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AICN SF BOOKS! Adam Balm’s Back With A Look At The 85th Anniversary Of WEIRD TALES, Orson Scott Card, And Richard Matheson!

Hey, everyone. ”Moriarty” here. It’s been a little while since we’ve had an AICN SF BOOKS column, but Adam Balm’s always a welcome contributor, and I love that he’s back with a look at a pulp celebration. I’m on a pulp kick right now, reading a bunch of DOC SAVAGE reprints, and I’m in love with pulp all over again. Good stuff, and plenty of it, so get to it!

Okay, this time we're going to be doing something different. in celebration of the eighty-fifth anniversary of Weird Tales---who gave us no less than Cthulhu and Conan and Bradbury's fun house mirrors of small town American life---this one is going to be an all short story edition. This time not only do we have all-new tales of Elric of Melnibone and Ender Wiggin, but also a new collection by Richard Matheson and a semi-new one from my new hetero-man-crush and modern day Aldous Huxley: Paolo Bacigalupi...


WEIRD TALES: THE 85TH ANNIVERSARY ISSUE Wildside Press Okay, technically I suppose you can call it the 85th anniversary issue...I mean, true, it has been 85 years since Weird Tales first premiered. But it's not like it's been in continuous publication like Astounding/Analog or F&SF. It's died and been reborn more times than an X-Men character. Ownership changed hands more often than a spliff passed around at a party. Like Amazing, it's been one of those brands that refused to die even while the fiction magazine/periodical market is dying. Sometimes successfully but most times not. Because carrying on the same name doesn't necessitate carrying on the same spirit, let alone the same level of quality. "Plundering the pyramids does not make one the relation of pharaohs." as Aldiss said. So what's different this time? Well for the first time, the 21st century incarnation of Weird Tales has an actual literary movement behind it. Unlike the Movement/Cyberpunks or the Mundanes, The New Weird has no manifesto, no declaration of principles or even an agreed upon definition of what the hell it even is. In the first collection for the new Weird Tales (published earlier this year, available for purchase on Amazon or, Stephen H. Segal defined the New Weird as "the fact that there's something inherently disorienting about the state of 'in-betweenness'," the fancy artsy-fartsy word being "interstitiality". It's "neither-this-nor-thatness". It's "a woman who sells her house to a bear." It's a "hardworking kid slaving a way in a coal mines alongside a father who refuses to stay dead.", it's "a brain eating zombie girl who nonetheless makes a surprisingly good date." It's the gothic and the macabre, the surreal and the grotesque, being not intrusions on our reality but a part of it, to kind of paraphrase what China Miéville says in the issue. It's also the participation of the two biggest overachievers in the SF world, Jeff and Anne VanderMeer, who besides having just put out the definitive anthology THE NEW WEIRD and the upcoming STEAM PUNK, have a hand in Weird Tales. (Anne was recently named the fiction editor.) Obviously a big draw for this issue would be Moorcock's new Elric tale, "Back Petals". (Admittedly I'm a bit of an Elric neophyte, not having a throbbing desire for all things Sword & Sorcery. And the fact that Elric was mostly just a cash cow to keep New Worlds going...) Here we find Elric of Melniboné, Prince of Ruins, arriving in the city of Nassea-Tiki, searching for a black flower that might finally allow him to break free both of the drugs that keep him alive and his slavery to the sword Stormbringer. The pale silverskins of Melniboné live "short, painful lives usually ended in madness and self-destruction" unless sustained artificially with herbs or, in Elric's case, the souls taken by the black sword with a will all its own that he carries at his side. But he's sworn to never use Stormbringer again, and so he has sailed to this distant land to find the Black Anemone, which legend swirls about and which myth claims can make him whole again, giving him the gift of something at least approaching a normal existence. The flower lies upstream in the jungle fortress ruins of Soom, and he learns that he's not the only one who had his eyes on the flower. Tilus Kreek, the King of the Uyt had disappeared after leading an expedition to the hidden city. Now members of the newly formed Republican Council, the king's twin daughters and (much to Elric's surprise) his own cousin Duke Dyvum Mar, are forming a second expedition into the jungle. Elric volunteers. But we know that everything Elric touches turns to ash, and no good can come of any enterprise that he