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Books To Look For
Catfishing on CatNet, Naomi Kritzer, Tor Teen, 2019, $17.99, hc
When the subject comes up, as it does, about the pitfalls of online communities and how they detract from our ability to interact socially in the real world, I often find myself on the wrong side of the discussion. It's not that I disagree with the basic premise. Getting your face out of your phone or laptop and relating to the person you're with in the real world is not only polite but holds the possibility of an enriching experience.
What if you're socially inept? You might be on the autism spectrum. You might have a disability that doesn't allow you to physically go out in the real world. You might be painfully shy, and having already been made fun of in the past, have no desire to put yourself in a similar position again. You might be agoraphobic.
There are any number of reasons why people can't, or don't want to, physically socialize.
In the old, pre-internet days, those people would find themselves isolated, alone and cut off from the rest of the world. They would have no hope of finding a community of like-minded individuals, no hope of finding their tribe.
For them, the internet, with its forums and chat rooms and Facebook groups, is a gift. As it is for Steph, the young protagonist of Naomi Kritzer's enchanting Catfishing on CatNet.
The novel takes its inspiration from Kritzer's Hugo Award-winning story "Cat Pictures Please," which features an absolutely charming AI who is trying to make people's lives better and only wants pictures of cats in return. That AI—narrative voice intact, happily—is back in a much bigger role here.
Let me quote a bit from the cover blurb: "Because her mom is always on the move, Steph hasn't lived anyplace longer than six months. Her only constant is an online community called CatNet—a social media site where users upload cat pictures—a place she knows she is welcome. What Steph doesn't know is that the admin of the site, CheshireCat, is a sentient AI.
"When a threat from Steph's past catches up to her and ChesireCat's existence is discovered by outsiders, it's up to Steph and her friends, both online and IRL, to save her."
The plot starts warm and small and morphs into an excellent thriller, but what drew me to the book was the sense of community of Steph and her friends in the "clowder" (a private chat room) they share on CatNet.
The story's told through three POVs: Steph's, the AI CheshireCat, and transcripts of chats from the members of her clowder, and it's easy to be captivated by all three.
Because Steph and her mother are on the run from her father, she can't even tell her clowder where they are living each time they move. They are the only anchor she has to any sort of continuity in her life, but because the clowder doesn't know where she lives when they realize that she's in trouble in the real world, they have to use all their wits and ingenuity—and overcome their own various social weaknesses—to be able to help.
There's so much to love about this book, not least being how the reveals at the end are as satisfying as they are.
I know that Kritzer also writes secondary world fantasy, but that's not really my cup of tea. I am, however, really looking forward to whatever she offers us next in a contemporary setting.
A Song for a New Day, Sarah Pinsker, Berkley, 2019, $16, tpb
Sarah Pinsker's new novel appears to take the other side of the online/offline argument with one of its two main characters: Luce, introduced to readers in Pinkser's story "Our Lady of the Open Road" (which first appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction, 2015; also available in her collection Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea, Small Beer Press, 2019).
Luce is a touring musician in a time when a giant corporation controls pretty much all entertainment. It can beam a concert directly into your home, making it unnecessary for you to ever have to leave. All you need is the hoodie with which you interact in the virtual reality (referred to as Hoodspace). It's not exactly clear how it works, but people simply put their hood over their head and they're dropped into a virtual reality where pretty much all social interaction takes place. People have no interest in leaving Hoodspace, and it drives Luce crazy.
But people don't use Hoodspace simply for the convenience. After years of terrorist attacks and plagues of deadly viruses, it's safer, and you can't really go out to clubs and shows and sports events anyway because the government has banned public gatherings. People even work from home using Hoodspace to "go" the office.
As an aside, hologram musicians aren't really science fiction. As I was writing this review, I heard a review on the radio for a current tour called the Rock'n'Roll Dream Tour featuring live musicians playing with holograms of Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly. And of course for a couple of years now Dweezil Zappa has been fighting his family's plans to put Frank out on tour.
