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 This Just In...News from the Agony Column

08-19-05: Gary Gibson 'Against Gravity'; Tess Gerritsen 'Vanish'

Guantanamo Bay in Space

Hope you do not see this when you look in the mirror.
Science fiction readers are savvy enough to know that science fiction writers are writing about the present even if they're setting their stories in the future. With Gary Gibson's 'Against Gravity' (Tor UK / Pan Macmillan ; July 15, 2005 ; £10.99) that's particularly clear. Gibson described the story to me as "Guantanamo Bay in Space", which suggests that elements of horror will permeate this science fiction novel. Like many of his British brethren, Gibson just has that magic of writing science fiction that seems really alien down. But like Scottish writer Ken Macleod, he starts this one off in the realest of the real, a Edinburgh pub.

When I was in Edinburgh, I didn't get a chance to go to any pubs, but that utterly mundane, down-to-earth fire-off really appeals to me. What's more, I know that Gibson can follow through with a story of high strangeness that will bend the brain in all the right ways.

In that Edinburgh pub, in the first scene of the novel, Kendrick Gallmon's heart stops beating. Leave it to Gibson to kill off his character at the start of the novel. But Gallmon is a survivor of the The Maze, our Guantanamo Bay analog. And if you survive The Maze, then lack of heartbeat might not stop you from returning. In Gibson's vision, The US Army of the late 21st century has changed is base of operations to South America and renamed itself Los Muertos. In The Maze, political prisoners were put to good use. They dont just torture 'em; they experiment on them trying to create the perfect soldier.

Ah yes, the Perfect Soldier. Full of tasty little augmentations to the nervous system that might make you stronger or might make you dead. And in the maze, between the Bright -- artificial intelligences programmed to track down God and ask him what's up -- and the Labrats, the victims, er subjects of the Los Muertos experiments -- the word ghost takes on a whole new meaning.

What Gibson excels at is creating that "fish out of water " feel that science fiction readers love. You know, where youre reading a novel and on one hand you can see whats happening in each individual scene, but as you try to put the story together in your head, connecting our world to the one youre reading about, you're thinking "What the hell?" Gibson is able to tear open the mind, put in those scenes and give you the most enjoyable possible path to put them together in a satisfying story, and he does it with stand-alone, non-series novels. His first novel, 'Angel Stations', was outstanding, and I expect this one to be equally good. Yes, part of the reason is that yes, you can tell, there are some sorts of monsters roaming about in this Maze. But what's really on the loose is good writing.
The Pregnant Hostage

Waterproof book cover?
Tess Gerritsen first came to my notice with her sort of science-fictional, near-future techno-horror novels. But with 'Vanish' (Ballantine / Random House ; August 23, 2005; $24.95), she turns in the fifth novel in her series about Medical Examiner Maura Isles, and her second novel in a row featuring pregnant women as prominent characters. Last year's 'Body Double' presented isles with a killer who specialized in pregnant victim. This time, Detective Jane Rizzoli from 'Body Double' is pregnant. And a hostage.

OK, so does the world need another female ME? I guess so, as long as she looks like a runway model and runs like an Olympic athlete. That may or may not be the case with Isles, but we do know that she's no shrinking violet when it comes to confronting violence. And she does have the kind of luck that includes opening up a body bag to find a living, not dead body within; moreover, this is the kind of living body that gets up, kicks ass -- and takes prisoners, in this case -- you guessed it -- Jane Rizzoli.

What Gerritsen does offer in her ME thrillers is a continuous catalogue of high-tech grue, but heck -- you can get that on TV these days. What she does not offer is the sort of wound-diving camera angles that come with the TV shows. Instead, you'll find the sort of summer-reading, page-turning thriller that will have you grabbing the popcorn. I'd suggest that readers do their own bit of Olympic training after being glued to the couch by 'Vanish'. If, that is, you want to preserve your runway model look.

08-18-05: Brett Easton Ellis 'Lunar Park'; Michael Marshal SMITH, I tell you SMITH 'Blood of Angels'

Bring On the Horror

Nice eerie cover. Cool.
OK, so back in the day, and I mean really back in the day, such that many of my readers might have been in the process of well, being born, there was the Time of the Vintage Contemptibles. Now, during this time, I was well set on reading Stanislaw Lem and Philip K. Dick. I'd thrown in the odd Ruth Rendell, because she is so twisted. Clive Barker, Clive Barker and Clive Barker. Dennis Etichson. John Shirley. The gods of 80's horror. But my wife was s big fan of these books that were debuting as hardback but show up in our house in the Vintage Contemporary Line. Some of these books I had affection for -- Steven Erickson, for example.

