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 This Just in..News from the Agony Column

02-20-04: Scott Phillips Interview Online, Cory Doctorow's 'Eastern Standard Tribe'

Putting the Sex back into Sex and Violence with Scott Phillips

Scott Phillips at KUSP studios.
Last night, I had the pleasure of speaking with Scott Phillips. Scott is the author of 'The Ice Harvest', 'The Walkaway' and his latest novel, 'Cottonwood'. Scott's a funny guy, which you might expect from his writing. However, I'd suggest that you catch this interview on the web, because I don't know if we'll be able to air it. That would be because Scott and I talked a lot about the subjects of his novels, which are rife with sex and violence. So, we talked a lot about sex and violence.

Scott also spoke of the dangers of research, and I know what he means. In one scene of 'Cottonwood', a character takes the train from San Francisco to Cottonwood Kansas, and Scott wanted to find out how much that would cost and what it would be like. Well color me surprised to find that he spent $150 on books about the railroad, weeks of reading about the railroad and eventually cut the scene. As if one needs an excuse to buy books! And when you do have an excuse, well look out. No holds barred here. But you'll have to listen to the interview to find out about the Sex lottery scandal of 1952.

Not A Standard Anything
OK, let's synchronize our watches.
One of my favorite books from last year was Cory Doctorow's 'Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom'. This goofy, brainy book was so packed with ideas that I still go back and think on it. So I've been salivating in wait for the hardcover release of his latest novel, 'Eastern Standard Tribe'. I just started it yesterday and will likely be finished with it tomorrow.

My original take -- before actually reading it -- was that Cory was going to re-define the thriller. Now I'll have to modify that to say that Cory is going to re-define the romantic thriller. Yes, running through this maze of clever conceptualizing and tight plotting is a very sharp major modern romance. Cory hits all the right emotional notes here, which isn’t exactly what you'd expect from a cutting edge science fiction writer. But Doctorow is smart enough to escape the SF ghetto. Let's just hope he can leave the door open wide enough for a few more great writers to sneak through.

02-19-04: 'Wintering' With Kate Moses and Sylvia Plath, Telos Takes on the Novella Challenge

'Wintering' With Kate Moses and Sylvia Plath

A chilling read.
I'll admit that I'm not necessarily the world's biggest poetry fan. But, like many readers, I am a fan of the poetry -- and the life -- of Sylvia Plath. There are a lot of reasons for this. First and foremost, Plath's poetry captures an incandescent madness that seems to lie waiting within us all. But her life was not that of the incandescent bon vivant. She was a suburban housewife, and that aspect of her work fires my imagination as well.

Last year, Kate Moses released a fine novel about the last days of Plath's life titled 'Wintering'. Moses used Plath's letters and journals to reconstruct the Plath in prose. One of my Fine Print comrades, Kathryn Petrucelli, took the time to talk to Moses and read the novel; she enjoyed both immensely. Agony Columnist Serena Trowbridge will be taking a look at this novel and the work of Plath in general. Kate's website has excerpts, research, and chronology to help readers and prospective readers fill in the blanks. In case things are a bit too sunny in your world, a bit too happy, you'll be able to read here about enough depression to bring down more than a bit of rain on your sunny mood. But while I'm told his novel is excellent, I'm also told that it's not a tough read; it's gripping and engaging, even if you do know how the story ends. This is where fine writing really counts. Without the mystery of what's to come to drive the plot, language is all that is left for the reader. In the case of Moses and Plath, that's quite appropriate. Language is all we have. It can save us even if we cannot save ourselves.

Telos Takes on the Novella Challenge

A new novella by the authors of 'The Ragchild' from Telos.
The novella format is currently stronger than it's ever been in my reading memory. PS Publishing, of course, was a leader, but there was another UK small-press publisher that's been putting together some impressive work as well. I was lucky -- or compulsive -- enough to buy the one hundred percent first publication by another UK publisher who is coming on strong in this arena. That would be my purchase, four years ago of 'Urban Gothic', fresh from the brand-new Telos Publications. It was published in association with the British Fantasy Society, whose awards I have a great respect for.

Now Telos has taken a rather more difficult path. 'Urban Gothic' was a TV series that had a run on the BBC back then, and the wise producers managed to grab a few scripts and stories from some noteworthy writers. 'Urban Gothic: Lacuna and other stories' includes work by Christopher Fowler, Simon Clark, Paul Finch and Paul Lewis & Steve Lockley. The evocative JK Potter-style illustrations are from David Howe. In keeping with the television focus, Telos is currently publishing a series of novellas of new stories featuring the venerable Doctor Who. Readers will have noticed how much I enjoyed the first entry in the series by Kim Newman, 'Time and Relative'. As a big Mark Chadbourn fan, I've been wanting his latest for Telos, 'Wonderland', which places Doctor Who in San Francisco, 1967 with a bad batch of drugs. Imagine my surprise when I saw it at Borders in Santa Cruz the other day.

