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 This Just In...News from the Agony Column

10-14-05: Richard Matheson's 'Noir'

The Trickle-Up Effect

Noir Now. Coming soon, the novelization of the adaptation.
One of the topics that's been the talk of the publishing and writing world has been the so-called disappearance of the midlist. What used to be mid-list books are now effectively being published as small press editions. Readers may recall that I've been a fan of the publications of the Scream / Press and their sister company Dream / Press, both now long gone. One of the swan songs of the latter was my very-highly-prized edition of the (then) 'Complete Stories of Richard Matheson'. Yes, I know I've gone on about this before, but here, it's just a means of entry. Shortly after Dream / Press brought out 'The Complete Stories of Richard Matheson', more old Matheson came out, in the form of 'Noir', a collection of three of Matheson's earliest noir novels from G & G Press. I remember seeing this several times and being on the verge of buying it, but never making the commitment. Now I can color myself either happy or stupid, and I'm not sure which. On one hand, the fact that 'Noir' (Forge / Tor / Tom Doherty Associates ; October 22, 2005 ; $14.95) is now out as a trade paperback makes me happy in that I can get it for a small commitment. On the other hand, I begin to suspect I should have bought the original small-press version back then, because now if I want it I'll have to pay something of a premium price for it.

Dont be fooled by the "First Time in Five Decades" advertising. This is not the first time in five decades these stories have been available. G & G issued that hardcover back a few years ago, and it's pretty readily available, though you'll have to pay. But whats happened here is a very interesting phenomenon that I call the trickle-up effect.

The trickle-up effect happens because those publishers who were once thought of as small press are now publishing print runs that equal full-on print runs from the days when Matheson was writing cheesy paperbacks. The small-press print runs generate enough interest in readers to sell out. So when G & G sells through the Matheson title like lightning, it acts as a dry run for the big publishers like Tor. They pretty much figure that if there are 500 people who want a boutique edition of three early Matheson novels, there might be enough to get payback on a trade paperback run of the same title. Given that Matheson has a pretty big name anyway, due to his movie properties, what you see is a title that starts out in the small press trickle up to the major publishers. Oh, this is no collector's edition like that hardcover. But for readers who simply want to read the titles, it will do just fine. And those who sprung for the boutique edition might themselves want to leave it behind when they head to the taqueria or sushi bar to read while they have lunch. So the fact that they already bought it once to a certain extent suggests that they might be ready to buy it again.

Noir Limited is available from the mentioned-earlier-this-week Don Cannon.
Besides, when you look at the economics of the book -- three novels for fifteen bucks -- that's a pretty damn good deal. Of course, it depends on your affection for fifties noir. This collection includes three novels with classic noir themes. 'Someone is Bleeding' is Matheson's early take on the now-familiar "My hot new girlfriend might be a deranged killer" plot. 'Fury on Sunday' leads to a boatload of dead bodies on Monday. And 'Ride the Nightmare' demonstrates that peeling away the pretty layer of suburbia to expose the rot beneath the skin is no new pass-time.

Make no mistake about it, Matheson's star is on the rise again because the gent who directed Constantine is going to do a new version of the classic 'I Am Legend'. No, apparently two versions are not enough. It first showed up as The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price, a movie that effectively haunted me as a kid when I saw it on Chiller. One of those sort-of-seedy Saturday afternoon movies that shouldnt have creeped me out, but did. Then it was re-done as The Omega Man, giving Charlton Heston an early chance to lovingly hold a rifle and shoot lots of bloodthirsty bad-guys. That was a feature title of my early teen years as well; I saw it a couple of times in the theaters in Covina, California, on a double bill with an early Robert Redford movie titled Man in the Wilderness.

But enough memory lane! Suffice it to say that Tor is announcing the 'I Am Legend' adaptation as well, so I'd suggest readers either run out to buy a nice first ed of that title now, or hold off and wait until the movie tie-in version comes out. As long as it's Matheson's novel, and not some obscene adaptation of the movie based on Matheson's novel. Unless, of course, Matheson, or his son, Richard Christian Matheson, handle the re-write chores. In fact, I vote for the latter to happen, just because it would be so bizarre that it would seem like an episode of The Twilight Zone, a show whose most memorable episodes come from Matheson himself. Maybe after they collaborate on the novelization of the adaptation, they can collaborate on an episode for the new run of The Outer Limits, wherein a writer finds this bastard offspring and decides to go after the writer who pens it -- only to find that he has done so under an identity he created for himself and later expunged from his own memory. And then they can adapt that episode as a graphic novel and it's off into the hall of mirrors.

