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May/June 2016
 
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
David J. Skal
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 To Look For
by Charles de Lint

 

Bookburners, by Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty & Brian Francis Slattery, Serial Box, 2015, 16 episodes; $1.59 an episode, Digital & Audio.

 

So imagine a TV series in book form. Not a novelization, but an original series with sixteen episodes doled out on a regular schedule. Each episode stands on its own with a season arc that plays out over the run of the series. That's what we have with Bookburners, the complete series of which is available as I write this.

I find it telling that Bookburners is being cast as a prose TV series mostly because a TV series often borrows heavily from other influences. That's certainly the case here, although I doubt it was the creators' intention.

There's the obvious attempt to get readers to invest the way they would with television, tuning in on a regular basis. But beyond that, while the details are individual, the themes and tropes of their story have been around for a long time. Even the episodic nature has been done before in prose form. (Think of George R.R. Martin's Wild Cards series, Robert Asprin's Myth Adventures, or Terri Windling's Bordertown, to name a few that come most immediately to mind.)

However, the closest recent touchstone is The Librarians TV show, in which a secret group of librarians affiliated with the Metropolitan Public Library are chasing down magical artifacts which are then stored in a cavernous subterranean library hidden under the public one.

The Bookburners has a secret group of—well, they don't call them librarians, but that's pretty much what they are. They chase down magical books (not spell books or grimoires, but books that actually are magic) and store them in a cavernous subterranean library hidden under the Vatican.

For all their similarities, including the motley mismatched members of each team, the tone is different. The TV show tends toward humor (not always successfully), while The Bookburners serial takes itself more seriously, with varied styles (from police procedural through weird fiction). It wouldn't have been out of place in the old pulp magazines.

I'd love to discuss the stories and overall arc in more detail, but the series is still pretty fresh, and I'd hate to spoil too many elements for you. I can tell you that it begins with a NYC police detective named Sal Brooks who joins the team as a way to help her brother, who has been infected by the dire magic in a book he acquired.

After that, it becomes hard to discuss without spoiling it. I really liked parts of it; a few plot twists kind of annoyed me. The writing—considering there are four different cooks in the kitchen—delivers a pretty consistent voice, but I found myself appreciating the characterizations by Margaret Dunlap and Max Gladstone better than the sections written by the other two authors. If I was to have any real criticism, it's that the Big Bad of the season arc just switches in the middle.

However, all in all, it's a fun series, and I enjoyed checking in every couple of weeks as the season ran its course. I should mention that the season arc does come to a fairly satisfying conclusion, though like so many TV series on the air these days, we are left with some unanswered questions. After all, they do need to get you to "tune in" to the next season.

But as much as I enjoyed Bookburners, I do find it a little hard to justify recommending you buy the whole first season now that it's done. At $1.59 an episode, you have to shell out $25.44, which is pretty much the price of a hardcover—so that seems fair—but it's way out of line for a digital book. Of course it didn't feel like that if you jumped in at the beginning, and if we're going to compare it to another serial format—comic books—I suppose it's actually quite a good deal.

There's a second season planned, and the publisher also has another similar venture on the go as I write this: Tremontaine, a prequel to Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint, overseen by Kushner. I haven't tried it because of the cost factor mentioned above and I'm on a budget.

One last thing. Serial Box has done an excellent job with their website, making it easy to subscribe to a whole series or buy individual episodes. You can download each episode in epub, mobi and PDF formats directly from the site, or if you prefer listening, audio versions are also available. If you're the sort of person who gets a bit challenged in terms of loading content onto your device, you can simply download an app for your phone/tablet instead which makes the process of loading the material onto your device as easy as reading an email or a text.

I've probably been harsher than the material deserves in writing this, but in many ways it's a new format for delivering stories, so I figure the publisher might appreciate the feedback from at least one reader.

Bottom line: I did have fun visiting The Bookerburners' world on a bi-weekly basis, and I'll probably tune in to season two.

