Here’s Something New: A Collection of Tom’s E-book Reviews!

AN EPISODIC EARLY HISTORY OF E-BOOKS

Thomas A. Easton

Introduction

 

I spent 30 years as the book columnist for Analog Science Fiction and Science Fact Magazine. I started in 1978, well before there was anything remotely resembling an e-book. I quit in 2008, by which time e-books were as standard a part of the publishing scene as hardbounds and paperbacks. Not surprisingly, when e-books first heaved over the horizon, I reviewed them. I kept on reviewing as they coped with distribution difficulties and morphed through disktop publishing on 5.25” floppies, “laser disks,” and on-line libraries into what we now find so familiar.

For your edification, I have mined more than a decade’s worth of my old Analog columns for many of the relevant reviews, beginning with Ben Bova’s thought that they would have to be accepted as children’s toys before they could make any headway with adults. These reviews comprise a history of the early evolution of e-books–much of it before we had the World Wide Web and websites–and I hope that you will find this history interesting.

 

 

November 1989

 

Cyberbooks, Ben Bova, TOR, $17.95, 283 pp.

 

The publishing industry is an easy target for satire. Consider: Editors can’t read manuscripts in the office because their time is so thoroughly taken up with meetings. Excellent novels from first-time novelists who (of course!) have no track record to prove their salability are bought for minuscule advances, published in tiny quantities with no promotion, and expected to prove their worth in the marketplace, while lousy books by established authors with a record of bestsellers are bought for humongous advances, printed on the flattened corpses of entire forests, and promoted as vigorously as any presidential candidate onto the bestseller lists. Meanwhile, any editor whose books don’t sell is fired, only to trade publishers with another editor whose books don’t sell, and both are welcomed with open arms as shots of new blood who did wonders in their last jobs and will do them again in their new ones. Add to this such a mad resistance to change that even though the technology already exists, many publishers still cannot accept manuscripts on computer disks, much less via modem, and…

In other words, it’s all just a little bit jabberwockish, not to mention positovely brillig and slithy. And anyone who has hung around the industry for awhile, who has been editor of this and other magazines, who has worked with book publishers, who has earned renown as a writer of fiction and nonfiction, and whose wife is an agent, knows it all so well that he is eager to vent his spleen by putting it all on paper.

You’ve got it, folks. I’m talking about Ben Bova and his latest novel, Cyberbooks. He begins with computer whiz Carl Lewis, who has invented a book-sized device into which one inserts a wafer (call it a minidisk, and you’re close enough) bearing the text and pictures of a book. One then reads the book, a page at a time, on screen. The reader, the cyberbook, costs, say, $200. The wafers cost pennies. The reader, the human, is thus even after buying a handful of wafers instead of books, forests are saved, and literacy is an attainable option for the masses. (I’ve been wondering where this device was for years. Now Ben tells me why I haven’t seen it, and where it will show up first.)

Lewis has a girl friend who works for Bunker Books and arranges for him to present his ideas. After a brief delay occasioned by a competitor’s sabotage, he convinces the company to bite, and then… The problem is that a fair portion of the industry’s distribution system whiffs a hint of technological obsolescence. Bunker’s sales force sues, is joined by the Canadian lumber industry, and…

Meanwhile, literary retirees such as Agatha Marple and Rex Wolfe are being murdered on the streets of New York. Competitor Webb Press (if you’ve ever spent any time on the publisher’s side of the industry, you’ll spot the pun) is scheming both to avoid a hostile takeover by the Sicilian Mafia and to take over Bunker. An aggrieved author is buying armament. And…

You name it, and Ben sends it up, punctures it, brings it crashing down, and tromps all over it. And then, just to show his versatility, he refuses to go along with one cliche, that of the publisher’s offspring who, brought into the company because of kinship, displays an awesomely Wodehousian incompetence.

Ben’s Junior has the one idea that saves the day for Cyberbooks.

 

 

JUNE 1990

An interesting item arrived in the mail the other day, apparently in response to my review of Ben Bova’s Cyberbooks. It was an MS-DOS shareware (try it, then pay) program called “IRIS: The Virtual Book Processor,” by Ted Husted, which allows one to navigate pretty much at will through an on-disk book. I ran it through its paces, and I’m impressed.

IRIS includes capabilities that look a lot like hypertext, and a separate version (called PRISM) is available for writers of books to be read with the program. Husted says he plans to distribute such books as fast as authors will write or convert them. So far, his list includes The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Science Fiction (“a compendium of the many worlds and wonders found in award-winning science fiction”) and The Virtual Society (on the modern library and its future) by Harvey Wheeler, director of the Virtual Academy, a modem-based education resource for elementary and high-school students.

I won’t claim that Husted represents the wave of the future, but his efforts do seem worthy of encouragement.

 

November 1990

 

A few months ago, I mentioned Ted Husted ( UserWare) and his IRIS “virtual book” software (MS-DOS only), which permits convenient movement through a book on computer disk. The latest word is that he continues to improve the program and to acquire “books” for sale to customers. One such “book” is all the reviews of novels that appeared in this column in 1989; you look up what you want by author, novel title, and even theme. He’s also getting a couple from SF writers Steve Miller and Sharon Lee, authors of Carpe Diem and other books.

In addition, others are using IRIS to prepare their own products. The latest I’ve seen is ShareDebate International, an MS-DOS “diskette magazine” whose premier issue contains articles on health costs, corporate income tax, Japanese vs. U.S. patent law, urban computer modeling, and more. The editor, Raleigh H. Martin–a writer and business/computer consultant, he’s educated in sociology, political science, and more–has written it all, but he says in his long editorial that he wants other writers to join in and help justify the magazine’s title (“shared-debate”). He also calls for “poly-sci-fi,” a political science version of science fiction, and future issues may contain samples. So far, it looks promising.

Another on-disk publisher who has just come to my attention is John Galuszka, Serendipity Systems. Ted Husted (of IRIS) sent me the Serendipity flyer, which describes the operation and lists half a dozen available MS-DOS on-disk books by John Peter (including SF, horror, medieval romance, transcontinental wanderings, and a sampler). Husted also sent the sampler, the “Serendipity Anthology,” which for a mere $4 offers a taste of everything and demonstrates SS’s disk-reading program. (The other books range from $6 for a one-disk item to $10 and $12 for two-disk items.) Future plans include hypertext and interactive books.

Judging from the sampler, Serendipity’s book-reading software is a good deal clumsier than Husted’s IRIS. And the books aren’t as impressive either. What I saw had an unprofessional number of typos, and Peters’ prose and story-telling skills, while well above the level of rank amateur, struck me as rather raw. That may change as Galuszka, as Husted is doing, recruits more and more professional writers.

It’s early days yet, for Serendipity Systems, for ShareDebate International, for IRIS, for the whole books-on-disk idea. But I’m supportive–after all, computers are just the gadgets for Analog-reading technophiles, a computer disk is almost infinitely reusable, it’s much more compact than even a paperback, and it’s the perfect publishing medium for the blind (Husted is making IRIS compatible with speech synthesizers) and physically handicapped (push a button–how easy can turning a page be?). And the patron saint of books on disk has a definite connection to this magazine. (Who do you think I mean? Ben Bova, author of Cyberbooks. But if you’ve got any better suggestions, I’ll accept nominations.)

I therefore plan to look at whatever comes my way. Whenever possible, I will give on-disk books and similar products at least brief mention under the “Books on Disk” heading.

 

 

Mid-December 1990

 

Steve Miller has come up with just the right name for the publication of books on disk, which seems to be happening more and more. He thinks it should be called “disk-top publishing.” He’s interested because he has just begun to advertise his own “disk-top” operation, BPLAN_Virtuals. He’s actively looking for titles and expects to have well over a dozen ready to ship by the time this plug sees print. He’s using Ted Husted’s IRIS.

I’ve seen no product, but the latest SFWA Bulletin did carry a brief mention of Joan Szechtman, Publisher, Soft_Press. She is apparently “attempting to market novels ‘on floppy disk only, for IBM PC/XT/AT.'”

Here are a couple of brief updates: Roleigh Martin’s ShareDebate International (Applied_Foresight_Inc.) costs $5 for a single issue but can be downloaded free from three different national bulletin boards (BIX, GENIE, Compuserve). You can also obtain it from many shareware distributors. A printed version of the first issue is available for $15. Greater on-screen sophistication of format is planned. And a Macintosh version is under development.

John Galuszka, Publisher, Serendipity_Systems, writes that he not only publishes on-disk books but also sells, for $25, PC-BOOK, a program for use by writers who would like to do their own on-disk publishing; it sounds similar to Ted Husted’s cheaper IRIS and PRISM. In addition, he “is sponsoring the BOOKWARE library system for the distribution of electronic books” from various sources; it will function rather like a shareware library.

Finally, Galuszka also sent along a copy of his SF title, John Peter’s Baby April. It’s the highly derivative tale of a man who, while fishing in the woods, finds a strange monolith. Rain threatens, he steps into the doorway in its side, and he is the captive of a strange intelligence. Peter writes with such excruciating attention to detail that even though I think “disk-top publishing” holds great promise, I can hardly hold him up as a shining example. Not recommended.

 

 

January 1991

 

I’ve just received a disk from N. L. (Jake) Hargrove, High_Mesa_Publishing. It contains copies of both the May 1990 issue of his Computer Information Monthly News and Short Story Disk #1 (thus the individual, separate disks are hardly packed with material). The former is aimed at those who run and use computer Bulletin Board Systems and contains one article on electronic publishing (in addition to letters to the editor, classified ads, instructions to contributors, and other trimmings). It also has an annoying number of typos.

For $3, the short story disk gives you just three stories, all of acceptable but not exceptional quality. Michele Mauro’s “Immortality Blues” concerns a world where vampires are commonplace and a mortal seeks their eternal state. Hargrove’s own “Silo” is post-peace paranoia about nuclear missiles in grain silos. Ann Smathers’ “El Dorado” was hard to read or evaluate because page 56 led to page 57 which led to page 56 which… This is a glitch possible only on computers (books can have missing pages, extra pages, and pages stuck together, but no endless loops); I’ll tell Hargrove about it, and presumably he’ll fix it.

