Thursday, December 13, 2007

Which came first: the Unicorn or the Wizard?

As a bookseller, I'm often intrigued by how people decide to portray themselves on their author bios. It's been interesting to note the amount of bios that include photos (it never used to be the case; 10 years ago, you had to become big-time, be on your third book, or have sold the movie rights), and what kind of image it is.
Some images are dignified, some are dilettante-ish come-hither poses. And then there's the spate of silver gelatin-style photos that infuriate me in their pretentiousness. I won't go into details, but it can be a fun excercise next time you're in a library or bookstore.


The point of this post is to bring one particular bio to the attention of the greater world.
For the sake of fairness, I'm deleting the pertinent bits to protect the author, but what is left is truly made of "Teh Awesome".
Renowned wizard (-Blank-) is the author of (-Blank-obviously these books involve wizardry). He rediscovered the long-lost secret of the Unicorn in 1976, and created the first of several living Unicorns, which became a worldwide sensation. In 1985, (-blank-) organized a diving expedition to New Guinea and the Coral Sea, which solved the age-old mystery of the Mermaid, presenting his findings to the International Society of Cryptozoology. He is the founder of the online (-blank-) School of Wizardry.
I have not included the bio photo, but whipped up this replacement--suffice to say that both wizard and Unicorn are prominently featured.
It's amazing, frankly, to see such brazenly mystical, truly in a 1970s prog-rock, Frodo-loving, hippy-childe way, this bio is; in an age where science seems to have driven the seductive and fun shadows of myth and fantasy into tiny corners, we have this wonderful piece of oddness to prove that mankind can't let go if it's mysteries.

And if the Singularity happens, and nanotech and post-humanism come to fruition in the next 20 years, I expect it to look like a bizarre mash-up of Blade Runner, World of Warcraft and Star Trek... And I hope that Spider Jerusalem is there to report on it.

Friday, September 21, 2007

My favorite guilty pleasure, lately, is watching the you tube video of Shakira doing "Hips Don't Lie" at the Grammys. I had heard her years ago, and it's not really my thing, but this year, as I was trolling the interweb, I saw an article about that performance. The writer, entranced, was going on about how she should have her own show, every night, in which she'd just perform that song, and he'd watch it every night forever. So I googled it.

It really is the sexiest thing I've ever seen happen on TV - she's barefoot, with tangled curls of hair cascading around her, dancing as if she's actually dancing, with a wild, unchoreographed edge. And man, it is SMOKING. She looks like a maenad about to run loose on the hills, like a pocket-sized fertility goddess.

It's an intriguing clip for other reasons, too. It's surely the only time a Haitian and a Colombian have stood together on an american stage, on national television, and yelled 'why's the CIA gotta watch us?' as the crowd cheers them on. More than that, it seems to seems to embody my favorite social trend - the latinizing of North America.

I've heard it before, and say what you will about how immigrants will overload our health care and educational systems and flood our low income work force and ect ect ect. I've been unemployed and disabled in southern California; I know what it's like, dealing with doctors so overloaded they wish you'd just take yourself outside and die without fuss. But we have to admit that the American Dream, as our parents and grandparents knew it, is over. Depending on which commentator you prefer, the gap between the rich and the poor in this country is analogous to either the income gap in pre-revolutionary France or that in the US just before the Great Depression. Let's face it: we are going to be poor. Really poor.

And if we're going to be poor, I want my goddamn taco trucks, I want to buy my medicinal herbs in baggies at the corner store, and bottles of cheap moonshine in artfully scavenged bottles, I want tamale carts on the corners, and on Friday nights I want to see teenage boys, stiff and awkward in their brocaded coats, playing off-tempo mariachi music in gas station parking lots. I want to dance in my garden while my neighbor's mambo band practices on the lawn, and afterwards drink shitty beer on the stoop while the warm evening cools into night. I want to be poor with style and grace.

