Letter From The Editor - Issue 55 - February 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Strong Medicine
Books That Cure What Ails You
    by John Joseph Adams
September 2006

Paragaea by Chris Roberson
Pyr, 2006, $15.00

When Cosmonaut Leena Chirikov is launched into space on the Soviet rocket Vostok 7, it should be the culmination of a lifelong dream. But several hours into her mission, the ground crew at Star City lose contact with Vostok 7, and Leena finds herself somehow transported to a strange otherworld known as Paragaea. It is, as the name implies, sort of like Earth, albeit with some distinct differences: one, it has only a single large continent; two, there's a race of animal-human hybrid creatures known as metamen; three, there's wildly advanced technologies (such as androids), seemingly left over from a now-dead civilization; and four...well, there's lots of other differences, but I think you get the idea.

Sure, it sounds like a cool place to visit, but you probably wouldn't want to live there. And so the problem is that now that Leena's there, there doesn't seem to be any way to get back to Earth; but being a loyal Soviet, now that she's discovered Paragaea, all she wants to do is get back, so she can tell her superiors about this strange new land.

Luckily, soon upon her arrival, Leena meets up with a fellow displaced traveler from Earth—Hieronymus Bonaventure, though he, unlike she, is not from the 1960s; rather, he is from the 18th Century, where he served as a Second Lieutenant, on the British Royal Navy's HMS Fortitude, until his mysterious arrival in Paragaea many years earlier. Bonaventure's companion is a Paragaean native, the an exiled prince Balam, a jaguar metaman. After helping Leena out of a sticky situation, the two—having not much else better to do and a unquenchable thirst for adventure—decide to help her find out if there's any way to get back to Earth. Their journey takes them from one end of Paragaea to the other, and the group gets into all sorts of scrapes and encounters, and meets a wide variety of interesting and sometimes deadly people. But Leena's return to Earth is by no means certain; Hieronymus has been stuck on Paragaea for years, and no one knows for sure if there actually is a way back to Earth or not. Will our intrepid heroes find the portal home, or will they be stuck on Paragaea forever?

If that last line doesn't clue you in to the very essence of what Paragaea is all about, then the novel's subtitle, "A Planetary Romance" (a term harkening back to the days before science fiction was called science fiction), surely will. It's neo-pulp; that is, it's written in the tradition of the pulp masters of the past—Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. Rider Haggard, et al.—but is written in a modern style more accessible to contemporary readers. Roberson knows his pulp well and has fun exploring and reinventing the tropes of that era, and he does so in a fresh, original, and—most importantly—fun way. And like Burroughs's Barsoom stories, Roberson's Paragaea is otherworldly swashbuckling action-adventure at its finest.

One of the most effective pulpy techniques Roberson employs throughout the novel is his use of the story-within-the-story narrative. When new characters are introduced, and when the primary character come to discuss their pasts, Roberson shifts the narrative seamlessly into a flashback narrative, in essence telling a short story within the overall framework of the novel. In another writer's hands, this technique could distract from the main narrative, but Roberson handles it perfectly—using the stories to develop the characters and at the same time further the primary narrative thread. And the characters do come vividly alive—Hieronymus and Leena in particular—leaving the reader eager to read about their other adventures.

You like sense of wonder? This book's got sense of wonder. By the bucketful. There might not be any Great Toonoolian Marshes on Paragaea, but there might as well be; Paragaea is this generation's A Princess of Mars. Read it with your mind's eye wide open, so you can take it all in.

For excerpts, a prequel novel, maps, and other supplementary material, visit Roberson's Paragaea website.

James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips
St. Martin's Press, 2006, $27.95

Alice B. Sheldon was the real name of the acclaimed multiple award-winning SF author James Tiptree, Jr. This book catalogues her life, from her African safari-going childhood to her career in government intelligence, and from her eventual writing success to her untimely and tragic death, which ended in a husband-wife murder-suicide. There's much more to the book than all that, but based on that alone, if there ever was a SF writer who needed a biography written about him or her, it's Tiptree.

