New Treasures: The Municipalists by Seth Fried

Sunday, August 25th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

The Municipalists-small The Municipalists-back-small

I’ve been slowing down my acquisition of new books recently, mostly for reasons of space. But occasionally a title will prove just too irresistible, as happened last week with Seth Fried’s debut, about a human and his AI partner on an adventure to save the great American city of Metropolis. It was Library Journal‘s “Debut of the Month,” and named one of the best books of the month by The Verge, io9, Amazon Books, Book of the Month Club, Tor.com, and others. Here’s Leah Schnelbach’s take at Tor.com.

The Municipalists, Seth Fried’s debut novel, is a futuristic noir that isn’t quite a noir; a bumpy buddy cop story where the cops are a career bureaucrat and computer program… It’s also deeply, constantly funny, and able to transform from a breezy page-turner into a serious exploration of class and trauma in a few well-turned sentences.

At first it seems like a wacky buddy cop book. The buttoned-down bureaucrat Henry Thompson is a proud member of United States Municipal Survey, traveling around the country to make improvements to city infrastructures… the kidnapping of a beloved teen celebrity [has] left the city reeling, only for people to be knocked truly punch-drunk by a series of terrorist attacks. The attacks and the kidnapping might be related. We’re soon taken all the way into sci-fi territory however when Henry gains a partner — a snarky AI called OWEN who is positively giddy about being sentient…

Seth Fried has been writing fiction and humor for years now, with excellent short work popping up in McSweeney’s, Tin House, One Story, and The New Yorker — his Tin House story “Mendelssohn”, about a Raccoon of Unusual Size, was a particular favorite of mine. His 2011 short story collection, The Great Frustration, was wildly diverse. Now with The Municipalists he proves that he can orchestrate a tight, complicated plot… Fried has also given us an endearing protagonist in Henry Thompson, and an all-time classic drunken AI, and if there’s any justice in the cities in this reality this will be the first book in a Municipalists-verse.

The Municipalists was published by Penguin Books on March 19, 2019. It is 265 pages, priced at $16 in trade paperback and $11.99 in digital formats. The cover is by Matthew Taylor. Read the first ten pages here, and see all our recent New Treasures here.


Davey Jones, Alien Spores, and Riding on a Comet: The Best of Raymond Z. Gallun

Saturday, August 24th, 2019 | Posted by James McGlothlin

The Best of Raymond Z. Gallun-small The Best of Raymond Z. Gallun-back-small

The Best of Raymond Z. Gallun (1978) was the seventeenth installment in Lester Del Rey’s Classic Science Fiction Series. J. J. Pierce returns to give the introduction to this volume. H. R. Van Dongen (1920–2010) does his fifth cover of the series (tying with Dean Ellis at this point). Raymond Z. Gallun (1911–1994), still living at the time, did the Afterword.

The Internet Speculative Fiction Database reports that Gallun (rhymes with “balloon,” not pronounced “gallon”) wrote five novels, including The Planets Strappers (1961, see Rich Horton’s review here), The Eden Cycle (1974) and Skyclimber (1981), but these were written later in his life. Most of Gallun’s writing career is comprised of dozens of short stories and serials. Like so many of the authors in Lester Del Rey’s Classic Science Fiction Series, Gallun had been a prolific writer in the pre-WWII heyday of the pulp magazines. But unlike many pulp authors, including many in this series, Gallun seems to have stayed mostly within the sci-fi genre instead of branching out to fantasy, horror, detective, etc. And we’re talking “old school” science fiction!

Overall, I’ve liked the majority of the authors that I’ve read thus far in the Del Rey series. But there have been some that I liked better than others. I found Frederik Pohl and John Campbell both a little hard to get into, and I found Cordwainer Smith very difficult to sync with, though there were stories in all of these collections I enjoyed. But I have to say that I really, really struggled reading The Best of Raymond Z. Gallun, more than any other book in this series so far.

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Fantasia 2019, Day 9, Part 1: It Comes

Saturday, August 24th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

It ComesOn the evening of July 19 I sat down in the Hall Theatre for a screening of It Comes (Kuru, 来る), a Japanese horror film. Directed by Tetsuya Nakashima, it’s based on the novel Bogiwan ga kuru, by Ichi Sawamura, with a screenplay by Nakashima, Hideto Iwai, and Nobuhiro Monma. It’s clever and colourful, and at two and a half hours it’s also a sprawling film that justifies its length by twisting in ways you don’t expect. It’s also a success, an entertaining and occasionally chilling movie that builds a universe without being too detailed about the supernatural horror lurking beyond consensus reality.

