Review: Cold In July by Joe R. Lansdale

Cold In JulyCold In July by Joe R. Lansdale (9781616961619): Tachyon Publications (c1989, 2014)

Lansdale’s gritty, pulpy, Texas-noir powerhouse opens in 1989 with Richard Dane being awoken by his wife in the middle of the night because she hears a prowler entering their home. Richard takes down a pistol from his closet and goes to investigate. In the process, he walks in on the prowler, who draws a gun and fires at him–luckily, the shot goes wide and Dane returns fire, killing the burglar in the process. As Dane deals with soul-deadening unease at taking a life, he also has to cope with the notoriety the event gives him in the sleepy East Texas town where he lives and works. But when the burglar’s father, Ben Russel, comes to town threatening Cape Fear-style revenge, Dane discovers that things are not at all what they seem and, in a strange turn of events, ends up working with Russel and an eccentric private investigator to get to the truth. Along the way, they find that they’re working against both law enforcement and the Dixie Mafia to try and do the right and honorable thing in a world that gets darker with each passing day.

Lansdale (Bubba Ho-Tep, Edge of Dark Water, The Thicket) is the gonzo prose-laureate of East Texas and this novel is a brilliant example of his writing at its tightest. He slowly turns up the tension in the first third of novel as Russel becomes an eerie force of menace, tormenting Dane and his family in the finest noir tradition. Then the story takes an abrupt turn into a straight-up crime novel as Dane, his wife Ann, Russel, and the competently egotistical PI Jim Bob Luke begin to put together pieces of the mystery that neither Dane nor Russel can let go of–even when what they find challenges their definitions of humanity. Finally, in its bloody and blazing climax, the novel transforms again into a pulpy action triumph. Even throughout these transitions, Lansdale manages to add another layer of storytelling to the mix, that of the psychological turmoil of the protagonist (Dane) and his questioning of what it means to be a man and “do what a man has to do”, his ability to be a good father, and the burden of his own sense of honor. All of this in a tidy, 250-page package.

The characters Lansdale creates are vivid and lively. Ann Dale is a lovely, strong woman who can easily go toe-to-toe with these über-masculine men she finds herself involved with. Dane is a sensitive, but rock-solid man, the salt of the earth. Russel is a man with a soul-sucking darkness in his heart, but is also a man full of regret and a basic humanity that keeps him from becoming a monster. And Jim Bob Luke has enough personality for ten characters, but Lansdale manages to keep him from hogging all of the available spotlight.

Finally, as he usually does in his fiction, he evokes the very spirit of its setting. You feel the heat, smell the stifling air, and taste the salt of the sweat in the stifling sauna that is an East Texas summer. He paints a vivid picture of the brimstone and fire of South Texas refineries and the desolate scrub of the country outside the asphalt jungle of the city. Texas itself is as much a character in the story as the players.

Needless to say, this is probably my favorite Joe Lansdale novel yet. And that’s saying something.

By the way, the novel has been made into an acclaimed movie by Jim Mickle and Nick Damici and starring Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepherd, and Don Johnson.

 

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I Have A Problem

I have a problem.

Like most people do, I try to talk to people about it. Maybe I need help in solving the problem. Maybe I just need to vent about the fact that it is a problem. But I need to talk about it, to seek out answers, and to set things straight in my mind. And to make those that contribute to the problem aware of it and maybe, just maybe, get them to stop.

But every time I talk about it to you, you start to tell me about your problem.

You tell me that it’s well and good to be aware of my problem, but I shouldn’t forget the importance of your problem. “It’s only fair,” you say.

And, on the surface, I suppose that is true. Your problem is there and it is real and it is important.

But, right here, right now? I’m talking about my problem. Maybe, just maybe, there’s another time and another place to talk about your problem.

And every time you bring up “valid points” that simply serve to change the subject, you send a very clear message: My problem is not important. Because it is not about you.

Then, when I describe what problematic thing others are doing to me or to people like me, you respond that you don’t do that. That there are other people that don’t do that.

