fay aren’t explorers but they are both detectives. Nelson is looking for his brother, who has disappeared. Fay is looking for information relating to her grandfather. The two investigations are connected by a mysterious object, a nineteenth-century chronometer thought to have been lost with Franklin. More broadly, both are engaged in a “search for meaning,” a way of making sense out of the siren call of the north. But their researches only turn up “fragments, or footnotes, of some vision shimmering beyond their sight.” They may be chasing a myth as much as a mystery, the sort of thing Pierre Berton meant when he called his book on Arctic exploration The Arctic Grail (a work that O’Loughlin credits as his own chief research source).

The narrative structure is likened to that of the chronometer. As Fay continues her investigations she has “a vision of clockwork, of wheels within wheels, the hint of bigger wheels lurking behind them.” We skip forward and back in time, meeting figures famous and unknown, many of whom turn out to be related in eerie ways, their “stories converging at the poles, like meridians.” As with most modern novels dealing with such arcane connections there is also the hint of a conspiracy behind it all, with government agents, coded messages, secret devices, and obscure references to a Room 38.

The scope is truly epic, taking us literally from pole to pole and covering 175 years of history. Time present follows the investigations of Nelson and Fay, but the chapters take us back to earlier events involving people like old Sir John Franklin himself, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (another famous disappearing act), and the Mad Trapper of Rat River (whose identity remains to this day a point of speculation). The story also takes different narrative forms, ranging from newspaper reports to letters to a more conventional third-person.

There’s nothing unorthodox about any of this, though it’s certainly ambitious. Nor does O’Loughlin experiment much in the way of style, beyond presenting a story supposedly written by Jack London and taken from his unfinished memoir that’s done in a credible imitation of London’s voice. Instead of stylistic pyrotechnics there’s an economy of language and grounding in physical detail, casting a cold eye on the spare, climatically-determined human environment and making us feel the kidney-clamping cold and lungs lacerated by the “razor-blade air.” The title comes from the Wallace Stevens poem “The Snow Man” and there is a general sense built up throughout of his listener who beholds the “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Emptiness, absence, and mystery are pregnant with meaning.

O’Loughlin may present us with a mystery, or really several mysteries, without a solution, but closure is not the goal. In fact, closure is something to be avoided. The point is not to tie up the loose ends. It’s fitting that Nelson and Fay, both “prisoners of the north” in Pierre Berton’s phrase, are finally absorbed into the story, their identities dissolving as they themselves become mysterious footnotes in a new legend, conspiracy, or myth. Minds of Winter is a novel as much interested in unofficial as official histories, with people who slip through the cracks as in heroes. And it doesn’t want to ruin a perfectly good mystery.

Notes:
Review first published in Quill & Quire, January 2017.