The Xmas (Paperback) Fanatic

Xmas card_Page_01I haven’t talked about Justin Marriott’s Paperback Fanatic, a wonderful magazine on paperback fiction of all genres, in a while, but this is too cool not to share. As I noted almost two years ago, this is a really fun magazine that offers a treasure trove of information on old paperbacks from a variety of genres. Individual issues sell out quickly, and back issues are almost impossible to find, but it is available via subscription at the main Paperback Fanatic webpage.

It’s always been print-only until now. Justin Marriott has released a short electronic-only version, for free, that includes a really neat article by Nigel Taylor on some of the most interesting appearances of Christmas-themed stories in science fiction and fantasy works. It is available for Xmas card.

Justin Marriott has also provided an update on where the magazine is going in the new year that I will reprint in its entirety here:

“Fellow Fanatics,

As a thank you for your support throughout the year I attach The Xmas Fanatic, my first attempt at electronic publishing. I hope you enjoy Nigel Taylor’s look at SF and horror stories with a Christmas theme, and his own line-up for a horror themed Xmas anthology. Please feel free to distribute/forward/re-post as a way of spreading the word.

There’s plenty of Fanatic related projects to look forward to in 2014. Issue 28 of The Fanatic is complete, and will be published at the end of January. It includes a couple of new subjects for The Fanatic, specifically JD books and some uber-rare film tie-ins that will blow your mind.

Issue 29 and 30 are coming together very nicely, with one being dedicated to the theme of ‘renegade publishers’ taking in those paperback houses which were short-lived and/or operated on the periphery of the book industry.

I’m also in the early stages of working with a paperback fanatic who has kindly agreed to provide scans of his superb collection of horror, SF and cult movie tie-ins, so I’m excited about the possibilities of what we might produce together.

And I’ve nearly completed the design of the fourth issue of Bedabbled! Martin Jones’ essential zine dedicated to British cult cinema. I won’t let the cat(s) out of the bag in terms of contents, but format wise it’ll be A4 and full-colour. Drop Martin a line if you would like to receive ordering details when it’s out – bedabbled@hotmail.co.uk

Please have a great Xmas and New Year.

Justin The Fanatic”

Jack Vance has died

jack-vance_9219I’ve been writing way too many of these obituaries over the last few months. Have you ever read anything by Jack Vance? He’s one of my eternal favorites, and certainly one of the greatest wordsmiths I’ve ever encountered. I’ve always been surprised that he’s not better known; he’s a vastly underappreciated SFF grandmaster. I just learned that he passed away over the weekend. Locus has posted an obituary here, and you can leave a tribute message here. By all accounts Vance lived a full life; he was nearly 97, and my understanding is that he had been blind for many years. Still, the world is diminished for his loss.

I’ve been collecting his work for roughly the last fifteen years. I have his entire opus: all six volumes of The Complete Jack Vance plus his autobiography, and many individual works, four of which he signed. I’ll never forget the first Vance story I read: “Mazirian the Magician,” one of his Dying Earth tales collected in the anthology WIZARDS, edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, and Charles G. Waugh. I encountered this truly amazing collection of fantasy stories when I was about 10-12 (take a look at the table of contents for that collection here).

In light of Vance’s passing, I will have to go back and read or reread more of his work. I’ve thus far reviewed eight of his novels on this blog. They can be found here:

The Book of Dreams
Emphyrio
The Face
The Killing Machine
The Magnificent Showboats of the Lower Vissel River, Lune XXIII South, Big Planet
The Palace of Love
Rhialto the Marvellous
The Star King

Requiescat in pace, Mr. Vance.

Book Review: Priestess of the Eggstone by Jaleta Clegg

95fe70fa8086e43596f62506567444341587343I was a little worried when I first picked up PRIESTESS OF THE EGGSTONE because it is technically the second book in the “Fall of the Altairan Empire” series (the first is titled NEXUS POINT). This was an unfounded fear, as PRIESTESS OF THE EGGSTONE functions just fine as a stand-alone science fiction novel.

Mild plot spoilers follow.

