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Sercon Jottings

(Published in Science Fiction Eye #5, July 1989)

Unicorn Mountain by Michael Bishop

reviewed by Lenny Bailes

Unicorn Mountain, a novel by Michael Bishop, insinuates itself gently into the subconscious strata of the mind that underly belief structures. The story builds quietly, creating ripples in the soul that persist after the last page is turned.

From the title, you might think Bishop is attempting a crossover from the low-paying s-f market to the more lucrative "teenaged-girl / horse story" genre -- and you might not be totally off-the-mark in that assumption. But Unicorn Mountain isn't really an exploitive bid to milk the aesthetics of a genre market. Instead, it's a low-key narrative that, after completion, leaves a lingering spiritual aftertaste (like in kind to a Brian Eno instrumental suite).

Unicorn Mountain contains a series of well-sketched characters: The protagonist, a Colorado rancher who shelters an AIDS victim, is drawn from the "Rawhide and Roses" mystique of the '60s, But she is fleshed in the pragmatism of the '80s.

The gay, big-city graphic designer -- forced to deal with his HIV-positive diagnosis -- is a convincing representative of the treachery of the times we live in.

The Ute Indians (who neighbor the story's principal rancher turf), permit Bishop to successfully evoke the Native American view of the world -- a counterpoint to sad, White pragmatism. Endless blue skies and rivers, stuffed-doll animal spirits, and the smokelike appearance of a greater spiritual presence -- these elements subtly insinuate themselves into the story of the AIDS-stricken graphic designer, who discovers an unexpected escape route from the grim reality that he faces.

The unicorns of the title are represented as travelers from a psychic realm. For some of the people in the book, the unicorns also take on a flesh and blood attribute. But this fantasy element doesn't take center stage; it's an overlay on a realistic novel of relationships. The kar'tajan (unicorns) seem no less incredible in the novel's context than the cruel plague of AIDS. Both intrude into post-1980 America in what must surely be a skewed event-matrix. How can either of these things be happening? The novel succeeds precisely because of its realistic depiction of personal struggle within a progressively dreamlike setting.

In the course of his development as an s-f writer, Bishop's style and philosophical concerns have undergone a change. His later writing makes a transition from storytelling values to textural overlays of mood and color.

Eyes of Fire, an early Bishop novel, was a good read. It dressed up a series of traditional tribal folktales in the stfnal clothing of a constructed "Glaktic Empire." Tranfigurations brought a Sturgeonesque sense of wonder to extraterrestrial biology. In Transfigurations Bishop began playing with the form of his narrative to break out of the H.L. Gold/Campbell template; the '50s Alien Story.

Bishop's explorations of biology gradually become paleontology as his sense of narrative time continues to evolve. In No Enemy But Time Bishop creates a Moebius strip, not out of paper, but of the fabric of the protagonist's lifeline.

In The Catacomb Years we see Bishop as social critic, dropping some almost Christian reproach into his humanized Caves of Steel. We find six David Bowie-like aliens exhibited in a fishbowl at an Atlanta supermarket. These aliens, with their spiritual and religious values, appear again in the closing movement of The Secret Ascension.

With Ancient of Days Bishop returns to a conventional narrative style. He allows the stfnal elements of his work to step into the light of a mainstream novel.

Unicorn Mountain continues in Bishop's new, enhanced conventional narrative style. While reading it I missed the panoramic density of the earlier No Enemy But Time. But some haunting resonance with Brian Eno's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is still discernable. Unicorn Mountain mixes its mysticism with the prosaic intrusion of corporate marketing, television news networks, and other nonmagical phenomena. The source of Bishop's spirit-music has shifted from "the material world, long ago" to a more remote dimension. The music is thinner -- closer to where the spirit lives when it isn't escaping into the pages of a novel.

Unicorn Mountain is also a downshift from the flamboyant parallel worlds of Phil Dick (that Bishop borrowed for The Secret Ascension). The texture of the narrative is more elusive.

After placing this book up on the shelf, I still find myself thinking about spirit disease vectors and ghost TV channels. Somehow they mirror believable dynamics of an unexplored physics: meta, para or psycho -- take your pick.

(first draft published in The New York Review of Science Fiction #30, February 1991)

Two Tales from Asimov's Spaceport Bar & Grill

reviewed by Lenny Bailes

Tale 1. The Secret of Kirinyaga

I've been reading some of Mike Resnick's short stories lately, trying to fathom the secret of his popularity. These are some notes I've taken on the subject:

It appears, in the story, that a noble tribe of Kenya has made a cultural migration. From the pages of National Geographic, the tribe has leapt into orbit around Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine.

