This Just In...News
From The Agony Column
06-02-07: Preview for Podcast of Monday, June 4, 2007: "I blow stuff up real good."
Here's an MP3
preview of the Monday June 04, 2007 podcast for The Agony Column.
06-01-07: John Burdett Troubles 'Bangkok Haunts'
; Mario Guslandi Reviews Richard Gavin's Excellent
Spirits of the Ages
"Few crimes make us far for the evolution of the species. I am watching
We can add the opening of John Burdett's 'Bangkok Haunts' (Alfred A. Knopf
/ Random House : June 5, 2007 ; $24.95) to the list of top first lines
in crime fiction. But one of the greatest pleasures of Burdett's Bangkok
novels is the voice of his narrator, Sonchai Jitpleecheep. Sonchai is back
and as you might surmise from the first line, not happy. He's watching
a snuff film with his sometimes-partner FBI Agent Kimberly Jones. The film
is real. They have the body. It's Damrong, a famous prostitute and Sonchai's
one-time lover. You won’t get past the bottom of page one before
the word "demonic" occurs. And by page two, Jones is wondering, "What
monsters are we making?"
The title should suggest to the astute reader that this time around, Burdett
is going to plumb the supernatural aspects of adopted homeland. When Sonchai
sleeps, he finds himself haunted by and seduced by Damrong, even though
he's living with Chanya, a former prostitute who is pregnant with his child.
The ghost will demand justice before it leaves Sonchai in peace. And from
there on, it's DIVE into the depths of a world fuel by Internet pornography
and the profits from yaa baa, that is our old friend methamphetamine. Sure
there are users who manage some level of functionality, like Sonchai's
boss Colonel Vikorn. When he gets wind that Sonchai is sniffing round an
exclusive gentleman's club, he puts the kibosh on the investigation. But
demons, Khmer sorcerers and high-tech ghosts are unwilling to be so easily
Burdett's novels are a delight for a variety of reasons. First and foremost,
in Sonchai Jitpleecheep, he seems to have found a voice that almost makes
it seem as if the novels write themselves. Sonchia is an unusual yet perfect
narrator for a pitch-black noir procedural. He's a Buddhist who sees the
world riddled with spirits and invisible scales toppling behind the low-life
horrors of everyday existence in Bangkok, Thailand. He's in some senses
sweetly sentimental and in other ways almost emotionless, at least to our
Western eyes. Burdett's prose is endlessly entertaining even as he delivers
a devastating critique of the way most of us live. There's a great sense
of very black humor that informs the novels and makes the scenes of deep
depravity and horror intrinsic, somehow necessary to understanding not
just Sonchai's world, but our world.
I have to tell you who did this cover?
'Bangkok Haunts' concludes with an appendix, a long article from the
New York Times about the pornography industry, which is as one of the
in the article puts it, "just happens to be a business where you can't
lose money." It's a pretty fascinating article in view of what
precedes it. Fiction fuels fact, lends it an immediacy, while the facts
the novel shine a light in to places where ... I'll let your imagination
This sequel to 'Bangkok
8' and 'Bangkok
Tattoo' is most certainly best
read after reading the first two books in the series. The quality of
the books is consistently high. Burdett offers a lot for readers of
noir mysteries, but also science fiction, horror and fantasy readers
as well. While his books deal in depravity and torrid / horrid sexuality,
they don't however, have a prurient point of view. They’re not
titillating and while the scenes often involve over-the-top horror,
it's not the sort
of porno-horror that often gets slotted in mysteries. If you've read
the first two, you've been waiting for this title. Burdett will be
in the United States in June, and he's well worth meeting. You can
listen to my interview with him from 2005 here, and find a listing
of his book
tour here. But most importantly, you can find the books and immerse
yourself in a world that is in fact our world. Though it will not seem
Disquieting Dark Fiction
hail Harry O. Morris!
Today, Mario Guslandi reviews Richard Gavin's 'Omens'
from Mythos Books, a collection that elsewhere has drawn comparisons
to Thomas Ligotti and
Robert Aickman. Those authors have both created some of my most memorable
reading experiences; this volume should do the same, and as a bonus,
it's illustrated by Harry O. Morris. It's dark, disturbing and low-key,
an excellent way to start the summer. You
can read the review here,
but I'd recommend that this book is not likely to be beach reading, both
because Mythos makes fine books that deserve better than saltwater
sand and because well, that "quiet horror" vibe works better
in an indoor environment. Basically, we all need a stuffy study in
which to store and read our books. A very large study.
05-31-07: A Review of 'Send: The Essential Guide
to Email for Office and Home' by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe
Common Sense and Uncommon Clarity
Today, I'm writing a review of 'Send:
The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home' by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe. Readers of this
column might find it a bit surprising that I'm a big fan of Judith Martin,
also known as Miss Manners. But I enjoy her tart sense of humor, her
ability to make so-called common sense both clear and entertaining. A
lot of what passes for simple civil discourse gets buried in the overheated
emotions that arise as a matter of said discourse. It seems that any
conversation, any series of successive ideas can be rapidly overshadowed
by how we damn-well feel about those ideas. We live in the era of the
SEND email without reading it at least once,.
