ArmadilloCon 2004: The Year’s Half Over: What Should I Have Read?

Official synopsis: Several books have come out this year. What did you miss? Why should you read it?

Panelists: Willie Siros (moderator), Chris Brown (then known as Chris Nakashima-Brown), Michael Bracken, John Morgan

Here is a list of authors that had new books out in or around 2004: Cory Doctorow, Jasper Fforde, M. John Harrison, Richard Morgan, Karl Schroeder, Neal Stephenson, Bruce Sterling, Charlie Stross.

Here is the full list of authors the panelists talked about, however briefly: Iain Banks, Michael Bishop, Trudi Canavan, Isobelle Carmody, Cory Doctorow, Jennifer Fallon, Jasper Fforde, Peter F. Hamilton, M. John Harrison, Ken McLeod, Richard Morgan, Garth Nix, Alistair Reynolds, Karl Schroeder, Neal Stephenson, Bruce Sterling, Charlie Stross, Howard Waldrop, Walter John Williams.

>My experience shows that when several panelists are in book publishing or selling business, the discussion often digresses into internal gossip: why didn’t such-and-such editor buy so-and-so’s book, even though she claimed to love him so much? and things like that. Probably fascinating stuff for the insiders of the publishing world, but less so for people like me, who just want to read good books and couldn’t care less about industry politics. All that stuff was omitted from this article. I didn’t catch the names of the people in question anyway, since I never heard of them.

This brings me to another pet peeve, err… constructive suggestion. Dear panelists, every time you mention a writer or a book title, it would be helpful if you could write it on the whiteboard. When you throw names around by the handful, they are easy to miss. And some names are hard to guess from pronounciation alone. If your audience is anything like me, they will have forgotten 90% of names/book titles by the end of the panel, especially if they never heard those names before. If you care about selling more of your favorite authors’ books, you would do a lot of good not just to us, but to yourself, if you wrote down their names and book titles so that the audience could take notes.

Traditionally, says Willie Siros, ArmadilloCon used to be in October, and the panel topic used to be “So the year’s almost over. What should I have read by now?” That was a little easier to do, because lots of major books tend to come out late in the year, in time for Christmas.

Willie Siros. The things that have come out so far this year that I’m most impressed with include things like Richard Morgan’s second novel, “Broken Angels”. (“Altered Carbon” is the first one.) It came out in England a year ago, but it’s only now in United States. And the book that’s coming up that I think it’s going to be a big book is “Light” by M. John Harrison, which is finally gonna have its American release in September. It came out a year ago. M. John Harrison is one of the old New Wave authors who’s reinvented himself as a space opera writer.

And Bantam has currently been feeding off of the best of some of the British authors who are recreating what we thought of space opera. I suspect Peter F. Hamilton, Iain Banks and Ken McLeod were thinking that American space opera was very militaristic and very right-wing. So they’re essentially writing what might be described as space opera from the left, where societies are much more often doing things that tie into social circumstances in completely different ways than space opera coming out from [American authors].

Willie adds that he’s been trying for a year to get Alistair Reynolds to be a Guest of Honor at a future ArmadilloCon, but… “we’ll see”.

Willie. That’s one of the elements that are fascinating. The other thing is that there’s an interesting group of Australian fantasy writers that had been developing. Trudi Canavan, who is being published by EOS, is an EOS fantasy author, and Jennifer Fallon, who has a Tor book and some Bantam books, and Isobelle Carmody, who is completely Tor, and Garth Nix, who is Scholastic although [Harper-Collins at some point expressed an interest in him].

It’s sort of interesting when you have all these people coming in with slightly different cultural approaches. Because they are not American, they view civilization in a slightly different light. That’s part of what makes them so fascinating. Because they are not quite the same as everything else that everybody else is doing. But once everybody is bringing all these authors over, then American authors start responding, because they are being cut out of schedules because of these new authors. And other people look at the sales figures and go “I can do that”. Like Walter John Williams running a space opera series to show that Americans can do that kind of thing too.

Chris Brown. What about Canadians? (Audience chuckles.) They’re almost foreigners, right?

Somebody. Karl Schroeder, I don’t know if he has a new book this year…

Somebody else. Yes, yes he does.

Chris. But Cory Doctorow, we talked a little about him this morning, he has “Eastern Standard Tribe” which I’m pretty keen on. Although you would think with Cory you can’t tell the difference between his blog and his EFF evangelism and his novels, which purport to be near future, but it’s “Day after tomorrow” kind of near future. It’s today, really.

