The Art of Author Branding: The Pocket Marta Randall

Saturday, September 19th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

Islands Marta Randall-small Islands Marta Randall-back-small

Islands (Pocket Books, May 1980). Cover uncredited

Marta Randall is a science fiction pioneer. She was the first woman president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, and took over the groundbreaking New Dimensions anthology series from Robert Silverberg in the early 80s. She also taught SF writing at Clarion (East and West) and other places.

Of course, before all that was a successful writing career. Her first novel A City in the North was published in 1976 by Warner Books. More followed in rapid succession, including Nebula nominee Islands that same year, The Sword of Winter (1983, we talked about that one here), Those Who Favor Fire (1984), and a pair on novels in the Kennerin Saga: Journey (1978) and Dangerous Games (1980).

Islands and Journey are the ones I want to look at today. Here’s John Clute from The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, putting the first one in context.

Randalls’s first and perhaps most successful novel, Islands (1976; rev 1980), movingly depicts the life of a mortal woman in an age when Immortality is medically achievable for all but a few, including the protagonist. To cope with her world she plunges into the study of archaeology, and makes a discovery which enables her to transcend her corporeal life.

Sharp-eyed readers will note Clute’s reference to a 1980 revision; that edition of Islands was released four years after original publication by Pocket Books in a reworked version that added an additional 21 pages (see above). And not incidentally, it was also packaged with one of the cleaner examples of author branding from the era.

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James Nicoll on Amazons! edited by Jessica Amanda Salmonson

Saturday, September 12th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

Amazon Jessica Amanda Salmonson-small Amazon Jessica Amanda Salmonson-back-small

Amazons! (DAW, 1979). Cover by Michael Whelan

Every once in a while I get asked to recommend other sites out there for readers who enjoy Black Gate. There are some top-notch book blogs, of course — like Rich Horton’s excellent Strange at Ecbatan, and Mark R. Kelly’s overlooked Views from Crestmont Drive — and the usual publisher sites, like and Locus Online. But recently I’ve been spending a lot of time at James Nicoll Reviews, partly because of the wide range of content. In just the last week he’s reviewed Maggie Tokuda-Hall’s The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea, a collection by Han Song, a superhero RPG from Green Ronin, and (a man after my own heart!) the July 1979 issues of Charles C. Ryan’s Galileo magazine — which of course lured Rich Horton out of his secluded library to comment enthusiastically.

But the real reason I hang out so much at James’ blog is that he regularly covers classic SF and fantasy — insightfully and thoroughly. Here’s his thoughts on Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s World Fantasy Award winning anthology Amazons!, from 1979.

Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s 1979 Amazons! is an anthology of fantasy stories. Special ones. Each story features a woman protagonist who is not support staff or arm candy for the hero. Almost but not all of the stories are by women….

For the most part these are sword and sorcery stories. Their scope is limited. individual fates may depend on the outcome; sometimes the fates of small kingdoms do; but none of these stories are of the ​“we must win or the world will be destroyed” variety. There are some fairly slight stories — every reader will see the twist in Lee’s story coming for miles, and there is not much to ​“The Rape Patrol.” These are more than balanced by stories like ​“Agbewe’s Sword,” ​“The Sorrows of Witches,” and [CJ] Cherryh’s ​“The Dreamstone” (which reminds me that I’ve never read the novel length expansion, or the sequel, although I think I own both). ​“Sorrows of Witches” is a little odd because that it seems to accept the premise that witches are by definition bad people who deserve what they get. Or in this case, do not get.

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A Salute to a Science Fiction Bookseller

Sunday, September 6th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Infinite Dreams by John Haldeman (Avon 1979, cover by Clyde Caldwell),
Chrysalis Volume 2, edited by Roy Torgeson (Zebra 1978, cover by Colin Hay)

Based on the email I get, a lot of Black Gate readers assume that I pull my Vintage Treasures out of the Cave of Wonders in my basement. It’s true that there’s a lot of paperback books down there (crammed up to the rafters in places), but the truth is that most of the books I choose to highlight in my regular Vintage Treasures column are recent acquisitions. I have a lot of regular sellers I trust, and one of them is North Dakota eBay seller pandoratim (Tim Friesen), whom I’ve purchased several titles from over the years (including Joe Haldeman’s first collection Infinite Dreams, which I talked about last year).

