04-28-06: Keith Donohue 'The Stolen Child'
Or our stomachs lurch. The drippy sentiment is one of the main reasons I rarely indulge in the big-screen-style fantasies. But the ones I'm talking about generally hail from within the genre, through the well-established channels. What happens when there's a changeling, someone who writes a novel that looks and feels like literary fiction that is, in fact, all-genre without the usual trappings? Well, if you’re lucky, you get something like Sylvia Townsend Warner's 'Kingdoms of Elfin', which I found a first edition of not so long ago. Warner's work deals in all the clichés -- the fairies, elves, spells, you name it -- but the original short stories were published in The New Yorker and read appropriately non-genre. There is emotion but not sentiment, a distinction that seems more obvious in hindsight than in the heat of the reading moment. Those sentimental journeys are fun enough, but fun can only take you so far, no matter how far the characters manage to tromp, stomp or clomp.
When I first saw 'The Stolen Child' by Keith Donohue (Nan A. Talese / Doubleday / Random House ; May 9, 2006 ; $23.95), I was certain it was genre fiction of a type I find particularly unpleasant. That would be the old, well, "stolen child" trope, in which a kid is kidnapped and meanings of life are encountered. Having two kids of my own (though they are teenagers and beyond), that sort of thing strikes a little too close to home. Who would have thought, but, there you go. So. I'm wondering if I even want to open the covers, but I'm good at that, it's my job. And good for me that I'm good at my job, because beneath these changeling covers lurks not a novel of desperate mothers or terrorized children, but rather, genre fiction. It walks all literary and talks all literary, but this is a book about, well -- the first line reads: "Don’t call me a fairy."
No, sir we won't. Donohue's novel of changelings and changed lives is an affectless, unsentimental look at our search for identity, at the way our core being emerges in the course of our lives whether we want it to or not. He's also written a wonderfully imagined novel of the fantastic, a story that effortlessly re-invents all the geeky coolness of high fantasy. This is NOT one of those books where the fantastic element is minimized, limited or corralled off behind artsy-fartsy meaning-of-lifeness. Nope, not at all. You won’t get past page one without a totally satisfying digression on the varieties of the fantastic that you'll encounter. This is the naturalist's version of the supernatural.
The story is fable-like in simplicity. Henry Day falls asleep in a tree. If you think that's not likely, then you haven’t been to Henry Cowell State Park recently. In a recent visit, we passed the tree where a Lewis-and-Clarke era explorer whose name slips my mind spent the night. You can feel the comfy. Well, so Henry Day falls asleep and is stolen by ageless children who live in a secret world. They leave behind one of their own, a double, to take his place. Henry Day grows up in the world of faerie (changing the spelling makes this word OK) and is dubbed Aniday. His replacement grows up in our world and his father begins to suspect that his child is not his child. Unsentimental voyages of self-discovery ensue.
What's nice about 'The Stolen Child' is how seriously Donohue takes his notions of the fantastic. He's practically got an encyclopedia written about it here. What he doesn't have is the usual tropes of, you know, see above, in place. Instead we get, well, sort of a changeling novel, a novel that takes its fantastic seriously but with no side order of standard-issue fantasy situations. You can bet that 'The Stolen Child' will be shelved with literature, not with the genre fiction. But those of us who read and enjoy genre fiction should make an effort to seek it out, and accord it the sentiment it deserves -- our rapt reading attention. All too often, the realm of "sentiments" is overrun by the saccharine, the cliché. But rapt attention, our ability to achieve a laser-like focus on what we're reading, that's a sentiment as well, and one well worth courting. It doesn't matter whether our date is genre fiction, literary fiction or something that is both but looks like neither. It just matters whether it enchants.
04-27-06: Jim Butcher is 'Proven Guilty'
Dresden and Splattercon
Butcher's one step ahead of the game with his new novel, 'Proven Guilty' (Roc Hardcover /Ace / Penguin Putnam ; May, 2006, $23.95). Yes, Butcher is now (finally) getting hardcover original first editions, with, I might add, nice cover art by Chris McGrath. If the TV series does at all well, we can look forward to hardcover re-issues of the early books in this series. If Roc finds it worthwhile for Hamilton, it seems certain that they'll repeat the process for Butcher.
