The Inexorable Strangeness of Robert Aickman’s Compulsory Games

For far too long, Robert Aickman has resided in a bookish limbo. He’s not quite gone—small presses have kept his work available for readers with daring taste and deep pockets—and he’s certainly not forgotten—writers like Peter Straub and Neil Gaiman never fail to name him when asked favorite authors—but he’s not quite here either. Like his stories, which aren’t quite fantasy and aren’t quite ghost stories, and like his characters, frequently caught between the everyday and the impossible, Aickman has seemed stuck between here and there. New York Review of Books Classics has just published a new Aickman volume, Compulsory Games. At long last, American readers have easy access to one of the world’s great purveyors of the uncanny, the unknown, and the uncomfortable.

Although he wrote at least one novel, The Late Breakfasters, and one novella, The Model, the majority of Robert Aickman’s published fictio­­n—there are rumors ...

The Demanding, Essential Work of Samuel Delany: The Atheist in the Attic

Sometimes it seems as if all the publishers and bookstores of the land are engaged in a conspiracy to make Samuel Delany appear less unusual than he is. All of his fiction, whether autobiographical, experimental, pornographic, or some combination of the three, is shelved under “science fiction,” and while a given edition of Dhalgren might or might not advertise its million-seller status, it’s unlikely that any back cover copy will address that book’s games with structure, experiments in typography, or literal unendingness. It’s not until you actually open the books that you realize you’re in the hands of one of SF’s great experimenters. Sometimes Delany himself seems to be in on this game of concealment. His author biography coyly states, for example, that “his four-volume series Return to Nevèrÿon is sword-and-sorcery,” as if he were a latter-day Robert E. Howard, eliding any sense that these strange books, with their disquisitions ...

Begin at the Beginning: The Great Opening Sentences of Gene Wolfe

The King of Hearts, not the wisest of monarchs, gives this advice on reading in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: “Begin at the beginning […] and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” That advice has never served Lewis Carroll’s readers, who delight in re-reading the Alice books and solving their puzzles, and it serves just as poorly for Gene Wolfe’s readers, many of whom don’t count a Wolfe book as read until it’s been re-read.

Still, whatever failings the King of Hearts might have had, there’s something to be said for beginning at the beginning, and so here follows my examination of Gene Wolfe’s opening sentences.

“It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future.” So opens The Shadow of the Torturer, the first volume of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. These first eleven words of ...

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Essential Internet Writing, Now Between Two Covers

No Time to Spare, a collection of nonfiction drawn from Ursula K. Le Guin’s blog, draws its title from a statement she made at the very beginning of her first full post: “I am going to be eighty-one next week. I have no time to spare.” Anyone looking at her career must wonder if she ever had spare time. After all, in addition to her science fiction and fantasy novels and collections, almost any one of her which could cap a lesser writer’s career, she’s published realistic fiction, a dozen volumes of poetry, several essay collections, a writing guide, and translations from both Portuguese and Chinese. I’m probably forgetting several things: the list of Le Guin’s publications that opens No Time to Spare, though it runs two pages, is far from complete.

Le Guin attributes her decision to start a blog to reading a selection of Portuguese ...

The Best Way to Approach The Book of the New Sun

In my last column on Gene Wolfe, I wrote that the sheer number of his publications can make choosing an entry point difficult, but that his masterpiece, The Book of the New Sun, was perhaps the best way for readers to make his acquaintance. Unfortunately, for many readers The Book of the New Sun’s reputation for quality is matched only by its alleged difficulty and inaccessibility.

I think that it’s difficult in only the most enjoyable ways, and far more accessible than commonly admitted, but for those who remain wary, I offer seven brief pieces of advice for reading The Book of the New Sun.

Set aside the dictionary

Reading with a dictionary on hand is among the healthiest habits a reader can develop, but it’s a terrible idea for The Book of the New Sun. It’s not that Wolfe strews neologisms over the page—every word in the book appears ...

