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August 2001
 
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
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F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

ASTRONOMY - Rick Wadholm
ElectricStory.com, 2001; $4.99

NUMBERS DON'T LIE - Terry Bisson
ElectricStory.com, 2001; $4.99

BEARS DISCOVER FIRE AND OTHER STORIES - Terry Bisson
ElectricStory.com, 2001; $7.99

UNICORN MOUNTAIN - Michael Bishop
ElectricStory.com, 2000; $7.99

E-book versions, downloadable from www.ElectricStory.com

For the past couple of years I've been having an on-going debate with friends and acquaintances concerning the issues, pro and con, of e-books. Most fall into the con camp. They speak of the tactile intimacy of holding a book and turning its pages (which I enjoy as well). They complain that looking at a screen too long bothers their eyes (hasn't been a problem for me to date). And those are the ones who have actually tried it.

The greater percentage simply can't imagine doing it in the first place.

I agree with them when it comes to reading at my desktop computer. Perhaps it's because, as so many others do in this day and age, I already spend far too much time in front of my computer every day. I don't have the patience to read pixilated books on the screen in my leisure time. It's just doesn't translate into a relaxing experience.

But reading from a portable device (Palm Pilot, Visor, or those machines that operate with a Pocket PC/Windows CE operating system) is a different story and interestingly enough, all the pro e-book folks I know own such devices and love to read on them, myself included. They're as portable as a book and you can curl up with one in the same chair you'd curl up in to read the original portable reading device of pages held together in between a front and back cover.

Now I'm not suggesting that you go out and buy such a device simply to read books on them (although there are those like the Rocketbook that do just that), but if you're already using the organizational benefits of a palm-sized computer, I do recommend you try reading a book on it. You'll probably be pleasantly surprised. Besides their convenience (just pull it out when you're waiting in a line at the supermarket or waiting in a doctor's office), the devices are also great for trips as you can carry as many books on it as your device has the memory to hold. It doesn't matter if you're carrying around one book or twenty--the bulk and weight remains the same. And you'll never be stuck again without something to read. And there are more and more titles appearing every day.

Unfortunately, the e-book publishers don't all seem to have the concept of portability and convenience for their readers down just yet--understandable, perhaps, since no one really knows where e-publishing is going to take us in the future. There are still too many publishers that provide books in formats that can only be read on a desktop computer. Or they publish for a particular device, rather than formatting their material to work on a variety of them.

ElectricStory.com hope to remedy this. At the moment, besides the desktop versions that they sell, their books are available in formats for Gemstar ReB 1100 and 1200 handheld devices (formerly the Rocket eBook and Softbook Reader, respectively) and for Microsoft Reader software, although not all Pocket PC devices can read them. The publisher tells me that Reader 2.0 for Win CE devices, due out this summer, should fix this. None of that helps owners using the Palm operating system, though, and there are millions of them.

Still, the prices are fair, or at least comparable with printed book prices, and I decided to look at a couple of new titles from their catalogue, and a couple of backlist ones.

*     *     *

Rick Wadholm's Astronomy is a Cthulhu Mythos story set at the end of WWII. It plays on the idea that Hitler was trying to win the war using occult forces, except it turns out his scientists and occultists were attempting to raise the Old Gods. Even with the war ended, the threat presented by some of the Nazi loyalists remains.

Enter Susan Gilbert, retired from U.S. Naval Intelligence, but brought back to help out because she's an expert in the field. Except being an expert doesn't guarantee anyone's survival in times such as these.

It's been years since I've read fiction based on Lovecraft's mythos--even longer since I've read Lovecraft himself. I remember the original material as wordy but nevertheless fascinating material.

Wadholm writes with a much crisper prose style than Lovecraft and some of his devotees, but he plays fair in his use of the mythos, without falling into caricature or excessive melodrama. Some readers might miss the ornate flow of words that was Lovecraft's gift and sometimes also his failing, but I didn't.

Astronomy has the slick fast pace of a contemporary thriller, for all its WWII setting, and I liked it for that. If I were to register a complaint, it would be that the characters weren't as fully-rounded as I'd have liked them to be, but in the context of this story, they were perfectly suitable.

