Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column


06-20-08: Daniel Wilson, Anna C. Long and Daniel Heard Want to Induct You Into 'The Mad Scientist Hall of Fame' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Bookseller Interview With With Praveen Madan : The Booksmith

Luthor Versus Lysenko

"The same thing we do every day...try and take over the world!

That headline above; it's no flip comment, it's in the book. Both of 'em, in fact. I really enjoy Daniel Wilson's work, have from the get-go. He's one of those authors who has just found a vibe and is running with it, sprinting really, given the frequency of new books. But that's OK, because these books are VERY peculiar, combining satires of pop fantasy and science fiction with actual hard science in a manner that's fun and appealing. 'The Mad Scientist Hall of Fame' (Citadel Press / Kensington Publishing ; August, 2008 ; $14.95) continues Wilson's streak, with help from collaborator Anna C. Long and a new illustrator, Daniel Heard.

Now, OK, I was leery at first. I mean, we all know the movie cliché "mad scientists." A book about them might be amusing, but not, well, necessary. Leave it to Wilson to put just he right spin on this. He and Long have created a book that follows Wilson's original vibe, mixing bios of pop-culture mad science with bios of actual scientists who were, shall we say in the kindest possible manner, a bit outside the world of mainstream scientists. This book is full of laughs; but you know, lots of them will be nervous, because I'm guessing that more than one reader will come across a name and say, "Hell, is this guy, like, for reals?" And whether or not said name is, just the fact that you didn't know is bound to be bothersome on all sorts of levels.

Wilson likes a good, clear format, and he carries that on in this book. Each entry has a series of subsections ("Portrait of a Scientist", "Psychopathology", a Genius and Madness level bar graph) that are repeated with variations appropriate to the subject in question. The book itself is divided into sections, ranging from "Bent on World Domination" to "Not Mad, Just Angry". And within each section, you get a handful of fun-to-read entries that mix the real and the fictional in a manner that is likely to make your head spin. I mean, what are you to think finding real-life figure Stanley Milgram ("How much pain will a person inflict on another human being if someone in authority tells them to?") wedged in between Doctor Moreau and Viktor Frankenstein? The resonance between the three is positively frightening. Yes, it's sort of nice to find out the details about such figures as Milgram, or Trofim Lysenko. But frankly, it would be nicer to pop them into the fictional column. The fact that we can't says something about us, about how we do science, and about our science fiction and fantasy. It's not a compliment by any means.

In a sign that the world may indeed be brought to a halt without the help of mad scientists, Wilson's book takes a page from the Internet and concludes with a USENET-style "Are You a Mad Scientist?" test. I shan't reveal my score. Nor shall I laugh in the "Mad Scientist" approved manner. Suffice it to say that Wilson's cackling call for recruitment is a fitting end for a very strangely disturbing book.

Nonetheless, it makes for totally entertaining and thought-provoking reading, as well as offering readers the perfect opportunity to nail down the essentials on figures as diverse as Nikola Tesla (I never knew he thought he was communicating with aliens) to Philo Farnsworth, who was arguably "mad enough" to invent the television. And for all the cackling crazy men and women real and fictional who have vowed to destroy the world, it's really Farnsworth who has come closest. If Wilson ever ventures into the world of television, he may be signing up for second place. I wonder what his test score was?

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Bookseller Interview With With Praveen Madan : The Booksmith

OK, so I just got off the phone with Praveen Madan of The Booksmith and here's what I have to report; there is not just hope, but a sensible plan! Praveen's new to the business. Booksmith is a venerable bookstore that's been in biz in the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco since 1976. They've hosted Alan Ginsburg in the past and they sponsored the Chuck Palahniuk event that I recently emceed for. And Praveen is full of lots of good ideas about bookselling, as well as the willingness to explore, experiment, stick with what works and punt the rest. He talked to me about the "browsing experience"; I've interviewed a lot of booksellers and nobody else has come up with that phrase, which I really like. It's a critical part of why we go to the bookstore. If you care about buying books and want to be able to buy books from great booksellers like those at The Booksmith in the future, you owe it to yourself to a) listen to this interview, b) visit your local bookstore and browse; c) visit the Booksmith's website and see if anything tickles your fancy. The bottom line for everything we do on this site has always been that we've got to be willing and inspired to buy books to ensure that we'll be able to continue to buy them in the future. The booksellers you hear from the podcasts on this site, like Praveen of The Booksmith, are reasons to hope that we'll have the freedom to read; from whence we derive our freedom of speech and thought – for a very long time indeed. Here'S the link!


