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On Books by Paul Di Filippo

Introduction

 

Truly, the small or alternative presses are now an indispensable part of the genre scene, producing such a wide array of fine titles that envisioning our literature without them would be tantamount to erasing a good portion of the best work being done. Here’s a smattering of what’s new and worthy of your attention.




Graphical Goodness

 

I hesitated to include this first item, only because its publisher, First Second, is a boutique imprint of a larger firm, Holtzbrinck. But if true editorial independence is maintained, then who’s to say that this particular business model of small house sheltering within a larger one cannot still lead to a feisty underdog status? And also, I just wanted a chance to rave about the book.

A.L.I.E.E.N. (trade paperback, $12.95, unpaginated, ISBN 1596430958) is by Lewis Trondheim, whose Dungeon series I’ve earlier praised (and do so again just ahead!) as witty sword-and-sorcery satire. But this volume, which pretends to be an extraterrestrial artifact discovered by the author, is another species of fun entirely. The nearest comparison I can make is to the work of Jim Woodring: exotic, macabre, mysterious, disturbing, otherworldly.

On some nameless far-off planet, a plethora of bizarre creatures go through seven wordless stories depicting their outré daily behaviors. Although there are happy moments, most of the action ultimately involves catastrophe of some kind, personal or societal: killings, blindings, heartbreak, prejudice, and the drowning of a city in a literal flood of shit. Now, before you get the idea that this book is some morbid downer, allow me to state that nothing could be further from the facts. Trondheim’s black humor and his jolly, colorful creatures (these pages look like outtakes from the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine [1968] or the French film Fantastic Planet [1973]) will have you chortling amid your pity. The portrayal of inexplicable but consistent alien dynamics (all the stories eventually tie together as well) lends a sense of uplifting and affirming fatefulness to this mordant cosmicomic.


Back in Trondheim’s Dungeon series, co-created with Joann Sfar, we jump ahead from the heyday of that sword-and-sorcery world to its decline. Twilight: Volume 1: Dragon Cemetery (NBM, trade paperback, $14.95, 96 pages, ISBN 1561634603) finds Marvin, the heroic dragon of earlier tales, in his decrepitude, blind and ready to die. He sets out for the legendary cemetery of the title, but on the way to his desired quietus encounters a youthful rabbit warrior, slightly deranged by idealism and named after Marvin himself. Rabbit Marvin and Dragon Marvin face a series of assaults from the mysterious current master of the Dungeon, and eventually come face to face with what proves to be a familiar figure.


Trondheim and Sfar exhibit high glee and brio in this series, and they are not afraid of large transfigurative moments that are antithetical to stale, status-quo-maintaining comic books. Readers will be continually surprised and delighted.

The back cover blurb for Stephen Notley’s Bob the Angry Flower: Dogkiller (Tachyon, trade paperback, $12.95, 152 pages, ISBN 1892381341) proclaims its similarities to Zippy the Pinhead, The Boondocks, and The Simpsons. I will heartily endorse those comparisons, and add a couple of my own. If you enjoy the manic surrealism of Flaming Carrot or the rude effrontery of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, then you’ll surely grok and groove to Bob.

Bob is drawn as an ambulatory daisy. He is a pure force of id. He wants what he wants, when he wants it, and his appetites are mostly primal, for food or status or glorious destruction. Every single page holds a different adventure wherein Bob and his sidekicks take the piss out of all self-righteous morality, rationality, and conventionality. Often there are SF tropes, such as when Bob builds a quantum computer, or purchases a passel of slaves from an interstellar trader. But there are plenty of contemporary referents as well. Combined, the always shifting topics provide a great mix of topicality and timelessness.

Smack dab in the middle of this book is a twenty-seven-page wordless saga titled “Pure Action,” wherein Bob performs convincing super-heroics in quest of a lost piece of fried chicken. This brilliantly anomalous bit is a bravura boast by Notley that you’ll never pin him or Bob down.





Anyone fascinated by the uncanny photographs of J.K. Potter or Jan Saudek, or by the psychological horror of authors like Michael Blumlein or Thomas Ligotti will be likewise entranced by Chad Michael Ward’s Autopsyrotica (NBM, trade paper, $17.95, 80 pages, ISBN 156163462X). Using a bevy of beautiful women, Ward manages to turn them, via props and digital manipulation and clever lighting, into a gallery of spooky archetypes. Horned, winged, fanged, entubated, chained, pierced, with large expanses of naked skin resembling baked soil or ravaged porcelain, these Suicide Girls are icons from deep layers of the male mind. Ward’s text offers some self-reflective insights into his art, which certainly merits the term “haunting.”

