29 June 2004

"Women are Ugly" by Eliot Fintushel

I haven't read much online fiction for a few weeks, so I decided to catch up today, reading the last month of stories at Strange Horizons, plus "More Beautiful Than You" by M. Rickert at Ideomancer. All worthwhile reading, but the best of the bunch is undoubtedly Eliot Fintushel's story "Women are Ugly", which ties with Christopher Rowe's "The Voluntary State" for being my favorite story published online so far this year (though I haven't caught up with everything at SciFiction yet).

Eliot Fintushel writes truly bizarre stories, and "Women are Ugly" announces itself as bizarre right from the beginning, with an epigraph from Spinoza followed by a paragraph of fairly short, odd sentences about the repulsive qualities of women -- sort of like "The Lady's Dressing Room" rewritten for children by Hemingway.

It turns out that the narrator of the story is a man who is, probably, both mentally and physically handicapped, though he thinks he has super-powers and has visited various worlds and planets. Details come slowly, subtly. What holds us is Fintushel's mastery of voice -- he's as good as, if not better than, George Saunders, and this story is similar to some of Saunders's work both in tone and subject matter, though I think Fintushel is less limited in vision, and he allows his story to suggest far more possibilities than the average Saunders tale does.

In many ways, "Women are Ugly" is a story about how people talk to each other; or, rather, about how they talk but never actually get heard. One of the joys of the story is the way Fintushel contrasts the diction of the three main characters: Seymour (Seesee), the narrator; his mother; and the girl he spends some time being in love with, Clarissa. Seymour's narrative voice and his spoken dialogue are similar, both of them associative, a mix of the vernacular with overheard phrases and astronomy; Clarissa's dialogue is spare, similar to what you'll find in most stories that use conversations simply to move a scene along; Seymour's mother's dialogue is a logorrheic stream of consciousness, providing rhythmic interludes throughout the story. It is in her voice that crucial information is presented in two places to the astute reader:
You riffle and you stare. Page on page you dog-ear and jelly. I see you run your eyes back and forth, but what comes of it. You haunt the library and you jabber and you scribble, but what comes out, Seesee, what comes out. Stop worrying that bump on your head, will you. Twenty-six, gosh sakes, and you still talk to angels. Poor thing. Your eye so clear, your brow so subtle, and all that comes out of you is retard drivel. ... Look at you, maven, with your furrowed brow like a textbook with the funnies tucked inside. Oh, I could crown the joker who coined that word 'supermen.' Was it a doctor. Or a social worker. Cruel trick. A cute sweet tag for you poor things, yes, but they weren't thinking of us mothers. The drudgery. The humiliation. The pain. Thank God for Bobo anyway.

...

You can't just give up, Seesee. This isn't death we've got here, son; this is life. You can't just lie there day on day and piss yourself and weep yourself empty. For one thing, the smell. Such a thin pale thing you are with your lumpy head and your mouthful of marbles when you talk. Come back and be my tall beauty again, Seesee. I don't hate you, child, not really. Say a word to me. Talk in your tongues. Say as best you can. We piece it together, don't we. We make out your meaning through the gulps and clicks and a word here and there, through all the briar patch of it, you sad hard thing, don't we. People catch your drift, yes. Say me a word. I wish you could write two letters running, and you could write it to me. Come, what goes on in that noddle, Seesee. Before I slap you good. You know I can. Bobo's hungry.
After reading such passages, the various chats with Clarissa make more sense, for instance:
"I bet you're passionate about things," [says Seymour.]

"What."

"Passion. Passion."

"What."

"Passion. Passion."

"Some things."
Without the mother's perspective ("We make out your meaning through the gulps and clicks and a word here and there, through all the briar patch of it"), the dialogue in the story would seem needlessly like that of David Mamet. It may be that Seymour doesn't realize his words are difficult for people to understand, or he may. The ending may seem abrupt, but if you pull yourself out of Seymour's consciousness and objectively consider the scene Fintushel has set up, it is a devastatingly sad end to a story that, until then, has seemed to be merely an absurd romp. It is far more than that, and serves as an excellent model of how to handle both dialogue and narrative voice in a story.

("More Beautiful Than You" is another story where a skilled author writes a vivid and energetic monologue, though it's a more traditional story in plot and effect. Be sure also to read the interview with M. Rickert that Ideomancer published, as it is currently the only interview published with her. I'm working on rectifying that sad fact, however.)

28 June 2004

Quote for the Day

It is those who care more about invented rules and silly shibboleths than about good writing who are the true barbarians.

--languagehat

27 June 2004

From the cover of the new Locus

I'm very much looking forward to reading the new Locus because it has interviews with Jeff Ford and Alexander C. Irvine. Both are quoted on the cover:
There are situations in life where you cannot quite name the experience -- you don't have the emotional maturity, or intelligence, or there is no way to name it ... You don't know how to describe the situation, so you tell a story around it to bring out that thing you couldn't name before.
--Ford

Everybody always has to complain about something, but in what time would you rather exist as a science fiction reader than right now? The days when science fiction was an adolescent literature are over. There will always be adolescent SF books, but the whole genre is no longer geared toward them.
--Irvine
To bide our time until the new issue arrives (with Locus Award results included), here are links to some other interviews with those two writers:
Ford at Infinity Plus (interviewed by Jeff VanderMeer, SF Site, Bookpage, Trampoline, Booksense

Irvine: Booksense, Wormhole Books, Trampoline. (Worth looking at, also, are 3 articles -- all PDF files: The War of the Worlds and the Disease of Imperialism, Towing Jehovah: Atheism, Orthodoxy, and Genre, and Postcolonial Generations: Yeats and Okigbo).
That should be enough to tide us all over until Locus ships on June 29...

Fire the Bastards!

A unique and passionate work of literary criticism is now fully available on the web (and may have been for a while): Jack Green's Fire the Bastards!, a 50,000-word essay published in three issues of Green's underground zine newspaper in 1962. It's about William Gaddis's first novel, The Recognitions and the reviews it received upon publication in 1955. (For a full history of Fire the Bastards, see Steven Moore's introduction to the print edition.)

Fire the Bastards! is written with, for the most part, spaces instead of periods at the ends of sentences, very little capitalization, internal punctuation only when absolutely necessary (or when present in a quotation), and a freewheeling, informal prose style. It makes for compulsive reading if you're interested in how badly a book can be reviewed, and in revenge on those reviewers. For instance, here's Green on how reviewers use the term "ambitious" as a quiet criticism:
but "ambitious" novels are not usually failures a guide for the lazy
but wellmeaning critic, how to recognize good books exclude the
commercial trash, take the big "ambitious" novels & theyre usually the
good ones dont read them just weigh them once in a great
while such a books empty, phony like goodman's the empire city.
but most often its the good writer who takes the trouble to make a big
structure the bad ones like to down tools early

i forgot, tho, the critics job is to make the good novels seem bad & the
bad ones good he should say the good "ambitious" books fall short
of something & the mediocre "pleasant" "modest" "appealing" books
succeed in something & hope the reader wont see the 2 "some-
things" are worlds apart

note: the formatting is better at the site
I'll leave you to read the rest. It's worth the work to get through Green's stylistic oddities, because it gives a picture of a particular book's reception. As The Complete Review noted, it would be worthwhile to have a companion volume explaining how Gaddis's novel ultimately came to be seen, despite continued dissent, as a landmark of American literature. (I should note my own status: I have read The Recognitions once, though I must confess to having skimmed parts. Much amused and thrilled me, just as much bored and confused me. I read it over too long a period of time, thus forgetting things I needed to remember. Some day, when I have about six weeks to devote to it, I will reread it, because there was enough that captured my interest to make me think it's worth the work.)

link via mosses from an old manse

25 June 2004

Hawthorne at 200

Once again I owe Mark Sarvas a debt of gratitude for reminding me of an important date (or, as he says, "more goddamned anniversaries!!!"): the bicentennial of Nathaniel Hawthorne's birth on July 4.