Despite the glitch, however, Hargrove’s approach works well.

His “disk-top” books are in the form of “executable” files, meaning that the book is in a sense a program. It does not exist, as it does for many other “disk-top” publishers, in a form that can be loaded into a word-processor and modified or plagiarized. Typing the book’s name puts it on your screen, and navigation is smooth. There is, however, no way to mark your place as there is in IRIS.

Steve Miller’s BPLAN_Virtuals has several interesting disks available already (or very soon, as I write this), including the Disk-Top Science Fantasy Reader, Disk-Top Horror Reader, and Disk-Top Writer’s Guide anthologies, his and Sharon Lee’s own Gnothi-Kairon novella (set in the Space Rogues universe) and Kinzel collection, and a novella of my own, Alien Resonance.

The disks are priced higher than High Mesa’s at two for $9.95, one for $5 (plus $2 shipping and handling per order), but they’re fuller and much of the material is by professionals (meaning people whose work you have seen in print before). To my mind, this makes them a better buy even if the price is a little more.

 

 

FEBRUARY 1991

You may be pardoned for wondering whether the recent burst of disk-top action in this column is because I have just discovered the phenomenon or because the phenomenon has just begun to hum. The answer seems to be that previous attempts to get disk-top publishing started just did not get very far. The reason for their failure may be simply that there was not yet a workable way to present a book on a computer screen. This problem has now been solved by several people, most successfully by Ted Husted (IRIS). The disk-top action I’m covering is indeed new, and I’m delighted to be able to blow the horn for it.

Whether there is a market for disk-top books is quite another question. So far, the indications suggest that people prefer hand-held paper books–usable on the beach, in the tub, in bed, in a hammock–to sitting up in front of their computer. Disk-top may not really hit until someone markets a cheap, battery-powered, book-sized reading machine. (I don’t expect it will be much longer before we see a real “cyberbook.” And yes, as soon as a manufacturer sends me one, I’ll review it. It will have to be MS-DOS compatible and use standard disks in order to take advantage of the existing disk-top material.) On the other hand, the technology is usable now, and it represents an entirely new level of access to “print” media for the visually impaired and the physically handicapped.

For those of you who would like more information about disktop publishing, John Galuszka’s The Electronic Publishing Forum is a compendium of position statements, contributors’ guidelines, available titles, and more from various disk-top publishers. The first issue covers Serendipity itself, UserWare, High Mesa Publishing (which offers a disk-based book club, among other things), and Writers Online, a Bulletin Board System for writers that includes an electronic small-press literary magazine. There’s also a “Disk-Based Books in ‘Print'” section that lists even rumored titles. Future issues of the quarterly EP Forum will expand coverage, making it a prime resource in this area. Eventually, judging from complaints in the letter section about the general quality of disk-top fiction, it will have to add a review column. Then some computer marketer (such as Radio Shack) will bundle a copy in with its machines and disktop will take off.

The second issue of Roleigh Martin’s IRIS-based ShareDebate International is now available, with articles on free speech, entrepreneurial democracy, and the promise of smart cards for beating drug abuse (through the ‘paper’ trail), and a reprint of a Ben Bova (Remember, he’s the patron saint of disk-top publishing.) piece on magnetohydrodynamics. The lengthy discussions benefit greatly from synopses. There is also now a way to take notes as you read, a feature that no print magazine can offer (at least, as part of the magazine).

 

JUNE 1991

 

The third (Fall 1990) issue of ShareDebate International is now available, and it seems to be improving as others join the “debate” aspect of this on-disk magazine. This issue has comments by economics Nobelist Milton Friedman on the National-interest (now Future-interest) Project-level Stock market idea; he says it amounts to “trying… to make a cat bark.” There are also a reprint of a Friedman article and proposals for two new debate topics, on electronic publishing (with an excerpt from Ben Bova’s Cyberbooks as the opening shot) and on the need to put moral values back in education. Interesting stuff.

John Galuszka (Serendipity Systems) is now operating Bookware, a distribution system for books disk-top published by their authors.   As a sample, he sent me Software, a novel by James J. Franxman which the catalog describes like so: “A scientist in Dallas discovers a specific voltage at which certain plastics can conduct electricity. A medical researcher in Cambridge… discovers a frequency at which binary computer code can be transmitted directly to the brain stem of Rhesus monkeys. Put these two breakthroughs together and you have a new computer program… that moves computer software from user-friendly to user-deadly…” If that sounds unlikely, well, I’ve seen worse premises turned into entertaining stories. Alas, the author takes forever to give any hint of what is going on, and the dialog is along the maid-and-butler lines of:

 

Mo: The company is in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Shmo: As you know, that’s a little west of Boston.

 

I’m not kidding. It will be a while before disk-top publishing overcomes the very basic problem that most of what gets disk-topped has been rejected by more conventional publishers (and only sometimes because it isn’t conventional enough). That is, it needs a mechanism for selection and quality control, what on-paper publishing calls an editor. But watch this space. I’ll let you know if and when disk-topping finds its Stanley Schmidt, as well as when the occasional diamond shows up (it has to happen, right?). In the meantime, bear in mind that you can recycle a disk.

 

 

AUGUST 1991

 

  1. Neil Schulman, President of SoftServ Publishing, called recently to say, “I see you’ve started covering electronic publishing. Wanta see mine?”

“Hokay,” I said. “Show me.” And he did. He’s got the unabridged version of Mike Banks’ and Dean Lambe’s The Odysseus Solution. He’s got his own The Rainbow Cadenza and The Robert Heinlein Interview and other Heinleiniana. He’s got William Dubie’s The Birdhouse Cathedral, technological poetry. He’s got Keith Kirts’ The Devil’s Drainpipe and Space Sex or Tricks for Goldfish. There are titles by Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, Robert Anton Wilson, Victor Koman, and more, more, more!

With the reprinted material (Banks/Lambe, Schulman, Ellison, Silverberg, Koman), you can trust the quality, right? For the original SoftServ titles, such as those by Kirts, I’ve read just enough to say that the quality is notably above much of what I’ve seen from other disk-top publishers. One main drawback here is that SoftServ supplies its wares in “compressed” format, meaning that once you “uncompress” the computer files, they demand more room than is on a disk. That is, you need a hard disk in your computer. Another drawback is that SoftServ does not supply a special “user interface”; that is, you have to use the DOS “TYPE” command (with the PAUSE key), BROWSE.COM, or your favorite word-processor to view the books. Happily, Schulman told me, he is looking at Ted Husted’s IRIS interface and may soon be using that. Disk-top publishing is still finding its feet.

Titles can be ordered on disk or downloaded directly to your computer.

 

 

MAY 1992

 

The information I have suggests that the disk-top publishing movement isn’t going places nearly as fast as its partisans wish. One such partisan with whom I’m familiar has offered material from established SF writers at reasonable prices and has gone to the expense of putting ads in a number of media in the SF (e.g., Locus) and computer fields. He has had plenty of queries and expressions of interest, but too few actual sales, to the point where he is now, as I write this, on the verge of saying, “The hell with it.”

Why? There may be several factors at work. One is simply that most people seem to prefer to kick back with a paper book–its feel and heft and smell familiar since childhood–in their lap than to crouch over a flickering computer screen and keyboard. Another factor is that on-disk books aren’t available in bookstores; you have to take some trouble to track them down. A third factor is the miserable quality of much of the product available. Last of all, people have been hearing about the Sony “diskman,” a roughly book-sized device that will display on a screen text recorded on laser disks[1]; it’s useless with disk-top floppies, it lacks any way to download from a personal computer, and it will be in this country Real Soon Now. Maybe people are just waiting for it and its successors. When the genuine cyberbook arrives, Come the Millennium, disk-top publishing will explode.

Won’t it? Well, maybe. If the market has not been irretrievably poisoned by the wads of unfiltered sludge floating around out there. And this is why I was rather alarmed by John Galuszka’s comment that “As you have mentioned in your column, the number and quality of electronic publications is limited. To change this situation, I have killed off the rejection slip. Serendipity Systems will publish the next one hundred manuscripts submitted to it.”

That sounds rather toxic, doesn’t it?

You’re used to seeing in books and magazines the end result of a careful screening process that rejects the vast bulk of submissions. Of that hundred submissions Galuszka will publish, this process might pass one (which is not to say that that one would be any good, mind you). One more might be as competently drafted but offend against too many sexual, political, religious, or other taboos to be acceptable. The rest? You don’t want to see them. They’re clumsy, awkward things, lacking in spelling, grammar, plot, and character. Some would simply say they stink.

Fortunately, Galuszka went into more detail in the full announcement in the fifth issue of his Electronic Publishing Forum. There are format requirements for submission, and there is a genuine attempt at quality control.   Galuszka is not promising to distribute (sell) all one hundred works of on-disk literary effort: “Those works which are not selected for distribution will be published in an edition of one copy.” Distribution will then be up to the authors, whose main benefit must come from “publication,” apparently meaning the mating of their work with Serendipity’s new and much improved reader interface.

That new interface, by the way, is a good reason for having a look at Forum #5. It really is a great improvement. Another reason is a discussion of An Electronic Holmes Companion, which offers all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories on 5.25″ or 3.5″ disks, for either IBM compatibles or Macintoshes (from PsyLogic Systems); there is also a sample story (“The Five Orange Pips”). The article on interactive fiction (with a sample) is moderately interesting. The Forum also includes an abridged version of the Wordqwik grammar utility, which offers help in distinguishing such word pairs as forth/fourth and write/right.

As usual, the Forum lists electronic books in “print” from other publishers as well as Serendipity. The current version of the list seems a bit more selective than earlier ones; you could do worse than to use it as a buying guide.

