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Austin Chronicle SF Book Reviews

By John Lebkowsky, Adrienne Martini, and Mike Shea

Deeper: My Two-Year Odyssey in Cyberspace

by John Seabrook
Simon & Schuster, $25 hard

SEPTEMBER 22, 1997:  I've been told that I give good e-mail, not a huge surprise since I really can't remember a time when there haven't been computers and have had a lot of exposure to electronic communication. Surviving in a digital world must be encoded in my blood somehow, from my grade school days learning how to program in BASIC on the school's Radio Shack special to my college days discovering Usenet groups on the NeXT. I own a personal computer and am connected. I can decipher HTML and surf the Web, even though I find the phrase galling. Heck, I've even written and edited for online media.

Then why, with all of my alleged knowledge, did I find John Seabrook's tale of discovery so interesting? Why was I flipping through the pages of Deeper: My Two-Year Odyssey in Cyberspace as if I could find some hidden truth from this brand-new user within its pages? Honestly, it's because there are some kernels of insight to be gleaned from the memoir of this New Yorker writer. Seabrook encounters the online world as an adult but responds with a child's fascination. He becomes obsessed by the technology and all that it can do, proving, once again, that an adult convert to any new religion does not have the native tolerance and skepticism of a person exposed to it since birth. He worships the gods of Gates and Jobs, slinging the lingo of techno-geeks everywhere.

But this is not a story about the technology itself, rather it is Seabrook's thoughts and perceptions of it. He truly believes that this machine will save humanity, that it will unite all people into one communal mind, and that we can be redeemed if we can just log on. Not only is it enlightening to read along while Seabrook retools his philosophy, it's also fascinating to watch the Oxford-educated Seabrook get flamed, get into the WELL, or get laid online. And it's heartening to watch him learn from his mistakes and to see a wiser Seabrook emerge.

This coming of age/lost innocence story appeals to computer newbies as well as oldsters. While a newbie might admire Seabrook's doggedness and emulate his path, those that have been around longer will empathize with his articulate insights and be touched by his reverence.

-- Adrienne Martini

Bad Chili

by Joe Lansdale
Mysterious Press, $22 hard

In a chance conversation with Joe Lansdale at San Antonio's WorldCon, I mentioned that an acquaintance declared his last novel The Two-Bear Mambo too rough for his taste. The unrelentingly graphic and lurid dialogue wasn't a problem, but the cinema verité recounting of the bear copulating video crossed an invisible line. He abandoned it mid-chapter. "I hear that kind of thing a lot," Lansdale admitted. Is the mainstream truly ready for Joe R. Lansdale? And vice versa?

His newest novel, Bad Chili is bound to evoke the same mix of praise and caution as the first three offerings in the Hap Collins series. And although this particular pot of stew is loaded with spice, it's sometimes thin in the meat department. Still, Lansdale writes full-throttle, potty-mouth prose, and he has a wickedly brilliant knack for wringing humor and humanity from all manner of perversity. He pulls no punches and honors no boundaries for acceptable behavior. Those with delicate sensibilities -- political, social, or sexual -- consider yourself warned.

Since their last appearance, Hap Collins and Leonard Pine have neither acquired luck nor toned down their raucous act. This unlikely buddy team (unemployed, white, hetero-, oil rig worker and unemployed, black, homo-, bouncer at the Hot Cat Club) seem compelled by circumstance and fate to scandalize the smaller-minded citizens in their East Texas town of LaBorde. You've barely cracked the cover before Hap's been mauled and infected by a rabid squirrel and Leonard's boyfriend Raul has split and is riding tandem around town with a biker in full leather regalia. When Leonard is fired for pissing on the head of a rowdy drunk, it seems likely Hap and Leonard will be a hot topic of coffee-time conversation at the local cafe.

Calamity breeds catastrophe when Raul and his riding buddy are violently dispatched to meet their maker and the local cops suspect Leonard did the deed. He had motive, he had opportunity, and he had most unwisely used a broom handle to flog the noggin of Raul's new squeeze in full view of the assembled patrons of the Blazing Wheel bar. Leonard and Hap set out to find Raul's killer and maybe commit some form of mayhem as a token of revenge. In the process they uncover a grease-thieving ring and brisk underground traffic in bizarre stalker videos. When the trail leads to the doorstep of chili magnate King Arthur, he is nominated prime candidate to replace Leonard as LaBorde's public enemy #1. The rough stuff starts in earnest.

