Monday, October 31, 2005

What Are The Best Time-Travel Novels of the 23rd Century?

Originally posted on rec.arts.sf.written 6/25/05, in reply to a thread-starting post with the above title:

Padwal Unclaunt's The Left-Handed Murderer is generally considered the masterpiece in that area. (Though some people, including me, prefer his later novel Wings That Have Shadowed Me, which isn't as strongly plotted but features an unforgettable central character in Mariner Weld and has the best writing of his career.)

Padwal's son Cunningham wrote a series of sequels to Left-Handed Murderer (starting with The Red-Headed Murderer), but those should be avoided.

Naked Mind for Love has its devotees, too, but I never really could believe in any of Latin Rokoski's preposterous books. And his choice of time-travel device in this book utterly broke my willing suspension of disbelief.

Other works to look for:

Life More Desperate Than Dear by Jared Levertoff (try not to get an early-24th century edition, as those are all horribly expurgated; you'll never figure out who impregnated Gillian reading it that way).

A Gilded Shell by Lee Hamalian (a personal favorite, though it's mostly forgotten these days)

One Hundred Million Screens by G.B.H. Hornswoggler (though note that the attribution of this pseudonym to Nobel prize-winner Gwentelion Osamue has recently been called into question; it's possible that we'll never know who "Hornswoggler" really was).

"Sharp to the Windowpane" isn't a great piece of fiction itself, but it's amazingly prescient in its description of the Lystander Process (so much so that the Cottle Chivers Literary Trust has been most active in licensing the story and derivative works to the Lystander Institute). [1]

There Is No Loneliness should be mentioned for completeness. It was the bestselling work of fiction of the mid-century, of course, and dramatized at least fifteen times in different media before the Adjunct Supremacy outlawed it in 2286, but it's a horrible book and nearly unreadable now. Elinor Dunn wasn't a professional writer to begin with, of course, and her book was beloved for its portrait of anti-President Ramasambrumanian rather than for its story, so even students of the period need to read it with several reference books at hand.

Tiny On That Distant Stage is, on the other hand, still well worth reading, even though Lilalia Menasshe died while re-writing it (so we'll never be sure when Stievers was going after the Requisite Offering).

Finally, you'll want to look up Professor Hargetay Takibano's The Farthest Shore: Images of Time and Translocation in the Literature of the Umber Era (University of Nova Brasilia, 2406) for a full list of works of interest, but I must warn you about Takibano. She's a horrible prude (so 24th century), and the sound of her axes grinding often overwhelm all else. But she's always very entertaining - she's one of those writers at her best when she's attacking someone else - and her scholarship is quite good. (And the reading list can't be beat.)

[1] Of course, anyone who called the Lystander Process "time travel" would be laughed out of polite company, but the mere fact of paradox engineering inevitably brings up the comparison.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Reading Into the Past, Take One

I've been keeping a reading notebook for more than a decade now, so I thought it would be interesting to periodically check and see what I was reading the same week in past years. (To see if I can remember any of those books, for one thing.) Since I'm on vacation this week, this seems like a good project to keep me out of trouble.

I seem to have been on vacation regularly this time of year, which means I also read a lot of comics collections and similar stuff most of these weeks. To keep this list from getting ridiculously long, I'm not listing them here. But I think I'll do a comics-review roundup soon, of books I've recently read. Comments for or against this plan will be carefully read and possibly heeded. I'm also only listing books finished from 10-25 to 10/31 each year, not things I read part of and quit, or books that I was reading over a longer period of time.

So, the last week of October 2004, I was reading:
  • Orphanage by Robert Buettner (finished 10/31)
  • Florence of Arabia
  • by Christopher Buckley (10/28)
  • Queenan Country
  • by Joe Queenan (10/27)
  • Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans
  • edited by Dave Eggers and others (10/25)
Orphanage was a fun military SF novel (as was its sequel), but I think I enjoyed it most because it was quick-moving and had an engaging first-person narrator. I don't remember Florence very strongly, but it was funny, if not as good as Buckley's best (still Thank You for Smoking). Queenan Country is also an example of a pleasant book by a writer who can do better; Queenan was my favorite bilous writer of the mid-'90s, but he's mellowed a bit in recent years. I remember enjoying Created in Darkness, but nothing of the specific pieces included in it.

And the last week of October 2003, I was reading:
  • Swords Against Wizardry and The Swords of Lankhmar by Fritz Leiber (10/29 and 10/31)
  • Schott's Original Miscellany by Ben Schott (10/27)
  • Star Wars: Survivor's Quest by Timothy Zahn (10/27)
I was re-reading the Leiber books for a re-issue of an omnibus edition of the "Fafhrd & Grey Mouser" stories in the SFBC, and they were just as good as I'd remembered. (Though I hadn't really noticed the kinky sex when I read them as a teenager, the first time around.) Schott's is what it is; it's a particularly well-chosen and well-designed bathroom book, and there's certainly a place for those. Survivor's Quest is not my favorite Star Wars book; it was pretty unnecessary and wasn't all that zippy to boot.

And the last week of October 2002, I was reading:
  • Sabriel by Garth Nix (10/31)
  • The Cheese Monkeys by Chip Kidd (10/29)
  • Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan (10/27)
  • The Science of Discworld II: The Globe by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen (10/25)
I read that whole trilogy by Nix (Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen) pretty quickly, liked them, and did an omnibus edition in the SFBC. Cheese Monkeys was yet another Bildungsroman, done reasonably well, and wondering how close it was to Kidd's own life made it more interesting. Science of Discworld II was not as good as I but better than III, which is the way of such things. The first one was a real gem of popular science (well, popular in the UK, at least; it wasn't even published in the States), and this one didn't hit those heights but still had plenty of informative bits presented nicely.

And the last week of October 2001, I was reading:
  • The Hoboken Chicken Emergency by Daniel Pinkwater (10/31)
  • and a whole bunch of art books without much text. Guess I was feeling lazy that year...
And that's OK, since I'm lazy this year, too. I like Pinkwater's Young Adult books better than his middle-grade books, and Hoboken was one of the latter. It was OK, but it's no Young Adult Novel.

And the last week of October 2000, I was reading:
  • The Wooden Sea by Jonathan Carroll (10/29)
  • The Midnight Man by Loren D. Estelman (10/27)
  • Dave Barry Is Not Taking This Sitting Down! by Guess Who (10/26)
  • Beyond World's End by Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill (10/25)
I'm afraid I can't differentiate Wooden Sea from any other Carroll novel at this point. Similarly, I know Midnight Man is an Amos Walker mystery (a pleasant hardboiled series I was reading a bunch of that year) , but couldn't say what happened in that one. The Dave Barry book was a collection of columns, which I have a weakness for (the recent Going Nucular appealed to me for similar reasons). And World's End was one of the "Bedlam's Bard" series, which is harmless fluff for modern pagans who want to feel superior to things. (And don't we all want to feel superior to things once in a while?)

