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 This Just in..News from the Agony Column

03-25-04: The Third Alternative Turns Ten

Ten Years of Weird

Dennis Sibeijn, known as damnengine, provided the cover.
This is the tenth year of publication for 'The Third Alternative', Andy Cox's influential magazine of really, really weird fiction. From my sampling of this issue, it's weird in the best possible sense; great fiction that gets directly into your brain, but via a route that's particularly and enjoyably inexplicable. Combine the fiction with a classy, large-format look and you've got a winningly readable package.

Format is critical to magazine reading pleasure. My preferences run to the larger sizes, since in general they lay open more easily, and thus facilitate the all-important reading a great story while eating lunch in a moribund restaurant experience. The covers for all four tenth anniversary issues will be done by Dennis Sibeijn. Judging from "Spring', we've something to look forward to.

The Guest Editorial is provided by Liz Williams. She talks about an interesting group of authors; the middle-aged women who wrote some excellent YA fantasy long before it was a surefire road to the Fortune 500. Susan Cooper and Joan Aiken books have their spots on my shelves, but I've not seen them cast across the literary landscape with the concise precision that Williams brings to her spot.

When you live in or even near one of the larger cities, there's a certain sense of dislocation you can feel, with the city itself, or even with those around you. It's as if there's a layer of reality -- or unreality -- that you can't quite slice through. 'Iridescence' by Jay Caselberg, captures that feeling with quiet, tight prose, characters the coalesce into your consciousness and a surreal scenario that grows ever clearer, and ever more mysterious, as the story unfolds.

Justin and Janessa are sort-of a couple, making their lives in the never-named city, a city that has simply up and floated into the clouds, high above the landscape. Meeting Janessa for breakfast, as usual, Justin gets some bad news; a mutual friend, Ben, has taken The Long Walk, leaving his partner Amanda behind. The event has implications for all the survivors that lead them to a greater understanding of themselves and the city.

Caselberg creates characters whose reactions are real enough to lend reality to a potentially hard-to-swallow scenario. He succeeds admirably, creating a story that has a concrete, vertigo-inducing reality, but is shot through with dissonances that dislocate the reader into a pleasantly parallel parable about urban alienation. It's actually quite powerful and more than a little mysterious.

Elsewhere, Christopher Fowler, whose 'Full Dark House' I just ordered, provides an acerbic column of film commentary in 'Electric Darkness'. He's talking horror films and 'Lord of the Rings'. It's fun stuff and there are a few I haven't seen I might be tempted to check out. You also get an interview with Official SF GrandMaster Ursula K. Leguin, Robin McKinley, and other stories by Tim Pratt, Karen Fischler, Joe Hill, Gavin Grant and Tim Lees. Seven bucks well spent, by any means.

03-24-04: Can You Buy Them Fast Enough?

VanderMeer's Remix Updated 3-35-04

You can just about read it, can't you?

Anxious to leave James Brown behind as the most sampled and remixed artist, "Jeff" VanderMeer has just released the remixed and expanded Tor/UK edition of 'City of Saints and Madmen'. What DJ Vandermeer and Tor have done in this edition is to take the 16bit, 44Khz track masters from the original 'City of Saints and Madmen' Sessions, and re-master them in a 32-bit PCM version. The sounds are bigger, cleaner, the bass is lower and the highs are higher. Better yet, Mixmaster Vandermeer himself has provided an extended, "12-inch" remix of his very hard to find story 'The Exchange', originally released under his Nicholas Sporlender moniker on his boutique Hoegbotton & Sons label. Not content with the standard "more bass and synthesizer" style of remix, DJ VanderMeer has seen fit to include facsimile reproductions of the pages in the original release with new commentary set in the unique sonic timbre of Courier type. The result is a more-postmodern-than-thou setting of a gooey monster story.

Contrary to popular legend, this book is not actually longer on the inside than it is on the outside. The page count has remained constant no matter how many times I've checked it, and the page ordering remains consistent as well. If you've already purchased one of the earlier "drifting pages" editions of the book, this will come as welcome change. Better yet, no unwelcome changes have been wrought, an unusual situation in the remixed and remastered business. The curious, quaint and very strange illustrations have been rendered with care, the 20-odd pages written in a numerical code remain and the squid-infatuation has not been flensed from the text by the ever sharp knives of the less-is-more set.

So there it is, yes: there's yet another edition of this VanderMeer text that you need to buy. Maybe, now that you have three or possibly four slightly different copies of the work, maybe now is the time to open one up and enter it. You're likely to return, or return unchanged. Don't listen or read without a squid fork to hand.

03-25-04: Jeff wrote to tell me that the illustrations in this edition are the originally intended illustrations. Jeff himself considers this the definitive edition. With luck, we may have Jeff himself to tell us the fascinating history of this work. If you're at all interested in how great fantasy gets published, this will be an highly entertaining eye-opener. In the interim the original advice stands: just buy it. It's beautiful.

The TorUK / Pan-Macmillan Deluge

Steve Rawlings has a great gig doing these covers.

