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Books To Look For
THE PROBLEM with a column such as this is that there's never enough room for all the material I'd like to discuss. Books are constantly arriving all shiny and new, but then fall through the cracks because I don't get to them in a timely enough fashion. By the time I do read the book, it can often be far too old to discuss here. I make exceptions, but my mandate is try and stay at least somewhat current.
But good material does get lost in the shuffle.
This is especially problematic with nonfiction books because I rarely read them in one sitting—especially if they're collections of columns or essays. I prefer to dip into that kind of a book from time to time. Because they were written as stand-alone pieces, I feel that's how they are supposed to be read. Taking in one essay or reprinted column after the other seems to lessen their impact. Or at least this reader gets fatigued going from cover to cover in one go.
Anyway, as I've already said, good books get lost. So this time out, I'm going to delve back to have a look at a handful of those that went missing.
Greasing the Pan: The "Best" of Paul T. Riddell, by Paul T. Riddell,
The Savage Pen of Onan, by Paul T. Riddell,
Reading these books reminded me of the mid-seventies when every once in a while a new issue of Richard E. Geis's The Alien Critic would show up in my mailbox. This was in the pre-Internet days of the 'zines when these little self-published magazines were how we got our news and reviews of the sf field. Geis was wonderfully opinionated, writing lively reviews and essays, all of which could make for even livelier letters pages.
He wasn't alone, either. Those were also the days when Harlan Ellison, John Shirley, and other writers could be counted on to raise a few hackles with their opinion pieces, columns, and letters in various 'zines.
Although I wasn't aware of him until now, Riddell appears to have carried on that same tradition through the nineties.
Let me say before going any further that these books aren't for everyone. They will seriously annoy some people, and you might be one of them. The columns and essays have been collected from various genre 'zines (Greasing the Pan) and Riddell's Internet writing (The Savage Pen of Onan). They're at times crude, somewhat confrontational, and highly opinionated, but never boring. That's because Riddell obviously knows his history—both of the sf field as well as general popular culture and the workings of the world at large—so he brings a deeper understanding to his topics than might a less-informed writer.
He's also very entertaining, which is the key to this kind of writing.
The topics range from everything to do with sf—books, media, fandom, cons—through to the general day-to-day we all run into in life, albeit viewed through the eyes of a gonzo journalist. You might not necessarily agree with what he's saying, but there's a good chance you'll nevertheless keep reading because of how he puts his words together and the way his mind works.
Hope-in-the-Mist, by Michael Swanwick,
I can still remember my delight at finding the Ballantine reprint of Hope Mirrlees's Lud-in-the-Mist in 1970. Those were the days when it was almost possible to keep up on everything that was published in the sf field. It was certainly true with fantasy, which wasn't even considered a genre at the time. And you could be assured that while you'd get that sense of wonder from whatever new or reprint book you were buying, it would also be unlike anything you'd already read.
In the opening of Lud-in-the-Mist, the free state of Dorimare might bear some passing resemblance to Tolkien's Shire, but these were both English writers, drawing on the background in which they grew up, and from there the two writers went in very different directions with their stories. I don't need to tell you where Tolkien went. Mirrlees told the smaller, though no less interesting story, of one of the burghers of Dorimare who follows his son into the Dubious Country of fairy after the young man is exiled for eating fairy fruit.
But we're not here to review the novel. Let me just say, if you haven't read it, you should really go out and track down a copy.
Now, getting back to the early seventies, I know I wasn't alone in being intrigued by this woman who in 1926 had published one fantastic (in all senses of the word) novel, but nothing else. At least nothing that diligent searching through the sources available at the time could uncover.
That finally changed in 2003 when Michael Swanwick published a shorter version of this monograph in an issue of Foundation. Swanwick has done a terrific job of pulling back some of the veil, though it's interesting that he was only able to find one photograph—or perhaps he could only get permission to use the one. Nevertheless, Hope-in-the-Mist is a wonderful view into both the life of this mysterious author as well as the alternative literary scene in Europe during the early part of the last century.
Lud-in-the-Mist enthusiasts will also appreciate the lexicon at the back of this book, reprinted from an earlier version that Swanwick had published in a 2005 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction.