Willie. I admit to be completely unimpressed with “Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom”. So when I read “Eastern Standard Tribe”, I wasn’t expecting much. And while it was better, I still wouldn’t put it on my Hugo nomination ballot.

I think there are many authors who do much better in short fiction anyway than in the long form, and some of them realize, like Michael Bishop, that while you can’t make money in novels, that gives one of the greatest writers ever of the novella. But… [the funny thing is,] people try to make you write novels.

Chris. We talked about Cory this morning as some sort of descendant of the cyberpunk, and we were talking about, you know, Bruce [Sterling] has his new book out, “The Zenith Angle”, that came out in March or April, which I quite like…

A more detailed discussion of “The Zenith Angle” in the post-cyberpunk panel.

Willie. Which is a little bit more science fiction than “Zeitgeist” was. (Laughs.)

Chris. Well, I don’t know, “Zeitgeist” at least had a fantastical element in it, […] in the direction of this shamanic, sort of vision-quest father figure, who shows up in the last third of the book and starts doing some sort of strange combination of Apache magic and Caribean [?] deconstruction, right? But in “Zenith Angle” there’s no magic; there’s a lot of science, but it’s modern day science, and there’s diaper changing, which I’ve never seen from an action hero. There are a lot of road trips. Bruce’s been doing [a lot of road trips in real life].

Somebody. The reason why Bruce isn’t here is that he’s on the road.

Chris. He’s in Europe, being Mr. Design Professor. But he’s got a great story which going to be in FSF in about two months (maybe “The Blemmye’s Strategem” in January 2005 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction? — E.), that we read in “Turkey City” [a writing workshop under direction of Bruce Sterling], I don’t know, about a year ago. And Bruce seems to be trying to take on these issues of us, the technology-based West versus the medieval necromancers of the stateless far reaches of the world. But in the “Zenith Angle” it was notable that he never really goes there, he never really leaves the US. He spends a lot of times at truck stops, and the enemy ends up being evil corporate types. American corporate types. But in this story it’s kind of Arabian magical realism. It’s this unbelievably beautiful thing about these, sort of, necromancers in the orbit of […] in the millenium before last. I’m quite excited to see how that turns out.

Willie. The author that Ace is doing that I am most impressed with is Charlie Stross. He had been… We’ve been reading some of his stories over the last couple of years in the Dozois’ Year’s Best. And then “Singularity Sky” pops with a bang, and that’s just an incredible novel. It’s on the Hugo ballot. Recommended highly. And his new novel, “Iron Sunrise”, is even better.

Some other panelist, perhaps John Morgan, is even more excited about Charlie Stross’ upcoming novel “Accelerando”, where Stross really gets into the in-depth idea of the Singularity, how it’s going to happen, and what comes after. This book is due out in 2005.

Willie. Yes, things to look forward to. Well, he also has imprint from Golden Gryphon, a book called “Atrocity Archives”, that is…

Someone else. Shorts, right?

Willie. I would say, a short novel and some stories. The short novel was serialized in one of the British magazines. It’s one of those secret histories, along Howard Waldrop and Tim Powers lines, that has lots of playful, well researched touches.

Chris asks if Charlie Stross’ novels are as good as his short stories or better, or is he “like Cory, where you wish he had more time to spend on…”

Willie. I think so. He develops things more thoroughly. “Singularity Sky” had a few first novel quirks that could have been, you know, perhaps smoothed better. But I think he’s actually converting into a novel better than Greg Egan does. Greg Egan is soooo out there, that in a short story, in a short form, he can stay focus on what he’s doing. But Greg Egan can get soooo out there on the edge of hard science speculation, engineering, mathematical speculation, that he can get lost in that, and the reader [thinks]: “I have no idea what he’s talking about, but it’s wonderful”.

Chris. And what about Neal Stephenson‘s “Baroque Cycle”? It’s a 3-volume tome. The 3rd volume comes out in September. It makes “Infinite Jest” look like a pamphlet.

Someone else. Monster!

John Morgan. That’s the exact reason why I don’t have time to read. Because, I mean, you know, who would even be able to pick that up? As in, physically pick it up? I don’t know.

Willie. The thing is that it’s so researched, almost over-researched.

Somebody. I kind of wonder when he has the time? I mean… I don’t know…

Willie. Well, he’d been working on it for years and years.

The same somebody. But I mean, it’s not that far since “Cryptonomicon”. It’s not like he wrote that in advance!

Chris. In a long hand!

