Tuesday, November 30, 2010


As the Christmas season is fast approaching, and has been for the last eleven months or at least feels like it anyway, people are beginning to think about parties.  And one of the things you often find at parties is a smorgasbord of delectable goodies.  Since I can't serve you any food, I thought I'd offer up a different kind of smorgasbord, or a more literary nature.

So here's a little list of a few items for your Christmas lists you may or may not be aware of.  This list is in no way intended to be inclusive.  Some deal with fantasy and some with pulp in general.  I offer the list with brief descriptions but no detailed comments since I haven't had time to read more than one or two stories, if that, from any of these.

The Last Hieroglyph, The Collected Fantasies v. 5
Clark Ashton Smith
Night Shade Books
376 p. $39.99

A few years back, like say in 2004 or so, when I preordered my set, Night Shade announced they were doing a multi-volume collection of the fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith.  This is the final volume, which was just released a few weeks ago.  The stories are in the order of their composition rather than order of publication or by theme or setting as some earlier collections have, such as those edited by Lin Carter for the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series in the 1960s and 1970s.

Strange Wonders
Fritz Leiber
Subterranean Press
280 p. $40 (trade edition)
This is the book for the Fritz Leiber fan in your life, even if that fan is you.  Especially if that fan is you.  This is a collection of drafts, early stories, and poems by one of the greatest practitioners of sword and sorcery, science fiction, and horror who ever lived.  There was a limited edition of the book, but it is out of print.

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2010
Paula Guran, ed.
Prime Books
575 p., $19.95
Unlike the much missed Datlow-Windling (later Datlow-Grant-Link) annual collections of fantasy and horror, this one limits itself to dark fantasy, with none of the more upbeat subgenres represented in those volumes.  I'm not familiar with Paula Guran, but having read the introduction and the afterwards to the few stories I've managed to ssteal time to read, I'm going to be watching for her name on a cover. (The books skips the traditional editor's introductions and replaces them with afterwards.)

Best American Noir of the Century
James Ellroy and Otto Penzler, eds
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
731 p. $30 list price.

Ellroy and Penzler have killed a lot of trees to bring you this book.  Which happens to have a few killings in it.  While there isn't a story for every year of the 20th century, there's a lot to go around.  Penzler's introduction about how noir is the antithesis of the private detective story points out some differences between the two types of story.

The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories
Otto Penzler, ed.
1136 p. $25 list price

Proving he's just a good an editor at disreputable pulp as he is at respectable noir, Penzler has put together a collection of stories from the legendary pulp Black Mask.  With over a thousand pages, this is the largest collection of tales from Black Mask.  The stories are reproduced exactly as they appeared including illustrations.  Add a cover showing a moll with a grimace, a tommy gun, and a blazing roscoe, and what's not to love?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving Greeting

I just wanted to wish everyone who checks in here over the next few days a Happy Thanksgiving and safe travels if you're going to be away from home for the holiday.  I'd also like to issue my followers an additional thank you for your support.

I'll be traveling, so my opportunities to post anything will be limited.  My dayjobbery consists of academia, so as the old Andy Williams song says, "It's the most hap-happiest time of the year."  Not! Time will be quite limited over the next few weeks.  I've got exams to grade over Thanksgiving and finals coming up after that.  I'll try to post as much as possible, but most things that go up will be short.  I'll be doing an intermittent series of in-depth looks at various small presses and other venues for heroic fiction over the next year.  The first one will be Rogue Blades Entertainment.  I should have it up by the end of the year.  Heroic Fantasy Quarterly will probably follow.  I also intend to examine some more historical adventure novels, including a trilogy that as far as I know hasn't appeared in the States, look at some fantasy that was well known in its day but hasn't been in print for a while, showcase some of the collections in what is starting to look like a Henry Kuttner renaissance, and of course, review any new volumes of Robert E. Howard.  So stick around.  It's gonna be good!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Song Worth Singing

Winter Song
by Colin Harvey
Angry Robot
mass market, 407 p., $7.99

In Britain, the robots are angry.  I'm not sure why they're angry, but they are.  So angry, in fact, that they are planning world domination.  They say so, right there in their books. 

The conquest has already started.  First Britain, then earlier this year, America.  Walk into any decent bookstore and you'll find a number of books from Angry Robot on the shelves.  I first heard of this imprint earlier this year.  The only name I recognized on their list was Lavie Tidhar, although I've since learned that Chris Roberson and Tim Waggoner have been added to the lineup.  Roberson I like, a lot, and will feature here at some future point.  The only thing I read by Waggoner (a horror writer) I didn't care for; too sick and twisted for my taste.