Personally, I'm fond of Hawthorne's death, not just because I was forced to read The Scarlet Letter as a freshman in high school, but because he paused to shuffle off this mortal coil in my own hometown, Plymouth, NH, with the only president New Hampshire has ever been allowed to send to Washington, Franklin Pierce, by his side (Hawthorne had written a biography of Pierce). Few people in Plymouth know that Hawthorne died there, and the inn where he died has long since rotted from memory.

If you hate Hawthorne because of what high school teachers did to you, try to open your mind for this bicentennial. Some of his novels can be a chore, but he wrote many magnificent (and magical) short stories, including "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment", "Rappaccini's Daughter", "The Celestial Railroad", the bizarre and magnificent "Wakefield", and "Earth's Holocaust", which begins with these sentences:
Once upon a time--but whether in the time past or time to come, is a matter of little or no moment--this wide world had become so overburthened with an accumulation of worn-out trumpery, that the inhabitants determined to rid themselves of it by a general bonfire. The site fixed upon, at the representation of the Insurance Companies, and as being as central a spot as any other on the globe, was one of the broadest prairies of the West, where no human habitation would be endangered by the flames, and where a vast assemblage of spectators might commodiously admire the show.

Blog the Boards

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer notes that On the Boards, a theatre devoted to contemporary performance, has created Blog the Boards, a way for audience members to write reviews of performances. I was initially interested because I know some people who have performed there, so I wanted to see if they got any reviews, but as I roamed around, I found the dialogue interesting and the entire concept fairly provocative. In terms of feedback, it's not much different from the message boards some magazines and publishers have set up, but I don't know of any theatres doing quite the same thing. Certainly, Amazon lets people write their opinions about everything from books to owl puke, but for a theatre to open up a forum on its own website for people to freely review shows that are still running ... that takes guts. The spirit with which it is done is a noble one:
But what if our bloggers write negative things about our work? Actually, we expect there will be criticism; we're very critical ourselves. But part of being an organization dedicated to contemporary performance is experimenting. And sometimes experiments don't work out. It's only by trying new things and seeing what works and what doesn't that better art gets made. If we don't make mistakes and miscalculations, then we're not taking enough chances.

Art should move you. Good art should make your blood boil. Great art should grab ahold of your soul and compel you to respond. No reaction is the worst kind of failure for an artist. Unfortunately, for most of us, there are too few opportunities to get embroiled in passionate discussion about art.
So after you've visited The Science Fiction Museum, stop by On the Boards, see a show, and write about it.

24 June 2004

The Return of Tiptree

I just discovered, to my delight, that Tachyon Publications will be reprinting Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, a collection of the best stories of James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon), for whom the Tiptree Award was named. (Tachyon is also publishing The James Tiptree Award Anthology.) The book is due out in the late fall/early winter. A contents listing for the previous edition is here.

The Tachyon website notes: "This update of the 1990 classic Arkham House edition contains revisions from the author's original notes." That could be good or bad, but the original collection is a masterpiece, filled with some of the most magnificent SF short stories of the past fifty years and a fine introductory essay by John Clute.

Not much of Tiptree's best work is currently in print, the out of print collections can be difficult and expensive to get copies of, and I know of only two stories available on the web: "The Women Men Don't See" and "The Screwfly Solution" (actually a "Racoona Sheldon" story, and one I had a mixed reaction to in March). Tachyon deserves great praise for bringing this book back into print, because it is a fine testament to one of the authors who used SF and fantasy to explore important philosophical, social, political, and metaphysical ideas.

23 June 2004

Quote for the Day

Whether the internet or any other technological marvel can halt the slide into boredom and conformism I seriously doubt. I suspect that ... the human race will inevitably move like a sleepwalker towards that vast resource it has hesitated to tap -- its own psychopathy. This adventure playground of the soul is waiting for us with its gates wide open, and admission is free.

In short, an elective psychopathy will come to our aid (as it has done many times in the past) -- Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, all those willed nightmares that make up much of human history. ... [T]he future will be a huge Darwinian struggle between competing psychopathies. Along with our passivity, we're entering a profoundly masochistic phase -- everyone is a victim these days, of parents, doctors, pharmaceutical companies, even love itself. And how much we enjoy it. Our happiest moments are spent trying to think up new varieties of victimhood...

J.G. Ballard

22 June 2004

If You're Anxious for to Shine in the High Aesthetic Line...

Rake's Progress points to a marvelous article in The New Yorker, a review by Louis Menand of the bestselling punctuation handbook, Eats, Shoots & Leaves. It's much more than a review, though, which is the best sort of review to read, especially when you have no intention of reading whatever is being reviewed.

First, Menand turns the book into a rotting corpse and dissects it:
We are informed that when a sentence ends with a quotation American usage always places the terminal punctuation inside the quotation marks, which is not so. (An American would not write "Who said 'I cannot tell a lie?'") A line from "My Fair Lady" is misquoted ("The Arabs learn Arabian with the speed of summer lightning"). And it is stated that The New Yorker, "that famously punctilious periodical," renders "the nineteen-eighties" as the "1980's," which it does not. The New Yorker renders "the nineteen-eighties" as "the nineteen-eighties."
But then he moves on to other, larger topics, ideas that defy short excerpts, so all I can do is point you toward the article itself.

Yesterday, the latest issue of Flytrap arrived, and I immediately read all the nonfiction, which includes an extended comparison of writing to professional wrestling by Nick Mamatas and an essay on grammatical shibboleths by Jed Hartman, who has written quite a lot about words, wordgames, linguistics, grammar, and style. I am particularly glad to now have a name for Hartman's Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation, a natural occurrence I have observed, suffered from, and probably even committed:
[HLoPR] states that any article or statement about correct grammar, punctuation, or spelling is bound to contain at least one eror.
I'm sure The New Yorker will hear about the following passage from Menand's review:
There are probably all kinds of literary sins that prevent a piece of writing from having a voice, but there seems to be no guaranteed technique for creating one. Grammatical correctness doesn’t insure it.
Some people maintain there is a general rule of thumb concerning "insure" vs. "ensure", with "insure" primarily involving money. Grammatical correctness doesn't insure voice any more than Geico does.

However, the good folks at The New Yorker could fight back with the following, from the "ensure, insure, assure" entry of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, which has a wonderfully dry wit:
Quite a few commentators insist on distinctions between these words, but Bernstein 1977 says there are none, flatly contradicting Einstein 1985 who says that each means something different. Usage agrees better with Bernstein. ... A few commentators, such as Trimble 1975 and Sellers 1975, suggest assure for people, ensure for things, and insure for money and guarantees (insurance). These are nice distinctions and you can follow them if you want to.
And now I promise not to write about grammar and usage for at least another week...

A Conjunctive Grumble

They may have been there for ages, but I just noticed that three of the best stories from Conjunctions: 39, The New Wave Fabulists are excerpted online: "Entertaining Angels Unawares" by M. John Harrison, "Lull" by Kelly Link, and "The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines" by John Crowley.

Now hear me grumble. These are teasers! Magnificent stories, but only the beginnings of them. Not just little bits, but pages, and then, suddenly, a note: "The complete text of [title] can be found in the print issue of Conjunctions:39, The New Wave Fabulists." There's enough of the Harrison and Crowley to cause the average reader to be able to decide whether they want to spend the money to buy that issue, but there just isn't enough of "Lull" to get a sense of what Kelly Link is up to.

I think I'm getting too used to having whole stories available on the Web. I shouldn't be greedy. The authors and editors need to get paid for their work, particularly since it is such fine work. (I probably wouldn't mind if it weren't that I'm constantly recommending both the Harrison and Link stories to people.) Dan Green recently made the case for literary magazines to offer more content on the web, and I would certainly agree, not only because it makes it easier for me to link to things I write about here, but because it allows people to have a broader knowledge of what is being published. Of course, I can understand that journals with tight budgets must fear losing subscribers if they offer too much. (Maybe we should sic Cory Doctorow on them.)

Some things, not published in the print version of the journal, are available complete, though, such as Paul LaFarge's "Demons: A Story in 19 Volumes". (By the way, if you like surreal fantasy, be sure to look at LaFarge's The Artist of the Missing and Haussmann, or the Distinction. The first reads like Kafka and Angela Carter, the second like Borges channelling Dickens.) Plenty of good poetry and such there too.

