Sime~Gen Inc. Presents

Recommended Books

January, 1995

Feedback Loops


The Ragbone Man by Charlotte Lawrence, Part I of the Merrywell Trilogy (LLewellyn Publications, 1994).

The Celtic Heart by Kathryn Marie Cocquyt (Llewellyn Publications, 1994).

Walker Between the Worlds by Diane Des Rochers (Lewellyn Publications, May 1995).

The Megalight Connection by William M. Griggs (E&L Press, POB 1967, Chicago, IL 60690, 1990). (currently available)

Ecumenicon VIII - a convention, not a book.

In the December '94 column, I discussed some of the forces operating behind the commercial fiction scene to shape and limit what is available to you on the shelves of chain bookstores. I also pointed out some of the hotbeds of seething activity working to foment change in the commercial fiction delivery system.

In previous columns, I have established that by "fiction delivery system" I mean not just printed material but also movies, TV, video, cd-rom, audio-tape originals, and any other sort of hardware invented to provide consumers with a fiction template to spark dreams.

I consider this system "broken" because there is a notable lack of feedback between the ultimate consumer of the fiction (you) and the purveyor. TV networks have Neilsens and book publishers have computerized warehouse inventory statistics. Statistics can indicate vaguely what the consumer will pay for — before consuming the product — but not why they chose the product, and certainly not whether the purchaser ultimately found the product worth its price or why it was/was not worth that price. Statistics measure the effectiveness of the packaging, not the contents.

Writers, however, have another type of feedback loop to depend on — direct contact with readers. And now the writers' feedback loop is vigorously creating a new fiction publishing enterprise at Llewellyn Publishers — yes, the same Llewellyn that has brought you the rare and valuable elements of your occult nonfiction library.

One of the themes I harped on last year was the cost effectiveness of buying your fiction by publisher's logo. Llewellyn's little moon-in-a-square logo must now be added to your fiction-hunting list.

Two of the books listed above, The Ragbone Man and The Celtic Heart do not, strictly speaking, belong in this column because they are not really scince fiction/fantasy or Intimate Adventure. But the third one, Walker Between the Worlds, definitely does belong in this column as does the fourth, Megalight Connection.

In my personal judgement, Walker belongs on the must-read list for most sf/f fans because it is very different from most of what the Manhattan publishers would deliver. Because of that difference, Walker could not possibly appear from the ordinary sf/f publishers. Ragbone Man and Celtic Heart share that difference along with some others.

Llewellyn is one of the few publishers that listens directly to what readers are saying they want. Llewellyn long ago brought us reprints of Dion Fortune's occult novels. Now they are giving other writers who are expert in various occult fields a chance to explicate the principles of their crafts in fiction just as Fortune did hers.

They call this line of novels their Psi-Fi Series, and the one requirement Llewellyn puts on the writer is that the occult practices depicted be authentic and accurate.

This is the most exciting concept in publishing I've seen this decade. Unfortunately, I could not find these books in my local Waldenbooks, and the nearby occult bookstore burned down last January and hasn't reopened yet.

So the first I saw of the line was the review copies of Ragbone and Heart. Ragbone is a 311 page paperback novel priced at $4.99. Heart is a large-format quality paperback with very small print and 599 pages priced at $14.99.

Ragbone has a contemporary setting, a female protagonist who owns a new age shop. Heart is set during the Roman conquest of the British Isles and has a floating viewpoint that is confusing and pointless. It seems to be about the Celtic nobility's struggle to bring Druidic practices to bear to protect themselves from the Romans.

Both of these novels share deep flaws, and I don't usually discuss books that are this badly flawed — mostly because there are so very many books available that don't have such flaws. However, there are none like these, so they are more than worthy of our attention, mostly because they are part of the launch effort for a very special line of novels.

These two novels would be worth their cover prices to readers who have a taste for amateur fiction. I don't mean fanzines such as are published today — media-spinoff amateur fiction published by and for fans of a particular TV show. Because of the work of several of the early Star Trek fanzine editors, the level of craftsmanship common in most media-'zines is now much higher than you'll find in these two books. These two books resemble the earliest pre-Star Trek fanzines which contained science fiction written by would-be professional sf writers who couldn't sell it elsewhere.

And here's the reason for the difference. In a media-related story, the writer can lean on the reader's familiarity with the characters, the social background, visual appearances, technology and the way the characters relate to each other.

In an original novel, a writer must create all of these things and tell the reader about them while telling their story, too. Most new writers have a very hard time conveying information to the reader without lecturing. In frustration, they will switch viewpoint in order to tell you something they didn't know how to convey from inside the true viewpoint character. There are techniques for avoiding that error, but new writers either don't know them, don't know when to use them, or use them ineffectively.

