Thursday, June 17, 2010

Ka Is A Wheel: Part I, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Tower

When Stephen King published his breakthrough novel Carrie in 1974, I was just a young pup of -4, yes, that's a negative. When I was old enough to appreciate such things, I began noticing the alluring artwork on the massive volumes of books on my Dad’s friend’s shelves. One book stood out from the others. It featured a scaly green claw reaching out from a sewer grate (any of you worth your salt will know which book I’m referring to!). Against both of my parents better judgment, I read my first King novel. If I’m not mistaken, I was 12 at the time making it somewhere around 1990. A couple of years later, I remember buying Needful Things in paperback from airport convenience store in August of 1992 on my way to visit my uncle in Texas for a week. This was my first King purchase, but by then I was already a dedicated fan. I was due to start high school that fall.

Despite the lack of funds, in 1994 I started buying the new King books in hardcover as they came out, the first of these purchases being Insomnia. I quickly read through King’s entire oeuvre between then and the spring of 1996 when I graduated high school. In fact, besides the occasional Anne Rice, that was about the ONLY thing I was reading. That summer however, I realized I had run out of books… well almost.

There was this series of books, three to be exact, that I had always been avoiding. Looking back I’m not exactly sure why, though I seem to recall others telling me that these were their least favorite of King’s novels. Indeed I may have even read the first chapter or two of the first book and given up. But when a teenage fanboy has nothing else to read (heaven forbid I pick up another author) I found copies of The Gunslinger, The Drawing Of The Three, and The Wastelands and committed myself to them.

As I trudged across the desert with Roland at my side, I felt lost, probably a lot like the man himself did. I found Jake and let him go again. I tripped with the man in black throughout the hundred year night and woke up on the shores of the Western Sea. But when it was all over, I was still confused. How was this a coherent story? There was obviously so much more going on, but all I had been shown were dream-like glimpses. Sure, it had its moments, but was it really worth pushing on through two more books of this ephemeral writing? But like the loyal fan I was, I gave the second book, The Drawing Of The Three, a try.

And boy, am I glad I did. From the start of book two, King spooled his thread in an entirely different, yet familiar manner. This was the King I knew and loved. And as quickly as the book dragged me into Roland’s world again, I found everything that had been missing from the first. In a matter of days, I had finished the second and started on the third, The Wastelands. By now I had come to love Roland’s companions, his world was so much more vibrant and exciting with Eddie and Susannah in it. His Ka-tet was nearly complete and it really made a difference in the tale. And most importantly, by the start of book three, I knew where we were headed. The Dark Tower. The center of all things. The lynchpin of the multiplicity of universes.

There was no way I was turning back now…

To be continued...

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Turing Test, Chirs Beckett

Last year, I heard about this little collection of short stories, that in spite of being tales of science fiction, "surprising"ly picked up the Edge Hill Short Story Prize for 2009. The award, given out in the United Kingdom for the best short story collection, had a shortlist crowded with a winner and nominees of the prestigious Man Booker Prize. This literary rivalry left Chris Beckett as the long shot, with many people feeling that his SF would count against him in the competition. Not only to Becket's surprise, but to the self-admitting judges surprise also, The Turing Test walked away with the win. And it completely deserved it. As judge James Walton put it:
"...once the judging process started, it soon became clear that The Turing Test was the book that we'd all been impressed by, and enjoyed, the most—and one by one we admitted it."

Published by the now (sadly) defunct Elastic Press, Becket's collection is yet available from online retailers (USA- UK) in a mass market paperback format. Happily for me, as readers of this blog can probably imagine, Elastic Press also issued The Turing Test in limited hardcover edition, comprising of only twenty-six copies, lettered and signed by Beckett. While not up to the standards of traditional lettered editions (no slip or traycase, no illustrations, no high end papers or binding - even the limitation page was created through the use of a signed plate!), at least the book is bound in cloth and has nice gilded spine text. Despite this, I was more than happy to purchase this ridiculously scarce hardcover for a very reasonable price (as a side note, this pricing reinforces my argument that cash value is not a direct factor of rarity alone; though this really is a discussion for another posting). Anyone else interested in a hardcover edition can still find copies through specialty retailers, notably Bad Moon Books, who at the time of this writing still has a couple of copies left.

