Sophomore Honor Roll

Writing one’s first novel, getting it sold, and shepherding it through the labyrinths of editing, production, marketing, journalism, and social media is an arduous and nerve-wracking process. Yet there is also a novice’s exhilaration that the fledgling writer experiences during this time, both in his or her own private artistic explorations on the page, and in the public reception by readers and critics. Nothing is foreclosed; everything is possible; anything might happen. You might invent a new genre or become the next J. K. Rowling! Why not?

But then, with one’s first novel a flop or a success or — statistically speaking, the most likely case — an unjustly overlooked also-ran, comes the cold realization:  If I want a career as an author, I now have to do this insane thing all over again! And again. And again… That’s the cruel epiphany that has broken many a man and woman on the pitiless rack of daily word count, sending them fleeing for any other profession.

But Karen Lord and Ned Beauman are made of sterner stuff, two authors of fantastika who have both surmounted the dreaded sophomore specter to bring us worthy follow-ups to their first novels.

Lord’s first book, Redemption in Indigo, racked up several literary prizes, heightening expectations for her second novel. Indigo was pure magic realism of a mixed Afro-Caribbean parentage. In an assured griot’s voice that harked to such predecessors as Gabriel García Márquez, Moacyr Scliar, Jorge Amado, and Nalo Hopkinson, Lord told an entertainingly digressive tale centered around a rebellious wife named Paama. Fleeing her foolish glutton of a husband for her native village of Makende, Paama is gifted with the “Chaos Stick” by immortal spirits known as djombi. Meanwhile, the Indigo Lord of the supernatural world wants his potent talisman back. But, wearing human form, he mistakenly fixates on Paama’s sister, Neila. The resulting fairy tale, a mix of quest and farce, is a calypso Pilgrim’s Progress, with flavors of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Lord’s telling of this tale blends the uncanny and the quotidian with grace. Her language is sparse and bucolic, while still radiating craft and poetry. Her nested tales shine with wry and exuberant bardic passion, exhibiting ajoie de vivre and love of pure storytelling.

Lord’s focus on pre-technological fantasy motifs betrayed itself with one bit of science-fictional language, when the Chaos Stick was described as “a type of focus or control for the quantum fluctuations that determine whether a situation is Go or No Go…” This dalliance with the language of science fiction was a pointer to her second book, a hardcore SF adventure and love story bearing the allusively multiversal title The Best of All Possible Worlds. Yet her sophomore novel does not actually feature hopping from one continuum to another but rather fits squarely and proudly into a lineage of “anthropological SF.”

Pioneered in the 1960s and 1970s by Jack Vance, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Michael Bishop and then extended by such authors as Joan Slonczewski, Nicola Griffith, C. J. Cherryh, and Sheri Tepper, among many others, anthropological SF delights in the deep and dense portrayal of odd cultures — human, alien, or both — and the oft-violent misunderstandings and accommodations between mainstream and fringe populations. The Best of All Possible Worlds follows this template precisely, but with vigor and freshness.

Several centuries from now, a galactic civilization formed of several cultures exists, including Terra, as its most junior. Its various races, while exhibiting some important somatic differences, seem quite capable of interbreeding, sharing common ancestors who were manipulated by an enigmatic Elder Race known as the Caretakers. Our narrator, Grace Delarua, works on the multicultural planet Cygnus Beta, as liaison to a group of refugees called the Sadiri, survivors of a terrible genocide on their homeworld. She is charged with helping their leader, Dllenahkh, uncover enclaves of a related people on Cygnus Beta, whose culture (and genetic material) may help revive the Sadiri. As they encounter both delightful oddities — including a community that deliberately models itself on fictional elves and fairies — and dangerous trials, Grace and Dllenahkh find themselves falling in love.

This intimate, sensitive, convention-defying romance — rare in science fiction — is conveyed delightfully by Grace’s assured,  insightful narrative, with a full tragicomic spectrum of emotions colorfully and artfully displayed. The affair, replete with intellect and passion, glories and gaucheries, is interwoven so beautifully with the expedition’s surprising events that each thread enhances the other. 

Additionally, this novel might very well be the ultimate Star Trek romance scenario. I was pointed in this direction by the nature of the Sadiri, who are in all but name Vulcans of the Spock variety.  

“Of all the humans of the galaxy, we Sadiri have developed the greatest mental capacity,” Dllenahkh contended. “We have realized our potential through use of the disciplines, which enable us to control our thoughts, emotions, and urges and improve our ability to process data. Without the disciplines we might still be powerful, but we would be rudderless.”

Old-school Campbellian riffs further tally with Vulcan powers. And the hops on Cygnus Beta from one culture to another become analogous to the successive planet hopping of the Enterprise. Finally, Grace, with her “cedar-brown skin,” stands in for Uhura, Spock’s paramour in the most recent Star Trek film. I do not intend to reduce this enchanting, picaresque book — which captures with artfulness the growth of mature love — to mere fan fiction. Yet certain evergreen SF motifs are here given new flesh thanks to Lord’s potent skills.