After a mysterious intro, the film starts with Hideki (Satoshi Tsumabuki) and Kana (Haru Kuroki), an apparently perfect young couple. Various bits of supernatural foreshadowing lead to the birth of their baby girl, Chisa, and Hideki throws himself into becoming the perfect father. But forces from his past are gathering, targeting Chisa. A friend, a professor of folklore named Tsuga (Munetaka Aoki, the Rurouni Kenshin movies) brings him to a disreputable writer, Nozaki (Jun’ichi Okada, Library Wars), and his spirit-medium girlfriend Makoto (Nana Komatsu, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventures). But will even they be enough to stop the evil coming for Hideki and Chisa?

This all just hints at the complexities of the plot, best experienced unspoiled. It Comes is an incredibly well-structured and well-paced movie that builds through a good collection of horror set-pieces and quieter character-driven moments to a stunning large-scale climax boasting one of the most fascinating examples of religious syncretism I’ve seen on film. At the very end, it has one of the most charming visual moments I’ve ever seen to indicate that the supernatural’s been thoroughly dealt with.

It is important that it be so well-crafted, I think, because as it builds it goes to some very strange places. The colours are lurid, slowly growing more so. And the film does not hesitate to increasingly explore genre as the film goes on, as well; Hideki and Kana are more-or-less real people when we meet them, and then Tsuga is a perhaps little more than real, and then Nozkaki and Makoto more than that, and then when we meet Makoto’s sister Kotoko we meet a character on another level of genre reality. And yet the tones work. The operatic feel of the high genre strangeness is fused to the everdayness of the young parents. And the story of the baby facing possession is given a weird grandeur by the surreal witchery that must be enlisted to fight the bogeyman threatening the child.

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John W. Campbell was a Racist and a Loon: A Response to Jeannette Ng’s Campbell Award Acceptance Speech

Saturday, August 24th, 2019 | Posted by Rich Horton

JEANNETTE NG

Jeannette Ng

I don’t think I have anything much to add to the commentariat’s discussion of Jeannette Ng’s Campbell Award acceptance speech. But why should that stop me?

The simplest thing to note is this — however you parse the word Fascist (and I would parse it differently than many), John W. Campbell was a racist, and a loon. (However you parse THAT word.) His ideas about how we should best be governed were, if not Fascist by a strict definition, not exactly democratic, to say the least. He cheered on the Kent State massacre, for goodness’ sake. He was sexist too, though in that case I think maybe he was just “a man of his time” — his racism, however, was definitely more virulent than the norm. And loonier! (See his editorial suggesting that black people preferred to be slaves.)

And on those grounds I have no complaint with Ng’s speech. Yes, she misidentified the magazine Campbell worked for (and has apologized for that) — but, heck, she was excited and nervous — these things happen.

The real point is — and I think Alec Nevala-Lee deserves tremendous credit for clarifying this — that “we”, as the SF field, especially those of us who’ve been around a lot longer, kind of ignored how whacko — and downright harmful — Campbell’s views could be. It’s not that they weren’t known — he trumpeted them in the pages of Astounding! — but people tended to sort of excuse them — “Oh, John was just trying to stir conversation,” that sort of thing. It’s pretty clear that he really did believe many or most of the things he wrote. And we should have, collectively and individually, been more forceful in standing against those ideas.

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Fantasia 2019, Day 8, Part 3: Knives and Skin

Friday, August 23rd, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Knives and SkinMy last film of July 18 was in the big Hall Theatre. Knives and Skin was written and directed by Jennifer Reeder, and begins as a girl dies a violent death in a small midwestern town. In the wake of her disappearance secrets begin to come to light, and tensions rise among both her classmates and the adults. The movie proceeds to explore the town and its inhabitants in a series of sometimes-linked vignettes.

I have to say up front that I had a wildly different reaction to this film than the rest of the theatre did. The crowd was, by and large, audibly positive. This is a movie that has clear feminist principles, and is very direct about putting them on the screen. To judge not just from the reaction during the screening but the question-and-answer period after, many viewers responded to that, and good for them. Personally I didn’t care for the movie. I am going to explain why, but it’s important to note that this is a film that has the potential to work much better for people who are not me.

At its core, I felt that the dramatic structure of the film did not work. The various scenes did not seem to work as an ensemble, and individual characters did not have stories that felt fully developed. Much of the more interesting events that did happen had no obvious connection with the disappearance and death of Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley). The movie felt to me like a series of short films, or ideas for short films, that did not cohere.

