Walter Jon Williams

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As previously noted, I’ve developed a minor fixation with finding interesting, good value stuff lurking in the recesses of the Kindle store since I acquired the e-reading habit.

Here’s an update on recent discoveries.  As before, these are treasures found in the UK Kindle store, which may or may not be similarly keenly-priced in the US (but probably are, I’d guess).

Having read and enjoyed Walter Jon Williams’ Aristoi, I grabbed his Hardwired for a fairly modest £3.25.  It’s a cyberpunkish novel from 1986, and it’s good fun.  Didn’t wow me quite as much as Aristoi, but well worth the read.  The basic set-up, of a rather anarchic, balkanised Earth left behind by the all-powerful corporations who have relocated into orbit, is very strong, and a lot of the action sequences are done well.  Recommended.

Shadow Unit (currently a mere £0.72 for the first volume, rising to less than £2 for subsequent instalments) is utterly fascinating, and something that could only really be done through digital publishing, I suspect.  A team of authors, led by Emma Bull and in the first volume including Will Shetterly, Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette, got together to produce tales of an elite team of FBI detectives who work on paranormal cases.  It’s a deliberate, meticulous attempt to reproduce the effect of a TV series in prose, and I was downright startled by how successful it is in that.  It borrows its structure and tropes straight from serialised crime drama, and is so absurdly perfect in mimicing the tone and feel that it’s almost disorientating.  Very, very clever.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies is an online short story magazine, and probably my favourite source of podcast fantasy fiction.  Although the stories are enormously varied, it’s got a definite house style: high quality prose telling tales that are set in imaginary worlds and have definite beginning, middle and ends.  No ‘mood’ or snapshot pieces, on the whole; just well-told, imaginative stories in which stuff happens.  So although I haven’t read them all, I feel pretty confident in predicting that The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Year One, which contains fourteen stories for just £1.53, will be a safe purchase offering excellent value.

Leaving speculative fiction behind, here’s an example of the kind of thing I would never have stumbled across but for the advent of e-reading. Crossfire: An Australian Reconnaissance Unit in Vietnam is currently priced at £1.79, and worth checking out for anyone interested in getting another, subtly different angle on that whole messy war.  It’s main focus is on the experiences of a young man who had the misfortune to spend a lot of time, along with a small, tight-knit group of colleagues, doing advance reconnaissance in southern Vietnam.  The writing is competent, if unremarkable, and there’s not much that’s really revelatory, but it’s quite effective in conveying the day-to-day horrors and tedium of that kind of combat.  I was particularly struck by the horrific effect, both phsycial and psychological, of the ubiquitous mines and booby traps, which was eerily reminiscent of more recent and equally messy conflicts.

And finally, a freebie.  For the low, low price of absolutely nothing, you can get South, the amazing story of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-17 expedition to Antarctica, written by the man himself.  Hopefully it’s not too much of a spoiler to say things go fairly spectacularly wrong for the expedition, and it becomes a tale of understated but nonetheless astonishing endurance and survival.  Adventuring and heroism from a bygone age.

 

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As previously noted, my Kindle and I are engaged in a mental tussle over the question of how much I should pay for an e-book.  In truth, only one of the factors mentioned in that post really affects my behaviour: the bottom line is that e-books don’t currently meet enough of my personal criteria for permanent, irrevocable, unconstrained and secure ‘ownership’ to make me enthusiastic about spending big chunks of my limited book budget on them.

That said, I’m enjoying reading stuff on the Kindle, and I continue to find the technology (hardware more than software) terrifically engaging and statisfying.  So I definitely want to use the thing, even if I don’t want to spend too much cash to do so.  Not a problem.  Bargains abound in e-book world.

The problem is finding them. It takes a bit of work, or luck, to excavate treasure.  There’s a distinct lack of reliable signposts to structure your explorations.

Here are a few of the treasures I’ve found so far, all available at the time of writing in the UK Kindle Store for less than the entirely arbirtray figure of £4.  (Can’t speak to the prices in the US Kindle Store, although the one or two I’ve cross-checked are pretty aggressively priced over there too).

Frankenstein will cost you not one penny, and as I’d call it one of the best sf books ever written that looks like a bargain.  I know some people struggle with the antiquated structure and pacing and language – which is fair enough; it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste – but to me that’s surface.  What lies beneath is, if you ask me, a work of visionary genius that puts much of the sf published in the subsequent 200 years to shame.

Aristoi by Walter Jon Williams is the most fun I’ve had on my Kindle since I got the thing, and it cost me just £3.21. It’s far future sf set in a hierarchical human society of nanotech, gene therapy, virtual realities and many other wonders. It’s not what you’d call action-packed – although when face-to-face violence does take place it’s lengthily detailed – and the reader’s not exactly spoon-fed everything about the setting or characters, but I found it pretty engaging. Williams explores the world, both outer and inner, of his human demi-gods with smooth writing and an open mind. It’s kind of like a less democratic, less AI-heavy version of Iain Banks’ Culture, with more ambiguity about the pros and cons of such a society. And the best thing is, there’s plenty more modestly priced WJW e-stuff available for follow-up.

The Hunger Games will currently cost you a modest £2.70.  Now, I’ve not read it, so what am I doing pointing it out?  Well, I’ve bought it for future consumption because, just as Frankenstein marks the origins of the sf genre, this marks its current apogee in terms of cultural ubiquity and popularity.  I’m naturally curious about one of the most successful books the genre has ever produced, and here it is at a bargain price.

Unpossible by Daryl Gregory just sneaks in beneath the cost ceiling I’ve imposed for this post at £3.97.  It’s a short story collection, and an eclectic one at that.  All speculative fiction, from what I’ve read of it so far, but encompassing a wide range beneath that heading.  The tone varies almost as much as the genres do, from the decidedly dark to the wryly humourous to the fabulistic.  All of it’s done with considerable style and wit and polish, though.

I mentioned the (free) Lost World in my last post, so can’t resist pointing out you can also get as much Sherlock Holmes as you could ever possibly want for prices varying from nothing to all of £0.77 for a properly e-bookized collection of the whole canon.

Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine offers a free digest edition, comprising one short story and all its non-fiction content (reviews, commentary etc.) delivered automatically to your reader every other month.  It’s a tempter for a full subscription, of course, (which only costs a couple of £ per issue, I think) but that’s no bad thing since it means they select a high quality story for inclusion.

Philippine Speculative Fiction Vol. 1 I include here because it’s kind of what e-book shopping should be all about, isn’t it?  The chance to discover something unexpected, unfamiliar and to broaden your horizons.  It offers fifteen short stories for just £0.77, and from the (relatively little) I’ve read of it so far it would be a bargain at twice, or three times, the price.  As with the Gregory collection, the stories are diverse in genre and tone.

And finally, another e-item I haven’t actually read yet, but which also seems to me to illustrate some of what the e-publishing thing should be all about.  The Desert of Souls, an Arabian historical fantasy by Howard Andrew Jones has been getting seriously excited reviews since it was published last year, and I look forward to (probably) reading it.  But first, I’m going to read The Waters of Eternity, a set of six short stories featuring the same characters and setting as that novel, which I bought for just £1.52.  A perfect way to sample the milieu at no great financial risk, and if I like it, a pretty much guaranteed sale of the novel.  Whether you’ve already read and enjoyed The Desert of Souls, or if – like me – you’re just curious, what could be better?

(And I feel compelled to point out that while my own most recent modest contribution to world literature, The Edinburgh Dead, doesn’t quite squeeze under the arbitrary £4 price point, at just £4.49 for the Kindle edition it is, I can absolutely assure you, excellent value.)

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