Monday, December 4, 2017

Haunted Mesa by Louis L'Amour

Though the cover features a katchina
dancer, they never really come up in the
book. I've read that the katchina cult,
which seems strongest among the modern
Hopi, is something of an innovation. At
any rate, it has its own complicated and
little-known history.
I just did something I thought I'd never do: I read a Louis L'Amour novel.

Louis L'Amour, if you don't know, is arguably the all-time most popular writer of westerns. He wrote 89 novels in all, a number of which were turned into films and television shows. His presence, though increasingly tattered and faded, was inescapable for someone growing up in Texas in the eighties and nineties, which I did. But I've had an aversion to westerns as long as I can remember, and I was never tempted to crack open one of the zillions of L'Amour paperbacks underfoot back then.

(Perhaps my aversion dates from the time we got free 3D movie glasses from the county courthouse to watch a 3D John Wayne movie on the local UHF station. I think it was Hondo, which is based on a L'Amour story. Our county seat happened to be called Hondo as well...! Anyway, I remember looking over at my family, all gaping at the TV screen with big grins on their faces, and silently removing my own glasses, content to watch the movie in overlapping red-and-blue, which gave me a headache. But did I really need John Wayne's horse's nose popping out of the screen at me?)

Anyway, recent events have conspired to soften my old contempt, the primary one being my ill-considered decision to begin writing "Weird Westerns" myself. So I'd already been toying with the idea of picking up a L'Amour novel or two when I learned that L'Amour himself had written a science fiction novel set in the Four Corners area!

Haunted Mesa, which came out in 1987 and appears to have been the author's last novel, combines the parallel universe conceit with elements of modern Puebloan and ancient Mayan mythology to explicate the mysterious disappearance of the Anasazi1 from cultural centers like Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon. Since I've taken my own stab at that sort of thing, and have driven and camped around the Four Corners region too many times to count2, I headed over to our beloved county library and checked it out.

The novel tells the story of Mike Raglan, a middle-aged professional debunker-of-mysterious-claims, who's called to a remote mesa in Navajo country by the frantic summons of his friend Erik Hokart, an eccentric but wealthy inventor. Hokart has been living on the mesa with the intent of building a house there, but the discovery of mysterious ruins, including a well-preserved kiva with a strange window, has precipitated events resulting in his disappearance. It gradually unfolds that he's held prisoner in a parallel universe, the Third World from which the ancient Anasazi emerged into our world, the Fourth World, and to which they subsequently returned. Raglan spends the first two thirds of the novel investigating the disappearance on this side of the veil, and the last third in his rescue attempt on the Other Side.

All in all, Haunted Mesa was an enjoyable novel that kept me turning the pages. Unfortunately, it has more plot holes than interdimensional portals, and more loose ends than desert jeep trails. I won't bore you with the details, but if you're someone who notices things like that, they'll jump out at you on every page. Just one example: the story begins with Raglan reading Hokart's journal, which takes him right up to the very instant Hokart was abducted from a cafe. If we pause to reflect on this, we're forced to picture Hokart leaning over the cashier's counter, writing, while shadowy forces are seizing him and firebombing the building.

Incidentally, the novel's opening chapters remind me strongly of William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderland. Come to think of it, the discovered journal in Borderland also ends with an absurd account of the writer's last minutes. Here's to dedicated diarists! In Haunted, though, the atmosphere of mystery and doom is quickly dissipated by a night at a resort condo.

L'Amour was a veteran writer, and I assume that issues like the ones I describe above don't represent his best work. Did he have a hard time transitioning from westerns to something set in the modern world? That can't be it. After all, he also wrote plenty of well-regarded crime stories. He died of lung cancer the very next year, so perhaps he was simply suffering from ill health. It's possible that the bulk of the book was drafted much earlier, and that he simply put together what he had to get it out there while he still could. That's just speculation, of course.

There's a lot of historical exposition, mostly consisting of the kinds of things you might have heard from a Mesa Verde park ranger circa 1987. (I camped at Mesa Verde in 1991, 2001, and 2017, and the ranger talks were different every time. Not so much in facts as in assertions and interpretations.3) These digressions are fairly repetitive and sometimes last through multiple pages. They often begin, for no discernible reason, right in the middle of the action. It struck me that a little critical editing could have made the narrative considerably tighter.

