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12-06-03: John Shirley Interview, Philip Reeve Evolves

John Shirley Interview

John Shirley in the flesh.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of talking to John Shirley in a live broadcast interview for NPR affiliate KUSP. As it happens, it turns out it was the first time I had spoken to him in 14 years.

The fun started yesterday morning. Doing research, I went to Shirley's most excellent website, hosted by DarkEcho guru-ess Paula Guran. There I found Shirley's music, which I'd always been curious to hear. I absolutely loved all of it, though I must admit my favorite piece was 'Johnny Paranoid' from his 1978 punk band, SadoNation. Shirley's website also has a very convenient bibliography, so I could see how many books of his I had. A lot, it happens. When I looked up, it was time to get cracking. Give yourself some time if you visit the John Shirley website.

Next, I went to gather my John Shirley books. Unfortunately, in all the shuffling my rather unorganized stacks go through, the Shirley titles had been separated, so I was forced to simply wander about going -- "Oh -- I loved that book!" and "Wow, I forgot all about that great collection!" The stack grew so high I had separate it into two piles so it wouldn't fall over. But I couldn't find my trade edition of 'Heatseeker', which is possibly one of my all-time favorite collections. But I did find the proofs I have of it, from a World Fantasy convention I never attended. Leaving the house a mess of pilfered bookshelves and piles of paper, I made three trips to the car to get everything in and went to the station.

Since he lives in the Bay area, John had driven over the night before to spend a comfortable evening in Santa Cruz; there was no problem with the horrible traffic that can accumulate on Highway 17, the tiny four-lane road that winds through the hills between Santa Cruz and the Santa Clara valley. I was fortunate enough to have the classy board-op and introductory services of Jenn Ramage for the interview. Shortly before the Geekspeak guys finished their show, Jenn, John and I went into the studio, got situated and let the tape roll. Well not really, we recorded the interview on my laptop in Studio B. But some traditions die hard.

Surreal suburban SF Horror.

Amongst them, apparently is my ability to be pleasantly dense. That is, I had prepared a series of questions for Jon about the early days of cyberpunk with all sorts of stuff along the lines of asking if the famous quote by a president of DEC that "Nobody will ever need a computer on their desk, they'll all be terminals connected to a server" played a part in their conceptualization. Turns out they didn't give a hoot about computers really; these gents were the guys at the conventions who wanted to talk about Kerouac and Rimbaud. It's always nice to ask a question and get an answer you don't expect. John talked about his new novel, 'Crawlers', (a wonderful novel that's as good as the iconic-to-me 'In Darkness Waiting') and his forthcoming work, which sounds positively radical -- religiously radical. Again, not the direction I expected -- and that's why the interview was such fun. I have both MP3 and RealAudio versions online now.

Afterwards I asked him to sign the huge stack o' books, and was embarrassed to find out that he had signed some of them -- in 1989! We found that signature in the bound proofs I have for 'Heatseeker'. He had wished me productive stress back then. Neither of us could figure out why.

We'll be keep very close track of Mr. Shirley's work here at The Agony Column. And if any of you see my trade edition of 'Heatseeker', which I had just looked at recently but apparently slipped into a time-space portal hidden somewhere in my stacks, please drop me an email.

A New Kind of Evolution

Taking Darwin's name in vain.

While I'd love to be utterly snooty and display complete disdain at all the genre-based YA works waddling in the tracks of the world's best-selling series, I just could not help but be interested in Philip Reeve's 'Mortal Engines'. The scenario is admittedly fascinating: the great cities of the world have mounted themselves on huge tractors and move across a depleted globe, pirating supplies from stationary and lesser cities. London is a once proud predator that has fallen on hard times. A young third-class apprentice finds himself stranded in the out-country and is forced to survive. OK, so far, so good. But what really caught my eye was a two-word phrase: "Municipal Darwinism". Funny how something like that can move a book into one's must-buy pile. I made the mistake of reading the first page or so, and had to force myself to put it down; it's quite good. As usual, look for more later!

12-04-03: Pelecanos Signing and Remainder Table Alert, FT177, Lambshead First Printing Nearly Gone

Time to Buy Pelecanos

The first novel in the Quinn/Strange trilogy.

Readers might want to take a peek at the remainder tables in their local independents. One of my local hangouts, Logos Books, has first edition, first printing hardcover copies of the first two books in the Quinn/Strange series recently covered by Terry D'Auray in a column on Pelecanos' vision of Washington DC. For a mere $9.97 (including tax), I scored both books. I've seen them about for a while, actually, and not acted on it, until I heard tell of an imminent Pelecanos signing tour early next year. This would be to coincide with the release of his new novel, 'Hard Revolution: 1959-1968'. Dennis McMillan's version of this is just around the corner, but if you don't know this already, you may be too late to score a copy.

Note bargain price sticker.