June IROSF

The June issue of The Internet Review of Science Fiction is up, and, as John Frost notes in his editorial, this issue contains two pieces by people who happen to share the last names of (in)famous vice presidents.

I said once that I think every reader will find at least one sentence, and probably a whole paragraph, to disagree with in my piece, which throws out more grenades than it knows what to do with. It was intended as a beginning, not an ending.

IROSF is a valuable forum and a diverse one, so please, even if you hate everything I write, support the site. Subscriptions are still free, so this is a great time to sign up.

21 June 2004

Anton Chekhov, an introduction

I always forget birthdays and every other date of any significance, so I owe a debt to Mark Sarvas for noting that we are fast approaching the 100 anniversary of Anton Chekhov's deathday.

Chekhov is, simply, the one writer whose works I would not want to live without. Hundreds, even thousands of other writers are important to me, but Chekhov is the writer to whom I always return, the voice and imagination I trust the most, the dreamer whose dreams never fail to enchant me.

Thus, even though I'm not a proponent of numerology, I now have an excuse to write about him here, because I have wanted for a while to address the common perception of Chekhov as a realist, an idea I think limits his accomplishment. While certainly his work borrows much from both the Naturalists as a group and from realism as a mode of writing, the influence of the Symbolist movement on his stories and plays should not be discounted.

I'm writing off-the-cuff at the moment, and need to spend some time doing a bit of research, so let me simply offer some introductory material by and about Chekhov for readers less familiar with his work. I'm not an expert (I don't read Russian), merely a fan.

Constance Garnett's translations of Chekhov's stories have all been put online, which is a tremendous service, because though the translations are somewhat stilted, and Garnett's knowledge of Russian was not at the level of modern translators, scholars such as Donald Rayfield have said that her style and Chekhov's work well together.

If you want to prepare for some of what I expect to be writing over the next few weeks here, in a series of occasional posts about Chekhov, read the following stories online (I've mostly chosen quite short pieces, though the longer, later works are in many ways the height of Chekhov's achievement in fiction):
"The Telephone"
"After the Fair"
"Dreams"
"Kashtanka"
"Gusev"
"Ward No. 6"
Garnett had less of a talent for plays, and her translations, as well as all the other public domain translations of Chekhov's plays, can be painful to read. Two translations of the plays offer different, but accurate versions: those of Carol Rocamora and Paul Schmidt. The Schmidt translations are deliberately contemporary in their idiom, the Rocamora more "classical" (I should note my own bias here: I owe my love of Chekhov to a class I had with Carol Rocamora at NYU, and I did proofreading and editorial work on the second and third volumes of her translations of the plays).

Chekhov's letters are fascinating as well, though only a few editions offer unedited and faithfully translated versions. The best edition currently available in the U.S. is Anton Chekhov's Life and Thought.

There are numerous biographies of Chekhov, and Ernest Simmons's 1962 edition remains the most readable and interesting, though Donald Rayfield's more recent biography benefited from access to numerous materials Simmons didn't have. Unfortunately, Rayfield's biography is turgidly written.

Hundreds of critical works exist, and I've only read a small selection of them. I have been most impressed by Richard Gilman's book on Chekhov's plays, Vladimir Kataev's If Only We Could Know, and James McConkey's To a Distant Island. (The latter is an extraordinary mix of criticism, history, memoir, and fictional devices -- a beautiful book.)

For now, let me leave you with this, from the Simmons biography, about an idea Chekhov had for a play shortly before his death:
...both Olga [Knipper, his wife] and Stanislavsky mention that Chekhov outlned roughly to them the theme of a new play he had in mind. The hero was to be a scientific man. He goes off to the far north because of his disillusion over a woman who either does not love him or is unfaithful to him. The last act was to present an ice-bound steamer. The hero stands alone on the deck amid the complete stillness and grandeur of the Arctic night. And against the background of the northern lights, he sees floating the shadow of the woman he loves.

Rabid Transit: Petting Zoo

The third chapbook from the estimable Ratbastards, Rabid Transit: Petting Zoo, deserves attention, for the six stories within it exhibit skill and ambition. The book doesn't seem to me to possess any stories of the quality of, for instance, Chris Barzak's "The Blue Egg" or Kristin Livdahl's "Even a Worm Will Turn" from the first collection or "Gramercy Park" by Haddayr Copley-Woods from the second, but there is fine work here.

M. Rickert (currently the featured author at Ideomancer) provides a typically evocative story, "Art is Not a Violent Subject" -- in addition to writing lovely prose, she has created some of my favorite titles of recent years -- and John Aegard's "The Golden Age of Fire Escapes" is a surrealist epic in fourteen pages, a story that succeeds at being both a pleasure to read and, ultimately, unsettling. Amber van Dyk shows real skill with maintaining a consistency of tone and style in "Storyville", an affecting tale intoxicated with language, a technique not to every reader's taste, though I for one would have preferred it were the story truly drunk on language rather than just tipsy.

I want to discuss the remaining three stories as a group, because they caused me to think about the challenges of the short story form, the nature of narrative, and how authors balance the intellectual content of stories with other elements.

At one fictional extreme, we have David Moles's "Five Irrational Histories", which is essentially a collection of five summaries of alternate history stories. (Sort of.) For intellectual content, this story ranks with the best of its kind -- it is erudite, clever, and witty. If it isn't nominated for a Sidewise award, I suspect the reason will purely be that not enough people read it.

At the other extreme, though not extremely so, is Elad Haber's "Ophelia and the Beast", which has Hamlet's Ophelia rescued and resuscitated by Beauty's Beast. It is a prototypical short story: one idea developed through a couple of characters, brought to resolution. The writing is clear, concise, occasionally beautiful, often pretty; a style that in another story would be cloying but effectively fits the subject here.

Between those two stories lies "How to Write an Epic Fantasy" by David Lomax, which seems to me to be the weakest story the Ratbastards have published, though it is skilled enough to make me think David Lomax will be writing some excellent work soon. The problem with "How to Write an Epic Fantasy" is that it lacks the depth of ideas of "Five Irrational Histories" but doesn't have the traditional narrative pleasures of "Ophelia and the Beast".

Satirizing epic fantasy is like playing a practical joke on a three-year-old, though slightly less amusing. It can be a useful enough form if the author is up to other things at the same time, but the story is fifteen pages of this:
"Tomorrow," say Georg Laun. Because he looks weary, they do not press him further, but allow the invisible servants, the ones who speak in desperate whispers of loves that they have lost, to escort them to their rooms.

They sleep well -- or at least that's how Georg Laun tells the story years later. Now we are drawn back, just for a moment, to the Tavern of the Dying Giant. You must do this to keep your readers from identifying too much with Georg Laun as a narrator. Other narrators are to come, and if the reader is not to be too disappointed when the verbose dwarf has spoken his part, you must show Laun to be, if not unreliable, at least flawed.
At the end, we have paragraphs such as the following:
You ought to be careful here. Telling stories for moral instruction can lead to fearful consequences. One teller had to swallow hemlock. Another was crucified.
If it were 1,000 words long, this would be a diverting little joke of a tale, but nothing within it justifies its length, because the one idea is contained in the title (read with two winks and a nudge) and there's not much else going on in it.

"Five Irrational Histories" will be similarly unsatisfying to some readers, since it relates action rather than dramatizing it, but at least Moles develops some clever alternate histories and does so in very short pieces (his entire story is a little bit more than half the length of "How to Write an Epic Fantasy"). Moles's story also functions as a sly critique of a genre of writing: if the primary content of your story is ideas, why not just present the ideas and get rid of the narrative elements that serve no purpose other than decoration? (Bruce Sterling's "Our Neural Chernobyl", collected in Globalhead, serves a somewhat similar purpose for hard SF -- if ideas and extrapolation matter most, why bother with characters and plot? -- though Sterling is up to a bunch of other things in that story as well.) There is no need to read the story that way, for it has other things to offer, but it is able to bear such an interpretation as a layer added to what is already there.