has a hand in. It's doomed from the start, but we follow anyway, because this is Michael Moorcock, and we don't seem to care that the ending is a foregone conclusion. All the classic pulp fantasy staples come out and take a bow; forgotten ruins, dark lands with cults of monsters and human sacrifice, cursed heroes and more-beast-than-man savages, and ancient evils older than memory that are best left forgotten. The rest of the entries range from the highly surrealist and nearly incomprehensible (“Detours on the Way to Nothing” by Rachel Swirsky), the absurdist and possibly metaphorical (“Creature” by Ramsey Shehadeh) to the quotidian (“The Yellow Dressing Gown” by Sarah Monette), to the more conventional (“The Heart of Ice” by Tanith Lee and the “Talion Moth” by John Kirk.). What a genre (Even one no one can clearly define) may lack in consistency it makes up for in variety. Other features are an excerpt on raising the dead from THE SCIENCE OF DUNE, an attempt to locate the actual inspiration for Lovecraft's “Arkham” and a list of the 85 Weirdest Storytellers of the Past 85 years, which includes write-ups on M.C. Escher, Art Bell, and Tom Waits, and Frida Kahlo. WEIRD TALES: THE 85TH ANNIVERSARY ISSUE is on sale at news stands now. The collection WEIRD TALES: THE TWENTY FIRST CENTURY VOL. 1 hit bookstores last November. ORSON SCOTT CARD'S INTERGALACTIC MEDICINE SHOW edited by Edmund R. Schubert and Orson Scott Card Tor Not counting original anthology collections, probably the two most innovative new places for short SF to emerge in the last few years, Flurb and Strange Horizons, have been online. (A third, SCI FICTION at, closed down in 2006 because of fuck-scifi-dot-com, that's why.) The big dead tree mags usually can't afford to take too many chances. Analog and Asimov's have an audience to maintain, even though looking at their subscriber numbers, they're not maintaining them. There's plenty of small press print mags, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, the above mentioned Weird Tales, Interzone, Black Static, but they operate on a shoe-string budget, always hovering just a short-hair above profitability. It seems everyone agrees in principle that short stories are vital to genre culture. Besides being the training ground for each generation of new writers, they have had a way of binding fandom together (though you could argue that stopped being the case the moment usenet was invented.). It's with this in mind that Orson Scott Card dreamed up “InterGalactic Medicine Show”. Make no mistake, it's not trying to reinvent the wheel. It doesn't pretend to be avant-garde or mind-expanding. What it is trying to do, is provide a secure outlet in an insecure publishing world, where writers have a new forum to publish their work, with the lower overhead--actually get paid more doing it. Oh, and it just happens to be the new home of the Enderverse. Did I mention that every issue contains a new Ender short? (Say what you want about OSC, the man knows his marketing.) IGMS contains four new short stories set in the Ender's Game universe (Well, new in print anyway): “Mazer in Prison”, “Cheater”, “Pretty Boy”, and “A Young Man with Prospects”. The first almost functions as a direct prequel to Ender's Game, set during Mazer Rackham's exile years in relativistic time-dilation flight between the stars, and revealing the role he played in creating the Battle School, selecting Ender as his heir apparent, and his aid in Graff's rise through the ranks to head up the search for man's newest savior. There's plenty of those byzantine mazes of lying and manipulation that Card seems to have his characters walk through. There's always three lies beneath any truth told. There seems to be a slight continuity gaffe when they explain Mazer's motivation for not wanting to lead the next war himself, but oh well. “Cheater” follows Han Tzu (Hot Soup) and shows what happens when someone tries to scam their way into Battle School. “Pretty Boy” is an attempt to make Bonzo Madrid appear less the two dimensional psychopath (focusing on his only redeemable qualities, his obsession with honor), which probably makes it in the end the deepest of the Ender tales in this collection. One issue it raises is the dangers in any true meritocracy. Card explains that in any ordinary school, he would outgrow his bullying, but at Battle School, bullying and cut-throat competition are the rules you live by. “A Young Man with Prospects” is well told, but not much more than “Emma trying to get into space”. Some of the stories collected aren't more than quick thought experiments, easily swallowed and digested. “Hats Off” and “Audience” are two examples. “Tabloid Reporter to the Stars” is pure Robert Sheckley and a perfect