And they are all waiting for us, our long-lost kin, our cousins, our neighbors - for all that the media wants us to fear the barbarians at the gate, a vast alien tide of brown waiting to drown us, they are our relatives; no matter our nationality, Latin America encompasses it. There are Eastern Europeans whose grandparents fled oppression, and French and Irish families descended from the men who came to fight in various wars and revolutions, Scandinavians and Jews and Africans, tied to us northerners by the immutable bonds of blood and history. And no matter how hard the government tries to keep us apart, with walls and towers and guns and barbed wire and checkpoints and helicopters and cameras, the border just becomes ever more permeable and slippery in response, because the gods of borders are gods of trickery and transformation, and will defy the efforts of petty men to impose order upon them.

And someday, when the border implodes and the south rushes north, we will all dance in the streets. We will plants vegetables in our back gardens and flowers in the front and take back warehouses and office buildings and paint them shades of blue and live in them and we will speak something that is neither Spanish nor English but something new and beautiful and fresh.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill (Morrow, October 2007)

A while back I picked up an advance copy of Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box and I got about half-way through before circumstances and other reading commitments made me put it down. I didn't get back to it; wasn't wowed enough (in all fairness, I can't make a final comment on the book without giving it a proper chance).

Months went by and I spied this nondescript black advanced copy sitting amongst the others. A double-take and I realized it was Joe Hill's short story collection. I'd heard about it a while back, during it's original release, in the U.K. by the venerable PS Publishing. But owing to the scarcity of PS Pub.'s editions in the U.S. I couldn't get it. I was curious, still; remembered a certain spark from reading the novel and thought that giving Hill's short stories a spin wouldn't hurt, right?

I read the introduction by Christopher Golden and, not sure where to begin, I went with his suggestion, "Pop Art", which Golden said was one of the best short stories he had read in years....

And he was right.
Man, "Pop Art" is sensational. Here is a perfect example of the true power of the short fiction medium; if this story were an explosive, it would be a fifth of Nitroglycerin. A profound study of adolescence and loss, friendships and growing up; beautiful, concise, not a word wasted.
The whole collection is strong. What Hill does so well is manipulate the various forms of 'horror'; the existential, the grotesque, and the sublime.

Some stories are just plainly 'stories', about life, like "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead"; the title being about the only horrific thing about the tale, which takes place on the set of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead. And "Better than Home", a hilarious and moving take on parental love and baseball fandom.

Some are graceful, perfectly balanced fantasies, like the title story "20th Century Ghosts"; a love story and love-letter to that magic alchemy that happens between a viewer and the film they are watching.

Some are mean, in that psychological, 'man-that's-fucked-up' sense as in "In the Rundown", about a delinquent teen bubbling with anger at his close-minded small town.

And some are truly, truly disturbing, downright-yes-horrific. I'm not that into horror, feeling that much of the genre revels in the spectacle, the blood-splatter body-count. But Hill shows how real horror is done, the mixture of fear, the dread behind every half-closed door, the throat-gripping moment when a strange sound comes from behind some bushes...

And honestly, "Best New Horror" is so clever, so terrifying, and fun: see how expertly Hill manages to create a literary critique of the genre he's writing in AND scare the pants off of the reader for good measure.

I leave you with a quote from of Golden's introduction, something that helps define Joe Hill's rare talent; Hill needs to be read by people outside of the horror genre--not to legitimize his writing, but people will be simply missing out on one of the most accomplished writers of his (my) generation:
"At his best, Hill calls upon the reader to complete a scene, to provide the emotional response necessary for the story to truly be successful. And he elicits that response masterfully. These are collaborative stories that seem to exist only as the reader discovers them. They require your complicity to accomplish...Far to many writers seem to think there's no place in horror for genuine sentiment, substituting stock emotional response that has no more resonance than stage directions in a script. Not so in the work of Joe Hill."