I'm going to be looking for more of Angry Robot's stuff.  And not just because I liked this book.  On the back of every one of Angry Robot's books I've picked up, there is a list of books you might enjoy if you enjoyed that one.  On the back of Winter Song we find the following volumes:  Seeker by Jack McDevitt, Spin by Robert Charles Wilson, and Helix by Eric Brown.  Now McDevitt is one of my all time favorites, as is Wilson, and Brown is rapidly becoming so.  I haven't read Spin yet, but only because I missed it in hardcover.  The thing  that impresses me about Angry Robot providing these lists is that the books aren't just by them.  The McDevitt was published by Eos, the Wilson by Tor, and the Brown by Solaris, if memory is correct.  To recommend your competitor's books takes a lot of class.

Anyway, the story here is old fashioned science fiction adventure.  Karl Allman is cutting through what he believes to be an empty star system on a delivery run when his ship is attacked.  The ship's AI, callled Ship, manages to eject Allman on a trajectory towards a planet on which Ship's records show a partially terraformed colony was abandoned centuries before at the beginning of the Long Night.  The Long Night was a conflict between the Terraformers (name self explanatory) and the Pantropists, who wanted to reshape humanity.  Just why there are ships in this system is a question that is never answered.

This particular system is the Mizar system, a multiple star system.  It was colonized by a group from Iceland wanting to maintain their culture.  All of the planets have Icelandic names.  The planet, Isheimur, which is Icelandic for ice world, lies just outside the habitable zone.  Any survivors will be struggling to maintain that designation, as opposed to the title deceased.

Karl Allman manages to survive reentry, but not without damage.  Before Ship was destroyed, it downloaded into Allman's brain a portion of a backup AI.  Unfortunately, the download wasn't completed, and it is the personality that is in control when Karl wakes up.  If yo imagine a superintelligent child with no social skills, you probably have a good idea of the AI's personality.  There's a reason the colonists who find Karl name him Loki.

The chapters in the first part of the book alternate viewpoint characters.  The other two viewpoint characters are Ragnar, the chieftain of a settlement, and Bera, a young woman who was taken in by Ragnar as a young girl.  Ragnar to a large degree is a product of his environment, harsh and unfeeling in many ways.  Bera is treated like chattel by most of the members of Ragnar's household, especially by his daughter Hilda.  Bera has recently given birth to a child out of wedlock and refused to name the father, for reasons we eventually learn are sound.  Because of her silence, she is denounced as a whore and the child left outside to freeze on Ragnar's orders.  I told you he was harsh, but then so is the law of survival on this planet.  Ragnar's actions are completely legal.

Karl lands shortly after Bera's son has died, and she is given the chore of restoring him to health.  By rescuing Karl, Ragnar has placed on him a debt of repayment.  It doesn't help matters that Karl and Loki, unaware of each other at first, switch back and forth as the dominant personality.  And Loki has all of Karl's desires, but none of his socialization or self control.  Can you say "sexual tension"?

Ship had sent off a distress call just before being destroyed, and Karl wants to find a population center so he can send a followup message.  He doesn't realize he is in a population center.  I won't say too much more, because I recommend this book and don't want to spoil all the surprises for you.  Needless to say, there's more to the history of Isheimur than any of the settlers suspect.  The Winter Song of the title plays into this history. 

Harvey does a good job of showing the problems inherent in a small population struggling to stay alive in a harsh environment in which it has no long term prospects. He shows how the climate has influenced the culture that has developed as well as the internal politics, both strength based and sexual, that arise in a small group of people with what essentially amounts to an elected dictator as leader.  He also does a masterful job in one portion of the book of giving a tour of the environment on the planet, including the fauna.  There are some surprises here.  MAJOR SPOILER:  I especially liked that the other colonists, you know, the ones the Icelanders don't realize are there, were from Kazakhstan.

Not all the questions are answered.  For one thing, as one of the characters points out, there's an awful lot of activity in a supposedly abandoned star system.  Why?  The book ends on something of a cliff-hanger.  Harvey gives us a glimpse of the wider universe, but only a glimpse.  I want to know more.  His latest book just hit the shelves a few weeks ago.  Damage Time is a near future thriller.  I plan on picking it up.  But I want to know more about Karl Allman's wider universe.  Hopefully Colin Harvey will show us some in a future book (or books, hint, hint, Colin).

In the meantime I'm going to await the coming of our robot overlords.  I should probably find something appropriate to read.  Maybe Lavie Tidhar's The Bookman, or Kell's Legend by Andy Remic.  Hmm....which to choose?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Further Thoughts on Story

Recently I posted my thoughts on why story is important, especially in short fiction.  Earlier today I came across this column from Kristine Kathryn Rusch, in which she discusses the importance of story and why it needs to be first in fiction.  Kris, in addition to being the former editor of F&SF, wrote a column for Jim Baen's Universe until that venue closed.  The powers-that-be at Baen moved the column over to The Grantville Gazette, the online magazine for the 1632 universe.  Her columns don't necessarily related directly to 1632, but they're worth checking out.  Anyway, Kris has the credentials to know whereof she speaks and does so eloquently.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Fantasy Fan

