Cemetary Dance Review



Lack of Distinction(s)

A good argument can be made, although I'll not make it here, that distinctions between science fiction, fantasy, and horror have been detrimental to the fiction of the fantastic for a number of years.

For those of us who were first attracted to "genre" by the dangerous visions of Harlan Ellison, P. K. Dick, Samuel Delany, Fritz Lieber, J. G. Ballard, Roger Zelazny, and so many others, our fictional faith was founded in imaginative literature as a whole, without regard for distinctions between what was called science fiction, fantasy, or horror, let alone further definitions between sub-genera.

We were attracted by the ideas and the imagination of the fiction. Although they were never the main attraction, we even enjoyed the occasional ride on a shiny spaceship of hard SF (especially if the characters were as important as the hardware) or liked the mighty swing of a barbarian sword once in awhile (if there was as much style as sinew and a real story). Give us the best wizardry laced with allegorical wisdom and we'd warm up to it. We'd even slum with the devil's spawn and make out with the occasional monster — if they were revelatory re-inventions and not rehashed regurgitations.

Some of us preferred the darker brew more often than not, but it was still part of the mix and it still is. Even if "science fiction readers" get ill at the thought of a unicorn, they do not disdain good "fantasy." SF/F readers who say "I don't like horror" will invariably admit they love certain works of literature that are, without any cognitive stretch, "horror" or "dark fantasy."

I'm not denying there are identifiable differences in the whole. It is just that we'd all be better served by a recognition of good fantastic literature and a devotion to high quality rather than quantifiers. Instead of "supporting the genre," support what's best about it. Realize nothing is gained, and quite a bit is lost, by sustaining anything simple because it's called by one name or another.


Golden Gryphon

Golden Gryphon Press was founded in 1996 by James Turner. Starting in 1971 Turner had been the editor at historically important small press Arkham House. He'd continued to publish the canonical authors, but started concentrating more on contemporary science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers, showcasing them in high quality short story collections. The way I heard the story, Arkham's owners fired him in 1996, because they wanted to focus on what had gone before (a.k.a. "classics") as opposed to authors who were still alive and kicking.

So, Turner established Golden Gryphon, and continued to publish contemporary authors of merit in well-turned-out tomes. Turner died in 1999 and his brother, Gary, and Gary's wife, Geri, took over the press. Marty Halpern signed on as an editor in 1999. By the end of this year, Golden Gryphon will have published a total of 40 books and have a roster of authors that includes Kage Baker, Neal Barrett Jr., Michael Bishop, Andy Duncan, George Alec Effinger, Jeffrey Ford, Nancy Kress, Joe R. Lansdale, Richard Paul Russo, Pamela Sargent, Lucius Shepard, Howard Waldrop, and Ian Watson.

At this writing (early May) Golden Gryphon has four "dark" titles fairly hot off the presses. Not only are all four worth reading, they happen to be good examples of how the best fiction continues to further blur genre delineations.

The Atrocity Archives
Charles Stross
Golden Gryphon. $24.95. 310p
ISBN: 1930846258

The Atrocity Archives consists of one novel, "The Atrocity Archive," and one novella, "The Concrete Jungle." The first was originally published in serial form. The second is original to the volume.

The universe of "The Atrocity Archive" is quite similar to what we perceive ours to be, except it is definitely in an Everett-Wheeler (don't ask me what happened to "- Graham," I'm just a simple country horror reviewer) cosmology of multi-universes. Although several of these universes are mentioned, only the one in which H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos is real matters here. What might be called "magic" never worked too well (although there are hints that dabblers like Dee and Crowley and a few mystics had small successes) until Alan Turing postulated his final theorem (the one of which we know nothing in this universe) in 1953. Not only did this disprove the Church-Turing thesis (which, in our universe is assumed to be true) but set the stage for the use of Platonic mathematical formulae/incantations that can be used to call forth nameless gibbering monstrosities as well as rip holes in the space-time continuum.