One thing I appreciate about Haunted Mesa is how conscious it is of place. Settings are described with vivid, concrete details. The plot unfolds, not against some vague southwestern backdrop, but at specific geographical locations. Actually, most of it reads like L'Amour took a trip to the area, stayed at a certain resort near Cortez, Colorado, drove (or had himself driven) up and down certain roads, and plotted his story around what he saw, which...I'm pretty sure is exactly what he did. Still, it's not a bad effect.

I took the contour map inside the back cover and (because I'm old-school like that) compared it to my folding AAA Indian Country Map, locating all the roads and landmarks mentioned in the text. Then, because I'm not an absolute luddite, I found it all on Google Earth. In case you're curious, the novel begins on a disused dirt road paralleling No Man's Mesa and passing through 37° 10' 1" N, 110° 29' 27" W; the coordinates of the haunted mesa itself are 37° 14' 30" N, 110° 31' 58" W, though I think L'Amour conflates it with the neighboring Nokai Dome when it suits him. Are all his novels that specific, I wonder? Maybe I'll find out. Or maybe not.

Without a doubt, the best part of the novel is the last third, when Raglan finally ventures into the Third World. I don't mind a bit that L'Amour took so long to get him there, because I think these things are best when nicely built up. There he teams up with a female Anasazi leader, a grizzled but genteel old cowboy trapped in the Third World for decades, and various other characters, encountering unknown technologies, a "modern" Chacoan city, a mysterious, giant-lizard-infested ruined city more ancient than Egypt or Babylon, a vast labyrinth / government palace / temple complex / library filled with traps and armed enemies, and an impending "spacequake." Pretty awesome.

So, yeah, despite the issues which a bit of good editing could have taken care of, I'm going to give Haunted Mesa a two-thumbs-up.

*

But hey, since we're on the topic of the Four Corners region, how about some pictures from my latest vacation??? We made a big counterclockwise loop, beginning with Chaco Culture National Historic Park, which lies at the end of thirty miles of rough washboard road.

Fajada Butte in Chaco Canyon. It's famous for the its "sun dagger"
petroglyph,
which appears to have been used by ancestral Puebloans to
mark the equinoxes and solstices. The site has shifted due to hordes of
people tramping
up there to see it, and is now closed to visitors. Another
casualty of the Cultural Uncertainty Principle.

A great kiva in the Casa Rinconada complex in Chaco Canyon. Nowadays it's
theorized that the canyon served as a kind of center for ceremony and trade.

A famous view in the Pueblo Bonito complex, the largest and most intricate
of the Great Houses in Chaco Canyon. It was inhabited for about 300 years
before being abandoned in the twelfth century.

I've read that Pueblo Bonito was carefully oriented according to the solar
cycle. You can get a better idea of the grandeur of the structure from this
aerial view.

Chaco Canyon at sunset, looking toward Pueblo Bonito from Pueblo del
Arroyo.

A reconstructed great kiva at the incorrectly named Aztec Ruins National
Historic Site, which lies between Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. This is
something like what the ruined kiva above might have resembled.

Mesa Verde from Balcony House. Though mostly famous for its cliff dwellings,
Mesa Verde is just as remarkable for its geology. It's a giant table of rock,
tilted toward the south, with immense cliffs along its western edge, where it
towers over the desert. From its highest point you can see Shiprock in New
Mexico.

Cliff Palace, the most famous of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, abandoned
sometime before 1300.

Mesa Verde, looking south along Navajo Canyon.

Canyon de Chelly, which is in the Navajo Nation, in Arizona. The Navajo
still farm and herd at the bottom of the canyon, which is mostly closed
to visitors. The cliffs are sheer and tower 600 to 700 feet.

Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly. The canyon was home to ancestral
Puebloans before the coming of the Navajo.

El Morro, a site frequented by travelers in northwestern New Mexico since
prehistoric times. Visitors came for the water, but left records of their passage
in the form of inscriptions on the walls. The ruins of a pueblo occupy the top,
and the Ancestral Puebloans left the earliest petroglyphs.

The waters of El Morro.

