Books & Comics

The Love We Share Without Knowing by Christopher Barzak | Book Review

February 11

love we share without knowing“Are you okay?” That is the question asked, in one form or another, in nearly all of the stories that comprise Christopher Barzak’s new mosaic novel The Love We Share Without Knowing. It is a deceptively simple question. It is a question that you ask when you can sense that something is wrong, but you don’t know what, or what to do. It is a question that you may be asked when you are not behaving in accordance with someone’s idea of “normal.” And it is a question you might be asked when you are haunted. So many of Barzak’s characters are all three of these.

Teenage Elijah Fulton’s family moves to Japan due to his father’s job with Sony. Resentful of the move and missing America (“Genki desu ka? Are you okay?” asks his sister, p. 7), Elijah takes up running to “get away from everything” (p. 1). One day Elijah gets lost in the forest and finds a secluded shrine; a fox (or perhaps a kitsune, a Japanese fox spirit) emerges and leads him home. Some time later, Elijah rebels by taking the train to Tokyo. Again lost, and unable to identify the train home, Elijah is once again rescued, this time by a Japanese girl named Midori who is dressed as a fox. But when Elijah tries to contact Midori the next day, he learns from her father that she committed suicide more than a decade ago.

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MultiReal by David Louis Edelman | Book Review

January 8

The labels “science fiction” and “speculative fiction” have long been entwined, with speculative fiction variously considered synonymous with science fiction or an umbrella that contains science fiction. And indeed most science fiction is speculative, either in the form of selective futurism,multireal extrapolating and highlighting present trends, or as thought experiments on present questions of human nature (or both). What is increasingly interesting then about David Louis Edelman’s Jump 225 trilogy, of which MultiReal is the second volume, is how it is becoming less a work that addresses the present indirectly, through such speculation, and more a work that seeks to directly capture the zeitgeist, the feeling and the texture of the present. It does so not by in-depth mimicry of the present, but by using science fiction to construct a credible model of the present.

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The Man on the Ceiling by Steve Rasnic & Melanie Tem | Book Review

June 11

Tem’s fantastical memoir The Man on the Ceiling, about his wife Melanie. And Melanie’s character, in one of her narrative turns, tells us how a strange and lost man did one night climb through her bedroom window, only to flee when she awoke. The Tems describe their book as “loosely autobiographical” (the book’s jacket adds a parenthetical “maybe” to the common descriptor “A Novel”) and we can guess that this episode may be one of those that are, as the word is typically understood, true. Given this starting point, a more creatively blinkered author or pair of authors might have left the “man on the ceiling” as a minor aside, a passing nightmare to be commented on and then dismissed. We would instead be holding a straightforwardly autobiographical account of the Tems, of the love and anxieties they have for each other and their family, likely titled “The Man in the Window.” And everything in that account would be true. But such a mechanically truthful account wouldn’t be the whole story, or the whole truth.

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The Last Dragon by J.M. McDermott | Book Review

February 21

In Last Dragon, J.M. McDermott strips the fat from the bones of epic quest-driven fantasy, then dresses up the resulting skeleton of story in layer upon layer of fragmented and elliptical narrative. The fit of this literary garb on the somewhat typical fantasy understory isn’t perfect; indeed, when the reading is done we may feel that the clothes have no emperor — or rather, empress, as we shall see. But the sheer pleasure the novel infuses the process of reading with, the way it trusts readers to engage deeply and carefully, makes Last Dragon a book that may be equally enjoyable to epic fantasy fans looking for something different and challenging, and to readers who enjoy challenges and who had all but given up on epic fantasy’s ability to provide them.

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Steps Through the Mist by Zoran Zivkovic | Book Review

January 19

There are fantasists and there are master fantasists; I’d like to suggest that the masters reveal themselves not only by their greatest works, but by what are — for them and them only — lesser volumes. Steps Through the Mist, the latest of Serbian author Zoran Živković’s novels to be published in the USA, is a revelatory volume of this later sort; it confirms Živković’s status as a master. The book’s chief flaw is that there is simply not enough of it, leaving us wanting more.

