May 01, 2007

What I'm Reading

by Alan Beatts

Happy May everyone!  Weather's getting lovely and this is my favorite time of the year so I'm just in a hell of a good mood.  And you wanna' know something else that's making me so happy?  Two great books.  Just finished one and I'm halfway through the other.

Thirteen by Richard K. Morgan - I got an advance copy of this and pretty much jumped right into it.  I've really enjoyed Richard's other novels (Altered Carbon, Broken Angels, Market Forces, and Woken Furies) and, after an unexpected meeting at the shop that turned into a two-hour chat followed by dinner and several other too-short meetings, I consider him a friend.  Though many of his other readers prefer the Takeshi Kovacs novels, Market Forces is my personal favorite.  Richard once commented that people tell him that they don't like Market Forces because it's so grim.  He went on to say with a wry smile, "Did they really read Altered Carbon?"

It's true, Richard's novels are grim . . . but they have to be.  It's just my opinion but, of all the writers currently working in the SF field, I think that Richard's work is the best example of SF at its finest.  One of the pinnacles of SF achievement (please note that I say, "one" not "the only") is to write a compelling, readable and entertaining story that causes readers to ask themselves where our current path, be it social, technological, or scientific, is taking us and whether we're going to like the final destination.  This is one of the most notable of Richard's achievements and in it he's the best in the business.  And these days that makes for a grim story.

I think that's why I like Market Forces so much.  Unlike the Kovacs books, it lacks much of the Science Fiction set dressing that allows readers to put a comfortable distance between themselves and the ugly situations and choices that our future could bring.  That's the same thing that makes lots of other readers think that Market Forces is grimmer and darker than the Kovacs books -- it's not darker, it's just closer.

And then there was Thirteen, or Black Man (to give its original title, which Richard's British publisher wasn't afraid to keep).  Though Market Forces takes on the ethics and economics of world wide finance and investment banking in a hell-bent, kill-the-competition-before-they-get-to-the-meeting, nightmare style there is a certain genteel British reserve to it (bloody baseball bats aside).  But Thirteen . . . Thirteen is ready to _really_ get in your face.  Especially if you live in the good ole' U.S. of A.

Carl Marsalis is a product of genetic engineering called a "variant thirteen".  He was bred to be a throw-back to the pre-civilized human that existed before cooperation was a pro-survival trait.  Thirteens in general are violent, borderline sociopathic, and were almost all killed, deported, or interred years ago.  In the early years of the 22nd century Carl has managed to carve out a niche for himself as a bounty hunter specializing in tracking and apprehending other Thirteens who have escaped the interment camps.  Until one evening, while staying overnight in the Southern Republic of a balkanized United States, a small act of kindness lands him in prison.  Held without charges and facing the possibility of spending the rest of his life as a convict in this poor, backward, Christian-dominated fragment of a nation, he's offered release in exchange for helping representatives of the most powerful corporation in the world catch a serial murderer who is also a Thirteen.

The plot sounds like a great action-adventure thriller with elements of a police procedural.  And it is.  But it's also a very complex investigation of bigotry, fundamentalist religious intolerance (both Christian and Muslim), the power of corporations, and the price of violence.  It's not often that I read a novel that both makes me think about where the world and my country are going and at the same time engages and entertains me completely.  Thus far this year, it's only happened once.  And this was the book that did it.

Thirteen will be published in July of this year and I highly recommend that you get a copy.

Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman - I'm only half-way though this one and so it might not live up to its promise, but in that case I'll be damn surprised.  First off, despite the title, this is not a funny book.  Granted, there are some bits that are amusing and even worth a laugh but it's not a funny book.  In both meanings of the term.

You see, it's about super-heroes and super-villains.

When I was a kid I loved comics.  Not to the obsessive, completist degree that many of my friends did, but I liked them.  And then they got a bit too simple for me and I stopped reading them.  Later I discovered a series of shared-world anthologies edited by George R. R. Martin (of A Game of Thrones fame) called Wild Cards.  They were about super-heroes but with a large dose of the real world thrown in.  The characters had ended up in real-world situations and had to deal with real-world problems.  It was good.  Not great but really very good.  Later I would run across a comic called The Watchmen written by Alan Moore.  It also took on the gritty reality of what it might be like for super-heroes.  It was also good.  Very good.  It seems that, over the years, the image of costumed heroes with super-powers has steadily grown richer and more complex -- keeping step with the aging of the generations who were strongly affected by them.

Perhaps it's a function not only of aging of the original readers but some alchemy rising from maturity -- not of the people who were first touched by Superman but the children of those people.  Children who were never told that comic books were crap and not to be read by any serious adult but children who were instead _given_ comics by serious adults (their parents) and told, "This is great.  You'll love it.  I know I did."

But, whatever the reason, comics have grown up a very great deal but that maturity has only rarely made it outside of comics or "illustrated narratives" and into prose fiction.  In Soon I Will Be Invincible it has done so and in spades.  It's a very mature novel with profoundly complex and motivated characters that retains the awe and wonder of comic books.  From the very first two chapters I was hooked and, at the half-way mark, I'm still hooked.  The writing is stylish without being self-conscious and very tight.  As I mentioned, the characters are believable and complex with motivations that you can not only believe but feel.  It's great.  Not good but great.

And you don't have to wait 'till July to get it.  It's be out in June!  And it's looking like we'll be able to host the author for a signing sometime in July.

I hope you enjoyed these two sneak peeks at books that are on their way.  I'm sorry that we don't have them for you yet but now you've seen one of the great truisms about booksellers -- we're usually either reading something that isn't out yet or we're reading something that's been out for a while.  Late or early but never on time, it's story of my life.

Have a great spring!

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