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Dark Harvest hardcover 1st edition
12-12-08: Looking Back in Hope : Robert R. McCammon's 'Swan Song'

We never knew how good we had it back then. It was 1987 and the world, as usual was going to hell in a handbasket. The economy was so far into the crapper we were ready to call up Roto Rooter to help get it unstuck. Scandals were being swept under the rug with a push broom, and rumor had it that the country was being run by astrology. No wonder that paperback horror novels were flying off the shelves and rapidly wearing out their welcome. Raised foil letters on the covers of books were a startling new technology, and the mass-market printers and publishers just couldnt get enough of them. Stephen King was ascending and so was Clive Barker. So when Robert R. McCammon released his sort-of Stand-like 'Swan Song', it might, at first, have seemed superfluous.

Where King used the superflu to decimate the population down to a manageable number of good guys and bad guys, McCammon went for the nukes even as glasnost became a common word. Where King saw an (abridged) first edition hardcover, McCammon got a mass-market paperback, sans foil. In the glut of horror flooding the then-common wire racks at grocery stores and department stores, it was easy to miss McCammon's massive ode to change you don't have to believe in. A couple of years after it first debuted in the *Marts of America, Dark Harvest publishing was going strong, and offered readers something special — a hardcover first of 'Swan Song'. Little did any of us know that McCammon would soon stop writing his special brand of horror and Dark Harvest would make their last dark harvest sooner rather than later. The world of horror fiction was about to change significantly, and not for the better.

'Swan Song' from Dark Harvest would have set you back $21.95 in 1989. It's a large-format hardcover (7 1/2" x 10 1/2") with 607 pages of pretty darned small type. It has 12 illustrations by Charles Lang, including a really outstanding dust jacket image that is still striking. I'm not sure if the cover's leather or not, but the fact of the matter is this is a substantial book, the kind of dig-in-and-read-it feast that submerges the lucky reader in a world not their own. And despite the fact that it offers us a harsh vision — no mere glimpse, this, 'Swan Song' is full immersion — of the end of the world, 'Swan Song' is a novel of hope, of the power of pure humanity. McCammon had a way of tapping into our fears and transforming them in a fictional journey. Nearly twenty years later, the physical book and prose itself still have that power to effect change in the reader.

It was a short journey from my desk to the shelves where I had the McCammon novel stored. That $21.95 book will set you back anywhere from $147 to $943 today. Is it worth that much? Well, I think so. Of course, this leads me to ask myself, what books are out there now, as mass market paperbacks and limited editions, that will speak as strongly twenty years hence as this does now? I just hope that when I have the answer, I can find it on my shelves.

12-11-08: Reading Asher on the iPhone : Pan Macmillan, Stanza and a Trip to the Bank

E-reading. It is the Death of Literature. It is the End of Civilization. Learn to play the fiddle and stock up on matches. It's time to watch Rome, Washington, London, Moscow, Hong Kong, (put your favorite big city name here), and Beijing burn.

Unless of course, you've actually used one of these gadgets. Let's start with the current popularity contest winner, the Kindle. I dont own one, and frankly, dont want one. I spent a couple of hours with one recently at a friend's house in SoCal, and was seriously underwhelmed. First and foremost, I just HATE the way it looks — cheap and ugly, like the sort of toy your parents would give you on Christmas that you'd use once and then hide in the back of the closet. The whole Etch-A-Sketch display made my mind hurt. It's big and clunky. I'd rather lug a real book around than that monstrosity.

Me and my shadow

I know a lot of people — people I respect — like it, indeed, love it. It's not going away as fast as I hoped it would, and maybe theyre working on a non-ugly version with a lookable-at display even as I type this text. There are aspects of e-reading available in this I do like, for example, searching. On the other hand, getting stuff for it, not so hot on, tied as it is to one vendor — even if it's not exclusive, *.* have their tentacles firmly round your reading throat. But the real problem is this; I'd rather lug around a real book to read in line at the bank.

As for the Sony E-Reader, I got a glance at it when I talked to Charles Stross. The display and design aren't so dire as Kindle, but it didn't excite me into a buying frenzy either. It's kind of big to lug around, and sort of blah. Now, blah beats blecch. But neither makes money leave my wallet. And neither Kindle nor Sony's tech would incite me to use it were one to be given to me. It's just too much trouble.

But a couple of weeks ago, Pan Macmillan sent out a notice that they're offering some of their SF line in iPhone compatible formats. I have an iPhone and find it very easy to read on. Moreover, it's small enough to carry anywhere. The real question for me became: Is it too small to read on? What's the software like? What's out there worth reading?

