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Dispatches From Smaragdine
A column by Jeff VanderMeer
November 2006

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Dispatches From Smaragdine columns.]

Installment 1: Finnish Fantasies, a (Small) Publishing Magnate, Parlayed Treasures

Fall in the City
International SF/F
An Interview with Tiffany Jonas, Publisher of Aio Books
Hidden and Not So Hidden Treasures
Next Time
Contact Information

© Eric Schaller
A tourist's conception of the Smaragdine Lyceum
A tourist's conception of the Smaragdine Lyceum
Fall in the City

In November, the brutal heat of the Smaragdine summer is usually gone for good and the city becomes giddy with the crisp month or two before the brutal winter. From the storied, overly marbled downtown with its mainly Central Asian embassies and state houses to the discos and merchant kiosks of the Palisade, Smaragdine is a friendly, more relaxed place. You can even ignore the bullet holes from the November Revolution still embedded in the side of the Murgodan legislative building (which served as the city's Lyceum until World War II).

Except, this year the summer's lasting longer than expected, and it's making people edgy. My friend here who we'll call Big Bad Bear for now (he's wanted by the police, although it's a case of mistaken identity) calls it "an effect of global warming. I hate it, anyway. The winters also lack the snows of my childhood. We're lucky to have a couple of weeks of clean snow."

This place is like its weather, created from contrasts. Parts seem like a "little Paris" while parts look like the more dilapidated slums of the Third World. Here, a thriving publishing company like Poseidon Books, with wireless access and a state-of-the-art fax machine, can exist in a brand-new modern building right around the corner from a house made from wire, mud, and a rickety tin roof, complete with chickens pecking in the dust. Big Bad Bear even told me that when he visits this city he prints out a list of "risky" buildings and is careful not to stay in them. These are buildings likely to collapse in an earthquake. Ever since the report was published, the people living in those buildings have been threatening the newspaper that printed it.

I came here to find unexpected things -- strange and beautiful, horrifying and revelatory -- and every day I am rewarded.

But it's also a long way from home, and so I thought I'd start this monthly column for SF Site to tell you about the books that find their way to my mailbox here, and to comment on any exotic and strangely beautiful subjects or artifacts that will be as much a link for you to the unfamiliar as this column is my link to the familiar I lack right now.

In each column, I will also tell you a little about this place called Smaragdine, so that over time it will seem less exotic to both of us.

International SF/F

Tähtivaeltaja Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy One result of my trip to Europe this summer was a better understanding of how publishing and the book business work in each country we visited. In Finland, my trip coincided with being a guest of honor at Finncon in Helsinki and having City of Saints & Madmen published by Loki Books. I have a relatively long history in Finland, in large part because of Toni Jerrman at Tähtivaeltaja magazine. Long before I had book deals with major publishers, Toni was publishing stories, interviews, and little booklets of my work. I've often felt that a magazine with Tähtivaeltaja's part-punk, multi-media coverage approach would do exceedingly well in the United States.

I also had contact with quite a few Finns and have come to love the work of such Finnish writers as Leena Krohn and Johanna Sinisalo. In fact, a good introduction to Finnish fantasy writing is the Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy edited by Sinisalo. In addition, I keep myself up-to-date on all things related to Finnish fandom and genre fiction through Partial Recall, the blog of Tero Ykspetäjä.

As might have been expected, our experience of Finland and the Finns was a great one. We not only had a lot of fun, we also felt very much at home. The con organizer Jukka Halme is larger-than-life in the sense that he has magnetism and presence in spades, to go along with a cavalcade of bad yet inventive puns. He is one of the most interesting people I've ever met.

Jukka Halme

Toni Jerrman

Niko Aula
Finncon was housed with Animecon and the result was a bit like combining a fan and academic conference with Mardi Gras. In general, I was impressed with how knowledgeable Finnish fantasy fans were and how seriously they took books and the authors they enjoyed. I have rarely if ever been confronted by readers who knew so much about what they loved, or about my books specifically (and I am by no means a wildly popular author in Finland).

While in Finland, we conducted three interviews. These are the first in a continuing series of interviews conducted all across Europe that will air as part of this column. (In addition, check out our videos of the Mad Scientist Laugh competition and Filk Singing involving Ambergris.)

Jukka Halme not only organized Finncon 2006, but also is very active in Finnish fandom (he has most recently edited a New Weird anthology with an appropriate question mark at the end of the title). In this interview, he discusses Finnish writers, Finncon, and his New Weird anthology. Some footage from Finncon has been included at the end.

Toni Jerrman is not only the editor of Tähtivaeltaja but also a journalist and very active in Finnish fan organizations. In this interview, he gives an overview of his magazine in the context of Finnish fandom and publishing. He also provides interesting insight into unique attributes of Finnish genre fiction.

