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07-21-07: Preview for Podcast of Monday, July 23, 2007 : We have the future.

Here's an MP3 preview of the Monday July 23, 2007 podcast for The Agony Column. Enjoy!


07-20-07: 'Monster!' by Neil Arnold

From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits

Monsters have all sorts of purposes. The man-in-suit variety chases bikini-clad coeds through badly-built sets. Shaky video footage supposedly caught by an unprepared tourist may document an as-yet undocumented new species. You may have a gallery of truly human horrors to which you point when you use the word monster. Or you may simply refer to a critter described in a story handed down through the generations, clearly nothing intended to be perceived as real, more of an exemplar for a moral lesson.

Welcome to the wonderful world of Zooform Phenomena, a term coined by monster hunter and Fortean zoologist Jonathan Downes, of the Center for Fortean Zoology (CFZ) to describe "animals that aren't". The idea being that we talk about a number of animals and monsters that we know with certainty not to exist; let's go with the famous science fiction phrase, "monsters from the id". These monsters say quite a bit about the humans who create them and very little about the natural world around us. They come from folklore, folk-tales, urban legends, tall tales, and even flat-out lies told by attention-seeking storytellers. Until now, nobody has ever sought to even particularly define them much beyond the environs of the CFZ.

Fantastic in all senses of the term cover art by Mark North.

'Monster! The A-Z Book of Zooform Phenomena' (CFZ Press ; May 23, 2007 ; $32) by Neil Arnold is a mind-bogglingly complete and thorough compendium of every zooform phenomena that readers could possibly imagine and quite a few more besides. Arnold starts things out with a Foreward from no less a luminary than Dr. Karl P. N. Shuker, the man who created the now-standard text, 'The Lost Ark'. He pulls up the phrase "prefabulous animals" from a 1957 tome that included the fictitious alongside the fantastic. I like that word, and I like "zooform" as well. But what I mostly like is the flexibility with which Arnold defines the term, which coupled with his thorough research offers readers a compendium of creatures the likes of which this world has never seen before.

I'm talking about the book – for the most part, nobody has seen these creatures.

And "for the most part" is the key term in the previous sentence, because as Arnold so carefully notes in his Introduction, some of his zooform phenomena are indeed likely to be real creatures. Bigfoot, sea serpents, and lake monsters all have enough documentation to suggest there is or at least at one time, was a physical creature to correspond with the stories being told about it. "Things are still out there," Arnold writes, "evading the pursuit of man, but there are some animal forms which can never be explained, let alone caught on film or in the nets of some fisherman. Some are mere ghosts ...should you believe in such things, while others take on the form of animals, but quite simply, are some are something else entirely whether ethereal, supernatural or part of tribal lore ... 'Zooform phenomena' straddles a fine line between the flesh and blood, and the completely surreal. It also crosses that line, stepping from the mists of folklore into the bedrooms of teenagers, and from there it slinks into the darkness of the human psyche, and then thousands of years backwards, into our culture." Arnold is careful to point out that, "These creatures are not just the spirit of Aunt Agatha's dog for example, or mass hallucination. Some of these things are being seen many, many times, by many, many people. Other monsters are being seen once, but making a strong, powerful impression, whereas other apparitions are like whispers on the tongue, and fade into obscurity."

These are the creatures that exist as story.

These are the demons that we create to frighten ourselves into reasonable behavior, to keep us huddled around the fire in the night.

These are the monsters from the id. They are the parts of ourselves we'd prefer not to know exist.

But should we care to find out, Arnold has done us the favor of assembling 381 large-format pages of entries describing these monsters, or at least recording how they were described, even if ever so briefly. The entries include the name, the definition or description, which may very in length from a single phrase to a multi-age essay. You get "star" rating, one * suggesting that the creature is a hoax or legend, up to four stars, "a creature with real staying power and lasting effect." There usually follows a "ZC" or zooform comment on the phenomena. The entries trend towards very short and often dryly humorous descriptions, such as:

" AATXE – This creature is a giant bull from the mythology of Spain. It is said to haunt various cave systems of the Pyrenees, but takes to the night when a storm is approaching. This spiritual animal is related to the Aatxegorri, (see below) this being a red steer.
ZC: This apparition is regional folklore and could be considered a classic symbolic figure, often representing bad weather."