  1. H. Kent Lyons recently sent me his “Electronic Bookstore” catalog. If you like a book’s capsule description and excerpts in the catalog or if you like actual sample copies available at the UBC Bookstore in Vancouver, you place your order and he prints you a copy. The idea isn’t entirely new since it has been used for years in the textbook industry (particularly for anthologies), where it was devised to handle the problem of supplying small demands. Modern computers mean that it is also an answer to the problem of maintaining expensive inventory. The main drawback is that you can’t walk out of the store with your book until and unless the store sets up a computer and laser printer on site (which is expensive enough to wait until there is a lot of demand for a lot of short-run books). Another drawback–and he admits it right up front–is that the process “is a trial beginning” and “needs developing for commercial use, after a viable market. . . has been demonstrated.” Sadly, modern marketing conditions seem to insist that a business get the bugs out first, or that “viable market” never appears.[2]

Does Lyons have a chance to find that market? Most of the samples in the catalog didn’t look all that impressive to me, but there were some exceptions, notably the poetry of Gerald S. Busch and other poets of the Harbinger Electronic Writers’ Workshop (Northern Light Verse… eh?).

A different sort of thing is Sarah Smith’s King of Space, from Eastgate Systems. The package I received was for the Macintosh, and apparently only for the Mac, so I couldn’t check it out (my machine is IBM-compatible). But the brief manual does make it sound interesting. King of Space is a hypertext program that needs a hard disk, prefers two megabytes of memory, offers both artwork and music with the text, includes segments that allow the reader to participate in the story via simulations, and “contains scenes of sex and violence; please keep it away from children who use your computer.”

Smith herself is a fan who has been involved with hypermedia since 1984, coedited the SF anthology Future Boston, and authored a mainstream novel, The Vanished Child, coming in 1992 from Ballantine.

Smith, with her non-text, game-like extras (art, music, simulations), may succeed better in the marketplace than the purveyors of pure-text disk-top products. Certainly Eastgate’s descriptive copy makes me wish I had a Mac, or that the company made an MS-DOS version of the package.

But let’s not fail to encourage Galuszka, Lyons, and their fellow toilers–including SF writers J. Neil Schulman (Softserv Publishing) and Steve Miller (BPLAN Virtuals)–in the computer-book vineyard. They’re hanging in there even though the harvest seems long delayed. And I do think that harvest will come as soon as a book-like reader is widely and cheaply available. It could even come without that if someone would just put some marketing muscle into reaching the blind (many of whom “read” computer screens via speech synthesizers) and the physically handicapped.

 

 

AUGUST 1992

 

James T. Henry III writes that he is joining the disk-top publishers’ brigade by making available on 3.5-inch disk Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark” and Leo Tolstoy’s “The Tale of Ivan the Fool.” He adds that these stories should be available soon from PC-SIG, Public Software Library, and CompuServe, that he is busily typing into his computer Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, and that he plans to tackle Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist next. He then wishes to branch out from public-domain materials by publishing some of Murray Leinster’s stories; he is trying to get permission from the Leinster heirs to do so.

He didn’t send samples, so I can’t comment on the quality of his typing or of the user interface he’s providing. I can say that he seems to be describing his distribution arrangements optimistically. He says he has mailed the first two disks to PCSIG, Public Software Library, and CompuServe, which sounds rather like a wannabe author claiming success as soon as he has put his first story in the mail to Stan Schmidt–long before Ye Editor has read it, much less bought it or published it.

Ah, well. He definitely has one thing going for him. Rather than publish material by unknown authors who have already proven unable to find a print publisher, he’s putting out time-tested classics. If he succeeds and if his list grows big enough, then we might one day have available on a single laser disk, and hence searchable for characters, gimmicks, concepts or other tag-ends of memory, all the science fiction published before Gernsback, or all the SF from Gernsback to 1950 (including the entire Golden Age), or everything from the New Wave, or… Take your pick, and think how useful such things would be to students, scholars, and fans.

Is Mr. Henry worth encouraging? Someone’s going to make all this stuff available, and it might as well be him.

 

 

OCTOBER 1992

 

Those of you interested in reading or preparing on-disk books and magazines will be delighted to hear that Ted Husted (UserWare) has a new program out. It’s the DART “hypertext file viewer and program launcher,” and it “offers a modern ‘desktop’ environment featuring: Multiple, overlapping windows, mouse support, menus, dialogs, input boxes… global text search,” and more. It can backtrack easily, mark your place automatically, take notes, edit files, compress files, and print by screen, label, or file. On a color monitor, it comes through very attractively. The hypertext feature means it offers instant look-up and cross-reference. The other features mean that if you use word-processors such as (for instance) Microsoft Works, DART will feel very familiar. If you don’t use such word-processors, however, you won’t have much trouble. DART struck me as remarkably intuitive and bobble-free. Husted’s IRIS was the best thing available for disk-topping, and it was good; this tops it by a country mile–and it can handle simple text documents formatted for IRIS (interactive documents retain their special character only after revision).

To use DART, you need an MS-DOS (IBM-compatible) computer with 196K of available memory, a floppy disk drive, and MS-DOS 2.1 or later.

Of course, the old IRIS is hardly dead. I just ran into volume 5 of an “Elec-Mag” called Ruby’s Pearls (Del Freeman, donations welcome) that uses it. It’s worth mentioning because it seems better than many disk-top products and at least two of the short stories in it have a bit of SF to them–Brooke P. Anderson’s “Smart-Bomb,” about a bomb named Fred, and Mary Ellen Wofford’s “Stone Blood,” in which body parts are collateral and the loan is past due. The best story, however, is not SF; C. G. Burner’s “The Woofbard Curse” is a cute tale of a writer whose stories seem to kill the magazines that publish them. Ruby’s Pearls also points readers toward the Disktop Publishing Association.

 

 

 

NOVEMBER 1992

 

It looks from here like disktop publishing might just be on the verge of an explosion. Ted Husted has sent me a copy of the Disktop Publishing Association’s own MS-DOS hypertext reader, complete with Ron Albright’s essay on disktopping. Ted also sent a “Floppyback” sampler from FPI Inc. This is another hypertext reader for MS-DOS machines, and it seems to work quite well (better than the DPA’s, and maybe even better than Ted’s DART). The sampler includes bits of Twain, Shakespeare, Conan Doyle, and other classic writers to show off its paces and tempt you to buy the full-length floppybacks.

 

 

MID-DECEMBER 1992

 

Disk-top publishing keeps on trucking. The eighth issue of the Electronic Publishing Forum just came my way from John Galuszka’s Serendipity Systems. This issue includes information on the latest Ruby’s Pearls, tells you who’s who in electronic publishing, and more. Included is a set of programs from John Napier’s Another Company. One allows users to build small databases quite easily. Another turns sense into nonsense. The best program makes it about as easy as it can get to prepare your own disk-top package, though Napier does seem to go insanely (hype-erbolically) overboard on how much financial success you can expect from disk-topping. Napier also sells Another Program (that’s its name) that uses something called “ASCII Vector Graphics” to make disk-top packages that contain graphics and animation; if it’s as good as it sounds, it’s a winner.

Something I’m looking forward to seeing is Serendipity’s Hypertext Hamlet, using Ted Husted’s DART interface. It’s hardly SF, but making the definitions of Elizabethan words and all the footnotes instantly available–push the button and BANG! You got it!–sounds like a great way to demonstrate the technology.

And, oh, yes–The Disktop Publishing Association has inaugurated the Digital Quill Awards for excellence in disk-top publishing. This is a crucial step in improving the quality of what’s available on disk. Since I’ve used some space here to bemoan that quality, it surely serves me right that I have been invited–and have agreed–to be a judge. In due time I’ll tell you who the winners were.

Perhaps the best sign that disktopping is going to make it big is that–according to Time–Apple is bringing Modern Library titles such as The Sound and the Fury and Moby Dick out on disk for its PowerBook computer. In addition, Arizona’s Slate Corporation has a device with a touch-sensitive screen that lets a user flip pages with a special stylus, and Florida’s Booklink is promising a notebook-size gadget that loads books from a coin-op dispenser.

The effort’s there, and the level of activity seems to be growing. I’ll keep watching.

 

 

JANUARY 1993

 

Serendipity Systems’ Hypertext Hamlet isn’t SF, but I expected it to be a grand example of what futuristic, computer-tech, sfnal “disktop publishing” makes possible for SF as well as other genres.

Well…   The interface is the generally satisfactory DART. It has hyperlinks galore to find scenes, word definitions, footnotes, and even scene-by-scene plot summaries. Just the thing for students, teachers, and scholars.

But it didn’t work on my 286 clone. The problem is apparently that the play comes as a single large (nearly 300K) file on which DART chokes. When I used my word processor to break the play into acts, each one with its notes, definitions, and summaries, everything worked fine and the hypertext lived up to its hype. On the other hand, I then discovered two missing definitions, a couple of typos in the labels that make the hyperlinks work, and a number of typos in the text of the play.

It’s nice when you can fix a problem yourself. But a product such as this should not have to be fixed. The need reflects the sort of poor quality control that hurts the entire disktop publishing enterprise by annoying readers into saying “The heck with it.”

 

 

MARCH 1993

 

A couple of columns back, I told you I had agreed to be a judge for the Disktop Publishing Association’s first annual Digital Quill Awards for excellence in original electronic publishing (not electronic reissues of classics). The entries for the fiction side of the competition, said DPA chief Ron Albright, were mostly “low-tech writing–personal experience, coming of age, that sort of thing, with about a 50-50 split between that and science fiction entries.”

The awards were announced last July (while I was working on this column), and there is enough SF connection in the technology involved as well as in the nature of some of the winners to let you know the results. You will recognize some of the names and titles from my previous reports.

More short stories than anything else were entered in the competition. The winner was C. G. Burner’s “The Woofbard Curse,” concerning a writer whose stories have strange effects on editors and magazines. The first runner-up was Mary Ellen Wofford’s “Clarice and the Big Red One,” in which a dragon rapes an eighteen-wheeler. The second runner-up was William Slattery’s “The Morals of the Ethical Woman,” in which the woman who teaches an ethics course turns out to…

The winning original novel was Anastasia Smith’s Tavern, published by UserWare; as it happens, this is an SF novel.   The runner-up was A. C. Aarbus’s Southern Discomfort, published by Del Freeman; it’s heavy-handed Southern sociopolitical intrigue.

