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12-17-04: A Preview of Argosy 3; Albert Cowdrey's 'Crux' of the Matter

"Watch the distribution"

Argosy Issue Number Three artist Mark Summers seems a bit surprised by the distribution snafus for Issues number One and Two.
In his email to me, editor James Owen, even as he announces the triumphant return of Argosy's third issue talks about the pitfalls of the print business. He describes the reaction of Locus Editor Charles Brown to the first issue. Brown, a man of class and taste, loved it of course. He then went on to issue the prescient warning, "Watch the distribution. Those guys will eat you alive."

Thankfully, Owen is alive and kicking. And so is Argosy. But the first issue pretty much did seem to get eaten. Hell, I never saw one, and I keep an eye peeled for that sort of thing. The only way I found one was because Owen kindly sent me one. The upshot of that is: if you should find one, snap it up. It's going to be a collector's item, to be sure, and that may increase the price. But when you can get yourself a magazine that has the wisdom to lead the first issue with a story by author Jeffrey Ford, especially a story as wonderful as 'A Night in The Tropics', you'd best snap it up immediately. Especially if it finishes with a novella by Michael Moorcock with more than a few political overtones titled 'The Mystery of the Texas Twister'.

Moreover, every bit of design and the editorial attitude -- a faux-formal manned tone of voice that creeps into comments for the illustrations and the edge of the issue chatter -- is top-notch. So what can we expect from the third issue of Argosy? Having seen that the light at the end of the tunnel is a train, it has weathered more than a few delays. But Owen tells me it is coming out and offers cover art and contents as joyous evidence we'll once again be able to enjoy all the luxuries of a great fiction magazine, done, if possible, in even grander style. So how do you improve a magazine like Argosy?

Well, you change distributors, for one thing. Argosy has always been intended to be a two-volume publication, sent in an illustrated slipcase. But their first distributor nixed that, and that's why the first issue I saw was crammed together. Mind, I do focus on content, but having seen a two volume issue, I'm convinced it's the way to go, and so is Owen. So the two volumes in a slipcase format is back. Owen tells me that, "in accordance with ARGOSY's being more 'bookish' in nature than 'periodicalish', we are changing the name from ARGOSY MAGAZINE to ARGOSY QUARTERLY."

The droppings alone are a major problem. Dragons eat whole cows, I mean...
What more can you ask? Well, you could ask for more pages -- and Owen is giving you more. But you're not only getting more pages, you're getting more pages of content, because his new distributor, PGW (Publishers Group West, not Pets Gone Wild) has asked him to remove the advertising. Done! Perhaps the observation that PGW also distributes McSweeney's Quarterly should give you an idea of where Argosy is headed, and I couldn't ask for a better direction. The cover price has gone up to $20.00, but hell, for a slipcased collection of original fiction and art, that's peanuts. Honey roasted, organic peanuts, yes, but why settle for less?

Issue three is certainly more. The fiction lineup includes Jim Fusilli, Richard A. Lupoff, Zoran Zivkovic, Steve Rasnic Tem, Marly Youmans, Christopher Chambers, Chris Nakashima-Brown, and Charles Coleman Finlay. William F. Nolan contributes a long non-fiction feature on John Dillinger. The separated novella come from no less than John Grant, and is the first part of a massive satirical novel 'The Dragons of Manhattan'. The novel will be completed in the following two issues.

With the departure of Lou Anders, Owen is opening up Argosy to a series of Guest editors. We should see a list coming soon, and I'm told it will include some surprises. One is confident that those will be good surprises. And as you get your own copies of Argosy with the inevitable requests to loan them to friends, remember to get them back. Watch the distribution.

Do Five-Armed Baboons Sell Hardcover Science Fiction?

Do five armed baboons sell hardcover science fiction? It depends where you buy your books.
It's a pertinent question, especially if you're talented author Albert Cowdrey. They're quite prominent on the cover of 'Crux' (Tor Books / Tom Doherty Associates ; December 16, 2004 ; $24.95). They're so prominent, they're as frightening to this reader as they might be were one to encounter such a beast in real life. But one suspects that Tor did not want to frighten away potential readers, though that's what this cover illustration might do. Hopefully, readers will take the time to look beyond the cover and get a feel for what Cowdrey has to offer.

