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Nature is a temple in which living pillars
Sometimes give voice to confused words;
Man passes there through forests of symbols
Which look at him with understanding eyes.

Like prolonged echoes mingling in the distance
In a deep and tenebrous unity,
Vast as the dark of night and as the light of day,
Perfumes, sounds, and color correspond.

There are perfumes as cool as the flesh of children,
Sweet as oboes, green as meadows
—And others are corrupt, and rich, triumphant,

With power to expand into infinity,
Like amber and incense, musk, benzoin,
That sing the ecstasy of the soul and senses.

Charles Baudelaire, translated by William Aggeler

Nature, indeed, but Art, too.

In September, I was immersed into Stefan Zweig’s THE WORLD OF YESTERDAY, an autobiographical memoir about Europe in the first half of the 20th century, which I found deeply moving. And now, lured by glowing reviews, I find myself immersed into a book in which I find several correspondences with Zweig’s.

Philip Roth needs no introduction, I think. According to some, he is the American writer most likely to win a Nobel Prize for Literature. His latest book, THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA, is what SF critics call an alternate history novel—with a difference. As in the classics of the genre, the point of departure from our history is linked to World War Two: Roth postulates that Charles Lindbergh—whose sympathies for Nazi Germany are a matter of historical record—wins the 1940 presidential election over FDR. Thus, America stays out of the war, and an insidious fascistic regime takes over the country.

I’ve not yet finished THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA as I write this—this column is late enough as it is, don’t you think?—but I can already tell you it’s not to be missed. One of the reasons why is that difference I mentioned earlier. Rather than writing a traditional alternate history novel—for a perfect example of the form, see Philip K. Dick’s THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE—Roth has chosen to write an alternate autobiography. This is the story of the Roth family—young Phil, his father Herman, his mother Bess, his older brother Sandy, his cousin Alvin—as it might have been in another, darker reality.

That makes it personal, of course.

Reading this wonderful novel made me think of a trend I’ve noticed in some books published as SF, fantasy or horror, but which rise above genre fare. Another correspondence. Take Lucius Shepard, for instance. Ever since his first novel, GREEN EYES (1984), Shepard has played with genre tropes and expectations, and written powerful fiction about the human condition—personal and global. After staying silent for several years, he’s come back in tremendous form with the new century. We who can’t get enough of his stories are living a true Golden Age. You should check out his latest offerings: A HANDBOOK OF AMERICAN PRAYER, just out from Thunder’s Mouth Press; VIATOR, from Night Shade Books; and LIAR’S HOUSE, from Subterranean Press—not to mention TRUJILLO AND OTHER STORIES, a massive collection from British publisher PS Publishing.

A HANDBOOK OF AMERICAN PRAYER is the story of a convict for whom prayer does work. When he gets out of jail, he writes a book, becomes a cult personality and is stalked by a televangelist. The stuff of sensational fiction, you might say. Except that Shepard handles his material in a way that makes his novel true literature—a work about what it means to be human in the 21st century. I’ve yet to read VIATOR and LIAR’S HOUSE—the latter novella being the latest installment in the “Dragon Griaule” informal series—but I can vouch for the stories collected in TRUJILLO, since I’ve read several and even translated two or three, such as “Only Partly Here,” a story about love, loss and Ground Zero, “Eternity and Afterwards,” where Hell is a Moscow nightclub, and “Crocodile Rock,” where a new kind of human monster is born in the jungles of Africa—topical stuff, if you ask me.

Correspondences. Now, do you know of another writer who straddles genre, whose stories never flinch and who leaves you richer by far when you close one of his books? Of course you do.

A few notes to conclude.

Simmons watch for French readers:
This Summer, Omnibus published NOUVELLES DES SIÈCLES FUTURS, a massive (80 stories!) reprint anthology edited by Jacques Goimard & Denis Guiot, featuring Dan’s “The Death of the Centaur.”
Just out from Flammarion, TRACÉS DU VERTIGE (aka RED SHIFT), edited by Al Sarrantonio, featuring Dan’s “On K2 with Kanakaredes.”
Just in at Robert Laffont: the OLYMPOS manuscript—1297 pages according to editor Gérard Klein. Can’t wait to scale this mountain.
The folks at École des Sciences Politiques have updated the Simmons pages on their website—go have a look at http://www.artelio.org.

The Baudelaire translation featured above comes from http://www.fleursdumal.org, a site devoted to his poetry.

And to quote another poet, “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast.” Thanks to Joni Mitchell (DREAMLAND, Rhino), Neil Young (GREATEST HITS, Reprise) and Ray LaMontagne (TROUBLE, Echo).



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