Books »The Book of the New Sun

The Book of the New Sunby Gene Wolfe (1980 – 1983)

Gene Wolfe‘s imagination is truly formidable. A industrial engineer (and devoted Catholic) who has become a living SF legend, Wolfe’s work is rich, dense, and not always exactly what I’m looking for. But that’s no slight: when Wolfe’s writing what I want to read, it’s amazing; when he’s not, it’s still fine, it just tends to get a bit… overly complicated and less than satisfying – but a return to form is always just a few pages away.

Brittany will be posting her impressions of Wolfe’s early short story compilation, The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories and Other Stories (not a typo, FYI), and I imagine her take on Wolfe will be equally conflicted.

But the Book of the New Sun is the big one: the magnum opus (he’s since spun off a coda and two additional series, the Book of the Long Sun and the Book of the Short Sun).

The four novels that make up the tetralogy are packed so densely with episodes alternately incredibly compelling and kind of… kind of like you just want to get through them as quickly as you can, that, sitting here now recalling the bits I remember, I’m truly astounded at the way the story is so compartmentalized in my brain.

The plot unfolds in a distant future inspired by the work of the writer who has appeared more times then any other on this blog, the great Jack Vance. The first novel, the Shadow of the Torturer, opens with its protag, Severian (who is blessed/cursed with a perfect memory), serving as an apprentice in the guild of torturers. His kind of weirdly idyllic childhood is interrupted by a key chance meeting in the nearby necropolis and the professional discipline he’ll expertly develop over the next few years is kind of slow-burn compromised.

While I suppose I could offer a more comprehensive plot synopsis, I’d really be doing everyone (particularly you, dear reader) a disservice. Suffice to say, a lot happens very quickly: Severian makes a judgement call that ultimately results in his exile from Nessus (the capital city), is challenged to an alien poison flower duel, demolishes a church, meets a young lady who’s been submerged in (for lack of a better description) internment water for who knows how long, meets another young lady who’s definitely hiding something, gets a crazy note from a bus boy, and becomes aquatinted with a fairly unique traveling acting troupe. Oh, and he’s given an awesome sword called Terminus Est and dispatched to a place called Thrax: the city of windowless rooms.

Click here for the rest of The Book of the New Sun

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Posted on December 6, 2009

Hunks »Spock

spockIllogically Attractive, Sir

I’ve never been into Star Trek, but I enjoyed the latest movie much more than I expected. Even more unexpectedly, I found myself totally understanding Uhura’s need to love and kiss all over Spock – even if, I assume, it would almost be like dating someone with autism. When I thought about it more, it’s not even necessarily the strangely appealing Quinto that’s the allure, (though I am beginning to think I’m developing a thing for wildly heavy eyebrows) but perhaps it’s the ears, the logic, and the brow – because if you go back and take another peak at Nimoy’s younger days in the blue suit, you may find him just as lovable as I do.

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Posted on November 29, 2009

Movies »God Told Me To

god told me to coverdirected by Larry Cohen (1976)

Larry Cohen is best known for his campy horror romp The Stuff, but even with that blockbuster under his belt, he’s remained an elusive and under-appreciated filmmaker with a cult fan base only (Jim goes so far as to insist that he’s responsible for the only ‘bearable’ episode of Masters of Horrible). God Told Me To, a cheap low-grade horror movie, will not necessarily win over those of you not already a part of that fan base, but it’s a strangely interesting, audacious and compelling movie for anyone trawling the horror section for something a little off-kilter.

Like many of my favorite horror films, God Told Me To benefits from its small budget, even the grainy and worn out looking film transfer enhances the weird mood. From the opening scenes of a busy Manhattan street suddenly under attack from a rooftop sniper, the movie is propelled by a simple but incredibly effective terror premise: innocent, law abiding people are suddenly (and seemingly randomly) turning into homicidal maniacs. The phenomenon is spreading like a virus, and in the aftermath of the bloodbaths, all the people who have been affected claim that God told them to kill (their spouses, children, neighbors, etc).