One man keeps vigil in the transition. He is the estimable patriarch/witch doctor of the tribe. The Witch Doctor's job is to uphold the sacred, exotically marketable traditions of his people. (An animal fable or two may be narrated within the story to establish this point.)

Two or three times a year a woman arrives at the Witch Doctor's hut via Gardner Dozois' spaceport. Typically, the woman demands unheard of and outrageous things from the tribe:

"I will sweep the floors, clean the goat dung, and worship my husband. Only let me make my own clothes -- or read a book -- or play the flute!"

"Jambo," the witch doctor cautiously replies. "My heart leaps out to you and your spirit. But you must know such things are forbidden to the women of the Kirinyaga."

The woman goes off to sweep the floors. The simple tribespeople continue to raise goats, occasionally speaking authentic African words to one another. The Witch Doctor retreats to his mysterious fortress of solitude on a hill that overlooks the village. He flips on his VCR or plays a little Nintendo. But, inevitably, a tribesperson interrupts the Witch Doctor at his video games.

"Mundumugu! Mundumugu! The woman you sent to us violates all tribal decency with her audacious activities. You cannot permit this to continue."

The Witch Doctor reluctantly powers down his modem and (donning his tribal mask) he attends to the problem. "Knock off this equal human rights stuff," he tells the woman. "Or I shall have to place my curse on you."

"Agh." says the woman. "Not that!"

Several pages later, depending upon which of the stories we're discussing, the woman a) dies of a broken heart, b) is banished back to terrestrial Africa, or c) otherwise vacates the tribal premises.

The Witch Doctor muses to himself in the closing pages of each tale: "It is, indeed, a proud and lonely thing to relate these moral allegories to you readers back on Earth." His troubled visage brightens momentarily as he contemplates a great truth.

"We cannot banish what the author has created for us, simply because we find it repugnant or annoying." After expressing this thought the Witch Doctor sighs and retires, once more, to his electronic cottage. He continues to cull through issues of National Geographic -- until the next unfortunate woman is due in at the IASFm Spaceport.

Tale 2: Skill City (1)

by *L's Shepherd*

I was a science fiction fan in those days, twenty-nine, and not thinking much past nineteen.

Mostly I hung out in Alphabet City. That's right -- filing catalog cards in the UC Library alphabet, for $5.00 an hour. But once in awhile I would wander over to West Campus.

There's this used bookstore in Westwood Village where the street people buy their paperbacks. One night I trailed a bespectacled computer science major into the dark corner of the store where the prozines were shelved.

"This is not where it's happening, nerd!" I shouted. I threw an Ace Science Fiction Special at him, sending him spinning down the aisle. "This is the pulp stacks; the moldy old-wave section."

"You're never gonna get turned on down here!"

As I hurried away, a book dislodged itself from the shelves. It was The Startling Worlds of Henry Kuttner.

"This is no cutting-edge genre tale," I thought to myself. (You know how it is; talking that talk -- throwing in a large jungle animal or two. Soon you believe you're hanging out with all manner of wonderfully exotic folk!)

Henry Kuttner, 1947. Most of the hip people I know wouldn't open an s-f book written before 1965. In fact, this one little digest-size mag comes out every month where --

But no. This story is about Lucius. Let's keep it on track. I was going to say I'd always given a lot of credence to Lucius' genius. I couldn't disregard the way the man strung his sentences together. According to rumors, he supported a nice habit without cribbing a single issue of National Geographic. And that, as far as I was concerned, was reason enough to mainline another issue of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine with his name on the cover.

What you did with Asimov's, you thumbed past the ads, head down, and flipped pages in a hurry. Once I snuck a peek on the way to a Connie Willis story and saw the following:


--everyone begins as the scum of the earth! With adept play and good deeds, players accumulate points as they ascend through the ranks of the 'Commonplace & Vulgar,' 'Heroes & Heroines,' and finally arrive at the 'Great Saintly.'" (2).

That's how it was. Just the thing to whet your excitement at the crossroads of Sewage & Destiny -- a crossroads where, sometime later, Lucius S. was promising a confluence for one of his "special reads." C'mon," said the blurb, "let's go." And I followed....

Now you don't want to be arguing with any dude's been known to wield a heavy pen, like L.S. can. But what, man? Please tell me what -- was to be found in this junkie's-eye-view, slice of a digest-sized barrio?