The winning “Regular Literary Publication” was Ruby’s Pearls, edited by Del Freeman. A typical issue contains an interesting mix of material, generally including some SF. The runners-up were Intertext, edited by Jason Snell, and QUANTA, an on-line (Internet) only magazine with a heavy SF component edited by Daniel Appelquist.

The winning “Regular Computer/Technical Publication” was Files and Stuff, a newsletter edited by Henry Barfoot and Lupe Tingle. The runners-up were EFFector (Electronic Frontier Foundation Online), a newsletter edited by Rita M. Rouvalis, and Z*Net PC, a newsletter edited by Ron Kovacs.

The winning nonfiction book was Harvey Wheeler’s Virtual Society (UserWare). The first runner-up was Fictional Writer’s Primer, by Darvin Harfield and Adam Poszar (Rabid Rhino, Huntington, IN); this is advice to would-be writers in a not-quite consistently humorous, satirical vein that owes more than a little to auto-repair columnists Click & Clack.   The second runner-up was A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Science Fiction, by Ted Husted and Kevin Rhodes (UserWare).

The best software program (shareware or traditionally marketed) designed for publishing text and/or graphics and facilitating their distribution and viewing turned out to be Ted Husted’s “DART” (UserWare), which I have praised before.   The first runner-up was Jeff Napier’s “Writer’s Dream” (Another Company). The second runner-up was something called “BDEXX” (by Anthony Hursh, Dead Moose Enterprises), which I have not seen.

A question that must occur to many of you is why, if the Digital Quill entries are any good at all, they don’t show up on paper. The answer is not simple. For one thing–and do let me focus on the short stories here–decent stories can miss on-paper publication because there are not that many slots available, because there are other stories the editors think are better, or even because the authors think only in terms of electronic publication. Are the Digital Quill entries decent stories? Some are, and indeed they could fit easily into the pages of many modern magazines. On the other hand, many show a simplicity of structure, a heavy-handedness in plotting and characterization, and a fondness for gimmicks that make one think “old-fashioned.” (Such stories are also published on paper, of course.) Often the reason seems to be that the authors are still learning; many are college students (QUANTA comes from Carnegie Mellon) or other young people.

Does that sound like sneering criticism? I don’t think it should. Electronic publishing is a young medium, just as the pulp magazines once were. As a medium, it is still developing. So are its writers and editors. And there is already a great deal of vigor and promise in the field.

One of the most intriguing promises is visible in “Elec-Mags” such as Ruby’s Pearls, which mix genres and thereby break down a barrier print has been building for most of this century.

Another is that fifty percent SF among the entries to the competition, which says SF will not be left behind as this new medium develops. It also suggests that SF may have some special appeal to people who are “techy” enough to be comfortable with the medium in its youth; I’m sure this does not surprise Analog readers.

Still another promise is of an explosion of small-press activity and self-publishing. Electronic publishing is immensely cheaper than traditional publishing. It does not need paper or printers. The product is light in weight, economically shippable, handicapped accessible, and recyclable.   And there is no dependence on distributors or bookstores, though that may come in the future.

The problem in all this lies in the self-publishing, where the lack of an editorial screen can mean pretty dreadful product. On the other hand, on-paper commercial and small-press publishing can have the same result, which is why reviewers exist.

The DPA’s Digital Quill Awards should help by pointing people toward the best examples of the new medium. At this point, this may be especially important in the case of display programs such as DART and “Elec-Mags” such as Ruby’s Pearls.

 

 

JUNE 1993

 

The latest word on disktop publishing is that you can now find it on the big computer information services, such as GEnie: “GEnieLamp is five separate online magazines that bring you the latest news, product reviews, bulletin board and library highlights from the [computer-related] RoundTables … released on the 1st of every month… Find the future here and now in the GEnieLamp Online Library… publish and distribute your bookette here… fill the spaces in your next newsletter… with articles that you can reprint…” and so on.

Another interesting development is the “Library of Tomorrow,” created by Brad Templeton’s ClariNet Communications Corporation and planned to be available in 1993. The idea is “all you can read” for about five bucks a month–one low fee gives you unlimited access to previously published (that is, professional level) short fiction and nonfiction in electronic form. You access the Library with your computer and modem via information services such as GEnie and CompuServe. If you don’t like to read from your computer screen, you can print the material on paper.

Still another interesting development comes from Ai Squared which wrote me recently to say, “We are the developers of ZOOMTEXT ™, a generic screen magnifier for the visually impaired. We are currently exploring development of a reading package” to distribute with the software.

Looks to me like Ai Squared and ClariNet could go together about as well as pepperoni and cheese.

 

SEPTEMBER 1993

 

John Galuszka recently sent me the tenth issue of his Electronic Publishing Forum. As usual, it consists of new product announcements, commentary on the disk-top publishing field, and a bigger and better “Electronic Books in Print” feature, which allows “hypertext navigation through the database, cross-referencing by title, author, book category, and subject matter, plus extensive excerpts. ‘Electronic Books in Print’ will be an annual publication available from Serendipity Systems…” EPF #10 also includes “Cozy Reader,” a new shareware file-display program, similar in several ways to Ted Husted’s DART, and “Orpheus,” a shareware hypertext authoring and reading package for MS-DOS computers, created by Canadian poet Rod Willmot.

“Cozy” works well, making fewer claims than DART and living up to them adequately. However, I cannot say as much for “Orpheus.” This program looks very attractive, especially when it claims to be able to present graphic and text screens on the same basis–meaning with the abilities to incorporate hot-buttons to leap to other screens and to back out at will to previous screens. When I tried it out, it seemed to work quite beautifully–but only as long as the material it was dealing with was pure text. When I summoned the demo graphic into view, the program froze up. The only way to get out of the graphic was to use a “map” mode of navigation through the array of hyper cards, and after a few uses of the map, its labels proved unstable. Not recommended, at least in its 1.21 incarnation.

I find it unfortunate that as long as the electronic publishing market is dominated by the electronic version of the small press, as long as the big software houses see it as small potatoes, it does not seem that we will see anything that works as slick as it looks. Certainly I have not yet seen any disktop display program that didn’t have some problems, although some–such as Serendipity’s own program–have improved considerably since I first saw them.

 

 

NOVEMBER 1993

 

The Disktop Publishing Association has changed its name to the Digital Publishing Association in an effort to avoid confusion with (and any connotations of amateurishness that may be attached to) “desk-top” publishing.

Is the effort justified? Or is it just one more example of trying to improve an unfortunate image by changing the name?

Well, consider… The eleventh issue of John Galuszka’s Electronic Publishing Forum makes me feel that electronic or disk-top or digital publishing is really getting someplace now. For one thing, EPF #11 concentrates on reviews of digital products, and without limiting itself to praise; the field has desperately needed this sort of evaluative attention for some time. For another, it includes copies of Pinnacle Software’s shareware SEE utilities, which seem very likely to live up to their billing as useful tools for those interested in doing their own digital publishing. Among other things, they permit one to set up efficient, attractive menus or tables of contents.

There is also a copy of Garlic Magic, an electronic book on a certain magical herb with a somewhat breathless initial tone, entertaining graphics, and a surprising amount of lore, myth, history, recipes, gardening tips, and more (including too many typos). Finally, there is a copy of the first issue of the electronic magazine Overbyte, which plans to give each subscriber coverage of only those topic areas–movies, TV, crime, politics, fiction, nonfiction, even book reviews–he or she requests and offers a quality of prose that is quite astonishing to anyone who knows what is generally met on the digital publishing scene. Both book and magazine make very good use of their respective display engines and amount to fine demonstrations of what digital publishing can be.

With all the extras it offers, EPF #11 has to be rated a very good buy.

Reader Michael W. Bell sent me the demo disk for ACCESS Publishers. This is a set of ten samples from novels offered on disk, using a front-end reader interface that works quite nicely and simply (though it is a bit more awkward than necessary). The novels themselves (Callie, by Donald J. Zook; Deadly Secrets, by Michael J. DeSario; Endeavour’s Travels, by Kathryn Wicker; Firewalkers, by Everett Rockwood; Milky Way Rehab, by Ralph Metzner; Preemie, by Fran Richards; Project First Step, by Steve Catoe; Saint Anthony’s Fire, by Maxine Hillis; Snackers, by Dani Christian; and Year of the Crystal, by Marilyn O’Sullivan) include SF, SF spoof, borderline SF, mystery, and romance. All strike me as derivative and amateurish, although having said that I must also say that I have seen much worse. In fact, I have seen worse on the stands.

Jim Henry III (whom I mentioned some time back) has also sent a disk, showing the results of the work he has put into typing onto disk public-domain classics such as works by Lord Dunsany, Hope Mirrlees, G. K. Chesterton, Rudyard Kipling, Leo Tolstoy, and Lewis Carroll. The presentation is not fancy, for he uses a simple reader interface, but there seem to be remarkably few typos. That is, he has chosen well and executed well. If he can also market well, he should find the recompense he deserves.

The Dunsany material includes twenty-six fantasy stories and three plays on one disk. The Mirrlees novel is Lud-in-the-Mist, first published in 1926 and long out of print. The Kipling material includes the Just So Stories and “Oak and Ash” and is packaged with Chesterton’s “The Babe Unborn,” Tolstoy’s “Tale of Ivan the Fool,” and Carroll’s “Hunting of the Snark” and “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles.”

 

 

MID-DECEMBER 1993

 

It’s time for a couple of updates on disk-top publishing–now renamed “digital publishing” to avoid confusion.

Ted Husted (UserWare) just sent me the latest version (2a) of his DART display engine. It adds a number of new features, improves a few older ones, and remains one of the cleanest, most versatile, and most efficient display programs available.

