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03-12-04: Truly Underground Literature

Benjamin Markovits Digs up 'The Syme Papers'

Digging deep for subtext.
Two of my favorite subjects get joined at the spine in a new novel by Benjamin Markovits titled 'The Syme Papers'. One of the great advantages of running a website is that readers will write you and alert you to stuff you might not otherwise have seen. Mathew from the UK wrote me about 'The Syme Papers', and even as I write this, copies are on their way to both myself and Katie Dean. Faber and Faber -- the folks who brought you last years Booker Prize winning 'Vernon God Little' have released this trade paperback about one academic obsessed with another. Well, obsessed academics covers one of those favorite subjects of mine. The other?

That would be a hollow earth theorist, the titular Samuel Highgate Syme. He's the object of academic Douglas Pitt's obsession. Pitts is determined to prove that Syme was the first to hit upon the theory of continental drift. This isn't going to be a life-affirming obsession. Pitts is going to find that his name is also his destination.

Richard Shaver's Red Dwarf is quite disturbing.
Readers have probably stumbled across my own obsession with another great hollow earth theorist, Richard Shaver. Shaver started out writing science fiction for Ray Palmer's 'Amazing Stories' in 1945, with 'A Warning to Future Man'. He wrote about a race of giants that inhabited the hollow earth, broadcasting rays to the surface to kill us or make us crazy. Though he started out as a fiction writer, he soon began to assert that his fiction was indeed factual. With Palmer's help, he created what are called "The Shaver Mysteries". The mystery to me is what brought these two odd men together and what kind of mental world they inhabited. The hollow earth has never been more bizarre.

Markovits is a well-regarded book reviewer, and 'The Syme Papers' is his first novel. Yes, it is probably not about a race of giants inhabiting the hollow earth, but you do get fact, fiction and the hollow earth thrown in for good measure. My take is that this is going to be close in text and texture to Lawrence Norfolk's novel 'Lempriere's Dictionary', a weird academic stew of deep history and deeper thought. Norfolk won a Somerset Maugham award for 'Lempriere's Dictionary'. One hopes that Markovits will at least be nominated for Shavertron Special Notice award, if such thing exists. If not, let's invent it and hand it over now.

03-11-04: Kristine Kathryn Rusch deals with the 'Consequences' of Serial Fiction

Science Fiction Mystery from the Creator of Pulphouse

11 years ago, I was getting the first entries in the Anita Blake series by Laurell K. Hamilton. Now, I'm getting these. The solution to this problem is left as an exercise to my readers, as is the determination of the problem.

Kristine Karthryn Rusch has one of the strongest resumes in all of Fantasy and Science Fiction. She created the iconic 'Pulphouse' hardcover magazine, which broke the taste barriers to publish such controversial work as Nina Kiriki Hoffman's 'Savage Breasts'. She wrote for Abyss, ('Façade') and edited 'The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction'. Her most recent and popular novels have been The Retrieval Artist' series, starting with 'The Disappeared', and continued in 'Extremes'. 'Consequences', her latest novel in this series has just been released as a mass-market paperback from Roc.

'Consequences' begins with a murder on the moon. Officer Noelle DeRicci is looking for answers from Retrieval Artist Miles Flint; after all, it was one of his charges who was murdered. From there…the title says it all. A long-running war between humans and aliens threatens to engulf the solar system.

Few could be more qualified to write a science fiction mystery than Rusch, who has won the Hugo and been nominated for an Edgar. To my mind, it's only a matter of time before these books go into hardcover first editions. Rusch is clearly onto something, and an effective blending of the two most popular types of genre fiction seems like a bookseller's dream. Of course, Rusch will have to deal with the consequences of writing effective serial fiction; more sequels. So far, however, she's at the point where things are getting better and better. That's a great place for writers -- and readers. Especially when the books are this inexpensive.

03-10-04: Vampiric Effects from Tanya Huff and Dracula's Cookbook

21st Century Vampire Fiction

Cheap special effects, or smoke and shadows?
Filmmakers have long loved the vampire story because vampires don't require a lot of special effects. Dime store fangs, Karo syrup, red dye number two, you're good to go. It was of course inevitable that some clever writer would take advantage of this, and in fact someone probably did even before Tanya Huff got into the act with her latest novel, 'Smoke and Shadows'. But 'Smoke and Shadows' gets pretty specific about a lot of things, and I must shamefully admit more than a passing familiarity with the subjects and setting of this novel.