The imprinted logos are stylish and classy.
While I don't buy books at Borders, I do periodically check out their stock, which includes 'The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases', and surprisingly, the Telos novella by Mark Chadbourn. But what you’re not likely to find at Borders are the lovely, limited editions of these novellas, with frontispieces that must be seen to be believed. The construction of the novellas is flawless, the layout is great and you've got authors like Chadbourn and Paul McAuley.

However, Telos is rapidly moving outside the Doctor Who market as well. I'm particularly intrigued by the Steve Lockley and Paul Lewis title, 'King of All The Dead'. Their novella 'The Ragchild', for Razorblade Press was a very nice little slice of surreal supernatural strangeness, and this one looks equally intriguing. Also intriguing -- and queued up for review -- is Alistair Langston's 'Aspects of a Psychopath',which, we are warned "is not for the squeamish". Which obviously means that it is for me. And that goes for a lot of the Telos line, which you can purchase and peruse via their website.

02-18-04: Lawyers in Space and It's a Good Thing!

The Return of John G. Hemry's Paul Sinclair

Lawyers in space. Armageddon at hand?
From the world of paperback fiction, writers struggle forth, march in herds across the racks of grocery stores, department stores and bookstores, there to sit and shine proudly, colorful costume jewelry for the brains of the book consumers. Some writers flourish, others wither, and most amazingly, some writers shed their skins and find their true form.

In the world of paperback military science fiction, it's frankly quite difficult for me to tell one author or novel from another. That's why the emergence of John G. Hemry is so delightful. Yes, the universe is infinite, with stars like grains of sand, but when it comes to scifimilfic, there seem to be about three nuts, two bolts and a few sheets of metal used to put together all the books for all the king's horses and all the king's men. But Hemry has found a nice sturdy little niche where he can sling out tales of the legal implications of a military presence in space. Katie Dean really enjoyed 'A Just Determination', the first Paul Sinclair novel, and she wasn't alone.

In 'Burden of Proof', Sinclair is called to investigate a freak explosion aboard the Michaelson that takes out most of Forward Engineering. Evidence points to things not being what they seem; evidence that is entirely circumstantial. Legal shenanigans -- in space -- follow, along with honor, integrity and courtroom scenes with lots of entertaining dialogue. Hemry's got a low-key style and a tight focus that make his stuff of particular interest, worthy of differentiation from the rest of the scifimilfic pack. He's the kind of writer that keeps you combing the racks. And he's the kind of writer who rewards that effort.

02-17-04: Fantasy Froth With Shinn & Lackey

Mercedes Lackey's Alta and Sharon Shinn's Angel-Seeker

That dragon is mauve not pink.
Mercedes Lackey is not the type of writer you’d expect to find here at the Agony Column. But that doesn't mean that I don't have a couple of her books salted away for examination upon that fabulous rainy day. Her latest novel is the second in a series about those ever-popular icons of fantasy literature, dragons, wizards and social stress. You can't have one without the other! 'Alta' is the second in the 'Joust' series, a frothy confection that should appeal to fans of Anne McCafferey's Pern novels. There's lots of detail about the dragons and better than serviceable prose to bring it all together.

Now look, you can't just read All Great Literature All the Time. Your brain would turn into a hard-boiled egg. Your Great American Novels would start to seem all-too-samey. You don't want that to happen. So if you take time out now and again from your Literary reading to read some totally frothy genre fiction -- be it monster horror books (my poison), predictable and beloved cop series books, cheesy space opera, or cheesy fantasy, don't be ashamed. Cheese, cheeseburgers and cheesy literature all serve the great good. And if you look through my bookshelves, don't be surprised to find a Lackey title or two. Won't claim to have read them yet, though I'd be happy to do so if she came on a tour and I had the opportunity to interview her. Talking to working authors is a fascinating opportunity. I really enjoyed my conversation with fantasy writer Margaret Weis, and enjoyed her novel as well. I mean, dragons and lesbians -- how can you go wrong?

