Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Aaron's Magazine of the Week :: G-8 and His Battle Aces June 1937

G-8 and His Battle Aces June 1937The Magazine of the Week is the June 1937 issue of G-8 and His Battle Aces, with cover story "Flight from the Grave" by prolific pulp author Robert J. Hogan. G-8 was an attempt to combine a hero pulp with a war pulp about World War I fighting aces. In order to include the amount of action and intrigue that hero pulp readers expected, G-8 resorted to some of the most bizarre story devices ever seen in the pulps or anywhere else. I love this cover image (by Frederick Blakeslee) of a vampire/zombie emerging from a coffin perched on top of a World War I biplane. Did he nail that thing to the fuselage the night before? Of all the absurd magazine covers that appeared in the pulp era, this one gets my vote as the most outrageous.

G-8 is remembered fondly by science fiction collectors for its wild elements of fantasy and horror. Many other hero pulps also had elements of science fiction and fantasy, particularly Doc Savage and The Secret 6, but there was only one hero pulp that was actually set in the future. You will see this futuristic hero in next week's Magazine of the Week.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Aaron's Magazine of the Week :: The Shadow March 15, 1941

The Shadow March 15, 1941The Magazine of the Week is the March 15, 1941 issue of The Shadow. Having discussed the unfortunate racial stereotypes in the old pulp magazines, I felt the need to point out that in some instances the pulps championed racial tolerance. On the cover of the Magazine of the Week, we see our hero The Shadow battling against the Ku Klux Klan in "The White Column." (The KKK is not referred to by name in the story, but then neither is Nazi Germany.)

Many incorrectly believe that the character of The Shadow was introduced in the radio show, narrated by Orson Welles and others, with the famous tag line, "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!" The Shadow did first appear on radio, but only as a voice introducing the show Detective Stories. None of that show's stories were about The Shadow. Nevertheless, fans of Detective Stories were intrigued by the mysterious narrator, so Street & Smith decided to turn The Shadow into an independent character, which they did in the pages of The Shadow magazine, beginning in 1931. Most of the contents of The Shadow magazine were written by Walter B. Gibson, under the pseudonym Maxwell Grant. The success of the magazine then inspired the famous Shadow radio show, which premiered in 1937.

In addition to the radio show, The Shadow magazine also triggered an entire genre of "hero pulps." Some of these hero pulps, notably Doc Savage, The Spider, and The Phantom Detective, enjoyed years of success, but none ever quite equaled the popularity of The Shadow. When many pulp genres later made the transition to paperbacks, the hero pulps instead transformed into a genre of comic books. Comic books then gifted most of their heroes with superpowers. The pulp heroes were instead mostly Batman-style heroes, relying on their wits and cleverness and some cool gizmos. The Shadow of the magazines did not even have his mysterious ability to cloud men's minds so they wouldn't see him--in the pulps he was just real good at skulking in corners. The Shadow was given his psychic powers by radio producers, who didn't think "and then I hid under the table" was dramatic enough for radio.

Some of the hero pulps attempted to integrate the hero genre with other pulp genres. My favorite example will be next week's Magazine of the Week, a hero pulp that was also a war pulp that was also a Weird Tales imitator.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Aaron's Magazine of the Week :: Fantastic Universe August-September 1953

Fantastic Universe Aug-Sep 1953The Magazine of the Week is the August-September 1953 issue of Fantastic Universe, with cover art by Alex Schomburg. Here we see the image of the Statue of Liberty buried in the sand, to belabor my point that Hollywood sci-fi has never (save once) come up with anything written science fiction didn't already cover decades earlier. By the way, this isn't meant as a slam on the 1968 version of Planet of the Apes, which I consider an underrated film. People have focused on the monkey make-up and terrible sequels and forgotten that the original movie actually had something interesting to say. The remake is another matter.

Fantastic Universe was one of a host of digest-sized science fiction magazines to hit the market in the 1950's. The digest magazines dashed in to fill the void as the pulp magazines disappeared. By the late 1950's, the pulps were entirely gone from the newsstand, and the few science fiction pulps to survive managed it only by switching to digest format. The digests operated on shoestring budgets, yet managed to offer some of the best writing around. The Magazine of the Week features such outstanding authors as Evan Hunter (who became famous for his mysteries under the name Ed McBain), Richard Matheson (later a very successful screenwriter), and SF luminaries Poul Anderson, Clifford Simak, Eric Frank Russell, and Andre Norton (under her pseudonym Andrew North).

We'll return to some of the digest magazines in future BOTWs, but first let's get back to our history of the pulp magazines, with the most successful title in the "hero pulp" genre.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Aaron's Magazine of the Week :: Astounding Science Fiction February 1941

Astounding February 1941Continuing our tribute to pulp writer Nelson S. Bond (1908-2006), the Magazine of the Week is the February 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, with Nelson Bond cover story "Magic City." That Bond is the sole author mentioned on the cover shows how highly he was regarded during the pulp era, for this magazine also contains stories by science fiction legends Robert A. Heinlein (one story under his real name and a serialized novel under his pseudonym Anson MacDonald), Theodore Sturgeon, and L. Sprague de Camp.

This issue also has a great cover by Hubert Rogers. The film Planet of the Apes (1968), starring Charlton Heston, effectively used the image of a ruined Statue of Liberty to symbolize lost hope in a post-apocalyptic future. But with only one important exception Hollywood science fiction has always been decades behind written science fiction, and so we see that the ruined Lady Liberty concept originated not with Hollywood but with Nelson Bond's story "Magic City." ("Magic City" also takes the reader into the derelict New York subway tunnels, anticipating the best of the film sequels, Beneath the Planet of the Apes.) No need to speculate whether Pierre Boulle, author of the novel on which Planet of the Apes was based, ever saw this magazine growing up in France, for Boulle's novel doesn't contain the Statue of Liberty scene at all -- the novel's twist ending is closer to the ending of Tim Burton's 2001 remake.

And just in case anyone wants to give Hollywood credit for adding power to the image by burying the Statue of Liberty in the sand, we'll dispel that notion with next week's Magazine of the Week.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Amy's bookshelf :: Asimov's Science Fiction March 2006

Asimov's Science Fiction March 2006The March 2006 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction contains four novelettes and three short stories. My initial plan was to read the January 2006 issue, but I couldn't locate that magazine at first.

The colorful cover of the March issue caught my eye. The artwork is by J.K. Potter for the novelette "The Kewlest Thing of All" by David Ira Cleary. This futuristic story features a girl that has a videophone embedded in her palm and browser windows across her skin. She is guerilla marketing "kewlness" to a chubby woman technician. The setting is San Francisco flooded by melt water (global warming). It reads like updated cyberpunk. The ending confounded me somewhat, but I'd recommend this story.

"The Gabble" by Neal Asher is a standout SF novelette set on another world. Scientists on the alien world of Masada study its unusual lifeforms, including the highly dangerous hooders and the frustratingly untranslatable gabbleducks.

Other novelettes are "Dark Eden" by Chris Beckett which is a somewhat humorous but clichéd space adventure, and "Dead Men Walking" by Paul J. McAuley which is set on Uranus’s moon of Ariel and has a dying man telling of his search for a gory assassin.

Short story "46 Directions, None of Them North" by Deborah Coates is a fun, slangy, story told by a sixteen-year old girl who has to go to Alaska to see aliens land. "Companion to Owls" by Chris Roberson is a odd fantasy of a man's mostly solitary life on the Roof of a Cathedral that covers thousands of square miles. Last, but not least, is the powerful short story "Rwanda" by Robert Reed which deals with a cheap colonization of Earth, the enormousness of such an event, and how inhumanely humans can act to one another.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Aaron's Book of the Week :: The Thirty-First of February by Nelson S. Bond

Thirty-First of FebruaryThe Book of the Week is The Thirty-First of February, a collection of short fiction by Nelson S. Bond. This is to honor Mr. Bond, who passed away recently at the age of 97.

Nelson S. Bond was a prolific pulp writer, penning well over 200 stories for the pulp magazines. He is best remembered for his light-hearted science fiction and fantasy for the SF pulps and for Blue Book and Weird Tales, but he also wrote many stories for the sports and mystery pulps. Most of his work was first published between the late 1930's and the mid-1950's, and he only occasionally wrote fiction after that, including a story for Asimov's Science Fiction in 1999. He often wrote scripts for radio and television, and in 1946 wrote arguably the first teleplay ever aired on a TV network (a network consisting of New York, Boston, and Washington). In 1998 Bond was named Author Emeritus by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

After retiring from writing full-time, Nelson Bond went into business as a rare book dealer, so I thought it would be fitting to honor him with the hardcover first edition of one of his own books. On the other hand, we shouldn't neglect his background in the pulps. Next week's Magazine of the Week will be a pulp magazine with a cover story by Nelson S. Bond and a cover image that may have inspired the creators of the film Planet of the Apes.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Aaron's Magazine of the Week :: Startling Stories November 1939

Startling Stories November 1939Continuing our tribute to Jack Williamson (1908-2006), the Magazine of the Week is the November 1939 issue of Startling Stories, with cover story "The Fortress of Utopia" by Williamson, a story he remembered fondly in a
1999 Interzone interview.

