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Mike Perschon

The Annotated Sword of Shannara: Tolkien Lite, and That’s Alright!

In the Encyclopedia of Fantasy, the entry for “Terry Brooks” provides three pieces of information which should be included in any discussion of The Sword of Shannara. First, that Sword was “deliberately modelled” on parts of The Lord of the Rings; Second, that Terry Brooks was Lester del Rey’s “marketable successor” to Tolkien; and third, that Brooks “translated the complex Christian Fantasy of LOTR and the secondary world in which it takes place, into a series of morally transparent genre fantasy adventures set in an apparent fantasyland.”

I introduce The Annotated Sword of Shannara with these points, since Terry Brooks’ annotations echo them repeatedly. When I read the Annotated Sword, I expected a confession of Brooks’ plot-cribbing of Tolkien. I got nothing of the kind. In an early scene involving a tentacled water-monster, Brooks does not reference Tolkien’s Watcher in the Water, but rather the giant squid attack from Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ( I assume Brooks means the film, since he mentions “tentacles shooting out of the darkness and snatching people away,” a description more evocative of Disney than Verne). I was somewhat dubious when I read this, thinking, “You’re seriously going to tell me that the Watcher in the Water had nothing to do with the inspiration for this scene?”

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Last Call for the Parasol: Timeless by Gail Carriger

Fiction series should be like guests. There comes a point in the evening when everyone knows the conversation has died, the hostess is yawning, and someone has just said, “Well…” Sadly, there is often someone in the room who knows the truth, but wants to avoid it. They don’t get out enough. They don’t want to go home. They’re enjoying the company. They’re socially obtuse. For whatever reason, someone starts the conversation up again.

It’s awkward, because we all know it’s over. Sometimes this happens in the doorway, as guests are leaving. A witty remark gets made, and banter ensues. Significant others glare, or roll their eyes. The party has jumped the shark.

Thankfully, as anyone who’s been to one of her parties can attest, Gail Carriger knows how to handle a party. And she knows when it’s time to shut it down. 

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Gunslingers, Gadgets, and Geniuses: The Doctor and the Kid by Mike Resnick

If you liked Buntline Special, you’ll love The Doctor and the Kid.

I’ve always wanted to start a review that way. Concerning Mike Resnick’s sequel to his steampunked shootout at the OK Corral, I can say with utter confidence that whatever you felt about the first book, you will feel again with the second, perhaps more intensely.

If you are like me, the tag line should read, “If you found The Buntline Special merely tolerable, then avoid The Doctor and the Kid altogether.” But I realize that not all readers will share my experience of Resnick’s steampunk western, and in the interest of being fair, I can readily admit that those who liked the first and wanted more, will get exactly what they wanted in this second installment.

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Steampunk Appreciations: Steampunk! – An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories

Halfway through reading Candlewick Press’s Steampunk! anthology, edited by Kelly Link and Gavin Grant, I was pining for a course to teach on steampunk. While some might be dismissive of an anthology marketed toward young adults published by a press best known for children’s books (The lion’s share of my son’s primary readers are Candlewick books), they’d be remiss to do so. The talent collected by editors Kelly Link and Gavin Grant is considerable, and not a one has written a throwaway tale with a few cogs and gears slapped on. Instead, each story challenges the boundaries of the steampunk aesthetic, while standing on its own as thoughtful, insightful works of short fiction.

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Series: Barnes & Noble Bookseller’s Picks

Steampunk Appreciations: Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan Trilogy: Around the World in the Belly of a Whale

Last year I wrote “Leaving London, Arriving in Albion” an article on the future of steampunk for Chris Garcia’s Exhibition Hall. In it, I imagined an airship taking us on a tour of global steampunk, flying across the Atlantic to the Americas with weird westerns, then across the Pacific to Asia for the steampunk spawned by anime, and then beyond this world to alternate realities where magic and science blend to create fantastic secondary worlds filled with radical technofantasy.

While reading Goliath, the final book of Scott Westerfeld’s steampunk trilogy, I realized that my hypothetical airship is the airship Leviathan. This isn’t to say I “predicted” the Leviathan trilogy. The first book had been released the previous fall; instead, I’d say Westerfeld’s vision fulfilled what was on the horizon of steampunk in 2009.

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Series: Steampunk Week

Steampunk Gilgamesh: The Annotated Version

The origin of this exercise is perhaps as odd as the idea itself: while weeding my devastated Mad-Max-style front yard in preparation to lay sod this past summer, I was listening to the audio version of Stephen Mitchell’s lovely Gilgamesh: A New English Version. As I listened, I imagined the how the story would look if it were steampunked. Who would Gilgamesh be? What would Enkidu look like? What city would replace Uruk? I never seriously pondered writing it down, until I hit 800 followers on Twitter, and decided to celebrate the landmark with 80 tweets comprising an outline of a steampunked Gilgamesh. As part of Steampunk Week here at Tor, here is that outline with annotated explanations.