But what matters at the moment is that readers can actually turn off the television and experience Butcher's newest entry in the Dresden Files. And just as Butcher himself has gained acceptance, so too, has Harry Dresden. He's not publishing yet, but in spite of his work for the Chicago PD, in spite of the talk show appearances, Dresden, usually on the outs with his fellow practitioners of urban magic, gets a request to help them. Good thing for them he doesn't hold (much) of a grudge. The White Council wants him to be a Warden, so that he can look into rumors of black magic. To make matters both more personal and more interesting, Molly, Charity Carpenter's daughter, has dropped in to Harry's life. You know how it is. One day they're a cute kid, the next they're seventeen, pierced, tattooed, and wearing a SPLATTERCON t-shirt. (Well, I know how it is. I actually might hope that you don't, and I'm telling you not to wish for such knowledge.) Oh, and in trouble with the law, in this case the laws of nature that suggest monsters don’t exist and don’t, like, tear people to shreds or anything. Gee, do you think the cases are connected?
Of course, as with all mysteries, the fun in is the journey. Butcher has a blast rewiring noir with his world of magic, vampires, faerie, monsters, and all manners of supernatural whatnot. Assuming you like your supernatural mysteries served up with a generous helping of smart (ass) dialogue and attitude, then the latest entry is guaranteed to delight. Butcher's existing fans will feel well-served by 'Proven Guilty'.
Unfortunately, given the current method of stocking books, mystery and general fiction readers will only find this novel if they enter the Deadly SF Ghetto. I can understand their hesitation. Over in SF, those who are not conversant in the genre could justifiably feel that one might as easily get mugged by Chewbacca, Mr. Spock or an angry elf as find a decent novel. Until bookstores are willing to stock books that straddle genres in more than one section of the bookstore, new readers are only likely to find out about stuff they might actually enjoy if they're willing to sift through bushels of TV-show spin-off novels. Even the reviews tend to be segregated to genre publications, which is one of the reasons I try to mash a bunch of generally disparate literary choices on one messy drive-screen.
Obviously, supernatural detective novels are not for everybody, but I suspect that they may have a much wider appeal than one might surmise based on the current sales. Of course, the sales figures for any book are utterly brutal. Readers who want their eyes opened might want to pop over (or not -- it's grim) to Tor employee and eye-opener Anna Louise's blog, where she explains the horror. The horror.
But when you return, there is an antidote to the despair. There are lots of books out there right now that you can buy and read, or stockpile for those rainy days we're told the future will bring. The future will offer far fewer books, we're told, more spin-offs and fewer choices of original fiction. Of course, we've been told this for some time now, and there are still more worthwhile new books coming out at a faster pace than the average, omnivorous reader can finish them off. But still, we're warned: sad days are a comin'.
Only by actually buying books can we push those days back, one book, one day at a time. Remember, persistence has it rewards, whether it be the persistence of the writer or the persistence of the reader. As far as I'm concerned, the future is innocent of exterminating books. Until proven guilty.
04-26-06: George Zebrowski Reaches Deep Into 'Black Pockets' While Neal Asher Explores A 'Prador Moon'; James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel Are 'Feeling Very Strange'
Make no mistake about it, there's a lot of great "Gee, whiz!" work going on out there. But Zebrowski and Asher, as well as Brian Lumley are all working in a little corner of genre fiction that to my mind deserves more notice. Sure, science fiction horror has been around since Mary Shelley first envisioned a sewed-up corpse hanging over her supine form as she slept. But of late, this weird combination of the grotesque and the futuristic has been scoring some serious points, coming in under the radar. Perhaps it's just that there's no new buzzy-sounding description for this ancient subgenre, or just that it's been around as long as science fiction itself. But as I stared at the Rolling Shelves at 3:45 AM this morning, they did their job and announced that the revolution, though it won’t be televised, is at least getting published.