To my mind–and Husted’s–clean efficiency is important, for a display program should not interfere with the reader’s access to what is being read. Versatility is less important. Among those who don’t agree with us is Rod Willmot, whose Orpheus I tutted over in September. When he saw the tuts, he wrote back to say that I had seen an older version (1.21), and here’s the latest (1.53). When I test-drove it, I found the problems of 1.21 fixed and fixed well, though there did remain a few small problems, mostly along the lines of slow response and clunky feel. That is, it suffered in cleanness and efficiency. Versatility is quite grand–as anyone who remembers a little classical mythology might expect, Orpheus will even play music for you.

The twelfth issue of The Electronic Publishing Forum just arrived with a total of about a megabyte of material compressed onto a pair of 360K 5.25″ MS-DOS disks. There’s a large amount of news which I will sum up here by saying only that the cyberbooks idea seems to be picking up steam on a very wide basis.

A wide variety of display engines is now available. EPF12 includes a copy of REXXCOM’s XL2000, used to display the Digital Publishing Association’s “DPA News”; I found it unimpressive largely because it made hash of its own attempt at graphics. Much better were the enclosed samples of two very compact, clean, and efficient programs, TXTBOOK.EXE for displaying text alone and GRFBOOK.EXE for displaying text plus graphics.

EPF12 also included a description of DC GOLD, a 1.2 megabyte 5.25″ disk containing fourteen of the best shareware digital publishing display engines, available from Ted Husted (UserWare). The disk’s 1.2 megabytes decompress to several times that amount of software. It’s even a bargain when you consider that shareware means that if you like something and wish to use it, you still have to pay the original source.

Vincent Pauli’s Resurrection on C Five (Northern Sky Publishing) is a diskbook (a novel on disk) with an intriguing premise: Future archeologists open up an old cinderblock building and find within it a functioning cryopreservation system containing a human being. Revival occurs in space, on the C Five habitat, and the story tracks the encounter of old world and new.

The story’s not bad for amateur work, but it’s still not terribly readable. The prose is vague, wordy, and stiff, and the author does not show enough skill at bringing his story to life.

 

 

JANUARY 1994

 

Brad Templeton’s ClariNet Communications Corporation is offering The “Electric Science Fiction” 1993 Hugo & Nebula Award Anthology, to be available via network, modem, floppy disk, and CD-ROM. It contains the texts of all the novels nominated for a 1993 Hugo award; all the short fiction nominated for either Hugo or Nebula; 3 Nebula-nominated novels, including the winner; a special annotated edition of Vernor Vinge’s A Fire upon the Deep; artwork, fan material, and lots more, including a joke book. (The additional novels are Maureen McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang, Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, and John Varley’s Steel Beach.)

 

MAY 1994

 

ClariNet Communications Corporation’s Library of Tomorrow, the on-line fiction collection that would let you read all you wanted for a set fee, seems to be dead. I plugged it here, and I presume you heard about it elsewhere too, but you haven’t been able to get it, have you? Apparently, the interest needed to support it just wasn’t there. As Brad Templeton (the fellow behind it) told me over the phone, reading a book on your computer may be the wave of the future, but it isn’t the wave of the present.

On the other hand, when he went to the WorldCon last September, he sold out his “Electric Science Fiction” 1993 Hugo & Nebula Award Anthology CD-ROM disk loaded with 1993’s award-nominated and award-winning fiction and artwork, with video interviews, samples of fan writing and cartoons, and more. Now he’s sent me a copy of the CD-ROM, and I can say that the package installs itself very easily under Windows (just follow the instructions). It then responds quite briskly to your attempts to navigate through it–even if, like me, you aren’t used to using a mouse and icons–and shows off some very satisfying talent at displaying artwork (sometimes showing typical computer-art graininess of texture), text (very crisp and readable images), and even action.   The least satisfying aspect of the package is the table of contents, which is split between the menu-bar and the screen so that you may have to hunt for what you want; I find it very easy to imagine a more useful, intuitive arrangement, such as a branching tree diagram. Then you could quickly find, for instance, the jokebook now hidden behind “Other” and “Bonus material” labels (being the sort of person I am, I immediately chose the “Nasty jokes” section–complete with “Offensive material” warning labels–and howled with laughter).

Templeton has done a very nice job of editing and packaging–even considering the table of contents. He has shown us all just how good “digital publishing” can be. If you’re a fan–or a library–with a CD-ROM system for DOS, Windows, or the Mac, this is something you’ve just got to have.   Try it, and you will immediately find yourself praying that this anthology becomes a yearly event and runs forever.

If your vision is less than perfect, you will be even happier, for text on a computer screen can be much, much easier to read. (With the right software, your computer can even read aloud to you, but I don’t know whether or how well this package works with speech synthesizers).

 

 

JULY 1994

 

The science fiction or fantasy component is pretty limited but what the hey. The latest item to come my way from the digital publishing small press–and surely the best I’ve seen so far–is Peter Seulund’s Uprisings in Libertyville, U.S.A. It’s a comic take on the war between the sexes (modern version), set in a rural Wisconsin county where the women have usurped traditionally male positions in local and state government, the newspaper, the bank, and so on. They are now proposing to tear down a landmark water tower that is a bit too frankly phallic, and the men are upset. Their response is a reversal of that old Greek classic, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, in which the women convinced the men to stop warring by withholding sex.

This one’s a delight, witty, raunchy, thoughtful, ultimately quite reasonable in its conclusions, and a lot of fun to read.   It’s not at all the male-supremacist BS one might expect it to be. The men look about as jerky as any feminist would like to insist they are, but also pretty pathetic and desperate.   Before they’re done, the women are pretty desperate, too.

The SF component is centered mostly on one character, Drew, who may or may not be the 50,000-year-old Wandering Jew. He provides some interesting commentary and perspective on the problems of humanity and the environment, ending with a quite Voltairean moral: We must tend our garden right or there will be neither heaven nor hell for any of us.

Other pluses of the novel lie in its use of the hypertext technique, which here shows its potential for definitions (a scrap of music defines “polka”), sardonic asides, illustrations (though some don’t amount to much), character bios, and seating charts.

Seating charts? Well, yes. I said it was talky, and there’s a very stagey feel to the whole package. Indeed, I could not help but feel that the story might work better as a stage play (just like the Aristophanes model). That would require shortening the story, but that would not be difficult and it would even help.

You can get this one from Spittin’ Image Publications for IBM-compatible computers only (MS-DOS 3.1 or later), on either 5.25″ or 3.5″ disks, and it requires about a megabyte of space on your hard drive. The display engine is Rod Willmot’s Orpheus, which works pretty well in this case (though you shouldn’t trust the built-in notepad).

No one is about to praise Marian Allen’s Force of Habit (Serendipity Systems) for its philosophical profundity or stylistic pyrotechnics, but it’s a rather cute farce of a sort that could easily appear as a mass-market paperback.   The setting is a space-going school, “St. Gus the Wonderworker,” staffed by the Galactic Union’s rejected trouble-makers.   Professor Bel Schuster, chafing at restrictions on shore leave and fun, goes in search of a breath of fresh air and gets mixed up with local gangsters, political maneuverings, a Terran con man, the local equivalent of the Baker Street Irregulars, and more. It’s a comedy of errors that owes a good deal to Robert Asprin, Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, and P. G. Wodehouse, although its attention to background plausibility has less in common with the writers than with the comedians.

It’s available for IBM-compatible computers only, on either 5.25″ or 3.5″ disks. Be warned that the label instruction to “Enter FORCE to run” is useless; try entering “DART,” which will activate the DART display engine. There are no illustrations or sound effects.

 

 

 

AUGUST 1994

 

You’d think that by now the word would be out everywhere–at least everywhere Analog goes. But no. The Good Doctor Schmidt recently received a letter from New Zealand’s Ivan Millett describing his attempt at digital publishing with the line, “So far as I know books-on-disk (diskbacks?) have not been tried anywhere in the world before….”

Okay. A good idea is a good idea, no matter how many times it gets rediscovered. So let’s take a brief look at Millett’s book, Deus Ex Machina. He says that he has published it in this form because commercial publishers wouldn’t touch it, but he also encloses a couple of positive reviews from Australia.

The book is a survey of a future interstellar civilization presented in the form of a series of “conversations” or lectures a bit less academic in tone than W. Warren Wagar’s A Short History of the Future (University of Chicago Press, 1990). There is a large amount of arbitrary and off-putting jargon, and the intent is to consider important philosophical issues (such as free will), sometimes satirically, but Millett leaps among so many issues that his impact is seriously diluted. He also displays a considerable debt to such previous works as Jack Williamson’s The Humanoids.

Millett clearly put a great deal of thought into this, but he seems to have produced neither a novel nor a finished work of philosophical satire but rather a background study for the novel he has yet to write. When he writes that novel, it could be quite as interesting as anything by Iain Banks.

 

 

OCTOBER 1994

 

The other day, David Leithauser (Leithauser Research) wrote to say I had plugged DART, Orpheus, and a few other display engines for digital publishing, and here was his, called HyperRead.

The part of HyperRead one uses to generate a HyperRead document is shareware (get it, try it, like it, pay for it and get rewarded for your check with a few useful extras). The part you use to read a HyperRead document is freeware (meaning you can give it away with whatever HyperRead documents you prepare). And it’s not a bad little package. As Leithauser notes, “All such programs balance trade-offs between program size, cost, features, versatility, etc.” This one is very compact and quite spry, though it is reportedly slow to load large documents. It can display pictures and run external programs. And setting up a HyperRead document seems to be a very straightforward, simple process. On the other hand, it gains these advantages at the cost of making a HyperRead document difficult for even its creator to modify without starting all over.

When you prepare a document for a program like DART, you embed all the markers that identify italics, boldface, and hypertextual cross-references in the document itself. HyperRead puts these markers in a separate file, keying them to the document by position so that later adding or dropping a line throws off all subsequent markers.

From the reader’s point of view, this is no problem at all.   The digital publisher may find it awkward, but even so it may prove not to be too great a price to pay for the program’s advantages.

