McCammon’s Swan Song — Apocalypse Then

McCammon’s Swan Song: A review

***Spoilers***

Swan SongColliding worlds, epidemics, vampires, aliens, zombies–writers just love ending the world and we just love reading about how it all goes down.

Everyone dies, except us–or those characters who are our surrogates. One particularly gruesome ending has fallen out of favor–World War III with its mushroom clouds and the President in the War Room agonizing on whether or not to take the Ruskies with us into that bad night of a nuclear winter. He always does.

Because the world is different now from the world of the mid-eighties when McCammon wrote Swan’s Song, what limited appeal this novel possessed has all but evaporated. I’m a boomer and all boomers relate to the fear of global nuclear war; we grew up with it. McCammon renders the nuclear nightmare in vivid detail, focusing on characters struggling to free themselves from environments that saved their lives but now threaten to become tombs.

One particular bit of irony is a survivalist enclave dug into a mountain.

There’s a gym, a movie theater, apartments, etc. and as always happens–the best laid plans fall flat. A whole mountain collapsing on you–take that survivalists. No control of your fate–all luck of the draw. Unlike Stephen King’s The Stand, another end-of-the world scenario, we’re not invested in McCammon’s characters. I think that’s because he devotes so much of the novel to showing us how devastating an all out nuclear war would be, not just to humans, but to everything.

It’s hard to say who the protagonist is– I guess it would be Swan–a young girl who can talk to plants.

It is Swan who will save the world by giving pep talks to trees, grass, crops etc, spreading seeds and re-growing where ever she goes–a kind of “Swannie Appleseed.” Sorry, I couldn’t resist. The antagonist, similar to The Stand’s Randall Flagg is a devil with a small “d.”

The devil keeps whining about how it’s now “his” party and he gets to decide what happens, which is everybody and everything dies.

I kept wondering–if he gets his way, what will he do for entertainment when everyone is gone. Of course he doesn’t win–Swan has his number and puts him in his place. This novel was long–way too long–over 800 pages. McCammon could have carved out at least two hundred pages of that fruit and nut ingredient necessary to every apocalypse mix–the military mad men, the crazies and the religious zealots. The battle scenes were detailed and endless.

In terms of characters–there’s lots of pat psychoanalysis but not much in the way of real people to care about. Like King’s The Stand, McCammon’s Swan Song indicates he doesn’t care a lot for the military or much in the way of government.

I know McCammon can write–I read Boy’s Life years ago and it was such a pleasure. I intend to read some of his other novels and expect I’ll enjoy them. One thing–I’m glad that threat of a nuclear winter is diminishing. On top of everything, there would be nothing to eat–unless of course you’re a zombie.

Since I first posted this review, I have read several books by Robert McCammon. What an amazing body of work! I particularly liked the premise of The Border, the way he used setting and culture in Stinger and I loved his Matthew Corbett mysteries, set in the New York of the 18th Century. Fascinating! I look forward to the next installment.

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Aztec Autumn

Aztec Autumn: A review

aztec autumn  Like AZTEC, Gary Jenning’s novel published in 1980, Jennings’ sequel, AZTEC AUTUMN. published in 1997, takes place in 16th century Mexico.

The novel AZTEC, as I remember it, was so vivid, the world of the exotic Aztec culture, mystical, sensual and incredibly blood-thirsty, so fascinating that though I remember few details, I remember my reaction–mesmerized. AZTEC AUTUMN begins with the death of Mixtli–the half-blind narrator of AZTEC, who tells his life-story to the Spanish clergy. Carlos, the Spanish king, wants an account of the Aztecs, who, in the view of Spain, are a sinful pagan culture.

Declared a heretic, Mixtli burns at the stake–a public execution witnessed by an eighteen-year-old Aztec, Tenamaxtli.

Visiting the City of Mexico with his uncle and mother, Tenamaxtli watches the old man’s death, which both fascinates and repulses him. When his uncle reveals that the executed man, Mixtli was Tenamaxtli’s father, Tenamaxtli vows revenge. He searches for a way to strike the Spanish invaders–making them pay for the brutal enslavement and exploitation of the Azteca. Tenamaxtli learns Spanish from the Christian monks and during this segment, Jennings describes the intricate caste system based on race, created by the intermarriage and mingling of European, African and Indian people.