In either case, The Turing Test, is one remarkable collection. Some of the tales begin to form a cohesive backdrop for Beckett's writing. Both "The Perimeter" and "Piccadilly Circus"  posit a world were most every human has been uploaded into a virtual existence. These Consensuals, as they are known, however are not all created equal. As the power consumption and demand for so many digital humans is astronomical, a heavy price is placed on definition. A person with  limited resources may not be able to walk around and interact with the field in high-def. In fact, the most destitute may only be able to afford a generic gray outline with only a hint of interactive ability and negligible emotive power. But these conditions are still favorable to the broken down, weed ridden, detritus strewn wastelands that the world has now become. Only the old or crazy still exist as the lonesome sentinels of physical humanity, the Outsiders.

One of my favorite stories, "We Could Be Sisters" eludes to a group of wanderers who have the ability to shift into neighboring universes through the simple act of taking a certain drug. When one woman, Jessica, meets a beggar who bears a too-strong resemblance to her, we find out how we live everyday just moments from drastically altering our lives via unknown pathways and choices. The story is one of the best works of the bubble-universe theory that I have yet read. Earlier in the book we met Jessica in another short story - the title story- where she finds that even though her friends and co-workers might be rude, depressing and dull, there is something to be said for a the companionship of a live human being. Something that AI, no matter how life-like, will ever be able to replace. 

What really sets Beckett's work aside is his notable ability to create the setting as a character in and of itself. His world building is incredible. And while he works to deliver the scenes to us in a few meaningful sentences, he also tells the human stories, how they connect to the world and how they connect to each other. The Turing Test really is a collection that deserves to be read and one can hope the wining of Edge Hill will bring Beckett's work to a wider audience.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Regarding Blog Comments

It has come to my attention that for some reason, the ridiculous hoops that are required to comment on my blog and others have been dis-allowing people from leaving their thoughts. The "captcha" anti-bot text is apparently always broken and the audio does not work. Sorry about that, friends.

I was hoping to generate some back and forth conversation and would be more than happy to hear any opinions you may have about my essay topics. To that end I have disabled all forms of comment restrictions or requirements to sign into a particular service. Open and or anonymous commenting is more than okay by me, if that is what you'd prefer.

Again, I apologize for the issues. Happy reading!

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Clockwork Century, Cherie Priest

For those of you who don't know (was I the last one left?) about Cherie Priest, she is a talented, new(ish) writer whose name is just beginning to garner the recognition it deserves. Her most recent book, Boneshaker (available via Tor in the US and the UK) has been nominated for the triumvirate of SF/F awards: the Hugo, the Nebula and the Locus. It deservedly won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association award for 2009 and is currently in it's seventh printing already. Boneshaker is the steam-punkish first novel in what Priest is calling her Clockwork Century. Set in an alternate 19th century where the civil war has raged and sputtered for 18 years, the book follows the story that results after the mad scientist Leviticus Blue, using the eponymous digging machine, drills under and consequently collapses most of downtown Seattle. Unfortunately the collapsing tunnels have also released a dense, poisonous gas from below that has the unfortunate effect transmuting people into rotters (zombies) and hence the city must be sealed off, effectively severing Seattle from the rest of the country. The story picks up here and follows Leviticus' teenage son Zeke, as he disappears into Seattle, desperately trying to clear his dad's name. Intertwined is the story of Zeke's mom Briar, Leviticus' widow, who knows the truth and and hopes to find Zeke before it is too late.

