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01-29-04: Ending & Beginning with Alastair Reynolds and Peter F. Hamilton

Absolution Gap Arrives

The only blurb needed is the author's name.
The two brightest stars of current space opera -- Alastair Reynolds and Peter F. Hamilton both have big, fat, delectable new novels out. One completes a cherished saga for the delight of his readers and one begins a new saga after an unfortunate absence. This is the kind of excess not often seen in the science fiction world. Readers can only hope it will continue.

When I spoke with Alastair Reynolds during Worldcon 2002, he told me he had just started what was going to be the final book of his Inhibitors saga. As it happens, his first novel, 'Revelation Space', is the novel that brought me back to really enjoying the science fiction genre, after many years in which my feelings ranged from dislike to disinterest -- with exceptions, of course. Well, it's finally here, after a release late last year and an order with *.* for which I waited on delivery so that I could ship Reynoolds work with Rob Grant's 'Incompetence', Mary Gentle's '1610', Walter Jon Williams' 'The Sundering' and Steve Cockayne's 'The Iron Chain'. It was a very large box of books.

I don't know about my readers, but I loved the pig. Scorpio, an uplifted pig with human intelligence and porcine cunning was one of my favorite characters out of any recent science fiction work, and I find him starting the action in Reynolds' latest. Sporting a cover blurb that announces that Reynolds is a 'Winner of the British Science Science Fiction Award' and a bargain price, 'Absolution Gap' promises to be one of the big novels of this year, 2004, though it was released last year. In theory, Ace will bring out the US volume sometime this summer, and with both editions available within a single year, one hopes it will win a Hugo. Reynolds offers not only big ideas, a vast scope and wonderful characters, he also writes delightfully dense, lapidary prose.

As a reader, the experience of a Reynolds novel is often closer to that of reading an intricate haunted house novel than that of reading a big-brained science fiction work. Reynolds hits on all cylinders though. He's re-defined space battles in 'Redemption Ark' and he's written the dankest, drippingest mean-streets mystery I've ever read in 'Chasm City'. There's no doubt that this conclusion to a tense and powerful story will satisfy. The important question suggested by this book is: What will he do next? Reynolds has created a fascinating universe and science fiction writers are often loathe to leave their creations unexplored. Whatever universe he decides to invade with his words, I can guarantee that I will be there, eagerly awaiting his report.

Opening up Pandora's Star

I'm going to try and see if I can get a jpg of this gatefold cover.
Peter Hamilton has been writing and publishing since the days of the late lamented 'Fear' magazine. To give you some perspective, this was a four-color expensive printed magazine from the UK devoted expressly to horror fiction. These days, the idea that the horror genre could support such a publication in the UK would probably be enough for those in charge to gently suggest that one would be better served essaying one's talents in, say, the food service industry. But while you weren't slinging bangers and mash, you could spend all your spare time reading Peter F. Hamilton's lengthy space operas. The 'Night's Dawn' Trilogy was long enough that it came out as six paperbacks in the US and each one of those was still thick enough to choke a horse. But Space opera is what Hamilton does best. From 'The Reality Dysfunction' to 'The Neutronium Alchemist' to 'The Naked God', Hamilton's trilogy truly achieved the sense of wonder on a galactic scale. All this, searing scenes of battle on alien planets, love stories and lots of fun mitigated the concerns one might have with respects to a series that's over 3,000 pages in hardcover.

He followed this up with a standalone, single volume space opera delight, 'Fallen Dragon', and the much more controversial -- and not well-received -- near future novel, 'Misspent Youth'. While the writing in and the concepts behind 'Misspent Youth' were both top-rate, Hamilton's earthbound characters were such petty, despicable scum that they challenged the reader's willingness to share the planet with them, let alone spend any time with them.

Fortunately, nobody's earthbound in his latest slab o' space opera, 'Pandora's Star'. Playing to his strengths, Hamilton depicts humanity in the year 2380 as having colonized over 600 planets. When a star far beyond the reach of man's technology disappears, apparently behind a force field of some kind, humanity decides it has to react. A faster-than-light ship is dispatched to find out what happened and why. But is that the wisest course of action? It's possible that we've just attracted the attention of that which would have been better left alone.