PRIESTESS OF THE EGGSTONE begins as a classic example of the science fiction sub-genre I might term “commerce SF,” mostly about protagonists in space opera settings who work as, or want to be, freelance merchants and traders in the space lanes. Examples include many of C. J. Cherryh’s novels (the Merchanter and Chanur series in particular); Andre Norton’s Solar Queen series; and Poul Anderson’s Van Rijn series (there are many more I could mention, but those are some of the better known examples of this sub-genre). I hasten to add that – despite the emphasis on commerce rather than exploration or combat – these aren’t “mundane SF” novels. They aren’t about accounting in space, or paying all the required landing fees and dutifully obeying space regulations. They often involve encounters with pirates; misadventures in ports with thieves, customs officials, and thieving customs officers; and narrow escapes from a variety of dangers. In short, I have found that these kinds of novels typically involve exciting conflict without emphasizing the military derring-do that is all too typical of science fiction.

PRIESTESS OF THE EGGSTONE is in good company. Here, a young female pilot with a troubled past, Dace, wants nothing more than to own her own trading vessel and become an independent merchant. The universe conspires against Dace’s attempts to achieve that dream. She’s a pilot not a navigator (dammit, Jim!) and so she hires a navigator who soon gets her into a world of trouble. He has stolen the eponymous Eggstone, an object of unknown but great significance to an alien race that is willing to do whatever it takes to get the Eggstone back. They can’t simply return the Eggstone because it was already sold, so now the pair and their comrades have to locate it while dodging inimical aliens. Oh and the company that Dace works for is actually a front for a smuggling operation, so that causes further problems, plus the Star Patrol is still trying to pressure Dace to join them as an undercover agent (this was apparently the major plot of the first novel).

The tone of the novel wavers a bit; at times, it seems fairly light-hearted, yet it never fully becomes a comedy. The stakes are real (and occasionally deadly). It’s a mix of commerce SF, first contact, and space opera-ish schemes and adventures. While having read the first novel was certainly not necessary, it would have provided some additional insights about Dace’s past. Her troubled origins are occasionally referenced, but the details are not entirely clear to me. I should also make clear that the protagonist is a young, emotionally immature woman, and one of her two love interests is an equally immature young man. This naturally leads to some frustrating behavior on both parts. The both behave childishly at times, so for a grumpy middle-aged reader like myself, this characterization occasionally annoyed me, but it never became intolerable.

This wasn’t the greatest science fiction novel I’ve ever read, but it certainly wasn’t the worst either (by far). It was perfectly enjoyable. Recommended for readers interested in science fiction that’s a bit out of the mainstream, and not oriented toward military actions – I might even term PRIESTESS OF THE EGGSTONE as “space opera lite.”


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Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: Wildside Double #17: A Llull in the Compass: A Science Fiction Novel by W.C. Bamberger / Academentia: A Future Dystopia by Robert Reginald

Wildside’s seventeenth “double” collection – packaged just like the old Ace Doubles, with two novels back-to-back, and two front covers – includes a post-apocalyptic tale by W. C. Bamberger and a dystopian novel by Robert Reginald. The two stories couldn’t be further apart in tone, though they are thematically linked: each concerns the trials and travails of ordinary people trying to cope with, and survive, the destruction of their societies.

Mild plot spoilers follow for the two novels.

1434435105.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_A LLULL IN THE COMPASS: A Science Fiction Novel, by W. C. Bamberger: Something very strange has begun happening across the world. More and more people have been disappearing, leaving behind small puddles of goo. Unknown objects have begun appearing in the skies, but burn up before reaching the ground. A small group of people, randomly thrown together, now wander aimlessly across the American landscape. Scared that purposeful movements bring about the disappearances, they select their path by following an improvised “Llull Machine” that randomly dictates where they will travel next. They also, perhaps most importantly, are trying to figure out what is going on in order to save their own lives and halt the collapse of civilization.

