Saturday, February 25, 2017

Legends Never Die: Dark Force Rising

1992 brought us Dark Force Rising, the second book of Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy. Slightly generic title aside, it expands on the previous entry and further expands the lore and setting of the nascent Expanded Universe by dipping into relics from the Old Republic.

At this point, both the New Republic and Grand Admiral Thrawn's Imperial remnant are bloodied and looking for an edge in their fight. The NR is aware that there is an information leak, and Han Solo suspects the shifty Bothan senator Borsk Fey'lya and his Spynet connections and Lando goes along for the ride.

Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker is drawn to a planet where the mad clone Jedi Joruus C'Baoth is waiting for him, claiming to want to teach him. Luke soon realizes that C'Baoth is incredibly powerful and also a budding tyrant and wants to help heal his damaged mind. C'Baoth's goal at the moment is to train Luke, Leia and her unborn twins as Jedi molded by his fractured mind.

Meanwhiler, smuggler baron Talon Karrde is on the run after Thrawn learned of his duplicitousness. Karrde is eventually captured and imprisoned by the Admiral because he knows where a large supply of valuable warships are hidden. Mara Jade tracks down Luke and helps him shake off C'Baoth's mind tricks. Like it or not, she needs his help rescuing Karrde.

Meanwhiler-er, a very, very pregnant Leia travels with Chewie & Threepio to Honoghr, the planet of the Noghri that have been trying to capture her to try and win them over to the New Republic.

Meanwhilest, Han & Lando stumble upon a ghost: a Corellian Senator who's long been thought dead named Garm Bel Iblis. Not only is Garm alive and well, he's been running his own splinter Rebellion against the Empire after splitting off from Mon Mothma over ideological differences. Bel Iblis is a tactical genius and has a line on some long-lost warships, but he's not one to rejoin the New Republic without some serious convincing.

It all ends in a race to find the location of a fleet of fabled Dreadnaught-class heavy cruisers called the Katana Fleet.

This is going to be a broken record, but Book 2 continues to do what Heir to the Empire did so very well: Grand space opera in the vein of the original Trilogy. World-hopping, action, tactical genius, new technologies, and adventure.

Of the two major new characters, Garm Bel Iblis fits into a kind of character archetype that Zahn is fond of: the highly intelligent master planner. Talon Karrde & Thrawn are both extensions of that. This is fine, since Zahn does them very well and differentiates their personalities and areas of expertise, but there are a lot of clever bastards populating this book.

This is balanced out by the other new character: Lowbrow ship thief Niles Ferrier. Ferrier is a scumbag who's only really good at one thing: stealing starships, and Thrawn wants him to find ships for the Empire. Unfortunately Ferrier thinks he can hang with the big boys, and fancies himself a master schemer. Amusingly enough, he's not.

Before I say “Its a good book, read it if you like Star Wars” I think there's room to discuss a few established characters.

Leia goes behind enemy lines to do what she does best: diplomacy. She's able to go into hostile territory protected by secrecy and her heritage as Darth Vader's daughter. Spoiler: she succeeds, without firing a shot and while heavily pregnant. Its remarkably well handled and shows just how powerful and essential to the New Republic Leia is.

Next, is Luke. Being a Jedi, Luke fights a lot, but this trilogy really hammers home the idea that its only ever as a last resort. Knowledge and Defense, never Attack, that sort of thing. Even when he learns that C'Baoth is completely mad, he doesn't want to kill him. He wants to help him, not kill him. Luke is a capital-G Good Guy, and has the skill and wisdom to pull it off exceptionally.

Dark Force Rising is a good book, read it if you like Star Wars. It continues the top tier entertainment of the Thrawn Trilogy.

Friday, February 24, 2017


I should be writing a book review, but some heated discussions in the Pulp Revolution Twitter crowd over the last 24 hours or so have me wanting to put some random thoughts down. These aren't in any particular order or organization.