Over at the REHupa and REH:  Two Gun Racontuer sites, Damon Sasser recently made an announcement about Lance Thingmaker's publication of the entire run of The Fantasy Fan in facsimile.  This was one of the earliest fanzines, running for 18 issues from September 1933 to February 1935.  The list of contributors reads like a Who's Who of fantasy from the heydey of Weird Tales.  People like Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, Forrest J. Ackerman.  The editor, Charles D. Hornig was a high school student at the time.  His work on The Fantasy Fan caught the attention of Hugo Gernsback, who hired him to edit the pulp Wonder Stories.  Eric Lief Davin published two interviews with Hornig in Pioneers of Wonder (Prometheus Books,1999 ).

Damon quotes from Lance's introduction, so I won't repeat that here.  My copy came a couple of days ago, so instead I'll talk about the book itself.  Original copies of the zine were scanned and have been reprinted as they appeared, with only minor touch-ups to improve legibility.  All the typos and errors are still in place.  The binding is hand-sewn.  This is clearly a labor of love. 

It's a common practice of libraries to collect runs of periodicals and have them bound in hardcover.  The bindings are usually plain, with simple lettering.  That's the effect here, except the result looks much better than the typical library binding.  I know partly because I'm looking at two examples on the shelf as I'm writing this:  Unknown October 1941-April 1943 and Astounding Stories January-November 1932.  (Yes, some of the old pulps did manage to make it into library bindings.)

So, what's it like to read old copies of one of the most influential fanzines of all time?  Well, I can't rightly say because I haven't read the thing.  It just arrived a couple of days ago, and I've been swamped this week.  I have perused it, however.  This is not a book I'm going to rush through.  It's one I'm going to savor.  Robert E. Howard's "God's of the North" was first published here.  (This was a rewrite of "The Frost Giant's Daughter", an early Conan storied that had been rejected by Farnsworth Wright.).  Lovecraft's Supernatural Horror in Literature is here as well.  Poetry by Lovecraft and Smith.  Fueds in the letter columns by names you would recognize, such as Ackerman.  Columns by Julius Schwartz and Mort Weisinger.  A cornucopia of great stuff.

If you're interested in Robert E. Howard, or H. P. Lovecraft, or Clark Ashton Smith, or Robert Bloch, or the history of early fandom, then this is probably the must-have book of the year.  The book is limited to 200 copies and only costs fifty-five bucks, including shipping.  A bargain at twice the price (no, Lance, that doesn't mean I'm going to send you more money), I can't imagine this one staying in stock long. If I were you, I wouldn't wait for Santa to bring one.  That might be too late.

There's no web page for The Fantasy Fan, but you can order it directly from Lance Thingmaker.  Just send him a email.  You'll be glad you did.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Long Looks at Short Fiction: Skull-Face by Robert E. Howard

Tales of Weird Menace
by Robert E. Howard
The Robert E. Howard Foundation Press
Ordering Information Not Yet Available

The Robert E. Howard Foundation has, in the few short years of its existence, done a number of good things.  Such things as helping maintain the Robert E. Howard House in Cross Plains, Texas, and providing an annual scholarship to a graduating senior from Cross Plains High School.  As part of the Foundation's mission, a number of works by Howard are being reprinted, including his collected letters (in 3 volumes) and a giant volume of Howard's collected poetry.  The latter title has gone through three printings and is currently sold out.  Sales of these and other books help fund the philanthropic activities of the Foundation.

Next up on the Foundation's schedule is the volume you see to the left.  This collection contains Howard's Weird Menace stories, as you can probably tell from the title.  We'll look at the best known of them, Skull-Face in this posting.

But first a word about the Weird Menace pulps on the off chance some of you aren't familiar with them.  These were a blend of horror and super science, with a dash of the hero pulps (think Doc Savage or The Spider) and a good deal of implied or explicit eroticism and gore thrown in.  Often the supernatural aspect of the villain was revealed to be mundane, although you can be sure that won't be the case with "Skull-Face."  The weird menace pulps were fairly popular, but censorship and the real horrors of World War II ultimately did them in.

Howard tried his hand at writing some of this type of tale, like he did with most of the pulp genres that weren't marketed to solely to women, such as romance pulps.  While this isn't the sort of thing Howard is best remembered for, which would be his fantasy and horror tales, Howard was a diverse writer who was successful in a number of pulp genres, such as serious and humorous westerns, as well as boxing stories, a genre that was prominent at the time but has pretty much disappeared from popular fiction.

What I don't understand is why "Skull-Face" seems to have fallen on, well, I guess you could call it a time of neglect.  I'm not sure the work has been out of print much since the Howard boom of the 70s when Berkley featured it as the lead in a collection of related tales.  But you don't hear it talked about much anymore.  At least I haven't.  It has all the ingredients of a classic pulp adventure:  danger, lots of action, a beautiful and imperiled woman, not one but two heroes, and of course, The Yellow Peril, Robert E. Howard style.

