Thursday, August 11, 2016

Theory of a Dead Man

The Bat (Harry Hole #1) (1997/ Engish translation 2015) by Jo Nesbo, translated into English by Don Bartlett: The first of Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole series about a Norwegian police detective wasn't released in English until after several other Hole mysteries were.  That's probably because this mystery/thriller occurs in Australia, where Hole has been sent to liase with Sydney police as they investigate the murder of a young Norwegian woman.

The great thing about the early goings-on in The Bat involve the revelation of the pronunciation of Harry's last name. Thank god for Australia, I say! It's supposed to be pronounced 'Hoo-lay' but the Australians keep calling him Harry Holy, both of which are preferable (to Harry and to me) to how his last name looks like it should be pronounced.

There's a pretty good whodunnit-and-why in The Bat, occasionally drowned out by Nesbo's attempts to hit every quadrant (or whatever) of commercial appeal, including a climactic scene that seems to be aimed straight at movie adaptation. And that scene is completely ridiculous. So, too, a plan put in place to catch the killer by Harry and the Australian police that's unforgivably stupid and stupidly implemented. I didn't believe it for a second, and neither should you.

We also get a lot of back-story for Harry and his alcoholic ways, a tour through some interesting Australian locales, a bit too much mystical-native stuff that verges at points on turning into a version of America's much-maligned 'Magical Negro' trope, and a not-entirely-believable serial killer. It's a fast-paced, enjoyable read, but one will pine for the Fjords by the time the climax arrives. Are there fjords in Norway? Well, whatever. Harry Hole is a cold-weather animal. Lightly recommended.

Foundation (1942-1951/Collected 1951) by Isaac Asimov: The first Foundation novel (it's really a paste-up of novellas and novelettes) was written by Isaac Asimov between the ages of 22 and 24, with the exception of the opening story, written specifically for Foundation's first book publication in 1951. It holds up beautifully today as a tale of the far future modeled explicitly by Asimov on the Roman Empire as imagined in Edward Gibbons' late-18th-century historical work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

What Asimov helped to give to science fiction in the original Foundation trilogy was space opera without the opera. Instead, Asimov re-imagined all the space empires and clashing worlds that had been a fixture of science fiction from the late 1920's onwards in American pulp magazines. The precocious Asimov instead made his space opera into a Novel of Ideas.

Asimov also gave the world Psychohistory, the backbone of the Foundation series. Perfected by super-historian Hari Seldon, Psychohistory allowed Seldon to plot the future dynamic of the dying Galactic Empire so as to allow members of the two Foundation institutes to shorten the post-Imperial galactic Dark Age from tens of thousands of years to only a thousand. 

So the Foundation series generally works with a group hero, embodied in one or a handful of people in each section, as it jumps decades or even hundreds of years forward in each section. Sometimes the recorded hologram of Seldon shows up at various crisis points to offer suggestions to the Foundation members. Sometimes they figure out the crisis point themselves.

It's all handled with a minimum of violence, bloodshed, and Star Wars stuff. Most of the Foundation series involves dialogue and historical theorizing. Asimov and American science fiction were both young, which leads to the occasional exclamation of "Great galloping galaxies!". But the overall approach is cerebral and humanistic. 

Along the way, Asimov also gives us entries from his Encyclopedia Galactica, forebear of so many similar volumes in science fiction. And there's religion as an intentional instrument of state control, an idea that several of the writers who published in editor John W. Campbell's Astounding Magazine in the 1940's would tackle, writers that included Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Fritz Leiber, and A.E. Van Vogt.

Star Wars certainly borrows much of Asimov's set dressing (and more than one name) for its own Galactic Empire, framing them in a world mostly devoid of ideas, much less Ideas. This is the real deal, one that's sparked so many other writers to imagine their own galactic empires and their own millennia-long view of human history. Highly recommended.

Northern Frights 3 (1995): edited by Don Hutchison; contains the following stories:

Wild Things Live There by Michael Rowe
Silver Rings by Rick Hautala
A Debt Unpaid by Tanya Huff 
Imposter by Peter Sellers 
Exodus 22:18 by Nancy Baker 
The Suction Method by Rudy Kremberg 
Sasquatch by Mel D. Ames 
Grist for the Mills of Christmas by James Powell 
Tamar's Leather Pouch by David Shtogryn 
Snow Angel by Nancy Kilpatrick 
The Perseids by Robert Charles Wilson 
Widow's Walk by Carolyn Clink 
If You Know Where to Look by Chris Wiggins 
The Bleeding Tree by Sean Doolittle 
The Dead Go Shopping by Stephanie Bedwell-Grime 
Family Ties by Edo van Belkom 
The Pines by Tia V. Travis
The Summer Worms by David Nickle 

Solid third volume in Canada's Northern Frights series of mostly original anthologies has one moment of editorial fright early on -- not only is the Table of Contents regrettably centre-justified, but it lacks page numbers for the stories. What the H?

The stand-outs include "Wild Things Live There" by Michael Rowe, a dandy bit of horror that anticipates some of the horrors of Laird Barron's terrific series of stories about the Children of Old Leech while remaining steadfastly Canadian -- the story even involves a migration from Ontario to British Columbia by, well, some things. Oh, Canada!

Another fine story is "The Perseids" by Robert Charles Wilson. Wilson is known as a highly regarded Canadian writer of fairly 'hard' science fiction. Here, some of that scientific and astronomical 'hardness' is present in what is otherwise a subtle, unnerving piece of cosmic horror. Or at least cosmic weirdness.

"If You Know Where to Look" by Chris Wiggins is also a nice piece of dread set in the Maritimes and involving a Scottish legend that seems to have migrated to Nova Scotia along with the Scots. And yes, he's that Chris Wiggins, Canadian actor. And he really shows an ear for believable dialogue and dialect in this story.

None of the stories are duds, though there are a few bits of whimsy that don't work as horror, weird, or whimsy. Editor Don Hutchison does his normal good work, even without page numbers on that Table of Contents. Recommended.

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