And the last week of October 1999, I was reading:
  • The Burning City by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (10/31)
  • How To Lie With Statistics by Darrell Huff (10/29)
  • The Book on the Bookshelf by Henry Petroski (10/28)
  • The Big Con by David W. Maurer (10/26)
  • Double Billing by Cameron Stracher (10/25)
Burning City has gone down the memory hole entirely. How To Lie is a modern classic, and a book everyone should read. Bookshelf is an engineer's look at the usability of books and book-holding devices (as I recall), and was the first Petroski I read. (Or did I get to To Engineer Is Human, the most important and best Petroski book, first?) The Big Con was non-fiction; I think a semi-biography about a con man. Not exactly; it's a 1940 book about con men, and is generally considered the classic of the genre. Double Billing looks completely unfamiliar; I don't remember it at all. Amazon says that's is a fictionalized memoir from a young lawyer who went from Harvard to a big, expensive NYC firm and found that the flip side of the massive salaries was a maniacal devotion to the billable hour. (And now it's somewhat coming back to me.) I think I was reading a bunch of lawyer books that year, for whatever reason.

And the last week of October 1998, I was reading:
  • Westward Ha! by S.J. Perelman (10/30)
  • Dave Barry Turns 50 by That Guy Again (10/28)
  • The Joy of Work by Scott Adams (10/27)
  • Dog Eat Dog by Jerry Jay Carroll (10/26)
  • The Hypochondriac's Guide to Life and Death by Gene Weingarten (10/25)
The middle of my Perelman years (I'm not done with them yet, but the few books of his I haven't found yet are the really expensive early ones), and one of his better collections. Another Dave Barry book; they're short and entertaining and I can usually breeze through one in a day. The Joy of Work was a similar situation, though Adams's first non-fiction book, The Dilbert Principle, really did have genuine insights and new ideas about the world of work. (Which, of course, have since then been ground into the carpet by seven more years of daily cartoons, but that's life.) Dog Eat Dog is the not-as-good sequel to Top Dog (a great '90s novel published as fantasy, but which deserved a wider readership); still worth reading, but only after Top Dog. And I think I read Hypochondriac because Weingarten was a friend of Dave Barry's and regularly mentioned in Barry's column (so it's amusing that I read both of their books the same week). It was OK, as I recall, but just another humor book.

And the last week of October 1997, I was reading:
  • Dirty Jokes and Beer by Drew Carey (10/31)
  • The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend (10/31)
  • Dust by Charles Pellegrino (10/30)
  • The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend(10/30)
  • Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by Walter Mosley (10/28)
  • Vinegar Puss by S.J. Perelman (10/27)
  • The Throne of Bones by Brian McNaughton (10/25)
Anybody else remember that mid-'90s boom in "books" by comedians? (No?) Jerry Seinfeld's Seinlanguage was the best of the my-act-in-a-book books that I read, but Dirty Jokes was pleasantly profane and didn't take long to read. Since I'm a reasonably fast reader, it also proved more laughs per minute than his TV show (which I also enjoyed around 1997). Secret Diary is a gem, though I suspect it's getting more and more dated as the '80s references move into the realm of history. The sequels I've read tend slowly downward, but Growing Pains was still very good. Dust was a well-constructed disaster SF novel by a guy I've bumped into at conventions (but not officially met, as far as I can remember). Always Outnumbered ... well, I don't know what I can say about a book like that, as a white guy. More good Perelman, too. The Throne of Bones was one of the few real "finds" I've had in my editorial career; it was a hardcover from a very small horror press (Terminal Frights), but I absolutely loved it. For once, the members actually seemed to respond to a book I liked (these days, they seem to avoid them), and it was a nice success in the club. The book itself is a collection of linked short stories, owing something to Lovecraft's Dream-Lands and Mythos, and more to the tone and style of Jack Vance. As far as I could tell, McNaughton had never done anything like it before or since (and he's now dead), but it's a wonderful book that should be better known.

And the last week of October 1996, I was reading:
  • 3001: The Final Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke (10/23)
  • Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope (11/5)
Broke my rule a bit, because I didn't finish anything non-comics that week in 1996, being knee-deep in Trollope. 3001 is what it is, an interesting but quiet utopian novel. Phineas Finn is one of the middle Palliser novels, which is some of my favorite Trollope (because the generic boy-girl love plots are subordinated or eliminated by more interesting political maneuvering).

And the last week of October 1995, I was reading:
  • Listen to the Mockingbird by S.J. Perelman (10/31)
  • Letters From London by Julian Barnes (10/30)
  • One for the Morning Glory by John Barnes (10/29)
  • All One Universe by Poul Anderson (10/29)
  • Looking for the Mahdi by N. Lee Wood (10/28)
  • Put Out More Flags by Evelyn Waugh (10/27)
  • Noblesse Oblige edited by Nancy Mitford (10/26)
  • Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence and a Bad Haircut by P.J. O'Rourke (10/25)
Yet more Perelman. I'm surprised to see Letters from London was that old; it seems much more recent in memory. I have a weakness for the occasional nonfiction and essays of novelists, and Letters scratched that itch very well. Morning Glory is a good but very untypical novel (fantasy in a Princess Bride-influence style) from another Barnes. I wonder if I read them back-to-back deliberately? All One Universe was, I think, a short story collection, though I wasn't terribly fond of any of the '90s Anderson books. Mahdi I recall enjoying, but not much more. I think More Flags was the minor Waugh novel he published during the war; it hasn't lived in memory. Noblesse was an anthology of writings about Mitford's famous essay about "U" and "non-U" styles of British speech. I'm morbidly interested in both dead literary controversies and language books, so that was a neat thing to find. And Age and Guile was a closet-cleaning collection of O'Rourke essays from twenty-five years, but it was also a big fat book with a lot of good stuff. It's not my favorite O'Rourke, but it's probably the best introduction to his work for a Democrat.

And the last week of October 1994, I was reading:
  • A Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell (10/31)
  • Red Planet Run by Dana Stabenow (10/30)
  • Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays, 1891-1910 by Mark Twain (10/27)
I was being more conscientiously Republican in the early '90s, which meant I read a couple of Sowell books. He's probably my favorite writer from the "movement;" he's witty and never loses track of the fact that life means making choices. I don't recall, exactly, what this one was, though. And, though I know who Stabenow is, I would have bet a decent sum of money that I'd never read any of her books (and I'd forgotten that she wrote some SF). This one has completely slipped from memory. The Twain book, though, I'll never forget -- that's the wonderful second volume of a marvelous collection. I was reading those two books for a long time that fall (I remember reading part of the first book in Washington Square in the city, in between helping my brother move into NYU), and they were worth spending a couple of months reading.
And the last week of October 1993, I was reading:
  • The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams by Lawrence Block (10/31)
  • Iron Joe Bob by Joe Bob Briggs (10/28)
  • but mostly The Birth of the Modern by Paul Johnson (11/3)
The first of the second series of "Burglar" books from Block wasn't as good as the ones that followed, but it was still very welcome. (Block's one of those writers I wish would do a couple of books a year; his are always so well-crafted and entertaining that I'd like to spend a lot more time reading his stuff.) Iron Joe Bob was a parody, I think. (And what did happen to Joe Bob, anyway? I haven't seen anything about him in a couple of years.) And Birth of the Modern is one of those books that re-arranged all of the furniture in my head, so it's hard to say anything coherent about it.