And it may well be that last ingredient which has made it less popular; I don't know.  There is certainly a great deal said about race in the story, from more than one point of view.  And Skull-Face, or The Master, or The Scorpion as he's also known, doesn't fit the traditional Yellow Peril mold completely.  For one thing, Skull-Face isn't actually an oriental, but beyond that I'm not going to spoil the fun.

To most modern readers, The Yellow Peril  might be unfamiliar, and to many would certainly be offensive.  In essence, it was a trope common to much popular fiction in the early 20th century.  Basically western (read white) civilization would be threatened in some way by an oriental menace, often in the form of an evil criminal genius who often had occult or scientific powers that were beyond anything the West was capable of.  The example the casual reader would most likely be familiar with is Sax Rhomer's Fu Manchu.

Regardless, the whole concept of the Yellow Peril would not be politically correct in this day and age.  Far from it.  As a result it would be offensive to many modern readers.  I, however, hold the opinion that when you're reading literature from a different historical period, you do yourself and the story a disservice if you try to evaluate aspects of it through contemporary lenses.  Instead, keep in mind the cultural context in which a particular story was written.

That's just as true in the case of "Skull-Face" as it is for any other work of literature.  However outdated some of Howard's views on race may seem to be to the reader of the 21st century, they weren't that far out of the mainstream in the 20s and 30s.  (A topic that won't be discussed in any detail here.)  And if the racial portrayals in "Skull-Face" are what have caused it to be eclipsed by some of Howard's other work, then it's a crying shame.

Because "Skull-Face" is fine story.  It was serialized in three parts in the October, November, and December 1929 issues of Weird Tales.  The first Solomon Kane stories were beginning to see print at this time, and Kull would had made his debut earlier that same year, with Bran Mak Morn appearing the next year.  The coming of Conan was still a few years in the future.  While Robert E. Howard had not yet reached the peak of his output, in both quality and quantity, he was no slouch either.  The prose was much more crisp and less purple than I was expecting.  The pace is the headlong rush with plenty of action we've come to expect in a Howard yarn.  Howard doesn't shy away from violence or the seedy underside of the Chinese ghetto in London where much of the story takes place.  He shows us, through the eyes of Stephen Costigan (not to be confused by the boxing sailor of that name in other Howard stories) what life is like for the addict in an opium den.

And that may be another reason the story isn't as popular as it once was.  Drugs are a constant fixation of the story (pardon the pun).  Costigan is an opium addict when we first meet him, and the cure of his addiction comes at the price of addiction to a more potent drug.  The fact that drug use plays a prominent role in the tale will make some of today's readers immediately reject for that reason.  Which is another shame.  Because drug use is in no way gloried or romanticized at any point in the story.  Instead, Costigan at one point curses the weakness in himself that drove him to become addicted in the first place.  And the noble and wealthy patrons who visit Yun Shatu's Dream Temple are not portrayed positively.  Anyone who gives the story more than a casual reading can't help but come away with the distinct impression that Howard probably didn't think much of drug usage.

Costigan is a wounded veteran of the Great War, who has fallen into his addiction in an attempt to ease his pain.  Noticed by the girl Zulieka, herself a slave of The Master as she refers to him, Costigan is given the chance to break free of opium and perform certain tasks for the Master, who at this point remains hidden behind a screen.  Trying to stop Skull-Face is British agent at large John Gordon.  Ultimately, Skull-Face's demands are more than Costigan is willing to commit to.  He and Gordon join forces.

If you want any more information, you'll have to read the story yourself.  There are indications that Howard may have been planning to create a series character with Skull-Face.  The Berkley edition has two associated stories plus "Taverel Manor", an unfinished sequel.  Richard A Lupoff finished "Taverel Manor" for Berkley.  While he's a good writer, Lupoff is not Howard.  The REH Foundation volume will contain "Taverel Manor", presumably in its unfinished form, just the way Howard left it.

And Lupoff is probably right.  Howard may very well have been trying to develop a series character.  Weird Tales published at least two that I know of, Dr. Satan (whose adventures as far as I know have never been reprinted) and Jules deGrandin, whose adventures have.   Lupoff holds the opinion that editor Farnsworth Wright didn't think much of "Skull-Face" and gave it only one cover.  He may well be correct in this as well.  Howard knew from experience that series characters were what sold, especially if they were popular.  His attempts to find a sustainable series character can be seen in Kane, Kull, and Morn, as well as his sailor Steve Costigan series, not to be confused with the Costigan who is the protagonist of "Skull-Face."  And these aren't the only series characters Howard created.  Why Howard didn't develop this series further is a matter of speculation.  Howard's most successful character would be, of course, Conan the Cimmerian.  It's fun to speculate on what a "Skull-Face" series would have been like.  Too bad we'll never know.

