Book Review: The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes

I came across a description of this book while I was cruising lists on the internet looking for interesting reading material. At this particular time I was searching for nonfiction, and this appeared on a few lists of worthwhile history books. The descriptions sounded intriguing, and check out that subtitle. What could go wrong, right?

The impression I got was that it was a blend of biographical accounts of scientists, explorers, and writers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. However, although Coleridge, Wordsworth, and other literary luminaries are touched on in passing, the book mainly covers the careers of a few major scientists, with a few sensational accounts of explorers and adventurers to spice it up.

It starts off with a bang with a long, detailed account of Joseph Banks and his voyage to Tahiti with Captain Cook. Banks was the ship’s botanist, but he also had an affinity with the Tahitians that allowed him to interact with the locals in a way that most of the ship’s crew members were unable to do. This was the one major expedition that Banks went on; afterwards he settled into leadership of the British Royal Society and acted as a mentor and cheerleader to other up-and-coming scientists and explorers.

Next Holmes tells the story of William Herschel and his sister Catherine, extraordinary immigrants from Germany who revolutionized the study of astronomy. This story too is fast-paced and fascinating.

Holmes then goes into an interlude in which he traces the development of hot air balloons in England and mainland Europe. It’s fun, if light compared with the in-depth biographies that have preceded it. After this, he is back to the story of the Herschels as William discovers the planet Uranus and maps the heavens while Catherine becomes an acclaimed comet hunter.

Another interlude follows in which Holmes traces the two expeditions of Mungo Park as he explores the reaches of the Niger River in West Africa. Park was not so much a scientist as a pure explorer with a desire to go to places where no Europeans had ever been before. He disappeared somewhere along the Niger River during his second expedition to Africa, and his body was never found. Tragically, his son Thomas went into Africa to search for Mungo, but he died shortly after beginning his quest.

The next major player in the book is Humphry Davy, who rises from humble origins on the Cornish Coast to become a celebrated chemist. The first chapter on Davy focuses on his experiments with nitrous oxide, or laughing gas. For a time Davy became addicted to the gas, and offered it in a party-like atmosphere to many celebrities such as Coleridge.

The next interlude focuses on medical experiments during this era and culminates with an account of the writing of the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. After that comes another chapter on Davy in which he invents a safe lamp for coal miners to use; this revolutionizes the industry and saves scores of miners from violent deaths caused by underground explosions.

Everything that I have described so far makes for terrific reading and comprises most of the book. However, in the last few chapters the book kind of winds down and loses its momentum. In wrapping up the story of these great men Holmes goes into too much detail about trivia, at least in my opinion. He goes on for page after page describing scientific papers they write, and he even includes one mediocre poem after another. Davy may have been a brilliant scientist, but he was not an exceptional poet, and some of the poems that Holmes elects to reprint would have been better off forgotten. This applying of the brakes after so much adventure, both intellectual and physical, earlier in the book changes the tone and pace and made it difficult for me to finish it. Too bad. Apart from the last two hundred pages or so, it’s a great read and I recommend it.

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Book Review: The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

This book made me nostalgic, not because Ursula Le Guin was one of my teachers at Clarion West in 1973 (although she was) but rather because it carries an ambiance of the seventies. It fits right in with the so-called New Wave of speculative fiction that appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s by such writers as Le Guin, Joanna Russ, James Tiptree, Jr., Samuel Delaney, Roger Zelazny, Harlan Ellison, and others. During that time, writers attempted to break out of the genre tradition of mere entertainment and write literature that was relevant to contemporary issues. There was also a considerable upturn in prose quality and stylistic experimentation.

The Lathe of Heaven is a fairly short and simple story with just three main characters. It deals with the nature of reality. George Orr is a man who discovers that when he enters a state of effective dreaming, his dreams change the reality around him. His psychologist, a man named Haber, creates a device to manipulate the dream state, and he sets about to hypnotize Orr and control his dreams. His aim is ostensibly to make the world a better place for humanity, but every change he causes Orr to bring about makes things worse. He eventually refines his machine with the intention of bypassing Orr and taking over the dreaming himself.