The oldest Spanish inscription, left by Juan de Oñate, conquistador and first
governor of New Mexico, in 1605. He's famous mostly for his massacre of
Acoma Pueblo, in which 800 Acoma were killed, and after which all male
prisoners over the age of twenty-five were sentenced to have their right foot
cut off.
Oñate was later banished from New Mexico and exiled from Mexico
City for his use of excessive force.

Modern pueblos I've visited include Taos, Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, Santo Domingo, Jemez, Zuñi, and Shongopavi (on the Hopi Reservation). The first and last mentioned are among the oldest continuously inhabited dwellings in the United States. Someone I talked to on the Hopi Reservation told me that, according to their traditions, their villages existed contemporaneously with the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, and that they absorbed some of the subsequent diaspora. Their kivas are square-shaped.

1 Nowadays the term ancestral Puebloan seems preferable to Anasazi, which is a Navajo term. The "disappearance" L'Amour talks so much about, and which was mentioned quite often when I toured the area in 1991, is now typically ascribed to migration. The modern pueblos are held to be at least partially descended from the "Anasazi" cultures, an explanation that seemingly wasn't taken seriously back then, but is now.

2 Actually, it's not too many times to count. I think it's eight.

3 Listen, everyone! Tour guides are not experts! I repeat, tour guides are not experts! They are friendly people who've memorized a number of facts and know how to answer silly questions while keeping tourists from climbing over things. That applies to most park rangers!

Friday, November 10, 2017

World Fantasy Convention 2017

I attended the World Fantasy Convention last week. It was held in San Antonio, my hometown, which I still live not too far from. I didn't stay at the hotel, being too cheap/poor, but fortunately a good old friend of mine had a spare bedroom to offer in the next town over. He was out of town most of the time, but me and his house rabbit (he has a house rabbit) kept each other company.

The convention got off to a bad start for me when, like the moron I am, I saw the picture of the Lila Cockrell Theater on the web page and just assumed, without further inquiry, that the convention was thereabouts, that is, somewhere on the grounds of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. (Henry B. Gonzalez himself once visited my Cub Scout meeting once when I was a kid. When he was leaving, I shouted, "See you later, navigator!", having just seen Flight of the Navigator. Not that you wanted to know that.) Despite not having much common sense, I know downtown S.A. pretty well, and drove straight there and parked and wandered around the empty, enormous, terrifyingly silent corridors of the convention center like Keftu in the Tower of Bel before I figured out my mistake. Why do I always do stupid things like that? I hated to waste my parking fee, so I walked all the way across downtown to where the convention actually was, passing along the way the spot outside the Gunter Hotel where my grandpa had his picture taken when he ran away from home as a teenager. It was Dia de los Muertos, too. By that time I was all steamed up, because November in Texas.

I went to the convention with pretty low expectations, not because I thought the programming would be lacking (and it wasn't), but because I know people go to these things to network, and I'm not exactly good at that. However, although I expected (dreaded) something like the various conferences I've attended in academia, I was pleasantly surprised. The format was similar, sure, but the atmosphere was completely different. Constructive and collaborative rather than competitive. There were lots of writers of various stripes, both obscure people like me and Big Names, people I've rubbed elbows with on the Internet, artists and illustrators, scholars, librarians, and knowledgeable readers. Not a bad mix.

Because I'm vain, the first high point was running into Adrian Simmons in the dealers' room, and seeing the new Heroic Fantasy Quarterly anthology for sale, with two awesome illustrations by Yours Truly, including the following depiction of a naked warrior astride a giant lamprey, which I could imagine gracing the Sistine Chapel ceiling, if Michelangelo had painted naked warriors sitting astride giant lampreys.

From "The Worship of the Lord of the Estuary" by James Frederick William Rowe.
Actually, I was going for a "fannish" look when I drew this, having enjoyed pictures from some of the old fanzines I've seen floating around the Web. I also picked up a copy of Skelos #3, which has a cool story by my friend Scott Cupp, who stopped by my art show in September and encouraged me to go to the convention; he also has a story in Issue 1, a fact I'd somehow overlooked before now. Small world. The Robert E. Howard Foundation had a table, too, with copies of the good new REH biography Blood and Thunder by Mark Finn, who was also at the convention.

