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This Just In...News From The Agony Column


08-22-08: John Scalzi's 'Agent to the Stars' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : NPR Report for Day to Day High-Quality MP3 of Two Stories of Santa Cruz

Sci-Fi Disguise

Selling science fiction can be an act of science fiction; that is, you base your sales pitch on a premise, then extrapolate. Look at the latest tale being spun for John Scalzi as Tor prepares to release 'Agent to the Stars' (Tom Doherty Associates / Tor Books ; November 2008 ; $14.95). This will be the third incarnation of this novel, and if it sells well, grand vindication for the strategy of releasing material free online. Let's take a look at the fascinating history, here, shall we?

You can read Scalzi's own account of writing and releasing the novel here; the Executive Summary is, he done wrote a silly science fiction novel about stinky, blobby aliens who seek a Hollywood agent to sell themselves to earthlings, then put it online in 1999. It's still there and you can read for absolutely no cost at all to you. When 'Old Man's War' came out, he hit it rather big, and eventually, the smart folks at Subterranean Press decided to print a delightful limited edition, with a nice chunk of profits donated to charity by Golden-ruled Scalzi. This is an unabashed piece of science fiction, so much so that you could easily call it ""Sci-Fi" and even Harlan Ellison would hesitate before hitting you upside the head. Scalzi has deftly managed to capture the feel of golden-age SF in all his SF work, and this is no exception. Check out the utterly cool cover on this now sold-out edition:


As noted above, this edition sold out, so paying for the free novel was clearly seen as a good idea by a number of interested readers. And they all had a good idea that they were buying a "Sci-Fi!!!" novel. That cover makes it pretty clear you've Sci-Fi!!! inside.

So now, as we rush to wind up the enlightened oughties, Tor decides to release the novel for the Great Unwashed, as Harlan would have said. Apparently, the Great Unwashed are a bit more averse to "Sci-Fi!!!" than the enlightened Sub Press buyers, because you look at this cover, one thing it does NOT scream is "Sci-Fi!!!"

Not the novelization of the Jimmy Stewart movie.

This is not to say it's a bad cover. It certainly suggests science fiction, what with the flying saucer silhouettes. But given the muted colors and the fifties-ish type faces, you could really plop this body-snatcher right down amidst the mass of Vintage Contemptibles and nobody would suspect anything till they opened it up and found their humorous Hollywood novel served up with a main course of blobby REAL (at least in the context of the novel) ALIENS!!! And if those shoppers read the book and then discovered it was available online, why the results might look like what one would expect were cranial eruptions of Scanners to be a disease as transmissible as the common cold.

Yes, it is true, give me a teapot and I'll brew up a tempest. And I do love this book and the new edition. I think it is so cute that they're dressing up this tale of stinky blobs as if it were the novelization of an undiscovered Jimmy Stewart movie; you remember the one where he represented Janet Leigh, a flighty starlet who appeared cheap science fiction and horror movies? That's right, that movie. And Stewart shows up to find Leigh dressed in a slightly more modest version of something youd expect to find in a 1969 episode of Star Trek? Agent to the Stars, that's right. Well this book is not that movie. This book is "Sci-Fi!!!" Read it and laugh until you cry, then go to Scalzi's website and email him or participate in some endless Comment discussion about the book, but do let him know you bought the book even though, in fact, better, because you saw it online. Third time's the charm.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : NPR Report for Day to Day High-Quality MP3 of Two Stories of Santa Cruz : One Year of Podcasting

I dont know if anybody noticed, but I've been podcasting original literary content five days a week for the past 52 weeks. I think that makes it a year; on August 21, 2007, I started things off the podcast of a discussion I had with Karen Joy Fowler, Gavin Grant and Kelly Link in a Santa Cruz Coffee shop. So it's appropriate that the last podcast of that first year include Karen Joy Fowler, as well as James D. Houston and Tom Killion and be focused on the literature of Santa Cruz. This is the segment that ran on Day to Day last Wednesday. Even as most of you read this, I'm hard at work gathering some more stellar audio in a field trip to Southern California. In the interim, enjoy this high-quality, downloadable MP3 file courtesy my editor in DC. All Hail, yon editor!