After learning the language of the conquistadors, Tenamaxtli sets out on a journey to unite the tribes and drive out the Spanish.

The journey involves a lot of sex and violence and along the way we do learn some history as well as the different customs of the various tribes. While this is interesting, the point of the narrative often loses focus. In addition, Tenamaxtli often proves to be as heartless as the Spanish–not only with the invaders but with his fellow Azteca. The thing I most missed in this sequel was the element of mysticism and sense of the supernatural. Jennings does attempt to bring this in, for example with the Yaki woman who seethes with hate, causes mischief, and talks about herself in third person, claiming no man can resist her. Tenamaxtli has news for her. She’s not the boss of him and she proves to be an empty plot line.

I found AZTEC AUTUMN mildly interesting but not compelling.

It was a disappointment after the marvelous AZTEC. However, if you love historical novels and exotic cultures, you might enjoy spending some time with Tenamaxtli–an Azteca who fought against the tide of history.

Moonlight becomes you; it goes with your lair

The Last Werewolf: A review

***Spoilers***

last werewolf  THE LAST WEREWOLF, written by British author, Glen Duncan, was published in 2011. THE LAST WEREWOLF is the eighth novel for Duncan and a sequel, TALLULAH RISING followed in 2012. As might be expected, Marlowe, the protagonist of THE LAST WEREWOLF, is a werewolf–“the last werewolf ” he informs the reader in the first person narrative.

The opening sentence announces that second to the last werewolf (“The Berliner”) just bit the dust courtesy of Grainer, a “Hunter.”

Grainer, a man with small hard eyes who has Native American ancestors works with WOCOP, an organization that keeps track of supernatural shenanigans, including vampires (down to fifty “families’) and werewolves–down now, to only Marlowe. Marlowe killed and ate Grainer’s father, so it’s not just business; it’s personal. Marlowe is funny, literate and when it comes to the low down on the lupines and the vamps, very informative. Even though, by his own admission Marlowe has killed, eviscerated, intentionally delighting in the terror he causes before he chows down on his victims (over two thousand and counting) Marlowe is shaken by the news that Grainer beheaded “The Berliner” rather than just shooting him with a silver bullet. Why so squeamish?

I wished I liked Marlowe and cared whether or not he lives to feed under another full moon. I don’t.

Besides creating Marlowe’s vivid dark humor, Mr. Duncan’s use of language is dazzling. “The hand I lifted to wipe my face was the impatient ghost of the other hand, the hybrid thing, heavy, elegant, claw-tipped.” He employs numerous allusions, including quotes throughout- such as Blake’s “Did He who made the lamb make thee?” There’s a semester’s worth of literature in these nods: Lady Chatterley’s Lover (“We’re like Connie and Mellor’s at the end, apart, chaste,…”) The ill-fated Harley, Marlowe’s “familiar” tells him “You’ll actually be flying private charter as Matt Arnold.” Duncan’s style is “Literary” with a capital “L.”

Marlowe is over two hundred years old–middle-aged by werewolf standards.

Werewolves can live to be four hundred or so. Along with literature, we get nods to what’s current in 2012–Obama’s “Audacity of hope,” “American Idol,” and so on. Duncan also gets the jump on his critics by having Marlowe say, “I can think back to a time when something like this would have annoyed or at least amused me, that the democracy Westerners truly got excited about was the one that made every blogging berk a critic and every frothing fascist a political pundit.”

I particularly liked Duncan’s knack for boiling down complex concepts into a sentence or two.

In describing his state of mind after meeting Tallulah, a “she” werewolf, Marlowe says “I’ve stopped abstracting. This is love. You stop bothering about the universal, the general, get sucked instead into the local and particular. When will I see her again? What shall we do today?” His prose is lush–so lush that at times I found it intrusive–then plain annoying. “The little combat flurry had left me with a post-adrenaline heaviness, worsened now by the predictability of the picture revealed by joining the dots.” Sometimes you say wow and other times–enough already.

Okay–so here’s where I get all “Church Lady” (a 1980’s Saturday Night Live character for those of you who don’t know) on you.