Zebrowski is a genre veteran who is getting a great deal of re-exposure of late. Pyr just published 'Macrolife' earlier this year, and now Golden Gryphon is bringing us 'Black Pockets and Other Dark Thoughts', a collection of horror stories built on a foundation of science fiction, or science fiction with a horrific intent. It certainly depends on how you approach it. Zebrowski takes the horror slant, dividing the collection into three types of terror. The first set of stories consist of "Personal Terrors are the first ones we know", from the perils of potential psychic powers as experienced by a "Jumper" to the poignant tale of past and present intertwined in "Passing Nights". Even when Zebrowski is writing a ghost story -- albeit a very unique and original ghost story -- he imbues his work with a science-fictional sensibility: "All times are woven together, so why shouldn’t they cast something of themselves forward and backward now and then?"
Zebrowski ups the ante in "Political Horrors overtake us as we grow up..." And do they! "I Walked With Fidel" won accolades from no less than Harlan Ellison. The title tells as much of the tale as I'm willing to discuss here, at least as long as you're up on your Jacques Tourneur movies. "General Jaruzelski at the Zoo" inserts a science fictional point of view into a real-life scenario to create a nearly pitch-perfect piece of political horror. It's the kind of archetypal story that retains its power no matter who is in power. "My First World" offers a different look at political power and prisons. It's much more straightforward science fiction, an unpublished chapter from Zebrowski's novel 'Brute Orbits'. And it is quite unfortunate that political prison horror will seemingly always and ever be with us.
"Metaphysical Fears rise up when he ask the deepest questions," announces the final section of 'Black Pockets'. And for this reader, these are some of the most frightening thoughts, the fear that you may become -- or already be -- quite detached from reality. At nearly 55 pages, the title story, written exclusively for this collection offers readers another look at the implications of having, or not having power. "Nappy" considers nothing less terrifying than the dilemma of being with a science fictional and literal twist of the knife. Nappy, in this case is Napoleon, or not. And that, as ever is the problem.
'Black Pockets' is book-ended with an introduction by Howard Waldrop and an Afterword by Zebrowski. Waldrop's intro, itself a reason to pick up this book, is going to do more than I can to ensure you don’t put it down. Unless it's on the counter, in front of the register, at your local independent bookseller or your not-so-local independent genre specialist web/storefront. And take my advice and save the best for last, as Zebrowski offers readers slivers of insight and gobbets of wit.
Knowing Asher, you can count on lots of really awful things happening in details that cling to the mind even as they jump forth from the page. Asher's talent for creating science fiction visions of horror so over-the-top slides seamlessly from the physical into the metaphysical and ensures that 'Prador Moon' will chill. What's interesting about Asher's horror though, is his ability to write scenes that are goopy and slimy but not nauseating. The chill that Asher engenders is more psychological than physical, even though his stuff is rooted in visions that seem to drop from a scorpion-wasp's nightmare.
At 222 pages, 'Prador Moon' is short and snappy as well as extremely distressing. Well, distressing if you find humans being "cored" distressing. I guarantee that you'll never look at an apple the same way after you enjoy the spectacle of the Prador. Of course, 'Prador Moon' predates your two other likely encounters with the many-legged beasties in 'The Skinner' and 'The Voyage of the Sable Keech'. And it offers a look at the Polity in a moment of balance. For Asher, it's nearly a Utopian vision. Well, until the coring begins.
From Asher to Zebrowski, it seems like we've got a whole range of science fiction horror. Now, don’t forget Brian Lumley, who did a bit of pioneering both in his 'Necroscope' novels and in his numerous short stories. Subterranean Press recently offered readers a selection of the stories in 'Screaming Science Fiction' and re-released 'Necroscope' in a to-die-for special edition. The stories in both Lumley's collection and Zebrowski's cover more years than the average revolution. This isn't something that's new -- but that does not mean it is not news. Sure, there are plenty of revolutions afoot in the science fiction genre, from a variety of writers and schools of writing. The science fiction horror revolution is happening a bit more slowly than others. Call it the twenty-year overnight success, and be glad that it won't be televised. This is a revolt of the revolting, and you'll want to savor every last gobbet of flesh.
in the Slipstream
'Feeling Very Strange' fires off with a pithy, gripping essay on the genre by the two editors. K&K are themselves slipstream authors, and it’s not difficult to read the essay itself as a work within the genre. What the editors discern as the 'genre defining' aspect of slipstream is a pretty interesting concept -- cognitive dissonance, the ability of (a story) to hold contradictory ideas. Oh, they go into a lot more detail than that, but let's keep that in mind as we talk about civilization and its discontents, or the collection and its contents. Same difference, no?