Every time Orr dreams and the world changes it gets more and more bizarre. What makes this novel somewhat anachronistic is that it was first published in 1971 and the supposedly future dates that it postulates have long since passed. It doesn’t really diminish the fun, but it’s part of the background that readers have to keep in mind. The best thing is to enjoy the ride and consider it a trip into an alternate universe that keeps evolving as Orr dreams and as Haber fails miserably in his attempts to control the messy results.

In the hands of a lesser writer this all might not work, but Le Guin was an excellent writer throughout her career, and the quality of her prose eases the journey into one skewed reality after another. What begins as a fairly straightforward tale on the nature of dreams and attempts to manipulate them turns into a profound speculation on what is real, what is imagined, and how dreams fit into the metaphysical mix. Le Guin alludes to this when she touches on aboriginal beliefs concerning the relationship between dreams and reality. As Orr’s dreams progress and the changes get wilder, Le Guin also introduces a race of aliens that seems to understand his cosmos-altering dreams and treat them as, if not commonplace, at least recognizable and acceptable phenomena.

It makes you wonder about this reality that we wake up to every morning. We take for granted that the universe around us has remained unchanged as we sleep, but we have no way of knowing if that is really the case. The universe might change drastically from day to day, but we would never realize it because our memories adjust to compensate for the changes. There is no way to prove such a far-out worldview, but no way to refute it either. We don’t really know what is going on for sure, do we? It brings to mind the movie The Matrix, in which almost everyone in the world is living in a computer-induced delusion, but they wouldn’t believe you if you told them about it. One thing that The Lathe of Heaven does well is cause readers to question the reality that they take for granted. Are you sure it is what you think it is?

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On Rereading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert M. Pirsig

I have just finished reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the third time. I first discovered it back in the 1970s just before I set out on the road to find my voice as a writer. I traveled differently than Pirsig. He headed west on a motorcycle, his eleven-year-old son on the back, traveling with friends and staying most of the time in motels. I headed east alone with a duffle bag, using my thumb to request rides.

The second time I read this book was in Greece while I was raising my young family. This third time, I picked up a newer edition at a library book sale and waited for an opportune time to read it. Pandemic-imposed isolation and scouring my shelves for reading material provided the impetus.

As I mentioned, the book concerns a father-son cross-country motorcycle odyssey. Part of the time they are alone, and part of the time they travel with friends. Pirsig alternates between descriptions of the journey and of his search for quality (or excellence), mainly expressed through a study of classic philosophers. However, there is a twist. When he was a college teacher, he became so involved with his quest for meaning that it became an obsession and he lost touch with reality. He was committed to a mental institution and subjected to electric shock treatment until his past personality was effectively wiped out. He remained locked up until he formed a new personality, and this personality is the one writing the book. He calls his former self Phaedrus and writes of him in third person. The story is about Pirsig describing Phaedrus’s search and at the same time coming to grips with the fact that he is not the same person that he used to be. He is also attempting to deal with his relationship with his son, who has known him both as Phaedrus and as Pirsig.

There are wonderful passages where Pirsig describes the differences between classic and romantic thought, the relationship of repairing and maintaining a motorcycle to the practice of Zen, and Phaedrus’s studies and reactions to Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Kant, and other philosophers. I have to admit that at one point about two-thirds of the way through the book my interest in some of the more involved and convoluted philosophical inquiries lagged a bit, but overall Pirsig has a clear, simple, and effective writing style that makes even the more esoteric passages easy to understand.

Interestingly, this book was rejected more than one hundred twenty times before it was finally accepted for publication. Most likely that’s because it didn’t (and doesn’t) fit into any neat marketable categories. The editor who took a chance on it accepted it because it was an important book and deserved publication, but it was never expected to see a profit. It quickly became a bestseller and has remained in print ever since, selling over five million copies. Somehow it has resonated through the decades with people on their own quest for values.

