Monkeybrain, 2003, 255 pages, US$18.95 tpb, ISBN 1-932265-06-6
The good news is that I bought a book of essays previously published on the web. The bad news is that I bought a book of essays previously published on the web.
Hey, it’s no fun being disappointed by a book. It’s even worse when half the book is very good and the other half is just, er, ordinary.
Some context will be useful: Look on the web for “Rick Klaw” and you will find plenty of material. He has edited comic books, run a publishing house, edited fiction, worked in a bookstore and chronicled all of the above in a series of pieces here and there. His current home on the web, however, is his popular “Geeks with Books” column at SF Site. On a monthly basis, he has the license to talk about whatever crosses his mind.
Fortunately, his mind is a geek’s paradise: Science-fiction, fantasy, comic books, gorillas, movies, bookselling, civil liberties, Texas and all sorts of fascinating things co-habit in there, and the mix can be dangerous. Dangerously entertaining, that is: I defy anyone to read five randomly-selected web column of his and not be tempted by Geek Confidential, his first small-press non-fiction collection (alas, complete with unfortunate typographic mishaps). Brought between two covers, you’ll find most of the “Geeks with Books” columns until early 2003, as well as some pieces published in a variety of outlets from salon.com to corporate newsletters. As you may expect, 255 pages of pure Klaw can be both exhilarating and exhausting.
The bad news first: Yes, this is a collection of essays previously published on the web, and you will notice it. Reading something on paper is not the same thing than on-screen: context changes everything, and it’s not uncommon to find out that this absolutely neat little essay you remember from sfsite.com isn’t so wonderful in your comfy reading chair. (Granted, the fact that you do remember it counts for something.)
But beyond simply re-printing familiar material perhaps best-suited to another medium, 255 pages of pure Klaw can also be 127 pages of idiosyncratic indulgence. Klaw means well and writes clearly, but by the end of Geek Confidential, he has mentioned the same dozen authors so many times that amusement is replaced by exasperation. We know they’re great. We know they’re from Texas. We know they’re your friends. Next, please. (On the other hand, the laudatory cover blurbs from these same authors all make perfect sense) As is the case with most essay collections, the scatter-shot nature of the book can be a bother, especially toward the miscellaneous end. It doesn’t help that Klaw’s knowledge is broader than it is deep: His understanding of hard-SF, for instance, is superficial at best; good for selling books, but of limited insight to hard-core geeks.
But don’t get me wrong: Geek Confidential shines in other areas: Whenever Klaw gets going on bookselling or comic books, the results are spectacular. The first section of the book, about bookstores from an insider’s perspective, is a screaming delight. His experience in editing the comic book original anthology Weird Business is wonderfully described. His interviews with Tom Doherty, Michael Moorcock and Neal Barrett Jr. are amongst the book’s best passages. There’s a fascinating comic script for a story by Joe R. Landsdale, followed by the actual comic itself. The first half of the book, focused and knowledgeable, is great. The second half… not so great.
Geek Confidential is half a success mixed with half a disappointment. I don’t regret the amount of money I spent on the book: My dollars will grease the wheels of small-press SF publishing, from the dealer to the publisher to Klaw himself, who certainly deserves a few bucks for the on-line columns. But there is a difference between writing for the web and writing for the page. Selection is a must and editing is always a good idea. Even the best presentation (and Geek Confidential, for its fault, is an exceedingly good-looking book) can’t hide the occasional ordinary material. If it helps, think of the book as a wide-ranging conversation with a geeky friend; the good stuff is fascinating, but you’ll have to nod in false agreement whenever he goes off on a tangent of dubious interest. But don’t worry; all you’ll remember later on will be the good parts.