Review: Stormland by John Shirley

Stormland by John Shirley
Hardcover: Blackstone Publishing, 978-1-09-401782-2, $26.99, 338pp, [April] 2021

This will not be a review so much as a notice because I actually read this immediately after The Godel Trigger and entered the above information to start the review, but never got around to writing anything else until yesterday (on a different book) and this is no way to write a review.

As I remember it, the premise of this book is that climate change has led to a constant series of storms hitting the southern United States, making the region almost unlivable but making it one of the better places to hide out with the people unable to leave if you’re a criminal or otherwise want to leave the rest of the world. Another element is the continued privatization of all things, resulting in various law enforcement corporations. The main protagonist is a rent-a-cop who remembers when things were otherwise and prefers those times, but has been sent out to track down a serial killer who has disappeared into Stormland. Another element is the strife between a rich showoff and his son during and after the former crashes his fancy vehicle into Stormland. And, along the way, we meet various natives and a couple of the 1% who are evil voyeuristic mind-controlling nutjobs. (And there just might be something more broadly symbolic and thematic in that.)

I’m not generally a big fan of cli-fi or apocalyptic stuff but I am a pretty big fan of John Shirley. My favorite book of his is Eclipse and there was a moment in this when the near-future scenario, the eclectic band of characters, the socioeconomic themes, and the vivid, gritty tangibility of this book excited me with the feeling that I might have another Eclipse-level book on my hands. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to that but that’s a high bar and I still enjoyed it. Perhaps the worst thing is the very premise, in that I have a hard time buying the notion of what seems to be basically a year-round procession of hurricanes while the rest of the planet seems to be more or less “normal.” (I have thought about Earth developing a Jovian permanent storm which seems a little more plausible, but I don’t know.) The weirdest part was how this was at once ferociously apocalyptic and oddly cozy with lots of nice and semi-mean people and only a few utterly vicious folks, with most of the latter not even being in Stormland. But this mixture is actually probably more realistic than either purer form of apocalyptic fiction. I think one of the best parts was the relationship that develops between the cop and the killer and the questions raised by the latter’s past and current state, which I’ll let the reader discover. Ultimately, it’s a pretty action-packed and thoughtful book.

Birthday Reviews: Schenck, Shirley, Szilard

There seems to be something serendipitously similar to these selections.

Hilbert Schenck (1926-02-12–2013-12-02)

“The Morphology of the Kirkham Wreck” (F&SF, September 1978)

On the dark and stormy night of January 19, 1892, the schooner H.P. Kirkham runs aground on a shoal and will shortly break up, taking the lives of the sailors aboard her if Keeper Walter Chase can’t lead his crew in their surfboat to the rescue and a safe return, defying the storm and massive waves and… entities from another “time-using” continuum which Chase enters as his will leads him to break the shackles of his “energy-using” continuum and cause modifications to all of existence in his efforts to save the crews. The beings are conservative sorts and Chase is having the effect of creating radical change.

The mainstream parts of this tale are very exciting and effective. The “speculative” (fantasy) parts, which move in and out of foreground focus like someone turning the knobs on binoculars, have a sort of conceptual appeal but also teeter at the abyss of pretentiousness. Still, it’s a lively and thought-provoking tale.

John Shirley (1953-02-10)

“The Incorporated” (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, July 1985)

Jim Kessler is wandering around, feeling like something is missing. It turns out that he had an idea that would be dangerous to his wife’s corporation, so she turned him in and they erased it from his mind. This is set after a terrorist attack which destroyed the economy and most people view the corporations in which they live, move, and have their being as their family and even their god. Kessler talks to a lawyer about getting his memory or at least his idea back but the lawyer is also tampered with. Later, when he realizes she’s contacted the corporation again and it’s going to happen to him again, he leaves her. When he goes to a “techniki” (hacker) friend and the wife tracks (or is led to) him there, the story ends with a bang.

