Recent fiction worth noting.
The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore (HarperCollins, 2014)
Yes! Another story from Christopher Moore, one of the most imaginative and naughty comic writers active today.
Serpent follows Pocket, who we got to know in Fool (2009). In the earlier story, Moore mined King Lear and other sources, this story moves to Venice to exploit Othello, Shylock, and E. A. Poe. Oh, and Marco Polo. Why not?
As in all his stories, there is a lot of confusing and complex conspiring and double dealing, love and loss, all portrayed in wonderful comically bawdy language. Drawing on his famous sources, Moore is able to rise to new lows of banter. I mean, in contemporary fiction, how many codpiece jokes can you work in?
Super good stuff.
(If you haven’t read Moore’s works, stop right now. Go get them all. Blood Sucking Demons. The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove. Fluke. Read them all as soon as possible.)
Worst. Person. Ever. by Douglas Coupland (Penguin, 2014)
Another dark comedy from Douglas Coupland. I really liked some of his previous works, including J Pod (2006) and Generation A (2009). WPE disappointed me.
Despite the title, the protagonist evokes some sympathy, if only because his misdeeds are so excessively punished by events. Actually, none of the people are especially nice, but he manages to give us sympathy for every one of them. That’s the good part.
The story makes little sense, but that’s OK. It is a matrix for delivering his clever writing. That’s the bad part.
The novel is supposed to be full of witty, irreverent banter. It didn’t work for me. I guess if you already know what a spork is, a “witty” discovery and explanation thereof just isn’t that interesting or funny. Sorry.
In past novels Coupland has been unsparing in his satire and critique of contemporary society, including corporate life. This novel turns the acid onto the TV industry, which deserves punishment. But this isn’t a challenging target, especially since TV tends to be unconsciously self-satiric. Coupland’s fictional “reality TV” show is barely disguised facts already aired many times.
It seems clear that Coupland has had some bad experiences in airports, especially in the US. Again, certainly worth satire, but difficult to create fiction that is better than reality. And beefing at length isn’t that interesting, nor is it funny.
For some reason, Coupland is really down on America. Not only does he make his English characters say outlandishly slanderous things (and, who are Brits to beef about American culture and politics?), he populates the novel with a number of cardboard caricature Americans. For example, if you believe this story, apparently Americans no longer swear, and get all “puritanical” if you use naughty words. Really?
While the food in vending machines in US airports isn’t good it also isn’t representative of all food in the US—nor do English characters have any standing to complain about anyone’s food, thank you very much.
Honestly, these Americans don’t resemble anyone I’ve ever met, so it is difficult to find any humor in such trashy anti-Americanism. Perhaps Coupland should visit some places in the US outside an airport and TV reality show, he might discover ordinary people.
If there was supposed to be a deeper point to his social commentary, I missed it.
This is definitely not one of his best books, and not particularly recommended.
Lockstep by Karl Schroeder (Tor, 2014)
A classic “Rip Van Winkel” situation, the protagonist is accidentally lost in space, to awaken from stasis thousands of years later. The world he finds is strange and awesome.
Schroeder sets the story in a fascinating interstellar civilization, which has achieved multi-light year spanning society through the mechanism he calls “lockstep”: everyone suspends life for 30 years, and wakes for 30 days. (The technology is worked out in detail.)
This process makes it possible to connect distant planets by travelling during the suspension: travel to another planet happens overnight. Other benefits of lockstep include absurdly long life (real time) and lower environmental impact (per minute of waking time).
This technology really, really messes with time! We are all used to more or less one, universal experience of time. But lockstep gives people options for how time works. There are infinite settings for the “frequency” of waking times, as well as the option to drop into real time.
The psychology is interesting. For people in lockstep, life is lived full tilt, rebooted when they wake, and put away (or else disposed of) before going to sleep. People on different frequencies never meet, except when they periodically synchronize, being awake at the same time. This “jubilee” may be planned or left to happen.
People not in lockstep live “fast”, experiencing years between each lockstep “turn” for the steppers. In the 40 years of lockstep time (in the 360/1 frequency), 14,000 years have passed in real time. Civilizations have risen and fallen, languages and cultures evolved, and humans transformed. Lockstep experiences waves of “immigrants”, who are culturally and possibly biologically alien—evolved or encountered in the intervening centuries.
Also, as the characters in the story discover, individuals can experience serious displacement. A few years in lockstep means any family you left behind is dead and gone. Sentencing someone to real time is a death sentence as far as the lockstep society is concerned. Human relationships are difficult to maintain, except by “travelling together”.
Naturally, Schroeder delivers these ideas via a pleasant story, with a young protagonist lost in time due to an accident, who tries to return to his family. This proves to be not at all easy, given the multiple temporal streams. He was asleep for 14,000 years real time and 40 years lockstep time. His younger siblings are middle aged, his mother is asleep. But humans, post humans, AIs, and whatever have spread to 40,000 worlds in the centuries. Very complicated.
The Folklore of Discworld: Legends, Myths, and Customs from the Discworld with Helpful Hints from Planet Earth by Terry Pratchett and Jacqueline Simpson (Anchor Books, 2014)
If you haven’t read everything Terry Pratchett has written—stop right now and go do it.
This is one of several authoritative guide to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. This book is a happy collaboration with another imaginative folklorist, Jacqueline Simpson (author of, for instance, British Dragons (1980)).
One of the joys of the Discworld stories is the complex cultures we find there, which resemble our own history in messy, twisted ways. One of the reasons Discworld seems so familiar is that it is full of folk stories, beliefs, and practices which are like those from our own past. The stories develop partly because, Pratchett admits, he thinks of folklore “in much the same way a carpenter thinks of trees”.
The book is organized topically, reviewing the culture of Discworld alongside stories, people, and events of our own Earth. They document the similarities and differences (which are attributed to “leakage” between realities, or whatever).
For anyone who has read everything Discworld (which should include you), it is great fun to have the master himself pull together details, and point out relationships to Earthly folklore.