July 2007

Clayton Moore

mystery strumpet

Future Imperfect

“I’ve seen the future, baby. It is murder.” -- Leonard Cohen

Where the hell is my jetpack?

The future was going to be so great. All those old movies and television shows promised us a revolutionary utopia with flying cars, James Bond gizmos, ray guns and holodecks. Clean air. Vehicles that drive themselves. Peace on Earth. They lie to us, you know.

What did we really get? We were delivered, from on high, our increasingly miniscule cell phones, so that every smacktard with an opposable thumb can veer precipitously close to flipping their SUV off an interstate overpass. Instead of holodecks and danger rooms, we sit hunched over YouTube, where those selfsame idiots can revel in their 15 minutes of shame. Instead of fat Sunday copies of The New York Times, we info-fix with newsreaders. We should have learned to read paper maps and, instead, we Google map and GPS navigate, losing latitude and longitude like a dead language. Where we should be out cutting wood, we slash and hack our way to survival with a Wii controller a random thousand of us could never reinvent in a thousand years. Don’t get me wrong; I’m no technophobe, but I still think there are things a widget can’t do.

Never mind the environment, drowning Oxford in a deluge that threatens to put centuries of accumulated knowledge in the drink. Never mind politics, where cowards shove all the nasty little secrets back down the shredder, devolving our highest office back to Nixonian treachery. Never mind those corpses shipped home in the dead of night when no one is looking, sand still in their boots. Never mind a housing crisis threatening to kick over the economy like a toddler frustrated with a spinning top. Look, it’s an iPhone! Now we can check out Lindsey Lohan’s mug shot while we drive the minivan with the GPS locator and the Satellite Radio and the in-dash espresso machine and the quad DVD players in the back for the kids, and... watch out for that guy in the beat-up muscle car! Why’s he steering with his knees? Oh, that’s why -- both fingers. I was blind, but now I see.

All that rhetoric makes us weary, I think. Reinventing the future. Back to the future. The future is unwritten. The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades. The future is now. The future is over. No future.

I could have used that ray gun, too.

At least I know there will always be detectives in the future, or so the latest volumes of literary prophecies (usually cribbed from Blade Runner) promise me. People will always need to know things that other people want to keep secret. It’s a guaranteed gig, a service that will always exist in one form or another, like hookers or salesmen. I’m sure there were private eyes pacing their sandaled feet around pools of blood in Babylon, ancient Rome, and the jungles of darkest Africa. You can count on people to do bad things.

One of my favorite iconoclastic visionaries has long been Warren Ellis. The mad Englishman is best known for his own distinctive, prescient graphic novels like the epic Hunter Thompson satire Transmetropolitan, which finds journalist Spider Jerusalem taking down the presidency, bowel disrupter at the ready, or the wildly underrated dozen issues of Global Frequency, which sent a different improvised team of operatives on each mission, which included subduing bionic men, nullifying wormhole-generated anomalies and memetic plagues, and quelling the launch of a WMD called a kinetic harpoon, which makes frequent appearances in my own idle fantasies regarding the settling of scores.

Today Ellis is busy, traveling to Comic-Con to pimp new books like the neo-noir Fell and actively loosing increasingly profane curses towards a certain bespectacled young wizard, who may or may not be putting a damper on the street release of Ellis’ first “real book,” Crooked Little Vein, unleashed by William Morrow in July.

Set in an uncertain alternate reality disarmingly similar to our own, his noirish tale is unsettling, graphic, brief and strangely satisfying. Unless, unless. Unless you have a predilection for the anomalous minutiae of underground subcultures. Unless your sarcastic side has spread like a cancer until your whole body quivers with mordant cynicism. Unless you dig cats like Burroughs or Vonnegut or even Thompson, for that matter. Then, for you, Crooked Little Vein is a bloody scream.

I’ll spare you some of the nebulous details, but our hero is Michael McGill, once the golden boy of the Chicago Pinkerton office, now a caustic, overly sensitive loser of a private detective who’s long passed the due date on his shelf life. He’s been hired by one of the White House’s good ol’ boys, the skeletal chief of staff to POTUS, to find a missing document, an original version of the Constitution with invisible amendments. With the help of a tattooed, polyamorous bartender named Trix, McGill sets out on a bizarre American road trip all over this glorious land.