Well, Neal Asher, for one. His stories bear re-reading, so I asked the publicist for a free e-copy of 'The Gabble and other stories', and then wondered ... what next? How the hell do I read this damn thing? They sent it to me as an email attachment; you can buy it online here. I had to get that attachment into my iPhone, and having got it there, would need some sort of application to read it. I admit it — I didn't want to buy a reader, and as it happened, I didn't have to.

Here's what I did. I'm using a latest-generation MacBook Pro Laptop and a first-gen iPhone. I have an airport network set up in my house. I needed all this stuff in working order to even begin to start. Not auspicious, to tell the truth. I've got an email with an attachment that is Neal Asher's 'The Gabble and other stories'. So, I should in theory be ready to read.

Not so fast – assuming you think the above to be fast!

The ebooks are released in conjunction with Lexcycle Stanza, which claims to be, "the iPhone's number one reading application." Fortunately, it's free — for the iPhone, for now. I download it from the App store (it's been updated twice since), then sync the iPhone. The App's on the iPhone and it comes with a free copy of 'The Time Machine' by H. G. Wells. Is he twirling in his grave? Probably.

My first hope is that all I need to do is to add the ebook to my iTunes "library" and then sync up the phone to the library. I mean it's a friggin' library, right? Not one that includes ebooks apparently, or at least those available for Stanza. So how the hell do I get that attachment out of my "Downloads" folder and into the phone? I go to the Stanza website and find out via the FAQ (which means, "you are fucked" if you need to ask any of these questions) that I need to download the Stanza desktop app. It's free while it's in beta, but their FAQ indicates that when it gets out of beta, they may charge a "small fee", to which I reply, well, I maybe willing to pay a small fee. Unless there's something else out there that's free. I dont have to buy a special book holder to read the damn paper and pages thing.

OK, download Stanza desktop beta. The beta versions time out — that's gabble-de-gook for "don't work" if they're more than two months old. When you download a new Beta, you also get to re-load your books. Strike two. Patience waning.

The Stanza Desktop

So, now you've got to fire up Stanza desktop, turn on sharing, make sure your iPhone is on the same wireless network as your computer, and then fire up the Stanza application on the iPhone and grab the book from your computer. Again, I'd rather drive to the bookstore, buy the book, come home and open it up. I mean, it's not like I have to put the book on the kitchen table and say, "Mother may I read the book?" But I do this so readers dont have to, or if they do, they can know I share their pain. Or they can just have a heaping helping of mine in case they're feeling none themselves.

So NOW, I've got the book into the Stanza desktop and via that, into the phone. The desktop is really dumb, criminally so. The book I downloaded is Neal Asher's 'The Gabble and other stories'. There's a table of contents. Silly me, I just assume that you'd be able to click on a title and skip to that story, but I'd be wrong. You have to scroll to that story.

Why is this an issue right off the bat? Because Pan Macmillan, having at least half a brain, has seen fit to offer some bonus material with the eBook — stuff not in the paper and pages version. That's a great idea, especially if the material is good. More on that later. But not such a great implementation for the desktop version. OK, well, truth be told, the chances of me reading on the desktop when I've got the paper version are vanishingly small. So screw that, I've got it on my iPhone.

Here, things are better. The wonderful cover looks bitchin' on the iPhone. There's a relatively easy to read and follow set of instructions worth reading. You can set the font size to "big enough to read" with ease. It remembers where you left off. NOW we're getting somewhere. Tap left side of screen, page goes backward, right side of screen it goes forward. I start reading the first story in the book, and hell, it looks good. I could read on the iPhone.

But where?

That is, when would I use the iPhone as opposed to the Real Thing?

If I go out to lunch, I'm taking the real thing. A paper-and-pages book. But say, for example, I want to run to the bank, I get there and there's a hellacious line. In that case, I could pull out my iPhone and read while I stand waiting, then back in the happiness of my house, pick up where I left off. So, while it cannot replace a real book, reading on the iPhone can supplement reading a real book. They have their places, I conclude. The idea is that you could load up whatever book you happen to be reading, or a collection of short stories and read it if you happen to be caught in a situation where you're stuck and reading becomes an appropriate way to spend your time. The iPhone is a perfectly portable platform for doing so; you dont have to lug around something you might not otherwise need that is definitely a "lug".

That leaves the heavy lifting to Stanza. In general, once you get the book on the phone through a series of steps that is all-too-imaginably onerous, it works pretty well. But in all the time I've had the iPhone it has never crashed — until I used Stanza. I was looking at a cover image of 'The Gabble', or something I dont care to re-create for their beta-testing joy — this on the phone app, which is in theory NOT in beta — and the phone froze. Having worked in the software world long enough to have given as many excuses as I've received, I can imagine their software engineers' responses. It dont make no never-mind to me. Broke is broke. Stanza broke. I'll be very careful when using it.

