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06-18-04: F. Paul Wilson Exclusive on Re-Writing Literary History

Updating the Adversary Cycle

Don't leave the light on.
I made a heart-stopping visit to the Borderlands Press website. Well, if not heart-stopping certainly wallet-emptying. When I just brought up the site, I was presented with an enticing new series they're running. Each book is small, short, and printed in a bright color with no DJ. The authors include John Maclay, Joe R. Lansdale, and more. I was totally distracted by books I suddenly wanted, and I hadn't even come close to reading about the books I knew I wanted and in some cases, already had.

I'd recently bought the first two volumes in their current series of F. Paul Wilson re-prints from Mark V. Ziesing.

Like many writers, F. Paul Wilson's written universe is full of strange connections. He's got two series and they intersect in one critical and difficult to find novel. 'The Tomb' is available as a cheesy paperback and as a mind-bogglingly expensive limited edition. It advances the story that started in 'The Keep' and became part of 'The Adversary Cycle'. It's also the first Repairman Jack novel. So, if you want to introduce your friends to Repairman Jack, whose recent adventures ('Legacies', 'Conspiracies', 'All the Rage', 'Hosts' 'The Haunted Air' and 'Gateways') have been a perennial summer highlight, you'd have to scare up the 1998 edition of the paperback version of 'The Tomb'. This is clearly sub-optimal to the book-obsessed.

Sensing a theme.
Borderlands press is now publishing the revised, updated and expanded versions of the novels in Wilson's 'The Adversary Cycle'. The first two are out and of course well worth buying. 'The Keep' is based on one of those great ideas that just grabs you: During World War II, in the Transylvanian Alps, a regular German company of soldiers is assigned to guard a pass that overlooks oil fields to the south. They take up residence in an ancient structure whose walls are studded with oddly-shaped crosses. When two of the guards pry away one of the crosses, they are killed, their bodies mutilated. It appears that the ultimate human evil has encountered something worse. This novel slips past any expectations you might have and manages to offer one thrilling surprise after another. The following novel in the series, 'The Touch' is out as well. This novel moves the story forward to the present day, where Doctor Alan Bulmer finds that he has the power to cure. It's a power that comes at a price.

The new, signed and numbered editions of these novels are limited to 1,000 copies, and offer the expected Borderlands quality production values. The spines of the novels are excerpts from an artwork by the now famous Caniglia, and the understated but effective covers are by Matt Eames. But most importantly, these Borderlands editions offered the author a chance to fearlessly re-sculpt his old material and make great books even better.

Caniglia's spine art for F. Paul Wilson's 'The Adversary Cycle'.

The critical book for both 'The Adversary Cycle' and the Repairman Jack series has been re-titled 'Rakoshi', since there was in fact no tomb in 'The Tomb'. The original publisher insisted on the title change and Wilson is happy to give it a new and more pertinent title. I wrote Paul and asked him what else we could expect from this important book.

"I'm doing a very close line edit -- I find my rampant use of the passive voice back then appalling. Plus the novel is overwritten, so I'm tightening up the prose. It still won't be as lean and mean as the books from LEGACIES onward, but at least stylistically closer.

I'm also tweaking the Rakoshi myth and changing the caliber of some of the weaponry. I've found a few anachronisms I missed in the 1998 version. They've been zapped.

I'm catching embarrassing redundancies: people crouching down, smoke rising up, the dying mother rakosh falling to her death "trailing smoke and flame behind her." (Like where else would she trail them? Ahead of her? Nice trick.)


The good news is I've found I don't have to change the characters. At all. They hold up just fine. The problem was all the excess verbiage I forced them (and the reader) to wade though.

If nothing else, this process has shown me that I'm a better writer now than I was in the early eighties. And I'm still learning.

The Borderlands edition will be the final and definitive version of this novel."

So that's what we can expect from the novel -- and I have to admit that what I didn't expect was such a great sense of humor. It's always refreshing to find a writer who takes his work -- but not himself -- seriously.