Llewellyn has loaded on their new writers yet another task, that of conveying authentic and accurate information about their occult subjects. These new fiction writers are experts, practitioners, teachers and researchers in the disciplines and subjects the Llewellyn nonfiction line covers. They are used to thinking about their subjects in teaching mode and automatically use that mode when encoding the information into the fiction. They are also very interested in their subjects and assume the reader is also. They leave out what they should put in and put in what they should leave out and put it in the wrong order. That's why the included factual material doesn't read out as entertainingly as the writer intended.

Writing is a performing art very much like juggling. Drop something and the whole act falls flat.

It's no fun to watch a beginning juggler struggling. The thrill is in watching ridiculous numbers of items flow through the air with improbable ease.

As a professional science fiction writer, I have spent more than twenty-five years learning how to juggle all these techniques smoothly while conveying factual information without letting the reader be distracted by facts. I have been teaching writing for more than ten years and have become very good at figuring out where a new writer has lost control of his or her material and what to do to regain that control. In the process, I have lost tolerance for awkwardness. And that may be the only reason I see it here in these two books. My intolerance may be a personal, ideosyncratic quirk unlikely to afflict the readers of this column.

But I've also learned how to spot talent. Lawrence and Cocquyt are both extremely talented fiction writers with a lot of fascinating things to say. I feel they can be forgiven for the ragged awkwardness that may be apparent only to me. Look these books over carefully before buying — not just the covers but a few pages of text inside. It is the Llewellyn Psi-Fi line as a whole that I wish to draw to your attention. I believe it will mature and blossom into a very important force in transforming the fiction delivery system.

These books ended up at Llewellyn not because they were not smoothly written, but because no matter how well written they might have been, they couldn't be published mainstream because of the content.

Walker Between the Worlds by Diane Des Rochers, due out from Llewellyn in May (look for it in April) is a case in point. This manuscript came to me not for review but for a cover-quote. The manuscript galvanized my interest in the Llewellyn line as a whole because it is a smoothly crafted, beautifully executed, fully orchestrated work of art. And it's also sf/f.

Walker likewise could not have been published mainstream because of the content. Walker is the story of an Initiate. This is a man who was once a priest — probably in Atlantis — who messed it up big-time, and has spent lifetimes and ages living down the karmic mess he made. And he's almost got it together at last.

This time, in the near future U.S.A., he's born of mixed parentage, manifests a "Doogie Howser" intellect and eight or nine Mozart-level talents as well. Then he's orphaned and raised by an unmarried black/white couple who marry in order to adopt him. With invention patents and burning ambitions, he founds an industry to rival Gates' Microsoft but in the aerospace field. Like Heinlein's heros he builds a superhero's space ship in his basement.

All that happened before the story even starts. And then it begins to get strange. We are given a glimpse of Earth-as-Goddess summoning an asteroid to crash into our planet in order to test this priest who doesn't even know who and what he is yet. One test is that he gets hailed as a Messiah. Oy - vey!

The God/Goddess characters manipulate events in the background, forming a theme pulsing behind everything that happens. If you can understand and interpret the Divine Finger Writing, then this book is a glued-to-the-page, stay-up-all-night read. If you are Divine-blind like most of the readership served by the mainstream publishers, this book is drivel.

Only someone who understands the objectives of the initiatory path would find the emotionally tormented current incarnation of the Ancient Priest plausible. Only someone who has begun to explore the operation of the laws of karma would find the plot and the wonderful love story comprehensible. Only someone to whom the feminine principle within the Divine is visible in daily life would find the situation comprehensible.

None of that is surprising, considering the author is a rather famous witch in the Northeast part of this country. Currently, she's affiliated with the AppleMoon Coven and Teacher Grove, serving as High Priestess. She also teaches at an adult education evening school where she gives classes in such things as Witchcraft 101 and Psychic Self-Defense. She knows her Craft, folks.

But before she published this book, she learned an entirely new craft — writing. She gained complete, firm control of the material and she presents it with vigorous maturity. She takes the reader deep within the mind of the Initiate/Priest and makes us live his life and his problems, makes us experience what it's like to be such a person, and to learn his lessons. The book ends in the right place for this novel, but leaves me glad she's promised to work on a sequel.

Since I wrote the above review of Walker, I've learned that Llewellyn has changed their plans for this book and their line. They have launched into the mass market arena with Walker, giving it a superbly commercial new cover. Just possibly, this book may turn up at the chain bookstores in May. Look for it and its companion titles.

Ragbone and Heart are simple, plausible, plain, easy-to-relate-to occultism. Neither provides much of a challenge to an sf/f reader raised on believing six impossible things before breakfast. Such a reader will work up a real sweat believing Walker even after breakfast. Just remember, while you're doing the workout, "no pain/ no gain." That sweat from an overheated imagination will help you gain more facile access to the astral plane next time you need it. This witch knows her Craft and her craft. This is a book to learn from. And it's fun, too!

The honorable mention this time goes to The Megalight Connection by William M. Griggs. It is in the same category with Ragbone and Heart but doesn't come from Llewellyn, so you're unlikely to find it on bookshelves where you can examine it before buying it. It's a nicely reproduced paperback of 221 pages selling for $9.95 and looks like a self-published or vanity press published item. So you're not likely to find it on used-book shelves. Since the author is so talented and earnest about his subject, the book might eventually have some collectors value.

