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12-22-06: A 2006 Interview with Anne and Todd McCaffrey

Christmas Comes Early

Todd and his Mum write a novel.
This week, I thought I'd post the Monday podcast early, since it is something very special. I wanted to be sure that those of you who get this at work had the chance to take it home with you. I consider this interview a gift given to me by those who spoke with me – and what a gift! So, I pass it on to you. I had the honor to speak with one of the writers whose work I can distinctly recall buying when I first started reading science fiction – Anne McCaffrey and her son Todd. I know that I bought what may have been the first mass market paperback version of the 'Dragonriders of Pern' when I lived in Covina, in the bookstore that was in the little shopper's circle by the Alpha Beta grocery store.

It's a long journey from the shopper's circle bookstore in Covina California to the studios of NPR West in Culver City where I spoke with Anne and Todd. I felt all those years rush past me as I spoke with them. Anne McCaffrey has been writing science fiction for more than fifty years; she can talk about Gordie Dickson and Heinlein's woman characters ("I didn't recognize the species!"). This is your chance to hear actual wisdom and actual emotions. I have the usual MP3, the RealAudio, and the podcast subscription. I need say no more. Listen. Learn. Enjoy. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays – from the Agony Column to you, my best wishes there is lots of great reading in the year and years to come.

12-21-06: Simon R. Green Knows That There Is 'Hell to Pay'

(And not just for copping a Pelecanos title)

Hot = trouble, right? Right.
How long has it been since the last installment of the NightSide series by Simon R. Green? Longer than usual, I think. Too long. But fear not. Green clearly doesn't copping a title as he does from George Pelecanos. I've met Pelecanos. He's a great guy, a nice guy, a guy I wouldn’t want to cross. But let's get past the title to the content. I love Green's little NightSide novels, they are absolutely tops with me. Each one a quick-reading nugget of fun, chock-a-block with monsters, gangsters, touch talk and good jokes. Here's the book you pick up to read while you ride on one of them cigar tubes that scoots through the skies, crammed with sweaty Others. Yikes, get me my gas mask and aluminum-foil helmet. I don’t want anybody reading my mind on the plane. They can read their own Simon R. Green novel.

'Hell To Pay' (Ace / Berkely ' Penguin Putnam ; December 26, 2006 ; $6.99) find John Taylor in a spot of trouble we'd really have expected to see earlier on. You know, the old powerless episode. Every superhero / sleuth / supernatural what's-it has one of these, the story where whatever their advantage is, it's erased, zeroed-out, annulled. Taylor's trying to avoid filling the power vacuum left after the events in 'Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth'. Yes, he really is that a good a guy, but Green does a superb job at making his good guy seem like sort of a shit. He's just the kind of shit you want on your side however, if for example, you’re an immortal. Well, I'm not, but just let's say it. In this case, the immortal is known as The Griffin. His granddaughter is missing. Do you think that she might be a) hot and b) trouble? Yes, a) does imply b), but not matter. She's both, Taylor's in trouble and readers are in for visits to drinking establishments as varied as Strangefellow's, Hecate's Tea Room and The Caligula Club. With this kind of pub-crawl, who needs those chintzy on-plane drinks? And with Someone Powerful blocking John Taylor's power, he's not sure if the subject of his search is missing or even if his client wants success. All he knows is that the hard streets he has to walk are lined with monsters and returning characters like Dead Boy. We should all be so lucky.

I think, I hope, that one day Green will get his comeuppance for writing all these delightful books, in the form of a Major Motion Picture contract, and not a TV series, especially not from The Channel That Harlan Ellison Cannot Name. In the interim, we can read them in the time it takes us to get from San Francisco to London. Green's little NightSide novels are the epitome of delightful paperback cheese, smart but not too smart, well-written but not litrary. They are tonic to a complicated world that often in fact does demand complicated literature. It's just nice to know when there is hell to pay, there will be 'Hell To Pay'.


12-20-06: Stephen Baxter is 'Emperor'

No Escape from the Roman Empire

Is he wearing sunt under that ubi?
We all know Stephen Baxter, right? Engineer, hard-science fiction notable, hangs with Arthur C. Clarke. Writes razor-edged space operas with enormous conflicts ('Riding the Rock'), vast armies colliding on the plains of night...sciencey-science fiction. He wrote a sequel to 'The Time Machine' that garnered awards and attention. But he's been in a pretty odd place of late, what with 'Coalescent' and the various sequels ping-ponging back and forth between ancient Rome, modern Britain, and unimaginable future. So really, it should come as no surprise that his latest novel would be 'Emperor: Time's Tapestry Book One' (Ace / Berkeley / Penguin Putnam ; January 2, 2007; $24.95 / Victor Gollancz / Orion Books ; July 20, 2006 ; £17.99). And yes, Baxter is back in Rome, but he's not doing as the Romans did, at least.

