This Just In...News
From The Agony Column
Where The Dust Settles
Preview for Podcast of Monday, February 19,
Here's a link to an MP3 preview
of Monday's Podcast. I am so so incredibly
lucky to work with such people. I thank and salute them.
02-16-07: Dave Duncan Enlists 'The Alchemist's
Apprentice' ; A Review of Kim Stanley Robinson's 'Sixty Days and Counting'
Skullduggery Not Smugduggery
Readers know that
I treasure books in all their physical, papery glory. But I am sorely
tempted to do Dave Duncan a favor and start a campaign
to cover the covers of his new book 'The Alchemist's Apprentice'
(Ace / Berkley / Penguin Putnam ; March 6, 2007 ; $14.00). Maybe someone
email me a better cover design for this book. I think that the art
director looked on page one, wherein we find the novel begins on Valentine's
and said, "Let's make this look like a cheesy Harlequin Romance
novel!" Yikes! Mission accomplished, folks! You've driven away
about 90% of the potential customers for this novel.
what you'd expect, thankfully.
The real shame is that this novel could easily have received a different,
more effective but equally cheesy cover design, spun off from That
Book. It does, after all, involve the shenanigans of Nostadamus,
and whatnot. Yes, things get a bit silly, but on purpose, not by accident
as in That Book. But this book looks like crash course in creative
pouting. If you’re going for the cheese folks, at least get the right kind
of cheese! THIS IS RIDICULOUS! I'm surprised that the dude on the cover
isn’t holding a friggin rose. In his teeth.
So, why should Agony Column readers give a second glance at what looks
to be a bad historical romance? Because it is nothing of the kind, but
instead a crackin' good historical fantasy thriller with a bit of farce
tossed in to keep things from getting too serious. Moreover, it doesn't
require a lot of explanation to convey the appeal. In a historical Venice
that is not the Venice of our history, Nostadamus is not just your average
astrologer. (OK, astrology, Valentine's day ... I can see why someone who
didn't read the book might think it was romance. But really. REALLY.) Nope,
our favorite seer also messes about with alchemy, magic and even demonology.
With a side of chicanery and obfuscation. And given that he doesn't see
it coming, you can guess he's really good at the PR end and not so hot
at the back-end tech, in this case, dealing with the results of dabbling
in demonology. Obviously, they hadn't built up a horror movie industry
back then or else he'd know what was coming.
Nostradamus gets his garters stuck in some nasty gearwork but at least
has the foresight to know that what will come knocking at the door on a
stormy night is not likely to be benevolent. He hies himself hence and
leave his apprentice (read: stooge) to deal with the dirty work. Good for
Nostradamus, not so good for Alfeo Zeno. Much better all around for readers.
This is rock 'em, sock 'em Renaissance skullduggery of the most compelling
variety. Monsters, swords and murder make things tough for our young tough,
but he's a pip, this one. A pip for the readers, whose minds will ratchet
back into slack-jawed, droolworthy enjoyment while mysteries unfold, some
solvable, some not so amenable to solution. Scams and the supernatural.
And lots of solvents to boot. This is the Renaissance, and Venice was a
veritable pillar of poisoning. Better still this is Alternate Venice with
demons, cynics and yes, a gal named wait for it: Violletta. OK, so they
could have done themselves a favor and just put Violletta on the damned
cover, all unbuttoned and dopey looking. They might have at least reached
like, fifteen readers.
The bottom line is that we have a decent alternate historical farce / thriller
by an established writer that looks like a cheeseball Harlequin Romance.
Give it a chance that the cover does not. You may or may not feel that
you need to read a novel about an alternate Venice and some skullduggery
revolving 'round Notradamus. But you at least need to know that 'The Alchemist's
Apprentice' is in fact a novel about an alternate Venice and some skullduggery
revolving 'round Notradamus and not some bodice-ripper with an evocative
Hot, Hotter, Hottest
in the Capital : Not an oxymoron.
With 'Sixty Days
and Counting' Kim Stanley Robinson tops off his Science
in the Capital trilogy in fine form, deftly combining domestic comedy
with scientific veracity. It's not a common combination, but Robinson
shows a real talent for dialing back and forth between global dilemmas
and household predicaments. I have a full-length, in-depth
review posted here. I've tried to review not just the single novel but the
a whole, because it's more of what Robinson called a "triptych
a series. It's also proving to be increasingly prescient, as the
debate about global warming shifts in tone.
Of course, it's works like Robinson's Science in the Capital trilogy
and, I would argue, Michael Crichton's 'State
of Fear' that helped
argument about. Crichton's work was not good fiction, and his contrarian
arguments against global warming were actually the highlight of the
book. But by bringing up the subject in a global literary marketplace,
raise awareness, mostly of the arguments against his contrarian views.
