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07-23-04: My Mini-Life in the Bush of Books, Part 2

A Sterling Zenith, A Modern Terror from Donald Wollheim, A Flying, Uh -- Hippie Dictionary! From John Bassett McCleary

Start at the top of the heap.

Oh, come Rick, just get with the program. You can say it. But wisdom suggests I not say it, as one does not wish to develop bad habits when one occasionally hosts a local NPR program. That's because you can't even say "heinie parts" on NPR without risking a lawsuit that could cost your local station bundles of much-needed cash.

Every week is a wonderful week of discovering some very odd books out there. Thrown into the mix are books that look pretty normal. They look like your everyday average book. But until you read it, a page full of words that are bland and inane looks just like a page full of words that are seditious, seductive, surreal or even shocking. First and foremost in that category this week is Bruce Sterling's 'The Zenith Angle'.

Bruce Sterling is a guy who's been thinking subversively for longer than many of us have been alive. What's more, he has the ability to write novels that are eminently readable, easy to sell, easy to buy, and yet will mess up a reader's perceptions and assumptions with a lot less damage than the usual method of ingesting massive amounts of some mind-altering substance. His latest novel, 'The Zenith Angle' is an excellent case-in-point.

Between the covers of what looks like a standard thriller promises to be a cogent and concise examination of just what security means in this highly digitized world. The story of Derek "Van" Vandeveer starts shortly after 9/11/2001. Van is a technophile wundergeek who decides to help his country nail down the security of our networks. But instead of configuring routers and upgrading firmware, he finds himself troubleshooting ultra-secret military satellites.

Now I've known people who worked on Milstar, the analogue of "KH-13" the supposedly super-secret satellite. These guys are not all buzz-cut nutjobs. In fact, the guys I know who did that sort of stuff are on the hippy-scientist side of the equation, and that's the sensibility that Sterling brings to this novel. What Van discovers is that the satellite isn’t working right. In fact, it looks like a huge boondoggle.

Sterling's the kind of writer who can nail the technical details and do so with a sense of humor. But he can also provide an actual plot, though one must hope the blurb writer gets it rather wrong when we're told that Sterling's geek becomes a spy. That "Clark Kent takes off his glasses to become Super-Duper Man" does not sound like something Sterling would deploy. But having read as many Sterling novels and collections as I have, I'll trust that this writer will, no matter what, turn in a sterling prose performance and offer up more than a few on-target laughs. All this in a used book from the local booketeria.

New-old modern-classic horror storiew.
On the other end of the used spectrum, I dug up this hardcover first edition for five bucks that Bookfinder tells me is worth sixteen to a hundred. I have a long history with Donald A. Wollheim, as do most readers of speculative fiction. He's a hard guy to avoid, even you're unaccountably inclined to do so. Like about a bezillion other folks, I bought those 'Year's best Science Fiction' collections off the racks at Zody's in Covina when I was but a gangly lad. And later on in my life, in what we like to call "The Elvis Years" ("I rammed six beers/at the end of the Elvis years" sings a friend), I was buying shelf-fulls of Philip K. Dick paperbacks with the at-that-time ubiquitous DAW logo on the back. And these days, DAW is still going strong; note I reported enthusiastically about the upcoming first novel by Theodore Judson.

So how to resist 'Terror in the Modern Vein' with its eerily prescient urban blight-scape? Well, one might if it were a book club edition. But this one proved to be the genuine first article, a release from the hallowed Hanover House Publishing. In my recent conversation with the small-press crew -- look for an audio interview to be posted next week -- Dick Lupoff fondly remembered this publisher, and it's easy to see why. This collection, published in 1955, boasted a variety of names that's stills striking some fifty years later. From H. G. Wells to Richard Matheson, from Franz Kafka to a pre-'Psycho' Robert Bloch, the authors here are all top-notch. It's especially interesting to see what Wollheim, himself a twenty-five year veteran of SF editing back in 1955, had to say about Kafka, who had not yet at that point been horded away and enshrined by high-falutin' literati.