'Emperor' finds Stephen Baxter tinkering with history again. He and his readers, to my mind, had a fine time with 'Coalescent', wherein he plumbed the Roman occupation of Britain and discovered a secret sort of Marian-hive cult buried beneath the ruins. This time, in fact taking place during the same time, Baxter tweezes and teases history to his pleasing with a mere prophecy. Not "mere", really, by any means, I suppose, since it is called The Prophecy. It's been in the hands of a single family for generations, and it's kept them out of trouble and in the money, suggesting to a Celtic noble that he'd be best advised to side with the invading Romans. Betrayal comes hard but losing comes harder, so he casts his lot with the winners and for the next, oh FOUR HUNDRED years his family makes out not like bandits but like nobles. You know, nobles, bandits who don’t need no stinkin' horses.

All of this comes as the result of reading The Prophecy of Nectovellin from 4 BC. Now to you and me Nectovellin may sound like cough syrup, but to his family Nectovellin is the ka-ching of money changing hands. Generally in their direction. Baxter is kind enough to give you The Phophecy, and here's a familiar snippet:

"Et sunt vita et libertas et venatus felicitae."

Oh wait, you don’t read Latin and neither do I beyond "ubi sunt sunt ubi" (?), which someone once told me meant "always wear your underwear". (Sage advice, not prophetic.) So Baxter, presumably while sunt sunt ubi, helpfully translated The Prophecy thusly:

"Endowed with Life and Liberty and Happiness's pursuit."

Endowed indeed! Thus the sunt sunt ubi. But wait, those sentiments sound strangely familiar. Indeed, they sound downright futuristic for 4 BC. And Baxter promises that the source of the prophecies will be revealed in the third book of the trilogy. At least I think so. Let me explain.

Now, on one hand, I like that this book is a mere 302 pages. I commend concision. ON the other hand, the UK version from July is listed as having 600 pages. (An error? [Update: Yes, an error. The UK hardcover is also 302 pages. No mysterious booksplitting going on here, according to Simon Spanton, thankyouverymuch.] ) The US version is the first novel in a trilogy. Presumably a trio of concise novels, though as we all know sequels have a way of growing longer and longer and longer and longer and...But I do believe that this entire story is in the can, so to speak. I have no definitive source yet, and when I hear, I'll update this article. It sounds as if it might be worth getting both copies, but then I'm notably compulsive about such matters.

[AND FURTHER: Simon Spanton tells me...

it's going to be four books. EMPEROR, CONQUEROR, NAVIGATOR and

EMPEROR - Roman Britain and Rome
CONQUEROR - Anglo Saxon Britain and Norman Invasion
NAVIGATOR - Columbus and America
WEAVER - We find out what's been going on.]

But size does not matter so far as books are concerned; it's quality every time. And what we have here is of undisputed quality. Baxter writers particularly well of this time in history. He creates gripping plots, great characters and conceptually complex situations. He writes effective alternate history because he understands history, and knows how to create the entertaining mirror reflections that make the genre so alluring. Alluring at least, to those of a certain mindset.

And finally, it's important to note that at the back of the book, Baxter thanks no less than Adam Roberts, perhaps the premiere UK scholar of science fiction, as well as the extraordinary editor Simon Spanton. The association of these two with a superstar like Baxter is very auspicious indeed. Should readers be prepared to rough it with the Romans, grotting about in deepest, dankest, dirtiest Britain, 'Emperor' would surely be a kingly place to begin.


12-19-06: A Review of Neal Asher's 'Polity Agent'

Levels and Bevels

Doctored rear cover of Asher's latest with pertinent critter.
Neal Asher effectively ups the ante in his latest Agent Cormac novel, 'Polity Agent'. But there's a catch. This is definitely a series entry, one that depends heavily on what's come before. So far, so good. If you've read the previous entries in the series, you're not just good, you’re great. You have a lot to look forward to here. 'Gridlinked', 'The Line of Polity' and 'Brass Man', all reviewed by this website, are excellent novels. But US Asher fans will find themselves in something of a pickle as 'The Line of Polity' never managed to cross to these shores, freighted down as it was by the weight of many nasty critters.

