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From The Agony Column
03-03-07: The Consequences of Fantasy
Preview for Podcast
of Monday, March 5, 2007
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Daniel H. Wilson Wants to Know 'Where's My Jetpack?'
A Guide to the
Amazing Science Fiction Future That Never Arrived
on your back, bro.
H. Wilson, Ph.D. wants to know, everybody who reads
this column wants to know, we all want to know about the jetpack. I
spoke with Dr. Wilson a couple of years ago when he came
through town to talk about his book 'How
to Survive a Robot Uprising', a very odd little book that
I really enjoyed, particularly because it was so hard to believe
that such a book could get published. 'How to Survive A Robot
Uprising' isn’t either science fact or science fiction,
but a peculiar combination of pop culture observations, science
fictional speculation and hard science, wrapped up in the sort
of book you can read in a plane ride, after which it lands on
your coffee table, even though it is rather diminutive for
a coffee table book.
Well, publication wasn't the first surprise, however. It was after all,
a really fun reading experience. But I have to say that even in the more
odd science fiction futures I've read about and imagined, I couldn’t
have foreseen 'How to Survive A Robot Uprising' being made into a movie
by no less a man than Mike Meyers. It has a 2008 release date, and IMDB.com
wants me to upgrade to IMBD Pro to even see any information about it. Harumph.
PLEASE UPDATE TO AGONY COLUMN PRO TO READ THE REMAINDER
OF THIS ARTICLE.
Are you still with me? Good. While we contemplate the inevitable End of
the World In Five Years, (maybe we can watch the DVD of 'How to Survive
A Robot Uprising' while the world burns) we can spend our quality time
reading 'Where's My Jetpack?: A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future
That Never Arrived' (Bloomsbury / Holzbrinck ; April 2007 ; $14.95). You
should be pleased that it is the same design team who put together Wilson's
first book at work here. The funky type, the goofy graphics, the retro-future
look are all intact for your next descent into the future of the past.
This is not a subject that is new to either science fiction readers or
The academic version is available in 'Archaeologies
of the Future' by Frederic Jameson (sort of). Wilson's version follows
the format and fun level of his 'How to Survive A Robot Uprising'; he divvies
up the world into themed categories, and then cherry picks the most entertaining
and desirable elements of the future we have failed to achieve. The list
is friggin' endless, I mean think of it. We should be well past the world
of 2001 now, with space travel for the moderately well-to-do, exciting
missions to other planets, colonies on the moon...Instead, the entire globe
is essentially in the condition that one might have expected of a third
world backwater in Clarke's and Kubrick's vision. We shoot for the stars
then we land in the toilet. Sheesh.
At least you can get a few grins out of the grim with Wilson's book. He
starts with a section on Advanced Transportation, and the answer to your
question is yes, on page 43. That's where he talks about the actual history
of the flying car, from Henry Ford's unfortunate experiments to the Moller
Skycar. But you can imagine what the drunk skycar drivers will do, can't
you? Hell, it makes the whole concept seem so scary you might want to take
a couple of drinks before you get in your own car to drive home. But don’t.
Instead, stay home, sip your beer and read about Future-Tainment and the
Underwater Hotel. Calling David Hedison! Or perhaps you prefer to contemplate
your coming Super Human abilities. Raise your hand if you ever bought X-Ray
Specs, and no, I'm not talking about records (yes, RECORDS!) by the 80's
rock band, which spelled its name XRAY SPEX. Or while sitting in your
very boring, not so different from the 1950's Home of the Future, you can
read about what you had hoped your home of the future might be. Here, Wilson
is in his home elements, as he was, when I talked to him, working on home
automation. So, is it easier to configure your Bluetooth identifier or
flip a goddamned light switch? Well for the dexterity challenged, and that's
me, the Bluetooth deal is probably easier...but that's just me. Wilson
finishes up with Humans ... in Space! Here, he talks about floating above
the earth in a creaky, leaky tin can, watching shit fall off and hoping
none of the shit that does fall off really matters.
Of course not. He talks about that ol' Moon Colony (she's a harsh mistress,
we were told), and every science fiction readers' favorite new techno-gimmick
the Space elevator. Top floor, James. One wonders whether this device will
prove to be presciently conceived or be undercut by some as-yet unknown
technology. If the latter, it will be fun to look back at all the space
elevator stories, won’t it?