A glimpse at the interior of this novel found aliens of some kind playing a major part. For a monster movie guy like me, that's great news. At 882 pages, ' Pandora's Star' is the first of two parts in 'The Commonwealth Saga'. Yes, that's a Jim Burns cover, and yes, Richard Morgan, author of 'Altered Carbon' and 'Broken Angels' mentions that it involves the realms of faerie. Now that's the kind of all-inclusive, wide screen saga we like to see. With reality becoming ever more distressing, it's nice to know that in 375 years, we'll be able to worry about spaceships and stars. Even though some readers might feel as if it will take them that long to read about it!

0-00-04: Grimwood, Mor and TTA

The New Old Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Grimwood's second novel, now glaring out at you again in a color you could only call clockwork orange.
For my money, one of the most satisfying series I've recently read was Jon Courtenay Grimwood's Arabesk series; 'Pashazade', 'Effendi' and the final novel (alas!), 'Felaheen', which was easily one of my favorites of last year. Like me you are likely waiting for more, having devoured all of the series and his two recently re-issued earlier novels, 'redRobe' and 're-mix'. The re-issue versions are quite nice. They’re trade paperbacks with a stark, appropriate design and big type that's easy to read. I haven't heard any news yet of what's next for Mr. Grimwood, but I'm still searching. I know that the Arabesks have not come out in the US and that, from what I've heard, it's unlikely they will. I believe that the general consensus is that US readers are too dumb to enjoy the complex, almost opaque world created by Grimwood in these very hybridized novels.

As a US reader, I, like many others, find that attitude utterly frustrating and annoying. We do like to buy a lot of stupid fiction. But that's not all we like to buy, or read. Stupidity has its place. I don't want to read James Joyce's 'Ulysses' every day of my life, though I could in theory do so, and actually enjoy it. But I like the wide variety of fiction and non-fiction. Novels can be simple and straightforward without being dumb; George P. Pelecanos writes novels with a fairly simple storyline. They’re certainly not dumb. And hey, dumb fun has its place. Both Terry D'Auray and I quite enjoyed Simon R. Green's 'Something from the Nightside'. It's not going to win a Nobel Prize, but it might amuse the hell out of you after you finish up an intense bout of reading Pete Dexter's 'Train' and Jonathan Lethem's 'The Fortress of Solitude'. So we buy dumb stuff because we also read a lot of smart stuff. Books offer the widest range of entertainment possible; that's one of the reasons to read.

Now that the entire publishing industry has been informed, I'm sure we can expect a sea change any minute now. But in the interim, you at least have the option of getting Jon Courtenay Grimwood's second novel, 'Lucifer's Dragon' in a snappy-looking re-issue from Simon & Schuster, via Pocket Books, where all the Earthlight (a great imprint, now sadly missed) authors have gone. 'Lucifer's Dragon' is a neon-orange thriller about a mafia daughter who re-builds Venice in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. A century later, the daughter of a noble in New Venice immerses herself in a virtual reality game which begets violence in the real world. (This scenario is not unlike that found in the essay 'Gruppenfuhrer Louis XIV', a non-existant book reviewed by Stanislaw Lem in 'A Perfect Vacuum'. In the reviewed book, an SS officer decides to rebuild the world of the Sun King in the deep jungles of South America with stolen Nazi gold.) We can look to Courtenay to provide us with gritty neon noir and superior prose in an ultra-dense mystery. And we'll enjoy the hell out of it. Because we are not, after all, stupid.

The First Third

Jean-Marc Rulier's cover is "something you would like to touch, even if it hurts."
With my interest in short fiction renewed, I've decided to subscribe to The Third Alternative. For one thing, they're the originator of the most excellent Crimewave publication. But more importantly, they offer some of the best and most Agony Column-like writers out there. It's not for no reason that M. John Harrison has his discussion forum hanging from their server. When I subscribed, I thought I'd merely be getting some great fiction. But this issue demonstrates another aspect of their work and a most pleasant surprise. The graphic design of this publication is simply wonderful. You can see from the cover scan how beautiful the most recent issue is. What you can't see is that the interior design is equally nice. It's printed on heavy, matte stock and the pages are nice and white for easy reading. So it looks beautiful, but that wouldn't matter much if they were dishing out celebrity gossip.