And the last week of October 1992, I was reading:
  • Old Money by Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr. (10/30)
  • Isaac Asimov's Caliban by Roger MacBride Allen (10/29)
  • "I Love Paul Revere, Whether He Rode or Not" by Richard Shenkman (10/27)
  • A Day for Damnation by David Gerrold (10/26)
  • Talking God by Tony Hillerman (10/26)
Old Money is another one I don't recognize at all. Amazon says that it's a book on inherited wealth by an old-money guy, but I still don't remember it. Caliban was the first of Allen's trilogy, if I remember correctly, and was one of the best SFnal mysteries I've ever read. (The latter books were good, but not up to the same standard.) The Shenkman book was something of a precursor to his "Don't Know Much" books, with lots of little-known (or mis-known) facts about American history. I think I read the Gerrold because it looked like the Chtorr series might be completed quickly. They were decent military SF with a huge Heinlein chip on their shoulder, but I don't remember them as separate books at all. And I think I only read a couple of Hillerman's mysteries (around this time); they weren't the kind of things I usually read in that area, so I stopped reading them.

And the last week of October 1991, I was reading:
  • The Memory of Earth by Orson Scott Card (10/25)
  • but mostly Claudius the God by Robert Graves (11/1)
  • and Anvil of Stars by Greg Bear (also 11/1)
Card's series had its good points (the villain in the second book was my particular favorite, though I don't think Card wanted me to sympathize with him as much as I did), but I didn't end up liking it very much. I think this was the fourth or fifth one. Claudius the God was excellent, but you don't need me to say that. And I really liked Anvil of Stars, though I've been expecting a third book in that series for almost fifteen years now. (And I should probably stop expecting it.)

And that's as far back as I go; I started my reading notebook with the books finished the week of 12/8/00, since I was unemployed and wanted something quantifiable to keep me from falling into complete lethargy. (The very first book listed: Afterlives, edited by Pamela Sargent and Ian Watson.)

[Post Started: 10:13 AM 10/26/05. Completed: 3:00 PM 10/30/05.]

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Personal Theories On Blurbs

Adapted from a 8/18/05 rec.arts.sf.written post, where it possibly made more sense in context:

The point of a blurb is to interest the casual reader, and one of the best ways to do that is to compare the book in his hands to another, better-known book. (It, of course, helps if the two books have something in common, but the tastes in reading of any particular human being can be well-nigh inscrutable.) Blurbs such as "Yet Another Generic Fantasy Trilogy" or "A Pleasant-Enough Way To Waste About Six Hours" or "Want to Stave Off the Boredom of Waiting For Death? Try This Book" don't move many copies. If someone is writing an Eddings-ish epic fantasy, then by all means say so. Readers spent close to twenty years looking for "something else like The Lord of the Rings" without finding anything really comparable, before The Sword of Shannara. And then they got it in bucket-loads, with comparison blurbs to match, over the next decade or so.

I don't think I've personally compared anything to Tolkien, probably because that sounds silly now. I did once write a blurb comparing A. Bertram Chandler to E.E. "Doc" Smith, though, which is probably a similar sin. I usually try to write about specific aspects of the book, because that's what, in my experience, hooks readers. (But I'm dealing with a captive, self-selected audience to begin with.)

For example (and from memory, since it's at work), I said something like this about Deadhouse Gates by Steve Erikson: "Something like a Black Company novel written by George R.R. Martin in which every other character is Elric. Erikson pushes a lot of epic fantasy buttons, and jams them several feet behind the dashboard." That's how I think a blurb should be done; specific and relatively detailed, with a couple of good hooks for the reader.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Quote of the Week

I almost forgot one this week, but here you go:

"There's a conflict," he said. "There's a conflict between land and people. The people have to go. They've come all the way out here to make mining claims, to do automobile body work, to gamble, to take pictures, to not have to do laundry, to own a mini-bike, to have their own CB radios and air conditioning, good plumbing for sure, and to sell Time-Life books and to work in a deli, to have some chili every morning and maybe, maybe to own their own gas stations again and take drugs and have some crazy sex, but above all, above all to have a fair shake, to get a piece of the rock and a slice of the pie and to spit out the window of your car and not have the wind blow it back in your face."
-Stanard Ridgway, "The Call of the West"

Putting Up Some Potted Posts For The Winter

In case anyone reading this has any doubts about the massive ego of the person writing this (and, by extension, the ego of anyone who is mad enough to think the world desperately needs to hear one's slightest passing thought), let me tell you what I've been doing this week.

I'm on vacation, and so, in between playing Gamecube with the boys and doing a bit of reading (not much, I'll admit), I've been spending the time reading through my old posts to the Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.sf.written, where I've previously spent most of my Internet pontificating time.

Along the way (and this was the point, actually), I've stored away, like a squirrel and his nuts, a large number of RASFW posts that I intend to inflict on this audience (larger? smaller? who can tell?) over the course of the next few months. I've already dropped a couple of them in, but there will be more.

Oh, yes, there will be more.

Since I am trying to post at least once a day (as long as I have access to a computer; next weekend I'll probably be incommunicado at the World Fantasy Convention, since I don't have a laptop), this will allow me to pop in posts on busy days with very little effort. Whether that is a good or bad thing depends entirely on whether you like the sound of my voice as much as I do...

Great Insults, Suitable for Adaptation for General Use

Jonathan Swift on Richard Steele:
"Steele might become a reasonably good writer if he would pay a little attention to grammar, learn something about the propriety and disposition of words, and incidentally, get some information on the subject he intends to handle."

Mark Twain on Cecil Rhodes:
"I admire him, I frankly confess it; and when his time comes, I shall buy a piece of the rope for a keepsake."

Max Reger on Randolph Louis:
"I am sitting in the smallest room in my house. Your review is before me. Soon it will be behind me."

Cyril Connolly on George Orwell:
"He would not blow his nose without moralizing on conditions in the handkerchief industry."

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Comment Spam Yet Again

I had to share this one with the world before I killed it. It was a comment on the "Incoming Books" post just below.

Anonymous said...

N.J. students ordered to take down blogs
A Roman Catholic high school has ordered its students to remove personal blogs from the Internet in the name of protecting them from cyberpredators.
Find out how to buy and sell anything, like things related to arkansas highway construction on interest free credit and pay back whenever you want! Exchange FREE ads on any topic, like arkansas highway construction!

"Arkansas highway construction?" None of those words are in my post, and, as a phrase, that's a very limited line of business that I don't expect J. Random Websurfer can enter with a few clicks of a mouse...

As long as the AIs stay that stupid, we humans have a fighting chance.

(And, yes, I did change the URLs in the links.)

Incoming Books: 27 October

Just keeping track of your own motivations can be a full-time job. I'd almost forgotten one of the major reasons I'd wanted to do a blog in the first place: I read Nick Hornby's The Polysyllabic Spree (fourteen months worth of columns about his reading, including lists of books coming in and books read) a few months back and wanted to do something similar myself.