Here’s the gist, from Trix herself, explaining their marginal mission to a cab driver.

“We’re private detectives,” Trix grinned. “We’re off on a great adventure.”

“Private eyes!” He thought this was terrific. He laughed out loud, coughed hard and punched the steering wheel with a horrible yelp. “You on a case?”

Trix was totally up for this. “Yeah. Some rich guy’s lost a spooky old book and we have to take it away from the weird fuckers who are hiding it.”

That’s pretty much what happens from there on out, punctuated by Ellis’s bizarre ephemera gathered from the Internet’s deepest closets, ranging from bizarre medical experimentation to what the author kindly and precisely refers to in interviews as “macroherpetophiles.” Do the linguistic hopscotch. You’ll get there, eventually.

Lest you think a funny-book writer isn’t qualified to pen the hard-boiled, even as a quasi-satire, it’s worth remembering that despite his predilection for pushing plot and substance over the top, he has the writing chops to back it up. We’ll leave with one more taste, McGill’s beautifully un-nuanced soliloquy on firearms.

I smiled at the gun. It was a Ruger Super Blackhawk, .44 Magnum. I met the famous detective Jay Armes at an investigator’s conference once. He had hooks for hands -- his original hands had been blown off by a box of railroad torpedoes when he was a kid, and legend had it that he’d gotten a pistol built into one of the hooks -- frightening hair, and a jacket that hurt my eyes. He’d been shot at by a .44, and he said that the joke about the Super Blackhawk, back in the fifties when it was first launched, was that it was a great gun for holding up trains. You just fired the gun at the train and it stopped. It’s a huge, heavy piece of blued metal, a six-shot revolver -- not an I-need-a-gun-to-protect-my-property kind of gun. The long barrel, the great big bullets and the sheer weight of the thing damping off the recoil makes the Super Blackhawk an extraordinarily accurate, one-shot-stopper of a gun. Even if that huge damn bullet somehow doesn’t kill you, the rocket force of the impact kicks you clear off your feet. These days, it’s mostly used as a hunter’s handgun. Though God knows what you’d hunt with it. Anything smaller than a rhino would probably splatter like God himself reached down from the clouds and punched it in the head.

That was just an aside. Here’s hoping at least a few of you misfits buy the mutant book just so Ellis can get paid to uncoil his twisted imagination in prose form a little more often.

As if the slap of Ellis weren’t enough to wake you up, there’s even more paranoia in store for you this month with the release of William Gibson’s Spook Country on August 7. No, this is not the future, by definition, as his latest think piece is set in February of 2006, but it is a future -- the future of the anxious, marketing-obsessed world the author first put forward in Pattern Recognition.

I’ve met Gibson on a couple of occasions and he can fool you if you’re not paying attention. Born in South Carolina, he still speaks with the hint of a languid drawl that can disguise his thoughtful, far-reaching interpretations of the world that is, and the one that’s coming. That said, Spook Country continues with the more measured and mainstream approach he adopted in Pattern Recognition, which followed “Cool-hunter” Cayce Pollard in search of some mysterious footage.

Here, the MacGuffin is a cargo container sought by various fringe elements, one with ties to Chinese pirates and our own government. That piece smacks of the traditional thriller, but it’s how Gibson gets you there that’s of more interest to quick-witted readers like yourselves. He spins into orbit a lot more characters this time around, that’s for sure.

Freelancer Hollis Henry fills Cayce’s shoes as our heroine. She’s been sent to Los Angeles on assignment to interview an avant-garde artist for a European version of Wired Magazine called Node. There’s her subject, Alberto Corrales, who creates “locative art,” lat-long-specific virtual exhibits of celebrity tragedies, and the artist’s reclusive producer, Bobby Chombo, who figures largely in the plots and schemes being conducted on a global scale. On the other end of America, born criminal and “facilitator” Tito deals in information -- and maybe misinformation -- from his family’s felonious empire in Manhattan. He’s at risk to lose vital data thanks to Milgrim, a functional junkie hooked on a pharmacopeia of anti-anxiety meds who is being manipulated by a government agent named Brown.

