Science Fiction & Fantasy

By Paul Di Filippo
Sunday, October 15, 2006

Dyed-in-the-plasti-flesh sf readers value estrangement above almost all other literary effects: human lives technologically amped, pulled inside-out, turned topsy-turvy and reflected in a funhouse mirror, yet still hanging together with their own logic.

Rebecca K. Rowe excels at this. In her sparkling and inventive first novel, Forbidden Cargo (Edge; paperback, $14.95), Sashimu and Thesni are beautiful 18-year-old women living on Mars. They are a new breed of humans designed as the next stage in evolution. Kidnapped to Earth, the two escape and begin an odyssey through the greedy hands of competing factions intent on destroying or co-opting them.

Rowe's world is full of strange new ways of living -- and dying. Her rich descriptive language and arch dialogue potently reflect her surreal world: "He kept an eye out for bluegrazers; he'd know them by their rotten, blue-edged mouths." Dealing with issues of freedom and responsibility, as well as epistemological and existential quandaries, Rowe still manages to deliver a slam-bang adventure.

Werewolf Nation

I'd pay serious money to read a novel that dealt with Jesus Christ as a werewolf or the 21st-century theological fallout of having a savior who gets down on all fours and bays at the moon. But we don't learn much about such fascinating might-have-beens in Kit Whitfield's Benighted (DelRey; paperback, $14.95), which sloughs off the interesting implications of its promising premise in favor of a noir-lite mystery with a ninny for a heroine.

Benighted is set in a parallel universe where most of humanity, since the dawn of the species, has always been "lycos" -- werewolves. Every full moon the entire globe goes nuts, except for the brave mutant men and women of the Department for the Ongoing Regulation of Lycanthropic Activities. These "nons" lack the werewolf genes and are charged with maintaining civilization during the regular beserker interval. Our protagonist, Lola Galley, is one such, and in her whiny, neurotic narration we watch her perform her duties as lawyer, social worker, "dogcatcher" and cop to track down a villain who doesn't emerge, even in hints, until 400 pages into the book.

Lola's interaction with the majority population is minimal, and the culture of the lycos is unimagined and undescribed. For a book dubbed a thriller, there is little suspense. (Lola hunts renegade werewolves exactly twice.) The logic of the society is full of holes, too. How did nons survive before modern civilization developed to protect them?

All of this might be overlooked if Lola sustained the tale. But she's the kind of annoying, angst-filled, over-emotive person who frantically flaps her hands about trying to "shush" a creaky floorboard! Put Lola in the recent vampire-werewolf film "Underworld," and she'd be eaten in the first minute.

Bad 'Shrooms

I am holding a rare artifact from another world: a small black box whose lid bears the seal of Hoegbotton & Sons, famed publishers in the city of Ambergris. Inside is a chapbook, a letter from the publisher, a piece of dried mushroom, a metal pill-capsule containing a tiny scroll and a sealing-wax candle wrapped in cloth. This assemblage constitutes The Exchange (2001), one of Jeff VanderMeer's meta-magical installments in his long-running tragicomic series about Ambergris, an otherworldly city undermined by the caverns and tunnels of evil fungal humanoids older than mankind. Previously, VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen (2002) stood as the essential volume in this mythos. But his new book, Shriek: An Afterword (Tor, $24.95), is so brilliantly conceived and shockingly revelatory that it might very well surpass its predecessor.

Like some delicious, delirious mashup of H.P. Lovecraft, Mervyn Peake and L. Frank Baum, but with his own verbal dexterity and perverse ingenuity, VanderMeer's book is a dual autobiography. Brother and sister Duncan and Janice Shriek (paired unreliable narrators) recount their contentious lives while all around them Ambergris experiences such convulsions as the "War of the Houses" (internecine combat between rival publishers).

Looping back and forth through time, built of small intimate moments and large societal set-pieces (the wartime opera performance is positively Pynchonesque), this novel never allows its elaborate literary apparatus to muffle its affecting narrative about love, art, sibling rivalry, commerce, history and some really nasty 'shrooms.

Canine Conan

In his native Germany, Walter Moers has an immense career, hailed for his comics, fiction and animated cartoons. Here in the United States, his profile is less pronounced, although readers should have been jolted into awareness of his true stature by the arrival last year of The 13-1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear . This massive, manic fantasy set on the antediluvian continent of Zamonia, exhibited seemingly boundless narrative energy, invention and verbal flair, complemented by Moers's own drawings.

His new book, Rumo (Overlook, $26.95), also fancifully illustrated, likewise takes place in Zamonia, but it's radically different in tone. (Kudos to translator John Brownjohn, for this graceful rendition into English.) Less picaresque and much darker, it's more a bildungsroman in which our titular hero descends to Zamonia's Netherworld in pursuit of his abducted love, Rala.

We first witness Rumo, when just a youth, killing a nest of ogres. He next finds himself in the city of Wolperting, where he acquires an education in combat and science. But then, in Rumo's absence (he's searching for a Threefold Token of True Love), the inhabitants of Hel make off with all the Wolpertings, dragging them to the Netherworld for torture and gladiator games, and leaving Rumo as their sole savior.

Parodic and sincere, slapstick and heart-tugging by turns, Moers's novel has fresh things to say on the nature of heroism and nobility. As if Tom Robbins had been inspired to rewrite Tolkien, Moers manages to imbue classic sword-and-sorcery motifs with his off-kilter worldview. ยท

Paul Di Filippo's new novel is "Time's Black Lagoon."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company