Luckily, I remembered today, after my first decent book-shopping trip since I started this blog. The Wife and Thing 2 were with me, so it was a short trip (barely an hour in the wonderful Montclair Book Center), and a short stack of books at the end.

I find lists of books endlessly fascinating, so I hope others will as well. In any case, here's what I got:
  • Thumbsucker by Walter Kirn
  • Sixpence House by Paul Collins
  • Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs, and Some Other Things That Aren't As Scary... edited by Ted Thompson
  • Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
And also a few things for the kids:

  • Max's Halloween by Rosemary Wells (a board book)
  • David Smells by David Shannon (another board book)
  • The Missing Piece Meets the Big O by Shel Silverstein (we got The Missing Piece from the library last week, and Thing 1 seems to like it a lot; besides, this was a hardcover for half price!)
  • Little Critter Storybook Collection by Mercer Mayer (both Things like this series, and I like it more than they do; this is an omnibus of seven of the books, six of which I didn't have)
  • A-Z Dot-To-Dots, picked by The Wife for the times we need quiet stuff for the boys to do
  • Creepy Crawly Calypso by Tony Langham and Debbie Harter (Thing 2 chose this one, mostly, because it came with a CD)
The kid books will all have been read at bedtime. The others will start off at the top of my reading pile, but you never know where they will end up. They are all pretty short, though; I find that it's the long books that sink down into the pile and form their own geological strata.

Where To Start With P.G. Wodehouse

Someone asked the above question on rec.arts.sf.written on 5/16/05, and this is what I replied:

If you want a nice big wodge of Wodehouse to start with, I'd grab either the already mentioned The World of Jeeves (which I have in a one-volume Perennial Library trade paperback, so it's been published as one book at least once) or one of the excellent omnibuses Life at Blandings and Life With Jeeves, each of which contains three complete books (and at least one book in each omnibus is a short-story collection, so you get Wodehouse in both short form and novel length).

If you want to try a single novel, let me suggest Leave It to Psmith, Joy in the Morning or Uncle Fred in the Springtime, as three really good novels I've read recently enough to remember clearly. Alternatively, pick up a random Jeeves novel; if the original publication date is before 1950, you can't go wrong. (And the later ones aren't bad, per se, they're just a bit over-worked and thinning.)

As someone else said, you really can't go wrong with any Wodehouse book from about 1920 to 1950. His short stories (about Mr. Mulliner, the Drones Club, golfing, or other things) are often even better than the novels. His golfing stories are amazingly funny, even for someone like me who has never picked up a club.

For those who demand something fantastic, I do know of one Wodehouse fantasy novel, Laughing Gas, in which a spoiled child star exchanges minds with the book's hero. That's one I read a year or two ago, and enjoyed even more than I expected. Wodehouse is painfully funny about many things, but one the things he's absolutely best on is old Hollywood. Of course, it wasn't "old" when he was there in the '30s, but you know what I mean.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Quick Review of Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys

Cribbed from rec.arts.sf.written, where I originally posted it 9/9/05:

I loved it, but I'm selling it in the club, so I'm not unbiased. It's funnier than anything else I remember seeing from Gaiman, and his words are, as always, a joy to read. I see so much clunky prose that it's a thrill to read someone who cares about sentence structure and choosing exactly the right word and all of those non-SFnal "literary" things.

Anansi Boys also has a much better ending than American Gods, which I thought sort of fizzled out. (Yes, I know why the plot had to come out that way, and I agree with it, it's just the big scene in which things don't happen didn't quite work the way I thought it should.) Anansi Boys sticks the landing, and it's the kind of book where four things are happening at once and they all dovetail perfectly.

I'd compare it to Donald Westlake's Dortmunder books (or maybe a slightly less funny, more SFnal book of his like Smoke); it's a finely tuned machine, with all gears turning exactly as they should to produce a delicate and beautiful object.

Googling Myself

One of my previous-unrevealed reasons for doing this blog was a burning urge to increase the profile of this particular Andrew Wheeler in the vast surging sea of Andrew Wheelers in the world. It hasn't happened yet, but I still live in hope.

Yes, I have a common name. I know of at least two other "Andrew Wheeler"s on the east coast, and I've even met another man, connected with publishing, named "Andrew C. Wheeler." (Though at least his middle name was different.) And there are many many more of us.

In the spirit of pan-Andrew Wheeler solidarity, I offer you the following Andrew Wheelers, who are all obviously at the very top rank of their respective fields, by their names if nothing else:

This chap has been consistently at the top of Google since I discovered how egotistical I really am. He seems to be doing well in an interesting, creative field; he's attractive and I bet he even gets groupies. (Serious ones, with long fitted skirts, who wear small glasses and smoke above eye level.) I hate him.

Being Andrew Wheeler can also help you become a respected character actor, as well. I can't tell you what it does for my ego that I can honestly consider myself better looking than the actor Andrew Wheeler.

Did you know one could make a living as an equine photographer? Neither did I, but Andrew Wheeler does it.

In case anyone was wondering, I'm not the Andrew Wheeler who writes about comics online. But I bet he was the one who did the "They Fight Crime!" page everyone was asking me about three years ago.

This guy seems to be some kind of head-hunter, and a damn good one, I'm sure.

At least one of us is a real, live scientist! Well, a geologist, at least.

I'm particularly impressed by my namesake, the art restorer. Yet another Andrew Wheeler to make me feel inadequate.

I feel better about the dead plumber, though he did look like a happy chap.

I do need to ask: how the hell did someone with the same name as me end up with the nickname Buggy and a job as "Assistant Sports Director?" Clearly, names have nothing to do with one's life.

And one of us is an Anglican minister in London.

The first Google hit that's actually me is, of all things, the 1999 Philcon Programming Grid, for any of you time-travelers burning to travel back to the heady days of the Adam's Mark Hotel and its amazing Worst Restaurant in the World.

Most of the famous Andrew Wheelers seem to be from the UK or Australia, for whatever reason, and the trend continues with the world-famous VoIP Marketing Manager!

I'm sure there are more, but Thing 2 just got back from Gymnastics, and is sighing loudly and asking me if I'm almost done. I think we need to go and play "Justice League" now.

A Book That Is Not Nearly As Cyclopean As It Should Be

This post would have been much better served to appear yesterday morning, when a confluence of storms roiled the air above my abode, casting down sheets of rain and raising high winds, as if some cylopean entity was raging in its otherwordly confines. But that was impossible; the book in question only arrived in yesterday's mail.

The book is the new Library of America volume of H.P. Lovecraft's
Tales, a very handsome volume and a very welcome publishing event. I was surprised when I heard that Lovecraft was going to get the LoA treatment at all, being a greasy genre author, but he has been the focus of a very active, and very professional, critical circle for more than a generation now, and I guess that's more than one can say for most dead American writers. The LoA also seems to be trying to expand its remit; a book of Lousia May Alcott's novels came out at the same time as this volume, and the series headed out into mystery-novel territory starting about a decade ago, with books from Chandler and Hammett and a couple of omnibuses. So I suppose this shouldn't have been that much of a surprise, though I still think they should have done Ambrose Bierce (a much more important, and, I have to say, better writer of post-Poe horror) first.

