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
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
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
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