Book Review: The John Varley Reader

I hadn’t intended to review this book at all.  I bought it at the Seattle Public Library book sale for a dollar because I noticed that it had “The Persistence of Vision” in it, a story I have been wanting to read for years.  I was planning to read just the one story.  But then a few things tipped the scales, and I realized I had to say a few words.

By the way, I picked up a big pile of books at that sale.  From a writer’s viewpoint, I am sorry I cannot help the writers make their living by buying their new books, but on the other hand, I am just too damn poor now to be able to afford new books.  And I have to have my reading fix one way or the other.

Anyway, as I said, I bought the book for just the one story, but I recognized a few other award winners in the mix, so I thought maybe I’d read a half dozen stories or so and leave it at that.  The first things that hooked me, though, were not stories at all – they were the introductions to the stories.  In them Varley doesn’t really talk much about the stories.  He talks more about his life, and his trials and tribulations as a young writer.  And a lot of it clicked with me, especially when he shares anecdotes of his time as a hippy.  He lived in Haight/Ashbury; he attended Woodstock, albeit by accident.  I can relate to that.  I got involved in the hip scene myself in the Bay Area in the early seventies, right around the time I realized I wanted to be a writer and began to compose stories.  I wasn’t successful by any means, as Varley was almost right away, but still there was that common immersion in the scene and fascination with science fiction and writing.  I was so impressed by our similar backgrounds that I thought I’d write him a line and say so.  However, the mail link on his website didn’t work, at least not for me, and he wasn’t listed in the SFWA members directory.  Ah, well.  I had to let that one go.

Anyway, “The Persistence of Vision” is a very good story, although not what I expected.  It tells of a commune established out in the wilderness of New Mexico by deaf and blind people, and how they cope, how their social structure evolves, and how their handicaps become a gateway to something greater.  Another award-winning story, “Press Enter”, I have read before.  It’s a very creepy story with very well-drawn characters about a murderously nasty computer network.  A good read.  The third award-winning story, “The Pusher”, I had never read, but when I did I was somewhat disappointed.  It’s okay, but mainly a fairly light gimmick story.

Having read all the stories I had intended to read, I went through and read the rest of the introductions until I came to the last story in the book.  This was the story, says the introduction, that Harlan Ellison requested when soliciting stories for “The Last Dangerous Visions”.  If you haven’t heard of that, you don’t know much about the history of the science fiction field.  “Dangerous Visions” and “Again, Dangerous Visions” were important anthologies in the New Wave era of the late sixties and early seventies.  Full of award-winning original fiction, they pushed the boundaries of the genre.  It was Ellison’s intention to publish stories that no one else would touch at the time, on themes radical and even taboo.  When I attended Clarion West in 1973, “Again, Dangerous Visions” had just come out.  Everyone was aware that Ellison was seeking stories for the next volume and had already bought a good number from Clarion students.  It was the highest dream of all of us to sell a story to “The Last Dangerous Visions”.  I didn’t even come close.  I didn’t write any really good stories until decades later.

But then, something happened with that last volume.  It got delayed, and then delayed some more.  Ellison hung on to the stories, obviously intending to get the work done, but now four decades have passed and “The Last Dangerous Visions” has yet to be published.  Even knowing about the delay, back then I think I would have sold Ellison a story if he was willing to buy it because I respected his opinion so much.  But anyway, as the years passed, some writers hung on with Ellison, while others pulled their stories from the anthology and published them elsewhere.  Varley describes how he respectfully approached Ellison to withdraw the story as it had been so long, and finally Varley published it for the first time in “The John Varley Reader”.  It’s the only original, never-before-published story in the anthology.

This piqued my interest.  I decided to read “The Bellman” to find out what made it so dangerous.  Some of the stories in “Dangerous Visions” are no longer as controversial as they used to be, and I wondered how Varley’s had fared.

Well, I have to say that Varley really knocked it out of the park with this one.  It’s a great story, though intense and gruesome, and it would still be considered extreme today.  It concerns a pregnant woman police officer investigating some very unusual murders in a moon colony, but…  I will say no more.  This story is worth the price of the book.  It’s that good.  I don’t want to spoil it for you by giving too much away.