So I was a little dismayed to have my most recent purchase from Tim, Roy Torgeson’s 1978 anthology Chrysalis 2, canceled on Tuesday. In a cryptic message sent through eBay, Tim told me, “I am about to cancel your order because my health has deteriorated to the point where I can’t fulfill orders. I apologize for this poor handling of your order.” I wasn’t too concerned about the book, but I was concerned about a message like that from a trusted bookseller who’s sent me some fine volumes over the years. So I sent Tim this message.

Oh no! I’m so sorry to hear that. Don’t worry about the book at all. I appreciate you letting me know. I hope this is something you can recover from eventually. Readers need to stick together. I hope you’ll drop me a note letting me know you’re getting better. I’m at

I was deeply saddened to get this response this morning.

Hi John, thanks a lot for writing. I’m sorry to say it’s not. I’ve gone into Palliative Care and likely have just a couple of weeks left. One of the great pleasures I gained from selling on eBay was getting to know repeat customers, like yourself. It’s one of my few regrets. However, it was my turn to draw the short straw, and I’m at peace with our decision. Best wishes to you going forward, John, please take care as you can during these crazy pandemic-filled and toxicly politicized days. It’s been a pleasure working with you,

Tim Friesen

There’s very little I can do for Tim, from three states away. But I can do this. In front of the collective community of Black Gate readers, I would like to thank Tim Friesen, for the great care he took with his books over the years, and the obvious joy he took in sharing them with so many others. In many ways I think that’s the highest calling a book lover can have — not simply to collect and preserve great books, but to do the real work of parting with them, and put them safely in other hands.

We salute you, Tim. Safe voyages from here.

Andrew Liptak on 20 Sci-fi and Fantasy Books to Check Out in August

Sunday, August 30th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Cover art: uncredited, Dan dos Santos, and Anthony Ramondo (click to embiggen)

I’ve grown to rely on Andrew Liptak’s newsletter to keep me up-to-date on the latest releases, especially during the era of the pandemic. He’s got a keen eye, and roves far and wide to compile a list of the best new books every month. His list of August’s most noteworthy titles does not disappoint, with new releases from Carrie Vaughn, Tamsyn Muir, Seth Dickinson, L. Penelope, Lavie Tidhar, Lisbeth Campbell, Marina J. Lostetter, Emily Tesh, Gardner Dozois and Michael Swanwick, Karen Osborne, Carole Stivers, and Ashley Blooms. Here’s a few of the highlights.

By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar (Tor Books, 416 pages, $27.99/$14.99 digital, August 11, 2020)

Over the years, I’ve really enjoyed Lavie Tidhar’s work — particularly The Violent Century and Unholy Land. (I still need to read Central Station). He likes to play with tropes, upending conventional characters and stories, and his next is an intriguing-sounding take on the King Arthur mythos.

Tidhar puts a gritty edge to the Arthurian legend, portraying Arthur and his companions as gangsters and criminals running drugs and weapons through a London that’s been abandoned by Rome. Writing for Locus, Ian Mond writes that “For all its foul language and radical deconstruc­tion, of which I’ve provided only a taste (you should see what Tidhar does with the Holy Grail), By Force Alone isn’t a desecration of the Arthurian romances. Instead, he pays homage to the writers and poets who took their turn in adapting and refining Monmouth’s text.”

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Understanding Gamers through Belly Laughs: Knights of the Dinner Table by Jolly R. Blackburn

Saturday, August 22nd, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Three issues of Jolly Blackburn’s long-running Knights of the Dinner Table, all shipped simultaneously: #273, 274, & 275

The COVID-19 pandemic has played havoc with virtually every aspect of life around the globe. That was driven home to me (again) when three issues of my Knights of the Dinner Table subscription were delivered in a single envelope last week.

Given all the upheaval the world has gone through in just the last five months, it was an eerie look into the recent past to open the first of them, issue #273 (planned on-sale date: May 2020) and read Jolly R. Blackburn’s editorial, written in March 2020 and titled “And Just Like That — Everything Changes.” Children of the Apocalypse, gather round and read these words from the long ago before-time:

Hey folks — I hope this finds each of you reading this, healthy, safe and doing well. Clearly, with what has transpired in recent weeks, that is most certainly not the case for everyone. Many of you have likely lost loved ones. are sick, unemployed, wondering what the future will bring or all of the above. This is indeed something that has left no one untouched.