It’s a fascinating story and one that with or without credit, I think highly influenced the excellent Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film Cure where a police officer uncovers the strange connection between seemingly normal people committing sudden random murders.

The police officer in this film is played by Tony Lo Bianco, who I was thrilled to see from Honeymoon Killers. Other familiar faces are here as well, including Sandy Dennis (from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf), Andy Kaufman (against type as a police man and mass murderer), and Sylvia Sidney (who I recognized instantly as the old lady who blows smoke out of her open neck in Beetlejuice).

There’s a straightforwardness and lack of melodrama to the direction which can be refreshing but is just as frequently a flaw; the lack of accentuated drama can make the latter half of the film drag, and huge elements of the plot are simply skimmed over… and what a plot it is! Quite daringly, it’s ultimately a movie about an alien evil Jesus with Cronenbergian elements. Could this have been made into a better film? Probably, but I doubt many would dare to.

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Posted on November 15, 2009

TV Shows »The Last Enemy

last enemywritten by Peter Berry (2008)

I wrongly assumed this available-on-Netflix-instant BBC miniseries would be boring and dry, but The Last Enemy is a taut thriller set in a slightly altered modern day where surveillance in the name of protection has become sci-fi-ishly all encompassing.

While the reluctant hero is such a cliche at this point, the archetype is masterfully written and played by Benedict Cumberpatch (a British name if I ever heard one) as an uptight, anti-social germaphobe – perhaps the least likely person to become embroiled in the political mess that his recently killed brother has left behind.

Small mysteries lead to larger ones, and while the series has a bit of a hard time making all the answers satisfying and sustaining the suspense of the first part, it’s over all a truly smart and compelling piece with layers of surprises and intrigue. It’s quite long, so it works perfectly for a hung over Sunday, so long as you have the brain power to follow the action and plot twists.

Click here for the rest of The Last Enemy

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Posted on November 15, 2009

Movies »Slaughterhouse Five

slaughterhouse fiveKurt Vonnegut is an utterly beloved author by anyone that's discovered his equally humorous and gravely poignant novels, but he is rarely given satisfactory adaptation to screen. His time traveling anti war sensation Slaughterhouse Five, adapted in 1972 by George Roy Hill, is an exception.

It's been many years since I read the book, but the film to my memory seems to capture the languid fatalism and realistic surrealism of the book personified perfectly by the toothy smiled, calm voiced Michael Sacks as Billy Pilgrim. Even Vonnegut is a fan, which is rare among novelists of their big screen interpretations. He said “I drool and cackle every time I watch that film, because it is so harmonious with what I felt when I wrote the book.”

The cinematography is appropriately lovely considering Miroslav Ondricek (Amadeus) is behind the camera, and the exceptional Glenn Gould supplies the Bach. While the film may not have captured the intricacies of the novel, it captures the essence and gets one in the mood to re-read his novels (for some of us for a third time).

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Posted on September 28, 2009

Books »The Demon Princes

If you don't know how much I adore the work of Jack Vance, you obviously just have not been listening to me! The Demon Princes, two volumes collecting five novellas written between 1964 and 1981, are my favorites second only to the middle books collected in Tales of the Dying Earth (the absolutely phenomenal Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel's Saga). I've only been holding off on recommending them here, on Brix Picks, until I had a chance to re-read them and write while their fresh in my mind, but over the years they've been passed around to all my friends and I just haven't had the chance.

The four novellas chronicling the vengeful exploits of Kirth Gersen as he seeks to destroy a cabal of high powered, shadowy, inter-planetary criminals known only as the Demon Princes in the wake of the massacre of his home planet match up so perfectly with this week's vengeance-based extreme movie, Oldboy, that I'm positive the authors of the Manga Park Chan-wook's film was based on were heavily influenced by Vance's stories.

Over the course of 850 action-packed pages, Gersen manages to find (and attempts to kill) each one of the gangsters on his hit list in exponentially brilliant ways that involve, among other things, a high school reunion, a planet that's turned kidnapping into a safe and reliable business, weirdo art parties on old Earth, rare and possibly deadly culinary delicacies, and a maniacal plan involving the restructuring of a moon… And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

To give away too much of the plot would be totally unfair as the real thrill of any Vance work is watching the intricate and often extremely surprising plots rapidly unfold and reveling in his witty and wildly imaginative brand of speculative social engineering. Just writing about this series is making me really want to read it again – this is one of my all-time favorites.

