Sime~Gen Inc. Presents
"Mastering Mercury "
The Ruby Tear by Rebecca Brand - Forge (an imprint of Tom Doherty Associates), hardcover, 1997.
The Emerald House Rising by Peg Kerr - Aspect Fantasy, pb, 1997.
Flight by Vanna Bonta - a Quantum Fiction Novel, Meridian House (6755 Mira Mesa Blvd. Dept. 123-224, San Diego, CA 92121-4311), quality pb, $14.95
As many online readers of this column (which is posted at http://www.lightworks.com with an index at http://www.primenet.com/~ddraig/aspectar.htm) (1999 addendum - an index to the column is at http://www.simegen.com/reviews,/reviews/rereadablebooks/ but also see www.simegen.com/rathor/ )may know because they can handily read previous issues, I have a series of instructional books on the Tarot called The Biblical Tarot coming out from Belfry Books starting this summer. It will be in some of the chain stores, but also available through http://www.amazon.com. I'm currently working on the second volume, on the chapter explaining the Five of Wands. But I'm also thinking hard about the Six, Seven and Eight of Wands.
Eight, I understand. Eight is the hermetic sciences and the area of life symbolized in astrology by Mercury. In fact, Eight is "science" itself -- or rather knowledge and the organization of knowledge. Science is only one small branch of magick, which is a branch of hermetic science. Hermes = Mercury in mythology, so the term hermetic means Mercuric.
In astrology, Mercury is said to "rule" the mind, and has to do with how you think (not what you think, but how you go about thinking). In previous columns we've discussed the role of The Word in the process of creation, and Mercury is the symbol for that part of the mind that thinks in words, and thus creates. Words are small, quick utterances, actions or events. Mercury rules everything in your life that is "like" a word -- a small, negligible part of something larger. (For example, going to work every day and showing up on time -- it really doesn't matter if you're late once but develop a pattern of lateness and you're fired. Mercury rules getting to work on time -- a trivial, little event. It's the aggregate statistics you generate that matter, not the single event. Mercury rules both the aggregate and the single event, and the relationship between them.)
Because people with Gemini emphasis (particularly Gemini Rising) tend to be messy housekeepers, some beginning astrologers might assume that Mercury, which "rules" Gemini, is not associated with order and organization -- forgetting how people with Moon in Virgo (also ruled by Mercury) tend to abhor messes.
The Mercury-"ruled" areas of life are thus co-symbolized by Gemini and Virgo, which are in square to each other (i.e., mutually exclusive like crossed swords). Mastering one of the pair helps bring mastery of the other into reach. It can be thought of as mastering the signal-to-noise ratio in science and engineering. It's neither signal nor noise that's important -- it's the ratio of the two that governs success and failure.
Reduce the amount of noise and you can hear the signal better even if you can't increase the intensity of the signal. The signal is organized energy (information) -- and noise is energy that is randomized. Think of it as tuning your car radio to an FM station -- miss the band frequency by only a little and you hear a ssshhhhh hiss in the background and the music is overshadowed by it. That hiss is technically termed "noise" -- and the music is "signal."
All of life is a balancing act between signal and noise. You tune your emotions just like you tune an FM station, learning not to produce noise (anger, gossip, conflict) so you can feel signal (joy, love, satisfaction). You tune your finances by buying only what you need (signal) and not what you don't need (noise). You tune your actions by cultivating goal-directed behavior or negotiating skills to minimize the noise of wasted energy. Learning to read omens is just learning to sift the significant (signal) from the meaningless (noise).
Gemini rules noise. Virgo rules signal. You can't have one without the other because signal is only organized noise. They aren't two sides of the same coin -- they in fact are the same thing. The connecting factor between Gemini and Virgo is communication -- or perhaps "telecommunication, "which means "moving information." The reason your modem hardly ever delivers the Internet at the baud rate you paid for when you bought the thing is that there is "noise" on the phone lines. Other people's signal is noise that obscures your information.
Master communication and you will master both Gemini and Virgo simultaneously.
One prominent manifestation of Mercury in our civilization is the publishing industry which arose with the advent of the printing press and became the primary organ of communication for our civilization. And at this point in history, publishing is in massive flux. Change is happening on a level of the publishing structure that has not changed since the first printing press.
