Carve the Sky

The Alexander Jablokov series continues.

Raw Feed (1991): Carve the Sky, Alexander Jablokov, 1991.Carve the Sky

I was first puzzled by this book’s title. It turns out to be a metaphor and allusion to the central theme of the book: that all of us carve and create — if we are truly to be alive — the reality we want, be it an act of artistic creation or a political creation. We are all, the book seems to say, artists to one extent or another

This is a very literary — and good — sf novel where a theme is played out in a number of variations in plot and character

The central theme is expressed in the metaphor of the Dispossessed Brethren of Christ, one of the best and most interesting features of the book. They are warrior-monks reminiscent of the Knights Templar (right down to building a Jerusalem Lost) with a strong gnostic streak. To them the world is evil and God is imprisoned in it, awaiting the art of sculpting to free him from the world as Christ’s divinity was revealed on the cross when his divinity was revealed in death administered by the sculpting tools of hammer, nail, and lance.

I don’t know how much of their fascinating theology is a Jablokov invention, but a look through the Encyclopedia of Freemasonry [yes, I do have a copy] showed that three of the four named elements in their spacedrive — Jochin, Boaz (which are the principle pillars in Solomon’s temple), and Aaron’s Rod — are associated with Royal Arch Masonry. Continue reading

Snow Crash

Never let it be said that Marzaat is unresponsive to the interests and needs of its readers.

Sarah over at the Critiquing Chemist asked if I’ve ever read any Neal Stephenson.

Not much, but I have reviewed The Diamond Age, and one other novel.

So that’s why today’s post is …

Raw Feed (1992): Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson, 1992.Snow Crash

An excellent book.

As Ed Bryant said in a review, cyberpunk with a sense of humor. Not only cyberpunk with it’s well worked out vision of the virtual reality of the Metaverse with its conventions, and combination of play and business and constant developing states, but also a fast moving, very funny thriller.

(Stephenson is very hazy how one actually moves your avatar in the Metaverse and how you control it. I didn’t even catch a hint of a device that reads brain waves.)

I’m not sure if the novel absolutely qualifies as cyberpunk.

It’s a grungy enough world, and there’s a large element of crime here but there are middle class people (Y.T’s mom), and so much of what we consider crime — like the Mafia — is here de facto legitimized.

In fact, the Mafia is heroic in this story — sort of. Hiro Protagonist doesn’t have any illusions about them. Still, there’s the political and physical and social decay that marks cyberpunk. It’s manifested in a United States of America that just about exists in name only. Hiro’s mom works for them, and it’s an inefficient, tyrannical, hellish, and boring place to work. Weird franchises spread like viruses. There are self-contained Burbclaves and pirate fleets. Continue reading

Some Parallax Views on Kathe Koja

No, I’m not quite done with Kathe Koja. I just ordered a Kindle copy of her Strange Angels, so I’ll be reviewing that at some point. (Another parallel to my Ambrose Bierce series in that I found just one more title I wanted to look at after I thought I wrapped it up.)

So I did some research on other perspectives — meaning things I either didn’t think of or expressed less well — on Koja’s early works.

However, before returning to Koja again, I will first be reviewing — and it won’t be a happy review — an early novel by a certain famous Irish science fiction writer.


Will Erickson’s Summer of Sleaze: The Alternative Horrors of Kathe Koja is a stylish look at Koja’s The Cipher and Bad Brains.

A look at the rise and fall of Dell’s Abyss line of horror in the 1990s discusses Koja in that context. It cites the emphasis on body horror and interior life in Koja’s fiction as well as her reliance on characters involved in various triangles.

In an April 2002 interview, Barry Malzberg said this in passing about his collaborations with Koja:

I had what I call a ‘great autumnal run’ between 1990 and 1993, publishing about a hundred short stories (alone and in collaboration with Kathe Koja), which I think are the best work I ever did.

Locus Material

But metaphor can be thin stuff, while Koja’s book is rich with the minutiae of life, precisely down to earth as she depicts the horrible futility of entanglement with the medical system, the sad detritus and odd little triumphs of life on society’s margins, the weird, isolated world of long highway journeys.

Faren Miller’s review of Bad Brains in the January 1992 issue of Locus

Edward Bryant is my all time favorite book reviewer, and the only one I’ve seen that could be funny and accurately summarize a work.

In his review of Bad Brains in the February 1992 issue of Locus, he is explicit about a theme less acknowledged in Koja’s work: the failure to communicate:

Austen’s failure as a portrait artist seems to be linked to his inability to depict his clients in any way they consider realistic. Communication has failed; Austen simply hangs up his brushes.

