Readings From the Fringe
By Mike Shea
JANUARY 25, 1999: Mystery and science fiction sometimes go hand in hand. They've spent a lot of time together in the pulp fiction ghetto. Although pulp fiction magazines may have gone out of vogue years ago, mystery and science fiction are still around in force; these are the genres, after all, that compensate for a lack of critical respect with sheer popularity and rabid fans. Perhaps that's what allows writers of both fields to dabble in the other.
Walter Mosley, at least, is trying out some new tricks after having established himself as a thoroughbred novelist with his captivating Easy Rawlins mystery series. He beguiled readers with plots that were sophisticated and original, characters that were gritty and warm. And in no small way he made middle- and working-class black America real to white readers. Now he seems intent on challenging our perceptions of him by busting out of the mystery/detective genre and into speculative fiction with Blue Light (Little, Brown & Co., $24 hard).
The mysterious blue light of the title flashes down from outside the atmosphere onto San Francisco and environs in 1965. Those few people and even nonhumans struck by the light acquire an indescribable enlightenment. They become (pardon the hippie sophistry) one with the universe and drop out of mainstream society to commune with other "blues" or simply because they could no longer cope with the world at large. The light also heightens their sense and amplifies their personality traits, causing extreme behavior -- good and bad -- to come to the fore. When bad and good blues are inevitably set against one another, the physical action is as amplified as the internal. With its Summer of Love setting and the blue light's acid trip effects, Mosley is tweaking us on some level for our shared counterculture, tune in, turn on, drop out past. But for the most part he plays it straight and constructs an intriguing adventure odyssey.
Blue Light is an odd book and a foray into the fringes of science fiction seems an unusual move for a writer with his track record. But in a strange way it serves as further notice that Mosley is not afraid to take chances with his craft, which he already proved with his lyrical Gone Fishin'. Mosley's books are nearly parables -- some bit of truth seems closer at hand when you turn the last page. He makes words sing on the page and if you're willing to suspend your disbelief long enough to tackle a pseudo-mystical, sci-fi, "got to get back to the garden" tale, you'll be rewarded with a read that's shiny-new but a surprisingly comfortable fit.
Eighty years on from the Summer of Love, it's the year 2044, when it's best to roll up your windows while driving through Bruce Sterling's America. In Distraction (Bantam Spectra, $23.95 hard), his cunningly funny work of near-future fiction, America is a fearsomely troubled place -- a decayed superpower engaged in a cold war, of all things, with the Dutch, of all people. Political and economic systems have largely collapsed and been supplanted by vaguely feudal power structures. Cities, states, and even the bi-presidential federal government are ruled by Emergency Committees, mobs, and ad hoc governing bodies. To a dyed-in-the-wool political operative like Oscar Valparaiso it's nearly heaven -- tiny fiefdoms of chaos primed for deal-makers like him to rebuild.
Valparaiso is, literally, the product of biotechnology, and his questionable, nonhuman genetic coding is a "background problem" that renders him a political liability for his boss, newly elected Senator Alcott Bambakias. Oscar falls on his sword and exiles himself to the political backwoods of Louisiana and a federal biotechnology collaboratory that breeds near-extinct species. He and his "krewe" are soon practicing rules of engagement with everyone from the governor of Louisiana on down to bands of roving cyber-mercenaries.
Biotechnology and politics are the backbone that keep the book's satire upright, but Valparaiso is the heart and soul -- he's a quite likeable control freak of a workhorse trying to find his place in a world that, dammit, just won't do what he wants, at least until he sets his mind to the task. He's the nucleus of a complex plot, with subplots whirling about like so many protons and neutrons. Ultimately, Distraction wants to be a romantic intrigue; Valparaiso spends most of the book a thrall to Dr. Greta Penninger, a slightly older bohemian biotechnician whose life and career become his obsession and crusade. And Sterling ably constructs a relationship that is utterly simple and maddeningly complex in the way that only real romances are.