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Posted on September 7, 2009

Books »Galactic Effectuator

galactic effectuatorWhen you're dealing with a writer like Jack Vance (probably the most recommended author on this blog), even his minor entries read like major feats of awesomeness compared to most books you will read.?Galactic Effectuator is a slender compilation of two novellas about Miro Hetzel, a private detective willing to take on cases that take him to the furthest reaches of his galaxy.

The first story takes us way out to the absolute edge of the Gaean Reach (the region of space containing planets civilized by humanity) to a planet called Maz, a border planet overseen by an uneasy alliance of alien cultures inhabited by a most interesting and unusual race of native warriors called the Gomaz. Maz is a stopping point for rogues, people who want to disappear and tourists who consider themselves 'adventure travelers' longing to catch a glimpse of the bloody, ritualistic and regular Gomaz inter-tribal battles.

Hetzle heads to Maz to uncover the truth behind corporate espionage and meets a surly assassin driven nearly insane by an elaborate prank and an intriguing lady he wouldn't mind taking out on a date.

The second book concerns a much more personal matter when a man, after being drugged and abducted, realizes his manhood has been surgically replaced with someone else's, making it impossible to sire his own children. immediately (and correctly) suspecting his wife's former suitor, the mad surgeon Faurence Dacre, he turns to Hetzle for help.

Hetzle makes for a charming, witty sleuth in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes. He even gathers all the players in a room at the end as he announces his findings. Set in the always brilliant world of Vance's imagination, the fusion of detective and fantasy genres is absolutely delightful.

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Posted on July 6, 2009

Movies »Born in Flames

born in flamesYou wouldn't necessarily think an independent, militant lesbian sci fi drama with spoken word poetry would in any way be a watchable, let alone an enjoyable cinematic experience, but the vibrant Born in Flames defied my expectations. Director Lizzie Borden tackles racism, sexism, and intelligent political theories in this, one of her few films that features a young Kathryn Bigelow (of Point Break directorial fame and heartthrob of my husband's) who's a bit awkward on screen, but most of the cast of quite beautiful and strong women are surprisingly natural as far as independent cinema goes (and we all know how it can go).

The plot is simple yet complex in terms of its ideas about socialist democracies and women armies. There's been a peaceful second American revolution, yet minorities and women are still disenfranchised and begin to take to the airwaves and streets to bring the system down. What it lacks in solid story structure it more than makes up for in dynamic energy. It features some great music, memorable imagery, and a devoted cult following – and it's available instantly through Netflix.

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Posted on June 22, 2009

Books »China Mountain Zhang

china mountain zhangAfter a serious economic downturn in America that effects the global economy (sound familiar?) proletariat rebellions have led to China's global communist domination and America becoming nearly a third world country. China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F. McHugh's debut novel, is more speculative science fiction than the over the top adventure you might associate with the genre and a pleasure to read.

The protagonist, Zhang is a gay man growing up as an ABC (American Born Chinese) who finds himself traveling through the socialist paths of a new world. These lead him to the Arctic circle, the communes of Coney Island, in contact with the settlements on Mars, and to the relative luxury of a Daoist Chinese college.

Stories from other characters intertwine with his journey including a tough as nails Martian colonist, a kite flying athlete, and a despondent lover oppressed by the government.

With vivid imagery and believable characters McHugh has created a very lived in future, a “what if?” society that feels as real as our own and just as possible.

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Posted on June 22, 2009

Books »Chocky

john wyndham chockyJohn Wyndham, perhaps most well known for The Day of the Triffids, has left an indelible mark on the world of science fiction. His books always place the unreal and supernatural in very real and identifiable settings, with reasonable characters trying to deal with wild events. His slender novel, Chocky, is a kinder, gentler science fiction tale of a child possessed by an alien… really.