So as for me, I'm booking a seat on the Pan AM Space Shuttle and heading
out to Clavius to get a tan you just can't duplicate on Earth. And on my
way, I'm taking these great little books by Daniel H. Wilson that prove
we can't predict the future. But we can pretend to, and that's more fun
and probably a whole lot safer.
03-01-07: R. N.
Morris Wields 'A Gentle Axe'
have been Raskolnikov, but Mother Nature Ripped Me Off"
There are the novels
they make you read and the novels you want to read.
Mr. Lynch, I found a dwarf in my suitcase.
Attend just about any course in English and you'll come across both. I pretty
much liked everything I read for the various English courses I took, but
then, I never had to read 'Silas Marner'. (My high-school English teacher
sister-in-law once offered an impassioned argument as to the timely virtues
of 'Silas Marner'.) Still, some books stood out in my college reading. I
remember reading 'Great Expectations' while sitting in the park that used
to be at the center of the UC Irvine campus, the vault of the blue sky overhead.
The boy, the time, the destiny, the power of that prose and the story have
the ability to rocket me back to a specific time and place, reading that
I also remember sitting the austere library, reading 'Crime and Punishment'.
It was then and remains to this day one of my favorite pieces of literary
crime fiction, one of those memorable reading experiences that you carry
with you for the rest of your life. It's also an undisputed, top-level classic,
as relevant today as it was when it was first published. And apparently relevant
to Howard Devoto, who, when in his band Magazine, offered up the above couplet
that has never left the shattered remains of my tiny brain. Funny how memory
Who then, or why then, would anyone presume to offer a sequel to 'Crime and
Punishment'? The very idea seems literarily daunting, like trying to build
a mountain and calling it Mt. Everest 2. Even if it’s taller, it's
not going to be Everest. Then again, it's well-known that Richard Levinson
and William Link based their iconic Lieutenant Columbo on Porfiry Petrovich,
the detective from Dostoyevsky's famous novel. So perhaps a sequel is not
such a tall order.
Put up any mountain, and someone out there is going to climb it, and 'Crime
and Punishment' is no exception. In this case, the brave soul is R.
N. Morris, and his first novel, no less, is 'The Gentle Axe' (Penguin
Press / Penguin Putnam ; March 26, 2007; $24.95), a sequel of sorts to 'Crime
and Punishment' that finds Porfiry Petrovich about a year and a half after "the
famous case of Raskolnikov the student". The novel begins with Zoya
Petrova, searching for firewood in frozen Petrovsky Park. Instead, she finds
something rather more macabre. A peasant dangles by a rope around his neck
from a tree, a bloody axe in his belt. At the foot of the tree is a suitcase
with the body of a dwarf packed inside. The dwarf has an axe wound splitting
his skull. Petrovich is called to scene and he's pretty sure this is no simple,
open and shut the suitcase murder-suicide.
Morris has all the grace notes right for a fine historical mystery, or as M
for Mystery calls them, a "mystorical". No, of course he's
not writing 'Crime and Punishment'. And one can be pretty sure that 'Crime
and Punishment' if published now, might very well be marketed as a novel
of psychological suspense. This is Morris' first novel and it's an auspicious
debut, with enough details and period observations to keep you immersed in
the alien worlds of history and enough plot to keep you reading. At 305 pages,
this is a nicely sized book and perhaps the start of a very good series.
At this point in your life, chances are you're out of English class, and
there no novels that you have to read. 'The Gentle Axe', my friends, is no
'Crime and Punishment', to be sure (nor does it pretend to be), but neither
is it 'Silas Marner'. It is in fact a novel you might very well want to read.
Chiang Joins 'The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate' ; A Review
of Christopher Moore's 'Bloodsucking Fiends'
Would Subterranean Press Do?
More than most
genres, science fiction encourages the publication of short stories
and celebrates the writers who do so. So when Ted Chiang published
of Your Life and Mine' back in 2005, a lot of readers both in
and out of the field sat up and took notice. The Nebula Award-winning
author writes the sort of clever yet touching stories that bring
back the feel of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, even the work
itself is thoroughly modern.