*     *     *

Numbers Don't Lie by Terry Bisson is a short collection of his three Wilson Wu novelets, which are stories in a contemporary setting based on quantum physics. It's fascinating stuff, from the junkyard with its door that opens onto the moon, in the first story, to the last one where connective time (the time it takes for one to get from one to place to another, such as on a subway or airplane) is being stolen to create a pocket universe. Wu is a strong presence in each story, but they're told from the viewpoint of a divorced lawyer entering a new relationship--which allows Wu to maintain his unique presence, a kind of contemporary Doc Savage, without the action.

Unlike Bears Discover Fire, the other Bisson title I tried, this fiction has never been collected before and, in fact, it reads more like a novel, divided into three separate stand-alone but connected parts, than it does a collection.

Bears Discover Fire gathers together a number of my favorite Bisson stories. The title story alone is worth the price of admission, especially the opening scene: Bobby, his brother Wallace, and his nephew Wallace Jr. are fixing a flat tire at night on an interstate. The flashlight keeps dying, but suddenly there's light being cast on the work area. The three look up to see two bears at the edge of the woods, holding the torches that are casting the light. They quickly finish changing the tire, then drive off. That's when Wallace turns to Bobby, and drawls, "Looks like bears have discovered fire."

Of course the story is as much about Bobby's relationship with his nephew and his mother as it is the bears, but it's the way that Bisson handles the impossible that I enjoy so much. It's always so matter-of-fact, from the news broadcasters running six o'clock specials on the bears, to a child born with wings, a bank machine that seems to know more about its users than should be possible, a blind painter creating art from near death experiences, and the other fascinating characters and situations that are presented to us in the book.

Short fiction is really suited to the e-book format. Because a handheld device is small enough to fit in a pocket or purse, it's readily available when you have a spare ten or fifteen minutes available to do some reading and I can see a strong future for collections and magazines in this format, if the material becomes readily available to readers.

Which isn't to say that novels don't work as well--either new or old ones. The difference, as with regular books, is that instead of getting to read a complete story in the fifteen minutes of spare time, you read a chapter or two. Though naturally, if you have the time, you can also find yourself caught up in the story and missing a meeting or going to bed far later than you'd planned.

*     *     *

Rereading Michael Bishop's Unicorn Mountain was just as moving an experience for me as it was the first time I read it in regular book form.

Unicorn Mountain isn't so much about unicorns as it is about some very real contemporary issues: Such as AIDS and the reactions to it by both the victims and those around the victim. Or the complex and changing face of Native Americans. Or how about relationships--that between estranged couples, or siblings, or parents and children?

Briefly put, Libby Quarrels and her ranch hand Sam Coldpony are trying to make a go of their Colorado ranch that Libby won in a settlement from her ex. Enter her ex's cousin Bo Gavin, dying of AIDS. Now Libby has the ranch and Bo to worry about; Sam is coming to grips with his own heritage and the uncomfortable realization that he was wrong to desert his daughter, now sixteen and becoming a novice shaman, when he left his wife; and Bo is dying.

Bishop's novel is about all of that, but it also has unicorns. They remain otherworldly creatures, a kind of metaphor for the wonder that lies at the heart of the world, the wonder that all the characters are trying to connect with in their own way. Unfortunately, the unicorns are dying of a disease that in some ways is very similar to AIDS.

Unicorn Mountain is one of those classic novels that completely fulfills the potential of our genre--the reason we read in it in the first place: deeply moving stories that are both entertaining and thought-provoking. What's especially good about this book is that while Bishop is unabashedly embracing one of the most outworn images of fantasy, he has imbued it with an appeal that is at once timeless and fresh. He's doing what the best writers do, taking something commonplace or stereotyped and allowing us to see it again through fresh eyes. Bishop can write books that annoy me (Who Made Stevie Crye? comes immediately to mind), but he has also written some of the best in the field, of which this is a prime example. And I think it's the sign of a good writer when he or she either makes you adore their work, or become infuriated with it--sometimes in the same book. They make you feel something, a reaction that can sometimes feel all too rare in literature.

*     *     *

Material to be considered for review in this column should be sent to Charles de Lint, P.O. Box 9480, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1G 3V2.

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