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April 2004
 
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
 
Columns
Curiosities
Plumage from Pegasus
Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
 
Film
Kathi Maio
Lucius Shepard
 
Science
Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
 
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

Current Issue • Departments • Bibliography

Books
by James Sallis

Looking for Jake, by China Miéville, Del Rey, 2005, $13.95.

Eternity and Other Stories, by Lucius Shepard, Thunder's Mouth Press, 2005, $15.95.

Transformations: The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1950 to 1970, by Mike Ashley, Liverpool University Press, 2005, $28.

SOME YEARS back, after reading a newspaper article about how books were great insulation and in a pinch might be transformed, igloolike, into a bomb shelter, I wrote a poem titled "What to Do Tomorrow." When the sirens and whistles blow, go quietly to your study. Tests, I advised my reader, had proved them to be as effective as sandbags. You were to pack the books around you, "use the thickest ones you have and pack as many there as you have time for," and wait. You'd sit in there thinking how you always wondered what they were for.

Sometimes these days that's exactly how I feel.

Daily—by mailing envelope, cardboard box, runner, pack mule, and camel caravan—books arrive. They go into odd corners and bare spaces of an already small house growing, delivery by delivery, smaller. Great columns, pedestals, spires and stalagmites of books. I know all the UPS, FedEx, and DHL drivers by name. And barely have I turned in a column before this magazine's editor and I begin discussing what I might review next. First novels again, maybe; or another think piece about the politics of science fiction? A survey of recent critical work in the field? Those Philip K. Dick reissues, or that new edition of Children of the Atom? How about short story collections, one of us says—any interesting new ones you've heard about?

Meanwhile, the books accumulate.

As in Cortázar's "House Taken Over," where the couple gradually retreat from room to room before a mysterious unseen occupier until, reaching the final room, they flee.

And books go on accumulating.

The problem is, there are so many good or interesting ones, so many that I'd like to review, to talk over, to have an excuse to read and think about. (And as Chip Delany insists in explaining why he prefers written interviews, I never quite know what I think about something until I write it.) So each few months I wade in and start winnowing them down, from a hundred or more to dozens, to a couple of stacks, to—this time—three.

As I sit in here waiting for the all-clear.

*     *     *

The field of fantastic literature has always been blessed with an extraordinary pool of talent, elders in the field maintaining their quality and volume of output even as those like Gene Wolfe and Neal Barrett, while growing a bit long in the tooth, also grow better with each year, the lot of them rushing out to the gate to greet newcomers like Ted Chiang, K. J. Bishop, and Richard K. Morgan. Then every so often there comes along a new writer—someone like Sturgeon, or Bester, say, in the field's adolescence—who just plain rocks us all back on our heels.

China Miéville started out that way four years ago with Perdido Street Station, followed up with The Scar, a brilliant take on (among much else) colonialism, then with Iron Council's tale of a worker's revolution. All three novels are set in New Crobuzon, a land where high fantasy and the grittiest realism, medieval alchemy and modern technology, ancient and modern London, Mervyn Peake and Philip Farmer meet.

And now we have Looking for Jake, a collection of fourteen stories whose checkered pasts include venues ranging from independent publication by the UK's PS Publishing ("The Tain") to the Socialist Review ("'Tis the Season"). Four stories are new. Only one, "Jack," is set in New Crobuzon. And one, "On the Way to the Front," is not a story at all but a story-sized graphic novel with artwork by Liam Sharp.

Like the novels, the stories are many-layered, multi-voiced, and intricately textured, possessed of an often stunning imaginative force. And like King Rat and Perdido Street Station, many of these stories are paeans to London, though a London transfigured, a London half-dissolved and—possibly—in the process of re-forming.

"The river was clogged with wrecks. Besides the mouldering barges that had always been there jutted the bows of police boats, and the decks and barrels of sunken gunships. Inverted tugs like rusting islands. The Thames flowed slowly around these impediments.

"Light's refusal to shimmer on its surface made the river matte as dried ink, overlaid on a cutout of London. Where the bridge's supports met the water, they disappeared into light and darkness."

That's from "The Tain," the tale of a London besieged by creatures who have erupted from every reflective surface.

And this is from the collection's title story:

"The last time I picked up the receiver something whispered to me down the wires, asked me a question in a reverential tone, in a language I did not understand, all sibilants and dentals. I put the phone down carefully and have not lifted it since."
Miéville begins where many others leave off, with beautifully evocative language, social conscience, a clear sense of history, romantic longing, intelligence, despair—and a profound reverence for the past of fantastic fiction.

Art does not progress but forever circles back upon itself, reinventing itself and its vessels. Miéville's work, as I wrote here upon publication of Perdido Street Station, spreads its arms to take in much of what attracts us as readers to fantastic fiction, to what has always attracted us, and makes it new. These are books you sink into. This is a man putting everything he is—everything he has learned, everything he feels, everything he knows not to be true and everything he hopes can be—into his books.