Email is a huge culprit in this cultural sea-change. Some twenty
years ago, I used really enjoy the escalating conversations that
one had in the
then-new USENET news groups, those forums where you could easily
quote one writer and spar back with your best written bit of biting
It was and still can be fun to engage in the sort of arch-insult
that ensue, even as they fall victims to Godwin's law: "As a Usenet
discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis
or Hitler approaches one." The idea here being that the longer a discussion
in this format goes on, the more likely it is to degenerate into a series
of mindless insults, exemplified by, "You’re a Nazi!" Once
one party accuses another of being a Nazi, the subject itself has
disappeared, and the form takes over. This sort of discourse used
to only occur
in Usenet, and there, well it could be easily ignored.
But as Email becomes ubiquitous, the "quote and destroy" style
of personal interaction has also risen, and email itself is one of
the major sources. You can hurt yourself quite effectively with email,
though you may think you know all the rules, and have all the admonitions
firmly in mind. Moreover, that style of interaction can creep into
behavior outside that of email. We're all the Doctor Strangelove
of our personal
lives, eager to launch a preemptive nuclear strike in order to prevent
a mine-shaft gap. It's got to stop before it spreads into society
at large, and this idea of preemptive action is writ large in the
Oh. Wait. Well, it's not too late to learn something useful about
email, and here's where 'Send' comes in. It makes common sense about
clear as well as common, and chances are that if you read it, maybe
one of the lessons within will stick. For me, it's been the "don’t
fill the void with your anxieties" lesson; the idea that an unanswered
email is automatically a "sign", that an absence of information
is information. I'm not sure that lesson will stick for you, only that
at least one will and you'll be glad you read the book. Here’s a
link to my review. Do yourself a favor. Read it, let it convince you to
buy the book, then read the book. You may decide not to send that one email,
that single email that changes your life and not for the better. If you
do decide not to send that email, you can even tell the authors about it
via their website. Feel free to send
me an email about your experience.
And if I don’t manage to reply, try not to worry. It just means
I'm busy. Really. My personal Defcon Four tends to keep me hopping.
05-30-07: Austin Grossman Promises 'Soon I Will
Taking Your Superheroes Seriously (Funny)
It appears that we're going to be taking our superheroes quite seriously,
with the result of seriously funny literature. And yes, while video games
may have destroyed the minds of a generation of potential readers, they've
also created a generation of talented writers. Naomi
Novik, author of the Temeraire series, wrote for games, and in her interview
she talked about
the influence of her experiences on her novels. Now Austin Grossman, a key
figure behind the games Deus X and System Shock, has unleashed Doctor Impossible
in 'Soon I Will Be Invincible' (Pantheon Books / Random House ; June 5,
2007 ; $22.95), a novel that is impossible to put down. The gripping prose
is so funny, so right on, you'll find yourself wanting to read every page,
every paragraph, every sentence aloud.
face mask that covers the book...
The novel alternates between the stories of Doctor Impossible, a failed
supervillain, and that of Fatale, a novice superheroine. Doctor Impossible
is an evil genius. "I don't know why it makes you evil," he tells
us. "It's just what you find at the extreme right edge of the bell
curve..." Unfortunately for the good Doctor, things have not worked
out well. "I built a quantum fusion reactor in 1978, and an orbital
plasma gun in 1979, and a giant, laser-eyed robot in 1984. I tried to conquer
the world and almost succeeded, twelve times and counting." Thus he's
packed away in a "facility rated for enhanced offenders...Now I have
to shuffle through a cafeteria line with men who tried to pass bad checks." And
the whole genius thing isn’t working out well. He's smart enough to
wonder, "...whether the smartest man in the world has done the smartest
thing he could with his life."
Fatale isn’t in the best of shape either, spending her nights in Boston,
listening to the police scanner for people to save. "Becoming a superhero
doesn't happen all at once, and by that point I was working the bottom end." When
Corefire, Doctor Impossible's greatest foe, goes missing, she gets an invite
to join the Champions and ... enough of plot summary. I'll leave that to
the folks who work the PR dept and who did the dust jacket. But should you
pick up this book in any bookstore, you'll not need a lot of plot summary.