And now I'll finally have a book I can loan my friends who want to start the Repairman Jack series. Yeah, I know -- I'll have to buy a couple of those limited editions. It's not like it will be the first time.

06-17-04: A Sequel Born Wild

'The Wilding' Follows Up 'In Conquest Born' by C. S. Friedman

Michael Whelan's striking cover art for the new C. S. Friedman novel.
C. S. Friedman started her career with 'In Conquest Born', a space opera about two women determined to use their civilizations to battle one another. From there, she took a quick step over to science fantasy with the 'Coldfire Trilogy', a well-regarded series that offers the surface of gothic horror and fantasy with a science-fictional backdrop. She returned to science fiction with 'This Alien Shore'. Now, she's gone back to the beginning -- or the beginning of her career, and brought us the story of what happens two hundred years on from the events of 'In Conquest Born'.

I'm not going to give you even a smidgen of DJ-run down, first, because there's no easy way to boil it down, and second because it amounts to: the battle continues two-hundred years later. What I can tell you is that the novel includes thirty pages of Glossary in case you don't recall what a "Shaka" is or who "Harkur the Great" was. That's probably most of us, so consider the Glossary Very Helpful.

There's no question that what is going on is quite complex, involving the machinations of empires, psychics, genetically-designed warriors and the echoes of an ancient curse…curse…curse.

So far, we have a perfect recipe for gobble-de-gook reading of the highest order. But go just one extra mile, just one extra page and you'll find something quite shocking considering what you might expect, given what you can glean from the DJ notes and the admittedly stunning Michael Whelan cover.

You'll find some snappy, rocking, grabs-you-and-holds-you prose that is clear, and very down-to-earth, considering how pie-in-the-sky this all sounds. It reads more like a gritty mystery than a weird-as-all-get-out science fiction novel. Now I have no doubt that it might get weird as all get-out, but if it gets there via the strong, precise prose voice that begins the novel, then things start to seem really interesting, really fast.

I have to admit that I like all the space opera elements that Friedman has assembled here, and there's lots of room for her to develop the kind of complex and imaginative story that makes space opera so much fun. But wait -- there's more!

I've never noticed this before, but there's a "DAW Books Collector's Number" on the colophon page, in this case, 1296. Is that to indicate that there have been a mere 1,296 books released by Donald A Wollheim Books? Remember, these guys were re-releasing the entire Philip K. Dick SF catalogue in the 1980's. I would have thought they'd be further along than 1296 by now. But perhaps I'm mistaken. Still, it's a fascinating detail for this deceptive book. It looks like the most baroque of space operas; but -- at least as it begins -- it reads like a blithe interview with a babysitter for either baby Hannibal Lecter -- or perhaps his victims. The combination is intriguing enough to send me back for her first novel, 'In Conquest Born'. What makes a book worth reading? Effective writing. Friedman clearly has what it takes to make her books worth reading.

06-16-04: Take the A Train

'Two Trains Running' by Lucius Shepard

John Picacio's uneasy dream of Shepard's experience.
Back when the World Fantasy Convention was in Monterey Bay, California, I made an extra effort to see Lucius Shepard's reading. It was well worth the effort. To my mind, Shepard is one of those authors who should be a regular name on the bestseller lists. His work is eminently approachable, easy-to-read and he works in a multitude of genres. Oh, that last one must be the reason. Bookstores and the mass-buyers seem confused by authors like Shepard and Simmons who work in a multiplicity of genres -- sometimes in a single title.

But back in 1998, Shepard was working on a fascinating project, and he talked about it extensively in his reading at the World Fantasy Convention. In the midst of headlines about a serial killer who was dubbed 'The Railroad Killer' for his habit of hitching a ride on freight trains, Shepard joined FTRA, the Freight Train Riders of America. He traveled with two gents named Missoula Mike and Madcat, and turned the experience into an article for Spin magazine.

