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Wednesday 19 March 2003

§ The Guardian Sunday March 16, 2003
Euan Ferguson reviews the new biography of Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker: A Biography of Douglas Adams, by M.J. Simpson, president of Adams' fan club (Hodder & Stoughton, March 3).

We learn desperately little of the times that created him, the unique, late-twentieth-century blend of privilege, surrealism, technology and playfulness of intellect which had to exist to allow a grown man to spend days in a sound studio arguing how to synthesise the sound of a whale hitting the ground at 300 miles an hour.

Instead, we are given interminable, albeit impeccably researched, details of the choral history of Brentwood School, the politics of Cambridge Footlights and the changing Hitchhiker's cast-lists...

§ Telegraph 09/03/2003
Russell Davies also reviews Simpson's Hitchhiker; or rather, he recounts key aspects of Adams's life, more than he evaluates the book.

Procrastination was not so much [Adams's] weakness as his life's mission. I remember seeing one scriptless producer slumped and helpless in his chair, his very career endangered by the ticking clock ("We should be in studio now!"). Adams himself devised a famous and characteristically airy one-liner to cover the case: "I love deadlines," he said. "I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by."


By far the most wasteful episode was the 20-year unfulfilled agony over the Hollywoodising of the Guide, using American screenwriters. To anyone outside the process, it seemed an obviously doomed enterprise, because of the marked - indeed extreme - Englishness of the text. Perceived by Hollywood primarily as sci-fi, the Guide is nothing of the kind. If anything, it belongs to the tradition of British stiff-upper-lip stories, narratively tinged by the styles of P. G. Wodehouse, Lewis Carroll, the Ealing Comedies and even the novels of Samuel Beckett.

Andy Duncan submits this excerpt from Steve Marcus' 1963 Paris Review interview with Norman Mailer, reprinted in Mailer's new book on writing, The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing (Random House, January).

sm: When did you first think of becoming a writer?

nm: That's hard to answer. I did a lot of writing when I was young.

sm: How young?

nm: Seven.

sm: A real novel?

nm: Well, it was a science fiction novel about people on Earth taking a rocket ship to Mars. The hero had a name which sounded like Buck Rogers. His assistant was called Dr. Hoor.

sm: Doctor . . . ?

nm: Dr. Hoor. Whore, pronounced h-o-o-r. That's the way we used to pronounce whore in Brooklyn. He was patterned directly after Dr. Huer in Buck Rogers, who was then appearing on radio. This novel filled two and a half paper notebooks. You know the type, about seven inches by ten. They had soft, shiny blue covers and they were, oh, only ten cents in those days, or a nickel. They ran to about a hundred pages each and I used to write on both sides. My writing was remarkable for the way I hyphenated words. I loved hyphenating, and so I would hyphenate "the" and make it "th-e" if it came at the end of the line. Or "they" would become "the-y." Then I didn't write again for a long time.

§ The Guardian Saturday March 15, 2003
Michael Moorcock rereads Philip K. Dick and wonders how it is that Dick has "emerged as today's best-known and admired US SF writer". Recalling other writers of the early '60s, Ballard, Aldiss, Burroughs:

Dick's work only rarely achieved the stylistic and imaginative coherence of those other writers. His corporate future came from a common pool created by troubled left-wingers Pohl and Kornbluth (The Space Merchants, 1953) or Alfred Bester (The Demolished Man, 1953). His Mars is the harsh but habitable planet of Leigh Brackett (Queen of the Martian Catacombs, 1949) or Ray Bradbury (The Martian Chronicles, 1950). His style and characters are indistinguishable from those of a dozen other snappy pulpsters. Even his questioning of the fundamentals of identity and reality is largely unoriginal, preceded by the work of the less prolific but perhaps more profound Charles Harness, who wrote stories such as "Time Trap", "The Paradox Men" and "The Rose" in the 50s.

§ Boston Review
James Hynes, in an essay originally published in the December 2000/January 2001 of this magazine, asks "What stands between John Crowley and a serious literary reputation?", acknowledging the lack of respect given genre writers..