You can get a copy of HyperRead if you buy the fourteenth issue of The Electronic Publishing Forum (Serendipity Systems). EPF-14 also carries news of the digital publishing field (J. Neil Schulman’s SoftServ is dead, for instance) and announces the winners of the second annual “Digital Quill” awards for excellence in digital publishing.

Del Freeman took the prizes for both best electronic magazine (Ruby’s Pearls) and best short story (“Kent’s Place”). Best original fiction book went to Larry Blasko’s Vamp! Bob Patterson took the nonfiction book palm for his Civil War Computer Archive.   Ted Husted’s DART won for publishing software, with Rod Willmot’s Orpheus and Leithauser’s HyperRead tying for third (second place went to Michael Gibbs’ ReadRoom, which I haven’t seen).

 

 

JANUARY 1995

 

Mark Owings, noted bibliographer and small-press publisher who for a time was involved with Jack Chalker in running Mirage Press, which published his magnum opus, The Index to the Science Fantasy Publishers (1966; rev. 1991), is now “reissuing (one cannot quite say reprinting) some old books on computer disk in ASCII format.” Old enough to be in the public domain, they include Ralph Adams Cram’s Black Spirits and White, a collection of six ghost and horror stories dating to 1896; Edgar Fawcett’s Solarion, an 1889 SF tale that preshadows Stapledon’s Sirius; and F. Anstey’s Tourmain’s Time Cheques, from 1891. With each, Owings includes a brief description of the author and his place in the history of science fiction and fantasy; for instance, he describes Anstey as a precursor to Thorne Smith, the man who created Topper.

By the way, Owings notes that he plans soon to reissue The Monikins, a long novel about the discovery of civilized monkeys written in 1835 by none other than James Fenimore Cooper. (This finally came out in late 1997.)

This sounds like a fascinating project, and I hope many fans take advantage of it to build collections of classics.

 

 

APRIL 1995

 

The sixteenth issue of The Electronic Publishing Forum (Serendipity Systems) is out, and it’s worth a look for two reasons. First, editor/publisher John Galuszka has tested the technology for converting photos, line drawings, and pastels into images that can accompany electronic publications, and the result is impressive. Second, this issue includes descriptions of the Association of Research Libraries’ Directory of Internet Journals, Newsletters, etc., and of Samizdat Express’s wealth of on-disk textbooks (classics, history, science, math, government, etc.), literature, and reference materials obtained from the Internet. There is also an interesting article on and demo of personalized, interactive electronic books (“Hello, Tom. I’m surprised you made it to the age of 50. Here, sit down in this handy rocker and have a glass of elderberry swizzle while I tell you about….”).

The Samizdat material especially seems a must-have for any library that pretends to meet the needs of the blind, for most of the material is apparently compatible with speech synthesizers.

 

 

JULY 1995

 

The seventeenth issue of The Electronic Publishing Forum is now available from Serendipity Systems.   As usual, it includes a list of available disk-top publications, an interesting excerpt from a forthcoming non-SF novel, C. J. Newton’s Costa Azul, and reviews of new digital publishing software and products. It also uses some very nice graphics, showing what digital publishing is now capable of.

There is in addition a nice academic article on “Cyberbooks and Virtual Libraries: Hypertext and Its Implications for Literature,” by Ruth Nestvold, originally a May 26, 1994, address to the German American Studies Association in Tuebing, Germany. Nestvold notes that “we are not only leaving the ‘late age of print’ but also the late age of reading. Perhaps electronic text and hyperfiction will turn out to be nothing more than a transitional phenomenon. After all, if it is interactivity we are searching for, computer adventures [games] are interactive in a way few hyperfictions are…. Hypertext is … a new medium whose potential is only beginning to be understood…. But whatever effect it eventually has on literature as we know it, hypertext and the medium of the computer will not leave it unchanged.”

Personally, I suspect hypertext will make itself felt most powerfully in the nonfiction area, especially for textbooks and reference books.

 

 

SEPTEMBER 1995

 

Build your collection of long out-of-print, public-domain classics now. Noted bibliographer and small-press publisher Mark Owings has added four more disks to his list (MS-DOS only, and please specify the disk size you wish). He hasn’t yet delivered on his promise of The Monikins, James Fenimore Cooper’s long 1835 novel about the discovery of civilized monkeys, but he does give us John Kendrick Bangs’ Mr. Munchausen, an extension of the more famous work by Raspe and a delight to any lover of tall tales.

He also offers Max Ehrmann’s A Fearsome Riddle, a mystery involving the nature of time, and Roots of the Silver Tree, a two-disk anthology that includes work by William Morris and Mark Twain; there’s even a translated Icelandic saga.

From Serendipity Systems comes C. J. Newton’s Costa Azul. This one is not at all SF, though it does deal with the relationship between technology and society in a strangely satirical way (there is also the SFnal techie format). In the land of Costa Azul, a car involved in a fatal accident has been arrested for murder. The stars of the tale are self-important, self-aggrandizing cops, lawyers, judges, and politicos, the standard representatives of society, every one of them performing in a way that would delight the heart of Leonard Wibberly (remember The Mouse that Roared?), not to mention a hundred other parodists.   Unfortunately, for all of Newton’s zest for the task, his prose lacks the energy of a Wibberly’s. Newton is given less to action than to lengthy, ruminative set-ups, a wealth of local color, and fond regard for even the silliest of traditions. The tale is a charmer, but it is surely not for all.

 

 

OCTOBER 1995

 

Issue 18 of The Electronic Publishing Forum (Serendipity Systems) arrived the other day with its usual variety of items from the world of digital publishing.   The most bizarre is surely an excerpt from Joseph G. Savino’s shareware book, Kabbalah: The Prophecy of the Chariot, which tries to link Nostradamus and Kabbalah. There is also an excerpt from Marian Allen’s Sideshow, a novel dealing with a media star’s rise from poverty, encounter with the jet set, and pigmentary disasters; full of verve, and I quite enjoyed it. There is as well a demo of Intelligent Educational Software’s TutorialWriter, which lets one blend text, hypertext, music, sound effects, voice, and more to produce effective instructional materials, quizzes, tests, and so on.

 

 

MID-DECEMBER 1995

 

Issue 19 of The Electronic Publishing Forum (Serendipity Systems) has several items of potential interest to you. The best may be a listing of titles made available electronically by Project Gutenberg, any of which you can buy on CD-ROM or download directly, for free; the list includes items by Verne, Wells, Burroughs, and Doyle, as well as Abbott’s Flatland. In addition, there is the Government Writer’s Guide, a usage handbook of some value to all writers, a brief description and demo of NeoPaint, a shareware image manipulation program, and several items on setting up documents and “multi-participant interactive simulations” for the Internet.

 

AUGUST 1996

 

Issue 21 of The Electronic Publishing Forum (Serendipity Systems) has several items of potential interest. A list of Mark Owing’s offerings of classic SF includes “The Fairy Tree of Bourlemont,” a short story by Mark Twain. There’s a copy of the pre-World-Wide-Web-hype Big Dummy’s Guide to the Internet (copyright Electronic Frontier Foundation 1993), covering history and basics well enough to form a nice introduction to cyberspace. And for those of you who might be a bit paranoid about electronic privacy, there’s a copy of the “Pretty Good Privacy” encryption program, which is good enough to have given the National Security Agency fits.

There’s even an amusing satire of “Sex on the Internet,” which forces me to compare this EPF to a June bride’s outfit (this may be the August column, but you’re surely reading it in June): “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.”

Have fun!

 

FEBRUARY 1997

 

The Blue Germ, Martin Swayne, Mark Owings.

Martin Swayne’s 1918 book, The Blue Germ, has been reissued on MS-DOS disk by Mark Owings. Swayne was the pseudonym of Maurice Nicoll (1884-1953), a versatile British writer of humor, war memoirs, and books in the area of psychology, philosophy, and religion. This novel deals with a deliberately produced plague of immortality and is thus of some interest to readers of modern SF, which deals necessarily and frequently with genetic engineering. It is of course a novel of its time, further marred by more typos than I have noticed in previous Owings materials, but it remains interesting.

 

 

MARCH 1997

 

A new wrinkle in electronic publishing is Ken Jenks’s “Mind’s Eye Fiction.” Visit that Internet site, and you will see a list of short stories–both new and old–by Spider Robinson, Jack Nimersheim (of whom Jenks says “I can’t figure out why [he] isn’t better known”), Greg Costikyan, Nancy Etchemendy, Marianne J. Dyson (familiar to readers of these pages), A. L. Sirois, Fred Saberhagen, Jenks himself, and others of lesser renown. I’m in there too, with my old “Howie & the Mayor” series, two stories of which (“Mood Wendigo” and “Downeast Encounter”) appeared in these pages way back in 1980. And ever since Spider told the membership of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America about Mind’s Eye, the queries have been pouring in. Expect the roster to grow rapidly–and not just in SF, for Mind’s Eye offers African-American fiction (e.g., Ginger Whitaker), fantasy, romance, mystery (e.g., Billie Sue Mosiman), and horror (e.g., Mary Soon Lee) as well.

How does it work? Click on a story title, and you can read the first half of it for free. If you want to finish it, you will have to part with a small sum, typically fifty cents for anything under 5,000 words (a short story), a dollar for anything longer. For the price of a magazine issue or a paperback anthology, you can have the same amount of material, but you get to pick the table of contents.

 

Who wrote the classic Cosmic G-Strings? What has this author been up to lately? Haven’t a clue? Want to know?

Well, if you have a good library handy, you could look it up in any of several indices to SF. If you have a computer and Internet access, you can visit http://www.sff.net/locus/0start.html , where you will find Charles N. Brown’s and William G. Contento’s Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Horror: 1984-1996, the bibliographic index to all the SF books, anthologies, and magazines published between 1984 and June 1996.[3] It combines the annual volumes from Locus Press with new data for 1992-1996 and can be searched in several ways, including by author and title. There is also a link to the older anthology and collections index (corrected and expanded from two G. K. Hall volumes) at http://contento.best.vwh.net/.