In the United States, Steps Through the Mist follows 2006’s Seven Touches of Music (both first appeared in English in the UK magazine Interzone several years ago, and were part of 2006’s Impossible Stories omnibus from the UK’s PS Publishing). Like the previous American release, Steps Through the Mist is an exquisite slim black volume from Aio Publishing; like that earlier volume, Steps Through the Mist is a mosaic novel, a story suite of short fabulations linked both literally and in thematic concern. Here Živković’s concerns are predestination, fate and the future; in the five stories that make up his mosaic he builds a multifaceted view into how modern people might relate to having, knowing and choosing their own fates — and those of others.

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God’s Demon by Wayne Barlowe | Book Review

December 2

Hell is a setting but never quite a theme in Wayne Barlowe’s debut novel God’s Demon; this explains both the book’s successes and its disappointments. At its best Barlowe’s novel provides a fairly typical, quasi-medieval fantasy story — in an infernal setting that evokes the primal otherness of games like Doom and Diablo. But with the novel emerging based on Barlowe’s concept art for a forthcoming film adaptation of Milton’s Paradise Lost and Barlowe’s own interest in Dante’s Inferno, God’s Demon aspires to more. Unfortunately, Barlowe’s attempt to include classic questions of punishment and redemption, freedom and divine will evokes admiration, yes, but also the sense that these questions never really mesh with the story he is telling. The result is a work that may yield some visceral pleasure for epic fantasy fans, but feels muddled in plot, characterization and theme.

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Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing | Book Review

October 23

What makes certain writings “interstitial” is largely a matter of expectations, say Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss, editors of Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing. How, then, to set expectations for the anthology itself? For reader expectations may either highlight or camouflage that this is a good if somewhat homogeneous assemblage of literate, fantastic short stories.

Insofar as the stories of the anthology suggest a platform to base expectations around, we might start by specifying that interstitial fiction is not itself a genre or movement in the conventional sense: it has few inherent characteristics or identifiers. Ignore the back cover braggadocio that interstitial writing is “a new type of fiction”; it has been with us, contradict the editors, since at least Shakespeare. Ignore also the frequent refrain that interstitial writing “crosses borders,” as further comments and evidence suggest that this is neither intrinsic nor exclusive to interstitial writing. Concentrate instead on the back cover’s suggestion that interstitial writing “falls in the interstices of recognized commercial genres” — and bear in mind Heinz Insu Fenkl’s comments from his Introduction to the anthology, that “an interstice is not an intersection. […] Literally it means to ‘stand between’ or ‘stand in the middle.'” Not stand between separate genres, necessarily (a semantic issue that plagues many attempted explanations of interstitiality), but as the cover blurb hints, between the commercial aspect of a genre and its wider potential.

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Books & Comics

Blindsight by Peter Watts | Book Review

August 27

One of the things I find interesting about “hard” science fiction — by way of introducing Peter Watts’s Hugo-nominated novel Blindsight, the best example of the type that I have read in years — is that it is probably the most legitimate heir to the original remit of story, a remit that has existed since humans first gained sufficient consciousness and intelligence both to create stories and to need to create stories. Looking at the earliest stories we have record of, we can always see several purposes at work: stories existed to inform; to entertain; and, from the start, stories have existed at the level of myth to theorize, to suggest and test possibilities about the unknown elements of the world that we see and experience. What are those odd looking animals, where did they come from; where did we come from; what are those flashes of light in the darkness?

I imagine that within any given movement, though, there comes a time when some sufficiently large number of people — a majority in fact or at least in voice — decides that they’ve carried things as far as they want to, that any further change, any further speculating, is as likely to impact them for the worse as for the better. And we can see this in modern Western fiction, as the new game of literature is “the human condition” — showing what we know rather than grappling with what we don’t know. There is the pressure to see literature according to a single aesthetic, to judge it based solely on how well it captures our humanist understanding of a fixed present. It’s no surprise that such a static, unchanging view of the world would be anathema to a writer like Peter Watts, an evolution-minded marine biologist by training. Watts understands that life is not static, that we are part of a world, part of a universe, that is constantly evolving. At a high level, Watts is interested in how this evolution, our evolution, may play out; he is as interested in what we don’t yet know about ourselves as what we do. It’s easy to see why this type of speculative fiction has become gauche in many circles: we like to think we know everything.

