Reading Notes: Beckett, Morrow, Tan, Zebrowski, et al

I’ve been meaning for several weeks now to catch up on commenting about books I’ve read recently, but have not gotten around to organizing my notes and preparing proper summaries. I still haven’t gotten around to that, so never mind; let me spend an hour or so posting relatively off-hand reactions to the last 10 titles that I’ve read — cover images and links already updated in the column to the right.

Let me begin by dissing Bernard Beckett’s Genesis (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), which has got a fair amount of attention since it was published six months ago in the US. The author is a New Zealander not well-known in the field, and the book is not bad, just overly familiar. It is apt to impress readers to the extent they are unfamiliar with SFnal ideas. The entire first third is an “as you know, Bob” infodump; the debate about whether machines are intelligent or have souls is hoary; and the surprise ending rather undercuts the seriousness with which the reader is presumed to have taken the preceding ideas. It’s more suitable to a short story, Twilight Zone style, rather than a novel, even one as short as this.

Especially this time of year, I read books with a background motivation for deciding, if I were asked, would this book be appropriate for including on Locus‘ annual Recommended Reading List?

Beckett: No. The next four books: yes.

Shaun Tan’s Tales from Outer Suburbia (Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine) is a collection of illustrated short stories, or perhaps more accurately, a collection of artworks with text accompaniments. This is the first book by Tan with significant original text, and while the artwork is the dominant portion of the book, and if the book doesn’t quite achieve the brilliance of Tan’s masterwork The Arrival (which has no text at all), the combination of text and art is very fine, and several of the stories could ably stand as text poignant vignettes even without the artwork.

James Morrow’s Shambling Towards Hiroshima (Tachyon) is a brilliant short novel about a 1940s B-move star hired to portray a Godzilla-like monster in a US government-sponsored film intended to scare the Japanese into believing the existence of biological superweapon. Its depiction of 1940s Hollywood is redolent of classic films of that era, and its ties to SF fandom and to real period film figures (Willis O’Brien, James Whale), are canny and clever.

George Zebrowski’s Empties (Golden Gryphon) is a short horror novel that explicitly, in its afterword, alludes to the work of Fritz Leiber. It’s about a police detective who encounters cases of random deaths that are tied to a particular woman who, it develops, (* bit a spoiler here *) has the power to displace a person’s brain to the outside of their body… While there are two or three gross-out scenes worthy of this premise, the tone of the book is decidedly low-key, in keeping with the 1940s Leiber model, and which will no doubt keep this book from achieving widespread popularity in this era of much grosser-outer packages. It is, in fact, much more interested in the psychological attitudes of its characters, and while this sort of horror may not be in current style, the book is well-written and well-conceived, and worthy of a careful reader’s attention.

Thomas M. Disch’s The Proteus Sails Again (Subterranean Press) is a novella-length sequel to the novella-length The Voyage of the Proteus, which imagined a character named Tom Disch appearing in Homeric Greece aboard a ship populated by Socrates and others. If that premise seemed self-indulgent, and this new book (which apparently was the second of a planned trilogy of novellas, unfinished) might seem equally so, in fact this book is more fascinating for its autobiographical components, especially those involving actress Elizabeth Ashley, whose accidental fire in the apartment below Disch’s was instrumental in the degradation and ruinment of Disch’s life…

Next we have Kage Baker’s The Hotel Under the Sand (Tachyon), a pleasant YA children’s [see comments below] fantasy about a girl marooned on a desert island occupied by a sand-buried hotel and its occupants. I may have been oversold by Adrienne Martini’s review in the August issue of Locus Magazine; what I read didn’t quite live up to my expectations from that review, an effect I try to be aware of when writing my own reviews. It’s a nice book, and what impressed me most was the way Baker finesses explanations for situations that in realistic terms would require more details that her text actually provides.

At this point I should acknowledge — in accordance with some federal law just passed, apparently — that the Morrow, Zebrowski, and Baker titles discussed above were all sent to Locus Online as review copies, which I gratefully acknowledge. (Others discussed were purchased by Locus Online via

One more title for tonight, also a deeply-appreciated review copy: The Collected Captain Future, Volume One, from Haffner Press. Edmond Hamilton was the quintessential space opera writer of the 1930s and ’40s, but he was an author I had never read: with this book in hand, I read the 150-page long title story, “Captain Future and the Space Emperor”, first published in 1940. It is a hoot; it is a casebook of prose the like of which is described in writing courses under the heading *do not write like this* — a compendium of “said-bookisms” such as “he muttered sickly to himself”, “the President asserted confidently”, “the thing gasped hoarsely”, and so on and on. But more than that, it’s a tale of simple presumptions about space flight and planetary natives and easy villains with unironic tags like “space emperor”… So unironic that it’s hard to believe anyone could have read this stuff without choking. Isn’t there a lesson here, though, about context and presumptions and relative sophistication? Might we reflect on what has or has not changed since then? As an example, here back in 1940 two of Edmond Hamilton’s characters debate about who or which is most human… a debate carried on in subsequent decades by Isaac Asimov and STTNG’s Data and all the way to Bernard Beckett’s Genesis. Some things never change; some debates seem never to be resolved.

Next time: Suzanne Collins, Robert J. Sawyer, Patrick Ness. And — currently deep into tiny print reading of — Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock.

3 Responses to Reading Notes: Beckett, Morrow, Tan, Zebrowski, et al

  1. Adrienne Martini

    Sorry I oversold on the Baker book. I try to be careful but get carried away every now and again. I love that book, tho.

  2. And, if you please– it's NOT a YA. It was written for an eight-year-old.

  3. Points taken. I'm sure I've been guilty of overselling stories myself, when I've written reviews, and the backlash phenomenon is inescapable in pop culture — there's no film or book or story so brilliant that its acclaim does not elicit a backlash, a sort of "oh yeah?" wiseacre reaction. I think I would have loved THE HOTEL UNDER THE SAND if I'd read it when I was 8 or 10, especially compared to some of the books I did read and love at that age. As an adult reader, let me expand a bit on what I admired — the delicate way that Baker describes things that an analytical adult such as myself could hardly believe could happen. The example that comes to mind is late in the book when the hotel is about to be towed up onto a new island. How does this happen?

    See those big palm trunks up there? We just run the cable around them and use some pulleys to winch the hotel onto the land.

    And as I'm reading I'm thinking, oh yeah? How could that possible work? Well:

    There was some complicated work involving a lot of pulleys borrowed from the ship, and Emma lost count of all the intricate twists and turns they made… Inch by inch, slowly but quite easily, the Grand Wenlocke moved ashored and then up the beach, as though it weighed no more than a rowboat.

    Somehow, without exactly explaining why it would work, the description makes you believe it happens anyway. It's very effective writing, even if I'm not quite in the target age-group for the book.

    (Note- the comment function here wouldn't let me use blockquote tags, so I used italic tags instead, for the quotes.)