April 29, 2012

Book 16: Detroit Noir

Detroit Noir
Edited by E. J. Olsen and John C. Hocking

Detroit seems, on the face of it, the perfect location for a geographically-oriented collection of noir stories, with its story of industrial powerhouse riches gone to rags and its resurgence blighted by, well, the blight. It's the perfect setting for dark humor, detectives, and a life of crime. What a shame, then, that even as so many stories in Detroit Noir absolutely nail the atmosphere- a happy consequence, I suspect, of using local writers or writers who had actually lived in the city- they tend toward the mediocre, with only a few simultaneously delivering on plot, characters, and atmosphere. One standout belongs unequivocally to perennial powerhouse Joyce Carol Oates, whose story "Panic" brilliantly nails the titular emotion but which relies only slightly on a Detroit location to do so. Regardless, the story is a fast paced and surprisingly effective litfic character study, not hampered by its artistry and living up, in my opinion, to the author's sky-high standards. And though many stories do not particularly satisfy on the noir front per se, a lack of outright darkness hardly hampers a story like "The Coffee Break," which hearkens back to Detroit in happier economic times. "The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit" similarly nails the nostalgic notes, using them as a reflective device rather than battering the image of abandoned skyscrapers into readers' minds, as so many of the other efforts do. And though the more hipster side of the city is, understandably, muted within these pages, Roger K. Johnson's "Hey Love" is a stunningly powerful study of the impact of Motown, a spark of hope and brilliance the city can cling to among the depleted landscapes against which so many other narratives play out.

Among these, the one that best nails a traditional noir atmosphere and lead detective is Loren D. Estleman's "Kill the Cat." Opening the collection with a standard grittiness, the story whiffs a bit on an unexplained motive and plodding plot, but absolutely nails the feel of the endeavor. Likewise, "The Night Watchman Is Asleep," by E. J. Olsen, uses the city's apparent corruption and reputation to fuel a narrative as seen through the outsider, an effective technique delivered within a compelling story and brutal, yet appropriate conclusion. Also happily unflinching is P. J. Parrish's "Pride," undoubtedly the book's best story. The protagonist is just well-enough fleshed out that readers are intrigued, but is vaguely enough constructed to allow for maximum sympathy, which is essential as the story moves quickly toward a powerful, and inevitable, conclusion. The story brilliantly encapsulates the strange mixture of bleakness and hope that, in their strange combination, truly define modern Detroit, and its surprisingly gotcha ending only adds to the murkiness. Also unexpectedly effective is Megan Abbott's "Our Eyes Couldn't Stop Opening," a coming of age story that diverges from expectation at just the right moments, told occasionally in a convincing third-person-plural, and hitting just the right notes to reinforce the idea that Detroit can defy expectations, and that noir needn't be discovered in the expected places. Nothing in Detroit Noir is revolutionary, and many stories struggle just to reach "pretty good," but though many do settle for wincingly similar descriptions of the crumbling landscape, none are truly terrible and a few rise above to deliver powerful narrative experiences.

Grade: B

April 17, 2012

Book 15: Stories of Your Life and Others

Stories of Your Life and Others
Ted Chiang

Despite my never having heard of him, Ted Chiang is apparently a hot commodity in the world of science fiction, with ecstatic blurbs promising that his is a collection not to be missed. Though Chiang has a stunning array of intriguing ideas and competent control of his prose, he seems to aim just a tad too high, taking too many tips from the handbook of boring-but-lauded mainstream litfic writers and taking too little inspiration from the wide-eyed wonders of science fiction's past. His ideas, rather than being elevated by moving prose, are stymied by a capitulation to the current move toward pretentious artistry that dooms stories to be devoid of meaning. Its as if Chiang takes his mind-boggling ideas and strips them of all potential to cater to a different crowd, and it's a shame, really, because if he let his ideas roll around a bit and actually had some fun with them, "Stories of Your Life and Others" would go from a collection of interesting stories driven by wonderful ideas to the mind-blowing promise implied on its covers. Not every attempt is a swing and a miss, though, and Chiang's inventiveness and blending of litfic prose traditions and sci-fi ideas does create some memorable moments. "Tower of Babylon" evokes a realistic vision of what the magnificent tower may have looked like in a very realistic ancient Babylon, and though its twist is a bit difficult to comprehend, the setting drives the story to a satisfactory, if slightly baffling, conclusion. Where "Understand" loses its narrative steam somewhere amidst its attempt to explore different consequences of superintelligence, "Division By Zero" barely registers on the science fiction radar, using a scientific concept to deftly explore the meaning of our conceptual frameworks of the world- and what happens when those unexpectedly collapse. Here is a brilliant story on the edge of genre, a vision of science and its implications for the human spirit, a story that reaches the heights Chiang so clearly aspires to, and so often misses, in the other pieces.

