I met Jonathan Lethem years ago, at the one and only Science Fiction World Convention that I have ever attended (that one was in New Orleans–this year, the convention is in San Antonio, and I am planning to attend, since it is near my old stomping grounds and has the potential of having a lot of my old friends as attendees). It was at a party for all the Hugo losers after the awards ceremony, and I recall getting into quite a discussion with him and Pat Cadigan regarding the merits of Jonathan Carroll and similar magic realists. The conversation sparked some opinions that were incorporated into the overview I wrote on Carroll’s writing.
The next I heard of Lethem was several short stories that received good notices inAsimov’s, and then, Gun, with Occasional Music, his first novel. I always meant to pick it up, but before I knew it, there was a second novel, and then, last year, a short story collection. Two hardbacks and a hardback short story collection? Amazing for a new author, I really should check this guy out, I thought. But it wasn’t until discussion on the Rondua list, centering on what to read similar to Carroll, fell on Lethem that I met with a realization that I was missing out on something. The next trip to Powell’s in Portland, I picked up all three books.
Starting from the beginning, Gun, with Occasional Music is ostensibly a detective story in the traditional of Raymond Chandler. That short description is not quite apt, though–it’s like saying Beck or Oasis is pop music in the tradition of the Beatles. There are some striking similarities in structure or theme, but the frills are quite different. Lethem’s Los Angeles is filled with the products of evolution therapy– animals that walk on two legs and mostly fill the menial roles (akin to Cordwainer Smith’s Instrumentality of Mankind) and babyheads, children that have been treated to have adult mental abilities while their bodies still are those of their age. Drugs are legal, available from corner “makers”, who can mix your preferred blend like today’s tobacconist, from substances called Avoidol, Relaxol, Acceptol, Believol, and, especially, Addictol. People carry around “karma” cards, that contain a collection of points, earned by doing good deeds, and subtracted from when caught in a crime including being rude. Instead of CNN, there’s the music news, where one tries to understand if something bad has occurred based on the amount of bassoons or bass in the orchestra. Newspapers are collections of uncaptioned pictures. And people, unless police or licensed private investigators, find it the ultimate in rudeness to ask or be asked a question. Conrad Metcalf may sound like Sam Spade, but the world in which he tries to exist is not conducive to his anti-establishment position.
The murder that Conrad attempts to solve is fairly straightforward, although Lethem does throw in a few really nice twists that fit with his world and the characters. For all its outre ideas, Lethem keeps the world consistent, as if he had thought while writing it, “What would a hard-boiled detective do if found in this situation?” The result is clean, crisp, often incredibly funny, and yet the ending is as tough as these novels come, with an additional bonus of an ending moral. Separately, Lethem’s ideas are nothing new in science fiction. Together, and in a noir style, they make a fresh and witty adventure.
I’m sorry that I took so long to turn to Lethem, and you can be assured that the other books will not linger long on my to-be-read shelf.
[Finished 19 April 1997]