But when I couldn't walk a block without hearing about: 'Bright Lights, Big City' and 'Less Than Zero', well, my saintly patience just evaporated. To my mind who could care about the lives of the young and the hip? At the time I was young and profoundly un-hip, dweebing myself away on Usenet, reading a little-known horror writer named Dean R. Koontz between piles of Dick, whom I had heard about mostly from Lem in his infamous 'Science Fiction, A Hopeless Case, with Exceptions' that got him blacklisted from the SFWA in such a manner that it's still on the website. OK. So Michael J., Fox is starring in one movie, I-don't-know-who is starring in another, and what I really like about these books is their propensity to inspire Douglas Winter's wicked, wicked satires, 'Bright Lights, Big Zombie' and 'Less Than Zombie'.

So here we are, all still kicking some twenty years later, you who were being born now up and reading, and the rest of us, well, now I'm old and un-hip. Hey, the youth part changed, no effort on my side required. But Brett Easton Ellis is still with us, and with 'Lunar Park' (Alfred A. Knopf ; August 22, 2005 ; $24.95 ; FPT of 125,000) he's brought us a book that well, startlingly, has the hallmarks of the books I used to like back when I decidedly didn't like his stuff even though I'd never read it. The deal here is that Ellis is his own anti-hero, and the wrecked-up yet super-successful writer ends up in the 'burbs. And in a bit of happy justice, this is the kind of suburb where, well, supernatural menaces have a way of externalizing fears and meting out justice. Ellis has gone from too hip to live to...too hip to live.

What gives the novel its drive is Ellis' continuation, really, of his original shtick. You know, it's just me, just the facts. Only now just me is living just outside of Stepford, pretty close to Castle Rock, around the corner from Arkham. Bad things will happen to this me, and the me of both yesteryear and right-this-damn-second will get a moment or two to gloat as bad things happen to bad people. I guess that damn redemption is in the mix as well, but I'm not worried about that. Redemption usually follows a bit of the old ultra-violence, MR AMERICAN PSYCHO. From killer to victim, how satisfying is that? Certainly more than zero.

Ward Vs The Upright Man Round Three.

...and cover artists, apparently.
OK, so I tried but I could find anywhere a cover credit for Michael Marshall SMITH's compelling new entry in the Straw Men series, 'Blood of Angels'. (HarperCollins UK ; May 23, 2005 ; "Discover the Darkness" Priced at £12.99). That's a shame because I think it is quite lovely and disturbing, just the way it's meant to be.

Sue me. Go ahead, I'm penniless and quite under-employed. But I'm also a stupid book snob, so this whole name-changing thing rubs me the wrong way, especially in the UK where they don't so far as I know have a Michael Smith or a Marshall Smith or whatever it was that kept him from being able to use what I would surmise is his real name, or at least, the first name he published under. But wait...there's more snobbery ahead!

That snobbery being that I rather wish Mr. Marshall / Mr. Smith would get back to the sort of surreal, smirking science fictional stuff he was doing with 'Only Forward' and 'Spares' and 'One of Us'. I like the Ward Hopkins books, but I like the SF stuff more. But look, you know, heres the real deal. Would my readers like to guess who recommended 'Straw Men' to me? No, not Famous Author #1 or Famous Critic #2. Not Favorite Bookstore #1, #2, #3 or #4. Nope.

It was me mum. And me sister.

Now both of them are pretty much heavy-duty readers like myself, but with less outré tastes. (Probably less maniacally compulsive as well.) Still, both of them recommended 'Straw Men' and 'The Upright Man' -- as it was known in its US paperback incarnation. The experience was rather surreal, really. Here's an obscure British spec-lit writer, and my mother, bless her, is suggesting I'd like this little cheesy paperback.

Of course as readers have probably noted already, I got the super-super British version of his latest, with the very nice un-credited cover. I got it at Forbidden Planet, which I visited more than a couple of times during my stay in London...but we're not there yet in the reports, are we. Sorry! Covent Gardens awaits you, and if you want the UK hardcover version signed, go the Forbidden Planet website. You do want to have everything neat and tidy in nice hardcover versions right? Well, youre going to have to go the UK route, and you might as well get them signed.

Of course, this does bring to mind the question as to why HarperCollins US is frittering away the potential US HC and TPB sales by going straight to paperback. I know, in the beginning, he wasn't well known. But listen up, HC: if my mother is anticipating these books, you should be publishing them in hardcover. And while I wait for Smith's next surreal Sfnal title, I know that Ward Hopkins V3 will be a sleek, smart imaginative trip into nightmare territory. I like that. Better yet for MMS, my mother likes it. Ka-ching!