One of the names of Skull-Face is Kathulos.  Astute readers will immediately wonder about a connection to H. P. Lovecraft's C'thulhu.  Considering how Howard and Lovecraft corresponded with each other to the point that their correspondence fills two volumes, it wouldn't surprise me if there was a deliberate reference here.  However, I haven't had the time to do the research, so I won't speculate further.

I'm just glad "Skull-Face" is getting some attention again.  Wildside Press has collected the fantasy/weird stories of Howard in a 10 volume set, and "Skull-Face" was the lead story in volume 2.  The first time "Skull-Face" made hardcovers was in 1946, a decade after Howard's death, in Skull-Face and Others.  This was the first volume of Howard's works published by Arkham House and the first published by an American publisher after his death.  Previously, only A Gent From Bear Creek had seen hardcover, and from a British publisher if memory serves.   Conan wasn't collected until years later.  It's good to see "Skull-Face" collected again.

This is one worth reading folks, especially if you like adventure, peril, and fast paced action.  Check it out.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Back From the Dead

Locus Online, quoiting SF Scope, is reporting tonight that Realms of Fantasy has been sold to Damnation Books, which will bring out the December issue in print as well as electronic form.  Any editorial policy or staff changes have yet to be announced, but the magazine is open for submissions effective immediately.  Let's hope they up the sword and sorcery content.  One way to do that is to send them some.
The new mailing address is
Realms of Fantasy
P.O. Box 1208
Santa Rosa, California 95402 USA

While I'm not familiar with Damnation Books and quick perusal of their website makes me think they won't be my cup of tea, I'm willing to give the new incarnation of RoF a chance and wish the new publishers the best with the magazine.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Kuttner's Elak of Atlantis: Beyond the Phoenix

"Beyond the Phoenix" from Elak of Atlantis
Henry Kuttner
Planet Stories - Paizo Publishing
Trade Paperback, $12.95, 2007

Kuttner's version of Atlantis seems to be a rather large place, with a number of kingdoms on the continent.  When this story opens, we find Elak and Lycon working as sell-swords for Phrygior, ruler of the small kingdom of Sarhaddon in western Atlantis.  All is not well in Sarhaddon, for the high priest Xandar is plotting againt Phrygion, and has arranged for Elak and Lycon to be sent on a diversionary errand to the kitchen while his henchmen do away with Phrygion.

Elak figures out they've been duped in time to return to the king's chambers, but not before the king is mortally wounded.  When Elak kills the guards who are assassinating the king, a battle ensues between Elak and Xandar, with Elak driving Xandar off but not defeating him.  The dying monarch warns Elad that Xandar is in the service of Baal-Yagoth, a god of evil.  He also charges Elak with protecting his daughter Esarra and places a bracelet about Elak's arm that can only be removed by the Phoenix.

The rulers of Sarhaddon claim to be descended from the phoenix and to have come from another realm, one not of this world.  Upon their deaths, all monarchs and their children are sent on a bier along the river and through the Phoenix Gate to be returned to their homeworld.

Fleeing Xandar and his forces, Elak, Lycon, and Esarra take Phrygion's body to the underground cavern where the funeral barge lies waiting.  They manage to evade their pursuers when the Phoenix Gate opens, but it's a case of from the frying pan into the fire.  There are factions beyond the Phoenix Gate, some of whom are in league with Xandar.

This is the second shortest story in the Elak series, just slightly longer than "The Spawn of Dagon."  But of the ones we've examined so far, this is in many ways the best.  None of the characters have much depth, but that's not surprising, considering the length of the tale; neither are they completely cardboard cutouts, either.  Esarra is not the warrior Velia becomes in "Thunder in the Dawn," but without her aid Elak and Lycon would have died before leaving the castle.  The final battle, in which Elak has to use sorcery as well as sword to win was a departure from the stock ending of hero trouncing villain by means of the hero's brawn.

Once the adventurers find themselves on the far side of the Gate, things get decidedly weird.  I'm not sure what it is about fantasy written by certain of the Weird Tales writers, but some of the descriptions they wrote were just flat out bizarre in ways that most authors of the past couple of generations don't come close to.  Kuttner's descriptions in "Thunder in the Dawn" and here in "Beyond the Phoenix" where he's describing what Elak encounters upon leaving this world are of that type.  Maybe we've had too much of a diet of generic quest fantasy and aren't seeing that sort of thing written anymore.  Or maybe I just haven't found it. 

The thing I noticed most, though, was the writing itself.  When a reader notices the writing, it's often a sign that the writer is failing in some way to draw the reader into the story, or else the writer is doing something experimental in the way he or she is using words.  In this case, I noticed the writing because I wasn't able to finish the story in one sitting due to interruptions.  When I returned to it, what struck was how much better written this story was than "Thunder in the Dawn."  Kuttner is one of those writers you can see evolve (and in a few examples later in his career, devolve) as an artist from one work to the next.  The prose in "Thunder" had a purple tint to it.  In "Phoenix" the prose is leaner and crisper than in the two earlier Elak installments.