This is, very possibly, greatness.

*     *     *

It is the nature of what we do, I tell my writing students, that you will never be satisfied. Start off thinking you just want to write this little story, and before you know it you're chasing some damn whale. The carrot keeps getting pushed farther away; reach and grasp have separate ZIP codes.

There are few writers from whom I expect more than I do from Lucius Shepard. In the first column I wrote for this magazine, six years ago now, I reviewed his collection Beast of the Heartland. In the past year I've read Two Trains Running, Louisiana Breakdown, Viator, and A Handbook of American Prayer—enough to cause me to wonder how the man has a life at all. The last, I carried with me to class, as I have done before with Beast of the Heartland, to read a series of remarkable passages to students. This, I tell them, is what you're up against, this is what it sounds like when you're going full tilt.

Now Eternity and Other Stories looms on their horizon.

It's a generous helping of Shepard, 442 pages comprising seven chunky, meaty, elegantly written novellas.

"There are legends in the pit. Phantoms and apparitions. The men who work at Ground Zero joke about them, but their laughter is nervous and wired.… It's the smell of burning metal that seeps up from the earth, the ceremonial stillness of the workers after they uncover a body, the whispers that come when there is no wind. It's the things you find. The week before, scraping at the rubble with a hoe, like an archaeologist investigating a buried temple, Bobby spotted a woman's shoe sticking up out of the ground. A perfect shoe, so pretty and sleek and lustrous. Covered in blue silk. Then he reached for it and realized that it wasn't stuck—it was only half a shoe, with delicate scorching along the ripped edge. Now sometimes when he closes his eyes he sees the shoe. He's glad he isn't married. He doesn't think he has much to bring to a relationship."
That is from the first offering, "Only Partly Here," a story that, like all Shepard's work, transports you immediately and with fiducial authority to a world you know little of, a world you never anticipated visiting. And what's more, to a world that, however mundane or fantastic its inception, somehow seems more real, more textured, fuller, than the one that meets your eyes when you lift them from the page. For Shepard's work faithfully does what the best art does: it makes the world large again, reinvests the world with the wonder and substance that we've left behind, scattered on the trail, in the trudge of our days.

For many readers the clincher will be "Eternity and Afterward" with its tale of a latter-day, Russian Philip Marlowe's descent into the Moscow underworld in a bid to rescue his lost love. But for me it's difficult to get over the sadness and strange beauty of "Only Partly Here." Shepard being always a world traveler, other stories are set in a civil-war-torn African republic, in Central America, and in Iraq. All carry that same stamp of authority, and all carry a chill deep inside you, to where the warmth is.

*     *     *

It was supposed to be transient, right, all this space stuff? Ephemeral. Like lava lamps and fondue sets, gone before you know it. I mean, we ain't exactly talking Literature here, are we, folks?

So no one bothered to much notice, certainly not to document, what went on with Amazing Stories or Astounding or The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. For decades now I've lamented the lack of information on early publishing in the field and on the first generation of science fiction writers. Where are the essays on and biographies of Ted Sturgeon, Henry Kuttner, Cyril Kornbluth? What's the story behind Horace Gold's Galaxy? What was so magic about Cele Goldsmith's magazines in the sixties, and why did they happen at all? Who among us is man, woman, or other sentient being enough to do what needs be done?

Well, my friends, Mike Ashley is.

Transformations is the second of a three-volume history of science fiction magazines. The first spanned the period from the founding of Amazing Stories in 1926, through the Golden Age, to the dying of the pulps in the late forties. The final installment, upon which the author is now at work, will cover the magazines since 1970. The volume at hand, as Ashley notes in his preface, "sees the rise and fall and rise again of science fiction during a period of intense turbulence.… The public interest in science fiction spawned by the nuclear age soon waned in the fifties and the sf boom of 1950-53 gave way to the bust years of 1954-60. Yet the fifties saw the greatest concentration of writers the magazine field had ever seen. If ever there was a real Golden Age of science fiction it was 1950-54, when Galaxy, Astounding, F&SF, If, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Startling Stories, Amazing Stories, Fantastic and a dozen or more magazines published some of the best work ever seen."

He then begins his 410-page study: "In 1950 science-fiction magazines were 24 years old," introducing the double strain that has long defined, in some respects limited, and continually reenergized the field: the push-pull toward commercialism and its pulp tradition on one hand, the desire to tell ripping yarns; and on the other, toward the literary, prophetic, and fabulist.

This is marvelous work, this history, and the man who does it deserves all our thanks. Thinking over Ashley's comments about the 1950s Golden Age, I have to wonder if a similar boom isn't manifesting itself today in book publishing, with science fiction and fantasy pouring forth from Aspect, Eos, Roc, Tor, Spectra, Del Rey, and a dozen others. But you must excuse me now, I have to go. I hear…I'm not certain. Whistles? Sirens?

Or just the horn of another UPS truck.

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