I’ve read this story several times over several years and it (alas) always rings true. It may speak of Japanese business models and of “cassettes and compact discs” but the terrorist attacks, the corporate control and the media manipulation (which Kessler had invented a way to circumvent) all speak to today. It’s very effective at depicting a mixture of the ordinary (people just trying to get by) and of things that shouldn’t be ordinary (tyranny and mind control). This is far more effective than most more monochrome dystopias and it’s not just frighteningly plausible but actually frighteningly accurate. It’s less science fiction and more a rendering of reality which strips away the comforting “Hey, at least the trains are running on time” normalization of authoritarianism. The ending (which is sort of a double-jointed bit of action and a suspended denouement) is perhaps not as effective as the establishment of the milieu and the characters’ conflicts, but it’s sufficient. [1] Among the many arresting lines (for either stylistic or conceptual reasons or both) there are dark lines such as “She said lose my job the way Kessler would have said, lose my life” and those wonderful cognitive dissonance lines such as after the lawyer has explained how Kessler’s memory was edited and how that toothpaste isn’t going back in the tube when Kessler says, “Okay, so maybe it can’t be put back in by direct feed-in to the memory. But it could be relearned through ordinary induction. Reading.” So I strongly recommend you ordinarily induct this story.

Leo Szilard (1898-02-11–1964-05-30)

“The Mark Gable Foundation” (The Voice of the Dolphins and Other Stories, 1961)

[Reprinted from my review of The Expert Dreamers.]

This opens with the narrator perfecting his suspended animation technique and committing to travel 300 years into the future. He says, “I thought my views and sentiments were sufficiently advanced, and that I had no reason to fear I should be too much behind the times in a world that advanced a few hundred years beyond the present.” He changes his tune when he is awakened a mere 90 years into his journey to find a world in which having teeth is no longer socially acceptable but making a living as a sperm donor is. This 1961 story turns out to be a satire largely pointed at the moves in the late 1940s to establish a National Science Foundation. Its thesis is that making scientists become grant-chasing bureaucrats will lead to the stultification of science through safe and fashionable pursuits (and, as much as I support coherent public commitments to science, I have to admit the validity of his critiques). That aside, this would also make a timely read for today’s sufficiently advanced and morally perfect humans.


[1] It is also, fittingly enough, “incorporated” into Shirley’s superb Eclipse (volume one of the Eclipse/A Song Called Youth trilogy) which makes its ending more of a middle.

Review: Doyle After Death by John Shirley

This originally appeared on my old site on 2014-08-05. Other than changes related to reformatting and correcting typos, it’s unchanged. I said I wouldn’t exclude this century and this is an example (of fantasy, even). There’s a retrospective near-coincidence in that I was calling for a TV series based on this and the very different but also redemption/afterlife-oriented The Good Place premiered 2016-09-19. Further in the Near-Coincidence Dept., it’s opening its final season in a few days.

[Cover of Doyle After Death]
Date: 2013
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-06-30500-8
Pages: 341
Price: $6.99
Publisher: Witness Impulse

Nick Fogg is a private detective in more or less present-day Las Vegas when he dies from misadventure. He comes to find himself on a beach in an afterworld and, after being greeted by the lovely Fiona, makes his way into the town of Garden Rest where he meets a guy who soon becomes a friend, along with a couple of guys who don’t, a bartender who wants to make sure he’s good people, a boardinghouse owner, and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Yes, that Doyle. And, while a variety of people have died and come to Garden Rest (one of the many places in this plane, which is one of many planes of existence) over the eons and many have departed once more to other planes, there is a 19th/turn-of-20th Century English tone to much of Garden Rest, though it is mixed with traces of other things.

Naturally, it turns out that one of the dead people, Morgan Harris, has been murdered (yes, people can be “deformulated” in the afterlife) and Doyle and Fogg team up as a post-mortem Holmes and Watson to solve the case.