I thought this magazine would be a fitting one to honor Jack Williamson, not only because I love the cover's science fictional variation on the story of Noah's Ark (even if it is not quite so garish a cover as last week's), but because the magazine contains a profile of Jack Williamson in which he boasts of recently passing one million words published in his career. There is no telling how many millions more words he wrote between then and his most recent novel, The Stonehenge Gate (2005).

From 1928 on, Jack Williamson was one of the regulars of the science fiction pulps until the market shifted to paperbacks. It is remarkable that he was then able to reinvent himself as a more sophisticated writer and continue his career for another half-century. Next week we will honor another mainstay of the science fiction pulps who recently passed away, a writer who was not inclined to make that transition after the pulp magazines disappeared and had written only sparingly since the 1950's.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Amy's bookshelf :: Fantasy & Science Fiction January 2006

F&SF January 2006For some time I’ve been saying I wanted to read more short fiction. Years ago I used to regularly read the stories in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and more; but not lately. I still subscribe a number of SF magazines.

The cover story for the January 2006 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is "Planet of Mystery" by Terry Bisson, a pulp fiction planetary romance. The cover art is by Max Bertolini. In "Planet of Mystery" a space mission to the planet Venus improbably discovers a cool surface and breathable air on Venus, plus amazon women riding centaurs. Later a sentient robot and a flying saucer are encountered. It’s frequently ridiculous, lightweight entertainment. Sort of dumb fun. The second half of this novella is in the February 2006 F&SF issue.

The magazine contains two novelettes, both of which were good. "Less than Nothing" by Robert Reed is part of a series of stories about Native American boy Raven. This is fantasy intersecting with today's world. "The Boy in Zaquitos" by Bruce McAllister concerns a CIA operative secretly spreading plague in South America in the 1960s. It read as scarily too real.

Of the four short stories, my favorite was "Horse-Year Women" by Michaela Roessner. It’s an emotional modern story entwined with tales of women born in the Oriental Year of the Horse. My least favorite story was the "Shadow Man" by Matthew Hughes due to its creepy horror elements. "A Daze in the Life" by Tony Sarowitz is a near future science fiction story about hiring out brain processing power. In fairy tale "Journey to Gantica" by Matthew Corradi a woman grows as tall as a giant and shrinks to miniature size.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Aaron's Book of the Week :: The Green Girl by Jack Williamson

The Green GirlThe Book of the Week is The Green Girl by Jack Williamson, who passed away Friday at the age of 98.

Jack Williamson made a great many contributions to the world of science fiction and fantasy, including such classics as Darker Than You Think and The Humanoids. He coined the term "terraforming" and wrote the first stories involving the modern concepts of androids and anti-matter (which he called "contraterrene" or "C-T" matter). But Williamson will probably forever be best remembered for the incredible longevity of his career. Jack Williamson sold his first story in 1928 and was an established author with dozens of published works to his credit before Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein even made their first sales. (Isaac Asimov was thrilled to receive a congratulatory post card from Williamson after Asimov's first story was published.) Yet he continued to write impressive and important fiction into the 21st Century, publishing works in nine different decades. He won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novella for his story "The Ultimate Earth," published in 2000, 72 years after his first story.

Williamson held a PhD in English literature from the University of Colorado and taught full-time at Eastern New Mexico University from 1960 to 1977. After that, he taught part-time and organized the Jack Williamson Lectureship Series, an annual program inspiring a new generation of writers since 1977. Jack Williamson was the second person ever named "Grand Master" by the Science Fiction Writers of America (Heinlein was the first). He was also named Grand Master by the World Horror Society, received the World Fantasy Award for life achievement, and has been inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

As you can see from the Book of the Week, Avon Fantasy Novel #2 printed in 1950, Jack Williamson was one of the authors who helped science fiction and fantasy break into the new paperback fiction market. He was already very familiar to SF readers at the time thanks to his pulp fiction, an example of which we will see next week.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Aaron's Book of the Week :: The Daughter of Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer

The Daughter of Fu ManchuWe can hardly discuss the "yellow peril" subgenre without mentioning the most successful yellow peril writer of all, Sax Rohmer, and his most famous character, Fu Manchu. The Book of the Week is The Daughter of Fu Manchu, the first American appearance of Fu Manchu in paperback.

Sax Rohmer was the pen-name of Englishman Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward. Rohmer wrote a variety of types of fiction, including comedy, adventure stories, mysteries, and science fiction, but his most lasting contribution to literature is a dubious one, his absurdly stereotyped Chinese villains, particularly the sinister Fu Manchu. Fu Manchu's stories were written in the pulp style, but surprisingly he did not start out in the pulp magazines but rather in slick magazines like Collier's and in hardback books (although the pulps quickly imitated him with The Mysterious Wu Fang and Dr. Yen Sin). Fu Manchu was a hit from his first appearance in 1912, perhaps due to lingering anxieties from the Boxer Rebellion in China, then later found an even wider audience through paperback reprints and movies. Actors who played Fu Manchu on the screen included Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, and Peter Sellers. (Fu Manchu is the answer to the trivia question: What was Peter Sellers' last role before his death?)

As we have seen the past two weeks, any history of the pulp magazines must acknowledge the unfortunate racial stereotypes that were prevalent in the pulps. However, there were also occasions when the pulp magazines actively attempted to change prejudiced attitudes in society. Next in our tour of the pulp magazines is an issue of the most successful of the "hero pulp" magazines, in which our hero battles racial prejudice . . . with a pistol. But first, next week we will honor a recently departed pulp writer.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Aaron's Magazine of the Week :: Adventure July 1934

Adventure July 1934The Magazine of the Week is the July 1934 issue of Adventure magazine, cover art by Walther M. Baumhofer.

One aspect of collecting pulp magazines that takes some getting used to is that often the magazines' covers and contents reflect the prejudices of the time. The cover of the Magazine of the Week, featuring a sinister-looking Asian villain (check out his sharpened thumbnail), is an example of what collectors call "yellow peril" cover art, a common racial stereotype in the pulp era. The Magazine of the Week's "yellow peril" cover illustrates the story "War Lord of Darkness" by Erle Stanley Gardner. This was published one year after Gardner created the character for which his is now best remembered, Perry Mason.

Needless to say, the "yellow peril" stereotype is offensive to modern readers. However, the Magazine of the Week is an example of how misleading it can be to hold figures from the past to modern standards. Before you judge Erle Stanley Gardner harshly for writing this story, you should know that prior to becoming a full-time writer, Gardner was a practicing lawyer in California, where he gained a considerable reputation for vigorously defending Asian clients. In Chinese-American communities he was called "t'ai chong tze," the big lawyer. Even though "War Lord of Darkness" has a Chinese villain, Gardner's stories also contain many sympathetic Asian characters. (The same is true of the creator of the most famous Asian villain, whom we will see next week.)

At the same time, while politically correct attitudes can be taken to excess, this kind of cover art is a reminder of the important function served by what we now call "political correctness." By perpetuating racial stereotypes, the pulp magazines contributed to bigoted attitudes, helping to make possible for example the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Stereotypes about Asians and African-Americans were especially common in pulp fiction, and the fact that social norms have evolved to the point that such attitudes are no longer tolerated in the publishing field is something to be celebrated. I hope you will forgive me for circulating this cover image, but I think it is a useful exercise to look back upon the attitudes of the past, so that we may see how far our society has come and remind ourselves not to repeat past mistakes.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Aaron's Magazine of the Week :: Adventure November 1939

Adventure November 1939The Magazine of the Week is the November 1939 issue of Adventure magazine, cover art by Wesley Neff. Adventure was the flagship of the adventure genre of pulp magazines. Under the direction of editor Arthur Sullivant Hoffman and assistant editor Sinclair Lewis (who went on to be the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature), Adventure became a huge success soon after its initial publication in 1910. This quickly gave rise to a great many competitors, such as Action Stories, Red Blooded Stories, Danger Trail, Dynamic Adventures, Thrilling Adventures, Mammoth Adventures, Dime Adventure, and the eloquently named Man Stories. Adventure pulps were as popular as any genre, yet unlike science fiction, mysteries, westerns, and romance, adventure fiction did not remain a separate publishing category when the industry shifted from pulps to paperbacks.

Adventure and its imitators brought the most exotic locations of the world into the homes of pre-TV Americans. The plots were typically outlandish, Indiana Jones-style swashbucklers, yet Adventure was notoriously meticulous about the accuracy of factual details. This is probably why the most successful pulp writer of all, Edgar Rice Burroughs, never appeared in Adventure magazine--Adventure readers could not forgive him for placing a tiger in Africa, where there are no tigers, in the first Tarzan book.

