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This Just In...News From The Agony Column

04-06-07: Robert J. Sawyer's 'Rollback' , Christopher Buckley's 'Boomsday'

Same Price, Different Age

Not splurging on the cover, are we?
Science fiction writers of late have begun an advance attack on aging. Peter F. Hamilton's 'Misspent Youth' and John Scalzi's 'Old Man's War' both feature de-aging technology as a major part of the plot. This isn’t just eternal youth we're talking about either. It's not just stopping the clock, it's winding it back so that the aged can be young again. These books are a testament towards our unease with the aged and elderly, a tribute to our fear of our own inevitable future.

But more than the future, they’re also, not surprisingly, a reflection of the present. We live in a society where it is not possible to be too young, and is all too easy to be too old, a world in which those elderly who are not wealthy are left helpless and discarded by a society embarrassed by their very presence. We'd like to, er get rid of 'em to be precise, were we not them. Two very different authors take very different looks at this fear of the future; Robert J. Sawyer's 'Rollback' (Tom Doherty Associates / Tor Books ; April 3, 2007 ; $24.95) posits a very near future in which the technology exists to "rollback" the aged to their blessed youth. Brought to you by...well, you know. (No, just kidding.) And Christopher Buckley's 'Boomsday' (Twelve ; April 2, 2007 ; $24.99) offers us a delightful solution to the so-called Social Security crisis. Give those retiring Boomers huge tax breaks if they promise to opt out of Social Security by killing themselves. Break out the wrinkle cream, folks, and learn to lie about your age. Convincingly.

Sawyer's 'Rollback' begins with a message from aliens, decoded by Dr. Sarah Halifax -- a long damn time ago. Thirty-eight friggin' years ago to be precise. Now, at the tender age of 87 she finds her skills in demand again when another message arrives. Alas, she's not quite up to the task. Enter Cody McGavin, a wealthy industrialist who offers to spring for her rollback procedure so she can suss out the message and save the world, assuming she's inclined. She's not however, unless her husband Don gets the procedure as well. One billion, two billion, it's all the same when you’re super rich, right? So they both get the procedure but, here's the irony, it only works for hubby. Now he's 25 and she's 87, and the aliens are still trying to tell us something. Sounds like it's time for Don to par-tay!

The cover costs more to print than the pages in this case.
Buckley, meanwhile offers us a sort of inverse vision. A young blogger who calls herself Cassandra ("she was pretty, she was blonde, she had something to say" -- oooh scary!) offers up the Ultimate Tax Break, this Soylent Green solution to the Social Security crisis. Well, sans the cannibalism, sorry to say. If I'm old, and you want me to off myself so YOU can live better, you can bet my response is going to be, "Eat me!"

Unless of course, you're inclined to do just that.

Sawyer plays the situation for tears and fears, while Buckley goes for the gut-laugh, but they both look long and hard at the generation gap. Damn, anyone here old enough to remember the generation gap? If so, don’t raise your hands, you'll turn yourself into a target. But once again, recognize (more easily in Buckley's case) that all this so-called science fiction speculation is NOT about figuring out what’s going to happen in the future, but rather figuring out what's happening in the present. Our nation and the Western World ("I can feel the fear in the world," sang proto-new wave rockers ULTRAVOX) are taking a look at themselves and not liking what they see. Us old fogies only hoped to retire, you know, get up and read the paper, putter around, watch some daytime TV. Instead we find that should we choose such a lifestyle, we'll be eating dogfood for dinner, well, once they’ve got the poison out and all.

Meanwhile, the restless youth around us just wants to have fun, not work like dogs in the dirt so that we can do something that we consider fun, which the young would consider living death. They'll be doing us a favor to save us from dogfood and Oprah, right? Either way, we're going to live in a world that features lots of great-looking young folk, or young-looking rich folk. I say bring on the aliens and let 'em roast everybody. If Soylent Green is good enough for people, then it's good enough for little green men. Little green men, who have, by the by, figured out a means creating a society that is equitable not just to the rich and poor, but to the young and old as well. Interestingly enough, the old tend to be rich and the young tend to be poor. Maybe there's a good reason for that dichotomy.