The most satisfying stories in Petting Zoo are the ones that mix ideas and narrative with the only element of fiction I might be persuaded into saying is essential: surprise. "Storyville" is surprising in its language, "Art is Not a Violent Subject" and "The Golden Age of Fire Escapes" are surprising in their language and imagery, as well as (perhaps most importantly) in the subtlety of how they convey -- in the broadest sense, and lacking a better word -- ideas. Neither M. Rickert nor John Aegard could sum their stories up in a couple of sentences; they had to write them to exactly the length they did, because to cut the stories much shorter would be to lose something vital, while to prolong them would likely add nothing that hadn't already been said.

None of which is to suggest that metafictional techniques can't work. Centuries of writing prove otherwise, and even within the world of speculative fiction there are authors using metafictional techniques to great effect -- see my notes on Jeff VanderMeer and Jeffrey Ford. For metafiction to work, though, it can't simply be about being metafictional, and it shouldn't try to do what could be more effectively done in an 800 word essay. (For comparison, see Gilbert Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew: nearly 500 pages of metafiction that is so inventive as to be simultaneously hilarious, frustrating, devastatingly satiric, befuddling, intellectually challenging, and completely overwhelming -- more, of course, than just metafiction.)

Despite my quibbles, I can think of few enterprises within the realm of speculative fiction so deserving support as the Ratbastards, because they have consistently produced work that explores the boundaries of fiction, the evocative powers of language, the limitations of tradition, and the joys of literature. Not every experiment is successful, but that doesn't mean experimentation isn't worthwhile. More than worthwhile, it is essential, because it lets us glimpse what is possible and helps us understand what is vital within even the most decrepit traditions.

Update: My interview with founding Ratbastard Alan DeNiro is here.

20 June 2004

Site Note

The saga of commenting systems continues... I've switched from Squawkbox, which was completely unreliable and buggy, to Enetation for comments, and will, over the next week or so, restore as many comments as I can to earlier posts. With any luck, this will be the last change in commenting systems, at least until Blogger develops a less primitive system itself.

19 June 2004

I Am Reviewing You, And You Are Dead

Once upon a time, I noted the existence of the book I Am Alive and You are Dead, a book about Philip K. Dick. I have not read the book, so I can't comment on Charles Taylor's take on it for the NY Times, but it's a lovely example of a scathing review:
...the writings of Dick, the hugely influential science fiction writer, function as the dope that sets Carrere off on one mind-blowing theory after another, man. Rambling on while the reader sinks into catatonia, ''I Am Alive and You Are Dead'' (never was a book so aptly named) reads like a hyperadolescent spouting forth trippy what-ifs: ''What if a fiction writer found out that all the stories he made up were true?''; ''What if nightmares yanked us into alternate universes?'' The result winds up reducing Dick's writing to bubble-gum Pirandello, or Borges rejiggered for Saturday afternoon movie serials.

Update (6/21/04):In the comments, Mark Kelly points out that the L.A. Times has a much more positive review (registration required). I should also note that John Leonard, in Harper's, had a positive tone, though he mostly used his brief review to discuss PKD. In the past, Leonard has had little patience for trippy what-ifs, so I think if it struck him the way it did Taylor, he would have said so. Guess I'll just have to read the durn thing myself ... but I think I'll wait for the paperback.

Alternate History

If alternate history stories are your thing, be sure to read all of Howard Waldrop's various "unblog" posts about "Hitler Wins" scenarios: part 1, part 2, parts 3 & 4.

Also worth checking out are Jed Hartman's posts on Deep Alternates and why the Sidewise awards are dominated by men.

Finally, be sure to read what David Moles has to say.

18 June 2004

Public Service Announcement

What follows is an unpaid commercial advertisement...

Between now and Tuesday, if you buy a minimum of 3 books from Nightshade, you'll get 50% off your order.

This is not some nambypamby, oh-wouldn't-it-be-great-if-Heinlein-were-still-alive-and
-people-still-wrote-like-E.E. Smith publisher. No, these people publish Nick Mamatas (and let him work for them, too).

So you could get Nick's Kerouac-meets-Cthulhu novel Move Under Ground in hardcover for $12.50.

Or you could get Leviathan 2 (because though you read Leviathan 3 every day, you never got around to getting the earlier volumes) or The Thackery T. Lambshead Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases or Album Zutique, all edited by Jeff VanderMeer, whose first novel, Veniss Underground is also available and very much worth owning at full price, never mind 50% off.

Or then there's Zoran Zivkovic's The Fourth Circle, of which Tim Pratt wrote in the June Locus: "...Zivkovic has created a marvelously inventive work of science fiction with metaphysical underpinnings. He weaves mathematics, the multiverse, alien intelligences, otherworldly religions, Buddhism, Hindu mythology, artificial intelligence, Faustian bargains, literary pastiche, humor, and historical figures into his narrative. The writing is wonderful, sometimes dense and forboding, sometimes light and allusive, never less than accomplished, and always well-suited to the artistic task at hand." (And it has a cover by K.J. Bishop!)

Or you could have a wonderful time with Kage Baker's Empress of Mars, chuckle your way through Rhys Hughes's New Universal History of Infamy, or treat yourself to one of the best short story collections of the past twenty years, Things That Never Happen by M. John Harrison.

50% off. Brand new books. Magnificent publisher. Free market economy. Commodify your fetishes. Tomorrow a giant comet might slam into the Earth, rendering Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and the rest of us completely past tense, and what good will your paid-off credit card be then, huh?

17 June 2004

Lloyd Biggle, Jr.

One of the first science fiction novels I ever read was The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets by Lloyd Biggle, Jr.. It was loaned to me by my mother's boss, the person who insisted I become a reader of science fiction (because, he said, it was what intelligent people read). I thought Biggle's novel was fascinating -- an adventure story about culture, music, and aesthetics, written by a man with a Ph.D. in musicology. The book was out of print at the time (and had been for years), and searching for it led me to discover the (now sadly departed) Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop in Boston, where I bought the first of a few copies I was to own. It became a book I loaned out a few times, but one that was never returned.

(It also led to a title I've always wanted to use somehow -- when writing a note to someone once, my mother, quickly recommending a book, typed the title as The Still Small Vice of Strumpets.)

Not having read The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets in many years, I decided to look for a used copy and discovered that Wildside Press has reprinted a bunch of Biggle over the past five years. Suddenly I remembered other old favorites: Silence is Deadly, Monument, The World Menders, as well as a few I hadn't encountered before.

Wildside has also reprinted two of Biggle's short story collections, The Rule of the Door and A Galaxy of Strangers, though not The Metallic Muse, which contains Biggle's most famous short story, "The Tunesmith", a satire positing a world where the television commercial is the only remaining form of art (Orson Scott Card, a tireless proponent of the story, has included it in his recent Masterpieces anthology).

Biggle died in 2002, and what I didn't know until today is that he founded The Science Fiction Oral History Association, which is currently offering -- until the end of the month -- "a CD copy of a selection from the SFOHA archives prepared by Lloyd BIggle, Jr." for the cost of a $5 membership. It sounds like the association needs funds to begin transferring their reel-to-reel recordings to less fragile media, and their archives could be a tremendous resource, so if you're looking for a worthy project to support, this may be it.

In an appreciation for Locus after Biggle's death, Michael A. Banks wrote:
I recall many conversations with Lloyd Biggle, more often than not about words and writing. He would talk about how ideas could be held and shaped and turned around into something wonderful. He showed me how he sometimes created stories simply by looking at a situation from a new, and different angle -- or perhaps just backwards.
I can't necessarily recommend Biggle, not having read his books since I was an adolescent, but I'm going to read some of them again, because what I remember intrigues me: a writer who conveyed a passion for the arts through pulpy sci-fi adventure plots. There are moments when I think that's the recipe for sheer bliss.

Report from the Set of A Scanner Darkly

Philip K. Dick's children report from the set of the upcoming film of A Scanner Darkly, directed by Richard Linklater:
A Scanner Darkly is one of our father's most personal stories because much of it is based on his own experiences. For this reason, it was especially important to us that it be done with all of the right intentions. His struggle with drug abuse is well documented, and he (and we) have witnessed many casualties. The novel is filled with his humor and his own tragedies. And we believe that Richard's screenplay manages to capture these key elements -- he has even included our father's poignant afterword in his adaptation. ...