Writer Chris Blythe and artist Steve Parkhouse produce a very elegant and subtle ghost story in Angel Fire (NBM, trade paper, $17.95, 112 pages, ISBN 095499440X). John Dury is a low-level thug with some shreds of morality. His main anchor in his life of drugs and violence is his wife Tessa. But with her death he plunges into weird strata of unreality, abetted by the new drug named angelfire. His hegira through the uncanny culminates in a Scottish manor, where his life story will dovetail dangerously with that of an ancient monk.



Blythe manages to make Dury sympathetic and fascinating: a good thing, since he’s “onstage” every minute. Parkhurst’s art combines meticulous, sinuous realism with moments of explosive fantasy. Together, the two creators have produced something equal to the best classic episode of Hellblazer or Hellboy.

There are over one hundred and sixty full-color paintings in Cover Story: The Art of John Picacio (MonkeyBrain Books, hardcover, $39.95, 200 pages, ISBN 1932265163), and every one of them is practically worth the price of admission solely on its own. But in addition, you get innumerable B&W sketches, Picacio’s insightful commentary, and a full interview with the artist. I call this the best bargain in art books to come along in a while.

You’ve seen Picacio’s art if you’ve so much as stuck your head in a bookstore over the past five years or so. He’s provided cover images for everyone from Silverberg to Moorcock to Pohl, as well as a host of newer authors, such as Justina Robson and Dale Bailey. His covers all leap off the page with a bright palette, iconic tropes, and sophisticated compositions, often featuring layered planes of images. But he also does full-blown moments of frozen narrative, such as his cover for the first volume of the Adventure anthology (page 133). Some of his most striking work involves Cornell-style shadowboxes (one weighing forty-five pounds when completed!). In all cases, his art reflects immense thought, taste, and intelligence. He’s able, as John Clute says in a blurb, not only to “illustrate” but to “illuminate” a work. This book, designed by Picacio himself, is a wonderful compendium that succeeds in illuminating a career that is barely begun but already rich with accomplishment.


Nonfiction Titles

 

I’m enjoying Don D’Ammassa’s Encyclopedia of Fantasy and Horror Fiction (Facts On File, hardcover, $65.00, 488 pages, ISBN 0-8160-6192-0) even more than I enjoyed the earlier companion volume, Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (2005). That’s simply because the new book contains more information that I didn’t already know, and I’m always avid and grateful for knowledge. So far as issues of quality and comprehensiveness go, the pair are equal.

In this second volume D’Ammassa hits every possible camp of fantastical writing, from the subtleties of John Crowley to the blunt instruments of franchise fiction. As before, the entries range from authors to series to individual novels and stories, and D’Ammassa’s generously catholic tastes ensure that you never know whether he’ll choose to discuss high art (Disch’s “Descending”) or lowbrow schlock (Stephen King’s “The Raft”). He’s fair yet opinionated in all cases. (Not to draw the wrath of King fans down on D’Ammassa: he likes “The Raft” as much as he likes Disch’s piece.) When an entry here—on, say, Avram Davidson or Roger Zelazny—has an antecedent in the SF volume, the second entry is completely different and apposite to the new topic.

Together, these two one-man symposia form an invaluable map to the lands of imagination where we all really live.


In 1972 the world was first gifted with Philip José Farmer’s Tarzan Alive: A Definitive Biography of Lord Greystoke. This genius work of amateur scholarship (by a writer fully the literary equal of Tarzan’s creator) invested its wild-child subject with more mana than he already possessed, and also debuted Farmer’s grand “Wold Newton” hypothesis that connected a myriad fictional heroes into one magnificent lineage. Now this landmark work resurfaces in a handsome new edition from University of Nebraska Press (trade paperback, $19.95, 316 pages, ISBN 0803269218), complete with introductory material and some additional essays by Farmer. (UNP has also brought back many Edgar Rice Burroughs titles in handsome complementary printings.) In this book, Farmer uses ERB’s novels as primary sources in his reconstruction of Tarzan’s life. Farmer recounts all the canonical milestones in Lord Greystoke’s career simply and objectively, yet with a vividness that beckons almost as deeply as the originals. He uses cunning logic and secondary sources to bolster some of ERB’s wilder inventions, such as the lost city of Opar, though at other times, such as with the Pellucidar adventures, Farmer flatly declares that Burroughs just made everything up in a departure from sheer reportage.