06-19-08: Three Juvies ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Three Juvies Audio

Adolescent Science Fiction Worthy of Adult Consideration

It's Monday morning and I'm just used to doing stuff for my website at this point in the day, and yet, I should be prepping for Salman Rushdie. Well, just a bit later in the day. For now, I'm going to format up and offer you this little bit of prose and audio. Check out the cover illo for the Heinlein, how can you lose with that? And now, Three Books (and on NPR), and Three Books audio podcast for today.

Science fiction literature is often quite rightly accused of being juvenile. It is a young genre. It should come as no surprise that some of the best science fiction is intended for a juvenile or adolescent audience. Forced to reign in their excesses, science fiction writers seem to find liberation in the limitations of young adult fiction. Classic and current writers have done their best work when trying to capture the attention of restless, rebellious teenagers. Stripped down to the basics, science fiction is a can-do form of literature – as critic John Clute put it, the message is, "We can fix it." Three novels – one classic, two recent – exemplify the can-do spirit of empowerment that engages not only teenaged minds but adults as well.

I think my PB version has the best cover. Monsters!

Robert A. Heinlein began his career writing for the pulps, but he didn't want to confine himself to that low-paying market. After his return from civilian service for the Navy in WWII, he decided to follow the model of his literary mentor, Mark Twain, and write stories for boys and girls, starting with Rocket Ship Galileo (1947) through Podkayne of Mars (1962). The resulting books are some of his best writing; favorites vary, but Have Spacesuit Will Travel (1958) still holds up well fifty years later, in a 21st century that has left the science of last century far behind. Kip Russell, a senior in high school, enters a contest and fails to win a trip to the moon, but gets the consolation prize instead, a working spacesuit. When he uses the technology he literally surrounds himself with, he finds out that he's able to communicate with aliens and soon ends up headed to the moon and beyond. Heinlein's science is often past its expiration date, but his sense of adventure is timeless. Kip is confronted with problems and solves them with ingenuity and persistence. Readers are afforded a glimpse of the spirit that literally inspired America's space program of the 1960's and 1970's, even through today's Space Shuttle. Heinlein is still able to tap into our latent ability to look up in wonder, no matter what our age.

Cory Doctorow taps into a different spirit in his latest novel, Little Brother. Marcus Yallow, who calls himself "w1n5ton," uses his computer geek tech savvy to avoid the omnipresent surveillance at his day-after-tomorrow Northern California high school. Unfortunately for Marcus and his three friends, they're at liberty when terrorists blow up the Bay Bridge. In the ensuing chaos, one of the kids is hurt and they mistakenly flag down a Homeland Security truck, which whisks them away to a Gitmo-by-the-Bay where they're tortured and warned not to talk about it on release. Doctorow then unleashes a healthy strain of "stick it to the man" teen rebellion informed by the erosion of civil liberties and high-tech How-To's. Adults and rebellious teens will actually find themselves enthralled by a novel that uses The Declaration of Independence and cryptography as plot points. Doctorow goes for the throat of those who purport to offer security in lieu of liberty but are so inept that their security measures can be undermined by a flash mob of wily teenagers. Revenge is served up red-hot and proves to be entirely satisfying in the ripping techno-yarn.

A classic 70's look.