08-17-05: Adventure Vol 1; Ken Macleod is 'Learning the World'

Chris Roberson's Pulp Extravaganza

Monkeybrain! Roberson! Picacio!. AND NOW. ADVENTURE!

Chris Roberson is really busting out there. First with his Pyr novel, 'Here, There and Everywhere', and now with his Monkeybrain Books release of 'Adventure Vol 1' (Monkeybrain Books, November 2005; $14.95). Did I just type FOURTEEN NINETY-FIVE? Holy hell, hope it ain't a mistake folks, because this is so utterly desirable that your mind may be bent just contemplating it. The author list is to die for; the title list will have you slathering with anticipation; but it all starts with the intent of editor Chris Roberson, the kind of intent that will have you cheering.

Roberson knows his way around what China Miéville calls a "ripping yarn." That's an ADVENTURE story, a story that offers ample plot, exciting turns but doesn't have to stint on characterization, prose quality or any of the other aspects that go into making great literature. Roberson nods in his intro to the Chabon's McSweeney's gigs, 'All Star Zeppelin Stories' edited by Jay Lake and David Moles (one of the entries of which won a Hugo), and Lou Anders' 'Argosy. And yes, all these publications have been down this general road before, all-hail. Roberson does himself proud however, with a nod towards not only the usual genre fiction staples, but also historical fiction, westerns, mysteries -- this book is a lucky-bag of yelling authors. It's also a pretty damn thick lucky-bag, topping off at 391 pages in the proof I have. What more could we ask for from an annual anthology?

Well, let's see. New stories from Neal Asher and John Meaney, each set in the universes they've explored so successfully in their novels; 'Lost Time' is set in Meaney's Mu-space, while Asher's 'Acephalous Dreams' is another set in the Polity universe. Hugo winner Mike Resnick brings in the latest adventure of the Right Reverend Honorable Doctor Lucifer Jones in the irresistibly titled 'Island of Annoyed Souls'. (I dont live on an island!) How can you keep yourself from a new historical adventure story by Kage Baker titled 'The Unfortunate Gytt'? You shouldnt! Michael Kurland offers a historical mystery in 'Four Hundred Slaves' and Kim Newman gives Resnick a run for his money in the title department with 'Richard Riddle, Boy Detective in The Case of the French Spy'.

I've got to stop here and mention that many of these stories are on the long side, which is to say, Thank You Chris Roberson. The longer the better in my book, with more than a few novelettes and perhaps even a novella. Whatever the case, this is clearly to be placed in your must-buy column early and often. It's the kind of thing that will satisfy a really wide variety of readers, as long as they're game for longish short stories.

OK, I'm going to stop here, to hold myself back. There's too much great material to give it all away. Hugo nominee John Picacio does the cover honors and we should he honored to have such a cover, such an annual anthology. This is clearly too much fun.

Fermi and First Contact From Our Favorite Scottish Socialist

Knock knock. Who's there? A shed-load of Scottish socialists. Sorry, we're all out of beer at the moment.
Oh Enrico Fermi! How we must sing your praises. When you weren't just a little bit worried that in testing the atomic bomb we might accidentally SET THE ENTIRE ATMOSPHERE OF THE WORLD ON FIRE, you were tossing off the odd phrase here, or theorem there that would captivate generations of science fiction writers.

Good thing you were wrong about the atmosphere, huh? I mean, bummer -- talk about winning the battle and losing the war! But there you go. No, the bombs didn't set the air on fire in some sort of ice-nine effect. But your damnable Fermi Paradox, now that's a real poser. You asked a simple question of probability. The way you worked the math, I think goes something like this. We all know that the universe is well, pretty big. So even if only say, one in a million stars has one or more habitable planets, well, lookit all them stars. There must be bezillions of habitable planets out there, with life in all its magnificent glory springing forth. Snot world, flower world, mud world -- life's rich pageant, eh?

So, you HAD TO ASK, why havent we heard from any of these folks, huh? And that's the Fermi Paradox; so much life out there, so little contact from out there. Whats up, you asked.

It's not like you could offer up a theorem, like say, we havent heard from them because we smell bad or something. No, you only had to pose the question smart guy, leaving the answer to generations of science fiction writers. What, you told your ancestors to invest in Tor books, or Orion Orbit, knowing that somewhere down line, Ken Macleod would need to make a few quid and by 2005 he'd be releasing 'Learning the World' (Orion Books; August 2005 ; £17.99)? OK, well thanks a bunch, because it's not as if I don't have EVERY OTHER KEN MACLEOD BOOK that I've almost managed to read in the order of publication. (Required for this Fall Revolutions books, IMHO.)