So why am I about to complain about this book?

Well, let's leave that aside for a moment, and talk about the good things. Tales has the usual great LoA presentation, with subscriber's copies arriving in slipcases and the bookstore version in a subdued black jacket featuring Lovecraft's cadaverous mug. The book itself is bound in full cloth, in a jaunty blue. (I've tried and failed to figure out the significance of the binding color to the LoA. Twain and Melville are both blue, as is the American Poetry series. But so are Henry Adams's two history books. Steinbeck is tan and Hawthorne is red. So it's neither by genre nor by historical era; it may just be whatever color they felt like using that year.) The text is clear and very readable, and the books are a great size; they fit in the hand very nicely and are comfortable to read for long periods of time. I love the Library of America, and I'm not ashamed to say it. These are wonderful books, physically and textually, and I already have at least four shelves of them.

There's essentially no scholarly apparatus, as usual for the LoA; no critical writings of any sort and only brief notes on the texts and a condensed chronology of Lovecraft's life. That's deliberate, since these editions are designed to last for generations (and, I'm sure, the LoA hopes to keep selling them for a few decades), and critical fashions can change very quickly and nothing is sillier than the solemn pronouncements of the previous generation. All that is to be expected; that's the standard Library of America treatment, and it's all here.

What I was surprised by was the length of this book. Library of America volumes regularly run longer than a thousand pages. (My edition of Benjamin Franklin's Writings is the champ, ending its index at page 1605. In fact, that book may have been too big, since it seems to have been retired and replaced by two new volumes, each just a bit longer than 800 pages.) Perhaps the LoA is trying to do shorter books now; it's possible that paper costs are making their older thousand-page monsters uneconomic. But Lovecraft's Tales was the shortest Library of America book I've seen, at only 838 pages. (Yes, I know. That sounds huge. But, in the context of their list, it's a mere slip of a thing.) The next shortest LoA book I have at hand is Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s, which clocks in at 892 pages. So it looks like Lovecraft is being short-changed, or (to the new reader) as if this book collects all of the Lovecraft stories worthy to be remembered.

Now, I myself edited a book of Lovecraft's best stories a few years back (Black Seas of Infinity, which I think you can see here), so you may think this is mere sour grapes. (And I'll admit that I would have loved to have had an extra 300 pages in my book.)

But I think it's more than that. From the LoA's history, I expected a larger book, and one more complete. This volume excludes all of Lovecraft's Dream-Lands tales (even "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath," which really should have been here), to focus, apparently, on his later Mythos writings. Again, there is no introduction, so the choice of stories is unexplained. Usually, LoA volumes collect the "complete works" of their author in the particular area, so this is not a problem. The Lovecraft Tales seems to be their first "Selected Works of," and that does not work as well in their format. For another example, "The Doom That Came to Sarnath," a very short story that surely could have been shoe-horned in, is not included here.

More defensibly, Tales doesn't include any of Lovecraft's "revisions," the stories he re-wrote for other writers. I happen to think "The Mound," a novella-length revision Lovecraft did for Zealia Bishop, is among his very best works. (And so I included it in Black Seas of Infinity, along with "Winged Death," another excellent revision.) Including any of those stories could have opened a can of critical worms, though, so leaving them out is reasonable. I think it's a bad decision, but it's a decision with a firmer basis than leaving out any hint of the Dream-Lands.

For those of us who think of Lovecraft as a particularly science-fictional writer (the short form of that argument: all of his horrors are aliens, creatures outside what we expect from the world, and the horrific notion they embody is that the universe is a cold place, controlled by equations and beings that care nothing about us), this book is also problematic. One of the strongest texts for that view is Lovecraft's only obviously SFnal story, "In the Walls of Eryx," which is not included here. (I also consider it one of his best works, and included it in Black Seas of Infinity.)

All in all, this is a specifically selected set of stories, designed to promote a view of Lovecraft as a particular kind of writer. A horror writer, to be precise. The stories were selected by Peter Straub, a highly respected contemporary horror writer, and, though he does not explain their selection anywhere in this book, the aim of his selections is still clear.

In the past, I've always been able to recommend Library of America volumes to any readers, and especially to those new to a writer. Since they didn't have any critical essays, and did include definitive texts and complete works, they were very well suited to help readers make up their own minds about a writer. I'm afraid this is not the case with Lovecraft; I couldn't recommend this book to anyone not already familiar with his works. It is very much a selection, and the reasons for that selection need to be clear to the reader. Since the book itself doesn't make them clear, it is thus only really suitable for those who already know the whole of Lovecraft's work. (And thus this book is essentially superfluous.)

It's too bad. If the Library of America had been willing to do two Lovecraft volumes, they could have collected all of his fictions (including the revisions, perhaps in a separate section), and provided the definitive edition of a fascinating and idiosyncratic American original. As it is, though, they made a book that really only belongs on the shelves of those who already have five or six feet of Lovecraft books already (like me, for instance).

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Just Read: Rats by Robert Sullivan

What can you say about a book on rats? I picked it up in the store because of the great Peter Sis cover, and bought it because I'm on a non-fiction kick lately (especially New Yorker-y non-fiction reportage).

And this one was definitely worth the time. Sullivan crouched in an alley near Wall Street off and on, over the course of about a year. Along the way, he read a lot of books about rats, and talked to a lot of rat experts (mostly exterminators, who come across as a lively, interesting bunch). It's not a long book, but it's just the right length for a book for general readers about rats.

Sullivan has a new afterword for the paperback edition (which is the way I read this book), in which he seems to be surprised at the audience this book got. (He seems a bit stunned that so many people are as interested in rats as he was.) Well, Sullivan kept me interested, which is what a good writer is supposed to do, so he shouldn't be surprised. To be blunter, now I think I'm going to look for Sullivan's previous book, called The Meadowlands and presumably about the swamp in my home state of Jersey. I may just be a sucker for parochial matters, but I know what I like. (And I like reading about odd bits of fact concerning things I think I already know about.)

Friday, October 21, 2005

Quote of the Week

"If you can't annoy somebody, there is little point in writing."
-Kingsley Amis

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Just Read: Idiot Proof by Francis Wheen

This is another one of those books, very popular these days, that insists that large numbers of named people are complete idiots, and then enumerates the reasons why. Idiot Proof is somewhat less specifically political than the usual book of this nature; the standard is to start blasting away at the party opposite and not give up until you've piled up enough ammo to bind as a book, but Wheen doesn't seem to have a side to defend. He deplores just about everyone. I tend to feel a bit that way myself, so I was hoping to love Idiot Proof, but the final effect is just to make him seem grumpy. If you're not for anything, being against things doesn't mean as much. And he's not even against things as strongly as I'd hoped; he says that everything is bad, but he doesn't really lay into anyone along the way.

