Space Oddities

John Sladek, an American comic genius who lived much of his life in London, died prematurely nearly two years ago at the age of 62. Since then, Hugo-winning novelist, humorist and fan David Langford has worked to assemble the writer's unreprinted pieces into a commemorative volume that might serve as an introduction to Sladek's uniquely skewed brand of absurdist, New Wave-influenced science fiction. The result is Maps: The Uncollected John Sladek (Big Engine; paperback, $9.99), and it's a generous and affecting package, revealing just how far Sladek's talents stretched.

The book is divided into five parts: Sladek's invigoratingly loony brand of genre stories; short plays and poems; some conventional Hitchcockian mysteries; a raft of collaborations with Thomas Disch; and, finally, some essays. Sladek's voice is strongest in the first section and in the partnerings with Disch. Sladek was an expert utilizer of surrealism and Groucho-Marxian wit; only he could imagine, in "Peabody Slept Here," a time-traveler whose simple scheme to support his shady genealogy business would lead to his being stranded in prehistoric times, or, in "Love Among the Xoids," a separate species of wan humanity that lives in the interstices of our mundane existence. While none of the entries in this volume possesses the magnitude of Sladek's masterpieces, such as the black-humored novels Roderick: The Education of a Young Robot or Tik-Tok or even the novella Masterson and the Clerks, which has remained vivid in my mind after a single reading 30 years ago, they all amply reward the reader with bushels of rueful laughter.

Easy Pieces

Novelist Pamela Sargent is perhaps best known for the groundbreakingly feminist Women of Wonder anthologies she began assembling in 1975. But her skills in the short-story medium are exemplary as well. Her third collection, The Mountain Cage and Other Stories (Meisha Merlin; papberback, $16), gathers pieces she wrote from 1978 to 2000, and reveals that Sargent is at home in many modes. She can create vivid alternate histories, such as that in "The Sleeping Serpent," which chronicles a North America colonized by Mongols. She can comment wryly on the quirks of the writing life, as she does in "All Rights," where publishers from parallel dimensions prove to be no more scrupulous than our familiar ones, and in "The Novella Race," which imagines an Olympics of composition.

She can bring off a piece like "Isles" -- a demure ghost story that would not be out of place in, say, Redbook -- while a few pages later she's digging into the essence of hardcore sf extrapolation with such gems as "Common Mind" (instant global telepathy) and "The Summer's Dust" (immortality). Finally, she reveals a bent for wicked satire in the Nebula-winning "Danny Goes to Mars" (ex-vice president Quayle finds himself heading into space) and "Hillary Orbits Venus" (the intrepid Ms. Rodham as astronaut). A consummate professional who can tailor her visions to various markets, Sargent nonetheless exhibits an unswerving consistency of craft.

Hobbitology

Insofar as it's possible for a much-beloved classic cherished by millions to be overshadowed by its more famous sequels, such a fate might be overtaking J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit in the face of the overwhelming hype, however deserved, surrounding The Lord of the Rings in all its incarnations. The older, simpler book recounting Bilbo's adventures sometimes seems in danger of being forgotten, swamped by all the clamor surrounding Frodo's saga.

But any prospect of such an injustice will surely be remedied by the appearance of The Annotated Hobbit (Houghton Mifflin, $28). Dramatically revised and enlarged from its 1988 edition, this commentary on Bilbo's foray "there and back again" is supplemented with a wealth of illustrations, explanations, speculations, derivations and divagations, all provided by the savvy Douglas A. Anderson. Like Martin Gardner's annotation of Lewis Carroll, Anderson's painstaking, wide-ranging textual notes hew to the spirit of Middle-Earth's creator, enlarging our admiration for Tolkien's unique genius and his subcreation.

Here the lucky reader will learn of the origin of Gandalf in a German picture postcard, the resemblance of hobbits to snergs, what preoccupied Gandalf when he parted from Bilbo and company, and a thousand other delightful bits of trivia. Illustrations not reprinted for 60 years are displayed, and genealogies fleshed out. Sometimes the copious notes outrace the text, so that one has to employ two bookmarks to keep synchronized, but generally the thoughtful design of the book keeps all the glosses close to the relevant sections of story.

As for the story itself, it remains as fresh and affecting as it proved to be upon its debut. With just the slightest twist of our jaded sensibilities, smothered under tons of commodified trilogies, we can still detect in this tale of balanced domesticity and adventure, of catastrophe and triumph, the bright dawn of modern fantasy, and realize how original a book this must have seemed in 1938. When Smaug the dragon is first encountered, broadcasting "a sort of bubbling [sound] like the noise of a large pot galloping on the fire, mixed with a rumble as of a gigantic tom-cat purring," we shiver with Bilbo, and the world seems full of wonders once more.

