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 This Just In...News from the Agony Column

04-22-05: Andre Norton 'Three Hands for Scorpio'

An Author's Farewell

One hand to write the words and one hand to find them, one mind to imagine the world that in the darkness binds them.
Andre Norton passed away on March 17, 2005. She'll be missed, but her imprint in the literary world will never be missed. In over two hundred books, including her famous Witch World Series, she started generation after generation down the path to enjoying literature in general and science fiction and fantasy in specific. As the first woman to be named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America, she was a barrier-breaker as well. Even Life Magazine, not a haven for genre fiction recognized her as "the grande dame of science fiction".

If this encomium seems to be coming a bit late, well, it's my inclination to talk about the writer's work. That's what we read and that's why we care about any of this. Through their work writers reach us and touch us more directly than any might in person. The connection between a reader and a writer is more intimate than most will care to admit. It's a direct-level access that science fiction writers have imagined in terms of a mind-machine interface and that scientists are even now working to create. We're seeing the first evidence and examples that our minds can be used to control machines. But even then, the connection between reader and writer is more intimate, more intimate, I would say than any potential for even telepathy.

This is because of the trust that is established between a writer and a reader. When a writer sits down to start a book or story, they must trust the reader to perform a sort of creative miracle to make the reading experience. The reader must trust the writer to provide a reading experience that will be satisfying. Both parties provide creative input to the total encounter, an encounter where the two parties will usually never meet, or even be specifically aware of one another. Reading is an abstract intimacy.

'Three Hands for Scorpio' (Tor / Tom Doherty Associates ; April 20, 2005 ; $23.95) is your last message from the mind of Andre Norton. What makes this occasion so special, joyous even is the fact that Norton clearly kept her eye on the prize, providing in her final novel the same caliber of literary excellence that marked her career. Norton never wrote the Great American Novel, nor did she write the most meaningful book ever written. Andre Norton wrote sturdy, well-crafted, imaginative novels of fantasy and science fiction for an audience that might be thirteen or thirty, nine or ninety years old. 'Three Hands for Scorpio' is no exception.

Drucilla, Sabina and Tamara are identical triplets, the daughters of the Earl of Scorpys. Theyre kidnapped and taken to a surreal realm known as The Dismals. There they will fight monsters and the dark lord of the realm who may be friend or foe. Theyll use their innate telepathy -- not as good as reading, but probably handier when you're trapped in a surreal underworld -- to get out, get home and find their own unique skills, the abilities that will help them heal not only their world but perhaps others as well. Set in a world reminiscent of the border between Scotland and England in the sixteenth century, 'Three hands for Scorpio' is more properly set in the borders between you and Andre Norton. With two hundred books, that's a long and complex border.

The most pleasurable aspect of this novel is the realization that while it is Andre Norton's last novel, it is for someone else, most certainly, the first novel they will truly enjoy. Another mind read, another connection made. Without doubt, telepathy can be most helpful, especially if youre trapped in a surreal underworld. But reading can get you out of this world. With it you can cross the barrier between the living and the dead, so that you need never leave them behind. A priceless talent that has no price. Thanks, Grand Master Norton. I'll see you in Witch World.

Chuck Palahniuk is 'Haunted' by Hype

A Novel In Stories

Oh, I say. Oh.
Chuck Palahniuk has a lot to live up to. Since hitting the big-time after the adaptation of his novel 'Fight Club' by director David Fincher, Palahniuk has been more of a media darling than your average author. But he's backed that up with a series of novels that are original, powerful, well-written and deliriously easy-to-read. 'Lullaby' and 'Diary' were each stand-outs in the year they were published. It's been a couple of years since Palahniuk graced us with new fiction, however, since last year's release was 'Stranger Than Fiction', but not, as it were, actually fiction. Readers have been hoping for a new novel from Palahniuk, and those who think that they are getting one had best think again. Though the cover of 'Haunted' declares that it is "A Novel", it's actually the increasingly common "Novel of Stories" more plain-spokenly known in the science fiction world as the "fix-up" novel. But at 402 pages and 23 stories, it's a pretty meaty fix-up. And I think we can safely say that it is a damn sight different than Elizabeth McKenzie's 'Stop That Girl!' the last novel-of-stories to swing through town.

Here's the set-up for this fix-up. At a writer's retreat, the lucky participants write some stories. But this is no pack of wannabes in a forest setting. This is a group of increasingly irate and hungry people locked in an enormous theater. Supplies are running short, tempers are getting shorter, and the stories are getting more extreme as each participant just wants to be the one to be heard as well as fed. Palahniuk has his sights set on Reality Television; think Clarion Workshop as produced by the folks who do 'Survivor' -- and remember that's the title of one of Palahniuk's most beloved actual novels. When you put it that way there's the potential for a fair amount of satiric humor, and Palahniuk is an accomplished if grim humorist.

