Thursday, February 4, 2010

Man-eating Toilets and Flowers with Faces

Novels:

Irrational Fears by William Browning Spencer (1998): I can't think of many funny, sad novels involving Alcoholics Anonymous, a thinly veiled Church of Scientology, and the dangers of thinking H.P. Lovecraft was writing fact rather than fiction, but this would be one such novel. An organization called The Clear (cue Scientology alarm whistle -- 'becoming clear' is a major catchphrase in Scientology) has taken it upon itself to try to discredit Alcoholics Anonymous by advancing the 'theory' that alcohol and drug addiction are actually the result of a transferable psychic curse cast upon certain humans by dark alien gods.

The Clear is actually a front for one man's completely bizarre obsession with discrediting and destroying AA while also perhaps bringing about global armageddon as well. Much of The Clear's mythology is lifted wholesale from the H.P. Lovecraft revision "The Mound", which appears in The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions, a Lovecraft collection I reviewed about a month ago. It's amazing how these things come together!

The mythology I'm referring to above is the monster stuff and not the AA stuff. HP Lovecraft did not write stories about aliens causing alcoholism.

In any event, an oddball assortment of AA members that includes a fallen American Literature professor, an angry old coot who's been sober for 68 years and a late middle-aged man who may actually be some sort of retired US secret agent come together to try to figure out what The Clear is up to, and how to stop it before it plunges the U.S. into telepathically induced anarchy.

Irrational Fears is pretty much its own book, though Spencer certainly shares certain traits with Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut. A previous novel, Resume with Monsters, managed to suggest The Cthulhu Mythos meets The Office, an impressive feat given that The Office was still several years in the future when that novel came out in 1995. Highly recommended.


The Shadow of the Torturer (Part One of The Book of the New Sun) by Gene Wolfe (1980): Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun tetralogy is probably the most critically praised science fiction or fantasy series of the last 30 years, both in genre circles and in the mainstream press. Set so far into the future that technology has become, in some cases, indistinguishable from magic, the series ends up being somewhat unclassifiable. 'Science fiction', 'fantasy' or that handy hybrid 'science fantasy'? That it often more resembles the works of Voltaire, Rabelais and Jonathan Swift just makes classification that much more pointless. It may contain many of the rough plot stages of an epic quest, and the overall arc of a bildungsroman, and so on and so forth, but it is its own thing in the end, an enjoyable, deeply weird and challenging thing on pretty much every level one can think of.

The bare-bones plot of this first novel in the series is quite simple: Severian, a young member of the Torturers' Guild is cast out of the guild to find his way in the world after he shows mercy to a prisoner. The planet he lives on, Urth, appears to be our Earth so far into the future that the sun is going out and all the coloured glass of our era now covers certain beaches with coloured grains of sand. Technology and biotechnology have advanced to such a point that certain events seem like magic. And some members of humanity long ago left for the stars, while on Urth the rulers have decided to purposefully retrogress society to a quasi-medieval state, albeit one in which the more learned citizens are well aware that their society's structure is wholly imposed and artificially retrograde. Somewhat bizarrely, that last sentence makes me think of a number of Islamicist nations. Oh, well.

Severian's adventures here sometimes baroque, sometimes whimsical, and always prone at any instant to plunging into the starkest matters of life and death. Though the Torturer's Guild operates entirely at the whims of the rulers of Severian's nation, the torturers themselves are despised and shunned by most who meet them. Or at least they used to be. By Severian's time, society's institutions and the general knowledge of them have declined to the extent that many greet him as a wonder, especially the farther he gets from the center of the great city. He meets companions" some of them loyal, some of them treacherous. And as Part One ends, he and his companions reach the edge of the great city and pass beyond its cyclopean walls to the countryside beyond. Highest recommendation.

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