"Perhaps one of the most widespread yet particularly personal forms of terror unique to our modern society is the sense of having been singled out as a target for malignant forces beyond our comprehension and direct visibility. The depiction of this emotional dread has been the special stock in trade of that unusual talent, Franz Kafka. In this longish short story, the author of The Trial and The Castle takes us into the "secure" abode of a certain unnamed animal."

Published only nine years before, the story selected by Wollheim, 'The Burrow' is to be sure, one of Kafka's most disturbing and unsettling works. What's fascinating is that here we find it presented on par with works by authors genre readers regard with equal affection -- talents like Charles Beaumont, Fritz Leiber, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert Heinlein and others -- Kafka is just "another one of the guys". Never before have I seen this iconic author be "just another one of the guys".

Take a Flying V guitar.
Even after nearly fifty years, the selection of stories in this anthology is strong. It's a testament to Wollheim's talent as both an author and an editor. For this anthology includes Wollheim's own classic of modern, disturbing fiction -- 'Mimic', which not long ago was turned into an occasionally effective movie. This collection also shows the power of horror fiction as well. For we have here a half-century old collection of "modern terror" -- and damn if most of the stories don't seem both modern and terrifying. That's an accomplishment that's hard to fathom but easy to welcome.

And case things were a little too serious -- we have 'The Hippy Dictionary'. Right on the cover you can see the conflict that seethes between the covers. Because this is not only a "dictionary", it's also a "cultural encyclopedia". I'm pretty sure the two words aren't exactly synonymous, though both are pretty appropriate. But then, after his "Apologies", editor and writer John Bassett McCleary offers a page of "No Apologies" and tries to describe his purpose:

"Some critics might say that, since this is a reference book, opinions of the writer should not be voiced; yet I am editorializing at times in this dictionary because the era was a very opinionated period of time, and certain attitudes that I express represent, I believe, typical hippie philosophy.

In the spirit of better communication and understanding, I have created a new form of dictionary and coined a new word to describe it. On the title page, in the subtitle of this book, one will find the new word "Phraseicon"; this is a new concept in dictionaries."

So, this isn't just a dictionary of hippies, it's a dictionary from a self-professed hippie. For anyone wishing to write about the 1960's and 1970's, this is pretty powerful tool. It's not just words, but phrases, and it's sparkled with illustrations, just in case you don't remember what a "see-through" blouse looks like (when it's being worn by a woman who clearly has something to see through to).

It includes potted pocket biographies of a number of pertinent personalities, from Edward Abbey to Frank Zappa. It also includes a fairly thorough list of things like Anti-War groups, Civil Rights groups, Environmental groups, Gay and Lesbian groups, even those involved in the Watergate break-in. Slang terms are thoroughly and entertainingly covered.

Even if you're not researching for material set in the era in question, 'The Hippie Dictionary' makes a pretty entertaining bit of coffee table reading. You set it out, it's going to get picked up and read by people who will likely laugh, cry or want to talk about what's inside. Which is pretty much what books are all about.

Unless, like this one, they're about the Hippie Years. In which case, they need cover nothing more. And if you don't like hippies, their era or their language, then you can always take a -- well, allow me to roll the donut.

07-22-04: Neal Asher, The Writer Heard 'Round The World; 'Dies the Fire' and the Future Goes Pffft

Watching for 'Watchcrab' in Dozois' 'The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy'

Don't mess with the crab.
Neal Asher wrote to tell that a reader his had written him via his website to tell him -- are you still with me? -- that his story 'Watchcrab', which we astutely published last year, and you can still read here if you've not done so already -- was chosen to receive 'Honorable Mention' in the upcoming thick-as-a-brick 'The 21st Annual Year's Best Science Fiction' anthology from legendary editor Gardner Dozois.

