30 November 2004

Multiple Reviews of Leviathan 4

Nick Mamatas, in his capacity as occasional publicist/pusher for Night Shade Books, gave out copies of Leviathan 4 to various bloggers to review. The results are beginning to trickle in, with reviews from Affinity8 (Sandra McDonald) and Mastadge. The more I read and review, the more I think nearly every book needs at least a couple of different reviewers, and this is especially true for anthologies, and especially especially true for anthologies of unconventional fiction, which Leviathan 4 is. My own review of the book will be published by SF Site in late December or January (although if you read one of the above reviews carefully you'll find a link to the draft. I don't mind, but the review hasn't yet been officially posted, so don't tell the boss!)

Update 12/1: Kevin Donihe adds his thoughts on the book.

A Conversation with Sonya Taaffe

Sonya Taaffe is a young woman with an immensely bright future. Though she has only been publishing for a few years, her first collection of stories was recently accepted by Prime and is scheduled to be released in April. Earlier, she won a Rhysling Award for poetry, and this month the third issue of Flytrap came out, with Sonya as the first featured poet to be chosen by the magazine.

Sonya and I first met at WorldCon, when we happened to be part of a conversation and she read my nametag and said, "You wrote nice things about me!" We didn't get much time to talk then, but later we discovered we would both be at a reading in Cambridge, and I asked Sonya if she would be willing to be interviewed. She was, and so after the reading we got tea and sat out in Harvard Square and talked. During our conversation, a bunch of frat boys in Halloween costumes ran around where we were sitting and screamed and yelled at people, fire engines roared by with their sirens on, and various other noises made much of what I recorded difficult to figure out, so what follows is the result of editing by both Sonya and me as we tried to reconstruct our conversation. (I've also edited it for length and coherence, because we talked -- rapidly, firing ideas and allusions back and forth -- for an hour and a half.)


MC: How did you start writing?

ST: I always told stories, as soon as I could speak, as soon as I knew what language was for. My father provided me with great incidental training for this. We would play a game where he would tell the first half of a story and then ask me to finish it; and so I finished stories. Some of these would go on for weeks, these extended, episodic, operatic stories between me and my father. I must have been about eight when I learned to type. My handwriting was abysmal.

MC: Where did science fiction and fantasy come in?

ST: I don't know if it ever came in. It might just have been what was there, what I read. I learned to read somewhere around the age of four, and I read everything I could get my hands on, but what I chiefly remember from elementary school is a lot of mythology, a lot of folklore. In second grade, I had D'Aulaires' Norse Gods and Giants out from the school library for the whole year. I was obsessed with any stories of mermaids and the sea, whatever culture they came from. I think I started to read science fiction and fantasy simply because they drew me in.

MC: Was it just the imaginative qualities, or...?

ST: It might have been some kind of outgrowth from the myths and folklore. It wasn't that I didn't read my share of mainstream teenage novels, but I was so much less concerned with cheating boyfriends than what cats would say, if they could talk.

MC: So the real world didn't pull you in?

ST: Not so much. The real world interests me. Most mainstream-fictional treatments of it do not.

MC: How did you get interested in classics?

ST: I studied Latin in high school and loved it. (I had all that mythology floating around in my head anyway.) It helped that, in addition to finding the language itself fascinating, I had a fantastic teacher: I blame him fully for the path my academic life has taken. He would write the first five lines of the Odyssey on the board, in Greek, so that I had memorized how to say them phonetically long before I could actually read Greek. When I came to Brandeis, I was still under the delusion that I'd major in Music or English; but I started Greek my first semester there and kept up with Latin, and by the time I declared for Classics at the end of my first year, I don't think a single person in the department was surprised. Comparative Literature was the only other discipline that might possibly have seduced me away. I am much less interested in music theory than in performance.

MC: Is there any desire to combine your interests through your writing, or do you like them as separate entities?

ST: I don't have a specific desire to combine them, perhaps because I don't see why I would need to. There are definitely some places where they overlap: "Return on the Downward Road" was written while taking a magnificent class called "Night, Death, and the Devil" and derives directly from looking at aspects of the diabolic in literature, art, and music; "Like the Stars and the Sand" was sparked by the ballad "Thomas the Rhymer" and a poem by Catullus; "Etemmu" is the immediate result of a class last fall on Mesopotamian literature; I would not have written "Shade and Shadow" without reading Book XI of the Odyssey. But I don't feel that my poetry, for instance, needs to come straight out of my classical research. I love H.D.'s work, but I don't need to imitate her.

MC: It's interesting that you seem to be equally a poet and a fiction writer. And I wonder if the two feed off of each other, or distract each other, or...

ST: Well, I didn't think of myself as any kind of poet for a very long time. I'd written god-awful reams of poetry throughout elementary school, but mercifully gave it up very soon. So I wrote stories all through middle school and high school, but I didn't even consider poetry -- although I liked to read it -- until my first year at Brandeis. That winter, a friend of mine gave me Inventions of the March Hare, a book of T.S. Eliot's early and unpublished poetry. I have no idea what relays that tripped in my brain, but I started writing poetry in the spring. Even so, up until this last year, I didn't think of myself as a poet. I was a fiction writer who occasionally wrote poems. But at this point I've published more than twice as many poems as I have short stories, so I should probably rethink that one . . .

MC: What can you do in poetry that you can't with fiction?

ST: You had to ask that! I think poems lend themselves more readily to single crystallized moments, mood set-pieces, than short stories do. You don't necessarily expect or demand plot from a poem; fiction tends to want more of a narrative. Personally, I also find that the different forms allow different kinds of language, different structures. You can write a poem consisting of one sentence only. It doesn't have to be a short sentence. With fiction, however, this approach tends to result in all sorts of red-ink editorial markings and comments like, "Punctuate, for God's sake!"

MC: What is the impulse, then, that causes you to make something into a story rather than a poem?

ST: How it comes out in the writing. I can have ideas, fine, but these go nowhere without language. The words are always first. Then sometimes what shows up is language with no backstory or discernible plot or clear ideas of character, so I write until I figure out what's going on (and if I'm lucky, these questions resolve themselves rather than collapsing halfway through and leaving me confused). When the language arrives with cadences to it and one immediate vision, that tends to mean I'm looking at a poem rather than a piece of fiction. When I have a distinct concept of characters and how they interact and where they might arrive, it's probably a story. Every now and then, a piece can go either way. I've had poems that have evolved into stories, and some of the flash fiction started its life as poetry and then discovered it was very unhappy doing that.

MC: How did you first discover markets for your work?

ST: Spicy Green Iguana saved my life. I had a Writer's Market, but after a couple of years it was completely obsolete for my purposes. I had subscriptions to Realms of Fantasy and F&SF, so I began with them, but I had much more success when I started looking for market guidelines online.

MC: When did you start sending things out?

ST: July 21, 1998. My first acceptance was in January 2001. That fall, September and November, I had my first publications: "Shade and Shadow" in Not One of Us, "Turn of the Century, Jack-in-the-Green" in Mythic Delirium, and "Constellations, Conjunctions" in Maelstrom Speculative Fiction -- which promptly died. I also had a poem, "Hallows," in Glyph #7, and that folded soon after.

MC: So you're the Typhoid Mary of the small press! Actually, I think that's one of the perils of writing for the small press -- the markets come and go, nothing's particularly stable. How did you discover the Science Fiction Poetry Association?

ST: I found Star*Line first, on Ralan.com, right around the time when Tim Pratt began editing it. I didn't join SFPA until "Matlacihuatl's Gift" had won a Rhysling Award and I thought it would be really tacky to win an award from an association and then not belong to it. Besides, I like having a subscription to Star*Line.

MC: Your poetry seems to be very carefully structured and shaped. One of the things that first attracted me to it, particularly when I read a few poems together, which is the best way, was that I noticed a real sense of the line as much as anything, and I wondered how much you think about that -- how much just comes out because that's the way it is, rather than premeditated?