Marlowe takes pains to provide us with his sexual preferences–detailing the ins and outs of his encounters with prostitutes–especially the “ins.” He describes various orifaces–“the moist crinkle of Madeline’s anus,’ “I had oral, vaginal and anal sex with her (in that order; I repeat, I’m not a misogynist.)” After meeting Tallulah, his she-wolf-dream-girl–“I wanted to go back to her clean and put my nose in her cunt and my tongue in her sweet young asshole.” All righty. I think we get it! I’m not a prude. My second book has a considerable amount of erotica. But, in my opinion Marlowe’s obsession is a tad overkill, pardon the pun. TMI people! You get the feeling that Duncan’s put a lot of himself into the old wolf-man. Whatever. I suppose that you can make the case that dogs greet each other by sniffing rear ends so it stands to reason that Marlowe might find them a particular focal point.

I have two structural issues with this book and one on theme.

Duncan introduces the idea of “Quinn’s book.” Quinn’s book might have information on the origin of werewolves. Written by a 1930’s archeologist named Quinn, Marlow has been seeking it for years. After using it as a carrot to lure Marlowe into cooperating with vampires who now have it under lock and key, Duncan just drops the device, having Marlowe decide that to know how werewolves originated is pointless. No fair–Duncan. Marlowe may not care, but we, the readers do.

Marlowe, as a character, doesn’t change.

Although he finds in Tallulah a reason to live, she’s really an extension of him. It’s self-love and the same narcissism that allowed Marlowe to choose to live by inflicting gory horrifying death on thousands enables him to be “in love” with someone who can share his hedonistic existence.

By creating an antagonist like Grainer, Duncan fails to have Marlowe come to terms with his prolonged existence.

The monotony and the cost to his humanity can be avoided because Marlowe’s wits and resources are engaged by being the object of “The Hunt.” This book was very interesting and at times, engrossing.

Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Duncan was slumming–showing the genre world how it’s done. In the process, he engaged my brain, but never my gut. I just never cared, and in fiction, that’s what keeps you turning the pages.

 

LUMINARIUM: There’s nothing like a brain.

A Review

In commenting on the solar system family photo taken by Voyager 1, Carl Sagan referred to the “blue dot”  as home to every human who has ever lived.  Now,  we’re looking at potential lots on Mars,  and using real cash for virtual reality property. LUMINARIUM explores computer generated virtual reality as well as the different realities created by the brain itself.

LUMINARIUM is the second novel by Alex Shakar. His first novel, THE SAVAGE GIRL, a fantasy about Pop Culture, was a New York Times Notable Book.

LUMINARIUM begins in the New York of August  2006.  Protagonist Fred Brounian sits in a  black vinyl recliner as  someone attaches wires to a helmet that he’s wearing. Fred is a paid lab rat, part of an experiment  by neuro-scientists at NYU.   Several sessions have him wearing the helmet.  Each session will stimulate a different part of his brain. The aim, the attractive researcher explains,  is for Fred to experience an after-death “Rapture,” without the death part. The goal is to induce the “God” experience, freeing the subject from the “ignorance” of faith.

Fred, a thirty-something software designer, needs the money. Fred is paying for the hospital care of his identical twin brother and business partner George.

George, whose cancer has nearly consumed him, has been in a coma for months. George and Fred were CEO partners of a software company whose virtual reality program “Urth” “an anime style world of pastoral villages and underwater bubble towns…” should have made them  rich. A “best laid plan,” it falls apart when  911 happens.  Slick operators  steal the company. Quirky little Urth  belongs to Armation, a military  enterprise  in Florida, where “a ready pool of Disney Imagineers, Pixar animators, and Electronic Arts programmers” convert Urth into a military simulations program.  George wanted to start over and create a game of “spiritual evolution.” Fred  accused him of thinking “reality was up for grabs.”

Sam, George and Fred’s younger brother, is an executive in the new Armation order, and is helping the move  to Florida.   Sam suggested that Urth software would be useful in simulating urban disaster search and rescue.  Sam’s need for control is right out of the Steve Jobs playbook.  His social skills make Jobs look like Bill Clinton.