Matthew is a normal boy until one day he creates an imaginary friend named Chocky who empowers the boy with sudden abilities he didn't have before. Doing math problems in binary, drawing with the skill of an accomplished artiste, and learning to swim within minutes – it's strange and disturbing to his parents, but no one can figure out how or why.

While the story is not the most earth shattering, it's nice to read a more optimistic viewpoint of invaders from other planets and I'm sure this was a welcome relief to children afraid of space invaders prepared to suck their brains.

The book led to a popular British television series that envisioned sequels to the book.

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Posted on May 11, 2009

Web Sites »Thoughtcrime Experiments

thoughtcrimes experiments bio breakI heard about Thoughtcrime Experiments from a friend at work who urged me to submit some art for the science fiction anthology. I was excited to have my faux vintage book cover (pictured) chosen by editors Sumana Harihareswara and Leonard Richardson (who got the idea for the project in a dream).

The final selection is a fun collection of nine short fiction pieces and art selected from over 240 submissions. The two editors took great pains to bring what they considered the best to you, and if you're a fan of sci-fi, I hope you'll appreciate it.

Richardson even includes a detailed how-to if you are interested in editing an anthology yourself.

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Posted on May 11, 2009

Books »Secret Dead Men

secret dead man duane swiercynskiJam packed with quirky humor and two fisted action, I wasn't too shocked to learn that Secret Dead Men author Duane Swiercaynski also writes for Marvel comic books; this book was his first foray into fiction, though there've been a few since.

If you're religious, the story reads as a unique (even blasphemous) meditation on the soul and and the nature of after life; if you're not, then it's a metaphysical romp of a noir that even dips into shoot-em-up zombie head exploding territory.

Not the most sophisticated or flowery prose maker, Swiercaynski avoids the too common literary chip that bears down on the shoulder of most science fiction writers who, longing to attain some kind of non-genre validity, rely heavily on overly complex plotting and unsatisfying techniques like naming one character La'ai and another La'iaa. Swiercaynski's choice to write about complex ideas simply makes the book incredibly engaging.

Essentially, the story is about a collector, a man capable of absorbing souls and storing them in his brain (which he fashions into a hotel for their after life comfort). He uses this soul storing talent, plus an ability to change the appearance his face to bring down “the association” a mysterious Vegas force that destroyed his orginal body years ago.

The book is a great ride, it's quick and and it's fun and sometimes it even gets away from you a little bit, but somehow it all made a more sense once I started picturing Bruce Campbell as the protagonist.

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Posted on April 27, 2009

Books »A Friend of the Earth

a friend of the earth tc boyleT.C. Boyle specializes in fringe characters, usually misguided and desperate men who go to extreme measures to quelch their boredom, fear, and/or pain. Drop City and After the Plague, both excellent, adhere to this theme and Boyle's ecological disaster tale, 2000's A Friend of the Earth, is no exception.

The story begins in 2025, Ty Tierwater, a former extreme environmental activist, is living in a world created by all the people that refused to listen to him. Most animals and plants have died out, people survive on catfish and sake and the weather fluctuates between intense extremes due to human triggered climate changes. Humanity is not over, just suffering through a hellish, dying planet, sitting in condos as the rest of the world rots or gets washed away in floods.

You want to sympathize with Tierwater. Clearly in the future scenario Boyle has imagined here, he was right all along and yet the author doesn't paint anything black and white; while Tierwater's intentions and beliefs are good, he's not a thoroughly good man, in many ways he's a downright fool and often an asshole.

Skipping through time to tell his story, we meet his second wife Andrea and his daughter Sierra, both big parts of the environmental movement, both hurt in big ways by Tierwater, who believes that to be a friend of the earth, you have to be an enemy of the people, a troubling and complex way to live as a human being.

Once again Boyle, hands down one of my favorite living writers, presents an unflinching look at the intricacies of hot button issues with no easy answers.

