The many worlds of the alternative press continue to flourish and beckon. Let’s drop in.
Small and alternative often means intimate, and that’s certainly the case with the latest issue (#35) of Talebones (Fairwood Press, perfect-bound, $7.00, 99 pages, ISSN 1084-7197). Editor and publisher Patrick Swenson bravely details in his editorial his marital/business/editorial breakup with his wife Honna, who was always half of Fairwood and its many enterprises. But he reassures us that the zine will go on under his aegis alone, and if the contents of this issue are any gauge, Talebones will continue to prosper. These accomplished stories run the gamut from pure SF to gothic to near-mimetic. Long-established names like William Nolan and Darrell Schweitzer consort with journeyman bylines, and the overall effect is of a pleasant sojourn among people who believe in the magic of storytelling, of whatever stripe.
Being present at the birth of a new magazine is always an exciting moment. So bop on over to the Murky Depths website <murkydepths.com> and sign on for an exciting journey. Issue #1 (perfect-bound, £6.99, 82 pages, ISSN 1752-5586) tidily illustrates the philosophy of editor-publisher Terry Martin, which is to blend shortish pieces of “dark speculative” prose with arresting B&W graphics, and also to feature full-blown comics as well. One of the latter such opens the issue, with both script and art by Richard Calder. Contributors such as Jon Courtenay Grimwood and Lavie Tidhar keep the standards high, as do the lesser-known names. Slickly and sensitively designed, this is a magazine with a clear vision of how to jazz up our often visually staid field.
Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the longevity spectrum, we check in on Interzone, which is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary. Under the creative hand of Andy Cox and his co-editors, the flagship of UK periodical SF boasts a fresh-faced, hip, au courant look, matched by fine prose and a reverence for its own roots. Issue #211 (saddle-stapled, £3.75, 64 pages, ISSN 0264-3596) is something of a special Michael Moorcock tribute, featuring a story, novel excerpt, interview, and a glimpse of the biography of Mervyn Peake that Moorcock releases in 2008. The zine’s regular departments, including movie reviews by Nick Lowe and book reviews by John Clute, add further great value to this revered landmark journal.
Editor Stephen Haffner has assembled a wonderful tribute volume to the departed Jack Williamson. In Memory of Wonder’s Child: Jack Williamson (Haffner Press, trade paper, $15.00, 112 pages, ISBN 978-1-893887-26-8) reprints three obituaries of the long-lived Grandmaster; a slew of appreciations by his peers; two of his stories, including his last-published one, “The Mists of Time”; some comics work (including a gorgeous full-color page from the strip Beyond Mars on the back cover); and a photomontage. This is a classy yet lively memorial to an SF pioneer, and, best of all, all sales feed into a scholarship fund in the name of Jack and Blanche Williamson.
Lovingly yet with crystalline critical vision, Michael Swanwick has penned a monograph on the career and prose of James Branch Cabell. The resultWhat Can Be Saved from the Wreckage? (Temporary Culture, trade paper, $15.00, 53 pages, ISBN 978-0-9764660-3-1)is as stimulating a career dissection as I have encountered in many a year. Swanwick sorts wheat from chaff, praises and damns, recommends and dissuades, all with the admirable goal of rescuing Cabell’s best work from the bony grasp of obscurity. As one whose decades-long acquaintance with Cabell exactly parallels Swanwick’s, I found his conclusions, approach and motives impeccable. Perhaps you will too.
With their latest offering, Jacob McMurray and his creative cohort at Payseur & Schmidt have outdone their past accomplishments in the realm of book-as-art-object. Nicola Griffith’s autobiography, And Now We Are Going to Have a Party: Liner Notes to a Writer’s Early Life (multi-media, $75.00, 243 pages, ISBN 978-0-9789114-1-6) is a literal treasure box. Inside a sturdy slipcase are five handsome booklets containing Griffith’s fascinating narrative; a poster; a music CD (Griffith and her old band sound like Siouxsie Sioux fronting the Talking Heads); and other ephemera. The result is a life story wittily and bracingly told: brave, forthright, illuminating, passionate, rueful, and celebratory. If you melded Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006) with Aldiss’s The Twinkling of an Eye (1998) and Delany’s The Motion of Light in Water (1988), you might come up with a similar tale of a wild girl with literary sensibilities. Of late, Griffith seems to have left SF behind for thriller-mysteries. But her relationship to our field remains integral to her story.
