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April 2005
 
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
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Chris Moriarty
 
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Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
 
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Coming Attractions
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

William Gibson: No Maps for These Territories, by Mark Neale,
Docurama, 2001, $24.95, DVD.

Neuromancer, by William Gibson,
Ace Books, 2004, $25.

HAS IT really been twenty years since Neuromancer was first published as an Ace paperback original? What's perhaps more surprising is how fresh the story still feels—considering that the book is somewhat of a near-future thriller, and with all the other novels it has—let's be polite and say—inspired.

Yes, there are gaps in Gibson's future—who can imagine our present world without cell phones?—but Gibson was never trying to be prescient. As can be seen in the many novels and short stories that have appeared since Neuromancer's critical and popular success first dragged him into celebrity status, he has always been more concerned with story and character and investigating the Zen moment of now where the two collide and take on a life of their own.

Much has been made of Gibson's lack of technological know-how when he wrote the book (on a typewriter), but it just goes to show you that while research will always be an indispensable tool, imagination still remains the most vital component of good storytelling. Imagining story, the inner workings of his characters' minds, and the world in which it all takes place are all more important than research in the long run.

And while Gibson might not have been a computer geek himself, his coining of the term "cyberspace"—and perhaps more importantly, the use to which he put the term in the novel—inspired countless men and women who were computer savvy to try to bring his vision to life. As Jack Womack says in his afterword to this new edition, and rephrases on the DVD (which we'll get to in a moment), these folks "set about searching for any way the gold of imagination might be transmuted into silicon reality."

Without the inspiration of Gibson's work to spark the imaginations of these programmers, the world as we have it today might well be a different place. But the book was published, and as Womack goes on to say, we now, "thanks to all those beautiful William Gibson readers out there in the dark, have the actual Web—same difference [as cyberspace], for all intents and purposes, or it will be soon enough."

The documentary film No Maps for These Territories provides a perfect companion to the novel. (The DVD was apparently released in 2001, but only recently came to my attention.)  I can't do better than the back cover copy to describe the setup:

"On an overcast morning in 1999, William Gibson…stepped into a limousine and set off on a road trip around North America. The limo was rigged with digital cameras, a computer, a television, a stereo and a cell phone. Generated entirely by this four-wheeled media machine, No Maps for These Territories is both an account of Gibson's life and work and a commentary on the world outside the car windows. [He] offers a unique perspective on Western culture at the edge of the new millennium, and in the throes of convulsive, tech-driven change."
Just as Neuromancer seems to stand outside of time, the documentary's focus on the last year of the century doesn't date the film either. It remains relevant and thought-provoking, from start to finish.

The film begins with a barrage of images and dislocated sounds that immediately reminded me of the novel—a rapid-fire collage of input that tells us this is something outside of our normal lives. But while the background remains busy throughout most of the duration, one never gets the sense of the director being arty for art's sake, because he's smart enough to keep Gibson central to it all: visually on screen, and with his voice.

I was almost halfway through the documentary before I realized what it was about Neuromancer and Gibson's other work that drew me in from the moment of its first publication (me being a reader who still leans much further to the fantasy side of the genre than the sf). Gibson's settings might seem dystopic, but the underpinning is one of hope. This was brought home to me in the film when he says, "The heart is the master and the head is the servant, and this is always the case, except when it isn't…and when it isn't, we're in deep, deep trouble. And we are in deep, deep trouble."

Which seems as relevant now as when he said it back in 1999. Perhaps more so, because every year we seem to depend more and more upon the intellectual solution, even when it goes against what we know in our hearts to be true. I'm not saying we should become instinctual creatures, following whatever whim or fancy happens to come our way. I just wish we could temper our intellectual reasonings with some compassion.

"This," Gibson says of our lives, "is not a rehearsal. This is what's real."

We should take that seriously.

And if all sounds too touchy-feely for you, with the perfect wry tone that often inhabits his speech, Gibson adds, "All the fridge magnets of the new age have a certain kernel of truth in them."

If you have yet to read Neuromancer, this edition, with a new foreword by Gibson and a truly fascinating afterword by Jack Womack, is as good a place as any to start. (For one thing, you'll discover how, if Gibson hadn't grown up in Appalachia, Neuromancer would have been a very different book.)

