Monday, July 30, 2007

Quick Takes: Barr, Roth, Martin

Endangered Species, by Nevada Barr: The fifth Anna Pigeon mystery novel takes place down on protected land in a Georgia delta. Anna Pigeon, National Park Ranger, is working fire crew during the dry season. For several weeks worth of work she can collect a good deal of overtime for what is typically a low action posting. There is the usual Ranger Banter and Barr does an excellent job in giving us enough detail to get a feel for the setting. When a plane crashes in the preserve and the initial investigation points to tampering, Anna begins her own investigation inside the ranger family. If the Anna Pigeon novels were not set inside the National Park system and the park rangers, I do not believe they would be nearly as interesting, but the setting is its own character and brings new threats and new ways to look at crime. Five mysteries in, the Anna Pigeon series is worth a look.

The Breast, by Philip Roth: Someone has been reading a bit too much Kafka, I think. This is Philip Roth version of The Metamorphosis. Instead of turning into a giant insect, Dr David Kepesh wakes up one morning to discover that he has transformed into a giant, 155lb breast. Yes, a breast. See the title. The novel takes us through Kepesh's understanding, relapse into near insanity, desires, and eventual acceptance. The Breast covers most everything one would expect with a man turning into a giant breast. Is it any good? If you like this sort of thing, I guess so. It must have been somewhat successful for Roth to write two more Kepesh novels. The Breast is short enough, so even if this isn't your cup of milk and you are only reading The Breast as a Roth completist, it won't take up too much time. It's a work of imagination, that's for sure, but Roth has written novels far greater than this one later in his career. It's a blip on the radar of Philip Roth. Notable that he wrote it and what the literary experiment was, but as a novel? Pass.

Wild Cards, by George R. R. Martin (editor): Here we are - the series of "mosaic novels" which has been distracting George Martin from working on his epic A Song of Ice and Fire. I hoped like hell that this would be good because if not, I'd have been really disappointed in Martin for taking time away from his masterpiece to work on these. Wild Cards is the first novel of seventeen published (with three more on the way). All but two of them are "mosaic novels", meaning that multiple authors share the writing duty and build an ongoing storyline which weaves throughout the novel. One book, many writers. I cannot speak for the future Wild Cards offerings, but Wild Cards had a bit more of a feel of an anthology of related works than a true mosaic novel. Each chapter is a story by a different author: Martin himself, Howard Waldrop, Melinda Snodgrass, Roger Zelazny, etc. Because this sets the stage for future offerings, perhaps the construction can be excused. The "chapters" are really dependent stories. Characters pop in and out of various stories, sometimes in major roles, sometimes just as a name or a face. It works, and it is fascinating, but like I said, I'm not sure it is really a mosaic novel in a true sense.

So what is this Wild Cards thing anyway? It is a shared world, a serious work of comic books in a novel form. During the second World War an alien landed on Earth trying prevent his race from testing a virus on the humans. He is not successful and the Wild Card virus is released. For those infected the mortality rates look like this: 90% die. 9% mutate into "Jokers", horribly disfigured humans who are permanently transformed into near monsters. The lucky 1%? Aces. Their mutation is being given super powers. Some can fly, have great strength, read minds, and a variety of other super powers. Some aces are deuces, though, they have worthless powers.

All of this is set in the backdrop of our history. Much of what goes down from WWII on still happens, just with different causes. The McCarthy hearings still occur, but it includes the aces as well as the communists. Historical figures pop up in the appropriate moments, but things are different. Castro never comes to power in Cuba, aces become involved in politics, and I suspect the farther away from Ground Zero we get, the more likely things will be different.

Wild Cards is deadly serious. It may have comic books in its origins, but the execution is all drama. Sure there are powers, but this is graphic violence, language, action, romance (and the lack of). These are not kiddie stories, but they are well told stories.

This first volume feels more like an introduction, but there are some good stories here and it sets the stage for the future stories and I can hope that with the bar being raised that the future Wild Cards novels have exceeded this bar.

It’s a satisfactory introduction. Now what can Martin and company do with it?


Anonymous said...

My understanding is that these stories in vol one are about 20 years old now! Have the first four vols - very hard to get in the UK - quite entertaining.

Joe said...

Hmm...yeah, that's about right. They've been coming out since the early / mid 80's. Both crazy and exciting that the series has lasted this long and still somehow been under the radar.