You don’t have to agree with all of Pirsig’s thought processes to enjoy and benefit from the book. In fact, it doesn’t really matter if you do or not. The important thing is that you consider these things on your own quest for quality. Getting back to my trip east in search of truth, as I read about Phaedrus’s pursuit of excellence I recalled my mindset when I set out on the road those many years ago. I was fully focused on what I was doing. I had fun, sure, but I wasn’t there on holiday. I was on a serious mission, and as far as I was concerned, I was prepared to head full speed into the void to find what I had come for. Books like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance remind us that we are not here just for the bullshit bells and whistles; there is significant profundity in life, and it is up to each one of us to search for it diligently until we find it.

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The Difference Between an Author and a Writer

Before I embarked upon my detailed explanation I wanted to be sure that I had my terms right, so I looked them up in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. According to the primary definitions in this source, an author is “the writer of a literary work (such as a book),” whereas a writer is “one that writes.” Note that an author is someone who has written something in the past. A person can call themselves an author if they write and publish one thing and never write again. A writer, on the other hand, is someone who writes in the present; in a broad sense, a writer is someone whose occupation, career, calling, or pursuit is writing, and this is not an activity that was only performed in the past, but it is ongoing.

Many people are satisfied to be authors, and sometimes their stories or books are very successful. They might write one important work that attracts attention, wins awards, and makes them famous, and then they are content to rest on their laurels and allow themselves to be referred to using the “A” word. A famous example of this is Harper Lee, who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird and then for the rest of her life never published another work. In contrast, my old Clarion West teacher, the famous speculative fiction writer Harlan Ellison often pointed out that he was a writer and not an author. He made it clear that authors are people who have written something, but writers write because that is their occupation, their function, their reason for existence.

I fall definitively into the camp of the writers. I can’t not write. I have to write. I don’t mean that I do it all day to the exclusion of everything else, but I schedule time for it every day, seven days a week, and I set myself a goal during that time of writing at least five hundred original words. If I am in the midst of proofreading a story or book I excuse myself from the work count, but otherwise I do my best to accomplish it. Most of the time I manage easily, especially if I am working on a long project. It is more difficult if I’m writing short stories, because then I have to have a fresh idea and start again from scratch every week or so. I’m not overly hard on myself; I allow myself the grace of a day or two if I have to gather my wits and launch them again in a new direction.

However, I finished the first draft of my latest novelette on Wednesday, and it is now Saturday. I have been mulling a new story over in my mind, but it has not germinated sufficiently for me to begin writing it. I don’t have to know the whole thing in advance; even the first scene is enough to get started, but I don’t even have that. I have an idea, and I have some characters. I have written extensive notes on the ideas and characters. I have taken walks during which I turn over the ideas that I have in my mind and explore alternatives of viewpoints, settings, and so on. I look at what I have from various angles attempting to get some sort of tenuous grip on the material. So far, nothing.

And this brings me to the point of this essay. It is painful to be not writing. It hurts. It depresses me. I can’t stand it. For me, it is the most excruciating pain I can experience in the pursuit of my art. That includes rejections. Those are painful too. I should know; I have received thousands of them, and every one of them hurts. It pains me that I put my heart and soul into composing the best stories I can, the stories I feel that no one else out there is writing, and then have them be summarily dismissed by editor after editor, or to write and publish twenty-six books and over one hundred stories and yet still not have them earn enough to support me financially. This pain, though, severe as it is, is not nearly as acute as the pain of not being able to write.

After all, you can’t make people like your work. Different people have different tastes and that’s just the way it is. When it comes to selling stories to magazines and anthologies and selling books through marketplaces such as Amazon, the creative act is over. We are talking about selling, and selling is business, and business has nothing to do with the creation of artistic works. Writing, on the other hand, if done purely, is an act of creation. You are all alone with your thoughts and your inspiration and you use words to sculpt these into expressions that others can understand.

