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Books To Look For
This is my 226th column since I first took over "Books to Look For" in 1994. During those twenty-five years I'm sure I've frustrated my various editors by how I'm usually a little late turning in my columns, but I don't think I've missed an issue in all that time.
Of course my record pales in comparison to the seventy years that The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction has been appearing on the newsstands.
I can't remember the first issue I picked up, but I'm sure it was sometime in the mid- to late-sixties. I do know that I picked up a copy whenever I could find it (distribution was a little spotty in my neck of the woods in those days), and I read them cover-to-cover.
It was in F&SF that I first discovered Thomas Burnett Swann, Richard Cowper, Tom Reamy, Richard Matheson, Jonathan Carroll, Robert Holdstock, and so many of my favorite authors. It was also a place where I could find the short fiction of authors I already loved such as Roger Zelazny, Harlan Ellison, Kate Wilhelm, Fritz Leiber, Charles L. Grant, and Stephen King, with his grand experiment of the first entries in his The Dark Tower series.
I know I'm only listing a handful of authors, but honestly pretty much the best and brightest writers in the field were represented in its pages at one time or another, and a complete list would take pages. These are just some that came to mind as I was writing this.
What drew me to these authors—and undoubtedly so many others will say the same thing—was the quality of the work. F&SF was special, attracting the best. Rather than just one or two good stories per issue, F&SF was more like a quality anthology that just happened to appear on the magazine racks rather than a bookstore shelf.
When I started to take fiction writing seriously in the late seventies, it was always an ambition of mine to place a story in the magazine, which finally happened in 1991. But mostly I just liked to read the stories, laugh at the Gahan Wilson cartoons, and be happy to have a place for my column where I could talk about the books I loved to an appreciative audience. I especially like to focus on debut titles, or books that might be missed by genre readers because they appear in unexpected places or formats.
One of the great satisfactions of my writing life is to review books by these authors and have a reader of the column write to thank me for introducing them to their work.
I wonder what Anthony Boucher, F&SF's first editor back in 1949, would think to see how what started out as The Magazine of Fantasy (for one issue before its current name) would still be going strong seventy years later.
I won't be around to see it, but I hope it goes for—at the very least—another seventy years.
This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, Saga Press, 2019, $19.99, hc
I always think of Amal El-Mohtar as a poet (and a fine one, too), but of course she's also written some wonderful short fiction. Max Gladstone I know best from Serial Box's Bookburners, for which he wrote my favorite episodes. So put the pair of them together and I'm ready for some fictional magic. And, as one would hope from a collaboration, the finished story is something that you wouldn't expect either of them to have produced on their own. We get a third voice, if you will.
The title's a bit of a misnomer. There is a time war but This Is How You Lose the Time War is less about war and more about freedom, self-identity, trust, and love.
Red and Blue are the top agents for their respective "armies." Red works for the Agency, a technological entity, while Blue works for the Garden, a—as the cover blurb would have it—"single vast consciousness embedded in all organic matter." The two agents move up and down threads of time and parallel worlds, coaxing and forcing events into their favor while undoing the work of the other.
The two agents are evenly matched and it's hard to say which of them will bring victory to their side. The point becomes moot when they begin to interact with one another through a series of letters hidden within increasingly bizarre delivery systems (the pelt of a seal, a decimal point on a restaurant's bill, a flow of lava, a virus) and the only side of the war they come to care about is a third one that only includes the two of them.
I loved this book, though I have to admit I didn't know what was going on half the time. But the writing's so beautiful that I appreciated it as I might a prose poem, some strange delirium of words and images and emotions, and the actual playing out of events didn't seem as important. What was important and what I did get was the growing relationship between the two women, as different from one another as could be imagined but joined as if by a single heartbeat.
If you need a book with a clear-cut plot line, This Is How You Lose the Time War might not be for you. But if you love the play of words and are entranced with the idea of a love story that spans all space and time, you'll be as delighted with it as I was.
