Sunday, March 01, 2009

What it started

I've mentioned elsewhere that I love fantastic fiction--think it the most important genre. All the same, I usually don't read just fantastic fiction. I read a lot of styles, but lately I've found myself only wanting to pick up fantastic fiction.

I zoomed through Last Watch, the 4th book in the Day Watch/Night Watch/Twilight Watch series from Russia that finally made it to America (or to Barnes and Noble) 8 months late. It was fun--not as cataclysmic as the first three, and certainly not the last book in the series, despite the title, which is a relief.

I read The Haunted Hotel by Wilke Collins on my phone. It isn't really fantastic fiction, despite it's title, and it was something of a disappointment, being merely a melodrama with standard elements of the period, and none of the skill of The Moonstone or even The Woman in White.

Then I picked up Cities, an anthology of four stories that I had bought for my husband for Christmas, only to find out that he had already read all four stories in other collections. He and I have mixed feelings on anthologies--we never agree on the editors selections. They are by their very nature uneven.

This one was unusually in that the stories are by four of his favorite authors--two who are also favorites of mine. The theme too, cities, was a theme that I find fascinating.

The first story was by Paul Di Fillippo, A Year in the Linear City. I have mixed feelings on Di Fillippo. Sometimes he's brilliant, other times I think it's too much, like Terry Pratchet or Ben Elton. The ideas are always incredible though. This was no exception. The concept was a city made up of millions of city blocks in a long thin line, one block wide. streets on either side and cross streets every block. On one side are the tracks and beyond them, "The Wrong Side of the Tracks" where the Yardbulls live. On the other side is the river with barges and boats and beyond that the "Other Shore" where the Fishwives live. When one dies in this world one or the other, the angelic (but sea smelling) Fishwives or the demonic batwinged Yardbulls and no one knows which it will be. They take one--body and all--off to their realms. In the story a junky on a stained mattress is taken by the "angels" and a basketball player turned mayor is taken by the "demons" so who can say.

The city goes on forever--no one knows how far--dialects and customs change as if the distant boroughs were other countries. Subways exist in this world, but phones don't, and beneath it all are scales which, if pulled up will leave bloody wounds in the world behind.

Our protagonist is a writer of "Cosmogonic" fiction. And here is the really interesting part of the story--beyond the startling concept--it is an examination of writing, and particularly the writing of fantastic fiction! The protagonist is constantly imagining "What ifs." What if there were worlds on globes. What if there were machines that let you talk to distant places. What if there were no Fishwives and Yardbulls--what would the inhabitants of that world think of the afterlife. Take that to all who ask writers where they get their ideas. It is not the getting of ideas, but rather the developing of them--the ideas are all around ifone simply looks with a different eye. Like here, cosmogonic fiction is considered less important, but it makes the most money. "Quotidian" fiction is the respected genre (his word, not mine, which is part of my problem with the story.)

The second story is by China Mieville who seems to only write about cities--cities as great, dangerous living things. This time he is in London, not his alternate world, but a London where the beasts have escaped the mirrors and nearly destroyed the humans. And all that the last humans can do is surrender...that's where it ends.

The last story is by one of my favorites (as is Mieville), Geoff Ryman. I am bothered by its inclusion though because it is not a story about cities--unless it is merely the soullessness of life that we are racing towards. It's protagonist is my generation X, or perhaps the one after, Y, grown old and shut in Homes by our children and grand-children, but we are computer savvy. We can still hack and monitor and do all the online things we do--they monitor the keystrokes. And a band of old people with computer skills are hijacking the personal protection systems so they attack the people they're supposed to protect. Age Rage. And age know-how. Because the person behind it is lost in Alzheimers, only before it took him he programmed his systems to control him and take him out to do the jobs--to strike back. Woah!

But for a story on cities, it would have been better to use Ryman's own 253--the story of the 253 riders on a subway train that's about to crash--each story, one page each, 253 words long. Long before Twitter's limitation of 140 characters.

The fourth story is by Michael Moorcock, and I haven't read anything by him, and I couldn't read this--it was an alternate world, a post Bush world of consumerism as religion. Patriotism as a product to be purchased. That's about as far as I got. It seemed like an interesting concept but I just could seem to follow.

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