Obviously power of such magnitude must be kept from the hands of evildoers, hacker-geeks, bored grad students, and smarties who inadvertently stumble onto the secrets of the universe. Thus arose the need for extra-secret secret services; someone has to keep the metaphysical lid on, preserve occult maths for the forces of democracy, and generally take care of the occasional nastiness from out of space and out of time. The Brit version is the Laundry. Its self-perpetuating bureaucracy is staffed (at least partially, perhaps primarily) by the aforementioned geek-grad-smarties who happen onto hidden knowledge and are then whisked into the service of their country. They have some choice in the matter, of course. They can keep their mouths shut and function as paper pushers or low-level functionaries until pension time; they can become active agents and risk all; or they can — well, let's just say with the third choice you run out of choices.

Our protagonist is Robert "Bob" Howard (one of the many little Lovecraftian in-jokes in the novel) who joined the Laundry under just such circumstances. As a student, Bob worked out a geometry curve that iterated a method for invoking Nyarlarhotep. The Powers That Be saved him (and many innocent bystanders) from himself, let him in on some of the secrets, and clasped him to its bureaucratic bosom. As our story opens he has decided to make a career of the Laundry in active service rather than opting for the safe and secure tech support course.

Unfortunately, readers won't need non-Euclidean geometries to find that, as a character, Bob is a bit flat. He's also a handy store of background knowledge of Laundry matters with which to Explain Things To Us All, even if it is not quite logical for him to have such knowledge. After some bumbling, insubordination, and a great deal of cracking wise, however, he eventually turns into a true blue — if not always by the book and therefore superior — spook before the story's end.

Things get hopping when Bob is sent to Santa Cruz [California] to assist Dominique "Mo" O'Brien, an attractive Irish doctor of philosophy. While working in the US, her research had inadvertently breeched the secret line, and the American secret squad is preventing her from leaving its shores. She winds up kidnapped by Middle Eastern terrorists and Bob goes against standard procedures in an attempt to save her. He has his own problems with the bad guys and then shows little concern about whether she escaped, lived, or died until she shows up back in London safely under wraps as a new Laundry employee.

Although mutual attraction exists, Bob, on Laundry orders, takes Mo to Amsterdam to do some research and dangle her as bait for the bad guys. The research turns up a connection to the "lost and most secret nightmares of the Third Reich" and "leftover Nazi necromancers." Mo soon gets abducted again, this time through a gateway to another universe blown through the wall of her hotel room. She was supposedly under full Laundry protection at the time, but — oh well, the plot must go on.

It's up to a Special Forces unit and Bob to identify the bad guys, neutralize them, and close the gate. Saving Mo is important, too, but that is secondary to the mission (if not Bob.) Once on the other side, things are ever so much worse than first thought, but, thanks to Bob's knowledge of nuclear weaponry, both the world and Mo are saved, although not without some regrettable losses.

"The Concrete Jungle" finds Bob more firmly ensconced as a Laundry Man and cohabiting with Mo, a Laundry Woman, who is off training somewhere, which conveniently allows Bob to share this adventure with a detective inspector named Josephine. He's more of the operative and less the geek now, but still irreverent and a mite overly emotional. Luckily his "pretty unique skill mix modern Babbage engine Internet contraptions" makes him valuable in the field. Bob faces off against (among other things) a lamia, some gorgons, and bureaucratic idiocy and/or an office power play. This adventure is done well enough, but seems a bit slap-dash more than well crafted.

Stross's Bob Howard is not yet as amusing as Kim Newman's James Bondian Richard Jeperson. Stross's occult spy novelizing is not yet in the literary neighborhood of Tim Powers' Declare. (Who is?) True characterization is lacking, the plotting could be more polished, and there's a proclivity toward dialogue a mite too thick with "scientific" jargon. But the sheer exuberant energy of Stross's narrative overcomes its not-quite-ignorable, but probably forgivable flaws. Enjoy the stories for what they are: fun, entertaining, and clever exercises in "what if." You'll encounter a talented writer you probably haven't run across before (after all you are a "horror" reader and he's been a "science fiction" short story writer for years). Bob and the Laundry seem destined for more dark adventures. You'll not want to miss out on them.

— Paula Guran, Cemetary Dance #50, 2004


[Note: The three other Golden Gryphon Press books reviewed in this article were Bumper Crop by Joe R. Lansdale, Breathmoss and Other Exhalations by Ian R. MacLeod, and Secret Life by Jeff VanderMeer.]



 

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