But there's another question. Would I buy an ebook? Probably not, at least, not now. But there are a couple of things that might lead me to buy one. Extra materials for one, which in this case are ... pretty decent. No short stories. But you do get a big ol' long dictionary from Asher's universe. That's pretty cool, and I can imagine publishers hotting up the extra content.

But if publishers really want ebooks to catch on, then here's my take. Offer the ebook for free to those who buy the hardcover copy. Give us a special one-time download code or something, so we can read the book wherever we are. Then we might be eventually willing to spring for an ebook alone, where we dont want to keep the hardcover copy. I'm not an economist or a publisher. Maybe that wouldnt work for some not-so-arcane reason. But still, it follows the get-'em-hooked-for-free paradigm so beloved in this electronic world. It may or may not work. (Like Stanza.) But at least it includes one foolproof, guaranteed-to-work piece of technology.

The book.

12-10-08: Daniel Suarez — Leinad Zeraus — DAEMON! : TCP/IP Thriller

"Oh! what a tangled web we weave/when first we practice to deceive!" Sir Walter Scott had it right so long ago, but this web is not so tangled as one might surmise. It's a pretty straightforward story about someone who managed to self-publish his first book and get it into the right hands.

It's 2006, and
Daniel Suarez has written and published 'Daemon' as Leinad Zeraus. It's a thriller, but with a huge difference from just about any other thriller. More on that later. For a book concerned with steganography and high-tech computer security, this name change is not rocket science. Your mind wants to read that name backwards. Hiding one's name in the name of publicity? Obviously, something else is going on here. In fact, Daniel Suarez clearly had a pretty damn good game plan going, and some decent connections as well. That'll happen in the world of high-tech. Having published his first book, he manages to get it in to the hands not of critics, whom I can tell you are disinclined to read self-published work, but instead into the hands of high-profile tech pioneers. Now that's smart marketing. When you get name-brands like Craig "craigslist" Newmark raving about your book, well, people — people with money, ie publishers — are going to listen. And pretty soon the pre-emptive bidding war starts and here we are whoosh-bang, two years later ...

Copies of 'Daemon' by Leinad Zeraus are going for close to a hundred bucks a pop on E-friggin'-Bay, while copies of 'Daemon' (Dutton / Penguin Putnam ; January 8, 2009 ; $26.95) will be sold with a 40% markdown by Chainsaw Booksellers at every damn Mart and Co in the biz. About that time, stock in the entire, 1-book catalogue of Herr Zeiraus will peg ... and may stay high, though book values are a lot less stable now than they were just a year ago. Should you run out and buy a first-first of the 'Daemon'? I don't know. If you got a few, I'd prepare to sell 'em while they're hot, though. Keep a couple in case Suarez/Zeraus turns out to be the real deal. Only time, and further thrillers, will tell.

So, as to the actual story in the book, as opposed to the story about the book, well, it's probably more believable, and that's the big deal. You know, I've been in the computer business for a long damn time, and every time I see a computer or a computer network on television, it's just ... pathetic. And in print as well. The abilities attributed to computers and software are so far beyond the pale that it's as if they showed you toasters that buttered your toast and put it on a plate. It's just ridiculous. For anyone with any familiarity with actual computers, the fictional computers we encounter might was well sprout magic beans and beanstalks. That would be more realistic than most of the crap I read/see.

Enter Daniel Suarez. He knows a thing or two about actual computers. He knows about the powers of the TCP/IP networks that glue this world together. He's knows the nuts and bolts, hell, he's probably edited a hosts.equiv file or two in his time. So he writes about a game magnate who kicks the bucket, but leaves something very nasty in that bucket. In this case, malicious software that will do his bidding from beyond the grave. Software that will do realistic but catastrophic things that can be realistically, but catastrophically demonstrated as he tells a toe-tapping tale of REVENGE.

What's really nice about this book is that even though it gets the tech all right, it does not bog the reader down in a mire of details. Those of us who care and know about computers will be super pleased that nobody prints a hamburger, for example, or morphs one thing into another with a a few deft keystrokes using a "magical" computer program. What you have here is real-world use of the TCP/IP stack for ill, because it's everywhere. You're reading this article because of a well-tamed TCP/IP stack. Imagine if somebody out there wanted to do you ill. You'd be toast. Suarez gets the details and the balance right. This may or may not be a book for the ages — only the ages will tell. But it is a book for this age and if youd like to read the first accurate computer thriller, well, here it is. But I'd suggest you ... wait on buying the electronic version. Until after the Fall.