The introduction is provided by the ever busy, but always erudite, Neil Gaiman, with a lovely foldout frontispiece by Charles Vess.
I know this isn't a book for everyone, but it's very welcome to those of us who are interested in the history of the field.
The House on the Borderland and Other Mysterious Places, by William Hope Hodgson,
The Dream of X and Other Fantastic Visions, by William Hope Hodgson,
And speaking of classic books, Night Shade continues their terrific series of William Hope Hodgson reprints. These are volumes two and five, respectively. I'm assuming three and four were also published, but I haven't seen copies.
It doesn't matter. If you only buy one book in this series, let it be volume two with Hodgson's classic The House on the Borderland. When you read of the two gentlemen who go from England to Ireland for a fishing trip, and what happens after they find a diary in a curious old house, you won't be surprised that H. P. Lovecraft cited Hodgson as a major influence.
This is darker fare than Mirrlees's Lud-in-the-Mist, and probably not quite as well known as Hodgson's classic The Night Land, but it's an important novel because it was the book that moved British supernatural fiction from the ghost story to the cosmic horrors that Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and others explored so well in the early part of the last century.
It's also just a good read.
Yes, the language and style of prose is a little old-fashioned, but don't let that put you off. Turn off your cell phone, ignore the shiny wonders of your computer, and let yourself slow down a little. I believe you'll soon be seduced by both the story and how it's told. Just don't blame me if, when you finish the book, you feel compelled to go out and buy the other four volumes of this reprint series.
Fantastic Authors: A Research Guide, by Jen Stevens & Dorothea Salo,
This is a handy guide to a hundred authors in the fantasy field, featuring short bios, bibliographies, and the thing that many readers will find most useful, "if you like (fill in the blank), then you might like (fill in the blank)" lists. The book is nicely organized, though a bit pricey. It's obviously aimed at the library market.
As to how accurate it is, the best way for me to judge that is to check out my own entry, and except for the line about my recording albums with my friends (I wish I had the time for that), there are no errors. Hopefully this is also the case for the other entries.
The best use for this book is to go to your local library and browse it. With any luck, the "read alike" lists will steer you to a new favorite writer.
Unearthing Ancient America, edited by Frank Joseph,
It was in the mid-seventies that I first ran across the idea that the history I'd studied in school didn't tell the whole story. That was when I started to read Barry Fell's work in books like America B.C. which dispelled the idea that Columbus, or even the Vikings, were the first visitors to our shores.
It's remained an interest of mine ever since, going hand in hand with historical speculation on the real King Arthur that I ran across around the same time in books by Geoffrey Ashe.
It's all a gray area of archaeology. Even in this day and age, the establishment is still unwilling to consider many of the studies that don't agree with their more conventional views of history. What's interesting is how in, say, astronomy, the experts and amateur enthusiasts work hand-in-hand, with the latter often making historic discoveries. In archaeology, the experts will often not even deign to examine the evidence.
Now I'm no expert, but I find many of the alternative views presented here very compelling, and they certainly make for persuasive reading.
Unearthing Ancient America is a great addition to this field, containing a wealth of articles that first saw print in Ancient American magazine. It explores hidden cities, lost artifacts, mysterious stoneworks—in other words, all the interesting stuff. Information is studied through both on-site observation and contemporary DNA forensics.
If you have any interest in this, but haven't been following contemporary studies on the subject, Unearthing Ancient America is a great place to catch up.
The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made, by David Hughes,
This is a revised and expanded version of Hughes's 2001 version that I haven't seen so I can't comment on the differences. But it's certainly a fascinating book. Considering the powerhouse producers and directors cited (Stephen Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Tim Burton, Kevin Smith, etc.) it's astonishing that these films were never made. Hughes explains why and as the quote from Empire magazine in the promo material says, "Read it and weep."
This isn't a book for everyone, but if you have an interest in media, and how Hollywood works, you won't be able to put it down.