ST: I don't think about meter in the sense of "long syllable, short syllable, spondee," but I do think a lot about cadence and rhythm -- not in the sense of plotting out words to fill a particular line, but does it sound right once I've written it? So I read back over the line, and the preceding line, and the line before that, to make sure. Not only do the images need to be right, the language has to suit. One doesn't work without the other.

MC: How did the collection come about? Did Sean Wallace (of Prime) approach you?

ST: I met Sean at NECON in July. Totally out of the blue. We talked at lunch, and he ended up reading some of my stories. (Reason #1087 why it's a good idea to carry one's laptop everywhere.)

MC: And he said, "Wow, you've got enough for a book"?

ST: More or less, actually. I don't think he had ever heard of me before.

MC: A question I always feel obligated to ask, but always dread, because writers never know quite what to make of it, is: What writers do you consider your influences?

ST: Angela Carter. She did something to my brain. I had read one story of hers, "The Lady of the House of Love," and never really looked her up; but then I reread the story in my first year at Brandeis and it amazed me, that someone could make language that voluptuous, overblown, and precise all at the same time. So I hunted down The Bloody Chamber, and promptly went out and read everything by Angela Carter that I could find. Even if I can't trace the effects, her work almost certainly influenced my ideas about language, how you can handle it, the ways you can create story. "The Erl-King" is one of the best evocations of autumn I have ever read, and it certainly tells a story, but it has nothing even resembling a traditional linear narrative.

People I like? The list goes on. Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon, Ursula K. Le Guin, Tanith Lee, Patricia McKillip, Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne Jones, Jane Yolen, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Kathe Koja. Without a doubt, many others that aren't coming to mind right now. And Peter Beagle. Absolutely Peter Beagle.

MC: What Ellison?

ST: Anything I could find. I ransacked used book stores. "Constellations, Conjunctions" was written while I was reading Slippage for the first time, so I can only assume there was some effect . . . Theodore Sturgeon was another crucial exposure to what people can do with words for character and detail, texturing scenes without handing the reader gigantic information dumps. Did I name Mary Gentle already? I really love her.

MC: I haven't read any Mary Gentle. Where should I start?

ST: Read Rats & Gargoyles. Read Ash: A Secret History. Her latest novel, 1610: A Sundial in a Grave, is extremely good. Also brick-thick.

MC: If language is something you prize, then, well, you're working in a field that is not known for people being overly attentive to language, it's often about setting, plot, ideas--

ST: Well, my immediate reaction to that is, "No, it's not!" because I read any number of genre writers whose attention to language and love for it is visible. But I also know that I don't read everyone.

MC: Are there writers outside the category of SF and fantasy that have had an effect for you?

ST: I'm sure they exist. Unfortunately, all my examples are people like E.T.A. Hoffmann, Edgar Allan Poe, and Mikhail Bulgakov (I love Master and Margarita.) Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy probably don't count as science fiction and fantasy. Yury Olyesha, who wrote Envy -- another novel that might be fantastic or might not, depending on how much you think is happening for real and how much inside the narrator's head. Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is one of my favorite plays, but that has to count as fantasy. I read a lot of Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Christopher Fry. The Lady's Not for Burning is amazing, and nobody I meet ever seems to have read it. Greer Gilman, apropos of nothing, is probably also a formative influence. She's one of those people-- "Whoa! Words can do that!"

MC: When did you first encounter her?

ST: Probably about four years ago. Moonwise was actually a windfall from a marvelous used book store up in New Hampshire. Admittedly, she can't be formative because I was already writing by that point; but she was definitely an education, as well as beautifully intricate to read.

For poetry, most of the people I read are dead: T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Robinson Jeffers, H.D. I recently acquired Sylvia Plath's The Colossus, and I like that immensely. She has a very tactile, textured approach to language, words with weight and heft and angles and hard corners, a sort of spatial feel. She seems as much concerned with the sounds and shapes of her poetry as with its visual effects. But I love Seamus Heaney, and he is still alive. Of Ursula Le Guin's poetry, I have read only Hard Words and Sixty Odd; some of it does nothing for me, and some of it I really like.

MC: Do you feel that way about her fiction, too?

ST: Less so: her fiction tends to be more on-target for me. My all-time favorite is probably the Orsinian Tales, which is not fantastic in any sense except that the country in which all the stories take place never existed. Malafrena doesn't have that effect, for whatever reason. I think it's because Malafrena reads like a nineteenth century novel without the excuse of the nineteenth century.

I should also mention Alfred Bester, someone else I read very early. The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination were huge influences.

MC: And Cordwainer Smith?

ST: Oh, yes. Probably my last year of high school, we inherited a large box of books from a family friend; it contained, among other things, a paperback of Norstrilia. The cover illustration was clearly done by somebody who hadn't even bothered to open the book, but I read it anyway and was completely and instantly hooked. "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" is still one of my all-time favorite short stories. The way he tells his stories and handles his audience, all the ellipses in the narrative and the skips over what is purportedly common knowledge -- "You already know this story, but..." -- and the sheer, total weirdness of everything he writes. I love his work. But Alfred Bester might have been the first writer who showed me that prose did not all have to look like a critical essay. Number signs were acceptable, text written backwards, letters growing psychedelically larger across a page...

MC: Are you ready for another unfair question?

ST: Sure.

MC: In a world where reality is itself often horrible, why does fantasy have any value?

ST: Well, let's see. I suppose if I said its value was escapist, I'd have to go home and shoot myself in the head. But I don't think that's the point. So the world is horrible; why should that mean that nothing other than the horrible world has any value?

MC: I read one very caustic review of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, I think, that called it the "Harry Potter effect for adults" and said that in a world like ours, adults don't have any right to be spending time on fantasy. It's childish, it's infantile.

ST: Don't have any right? Wow. I wonder if they had a paperback slapped out of their hands one too many times as a child... There may be a valid issue of what you can afford to spend time on at that minute, if you have work that needs doing, if you have projects that require your attention. But that's an entirely different question from, do you have a right to a world inside your head that is not the world outside? "A world like ours"? I don't know why there's this assumption that only that which is painful or difficult is real and thereby worthy of discussion or time.

Nor is the point that all fantasy is cheerful escapist stuff, because if anything is well written--at least from my perspective--it should contain complications and moral strangeness and problematic questions, because these are an accurate reflection of what happens in our world. Fantasy, however, permits these reflections to be explored in ways that would be impossible otherwise. But I don't know why this should be what people focus on when they're looking for a reason to read fantasy.

MC: It's a peculiarly American sentiment, I think, that realism is the highest goal, the highest level, and if you're aiming for that, hooray, and anything below that is somehow lesser in seriousness.

ST: Blame the Puritan work ethic. Where do you think it starts?

MC: In some ways the Puritans, but I think it really started with a push in the early part of the 20th century for a more industrial, scientific nation. In some ways we can just blame Hugo Gernsback. I blame him for a lot of things! For founding Amazing Stories and creating the term "science fiction" (well, "scientifiction") -- his timing was perfect. Technology was going to save everyone, and he was playing into that in a way that separated a specific sort of content from a mainstream that had existed since the dawn of writing and storytelling. (I'm generalizing horribly.) In many ways, Mark Twain was the last popular and respected American writer who delved into both the realistic and the fantastic whenever he damn well felt like it. From Twain we go to Theodore Dreiser and the rise of realism, which before then was a kind of cottage industry. Well, again, I'm generalizing.

ST: The realism ghetto. I really need to study more eras than the Romantic! I can talk about literature of the fantastic and the grotesque in the middle of the nineteenth century, sure, but after that? Er, there's now . . .

MC: I think now is a very interesting time, because realism has kind of run its course.