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Posted on April 20, 2009

Movies »The Brood

the broodIt's no big surprise to learn that David Cronenberg wrote The Brood during a particularly bitter custody battle. The plot deals with a level-headed dad (played by Art Hindle, who you may recognize from the first Brix Pick Movie recommendation ever, Black Christmas) with great hair, a great winter jacket and Ted Bundy type looks who unwittingly battles the rage incarnate of his crazy ex-wife, a woman who seems wants nothing more than to make him suffer and take his young daughter away.

Like most Cronenberg films, real life pain and suffering, like the bitterness and hatred that can accompany a messy divorce, or the paranoia that can sometimes come with single parenthood, manifest in the stuff of nightmares. You've come to expect some gross out stuff from the Canadian, and he doesn't disappoint in The Brood. Initial audiences flipped out during one scene in particular that involves blood and tongue-grooming.

But the underlying horror is far more effective than simple shock value; it's deeply chilling movie because it takes something generally wholesome and comforting, family, and turns it on its ear. Violence isn't caused by some random psychopath but by mothers, children, doctors and even your own body. It's a great, discomforting movie of, but it does lag in between moments of complete visual terror.

Manly Oliver Reed is lion-like as an experimental psychiatrist who practices (the very Cronenberg sounding) “Psycho Plasmics” in a remote, very 70's, all wood and angles retreat and actress Samantha Eggar plays the crazy woman quite well. Even minor characters, like a neurotic former patient who has complaints (and a huge lymphomic neck) against the doctor is played wonderfully, with real humanity, by Croneberg regular Robert A Silverman.

While The Brood never reaches the peaks of the director's 1983 masterpiece, Videodrome, it's a quieter movie punctuated by extremely effective jolts of violence and tension.

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Posted on April 6, 2009

Books »Showboat World

Showboat World by Jack Vance (1975) This is certainly one of many Jack Vance books I will be recommending. And while this is not my absolute favorite of his – it is one of the most fun. Two wily rogue showboat captains adventure on a planet settled by Earth's misfits.

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Posted on December 12, 2005

TV Shows »V – The Original TV Miniseries

V - The Original TV Miniseries Marc Singer (Beastmaster) plays a tough guy news cameraman convinced that “The Visitors”, humanoid aliens that have landed on our planet led by the beautiful Diana, are evil. Singer is totally right, the Visitors are evil, and they quickly enslave the human race by expertly manipulating the very news station Singer once worked as a photog for. This 3 and a half hour mini series began the whole V cycle, continuing with V – The Final Battle and concluding with V – The Series. Throughout the story, poignant parallels are drawn between the alien regime and Fascist movements of the 20th century, sometime there parallels are a little too poignant (I remember Robin ((who I hate)) having to say goodbye to her grandfather or something equally schmaltzy being a perfect time to order take out). All in all, this series is great, and even though there are some evident shortcoming and the production feels a little bit dated (it was a TV show made in 80s, after all), this is an ideal program to commit to on a chilly weekend if you happened to find yourself too hung over to really leave the house.

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Posted on December 5, 2005

Books »Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest This book takes place in the future (the future Wallace envisioned in the mid 1990s, the future we envision today is a bit different, there's really no place for the Clean Party in the coming years), in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, which I think is 2009. Set in the Metro Boston area, about half of the story takes place at the Enfield Tennis Academy, an elaborate campus atop a scenic hill offering a view of the massive catapults that hurl waste north to the Great Concavity, while the other half of the book (it's a massive tome, 1000 or so pages including the copious foot notes, which you really can't skip) focuses on a halfway house half way down the same hill. A number of unforgettable characters populate the pages, the entire Incandenza family (including the long departed patriarch, the “Mad Stork” James Orin Incandenza, who visits Don Gately in wraith form after Gately gets shot by the Canuck with the “Moose” shirt after the coke addict who kills the dogs… it gets complicated.) The book is excellent, the first fifty pages or so may not be exactly easy going, but soon the book opens right up and you< do not want it to end. Which it does, eventually. Kind of. Oh–and there's Eschaton and the wheelchair assassins and the Madame Psychosis radio program and the Whataburger invitational and Pemulis buying that DMZ...

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Posted on December 5, 2005