The audience for this book should be quite considerable. Anyone interested in story, myth, legend or folklore will find a knock-your-socks-off collection of stories, story kernels, myths and local and regional folklore. Writers looking for material need look no farther; here's your inspirational source for any story you care to craft, especially since so many of the entries are more along the lines of suggestions than the more fully-blown out entries, such as those on Bigfoot or my personal favorite, The Monkey Man. The illustrations run the gamut from simple line drawings to reproduced etchings to full-page commissioned artwork. Some entries quote goofy news stories, others impressionable teenagers.

All of them originate in human language. Each entry a little gem, a shard from the mind of a man or a woman or a child, polished, preserved and put on the printed page for you to gaze at. These monsters may not be real, but they don’t need to be. Our language brings them into the world.


07-19-07: Peter F. Hamilton Wakes 'The Dreaming Void'

One Man's Dream is Another Man's Planetary Romance

Space opera, in case you didn't guess.

'The Dreaming Void' (Pan MacMillan ; August 3, 2007 ; £18.99) has all the things you hope for from a novel by Peter F. Hamilton. It's set in 4000 AD in his Commonwealth Universe, so you've got a wide-screen space opera backdrop with plenty of detail in place. That means space navies, inter-species conflicts, and ancient artifacts. You've got aliens, lots of 'em and weird ones to boot.

But this is the first novel in a Peter F. Hamilton space opera trilogy. "Wait, there's more," is not just a motto, it's a religion, and probably one with millions of adherents spread throughout the known universe. Hamilton heads fearlessly where other science fiction writers have gone before, addressing notions of the Singularity as regards human civilization, then takes one Hamiltonian step beyond to put aliens in mix. It doesn't have the sort of cutting-edge effect as when either Charles Stross or Cory Doctorow talks about the concept. Hamilton's not up to that sort of thing. No, it just makes his ridiculously complex universe even more complex and correspondingly more fun.

Did I mention religion earlier? My canvas is not nearly so wide as Hamilton's and even I'm needing a map. The setup for 'The Dreaming Void' is classic Peter F. Hamilton. You've got your Commonwealth, AD 4000 and everything is pretty much hunky dory. Well, other than the galaxy-destroying artifact at the center of the galaxy. That could be a bit of a problem. They call it "the Dreaming Void" and they think it's a black hole of some sort, though there appears to be a technological aspect as well. Fortunately, it seems to be eating the galaxy slowly and the Commonwealth has some 4 billion years to suss out what's what.

Unless the members of the religious cult the Living Dream have their way. They think that heaven lies within the Dreaming Void, and intend to create themselves up in starships and plow on in. The only problem is that most of the rest of Commonwealth believes that doing so will just make that ol' Void hungrier and trigger a much faster finish to it's galaxy eating intentions. Not surprisingly, lots of folks, human and alien, don’t want this so-called Pilgrimage to take place. What's a nearly omnipotent Commonwealth to do?

Quite a bit, as it happens and as anyone who has ever read a Peter F. Hamilton novel can attest. Cat's paws here, demi-humans there, post-humans incarnating themselves in old flesh for old times' sake, Slug-like blob aliens floating on saucers and making quite specific threats of interstellar war. It's all in a couple of years' work for Hamilton, who is in fine form with his latest novel. Now here it comes again:

Wait, there's more.

In this case, it more has to do with the Living Dream, started by a human who, coming near to the Void, began to have a series of dreams that described what the Living Dream folks call heaven, with different physical laws, the whole "other universe" shebang. The catch is that some umpty-ump pages into the novel, readers get to read one of the prophet's dreams and damn if those dreams don't read like a Peter F. Hamilton planetary romance. An alien world where a boy is transformed into a young man by virtue of his talent and training. Exciting scenes of peril and payoff.

I'm going to digress for long enough to mention that Hamilton's 'The Reality Dysfunction' was my second step in returning to science fiction after Alastair Reynolds' 'Revelation Space'. A good friend at work loaned me the US paperback, which I read enough of to know I wanted the UK hardcover from whence it came. And there is a scene in that novel wherein some folks are extracted from a planet while being pursued by Lovecraftian undead that to this day remains crystal clear in the shattered remains of my tiny brain. Hamilton is capable of superb writing.

... Which you shall find in 'The Dreaming Void', particularly in the passages that are the dreams of the prophet. They're not in the least bit dream-like; as I mentioned earlier, they are a perfectly pitched story-within-a-story planetary romance. So what you have here is a Peter F. Hamilton novel where a Peter F. Hamilton novel is a dream. It's a fun concept and Hamilton's execution is simply wonderful.