The topic of discussion is tone and how Pulp Revolutionaries are presenting themselves. There are some Pulp supporters who don't think its necessary to tear down non-Pulp establishment authors like Asimov in order to build up the Pulps. I'm mostly on this side because I think the quality of the Pulps is obvious when people are exposed to them and I think readers are smart enough to decide for themselves. Right now I'm reading The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard anthology and its phenomenal stuff. Seriously, go read it.

The other side is crashing the gates of establishment Fantasy/Sci-Fi screaming for vengeance after seventy-odd years of very serious Literary people shitting on the Pulps with lies and scrubbing all of the fun out of speculative fiction. Jeffro Johnson, arguably the torchbearer of the Pulp Revolution, is strongly in this camp, and makes a number of good points at the Castalia House blog about allthis

Now the random points:

1: The fact that people are civilly disagreeing in public discussions about the nascent Pulp Revolution is good. Healthy, even, since it shows there's a lot of passion going around, and passion is what drives TWO-FISTED TALES OF ADVENTURE!

2: Emphasis on public discourse, insofar as that's possible, considering Twitter and G+ and other outlets increasingly tightening the screws on Wrongthinkers. As far as I'm aware, there isn't a secret cabal of Pulpists conspiring to behead those who insult the name of Burroughs. If there is, I haven't been invited to it.

3: After the conversation last night, Cirsova Magazine's editor put up a post about how he got called a misogynist fascist for daring to go to another forum and offer to talk about the kind of stories he prints. He reached out an olive branch and was called a fascist. That's bullshit, and that behavior isn't even uncommon among Establishment/Pink/Post-Campbellian Sci-Fi fans. Just look at how Jon Del Arroz was treated by his local scene. Hell, look at what happened to the Sad Puppies campaigns every single year of their existence. At least the Pulp side of the fence enjoys the concept of being an ideological fistfight instead of chanting something like “Pulp Will Not Divide Us” during the next Hugo Awards to a half-empty auditorium. (Calling it now.)

4: It is impossible to coexist with something that wants you driven out from its presence or converted to its narrow worldview. Which is what Establishment Sci-Fi is nakedly trying to do to Pulp. We have evidence. See the above point. Pulp and the Superversives are a very real threat to the ivory tower of modern Science Fiction & Fantasy. They have the enthusiasm, very soon they're going to have the writers (and a lot of young, up and coming writers at that, with long careers ahead of them), and then they'll have the audience.

5: Off topic, but I've noticed a very large number of Catholics in the Pulp and Superversive movements. Makes sense, since the Subversive movement has little for them/us to care about.

6: Twitter is garbage for nuanced discussion. Its a weird kind of arguing but agreeing at the same time. The “Barnstormers” aren't saying all post-Pulp Golden Age stories are worthless and the “Diplomats” aren't saying that the Barnstormers shouldn't be criticizing the sacred cows of Establishment sci-fi when justified. At least I hope not.

7: If you catch me tone policing, tell me to dial it back.

8: That was a joke.

9: And yes, I'm starting to change my stance from Diplomat to Barnstormer. 

10: And N

Monday, February 20, 2017

Pulp Regression: Regress Harder

Much has been said in Pulp Revolution circles about readers/authors hitting a wall with contemporary Fantasy & Sci-Fi and looking to older, forgotten masters for inspiration and entertainment. Going back to Heinlein & Asimov, and then going back even further to Howard & Burroughs.

Having spent the last sixteen years or so writing in a vacuum broken up with occasional screams into the wilderness, I ended up doing something similar, but different, when I hit my dissatisfaction point with the state of modern speculative fiction.

It was around 1999-2000 and Vector Prime hit the Star Wars Expanded Universe with grimdark the size of a moon. After a couple disappointing reads, I drifted away from the series that had consumed my existence in the 1990s and looked for high adventure and daring deeds elsewhere, only to find Science Fiction was obsessed with philosophical navel-gazing and Fantasy in the early 2000s was a mix of clunky Tolkien ripoffs and Harry Potter (I tried reading And the Sorcerer's/Philosopher's Stone but found it boring and didn't get far). If I hadn't found Discworld, I would've abandoned reading speculative fiction altogether after I finished The Lord of the Rings and then The Silmarillion.

