Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Book Received: Slow Bullets Limited Edition by Alastair Reynolds

WSFA Press limited edition
The weekend of October 9-11 marked the annual Capclave convention in Washington, DC, sponsored by the Washington Science Fiction Association (WSFA). Each year, in support of Capclave's Author Guest of Honor, WSFA Press typically publishes a limited edition hardcover of the author's work. This year's Author GOH was none other than Alastair Reynolds -- and WSFA Press published a signed and numbered hardcover edition of the author's novella Slow Bullets, limited to 1,000 copies.

Slow Bullets
Tachyon Pubs trade paperback
Slow Bullets was originally published by Tachyon Publications as an original trade paperback, and as you may recall from an earlier blog post on February 9, 2015, I had a wee bit of a hand in the acquisition and editing of that book.

You can purchase the limited edition of Slow Bullets direct from the WSFA Press Bookstore for the price of $40.00; the original trade paperback of Slow Bullets (List price: $14.95) -- now in its second printing -- can be had from all major booksellers, physical or online.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the author, Alastair Reynolds, for graciously sending me a copy of the Slow Bullets limited edition while he was attending Capclave.

Here are a few excerpts from the lengthy Slow Bullets review by Tom Atherton on Strange Horizons:
...part of what makes Reynolds's new novel Slow Bullets so successful is this sense of escalation. What begins as run-of-the-mill space opera soon develops into a complex social thought experiment; an examination of the tyrannies of ambiguous language and the societal implications of textual preservation. It's impressive that Reynolds manages all of this big-picture stuff within the scope of an uncharacteristically short novel (just shy of two hundred pages), and does so while simultaneously retaining a sense of intimacy through a well-realised narrator whose own struggles with memory act as a microcosm of the book's wider sociological concerns. The novel is also interested in atavism (both technological and social), and so it's fitting that Reynolds has appropriated the imagery and themes of an older literary tradition, gothic horror, to tell this story; only in place of a dilapidated monastery inhabited by reclusive monks, Slow Bullets gives us soldiers-turned-scribes entombed inside a vast and decaying spaceship. Architecture is important here, as is the intersection of technology with biology. There really is a lot going on; a fact belied by the book's meagre page count. With so much to unpick, then, it’s probably best that we start at the very beginning and work forward from there.


It's all very pacy, with much of the actual process behind these fledgling democracies glossed over in a matter of sentences. It's a revelation-on-every-page sort of book. Fans of Alastair Reynolds looking for his characteristic descriptive depth and attention to technological detail might find themselves disappointed, but for what it's worth I enjoyed this change of tempo, which, if anything, demonstrates Reynolds's versatility as a stylist.

In fact, Slow Bullets has a lot of very nice stylistic touches. It's peppered with expressive little descriptions, such as this one about a book whose pages "detached too easily, the way wings come off an insect" (p. 13). I was also struck by the way that biological imagery is used to describe technology: slow bullets move by "contracting and extending like a mechanical maggot" (p. 16), hibernation capsules enclose "like an egg" (p. 21), and an automated surgeon-machine reminds Scur of "the hinged mouthparts of a flytrap" (p. 74). All of which sinister language reflects the relationship the crew have with the failing tech that surrounds them: dependency mixed with danger. The only complaint I have about style is that there are a few too many infodumps, which have the potential to interrupt the otherwise swift flow of Reynolds's prose.


The overarching tone of Slow Bullets, then, is one of tragic irony. The Caprice-ians' assertion that they are making indelible, accurate records ("we can’t tolerate mistakes" [p. 112]) is contradicted by how the novel itself treats texts. One character even comments on the inability of language to explain their situation; "She’s trying to describe something language isn't made to describe" (p. 118). All of the texts the survivors produce are, ultimately, unstable. Not only, as we've seen, are they up for interpretation and forgery, but they're also physically transient: the walls can be polished blank, the slow bullets over-written; the survivors' text-scarred bodies will die. Perhaps, deep down, they all know this. Maybe creating texts is just another way in which the survivors are performing society.