By the last chapter, when Farmer envisions Tarzan erasing his own traces from the globe so as to go into a robust retirement, we have come to accept the eternal nature of this twentieth-century icon, thanks almost as much to Farmer’s loving tribute as to ERB’s powers of invention.


Wesleyan University Press continues to publish a fascinating range of critical texts, the latest of which is a volume that’s half fiction, and could well have been discussed just as plausibly in the “Anthologies” section of this column. Edited by critic and novelist Justine Larbalestier, Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century (trade paperback, $24.95, 424 pages, ISBN 0819566764) consists of eleven stories accompanied by eleven complementary essays. The stories are all gems, and the essays commensurately rich.

Larbalestier has chosen stories that manage to be generously representative of that hydra-headed entity known as “feminist SF” and packed with plenty of subtextual meaning for the critics to tease out; which are all excellent reading on the surface narrative level; and which are relatively overlooked in the canon. The fiction authors include Clare Winger Harris, Alice Eleanor Jones, Kate Wilhelm, James Tiptree, and Lisa Tuttle. The critics boast such well-known names as Lisa Yaszek, Andrea Hairston, L. Timmel Duchamp, and Brian Attebery.

Ranging in origin from 1927 to 2002, these fiction selections represent the evolution of the sub-genre, from surprisingly sophisticated beginnings in the pages of Hugo Gernsback’s magazines to the latest from Ellen Datlow’s lamented online zine, SciFiction. Along the way, historical context is provided by the critics, as well as intense personal reactions, clever unpackings, and the re-ignition of old controversies. (See Joan Haran’s essay accompanying Pat Murphy’s “Rachel in Love” for a keen dissection of how the cyberpunk move- ment failed to accommodate feminism.) The one-two punch of these remarkable stories and their very readable critical exegeses makes this anthology the first stop for any reader interested in how half the human race has contributed to our genre.


Novels and Novellas

 

I am about to do something cruel. I am about to review a rare book that will be almost impossible for readers to procure. But at the same time, my review will be a beneficial public service, alerting you to the existence of two marvelous stories that you will certainly want to look for in their other incarnations. But please don’t hate me for owning a copy of this rarity, and please ignore my chortles of collectorish glee.

For the convention known as Capclave 2005—a gathering I did not actually enroll in—attendees received a gift: a chapbook published by WSFA Press in the Ace Double format, with striking covers by Carol Emshwiller, of all folks. This volume (unpriced, 56 pages, ISBN unavailable) contained two long stories by Howard Waldrop, than whom there is no writer more gifted: “The Horse of a Different Color (That You Rode In On)” and “The King of Where-I-Go.” Only five hundred copies were produced. Thanks to Messr. Waldrop himself, I have one, wittily inscribed.

These two stories are among Howard’s best. “Horse” conflates an authentic history of vaudeville with a Grail quest, while “King” mixes tidbits of Waldropian autobiography with time-travel riffs, in the manner of James Blaylock’s “Thirteen Phantasms.” Together, they provide a glorious ride through the unique mind of one of SF’s finest writers.

Both stories later appeared on Ellen Datlow’s SciFiction, and, for an indefinite time as of this writing, may still be viewed at those archives [http://www.scifi.com/scifiction/archive.html]. Both will certainly show up in various collections, including Howard’s own. But the glory of reading them in their rarest, most perfect state can be obtained only in one way, by the fortunate few. So, get thee to eBay now!


Next in line are two novels of fantastical erotica—or erotic fantasy. Both are equally accomplished and arousing, although the tone of one is humorous and farcical, while the other is more tragic and weighty.

