NEW BOOK REVIEWS: Walter Mosley and Robert Charles Wilson  

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Figure 1 - George Barr with fan
Figure 1 – George Barr with fan

If you’ve been hoping this is the week I finish my “personal time machine” series about Amazing Stories’ first full year, sorry. I get caught up in stuff and end up, sometimes—like this week—having to do something PDQ (Pretty Damn Quick)! Next week, for sure. Or nearly for sure. You know how it is. This week, among other things, I’ve been trying to get some “books on tape” onto CD for my friend George Barr. Now, given that all he’s read over the last twenty years or so are books or stories he’s being paid to illustrate, what kind of book do you think I’d send him? Ha! You’d be wrong… how many of you guessed John D. MacDonald’s great series about Travis McGee, beach bum and knight in slightly rusty armour from Fort Lauderdale, Florida? Here’s the funny thing: I and a lot of my friends, like Spider Robinson, absolutely love T. McGee—heck, I love anything written by John D.—and I found out that George has never read any John D. other than his SF stuff! That’s right—he’s only read Ballroom of the Skies, Wine of the Dreamers and The Girl, The Gold Watch and Everything, not A Tan and Sandy Silence, One Fearful Yellow Eye or The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper. Aren’t those titles evocative? Don’t they make you want to pick up that book and just read yourself into a coma or the nearest thing? I tell you, it’s a struggle not to just abandon this week’s column and reread all the John D. MacDonald books I’ve got.

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One of the great things about reviewing books and writing a weekly column is that I’m constantly learning stuff. Like, f’rinstance, about Walter Mosley. Until this column, I never knew that Walter Mosley is African-American… not that I pay that much attention to externals. I’ve been aware of the name for years, and I’ve read at least one Mosley book, but I only knew him as mostly a “mystery writer.” I have come to find out that not only does he write mysteries, but he self-identifies as one who writes “Afro-futurism,” a term I’d never heard before.

Figure 2 - Walter Mosley by Marcia Wilson
Figure 2 – Walter Mosley by Marcia Wilson

According to Mosley, Afro-futurists include such genre writers as Samuel R. Delaney, the late Octavia Butler, Steven Barnes, and his wife, Tananarive Due (who’s also a screenwriter). Of course, we all know more Black writers in our genre than just those, although those are perhaps the better-known ones (if I’ve offended anyone by leaving them off this list, please forgive me. No slight is intended.) There was a conference called “Black to the Future” (groan) at Florida A&M University in February, attended by Mosley, Due and others. (According to the press release, Afro-futurism is “a cultural movement that encompasses literature, dance, art, music and more, while speculative fiction is a catch phrase for science fiction, fantasy and horror, super hero fiction and Steamfunk.”) I’m not sure whether that last is a typo, or if we’re likely to see the likes of Rick James or Chaka Khan dressed [okay, I know he’s not around any more, but you get the point] in corsets and pith helmets.)

Anyway, although he’s known (at least, that’s how I knew him) for his series of mystery novels featuring Easy Rawlins (and I should have known Mosley was Black, because Rawlins is.), played onscreen by Denzel Washington in Devil in a Blue Dress. According to his website, however, Mosley has written in many other genres, including SF/F. This book falls loosely into that category. The new (published in January by TOR) SF book is called Inside a Silver Box—and I’m not sure it falls into the SF or the F category. It concerns two people, one Black and one white, who have an amazing experience.

Ronnie Bottoms is a petty Black criminal who’s about to commit the worst crime of his life when he meets a jogger named Lorraine Fell in Central Park. All his adult life, Bottoms has been the type of guy who takes what he wants—as long as the victim is weaker than he. He’s served time in jail and has been—at least there—both predator and prey. But as far as reformation goes, jail has taught him only more and better ways to pry on the weak rather than reforming him in any way.

The Silver Box is a tool that was created untold eons ago by the Laz, in order for them to rule the universe; with it, they became gods, or the next best thing. Its unlimited power allowed them to believe they really were gods, and for ages they ruled over the entire universe with untold cruelty, greed and indifference. When the Silver Box attained sentience, it knew it had to atone for its actions and so began the eons-long war against the Laz and its leader, Inglo. In time, all the Laz were united inside the body of Inglo, but due to their link to the Box, they could not actually perish as long as the immortal Silver box was alive in its sentience. The box, and the remains of Inglo (containing not only his sould but the souls of ten million Laz) both are physically located on Earth, under—you guessed it—Central Park.

Figure 3 - Inside a Silver Box Cover - Walter Mosley
Figure 3 – Inside a Silver Box Cover – Walter Mosley

When Lorraine—Columbia University grad student—meets Ronnie, who’s been sleeping in the park, there’s an unfortunate happenstance: he kills her, though he had only wanted to mug her and rape her at first. Later, her spirit, captured by the Silver Box, draws Ronnie back and he resurrects her from where he had stuffed her body into a cavity under a boulder. In some weird way the two are melded—she takes part of Ronnie into herself, and he takes part of Lorraine… and they both have part of the Box inside them—which, according to the book, is odd, since everything and everyone are already inside the box. (It’s larger than it appears.)