Like a graphic novel come to life, A Scanner Darkly will utilize live action photography overlaid with an advanced animation process to create a haunting, highly stylized vision of the future. The technology was first employed in Linklater's 2001 film Waking Life and has evolved to produce even more impact and detail.
I would be more excited if I didn't know that Keanu Reaves is starring in it, but I'm still hopeful that this will be not only a good adaptation but a good film. I liked Waking Life, which I think even mentioned PKD, and have liked others of Linklater's films, particularly the one that made his name, Slacker. In many ways, he's the perfect director for Scanner Darkly. I hope.

(via Beatrice)

16 June 2004

Quote for the (Blooms)Day

From "Ariadne's Dancing Floor" by Guy Davenport, in Every Force Evolves a Form:
Joyce's achievement is to have fulfilled in a masterly oeuvre a particular promise of art in the twentieth century. We can define elements of his mastery by placing him beside his peers. Pound, so curiously hostile to the Wake and eventually disenchanted with Ulysses after he had championed it, was working parallel to Joyce in that he was tracking the beginnings of civilization and cultures, and meditating on what qualities made them vulnerable to destruction or guaranteed them long life. But whereas Pound hoped to instruct mankind and display history as a lesson, Joyce did not. Man is tragically man, never to elude his fate.

Thomas Mann and Proust both attempted an inclusive and exhaustive configuration of European society, and both built complex symbolic structures which can be compared to Joyce's. Mann beside Joyce apppears pedantic, mechanical, humorless. The life that Joyce breathed into his work is not there. Beside Mann, Joyce's success at integrating all the elements of his work into a moving, articulate whole becomes clear. Mann imposes meaning; Joyce finds it; Mann looks for weakness in strength; Joyce, for strength in weakness. Mann's novels illustrate ideas; Joyce's return ideas to their origins.

Proust, so different from Joyce in temperament and method, is yet strangely close to him in saturating an exact realism with a pervasive internal symbolism. ... Their delineations of the childhood of Stephen Dedalus and little Marcel define two cultures, and their studies of the provincialism of Dublin and of the Faubourgs St.-Honore and St.-Germain are the two classics of their genre. How time deepens and forces tragedy is a common theme. They bear strongest resemblance, surprisingly, in their coming to accept the reader as a presence felt in the act of composition.

15 June 2004

Science Fiction, Change, and Rationality

The ever-generous Maud sent me the text of a London Times article available only through subscription: a short essay by Stephen Baxter answering the question "Has the march of science made science fiction obsolete?" (Can you guess his answer?)

One of Baxter's premises is that science fiction, while seldom intended literally to predict the future, habituates its readers to thinking about change -- often large, world-shaking change -- and that we need such thinking now more than ever. He ends by saying:
So, in 2004, do we need science fiction? Some features
of the world of 2004 resemble science fictional dreams
of the past; some science fiction scenarios are
obsolete. But history hasn't ended yet. In the coming
few years climate adjustments alone will ensure that
whatever else we run out of -- oil, fresh water, clean
air -- change itself will not be in short supply. There
will be no shortage of raw material for science
fiction literature, whatever becomes of genre
categories in bookshops.

And in the coming dangerous century, we will need
minds capable of coping with change more than ever
before.
In some ways, what Baxter has to say compares with some comments Michael Swanwick made in his interview in the latest Locus, where he says,
Science fiction, no matter how strange it gets, has the advantage of literality. It's talking about a world that could really be, that could exist in what we imagine this universe might be. That's an extraordinary advantage. Fantasy is more fluid; it has the freedom to deal with irrational things as real. Science fiction usually doesn't, not in the same way. There's a greater freedom than SF affords, but it comes at a price. The payoff has to justify that extraordinary license. ... If the story is superficial, if your readers are left unsatisfied, you've annoyed them in a way you don't with science fiction.
I agree with Baxter more than Swanwick, but both seem to put too much weight on science fiction's "plausibility". While certain SF tropes are based on actual scientific and technological progresses -- it's hard to find an SF story without nanotechnology in it these days, and I remember reading about the concept in the late '80s in Analog -- others, such as faster-than-light travel, are essentially glitzy fantasy. (Sure, future scientists might discover ways that faster-than-light travel is possible, but they also might find that elves have been hiding in Yellowstone.)

Swanwick's point that fantasy can deal with the irrational as real is an interesting one -- but, of course, as anyone who has ever followed politics knows, the irrational is plenty real. Traditional science fiction embraces the basic processes of rational thought, giving it a veneer of rationality, but very little science fiction is any more rational than most fantasy. What successful examples of both are is internally consistent to their own logic. (If they're not, then they are surreal, though an entire essay could be written on the differences between satisfying and unsatisfying surrealism...)

The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison

Nightshade Books will soon be releasing The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison, the first time the novel has been published in the U.S. I'm working on an extended essay about this book along with Harrison's Light and Signs of Life, so I'm not going to say much here except that The Course of the Heart is worth both your money and your time, though, as with all of Harrison's writings, it demands a lot of the reader, and the ratio of reward to effort depends on what you're willing to bear.

In the print version of a Locus interview with Harrison, The Course of the Heart is described as "literary fantasy" (to contrast with the "literary science fiction" of Signs of Life), a problematic term for many reasons, but I suppose it was intended to both honor Harrison's ambitions and skills and to warn readers that if they're looking for a David Eddings clone, then perhaps this isn't the book for them.

The Course of the Heart tells the story of three friends who, in some sort of rite they participated in while in college, managed to break a small connection to what they call (after the Gnostics) "the pleroma" -- a connection that has haunted, terrified, and driven them to ruin ever since. (Readers familiar with Harrison's short stories may recognize this as the central concept of "The Great God Pan", and a slightly altered version of that story makes up the first forty or so pages of Course of the Heart.)

Many of the themes and techniques familiar to readers of Harrison's other works are apparent here -- mysteries that are unsolved and perhaps even delusional, but that deeply affect the lives of the characters; characters who are floundering, unhappy, self-destructive, obnoxious, violent, ill; an accumulative narrative structure that is less devoted to plot than to incident and imagery; prose that is precise and coldly beautiful. There's a ruthlessness to Harrison's imaginings that is far more unsettling than the ostentatious splatterings of so many writers whose books get put on the "Horror" shelves of bookstores.

Harrison is an easy writer to admire -- he is a master of all the basic elements of fiction, his best work has the resonance and subtlety of a great chamber concert -- and yet a difficult writer to embrace, one about whom I would have trouble saying, "He's a pleasure to read." The Viriconium books have their pleasures, as does Light, and a number of the short stories are simply overwhelming in their power, but often I have found it difficult to keep reading Harrison's books, because their shape generally doesn't start to become clear until the novel is nearly finished, and getting to the finish requires spending time with characters who are often desperate and pitiful. Many readers, I'm sure, have reached the end of Course of the Heart and Signs of Life and said, "That's it?", not realizing that the questions and plot points they thought were most important were not. Harrison is one of the few writers who is so determinedly, yet subtly, original that we must read him to learn how to read him. Rereading his novels, I'm finding, reveals them to be somewhat different than I perceived them to be on a first reading -- they feel less cruel a second time, more ordered, but somehow more ethereal. If I can manage a third reading, perhaps they will be even more different.

I'm glad Nightshade is bringing Harrison to an American audience, and that Light will be released by Spectra in August, because it gives a new audience a chance to read, reread, and discuss him.

14 June 2004

Threepenny Realism

The latest issue of The Threepenny Review is out, and it's excellent. I don't tend to like their selection of fiction, but am usually quite happy with at least a few pieces of nonfiction and poetry, and some of those pieces, read over the past couple of years, have left an indelible mark on my own thinking -- for instance, a "symposium" on W.G. Sebald, or a magnificent essay on David Lynch's Mulholland Drive by Steve Vineberg (both from the same issue, which may simply mean it arrived at the right time in my life for me to be particularly receptive to the subjects and ideas).

In the current issue, I have been most intrigued by a review by David Cozy of Guy Davenport's The Death of Picasso: New & Selected Writing and by another "symposium" (a collection of short essays), this one not about a specific author, but about the word "realism".