The same somebody. I suppose that’s a one-draft kind of wonder? Is that why there’s so much he has not even bothered to edit step back, because he’s writing in long hand, and he’s trying to articulate every detail of this world, where…

Willie. There’s no telling. I know that that’s possible, in fact, because John Crowley’s manuscripts are very […] The muse gave him “Little, Big” straight out. There were 8 changes. Eight insertions in about a foot of big chief tablet paper [?]. And a novel that coherent that would come out completely that cleanly is just unbelievable.

Chris. I tried to penetrate [Neal Stephenson’s] “Quicksilver” and I got stumped pretty quickly by some anachronistic bit of dialogue. It was like the F-word or something, used by Isaac Newton, or something. It… I’m very intrigued by what he’s trying to do, I’d like to get into it, but… I remember finding “Cryptonomicon” a little hard to penetrate at first read: I kind of got bogged down in the opening stuff in the Philippines… it’s like, what’s going on here? I picked it back up on a long plane trip, and then couldn’t put it down. So there may be a little bit of that going on, and I wonder if […] you would have to get into the second book; but as you say, who knows. Are they selling?

John Morgan. Yeah, actually, they are selling pretty well. “Cryptonomicon” was a huge seller. That book, the new one, the “Quicksilver” cycle was originally handed by him as one big book (audience laughs), and they were kind of like “wow”! And they split that into three. And I guess that’s part of why I haven’t been able to motivate myself to really go… It’s not really even science fiction or fantasy, that’s the thing, it’s…

Willie. It fits into that category of science fiction called secret history. If it’s not nailed down literally in the historical record, then he’s in play [?]. But he’s playing with so many threads of people, that [not all of those people’s lives could have been well documented]. So anything could have happened for these periods of time that these people were doing things, but… He has a near-photographic memory, and he’s fascinated with stuff… Cause I remember Bruce came back from visiting Seattle and got to read some of this in manusript. And his comment was that he just couldn’t imagine spending the kinds of time to do some of this stuff…

Chris. What I remember Bruce saying is he was very worried about how much indulgence he [Stephenson?] could expect from a reader in terms of the amount of stuff he wants to dump into a book. I mean, you know, I can handle one chapter that’s about a guy eating Captain Crunch in a detailed physical… there’s a whole chapter like that in “Cryptonomicon”, right? And there’s a lot that stuff in his book cycle. It would be interesting to see how much of that he can get away with…

Willie. I remember when he was here signing for his first book [does he mean “Quicksilver”?] if it was Captain Crunch the cereal or Captain Crunch the hacker, and if this was some sort of subtle reference to Captain Crunch the phone phreak, and Neal was just sort of smug: “Well, if you think it is… It is what it is”.

Willie. I mean, in terms of another person who I would argue and sell as science fiction is Jasper Fforde.

Some other panelist. Yes, I was gonna mention Jasper Fforde whose fourth volume I think comes out…

Willie. It is out.

The same guy. Is it out?

Willie. Yeah. I already sold out in the dealer’s room.

Somebody asked him… At English conventions he sort of plays off of that, you know, he actually does know a little bit about science fiction. But on the American book tours he talks about that he thinks he’s writing British whimsy in the Louis Caroll…

The same guy. And that really is the best description of it.

Willie. But they are… they are fabulous conceits [?]. Almost like the metaphor of “Who framed Roger Rabbit”, where the worlds in books are real, and the reason why some people like a novel and some people don’t is because some of the characters have bad days. (Audience laughs.) They have headaches, you know. And you can kidnap characters out of novels, and you can make day trips into novels.

John. If you’re looking for [this author’s books], know that his last name is spelled F-f-o-r-d-e.

Chris. Who buys [Jasper Fforde] books?

John. I know some people love them.

Willie. Yeah, everybody. Science fiction people buy them…

John. But they are not shelved in science fiction.

Willie. In my world.

John. In most Barnes & Nobles you’ll find them at the opening, at the beginning of the store. They’re beautiful books, too. (Their covers are done in primary colors, as if following Rick Klaw’s book marketing advice from the Slipstream panel — E.)

And Michael Chabon is doing another one of these McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury’s Thrilling Tales, I don’t know, some bigger house bought that, as I understand, and it’s coming out in the fall.

Then they talk about McSweeney’s new comics issue, and about comics in general.

Willie. So I have to admit that I read no short fiction. It’s hard enough keeping up with 600 novels of mystery and science fiction every year without trying to keep track of a 1000 short stories.

Chris. I find there are some great online short fiction markets, that are commercial and edited by quality people who have really good stuff, for those of us who have day jobs and who have long conference calls and things like that. [Online publications are] wonderful for short shorts. Eileen Gunn has “Infinite Matrix” that publishes some wonderful stuff, also publishes now the Howard Waldrop blog, which is a remarkable phenomenon for a man who did not have a computer to write a blog. I used to ask him, and he said, “Yeah, I type it up and put it in the mail, and…”

Someone else. Is it back-dated?