 

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Nebula Awards Showcase 2015, edited by Greg Bear, Pyr, 2015, $18.

 

The opening story in this Nebula Awards Showcase anthology—the winner for short story, in fact—had a number of strikes against it for me. It's very short, and I like a little meat on the bones of a story. There's no dialogue, and I like the characters to at least have some conversation with one another. And it's written in second person point of view, which I basically hate.

With all that working against it, Rachel Swirsky's "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love," a short meditation on an extreme event in the life of a paleontologist and his wife, is a heartbreaking stunner. Beautifully written, impeccably delivered.

But rather than being the exception, it's merely the opening salvo in an anthology that truly showcases some of the best fiction in the field for 2013. (I know, the title's a little confusing, but these are the winners and nominees from 2013.)

Carrying on, Matthew Kressel's "The Sound of Old Earth" is a bittersweet take on environmental concerns, introducing us to an earth that's being abandoned because it's been stripped of anything useful, and now the world itself is being taken apart to be used as the building blocks for other worlds. Kressel smartly focuses on one family—its patriarch in particular—and manages to leave us with a small sense of hope. He does overuse sf jargon a little, which means it won't get a lot of attention outside of the genre, but for those of us who regularly read in this field, it hits all the right notes.

Sofia Samatar unfortunately gets her name misspelled in her by-line and the table of contents, but her "Selkie Stories Are for Losers" might be my favorite piece of short fiction from the past year. It's pitch perfect in its narrative, characterization, and tone.

Kenneth Schneyer's "Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer" is told entirely in program notes, as the title suggests. They describe each painting and are accompanied by suggested discussion sessions. I didn't quite get the story—it seemed to flit just out of my reach—but it's a fascinating and somewhat eerie narrative that made me wish I could both see the paintings and know more about the artist's life.

"Alive, Alive Oh" by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley is a powerful, sad story about researchers trapped on a toxic planet and the child two of them have who is desperate to experience something other than the sterile environment of enclosed colony. The way the title relates to the mother's childhood in Wales before leaving for space with her researcher husband, and to the old folk song of which it is part of the refrain, struck me as particularly poignant.

There's not really room here to discuss every piece at length. You get some novelettes, the winning novella, and excerpts from a number of novels. But I did want to mention "In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind" by Sarah Pinsker. It's a quiet story in which an elderly woman finally understands something about her husband and the past after he's had a debilitating stroke. It's rich and sad and touched with hope.

I also really appreciated Nalo Hopkinson's introduction to Samuel R. Delaney, who received the Grand Master Award in 2013. At one point she writes, "For many years, I didn't notice that the fiction I loved didn't seem to love me back." (Because there were no people of color in it.) But then she read Delaney and it changed everything about how she viewed fiction and sf.

Any writer can only hope to awaken that world of possibilities in his or her readers.

And I'm looking forward to when the Nebula Awards Showcase presents us with the best of another year.

 

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Never Never, by Colleen Hoover & Tarryn Fisher, Amazon, 2015, $7.99.

Never Never, Part Two, by Colleen Hoover & Tarryn Fisher, Amazon, 2015, $7.99.

Never Never, Part Three, by Colleen Hoover & Tarryn Fisher, Amazon, 2016, $2.99.

 

If you're a regular reader of this column, you'll know I have a weakness for stories involving time travel. I also have a weakness for the amnesia thriller—you know, the book that opens with the protagonist having no idea who he or she is. Often they'll have great skills in terms of physical ability and strategy, and they're usually blessed with a certain amount of charisma, which makes other characters like them and want to help them (something that has the added benefit of helpfully carrying over so that they connect with readers). Unfortunately, such characters also usually have people out to kill them. For touchstones, think of books like Ludlum's first Jason Bourne book, or Prince Corwin in Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber.

Never Never has some of those elements, but what makes it particularly interesting is that in this case, the selective amnesia is happening to a couple of high school kids. Not being adults simply adds more layers of difficulty in their ability to deal with the problem. They don't have the same resources as adults, and people expect them to be kids, to attend classes, to listen to their parents and other figures of authority, instead of solving the mystery of their lost memory.

