You know the drill by now.
New additions to Mt. TBR this month include: my backer copy of Ecopunk!, Jordan L. Hawk’s Maelstrom, Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs, and WTNV’s It Devours!. Plus, November was the first Never Never Book Box month, adding Jacinta Maree’s Soulless and Elizabeth Jane Corbett’s The Tides Between.
Purportedly the blog of researcher Alex Case, a researcher assigned to study something called the mal in a place called The Sick Land. A creepypasta very similar to Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach books, although it appears to predate that series (the first edits for The Sick Land’s TV Tropes page are from 2013, while Annihilation was published in 2014). One minor quibble: the structure of Blogger means landing on the main page will have you reading the last entry first! To avoid spoilers, the actual first post is here.
Jeff Noon, Vurt
So Vurt is one of those books that’s been on my “casual interest” pile for a long time—I think it’s one of the first recs I ever got off GoodReads, in fact—but kept getting forgotten about on account of me never seeing it in stores (it was originally published in the ’90s). Cue mid-2017, when I happened to walk past a copy in Minotaur during one of my many trips to said store in between panels at Continuum, and… wow. All I can say is wow. Why didn’t I get to this book earlier?
I confess I have a slightly tortured relationship with the cyberpunk genre. As a kid, I remember loving the brief episodes of Max Headroom I’d sometimes catch on TV, and the greatest lasting legacy of my first boyfriend was that he introduced me to Michael Marshall Smith, specifically the book Spares.1 Transhumanism has always interested me in general, as have computers and tech, but nonetheless a lot of cyberpunk’s “genre staples”, i.e. Neuromancer, left me cold.2 In retrospect, I think my ambivalence is due to a combination of Gen X values dissonance, the genre’s racist-in-hindsight aesthetic, technical zeerust, and my actually working in IT, specifically infosec, and thus knowing Hacking Does Not Work That Way (Even In The Future). In other words, I tend to like the idea of cyberpunk—particularly Original Flavor 1980s/90s Cyberpunk—moreso than the execution of it.
Which bring me to Vurt. Written in 1993, Vurt is basically Trainspotting by way of The Matrix, with “heroin” replaced by virtual reality sims, the titular vurts, a la cyberpunk staple the BTL (one of the novel’s main characters is even called “The Beetle”). And while it was kinda panned for it at the time, for me Vurt “works” for a modern reading in a way some of its contemporaries don’t by its steadfast refusal to explain any of its technology. Vurts are basically magic; shared-but-premade, alternate-reality dream-states achieved by consuming body parts of a creature taken from the vurt-world, most commonly feathers. Vurt is a drug-addled fever-dream from start to finish. It’s something to be experienced, not analyzed, although I have a sneaking suspicion its messed-up non-logic is more accessible now—in this world where videogames are bigger business than films—than it was when it was written.
Plot-wise, the story is a straight—and intentionally so—hero’s journey, with protagonist Scribble going from hapless vurt-junkie desperate to recover his sister-lover, to… well. Still kinda hapless, but in a different way. Scribble carries this book for me; despite the overwrought Gen-X nihilism of the world he lives in, as well as his own awful life, he never manages to lose his inner cores of kindness and hope. He is refreshingly not a self-involved, too-cool-for-school narcissist, and he genuinely cares about his fellow Stash Riders, even when they’re incomprehensible tentacle aliens (like the Thing From Outer Space), or assholes (like The Beetle), or [REDACTED FOR SPOILERS] (like [REDACTED FOR SPOILERS]). I will admit I didn’t quite buy Scribble’s “hardening”—which seems to happen a little too quickly, both in narrative and in-world time, although it’s handwaveable given the novel’s framing stories, both implied and explicit—and some of the conflict in the book’s climax is a little too… pat. But, eh. Nothing’s perfect, and the wild ride of the rest of the novel is good enough compensation.
Vurt isn’t going to be the book for everyone, but if you’re the sort of person who, say, thinks Southland Tales was desperately underrated—hell, if you’re the sort of person who knows what Southland Tales even was—then Vurt just might be the trip for you.
(As an aside, apparently there was also a tabletop RPG Kickstarted for the Vurtworld and holy shit I want it but the publisher doesn’t ship to Australia. Gah!)
Dark Heresy: Enemies Without and Black Crusade (Warhammer 40k)
Continuing on my 40k kick from last month, I and this time dabbling in the (apparently now out-of-print) tabletop games.
These game-lines are pesudo-modular settings, each of which focuses on one particular group in the 40k ‘verse; the Inquisition, in the case of Dark Heresy, and the (human) forces of chaos, in the case of Black Crusade. The tone of the fluff is a lot more po-faced than the Games Workshop core book, which… okay, fair enough, given it’s working at a much more intimate scale, but it does kind of mean these books dance the line between THE GRIM DARKNESS!!!!!, which I enjoy as silly fun, and actual, like, grimdark, which I find kinda tedious. My other quibble is that, once again, there’s way too much focus on humans, a.k.a. the Least Interesting Faction, even in the non-Imperial Black Crusade. Why no rules for chaos-fallen Eldar? Or Orks? Or even just straight-up daemons? And, okay. The minion-recruiting mechanic kinda counts, I guess? But… still.
Bah. Maybe that’s just me. Whatever. These are still cool, slickly produced books filled with great art and fun fluff, and I will continue buying them so long as secondhand prices on Amazon don’t get too outrageous…
Thoraiya Dyer, Crossroads of Canopy
Dyer is a local author, and while we don’t directly know each other, we share mutual friends and acquaintances, so I was pretty excited to pick up her debut novel. Crossroads of Canopy is a high-magic high-fantasy, set within a rainforest tree-city divided horizontally into “lands”—each of which is ruled by a single, incarnated god—and vertically into class- and caste-based social strata.