Adventure invited readers to send in questions and retained experts in every field to answer. As a result, the letters section of Adventure is one of the most striking features of any pulp magazine. The questions to the editors in the Magazine of the Week include: How do you remove gold flour from sand? (Answer: Amalgamate the gold by adding mercury to the pan.) Any advice for navigating the Linville Gorge? (A: See that your hobnails are sharp and tight.) What is the best wood for footing arrows? (A: Genuine South American beefwood; order it from C.H. Pearson & Son Hardwood in Brooklyn.) What language is spoken in southwestern Abyssinia? (A: Amharic is the official language but Galla, spoken by the Bantu tribes, most widely used.) What is the best agent for killing and preserving very large moths and butterflies? (A: Potassium cyanide; handle with care.)

Adventure magazine had a fervently loyal fan base. It was the first pulp magazine to encourage its readers to join fan organizations, a marketing device later used successfully by the science fiction pulps. One of the fan organizations promoted by Adventure was The Legion, whose officers included Adventure editor Hoffman and Theodore Roosevelt, a devoted reader of Adventure. When the United States entered World War I, the Legion gathered information as to its members' skills and forwarded it to the War Department, which used this information in forming certain regiments. After the War, Theodore Roosevelt and other veterans in The Legion renamed the group the American Legion, and it remains an important veterans' organization to this day.

The popularity of the adventure genre dipped by the late 1930's. Adventure managed to survive until 1971, but sadly only by converting to a "slick" format girlie magazine. Even though the Magazine of the Week is a bit after Adventure's pulp heyday, I love this issue for the rugged pirate cover (not to mention the story title "Tooth Dentist of Tamarack"). We'll see another evocative, albeit politically incorrect by modern standards, Adventure cover next week.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Aaron's Magazine of the Week :: Ace-High Western November 1945

Ace High Western Nov. 1945Since all of my favorite authors have had the courtesy not to die in the last week, we return to our survey of the old pulp magazines. The Magazine of the Week is the November 1945 issue of Ace-High Western, one of the Western pulps.

I am not a big collector of Westerns, but I acquired the Magazine of the Week because the lead story, "Barb Wire Brings Bullets!", is by Clifford D. Simak, one of my favorite Golden Age science fiction writers (featured in one of my "Neglected Master" book reviews: A Choice of Gods), another example of how freely the pulp writers crossed genre barriers. I also liked the wonderfully vibrant cover on the Magazine of the Week. Most of the Western pulps distinguished themselves from the other pulp genres with less garish, higher quality cover art, and what fun is that?

Westerns were among the most popular of the pulp magazine genres -- witness the fact that Ace-High Western ran for 30 years, while its sister magazine Ace-High Detective lasted all of nine issues. Unlike science fiction, however, it is not accurate to say that the pulp magazines created Westerns as a genre. Westerns became a distinct genre during the heyday of the dime novels in the 19th Century, for example the Deadwood Dick dime novel that was our January 23 Book of the Week.

Westerns have declined in readership over the years, but still linger as a discrete publishing category, largely thanks to the continuing popularity of Louis L'Amour. Louis L'Amour is another author who established his career in the pulp magazines, usually writing under the pseudonym Jim Mayo. It is ironic that L'Amour arguably saved the Western genre from extinction, since he started out primarily in a different pulp genre, then switched to Westerns as that genre disappeared. His original genre of choice was perhaps the most important genre of the pulp era, but it no longer exists as a separate publishing category. Next week's Magazine of the Week will be an example of that lost genre.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Aaron's Book of the Week :: The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker

The Year of the Quiet SunThe Book of the Week is the 1970 first printing, paperback original of The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson "Bob" Tucker, cover art by Leo and Diane Dillon. This is to honor Mr. Tucker, who passed away last week, forcing the cancellation of his upcoming Third Annual 90th Birthday Party.

Bob Tucker was a successful author of both science fiction and mysteries. Before becoming a professional author, he was an active science fiction fan for many years, publishing various fanzines and receiving a Hugo Award as best fan writer. At one time it was a running gag in SF fandom to spread false news of Tucker's death (somebody thought it was funny - I guess you had to be there); unfortunately, last week's news was not such a hoax.

Tucker was named Author Emeritus by the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1996 and inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2003. He was noted for time travel stories with a more somber tone than most time travel adventures. The Year of the Quiet Sun is an example, telling of time travelers who venture a generation into the future to find America torn apart by interminable wars overseas and race riots at home. The Year of the Quiet Sun was a nominee for the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel of 1970 and won a John W. Campbell Campbell Memorial Award.

Aside from his own fiction, Wilson Tucker will live on in science fiction through two pieces of terminology. First, in 1941 Tucker coined the term "space opera," widely used to this day to describe free-wheeling interstellar adventures like Star Wars. Second, Tucker delighted in naming his characters after friends and colleagues, and so now whenever a science fiction author borrows the name of a fellow SF writer or personality it is called a "Tuckerism."

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Aaron's Magazine of the Week :: Dime Mystery July 1940

Dime Mystery July 1940Returning to our history of the pulp magazines, the Magazine of the Week is the July 1940 issue of Dime Mystery magazine.

Dime Mystery, edited by Harry Steeger, was arguably the first of the weird menace pulps, and featured some of the most gruesome covers ever seen in pulp fiction. However, under pressure from Mayor LaGuardia of New York, Dime Mystery decided to tone things down in 1940. It skipped the June 1940 issue, then came back to market with the Magazine of the Week. Dime Mystery continued to show women in peril, but they (a) had clothes on, and (b) were not being tortured or mutilated. The contents of the magazine took longer to change. The Magazine of the Week still has stories with titles like "Satan's Broiler" and "Bodies to Burn."

As it happens, by self-censoring its cover art, Dime Mystery ended up with much more clever and amusing covers, such as the evil little people on the cover of the Magazine of the Week. Okay, this was obviously still rather politically incorrect by modern standards, but at least the magazine was gradually moving in the right direction. Pulp cover art gets a lot more politically incorrect than this, as you may see in future weeks if I decide I'm up to the potential grief. While I think that over, next week we'll see an example of a Western pulp magazine.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Aaron's Book of the Week :: The Shadow of Alpha by Charles L. Grant

Shadow of AlphaThe Book of the Week is The Shadow of Alpha by prolific horror author Charles L. Grant, who passed away last week at the age of 64.

This is the first printing, paperback original of Grant's first book, published in 1976. The Shadow of Alpha is the first in a trilogy of post-apocalyptic science fiction novels. The series is best noted for conveying a strong sense of dread, and so few readers were surprised when Grant switched to horror after completing this series. Grant developed a large following as a horror writer, noted for frightening his readers with suspense rather than gore. He occasionally returned to science fiction with light-hearted SF comedies under the name Lionel Fenn (one of several C.L. Grant pseudonyms), with such great titles as Kent Montana and the Really Ugly Thing from Mars and 668: The Neighbor of the Beast. In addition to his own fiction, Charles L. Grant was a successful editor, notably editing the Shadows series of original anthologies, which showcased some of the most talented fantasists and horror authors in the world.

By his own count, Grant wrote 78 books and edited 24 anthologies. He won two Nebula Awards and three World Fantasy Awards, was named a Living Legend by the International Horror Guild, and also received the Horror Writers Association' s Lifetime Achievement Award. He will be greatly missed by readers and by the entire field of fantastic literature.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Book of the Week :: Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

SpinThe Book of the Week is Spin by Robert Charles Wilson, winner of this year's Hugo Award for Best Novel. In Spin, the stars go out one day, after a mysterious intelligence places a barrier around Earth. Scientists later discover that time is passing dramatically faster within the barrier than outside, so much so that the sun will expire in about 40 years of our time.

Spin is the 12th novel by Wilson, a Canadian author whose work has consistently been well-received, even by The New York Times Book Review. Wilson has been nominated for the Best Novel Hugo four times, but Spin is his first to win. Hard-core science fiction fans were pleased to see the Hugo Award go to a serious SF novel; four of the previous five winners were fantasies. On the other hand, Spin is accessible to readers who do not read much SF (in praising the book, Stephen King said it has "zero geek factor"). Congratulations to Robert Charles Wilson!

A collector's note: This book is too recent in vintage to be terribly valuable, but the first edition of a Hugo-winning novel often appreciates tremendously over time. It can't hurt that Robert Charles Wilson signed this copy for me the day after he won the award, and drew a little picture of the Hugo Award in the book.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Review of Rabbit is a Robot

One of our few editorial standards at Fantastic Reviews is that we only review books that actually exist. But when Meme Therapy asked for a review of an imaginary book, we couldn't resist. Check out Aaron's review of John Updike's Rabbit is a Robot ->> Rabbit is a Robot review

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Aaron's Magazine of the Week :: Asimov's Science Fiction January 2005

Asimov's SF Jan 2005The Magazine of the Week is the January 2005 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction, cover art by Michael Whelan. The magazine is signed by Colorado author Connie Willis, whose cover story "Inside Job" won this year's Hugo Award for Best Novella of 2005. (Also note on the cover the name of Roger Ebert, who contributed an essay to this issue. Mr. Ebert is a lifetime fan who once published his own science fiction fanzine -- there are many more of us out there than you knew.)

