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 This Just in..News from the Agony Column

01-16-04: Hairstyles & Hot Clones & Runaway Space Platforms, these are a few of my favorite things.

Hairstyles from Plutonium to Doomsday with Zakour & Ganem

The Half-Naked Space Gun.
I remember reading a bit about 'The Plutonium Blonde' in the Usenet Newsgroups last year, though I never actually saw the book. But the follow-up 'The Doomsday Brunette' just showed up, and I must admit I'm intrigued. Readers know I like a good, thick slice of cheese now and again. When I first saw this, yes, I rolled my eyes, but something about the name jolted my memory. So I actually cracked the cover to find the Plutonium Blonde connection. Giving the immortal first page test was like walking into a brick wall, however, given that the opening line is:

" It was a dark and stormy night (which is the way these things usually begin)."

My patience is great but not infinite. Still, I at least wanted to write about the book, and to do so, I had to give it more of a chance. It certainly deserves it. The back cover blurb, a cleverly edited excerpt from the book, actually made me laugh out loud. And reading past the first line you find a sort of easy-going hard-boiled style that's pretty much fun. If you're the sort of person who doesn't like to read hardcover books on the airplane, then this might just do the trick. It's dedicated to Ellery Queen, Mad Magazine and DC Comics. I cut my teeth on Mad magazine, and I'm not adverse to glancing through a copy these days. I'm tucking this away and saving for a rainy day, assuming Global Warming does not bring an end to them.


Too much Propecia.
Scott Mackay is one of the writers who is forging a career in science fiction the old fashioned way -- one paperback novel at a time. It's great to see that this is still happening even in these days of an increasingly polarized publishing world. His latest novel is 'Omnifix' and it has a pretty intriguing (to me) concept, reminiscent of David Gerrold's Chtorr novels. In 'Omnifix', Earth has been invaded by an alien species that simply dropped a bunch of "deadly nanogens throughout the solar system". Don't you just love the patois of science fiction? I mean, writers can really get so much out of so little. What Mackay (or his blurbers) suggest dabbles in cyberpunk and disease science fiction. Aliens bringing health problems. I hope they have insurance! Nanogen #17 killed off Earth's soldiers by "dissolving their body tissue as fast as cybernetic implants can replace it". Here's where the blurb trips over its own words. I have a hard time imagining "cybernetic implants" (originally typed as "sybernetic impants" by my very smartly stupid fingers) replacing dissolving flesh. Oh well, let's look at Nanogen #16, which one might call the Logan's Run virus; your body rots away when you reach the age of thirty. How are we supposed to tell if we're infected? I think I've got that now. I feel rotten. Are the aliens here? If so, I plan on trying to interview them. But I'll wear one of those SARS mask that were all the rage in Hong Kong recently.

In 'Omnifix' the aliens have saved their biggest surprise for last, with a platform full of pathogens, no, that's nanogens, plummeting towards the earth. I like disease fiction -- that's no surprise -- and I'm inclined to page through this one. I couldn't find any rotting bodies on the first couple of passes, however. But I believe. I believe that one day, a rotting body will present itself to me in the pages of this book. And I hope -- I can hope -- that it's not the high point.

01-15-04: No Brickbats for Dueling Book-Bricks from Cherryh & Gentle

Cherryh's "Short" Fiction

SFnal scarecrows.
We're used to book-bricks from CJ Cherryh. She's a reliable source of very long involved, high-quality novels that periodically win awards, accolades and the occasional brickbats from those who find themselves lugging the hardcovers hither and yon. So when a nice, hefty book brick arrives, we're not surprised -- or are we? This time around, it's a fractured flicker of CJ Cherryh's short fiction. Not surprisingly, Cherryh measures short fiction on a scale rather different than the average human. 'Sunfall' and 'Visible Light' were both novels in their time -- the 1980's. In fact, most of the material here is from the 1980's, with a couple of stories from the 90's and one from the recent DAW 30th Anniversary Anthology.

As collections go, this one is nicely packaged. You've got your standard-issue beautiful Michael Whelan cover art, and the book tops out at 642 pages, with a couple of new introductions to the older material. While Cherryh has lots of fans, the work of hers I read didn't particularly enthrall me, though I found it OK. I haven't gone back for more, and I'm disinclined to do so thus far. However, this nice collection of short fiction, not usually my cup of tea, is ideally suited for my reading. I can knock off one of the Cherryh-scale 'short stories' that for normal humans would be a succinct novel. It also gives me a bit of variety, so that I can see some of the breadth of what she can do. I can't promise that I'll heft this heavy-duty book-brick in its entirety, but there's a good chance I'll sample the waters to see if I can find the same wonderful CJ Cherryh vibe that the rest of the world seems to have latched on to.