Miller, in a December 1992 review of Skin, said:

The sexuality may be ‘modern’ (butch, hip, punk, whatever), but the tragedy dates back to Shakespeare, complete with a disguised Iago type driving the plot toward the bitter end.

Yes, I called Malcom in that novel an instigator, manipulator, and agitator. It would have been simpler to call him an “evil counselor”. It’s not like I haven’t read enough Elizabethan and Jacobean drama not to know the type or term.

In his review of Skin in the April 1993 issue, Ed Bryant even mentions David Skal’s Antibodies in passing. Perhaps I subconsciously remembered that coupling when I wrote “Breaking the Skin”.

Breaking the Skin

Essay: “Breaking the Skin: Two Visions of Destructive Transcendence”


Antibodies, David J. Skal, 1988.

Skin, Kathe Koja, 1993.

At least two horror writers of the late 1980s and early 1990s weren’t entirely keen on the whole human transcendence project via tattoos or technology

In Skal’s case, his near future science fiction novel deals with what we would call transhumanism.

In many ways, it’s an oh-so 1980’s novel.

There’s a cult. There’s a cultist. There’s a deprogrammer.

There’s CIA nefariousness in Central America, here in the fictitious country Boca Verde, “a whore, dispensing favors equally to tourists and terrorists”. There’s even a repeat of the 1980s conspiracy theory that the CIA created the HIV.

The cult is the Cybernetic Temple based in Boca Verde because U.S. law won’t allow its medical procedures and devices. (And one is reminded of another San Francisco cult based in Latin American jungles, the People’s Temple.)

The gospel of the Cybernetic Temple is spread, in this pre-internet age, by videocassette, and it promises science will actually deliver the promises of immortality made by conventional religion. The technologies to do this do not sound, apart from no mention of mind uploads and nanotechnology, all that different from what the Extropians talk about:

Artificial replacements for vital organs … myoelectric prosthesis … biocompatible silicon rubber … fluorocarbon substitutes for blood itself.

And, like Extropians, there’s a strong libertarian element to the propaganda of the Cybernetic Temple. They rail against government regulations:

More deregulation is required, not just in medicine but in all matters of trade and free choice. America’s laissez-faire dream has yet to be realized. If we cannot make decisions as basic as the control and disposal of our own bodies, then we cannot truly be considered free.

At a party, there’s an amusing bit where one Temple follower has said he’s tried Scientology and read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged fifteen times and has last found something that works.

Ed Bryant’s cover blurb does a good job at summing up the flavor of the novel:

Antibodies is a film by David Cronenberg from a screenplay by Harlan Ellison based on stories by J. G. Ballard and Joyce Carol Oates.

I’m not that familiar with the work of Oates, but there is definitely the flavor of sexual fetishism directed toward the unhuman you see in Ballard’s Crash. There’s a scene where a boy humps a garbage disposal while taking his hand off in it.

The desire of the main character Diandra is to become like the steel eyed mannequins in the famous window displays she does for a San Francisco department store, is not initially sexual. In fact, she has resisted the sexual advances of both men and women. Her rejection of the body stems from early sexual abuse by an uncle. (This easy go-to of childhood sexual abuse to explain mentally damaged characters seems to have gotten its start in the 1980s, the same decade that gave us a lot a modern witch hunts in numerous prosecutions in the U.S. of supposed abusers at childcare facilities.)

But this connection between fetishism and the transcendence of the flesh is strengthened when Diandra finally finds sexual pleasure in the mechanical grasp of Venus Tramhall, the famous sculptor who is the symbol and leader of the Cybernetic Temple, a woman with two very sophisticated prosthetic arms.

Skal doesn’t entirely rig, in emotional or factual terms, his argument of revulsion against the Cybernetic Temple. His deprogrammer character, Julian, head of an organization called Resurrection House, is a detestable character. He sexually abuses some of his subjects. He masturbates while doing a tv interview. He brings women over to his house for bondage sessions while his wife is there. He incites some of his more unstable patients to kill his wife’s lover. He’s a bad example for the flesh-should-stay-flesh side of things.

His wife, Gillian, is something of a covert saint for the Cybernetic Temple. She has pseudonymously penned the science fiction novel Helen Keller in Space. It’s something of a manifesto for the Cybernetic Temple followers. (Her agent quips to her: “You understand the science fiction reader perfectly. Terrified of sex but desperate for romance … craving military structure in relationships … and yet, so vulnerable and afraid!”). Its plot is somewhat reminiscent, in a cyborg spaceship, of Anne McCaffery’s The Ship Who Sang.