While this story sounds like a collage of nearly every genre trope known, Priest wields her tools in such a way as to bring a non-stop, action packed, dirigible-filled ride to anyone willing to give it a shot. Her world-building alone is insistently detailed and the Clockwork Century promises to yield many more tales in the future. Following this up next fall is Dreadnought (ARC photo below courtesy of Priest), but in the meantime the  lovely folks at Subterranean Press have brought us Clementine, the novella length story that shall tide us over until September. Subterranean has recently released the revised art for the June novella (left) and it is absolutely stunning. The new cover really captures the feel of the environment Boneshaker envisioned. Issued in the already sold out signed, limited edition of 200 copies and the still available hardcover trade (available directly from Subterranean - free shipping on pre-orders - or via the US and UK Amazon pages) Clementine promises to deliver a wholly original adventure. Priest has stated that while neither book is a true sequel to Boneshaker (although there is some character cross-over), both stories take place in the wake of the Seattle events and they can be read independently if you chose; though I still recommend reading the first, if for nothing else but the excellent yarn.

So stick around, friends and neighbors, the Clockwork Century has only just begun and I for one will be lining up to read the results. Due to the reception so far, I suspect I will have plenty of company. If you have not yet tried Boneshaker and are interested in supporting in independent  bookstore, Priest has kindly offered up signed (and personalized, if that suits you) copies (following these directions) at her local University Book Store. If audio books are your cup of tea, I can highly recommended the talented voice acting of Wil Wheaton and Kate Reading as they perform Boneshaker, available now from Dreadnought should be in stores (again, via Tor in the US and the UK) September 28 and a sample chapter for those of you who can't wait can be read for free on Macmillian's page for the book. Enjoy the ride, it will certainly be fun.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Genuine Billy, or, How I Was Given a Back-Stage Pass

Since the days of my recent post regarding Cemetery Dance and their new book, Blockade Billy, I have received a number of reactions. One rather noteworthy response included an email from Brian Freeman, the marketing director of Cemetery Dance. He told me that he had read my blog and that he was interested in talking to me, possibly hoping to clear up any misunderstandings that I may have had.

This past Monday, May 17, I had the opportunity to talk with Brian for nearly a half an hour. What follows is a rough translation of the information that I gleaned from our chat. While I did not record the interview, I did take a few notes and this post is a result of a couple of days thinking about that conversation.

I told Brian, that despite my other grievances mentioned in my original blog post, my biggest concern - what I felt was most disingenuous on the part of Cemetery Dance - was the following: I had just ordered a $25 hardcover book, supposedly a first edition, only to find out that just 35 days later a second hardcover edition (priced even lower and with additional material) was being distributed by Scribner, Stephen King’s traditional trade publisher. I felt (feel) that the second edition, so close on the heels of the first, devalued the Cemetery Dance edition and kind of gave lie to the fact that King was “debuting a work through an independent press.”

Brain suggested that he understood my frustration. He told me that when CD’s edition was announced, that to the best of their knowledge, it would have been the only edition of Billy for at least a year. The history of the book began something like this… Richard Chizmar, the founder of Cemetery Dance, has long been fan of baseball and has had the opportunity to spend some time talking to King (also a lifelong fan) about their shared passion for the sport. So when King wrote this baseball themed story, he immediately thought that Richard and CD would be the perfect venue for distribution of the new novella. After negotiations with King and his agent, Chuck Verrill, they came to an arrangement. Cemetery Dance would produce the world’s first edition of Blockade Billy, consisting of 10,000 copies. While this technically is a trade edition, Brian reminded me, it was by far the smallest trade edition for a new King book in 28 years when 10,000 copies of The Gunslinger were initially printed in hardcover.

At the time of the negotiations, it was thought around the various offices that 10,000 copies would be a sufficient number to satisfy consumer demand, Brain told me. After all, CD had printed only 5,000 copies of Secretary of Dreams and it had taken over two years to sell them. What it seems was not taken into account was that Billy was fresh work (as opposed to Secretary) and that it would be priced significantly cheaper – an edition affordable to the average fan. Needless to say, word spread fast and within a week of the announcement of the book, the first printing was well on its way to selling out. The buyers for the major retail chains were turned away; only direct independent orders would be fulfilled at this time. Getting back in touch with Verrill and King, CD arranged to produce a second printing, again of 10,000 books. This time however, these books would be dedicated to library sales, in the hopes to meet customer demand until sometime in the future when a new edition of Billy would be made. As Brian put it, it was anticipated that the libraries would be able to offer a “read-it-before-you-can-buy-it” type of deal, thereby driving people into the libraries for the summer and also keeping King fans happy at the same time.