Cowdrey got hi start as a writer back in 1971, when he drew on his doctorate in American History to write 'The Delta Engineers'. This title and 'Land's End'(1977) both document the history of the New Orleans Engineer District of the Army Corps of Engineers. These are the guys responsible for flood control, levees and floodwalls, which you might imagine are of no small importance in New Orleans. It's practically a floating city. The Army Corps of Engineers keeps it from drowning, which is to Cowdrey's advantage: he lives there. In 1979, he wrote 'City for a Nation, the Army Engineers and the Building of Washington DC 1790-1967;. OK, it's a mouthful, but readers of Kim Stanley Robinson's recent '40 Signs of Rain' will know the import and urgency of this task. The capital of our nation was built on a swamp that nobody wanted. Yes, it's still a swamp and by any other name, would smell as sweet.

Cowdrey returned to the publishing world in 2002, when his short story 'Queen for a Day' won the World Fantasy Award. As readers know from my essay on awards, the World Fantasy Award I one definitely worth watching. And this novel certainly bears that out.

'Crux' first saw light as a novella published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Interestingly enough, Gardener Dozois, the one-time editor of Asimov's, praises the version published in F&SF on the back cover blurb. Yes, we're a pretty small and shamelessly incestuous community. But then, remember -- we like mutants!

OK, so for 'Crux', you look at that cover and think maybe: sub-Star Wars space opera. Yeah, I know, it probably takes some digging to get that low, but there you are. Five armed baboons, well -- they’re asymmetrical . So. Take a deep breath, and remember the days of Philip K. Dick. Because that's the vibe I get from this novel. How do you convey that on the cover. Typically, you go for a Blade Runner-esque painting. Having not yet read the book, I'll allow that there may actually be five-armed baboons inside. In fact, that's such a bizarre concept, I'm guessing there must be. But still. Still.

Back to the Philip K. Dick vibe. The setup here is that Earth came close to wiping itself clean long ago. The survivors --both in Central Asia and on the moon -- bring it and the human race back to life. Now, we're thriving, in a golden age where Genghis Khan is revered as the uniter of humanity and democracy is a long-dead notion. When scientists create a wormhole generator that might allow trips to the past, a band of bleeding hearts and malcontents (read: libruls) decide that they've got to have this device to go back and prevent the Time of Troubles that shattered the earth. But those in control don’t want the past changed. And should it be? The future is pretty damn bright.

Cowdrey does some interesting things with the language and plotting here, weaving together a future that's substantially different from what we'd expect and a past that we might not recognize. He's created a language for his future that reflects its strangeness. As a result, you get more than bread-and-butter prose. Some weirder. Wilder.

'Crux' looks to be another entry in what I called 'Time Opera', that is, big-scale far future novels that feature time travel as a, well, crux, around which the action revolves. Earlier this year, Neal Asher's 'Cowl' launched that sub-genre for me, though I suppose that were one to go back, say to H. G. Wells, it started earlier. That said, we have a novel that offers satire, strangeness and perhaps even five-armed baboons. The latter may not sell the novel, but Cowdrey's resume and the novel itself are a different matter. And if there's a future in which they're wielding weapons, there's probably a place where they're cooking fast food. And that's an even more frightening prospect.

12-16-04: MI5 Impossible; Holly Phillips 'In the Palace of Repose'

Stella Rimington Reveals a World 'At Risk'

George Smiley of Austin Powers?
The jump from serious to seriously silly is amazingly easy. It's also easily avoided, if you have the right chops. Spy fiction is a genre that constantly teeters on the edge. It's a short walk from George Smiley to Austin Powers, and many is the writer who has made that journey without knowing until it was too late. It all depends on how much authenticity you bring to the material. UK readers have probably already had their fill of UK spy chief and writer Stella Rimington. Her novel has been out since July, and it's been quite well received in the UK, which bodes well for the forthcoming release in the US. 'At Risk' (Alfred A. Knopf / Random House ; January 11, 2005 ; $24.00) does at first glance look like another die-stamp thriller. The setup is extremely simple, and distressingly pedestrian. An "invisible" -- what we Yanks would call a sleeper -- looks quite likely to strike soon in the UK. This invisible is an ethnic native to the UK, a citizen able to move about freely as he or she goes about plotting great nastiness. Liz Carlyle is that rare woman who has made it through the all-male ranks. She's assigned to scope out this invisible before something bad happens. So far we're not really out of Tom Clancy territory yet.

