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Microcosmos
A new Golden Age and a flood of titles from the kind of small publishers that first brought the world sf.

By Paul Di Filippo
Sunday, April 7, 2002; Page BW13

In the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, John Clute identifies the first small-press publication as appearing in 1922. Sporadic ventures followed in no great number and with little impact until the seminal year of 1939, when Arkham House released its first, now legendary book, H.P. Lovecraft's The Outsider and Others. Armed with a well-defined mission to remedy some perceived lack, yet still keeping a certain flexibility of selection, relying on fannish channels for sales and publicity, emphasizing the limited availability and high quality of their books, Arkham and its descendants would venture where the major publishers feared to tread.

Soon followed the Golden Age of the sf small presses, which ushered such luminaries as A.E. van Vogt, E.E. Smith, Isaac Asimov, Robert E. Howard and Robert Heinlein into hardcover for the first time in their careers. Gnome Press, Fantasy Press, Prime Press, Hadley Publishing, Shasta, Advent, Mirage and others -- this roll call evokes fond and avaricious feelings among collectors even today.

But then, in the 1950s, the sharks arrived. Suddenly cognizant of a lucrative new market, the majors began sf lines of their own. Doubleday grabbed Asimov, Scribners snatched Heinlein, and the rest is history. The mass-market paperback explosion ate the remainder of the small presses' lunch, and the niches they had inhabited looked doomed. The subsequent decades were generally fallow ones for the little guys.

But slowly, over the past two decades, the small presses have entered a renaissance that bids fair to rival their Golden Age accomplishments. Technological revolutions such as desktop publishing, Internet sales and print-on-demand (POD), abetted by the timorousness, inertia, inattention, greed, fickleness, blockbuster-worship, media-slavishness and short-sightedness of the larger firms, have reopened the old pastures where small presses once cavorted.

With this promising future in mind, let's take a look at a representative sampling of recent titles.

Anthologies of original stories are a prominent landmark on the contemporary small press landscape. Alan Clark's two volumes titled Imagination Fully Dilated (IFD Publishing) and Jeff VanderMeer's Leviathan series (the third installment is due out soon, from Ministry of Whimsy) were recent standouts. Three new volumes offer a good sampling of the available talent. Redsine Seven (Prime, $6 paperback), edited by Trent Jamieson and Garry Nurrish, bills itself as "a quarterly magazine of dark fantasy and horror," and does not disappoint. From the psychic warfare between a man and his girlfriend in Keith Brooke's "What She Wanted" to the grimly satirical science fiction apocalypse of Stepan Chapman's "The Silent People," this collection recalls the glory days of Terry Carr's Universe series.

Also from Prime, Whispers and Shadows ($15 paperback), edited by Jack Fisher, delivers a number of strong pieces, ranging from Rhys Hughes's "Depressurized Ghost Story," a gloriously demented S.J. Perelman romp, to Peter Crowther's "Tomorrow Eyes," a Runyonesque adventure involving cardsharks and prophetic gemstones. And in Dark Testament (Delirium, $29), editor Shane Ryan Staley assembles 21 bold tales that use Biblical narratives as launching pads for supernatural revisionism. I particularly enjoyed Stanley Sargent's "To Err, Divine," which has Lucifer stowed away onboard Noah's Ark, and Gerard Houarner's "The Wound of Her Making," wherein an unrepentant Lilith is beseeched to return to Heaven.

Surely John Betancourt's Wildside Press (founded in 1989) -- along with its Cosmos imprint -- stands as the major success story of the recent boom, with more than 500 well-chosen titles, new and old, continually in print, thanks to the miracle of POD. One of their latest comes from poet Bruce Boston, whose prose sings like a mix of E.T.A. Hoffmann and Hawthorne, like Borges and Bierce. His Masque of Dreams ($39.95) collects nearly three dozen brilliant stories, ranging across all emotional and narrative terrains. Coincidentally, we can here enjoy "The Poet's War," an acid satire on the small-press scene itself.