Frank Thorne is best known, perhaps, as the artist who most perfectly incarnated Robert E. Howard’s Red Sonja in comic book form. But he’s done much more than that, including inventing his own swordly and sorcerous female warrior, Ghita. Ghita’s story has been chronicled previously in graphic novel form. But now comes a prequel to her adult exploits, a true novel. In Nymph (Fantagraphics Books, trade paper, $12.95, 127 pages, ISBN 1560977671), which is “Book One of the Alizarrian Trilogy,” Thorne tells the tale of the fifteen-year-old Ghita, an orphan discovered and adopted by a traveling troupe of sexual exhibitionists, X-rated vaudevillians. Our narrator is the troupe’s sleight-of-hand magician and skit-writer, Fordel of Thhem. Through his extravagant account, full of Rabelaisian doings, we learn not only of Ghita’s early exploits, but also all about Fordel himself and the other colorful characters that flesh out the “Antediluvian World.” There’s plenty of bawdy riffs, but also some truly eerie supernatural moments, such as in the section titled “The Apparition,” where Ghita and Fordel have to confront “an amorphous cathedral made of a silvery translucent material that undulated as it silently glided forward.”

Thorne’s low-minded yet ornate prose is replete with comical sex, dastardly and heroic doings, musings on life and clever portraiture of a world filled with lizardmen, elves, ogres, and other typical but freshly invoked trappings of Fantasyland. A lively blend of Beardsley, Cabell, Hecht, and Vance, his tale—prinked out with numerous sexy B&W drawings—provides tons of amusement. I now count myself one of Ghita’s besotted admirers.

It’s no surprise that Richard Calder’s new book concerns sex, since that topic and erotic motifs form the core of his work. But while Calder has always found the carnal relations between men and women to be fraught with perversity and disaster and doom, he has also always affirmed the essential necessity and heroism of pair-bonding. His lovers might misunderstand each other and hurt each other and be fated by societal strictures to expire in a pyre of unfulfilled lust, but they usually always stick tight. It’s been a redemptive grace note in all his books.

But not in Babylon (PS Publishing, hardcover, $45.00, 248 pages, ISBN 1904619576). Here, the young women are without proper and commensurate swains. Their only sustaining bonds are quasi-lesbian ones more emotional than physical. When they do encounter men whom they idealize and for whom they commit acts of betrayal, they are promptly betrayed in turn, going down to solo defeat. Consequently, this Calder outing features less hothouse panting and squirming and writhing than his other work, and more chill glacial stasis (literally, by book’s end).

In an alternate Victorian London, there exist official gateways to a parallel dimension called Babylon. Here, in the distant past of this timeline, was founded a continent-spanning city-state dedicated to the worship of Ishtar and other goddesses. Babylon recruits its priestesses from the Shulamite classes of contemporary London. These women are born and bred to be temple whores. Our respectable teenaged heroine, Madeleine Fell, is not a Shulamite by genetics, but one in her soul. She aspires to nothing more than Babylonian wickedness. When recruitment for a new class of priestesses gets underway, she enrolls with her Shulamite friend, Cliticia Lipski. Soon they will find themselves transported across the dimen- sions, to a world where it is always mysterious night, under a full moon.

Calder’s prose has been toned down from its usual baroque heights, since the tale is delivered first-person in Madeleine’s voice. But there are still epic moments of uncanny beauty, such as when the girls first encounter the ruined neighborhoods of Babylon. Calder’s standard operating procedure is the same as Maddy’s, when she reveals that “immersion in morbid beauty was the only antidote to the terror of my doubts.” By embracing and magnifying and extolling entropy and beautiful decay, Calder battles the existential horrors of life. We all go down to dust, but some of us do so in style.

Calder does not receive as much attention as other card-carrying members of the New Weird. But he is certainly of their ilk, and a unique voice in that choir. Like outsider artist Henry Darger, he collages emblems of innocence into panoramas of artful authentic decadence.

It’s been a drearisome dog’s age since last we saw a book by that wise magus A.A. Attanasio, so we should herald with a loud huzzah the arrival of Killing with the Edge of the Moon (Prime, hardcover, $27.95, 153 pages, ISBN 0809556799). Unlike some of his other more multiplex and baroquely ornate work, this new tale is straightforward and simply written—which is not to say it’s devoid of poetry, wonder, or wisdom. Far from it. Due to its stripped-down nature, all these qualities shine through perhaps even more brightly.