For example, near the end of the film the high schoolers who we’ve more-or-less followed through the film hear that one of their friends is on top of the school and might be about to jump. A group of a half-dozen or so teens gather out front of the school. It turns out that the youth on the roof isn’t going to jump, he just liked the view because it’s one of the few places he could see the road out of town. This is a problem for a number of reasons, but the first one is that a longing to get out of the town has not really been touched on or explored earlier in the film. It’s a perfectly credible motivation, but with no set-up or development it feels oddly gratuitous.

Then you wonder why, if this young man liked looking at the road out of town, nobody noticed the youth going up to the roof on any previous occasion. This brings up another problem: this town does not feel like a community of people who’ve known each other all their lives. People are too easily surprised by each other, or know too little about each other.

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In 500 Words or Less: Catfish Lullaby by A.C. Wise

Friday, August 23rd, 2019 | Posted by Brandon Crilly

oie_19192747vo7iIQCxCatfish Lullaby
By A.C. Wise
Broken Eye Books (118 pages, $14.99 paperback/eBook forthcoming, September 3, 2019)

You’d think stepping away from a regular column reviewing would make writing a new review easier, but apparently not. I’ve been struggling with how to start talking about A.C. Wise’s Catfish Lullaby because the first thing I want to start with how I didn’t get the story I expected from the back-cover blurb. But that sounds like a criticism, and it really isn’t; I loved the story I got, which feels like a tonal blend of Stranger Things and Netflix’s Haunting of Hill House, set in the Bayou with more diverse characters.

Maybe we base too much of our expectations on the blurb. Lullaby’s focuses on Lewis, a “town of secrets,” and the character Caleb stepping into his father’s role of sheriff to unravel the mysteries of the Royce family and legendary monster Catfish John. That sets the expectation that you’ll mostly follow adult Caleb as he deals with his past. Instead, the novella spends most of its time on young Caleb, affected by the Royce family’s traumas and getting to know Cere, the youngest Royce child and survivor of her family’s apparent destruction, only moving ahead to adult Caleb for the last third.

Normally that sort of long dwelling on a character’s past would throw me, but not the case here. Wise builds this ongoing mystery that’s compelling, I think, for two reasons. One is the way that Caleb struggles to make sense of what’s affecting Cere and how to help her, as well as dealing with 1980s and 90s prejudice and later living up to his father’s name. He has a genuinely pre-teen attitude that most writers can’t pull off. He and Cere are immediately interesting and likeable characters, and so I kept reading to see what choice they’d make, regardless of whether the mystery got solved.

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Fantasia 2019, Day 8, Part 2: Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway

Thursday, August 22nd, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Arrow VideoBefore my second film of July 18, a surreal science-fiction movie from the director of Crumbs, I had time to catch a panel discussion. Returning Life to the Departed: Adventures in Genre Cinema Restoration was moderated by Heather Buckley, producer of films and of DVD supplements, who introduced David Gregory of Severin Films (also director of Blood and Flesh: The Reel Life and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson, which Buckley produced), Joe Rubin of Vinegar Syndrome, and, by Skype, James White of Arrow Films. All those companies preserve, restore, and reissue vintage genre, exploitation, and cult movies.

I’m not going to go through the entire panel because it was filmed, and you can find it on Fantasia’s Facebook page. I do want to note a few highlights. Buckley asked the panel at one point how their restoration process evolved and how they did what they did, and Gregory made the point that there was no one way to restore a film as it had to depend on what materials of the original are available. Sometimes those materials might be so bad that the film might look like it wasn’t worth putting out (he cited The House on Straw Hill), but the flip side is that those materials will only get worse until the film is lost (for Straw Hill he talked about cobbling together a version from two prints and a mold- and water-damaged negative). The ideal was to work from the original camera negative or something that had been protected in a lab. Rubin agreed, but noted for exploitation films the negative often doesn’t exist. Every project will have its own issues and shortcomings and things the restorer will have never had to deal with before. He talked about how low-budget movies did not usually get to have a timer sit with the cinematographer or director when the first prints were made to make sure the film looked right. Gregory noted that often the director or cinematographer will often say that a restored film is the best that film has ever looked.