'Feeling Very Strange' mentions the "there and then" but focuses on the here and now. So of course, K&K talk a bit about Kafka, Borges, John Collier and Italo Calvino. But the writers found here are primarily living, writing natives of North America. If one is tempted to think that's a limit, well... Punt that idea, or, more appropriately, punt and hold it close simultaneously. I'm oh-so-happy to report that Aimee Bender gets a slot here with 'The Healer', a perfect example of her creepy, weird mathematical writing that seems to slice through the world like a hot knife through rotting flesh. Writers hail from both sides of the divide. For every Michael Chabon, there's a Jeff VanderMeer, for every Karen Joy Fowler, there's a Ted Chiang. In terms of timing, you've got Carol Emshwiller's "Al" from Damon Knight's 'Orbit 10' and 1972 to Benjamin Rosenbaum's "Biographical Notes on the Nature of Causality, With Air-planes" from the 2004 anthology 'All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories', edited by David Moles and Jay Lake.
Moles pops up in between chunks of fiction as the editors favor the readers with a reprint from Moles' blog entry on slipstream writing. It's one of the many appropriate touches that lift the anthology itself out of the genre of anthologies and into the genre it helps the reader to understand -- while simultaneously offering no understanding whatsoever. For readers so inclined, you can pick this one up, point to it and say:
"Lots of great stories here."
Need we say more? Perhaps not, but I'm game. During my last interview with Kim Stanley Robinson, this writer quipped that, "We're living in a bad science fiction novel." I'm ready to admit now that if we get an epitaph for The Times In Which We Live, this is what they'll be putting on the marble. And one of the jobs of any fiction is to help us comprehend the times in which we live. Science fiction horror is obviously an appropriate choice, since many of us find the world often frightening beyond necessity. But slipstream works as well, since this is a world where you can literally walk from spectacular wealth to spectacular poverty in just about any country. We are not only surrounded by contradiction, we often find ourselves embodying it. If Robinson has written our epitaph, then perhaps Kelly and Kessel have collected our eulogy. And Tachyon, the little particle that exists but does not exist, has published it. Welcome to the Pericalypse. Tell me, how does that make you feel?
04-25-06: Philip José Farmer Finds 'Pearls From Peoria'
Necklaces and Nooses
Farmer is one of the few, and he's been at this vibe from the get-go. I'm of the generation of teenagers who first encountered Farmer's work in trashy paperbacks with lurid titles. 'Flesh'. 'The Image of the Beast'. 'Blown: or Sketches Among the Ruins of Mind'. Hell, the titles alone speak to me, and tell me something about myself that maybe I don’t want to hear but alas, am unable to easily deny. Farmer writes at a level that engages the reader both above the brow and below the belt. The catch is that most of us have ready been through the wringer, and while there's a lot more to Farmer than one can find amidst his many, many novels, there hasn’t been an easy way to get those gobbets of fleshy writing without accumulating a stack of papers, collections and magazines that would threaten to engulf you. For readers of this column that's already likely to be a problem. But one good problem deserves, in this case, a big old book full of the collected-but-previously-uncollected-in-one-place writings of Philip José Farmer. Here it is. Clear the bed stand.
'Pearls from Peoria' (Subterranean Press ; August 22, 2006 ; $45) deserves a clear bed stand. Of course, you might also want to re-tool the reading chair to leave lots of room for this one as well. This book is an absolute steal and a stellar deal. At 778 pages, heck, you may need to clear out a portion of your kitchen cabinet, because I'm pretty sure that there's a sink in there as well. Even the trade paperback ARC is beyond bricklike.