04-05-07: John Shirley Dwells In 'Living Shadows'

Stories: New and Preowned

You don't need to sleep anymore.
One of the most memorable reading experiences I have ever had was the Scream / Press edition of John Shirley's 'Heatseeker'. Between the stark illustrations and the dark words lie worlds of such consuming power that they seem to vacuum your consciousness into an annihilating void. In those moments, reading works like "The Gunshot," I was swept into shadows so dark they seemed to consume my perspective. Each tale was the prose equivalent of a drug overdose, overwhelming to the brink of death.

Not necessarily a pleasant reading experience.

But a necessary one.

Shirley has since published many a collection, and they've all been powerful reminders of how enjoyable it can be to find a writer who can link language, image and emotion so simply. So 'Living Shadows: Stories New and Preowned' (Prime books ; May 2007 ; $14.95) goes to the top of the purchase list with a weird combination of distaste and anticipation. Shirley is one of our most daring writers, the sort of fellow who knows precisely what most readers' limits are and then steps easily past them, taking readers to places they might not otherwise ever go. Genuine surprise is hard to find, and John Shirley will genuinely surprise as he slips past your comfort level. It's the sort of writing that makes reading truly pleasurable.

'Living Shadows' is split into two parts with an author's forward that is short and to the point. The first half of the book is comprised of stories without any notions of the fantastic; in the second half of the book, reality gives way to something equally interesting, in Shirley's hands, but considerably more plastic. Yes, reality does bend a bit in the final two stories in the first part of the book, but no more than we usually see on network TV in shows that are described with the word "reality". It is, after all, in the eye of the beholder. Utility is as well. All of the stories here may be found elsewhere, and there is a certain type of reader who may actually have all the publications and anthologies in which they first appeared. Interestingly enough, that sort of reader is most likely to want this book, simply because of the utility of finding a variety of disparate Shirley stories neatly put together at a bargain price. But one hope that the same folks who buy T. C. Boyle's short story collections give this one a try as well. You'll find many of the same features; dark humor, bright prose, and smart, smart writing. I can honestly say that stories collected here have changed the way I look at the world forever.

The first example would be from the first section of mostly realistic stories, a section titled "A Few Blocks Down, Around the Corner". "Jody and Annie On TV" is about a couple of ne'er-do-wells cruising the freeways of Southern California who unintentionally cause a huge chain reaction accident that results in fatalities. Shirley's descriptions of the Hollywood Freeway near where it merges with the 405 infected my mind, to the point where whenever I drive down in Southern California I think of that story and see things in the smog-drenched slow motion described by Shirley. The tug of that story is impacable. It's an immensely powerful piece of writing. And no, I've never caused an accident I was not involved in. It's been a while since I've had any automotive confrontations. I'm a better person now. Really.

"The Gunshot", in the first part of the book, hails from 'HeatSeeker' and is a potent look at media power before media power was quite so apparent. The power of violence in the media in particular, and its not the sort of gung-ho kill-'em-all power you might expect. "What Would You Do For Love?" answers that question in a manner that is certain to make the reader most uncomfortable.

The second part of the collection is titled "Through a Laser-Scanner Darkly", and begins with Shirley's collaboration with Edgar Allen Poe. That's right, the Poe, and the collaboration spins from an unfinished fragment left by Poe that was the theme for an anthology from Cemetery Dance titled 'Poe's Lighthouse' and edited by Christopher Conlon. "Sleepwalkers", also from 'Heatseeker' is one of those dazing stories that will creep you out for, like, ever. Lots of Shirley's stories circle around the horrors of drug use, and they’re written in a languid, sensual prose that is hypnotic and disturbing. When you realize what Hector is working up to in "Skeeter Junkie", it's too late to pull out of the story. And it’s too late to ever leave the images behind. Shirley is a master at infusing dark visions of the future with horrific imagery. His work is a particularly powerful distillation of science fiction horror. 'Living Shadows' will indeed cast a specter over your reading, over your life. Read it, or don’t at your own risk.