The May '97 issue of Locus: The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field ( http://www.Locusmag.com) reports four more distributors (the wholesalers between publishers and book stores) have gone bankrupt or closed down this spring. The larger distributors are consolidating and upgrading as well as diversifying. Publishers continue to downsize and "restructure" (i.e., make fewer people do more work).
Ownership of the American Booksellers Association (the annual June trade show where publishers, distributors and retailers meet to order the books you'll see on the shelves next year) has changed hands and the show attendance has shrunk drastically. Next year, almost no science fiction will be represented at all. A number of the larger publishers don't go anymore. Result: the power over what you see in bookstores to choose your reading from is consolidated in fewer hands.
Meanwhile, oddly enough, chain store book sales are up over 17% from last year.
However, allow me to note that the prosperity of book retailing is measured in dollar volume, not in number of copies. Retail book prices increased again recently and the reason is not just the ever-increasing price of paper (which has been stable for some months now because a number of new paper mills came into operation) but also the decreasing number of copies of each title that stores are selling. As publishers' print runs have declined, printing houses have not reduced their discount schedules -- i.e., any print order between a couple of thousand copies and 25 thousand copies costs the same per copy. Very few titles get a first printing of 25 thousand, and fewer still get reprints of that amount. A bit more than ten years ago, forty thousand was not an absurd print run. So the cost per copy has actually gone up. Publishers have had to cut their margins to keep prices down.
In addition, we are at the peak of the effect of the change in the tax laws years ago which levied a tax on inventory left in warehouses. That tax is what started the implosion of the publishing industry from the writer's point of view. Publishers noticed it next. Now distributors and book stores are noticing.
Under the old law, publishers could do very large print runs of a title to keep the price to the consumer down. The books would sit in warehouse costing only cubic footage charges, and gradually sell out. Eventually, the writer and everyone in between would get paid very well. And the reader would get a low price on the book, and a constant availability. That system, before the new tax, was designed to allow the system to serve minority tastes as easily as majority tastes.
Under the new law, the entire profit margin on slowly selling (minority taste) books gets eaten up by taxes, and therefore even if the book sold out a large print run but took a long time to do it, nobody in between the writer and the reader would get paid. In fact, the publisher would lose money on that title and the writer would never see a cent beyond the advance. And lately advances have been trending down, too.
With shifting demographics, and home access to the Internet, the book-buying dollar is being diverted to online charges. The reading-hour is being used reading on-screen or printouts made from downloaded material. The small slice of the public that bought books was at the head of the stampede to the Web. And sf readers led the way online.
Big Business fought the tax law by resorting to sophisticated statistical analysis done by computers. These programs are called inventory control programs. And they're used now not just in publishing but in every manufacturing industry because the tax law applies to all manufacturing.
My understanding of the effect these computer programs have on the censorship process that controls what you, the reader, may and may not read underwent a quantum leap forward last week when I visited a modern distributor to "pitch" my tarot book to their sales force -- with some success because they see the metaphysical book publishing field as one of the few still expanding areas of publishing. Children's books is the only competition for it now.
Driven to print books only at the rate at which the warehouse sells them, publishers are now subject to the computer programs used by the chain stores (which were written by programmers whose main expertise is statistics. Remember -- statistics is another word for Mercury). According to Locus, the four biggest chain stores control nearly fifty percent of all bookstore sales (again by dollar volume, not number of copies).
Publishers live or die on chain store sales. So do writers. And so do readers. By act of Congress, the main censorship on your reading is a statistician's computer program controlling warehouse inventory.
Here's how it's used by a chain store. The chain stores, like Barnes & Noble, have central buyers who buy for all their stores from distributors.
I've known for years the rough outline of how this works, but on this visit to a working warehouse operation, forklift trucks and all, I learned two vital facts.
Number One: The computer program that tells the chainstore buyer how much of which title to order or re-order adds up the sales of a title from all the chain's stores and calculates the speed at which the book is selling on average for all stores. Then it calculates the number of copies needed to re-supply all stores.
The most crucial ingredient in this calculation is sales history just for the previous quarter.
On a new title, which has no sales history, the first order will be low, perhaps one copy for each of the chain's stores. Whether it's one or five copies will be based on "other books like this one." "Like this one" is based on a combination of the author's name, the subject, the publisher, the publicity budget for pre-publication publicity, etc. If the first order sells out -- in all stores -- the program automatically re-orders it based on the speed at which the book sold.