I'll tell you what. Hanging tough here, through a 20-year timewarp, we see a canny doper torn away from his archetypal weed fantasy. By means of a magic radio/CD player, we are propelled into a parallel universe. (Carl's Magic Radio from the old Beach Boys album, man! Blended with some contemporary valium mysticism that just pops open our contrapuntal fugue state.)

Lucius says:

"I got fuckin' obsessed with the idea. First, I put down background vocal tracks in Latin, Arabic. Conjuring spells and like that. But that didn't do diddley, so I got this guy who's a math genius. A music guy, but he knew math, too. He transcribed some of the spells into math, then turned the math into music."

L. Sprague De Camp and Greg Bear, move over, please! Meet my main man in Skill City. Augmented Elvis records played backward transport us to the City of Dys. Every time, man!

So there we are -- swashbuckling through the parallel streets of the A-world. We vow to defeat the evil priesthood and rescue the beautiful princess; just like Hank used to do!

And dig it! We will meet again, (the beautiful princess and ourselves), one world over -- in the sacred streets of New York City! (3).

It's just like Hank's old hero laid it down to the talking wolf. (At the end of The Dark World, man!)

Media, witch of cool grist -- how I might have reigned with thee!

You fellas spot any telepathic jungle cats hanging out on this turf, you just drop old L.S. a line and let him know, hear?
- - -

  1. Skull City, by Lucius Shepard appeared in IASFM, July 1990
  2. Copyright 1987, Avalon Hill Game Company, Baltimore, MD
  3. See The Picture and the Portal, in Three Startling Stories by Henry Kuttner.

The novelette The Manamouki, by Mike Resnick, can be found in IASFM, July 1990.

(From a 1994 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction)

The Gypsy by Steven Brust & Megan Lindholm

reviewed by Lenny Bailes

The Gypsy concerns itself with the fate and fortunes of a smalltown police officer and his daughter during the investigation of a Gypsy murder. Three mysterious Gypsy brothers wander in and out of of the novel, dissolving the straightforward narrative with their own affairs and adventures. The Gypsy gradually unfolds more information about the Gypsy brothers and the police officer until we see that they are connected in a gestalt that transcends the linear plotline of the murder investigation.

In this "Pre-Joycean" fable, (Brust's own term for the flavor of fiction he produces) the demarcation between the contemporary narrative and the allegorical material is deliberately fuzzed:

The reader is invited to take part in a waking dream; but the illusion is not seamless. Brust has publicly expressed his discontent with the formal device of dividing a narrative into chapters -- hence the framing device of signalling transitions with song lyrics. I found that this technique occasionally heightened the mood of the story for me. The "Raven, Owl and I" ballad fills in strategic characterization without telegraphing subsequent plot events. Some of the other lyrics are didactic and metrically monotonous. I found they jarred my attention away from the story and telegraphed too much, defeating the editorial or Greek Chorus effect. If The Gypsy were a movie, the song words and music together would serve better as a soundtrack. (And with the authors' flair for set design and atmosphere, the movie might hold its own in the cinematic genre that produced Baron Munchausen and The Fisher King.)

Building a compelling psychic tableau on paper from a few aphorisms is a tricky business. Jonathan Carroll seems to manage it in his novels by eventually abdicating auctorial responsibility for supernatural events. In Carroll's books magical happenings tend to affect the characters only on a magical plane, Brust and Lindholm are more ambitious in The Gypsy, but they have a correspondingly tougher task in showing how all of the psychic events make real-world sense.

Megan Lindholm served her wizardly apprenticeship in the Will Shetterly/Emma Bull edited Liavek anthologies (which also contain some character studies by Brust). Lindholm's mastery of the "Jack Vanceian" style of exotic magic is illustrated in The Windsingers, the second of her four Ky and Vandien Gypsy novels.

The Ky and Vandien books generally intermingle colorful, magic adventures with feminist philosophy. The Limbreth Gate also contains a strong psychedelic stream of consciousness. Although Ky, the Gypsy woman, is an idealized, romantic character, Lindholm continues her spirit in a more realistic vein with Cloven Hooves, a novel of the spiritual and physical travails of a young woman who must choose between fantasy and reality.

Creating willing suspension of disbelief is something that both authors have excelled at in previous works. Lindholm's Wizard of Pigeons has become a sought-after cult classic that establishes her own brand of American magic realism. Drawing upon diverse influences, from Peter Beagle to Ken Kesey, Wizard of Pigeons combines gritty street wisdom with whimsy, and a voice of conscience.

