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This Just In...News From The Agony Column


04-04-08: Update: Rudy Rucker and the LHC Lawsuit on NPR

Tipping the Universe

Oh, the sausage stories I could tell about putting this report together. But suffice it to say, when I saw the Register headline, I knew I had to do something on this. So I managed to look up plaintiff Walter Wagner, then found Stanford physicist Savas Dimopoulos and finally brought in Rudy Rucker. It was really a whirlwind ride, pitching the story on Tuesday and turning it in on Thursday. Here's a link to the NPR Web Page. As ever, please email this story to as many people as you can, to help support this column. Cheaper and safer than Paypal, and hey, I dont want your money – I just want to make sure you spend it on the right books. You hear Rudy Rucker in this piece and I guarantee that you'll want 'Spaceland' and the rest of his oeuvre. Assuming the world is still around for you to read in.


04-04-08: Nicholson Baker's WWII ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : NPR First Books Toby Barlow

The Maximum Minimalism of 'Human Smoke'

The ghostly hand of history.

Nicholson Baker is another of our generation of minimalists, joining Chuck Palahniuk in doing more with less. Novels like 'Vox' and 'The Fermata' used few words to tell powerful stories. He exposed what Publisher's Weekly called "an Orwellian universe" with 'Double Fold,' a look at libraries, newspapers and archives being tossed down the Big Swirly. He's back with another non-fiction title, 'Human Smoke: In the Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization' (Simon & Schuster ; March 11, 2008 ; $30), a look at the pericalypse that came to pass before the second World War. The end of the world, buried in news clips from the past, proves to be as fascinating as you might think.

Baker's approach is alarmingly simple. He just nabs 471 pages of vignettes from the years preceding Pearl Harbor and la them out one after another in a series of heartbreaking, mind-boggling revelations. It's a fascinating contrast. The clips are one paragraph long and none run longer than a single page. And by themselves, they're not overwrought or perfervid. They're simple, clear and often chilling in their bland presentation. But talk about the whole versus the sum of the parts ...

Baker's vision is vast, and his research is simply amazing. But its his artistry that's on display here as much as history. Juxtaposition has never been given this sort of workout before. The history exposed and counter-posed with more history offers readers the chance to put together a picture of something no less important than the Apocalypse and the Holocaust, the daily grind and the end of the world as we think we know it. The care that goes into crafting each passage is incredible; in some ways, this is the epic poem of the twentieth century. But it's so incredibly readable, so compelling in the way the bits and clips draw the reader in, that it surpasses poetry as it uses the new tool of the twentieth century, the sound byte. Just pick this book up and let it carry you away into the past and into the future. It will change the world around you, one small story at a time.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : NPR First Books Toby Barlow : 'Sharp Teeth' Gives Werewolves an Epic Treatment

I'm concluding this week's podcast with a high-quality MP3 of the Weekend Edition Sunday First Books report on Toby Barlow's Sharp Teeth. As with yesterday's podcast, I have to thank many listeners who hit the web page and used the "Email this Page" button. And I have to go back and retroactively thank the folks at NPR who built out such gorgeous web sites for this and the Machiavelli story, as well as Toby Barlow, Jennifer Barth and Charlie Huston, who first told me about this book. Having recently returned to LA for a couple of interview you'll see in the coming weeks, I have to say that Barlow captured the wild, urban wilderness with an eerie ease. And no, I didn't see a single dog while I was there – at least, not in canine form.


04-03-08: Gateway Drug Books : Hooking the Unwary on Science Fiction ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : NPR All Things Considered Report

Hooking the Unwary on Science Fiction

Snort these!

Every science fiction reader gets hooked, and usually – though not always – at an early age. Most genre readers know the obvious choices. For me, it was Arthur C. Clarke. When the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey was coming out, I bought the Life magazine that had all the pre-production paintings and 'Childhood's End'. And that was that.

Now some mumble-mumble years later, I'm a junkie, and like any good junkie, I want to addict the next generation. And while I know that generation after generation has fared just fine with the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein and Ray Bradbury, I'm going to take the time now and again to point out newer gateway drugs that might lure the unsuspecting mind away from mundane reality and into the crazy-quilt world of science fiction. Or, depending on your perspective, back to a more measured and informed view of reality.

All this was spurred by a simple sight; mass-market paperback copies of John Scalzi's 'Old Man's War' and 'The Ghost Brigades' sitting on my bookshelf. I looked at them and thought, "You know, if I wanted to turn someone on to science fiction who had never read SF, here are some totally contemporary Gateway Drug Books." It seems a bit simplistic, but there are a few conditions that go into making these ideal Gateway Drug Books.