So, “The John Varley Reader” has some great stories and some so-so stories, but that’s true with almost all anthologies.  It’s partly a matter of reader’s taste, and partly the fact that almost no author gets it spot-on every time out.  Still, the good stories in this one are very, very good.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Short Story Author Highlight: Roger Zelazny

The two best things I got out of my dreadful year of college at the University of Santa Clara were an unquenchable desire to be a writer and a love for science fiction.  Both came about because I enrolled for a science fiction literature course on a whim.  The anthology that was the main text was a collection of brilliant stories both classic and contemporary.  One of them was “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison, the reading of which made me realize there was nothing in the world I wanted to do more than produce memorable works of fiction.

When I returned to Seattle, I sought out the science fiction shelf at the local public library, and they had several volumes of the Nebula Awards anthologies, all of which I devoured.  In volume one were two stories, “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth” and “He Who Shapes” by a writer I had never heard of named Roger Zelazny.  As I read them I was immediately struck by his idiosyncratic style, his vivid descriptions, his liberal use of metaphor, and his spare effective dialog.

Nobody writes like Roger Zelazny.

Since then I have read a fair amount of his work, and I have enjoyed most of it.  He’s like any prolific writer, even some of my favorites:  in my estimation, some of his work is brilliant, some is excellent, some is readable, and some is so-so.  His best work is some of the finest science fiction ever written.  My favorites include some of his earliest stories and his first novel, “This Immortal”, also known as “…And Call Me Conrad”.

In my perusal of the mountains of books at the recent yearly book sale of the Seattle Public Library, I came across the first hardbound volume of a set of complete stories by Roger Zelazny, and besides some of his early short shorts, some of which were published in high school and college literary magazines, were my three favorite Roger Zelazny short stories.  And here they are.

A Rose for Ecclesiastes“.  This is the first major short story Zelazny ever wrote and published, and it became such a classic that it was chosen for the Science Fiction Writers of America Science Fiction Hall of Fame.  It concerns a famous poet who accompanies an expedition to Mars to study the Martian language.  As he becomes enmeshed in their culture he falls in love with a Martian woman and discovers that a plague of infertility has doomed the Martian race.  However, the woman becomes pregnant with his child, and he uses the Book of Ecclesiastes from the Bible in Martian translation to convince the Martians to let the child live.  The story is told in such precise, beautiful language that it tugs my heart and brings me to tears every time I read it.  Truly one of the great classics of science fiction.

The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth“.  Another wonderful science fiction classic.  The title is from the description of the leviathan in the Book of Job in the Bible.  In chapter 40 of the King James version it says, “Canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook?…Who can open the doors of his face?  His teeth are terrible round about…Out of his mouth go burning lamps, and sparks of fire leap out.”  The Bible passage continues with a long description of a fearsome sea creature.  The story is set on Venus, where in the deep ocean lives the largest sea creature in the solar system, a monstrous fish with fearsome fangs and incredible strength.  A team goes out on a specially-built platform to hunt the beast, and the protagonist is a baitman who must dive into the water when the beast is sighted to manually trigger the lure.  This is the first Zelazny story I ever read.  It highlights his lean style perfectly, has amazingly nuanced characterization, and is a rousing adventure at the same time.

He Who Shapes“.  This is a longer work, a novella.  It is more intricate than it first appears, and I have to admit I didn’t really get it, at least not all of it, the first few times I read it.  It concerns a special type of psychiatrist who enters his patients’ minds and helps them by shaping their dreams.  He encounters a woman blind from birth and begins to help her discover what sight is, but becomes drawn into the fantasy world of her psyche.  There have been many imitations since this first appeared, but none have had the depth or insight of this wildly original story.

Many other Zelazny stories have given me intense pleasure, among them “Devil Car”, “Home is the Hangman”, and “This Moment of the Storm”.  He was a great writer who died much too young in 1995 at the age of 58.

Posted in Reading | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War by David Halberstam

Let me just say from the start that this is a magisterial, brilliant book.  I read somewhere that Halberstam considered it his best book, and I can’t argue with that.  On the other hand, I have read several of his books, and every one of them is excellent.  With this one, though, he shows the true master’s touch, the abilities of one who has learned his craft through decades of practice.  He presents complex, detailed, multi-faceted material with clarity, depth, intelligence, and insight, but at the same time he makes it read like a novel, a fascinating tale that is difficult to put down.