ST: Of course, now people need to keep finding names for the breakdown. It's interstitial, it's New Weird -- no! Stop genre-ing it! I have the same reaction when people ask me about prose poetry: I don't think you need to slap a taxonomy on everything. It's okay if it doesn't have a genus and species. You can just read it.

MC: A poet I know, she's sort of a formalist, and she despairs of the inability to define poetry anymore. She says the last thing she's fallen back on is line breaks, that poetry has line breaks, and therefore she refuses to use the term prose poetry, because it finally shatters the last bit of taxonomy she has.

ST: I don't have a problem, I think, with poetry sans line breaks. Once you get past lines imposed by metrical form, anyway, people are going to say, "Well, that's just there for the hell of it." Which I find equally false, because you can still have rhythm and reason for separation of lines that is not based on whether you can finish a proper six feet of whatever meter before you run out of line. I think the definition of poetry is more about diction and the way the language is structured. But I admit, I have not thought very much about this.

MC: So where do you go from here? Have you planned a whole career path in your head, or do you just take it a day at a time? Do you have ambitions?

ST: I have not planned a whole career path! My ambitions? I have a pair of stories at Realms of Fantasy that I would like to see accepted... I would like to write well enough and consistently enough that, even if I cannot make a living from it, I can devote a large portion of my life to writing -- because, frankly, I will in any case, and I might as well have a structured space in which to do so.

Winning a Rhysling Award sort of blew the top off my head. I had never really thought about having a wide enough audience to win any kind of award. And now "Matlacihuatl's Gift" will be reprinted in the Nebula Awards Showcase 2005 in March, and I think that in some ways I'm still not acclimatized to the fact that maybe more people than my family, my friends, and three editors actually like my work. I really need to get over this soon.

MC: There are a lot of people who might think of killing you in your sleep for the amount of success you've had this early on in your life.

ST: Make me paranoid. Go ahead.

I'm sort of isolated, I think. Up until this year, I haven't had that much contact with other published writers. I have friends who write, and some of them are very good indeed. Jeannelle Ferreira, whom I met at Brandeis, just sold her first novel to Prime this fall. It's called A Verse from Babylon, I've seen it essentially from the first few paragraphs of fragmentary form to its final state, it's a wonderful book, and I recommend that you run out and purchase a copy as soon as humanly possible. But until very recently, she was the closest I had to an established writer to bounce ideas off of. So I don't know if mine is a normal trajectory, or if this is how the process is supposed to work, or how any of this works, because I don't have the right information.

MC: There's a density to your work that is rare. In a good way. Have you gotten interesting rejections? Have you found markets that are totally wrong for you, along with the markets that are totally right?

ST: Thank you! I had a piece of flash fiction rejected once because the editor thought I ended the story just when things were starting to get interesting . . . F&SF has never taken anything of mine, and I've never had a useful rejection letter from them. It doesn't help that two of the rejections made me think that somebody had just skimmed the story. I'm sure I'm maligning F&SF, but...

MC: When do you know when a piece is working?

ST: When there's language that feels like it's simply there, opposed to language that is being cranked out for the sake of putting something down on the page. If there are characters involved, when I feel that they are being true to themselves; when the actions arise out of the characters rather than from the characters being put through their paces for the sake of the plot.

MC: Do you think in terms of imagery?

ST: Language and imagery. A lot of my stories start--sometimes in the middle--and I have no idea where they're going to end up. Stories whose arc is entirely plotted are very rare for me. Usually I have a beginning and some idea of what happens along the way, but sometimes there's only a beginning and an end, or I have no clue what the end is. I can be relatively certain up to a point in the story, but after that, it's all up for grabs.

MC: How do you structure a story? Do you think of narrative arc or character arc?

ST: Character, I suppose, but often the structure develops as the story progresses. If I think of arc while writing, it's never in terms of where the characters should be at what given point in the story. I can't write outlines. For papers, yes; but they murder stories. Outlining is death. If a piece is really working, it pulls itself along, and I don't need to think about the mechanics.

MC: Do you think you'll be working on a novel?

ST: Everybody wants to know this! I don't think that I think in novel form. I feel very comfortable writing short stories. That said, I am working on a piece right now that I thought wanted to be a novella but has sort of spiraled off into another length--provided it doesn't die along the way, which happens all too often. But I'll follow it along until it stops and get back to you.

27 November 2004

Short Cuts

For a long time, one of Robert Altman's best movies, Short Cuts, seemed to have been lost in the valley between Altman's big popular successes, The Player and Gosford Park -- good films both, particularly the latter, but Short Cuts is one of the greatest achievements in American film.

Finally, The Criterion Collection has brought Short Cuts to DVD, and it gives us a chance to look again at a movie that does exactly what an adaptation of literature from one medium to another should do: create something original and profound.

Short Cuts is based on a handful of stories and one poem by Raymond Carver. Carver's widow, Tess Gallagher, supported Robert Altman's idea of melding the original material, moving characters around, relocating the stories from their various settings to Los Angeles, and letting them all happen concurrently over the course of a few days. Altman collaborated on the script with Frank Barhydt, and together they not only cut up the stories, but created some characters and plotlines of their owns (ones that, later, Gallagher would say seemed startlingly Carveresque).

On its release, the movie was received with some very strong reviews, as well as sharp critiques, especially from Carver purists. Rita Kempley at the Washington Post called it "cynical, sexist and shallow ... long, sour and ultimately pointless". (Metacritic has a handy roundup of reactions.) Cynical? Yes. Sexist? There are sexist characters, and if you think that women without clothes are always objects for lust, then, yes, perhaps, because there's a lot of nudity. Shallow? No (this is a case where the reviewer is not up to the standard of the film she's writing about). Long? Yes. Sour ... sometimes, but that's a tonal judgment, even more subjective than other judgments. Ultimately pointless? Again, this time that's the reviewer's failing, not the film's.

I'll leave it to Roger Ebert, Peter Travers, and Michael Wilmington to sing the general praises of Short Cuts, because I want to look specifically at the charges of realism leveled at it and, to a certain extent, at Carver. About the film overall, I'll just say that I've seen it about six times now -- once in the theatre, multiple times on videotape, and now on DVD -- and each time I find some new particle within the dense fabric of the whole to be thought-provoking, disturbing, or emotionally affecting. It's not a film to see if you want to be able to get everything there is to get on a first viewing; it's not a film to see if you want your art to tell you what to feel and when.

What I noticed while watching Short Cuts this time was how marvelously contrived it is. "Contrived" can be a dangerous word to apply to a story, because, though all stories are contrived in some way or another, people like their stories to feel like a window on a possible world, even though, if we pause to stop for a moment and think about it, we know we're being sold a bag of air. When a narrative feels contrived, we feel the manipulations that are an inherent element of all art -- the creator-selector saying, "Look here, know this, think this, hear this." Clumsily created stories, stories that aspire to realism and fail, can be frustrating, but stories that, whether they aspire to realism or not, fully embrace their contrivances can often be great fun, and sometimes profound.

Altman is a brilliant, canny director and writer. He chose a writer known for his "realism", a writer who was a master of contriving stories in just such a way as to make them feel like shards of actual life (a combination, in Carver's case, of structure and diction as much as choice of detail), and then he upped the contrivance level to a point where it becomes impossible not to notice the contrivance. Imagine the film as a duet: all the techniques of realism (long scenes, overlapping dialogue, etc.) in harmony, and occasionally discord, with an entirely unrealistic narrative. On their own, Carver's stories get away with seeming realistic because their contrivances are limited; scrambled together, they are nothing but contrivance.

And yet, more often than not, it feels like life as it is lived. Endless coincidences. Inexplicable actions. Connections beneath connections. The movie is as carefully plotted as a heist thriller, but it feels shaggy and rambling, particularly on the first or second viewing. The key is the scope -- over twenty main characters, 183 minutes of film. All the virtues of an epic applied to ordinary subject matter, the effect being a deepening of both the technique and the subject matter. It's as if somebody sent Virginia Woolf to film school.