I expected to like this book a lot more than I did; there's something flat and unsatisfying about it. Wheen doesn't seem to have a master plan to set things right, which books like this really need. (If the world's going to hell in a handbasket, the thing to do is wrench it back onto the right course, not spend your time complaining about the scenery.) He complains about politicians, self-help authors, bad business practices, and a few celebrities, but it's mostly focused on large-scale stupidity. And his style tends to turn that into "My, everyone but thee and me is awfully stupid, eh what?"

This book was a bestseller when originally published in the UK (as How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions, a much better title than the generic US one), and there is something very British in its stiff-upper-lip manner. Wheen does seem to idolize the US, though, or perhaps that's the result of some judicious edits for the American market. Perhaps understatement works better on his side of the pond, but a book about utter stupidity doesn't seem to me to be the place for understatement in the first place.

I find it hard to place Wheen politically after reading this book, which is very unexpected (usually, "all those people are stupid" books scream their political biases). I know what he dislikes, which is just about everything, but not at all what he likes. He blasts Blair and Thatcher just about equally, and apparently has disliked every US President of the post-war era. I suspect he's a leftist of some kind (especially since he also wrote a biography of Karl Marx), but you really can't tell.

This was a disappointment. Anyone who has an urge to read this book would be better served by going back to the great Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, which is well over a hundred years old but sadly timelier than ever. Wheen's business chapters are OK, but their point was made better and more entertainingly in F'd Companies (which I'm coming to think is the essential book on the '90s economy, or maybe the '90s in general; its style says as much about the times as its substance). And his mild peevishness (it doesn't rise to the level of anger, honestly) doesn't hold a candle to the books of Joe Queenan. I'll also recommend a similar title of a generation ago, The Trouble with Nowadays, which was written from the POV of a massively tactless reactionary (and which I was hoping would be something of a model for Idiot Proof). For political types, you'd be better off picking up Al Franken or Bernard Goldberg (depending on your inclination). This is just the kind of book that makes you wish you were reading other, better books.

Crystal Rain: Now With Added Magnetic Potency!

Did I mention that the publisher bribed me with magnets (featuring the book's cover art) to get me excited about Crystal Rain? No?

Good thing magnets don't get me all that excited, then. Well, maybe just a little excited.

They're currently stuck on the front of one of my filing cabinets in the office, flanking my magnetic Gandalf (because you never know when a wizard who sticks to metallic objects will be useful). Taking a closer look, I see that Gandalf's staff has been nearly broken off; it's hanging on by a thread. Oh, dear. Well, at least he's Gandalf the Grey; he'll be swapping that staff and the rest of the paraphernalia soon anyway, when Eru sends him back to save my office from the forces of the Grendel figure on the bookcase (or maybe the stuffed Mat-Mite; which is more evil, anyway?) after his epic battle with the plush Cthulhu on top of my monitor.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Still Poking Around...

I've just added a photo. I don't entirely like the way it displays; I'd like the text to start higher on the photo and wrap more. But messing with it would probably entail learning HTML, which is not something I intend to do any time soon.

So: there I am. The photo was taken by Mrs. Hornswoggler about half an hour ago in the palatial Hornswoggler living room.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Just Read: Crystal Rain by Tobias S. Buckell

I have the kind of mind that likes to make sure every single thing is in the tidy little box it belongs in, so I need to begin with some housekeeping.

Housekeeping #1: No one will care, but I title posts "Just Read:..." if it's a book I just finished reading. I title posts "Recently Read:..." if I read it a few days or weeks ago and am only now getting around to writing about it. (I hope to do posts on Lud-in-the-Mist and Stranger Things Happen as soon as possible.) My memory is likely to be a bit fuzzier on the latter.

Housekeeping #2: I am a working editor, so I read a lot of stuff that isn't published yet. (Though, since I work for the SF Book Club, most of those books are already scheduled to be published by the time I see them.) I expect to avoid talking in detail about these books most of the time, and I'll probably not even mention books that I don't finish. (I buy about seventy books for the club a year, many of which are omnibuses of several existing books, so not finishing a book is in no way a value judgment. I buy a number of things without finishing them, often even books I'm enjoying reading.)

Crystal Rain is not yet published, but Tobias S. Buckell is a fairly big-name blogger in the SF world, and he's been distributing advance copies and asking for responses in his circles. (I got my copy of his book through different channels, though, and he doesn't know me from Adam.) So it seems reasonable, in this case, to talk a little about it, even though it's not available to most readers yet. It's coming in hardcover from Tor in February, and will be found in the usual places books are sold.

Crystal Rain is a lost-colony SF novel, low-tech division, conflict between more powerful alien races sub-division. (And so a cousin to The Uplift War and many of the '50s SF novels of Andre Norton.) We start off in bucolic splendor on the world Nanagada, where John deBrun washed up on shore, amnesiac, twenty-seven years before. He's obviously Someone Important, in some grand scheme of things, but, for now, he's living quietly with a wife and young son in a sleepy fishing village. But there's a much nastier human culture on the other side of the mountains and, well, things get bad pretty quickly.

DeBrun is not our only viewpoint character, interestingly, as he would be in the version of this book from forty years ago. We also see the nasty human culture from more sympathetic points of view, though it's nasty no matter how you look at it. And the whole thing moves along zippily to finish up its story in 511 manuscript pages. (I hear regularly from readers who choose books purely based on heft, but I really think they're misguided. Long books can be as good as short books, but concision is always a virtue, in books of any length.)

I enjoyed Crystal Rain, and I liked it better and better as it went along, which is a good sign for a book. The plot went some of the places I expected it to, but didn't take the easy outs I thought it might. And the character of Pepper, who could have easily become a cliche, had unexpected depths. I don't know if it'll end up on my Hugo nominations list for 2006 (that's a long way away), but it's a darn good SF novel, and I'm certainly looking forward to Buckell's next book. 2005 has seemed to be a blah year for SF, so I hope this is a good sign that 2006 will be better.

The title, though, doesn't really have much to do with anything. It comes up near the very end, and is a very minor point that has nothing to do with the plot of the book. It is a nice catchy phrase, I guess, but I was expecting "Crystal Rain" to mean something science fictional. I suspect it was a book that had a working title that the publisher disliked, and this was a compromise, but I suspect that on absolutely no evidence other than reading the thing. (I might try poking around on Buckell's blog, to see if he says anything about the title there.)

Monday, October 17, 2005

Traveling at the Speed of Blog

I've gotten my first comment from someone I don't know! (Yes, it sounds like something awfully trivial and bizarre to be excited about, but, hey! that's me all over.)

Welcome, Lynn Kendall of UnNatural History! Now I have to read your blog in return, I suppose. (I feel like a Jane Austen character exchanging visiting cards.)

Won't Anyone Think of the Children?

I'm sure this will be all over the blogosphere by now (I saw it in the Times yesterday), but it's a sad Monday at Kellenberg Memorial High School of Uniondale, New York today. Their principal has just cancelled the prom.