What takes this novel out of that territory and into another realm entirely is author Stella Rimington's job experience. From 1992 to 1996, she ran Britain's MI5 as the agency's first and only woman Director-General. Over the course of her 30-year career, she was the head of counter-subversion, counterespionage, and counterterrorism branches. Now that immediately makes me think that this novel might prove to be quite fascinating.

The power of positive hypocrisy can work wonders.
Here in the US, we haven't yet seen Rimington's autobiography, 'Open Secret: The Autobiography of the Former Director-General of MI5'. And one wonders whether, in the information sensitive climate that we inhabit, we're going to. Before the first hardcover edition came out -- on September 13, 2001 -- Richard Wilson raked Rimington over the coals. She was shocked, she tells you shocked -- that she should be treated so. Of course, back in her day she would not have done anything differently herself, but realizing the positive power of hypocrisy, she was willing to push for her own case. It's not as if she discloses anything more surprising than her own ability to rise within a system that is owned and operated by men who are not inclined to be accommodating of a woman, no matter how accomplished. But apparently, the men in charge were not prepared for quite how accomplished Rimington proved to be. Still, she toes the party line in the autobiography, and thus simply brushes off MI5's involvement in breaking the miner's strike as good form, not to be questioned. But since a novelist is required to lie early and often, perhaps this suggests she'll be very good in the fictional realm.

The real breakthroughs here --and there are two -- are that Rimington should be able to accurately illuminate the interior lives of her characters and the workings of the MI5 in a post 9/11 world. If the plot is cheesy and to my mind it sounds quite firmly on the cheddary side then that's because alas we live in a world of cheese. Cheese is authentic. Cheese is the real deal.

So then, it all comes down to execution, and that's where the rubber will meet the road. I just read the first chapter, and it seems perfectly serviceable, though it doesn't get to any of the good stuff. The main character, Liz Carlyle, is having an affair, and there's a nice turn of phrase where she reflects that her lover has "an unerring instinct for the tradecraft of adultery." Not bad -- it certainly gives one reason to think that when Rimington gets on to real tradecraft some sort of transformative magic might happen. We all love the kind of obsessive detailing that actual experience can bring to a narrative, whether it's the kitchen-based observations of Anthony Bourdain or the high-concept creations of astrophysicist Alastair Reynolds. Knowledge is not just power -- it's the font of powerful writing.

Of course, there's one other reason that Stella Rimington is going to catch a lot of people's eyes and ears and that's her name. Maybe I'm just showing my age or how thoroughly laced my mind is with trivial garbage, but when I see "Stella Rimington" I think "Remington Steele". Yes, the jump from serious to seriously silly is alarmingly short. The trick is to be able to make that leap without going over the edge.
A New Ecology of Short Fiction

The Course of Empire: Deolation. Cover art by Thomas Cole, 1836.
Short fiction breeds in its own world, the boiling stew of the writer's mind. How it escapes from that mind onto the printed page is via a perilous process-- getting published. Some writers find it remarkably easy. Others have to serve a mind-bending apprenticeship, publishing first in small journals, then in slightly larger journals, then in well-known periodicals. And others, like Holly Phillips seem to shortcut the usual route, to let their stories erupt directly from their brains into the pages of a book. In this case, that would be 'In the Palace of Repose' (Prime Books Trade Hardcover ; February 2005 ; $29.95). In her first published collection, only two stories have been previously published; one in HP Lovecraft's Magazine of Horror (which bodes extremely well) and one in On Spec, a magazine the author now edits. Talk about a step up -- from contributor to editor is about as short a journey as you can manage.

The upshot of all this for the reader is that you have a collection of stories that's virtually unknown. That's rarely the case. Usually an author's first collection of stories is primarily comprised of pieces that have already been published in various small journals. So what does the fact that most of these have not yet seen the light of day until the publication of this book say? Well, it's good news for the readers, who get a collection of original fiction. It also shows that Prime Publisher Sean Wallace has a lot of confidence in Holly Phillips.

