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we shall overcome

On the day after human beings first set foot on the moon in that hot summer of 1969, I celebrated the event with my class. They were very excited. Thomas, one of the young adolescents who had been blind and retarded since birth but who could hear, had taught himself to play the piano. Another hearing student — a young lady who had been brain-damaged as a result of extreme abuse as an infant — suggested that we end the celebration of the lunar landing by having Thomas play our national anthem.

He did.

He played “We Shall Overcome.”

Prayers to Broken Stones by Dan Simmons, 1990

This anecdote, about the author’s time as a teacher’s aide at Upsal Day School for the Blind in 1969, appears in the author’s foreword for the short story “Eyes I Dare Not Meet in Dreams”, part of the Prayers to Broken Stones anthology.

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Terminal City

Recently finished Dean Motter’s 1996 classic, Terminal City. Some assortment of thoughts:

– It is a stylish piece. The titular city channels the art deco future imagined during the1930s World Fair: zeppelin docks, hover cars, clashing analog clocks, robot desk clerks, pneumatic tubes, high technology without the miniaturization, etc. Michael Lark’s art design, the thematic elements, and interweaving characters’ plots gives the setting a noirish aura.

– Some more on the art deco settings: it reminds me a little bit of the mid-90s Batman: The Animated Series.

– I can’t seem to confirm intent anywhere, but there appears to be a number of homages to Herge’s Tintin comics. There is a professor who bears a striking resemblance to a royal seals expert from King Ottokar’s Sceptre. Two comical, bumbling mustachioed twins channel Thomson and Thompson. (“What’s his name?” “Yes, Watt.” “No, what’s his NAME?”). There’s even a Latino general who bears a striking resemblance to General Alcazar. The name of his nation? Alcazar.

It was tough to care about the plot of Terminal City; it was a little bit all over the place, lagged in tying together all of the characters’ arcs, and the characters themselves were largely forgettable. However, it is just enough to keep the reader engaged in the world, and more importantly the city, and that is all that matters. What really strikes me about Terminal City is that the book is genuinely about the city, with the denizens as peripherals. Considering the dilapidated state of Terminal City, the reader is meant to recognize the design flaws in a future that was conceived to be a spectacle at a fair: splendor without substance. It is not a future that was ever meant to be lived in, and the malcontent state of humans signifies that. The setting is interesting to consider in the frame of urbanization; are the aesthetics worth austerity? Despite the weak-even-for-noir plot, this book does something rather special in terms of giving a personality to the titular city, and I would have a difficult time not recommending this book if you can get your hands on it.

Purchases

New: 

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

Used:

Terminal Café by Ian McDonald

 

Genesis by Poul Anderson

 

The Walls of the Universe by Paul Melko

robert charles wilson and gypsies

I would put Robert Charles Wilson as one of my top five authors in any genre. I would put him at number one for being strangely low-key and under the radar for how good he is. The guy has put out some of the most accessible character-driven, high-concept science fiction for about two and a half decade; but he barely registers a blip even among the genre fans with whom I’ve spoken. I’ve gone as far as to give away my own copies of his easier to find books (Spin and Darwinia, in particular) to people hoping to get them to read his stuff. This is all made stranger by the fact that he’s actually very positively reviewed in the professional and semi-pro critics’ circles (the Indelible being JV).

In an attempt to complete my collection of RCW books, I looked for the out-of-print ones the old fashioned way, scouring the shelves of second-hand bookstores in at least six major cities over the past three years: Boston, New York, DC, San Francisco, Denver, and Nashville. I was relatively successful with the exception of two of his earlier works: Gypsies and The Harvest. After failing in Nashville this November, I relented and used the wondrous Amazon marketplace to complete my collection in time to read Gypsies over the winter holiday.

Gypsies by Robert Charles Wilson

I wasn’t let down. A hallmark of Wilson’s work is stories about broken people. When I began reading his work with Spin, he had this motif more or less polished. In Gypsies, the plot revolves around three siblings (Laura, Karen, and Tim Fauve) who suffer from three particular fatal flaws that make them very broken people in their own ways. Oh, and they can all open doors into parallel universes. This power is limited by their flaws; for instance, one of the siblings can only open doors to parallel worlds that are distinctly dark and dreary; another can barely use it because of her flaw. Despite the fairly significant power and all the hokey possibilities that come with it, Wilson handles it with poise and grace. The story is really more about the flaws of those three characters, how they came about (daddy issues, mostly), and how the combination of those flaws affect Michael, the son of Laura, who also manifests the gift. Michael may seem like the focal point in the story (and some reviews I’ve read make it sound that way), but it is really less about him than the previous generation.

Within the story, the “ability” is often discussed as seeing “angles” and “dimensions” in the fabric of reality that others cannot see. I note this because it’s an interesting way to describe Wilson’s work in this novel and all of his other ones — you think you know what you’re going to get if you see the plot overview, but this author continually approaches his stories at angles unique among science fiction authors, adding some unforeseeable depth and dimension to his stories. His work, both in terms of ideas and character growth, is food for the imagination and sense of wonder shared by everybody, not just fans of science or speculative fiction.