True to his science fiction roots and the book's next-millennial setting, Sterling concocts clever futuristic scenarios and devices, like smart building materials with a positioning system that can instruct workers in the exact sequence and placement of those materials during the construction process, as well as computers that make the current zippiest gear look like an abacus. He writes with a surehanded maturity that doesn't stifle his inventive imagination. He thinks globally and laughs locally. He looks into the entrails of a dying culture and sees the past, the future, and a great punchline all at once.
Back in the day, Sterling spearheaded cyberpunk's invasion of the world of science fiction, and Howard Waldrop was among the fairly oddball writers sharing the public eye at that time. Waldrop is not demonstrably prolific: Since 1974 he's published two novels (one co-authored with Jake Saunders) and five short story collections. But for his coterie of fans, critics, and fellow writers (perhaps his true target audience), any new print appearance is cause for celebration. Going Home Again (St. Martin's, $22.95 hard) compiles several years' worth of Waldrop short stories, some of which have previously appeared elsewhere. The author contributes a brittle, tightrope walk of an introduction that should be required reading for all aspiring writers to provide an object lesson in the stark fiscal and emotional realities of writing for money. He includes afterwords to each story that are nearly essential, since he believes that "[readers] should have to do between 40 and 50 percent of the work when you read a story." Thus, some of the stories are nigh impenetrable without the afterword (and "Scientifiction" remains nearly so anyway).
Waldrop's mind is an embarrassment of rich ideas and a storehouse of eclectic information. He revels in concocting historical possibilities -- who else would set a story in a World War II Zurich theatre and inhabit it with Shemp Howard and Peter Lorre? At his best ("You Could Go Home Again" is a blueprint for inventive short storytelling), Howard Waldrop deserves every accolade he's ever received and a millionfold increase in his royalty checks. Sadly, nobody's always at their best. But a fan of the short story is, almost by definition, a fan of Howard Waldrop. Period.
Don Webb is another Texan preceded by his reputation as a writer of quirky, sci-fi-ish short stories as well as his caustic and clever Web site Letters to the Fringe (http://www.fringeware.com/dwebb/). His debut novel The Double: An Investigation (St. Martin's, $22.95 hard) has its charms but is fraught with problems. It opens with an interesting premise -- computer game developer John Reynman stumbles upon a corpus delicti in his living room, and the deceased looks remarkably like himself. Webb scores bonus points for casting Reynman as an antihero and dicing up some of the hackneyed conventions of the mystery genre, but the action and plotting never get out of first gear. The characters lapse into shaggy dog stories and meander about trying to make something, anything, happen. Some chapters, interestingly, would be finely conceived short stories. But a novel is a marathon, not a sprint, and The Double ultimately doesn't reach the finish line.
A considerably more successful attempt is Crossroad Blues (St. Martin's, $21.95 hard), from Ace Atkins, a Tampa Tribune staff writer with a decidedly Southern perspective. Atkins spins a surprisingly fresh detective yarn around a 60-year-old mystery -- the death of seminal bluesman Robert Johnson, the most influential bluesman in history, bar none. Crossroad Blues follows Nick Travers, bluesicologist and erstwhile pro football player, from his New Orleans warehouse loft to the Mississippi Delta in search of a missing colleague. Robert Johnson's ghost and musical legacy looms increasingly large at every juncture and Travers soon realizes that the bluesman's death in 1938 -- by murder or misadventure -- is somehow key to the murder and mayhem being committed 60 years on.
Atkins' man Travers is a wisecracking, beer-drinking, tough guy with a soft heart -- you've met him before under other names and you liked him then, too. But he has interesting background and some very interesting and funny friends. Atkins neatly insinuates Travers into a backwoods locale that might as well be another planet for the lack of reference points to any soul dwelling in a town bigger than Bugtussle. He writes with rhythm and verve and an understated wit that serves his story and his characters well. And, bless his soul, he gets the music right -- he's done the homework -- and he doesn't try to re-create the music for the reader (a trait that is as annoying and impossible as it is irresistible for most writers). Ace Atkins hits all the right notes. And he will be back for an encore.