My suspicion and hope is that before he makes it round here, 'Soul Circus' will show up on remainder tables as well, though I may have to shell out sooner just because I want to read the first three books in this series before I settle back and enjoy my McMillan Publications deluxe version of the latest, which is a prequel that looks at the life of Derek Strange. For those who watch TV, it might add spice to know that Pelecanos produces HBO's 'The Wire', which is a rather good, gritty police drama.


Dreaming of More Fortean Times

FT is Dreaming of White Christians.
Lest you think I'm not on my game, the latest Fortean Times is out, with another dose of paranormal surreality sure to melt the mind and fry your time. There's a very nice article on sites with so-called "Gravity anomalies", and it even manages to mention our local yokel tourist attraction, the Mystery Spot. There's also a nice piece for you horror fans about 'Dowsing for the Dead'. There's a lot of this about now, in the Middle East, though they're not using the dowsing sticks -- or that's what we're told. And the cover story is about those who seek the prophetic dreams they may have on sacred sites. This was the plot of a wonderful Phil Rickman novel, written under the pseudonym Will Kingdom, titled 'Cold Calling'.

Lambshead First Printing Nearly Gone

No bargain price sticker.
I've been a bit reluctant to mention how utterly wonderful the 'Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases' is, because, after all, I've got two diseases in the guide. I'm overcoming that reluctance because a bookselling associate of mine who shall remain nameless to protect his identity told me today that Nightshade has sent out the call to anyone who wants a first printing that they should order now, because all that's left at this point is "stems and seeds". I have to say that Lambshead is certainly the most handsomely produced book of the year, with a glittering assortment of stars. Wonderful, stuff about to go out of print. Time to buy multiple copies, folks, to sell a year or so anon -- or simply to hoard as gifts to your favorite people.


12-03-03: The Etchings of KJ Bishop

A detour through The Etched City

Author KJ Bishop, from her website.
On one hand, we like to stay a bit ahead of the times here at The Agony Column. So, you get some previews of stuff that's not to come out for months. But I also know that often I'm rather behind the times as well. To a certain extent this is deliberate. Because I don't just read or cover science fiction, fantasy and horror, there are titles that come out I know to be of interest, but just don't get round to covering right off the bat. I'm saving them for a rainy day. An excellent example just arrived in the mail yesterday -- KJ Bishop's 'The Etched City'.

Bishop did the cover art for her novel.

This book has been recommended to me by all sorts of readers and writers -- including Jeff VanderMeer and Jeffrey Ford. It's also a Prime Book. Prime is a fascinating publishing company, with lots of very interesting and eclectic titles to their credit. In a perfect world, I'd simply subscribe to their books. The world being what it is, I'm forced to get what I can get however I can get it. This novel looks to be a bit like Clark Ashton Smith's fantasy -- ornate, obscure and deeply unsettling. However, I think it's my next title, so you'll find out real soon what precisely I think of it.

'Northsea', an evocative illustration from Bishop's website.
I found the cover rather striking, and checking the credit, I found out that Bishop herself created and designed the art. So now I'm intrigued. Checking further, I found that the author has a website. There I found some of her art, which I bring to you. I really like the sensibility behind this art and it makes me almost certain I'll enjoy the book. There are quite a few more striking pieces on her website, which I suggest you get a gander at. Readers will have noticed somewhere along the line that I like the photomontages of JK Potter, and there's certainly some of that here. If you haven't nailed a Prime Books copy of this novel, you should. It's coming out in the UK from Pan-McMillan and in the US from Bantam/Dell in 2004. So, as it happens, in a sense I'm still ahead of the game. And I think I can say with complete confidence that KJ Bishop is in fact the next KJ Bishop, and that the future of KJ Bishop is KJ Bishop.

12-02-03: Richard Morgan's Brutal Mainstream and DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little

Richard Morgan's Brutal Mainstream

Richard Morgan's first mainstream thriller.

Richard Morgan is one of the best authors to surface in recent years. His first novel, 'Altered Carbon', set a satisfyingly dense mystery in an intensely imagined future. The tough-as-nails PI prose was perfect for his horrific vision of the 23rd century. Takeshi Kovacs wakes up in a new body, resurrected by a wealthy man who was told he committed suicide. He gets to keep the body if he can find out what happened to his client. Set in San Francisco, Morgan created a vivid future that felt utterly real. But the mystery aspects of the novel were so good, it almost seemed a shame that it was SF; on the other hand, the mystery was very closely tied to Morgan's vision of the future. It was certainly one of my favorite books of 2002. With a bit better spin, there's no reason it couldn't have been a US bestseller.

And it was only 8 months ago that he came out with a direct sequel to 'Altered Carbon', 'Broken Angels'. This novel found Kovacs enlisted as a mercenary to help suppress a rebellion that threatens corporate interests. It filled in some of the details of Morgan's intriguing future that had remained firmly in the background of 'Altered Carbon'. Moreover, it was every bit as intense and enjoyable as his first novel.

