Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Death with Interruptions

A light-hearted tale set in a small European country where people stop dying on January 1st, with unwelcome consequences for hospitals, funeral homes, insurance companies, and religious institutions.

Worst off are those permanently stuck on the verge of death, neither recovering nor passing away. Soon family members find a very pragmatic solution. They cart their loved ones across the border, where death still has dominion, and bring them back for burial.

After seven months of these moral and economic difficulties, a letter arrives from death. People will resume dying after being notified one week in advance so they can put their affairs in order.

At this point we meet death herself, who is portrayed as a skeleton, and learn of a difficulty of her own. A letter she has sent out is inexplicably returned. It was intended for a cellist in a local orchestra, but somehow he remains alive.

Death clothes herself in flesh and pays him a visit.

Mortal Syntax

When death's initial letter is published in a newspaper, after its grammatical errors are cleaned up, including the "obsessive elimination of paragraphs" and "the intentional and almost diabolical abolition of the capital letter," death pens a heated response.

In fact, the same "syntactical blunders" in the letter are present throughout the entire novel.

What letter is that, Let's just say that I wrote it after attending the rehearsal for your concert, You were there, Yes, I was, But I didn't see you, Of course not, you couldn't, Anyway, it's not my concert, As modest as ever, And saying let's just say isn't the same as saying what actually happened, Sometimes it is, But not in this case, Congratu-lations, you're not only modest, your're very perceptive too, What letter do you mean, You'll find out in time, So why didn't you give it to me if you had the opportunity, Two opportunties, Exactly, so why didn't you give it to me, That's what I hope to find out...

Saramago won the Nobel in 1998. He died earlier this year.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Desolation Road

I've been a fool for Mars ever since I read Robert Heinlein's juveniles as a kid. So I was immediately hooked when I saw Desolation Road's splendid cover by Stephan Martiniere. It captures perfectly the flavour of the book. (Click on the image for a closer look.)

Desolation Road is the story of a remote community on Mars that pops up unexpectedly in the middle of the Great Desert. Transportation is supplied by the Bethelem Ares Railroad, which exploits local resources as well as its own workers under the guise of "industrial feudalism."

What makes the book special is the author's fervid imagination, and his obvious relish in embroidering this world with extravagant detail. Various travelling side-shows visit the town, the Poor Children of the Immaculate Contraption erect a basilica, and the Truth Corps of the Whole Earth Army sets up a pirate radio station that broadcasts vampire music.

The large cast of characters includes:
  • Persis Tatterdemalion
  • Inspiration Cadillac
  • Johnny Stalin
  • Ruthie Blue Mountain
  • Our Lady of Tharsis
  • Heart of Lothian
  • a time-travelling greenperson
  • a fetus that gets exchanged for a mango
  • a man whose soul passes into a locomotive
  • an aging couple who turn into trees
  • the Greatest Snooker Player the Universe Has Ever Known
  • the legendary King of Swing, Glenn Miller, who arrived on Mars via a time warp

My only complaint is that the latter part of the book is dominated by a series of tedious battles. I got tired of the all the tachyon beams and casual bloodshed, and especially of the ultimate deus ex machina, a timestorm brought about by Dr. Alimantando's chrono-kinetic arts.

Once things quieted down the story rolled on to a shapely and satisfying conclusion. The book is a clever combination of fantasy and SF, and the writing (The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction calls it "rococo") is superb.

More Mars

Red Planet (Robert Heinlein 1949)
The Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury 1950)
The Sands of Mars (Arthur Clarke 1951)
Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars (Kim Robinson 1992, 1993, 1996)
Mars, Return to Mars, Mars Life (Ben Bova 1992, 1999, 2008)
Moving Mars (Greg Bear 1993)
Red Dust (Paul McAuley 1993)
The Martian Race (Greg Benford 1999)
How To Live on Mars (Robert Zubrin 2008)
Packing for Mars (Mary Roach 2010)
Postcards from Mars (Jim Bell 2010)

Total Recall (1990)
Mission to Mars (2000)
Red Planet (2000)
Stranded (2001)
Ghosts of Mars (2001)
Roving Mars (2006)

ERB's John Carter of Mars is in production and due for release in 2012.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Galore reads like a chunk of the Old Testament set in a Newfoundland outport, where pagan and Christian beliefs exist side-by-side, and the characters are as odd a bunch as you'll find in fiction.

There's a witch, a ghost, a rogue priest, a man swallowed by a whale, a woman with webbed fingers, a mummer named Horse Chops, a horribly scalded boy, a nasty merchant who gets his ears sliced off, a 16-year-old girl who wants all her teeth pulled out, and identical triplets who impersonate each other so often they forget who they are.

When an American doctor named Newman shows up at the beginning of Part 2, his arrival signals the outport's gradual entry into the modern world. Some of the doctor's impressions:

They described the deathly ill as wonderful sick. Anything brittle or fragile or tender was nish, anything out of plumb or uneven was asquish. They called the Adam's apple a kinkorn, referred to the Devil as Horn Man.

They'd once shown the doctor a scarred vellum copy of the Bible that Jabez Trim had cut from a cod's stomach nearly a century past, a relic so singular and strange that Newman asked to see it whenever he visited, leafing through the pages with a kind of secular awe.

He felt at times he'd been transported to a medieval world that was still half fairy tale.

In managing such a large cast of characters, the author skims over them quickly, giving us just enough information to keep the story moving along. There is no linear plot as such, just the constant ebb and flow of life and death over several generations, and the slow movement away from a life of hardship and superstition, and the interactions of two warring families whose names, the Sellers and the Devines, provide a clue as to their roles.

The book is filled with wonderful dialogue, thronged with humour and character and incident, and topped off with a satisfying conclusion that gives the story a fine symmetry.

This is a rich novel that people will read more than once.


Judah, the man swallowed by a whale, reminded me of Jerome, a man found legless on the Fundy shore in the 19th century. Who he was, where he came from, and how he got there were never discovered. He spent the rest of his life in Nova Scotia without uttering a word. Was he mute like Judah, or did he simply refuse to speak? How he lost his legs, and even his real name (like Judah's), remain a mystery to this day.

John Mutford's interview with Michael Crummey