Why Tor US chose to release 'Brass Man' without first releasing 'The Line of Polity' is something of a mystery to me. Be that as it may, US readers are heavily encouraged to find 'The Line of Polity' and read it before reading either 'Brass Man' or 'Polity Agent'. If you liked 'Gridlinked' and Asher's other novels, then chances are you'll enjoy 'The Line of Polity' and it is essential to your enjoyment of 'Polity Agent'.

The weird practices of UK/US publishing are probably irrelevant to most of my readers. Asher's on speed-dial, auto-buy, pre-order so far as I'm concerned. What is most relevant is that 'Polity Agent' is the first of the big payoff novels for what proves to be the setup we’ve seen in 'Gridlinked', 'The Line of Polity' and 'Brass Man', as well other as other tangential entries like 'The Engineer'. It does not provide all the answers and readers will look forward to finding out what will follow. But it does provide a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience. Readers who liked Peter F. Hamilton's 'The Reality Dysfuction' will find a lot to like here, as will those who enjoyed John Meaney's 'To Hold Infinity'.

Asher's work is certainly easy for me to pigeonhole. This is science fiction, first and foremost, space opera to be precise, with lots of interplanetary action, battles derring-do. And as ever, there are so many moments of horror resulting sprouting from Asher's enthusiastic imagination that readers who are willing to endure outer space, the future and all the accoutrements of science fiction will still get their dose of disturbing horror as well. So here you have it, a new review of Neal Asher's predictably good 'Polity Agent'. Sure, you could pretty easily guess that I'd like it and that the monsters would play a part in that. What you might not suspect is that characters and characterization also loom large here. Not just Agent Cormac or Horace Blegg either. Asher takes a cue from no less august an institution than Doctor Who by making the ancillary characters full of life and very intriguing, enough so that we'd like to see more of them. He bevels the series into obtuse angles and takes it to new places. If you've hung around long enough, the catch to enjoying this novel -- the fact that it is part of a series -- will prove to be its biggest asset.


12-18-06: A 2006 Interview with Heidi Julavits ; Rudy Rucker Giveaway :

Lies, Damn Lies and Therapy

The new "it" hairstyle is Cousin-It style hair.
My conversation with Heidi Juilavits didn't exactly go as planned. I had my usual agenda, a sort of outline of things I was interested in talking about. And while I did get in most of my asking points, Heidi was such a delight and so animated, well, we went where she wanted to go, and it wasn't a place that I had really mapped out much in advance. Heidi wanted to talk about the joys of lying to your therapist as a means of storytelling.

I had my own take on her wonderful novel, 'The Uses of Enchantment', but Heidi was irrepressible and we forged down a path littered, I will warn with a few spoilers about the novel and lots of insight into Heidi's work. We also talked about her work for The Believer, and how she came to found it. I'll admit her reasons for starting The Believer were pretty much along mine for starting this site. Books are a great way to use your tiny mind. There are lots of good books. Find a readers – help them find books worth reading.

The result was a really fun conversation about lies, damn lies and therapists. You can hear the MP3, or the only slightly evil RealAudio file. I'm sure most of you have already subscribed to the podcast. You've probably already got this one queued up and ready to listen to. I suggest you get ready to laugh, relax and get your mind popped open by Heidi and her oddly enchanting way of looking at the world. Don’t worry. Tell your therapist a pack of lies. You'll feel better for it. And maybe your therapist can write a book.

And a Happy New Year

Yours, all yours – signed.
I've got two spare copies of Rudy Rucker's latest novel, 'Mathematicians in Love', and I'm going to give them away to the two emailers chosen from a hat that closes Wednesday, December 20 at 6 PM PST – so long as you haven’t received something in the past year.

But here's the catch. You’re not going to get them until after I get them signed when he swings by the Capitola Book Café in January – unless he's coming to your part of the world and you want to have him sign them yourself. So email me, win a copy, let me know your prefs, if you want yours inscribed, etc – and we'll start the New Year right.

Let me mention here that I'm closing in on my fifth year of doing this, and apparently I'm going to keep the doors open for another year. Thanks for reading, thanks for listening, and now is the time for you to put yourself in front of a good book.