Niko Aula publishes books on the literary side of fantasy through his Loki Press. City of Saints & Madmen was released in time for Finncon this year. In this interview, he talks about publishing in Finland and shares his thoughts on fantasy. Loki's other authors include Ballard, Perec, and Calvino.

Halme, Jerrman, and Aula represent an interesting cross-section of Finns involved in fantasy and science fiction in some way. Obviously, there are many, many more people involved in the scene there, but I think these interviews provide good insight. I believe this is the first time they've been interviewed on video.

An Interview with Tiffany Jonas, Publisher of Aio Books

One of the books I received this summer in my ramshackle mailbox at the hostel here in Smaragdine was Dana Copithorne's The Steam Magnate (a novel of the Broken Glass City). It's a beautifully designed little book with an intriguing premise, and it looked right at home on the shelf next to work from local authors, such as The Myths of the Green Tablet and The Book of Smaragdine.

Set in an odd desert city, The Steam Magnate has, as Zoran Zivkovic says, "narrative inventiveness, subtle style, and rich, profound characterization." Aio Books has also published work by Zoran and by Ian R. MacLeod, in equally gorgeous editions. The Steam Magnate

Luckily enough, Tiffany Jonas, the publisher of Aio Books was in Smaragdine two months ago as part of a fact-finding cultural mission by the United Nations. I was able to steal her away long enough to have coffee at the Hermes Bakery and ask her a few questions. Here are her answers, which I've had to edit for space considerations. Some of Jonas's responses about Smaragdine will have to wait for some future column.

Why did you found the press?
I think the real moment of truth occurred after walking out of a bookstore utterly empty-handed... and not for lack of trying! I think I'd looked at just about every book on the shelf in the speculative fiction section. On that particular day and in that particular bookstore, there simply wasn't anything available in my preferred genre that I wanted to read. The selection was geared toward the mass market: the sexy vampire books, the books where the prose had been relegated to the back seat (or the dumpster) in the interest of moving the plot forward at a breathless, rather brainless pace. This wasn't the first time this had happened, by far, and I was fed up.

What makes your press unique?
Two things: the design of our books and the content of our books. I mention design first, not because it's more important -- it's not -- but because it's where we've received the most buzz. Honestly, it's also a part that we really, sincerely enjoy here, since we're all dedicated bibliophiles... And that brings me to the content. I reject the majority of manuscripts due to the lack of prose style on the part of the writer; I'm definitely not of the school of thought that says prose should be transparent (read: a slave to plot). I read literary fiction as well as speculative fiction, and those authors have a grasp of what can only be called a beautiful use of language. If you're going to write something, why not have it be beautiful? Of course... I'm always looking for the balance between distinctive prose and drama that makes the heart pound... or something that provokes a great deal of thought, perhaps even life-changingly. Character development is key, too; the reader must feel that the characters and story are absolutely real, that these characters live over on that planet or lived in that era. Nocturne

What are your thoughts on the book-as-artifact in this electronic age?
Well, I have to say I'm not among those who stoutly believe physical books will always be around, except as antiques, Jean-Luc Picard's reading of physical tomes notwithstanding... On the other hand, I don't see this happening in my generation (for the record, I'm in my mid-thirties) and perhaps for some time after that. Certainly I wouldn't want to be around to see it happen! Books-as-artifacts are very important to me. A significant part of the pleasure of reading is holding a book in your hand, feeling its heft and texture, smelling the paper, admiring its design.

My dream room is a huge home library in an English manor somewhere, Complete with fireplace, comfortable easy chair, fine wooden desk, and row upon row of handsome, leather-bound books. (This last wars with my conviction to use only environment- and animal-friendly materials to make Aio's books; we don't use leather for that reason, but leather-bound books still somehow manage to make it into my dream scene.)

Who are some of your favorite authors?
Before Aio... C.J. Cherryh has to be number one. If I could find more authors like her, I'd be one very happy person, and there probably wouldn't be an Aio. I adore Moving Mars by Greg Bear, have read it multiple times, and dearly wish he'd write another book like it. He calls it his "character piece," I believe. I enjoy Lian Hearn, though I thought she was more careful with her prose in the first book in the Tales of the Otori trilogy, and I recently enjoyed Keith Miller's first novel, The Book of Flying. It has its strange spots but otherwise it's quite a lovely marriage of the literary and speculative genres. I'd love to see him expand the story of the cannibal into a novella! Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay was wonderful. The original Dune by Frank Herbert, definitely.

On the literary side, there's Iain Pears' Dream of Scipio and Joanne Harris' Five Quarters of an Orange, to name two.