Overall, this was a good, entertaining piece of sword and sorcery adventure.  While it will never be considered one of the great classics of the field, it's definitely worth investing the time to read.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Short Fantasy Fiction: Too Much of a Good Thing?

When I began this blog, I intended it to be more than just a collection of reviews of books I'd read and films I'd seen.  It was my intention to practice my essay writing by inflicting it on whoever happened to be reading my words.  Until this post, that really hasn't happened.  Dayjobbery, family commitments, parttimesecondjobbery, and my own fiction writing have prevented that from happening.  (Not nearly enough of my own fiction writing, and far too much of the other.)  I considered weighing in on the brouhaha surrounding Elizabeth Moon being uninvited as Guest of Honor at Wiscon, but haven't had the time to craft a well thought out essay.  Which is not to say I won't sometime soon.  That would be something I would want to spend some time on, and time is in short supply at the moment.

Then Friday I read a couple of postings that I felt I had to respond to, which is not the same as taking issue with, something I would have done regarding Elizabeth Moon's treatment.  The first posting appeared on Black Gate, and the second on the Cyclopeatron blog.  In order to do that, we need to look at the subject of those posts.

Most people who have more than a passing interest in fantasy as a genre of fiction, especially short fiction, have probably heard by now the tragic news that the magazine Realms of Fantasy has ceased publication for the second and possibly final time.  The magazine was purchased last year by Warren Lapine after the original publisher, Sovereign Media, pulled the plug.  Sovereign, you may remember, was also the publisher of Science Fiction Age from 1994 until about 2002, when they decided to shut it down to publish a professional wrestling magazine.  It wasn't that SF Age wasn't making a profit, but that the company felt it could make a better profit if resources were diverted in that direction.  From a business perspective that made sense, but I didn't (and still don't) have to like it.  Science Fiction Age was one of the best, if not the best, new magazine devoted exclusively to science fiction in the last couple of decades.

Realms managed to hang on with Sovereign Media until last year, when it got the axe.  Enter Warren Lapine of Tir Na Nog Press, who valiantly tried to continue it.  At the time it started it was the only magazine I'm aware of devoted entirely to fantasy that had a wide circulation with distribution in most of the major chains.  Realms did its best to cover a wide range of fantasy topics, from movies and television to art and folklore.  In this endeavor it should be applauded.  At least to a point.  I felt there were too many covers with photos of Harry Potter and other media stars.  Again, from a business perspective that perhaps makes sense.

But ultimately, the fiction content was why people read it.  The magazine was edited by Shawna McCarthy for its entire run.  Ms. McCarthy started her career editing Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine from 1983-1985 before moving on the a couple of publishing houses.  She eventually ended up running her own literary agency, in addition to editing the magazine.  (Can someone please explain to me how being a literary agent and a fiction editor at a major genre-magazine does not constitute a potential conflict of interest?)

The bloggers essentially took the stand that one of the main reasons RoF died was because there is too much short fiction on the market.  Now we've been hearing for years about the death of the short fiction magazines, the large formats as well as the digests.  Amazing Stories has died more than once, only to be resurrected, although the most recent death (2005) seems like it might be permanent at this point.  Circulation of all the print fiction outlets has fallen steadily for years, something anyone who reads the Annual Review issue of Locus or the summations in Gardner Dozois' annual The Year's Best Science Fiction is painfully aware of.  The one bright light is that with the advent of Kindle and Nook and other ebook readers offering subscriptions at a lower rate than print subscriptions, circulation may be going up again.  Time will tell.

Anyway, there are a number of culprits who are routinely blamed for short fiction markets dying:  the internet, media tie-in novels, falling literacy rates, competition from video games, etc.  The argument that we lost a major magazine devotedly solely to fantasy because there is too much fantasy takes a little getting used to.  The authors of the above posts have good, well-reasoned arguments, which go as follows.  There's too much competition in the form of new and especially used books: anthologies, single author collections, and novels.  And furthermore, when a reader picks up a collection of stories by Robert E. Howard (and you should), or Fritz Leiber (what are you waiting for?) or Poul Anderson (you mean you haven't read him yet?) or whomever, the reader has a pretty good idea what she or he is in for.  Whereas with a magazine, it's a crap shoot.  Their argument basically goes that, with a few exceptions in the case of an established author, you don't know what type of story to expect from most writers in a magazine because the author has yet to establish a strong track record, and furthermore isn't likely to be as good as the established names.

On the other hand, many of the comments posted in response to the two blogs above took the position that, rather than too much fantasy, there isn't enough.  At least of the right kind.  The right kind being action-adventure oriented.  Several people went so far to say that RoF failed because it printed stuff people weren't willing to read.  Directly or indirectly, some of the respondents blamed the editorial decisions behind the content.