While we're on about TorUK and Pan Macmillan, let's learn the lesson now, and in the cases where we haven't learned, at least pay the price gracefully for some of the best books you could hope to find.

Neal Asher tells me that the first hardcover printing of 'Cowl' has sold out, and they're running a second. Chances are that those still on the bookshelves or at your booksellers are first printings. If this matters to you ask; but by all means, buy the book. It's, as they say, a corker.

Hi Terry!
For those who missed the first bow of Jeffrey Ford's 'The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque', well shame on you. This is one of those books that to my mind would have made a perfectly appropriate national bestseller. But at least Tor UK has released it in a handy mass market paperback. I plan on giving my spare copy to Terry D'Auray, who is finding this out in this column. My take is that if she, like anyone, reads the first paragraph, she'll be captivated by Ford's perfectly rendered prose. And then she'll strangle me for adding another book to her queue, or more likely, trap me under an avalanche of books. ["Or," she writes, having now seen this, "something even more diabolical."]

Also out in a mass market paperback is one of my favorite books from last year, even if it didn't make the list due to my own ineptitude. Justina Robson's 'Natural History' is a compact, hilarious, wildly imaginative space opera. She plugs you in to a sense of wonder like no other author. While I know you think you've read into every nook and cranny to be explored in this sub-genre, Robson busts it all wide open again with astonishing ease.

Steve Stone did a nice job on Robson's cover. Yet another cover design for Grimwood.

Yes it's true: woe unto you if you missed out on the Earthlight hardcover first editions of the Jon Courtenay Grimwood 'Arabesque' trilogy. Whoever did the packaging, did a bang up job, and deserves some kudos, while we all know that 'Felaheen' was on my list. I'm not always inept, just overworked, or I guess in the tradition of a good "concept album" like the above-mentioned 'City of Saints and Madmen', I'm -- to be more precise -- over played. I really can't call being deluged in books work in any sense of the word. Now look: alert readers take note. I'll pop the Robson title and the Grimwood title in the mail to you, one to each of the first two to email me. My wife thanks you in advance, as does Terry. Of course, the Grimwood is something along the lines of what Mad Magazine would call "gifts for finks", since it absolutely requires the reading and purchase of the first two. But if you haven't read them, and you do buy the first two, I'm sure you'll thank me. And no, I don't think my readers are finks. But fink -- there's a word you've got to love.

03-22-04: Changing Faces with PS Publishing

Lebbon Sequel and Greenwood Titles from PS Publishing

Worse things waiting.
The latest PS Publishing novellas have just been shipped to me, which means that they're probably on their way to you, or your PS Publishing bookseller of choice. With them, PS passes a landmark, quietly, with style -- and the highest possible quality.
When PS started, back in 1999, they laid out a fine line of novella-length fiction. Since then, they've ventured into full-length novels, short story collections, and non-fiction collections. They have an ambitious slate going forward. And they've finally come round to the point where they have released the first novella sequel to a previously-issued novella one that was easily one of my favorites.

'Naming of Parts', by Tim Lebbon, was the sixth novella to be released, and one that even my teenage son enjoyed. It was set in a post 'Night of the Living Dead'-style world, where dead things come back to life. Lebbon managed lots of imaginative riffs on that premise, but most importantly, he backed it up with a very carefully written character and voice, turning the novella into an unexpectedly powerful coming-of-age story. The cover illustration by Alan Clark was a nice touch as well.

The sequel, 'Changing of Faces', is now out and once again, we’re graced with a lovely Alan Clark cover. And once again, Jack and his father, from 'Naming of Parts', are trying to forge a new life in a world where death has become common -- but not final. They're finding out that there are worse things afoot than lumbering zombies. And that their own desires may be the worst things of all. The introduction is by Simon Clark, himself not averse to tearing it up with the undead.

Check your library for these volumes.
I've been a fan of Gary Greenwood since his Razor Blade Press days when I bought 'The Dreaming Pool' and 'The King Never Dies'. I had not a clue about his latest from PS Publishing, only a title -- 'Jigsaw Men'. Had I known more, I would have been quite hot to get his new title, which itself seems ripe for a sequel. 'Jigsaw Men' takes as its starting point a world based on the works of Mary Shelley and H. G. Wells. Jigsaw men are the result of "Frankestein's Theorem", and they play a key role in the murder of an MP being investigated by Detective Livingstone. This novella is barely over a hundred pages, with an introduction by Mark Chadbourne, but it seems likely to offer a wonderfully dense world that I hope to return to visit again.

As ever, PS has outdone themselves on the dust jackets. To see the full Alan Clark cover for 'Changing of Faces', click here, being forewarned that it's a big image. And Chris Nurse's incredible collage for Jigsaw Men can be found here; again it's a huge image. What more can you ask for? The books themselves; but you'll have to buy 'em, just as did I. I'd suggest a subscription from PS Publishing, or that you find a reliable vendor who carries them all. Write me if you need a list of the usual suspects.