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In the Forest of Forgetting by Theodora Goss | Book Review

July 26

“The Rose in Twelve Petals” begins Theodora Goss’s newly-in-paperback collection In the Forest of Forgetting, and the story makes an ideal introduction to the the author’s work. A retelling of the classic Sleeping Beauty story, it frames and then re-frames our expectations. The initial recognition of the familiar story pulls us into the the fairy tale mindset: of stories that map the small journeys and decisions that can unexpectedly lead to major life changes; of characters and encounters that we understand to be meant not quite literally, yet not as simple allegory either. As the story progresses, the postmodern telling of the tale, the way that every character and every side are given voice (reminiscient of Pamuk’s My Name is Red), the way that the subtext of classic fairy tales — gender, class, politics in the largest sense of the word — are literalized, all serve to pull fairy tales into modernity, into history (often but not always our own). This mixture of old and new modes of storytelling recurs in the collection’s other fifteen stories: there are times, settings, characters and themes that appear again and again, similar but different, the original fairy tales of a multitude of parallel worlds. Throughout, Goss’s storytelling palette is made up of the strange day-to-day patterns of individual wants and desires, the certainties and uncertainties that make up our daily lives.

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Books & Comics

Con Report – Readercon 18

July 9

Readercon 18 was held July 5th through the 8th, 2007, in Burlington, MA, USA. Readercon is known as a very focused convention: there are none of the art shows, music, gaming, costumes, etc. that one often sees at conventions of the fantastic. Instead the attention is lavished on the convention program — the panels, talks, readings and interviews. As the name suggests, Readercon is very much a convention by and for those who share a love of books that require discussion.

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Getting to Know You by David Marusek | Book Review

June 24


Getting to Know You is only David Marusek’s second book, but he is already a veteran of the science fiction wars. Marusek’s 2005 novel Counting Heads was the subject of the debut speculative fiction column “Across the Universe” in that bastion of mainstream fiction, The New York Times Book Review; the column both proclaimed Counting Heads to be among the reviewer’s “favorite books [of 2005] in any category” and yet wondered, “why does contemporary science fiction have to be so geeky” that it becomes inaccessible to readers of mainstream literature? The question helped renew a battle, waged within the science fiction community since the New Wave movement of the 1960s, over how the “science” and “fiction” components of SF intersect. Some (such as Charles Stross) argued that SF should be more geeky, should focus its efforts on the tech-savvy readers of websites like Slashdot and Boing Boing; others (including John Scalzi) argued that what SF requires are more accessible entry points for readers less familiar with science. Sadly, the first point of the NYT column — regarding the quality of Marusek’s fiction — was largely forgotten in the discussion. Given all this, I’m happy to say that Getting to Know You, a new collection of the author’s short stories, in large part bridges the gaps that its predecessor highlighted: it’s equally accessible to SF genrephiles and mainstream readers. The collection’s defining characteristic is carefully constructed balance.

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Napoleon’s Pyramids by William Dietrich | Book Review

March 30

The initial appearance of the pulp hero in the newspapers, radio shows and cinema of 1920s America was a reassuring affirmation of rugged American individualism in a world that, in the wake of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, seemed suddenly large and uncertain. America’s gradual acceptance of an increasingly multicultural world can be seen in the pulp revivals that followed. The campy, tongue-in-cheek revivals of pulp characters such as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon in the 1970s had become by the 1980s and 90s outright humor, as the Indiana Jones series and later Evil Dead films let audiences know that it was okay not to take their pulp heroes’ antics too seriously. Indeed, the self-awareness brought on by globalization made it impossible to do so.

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Academ’s Fury by Jim Butcher | Book Review

February 16

There are a few sentences in the Prologue of Jim Butcher’s Academ’s Fury that in some ways reveal all that you need to know about the book:

The steady, smoldering throb from his left knee was of little more concern to him than the aching of his tired feet or the stretching soreness of weary muscles in his shoulders and arms after a day of hard drilling. He ignored them, his face as plain and remote as the worn hilt of the sword at his belt.