Is it any good? I visited and found its search capability as slick as one expects on the Net. Coverage seems pretty complete, too, though–as we all know, Murphy is the Supreme Ruler of the Universe–there have to be errors and omissions in there somewhere.

 

JULY-AUGUST 1997

 

The latest on-disk book to reach me from Mark Owings is Memoirs of The Year Two Thousand Five Hundred, by Louis-Sébastien Mercier. The book, first published in 1770 as a utopian exposition of Enlightenment ideals of Order, Justice, and Happiness, later the first utopia published in the U.S. (in 1795), and reprinted by Gregg Press in 1977, is virtually unreadable, but it is very much of historical interest. According to the Clute-Nicholls Encyclopedia of SF, Mercier was “best known for his numerous plays and anecdotal journalism … was active in the French Revolution, being imprisoned during the Terror [and this book is] important particularly for any analysis of pre-Revolutionary ferment in France.”

 

JULY-AUGUST 1998

 

Heart of the Hero, Rickey R. Mallory, New Concepts Publishing, 250 pp.

You’ve heard me grumbling that a lot of the fiction that appears in odd corners of the Internet isn’t worth the fistful of electrons it takes to download it. This doesn’t apply to operations like Ken Jenks’s “Mind’s Eye Fiction,” which mostly reprints material previously published on paper and casts a critical editorial eye on the rest. Elsewhere the lack of that editorial eye is, shall we say, apparent.

But that is not to say that everything out there in silicon-land is electric dreck. The other day, Rickey R. Mallory dropped a copy of Heart of the Hero in my mailbox with a note blaming New Concepts Publishing for making it available to the downloading public.

And if that downloading public wants science fiction romance, they should love this one. The situation begins with Daniel White, young, rich, indulged, spoiled rotten, prone to violent temper tantrums when he does not get his way. Faced with mandatory public service in the space patrol, he grabs a young and comely chick out of the family aircraft plant, marries her, and tries desperately to get her preggers. Only that, you see, will get him exempted from MPS. But the conniving little bitch obstinately refuses to get pregnant, he explodes, tells Sweetie-Kee to be gone when he comes back, and ships out.

He returns a hero. An explosion nearly killed him, the surgeons put him back together, and here he is. But all he has of his previous life are a few photos and tapes. The rest is gone. He has amnesia. He’s also undergone a drastic personality change, for he is no longer the bad boy he was.

And Sweetie-Kee is waiting for him, all a-tremble with trepidation, thoroughly confused by the personality change, discovering that maybe, just maybe, this is a Danny White she can love even as Danny-boy settles his deep-rooted conflict with his abusive father, discovers the cause of the accident, and learns that Kee isn’t such a bitch after all.

If you’re the right reader, this is a real hankie-wringer.

If you’re my kind of hardened cynic, you may find the smell of soap a little strong. Certainly the SF is less than essential to the story, for it could have been replaced with any war in at least the last hundred years.

 

 

DECEMBER 1998

 

According to a recent Wall Street Journal item, some 62 million US citizens (out of a total of 265 million) now use the Internet. A quarter of them were new to the Net in 1997. Forty-three percent have a college degree or higher, and their average salary is $55,000, more than twice the US average of $25,000.

It’s therefore not at all suprising that a great deal of effort is going into figuring out how to make on-line publishing a success. One of the leaders in the effort is Ken Jenks, whose Mind’s Eye Fiction has been offering short fiction, much of it reprints from magazines such as Analog, on a unique basis: read the first half of the story free, but if you want to see how it ends, pony up another fifty cents or so. That works out to about what you would pay per story in Analog or a paperback anthology, so it really isn’t a bad deal, and you can get such familiar authors as David Brin, Harlan Ellison, Larry Niven, Spider Robinson, Fred Saberhagen, Bud Sparhawk, Ian Randal Strock, Lawrence Watt-Evans, and Bud Webster, among others.

Now Jenks is starting to do novels. The price for a download is well under the current price of paperbacks, and if you own a PalmPilot, you can read the novel in the form of a Cyberbook much as Ben Bova envisioned a decade ago.

What’s a PalmPilot? That’s a $200-400 (depending on model) hand-held computer whose face is almost all screen. Pitched as “The connected organizer,” it stores memos, contact information, schedules, reports, etc., does email, and can update its contents by linking to the Internet (see http://www.palmone.com). Jenks wants users to buy fiction through the same linking process.

 

 

JUNE 1999

 

For the Emperor, Christine W. Murphy, Hard Shell Word Factory (http://www.hardshell.com), 200 pp. (ISBN: 1-58200-026-3).

The Hard Shell Word Factory is an on-line publisher in several genres, and it’s worth a look, judging from the novel author Christine W. Murphy sent me. Her For the Emperor is a perfectly acceptable story. Its caliber is not exceptional, but its biggest problem is that it badly needs editing. If you can slide past the occasional spelling problems and jumbled paragraphs, you will find a nice romantic thriller. It begins with heroine Jameelah, attending the Emperor’s wedding reception to plant a smoke bomb to call attention to the plight of her oppressed minority group. She is promptly distracted by a handsome stranger in the uniform of the Triden military, spends the evening dancing with him, plants her bomb, and is a mite surprised when it goes “BOOM!” instead of “poof!”

The domineering male terrorist promptly bundles her into an escape pod with the handsome stranger with orders to learn his identity, sneers mightily, and exits left. It doesn’t take long for the reader to learn that the handsome stranger is actually the Emperor’s half brother and a handsome prize for the terrorists if they ever learn who he is. Nor does it take long for the emotional atmosphere to get very thick and steamy, with plenty of bouncing between the personal and the political/ideological to feed the characters’ frustration level.

There’s more, of course. This kind of novel exists for the complications and setbacks on the way to the predictable ending. But that’s the gist of it, and it may well appeal to romance fans.

 

 

JULY 2000

 

Magnificat, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Hidden Knowledge (http://www.hidden-knowledge.com/) (ISBN: 0-9679-159-0).

Have you taken the plunge yet? Dared to buy a novel available only in electronic form? I’ve been talking about “digital publishing” for years now, and we seem to be getting closer to viable forms of it. It helps that there are now book-sized, book-heft readers such as the Rocket eBook available, and that vastly more people are on the Internet and getting used to reading on screen.

It also helps that there is some astonishingly excellent material available. As a case in point, consider Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Magnificat, available as a download, on a floppy, or on a CD-ROM (only the CD is not yet available for Macs). It begins in 1997 (necessarily of some other universe), when the Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church are voting on a new Pope. Some are already savoring their new privileges and prerogatives, but–a moment of inattention, a tiny dizzy spell, “I hope they can read that scrawl”–and every single Cardinal proves to have written the very same name: Zhuang Renxin. And they all wrote it in Chinese.

Say what?

Somebody must have been playing games, say the Cardinals. Let’s try that again.

Same result.

And the rules say that once anyone has been chosen twice–no matter if they’re not a Cardinal, not a priest, not a Catholic, not a man–no other Pope may legitimately serve.

So off goes Charles Cardinal Mendosa of Texas to find this Chinese Communist woman, a widow and reputable magistrate. In due time, she agrees that she has a job to do. And when she reaches the Vatican, the cat is well and truly among the songbirds. The Church is long overdue for reform–in the perquisites of the hierarchy and in attitudes toward marriage, divorce, women, and embarrassing documents buried in the Vatican library–and some of those Cardinals are so upset at the new Pope’s proposals that they lose no time before plotting her assassination. Also upset are the fundamentalist protestant extremists who see a female Pope as the millennial Antichrist, and her attempts to repair centuries of shortcomings as the proof of the charge.

Fortunately, the Pope has the assistance of some very capable people, including–in the background–a Russian intelligence honcho. She ducks bullet after bullet, but the forces arrayed against her are powerful.

Magnificat is a religious novel, a rant, a tract, a cry for reform of one of the most reactionary organizations on the planet. It is also an excellent read, full of intrigue, and thoroughly thoughtful and thought-provoking. Don’t miss it.

 

 

OCTOBER 2000

 

Asterisms, Peter L. Manly, Third Millennium Publishing (http://3mpub.com), 194 pp. (ISBN: 1-929381-35-2).

Peter L. Manly’s Asterisms is an appealing tale of a boy who goes with his family aboard the first starship and grows up to become the captain. Excitement is provided by a small meteorite that staves in the bow and kills fifty people, a bout with corrupt neanderthaloids, and a bit of sex, but by and large the story is a quiet thing. Manly usually writes about astronomy, computers, and aviation, and it shows; the human factor–characters and politics–tends to the stereotyped in much the way it did for Robert A. Heinlein.

I recommend getting the paper book rather than the download. The latter is cheaper, but the publisher (SF writer Michael McCollum) has chosen to present his ebooks as pdf files (for the free Acrobat Reader software), which are considerably more awkward than several alternatives. No matter which version you get, you will wish it had been through the hands of a copy-editor who knew the difference between “lose” and “loose” and “pore” and “pour.”

 

 

NOVEMBER 2000

 

The Beginnings of Forever, A. L. Sirois, Clocktower Fiction (http://www.clocktowerfiction.com) (ISBN: 0-7433-0004-1).

The Internet is roaring full steam into the future, and it’s hauling the publishing industry with it. Electronic rights are more and more something to fight over in contract negotiations, and many writers are finding electronic publishers instead of traditional paper publishers. Many of those writers are not worth much attention–a web site can be no more than a high-tech version of a mimeograph machine in the back bedroom–but some are. In fact some are among the biggest names you can imagine. Even Stephen King tried his hand at it last spring, with Riding the Bullet.

And here’s A. L. Sirois, who has appeared in the major magazines but is more familiar to habitués of the small press. His collection, The Beginnings of Forever, delivers a quite readable dozen helpings from a deftly wry imagination.

His on-line publisher also has available three novels, The Generals of October (suspense thriller), Blood Relations (SF), and Blind Ambitions (SF). The latter two novels, with three of the stories in Beginnings (“War Baby,” “Girl Talk,” and “The Mechanisms of Dawn”), are part of a 10,000 year future history project.