Which is true, as far as it goes. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a problem. It doesn’t mean that my problem is any less real. And by being defensive about it, you’re once again trying to make it about you.

Once again, what you are saying is that my problem isn’t important. Because it isn’t about you.

So then I seek out others that have the same problem as me. People that understand and  have similar experiences. And I talk about my problem and possible solutions, and share my pain and humiliation and heartbreak with them so that the shared burden is an easier one to bear. But you follow me there and, once again, try to insert your problem into the conversation.

This isn’t the time or place to talk about your problem. Because you are clearly sending the message that my problem, and the problems of these other like-minded people, are not as important as your problem.

It isn’t about you.

The hard part, I think, is that you are very used to it being about you. And so, when I try to share my pain and my struggle, it does not compute with your experience.

Because it’s not about you.

Instead of listening and learning about something others, and thus expanding your experience, you, instead, try to control it. To change the focus to more “important” points.

And this happens every time I try to talk about my problem. If it’s not done by you, then it’s by someone like you.

You have problems, too. I get that. And we can talk about them at some other point. There are lots of problems in the world and we need to fix them.

But right now, I need to talk about my problem. I need to have you be there and listen to what I have to say. You may not have a solution. You might can only sympathize. And that’s okay.

But don’t change the subject. Don’t get defensive. Don’t bring your grievances to the conversation. Don’t make it about you.

Because when I’m continually reminded that my problem is not important, that my experience is not as valid, because it is not about you?

I have a problem.

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“Gauntlet” reviewed at Tangent.com

My short story “Gauntlet” (appearing in the Spring 2014 issue of On Spec, if you haven’t gotten a chance to read it), received a brief but positive review at Tangent.com

Shedrick Pittman-Hasset has produced a slam-bang action storyDefinitely a highlight of the issue

Check out the full review here!

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Review: The Incrementalists by Steven Brust and Skyler White

The IncrementalistsThe Incrementalists by Steven Brust and Skyler White (2013): 9780765334220 (Tor Books).

“It’s the little things that get you when you weren’t paying attention…” Jim’s Big Ego, “Stress”.

The Incrementalists are members of an ancient secret society that seeks to make the world a better place, a little bit at a time. They use “switches”, psychological levers, to gently nudge people into making the right decisions. They use their influence to guide the moving forces of the world in the right direction. And they use their relative immortality to endlessly debate and consider just what the “right” direction may be. Renee, a smart and perceptive project manager, has been recruited to join their number by Phil, the most venerable Incrementalist alive. He wants her to take on the “stub” (an amalgam of memory and personality) of Celeste, his former lover and constant antagonist. But something has gone wrong, and it seems that Celeste has been making some changes not only to the world but to the Incrementalists themselves. Now, the core of the society must meet in Las Vegas to consider the ramifications her meddling.

I recently read and reviewed another “secret society controls the world through arcane manipulation of people and events” novel called Lexicon by Max Barry. It, too, had a male-female pair of protagonists that were drawn into an internecine struggle within that organization. But that is where the similarities end. Where Lexicon was an action-thriller, filled with car chases, explosions, and the rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire, The Incrementalists is much quieter and more intimate. It is essentially a series of conversations and interactions between characters. There is only true act of violence in the book, an act so jarring that it makes quite an impact.

Despite the above description, the book is far from boring. Brust has always been a master of dialog (I love the interactions in the Vlad Taltos series) and White (with whom I am not previously familiar) obviously knows what she is doing as well. Their collaboration is seamless, both authors creating interesting characters and a fascinating plot that asks a lot of big questions. What is the nature of memory and personality? How does one interact with the other? What is the “soul”? Does meddling make love any less legitimate? And it manages to ask all of these questions while having fun at the same time.

The Incrementalists is a fascinating book and very human book. It’s a big plot told in intimate gatherings. It’s not a loud blockbuster, but a small independent film that has a lot of heart. Feel free to enjoy it in one big bite, or even just a little bit at a time.

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On Choices: Politics and Fiction

I’ve been thinking a lot about politics and fiction (especially speculative fiction) lately.