Clarion Workshop meets 'Surivor'.
'Haunted' is the collection of the stories from this retreat. Each of the stories is by one of the members of the retreat, with some getting more than a single entry. For those who saw Chuck on his 'Diary' tour, you'll remember tales of him reading a story he called 'Guts' that made audience members throw up, pass out, leave in disgust or cheer in approval. That's the story that starts this collection. Talk about starting off strong. This is barf-bag strong.

Between the stories told by the participants are poems about them and tiny bits of interstitial material meant to tape the whole thing together. All in all, the signs are rather mixed I'd say. On one hand, you have the immortal fix-up, generally taken to be a bad sign in the world of genre fiction. On the other hand, some of genre fiction's most important titles were fix-ups. I'm not sure whether he's in or out of favor this year, but back when I was a pup, A. E. Van Vogt's 'The Weapon Shops of Isher' was required reading and it boggled my pre-teen mind. It was almost certainly his most famous fix-up, a term he himself coined to describe his strictly economically-inspired practice of stringing together short stories he'd already been paid for into a novel that would generate new income. 'The Voyage of the Space Beagle', another famous fix-up, inspired both 'Star Trek' and 'Alien'. In fact, Van Vogt sued the makers of 'Alien' based on its similarities to one of the stories in 'The Voyage of the Space Beagle' and he got $50,000 out of them. So you'll see that Harlan Ellison was not alone in suing Hollowood when it felt free to pilfer from genre fiction without recompensing the authors who created the stolen stories.

Meeting the Empress. Note gun.
But for all the worries that the fix-up generates, one would do well to keep in mind Palahniuk's oft-stated membership in the school of minimalism. Palahniuk is always trying to strip his work down, to remove another level of unnecessary complexity. My guess is that with 'Haunted', we're seeing a new expression of Palahniuk's use of minimalist tools and techniques. By breaking a novel down into tiny discrete stories, he's focusing the reader's attention on ever-smaller fragments. The real question is how well it all hangs together, or more importantly, how well he generates narrative drive to propel the reader from one miniature to the next. This is why novels are so enjoyable, because the reader is driven from one page to another, all the way to the end of the book. Maintaining that momentum between short stories is difficult, but here again, Palahniuk's minimalist techniques might come positively into play.

'Haunted' is certainly a must-buy collection, if for nought else than the stomach-churning 'Guts'. But there's a good deal more here than meets the eye, whether that eye is searching for a novel, a short story collection, a fix-up, a few good laughs or a few quick chills. Those who have plumbed the depths and reached the heights with Palahniuk will be pleased regardless of which direction he takes. The rest are advised not to stray to far from uh, a proper receptacle.

04-20-05: Sean Williams' 'The Resurrected Man'

Mature Future Mystery

More unteleported men.
There's an inclination to call anything set in a gritty near future cyberpunk, simply because all our near-futures are now dominated by the computers that dominate our present. Now, back when cyberpunk and the writers practicing it were young that made a certain amount of sense. The fashion and rebellious sense of punk rock surely informed the writers and their visions.

Now however, punk rock is fodder for nostalgic re-unions and the future foreseen by the original crop of cyberpunks has been ground beneath the wheels of the present. Our lesson: the future is usually more like the past than, well, "the Future". So when a writer delivers us a fat novel full of high tech murder, let's not call if cyberpunk. Let's call it a Mature Future Mystery. So, you want your MFM? Pyr's got your MFM, folks.

It would be Sean Williams' 'The Resurrected Man' (Pyr / Prometheus Books ; April 12, 2005 ; $25). And with it, Williams resurrects a novel that first saw publication as an Australian paperback but is just now getting the hardcover version it deserves from Pyr here in the States. It looks like a rockin' good time and Pyr has done an outstanding job bringing this novel to US readers. You've got a lovely cover by John Picacio and equally important to my aging eyes, a very generously printed 529 page novel with nicely-sized type and great leading (that's the distance between the lines) that make it a joy to read. You might not think this sort of thing matters to you, but trust me, it does. Especially when you have what appears to be a hard-core, page-turning, toe-tapping novel of terror.

Not that Lou Anders has already violated his statement from my interview with him that "you are unlikely to see horror coming out of Pyr." And sure, I understand what he means, but 'The Resurrected Man' is probably not for the faint of heart. And it certainly is for readers who like to complicate a great mystery with a nice technological McGuffin. From what I can discern, readers who enjoyed Richard Morgan's 'Altered Carbon' will be quite interested. Williams has come up with a simple idea that has complex ramifications and the potential for highly entertaining complications.