First and foremost, Gateway Drug Books needs must be short, snappy, and well written. Obviously, 'Old Man's War' and 'The Ghost Brigades' are all three. They clock in a just over 300 pages, so they dont look imposing when you hand them to your prospective addict. As for snappy and well-written, you can check my reviews, and I think that, should you look about o the web, you'll find my enthusiasm for these books is by and large shared.

But good books and short books are not that uncommon. What Scalzi brings to the table is an accessibility and a familiarity that will grab reader who would never have thought they'd enjoy science fiction. Now, as much as we might hate to admit it, most of the world thinks of *wars as science fiction. I'm not here to debate the merits of that particular body of work, but I will suggest that it helps rope in the prospective addict if the work in question might be perceived as vaguely like that particular item. And Scalzi's books deliver that, big-time and better than big-screen. They're action packed but character driven; and the battle scenes will rattle your sensibility no matter how comfy that couch is.

There's one other thing that Gateway Drug Books need; they need to be mass-market paperbacks that you can just give way with no qualms, that you can envision being dropped in the bath or being caught up in a wave that comes up father than expected on a sunny summer day. Of course, Tor delivers; not just the MMPB format, but the crucial cover art. Funny how the future in space is timeless, no? I mean you look at those illustrations, and they could have graced an E. E. "Doc" Smith book, a Heinlein juvenile, or a mid-sixties Frank Herbert novel, or beyond. The art that graces these covers is science fiction art that evokes the mood but doesn't frighten the potential audience. In fact, it invites us in like any good addictive agent would do. It suggests that should we yield to the words within, we might experience similar visions. Wonder. Awe. Excitement!

Science Fiction – played across the big screens of our tiny minds. Minds big enough, however, to get addicted to the best of all possible drugs – reading.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : NPR All Things Considered Report : "Machiavelli, Not Such a Bad Guy?"

Today we conclude our run on Machiavelli with a podcast of a high-quality MP3 version of my report for NPR. I'd like to take this moment to thank all involved; Albert Ascoli and Peter Constantine, as well as their publisher's rep MB. And of course, Dr. Katrin Thier of the Oxford English Dictionary. While I wish the report could have been longer, we've covered that ground in the previous podcasts, and as it happens, if shorter gets the report a)aired and b)heard, that's why we have editors, and in my case, my editor is most assuredly a gem. And finally, I need to thank everyone who hit the "Email this Page" button. Your Agony Column Podcast was much bolstered by the strong response and even as I write this I've got some great stuff in the hopper. Soon, back to your regularly scheduled apocalypse.


04-02-08: Isamu Fukui Calls for 'Truancy' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Oxford English Dictionary Etymologist Dr. Katrin Thier

"We Dont Need No Education"

Teacher, leave your kids alone.

If you think YA fiction is all about witches and warlocks, or science fiction and spaceships, or vampires, or whatever element of the fantastic will hold young attention spans, think again. Isamu Fukui was like fifteen when he wrote 'Truancy' (Tor Books / Tom Doherty Associates ; March 4, 2008 ; $16.95) and it offers none of the usual comforts of twenty-first century teen lit. No magic powers sort out everyone's problems. There's no comforting feel that this could not be our world because it includes vampires, or supernatural critters. In fact, there's precious little comfort whatsoever in Fukui's narrative. Though it's not mystery fiction, there's a hardboiled feel to the writing. Set in a mythic reduction of New York called simply "the City", 'Truancy' takes a hard look at school and doesn't like what it sees. No, let's not mince words; Fukui pretty much hates school and everything it stands for, and he gives it a fist to the face before he follows up with knives, guns, explosives and more violence and dead bodies than a Hollowood action flick. I wont pretend that 'Truancy' is perfect; it's a bit over-written, and there are in fact some fantasy elements – mostly male-student revenge fantasy elements, to be precise. But Fukui's work has just the right ring of the fable, just enough absurdity to keep it fresh. It also has as much energy as a roomful of restless students on a rainy day. Its fearless to the point of fun – and more. You can read my in-depth, spoiler-free review here.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Oxford English Dictionary Etymologist Dr. Katrin Thier: "Match-Villain"

The gold standard.

Alas, her contributions to the NPR Report on Machiavelli fell to the cutting room floor at the very last minute, but my interview with Oxford English Dictionary Etymologist Doctor Katrin Thier is here for your podcasting delight. Of course, we talked about the etymology of the word Machiavellian, and I learned that his name was punned into "match-villain" – and quite a bit more besides. But while I had her on the line, I also asked about the OED in general, and how much they had online in their immense libraries and databases. Fancy a peek inside the world's best English Dictionary? Here's your MP3 Link.