I have yet to lay eyes on it myself, but be assured as soon as I do I'll scan the relevant passage for the amusement of my readers. However, if you, the reader are really looking for amusement and haven't read the story yet, please do so. Were I to be pitching it to Hollowood Oh-So-Cool Types, I'd describe it as "Law and Order" meets the critters out of one of Guy N. Smith's infamous 'Crabs' novels. And a good time is had by all who are not scissored in half.

Neal also wrote to catch me up on his latest publication news, gathering up the countries and languages he's now available in.

"Here you go:

USA (Tor US): Gridlinked, Skinner, Cowl.
France (Pocket Fleuve): Gridlinked, Skinner.
Germany (Bastei-Lubbe): Gridlinked, Skinner, Line of Polity, Cowl, Brass
Man, Sable Keech
Portugal (Editorial Presenca): Cowl
Russia (Eksmo - Moscow): Gridlinked, Skinner, Line of Polity
Spain (Distrimagen): Gridlinked
Czechoslovakia (Polaris): Skinner
Romania (Lucman - Bucharest): Line of Polity, Cowl"

I can't imagine that Tor US is going to let 'The Line of Polity' go; or I should hope not. Given that he got a very positive New York Times book review that concluded something along the lines of "Neal Asher gives us the future we deserve," one would hope that such a deserved future would include his novels!

S. M. Stirling Takes a Crack at Good Ol' Post-Apoplectic Science Fiction

From AAA to HHH.
Don't have a cow, man! The lights go out all the time. Get over it.

But what happens when you don't get over it, when you can't get over it? What happens when the lights aren't going to come back on? Science fiction writers have been asking that question for a while, but now that I think about it, none has done so quite as directly as S. M. Stirling in his latest novel, 'Dies The Fire' (Penguin-Putnam/Roc, 08-03-04, $23.95). Usually the lights go out for a reason that's hard to ignore. Like, say, somebody got an itchy A-bomb finger, or somebody decided to bring about Apocalypse in an apoplectic fit of rage over the state of Morals In These United States. Whatever the reason, those dropped bombs, or unleashed super-viruses, those gnarly aliens or devestating climate changes usually get more attention than the side effect of the Lights Go Out. But as long as you're not looking up at Buck Henry as he gives his cattle-call swan-song, as long as your flesh is not rotting off your skeleton because You're Not Chosen or you got yourself a lungful o' Superflu, well, who cares about the rest of 'em that are? You care about no more hot food, no more take-out, no more TV and no more Rolling Crones concerts. The lights are off dammit! How can I find the remote?

S. M. Stirling has made his name with alternate histories that show verve and imagination. I was particularly enamored of the world he created in 'Shikari in Galveston' and 'The Peshawar Lancers'. He did what great writers do all the time; he bent the rules to create a world that would give him the opportunity to write swashbuckling wild-eyed adventures. His latest novel is straight-ahead science fiction. In the parlance of alternate history fiction, the branchpoint is the day after tomorrow, when an electrical storm over Nantucket (the setting for his 'Islands in the Sea of Time' trilogy) heralds The Change. The Change causes all forms of electronic equipment and even firearms to cease functioning. And thus starts the next Dark Ages.

Stirling had quite a bit to say about this novel in the Usenet News Group rec.arts.sf.written. If I recall correctly, he was trying to figure out a way to bring down the firearms with everything else. Well, take that as a given and you do have a rather appealing set of Dark Ages, with all the pesky things we now use to annihilate the world we live on out of action. Of course, you can take the power away from the Evil Doers, but not the Evil itself. So as some people are banding together to survive, others are doing so to conquer.

Stirling's a natural talent for playing out a scenario like this. I'll allow that to my mind, it's not quite as enticing as 'The Peshawar Lancers'. Indeed, it sounds like the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) might have underwritten the novel. Dump yer guns, get out your swords. No more smart-ass pistol-popping wise-guys to whip it out and shoot ya down. You take out that sword, you better be carving a mighty big bird, or be ready to use it. Funny how a disaster brings out the best in some people and the worst in others. And there's a lesson for you, since it's happening here and now.