Jetpack Dreams, by Mac Montandon,
Back in the September 2008 installment of this column we looked at a book entitled You Call This the Future? which investigated the gadgets and marvels we were promised in the media, but never saw. Jetpacks were one of my favorites, and it seems they were one of Mac Montandon's, too. Except he grew up in the Star Wars age and he views it not with my disappointment that we never got them, but as a fascinating artifact.
Jetpack Dreams (subtitled "One Man's Up and Down (But Mostly Down) Search for the Greatest Invention That Never Was") explores the past and current science of the jetpack. He looks at its history, both documented and clandestine; how it has fascinated Hollywood; and he has traveled the world interviewing other enthusiasts, some of whom were getting their own versions ready to fly at the time.
The book is very readable and entertaining, including a section of photographs of real-life flights and an endless treasure of trivia and information on the subject.
Starcombing, by David Langford,
Like the Paul T. Riddell books discussed above, David Langford's new book is a collection columns, reviews, and essays. But these are all culled from twenty-first century sources, and instead of being confrontational, Langford writes with a wry humor, and he has included a small handful of short-short stories.
Where Riddell's books will give you a good view of the sf scene in the States during the 1990s, Langford's Starcombing takes us across the great pond for a look at the UK sf scene in the 2000s.
I have to say that his prose is addictive. Most of the pieces are so short that it seems nothing to read just one more and then find that a couple of hours have gone by and you're well into the book. And of course, having been involved in the field for as long as he has, Langford's a well-informed writer and always has something interesting to say, whether he's writing an essay on James Branch Cabell or the experience of speaking at a Harry Potter convention.
Other Spaces, Other Times, by Robert Silverberg,
I don't read them, but I still get tired of seeing biographies or autobiographies of people like Britney Spears on the bookstands. It's got nothing to do with the quality of their work. It's just that they're so damn young. What kind of perspective do they have on a professional life that's run a decade or so? It's too soon.
I'd rather read a book like the one in hand where the author looks back on a career that spans six decades. Robert Silverberg is one of the last giants of our fields, a writer who was here pretty much at the beginning of our field and has remained a working—and successful—participant ever since.
What's also enjoyable about Other Spaces, Other Times is that Silverberg doesn't just focus on himself. Rather he places his career into the context of the field, providing a fascinating insider's view of the sf genre's history over the past fifty plus years.
The book is profusely illustrated and, as you would no doubt expect, written in clear, straightforward prose. Full of personal anecdotes, peopled by other giants of the field who were Silverberg's peers, this is an autobiography that should be on every sf reader's bookshelf.
The Sun and the Moon, by Matthew Goodman,
Even with the Internet slowly eroding their readership, newspapers remain a popular medium. But today's readers are jaded and distrustful of figures of authority, taking everything they read with a grain of salt. Even a traffic accident can be reported with a slant that might not tell the whole story, or worse, tell the wrong story.
It wasn't like that in the 1830s in New York City. Readership wasn't high, but when people read something in the paper, they usually took it at face value. It was in this climate that the most successful hoax in American journalism took place. That was when Richard Adams Locke wrote a series of articles for the new paper the Sun purporting to describe life on the Moon. He described unicorns, biped beavers, and four-foot-tall flying man-bats living in a fantastic landscape of poppy fields, inland seas, and red-hilled valleys.
And people believed him. Not everyone, but enough that the Sun's circulation skyrocketed and the "penny paper" was established not only in New York but also throughout the nation.
Goodman does a wonderful job of bringing the times to life with an attention to detail that enhances the story, rather than bogging it down. He brings in other stories, as well. The August that Locke saw his articles appear in print was the same month that P. T. Barnum arrived in town, presenting an elderly black woman that he claimed was 161 years old and had been George Washington's nursemaid. We also get to see Edgar Allan Poe's frustration at what he claimed was Locke's plagiarization of a story he'd written a month earlier about a balloon voyage to the moon.
The Sun and the Moon (subtitled The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth Century New York) will especially appeal to readers of Tim Powers, Jim Blaylock, and the Steampunk crowd, but I think anybody who gives the book a try will soon find themselves fascinated with this slice of early journalistic history.
Material to be considered for review in this column should be sent to Charles de Lint, P.O. Box 9480, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1G 3V2.
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