Tag Archives: Thriller

WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE – Shirley Jackson (1962)

We Have Always Lived in the Castle Jackson (first cover Paul Bacon)Harold Bloom – the literary guru that claimed literature and politics should have nothing to do with each other – challenged the idea that Shirley Jackson’s work should be included in the Western canon. Nevertheless, in 2001 he edited a volume of Jackson’s short stories. There he wrote that “Her art of narration [stays] on the surface, and could not depict individual identities. Even ‘The Lottery’ wounds you once, and once only.”

Bloom is dead, and in 20 years time his work likely will only be read by a few academics. I think there’s a fair chance Shirley Jackson will still be read widely 50 years from now.

I’m not trying to dis academia, but Bloom’s tale is stark warning for us meta-writers to not confuse talking taste with pontificating. I have not read The Lottery – I will – but based on We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I’d say that Bloom’s claim about Jackson’s “art of narration” is a bit off.

The Western canon seems a bit of an outdated concept, or, at least, it is outdated as an apolitical idea: the reasons why something becomes a “classic” surely ain’t devoid of politcs. Either way, there is no doubt about the fact that Shirley Jackson belongs at least in the canon of speculative fiction – that peculiar subset of literature.

It turns out that We Have Always Lived in the Castle doesn’t contain any speculative or supernatural elements, yet it evokes an uncanny atmosphere that will delight many readers looking for Otherness. However strange it may be, Jackson manages to stay close to the human experience, and as a result she has written a book that will keep on resonating with generations to come.

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PACIFIC STORM – Linda Nagata (2020)

Pacific Storm Nagata

Linda Nagata published her first book, The Bohr Maker, in 1995, and she is best known for her “nanopunk” novels – a genre I didn’t know existed, or at least, a moniker I wasn’t familiar with. Nanopunk is basically a subgenre of transhumanist science fiction, set in the far-future with lots of nanotechnology and brain-computer interfaces.

I had been eyeing her work for some time, nearly buying Edges from 2019, the first in the Inverted Frontier series. Not sure what held me back, but when I saw she’d published this in 2020, I decided to give it a go.

Not that this is nanopunk: Pacific Storm is a near-future thriller set in Hawaii – Nagata has been living there herself since she was 10.

The book is set at least 20 years from now, possibly even a few decades later. The United States has undergone major political change as its current political parties don’t exist anymore, and it has huge debts so China, so much the US government is even willing to lease control of Hawaii to the Chinese in exchange for debt relief.

Set against the backdrop of an oncoming major hurricane, Ava Arnett, a Honolulu cop, gets sucked into a terrorism plot, prompting her to question the trustworthiness of the government AI she relies on to predict human behavior. Arnett – like Hawaii itself – is still haunted by the consequences of a devastating hurricane that hit the island nine years ago.

Pacific Storm‘s blend of politics, AI, conspiracy, extreme weather, hobbyist gene-editing and surveillance state smart glasses offers much to like. Nagata publishes her books on her own imprint – Mythic Island Press – and I think Pacific Storm could have very well become a bestseller if a major publisher would’ve thrown some serious marketing funds at it. Having said that, can I also recommend it?

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SOUL CATCHER – Frank Herbert (1972)

Soul CatcherA few years ago, I decided to read the most important other Herbert novels before starting a reread of the Dune series. A review of Children Of Dune on the always thoughtful Gaping Blackbird, made me eager to start that reread. That review focuses on the Nietzschean inspiration of CoD, and it led to an interesting discussion in the comments. So, I was eager to dive into Dune again, but as I still had Soul Catcher on my TBR, I started that.

Yesterday, after finishing Soul Catcher, I decided to kick the reread of Dune even a bit further back, and I ordered Destination: Void, on account of Joachim Boaz, who praised Herbert’s handling of its characters’ psyches in the comments of my Whipping Star review – as Soul Catcher is first and foremost a character driven novel, and one that even succeeds at that. I have to admit I had given up on Herbert as non-Dune writer, as Whipping Star, The Dosadi Experiment and The Santaroga Barrier all disappointed. So I’m all the more pleased to report Soul Catcher was a good read, and one that invigorated me to give Destination: Void an honest chance.

Genre classifications being what they are, potential readers should be aware that Soul Catcher is not speculative fiction. Rob Weber reported in his review on Val’s Random Comments that the publisher, Putnam, even put the following on the back flap: “This is Frank Herbert’s first major novel. He has written numerous science fiction books, of which Dune…”. Novels were not the same as science fiction books in 1972. Interestingly enough, there is no trace of that attitude on my 1979 edition, on the contrary. As you can see on the 1979 cover I included here, both the illustration and the text try to tap on to a speculative vibe: this is a “terrifying novel of the Spirit World” – click on it if it shows up too small. Apparently Soul Catcher didn’t really catch on as regular literary fiction, and 7 years later, marketing decided to firmly latch it to Herbert’s other output – it’s pretty clear if you compare the vibe of the covers of the first two editions to the later one. The 2012 cover reverts the approach again. As always, ISFDB has a good overview of all the different cover art.

As Rob also wrote, the fact that this isn’t a SF book should not deter Herbert fans: “the ecological and mythological themes in the book especially, ties it to a lot of Herbert’s other works.”

Soul Catcher deals with a Native American kidnapping a 13-year old boy with the intent to kill him, as symbolical revenge for the rape of his own sister by a gang of white men, and her ensuing suicide – and by extension all the other crimes against the indigenous humans of the continent. As such it is a book that simply would not be published in these times of hired sensitivity readers. It would not get published just because of sensitivity issues: on top of that a white man writing a story like this without a doubt would get accused of cultural appropriation too. The fact that Herbert researched the subject extensively and clearly does not sympathize with white, Western genocidary imperialism would not excuse him. I’m sure today no publisher would dare to take a chance in our era of hair trigger culture wars.

After the jump you’ll find a rather lengthy discussion of a few different things: Soul Catcher as a psychological novel that also teaches us about today’s ‘terrorist’ violence; Soul Catcher as a critique on Western society and its interesting, realistic use of the ‘noble savage’ trope; a discussion on the use of ‘soul’ vs. ‘spirit’; a nugget for Dune fans; and my thoughts on the powerful ending and that ending’s relation to a movie adaptition that might or might not be made.

Certain sections are quote heavy, but obviously you can skim those if the particular topic doesn’t interest you that much.

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