And residuals.


10-13-05: Jonathan Carroll Serves 'Glass Soup'

A Feast of Reading

Nice cover. Nice cover blurb by the very-appropriate Neil Gaiman.
Given all that's come since, I suppose I'm something of an early-comer to Jonathan Carroll, and my memories of my first Carroll book are still strong. There was a time when I had myself budgeted for some $40 per week on books. We were living in Brea, California and later on, in Garden Grove, California, and commuting to Culver City in a 1980 Pinto station wagon with our two boys. It was a long and complex drive each day. Once a week, on Fridays, we'd get paid, and on the way home, wed stop at Aladdin Books in Fullerton, California. The gents who ran Aladdin Books (Don Cannon still deals books) were connoisseurs of the same kinds of fiction I liked. I remember seeing the Souvenir hardcover copy of Stephen Laws' 'Ghost Train' there. It was there too that I bought a number of UK Headline hardcover copies of the best novels by Richard Laymon; I even met Laymon at a signing one Saturday afternoon. He was a sweetheart of a guy, really friendly and very generous. It was when Dark Harvest's 'Night Visions' with Laymon's contributions came out. Damn, those were the days.

I dont know about other readers, but some book buying experiences seem particularly piquant, and those at Aladdin certainly qualify. Since my wife used to drive the car, I'd read, in between popping bottles into babies' mouths and presenting them with the Toy of the Week. And one of the novels I read whilst doing so was Jonathan Carroll's 'A Child Across The Sky'. Carroll's work was poignant and strange, nightmarish and yet beautifully sentimental. I quickly realized that he was writing a sort-of series and backtracked, aided in getting first-ed hardcovers by Aladdin Books. Those books now sit on my shelves in a neat row, all of them now signed, since Carroll made a rare trip to the US three years ago when he took up with Tor to publish the first novel in a new series, 'White Apples'. I interviewed Carroll back then. He was remarkably generous with his time and attention. Readers who know Carroll know that he gives dogs a pretty high order of importance in this universe; he told me that dogs were like angels because they loved and trusted you unconditionally. I'd just brought home the first dog our family -- my family -- had acquired, a pug. I'd been tempted to bring the dog to the interview, knowing of Carroll's interest, but at the time she was just a puppy. Also, she was a pug, and pugs make a lot of noise even when they're being quiet. They snore. Carroll told me that, "a pug is a serious dog." Ever since, about once a day, I think: "A pug is serious dog." Carroll was one-hundred percent right.

The nostalgia portion of this article is over folks. Let the news begin, and the news is of course that Tor has brought out the second part of what Carroll told me he expected to be a trilogy. 'Glass Soup' (Tor Hardcover; October 5, 2005 ; $24.95) picks up the story of resurrected philanderer Vincent Ettrich, his lover Isabelle and their child Anjo, as well as a host of strange beings they encounter. Having just read my own review of the previous novel, I'm going to follow the precedent I set there and eschew plot talk. Suffice it to say that Jonathan Carroll is determined to do his own thing, and it's unlike any other thing out there. You'll definitely want to read 'White Apples' before you tuck into 'Glass Soup', even if you read it when it originally came out. I mean, you dont need much of an excuse to read or re-read a Jonathan Carroll novel.

One aspect of both these novels that's rather unusual can be found on the colophon page. Tucked in-between the copyrights and publishing information is: "Edited by Ellen Datlow." Now that's an interesting and pretty fascinating attribution. Of course, we all know Datlow; she won a Hugo this year for, uh -- Best Editor. But to see an editing attribution in a novel is, well, novel. It speaks to the power and skill that Datlow wields. And it suggests a level of trust on Carroll's part that's rather unusual.

The bottom line is, no matter how you slice it, Jonathan Carroll is one witty, smart guy. He writes an utterly original novel. He's hilarious and terrifying in the same sentence. He's amazingly imaginative, but he follows his own path. His work is like the bastard child of Woody Allen and Jorge Luis Borges; but it's utterly unlike either. To my mind, he's another guy who, along with the likes of Jeffrey Ford, deserves to be on the bestseller lists. I havent been down to Bookshop in a couple of days, but I'm thinking that a trip might be in order just to see where this book ends up. Will they pile it with the science fiction? Or will it end up with the so-called "normal" books? If you've never read Jonathan Carroll, now is the time to do so. You can pick up 'White Apples' and 'Glass Soup'. This is a menu programmed for your delight. This is a feast of reading.