People often compare Magnolia to Short Cuts, and the comparison is apt (I would be stunned if Paul Thomas Anderson had not seen Altman's film, and Julianne Moore stars in both), but a comparison I haven't seen made is to An Unfinished Piece for Player Piano, a deeply sensitive and affecting adaptation of works by Anton Chekhov. Nikita Mikhalkov's technique with Chekhov is similar to Altman's with Carver: Mikhalkov took Chekhov's first play, Platonov, a sprawling disaster, and edited it, adding in pieces from and allusions to Chekhov's other works, creating what is easily the most Chekhovian movie I've ever seen (and I have suffered through more than I would like to admit, being a bit obsessive about dear Antosha). Carver, of course, said Chekhov was one of his personal gods, though I remember reading somewhere that he said he didn't like the plays. Short Cuts, amusingly enough, feels like a Chekhov play, because though he's always referred to as a "realist", Chekhov was just as much interested in contrivance and coincidence as any farceur, his literary roots being with comic short stories and comic short plays. It's as if Altman made from Carver's raw material the script Carver never could have written on his own, just as Mikhalkov created an immensely satisfying movie from Chekhov's failed play.

Altman's movie, though, is certainly not a movie Carver would have written, because their sensibilities are different, with Carver tending more toward sentimentality and Altman tending at times toward frigidity, though I think what seems to be his "cold" style of filmmaking actually comes from a profound respect for the audience. Unlike, for instance, Steven Spielberg, who does his damnedest to make sure you know exactly what to feel when, Altman is content to let your emotions be confused. Where Spielberg's aesthetic is totalitarian, Altman's is a sort of anarcho-communism. Carver achieved something similar occasionally, though he was also frequently quite mannered in his writing, so if you read a whole book of Carver stories in a short period of time, the emotional and aesthetic effect is far less than if you read a story here or there, with some time between them. (If Spielberg is totalitarian and Altman is anarcho-communist, then Carver is American democracy: you've got choices, but there are only a couple, neither radically different.)

What makes Short Cuts so remarkable is that Carver's characters and stories become so interesting when approached with Altman's colder, somewhat more cynical eye. There is still room for redemption and compassion, and the film even offers glimpses of it, but we the viewers are left to apply such concepts ourselves to the quiet spaces in between the stories, to the moments after the arguments. By creating a highly artificial universe, Altman provides us a vehicle with which to think more deeply about the actual universes of our lives.

(And while I'm here, let me pray to the gods at Criterion to get to one of Altman's other neglected masterpieces, Vincent and Theo, soon.)

26 November 2004

For Your Shopping Pleasure

Today is, according to popular wisdom (or perhaps delusion), the busiest day of the year for shopping. Well, let me get all promotional for a moment and tell you that you -- yes, you friend! -- can avoid the madness of crowds thanks to the interventions of the good people at Night Shade Books, who have announced another in their generous series of sales.

Go to Night Shade Books at their online storefront (no three-card monte players to dodge outside!) and order three or more books and you'll get 50% off your order. The best thing about it is that it includes forthcoming books as well as the stuff gathering dust on warehouse shelves!

May I suggest M. John Harrison's The Course of the Heart? That may be a bit strong for you at this time of year, however, so there's always the various Collected Jorkens volumes from Lord Dunsany -- you can get the three-volume set for a little over $50 in this sale. Or you could get something from Liz Williams or Lucius Shepard or, if you're feeling adventurous, Leviathan 4, which contains an absolutely magnificent story by Stepan Chapman and some other good ones as well (and a couple stories that, frankly, completely and totally baffled me, which may be an attraction for you in and of itself).

Perhaps you're skeptical. Perhaps you're wondering why Night Shade Books, a reputable small press, would join the bargain-basement crowd. Well, as with everything in life, it all goes back to Nick Mamatas, who once pointed out that his book, Move Under Ground, was selling at Wal-Mart for 42% off. A few days later, Night Shade offers their sale. Coincidence? You decide.

The Night Shade sale lasts until Tuesday at midnight (PST), so you can still buy nothing today (or this weekend or next week) if you're an anti-American atheistic hippie weirdo. Night Shade caters to all kinds. How much more convenient can life get?

24 November 2004

Movie Note

I've never seen an Oliver Stone movie I particularly liked (though for some reason I have seen most of them), so I'm not planning on running out to see Alexander, but the pan it gets from Manohla Dargis in the NY Times is great fun to read. The wonderful thing about the review is that it carries all the way through to the end, including the description of the rating:
"Alexander" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). The film features a lot of graphic warfare with impaled flesh, severed limbs and disturbing images of animal cruelty. Ms. Dawson also takes her top off, which may disturb some viewers in a rather different fashion.
And from the Department of Just When You Thought Hollywood Couldn't Get Any More Stupid comes news that the great British playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love, Brazil, Empire of the Sun, etc.) has apparently been removed from the film adaptation of the first book in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy. Why? Because the newly-hired director, Chris Weitz apparently likes to write his own scripts. Good for him. If I'd written such classics of cinema as The Nutty Professor 2 and About a Boy, I, too, would prefer myself over Tom Stoppard. (via The Literary Saloon)

Poetry Potpourri

I've been thinking a lot recently about poetry, about how and why I read it, what I want from the experience of reading it, etc. I've also been trying to think of ways to bring more attention to poetry in general and poetry for a science fiction/fantasy audience in particular. Consequently, I've got some links to share:

1. Cahiers de Corey is a weblog I just discovered (thanks to Dan Green) where Josh Corey has been discussing "difficulty" in poetry:
"Difficult" poetry is difficult because it can't be absorbed passively: it demands a response, an effort at completion or better, extension. It asks the reader to give up his or her secure ground and swim a little—which is exactly what a writer has to do. If I want to be reassured, or comforted, or to smile a little bit, I'd rather watch TV than read poems that only aspire to the level of TV (even really good TV). O'Hara still said it best: "If people don't need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too." I like the movies, too, but I also need poetry. And I see no good way to convince other people that they need poetry without compromising what poetry wants to be: not a commodity.
(direct links so far: one, two, three)

2. Alan DeNiro has just renovated his Taverner's Koans site, which is a great place to learn about innovative poetry. There are poems, essays, writing exercises (I did one and produced something I don't think I could ever have predicted writing, which is a sign of a good exercise), etc. The site demonstrates both knowledge and a sense of humor.

3. One of the best writers of poetry that often gets saddled with the "speculative" or "fantasy" label is Theodora Goss, and she has compiled an online anthology of Poems of the Fantastic. From anonymous medieval ballads to James Joyce, it's a wonderfully weird selection.

4. One of the best-known writers of "speculative poetry" is Bruce Boston, a writer of immense range, who recently guest-edited the poetry for an issue of the online magazine The Pedestal. Earlier, the magazine had published an interview with Boston that is fascinating:
Mainstream and speculative poetry differ in subject matter and the stance of the poet. Mainstream poetry deals with the rendering and exploration of the here and now, reality as we know it, internal and external. The poet is often present in the poem as an “I" voice, explicitly or implicitly. Speculative poetry has more to do with imagination, the world of dreams and the world as it could be. The stance of the speculative poet is closer to that of a fiction writer. If an “I" voice appears in a speculative poem it is usually that of a fictional character rather than the author. Like speculative fiction, speculative poetry often poses and answers the question: “What if?" [...]

There are also poems that are speculative because they experiment with language, the form of poetry, or the content of poetry. When free verse first appeared, or Beat poetry, it was speculative.  More recently, in the mainstream arena, post-language poets have stretched the limits of language and the voice of poetry, and to that extent their work can be viewed as speculative.
5. Finally, two unrelated links: Poetrymagazines.org.uk is a site offering the full text of a number of UK poetry journals. It's fun to type in a word and see what comes up -- for instance, I typed in "bilge". Meanwhile, Verse magazine has a blog where editor Brian Henry posts poems and reviews. Today there is a poem by Charles Simic with a magnificent final stanza.