Davenport is a favorite of mine, a writer of intimidating erudition, a man seemingly incapable of writing a banal sentence, and so I immediately read the review of his new collection to see how it was received. In this case, it was received well, and thoughtfully. (Cozy, the reviewer, also wrote well about Edward Whittemore for Harper's last year.) The symposium on realism collects a varied group of responders -- a writer of short stories and memoirs (Tobias Wolff) who is often described as a "realist" (though he's generally better than that), one of our best living poets (Louise Gluck), a documentary filmmaker (Frederick Wiseman), etc. It's a chance to see different views, different ways of approaching a subject that might, on the surface, seem destined to elicit predictable responses.

Rather than bore you with more of my own words, let me give you over to better ones:
Tobias Wolff: Any writer who thinks of himself as a Realist, or a Minimalist, or a Postmodernist, or a Metafictionist, or any other such category is finished before he starts. These are simply terms of convenience levied on writing after the fact by journalists and academics to give themselves the illusion of mastery and to make the work safe for some theory that depends on categorization.

Edwin Frank: I'm not sure, in any case, that Dreiser's famously lousy style isn't a virtue, even the main virtue of his work; that it isn't precisely in the ragged texture of his text -- rather than the well-observed concrete particulars that modern-day journalism and writing-school students are alike taught to gather like posies (mostly missing from Dreiser's work) -- that the reality of whatever his realism may be emerges.

Louise Gluck: It is entirely possible that I have never had an accurate sense of what is called realism in that I do not, as a reader, discriminate between it and fantasy.

W.S. Di Piero: As a territorial art historical designation, Realism is what it is. It stands there in the nineteenth century like a pile of rocks, painted by Courbet, a rather rocky character himself. But in my ordinary viewing habits realism is a usable idea more than a category determined by content or manner.

Frederick Wiseman: Assuming the film "works" as a dramatic structure, the result may be a picture of a reality, an interpretation of a reality, or a new reality. This depends on how the viewer looks at the film and interprets what he has seen and heard.

David Cozy: Readers, the modernists believed, are not dummies. And since readers are not dummies they can, turning the pages of Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury, or The Cantos, with a little work, a little research, a little thought, come to terms with texts which are, on their surfaces, daunting. Doing this intellectual work, the modernists seem certain, need not be understood as a burden on readers, but can rather be seen as a source of readerly fun: the fun of figuring out something for oneself. We are pattern-loving creatures, and those patterns which we love most are never those which this or that pedantic scribbler has unsubtly thrust upon us, but always those that we have ourselves discerned in art which may, initially, have appeared chaotic.

13 June 2004

SF vs. Sci Fi

There's some discussion of the abbreviations "sci fi" and "SF" at Norman Geras's blog. This is an important discussion if you want to be sure not to insult particularly sensitive people.

Other people will probably find it about as meaningful as Henry Fonda's insistence on the distinctions between beer and ale in The Lady Eve.

A Conversation with K.J. Bishop

K.J. Bishop's debut novel, The Etched City, fascinated me in a way few other recent novels have. The more I thought about the book and my reaction to certain elements of it, the more I wanted to know about the author's ways of thinking and writing. Having corresponded a bit with Kirsten after writing about the book here in March, I asked if she would be willing to answer some questions. She was.


What is the attraction of fiction for you? Is it simply an impulse to tell stories, or is there another reason you write fiction rather than, say, soap operas?
It's a mysterious thing. I didn't start writing fiction till I was about 25. Before then, art and music were my main creative pastimes. I wanted to be a guitar hero, but that was in 1989, when the extinction of the species was imminent! (Music lovers everywhere can thank the heavens.)

I don't think I have an impulse to tell stories so much as an impulse to spend time with characters. I always used to imagine things about my favourite characters from movies and books, and over time those characters would change in my mind, turning into people who were similar to the originals but different enough for me to think of them as separate. When I started writing, I discovered that the process of writing allowed me to get to know them much better than I could by just daydreaming. I also discovered that I liked writing in and of itself -- the pleasure of making things out of words, of finding the way to express something, to define some notion or feeling of mine that previously had been vague.

I know you're kidding about the soap operas, but if you change 'soap opera' to 'long-running quality TV show' -- a program like, say, 'MASH', or 'Buffy' -- then it starts to look attractive to a writer who likes spending a lot of time with characters. But I've got no experience of acting or anything to do with theatre, so I wouldn't feel too confident about writing scripts.

I like that description -- "an impulse to spend time with characters". And then that mixed with the pleasure of words. Do you find that writing is for you an unconscious exploration -- a feeling about characters, words, and how they go together? Is revision the conscious, pragmatic mind taking over?
It really depends on what I'm trying to write. I'm not actually sure how it all works. I do know that when I'm thinking hard about plot, action or emotional nitty-gritties, the part of my mind that thinks about language for its own sake doesn't really fire. Then, in the second draft, I might relax and find some more artistic way to express things. That doesn't always happen, but it can, particularly if I'm writing dialogue for a character who is conscious of him or herself as an orator and values eloquence. If I can get right inside that character, it can be as if the character says things that I'd never have thought up just on my own. I love it when that happens. Sometimes it happens on the first draft, but it's more likely to be during revision. There are other bits of writing where it's much more unconscious, where I'm more interested in creating an atmosphere, but my grip on narrative tends to loosen (or fail completely) when I do that. So I might have to go back with the rational mind and reorganise things, unless the segment is something that can stay in on its own as a sort of lyrical interlude.

Re the conscious and the unconscious: I'd like someone to do an experiment with writers -- say twenty, all with different styles, different strengths and weaknesses -- and do one of those brain mapping things. Sit them down (I'd volunteer to be one!) with electrodes on their heads while they wrote. Get them to write some of their own stuff, and get them to do specific exercises -- writing a plot, a descriptive passage, an action sequence, and so on. I think it'd be interesting to see the similarities and the differences in brain usage.

How much do you pay attention to structure when writing? (For instance, do you just write and see what happens, paying attention to themes and motifs later, or do you plan things out in detail beforehand, or...?) When did the overall structure of The Etched City become clear to you?
I didn't pay much attention to structure when I began writing The Etched City. I was just writing for fun, to amuse myself and to see if I actually could write a novel. The book was actually two stories, or two abortive attempts at a novel, that I munged together. By about the 30,000 word mark I had a fairly good idea of what the characters' fates would be, or had at least narrowed it down to a couple of options. But I didn't know how they were going to arrive at those destinations. I was paying attention to themes and motifs all the time, though; to those, really, more than to plot as such. I'm not good at planning in detail, and I do enjoy just writing and seeing what happens, but I need to be able to see a few things, whether they're certainties or just possibilities, in the future of the story, in order for me to feel that there is actually something there to be written. I doubt that structure is ever going to be one of my strong points; by temperament I'm more of a decorator than a builder.

Did the two original stories have the same setting? Much of the pleasure of the book for me was in the exploration of the physical landscape, and I wondered how it came about. Did you know from the beginning it would be an imaginary place, rather than, for instance, Australia (present or historical)?

(By the way, have you read any of David Malouf's books? His Remembering Babylon is a favorite of mine.)
They had different settings; one was the desert, the Copper Country, and the other was the city in the jungle. I realised that the character of Gwynn could move easily from one to the other -- as gunslinger, then as urban dandy. His gangster aspect is the bridge between the two.

I knew it would be in an imaginary world; I wanted to have the freedom that a secondary world gives you. Though at the same time, I didn't want it to be a completely self-contained secondary world, which is why I did things like naming the river in Ashamoil the Skamander, after the corpse-choked river in the Illiad. The world is sort of a munged-together collection of story worlds. I imagined it as a movie studio backlot, with various sets that the characters could move between. I don't know if it comes across like that, but that's what it was like to me.

I've only read one David Malouf book, which was 'Johnno'. I read it at school, and I think I was too young to appreciate it. Rodney Hall writes an interesting take on the discovery of Australia -- and other stuff -- in 'The Island in the Mind', which I think is a terrific book, sumptuously written.