04-04-07: Here, There and Anywhere ; Software Surges

Allen Steele, Tobias S. Bucknell and Kristin Landon Observe Today in Tomorrow

Another nice John Harris cover.
While the publishing world may on occasion assert that the biz is going down the toilet, it's the sort of Big Swirly that provides for the release of lots of books. Whatever the economics of the situation, the result for readers can be a glut of books Worth Your Valuable Time, depending on your reading inclinations. For example, those seeking some level-headed science fiction series entries might be well-advised to pick up the latest novel by Allen Steele, 'Spindrift' (Ace / Penguin Putnam ; April 3, 2007 ; $24.95), a fascinating addendum to the 'Coyote' trilogy. For those who missed 'Coyote', 'Coyote Rising' and 'Coyote Frontier', 'Spindrift' might make a great introduction to Steele's universe. It's not exactly a prequel, it’s more of an inter-quel. Sometime after 'Coyote Rising', Europe launches the Galileo, sending to check out a big old object code-named Spindrift that is cruising just outside the Solar System. Wouldn’t you know it, Galileo disappears, but some sixty years later the shuttle, unfortunately for the crew named Maria Celeste, returns with but three left to tell the tale. Humanity appears to have thrust its collective hand into the ol' cosmic meat grinder. Quickly-turned pages of hard-science space opera with aliens ensue. A must-read for Coyote fans, and the sort of book that will make others run out to become Coyote fans, 'Spindrift' is a perfect example of a mature writer crafting solid work that can hook one generation while satisfying another.

Girls with big guns.
Or you can go the new way and pick up the second novel by Tobias S. Bucknell, 'Ragamuffin' (Tom Doherty Associates / Tor ; June 2007 ; $24.95) set in the same exotically flavored universe as 'Crystal Rain'. 'Ragamuffin' pulls back the camera and gives us the big picture, moving from the planetary romance of 'Crystal Rain' to a tale much closer to traditional space opera. From the get-go we learn that some aliens calling themselves 'The Benevolent Satrapy' have kept a tight grip on 48 worlds and the wormhole tech folks use to get round them. Humans don’t rate in this rule. We stink. We're tolerated, and as a result, not happy campers. Nashara is a combat veteran hired by The League of Human Affairs (oh, why not just call it The Human League!) to kill an alien. For her trouble she gets sent to New Aneganda, the setting of 'Crystal Rain'. There, she'll stir the pot until it boils over. Problems ensue for both humans and the Satraps who think humans are easily exterminated. Now don’t worry; Bucknell brings back the Mongoose men. But he also gives readers a much bigger picture as well as a gripping story. Like 'Spindrift', we've got ample evidence here that science fiction is alive, well and kicking ass.

Taking a fork in the road is the conceptually fascinating novel by Kristin Landon, 'The Hidden Worlds' (Ace / Penguin Putnam ; June 26, 2007 ; $7.99). Here we have a real example of the amazing flexibility found within the science fiction genre, and a true original. 'The Hidden Worlds' is the first example of a Singularity-themed science fiction ... romance.

From Land's End to stars' end.
Among other things. The novel's premise finds the Earth destroyed by the Cold Minds and humanity saved by jump-ship pilots who helped humans escape to a variety of distant worlds. The Hidden worlds, doncha know it? So here we are, some six hundred years on, and Linnea Kiaho, daughter of the dirt-poorest o the poorest of planets, decides to indenture herself to one of the godless Pilot Masters. She's got a secret and when the time is right, she plans to sell. Of course everything goes in the shitter when her unwilling master decides to spite his old man and thusly throws a monkey wrench into the whole pilot deal. Because, doncha know it, those nasty old Cold Minds have managed to figger out where the Hidden Worlds are. Thus un-hiding them and making things a trifle difficult for the nearly feudal bureaucracy that currently is tasked with saving Life As We Know It. Nasty, brutal and short, to be sure, but life at least in some for that does not involve slavery to machine intelligences.