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The Golden Age of Science Fiction: Ray Bradbury

Thursday, August 22nd, 2019 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury

Cover by Arthur Lidov

Cover by Arthur Lidov

Cover by Joseph Mugnaini

Cover by Joseph Mugnaini

Lin Carter created the Gandalf Award to recognize lifetime achievement in fantasy. As with the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Author, which was founded in the previous year, the Gandalf Awards were administered along with the Hugo Award and presented at Worldcon. The Gandalf Award was given out from 1974, when it was won by J.R.R. Tolkien, through 1981, when it went to C. L. Moore. For two years, in addition to a Grand Master Award, a Best Novel Gandalf was also presented. In 1980, the awards were presented at Noreascon II in Boston.

Several years ago, I received a phone call from Ray Bradbury. When I hung up the phone, I turned to my daughter, who was in elementary school, and said, “Remember this call. You’ll be studying the author I just spoke to in school.” Several years later, I was at a parent conference for my daughter and the teacher caught me looking at a poster for Fahrenheit 451. The class had read Bradbury’s story “The Veldt” earlier in the school year and the teacher said, “I don’t want to accuse your daughter of making things up, but she says Ray Bradbury has called your house.” I confirmed the call to the teacher, but inside I was jubilant, my daughter had listened to me.

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Vintage Treasures: The Starfire Saga by Roby James

Thursday, August 22nd, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Roby James Commencement-small

Covers by Bruce Jensen

The Ace Science Fiction Specials, a series of first novels edited by uber-editor Terry Carr, are legendary today. Between 1984-88 Carr published debuts by writers who’d go on to towering careers, including William Gibson, Kim Stanley Robinson, Lucius Shepard, Howard Waldrop, Michael Swanwick, Jack McDevitt, Richard Kadrey, and many others.

The Ace Science Fiction Specials get all the attention, but they certainly weren’t unique. Many publishers tried their hand at something similar, with varying success. One of my favorites was the Del Rey Discovery line (1992-99), which published first novels by Nicola Griffith, Mary Rosenblum, L. Warren Douglas, K. D. Wentworth, and many more — including Roby James, whose first two novels, Commencement and Commitment, appeared in ’96 and ’97. Together they make up the Starfire Saga.

“Roby James” is the pen name of Rhoda Blecker. In a 1996 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Blecker shared some of the genesis  and heavy themes of the tale. Here’s an excerpt, in which she talks about its major Jewish themes, and losing her mother when she was eleven.

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Fantasia 2019, Days 7-8, Part 1: Maggie

Wednesday, August 21st, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

MaggieJuly 17 for me was a day of rest and running errands; then for my first film at Fantasia on July 18 I went to the De Sève Theatre to watch Maggie (메기). Directed by Yi Ok-seop from a film she wrote with star Koo Kyo-hwan, it’s the story of Yeo Yoon-young (Lee Ju-young), and her boyfriend Sung-won (Koo). Yoon-young’s a nurse at Love of Maria Hospital in Seoul. One day, an X-ray surfaces showing a man and a woman having sex in the X-ray room. The next day almost nobody comes in to work; the X-ray room’s a popular site for assignations, and everyone thinks they’re one of the figures in the X-ray. Yoon-young’s the only one who dares show her face, along with Doctor Lee (Moon So-ri). They end up forming an unlikely partnership as Maggie helps Lee learn to trust other people. Meanwhile, Sung-won finds work filling in sinkholes opening up in Korea, following an earthquake predicted by a catfish named Maggie — who also turns out to play an important role within the film.

This is only roughly a description of the movie, indicating just a few of the plot strands. Maggie unfolds through a series of vignettes, with flashbacks and chapter titles and an unseen narrator. It’s a consciously quirky approach to a film that isn’t afraid of punching up its plot with a certain amount of surrealism. You wonder what happens to the patients at a hospital with no staff, for example, and though we do see a few people left in the empty building, by and large the question’s unanswered.

What is most interesting, and I think in the long run surprisingly effective, is the contrast between the surface tone of light comedy and a deeper sense of abiding bleakness. The conclusion suggests hidden depths to people we think we know, and not always abysses into which we would choose to gaze. While the pacing and general approach seem to aim at a gentle comfort, much of what actually transpires depicts some real pain.

The vignette structure seems to ask the viewer to see the humour of events, and the surrealism is at first distancing, but the subject matter (of trust, of violence) has a weight that in the end can’t be ignored. This could have been a significant disconnect, and at first I felt it was. The more I thought about it — and after having seen at least one movie that tried something similar to Maggie and in my judgement failed — the more I came to appreciate this film, and suspect that I hadn’t been sensitive enough at first viewing to what it was trying to do.

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