Sunday, 12 September 2010

The BoSS for 12/09/10

And so, to the second Bag o' Speculative Swag in so many days. Let's kick things off with an absolute beauty... the star of the show, no question, and my first taste of the inimitable Ted Chiang in the form of a gorgeous limited edition from the publishing geniuses over at Subterranean Press.

Click through to Meet the BoSS for an introduction and an explanation as to why you should care about the Bag o' Speculative Swag, or read on for a sneak peek at some of the books - past, present and future - you can expect to see coverage of here on The Speculative Scotsman in the coming weeks and months.


The Life Cycle of Software Objects
by Ted Chiang

Release Details:
Published in the US on
31/07/10 by Subterranean Press

Review Priority:
5 (Immediate)

Plot Synopsis: "What's the best way to create artificial intelligence? In 1950, Alan Turing wrote, 'Many people think that a very abstract activity, like the playing of chess, would be best. It can also be maintained that it is best to provide the machine with the best sense organs that money can buy, and then teach it to understand and speak English. This process could follow the normal teaching of a child. Things would be pointed out and named, etc. Again I do not know what the right answer is, but I think both approaches should be tried.'

"The first approach has been tried many times in both science fiction and reality. In this new novella, at over 30,000 words, his longest work to date, Ted Chiang offers a detailed imagining of how the second approach might work within the contemporary landscape of startup companies, massively-multiplayer online gaming, and open-source software. It's a story of two people and the artificial intelligences they helped create, following them for more than a decade as they deal with the upgrades and obsolescence that are inevitable in the world of software. At the same time, it's an examination of the difference between processing power and intelligence, and of what it means to have a real relationship with an artificial entity."

Commentary: Rarely does the paper stock of a book remind me that it's pretty damn decent to be alive, but from that to the exquisite woodgrain feel of the pages, and from the choice of font to the lavish illustrations throughout The Lifecycle of Software Objects, this is one of those rare occasions. As an object, the latest - and longest - from multiple award-winner Ted Chiang is truly a thing to covet. But then, that isn't entirely surprising; this is a trade edition from Subterranean Press, after all... the undisputed (and rightful, I should say) monolith of small publishing houses. You get the sense the ladies and gents over at SubPress genuinely believe in what they're doing, and their passion surely shows. The Lifecycle of Software Objects has gone straight to the top of the stack, make no mistake.

The Wedding Gift
by Kathleen McKenna

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
12/07/10 by Night Publishing

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "17 year old Leeann Worthier is the perfect girl in town - or so she says. George Willets is the heir to a booming petroleum business. When they announce their engagement, George's controlling mother is unimpressed, and Leeann absolutely refuses to live with her mother-in-law.

"So George gives his new wife a house as a wedding gift.

"Thirty years before, the same house hosted a grisly scene: George's uncle and cousins were all slaughtered and his aunt Robina accused of both murder and suicide.

"The house is a gorgeous, well-maintained mansion, but has stood empty since the tragedy. It's intimidating, but who is Leeann to turn down a free house? When the ghost of Robina begins to haunt Leeann, she realizes she's made a huge mistake..."

Commentary: If you're reading the BoSS - particularly this week's double-header - you must already have intuited that I get more books than I know what to do with. As a matter of fact, the other half and I sat down the other day and worked out that, at the pace I currently read, I have enough books to see me through the next couple of decades without me spending a single penny on another.

So. It takes something special for me to agree to take on another, and the circumstances behind my review copy of The Wedding Gift were surely that. More often than not books simply arrive in the mail - mysteriously... as good as anonymously - but a couple of times a week, a publicity person or some such will get in touch to say: hey, you want to read this? Invariably, I do, but I'm at a point now where I have to say no most of the time. A few short weeks ago, however, I got an email from Kathleen McKenna - clearly an author who actually reads TSS, or at the least took the time to familiarise herself with the site - and never (I'm saying it) have I been on the receiving end of such a flattering and specific pitch. Thus, we have The Wedding Gift. It's not new, and there's so much that is, so I can't promise when I'll find the time to devote my attention to it. But I will.