From the cover you can clearly see that they're not just dishing here. This issue includes a new novella by Lucius Shepard and several short stories with effective, intriguing illustrations. The design work behind Martin Simpson's story 'Phantom Limb' by Edward Noon is quite striking. Figure in a column on movies by one of my favorite under-found-in-the-USA horror writers, Christopher Fowler, a nice introductory rant on genrification by all-star Justina Robson and you have another way to send your money out at a speed much higher than that at which it manages to come in.

Celtic Relief from Caiseal Mor

Celtic-er than thou.
With about 3/4 of the Western World caught up in the Celt-inspired world and work of J. R. R. Tolkien, one would think that there's a natural market for stuff like 'The Raven Game', which caps off (unsurprisingly) a trilogy by Caiseal Mor. Mor blends heavy-duty historical fiction with well-researched faerie legends. Unlike many of the competitors, Mor seeks out the density of these legends, creating a world of interwoven fact and fantasy. And, unlike many of his competitors, Mor also hasn't made it stateside -- yet. But that shouldn't stop you from looking very closely at this writer, who offers a darker, harder form of fantasy than you're likely to find shelved next to the action figures at the video store..

01-27-04: Michael Arnzen's 100 Jolts, Stepan Chapman's Polemic Chapbook, The Best of Deathrealm

100 Jolts by Michael Arnzen

A Shocked Monkey.
Chatting with author Michael Arnzen via email led me to the website for Raw Dog Screaming Press, another one of the many new horror publishers that seem to be finding life in the nutritious soil left over from the decay of the Death of Horror. He wrote to ask me about my disease books article, and checking the website for RDSP, it's easy to see why. They've got an anthology out titled 'Sick', which looks, as my teenager would tell me, "sick". Arnzen's forthcoming collection is titled '100 Jolts'. It's a collection of his flash fiction. Currently, the term "flash fiction" seems to refer to quickly written short-short stories for the web. I'm frankly rather surprised that there isn't more fiction written using "flash" technology. I've certainly seen enough nicely-done jokes out there on the web to sugest that it's more than possible.

What Arnzen writes are "gorelets". From his web page at "Gorelets are "sudden horror poems" and "dark microfiction." You might think of them as bite-sized nuggets of noir. Tiny caplets of terror. Short sharp shockers designed to make you squirm. They are uniquely short and scary and strange."

How sick are you?
In our attention-deficit centered world, these may be The Next Big Little Thing. As a dedicated novel reader, I'm might be disinclined to read these, but having just done so, I must say they're pretty damn good. It's a very different form from the standard horror novel; maggots instead of a corpse. Arnzen is writing material meant to be read on the Palm handheld computer. While there's something in me that makes me think that this is yet another sign that the Apocalypse has already occurred, and went unnoticed in the general haste, there's also something saying that this must have been a pretty beneficent Apocalypse. You could surely spend a lot of time at Arnzen's website, and if you've got a Palm pilot, I can’t imagine any better use of it than to sit reading distressing, horrific poetry while attending a Senior Staff meeting and listening to the blowhards blow.

Stepan Chapman's Chapbook Polemic

When it rains short fiction, it pours short fiction. It's raining outside my house at the moment, and inside the house, it's a short fiction festival. In general, I've got to admit I'm not overly fond of chapbooks. But Stepan Chapman's 'Life on Earth' is so bizarrely unlike anything, I quickly took a shine to it. It's a simple polemic parable, meant to be read aloud, with illustrations for every page. I've got a full-blown review of it here, so you'll want to look to that for the review-like information. Look at Four-Sep's web page, where they've got this and lots of other odd titles.
The cover of Chapman's Chapbook.

"Life on Earth traveled the world and stood in line with itself."

News is here to show you pretty pictures. If you spring for Chapman's chapbook, and I think you should, here is just about 5% of what you'll get. The other 95% is the same, only different. I guarantee that whoever is in the room with you when you open up the envelope will be hearing Chapman's words from your mouth shortly after the unveiling. Hope they're patient and not too annoyed that another visit to the Agony Column brought this space rock down out of its very eccentric orbit.

