Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Michael Butterworth's My Servant the Wind, backchannel note

I've received a note by Abel Diaz to Michael Butterworth concerning the latter's new book, My Servant the Wind.
12 April 2019

Dear Michael,

Last night, I finished reading My Servant the Wind.  I don’t know why I thought it would be a straight-up science fiction novel, but I was not prepared for how experimental it was—a genre unto its own: Meta-temporal-epistolary-apocalypse fiction.  I’ve never encountered its like!

It was quite disorienting.  I don’t think I truly found my footing until the funny but deeply unsettling routine in entry “May 30th 2030” that ends with the warped exclamation: “I’ll goddamn go to bed with your bones!”

Another hilarious and twisted routine of this nature occurred later on page 48 with the fat woman protecting only her hat while the rest of her is pelted with stones and metal and such.  (There are several other routines I enjoyed immensely, but this letter would quickly become a catalog if I listed them all.)

These routines, while belonging to the same genus of those by Burroughs, are definitely their own species.  For one thing, they are faster and leaner.  I guess the word “condensed” that you used several times when describing the techniques of Ballard would be a better way of describing it.  Some of them are so concise and funny that they could be successfully delivered by a talented stand-up comedian.  And so I strongly agree with you when you said in your afterword that you were never so in thrall to your inspirations that you could not form your own distinct style.

Discussing a book like this (are there any books like this?), is really daunting and intimidating for me.  There are huge, HUGE gaps in my knowledge of New Wave and Sci-Fi and every genre in-between.  I worry that I missed or misunderstood some of what was intended in MSTW -- even with the benefit of your very informative afterword.  Couple that with my decidedly un-academic mind, and I’m sure my thoughts are going to sound shallow at best.  But I still want to share with you what I liked most about your novel.

In addition to the many entertaining stories scattered throughout the diary entries (the King comes to mind, the many lively soldier sketches as well), there are two exceptional tales that were such a joy to read that they stand as my favorite parts of this book.  The first is “April 9th 1971”; the story about Ron Fathaway and his Adventure Hut.  Not only were the descriptions of this hut super cool and evocative, but I grew damn giddy as Hob Leg recounted, “We were billeted in a trench…”  The story within a story that follows is so fun and enthralling.  The betrayal by those bastard Huns is so vividly portrayed and described.  The atomic blast at the end is so surreal and weird.  I just really loved this whole entry and I think it was a blast of inspiration!

The second is the entry “August 2nd, 1971.”  This tale of the narrator and his man Scrat reconnoitering that vast plateau was suggestive of old-timey adventure tales in all the best ways.  You revealed that the inspiration for this piece was Edgar Allan Poe, but if so then this is further proof of your ability to take your favorite authors as starting points, then march deep into new territory to stake for your own.  The sudden interjection of that one horrific image—the half eaten baby face donor kebab—really packed a punch.  A few posters of that scene strategically placed around the city of Manchester would surely convert the masses to veganism!  Also, the phantom advertisements were a wild and well executed idea.  I have no reason to think you like Jack Vance, but it reminded me of a Dying Earth moment (which I love and which is intended as a good comparison).

The most powerful moment in the whole novel, however, was a short paragraph found on page 151.  It begins, “My lonesomeness is returning…” and ends, “I will miss him while I face whatever I have to.”  I don’t know if this passage was intended metaphorically or as a riff on something else entirely or as pure parody, but it doesn’t matter to me.  I took it straight, with no hidden meanings, and to me it was the most poignant, impactful passage of all.  It evoked a sense of sorrow and grief that many other moments in the novel approached, but never achieved with quite this intensity.

There is one final passage I feel deserves a special mention.  It can be found on page 142 and it is presented as the words of a friend about how they found a cold newt on a trail and warmed it up with their hands.  I found this moment so touching and endearing that I sat with it for a while, wondering if this was a true story and who had said it to you.  The very last sentence is the one that especially resonates with me: “We had a good ‘encounter,’ and this sort of thing is more in keeping with who I am, what I like to do, and what I like to think about.”  I couldn’t agree more.  It really is a lovely moment in the book.  And it’s one of those descriptions that are vivid and meaningful enough to become an actual memory in the reader’s head.

Well, that’s all for now.  I had a great time reading your novel.  It packed a hell of a lot into a small package.  It had its challenging moments, I won’t lie to you, but it was damn good and it was significant and I’m glad I read it.  I believe the passages I noted above will stay with me for a very long time.  I might even have to build my own Adventure Hut now!

Next up, I’m going to read your new collection of short stories.  I can’t wait to see what gems I’m going to find.

Abel Diaz
To view the Amazon description of My Servant the Wind, please click the cover image:

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