Thursday, June 17, 2010

Ka Is A Wheel: Part I, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Tower

When Stephen King published his breakthrough novel Carrie in 1974, I was just a young pup of -4, yes, that's a negative. When I was old enough to appreciate such things, I began noticing the alluring artwork on the massive volumes of books on my Dad’s friend’s shelves. One book stood out from the others. It featured a scaly green claw reaching out from a sewer grate (any of you worth your salt will know which book I’m referring to!). Against both of my parents better judgment, I read my first King novel. If I’m not mistaken, I was 12 at the time making it somewhere around 1990. A couple of years later, I remember buying Needful Things in paperback from airport convenience store in August of 1992 on my way to visit my uncle in Texas for a week. This was my first King purchase, but by then I was already a dedicated fan. I was due to start high school that fall.

Despite the lack of funds, in 1994 I started buying the new King books in hardcover as they came out, the first of these purchases being Insomnia. I quickly read through King’s entire oeuvre between then and the spring of 1996 when I graduated high school. In fact, besides the occasional Anne Rice, that was about the ONLY thing I was reading. That summer however, I realized I had run out of books… well almost.

There was this series of books, three to be exact, that I had always been avoiding. Looking back I’m not exactly sure why, though I seem to recall others telling me that these were their least favorite of King’s novels. Indeed I may have even read the first chapter or two of the first book and given up. But when a teenage fanboy has nothing else to read (heaven forbid I pick up another author) I found copies of The Gunslinger, The Drawing Of The Three, and The Wastelands and committed myself to them.

As I trudged across the desert with Roland at my side, I felt lost, probably a lot like the man himself did. I found Jake and let him go again. I tripped with the man in black throughout the hundred year night and woke up on the shores of the Western Sea. But when it was all over, I was still confused. How was this a coherent story? There was obviously so much more going on, but all I had been shown were dream-like glimpses. Sure, it had its moments, but was it really worth pushing on through two more books of this ephemeral writing? But like the loyal fan I was, I gave the second book, The Drawing Of The Three, a try.

And boy, am I glad I did. From the start of book two, King spooled his thread in an entirely different, yet familiar manner. This was the King I knew and loved. And as quickly as the book dragged me into Roland’s world again, I found everything that had been missing from the first. In a matter of days, I had finished the second and started on the third, The Wastelands. By now I had come to love Roland’s companions, his world was so much more vibrant and exciting with Eddie and Susannah in it. His Ka-tet was nearly complete and it really made a difference in the tale. And most importantly, by the start of book three, I knew where we were headed. The Dark Tower. The center of all things. The lynchpin of the multiplicity of universes.

There was no way I was turning back now…

To be continued...

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Turing Test, Chirs Beckett

Last year, I heard about this little collection of short stories, that in spite of being tales of science fiction, "surprising"ly picked up the Edge Hill Short Story Prize for 2009. The award, given out in the United Kingdom for the best short story collection, had a shortlist crowded with a winner and nominees of the prestigious Man Booker Prize. This literary rivalry left Chris Beckett as the long shot, with many people feeling that his SF would count against him in the competition. Not only to Becket's surprise, but to the self-admitting judges surprise also, The Turing Test walked away with the win. And it completely deserved it. As judge James Walton put it:
"...once the judging process started, it soon became clear that The Turing Test was the book that we'd all been impressed by, and enjoyed, the most—and one by one we admitted it."

Published by the now (sadly) defunct Elastic Press, Becket's collection is yet available from online retailers (USA- UK) in a mass market paperback format. Happily for me, as readers of this blog can probably imagine, Elastic Press also issued The Turing Test in limited hardcover edition, comprising of only twenty-six copies, lettered and signed by Beckett. While not up to the standards of traditional lettered editions (no slip or traycase, no illustrations, no high end papers or binding - even the limitation page was created through the use of a signed plate!), at least the book is bound in cloth and has nice gilded spine text. Despite this, I was more than happy to purchase this ridiculously scarce hardcover for a very reasonable price (as a side note, this pricing reinforces my argument that cash value is not a direct factor of rarity alone; though this really is a discussion for another posting). Anyone else interested in a hardcover edition can still find copies through specialty retailers, notably Bad Moon Books, who at the time of this writing still has a couple of copies left.

In either case, The Turing Test, is one remarkable collection. Some of the tales begin to form a cohesive backdrop for Beckett's writing. Both "The Perimeter" and "Piccadilly Circus"  posit a world were most every human has been uploaded into a virtual existence. These Consensuals, as they are known, however are not all created equal. As the power consumption and demand for so many digital humans is astronomical, a heavy price is placed on definition. A person with  limited resources may not be able to walk around and interact with the field in high-def. In fact, the most destitute may only be able to afford a generic gray outline with only a hint of interactive ability and negligible emotive power. But these conditions are still favorable to the broken down, weed ridden, detritus strewn wastelands that the world has now become. Only the old or crazy still exist as the lonesome sentinels of physical humanity, the Outsiders.

One of my favorite stories, "We Could Be Sisters" eludes to a group of wanderers who have the ability to shift into neighboring universes through the simple act of taking a certain drug. When one woman, Jessica, meets a beggar who bears a too-strong resemblance to her, we find out how we live everyday just moments from drastically altering our lives via unknown pathways and choices. The story is one of the best works of the bubble-universe theory that I have yet read. Earlier in the book we met Jessica in another short story - the title story- where she finds that even though her friends and co-workers might be rude, depressing and dull, there is something to be said for a the companionship of a live human being. Something that AI, no matter how life-like, will ever be able to replace. 

What really sets Beckett's work aside is his notable ability to create the setting as a character in and of itself. His world building is incredible. And while he works to deliver the scenes to us in a few meaningful sentences, he also tells the human stories, how they connect to the world and how they connect to each other. The Turing Test really is a collection that deserves to be read and one can hope the wining of Edge Hill will bring Beckett's work to a wider audience.