A very, very old witch named Nedra Fell has managed to survive into modern times, thanks to certain arcane rituals. We witness her at book’s opening staving off her long-delayed death for another seven years. She’s persisting on the mortal plane, we eventually learn, to mentor her orphaned “granddaughter,” Flannery Lake. But teenaged Flannery doesn’t really place much stock in Nedra’s Wiccan ways, and so is totally unprepared when a near-fatal accident sends her soul to the Otherworld, the home of the inhuman Theena Shee, and the dragon who haunts them. Flannery’s only hope for resumption of a mortal life is her nerdy suitor, Chester Hubert. Dispatched to the Otherworld as a “fetch,” Chet soon finds himself battling the Theena Shee and “a planetary monster as old as the earth itself.”

Attanasio’s flair for both character development and scintillating action, as well as his ability to conjure up a sense of the numinous and ethereal, ensure that this tale always moves effortlessly toward its sly climax. Functioning both as a YA novel and a timelessly mature Yeatsian parable of love and sacrifice, this novel marks a welcome return from one of the field’s best.


Single-author Collections

 

The implacably daft and creepily bizarre voice of William Browning Spencer has also been missing for too long from our virtual ears. Spencer has four prior books to his credit—Maybe I’ll Call Anna (1990); The Return of Count Electric and Other Stories (1993); Résumé With Monsters (1995); and Zod Wallop (1995)—all of which are worth searching out in the marketplace of forgotten classics. Now comes his second story collection, The Ocean and All Its Devices (Subterranean Press, hardcover, $40.00, 197 pages, ISBN 1596060476), which assembles nine heterogeneous pieces into a brilliant whole.

Every story herein has a deeply shivery creepy side, but most exhibit a dark humor as well. The title piece is pretty much the blackest, detailing the miserable bargain that grieving parents make with nature for the return of their daughter, and how that bargain eventually falls apart. Two stories— “Downloading Midnight” and “The Halfway House at the Heart of Darkness “—play with virtual reality in a cyberpunkish way, and seem the most anomalous in this context. “The Death of the Novel” charts the uncanny comeuppance that a philandering professor undergoes.

Sometimes Spencer can sound like Robert Sheckley, as in “The Oddskeeper’s Daughter.” At other times— “The Essayist in the Wilderness” —he recalls Clifford Simak conflated with James Blaylock. But by the end of this spook-house ride through dioramas of armageddon-battling stage magicians, butlers who are a separate species of humanity, and children who straddle dimensions, you’ll feel exhilarated as only Spencer can make you feel. Like Jeffrey Ford or Howard Waldrop (Spencer, also a Texas writer, expresses a kinship with the latter in his introduction), the author takes what would be commonplace fantasies in the hands of others and inverts them into something truly rare and marvelously his own.


NESFA Press sure knows how to treat an author royally. Ken MacLeod was guest of honor at Boskone 43 and was commemorated with a handsome hardcover assiduously collecting a bountiful variety of his writings. Giant Lizards from Another Star ($25.00, 349 pages, ISBN 1886778620) offers a wealth of MacLeodiana to companion his fine novels. First up is a selection of his poetry, revealing that his skills extend quite nicely to verse. I particularly enjoyed “Goddess on Our Side,” which relates mankind to nature and technology both. Following this section we get a generous selection of fiction including the short YA novel Cydonia, which has fun with virtual reality, and the novella The Human Front, an excellent alternate world tale. A handful of short stories rounds out this portion of the book.

But what really makes this volume shine for me is the non-fiction. MacLeod generously shares autobiographical musings and his thoughts on politics, a sphere of human activity to which he has famously given much consideration. (The title of this volume is Macleod’s assessment of humanity’s current crop of rapacious and brutal politicians.) And as a critic of SF he truly exhibits insight and ardor, examining the future of our genre in such stimulating pieces as “Trends in Science Fiction” and “Does Science Fiction Have to be about the Present?” His explication of what makes SF at its best so alluring—  “SF is not fundamentally about human-to-human or human-to-supernatural, but about human-to-nature . . .” —rings true to me. In fact, it could be the inspiration for a poem. . . .

If Ray Bradbury at his prime had been hired to script his own macabre version of The Happy Hollisters YA series of my youth, for a film to be directed by David Lynch, the results might dimly resemble in an inferior fashion the novella titled “Botch Town” which appears as the beating heart of Jeffrey Ford’s fantabulous new collection, The Empire of Ice Cream (Golden Gryphon Press, hardcover, $24.95, 319 pages, ISBN 1-930846-39-8)—and only here, since it’s original to this volume. In this tale, three children growing up in the bygone era of Ford’s own youth face not only a mysterious prowler who might be Death himself but also a plethora of lesser, “mundane” challenges that, due to Ford’s magical paintbrush, emerge as utterly fantastical. The result is a sense of childhood as a realm of dark mysteries, both beautiful and tragic.