Panel discussions I especially enjoyed included ones about keeping Texas weird (and it is a very, very weird place, and not in the ways you might think if you only know it from afar), westerns and fantasy (which touched on many of the themes that have come up in my Tashyas stories), pulp-era influences (before now, how many times in my life have I heard someone who wasn't myself refer to A. E. van Vogt? answer: none), the writings of Lord Dunsany (with three excellent readings by professional narrators), and, best of all, the secret history of the Hyborian Age (secret from L. Sprague de Camp, that is).

Looking back on the convention, I kind of see two sort-of distinct populations. One includes people who game a little, read things like Black Gate, Skelos, and HFQ, and think Robert E. Howard is a masterful writer and aren't afraid to say it. The other, well, I won't go into detail because I don't want to seem like I'm throwing rocks. I went to panels across the spectrum, though, and I found that in some I was like, what are you people even talking about? Actually, it was kind of surprising that there were so many sessions on things I dig. Is that always the case at these?

There were also some really good art talks, the best of which was Gregory Manchess's account of his own long career in illustrating. He went into detail on technique, which I really appreciated. He's recently written and illustrated his own book, Above the Timberline. Another panel featured Manchess and a few other writer-illustrators who are experimenting with telling their own stories instead of illustrating others'. That put a few ideas in my head...

In the dealers' room I picked up an old copy of Philip K. Dick's Now Wait For Last Year. I read it a long time ago and somehow lost my copy. It's not Dick's most well-known novel but it's always stuck with me. It's got a kind of slow sad haplessness that I like, and a stomach-churningly awful marital relationship, and a flatulent dimension-spanning world dictator fighting a grudge-match against stuck-up humans from another solar system. A good book for bad times. I spent a lot of my free time reading it.

All in all I'm definitely glad I went. Let's end on a high note, with my other HFQ illustration (apologies to Gustave Dore).

From "Crown of Sorrows" by Sean Patrick Kelley

Monday, October 23, 2017

Noir Reviews: The Big Sleep, August 1946

I've been stalling in my rain-soaked, smoke-stained traipse through film noir because I've gotten to what's probably the second most well-known noir (after The Maltese Falcon, of course): The Big Sleep. In short, The Big Sleep is simply too big for me to cover. I mean, it's a Chandler adaptation, written by Leigh Brackett (!) and William Faulkner (!!), directed by Howard Hawks, and starring Bogart & Bacall! So, instead of "reviewing" it, I'll just pontificate on what's struck me about the movie down through the years.

The Big Sleep was one of the first noirs I ever saw. This was long before I read the novel, which I've now read many times. Reading the book has, unfortunately, diminished my enjoyment of the movie considerably, but I'll come back to that in a moment. Back when I first saw The Big Sleep I became obsessed with it. I watched it numerous times, trying to capture something that eluded me. That something was an understanding of the plot. To put it simply, I loved the movie, but found it incomprehensible at the same time.

Now, I can be a little slow on the uptake when it comes to the humans and their motivations, but I've come gradually to realize that my lack of comprehension wasn't altogether my fault. This is for two related reasons:
  1. The Big Sleep speaks in what we might call "Hays code," a language I didn't understand at the time.
  2. The Big Sleep does not, in fact, make a great deal of sense.
Let's look at each in turn.

I remember reading the description of The Big Sleep on the back of the box before watching it for the first time. Pornographers were mentioned. Pornographers! Imagine my disappointment when I got to the Bogie-and-Bacall cigarettes smoldering in their shared ashtray at the end with nary a hint of these sleazy, soulless pornographers having passed before my eyes. I watched and rewatched the movie. I even asked third parties. Nothing. In the end (I'm embarrassed to admit this now) I concluded that the "pornographers" were just a figment of marketing hyperbole.

And then I read the novel, and I was like, O-o-o-o-oh.

But listen. I grew up in the eighties and nineties. If a director wanted to show us something, they showed it. None of this implicit stuff. But so much that goes on in noir isn't stated explicitly. It has to be inferred. I can think of a reference to abortion in They Live by Night, for instance, or to make-up sex in Criss Cross. In a way, movies these days, with all their box-checking and point-counting for MPAA ratings, might go far beyond Hays code films in isolated F-bombs and nipples, but never come near the alienation, the raw cynicism, and the savage moralism of film noir.