Still, Skal doesn’t show any genuine cripples who want the Cybernetic Temple’s technologies (though Tramhall lost her arms, allegedly, in an accident). They just want to escape the universal prison of normal human biology.

And its ending, where it is revealed that all the Temple’s adherents who make their way to Boca Verde, as Diandra tries to do, end up being chopped up for parts or lab rats in experiments to benefit Tramhall and governmental elites, doesn’t address the serious philosophical questions or efficacies of the Temple’s goals. The whole movement seems to come to an end at the novel’s conclusion when a CIA acquaintance of Julian unleashes a plague that kills Tramhall. (An interesting and cautionary philosophical discussion of transhumanism goals is Fred Baumann’s “Humanism and Transhumanism”.)

Skal places the Temple’s goals on a continuum of attempts to “revolt against biology”. A psychotherapist in the novel says:

In all places, at all times, the human body has been considered an object for decoration and alternation. In more primitive societies, lacking our scientific sophistication, the procedures have been limited to such things as ritual scarification, circumcision, tattooing, foot-binding, and, in more ‘civilized’ times, corseting and costume. We really shouldn’t be surprised that our new technologies will generate new fetishes.

The more primitive manifestations of that drive are at the theme of Koja’s Skin. (A book titled Modern Primitives and Industrial Culture Handbook is acknowledged by Koja.)

At the heart of the book are two obsessive artists and their turbulent relationship. (I’ll be examining Koja’s early novels in another posting.) Tess is a welder and works in metal sculpture. Bibi is an artist of the body. At first, that’s just a dance troupe. Tess is recruited by Bibi to create moving props for the troupe’s show, a project brought to an end when Bibi’s increasingly extreme shows end in the death of a troupe member.

Bibi’s is obsessed with body modifications and bloodletting. She offers no real coherent explanation for this obsession other than “Chaos must be met with greater chaos.”

The novel is told through Tess’ point of view, so we never see inside Bibi’s head.

“And to Tess Bibi’s obsession with piercings and cuttings was a kind of unfortunate sidepath, a sideshow, a descent almost into – say it; you think it don’t you?: the freakish: it was for nothing, wasn’t it, but the hectoring of limits? Which was interesting, certainly, and liberating in its own way but ultimately a deader end: my friend got her clit pierced; yeah; so? Do you modify to improve or empower, or simply to feed the greedy black scorn of the human boundaries that succor flesh to blood to pulse and contraction of the emperor mind within? To her questions – rare, but she asked, she made herself ask – Bibi was purely elliptical: soft breath on her shoulder, quiet beside her in the dark: Tess, listen, it’s not something I can explain in words, you have to do it, it’s something you have to feel.

“And for Tess the feel of Bibi’s own desire, the need to share with her, to steep her in the bright blooded ecstasy of pain; in the service of the most capricious god of all, Change.

After the two become lovers, it is Tess’ refusal to get body piercings or see Bibi’s done that precipitates their final separation.

Koja opens her novel with a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.: “Every idea is an incitement.” At novel’s end, at Bibi’s final show with even more deaths and her complete descent into madness, we see that incitement manifested in Bibi’s body:

her sculpture, raped of its frame, razor wire and bent sparrowbones: the blond hair gone, false gray eyes excised and in the sockets of the hedgehog itself a pair of human eyes, goggle-eyes wet and brown and smelly in the smooth metal clasp, small mouth jingly bright with safety pins circled tight as a cinching gag, the whole of it wrapped in hardware-store chain, the kind you use for a dog, and overdressed again in sloppy pink cellophane; like a candy grotesque; a sweet treat; a jest.

At that moment, Bibi does explain herself to her audience:

There exist so-called primitive tribes who practice and have practiced a variety of rites that our modern society calls aberrant, and wrong; the piercings, the negation, the wearing of the Ituburi – the waist-binding – the sharpened sticks and the heavy stones. In Australia, in certain puberty rites, they used the tip of a flint to rip the penis open, from head to testicles. This was done to prove through the power of pain that we are not our bodies. That our bodies are subject to our wills. That with enough pain, and enough practice, you can use the body to transcend the body. …

This is the lesson that we forgot. This is the lesson of the knife. …

We can learn the lesson again, but it isn’t for fun, it isn’t for pleasure, it’s because we need to, because there’s a place we need to get to and nothing else can take us there, not fucking or drugs or learning, not even the people we love can take us there. We have to go alone.