Linda Addison’s third book of poems, Being Full of Light, Insubstantial (Space & Time Books, trade paper, $10.00, 109 pages, ISBN 978-0- 917053-16-0), is, contrary to its title, most substantial indeed. It’s a masterful assortment of over one hundred poems, most of them original to this book, full of joy and sorrow, wisdom and compassion, and close observation of life. Perhaps the key phrase to sum up its tenor is “hopeful, appreciative, wondering and caring.” Addison treats of metaphysics, but also of topical matters such as 9/11, Katrina and New Orleans, and war. She’s both fantasticalas in “Mermaid in the Bronx”and mimetic, as in “The Barn.” Anyone who can make you believe in a pickled embryo as an enticing protagonist (“The Cosmic Adventures of Jar Boy”) is a master wordsmith indeed.
Tom Disch’s first book of poems in ten years, About the Size of It (Anvil Press Poetry, $16.95, 157 pages, ISBN 978-0-85646-391-4), is a pagan parade of panache and prodigious prolificity. Disch’s formidable formal talents are exactly counterpoised by his irreverent wit. While a sense of mortality hovers over many of the poems in this volume, the reader gets the sense of a writer determined to extract the last morsel of juice from life, however bittersweet. The first section of the book, “About the Size of It,” contains poems like “The Vinidication of Obesity” which muse on abstruse matters. “Love and Death,” part two, finds tenderness and folly everywhere, even in the image of “Medusa at Her Vanity.” Part three, “Ars Gratia Artis,” features a great pastiche of Robert Service. In part four, “Theories of Other People,” “Jerusalem Recaptured” employs William Blake’s eye and style on modern scenes and themes. And finally, “The Great Outdoors” finds Disch in the realm “where mushrooms/Rhyme to each other on a dead log.” Taken all in all, this volume is a majestic panorama of creationand mankind’s tragicomic role therein.
You could not ask for a better overview of state-of-the-art fantastical poetry than you will receive from The 2007 Rhysling Anthology (SFPA, trade paper, $12.95, 131 pages, ISBN 978-0-8095-7219-9). Starting with a stimulating and cogent explicatory essay by editor Drew Morse, we move on to a feast of verse. Nearly one hundred poems, from about half as many individuals and sources, chart the broad frontiers of speculative poetry. Famous contributors like Bruce Boston, Joe Haldeman, Ursula K. LeGuin, Ian Watson, and Gregory Benford are matched by dozens of other fine poets whose names you need to know. Every conceivable topic and theme and not a few formalistic variations are on display here, in both long and short forms. I can’t really single out a favorite item (although I found Benford’s elegy for Asimov, “Isaac from the Outside,” very touching). But if you can’t find something that thrills or excites you in this book, you’re simply deaf to poetry.
Editors Sean Wallace and Paul Tremblay produce on a regular basis a fine periodical titled Fantasy. As a kind of sampler, they have now issued an original anthology bearing that same name (Prime, trade paperback, $6.95, 170 pages, ISBN 978-0-8095-5699-1). The low price makes it a kind of loss-leader for the magazine, an attempt to seduce new readers. But make no mistake, this volume is quality goods in its own right. Eleven stories range across a certain region of the map of the fantastical. Margaret Ronald inhabits a medieval setting with “Goosegirl.” Samantha Henderson conflates an alien with King Arthur’s court in “Shallot.” Modern times are infused with weirdness in Lisa Mantchev’s “The Greats Come A-Callin‘ ” and Jeremiah Tolbert’s “The Yeti Behind You.” And Holly Phillips dips into the near future with “Brother of the Moon.” All of these stories feature sharply honed prose, fine characterization, and stimulating plots. But my one complaint is a certain sameness of affect and effect. They all inhabit a certain identical emotional and speculative and linguistic range. No New Weird or gothic or transgressive here. One final comment: please note that ten out of eleven of these wonderful newish authors are women, indicative of a strong wave of female fantasists surging forward for our future delight.