I [know] that Knights of the Dinner Table has always been a refuge of sorts from the hard realities of the real world. Readers come here to forget their worries, have a laugh, possibly be touched and celebrate the love of rolling dice and gaming with friends. That won’t change… we’re all in this together, despite differences.

As I write this, there is a lot going on. The nation is in a state of self-isolation and shut down. I wanted to tell you what that means for KenzerCo and the Knights even though in the grand scheme of things, it might be the last thing on your minds. We are fortunate in that we are a small company with our own warehouse and shipping facility. Barb and I continue to ship product twice a week and can do so without interacting with others. So we are completely safe in doing so.

Here’s the glitch. Our distributors recently announced they will NOT be shipping product to retailers until this is all over. Which is understandable because many game and comic shops are currently shutting down and there’s no place to ship product to.

On top of that. the printer who publishes our monthly deadtree issues is in a shutdown also!

Take it from me: It’s tough to keep a monthly magazine going when both your printer and your distributors cease operations. But Jolly and team battened down the hatches and did it, producing digital issues, and getting out them subscribers, on time. And when their printer opened up again they did a bulk run of all three issues, shipping them to subscribers as quickly as possible. Getting all three at once allowed me to read the issues back-to-back, and re-appraise just what it is that Jolly is doing, and how much it’s impacted the hobby.

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Thank You — Yes You — For Helping Fill Hank Davis and Christopher Ruocchio’s Cosmic Corsairs

Tuesday, August 18th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Cosmic Corsairs (Baen, August 4, 2020). Cover by Tom Kidd

I was minding my own business at Barnes and Noble last week, picking up random books and opening them to the Acknowledgements page, as one does. And what should I find in Hank Davis and Christopher Ruocchio’s new Cosmic Corsairs anthology?

For help and advice, many thanks to John O’Neil and his Black Gate webzine, R.K. Robinson, Jason McGregor, Chris Willrich, Rich Horton, Marie Bilodeau, and others I’m unforgivably forgetting.

I was very touched. Yeah, they misspelled my name slightly, but I wasn’t the source of good advice anyway. As Hank and Chris note, it was really you, the readers of Black Gate, who chipped in with great suggestions when we sent out a call for suggestions here last year:

Help Hank Davis fill a Space Pirate Anthology

Hank has been a friend of BG for many years, and we’re huge fans of his. His most excellent anthologies for Baen include The Baen Big Book of Monsters (2014), Worst Contact (2016), Things from Outer Space (2016), The Best of Gordon R. Dickson, Volume 1 (2017), and Space Pioneers, with Christopher Ruocchio (2018).

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The Art of Author Branding: The Berkley Poul Anderson

Sunday, August 16th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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The first six of what would eventually be fourteen Berkley Poul Anderson paperbacks with this design, including the first three books of
the Polesotechnic League. Covers by Rick Sternbach (Satan’s World) and Richard Powers (all others). July 1976 – December 1977

Back in May, inspired by Mark R. Kelly’s review of one of the very first science fiction novels I ever read, the 1977 Ace paperback edition of Robert Silverberg’s Collision Course, I took an extended look at Silverberg’s mid-70s career at Ace, and how the marketing department gave his books a distinct visual identity — one very different from the way his novels were later packaged at Berkley, Bantam, Tor and others.

In many ways this kind of author branding reached its zenith in the late 70s, and in the Comments section of that article there were plenty of suggestions for examples I should look at next. Joseph Hoopman suggested Avon’s black-bordered Roger Zelazny (great choice!) and their vintage A. Merritt, Charles Martel mentioned the distinctive Laser Books cover series by Kelly Freas, Thomas Parker expressed fondness for Frank Frazetta’s Ace paperback covers for Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Bob Byrne suggested Tim Hildebrandt’s gorgeous covers for the first half-dozen Garrett, PI books by Glen Cook, among other ideas.