It’s less required reading than the author’s earlier work, but no less entertaining for the effort. Like the film adaptations of the Bourne novels, the thrills and spills here have been dialed back down to a human level, but it’s still revelatory to find the world no less odd, fascinating and even avant-garde when it’s our own.

A hero with similar troubles lies at the heart of Thirteen, already on bookstore shelves. It’s the new hard-boiled science fiction novel by Richard K. Morgan, who so memorably gave us the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy. This one, set in the same near-future universe inhabited by Kovacs, gives us another sort of Black Man (the title under which the book was published in England earlier this year). At the surface, it could easily have stood on its own as a more traditional suspense novel: Carl Marsalis is a hit man who has lost his taste for the bloody business, but his talents are required by a secretive government agency. Sounds like a thousand other thrillers, right?

But it’s why Marsalis is so special that makes the book spin off in its own orbit. Our boy, a brusque, profane and murderously aggressive soldier, is what he is because he was bred that way, the end result of a government program to dial the human race back a few ticks to be faster, stronger and, to a degree, more pliable than the average jarhead. To their dismay, the program soon found that their hyperactive guerilla soldiers -- called Thirteens, or more contemptuously, Twists -- don’t take well to taking orders. Most have been banished to penal colonies on Mars. Some, like Marsalis, have taken the soul-dimming gig of hunting down their fellow “man.” Morgan does a nice job of balancing between his base responsibilities addressing the Blade Runner questions about humanity and mortality and simply crafting a propellant and immersive future noir.

Here’s a little taste, demonstrating how the author weaves a nice path between reality and possibility, as Carl tracks a fellow Twist in Bolivia during the first chapter.

“That’s it Frank, Game over.”

Gray turned slowly, deliberately and fuck, yes, he had a weapon, a big black cannon of a handgun that seemed welded in the fist at the end of his right hand. A tiny part of Carl, a subroutine immune to the mesh and the betamyeline flooding the rest of his system, identified it as the murder weapon, the ’61 Smith caseless. Better than 40 years old, but they said you could lockvoid that gun in orbit, swing round to pick it back up and it’d still kill things like it just came out of the factory. For the first time in quite a while, he was grateful for the chilly bulk of the Haag in his own hand.

“Hello there, U.N. man.”

Carl nodded. “Put the gun down, Frank. It’s over.”

In a different future scenario, a dusty old novel inspired by 1930s serials inspires both a stage for Sci Fi metaphor and a retro throwback to the genre’s golden age. It’s Slan Hunter, Kevin J. Anderson’s generous and affectionate sequel to the classic Slan by A.E. Van Vogt. After Van Vogt died in 2000, the author’s widow Lydia approached Anderson, an industrious writer who can often be found playing in the Star Wars and Dune universes, to finish Slan’s story of mutants and interplanetary conflict. I spoke briefly with Anderson some time ago about what drew him to Van Vogt’s 1946 novel.

“I read Slan when I was 12 years old and it was a real white-knuckler,” Anderson said. “It’s had such an influence on science fiction. Anybody who has seen the X-Men in their various incarnations will recognize the Slan, a race of mutant humans who look like humans but have tiny telepathic tendrils in the back of their heads. They’re stronger than humans, they can read minds, and everyone else in the world is afraid of them. So they’re force to live underground and are hunted all the time. This was written at a time when the Jews were being persecuted in Nazi Germany and driven into hiding, and this was Van Vogt’s science fiction metaphor for those events.”

Slan revolves around Jommy Cross, the nine-year-old protagonist, a Slan who becomes embroiled in a plot to unseat Earth’s dictator. Slan Hunter, based on an outline and 150 pages of prose begun by Van Vogt, picks up where the original left off, with Jommy trying to ward off the coming war between men and the Slan supermen.