Fly me to the moon.
And speaking of the froth of the fantasy world, the new Sharon Shinn novel is out. Our reviewer Serena Trowbridge enjoyed the last novel in the series, 'Archangel'. Shinn seems to offer a bit more than mere froth. Her vision is a little denser, her characters more complex and there's not a dragon in sight. No, Shinn offers up Angels instead of dragons in a world that has a shred of science fiction background to bolster up what is essentially a fantasy scenario. Now, while Mercedes lackey is keeping the guys happy, what with dragons and jousting and such, Shinn is writing more from a romance perspective. In fact, writers like Shinn have been instrumental in battering down the barriers between genre fantasy and genre romance. There's apparently a lot of money to be made there, with, if I'm not mistaken, awards given specifically to speculative fiction-tinged romances, and even Harlequin launching their own line of SF-romance.

'Angel-Seeker' follows hot on the heels of 'Angelica'. You've got your girl from the good side of the tracks, Elizabeth, who is forced to wear the robes of the poor and hopes to snag an angel. Rebekah is from the wrong wide of the tracks, a tribal girl who is not supposed to like angels, but finds one, takes him home and doesn't want to let go. Shinn will surely bring them together for fun and profit. While neither of these books will change life on earth as we know it, they both will make it a place where literature of all stripes is slightly more viable. Think of the formula: Lackey+Shinn+Kay=A Lot of Books you like that sell to you and your buddies.

02-16-04: The Last Light of a New Fantasy and Last Year's Nebula Showcase

The Last Light of a New Fantasy by Guy Gavriel Kay

Viking, Celts and Anglo Saxons mix it up in Kay's elaborate new fantasy.
Anyone who has spent any time looking at John Clute and John Grant's 'Encyclopedia of Fantasy' knows that the term covers a lot wider range than hobbits and swordsmen -- essentially, it covers all of imaginative literature. But even in the narrower, "marketing" definition of fantasy, there's a lot of room for different styles and content. Guy Gavriel Kay is the author of the 'Fionavar Tapestry', as well as 'Tigana' and the 'The Song of Arbonne'. Readers might not be vastly surprised to learn that I've not managed to read any of Kay's stuff, though I have copies of the Fionavar Tapestry salted away for a rainy day. Coincidentally, it is in fact raining today, and there's a brand new fantasy by Kay sitting at my side. I have to say that it looks pretty dense and impressive; better yet it looks to be a standalone novel.

'The Last Light of the Sun' appears to be set in the time when Vikings sailed and the Celts and Anglo Saxons went at one another with swords and pikes. The Erlings of Vinmark prowl the seas in dragon-prowed ships, raiding the lands of the Cyngael and Anglcyn peoples. The threads of three lives tangle as the world tips towards change. In a sense, it is certainly not a new story.

But all indications are that it is a story told with the kind of attention to detail and imagination that take it well beyond the realm of cookie-cutter fantasy. Kay appears to combine a wealth of intense research with a passion for character and detail. To this mix he adds a nuance of the supernatural, enough to keep things surreal and to illuminate characters from within, but not so much that it becomes the point of the novel. If fantasy can yield up predictably excellent writing, then it is here that you can reap the rewards. Kay seems to bring with him a delicate touch that notches his work as close to historical literature as it is to traditional fantasy. With luck, he'll manage to get it shelved with both, and double his sales. Well, we can dream, can't we?

Nebula Awards Showcase

267 pages of the Establishment, Man!
Anyone who is interested in scoring a decent selection of fiction that includes lots of nominees for both the Hugo and the Nebula awards from last year might want to take a peek at Roc's 'Nebula Awards Showcase 2004', edited by Vonda McIntyre.

For someone like me, who is rather allergic to the magazines that are the mainstays from which these awards draw their selections, it's an excellent chance to get a gander at a number of stories by writers I actually have an interest in. Charles Stross, Carol Emshwiller and Ted Chiang all have made their names with short fiction, and their Nebula (and often Hugo) award nominated stories are to be found in this collection.

That said, this collection definitely reflects the prejudices of the Nebulas, which means you'll only find science fiction by professional science fiction writers that was published in professional science fiction anthologies for a professional price of and here I quote: "the rate of 5c/word or higher (3c/word before 1/1/2004), for a cumulative total of $250, minimum $50 apiece ." Got that? OK! This is firmly "establishment" science fiction from the pros and to a certain extent for the pros. But each of the authors here gets to put their own 2¢ worth as an introduction to their story, and in some cases that makes for quite interesting reading.

But this isn't just short fiction, and the extras are as good a reason to buy this as are the selected stories. You get a number of Fred Pohl, Carol Emshwiller, Edward Bryant and others remembering the sorely missed Damon Knight, excerpts from novels by Neil Gaiman and Ursula K. Leguin, last years ballot and awards, and a list of Nebulas awarded from 1965 on. You could spend a goodly portion of your life reading through that list alone and read pretty much nothing but affirmed classics. If you're looking for a decent way to wrap your brain around the current state of science fiction, here's 267 pages that will do the trick.