Last Year to Start Next Year

Variety reports that Philip K. Dick’s 1966 novel Now Wait for Last Year has been optioned as a film, with production scheduled to begin Q3 2012.

With Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s Michel Gondry having already drafted a script for Ubik (was there ever a better match between director/screenwriter and source material?), this news means my two favorite PKD novels will be coming soon to a nearby cineplex. Undoubtedly in Imax HD 3D Smell-O-Vision.

Don’t know much about PKD or the plot to Now Wait for Last Year? Here’s a book review I wrote a while back:

Philip K. Dick: Five Novels of the 1960s & 70s
Philip K. Dick
The Library of America (1128 pp, $40, July 2008)
Originally appeared in Black Gate #13, Spring 2009.

In Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, television celebrity Jason Taverner awakens after being attacked by an alien parasite to discover no one knows him. Without identification, Taverner must stumble through the police state his status previously allowed him to ignore, a world wherein the student riots of the late 1960s led to a Second Civil War and a totalitarian United States.

Of course, the very minute he leaves his hotel room Taverner drops into a vipers’ nest of fake IDs, snitches, and Gestapo. “Don’t come to the attention of the authorities,” ruminates the eponymous Policeman. “Don’t ever interest us. Don’t make us want to know more about you.” But Taverner can’t help it; his unique anonymity raises him to fame once more, only now in the sinister eyes of the police alone. And why not? “If you’re afraid you don’t commit yourself to life completely,” Taverner tells another character. “Fear makes you always, always hold something back.”

Not every one of Dick’s protagonists in Five Novels of the 1960s & 70s, chosen and annotated by Jonathan Lethem, is so self-possessed. Yet all live in malignant futures, each a distorted reflection in a shattered funhouse mirror. In the bleak Now Wait for Last Year, Earth’s government has aligned itself with Lilistar in a losing war against the ant-like reegs, a conflict in which withdrawal or a separate peace with the reegs will surely lead to occupation by the Stalinesque ‘Starmen. ‘Starmen agents hook the wife of surgeon Eric Sweetscent on the new drug JJ-180; one dose addicts completely and there is no cure. She in turn addicts her husband. Which then is the more terrifying — the reegs? The ‘Starmen? Or his wife?

Dick’s novels have a rough-draftness about them that wouldn’t be accepted in today’s publishing; Taverner’s assault by the extraterrestrial, for example, fades from Flow’s memory, the cause for his survival never explained or even hinted at. Some scenes have a tacked-on quality as if Dick were simply trying to reach his word count, but in the end they only add to the surreal flow of the narrative in which the reader can never be certain if what the characters experience occurs outside their own skulls.

Two readable yet otherwise average sixties sci-fi offerings, Martian Time-Slip and Dr. Bloodmoney, open the volume, paving a road toward the terminal inclusion, Dick’s masterpiece A Scanner Darkly. Much different in style and tone than his other works, more emotive with the cynicism cranked a hundredfold, Scanner, like the others, revolves around fear and drugs and the disabled, mentally or otherwise, and responsibility toward them. But the world of Scanner is the most dreadful, a modern, indistinguishable Los Angeles inhabited by freaks and heads, and narcs posing as freaks and heads, and freaks and heads posing as narcs. A rabbit hole beyond paranoia, a society superficially functional but made worthless with distrust. “What’s there really in this world, Bob?” asks one character. “It’s a stopping place to the next where they punish us here because we were born evil.” Drugs are solace from the policeman’s flagellation; and by book’s end an incarceration just the same. No parole from the penitentiary of existence.

Various political stripes — anarchists, liberals, libertarians — lay claim to Dick as one of their own but he belongs to no one. He was a Nixon-hating pill popper whose philosophy was anti-authoritarianism. His concerns were not about the structure of governments or the fairness of taxation but with the wheels and cogs of a person’s mind — of the reality specific to each individual, to paraphrase one of his talking taxicabs. Somewhere in the Erlenmeyer flask of Five Novels bubbles Dick’s antidote to our modern poison of conformity, to the dystopia he imagined in a thousand varieties. We live in a time where screaming SWAT teams kick in the doors of wrong addresses and everyone screams to vote for his guy and not the other and if you don’t do what the screamers say then there’s something wrong with you, something aberrant — you’re someone who needs his door kicked in most of all. It’s a future Philip K. Dick foresaw. It’s his world. We’re living in it.