Monday, September 17, 2007

As a fan of post-apocalyptic science fiction, I found The World Without Us by Alan Weisman tremendously enjoyable. If, like me, you’ve ever wondered what the world would really look like if all of humantity were somehow decimated tomorrow, this careful and detailed book will tell you. It is sometimes hopeful, as when he is describing the wildlife that flourishes in the Korean Demilitarized Zone, or how nature is breaking through the cracks of New York City, and sometimes utterly bleak, as when he explores the environmental legacy of our dependency on plastics, or what will happen as nuclear waste dumps and oil refining plants age and shift.

The book’s message is ultimately, though guardedly, optimistic: the author makes a solid argument for our ability to coexist in peace with nature, if we are willing to make deep and sweeping changes. If we are not, the book tells us, we will pass away, and the earth, as always, will abide.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Falling Man, by Don DeLillo (Scribner)

According to Straw Dogs by professor John Gray, human consciousness processes about 14 million bits of information per second, yet the actual bandwidth, the amount we register, is only 18 bits per second. Much falls by the wayside, or more accurately ends up in the massive buffer of our subconscious. Shifting, never losing relevance, every glimmer of light, every glance from a stranger, angles, textures. I read DeLillo to access my periphery; in the midst of reading his novels my perception is altered, and things and events are given a different intensity. I trust my reality to DeLillo, but this is what should be occurring in the best author-reader interactions since they often transport us to times and places unknown.
This isn't the case with Falling Man. We are all familiar with the time and circumstances.

Essentially a book firmly rooted in the events of 9/11, DeLillo has taken his time in delivering his perspective; as he should, since it's topic--American Empire and its citizens, the repercussions, the cost--is something he is most familiar with. Since the 70s he has carefully watched the shadows cast by America's unstoppable 'progress' and witnessed things writhing the darkness; resentment, envy, hatred. In a sense, he saw it coming, and it spilled onto the page in pieces--in Players, Mao II, The Names, White Noise, Libra, an on.

Falling Man begins with a familiar image, a dazed survivor moving amongst the chaos and rubble, and shifts to his family's reaction to events. Interspersed in the narrative of these people coming to terms with loss, we find shockingly compelling snippets of the life of one of the hijackers; his devotion is total,respectable even.

We can all find something within the ruminations of the various characters that we can relate to; the intimate loss of a loved one on 9/11; the ramped-up fear engines that bombarded us through our TV screens night after night, month after month; the profound sense of being ungrounded, uprooted. This last part fills much of Falling Man. Men, women, children all anchor-less and drifting, as if the events of that day, the hyper-violent impacts sent shock-waves through our psychic lives and not just the buildings. The towers lost, yes. They can be rebuilt. But what of the countless individuals unmoored, feeling their souls drifting away, scrabbling for purchase in strange obsessions, brief sexual and emotional trysts, the growing numbness? "Fear is the mind-killer'," says a character in Frank Herbert's Dune, but sometimes it can tie you more firmly to your mind to the point it becomes a prison, and what of the opposite? When mind and body are detacted, distracted?

Lives change, time nudges us into new patterns, and thus it is with Falling Man, until the final chapter, which circles back, to before the beginning, or the ending of things. Here the meaning of the lives of two men briefly intersect; we witness completion and dissolution, recognize the similarities of their cultures, and understand the unbearable chasm that separates them.

I go to to DeLillo's work not to escape life, but to try to understand it better; his prose is unconventional, distasteful to some, but I click with him when he writes:

The skies she retained in memory were dramas of cloud and sea storm, or the electric sheen before summer thunder in the city, always belonging to the energies of sheer weather, of what was out there, air masses, water vapor, westerlies. This was different, a clear sky that carried human terror in those streaking aircraft, first one, then the other, the force of men's intent. He watched with her. Every helpless desperation set against the sky, human voices crying to God and how awful to imagine this, God's name on the tongues of killers and victims both, first one plane and then the other, the one that was nearly cartoon human, with flashing eyes and teeth, the second plane, the south tower.