At the moment, you still have to go out to a venue to take in the show, but it might well be only a matter of time before the whole thing can be streamed into your living room, or a virtual reality that you access through something like Pinsker's Hoodspace.
Streaming services have already sucked away any hope that a musician not in the one percent tier of the business can make a living from their recordings. They only survive by touring, and if that gets taken away they'll have to turn to other ways of making a living instead of playing music. And then there'll be that much less art in the world.
That's reality—a reality not far from the one that Pinsker writes about in A Song for a New Day, if circumstances should arise that has the government ban public gatherings. It's no wonder that Luce rails against it, touring and performing illegal concerts to a small, supportive community. Our sympathies are firmly with her as she tilts against the giant windmill of big business.
But Pinsker provides another, opposing viewpoint to the online/offline argument through the voice of another character, trading chapters between the two. The book blurb says:
"Rosemary Laws barely remembers the Before times. She spends her days in Hoodspace, helping customers order all of their goods online for drone delivery—no physical contact with humans needed. By lucky chance, she finds a new job and a new calling: Discover amazing musicians and bring their concerts to everyone via virtual reality. The only catch is that she'll have to do something she's never done before and go out in public. Find the illegal concerts and bring musicians into the limelight they deserve."
The reader ends up loving both these characters and sympathizing with their points of view. But the world they navigate is fraught with perils, and both of them are forced to confront the clash of their ideals pushed up against reality.
I remember wondering as I was reading Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea if Pinsker could retain that same urgency, the same beauty of the prose and intensity of characters, that she pulls off in her shorter fiction. The answer is a resounding yes and I feel lucky to be able to read two such outstanding books by a gifted writer in the same calendar year.
I Know What I Saw, Linda S. Godfrey, TarcherPerigee, 2019, $25, hc
I love books like this. Books like what? Well, perhaps I Know What I Saw's subtitle will explain: Modern-Day Encounters with Monsters of New Urban Legend and Ancient Lore.
Back in the sixties, I came across Katharine Briggs's collections of fairy folklore like The Anatomy of Puck and The Personnel of Fairyland, and I was particularly smitten by the anecdotal first person descriptions of encounters with magical creatures and monstrous beasts that were scattered throughout Briggs's research, and her own thoughts on the subject. The most comprehensive of her fairy books was A Dictionary of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies and Other Supernatural Creatures, which is laid out like a dictionary and chock full of first person observations. It's also my favorite of her books next to her two novels, Hobberdy Dick and Kate Crackernuts. But I digress.
Before this, I'd been reading fairy tale collections (like those collected by Andrew Lang) and books of and about myth. Both were more of a literary exercise that didn't really come alive for me until I was introduced to the study of folklore wherein ordinary people were talking about their own firsthand experiences with the inexplicable. That led to a lifetime of interest into conjectures that the world might well be a far larger and stranger place than we initially perceive it to be. Probably my favorite writer on the subject is Colin Wilson, in particular the books that make up what's known as his occult trilogy: The Occult, Mysteries, and Beyond the Occult.
Nowadays the internet can be an endless happy wormhole of material, one link leading to another, but I still prefer the little local pamphlets you can find in towns when you travel around the country, or populist books such as the one in hand.
Linda S. Godfrey's I Know What I Saw is a good addition to my library. She doesn't have any definitive answers (does anyone?) and she doesn't make pronouncements on the subject, preferring to keep an open mind. But she does put together a rather exhaustive collection of anecdotal evidence, citing one encounter after the other.
She focuses mostly on Bigfoot and dogmen but with plenty of digressions into other phenomena like deer men, little people, and great cats. My favorite part is the last section of the book wherein she relates her own encounters with a Bigfoot-like creature and the fact that the focus here is mostly on North American cryptids.
In some ways the veracity of the stories doesn't really matter, because it's the possibility that catches our imaginations. I've never actually seen a Bigfoot, fairy, ghost, or any of the other fabulous creatures that populate folklore and urban myth. But I'm always on the lookout, because you never know, and I remain open to the possibility. As Godfrey says in her book:
"Most people never even think of keeping an eye out for unknown creatures; the general population considers Bigfoots and dogmen to be no more than legend, myth, hallucination, or outright fiction. Legendary they may be, but legend is not synonymous with untruth."
