Tag Archives: Humorous Science Fiction

The Past is Red

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Past is Red [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Catherynne M Valente.

Valente The Past is Red

This book reprints the story “The Future Is Blue” from the Drowned Worlds anthology, and follows it with a further novella “The Past Is Red.” The latter was written about four years later for the author Catherynne M. Valente (in late 2020) and ten years later for her protagonist Tetley Abednego (sometime after 2133).

Tetley is an irrepressible survivor and an unreliable narrator who hails from Garbagetown on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, evidently one of the largest of remaining human communities in the 22nd century. The first story accounts for her becoming a hated outcast by age 19, and the second gives the saga by which she matures into a “trash Plato” (138) in her third decade.

The Garbagetowners have an ambivalently hostile envy for their antediluvian ancestors (i.e. us), to whom they consistently refer as “Fuckwits.” In light of the current situation in US society, it’s not hard to read this sentiment as the Millennial/GenX view of Boomers writ large.

Valente herself compares Tetley to Voltaire’s Candide (148), and there’s a little of de Sade’s Justine there as well. But the tone here is not so satirical, and the concerns of the parable are remote from those of the philosophes. The afterword and the acknowledgements claim an independence for Tetley, whom her author has gradually come to know, and the character does have an engaging voice to draw the reader into and through her world, which is enchanting to her, and ultimately, only differently horrible than ours.

The whole book is wonderfully weird but sadly feasible cli-fi that I read in about three sittings: a speedy read and a satisfying one.

Gnomon

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Gnomon [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Nick Harkaway.

Harkaway Gnomon

Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon is a 666-page magical operation thinly disguised as a science-fiction police procedural. Its settings range from late antiquity to the far transhuman future, with a cluster in London, Greece, and Ethiopia in the 20th and 21st centuries. I found it compulsive reading, and worked through the whole thing in about four days. This was the first Harkaway title I’ve read, initially sighted in a public library display and long considered as something worth my attention. In an appended author’s note, the book is characterized as containing “layers of puzzles and references the author has largely forgotten as he moves on to the next and the next,” but the web of the story is so tight that it’s easy to imagine it being written in any direction: trajectories of plot and character intersect and reinforce each other everywhere, especially since “nothing means just one thing.”

The peak of textual recursion in Gnomon is perhaps Inspector Neith’s interview with Chase Pakhet, an interdisciplinary scholar who discusses the Frankfurt School and French postmodern theory after confessing a love of pulp fiction “for its cheap trashiness, its wicked women and its unrepentantly vivid sex … the violence, the moral turpitude, and the absoluteness of right and wrong in a universe that pretends to be shaded with grey” (286). But fractal self-similarity is a key ingredient throughout this book that exhibits the fabric of all being woven on Its invisible design.

Full-on metaphysics and plot spoiler: . . . . (hover over for spoiler) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

As I read this book, I was reminded of many other works I have enjoyed, including Philip Dick’s Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, Doris Lessing’s Briefing for a Descent into Hell, China Mieville’s The City & the City, Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House, Grant Morrison’s The Filth, and the Wachowskis’ Sens8. None of these comparisons should be taken to impugn the originality or independence of Harkaway’s work here.

“I raised the sleeper, and sealed the sleeper in luminous water with five seals, that death might not prevail from that moment on.” (Apocryphon of John, logion 16)

Venus on the Half-Shell

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Venus on the Half-Shell [Amazon, Amazon (1975), Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Kilgore Trout (Philip José Farmer).

Kilgore Farmer Venus on the Half Shell 1975

Farmer Venus on the Half Shell

This interstellar picaresque novel by Philip José Farmer was written under a pseudonym taken from a fictional author described by Kurt Vonnegut. To pile Pelion upon Ossa, “Trout” has his main character refer often to the life and works of an imaginary 20th-century American science fiction writer named Jonathan Swift Somers III.

Many 21st-century readers will compare this book to Douglas Adams’ later Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Both begin with the destruction of terrestrial humanity, aside from the protagonist who then becomes a wanderer in outer space. The book is full of allusions to The Wizard of Oz, but I think that The Phantom Tollbooth is also a likely influence. The prose style reminds me of no one so much as R. A. Lafferty, for the sake of qualities I find difficult to describe. The humor in “Trout’s” book is a little more broad that what I usually find in Lafferty, the atmosphere decidedly less mystical. 

The book recounts the adventures of the banjo-playing Simon Wagstaff, a character who was promptly animated in my mind by the ghost of Duane Adam Rostoker. Following the calamity that visits the Earth during Simon’s visit to the Sphinx at Giza, he quickly acquires animal companions after the manner of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, but Simon’s are a dog and an owl, perhaps figuring his “lower” and “higher” awarenesses. 

The proper names in the story are a raft of anagrams, from the randy cat planet Shaltoon that is a hot Salon, to the planet Longalor of nomadic wheel-creatures who roll aLong. The beautiful android Chwortkap is a patChwork of the optimized DNA of hundreds of donors. These and many others put me in mind of James Branch Cabell, whose Jurgen may also have been a model for Farmer here. 

Although replete with frank sexual content, Venus on the Half-Shell is not really erotic at all. It merely refuses to repress the importance of sex in the dilemma of life. It contains a variety of episodes with different intelligent species that demonstrate the illusions and falsehoods that enslave societies and individuals (“yet therein is the mystery of redemption” –Liber B). The whole thing reads quite quickly and can be written off as a farce, serve as a puzzle, or even inspire serious reflection.