There are other periodic sparks of brilliance, such as the hard-science linguistics and effective parallel narration at play in "Story of Your Life," which exhibits Chiang's remarkable scientific versatility. For all of its faults, the collection does truly boast a stunningly diverse array of possibilities, from the religiously-fueled alternate history golem robots (both cooler and more lame than that sounds, oddly) of "Seventy-Two Letters" to the brain surgery proposed in "Liking What You See: A Documentary." Though the author's endnotes imply that I would disagree with his own conclusion about the story, he happily sticks to his well-deployed interview format (think World War Z) and keeps his controversial beauty-blinding procedure at the crux of various arguments, rather than the polemic it could have easily become. Likewise, "Hell Is the Absence of God" works in subtlety, where it could have deployed many forceful bludgeons. The fantasy element is excellent, and it is an much appreciated intelligent treatment of religion that manages to remain somewhat neutral, though readers may read a pro- or anti-religious bias into the story according to their own notions. Ted Chiang may aim high in this collection, but though he sometimes succumbs to the perils of overwriting and losing the plot, Stories of Your Life and Others is a solid collection of forward-thinking science fiction that displays a range of the author's talents.

Grade: B+

April 4, 2012

Book 14: A Night to Remember

A Night to Remember
Walter Lord

As a major fan of the 1997 movie, I couldn't let the 100th anniversary of the Titanic's sinking go by unnoticed, and I considered Walter Lord's classic post-sinking recap A Night to Remember a good place to start. From the start, it's obvious that the author did his homework: the book is built on a solid research foundation, though a number of inconsistencies in survivors' testimonies prove that the memory is fragile as a source of fact. Lord, however, wisely does not shy away from this fact, and though he tends to put the vast majority of his faith in these tales, 40 years old or more, he has few other options and does choose to briefly address the issues, though he quickly returns to parroting firsthand accounts. The main problem with the book, then, is not in the potential flaws in its story, unavoidable in an age without mobile video and in a story that has only its survivors available to tell the tale, but rather in its execution, for which Lord can be rightfully blamed. Faced with a huge number of precious firsthand anecdotes and primary documents about one of the most fascinating stories of the post-Gilded Era, one that in many ways serves as a microcosm of the whole period, Lord resorts to a bored, stifled prose driven not by narrative force but by his need to add just one more interesting tidbit. While we do follow certain survivors and famous casualties around the ship on that fateful night, the story (such as it is) doesn't so much "begin" or "open" as "commence," and the tragedies are reduced to newsflash microparagraphs, with related story after related story hitting in such quick succession that they quickly blend together. The effects can occasionally prove haunting, as a rapid-fire freeze frame of a crucial moment, but the entire night is reduced to a string of bite-sized pieces, dehumanized through too-intense magnification. What's worse, Lord butchers his attempt to place the sinking in its historical and historiographic contexts, placing his ruminative comments neither at the beginning nor end of the text, but rather right between the sinking and the rescue by the Carpathia. This dilutes the effect of the story, rather than enhancing it in the way I presume Lord intended, and though his thoughts are coherent and his points poignant, they get lost amidst the suspense of the suspended narrative. Nonetheless, while many of the finer points will be handily recognized by fans of Cameron's movie, the book is worth reading and does provide some moving insight into the sinking. Walter Lord is a capable writer, if not a particularly compelling one, and the story never stagnates of wallows, though it sometimes proceeds too rapidly to be truly effective. It is a bare-bones story told adequately but without exceptional literary skill. A Night to Remember is a solid condensing of survivor stories from one of the world's most captivating shipwrecks, and a good place to start for those looking for a firsthand glimpse of the ship's final, fateful hours.

Grade: B+