Now Golden Gryphon offers that article, and two novellas based on Shepard's experiences in 'Two Trains Running', another in their efforts to achieve Global Domination. Since most us aren't particularly thrilled with the way things are currently being handled, we wish them well.

'Over Yonder' is Shepard's utterly fantastic vision of his voyage. In this, the longest work of this collection, Billy Long Gone chases a stranger onto a train that proves stranger than anything he's yet encountered. The train itself appears to be alive, and it takes Billy to places clearly not part of the world the rest of us are currently inhabiting. The further he travels, the stranger things get, the healthier Billy gets, recovering his memory and perhaps his life. But nobody picks up a Lucius Shepard book thinking the answers are going to be easy.

That's even more clearly the case in 'Jailbait', the gritty, real-world novella that debuts in this collection. Young girl. Runaway. Old guy. Train. That's a one-plus-one-plus-one-plus-one equals horrible awfulness equation. I think I can handle this story; I'll let you know. Shepard has a way of making even the meanest men and women he can conceive look good with his powerful language.

Starting it all off is an Introduction by Shepard describing how he got himself into such a pickle. It actually sounds pretty easy. Spin asks for an article. You're a writer with a taste for adventure and a need for money. End of story. Or, in this case, start of story; or more precisely three stories; that is, 'Two Trains Running'.

06-15-04: New Old-School Philosophical Science Fiction Horror

Greg Bear from 'Lost Souls' to 'Dead Lines'

Be still my beating heart. It's an old Greg Bear book from the garage.
I'm a Greg Bear Fan from way, way back in time. I just tried unsuccessfully to find my cheesy paperback copy of the seminal nanotech novel 'Blood Music' and I want to assure my readers I went the extra mile. Not only did I scour every damn bookshelf in this house a couple of times, I went out to the garage, where I have books in boxes. I hate to do that, but there are lots of books out there that I don't (currently) have shelf space for, and yet they are books I refuse to get rid of; golden moments of memorabilia including the more appropriate Greg Bear title I did scare up, 'Lost Souls'. Originally published as 'Psychlone', in 1979, it was Bear's second novel. It came out as an Ace paperback original then was republished three years later, in 1982, as 'Lost Souls', the edition I bought, probably new. The plot concerns, as I remember, the souls of those killed by our bomb-drops in Japan returning to no good purpose other than bringing more death into the world. The book was (at the time) an intriguing look at life after death and most importantly to me, a great combination with horror and science fiction elements playing into and against one another. When 'Blood Music' came out in 1985, I was all over it. It bore elements of horror and the philosophical inclinations of my then-favorite author Stanislaw Lem. Moreover, it's withstood the test of time, and has influenced a real science, nanotechnology, so that now the science is ahead of what even current fiction predicts for it.

From foil letters to all foil. Maybe in the future we'll have foil pages.
The publication of Bear's latest novel, 'Dead Lines', heralds a nice slim, return to the horrific science fiction genre, and in particular, the themes of life after death that he first worked with in 'Lost Souls'. This time around, Bear starts by playing the now-popular dead kid card. That's a heavy hand to wield, so we'll see how he fares. Peter Russell, a one-time porn producer, is out of the biz and looking for something new when he gets pulled into the ground floor of a new technology; the Trans, a cell phone that utilizes a new bandwidth, presumably one visible with the aid of the element handwavium. Of course there's a tiny problem with this technology; you're sharing your minutes with the dead. Before Peter has even begun to vest his options, the problems start to arise; apparitions, phone calls from the dead, the beginning of our immersion in a nightmare from which we may never awaken.

I've been wanting to get back into Bear's work for a while, but missed the boat with the acclaimed and award nominated 'Darwin's Radio', and I'm really happy to have this opportunity to see what Bear does with this potentially powerful subject. I frankly don't want to tell you any more about this until I've read and reviewed it; the reviews I glimpsed at give away far too much for my taste, and I'd suggest readers give them a pass. At 246 pages, it's a one or two day read. If you're willing to wear your white gloves at the beach, I suspect it might even be an appropriate choice to provide a summer chill. I just hope I don't have to dig it out of a box in the garage twenty years on, in a world that will call this book's future the distant past. By then, I'd better have enough shelves to hold all my books -- perhaps even my brain in bell jar.

