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August 11, 2005

The Reading Stack 8/11/05

Speaking of books, these are the books I was given or bought while I was in Scotland and/or were waiting for me when I returned. From the left:

Nova Scotia: New Scottish Speculative Fiction -- this book was pressed upon me by a bunch of cheerfully tipsy Scots at the Orbit party at Interaction, whose number included its editor. So, there: parties are good for something. The book includes short stories written by Scottish SF/F writers (or, in a couple of cases, SF/F writers who are not Scottish by birth but spend a significant amount of time in country), who include brand-spankin' new Hugo winner Charles Stross, Ken MacLeod, Jane Yolen and Michael Cobley (the latter of whom sat on one of my panels at Interaction).

Aside from the contents, of which I have only begun to explore but which I so far find to be rather good, the book wins my early affection for two bibliographically geeky reasons: One, the cover design is very clean and cool looking, and two, the book is typeset in Goudy, which is my all time favorite font. I know, I'm a dork. I'm not entirely sure the book will be made available in the US, so I feel quite happy to have nicked a copy; if you are in the UK, however, you can snag a copy off of Amazon.co.uk.

Magic Lessons, by Justine Larbalestier -- I'm not proud; I begged this advance reader's copy off of Ms. Larbalestier in a groveling sort of fashion because I knew that aside from my own anticipation for the book (based on the excellent Magic or Madness, the first book in the series, which is one of the best YA books of this year), bringing this book home for my wife to read would garner me a whole bunch of spousal credits, redeemable for fabulous prizes and avoidance of some chores. Krissy's response to me giving her this book was instructive. She took it, looked at it and said "I'll read it right now, but you know when this comes out I'm going to get my own copy." Krissy gets the idea that the best way you can compliment an author for the work is to actually buy the book. Go, wife, go! But she'll have to wait until next March to get it from the bookstore.

As for myself, I'm saving this one for after I finish The Ghost Brigades -- i.e., as a reward. See? This is how we writers motivate ourselves. I'll let you know how it is, although I can tell you right now I expect it to be very good indeed. Also, dig the very cool-looking cover (there's a better version here).

The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks -- This one was a Hugo nominee this year but it's not currently available in the US (it'll be released later in the year by Night Shade Books), so I picked it up and then read it while I was flying back from Scotland, and also as I was stranded at Philadelphia's airport for ten hours. While casting no aspersions on Night Shade, who I expect will benefit quite nicely from publishing the book, it's more than mildly appalling this book was not snapped up by a major Stateside publisher.

Now, I vaguely recall reading a Salon article with Banks in which he suggested he didn't want the hassle of dealing with a major publisher here in the US, so maybe that has something to do with it as well. But jeez, people. This is a good book, and a commercially viable one as well: Fine literary competence, fun speculation (particularly regarding the Dwellers, gas-planet creatures who live to be billions of years old and yet on the surface appear to be a bunch of flighty twits), and a fine story line, albeit one that wraps up a little raggedly at the end. Well, what can you say. Endings are hard. And the ride to it at the very least was an excellent one.

If the book is being released in the US by a small publisher because that Banks' choice, more power to him and to Night Shade. But if it's being released by Night Shade because the major SF publishers didn't see the book as worth their time, well, that's bad. I hope it makes a ton for Night Shade and for Banks. That'll teach 'em. The folks at Amazon suggest this will be released in the US in about a month; start saving your pennies now.

I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick, by Emmanuel Carrere -- Certain publishing entities have determined I have a large enough presence online to start sending me books in an unsolicited fashion; this is one that was waiting for me when I got back. Naturally, I encourage all book publishers to do the same. Baby needs books. As it happens, I had done some of my own research into the life of PKD for my upcoming science fiction film book, which led me to the conclusion that the man was quite far off his nut more often than not, and a quick glance into this book seems to bolster this conclusion as well.

It's paying off for him now, seeing how he's one of the hottest writers in Hollywood, which makes it a shame that he's been dead since just before Blade Runner came out in 1982. I've heard Dick called the "Shakespeare of SF," but it's probably more accurate to say he's like the genre's Van Gogh: Better appreciated dead. Interestingly, this book, while released in hardcover here in the US just last year, looks to have been originally published in French in 1993; more proof, perhaps, that even as a biographical subject PKD has way ahead of his time. I'll be delving further into this book at some point, but for now I want to hold off mulling on how sad and tweaked the man's life was. I have a book of my own to write.

As an aside, some of you know that the title of one of my upcoming books is The Android's Dream, which is a blatant riff/steal off of the title of one of PKD's most famous books, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which in case you didn't know was the source material for Blade Runner. I would like to state here and now that the only thing that my book and PKD's writing have in common are those three words; I can't even imagine trying to get into the headspace that would cause me to write as Dick did. This may be to my detriment as an artist, but on the other hand my day-to-day life seems nicer. It's a fair trade.

And there you have it.

Posted by john at August 11, 2005 10:32 PM

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Comments

Soni | August 12, 2005 02:01 AM

Love, love LOVE Phillip K Dick! Always knew there had to be something very customized about his neural programming to write like that. Glad to know that my intuition is still cranking out the goods. Can't wait to hassle my library about getting a copy of this book.