On the Trailing Edge

Metafictional medievalism.
Yes, I know I'm late. Other reviewers actually got review copies of this, but I had to get it through mortal means -- and that meant waiting until I could get Cold Tonnage to ship me a signed copy, which just arrived today. Once again, it looks as if Gentle is taking the meta-fictional route with '1610: A Sundial In A Grave'. That is, it's not just a story. No, no, no. This is a restored-by-computer manuscript of a burned memoir that was turned into a novel, that was…you get the idea. The frames that Gentle put around her last major work, 'Ash', were small, but they were definitely not inconsequential.

In '1610: A Sundial In A Grave', Robert Fludd has seen a future he doesn't like. He decides to alter it. Valentin Rochefort is downwardly-mobile aristocrat who finds himself at the nexus of the changes being wrought around him. He doesn't take kindly to Fludd's manipulations. I don't want to know any more going in. Gentle's surprises are worth waiting for. The absolute flood of language that she unleashed in 'Ash' culminated in some of the most sublime reading pleasure I've enjoyed in many a year. Gollancz, as usual is at the front of the pack with this release, a mere 562 pages; a wisp, almost, compared to the monument that was 'Ash'. One can only hope that the US release of this, if and when it comes will be as a single hardcover volume. In any event, you're well advised to pick this up while you can. No need to travel. Step into a novel by Mary Gentle, and leave the driving to her. But, if experience serves me well, I'd suggest you bring a coat. Gentle trends towards covering the chillier climates

01-14-04: From Tolkien to Witch to Wicca With Leslie Ellen Jones

Designated Others & Mothers

From designated other to designated mother.

 I'm fortunante enough to be on a mailing list with author Leslie Ellen Jones. She's written a biography of J. R. R. Tolkien, and an analysis of the myths and medieval legends in Middle Earth as well as works on Paganism. Her latest book has just come out and it seems of directly applicable interest to my readers. Better yet, I had the opportunity to ask her to tell you about it. This is what she says....

" _From Witch to Wicca_ compares popular beliefs about witches and their activities with representations of witches in literature and other forms of popular culture, from Apollonius of Rhodes' _Medea_ to Joss Whedon's _Buffy the Vampire Slayer_. Contrary to current belief, the notion that witches are evil women out to subvert Civilization As We Know It did not arise with Christianity, but has been part of the conception of witches and witchcraft since the earliest written word, and probably longer. The question is, how did we get from the idea of witches as malevolent neighbors out to steal fertility--whether by destroying crops, drying up cows, stealing babies, or making men impotent--to the notion that witches' agenda is to save Mother Earth from the ravages of industrialization? I suggest that the category of "witch" is, by definition, the opposite of whatever is the mainstream at the moment, and as Western society has increasingly despoiled the Earth's bounty, witches, as the Designated Other, have come to take on the role of protecting, rather than attacking, fertility. Hope that's not too academic-sounding...."

Not at all Leslie. I think it's just what the (witch) doctor ordered. I find witches to be a fascinating subject in fact and fiction. Always on the prowl for intelligent research material upon which to base distressing and unusual fiction, I was happy to see this turn up. Now it's my turn to duck & run!

01-13-04: A Very Special News Column; F&F Shadowmancer Special Edition and Easton Press Leather-Bound Power

F&F Shadowmancer Special Edition

Special -- so special.
Not surprisingly, bigger publishers are starting to twig to the idea that limited and special editions can do good for more than the fans. They can make a bit of money on the side. So look to Faber and Faber, who have just released a special edition of their hit novel 'Shadowmancer' to lead the way. Why do you care about this? This is why. 'Shadowmancer' is already something of a hit in the UK. It's going to be launched in the US with a lot of publicity and a lot of fanfare, and given the rather conservative bent of the novel (it does, after all, discuss Good and Evil in terms familiar to church-goers), it could be quite a smash over here. Presumably, it won't benefit from the publicity attending book-burnings, but those who would normally burn might be inclined to buy instead. What a thought. So what happens to the value of a limited edition from a small UK publisher when a book hits big in the US? Tried to buy any first editions of the early novel in the Series-That-Need-Not-Be-Named lately? Prepare to mortgage your house if you do!

The special edition of 'Shadowmancer' includes new material, including an extra chapter and more information about the setting of the novel. If you like to give yourself the excuse that you’re buying books as an investment, here's the perfect excuse!