The full story, of course, is much more complex; Sheldon's choice of a male pseudonym went beyond simple marketing considerations (during the 60s and 70s when Tiptree got her start publishing, it was fairly common for female writers to disguise their gender when writing SF)—Sheldon was at odds with her gender, or at least her sexuality, seemingly her entire life. Much of her fiction dealt with this inner conflict (perhaps most famously in "The Women Men Don't See"), and while Sheldon attempted to write about gender from a scientific standpoint for much of her life, it was not until she assumed the identity of a man—created the Tiptree persona and disguised her explorations as science fiction—that Sheldon was able to truly start answering some of the questions that she had been asking her entire life.

Phillips's depiction of Sheldon shows her as an engaging, eccentric, and, in the end, disturbed personality—one that cannot help but fascinate. I could say that this book is a must read for anyone interested in feminism, exploration of gender, or Tiptree's writing. I could say that this is a book any SF reader with an interest in the history of the field would enjoy, or I could say the same of readers interested in reading about people who lived amazing lives. But it is better to simply say this book is a must read; no qualifiers are needed.

I think it's safe to say you can pencil this in on your Hugo ballot for next year, in the "Best Related Book" category (heck, write it in pen, and just mark it down as the winner), and you can probably do likewise with the World Fantasy Award "Special Award: Professional"category. If there were a Nebula category for non-fiction, this would be sure to win that too. It's is so astonishingly good, it's the sort of thing that will prompt new awards to be founded, just to honor it. But a slew of non-genre awards are sure to follow as well. Dare I say the Pulitzer Prize? That might be taking it a bit too far, to imagine that a genre-related book such as this could win that most coveted of literary prizes, but it deserves it; it's that good.

For photos and excerpts, and more information about the book, visit Phillips's website. For further reading, look for Phillips's essay, "Talking Too Much: About James Tiptree, Jr." in The James Tiptree Award Anthology 2, and the "Dear Starbear" letters (a correspondence between Tiptree and Ursula K. Le Guin) in the Sept. 2006 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

Map of Dreams by M. Rickert
Golden Gryphon, 2006, $24.95

M. Rickert is the sort of writer who upon reading her work, you just assume that she's already lined her mantle with awards. That she hasn't yet been the recipient of any of the genre's major awards yet only goes to show how meaningless they can be. If Rickert's work is not what awards—especially the World Fantasy Award—were designed to honor, what the heck is?

Perhaps now that her first book publication is upon us that will change; so long as I'm making award predictions, let's just go ahead and say this one will end up on the World Fantasy Award "Best Collection" ballot next year, and since Kelly Link is unlikely to have a collection eligible next year, Rickert's the one to beat.

But enough about awards. Map of Dreams is a collection featuring most of Rickert's work to date—seventeen tales plus four interstitial framing sections—including a long, previously unpublished novella which gives the collection its name.

"Map of Dreams" tells the story of Annie Merchant, a mother who loses her daughter to a sniper's bullet, in a random act of violence. So distraught is she over her daughter's death, she seeks out another survivor of the sniper's violence, a celebrity writer who after the tragedy took to writing about time travel. Annie soon finds that the author was not only writing about time travel, but actually exploring the possibilities of it, to, as she longs to, change the events of that terrible day. The novella is a bit overlong and reads as if it were early work of Rickert's, but it is effective at communicating the sense of helpless outrage and anger one would feel after the loss of a child. Rickert makes Merchant's loss the reader's loss, and in the end its power overcomes whatever shortcomings it may have.

Much of Rickert's other work also deals honestly and heart-wrenchingly with the subject of loss, but echoing most closely the theme of "Map of Dreams" is the last (and best) story in the book, "The Chambered Fruit," in which a young mother, Chloe, loses her daughter Steffie to an Internet predator. Later, after the breakup of her marriage and the specter of her daughter's death continues to haunt her, she begins receiving odd, mostly-silent phone calls which she takes to be her daughter attempting to contact her. The story is potent and lyrical, a study in how to take the more common tropes of fantasy and tell a story that is entirely uncommon, both in its take on the theme and its level of literary achievement.

In between these two tales are a wide range of other tales of the fantastic including: "Leda," a modern-day retelling of "Leda and the Swan"; "Bread and Bombs," a post-holocaust tale; "Cold Fires," a dark tale set on a cold, wintry night, that intertwines two narratives to form a third; "The Harrowing," a tale of clergy gone bad and a possible explanation for the demons in all of us—all of which demonstrate the heights that fantasy can achieve when writers use the fantastic to illuminate the essence of what in life is real by contrasting it with what is not.

For more information about the collection, visit the publisher's website.


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