The vital fact I picked up this time is that the "speed" is calculated based on all stores (or all stores in a region -- a lot of stores). So a title can sell very well at a particular store and not ever be reordered for that store because it sold slowly at other stores!
In other words, if that one copy in your neighborhood store sells, you'll never know it existed so you can special order it -- because you never saw it. And so it won't get restocked because you didn't special order it.
Number Two key fact I learned: this inventory control calculation is done on a quarterly basis.
If a chain store re-orders a title that sold out its first order fast, and the distributor doesn't have the books to ship to the chain, and if the publisher's cash-flow doesn't permit reprinting until the next quarter (which is usual these days because of the tax law), that hot-selling title will be listed in the chain store's inventory control program as selling poorly last quarter (even though it wasn't on the shelves where consumers could see it the consumers are recorded in the computer program as having rejected that title).
Therefore, the following quarter, the inventory control program won't re-order that title at all. The reason -- it was too popular. That seems irrational, but it isn't going to change any time soon because these inventory control programs have rescued book retailing from certain doom, and last year increased revenues by 17%.
So you see, the chain stores' computers require publishers to keep lots and lots of books in the warehouse or not sell any. The law requires publishers to pay most of their profit margin in warehouse tax if they comply with the chain stores' requirements.
Chain stores now comprise half the publishers' entire sales. The second and fastest growing outlet for books is catalogue sales -- and online retailers like amazon.com are classed as catalogue operations. (I learned that from the distributor's executive in charge of catalogue sales, who also handles the large orders from amazon.com.)
Publishing is shuddering on its very foundations and none of the problem has to do with the only factor of interest to you and me -- what a book says. In fact, the publisher bought my tarot book not on the basis of how well I know tarot or how good I am at explaining it, but on the basis of what the distributor could do with it. The pre-publication print order has been raised because the distributor is happy. The publisher, however, is beginning to sweat under the strain to the cash-flow and the risk of that warehouse tax bite if the copies printed don't move fast enough.
Notice, however, that Mercury rules both the process whereby books arrive on the shelves in front of your nose, and the content of the books themselves. Mathematics is ruled by Mercury. Words are ruled by Mercury. And all of this is closely associated with the Eights of the tarot.
On the Tree of Life, Eight is opposite Seven. Seven is associated with Venus, which has to do with relationships (as in romance), and esthetics - i.e., the ability to appreciate art.
When we speak of information vs. entertainment, we're talking about Mercury vs. Venus. As Mercury is "inside" Venus's orbit, so also is Eight "inside" Seven on the Tree of Life. In other words, all the Mercury concepts I've touched on above are necessary ingredients in the Venus concepts.
The particular novel that brought the changes in publishing together into a new pattern for me, The Ruby Tear by Rebecca Brand, was brought to my attention by Margaret L. Carter, a professional scholar and writer who is a member of the Sime~Gen Listserve (directions for joining are at http://www.simegen.com/archives/ and Listserve membership is free except you must have an e-mail address). We share a taste for vampire novels and intimate adventure. (My defining article for intimate adventure is available (1999 updated URL) at http://www.simegen.com/school/workshop/IntimateAdventureFem.html
Margaret bought this hardcover novel at a convention to have the author sign it, and then posted her rave review of it to the Listserve, calling it Intimate Adventure. I frantically ran to the two chain stores near here looking for it. No dice. I frantically ran home and boldly went where I had not dared before -- to amazon.com, and ordered it online.
To my astonishment, the book came by snail mail (also ruled by Mercury) within three days. Not to my astonishment, Margaret proved to be correct -- it's not only good, it's Intimate Adventure.
It's a vampire novel and not horror genre, so one would expect a good deal of relationship at the core of it. However, this book goes one step farther and requires of the two main non-vampire characters, an actress and a playwright, a severe emotional honesty about deeply seated fears. Even more, the solution to the problem requires emotional openness from the vampire, who stalks the playwright by seducing the actress.