example of how to pull off an absurd twist ending and make it work. “Call Me Mr. Positive” carries the same theme as “Mazer in Prison”, which actually seems to also carry the theme of “The Days Between” by Allen Steele, the “lonely spacer spending years in the gulf between the stars” is an SF staple that will probably never go away. There's a fairly clever stab at resolving the creation vs. evolution culture wars in “To Know All Things That Are in The Earth” when the Apocalypse comes and a creationist turns to her biology professor to dissect a shot-down angel. Of the fantasy stories included, “The Mooncalfe”, “Dream Engine” and “Eviction Notice” are the most effective. OSC also includes a comic strip adaptation of “Fat Farm” and I'm a little disappointed that not once did Card approach Pasqual Ferry to contribute. MEDICINE SHOW probably won't set the world on fire, but it's a solid collection with few duds that does what it needs to do. ORSON SCOTT CARD'S INTERGALACTIC MEDICINE SHOW will be released August 5th. PUMP SIX AND OTHER STORIES by Paolo Bacigalupi Night Shade I honestly think that people will look back at this spring as the moment the Mundane Movement stopped being something people argued about in editorials and blogs, and finally began to take shape into something concrete. The signs are hard to deny: The CARHULLAN ARMY/DAUGHTERS OF THE NORTH won the Tiptree award and may nab the Clarke, Interzone is set to publish its all Mundane SF issue. And not only did early critic of the mundane manifesto Charles Stross write a novel using the MSF rules, it's up for the Hugo. Hell, Terry Bisson even felt compelled to write a satire of the Movement (and this was a guy who all but called for it in a Locus interview back in 2000), and of course, there's Paolo's first short story collection which has been near universal acclaim, and quite honestly knocked me on my ass. For those who still don't know, Mundane SF is basically the Dogme 95 of the science fiction world. It's an attempt to strip away all the gosh wow tropes of the genre that have more basis in wish-fulfillment than science. This includes telepathy, FTL travel, nano-magic, godlike AI superminds, parallel universes, galactic empires and alien civilizations, and the like. I'm not going to fake objectivity. I've gushed about Paolo before and I've gushed about the mundanes before. If there was a Gibson of the Mundanistas, it would be Bacigalupi. He's the first one out of the gate that makes you say “Wow, there's really something to this”. Kim Stanley Robinson is known as “the environmental writer”, but where KSR seems to be writing love letters to the environment, Paolo seems to be writing Dear Johns. Both “The Calorie Man” and “Yellow Card Man” take place in the same post-peak oil collapse future, exploring two different sides of a society trying to survive when the crude runs dry. I already reviewed the former when it was included in REWIRED. Paolo's been compared recently to C.M. Kornbluth, and I guess I can see it with the title story. 'Pump Six', with shades of Idiocracy is the one I could most see actually happening. Here one man struggles to maintain a decaying future New York's sewage system. In “Pocketful of Dharma”, a street urchin comes into possession of the downloaded consciousness of the Dali Lama, and winds up caught between Tibetan separatists and world powers who want the status quo. “Softer” isn't science fiction, but I hope it's fantasy. Here Paolo kills his wife for reminding him that he didn't do the dishes. Besides the whole wife-killing angle, it's interesting if only for having the dubious distinction of being written just as an excuse to use the word “macerate”. All in all it's freaky that every one of these stories was written before oil hit over $100 a barrel, before the economy tanked, before congress started investigating endocrine disruptors, before food rationing hit the U.S. for the first time since World War II. There's an old line about how SF tries to predict the present, not the future. No one is doing it better right now than Bacigalupi. PUMP SIX AND OTHER STORIES was published on February 1st. BUTTON, BUTTON: UNCANNY STORIES by Richard Matheson Tor Man, I really feel for Matheson right now. The release of this collection (I assume) was meant to capitalize on the success of I AM LEGEND and (Again, I assume) the anticipation for the movie movie adaptation of BUTTON, BUTTON which, we're informed on the cover, is "soon to be a major motion picture: The Box, starring Cameron Diaz.". But as fate would have it, overshadowing thoughts of Cameron Diaz's box and hitting her button is the news that Eddie Murphy is going to be starring in the newest remake of THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. The same INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN that got Matheson his Hugo, the same INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN that was selected for the SF Masterworks line. Eddie fucking Murphy. I'm not sure what the criteria was for those selected in BUTTON, BUTTON. And no indication is given in the author's short introduction. All of these stories were published between 1950-1970 and pretty much all were collected in anthologies mostly out of print right now. ("Clothes make the Man" and "Pattern for Survival" appeared in THE SHORES OF SPACE, "The Creeping Terror" in SHOCK!, "A Flourish of Strumpets", "No Such Thing as a Vampire" and "Mute" found there way into SHOCK 2, "Girl of My Dreams", "Tis the Season to Be Jelly", "The Jazz Machine", "Shock Wave" in SHOCK 3, "Dying Room Only" in SHOCK WAVES.) Most you could call suspense, some gothic, some urban fantasy, a few satire, one metafiction and a poem. Almost none of his outright science fiction is included, which I suppose makes sense if you want to reach the Borders-front-table audience. In the title story, a man arrives on the doorstep of your standard American home with a package and an offer. Inside is a box with a single button on it. Every time you push the button someone you've never met will die, and every time that happens, you'll get 50,000 dollars. You're not told why. You're told only that it's for some kind of academic study, and that you'll never be caught or prosecuted. It's a story that's all set-up until the very last paragraph, and it's a thought experiment as much as it's a statement about human nature. It's not as interesting whether you'll push the button or not, as it is seeing how you can convince yourself why you're justified in doing it. I don't see how the hell you could stretch it out for 90 minutes, but it works on the page. The “stranger on the doorstep” motif is used again for “Flourish of Strumpets” but in a lighter way. Here prostitution becomes a door to door business, and like 'Button', it's played out in a series of arguments between a couple. “Dying Room Only” has a man and a woman stopping at a diner somewhere in the desert for breakfast, which takes a menacing turn when her husband doesn't return from the bathroom, and no one can seem to remember him ever being there at all. “The Creeping Terror” is Matheson's parable for suburban sprawl, with Los Angeles discovered to be a living organism as it spreads over the earth like a plague. Likewise, both “Clothes make the man” and “'Tis the Season to be Jelly” seem to be more black comedy social commentary, or they may be just Matheson having fun. Hard to tell. “Girl of My Dreams” and “Mute” both see Matheson stepping into New Wave territory, the former about a man who uses his psychic girlfriend to ransom people who are about to have a loved one die, and the latter about an orphan who without language has found an altogether different kind of communication. “Shock Wave” and “The Jazz Machine” are less stories than Matheson's love letters to music. “Pattern for Survival” brings it all full circle: he's the writer and he's the written. BUTTON, BUTTON: UNCANNY STORIES was released on April 1st. Lastly, I want to bring everyone's attention to something. This year we lost the last the last of the old torchbearers of the genre. And on April 30th, the awards established in his name will gather opening night at the Sci-Fi London Film Festival to announce the winners for the 2008 Arthur C. Clarke Awards. This is the first time the awards have ever been announced live. Now, last year I got into a bit of a tussle with the administrators of the award and words like "boycott" may have been thrown around. (This year the big bru-ha-ha is about why BRASYL wasn't on the short list. I'm assured that it was submitted but for whatever reason it just didn't make the cut.) Maybe the reason for all the controversy is the fact that for a lot of folks, the Clarkes have always been held to a higher standard, even though they don't have the prestige of the Nebulas or the Hugos. Because whereas the Hugos usually just confirm what most people have already been buying and reading, and the Nebulas just confirm who's popular among the ranks of the SFWA, the Clarkes are about pushing the boundaries of what we consider SF to be. Maybe it's because the Brits always seem to have a more intellectual bent to their SF. You can see it in this year's shortlist. So if you have a chance, check out the nominees at, or if you're planning on attending the Sci-Fi London Film festival, don't miss out. You can contact AICN SF Books here if you’ve got something you think we have to read!
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