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Sunday, October 10, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Award-winning science-fiction author Lucius Shepard explores existential themes like reality, spirituality and religion in his newest venture "A Handbook of American Prayer: A Novel." Shepard expounds on fame, wealth and humanity through the fantastic, psychotic ramblings and eccentric rationalizations of a twisted American messiah.
In a bar on San Juan Island, bartender Wardlin Stuart murders a man with a kind of bored disdain. In prison, Stuart develops a very effective way to pray in the sense that his prayers are fulfilled. He calls his method prayerstyle and is quickly sought by other inmates to write prayers for them. When even those prayers come true he compiles them in a book, which is published during his sentence. Stuart emerges from prison with a wife (a result of prayerstyle), a new home in the Arizona desert and a cult of followers known as Wardlinites.
Stuart attempts to maintain his sanity in the precincts of celebrity, wealth and fame. At first he embraces his newfound public face, but the novelty wears off: "I did not want to go hang out in Celebrityville with Sharon and Tom and Arnold and Brad, not even for the kick, for the fizz and giggle, the deviant animal splendor of that glamorama dreamworld that only existed because we celebrated its existence ... " Yet, even as he avoids contact with his followers, Stuart becomes even more of a cult figure. His ability to rationalize his predicament deteriorates as he attempts to comprehend the effects and repercussions of prayerstyle.
"Handbook" is like finding yourself in a Ralph Steadman print. With drippy, jagged lines and distorted surfaces, the characters come alive with splashy, colorfully exaggerated personas. Stuart expounds on his version of reality in numerous internal tirades, in which the lines of his reality cloud and fade to the surreal. Shepard seamlessly blurs the lines between reality and fantasy to create a fascinating look at the balance we attempt to create among spirituality, wealth and celebrity.
Reviewed by Rebecca Taylor
Detours through dystopias
Corporate satire and Kafkaesque metamorphoses gleefully collide in "Stable Strategies for Middle Management," the title story of this debut science-fiction collection by Seattle writer Eileen Gunn. A tale of career ambitions run amok, it pictures a workplace full of employees undergoing bioengineered species-changes that supposedly will serve them well on their climb up the corporate ladder.
The surface details may be fantastical, but the dynamics behind them will feel worryingly familiar to anyone who ever felt they were losing body and soul to the demands of their job. Praise from management ("You know, when we noticed you were developing three distinct body segments, we had great hopes for you") has rarely sounded so inauspicious.
"Stable Strategies" is rightly highlighted in the collection, but it's in good company. "Fellow Americans" is a tastily nightmarish trip down Alternative History Lane, in which a nuke-happy Barry Goldwater wins the 1964 election and one of the most popular shows on television is "Tricky Dick" (featuring you-know-who). "Computer Friendly" again concerns metamorphosis-by-coercion, with its tale of gifted kids who find themselves literally melded into a vast societal cyber-mainframe while their rejected classmates are relegated to an ominous-sounding "Asia Center."
Pornography saves the day in "What Are Friends For?" a story of teenage delinquents trying to sidestep the population-control ambitions of tentacled space aliens who have invaded the planet. Here, Gunn's knack for blending a bizarre premise and an offhand, colloquial tone serves her well. The same is true in "Nirvana High," cowritten with Leslie What, and set on the shores of a future Lake Washington where teachers taunt high-schoolers with Kurt Cobain lyrics ("Entertain us!"), paranormal gifts afflict faculty and students alike, and Microsoft appears to have merged with every company on Earth.
Other tales "The Sock Story," "Spring Conditions" are weaker. But where the collection really goes awry is in its inclusion of a nearly unreadable novella, "Green Fire," cowritten with Andy Duncan, Pat Murphy and Michael Swanwick. The book is also overburdened with forewords by William Gibson, Swanwick and Gunn herself, an afterword by Howard Waldrop, as well as post-mortems by Gunn on each and every entry ("This story took me forever to write, because I kept doing it wrong").
The best tales here stand perfectly well on their own. There's no need for all the clutter.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com
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