But this novel failed every test of commerciality I know how to apply by the end of chapter one and I didn't finish it. On corresponding with the author (which is considered unethical for reviewers Manhattan-style), I realized that he knows much more about his subject than he does about writing craftsmanship. If the subject thrills you and you can tolerate even more ineptness of technique than Ragbone or Heart, this book could easily be worth its price.

The first sentence of the introduction is: Before there was Eden, there was Zarkon.

The author means the Eden of the Bible. Zarkon is in a distant galaxy. The "introduction" is a tedious listing of the premise of this universe the author has invented — things to memorize before you get into the story, not the actions of characters offstage for most of the novel as with Walker.

The first chapter opens: "This is a perfect day," the beautiful young bride Chuka said aloud to the life within her swollen belly, "to go limpin hunting." Limpins (continues the text in lecture mode) were small mushroom-like vegetables that were said to affect the Megalight connection the same way oysters are said to affect the libido.

The above text I have quoted violates every single rule of the storytelling craft handed down to us for nurturing and safekeeping from the bards and shamans. That's why I decided originally not to review this book — until I discovered what Llewellyn is doing with their fabulous Psi-Fi line and before I found out just how much more turmoil there is in fiction publishing than I had previously thought.

Suddenly, because Manhattan cannot satisfy our needs, it becomes imperative to nurture and sustain these efforts by smaller publishers, and by authors themselves, to reach out to other readerships. It is vitally important to create the feedback loops and provide the training grounds for these publishers, editors, and distributors — and all of that starts on the astral plane by reading these books.

Those of you who would like to write for the Psi-Fi line may get a printout of the submission guidelines (excellent guidelines designed to be very clearly understood by someone who is not accustomed to working with agents, editors and publishers). Send a self addressed stamped envelope to Nancy J. Mostad, Acquisitions and Development Manager, P.O.Box 64383, St. Paul, MN 55164. Don't be surprised if the Psi-Fi line is not interested in your work. Despite my harsh words about fiction technique, the standards for the Psi-Fi line are extremely high and bound to be pushed higher in '95.

Although unlike Manhattan publishers, they prefer you to approach them directly, not through your established literary agent, like any Manhattan publisher, they don't have time to teach you the writing craft or to nursemaid you through the pangs of endless rewrites and emotional storms.

Llewellyn is a very professional publisher with the guts to "Go Where No One Has Gone Before." This is not a market for beginners. It's a market for established big name professionals in one occult field to try their hand at using fiction to bring their students to an astral adventure and a learning experience.

Here is an excerpt from their Guidelines: "Fiction reflecting true `occult' principles; everything from astrology to Zen, including parapsychology, mythology, archtypal psychology, Witchcraft/Wicca, Pagan lifestyles, etc. We want our fiction to be as educational as it is entertaining, presenting factual material in a fictional dramatization. We do not want `supernatural horror.'"

A word to the wise for seriously aspiring fiction writers: do not write a book specifically for the Psi-Fi line. It is a unique market and if they reject it, the entire year's work is wasted. And I'm sure they'll be chin-deep in manuscripts before the end of '95.

For readers who want to participate in astral encouragement of alternative publishers, may I recommend attending Ecumenicon VIII, July 13-16 1995, Herndon, Virginia. Guests are Ellen Cannon Reed, Kveldulf Gundarsson and Katherine Kurtz. Yes, this is the Katherine Kurtz whose Deryni novels I have raved about in this column, author of Lammas Night and co-author of the Adept series. She's currently working on a novel about the occult origins of the American Revolution. Registration is $60 at the door, less in advance before April 30, 1995. For a form, send a self addressed stamped envelope to Ecumenicon Foundation, 5400 Eisenhower Ave. Alexandria, VA 22304.

At conventions like this, teachers of occult disciplines and writers in occult subjects get direct contact with you, the reader, creating a unique feedback loop — one that works.

Ecumenicon specializes in bringing together people from all spiritual paths to work (as in ceremonial work) together and learn together. It isn't an sf/f reader's convention nor would anyone involved be familiar with my thesis that the fiction delivery system is reforming on the astral plane. I don't intend to be there because I'm booked into another convention. But this is the event of the year for those who want to sit and learn at the feet of teachers from many, many different traditions, some of which you've never heard of — all in one weekend.

Books for review in this column should be sent to Jacqueline Lichtenberg, P.O.Box 290, Monsey, NY 10952.



Until I get the direct links installed here, you can find these titles by using copy/paste (in MSIE use right mouse button to get the copy/paste menue to work inside text boxes) to insert them in the search slot below -- then click Book Search and you will find the page where you can discover more about that book, or even order it if you want to.   To find books by Jacqueline Lichtenberg, such as the new Biblical Tarot series, search "Jacqueline Lichtenberg" below. logo

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Reviewed by Jacqueline Lichtenberg