Man, Neil Gaiman sure is prolific. Not just in terms of the quantity of words that he writes, but the sheer range of mediums. And he doesn't just dabble, but has track records in each of them. I can't think of another writer who tosses off novels, short stories, poetry, essays, children's books, screenplays, comic books, and lyrics like he does. Even more impressive, it's consistently good stuff.
"Smoke and Mirrors" puts his range on display to impressive effect. The overall content is similar to "Fragile Things," a more recent collection of his that I've read and enjoyed. I think I like S&M (er, let's make that SAM) better, though. It's an earlier work, and maybe just a tad rougher around the edges, which translates into some really surprising and interesting stuff.
In no particular order, here are some impressions....
He goes on a little bit of a Cthulhu kick at around the midpoint, producing both a comic short story about an American tourist who finds the original Innsmouth, and a creepier tale of sacrifice. Both rest comfortably in their familiarity with Lovecraft... he isn't showing off with all his references, but at the same time, he totally nails the vocabulary and visual motifs that characterize the Cthulhu mythos.
There's some pretty amazingly explicit stuff in here, including a story he wrote for Penthouse and an even more, um, detailed story that was part of an erotica anthology. It's actually pretty compartmentalized, though... there's a lot of sex in the sex stories, and very little elsewhere.
He has a GREAT introduction. In addition to all the mediums I noted above, Gaiman is also arguably the best modern writer at talking about his writing process and talking with his readers. I can attest that he's brilliant in person, and he's also a famously talented and prolific blogger and twit. I'm in awe... even in my own limited writing experience, I can attest that I'm useless unless I can utterly focus on what I'm writing. He, though, can keep up a seemingly steady stream of blog posts, tweets, and public appearances, and STILL be one of the most prolific writers around.
Anyways, back to the introduction. He does some nice standard introduction-type stuff, sneaks in a complete short story, and then proceeds to give a brief, fascinating, insightful self-appraisal of the contents of the book. It's a bit of an appertif, and made me look forward all the more to what's to come.
There's a lot of great stuff in this book. My favorite, to my surprise, was one of the poems: "Cold Colors." It's hilarious, and creepy, and unsettling, and intelligent. The poem vividly imagines an alternate London where... well, it's hard to describe in prose, but basically, Hell and Heaven are battling on the surface of the Earth, Hell is winning, and has taken control of all the technology. Or, rather, our reliance on technology has given the victory to Hell. Here's a sample stanza:
It's bedtime. I feed the pigeons,
Contemplate downloading a succubus from a board,
maybe just call up a sidekick
(there's public-domain stuff, bawds and bauds,
shareware, no need to pay a fortune,
even copy-protected stuff can be copied, passed about,
everything has a price, any of us).
Dryware, wetware, hardware, software,
The modem sits inviting beside the phone,
I let it rest--
you can't trust anybody these days.
You download, hell, you don't know where what came from anymore,
who had it last.
Well, aren't you? Aren't you scared of viruses?
Even the better protected files corrupt,
and the best protected corrupt absolutely.
There's something, I dunno, a bit like a lyrical Neal Stephenson in there.
Other interesting repeating motifs: there's a pair of stories about Los Angeles in here. Rather, both stories start off being about Los Angeles, and then switch over to being about other stories that are told within the city. The first one feels like it must be from Gaiman's own experiences; it's a first-person story from a burgeoning English writer who comes to Hollywood to write a screenplay adaptation for one of his novels, and slowly falls into an amazingly anodyne world where the higher up the chain he goes, the less qualified people are to make decisions about art. Frustrated with this process, he starts writing other short stories. It all feels very meta. The second story-within-a-story connects the earthly City of Angels with the celestial one, with a very awe-inspiring conclusion.
Of course, Gaiman wouldn't be Gaiman if he didn't muck around with mythology. Some of his wonderful inversions are on display here. The book closes with a wonderful retelling of Snow White as told from the perspective of the queen. It closes with words from the original tale, but their meaning has been utterly inverted, and I for one will never be able to approach the original in the same way. He reprints an awesome Christmas card that he sent one year with an, um, unconventional take on the Santa Claus legend. I was delighted to read a story that recasts Beowulf as a sci-fi tale; I didn't realize what was happening until about the 2/3 point, and then I got chills, and felt the momentum of inevitability as the story marched to its conclusion.
All in all, this is another fully satisfying offering from Gaiman. I know, big surprise, right? I get a kick out of reading his stuff with impunity - it's almost always good, but even if it isn't, hey, I know that there's a bunch of other stuff of his that I can try out any time.