08-21-08: Michael Moorcock Sends 'Elric : To Rescue Tanelorn' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Michael Shea Interviewed at SF in SF

Origins and Illustrations

Stories for boys.

Sporting a cover blurb from no less than Michael Chabon, the latest Elric collection from Michael Moorcock, 'Elric: To Rescue Tanelorn Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melniboné : Volume 2' (Random House / Ballantine / Del Rey ; July 29, 2008 ; $15) comes equipped with:

a) Fourteen works featuring the albino King and his soul-stealing sword, ranging in length from short story to novella.

b) A Forward by Walter Mosely, doing lots of SF work these days.

c) An introduction by Michael Moorcock written in Lost Pines Texas last year.

d) A raft of delightful interior illustrations by Michael Kaluta.

e) An "Origins" gallery with B&W reproductions of early Moorcock book covers. It's like a burger with extra cheese!

At this point, I hope that most of you are lining up. If not for yourselves – because you were smarter than I and held on to those old Ace paperbacks – then for your kid, a say, slightly precocious ten-year old boy who watches Spike and the SciFi Channel. Because these books more than most are serious corrupters of male youth. What more could any preteen ask for than a hero who is pale white, pretty weak and yet turned into an unstoppable killing machine by his soul-hungry sword?

The previously mentioned novella herein is a pretty classic work, as its sort of the origin in a manner of speaking of the Moorcockian universe. 'The Eternal Champion' isnt the story where he worked it all out or even laid it all out, but that title, friends, ah that title is Eternal. If you know whats good for you, you'll go out to the garage, dig out your two-LP set of Hawkwind's Space Ritual with the nekkid lady gatefold cover, put it on loud and hand over the book and record to the next generation. This is how its done, this is how we keep science fiction alive.

Of course on the more serious side, Moorcock is an icon for serious literary reasons beyond the nekkid ladies and swinging swords. His prose is authentically pyrotechnic and a good match for his imagination. Moreover, he knows enough to take his subject, his world and his story seriously without being overly serious in his storytelling style. I mean, what's the point of a fantasy world if you can't have not just a little, but a LOT of fun? Whether he's confronting a golem with claws of brass spikes or tooling down the highway listening to what would now be considered "classic rock" under the moniker of Jerry Cornelius, that there Eternal Champion is able to cover a lot of ground. You all know how the private eye stories are used by authors to get access to the lowest of the low and the highest of the high? Well, fantasy writers can do the same thing. One just hopes that today's fantasy readers will have enough brain cells to hang on to these books for the twenty or thirty years it will take for them to become hand-me-down fodder. And as much as I sermonize over the delights of past cheeseball covers, today's readers actually have more reason to hang to these editions. They're relatively cheap. They've got a nekkid-ish lady-like illo in there. All you need is the MP3 version of Space Ritual. I checked – it's there.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Michael Shea Interviewed at SF in SF : Speaking of Demiurges

A classic collection. Please Arkham House, bring us his new Lovecraft collection.

Speaking of classics, it doesn't get much better than 'Polyphemus' by Michael Shea; unless you manage to snag on of the five hundred copies of 'The Autopsy and other Stories' by Michael Shea from Centipede Press. I managed to speak to the iconic writer at SF in SF. I blazed right through the interview and only afterwards did the very gentlemanly Mr. Shea ask, "What was your name again?" I cut a high profile, obviously, right? Well, here's the MP3 to prove it ain't all lies!


08-20-08: Shannon Burke Swats 'Black Flies' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Michael Shea Reads at SF IN SF : The Demiurge : God Wakes Up

"Moments of offhand cruelty are common."