10-12-05: The Best of Philip Jose Farmer

Sub Press in the Flesh

Don't get too excited by this exciting ARC cover.
Philip Jose Farmer was one of those writers I encountered early on in my SF reading career, a guy whose work was sort of...forbidden. The first stories I read by Farmer were in the Terry Carr anthologies, those 'World's Best SF' paperbacks I remember picking up at Zody's and eventually in a boxed set of mass-market paperbacks.

But most of all I remember three works. There was 'Riders of the Purple Wage', from Harlan Ellison's 'Dangerous Visions'. I read the Book Club edition of that collection, and I'll not forget the cheap pages, the small print, the mind-busting filth. I'm thirteen years old or so, reading about a story that contains excerpts from "Grandpa's Ejaculations". It was definitely an eye-opener, and my first experience at what I believe is now called transgressive writing. His novel 'Flesh' was the kind of book I'd find in a liquor store.

Then, farther along, there was Farmer's 'Venus on the Half Shell', written under the Vonnegut-inspired pen name of Kilgore Trout. This time, I got to read Farmer in a cheap mass-market paperback, and I believe that if I go out in the garage, I could dig up that very book.

Or, more better, I could simply order 'The Best of Philip Jose Farmer' (Subterranean Press ; January 2006 ; $38.00). Sub is really going all-out on this one. Not that this is unusual. But still. The ARC I have tops out at 567 pages, includes 'Riverworld' and 'Riders of the Purple Wage', and an introduction by none other than Joe R. Lansdale hisownself. Lansdale describes Farmer as "The Man With the Electric Brain", and I think that gives an excellent insight into what Farmer is about. He's the best of the 1960's, wired up and run through a weird-lookin' computer, the kind with massive tape drives and arrays of weird blinking lights. He's an artifact of his time, but he's the best artifact of his time.

It seems to me that Subterranean Press is busy printing textbooks of science fiction for the next generation. Not for our kids -- hell, they dont read -- but for their kids, who just might. I can foresee a time when they sit down rows of thirteen-year old kids and task them with reading 'Riders of the Purple Wage'. Will it blow their minds, and will they even understand what that phrase means? Oh, the teachers will call it transgressive SF or some such thing. And I can't say what the teenagers will call it. But it will blow their minds, whether they realize it or not.

Even if it is no longer forbidden, Farmer's work will always stir up those sentiments. And in so doing, give sentimental fiction a good, bad name.


10-11-05: Deborah J. Miller Steals Your Time With 'Swarmthief's Dance'

A Strange New Fantasy Series by Scotland's Other Fantasy Author

Nice illustration by Paul Gregory. Ooh big bugs.
Back at the 2002 Worldcon in Toronto, one of the more memorable events I attended with my wife was the Kaffee Klatsch for Liz Williams, where we met Liz herself and Deborah J. Miller. Miller told us she was the other fantasy writer from Scotland, to distinguish herself from a certain rather high profile as it turns out non-fantasy-so-long-as-fantasy-does-not-include-fiction-with-sorcerers-and-the-like-writer. Miller and Williams, and the other participants, made that a very pleasantly memorable experience, exactly what you hope to get out of the intimate setting of Kaffee Katsch.

Now, Deborah J. Miller has turned up with a new fantasy novel, and I have to say it seems quite peculiar and very, very interesting. I've been staring at the spine for while, but due to the non-standard book shelving techniques I engaged in after this year's Worldcon, it got moved to the new shelves and...

Now, 'Swarmthief's Dance' (Tor UK / Pan Macmillan ; September 2, 2005 ; £10.99) is out as a very nicely printed trade paperback in the UK, and to my mind it looks quite interesting and very unusual. It's clearly not your standard-issue fantasy, with a strange setup that promises even stranger follow-ups. This is precisely why we love fantasy, why we love science fiction and why we haunt the shelves looking for titles like, well 'Swarmthief's Dance'.

The back story is what got my attention. It incorporates some nicely mythic overtones that bring the work back into the land of 'Bullfinch's Mythology' as opposed to yet another pseudo-Tolkienesque tale of commoners who become Kings-with a-capital-K. Instead, we start with a war in Heaven. I love a good war in Heaven. In this case, Rann is the Guardian of the Underworld, and he does what he's supposed to do. Rann keeps the pesky Nulefi at bay. He does this by, well -- killing them and destroying their bodies. But alas, bodies dead, the souls live on, looking for a place to alight. To be reborn.