This book reminded me of another recent read, “Gulag: A History” by Anne Applebaum.  While I was reading it, I was wondering why I was dredging through such gruesome historical horrors in my mind.  The conclusion I came to, at least partially, is the same as when I wondered why I was reading Applebaum’s book.  It’s for the sake of those who lived through it, that they be not forgotten.  Many soldiers on both sides in Korea – American, Korean, and Chinese – lost their lives for an ambivalent cause, and also due to mistakes, indifference, and poor decisions by those in command.  Korea, as Halberstam points out, was the forgotten war.  It never received the publicity or media uproar of other conflicts, such as the war in Vietnam.  There are very few movies or novels based upon the Korean War.  It’s something that at the time people wanted to go away.  After the clear imperatives of World War II, motivations for the United States to get involved in the Korean War were more muddied and uncertain and based as much on politics at home as realities abroad.

The book highlights the first year, especially the terrible first winter, of the Korean War.  Kim Il Jung, the North Korean leader, decided he wanted all of Korea and, equipped with state-of-the-art Russian tanks, sent a blitzkrieg of troops and weaponry south.  The South Koreans and Americans were unprepared for the sudden attack and fell back.  It looked like they would be pushed right off the peninsula.  They ended up in a tiny corner of southeast Korea around the port city of Pusan, and there they made a courageous stand, with many casualties, while they waited for reinforcements.

Halberstam, as usual, is not satisfied just to report the action.  He digs deep behind the scenes to find out why events happened as they did.  One of the key figures, of course, was General Douglas MacArthur, who was the overseer/emperor of conquered Japan and was in command of American forces in Korea.  By that time he was seventy years old and more obsessed with his own legacy than with victory in the field, the safety of his troops, or orders from Washington.  Apart from a brilliant amphibious landing that he orchestrated at Inchon early in the war effort, he was completely out of touch with what was really happening in the field.  His sycophantic underlings fed him only what information he wanted to hear, so that he lived in a state of perpetual delusion.  President Truman became more and more frustrated at his egoism and blatant insubordination, especially at the cost of many lives and overwhelming setbacks when the Chinese entered the war, that he finally had to relieve MacArthur from command.  His replacement, General Ridgeway, got down on the field with the men and figured out a way to turn the war around, despite the numerical superiority and skill of the Chinese soldiers.

Halberstam tells the individual tales of many of the soldiers and officers in the front lines during the bloody, discouraging fighting.  He also goes behind the scenes and explains the motivations and strategies of Kim Il Jung’s North Korea and Mao’s China.  He discusses the politics in the United States that affected the war effort, including the Communist witch-hunting of Joseph McCarthy, the rabid support for Chiang Kai-shek of the China First lobby, and the behind the scenes efforts of Dean Acheson, George Marshall, Omar Bradley, Dwight Eisenhower, and others in the Departments of State and Defense.

It sounds complicated, and it is, just as life is complicated, and the occupation and protection of a foreign country halfway around the world is complicated.  But Halberstam connects all the pieces together with great finesse.  Never did I feel that the text was too academic or detailed or beyond my grasp.  That’s the mark of a great historian and journalist.

Despite its violent, terrible subject matter, I came away from this book renewed and enriched, as one does after absorbing any great work of art.  Much of the artistic process concerns turning the sordid aspects of the human condition into something palatable, even beautiful in its own way.  This is a great book, and well worth reading.  It was Halberstam’s last book.  He died while researching the one he was planning to write next.  It is a fitting climax to a terrific career.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Customs Shed – Free Short Story Offer

CustomsShedCoverFor five days, from Thursday October 9th to Monday October 13th, my short story “The Customs Shed” is available for free download on Amazon.com here. Stop by and pick up a copy. Here’s what it’s about:

Those who wish to cross the river of death must first be purged in the customs shed; but within await the mysterious customs agents.  What will they require as the price of passage?