I can tell you what else is happening here and now; the horse-drawn cars that we see on the cover. I can swear that those damn cars are the ones in front of me whenever I drive anywhere. Maybe I'll ride a bike in that future. It could help me work off some of this anger that I seem to have.

07-21-04: A Memoir of the Future; The War of the Worlds: 143 Book Covers Collected

'Fitzpatrick's War' by Theodore Judson

'Man the dirigibles! War is come!' Click image to see Gatefold Cover.
First novels have a lot of different forms. 'Fitzpatrick's War' (Penguin-Putnam/DAW, $23.95, August 3, 2004), is not one of the most common of late. It's a huge, sprawling memoir from a future in which the electronic technology of today has been destroyed during the Storm Years. It takes place in a twenty-sixth century dominated not by Star Trek-style interstellar space ships, but by steam powered locomotives and huge lighter-than-air dirigibles. The dominant power in the world is not China, not Japan, not the Middle East, not Russia or America. Nope, it's the Confederacy of the Yukon. That's right, Canada.

This is after all, science fiction.

The great hero of Judson's world is Lord Isaac Prophet Fitzpatrick, who conquered the world in the name of the Yukon in the twenty-fifth century. Though the empire crumbled he's still a hero. But that image is about to get a bit of tarnish as the memoir of one of his lieutenants, Sir Robert Mayfair Bruce, surfaces. Some call Bruce a traitor. But his manuscript suggests that's not the case.

'Fitzpatrick's War' is Bruce's manuscript, with a forward and many annotations by the noted twenty-six century scholar, Doctor Professor Roland Modesty Van Buren. It's a pretty sweet looking novel, 481 pages with an Introduction and lots of footnotes to the text by Van Buren.

So what you have here is a meta-fictional experiment of nearly 500 pages set in a low-tech future as the first novel by a new writer. That is no less astonishing than anything that might possibly be in the novel itself. Judson doesn't have any short fiction listed in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database. This is the kind of event that gives one hope for publishing in general and science fiction in specific. Topping off the package is a lovely painting also by someone I've never heard of, who calls him/herself "Gnemo". This just in; A Reader has written me to inform me that Gnemo is really Hugo-nominated artist Tom Kidd. I thought it looked familiar; and thanks to the Kind Reader who let me know!

Of course, there is some potential for a novel that doesn't offer whiz-bang spaceships and monsters with four arms, to be well, dull; and of course, the reverse is equally true. But the sheer bravura that goes into the creation of a work like this ensures that some significant passion went into the creation of the book. A brief examination ensures that there's a nicely subversive sense of humor at work here as well. As two characters discuss the wonders of the previous ages, one mentions the theory that:

" ..they seem to have ski-ed because they enjoyed it," she said.

"They thought being outdoors, during the winter, in the mountains, slots strapped to their feet as they hurtled down a slope to a broken leg was enjoyable?" I said. "God above. Why didn't they just jump off bridges or climb high mountains for the sport of it?"

"They did, my love," said Charlotte.

Well, now that doesn't sound very science fictional. It sounds downright reasonable. So one begins to wonder after all: is this science fiction? Maybe there's something about history we're not being told. Please note that in spite of the huge page count, the book itself is quite reasonably priced, which is the only way to ensure that it gets in the bookstores. Not that the publishers want it to stay there! The rest is up to you. Break out your dirigibles. Travel is called for.

I read this version.
HG Wells Ages In Print

This is literally "just in" from the Ffortean list, but it's too good not to share with my readers. Mark Pilkington, who runs the Strange Attractor website, sent this link to a page where the webmaster has collected 143, count 'em 143 versions of the cover of H. G. Wells' 'The War of the Worlds', from 1898 to 2004. It's a pretty amazing evolution. Harold Poskanzer calls himself "Dr. Zeus" and his collection of book covers is definitely going to be a journey down memory lane for many of us. Moreover, it's a beautiful cultural evolution as well. Follow this link for 143 versions of APOCALYPSE, Victorian Style.