How Gene Wolfe Starts a Story (and Where to Start Reading His Work)

The King of Hearts, not the wisest of monarchs, gives this advice on reading in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: “Begin at the beginning […] and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” That advice has never served Lewis Carroll’s readers, who delight in re-reading the Alice books and solving their puzzles, and it serves just as poorly for Gene Wolfe’s readers, many of whom don’t count a Wolfe book as read until it’s been re-read.

Still, whatever failings the King of Hearts might have had, there’s something to be said for beginning at the beginning, and so here follows my examination of Gene Wolfe’s opening sentences.

“It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future.” So opens The Shadow of the Torturer, the first volume of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. These first eleven words of ...

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker: Tracking the Unknowable

After the trailers ended and the lights went down, the first image that greeted the moviegoers who caught Stalker in 1979 was the logo of the USSR’s Mosfilm studio., which shows the famous socialist realist statue Worker and Kolkhoz Woman. Sculptor Vera Mukhina intended the two figures, who reach towards the sky and the future bearing hammer and sickle, to inspire pride in the present and hope for the future, and perhaps they are beautiful when viewed without context, but it’s hard not read them as icons of totalitarian kitsch and state-enforced taste. Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, however, provides none of the comforts of kitsch or the assurances of dogma. Stalker was the first adaptation of Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s influential novel Roadside Picnic, one of the very few Soviet science fiction novels to make it over to the West during the Cold War. Both film and novel tell the story ...

Predicting the Future and Remembering the Past with John Crowley

Little Big John Crowley At Readercon a few years ago, I attended a panel on favorite science fiction and fantasy books. One author, one of the best working today, talked about the near-impossibility of writing a book so perfect as John Crowley’s Little, Big. There were wistful sighs from writers in the audience and nodded agreements from other panelists. Everyone in the room at that most bookish convention recognized that competing with Crowley was impossible. Yet in many fan circles Crowley remains unknown. This literary master of the hermetic, hidden, and esoteric has for too long been as hidden as the obscure histories, gnostic theorists, and addled visionaries that populate his work. Despite the many awards; despite the praise of luminaries both inside the genre community, like Ursula K. Le Guin and Thomas Disch, and outside it, like Harold Bloom; despite his inclusion in both Bloom’s Western Canon and Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks, most fantasy ...
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Swords, Lances, and Innuendo: James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen

Prosecution for obscenity has historically been one of the best ways to ensure literary posterity. For decades, getting “banned in Boston” was a surefire way to boost sales everywhere else in the States; in the United Kingdom, 200,000 copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover sold in a single day when the uncensored version appeared. James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice went before a court in 1922 and became a bestseller, but today Cabell has met the fate of many “writers’ writers”: He is best remembered for being forgotten. Though some writers go into and out of fashion, and into and out of print, every decade or so, Cabell seems to have settled into obscurity. When Lin Carter reissued several Cabell novels in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series in the sixties and seventies, his introductory remarks included the observation that some of these novels had gone forty-five years ...
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A Walk Around Inland: Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker

Russell Hoban said that he was a good speller before he wrote Riddley Walker and a bad speller after finishing it. The first sentence shows why: “On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the last wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadn’t ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.” Two thousand or so years after an atomic catastrophe—“the 1 Big 1”—civilization and the English language hobble on, the language marginally healthier than the society. Riddley Walker, just twelve during the story’s action, is supposed to be his tribe’s “connexion man,” a seer or shaman who interprets the world and its signs. Riddley gives his first connexion the day after his father’s death; its failure—Riddley falls into a trance, goes silent, and disappoints his audience—soon ...

Essential Works By A Surrealist Master: The Complete Stories and Down Below by Leonora Carrington

“Her two feet are left over still, but if you have a little bag, I’ll eat them later in the day.” So speaks a hyena on page six of “The Debutante,” the opener to The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington. The hyena, a personal friend of the narrator, has just killed the narrator’s maid so that she can “nibble” off her face and take the narrator’s place at a truly tedious ball: “I certainly wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t hate having to go to a ball so much.” “The Debutante,” remarkable even if you didn’t know Carrington wrote it in her very early twenties, is not an outlier: Every story in this collection is as surprising, as vicious, and as memorable. Although she wrote short stories, novellas, a novel, a play, children’s stories, and a memoir, Leonora Carrington remains best known as a Surrealist painter. Her ...