On a carpet of blood.

Koja’s certainly, in her novels, sympathetic to the obsessive artistic impulse and the transcendence it can offer. But this novel is not sympathetic to Bibi’s concluding statement,

There are all kinds of ways to get there, as many ways as there are people. I found the way that works for me, and for my friends.

Bibi’s way ultimately doesn’t work for her; it destroys her mind and leaves her friend and lover Tess bereft

I expected William Blake to show up sometime in Koja’s novel, specifically his famous line “The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom”. (Fittingly, it’s from his “Proverbs of Hell”.)

Blake does show up, though, in the novel’s concluding line to remind us the wisdom to take from Bibi’s story. “We never know what is enough.”


Reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

The Thyme Fiend


Review: The Thyme Fiend, Jeffrey Ford, 2015.

Fourteen year old Emmett Wallace has a problem after spending the hot, dry days of August biking the roads of rural Ohio in 1915.

He needs thyme tea to keep nightmares away at night.

And, after exploring an abandoned farm and finding a body in a well, he’s going to need it to keep the daymares away too. The sight of the skeletal Jimmy Tooth haunts him.

Despite Emmett’s age, the rural setting, and a hot summer in the early years of the 20th century, Ford isn’t doing another Ray Bradbury takeoff.

That cover image is a striking one. Nascent love shows up, and the climax is unexpected and … lacking a complete explanation as to how a certain character gets from point A to point B.

The residents of Threadwell, Ohio are well drawn.

The story even takes a stab at the old problem of many horror stories that reviewer Ed Bryant once noted: exactly how all this is going to be explained to the authorities at story’s end. (And sometimes that explanation would be a better story.)

A well done modern weird tale.

If you don’t want to read it online, you can buy it from Amazon like I did.


(All right. Maybe I just like skeleton stories.)


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.


Moon Dance

The weird western series continues with the disappointing Moon Dance.

Raw Feed (1991): Moon Dance, S. P. Somtow, 1989.Moon Dance

This novel wasn’t what I expected. I expected an epic feeling novel, instead of just a long novel, with many short scenes and lots of violent confrontations between European and Lakota werewolves and a book with a feeling of history. What I got was a thoroughly literary novel of character; a study of alienation and the beast within with the werewolf a symbol of social and personal alienation (the most extreme example being Johnny Kindred’s multiple personalities) and the lustful id (much of Freud in the dream sequences); long, minute descriptions of characters and their relationships; and some Indian mysticism.

Let me explain. This novel is full of alienated halfbreeds. The most obvious one is Teddy Grumiaux, half-Sioux, half white. All the werewolfs are half-breeds, of course. All these characters are biological halfbreeds, psychological halfbreeds, and cultural halfbreeds. They are torn by their “genetic” heritages and the conflicts of good and evil in themselves and the pull of two cultures. The Indians represent, in their holistic philosophy, an integration of man’s propensity for good and evil, compassion and ruthlessness, lust and love. It’s no accident Johnny Kindred begans to integrate under them. It’s also no accident that this novel gives us a bit of the noble savage in the Indians. They, unlike European werewolves, are not lustful creatures preying on the innocent. They see themselves as part of a great circle of nature serving a function as human and wolf. While we have the psychopathics Major Sanderson and Cordwainer Claggert as the evil whites, we see little evil in the Indians.

However, it is not fair to Somtow to say he breaks morality along racial lines. After all, white Kindred is the werewolf, symbol of the moral and philosophical integration we must have. Speranza, our viewpoint character, is attracted to the evil European werewolves but ultimately risks all for Johnny Kindred. (How does Kindred know enough of her life and thoughts when she’s away from him to narrate the story to Carrie Dupre? Seemingly through a mystical, telepathic bond never really explained.) The evil of the Europeans and whites is more a symbol of universal human evil. The characters of Johnny Kindred and Teddy Grumiaux (a profane train urchin I started out hating a lot) were compelling. Multiple personalities in a werewolf are interesting. Speranza was a good, but not great, character torn between evil’s repulsion and the attraction to the evildoer. Count von Bächl-Wolfing was a relatively minor, but well-drawn character, not as ruthless as Natalia Petrovona. The latter embodied the psychology of wolf but little human. (Yes, this book does, as Edward Bryant said in his Locus review, have an incredible number of urine references, but I liked Somtow giving the werewolves very wolf-like traits.) Continue reading