So I went back further. College provided me with a broad scope of reading material, but just about anything from the 20th Century studied at the academic level is painfully boring or trying to beat you over the head with its message. You have to look at the popular authors that most professors deem beneath them to find the fun stuff.

Fortunately I landed in the Medieval/Renaissance/Classics camp, where you could pursue a degree and actually enjoy what you were reading. Grand epics, titanic struggles, supernatural events, the horrors and heroics of war, love, loss, tragedy, human triumph, philosophy and even comedy.

By virtue of there being fewer extant sources of literature from the pre-Gutenberg era, what was preserved was a wider spread of academic study than more modern time periods.

That's because what was preserved was what these people wanted to read over and over. They felt these stories had value worth preserving. Homer, Chaucer, Malory, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Spenser, Kidd, More, Erasmus, Dante; any one of these provided a more satisfying and educating experience about human nature than anything I read in class from the “Moderns.” Plus, once you got past the archaic language, it was downright fun and scratched a massive pulpy itch that I didn't even know I had. You don't need to learn Old English to enjoy Beowulf when perfectly good translations exist.

Unconsciously, I had regressed to Tolkien, and then deciding to follow his example, I decided to look at what he drew inspiration from and regressed further to the age of Myth.

Where am I going with this?

If the ballads and epics of history inspired Tolkien, they also inspired the writers of the pulps. Robert E. Howard pulled “Cimmeria” out of Herodotus and turned it into something different for Conan. I think there's real value for the Pulp Revolution to look at what the Golden Age authors were themselves stealing from.  

Besides, Beowulf's great. Everyone should read it. 

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Pulp Revolution Review: Nethereal

Nethereal is the 2015 debut novel by Brian Niemeier, and it is one hell of a page turner.

First, some ethical disclosure: the author and I follow each other on Twitter, I am a frequent listener to a podcast that he co-hosts, and we are both part of the current Superversive and Pulp Revolution movements taking place within Sci-Fi/Fantasy. So there is absolutely a level of personal bias to this review that I want you to be aware of.

Now to business. Nethereal is the first book of the Soul Cycle, which is a Weird Space Opera/Horror setting. Now, by Weird, I mean WEIRD. Traditional physics have no place here and a combination of super science and magic are what propel space travel, which is under the monopolistic control of the Guild. Thrown into this is the pirate frigate Shibboleth, captained by Jaren Peregrine, the halfbreed last survivor of the Gen race (effectively Space Elves) hell-bent on revenge for the Guild's genocide of his people. He has two steersmen (magician/pilots): Nakvin, a beautiful, half-human woman with mysterious origins and Deim, a devoutly religious young man who's family has been helping Peregrine's for several generations. And there is Teg Cross, mercenary sociopath and Jeren's combat enforcer.

Misfortune leads them to a revolutionary group building a massive and unnerving exploration ship called the Exodus, which further misfortune causes it to travel to Hell during its maiden voyage.

Yes, actual Hell (at least Hell as described by Gen theology).

Then it gets weirder.

That's all I want to say about the plot, because a) I want to avoid spoilers and b) I could be here all day trying to explain what happens, there's so much of it.

I simply trying to explain what the book is is less effective than explaining what it is like. It is like Dune meets Firefly meets Outlaw Star meets Lovecraft meets Spelljammer meets Moby Dick meets the Inferno. It draws from a tremendous variety of influences and in doing so defies genre classification, though “Space Opera Horror” might be the closest you can get.

Despite the disparate influences (or maybe because of them), the setting is one of the strongest selling points for the book, and its is incredibly thought-out. The action escalates to grandiosity, and the villains rise to match the scale.

Its not a perfect book, though a lot of my criticisms are nitpicks and entirely subjective. Scene transitions sometimes feel rushed or lacking in cohesion. The prose is straightforward but feels like it lacks a little something to make it quotable. The same is true for the dialogue. They get the job done, but its not on the level of a master like Bradbury's narration or Herbert's quotability.