Girls dont just want to have fun; they want to be more than the Holy Grail for a race of alien creatures. That's just one of the problems confronting Zoë Boutin Perry in Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi, which is being marketed for adults but is appropriate for young adults as well. Scalzi's novel is told from the perspective of an adolescent girl who finds herself plopped down on an alien world as part of a rough-and-tumble colonization effort by humans under siege from a variety of aliens who hope to stake a claim on the same real estate. Her sense of righteous indignation is involving and invigorating; "'I'm tired. Every morning I wake up and I have to run or do strength exercises or something that tires me out...Then an entire afternoon of getting physically beat up in order to learn how to defend myself, on the chance that some aliens want to come down here and kill us all." Scalzi keeps the action in the foreground and the anger on a hot simmer; "'It's not abstract, Dad...You're talking to the girl whose life is a treaty point. I know what it means to be valued for what I am rather than who I am." As Scalzi sets up the targets, Zoë takes them out with the ruthless vigor of a motivated teenaged girl. She truly comes to life – and readers will feel invigorated as well.

Sure, science fiction has grown up and provided some mature works in the decades since Heinlein first fitted Kip Russell with a spacesuit. But it's refined as well as retained that spirit of youthful joy, the idea that yes indeed we can fix it.


06-18-08: Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett 'Havemercy' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Jeremy Lassen on Local Literary Events and Genre Fiction Readers

Mechanical Dragons and an Active Voice

Mecha-Godzilla was steampunk, right?

The first thing youre going to notice about 'Havemercy' (Spectra / Bantam Dell / Random House ; July 1, 2008 ; $22) by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett is the outstanding embossed cover art credited, as you might expect, to Stephen Youll ("Jacket art") and Jamie S. Warren ("Jacket design"). Mission accomplished, they got you to pick up the book with a nice nod to the super-duper-ultra-mega-trendy "Steampunk" vibe. Having recently spoken with William Gibson, who is correctly credited with creating both cyberpunk and steampunk, one is reminded of what he's said not just to me, but many times in interviews. That is, the moment a journalist ("I'm the slime oozin' out from your TV set") slapped the label of "cyberpunk" on four or five guys writing in a similar style, that movement was dead dot dead dot dead. So how buried must "streampunk" be when you can get "steampunk" fashion items and computer accessories. Talk about buried! The grass done growed over the dirt on that there grave.

But I come to praise 'Havemercy', not bury it. Us hacky journalists, well we're given to like things for pretty specific reasons, and cover art makes a difference (heck, even Salman Rushdie does a great riff on SF cover art in his latest novel), but you know, it's the words that count. So as much as trend-hopping steampunk might incline one to dismiss the latest fantasy potboiler chock-a-block with cover blurbs from writers I respect (I hope podcast subscribers noticed that James D. Houston mentioned Peter S. Beagle in that interview with Tom Killion), you know, I actually opened the damn book and read it. Somebody's got to! In fact, it's my belief that a lot of people should. The bottom line is that 'Havemercy' is written in an engaging voice that grabs you from the first page and keeps your attention until the timely close. Jones & Bennett have enough smarts not to go on too long on their first outing, a bit of wisdom that goes a long way.

'Havemercy' is set in the country of Volstov, a charming combination of old, new and in-between. Mostly the latter, as it's protected by magicians who provide mechanical dragons, the largest of which is the titular (us "journalists" love that scholarly term) Havemercy. Of course, the whole mechanical dragon tech, you know its got to have vulnerabilities that can be exploited. And when those are discovered, Volstov will have to hope the four delightful storytellers of this novel have more to offer than good voices. Readers who crack the cover will discover that they do indeed have a ripping yarn, and entertainingly different voices. 'Havemercy' has the smarts to be funny, the wits to be smart and is inventive where required but not so much so that any head-scratching will be involved. "Steampunk" may have passed its expiration date without even knowing it. But the mechanics of this particular beast may be robust enough to keep growing good stories on that neat little patch of peat with stone marker. Steampunk is dead. Long live the aftermath.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Jeremy Lassen on Local Literary Events and Genre Fiction Readers : Pros and Con-Ventions

Today, I talk to Jeremy Lassen of Night Shade Books about the intersection of local literary events and genre fiction readers and bookstores. The subject came to mind because I'll be podcasting the SF in SF version of Litquake, and moreover, because I recall Alan Beatts of Borderlands Books, one of my first book store interviews, talking about Litquake at his store. When Jeremy's not turning the publishing world upside down, he spends a bit of time at Borderlands, so we talked about how Litquake compare to *cons, and how genre fiction fans can transfer some of that fannish energy to the literary sphere – or just go out and find it at events like Litquake. Now, it's over to Jeremy Lassen in this MP3 link.