07-20-04: Forever Haldeman

Coming out from under 'Camouflage'

Pauline Kael ruined almost every movie filmed undersea when she described 'The Abyss' as "Tidy Bowl blue."
It's been nearly two years since I read Joe Haldeman's last novel, 'Guardian'. I really enjoyed that novel; it was compact, well-written and quite entertaining. But it was only barely science fiction by most readers' standards. This year, Haldeman has a new novel that looks to be quite a bit more standard science-fictional fare. This can have both good and bad implications.

Haldeman's latest is 'Camouflage'(Penguin-Putnam/Ace, $23.95, August 3, 2004), which conflates a number of ideas that we've seen before into another compact, 296-page narrative. A search for a downed sub that turns up an undersea alien artifact ('The Abyss')? Check. An alien that can morph into anything it wants to be ('Terminator 2') that hunts humans ('Predator')? Check. I'm seeing a pattern of Cameron and Schwarzenegger movies here.

Still, there's no real comparison between books and movies. The question is -- and it's pertinent -- what can Haldeman do with his prose?

Judging from 'Guardian' that's a lot. He created some really compelling characters and narratives in that novel. However, one is given reasons to both worry and wait with anticipation in the 'Prologue' to this novel.

"The monster came from a swarm of stars that humans call Messier 22, a globular cluster ten thousand light years distant."

The worrying part comes with the prose, which is strictly functional in the opening passages; the anticipation part comes because Haldeman is writing an up-front monster novel, and well, I have a love of monster novels that sometimes overcomes my better judgment. I have to admit that for a purely cheesy monster movie run, it does bode well that Haldeman is apparently writing for Cameron/Schwarzenegger. The book I read that was clearly written for Stallone was not particularly felicitous.

You don't have to journey very far into this novel to find yourself a nice slab of entrails and internal organs worn on the outside. At least our monster is acting like a monster, and not a namby-pamby tourist in a rubber suit. Presumably what Haldeman can bring to the table -- besides, hopefully, his obvious prose skills -- is thirty-something years of experience writing actual science fiction. This is as opposed to the skills that are usually brought to so-called science fiction movies -- a few sittings in front of the titles above, plus '2001: A Space Odyssey' if the screed-writer is feeling particularly literary. In any story, even with the familiar outlines of this one, there's a lot of room for clever writing and interesting conceptualization. Of course, one must hope that Haldeman has not chosen to camouflage his obvious skills. And observe that, even if he has, he's at least chosen to do so concisely.

07-19-04: Western Lights and 'Strange Cargo'

Welcome Back to Jeffrey E. Barlough

Cover crinkled before I figured out how to put Demco Polyfit on a trade paperback book.
Readers who have been visiting this site since the beginning know that it's been over two years since I was last looking for fiction from Jeffrey E. Barlough. In my first year of working on this site, I covered his first two books in a column while hoping for the appearance of the third. 'Dark Sleeper', Barlough's first novel, was first published in 1998 in a 'Western Lights Publishing' Edition. Back then, I looked at buying one of the modestly priced copies that were available via Bookfinder, but never got round to it. My guess is that these were possibly self-published, since the series itself is called Western Lights. Now, of course, it's too late. None can be found.