His next novel, due out in March of next year is 'Market Forces'. It's not far future SF; it's a near-future thriller reminiscent of a concept recently floated in the US -- a futures market for armed conflict. It looks to be an interesting mix of brutal murder and family travails, as an average executive tries to keep up with his superior's demands for murder, murder, murder, while trying to keep his marriage alive. The UK version is getting a full-court press, with subway posters and advertising right across the spectrum. One hopes that the US publisher will follow suit.

DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little

Bad Texans in print.

The UK seems to love Texas best of all; at least as a demonstration of America's ugliness. If you've ever watched a UK drama where an English actor plays an American, chances are you'll hear them speak in a Texan drawl, especially if the character they're playing is something of a jerk. Here's the literary equivalent. DBC Pierre's 'Vernon God Little' won the Booker Prize this year, and who better to lampoon the excesses of American culture than a wandering Brit conman and reformed drug addict? DBC ("Dirty But Clean") Pierre spent enough time in the US to have a clue and his novel got a great review from no less than Joyce Carol Oates in The New Yorker. The original edition was published by Faber and Faber in the UK. In the US, Canongate books is handling the publisher's duties. I got intrigued by the old first page test. Told by the best friend of a teenager who shot some classmates then himself, 'Vernon God Little' has a nasty, fun feel: "I mean, what kind of fucken life is this?" Add to that his Booker Prize acceptance speech: '"I think I picked the wrong week to give up sniffing glue."' It's in the queue and when it pops up, you'll be among the first to know. And, yes, I'm behind in my reviews, but there are lots of thanksgiving leftovers waiting to be served…

12-01-03: Victorville's Book Secret and How to Keep Dinosaurs

Checking in at the Book Exchange

Book Mark.

An extensive selection of horror paperbacks.

A Visit to Victorville's Book Exchange & More

Readers might remember a column I wrote this summer about going back to Victorville, where my mother lives. Not surprisingly, we recently returned for Thanksgiving, and once again I made a stop at a rather unique for Victorville bookshop that's worthy of notice and freeway close from I-15. It's called Book Exchange & More, and they have a honkin' selection of used paperbacks at very low prices. Now look, they don't have lots of rare books in fine condition. This isn't that type of store. But this is the store where I found William Schoell's 'Spawn of Hell', 'Bride of Satan' and 'Shivers'.

Strip mall treasures in the High Desert.

They have a huge selection of used horror, SF and mystery that could yield up some nice reading copies of books you might have in more precious editions, or some cheapo experiments with new authors. The horror author selection is impressive, with large number of books by Campbell, Rickman, McCammon, Clegg and others.

Note reading crease.

Book Exchange is literally crammed into a strip mall between what was once a grocery store and an Insurance office. The ex-grocery store now houses a continual "swap meet" a prospect I find so frightening I cannot make myself enter the now emptyish cavern. This is not the most propitious location for a bookstore, but they've been there for some years now, and they're so stuffed with books it seems that they must be doing a good business. I don't what might take my readers through the upper desert, but I'd suggest if you're ever in the area that you check out Book Exchange. It's one of those odd little stores where you never know what you might find.

How to Keep Dinosaurs – 21 Years Later

New pets for now people.

Apparently, we've been keeping dinosaurs as pets for the past twenty years and nobody told me. I never would have found out, either, not being inclined to ask, until recently when I found Robert Mash's delightfully digitally updated 'How to Keep Dinosaurs'. This slim volume, ostensibly for children, but more likely for the adults buying the book for their kids, is amply, lushly illustrated with all sorts of photos wherein dinosaurs are inserted to cavort playfully with the kids, herd sheep on the high plains or play the part of enormous lawn ornaments for the fabulously wealthy.

Reasons not to have Archaeopteryx as a pets.

There's a lot of very understated humor happening here, from the collection of icons attached to each species (a broken rattle signifies "Iffy with babies") to the tool kit for the prospective owner, which includes a "stout shovel" and a thermometer because "Unfortunately, it is often necessary to take the temperature of sickening or broody dinosaurs."

When I first read the claim that this was an updated edition of a book published 20 years ago, I was certain it was just a jape in the "tradition" of the Lambshead Guide. Imagine my surprise when a quick look on showed several copies of the actual first edition for sale. Alas, I've been unable to uncover any cover shots of the first edition; the new illustrations and edition are clearly the products of current digital technology, impressively rendered with an attention to detail and humor. My teenage son suggested that we needed a coffee table for all the great coffee table books we own. This is clearly an excellent suggestion, and a column in the making. If only our coffee table weren't busy hiding Jimmy Hoffa in a landfill somewhere in Torrance, California. Don't tell the feds!