* * *

Thomas Pynchon surely inaugurated or crystallized a new genre in 1963 when he published V.  The seriocomic mystery or thriller with one foot set in the present and one in various historical eras received its postmodern baptism from Pynchon. This type of novel can function in a stripped-down condition — all plot — but also thrives when festooned with arcane systems and symbology. The mode has proven congenial to everyone from Umberto Eco to Dan Brown and shows no signs of decaying.

Ned Beauman’s first novel, Boxer, Beetle, is a majestic example of the genre, situated midway along the spectrum that runs from pure storytelling to mythic and occult brocaded allusiveness. Our contemporary narrator is Kevin Broom, compulsive smalltime dealer in Nazi memorabilia. He’s employed by a rich real estate magnate with the same avaricious and slightly dirty impulses, who’s on the track of an astonishing and rare item. But the intervention of a hired assassin also out for the prize raises the stakes considerably, leading Kevin on mad quest across modern Britain. 

Meanwhile, back in the mid-1930s, entomologist Philip Erskine — self-hating homosexual and eugenics-spouting fascist — happens to become fascinated by a bantamweight boxer named Sinner Roach. Their tale actually fills most of these pages, and it’s rather like Indiana Jones meets Monty Python. We encounter various underworlds and upper crusts. Erskine and Sinner, as well as all the subsidiary characters, are depicted with a light, assured, hand. The writing, especially the dialogue and strikingly gonzo metaphors, leaps off the page and into your lap, much like one of Erskine’s overbred beetles or Sinner’s punches. The musings on fascism, Darwinism, the class structure and a host of other issues is bright-eyed and compelling. Beauman offers thematic and prose flavorings akin to Liz Jensen, T. C. Boyle, Tom McCarthy and Will Self, but blended into a unique voice.

On first glance, Beauman’s newest, The Teleportation Accident, abandons this parallel construction, having no twenty-first-century thread, all its realtime action taking place from the years 1931 to 1962 (with a couple of essential exceptions, especially a coda set in a far future owing something to Kurt Vonnegut). But on closer inspection, the bipartite framework is intact, for the original incident that gives the novel its title occurred in 1679, and it impels the entire book, like a small buried seed from which a lush plant sprouts.

In that far-off year, Venetian set designer Adriano Lavicini debuted a device intended to simulate teleportation onstage, instantly transporting a character from one painted milieu to another.  The mechanism was to be used in a Parisian theater, with Louis XIV in the audience. But disaster ensued, with the partial destruction of the building, resulting in Lavicini’s own death and the deaths of many others.

Savvy readers will immediately note a kinship to Christopher Priest’s The Prestige, a novel of similar legerdemain, honored by a film of great aplomb. But any such comparisons must take into account that the theatrical aspect here rapidly becomes secondary, and that the tone, opposed to Priest’s solemnity, is rather as if Christopher Guest & Co. (A Mighty Wind; Best in Show) were at the controls.

In 1930s Berlin, our quite despicable antihero, Egon Loeser (“Ego Loser?”  Yes!), also a set designer in a desultory fashion, is intent on recreating Lavicini’s mechanism. But his ambitions reach an abortive end early on. Just as well, since he has fallen in love with one Adele Hitler (no relation to any rising Bavarian politician), Egon’s ex-tutoree now matured into a ravishing beauty. She will function as the strange attractor of Egon’s life for the next ten years and more. He will follow her first to Paris and then to Los Angeles, experiencing the most exquisitely dreadful comical experiences possible, hilarious encounters with as wild a cast of eccentrics and madmen, scammers and venal self-servers, hapless saps and trodden-down dreamers, as you have seen since the heyday of J. P. Donleavy or Evelyn Waugh. All of these incidents are presented in elegant yet forceful prose, graced with the most arch and rude colorful metaphors. “It was one of those country parties where it felt as if no matter where you went you were always being watched by either a live horse or a dead stag, until you found yourself lingering by the washbasin after a piss just to escape this weirdly oppressive ungulate panopticon.”

But woven into the weft of mimetic tomfoolery is a warp of highly unusual events. What really happened in the Théâtre des Encornets in 1769? Why is the U.S. State Department using the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft as their battle plan?  Has Professor Bailey of CalTech actually succeeded in building a working teleportation device? Who is the serial killer stalking the campus? What lies in the locked vault of car-polish millionaire Colonel Gorge? Will Mickey Spillane–style author Stent Mutton be able to switch genres to science fiction? (Shades of Kilgore Trout!) I guarantee that no reader will succeed in outguessing Beauman. He plays more than fair but juggles so many balls so hypnotically, that all bets are off. Yet in a bravura finale of “four endings,” he ties everything together satisfactorily and effortlessly with the precision of a brain surgeon. 

Beauman’s tale gives immense pleasure in two areas outside of sheer plot. First is his endless fecundity of invention and specificity. No setting is unburnished, no individual, even walk-ons, left undistinguished. Second, and more amazing, is his patterning ability — a skill so important to an author yet one of those writerly talents hard to quantify and rarely cited in reviews. It’s a delight to watch as an anecdote mentioned on page 4 gets its punch line 300 pages later. Such frissons are all too rare. Teleporting directly into the ranks of such mythomaniacal jesters as Nick Sagan and Christopher Moore, Ned Beauman kicks any sophomore qualms to the curb.

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