All that said, The Big Sleep leaves so much to inference that the plot suffers. Carmen Sternwood, instead of being stark naked when Geiger is killed, is fully clothed, as she is when Marlowe finds her in his apartment. If the games Geiger plays with Carmen amount to taking pictures with a weird Buddha head while she's high on laudanum, it's hard to see what all the fuss is about. There's the whole play with the books, of course, but so much is removed from the narrative that there's hardly even a hint left. (Though perhaps a part of the problem is that I've grown up in an era when porn is a lot easier to come by.)

A few other plot elements that get washed out for one reason or another include Carol Lundgren's characterization as Geiger's young male lover, the transformation of the novel's Vivian Regan (the wife of the man whose murder Marlowe is unwittingly investigating) into the Vivian Rutledge of the movie, and Carmen's almost terrifying depravity.

The film's incoherence doesn't end with all that, however. The dialogue goes in circles from scene to scene. Clues mysteriously appear and disappear. For instance, in one scene, Vivian brings up Eddie Mars voluntarily, telling Marlowe that Shawn Regan ran off with Mars's wife. Later, during that famous horse-race sexytalk scene (which is delightful), Marlowe asks Vivian whether she knows that Shawn Regan ran off with Eddie Mars's wife. "Who doesn't?" she nervously replies, apparently forgetting that she's the one who told him.

Immediately after that conversation ends, Marlowe telephones Mars from the restaurant and makes plans to meet him at his gambling house. Mars tells him to come on up at once, and he does. When he arrrives, he finds that Vivian has somehow beaten him there, despite (apparently) having stopped somewhere to change into a completely new outfit, and is now ensconced with the band as though she's been there all night. (It's a little sad that the gambling house is everything Chandler mocks in Hollywood gambling houses.) And then he goes and talks to Mars and starts making perceptive guesses about...Mrs. Mars and Shawn Regan! After which a scene is staged to convince Marlowe that Mars and Vivian have no connection, although she's the one who told him about the "bond between Eddie Mars and the Sternwoods" in the first place!

To be fair, the horse-race scene, and, to some extent, the resulting incoherence, is the result of a re-shoot aimed at emphasizing the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall. And some confusion comes straight from a plot hole in Chandler's novel. But I think that what really mixes the movie up is the fact that someone, somewhere, decided that Vivian Regan Rutledge had to be the damsel in distress, whereas the novel makes it clear that Carmen is the princess who must be rescued – Carmen, the vicious, unintelligent little-girl-in-a-woman's-body who poses for high-class smut and pulls the wings off of flies. In contriving to have Vivian become central to the plot, the script is forced to minimize Carmen's role and have Vivian continually pop up where she doesn't belong. I mean, why on earth would she be hanging out at a hot car drop with Mona Mars?

Obligatory Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid reference. Carl Reiner gets it.
So the displacement of Carmen spoils the plot's dark irony and violates Chandler's maxim that the private investigator loses his integrity by settling down with a love interest. Somehow, though, the ending remains undeniably cool, comparable in a way to the dynamic and uncertain ending of Blade Runner (in the director's and "final" cuts, of course).

* * *

I give The Big Sleep a grade of A for awesome on the following scale:
  • A: awesome noir film, to be owned and watched a zillion times or until you have it memorized
  • B: good (bueno) noir film with excellent passages but significant flaws, to be watched on occasion
  • C: fairly commonplace noir film, to be watched once or twice
  • D: dud of a noir film, to be avoided if possible
Yes, it's nonsensical, which just goes to show you that movies don't have to make sense to be awesome. High points include pretty much every moment of dialogue, but perhaps especially the hothouse scene, the horse-race sexytalk scene, and the tough-guy scene with Elisha Cook, Jr., plus the two cigarettes at the end.

Takeaway quote from The Big Sleep:

"Get up, angel, you look like a Pekingese."

*** If you've enjoyed this review, maybe you'd enjoy my reviews of other noir films: IntroductionPhantom LadyDouble IndemnityMurder, My SweetDetourScarlet Street The Blue DahliaThe Lost WeekendGilda and The Lady from ShanghaiThe Stranger ***

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Blade Runner 2049

The original Blade Runner is what first got me into film noir. It evokes noir's guilty heart where other attempts at "future noir" only get the trappings right. Rick Deckard isn't what you'd call a hero: compelled by self-interest, he's hunting down escaped replicant-slaves whose only crime (so far as he's concerned) is their presence on earth. Though he tries to hide it from himself, he's fully conscious of their humanity and fear as he blows them away, as in that slow, sad scene where he shoots a terrified female replicant in the back as she flees into a department store. It's Roy who "earns" his soul at the end, who, with his crucified hand, saves Deckard's life and possibly his soul; we're never quite sure whether Deckard is even really human.

