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Archive for July, 2009

Noted RPG author and fantasy critic Kenneth Hite has just posted a review of the Planet Stories edition of C. L. Moore’s Northwest of Earth at Flames Rising. In the review, Hite takes on the common remark that Moore’s hero Northwest Smith set the mold for Han Solo, and makes a number of interesting observations about the stories in our collection.
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No, Smith may inhabit a solar system of Martian canals and Venusian swamps, but his adventures are less SF than a kind of lush, operatically colored noir. (Dario Argento instead of Sternberg?) As in noir, Smith can depend on nothing but his instincts to guide him: “a bed-rock of savage strength” is his real gift, an unbreakable will to survive as an individual that saves him time and again. He’s more Man With No Name than he is Han Solo. The world is strange, the city unfriendly (Smith spends a lot of time in various wretched hives of scum and villainy on Mars and Venus), and the girl … well, the girl is always the heart of the problem.

In the course of his review, Hite manages to coin my favorite phrase to date in a Planet Stories review: “This opalescent fog of language is the best thing about the stories; Moore reads like Clark Ashton Smith on Cialis.” That sounds very appealing, and makes me wish we were going to reprint immediately so I could put it on the back cover.

If you enjoy Ken’s review, I strongly urge you to pick up a copy of his latest critical work, Tour de Lovecraft: The Tales, which includes a short critical essay on every single story Lovecraft published under his own byline. It’s an amusing, insightful work sure to be of great interest to all Planet Stories readers.

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PZO8005-Cover.inddThe Reavers of Skaith, by Leigh Brackett, is the final novel in the saga of Eric John Stark, Brackett’s most beloved SF character. It’s the fourth of the five Brackett books Planet Stories has published to date, with a stunning cover by James Ryman and an introduction by film director George Lucas, who discusses Brackett’s role in writing the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back and her influence upon the entire Star Wars saga. We were blown away that Lucas was able and willing to write such a thoughtful introduction for us, and this book looked like it had everything going for it and would become one of our strongest sellers.

But everything does not always go over as planned. For unknown reasons (and this happens more often than most publishers would admit), Barnes & Noble simply decided to skip this book entirely, so despite all it has going for it the book has not had the robust distribution of many of our other titles. While that probably will mean fewer returns and a more steady journey to profitability in the long run (the same thing happened to Henry Kuttner’s Elak of Atlantis), it has the unintended effect of limiting the online discussion of the book to a relative whimper.

I was surprised and pleased, then, to find a fairly recent review of The Reavers of Skaith posted to the entertaining blog My Own Private Geekdom, a LiveJournal administered by gamer and sci-fi fan Joel Flank. Check out what Joel has to say about the book:

Stark remains a ruthless killer and the ultimate survivor, with a combination of trained fighting prowess and animal instincts keeping him alive. Brackett once again spins a compelling story that gets the blood pumping and grabs the reader and won’t let them go until the conclusion of the story.

If you haven’t yet seen a copy of The Reavers of Skaith at your local store, don’t despair! You can order directly from the publisher at Paizo.com.

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PZO8005-Cover.inddJames Enge, author of the new sword and sorcery novel Blood of Ambrose from Pyr, posted a truly excellent review of the Planet Stories edition of Henry Kuttner’s Robots Have No Tails yesterday. It’s the latest post on what is shaping up to be one of the more interesting pulp fiction blogs on the Intnernet, over at the homepage for Black Gate Magazine, which is probably the most pulp-like of any fiction magazine on the market today (which certainly makes it one of our favorites). I urge you to pop over and read James’s great review, but take a while and stick around for other insightful blog posts from a wide range of Black Gate authors and supporters.

As to the “perfect book”–the new issue from Paizo Press’ Planet Stories line, Henry Kuttner’s Robots Have No Tails, may not be perfect in some absolute sense (although it comes pretty close) but it’s certainly one that I and others have been looking forward to for years.

Thanks for the kind words, James! We’d love to publish more Henry Kuttner (I’m currently reading a great never-reprinted novel from Startling Stories that is just begging to be published). If you haven’t yet had a chance to check out Robots Have No Tails and would like to see more work by Henry Kuttner, please do pick up a copy! Your purchase could be the one that puts us over the top on getting more of his excellent work in print.

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In Praise of James Blish’s Star Trek adaptations

By Alex Bledsoe           StarTrek cover Blish 

I was a second-generation Star Trek fan.  I discovered the series in syndication between the end of the show’s network run in 1970 and the first movie’s release in 1979.  The reruns were broadcast on Channel 13 out of Memphis, usually the fuzziest of the three or four stations we could get out in the swamps.

 That’s an important bit of context.  We had no cable TV back then; instead, we had a thirty-foot aluminum antenna that someone, usually me, had to physically turn while someone else, usually my dad, shouted whether the picture was better or worse.  Weather determined a lot of what we watched: the ABC station in Jackson was closest, so its signal was strongest.  There was no other reason I would have ever watched that many episodes of The Love Boat.  More often than not, during an hour-long show like Trek, the signal would go in and out, reducing chunks of the episodes to snowy static.

Thank the Great Bird of the Galaxy, then, for James Blish.

Blish was already a noted science fiction author when he took on the task of novelizing episodes from the original series.  His Cities in Flight series, the Pantropy stories and many others had already placed him among the best serious SF writers of the Fifties and Sixties.  He even, according to Wikipedia, coined the term “gas giant.”

I’m not sure if Blish felt a special affinity for Trek, or if adapting the show was just a job.  But for a fans stuck is pre-internet isolation, these books were crucial.  There was no such thing as “home video” in any form; the best one could do (and I did) was make audiotapes of the episodes by holding a tape recorder up to the TV speaker.  For a lot of us, the Blish books were the only way to experience the episodes without being at the mercy of TV station programmers, our parents’ whims (“That show’s just weird!”) and the weather.