The novel starts by visiting several points of view, pulling the story together as these people and their affairs head on a collision course. It is set in contemporary theater, but the origin of the story is in the time of Charlemagne when a minor noble is entrusted with a spectacular gem. That noble's descendants lose the gem to knights whom they have hired to defend their castle. The young scion of this noble line swears revenge (not knowing that the knights stole it because they had been denied payment after rendering service). Because of his thirst for revenge, he is made a vampire by a supernatural being who feasts on such base emotion.
With the help of the supernatural being, the vampire chases down and kills each heir to the thief until the last heir alive is the playwright. The vampire doesn't realize he is being used by the supernatural being, his chase prolonged on purpose. In other words, the vampire is in a trap and doesn't know it.
The playwright is the first artist in this line of adventurers founded by the gem thief, and having no taste for adventure, he decides to use his art as a weapon. So he writes a play designed to attract the vampire's attention and lure the vampire into a trap. It works far better than he could ever have imagined, but only because he finally allows the woman he loves to play the leading role in his play (even though that's unconscionably dangerous). To break out of this situation, they all achieve a high level of emotional honesty with each other and break the hold the supernatural being has on their destiny.
In other words, emotional communication (Venus and Mercury) in a Venus-ruled environment, theater, breaks the hold of a nasty supernatural creature on human beings.
Now we come to the most interesting part of this book -- the story behind the story and how it connects to the current plight of the publishing industry.
First let me introduce Margaret L. Carter. She says of herself: "I received my Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Irvine, and my most recent book is The Vampire in Literature: A Critical Bibliography (1989). My story, "Voice from the Void," appeared in The Time of the Vampires, edited by P.N. Elrod and Martin Greenberg (1996). I have several articles on vampires in literature coming out this year in connection with the 1997 centennial celebration of the publication of Dracula."
When Margaret posted to the Sime~Gen Listserve that this book existed, the one thing she said that made me go buy the hardcover was that "Rebecca Brand" is actually Suzy McKee Charnas. Since Suzy wrote The Vampire Tapestry many years ago, I had to have this book even though The Ruby Tear is in a different vampire universe. The Vampire Tapestry started something new in vampire literature. Now, with a different vampire universe, Charnas may have again taken advantage of the turmoil in publishing to start a new something new.
Margaret L. Carter gives a thorough reprise of Charnas' career: "She's never had a short story collection out, unless you count the chapbook from Pulphouse, which had maybe two long stories in it (reprints). She hasn't published under any pseudonyms until now.
"The Vampire Tapestry is one of the great vampire novels of the century. A truly wonderful example of Intimate Adventure. Weyland (the vampire) doesn't fall in love with anyone (even Floria Landauer, his therapist), but he learns to care about human beings (a few selected ones) -- much against his own will. His tragedy is that he retreats from this new self-knowledge and rejects the chance to grow and change.
"The weight of memory is one of the things he fears -- remembering too much of his millennia-long past would, he thinks, weaken him and blunt his predator's edge. The weight of memory is also a dominant theme of Ruby Tear, from the opposite direction. The "traditional" (undead) vampire in Ruby Tear is ruled by the bitterness of memory, his hunger for revenge stretching back centuries to the moment of his "death." Only by letting go of memory can he hope to become "human" again -- the opposite of Weyland, who has the chance to become something closer to human by embracing his past (and rejects that chance).
"Suzy is also very well known for the future feminist dystopic series Walk to the End of the World, Motherlines and The Furies, with a fourth and last book to come within the next year or so. Another example of "solutions short of death": When the tribe of women invades the cities of men, frees the female slaves, and becomes the dominant force in their world, what do they do next? Can men and women, after such a bitter past, find a way to live together without just flip-flopping and making the women the rulers over a male slave class?
"Her YA [Young Adult] fantasies are The Bronze King, The Silver Glove, and The Golden Thread (a trilogy about a girl who discovers her inherited magic), and The Kingdom Of Kevin Malone, a stand-alone, also with a female protag.
"Dorothea Dreams is an adult ghost story.
"Her rewrite of The Phantom of the Opera, entitled "Beauty and the Opera, or the Phantom Beast," appeared in the March '96 Asimov's. In it, Christine tells, in first-person narrative, what really happened after Eric took her Below.
"Suzy hasn't published much short fiction. She's less prolific than I (as an avid fan) would like. Weyland reappears in a collaboration with Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, "Advocates," in the anthology Under the Fang, ed. Robert McCammon, which should still be in print -- as are most if not all of Suzy's novels. One of her best-known short stories, "Boobs," about a teenage girl werewolf, has been reprinted a couple of times."
