Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column


03-28-08: Jamil Nasir Explores 'The Houses of Time' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Terry Bisson, Jeffrey Ford and Tim Pratt

Dream House Conspiracy

Ah, the ol' Photoshop special. Is it real or...?

I'm one of the fortunate few – I generally dont remember my dreams. When I do, it can be quite disorienting. Sometimes it will take a few hours for me to sort out the difference between my dreams and memories; I'll have to stop and think, "Did that really happen?" It requires a conscious effort to distinguish between the two. Many people rightly value their dreams as an insight into the workings of their mind. I suppose I'd rather not know.

Dreams are excellent fodder for fiction; you can simply use our own dreams as a springboard for surreal fiction, or you can write about dreams and dreaming, at which point you quickly enter Philip K. Dick territory. Jamil Nasir is no stranger to the terra-non-firma of Philip K. Dick's take on reality, and he takes readers on an extended tour in 'The Houses of Time' (Tor / Forge ; April 1, 2008 ; $24.95), breaking down the barriers between dreams and what passes for reality – as if reality itself hasnt done enough to make the two indistinguishable.

No matter; in Nasir's novel, David Grant is the sort of bored, rich guy one might hope to be run over by a bus, so his estate can go to a worthy cause like the Trans Humanist Institute. I'm sure that James Hughes could use the money. But Grant doesn't get to hook up with the real-life runner of all things transhumanist. No, he gets the much more ominously named Dr. Thotmoses, who trains him in the art of lucid dreaming. Turns out that Grant is more than pretty good at it. Not only does he rapidly etch out his own little dream world that he can easily revisit. That would be just ducky. The problem is that the woman of his dreams is showing up in his real life. For most of us, that would be the icing on the cake, but as a lucid dreamer, Grant realizes that something is wrong, either with his mind or the world. Occam's Razor would suggest it's his mind; Thotmoses might suggest that Grant is some sort of chosen one and that dreams are not enough – only religious saviors are. Maybe Grant should have taken up sailing.

I like Nasir's prose and style. He keeps things sort of low-down and gritty, so that any science fictional seams are well out of disbelief's way. Basically, what you get is a plunge down the rabbit hole from when none of us might escape. This is a genre unto itself, that "Is it real or is it Memorex?" moment, and if you like that genre, then come on down, reality is just as pliable as all get-out here. I can understand how some readers might intensely dis-like this sort of fiction, but I find it bracing and entertaining, because it lets the writer apply a direct layer of the fantastic to otherwise mundane reality. It's a fine way to externalize internal conflicts and bring the unsaid into the discussion. And what is fiction itself but a directed, documented lucid dream?

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Terry Bisson, Jeffrey Ford and Tim Pratt : Panel Discussion at SF in SF, March 16, 2008

I wrap up coverage of this month's SF in SF with the complete panel discussion. Terry Bisson moderated Tim Pratt and Jeffrey Ford, though perhaps moderated isnt quite the right word. I'd say more like "egged on." You have three smart, opinionated writers of speculative fiction who have just heard three fine stories read (two from Pratt, one from Ford). You set them loose to talk about anything they want to, and make sure that youre not offended by the occasional profanity. Frankly, the profanities are the least controversial things you'll hear at any SF in SF panel. I made no effort to elide them from the MP3 audio. Download and enjoy!


03-27-08: (Un)Machiavellian

Reading 'The Prince' for Fun and Prophet

How to Trample Enemies and Manipulate People – not!

Like many, I know what the term "Machiavellian" means – but let's look at the Oxford English Dictionary definition, just to be sure:

A follower of Machiavelli; a person who adopts the principles recommended, or supposed to have been recommended, by Machiavelli in his treatise on statecraft; a person who practises expediency in preference to morality; an intriguer or schemer. Usu. derogatory.

That's their italics – not mine. Thus, I was pretty sure what to expect when a new translation of 'The Prince' (Modern Library / Random House ; February 5, 2008 ; $8) translated by Peter Constantine and with an introduction by Albert Russell Ascoli came in; a treatise full of advice on how to be underhanded, and why you could throw morals out the window. As I started reading, I told colleagues that I had given up on the "How to Win Friends and Influence People" model and was going with "How to Trample Enemies and Manipulate People." At 116 pages, with lots of two- and three-page chapters, 'The Prince' is pretty short and in this translation, easy to read. And it's nothing like what youd expect.