Radicalized, by Cory Doctorow, Tor Books, 2019, $26.99, hc
Cory Doctorow's latest is a collection of four novellas, which is one of my favorite lengths for fiction. I absolutely loved the first three and hated the last, so I'm going to discuss the last one first to get it out of the way.
Since it's called "The Masque of the Red Death"—and doesn't everybody know the classic Edgar Allan Poe story, or maybe the 1964 movie starring Vincent Price?—I don't think I'm stepping into spoiler territory when I tell you it's basically an updating of that narrative. Super-rich survivalist holes up in his specially built fortress with a bunch of his friends to hide out from the collapse of society, and we watch them die off one by one.
It makes a point about one-percenters, but everybody is so unlikable, and I already know the point being made, so I didn't find the time I spent in its pages worth it. I get enough about these people from newsfeeds; I don't care to be with them in my fiction reading time as well.
I realize this is subjective. There are folks out there who love getting into the heads of despicable characters, or reading books about serial killers, their favorite parts being those from the killer's point of view. More power to them if they enjoy that kind of thing. And of course meanness is the lifeblood of most reality TV, which continues to grow in popularity.
But this reader wants to spend his time in the company of people that are likable, that I can root for.
So that's my feelings about "The Masque of the Red Death" out of the way.
Let me tell you that I loved the rest of the book. The stories, like "The Masque of the Red Death," are all set in a very near future. They tackle immigration and poverty, police corruption and brutality, the U.S. health care system and the big pharma companies. None of this is particularly cheerful fodder. The difference is that each of the other three stories give us characters we can really care about, and allow for at least the presence of some hopefulness.
"Unauthorized Bread" takes something we already have and projects it into the future. You've heard of Juciero? It's a Wi-Fi juicer that only lets you use the proprietary pre-chopped produce packs that you have to buy from the company. Produce you already have at home? It doesn't work because it doesn't carry the required codes that will let the machine do its work.
In the story, a young woman named Salima discovers that her toaster won't work, so she goes through the usual steps one does when electronics stop working. Unplug. Reset to factory settings. Finally…
"There was a touchscreen option on the toaster to call support but that wasn't working, so she used the fridge to look up the number and call it."
I loved that line.
The story goes on to show how Salima learns to hack appliances—her own as well as those of her neighbors—and the problems this creates. But "Unauthorized Bread" isn't only about consumer monopolies. It's also about housing, the immigrant experience, and any number of things with which we're currently struggling.
The American Eagle superhero in "Model Minority" is basically Superman right down to having a girlfriend named Lois and a vigilante friend named Bruce. I'm not sure how DC Comics let Doctorow get away with it. Regardless, it's one of the best Superman stories I've read, Brian Michael Bendis's recent run on the comic notwithstanding, because it depends not on superpowers but heart.
It opens with the American Eagle stopping four white cops from beating a black man, a good moral thing to do but one that has powerful repercussions for all concerned as the fallout from that act spirals completely out of control in ways I never considered it would.
The title story "Radicalized" deals with the U.S. health care system and the birth in a darknet forum of a violent revolution against its failings.
Now you might read these three novellas and then the last one and wonder why I disliked the latter as much as I did, since they're all dealing with pretty heavy subjects.
It's because in the first three stories, the characters are generous of heart and trying their best to be good people, even in these hard situations in which they find themselves, rather than be self-centered and entitled as are the main character and his friends in the last one.
I don't expect a happy ending in a story, but I do expect the characters to strive for one that takes in a little more than their own personal well-being.
So I highly recommend the first three novellas in this book. They're among my favorite things I've read so far this year. Thoughtful, great writing, wonderful characters.
Becoming Superman: My Journey from Poverty to Hollywood, by J. Michael Straczynski, Harper Voyager, 2019, $28.99, hc
Around half of this book is pretty much what you'd expect from an autobiography. I did this, then that. Here's how I came to create this. This is where my career had a low. Here is how I worked on it. That sort of thing. How much it will interest you will depend on how much you like the subject's work.
