Monday, May 10, 2021

Reading Into the Past: Week of May 10, 1998

Without any new books to write about this week, I'm thrown back to old books. So the RNG gives me 1998, and here's what I was reading this week twenty-three years ago:

James Clemens, Wit'ch Fire (bound galleys, 5/2)

This was Clemens' first novel, launching an epic fantasy series that I did not personally love but I'm pretty sure acquired for the SFBC. (Memory is fuzzy and I'm trying to be kind to a first novel, but this may have been something I made fun of at the time - the apostrophe in the title is giving me vague flashbacks, or perhaps I mean headaches.) Clemens (which was itself an Anglicization of his real last name, Czajkowski) has since rebranded as the thriller writer James Rollins and made a much bigger name for himself; another case of someone who learned his trade in the SFF mills and then lit off for the territory to make his fortune somewhere else. Good for him: I think I was the wrong reader for all of the things he's wanted to write in his career but I'm happy he's still doing it and hitting bestseller lists.

Also, and not really related to Clemens' writing or anything else: this book has a great cover, which definitely did not hurt. Really striking, and a great way to launch a series and a career. Del Rey was really good at this kind of fantasy in those days, all the way through the process.
 Tad Williams, Otherland: City of Golden Shadow (5/7)

Let me hit this below with the sequel.

Scott Adams, I'm Not Anti-Business, I'm Anti-Idiot (5/8)

Similarly, what I have to say about late-90s Adams is better served all in one wodge.

Scott Adams, Seven Years of Highly Defective People (5/9)

So this was long before Adams became a right-wing crank - that may be overly reductive; I get the sense he's a crank in lots of ways that aren't clearly right-wing, too - but he'd already quit his cubicle job to cartoon full-time. I have a theory that people who work alone on things they make entirely out of their own heads have a strong tropism to crankdom: it's seen most clearly in comics, especially among the self-educated, and I like to call it Dave Sim Disease.

Adams has an advanced case. But that was not yet apparent in 1998.

Anti-Business was the annual collection of the regular comic, which was still pretty well tethered to real life and actual work concerns. It was less than a decade into the run, and Adams's art had plateaued at its current generally-professional level. He seemed to have a great network of readers who would feed him ideas, which made Dilbert feel like a secret communique from random workplaces across the country, when it was at its best. That all went to hell later, but everything does.

Seven Years was the "how I got here and what these jokes mean" book, in the larger format; I don't have any independent memory of it. So I could claim here that it clearly showed that Adams would become a crank, or insist that he was still a thoughtful, connected creator and so it shows the essential tragedy of his work...both of those would be me making things up twenty years later. I don't know, now, what this book is like, and, since I don't have a copy anymore (blah blah, 2011 flood, blah blah), I'm unlikely to ever look at it again.

Tad Williams, Otherland: River of Blue Fire (bound galleys, 5/10)

Otherland was a four-book SFF series - I think we considered it SF at the SFBC for which-page-to-put-it-on purposes, but it was a fuzzy sort of mostly-in-VR SF by a writer who has spent the entire rest of his career writing fantasy - that came out between 1996 and 2001. Author Tad Williams was very important to his then-publisher DAW, and my memory is that they wouldn't even let us consider the first book when it came out in 1996. (So we didn't: the world is big, and full of books, and there was no one book that was a must-have. We didn't even have Lord of the Rings for several decades until I did a deal in about 1999, ahead of the movies.)

When the second book was coming up for publication, two years later, I believe DAW allowed for the possibility that a sufficiently large truckload of money might convince them to let the crummy SFBC purchase rights to their perfect darling. So I read the first two books, back-to-back, with an eye to making them what we called a Dual Selection.

Now, we already always had two selections per magazine: one SF and one fantasy. (And, yes, both of those definitions are infinitely arguable. But we aimed for one book most sane people would consider SF and ditto fantasy each time.) But, once in a while, one of those "books" was gigantic enough that it was more than one volume. As I recall, that's what we did for Otherland volumes one and two; the back half of the series was offered, when they emerged, more normally.

That's all inside baseball, and a million years old. What about the books themselves?

I haven't read all that much by Williams, I have to admit. He was a particular favorite of my boss, Ellen Asher, so she grabbed most of his books. (And he's a slow writer of fat books, so they didn't come every year.) I'm not sure why I got this one: Ellen might have still been annoyed at the you-can't-even-consider-it diktat, and left it to me as a less invested party. Or maybe we had concerns about how skiffy this SF was, and if it would appeal to a new audience for Williams.

So I read this series, and (somewhat earlier) Caliban's Hour (which I loved, and still love), but not a whole lot else.

I remember enjoying these books, but I plowed through long books at speed in those days, scribbling down notes for readers' reports to make sure I had all of the names spelled correctly and the details of the plot straight enough for our descriptive copy. And these were very long books, full of lots of people running around doing things. So I think I liked them for what they were, but what they were for me was work: pleasant work, done well, but still work.

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