06-17-08: A 2008 Interview With Whitley Strieber, Part 2

"There were two people standing at the foot of the bed"

We haven't even got five years! It's four and change....
Well, wait five minutes and the weather changes; heres that rainy day. Or at least a nice cloudy, foggy summer day here in Aptos, but the sun is shining in my tiny, tiny brain, because I just got through editing Whitley Strieber's timeless treat of an interview. In part two, we talk more about the reception of and events behind 'Communion', and I get him to talk about his personal connection with the Roswell crash and John Von Neumann's secret fears with regards to what was found therein. Strieber has a real gift for taking listeners into territory that is truly frightening and then pulling effortlessly back into a sort of playful mirth that is just delightful. He does this without ever really undercutting his point, and you can see why his website and radio program should be on the airwaves currently being polluted by the likes of [names elided because none of these yo-yo's deserve any mention here]. Settle down, get in the slow lane, and get ready to enjoy the MP3 file of part 2 of my conversation with Whitley Strieber. There's a chance you might not end up in the reality you thought you inhabited when you began listening. I hope you enjoy the new universe around you – and that it's not based on one of Strieber's horror novels.


06-16-08: A 2008 Interview With Whitley Strieber, Part 1; Salman Rushdie Live Interview on Stage Rio Theatre, Santa Cruz California, 7:30 PM June 17, 2008 : 'The Enchantress of Florence'

"I have a tendency to get into trouble"

Whitley Strieber.

It's been chilly but particularly sunny out, so I can't really claim that I was saving this interview for a rainy day; or rather, that I managed to do so. But. But. Here's why I do what I do, because damn if I dont get to talk to the most interesting, entertaining, thought-provoking, hilarious people, and Whitley Strieber is right at the forefront of all of those and more. I made a trip down to LA back in the before-time to do an interview that actually fell through, but in retrospect, I was the luckiest guy on earth – and perhaps as you'll hear in the interview, on more than one earth. Several, hundreds, on earths where novels are fact and what we call fiction is concrete reality, in quantum time-shifts where Whitley Strieber is feeding the Whitley Strieber I spoke with ideas and plot lines and total malarkey that nonetheless is diamond-hard, undeniable truth.

Strieber is totally entertaining on all levels and I can't wait to talk to him after his forthcoming book hits the streets, if they let it do so. You never know, the Greys, the Bush administration, the lizard that calls herself the Queen of England, any of them might put a stop to it. Strieber is super smart, but doesn't take himself too seriously, except when he does, but even then there's an undercurrent of hilarity running through his narratives. We talked for over an hour, so I've split the interview into two halves, each chock-a-block with sound bytes to keep your mind expanding for hours on end. Trust me, it does not matter what your interests are, you will be engrossed by this fascinating and entertaining raconteur. Physics, spirituality, the soul, practical jokes, how 'The Wolfen' came to be, everything is here but the kitchen sink; no in fact, I think you may hear a couple of clinks from the kitchen sink as well. Here's the MP3; laugh while you can. Lizards are going to eat your brain any minute now.

Salman Rushdie Live Interview on Stage Rio Theatre, Santa Cruz California, 7:30 PM June 17, 2008 : 'The Enchantress of Florence'

The UK Cover.

If you happen to be in Santa Cruz on June 17, you can find me interviewing Salman Rushdie on stage at the Rio Theatre at 7:30 PM. I'll be taking readers back through his work and speaking with him about his latest novel, 'The Enchantress of Florence', a glorious historical fantasy that features no less than Niccolò Machiavelli as a major character. This is easily the best fantasy or historical novel you could hope to find this year, a joyous, bawdy adult fairy tale that is a complex literary construct and a compelling page-turner. It's dense with invention and research; obviously, I'll have more to say about it after the interview. If you're in town, you can get tickets from Capitola Book Café; call them at 831-462-4415 for details. If Rushdie comes your way, dont miss him, and dont miss this novel. It's a surreal delight that will take you so surely into its world that you may not be certain you've returned.


Agony Column Review Archive