You have to know what you're getting into with a Hamilton space opera trilogy. If the first book is n pages, then book 2 is going to be 1.3n pages, or n1 pages. And book three is going to be 1.3n1 pages. Given that 'The Dreaming Void' is a nice even-steven 600 pages, this makes book 2 780 pages and book 3 1,104 pages. That's some 2,394* pages of reading. (Actual page count may vary, not historically accurate information, but it feels that way.) So ask yourself: Are you willing to read that much space opera? Remember it includes the Singularity and lots of great action set-pieces. They start early and stay late. Hamilton is playing to his strengths in 'The Dreaming Void'. And Macmillan is as well, with the usual Jim Burns to-die-for cover art. Think of it this way; one man's dream is another man's space opera. With 'The Dreaming Void', no matter where you fit into that equation, you're a winner.


07-18-07: Bentley Little Appears With 'The Vanishing'

The Demon You Know

OK, OK, I'll take the mass-market PB without complaining. It seemws to be working, as Little keeps getting published. This is good!
We love our safe and happy America. No matter where you go, there are cops nearby to protect you from criminals. The Army keeps us safe from invasion, and no matter how much news we see about this or that terror, generally we worry more about our bank balances than random bombings. We live in a Great, Big Beautiful Tomorrowland today. The boundaries of our world are well known, clearly defined and generally unthreatening.

Unless it's all just a veil. Bentley Little would have you believe just that. Our little world, with all its science and commerce, we're like busy little ants building nests that have no idea said nests are resting on a nuclear waste site, a churning cauldron of supernatural terror against which everything we know is one-hundred percent useless. Little has specialized in re-imagining America, in taking everything we know and giving it a sinister supernatural spin. His latest novel is 'The Vanishing' (Signet / Random House ; August 7, 2007 ; $7.99), and once again, Little is directing us to look at the man behind the curtain. Only it's not a man, and there's more than one of them.

Little's writing is so transparent and easy to read, it's difficult to realize just how much skill goes into creating his horrific visions. In many ways, Little riffs from crime fiction, peppering his novels with events straight out of the headlines rendered in the sort of crisp prose that you might find in a police procedural. We're used to these daily doses of horror. They keep the 24-hour cable networks in business. Bus crash in the Midwest, 5 dead? CNN headline news. Annoying rich father turns house into slaughterhouse? Works perfectly for page 2 filler in your metro newspaper. Social worker unearths hellish conditions in an otherwise bland suburban setting? Maybe a Lifetime Movie Network movie of the week in that one. All the little horrors that surround us, just waiting to be joined by the inventive mind of Bentley Little.

'The Vanishing' is sinfully easy to read. It's the kind of book to make you call in sick to work, so that you can lay on the couch in the living room and finish it. Carrie Daniels is the social worker, Brian Howells is the reporter, and between the two of them, they'll discover more monsters than you can pack into a Hammer Horror movie marathon. This is one of the reasons I really like Little so much, because he manages to seamlessly integrate the real-world, ripped-from-the-headlines events with, well, monsters. And not just no-see-'ums, but up-front, wormy, scaly monsters and super-creeps. And he does this so well, from the natural to the monsterific, that you really don't notice where one ends and the other begins. And given the upshot – all the little and big ways we die here in the US of A – we might as well opt for the monster explanation, right?

But again, that's not all that Little is up to in 'The Vanishing'. In addition to the toe-tapping present-day terror, Little enriches his novel with a well-wrought (and equally monsterific) historical backdrop. It's not enough that present-day America be rotten with monsters. Nope, we've got to have an America that has always been rotten with monsters. I have to grudgingly admit that in my heart of hearts, I think this may be the case. And as a reader who wants to see this average, everyday horrific world turned into a wildly supernatural horrific world, I'm happy to see Little do so. Individually, Little's novels are fun reading, the sort of work we used to look forward to on an annual basis from bigger-name horror writers. But taken in toto, Little's oeuvre offers a rather large and unsettling vision of America the Horrific. O terror filled, under Satan's skies. My country, sweet land of liberty.

For monsters.