The Anatomy of Ghosts
by Andrew Taylor


Release Details:
Published in the UK on
02/09/10 by Michael Joseph

Review Priority:
4 (Very High)

Plot Synopsis: "1786, Jerusalem College Cambridge. The ghost of Sylvia Whichcote is rumoured to be haunting Jerusalem since disturbed fellow-commoner, Frank Oldershaw, claims to have seen the dead woman prowling the grounds. Desperate to salvage her son’s reputation, Lady Anne Oldershaw employs John Holdsworth, author of The Anatomy of Ghosts – a stinging account of why ghosts are mere delusion – to investigate. But his arrival in Cambridge disrupts an uneasy status quo as he glimpses a world of privilege and abuse, where the sinister Holy Ghost Club governs life at Jerusalem more effectively than the Master, Dr Carbury, ever could. And when Holdsworth finds himself haunted – not only by the ghost of his dead wife, Maria, but also Elinor, the very-much-alive Master’s wife – his fate is sealed. He must find Sylvia’s murderer or the hauntings will continue. And not one of them will leave the claustrophobic confines of Jerusalem unchanged."

Commentary: Now it wasn't the cover art that sold me on The Anatomy of Ghosts, but looking at the review copy in front of me I can't help but be put in mind of Sarah Waters - in particular The Little Stranger, which I bought last year on Stephen King's recommendation (back when that meant something) and never got around to reading.

Still. This is its own thing, and it looks swell, doesn't it? With October and all its associated spookiness coming up, I find myself rather drawn to The Anatomy of Ghosts. I think it's safe to say, therefore, that you can expect a review before All Hallows.

Mr Shivers
by Robert Jackson Bennett

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
02/09/10 by Orbit

Review Priority:
Already Reviewed

Plot Synopsis: "It is the time of the Great Depression. The dustbowl has turned the western skies red and thousands leave their homes seeking a better life. Marcus Connelly seeks not a life, but a death - a death for the mysterious scarred man who murdered his daughter. And soon he learns that he is not alone. Countless others have lost someone to the scarred man. They band together to track him, but as they get closer, Connelly begins to suspect that the man they are hunting is more than human. It is said that he who hunts monsters should take care lest he thereby become a monster, and as the chase becomes increasingly desperate, the scarred man's pursuers are forced to choose between what is right and what is necessary. Having come so far and lost so much, Connelly must decide just how much more he is willing to sacrifice to have his revenge."

Commentary: Narrowly pipped to the post a few months ago by The Passage as my favourite book of 2010 (so far), Mr Shivers is an incredible read... among the finest debuts of the year - and it's been a very strong year. And now it's out in paperback. If you haven't already, go read my review - and then buy the damn book already! I'm sorry, but you're officially out of excuses now. ;)

Bearers of the Black Staff
by Terry Brooks

Release Details:
Published in the UK on
02/09/10 by Orbit

Review Priority:
3 (Moderate)

Plot Synopsis: "Five hundred years have passed since the devastating demon-led war that almost exterminated humankind. Those who escaped the carnage were led to sanctuary by the boy saviour known as Hawk: the gypsy morph. But now, the unimaginable has come to pass: the cocoon of protective magic surrounding the valley has vanished. When Sider Ament, last surviving Knight of the Word, detects unknown predators stalking the valley, and Trackers from the human village of Glensk Wood, find two of their own gruesomely killed, there can be no doubt: the once safe haven of generations has been laid bare. Together, the young Trackers, the aging Knight, and a daring Elf princess race to spread word of the encroaching danger. But suspicion and hostility among their countrymen threaten to doom their efforts from within, while beyond the breached borders, a ruthless Troll army masses for invasion. Standing firm between the two, the last wielder of the black staff and its awesome magic must find a successor to carry on the fight against the cresting new wave of evil."

Commentary: From "the master of modern fantasy," Terry Brooks, who - if I'm to credit the publicity blurb - "is widely regarded to have started the post-Tolkien boom in epic fantasy," comes the first volume in yet another series after Shannara's crown: Legends of Shannara.

I'm not at all sure what to make of Bearers of the Black Staff. If I'm understanding the general consensus over this author, he's a bit of a hack these days - right? - though conversely he's turned in a few gems in his time (long since past). Am I far off the mark? Certainly I've heard things about Terry Brooks both great and terrible. Who knows what side of the fence I'll fall on?

I guess there's only the one way to find out...

The Adventures of Tom
Sawyer and the Undead
by Mark Twain and Don Borchert

Release Details:
Published in the US
on 03/08/10 by Tor

Review Priority:
2 (Fair)

Plot Synopsis: "Mark Twain once said 'The rumors of my death were greatly exaggerat—BRAINS!!!!!'

"Pulled from the grip of Mark Twain's rotting zombie hands, is Tom Sawyer like you’ve never seen him before, in a swashbuckling, treasure-seeking adventure, spiked with blood, gore, and zombie madness.

