Hector DeJean on Why Jack Vance Was Science Fiction’s Tightest Worldbuilder

Tuesday, February 5th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Jack Vance Gateway Omnibus-small The Jack Vance Treasury-small The Narrow Land-small

Jack Vance died in 2013, but his work continues to be avidly discussed and appreciated. New readers are still discovering his timeless SF adventures like Big Planet, and publishers like Subterranean have produced gorgeous collections like The Early Jack Vance (five volumes) and The Jack Vance Treasury. And his mass market paperbacks from DAW, Ace and others remain inexpensive and continue to circulate, winning him new readers.

I’ve quite enjoyed some of the more recent discussions of Vance, like Hector DeJean’s January 11 Tor.com article “A Lean, Mean, Writing Machine: Jack Vance Was Science Fiction’s Tightest Worldbuilder,” which looks at three of Vance’s early novels from a rather different perspective. Here’s the opening paragraphs.

I’m a big fan of concise stories. If a writer fills a three-volume science fiction epic with 2000 pages of detailed worldbuilding, intriguing speculative concepts, and captivating character arcs, that’s all well and good, but if that writer can get that down to 300 pages, that’s better. And if a writer goes further and nails it in 150 pages — well then, that writer can only be Jack Vance.

Vance produced well over 70 novels, novellas, and short story collections over the course of his writing career, creating fantasy stories and mysteries as well as science fiction, and even producing a substantial number of doorstoppers that would have impressed George R. R. Martin with their girth. Vance’s extensive oeuvre has its imperfections — especially glaring today is his near-complete lack of interesting female characters — but at their best the books set an excellent standard for the construction of strange new worlds. Three tales in particular, The Languages of Pao (1958), the Hugo Award-winning The Dragon Masters (1962), and The Last Castle (1966), squeeze artfully assembled civilizations into focused, tight paragraphs. Other authors might have used these worlds as settings for bloated trilogies, but Vance quickly builds each society, establishes his characters, delivers the action, and then is off to create something new. I can’t think of any other author who put together so many varied worlds with such efficiency.

I think DeJean has a fine point. Vance’s early experiences writing for the markets, and especially the painful and arduous task of substantially cutting his first novelBig Planet for publication in hardcover (and later at Ace), taught him the valuable skill of spinning a complex tale in a very small space.

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The Most Ambitious First Contact Saga in Science Fiction: The Foreigner Series by CJ Cherryh

Sunday, February 3rd, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

CJ Cherryh Foreigner 10th Anniversary Edition-small CJ Cherryh Foreigner 2 Invader-small CJ Cherryh Foreigner 3 Inheritor-small CJ Cherryh Foreigner 4 Precursor-small
CJ Cherryh Foreigner 5 Defender-small CJ Cherryh Foreigner 6 Explorer-small CJ Cherryh Foreigner 7 Destroyer-small CJ Cherryh Foreigner 8 Pretender-small
CJ Cherryh Foreigner 9 Deliverer-small CJ Cherryh Foreigner 10 Conspirator-small CJ Cherryh Foreigner 11 Deceiver-small CJ Cherryh Foreigner 12 Betrayer-small
CJ Cherryh Foreigner 13 Intruder-small CJ Cherryh Foreigner 14 Protector-small CJ Cherryh Foreigner 15 Peacemaker-small CJ Cherryh Foreigner 16 Tracker-small
CJ Cherryh Foreigner 17 Visitor-small CJ Cherryh Foreigner 18 Convergence-small CJ Cherryh Foreigner 19 Emergence-small CJ Cherryh

Art by Michael Whelan (1,2,6,7), Dorian Vallejo (3), Stephen Youll (4,5), Donato Giancola (8,9), and Todd Lockwood (10-19)

I like to talk about SF and fantasy series here, and last week I dashed off a quick article about a 9-volume space opera that caught my eye, Lisanne Norman’s Sholan Alliance. The first two commenters, R.K. Robinson and Joe H, both compared her novels to the queen of modern space opera, C.J. Cherryh. That certainly got me thinking. Like Norman, Cherryh is published by DAW, and as I said last week,

For many years DAW’s bread and butter has been extended midlist SF and fantasy series that thrive chiefly by word of mouth… You won’t connect with them all of course, but when you find one you like they offer a literary feast like no other — a long, satisfying adventure series you can get lost in for months.

More than any other writer, Cherryh may be responsible for DAW’s success with space opera. She’s been associated with the publisher for over four decades, since her first two novels, Gate of Ivrel and Brothers of Earth, were purchased by founder Donald A. Wollheim in 1975. Cherryh has produced many of DAW’s top-selling series, including the popular Chanur novels, the Company War (including the Hugo Award-winning Downbelow Station), The Faded Sun trilogy, and especially the 19-volume Foreigner space opera, perhaps the most ambitious and epic first contact saga ever written.

