Book review: Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb

BimbosBimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb

[From Critical Wave #12, 1989. Initially released by Penguin, it was reissued by Ballantine in 1997 and as a Kindle e-book by Rosetta in 2010; copies of the later editions are currently available via Amazon.]

 

Let’s be frank, with a title like that and a fur-clad airhead draped across the front cover, the last thing you’d expect would be for this to turn out readable, let alone one of the funniest novels I’ve read this year.

But prepare yourself for a surprise: not only is Bimbos a reasonably entertaining murder mystery (even if the identity of the killer is far from the shock one feels it should be), it is also a well-observed send-up of science fiction fandom (particularly costume and media fans) which manages to mix parody with perception, whilst never over-stepping the line from satire into ill-natured ridicule.

Book review: The Canongate Strangler by Angus McAllister

CanongateThe Canongate Strangler by Angus McAllister

[From Critical Wave #21, 1991. Copies of the original Dog & Bone paperback are currently available via Amazon.]

It’s appropriate that Angus McAllister should set this parapsychological thriller in the heart of Edinburgh, considering its clear parallel with Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; indeed, he has the novel’s protagonist meet his nemesis in Deacon Brodie’s Tavern, a popular hostelry named after the very scoundrel whose exploits inspired Stevenson’s landmark work.

Whereas that book’s examination of subjective morality was conducted within its central character’s psyche, McAllister anthropomorphises his conflict by linking mild-mannered lawyer Edward Middleton telepathically to his “other”, the sociopathic Henry Cunningham. But even Middleton is not wholly innocent, growing to savour the adrenalin rush of murder whilst claiming to be horrified by his doppelgänger‘s bloodlust.

It is this exploration of the tale’s moral ambiguity which proves its strongest element, making up for a plot with few real surprises and a workmanlike style which places Middleton’s dilemma at one remove from its readership. That said, The Canongate Strangler is a refreshing alternative to the superficial stalk ‘n’ slash melodramas which currently proliferate in the horror genre.

Book review: Other Voices by Colin Greenland

VoicesOther Voices by Colin Greenland

[From Critical Wave #5, 1988. This novel was initially published as an Unwin Hyman hardback, followed by a paperback in 1989. Both editions, together with a 2013 version designed for Kindle, are currently available via Amazon.]

 

A disappointing sequel to the excellent The Hour of the Thin Ox, Other Voices is a portrait of life under siege, the Luscan capitol now under the benign dictatorship of the Eschalan invaders.

Like its predecessor, Greenland’s latest installment has an internal symmetry; however, where the original’s mirror-image comparison of the two opposing forces offered an intriguing insight into their respective motives, the plotlines intertwined here (contrasting the lifestyles of Serin, a Luscan youngster, and Princess Nette, Luscany’s royal figurehead) offer little insight and, sadly, little of interest.

In fact, Other Voices feels more like the middle chapter in a trilogy than a novel to stand on its own merits. True, Greenland’s literary capabilities are as finely-tuned as ever, but even they can’t gloss over this book’s eratic pacing and weak plot.

 

Book review: Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K Dick by Lawrence Sutin

DickDivine Invasions: A Life of  Philip K Dick by Lawrence Sutin

[From Critical Wave #25, 1992. First published by Harmony in 1990 and by Paladin two years later, this book was released as a Gollancz paperback in 2006; the last of those is currently available via Amazon.]

 

Much as the birth of Max Ernst’s sister Loni (coinciding, as it did, with the death of Ernst’s beloved cockatoo, Hornebom) would create a psychological tremor which surfaced years later in his surreal portraits of half-human, half-aquiline goddesses, Dick’s knowledge of his twin’s death — entirely due, he felt, to parental neglect — planted the seed of much of his science fiction canon. Time and again, he would return to the theme of the doppelgänger, most often embodied in artificial lifeforms such as the androids in his 1958 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, filmed — after a fashion — as Blade Runner.

More than any other science fiction writer, Dick refused to accept the established view of reality and continually questioned the mechanics of self-perception. His 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle, which he desperately hoped would secure a reputation in ‘mainstream’ literature, is set in an America where the Axis forces won the Second World War and “our” history (albeit modified) can be found in a samizdat sf pulp. 1959’s Time Out of Joint tackles the debate on an individual level, as quiz champion Ragle Gumm begins to realise his personal reality is a carefully mounted illusion, and includes a classic sequence where Gumm watches a soft drink vendor dissolve into non-existence, leaving behind a printed slip which reads “Soft Drink Stand”.

