Science Fiction and Fantasy

(From "Viriconium")
By Paul Di Filippo
Sunday, January 15, 2006

As we might expect from the Blakean title, Sonya Taafe's debut collection, Singing Innocence and Experience (Prime; paperback, $17.95), is the output of a hardcore romantic -- but not particularly in the mold of William B. There are no arcane allegories here, nor attempts at mythic subcreation, nor rants against dark satanic mills. Rather, Taafe -- and her characters -- are Keatsian to the core: half in love with easeful death; prone to see mermaids in the surf (the sea resounds through nearly every story here) and demon lovers in the hedgerows; and fearful of betraying their art and the cause of beauty in the face of the world's harsh demands.

In "Shade and Shadow," the female protagonist's habit of self-mutilation through "cutting" opens her up to a world of ghosts. "Featherweight" finds a woman with a sutured, empty chest desperately searching for a replacement heart. Another mystery woman, her skin dotted with freckled constellations, breaks the heart of her astronomer lover in "Constellations, Conjunctions." Taafe's cosmos of love gone wrong, of lovers fated to miscommunicate, of incompatible worlds colliding, is a mosaic of such incidents, heightened beyond mere soap opera by their eerie supernatural aspects.

Yet a balancing humor crops up. The title story finds a woman embarrassingly saddled with a unicorn in human form, while "Return on the Downward Road" postulates a school for evil wizards: Harry Potter gone bad.

Taafe likes to crash right into the chaos and confusion of her stories, often plunging us into the depths of her characters' passions before gradually revealing their back-stories. This tactic demands patience from readers used to more linear fantasies. Taafe's language also requires slow perusal. Like Samuel R. Delany, she assembles her sentences out of startling imagery and poetic juxtapositions. For instance, one character's words do not cause her interlocutor to shut up; rather, "Her trust stoppered his mouth." Reading these stories at one go, we discover certain recurring patterns and symbols, sometimes to the point of obsessiveness -- including people whose anxieties and shocks manifest themselves as breath stoppages or throat occlusions. But the heartfelt, keenly rendered, ingenious tales these characters live through are often quite breathtaking.

Glorious Empires of Pulp

Edmond Hamilton and Leigh Brackett -- husband and wife writers -- were names that once resonated loudly down the Hall of the Planets. Nowadays their reputations molder undeservedly in the catacombs of science fiction. But the publication of Stark and the Star Kings (Haffner, $45), in a handsomely designed and illustrated volume, may change all that. The book consists of two novels by Hamilton, three novellas from Brackett and the collaborative short story that lends its title to the collection, making its first appearance here and yoking the two fictional universes together.

Hamilton's The Star Kings and Return to the Stars (originally published in 1949 and 1970) transport 20th-century Earthman John Gordon to a space-operatic milieu some 200,000 years hence, when golden empires sprawl across the space-lanes of the galaxy and one man can save the universe with daring and courage. Brackett's three tales of the hard-bitten, lone-wolf mercenary Eric John Stark -- "Queen of the Martian Catacombs" (1949), "Enchantress of Venus" (1949) and "Black Amazon of Mars" (1951) -- take place closer to the present, in a colonized solar system where Stark struggles for survival and honor among the lowlifes of two worlds. The closing story finds Stark transported to the era of the Star Kings to battle an energy-devouring beast that penetrates across millennia.

While both Hamilton's work and Brackett's appeared in the pages of pulp magazines, the two series are rather dissimilar. Hamilton was always more concerned with planet-smashing, his attitude bluff and open-handed, his worldview relatively unsophisticated. Brackett, on the other hand, was more steeped in noir (she wrote mystery novels and helped to script the classic film "The Big Sleep"), favoring its outside-the-law heroes. Her stories also lean toward Conan-esque sword-and-sorcery. And she was simply a finer writer than her husband, capable of subtler effects.

This difference in tactics, aims and capabilities makes for a somewhat jarring transition between the two series, and the posthumously published collaboration is slight. But if you can compartmentalize the work of the two authors, you'll enjoy some heady, action-packed tales that should never have gone out of print. The star-spanning allure of Hamilton, the against-all-odds underdog triumphs of Brackett -- both are utterly bewitching, the roots of such later phenomena as "Star Wars."

AI as Auteur

There have been at least two subsequent generations of cyberpunks since that school of science fiction broke big in 1984. But most newer writers in this vein have chosen to retrace the territory mapped in William Gibson's seminal first trilogy -- Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988) -- rather than pioneer new horizons.

One newcomer who does not make such a mistake is Justina Robson, with her debut novel, Silver Screen (Pyr; paperback, $15). Despite her hard-edged topic, Robson attempts and achieves many of the same humanistic effects that Gibson brings off in later novels such as Pattern Recognition . Robson examines one of the core conceits of cyberpunk writing: the nature of machine consciousness -- artificial intelligence, or AI -- and its implications for mankind.

Our narrator, Anjuli O'Connell, is an artificial-intelligence shrink, in charge of nursemaiding 901, the most advanced machine mind of the mid-21st century, who happens to be more of an autocrat than Cecil B. DeMille and who manifests holographically as a succession of Hollywood icons. Since childhood, Anjuli has been in the shadow of her genius friend Roy Croft, one of the designers of 901. When Roy seemingly commits suicide, Anjuli is left to make sense of his death and how it relates to the burgeoning legal battle for the emancipation of 901.

Robson blends mandatory cyberpunk scenes of elaborate computer hacking with more quotidian concerns, such as Anjuli's desire to do good science. As a female narrator surrounded by other competent women, Anjuli is no hackneyed ninja cyborg assassin but a smart, insecure Everywoman with a stubborn idealistic streak. How refreshing. (Of course, Anjuli's love life is troubled: Her boyfriend is in the process of turning himself into a robot.) Robson is unafraid to mix robust action with metaphysical-quantum conceits in the manner of Howard V. Hendrix's The Labyrinth Key. She also harks back to the courtroom drama in Robert A. Heinlein's "Jerry Was a Man," which hinged on the emancipation of a genetically engineered ape. In doing so, she successfully penetrates the "barrier of light and shadow play that will always be between us, you and me, human and AI."

A Delicious Decadence

Readers coming to M. John Harrison's Viriconium (Bantam Spectra; paperback, $16) straight from his magnificent postmodern space opera Light and expecting to encounter something similar are in for a bit of a shock -- a pleasant shock, but a kick nonetheless. This big omnibus volume of Something Completely Different is not new work from Harrison but a compilation of four previous books published from 1971 to 1985.

The lucky newbie reader will discover a generous helping of three novels and seven short stories set in the far future city of Viriconium and its surrounding domain. Described in masterfully baroque language, Viriconium is a decadent realm in direct descent from Jack Vance's Dying Earth and E.R. Eddison's Zimiamvia. Exotically colorful characters struggle against ennui and the weight of the ages while their world is riven by internecine politics, alien invasion and revenants from the long-gone "Afternoon Cultures." A glorious twilight air of decline prevails, and Harrison's three favorite adjectives -- "queer," "curious" and "peculiar" -- are the reigning catchwords. ยท

Paul Di Filippo reviews frequently for Book World.


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