C.J. Cherryh became a SFWA Grand Master in 2016, and the Foreigner books are perhaps her most celebrated achievement. The first, Foreigner, was published in 1994, and has remained in print for the last 25 years; the most recent, Emergence, arrived in hardcover last year, and was reprinted in paperback less than four weeks ago. Four of the books were shortlisted for the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, and all 19 titles remain in print today.

If you’re truly on the hunt for “a long, satisfying adventure series you can get lost in for months,” Foreigner — all 7,200 pages of it — may be the most important literary discovery you ever make.

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Reading for a Good Cause: 32 White Horses on a Vermillion Hill edited by Duane Pesice

Saturday, February 2nd, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

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I’ve heard from several readers about a new charity anthology benefiting horror writer Christopher Ropes, 32 White Horses on a Vermillion Hill. Most recently Robert Adam Gilmour wrote, saying:

There are no shortage of writers going through difficult times and I imagine you might get quite a number of emails for funding them but this involves two anthologies and some writers you are familiar with. His situation is horrifying enough that it has stuck in my head and I just wanted to see if you’d feature it on Black Gate.

I’m informed about a lot of worthy fundraising efforts every year, but Robert is right — this one is of particular interest, as it involves dozens of writers of keen interest to Black Gate readers. Editor Duane Pesice has assembled two volumes of 32 White Horses on a Vermillion Hill, both of which contain 32 stories & poems generously donated from members of the weird fiction & horror communities, including Jonathan Maberry, Michael Wehunt, Ashley Dioses, K.A. Opperman, Marguerite Reed, Jon Padgett, Douglas Draa, John Linwood Grant, Jeffrey Thomas, Jason A. Wyckoff, Frank Coffman, and many others. All the profits from the books go towards helping Christopher cover the costs of some long-needed dental work (see the Go-Fund-Me page here).

Christopher’s work has been published in Vastarien (Grimscribe Press), Nightscript (Chthonic Matter), Ravenwood Quarterly (Electric Pentacle Press), and other fine publications, and it’s clear he has a lot of friends in the industry. If you’re active in fandom or on social media, you doubtless encounter calls for help on a regular basis. But I’ve never seen one quite like this. Pesice has assembled two anthologies that would look impressive under any circumstances. Copies are available at Amazon and directly from Planet X Publications. If you’re going to read some horror this month, why not read for a good cause?

Read an Excerpt from Howard Andrew Jones’ Upcoming For the Killing of Kings at Tor.com

Tuesday, January 29th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

For the Killing of Kings Andrew Jones

Howard Andrew Jones upcoming novel For the Killing of Kings is the finest thing he has ever written — and considering his previous books include the modern fantasy classics The Desert of Souls and The Bones of the Old Ones, that’s saying a great deal. It is the opening volume The Ring-Sworn Trilogy, and one of the major fantasy releases of the year. I had a chance to blurb the hardcover release from St. Martin’s Press, and did so enthusiastically. Here’s what I said:

For The Killing of Kings is a white knuckle murder mystery brilliantly set in a Zelazny-esque fantasy landscape. It has everything ― enchanted blades, magic rings, edge-of-your seat sword fights, Game of Thrones-scale battles, ancient legends… It is the finest fantasy novel I have read in years.

The Tor.com excerpt features one of my favorite scenes, as Kyrkenall and Elenai approach a strange tower and find it defended by a mysterious ring of obelisks… and something far more sinister. Read the complete chapter here.

If you find yourself captivated by the excerpt, you won’t have long to wait. For the Killing of Kings will be published by St. Martin’s Press in three weeks, on February 19, 2019. It is 368 pages, priced at $26.99 in hardcover and $13.99 in digital formats. The cover artist is uncredited. In addition to the exclusive Tor.com excerpt, you can also read the first chapter at the Macmillan website here, and keep up with the latest news at Howard’s website here.

Dreams More Perfect Than Your Own: J.G. Ballard: The Complete Short Stories, Volumes One & Two

Sunday, January 27th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

JG Ballard The Complete Short Stories Volume One and Two-small

In the world of science fiction, J.G. Ballard is a Big Deal.