I'm not sure that either of these arguments doesn't oversimplify things (and the bloggers did acknowledge other factors may have played a role), but if I had to choose a position, I'm inclined to lean towards the latter.  I quit reading Asimov's back in the 80s for a couple of years primarily because of the type of story Shawna McCarthy was publishing and didn't resume reading the magazine until Gardner Dozois took over.  I was not really impressed with much of what I read in RoF either, at least as far as the fiction went.  I can't recall the details of a single story I read over the years.  The art feature was by far the best thing of its kind I'd seen, as was the Folkroots column.  I almost dropped RoF in the early 00s after McCarthy published a few editorials essentially bitching about why she and the magazine hadn't gotten any nominations for one of the major awards, the Hugo if memory serves, that she felt were deserved.  I found the editorials to be in poor taste.  However, out of a sense of loyalty to the field, and because at the time I was enjoying at least some of the stories, I kept buying and reading it as I could find the time.  (I tend to buy from the newsstand rather than subscribe; I've found the savings from a subscription aren't enough to compensate for the number of copies that arrive tattered and ripped through the mail.)

In the interests of full disclosure, I have to admit I haven't read much of the fiction in recent years.  The last couple of years of my life have been interesting, in a Chinese curse sort of way, and two major job searches (one currently going) haven't left me with a lot of time to read.  In spite of that I continued to pick up the magazine.  I have to say I wasn't impressed with what I saw, in terms of fiction as well as the other content. I remember reading some of the stories, but have no memory of them.  Most of the ads in the last few years seemed to be from small presses that specialize in erotic fantasy, if not outright porn, with full color one and two page spreads.  This was not the sort of thing I wanted either my wife or more importantly my son to walk in and see, the former because I didn't want to have to explain I wasn't reading porn and those were just ads, and the latter because I don't want my son exposed to that sort of material at his age.  Since I wasn't reading the magazine much, I decided to stop buying it just before its first death.  I picked it up again after Lapine took over, but sadly not much had changed except for the price, which went up by three bucks, a 75% increase, with no increase in page count.

Now please don't misunderstand me.  I take no joy in the loss of RoF.  None whatsoever.  The loss of a major outlet is a major loss to the field regardless of whether that outlet aligned with my tastes.  It affects all of us, and in a negative way.  But the discussions, which have continued since the original postings at both Black Gate and Cyclopeatron, bring up some interesting points that merit further consideration, beyond just the fate of RoF.

Is there too much fantasy available today?  I'm inclined to think not, although I certainly understand and can agree with the arguments made, at least to a point.  There's certainly more than any single person can read in a short period of time without limiting said reading to certain subgenres.  But if you as a reader prefer one of the subgenres that's not a current hot area, then the fantasy and/or science fiction landscape tends to resemble a wasteland.

I can buy the idea that the contents of any single issue of any magazine probably isn't as good as the stuff already available.  That's always been the case, at least as long as reprints have been available cheaply and readily.  Ballantine's Adult Fantasy series in the early 70s, Del Rey's, as well as Pocket's, Best of... series in the mid to late 70s, DAW's Asimov Presents the Great SF of the early and middle 80s. All of these and others did change the landscape permanently by preserving a number of great stories in affordable editions.  At least they were then.  If you can find any of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy volumes today, be prepared to fork over the moola.  And I can't remember the last time I saw a Best of or Asimov Presents in a second hand bookstore.  (And I'm of the opinion that when cetrain titles or types of books can no longer be found second hand with little difficulty at reasonable prices, there's a potential market going untapped.) Other publishers, many of them small presses, have continued the practice of classic reprints, though, so most of these stories and books are still available in some form.

But my argument here is that except for Astounding from the late 30s to early 40s, the brief run of Unknown, and Galaxy in the early 50s, plus some of the Weird Tales from the late 20s to mid 30s, most magazines don't publish consistently at the level of quality that's available in reprints.  There's a reason those books and stories are in reprints.  They have not only stood the test of time, but they were groundbreaking tales in the field, and important to the history of the genre.  Look at any single issue from any magazine over the 20th century to the present, and most likely much of the contents will be forgettable and the contributors unfamiliar to most readers.  Sturgeon's Law has never been repealed.  Ninety percent of everything is crud, always has been, always will be.  Even magazines that consistently print stories nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards also print stories you won't remember next month.  The editors have to fill the magazines with content, even if that content isn't always of the highest possible quality.  So while I agree that there is more competition for a fantasy or science fiction reader's time and money, I don't agree that this is the only, or even the main, reason why RoF folded.