 

 

MAY 2001

 

The Peace, Richard J. Sutcliffe, Bookmice.com (ISBN: 1-930364-87-3).

You can find e-books at a great many places on the Net, and many aren’t worth much. But Bookmice.com is worth a visit, judging from Richard J. Sutcliffe’s The Peace.

Sutcliffe is a professor of computing science and mathematics at Trinity Western University in British Columbia. His fiction he very aptly calls “Christian Science Fiction with an Irish flavour.” The setting is the “Worlds of the Timestream,” a handful of parallel Earths separated by important crisis points. One such point was the Crucifixion; in our own Earth, it happened as we believe; in others, Pilate released Jesus, and the people were able to watch the Crucifixion and Resurrection as a sort of very convincing shadow play before the worlds broke all contact. Christianity developed in the latter worlds as well, but with a very different flavor, especially once Ireland came to dominate the world under the High Lord of Heaven. Technology developed centuries ahead of our own schedule, biowars impaired fertility so much that population remained low, and Irish customs of honor came to govern war and politics.

But the scoundrels are ever with us. Kate and Sally, secret agents in pursuit of atomic secrets on one world, find themselves jumped to another and married to a pair of heroes who should be high in the councils of Tara if the King had not been deposed and his clan banned for sixty years. In the decades ahead, they and their men and others of honor will stymie attempts to spread plague and war even as they build up a web of sworn loyalties that will someday permit their grandchildren to reclaim the throne.

That day remains well in the future, however. The Peace is but the first volume in the Interregnum series, with the sequel yet to come (although you can get the first four chapters of The Friends by visiting the author’s home page at http://www.arjay.bc.ca/ ).

The pace and prose are well up to the standard familiar in paper books, and the convolutions of politics and character are enough to satisfy any fan of epics. It’s worth its price, and then some.

 

 

DECEMBER 2001

 

Changeling, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, Embiid Publishing (http://www.embiid.net), Embiid ed. (ISBN: 1-58787-090-8), Rocket ed. (ISBN: 1-58787-091-6).

Embiid Publishing, based in Hawaii, is one of the new crop of digital publishing houses, and it has a nice list of titles, including Pratt’s and de Camp’s delightful The Complete Compleat Enchanter and a couple of our own Stan Schmidt’s titles. It even offers a monthly sampler of chapters from new releases, which is a nice way to make up for not being able to flip pages as in a “bricks and mortar” bookstore.

One recent release is Sharon Lee’s and Steve Miller’s Changeling, a novella set in their popular Liaden Universe. Liaden society is clan-based, with each clan specializing in a particular activity. Clan Obrelt, for instance, is a clan of shopkeepers. In the way of such things, however, some of a clan’s kids have other talents. Obrelt’s Ren Zel dea’Judan turned out to be a starship pilot, and once he had been expensively trained, a very good one. Then one day his clan leaders tell him they have arranged a nice upscale match for him, a young woman from a clan of pilots. Unfortunately, the young lady is headstrong, and when they take a flight together she crashes their ship and dies.

Her clan is furious. No matter that the blame was hers. They want reparations, and they get them. Ren Zel is disowned by his clan, forced to fly for Terrans. He does well, of course, but in due time his enemies step in again. Fortunately, a Master Pilot of Clan Korval has just arrived to investigate injustice and is able to step in at the proper moment.

And then? One is left with the feeling that this is but the opening episode in a larger adventure which Lee and Miller will bring us in the fullness of time. If so, it’s a promising start.

 

Keep an eye out.

 

JULY 2002

 

The Tomorrow Log, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, Embiid Publishing (http://www.embiid.net), Embiid Edition (ISBN: 1-58787-130-0), Rocket Edition (ISBN: 1-58787-131-9).

As I’ve said before, Embiid Publishing is doing a nice job of electronic publishing. The latest is Sharon Lee’s and Steve Miller’s The Tomorrow Log, which begins a new series. Readers familiar with the Liaiden novels will not be disappointed.

The protagonist, Gem ser Edreth, is a thief of great skill, but his lucrative career is threatened when he turns down a commission from the chief of the local underworld, the Vornet. At the same time, he is approached by one Corbinye Faztherot, who calls him Captain-to-Be as foretold in the Tomorrow Log and reminds that even though he was at age nine sold into slavery by his uncle, he is of the Ship and owes it loyalty. He also, according to the Tomorrow Log, will get the Ship out of a serious jam.

Alas, Corbinye lets it be known that she is his cousin. The Vornet chief has her snatched, the better to put pressure on Gem. When she resists, she is so seriously injured that her mind must be transferred into a new body. And Gem acquiesces, going forth to steal a mystical totem, the Trident of the Bindalche.

He very quickly realizes that the Trident is no mere totem, but an ancient device of rare and wondrous powers. Soon the Vornet are in disarray and Gem, Corbinye, and the Bindalche Witness whose mission it is to see and remember all the wonders that accompany the Trident’s shakings of Event, are on their way to the Ship, where adventures await and both Ship and Bindalche will be set upon new paths.

If you want to try out a digital book on your PC or laptop, this one will do nicely. Lee and Miller are consistently deft and smooth. The tale has momentum from the first page (or screen) and never lets it lag.

If you insist on paper, you’ll be missing a good one.

 

 

MARCH 2003

 

Strange Seas, Suzy McKee Charnas, Hidden Knowledge (www.hidden-knowledge.com) (ISBN: 0967915910).

Almost three years ago, I reviewed Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Magnificat, available only as an e-book from Hidden Knowledge. Yarbro now has a vampire historical novel (In the Face of Death) and a Hamlet prequel (Alas, Poor Yorick) available from the same source. Check the site.

You will also find there a strange and interesting book by Suzy McKee Charnas, best known for her award-winning science fiction and fantasy but here stepping into rather different territory. Strange Seas begins with a recollection of childhood and an uncle who wanted aliens to exist so much that he refused to cheapen his longing with easy credulity. It then plunks the reader into a 1985 conversation with a friend who is channeling knowledge from a collective being called Miriam about our fellow ensouled beings, the whales. It is soon revealed that Charnas has in previous lives had many links with whales and whaling, which explains her long-suppressed longing for the sea, as well, perhaps, as a sense of being “at sea” in life and writing. Further conversations reveal much about the nature of cetaceans, including that they–or their collective soul-species–were once beings with hands who trashed their world as we are trashing ours. In expiation of their sin, they transmigrated to Earth to experience the trashing from the other end of the stick, so to speak.

For Charnas, whales, channeling, and her own “Deep Past” become something of an obsession, relieved only when her medium leaves for Europe and she herself takes a trip to Alaska to see whales with her own eyes. As she works through the obsession, she makes a number of points about human responsibility to the Earth and its other denizens that are well worth making even without being attached to a “New Age” vehicle. In the end, she moves on with her writing and her life.

She also produced this book, calling it a “memoir,” changing enough details to make it fiction (she sets the World Science Fiction Convention in spring when it is actually Labor Day weekend), and claiming enough truth for it all to turn defensive at the end and try to defuse the self-styled skeptics who recoil from such matters into sneers and knee-jerk negativity. Unfortunately, her usual publishers weren’t interested–it was just too far from her genre writing–and “New Age” publishers found it too different from their usual fare.

Why do I discuss it here? Am I–with sneer and negativity–calling Charnas’s memoir a fantasy? Do I think she should have paid more attention to her uncle? I’m skeptical enough, for I’m a thorough materialist with no sympathy for New Age bushwah, and that business about cetaceans expiating past world-wrecking does make me bounce my eyebrows off the ceiling. But Charnas is one of us, of course, and I have been known to take that as sufficient excuse, especially when a book shows an interesting and hitherto unknown side of a writer.

Charnas fans will find Strange Seas fascinating even if they do not share her credulity. She brings an important piece of her life alive in very readable prose. The CD-ROM also provides related essays and links to many resources on whales and endangered species.

 

 

NOVEMBER 2003

 

Beyond the Last Star: Stories from the Next Beginning, Sherwood Smith, ed., SFF.NET (www.sff.net), 331 pp. (ISBN: 0-9669698-5-5).

Once upon a time, the on-line hangout for science fiction folk–editors, writers, and readers–was GENIE. But that service died a well-deserved death (it was astonishingly awkward, even for those days). Now the gang hangs out chiefly on sff.net, and perhaps it is not too surprising that–with so many writers and readers (or “customers”) in the same “room”–someone should have the bright idea of getting the writers to provide stories for an anthology to be sold to… You got it.

The result was the first annual Darkfire Anthology, Between the Darkness and the Fire, published in 1998. Even though it didn’t issue from a Major New York Publishing House, the quality of the physical package and of the content were perfectly professional. Nothing amateurish about this one. And now the fifth volume in the series is available. It’s Beyond the Last Star: Stories from the Next Beginning, and its premise is “What happens after the end of the universe?”

Meaningless question, you say? Well, maybe, but modern physics has given rise to some pretty weird speculations, and science fiction–not to mention fantasy–hardly has to stop where physics does. Nor does a writer have to play fair with the premise, as Stephen Eley does not with “The Malcontent,” a wry tale that plays nicely with the complaint that technology now rules our lives. Robert E. Rogoff dodges with “virtual universes” in “How the God of Fire-and-Rain Came to Be.” In “Impossible Odds,” Linda J. Dunn has God go back to Genesis for a second try. Richard Parks is quite charming in “The End of the Dance, The Beginning.”

Thus also sprach Gregory Feeley, Christopher Rowe, Leigh Kimmel, Vera Nazarian, Andrew Burt, and sixteen more. The content and style aren’t what you see in Analog, but despite the excellence of Analog, there is more worth reading out there.

 

 

[1] Better known today (2004) as CD-ROMs.

[2] And today we have Print-on-Demand or PoD technology playing a major part in the industry

[3] Updated in 2004, it is now The Locus Index to Science Fiction (1984-1998).

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