The first volume, originally published in 1967, presented seven episodes from the first season.  Although two of them got retitled (“Charlie X” was called “Charlie’s Law,” and “The Man Trap” retitled “The Unreal McCoy”), Blish did not do a hack job.  He brought his full writing skill to bear, translating the scripts into genuine prose and turning out short stories that, while not “original” in the true sense, nevertheless worked as literature. 

What writer wouldn’t envy this as an opening line:

When the Romulan outbreak began, Capt. James Kirk was in the chapel of the starship Enterprise, waiting to perform a wedding. (“Balance of Terror”)

Or,

Nobody, it was clear, was going to miss the planet when it did break up. (“The Naked Time”)

Even if you know nothing of Trek, these are grabbers.

In 1970 Blish also wrote the first original Trek novel, Spock Must Die!  It’s an odd read now, with the characters stiffly thrust into a hard-SF plot.  But it was the first genuinely new Trek adventure outside fan fiction.  It also gave me my first hints about how professional publishing works: the book’s editor, clearly no fan, changed McCoy’s nickname from “Bones” to “Doc” throughout, something Blish apologized for in an author’s note.

As the adaptations progressed, Blish became more faithful to the actual scripts.  I don’t know if this was a function of his health issues (he died of lung cancer in 1975 aged 54), or simply an attempt to give the readers what they really wanted: Star Trek at their fingertips.  Either way, it was my introduction to the details of Trek, and through Trek, to science fiction as a whole.  It allowed a nerdy teenage redneck in the swamps of west Tennessee to feel connected to something bigger than himself.  And without that connection, without the belief that there were more people like me out there, I wouldn’t have become the kind of writer I am.  So thanks again, Mr. Blish, for bringing that final frontier a bit closer.

Star Trek: The Next Generation

Star Trek: The Next Generation

 

Accompanying illustration 1: a photo of my original copy of the first Blish Trek, which I still have. Illustration 2: Bledsoe-The Next Generation

Alex Bledsoe grew up in west Tennessee an hour north of Graceland (home of Elvis) and twenty minutes from Nutbush (home of Tina Turner). His novels include The Sword-Edged Blonde and Blood Groove.

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Ink and Steel by Elizabeth Bear
Review by Cynthia Ward

Ink and SteelChristofer Marley has been treacherously slain.  It appears that he died in some sordid brawl, but the murder is in fact the hidden act of one faction of the divided Prometheans, secret conspirators who serve Queen Elizabeth I.  Marley’s death leaves no writer to pen the magically potent plays that keep the queen on England’s throne.  But his co-conspirators hope to use another playwright:  a promising young talent named Will Shakespeare.

     Unbeknownst to mortals, Marley’s life was saved by a queen of Faerie.  He seeks his killers and aids Shakespeare in spywork and play-magic.  But when Shakespeare is drawn into Faerie, the playwrights’ relationship changes.  And a higher power than even Faerie takes a dark interest in the pair.

     Ink and Steel is the new novel in Elizabeth Bear’s fantasy series, “The Promethean Age.”  Ink and Steel is also the first volume of “The Stratford Man,” a duology whose second and concluding volume is Heaven and Earth.

     With its beautiful prose, superior characterizations, intricate conspiracy, and deep historical, literary, and folkloric research, Ink and Steel demonstrates why Bear has received the Hugo, Campbell, Locus, and Sturgeon Awards.

     However, the novel also has a pair of significant weaknesses.  The first is that, when William Shakespeare’s feelings for his friend and colleague Christofer Marley (a.k.a. Christopher Marlowe) shift from platonic to romantic, readers are given no glimpse of Shakespeare’s thoughts during his bisexual awakening.  This absence makes the change difficult to believe, given that Ink and Steel initially presents Shakespeare as a heterosexual repulsed by homosexuality.

     The novel’s second weakness is its restless focus.  The main plotline follows Shakespeare’s development, with Marley’s help, as a magician-playwright/conspirator/spy.  But this plotline essentially vanishes as Bear explores Shakespeare and Marley’s altered relationship in depth.  Then, both relationship and conspiracy take a back seat as Faerie’s tithe to Hell is paid, and Bear shifts her focus to the nature of damnation.  By the end, Ink and Steel feels like three books under one cover.

     This problem may result from Ink and Steel being half a novel.  Rumor has it the book is the first part of a single novel published in two volumes, the second of which is Hell and Earth:  The Stratford Man, Volume II.  Certainly, when you read Ink and Steel and Hell and Earth back-to-back in that order, the restless focus resolves into a logical structure.

     Reading the two volumes as one never quite makes Shakespeare’s conversion to bisexuality convincing.  But, if you put that aside and take the books as a single novel‑-as a whole‑-they work wonderfully.

Cynthia Ward (http://www.cynthiaward.com) has sold stories to Sword & Sorceress 24 (Norilana Books, http://norilana.com/), Asimov’s SF Magazine (http://www.asimovs.com/), and other magazines and anthologies. Her reviews appear regularly in Kobold Quarterly (http://www.koboldquarterly.com/) and Sci Fi Wire (http://scifiwire.com/index.php), and irregularly elsewhere. She publishes the monthly Market Maven e’newsletter (http://www.cynthiaward.com/maven.html), which covers market news in the science fiction, fantasy, and horror fields. She is working on her first novel, a futuristic mystery tentatively titled The Stone Rain. With Nisi Shawl, Cynthia coauthored the writing manual Writing the Other: A Practical Approach (Aqueduct Press, http://www.aqueductpress.com/conversation-pieces.html#Vol8), which is based on their fiction diversity writing workshop, Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction (http://www.writingtheother.com/).

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