Gumm is, of course, quite correct in his suspicions, and Dick strove to investigate his own belief that surface reality concealed a greater truth, usually through a self-destructive cocktail of hallucinogenic drugs. As Lawrence Sutin explains in his introduction to Divine Invasions, this creates a dilemma for biographers, since Dick’s own accounts of his life frequently blur fact and fantasy, but Sutin has risen to the challenge and his intricate study of Dick’s quest for self-enlightenment captures much of the spirit of its subject’s writings.

Ironically, Dick is more famous now that he was at his death in March, 1982. Like Blade Runner, Total Recall (loosely based upon his 1966 short story ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’) has proven a massive hit at the box office and several other works are under option. Non-sf novels such as Confessions of a Crap Artist and The Broken Bubble are finally being published, winning him the mainstream credibility he was denied in life. In October, critics, fellow writers and fans converged on London for a two-day celebration of his work, with Lawrence Sutin himself among the guest speakers.

That Philip K Dick did not survive too see his writing receive the recognition it deserved is tragic, but, as Sutin’s thoughtful and engrossing biography observes, he lives on through his characters, many of whom were thinly-disguised reflections of his own troubled soul.

Book review: Chung Kuo: The Middle Kingdom by David Wingrove

ChungKuoTheMiddleKingdomChung Kuo: The Middle Kingdom by David Wingrove

[From Critical Wave #13, 1989. Initally released in hardback by New English Library, the novel was reissued as a Corvus paperback in 2012; this later edition, as well as its seven sequels and a version for Kindle, are currently available via Amazon.]

 

David Wingrove claims this opening novel in a planned seven-book sequence is concerned not only with the cultural schism inherent in a Chinese-dominated twenty-second century, but also tackles “the real matter of history”; this latter comment betrays the author as an advocate of that premise which dictates that the historical process is governed by a few key figures rather than by social forces (a theory crucial to the new Tory curiculum).

This would presumably explain why a novel already founded upon a shaky premise (are we really expected to believe that the Han overlords have effectively rewritten the past to secure their superiority, or will the sequel reveal that the Earth was ravaged by endemic amnesia?) owes more to Harold Robbins than, say, A J P Taylor. Indeed, Wingrove shows the same casual disregard for the minor players of his drama as the dictatorial Council of Seven which controls the entire planet, rarely averting his gaze from the palatial splendour of the T’ang estates to the claustrophobic conditions suffered by the billions below.

Worse, The Middle Kingdom echoes the likes of Robbins in his use of sex and violence as plot devices to underpin the book’s more tedious sections; the text is ridden through with undisguised misogyny and homophobia (the only reasonably strong female character is sexually tortured and later murdered, gays are portrayed either as fools weakened by their “disease” or as malevolent thugs). A potential bestseller this might be, but, I suspect, for many of the wrong reasons.

Book review: Wilderness by Dennis Danvers

Wild1Wilderness by Dennis Danvers

[From Critical Wave #24, 1991. Copies of the Simon & Schuster hardback and Avon’s 2000 Avon are currently available via Amazon, The novel was adapted into a tv mini-series in 1996, but appears only to be available as a US import DVD.]

 

Characterisation is one of the key elements in successful fantasy writing; if the reader doesn’t give a damn whether the central protagonist is torn to shreds by cannibalistic zombies or barbecued by the kingdom’s resident dragon, there’s a distinct possibility the book’s final pages will remain unthumbed.

It’s a lesson which has obviously been taken to heart by Dennis Danvers for his debut novel. On one level an engagingly observant study of the romantic dynamic, it’s also the best literary interpretation of the werewolf legend since the late Robert Stallman’s lamentably neglected ‘Beast’ trilogy.

Wild2Danvers’ conceit is to initially obscure whether student Alice White is indeed a lycanthrope; like Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation, therefore, Wilderness remains accessible to those whose literary tastes are confined to ‘mainstream’ novels, whilst encapsulating enough of the flavour of fantastic literature so as to attract those more familiar with the genre. In that sense, Wilderness no doubt falls within the category of writing recently tagged with the label ‘slipstream’ by author and critic Bruce Sterling, and is no the worse for appealing to both audiences.

Danvers’ strength lies in his ability to make you care for Alice, for her lover Erik, for his semi-divorced ex-partner Debra and for Alice’s lovelorn shrink Luther. The question of whether Alice is a werewolf becomes almost secondary, since the mechanics of this four-cornered relationship pivot upon her total belief in her condition, and the novel is accordingly freed to explore the emotional impact of such a lifestyle.

