Three Monkeys - Ten Minutes : Presidents Page March 2001
After yet another job interview this week, I went for a therapeutic visit to my favorite bookstore, Bizy Bees. I got talking to Matthew about re-reading books. We discovered that we both have re-read Niven and Pournelleís Inferno many times. It lead to a discussion about when this duo dropped the ball as far as quality goes. We decided that Dream Park was the beginning of the end and Legacy of Hereot marked the final end of the good times. Looking at these later works it is easy to forget just how good works like The Mote in Godís Eye and Footfall were. It seems a waste to me to only read a quality work just the once. If something is of high quality it should be appreciated in an ongoing fashion. There are works by John Varley, Gene Wolfe, Isaac Asimov, Greg Bear and others which I have greatly enjoyed on second and subsequent readings.
The series nature of so much SF gives another reason to re-read books. If the break between books in a series is large enough, it is useful to re-read earlier books to familiarise yourself with the detail of setting and character before embarking on the latest work. An extreme example of this happened to me recently when I got my copy of Joe Haldemanís Forever Free. Before I read this book, I re-read the classic Forever War. Given the disappointment that I noted about the newer work in last monthís column, most of my enjoyment from this process came from the earlier work which still retains its impact and relevance over the years.
The reason why most books are not worth re-reading is that once you have experienced the initial discovery of the plot and the characters, there is not enough residual quality left to be worth repeating. Of course this assumes that you do actually remember all those plot and character points. Preparatory to reading William Gibsonís All Tomorrowís Parties, I recently had cause to read Idoru again. I was a little disconcerted to discover how much of it I did not remember. For whatever reason, I had not concentrated sufficiently when I first read the book so that many of the major points did not stick in my memory. A case, I suspect, of reading the words without reading the book. This means that there is a third reason to re-read a book - to do it justice because you did not read it properly the first time. Although it does seem to me that if you are aware that you are not doing a book justice during initial reading, that you should stop reading it until you are in a more receptive state of mind.
When Iím not reading SF or Detective fiction, I sometimes like to delve into the realms of genuine weirdness. The Cleft and Other Odd Tales is by Gahan Wilson. Although much better known for his very offbeat cartoons, he has won the World Fantasy Award and the Bram Stoker Award for his fantastic fiction. The stories in this collection were originally published over a period of 30 years and are all very short.
It is very hard to convey the oddness of work like this because the story is only part of the picture. The deceptively simple dialogue adds an innocent quality to the oddness which makes the contrast between ordinary and odd more extreme. On the subject of pictures, this book is illustrated by Wilson. Having said that, the idea of carnivorous knitting yarn or a carnival tent which doubles as a meat pie maker - think about it a bit. I did enjoy this book a lot - everybody needs a bit of silly weirdness in their lives.
Next we consider Really, Really, Really, Really Weird Stories by John Shirley. Yes that really really is the name of the book and it really really is the same Cyberpunk pioneer John Shirley who writes SF and horror novels. The horror themes are more present in these stories than in the sometimes quirky Wilson collection. However they do share many things in common. Most notably is the shortness of the stories but also the morality tale structure, where some "bad" person comes to a sticky end. Not all the stories have this structure - just when you are expecting such an ending something different is sprung on you.
A different sort of weird can be found in the works of Clark Ashton Smith. Less famous than his contemporary, H.P. Lovecraft, he is often compared to him as there is a degree of similarity in their work. But Smithís works range across a much wider range of very unearthly worlds and bizarre creatures. His tales traverse a number of strange lands populated by capricious gods and perils for the unwary. Most of his work was published in the í30s and like Lovecraft (who was an admirer) was fashionable at the time. From time to time his work is re-issued. There are now available a series of collections of his work grouped together by the fictitious lands in which they are set.
Finally there is Howard Waldrop. There is nobody quite like Howard in the SF genre. All his stories are recognisably SF with a lot of them in the alternative history area. But he has a take on things which just do not seem to come from a normal mind. Perhaps they donít, but they do make for wonderful fiction. Most of you will not have heard of him - he does not have a public following and he often has trouble getting his work published. The reason why you should accord him respect is that he has the respect of his peers. His work is held in huge regard by his fellow writers even if they too think him a little weird.