That doesn't mean that Neimeier can't get there. Nethereal is a very strong, imaginative debut propelled by a confident enthusiasm for its subject matter. Absolutely recommended, though the intentional weirdness won't be for everybody. Amazon's your best place to find it. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Legends Never Die: Heir to the Empire

A survey of the Expanded Universe really ought to start with Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy. Published in 1991 by Bantam Spectra, the first book, Heir to the Empire, ushered in the Expanded Universe proper after a long period of dormancy where the only new Star Wars material being released was for the roleplaying game by West End Games.

Zahn was an established Sci-Fi author by this point, having won a Hugo Award (back when that still meant something) and created a Space Opera series of his own with the Cobra trilogy. In the course of writing this trilogy, he worked closely with West End Games, and incorporated a lot of supplemental material into the books, establishing a cross-pollination between different products. It would take more new stories to start forming the true EU, but this was the keystone, and it was a huge success.

The setup is this: Five years after Return of the Jedi, the fledgling New Republic is struggling against a sudden surge of Imperial resistance. Said resistance comes from Grand Admiral Thrawn, an imposing blue-skinned, red-eyed near-human alien who has returned from the Unknown Regions to find the Empire in tatters and he is determined to right that ship.

Thrawn has limited resources and manpower, so he resorts to brilliant tactics and intel from a deep cover spy known only as “Delta Source” to attack against “the Rebels,” until he discovers the planet Wayland and one of the Emperor's hidden vaults guarded by a powerful, but insane cloned Jedi.

Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker has a final visit from Obi-Wan Kenobi's spirit urging him stay vigilant against the Dark Side and promises that he will find new allies. Han Solo and Princess Leia Organa Solo, now pregnant with twins, are busy flying around the galaxy doing diplomatic work when strange gray aliens repeatedly attack them, intent on capturing Leia specifically. Leia also has to deal with intrigue in the government as the stalwart Admiral Ackbar butts heads with the slippery Bothan senator, Borsk Fey'lya. Han is trying to make inroads into the smuggler scene to set up freelance supply lines that the New Republic badly needs, which leads him to smuggler baron Talon Karrde, a man who's risen to prominence in the wake of Jabba's death.

After a disastrous encounter with an Interdictor cruiser, Luke comes into an uneasy alliance with Karrde. Intelligent and urbane, Karrde's real stock in trade is information, and he knows more about Thrawn than he's willing to let the New Republic have for free. Karrde also has a mysterious lieutenant, Mara Jade, who wants nothing more in the world than to kill Luke Skywalker. Mara was the Emperor's Hand, a Force sensitive assassin and spy that answered only to Palpatine. The Emperor's death effectively destroyed her life. Naturally, she and Luke have to survive a hostile forest together.

Meanwhile, Lando Calrissian has a new business venture that is promptly raided by Thrawn, and the mole miners stolen from Lando are used in a climactic space battle where the Empire cleverly attempts to use the miners to board and capture New Republic capital ships to steal them. The New Republic repels them, but at significant cost to their own drydocked fleet.

Meanwhile, Leia and Chewie capture one of her would-be kidnappers and learn he's a Noghri, a species of lethal hunters who were sworn to serve their “savior” Darth Vader. Moreover, Khabarakh, the captured Noghri, calls Leia the Mal'ary'ush, the Lady Vader, and agrees to the dangerous prospect of negotiations with his race.

Heir to the Empire is amazing. It captures the grand space opera themes and the world-hopping pulp that the Star Wars Trilogy was built on. The pace is rocket fast and never lingers too long on mundane drudgery. The heroes are in character and growing as people. Luke is maturing as a Jedi. Leia is swamped by matters of state and imminent motherhood. Han is chafing with respectability but growing into it. Lando is up to his old entrepreneurial tricks.