Yes, I know - it sounds like the plot of a lost John Hughes movie, or perhaps the straight-to-video sequel to Footloose. But it's true. The Times website requires registration, but there's a similar article at (of all places) The Duluth News-Tribune. But I guess it's not that surprising after all; teens in Duluth are united in mourning with the teens of Uniondale today. For when a prom dies anywhere, it's as if all proms die everywhere.

(The slightly different story I read, by-lined the Associated Press, is here, from Long Island's own Newsday.)

This picture shows some of the sad teens of Kellenberg, who will have to find other, less time-hallowed ways to get utterly drunk, have bad sex, and buy unsuitable formal wear this year. You can see the sadness in their eyes, the knowledge that they'll have to wait until Janet Roccocio's parents go out of town on their annual ski trip to Vail to have that big blow-out kegger that they're dreaming of. The caption claims that they're "propos[ing] a tamer event," and they may even look happy. But, friends, don't believe it; look at those sad, haunted eyes. All the teens of Kellenberg Memorial are dragging their feet this morning; all of their skies are dark and cloudy. And they may settle for a tamer event, but only if the only other option is to go prom-less.

Unlike a John Hughes movie, Kellenberg's principal - Brother Kenneth Hoagland - claims that he's not primarily worried about "the sex/booze/drugs that surround this event, as problematic as they might be." Oh, no. Brother Hoagland, who runs a private school that costs $6,025 a year, is worried about "the flaunting of affluence."

So, kids, here's how it is. Your parents are pretty well-off, you live in a good Long Island town, and you go to a pricey school. But once you start flaunting your affluence, that old debbil gonna get you. So, for now, you need to pretend that you're poor. You'll have plenty of time to break out the flashy cars and the Hamptons beach houses once you're safely into an expensive private college.

I'm not sure I believe Brother Hoagland, but it's an interesting turn of events that he has to deny that stopping Catholic teenagers from drinking, doing drugs and bonking each other is not his primary purpose. I certainly always thought that was the natural role for a principal, particularly one in charge of a parochial school. But we live and learn. Being obviously rich, I see, is worse than a one-night stand with a cheerleader, or smoking with the stoners down by the band-room door.

One last thought: who names a Catholic school "Kellenberg Memorial," anyway? Have we run out of saints? Why, when I was a boy, my friends went to good honest Catholic schools like Sacred Heart of Mary, DePaul, Our Lady of the Valley, and The Flayed Mortal Remains of Our Lord. I for one deplore this modern tendency to make an upstanding Catholic school sound like a hospital in central Ohio.

Comment Spam Redux

The last post had two comment spams as soon as I looked at it (let's say that was ten minutes after posting). Them little critturs is fast...

I still haven't fired up word verification yet, since killing comments is easy and fills me with a nameless joy. (Die, viagra-seller! Die, Nigerian-scam-purveyor! Die, die, die!)

I now am beginning to view this blog as a scientific experiment in the feeding habits of comment spam. Will they attack this post? If not, why not? Is the fact that the previous post was short, or had two links, important? Where will they strike next?! Stay tuned for further developments.

Laughing With eBay

This is the greatest eBay description of all time. (Seen via Mark Evanier's blog, News From Me.)

Somebody hire that man to write humorous essays. Maybe Dave Barry's old job is still open at the Miami Herald?

Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Ways of the Modern World

The third comment made on this blog is spam. I suppose I should be happy that it wasn't the first or second, but it still says something about the Internet today, doesn't it?

I'm not going to add word verification for comments yet, but if the spam comments start outnumbering the real comments, that's the next step.

Now, to poke around and see if I can delete comments.

Odd related thought one: it's not even spam with any relationship to any of the ostensible topics of this blog!

Odd related thought two: I typo'd "spam" as "smap" three times during this post. Smap should be a word, maybe some sort of soft punch (for a nice onomatopoeic effect). If anyone out there has any pull with dictionary-makers, I'd like "smap" to be a word, please.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Just Read: Going Nucular by Geoffrey Nunberg

I'm not a serious scholar of language, but I do have a shelf of two of what I think of as "word books." Many of them, I'm sure, are very bad scholarship, retelling language myths long discredited, but they're fun to read. This one is somewhat more serious - the author is a linguistics professor at Stanford, chairs the usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary, and does other very impressive word-related work. But Going Nucular is also quite fun to read, since it's essentially a collection of short essays, from a variety of sources.

Each essay tends to be about one particular word, or some other quite specific linguistic usage of interest. That tight focus is important, since these are very short essays, mostly four to five pages long. It makes each essay usefully compact and relatively complete, in its own small span, and Nunberg avoids the temptation, so common in language commentators, to deplore things and lapse into windy pontifications. The majority of the essays started life as broadcasts on NPR's Fresh Air show, with another sizable fraction coming from The New York Times's "Week in Review" page, and some from other newspapers. So they are often timely in the fashion of reportage, commenting on phrases or words that were very much in the news at the time. (This doesn't date the book, though, since Nunberg has a strong historical sense and is very good at putting current usages in an appropriate context.) Nunberg comes across as a man with great intellectual curiosity, the kind of guy who likes to burrow around to figure out what makes a phrase resonate and to do endless Google and Nexis searches to get raw data on usages.

Nunberg gets into political language quite a lot over the course of the book, but I found him pretty even-handed. He's talking about the language, how usages have changed, and what usages seem to him to be reasonable and which are wrong to his ear, rather than using language as a club to beat the other guy with. I did get the impression that he's personally towards the left end of the spectrum, but that was only a slight reading on my liberal detector (and so might be my own bias showing, or just my expectations from the NPR connection). In fact, his essays on political language are the most interesting parts of the book, which makes it a shame that they're all loaded up at the front. The sections at the end of the book aren't bad, or less well-reasoned, but they are about topics of lesser importance and don't lead to as much putting-the-book-down thought (on the part of this reader, at least). If I'd edited this book, I think I would have suggested that he break up the political sections, to lead off with one and close with either the "War Drums" or "Symbols" sections. You always want to finish off a book with a bang, if you can.

Because these essays were written during a Republican administration, they're more often talking about right-wing political speech, which may annoy some thin-skinned types who think their side can do no wrong. But, again, he's really not a prescriptivist to begin with, so he's not labeling any words or usages as wrong, but instead working through the implications and ideas behind popular phrases, and trying to figure out why certain locutions are suddenly being used a lot more often then they used to be.

Before I'm done, let me quote a bit, from an essay on the word "solutions:"
And then there's Bright Horizons Family Solutions, an outfit that manages corporate daycare centers, whose portfolio presumably includes story-hour solutions and snack solutions, not to mention nap solutions for clients with crankiness issues.
Nunberg is a sly and engaging writer as well as a sharp-eyed observer of the English language, and reading this book will make you think a bit about the words you use and the words you hear. I'd recommend it to anyone with a professional or serious amateur connection with words, and especially those interested in the political uses of language in the USA.

Quote of the Week

Every Friday (assuming I remember), I'm going to post an inspirational quote here. We start off with...