Along the way the storyline loses focus and meanders, and Lansdale relies on nonstop badinage to fuel the laughtrack until the plot regains its footing -- which isn't necessarily a problem when the dialogue is hitting on all cylinders. Hap, Leonard, and cohorts slander one another in equal-opportunity fashion with great vigor and no restraint. No slur is too offensive. No insult too nasty. Even Hap's new love interest Brett (on the long rebound from bouncing a shovel off her abusive husband's skull in preparation for setting him aflame) dishes scorching trailer-trash profanity that could induce cardiac arrest. When the action finally starts to crackle again, the setup and finale are prime stuff and worth the detours.

The Nacogdoches-based Lansdale is a prolific talent who has written everything from comics to Westerns and juvenile to mystery. In this edgy, crime fiction genre, Hap Collins and Leonard Pine stand front and center as two of the more original and enduring characters. Their twisted lineage is equal parts Three Stooges and Three Musketeers. Consider them bastard offspring of Miss Marple and Robert Mapplethorpe. But, beyond the raucous slapstick and shoot-em-up, Lansdale offers Hap and Leonard's unbreakable bond of loyalty as a compelling answer to the rhetorical query, "Can't we all just get along?"

Bad Chili overcomes its weak moments through sheer noisy energy and its Mayberry-Gothic sensibility ultimately wins you over. Once again, Lansdale delivers his uniquely volatile brand of nuclear fiction like death from above. Highly combustible, explosively funny -- an apocalypse in the Piney Woods. -- Mike Shea

Tales From the Texas Woods

by Michael Moorcock
Mojo Press, $20.95 hard

Michael Moorcock is an extraordinarily moralistic man, not in the Jerry Falwell you-have-to-get-on-the-God-boat-or-you'll-burn-forever sense, but in a kinder, gentler, let-me show-you-to-the-light manner. His code of ethics, which seems to have developed long before the greed of the Reagan years, centers on the individual and his ability to make the right choice, without selfishness and with consideration for others. Guile and treachery have no place in his world when they begin to ride roughshod over the will of the individual.

There is no better place for English-born Moorcock than Texas. Home of some of the world's most ornery individuals who, deep down, had the best interests of their country at heart, Texas feels like the last free state where a man doesn't have to compromise. Tales From the Texas Woods, a baker's dozen of short stories, essays, and introductions, captures the feel of the Lone Star state and a time when you could tell everything about a man by the color of his hat. From "Johnny Lonesome Come to Town," first published in 1956, to "The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes," originally written for a family member's B&B off Baker street, to "Sir Milk-and-Blood," a new tale of Elric the Eternal Champion, each story not only glorifies a keen sense of duty and responsibility, each story also fits into Moorcock's Multiverse, the multi-faceted web of stories that Moorcock has been weaving for most of his career. While it is a hoot to discover all of the connections hidden within this collection both in theme and content, it is awe-inspiring to realize that this is but one tiny node on a vast, complicated network of which it is not necessary to have complete knowledge to understand these seemingly simple stories.

With his essays, you also get a wonderful glimpse of Moorcock the Man, his early career choices, and his philosophies. In "How Tom Mix Saved My Life," an ode to the 1930 Mix/Mickey Rooney vehicle My Pal, the King, Moorcock writes, "Mix speaks up for the rights of the individual, of the institutions and apparatus of democracy and how it makes plain sense to treat people like human beings, not brutes. It is well-meaning and, if you like, naïve... but at root it contains a message which has to do with self-respect and human rights. I find little wrong with the sentiments."

It is easy to find little wrong with this collection, which may be its only downfall. These are gentle stories that capture all that the world wants Texas to be, full of strong men with bold ideals, but doesn't really examine the downside or the abuses of this philosophy. While Moorcock's essays, book reviews, and introductions seek to make stronger points about the importance of treating people like people, there are no harsh words, simply well-intentioned nudges that slowly lead you like a horse to water without forcing it to deeply drink. But changing the world does not seem to be the intention of this benign book; it is, simply, the charm stories of Texas themselves that Moorcock's sparse prose effortlessly spins that make this a wonderful reading experience for true fans and non-fans alike. -- Adrienne Martini

Joystick Nation: How Videogames Ate Our Quarters, Won Our Hearts, and Rewired Our Minds

by J. C. Herz
Little, Brown, & Co., $23.95 hard

Rewired our minds? When I first saw umpteen-dozen copies of Joystick Nation on display, and read the subtitle, I was thinking hype, but no, this is the real thing, a rock & roll book about the vast cyberspace theme park that the gaming industry has created, and its impact on our thinking about technology. Consider that William Gibson created that word cyberspace and constructed the matrix vision of the Neuromancer trilogy based on his observation of early arcade video games and that our experience of their pixelated displays informed the creation of today's graphical user interfaces, including the rock 'em sock 'em World Wide Web.