04-01-08: A 2008 Interview with Peter Constantine

"The slangy, with-it expression at the time for somebody who is evil"

With-it before it existed.
Following on from yesterday, we continue our examination of the word "Machiavellian" and the work of Niccoló Machiavelli. Today's podcast is my conversation with translator Peter Constantine, who captured the rhythms and elegance of Machiavelli's language in the most recent translation of 'The Prince' (Modern Library / Random House ; February 5, 2008 ; $8). Constantine is not simply a consummate translator; he's a scholar who brings a deep understanding of Machiavelli and his history to the translation process. It was Constantine who first told me that "Machiavellian" was an insult before 'The Prince' was translated – and you'll hear my surprise at this revelation.

Constantine is an eloquent speaker and offers some incredible insights into the creation, reception and implications of 'The Prince' in this MP3 of our interview. One of the great delights of this project was speaking to these experts and learning so much I did not know. In the course of an interview, one generally thinks one has a clue as to what the answer to any given question will be; but these interviews were as much about research as they were about conversation. This project was a learning experience and the interviews were rather different from the usual conversation with an author about a new book. I didn't know or even have an inkling sometimes as to what I'd find out; I was fortunate to have such literate (and polite!) resources to explore the complex subject of Machiavelli's 'The Prince'.

Behind all of this is the work itself. Let me assure readers that 'The Prince', in this translation, is a revelatory experience. I did look at other translations, but I found they did not have the music that this one has, the straightforward clarity that captures the power of Machiavelli's message, ambiguous as it is. You'll read this book in a day, probably in a single sitting, although you'll probably have to get up and walk around a few times just because the insights of Machiavelli seem so pertinent to this dreadful day and age. I'm not going to list off all the aphorisms that he unspools in the course of this book; the content has been dissected for centuries and, as Peter Constantine suggests, probably will continue to be analyzed for centuries to come. But for the reader, this book offers one jolt of pleasure after another, as Machiavelli de-constructs the precepts of conquest and rule with a ruthlessly realistic vision of human behavior. He's funny, pithy beyond compare and so admirably terse, you'll wonder why contemporary writers of political treatises dont take a page from 'The Prince' and just get to the point. Of course, as you'll learn when you read (or re-read, in this translation) 'The Prince', the chances are that point was already covered by Machiavelli.

Readers (like myself) who find 'The Prince' enchanting and compelling are pointed to an additional volume; 'The Essential Writings of Machiavelli' (Modern Library / Random House ; April 3, 2007 ; $17.95), which includes 'The Discourses,' described by many as being an essential follow-up to 'The Prince'. Ascoli provides an introduction and the translation is by Constantine, so the quality is the same, but the scope is expanded. It does include a complete translation of 'The Prince', but to my mind, the slim volume containing only that work is a better – less imposing – way to experience it. And once you whip through that, you'll be ready to dip into 'The Essential Writings.' It's nice to think that 'The Prince' is now a part of the canon of classical literature that Machiavelli himself drew upon – and strange to think that Machiavelli, who brought a unique and timeless literary flair to political writing himself started as a politician.


03-31-08: A 2008 Interview with Albert Russell Ascoli

"Machiavelli himself wasn't Machiavellian"

This week, I'm privileged to take you on a journey deep into the work and mind of Niccoló Machiavelli, with the help of Professor Albert Russell Ascoli, Peter Constantine and Dr. Katrin Thier. I spoke to each of these luminaries in preparing my report for NPR, and I'm happy that here on my podcast I can give each of them a much larger chuck of time to speak. I'm glad that NPR let me do this report, and I think the finished piece turned out swell; now, for the literary, the political and the curious, it's time to dive in and get all the details about this extraordinary work and man.

Today's podcast is my conversation with Albert Russell Ascoli, who wrote the Introduction to the new translation of 'The Prince'. Here's a link to the MP3. Professor Ascoli digs into the social and political background against which 'The Prince' was written; he's as entertaining as the man he speaks about so eloquently.

For many, and for me, the appeal of 'The Prince' is the straightforward simplicity with which it speaks to problems that stymie progress in the 21st century as surely they did in the 16th. I wonder, however, what Machiavelli might have made of the import of such problems in a world where man can quite easily bring about his own extinction, either swiftly with atomic warfare or slowly with global warming – better known as "boiling a frog." He'd certainly be getting a lot of hits on his website!


Agony Column Review Archive