To me, sometimes writing seems like bricklaying; I build one word upon another because I know that’s how they are supposed to go. Other times, I am scarcely conscious of what I am doing; I am in a state of emotional ecstasy. This often happens when I get near the end of a story. The sensation of bricklaying often takes place in the midpoint of a work when I inevitably question my own abilities. It can simply be a matter of getting too caught up in the details and losing sight of the larger perspective. It’s good to keep in mind under these circumstances the viewpoints expressed by Medieval bricklayers: they were not laying bricks; they were building cathedrals.

In conclusion, I realize that there is no cure for the malady I have just described. At least for me, it is terminal. Right now, I work eight or ten hours a day researching and writing essays that I ghostwrite for other people. This pays my rent and bills, but none of it counts towards my daily word count. That’s what I accomplish late at night when I am done with the rest. When I think of retirement, I never consider it in terms of cessation of effort. Instead, I think in terms of being able to do my stint of creative writing first thing every day instead of having to put it off until last. Even if I had sufficient income to comfortably provide for my physical needs, I would still write seven days a week. Because I’m a writer, and that’s what writers do.

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Book Review: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

In short, this is one of the best biographies I have read in years. I didn’t expect it to be so because I was somewhat disappointed by Isaacson’s more recent biography of Leonardo da Vinci. My main objection with that one was that it didn’t read like a biography, which is usually the more or less sequential story of a person’s life. Instead, it focused on descriptions of Leonardo’s notebooks. This Steve Jobs biography is a more traditional chronological account of the man’s life.

I’ve actually had this book around for years but never read it. I had read a section on Jobs in one of Isaacson’s other books, The Innovators, and it was clear from that account that Jobs was not a very nice man. However, I decided to read this book after watching the movie based on it written by Aaron Sorkin. The brilliant, incisive script hit high points but left enough out to make me curious about the rest of Jobs’s life.

Well, it’s true, in fact, that Jobs was not a nice man. He was emotional, volatile, egocentric, domineering, demanding, caustic, sharp-tongued, sometimes cruel, sometimes brutal, and sometimes ruthless. However, he was also a genius when it came to creating and marketing quality high-tech products for consumers. He cared deeply about the products he created and considered that they could only be truly great if they were a blend of technology and artistry.

One thing that makes this book so impressive is that it reads like a three-act play or film. If you count Jobs’s early life, travels, and quest for enlightenment through drugs and eastern philosophies as prologue, the first act concerns the founding of Apple with Steve Wozniak and Jobs’s early years there, and the development of the Apple II and the Mac computer.

Jobs was eventually ousted from Apple, whereupon he formed a new company to make NeXT computers. This is the second act. The most significant thing that happened, though, during his exile from Apple was when he bought Pixar from George Lucas. He invested about 50 million dollars of his own money into the company, and then when it went public a few weeks after the premier of Toy Story, he made about 1.3 billion dollars overnight.

In the meantime, most of the innovators who had originally made Apple a dynamic tech company had exited. Apple was sinking fast and seemed almost beyond redemption. That’s when Steve Jobs was invited back to attempt to resuscitate the company. This is the third act. At first he only accepted the role of an advisor, but eventually he took over as full CEO and was running the show. That’s when the world started to see the iMac, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad, and so on. One unique product after another came out of Apple and became cultural icons.

While he was at the pinnacle of tech innovation at Apple, Jobs was diagnosed with cancer, which progressively worsened over a period of a few years. He stayed on as Apple CEO as long as he could and remained feisty and abrasive until the end. He finally had to step down and let others take over.

All in all, this is a fascinating biography that offers a look at the dynamic history of Silicon Valley and the development of digital products that changed the world. What made Steve Jobs unique in all this was his vision that blended the viewpoint of an artist with cutting-edge technology.