As I was reading A LLULL IN THE COMPASS, I was reminded of the film Stalker, loosely based on ROADSIDE PICNIC by the Strugatsky brothers, about three men who wander around in an area once visited by aliens where the laws of physics aren’t always quite what we would expect. I have to admit that I don’t read a lot of what has been described as the “New Weird” (stories like those penned by China Miéville and Jeff VanderMeer), so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Bamberger’s novella. I also wasn’t sure what the “Llull” in the title referenced, so I had to research the interesting history of Ramon Llull and his strange machines. (Do yourself a favor and do a quick Google search on Llull.) Despite some uncertainties about plot, I enjoyed Bamberger’s novel even while I didn’t always know exactly what was going on; I think that’s probably part of the fun here.

academentiaACADEMENTIA: A Future Dystopia, by Robert Reginald: Near-future America is no longer a liberal democracy. A religious zealot named Dr. Theo Fell has instituted a new political regime that intrusively surveils the personal activities of all citizens, stifles free speech, tortures and kills dissidents, and becomes steadily more oppressive. (Sound at all familiar?) Our nameless narrator begins as a harmless academic but soon advances through the administrative hierarchy of the “California Saints University” system as his bosses are executed or dragged off to the re-education camps one by one. Life in such a dystopic state begins to take a toll on our narrator’s sanity as he struggles to not just survive but to overthrow Dr. Fell’s regime.

For me, ACADEMENTIA was made all the more enjoyable because of Reginald’s undoubtedly quasi-autobiographical elements inserted from his lengthy career as an academic. This is a dark, dark tale, and like almost all dystopias, has some important things to teach us. I should say that as grim as the story is, it is also blackly comedic at times, which makes it all the more entertaining and makes it a little easier to digest as a reader. Let’s face it: a story like 1984 (one of my favorite books of all time) is powerful, but it’s also a bit of a hard slog because of its unrelentingly bleak outlook and prospects. Reginald’s writing is excellent as always; he manages to capture just the right tone balancing the darkness with just enough whimsy and absurdity.

Despite how different in tone the two novels are, I heartily recommend this collection, especially for fans of dystopias. I thought that ACADEMENTIA was especially strong and easily worth the price of admission alone (other readers might prefer A LLULL IN THE COMPASS, though it was slightly out of my comfort zone in terms of its level of weirdness). As an academic myself, ACADEMENTIA really hit home with me for reasons it’s probably better I not go into. I hope that ACADEMENTIA garners greater attention – we can all use more warnings about the dangers of oppressive institutions and compromises to free speech.


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Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: The Void by Brett J. Talley

ea070fc06c0b200596f674a6677444341587343It’s no exaggeration to say that THE VOID is one of the best horror novels I read in 2012 (yes, I’m a bit late in writing this review in February 2013). I had previously read Brett Talley’s previous novel, THAT WHICH SHOULD NOT BE, a fun contribution to the Cthulhu Mythos that ties a few other horror tropes to Lovecraft’s world in interesting ways, but it in no way prepared me for what I could expect from his latest. THE VOID is, in my experience, a rare beast: a science fiction novel that successfully blends the genre with strong horror elements.

Mild plot spoilers follow.

In the mid-twenty-second century, humanity has discovered the secret of faster-than-light travel (FTL) and has begun to colonize worlds across the galaxy. There is just one limitation to FTL travel: humans must be asleep during the voyage, and, while asleep, each traveler dreams. The dream is different for each traveler, but recurs every time that person travels through space. No one talks about their personal dreams, unsurprisingly since the dreams are closer to nightmares, and deeply resonant for each individual. Every now and then – not too often, but just often enough – the dreams drive someone mad. And sometimes people who go to sleep never wake up.

THE VOID centers on one starship voyage in which six people on a seemingly routine voyage happen upon another ship that had disappeared in the depths of space a decade previously. The crew and passengers awake prematurely during their trip, seemingly trapped in a field of black holes making navigation and escape almost impossible, and having few options but to investigate the derelict ship. Unsurprisingly, each of the travelers is more than they appear, with secrets in their pasts and hidden agendas, all of which surface on this trip. A few of the characters are more hastily sketched than others, but the characters and their pasts are interestingly interlocked, and one of THE VOID’s strengths. I won’t reveal the nature of the dreams or what the travelers find on the missing ship, lest I ruin key elements of the plot. Suffice it to say that the mysteries revealed were well done and genuinely scary.

Comparisons between THE VOID and films like Event Horizon and Solaris are probably inevitable, but also a little misleading, as THE VOID avoids the gore of Event Horizon but is less introspective and more action-oriented than Solaris. I sometimes find that stories involving dream sequences and flashbacks hard to follow or too confusing to be worth the effort, but Talley demonstrates his mastery of writing here, doing a good job of keeping the story moving forward coherently despite the eerie dreamscapes the characters experience.