Brust's Vlad Taltos books are remarkable for their attention to detail and for their carefully choreographed action sequences. The Taltos books often flash forward and flash back to books not yet written. Yet each book in the series is meticulously consistent with the previous ones, unfolding "old" events in deeper detail or jumping ahead in time to something new. In Jhereg, Brust starts to reveal the history of his fantasy country -- creating background that becomes the main storyline for Taltos. Within individual Dragaeran novels, the narrative will often flash forward to highlight a sardonic plot twist. Just as the reader forms a picture of the situation, Brust returns to the past to fill in the gaps. The story eventually comes around to the flashpoint again, and this time the reader is equipped to fully appreciate all of the situation's dramatic irony.

If The Gypsy has weaknesses, they are in the attempt to blend both realistic and poetic elements to create a believable story. Too many events in The Gypsy seem to occur because the authors enjoy visualizing the tableau they've created, not because the events are logical consequences of the characters' actions. The three Gypsy brothers, their coachman, and the old fortune-teller are fated to constantly stumble into one another at times convenient for advancing the narrative. (Brust, by the way, loves to stage scenes with flambuoyant backdrops, subliminally suggesting archetypal portents. Fans of the original Dracula movie will have no difficulty visualizing "the Coachman.")

The moral of The Gypsy is this: If you don't believe in destiny -- if you can't perceive the archetypal beings who shape worlds and determine human fate -- then you are going through life half- blind.

Brust's earlier The Sun, Moon, and the Stars makes excellent use of a folktale as allegorical material. It meticulously links a contemporary, mainstream tale with a fable of these self-same Gypsy brothers. Published in Ace Books' Fairy Tale series (subsequently acquired by Tor), The Sun, Moon and The Stars is a modern narrative of the lives and psyches of young bohemian artists. The modern story in the book is strategically intercut with Brust's rendering of a Hungarian folktale. There, the allegorical material neatly offsets and fleshes out the concerns of the contemporary artist-protagonists.

The Gypsy is a book you'll enjoy if you enjoy elaborately woven, baroque settings (for instance, you'll probably like it, if you liked Peter Beagle's The Folk of the Air).The Gypsy's dialog and plot are less finely honed than what you'll see in works by the co-authors as individuals. But the book's compelling spirit of righteous mysticism makes it a compelling read.

(From the April 2002 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction)

The Golden Globe by John Varley

reviewed by Lenny Bailes

The Golden Globe is John Varley's best novel to date. It's a book full of ideas, plot twists, and well-drawn characters.  This is a book that may appeal to literary readers (who aren’t steeped in the conventions of the s-f genre), as well as being a good read for hardcore s-f addicts (who are quite familiar with the rest of Varley’s opus).

Some of the brilliant memes that Varley developed in  previous stories are put to good use here. The Golden Globe is a novel of character, set in the colorful solar system that previously belonged to Hildy Johnson (and to the artist/detectives of The Barbie Murders). In this story, the Outer Planet colonies are the backdrop for a picaresque travelogue: the life and times of Sparky Valentine, a scruffy 22nd Century stage actor .

Sparky is a failed Shakespearean actor. In the opening pages, we meet him backstage on an  Outland planet theatrical circuit. Sparky describes his miraculous Moebius-extended theatre trunk, as he uses it to conjure up a gender-bending costume.  We get a stage-eye view of  Sparky’s performance as the ingenue in Romeo and Juliet. (He has to play a dual role on this night, since the company's Juliet is a no-show.) Varley takes us onto the stage with Sparky, and we remain there for several scenes of the play.  As in Michael Frayn's Noises Off, we see the actors in motion, on stage, and backstage between scenes. Sparky is a trouper, and describes the interplay between his fellow actors with a jaundiced eye:

"At long last a scene I wasn't in.

While Romeo poured out his heart to Friar Lawrence (and this performance only, tried to hump the Friar's leg), I staggered back to my dressing room with a full ten minutes to change back to Mercutio.  And who should I find there but Dahlia Smithson [the missing "Juliet"], by now neither rich jewel, fair sun, nor snowy dove. I'd say she was closer to an envious moon, sick and pale. That which we call a rose would smell of gin.  See how she leans her cheek upon her hand! See how her eyes twinkling in their spheres, bulge from her head as she points to me and says, "What the fuck are you doing here in my costume?

She bent over and threw up on the floor."

After the play ends, we discover that Sparky is a man on the run; and we learn more about his history.  The bad guys are after him and he has to take it on the lam.

The intercut flashbacks that drive Varley’s narrative are reminiscent of passages in William Goldman novels. Yet, hardcore s-f readers may find resonances of Heinlein and Jack Vance in Varley's carefully- extrapolated planetary landscapes.

