17 July 2011


So, there are zillions (yes, that's a scientific figure, right there) of books out right now -- literally, zillions. The ones you don't feel like paying for can be had for free online; the ones you want to pay for, you can read as paper or plastic, depending on your desires (and the kind of book it is -- thrillers and sex manuals seem to do well when no one can see what the cover looks like).

I mention this because the case in Fritz Lieber's less-than-well-known outing, The Silver Eggheads, is very similar. The book, which features a cover worthy of Good Show, Sir, is set in a world in which all fiction is produced by machines called "wordmills"; authors, such as they are, exist merely to tend the wordmills and look cool. And, as now, there are zillions of books:  Thousands on a single newsstand, everything from porn to hard science fiction (though all of them seem to have appalling covers, too). The main character, Gaspard de la Nuit, is a journeyman writer (condemned to wear a velvet smoking jacket until he levels up to, essentially, beatnik status) who loved the "milled product" he puts out -- most writers don't read much at all, and seem to be selected on the basis of casting calls.

And then the authors decide to rebel. They burn the wordmills and seem all set to destroy the publishing world.

Of course, then they realize that they have nothing to say. (This is, incidentally, imparted to us in a hilarious textual montage of desperate gangs of foppish people either holding hands in circles or drinking a lot and waiting for the muse. Most of them can get out a word or three, and that's it.)

The "eggheads" of the title come in at this point:  They are, it transpires, brains that were jarred up by a crackpot scientist a hundred years before the story starts. Gaspard, visiting his publishers, becomes embroiled in the plot to use the eggheads to create more fiction to satiate the hungry masses, made up of "book-a-day housewives" and other hopeless addicts of "smooth, milled product."

The plot, such as it is, would seem almost picaresque if it weren't so smooth in its segues; as it is, while it's nobody's model for best structure, it certainly pulls the reader along. However, Lieber's world-building is, as always, highly amusing in its detail. (He sure did put a lot of thought into robot sex, though. Seriously, Fritz, take a cold shower!)

But the timeliness of the book is truly striking. What with J.K. Rowling, for Guinness' sake, self-publishing the e-book versions of the Harry Potter books, and random (but awesome) guys outselling Stephen King in the online world, the profusion of books and writers certainly seems comparable to Lieber's science-fantasy of a world of militarized publishing. (No, I'm not kidding.)
Excuse the brevity of this post; the last few weeks have been mad here, and I actually finished reading this about three weeks ago. However, I do have some excellent news:  Bull Spec will be publishing its sixth issue on 30 July. And guess whose poem will be taking up some of their precious space? That's right, mine. Look out for it, and give them money.

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