 

 

FearWebCover_FinalBigIt’s part of my short story collection “Fear or Be Feared: Fantasies” which is available on Amazon here. Here’s a description of the collection:

A teenage girl climbing Mount Olympus with friends becomes possessed by an ancient Greek god who uses her as an instrument of vengeance.

A young artist pursued by her abusive stepfather is recruited to join a society of people linked together by telepathy which exists completely outside the awareness of the present world system.

Paranoia overwhelms a young college student as reality and fantasy merge in the midst of a drug trip that he realizes a dark power may be controlling.

During the British Raj an American reporter discovers a hidden valley in the foothills of the Himalaya ruled by a lovely but sinister woman who may not be human.

In these fourteen weird, surreal, frightening, and fantastic tales, unwary people discover that the world is very different from what they imagined.

While you’re there, stop in at my Amazon author’s page and peruse my other works.

Posted in Reading | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Illuminations – Free Short Story Offer

IlluminationsStoryCoverFor five days, from Saturday October 4th to Wednesday October 8th, my fantasy short story “The Illuminations” is available for free download on Amazon.com here. Stop in and pick up a copy. Here’s what it’s about:

Members of a rock group hiking in the Himalaya discover an ancient manuscript which gives them clues on how to compose songs to unlock within themselves the spirits of certain beasts.  When they sing the songs they realize to their horror that they cannot control the spirits.

 

FearWebCover_FinalBigIt’s part of my short story collection “Fear or Be Feared: Fantasies” which is available on Amazon here. Here’s a description of the collection:

A teenage girl climbing Mount Olympus with friends becomes possessed by an ancient Greek god who uses her as an instrument of vengeance.

A young artist pursued by her abusive stepfather is recruited to join a society of people linked together by telepathy which exists completely outside the awareness of the present world system.

Paranoia overwhelms a young college student as reality and fantasy merge in the midst of a drug trip that he realizes a dark power may be controlling.

During the British Raj an American reporter discovers a hidden valley in the foothills of the Himalaya ruled by a lovely but sinister woman who may not be human.

In these fourteen weird, surreal, frightening, and fantastic tales, unwary people discover that the world is very different from what they imagined.

While you’re there, stop in at my Amazon author’s page and peruse my other works.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Book Review: Wool by Hugh Howey

Hugh Howey is a phenomenon in the self-publishing universe.  He began publishing his fiction as a hobby while working at a full-time job.  His “Wool” series exploded in popularity; Ridley Scott bought the film rights; Howey acquired an agent who helped him get an unprecedented book deal in which he sold the print rights for a six-figure sum to a traditional publisher but kept the electronic rights.  He became an example of what was possible in self-publishing.

Okay, not many self-publishers become as successful as Hugh Howey, though many make a decent living from their efforts.  But there’s more.  Howey has become an advocate for self-published writers, expending considerable time and expense compiling statistics and educating writers on the burgeoning field of self-publishing.  But there’s more.  From all his articles, all his comments, all his remonstrations on behalf of struggling colleagues, Howey comes across as a genuinely nice guy.  A rare commodity indeed these days.  With so many writers, pomposity and egoism seem to come with the turf, but not with Howey.  He seems sincere, concerned, helpful, even self-effacing.

I follow news in the publishing industry fairly closely nowadays, and it would be hard for me not to have heard of Howey.  His articles and comments appear often on the websites I frequent, and I even check out his website from time to time for his latest news or articles.  One reason I hadn’t checked out his fiction until now is that it isn’t available in shops, though it should be.  It seems traditional distributors got all pissed off about the deal Howey got and cut him off from such venues as Barnes and Noble.  Well, okay, let me be honest.  I don’t shop much at Barnes and Noble.  Their prices are too high.  If I go to a physical bookstore, I usually go for used books.  That’s my budget.  But I’ve never come across a Howey book in a used book store.  Maybe once people get them, they are loathe to part with them.  Anyway, it occurred to me to find “Wool” on Amazon.  There it was at a decent discounted price, and I ordered it.  I’m one of those who likes to feel the dead tree in his hands.  When I finally bought a Kindle Fire a year or so ago, one of my sons grabbed it off and I’ve hardly ever seen it since.