In another age, Phillips' work might have been called horror, and then, as now, that would have been a misnomer. Phillips writes what Bruce Sterling calls slipstream fiction, stories that involve a fantastic concept or insight but play out in a real world, with rules and logic. And while readers might find them chilling, it will be primarily for their insight into the workings of a woman's psyche, for their insights into that place just beyond the edge of the world we all know and like to live in. We like to live there because it's safe, it's predictable. And predictable is not a safe word to be associated with Holly Phillips' fiction.

But then we don’t like our fiction predictable or safe. We do like it Lovecraftian, and whether it's classic Lovecraft with a crate full of Cthulhu or New-Age Lovecraft with a hint of the infinite madness that lies just over the horizon, the essential ingredient here is an author who is willing to force us to face the unknown. More importantly, it's not just facing the unknown; SF writers do that for lunch. What Phillips appears to mange is to allow us to experience the unknown and yet let it remain unknown. If it sounds like a paradox, then I'm on the right track. Phillips' prose will quickly convince any reader that while she's got a nice smooth, poetic voice, she also knows her way around a plot, some characters and a story. Put these entire opposites together, do it in less than 10,000 words and you've got a gold-plated paradox. And, just possibly, a Holly Phillips story.

12-15-04: Robert J. Sawyer Goes in the Courtroom To Prove His Cases; 'Locust' by Jeffrey A. Lockwood

Illegal Science Fiction

If the saucer fits, you can't acquit.
One of the most controversial science fiction authors you can find these days is Robert J. Sawyer. But he's not controversial so much due to his subject. The controversy around this author stems strictly from his reception. Having won the Hugo award for Best Novel in his home country of Canada, he's drawn a very mixed reaction from fans and critics. His last major work was the "Neanderthal Parallax" trilogy; 'Hominids', 'Humans' and 'Hybrids', three novels about an alternate Earth where Homo sapiens became extinct and the Neanderthal species dominates. Characters slip from one world to the other, with unfortunate results on both sides of the divide.

I've read some very enthusiastic reviews of these books on websites and in publications I trust. But alas, it was the net.wit who posted a comparison in the rec.arts.sf.written newsgroup that stuck with me -- "A science fiction version of Mandingo". Sometimes, when you get something like that stuck in your brain, there's no getting it out, no matter what someone else says. And so the trilogy went unread, even as it garnered awards and occasional derision on Usenet. Sorry, I can't pretend to be objective, only honest about my subjectivity.

Of course, other factors go into the mix as well. One of Sawyer's other recent novels is titled 'Calculating God'. When I see a title that implies some kind of religious inclination, I shy away immediately. I dunno -- it simply puts me off my read.

And then finally, there are results of actual reading. Long ago, I read a Robert J. Sawyer novel titled 'Illegal Alien', and I found it rather thin. It was a courtroom drama -- with aliens. The premise was pretty simple. Aliens arrive, and they prove easy to talk to and easy to drag around. They're quickly touring the country, taking in the sights and becoming a sight themselves. While in Los Angeles, a human in the entourage is murdered, and all the evidence points to one of the aliens as the doer. From this point on, you can cue the OJ Simpson jokes. They pile up thick and fast as we get bits of alien DNA analysis and the perils of committing crimes in Southern California. I found the contemporary references tiresome, having read it shortly after it came out. In a world awash with OJ japes and jibes, that aspect grated on me. Interestingly enough, it won a Seiun Award for Best SF novel translated into Japanese in the same year that 'Hominids' won the Hugo for Best Novel. Perhaps it's an indication that there's room for more in the translation department.

Better than hair plugs. Which still haven't been perfected.
But that brings us nicely around to Sawyer's latest, the forthcoming 'Mindscan' (Tor Books / Tom Doherty Associates ; April 2005 ; $24.95). Once again we have a science fiction courtroom drama, but with a rather different spin. This novel concerns itself with the consequences of that hoary SF cliché, the uploading of our consciousness into machines. Jake Sullivan discards his doomed biological body, uploads into an android and finds himself falling in love. It's better than hair plugs, I guess. Karen, the woman for whom he falls, is also an android, leaving her flesh behind. It sounds like a match made at

But complications ensue when Karen's son sues her. It seems that he feels that he's been cheated out of his inheritance because now she's never going to kick the bucket. But it gets worse. How? Jake had apparently not quite got round to dying before he uploaded. His original hasn't gone the way of the dodo. He's up and escaped from the hospital and taken hostages, demanding the return of his identity, his personhood. All of a sudden, a potentially eternal romance has done and got itself all complicated by money-grubbing humans. Isn't that always the case?