Robert Johnson recorded nearly two-thirds of his known catalog in San Antonio and the Alamo City serves as background for another highly recommended mystery with a music theme. Rick Riordan's second Tres Navarre mystery, The Widower's Two-Step (Bantam, $5.99 paper), can't be beat for sheer entertainment value. As a backdrop, he uses the music business that most people don't see or understand -- the regional performer on the verge of his big break. Riordan is not breaking any new ground in the genre. His approach is a virtual cookie cutter. But The Widower's Two-Step is a blast to read and you're advised to find Riordan's previous Tres Navarre mystery (the award-winning Big Red Tequila) and to look out for the next one. (Confidential to the publisher: Can we get a proofreader to wave a blue pencil somewhere near the page proofs on Riordan's next book?)
On opposite coasts of North America, two mystery writers, G.M. Ford in Seattle and George P. Pelecanos in Washington, D.C., are working on their grooves with most satisfactory results. Last Ditch (Avon Twilight, $22 hard) is Ford's fifth Leo Waterman mystery and it's a neatly contrived and sassy piece of work. He brings an air of effortlessness to his writing that will send wannabe authors to the computer in the spare bedroom to start that novel they've been putting off because Ford makes it look sooooo easy. Private investigator Leo Waterman is blessed and cursed to be the son of Wild Bill Waterman, legendary 11-time Seattle city councilman. And it's hard enough to live up to the legend without the added burden of moving into the stately family home. When the falling-down greenhouse surrenders the disincorporated remains of Wild Bill's very public enemy Peerless Price, the press calls out the hounds, the cops call in the witnesses, and the Waterman and Price families become very unhappy with one another, again. Waterman, compelled to defend his long-gone father's name, launches an investigation that lurches into territory where it's best not to go without .38 caliber helpmates.
Last Ditch is cloaked in an air of lightheartedness but Ford constructs a complex mystery with entertaining dead ends and a labyrinthine sense of disorientation. Waterman's friends and sometime helpers are a crew of hard-core street alkies (The Boys) who are handy when there's need for stakeouts and comedy relief. Used sparingly here to best effect, they work the streets with an unlikely, though entertaining, joie de vivre. With their help and a double helping of guts and determination, the Seattle detective eventually gets to the bottom of Peerless Price's death, and a new insight into his father's life.
Washington, D.C. is the troubled capital city that provides the urban landscape for George P. Pelecanos' most recent novel, The Sweet Forever (Little, Brown & Co., $23.95 hard). The survivors from his ambitious but dissatisfying King Suckerman return, 10 years older, not always 10 years wiser, and they're stuck in the District of Columbia during Marion Barry's mid-Eighties Reign of Error. The city is a disaster waiting to happen.
Protagonist Marcus Clay's Real Right Records has done well, expanding into several locations, and he figures it's time to give something back to the inner city by opening a shop on the toughest corner of one of D.C.'s toughest neighborhoods. He's a man for his time -- a budding, black entrepreneur in the exact right time and place to provide a world of role modeling. But the neighborhood youth are torn between the modest but respectable success he represents and the teenaged dealers who all but rule the streets with displays of easy pocket money and brazen violence. When a young boy witnesses someone stealing a bag of dope money from a dealer's wrecked car, he becomes the tragic central figure in a tug of war between the believably pathetic coke-dealer teens and the few adults who seem to care. Pelecanos nicely lays out the complex multiracial nature of the drug world and the tragic irony that working- and middle-class whites provide the demand, but it's black kids getting drawn into the life and getting messed up in street violence.
Pelecanos' seven novels have become a body of work that challenges the reader with unblinking examinations of the gray places where crimes are committed. He conveys the truth: that bad things are often done by good people. And that bad people are some mother's angel child too. And that heroic acts are not performed by heroes, they're just ordinary people who ran out of choices. His current series falls somewhere between Charles Willeford's sadly underrated Hoke Moseley series and the street-savvy tragedies of Clockers author Richard Price. He's advanced his current cast of characters from their awkward introduction in King Suckerman through a realistic, heart-wrenching tragedy a decade later. Here's hoping it's a trilogy and we get to see the Nineties in morally and fiscally bankrupt Washington, D.C. through Pelecanos' eyes. I suspect that the look back at the trouble and grief will give truth to the warning that objects in the mirror may be larger than they appear.
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