And they are reborn, in the Swarms of Myr. A human boy, Vivreki, has witnessed the rebirth, and is having the unpleasant experience of getting messages from one of the Nulefi in his mind. Not surprisingly, the Nulefi being is pleading for help, and even less surprisingly, Vivreki's masters believe that what he's experiencing is heresy. So Vivreki is reborn and rebuilt, his mind wiped and his life restarted elsewhere. But the Nulefi have not forgotten him. Theyre just spirits of the Underworld, trying to make a living, or at least get a life – literally. But the father of gods has twigged to their survival, and is willing to blow up the whole shebang in order to be shut of them. This is not a plan that's going to make anyone, like, alive, happy.

Now what really intrigues me about this fantasy is the good-guy/bad-guy contrast. Because Miller seems to have not only created a fascinating and pretty original mythology, but she's populated it with a bunch of gray guys. As to the mythology, it has just enough of the classics to seem classy, but not so much as to seem stuffy. And for the struggle here, well...

OK, to me, you know, to my limited mind, the Underworld, well, that's usually a place where the bad spirits go. Oh, let's just call it Hell. So, you got these spirits from Hell that Just Want To Be Free. Perhaps they're NOT Free for a good reason. Then you've got the sympathetic kid, who is in league with these to-my-mind-probably-evil spirits. Then you've got the kind of god in charge of all this who is of at best, an apocalyptic bent. No matter how you slice it, willing to destroy everything just to be shut of some spirits who, uh, bug you, well, that's not what I call a real positive outlook.

So what you have here in this slim (315 page) volume is a rather complex tale, not the obvious, kid-to-king transformation. You've got my favorite kind of fantasy, the meddling, petty gods fantasy, which is the classic Bullfinch's deal. Zeus, Hera, all of them were like squabbling divorcées. Here you get that and you get giant, intelligent insects. And no, I'm not just in it for the giant, intelligent insects. I mean, for those who might think this type of fiction on the escapist side, well, how often do you hear of leaders who are willing to endure apocalypse to achieve victory? You ask me, once is all too often. This whole, blow-it-up-to-make-it-better approach, well, I'm not a fan. I prefer it to stay in novels about giant insects and re-incarnated gods.

10-10-05: NPR Audio Link; Justina Robson is 'Living Next Door to the God of Love'; Karl Schroeder Joins the With 'Lady of Mazes'

Cast Your Vote

W00t! W00t!
Should you wish to hear the piece I did on SF for NPR, you can do so via this link. You can also email the story to others, and you know, I'd encourage you to do so. Like many authors (not that I'm really an author, but, just for the sake of simile) I'd suggest that the strengths of the article were those of my contributors and any weaknesses mine. But you know, it was only afterwards, when I first wrote about this, that I realized the piece was indeed like a mini-column. Wish I had thought of that before, it would have made it easier to put together. That said, I'm quite happy with it and hope it will bring some readers to the authors involved. And I'd love to hear any feedback you have; just email me. And now back to our regularly scheduled news.

Choose Your Own Reality

Coming Next month from Pan Macmillan.
Science fiction is a genre that is all-too-often the literary equivalent of a Recreational Vehicle used to pick up the groceries. You can drive this enormous house around, with every possibility you can imagine under the roof, consuming enormous amounts of fuel, and use it to accomplish the most mundane of tasks. All that potential is too often used for everyday concerns.

Justina Robson is manifestly NOT interested in picking up the groceries. If she's going to write science fiction, apparently, she's going to use it to give her not just this world, but every world her characters can imagine. And what she's exploring is not the world, or the worlds, but the limits of imagination.

Her last novel, 'Natural History' brought readers a vital vision of humanity divided. The Unevolved, your standard issue humans, had gone and created the Forged, humans with customized bodies and minds designed to perform specific useful tasks while exploring the universe. Which they did. And they brought back something. As if the choice between Forged and Unevolved were not complex enough, humanity was presented with what essentially proves to be a final choice. An opportunity to leave itself behind; to make a wish.

'Living Next Door to the God Of Love' (Pan ManMillan ; October 21, 2005 ; £17.99) explores the world that results when we finally get our wish. What if you can make your own heaven? Is that good enough? Is there a better heaven than you can imagine? When you can have anything, how do you know which thing is worth having? Robson has an incredibly fecund imagination, and 'Living Next Door to the God Of Love' revels in possibility, in the conflict between the limitless and limits; between infinity and two.