A very strange journey begins at that point; both protagonists, marked by the Box, have gained unusual powers: Lorraine can jog several times around the whole of New York without getting winded—running faster than any marathoner, and Ronnie becomes stronger than normal. In addition, he begins understanding his own psyche and upbringing. Both begin physically and psychologically changing; in addition, other characters, like the ex-Viet Cong soldier Ma Lin, and “Used-to-be Claude” Festerling, the character who’s more or less a ghost, come into play. A “sliver” of Inglo (the last Laz, who contains all of his race) gets into Ma Lin, and the two (Ronnie and Lorraine) have to find him before the Silver Box decides to eliminate the Earth in order to eliminate the Laz.

The book isn’t “traditional” SF/F, but something about it—even when it read a little clumsily for someone steeped in SF/F—kept me reading. It wasn’t the power of Mosley’s prose, as that was rather pedestrian, if you want the truth—a lot of it being steeped in Ronnie’s “street talk”; it wasn’t really the plot, as I found it hard—even for reading purposes—to envision an ages-old “silver box” that could (basically) control and/or contain the entire universe without losing my suspension of disbelief. Whatever it was, it kept me reading until I finished the book. And even though I didn’t really buy the ending—maybe a bit too pat, but then the stakes were so very high—I have to say I enjoyed it. You may too.

Figure 4 shows Robert Charles Wilson (right) with Robert Sawyer at some con or other. You probably already know Rob Sawyer, author of Flash Forward, Red Planet Blues and a bunch of other SF books; you really need to meet Robert (Bob) Wilson, Hugo-award-winning author of Spin—which I just found out is going to be a mini-series this year! His new book, The Affinities, is an odd one for SF—it’s much less technological than most “pure” SF; in fact, technology—aside from the odd car or smartphone—is hardly even mentioned!

Figure 4 - Rob and Bob
Figure 4 – Rob Sawyer (left) and Bob Wilson (right)

An early question asked in the book is something like “What Earth species is best at cooperation?” While I might have answered “Ants,” it’s a sure bet that ants have been considered and discarded. The answer really is, “Humans.” That question is at the bottom of a whole new branch of sociology (I guess that’s what it is) called “teleodynamics.” Or maybe it’s a new take on socializing; the invention of this, by a man named Meir Klein, who sets up a new set of social groupings called “Affinities.” Unlike church groups, dating media like eHarmony or other groups, these Affinities are formed with the purpose of having people cooperate with each other.

Figure 5 - Cover for Robert Charles Wilson The Affinities
Figure 5 – Cover for Robert Charles Wilson The Affinities

Klein has sold his concept (and the programs that support it) to a company called InterAlia (Latin, I believe, for “Between All”); who are sorting people into one of 22 Affinities, which take their names from the Etruscan alphabet, I think (it’s mentioned in the book, but some days my memory’s a slippery slope). Each affinity has local branches all over the world, called “Tranches,” except where they’ve been forbidden by either the local government (I think China’s one example) or some other similar reason. Affinities are explained to the protagonist, Adam Fisk—as he undergoes testing to see if he will fit into an Affinity—like this: “Assuming you’re placed in a tranche, you’ll find yourself in the company of people we call polycompatible. Some clients come in with the misconception that they’ll be placed among people who are like themselves, but that’s not the case. As a group, your tranche will most likely be physically, racially, socially, and psychologically diverse. Our evaluations look beyond race, gender, sexual preference, age, or national origin. Affinity groups aren’t about excluding differences. They’re about compatibilities that run deeper than superficial similarity.”

In the several years between the present and the Affinities’ inception, two of the Affinities, Tau and Het (which seems to be the most militaristic of the Affinities) have become extremely successful in the world; so much that the U.S. Government is considering legislation to keep them from becoming too successful—or their monopolistic “parent” company InterAlia—and several governments have banned them, as Affinity loyalty runs deeper than nationalistic loyalty—indeed, deeper than most blood/family bonds. People in Affinities distrust people outside them, and vice versa. As Adam finds out he fits into one of the largest Affinities—Tau—he also finds that the founder, Meir Kline, is dying, and wants to set the Affinities free from InterAlia’s grip. He wants to make a cheaper “home” version of the Affinities tests, which are patented by InterAlia, and which include DNA tests.  He, and Adam’s local tranche, enlist Adam to help with this project. Meanwhile, India and China, spurred on by the success of the Affinities—which threaten governments and big corporations—come closer and closer to atomic war.

Wilson has written a book which touches on the fabric of our social structure; it suggests that maybe there are better structures for our social interaction than the traditional ones of family, church, government; also, that social structures that don’t evolve could find themselves going the way of the dodo. While this book isn’t traditional “hard” SF, it’s very much near-future SF and makes one hope that possibly something very like the Affinities—or what came after—could evolve in our world. I enjoyed the heck out of this book… but then, I always enjoy Wilson’s writing! (He’s another like me—born in California [according to Wikipedia] but moved to Canada.) The book, from TOR, comes out somewhere around April 21. It will be available on Amazon and your local bookstore, among other places.

If you can, please comment on this week’s column. If you haven’t already registered—it’s free, and just takes a moment—go ahead and register, then comment here, or comment on my Facebook page, or in the several Facebook groups where I publish a link to this column. I might not agree with your comments, but they’re all welcome. Don’t feel you have to agree with me to post a comment. My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other bloggers. See you next week!

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