Crowley’s career is an object lesson for any writer who wants to write serious fiction outside the lines, as it were: once you enter the labyrinth of genre, it may be impossible to find your way out again.

...and the difficulties of marketing Crowley's protracted quartet of novels that began with Ægypt, published in 1987...

[B]y the curious logic of our commercially driven literary culture, the most mediocre graduate of an academic writing workshop automatically receives the official imprimatur of "literary writer" along with his or her MFA, while John Crowley’s lushly written and vastly more intellectually satisfying books are shelved, if they are in print at all, with nth-generation cyberpunks, vampire novelists, and Tolkein wannabees.

...before embarking on an extended discussion of Ægypt, Love & Sleep, and Dæmonomania, the first three of

a four-volume series of novels, set both in the present day and in the late sixteenth century, and based in large part on Renaissance mysticism. While the books so far are entirely satisfying as narrative, the series is fundamentally a huge novel of ideas, an epic meditation on the search for gnosis, for an intuitive grasp of the interrelatedness of all things. … However frustrating the pace of its creation must be to his readers, his publishers, and Crowley himself, the Ægypt quartet is-already, unfinished-an astonishing accomplishment.

§ New York Times February 23, 2003
Judith Shulevitz essays on how "the American novel was once felt to contain not too many ideas, but too few", by way of commenting on Richard Powers's The Time of Our Singing (Farrar Straus & Giroux, January).

His concerns are general -- Art, Science, Capitalism and now Race -- and particular: the science of DNA, the manufacture of soap, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and, in this latest novel, physics, the lieder, and the social history of segregation. Not surprisingly, perhaps, he has been criticized for creating people who sound less like humans than like textbooks or computers (one of his best characters is a computer, in fact), and for doing so in a strained and lifeless prose.


What Powers is not so good at is creating believable people and plots, and his books implicitly raise the question of whether the ideational and the fictional are really compatible, and whether it was self-serving for critics like Rahv and McCarthy to demand that characters bring them together. But this novel also inspires the faint hope that Powers may one day find some sort of third way -- that he will prevent the Idea from obliterating the Character and allow his creations the freedom they need to live inside his beautiful but abstract creations.

Not that she ever mentions science fiction.

§ The Independent 15 March 2003
Roz Kaveney reviews Powers' novel, "an epic novel of modern America that weaves ideas of race, music and science into a mysterious but satisfying tapestry".

Superficially, The Time of Our Singing is a deeply conventional novel about how family unites and divides us. These are important things, even though the stock in trade of mediocre fiction. The difficult thing is to find ways of talking about them that do not entangle your work in second-hand emotions. What Powers does, constantly, is embody technique in the events of the novel and the characters' endlessly fascinating talk. This is a book about smart people arguing about what it means to be that smart, and that gifted.

§ New York Review of Books March 27, 2003
John Bayley reviews Alison Lurie's Boys and Girls Forever: Children's Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter (Penguin, January).

Alison Lurie's is the best book on the classics of the genre I have ever read, and although it has not made me feel any better disposed toward children as such, it reminded me of the story about the old French priest who was asked by some inquisitive admirer how much he had learned from more than sixty years of hearing confessions. The old man pondered for a few moments and then said with a smile-"absolutely nothing." "No, wait"-he went on after a pause. "I have learned one thing-that there are no adults in the world. We remain always children." The best readers of any age are probably the ones who are always children too.

§ January March 2003
Sue Bursztynski reviews Diana Wynne Jones's Deep Secret, recently reprinted by Tor's YA imprint Starscape.

The pleasure of a Diana Wynne Jones novel is that even when it's being serious there is enough humor to leaven any grimness. She just can't seem to write anything that doesn't make you grin at least a few times, if not outright laugh. ... If you've ever been at a science fiction convention, you'll have a lot of fun with the scenes in the hotel, including the way hotels always seem to be rabbit warrens with room numbering making absolutely no sense (in this novel, there is a good reason for it) and the backstabbing going on among guests of honor. Even if you haven't, the picture presented is fairly accurate, if tongue-in-cheek. Fans are not savaged, only sent up gently and affectionately by someone who clearly likes them.