“In the original Slan, it was the outsider being persecuted by ‘normal society,’” Anderson explained. “I think it resonated so much because fans of science fiction often felt that they were outsiders and they could picture themselves as ‘Slans’ trying to live in a normal world and get by. In Slan Hunter we see more of the full-fledged war between different factions of humanity. There are normal people, Slans, and half-breeds that want to kill both of the other sides. It’s a story about fanaticism and how different people can live together rather than trying to kill each other.”

The book delivers a punchline ending reminiscent of the original, and conveys the retro aesthetics of an adventure from days gone by with modern flair.

“I wrote Slan Hunter so that it’s exactly the way you remember Slan was when you were 12 years old,” Anderson said. “There’s lots of action and cliff-hanger chapters. At the same time, Van Vogt’s books always had some sort of a [psychological] meat to them rather than ray guns and rocket ships and bug-eyed monsters. Of course, they have rocket ships in them, too. That’s what I was trying to capture, that feeling and fabric of what Van Vogt was doing, catching readers up in Jommy Cross’s adventures.”

We end, as they say across the pond, with something completely different.

To be honest with you, this last novel, starring an iterant amateur detective with a peculiar gift, is unlike anything I’ve ever read. You’ll have to wait until September to score a copy but if you’re looking for something unique, this paperback original from Vintage Contemporaries might just do the trick. Its author, Jesse Ball, is a poet, born in Long Island and living in Iceland, who is widely published in the literary press -- meaning that he’s been virtually invisible, until now.

Now, or maybe minutes from now, is the time of Samedi the Deafness, and it’s quite possibly the most unusual debut novel I’ve ever read. Empirically, it’s a mystery but it reads unlike any you’ve ever read, pushing the poet’s talents beyond its novelistic form. Like Ellis, or David Lynch, Nick Cave, or Patti Smith, Ball is the best sort of iconoclastic visionary: the one whose voice you’ve never heard before.

The novel follows seven days in the life of James Sim, who has stumbled into an unlikely career as a mnemonist, a functional “Rain Man” whose ability to read and remember extremely large chunks of information is staggering.

James witnesses the murder of a man named Thomas McHale. With his dying breath, he tells Sim to seek out a man named Etrainger, another named Sermon, the daughters named Grieve. No fool, Sim walks away from the mess.

“This is what comes of going out for a walk in the morning,” he muses. “Anyone who leaves their house deserves what they get.”

Events take a turn for the worse when the amateur detective confronts Etrainger, who leaps to his death. Our man makes a tenuous connection between the violence around him and a terrorist known as “Samedi,” a name that carries echoes of the same-named figure from voodoo folklore. After Sim is kidnapped, he’s taken to an institution dubbed a verisylum, where a set of arcane rules are explained to him by a second McHale:

This is a verisylum. There was only ever one built before this, built in 1847. We believe it is the only real treatment for dramatic cases of chronic lying, cases where the lying ends up compromising the identity of the individual. Instead of giving medications or applying truth-rubrics, Margaret Selm came up with her own method. She established the parameters for the creation of a country house in which all behavior would be governed by a set of arbitrary rules. There would be no prohibition against lying but the individuals present in the house, the chronic liars, would find in the arbitrary rules, which, as you’ll come to see, are many, a sort of structure that allowed them, as time passed, to construct an identity for themselves. The idea is that when many lies are told, unfettered by immediate comparison to fact, they end up comprising a kind of truth. On that truth too lies can be based.

Everyone still with us? It doesn’t get any easier from here on out. His other lead, Grieve, turns out to be a sobriquet applied to all the women in this multifarious cult-like structure. With the reluctant, possibly two-faced assistance of one Grieve also called Lily Cochrane, James struggles to understand his place in this conjectural house of cards and discover the meaning behind Samedi’s threat: “To Deafness, we must send a plague of Deafness, that the world learn the need to hear.”

A future in which no one hears anything, but sees all. Virtual reality replaced by singular vision. I suppose that’s one way to end it all.

So let’s all flip our tarot cards, shake our Magic 8-Balls, and contemplate those horoscopes. You might as well keep some of your illusions as we hurtle towards the future. But like the great baseball player Satchel Paige said, I wouldn’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.

Clayton Moore finds prophets myopic. He buries the past at claywriting.blogspot.com.