Trolling for the Out of Print
Book reviewers tend to get too focused on the new. New is nice and shiny and fun and all -- but good books have a pretty long shelf life, especially in these heady days of used book stores and backlist imprints.
In addition to my quest to find the perfect pillow for reading in bed, I’ve also been on a hunt to acquire all of Pat Murphy’s books, most of which are sadly out of print. I hadn’t had much exposure to Murphy until I got hooked on the James Tiptree Award Anthologies, which she has been one of the editors of since its conception. Given the sparseness of OOP book outlets in my neck of the woods, I’ve been pawing through the wilds of the Internet looking for any of the books she had written -- but doing so slowly, because the number of titles she has written is sadly small and finite. I’m told some readers do the same with Patrick O’Brian.
Despite my intentional pokiness, I’ve made some progress. The first Murphy I found was Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell. On its surface, Adventures is a screwball comedy, a frothy romp about a buttoned-down librarian who takes a cruise and meets her life’s love. It is the literary equivalent of a paper umbrella drink and a conga band, both of which, as it turns out, are key plot points in Adventures.
The going gets weirder when the ship enters the Bermuda Triangle and the titular Max Merriwell, a writer hired to teach on the cruise, finds that his pseudonyms are alive and well and looking for a good time. From there, it gets nicely metafictional -- as well as metaphysical. Given all that is stuffed into it, the plot should fly apart in a whirl of nonsense. It doesn’t, of course, and calls to mind Connie Willis in her To Say Nothing of the Dog mode.
Part of what holds Adventures together are the diary entries of Susan’s friend, who just happens to be named Pat Murphy. The writer Pat Murphy and the character Pat Murphy are both physicist who dink around with the ideas of quantum physics and what impact those ideas have on how we describe reality. It’s a slippery thing, as it turns out, so slippery that the two books that Max Merriwell’s pseudonyms claim to have written in Adventures have been published under the writer Pat Murphy’s name.
I haven’t yet crossed paths with Wild Angel, an Edgar Rice Burrough’s mash-up. I have, however, gotten my hands on her Tolkien-meets-Lewis Carroll There and Back Again. Back Again isn’t as engaging or complex as Adventures, sadly. Still, this tale of a “norbit” -- think hobbit in space -- named Bailey who is forced our of his routine by a hero’s adventure is more amusing than most Tolkien retreads because it is well aware of what tropes it is batting around and why. Plus the characters in Back Again are oddly compelling, even though you know the overall arc of the story, you can’t help but invest your interest in how these “people” will sort it all out.
While this trilogy is Murphy’s most recent achievement, her best known book -- the Nebula Award winning The Falling Woman -- is over 20 years old. When you boil it down to one line, the story itself is even older: mom and daughter reunite to defeat the past. But this past intermixes Mayan goddesses and modern archeologists in a wholly compelling way. The echoes between the eras are haunting. The conclusion is eerily satisfying, even as horrifying as it is to read. Falling Woman is a work that shouldn’t be forgotten, despite the fact that it is no longer new. And speaking of -- as much as I enjoy the Tiptree Anthologies, it would be lovely if Murphy had another novel or three up her sleeve.
In one of those “if I ran the universe” sorts of proclamations, if I ran the universe, I would hook Murphy up with the minds at Orb, the Tor imprint devoted to publishing lost classics. I’ve written about at least one such overlooked title before and hesitate to devote too many pixels to raving about the quality of the picks that the Orb editors are making. Two things should be pointed out, though, because even my loose attempts are keeping my mouth shut are doomed. First, take a look at the titles that have been reprinted to date. Second, take special note of the re-release of Tim Powers’s Expiration Date.
Expiration Date is a dark fantasy, one full of ghosts and magic and an evil stepmother. Comparisons to other fantasy -- with the possible exception of Neil Gaiman -- stop there. There is a brutal narrative force that makes this story of young Koot Hoomie, whose parents are murdered by a one-armed man in search of the ghost of Thomas Alva Edison, impossible to stop reading. It’s like Powers was himself possessed by one of Date’s more forceful ghosts and can do nothing but hang on for the ride. Everything about this new edition of Date -- from its cover art and design to the content -- makes me hopeful that the Orb release of Powers’s Earthquake Weather in October will be just as exciting. Now if Orb can just get its hands on the rights to Last Call, the third book in this vaguely related series, so that it to can have a fresh new life, despite its advancing age.