His early work includes the novels The Wind from Nowhere (1962), The Drowned World (1962), and High-Rise (1975), and the seminal collection Vermilion Sands (1971). Outside science fiction, Ballard is also a Big Deal. His 1984 novel Empire of the Sun, loosely based on his experiences as a child in Shanghai during Japanese occupation, was described by The Guardian as “the best British novel about the Second World War” and filmed by Steven Spielberg in 1987, starring a young Christian Bale. His influence on modern literature has been powerful enough that “Ballardian” has become a common term, defined by the Collins English Dictionary as “resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in J. G. Ballard’s novels and stories, especially dystopian modernity…” He died in 2009.

Ballard’s short fiction, virtually all of it SF, is some of the most vital and studied science fiction of the 20th Century. His stories “Souvenir” (1965) and “Myths of the Near Future” (1983) were nominated for the Nebula Award, and his collections — including Passport to Eternity (1963), The Terminal Beach (1964), Vermilion Sands (1971) and Chronopolis and Other Stories (1971) — are very highly regarded. In 2006 Harper Perennial published J.G. Ballard: The Complete Short Stories in two thick volumes in the UK; they were reprinted in 2014 by Fourth Estate with an introduction by Adam Thirlwell. There aren’t a lot of writers for whom it pays to read their complete short work; Ballard I think is the exception.

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Interspecies Conflict in a Universe with More Aliens than the Star Wars Cantina: Sholan Alliance by Lisanne Norman

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Lisanne Norman Turning Point-small Lisanne Norman Fortune's Wheel-small Lisanne Norman Fire Margins-small
Lisanne Norman Razor's Edge-small Lisanne Norman Dark Nadir-small Lisanne Norman Stronghold Rising-small
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Covers by Romas Kukalis, Jim Burns (#6) and Chris Moore (#8,9)

There haven’t been many times when it’s better to be a science fiction fan than right now. Big-budget SF is king at the box office and on the small screen, the shelves are groaning with new releases, and truly exciting new authors are appearing every year. But there are a few things I still miss. The humble paperback original (PBO) has become less and less common as more and more top-tier SF appears first in hardcover or trade paperback, and much of it never sees a mass market paperback reprint at all.

I like hardcovers just fine, but it was paperbacks that introduced me to SF, and it’s paperbacks — compact, accessible, and cheap — that still draw in young and casual readers and gradually turn them into fans. More publishers have been turning their backs on paperbacks, and the result is our field has less to offer curious young readers browsing the SF shelves for affordable and enticing titles. And thus, fewer young fans discovering science fiction at all.

But it wasn’t just paperbacks that made me a lifetime science fiction fan in my teens — it was great science fiction series, like Frank Herbert’s Dune, Asimov’s Foundation, Farmer’s Riverworld, Fred Pohl’s Heechee Saga, David Brin’s Uplift Saga, H. Beam Piper’s Fuzzy novels, and many, many more. DAW is one of few publishers willing to make a significant investment in PBO series, and it’s paid off well for them over the years, with now-established writers like C. J. Cherryh (the Alliance-Union Universe and the long-running Foreigner series), Julie E. Czerneda (the Trade Pact Universe), Gini Koch (the Kitty Katt novels), Jacey Bedford (Psi-Tech), and many others.

For many years DAW’s bread and butter has been extended midlist SF and fantasy series that thrive chiefly by word of mouth. I’m frequently drawn to them just by the sheer number of volumes. You won’t connect with them all of course, but when you find one you like they offer a literary feast like no other — a long, satisfying adventure series you can get lost in for months.

Lisanne Norman’s Sholan Alliance is a perfect example. It only recently caught my attention, after decades of patiently waiting on the shelves. It began with Turning Point way back in 1993, and recently wrapped up with the ninth volume, Circle’s End, in 2017. In between it quietly gathered a lot of accolades. B&N Explorations called it “fast-paced adventure… [with] more alien species than the Star Wars cantina!” And SF Chronicle labeled it “big, sprawling, convoluted… sure to appeal to fans of C.J. Cherryh and others who have made space adventure their territory.”

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The Complete Borderlands Campaign now Available in PDF from Chaosium

Saturday, January 19th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

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A few years ago I took a nostalgic look back at one of my favorite adventure settings, the boxed set Borderlands published by Chaosium in 1982, in the provocatively titled “Can Playing RPGs Really Make You a Billionaire?

Some of the most treasured possessions in my games library are the boxed adventure supplements published by Chaosium between 1981 – 1986. They include some of the finest adventure gaming products ever made, such as the classic Thieves’ World (1981), Michael Moorcock’s Stormbringer (1981), the brilliant Masks of Nyarlathotep (1984)… Borderlands is still very much worth a look today. It’s a complete, self-contained adventure scenario in the River of Cradles in Prax, part of Greg Stafford’s world of Glorantha, and is (relatively) easy to adapt to Sixth Edition RuneQuest and other modern game systems. Players play the role of down-on-their luck mercenaries drawn to the lawless borderlands along the river, “a fertile valley separating the devastation of Vulture’s Country and the wretched chaparral of Prax.” There, in the employ of the generous Duke of Rone, they will help civilize a new domain filled with tribal peoples, creatures, and monsters (ducks to dinosaurs, whirlvishes to wraiths.)