There have been  glitches in the new search and rescue program, and a suggestion of sabotage. Fred is the most likely suspect. He and George saw their company stolen and their work compromised. There were  hard feelings, but Fred needs his old job back.  Fred’s first lab rat session results in a hyper-awareness that causes him to shadow an old woman in pin-curls, who meanders into a store and shoplifts. This results in his arrest for shoplifting  tweezers. That’s right, tweezers. In addition, Fred receives emails from comatose George, a situation that threatens his already tentative hold on reality. As Fred struggles to regain stability in his life, the disorientation caused by the lab experiments, and more messages from George, result in him questioning his sanity. He wonders if someone is playing a cruel joke.

Fred is surrounded by illusion and mysticism. His father is an actor and a magician. Fred’s mother practices Reiki, a Japanese brand of energy healing. Mom believes that George emanates a healing energy from his hospital bed. As Fred tries to make sense of his expanded senses, the product, we assume, of the lab experiments,  we, along with Fred, have difficulty sorting out reality. Shakar’s use of stream-of-consciousness in these sequences reminded me of the movie Altered States with a swirl (the old woman’s pin curls, “this infinite pinwheel of shit,“The spiral had twisted shut again…”) of the senses that blurs the lines between different realities.

The cryptic emails from George contain the word “avatara.” Researching Hinduism, Fred discovers identical twin avataras, Nara and Narayana, who represent the human and the divine. The concept of “duality” is used throughout the novel. Fred clings to his identical twin. He reads stories to George about simultaneous twin occurrences, which “according to Carl Jung are …the dual manifestation of a single collective unconscious.” Fred questions how to “stand the two-sided coin on edge“– experiencing the divine, the supernatural,  never able to verify. Is existence the result of some cosmic plan or is everything random?

Under all of this searching for alternate realities and the exploration of religions is the fear of death. Calendar pages mark dates leading to the fifth anniversary of the loss of the Trade Center Twin Towers. The enormity of this event permeates LUMINARIUM. Fred contemplates death, but can’t imagine not being somewhere.  New York copes, but is forever changed. Fred faces a future where he is no longer a  twin.

Creating different realities is a way of coming to terms with death. Besides the programs of various virtual worlds, Shakar takes us to a Florida mini-golf course , which is a virtual world modeled on pre-911 New York.  Armation Florida employees live in the planned community “Celebration,”  designed for controlled reality.  Pre-fab reality is predictable and as safe as the womb. Sam yearns for it; Fred is both attracted and repelled.

George coins the word “holomelancholia…the inevitable disappointment of virtual worlds.” This concept fascinates me. I wrote my second book (currently in revisions) in response to Kurzweil’s prediction of the utopias that await us via mind-uploading. In Bali Hai, the “post-biological destination” setting of my novel Tales From Babylon Dreams, everything is perfect but the past. Through mind-uploading, we can escape death, but we can’t escape ourselves. Our bodies wear out, but can the human spirit live on indefinitely? One thing that makes life worth living is the luck of the draw, the chance that dreams can be realized or  taken away. As Eric Packer, the protagonist of Cosmopolis (see my film review) did, I think eventually, we would all choose the “void.”

In his letter to readers, Shakar puts it this way: “How do we deal with a changed world, with a universe that one day seemed with us and the next seems to turn against us and oppose us at every turn?”

LUMINARIUM is the third literary novel that I have reviewed at length on this blog.  It is the first that I totally recommend. The stream of consciousness style is dense. The long paragraphs were a challenge to my short-attention span, but I kept on reading.  There were a few places where I felt he was doing a research paper rather than telling a story, but not too many to lose my interest in what happens to Fred. In his comments on LUMINARIUM  in the New York Times Sunday Book Review,  Christopher R. Beha remarks, “This premise, however ingenious, might have yielded a schematic novel of ideas, if Shakar weren’t so committed to showing his readers a good time.”  I feel that Shakar’s respect for his readers is reflected in this commitment to “show us a good time.”  Shakar gives us a complete, heartfelt story.  Telling a story well and entertaining readers should not be limited to genre writers. Along the way, Shakar looks for answers, but doesn’t claim success.

If mind-uploading happens before I face whatever waits on the other side of that coin, I would like to float around in a place like Shakar’s “Urth,” especially in one of those underwater bubble towns. Maybe I’ll find Ringo’s Octopus’ Garden.