Review: The Cocktail Collective

The past year or so seems to have been critical for the careers of several writers with whom I’m acquainted; in addition to my own success, a number of them have published books as well. So to promote their work, I’m inaugurating a new feature I call Reviews of Books by People I Kinda Sorta Know.

The Cocktail Collective
Jacob Grier, editor
SK2R Publishing (100 pp, $10.94, 2010)

When I purchased this recipe collection, edited by top-shelf bartender and Portland, Oregon resident Jacob Grier, with its odd blue martini on the cover (with, what is that, black salt? some kind of caviar? or is it just the salt-rimmed glass of a red drink with the image colors inverted?), I was expecting a chichi handbook directed at Left Coast foodie hipsters: “As you swirl the Julia Butterfly Hill over your lip piercings, savor the subtle notes of Dennis Kucinich and eco-terrorism.”

Instead, The Cocktail Collective is an extremely serviceable collection of traditional drinks — Tom Collins, Manhattans, White Russians — along with whole new inventions. Or, if not original, at least beverages you won’t find in Mr. Boston: I was impressed that the Vesper, the drink concocted by James Bond in Casino Royale, is included.

The spiral-bound book lays flat on the countertop and is divided by main ingredients: brandy, gin, rum, etc. Further the recipes use a color-coded symbol system for the glassware, so at a glance you know which of the six glasses you should use to serve the cocktail. And while some of the species of syrups and liqueurs and bitters are a little esoteric for the average home bar, the utility of el boracho’s greatest hits between two covers — tiki drinks like the Fog Cutter and Mai Tai on pages 40-41; Bloody Mary on page 54 and Whiskey Sour on page 74 — outweighs any pretentiousness. Jacob also includes brief chapters on stocking and equipping your home bar and instructions for making basic ingredients like simple syrup and honey syrup.

The book actually retails at $6.95 but since seems to be the only place to purchase it — and you can’t use Super Saver Shipping — I had to pay $3.99 shipping on top. Yet even at $10.94, the price is peanuts for what I received. A few Christmases ago, I gave my brother-in-law a starter kit for the bar of his new house. If I was to repeat that this year, The Cocktail Collective would be the very first item in the box.

Writing History

Angus Phillips on Richard Henry Dana’s classic Two Years Before the Mast:

Not that it’s a quick or easy read. Dana, son of a poet, made the choice that all who write about the seagoing life must make—whether to do so in the rich, exotic language of the ship and risk losing landlubbers along the way, or to dumb it down so everyone could breeze through. He took the hard way, keeping it real, as we say today.

The challenge of writing Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer was weaving a narrative that was equal parts local history, American Revolution history, and maritime history, bound by a tight 30,000-word limit. And, early on, I had to confront the same issue Phillips raises: whether to spend valuable verbiage explaining nautical jargon to readers or to proceed regardless and hope they speak salt as a second language.

I adopted what I call a History 201 approach, specifying recurrent themes or details but assuming readers knew the general course of events or customs (or at least could look them up). I rarely defined the differences between types of vessels, for example. If the reader really burns to know what a schooner or snow is, there are better explanations available elsewhere than I had space to give. In contrast I defined brigs and ships because Smedley’s Defence was both.

Another decision: I jettisoned the traditional measure of a ship’s size by tonnage, which involves a complicated formula interesting only to Age-of-Sail historians and model-ship builders, for a comparative yardstick by number of cannons. Saying a ship was 200 tons means nothing to a reader, but he will understand that a 16-gun brig was more powerful than an 8-gun schooner and dwarfed by a 64-gun frigate.

Otherwise, the West Country accent isn’t too thick. Any reader who knows her bow from her stern should enjoy it.

