Secret Histories II

Over in the reviews pages, SFX struggles to cover the major genre publishers' endless flood of books. Herewith some recent treats from small presses that you won't find over there ...

Ernest Bramah still has a cult following for his ornate fantasies about – and told by – the ingenious Chinese storyteller Kai Lung. Dorothy Sayers was a particular fan, and often quoted Kai Lung in her Lord Peter Wimsey novels. The great thing is Bramah's mock-Oriental dialogue, which drips with elaborate, deadpan politeness as shown by this encounter in a dark dungeon: "If it is not absolutely necessary for your refined convenience that you should stand on this superfluous person's unprepossessing face, he would, for his part, willingly forgo the gratifying pleasure."

Kai Lung Raises His Voice (Durrant Publishing) is a new collection of the seven rarest Kai Lung stories, plus four long, previously unpublished ones unearthed from a Texas archive of this very English author's papers. For lovers of refined, jewel-like and subtly silly prose, it's quite a publishing event.

Eric Frank Russell is another author fondly remembered by older readers. Though British, he specialised in slick American-styled SF full of wisecracks and fast-talking heroes outwitting not terribly bright aliens, as in Wasp ("I can't imagine a funnier terrorists' handbook" – Terry Pratchett). He anticipated Star Trek's mixed-race spaceship crew by several years in Men, Martians and Machines (1955), whose boldly going team includes a black surgeon and several cantankerous, tentacled Martian chess fanatics, although (because some things were still unthinkable) no women.

Now comes a relentlessly detailed biography of Russell: Into Your Tent by John L Ingham (Plantech UK), who's researched every detail of a life Russell tried rather hard to keep private. No shock revelations, but some small surprises. Two quick grumbles: the first chapter's desert waste of family history will make outsiders' eyes glaze over; and though any literary biography needs one, there's no index. To compensate, we get a useful 56-page bibliography. Meanwhile, it's fascinating to learn what Russell did between stories – like studying Charles Fort's compilations of bizarre events that eventually inspired the Fortean Times – and how this influenced him. RAF service in World War II helped fill his later work with satire of pompous brasshats. Essential reading for fans interested in knowing what made Russell tick.

What makes all the other SF writers tick? In 1989, a convention not held in Mexico and therefore called Mexicon asked ten probing questions of many UK authors; long answers were encouraged and the results were published. In 2009 the British SF Association repeated the survey, with added authors and a new question about twenty years of change. The annotated results of both surveys make a substantial, instructive paperback: British Science Fiction & Fantasy: Twenty Years, Two Surveys (BSFA), edited by Paul Kincaid and Niall Harrison. It's crammed with insider information.

Lastly ... If you loved Jorge Luis Borges's classic The Book of Imaginary Beings but were frustrated by its lack of any recipes or culinary advice, be sure to try The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer (Tachyon Publications). Taking their cue from Borges and often arguing with him, the intrepid VanderMeers not only describe a bizarre menagerie of apocryphal beasties but debate the vital issue of whether they're kosher. Concerning the Bakir or dream-devouring tapir, for example – He: "So Jews can eat dreams." She: "So long as they're not dreams of pork."

There are many more profound insights, and I'm sure it's very wrong of me to giggle. "What if a dragon asks politely to be eaten?" "Jews don't take suggestions from non-kosher food." "Does that mean you take suggestions from kosher food?" "Shut. Up." A tasty little book.

David Langford has long admired Bramah and Russell, took part in both those BSFA surveys, and is not kosher.