22 November 2004

Some Good Stories from 2004

I've recently gotten a few requests from people who wondered, for one reason or another, what I thought some good SF/fantasy stories from 2004 have been. It's a difficult request to honor, because I feel like I have missed more stories than I have read this year -- I've read maybe 20% of SciFiction's offerings, maybe 40% of Strange Horizons, less of Fortean Bureau and Lenox Avenue. Two issues of Third Alternative, none of Interzone, and I'm behind on various 'zines, including Lady Churchill's, Flytrap, Say...Why Aren't We Crying?, and the latest Electric Velocipede. (I'll be getting to all of those by the end of the year, but need to get a couple of other things out of the way.) And I haven't even seen a copy of what some people have told me is the best anthology of the year, The Faery Reel. So I'm hardly an authority on short fiction in 2004!

But what the heck -- for those of you curious for what stories I have found most interesting this year, in whole or in part, here is a preliminary list. (Since I've written about most of them somewhere or another, links are generally to what I wrote, though in a few cases I just liked the story a lot and didn't write about it):
"The Golden Age of Fire Escapes" by John Aegard
"The Pasho" by Paolo Bacigalupi
"Hurricane Sandrine" by Daniel Braum
"The Rules of Gambling" by Richard Butner
"Revenge of the Calico Cat" by Stepan Chapman (forthcoming in Leviathan 4)
"A Keeper" and "Tetrarchs" by Alan DeNiro
"The Library" by Carol Emshwiller
"Women are Ugly" by Eliot Fintushel
"Pictures on a Cafe Wall" by Damian Kilby
"The Redundant Order of the Night" by Jay Lake
"Cold Fires" by M. Rickert
"The Voluntary State" by Christopher Rowe
"Delhi" by Vandana Singh
"Secret Life" by Jeff VanderMeer
"Three Days in a Border Town" by Jeff VanderMeer
A couple of those stories will make it into various "Best of the Year" anthologies, a couple will end up on awards ballots (most likely "The Voluntary State"), but most are, I expect, too odd in one way or another to appeal to a large audience. There's very little traditional science fiction on the list, which surprises me somewhat, because last year, I thought, was a strong year for SF. This year seems to have been much stronger for fantasy.

Update: I fully intended to include Tim Pratt's "Life in Stone" and then forgot it. Bad me.

21 November 2004

Potsherds

A potsherd is a shard of pottery with archaelogical value, and so I've settled on that word to title what will be, I hope, an occasional series of posts digging worthwhile bits and pieces out of the archives of weblogs that I read. The present-tense nature of blogs makes us tend to pay attention to what is most recent and most immediate, which may mean we miss gems from the past. I know that there are blogs I cherish but have not read the archives of, and so this is a chance to do so, or to draw attention to old posts that I still remember fondly.

So here are the first potsherds dug out of dusty yesterdays:
Jeff VanderMeer on being a census worker: "Oh, thought I, well maybe if I follow the chain, I'll find someone. So, like some kind of sun-drugged zombie, I followed the chain into the backyard...where it ended, predictably enough, attached to the collar of a Rottweiler."

Daniel Green on the stories of Gary Lutz and one reviewer of them: "If anything, experimental writers tend to be even more craftsmanlike in their approach, since what constitutes the 'craft' of writing fiction is uppermost in their minds to begin with. Too many 'well-made' stories or novels are not products of craft at all, but simple repetitions of formula."

The Little Professor answers the common question from students, "How come you see all those things and I don't?": "The emphasis on 'answers'--what the instructor 'sees'--distracts the student from the actual process involved in reaching those answers, which largely consists of asking oneself how the poem/short story/novel/film works."

Alex Ross on the hideous term "classical music": "I can’t rank my favorite music any more than I can rank my memories. Yet some discerning souls believe that the music should be marketed as a luxury good, one that supplants an inferior popular product."

19 November 2004

Why It's Good for Books to Stay in Print for More than 3 Weeks

Alan Lattimore points to a study of Amazon.com sales ranks carried out by a group of scientists that proves why it might, at least occasionally, be good for publishers to keep books in print for a while, even when they're not immediate bestsellers:
For example, "The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood," reached the bestseller lists two years after it came out (and without a major marketing campaign) by making the rounds of book-discussion clubs and inspiring women to form "Ya-Ya Sisterhood" groups of their own. In contrast, an exogenous shock (rave review) appears suddenly and propels a book to bestseller status; however, these sales typically decline rapidly, much more quickly than those that made the charts via word-of-mouth.

In either case, single triggering events (e.g., a mention on "Oprah") appear to have much less effect on the sales history of a book than the actions of interconnected groups of people, who may pick up the book after multiple conversations with acquaintances or by hearing about the book secondhand or by remembering a friend's recommendation months or even years after the book comes out.

Artsy, Shallow Lesbian Erotica that's Not from the '50s!

The new story at Strange Horizons, "Time's Swell" by Victoria Somogyi and Kathleen Chamberlain has gotten some interesting reactions at the Strange Horizons message board, with a number of anonymous readers saying the story is too "artsy", is "shallow", and "read like lesbian erotic fiction". SH would increase their readership tremendously if they'd just start publishing more hard-core erotica science fiction, the stuff with phallic rocket ships to teach those lesbians how to behave themselves! Elsewhere, it has been suggested that there is a subculture of science fiction fandom that thinks all SF should read like it was written in the 1950s, back in the good old days before lesbians or art existed. Science fiction, the literature of yesterday's future!

Okay, I'm being a little unfair. Maybe a lot. But I'm amazed that after Strange Horizons has published so many stories of so many different types, there are still people expecting it to be Analog. (That's not a slam of Analog -- I don't read it regularly enough to criticize it, and there are writers I respect who have published in their pages.) Strange Horizons provides a market for many stories that would receive much less exposure, or perhaps not even be published at all, were it not for the willingness of the editors to take risks, be committed to many different types of writing, and try to stretch a few boundaries.

"Time's Swell" will seem shallow to some readers; no story has ever been published that everyone who reads it thinks is great, and different readers respond to different details. There are many beloved classics of science fiction that I think are laughably shallow, while I once knew a brilliant (though curmudgeonly) man who called my favorite American novelist, William Faulkner, a writer of "glorified pulp fiction". Being someone who likes many things that get labeled "artsy", I didn't find "Time's Swell" to be shallow, but rather thought it was an evocative mood piece, a sad study of distances. Could it have been a mainstream story if the "time ship" was taken out? Possibly. Does it matter? Not to me. An evocative story is an evocative story, and they're rare enough that I'll take them in whatever form they appear in. But a good argument could be made that this story requires the alienation the alien technology provides. The entire problem between the two main characters derives from the science fictional premise, and if a different, mundane problem was substituted, the story would not have the same resonance.

Some people have suggested that since Jed Hartman's "Future of Sex" editorial called for more SF that imagines something other than an entirely heterosexual universe, then Strange Horizons must be practicing "literary affirmative action" by publishing such (shallow) stories as "Time's Swell". Okay, sure. The same way all the prominent SF magazines are practicing literary sexism by publishing so many shallow stories that star heterosexual characters.

"Anda's Game" by Cory Doctorow

Salon.com has published a new Cory Doctorow story, "Anda's Game", that is fun to read and also offers a couple of interesting nuggets for thought, as Doctorow stories are wont to do. He's a remarkable writer for a number of reasons, but what most sticks out in my mind is his ability to write fiction that is real science fiction by anybody's definition, but that is also able to appeal to a broad audience, one not practiced at decoding the semantic clues emanating from the average SF story. SF has been said to be the most recursive sort of popular literature -- it builds off its own past, with writers riffing on each other's ideas, terminology, situations, and even, at times, characters -- and this is sometimes a problem for readers who are not steeped in all the tropes and technobabble, and for whom many SF stories seem either thin or incomprehensible.