If you expect that Machiavelli is without morals, if you expect something difficult to read and dated, forget it. 'The Prince' is a toe-tapping quick read, written in straightforward prose that gets to the heart of how we manage affairs of state; not in the world of Platonic perfection, but here on planet dirt. It's very funny, occasionally outrageous, written from a moral core, as Machiavelli delineates the ways in which one must behave if one is not to run afoul of the power of the people. Because unless you're a prince who gets results, we'll toss you out of power.

I was so taken by this translation of 'The Prince', that I decided to do a little report for my website; I'd talk to the translator and the scholar who wrote the introduction, and cobble together a day's worth of podcasting out of a five hundred year-old classic. 'The Prince' itself was a fascinating work; the more I read, the more it seemed there was something for NPR here as well.

Here's the link to my NPR story – when they post it on NPR.

I talked to Peter Constantine, the translator, Albert Ascoli, the Italian Studies scholar, and even Dr. Katrin Their of the OED about Machiavelli and the history of the word Machiavellian – turns out it was an insult based on the content of 'The Prince' before 'The Prince' was available in English. I'll be podcasting those interviews next week. In the interim, when this story goes live, the reader can "Email this page." I promise not to trample upon or manipulate anyone, and no, those are not the soles of my shoes you see hovering above you.


03-27-08: Philip K. Dick's 'Ubik: The Screenplay' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Jeffrey Ford Reads at SF in SF

Reality TV

Dick is now Ubikquitous.

The first book I ever read by Philip K. Dick was 'Ubik', recommended to me as his best by none other than Stanislaw Lem in his essay, "Science Fiction: A Hopeless Case–With Exceptions," from his collection 'Microworlds'. If I'm not mistaken, it was this essay, probably along with "Philip K. Dick: A Visionary Among the Charlatans" that managed to get him kicked out of the SFWA back in the day. Why, asked the SFWA, should we have one among us who hates all of us?

Well, maybe because he was right, if not because Lem was a great writer.

Bygones have gone – including alas, both Lem and Dick. Neither writer has been particularly well served by the movies of late; the 'Solaris' remake was an unmitigated disaster, and I frankly can't keep up with how many crappy movies have been made based on Philip K. Dick's work. Actually, the best Philip K. Dick movies are originals, not based on his work but inspired by his vision; for example Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. There's still a raft of Lem's work to be translated and re-translated. Somebody needs to pony up and let Michael Kandel have a shot at translating 'Solaris' directly from Polish. Instead, we get movie tie-in reprints of the substandard translation of translation.

As for Philip K. Dick, count on there not being anything to rival the Underwood and Miller limiteds of The Complete Stories. I just went and touched my set and I feel all better now. And more so, with Subterranean exhuming 'Ubik: The Screenplay' (Subterranean Press ; August 2008 ; $35) later this summer. One is tempted to hope that someone might make this movie, as scripted here. But actually, reading the script is probably going to prove a more rewarding experience. 'Ubik: The Screenplay' differs from this book, and yet it's a pretty damn nice piece of writing. In fact, a screenplay is not a bad format for telling any Philip K. Dick story; and 'Ubik' is one of his best stories.

The précis is simple, and very Philip K. Dick. Joe Chip's just an ordinary guy who meets an extraordinary demise, sudden, but not final. In Dick's future, and we're not far from it, those one the edge of death are placed into "half-life," where their consciousness continues to experience "life" while their bodies rest on ice. Lots of folks who get there know where they're going, but Joe blinks out in one reality and wakes up in another without noticing the discontinuity. Until things start to get weird.

In Dick's novel, the chapters start with a variety of weird little advertisements; in the screenplay, you get to see and hear those advertisements:

"COMMERCIAL: (Old-time announcer) This message brought to you by Preparation U, whose motto is: "It's bitchin' to be itchin'." NBC chimes follow)"

An exit.
Can you imagine? Can you just effin' imagine? Well, no need to imagine any more; Sub Press has it all here for you in glorious black and white TEXT, yes TEXT. How much more real can you get? Well, you can get your brain wrapped around a cleaner, leaner meaner take on all your favorite 'Ubik' characters, and just imagine the Runciter dollars – to die for. Tim Powers, who spent a lot of quality time with PKD back in the Santa Ana days, provides the introduction. Sub provides the pristine production values. And Philip K. Dick is capable of undermining your reality no matter what the format. Curious? I suggest springing for Lem's fine 'Microworlds' to see just how well-received PKD was by the SF establishment of his time. Funny how these things change, how reality is so easily undermined by tomorrow.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Jeffrey Ford Reads at SF in SF : 'The Drowned Life'

Live in SF.

