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01-15-09: : John Klima and Night Shade Books Ride an Electric Velocipede : Destination Weird

Books and magazines are indeed the best way to travel, and you need look no further than the new double-issue of 'Electric Velocipede' (Night Shade Books ; Winter 2008 ; $12) for confirmation of this fact. This is a great partnership, paring Jeremy Lassen's talents for publishing and distribution with John Klima's editorial insight to bring readers, this time around, a double issue with more content than I can easily count. All this in 164 pages, with a top-notch presentation that makes reading a pleasure.

For seven years, John Klima has been burrowing away publishing rather obscure fiction, but not exactly in obscurity. No, Electric Velocipede is the kind of magazine that prints lots of stories that end up in everyone's "Year's Best" lists. Klima actually wears his influences on his sleeve, or rather in his Table of Contents, and if you've thus far managed to miss out on his work, allow me to quote: "Inspiration: McSweeney's, LCRW, Sybil's Garage, Shimmer, Realms of Fantasy." For most of my readers, that and the $12 price tag for those 164 pages ("contains almost 100,000 words," the website will seal the deal. Need a bit more? Well, you can actually find the entire Table of Contents for the first issue here , with links to excerpts from everything in the book.

For this reader, standouts include Patrick O'Leary's "The Oldest Man on Earth," Claude Lalumiere's "Destroyer of Worlds" and Jonathan Wood's "Notes on the Dissection of an Imaginary Beetle." But these choices are really rather arbitrary; I'd suggest another look at the Inspiration line above to see where Klima is coming from. In other words, what you’re getting here is a thick slab of slipstream, with a nice helping of superb poetry and some stuff that is simply fun; Penelope O'Shea's "It's All Relative" (cooking, recipes and relationships) and Lucius Shepard doing a "Blindfold Taste Test." Electric Velocipede is itself like a nicely rounded out recipe. The stories tend to be shortish and are perfect for bedside and bus ride reading. The cover by T. Davidsohn is garishly inviting but won't embarrass you on those bus rides. Once you get sinde the book, it's straight print but nicely done in TPB quality. Whether you're taking the bus, the car, or the bed, Electric Velocipede is an excellent mode of travel. As with all such endeavours, you're well advised to subscribe. How many years ago did I buy a lifetime subscription to Cemetery Dance? I can't remember, frankly, but it was the best money I ever spent. New weird fiction delivered to your doorstep. I trust you understand, it does not get better than this.

01-14-09: : Read It Again, Sam : Sequels Spur the Pleasure of Re-Reading

For me, at least, with so much to read, re-reading is a guilty pleasure. Not that I don’t go back to certain texts again and again. Stanislaw Lem, Flannery O'Connor, Edward R. Whittemore and Franz Kafka all end up in my stacks and get re-read. But re-reading a recent novel requires a different sort of inspiration. In this case, the inspiration is a sequel to a novel that came out a little over three years ago, 'Counting Heads' by David Marusek. Even to a seasoned science fiction reader, familiar with the tropes and tricks, 'Counting Heads' was a daunting book. Brilliant and enjoyable but also stark and dense. It's the sort of book you read, finish and say, maybe I'll read that again some day.

The day to start re-reading 'Counting Heads' has arrived, as has David Marusek's sequel, 'Mind Over Ship' (Tor Books / Tom Doherty Associates ; January 20, 2009 ; $24.95). When I say sequel, I mean direct, hot-on-the-heels-of. From 2134 in 'Counting Heads' to 2135 in 'Mind Over Ship', well, a lot can happen in a year, as we all know. The world can seem pretty OK, kinda shaky, but not so terrible and then ka-bamm! We're so far in the shitter that we're all supposed to have known that we've been in the shitter for the past five years. So imagine what it's going to be like some hundred-and-twenty-five years from now. No need, Marusek's done a pretty fab job and his follow-up ups the ante effectively. You knows that whole "luxury gap" thing? Imagine what the rich will do when they can build condos in space.

Again no, need, Marusek has done this. As 'Mind Over Ship' starts, the humanitarian-style conquest of the stars has been sidetracked and turned into a rich man's / post-human's playground. And because this is the sort of science fiction that scares off non-genre readers, let's just throw in this bonus: Ellen Starke's head has been grafted to an infant's body, and time is running out for body to catch up with brain in order to save a bag of loot. Or the twenty-second century variation thereof, at least.

As you can see the future intends to be more confusing than the present. Thus the joys of re-reading present themselves. Marusek's 'Counting Heads' was one of those books that one might easily re-read just to get a better sense of the world. Now you have your chance and your excuse to do just that, to immerse in Marusek's world for the second time, just to brush up on the details, you know, the AI's that want to be human and the clones that don't. With so many lines being crossed, blurred and just plain blotted out with super-future white-out, it's fun to go back in with the shattered remains of your tiny brain, pummeled by the present, and re-immerse in Marusek's future. Obviously, 'Mind Over Ship' will still present challenges. It's a 317 book, fercrissakes, but you could probably write about 3,000 pages of master's theses to discuss what transpires therein. But if you go in prepared, hot off of 'Counting Heads,' equipped with your memories ... and memories, alas, themselves are part of the plot here ... well, I think this is the prefect recipe for a good time, in fact a great time. It may not be the time for everybody, but I bet if you were a general purpose reader who forged their way through 'Counting Heads' the first time, you'll not regret doing so again — especially with what awaits you in 'Mind Over Ship.' Finally, a future as complex, as challenging, as frustratingly incomprehensible as the present. Not a moment too soon.

