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Books To Look For
Chicago Review Press, 2008, $14.95.
WHEN I WAS a kid, magazines such as Popular Mechanics and comic strips like Dick Tracy were forever giving us glimpses into the future. Even on pulp paper and newsprint, the images were enough to fire the imagination of any kid. And then there were the pulp magazines where science fiction writers tossed out inventions the way Bill Gates makes money.
In the fifties and early sixties we were pretty much pre-everything—at least it feels like that these days, when you consider the gadgets currently available. Back then, the writers' descriptions and the artists' renditions of what the future held for us were windows into this amazing, shiny future that we couldn't wait to reach. Jetpacks! Flying cars! Wristwatch TV sets! Androids and robots! Floating walkways! Bubble houses!
Of course, we didn't get most of it—at least we haven't yet. If you want to be cynical, nothing seems to really take off unless the porn industry gets behind it. Their backing certainly fueled the presence of video machines in most homes, and later, brought in the computer with its Internet access.
But I digress.
In the manner of one of those "Whatever happened to…" articles that run from time to time in periodicals like People Magazine, Nick Sagan and his fellow authors tell us in their book You Call This the Future? what happened to these imagined and promised inventions. Or rather why we didn't get them, and what we did.
You don't need to have grown up with Popular Mechanics to appreciate what they've done. Half the things they discuss were never speculated about in those venerable pages. For instance, nobody back then was thinking about wireless access points because they didn't even imagine the Internet with its email, blogs, downloads, and all.
What you do need to appreciate You Call This the Future? is an inquiring mind that likes to be fed information.
The book's laid out in illustrated chapters ranging from jetpacks to cryonics and all points in between. The prose is smart, but not jargon-heavy. The illustrations and layout design facilitate our understanding of the prose, rather than distract. And the ideas—both the ones that still live in our imagination, and the ones that have already been brought to life—remain as intriguing as the ones this kid daydreamed about in the pages of the pulps and Popular Mechanics.
Echo, by Terry Moore,
I've written about Terry Moore's previous serial Strangers in Paradise a few times in other installments of this column, for all that it only banged up against the walls of our genre, rather than ever taking up actual residence inside. I could spend a couple of columns talking about the many good things this long, extended story brought to the table, one of which is that it actually ends.
It has a start, a long (and occasionally muddled) middle, and a very satisfying conclusion, and you can pick the whole thing up now in six fat trade paperbacks the size of regular paperbacks, rather than that more awkward size of a comic book that's not as easy to shelve in your bookcase. They should be available in any good bookstore, or you can check out www.strangersinparadise.com for more information.
But the new project Echo (two issues in as I write this) is definitely contemporary science fiction, to which Moore brings all the strengths that made Strangers in Paradise such a delight.
It opens with a government agency testing a flight suit (a literal flight suit, complete with jetpack) in a desert area when they kill the "pilot" as the last part of the test. There's an explosion, followed by a rainfall of tiny pellets (which is all that's left of the suit). In the testing area, a photographer named Julie gets caught in the "rainfall" of pellets. They coalesce on her skin, forming a portion of the flight suit on her chest that won't come off.
The agency is trying to gather up all evidence of the test, including any bystanders. They know Julie was there, and also an unidentified man (whom we haven't met yet), so they call in an assassin to assist with the cleanup.
This being Moore, we don't just get a linear story, and things aren't as simple or clear-cut as they seem. For instance, we meet the assassin before we realize that's what she is. In her first scene she's just a young woman playing with her child in an idyllic country setting—until she gets called in to work.
Moore has a great gift for characterization. Through his expressive artwork and spot-on dialogue, we quickly know and find depth to all the characters. And we also know that there'll be great interaction between them. No one is safe in a Moore story, either, a fact that's brought home when the viewpoint character from the opening pages dies a third of the way into the first issue.
If you haven't tried Moore before, now's the time to get in on the ground floor of what promises to be an amazing series. Sure, issues will get reprinted down the road in trade editions, but there's an extra zing reading this sort of a story in a serial fashion. Your local comic shop should have back issues readily available to help you catch up, or check that Strangers in Paradise site I mentioned earlier.
Echo isn't being treated like an event the way the big comic companies promote what they consider to be their big stories, or hot series, but I have no doubt that in its own quiet way, it will prove to be the most satisfying story to come out this year.
The Born Queen, by Greg Keyes,
I'm always amused how, with a series such as Keyes's The Kingdom of Thorn and Bone, the author and his publishers expect readers to retain the details of the many characters and subplots of the books, for all that there's usually a year or more between installments. Even TV shows have a little "last week on…" clip to bring one up to date, and they come out on a weekly basis, rather than annually.
Maybe I just have a bad memory. Or maybe they're so close to the material that it's all still current for them. I don't know. But I do know that it's the mark of a good writer when their latest installment keeps your interest, even when your memory is scrambling—and not always successfully—to fill in the blanks.
The Kingdom of Thorn and Bone is a big, sprawling story with more characters and plot threads than I could possibly sum up efficiently in the space I have. And this being the fourth and last book, my trying to do so will only spoil it for readers who have been happily reading it as each book comes out, as well as for readers who decide to give the series a try for the first time.
So let me simply restate what I said in reviews of previous installments of this column: what makes this series so satisfying is how it reclaims the sense of wonder that first attracted many of us to reading fantasy in the first place. Yes, the plotting is deft and surprising, the characters fully realized, the world fascinating. But you can say that about a lot of books. What too many of them lack, however, is that feeling of wonder. The sense that the world is a bigger, more mysterious, and stranger place than we usually take it to be.
The Born Queen is an utterly fascinating conclusion to a superb series. You might not like the fates of all the characters, you'll certainly be very surprised at the choices some of them make, but you won't feel cheated for a moment. This is big storytelling that takes the time to give us a little more than just the salient details. I also really liked how Keyes finishes with an epilogue that gives us a glimpse at a few of the key characters many years after the conclusion of the story.
If you only read one recently published fantasy series, let it be this one.
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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