The Best of Deathrealm

I'm watching you through your computer.
I got my first Delirium book from Mark Ziesing back in 2000, and I knew that they were smack-dab on my vibe of what good short fiction should be about. Those books were the Jeffrey Thomas and Scott Thomas collections, neither of which I can currently locate in my disastrous stacks. No wait, I found at least one -- Jeffrey Thomas' 'Terror Incognita'. It was hiding in the bookshelf under the living room desk. What, your living room doesn't have a desk?

Given Delirium's proven record, I'm happy to see that they'll be releasing a hardcover edition of Mark Rainey's 'Best of Deathrealm' anthology, and not the least because I have a long and distressing story in it. Mark just sent me a copy of the cover, and I'm bringing it to you. It's very nice, and I'm looking forward to the finished product.

With all this short fiction about, I'm going to have to re-align my reading priorities. In fact, I already have. I'm now officially reading Crimewave 7, edited by Andy Cox, 'Bibliomancy' , a collection of novellas by Elizabeth Hand and 'Rumpole and the Primrose Path' by John Mortimer, as well as the vicious novel 'Market Forces', by Richard Morgan. Where will all this short fiction lead to? Probably a breakdown of essential services and civil disorder.

01-26-04: Re-Mystifying Reality

Re-Mystifying Reality With Night Shade Books' new 3 Volume set of 'The Collected Jorkens' by Lord Dunsany

Youth-corrupting fantasies. Lin Carter corrupter of youth.
Like many readers, I was forever corrupted -- or improved, depending on your point of view -- by my experience reading the famous Adult Fantasy imprint from Ballantine Books edited by Lin Carter. The chain led from Lovecraft to Clarke Ashton Smith and Lord Dunsany. Each author had their own unique voice; Lovecraft's came out in tales like 'Pickman's Model', Smith's in his stories of Averoigne and Dunsany's in stories like 'Idle Days on the Yann'. The Adult Fantasy titles printed by Carter trended of course to the fantastic. But Dunsany has a much wider range of stories than his ornate fantasies, which were explicitly copied in style by both Lovecraft and Smith.

Nightshade Books, which seems intent on world conquest, and well-informed enough to do so, is embarked on a series of reprints from their wonderful William Hope Hodgson to their latest venture, Lord Dunsany. I just got an advance copy of the first of a three-volume series of Lord Dunsany's 'Jorkens' stories. The Jorkens stories are traveler's tales that take much of their inspiration from Dunsany's own travels around the world. They're funny, weird and very hard to find. Nightshade's first volume includes the kind of extras you really want to have: a "Brief Forward" by Edward Plunkett, the current Lord Dunsany, written at Dunsany Castle in April, 2003.

The 18th Lord Dunsany.
That's right, April 2003, the current Lord Dunsany.

You also get a lengthy and loving introduction to the work of Dunsany by none other than Arthur C. Clarke. He talks about encountering the work of Dunsany, just as many of us encountered both Clarke and Dunsany contemporaneously in our youth. It's important to note that J. R. R. Tolkien might also have encountered Dunsany's work in his youth. It's fascinating to see the layers of literary inspiration the lie beneath today's writing. And finally, you get the scholarly talents of S. T. Joshi, who talks about the core of the Jorkens tales. It's interesting because it applies directly to today's fascination with alternate history.

What Dunsany wanted to do in his Jorkens tales, according to Dunsany's own introduction, was to "advance the Progress of Science" and to "add something of a strangeness to parts of our planet, just as it was tending to grow too familiar."
These goals aren't really complementary. Joshi suggests, "...the latter is clearly what Dunsany was getting at." This of course fits with his typical identification as a fantasist.

Corrupting the youth of tomorrow today!
And it jives with what S. M. Stirling stated was his goal in his work 'The Peshawar Lancers'. That is, Stirling said that he wanted to use alternate history as a means of essentially "re-mystifying" our world, to re-create it so that it would enable readers to enjoy a sense of wonder and discovery. One hundred years ago, the traveler's tall tale did the job. Today we use alternate history. Nightshade's reprints, then, might have an appeal that's a lot wider than the usual scholarly and collector's audience. The tall tale has gotten a bit of a boost in recent films and literature. What's nice is that it's not new -- and doesn't have to be to become great reading. One hopes that Night Shade is corrupting a whole new generation of readers with this and subsequent releases. Here's to the corruption of the innocent!