Note: I'd buy it myself, but we just wandered over to the insane side of our income-to-debt ratio on an emergency vehicle purchase after our sole source of transpo (hubby's work truck), following years of grudging reliability, went downhill fast and hit the not-expected-to-make-it triage ward last week (we were happy to get a $500 trade in allowance, if that tells you anything). We're hoping like hell we can get the principle down to a reasonable sum before the growing murmurs of doubled minimum payment rates become reality.

So, much as it pains me to have to pass up adding this one to my own personal cache at this time, we're not buying anything with a vital-goods rating below "toilet paper" for the very long-range foreseeable future. And there's just no way I'm tearing up a PKD bio for personal hygeine purposes.

Anybody got a literary version of methadone I can step down on? I'm already suffering withdrawal pains everytime I go by the book store. :-D

Justine Larbalestier | August 12, 2005 01:23 PM

Thanks for the plug! Much appreciated.

Hope Krissy isn't disappointed by Magic Lessons. Sequels are tricky. Especially on the trying-not-to-disappoint-previous-readers front. Though maybe I shouldn't be mentioning that to you stuck as you are in the middle of your first sequel. Er, never mind.

(Oh, and if you must use a title it's Dr Larbalestier, not Ms. I'm just saying.)

tonydismukes | August 12, 2005 02:55 PM

I always thought Philip K. Dick was a high-functioning schizophrenic whose art was intensely colored by his condition. It's interesting that in a number of stories he starts out by laying out a world where strange, spooky, inexplicable, paranoia-inducing events are occurring. This part is always very effective. Later on, in the resolution, he may offer a rational explanation for the events. This part is less effective, especially after you think about it and realize that the supposed explanation can't actually explain everything that was happening earlier in the story.

I haven't read any PKD in a long while. I should pick some up, expecially since a google of his bibliography shows that he's written lots I haven't read yet.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden | August 12, 2005 03:13 PM

I'm a huge fan of Iain Banks's work. I enjoyed The Algebraist a great deal indeed, and was in fact invited to offer on it for Tor.

I passed, but not because I think it's wrong for the American market. Quite the contrary, I think tens of thousands of American SF readers would like it very much. I can think of Banks novels that might puzzle the average American reader, but this isn't one of them. It's chewy far-future space opera in the grand manner, slickly and engagingly told.

Rather, I passed on it because, for whatever reason, Iain Banks has been so badly handled in the US by previous American publishers that I doubted I could get out more than a derisory number of copies, particularly given that this very long book would have to sport a high cover price.

I continue to believe that there's no good reason Iain Banks can't have a large audience among American SF readers. But at this point, through sheer bad luck, what an American publisher wishing to rehabilitate Banks would need is an absolutely top-flight Banks novel, something on the order of Use of Weapons. The Algebraist is a good book but it's an A-minus book. Frankly, I suspect a committed small press would do better with it than we could have, and I genuinely hope they sell truckloads of copies.

uhura | August 12, 2005 08:42 PM

John, just what are you trying to do to me here? At current count (leans over to count top shelf of bookcase) I have 15 - no, 16 books in varying stages of completion. Several I haven't even *Started* - OMW and AttS, included. I am TOTALLY NOT ALLOWED to purchase any more books until I've made my way through this pile. And let's not talk about the Trickster series by Tamora Pierce, and selections by Scott Westerfield and Justine Larbalestier that it appears I won't get to until early 2006.

Oy - the trials of a bibliophile...

John Scalzi | August 13, 2005 12:40 PM

PNH:

"Rather, I passed on it because, for whatever reason, Iain Banks has been so badly handled in the US by previous American publishers that I doubted I could get out more than a derisory number of copies, particularly given that this very long book would have to sport a high cover price."

And here we pause for a dramatic (and genuine) sigh. It's a bummer when the business portion of the book business rears its bean-counting head to the detriment of an enjoyable book.

But I think you may be right, Patrick, that a well-handled small press campaign here could do well for the book, so I hope Night Shade kicks some ass with it. It will certainly help that it comes in as a Hugo nominee.

abi | August 15, 2005 02:12 AM

Patrick:

The last paragraph of your comment is pretty much the conversation I had with my husband in the car park of the SECC. The Algebraist is Banks by numbers; I'd give it a B or a B+ rather than an A-. In comparison to Use of Weapons or Player of Games, it falls rather flat.

If one digs into the Banks back catalogue, do remember to use the middle inital as an indicator. The "Iain M Banks" books are science fiction. "Iain Banks" books are fiction, ranging from the relatively mainstream The Crow Road and Complicity to the frankly bizzare The Bridge.

anna Feruglio dal dan | August 17, 2005 07:13 AM

What Patrick said. It's a crying shame Banks is not more widely known and appreciated in the US. And John, beg, borrow or steal "Use of Weapons". Beg borrow or steal "The Wasp Factory" come to think of it. If I had suspected you hadn't read Banks before I would have pushed the whole of the catalogue in your hands before you left Glasgow, so on the whole it's a good thing that I didn't.

And yes, "The Algebraist" is an A- book, but I still voted for it at the Hugos because it's fucking high time Banks won something. Among other things, he's a highly respected and hugely successful mainstream author over in the UK, he started off as a mainstream publisher, and the reason he spun off into SF is because he's a genuine honest-to-god fan, he goes out of his way to undiss the genre and has probably done a lot to drag it out of the ghetto as much as it is in the UK. He was also the life of the party at Inter... well, the Glasgow '95 WorldCon, and I was very sorry he wasn't on the program this time, because he's an articulate, intelligent and very funny guy.

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