Insistence for the title still was not satisfied however. The national booksellers had attempted to place nearly 100,000 copies of Blockade Billy on order – a number that was clearly not going to be met through Cemetery Dance’s plans for the edition. When Scribner heard these numbers however, they were very interested in finding a way to meet that demand. Negotiations between Scribner, Cemetery Dance, Verrill and King began again. It was then decided that Scribner would publish its own edition sometime soon to meet that retail demand. At this point Brian pointed out to me that Cemetery Dance did not have a contractual right to an exclusive Billy; their contract was only to produce the unique first edition.

As things continued to unfold, Scribner announced an audio edition for late May. Word of mouth and media outlets continued to spread the news of King’s new book and customer request for the title increased further still. At this point, to fill that demand, Scribner decided they needed to produce their edition from start to finish in less than 60 days. Scribner, having received the book files from CD, would be getting the book into the hands of the booksellers during the height of the baseball season and just in time for Father's Day – a sure win/win in terms of marketing and meeting consumer needs. In order to do this, they would drop production of a dust jacket, keep CD’s jacket art as a print-on cover (known as paper-over-board) and remove all of the interior art from the book. Publishing Billy as a paperback they realized would force them to make a rather slim $12 or $13 book. By bumping it up to a hardcover, they could ask $14.95, add an additional short story and make it into a respectable trade volume.

This is where I come into the tale. Of course, not knowing all the behind the scene drama, I assumed (but did not come out and say as such in my blog) that Cemetery Dance must have had some inkling of this the entire time. How could they not, I thought? It seemed to happen so quickly. It turns out that this was not the case at all. Indeed, I have independently verified 95% of this information though a contact in a major retail chain that had received contact from Scribner regarding how and when their edition would be coming to the stores. Cemetery Dance was very excited to produce the first edition of Billy. Richard and his crew were extremely thrilled to do something unique in King’s history of publishing. When they announced Blockade Billy for sale, I don’t think they intended to sell a less than genuine product to the fans. With each development in the saga however, a little wind seems to have been taken out of Billy’s sails, but there was not much CD could have done differently. As Brian noted, they had no contractual right to Billy’s future and even if they had, why would they go against Scribner’s, Verrill’s and King’s wishes to get the book into as many fans hands as possible? CD has a happy and productive working relationship with all parties involved; no one in their right mind would jeopardize that. They were content to have been allowed the honor of the first trade edition, something no independent publisher of King’s has been allowed to do since Donald M. Grant’s 1982 hardcover of The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger (and the sequels).

In conclusion, it might be that my final thoughts on the edition may have been just a bit on the harsh side. That last paragraph was certainly twisting the knife a little deep, in any case. But on the other hand, it is possible that without reaching the conclusion that I did, that I would not have had the opportunity to talk to Brain and learn this fascinating, albeit convoluted story and I would not have been able to pass my information on to you.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Summer Blockbusters

Like the oft-celebrated summer movie schedule, 2010 is lining up its best in the coming months and has several guaranteed (*note* not really guaranteed) good reads for the SF world. This summer will be a heck of a good season, friends and neighbors. The following books are all due out in the next few months, encompassing fully one-half of my top ten working genre authors. This is going to be a great year by anyones standards.

June 1st, 2010 Ace (US) - March 15th, 2010 Gollancz (UK)
Reynolds takes a departure from the many volumed Revelation Space universe in order to deliver this far-future steampunkish novel which is set on a Babel-esque tower housing various castes of humanity at various levels. What makes this tower unique is that each section appears to be locked into various technological eras; post-singularity above to the horse-and-buggies below. When one of the post-human "angels" falls down into the more or less late 20th century level, the mystery and suspense begin.