THE VOID is haunting and thought-provoking. The characters, plot, and premise have all stuck with me since reading it and I can certainly see myself rereading it. Sure, parts of the plot are a little predictable, but then again, we know that this is essentially a Lovecraftian haunted house story set in space, so certain tropes and plot elements are almost expected. Highly recommended for those who like their science fiction mixed with horror.


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Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: Space Eldritch (anthology)

Space-EldritchSpace Eldritch
D.J. Butler, Michael R. Collings, Nathan Shumate, David J. West, Carter Reid, Brad R. Torgersen, Robert J. Defendi, and Howard Tayler
Cold Fusion Media
eBook, $5.99; paperback, $13.99
ISBN-13: 978-1481178310
248pp. 2012

I have always thought that H.P. Lovecraft’s nihilistic vision of the universe fits very well with science fiction. Why do Lovecraftian horrors and Things Man Was Not Meant To Know lurk only inside dank basements, dusty tombs, and forbidden tombs? Aren’t the depths of space, alien vistas, and the bleak frontiers of other worlds also fair game for the kinds of horrors imagined by Lovecraft and his many imitators? The authors collected in SPACE ELDRITCH certainly think so. In addition to a Foreword by Larry Correia discussing this unholy mixture of Lovecraft and space opera, SPACE ELDRITCH contains seven novelettes and novellas. The stories are:

“Arise Thou Niarlat From Thy Rest” by D.J. Butler
“Space Opera“ by Michael R. Collings
“The Menace Under Mars” by Nathan Shumate
“Gods in Darkness” by David J. West
“The Shadows of Titan” by Carter Reid and Brad R. Torgersen
“The Fury in the Void” by Robert J. Defendi
“Flight of the Runewright” by Howard Tayler

Some mild plot spoilers follow in my reflections on each of these tales:

D. J. Butler’s “Arise Thou Niarlat From Thy Rest”: Contains a nice mix of existential Lovecraftian threat in the depths of space, along with some two-fisted pulp action, linked by one of Lovecraft’s favorite tropes, that of consciousness projection/possession from the far distant past or future. The story worked well, though presented just a little too vaguely at times.

Michael R. Collings’ “Space Opera“: A classic tale of first contact between alien species, told from the perspective of the alien conqueror rather than a human. A great depiction of a truly alien mindset and physiology, as well as a setting obviously set after Lovecraft’s “stars are right.” Perhaps the most explicitly Lovecraftian of the stories in this collection, as well as the bleakest vision of the future. Well done.

These first two stories, I should note, are really the only pieces in the collection to explicitly reference direct Lovecraftian elements. The rest of the stories still work thematically as Lovecraftian tales, it’s just that in the stories that follow, Lovecraft’s philosophy and common tropes are implicit rather than explicit, but don’t let that turn you off some good stories.

Nathan Shumate’s “The Menace Under Mars”: A genuinely engaging story about a routine exploration mission on Mars gone horribly awry. Humans have begun to settle Mars and terraform it, but, well, they aren’t alone, and their terraforming efforts (nor surprisingly) have unpredictably bad effects. Lots of action and a real page turner.

David J. West’s “Gods in Darkness”: Set during the height of the Space Race, this shows what was really going on in space when American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts encountered each other and (literally) battled it out in space. Reminds me of Charles Stross’ wonderful novelette “A Colder War” (available here: http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/stories/colderwar.htm ) – and could actually be set in that novelette’s universe – though “Gods in Darkness” lacks the creeping, unsettling doom of “A Colder War.” This is a straight-up, high stakes action-adventure story and it’s a good one.

“The Shadows of Titan” by Carter Reid and Brad R. Torgersen: Great adventure and exploration story set on, oddly enough, the moon Titan. The mission takes a dark turn when a structure is discovered there. Very reminiscent of some older adventure pulp science fiction stories, with a clever resolution.