And whether you have or haven't read the novel, I recommend the film highly. Gibson's insights into the creative process and the world we live in are meaningful, at times humorous, and certainly provocative.

It will probably send you to the book as a first-time reader, or want to reread it, as happened to me.

If your local DVD store can't get you a copy of the film, it's readily available from: www.docurama.com.

*     *     *

The Winter Oak, by James A. Hetley,
Ace Books, 2004, $14.

A word of a warning: don't start this without having first read Hetley's earlier novel, The Summer Country, because Hetley drops you right into the middle of a story that's already in progress—which is not a bad thing. It certainly beats those tiresome prologues one gets in too many fantasies. But without the knowledge of that earlier book, you'll miss a lot of the character resonances, not to mention being left wondering what the heck is going on here.

But if you're forearmed with a knowledge of The Summer Country, this new book will prove to be a rich and rewarding experience.

Now go away and read the first book before venturing any further into this review.

You're back? Good.

So it turns out that the sorceress Fiona, so ably defeated by Maureen Pierce in the first book, is getting ready for a second round. It's obvious to her that Maureen's sparing her life was a show of weakness and she means to play on it. Maureen has also made the mistake—in Fiona's eyes—of freeing all the slaves of the previous castle's lord, leaving her and the castle defenseless.

But what becomes fascinating—and perhaps a life lesson we can take away from the book—is how Maureen's apparent weaknesses are her greatest strength. I won't say more.

Also getting on-stage time is Maureen's new love, Brian Albion, facing treachery in the order of Pendragon knights of which he is a member; Maureen's sister Jo whose struggle with the demons of her past ends up bringing her back to the Summer Country; Jo's lover David, poet and reluctant warrior; and Khe'sha, mate of the dragon David killed in the first book, who is trying to juggle his need for revenge with his responsibility to their offspring, who will die without his close supervision.

They're not quite Thomas Covenants (who, incidentally, has returned in Stephen Donaldson's new novel, The Runes of the Earth), but their lives are certainly a mess. At times it makes for painful reading, and the stakes are certainly high with crises arising in both the Summer Country and the native Maine of most of the characters.

How they fare—if they even survive—you'll have to find out for yourselves. But I will say that the promise Hetley showed in the first book blossoms fully in this sequel.

*     *     *

Comic Book Encyclopedia, by Ron Goulart,
HarperCollins, 2004, $49.95.

Comics have long been the Rodney Dangerfield of literature. They get no respect—never mind the blockbuster success of films based on comic books like Spider-Man, or the fact that a graphic novel (Maus) won a Pulitzer Prize. Even those who should know better apparently don't. When Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess won a World Fantasy Award for an issue of Sandman (which at the time was more innovative and a better read than ninety percent of the fantasy available in prose form), rumor has it that the board of the convention changed the rules of the award system to ensure that it wouldn't happen again.

Unfortunately, Comic Book Encyclopedia isn't going to change that general perspective the world has of this form of storytelling. The lurid cover and interior illustrations assault the eyes with garish pop colors that would do Andy Warhol proud, depicting superheroes and an inordinate number of well-endowed women in skimpy outfits. Any soul new to the form is simply going to take one look at the illustrations and decide that this really is just cheap entertainment, appealing to the masses.

But a closer look shows us that the women from Strangers in Paradise (about as atypical a comic book as one might find) share the cover along with the more expected images of Spider-Man and the X-Men, as well as Hellboy (who made it, one assumes, because of the recent success of his film, or why wouldn't more iconic characters such as Superman or Batman be there?).

And you know what? The book is fun, full of all sorts of useless but entertaining information. For instance, did you know that the maiden name of Blondie Bumstead was Boopadoop?

Author Ron Goulart proves to have an exhaustive supply of information and trivia about comic books ranging from when the field first began to the present day. Comic book lovers will get a real kick out of the book, checking out their favorites and delving into the history of the field. But unless one has a fondness for pop art (of which there is plenty), I doubt it will appeal to anyone outside the field. And it won't convince anyone who isn't already an aficionado that this is a viable medium deserving of respect.

*     *     *

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