All good choices, and if fortune holds I’ll look at many of them. But today I want to highlight a set of paperbacks more contemporary to the Ace Robert Silverberg — the 14 Poul Anderson volumes published by Berkley and Berkley Medallion between 1976 – ’79.

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Undertow Publications Announces Weird Horror Magazine

Friday, August 14th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Weird Horror issue 1, coming in October. Cover art by Sam Heimer

Undertow Publications is one of the finest small presses in operation today. We’ve covered several of their excellent recent releases, including Shadows & Tall Trees 8, the hardcover journal The Silent Garden, Simon Strantzas’ Nothing is Everything and All the Fabulous Beasts by Priya Sharma.

The mad genius behind Undertow is Canadian Michael Kelly, editor and publisher extraordinaire (and a mean writer in his own right). Last month Michael made this announcement on Facebook:

Friends, am very happy to announce the contributors to the inaugural issue of Weird Horror, coming this October.

David Bowman, Shikhar Dixit, Steve Duffy, Inna Effress, Tom Goldstein, Orrin Grey, John Langan, Suzan Palumbo, Ian Rogers, Naben Ruthnum, Lysette Stevenson, Simon Strantzas, Steve Toase.

We’re bringing you a 7″ x 10″ glossy pulp fiction magazine of fun and terror. Pricing and final specs coming soon.

Cover art by Sam Heimer.

This is fantastic news indeed. Michael has proved his editorial acumen time and again in the horror field — with Shadows and Tall Trees, five volumes of the highly acclaimed Year’s Best Weird Fiction anthology series, and anthologies like Apparitions (Undertow, 2009). Having Michael at the helm of a major new magazine of weird horror is tremendously promising.

The second issue of Weird Horror is promised for March 2021, and issue 3 in October 2021. Read all the details here.

James Davis Nicoll on Five Doomed Armies in Science Fiction

Wednesday, August 12th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

The Palace of Eternity by Bob Shaw-small The Faded Sun Kesrith by C. J. Cherryh-small A Small Colonial War by Robert Frezza-small

The Palace of Eternity by Bob Shaw (Ace Books, 1969), The Faded Sun: Kesrith by C. J. Cherryh (DAW, 1978), and A Small Colonial War
by Robert Frezza (Del Rey/Ballantine, 1990). Covers by Diane Dillon and Leo Dillon, Gino D’Achille, and Stephen Hickman

I’ve been enjoying James Davis Nicoll’s recent gaming articles at Black Gate, shotgun surveys of the best and worst of vintage role role playing. They’re quick reads, and if you have any nostalgia (or curiosity) at all about RPGs of the 80s and 90s, I think you’ll enjoy them.

Ten RPG Moments of Awesome
Ten WTF Moments from Classic RPGs
Stormbringer, Stargates, and Fighting Sail: Ten Classic Unplayed RPGs

I’ve also been enjoying his regular book column at, for much the same reason. James is an entertaining writer, but he also has an uncanny knack for highlighting some fascinating vintage SF, a lot of which is new to me.

Take his July 2 article “Five Doomed Armies in Science Fiction,” which showcases novels from 1969-1989 by Bob Shaw, C.J. Cherryh, Joe Haldeman, David Drake, and Robert Frezza. You gotta admit that’s an interesting angle on classic SF. Here’s a tasty excerpt.

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Robots, Deep Space, and Star Trek: Free RPG Day at Games Plus in Mount Prospect

Monday, July 27th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Free RPG Day is not something I can remember ever taking part in…. mostly because the only local gaming store here in St. Charles died ten years ago. But when I saw the Facebook announcement from Floyd at Games Plus on Friday (above), I was intrigued enough to make the 30-mile drive to Mount Prospect Saturday morning.

Games Plus is easily the best gaming store in the the Chicago area — perhaps in the entire country. It’s the home of the Games Plus auctions I’ve written about extensively for the the past 10 years. Like all retail stores, it’s struggled as a result of the pandemic, and I was overdue for a visit to show my support (and spend some money) anyway.

And several of the items in Floyd’s pic grabbed my attention, especially the Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure from Goodman Games, the Root the Tabletop Roleplaying Game adventure, and the Warhammer Wrath & Glory module. It’d be a challenge narrowing my selection down to two items, but I figured that’d be part of the fun.

So what is Free RPG Day?

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