But what's most important is the angle you get on Farmer as you read through the incredible cornucopia on offer here. You'll realize just how complex both the man and his writings are, how vivid and in-your-face he is, and how prescient and intuitive he is. You'll be able to do this because Sub Press doesn't mess around. You've barely opened the collection and within two sentences, Farmer spurts words on the page that...that... Well, spurts is a pretty descriptive word. What’s scary is that from there on out, it just gets deeper.
The real deal with Farmer, because he knows as well as anyone that if myth is sacred, it must also be profane. Oh you'll get your portion of sacred here, probably enough to last for years. But you'll get the profane first and not have much of a chance to clean up afterwards. That would be because, for example, the ready-for-Playboy story that starts the collection is in a section of the book labeled "Myth and Paramyth". Here's the quote: "Myths are to be taken seriously. Paramyths are also to be taken seriously but they have an element of the absurd. But that element becomes just as serious as the nonabsurd. One becomes the other."
And of course, we've barely scratched the surface. 'Pearls from Peoria' includes over sixty uncollected pieces of fiction, non-fiction, journalism, poetry and autobiography. Many of the fictional pieces are novel, novella or novelette length. This is not just a meat market. It's a side-of-beef market, dripping and still fresh. This is not simply a bigger-is-better proposition. Now, this is a bigger is more complex, richer and more satisfying experience.
That's because you'll get the full range of Farmer's talents here. You'll get his humorous pastiches, flawlessly executed, from the Ralph Von Wau Wau novels, including 'A Scarletin Study', to his wilder and prescient compositions. Take, for example, 'Seventy Years of Decpop'. It ran in Galaxy in 1972, Best Science Fiction 1973. In it, Farmer writes of 24 hour TV news-channels, phone with caller recognition and pills that have an effect all-too-similar to -- you guessed it -- Viagra. Published twice, it's been out of circulation for over thirty years. Now, it's just a 40-page slice of future life in this huge compendium.
Of course, Farmer's talents go far beyond shock and awe. He's a wonderful creator of non-high-falutin' metafiction, creating not only pastiches, but authors and biographies of authors of the pastiches. There's lots of non-fiction here as well; poetry, journalism, criticism, biography and autobiography. What all this adds up to is a very complicated, detailed and totally fun-to-read portrait of a complex artist. Now, granted, some of the work here is of-it's-time, but that gives readers here in the 21st century a glimpse of what are here called "Lost Futures". When you write well and from the heart, when you have a complex mind, your writing does not ever lose its luster. Those pearls, whether they adorn necklaces or nooses, are once and ever pearls.
As usual, Subterranean Press is offering an outstanding value for your hard-earned money. I mentioned the page count only once, let me remind you again: 778 pages, $45. Illustrated, beautifully bound and printed. Even or perhaps especially if you've never read Farmer this is in the realm of Deal-of-a-Lifetime. This is what the so-called small press is here for and Subterranean Press is offering readers the kind of unique, flawlessly-conceived and executed BOOK that single-handedly justifies a bigger bed stand.
04-24-06: Kage Baker Brings On 'Dark Mondays'; A 2006 Conversation With Colson Whitehead
All Travel Is Time Travel
We've been promised "better living through chemistry" for how long now? And all we've got are those creepy insects, the glowing butterfly and the eerie bee with the accent that send shivers down my spine? Thank you, very much, I'll pursue my better living through another path, not surprisingly, reading. And what better way to make it through the many dark Mondays, a month of dark Mondays, than to read Kage Baker's 'Dark Mondays' (Night Shade Books ; July 25, 2006 ; $26.95)?
Something has got to justify getting out of bed at oh-dark hundred, and Kage Baker actually fills the bill. Night Shade is bulldozing over the New Yawkahs it seems, publishing the kind of high-quality, high profile stuff that one expects to carry the mountainous mark on the spine. Well, no matter, Night Shade's got us covered with a collection of stories that features three re-prints, an extended version, four totally new short stories and a totally new short novel. The math is pretty simple. 'Dark Mondays' is worth getting up early for.