Absolutely Fabulist

Surely the enormous 39th issue of the literary journal Conjunctions (Bard College, $15) -- assembled by guest editor Peter Straub and subtitled "New Wave Fabulists" -- qualifies as one of several outstanding original anthologies of sf and fantasy and horror that we have seen this year, from Redshift to Leviathan 3 to Polyphony 1. Eighteen big-name authors at the respective tops of their games, along with two of the field's most essential critics (Gary K. Wolfe and John Clute), brilliantly map out a certain territory where mimesis breeds with surrealism, encouraged by postmodern imaginations and chaperoned by immaculate prose.

The contributions from Joe Haldeman and Gene Wolfe are excerpts from as-yet-unpublished novels, but all other items are original to this volume. It's impossible to itemize such a panorama of exceptional fiction in this limited space without slighting someone. Just offhand, I'd cite for attention Andy Duncan's quintessentially American hobo rhapsody "The Big Rock Candy Mountain," China Mie{acute}ville's Theodore Sturgeon-like tale "Familiar," Jonathan Carroll's boffo bardo journey "Simon's House of Lipstick" and John Kessel's mordant alternate history "The Invisible Empire" as instances of the particular heights reached by these authors. But there's not a drab or dull tale in the book, and in fact this volume is so rich it demands unhurried consumption.

Does even such an assemblage of fine work, however, truly represent the entire state of the art of genre fiction, as its compiler asserts? Hardly. Several flavors of science fiction, fantasy and horror are missing from this project. All the lowbrow, geeky charms of the several genres have been banished in favor of a certain omnipresent high-minded artiness intended, one suspects, to impress the mainstream literary establishment. Even the comical entries of Jonathan Lethem and Neil Gaiman radiate a decided seriousness of intention and aspiration. Obsessive eccentrics like Greg Egan, Richard Calder and Rudy Rucker, with their (respectively) scientifically dense, lushly feverish and insouciantly gonzo prose, would consort ill with their peers gathered here. Conjunctions offers us fantastical literature with its seams straight, its makeup tastefully applied and clad in designer-label attire. To find the genre wild-eyed, bushy-haired and ranting, you'll have to look elsewhere.

A Secret History of Our Time

How to summarize in a few hundred words or less a series of maximalist, encyclopedic novels replete with scores of major characters and totalling nearly 2,000 pages? An impossible task! All that can be done is to limn roughly the charms and flavors of Edward Whittemore's long-unavailable cult classics, and point you toward their new publisher, the ambitiously indefatigable Michael Walsh of Old Earth Books, who has republished them in paperback and gone the extra mile by assembling new introductions and biographical essays for this project of rediscovery.

Edward Whittemore (1933-1995) lived a very full life before he ever turned his hand to fiction, working mainly as a spy for the CIA. Like his cosmopolitan comrades Cordwainer Smith and James Tiptree, Whittemore brought to his second profession a quirky, instantly mature style, a vivid imagination and a deep knowledge of both the world's glories and its evils. The five novels he managed to complete before dropping into silence constitute a rambunctious, boisterous yet ultimately touching secret history of the 20th century, focusing mainly on the Orient and the Middle East. Quin's Shanghai Circus ($17.95) from 1974 centers on World War II-era Japan and China. Explicitly linked to Circus, the Jerusalem Quartet (1977-1987) -- Sinai Tapestry ($17.95), Jerusalem Poker ($19.95), Nile Shadows (19.95), and Jericho Mosaic ($17.95) -- transfers the spotlight to Jerusalem, Damascus and Cairo. In these polymorphously perverse pages, we are introduced to a heretical Bible, eccentric British lords, immortal beggars, poker games that span a decade and a host of other magical-realist conceits. (The fantasy quotient tapers off in the last two books, and the final volume is almost purely mimetic, and frighteningly timely in its focus on terrorism.)

Whittemore's grand themes -- the mutability of identity, the tragicomic nature of life, the way pretense becomes reality, the war between faith and materialism, the nature of failure and redemption, the struggle either to fulfill or overcome one's heritage -- ensure that his massive story, however baggy its pants, will still inspire strong frissons and catharsis, as well as many laughs. The tangled lineages of his characters -- think Ross MacDonald squared -- illustrate his desire to make the essential connections that alone confer meaning to life. And his intricate plots ultimately invalidate any of the small logics humans employ to make sense of creation, in favor of the heart's intuition under the light of the soul.

Aside from making the standard comparisons to Pynchon, Borges and DeLillo, genre readers will spot Whittemore's link to the erudition of Avram Davidson, the tall-tale loquaciousness of R. A. Lafferty, the agglomerative appetites of Neal Stephenson and the gleeful transgressiveness of Philip Jose{acute} Farmer. Whittemore is the pluperfect postmodernist, whose prime audience is perhaps only now ready for his visionary tales. *

Paul Di Filippo had four books published in 2002, and will have four more appear in 2003.