Blade Runner also has a poignant but seriously messed-up love affair, another noir element ratcheted up almost to the intensity of myth. The vast dark urban abysses (reminiscent of night scenes in Phantom Lady and others) and mountainous decayed buildings (like the Bradbury, where the classic noir D.O.A. also ends) meld seamlessly with the iconic score and the plot's moral grayness and lack of resolution.

And, as with noir, I've somehow also found Blade Runner a solace when going through bad times. I can remember one period in my life when I watched it once or twice a week. I think a lot of people would say something similar. And there's not all that much to the plot. It's more of an immersive audiovisual mood experience than a movie. So there's probably a lot of other people who think it's okay but kind of dull. They're mystified by people like me, to whom it means so much.

All of which is to say, Blade Runner 2049 has a lot to live up to. Well, I went and saw it at the $4.00 matinee this weekend, and I...think it kind of succeeds. For me, at any rate. Not quite, of course. How could it? But it continues the story, adds to the background, and deepens the world without doing any violence to the thrust of the original, all while maintaining its own narrative independence.

I have to say, I went into it with pretty low expectations. I've been less than impressed with Ridley Scott's attempts to rekindle the Alien magic, and as for Harrison Ford's reprising the roles that made him famous, well, um, yeah, same thing. So I'm very excited that Blade Runner 2049 proved so much better than I'd expected.

I don't want to say too much, because it's got a good plot with plenty to spoil. But I will say that it's another true noir, with a written-off protagonist, a bizarre love story, and an ambiguous ending. What we see of Deckard (not much, thankfully) does little to explain or humanize him. Like the original, it's elliptical and rather sad. The city is the same, down to the now-retro-futuristic Atari signs. The texture is as rich, too, though perhaps a bit contrived in places, and not quite as authentic feeling. We get to see the world outside L.A., including a protein farm and a humongous waste dump, and it's a beautifully unlovely place. The CGI is some of the best I've seen, though, for me, nothing could ever quite equal the practical effects of the original.

There are some interesting allusions. The protagonist, a replicant Blade Runner, is called K, seemingly a reference to Kafka's bewildered protagonists. One of the short "prequel" films that came out in advance (Blade Runner 2048: Nowhere to Run) centers on a copy of Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, a novel about a hunted priest – a broken "whisky" priest – in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution. The parallel is obvious, and, given the film's preoccupation with the nature of the soul, fitting. Other religious and mythological allusions abound.

In the end, I think it's movie that I'll have to rewatch once or twice to decide what to make of it, but it's passed the first test so far.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Warbles and Bots: Out of the Hive

SHE WAS A CYBORG: PART-ORGANIC WHALE, PART-MECHANIZED SHIP


What happens to humanity when it "adjusts" to hive living? 


Some writers write to earn a living. Others write because they've got to get something out of their system. When it comes to science fiction, I've learned to be leery of successful commercial writers. Not because they're bad, necessarily, but because I'm almost sure to be bored by them. My favorite authors tend to be the ones who wrote themselves out fairly quickly, expending their visions in an explosive spurt, leaving behind rich mines for more conventional writers to exploit. Their work might be naive or outre, but to me that's just part of their charm.

It was a different time. A time when sci-fi
still brought terror, wonder, and arresting
strangeness to the reader. A time when a
publishing company could proudly decorate
its books with Magritte-esque parades of

schlubby naked nebishes, and people would,
apparently, still buy them.
I'd say that Thomas J. Bassler, M.D., who wrote under the pen name T. J. Bass, sits squarely in that category. I was recently reminded of his work by Fletcher Vredenburgh's review of Half Past Human over at Black Gate. I'd never that novel before, but I had enjoyed The Godwhale a long time ago.