I chewed through this book, probably due to my boundless hunger for both, a) rainforests, and b) high-magic fantasy settings, and there’s a lot to like in it. Which is why it’s disappointing to have to admit a combination of the novel’s grim, authoritarian worldview and played-straight narcissistic protagonist3 (both intentional choices on behalf of the author, and done effectively in-and-of-themselves) stopped me from really connecting to the narrative. YMMV.
Cassandra Khaw, “A Song for Quiet”
The second of Tor’s “HP Lovecraft revisited” novellas that I’ve read, and while it has a few good creepy images, overall this is less a horror story and more a kind of… Lovecraft-inspired magical realist piece? I guess. It’s also, apparently, the second work Khaw has done in this ‘verse and knowing (or, I suppose, not knowing) that… changes the text quite significantly, I think, in a way I won’t spoil…
Liza Daly, “Harmonia“
A beautifully presented piece of interactive fiction (“clicking simulator”?). Saying too much about “Harmonia” would spoil it, so instead just set aside half an hour or so and check it out. ⭐
Mark Frost, Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier
The sequel to The Secret History of Twin Peaks and coda to Twin Peaks: The Return, The Final Dossier is presented as a series of case notes by Tammy Preston to Gordon Cole, reflecting on both the previous book (which, in-‘verse, is a collection of conspiracy-theory-esque documents collated by “the Archivist”, a.k.a. Major Briggs) and the show. Like The Secret History, The Final Dossier is a beautiful physical artifact, but lacks the “found object” feel of its predecessor. Not to mention that, with one brief exception (an autopsy written by Albert), it’s entirely in Tammy’s words and, thus, Tammy’s “voice”.
So. First of all: this is absolutely, 100%, a companion to the TV show. Where The Secret History can arguably be read as a standalone work (or, more rightly, lead-in), The Final Dossier will not only make exactly zero sense to anyone who hasn’t seen The Return, but also contains major plot spoilers. Make no mistake: this book is basically Frost’s “headcanon” (creatorcanon?) about what was going on: it doesn’t just fill in some of the backstory and missing pieces/inconsistencies between s2 and s3, but confirms a lot of speculation on topics such as the nature of “Judy” and of the Cooperganger, what’s going on with Audrey, the parentage of Richard, and so on. It also more-or-less explicitly lays out What Was Up With the Ending, and hints very strongly at why Sarah, um, is how she is in s3. (And, in doing so, sets up a potential s4… Or at the very least will change quite a bit of s3 on a rewatch.)
In other words, if you are the kind of person who like their Peaks “inexplicable”, then this is Not the Work For You; it reads basically like a TV Tropes WMG page, albeit one written by the show creator and thus, one assumes, “canon”. Spoiler alert, however, I am not that person: I’ve always found Peaks specifically and Lynch works in general more-or-less comprehensible,4 though I did still have a few niggles with this book.
The first and most obvious is that, despite being ostensibly written by Tammy, the voice of the text doesn’t have the “feel” of the Tammy in the show. While there are a few attempts to try and “Tammify” it—mostly through little digs at some of Peaks‘s more tedious sexist tropes—it still basically reads like, well. Like what I can only assume is Mark Frost. This isn’t helped by the initial section ostensibly written by Albert, which reads as both very Albert…5 and almost exactly the same as the rest of the book. You can probably make an argument that this is intentional: Albert sounds like a snarkier version of Cooper who sounds like a preppier version of Tammy, and all of them sound similar because Gordon has a particular “type” he likes to recruit. Which, okay. I can also accept that Tammy-on-paper sounds very different to Tammy-in-the-show because Tammy-in-the-show spends most of her time in a perpetual state of “WTF is this shit?” as a kind of audience surrogate into the world of the Blue Rose agents, whereas Tammy-on-paper has had more time to (a-har, no spoilers) collect her thoughts. So there’s that.
And the second niggle? FFS, Frost, “trigger warning” does not mean that. I don’t even care that you’re using it temporally out-of-context—which I suspect is intentional anyway—but… it doesn’t mean that! It has an actual, proper, medical meaning and using it incorrectly, particularly in this particular way, is harmful. So just… don’t.
Anyway. Those two things aside, this is a relatively short book—I devoured it comfortably in an evening—and a beautiful physical object. But it’s probably one for competitions only.
Next up: Time to work through the mystery of the Company Town…
- Smith is, incidentally, the author you can blame for influencing my own first-person-unreliable-narrator-left-field-plot-twists quirks, though of course he does them better. Much, much better. [↩]
- This isn’t Gibson’s fault; I’ve read and enjoyed other things he’s written. Just… not that one. [↩]
- Ref. 40k and Vurt reviews, above. I can deal with grimdark and I can deal with villain protagonists… when they’re done in a deconstructed or a wink-wink-nudge-nudge sort of way. As tropes-played-straight, however? Not so much. [↩]
- I blame mum taking me to a surrealism exhibition when I was like eight. It was very formative on my relationship to the importance of objective authorial “intent” versus the subjective audience reception of art. Or, in other words, if it’s “weird” and “abstruse”, then the “authorial intent” is probably for you to interpret it however you feel it should be interpreted. So don’t, yanno. Strain yourself there champ. See also the last section of this post, and you’re welcome for the hints for your English essay. [↩]
- I couldn’t help but hear both this and the later Log Lady segment in the voices of Miguel Ferrer and Catherine E. Coulson/Michael Horse respectively. Er, the latter because Margaret’s segment is presented as a speech written by her but read posthumously by Hawk. [↩]