Chris. Well, it doesn’t need to be back-dated, it’s about anything happening in the newspaper [?], believe me, I mean, it’s, he has all kinds of, you know, far out Waldropia of obscure stuff. And sometimes it’s cut into pieces in its… sort of nonsequiturs, where he has written such a long entry they don’t publish it at once. But it’s very good reading.

“Strange Horizons”, I think, has a lot of good quality short fiction, a lot of new folks. And I even like “Boing Boing”, where you have sort of blogging by science fiction writers. You know, Cory [Doctorow]’s there on “Boing Boing”. It’s non-stop screenshots of what’s in his head. And Mark Frauenfelder, who is sort of a science-fictional character anyway. And they’ve been doing these guest blogs by a lot of these great SF writers; they’ve just had one by John Shirley for a couple of weeks, who is just really… They are writing these almost essay-like things in the right-hand column, and then Rudy Rucker just finished one. It’s really, really good stuff.

And I think we talked this morning about kind of this new, slipstreamy, small press explosion, and I think there’s a LOT of wonderful stuff out there. We’re talking about some of these small presses like “Ministry of Whimsy”, which is Jeff VanderMeer and Forrest Aguirre, they’re putting out these Leviathan anthologies, there’s number 4 coming out in the fall. And they did this great thing, I think, this is last year, “Album Zutique”. It’s just an amazing, this little… Jeffrey Ford story about, you know, pure kind of, you know, eyeball-kick imagery, about a hairy person, a character in a circus, but just beautifully written. And Wheatland Press, which […] and then they do “Polyphony”, which is kind of…

And Small Beer Press, Kelly Link and Gavin Grant, they’re just wonderful…

Willie. There’s Shawn Stewart. One of the things I wanted to talk about is the new Shawn Stewart. He was a former ArmadilloCon Guest of Honor, and he is a… of all things, born in Lubbock, but spent all of his formative years in Saskatchewan and somehow had the perverse pleasure of summering in Lubbock and wintering in Saskatchewan. [Audience breaks out in laughter]. That gives you a certain worldview difference that anybody else would have, and he briefly was in Houston where his wife had a postdoc at MD Anderson.

Chris. […] I just bought a chapbook from him by Richard Butner called “Horses Blow Up Dog City” which is a collection of half a dozen stories. This is, again, really beautiful stuff. This is this guy in a kind of a small, slipstreamy, mostly short fiction guy, he runs the Sycamore Hill workshop with John Kessel out of North Carolina, and… just amazing stuff. And I think, a lot of [small presses] seem to be doing better and blossoming, because of this simple e-commerce, which is allowing these people issue this kind of stuff that may not be commercially viable in any kind of significant sense, but [it lets niche writers and readers] to find each other.

There was another McSweeney’s book I read, right around the holidays, that was very science-fictional in its subject, and unbelievably hilarious. It’s called “Speak, Commentary”, and it’s a collection of fictional DVD commentaries on science fiction [movies] [The commentaries are supposedly made by famous pundits]. So they have, like, Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky watching “Lord of the Rings” and talking about the oppression, the […]. The bad guys are the good guys, and they have, like, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson watching the original “Planet of the Apes”.

Another panelist. There is Ann Coulter…

[Panelists talk over one another.]

Chris. It’s a really funny read. I highly recommend it.

John. That’s what I don’t understand about McSweeney’s books, is that anyone who’s really going to get into that is gonna know that they can get it for free online. You know, more power to them.

Willie. Well, Bruce Sterling still gets royalty checks for “Hacker Crackdown”, even though that’s free online.

John. […] one book, I don’t know if you guys have heard about it, I’m really curious if anyone has heard anything about this at all in this whole room, I think they had an article in “National Weekly” [?] about it, it’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell” by Susanna Clarke. And people are really beginning to talk about it. Book that we were unable to get galleys of in house. And they are saying it’s gonna be the new adult “Harry Potter”, and it really is adult…

Willie brags he has a proof of it.

John. Everybody at work was trying to find somebody, and they were like, no more galleys. But everybody says that […] that book is terrific, it’s the first book that really capitalizes on Harry Potter’s success [and is] as good.

Willie. If they’re comparing it to “Little, Big” [?], which is what, to my mind, is the single greatest contemporary fantasy ever written, that this is at that level, then, you know, we have to give her a shot.

A woman in the audience suggests you can probably get the galleys on eBay. Everybody giggles.