From his first story in 1937 to his newest book, The Far Side of Nowhere (Arkham, $34.95), Nelson Bond, age 93, remains a consummate entertainer: light, deft and inventive. The stories here, ineluctably tied to the astounding era of their composition, nonetheless retain enough warmth and glee to fuel any reader's fires. Just one example: It's hard to evoke sentiment for a sentient snowman without sounding like a Christmas ditty, but Bond succeeds admirably in "Mr. Snow White." This volume is typical of the invaluable service Arkham House renders in maintaining our past glories.

With its titles regularly attaining best-of-the-year lists, Golden Gryphon Press has successfully endured after the death of its founder James Turner. Richard Lupoff's Claremont Tales II ($23.95) assembles mysteries, mainstream tales and fantastical narratives into a portrait of a distinguished 50-year career. Master pasticher and provocateur, Lupoff unfailingly plumbs each of his conceits to their full depth. For instance, "A Freeway for Draculas" is a Phildickian blast from 1974, when the hippie ethos was imploding in a sour supernova.

Curiously, first editions of novels are underrepresented in the small-press world. For every 10 short-story collections or anthologies or reprints, a fresh novel or two will surface, gaining all the more attention for its scarcity. England's PS Publishing, the brainchild of author Peter Crowther, which made its reputation with novellas, has recently branched out into full-length works, all done in limited signed editions. Their first such is The Astonished Eye ($55) by Tracy Knight. The town of Elderton, Ill., is a nexus of strange magics: Undead children, seasonal rituals and odd gadgets abound, in a kind of Blaylockian stew of whimsy. The crashlanding of a UFO into such a venue might have gone unnoted, save for the arrival of Ben Savitch, cynical reporter for the tabloid the Astonished Eye. His dealings with the natives trigger several formidable changes in the town and in Savitch's own soul. A trifle kludgy in the manner of the first-time novelist that Knight is (the preponderance of one-sentence paragraphs does not contribute to smoothness), this book redeems itself through its heartfelt sentiments and imaginative action.

John Shirley hails from the Harlan Ellison/Norman Spinrad tradition of in-your-face, streetwise writing, and his latest book, . . . And the Angel With Television Eyes (Night Shade, $27), hews closely to this vein. Max Whitman, a soap-opera actor with pretensions to artistry, finds himself at the mercy of strange invaders from another dimension, a dimension to which he himself ultimately will trace his otherworldly heritage. Though pursued by various factions, some deadly, some supportive, Max still has time to ponder the ways of treacherous publicity agents and vile producers. Intercourse between the astral planes also occurs in Ursula Pflug's Green Music (Tesseract, $11.95 paperback), but Pflug's story is a gentler, more poetic tale than Shirley's. A painter named Susan and her troubled friend Marina -- "self-involved, and tiresome and repetitive; drunken and slatternly [but] wonderful and unique" -- begin to receive intimations of a tropical afterlife community also named Marina, founded somehow by earthly Marina's dead grandfather. Space and time crumple and fold, assisted by a turtle named Jack who can swim to the moon and back, and lives are invigorated with magic not untinged with despair. Think Carol Emshwiller and Josephine Saxton, and you'll have some idea of Pflug's poetic, melancholy accomplishments.

Finally, the newest offering from that model of selfless amateur dedication and respect for sf's legacy, NESFA Press. With their omnibus volumes surveying the entire careers of such figures as Fredric Brown, William Tenn and Cordwainer Smith, NESFA occupies a place in the sf world analogous to the Library of America. Dimensions of Sheckley ($29) contains four entire novels and a novella by that cosmic jester Robert Sheckley, our homegrown Stanislaw Lem. Rereading for the first time in 30 years his Dimension of Miracles, the heroically lunatic tale of the inveiglement of poor Tom Carmody by intergalactic lottery operators, I felt anew my respect for both Sheckley and the small presses that keep him and his peers in print.

Paul Di Filippo's latest book is "A Year in the Linear City."

2002 The Washington Post Company

 

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