It surprises me not one iota to learn that Wilderness has already been optioned for a movie; it would also surprise me as little if the resulting film captured only a fraction of the novel’s spirit and passion.

Book review: Roofworld by Christopher Fowler

RoofRoofworld by Christopher Fowler

[From Critical Wave #9. 1989. Both the original Legend hardcover and Avon paperback editions are currently available via Amazon. Reviews of Christopher Fowler’s subsequent novels Rune and Darkest Day are also archived on this website.]

 

Every so often a novel appears which contains an idea both totally implausible and so wildly entertaining that you simply have to run your disbelief up the nearest flagpole and leave it suspended until the final page; Roofworld, Christopher Fowler’s promising debut as a novelist, is one such book.

The central concept — a separate society inhabiting the skyline of London, flying across the rooftops on wires — is gloriously offbeat, the gory rituals of its villains well-handled and the action confidently paced, with sufficient loose threads for the sequel to weave itself. Only the unconvincing tabloid clippings and the repetitious sexism of Fowler’s hard-boiled cop dented my enjoyment of this ripping yarn.

Book review: The Night Mayor by Kim Newman

MayorThe Night Mayor by Kim Newman

[From Critical Wave #14, 1989. Originally published as a Simon & Schuster hardback, Titan’s 2015 paperback edition is currently available via Amazon.]

 

Ridley Scott has a lot to answer for: ever since Blade Runner melded Chandler and Dick into a template for the literary hybrid thence dubbed ‘Cyberpunk’, we’ve been deluged by film noir pastiches masquerading as science fiction.

Kim Newman’s stroll through the rain-soaked backlot is better than some, but its basic premise — government agents chasing a criminal genius through a construct of his own mind, reminiscent of Christopher Priest’s A Dream of Wessex — rapidly degenerates into a conveyor belt of cinematic references. Remarkably, the one element which distinguished so many of the films Newman salutes in this slim novel — suspense — is sorely lacking, blunting the narrative’s edge and leaving us with what is little more than an extended in-joke.

Book review: Scared Stiff by Ramsey Campbell

StiffScared Stiff by Ramsey Campbell

[From Critical Wave #15, 1990. Initially released in the UK by Macdonald, this collection was issued as a Tor paperback in 2003; copies of the latter are currently available via Amazon.]

 

Subtitled ‘Tales of Sex and Death’ and originally published in 1987 by the American small press Scream (although Campbell’s afterword is new to this edition), this showcase draws together eight stories with a sexual subtext, all but two dating back to the late 1970s (when Michel Parry tried to inject a little spice into British horror anthologies and gave Mayflower’s a few sleepless nights in the process).

Ironically, the most effective stories are those in which the sex scenes are underplayed, such as ‘The Seductress’ and ‘The Other Woman’. Individually workmanlike, the remainder suffer from being grouped together, the descriptions of limp penises, “smacking” vaginas and imprisoning legs rapidly becoming monotonously repetitive. Where once such stories might have shocked, even incurred the rage of the judiciary, now they look curiously old-fashioned.

Book review: Scudder’s Game by D G Compton

ScudderScudder’s Game by D G Compton

[From Critical Wave #6, 1988. Originally published by the small press imprint Kerosina, copies of both this edition and a 2011 Kindle reissue are currently available via Amazon.]

 

The constant theme throughout David Compton’s career has been the human subtext to scientific and social change, the moral perspective on Toffler’s shockwave. This latest work is not only no exception to this trend, but is its virtual epitome.

Compton visualises a future where global overpopulation has been defused through a combination contraceptive and sex aid, offering the perfect orgasm with one hand whilst wiping out the resultant spermatozoa with the other. Quite how the device works, or how it thwarts the passage of diseases such as AIDS, is left unexplained; Compton is concerned with moralities, not mechanics.

This safe sex technology is soon revealed as a metaphor for the impotent society it has spawned. The nuclear family has exploded, depersonalised coitus has superseded emotional intercourse, the Wall Street carnival is now open to all via third wave technology and a framework of business ‘games’.

But technician Scudder shuns these diversions, choosing to devise a scenario of his own, social revolution his goal. That his insurrection is itself the centre of a larger game, making Scudder’s impotence total, only renews the metaphor.

Lie much of Compton’s work, this latest book ends upon a downbeat note. Scudder’s son is bequeathed an insight into the deep flaws within their society, but appears resigned to his race’s entropic demise. Unfortunately, this feeling of resignation pervades the latter half of the novel, but it’s to Compton’s credit that the clarity of his characterisation preserves the momentum.