After a brief stop to podcast all the Toby Barlow support interviews, we're back with more material from the last SF in SF meeting on March 16, 2008. This time I have the unexpurgated reading of "The Drowned Life" by Jeffrey Ford. He actually stopped partway through the story and asked if we wanted him to continue – as if there would be any question. And I must add that this story is one that is particularly near and dear to the heart of someone who did a story for NPR about "Economic Genre Fiction". There's no anxiety like financial anxiety. Ever feel like you're drowning in bills? Then this is your story –in a downloadable MP3 file. Next time, just show up and experience the reading live. Comfortable seats, beer and wine, great writers; it doesn't get much better than SF in SF.


03-26-08: Jeffrey Ford Lives Through 'The Shadow Year' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Brief Interview With Jeffrey Ford

Autobiographical Fantasy

Heavily treated photograph, not a painting.

American fantasy is a peculiar beast, with traditions that run strong. We have the Tall Tale, the campfire ghost story and the fantasy memoir. At first glance, this last category doesn't quite scan. How can a memoir, in theory a story of fact, include that which is decidedly not factual? The reverse question is probably equally smart. After all, memory is itself a form of fantasy, the story we tell ourselves about our lives. Once we accept the contradiction, we can start to look at the literature. Ray Bradbury once treated us to 'Dandelion Wine' in his languorous prose of long shadows and paradoxically warm nights. Robert R. McCammon explored 'A Boy's Life'. These novels share a sort of wistfulness, a warm affection for the past, a perception of a world still malleable when seen with the eyes of a young protagonist.

Now Jeffrey Ford joins the ranks of those taking us back to our younger, more fantastic selves with 'The Shadow Year' (WM Morrow / HarperCollins ; March 11, 2008 ; $25.95), based on his novella 'Botch Town,' which first showed up in the Golden Gryphon collection 'The Empire of Ice Cream.' All the elements of the classic American fantasy are there; the small town, the precocious, pre-teen protagonist, the long fall, and the element of magic in the air. In this case, it's Botch Town, a cardboard replica of the small town built by the nameless narrator and his brother Jim. It seems that when their little sister Mary moves things around in Botch Town, corresponding movements occur in reality as well. Reality is being re-arranged and the outcome is likely to be as painful as growing up.

Stylistically, Ford has been heading for this novel for quite some time. He didn't always write in this sort of romantic, nostalgic manner. 'The Physiognomy' is quite fantastic from the get-go, and rather angular in terms of prose. Even the period-set 'The Girl in the Glass' has a pretty spiky crime story embedded within the narrative. Now this is not to say that 'The Shadow Year' is without shadows or spikes; but the drive here is that of the bildungsroman, the classic boy-grows-up novel. In fact, Ford explicitly stated at SF in SF that this is an autobiography – a life of the mind.

As such, 'The Shadow Year' is perhaps Ford's most eloquent work yet. And as a Jeffrey Ford novel, it's on the auto-buy list by any measure. Though the poignancy of owning a first printing, first edition is not to be underestimated. The problem with books like this as investment is that the books themselves become part of the story of our lives, a part of our autobiography. Paradoxically, other people's words become illustrations in the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Brief Interview With Jeffrey Ford : SF in SF, March 16, 2008

We're finishing up the week's podcasts with the rest of SF in SF from March 16. Today, in keeping with the look at Ford's new must-buy novel, I'm running the brief interview I did with him at SF in SF. Again not epic, but terse and to-the-point, as well as enhanced by the ambience of the fine Variety Children' Theater crowd. Your best bet for a night of science fiction is in SF – not in front of the TV. Here's a link to the MP3 of the interview; and another audio painting in my own sprawling audio-biography.


03-25-08: Tom Corwin and Craig Frazier Send 'Mr. Fooster Traveling on a Whim ; Agony Column Podcast News Report: A 2008 Conversation with HarperCollins Editor Jennifer Barth

Hey Babe, Take a Walk on the Whimsical Side

Pretty bitchin' production values – required!