Shannon Burke's debut three years ago, 'Safelight', was a pretty big deal; a hardcover from Random House, which in itself should speak volumes. 'Safelight' told the story of Frank Verbekas, a paramedic in Harlem who wove back and forth over lines of propriety and morality while snapping photos of the dead and falling in love. Now he's back with 'Black Flies' (Soft Skull Press / Counterpoint ; May 20, 2008 ; $14.95), and it wont take any reader long to determine why four years have passed between titles. 'Black Flies' is intense and powerful. Readers themselves might need four years to recover from Burke's bleak vision.

Not just moments, really.

'With 'Black Flies' Burke, who once worked as an EMT in Harlem, introduces Ollie Cross, a paramedic in Harlem in his first year on the job – 1994. The landscape Cross inhabits is a nightmarish chiaroscuro of pain shot through with daggers of hope, an urban hell inhabited by stunted souls with dead dreams and dreams of death. If youre a sensitive soul who fears reading about actual human pain rendered with art and skill, avoid this book. On the other hand, if you can handle the horrific realities of mid-90's New York, you'll not find a better Virgil to act as your guide to Hades East. Burke scrapes away every unnecessary word, he scrubs the ugly raw and puts it right in your face with a skill and nonchalance that's pretty frightening. But as a gripping, in-your-face novel of compromise, 'Black Flies' seems pretty peerless.

Burke's a smart writer, and it shows. First and foremost, he knows what to say and what not to say. The world he presents of EMT's, cops, creeps, lowlifes and losers is grittily detailed, but not over-written. Nor is it overwrought, even though it's cringe-inducingly frightening. Burke's prose is his weapon of choice and he deploys it with a casual skill that belies the passion and fury that spurs his vision. At less than 200 pages, 'Black Flies' is still a full cup of life, a potent written portrait of an America most of us would prefer not to think about, let alone experience on a daily basis. In some senses, it reads like a raw, unedited documentary. The names have been changed, but the innocent still need protection they're unlikely to find.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Michael Shea Reads at SF IN SF : The Demiurge : God Wakes Up

Michael Sha at SF in SF.

Want to hear what it sounds like when God wakes up? Then just give a listen to this excerpt from a forthcoming novel by Michael Shea. I've sung Shea's praises before, and if you've not believed me, then heres a very short but very powerful 12-minute reading that'll knock your socks off and have you running, not walking to pick up the few scant editions of 'The Autopsy and Other Stories' from Centipede Press. I wrote about that book before based on the ARC, but real deal is ... The Real Deal, and worth every damn penny. I'll have another look at the final version soon. In the interim, here's a link to the MP3 of the reading that will have you looking at the world in a very different way.


08-19-08: Martin Millar Looks Back in Brevity ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Michael Blumlein Reads at SF in SF : Drama in Three Voices

'Suzy, Led Zeppelin and Me'

Led Zep vs Zed.

Don't steal that diary. Wait, it's too late – far too late. It happened back when you were a teenager, if you can remember those times. And if you claim to, you're probably flat-out lying, or at the very least, embellishing the truth.

If you chose to embellish the truth, you might want to look to Martin Millar for guidance. In 'Suzy, Led Zeppelin and Me' (Soft Skull Press ; September 15, 2008 ; $13.95), Millar embellishes the truth with a skill that will probably have the felicitous side-effect of helping you to forget all your own embarrassing teenage-era bad decision as he takes you through a few of his own in a style that is simply going to knock you out. Millar is a funny guy, and in 'Suzy, Led Zeppelin and Me' he does just about everything he can to put the average modern reader at ease from the get-go. He promises and then delivers, on the spot, super-short chapters. He's funny, and when he lies he manages to seem like he's really telling the truth. He's also clever, but not in-your-face about it. With an unsteady hand and a shaky grip on the events, he makes you completely at ease even as he evokes his own unease.