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Book Review: Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life by Tom Robbins

This is going to be an unusual review, but then, we are dealing with an unusual writer. I first encountered the prose of Tom Robbins when I somehow got hold of and read his first novel Another Roadside Attraction. I can’t remember how I came across it and whether I read it here in the States before I set out on the road or somewhere in Europe or India on my early travels. What I do know for certain, though, is that I read it many decades ago but some of the characters and scenes are clear in my head even now. It deals with the hippy counterculture of the 1960s, but a major plot point is the theft of the mummified corpse of Jesus that had been hidden in the Vatican. I thought that it was a near-perfect little gem of a book. I liked it so much that I was concerned that anything else Robbins wrote would be anticlimactic; as a result, I never made any effort to read any of Robbins’s other novels, some of which were more popular and better received by critics than Another Roadside Attraction.

Be that as it may, fast-forward thirty or forty years. After thirty-five years living abroad I moved back to the States and eventually found myself once again in my hometown of Seattle, where I picked up Tibetan Peach Pie at a Friends of the Seattle Public Library book sale. Alas, it sat for years on my shelf before I pulled it down to read it. One reason I never got round to it was the introduction, which states that the book is not an autobiography or even a memoir, although it clearly is. My suspicions about what it could possibly be if it wasn’t one of those two things, as well as my reluctance to tarnish the Robbins shine from my remembrance of Another Roadside Attraction caused it to remain on the shelf – an unusual situation, at least for long, for a book in my possession.

Here we are, though, in the midst of the coronavirus lockdown, and the Seattle Public Library has been closed for weeks, and I am searching my bookcases for reading material. With some trepidation, therefore, I picked up and started reading Tibetan Peach Pie. It is, in fact, both an autobiography and a memoir, told in Robbins’s humorous and sometimes convoluted style.

In short, Robbins seems unable to tell the story of his life with a straight face. That’s well and good, but the book reads like the interminable act of a stand-up comedian; however, instead of selecting highlights from his life, he starts at the beginning and works his way through. The humor, which seems forced at times, gets to be too much, at least for me, especially when the actual events he is writing about aren’t funny. In contrast, Steve Martin, an extremely funny guy, wrote his memoir Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life very straightforwardly; that one was almost impossible to put down.

At this point, I have to make a confession. Robbins seems to bring out unusual behavior in me. First of all, Another Roadside Attraction was so good that I didn’t want to spoil it and read more of his work. And then as I was reading Tibetan Peach Pie, although I was interested in what was happening, I couldn’t handle the style so I skipped ahead one hundred fifty pages or so to get to the part where he writes and publishes Another Roadside Attraction. I know: horror of horrors. It’s almost unforgivable, but there it is: my confession.

After that, I read it through to the end, although even then it was touch and go. For one thing, it was hard for me not to be envious of how easily Robbins got his first publishing deal. An editor approached him and asked for a book. No endless rounds of submissions and no rejections. It was clear sailing to fame and fortune all the way. Several of the closing chapters are full of Robbins hobnobbing with celebrities and taking expensive adventure vacations to the far corners of the Earth. This reminded me of the book Travels by Michael Crichton, who began jaunting about the world after achieving uncommon success with his novels.

In closing, in my opinion parts of Tibetan Peach Pie are entertaining but, as I said, I didn’t read it all. This in no way detracts from the fact that Robbins is a great novelist, and Another Roadside Attraction remains a near-perfect gem.

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Book Review: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

As I have mentioned before, with the libraries closed, I am searching my shelves for overlooked books that I may have bought sometime in the past but never read. The Windup Girl is one of these. I found it in a Value Village a few years ago and meant to read it – after all, it’s a Hugo and Nebula award winner – but never got around to it. Until now, that is.

This dystopian novel is set in Thailand a few centuries into the future. Global warming has raised the level of the ocean, and Bangkok is kept from flooding by seawalls. Genetic plagues ravage the globe, and huge corporations use bioterrorism and monopolies on seed stocks to subjugate most of the world. Thailand stands out, though, as a bastion of independence, although even there life is a debilitating struggle for survival.