Al is the author of the seven volumes of Revelation Space staring with the eponymous book and ending, most recentely, with The Prefect. In addition he has written other books including the noir-styled-alternate-history-mystery (got that?) Century Rain and the deep future House of Suns in which humans have fully colonized the galaxy only to discover that we are completely alone.

No release data yet for US - June 3rd, 2010 Gollancz (UK)
This first volume in yet another trilogy (man, that Baxter loves him some three book sequences) Stone Spring sinks its teeth deep into an alternate stone age, 8,000 years in the past. The tale follows a band of hunter-gatherers who live in "Northland", the natural land bridge linking England to Holland, while they struggle to keep their homeland intact in the face of the rising North Sea. Followed by Bronze Summer and Iron Winter over the next two years, the trilogy will track the fate of the community though history's greatest epochs.

Baxter is the author of, among other things, the Manifold series consisting of the books Time, Space and Origin in which each novel examines a different possible answer to the Fermi Paradox; and the unique Mammoth sequence which follows the struggles of the last mammoth herds in the face of extinction from man.

June 15th, 2010 Night Shade Books (US) - June 15th, 2010 Gollancz (UK)
This summer Egan brings us Zendegi, the story of the Iran expatriate Nasim Golestani, a scientist living in America who is currently working on the ambitious "Human Connectome Project" which aims to completely map every neural connection in the human brain. But when funding for the project evaporates, Nasim moves his expertise into the creation of the world's largest virtual community Zendegi. Representing millions, this new controversial community is being fought as those living argue against the nature and rights of the software-only beings who reside within.

Egan is the famously reclusive science-fiction author living in Australia whose background in mathematics shines through in all his work. His ideas are often huge, sometimes intimidating and always a joy to read. He is perhaps best known for the 1994 novel Permutation City, also exploring ideas of a virtual civilization and most recently Incandescence, a novel in which a pre-industrial alien culture proposes the theories of general relativity and black hole physics.

  • Kraken by China Mieville
June 29th, 2010 Del Ray (US) - May 7th, 2010 Macmillan (UK).
China's new novel is is promising to be his weirdest yet, and as he is the de-facto leader of what the sub-genre hairsplitters are calling the "New Weird" that is not a statement to be taken lightly. When the centerpiece of the London Natural History Museum, the Architeuthis dux, better known as the Giant Squid, disappears into thin air in front of a group of tourists an underground and heretofore unknown group the city's denizens rise to proclaim their dominance. Now groups as various as the newly risen Congregation of Kraken, to the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crimes Unit (FSRC) whom fight sorcery with sorcery are all chasing one man, Billy the tour guide, who inadvertently holds the key to the cephalopod's power and the continued existence of everything we know.

China is the author of the best-selling Bas-Lag universe novels including perhaps most famously Perdido Street Station and Iron Council as well as last year's most award winningest novel, an ambitious noir mystery that only China could write, The City & The City.

July 6th, 2010 Ace (US) - July 1st, 2010 Orbit (UK)
With the third book in what is now known as "The Laundry Files", Stross promises to deliver another stunning yet unlikely mix of Lavecratftian horror, IT hackery, comedy and 007 style gadgetry and espionage. Following up on The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue, Bob Howard is getting a bit tired of his work following him home at night. Unlike you and me however, when Bob's work follows him home it is generally in the form of mad eldritch gods from the black depths or zombie assassins. When Bob's boss at the ultra-covert black-ops agency responsible from keeping these horrors from the general public is indicted for the disappearance of a secret file that may reveal all, people start dying.

Charlie is a the prolific author of the six volume science fantasy Merchant Princes series and many hard science fiction novels often examining possible futures for humans in a post-singularity world such as Accelerando and Halting State as well as the space-opera Saturn's Children.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Disingenuous Billy

Am I a Limited, or Am I a Trade?” An essay.
When the publisher Cemetery Dance announced Stephen King’s new novella, they touted it as their biggest news in twenty years” of publishing. And it may well be. I’m not one to argue. They claimed that almost never, not since the 1970’s had King debuted an original work through the specialty press – as opposed to his “mass-market” trade distributor, currently Scribner. (Previously Viking, previously Putnam). And again, they are probably not lying here either, though I have not verified this claim. (As as side note - all my pics are enlargeable via clicking)