One must give credit to the people at Ace, who were able to recognize Barlough's unique talent and willing to publish it. 'Dark Sleeper' was published by Ace in 2000 as a trade paperback sporting a pertinent and prominent blurb from Tim Powers. There was really nothing like it out there, and there still isn't anyone who writes in the particular and peculiar fashion of Barlough. From the very first page, it's clear that the reader is in for something very different. Barlough has a prodigious imagination, and the world he's created is unique, compelling and very weird. But what you'll first notice is that the author has a prose style that hearkens back to the self-conscious style of Dickens and Lovecraft while managing the rather remarkable feat of remaining funny, light and utterly entertaining to read. For readers who enjoy the act of reading, Barlough is a wonderful treat. Here's a writer who enjoys the act of writing so much that he manages to share that joy with you in every word choice and sentence construction. Barlough comes off as more of a raconteur than a mere writer. He enjoys the telling of the tale so much, the reader can hardly help but return the favor.

Once the reader has been sucker-punched by the unique prose, the strangeness of what that prose is used to create slowly reveals itself. Barlough's world takes a slice of the California coast, butts it up against a continent with a prehistoric inventory of wildlife and a sort of magical science that allows the supernatural and science-fictional to blend under the cover of the pea-soup fogs that line the coast. Barlough deploys these elements at what seems to be a leisurely pace but is soon revealed to be laden with sinister and intricate details that ratchet up the tension and the terror with an agreeable subtlety. He finishes matters in an extremely satisfying manner, with a payoff that worthy of the buildup.

A shocking and subtle ending caps off this charming novel.
'The House in the High Wood' followed in 2001. Though it's a bit thinner, it's every bit as well written and satisfying as the first story in this strange setting. This time around, Barlough shows us a different bit of his world, and offers a few more hints at how it got that way. And he delivers a story that's charming, entertaining and full of characters that readers will come to love.

But there's more at work in this novel than a simple tour of weird times in weird climes. Barlough finishes off the novel in a manner that will surprise and shock without schlock even the most jaded reader. Like Lovecraft, Barlough knows that less is certainly better when trying to send a shiver down the reader's spine.

So when I started this site in 2002, I was looking for the new Barlough book -- and there was none to be found. I continued looking and waiting, waiting and looking, reminded of how much I liked this author every time I lent one of his books to another friend. No matter how diverse their tastes, to a one my reading buddies enjoyed the novels every bit as much as I did. And while the Dickens, Lovecraft and Powers references are all pertinent, they only hint at what the reader finds in the novels. Barlough is doing something totally unique and he does it with a unique style. His writing is startling in its originality on all counts; in the prose, in the plot and in the characters. There's no reward too great for this.

Finally Barlough gets the art he deserves. One hopes it will be matched by the sales he deserves.
The fact that I'm writing that in the present tense and the image with this article will suggest that yes, Barlough is still very much in the game, just about when I despaired of ever seeing another novel from him. 'Strange Cargo' (Penguin-Putnam/Ace, $14.95, August 3, 2004), seeks to reward our wait with a 481 page tale that once again visits Barlough's peculiar creation. The wealthy Cargo family is tasked with finding an heir in the cathedral town of Nantle, while Mr. Tim Christmas tries to find the mechanism behind a seemingly magical set of stones. Miss Wastefield receives an odd gift on her twenty-first birthday, which is locked up in a giant chest that is the source of dire threats. In Nantle, she hopes to find the man who can rid her of this evil.

While I enjoyed the previous books immensely, I must say that Ace has certainly found a much better cover artist in Gregory Bridges. The cover is gorgeous, eye-catching and spot-on topic, capturing both the mood and the substance of the books. From what I can discern, I believe what we see on the cover is what happens in the first chapter of the novel. Further scanning of the novel did reveal the usual mix of charming Dickensian whimsy and terrorizing monsters. If you've not read Barlough, you can still find all his books, though the first is officially out of print. Now, though the series is all set in the same peculiar world, they are not sequential, and each can be read as a standalone work. Still, always best to read things in the chronological order of publication, to get a feel of the writer growing. But in a pinch, you can plop down, read this novel and then hit the search engines to pick up his others. But trust me, you’re going to want to read them when you finish this one. Barlough is highly skilled and totally original. And published! How that for shock value?