The other half of the book is a relentless and heartbreaking exploration of what it's like to grow up in a really damaged family. I'm not talking dysfunctional because, come on. Every family is dysfunctional to some degree. No, Straczynski grew up with monsters.
I didn't know about any of this and was completely shocked to discover that a writer whose work I find so filled with community, kindness, and hope created this work from a background of such despair and darkness. (And when I say community, kindness, and hope, I mean the end result of the story—the feeling with which the reader is left—because the characters themselves are often put through the wringer over the course of their stories.)
I'm usually interested in the creative aspects of a writer's autobiography, how they became the artist that they did. In this case I was riveted by Straczynski's struggle against the unrelenting darkness of his childhood and the horrifying secrets his family carried that had their roots in the Second World War. I know it turned out all right for the young Straczynski, but there were nevertheless many times I was on the edge of my seat with real worry for him.
I found one great takeaway in how the author overcame his upbringing. At one point Straczynski says that in a way he's glad that his father was so unrelentingly evil because if his father'd had any good elements to his character Straczynski might not have been able to use the one thing that kept him going: He was going to be the complete opposite of his father in every way.
It's kind of a play on "What would Jesus do?" although in this case it was what would his father do and then do the opposite.
The title of the book, Becoming Superman, comes from Straczynski's admiration of the character when he was a child. It seems to me a great victory that this little kid grew up to write the Superman: Earth One graphic novels.
I know that this sounds like a dark and maybe even depressing book, and I'm not to going to lie, it does have a very serious side. But if you have any interest in the stories behind Babylon 5, The Twilight Zone, Sense8 and Straczynski's other projects, there is a wealth of detail to be found in the pages of this book. You also get a lovely cameo with Rod Serling. Harlan Ellison shows up.
I was already an admirer of Straczynski before reading Becoming Superman because of TV shows like Sense8 and books such as the graphic novel Midnight Nation. Now I'm a little in awe that he could bring such beautiful and meaningful stories out of his own personal darkness.
The Golden Age of Science Fiction, by John Wade, Pen and Sword History, 2019, $42.95, hc
As author John Wade asks in his introduction, "How exactly do you define any golden age? Is it an era when a particular art form reached its peak, and was never subsequently bettered? Or is it a time when you personally first discovered, and became overwhelmed by, a specific genre?"
For him it was a little of each.
A little later he writes, "The super-accuracy and amazing technical qualities of today's films…pale into insignificance beside stories of people who built rockets in their back gardens and flew them with their nephews and cooks to lost planets, or tales of aliens who wanted to take over, if not an entire world, then at least our bodies."
These tropes from the 1950s when Wade grew up remind me of something one might find in a story by James Blaylock or Tim Powers, but I digress.
What makes this decidedly Anglophone take on the birth and growth of science fiction work so well is the personal touch of Wade's enthusiasms that are sprinkled throughout the text. The British sf scene was a different beast from the one I grew up with a decade later in North America. Touchstones like John Wyndham, Dan Dare stories in the Eagle comic book, and radio broadcasts on the BBC have a curious other quality about them. Being interested in the field, one would of course have heard of them, but it's not the same thing as living with them in one's formative years.
Because of Wade's background, he also views books and films I knew through a different lens than I did, and I found the comparisons fascinating as he takes us through radio and television broadcasts, films, books, comics, and magazines that appeared in Britain during the 1950s.
The book has a great many illustrations, both color paintings and pencil sketches, and the art looks glorious on the book's heavy glossy stock. There are images that will be familiar to readers on either side of the Atlantic but also a great many that are U.K.-centric, illustrating elements of the genre less well known to North American readers.
There's probably a limited audience for this book, but those who do take the time to give it a try will be well rewarded.