Private Detective Jonah McEwan is wanted for murdering women who resemble his former colleague Marilyn Blaylock. The only problem is that he's been in a coma for three years, a coma he has no memory of entering. And worse? Using teleportation technology that scientists are even now hard at work on, a serial killer has been creating, then brutally torturing and killing perfect facsimiles of his victims, while leaving the original, the "victim" alive and untouched. Is it even murder?

Williams' novel works both the science fiction and mystery genre tropes with equal fervor. He references Agatha Christie (and we say that like it's a good thing) and follows the conventions of the mystery form. To me, this novel offers the potential to be equally thought-provoking and page-turning, without getting overly caught-up in reversing the neutron flow. This is clearly not your old man's cyberpunk. It's Pure Pop for Now People, science fiction and mystery fiction all grown up, no punks required, no nostalgia allowed. Get used to the grit, it's here to stay. The near future is always going to be gritty, at least, until the present cleans up its act. Though the stink of the city air might make you inclined to do so, dont hold your breath waiting for it to happen. The present only gets cleaned up in retrospect, in the happy glow of nostalgia. Think about it. Someone, somewhere in the future will be pining for this present, right now. Can you feel the golden glow all around you? You're oh so mature.


04-19-05: Jim Butcher 'Dead Beat'; Ian R. Macleod's 'The House of Storms'

Dresden Files Debut in Hardcover

Harry gets a hardcover. The grown-up Harry, that is.
Jim Butcher tells us in the Author's Note that follows 'Dead Beat' (Roc / Penguin Putnam ; May 3, 2005 ; $23.95) that at the age of seven, he came down with a case of strep throat. His sisters bought him two boxed sets of books to read while he convalesced for a week. One was 'The Lord of the Rings', the other a set of Han Solo adventure novels by Brian Daley. I hate to say this, but that really dates him -- as young, incredibly young! Post-'Star Wars' science fiction fans...of course, my perception dates me as well!

He goes on to say that his greatest love thereafter was what he calls "swords-and-horses fantasies." As a writer, he spent years trying to write one that would sell, but also branched out into other areas, "including SF, mystery and contemporary fantasy. That's how the Dresden Files came about -- as a happy accident while trying to accomplish something else. Sort of like penicillin."

It's fitting then, that his first hardcover novel was the first volume of his own swords-and-horses fantasy, 'Furies of Calderon'. But it's also about time that his supernatural detective, Harry Dresden, got the nod, and he finally does in 'Dead Beat'. This time around, Harry is called on by his friend in the Chicago PD Karrin Murphy. It seems that Mavra, one of Chicago's deadlier vampires, has some dirt on Murphy that she'll spill unless Harry finds Mavra the Word of Kemmler, and all the power that comes with it. Of course, turn over one rock and lots of stuff scuttles out into the daylight. Bad stuff, and Harry's pretty much on his own dealing with it.

For me, Butcher has done a number of admirable things. First is that he persevered long enough to get himself in print, and that he was willing to find his strength even if it wasn't his favorite kind of fiction to read. To wit, he made his mark first in the supernatural detective biz as opposed to the swords-and-horses biz. But I'm also gratified that he's kept the focus on Harry's supernatural investigations. For this reader, the mix of mystery fiction and supernatural fiction allows the author to explore our inner world more fully while keeping a close connection to our outer world.

Butcher's author's note touches mostly on his new fantasy. But the presence of this note at the end of a honkin' hardcover Harry Dresden novel says something much stronger than any addendum. It's a message to both the reader and the author that perseverance pays. After five paperback originals, readers can now enjoy Butcher's Dresden files in hardcover. Some readers may feel that the rewards have been reversed; they're now paying hardcover prices for their favorite paperback fiction. Those who do need simply wait, but that would certainly not be my advice. I'd suggest that you line up to buy this hardcover and those that follow. That is, if you want to see them follow.
US Hardcover Arrival

A Hardyesque heroine.
Another notable hardcover arrival is Ian R. Macleod's 'The House of Storms' (Ace / Berkley / Penguin Putnam ; May 1, 2005 ; $24.95). It's nice to see the lag-time between the UK and the US release of this title so short. And in this case, even the cover of the US version is quite nice. In short, this is a bargain-priced domestic edition of a novel that will surely garner Hugo and World Fantasy award nominations.