Hidden and Not So Hidden Treasures

Daughter of the Hounds Three books in particular caught my eye in time for this installment. The first is Caitlin R. Kiernan's Daughter of the Hounds, which oddly enough came out in a Smaragdine edition earlier this year but was just released in the United States from Roc as a trade paperback either on "December 29, 2006" or in "Janurary," which, by a stroke of coincidence, is the way it's spelled on most English-language calendars here. Now, many people know already that I enjoy Kiernan's work -- her last short story collection, To Charles Fort, With Love, was a festering, fecund bomb blast of unease and Decadent-era stylings modernized for the Twenty-First Century. (That we had met previously without knowing it was the kind of appropriate; see the account here.) Now Kiernan has returned to the world of her previous novel Low Red Moon. I'll tell you what the back cover copy says the book is about if you promise you'll read the book anyway: "They're known as children of the Cuckoo. Stolen from their cribs and raised by ghouls, the changelings serve the creatures who rule the world Below and despise the world Above. Any human contact is strictly forbidden, and punishment is swift and severe for those who disobey. Eight years ago, Emmie Silvey was born on Halloween while a full moon rose in the sky..." Etc. Now contrast the dead words of the ad copy with the reality of the opening sentence of the novel: "The ghoul lady takes out her white linen handkerchief and uses one corner to dab at her watering left eye. It's an old wound, a relic of her spent and reckless youth, but it still bothers her sometimes, especially when the weather Above is wet." I think you get my point. (It might further interest you to know that the Smaragdine version led to some rioting by students at the university, although no one has as yet been able to figure out why.)

In the Night Garden Cathrynne Valente's In the Night Garden, Book 1 of The Orphan's Tales, has been released October 31 by Bantam Spectra. It's literally an overgrown garden of narratives that descend from frame to frame to excerpt to continuation back to the frame and the frame within the frame while telling all manner of folktales, some of them traditional and some subversive. If the book feels cluttered, it's because it is, from the overstuffed cover art (some of which looks out-of-focus) to the overly ornate title pages for the various levels of reality in the novel. It is somewhat disconcerting to have a filigreed gate for a first page and then find the tale ends on the next page. (Although this is something one expects in Smaragdine -- you will come across the most elaborate facades, only to end up against a ruined brick wall a few steps inside; or, much worse.) "When the horse is fancy, use a worn saddle. When the horse is a ruin, use a fancy saddle," is a bad translation of a popular Smaragdine saying that may or may not be applicable here. Regardless, readers should not let appearances distract from a rich and vibrant set of tales that progress with bold disregard for things like "playing it safe," "traditional narrative," or "reader expectations." Valente is either an angel or a devil, but in all things she writes like she means it. I know that some bootleg book clubs in the parts of Smaragdine controlled by renegade priests have already gotten their hands on In the Night Garden, due to the rumor that hidden in its maze one can find a rather cogent defense of Smaragdine's underground religion (based on The Green Tablet, but that is a story for another day).

The Road Switching contexts and worlds, Cormac McCarthy's The Road has a simple design and simple premise both. A father and his son try to navigate a post-apocalyptic landscape that holds horror beyond mentioning. As in the author's previous Blood Meridian, The Road uses sparse and stripped down language with an almost Biblical fervor to emotional and visionary effect. Only Brian Evenson and Samuel Beckett use language like this, and Evenson's been banned in Smaragdine and Beckett's pretty well dead. I can't imagine The Road will be very popular here, given that there have been months when the people's lives have been almost as difficult. Those who like a powerful death trip that also manages to contain a glimmer of hope will love this book. If, on the other hand, your weekly ritual includes holding an empty plastic jug standing in lines for both gasoline and water for ten hours at a time, you may prefer to seek your entertainment elsewhere.

Next Time

Who knows what December will bring to Smaragdine? The students are restless, the cafes are rife with gossip about "changes" and an underground movie about an ex-communist obsessed with Daffy Duck is the biggest box office hit in the country. Just know, oh reader, that whatever December brings it will be odd, unexpected, and possibly beautiful.

Contact Information

If you would like to send me things for review, or even complaints, hints, suggestions, or other feedback, please do so via email at or via my U.S. snail mail address:

Jeff VanderMeer
c/o Smaragdine Dispatches
POB 4248
Tallahassee, FL 32315

There will be a delay of about a month from receipt at the post office box to the arrival of your missive in Smaragdine, but to send direct would be folly as my stint at the hostel runs out at the end of the month and I don't know where I will be after that.

Copyright © 2006 Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer's reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, The New York Review of SF,, and many others. VanderMeer writes the graphic novel/comics summation for The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror (St. Martin's Press) and is a guest editor for Best American Fantasy. Monkey Brain Books published his non-fiction collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat? in 2004.

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