I delivered the manuscript April 1 and the copyeditrix and I are doing polishes now. Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer goes to press in early May and should be available by late June.

Lost States

Santa left a copy of Michael J. Trinklein’s Lost States under the tree this year, a book I’ve been wanting to crack for months. I recommend it if you too are fascinated by lost or forgotten geography — with the caveat that Lost States is more of a compilation of cartography paired with Wikipedia entries than a serious history book.

The full title and subhead of the book is Lost States: True Stories of Texlahoma, Transylvania, and Other States That Never Made It.

Here’s my true story: between 2005 and 2007, I shopped a book idea entitled The Lost States of America. My high-concept tagline was, “Everybody knows there are fifty states. But what about the ones that didn’t make it?”

I eventually abandoned the project, even though I wrote the first chapter (18,000 words!), due to lack of interest from agents or publishers and a growing realization that my energies were better spent elsewhere.

Along the way I accumulated a number of rejection letters, including my favorite from an agent who wrote a long reply about how he wanted to write a history of a lost-state endeavor near where he lived. He declined to represent my book, therefore, lest it interfere with his.

I chuckle just thinking about that letter. Of course, if he had wanted to write his book so badly, he would have done so already. But he hasn’t and he never will. I prize that rejection as the quintessential example of everything that’s wrong with big-name book publishing. Trinklein, an Emmy-nominated PBS producer, self-published the original version of Lost States. It seems publishers were just as deaf to him as they were to me.

My concept differed from Trinklein’s in that I planned to write a textual history book about ten different lost states (eight of which Trinklein includes). Trinklein opted for a more graphic presentation. Each of the 74 entries features a full-page chart crafted to resemble a map from the relevant time period — nicely done. A 300-word description faces it. And yet while Trinklein writes in a breezy style that is sometimes fun, sometimes flippant, his renditions are sometimes at history’ s expense.

Take Franklin, for instance. Trinklein cites Samuel Cole Williams’s History of the Lost State of Franklin as the source for his entry, a reference I also read while researching my 2004 Reason piece on Franklin. Trinklein disparages the whole idea of Franklin, even going so far as to assert that Benjamin Franklin, for whom the endeavor was named, was hostile to it. Not so; the Philadelphian was politely noncommittal. Trinklein also says that North Carolina troops crushed the Franklin movement militarily. Again, not true: Indian attacks in what is today western Tennessee caused North Carolina to walk away from the Franklin issue, eventually leading to the creation of the Volunteer State in its place. I caught several other errors throughout the book and the customer reviews over at Amazon list a bunch more.

Trinklein is also hindered by his lack of focus. The words “George W. Bush,” “Iraq,” and “quagmire” pop up a lot — even though the copyright on the book is 2010. He reminds me of my grad-school professors who, as late as the early 21st century, would spin themselves into a tizzy over Ronald Reagan and Grenada. A couple of entries (New Connecticut, Nickajack) go off on silly tangents, something a writer can’t afford when he’s jotting in eight-graf blurbs.

The scholarship of Trinklein’s hardbound gazetteer is very dodgy but it’s a good place to begin an inquiry. Enjoy the maps and follow the bibliography to more factual accounts of events.

Writing professionally, I believe, is like being a drunken lighthouse keeper: it’s lonely; and for every dozen vessels safely shepherded to their destination, you have a spectacular shipwreck on the rocks. Years ago, my reaction to Lost States would have been jealousy. Experience has taught me since that whatever enemies a writer may have, other authors aren’t among them. I may resurrect my old book idea, although with a focus on a single lost state and told through a biographical narrative, when I finish my current project. But more on that later.

Hack Review: Abandoned Villages and Stuff

Imagine my excitement at discovering a book titled Abandoned Villages and Ghost Towns of New England at my local bookstore. Finally! I thought: a solid regional history of the places I stumble upon during my wanderings, terrestrial and nautical.

Then imagine my disappointment upon bringing it home to discover it full of prose such as this:

As we traverse overgrown trails that were once well worn with life, it becomes clear these forsaken hamlets had similar ends even though no two settlements were completely alike. Their history and people are often all but forgotten in the shuffle of time and evolution. This could be one reason why many of them are haunted.