“Inside Job” is an excellent example of Connie Willis's renowned wit and irony. The story follows Rob, a professional skeptic dedicated to debunking phony psychics and mystics, who encounters a medium channeling notorious skeptic H.L. Mencken. Each time she does this, Mencken's spirit promptly berates her audience for believing in such nonsense. "Inside Job" first appeared in the Magazine of the Week, and was later published as a stand-alone hardcover book by Subterranean Press.

"Inside Job" was my #2 choice for best novella, behind only Kelly Link's remarkable story "Magic for Beginners," but I was still delighted that it won, because Connie Willis deserves all the accolades we can give her. She is a wonderful writer and an incredibly generous person. (You may recall from an earlier BOTW that she drove from Greeley to Denver just to meet with my son and his fourth- and fifth-grade classmates.) This is her ninth Hugo, the most Hugo Awards for fiction of any author ever. Congratulations to Connie Willis on this well-deserved recognition!

Next week we will see the Hugo winner for Best Novel.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Aaron's Magazine of the Week :: Fantasy & Science Fiction Oct/Nov 2005

F&SF Oct/Nov 2005The Magazine of the Week is the October/November 2005 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, cover art by Cory & Catska Ench. The cover story, "Two Hearts" by Peter S. Beagle, last week won the Hugo Award for Best Novelette of 2005.

I was happy to see "Two Hearts" win the Hugo, even though it was my #2 choice in this category (oddly enough my #1 choice, "The Calorie Man" by Paolo Bacigalupi, also appears in the Magazine of the Week), because it is an honor for which Peter S. Beagle was long overdue. Peter Beagle has been an outstanding contributor to the fantasy field for nearly 50 years. He is perhaps best known as the author of the classic novel The Last Unicorn (1968), to which "Two Hearts" is something of a sequel. A young girl desperate to save her village from a fierce griffin enlists the aid of characters from The Last Unicorn, including a king who is too proud to refuse her, but may be too weakened by age to be of much help.

Incidentally, the Hugo Awards for fiction are presented in four categories: novel, novella, novelette, and short story. A novelette is longer than a short story but not as long as a novel, while a novella is even a bit longer but still not quite as long as a novel. If you find this confusing, you might like the suggestion of James Patrick Kelly, this year's presenter of the Best Novelette Hugo, who proposed that the Hugos go decimal and give awards for Best Novel, Decinovel, Centinovel, and Millinovel. Next week's Magazine of the Week will contain this year's winner for Best Decinovel, er, Novella.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Aaron's Magazine of the Week :: Asimov's Science Fiction March 2005

Asimov's March 2005The Magazine of the Week is the March 2005 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction (on the cover, Raphael's "Lady with a Unicorn" from 1506), containing this year's Hugo Award-winning short story "Tk'tk'tk" by David D. Levine. This story cleverly tells of a traveling salesman in the future, sent to an alien world that has no use for his products. "Tk'tk'tk" is the phrase he repeatedly hears from customers, which is untranslatable but carries a clear tone of condescension. Even though I voted for "Tk'tk'tk" I was quite surprised it won, since David D. Levine is a relative newcomer to the field who has yet to develop a great fan following, as evidenced by the fact that Asimov's did not even list his name on the cover of the Magazine of the Week.

The Hugo Award is the most prestigious award in science fiction and fantasy. It is presented at the World Science Fiction Convention, the annual gathering of SF's true believers, and voted on by the fans attending the convention. (Incidentally, "Tk'tk'tk" won even though it did not receive the most first-place votes. The Hugos use a preferential balloting system where voters rank the nominees, and if your first choice is eliminated your vote transfers to your next choice, until someone gains a majority. This system much better reflects voters' actual preferences than ordinary voting. If we used it in the U.S., it would have altered the outcomes of two of the last four presidential elections.)

This year's Worldcon was held last weekend in Anaheim, and I was at the Hugo ceremony Saturday night. I rather doubt that I will make next year's Worldcon in Yokohama, Japan, but I will be there the following year, since I am delighted to report that the fans at this year's Worldcon voted to hold the 2008 convention here in Denver. (This was an upset -- Chicago was considered the front-runner.)

This year's Best Short Story Hugo was presented by Harlan Ellison. At the convention, Ellison was in the irascible form described in recent BOTWs. But his cantankerous shtick is by now completely familiar to and accepted by SF fans. At one panel during the convention he went on a tirade directed toward the audience and when he ended by shouting, "Fuck the lot of you!" the crowd responded with a warm round of applause. For all his bad-boy posing, Ellison showed his true colors when he (i) was very gracious in accepting a surprise special award for his career contributions to SF at the Hugo ceremony, (ii) patiently signed books for fans at a signing scheduled for one hour that ended up running over three hours, and (iii) most importantly, was very friendly to yours truly while signing past Books of the Week Rumble and Ace Double D-413, which signatures I expect will add several hundred dollars to what my children will get for my collection for when I die.

At the Hugo ceremony Ellison read the list of nominees for Best Short Story, but then declared he wasn't going to tell us the winner and started off the stage with the envelope. After he was corralled back to the podium, he shouted at the gallery of nominees, "Levine, you here?" There was a muffled, "Yeah!" and Ellison barked, "Get your ass up here!" Levine was so excited he bounced up to the stage and wrapped the cantankerous Harlan Ellison in a giant bear hug. Congratulations to David D. Levine for surviving that and for winning his first Hugo Award.

Next week's Magazine of the Week will contain the Hugo winner for Best Novelette.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Aaron's Take on the Hugo Ceremony

LAConIV Hugo AwardThis year was only the second time I have been able to attend the Hugo Award ceremony, and it was just great. Sitting in the front row behind the nominees' section, I felt like a film buff who manages to sneak into the Oscars and sit behind Jack Nicholson.

Connie Willis was a delightful toastmaster as expected. The running gag about Robert Silverberg trying to upstage her was silly, yet the two of them are so charming that everyone enjoyed it anyway. All of the presenters were entertaining and all of the recipients gracious, even Harlan Ellison . . . well, except for the groping Connie Willis bit.

I was very happy with all of the Hugo winners, particularly in the fiction categories. Two of the winners (Robert Charles Wilson and David D. Levine) were my #1 choices, and the other two (Connie Willis and Peter S. Beagle) were my #2 choices and both people who richly deserve the recognition. Yes, I know Connie had already won eight, but she richly deserves as many as we can throw at her.

Some of the highlights of the ceremony:

· Forrest J. Ackerman seemed genuinely touched at receiving the Big Heart Award, particularly when he learned it is henceforth to be called the "Forrest J. Ackerman Big Heart Award."

· John Scalzi gave a very generous speech accepting the Campbell Award for best new writer, devoting nearly all his comments to praise of the other nominees and their works.

· The Best Editor award was a high point of the evening. Betty Ballantine gave a heartfelt speech about what a pain in the rear authors are to work with and how much she has loved it. Then we had a Susan Lucci moment, when she presented the award to David Hartwell, who had been nominated 31 times before without ever winning. (Ironically, just the day before the decision was made to split the Best Editor award into two categories, in no small part to ensure Hartwell would finally win one.) Finally, Betty Ballantine was openly surprised and moved at receiving a special award for her tremendous contributions to the field. Most of the crowd gave her a standing ovation -- and those who didn't heard about it later from Harlan.

· Actress Morena Baccarin accepted Serenity's award for Dramatic Presentation, Long Form and read a speech from Joss Whedon. Whedon spoke of his memories of searching out Hugo winners to read when he was young. He didn't know who "Hugo" was, but he knew he kicked that Pulitzer guy's ass when it came to picking great books. This was a great contrast to the disdain Hollywood used to show this award.

· Harlan Ellison was a laugh presenting the Best Short Story award. Barking at David D. Levine, "Get your ass up here!" was certainly a new way to announce the winner. None of us will soon forget the unwanted bear hug Levine gave Ellison.

· Connie Willis was so busy as toastmaster that she forgot to worry about her own category, and was caught by surprise and nearly reduced to tears by her Best Novella award. She then had exactly three seconds to shake it off and move us on to the Best Novel award.

Congratulations to all the winners!

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Aaron's Magazine of the Week :: Terror Tales May 1940

Terror Tales 1940The Magazine of the Week is the May 1940 issue of Terror Tales, a "weird menace" or "shudder" pulp magazine.

In the late 1930s, the pulp market was saturated with a host of these weird menace magazines. Editor Harry Steeger, inspired by a visit to the macabre Grand Guignol Theater in Paris, created some of the earliest and most successful weird menace pulps, including Terror Tales, Horror Stories, and Dime Mystery. The weird menace pulps followed a common formula, in which women were placed in mortal peril by bizarre villains, to be rescued by a dashing hero. The lurid covers of these magazines routinely depicted the torture and humiliation of seminude women in disturbingly graphic ways, such as having limbs cut off or being heaved into buzzsaws or vats of boiling liquid. So as not to tax your sensibilities, the Magazine of the Week is one of the more mild weird menace covers (also, the really gruesome shudder pulps are very expensive and I have yet to cough up the cash for one). The most successful of the weird menace cover artists, John Howett, is said to have grown increasingly disgusted with himself until finally he burned all his own cover paintings. The stories had delightfully campy titles, for instance the Magazine of the Week includes the titles "Where Dwell the Living Dead" and "Prey for the Daughter of Hell." The tales typically featured apparent fantastic elements, yet the magazines cannot be considered science fiction or fantasy, because the authors were instructed to give a non-supernatural (if absurdly unlikely) explanation for everything by the end of the story. In this respect, the weird menace pulps were sort of an early, R-rated version of Scooby-Doo.