For one thing, I often think about political issues. While I’m generally pretty mild-mannered and usually avoid political conversations, I do think about the issues. They matter to me. I’m no political activist or anything, but I try to educate myself on the issues, form my opinions, and try to act according to my conscience (with Wheaton’s Law being my guiding principle).

For another, it seems that the world of speculative fiction is constantly in a state of “one thing after another” when it comes to politically-charged kerfuffles.  With the issues with the SFWA Bulletin, and “fake geeks”, and the “feminization” of the genre, and the Hugo awards slate, and on, and on, and on–frankly, it gets exhausting. And, as a fan and a n00b writer, it’s disheartening. It’s a bit like standing in the hall as the parental units go for the jugular. You get to a point where you don’t care who’s right and who’s wrong, you just want it to stop.

So when I first saw this article (“Politics Don’t Belong in Science Fiction”), I sympathized. Can’t folks just set their weapons aside and write “good” stories? Can’t we go back to that?

But then…I thought a little harder. Started taking some things apart in my head on those long, lonely commutes to and from the day job.

First of all, what are we talking about when we say we want to take politics out of science fiction? Obviously we’re not talking about candidates or elections or campaigns (though, really, some stories could be). We talking about the ideas that drive our politics. By politics, we’re talking about our working theories about how the world works–and how we want the world to be–that dictate how we influence the world around us. So what are we saying? That we want to take these ideas out of science fiction. That they have no place in it.

I don’t think that we can do that. Even if we wanted to–and I’m not sure we do–I don’t think we could ever pull that off.

Speculative fiction (all fiction, really) has always been about ideas. Some authors have been more overt about their politics, but such “big ideas” exist within and inform the narrative of even the pulpiest space opera or sword and sorcery epic. In the article I cited, the author brings up Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke. I don’t think that anyone who has read these authors can say that their fiction is apolitical.

Writing is a series of choices.  You choose your characters, their histories, their motivations. You choose the setting, its movers and shakers, the status quo and the challenges to it. You also choose what characters aren’t used, what doesn’t motivate them, what is not challenged. The authorial choices you make are informed by your ideas of how the world works–or should work. You either subvert those ideas or you support them, but your choices are informed by them nonetheless. That’s not a conservative or a liberal thing–it’s a human thing. You can’t get away from it.

And I’m not sure, as writers, we want to get away from it. These ideas are powerful engines in our fiction. They put our stories into warp drive, turn them into something special and world-changing.

I don’t want “message” stories. I don’t need didacticism. What I want are well-crafted stories that make me think. That challenge me. That stay with me after I put my book away or shut down my laptop. They don’t have to bolster my politics but they can’t insult my intelligence. I want to see new and exciting things in my speculative fiction. I want to see what the universe can be if we work hard enough–or what it can become if we don’t.  There’s room for all it on my shelf. From around the world and across the spectra–bring it!

But I can also see where “taking the politics out of it” can become “taking your politics out of it”. Stories that I’m comfortable with are “not political” and stories that make me uncomfortable are “political”. But if all stories are, in some fashion, political, that doesn’t really work. The argument essentially becomes a way to tell people to shut up, to squelch expression, and that really doesn’t hold much water with me.

It would be really easy for me to fall into that mind set. After all, “traditional” and “old fashioned” speculative fiction was written for me as the target audience. I can take such “political” ideas like racism and sexism and hold them at a distance, treating the arguments like intellectual exercises, because, in this time and place, they don’t directly affect my life.  If I never think about race or gender or sexual orientation or politics again, my day-to-day would, sadly, be little changed. The status quo is comfortable, the political is troublesome.

But for others, these so-called “political” folks, they don’t have that luxury. What I can call political and set aside, they call fighting for lives. The staus quo is troublesome and the “political” is trying to reconcile that.

Of course, it’s just as much a political stand to maintain the status quo. To stand up for tradition or “classic” ideas. It’s a choice informed by belief in how the world works.

And that’s the rub–there’s simply no getting away from politics. Not in fiction–not in life.

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