The overlay of a Singularity scenario on sexy space opera is just really wild; or rather, perhaps the endpoint of fictional evolution. The Singularity is ready to spawn. Whatever the case, the book itself is a cut above, offering some hardish science fiction and softish romance; blunt the impact of both, split the difference and you have a novel more readable than a purebred. And pretty damn exciting on a spaceship zooming about level.

For all that each of these novels offers us a vision of the future, it's their collective visions of the present that are most fascinating. Each of these writers offers us a vision of humanity humbled, put in its place by the big ol' universe. We're at the center of our own stories, to be sure, but we're not the most important thing out there. We are small players on a big stage, and there are a lot of others out there who matter just as much as we do if not more. Others who have power and are not afraid to use it. The import of this message to the primarily American / Western audience for science fiction should not be lost in all the enjoyment one derives from reading space adventure stories.

We enjoy reading space adventures in part because they bring to mind the world around us in a manner that is exciting and enjoyable yet quite pointedly pertinent. These books aren't bitter pills, they aren't strident message tracts, but they aren't just escapist entertainment. They are born in our world, and of our world, even if the writers find it enjoyable and necessary to invent new worlds. These books are not just telescopes into the possible future. Rather, they view the present via the future. The telescope is not a straight tube, but a U-shaped periscope, or really a kaleidoscope. The present, these books tell us, is a mashup of peoples so different from one another in terms of beliefs, customs and religions that they might as well live on different planet. Explore the universe? We've got one close to hand that clearly bears further examination.

A Review of 'Dreaming in Code' by Scott Rosenberg

I remember Chandler. Yes the author, of course, but also the software. I remember when Chandler was going to change the world. Like the rest of the world, I'm still waiting.

Click picture to launch big ol' piccie of what Chandler looks like.

Not that I haven’t downloaded the latest alpha release, and started to play. My first impression was, "Well this is both confusing and not all that useful." But the more I play, the more I find. It hasn’t changed my world yet. But I can see the potential.

Guys with big ideas.
Scott Rosenberg clearly saw the potential way back in the before-time. Rosenberg, a co-founder of, was well set to get his foot in the door in order to become a fly on the wall when Mitch Kapor embarked on the Ahabesque quest to crate the perfect Outlook killer. Now that's a quest I can hang with. When I was a director of IT, I came to hate Outlook and the Exchange server that it required to support it. How could America's biggest software company, how could even Micro$oft, screw up something so much? Sure the race to the bottom for the biggest buck had something to do with it. So what would happen when brilliant, well-intentioned people decided to create some competition?

'Dreaming in Code' explains exactly what happens. It does so with humor, wit and a pulse-pounding pace, the diametric opposite of the pace of software development. Here’s my review of the book. Rosenberg manages to evoke what we've learned about software development and use the Chandler project to illustrate. He tells a fascinating tale of technology, art and business on a collision course. If you read or write science fiction, this is essential, must-buy reading material. It's also must-buy, must-read if you use computers, or even just plan on living in the modern world. If you've got an electrical outlet, this book should be next to it. You may never use Chandler, or you may find you use it every day. But you'll never forget the lessons you learn when you start 'Dreaming in Code'.


04-03-07: Enrique de Hériz Tells 'Lies'

Tell me A Story

..and damn lies and, well, you know.
Without lies there would be no life. Every story we tell is a lie and every word we speak but an approximation of the truth. Language is the shield with which we protect ourselves from the world around us, words mere intermediaries between our vision of the world and the actuality of what lies beyond our fingertips.

Sure, down those paths madness lies. Once you get stuck in that thought-train, you'll never escape and you're well advised to avoid such ponderings lest they leave you in limbo. Limbo is, however, an achievable state. It's not just a metaphor. It is a way of being in this world that we can concretely achieve if we're lucky enough to fall between the cracks, if the stories people tell about us fall just so between what is and what is described. Yes, 'tis but a short trip to the madhouse. But if you can stay away, you can achieve a rare perspective. A parallax view that enables a glimpse of, if not the truth, than a more interesting set of lies.