Easton Press Leather-Bound Power

Come on baby -- sign up and give me yo money!

Yes, we all like limited and special editions. But I've got to admit that I've never been fond of the Easton Press version of limited edition books. Yesterday, I got another mailer from them and had to glance through it. I've got to admit that they've got some great titles. Ian Watson, Paul McAuley, Kim Stanley Robinson, Gregory Benford -- there's a lot to admire here. Why then haven't I joined then?

Well, for one thing, it isn't cheap. At $68 a pop -- plus "shipping and service" -- they're not giving these books away. Still, that's never been a big factor for me.

To start with, I've never been enamored of the general design of the books. Yes, they do sport some nice illustrations inside. But they're very trailing edge illustrations -- color paintings of spaceships and dragons and what not. It's the kind of thing that, while it may be nice is also faintly embarrassing. I mean -- look. Let's say you work in an office, the sort of anonymous environment one imagines in theory. You bring in these editions and start showing people the pictures inside and I can guarantee you that their eyes will glaze over faster than dipped donuts. Moreover, it's sort of unimaginative, which seems rather a shame for a genre of literature that prides itself on imagination.

Then there's the exterior design. I think that's a real show-stopper here. These books look like they were designed to be props in an Agatha Christie movie, read by doughy-faced old men in uncomfortable suits with a monocle. I have no suit and no monocle!

Sans DJ, with these lumps in the spine so large that they look faintly tumorous, they kind of give me the heebies. Now I could actually deal with a lumpen, tumor-laden book, but the colors to which the leather has been dyed trend towards hurting my brain. Why, oh why, must they be fire-engine red? Yes, they're expensive looking, but they shout it so loud, you feel like they're blue-light specials at a department store which inclines you to wash your hands after exiting. They're the leather-bound equivalent of muscle-bound athletes. Powerful, perhaps; pleasant, no.

The titles too give me pause to consider. Some of them are really musty, some of them are fairly new, and some of them are sort of old. And you know, it just occurred to me what the real problem is here. It's that subscription model, the CD/Book Club/Movie club deal that you have to sign up for.

If you have a product, then you should sell it. Have inventory, offer the inventory, sell the inventory, let the customers choose what they want. Easton Press operates on the old "If you don't like it send it back" model. This drives me crazy. Nobody wants to open a package, check it out, then be forced to send it back. Tell me about it on a web site, or let me order by phone or mail. Tell me precisely what I'm getting and when. Then I'll decide if I want to buy it. I'll subscribe to a magazine, yes, the newspaper yes, even to some publishers because I trust their editorial judgment. And yes, here's another reason that Easton bugs me. There doesn't seem to be an editorial vision behind the selections, other than "Leather is better". The choices seem to be some sort of nexus between known sellers and known authors. It just feels impersonal. That's it -- impersonal. Prop novels. When they get some body to edit their line, Chip Kidd to design it, then I'll look. Until then, I'll recycle the envelopes and their contents -- and wonder how I got on their mailing list.

01-12-04: A Pete Von Sholly HPL Horrora Model Blitz, Walter Jon Williams Sequel to 'The Praxis', 'The Sundering' in UK TPB


Pete Von Sholly sent me his latest batch of Lovecraft-inspired paintings. He's nailed the feel of those old Aurora model kits.


I don't know about you, but most of my earliest model-building experiences were the Aurora kits; my favorite, of course, was the Creature from the Black Lagoon, which as we all know, was merely a feral Deep One.


Or at least we know that now, looking at Von Sholly's images. Here's to hoping that Aurora gets a clue and contracts Pete to design these. They'd certainly sell like, like -- Elder Signs, I guess.



'The Sundering' in UK TPB


More fun than you may be able to handle.
One of the many highlights of my Hawaii vacation was reading Walter Jon Williams wonderfully fun space opera, 'The Praxis'. It's just come out as a Mass Market Paperback in the US, which is surely a shame, since to my mind it would make a nice hardcover. But the UK trade paperback is a decent second choice. Even better is the fact that the sequel is now available as a UK trade paperback. It looks like we'll get more political humor as Gareth Martinez tries to maneuver through shoals of secret treaties and shady alliances, and more grit and grime from Caroline Sula, leading a battle in the slums. I'm waiting on tenterhooks for this novel; fly, damn you fly across the Atlantic! *.uk just emailed me my confirmation of delivery. There's so much good stuff in this batch, I plan on dragging it out across days of news. And once again, I can assure readers that I'll have another oddly skewed reading year, as the front part of this year is used to catch up with the last part of last year.