'The House of Storms' is a sequel of sorts to 'The Light Ages'. While the former novel evokes Dickens, and most specifically, 'Great Expectations', Macleod told me in an interview for the latest issue of Interzone that for 'The House of Storms', "Hardy was high up on the list. And Marion, the books main if probably most elusive character, was intended as a Hardyesque heroine. And I have to mention Ian McEwans Atonement, which I read just as I was getting into the book, and helped reinforce my idea of the perfect but nevertheless destructive summer from which the rest of the book evolves. That, and perhaps L.P. Hartleys The Go-Between. Not that the end results anywhere near these books, but thats okay. Writings about setting out to do one thing and ending up doing something else."

You'll have to pick up Interzone to find the rest of the interview, which of course, I heartily endorse. But at least you can get 'The House of Storms' here in the US in a brand-new hardcover first edition in the same year as the UK release. Slowly but surely, publishers are picking up on the reader's requests to have books come out simultaneously in the US and the UK, so that those of us who must read -- or at least buy -- the books when they first come out can do so without paying the often extravagant postage. On the other hand, those of us who are willing to do so will probably buy both editions in hardcover anyway. Of course reading is supposed to be about reading, not collecting. But somehow, one compulsion follows the other. And readers are left the happy fate of not missing the money they spend on dueling editions, because they're quite busy --and happy, thank you very much! -- spending all their time reading.

04-18-05: The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia; Michael Blumlein 'The Healer'

"Asylum Under the avant-garde"

A new novel of the surreal from McSweeney's.
Occasionally, a book comes along that's just so bizarre, it both evades description and is yet easily described: "I must have this book." Previous examples might include Jeff VanderMeer's 'City of Saints and Madmen', and Mark Z. Danielewski's 'The House of Leaves'. These are not titles that are easily described or even circled round. Any boundary you might try to build around these books will exclude some vital aspect of the final product you hold in your hand.

These are books that mutz with typography, with reality, with the idea of a book itself. In the end, you simply have to hold them in your hands, aim your eyeballs in the general direction of the pages and after a while, close the book -- and I'm using that term loosely -- you close the book, and then your eyes for moment. Open your eyes and verify that the world around you is the one you understood before you started your visual and text journey into the world of these books.

That generally does not prove to be the case. Books like this seem to shift the world beneath your feet, and they dont come along very often. You can add to that list of books soon, with Salvador Plascencia's 'The People of Paper' (McSweeney's Books ; June 1, 2005 ; $22). Issued sans DJ in a printed book cover at a price I just now got round to noting with shock (it's amazingly low considering how well produced the title is), 'The People of Paper' has a sticker wrapped around the front cover telling you that it's one of 'McSweeney's Rectangulars'. And that's not a bad description, because as you can see from the scans and photos here, it is in fact rectangular. Beyond that, well, it's just really damn weird. In the best possible way.

'The People of Paper' is Plascencia's first novel. He was born in Guadalajara, Mexico in 1976. He grew up in part on his grandparents' farm. Apparently some of the stories he heard there formed the inspiration for 'The People of Paper'. At the age of eight, he ended up in El Monte, California, which is just a freeway exit or two from my own one-time home of Covina. These are part of the seamless sun-baked, smoggy suburbs and strip-malls that line the San Bernardino Freeway as it bores its way from Riverside into the heart of Los Angeles.

His first published fiction appeared in McSweeney's Number 12, and he's got a passel of prizes and awards. He's the author of an article titled, "The Experimental Ghetto: Asylum under the avant-garde", which he describes as "more of a rant than an article." What more could we ask for?

Apparently, this novel. How do I describe it? I believe that it at least is nominally about Federico de la Fe, a man who leaves Mexico and moves to Los Angeles with this daughter. But this is not the world we imagine it to be, and we know this from the first sentence:

"She was made after the time of ribs and mud. By papal decree there were to be no more people born of the ground or from the marrow of bones. All would be created from the propulsions and mounts performed underneath bedsheets -- rare exception granted for immaculate conceptions. The mixing pits were sledged and the cutting tables, where ribs were extracted from pigs and goats, were sawed in half."

And that's the normal part of the narrative. Upon arriving in LA, he embarks on an epic battle to find a cure for sadness. Good luck! But in Plascencia's vision, perhaps this is possible. This is a world of clockwork tortoises, disillusioned saints, prophetic children and very unusual typesetting.

Now, I am a sucker for weird typesetting, I'll allow that. And thus, heres a book that's going to get my immediate and undivided attention. I must admit that such hi-jinks also make me very suspicious, because in these days when everyone and his friggin' brother can muck with type in strange fashion even using a primitive program like M$ Word, it's very tempting to engage in all sort of unusual fonts instead of actually focusing on the words themselves. This is why editors of short fiction outlets want to see everything in courier, fercrissakes.