Ah, fiddlesticks. What I had believed to be a historical touring guide is instead a collection of Weird NJ hokum, 200 pages of Halloween-store plastic and polyester in lieu of actual archival work. Worse still, the mistake was my own fault: if I had only glanced at the bibliography before lining up at the register, I would have seen most of the sources are either other fiction collections by D’Agostino or spooky storybooks similar to his.

There are lots of photos and a few maps, and Abandoned Villages is best when D’Agostino steps out of the picture completely, like when he quotes at length newspaper articles about the flooding of Flagstaff, Maine. But D’Agostino gives the impression he didn’t do much original research himself, and whatever factual evidence he presents is immediately ruined with personal asides about curses and fluctuations in his EMF meters.

Abandoned Villages is the literary equivalent of a ghost-hunting television show: 10 percent history diluted by 90 percent green night-vision. If you’re interested in any of the towns listed in the table of contents, my advice is to contact the historical society or government agency D’Agostino posts at the end of each chapter and proceed on your own from there.

A Pirate’s Life for Me

Over at Black Gate, I’ve scrawled a couple of reviews of the most recent Fighting Fantasy reprints coming out of England.

For the uninitiated: Fighting Fantasy was a 1980s series of choose-your-own-adventure novels with a simple dice mechanic to simulate combat and other physical challenges. Most were written and illustrated by British authors and artists, with all of the off-kilter and macabre sensibility expected from the sons of Albion. I loved Fighting Fantasy as a kid and nowadays read them to my boys, allowing them to make the decisions as they explore ruins, loot tombs, and slay man and monster alike.

In 2009, publisher Wizard Books began reprinting Fighting Fantasy. Several of the best from my childhood, like City of Thieves and Deathtrap Dungeon, are included in this latest series. Other memorable entries, like Scorpion Swamp — the first FF with a non-linear narrative, allowing you to solve it any which way — haven’t appeared yet. But if I had to pick a favorite, all-time best Fighting Fantasy, it would be the one I know will never be reprinted: Seas of Blood.

Seas of Blood revels in villainy and sheer callousness. The scenario is established in less than two pages: you, a pirate captain, wager with another cutthroat named Abdul the Butcher to see who can accumulate the most swag in fifty days. The winner will be declared king of pirates. And just like that, you’re off, tearing through an imaginary Mediterranean Sea on a binge of rapine and terror.

Did I mention this is a book aimed at children?

Clearly inspired by the Harryhausen/Schneer films of the ’60s and ’70s, Seas of Blood is a mish-mash of Greek triremes and Arabic dhows, of cyclops-haunted isles and giant rocs swooping from the skies, of The Odyssey and A Thousand and One Nights — minus any sense of morality. Like all Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, you have personal statistics, but here you also have group scores to indicate the strength of your crew and soundness of your vessel. Booty is acquired through ship-to-ship combat, yes, but you can also venture ashore alone to explore abandoned temples or with your men to ransack towns or fortresses. A particular sequence has your band of scalawags climb a mountain to attack a Tibetan-like monastery and seize their golden idols.

But wealth in Seas of Blood is not measured in lucre alone. Remember those peaceful monks you despoiled a few pages back? You didn’t actually think you’d just leave them to rebuild their lives, did you? Survivors are thrown into the ship’s hold, to be sold at auction the next time you reach port. But even then it’s not so simple. You soon learn the slave markets in various cities pay different amounts, making prices dependent on the available supply. One city, for example, has been victorious in a war with its neighbor, flooding the market with prisoners and depressing prices. Thus you have to carefully choose where to sell so that you receive the highest bids for your human chattel. Hooray market economics!

Having retained my 1985 edition, I recently played it again with my sons, chortling to myself the whole time. We ended just shy of the amount needed to beat Abdul the Butcher and win the title. A shame. All those people murdered and sold into bondage for mere sport.

Oh well. I wonder what’s for dinner?