“The Fury in the Void” by Robert J. Defendi: A fascinating tale of future war in space between two rival factions – seemingly descendants of the Greeks and the Russians – who use the remnants of advanced technologies they can no longer build or maintain and for whom religious orthodoxy is of paramount concern. It’s a great setting (and one I’d like to see more of) that was clearly inspired by the wargame settings of Warhammer 40K and Battletech. I’d have liked to be shown more of the villains’ origins and motivations, but enjoyed the story nevertheless.

“Flight of the Runewright” by Howard Tayler: Bleak story about the future use of what we would probably describe as occult means to travel faster-than-light across the depths of space. The story is told from the first-person present perspective featuring, obviously, a somewhat unreliable narrator who learns the truth of his situation along with the reader (I hesitate to say more for fear of ruining the story). I was pleasantly reminded of Stephen King’s story “The Jaunt” in some respects. Lots of fun.

All in all, this is an amazingly successful collection of stories to combine cinematic science fiction – the genre of “space opera” clearly applies in all cases – with Lovecraftian horror. As you know, it’s rare to pick up an anthology and genuinely enjoy each story it contains, but that was certainly the case here. Each of the authors knows their craft well and shows off their writing chops in SPACE ELDRITCH. The writing is uniformly better than most of the science fiction produced in the 1950s and ‘60s, but the stories themselves would not have been out of place in that era. There’s certainly room for additional related stories for most of these, so I am holding out hope for a SPACE ELDRITCH II. I also have to briefly mention that wonderful cover art by Carter Reid as well – isn’t it gorgeous? The cover contains just the right mix of creepiness, tentacles, eldritch runes, and over-the-top cinematic science fiction elements to complement the stories found here.

Unless you are true Lovecraftian purist who things that the Elder Gods should only be encountered by sanity-shaken antiquarians and librarians in the 1920s, I can virtually guarantee that you will enjoy some if not all of the stories collected here. These are all refreshing looks at familiar horror themes viewed through the new lens of space opera and science fiction. Highly recommended for those who like some horror with their science fiction – clearly two tastes that taste great together.


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Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers

Book News Round-up, January 28, 2013

Some book-related news I’ve come across since last week’s update:

barnes-and-noble-logoBARNES & NOBLE ISN’T DOING SO HOT: Probably not exactly the news of the century, and frankly, it’s not a huge surprise. We all know that Borders’ collapse gave its competitors Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million some breathing room, but that’s probably not enough in the long-term. Stores that sell consumable media — like Best Buy and B&N — as well as brick-and-mortar stores that sell stuff that’s available cheaper online aren’t doing so hot these days. Apparently B&N’s Christmas sales weren’t great and its Nook business is slowly being overtaken by a combination of Kindles and iPads. Dedicated eReaders, I’ve read, are slowly but surely being squeezed out by various kinds of tablets. I only have a Kindle 3 myself, enjoy it very much, and have no plans to purchase a tablet PC any time soon, but I’m apparently in the minority. We’ll see where this goes, but expect a round of B&N store closures by next spring at the latest if this year’s sales continue their decline. Of course, all this begs the question: where exactly do people go to browse for books and discover new ones if they can’t examine store shelves full of them? This is a problem that Amazon has not yet figured out how to solve.

HydrogenSonata_ 615INTERVIEWS WITH IAIN M. BANKS: If you enjoy space opera and/or transhumanist SF, then you really should give Iain M. Banks’ Culture series a try. It’s been a long-time favorite of mine, though it does require some careful thought, as these aren’t what I typically think of as ‘easy” reads. Imagine a kind of post-scarcity interplanetary utopian society run by a coalition of extremely powerful artificial intelligences and you’ll picture something close to the eponymous Culture (that quick description glosses over all the most fun elements of the setting, but it’s a start. Last year, Banks came out with a new Culture novel, THE HYDROGEN SONATA, and has been interviewed about that novel, his views on utopia, technology, and many other issues. Here is one very recent interview with Banks, and here’s a second from last November that I just happened upon.

Buffy-and-Giles-buffy-and-giles-5883760-343-40020 HEROIC (FICTIONAL) LIBRARIANS: It’s probably no surprise that I love libraries almost as much as I love books. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life in various libraries, after all, and I regularly consult with librarians for my academic research. But as much as I like real-life librarians, I love the fictional heroic, super-heroic, and magical kind of librarian even more. Here’s a great list with illustrations and descriptions of twenty fictional badass librarians.