This would all be so much bathos, of course, if the novel presented itself matter-of-factly as an unequivocal, representational record. Reynolds's masterstroke, however, is to reflect this thematic concern for unstable texts by filtering the story through an unreliable narrator, making Slow Bullets itself something ambiguous and difficult to pin down. Scur, narrating from some future point, begins her story by telling us about her favourite poem, which is "about death and remembrance" (p. 10). This microcosmically echoes the themes of the novel, certainly, but remembrance, it turns out, isn't as straightforward a thing as Scur would have us believe. Her narration is frequently inconsistent and contradictory. She hubristically announces that she can "be perfectly sure of [her]self" (p. 100), yet phrases of an "I don’t remember" variety become refrain-like throughout the novel. "I should remember, but I do not" (p. 189). At one point her very identity is questioned: "So Scur is what she calls herself now?" (p. 141). We're also never given any explanation as to why, despite her protestations of innocence, she's counted among the war criminals onboard the ship. This is Scur's memory, but memories are biased, unreliable and prone to fanciful invention. With Scur as our only point of entry into this world, we can’t trust anything we read.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

On Lucius Shepard

Beautiful Blood
Cover Art by J. K. Potter
A few months after Lucius Shepard passed away, in March of 2014, my copy of Beautiful Blood arrived in the mail from Subterranean Press. This last novel, along with his book The Dragon Griaule, a collection of six stories (also from Sub Press), completes the tale of the 750-foot-high, mile-long dragon that has been in perpetual sleep for thousands of years -- but whose dark spirit gravely influences the inhabitants of the villages built around and on the dragon itself.

Typically, I would have written a "Books Received" blog post on More Red Ink to capture these two newly acquired titles. And it is more than a year and a half later, and I'm still struggling to write a Lucius Shepard blog post. I have a couple pages of hand-written notes on my desk, Notepad files saved to disk... Yet I'll snag any piece of an excuse to do anything else but write this blog post. For whatever reason that I have yet to pinpoint, this is just one of those posts that has become difficult for me.

The Dragon Griaule
Cover Art by J. K. Potter
In an obituary posted on March 20, 2014, on BoingBoing, Cory Doctorow described Shepard's work: "its originality, its dazzling language, its hardbitten and hard-won verisimilitude." Beautifully written, stylistic, provocative, hard-edged -- read any review of Shepard's work and you'll find words such as these used to describe his writing.

Lucius Shepard is one of the very few writers whose work requires that I always keep a dictionary to hand, because of the inevitable word here and there that I must look up.

If his work is not being used in literature and writing classes at the university level, then academia is truly short-sighted (or maybe just too caught up in the distant past, rather than the present).

During my eight-year stint (1999–2007) as an editor with indie publisher Golden Gryphon Press, I worked on three Lucius Shepard books, plus another of his stories that was included in a fourth book, an anthology. I still have most, if not all, of our email communications going as far back as 2001. Reading through these emails recently was definitely a trip down memory lane...and made accepting that Lucius is no longer with us even more difficult.

In 2002 I had been working on a new line of limited edition chapbooks[1]: Turquoise Days by Alastair Reynolds had been completed but not yet published, and Howard Waldrop had also committed to providing chapbook story A Better World's in Birth! -- so I hit up Lucius Shepard for a chapbook story as well. On September 23, 2002, he sent me the story "Maceo" for consideration. When I told him the maximum that I was able to pay for the story, he responded the very next day: "Unfortunately, [this amount] doesn't help me. I'm trying to raise a lot for my charity in Honduras and I've already been offered fifteen hundred for this and turned it down. So, sorry. But thanks for reading it...."

I didn't know anything about Lucius's charity at this point in time and I didn't feel it was appropriate to inquire via email, so I waited until we had a chance to chat in person. I don't recall if it was at the World Fantasy Con, or OryCon, or another con, but when we did meet (in a hotel bar, naturally), I asked. Lucius told me how the poor locals deep dive for pearls and over time they suffer the bends sufficiently enough that it permanently affects their health. The money he makes from writing goes to pay off customs officers, dock workers, and the like so that when his donations arrive (wheelchairs, for example), they get to their intended destinations. He spoke of the organization required to pull all this off and that he pretty much handled all the wheeling and dealing in Honduras himself.

I just shook my head in awe; it was hard for me to imagine Lucius working so hard in this fashion to help others in the form of a charity -- not that he wasn't capable of doing so, but given how he publicly defined himself, I was simply caught off guard. I was already working with Lucius on another project, and this is an excerpt from the mini bio that he provided me:
He has taught Spanish at a diplomatic school, owned a T-shirt company, worked as a janitor in a nuclear facility, and as a bouncer at a brothel in Málaga, and “beat his brains out” as a rock musician.
Somehow, that description just didn't fit the role of a charity worker....

[Update 10/21/2015: Who's looking after Lucius's charity now?]

Anyhow, this request for a chapbook story from Lucius led to a discussion about his two hobo stories -- "Over Yonder" and the unpublished "Jailbait" -- along with his Spin magazine article on the Freight Train Riders of America. All of which eventually led to the publication of Shepard's collection Two Trains Running, from Golden Gryphon Press in 2004. But that's for another blog post.