§ The Guardian Saturday March 15, 2003
Jon Courtenay Grimwood briefly reviews new books by Cherith Baldry, Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola, Michael Cobley, and Graham Joyce:

The Facts of Life is not quite in the same class as 2001's Smoking Poppy, and some of the characterisation is schematic, but the set-piece bombing of Coventry is almost hallucinogenic in its quality.

§ Publishers Weekly
Latest starred reviews include:

  • March 3 issue: Greg Bear's Darwin's Children (Del Rey, April 1).
    In this masterful sequel to his Nebula Award-winning Darwin's Radio, Bear takes us into a near future forever changed by the birth of millions of genetically enhanced babies to mothers infected with the SHEVA virus. ... Bear's sure sense of character, his fluid prose style and the fascinating culture his "Shevite" children begin to develop all make for serious SF of the highest order.
    There's also a sidebar interview with Bear, by Michael Levy. What's next?
    GB: The next novel is a bit of a breather from biology and genetics-it's a high-tech ghost story involving the telecom industry. I'm having a ball writing it-changes of pace are good for me. That said, Stella Nova is coming back to continue her story-and she's bringing along her son, a second generation New Child. I'll need a couple of years to do the research and find out what sort of biological and political developments will benefit from my gadfly point-of-view.
  • Two starred reviews in the March 10 issue, first for Harry Turtledove's Jaws of Darkness (Tor, Apr. 24), fifth volume in the author's WWII fantasy series.
    Long but ultimately compelling, this book augurs well for the last volume and underscores Turtledove's astonishingly fertile imagination.
  • Then for the US edition of Robert Hodstock's Celtika: Book One of the Merlin Codex (Tor, April 1), a
    dazzling reframing of Arthurian myth and Greek legend, [in which] a wandering, youthful Merlin who ages only when he uses his "charm" encounters Jason and joins him on his quest aboard the Argo for the Golden Fleece. ... [Holdstock] more than lives up to his billing as one of the finest living crafters of myth.

§ Washington Post Monday, March 17, 2003
Patrick Anderson reviews Simon Clark's The Night of the Triffids (New English Library), considered together with John Wyndham's original, The Day of the Triffids (1951).

"The Night of the Triffids" is inventive and fast-moving -- good, old-fashioned fun -- but it is not the equal of Wyndham's book. "The Day of the Triffids" ranks with such great, haunting doomsday novels as Nevil Shute's "On the Beach" and Russell Hoban's "Riddley Walker," whereas Clark's sequel might be compared to the Mad Max movies or "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Read them both if you can, but if you have to choose, don't miss the original.

§ Washington Post Sunday, March 16, 2003
Patrick Anderson reviews Max Barry's "wicked and wonderful satire" Jennifer Government,

Satire is not easy. 1984 was powerful fiction but lousy prognostication. Catch-22 has some wonderful moments but goes on forever. Jennifer Government does just about everything right. It is fast-moving, funny, involving and, if you share Barry's dark view of the corporate ethos, all too serious.

§ New York Times March 9, 2003
Taylor Antrim reviews Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (Tor).

Cory Doctorow is an avid Weblogger (he can be found at, and his novel's ad-hocracies of ''twittering Pollyannic castmembers'' who smoke ''decaf'' crack and congratulate one another on ''Bitchun'' ideas offer a knowing, gently satiric view of a once ascendant digital culture. And the impressively imagined world of the novel is tricked out in lively prose.

Thursday 6 March 2003

§ Washington Post Sunday, February 23, 2003
John Clute reviews Stephen Baxter's Evolution (Del Rey), which takes the long view.