Doctorow is up to something slightly different, although certainly not something alien to science fiction: he takes ideas from popular culture -- the sort of ideas he might link to from Boing Boing, generally about science and technology, but sometimes culture or society or anything else that seems to be zinging through the zeitgeist -- and casts a spell of "What If?" on them. The wonderful thing about "Anda's Game" is that he does this while also be completely recursive.

Thus, we end up with a story that is about computer gaming, issues of immigration and globalization, and growing rates of childhood diabetes -- while it is also quite obviously rethinking elements of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, and dropping little homages to Ray Bradbury, Roald Dahl, and Lewis Carroll like breadcrumbs or brain candy along the way. None of the references are essential to understanding the story; they exist as another layer, one that makes "Anda's Game" a somewhat deeper experience for readers in the know. The story should appeal to anyone with an interest in kids and computers -- even an interest bordering on a concern -- with added easter eggs for SF readers.

"Anda's Game" made me think of two other stories: James Patrick Kelly's "Think Like a Dinosaur" and Pat Murphy's "Inappropriate Behavior". "Think Like a Dinosaur" revisits the old sci-fi "matter transporters" and, specifically, Tom Godwin's story "The Cold Equations" in a similar way to what Doctorow's up to with Ender's Game. "Inappropriate Behavior" has a main character with Asperger's Syndrome (or something similar -- the doctors in the story don't all agree), a condition that has recently gained a lot of media attention, much as childhood diabetes has gained attention from warnings about children's obesity. "Anda's Game" is as good as either story, and less contrived than "Inappropriate Behavior".

Jonathan Strahan recently declared that "the centre did not hold" for science fiction as a specifically defined genre/style/mode/literature/thing, and that the "task we should be attempting is to describe the literary diaspora that is happening in the wake of sf's centre failing to hold". Doctorow's story is one example of a piece of SF that results from not so much the center failing to hold, but rather the center expanding by concerning itself with a variety of ideas that are not proprietary to the SF community, and then by choosing a mode of expression that offers pleasures for specific groups of readers (SF fans, technogeeks) without excluding other groups of readers. It is entertaining while also being thought-provoking about the lives we lead, and is therefore the best sort of popular literature. Is it great literature for the ages? I doubt it. Is it worthwhile reading right now? Undoubtably.

Update 11/25/04: Other looks at "Anda's Game" are available from Derryl Murphy and Aaman Lamba, who also offers the story as HTML and a text file.

17 November 2004

Dueling Reviews of Polyphony 4

Daniel Green of The Reading Experience weblog teamed up with me to review the recent SF/Fantasy/whatever anthology Polyphony 4. We expected that, with such a large and varied collection, we would have considerably different opinions, and while certainly we disagreed about a few stories, I was amazed at how much we agreed on, and there's no point where I read Dan's review and said, "Huh?! What're you thinking!?" I thought it was particularly interesting to see how someone who is not a regular reader of SF perceives a book that is trying to explore some of the boundaries between SF and other literatures.

16 November 2004

American Gods in a High School Classroom

At the end of August, I discussed how I was going about putting together a syllabus for the first term of my American literature class and my Advanced Placement literature class. We're are now in the midst of final exams for the trimester, and while Alex Irvine's One King, One Soldier was a useful, easy read for my AP students (I made them do it in one week), and did, indeed, increase their interest in Rimbaud and the legends of the Holy Grail, as I'd hoped, Neil Gaiman's American Gods proved to be exciting, overwhelming, engrossing, mystifying, and all sorts of other participial adjectives.

I was not quite prepared for how low many of my students' skills would be, since I haven't taught eleventh graders in a few years and had forgotten what a large transition it is between sophomore and junior year of high school. In the first two weeks, when we were studying The Great Gatsby, I often lamented to colleagues, "They can't read. I'm not a reading teacher. I can't help them. I'm useless. They can't read. This is going to be a horrible year," forgetting that I'd said exactly the same thing at the beginning of every every year about whatever group of students I had, because what was most vivid in my mind were the accomplishments of my students from the previous spring, and most students make quite a long journey from September to May. (I did end up having to push My Antonia to the next term, as American Gods ended up taking much more time than I had anticipated.)

One of the reasons I chose American Gods was because it is big, and I knew that few of my students would ever have read a book of more than 200 pages. I hoped that they would get caught up in the story of American Gods enough to find that reading it was enjoyable, and so they would reach the end without too much pain and suffering, and then could look back with a great sense of accomplishment.

The first day, when they went to the bookstore and bought the book, I thought most of the kids would try to transfer out of the class. "There is no way I'm going to read a book this thick," more than one student said to me. Another student told me the longest thing he'd ever read was an entire issue of Sports Illustrated. Others accused me of trying to kill them, particularly when I told them that we'd be discussing the first chapter (about 30 pages) at the next class.

"I am not going to finish 30 pages in one night," one of the students said.

"Bet you will," I said, trying to suppress the evil seeping out of the corners of my grin.

The next morning, I stopped by to talk to a co-conspirator, who I will call Diane, because that's her name. Diane teaches our Advanced Reading class, which a number of my students take in addition to mine. She gives them time to read my books and helps them with comprehension, etc., and I had run many of my ideas by her to make sure I wasn't completely insane for assigning the book. She had been on duty in one of the dorms the night before, and said to me, "Boy, your book caused quite a stir in the dorms last night."

I would hear the same thing from other dorm parents. Apparently, the scene at the end of Chapter 1 where a prostitute absorbs a man into her vagina (she's the goddess Bilquis) had been popular with the kids. One of the more dutiful students finished the assigned reading and then ran to a dormmate, book in hand, and said, "You've got to read this, you won't believe it!" That created a chain reaction, and not only were all of my students rushing to read the chapter, but plenty of students from other classes were borrowing copies of the book to read.

Visions of angry parents and administrators stomped through my head...

During classes that day, I told the students that I hoped they would handle the mature material maturely, and that this is a book written for adults and not high school students, etc. etc., blah blah blah. Secretly, I was thrilled.

The energy from the first day carried through for the next hundred or two hundred pages, but the more they read, the more I noticed many students were completely lost. Not because they had trouble keeping up with the reading (a few did), but because they had trouble figuring out how to read a fantasy novel. It was a minority of my students that knew how to read a novel that mixed reality and fantasy, history and fiction, myth and the mundane. The handful of kids who had read other fantasy novels did fine with the book -- indeed, devoured it, finishing a week or more before the rest of the class. But the majority of students, kids who would have no trouble suspending their various disbeliefs for the most fantastic products of Hollywood, told me again and again that the book was nearly incomprehensible.

I attacked the problem with a few different strategies, including the use of reading quizzes on basic material. I would essentially give the students the answers to the quizzes in discussion, often telling them to mark one page or another because it would be important later, and then use the quiz as a way to force them to memorize a few key details that would allow them to have some "ah ha!" moments later on. It's a crude technique, but it worked -- when the pieces to the story began to come together in the last third, more and more students found themselves enjoying the book. In the first half, they loathed and often skipped the "Coming to America" sections, but by the second half they were able to tie these seemingly unconnected parts of the book to some of the ideas fueling the main story. One of the things I like best about American Gods is its scope -- Gaiman's bold willingness to tackle American history (whether mythic history or real) from 14,000 B.C.E. to now, and to do so on the outskirts of the primary story, allowing the book the virtues of popular plot-based literature along with the virtues of philosophically serious literature (the two don't need to be mutually exclusive, though they often are). That scope and breadth, though, is also what makes the book particularly challenging for people who are used to much less ambitious books, never mind people who don't read many books at all.