What sells this book, what makes this book particularly good is Goodman's
spotless, entirely engaging prose style. Goodman writes with a sparse wit
that sparkles, a fervent belief in his world and his characters that makes
them leap to life right off the pages, all the better to KAZAAM! and POW!
right in your face. By offering two very opposing points of view, he gets
us to the heart of both sides of the conflict in this novel, that of the
experienced supervillain and that of the newbie superheroine. The appeal
of the novel is that Goodman successfully makes both characters all too
likable. Now, it's not hard to make someone like Doctor Impossible a sympathetic
character. He's a witty bad guy, and they traditionally get all the best
lines in the other superhero venues. To be sure, Grossman's best are startlingly
spectacular. But on the superhero side, Grossman also succeeds wildly. He
does so by doing what good science fiction writers have done for a long
time, by taking his characters and his premise seriously, with results that
proves to be quite entertainingly funny.
is meticulously constructed. I suppose it’s an alternate
history of sorts, as I don’t recall any giant laser-eyed robots back
in '84. For me, the biggest threat in '84 were the apocalyptic traffic jams
that were expected in LA as a result of the Olympics. Like most apocalypses,
it failed to materialize. Pantheon is marketing the novel as FICTION, not
SF however, and that's just fine. They're well set to do so, as they're
the imprint responsible for lots of great graphic novels, including 'Black
Hole' and 'Alias the Cat'. Not surprisingly, this non-graphic novel – it
is very much a piece of well-wrought fiction – gets a fantastic
Chip Kidd double-cover, with a stark wraparound DJ and concealing a
the book beneath the mask.
The real surprise of 'Soon I Will Be Invincible', is however, what happens
when you take off the mask. Grossman is a superbly engaging first-time author.
Beyond the prose, you've got a great plot and lots of trenchant thoughts
about our cult of individuality and our dreams of power. After starting
the book, I went downtown to do some shopping and found myself expecting
to see crowds of caped superheroes and costumed villains, not the throngs
of ordinary Joes and Janes. Of course, none of us are ordinary. All of us
conceal a superpower or two. But we all have our own personal kryptonite.
Open this book up at your peril. The prose will immobilize you. You will
not be inclined to put it down. It's kryptonite for readers. You are powerless
in its presence.
05-29-07: A Review of 'Where's My Jetpack? by Daniel H. Wilson Ph.D.
Demand Your Future Now
It is, I assure
you, complete coincidence that I've got an interview with Daniel
H. Wilson Ph.D. for yesterday and book review of 'Where's
My Jepack?' today. I try to present these
reviews and interview in the order in which I read and interview, though
circumstances sometimes move one author or book ahead in the queue.
I suppose that I should
not be surprised that it works out this way.
would have chosen the flying car, but then, the jetpack works.
For 30 seconds.
We live in a future that is
very un-mysterious. Every event is pounced upon by a brigade of reporters,
of whom are overworked and underpaid. And that in itself is one of the
few aspects of the future that has been correctly "predicted" by
science fiction, as well as our frightening response to it. Look no
further than Theodore
Sturgeon's eerily prescient short story "And Now the News" for
For the evidence of why I enjoyed 'Where's
My Jetpack?', Wilson's latest
lark with how the future of the present shapes up against the future as seen
review right here. Of course, you could have predicted that, right?
05-28-07: A 2007 Interview With Daniel Wilson
"A lot of these
technologies seem like magic."
It's as much fun to talk to Daniel Wilson as
it is to read his books. 'How to Survive a Robot Uprising' and 'Where's
My Jetpack?' are both
smart fun, and to my mind, very interesting as literary artifacts. Not
that Wilson approaches them with anything other than, as he terms
it, "a child-like optimism" – and of course, a PhD in
Robotics from Carnegie Mellon. Combine the two and you get the essence
of science fiction but in a very odd and unique format. Wilson is almost
like the avatar of Analog magazine. He writes about stuff that is both
startlingly real and as yet, unreal.
do not believe that he is an android replicant. Well, probably
Doctor Wilson and I talked a lot about the relationship between science
fiction, science, technology, futurology and ideas about predicting the
future. He also brought up one of the really interesting concepts behind
his new book, 'Where's
My Jetpack?', which is that many of the technologies
we create in fiction "fail to scale" when we think about executing
them in the world in which we live. Of course, many SF stories and novels
hang off that idea. But what Wilson brings tot he party is not just he
SFNal image, but the history of the attempts to actually build our dreams.
And again, the jetpack plays a prominent role, as there was one gent
who was tasked by the military to build one and did indeed build one.
And there's a little problem; as Doctor Wilson puts it: "You can
have your dream of flight. Thirty seconds. That's it."
Fail to scale.
"If you’re the only guy in the world with a jet pack, or the only
guy, or gal, with X-Ray specs, that's pretty cool," he told me. "But
it just totally falls apart as soon as everybody gets one." And
he points out that it's quite easy to argue that the automobile failed
to scale, since, now that so many of us have them, we're killing one
another on the highways so frequently that it's a shock we haven’t
declared a "War against automobiles". Or maybe we need a war
against highways. Until we declare such a war, I hope that listeners
will enjoy the MP3 or the RealAudio version of this interview as they
speed down the highway. Do pay attention to the road though, lest you
fail to scale.