Butcher’s writing is descriptive and flows well, and his characterizations deftly evoke at least a modicum of sympathy. The story and characters themselves however are a rather tired and worn assemblage of epic fantasy clichés that disrupt the book’s imaginative impact, and the quick-moving pace covers up some rather silly plot holes in much the same way as the quick-moving prose covers up questions such as how exactly a sword worn at the belt can be “remote.”

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Books & Comics | Interviews

At the Teashop | a Zoran Zivkovic Interview

February 9

This week our On the Spot guest is World Fantasy Award winning author Dr. Zoran Živković. Publishers in the UK and USA have snapped up Živković’s stories, written in his native Serbian, in English translation at an ever-increasing rate as his literary star has risen. His work has been compared to that of Calvino and Borges and has received praise from such notable authors as Jeff Vandermeer and Michael Moorcock. His tightly written novels and collections, beginning with The Fourth Circle and continuing to such recent publications as Seven Touches of Music and Twelve Collections and The Teashop, combine modern characters with fantastic, sometimes absurd situations, that reward careful reading but do not demand a single interpretation. His fiction often weaves a connected whole out of many seemingly separate parts—which, come to think of it, is precisely what an interview attempts to do as well.

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Seven Touches of Music by Zoran Zivkovic | Book Review

January 19


“Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.”
— Sir Arthur Eddington (1882-1944)

It is a strange universe, one where the scientific respectability of general relativity contrasts with the maverick speculative theories of quantum mechanics; one where the literary respectability of the mainstream novel contrasts with the anything-goes nature of speculative fiction. What is science and what is magic? Quantum theory shows that an action taken now, in the present, can produce changes in the past; a particle only actually comes into defined existence when it is observed by a conscious observer; and such observation can change that which is observed for any subsequent observers. It’s all enough to not merely blur, but erase the previously held division of science being impersonal and repeatable while ceding to magic the realm of the personal, the numinous. While other branches of fiction, even the most literary, cling to rational fables of cause and effect — rely on unknown or misunderstood causes for their pathos — a growing group of writers are turning speculative fiction into guidebooks for imagining our so very strange universe.

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Adventures in Unhistory by Avram Davidson | Book Review

December 31

Imagine if you will that, when you were younger, you had an older relative — a grandfather or great-aunt — who was something of an armchair historian regarding mythology. Every now and then, when you were visiting, you’d make your way to their study, sit in one of the overstuffed chairs by the fire, and ask a question. “Where exactly did Sindbad sail?,” you’d ask; or, “who was Prester John?” or “were there really ever dragons, rocs, or unicorns?” Your older relative would get a youthful gleam of excitement in their eye and start pulling down a collection of books from the shelves with which to answer your question. “Maybe,” they’d say, opening an ancient-looking tome, “and maybe not. I once met an elderly gentleman named Mr. Dong who claimed to have seen a unicorn while on safari in Africa…but I’ll save that story for later. First, let’s see what old Pliny the Elder had to say on the matter….”

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Warrior and Witch by Marie Brennan | Book Review

December 4

warrior witchFrom its cover one might suspect Marie Brennan’s Warrior and Witch to be a fantasy-romance hybrid, but there is actually very little romance in this tale of magic, politics and cultural change. Also misleading about the cover is its failure to note that this is a sequel to Brennan’s previous novel Doppelganger (the story, and this review, contain spoilers for that book). The omission of lineage is unfortunate because Warrior and Witch is not the best introduction to Brennan’s work, nor is it as good a story as she is capable of.

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Od Magic by Patricia McKillip | Book Review

November 22

The genre that today is labeled “fantasy” on the shelves of your local bookseller and library (or the links of your favored e-tailer) is made up of many different literary traditions. There are the mythological and the swashbuckling, the gothic and the fable, the folk tale and the fairy tale. It is to this last group that Od Magic most clearly belongs. Eschewing any pretense of realism or grittiness, detailed settings or characters, Patricia McKillip’s latest novel is a modern fairy tale that uses exquisite language and powerful, primal symbolism to convey something as unfashionable as a moral message — as well as a strong serving of magic.

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