The Pittsburgh SF club known as PARSEC must be a talented and thriving organization, based on their publishing wing known as PARSEC Ink. They issue an annual anthology, and this year’s is a swell one. Triangulation: End of Time (trade paper, $12.00, 155 pages, ISBN 978-0-6151-5280-6), edited by Pete Butler, revolves around various frutiful catastrophes. Time travel figures in several stories, either amusingly or soberly, its paradoxes causing one kind of ruination or another. But other big ideas abound, such as the notion of a runaway country, in “America Is Coming!” by Dario Ciriello. A strange cosmos featuring an infinite “Forever Sea” crops up in Kurt Kirchmeier’s “Surface Tension.” Perhaps the most ambitious and accomplished piece is Jetse de Vries’s “Near Absolute Zero,” wherein a famous scientist is moved to inexplicable destructive acts based on a glimpse through an alien artifact. This whole volume is equal to any typical issue of your favorite prozine, and will reward your investment.
Featuring a munificent thirty stories, At Ease With the Dead (Ash Tree Press, trade paper, $29.00, 375 pages, ISBN 978-1-55310-095-9) presents a dilemma to any reviewer intent on limning the volume in as small a space as I have. It’s arguably unfair to single out a story or two for the spotlight, especially when all of them exhibit such high levels of excellence. Instead, I’ll try to convey the general tone and effect of the whole anthology. Editors/publishers Christopher and Barbara Roden are scholars of the classical ghost/horror/weird tale, and in fact the main output of their superior small press consists of reprints from that canon, minor and major authors both. So as you might suspect, when it comes time to generate an original anthology, their selections will hew rather closely to the virtues exemplified by authors like M. R. James and Robert Aickman, rather than, say, Clive Barker and Joe Hill. Thus all these stories possess a certain gravitas and stateliness. Their telling is leisurely and decompressed, their frights subtle and sophisticated, the gore minimal. But this shared attitude toward and presentation of the fantastical does not, surprisingly, create an altogether old-fashioned ambiance. The majority of these stories inhabit contemporary times and indeed convey a peculiarly modern sense of unease. The authors hereincluding such luminaries as Melanie Tem, Chet Williamson, and Joel Lanehave firm and sensitive fingers on the pulse of twenty-first-century society, and succeed in invoking shivers and awe that will compete with headlines any day.
Heather Shaw craftily offers us both allegory and naturalism, symbolism and precisely observed reportage in her collection When We Were Six (Tropism Press, chapbook, $5.00, 52 pages, ISBN unavailable). Thus she gets the best of both worlds, consensus reality and the vibrant terrain of her imagination. In “Single White Farmhouse,” the sentient domicile of an average family gets rather frisky. “Mountain, Man” finds a hermit taking up with a strange woman who embodies all creation. A young deformed student’s life is remade by another magical woman in “Restoration.” “When We Were Twelve” features a family of clones striving to keep Daddy happy. “Famishing” details how in an Asian country an overweight woman discovers a magical cure for her problems. And finally, “Wetting the Bed” sets a strange fleet afloat during the days of a new Biblical Flood. All these stories show zest, glee, and insight into the human conditionrare qualities in any writer.
In her much-anticipated debut collection, Dangerous Space (Aqueduct Press, trade paper, $18.00, 256 pages, ISBN 978-0933500-13-3), Kelley Eskridge can sound like Samuel Delany, Theodore Sturgeon, Fritz Leiber, or Joanna Russ, while still maintaining her own unique throaty, modulated voice. A non-trivial accomplishment indeed. These seven stories cover a wide territory stylistically and venue-wise, while all adhering to the same authorial POV that regards the world as a dangerous, delightful place, where extending oneself to others and opening oneself up to experience necessarily entails the possibility of suffering. “Strings” presents a future where music has been robbed of improvisation. “And Salome Danced” gives us an actor with some uncanny supernatural abilities. A “dust-devil” bag lady holds some startling secrets in “City Life.” Postmodern sword-and-sorcery is the motif in “Eye of the Storm,” while a cyberpunkish vision appertains to “Somewhere Down the Diamondback Road.” Original to this collection, the long title story is a mimetic rendition of the pop musician’s life. And finally, “Alien Jane” brings us inside a cruel mental asylum where the title character undergoes a lab-animal existence narrated by a fellow patient who might be her only friend. Eskridge’s output accretes only slowlythe oldest story here dates from 1990but like well-aged wine, these tales decant superbly.