Godfrey's done a terrific job of adding a calm, journalistic voice to what can sometimes be a polarizing and sensationalist subject. She writes with the clarity and ease you might find replicated while sitting around a campfire or on a porch, swapping tales with a friend. I'm definitely going to seek out some more titles by her.
In the Heart of the Fire, Dean Koontz, Amazon Original Stories, 2019, $1.99, ebook
Photographing the Dead, Dean Koontz, Amazon Original Stories, 2019, $1.99, ebook
The Praying Mantis Bride, Dean Koontz, Amazon Original Stories, 2019, $1.99, ebook
Red Rain, Dean Koontz, Amazon Original Stories, 2019, $1.99, ebook
The Mercy of Snake, Dean Koontz, Amazon Original Stories, 2019, $1.99, ebook
Memories of Tomorrow, Dean Koontz, Amazon Original Stories, 2019, $1.99, ebook
Dean Koontz pretty much lives on the bestseller lists. You'd be hard pressed to find a bookstore that doesn't carry his books, particularly whichever of his titles is most current. He's one of a handful of writers whose hardcover and paperback sales provide a real support to not only brick and mortar stores but also online retailers.
So why's he releasing this new series of novellas only in digital and audio formats?
You'd have to ask him, but my guess is that, like Stephen King, Koontz just likes to explore alternate ways of getting his stories to his long-time readers while at the same time introducing his work to new readers who might not have already been following him in a paper format. I am sure of one thing: Neither of these writers is in it for the money. There are easier ways to make a living—in fact, by this point, their money probably makes them money without them having to lift a finger.
The truth is, you don't work as hard as they do telling stories unless you're driven to do so. Just as readers are always looking for a new story to read, Koontz is looking for new stories to tell. Which is why, again like King, it'll be a long time before we see either of them retire.
The six novellas under discussion here are sold separately but read like an episodic novel. The continuing thread is the nameless man who provides the central point-of-view throughout. Each book features a separate mission, which concludes in its pages; but like a TV season, there's also an overall arc.
In the first book we're introduced to Nameless. He works for an organization that seeks out people betrayed by the legal system, then sends in Nameless to make sure the truth is revealed and justice has been served.
Nameless knows nothing about his life except for the last two years; the rest has been wiped clean. Or at least any personal details have been. He's pretty sure that he willingly allowed this to be done. He's an extremely capable operative, the perfect tool to undertake the complicated schemes that the organization puts into motion to make sure that the perpetrators of crimes suffer a fate that's in keeping with what they've done.
Nameless is also a little clairvoyant, seeing snatches of both the past and the future that are sometimes useful to his work. Other times they're disturbing and he's afraid that they might be errant memories from before his mind was wiped clean.
The first five novellas each lay out one of Nameless's missions and will appeal to anyone who yearns to see the powerful made to pay for the crimes they thought they'd gotten away with. The mission in the sixth novella is rather slight, but that's made up for with the payoff of revealing who Nameless is and why he lives the life he does.
The prose of the series is much leaner than Koontz has produced in years, harkening back to the sort of hardboiled novels that Donald E. Westlake used to write, particularly the Parker novels, which appeared under his Richard Stark pen name. There's also less humor than we've come to expect in a Koontz novel. That's not to say that his previous thrillers were knee-slapping laugh fests, but there was usually a good-natured banter between the characters to leaven the serious goings on of the plots.
The Nameless books are serious business, and Koontz treats them as such.
In many ways this feels like the author has had a new charge of inspiration and enthusiasm for his work. These are the kinds of stories where you can see him looking forward to sitting down to write each day, though that's something only Koontz knows.
All I know for sure is if he continues to produce work like this, his readers will come along for the ride.