The authors of Scientific Romances, which are about the workings of the world through time, have always tended to focus on the scientific breakthrough that most stimulated Wells himself: that is, the slow epic of evolution. Evolutionary processes irradiate almost everything Wells or Stapledon or Clarke wrote, and evolution is the very shape of Evolution. Baxter's new title, his 17th full-length novel since he began to publish books in 1991, is the perfect Scientific Romance for our time.

There are also short notices of Charles L. Harness's Cybele, with Bluebonnets (NESFA) and Jack Dann's Jubilee (Tor).

§ New York Times March 2, 2003
Baxter's big book is also covered by Gerald Jonas in his latest SF column.

To say that Baxter's reach exceeds his grasp is to state the obvious. What is astonishing is how successfully he brings to life a wide range of facts and conjectures, and how entertaining as well as informative this book -- an episodic novel with evolution as its protagonist -- manages to be. Among its most spectacular triumphs is the treatment of a key moment in evolutionary history: the impact of a comet in what is now the Gulf of Mexico off the Yucatan Peninsula.

However, Jonas objects to

Baxter's account of cultural evolution, which is unremittingly grim. In his view, art and religion are rooted in illness and madness, and serve the same impulses that ruthlessly centralize power in human societies.

Jonas also reviews M. John Harrison's Things That Never Happen (Night Shade) and Timothy Zahn's Manta's Gift (Tor).

§ Washington Post Sunday, March 2, 2003
Richard Grant reviews two books, including a new collection by Carter Scholz, The Amount to Carry (Picador).

Reading Carter Scholz, one gropes for comparisons. Jorge Luis Borges comes to mind. So do Joyce, Kafka, Pynchon -- and for that matter Richard Feynman and Arthur C. Clarke. In his novel Radiance, and even more so in his new collection of short fiction, The Amount to Carry, Scholz roves fearlessly to the outermost reaches of our ability to understand. He displays a fascination with edges, limits, transition zones: the wavery line between insight and delusion, the unpredictable moment when regularity yields to catastrophe, the unmapped frontiers of despair.

§ Los Angeles Times March 2, 2003
A long review by Zachary Karabell warns the unsuspecting literary and pop fiction audiences about the "dark and disturbing" Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, whose books have sold 50 million copies.

They fuse the apocalyptic nightmare of Revelations with the conspiratorial, nativist underbelly of American society. And their wild success raises two rather unsettling questions: How many Americans embrace the story not as fiction but as prophecy? And how much is the public policy of the country driven by a stark conviction that a final battle between good and evil is fast approaching?

The books are dangerous, the reviewer suggests, because so many of their readers don't regard them as fiction.

We live in a big country, with 290 million people, and the lunatic fringe may be numerically large. The majority might find the books absurd, and even most evangelicals have registered objections to the dark, violent, unforgiving story. But the message of "Left Behind" as applied to current affairs isn't fringe. It is, in fact, quite similar to some of the messages emanating from Washington. The response of some in the U.S. government to the crises of the last year and a half feels ripped from the pages of the "Left Behind" books. The intense animus toward the United Nations, the suspicion that multilateral action is a path on the road to perdition, the conviction that Israel must be supported no matter what it does and the fear that secret forces are gathering in preparation for a final confrontation are not marginal views. They are, in fact, close to being dominant ones.

And finally,

The "Left Behind" phenomenon should be a case of literature (and I use the word reluctantly) acting as a warning. The books can be ignored, as they have been, by a literary establishment that is geared toward assessing books as books, but they should not be left behind. They are danger signs. They are an expression of aspects of our culture that have the power to undo us. That doesn't mean that they will, but these ideas ferment best in the dark. It is time to expose them to the light.

§ Los Angeles Times March 4, 2003
William Gibson gets a long profile, with a review of Pattern Recognition.

"I had been in the early stages of this book for at least a year and a half when Sept. 11 arrived," Gibson says. "And about three weeks afterward, when I went into my office and blew the dust off the computer, it struck me that something had happened that changed the meaning of everything, and either I had to abandon this book or do what I took to be the very scary and serious thing of going back to the beginning and starting again in light of what had happened.