The way violence is used in The Etched City intrigued me -- there's a lot of it, but it's painful, and not merely physically. How did you approach writing the violent scenes?
It depended on the purpose of the scene. In most of the violent scenes I wanted to show something particular about one or more of the characters, so the scene would be geared towards making that point. The only violent scene that was somewhat gratuitous was the battle on the bridge. I felt the story needed some action at that point, so I wrote that scene as a set piece, which is one reason why it's somewhat farcical; it's almost like a floorshow.

I tried to be realistic about how the characters might be feeling when they commit their violent acts -- whether they're reluctant, or enjoying it, or just getting a job done. I did try to make a sort of presentation of our hypocritical relationship with violence -- the perceived glamour, the attraction of it, on one side, and the horror when violence is actually inflicted on us.

When do you know you are writing well?
I don't always know. And it can be such a subjective thing. Writing I've done that has really pleased me hasn't necessarily pleased other people. I did a lot of rewriting of The Etched City; I think I went over some scenes about 50 times. But if I'm doing something more freewheeling and playful -- like 'Maldoror Abroad' in Album Zutique #1, or my story in The Alsiso Project, where I don't have to worry so much about plot, it suddenly gets a lot easier, and I tend then to feel that I'm writing well, just because it feels fun and natural; it's like running through a park as opposed to driving through peak-hour traffic. I'm more confident about judging details -- things on the level of words and sentences, and small bits of plot -- than overall effects.

I've been meaning to ask about "Maldoror Abroad". Was that something you did specifically for Jeff VanderMeer -- it fits the "decadent" theme of Album Zutique so well. I sense from some of your drawings and writings a certain affinity for the art nouveau/decadent/fin de siecle era, no?
'Maldoror Abroad' happened because when I was finishing up Etched City for Prime I got rather sick with sinusitis. I was busy with other work and various things, and just didn't have the time to go to the doctor and get antibiotics. Instead, I kept taking Sudafed, for weeks -- which wasn't the smartest thing to do -- but being sleepless, rather wired and still sick put me in a state where weird writing came to me very easily. That was when I wrote 'Maldoror Abroad' and some other similar material, some of which ended up in Etched City. I really wanted to write a whole surreal novel, but I ran out of steam. I couldn't find a narrative to hang the writing on. Anyway, I sent the Maldoror story to Sean Wallace at Prime, and he sent it to Jeff, who as it happened to be putting together Album Zutique.

I'm interested in the whole period, roughly a century, from Baudelaire to World War Two, but in terms of aesthetics the Art Nouveau style particularly appeals to me, and I'm fascinated by the figure of the dandy. It was Baudelaire writing that 'Dandyism is the last flicker of heroism in decadent ages' that defined the dandy for me and made me interested in the history and literature of that particular decadent age.

What excites you as a reader?
It can be all kinds of things. Most recently it has been 'The Labyrinth' by Catherynne M. Valente, which is a gorgeous, virtuoso surrealist book, and 'The Volcano Lover' by Susan Sontag, which has wonderfully fine depictions of characters. I get excited by writing that does good things with language -- whether it's ornate, laconic, funny, elegant -- anything as long as it isn't pedestrian. I get excited when a book teaches me something. And I love books about tragic antiheroes; I enjoy a good dose of action, romance and angst!

12 June 2004

Edwardians on the Moon

Did you know that there were Edwardians on the moon, discovered by the Apollo astronauts? The artifacts are on display in Boston until June 19. The product of a particularly interesting intelligence, I'd say.

11 June 2004

Lambda Literary Awards

The Lambda Literary Awards for this year have been handed out, with Necrologue edited by Helen Sandler winning in the Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror category. The only award winner I've actually read is Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith, a fascinating book.

Here's the official description of the awards:
The Lambda Literary Awards recognize and honor the best in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender literature. From hundreds of books nominated by their publishers and other authorized agents, five nominees were selected in each of 20 categories. Panels of judges in each category, chosen to represent the diversity of the LGBT literary community, determined the final winner from the finalists.
(via Scribblingwoman)

In Memory Yet Green

Today my favorite link to the outside world, the post office, is closed to honor the memory of Ronald Reagan, so I'm taking time to remember him by reading bits of The Death of Ben Linder and Gioconda Belli's memoir The Country Under My Skin.

Or maybe I'll just meditate on J.G. Ballard's story "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan":
Motion picture studies of Ronald Reagan reveal characteristic patterns of facial tones and musculature associated with homoerotic behavior. The continuing tension of buccal sphincters and the recessive tongue role tally with earlier studies of facial rigidity (cf., Adolf Hitler, Nixon). Slow-motion cine films of campaign speeches exercised a marked erotic effect upon an audience of spastic children. Even with mature adults the verbal material was found to have a minimal effect, as demonstrated by substitution of an edited tape giving diametrically opposed opinions...

Internet Evils

Alas, the battle of Harlan Ellison vs. AOL is over. Ellison's suing of AOL because people used it to reprint some of his writings without permission seems to me like suing Xerox and the Postal Service because people sometimes use photocopiers and the mail to copy and distribute things they have no right copying and distributing, but it's always amusing to see Ellison bluster (unless, I suppose, you're the target of his blustering), and I thought Ellison vs. AOL was better than Celebrity Death Match.

Meanwhile, Bruce Sterling has some warnings about evil and the Internet:
Keynoting a morning session of Gartner's 10th Annual IT Security Summit here, Sterling said, "This is the birth of a genuine, no kidding, for-profit, electronic, multi-national criminal world. The global criminal world of oil, narcotics and guns now has broadband."

And, according to Sterling, they are fully utilizing the technology.

"These are not all old-school hackers. This is organized crime activity. They are profit driven," he said. "These are crooks. The crooks that in the future that are going to elbow the hobbyist kids aside and settle in for a nice, long vampire slurp from our e-commerce." [...]

All in all, Sterling said, "Today's Internet is a dirty mess."

Quote for the Day

In short, if newspapers were written by people whose sole object in writing was to tell the truth about politics and the truth about art we should not believe in war, and we should believe in art.

--Virginia Woolf
Three Guineas

James Joyce and Science Fiction

Michael Cassutt has an amusing column this week at Science Fiction Weekly, looking at the connections between James Joyce and SF. It's fairly standard stuff until the end, which is almost as good as the ending of a Frederic Brown story.

If you hate James Joyce, you might like Tim Cavanaugh's article for Reason, in which he wonders "Why does a book so bad it 'defecates on your bed' still have so many admirers?" There are a couple of good points raised, and we discover that Joyce fans like dressing up as much as Star Trek fans, but there's a deep current of anti-intellectualism in the article, an underlying assumption that all literature, to be good, must be accessible on a first reading, must have as wide an audience as a Rambo movie, and must appeal to Mr. Cavanaugh's own tastes. (Maybe he should have read only a page a day.) Personally, I don't have any plans to finish Finnegan's Wake, but I can recognize that it's a huge literary achievement, a tremendous experiment, and something that, like Scrabble and calculus and Dune, I will probably never find appealing. (Yes, Dune, friends, Dune!)

07 June 2004

Black to the Future Festival in Seattle

Mark Sarvas, who did some magnificent reporting from Chicago's BookExpo, let me know about this article from the Seattle Times about the upcoming Black to the Future Festival, a "3-day multidisciplinary festival featuring some of the nation's most accomplished science fiction novelists and essayists including Octavia Butler, Tananarive Due, Steven Barnes, and Walter Mosley."

Sounds phenomenal. Anybody out there going?

Reflecting on the Bests

Jonathan Strahan has some interesting reflections on the best SF of the year collection he edited with Karen Haber, and there's more discussion over at the Nightshade message boards (including a great note from Lucius Shepard about strict definitions of science fiction and his story "Only Partly Here" -- a subject I almost went on and on and on about, but I'm trying to practice restraint).

I think this year's crop of best of the year collections is interesting in its diversity, a diversity I enjoy, though I know some people think the fact that there's so little overlap between the books means that the SF field is dissolving. I long ago gave up on the idea of the bests being some sort of incontrovertible canon of perfection, and instead I read them as I would other anthologies, and have fun playing the game of "would I choose this?" with each story. Strahan and Haber's book has the largest amount of stories I had thought of as the best of the year before any of the collections came out, but I'm also enjoying the Hartwell and Cramer collection at the moment because it's got a number of stories I missed, including M. Rickert's magnificent "Bread and Bombs" (my subscription to F&SF began with the following issue). Hartwell and Cramer have relatively strict definitions of "science fiction" and "fantasy", and so their collections have a comfortable definitional coherence to them, but it's not a coherence without surprise or breadth of taste. Their last story, in fact, is by Rick Moody, from the Chabon anthology.