Enrique de Hériz is well accustomed to being in an in-between state. He's the gentleman who translates much of the best literature written in English into Spanish, in addition to being a writer of note in Spain. He's translated Stephen King, Annie Proulx and Christopher Paolini. He's told a few stories in his life and peered between the layers of language to tell a few lies. His new novel is, in fact all 'Lies' ( Nan A. TALESE / Doubleday / Random Hosue ; April 17, 2007 ; $26). It’s the story of the stories we tell ourselves, our invention of our lives, the ways we edit and what we elide. No less than a tale of how we create ourselves.

Isabel García Luna studies death. So when she turns up dead herself following a boating accident deep in the Guatemalan jungle, she knows the drill. Her heart is still beating and she's breathing, but a badly mangled body has been identified as her own, and she finds herself beyond life and death, though not beyond good and evil. Death proves to be a rather appropriate state for Luna and she's not sure she wishes to return. Isabel's daughter, Serena, thousands of miles away in Barcelona is trying to make sense of her mother's life and death, as she cares for her father who is dwindling away with Alzheimer's. Both women delve into the lies and facts behind the family's history, and farther as well. 'Lies' moves beyond the family, deep into history and legends, from the story of Isabel's shipwrecked grandfather to the battle of Formigues to the life of Chineses poet Li-Po.

What 'Lies' does extremely well is to cast a spell over the reader with stories, stories within stories and stories that lead to lies or perhaps the truth or perhaps events that are neither. De Hériz is an accomplished storyteller and he gets in grace notes with death rituals ranging from cannibalism to funerals. It's the kind of compelling literary fiction that you can get lost in and don’t want to leave. And when you do leave the book, you carry with you the lies it has told you, the lies that are the lives within and the lies that become your life. "Tell me a story," Iggy Pop once sang. "And maybe I'll believe in it."


04-02-07: A 2007 Interview with Jon Clinch

"It's Like Building a House Out of Raisins"


Lives in a nice ranchish-type place.
'Finn' is Jon Clinch's first novel, but he interviews like a seasoned pro. Of course, 'Finn' itself seems like the work of a seasoned pro, so perhaps it's not too surprising that the author came off so well. But really, I just had a hell of a good time talking with Clinch about how he got to the point where he was able to not only write 'Finn' but get it read by somebody who liked it enough to get it sold to a publisher.

I still think back about 'Finn' a lot, even though I finished it some time ago. It's like a dark, filthy river of mud that you can't wash off of your consciousness. But you don’t want to either because Clinch gets just that single nubbin of humanity at the core of a monster; or if you look at it inversely, he nails that thick slab of horrific monster that slathers about over the tiny shreds of humanity within. Either way you look at it, 'Finn' is one dark book. While I think it entirely unlikely, it is without doubt one of the best horror novels I've read in quite some time, and it would be nice to see it get some sort of best first novel award recognition from the genre.

One dark river.
Clinch spoke engagingly of the FIVE, yes FIVE novels he wrote and chucked before stumbling into the mind of Finn. This interview was the sort of conversation that I think all beginning writers need to hear, because Clinch really communicates the sort of drive you need to succeed and how that drive comes from within, regardless to what's happening without. He also talks about some pretty interesting sounding Internet communities that helped aid him on his quest. We also talked about the moonshine that permeates the novel, coincidentally in the news of late.

Not surprisingly, readers and listeners will find the usual MP3 and RealAudio versions of the interview. More surprisingly, readers will find that Clinch, a very literary author, cut his teeth reading science fiction, in particular, Ray Bradbury. And that's not a bad yardstick to measure both Clinch and 'Finn' by. 'Finn' is an elegantly written novel, but has quite a bit more Clive Barker in it than Ray Bradbury, to my mind. This is flesh-eating elegance, and I don’t recall Bradbury ever going to such territory, nor deciding to dwell there for some three-hundred something pages. Regardless of your reading interests, Clinch is simply an interesting guy who deserves your time and attention. I am thinking however, that one is well advised not to build any housing from dried fruit products. Novels maybe; shelter still works best when constructed from wood slats. Nailed shut.


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