The new characters are fine additions. Thrawn is the obvious standout, since he's a deliberate contrast to Vader's rage and Palpatine's gleeful tyranny. Thrawn isn't so much a “villain” as he is an antagonist. He wants order in the galaxy and sees the Rebellion (he refuses to acknowledge the New Republic by title) as rampant, violent chaos that must be quelled. His effectiveness is based on an analytical mind that would make Mycroft Holmes jealous, and he has weaponized art history as a means of studying species to find their weaknesses. Thrawn is, however, still an antagonist, and while reasonable and intelligent, he is unbending and cold with regards to his enemies. He has no interest in negotiating with the New Republic. He wants them beaten down.

The viewpoint character for Thrawn is his second-in-command, Captain Pellaeon. Pellaeon is an old veteran who served back in the late Republic and into the Empire. A competent commander, but lacking in innovation, he was the one who took command at Endor after the Emperor's death and sounded the retreat to cut the Navy's losses. Pellaeon doesn't really get what Thrawn's doing all the time, but he trusts him implicitly, and is another believer in re-establishing law and order in the galaxy.

Joruus C'Baoth, the mad Jedi clone, isn't evil in the direct sense, nor is he related to the Sith in any way. He's clearly powerful and possesses wild mood swings, but wishes to impose order as well, though with him at the top deciding what that means. He's something of a Jedi supremacist, where he sees those with the ability to use the Force as the top of the food chain. He and Thrawn butt heads frequently, but Thrawn has access to ysalmiri, little lizards that create bubbles where the Force can't work, that can keep C'Baoth in check.

Talon Karrde is something of a combination of Han and Lando. Hands-on, but with a very strong organization sense that makes his smuggler group one of the most reputable out there. He's smart and has contingency plans, and he doesn't like being caught between the Empire and the New Republic, so he tries to play off both sides. Mara too, doesn't like being caught between the two factions and simply wanted to find a peaceful place for herself when Luke Skywalker comes walking into her life and the romantic tension that follows.

The characters are great. The action sequences are good, and the grand sweeping scope is everything you could want in a Star Wars story that builds on where Return of the Jedi ended. There's a reason why people clamored for years to turn this into a sequel movie trilogy.

Its damn good, and an essential read for anyone looking at getting into the Expanded Universe.

Legends Never Die

After Revenge of the Sith, I was pretty much done with Star Wars. The prequel trilogy was a massive disappointment for me, and the quality of secondary materials dropped considerably after 1999. I'd occasionally peek back in to see what was happening or buy the occasional video game, but Star Wars as a whole wasn't the all-encompassing obsession that I had grown up with.

Then Disney bought the entirety of the property in 2012 and in 2014 the new owners decided to wipe the slate, as it were, and deleted the Expanded Universe continuity in one stroke. 37 years' worth of officially licensed material, be it books, shows, comics, games, made-for-tv movies, whatever, was thrown out the window to make room for a new “Canon” continuity where everything from that point was now officially official and the only survivors of the previous continuity were the six theatrical movies and the animated Clone Wars TV show that was airing at the time.

From a business standpoint, I get it. Disney spent a fat wad of cash getting Star Wars, they were damn sure going to milk it for what it was worth, and that meant new movies, new books, new games, and new everything.

Everything else? Right into the memory hole, except for whatever characters and items that the powers that be deemed worthy of being elevated to Canon, like Grand Admiral Thrawn. Oh sure, they're still reprinting the old continuity, now branded as “Legends” but that's because Disney loves money and its a move to placate old fans bitter about the Wipe.

If I sound bitter three years after the Wipe, that's because I am. George Lucas didn't rape my childhood with the Prequels like so many people joked about in the early 2000s for the simple reason that all those stories and games that I consumed with my parents' hard-earned money as a boy still counted. I could still point people to them and say “the Prequels suck, sure, but Wraith Squadron is amazing” and not get too many funny looks.

Now though? Like tears in the rain. The Expanded Universe is gone and only the grognards are left to bear witness to its passing. The new generation of Star Wars fans, both the casuals that only watch the movies and the diehards that consume the books and comics, are now being told that this is fine. This is good. The Expanded Universe was a convoluted mess that was difficult to follow and was nothing but glorified fan fiction anyway and it never mattered. There were no strong female characters. There was no diversity. It belongs dead and forgotten.