So, Stansislaw Lem offered his clever workaround for your #%$^#%*@in' paradox in 'Fiasco', and now it's Macleod's turn. Now from what I can glean, it's a very simple setup. You got your generation starship, heading towards a world upon which they expect to find green slime AT BEST, and NO, not 'The Green Slime' of the wonderfully cheesy Japanese SF-movie fame, not some smart slime, no, we're talking about algae. Little do they know that life awaits them, and it's pretty damn human-seeming.

OK, how all this goes to solving your paradox is a bit of a mystery to me, but knowing Ken Macleod, it's a mystery of the mind-#%$^#%*@in' type that pretty much does you in as you close the book. It's really what we live for, SF that has a sort of low-key everyday quality combined with a high-concept backdrop that results in a lower-brain jaw-drop.

And it's all your fault, Enrico. I have it on good authority that Alastair Reynolds is having a go at you as well. Don't say you didn't ask for it. Let's just hope that setting-the-atmosphere-on-fire thing was just a flash in the pan, you know, like, a total mistake.

We like you to be right, but in that case, we'll be happy to see you're wrong.

08-16-05: Mary Roach 'Spook'; Christopher Brookmyre's Madcap Mayhem.

Science Tackles the Afterlife

Who told you you had a soul?
Well, the wait was over on Monday, August 15, 2005 at 1:00 PM when, while unwrapping the books that came in my absence, I found a must-write-about-it. That would be Mary Roach's 'Spook: Science Takes on the Afterlife' (W. W. Norton; October 10, 2005; $24.95), a book I've been wondering about now for, let me see....just one week short of two years. She told me back then I'd be really interested in her next book, and she was surely right. And even if I had to wait two years, then, I hope that I spent them well and I know that she did. What could be more up-my-alley than a book about the afterlife by the author of 'Stiff'?

If you make the same mistake I made -- opening up the book, count the next fifteen minutes as history. Roach is back, and she manages set up the same kind of easy conversation with the reader that she did in 'Stiff'. Reading her words, she draws you into her world, then opens up that world to include Kitri Rawat, the director for the "International Centre for Survival (as in survival of the soul) and Reincarnation Researches." Roach starts out her journey into the afterlife asking whether or not we have a soul, and you can be assured that Dr. Rawat, a retired philosophy professor, has some strong ideas about the answers to that question.

As she opens up to her subject, she jets back and forth in time, and gets back into that pesky soul-weighing business that was a highlight of 'Stiff'. This time around, she's weighing the soul of a leech -- no, not a politician, but one of those black wriggly things you see in horror movies. She zips back to talk about Franz Joseph Gall, who made an early stab at mapping the brain. While he did find the center of language, his discovery of the center of poetry was perhaps more on the fanciful side.

What makes Roach such an engaging writer is that she likes and respects all the people that she talks to. This is not to say that she believes everything that she reports, but she reports with verve on a subject that is naturally exciting. She digs into "the giddy, revolting heyday of ectoplasm" with the same glee that she applies to re-incarnation. What's more, she finds some. She makes phone calls to the dead, and offers us, "the Big Shrug, a statue of which is being erected on the lawn outside my office." She gets under the computer that hangs from the ceiling in the University of Virginia Hospital, waiting to capture a Near Death Experience.

Having just skimmed the book, I'm ready to cross over. October can NOT come a minute too soon.

'All Fun and Games Until Somebody Loses an Eye'

Your mother told you not to.
August is already here and of course, so is Christopher Brookmyre's new novel, which was the very first book I picked up in Glasgow, signed, from Waterstone's books. What more can you ask for? Well, in this case you've got a stand-alone thriller by one of the best writers out there, a man who can offer you the cursing-a-blue-streak style of writing that will leave you fit to be tied up with tension and convulsing in laughter.

His latest novel with a very clever title takes up the question of boredom. Jane Fleming is forty-six, a grandmother, and pretty much a model citizen. How can you be a grandmother and not be a model citizen? But she's interested in adding to her resume.

Cue hacker Lex Richardson. She's hoping to extricate herself from the clutches of her employer, a woman named Bett. Bett has Lex looking for a missing scientist who has developed something very valuable. Alas it proves to be one of those kinds of inventions that are even more valuable if they remain undiscovered. And this is where Jane Fleming's life takes a turn for the 1) interesting and 2) dangerous.

Brookmyre has been popping out one meaty thriller after another, and we're almost to the point here in the US where we're caught up with him. Readers who like their Scottish literature foul-mouthed and trending towards large explosions will be well advised to seek out a UK hardcover copy now, before they become incredibly valuable, which I assure you they will when someone twigs to Brookmyre's wit and gets round to making a movie of one of his novels.

Of course, you may lose an eye before that happens, which will negatively impact both your book reading and movie viewing experience. How many times were you warned not to run with scissors?