Baker is rapidly becoming one of the genre's great treasures, the sort of writer who can single-handedly bring new readers aboard. She combines smart writing with appealing writing, which is a lot less common and more difficult than one would expect. To me, her work has the feel of immediacy and accessibility that's not common. Her stuff is never hard to get. It's easy to like. And in 'Dark Mondays', there is a lot of new stuff that's easy to like. Let's do the numbers.
We have three re-prints here. 'Two Old Women', which kicks off the collection, originally appeared in Asimov's. And for this one, it might help a bit to know that Baker lives in Pismo Beach, a small Californian coast town that's about a four drive from where I live in Santa Cruz. It's basically a pier and a few houses, one of which is occupied by one of our best SF writers. The small towns that dot the California coast have a certain feel to them, a sort of run-down languor that hangs over this story. Baker molds that into a mournful, melancholy tale. So, call this the title story. Follow it up, of course, with 'So This Guy Walks Into A Lighthouse', which debuted in 'Poe's Lighthouse' an anthology from Cemetery Dance Publications. Here, let the title be your clue that Baker is on one of her wonderfully antic stints, if of course, the presence of an "Improved Pygmy poultry farmer" strikes you as antic. Be forewarned that when Baker sets out to tell a joke, somebody somewhere is going to spray milk through their nose. "Silent Leonardo" hails from a DAW anthology titled 'ReVisions', and it too, is probably best not combined with dairy products. Maybe cheese and wine, but -- that's your hazard, and given the quality of Night Shade's books, you should follow the path of caution. I've seen wine stains on pages; they do add character, I suppose. And finally, there's 'Katherine's Story', which first appeared on Fictionwise.com, but in a significantly shorter version. These add up to about say, 60 pages of a 229-page book.
And that leaves the delectable, the unpublished-elsewhere coming in at around 160 pages, which include four new stories and a new short novel. That's a pretty damn good deal even before you get to the part where I tell that the novel is a PIRATE NOVEL, 'The Maid on the Shore', 98 pages of Captain Morgan and Mayflower stowaways. And here’s where things get interesting, really interesting in the literary sense. Because even as she pops off one time-travel novel after another, one period fantasy after another, all of them informed in some fashion by speculative fiction, the common thread for Kage Baker, the rather unobserved fact, is that she is rapidly becoming one of our foremost historical novelists.
Yes, shelved amidst the so-called "science fiction", readers can find what is actually some of the best-written, best-informed, most entertaining and pithiest historical fiction out there. If you have a penchant for historical fiction, then you’d be well advised to run, not walk and start reading Baker's entire oeuvre. If you’re looking for a start point, then this might be a great place to begin. 'Dark Mondays' showcases Baker's full range, from the achingly emotional to the silly to the raucously adventuresome, and every sub-mode is informed by her love of history, and her ability to effortlessly immerse the reader in other real times and places. Pull up an armchair and check your baggage. Kage Baker is going to demonstrate to you that all travel is time travel. And that every moment of your life is historical fact, just one sentence away from historical fiction.
A Novel Split
But, as with all of Whitehead's work, there's also more than a hint of the fantastic about this novel. It has the parable-like quality of Kafka, or Borges, two writers that Whitehead mentioned as informing this story. Whitehead has constructed an insular world, sealed off and sort of airless, in the best possible way. Prepare to leave our world behind when you read 'Apex Hides the Hurt'. And as well when you hear the man speak, which is well worth Your Valuable Time.
As usual, I've carefully prepared the RealAudio and MP3 files of the interview, excising the bit where I choked on a gulp of water. See if you can spot the seams! Hopefully it won’t be an issue, and as I always tell my guests, that's why we (now) have digital editing. Those days when I used to use --what is it called, tape? -- now seem like ancient history.
But there are always parts that don’t get on tape, and that's the big news I'm here to report. Nothing's graven in stone and the publishing world moves at a glacial pace. Whitehead told me about his next project – and I'll let you hear about that from him. But afterwards, I asked him when he was finally going to write the near-future, full-on science fiction novel that has so clearly (to me, at least) been on his mind. "It's next, after the one I'm working on now," he told me. Which, he said would probably parse out to some five years. So, now as ever, in so many ways:
We've got five years.