Women of Science Fiction and Fantasy Television, Karen A. Romanko, McFarland, 2019, $39.95, tpb
I'm of two minds of the worthiness of this book. It's subtitled An Encyclopedia of 400 Characters and 200 Shows, 1950-2016, but the criteria of what gets an entry in the main part of the book and what is delegated to the appendix isn't clear. Nor does it make much sense when shows like iZombie, Stranger Things, or the shows from the CW DC universe like Arrow, The Flash, or DC's Legends of Tomorrow, with show-defining female characters as part of their ensemble casts, get just a couple of lines in the appendix.
I realize there were probably space constraints, but one would think that if you're going to do a comprehensive "encyclopedia" and you're aware enough of material so that it shows up in the appendix, you'd include it the main part of the book.
Then there's the fact that everything cited in the pages of Women of Science Fiction and Fantasy Television is readily accessible on the internet. It brings into the question why the book exists—especially when it's so expensively priced.
But there are positives. There's something to be said for holding a book in one's hand and browsing the entries (which have excellent cross-referencing) rather than entering searches into your internet browser. Plus there's a comprehensive index. And while I've grumbled a fair amount in the first few paragraphs of this review, I found myself quite enjoying the trip down memory lane that I took in the book's pages, coming across shows I'd like to see again and ones of which I was unaware that I'd like to track down.
So if you're feeling a little flush, or looking for a gift for the f&sf TV fan in your life, Women of Science Fiction and Fantasy Television is a diverting way to spend a few hours or spread some joy to a like-minded friend.
Mingus Fingers, David Sandner and Jacob Weisman, Fairwood Press, 2019, $8, pb
A great story is like a great song. It stays with you. Just as the melody and lyric of that great song always feels fresh, so too can a story retain its impact through a narrative that reads like poetry.
We never learn the name of the narrator in Mingus Fingers. He's an ex-boxer and a decent jazz trumpet player taking care of his young nephew Kenny after his sister's house burned down. She and her older child have gone to stay with their mother who wants the narrator to take care of Kenny so that the boy can have a father figure in his life. The narrator isn't sure how good he'll be at playing the parent but he's willing to give it a go.
Kenny's a good kid, quiet to an extreme and a bit odd in how he befriends the backyard rabbits and butterflies. He also loves jazz, although at first the narrator isn't sure how much is a love of jazz and how much is the boy just wanting to be with him. What he does know is that Kenny loves to come with him to the Nighthawk, the jazz club where the narrator plays.
That's where the two of them meet a young bassist named Charlie Mingus whose playing is so deep it takes Mingus into an altered state of mind that he calls the underground. The narrator knows he'll never be able to get to that place on his own but when he plays with Mingus he gets a sense of being a part of it. Before this, the narrator's been able to tell when a player is going that deep because he perceives them as animals—in Mingus's case the bassist appears to take on the form of a giraffe.
When the story opens, the narrator has been asked to come out of retirement to work with an up-and-coming brutal boxer named Kid Galviston. The money allows him to at least get through the summer, but he's pretty sure fighting Kid Galviston will set him up to be seriously injured. So much so that he won't be able to fight again, and probably won't be able to play music either.
Meanwhile, Mingus has taken an interest in Kenny and coaches the narrator in how to start the boy off as a musician.
Mingus Fingers is one of those rare stories that gets everything right. What it feels like to be a black man in 1940s San Francisco, to box, to play jazz, to understand what it takes to be the best at either but know you'll never be able to pull it off. The narrator's voice is matter-of-fact but also soars, so that you're immersed in the sweat of the ring, the smoke of the jazz club, the indescribable joy of when the music really swings.
You don't have to know Mingus's music to appreciate what the authors have pulled off, but if you do, the story will resonate that much more deeply for you. And really, you could do worse than listening to some Mingus.
It's because of stories like this that it's so important for us to support our small presses. Sure, Mingus Fingers might have appeared in some anthology or collection, but it wouldn't be the perfect little package that this is.
I loved it so much that a few weeks after reading it I went back and read it again. I think I might have enjoyed it even more the second time.
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