But every story in this essential collection conveys Ford’s perception of how magic arises from the quotidian. Whether a mural in a shabby bar (“A Night in the Tropics”), a boring lecture in a civic center (“The Weight of Words”), or a leaky clamming boat in a storm (“The Trentino Kid”) is the touchstone, Ford can evoke the transcendent out of the common soil of our existence. But even in those tales seemingly far removed from our familiar lands, the palpability of everyday accoutrements grounds the narratives. For instance, I can practically touch the giant empty skull of a slain god inside which lives Charon, the mythic protagonist of “Boatman’s Holiday.”

Jonathan Carroll introduces this collection with typical grace and insight and appreciation. Good choice of fellow traveler. Indeed, I’d lump Ford in with Carroll, VanderMeer, Blaylock, Wolfe, Powers, Shepard, Waldrop, and Link as American Gods of Fantasy, a pantheon whose full significance we all won’t fully appreciate for generations to come.

But, lucky us, we can read and enjoy Ford and his peers right now.


Golden Gryphon delivers a second stellar collection right behind Ford’s, and its exact nature might surprise you. Black Pockets and Other Dark Thoughts (hardcover, $24.95, 275 pages, ISBN 1930846401) is billed as George Zebrowski’s first collection of horror stories, and so it is. Can this be true? asks the savvy reader familiar with Zebrowski’s many fine accomplishments in the SF field, and his reputation as a cerebral spinner of hard-edged speculations. Why of course! answers the even-more-savvy reader who realizes that Zebrowski has also been perpetrating spooky stories that trade on mankind’s deepest fears, horrors, and terrors for his whole career. (The oldest tale herein hails from 1973; the newest is the title piece, conceived especially for this volume.) Zebrowski has long since proven himself adept at conjuring up tales that Robert Aickman or Thomas Ligotti would be proud of. But until their massed assemblage here, they’ve gone under-appreciated. No longer.

Zebrowski splits his eerie excursions into three realms: the personal, the political, and the metaphysical, leaping deeper into existential unease each time. Here’s just a sampling from each category. In “Jumper,” a woman’s twisted psyche leads her to a gruesome death by teleportation. “The Soft Terrible Music” reads like primo Zelazny as we follow the slow unveiling of one mind concealed inside another. And the title piece takes the cartoonish conceit of instant “holes to nowhere” and uses it as a meditation on revenge, hatred, friendship, and megalomania.

In his “Afterword,” Zebrowski examines the exact nature of horror as a mode of narrative and realm of existence, and postulates that the genre is a tool for uncovering and refining exactly what it means to be a human adrift in the cosmos. This collection is a brilliant Baedecker to the blackest realms within us.



The Crucible of Power (Haffner Press, hardcover, $40.00, 521 pages, ISBN 1893887227) is the fifth massive volume in the majestic project to reprint all the short fiction of Jack Williamson. His career kicked off famously in 1928 with publication of “The Metal Man,” and by the time this volume opens, in 1938 (concluding with pieces from 1940), Williamson had published well over one million words of SF, fantasy, and horror. (And even the occasional capable mainstream story, as the opener here, “The Chivaree,” shows us.) Take all the magazine-title adjectives of this era—astonishing, astounding, amazing, startling, and thrilling—and you will begin to have some suitable labels for his early accomplishments. Any slight imperfections of craft found in the early volumes have been burned away, and yet his zest for storytelling and his ideational fecundity is undiminished.

Three titanically scaled stories dominate this collection. The title piece chronicles the megalomania of Garth Hammond, intent on wresting power from the heart of the sun. “After World’s End” follows Barry Horn on a million-year-voyage into the future of galactic empires. And “The Fortress of Utopia” involves the remaking of Earth by a quartet of amoral visionaries in order to survive the passage of the planet through a deadly dark nebula. All three tales grip from the start and don’t relinquish their hold till the end.

But then comes “Star Bright,” a Thurberish story about a meek husband-father-wage slave who gets the power to create matter from nothing, thanks to a meteorite in the brain, and you realize that Williamson’s talent spans the literary spectrum.