What is the matter with me? I see a page like this I want to buy the book. But I also like to make sure the author has something more to say than "I can change fonts and margins."
But it didn't take me long to see that Plascencia delivers weirdness in his words, not just his typesetting. A random chapter grab pulled this up: "She sat alone in her upstate New York apartment, holding a jar of honey-bees, pressing stingers into her forearms." Again, what more can I ask for? I already want to find out who she is and why this is a good idea. I want to find out what kind of world thinks this is a good idea.

I managed to get in touch with Salvador, and asked him: What literary precedents would you want in reader's minds -- if any? And how does your personal experience come into this? What so you think readers should know before they buy/read the book? Here's what he told me:

"I wanted a novel that could not escape its own materials, a story where the very paper and binding played into the narrative and to really try to take advantage of what the novel as an object gives us. So a story that was foremost imagined as existing on paper, a reading experience that is hopefully not translatable or possible on other mediums. A book where a paper cut has significance beyond a band-aid. A bibliophile’s novel, really. But the hope is that the book is not seen as typography gone amuck but as an organic and integrated part of the world of “The People of Paper”. I would love to say that readers should be thinking about Garcia Marquez and Borges when they come to my book, but who wouldn’t want to say that? Realistically they should keep their fourth grade catechism book and ant farm instruction manuals in mind."

So, yes, with the ant farm in mind, I'm really there.

Let's also give credit where credit is due. Yes, Plascencia has written one hell of a narrative, but McSweeney's has gone all out and printed it gorgeously, beautifully. Pages with black squares, tiny illustrations, sideways type...This should be a thirty dollar book, and twenty-two bucks seems like a steal. He's going to be touring, so signed copies will be available. Sorry about the whiplash you might experience, going from textual analysis to grimy physical book-adoration. You should be used to that by now. So you've got a month or so to line up your orders, and clear your reading schedule. For a work of utterly avant-garde writing, 'The People of Paper' looks like pretty quick reading. It's 245 pages, many of them with oddly aligned type that you'll sail through. I wont be responsible for your mental state afterwards.

Nor will you.

Body Healing Horrific Science Fiction

Another Scream/Press Classic.
The new novel from Pyr.
I looked a good ten minutes for my copy of 'The Brains of Rats' by Michael Blumlein. I know it's here somewhere, but alas, it's not jumping out at me this moment. This Scream/Press title from 1990 was one of the many reason to love this lamented publisher, and certainly this writer. While Scream/Press was noted for producing horror fiction, they also pushed the boundaries of this and other genres. Blumlein's collection was a genuinely prescient glimpse into our medical future; sometimes utterly horrific, sometimes simply mind-boggling and sometimes both at once. Blumlein, a practicing physician, is an author on the order of Jonathan Lethem or Jonathan Carroll, who operates in a literary world that ignores genre boundaries or concerns. He cuts a bloody swathe through your preconceptions.

So it's especially nice to see his new novel 'Healer' (Pyr / Prometheus Books; July, 2005 ; $25.00). Well, maybe I'm a bit hasty when I say use the word "nice." Blumlein doesn't really ever quite get round to nice. But for those of us who like to have our guts and our brains churned, yes, this is great news. Blumlein's back with a meaty science fiction novel set in a world that is at least as horrific as ours.

Members of an offshoot of humanity called the Grotesques, or Tesques are distinguished by a cranial deformity and an extra orifice in their chest. A small percentage of these unfortunates have the ability to perform miraculous healings. Not surprisingly, that makes them a valuable commodity in their world. Valuable to others that is; they live as possessions or slaves. Payne is a tesque who is seemingly immune to what other healers call "The Drain", a sort of burnout. He moves from the outskirts of society to the depths of a secret government facility where the most dangerous healings are performed, and he moves from reality to myth.

Readers who like their fiction dark, biological and surreal will find a surplus of those tone colors here, along with wonderfully direct prose. What kind of creatures we'll encounter, what kinds of horror and wonder we'll see remain unknown, but it is certain that readers will have their brains turned inside-out by this writer. Whatever you think you expect from this brief description, un-expect it. Blumlein is the sort of author who manages to make all sort of left, right and U-turns when you least expect them. One this is certain, however; you will be healed of any reading sameness you might have experienced. Blumlein's fiction is the sort that leads to an out-of-body experience. Of course, instead of that "spirit floating up and above you" deal, it's likely to be more of a "Brain stem and spinal cord ripped from your quivering flesh and hurled into the abyss" sort of experience. Psychic splatter. Are you ready for this? If you think so, well, read the book when it comes out, and then write back. Who's laughing now?