Jonathan says he's buried in reading for next year's anthologies, and his note about my recent post on "The Battle of York" makes me remember a criticism I fully intended to include and didn't: it's too damn long. Once we get the basic set-up and have been amused, the story doesn't have enough substance to sustain it over its length. Cut by a third or a half, it would have been a perfect gem. On the other hand, it's so rare that I find an SF story funny that I don't want to knock it. Esther Friesner's "Johnny Beansprout", in the same issue of the magazine, is an example of what a story can be when it doesn't overstay its welcome, and I'd rank it up there with Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" and Kit Reed's "The Wait", but that may just be because light stories about cannibals tickle me.

It's interesting to see how much the Internet has given readers a chance to discuss stories with editors of the various "year's best" collections (see, for instance, Jonathan's blog's discussion board), an altogether valuable trend, because it makes the entire process more transparent and removes some of the guru aura some editors have attained. They're human beings doing an immense amount of reading and making subjective aesthetic choices, and it's nice to be able to see where those aesthetic choices come from. It's also good to have the editors articulate their criteria regarding specific stories, because it helps them to refine their judgments and helps readers to see various ways of valuing stories they might otherwise not care about -- or care too much about.

Now here's a question: how much do you think the Strahan & Haber volume affected the Hugo nominations -- it was the only collection to come out before the nominations were announced, and it's the collection with the largest amount of Hugo nominees for novelettes and short stories. (I forget when nominations were due, so if the book came out after the nominating process had ended, please let me know.) I don't mean this as a judgment, and I certainly don't mind the book coming out early, particularly since it's such a good collection, but I'm curious about other people's thoughts.

Three Movies

Three films I've seen recently have made me pause and consider what I thought of them, because I wasn't able to come to any immediate conclusion except that, to some extent at least, I thought they were interesting.

In the Cut is a mystery/suspense movie by Jane Campion, based on a novel by Susanna Moore. I responded very strongly to the film, finding it mesmerizing, provoking an almost unbearable tension, but I know many people thought it was dull or self-indulgent. The plot is the greatest weakness of the movie -- it's not the least bit original, and the revelation of the killer is far less interesting than the relationships between the characters, the balance of various thematic elements against each other, and the magnificent cinematography -- but though it's disappointing that the basic material is less compelling than a mediocre episode of "Law & Order", the characters and the craft made the flawed plot far less annoying to me than it would have been otherwise. The remarkable thing is that Campion structures her film in such a way as to make us sympathize with Meg Ryan's character almost against our will, and as she moves deeper and deeper toward danger, the result is that an attentive viewer becomes paranoid, because all of a sudden any man she encounters could be a murderer. Trust becomes impossible, and this causes her to hurt the people who deserve her trust and love her, and nearly to lose her life. And yet I, for one, couldn't blame her, because I was even more paranoid than the character. The acting is phenomenal -- Mark Ruffalo's subtle and complex performance deserved an Oscar nomination, because it's a performance of more depth and quiet power than similar ones by people such as Robert DeNiro and Campion's own favorite, Harvey Keitel.

The Triplets of Belleville is a wondrous animated film by Sylvain Chomet. With almost no dialogue, Chomet tells a fairly simple (though bizarre) story and embellishes it with sumptuous, endlessly imaginative animation (primarily 2-D hand-drawn animation, with some 3-D computer effects thrown in when useful). There is so much that is good about this movie that I don't know where to begin, and so I'll just mention it all, doing justice to none: the magnificent details, the simultaneously endearing and annoying characters, the use of Mozart, the characters based on Josephine Baker, Glenn Gould, Django Reinhardt (and probably some others I missed), the perfect mix of styles (everything from Fleischer to Miyazaki). And more. The film creates its own universe and lets us live in it for a while, and I don't think I know of any higher praise.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is good fun. I probably wouldn't have seen it if Chris Columbus were still directing the Potter movies, but choosing Alfonso Cuaron to direct it was such an odd and interesting choice that I couldn't resist. Basically, I agree with Neil Gaiman's judgment: "I kept wishing the plot would stop ticking for a moment and let a bit of film happen. And toward the end I found myself wishing they'd thrown out the CGI monsters and gone for puppetry and people in costumes instead." Yes, indeed. But I thought David Thewliss gave a typically good performance (he's even good in hideously awful movies like Total Eclipse), and though I expected more from Cuaron, at least he's not a let's-put-on-a-blockbuster director like Columbus, who directs less like an artist than a traffic cop. I'm rather tired of the whole Harry Potter phenomenon, so I suppose the fact that the movie held my interest throughout says a lot for it, and, to be honest, I thought it was a markedly better adaptation of its source material than the final Lord of the Rings movie was, with considerably fewer silly or boring parts.

I did find myself imagining what various directors would have done with the film, because I think the book is the most evocative of the four I've read. Imagine what Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam would come up with ... or Jeunet & Caro, or Jan Svankmajer... It would have been too much of a risk for Hollywood to take, though, because many people who worshipped the books only want the films to be slavishly literal adaptations, an attitude that holds the films back from being excellent works of cinema rather than just book reports committed to celluloid. This was the least literally faithful of the Potter films, and so it gave me some hope that in the future a really great movie could be made from one of the books. Certainly, I'll be curious to see how they adapt the fourth book, since it was so long (unnecessarily, I thought, but I've met plenty of kids who thought it was too short, at least after the first time they read it).

05 June 2004

"The Battle of York" by James Stoddard

The July issue of F&SF is a "Special All-American Issue", given to United States authors and themes. So far this year, F&SF has seemed to me to be the best of the print magazines devoted to speculative fiction, publishing a wide range of stories, a few of them excellent. The July issue may be the best issue of the year so far (I haven't finished reading it), and the first story, James Stoddard's "The Battle of York", had me laughing out loud. Consider:
A man approached, a tall, inhumanly broad figure carrying a lantern that glowed with an unearthly luminance. Washington felt his mouth go dry; his heart pounded against his chest, for he thought he recognized the intruder. He wanted to hide, but there was nowhere to go if the Pilgrim sought him. He drew Valleyforge and held it close.

The figure paused a few feet from Washington. The lantern light spread at General's feet, turning the ground emerald and olive.

"General Washington," the figure said, his voice a deep drawl, "I am Waynejon. Some call me the Pilgrim."
The story opens with two paragraphs framing it as the surviving legends of America, most of which disappeared in the "worldwide magnet field disaster of the twenty-second century". In the editorial note before the story, Stoddard is said to have found inspiration in the poems of Ossian, a literary hoax perpetrated by James MacPherson, who claimed to have translated the poems from ancient texts (though some of them were based on Scottish legends, MacPherson created the poems himself. When they were first published, many people were taken in by the fraud, but the most prominent skeptic was Samuel Johnson, who, when asked "whether he thought any man of a modern age could have written such poems" said, "Yes, Sir, many men, many women, and many children.")

What Stoddard has done is give us various myths, cliches, and cultural detritus from the most standard and conservative history of the U.S. -- everything from George Washington's wooden teeth to the Lone Ranger -- in the form they might take were it all pureed in a blender, swallowed quickly by a credulous child with a weak stomach, and vomitted up for our pleasure.

Stoddard is quoted in the editorial note as saying, "I think the new patriotic climate made it easier for me to think that someone would want to read this kind of story," implying that he has written a story for all the people who think their flag decals will get them into heaven, but it seems to me that this is a story that would fit well alongside Ward Churchill's book On the Justice of Roosting Chickens, which exposes the bloody underside of the legends "The Battle of York" so amusingly confuses.

Though he utilizes the hoariest patriotic myths, Stoddard's story demonstrates how truly absurd they are. It's a hilarious and subversive read, because it elevates the garble of patriotic fervor to the level of Greek myth, showing how silly, bombastic, and fanciful such rhetoric can be.