Like all the Chaosium boxed sets of the era, it came absolutely packed with content, including a heavily illustrated, 48-page Referee’s Handbook, a dense 32-page Referee’s Encounter Book, mostly filled with tables, two sets of maps, and seven individually bound, linked scenarios.

The article frustrated more than a few readers since, like virtually all Chaosium’s boxed adventure supplements from the early 80s, copies are highly collectible and very pricey today. Even the Moon Design paperback reprint from 2005 is ridiculously expensive, routinely commanding $100 and up on eBay. So I was delighted to see a completely remastered edition of the Borderlands boxed set offered as a single PDF by the original publisher, Chaosium, as their final PDF release of 2018.

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The 2019 Philip K. Dick Nominees

Tuesday, January 15th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Alien Virus Love Disaster-small Time Was Ian McDonald-small THE BODY LIBRARY by Jeff Noon-small

The nominees for the 2019 Philip K. Dick Award, given each year for distinguished science fiction originally published in paperback in the United States, have been announced. They are (links will take you to our previous coverage):

Time Was by Ian McDonald (Tor.com)
The Body Library by Jeff Noon (Angry Robot)
84K by Claire North (Orbit)
Alien Virus Love Disaster: Stories by Abbey Mei Otis (Small Beer Press)
Theory of Bastards by Audrey Schulman (Europa Editions)
Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories by Vandana Singh (Small Beer Press)

Special shout-out to Small Beer Press for placing two fine collections on the ballot.

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The Silent Garden: A Journal of Esoteric Fabulism is a Beautiful New Fantasy Magazine

Thursday, January 10th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

The Silent Garden-small The Silent Garden-back-small

I don’t usually buy books or magazines sight unseen. But I made an exception for the inaugural volume of The Silent Garden, a beautiful new “Journal of Esoteric Fabulism.”

Part of the reason was the publisher. Mike Kelly’s Undertow Publications has produced some of the most memorable dark fantasy and horror of the past few years, including the anthology Aickman’s Heirs, Simon Strantzas’s new collection Nothing is Everything, and five volumes of Year’s Best Weird Fiction. To be honest the list price, $50 for a deluxe full color hardcover on 70lb. paper, gave me sticker shock, but the list of contributors — V.H. Leslie, Nick Mamatas, Helen Marshall, Brian Evenson, D.P. Watt, and many more — and the discounted 4-volume “The Year in Weird” bundle pricing on their website eventually won me over.

I’m very glad it did. At 249 pages, there’s a whole lot of content crammed into this journal, including eleven short stories, poems, book reviews, articles, and a 24-page full-color gallery devoted to the work of Manchester artist David Whitlam. But just describing the contents doesn’t do it justice. The real strength of The Silent Garden is its top-notch design. It looks fantastic, and every piece is accompanied by at least one striking visual or full-color work of art. Here’s a few pics of the gorgeous interiors.

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The Future of Politics, a Desert Fantasy, and Murder in the City of the Dead: Spring Titles from Parvus Press

Sunday, January 6th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

If This Goes on Cat Rambo-small The Ragged Blade-small Necropolis PD-small

Early last year I wrote about a trio of books I discovered from a promising new publisher, Parvus Press. They were plenty interesting: Flotsam, by RJ Theodore, a steampunk space opera, and Vick’s Vultures & To Fall Among Vultures, the first two titles in Scott Warren’s Union Earth Privateers space opera. Parvus Press’s catalog was filled with an enticing assortment of new and forthcoming titles, especially for such a small company. They certainly made a fine first impression, and I made a note to keep close tabs on them.

While prowling the World Fantasy Convention in Baltimore I spotted Colin Coyle, one of the co-founders of Parvus, and after badgering him for three solid hours he cracked like a nut and started spilling secret intel on their 2019 titles. In a dark corner of the bar he grudgingly gave up details, glancing nervously over his shoulder the entire time, while I hastily scribbled notes.

Okay, it wasn’t exactly like that, but it can’t hurt if you picture it that way, so humor me a little. Besides, I did get some good quotes and lots of juicy book details out of Colin, and I’m willing to share them with you, so stop being so negative. Here’s all the secret pre-release info I gathered on the spring 2019 titles titles from Parvus Press. Many bothans died to bring us this information, so listen up.

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