April 2005

Adrienne Martini

specfic floozy

Odds & Ends

It’s a finely oiled organizational machine over at SpecFic Floozy central. Seriously. When a book snags my interest, it gets tossed on the “Do Something With It” pile once finished. The books that fail to grab me are tossed in a pile as well, but we shan’t speak of what happens to those tomes once the stack is tall enough to crush my toddler. I want to love them all, of course, but my house is only so big.

Even with the finely honed system, there are some texts that aren’t quite wonderous enough to warrant an extensive review, nor are they uninteresting enough to get tossed on the other pile. And, so, the odds and ends column, full of info whose only coherent theme is that I think you might find it interesting and/or intriguing. Let me know either way, should the impulse move you.

Illustrator Charles Vess’s The Book of Ballads compiles all of his self-published stories under one handsome cover. Ballads, natch, are the center of these 13 tales, but each writer brings his or her own interpretation to the story of these magical songs. Ballads is worth it for the writers alone, who range from Neil Gaiman to Charles de Lint, Jane Yolen, Delia Sherman and Midori Snyder. Terri Windling’s introduction is an informative and engaging mini-doctoral thesis on ballads. Plus, a remarkably complete list of performers, albums and resources encourages further discoveries. Add to all of that good stuff Vess’s stunning pen and ink drawings and you have a winner. My personal fave is Lee Smith’s “The Three Lovers,” but I have always been a sucker for a play and Vess’s stripped-down illustrations for this script are perfect.

There is no better way to get a sense of what is going on in the speculative fiction genre than to pick up The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Gardner Dozois’s annual collection. Inside are that year’s best short works, which have run in various venues from magazines to Scifi.com to various book-length collections. In just one volume, you can get a true sense of where the field is shifting as well as a nice list of voices to look out for next trip to the bookstore.

One of the most useful bits in Dozois’s collections are his introductions, which plumb his amazing depth of knowledge about the field. Dozois, now the former editor of Asimov’s and 15-time Hugo winner, never fails to spot the trends before they explode and also never fails to point out the years when not much new ground is being mined, despite an abundance of well written stories.

In celebration of his 21st year of collecting, Dozois has assembled The Best of the Best, a mammoth tome that picks the best stories of the last 20 years. Again, Dozois’ preface alone is worth the cover price. But when you kick in stories from such diverse writers as Lucius Shepard, Howard Waldrop, Pat Cadigan, Maureen McHugh, Ursula K. Le Guin, John Kessel and Charlie Stross (among many, many others), you have a book that will keep you happy for the next 20 years.

Speaking of McHugh, a couple of months ago, I started to wonder what in the heck happened to her. McHugh’s first two novels (China Mountain Zhang and Half the Day is Night) were spellbinding, moody tales that earned out all of the praise (including a Nebula and Hugo nomination) that was heaped upon them. McHugh brought a fresh voice to the speculative fiction party, one that doesn’t easily fit into what is currently available. In her work, there is tenuous hope in the darkness and her touch is gentle.

But she’s been fairly quiet lately. As it turns out, she has both a blog and Hodgkins’ Disease. Via the blog, we get some small glimpses into how she’s handling life with cancer, as well as inside-ish info about the online projects she’s had a hand in -- the ilovebees.com phenomenon and msnfound.com -- as well as about her new short story collection called Mothers and Other Monsters, which will be printed in July by Small Beer Press. While, to put it mildly, the circumstances surrounding her blog suck, it is a good thing that she is writing about chemo and her work. McHugh is now making noises about not blogging once the Hodgkins’ goes into remission. While I hope that it does so soon, I also hope that she keeps us posted on the rest of her life.

Jerry Oltion (Abandon in Place) has always been one of those science fiction writers that I feel I should like more than I do. Oltion books always have an amazing grounding in science, which appeals to the tech geek in me. And they frequently have memorable characters, which appeals to the reader in me. Somehow, this combo seems less than the sum of its parts in Oltion’s hands, once the final tally is done. His books are perfectly competent, mind you, but lack the breath of life that other writers inject into the same sort of material.

His most recent novel, Anywhere But Here, is a sequel of sorts to The Getaway Special. In Special, Oltion plotted a new technology that would make space travel available to the average John/Jane who is able to tinker with both computers and vehicles. With Anywhere, Oltion leaps forward to ponder what happens to those who remain on Earth after all of the more disaffected folk with brains leave the planet. The end picture is not pretty. As a result, Oltion is able to comment on current events with regard to the U.S.’s ever increasing xenophobia and war mongering while extrapolating on how this could bite us in the butt in the future. Apart from the usual space opera shenanigans -- new planets, new critters, new dangers -- Oltion also weaves together a cautionary polemic about the dangers we face right now. Oltion must also be applauded for his ending, which subverts the typical manner in which space operas tend to end. Still, Anywhere hasn’t won me over to the Oltion camp. It’s a pleasant enough read, but feels like it’s missing its soul.