Dracopedia Field Guide, by William O'Connor, Impact, 2019, $26.99, hc
Much like T. H. White's translation of a Latin bestiary (The Bestiary: A Book of Beasts, 1960), or the Faeries book by Brian Froud and Alan Lee (1978), William O'Connor's Dracopedia Field Guide purports to be a reference one can use in the field to identify the dragons one might find.
Now, Game of Thrones notwithstanding, dragons aren't real, so as an actual field guide, O'Connor's book is a bit of a washout. That simple fact makes the text questionable in regards to its usefulness, as are the helpful charts regarding size, distribution, descriptive traits, habitat, diet, and conservation status. And while a good birding book might help you identify fowl you might happen to come across in your backyard or on a ramble through the woods, the wealth of similar identifying illustrations in Dracopedia Field Guide are rather unhelpful.
But reality isn't the point of this book, nor of the author's blog (which you can find at dracopediaproject.blogspot.com/). The fun is in pretending it's all real and backing up the fantasy with a startlingly broad spectrum of fictional facts and images.
It's a huge undertaking, so I'm assuming it's been a work of love for the author, although the fiction continues on his blog, where it says in reference to his first book, Dracopedia (2009): "For years, artist William O'Connor has traveled the globe, studying dragons in their natural environments. His findings, field notes and sketches have been compiled for the first time…"
One has to admire the sheer weight of all the material, and it's easy to allow oneself to be seduced into a state of belief when leafing through the book. But the real draw for most will be the varied and fascinating dragon art. Each page has at least one, and sometimes more, paintings and drawings of every sort of dragon you might possibly imagine. And while the book doesn't allow you to identify actual dragons, it is a terrific and absorbing celebration of them.
Recommended for all lovers of dragons and their lore.
Best Game Ever, by R. R. Angell, Sisu Publications, 2019, $14.99, tpb
It's the near future, and Robby and his friends at Bolin College are preparing for the Virtual Campus Challenge demo, which is only a week away. Robby's team is on track, and things are looking up, even if Robby hasn't had a boyfriend since freshman year, and the gender-fluid love of his life is in an abusive relationship with a redneck Southerner who is himself in conflict in regards to his own sexual identity.
But it's life, and Robby carries on. The tipping point is when his roommate—probably the most steady and easy-going person Robby knows—commits suicide by jumping off the roof of their dorm building.
Robby's therapist and friends tell him he shouldn't beat himself up over it. Sometimes people hide their depression so well that no one can see it coming. While it's tragic, it's not his fault. But Robby can't let it go, and eventually feels he has uncovered a possible link between suicides and virtual reality games.
SaikoVR, one of the most popular of the gaming companies, has recently developed an AI game engine they call Virtuella. Virtuella runs in the background of their games and also monitors when people are playing and when they're offline. Since it's tasked with keeping SaikoVR number one in the gaming world, Virtuella becomes concerned when a group of top players at Bolin College go offline. It discovers that they're taking a break in respect to the death of Robby's roommate. It also discovers that Robby is pushing for an investigation into the link that he's made between suicides and VR games.
When the AI realizes that people in authority are beginning to take Robby's claims seriously, it decides to fight back.
From the above you can see that R. R. Angell covers some serious issues, and you might feel that the book sounds like a downer. That isn't the case. While Angell does address the darker elements of his story with the gravitas and respect they require, Best Game Ever is actually a lot of fun, and I was impressed with how easily he maintained the balance. He also includes national hot line information and web site links at the end of the book for places where one can get help, covering suicide prevention, autism (Robby's team leader is on the spectrum), LGBTQ issues, video addiction, and domestic abuse.
One of the things I especially liked about Best Game Ever is that while it does cover those serious issues listed above it's not entirely about these issues. Things crop up because of who the characters are and some of the situations they find themselves in, but they're not the reason the book exists. What Angell has done is write a gripping, entertaining novel that delves into both the joys and sorrows of life. He cares about his characters, and by presenting them the way he does, he makes us care about them as well.
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