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Yes Please Recommend Me Some More Books

Bjørn Stærk, June 2008

The last time I recommended books I asked you not to think of them as obligatory reading. But if you did, and if you bought and read them all, you'd be finished and out of reading material right about now, so here are some more books for you to read, or wish you had the time to read, or feel relieved for already having read. I do this because I want to help you. Evil plays only a very small part of it.

Martin Millar - Lonely Werewolf Girl (2008)

"Doesn't Apthalia the Grim spend her time waiting on quiet roads, trying to ambush lonely travellers?" asked Thrix.
"Not so much now," answered Malveria. "These days she's more interested in fashion. And since she had her warts removed and her nose done, and started buying clothes from Dior, rather than simply robbing the corpses of her victims, she is not so bad looking."

The girl of the title is an anorectic drug addict, the most pathetic teenage werewolf in the history of teenage werewolves. Having killed her father the king of the Scottish werewolves, Kalix runs away to London to starve herself to death, while her dysfunctional werewolf family fights it out for the royal succession. Funny stuff. No, really, this novel is hysterical. Not just because it all gets mixed up with characters from a generic fantasy realm who fight wars on the battlefield of fashionable clothing, (in one of the first scenes the Queen of the Fire Elementals storms into the office of her London fashion designer in rage because the heel of her shoe broke as she ascended a volcano to perform a ritual sacrifice), but that's part of it. Read it to learn why you should just say no to laudanum - and because you miss Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And don't be angry with Millar for making writing seem so easy, it's not his fault that he's brilliant.

Norman Spinrad - Bug Jack Barron (1969)

"Kiss me, and you'll live forever. You'll be a frog, but you'll live forever."

The 60's is long over, and all the old heroes have sold out. Some have sold out to television, and some to politics, and they've all sold out to capitalism. This is the unlikely premise of Bug Jack Barron, the novel that gave Norman Spinrad a name in science fiction. Moving quickly on from the "this isn't science fiction he got everything right ha ha" jokes, Bug Jack Barron is about Death. Not the cute Pratchett character, but the "closing circle", the end of everything, forever. And it's about what you would give to buy a cure for death. Spinrad's answer is that you would give pretty much anything, beginning with your integrity. Stoic bravado aside, I think he may be right. Spinrad invented his own television-in-writing style for Bug Jack Barron which comes out sounding like the rambling of a beat poet. Don't think of this as misguided, think of it as authentic 60s gibberish in the spirit of McLuhan. The main character Jack Barron, an unscrupulous television talk show host with a hundred million viewers, may have inspired Howard Beale in Network, and definitely inspired two real-life right-wing talk show hosts, to the annoyance of the left-wing Spinrad.

Robert Heinlein - Space Cadet (1948) / Red Planet (1949)

"Every law that was ever written opened up a new way to graft."

The more I read of Heinlein, the more I admire him as a writer. His early "juvenile" (or Young Adult) novels are not as explosive as his later classics, but that makes the quality of the writing stand out clearer. Red Planet, about repression on Mars, has elements of both Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and is the sort of anti-authoritarian book you'd give your kids in the 50's to prepare them for the 60's, (or would have been hadn't it been censored - make sure you buy the restored edition, give it to your own children to prepare them for the 2010's). Space Cadet, about a culturally sensitive peace corps in space, was both an inspiration for Star Trek, (Gene Roddenberry called it "one of the most significant books in my life"), and an early example of the military sci-fi formula Heinlein perfected in Starship Troopers. While none of these books are the best Heinlein wrote, they are superior in at least one area in that he managed to keep his all-knowing grandpa characters under control. Had Red Planet been written 20 years later, Doctor MacRea would have been a main character, 30 years later he would have been the entire novel, much of which would be quotes from his diary. That said, my favourite non-classic Heinlein novel is his very late Friday (1982), a brilliant proto-cyberpunk novel. Heinlein's near-invention of cyberpunk is ironic considering that actual cyberpunk grew out of the new wave movement, which saw Heinlein as the great enemy, someone to respect for his abilities but hate for ideological reasons. Hey it was the 60's, people were a lot angrier back then. As for the continued existence of a Heinlein-loathing tradition in the sci-fi kingdom I consider it proof that even this most adventurous segment of the reading public can suffer from lapses of dull respectability, (in other words, Rah, Rah, RAH!, all together now).