I was lying on an air mattress, sleepily wondering at the intensity of blue in the sky, rolling over, that day in Brooklyn, the first day of my first vacation in five years, trying to sleep off a hang-over in the insistent light. Thirty minutes before I witnessed on TV, that very cartoon human projectile carve a scar into the 21st century. I still see the sweep, the curve, the last minute pitch, the surreal way the building swallowed the plane whole. I don't like to think about it, try to avoid it. But I went to DeLillo's book to find a way to walk through those memories, mostly buried years ago.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Richard Brautigan on one shoulder and Harlan Ellison on the other

Being a hermit is fine if you're in an ice cave on a mountain thinking great thoughts or something. I'm just hermity because I hurt all the time. I'm actually tired of vicodin, and let me tell you how much I thought that day would never come.

I just finished reading The Tokyo-Montana Express, by Brautigan, which is one of the saddest books ever. Sure, it's quirky and charming and funny and delightful, like he always is, but beneath all that is a profound and awful sorrow. You can take as given that all literature is about pain somehow, whether it's heartbreak, guilt, loneliness, despair, jealousy, ennui, indignation, loss, love - or any of the other permutations thereof. A good writer can take their personal angst, be it trivial or deep, and make it feel universal. I think that Brautigan and Harlan Ellison have the opposite gift, of starting with pain as a universal constant, and making that massive concept feel acutely personal. While Brautigan takes a gentle, bemused approach, as if to tell us that we're all in it together after all, every word a benediction, Ellison wants to scream at us about it, furious at the world and all of its horrors. Comparing the two, it seems as if Brautigan's path of compassion would be the Right Choice. He blew his head off, though, while Ellison is still kicking around making a magnificent ass of himself. So, should we instead choose rage?

I suppose context can't be ruled out; Brautigan lived in the Bay Area in the 70s and 80s, which would probably be a lot like spending your whole life living in the B dorm at Evergreen, surrounded by coke snorting trustifarians who give self-righteous speeches about whatever they heard on NPR that morning and blast terrible music and tell you to mellow out, man, before they drive off in their SUVs. Which would make blowing your head off look like a pretty good option.

I think about this a lot, because I really wish Richard Brautigan had stuck it out. I think this mostly because it's like he saw where our train was headed and decided to get off early, and we're all left here to ride it out. I wish compassion didn't always lose.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Iain M Banks - Raging Scot in Space!


On the surface, Banks' fourth SF novel seems very similar to a certain Lucas/Spielberg silver screen blockbuster: a charming rougue-ish hero is pursued through exotic locales by dangerous fanatics, each engaged in a desperate search for a lost ancient powerful artifact. However, that is where the similarity ends. Banks is way too talented, creative and innovative to create just a mere cheap knockoff. Plus, he is definitely too dark and twisted compared to the watered-down pablum that George and Steven tend to serve up. This is fast and action-packed, but also intelligent and moody. If you want real adventure--this is it!

I'm not entirely sure when I originally wrote this review (slightly rewritten for posting here), but I do know that it has been way too long since I embarked on one of Mr. Banks' completely brilliant and totally different Space Operas. When I first discovered him back in the '90's, for whatever reason, I decided to read his SF books in the order they were published and take my time about it. Unlike many other SFF authors who just crank out book after mediocre book, Banks takes his sweet time and the results are well worth the wait. That and the fact that he alternates his writing between Science Fiction and "normal" Fiction (published under just Iain Banks, sans the 'M'), leaves a fan like me with a semi-limited supply of his works.

Anyway, I recently went on a trip to San Francisco and as is my usual wont, I grabbed a good mass market size paperback to bring with me on the plane. I decided to /finally/catch up with Mr. Banks and brought FEERSUM ENDJINN. Within the span of the first chapter, I quickly remembered why I love Iain M. Banks and wondered what the hell took me so long to read another one of his excellent books.

However, my blog review of FEERSUM ENDJINN will have to wait until another day. Must. Stay. On topic. Besides the fact that I wanted to gush about AGAINST A DARK BACKGROUND, I also wanted to use this opportunity to announce the official opening of the Fantastic Planet Books online store! You can now peruse and browse our inventory and purchase books directly from us! The store website is pretty darn cool and one of the nice features is that we can highlight notable and recommended titles that we stock. Consider it the "staff picks" section of our virtual store! You may even see a great title by a certain talented Scotsman basking in the spotlight...