We can charitably describe these magazines as early horror fiction, although too often they seemed designed less to frighten the readers than to appeal to their worst sadistic and misogynistic fantasies. In 1940 and 1941, the weird menace pulps were driven from the market by threats of censorship, led by New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. Several of the magazines folded, while others repositioned themselves as straight mystery magazines. The repositioned magazines included Thrilling Mystery, which we saw last week, and Dime Mystery, which we will show next, after a possible break from the pulps to acknowledge a Hugo Award winner or two.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Book Review Teaser :: Fort Pillow by Harry Turtledove

Fort PillowNew on Fantastic Reviews is Aaron's favorable review of Fort Pillow by Harry Turtledove. Many SF readers are familiar with Turtledove for his SF alternative history books.

From Aaron's review of Fort Pillow:
"In April 1864, Confederate troops attacked Fort Pillow, Tennessee, defended by a Union garrison of both white and black soldiers. The Rebel commander General Nathan Bedford Forrest gave the Federals one chance to surrender, which they declined. When the Rebels later overran the fort, they slaughtered many Union troops who were wounded or had yielded, particularly the black soldiers, few of whom survived. The battle carried little strategic significance, yet played an important role in the Civil War, because outrage at the Fort Pillow Massacre helped harden the North's resolve to see the costly War through to victory."

"Fort Pillow by Harry Turtledove tells the story of the Fort Pillow Massacre from the point of view of the combatants on both sides, including several actual historical figures.  Harry Turtledove has often written alternate histories of the Civil War, but Fort Pillow is his first Civil War novel to adhere strictly to the historical record (although he has published historical fiction set in ancient times under the pseudonym H.N. Turteltaub."

"It is not science fiction by any definition, but we are reviewing Fort Pillow at Fantastic Reviews because it is a book that deserves an audience. Turtledove fans should not shy away because it is not SF, and readers interested in the Civil War should not be put off by the fact that Turtledove is a science fiction writer. Fort Pillow is an entertaining and thought-provoking story that will appeal to both groups of readers....."

To read the entire review: Fort Pillow

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Amy's Take on the Short Fiction Hugo Nominees :: SHORT STORIES

I was underwhelmed by the Hugo Award short story nominees. I find it difficult to believe that these short stories were the best 2005 had to offer.

“Tk'tk'tk” by David D. Levine was the only story I thought was good. It had interesting aliens, a distinct feeling of “we're not in Kansas anymore”, and a decent ending. I felt for the out of place salesman.

“Down Memory Lane” by Mike Resnick was readable, but it lacked punch. The examples of Alzheimer ’s seemed too much like generalizations. I wouldn’t like to see Resnick to win another award on this, so I'm pushing this way down.

“Singing my Sister Down” by Margo Lanagan was downright weird. Why write a story about this odd form of execution? The plot goes nowhere. But it was decently written.

“The Clockwork Atom Bomb” by Dominic Green had a different setting and interesting parts, but I didn't like the storytelling or writing style. I lost track several times and had to reread parts. This story was a chore for me to read.

“Seventy-Five Years” by Michael A. Burstein perhaps touches on an issue of future discrimination for clones, but I'm not a fan of how Burstein chooses to tell his stories. The Senator’s ex-wife is the only person who questions the Senator’s Census bill, so Burstein can have the Senator lovingly squeeze his ex-wife’s hand in the end. Bah!

Amy's Ballot:
1. David D. Levine – Tk’tk’tk
2. Margo Lanagan – Singing My Sister Down
3. Dominic Green – The Clockwork Atom Bomb
4. Michael A. Burstein – Seventy-Five Years
5. Mike Resnick – Down Memory Lane

Friday, August 18, 2006

Amy's Take on the Short Fiction Hugo Nominees :: NOVELETTES

Back in the end of July, I voted on the Hugo Award nominees for novelette. I totally agreed with Aaron's ordering of the nominees, which was rather surprising.

"The Calorie Man" by Paolo Bacigalupi presented an interestingly different yet pessimistic future. It was well written, and consistent in tone and character. I liked the cheshires, and the pedal computer. I was angered by the idea of “big food” conglomerates and cheered for the old generipper's plan. The kinetic springs were great, but I have a quibble that other renewable energy sources such as solar and wind were not mentioned.

"Two Hearts" by Peter S. Beagle made me cry. It’s very well done. I liked the girl Sooz. But it’s fantasy, and it introduced little that was new. Wish I remembered The Last Unicorn better. I thought Schemendrick’s verses were cloying.

"I, Robot" by Cory Doctorow had fun parts, but it was too episodic for me. I liked the software “phone book”, the allusions to 1984, and the infrared clothes. Maybe I’m being too harsh on a comedy, but I didn’t believe in the characters. I doubted using Asimov’s three laws would lead to a totalitarian state. I didn’t like the reuse of the title without a focus on a robot.

"The King of Where-I-Go" by Howard Waldrop is good story and feels true. It’s a nostalgic slice of life, but only has minor SF elements. I found it interesting how things changed perhaps not for the best. There was little new, but it was pleasant.

"TelePresence" by. Michael A. Burstein tried overly hard to be pro-technology and politically correct. It didn’t matter that students died, the only issue was the review of the virual school technology. The author couldn’t imagine anyone with brains opposing this technology. I didn’t believe in the characters or their motivations.

Amy's Ballot:
1. Paolo Bacigalupi – The Calorie Man
2. Peter S. Beagle – Two Hearts
3. Cory Doctorow – I, Robot
4. Howard Waldrop – The King of Where-I-Go
5. Michael A. Burstein – TelePresence

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Aaron's Magazine of the Week :: Two Detective Mystery Novels Winter 1950

Two Detective Mystery Novels 1950The Magazine of the Week is another mystery pulp, the Winter 1950 issue of Two Detective Mystery Novels, with novel-length cover story The Bloody Moonlight by Fredric Brown.

As a collector of old science fiction, what first got me interested in other genres of pulp magazines was that so many of my favorite SF writers from the pulp era also wrote for non-SF pulps. There was a particular overlap between mystery and science fiction. Yet while a great many writers contributed to both mystery and SF pulps, they were nearly always better known for one or the other. The most notable exception was Fredric Brown. Fredric Brown was equally popular among readers of both SF and mystery. He was a bit more prolific in the mystery genre, but then his mysteries often included an element of science fiction or fantasy, for instance the murders in The Bloody Moonlight are seemingly committed by a werewolf. Brown was a writers' writer in both genres -- Mickey Spillane called Fredric Brown his favorite writer of all time, and Brown was one of three people to whom Robert A. Heinlein dedicated his classic novel Stranger in a Strange Land. Fredric Brown has been unfortunately neglected in modern times, but old copies of his books and magazines remain prized collectors' items, particularly because they are sought by both SF and mystery collectors.

Fredric Brown has always been a favorite of mine and we will cover more of his work in future BOTWs, but first we will continue our history of the pulp magazines, with the Magazine of the Week providing an interesting segue. Two Detective Mystery Novels was a straight mystery pulp, but under its previous title of Thrilling Mystery the magazine was part of perhaps the strangest pulp genre, the "weird menace" pulps. Next week's Magazine of the Week will be an example of the "weird menace" genre.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Quote of the Week :: The Snarl of the Beast

"For an ordinary man to get a bullet through his hat as he walked home at night would be something to talk about for years. Now, with me; just the price of a new hat--nothing more. The only surprise would be for the lad who fired the gun. He and his relatives would come in for a slow ride, with a shovel-ful of dirt at the end of it."

- Carroll John Daly,
The Snarl of the Beast (1927)

(Note - According to, The Snarl of the Beast has been acknowledged as the first private eye novel ever published)

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Aaron's Magazine of the Week :: Black Mask March 1928 issue

Black Mask March 1928The Magazine of the Week is the March 1928 issue of Black Mask magazine. The cover story is "The Egyptian Lure," a Race Williams story by Carroll John Daly.

H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan created the pulp magazine Black Mask in 1920 (not because they cared about the magazine, but simply as a means of milking revenues from lowbrow readers to fund their intellectual magazine Smart Set). Black Mask started out as a general fiction magazine -- note that the top of the Magazine of Week's cover boasts of "Western, Detective & Adventure Stories" -- but before long editor Joseph "Cap" Shaw decided to focus on the mystery genre. By the mid-1920's there were already a number of mystery titles in the pulp market, but Black Mask managed to differentiate itself with a distinctive style: a brash, hard-edged narrative voice which came to be called "hard-boiled" detective fiction. In large part, the new hard-boiled form was an American response to the urbane British style of mysteries exemplified by Sherlock Holmes. While British detectives were always smarter than the criminals, American hard-boiled detectives prevailed by being tougher. Hollywood quickly picked up on and further popularized the hard-boiled style, first with film noir and later with bad-assed detectives like Dirty Harry.