As always with Williamson, beautiful women lure and bedevil and ultimately rejuvenate his heroes. Is it too far-fetched an interpretation to identify these women with the shining body of the imaginative literature he adored and served?


Anthologies

 

Editors Bill Congreve and Michelle Marquardt have assembled a stellar collection with The Year’s Best Australian Science Fiction & Fantasy, Volume Two (MirrorDanse Books, trade paper, AUS$19.95, 285 pages, ISBN 0975773615). This volume nicely supplements the USA domestic ones, and offers a tantalizing glimpse into the flourishing SF scene Down Under. The editors take a liberal view of precisely which high-quality works merit inclusion, based more on relevant author profiles than on venues of publication. Thus we get two entries from Datlow’s SciFiction (Rjurik Davidson’s “The Passing of the Minotaurs” and Lucy Sussex’s “Matricide”) as well as Greg Egan’s “Riding the Crocodile” from Dozois’s recent SFBC anthology I reviewed last time around. But there are also rarities from the US perspective, running the gamut from the experimental (Ben Peek’s “Johnny Cash”) to pastiched melodrama (Dirk Flint-hart’s “The Red Priest’s Homecoming”). Purchase this volume and you’ll not only get hours of excellent entertainment, but also a fine appreciation of how simpatico our cousins are.


The stories in the Congreve-Marquardt collection are all quite cosmopolitan in voice and subject matter, exhibiting no particular national identity. Not so with the tales in Mythspring (Red Deer Press, trade paper, CDN$22.95, 304 pages, ISBN 0889953406). Quite deliberately, editors Julie E. Czerneda and Gen-evieve Kierans have summoned over a dozen Canadian writers to supply stories inspired by “the lyrics and legends of Canada.” What results is a stimulating journey through northern realms of the imagination.

The majority of the stories are pure fantasy. Ghosts figure quite often, as in Charles de Lint’s “The Universal Soldier,” Karina Summer-Smith’s “Safe Passage,” and Daniel Archambault’s “The Ghost of Watson’s Mill is Online.” Vivid Canadian settings—the subway tunnels of Toronto in Lorne Kates’s “Over Lunar White” and the logging town of Bean Creek in Lynda Williams’s “The Harpy”—play an important part as well. Old legends in historical eras, such as that of the loup-garou in colonial Canada, arise (“Walking with Wolves,” by Alison Baird). And new legends, such as Fiona Patton’s Kuttnerish families with special talents (“Family Trees”), are created.

My two favorite stories stand out from the rest, however. James Alan Gardner’s “All the Cool Monsters at Once” is a great comedic romp involving literally every legendary beast of the north, reminiscent of a Godzilla film. And Claude Lalumière’s “This Is the Ice Age” is arguably the only true SF story in the book, postulating a sudden shift in cosmic paradigms that brings a barely survivable apocalypse to our planet.

Latest in a welcome resurgence of Canadian fantastical literature, this volume is one to keep close by on cold nights when the Wendigo stalks.

Heather Shaw and Tim Pratt are another editorial duo who have recently produced a new issue of their sharp and elegant little magazine, Flytrap. Issue Number Five (Tropism Press, saddle-stapled, $4.00, 48 pages, ISSN unavailable) contains four classy poems by Erin Donahoe, reviews by various hands, and a witty column on writing by Nick Mamatas. But the core of the issue, naturally, is the fiction, seven exemplary stories. “Cows, Water, Whiskey,” by Haddayr Copley-Woods, consists of three archaic fables with eternally pointed barbs. Ruth Nestvold takes us on a humorous tour of “perfect” places with “Sailing to Utopia.” A mourning teenager has a wild plan to contact his dead mom in Barth Anderson’s “Teotihuacan,” while another young woman named Fendie experiences a cyberpunkish future full of virtual music in David Ira Cleary’s “Perfect Pitch.” “Angel traps” are necessary in Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s brief domestic fantasy, “I Can’t Touch Them.” Meghan McCarron examines the symbolism and ramifications of Armageddon in “The Apocalypse: A Pamphlet.” And finally, a subtle magical realism involving circus elephants unfolds in Christopher Barzak’s “Learning to Leave.”

Pratt and Shaw have assembled a rich assortment of fiction here which eschews any party line or modish trends in favor of quality and variety.

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"On Books" by Paul Di Filippo, copyright © 2007, with permission of the author.

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