The novel begins in Metropolis, a city where you can be any superhero you like. The problem is that there's always a temptation to sink back into the primordial ooze of being everything and everyone.

So yes, Robson is great with the big ideas. But the reason she really excels as a writer is that she manages to put wonderfully rendered characters at the center of her big rigs, and use the genre to bring her characters to life, rather than simply setting up some well-conceived machine through which she runs stock characters to show off the workings of the machine. With 'Living Next Door to the God Of Love', she offers readers a thick slab that merges wild imagination with characters who live and breathe in your imagination. It's the kind of novel that you should think of as the rich, chocolate dessert of your reading. It offers opportunities to consume greedily and the savor the pleasure. It's her biggest novel yet, one that spins a couple of simple ideas with the grandeur that you can really only achieve using the literary techniques of the science fiction genre. It's a dangerous beauty that she toys with here. Fortunately, Robson knows what's important. It's not the groceries, it's not the vehicle. It's the drivers and passengers who are important. It's the people.

The Maze of Publicity

A newfangled technology -- books!
I suppose it had to happen. The Scifi Channel, which brings you their excellent Scifiction website as well as such notable movies as Boa II, is teaming up with Tor books to bring you a line of books they call "SciFi Essential" books. And given the evidence, I can say that it looks like the book end of the deal is pretty peerless.

The first title in the program was Cory Doctorow's incredibly wonderful 'Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town'. It's such a great start, we have reason to be very optimistic. The follow-up title in the series is 'Lady of Mazes' (Tor Books / Tom Doherty Associates ' ; August 24, 2005 ; $24.95) by Karl Schroeder, a writer Cory mentioned to me in his interview. And of course, since then, I've been meaning to pick up one of his titles. At this point, I've got to say, it's hard to miss.

That's because the SciFi Channel is promoting the titles via their website, their magazine, their handheld channel, and the TV channel itself. Of course, I have to admit that I have not yet seen any of these promotions beyond the SciFi logo on the book. I'd love to see the SciFi Channel promoting SF reading, but...I'd have to watch it. And, of course, I'm too busy reading.

But any way you slice it, promoting great SF writers on TV, even if it only amounts to a logo on the book, well, it's a good thing. Future titles include Kage Baker's 'Children of the Company', both John Scalzi's 'Old Mans War' and the follow-up 'The Ghost Brigades', Cecilia Dart-Thornton's follow-up to 'The Iron Tree', 'The Well of Tears', 'The Road to Dune' by Frank Herbert, Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, Timothy Zahn's 'Night Train to Rigel', 'Platinum Pohl', the best of Frederick Pohl (one of the main SF authors I first read, collecting a series of paperbacks), Ben Bova's 'Titan' and Jane Lindskold's 'Wolf Hunting', her latest "Firekeeper" adventure. It's a pretty impressive line up and frankly, any promotion of SF literature via SF TV has got my vote.

'Lady of Mazes', the case in point, is a pretty peculiar enterprise, a mating of some very old ideas with some very new ideas. On one hand, you've got a story set in a ringworld. That's right, the hoary old Larry Niven concept, played out in more novels than I can personally remember, makes an appearance in a cutting-edge SF novel. To my mind, that's a surprising choice. But at the heart of this, you have essentially a future world, a human colony full of human diversity. And that's the heart of this novel, because all that diversity is invaded by something that seeks to slice and dice the barriers that make diversity possible. And what you have then, is a novel that strikes at the heart of a very contemporary issue: why can't we all just get along?

Of course, it strikes at that heart using invasive surgery, by creating a science-fictional environment where all the internals of our time are externalized for easy examination. At under 300 pages, it's pretty pared down, and yet packed with the kid of wild action and ideas that can yank you in and not let you go. Stephan Martiniére provides the very nice cover, and interestingly enough, the dust jacket copy consists entirely of quotes from Charles Stross and Charles Harness. I kind of like that approach; it adds some personality.

Not that Schoeder's novel needs personality; it's got that to spare. What it needs is readers, lots of readers. Should you see an advert on SciFi channel for the novel, do yourself a favor; turn off the TV, venture out into the real world and buy this book about virtual worlds within real worlds. And enter this virtual world within your real world. Its this really newfangled VR tech, goes straight to the brain. Called a book.