As usual, Sawyer plays on his strengths and those are considerable. He knows his stuff, and provides a couple of pages of further reading for those of us who'd like to cheat our kids out of their inheritances. He's also set up a nice round of hot button pushing for those of us who suffer from low blood sugar and an under-stressed lifestyle. And I'll have to give him props for writing short novels. The ARC I have is only 303 pages, though the back of the book spec indicates that the final product will be 384. And my experience suggests that one never knows what it will turn out to be. One thing is certain. Sawyer sells. He sells well. And controversy never hurts.

An American Plague

Stop following me! A plague of blurbs.
I love a good insect book, particularly in the non-fiction realm. In the past three years, I've clipped nearly 200 newspaper articles about insects, from Asian Tiger mosquitoes to Bigfoot's head lice. And one of my favorite insects is the locust. I suspect that I have more articles about locusts than any other insect. Now called "sky prawns" by the Australian who wrote a cookbook with more than 20 recipes (21!), locusts are an insect freighted with meaning. From the biblical plagues to their clear-cutting crop-destroying abilities to a place in American litrachur, locusts bring with them a lot of associations beyond their pestilent nature. Humankind, so heavily impacted by locusts is wont to see itself as a two-legged locust, and certainly not above clear-cutting, crop-destroying behavior. And there's solid evidence that we are a plague upon the earth as well.

Sky prawn special tonight, folks. Crunchy!
Enter, then, 'Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier' (Basic Books / Perseus Books; May 1, 2004 ; $25.00). Author Jeffrey A. Lockwood gets a cover blurb from no less than Annie Proulx -- she's everywhere these days, is she following me or what? And while we're on the subject of blurbs, I'll note that the back cover has a blurb from the author of another insect non-fiction favorite -- May Berenbaum, whose 'Bugs in the System' was an entertaining overview of the importance of insects to human life and civilization. 'Locust' focuses on the American locust. If you're a collector of insect news stories, you'll note a distinct lack of American Locusts. That's because they're believed to be extinct. But what could annihilate an insect that at one time had the same biomass as all the buffalo in frontier America?

That's the mystery that Lockwood sets out to solve in 'Locust'. Here we have what the US Congress (well noted for reasonable scientific evaluations, of course) once called "The greatest single impediment to the settlement of this country". Now it's gone. Lockwood offers up descriptions of historical infestations and a history of our understanding of the American locust. He digs through the theories, largely uncontested until now, as to why they disappeared. Presumably, he deals with the obvious one, that is, that they all shed their skins and turned into politicians. Is there another hopeful extinction in our future? Nature has a way of dealing with excess, doesn't it?

I'm really looking forward to digging into this book, as I've found that non-fiction is a positive boon for any fictional efforts one may care to undertake, as well as a palate cleanser between bouts of SF, horror, mystery and litrachur. I'll have to see if I can get a copy of the Sky Prawn Cookbook. Perhaps the locust's place as palate cleanser extends beyond the literary realm. Those who attend any gatherings I host may want to take note. Crispy snack trays may have more than just pork rinds.

12-14-04: A Slow-Moving Apocalypse

'Spin' by Robert Charles Wilson

Science is already subject to far too much "spin".
Sooner or later, a "real" science fiction writer is going to hit the bestseller lists. It happens with horror and fantasy writers; witness Robert Jordan's periodic rises to (near the) top of the list, and the heroic assault carried on by the genteel Susanna Clarke. A "real" science fiction writer I think could and probably should make the bestseller lists is Robert Charles Wilson. That's because Wilson, more than most, hits it right on both sides of the writing equation. He creates science fictional situations that are properly mind-boggling, but not so complicated that they scare away lay readers. But Wilson also excels in the human side of his stories. His characters are compellingly real and entertainingly flawed. He also manages to address topical matters before they become topical. In this category, 'The Chronoliths' was an absolutely eerie vision of large-scale terrorism released in hardcover just a month before the events of September 2001.