'Suzy, Led Zeppelin and Me' unfolds as Martin (the speaker of the novel who presumably bears a large resemblance to the writer of the novel but is not him, exactly, got that right now?) tells his friend Manx, a single mother about his past. He's like a lot of people we know. He watches Buffy, he mopes about and wishes he were a better person, but doesn't get round to doing much about it beyond telling a hell of a good story for the short-attention span set. Which is, to be honest, most of us these days.

The real trick with a book like this the voice and Millar has that nailed, in a manner that doesn't seem nailed, but honest, simple and relaxed. Teenage Martin and his buddy Greg are the sorts of geeks who imagine themselves riding dragons and are clueless enough to talk about it to those who haven't memorized Lord of the Rings. Both of them have the hots for Suzy; Suzy is popular and she's going to stick with Zed. Clueless Martin doesn't grok that Cherry, whose diary he steals and exposes to the school for ridicule is a) worth his valuable time and b)interested in him. Only in retrospect and mercifully short chapters does he get it. But of course, the looming presence of Led Zep can change history, especially in the memory of a lonely man well past his teen years. Fantasy fiction comes in many forms. Millar's is particularly poignant, but only in retrospect. You'll enjoy reading it too much to get all mushy until after youre done. And then the time will have past. Your past is your past. You can't change it. But you can fictionalize it, and maybe that's good enough.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Michael Blumlein Reads at SF in SF : Drama in Three Voices

Carter Scholz and Michael Blumlein.

Today's Agony Column Podcast News Report is the first podcast from the last SF in SF on August 16, 2008, which featured Michael Blumlein and Michael Shea. First up is a reading by Blumlein of a story he'd just barely finished before the gig, and which, you'll hear him explain in an extended introduction he modified for the reading so that he could employ the talents of Carter Scholz and Terry Bisson to create a bit of a "staged reading drama". As is usual with Blumlein's work, it's both disturbing and funny. Blumlein claims that he does not writer horror fiction, and it's true in that he's not trying to scare you. But the effect his work has is similar to the effect of horror fiction. It's creepy, but it doesn't make you so much fear death as life. Here's the MP3 link. You decide, and go to his website to get the whole story.


08-18-08: A 2008 Interview With Thomas Frank

"I've got some bad news for you"

All the bad news that's fit to print and some you might wish weren't.

For a guy with bad news in his book and on his mind, Thomas Frank sure has sunny disposition. He arrived at KQED with lunch in hand and chomped cheerily in the atrium while chatting with my wife and Naomi Eppel. Heck, we might have all been out on a picnic, everybody was so happy. This in spite of the torrent of bad news that unfolded soon afterwards when he and I sat down to talk about 'The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule'. Frank is witty, quick and smart, and often mordantly funny even as he is spinning the tale of how we've managed to put people in charge of government who actually hate government. Just this morning, I read about the resignation of Paul Hoffman, the former director of the "Chamber of Commerce" (read: "group of greedy businessmen") of Cody, Wyoming, from the Department of the Interior. He's quoted as saying the department "gets into your blood but doesn't necessarily turn it green." At this point there are so many foxes in henhouses that it seems quite likely they'll have to begin feasting on one another since the poultry's got to be getting pretty scarce.

The preceding paragraph was brought to you by a 52-minute conversation with Thomas Frank, which you can hear for yourself via this link. Frank and I delve into details that didn't make it into his book, since he admits having done "way, way, too much research on South Africa" and the shady goings-on with the IFF, that is, the International Freedom Foundation. "They're for freedom, Rick – internationally, of course." Frank's the kind of writer and speaker who could tell you that ICBM's were streaking over the Arctic Circle and leave you smiling as you consider the potential effects of their passage on the Aurora Borealis. But he also has all the hard facts that enable you, the reader (and listener) to face the hard decisions that are coming our way. And make no mistake, those decisions are headed towards us with the inevitability of an ICBM, and alas, no potential for pretty side effects on the Aurora Borealis. Readers and listeners had best enjoy hearing Frank tell us what we've done to ourselves. Smart language is our only way out.


Agony Column Review Archive