Which they can't tell anybody about, because they're kids, and kids, especially in high school, don't want to call negative attention to themselves for fear of being ostracized for being different. They don't tell their friends—they don't even know who their friends are. And they don't tell their parents because it's so easy to lock a kid up "for their own safety."

It's quite a dilemma in which Silas Nash and Charlize "Charlie" Wynwood find themselves, especially in the first few chapters when they each have to deal with their lost memories on their own. And even when they do work out that they're not alone—that it's happening to both of them—they find it difficult to trust each other. For Charlie it doesn't help that the more she finds out about herself, the less she likes the person she was supposed to be. And why should she trust Silas if he liked this girl she used to be?

They slowly piece together the story of their lives, but for each piece to which they do get an answer, a dozen more questions rise up to take its place. Like:

If they were the devoted couple that everyone seems to think they were, why were they cheating on each other?

If their families were so close, why are they now estranged from each other? So much so, in fact, that Silas and Charlie aren't allowed to see each other.

If their families were on the same social standing, why is Charlie's father in jail, her mother an alcoholic, and the Wynwood family is living in some crappy little house while Silas's family lives in a mansion?

I really liked this story. I've never read either of the authors before, but I was impressed with their dialogue and characterization, their pacing, and the twists and turns they kept throwing at our two main characters.

I really liked Charlie and Silas as well. The story is told in their first person viewpoints, switching from chapter to chapter. Their voices are different, but each of them is engaging, and I was particularly taken with their resourcefulness and Silas's faith that they'll get through, even when the authors keep turning their world on its head.

I'd love to talk about some of the things the authors throw at them, but I already worry that I've given too much information.

But I do want to talk about the ending. Don't worry—no spoilers are forthcoming.

The biggest problem with an amnesia thriller is the reveal, that moment when the authors finally explain what's going on, why this extraordinary situation has befallen the characters. Usually, it's disappointing. Or forced. Or disappointing and forced.

In the case of Never, Never I think readers are going to be divided. I really liked the explanation myself, but I can see others not embracing it with the same affection that I do. I'm sure the review pages of GoodReads and Amazon will be filled with some lively debates. (A good thing, in my opinion.)

I've also heard some complaints that these aren't really three novellas (as they were published) but just one book broken into three parts. This is true. Some readers have opined that it's a money grab by the authors. This isn't so true. The fact is that one of the authors was contractually unable to publish a novel with any author who wasn't also signed to her publisher. That being the case, I find this a very clever way on their part to circumvent the strict wording of the law to be able to work together.

Because sometimes a story needs to be told, and I'm certainly glad that was the case with this one.

I loved it from start to finish.

 

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Nuthin' But Mech 3: Sketches and Renderings, edited by Lorin Wood, Design Studio Press, 2015, $27.95.

Punch Drunk Moustache Round 2, Design Studio Press, 2015, $29.95.

 

When I was a kid, I loved robots. Of course, for the most part, they weren't the scary, militaristic shapes that you'll find in a lot of contemporary sf films, games and comics, or on the covers of sf books and magazines. They were often clunky—lurching when they "walked," wobbling if they were on wheels—but nevertheless they were endlessly intriguing.

Sf writers played with the idea of them in books and stories from the earliest days of the field, making them more humanlike, giving them Artificial Intelligence (AI), laws of behavior (thank you, Isaac Asimov), as well as concocting androids and other strange hybrids of man and machine.

If you have a fondness for any of this, you're going to love the art in Nuthin' But Mech 3: Sketches and Renderings. Unlike Spectrum, the excellent annual compendium of sf and fantasy art, there are no elves and dwarves here, no impossibly buxom women or barbarian swordsmen, no dragons or pirate ships sailing across the sky.

Just robots of every stripe.