Sparky flees the outworld theater circuit and takes refuge on a partially-terraformed Pluto. There, he faces his accumulated karma and continues his career as a performer.  We discover that he is fairly resourceful at evading the agents of his former employer – thugs dispatched by an art fence who'd like to even the score with Sparky for some sleight-of-hand in an extra-Solar swindle. 

The Charonese are a rich gang of ex-felons—descendants of prisoners who were shipped out to Pluto's largest moon after Pluto graduated from its function as a Solar Australia.  Sparky's art-fence employer is a Charonese "ferryman" who doesn't like being crossed.  As pursuers chase Sparky from stage to stage, we see him successfully evade capture and  learn more details about his personal life. We meet Toby, a dog who lives in Sparky's theatre trunk, and we discover that Sparky is on the run from a childhood as a famous, pampered TV star.

Varley switches to third-person narrative, mid-novel, to fill  us in on Sparky’s history as a child star in the Lunar entertainment "sindustry" (complete with co-dependent, John Barrymore-like father). This story-within-a-story creates a devastating picture of "Lunar Hollywood."  Varley spices the narrative with  satiric epistolary clips from entertainment rags. We see that Kenneth "Sparky" Valentine's story is not unlike that of Rudy Schwartz, the child prodigy in William Goldman's Boys and Girls Together.

In Goldman’s novel, Rudy's father, Sid, sought to bribe the child with food.  Sid delighted in being the big cheese behind his child's showbiz career, compensating for failure and frustration in his own life.  Sparky's father, John Valentine, has a bit more class. A  Shakespearean actor, John Valentine attempts to groom  young Kenneth/Sparky to follow in his footsteps.  Through Sparky's third-person reminiscenses, we track father and son on their way to a theatrical audition in Hygenis Rima.  (Hygenis Rima is the entertainment capital of Varley's Lunar colony, equivalent to Hollywood in 20th Century California.) 

Like Sid, in Boys and Girls Together, Sparky's father has a sadistic streak. John Valentine is guilty of administering excessive corporal punishment to his child.  Goldman's Rudy is driven into a catatonic state by his parents' cruelty; but Kenneth Valentine (nicknamed "Dodger" in this part of the story) takes his lumps and goes on. Kenneth/Dodger continues to worship his father. He compensates for John Valentine's brutality by inventing an invisible guardian angel named Elwood. Elwood is a W.C. Fields-like character who intervenes in times of extreme emergency and offers Kenneth comfort.  We meet Elwood as an external character, from the afflicted young Kenneth's point of view.  As the story progresses, we (along with the elder Kenneth/Sparky) learn to put Elwood in context—as a schizophrenic splinter of Sparky’s mind.  

Sparky's adult, first-person reminiscenses show us that Kenneth Valentine was the most famous child actor in the history of Lunar television. In a nod to Curly Wright's actual Our Gang movies of the 1930s, we see Kenneth play the mischievous "Sparky," leader of a 22nd Century band of Little Rascals. Varley tracks the connivance of the adult managers and producers through the first and third-person narratives, following the commercial success of Sparky and His Gang.  We see John Valentine's rise to power, and Sparky's rise to fame, through a series of gossip-sheet excerpts and tear-sheet articles from a digital, Lunar Variety.  These excerpts are one of the cleverest accomplishments of the novel.  It’s here, in particular, that The Golden Globe  tastes like a William Goldman  story.

As Sparky's childhood memoires progress, Varley offers us some new information about the shared background elements from his other stories. The Luna of The Golden Globe has descendents of the "Dinosaur Disneylands"  that Varley developed in his classic novella, The Phantom of Kansas.  We learn a bit more about the schizophrenic master computer that governs Luna, about the oddball Luna "Celebrity Church," the "Disneyland" microenvironments, and the Heinlein-worshipping starship cult.  Hildy Johnson, the reporter-narrator of Steel Beach, even puts in an appearance to unravel a mystery.

As we become more deeply enmeshed in the relationship between Kenneth and John Valentine, The Golden Globe moves forward to a remarkable conclusion.  Events in the novel unfold to reveal a startling truth about Valentine-pere and Valentine-fils.

The Golden Globe is the most tightly-written novel that John Varley has yet produced. In it, he’s mastered his tendency to ramble mid-story— losing the reader in side issues. Unlike the digressions in Titan and Wizard, the ones here work for the main story, not against it. S-f scholars seeking a bridge that might unite the tastes of “literateursand  “genre readers” may find this book to be an ideal exemplar for that purpose.


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