[1] You can read a bit more about my work on the limited edition chapbooks -- and how my query to Charles Stross for a story set me on the path of Stross's Laundry Files series -- by checking out this link on More Red Ink.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The. Best. Butter Cookies. Ever.

Yesterday was a munchie day, but we had no munchies in the house -- so I decided to make my grandmother's butter cookie recipe. Of course, in addition to ending up with some excellent cookies, a lot of memories came flooding back as well.

The photo above, courtesy of Google maps, is for 209 Atlantic Avenue in McKeesport, Pennsylvania -- that's the dirt lot directly in front along the little alleyway, just in case you didn't recognize the address. That's where I spent the first five years of my life. Not in the dirt lot, mind you, but in the two-story house (with the scary basement) that used to occupy that lot. The neighborhood used to be called Tenth Ward, back in the day.

And the white two-story house just behind and to the left of the lot is where my grandparents lived, on Rebecca Street. My mother grew up in that house along with her two sisters and brother.

The wooden fence that you now see at the end of the lot, used to be a short wire fence (with wooden supports), such that my grandparents' backyard and our backyard butted up against each other. Along the alleyway, we had a gate in the fence, as did my grandparents -- so I could exit our gate, walk a dozen or so steps along the alleyway and then enter my grandparents' backyard through their gate. Thus I didn't have to walk around the block from the front of our house on Atlantic to the front of their house on Rebecca. I remember coming home from kindergarten before noon, checking to see what my mother had planned for my lunch, and if I didn't like it, I just walked out our gate and through their gate, and my grandmother would pretty much make me anything I wanted. That's what grandparents are for, right? To spoil their grandchildren....

My grandmother was an amazing cook. She had this huge wooden cutting board that covered the entire kitchen table top. I can still picture her making egg noodles: rolling the dough (with a glass, water-filled rolling pin) nearly paper thin, and then using this very long knife -- one hand on the handle, the other hand along the top of the blade -- which she would bring down almost in a blur of precision, cut after cut, making the most perfect noodles you could imagine. Then into the simmering chicken soup, or vegetable soup, the noodles would go.

Of course, as a young child, desserts were always the favorite, and my grandmother's butter cookies were one of her best desserts (only second to her special apple pie). But to simply call these "cookies" is to deny them their due, their power: yes, they were cookies, but they were the size of biscuits! Give a little kid a couple of these, and he had himself a meal!

We moved from Tenth Ward to White Oak, where I went to school from first through seventh grade. And then in June, after seventh grade, when I was twelve, my family packed up what few possessions we had left after the first ever White Oak garage sale, and moved to Southern California.

It didn't take long for us to miss my grandmother's superb cooking. But the thing about the butter cookies was that she never used a recipe, she would grab a few fingers of baking power, some scoops of sugar, butter, sour cream, and then start kneading in flour until the dough was just right. So, we telephoned my aunt, my mother's youngest sister, and told her to write down the ingredients and measurements (as best she could) the next time my grandmother made butter cookies. My aunt told us later that during the cookie-making process, when my grandmother would grab a few fingers of, say, baking powder, my aunt would make her drop the contents from her fingers into a small bowl and then my aunt would do her best to measure how much was in the bowl.

Here is the butter cookie recipe, my grandmother's best, as measured by my aunt:

8 cups flour
8 teaspoons baking powder
1 pound butter
6 tablespoons shortening
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 pint sour cream
2 teaspoons vanilla
6 egg yolks (save some of the whites for brushing the top of the cookies)

Mix egg yolks with butter, shortening; add sugar and blend. Blend in half the flour and baking powder. Mix in sour cream and vanilla. Blend in the remaining flour. Roll dough on a board using as little flour as necessary -- dough will be sticky; cut into shape with a round cookie cutter. Press the top of the cookies with a fork, then brush with egg white. Bake at 375 degrees for 12-15 minutes.

Egg yolks, butter, shortening... These cookies are a heart attack waiting to happen. My wife and I, being ever health conscious, make only half the recipe at a time, and we still manage to get about 34 biscuit-sized cookies from the half recipe. And though we do use one stick (1/4 pound) of unsalted butter, we also use one stick (1/4 pound) of Country Crock fake butter. Also, instead of 3 egg yolks, we use one egg yolk and one whole egg -- and we save the one egg white for the brush. [Update 10/17/2015: I also neglected to mention that we use "Light" sour cream as well.]

My grandmother passed away at the age of 100 in 1998. But she still lives on in memories like these.

Obviously, our butter cookies don't taste as good as my grandmother's original recipe -- but it's the memories that make our cookies taste so good.