Anyway…  On to the story.  It’s a good, solid science fiction post-apocalyptic adventure.  I wouldn’t say the premise is starkly original, but the handling of the tale is unique; Howey has his own distinct style and manner of presenting characters.  Once the story gets going, in the third part, it’s very absorbing and hard to put down.  The first part, the original short story that began it all, is a sort of prelude.  Only the second part I find fault with.  It is interesting and the story is sound, but it has a short story’s worth of material at novella length.  It seems to me that at this point Howey was still getting his bearings, exploring the new world he had created, and by part three he was ready to really throw it in gear and charge ahead.  At least that’s how I see it.  It’s kind of like up to that point you are meandering down a lazy stream, and then at the beginning of part three you suddenly hit the rapids and from that point it never lets up.

“Wool” is a good read and Howey is a good writer and a good man.  I wish him the best, and thank him for the fun tale and the encouragement he offers to his fellow writers.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Mendocino Mellow – Free Short Story Offer

MendocinoMellowStoryCoverFor five days, from Wednesday September 24th to Sunday September 28th, my fantasy story “Mendocino Mellow” is available for free download on Amazon.com here. Stop in and pick up a copy. Here’s what its about:

A government scientist develops a strain of marijuana that gives those who use it psychic sensitivity.  From all over the country people are drawn to him, and he is determined to use the drug’s special power to find a way for them all to time-travel back to the original Woodstock Music Festival.

 

FearWebCover_FinalBigIt’s part of my short story collection “Fear or Be Feared: Fantasies” which is available on Amazon here. Here’s a description of the collection:

A teenage girl climbing Mount Olympus with friends becomes possessed by an ancient Greek god who uses her as an instrument of vengeance.

A young artist pursued by her abusive stepfather is recruited to join a society of people linked together by telepathy which exists completely outside the awareness of the present world system.

Paranoia overwhelms a young college student as reality and fantasy merge in the midst of a drug trip that he realizes a dark power may be controlling.

During the British Raj an American reporter discovers a hidden valley in the foothills of the Himalaya ruled by a lovely but sinister woman who may not be human.

In these fourteen weird, surreal, frightening, and fantastic tales, unwary people discover that the world is very different from what they imagined.

While you’re there, stop in at my Amazon author’s page and peruse my other works.

Posted in Reading | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Inside Out by Barry Eisler

I don’t read many thrillers, at least not in recent years, and I wouldn’t have read this one except for a curious cluster of coincidences.  First of all, I am poor.  There’s no getting around it; I barely make enough for my sons and I to get by month by month.  So I economize any way I can.  One way is not spending full price on books; with rare exceptions, I try to buy used books or borrow books from libraries.  I would love to support my fellow authors more, but that’s just the way it is for now.  Another way is to buy certain items at dollar stores.  You can’t trust dollar stores for all of your purchases; I found that some items are cheaper elsewhere, and other items are of such lousy quality that they are not even worth one dollar.  Still, I generally go in to have a look if I find myself near one.

So I entered a dollar store in Yakima, Washington, one day and what do I find?  A big bin full of hardcover books, probably remainders, most of them originally priced at twenty-five dollars or so, all on sale for one dollar.  Naturally I dove in and meticulously perused the inventory.

And one of the ones I came across was this one by Eisler.  Not that I was looking for thrillers.  If I hadn’t recognized the name I wouldn’t have glanced twice at it.  But Barry Eisler has made himself somewhat famous in indie publishing circles.  In 2011 or thereabouts, he turned down a large advance from a traditional publisher and decided to publish all his future books himself.  He managed to buy back the rights to all the books in his backlist – not an easy task at all – and has been handling his writing career completely on his own as an indie writer/publisher.  His blogs on the current state of publishing, especially those written in collaboration with fellow former-traditional-currently-indie writer Joe Konrath are interesting, informative, and entertaining.

So I figured I couldn’t go wrong spending a buck to check out the man’s writing.  After all, he has street cred for writing espionage thrillers.  He spent three years as a CIA operative before deciding to ditch the great game, as it’s called by Rudyard Kipling in the classic novel “Kim”, and become a professional writer instead.