Fritz Leiber - The Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories (1939 - 1991)

"The gods have very sharp ears for boasts, or for declarations of happiness and self-satisfaction, or for assertions of a firm intention to do this or that, or for statements that this or that surely must happen, or any other words hinting that a man is in the slightest control of his own destiny. And the gods are jealous, easily angered, perverse, and swift to thwart."

Tolkien did not invent modern fantasy, he only kidnapped it and tricked entire generations of writers into creating flawed copies of his one great novel, much like Sauron with his one great ring fills Middle Earth with orcs. There are other, older traditions, and one of them is sword and sorcery. It was created with Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian in the 1930's, but it took authors like Fritz Leiber to raise the genre from masculine wish fulfillment to something not alltogether ridiculous. In tens of short stories over fifty years, Leiber fleshed out the lives of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, adventurers for hire. Leiber tells his stories with a sense of wry amusement at the horrors he puts his heroes through. Conan takes charge and wins the day, Fafhrd and the Mouser are kicked around by gods, wizards, women and other strange and unpredictable forces, and when they do win the day (or more likely barely survive it) it is often by pure luck. The plotting is symmetrical: Fafhrd is hired by a wizard to steal the mask of Death; so is Mouser. One gets mixed up with the plots of the god Odin; the other with Loki. One settles down with the love of his life; so does the other. This deliberate artificiality is part of what makes the stories so charming. It is never played for laughs, but it doesn't take itself seriously either. Many stories take place in Lankhmar, a city that readers familiar with Ankh-Morpork will feel right at home in, and in fact readers of many dreadful murder-weapon-sized tomes as well. Leiber has been almost as influential as Tolkien, and perfection in fantasy dreck is achieved by basing the overall plot on Lord of the Rings and the cities on Lankhmar.

Mary Gentle - Grunts! (1995) / Harvard Lampoon - Bored of the Rings (1969)

"Pass me another elf, sergeant, this one's split!"

Bored of the Rings is a fine old parody of Lord of the Rings, and is exactly like the original except it is a twentieth of the length and has characters with names like Dildo Bugger, upon learning which you'll know instantly whether you'll like it or not. I mention Bored of the Rings mostly because it pionered the concept of halflings as nasty little brutes, which makes it a thematic ancestor of the much better Grunts! by Mary Gentle. Grunts is your basic Excruciating Fantasy Product told from the point of view of the orcs, disposable evil henchmen who get a chance to stand up for their own interests for once. Mary Gentle isn't, so when I say 'point of view of the orcs' I mean you get to sympathize with some really disturbing characters. This is not quite as difficult as it perhaps ought to be, thanks to the forces of Light being uptight snobs, the Dark Lord (who the orcs rebel against) an idiot, and the halflings being as I said nasty little brutes. But then we suspected all this already, didn't we? So read Grunts if you've ever wanted to punch Elrond in the face, (and read Bored of the Rings for more obvious Mad-style jokes like 'Isn't it about time for a deus ex machina?')

On rereading the above reviews I notice that all of the novels are sci-fi and fantasy. This was not intentional, and there can be only two explanations: A) That I read a lot of sf&f, or B) that that's where the best novels are found. This is of course a false dichotomy. The answer is both A and B, (he said, cheekily). Another thing: To some people, the word "sci-fi" which I've used here and elsewhere implies stupid/fun tales with laser weapons and space adventures, (ie. Star Wars), and they prefer "science fiction" or SF (or even speculative fiction) for the more serious kind. This distinction makes little sense to me, and probably springs from the defensive attitude of early generations of sci-fi writers, distancing themselves from pulp to get literary cred. (Some were more than defensive - the science fiction writer Harlan Ellison walked out of a TV interview because they called him a science fiction writer, luckily he can't walk out of this sentence.) They never did get the cred, but they did win the war of the public's imagination, along with the other "genres", and so I think we can afford to be a little more magnanimous with our defintions. Ellison, meet Lucas.

Bjørn Stærk, 2008


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