So while you're out wandering the wilds of the internet, be sure to stop by the Fantastic Planet Books Online Store and pay us a visit! We look forward to seeing you soon! And don't forget to visit our Fantastic Planet Books mothership as long as you're in the neighborhood.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Conan of Cimmeria vs Elric of Melnibone

"Conan, what is best in life?"

"To crush your see them driven before you... and to hear the lamentation of their women."

Yes, this quote is actually from the movie, but need I really say more?

This is the first of three books collecting ALL of the original Robert E. Howard Conan stories. Whether you are a long time Howard fan or have never read him before, do yourself a favor and pick up copy of these fantasy classics!


Since I first wrote this, Del Rey has not only published all three Conan collections that I mention above, The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, The Bloody Crown of Conan, and The Conquering Sword of Conan, but also three others featuring Robert E. Howard's lesser known but just as swashbuckling pulp heros: The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn: The Last King, and Kull: Exile of Atlantis. These are truly essential books to add to the library of any discriminating swords and sorcery buff and required reading for any fantasy reader looking to explore an important (and thoroughly entertaining) chapter in the history of the genre!

DelRey also recently announced that they would be publishing the complete stories of Michael Moorcock featuring Elric of Melnibone in a similar format to the Howard collections, beginning sometime in 2008. This is incredibly exciting because not only is the doomed albino prince and his cursed black sword Stormbringer yet another important chapter in the evolution of the sword and sorcery sub-genre, but these have always been some of my favorite fantasy stories ever!

I read the entire Elric series voraciously as a D&D playing teenager and Elric's melancholy doom was immensly appealing to my moody adolescent world view. I still go back and read certain stories (or the entire series) every so often and I enjoy it just as much as I did when I first read them so many years ago. My old DAW editions with the Michael Whelan covers are some of the most treasured books in my library--maybe even more than the complete fifteen volume Eternal Champion series published by White Wolf that I have sitting in my "special collection" bookcase!

Finally as an added bonus for your entertainment: CONAN RAVES!

Saturday, January 27, 2007

A Veritable Cornucopia of Content!

In anticipation of the new online store for Fantastic Planet Books going live soon (and on general blogging principles as well), one of my many projects on the "To Do" list is to start posting more on the FPBlog. Hopefully I can post some observations and ideas about SFF and the book world in general, but also short reviews of various books I've read and liked (or not).

Luckily, rather than rack my brain and pull these articles out of the aether, I have a large stack on my desk of basically ALL the staff picks and recommended book shelf talkers from my nearly 10 years at Elliott Bay. Not only will it give me the opportunity to showcase the books I've loved, but it will be a great opportunity to revisit my reading history and reminisce with old friends, as it were.

Hopefully all my LJ friends with a prediliction for SFF books (probably most of you!) will find this entertaining and enlightening. Who knows you may even discover a book you will want to read for yourself!

Friday, January 19, 2007

Amusing email exchange

So I was emailing back and forth last night with the company that is creating a website for the store that will include a searchable database and secure server to allow direct shopping at FantasticPlanetBooks. We were discussing design aesthetics and what we envisioned our store site looking like...

Classic, Contemporary, and Elegant are loose definitions. We use your style answers to guide us when building a "feel" for a store. We will use graphics and colors to give a store an elegant, classic, or contemporary feel. For example, a room painted white with fine antique furniture would be considered elegant, but that same room painted green with bean bag chairs would be considered contemporary.

Based on that, I would say in our imagination that our Science Fiction and Fantasy bookstore would look similar to a bookstore out of Fritz Lang's Metropolis--a sort of Art Deco Futurist library that Captain Nemo would feel at home in, but Captain Picard would recognize and appreciate in the Holodeck.

If that's too geeky, let's just say Contemporary.

To which the poor guy merely responded:
We will do our best

I'm sure he's beating his forhead against the desk, wondering why the gods have saddled him with geeks like us...