Now that my students have finished reading the book and are reflecting on the experience of reading it, most of them seem grateful to have read it. Not all of them enjoyed American Gods -- some of the kids said it was just too weird for them overall, some never got into the story enough for the amount of pages to seem like anything other than a burden -- but over and over again kids have said to me this week, "I'm glad we read that book," or "I never thought I could enjoy a long book" or "I didn't want it to end!" Many students have said that it got them thinking about their own beliefs, their relationship to religion or legends or tall tales or history. We did some research with Encyclopedia Mythica, and I was surprised to find how many students had no idea there were myths other than Greek ones (or how many students didn't even know about those). I was happiest to see that for some students the book became more than just a book; it was a portal into new ideas, new curiosities. If we're going to force people to read something, and determine a grade for their reading of it, then it's nice if we can offer them the possibility that the work they do could change their perspective on life.

Scott Edelman once wrote an editorial that I mostly agree with, titled "Science Fiction is Supposed to Be Fun". Amongst other things, he said,
When I think back to all of the books that were ruined for me in high school, I am glad that science fiction at the time was only in its infancy as an academic subject. ...

The educational establishment that started teaching SF as an inducement to get kids to read has instead managed for some to take a genre that is supposed to be fun and made it homework. Based on the evidence of the e-mails I receive from students seeking help, it seems that the school system, having embraced science fiction, is helping to turn novels that are supposed to be fun into dead frogs.
It is, indeed, difficult to keep from killing all the pleasure a book offers when you are doing such things as forcing people to read it each night and giving them tests on the content. In an ideal world, people would read whatever they wanted, however they wanted, and talk vociferously about the experience. In the real world, many teachers don't know what to do other than ask what all the colors in The Great Gatsby stand for (green for money, yellow for desire ... or was it green for envy, yellow for...), and so the books that get taught in high school are often the books that are, frankly, the easiest to create multiple-choice tests for. It's one of the reasons I have ambivalent feelings about the English Journal article I mentioned recently -- if students are taught that SF is nothing more than a weak form of sociology, or that the point of any literature is to "teach lessons" [sound of gagging], then it's no wonder they think all books are dull or incomprehensible.

A healthy culture of literacy needs literatures that aren't sanctioned by schools, literatures that are enjoyed simply for enjoyment, that have a mystique to them, an inability to conform to the central culture of the society. But a healthy culture of literacy also needs literate people, people who are capable of reading more than a basic instruction manual for how to tie shoelaces, people who have active imaginations. I fear we are losing that. As passive visual culture becomes more and more dominant, I fear that people who are otherwise capable of using their imaginations don't know how, because they are used to the imagining being done for them. In such a situation, teachers have a certain responsibility to buck the trends, to offer something other than pre-imagined material. Most literature doesn't need to be dissected, it's true, because dissection requires a dead subject. But literature most certainly deserves to be discussed, argued about, examined, and celebrated. That's what both the best teachers and the best critics do. There are no right answers, but there are certainly good questions to be asked and good answers to be offered. But before any discussion, argument, examination, or celebration can take place, the text in question has to be understood, at least at some basic level. If fewer and fewer readers are capable of utilizing their own imaginations, then literature is doomed, regardless of how it is taught.

I have strayed through many subjects here. The key is this: vital, exciting literature can still be vital and exciting in a classroom, and it can even help people stretch their minds, leading them to think in ways they had not considered before, helping them to exercise their imaginations. That's what American Gods seems to have done for quite a few of my students, and it has been great fun watching their struggles and progress.

Mid-November SF Site

The latest issue of SF Site has been posted, and it includes a review I wrote of recent issues of two small press magazines, Talebones and Full Unit Hookup. I was quite surprised and happy to find my review running at the top of the front page, because most places would bury a review of two magazines most of their readers haven't heard of. Not only that, I had plenty of space to write in depth -- far more space than I would get in most print publications. (And some of you, I know, will read it and say, "And far more space than you should have had!") Careful, thoughtful reviewing of small press publications can be helpful in a number of ways, both by advocating for high standards and by bringing consistent attention to work that often falls below the sense organs of larger review media. The folks at SF Site have been nothing but wonderful to work with, and they're providing a valuable service to the SF field.

Another Gratuitous Note on the National Book Award Nominees

The last thing the world needs is more verbiage about the National Book Award nominees for fiction, but I believe in excess and uselessness, so I can't resist the urge to comment and synthesize a bit more (since I've already added to the plethora of punditry once, why stop now?).

Some of the best coverage of the finalists has been done at Beatrice.com, where you can read short interviews with each finalist: Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, Kate Walbert, Joan Silber & Lily Tuck, and Christine Schutt. There are also some short commentaries responding to the barrage of criticism The New York Times has launched at the nominees.

Yesterday, Ron wrote something that I'd thought a few times about Philip Roth and The Plot Against America:
On the one hand, I'm pleased to see that somebody is coming even closer to calling Roth's book science fiction, but let's not overstate the case: Plot has gotten plenty of bad reviews as well as the good, and it's hardly a slam-dunk nominee save for its pedigree. If, to throw out a name here, Harry Turtledove had written the exact same book, (well, okay, maybe with the name of Roth's family changed), would people honestly say this book had been overlooked? And mind you, I like Harry Turtledove; I'm just using him as the most convenient hook for speculative fiction--any science fiction author I named here would be just as likely not to pass muster with the fiction judges and the harping industry pundits.
(For a review of Plot from an SF point of view, see what Paul Kincaid has to say.)

I'm currently reading both Madeleine is Sleeping, one of the nominees, and The Labyrinth by Cathrynne M. Valente, a book that has much in common with Madeleine: both books are the first published novels of young writers (Valente is in her mid-20s, Bynum her early 30s), both are written in a rich prose, both are full of imaginative flourishes, both ignore traditional narrative forms for the novel. Though I'm more or less enjoying each book, The Labyrinth so far seems to me to be superior. Frequently, reviewers call Bynum's language "lush", but it is hardboiled compared to Valente's, which stretches toward the far side of sense. There is sense and substance to the book, though -- I got impatient during the first twenty pages, then discovered I was enchanted and read the next forty with great pleasure. (You can read a long excerpt of The Labyrinth at Fantastic Metropolis.) Madeleine is Sleeping is having the opposite effect on me: I enjoyed the first fifty pages tremendously, but now that I'm half-way through the book, it's feeling repetitive. (I should reserve judgment on both books until I've completed them, I know...)

In any case, one criticism of Madeleine is Sleeping that I don't have much use for is the one in Laura Miller's recent NY Times Book Review article that the short, fragmentary chapters, which resemble prose poems, make the book inherently inferior or tiresome. The technique itself does not have to be tiresome -- As I Lay Dying has short, fragmentary chapters (including the famous one-sentencer, "My mother is a fish.") and is one of the greatest works of American literature. Samuel Beckett worked wonders with fragments (e.g. How It Is). Most of David Markson's novels are nothing but fragments, and most of those novels are excellent. There are plenty of other examples. The form is not the problem; how the form is handled may be, but that, too, depends on the reader, some of whom have more tolerance for fragments than others. In the case of Madeleine is Sleeping, I think the design of the book has some effect on readers who don't like fragments -- if there were less white space, with more than one chapter per page and the titles in a smaller font, some readers might not feel the book is more like a collection of poems than a novel. It doesn't matter, though -- the book is what it is, and the author has constructed it carefully and with sensitivity. It may not be entirely successful, but that is not because of the form, but because of what the author chose to do (or not do) with the form.