Small whimsical ones, deadly war machines, and the full range in between, all beautifully rendered and presented in high quality reproductions. Each image seems to hold a story that stretches beyond the confines of its borders.

Now, speaking of stories, Punch Drunk Moustache Round 2 offers a rather unique take on the subject by allowing the men and women who usually do storyboards and designs for movies and games to offer up their own takes on storytelling, unfettered by outside direction.

Ten concept artists display their own visions in these pages. If you're the sort of person who sits through the long list of credits in a film, you might recognize some of them from their work with Lucas­film, Pixar, Sony, Electronic Arts, and others.

The ideas each presents are bold and invigorating. The styles range from cartoony to stunning paintings. There are short descriptions filling in a bit of each concept, which for some of them are the weakest link, as they come off a little juvenile and don't match the maturity of the art.

Do be warned, however, that these are only sketches of stories, even if a few of them do manage a more satisfying narrative than others, regardless of their brevity. And certainly the variety of styles won't appeal to everyone. But there were a handful that I would dearly love to see expanded in some manner—the medium doesn't matter. Film, illustrated novel, comic book, whatever it takes.

I'm not familiar with Design Studio Press, but I'm really impressed with their production values and the high quality of artist they've been able to attract for both of these projects.

 

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Here's to My Sweet Satan, by George Case, Quill Driver Books, 2016, $18.95.

 

Supposedly, if you play Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" backwards, the following messages can be heard:

 
There is no escaping
Whose message will make me sad, whose power is Satan
He will give you 666
Here's to my sweet Satan

 

I've no idea if it's true or not—I've never had a turntable that plays records backwards—but George Case uses that last line for his book, the full title of which is Here's to My Sweet Satan: How the Occult Haunted Music, Movies and Pop Culture, 1966-1980.

And now you know why I mentioned that bit of trivia.

While Case acknowledges that the occult has been of interest for a long time, he believes that a real explosion of interest began in 1966, spurred on in the next year by the release of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album with the busy collage of characters on its jacket. Fans pored over the cover, trying to figure out who was who. One was Aleister Crowley, the occultist who referred to himself as the Great Beast and whose life philosophy was "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law."

I have to admit this theory feels like a bit of a stretch for me, but Case backs up his argument with a lot of data, and one certainly can't deny that it's around this time that the occult stepped from the shadows and began to seep into the mainstream of popular culture. His definition of the occult is a bit broad, even encompassing books such as Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, but one has to remember that it was a different world back then, and what we would see as mere harmless fantasy now was considered dangerous by some in the mainstream.

This was the decade when Time magazine declared on its cover that "God Is Dead!" (the April 8, 1966 issue). Kids were experimenting with psychedelics and sexual freedom, questioning authority, and embarking on various hedonistic practices ("Do what thou wilt"). Bands played with occult imagery (Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper) and even when they didn't believe in it themselves, many of their fans did. There was a surge of interest in some of the old pulp writers such as H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby and William Blatty's The Exorcist were best­sellers. Dark Shadows began airing on TV and the theaters were filled with horror movies. Ouija boards and Tarot decks seemed to be everywhere. It even slipped into the nuclear families' kitchens in the form of Count Chocula cereal.

But Case's book isn't simply a listing of how the occult swept into popular culture (although there are a handy twenty-five pages of notes, a bibliography, and, yes, a timeline that does just that, listing the appearances of various books, records, and events by year). He goes on to show us how all of these things went on to change American society. How the craze boosted the political power of the religious right and in many ways formed the basis for a widespread rejection of rationality and scientific thought.

Here's to My Sweet Satan makes for a fascinating sociopolitical study, but it's very readable and framed with anecdotal tidbits which, depending on your age, will either kindle a bit of nostalgia or surprise the reader.

If you're more interested in how the various practices of the occult work, you might have a look at Colin Wilson's book The Occult and its two sequels. But if you're looking for the origins of its influences on much of the world in which we live today, you don't have to look further than this thoughtful and fascinating book by George Case.

 

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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