John Shirley is primarily a science fiction and horror writer but here turns his hand to fantasy (and mystery) and the SF flavors it by making it a more concrete and rational afterworld than many might be and the horror flavors it by occasionally producing good frissons of creepiness but it is a remarkably sedate and gentlemanly book from the often vigorous and violent Shirley. Though mostly rational, it’s often a whimsical rationality. One of the most enjoyable aspects is exemplified in the early part of the book when Fogg is still getting his bearings, though already investigating the case. He’s asking the mayor, Chauncey, about Harris.

“Was he living with anyone here? Housemates, spouse, anyone like that?”

“No, he was a friendly chap but he had solitary habits. Obsessed with his work. Tramping around, trying to talk to the trees – claims to have had some manner of conversation with the trees. Might have been his imagination, however. Never heard of Garden Rest’s plants talking. The birds, of course – and the occasional dog. Heard a horse make a remark once. But trees? No. Just as well – wouldn’t care for it, I don’t think. Unsettling.” (70-71)

The sort of horror comes out in places such as the depiction of a “psychic storm” which straddles chapters “Seventh” and “Eighth” when Doyle announces:

“…Ah, here is the storm right on schedule.”

He nodded towards the window – which began rattling in its frame.

Something outside was rattling the window. Not the wind, though the wind was in fact rising. It was the thing’s grip on the frame that rattled it.

Something with a hollow-eyed face was shaking the window…

[Chapter break to enhance the antici… pation.]

The elongated visage, eyeless and suffering, disintegrated under pressure from another, quite distinct face, the way a form in flowing paint is pushed out of shape when another color is poured into the mix. The rounder face with owlish eyes, replacing the first, was quickly pressed aside by several others: human shapes with streaming hair, men and women and mixed gender, some faces well defined and some only sketches. Some looked directly at us; others didn’t seem to see us, and shattered themselves against the windowpane.

They sang, with some occasional harmony but mostly discord – they were the dissonant choir. Some of them looked fairly happy, or at least pleasantly distracted; a good many others seemed to be grieving, endlessly grieving… (178-179)

The weakness of this book is primarily three-fold, with possibly some secondary minor problems. Some or all of the following should strongly apply to the mystery: it should have someone we care about be the victim; we should be drenched in a paranoid air where it could be anyone; we either hate or love many of the suspects; we feel invested in whodunnit; the crime should be very cleverly done and/or solved. It’s not that any of this is utterly absent but it’s only present in trace amounts. (Also, I can’t get into it in detail but one of the keys would probably not escape many conversant with the Holmes canon.) That might not matter as much since the real focus is actually two-fold. On the one hand, it’s on Doyle’s relationship with his wives (sequential on earth but both present in the afterlife), the first being the one living with him but the second, elsewhere in that plane, perhaps holding a greater claim on his heart. On the other, it’s on Fogg’s relationship with his life Before and his self-opinion, especially as it is colored by a particular act in that life. The problems with each of these is that there’s nothing as surprising or revelatory or transcendent as one might hope for. Again, not that it’s not good and reasonable but it’s only in trace amounts. Secondary to these three are the possibility that Shirley (being very American) doesn’t “do” the English thing right or that his treatment of the historical Doyle might not be entirely “spot on” but, being very American, myself, and not conversant with the historical Doyle, I noticed nothing wrong.

There’s another element that is not a weakness but is an irony related to the book’s strength: I loved the tone or mood, and enjoyed the setting and so many of the characters so much that I actually wanted much more of them. I think this would make a great TV series. Not a movie, because that would be relatively short and not a book series because there are too many of those and much of this book is particularly visual anyway. I’d like to see it drawn out and gotten into in more depth and detail. I can see a Joss Whedonesque “found family” and “dramedy” to this that would be great fun. And, of course, it’s not all “fun” in the sense that it brings to mind that we may not get the same chance these fictional fantasy characters do – and few would believe we would in the same way – so it might be wise to try to get it right the first time.

In sum, I don’t know that this is a great and deathless book (so to speak), but it’s a good and very enjoyable one and I recommend it.