In 1970, Philip José Farmer began a novella centered around an SCA-style enclave set amidst a post-scarcity culture of the twenty-second century. As one of his patented “pocket universes,” the idea might not have had the cosmic resonance of World of Tiers or Riverworld, but it held the potential for a nice little satirical romp. Unfortunately, the piece was never finisheduntil now, thanks to the aid of PJF’s nephew, Danny Adams. The result is The City Beyond Play (PS Publishing, hardcover, $20.00, 112 pages, ISBN 978-1-905834-24-2). This tale has a kind of antique charm, like a lost episode of the original Star Trek. On a surface narrative level, it moves capably through an adventure wherein Wilson Gore, murderer on the lam, learns how to be a better person by conforming to the medieval strictures of Scadia. But PJF’s savage wit, scabrous rebellion, enthusiastic pulp brio, and mythic archetypes are missing, whether through a deficiency in PJF’s original outline/conception, or in Adams’s transcription of the story. It’s Twain’s Connecticut Yankee redux, a pleasant confection but no more.
If you blended J.K. Huysmans, Clark Ashton Smith, and Gene Wolfe into a single individual, he might resemble Forrest Aguirreat least when that well-known editor/ author is producing a novella like Swans Over the Moon (Wheatland Press, trade paper, $14.95, 112 pages, ISBN 978-0-9794054-0-2). Far in the future, the Moon is inhabited by warring kingdoms, one of which is Procellarium. Here, the Judicar Pelevin rules with a stern hand, amidst much baroque pomp and splendor. His three daughtersSelene, Basia, and Cimbriare the center around which his personal life revolves. (Echoes of King Lear!) But only Selene comforts him, as the other two are traitors and thorns in his sideor so he believes. Thus, amidst war and diplomacy, family psychodynamics enact themselves to the bitter end of a stimulating rococo tragedy.
Magical realism is a tough mode to bring off. Books in this vein can often sound twee or fey or forced or artificial. But the best magical realism exhibits a kind of reverence for the mysteries of life, illuminates the strangeness of the human condition, and entertains the reader with a tragicomic perspective. Randall Silvis fulfills this mission in his novel In a Town Called Mundomuerto (Omnidawn Publishing, trade paper, $12.95, 160 pages, ISBN 978-1-890650-19-3). An old man named Alberto feels compelled to tell the same mythic story of his youth over and over each day to a fifteen-year-old boy (“. . . to allow the story its opportunity to speak . . .”), until the boy becomes a half-complicit bard himself. Alberto’s tale concerns Lucia Luna, the village’s most beautiful woman, and how she danced one night with a dolphin god in human form, and became pregnant by the visitor. All communal propriety goes topsy-turvy, and Lucia Luna’s life becomes threatened. Only the young Alberto, in love with the older woman, can save her, by accosting the dolphin-man in his lair. By turns droll, somber, reflective, rueful, and hopeful, this story speaks of eternal verities in very specific mortal masks.
Like some devilishly sly hybrid of Howard Hendrix, John Brunner, Norman Spinrad, and Lance Olsen, David Memmott spins a metaphysical “postcyberpunk” novel in Prime Time (Wordcraft of Oregon, trade paper, $15.00, 271 pages, ISBN 978-1-877655-53-1), the first volume in a new trilogy-to-be. Memmott is intent on examining deep epistemological and ontological issues concerning the way humanity fashions its own reality, but he embeds his questions in a captivating thriller. He marshalls his extensive cast of characters with precision and brevity of introduction (giving just enough of their backstories to firmly embed the players in our perceptions) and then weaves their lifepaths together in a glorious tangle. From corporate boardrooms to gang warrens, he lays out a tangible future world. Memmott’s mid-twenty-first-century globe is swept up in Dreamtime, a virtual reality of surpassing heft. But lurking in the wings is Primetime, an upgrade that “offers vital enhancements to Dreamtime, but certain anomalies seeped into the virtual worlds with alarming regularity.” With juicy neologisms and racing subplots, Memmott ponders the big issues raised by his new technology. As one character opines,
“What is personal identity? Where are the boundaries? Are we the membranes through which information flows? Are we the synapses that fire in response to stimulus? Are we mindless hosts of selfish genes. . . ? Are we colonies whose every action is the result of some consensus among individual members? Primetime is the door into what Alfred Whitehead called ‘unbounded potential for creative advance,’ the moving boundary of co-creation.”
This is philosophic SF at its best.