Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Reading Into the Past: 2001

 This will be two weeks in a row, which I count as some kind of win. As before, "Reading into the Past" is a dive into my reading notebooks -- I generate a random year from 1990 to 2010 and then write here whatever I can remember/figure out/discover about the books I was reading this week that year.

This time out, it's 2001:

Stephen Baxter, Manifold: Origin (typescript, 10/14)

This was the third book of Baxter's then-current trilogy, a near-future Lebensraum view of the galaxy as a fallow field demanding humanity come right now and exploit every last bit of it. In retrospect, the main character Reid Malenfant looks like an Elon Musk type, but I seriously doubt Baxter could have meant that comparison when planning out these books in the late '90s. Baxter always wrote zippy space adventures with variable level of SFnal plausibility, but he went really hard into the "mankind must CONQUER THE UNIVERSE" message for a long stretch of years, including the usual Boomer nostalgia for the '60s space race, which soured me a bit on his work. (There's only so much you can hear the same message, especially if it annoys you the first time.)

Thomas M. Disch, The Brave Little Toaster (10/15)

See below.

Joel Achenbach, It Looks Like a President Only Smaller (10/15)

I'm pretty sure I know who this was about, but I have no memory of the book itself -- not surprising, since I bet it was a quickie and probably at least mostly meant to be funny. But let me look it up and see what it really was: Oh! It was not a super-quickie "pick on Bush" book, it was a semi-quickie "wasn't the 2000 election a total shitshow?" book. Achenbach was a newspaperman, probably best known for the "Why Things Are" column, who wrote some serious books and some silly books in the '90s and Aughts. (He seems to have stopped with a book about the BP spill a decade ago, though he's still a newspaperman.) I also had a vague sense of him as a Dave Barry associate, which is true: the two worked together on the Miami Herald early in Achenbach's career, though he's been at the Post (the real one, in DC) for three decades now.

We've had much shittier elections since then, though not one so blatantly stolen by the Supreme Court, and are in the midst on a epically shitty one that I certainly hope will never be topped. (But the thing about the world is that it always tops the things you hope it won't.) This is probably a nostalgia item these days.

Thomas M. Disch, The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars (10/16)

I seem to have been on a kick to read a lot of short books this week, which is convenient for nineteen-years-later me looking for blog content. I'm not sure why else I read the two "Brave Little Toaster" books: they weren't new and weren't in consideration for the SFBC. My guess is that they went home with me because of general office clean-up -- what was then Bookspan moved offices in the late fall of 2001 to consolidate the former Doubleday clubs (my home base) with the Book-of-the-Month Club folks over in the Time & Life Building. Every time a publishing company moves -- or at least, the way it worked in the days of giant piles of paper everywhere; it may be different now -- there are shelves and drawers full of books that will not move for various reasons, and the staffers take home the ones they want.

Anyway, what about this plucky toaster? They're two short little books, ostensibly for younger readers, with Disch not quite playing it straight but basically delivering on that promise. I don't recall them well, and my copies are long-gone. (They wouldn't have been destroyed in the flood -- read hardcovers up to Fritz Leiber survived, being upstairs -- but they're not here now.) So my guess is that I was not overly impressed.

Mark Caldwell, A Short History of Rudeness (10/17)

I really want to just write, "Oh, fuck him" and leave it at that.

You know, providing something short and rude?

But now I've explained the joke, so I might as well go on. This is another one I don't remember at all unaided. It seems to be actually a history of books of manners -- Emily Post and the like -- and some related topics, focused on NYC. Amazon reviewers are generally mediocre on it, but when are they not?

I have no memory of it, and no urge to ever re-read it to see what I found in it then. I do find it interesting that I've been reading a lot of random, semi-light non-fiction for ages; I sometimes think of that as the kind of reading middle-aged white men fall into inexorably, like a black hole. I've been circling that event horizon most of my adult life, I suppose.

Andrew Porter, editor, The Book of Ellison (10/18)

I know what this is -- a collection of Harlan Ellison stuff edited by Andy Porter -- but I'll have to dig to figure out what's actually in it. Oh, wait -- I probably still have it on the shelf. (Goes to look.) Nope -- it was a trade paperback, so I lost it in the flood. According to the infallible Internet, it was published in honor of Harlan's Guest of Honor appearance at the 1978 Worldcon, and the front half of the book was appreciations of Harlan and the back half was random Harlan nonfiction. (Well, probably not random, but the reviews make it sound that way -- the usual ranting-about-stuff that he spent so much of his life doing to so little actual effect in the end.)

So this is a very minor Ellison piece. The essays by Ellison may be worth chasing, depending on what they were and if they were ever reprinted elsewhere. Someday there may be a Collected Rants of Harlan book, which would be gigantic and exhausting, but probably also an immense amount of fun -- I hope to live long enough to see that book.

Henry N. Beard & Douglas C. Kenney, Bored of the Rings (quit unfinished on 10/19)

I'd read Bored of the Rings before, but this time I just couldn't get through it. Since it's so short, and I was reading so much so fast, that's pretty damning. I haven't tried to read it since, so I bet it's the puerile attitude of it that got to me: it's full of cheap, childish jokes and random cultural references that are even more out of date now than they were in 2001.

For those who don't know, Bored of the Rings was the Harvard Lampoon's parody of Tolkien's trilogy, published in 1969 when the Ace paperbacks were hot. It was written quickly, and is about the most surface-y satire you can imagine. I suspect the only people who enjoy it now are those who read it then; it's not a book that will live for the ages.

Stephen Jones, editor, The Mammoth Book of Vampire Stories by Women (photocopies of UK edition, "not all," 10/20)

And here we see more of my little notes on what format I read books -- I left it silent if I was reading a real published book, but was a lot more specific about the stuff in the pipeline. I'm not sure why, other than having an excessively tidy mind: the differences between "typescript" and "unbound proofs" are mostly in the number of typos to be expected. And I don't know what I meant by "not all," there -- either that I read the first few stories and formed an opinion or that I read anything I hadn't recently read somewhere else. (As You Know Bob, some stories are frequently anthologized, and reviewers may not waste their time reading the exact same words one more time.)

Anyway, at this point the UK Mammoth series was running hot: they kept putting out random anthologies of stuff (in SFF and out of it), edited by everyone within a half-brick's throw of their offices, and those books came to the US, mostly from Carroll & Graf. (Which was basically a "grab UK books and do quick US editions" publisher in those days -- dunno what their list looks like now.) They were very fond of line extensions, so if a Vampire Stories was successful, a Vampire Stories by Women, a Vampire Stories of the 19th Century, and a World Vampire Stories would inevitably follow.

So I don't know what was in this, but it's probably the people you would suspect -- a few women safely dead and in the PD, plus a lot from the '90s horror boom -- with stories that Jones could get without blowing his budget. I am going to assume "The Master of Rampling Gate" was prominently cover-featured, so let me go see if it was....well, not cover-featured in the current edition, but it is the first story in the book. So I claim half-credit.


And that's what I read in the days leading up to October 20th, nineteen years ago. Join us next week for another random excursion into things Younger Andy read in bygone days!

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