Gene Wolfe, who died on April 14 at age 87, was one of the greatest American writers of his generation, period. His four-part masterpiece, “The Book of the New Sun,” sometimes looks like fantasy, sometimes like science fiction, but there’s no uncertainty about its magnificence — it is a work that repeatedly takes your breath away. Among Wolfe’s many admirers was the late Ursula K. Le Guin, who discusses books, writing, life and much else in “The Last Interview and Other Conversations” (Melville House). Editor David Streitfeld, compiler of many of the best volumes in this “Last Interview” series, opens and closes the book, with a superb introduction and its very final, intimate conversation.
Wolfe and Le Guin’s work typically exhibits a cool, almost classical perfection, but John Sladek could hardly restrain his restless and kaleidoscopic genius. Sladek, who died in 2000, produced the best parodies in sf (try “Solar Shoe-Salesman,” which sends up Philip K. Dick); deadpan satire (“Arachne Rising: The Thirteenth Sign of the Zodiac”); intricate locked-room mysteries (featuring detective Thackeray Phin); a wonderfully entertaining study of pseudoscience (“The New Apocrypha”); and the brilliant “Roderick, or The Education of a Young Machine” and “Tik-Tok,” the latter a tour de force of gallows humor, reminiscent of the film “Kind Hearts and Coronets.”
As you might guess, “New Maps: More Uncollected John Sladek,” edited by David Langford (Ansible Editions), is a companion volume to “Maps” (2003). Together these wide-ranging collections gather stories, essays, book reviews, journalism, poems, playlets, recipes, comics and numerous other Sladekian oddments. Included in “New Maps” is a Ronald Reagan cut-out paper doll and the delightful “Seven Unexplained Mysteries of Our Time (With Explanations).” If you were to mix Dave Barry’s humor with Georges Perec’s limitless ingenuity, you’d still fall short of the actual John Sladek.
For most of science fiction’s history, its beating heart could be found in its fanzines. Through such amateur publications — often crudely produced with typewriters and mimeograph machines — readers were able to comment on favorite authors and stories, conduct proto-flame wars, share their artwork (some quite sexy) and, in several cases, inaugurate lifelong careers in sf. “The Science Fiction Fanzine Reader: Focal Points 1930-1960,” edited by Luis Ortiz (Nonstop Press) assembles “the best of science fiction fanzine writing,” and features an essay by Ray Bradbury (on the artist Hannes Bok), “Confessions of a Fanzine Reviewer,” by Robert Bloch (who would go on to write “Psycho”), and youthful comment and criticism from Harlan Ellison, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Robert Silverberg, Gregory Benford and that preeminent memorabilia collector, Forrest J. Ackerman.
Print magazines are still vital to sf. Besides the big three — Asimov’s, Analog and the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction — you might enjoy Black Infinity (Dead Letter Press), edited by Tom English. The latest thematic issue takes up alien possession: Is your neighbor really human? Are you? This paranoia-rich subgenre runs throughout sf, from Jack Finney’s body snatchers to Robert Heinlein’s puppet masters to half the work of Philip K. Dick.
No devotee of dark fantasy or of “strange stories” should miss the spring 2019 bumper issue of Weird Fiction Review (Centipede Press), edited by S.T. Joshi. Here are short stories by Scott Bradfield, Laird Barron, Victor Lavalle and Caitlin R. Kiernan, among others, but also an abundance of nonfiction: a survey of “Surrealist Horror Novels” by Adam Groves, Stefan Dziemianowicz on the history of Gnome Press (publishers of Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy and much else), an article by Chad Hensley on toys inspired by the “Alien” movies, John C. Tibbetts’s reflections on Marjorie Bowen’s ghost stories and, not least, Daniel Olson’s long interview with David Mitchell. Did I mention that there’s poetry, too, and striking artwork by Colin Nitta?
If you’re eager to learn more about the history and range of “fantastika,” go out of your way to find the current and back issues of Wormwood: “Literature of the Fantastic, Supernatural and Decadent,” edited by Mark Valentine (Tartarus Press) and “The Green Book: Writings on Irish Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature,” edited by Brian J. Showers (Swan River Press). I would also suggest Joshi’s recent “The Development of the Weird Tale” (Sarnath Press), in which this tireless scholar gathers a potpourri (or perhaps a Poe-pourri) of his articles, essays and introductions. As always, Joshi is critically astute and provocative, whether talking about the underappreciated novels of L.P. Davies or the celebrated stories of Algernon Blackwood.
Owen Davies, professor of social history at the University of Hertfordshire and a leading authority on the history of magic, notes that great conflicts invariably generate an upsurge of belief in the mystical, visionary and occult. In “A Supernatural War: Magic, Divination and Faith During the First World War” (Oxford) Davies surveys, in remarkable detail, the range of such beliefs, from cheap pamphlets prophesying the coming war to the legend of the medieval archers known as the Angels of Mons to the lucky charms worn by Italian soldiers.
After all this criticism and scholarship, let me close by recommending at least one book of new fiction, John Langan’s “Sefira and Other Betrayals” (Hippocampus), an outstanding collection of horror stories by a literary writer whose work will unnerve you as deeply as Shirley Jackson’s. Readers who enjoy the bizarre and surreal should also look for “The Man Who Walked Through Cracks,” Volume 5 of the complete stories of the gonzo and very funny R.A. Lafferty (Centipede Press), the Comte de Lautréamont’s phantasmagorical “Dirges of Maldoror,” newly translated and illustrated by Gavin L. O’Keefe (Ramble House) and Jean Ray’s “Whiskey Tales,” translated by Scott Nicolay to launch a new Wakefield Press series devoted to the “Belgian Poe.” Finally, Ray Bradbury and Neil Gaiman fans will slaver over the illustrated Folio Society editions of “Something Wicked This Way Comes” and “Anansi Boys.”
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.