15 November 2004

Teaching Science Fiction in High School

The latest issue of English Journal (full text available only to subscribers, alas) has an article titled "Science Fiction: Serious Reading, Critical Reading" by Diane Zigo and Michael T. Moore. The entire issue explores the theme of "Subversive English", with many of the articles revisiting the popular 1960s book Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. The authors of the article think SF is a perfect type of literature for the subversive teacher:
In Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Postman and Weingartner argue that "schools must serve as the principle medium for developing in youth the attitudes and skills of social, political, and cultural criticism" (2). Their thesis, that "change -- constant, accelerating, ubiquitous -- is the most striking characteristic of the world we live in" (xiii), has become more relevant to us at the beginning of the new millennium.
You can guess where the argument is going -- it's one made frequently on behalf of science fiction, the literature that supposedly conditions its readers to accept change and think about the future. This idea may be true, but it also promotes the idea of SF as little more than a disguised thought-experiment in sociology, an idea that may interest some people, but that doesn't hold much interest for me.

The article is a good, basic introduction -- the sort of thing those of us who know SF and its history could argue with for days ("What, no mention of Delany?!") -- and it's useful, as it was intended to be, for high school teachers with no knowledge of this particular type of literature. The first paragraph lays out feelings that are, I expect, widely shared, at least among public school teachers:
As high school English teachers we didn't know what to do about science fiction. We were passionate about reading it. We knew we could passionately teach it, but aside from Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World, we dared not risk teaching anything else. We would have loved to have tried Frank Herbert's Dune with its themes of repatriation and genocide. Readers of Roger Zelazny's Amber series knew long before the Matrix films about alternate universes and the one reality. In fact, alternate-reality travel was much easier by playing card than by ringing pay phone. We could have had our most reluctant readers hooked on Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, where we could have had a field day exploring the nature of leadership and whether the ends justify the means. We think of the discussions we could have had, were we more daring, and suspect that we speak for a number of English teachers. Science fiction holds virtually untapped potential as a means for teaching students to read and think critically. Unfortunately, the modernist tradition has relegated science fiction to murky genre depths that imply it as a taste we should either leave at home or outgrow.

...We also know that there have been few detailed considerations of science fiction in English Journal in the past fifteen years, which suggests that English teachers are not discussing it.
There are lots of reasons to use various literatures of the fantastic in English classes, and lots of reasons specific discussions of it have not appeared in English Journal, despite it being the prevalent mode for much of the literature kids are raised on and much of the literature studied in English classes (from Greek myths to Hawthorne, Gulliver's Travels to The Life of Pi).

Science fiction as a specific genre unto itself poses numerous difficulties for readers not accustomed to it, and I learned recently, somewhat to my surprise, that any literature involving fantasy may be nearly incomprehensible to certain types of readers. But that's a subject for a post later this week...

12 November 2004

Coalescent by Stephen Baxter

Once upon a time I offered to give an advance reading copy of Stephen Baxter's new novel, Exultant or Harry Turtledove's Homeward Bound to anyone who wanted to write a review of the book and its predecessor(s). Nobody took me up on the offer, exactly.

However, all is not lost. Stuart Carter let me know that he had written about both Exultant and Coalescent, the predecessor. Then Niall Harrison, who I'd secretly hoped had not gotten his hands on Exultant yet and would like to write about it, sent me a review of Coalescent. He didn't need my copy of the book (alas, since the whole point of the exercise was that I needed to get rid of some books), but I told him that if no-one else responded I'd be thrilled to use what he had written. In the meantime, he wrote about Exultant in a long and fascinating post about five recent space operas. Consequently, there's a lot of material about Exultant out there.

Niall thinks I should read the book and write about it, because, he says, it's distant enough from Coalescent to be able to be read just fine on its own, and he's curious what I'll make of it. Therefore, I'm not going to give my ARC of the book away, at least not until I've had a chance to read it, which I will do sometime between now and the heat death of the universe.

Until then, here is Niall Harrison on Coalescent:


COALESCENT by Stephen Baxter
a review by Niall Harrison

Sometimes it's hard to know where to start reading an author. That's particularly true if most or all of their work fits into one or twolength series; I wouldn't, for instance, know where to start with Lois McMaster Bujold or Terry Pratchett. Reading Stephen Baxter doesn't present quite that scale of problem, but even so a fair chunk of his work is set in his 'Xeelee Sequence'. Coalescent, Baxter's most recent novel but one, is a case in point; but because it's the start of a new three-book series, Destiny's Children, it might also be as good a place to start as any.

The novel has two strands. Now or in the very near future, George Poole returns to Manchester after his father's death and discovers evidence of a sister he never knew he had. He starts a search for her.

In alternate chapters, as the Roman Empire falls, one of George's distant ancestors is growing up. Regina travels across ancient Britain and through a crumbling civilisation. She begins searching for ways to ensure her family line remains stable and safe, forever.

Her answer is to found a matriarchal religious order, hidden in catacombs under the city of Rome. Riding out the turbulent centuries between Regina's time and ours, the Order keeps itself hidden--keeps itself so separate, in fact, that natural selection has the time and the opportunity to take effect, and the Order's members are nudged onto a divergent evolutionary path. Over time, living in the dark, the society develops a hypersensitivity to pheromones. Space is strictly limited, so the right to bear children is tightly controlled; delayed puberty becomes a desireable trait, as does adaptation for bearing multiple children at once. If these characteristics sound familiar, that's not surprising. The same traits are observed in workers and queens, in ant and other eusocial colonies. In short, the Order is starting to become a hive.

Baxter's big idea, because this is hard SF and the plot has to work literally as well as metaphorically, is to try to make the hive biologically plausible. The timescale is a fudge (evolution's probably not that quick), and you have to be willing to take the mental leap to accepting this type of speciation in humans (it helps to know that eusociality is possible in mammalian species--Baxter's example is naked mole rats); but once you swallow those lumps, he does get most of the details right.

Furthermore, he doesn't let the science overwhelm the story. This is an examination of human social organisation, but by playing up the fact that the hive is, essentially, one big family (no prizes for guessing where George's hunt for his sister takes him) Baxter keeps the human interest front and centre. This is more personal, character-based writing than most of Baxter's other novels, and it's arguably how hard SF should work: offering speculation that rings emotionally true because it is scientifically plausible. And George Poole himself has a compelling sadness about him, a slightly lost quality, that makes an effective contrast to the warm certainty of the hive.

The story stands alone well. The Xeelee aspects in this novel are actually fairly minimal: George Poole is himself an ancestor of a significant character later in the timeline, and there's a very brief flash-forward to a fully adapted hive society tens of thousands of years hence, but that's it. George and Regina's stories, meanwhile, are resolved within the book, and there's no sense that you need to read the rest of the series to get the answers (although, like the earlier Manifold books, it seems likely that questions and themes will recur, and that the whole of Destiny's Children will be greater than the sum of its parts).

Unfortunately, the book has a big weakness, and that's the historical strand. Baxter's descriptions of Roman Britain seem uncertain, and his narrative choices are at times awkward. For example, a version of King Arthur turns up, ostensibly as a spur to Regina's half-formed ideas about society-building, but never manages to seem anything more than out of place. The result is a dull and uninspiring narrative that doesn't really feel interesting until it relocates to Rome.

Clearly not everyone feels the same; Coalescent has recieved diverse reviews, some praising the historical strand, some focusing on other aspects of the novel entirely. Cheryl Morgan criticised it for, amongst other things, neglecting questions of gender; Adam Roberts praised it for a thoughtful investigation of Catholicism. To me, it's fundamentally about the relationship between family and society.

There's no doubt that in his portrait of the hive Baxter delivers some powerful scenes--disturbingly memorable, brutally logical, and a smart counterpoint to both contemporary and ancient civilisation--and almost for those alone I think it deserved its place on the most recent Clarke Award shortlist. But the novel's resolution needs us to believe in George and Regina, and we don't; so in at least one respect, it seems to me seriously flawed. In the end, it's not as wildly imaginative as Baxter's best work, and it doesn't quite have the characters to compensate.

Personally, I think Coalescent still has significant strengths, and I look forward to the successor novel, Exultant--but I also think that perhaps it's not such a good starting point as it first appears.