"In this expanded and illustrated edition of Mark Twain’s beloved tale of boyhood adventures, Tom’s usual mishaps are filled with the macabre and take place in a world overrun by a zombie virus that turns people into something folks call 'Zum.' The United States is infected with a plague of rotting, yet spry, Zum, searching for fresh meat.

"In this world, there’s no need to whitewash Aunt Polly's fence. Instead, Tom cons his friends into sharpening fence posts to lethal points to repel a Zum attack. To escape the boredom of civilized life, Tom and his pal Huckleberry Finn don't have to fake their deaths, just pretend to be Zum. And instead of playing cowboys and Indians, Tom hones his fighting skills in a bloodthirsty game of 'Us and Zum.' He always wins... until he bumps into the real thing.

When vicious, self-aware zombies evolve and threaten the town... what will Tom and Huck do to protect their loved ones, and will they live to tell the tale?

With all the comedy, romance, and adventure that readers expect from Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer now becomes a new breed of hero for a whole new world — a grade-A zombie hunter."

Commentary: Ummm... brains?

No. Stranger things have happened, but I don't think so. This whole fad for reworking classic fiction from the public domain with a supernatural twist has only made me cringe before; I very much doubt The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the Undead would be any different in that regard.

edited by Elizabeth Ann Hull

Release Details:
Published in the UK
on 07/09/09 by Scholastic

Review Priority:
4 (Very High)

Plot Synopsis: "It isn’t easy to get a group of bestselling SF authors to write new stories for an anthology, but that’s what Elizabeth Anne Hull has done in this powerhouse book. With original, captivating tales by Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, Ben Bova, David Brin, Cory Doctorow, Neil Gaiman, Joe Haldeman, Harry Harrison, Larry Niven, Vernor Vinge, Gene Wolfe, and others, Gateways is a SF event that will be a must-buy for SF readers of all tastes, from the traditional to the cutting edge; from the darkly serious to the laugh-out-loud funny.

"Each author has written a story that he or she feels reflects the effect Pohl has had on the field—in the style of writing, the narrative tone, or the subject matter. It says a lot about Pohl's career that the authors represented here themselves span many decades and styles, from the experimental SF of British SF author Brian W. Aldiss to the over-the-top humor of Harry Harrison and Mike Resnick, from the darkly powerful drama of Hollywood screenwriter Frank Robinson to the satiric pungency of multiple Hugo Award-winner Vernor Vinge. Every story here is uniquely nuanced; all of them as entertaining and thought provoking as Pohl's fiction.

"In a career dating back to 1939, Pohl has won all the awards science fiction has to offer: Hugos, Nebulas, the SFWA Grand Master Award. Having written more than two million words of fiction and edited the groundbreaking Star anthologies and Hugo Award-winning magazines and books, Pohl is an SF icon. This anthology of brilliant, entertaining SF stories is a testament to his stature in the field."

Commentary: ""An anthology of new, original stories by bestselling science fiction authors, inspired by science fiction great Frederik Pohl," who, needless to say, I've never read. This is getting to be a bit of a recurring joke, isn't it? Well, funny or not, it's well past its best.

A complete dearth of experience with the evidently influential subject in question aside, I think this anthology looks great. The talent is surely a huge draw. The likes of Brin, Bear and Bova on the table of contents - not to mention the involvement of a few of my own favourite authors (Neil Gaiman, Gene Wolfe, Cory Doctorow) - makes this a sure thing for me. I do enjoy the change of pace of a nice short story between the beastlier books that make up the majority of my reading, and Gateways should too be fine fodder for the short story celebration I have in the offing.


  1. Re: Terry Brooks. Apart from the original Shannara Trilogy, (which to be frank is simply the LotR re-written and in a poorer fashion) I have only read his "Word and Void" trilogy - which is quite good. I would recommend the W&V trilogy but definitely not the original Shannara series. I don't know about his other fantasy novels however.

  2. I've read his Armageddon's Children trilogy and it is pretty good. Its true that his earlier stuff got same old same old after the first two/three books, but Armageddon's children was certainly worth the read for me and if the new book is nearly as good as Arma.. children well it would'nt be a total loss....

  3. Hmm. Word and Void certainly sounds interesting, and you're not the first person to have recommended it me, Marduk.

    I've got a couple of weeks off coming up shortly... maybe I'll take a look at some old Terry Brooks, see if I can't find something to like.