The hell with that. It mattered to me. It mattered to enough people that a constant barrage of New York Times Bestseller novels and a growing video game empire in the early 90s provided the raw financial capital and an audience hungry for more that emboldened Lucas to release the Special Editions and then new movies to huge (financial, if not critical) success.

Without the Expanded Universe, I doubt that would have happened.

So with that said, and since I have a tendency to rage against the dying of the light, I am going to go through the Expanded Universe as a literary body and give them a fair shake. Because while there certainly were bizarre missteps and insane oddities in that patchwork continuity, there were some truly amazing stories that NuCanon hasn't surpassed. 

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Shelf Stagnation, Part 2

So part 1 of an informal survey of thestate of Science-Fiction and Fantasy at retail was a downer. By comparison, I decided to go to a Half Price Books over the weekend for a comparison.

Now, Half Price Books and Barnes & Noble are two different creatures. The former is primarily a used book store while B&N is a full retail store. Both sell books, music, movies board games and, for lack of a better category, “pop culture trinkets” like Dr. Who mugs and Harley Quinn statuettes and whatnot.

The general atmosphere in the SF/F aisle couldn't be more different despite a roughly equivalent shelf space. Since there were millions of cheap Sci-Fi and Fantasy paperbacks published over the years, HPB ends up having a much richer selection available at any given time, with a large number of these books being printed in the 70s and 80s.

The first thing that stuck out was that Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were firmly entrenched within the shelf, as they should be. A whole bunch of Roger Zelazny paperbacks stood out at the end of the alphabet. Margaret Weis and Tracey Hickman existed in four places: Their Dragonlance output, their fantasy collaborations, and their individual works. The rest is going to be me rattling off names of fantasy authors: C.J. Cherryh, Andre Norton, Anne McCaffrey, Alan Dean Foster, Tanith Lee, Robert Asprin, Craig Shaw Gardner, Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, Orson Scott Card's. There was only one Pratchett book at the time, but it was an early North American edition of The Colour of Magic from the 80s. Piers Anthony's Xanth series took up a whole row by itself, so if you're looking for Comic Fantasy like Anthony and Asprin's Myth books, that's where they're hiding.

This is all in addition to authors on the shelf at Barnes & Noble and the differences are remarkable. The history, the weird cover art, the oddball books standing alongside giants of the genre. There's a sense of discovery there that's missing from the other chain. One time, I picked up the entirety of the Thieves' World series for ten dollars.

So the question is why? Why is HPB better at handling Fantasy than B&N? Is it because B&N is beholden to traditional publishing and HPB is fueled by the masses bringing in their own books?


While Barnes & Noble may be among the last of its kind struggling against extinction, I don't think physical bookstores should be written off completely yet.  

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Shelf Stagnation

Today I went to one of my area Barnes & Noble stores because I still have a fondness for the last of the Big Box Bookstores, and because I wanted to look closely at the Science-Fiction/Fantasy aisle, particularly in regards to Fantasy, since that is what I predominantly write.

I've heard horror stories of the SF/F aisles in other areas, where they're nothing more than a tiny shelf in a remote corner of the store, hidden by the shadows of an ever-increasing Manga section. That's not the case in my area, fortunately, and the two stores nearest me have a healthy selection, at least as far of square footage of dead trees is concerned.

The variety on offer, though, is lacking. As far as Fantasy is concerned, you have: the essential Tolkien section, Tolkien followers like the Robert Jordan and Terry Brooks, then the new epic fantasy stars like Joe Abercrombie, Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss, as well as noted female authors like Mercedes Lackey and Ursula K. Le Guin. Neil Gaiman and the late, great Terry Pratchett both have respectable shelf space as well. Jim Butcher has a very large presence as well, with most of the Dresden Files on offer, along with his other series. George R.R. Martin is strongly represented too, of course.