Robinson's work was a perfect example of science fiction predicting
the present. By the time 'Forty Signs of Rain' and 'Fifty Degrees
made the journey from Robinson's mind to the printed page, much of
what he posited came to pass. While we're nearly two years away from
presidential election, we can expect that the next occupant of the
White House will have to deal with our inaction thus far, just as
does Phil Chase
in this sequel. Of course, Chase is a reasonable, pretty much down-to-earth
politician. This is probably the most "science fiction" element
of the series.
If you've not started the Science in the Capital series yet, now is
a good time to start. It's done, and you can scream from the recent
past to the
near future in a matter of days. And while the real world hurtles towards
hell in an express car, you can watch the fiction world take a parallel
slide. If you’re lucky you can invest your life with the same
quirky charm you'll find in the lives of Robinson's characters. Though
admit that none of my friends or co-workers lives in a tree house.
So far as I know, at least.
02-15-07: Jay Lake Turns the 'Mainspring' ;
A Review of 'Mathematicians in Love' By Rudy Rucker
A Clockwork Universe
I grew up for a large part of my life in Los Angeles, and some of my favorite
memories are of going to the various observatories there. I spent many
a day at Griffith Observatory and a few evenings at a smaller planetarium
/ observatory in Pomona. I loved all the star charts and solar system
mock-ups, called orreries, those intricate clockwork models. Back then,
I thought of them as science. Funny how that works; now they've become
art. I must say I think they're gorgeous.
cover by Stehan Martiniere. Wowsers!
Jay Lake's new novel, 'Mainspring' (Tor / Tom Doherty Associates ; June
12, 2007 ; $24.95) posits a universe that is indeed clockwork. The planets
move on visible gears around the sun. The structure of the universe is
there for all to see. The handiwork of the creator is laid bare and any
questions may be answered if you just look around. Hethor Jacques is a
clockmaker's apprentice, just trying to get a good night's sleep when he
gets a visit from the Archangel Gabriel, charging him with the duty of
taking the Key Perilous and rewinding the Mainspring of the Earth, lest
bad things happen. A novel to die for.
I was fortunate to be on the periphery as Lake brought the novel into being,
and he was kind enough to fill in the blanks from what I saw. And so reader,
here's you first glimpse into the clockwork behind 'Mainspring', which
I suspect is going to be one of the big novels of this spring and early
RK: Could you talk about the origins of the idea for Mainspring?
JL: MAINSPRING actually very first began as an exercise
at a writing retreat, when I was being challenged to write viable novel
proposals. I'd done a
little research before on Medieval orreries and have long been fascinated
by clockwork in general. Both in terms of time keeping and in terms
of mechanical artifice, clockwork is one of the great arts of our civilization.
Read up on the Schwilgué Clock, for example.
Once I started thinking seriously about the idea, I took it to the Fortean
Times email list. That's as assorted a bunch of rugged intellectual individualists
and iconoclasts as you'd care to find. There was quite a bit of discussion
about the core concept -- the Earth orbiting the sun on a brass track --
and a gentleman in England, an aerospace engineer by the name of Robin
Hill actually designed the appropriate gearing for me to account for axial
tilt, the moon's orbit, etc. In the final analysis, I went with a simpler,
more visually driven solution, though his work was very important in helping
me realize the idea.
RK: Could you talk about the religious implications of the world you create?
Schwilgué Clock in Strasborg from Wikipedia.
JL: Heh. It's almost the opposite of my personal worldview. This is a Young
Earth, using Bishop Ussher's timeline. The handiwork of God the Creator
is undeniable as the gears of Heaven hang glowing in the evening sky. There
are no atheists, only dissenters.
At the same time, God has been absent since Creation. Think of the concept
of God-the-watchmaker, from Enlightenment philosophy. That's pretty much
the theological concept here. Angels still watch over the Earth, and there
is a Christ, executed not on the cross but the horofix, or Roman wheel-and-gear.
The relationship of man to God is therefore very different, and the way
people approach their place in the world likewise. To me, this is another
way of looking at individual responsibility, conformity and the lack thereof
-- all issues I deal with regularly in my fiction.
RK: Could you comment on the world-building aspects of this novel?
JL: Can I take the fifth on this one? Science Fictionally speaking, it
makes no sense at all. I mean, think for a minute about a ring of brass
90 million miles in radius sitting in Earth's orbit. Thermal expansion,
brittleness, the gravitational effects. Writing like this means playing
it deadpan straight while hoping like heck no one pays attention to the
man behind the curtain.
Inside the world, I closely adapted recent history. It's set in 1900, Lloyd
George is prime minister of England, the British Empire rules everything
from St. Louis to Calcutta, including all of Continental Europe. It is
primarily opposed by the Equatorial Wall -- the 100 mile high ring at the
waist of the world atop which the gears are found -- and by the Chinese
Empire. Again, in a world with only the Northern Hemisphere, why would
Victoria have ruled? This isn't Alternate History, not by a long shot.
But I play it straight, use familiar elements to contrast the high weirdness,
and hopefully the reader has a lot of fun.
RK: Will there be a sequel?
JL: Indeed. It has the working title of STEMWINDER, and I'm about to turn
the initial submission draft into Tor by the end of February.
When I wrote Robin Hill of the Fortean list to ask if I could use his name,
he gave me some very interesting additional information:
"I remember it did get monstrously complicated. We had a pretty deep discussion
on how it was all supposed to work, the problems of heating and cooling
such a huge structure, how to take account of age and general wear-and-tear.
I must admit that the idea of a steam-powered solar system fabricated
of brass and ivory does somewhat appeal, especially if it explains the occasional
earthquakes caused by gears running near to the planetary gimbals.
science fiction simply doesn't have enough brass in it any more..."
I certainly could not agree more! And with that, readers, are veritable
herds of pre-orders made. If I could pre-order 'Stemwinder' I would do
so. But the clockwork of the publishing world, equally visible moves so
slowly. One second, minute, one day at a time. If only I could see the
gears. If only I could make them move.
The Best of All Possible Worlds
In the best of all possible worlds, Rudy Rucker would be a bestselling
author. His goofy, funny, sweet and weird novel 'Mathematicians
has something for everyone, with the exception of those who refuse to
read novels that include flying, talking squids. It's certainly his most
accessible novel that I've read. I try to capture what made the novel
work so well for me in my
in-depth review. As with many of my reviews,
I suspect some people will say that I really like the book and that they
would as well, while the anti-flying/talking squid contingent would,
of course, beg to differ. I'm thinking that's a fairly insignificant
and actually shrinking part of our population.
Rucker gets his hands on the clockwork. Watch out!
'Mathematicians in Love' is an excellent example of the genre that Rucker
calls Transrealism, which he talked about in
our interview. He writes in
the first person about a scene he knows very well, that of grad student
mathematicians. He's been one and taught them as well. As he injects
an increasing proportion of out-and-out weirdness into what begins
as a fairly
normal narrative (other than the "it's not our reality" aspect)
readers will feel their own world transformed. This is psychedelic
literature for children of Timothy Leary's legacy. It's smart, surreal
and well worth
your valuable time, even if you can't edit the universe to give yourself
more time. And damn, with all the fine books in Rucker's back catalogue,
I'd really like to have a lot more time. Where's my universe-altering
02-14-07: A Review of 'No Dominion' by Charlie
Huston ; David Drake Lights 'Balefires'
Love is in the Air
not really loving this cover design.
Well, sort of. I
mean, Joe Pitt, the blood-drinking, hard-boiled detective of 'No Dominion'
by Charlie Huston has a love interest and it's a serious part of the
novel that actually provides a nice contrast to the scathing, over-the-top
violence that characterizes the rest of the narrative. So here's
my valentine to readers; my third count (Dracula) it, third review
this week. With
a new book article to boot. And still I'm far behind in the flood
of worth reading.
Be that as it may, there are some important things to say about 'No
Dominion', with regards as to how it measures up as a novel in a
series that, according
to Huston in the interview
we did recently, will span five books. And
as with any Charlie Huston novel, there's the very important "fuck" quotient.
This refers not the amount of sex, but the number of times the word "fuck" itself
is used and how well it is deployed. One also wishes to know whether
Huston manages to top himself (not in the sense of suicide) in terms
when compared to both 'Already
Dead' and the Hank Thompson books like
'Caught Stealing'. I think readers who will look for more shall find
it, and those
who hope for less will be tossed into a meat grinder and turned into
food. In other words, this is the sort of novel where more is more.
In my review, I've focused on the series aspects and left the plot for
you to discover. Huston is pretty twisty, but to my mind at least, plot's
not the point in 'No Dominion'. The point is that Huston tries and succeeds
in his effort to drive a stake through the heart of wussy vampires. See
what I mean. Love is in the air! In a fine red mist of blood.
Tales of the Weird and Fantastic
Lots of folks probably know David
Drake for his hard-spec, mil-SF. The
Hammer's Slammers stories and novels occupy a prime position in the world
of mil-SF and for good reason. They're gritty and well-written explorations
of the future conflicts that resonate in the present. Given that we Americans
in particular and humans in general seem to be really interested in blowing
one another up, this sort of has a compelling import beyond the thrill
of reading Gripping Future Adventure Stories.
the final cover. NS usually does well.
Then there are Drake's fantasy fans, who enjoy his Ranks of
Bronze or Lord of the Isles stories for much the same reason if you substitute "Medieval" for "Future".
The same virtues mark both series. What really helps Drake's fiction
is a generous sense of humor about himself and his work that keeps
serious goings-on a goodly distance from the bathetic or pompous.
Both sets of fans can be thankful that it was Night Shade Books who snagged
Drake, and 'Balefires' (Night Shade Books ; May 15, 2007 ; $26.95) has
something to offer not only Drake's substantial fanbase, but others outside
of his normal range. 'Balefires' focuses on Drake's early short stories
of horror and fantasy. As one might expect, they offer many of the pleasures
of his SF. They're direct, darkly humorous and sport a take-no-prisoners
Variety is the watchword here and there's plenty of it. "The Red Leer" spins
off from Theodore Sturgeon's iconic 'Killdozer'. I remember reading that
story when I was a kid and being highly impressed. It was one of the stories
that got me where I am today. Unlike Sturgeon's tale, Drake's story involves
a monster we get to see and I like seeing monsters. "A Land of Romance" is
the very peculiar tale of a Fast Food King with a penchant for serving
exotic meats. This is rarely a good sign. "Blood Debt" delves
into witchcraft in a modern setting. "The Elf House" is a story
from the Lord of Isles universe, while "Arclight", his
first sale to an SF magazine, trades more on his mil-SF.
As with many good collections, one of the pleasures of 'Balefires' are
the story notes by Drake. They are longish, chatty and highly entertaining
vignettes that offer glimpses of not just Drake and his personal writing
process but his years of experience in the business, meeting with many
of the greatest editors and writers the genre has to offer. There's a significant
non-fiction content here, a sort of meet-the-author feel that you might
get if you attended say 24 book signings. Don't do that. It's creepy, and
if you do, Drake is liable to write a story about you that's unlikely to
With twenty-four stories, 'Balefires' covers an impressive range
and gives readers who might not have heretofore have been interested
of his genre specializations in mil-SF and fantasy a reason to pick
his work up, and his fans a new look at their favorite author. The
New York publishers seem to be unwilling to publish single-author
collections, but folks like Night Shade are cleaning up as a result.
is an excellent reason why. It offers great stories by an established
working outside his normal realm. You may think you know David Drake.
Just don’t let him drive a bulldozer. 'Balefires' will keep
the midnight light burning.
02-13-07: 'The Annotated Cat : Under the Hats
of Seuss and His Cats' by Doctor Seuss, Annotated by Philip Nel; A Review
of 'Eragon' Christopher Paolini
Why Johnny Reads
young cat or grizzled old man?
And we wonder.
Here in the 21st century, the children of Doctor Seuss presume to
judge. Back in 1957 however, things were not so simple. In the introduction
to 'The Annotated Cat : Under the Hats of Seuss and His Cats' (Random
House ; January 9, 2007 ; $30), annotator Philip Nel writes: "It
was 1954 and many Americans were worried: why can't Johnny read?
In a Life Magazine article, John Hersey said that Johnny and Susie
learning to read because the Dick and Jane primers were boring. Hersey
proposed that Doctor Seuss write a reading primer to replace Dick
And thus is a classic born. Like many readers of my generation, I cut my
teeth on Seuss and still have the volumes my parents bought me so long
ago. I'll make no bones about it. When this book arrived in the mail, all
I wanted to do was sit down and flip through it. I enjoyed the original
book, embedded in 188 pages of DVD-style special features. I enjoyed the
special features. And I especially enjoyed the fact that it arrived as
I struggled to write a review of 'Eragon', kiddie-lit 21st century style.