Following from the "masterwork" novels that began with 'Blood Price', 'Smoke and Shadows' takes up the story of Tony Foster, a street kid sidekick from the previous series. He and Henry, the ancient but not aged vampire, relocate to Vancouver without Vicki the PI. Tony is forced to get his act together, which includes getting a job working on a certain CB production called 'Darkest Night', about a vampire PI. Sounding familiar?

In another geological era, I used to look forward to re-runs on the SciFI channel of the actual Canadian vampire PI series, 'Forever Knight' as a means of preventing all rational thought shortly before I fell soundly asleep. Presumably the names were changed to protect the innocent, rather a lark when you consider that we're talking about a vampire novel.

Sauteed bats, anyone? Low carb!
Leading as ever in the social sciences, this bit of vampire fiction features a presumably gay hero who has fallen for the star of the show. Other than this unrequited love, everything is hunky dory for Tony, until the shadows on the set take on an unpleasant reality.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to hardcover vampire fiction of the 21st century. This is what we in the future are reading. I know that when I was watching Dave Bowman try to get back in the Discovery that I did not think my post 2001 reading would include vampire fiction. I doubt I considered it much at all, frankly though now one does pause to wonder what we'll be reading thirty-something years on. Given that we were reading vampire fiction nearly 30 years ago (there was a 2001 25th anniversary edition of 'Interview With the Vampire' out), it's safe to say that it will include vampires… uh… vampire…uh…cookbooks? No, we've already got one, 'The Dracula Cookbook of Blood', which includes recipes for Sauteed Bats and something called 'Vlad the Impaler'. Celebrity vampire automobile chauffeur tell-alls? In any event, the special effects will be cheap -- and probably digital.

03-08-04: Poetry & Westerns become New Frontiers for the SF&F Readers

Frieda Hughes Follows Up

Genetically engineered poetry.
Since we're a website dedicated to journeying into the unknown, it behooves us to actually do so once in a while. Now, most outfits of our ilk would do this by serving up another SF&F author on a plate, a journey to the stars, or underwater, or deep into our genetic heritage. Well, as it happens we are going the last route, though not in the usual SF&F fashion of novels involving genetic engineering.

Instead, we're looking at the small-scale world of genetic engineering as it applies to the children of famous parents, in this case Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Frieda's first book was 'Wooroloo', a rough and ready collection of poems that showed spirit but perhaps not finesse. We get the feeling that her follow-up collection, 'Waxworks', shows much of the former and more of the latter. Look, we want our poetry to be rough and ready, that is, fresh and direct. We can see that Hughes is capable of doing impressive work in the individual poems published in magazines like The New Yorker, Paris Review and London Magazine. But a collection offers opportunities for subtlety that individual poems don't. The over-arching theme of 'Waxworks' is that the collection of poems is itself a wax museum, offering portraits of figures from myth, from the Bible and her own imagination.

Serena Trowbridge is busy covering a wide variety of Plath-related material for an upcoming column. There's a lot out there, and while I've always admired the work of Sylvia, in particular 'Ariel', her famous collection of poetry, I haven't gone further afield, for want of direction and time. Serena will have spent one to provide the other. And while Plath never wrote a word of SF&F in her life, her appeal to me was always based in the surreal feel of her words. If you haven't ever read her work, it's well worth your time. 'Ariel' is a classic for a reason, and will definitely appeal to readers of this site -- whether you like poetry or not.

On the Trail and Off the Trail

Shoot 'em up now, sort 'em out later.
Westerns are another corner that you're not going to find getting a lot coverage beyond the sites that specialize in such literature, and frankly, I don't know of any. But we're working hard to correct that. I'm a huge fan of Win Blevins, and his novel 'So Wild A Dream' was one of my favorite books from last year. So it comes as no surprise that he's Tor's editor for Loren Estleman, who writes mysteries set in the wild west featuring Page Murdock, a deputy US Marshall. His latest is 'Port Hazard'.

When a group plots to re-start the Civil War by murdering prominent lawmen -- with Murdock high on their list -- Murdock's boss, Judge Harlan Blackthorne, sends Murdock beyond his jurisdiction to San Francisco. I just read and really enjoyed another Western that took place in part in San Francisco, Scott Phillips' 'Cottonwood', which I really enjoyed. And I've enjoyed other westerns from Joe R. Lansdale; 'Dead in the West' and 'The Magic Wagon'. Estleman brings years of experience to the genre, and I found myself rather surprised that Terry D'Auray was fan. This Murdock novel looks to be a bit wilder than the previous efforts with lots of sex and drugs and really big guns. This is a formula that's worked for year and years; the question would be, can Estleman use the formula, or will it use him? Win Blevins seems to think a lot of Estleman, as does Terry. That's two positive votes for the man. We will thus elect not to hunt him down yet. But we will hunt down his books.