It is a pleasure to have a scholar like Margaret on our Listserve, and I hope readers of this column will look up some of Charnas's work.
The Ruby Tear back jacket flap copy says, "Just as Doris Lessing, Agatha Christie, and Stephen King have all written some of their bestselling work under pseudonyms, Rebecca Brand is using this name to break new ground in the romantic horror genre." I don't know about the "romantic horror" part, but the new ground part is definitely true. This is a book of considerable substance and could (if the publisher can afford to risk the warehouse tax which didn't exist when The Vampire Tapestry swept the world of fiction publishing) once more transform the field of vampire fiction.
Which brings us to the second book on my list this month, Emerald House Rising by Peg Kerr. This is a solid fantasy novel with elements of Marion Zimmer Bradley and Katherine Kurtz and even Andre Norton. And though there's nothing remarkably original about it, the balanced blend, solid style and firm construction make this a refreshing and delicious good read. If this were a column of criticism, I could find technical flaws in this novel, but they are so minor that I only notice them if I stop and think hard.
It is a novel of politics, magick and art. The young female protagonist is the viewpoint character throughout, and this is her story. She is trained as a jewel stone cutter, and discovers she also has talent for magick. She's in love -- but that's peripheral to the main plot. This is not really Intimate Adventure. The plot involves the young woman with the highest nobility of the land where there are some power-plays afoot to determine who will govern.
So this book would have fit into the series of columns I did on government which included many of the Deryni novels of Katherine Kurtz (which are about "who will be King" more than they are about magic.) And perhaps it's no coincidence that Katherine Kurtz's first novel was Deryni Rising while this novel is titled Emerald House Rising.
However, when you mix politics and magic, you often find you have to deal with black magic.
I was particularly delighted by the way Peg Kerr defined black magic. On page 28, a practicing wizard says, "That's what black magic is, to ask only 'Is it possible?' without adding 'What will the consequences be? Is it right?' "
In Kerr's fantasy universe, magic is defined as the ability to see possibilities -- and thus adjust probabilities. That's actually a fine definition of real-world magic. With a slight change in vocabulary, the principles of magic Kerr is using are the same as Jean Lorrah uses in her Savage Empire series (which I've mentioned in prior columns). And they work as well here as they do for Jean Lorrah. If you don't particularly like fantasy, you still might like both Savage Empire and Emerald House Rising.
Lastly, this month, we come to an Honorable Mention. This one, too, is an attempt to launch a new genre. Flight by Vanna Bonta is a strange piece of "experimental fiction" with an odd style to match its odd subject matter. It starts from the point of view of some sort of energy beings (whose nature never was clear to me) -- and the lead character is a kind of constable among them. One of their kind who is not so nice sends her and her lover to be trapped in human bodies in contemporary America. And they have their adventures trying to find each other and deal with the situation. However, one major objective of the book is to deliver a series of philosophical observations, most of which I've incorporated into my own fiction from time to time but never so explicitly.
Again, this novel is another attempt to sidestep the major publishing mechanisms that are in such trouble right now. It is an attempt to circumvent the curbs on subject matter that have been created by that warehouse tax law. If you're interested, visit the author's website at http://members.aol.com/AiraFlight or the author's discussion boards in the science fiction and fantasy forum on AOL (where my own discussion boards are located).
I expect to see more experimental fiction both on paper and on the Web in the next couple of years. Communications in general is undergoing a complete transformation with the advent of the Internet and the Web, and Big Business has decided (unilaterally) that connectivity is to become as essential to you as the credit card became once Bank of America had proved that it could be a profitable business.
The only way I can see for the reader/consumer to fight back against these inventory control programs and tax laws that force storytelling into the forms of manufacturing is to turn to web publishing and eliminate the layers and layers of people between the writer and the reader, sidestepping Big Business altogether. This would move publishing from the manufacturing sector to the fine arts sector of the economy, re-establishing the link between esthetics (Venus) and words (Mercury.)
Send books for review in this column to: Jacqueline Lichtenberg, POB 290, Monsey, N.Y. 10952.
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.
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Reviewed by Jacqueline Lichtenberg