One hopes that his prescience does not continue, because his forthcoming novel, 'Spin', (Tor Books / Tom Doherty Associates ; April, 2005 ; $25.95) ups the scale of events as it portrays a cosmic cataclysm. It begins with an event right out of arguably the most famous science fiction short story ever, 'The Nine Billion Names of God' by Sir Arthur C. Clarke. That's right. Here’s a novel that begins when the stars go out. How do you top that? Wilson's characters are ten years old when this happens, and it's called 'The Big Blackout'.

But it's not just the stars that go out. The "sun" is no longer an astronomical object. It's a heat source. The moon is gone, though the tides remain. The artificial satellites that circle the earth fall from the sky. (Cue the Michael Bay special effects of satellites crashing to earth causing havoc.) Eventually, we do get something close enough to whatever is out there to determine that the barrier is artificial. Aliens --damn them! -- are at it again. Time is passing much faster outside the barrier than inside, and we soon come to realize that the actual sun is going to burn out in about forty years.

But for the humans beneath all this action, life goes on. On one hand, we have Jason, a young scientist working against the slow-motion apocalypse. (No, Rob, it's not the Nibiruan apocalypse. From what I can see.) Diane pursues a life of hedonism, and marries the head of a sinister cult that's forged a religion out of the fears of the masses. Presumably, somebody somewhere declares a War on Astronomical Events. And of course, things get stranger.

Robert Charles Wilson will be touring with Robert J. Sawyer next year -- a "Rolling Canadian Science Fiction Writers". As details emerge, I'll keep my readers informed. I'm going to have to tie myself to the mast to prevent reading this novel before its time. Hopefully, when that time arrives, Wilson will have himself a best seller on his hand. And one more fervently hopes that Wilson's prescient phase has passed. If not, it's time to invest in telescope companies! And telescopes. Really big telescopes. If this slow-motion apocalypse is on the roll, I want to be the first see it. Of course, there are any number of slow-motion apocalypses on the roll. Just take your apocalyptic pick.


12-13-04: Norbert Wiener Founds Cybernetics

'Dark Hero of the Information Age' by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman

It's odd to think that we live in an age dominated by a science that's barely spoken of, in a world made by a man who is almost totally unknown. Look, I'm a heavy-duty science fiction reader who spent more than twenty years in the IT biz. And even I had never heard of Norbert Wiener until last Friday, when my contact over at Basic Books slipped me a copy of 'Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener, The Father of Cybernetics' (Perseus Books / Basic Books ; December 14, 2004 ; $26.00). But like so much that we live in, so much that we live through, it's all transparent now.

Wiener was a child prodigy who was in college in the 1906, at the age of 11. By the age of 18, he had his PhD and more than a few problems. And most of the twentieth century was still to come.

Science fiction readers have all grown up on the stories of his students and followers -- from John Von Neumann to Margaret Mead. His bestselling book 'Cybernetics' defined the field in fact and looms over the most of the fiction we currently hold dearest. Flo Conway and Jim Seigelman had access both to newly declassified WW II and Cold War-era documents and Wiener's family and closest colleagues. From his high-pressure childhood ("My children are not geniuses," his father once said) to his groundbreaking conceptualizations, the authors bring light to the man whose work provided the underpinnings for his future -- and our present.

Wiener was not a glassy-eyed optimist. "We were here in the presence of another social potentiality of unheard-of importance for good and evil," he wrote in 1948 -- when Orwell was penning 1984. "The automatic factory and the assembly line without human agents...makes the metaphorical dominance of the machines...a most immediate and non-metaphorical problem. It gives the human race a new and most effective collection of mechanical slaves to perform its labor. Such mechanical labor has most of the economic properties of slave labor...However, any labor that accepts the conditions of competition with slave labor accepts the conditions of slave labor, and is essentially slave labor."

And here we are. Pass the sweatshop. Please.

Were you to want to know where our journey started, you'd be well advised to look into Siegelman's and Conway's biography. We certainly haven’t ended up where he might have predicted we would. But there's solid evidence that the prediction helped to prevent itself from coming to pass. To my mind, that's job number one for the dystopian writer: to accurately describe an horrific future, thus ensuring that it never arrives.