So when I heard that Subterranean Press was going to publish a new anything
by Ted Chiang, I made sure to get my hands on a copy as soon as possible.
'The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate' (Subterranean Press ; July 2007
; $20) is going to be just about the easiest twenty bucks you've spent
on a book in a long, long time. Chiang's new work is every bit as austere,
gorgeous and thought-provoking as anything he has ever written.
'The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate' showcases the deep and pure potential
for science fiction literature to operate in the realm of parable. Fuwaad
ibn Abbas is a merchant who comes before the Caliph himself to tell a tale.
While strolling through the market one day, Abbas comes upon a remarkable
stand. Intricate astrolabes compel him to speak to the seller, Bashaarat,
who offers to show him something even more interesting, a device that may
seem magic but might just as well be a sufficiently advanced technology.
It does not matter to either the reader or the teller of the tale. All
that matters are the tales that follow.
Chiang then spins three stories; 'The Tale of the Fortunate Rope Maker',
'The Tale of the Weaver Who Stole From Himself' and 'The Tale of the Wife
and Her Lover'. In each tale, he trains a fabulist's eye on a classic science-fictional
trope with results that transcend any genre. This is in fact Chiang's strength,
his ability to extract both the emotional and intellectual essence of the
tale. And it is particularly nice here to have the through-line of the
various tale-tellers and setting. At 83 pages it offers Chiang the opportunity
to work at a greater length than we've seen from him in the past, yet preserves
his interest and skills as a short-story writer. There's a purity and clarity
at work in these stories that makes them seem easy, yet belies a wealth
of work required to create the illusion. Chiang demonstrates that even
literature itself can be a technology that, sufficiently advanced, is able
to work magic.
Heart Via Fangs
Here’s why you
always want to read an author's novels in chronological order: 'A
Dirty Job', by Christopher Moore. This novel, which
won a Quill Award last year and surely deserved it, though not a "series" novel
per se, did indeed resurrect, so to speak, the San Francisco backdrop
'Bloodsucking Fiends', which I review today. He told me this during
the interview we did last year, when he told me he was working on a sequel
to 'Bloodsucking Fiends'.
a delight. Good to the last drop.
That sequel, 'You Suck' is now sucking in well-deserved dollars and kudos,
even garnering national bestseller status. But it's Christopher Moore, folks,
so it’s OK to buy it. Suffice it to say that I wish I'd read 'Bloodsucking
Fiends' some eleven and a half years ago. Missing Moore is not a mistake
I shall make again. On the other hand I have bit if a back-catalogue to look
forward to, which is admittedly always a delight.
If you're planning on reading Moore at all, the best place to start is 'Practical
Demonkeeping', his first, which sets the scene for the Pine Cove novels.
Next up is 'Coyote Blue', and then 'Bloodsucking Fiends'. Some ten-plus years
later, it all pays off. The best authors always make sure that is all pays
02-27-07: "The Power of the Edit Is a Mighty, Mighty Thing"
A Preview of 'Brasyl'
by Ian McDonald + Bonus Podcast Interview
I had the privilege
of meeting Ian McDonald in Glasgow at the 2005 WorldCon,
where we talked about his new-at-the-time 'River
of Gods'. I'm sure I gave my usual rant about the lack of a US publisher
for that outstanding novel, a situation which has since been corrected
when Pyr picked it up and published it with a lovely Stephan Mantiniére
cover. To die for!
UK version from Victor Gollancz; bottom, US version from
And as well to die for, McDonald's forthcoming 'Brasyl' (Victor Gollancz
/ Orion Books ; June 2007 ; £18.99 ; Pyr / Prometheus Books ; May 2007
; $25), which moves his multi-cultural microscope to the South American continent.