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Series: Steampunk Week

Gigantic Mirth: Conan the Destroyer

Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired [badly wigged], sullen-eyed, looking mostly confused, sword in hand, [with] a thief, a reaver [former NBA star], and slayer Grace Jones, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet [and amazing jockstrap].

If you watch Conan the Destroyer back-to-back with Conan the Barbarian, it should take you less than five minutes to divine know how bad this movie is going to be. In the thirty years since I last saw it, I’d forgotten just how terrible it is. The Carmina-Burana-like “Anvil of Crom” theme that started the original has been replaced by a more upbeat adventure theme; the forging of a sword is now footage of horsemen wearing armor that looks suspiciously like armor from the first film; and we’ve been informed that Wilt Chamberlain is playing a role, and may be speaking lines. Things go rapidly downhill from there, and never recover.

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Gigantic Melancholies: Conan the Barbarian

This is the first of two reflections on the Arnold Schwarzenegger Conan films from the 1980s. (Check back tomorrow on Tor.com for the second one.) Both bear titles that reference the lines from Robert E. Howard’s first published Conan story, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” made famous as the epigraph to issues of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian comic series: “Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.” We’ll get to the gigantic mirth soon enough with Conan the Destroyer. For now, we’ll focus on the gigantic melancholies of the first film, John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian, from 1982.

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Twin Peaks: White Knight in a Dark Wood

While 90s groundbreaking television series Twin Peaks doesn’t exactly fit the normal conception of Noir cinema, it certainly has a number of noir elements, despite the northwest small town setting: we might call it noir-west small town, given how little time is spent in the series establishing that no matter how dark the woods are at the edges of the town of Twin Peaks, it’s no match for the hearts of the people who live there. For the neophyte, Twin Peaks chronicles the investigation into the murder of Laura Palmer, the homecoming queen, whose dead body is found at the edge of a lake, naked and wrapped in plastic. The show was one part soap opera, one part crime story, and one part writer-Mark-Frost-mysticism plus director-David-Lynch-weird. Take The X-Files, Lost, and Desperate Housewives, mix well, and wrap in an enigma, and you’re getting close to the town limits of Twin Peaks.

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Series: Noir Week on Tor.com

Lost in Translation, Even with a Map: The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma

I once took a course in writing science fiction and fantasy from Canadian fantasy writer Ann Marston. In it, Ann warned against explaining oft-used concepts and tropes, as they no longer required explanation. She focused on post-apocalyptic literature that rambled on about how the world had ended, rather than advancing the story. Her point was that SFF readers have a vast intertextual repository of print and screen antecedents to fill in the gaps. A few hints are sufficient for the savvy speculative reader’s comprehension. Consider Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. How did the world become this burnt out husk? It doesn’t matter – the world burned, a father and son survived, and continue to survive. This is the story. We don’t really give a damn precisely how the world fell apart because we’re wrapped up in that story, no further explanation necessary.

While reading the third and final act of Felix J. Palma’s The Map of Time, I wondered if his target audience was someone who had never considered parallel universes, or alternate history, or time travel’s ripple effect. In short, someone who has never read Orson Scott Card’s Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus. For anyone familiar with possible world theory or Schrödinger’s cat, it feels terribly contrived. It’s like reading the alt history version of The Celestine Prophecy: characters exist only to deliver philosophical exposition. When H.G. Wells utters the words, “Does this mean we are living in . . . a parallel universe?” I couldn’t help myself. I took a red pen and wrote, “Gasp!” in the margin.

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Short, Sweet, and Less Than a Buck: Exceeding Expectation in the Ulysses Quicksilver Short Story Collection

A few years back, I reviewed Jonathan Green’s Unnatural History, the first in Abaddon Books’ Pax Britannia series. I had just finished Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day and needed lighter fare. Based on Mark Harrison’s cool cover art, I had high hopes for the Pax Britannia series, especially Leviathan Rising. I took the first two on vacation as potential beach reading. To my chagrin, Unnatural History was nigh unreadable, due largely to writing style and the lead character, Ulysses Quicksilver, with all the ruthless and rakish behavior of a steampunk James Bond, but none of the charm. On the upside, I found the second book in the series, Al Ewing’s El Sombra, much better, fulfilling my penny-dreadful/pulp fiction expectations without requiring me to ignore style and grammar. Having sampled the series, I moved on to other steampunk, promising myself I’d return to reading the remaining novels I’d purchased.

