Sunday, February 15, 2009

Here come the dreams that are split at the seams

John Shirley

In Eclipse, many of my favorite things about John Shirley dovetail together, creating a sort of Janus-faced monstrous representation of my tastes in writing, culture, and politics. Eclipse portrays the near-future unfolding of a neo-fascist supra-national empire in the wake of a non-nuclear World War III. Europe is in ruins, but armistice has been achieved (or at least stalemate), and to bring stability to the ruins of France a third-party security megacorporation called Second Alliance (SA) is contracted to begin the rebuilding. Of course, it turns out the SA is part of a complex and broad-sweeping neo-fascist plot of world domination, headed by an American evangelical Christian.

In opposition to this plot is the New Resistance ("NR"), headed by an ex-Mossad higher-up named Steinfeld and financed by an American billionaire who is also SA's chief economic rival. The book mainly traces the paths of several individuals who become part of the NR for a myriad of reasons, and this volume also features a parallel storyline involving the SA takeover of FirStep, the space colony orbiting the earth.

As great as Shirley is at sketching the insidiousness of this neo-fascist plot (there's a great sequence where these two neo-nazis from Idaho show up at the SA compound, dressed out in full Third Reich regalia, and one of the upper-level SA execs summarily shoots them in the woods while explaining to them that the whole Nazi-model is both stupid and not ambitious enough, and of the effect of the war (or crisis, generally, I suppose) on the modern world (a great bit by one character, "Hard Eyes," about how before the war he didn't care about much, just when the next new digital music player was coming out – the pointless but comforting rhythms of consumerism), the heart and soul of this book is Rick Rickenharp.

Rickenharp is a washed-up rock star of the 1970s-1980s mould: long hair, blue jeans, leather jackets. But his preferred music form fell out of style long ago (except for a short retro craze), and the book finds him playing a gig in FreeZone, a floating city somewhere near the Canary Islands. Rickenharp and the band realize they're playing their last show together, and then Rickenharp runs off with a younger blue-haired girl and her friends to join the NR. Later, Rickenharp confesses of feeling "awake" or "alive" for the first time in a long time, if not ever. The book's must-be-read-to-be-believed conclusion revolves around Rick's last performance.

Eclipse Prenumbra
John Shirley

Eclipse Corona
John Shirley

Unfortunately, I cannot recommend the second and third volumes of this series as strongly as the first. As mentioned elsewhere1, Shirley has integrated several of his short stories into the narrative of both these novels, especially Eclipse Prenumbra. Still, Prenumbra includes more of the FirStep storyline, which is actually quite compelling, and I almost wish all of that arch could be collected in one volume. Shirley also forays into pretty straight combat narrative for brief spells. And although I was disappointed to discover he had conscripted previous short stories into the Eclipse narrative, Shirley really did a superb job stitching those stories and characters together into a larger narrative – for the most part you are only dimly aware that the narrative has gone a bit tangential.

In Corona three things stand out: a fantastic sequence about an SA diehard who comes up to the brink of the SA's true purpose (genocide) and finds that he cannot follow through. Secondly, a compelling tale of an undesirable confined to an SA version of the Warsaw Ghetto, and the unfortunate circumstances of his escape. And lastly, of course, the NR Strikes Back to bring the sequence to its end.


1 See my notes on Shirley's short-story collection Heatseeker.

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3 Comments + Unabashed Criticism:

Blogger Fat Contradiction said...

I've speculated on this in the past, but I still think it's not likely that Eclipse came out of short stories.

Rather, I think it's almost certain that Eclipse was being written and taking shape, and excerpts were clipped, submitted, and published. A minor point, but I do think it's important, as it moves the locus of the episodic-icity of the piece out of the piece itself and into your personal experience of it.

Now, Ender's Game? That was totally a short story first, then got blowed up into a novel. Then a (n awful) series.

Anyways, I even has a tiny bit of evidence for my position:

Somewhere in the mid to late 80s I was solicited by Jim Frenkel to write a trilogy for his shortlived Bluejay Books and I wanted to do something quintessentially cyberpunk, and the Eclipse books are what I had in my head. ... The books came out eventually in Warner Questar editions. Out of this ... arose "The Prince" also. ... The story uses Jerome-X, a character who appeared also in "Wolves of the Plateau" and the Eclipse books. (The Exploded Heart, p 197)

So, sounds to ME like he was writing these novels, the publisher fell out, and he had to put some food on the table...

12:39 AM  
Blogger d.d. tinzeroes said...

I dunno. On some counts you're most likely correct. But some of those short stories are told using really distinctly different styles than the overall style of Eclipse, so while you're right and some stuff was excerpted and published as short stories (will said skills pay the bills?) there are others that still feel a bit shoehorned.

10:35 AM  
Blogger d.d. tinzeroes said...

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10:35 AM  

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