"I had this very surreal, unpleasant, Kafkaesque sense of the world that I had been blithely telling interviewers was incomprehensible and catastrophic and terrifying -- and suddenly it was. It was like the universe had called my bluff; something had happened that I couldn't get my head around. I felt like my science-fiction writer's head was screaming with the stretch to do so ... and everybody else's was too."

Bernadette Murphy's review concludes:

Combining old-fashioned storytelling techniques with a recognition of yet-to-be-defined patterns, Gibson's tale is a robust inquiry into the many (and often veiled) ways that marketing shapes the world in which we live.

§ Sydney Morning Herald March 1 2003
Van Ikin profiles the thriving Australian fantasy scene.

That's a key to the popularity of fantasy works: they reject ego and flamboyance. Fantasy authors regard themselves as skilled and disciplined service providers, not as show ponies to the literati, and this grassroots attitude is reflected in their web pages and dealings with fans. That doesn't mean they are hacks. They sweat over scenes and phrasing as profusely as any Booker winner, but their eye is on the prize of readership.

§ Boston Globe 2/27/2003
Erica Noonan reviews a "lightweight but clever" futuristic thriller called Jennifer Government by Max Barry (Doubleday).

This book markets itself as ''a `Catch-22' for the New World Order,'' but nobody will mistake ''Jennifer Government'' for Joseph Heller's wonderful novel. Barry's book simply hasn't got the heart, depth, or humanity of Heller's work, or of such futuristic classics as Margaret Atwood's ''The Handmaid's Tale'' and Aldous Huxley's ''Brave New World.'' But this novel is still fresh and very clever, if not terribly weighty.

§ Rocky Mountain News February 14, 2003
Mark Graham reviews Robert J. Sawyer's Humans [scroll down], giving it an A-.

Sawyer, who's among the most creative of today's science-fiction writers, excels in creating a parallel Earth where social mores have evolved on an alien plane and, yet, where much of the planet is as it would have been had we not begun destroying its ecology

Not online but notable...

§ Entertainment Weekly March 7, 2003
Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (review apparently not online) gets an A-.

The futuristic roller coaster that Down and Out travels is more fascinating than the murder mystery at its core. Still, Doctorow's debut is a sci-fi ride worth lining up for.

§ Skeptical Inquirer
In the March/April 2003 issue, Timothy Ferris provides an extended review of the Sci Fi Channel miniseries Taken.

In the end, Taken belong to the time-honored sci-fi tradition of two-dimensional heroes rescuing anxious girls from reptilian aliens, and there's little harm in that. Sitting through it does make you wonder, though, what would happen if all that talent, money, and time were devoted to a grown-up subject.

Earlier, the November/December 2002 issue had an article by Ron Miller about "Hugo Gernsback, Skeptical Crusader".

Virtually every issue of magazines such as Science and Invention contained debunking articles, tests on claims for psychic abilities and extraordinary medical devices, and offers of substantial cash awards to anyone who performs a successful demonstration.

§ Publishers Weekly
Starred reviews in recent issues include:

  • Feb 24 issue: Carter Scholz's The Amount to Carry (Picador, Feb).
    These are superbly crafted pieces, and Scholz proves once again he is a writer of alluring intellectual depth and subtlety.
  • Raymond E. Feist's Talon of the Silver Hawk (Eos, April 20).
    Feist specializes in the careful and accurate portrayal of the thoughts and feelings of young men going through tumultuous life changes, and this effort is one of his best yet.
  • Feb 17 issue: Sharon Shinn's Angelica: A Novel of Samaria (Ace, Mar. 4).
    Beautifully told, with engaging depth and richness, this stand-alone novel, the latest in Shinn's Samaraia series (Archangel, etc.), will win new readers and delight existing fans.
  • Feb 10 issue: Brian Herbert's Dreamer of Dune: The Biography of Frank Herbert (Tor, Apr. 14).
    This moving, sometimes painfully obsessive biography is an impressive testament of family loyalty and love.
    There's a sidebar interview with Brian Herbert, by Melissa Mia Hall.

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