07-17-07: Jason Rodriguez Edits 'Postcards'

'True Stories That Never Happened'

Watch out for rampaging elephants.
Here is an idea whose time has clearly come. Jason Rodriguez tells us in the introduction to 'Postcards: True Stories That Never Happened' (Villard / Random House ; July 17, 2007 ; $21.95) that it was all his girlfriend's fault. He took her on vacation and she wanted to go shopping. He sighed and whinged his way through the shops until she came upon a box of postcards, many of them previously mailed. Sifting through other people's memories, he had the inspiration for 'Postcards'. All he had to do was to give a set of writers and artists the postcards he'd 'Found' Davy Rothbart-style and ask them to tell stories suggested by the often cryptic messages on the cards. Brilliant, really, assuming that introduction itself is not a true story that never happened.

Whatever the verity of the origin of the book, the real concern is whether or not the stories within are worthy, and it won’t take readers long to find out that they are indeed every bit as powerful as the dusty memories evoked in a perhaps mythical thrift store. Brevity is the watchword. You can't cram many words onto the back of a postcard, and the contributors offer sixteen stories in 180 pages. The key is that the contributors have by and large managed to capture the condensed intensity of emotions that one can experience when peering at a tiny bit of the lives of those one has never known.

'Tic-Tac-Bang-Bang', with a story by Stuart Moore, illustrated by Michael Gaydos, is a perfect example. The postcard is from 1909, with the inscription: "look under stamp I was in town today. Hope your not in a fight last night Your Friend [unreadable]". Moore and Gaydos turn this in to a wonderfully rendered story of conmen, crime and reconciliation. Or the powerfully conceived and illustrated 'blue' that opens the collection, with a story by Chris Stevens and illustrations by Gia-Bao Tran. It is simply a transcendent look at childhood and packs a punch that will quite likely sell a few copies of this book to those lucky enough to browse through it in the bookstore. Harvey Pekar rounds out the volume with a life told in postcards – his life, naturally.

'Postcards' is one of those perfect little books that you might well miss in the bookstore. I haven't a clue where it will get shelved, though experience suggests that you'll have to look for it with the graphic novels. But it should be filed with fiction. With non-fiction. Alas, no pigeonhole yet for "good reading".


07-16-07: A 2007 Interview With Jeff Prucher

"It's hard to trace the lines of influence because the boundaries are so loose."

"...that has such people in't!"
I remember the original call to arms that eventually resulted in 'Brave New Words', the historical dictionary of words created for and by science fiction edited by Jeff Prucher.

A post to rec.arts.sf.written requesting that those of us who had older editions of books be on the lookout for the earliest appearance of words created by science fiction. There were some specific requests as well; I seem to remember something about 'Dune'. And while 'Brave New Words' is certainly not the first book that had its origin in Usenet newsgroups and won’t be the last, it is clearly a special case.

The original newsgroup posting, Prucher told me in our interview, led to the OED Cite project, a website maintained by Prucher and some others. And as the Cite Project gathered momentum, Prucher himself was drafted by an OED editor who suggested 'Brave New Words'. Welcome to the brave new world of science fiction lexicography.

Prepare for some satisfaction and disappointment. I have to admit feeling the latter upon learning the impact of 'Star Trek' on our language. But on the other hand, as I read through the dictionary – probably the only dictionary I am going to read cover to cover, ever – I found myself fascinated and satisfied by the contributions I did see. It's always been my contention, for example, that H. P. Lovecraft was a major influence on science fiction, not just horror. To my mind, he originated a lot of the tropes we find modern science fiction, and 'Brave New Words' bears this out. And it's pretty interesting to see how important the fallen-out -of-favor are, to wit E.E. "Doc" Smith. I remember reading these in junior high. I thought they were incredible and convinced a teacher to read them as well.

He was less impressed. The concepts were "cool" he admitted, but the writing, well ...

Good for junior high kids; not as good as Heinlein.

Still, I look back on those books with great fondness, and now, an understanding of just how much Smith had to create. Prucher and I talked about how difficult it is to untangle the concept behind a word from the word itself, how science fiction writers implant their visions in scientists – unless they are the scientists. Prucher is a remarkable scholar and this book is a must-buy for any dedicated reader of science fiction, or anyone interested in futurology, as the language of science fiction is already there, waiting for us to grab off the shelf when the future comes along with something like a "spaceship" or a "worm". Get ready to explore the history of the words you think you know in either MP3 or RealAudio format. Words that themselves were firmly in the realm of science fiction not so long ago. Waiting to arrive. Out there right now, there are words that will describe our future. We'll use them every day. Once we know what they mean.


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