My own first exposure to computers and hacking was through a piece Steward Brand wrote for Rolling Stone in 1972. Called "Computer Bums," it featured an account of the first computer game, Spacewar, created by Steve Russell and colleagues at MIT. The game was played on Digital Equipment Corporation's PDP-1, the first mini-computer, which featured a keyboard and cathode ray tube (CRT). This in itself was a big deal -- the way you dumped information into most computers was by punching a bunch of cards and putting them into a card reader, and the output was ugly dot matrix print on computer paper. The most interesting outputs were ASCII art, large arrangements of print coded to convey the image of Snoopy or Raquel Welch. In this Stone Age of computer technology, keyboards and screen displays seemed way advanced.

Herz starts with SpaceWar and tells how we got from a kind of automated Lite Brite on a kludgy black-and-white screen to Sonic, Mario, PacMan, and more recently the epic Myst and the infinitely malleable Doom.

We all know that war drives innovation, but in peacetime, the war game does the driving. Following the creation of Spacewar, the evolution of personal computers -- the way they work and the way we work them -- followed innovations in the manufacture of online games.

Herz has done a great job accumulating and fleshing out a quasi-linear history of computer games and their various arcade, game-box, and personal-computer manifestations, and at its best her writing really rocks. But what makes the book work for me is that she gets the significance of the conceptual and developmental infrastructure. She understands that these games gave us the context for pushing the envelope of the computer's visual and kinetic range, crunching those numbers like ones and zeroes into drivers for expansive functionality, making a tool that is at once a practical utility, an aesthetic device, and a cyborganic enhancement of human capability.

-- Jon Lebkowsky


by Joan D. Vinge
Aspect/Warner Books, $6.50 paper

Reading Dreamfall, Joan D. Vinge's latest book about Cat, the half-human, half-Hydran man learning to live in various societies that don't want him, is like listening to an amazingly talented musician who only knows how to play one riff. It's a nice experience for the first few minutes but it begins to wear on your last nerve if you are forced to listen for too long.

Dreamfall is a continuation of Catspaw, Vinge's last book about Cat. In Dreamfall, he goes to Refuge, the planet where his mother's people, the Hydrans, originated, and still live under the thumb of their human conquerors. Trouble seems to adhere to Cat like a cheap cologne and he gets involved in a kidnapping that will either save or destroy the oppressed Hydrans.

Unfortunately, all Cat seems to do for 400+ pages is walk around with this big "nobody loves me but I'm a survivor, dammit" chip on his shoulder and dare people to knock it off. The humans hate him and routinely beat him up for the sport of it. The Hydrans, who happen to be teleporting, telekinetic mind-readers, routinely snub and abuse him. Cat just can't stop telling the reader how unfair it all is, which it may be, but it is a little like listening to your teenage sister whine about how the whole belly-button piercing thing freaked out Mom.

It also doesn't help that Dreamfall suffers from a fast-and-loose approach to science. The Hydran's powers are never adequately explained -- something about being able to tap into some kind of quantum mechanical matrix -- nor is it highly plausible that a race with these kinds of abilities would allow itself to be completely subjugated by another species. Okay, okay, the Hydrans can't kill anyone because the "death feedback" would kill them too, but I just find it hard to believe that they didn't have some recourse against these jack-booted, black-helicopter-flying humans that Vinge has created.

Vinge can do much better than this and it is disappointing that this is her first new novel in quite some time. Catspaw was a great book, full of complex characters, an exciting plot, and a gentle touch toward Cat and his dilemmas. Vinge also wrote the Hugo Award-winning Snow Queen, one of my all-time favorite books, and the Hugo-nominated Summer Queen. Vinge's skill and talent is evident even in the pages of Dreamfall but, sadly, is stuck in a groove that she just can't shake. -- Adrienne Martini

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