Carroll John Daly was the first successful hard-boiled author and Race Williams, his ham-fisted hero (look at the mitts on this guy on the cover), was the first popular hard-boiled detective. Daly told the Race Williams adventures through a first-person narrative dripping with tough-guy attitude. Race Williams was a huge hit for Black Mask, which quickly enlisted a number of other authors to write in the new hard-boiled style. Among the authors whose careers Black Mask launched were Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Erle Stanley Gardner (creator of Perry Mason, who was heavily influenced by Daly, but evolved away from the hard-boiled form over the years). Under "Cap" Shaw's direction, Black Mask's circulation surged to 130,000 per month. But the Depression eventually cut into circulation, and after Shaw was fired in 1935 (reportedly for refusing to cut his writers' pay), the magazine went into a slow tailspin, finally ceasing publication in 1951.

Black Mask, Carroll John Daly, and Race Williams have now been almost forgotten, but the works of Hammett and Chandler and Gardner are still very widely read to this day, and the hard-boiled voice Daly pioneered in Black Mask remains commonly used in American fiction and cinema.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Aaron's Magazine of the Week :: Fantastic November-December 1952 issue

Fantastic Nov-Dec 1952In honor of Mickey Spillane, who passed away recently at the age of 88 (sadly not from a gunshot to the chest), the Magazine of the Week is the November-December 1952 issue of Fantastic magazine, containing Spillane's "The Veiled Woman" (with appropriately sexy cover art by Barye W. Phillips).

Mickey Spillane was world famous for his best-selling hard-boiled mysteries, starring tough-as-nails private eye Mike Hammer. Leave it to me to honor him with his one and only (so far as I am aware) foray into the science fiction genre. Not to worry, though, "The Veiled Woman" may contain Martians and an interplanetary plot, but it has just as much sex and violence as all of Spillane's work, and is loaded with lines like, "She had a body that would melt a glacier from across the street." Like Spillane's first novel, I, The Jury, "The Veiled Woman" ends with the hero shooting a naked woman in the gut in cold blood.

The hard-boiled narrative voice is a uniquely American contribution to literature -- as well as to cinema, in the form of film noir. The hard-boiled subgenre was invented in a particular pulp magazine, and first popularized in the detective stories of a particular author. This author is almost forgotten today, but he inspired an entire generation of hard-boiled detective writers, including Dashiell Hammett (creator of Sam Spade), Raymond Chandler (creator of Philip Marlowe), and later Mickey Spillane (who deliberately patterned Mike Hammer after this author's best known detective). Returning at last to our history of the pulp magazines, next week's Magazine of the Week will be a rare pulp magazine starring the first successful hard-boiled detective, the precursor to Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and Mike Hammer.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road

Cheryl Morgan has announced that she is ceasing publication of Emerald City, which to my thinking has been the best review site on the web for years.

While she has had many interesting guest reviewers and commentators, the heart of Emerald City was always Cheryl's reviews of the latest science fiction and fantasy. I often disagree with Cheryl's evaluations, but still enjoy reading them because she consistently has something interesting to say about the books she reads -- and she reads a whole heck of a lot.

We at Fantastic Reviews will miss Emerald City, and wish Cheryl the very best of luck in all her future endeavors.

Posted by Aaron

Friday, July 28, 2006

Aaron's Book of the Week :: Ace Double D-15

JunkieThe Book of the Week is Ace Double D-15, by far the most collectible of the Ace Double line. Published in 1953, Ace D-15 combines two early novels in the "juvenile delinquent" genre: Junkie by William Lee and Narcotic Agent by Maurice Helbrant. Junkie is the important one. Junkie was a first novel, detailing the unknown author's real-world struggles to overcome his heroin addiction. The book was ignored when published, but retroactively became famous when William Lee turned out to be the pseudonym of William S. Burroughs. After writing Junkie, Burroughs managed to overcome his addiction and become a hugely influential Beat Generation author, famous for such avant-garde works as Naked Lunch and Nova Express. Among the many artists Burroughs influenced were a number of authors in science fiction's New Wave and cyberpunk movements, and British SF magazine Interzone is named for one of his books. (You knew an SF connection was coming, didn't you?)

The story is that Burroughs had little interest in writing, but Allen Ginsberg encouraged him to give it a try, and Burroughs decided that if their friend Jack Kerouac could get a book published, it couldn't be all that hard. Junkie was rejected by all the publishers to whom Burroughs submitted it, and might never have been published except that Ginsberg was admitted to the same psychiatric hospital as the son of the owner of Ace Books, who persuaded his father to give the book a chance (although Ace insisted on cutting out the descriptions of Burroughs' homosexual experiences). This sale in turn prompted Burroughs to start work on Naked Lunch, and his career quickly took off from there.

Next week's Magazine of the Week will honor mystery writer Mickey Spillane, who passed away last week. And, yes, there will again be a science fiction connection.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Aaron's Take on the Short Fiction Hugo Nominees :: NOVELLAS

The novellas are the strongest category of short fiction Hugo nominees this year, yet even this group is marred by one clearly undeserving nominee, “Identity Theft” by Robert J. Sawyer. Sawyer is not a poetic author, but we forgive him because his ideas are so interesting. Unfortunately, there is nothing about “Identity Theft” interesting enough to distract from his clunky writing. It is a science fiction mystery involving a technology that allows human consciousness to be copied into an artificial body. Sawyer tries to raise a moral issue as to the disposal of the original copy, but other authors have addressed the same dilemma far more effectively, see for instance James Patrick Kelly’s “Think Like a Dinosaur” (and Sawyer himself already addressed the issue in “Shed Skin”, a Hugo nominee last year). Sawyer handles the mystery elements of “Identity Theft” very poorly. In particular, he fails to give any convincing motive for the murder driving the plot. What’s worse, his ungainly writing style interferes with the whodunit – it is supposed to be a major clue that one of the characters speaks in a stilted, unconvincing way, but all of Sawyer’s characters speak in a stilted, unconvincing way.

“Burn” by James Patrick Kelly is a well-written story combining social commentary steeped in irony (on the world of Walden, a pastoral society modeled after Thoreau battles suicide arsonists, holdovers from the planet’s prior civilization), interpersonal drama (Spur, the protagonist, is unable to make his marriage work even though he and his wife still care about each other), and light-hearted humor (Spur inadvertently makes contact with a 12-year-old offworld VIP, who promptly travels to Walden and disrupts everyone’s lives as a lark). However, to my mind these different elements of the story do not blend comfortably, and the reader is left with an uneven whole that is less than the sum of its parts.

Ian McDonald’s “The Little Goddess” takes place in Nepal and, like his acclaimed novel River of Gods, India of the near future. It is the first-person narrative of a young girl marked by a time-honored Nepalese ceremony as the receptacle of a goddess. Her personal struggles parallel her people’s challenge to reconcile ancient traditions with the modern world. Her tale is very interesting on an intellectual level, but I found it difficult to develop much emotional attachment to the character.

“Inside Job” by Connie Willis is a charming story in the author’s romantic comedy mode. Rob is a professional skeptic, dedicated to debunking phony psychics and mystics everywhere. Among the things he is skeptical of is whether his ex-actress coworker Kildy could actually be attracted to him. The two come upon a medium who seems to be able to channel the spirit of notorious skeptic H.L. Mencken, and each time she does Mencken promptly berates her audience for believing in such an obvious charlatan. “Inside Job” has all of Connie Willis’s usual wit and irony, and is a whole lot of fun to read.

As much as I enjoyed “Inside Job”, the highlight of this category, and to me the best of all the Hugo short fiction nominees, is “Magic for Beginners” by Kelly Link. Kelly Link won both a Hugo and a Nebula for “The Faery Handbag” last year, and “Magic for Beginners” is a far better story than that one. The story begins with a group of teenaged characters on an offbeat TV show who themselves are obsessed with watching an offbeat TV show, and things just get stranger from there. The story-within-a-story format has been overused in recent years, but Link handles it absolutely beautifully; the two (or more) layers of the tale complement each other wonderfully, and the reader never knows just where one story ends and the other begins. “Magic for Beginners” is surreal and very real. It is incomprehensible and everything fits together perfectly. It is very funny and oddly disturbing. It is post-modern silliness that makes a serious statement about adolescence. It is chock-filled with symbolism and anyone who reads it to analyze the symbolism is missing the point.

“Magic for Beginners” is a masterpiece of slipstream fiction. (You don’t think it’s slipstream? Ask yourself whether the woman at the end is really a vampire or just someone wearing plastic teeth. If you don’t know the answer – and you don’t – the story is slipstream.) The only question is whether the Hugo voters are prepared to embrace slipstream, or will be biased in favor of a true SF story like “Burn” (or “Identity Theft”, perish the thought). Even though there is much to admire in some of the other nominees in this category, it will be an injustice if “Magic for Beginners” does not carry the award.