"Life is a God-damned, stinking, treacherous game and nine hundred and ninety-nine men out of a thousand are bastards."
-Theodore Dreiser

A Lesson I Need To Learn

If the subway car is surprisingly empty, that's because it's an express, and will zoom blithely right past my stop.

I've been spoiled in my past few office subway-stops; they were all express stops, so I could take any train I wanted. But the new place (lovely East 26th Street) is quite a hike from Union Square, especially in the rain.

Nota bene.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Recently Read: Strange Itineraries by Tim Powers

Tim Powers has been one of my favorite writers since I stumbled onto The Anubis Gates nearly twenty years ago, but I've never considered him a short story writer. Neither did anyone else, as far as I can tell - this slim volume collects every single bit of short fiction he's written, and it barely breaks two hundred pages.

It's kind of expensive for its length, too, at $15.95 for a trade paperback. On the other hand, the cover is a cool, relaxing blue and prominently features a very encouraging ceramic duck; even if the book were blank, it would almost be worth the money.

Of course, it isn't blank - there are nine Tim Powers stories inside. They're all worth reading, and a couple of them - "Where They Are Hid" and "Night Moves" - are as good as any fantasy stories written by anyone. "Pat Moore" is quite good, too, though it felt to me like Powers revisiting ideas he'd already worked through before. But Powers stories - short or novel-length - are all of a piece, anyway; the supernatural element is probably ghostly or otherwise connected inextricably with death, and the hero must sacrifice something of himself, something important, to win through in the end. As others have said, many times, Powers has a solidly Catholic sense of guilt and responsibility. His fantasies are solidly grounded in the ordinariness of the everyday world, and will last and endure because of that. So maybe "Pat Moore" just didn't map out its own specific territory in Powers-land as well as I had hoped it would.

This book is worth reading, as any Powers book is. And it's also a good sampler of Powers for a new reader, showing his strengths and characteristic ideas in smaller compass. I suppose there are readers, maybe even relatively sophisticated and smart ones, who won't like Powers. (Anything is possible, in an infinitely expanding universe.) But I hope never to meet any.

Fantasy Contraception

I'm sure this has been said a million times before (and probably best in Diana Wynne Jones's The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, the one true reference for all fantasy cliches), but women in Fantasyland sure are lucky in their contraceptive options. There's always some sort of herb, or minor magical spell (which every single hedge witch knows), or whatnot, and it's always - always - one hundred percent effective.

J. Random Fantasy Heroine only gets pregnant when it's convenient to the plot, and generally only with her True Love (or, occasionally, in the more romance-tinged books, from the Nasty Evil Man She Was Forced To Marry But Who Will Die At The Climax Of The Book). She also never has a pregnancy scare; her period is never late. Come to think of it, her period - in common with those of most female characters in popular fiction - is nonexistent in the first place. Her sex life is controlled only by the requirements of the plot (she's separated from the hero by their urgent travels to different places; she can't tell Him of her true love for complicated magical or personal reasons; she must remain a virgin to continue using her magic; she cannot give herself to any man until he passes the Thirty-Seven Trials of Painful Lingering Death), not by anything biological.

Sure, she gets jerked around by the Hand of Fate along the way, but she's guaranteed a happy ending (and I do mean happy), and all of her babies are planned, loved and only ever imperfect in ways that are plot points for the next trilogy.

I suspect this is part of the general disregard for statistics in Fantasyland. Every heroine is special, after all, and, among the special people, one-in-a-million shots come out nine times out of ten. (Apologies to Terry Pratchett for stealing his phrase.) There's no mucking around with eighty percent of the time this, and ninety-five percent of the time that - things either happen, or they don't, and those are hard and fast categories in Fantasyland. Random pregnancies just don't happen.

This post was occasioned by the reading of an upcoming fantasy novel which is actually quite good, but features a drug treatment which renders male slaves completely and irrevocably sterile, without otherwise affecting their sex drive or abilities. The interesting twist there, of course, is that it's the man who has the treatment, which strikes me as still unusual in fantasy. Did I mention this book was written by a woman?

My New Favorite Website

Is Overheard in New York , which makes me laugh out loud at least once a day. And, yes, people really do talk like that here. All of the different "like that"s.

Monday, October 10, 2005

A Nomenclature Declaration

Since I'm going to be talking about my family in this blog (not so much as to be annoying, I hope), I will need names to call them by. Now, one might think that their real names would be perfectly dandy. One might think that, if one were insufficiently paranoid. I, however, am nearly paranoid enough, and so I won't have it. My wife probably wouldn't mind having her name on the Net, but I think my two little boys should keep their names out of databases for a few years longer.

So, the wife will be either Mrs. Hornswoggler or The Wife. I can't guarantee I won't slip in She Who Must Be Obeyed, too, but a little of that goes a very long way.

As hinted above, I have two sons, currently aged seven and four. They will be, in descending age order, Thing 1 and Thing 2. And now I can talk about them all here, as soon as I actually have something to say.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

A Question Only an Editor Would Ask

How do you make an em dash on this crazy thing? I'm going nuts using hyphens; that's Just Wrong.

(Not that anyone else is reading this yet, but, if someone ever does, maybe they can answer my little cri de cour.)

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

A Mission Statement

This is the place where I should explain things - what the title means, what focus this blog will have, and all of those other useful details. Unfortunately, the title doesn't actually mean anything, and I have no idea what this blog will focus on.

G.B.H. Hornswoggler is a name I made up to use on high scores on video games about a decade ago. I've since used it one other place on the internet, and I like the sound of it. I'm something of a contrarian, so having a long-winded and deliberately archaic title on something as zippy and up-to-date as a blog appeals to me. I can't say that the title of the blog won't change at some point, though - it very well might. But I'm using my real name because I'm profoundly ambivalent about using a pseudonym, and because it doesn't really matter, anyway.

The reason I'm doing this blog is to practice for my other blog. In my professional life, I'm Senior Editor of the Science Fiction Book Club, and I've been asked to do a blog in that capacity. I've started doing some sample posts, and that blog will probably go up later this month (OK, maybe next month. before Christmas for sure!). But, since I have no experience doing this sort of thing - and since I've been vaguely thinking about blogging, like every other person in my original-thought-deprived generation, for several months now - I figured I might as well do an unprofessional blog as well.

So this will be one part practice, and one part posts that really don't have anything to do with science fiction. At least, that's what it will be until I start getting completely confused - who knows what will happen then. I think it will be book-heavy, since I read a lot and have the typical editor's belief that other people should listen to my opinions. I intend to stay as far away from politics as possible, but we'll see how that goes.

The other, professional blog doesn't exist yet, but, once it does, I'll link to it from here. Since the other blog (whose title will probably be Things To Come) will be somewhat corporate, I doubt it will link back here. But who knows? This is all completely new to me, so I have no idea what I will be able to do - or what I'll want to do in a couple of months, to be honest.

Anything done for the first time unleashes a demon

This is a test post, to see if this thing is working. Well, let's be honest: I'm pretty sure the thing is working just fine, but what is not as clear is whether I have any idea at all what I'm doing. So what might not be working is me. Let's see if I am.