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2008 - Year in SF&F: Reviews



THE WONDER TIMELINE: SF&F RETROSPECTIVE
Read other issues here

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Reviews by Avi Abrams



Jeff VanderMeer
"The Situation"

© 2008, PS Publishing
--/ third place f novelette
--/ wonder award
--/ idea award
--/ style award
--/ emotion award

Jeff VanderMeer is not a pirate (swashbuckler, filibustier, rogue), nor is he a squid researcher, or a mushroom grower (though some of his writings may suggest all that, given their ferocious weirdness). He is, however, a damn good writer, who can easily cram a juicy epic into a thin sliver of a book: in this case, a 50-page worth Situation.

Somewhat reminiscent of Vernor Vinge's novella "The Monster Cookie", this particularly steamy slice of corporate Gormenghast for the economy-plagued America provides plenty of emotional harakiri and gut-spilling visual thrills... it crawls around the astonished reader like a mishapen beetle (complete with the grotesque patterns on its carapace and clockwork-sounding clicks). At any point in time this novella seems to have enough potential to be turned into a full-blown 500-page paperback slab, but Jeff Vandermeer never makes this "Alienation in the Workforce" any longer than it needs to be. He lets it lie where it may (using the long-forgotten art form of understatement) - and boy, does the whole thing curl around your subconscious in deliciously disturbing ways!

Suffice it to say that anybody who's been slighted by the benefits-rich corporate culture, or has ever caught a whiff of something rotten emanating from the CEO's office (the Chairmen of the Board abide in a sort of a metaphysical tower and seem to be of insectoid, slug, or worse nature) - anybody who felt the foreboding of CHANGE ready to percolate down the managerial chain... anybody who was strangled creatively or artistically in the name of Almighty Routine... these readers would really appreciate the bizarre Kafka-esque environment of the "Situation", and may cherish it as a sort of confessional, akin to a conversation with a wise (if somewhat mischievous) priest at an altar. The words of wisdom seem to be "Get Out! While you can, and leave your red stapler behind" - but there is more to the particular kind of doom which Jeff VanderMeer carefully measures out. The unavoidable outcome of being fired seems almost a happy ending to a progression of humiliation and defeat.

So in a way, this is a quest, only in reverse. The happy start of the story occurred somewhere during the peaceful "belonging" stage of being gainfully employed. But when the situation developed, everything turned into a bloody, fleshy, surreal set-up (think of "Existenz" movie, or J. G. Ballard's particularly weird nightmares). With the final page the reader can expect to be emotionally exhausted, greatly desiring more details, and only getting fifty pages worth of text. Kind of like Harlan Ellison's angriest (and most laconic) best. Good things come in small packages, indeed.

Download the full text online here, read about the circumstances of how it was written in Jeff's interview on DRB, or order the book at PS Publishing site.

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Jeff VanderMeer
"Secret Lives" (coll)

© 2008, Prime Books
--/ fourth place f collection
--/ idea award
--/ style award
--/ humour award

Speaking of Harlan Ellison's "angry candies", or his "From A to Z, in the Chocolate Alphabet", here we have a similarly delicious set - a short collection (little more than 100 pages) of themed stories, vignettes of the secret lives of various quite ridiculous, or utterly boring characters. This is a gauntlet thrown in the face of each of us: "Hey there, do YOU have a secret worth of writing about?" My completely uneducated guess would be that most people lead some sort of secret life, even if known only to the powers above. Admit it, or not, this is a voyaristic bliss package, capable to illuminate your boring life with rays of unadulterated lunacy, even if said lunacy is only a product of Jeff VanderMeer's mind.

This book takes my pick as the most intriguing and under-appreciated publishing event of the year (it even has a strange, unaccounted story on the other side of the cover). Don't try to search for it in your cavernous Borders store, and don't confuse this book with Jeff's previously-issued collection "Secret Life". You can order a copy through the Prime Books website.

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Jack O'Connell
"The Resurrectionist" (nv)

© 2008, Algonquin Books
--/ fourth place f novel
--/ idea award
--/ style award
--/ emotion award

Themes of redemption and forgiveness glow throughout the fabric of this essentially noir narrative, melding together two wildly separate storylines - one half of this novel can be enjoyed as a dark paranormal medical thriller (channeling the best of Dean R. Koontz or Robin Cook), and the other half is a rich, colorful trip down Ray Bradbury lane (or more recently, Katherine Dunn's surreal world of "Geek Love"): following a group of sideshow freaks on their way across darkly-shaded land to find their true selves - the lyrical, sad tone enriches the visions of the grotesque and finds a way to the reader's heart, to the point that this "Limbo" part of the story can be considered a masterpiece of "New Weird" in its own right.

Not all is seamless in this book (this is partly why it reads like a wildly swerving motorbike ride). Some parts of the novel seem jumbled together like jigsaw puzzle pieces that do not quite fit, but are forced in anyway. For example, the ending contains some deep allusions and metaphors that ask to be expanded upon, and the final pages come way too quickly - one is left with half-substantiated emotions and unsatisfied longings, which might even be termed as sheer "confusion"... but, boy, does this novel reads like melancholy Bradbury sometimes! Some critics say that The Resurrectionist "transcends reality and redefines noir"; I would not go that far, but I have to admit that I was entirely charmed by the protagonist's story and lovable freaks' encounters with ruthless people and cruel landscapes... The book leaves a solid bittersweet aftertaste, prompting long reflection on themes of identity, grace and redemption - a lingering and haunting effect.

"Part classic noir thriller, part mind-bending fantasy, The Resurrectionist is a wild ride into a territory where nothing is as it appears. It is the story of Sweeney, a druggist by trade, and his son, Danny, the victim of an accident that has left him in a persistent coma. Hoping for a miracle, they have come to the forbidding, fortresslike Peck Clinic, whose doctors claim to have “resurrected” other patients who were lost in the void. What Sweeney comes to realize, however, is that the real cure for his son’s condition may lie in Limbo, a fantasy comic book world into which his son had been drawn at the time of his accident. Plunged into the intrigue that envelops the clinic, Sweeney’s search for answers leads to sinister back alleys, brutal dead ends, and terrifying corners of darkness and mystery."

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