I don't think there's enough fantasy published at short lengths.  At least not the kind many people want to read.  Particularly heroic fantasy/sword and sorcery/call it what you will.  If there were, would there be as many smaller outlets of the stuff starting up.  Now I've heard it said that the average fantasy reader wants a thick book they can get lost in for hours, if not days, at a time.  They just aren't interested in short fiction.  I can see how this might be the case for a portion of the fantasy buying public.  But I also think that the people who responded to the blog posts bring up an interesting point.  And that's that there is not enough pulp in today's fantasy. 

I would extend that to say the same about science fiction as well.  The reason I say this is that there are people within the field, editors, writers, and pundits, who almost act like they're ashamed of traditional fantasy and science fiction and want to distance themselves (and by extension through whatever influence they have, everyone else) from the lifeblood of the genre.  They give the impression sometimes that they're trying to apologize for the field, like the rest of us are the inbred cousin locked in the basement.  They seem to think that the field needs the respect of the literary establishment or something.  (I won't name names because I don't know who they all are, and it's not my purpose at this point to attack any particular individual, particularly someone I don't know.  And that includes Shawna McCarthy, to whom I extend my sympathies for the cancellation of RoF along with my best wishes for her future endeavors.Just because our tastes differ doesn't mean I wish her ill.)  The attitude is that if a certain piece of fiction doesn't have certain qualities, or if it does have certain other qualities, it isn't worthy of serious consideration.  And heroic fantasy seems to be a favorite target of these people.

Like any genre that undergoes a boom and bust cycle, sword and sorcery has had a lot of dreck published over the years that has been more than subpar.  And much of what Hollywood puts out doesn't help the gente's standing in the eyes of the general public.  I do want to see the genres of fantasy and science fiction have high literary standards.  I think those standards are not negotiable, and neither are well rounded characters and original plots and settings.  But the main reason I read, and I think probably most other people as well, is that I want to read a good, entertaining story.  I don't read fiction for the pretty words or dense sentence structure.  Nor do I read to be enlightened about The Human Condition, converted to or from a particular political position or philosophy, or have my consciousness raised about an author's pet social issue.  If I want that, I'll read nonfiction.  (And I do.) 

Good fiction can accomplish all of those things, of course, and should attempt to.  But not at the expense of entertainment and telling a riveting story.  As an example, look at the parables of Jesus.  He taught truth in the form of a short story that his audience could relate to, about people they could care about because those people in the parables could be the listener's mother, or son, or self.  The Sermon on the Mount is one of history's greatest discourses, but it's the exception to Jesus' teaching approach.  Jesus interested his audience with stories because He knew how much people value a good story.  Aesop did the same thing with his fables.  Scheherazade, if the legend is true, saved her own life by being able to tell a riveting tale.  Too many writers today have failed to learn this lesson:  story comes first.

People like stories with character and plot and excitement, suspense and mystery and romance.  They want action, adventure, and escape from day to day drudgery.  Tastes differ, but the bottom line is, when reading fiction for pleasure, people don't give a rip about the literary establishment's opinion.  They just want to be entertained.  And when a magazine fails to do that, that magazine is doomed to fail.  (I'm speaking in general terms here now, not specifically about RoF.)  No matter how high the ideals an editor or publisher has about the literary quality of the magazine, the political correctness of the contents, or the diversity of the contributors, if story is not the top priority, the magazine will not be worth the time and money.

Call it literary survival of the fittest, if you will.  The reading public knows what it wants.  It wants good a good story.  What it considers a good story, not what someone with an agenda thinks it should be reading.  How many of you read can remember the name of the novel that was the talk of the literary establishment 10 years ago?  How about 5 years ago?  Last year?  My point is that much, if not most, of what endures as literature starts out as popular fiction.  Consider these names:  Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, H. P. Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick.  What do they all have in common, besides being genre writers who started out in the pulps or digests?  They're all in the Library of America, one of the premier publishers of literature today, along with Mark Twain, Flannery O'Connor, Walt Whitman, William Faulkner, H. L. Mencken, the list goes on.  While not all of these writers are to every one's taste, anyone who has read these four authors knows they could tell a gripping tale and provide exciting reading for a large portion of the readers in their genres.

The reasons for the second failure of Realms of Fantasy are almost certainly more complicated than too many markets for short fiction.  The economy, the changing state of publishing, and competition for the reader's time and money all probably contributed to a greater or lesser degree.  It's not my purpose here to answer the question of why RoF went under.  What I do hope to have accomplished is to have made the point that there is a market for short adventure fiction, especially sword and sorcery, sword and planet, sword and sandal, that hasn't been tapped.  Space opera underwent a resurgence a few years ago that seems to still be going.  There are some indications that sword and sorcery might be in the early stages of its resurgence, along with straight histroical fiction.  I certainly hope so.  In the weeks to come, I'll take a closer look at some of the publishers we do have and the role they're playing in the resurgence.

In the meantime, maybe someone will resurrect Realms of Fantasy and try again with a different slant.  Lapine has said, although I'm not sure how serious he is, that he will sell the magazine for a dollar.  Any takers?