Bacigalupi tells his story through the viewpoints of several major characters. These include an American who works for one of the major agricultural corporations, his Chinese refugee factory manager, two Thai members of an elite force that is loyal to the country’s Environment Ministry, and the windup girl of the title, an artificially created being whose owner uses her as a prostitute. Everyone regards the windup people as machines that have no souls and can be used and discarded at whim, but the author soon makes it clear that the windup girl is as human as anyone else.

To be honest, I got off to a slow start with this book. I found the setting up of the story by switching from one character’s perspective to another to be somewhat confusing. It was interesting enough to persevere, though, and I’m glad I did. As the various threads of the characters progress, the situation clarifies, and I found that I became more and more invested in what was happening.

One thing that works well in this novel is the setting. It is evident that the author has done his research, as he presents a future Thailand that is believable, albeit depressingly dark. For the most part, he focuses the story within the city, and so he is able to provide a dense, detailed microcosm of a closed-off realm from which the outside world is perceived as the habitat of malevolent political and economic forces. This creates an almost claustrophobic atmosphere of paranoia, deception, and subterfuge.

The novel is particularly relevant in light of the pandemic that is changing all of our lives. It swept in on all of us suddenly, caused us to close ourselves off to each other, and made us realize that things will never be the same again. In a sense, our complacency has become our undoing. We were seemingly on a roll, going along with business as usual, and all of a sudden the lives of everyone on Earth were upended. The world has changed, and it continues to change daily. Each news report carries frightening new realities. I didn’t realize that worldwide plagues comprise one of the focuses of this book; if I had, I might not have picked it up. Now that I have read it, though, I am thankful for the experience, and thankful for this vision and the visions of other science fiction writers who often have premonitions of things to come decades or even centuries before they arrive.

I’m not saying that science fiction novels are prophetic. However, they offer thought-provoking possibilities that cause us to ponder the consequences of our actions, now and in times to come. That’s what this novel does.

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Book Review: Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

I bought this book thinking that it was a typical biography – typical, that is, in the sense that it would be an absorbing story of an extraordinary individual set in a fascinating time period of world history. In these expectations I was disappointed. It is not a standard biography, and even the historical background in it is rudimentary.

Isaacson explains his intention at the beginning, so I should have seen it coming. In the introduction he emphasizes that his starting point for the book was Leonardo’s notebooks, which contain thousands of pages of drawings and text on all of the many subjects that fascinated him. As a result, this book is not so much a biography as a dissection of Leonardo’s interests. Rather than tell the chronological story of Leonardo’s life, which he does in some parts of the book, Isaacson devotes chapter after chapter to various topics that Leonardo studied and various subjects that he painted. For instance, there are chapters on birds in flight, mechanics, mathematics, hydraulics, dissection of the human body, and other subjects, as well as, of course analyses of works of art such as the Vitruvian Man, the Last Supper, and the Mona Lisa.

To be honest, I found the book slow going at first. Part of the reason was my disappointment that it was not a fast-paced biography like other works of Isaacson I have read such as The Innovators. Once I got over my expectations and took the book on its own terms I was able to accept its pace and get more into it. I still would have preferred a standard biography to the more disjointed analysis of Leonardo’s interests, but it is interesting and even fascinating in its own way.

By the way, the reason I keep using the name Leonardo instead of referring to him as da Vinci is explained in the book. Da Vinci is not really a name. Leonardo da Vinci simply means Leonardo who is from the town of Vinci. I’m from Seattle, and calling Leonard by the name of da Vinci would be like calling me “from Seattle.”

Anyway, one of the strengths of this book is its illustrations. It is full of reproductions of Leonardo’s sketches and paintings so that as you read about the works, you can study them at the same time. It greatly enhances the experience of going through Isaacson’s history and analyses of the various works to be able to see them and understand visually what he is talking about. Isaacson is not impartial, by the way. He is an enthusiastic Leonardo fan and doesn’t attempt to tone down his praise or enthusiasm. Which is fine. He’s not the only one who considers Leonardo one of the greatest geniuses of all time.