Don Juan in the Machine: Amanda Prantera’s Conversations with Lord Byron

I don’t think any reviewer of Amanda Prantera’s third novel, first published in 1987, could resist the chance to marvel at its full title: Conversations with Lord Byron on Perversion, 163 Years after His Lordship’s Death. It’s a mouthful, it’s hard to remember, it takes up half the cover real estate and three-quarters of the book’s slim spine, and it’s absolutely perfect. I’d guess that most readers have encountered neither that incredible title nor the author’s name. Very few science fiction or fantasy fans have heard of Amanda Prantera, and it’s not difficult to see why. Many of her books, most of which are currently unavailable in the United States, have no fantastical elements, and those that do will still end up shelved in general fiction. She’ll follow a mildly satirical conspiracy story with a pseudonymous vampire novel, and then publish a book about a British family in China. Prantera, ...

The Depths of Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean

night-ocean These days, H.P. Lovecraft seems to appear in just as many works of fiction as Cthulhu. But I can’t imagine that Lovecraft, who held himself in such high regard, would be entirely happy with the new forms his literary immortality has taken. Paul La Farge’s new book The Night Ocean would appall its inspiration, and that’s one of the many reasons you should read it. As Tobias Carroll wrote recently, it’s become very difficult to talk about the purveyor of the weird and master of the unnamable without bringing up the crank, the racist, and the misogynist who shared his body. Horror readers may remember the pompous “old-purple-prose” of Charles Stross’s novella Equoid; comics fans may have met the prissily vicious racist in Warren Ellis’s Planetary or the more sympathetic figure in Alan Moore’s Providence. Michel Houellebecq, best known in this country for being French and perennially ...

The Depths of Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean

night-ocean These days, H.P. Lovecraft seems to appear in just as many works of fiction as Cthulhu. But I can’t imagine that Lovecraft, who held himself in such high regard, would be entirely happy with the new forms his literary immortality has taken. Paul La Farge’s new book The Night Ocean would appall its inspiration, and that’s one of the many reasons you should read it. As Tobias Carroll wrote recently, it’s become very difficult to talk about the purveyor of the weird and master of the unnamable without bringing up the crank, the racist, and the misogynist who shared his body. Horror readers may remember the pompous “old-purple-prose” of Charles Stross’s novella Equoid; comics fans may have met the prissily vicious racist in Warren Ellis’s Planetary or the more sympathetic figure in Alan Moore’s Providence. Michel Houellebecq, best known in this country for being French and perennially ...

Knights and the 1960s: J.B. Priestley’s Comic Fantasy

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J.B. Priestley’s semi-Arthurian fantasy The Thirty-First of June possesses little seriousness, less depth, and no plausibility. The book’s settings are sketchy, its plotting haphazard, its worldview dated, its reviews mixed, and its characters thinner than the paper they’re printed on. Fifty-five years after its publication, it enjoys few readers and little reputation.

Having said all that, I must admit I quite enjoyed the book. It is light in every way: light in pages, light in difficulty, and, most importantly, light of heart.

Though he was very famous by the time he wrote The Thirty-First of June, if you’ve never heard of J.B. Priestley, you’re very far from alone. The author photo on the back shows an elderly man in a book-lined room, peering into the distance with a meerschaum pipe in his hand. He’s the very image of the mid-century British public intellectual, the sort of writer very ...