Bass's career spanned only six years, lasting from 1968, when he sold his first story, until 1974, when The Godwhale was published. He wrote only the two novels I've mentioned. Both take place in a far-future earth in which the vast majority of humankind's teeming trillions live in a global subterranean society called the Hive. I can't really compete with Fletcher's review, which I think captures the spirit of the books perfectly, and I urge the reader to go take a look at that if interested. Instead, as usual, I'll just natter on about what strikes me about them.

Part of what makes Bass unique / bizarre is his habit of describing everything, from sex to warfare, in medical terms.
When he flashed his helmet light down, vertigo gripped his cardio-esophageal junction. (Half Past Human, p. 96)
Perhaps this is just a reflection of his day job, but it has the effect of making his characters seem like rats in a gigantic, not-very-ethical experiment. Overall, Bass writes with the air of a physician conducting the examination of a patient, gently squeezing pustules and prodding necrotic tissues with a cool detachment. His outlook isn't grim or moralistic, and the weird, disgusting scenes he describes are often quietly amusing as well. In general, Bass isn't so much sounding an alarm as saying, more or less cheerfully, "Hey! Let's see what happens if we extrapolate this trend in our society!" Which, in a way, ends up being much more disturbing than the hysteria of other entries in eco-science fiction.

It's hard to select a favorite passage. Many stand out in one way or another. So let's just look at the scene quoted above, in which a Hive inhabitant goes "ratting" in the dark, dusty world of 'tween walls, hoping to score some extra "flavored calories."
He dust-waded along the top of a large pipe. It was hollow. Voices and and shuffling vibrated. It was a crawlway. The larger rats became more numerous – and bolder. They remained stubbornly in his path until he nudged them with his toe. They wouldn't be too tasty. The sweet stink of the nests hit him. Moist and dripping, the huge cool sphere of the membrane filters loomed ahead. The city's sweat condensed and trickled down the sphere's outer sphere – providing drops of drinking water for the rodents. [...]
Selecting a large nest he thrust in his hand. Expecting mother-with-food, the soft young rats swarmed onto the glove. He pulled out three handfulls and squeezed them through the sphincter of the anoxic bag. Their squirming and squeaking ceased. (Half Past Human, p. 97)
The hunter goes on to have his catch pressed into moist wafers. He shares them with a friend, who savors "the salty fluids, tangy viscera, and iron-rich muscle and blood" (HPH, p. 99). They go on to discuss his friend's devotion to Dabbing ("'Dirt, adobe, and bamboo – DAB'"), a stress-reducing quasi-religious practice.
"The most important thing [...] DAB protects you from is suicide. That is the number one killer. Inappropriate Activity – old I.A. Without DAB your ectodermal debris sensitizes you. All your skin scales, hair and skin oils get into the house dust and feed the mite, Dermatophagoides. The mite acquires ectodermal protein antigens. As you live with the mite and breath [sic] in dust – mite fragments – you build up antibodies against them. Antibodies against your own ectodermal antigens. When the titre gets high enough the antibody cross reacts with your own neuroectoderm – your brain. Hence the logarithmic correlation between crowding and I.A. Between house dust sensitivity and suicide. Humans who nest with rugs, drapes and stuffed furniture have the highest suicide rate. Humans who live with dirt, adobe and bamboo the lowest." (Half Past Human, p. 97)
The "erotic" scenes retain a certain tenderness, despite being described in the same oddly technical terms.
"I am going to enjoy living with a man who is good with his hands," she said. Taking his wrists she moved his trembling hands over her tunic. Her soft erogenous zones radiated warmly. His autonomic synapses struggled with the increasing excitement. Passion flared somewhat erratically, and then, abruptly, faded. While he stood there, the heat in his loins faded away – leaving fatigue. [...]
"You have just recently polarized," she consoled. "Your meld reflexes need time to synchronize. We will work on it, and it will improve." (Half Past Human, p. 18)
Half Past Human takes place in and above the Hive's vast subterranean network of shafts, tubes, and cubicles, following the intersecting lives of large class of characters: artificially prepubescent nebishes, polarized males and females, paleolithic warriors and wizards, ageless wanderers, earnest mecks, and, of course, G.I.T.A.R. and Olga. The Godwhale, on the other hand, takes place mostly in the ocean. The main character, if it has one, is Rorqual Maru, a lone cyborg whale-ship plankton harvester bent on aiding humanity.


