The week of filler continues with three books that all deserve better treatment. But Farnsworth, Ness and Smythe sounds a bit like a Dickensian lawfirm, which is some small comfort.
Normally I'm not so bothered about shirking my frontlist duties, but last week was one hell of a week for new genre books, and I'm a little upset that I'm slack in reviewing. Whatever sort of science fiction you're in to, last week was packed with red letter days.
I did review Christopher Farnsworth's Red, White and Blood earlier, so this is more a "Hey! Out now!" sort of reminder. Red, White and Blood is the third in the Nathaniel Cade series (which began with Blood Oath and The President's Vampire), but there's certainly no barrier to starting with this installment. Backstory: the President has a vampire. Now you're caught up.
Mr. Farnsworth's series is a cross between Wes Craven and 24 or, uh, True Blood and Tom-Clancy-before-he-jumped-his-own-shark. Funny, witty, silly, smart, the series just keeps getting more and more entertaining - modern pulp at its finest. Read the earlier review for more complete thoughts.
Mr. Smythe came from seemingly nowhere to publish two of last year's most thoughtful, most challenging science fiction thrillers. This year he knocks it up a notch, Elzar-style, and, with The Machine, has written one of the darkest novels - of any genre - that I've ever had the nightmarish 'privilege' of reading. And don't get me wrong, this is a corker, well worth reading and suspiciously, disturbingly easy to read. But the entire book is keyed at a slightly unsettling note that keeps the reader perpetually aware that THINGS ARE NOT RIGHT. And, nor should they be... in a fairly ruined world (the casual apocalypticism is handled with an unbelievably light touch, and, I hope will join Jessie Lamb in benchmarking the post-Wyndhamism contemporary cozy catastrophe) a young wife is experimenting with the Machine. The Machine is a thing - a big scary mechanical thing - it looks suspiciously like your office's scary server closet crossed with the screen that you have to plug the presentation into but you can never get to work on the first try - that does stuff to your memories. Initially used as a cure for PTSD, it does... stuff.
The Machine pokes all the tender places. There are beleaguered teachers and menacing students, long walks across abandoned estates at night, crucifying loneliness, creepy 'friends', oppressive bureaucracies, social isolation, tinkering with minds... all building up to the big question: what is it that makes us human? What's the line? When do we become so lost in ourselves that we aren't people any more? Mr. Smythe clearly refuses to be confined to an easy description, and like its inspiration, Frankenstein, The Machine makes a nonsense of genre definitions. The Machine takes the best of horror - claustrophic, personal terror - and combines it with the frenzied imagination of science fiction and the thoughtful, unanswerable questions of literature.
Speaking of which...
Patrick Ness's The Crane Wife is one of those books that we'll never actually see shelved in science fiction. Let's get that grumping out of the way now, shall we? Literary fiction keeps picking on us - shoving us into lockers and stealing our lunch money, the big bullies. Grumpgrumpgrump. There, now we can talk about the book.
If The Crane Wife is about anything, it is about loneliness (just as, for example, A Monster Calls is 'about' grief, which is to say, a horrendously reductive summary, but we'll go with it). Every character in The Crane Wife is lonely, surrounded by people, swimming in modern conveniences and family and workmates and friends and totally, miserably alone. Just as A Monster Calls ultimately built up to recognition and (heartbreaking) acceptance, The Crane Wife ascends to awareness and (heartbreaking) bravery - reaching out, making connectings.
Of course, if The Crane Wife is about anything, it is about magic. There's no ambiguity about the supernatural in The Crane Wife - as well as the fairy tale interludes, there's actual non-ambiguous (or is it?) magickymagicstuff going on here. But magic and miracles are two different things - when it comes down to it, the lesson is that impossibilities alone accomplish nothing. The real life-changing moments (big and small) come about not from mysterious strangers and heavenly gifts, but from human people doing human things, something with great gusto, sometimes as tiny mitzvot. So if The Crane Wife is about anything, it is about waiting - or not waiting - and making change yourself.
But if The Crane Wife is about anything, it is about acceptance. This is a world filled with cranes and volcanoes and generals and mythic archetypes. Also snarky clerks and grumpy HR managers and irritating workmates and attractive ex-husbands and all those things that just are, whether or not they make sense, whether or not we understand them. Because, if The Crane Wife is about anything, is that we are all part crane and part volcano (I swear, that makes sense once you've read it), and part office gossip and part ethereal artist. We're all more alike than we think, and maybe it isn't about accepting other but about accepting ourselves.