Aaron's Ballot:
1. Kelly Link – Magic for Beginners
2. Connie Willis – Inside Job
3. Ian McDonald – The Little Goddess
4. James Patrick Kelly – Burn
6. Robert J. Sawyer – Identity Theft

Predicted Winner:
Kelly Link – Magic for Beginners

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Aaron's Take on the Short Fiction Hugo Nominees :: NOVELETTES

Even though the Best Novelette nominees include one bad story and one weak one, they are still a stronger group than the Best Short Story slate. Taking the bad news first . . .

The most that can be said for “TelePresence” by Michael A. Burstein is that it is not quite so atrocious as his short story nominee “Seventy-Five Years”. In “TelePresence”, which concerns a virtual reality classroom that turns deadly, Burstein is at least trying to address an issue worth considering: equality in education. (Never mind that he addressed the same issue in the same way in his 1995 story “TeleAbsence”.) But whatever point he has to make is undercut by his awkward prose and stiff characters. To give just one of a great many examples, this is Burstein's description of a teenage murder victim, from his protagonist's point of view:
Catherine Harriman's body lay slumped in her simulator. Her head hung to one side, with her tongue lolling out of her mouth. Her eyes were frozen open, glassily staring at nothing.
How horrible, he thought.
What is the last line doing there? Are we readers so dense we need it explained to us that the murder of a young woman is horrible? Perhaps I could forgive such sloppy writing if Burstein had something interesting to say on the subject of school violence, but he offers no new insight at all. The murderer's ultimate explanation of his motive is so unconvincing that I honestly thought for a moment Burstein meant it as parody.

Burstein’s unconvincing details make matters worse. For instance, he sets his story in California but seems to know nothing about the place. Anyone who has lived in California could have told him that a group of public school commissioners from Sacramento would not be all-white, would not be thrilled at the prospect of traveling to Los Angeles, and would not panic at the sensation of an earthquake in virtual reality. Combine this lack of basic research with Burstein’s amateurish prose, and this story’s Hugo nomination is another embarrassment to the field.

While not quite so embarrassing, it is difficult to figure how Howard Waldrop’s “The King of Where-I-Go” got its nomination. There is no SF element for over half of the story, just a series of tangents about how iron lungs and linotypes work. When it finally arrives, the SF element proves to be a tired, and surprisingly straightforward for Waldrop, time travel scenario. I think the tale is designed to produce a sense of nostalgia, with lots of old pop culture references à la Harlan Ellison’s “Jeffty Is Five”, but it did not work for me on that level. Waldrop is too skilled a writer for me to call this story bad, but it sure ain’t good.

Thankfully, the other three Best Novelette nominees are all worthy of award consideration. They also make for a nice cross-section of the SF/F genre, as they include a light-hearted science fiction romp, a somber dystopia, and a high fantasy.

The romp is Cory Doctorow's “I, Robot”. Ostensibly a detective story, the plot is really just an excuse to take us on a dizzying tour of a future world in which the West and the East have followed different approaches to A.I. technology, with the West’s approach showing some unintended consequences of Asimov’s Three Laws. Doctorow says he wanted to expose the “totalitarian assumptions” underlying the Asimov universe, but he gives the East’s approach a pretty creepy outcome as well. I suspect this story may have the best chance of winning the award, simply because it is very fun to read. I have to rank it third, however, because I never came to care about the characters as I did reading the two remaining nominees.

“Two Hearts” by Peter S. Beagle is the high fantasy, in which a headstrong young woman seeking to defend her village against a marauding gryphon enlists the aid of characters from Beagle’s classic The Last Unicorn. The story is very enjoyable and elegantly written. It also takes a bittersweet look at the ravages of time that is far more effective than anything in “Down Memory Lane”, discussed yesterday. My only qualm about giving the award to this story is that it really is a companion piece to The Last Unicorn, not a stand-alone story. In particular, if you haven't read the novel, this story will seem to have a deus ex machina resolution. Then again, what excuse does anyone have for not having read The Last Unicorn by now?

“The Calorie Man” by Paolo Bacigalupi is the dystopia, set in a future in which food shortages are so severe that wealth is measured in terms of calories. The world is dependent on an American megacorporation’s patented genengineered grain for food and energy because – rather suspiciously – plague and pestilence have wiped out all of the world’s other grains. Our protagonist, a refugee from a devastated India, travels the Mississippi River in pursuit of a faint hope of changing the status quo. Like “I, Robot”, “The Calorie Man” proceeds from interesting, if unlikely, speculations about where future technology could lead us. Unlike “I, Robot”, it shows us this world through the eyes of people with whom we can identify strongly. Paolo Bacigalupi doesn’t write very much, but he does write very well. I would dearly love to see him write more SF, and what better way to encourage him than to give him a Hugo Award?

Aaron's Ballot:
1. Paolo Bacigalupi – The Calorie Man
2. Peter S. Beagle – Two Hearts
3. Cory Doctorow – I, Robot
4. Howard Waldrop – The King of Where-I-Go
6. Michael A. Burstein – TelePresence

Predicted Winner:
Cory Doctorow – I, Robot

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Aaron's Take on the Short Fiction Hugo Nominees :: SHORT STORIES

I hate to emphasize the negative, but my main reaction to reading all of this year’s short fiction Hugo nominees is disbelief at the number of outright turkeys that have been short-listed for science fiction’s most prestigious award. The short story nominees are a particularly weak group.

Let’s begin with the adequate and work our way down. “Tk’tk’tk” by David D. Levine, about a traveling salesman sent to an alien world that has no use for his products, is not a story I would have picked out in advance as award-caliber, but at least it is clever and amusing. That’s all it takes to be my hands-down #1 pick out of this disturbingly feeble list of nominees.

The only other nominee I can stomach is “The Clockwork Atom Bomb” by Dominic Green, which shows how technology can provide simple solutions to problems while at the same time creating much bigger ones – say, a waste disposal system that could end up disposing of the whole world. After these two solid if unremarkable stories, things go downhill fast.

You know how in Hollywood disaster movies, they put a little child in jeopardy as a cheap way of tugging at your heartstrings? That’s all there is to Margo Lanagan’s “Singing My Sister Down”. The story consists entirely of the slow, cruel execution of a young woman, about whom we know next to nothing, for a crime we are told of only in the most vague terms. “Singing My Sister Down” is written with style and craft, enough so that I won’t be surprised if it wins the award, but there is just something missing here.

Despite my problems with “Singing My Sister Down”, I have to rank it ahead of Mike Resnick’s “Down Memory Lane”, ostensibly a story about Alzheimer ’s disease. Like much of Resnick’s short fiction, “Down Memory Lane” is heavily sentimental, but it lacks the skillful prose that often allows Resnick to pull such sentimentality off. Instead, Resnick gives us six pages of tired clichés and platitudes ("Physical beauty fades, but inner beauty never does."), followed by two pages of journal entries that read like a dumbed-down condensed version of Daniel Keyes’s brilliant “Flowers for Algernon”. This is a shockingly weak effort by an experienced, usually capable author.

But there are even further depths to this barrel. “Seventy-Five Years” by Michael A. Burstein is a flat-out bad story on every level. Burstein’s writing is awkward as always, comprised mostly of solid oak dialogue between characters telling each other things they already know. The story consists of our protagonist confronting her ex-husband senator and threatening to expose a secret that will ruin his presidential aspirations. Why? Because he has proposed changing the release date of census data from 72 years after the census to 75 years after the census, and as an historian she thinks this would set a bad precedent. Even if historians actually give a damn about the release date of census data, which I find hard to believe, Burstein cannot possibly expect his readers to.

Where has the Hugo nomination process gone wrong? “Seventy-Five Years” should not have been nominated for a Hugo Award. It is not one of the five best short stories published last year. It is not one of the 100 best short stories published last year. I suspect there are more than 100 stories from last year that were not published – slushpile rejects and rough drafts abandoned in writers’ workshops – that could top “Seventy-Five Years”. I am sorry to be so harsh, but the trend of nominating crap for Hugo Awards has got to stop.

Aaron's Ballot for Best Short Story:
1. David D. Levine – Tk’tk’tk
2. Dominic Green – The Clockwork Atom Bomb
3. Margo Lanagan – Singing My Sister Down
5. Mike Resnick – Down Memory Lane
6. Michael A. Burstein – Seventy-Five Years

Predicted Winner:
Margo Lanagan – Singing My Sister Down

Monday, July 17, 2006

Aaron's Book of the Week :: Ace Double D-413

The Man with Nine LivesWe complete our tribute to Harlan Ellison with the 1960 first printing, paperback original of his fourth book and first science fiction book, Ace D-413. This book combines his short novel The Man with Nine Lives (cover art by Ed Emshwiller) and a collection of short stories titled A Touch of Infinity, which includes his frequently reprinted novella "Run for the Stars."