But the story begins much earlier in time, following the adventures of the hapless hemihuman Larry Dever, who starts his career by getting cut in half in a singularly stupid accident. Thanks to medical advances, he doesn't die, but his quality of life isn't what it was.
Larry turned on his refresher and grasped a ceiling rung of his horizontal ladder. The mannequin walked away slowly, pulling flexible tubing out of his various surgical stoma. Sucking  sounds. Drops of urine and feces soiled the meck's breastplates with yellow and granular brown. Larry progressed across the monkey bars to the hot shower, where he emptied his visceral sacs down the drain. (The Godwhale, p. 23)
Life isn't so pleasant for Larry without his lower half, despite his talking prosthesis.
"This is great! It feels like I am really running. It's the lactate you're putting in my Blood Scrubber. Now if you can just give me back my sex life."
Mannequin shared and updated with distant Library. "That too can be arranged; a mechanical penis for me and midbrain electrodes for you. Meck sex can be pleasant with a wired reticular system."
Larry grinned, assuming that he was the object of a very funny robot joke. (The Godwhale, p. 16)
Larry eventually enters suspended animation, hoping for a future "cure" that doesn't involve raising and harvesting a clone of himself. He awakens instead in the decidedly unpleasant world of the Hive. He escapes, coming into contact with Rorqual Maru, a spunky little meck named Trilobite, and a race of humans adapted to life underwater, teaming up with his latter-day genetic progeny: a gargoyle Tweenwaller named Big Har, and a bio-engineered superman known as A.R.N.O.L.D. (Augmented Renal Nucleus Of Larry Dever) who becomes King of the ocean and sometimes thinks of himself as a chicken.
"BACK OFF!!" shouted ARNOLD, riled to the point of hearing "cluck, cluck" in his subconscious. (The Godwhale, p. 167)
I read The Godwhale back when I was in college. Then I went to grad school and purged my shelves of such oddities. But now it's back. Rereading it has been a bit strange, because I'm realizing that I must have internalized more of it than I'd thought. Taken together, Half Past Human and The Godwhale amount to the most bizarre, disgusting, wonderful stuff I've read in quite a while.
A hundred miles up-sump the sewer conduits sang with pneumatic belches of dead city gases: incoles, skatoles, methane, ozone, and carbon monoxide. [...] 
Their mold-flecked dinghy drifted sideways, its bow wedged into a raft of nondescript, floating debris. Hemihuman Larry hunkered down, swatting flies. The blackness and echoes told them nothing. Their progress was marked by aerial mycelia which swept across the boat's wet ribs and snagged in their hair. Persistent swarms of sucking botflies hovered over them. Their throbbing backs sponged-out with bots and warbles – the cutaneous abscesses that contained the vigorous fly larvae. 
"The damned itching is getting worse," complained Larry. "A new crop must be maturing." He wiped his hand across his scaly, lumpy back, breaking open pus pockets and catching the wriggling, bristly maggots as they emerged. "Damn!" He rubbed at the pasty crusts of pupa cases, wings, legs, and dermal scales. (The Godwhale, p. 78)
They're both a bit hard to follow, partly because they bristle (sorry, bad word choice) with technical terms, but partly also because the action jumps around a lot, leaping across years in fits and starts, hopping from character to character without any kind of clear direction. But, that comes with the territory. And they certainly don't shy away from questions of human sexuality, bioethics, philosophy, and religion, posing quandaries without providing solutions. What is humanity? What is the individual's meaning and worth? You could say that the books are a prolonged and poignant evocation of the anxiety of anonymous, post-religious Man and the terrifying, faceless masses that surround him.

The little I can find about T. J. Bass himself raises more questions than it answers. Who was he, really? What was he trying to do with these novels? Did he accomplish it? How did his writing fit in with the rest of his life? He died in 2011, having written nothing else but a diet and exercise book, and that was in 1979. That's a long time ago! Did he try and fail to get published again? Or did he just move on with his life? For that matter, can you imagine a scientist, mathematician, engineer, or physician in our own time, with little or no experience in fiction, penning an eccentric novel laden with precise technical knowledge and actually getting it published? Such a thing would be relegated to an online discussion board somewhere, to be skimmed by a few people and then forgotten.

Times have changed.