What hath he wrought? Art Spiegelman is considered by most to be the man who first applied the term "graphic novel" to his work. Here we are some mumbly-mumble years later and it's practically raining graphic novels, or in the case of 'Mr. Fooster Traveling on a Whim' (Flying Dolphin Press / Random House ; June 10, 2008 ; $14.95) by Tom Corwin and Craig Frazier, "visual novels." And this is a good thing, so long as you're in the mood for whimsy.

Mr. Fooster is a guy like any other guy, except that he travels with one of those little bottles of bubble-making soap that come with a ring to blow bubbles. And once you know he's that sort of fellow, you can imagine that on a day he wanders off to do nothing in particular, he ends up doing a great deal of interest to students of whimsy and the surreal. He pokes about a gentle English-style country landscape looking at things, communing with nature and asking questions he probably doesn't remember hearing Stephen Wright ask in one of his many whimsical comedy routines. It could all get just a little bit on the precious side, but Tom Corwin has the good sense to collaborate with Craig Frazier. Frazier turns in some "visuals" for the "novel" that take it well beyond whimsical, or at least into Whimsical Pro territory. Theyre gorgeously done and nicely printed.

At 100 pages consisting mostly of pictures, calling 'Mr. Fooster Traveling on a Whim' a novel is a bit of a stretch, and thus it gets a Visual tag. Here's what this book is perfectly designed for. Let's just say you have a day, upon which you have maybe a lot to do or maybe a little to do, and instead you decide to do like, nothing at all. But not just nothing, instead, something that required the effort of nothing but yields the result of something, well, whimsical. This then is your book. Reading this book on the back porch over the course of sunny afternoon while napping and warming one's self in the springtime sun will pretty much re-create not for but within you the feelings it describes. Some of us have an allergy to this sort of whimsy no less severe than some folks' allergies to bloomin' spring flowers. Those people should curl up with a curmudgeonly second reading of Niccolo Machiavelli's 'The Prince.' Warmth comes in many forms; but generally, shorter is better.

Agony Column Podcast News Report: A 2008 Conversation with HarperCollins Editor Jennifer Barth : Return to Sender

Sharp editing as well.

That's about as much as youre going to get out of HarperCollins should you try to submit a manuscript to them sans agent. Agents are not the first step in getting published, nor are they the last. Neither is Jennifer Barth; but you'll hope she's on your side should you ever get lucky enough to achieve publication.

I talked with Barth actually before I talked with Toby Barlow. Her insights into the world of publishing will give anyone hoping to understand the nuts and bolts of getting published an insider track. She edits Michael Chabon as well as Toby Barlow and others. She's clearly one of the top editors out there, so the very fact that she edited ''Sharp Teeth' should tell you something about the book as well as the editor. Here's an MP3 that may tell you things you dont want to hear – but need to hear if you plan on getting published. And if you just wanted a down-to-earth, startlingly clear vision of life at a venerable NY publishing firm, this is your ultimate insider – frank, smart and sophisticated. Barth is as much fun as the books she edits and every bit as sharp. Not surprisingly, 'Sharp Teeth' require a sharp editor.


03-24-08: A 2008 Conversation with Toby Barlow

'Sharp Teeth'

Toby Barlow at KQED.

First-time book writers face enough hurdles getting published. The environment in the world of New York publishing makes a shark-feeding frenzy look like a slumber party. The competition for agents, for publishing slots, for shelf-space and standee selection is positively presidential. Well maybe negatively, but you get the idea. If youre a first-time writer, what better way to tie an anchor around your neck than to write your first novel in free verse?

Of course, like many first-time novelists, Toby Barlow had no notion of getting published before starting his book 'Sharp Teeth'. He was merely writing about something that interested him – a love story about werewolves in LA. When he sat down, his book started coming out in free verse. I've posted the review and you can go to this NPR web page and use the Email This Story button to send the link to the hundreds of people you know who need to read a novel written in free verse.

One you've heard the précis, you can download the full-length MP3 version of the interview. Barlow's an interesting guy, as you might guess. And his journey from the river-view creation of the novel to the final product is typically atypical. From the wild dogs of LA to the art galleries of New York, this is a very strange story, strange enough to give the novel that results a run for it's money – though I'd have to say, it's pretty good question as to what is more improbable – werewolves in love in LA or 'Sharp Teeth', a novel in free verse about werewolves in love in LA. Since the novel came into reality, who's to say that the werewolves aren't already on the prowl?


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