12-09-08: Felix Gilman Winds 'Gears of the City' : Ghosts, Gods and Grit

Fantasy fiction has really undergone quite a change since China Miéville's 'Perdido Station' was first released. What used to be a monolith of endless Generic Celtic Fantasy Trilogies has splintered into something darker, more violent and far more interesting to read. Sure the predictability of the GCFT offers a great deal of comfort reading, but, to my mind, the whole genre was distinctly lacking in monsters. Moreover, the backdrop has generally been some sort of dreary feudal realm, perhaps with a few orcs and a sorcerer to spice things up. But that's like ketchup and mustard on a hot dog. Not wholesome reading. And as well, the stories are so serial, there's no way to read them unless you read from book one. Which is a problem if you hear about the series when it's in book seven. (The second part of the second trilogy in a trilogy of trilogies, donchya know?)

Felix Gilman's debut fantasy, 'Thunderer' followed on the school of fantasy influenced by Mervyn Peake as opposed to J. R. R. Tolkien. Instead of vast armies charging one another on nightmare plains, we had a labyrinthine Dickensian metropolis, with monsters, gods and magic littering the place like grungy garbage. Apparently averting one of the most pernicious problems of fantasy writers — taking forever to pop out that second book — Gilman brings us 'Gears of the City' (Spectra / Bantam / Random House ; January 6, 2009 ; $24). Like his first novel, this is a dark, dank and delightful combination of rip-roaring adventure set in a social milieu that lets the writer riff on pretty much anything he wants to. This time, readers are in for a bit more of a horrific feel, with a capital-B Beast in the heart of a capital-M Mountain. This is course where Arjun will find the object of his quest, even if it's his own death. That could be a pretty compelling fate in this setting.

Now, if you've not read 'Thunderer', you probably want to before reading this. That said, there's no three book quest for a magic sword going on, and in following the hallmarks of this new style of dark, dank fantasy, 'Gears of the City' is readable as a standalone novel. Since we're still early on, you might as well go back to number one, in the series, but the standalone-ish nature of the book is one of the main feature of this sort-of-new fantasy fiction. Gilman has an outstanding imagination, and he writes atmospheric prose to serve a propulsive plot that has lots of elements of SF and horror. I look forward to his next foray into these realms and hope that it, too, will come sooner rather than later.

12-08-08: Ian McDonald Welcomes 'Cyberabad Days' : Present in the Future

Prescience is a funny thing — no matter how much we want to see the future, we can only confirm that we have done so when looking to the past. So of course it was only coincidence that shortly after the tragic attacks in Mumbai that I received the ARC of Ian McDonald's forthcoming short story collection, 'Cyberabad Days' (Pyr / Prometheus Books ; February 24, 2009 ; $15.98). But then it might not be too hard to predict that India is going to play a big part in our present as well as our future. In many ways, India of the present looks a lot like what our future might hold. So why not spin out a tale of India's future and see where it leads us?

Ian McDonald has already done this with his outstanding, award-winning novel 'River of Gods'. Dense, intense and redolent with atmospheric language and descriptions, it also offered a number of rockin' action set-pieces and honed in on a propulsive plot. But beyond its virtues as a novel, 'River of Gods' was also an impressive feat of world-building. We dont often think of novels set in our world, in the near future as involving world-building. Typically, they involve and exhibit extrapolation as well as invention. But when McDonald created his vision of India in the year 2047, he had to in effect build a world for his Western audience. The result is a smashingly complex portrait of a culture that is to us — alien.

Having created a workable world within which to play as a writer, McDonald has returned to that world in short fiction. The virtues of 'River of Gods' are all on display here, including the outstanding cover art by Stephan Martiniere. If you think youre just going to get atmosphere-drenched vignettes, forget it. McDonald manages to give you all the atmosphere and robots blowing up stuff at an impressive rate. The stories include the Hugo-winning 'The Djinn's Wife' and the Hugo-nominated 'The Little Goddess'. Fighting robots fire off the collection with 'Sanjeev and Robotwallah', a powerful take on child-soldiers. While most of the collection is reprints, the book concludes with an 80-page original novella, 'Vishnu at the Cat Circus.' If you've already read 'River of Gods', then you probably don't need to see much more than the cover to put it in your auto-buy list. But if you've not read McDonald's powerful novel, the chances are that if you buy this book, and immerse yourself in his world, 'River of Gods' will be in your future.

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