The reason for the two titles and covers is that this is from the old Ace Double series of books. Ace Doubles printed two books back-to-back -- flip one over and you see the other. Anyone who has held an Ace Double in his or her hand A Touch of Infinitywill agree that there is a compelling urge to open the book to the middle and find the page where the printing flips upside down. The Ace Double line included science fiction, mysteries, westerns, juvenile delinquent books, and mainstream fiction. The Book of the Week is among the more sought after of the Ace Double series, but nowhere close to the value of the most collectible Ace Double. And yes, Steve Merker, this one I have a copy of, as you will see next week.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Amy's Silent Movie of the Month :: The Red Lily (1924)

The Red LilyThis month’s silent movie is The Red Lily, an emotional drama from 1924, running time 81 minutes. The movie was co-written and directed by Fred Niblo. It stars Ramon Novarro, best known for playing the title character in the epic Ben-Hur (1925); Enid Bennett; and Wallace Beery who would go on to become a major star in the 1930s.

The Red Lily is the tale of two young sweethearts who become separated by cruel circumstances. It begins in Brittany, France, in a country village. Marise La Noue (Enid Bennett) and Jean Leonnec (Ramon Novarro) hope to marry. When Marise’s father dies suddenly, she becomes a pauper and she is forced to live with her awful next of kin. Jean's rich father doesn't want his son marrying a penniless girl like Marise.

Marise escapes her relatives. She seeks refuge in the house that was formerly her home. Jean sees Marise's candle in the empty house and he investigates. Marise cuddles with her boyfriend Jean by the fireplace and they fall asleep. Although they do nothing improper overnight, it is scandalous.

Jean takes Marise on a train to Paris, where they hope to start a new life together. Unfortunately things go all wrong for them. When Jean goes out seeking someone to marry them, two men force Jean on a train back by to Brittany. Meanwhile Marise waits alone in the train station. By the time Jean is able to return, hours and hours later, Marise is gone. Marise wrongly assumed that she was abandoned.

Life in the big city of Paris takes a tragic toll on both Marise and Jean. They can't find each other. Marise works jobs that go from menial, to unsavory, to disreputable. Jean who wrongly thought the gendarmes, the French police, were after him, gets involved in crime with the thief Bobo (Wallace Beery), and gives the gendarmes reason to chase him.

Jean continues to looks for Marise, the girl with the face of an angel. But when an injured Jean is saved by a bedraggled Marise, he doesn't recognize her. When she tries to get close to him, her shuns her. Marise cares for Jean even though he treats her badly. After Jean throws Marise into a bar's backroom with an ugly man, and she fights the man tooth and nail, he realizes she is not a mere streetwalker.

Eventually Jean recognizes Marise, when it's nearly too late. The former sweethearts, who each lost their innocence, are in the end together. There's a nice happy ending.

The Red Lily is a fine silent drama. There are many striking scenes. Yet it shows decadent places and is far from cheery. I cared for the couple's fate and was drawn into their story. All the acting was well done. Enid Bennett made you feel for her wronged character. Handsome Ramon Novarro had screen presence. I would recommend this movie.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Aaron's Book of the Week :: Rumble by Harlan Ellison

RumbleContinuing our tribute to Harlan Ellison, the Book of the Week is the 1958 first printing, paperback original of Ellison's first book, Rumble (later retitled Web of the City), cover art by Rudy DeReyna. As the first edition of Harlan Ellison's first book, Rumble is a notable collector's item, prized by both science fiction fans and collectors of "juvenile delinquent" paperbacks from the 50's and 60's. It is not, however, Ellison's most valuable book -- that honor belongs to his pseudonymous pornographic book Sex Gang, of which you will be relieved to know I do not have a copy.

Rumble is a novel based on Ellison's experiences in a Brooklyn street gang. Ellison joined the gang after he was purportedly expelled from Ohio State University for punching out a professor who said he had no talent. For ten weeks Ellison passed himself off as a 17-year-old Italian named Cheech (21-year-old Jews were not welcome in the gang) to research this book. Like a significant portion of Ellison's work, the novel is not science fiction; indeed, Ellison often resists classification as a science fiction writer. Notwithstanding his objections, next week's Book of the Week will be Ellison's first science fiction book.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Aaron's Book of the Week :: Alone Against Tomorrow by Harlan Ellison

Alone Against TomorrowThe Book of the Week is the first edition of Alone Against Tomorrow (1971) by Harlan Ellison, cover art by Brad Johannsen. Alone Against Tomorrow collects 20 Harlan Ellison stories on the theme of alienation. Since this is a favorite subject of Ellison's, this book contains some of his best work, including "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream", "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman", and "Pennies, Off a Dead Man's Eyes".

I purchased this book by mail from the author, who signed and inscribed it for me. It remains the only signed copy I have of any of Ellison's books, which leads us into a typical Harlan Ellison anecdote. When Ellison was a guest of honor at a horror convention in Denver, I went to his scheduled book signing. Ellison had to leave before he could get to the end of the line, but he assured the rest of us that we could grab him at any time during the convention to have him sign our books. When I actually tried to do this an hour later, he very loudly berated me for my audacity and stormed off. This did not offend me as much as it probably should have, since all of Ellison's fans know that his absurdly snappish temperament is part of Ellison's shtick. Even into his seventies, Harlan Ellison has never discarded his self-image as a young rebel. Next week's Book of the Week will be an early Ellison book about young rebels.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

2006 Hugo Award nominees for Best Short Story

This year's Hugo Award nominees for Best Short Story:

"Seventy-Five Years", Michael A. Burstein (Analog Jan/Feb 2005)
"The Clockwork Atom Bomb", Dominic Green (Interzone May/Jun 2005)
"Singing My Sister Down", Margo Lanagan (Black Juice, Allen & Unwin; Eos)
"Tk'tk'tk", David D. Levine (Asimov's Mar 2005)
"Down Memory Lane", Mike Resnick (Asimov's Apr/May 2005)

For the Hugos Awards, written fiction is divided by length into four categories. Short Story is the shortest length category, 7,500 words and under.

The L.A.CON IV website has a list of all the 2006 Hugo Nominees including many links to stories and authors.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Aaron's Magazine of the Week :: Fantasy & Science Fiction July 1977 issue

F&SF July 1977The Magazine of the Week is the July 1977 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. This was a special issue devoted to author Harlan Ellison, and so is a fitting way to begin our tribute to Harlan Ellison, recently named Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. The delightful cover illustration of Ellison being accosted by the denizens of his own imagination is by outstanding SF illustrator Kelly Freas.

The Grand Master honor is presented annually to recognize the career of one of the greats of science fiction and fantasy. Past Grand Masters have included such luminaries as Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, and Ursula K. LeGuin. Harlan Ellison belongs in this group on the strength of his heavily-charged short fiction. Ellison was never much inclined to write at novel length, but has won seven Hugo Awards and a great host of other awards for his short fiction, which includes such all-time classics of the field as "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream", "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman", "The Deathbird", and "A Boy and His Dog" (basis for the film starring Don Johnson, pre-Miami Vice). Ellison has also been an influential editor, assembling the landmark anthologies Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions. Early in his career he was an important screenwriter -- he wrote the scripts for what are widely regarded as the finest episodes ever made of both Star Trek ("The City on the Edge of Forever" with guest star Joan Collins) and The Outer Limits ("Demon with a Glass Hand" starring Robert Culp) and was credited with the concept for the film The Terminator (after suing James Cameron for plagiarism) -- but he gradually phased out this aspect of his career, because he could not get along with anyone in Hollywood.

Which brings us to Harlan Ellison's notoriously irascible personality. The Magazine of the Week has some examples of Ellison's excellent writing, including the first appearance of his short story "Jeffty Is Five", which went on to win the Hugo Award for Best Short Story of 1977. But is also features a typical Harlan Ellison essay in which he berates all his own fans. "How boring it would be if all of you were as predictable and dull as so many of you seem to be," he tells his readers. More on Ellison's acidic nature next week.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Aaron's Book of the Week :: Logan's Run by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson

Logan's RunThe Book of the Week is the first paperback printing of Logan's Run (1967), by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson. This is in honor of Mr. Nolan, who was recently named Author Emeritus by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA).

Logan's Run was the basis for the 1976 film, which was weak overall but had some redeeming moments and remains a guilty pleasure for many of us, as well as a 1977-78 TV series, which was unremittingly awful. Logan's Run describes a future world in which young people have seized control and do not suffer anyone to live past the age of 21 (30 in the movie). A remake of Logan's Run is said to be in the works.

While Logan's Run and its sequels (which Nolan wrote alone) remain Nolan's best remembered works, in recent years he has had greater impact in the genre of horror than science fiction and has been named a "Living Legend" by the International Horror Guild. In addition to science fiction and horror, he has published mysteries, thrillers, westerns, mainstream fiction and non-fiction, and has also written many scripts for Hollywood.

William F. Nolan is the tenth author to be named Author Emeritus by the SFWA. The award is a bit of a backhanded compliment, essentially indicating that the author is very good but not quite good enough ever to be named Grand Master, SFWA's highest career honor. Many have denounced the Author Emeritus concept for this reason, including this year's Grand Master, Harlan Ellison. Starting next week, Book of the Week will pay tribute to the distinguished career of Harlan Ellison.