In being the “World’s First Edition”, Cemetery Dance (CD) was releasing Blockade Billy in a trade state. For those of you unfamiliar with the publishing terms I use and the definitions I keep see my previous post. As a trade edition it was going to be a larger printing than CD was used to doing, 10,000 copies. But because Scribner and the other New York houses would print upwards of 500,000 copies for a new book by an author of Steve’s caliber, CD was also claiming that in essence, this was also a limited edition. And in a sense that was true as well, fewer King fans would have a 1st/1st in their collections than normal, lending Billy an inherent collectability.

CD also touted the “limited-ness” of the novella by noting that the first printing was densely illustrated and contained a reproduction baseball card featuring the main character of the story. “Cool,” I thought “Neat stuff to being including in a trade edition book!” This was March 29, the book due to be published in just 22 days.

A week later CD made the announcement that Lonely Road Books, another publisher that they somehow have a vested interest in, would be publishing the true limited edition of Blockade Billy. This was cool, very much in line with what happens to most of King’s books. These Lonely Road editions would be made of extremely high quality materials: dense, heavy weight paper, leather and specialty cloth covered boards, more art and handmade traycases. Signed by Stephen King himself and some even with unique – different for every copy – custom art, these editions were commanding typically high prices: $450 and $1,250 depending on the state you chose. Way out of my league, but nothing unexpected in that announcement.

Another week goes by. News of Stephen King’s new book spreads through the traditional media outlets. CD announces a second printing (sans baseball card) will be made for the libraries. The first printing is over 70% sold out. Major retail outlets will NOT be receiving any first or second print copies. Outcries rise from the Barnes & Noble and Borders “buyers” (those folks who choose what the stores will stock)...

This isn’t what happens when Steve releases a new book! We demand piles of them, with which to make our towering displays!” they shout and grumble.
But we are only a tiny press!” CD replies “This is our biggest trade printing ever!
WE WANT OUR STEPHEN KING” the world demands, whilst waving their arms and being all threatening-like.

…9 days before publication of the new book, negotiations begin anew.

CD announces, just two days later that they have made arrangements with Scribner, allowing King’s story to be traditionally published, just 35 days after the publication of CD's edition, a trade hardcover for the masses…

Wait, what now?

CD already did the trade hardcover, didn’t they? That’s what they said their edition was, over and over. Lonely Road is doing the limited and CD is doing the trade. Shouldn't Scribner at least be doing a paperback if they want reprint rights? Now suddenly, the world has two limited editions… or is that two trade editions? Or wait. Hold on, I got this one…

A Shaft to the Collector. That’s what it is. I knew I could figure out what the CD edition was called!

If CD was producing the trade edition, I would be okay with it. Sure, the book I received in the mail even looks like a trade! What with the scholastic-like illustrations, the photoshopped baseball card, and the paper covered boards. CD didn’t even bend me over a barrel on the pricing, though $32 (with their outrageous shipping) is a tad high for a book that is only 112 pages in 18 point font with 1½” margins.

If CD was producing the limited on the other hand, I would – at the very least – have expected cloth boards and illustrations that didn’t look like my fifth grader made them on the old dot-matrix printer in the garage.

“But Scribner is doing the real trade edition!” CD spouts. “They don’t even get a dustjacket and they have no pictures at all!” On the other hand, says I, Scribner is also including an additional uncollected Stephen King short story, making their $14.95 asking price that much sweeter.

So exactly which edition is yours, Cemetery Dance? You can't be both. Yes, we have a world's first edition - but by only a month, neither is the book a trade, nor is it limited. All that remains (forgive my crass conclusion here, but the vulgar analogy is appropriate) is the adopted, maladjusted, middle-child of editions. Sure we all bought into it, but in the end, do we really want to keep the bastard?

What we have here is… failure to communicate. So you get what we had here last week, which is the way he wants it… well, he gets it. I don’t like it any more than you men”. – The Captain. (Cool Hand Luke – 1967).