Two years later, I’m staring down the barrel of another summer vacation, pondering my reading choices. Enter The Ulysses Quicksilver Short Story Collection as ebook, reprinting three short works originally published in early Pax Britannia novels.

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Beach Reading and Water Zombies: Dead of Veridon by Tim Akers

The very idea of recommending summer reading to steampunks seems a bit odd. It conjures images of those cumbersome full body swimsuits of bygone years; while such swimwear might drag one straight to the bottom, it also eliminates the need to apply sunscreen.

Nevertheless, I suppose if one was thinking of steampunk reading for the beach, in bikini or bloomers, they could do far worse than Tim Akers’ Dead of Veridon.

Summer reading, by my own definition, should be light reading. The beach is not the place for Proust. (I’m dubious as to there being any place for Proust, but that’s another discussion.) The beach is where I read Clive Cussler, Stephen King, and stacks of Conan, and Doc Savage paperbacks. So when I recommend Dead of Veridon, I hope you’ll understand that I’m not endorsing it as the best bit of steampunk fantasy I’ve ever read, or even read this year. That said, I found it an engaging, page-turning read, despite some shortcomings that only bother pretentious academics.

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Anno Dracula: Under the Shadow of the King of the Vampires

I think Kim Newman would agree with me when I say, “Once you go Drac, you never go back.” Or perhaps more accurately, “you might leave Drac, but you’ll definitely be back.” For my generation, there weren’t a lot of bloodsucking alternatives to the big D, aside from the Count on Sesame Street, or if you were older and not a Baptist, Warren Comics’ Vampirella. In the 70s, if you said “vampire,” people thought of Dracula, and “Dracula,” usually meant Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee’s onscreen portrayal. I got my first copy of Dracula in grade four: Leonard Wolf’s annotated version. I never got past the first four chapters. Jonathan Harker’s story was riveting, but the Austenesque switch in voice to Mina Murray and Lucy Westenra writing about their love lives was lost on my pre-adolescent self. The illustrations by Sätty gave only a surreal window into the story’s later events.

As I grew up, more accessible options abounded: books like Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire; films like The Lost Boys and Near Dark. But when Francis Ford Coppola released Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I returned to Transylvania. Despite the film’s numerous digressions from the novel, my love of its visual splendor helped me finally finish the entire novel, finding to my surprise that final chase scene wasn’t a Hollywood addition. That same year, Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula hit the shelves, likely hoping to generate sales off the new film’s popularity, but somehow escaped my attention.

[But not for long…]

Embracing the Darkness, Sorrow, and Brutality of Pan’s Labyrinth

I lost track of how many times I have seen Pan’s Labyrinth while using it as a case study for my Master’s thesis: I watched it at normal speed, on high speed, with commentary, and without; I watched all the DVD extras, then watched them again. After I had defended my thesis, my wife asked me what I wanted to watch. I replied, “One more time, all the way through.” Since then, I’ve viewed it in six different courses as my end-of-term movie (I realize students stop reading several weeks before the end of term, so I prefer to work with that problem, not against it). And when students ask me if I’m tired of watching it, I reply, “No. Every time I watch it, I see something new.”

I’ve met a number of people who cannot imagine someone subjecting themselves to an encore viewing, let alone so many they lose count. These viewers dislike Pan’s Labyrinth for its darkness, for the sorrow and tragedy of its ending. They find the brutality of Captain Vidal abhorrent (and well they should). Like Stephen King, they are terrified by the Pale Man. For many, the film’s darkness overshadows the light; consequently, viewers are often repulsed by it. I love Pan’s Labyrinth for its darkness, sorrow, and brutality. Without those harsh elements the film would be a milquetoast modern fairytale, as tame as The Lady in the Water: a tale of wide-eyed wonder without the wolf.

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Series: Decade’s Best SFF Movies Viewer’s Poll

All This and a Steampunk Volkswagon: The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man by Mark Hodder

I put off reading my copy of Mark Hodder’s debut novel, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack until the review copy of its sequel, The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, arrived. We’re told not to judge a book by its cover, but the covers of many PYR releases, and those by Jon Sullivan in particular, challenge our ability to reserve judgment. The image of a brassy looking automaton drawing a sword-cane to square off against a massive, patchwork-looking figure (a seemingly steampunk Kingpin), surrounded by spectral figures (steam wraiths!) in flight was too much to resist. Accordingly I set to work devouring Spring Heeled Jack, a phenomenal first novel deserving of the recently won Philip K. Dick award. As I said at Steampunk Scholar, if this is what the “punk” Hodder wants to see steampunk look like, then I say with Oliver Twist, “Please, sir, I want some more.”

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