'The Annotated Cat' literally annotates every single line of both 'The
Cat in the Hat' and 'The Cat in the Hat Comes Back'. It's a treasury of
Seuss trivia, the kind of coffee-table book that will get used. This volume
will be perused and commented upon by anyone who comes within range of
its peculiar gravity. Because yes, there is a peculiar gravity here. Not
that we don’t all know the import of the book, or the changes that
followed its release. But the annotated version lets us enjoy it again
and again by placing it in context, by offering up boatloads of background
that at times seem as silly as the original material. And that's perfectly
But make no mistake about it, 'The Cat in the Hat' and 'The Cat in the
Hat Comes Back' are fantasy and Nel's analysis gets at the heart of early-reader
fantasy literature. The influences of Sendak, Rube Goldberg, and Seuss's
advertising career pop up as often as fish fly from the fishbowl. There's
a good year's worth of dipping and browsing here, and the absurdity of
a lengthy analysis of, "so I ran in after" (page 108) is certainly
not accidental. While this is not the ideal format to read the original
books, it is the ideal framework within which to experience their cultural
The production values here are outstanding. The colors are vibrant and
crisp. The layout is easily grasped. There are lots of supplemental illustrations
here that will be a big draw for those of us who read Seuss as we first
learned to read. Posters by Seuss exploit the absurdity of the English
language, and word-juggling gets explained. Draft illustrations compel
you to open the book.
We begin to read. We all begin somewhere. Returning to our beginnings and
examining them as adults is a perhaps perverse pleasure. But we'll take
our pleasures where we can find them. 'The Annotated Cat : Under the Hats
of Seuss and His Cats' is a place where a lot of readers will be able to
What catches our fancy is impossible to predict. Which is why, in a
world that had been cluttered with Lord of the Rings rip-offs for
30 years, 'Eragon' by Christopher Paolini finally
took flight. One might be tempted to say that it followed in the
footsteps of JK Rowling's
the two are quite different. The Rowling novels offer an original
milieu of the fantastic (magic) and the mundane (school). 'Eragon'
is the three
millionth version of 'The Hobbit' with each fantasy cliché carefully
visited and tagged with an almost obsessive attention. Paolini even
manages a number of nods to Star Wars in his no-spaceships fantasy.
But while 'Eragon' lacks invention, it certainly does not lack either
energy or popularity. The former makes it easy to read; the latter
may mean that
your child will be reading it. In the event this happens and you find
yourself being asked to read the book by the very same offspring
who would rather
go to school than read a book, rest assured that it's just a beginning
and not a bad one. We don’t often get opportunities to revisit
or relive our childhood reading. Cherish them.
02-12-07 : A 2007 Interview With Cory Doctorow; UPDATE: Days of Present
The Book Is 'Overclocked', The Man Is Overbooked
Doctorow at Borderlands Books. Cory's Book at home.
At least that was
my joke to myself going into this fascinating interview. But let's
ratchet back a bit. If this is the first time you’re seeing 'Overclocked'
(Thunder's Mouth Press / Avalon ; January 11, 2007; $15.95),
the new collection by Cory Doctorow, you're not
of All Blogs that he contributes to regularly.
Fix that. Boingboing is
must-read Internet writing. 'Overclocked' is a must-read trade
paperback for paper fetishists – and I trust that you're a paper fetishist
if you're reading this column. If you want a taste of the book, you
can download the whole shebang from Cory's website here. Cory won’t
mind. He told me in his interview.
Getting the interview set up was a bit of an adventure, but in
the end, it worked out spectacularly well. We met at Borderlands
Books, the specialist
SF shop in San Francisco.
While Santa Cruz
has some spectacular bookstores, they don’t have any SF specialist shops. It was such a pleasure to
browse at Borderlands, even if I couldn’t afford to spend
the $1000-plus I racked up in potential purchases. Alan Beatts,
was exceedingly kind, offering us a capacious back room in which
to speak, and we did, for a solid hour, until Cory's fans began
to arrive for this
signing at the store. Buy signed copies of the book from them.
And while you wait for the book to arrive, you can enjoy this interview.
I had Cory read the entire first story from the collection, 'Printcrime',
and then we talked about ubiquitous technology, DRM software,
the RIAA and the MPAA, his two forthcoming novels, and much, much
more. I've got
a DRM-free MP3 for
you. We got such great sound in that room that I'm offering my
usual hi-fi version. And as well, the RealAudio
version (with the "copy protect" checkbox disabled) for those
who prefer it. But trust me on this. Cory is Worth Your Valuable
Time and Bandwidth. Enjoy!
A Review of 'Overclocked'
I've just completed
a review of
Cory's new collection, 'Overclocked'. It means "caffeinated",
overbooked, too much right now,
too much later and toomuch yesterday as well. Cory informs us that the
first printing has sold out so what;s on the shelves is the first printing.
better buy it fast and if that itself if not a perfect review of this excellent
tome, then let me offer up mine. Even if you've read them beforek, weven
if you've read them online, here is a tech-proof, single-source method
for carrying them around, loaning them to others. Here's a way to spread
the word. And that in itself is all a column like this one can hope to
achieve. I suggest you buy 'Overclocked'. You might even have time to read
it in this handy format.