In conclusion, sure, I can recommend this book. However, when you go into it, it is important to remember that it is not a conventional biography. It spends far more time on explanations and discourse than it does on telling Leonardo’s life story. That’s not a bad thing unless you are looking for an intriguing historical drama.

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The Woman Who Fell Backwards and Other Stories

5-5 The Woman Who Fell collection2 big

My new short story collection has been published and is now available at multiple booksellers.

A woman doomed to fall endlessly backwards in time unexpectedly finds an unusual and enigmatic romance. An elderly homeless man’s debit card becomes a magical fountain of money. As predatory aquatic aliens invade the Earth, a formerly disabled young woman obtains the power to fight back. A terminal cancer patient discovers a dark fantasy world where he embarks upon a quest towards a tantalizing yet ephemeral goal.

In these fast-paced but subtly-wrought tales you’ll find time travel, alien invasion, fascinating devices, dark fantasy worlds, revelries of the undead, and other wonders. Prepare to strip off the shackles of the mundane, abandon preconceived thought patterns, and step into worlds unknown.

Includes: “The Woman Who Fell Backwards, “The First One Through the Door,” “Fly Me Away Home Silver Hummingbird,” “Tripping the Dark Fantastic,” “Sylvia’s Wake,” “Hive Minds,” “The Yearbook Entry,” “At a Shotgun Wedding, Shots Fired,” “Spirit Girl and the Stolen Souls,” “Turn Me On,” “The Magic Debit Card,” “Afterword.”

Trade paperback

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Book Review: Slow River by Nicola Griffith

This book, Slow River by Nicola Griffith, I’ve had on my shelf for years but never got around to reading. Not that I didn’t want to – it’s a Nebula Award winner and all – but it always seemed that other things grabbed my attention. I can thank the coronavirus social distancing and our local library being closed for the impetus to read some of the gems I have set aside. This is a good read, with fast pacing, fascinating characters, and a gripping plot that always made me want to keep reading a little longer than I had originally scheduled.

The protagonist, Lore, is the member of an ultra-wealthy family that made its fortune on patented microorganisms that purify water. As the story opens, she has just escaped kidnappers who were demanding an enormous ransom for her release. After weeks of captivity, she had despaired of her family helping her. A petty criminal named Spanner finds her wounded and naked on the street and takes her in, but then uses her in her own schemes of internet piracy, prostitution, and other illegal activities. For a time Lore and Spanner carry on an affair while pursuing Spanner’s illicit money-making schemes, but Lore eventually breaks free, moves out on her own, and gets a job at a water bioremediation plant that uses microbes supplied by her family.

Even though I write science fiction I have to admit that I am not very scientifically-minded, and some of the explanations about how the water purification process works, which Griffith goes into in detail, went over my head. No matter. You don’t have to understand the technicalities of the process to enjoy the story.

Griffith shifts between three narratives: Lore as a child during various stages of her maturation, Lore’s misadventures with Spanner, and Lore’s experiences at the plant, which constitutes the present day in the novel. She shifts between third person present tense, third person past tense, and first person past tense, each of the narratives having a specific style. I have read novels in which such stylistic flourishes do not work, but Griffith pulls it off well. The transitions are smooth and appropriate.

To me the book does not really have a science fiction feel to it, but this is not in any way intended as a criticism. It was published twenty-five years ago, back in 1995, and maybe then the setting seemed more futuristic. In 2020, there is no differentiating the supposed near future the novel portrays with what is happening in the present day. There are people, especially in the tech sector, who are as rich as the family in Slow River. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t know enough about bioremediation to know whether the techniques portrayed in the novel are futuristic or contemporary. It doesn’t matter. Twenty-five years after it was published, Slow River is still a good read. It is exciting, thought provoking, and emotional in all the right ways. Grab a copy (or download an e-copy) during these shelter-at-home days; you’ll be in for some great entertainment.

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