01-13-09: : Matthew Sturges Immerses in 'Midwinter' : Removing the Glamour

I never thought I'd find myself in the position of writing quite so much about fantasy. But it's a genre where readers can find a pretty amazing variety of narratives and stories. Last week, I looked at the work of the venerable team of Weis & Hickman, who have added a lot of grit and detail to their latest dragon-based offering. Matthew Sturges' first novel, 'Midwinter' (Pyr Books ; March 2009 ; $15.98) is yes, yet another fantasy, with lots of familiar elements; the land of Faerie, clashing kingdoms, deadly female assassins who can take you out with a hair braid. And some not so familiar elements as well, like Brian Satterly, a physicist from Caltech.

There's a point early on in Matthew Sturges' first novel 'Midwinter' where physicist Brian Satterly, called to a friend's house to help with a problem child, gets aid from a woman who warns, "This will be the worst part. Removing the glamour, that is." The woman then wraps a bracelet around the child's wrist, and is not so surprised as is Brian when the child transforms into a tall, thin faerie child. I think this idea of "removing the glamour" is central to a lot of The New Fantasy we're seeing. Sturges and others are peeling back the magic to explore the complicated stuff that has to exist in order to support the magic. That's where they’re finding a lot of exciting storytelling opportunities.

Sturges first novel takes place in a world alongside ours. You can get there via Topanga Canyon, which means my sister-in-law, who lives at the edge of a State Park, is well set should things go haywire in this world. Unfortunately, things are pretty haywire in Faerie, what with it being the once-in-a-hundred-years winter. Satterly is banged up in a Faerie prison with Mauritaine, and what will become a crack team who will be liberated to do the bidding of Regina Titania. It's a suicide mission, of course.

Sturges is well known in the comic world for his work on 'House of Mystery,' 'Blue Beetle' and 'Jack of Fables', an Eisner award-nominated work co-written with Bill Willingham. And the book is written in short and easily-read chapters that keep the pace swift. But Sturges' prose is clever and fluid, while his plotting is complex enough to satisfy those who might have read a Le Carré novel or two. And in fact, we're told on his blog that he's just sold a sequel to 'Midwinter' titled 'The Office of Shadow,' which he pitched as "a spy thriller set in Faerie." How un-glamourous is that? Fantasy is getting out in the sunlight, even if it's the dead of winter.

01-12-09: : James R. Morrow is 'Shambling Towards Hiroshima' : Giving Away the Unkindest Typo

Ah, the heady days of the Legend Novellas. In the late 1980's and early 1990's, the UK publisher Legend Books (an imprint of Random Century, the colophon page tells me) unleashed the Legends Novellas series upon the world. It was just the kind of series to draw compulsive collectors like me. The were available as hardcovers at £8.99, but even the trade paperbacks, no matter how slim, came with dust jackets. One of the positive aspects of being a compulsive book collector is that with series like the Legend Novellas, or PS Publishing's novella line, you end up buying authors you don’t know just to have the whole set. And thus, gosh, I can't believe it's been this long, some eighteen years ago, I bought 'City of Truth' and was introduced to the work of James Morrow.

James Morrow's novella for the Legend Novella line, 'City of Truth,' was a harsh, brash, funny and compelling look story of what happens in a society where truth is enforced. Morrow's talent lay in his ability to combine scathing satire with credible characters, to create worlds where real people were forced to face absurd circumstances. Pretty much, reality as we know it. And because he wrote on the edge of the genre, he garnered notice not just from genre readers, but from those in the literary mainstream as well.

Morrow is back in the novella (or short novel) business with
'Shambling Towards Hiroshima' (Tachyon Publications ; February 1, 2009 ; $14.95). It's the last letter from Syms Thorley, written in a 24-hour marathon, as he recounts his life as a B-Movie monster — and part of a top-secret World War II weapons program. The weapons in question are giant, fire-breathing mutant iguanas, created by the US Navy, which intends to unleash them on Japan. Thorley's job is to step into the rubber suit of Gorgantis, and destroy a pint-sized Japanese city in a quintessentially bad movie, with the idea that the Japanese will surrender when they realize the real power of our awesome mutant iguanas.

Morrow brings this premise to life with the voice of Syms Thorley, a snarky straight-shooter who gets a "Raydo" award at the Wonderama Fantasy Film Festival with "the unkindest typo" in the inscription. Thorley is a total hoot to read, and a lot of fun to be around, recounting horrors both imagined and real with equal aplomb. 'Shambling Towards Hiroshima' races rather than shambles, and offers gut wrenching laughs along with heart-wrenching insights into everything from the life of genre-film making to the actual horrors of nuclear weapons. Morrow makes huge leaps of imagination and buoys them with a precise, controlled prose that is kooky and clean. In order to sustain images of Navy frogmen feeding giant lizards, he keeps an emotional connection between the character and reader, and manages scenes both powerful and silly, including a rightful end to the carrier of the unkindest typo.

Given the peculiar premise, one might think that the audience for a book like 'Shambling Towards Hiroshima' would be rather limited, but it's Morrow's storytelling savvy that comes through. Sure, I love a good man-in-suit monster movie. And I guess I do remember sort of choking up at those Godzilla sequels with the baby Godzilla. But there's more than monsters at work here. This is the work of men who care about their craft, whether it is wearing the rubber suit or writing about the man who wears the rubber suit. This is the work of a writer who knows that anyone can don a monster suit, and yet still be nothing more than a flawed human.

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