'Brasyl' is a triptych, slicing and dicing stories across three very different
times and finding the quantum entanglement that unites them beneath reality
as we know it. This is certain to be one of the big novels of this year,
so you might as well pre-order both versions, because you are a hopelessly
compulsive paper addict whose house is bigger on the inside than it is on
'Brasyl' is a bit shorter than 'River of Gods' and due to its really interesting
structure, a bit more readily gulpable by the book-gulping masses. The 384-page
novel is divided into 8 sections, each named after a saint of questionable
origin; Our Lady of Production Values, for example, Our Lady
of Spandex, and Our Lady of the Telenovelas. Each section includes
three separate threads that you can bet your bigger-on-the-inside house will
eventually connect though at the outset they seem pretty disparate. The production
values come into play in the first thread in every section, the story of
Marcelina, set in Rio De Janiero in 2006. Marcelina is a pushy TV producer
who gets herself sucked into a conspiracy that threatens her very soul --
presuming of course, she has one. Next in each section we fast forward to
2032 and shift to São Paulo, where a gent with the iconic / unfortunate
name of Edison who happens into the world of illegal quantum computing discovers
that this has not made his life better and more predictable. And the final
portion of each section ratchets back to 1732, where Father Luis is sent
back into the jungle to extract a priest who has gone Kurtz and set himself
up a nice little empire.
McDonald is clearly one of our premiere science fiction writers and he's
pretty much staking out the multi-cultural SF niche as his. And even if 'Brasyl'
is a bit shorter and more easily grokable than 'River of Gods', have no fear
that it delivers the same sort of combination knockout punch, stunning the
reader with the ferocity of the writing and the strangeness of both the culture
and the future, and in this case, the past, that McDonald imagines. Line
up for it, and plan on seeing it on some genre fiction ballots. You'll be
asked to vote for it, so you might as well experience it sooner rather than
later. Come to think of it, the same is true of the future.
Since we are working on a future, present and past theme here, I decided
to poke through the audio archives and unearth my 2005 interview with Ian
McDonald, conducted in his hotel room in Glasgow. He talks about 'River of
Gods' and 'Brasyl', as well as revealing his thoughts on the future of art.
You can download the MP3 here,
or the RealAudio here. This
is just a shortish interview, but nonetheless, I feel it reveals just what
a major science fiction talent McDonald is. Even though he is speaking in
the past, he's eerily prescient in his choice of subjects. Past, present,
future. Shuffle them about with the passage of time.
02-26-07: A 2007 Interview With Guy Gavriel Kay
things happening to interesting people"
curse of interesting time.
It was only a week ago
that I spoke to Guy Gavriel Kay about his new novel 'Ysabel'.
Well, we did eventually get to talk about 'Ysabel', once we'd spoken of
Kay's unique historically-based fantasy. Kay was a fantastic interview,
extremely well-spoken, consistently interesting and surprising. And talk
about lucky? Well, you do make your own luck, and Kay was the sort of fellow
who managed to end up helping Christopher Tolkien put together 'The Silmarillion'
from the notes of the late J. R. R. Tolkien. This is not luck. It's destiny.
Kay and I talked for nearly an hour, and you can download the MP3
or the RealAudio here.
You'll hear his bid for Bartlett's Quotations: "Interesting
things happening to interesting people" is his definition of a
good novel. He also talks quite a bit about the vagaries of genre shelving
bookstores, his dislike of genre categories and why he uses the fantastic
in his stories. "The use of the fantastic," he told me, "has
this wonderful power to universalize a story, make it more relevant
for the reader...It's not just about a given time and place. It extracts
themes and ideas of that time and place and shows how they're still
with us today, and the fantasy setting is what makes that easier for
and the reader to have that dialogue about the past and the present." Readers
wanting to find out more about Kay are recommended to Bright
Weavings, his outstanding official website. Easy to navigate,
nicely done. Lots of good stuff
there, and worth your valuable time.
We also talked about the two movies based on Kay's work that are in
the hopper, one of which, 'The
Last Light of the Sun', he is actually
the screenplay for. He told me how had to be dragged into the project,
even though he'd cut his teeth writing for a TV series that dramatized
real courtroom cases in Canada. Whether or not these will actually
get made is another question, but the prospect of Edward Zwick taking
at Kay's historically based fantasy is quite beguiling.
Kay's publisher was kind enough to give me some extra copies of 'Ysabel'
to have the author sign so that I could give them away. Email
me; on Friday,
I'll draw three names, contact the winners and send away the books. You'll
be getting one of the most enjoyable, literate and well-written novels
you're likely to read this year.