After that, it gets murkier. The list of instantly recognizable names diminishes. Ray Bradbury's modest section occupies an uncomfortable spot next to an even smaller (fortunately) Marion Zimmer Bradley section. Thanks to the game series, the Witcher books are off to the side by the RPG and video game art books. Two omnibus editions of Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber stand defiant near the end of the alphabet before the Warhammer 40k and Star Wars books begin. The rest is a sea of quite respectable-looking books filling two genres: urban fantasy and high fantasy in varying states of cynical deconstruction. And that is it.

It is this mob of lower-tier books that stands out to me. I have no idea of their relative merits, nor their flaws. The urban fantasy novels tend to feature a single person, usually a woman, dressed in a way some artist might call “badass” looking intently into the distance while surrounded by glowy bits. The high fantasy books tend to focus on a sword, or someone holding a sword in a generic ready stance. Others look even more generic. A crown. An axe. The face of some warrior in a helmet. A close-up of a dragon's eye. Or they might just be a landscape. Some are just a design and some text. There's very little action.

Taken individually, these are not ugly design choices for covers. Taken individually, they might draw the eye on a table with a “New in Paperback!” sign accompanied by whatever public talking heads have a ghostwritten memoir out this month.

Lumped together, though, they turn into a sea of sameyness. They get lost trying to muscle their way through the crowd but all belie a similar school of graphic design that makes them look boring.


The poor cover selection is not the authors' fault. That lies with the publishers/marketers/designers. If every book cover looked like it came from the psychedelic paperpacks of the 60s they would start to blend together in a riot of color reflective of the time they were printed in.

The keyword that stuck about that humble SF/F aisle was “stagnant” and the covers hit that home.

Science Fiction and Fantasy have long occupied an awkward place where they sit at the kids' table in the other room away from “Serious Literature.” Serious Literature is for serious readers who are serious about being taken seriously by serious academics. That attitude was what turned me off of most of my 20th Century Literature courses (my focus was on Medieval and Renaissance anyway). SF/F was wild, frivolous, frequently comedic, imaginative and frowned upon by Serious Literature. Its supposed to tickle the imagination with its possibilities. Its supposed to titillate you with stories that Serious Literature doesn't want you to read because, God forbid, they might be FUN.

I didn't see any of that in the SF/F aisle. I saw the literary equivalent of Dad Rock: something that was once incredibly energetic but now trying to be responsible and respectable and trying to make sure you go to bed by 11 so you have enough energy for tomorrow.

I don't think that's the authors' fault. Nor Barnes & Noble's. Nor anyone in particular's. I think that at some point in time there was a desire for SF/F to be taken seriously by an audience that was never going to give it the time of day anyway. Only a few authors are ever lifted out of SF/F into Serious Literature, notably H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley. Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard are lucky to get occasional reprint collections. God help you if you're trying to find Moorcock or Leiber or Moore or Brackett.

In chasing respectability, it forfeited adventure, danger and even its own history. The great advantage of SF/F is that literally and literarily, anything goes. Instead, the Fantasy selection at your local big box store is Urban Fantasy and some flavor of Gritty Medieval Fantasy.

“Fun” got inherited by a growing Young Adult market because “eh, they're just kids books.” Nevermind that the Harry Potter books have a gigantic adult reader base and that Deathly Hallows is a doorstopper that would make Tolstoy's nose bleed with envy.

Again, I don't think its anyone's specific fault that the current state of mainstream Sci-Fi and Fantasy except the growing need for traditional publishers and retailers to make safe bets to turn a profit. So the covers are safe. The titles are safe. The author selection is safe.

Its all quite boring unless you are looking for a specific author or their work.

There was exactly one book on the shelves that stood out completely with unique and eye-catching art: A new edition of Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys.

Just look at that cover. Its magnificent. Its evocative. Its even a little outrageous. It was unlike anything else taking up shelf space next to it, but it stood alone next to its much more serious looking previous editions.

I think this is a root of the problem facing mainstream SF/F at the moment. Stagnation in presentation.

Thank god that there's a growing indie scene grumbling at the fringes, because if anyone can safe SF/F from the Sisyphean hell of trying to be Serious Literature, its going to be the ragtag group of misfits slapped together at the last minute.