Irresistible Books: Small Presses in Science Fiction and Fantasy

The Winged Histories cover art by Kathleen Jennings Since you’re reading this post on Tor.com, I think it’s fair to guess you’re familiar with science fiction and fantasy publishers. Maybe you can even pick out the publishers’ logos on your book’s spines: You know that mountain there means Tor, that that little planet is Orbit, and that DAW’s logo almost looks like a bird. But the more you read, the more you’re likely to hear about exciting books from smaller presses—books that you may not always find in bookstores, but that you will want to read. So I’d like to tell you a little bit about small presses, their market, and their role in the science fiction and fantasy community. I remember the moment I first discovered small press books. It was 2008, and I’d just started reading—and admiring—Tad Williams’s Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy. I was eager to see what he’d published since the end of ...
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Two Lives in Several Genres: Alasdair Gray’s Lanark

lanark-alasdairgray When he wrote his first novel, Lanark: A Life in Four Books, Alasdair Gray had a great many things he wanted to accomplish. He wanted to write the great Scottish epic; he wanted to imitate Joyce’s Ulysses and Portrait of the Artist; he wanted to demonstrate his erudition, gain literary renown, and expound his view of the world. He wanted to make readers laugh, cry, and possibly put the book down in consternation. I am not sure that one of his goals was to utterly confound the reviewers assigned to explain his book, but if it was, he succeeded. Normally I’d begin or conclude a review with my assessment of its merits, but in the case of Lanark, it seems fair to put my conclusion—that it is a great, if flawed book—in the middle of the review. Here’s why. One would assume that the subtitle, “A Life ...

The Weirdest Worlds: (Another) Introduction to R.A. Lafferty

introduction to R.A. Lafferty books If you look at the amount of words that have been written about him, it’s easy to conclude that R.A. Lafferty needs no introduction. There are, by now, probably as many introductions to and appreciations of R.A. Lafferty as there are books by the author. The introduction to Lafferty has almost become a genre in itself. Not only have major science fiction and fantasy writers like Neil Gaiman, Michael Swanwick, Gene Wolfe, Harlan Ellison, and Richard Lupoff all written about Lafferty, but Lafferty’s fans are some of the most active in the genre, publishing a biannual fanzine and organizing an annual Lafferty-themed con. The Guardian and the Washington Post have both covered him, and there are rumors of some forthcoming academic studies. Why, then, have so few science fiction readers heard of Lafferty? Why am I writing another introduction? R.A. Lafferty short fiction collections Centipede PressTo answer that question, we have to take a brief ...
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Lifting Up the Enchanter’s Robe: Robert Nye’s Merlin

merlin-robertnye Large Gothic letters on the front cover of Robert Nye’s 1978 novel Merlin announce the book as “A Very Adult Fantasy.” To underline the book’s adult credentials, the book’s designer has set the “Very” in “Very Adult” in scarlet. The prospective reader can be forgiven for imagining a tediously bawdy assault on Arthurian legend, a story where “swords” are rarely ever swords, where rescued damsels are always willing, and where the repeated jokes get old fast. I love Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but I have no desire to see the Castle Anthrax scene crammed between covers and stretched into a novel. If all I knew of this book were what I saw on its front, I would have left it on the shelf. And yet I decided to pick this yellowing paperback off the shelf—largely because I’d heard praise for Nye’s other books, particularly his Shakespearean ...

Felons in the Forest: Adam Thorpe’s Radical Take on Robin Hood

robinhood-elwes-chapelle We all know Robin Hood. For many of us, the name “Robin Hood” summons a vision of an exuberant Errol Flynn; others might see Disney’s talking fox, Cary Elwes with a raised eyebrow, a swashbuckling Kevin Costner, or even one of Howard Pyle’s classic illustrations. A few poor souls may even recall Russell Crowe’s dour soldier. Robin is versatile: We usually find him eluding the Sheriff of Nottingham and confounding Prince John, yet if he appears with King Arthur and Merlyn, we’re not really surprised. However he might look and wherever he might pop up, we know Robin Hood as a brave outlaw, a defender of justice, and a champion to the oppressed. Adam Thorpe’s novel Hodd claims that everything we know is wrong, beginning with the outlaw’s name. Thorpe transforms Robin Hood, bandit lord of Sherwood, into Robert Hod, cruel bandit, notorious heretic, vicious murderer, and lurker by ...
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