06-14-04: Kim Stanley Robinson Interview; Asimov's Universal Robots; From StarDoc to 'Bio Rescue'

Politics and the Line from the Present to the Future

Kim Stanley Robinson at KUSP. Thanks to Steve for photo.
I had a wonderful and totally engrossing conversation with Kim Stanley Robinson on Friday June 4 that was broadcast live from KUSP. But what you didn't hear was the 40 minute conversation that followed, where we really got into Robinson's fascinating novel-driven writing. I have to admit that before I talked to him, I was of the impression that Robinson was on the hard side of science fiction; after talking to him I realize that I couldn't have been more mistaken, and his whole catalogue has taken on a lot greater interest to me as a result. You can hear the whole interview in MP3 or RealAudio format.

Trust me, if this is how you spend your lunch hour, prepare to spend some money on his books going home, especially the ultra-fascinating and dense alternate history -- which to me reads like a rigorous, consummately well-written fantasy or metafiction, 'The Years of Rice and Salt', or his latest page-turning combination of environmental polemic and domestic comedy, 'Forty Signs of Rain'.

Robinson considers most of his work comedic in nature. That's not how I might have guessed it would be, but that's how it pans out; the Human Comedy, shot through a careful imagination that gets the details right to create fantasies that seem to be written in the worlds they imagine.

'Robot Visions' by Isaac Asimov

Laser vision, eh?
It appears that we're going to have Asimov Robot books cranked out by robotic presses until we're so inundated with them that we'll be happy to go see the mooooo-vee like good cows being led to the slaughter. I suppose fate could throw worse at us and already has in so many forms that I can't take the time to list them here or anywhere else.

In the interim, 'Robot Visions' will act as a nice complement to 'Robot Dreams' covered a couple weeks ago in this column. There may be some overlap in the stories, but the real reason to get this volume is the thick chunk of non-fiction essays. They're short, snappy and all over the spectrum.

This one is available as a mass-market paperback, with cover art by Ralph McQuarrie. You'll have lots of chances to read Asimov's fiction. You won't find these essays so easily, however. Asimov, of course, leaned towards what is today called "hard" science fiction -- I suppose -- which makes these essays all the more essential.


S. L. Viehl Dives into Space Opera

The Little Mermaid grows up on another planet.
S. L. Viehl not only dives into space opera, she dives for a second time into hardcover originals with 'Bio Rescue'. No, I'm not crazy about the title itself, I'll give you that. And you get an utterly unpronounceable word in the first sentence. But once you get to the novel itself, there's an undeniable sense of light-footed -- or should I say finned -- fun that really gets past the cynicometer. Viehl brings a lot of helpful personal experience to her militarily-edged fiction. She's a USAF veteran, and she's done time in both military and civilian medicine.

'Bio Rescue' fires off the adventures of Commander Dair mu T'resa, finned defender in the planetary patrol. Dair can survive outside of her normally aquatic habitat, but it only makes things harder for her. That big ol' universe gives her some ideas that there might be something beyond beyond being bare-finned and…well, she signs up for an off-planet Bio Rescue unit, and finds that in space, the water is hotter than it is at home. Enemies are more easily made and more difficult to distract.

Viehl is an established author for providing fun, fast moving space opera, and this is her second hardcover release. I'm wondering if she's going to capitalize on the Little Mermaid myth potential here. Forget the cartoon. There's a lot of mermaid lore that's not trying to sell toys. Merfolk have as strong a tradition as Faerie, and once you get into that level of perception, a lot of depth and fascinating intimations are possible, even in a fun little space opera. Never doubt the power of myth. Readers once again have to remember to support authors with a track record such as Viehl as they move into hardcover if they want to see publishers willing to take any chances whatsoever. Viehl's combination of space opera and oceanic species promises to chart new waters.