As for the book itself, the prose is very rudimentary; I would have hoped for more description and more character development.  It starts a little bit slow, though not slow enough to put it down.  The complexities build up slowly.  One other downside is that the hero is a bit too cookie-cutter he-man.  The real strength of the novel, though, and one that overcomes the drawbacks, is in the story and its background to real events.  It concerns stolen video tapes of the torture of kidnapped detainees.  The powers-that-be are trying to get the tapes back before they are released to the public.  All this is anchored in actual events when the novel was first written and released.  In fact, the author includes a bibliography of source material, rare for a work of fiction.  At first the story follows the investigation and search for the man who stole the tapes, but then, near the end, it goes into a nifty conspiracy-uncovering that is great fun to read.

“Inside Out” is just the sort of book you want to read when you are in the mood for an entertaining thriller that’s hard to put down.  It’s not a deep read; you don’t have to invest a lot into it, but it’s a fun read.  I wouldn’t go for this sort of book all the time, but I might just try another of Eisler’s books the next time I’m in the mood for some absorbing escapism.  And this time, if I’m able, I’ll pay full price for it.

Update:  I have since moved from Yakima to Seattle, and I have picked up another thriller by Eisler, which I will be reading in due time.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

“Clouds Without Rain” – Free Short Story Offer

CloudsWithoutRainCoverFor five days, from Friday September 19th to Tuesday September 23rd, my short story “Clouds Without Rain” is available for free download on Amazon.com here. Stop in and pick up a copy. Here’s what it’s about:

Mexico has conquered much of the territory that once belonged to the United States. Americans are confused and disoriented. A lone, dying Native American searches for his people, a race of people that no one else believes ever existed. If he doesn’t find them soon it will be too late.

 

FearWebCover_FinalBigIt’s part of my short story collection “Fear or Be Feared: Fantasies” which is available on Amazon here. Here’s a description of the collection:

A teenage girl climbing Mount Olympus with friends becomes possessed by an ancient Greek god who uses her as an instrument of vengeance.

A young artist pursued by her abusive stepfather is recruited to join a society of people linked together by telepathy which exists completely outside the awareness of the present world system.

Paranoia overwhelms a young college student as reality and fantasy merge in the midst of a drug trip that he realizes a dark power may be controlling.

During the British Raj an American reporter discovers a hidden valley in the foothills of the Himalaya ruled by a lovely but sinister woman who may not be human.

In these fourteen weird, surreal, frightening, and fantastic tales, unwary people discover that the world is very different from what they imagined.

While you’re there, stop in at my Amazon author’s page and peruse my other works.

 

 

Posted in Reading | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

“Wolf in a Cage and The Gift: Two Fantasies” – Free Short Story Offer

WolfAndGiftStoryCoverFor five days, from Sunday September 14th to Thursday September 18th, my short stories “Wolf in a Cage and The Gift: Two Fantasies” will be available for free download on Amazon.com here.  Stop in and pick up a copy.  Here’s what they’re about:

In the wilderness of Alaska a man escapes the attack of a pack led by a savage black wolf.  Many years later, in the ruins of Jack London’s Wolf House a wanderer discovers the trapped spirit of a wolf pacing back and forth.  But who or what is it, and is it benign or malevolent?  And…  A musician busking in the Athens subway system encounters another musician who can play the souls of men.

FearWebCover_FinalBigIt’s part of my short story collection “Fear or Be Feared: Fantasies” which is available on Amazon here. Here’s a description of the collection:

A teenage girl climbing Mount Olympus with friends becomes possessed by an ancient Greek god who uses her as an instrument of vengeance.

A young artist pursued by her abusive stepfather is recruited to join a society of people linked together by telepathy which exists completely outside the awareness of the present world system.

Paranoia overwhelms a young college student as reality and fantasy merge in the midst of a drug trip that he realizes a dark power may be controlling.

During the British Raj an American reporter discovers a hidden valley in the foothills of the Himalaya ruled by a lovely but sinister woman who may not be human.

In these fourteen weird, surreal, frightening, and fantastic tales, unwary people discover that the world is very different from what they imagined.

While you’re there, stop in at my Amazon author’s page and peruse my other works.

Posted in Reading | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment