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06-24-05: Al Sarrantonio, Editor and Writer

'Hornets and Others' from CD and 'Flights: Extreme Visions of Fantasy'

Anything you want, no restrictions.
Al Sarrantonio is a man of many talents. I first encountered his work back in the 1980's reviewing for Midnight Graffiti and OtherRealms. I read -- and really enjoyed -- a cheesy little paperback titled 'Moonbane', about werewolves on the moon. It was one of those great little books that made the explosion of horror back then so much fun.

Fast forward to the present. Out of the blue, I get an email from Mr. Sarrantonio himself, letting me know that he's now working with Hill House Publishing, as they ramp up their activities to match the demand for fantastically well-produced books that they helped to create. Fie on anyone who says that reading is down. Who could give a fig when folks like those at Hill House can take our favorite written works -- you know, just letters on pages, what could be more plain -- and transform those silly letters on pages into read-'em-with gloves works of Art? In the whirlwind follow up to their versions of the Neal Stephenson Baroque Cycle novels and their versions of the Neil Gaiman works, they've found themselves elevated from minor to major stardom. Thus, theyve hired Mr. Sarrantonio to help them keep track of the many amazing projects they've got in the hopper. It's the big-time for a small press publisher. A victory for the forces of fine reading!

Then recently, I read about a movie being made about werewolves on the moon and undertook to ask Sarrantonio about it. He told me that, "As for my novel MOONBANE and the movies: there were some nibbles along the way, but nothing at the moment. Rich Chizmar is bringing the book out in a limited hardcover edition sometime in 2005, and after that, who knows?"

But we struck up a correspondence, and I've been able to catch up on the many hats of Al Sarrantonio. Having dispensed with the publisher-guy hat above, I can move on to the Editor hat. I was one of many who really enjoyed Sarrantonio's rather daring attempt to raise the anthology bar to 'Dangerous Visions' heights with 'Redshift'. He did a hell of a job facing down an iconic collection and bringing in material every bit as challenging. And in fact, to a certain extent, as much as we loved the original, I suspect that Sarrantonio's collection may age better. The genre itself has found its footing in the intervening years. Of course, the only reason I would write such a line is in the hope that Harlan Ellison -- whom I called on the telephone when I was 14 years old to ask, "Where do you get your ideas?" will unleash some prime venom in my direction. His recent bit about director Stephen Spielberg demonstrates that this is a man who shall never know the wonders of Prilosec! He's still brilliantly cranky, and you've got to love that.

Meanwhile, back in the real world of reading, I finally managed to get a copy of Sarrantonio's fantasy-oriented follow-up to 'Redshift', 'Flights: Extreme Visions of Fantasy'. (Roc / Ace / Penguin Putnam ; June 1, 2005 ; $16.00). You can guess where this one is going, and it's a really good place. Given 'Redshift', Sarrantonio used pretty much the formula youd expect to set this anthology up: "Write the best fantasy story you can with no restrictions whatsoever."

And that's all you need to know, other than the fact that sixteen bucks puts 500-plus pages of Tim Powers, Neil Gaiman, Jeffrey Ford, Joe R. Lansdale and others in your hand. Trust me, this is not going to be a pocket book even in its eventual MMPB release. What it is going to be is the kind of book that you look forward to every time you open it. How can it not be when you've got 'Bill, the Little Steam Shovel' by Joe R. Lansdale to look forward to? This is the kind of purely pleasurable, totally wonderful reading that makes life worthy of the products from Hill House. And even Peter Schneider, the publisher of Hill House offers a hysterical take on 'Tots'. Do not read while drinking milk, or coffee. Have you ever had hot coffee go out your nose? It's worth experiencing exactly once, heres your chance.

Ropy and other things.
Meanwhile, under his writer hat, Sarrantonio is providing readers -- of a certain type -- with the kind of pure pleasure that can come only from reading 'Hornets and Others' (Cemetery Dance ; June 30, 2005 ; $40.00). This is a beautiful book in so many ways. Well, at least two ways, right off the bat. In the first instance, Alan M. Clark's gorgeous cover and the lovely interior design will put this book in the Hill House class of "to be read with white gloves". Well, unless you're reading it while you're having a carnitas burrito with extra meat at Tacos Moreno. In which case, the clatter of the chairs, the clamor of the crowd competing for your carnitas, everything will disappear in a heartbeat as you immerse yourself in the beauty of stories like: 'The Ropy Thing'. OK, yes, you've got to guess that I'm just a sucker for a story called 'The Ropy Thing', and every story that follows is the kind of gritty, classic horror story that drew me to the genre in the first place. The variety, the imagination, the internal life externalized and no po-mo geekery here. (Not that I dont enjoy po-mo geekery; but there's a soft spot in my heart for ropy things and insects and all manner of horror fiction nonsense that is just so much fun, well -- it's the reading equivalent of a good beer with a good friend.


06-23-05: Christopher Sorrentino Puts You In A 'Trance'

Hypnotized by the SLA

Sad, violent escapades.
I lived through 1970's and 1980's under the smog-stained skies of SoCal.

I dont know about you, but I sure as hell remember 1974 and whole Patty Hearst kidnapping. Those were tense times, especially in Southern California where six of the SLA eventually died in a firestorm and shootout with the LAPD. There's a certain vibe that I dont think anyone has yet quite caught, at least in fiction, an amalgam of pollution, commercials, overcrowding and mental depression that I associate with those dingy days.

But I think that Christopher Sorrentino, in 'Trance' (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux ; July 6, 2005 ; $26) may have managed to do so. He's got the right amount of grit in his prose to take on the rather daunting task of re-telling the tale of our own homegrown terrorists and their sad, violent escapades. And his vision has enough depth to provide a context for their exploits.

Sorrentino's first novel was the 1995 title 'Sound on Sound' from the Dalkey Archive Press. It was an ambitious assembly, in which he attempted to create a written analogue of a multi-track recording that documented the rise and fall of Hi Fi, a rock band playing a gig at a seedy New York club. There's a rhythm track that begins the book, written like a screenplay treatment, followed by series of overdubs, which include an evidence-in-a-trial-like list of items and even a "solo" by the Hi Fi aficionado who tells the story. It's certainly not your average rock and roll novel.

Sorrentino contributed an article to 'Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers: Writers on Comics', which includes luminaries like Jonathan Lethem, Aimee Bender and Steve Erickson. Readers can even find a sample of his work at the very intriguing 'Other People's Stories' website. I have to warn you that the website is sort of a time-sink like 'Found' magazine, and chances are you'll be racking your brain to think of your own potential contribution. When you follow the link, don't say you weren't warned. Nice site design as well.

With 'Trance', Sorrentino takes on the ostensibly normal novel format in a big-time fashion. What you're getting is a novel of crime fiction written with literary sensibilities. What Sorrentino has done is to fictionalize the events, at least with regards to the character of Patty Hearst, who in the novel becomes Alice Galton. He keeps fairly close track of what happened in reality, but allows himself enough latitude to avoid any legal ramifications of writing about real people who are still living. More importantly, the fictionalization allows him to really get under the skin of the crazy folks he's writing about.

Sorrentino is well aware of all the absurdity of the situations his characters find themselves in, and he's able to evoke the humor as well as the horror. This is an important point for me, because while the entire episode is tragic, it's also well, really weird. And kind of funny, if you have a sick sense of humor. Sorrentino writes the kind of impressionistic prose that you need to capture the complexities of a very small world flying apart as if it had been hit by a frying pan, which keeps the novel a nice distance away from Imminent Art Death.

At over 500 pages, 'Trance' is something of a reading investment. But it may be the best payback youre going to get out of the whole sordid episode, a layered and gripping look at our tawdry history, our ugly, un-hidden past. No, it wasn't really pleasant to live through those times. But if Sorrentino is telling the story, it may be quite gripping, if not pleasant to read about them.


06-22-05: Daniel H. Wilson 'How to Survive A Robot Uprising'; James Lovegrove Invites You to Meet 'Provender Gleed'

"Danger Will Robinson!"

Hope that it remains in the humor section.
In a science fiction world dominated by deep thoughts about the Singularity and the rapid evolution of machine and human intelligence, a book like Daniel H. Wilson's 'How to Survive a Robot Uprising: Tips on Defending Yourself Against the Coming Rebellion' (Bloomsbury ; November 2005 ; $12.95 PBO) seems almost quaint. Robots, eh? Remember them? They were sorta like those old things people used to wear called "watches", before you know, we all got networked into a central time server.

Quaint does not come close to doing this book justice, however. 'How to Survive a Robot Uprising' is a wonderfully kicky little-bitty paperback done in bold red and black, filled with retro-graphics, retro thoughts and more than a few laughs. Chances are you wont even find it in the SF section, well, not unless you check at a local independent bookseller, where they might have some clue about such matters.

Wherever you manage to find it -- humor or SF -- 'How to Survive a Robot Uprising' is a pretty interesting piece of work. My guess is that some readers will just want it for a cheap bookstore date -- a quick feel-up in the laughter aisle, thumb, thumb, you're done. And that's a perfectly acceptable use.

But like most books -- and unlike most dates -- its worth taking home. 'How to Survive a Robot Uprising' features outstanding book design and treads a peculiar line in the faux-non-fiction category. It doesn't take itself quite as seriously as 'The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases', nor is it as silly as, well, some very silly book dashed off for a lark. "Every scenario in this book is either possible or already being realized," Wilson writes. "Watch the line disappear between science fiction and science fact."

That is the essence of the science fiction reading experience, and it gives a bit of an idea of whats going on here. Wilson has done an impressive job organizing his subject. The book is divided into a "Briefing", "Know Your Enemy", "Fight Back", "Surviving a Robot Uprising" and "Debriefing". "Know Your Enemy" is the largest section, and there's a lot of interesting actual information slotted in with the humor and the excellent graphics. It's the kind of stuff that you can cram into your oh-so-serious story of robot rebellion, really; a bit about the Carnegie Mellon snake robots here or a blurb about fooling facial recognition tech there. That last entry makes me think that the DOHS may have something to say about this book, which crosses the line from humor into horror. That's a line the Wilson crosses regularly.

Of course, 'How to Survive a Robot Uprising' also gives you the advice you expect; "How to Stop a Giant Walking Robot," "How to Treat a Laser Wound" and "How to Pose as A Humanoid Robot." The advice is drawn from a mish-mash of sources, from Hollywood movies to classic novels to common sense. But what really sets 'How to Survive a Robot Uprising' apart is the one-two combination of bold graphics and coherent organization. In the faux-non-fiction world, it's all in how seriously you take the subject. In the end, 'How to Survive a Robot Uprising' walks the line, never getting too serious, but remaining serious enough to speak about real-world robotics. It's an odd duck. But even if it walks like an odd duck and talks like an odd duck, the book itself would be quick to point out that it may in fact NOT be a duck, but a robotic duplicate of a duck. The question becomes then; is this book meant to make us laugh at the impending robot uprising? Is Daniel H. Wilson himself a robot, writing this book to soften up the human race? He's the real-deal roboticist, with degrees here and experience there.

But he could be a robot.

Insanely Rich and Richly Insane

Couldn't he set it in Texas?
In a work that purports to be alternate history but is really a little too close for comfort, James Lovegrove takes aim at those on the posh side of the luxury gap in 'Provender Gleed' (Victor Gollancz / Orion ; September 15, 2005 ; £10.99 TPB / £18.99 HC). Lovegrove, who has done a bit of alternate history in our actual history, with works like 'How the Other Half Lives', 'Days' and even 'Worldstorm' here offers readers something that is all too often missing from this wonderful sub-genre -- a gleeful, savage sense of satire.

Yes, for too long the real world of alternate history fiction has been dominated by earnest speculation and honest what-if scenarios. With 'Provender Gleed', Lovegrove makes use of the genre in a fashion that's been ignored for far too long. He offers flat-out satire that is frankly a bit close for comfort. Here's the spin on his world. The Families own world-spanning business interests and run the governments besides. Following the templates set out by the Borgias and the Medicis in the 17th century, we find ourselves in a 20th century where weak-minded nincompoops have their hands on the reigns of power.

Same as it ever was.

I mean, really, when the leading democratic republic of the world is in the grip of a family dynasty, where's the satire, I ask you?

Well, safely in the hands of the talented Lovegrove, who is channeling Evelyn Waugh through a world that is a lot like ours but not quite ours. If youre familiar with Lovegrove's other work, you'll know he's a brilliant, understated humorist and here he gives his vicious streak full play. The plot is simple: Provender Gleed is twenty-five years old and shows no sign of behaving like the scion of one of the leading families. He's been given a baseball team, no wait....

Uh, he's been given an opportunity to date the best and the brightest, but he chooses the anti-Familial revolutionary. So while the world struts and bustles towards disaster (again, this is alternate history?), Provender must rescue himself, his love and deal with the Anagrammatic Detectives -- whatever the hell they are. One can presume that they're as silly as everything else about Lovegrove's alternate historical reality. Or as well, right-on.

With 'Provender Gleed', Lovegrove looks ready to conquer yet another literary corner that nobody else ever expected might exist. He's done it before and he'll do it again. He is one of our most versatile visionary authors, and surely one of the most original. Of course this is a world of insanely rich, richly insane rulers. And perhaps you could file this one under conspiracy theory rather than science fiction.

06-21-05: 'Shadowfall' by James Clemens

An Underground Life

A smokin' Steve Stone cover monster. Probably the Big Bad.
Yes, there might have been a time when I would have turned my nose up at something like 'Shadowfall: Book One of the Godslayer Chronicles' by James Clemens (Roc / Penguin Putnam ; July 2005 ; $24.95). But I've poked through enough fantasy of late to recognize that there is something of a sea-change at work here, and a rising tide, as they say, lifts all boats.

What's at work is that the pivotal impact of China Miéville's 'Perdido Street Station' is finally showing up in domestic hardcover releases. To my mind, it used to be that there was exactly one model for all fantasy, J. R. R. Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings. This meant that just about any fantasy you saw would involve elves, humans and sorcerers striking out across a forested landscape in search of a token or a weapon that would put evil in its place, for a millennia or so. If you weren't interested in those elements -- and I'm generally not -- then you needn't bother to read the stuff, no matter how competently written it may have been.

But now we have a wave of fantasies that feature urban settings, and if there are still evil things in the night trying to TAKE OVER THE WORLD, well, at least they're a bit more tangible and monstrous than a guy in a dark robe waving his hands about. This James Clemens book looks to be a pretty decent example, featuring a lot of elements that I like a lot. Mostly what this boils down to is MONSTERS.

And where that starts is on the cover of the book, with a wonderfully dark illustration by Steve Stone. Between the Malazan books and this series, Stone is in the forefront of bringing photorealism to fantasy illustration in a way I find really classy. The bottom line here is that Stone's illustrations are exciting enough to get me to pick up the novel. That's the heavy lifting that publishers want to have happen when they commission the cover art.

Bring yer own shovel.
Of course, Clemens has to pick up the ball in two ways. He's got to have written a novel that's going to sound good on the DJ, and the DJ copy has to be good. The basic drift is that four thousand years ago good things chased the bad things out of easy-to-pronounce Myrillia. It's been good since. But now, Meeryn, goddess of the Summering Isles has been murdered and the only witness, Tylar is also the only suspect. He's been marked by experience, and he's off in pursuit of the doer. Of course, everyone who thinks he's the doer is in pursuit of him. He -- and the inevitable band of outcasts -- must figure out how to kill a true immortal, a godslayer, or else the whole shebang goes down the toilet. Now that's an immortal Kleffel paraphrase of what we hear, and to my mind, well -- it ain't no elves and sorcerers. So consider one test passed.

The second test is the real test. It's the old flip-into-the-middle-of-the-book-and-see-if-it's-any-good routine. In Clemens, I found myself in the midst of a scene wherein a huge slimy monster is devouring a ship. Rock on, dude! Well written and engrossing. Next time around the more standard-issue pulling-the-arrow-from-his-wound scene. Not so thrilling to this particular monster-hound in light of the first scene, but certainly well-executed. So, it looks like a pretty good deal.

But wait -- there's more, much, much more. Why? Because James Clemens, the back of the DJ tells us, is none other than...wait for it...James Rollins, the author of about sixty* (or so it seems) contemporary adventure-horror novels, most of them set underground. Youd have to have hidden from titles like 'Subterranean'. And I know that you havent.

[*It proves to be seven.]

In fact, if you're like me, you've picked them up and said, "How the hell can he write so many novels so fast?" Or, "Damn, next time I need a monster book, here's what I want."

Well, looks like you got it. And I got it. Clemens, Rollins, monsters, underground. Contemporary horror and monsterific fantasy. Let the good times roll.

And bring yer own shovel!


06-20-05: Random Thoughts for A Monday Morning; James Howard Kunstler's 'The Long Emergency'

Will They Respect Us Afterwards?

Oh, no, I don't think they will, not at all.

One of the things that happen when you subscribe to science fiction magazines is that someone out there presumes that you're a certain kind of person.

You're the kind of person who likes to read.

Nothing ever changes, does it?
Well, yes I am.

You're the kind of person who wants to buy lots of books.

Well, yes I am.

You're the kind of person who wants to read and buy books about "ALIEN ARMAGEDDONS, COLLIDING KINGDOMS AND MORPHING MAIDENS."


She needs a manicure, and that's not an observation I make every day.

No genre does a better job at designing a hair shirt for its readers than science fiction. Right now, across the nation the parents of the five or so teenage boys who subscribe to F&SF are clutching the Science Fiction Book Club come-on and trying to steady themselves. "At least he's reading, instead of just playing Grand Theft Auto," they're thinking. The wives of the rest of the subscribers have already binned it.

Welcome to the world of selling science fiction. It may be the TWENTY-FIRST FRIGGIN' CENTURY, but apparently we' havent progressed much since the heyday of 'Weird Tales' eighty years ago. Science fiction is still stories for boys. Apparently, morphing maidens are our number one concern. After that, it's guns. Lots and lots and lots of GUNS.

Does it now? Which kingdom, what heir?
No, nobody is reading science fiction to enjoy the quiet triumphs of writers like Robert Charles Wilson. Nor are they in it for the thorny thoughts of manic Charles Stross. The entire history of selling science fiction is condensed into the shiny slopes of a morphing maiden. In an instant, in an image, the work of hundreds, if not thousands of writers is collapsed into male juvenilia.

Now, I've seen the adverts for the other book clubs. They recognize that WOMEN READ TOO. The Mystery Book Club doesn't present the mystery genre as all Mickey Spillane book covers. The Regular Old Book Club just gets right out and says that every book is That Book. But it doesn't portray That Book as "the sultry search for hot truth about Mary Magdalene."

People who read science fiction lead pretty much dignified, normal lives, work regular jobs, eat regular food, and are not prone to morphing themselves. So why presume that theyre going to morph into the kind of person who responds to this sort of advertising?

Bulges and guns, that's why I read science fiction.
Oh, inside the brochure you can find all the classics. There's a Tolkien page as well as a Laurell K. Hamilton page. You can find a Stross two-fer buried on the third-to-last page under the very appealing title 'Timelike Diplomacy'. It bundles 'Singularity Sky' and 'Iron Sunrise', and you know, that's a damn good thing. I suppose they could have titled it 'Sex and the Single Singularity' or 'Rachel Mansour: Quantum Vixen!'

And next it you can find a Kelly Armstrong two-fer, 'Witch Magic', comprised of 'Dime Store Magic', and 'Industrial Magic'. And next to that 'Everybody Comes to the Nightside', a hardcover compilation of Simon R. Green's 'Something from the Nightside', 'Agents of Light and Darkness' and 'Nightingale's Lament'.

"Yours now for 50¢!"

Men of steel and women of, well, uh....leather?
I'll give them this. We've at least moved on from Fran Frazetta to Luis Royo.

And talk about hair shirts...What do you do when GEORGE LUCAS, stomps on the buildings in the city where you live, lumbers into town and asks you to write a bestseller? George, I'm over here. Over here, its a short walk! I've got NO NAME WHATSOEVER, and I can read an outline. Mathew Stover is a nice a guy, a good writer, he's a made man. How can he recover from writing the dialogue for 'Revenge of the Sith'? Oh the Agony.

This is, after all, the Agony Column. I feel your pain, and yet I've kept the brochure. It's strictly professional interest, you understand.

Again and again, we're told that nobody ever lost money underestimating the taste of the American public.

But there's a first time for everything. And by the way SFBC -- when you send me the free hair shirt, make it's a LARGE.

Hope It's Science Fiction

No morphing maidens in this bit of science non-fiction.
When I was prepping for a call-in show on KUSP last week, I sat in through host Deanna Zachary's call-in with author James Howard Kunstler. His new book, 'The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty First Century' (Atlantic Monthly Press ; May 12, 2005 ; $23) sounds like one of those white-knuckle, page-turning, mouth-frothing reads that will have you spouting its facts for days, until your friends and co-workers finally dope-slap you screaming, "Enough already!"

Required reading, I guess, especially for the science fiction crowd, though presumably, not those who are looking for lots of morphing maidens. Kunstler is the author of three other non-fiction books and nine novels, so he's got both the fact-slapping and page-turning methodologies down. Having heard him speak, I have to say he's got an argument that is pretty compelling.

The premise of the 'The Long Emergency' is that THE PARTY'S OVER. This is as good as it gets, folks, and it's all downhill from here. We've used up over half the oil, and now China is going to want in on what's left. The price is going to soar high enough to make today's gouging look positively generous. Suburbia is dead. Over the next three years, things are going to get worse to the point where our government is going to declare the first Emergency. You know, rationing, travel restrictions, some such. But this emergency won't go away and it will get company. And we can all watch the lives we've cherished, the lives we've worked so hard to build go a swirlin' down the toilet. The days of the Big Swirly are upon us.

Now, this is not exactly a new notion. Back when I was in high school -- uh oh, dating myself now -- Paul Erlich was writing about the same damn thing, only he figured we'd be crumbly, crispy toast about now instead of a nation of fat cats and downwardly mobile everybody else. But that old "The Apocalypse is just around the corner," argument is always compelling. Of course, the nation's response back then was to lower the speed limit and build smaller cars that got better mileage. That might have something to do with the fact that were still kicking. You think?

Whatever you think, it's bound to be stimulated and enhanced by Kunstler's book-length rant. I LOVE a good rant and the darker it is, the more depressing and compressing it is, the more I love it. Readers who want to skirt the line of science fiction and fact will have a hell of time reading bits of this and then engaging those around them in long and bitter arguments. Readers who want to mine a book for story fodder will have to go on a story fodder diet after reading this one. In fact, this book could inspire a whole sub-genre of near-future fiction that publishers will do everything they can to market as mainstream instead of science fiction.

The optimist of the future.
I think that's a mistake.

I sure are hell don't want to see any of Kunstler's predictions come true. I'd love to see his work relegated to the realm of Chicken Little. I want to see this book filed under Science Fiction, not Non-Fiction. Kunstler at least helps us in this by providing no footnotes. Who needs footnotes when you've got a picture of a horse pulling a dead automobile? Far as I'm concerned, that takes out at least a thousand words worth of footnotes.

One only hopes that it's not us, the reading-the-book, or ignoring-the-book-thankyouverymuch part of the audience, who are in fact the footnotes to the disasters to come.

"We've got five years, that's all we've got," David Bowie sang back about the time that Paul Erlich was publishing 'The Population Bomb'.

According to Kunstler, he was an optimist.