31 January 2005

Time Considered as a Big Blob of Semi-Precious Stones

The wonderful thing about having only 365 days in each year and thousands of years behind us is that any one day is full of historical surprises, coincidences, echoes, and oddities. Glancing at a site like this sometimes makes me wonder what would happen if we could condense time and make all the events of any one day throughout history actually happen over the same time 24-hour period (well, calendar day, given differences in time zones -- you know what I mean).

So here's today's essentially useless thought experiment: Consider what today might be like if all of the following happened on January 31 of the same year:
Guy Fawkes ("The only man to enter Parliament with honest intentions") executed.

US House of Representatives, by a narrow margin, passes 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery

US federal government orders all Native Americans to move to reservations or be declared hostile.

Henrik Ibsen play "Hedda Gabler" premiers, Munich.

Anton Chekhov's "Three Sisters" opens to mixed reception at the Moscow Art Theater in a production directed by Konstantin Stanislavsky. Olga Knipper, Chekhov's wife, plays Masha.

First poison gas attack, Germans against Russians.

The Soviet Union exiles Leon Trotsky.

McDonald’s opens their first restaurant in Russia, in Moscow.

Sir Arthur Sullivan opera "Ivanhoe" premiers, London.

"Drag", a homosexual comedy in three acts by Mae West, opens, Bridgeport.

Italy: A military tribunal condemns Luigi Molinari to 23 years imprisonment as the instigator of the insurrection in Lunigiana.

Jose Marti & others leave NYC to try to liberate Spanish Cuba.

France cedes Naples to Aragon.

Prevented from delivering her lecture today, "Authority versus Liberty," Emma Goldman's comrades print & distribute 5,000 copies of a manifesto containing the text of the anarchist-feminist's barred speech.

Emma Goldman speaks to a crowd of over 2,000 people in San Francisco on "Why I Am an Anarchist."

President Harry S. Truman announces a program to develop the American hydrogen bomb.

The world's first full daily comics page appears in the "NY Evening Journal".

Scotland: Bloody Friday, The Red Clydeside, Glasgow -- upwards of 60,000 demonstrators gathered in George Square in support of the strike; while a deputation was in the building meeting with Lord Provosts, police mounted a vicious & unprovoked attack on the demonstrators, felling unarmed men and women with their batons.

Erich Maria Remarque novel Im Westen nichts neues is published.

William Faulkner novel Sartoris is published.

William Faulkner completes his novel Absalom, Absalom!.

J.D. Salinger's short story "A Perfect Day for Banana Fish" appears in The New Yorker.

A. A. Milne dies.

Songster Buddy Holly plays Duluth, Minnesota. Bob Dylan is in the audience.

"The Green Hornet" radio show is first heard on WXYZ radio in Detroit, MI.

Lt. Ralph S. Barnaby of the U.S. Navy becomes the first glider pilot to have his craft released from a dirigible at Lakehurst, NJ (where the Hindenberg exploded). Lt. Barnaby’s glider was released at an altitude of 3,000 feet.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara declares: "The war in Vietnam is going well & will succeed."

U.S. planes resume bombing of North Vietnam after a 37-day pause.

Tet Offensive catches South Vietnam off guard as war escalates.

Apollo 14, USA Lunar Manned Lander, launched.

The IRA calls a general strike, the day after Bloody Sunday.

The Clash begin their first North American tour, Vancouver, BC. Bo Diddley is their opening act.

Elias Barahona, official spokesman for the Guatemalan Ministry of the Interior, reveals the President, General Romeo Lucas García, ordered police to set fire to the Spanish embassy with its occupants inside.

West German squatters protest eviction attempts, battle the police in West Berlin.

Funeral scene is shot in Attenborough's "Gandhi", with 300,000 extras.

The longest movie ever made, 85-hour "The Cure for Insomnia", premiers, Chicago.

In Somalia, U.S. troops fire on Somalis waiting for food, killing five.

In Colombo, Sri Lanka, 80 people killed by a massive Tamil Tiger terrorist truck bombing.

"Mystery Science Theater 3000" ends its run on the Sci-Fi Channel.
(In addition to link above, information is from here, here, here and here.)

Potsherds

Back in November, I introduced an irregular feature to this site, Potsherds, wherein I dig into the archives of other weblogs and pull up things worth preserving, at least for the moment it takes to look at them. Here's another installment:

  • Theodora Goss on X.J. Kennedy & Dana Gioia's perceptions of good and bad poetry (a subject she had introduced earlier. By the way, Dora writes what may be the most beautiful journal on the web. If she weren't revered for her fiction and poetry, her journal alone would be enough to establish her as a writer of rare grace.)

  • I don't quite know what the title of this journal is (<$Mozarabkultur$>? Graywyvern?), but I just discovered it whilst bloghopping around. I highly recommend a reading of the archives for a week in April 2003. It's an uncommon commonplace book, a flurry of fragments. It seemed serendipitous to me that the writer should be a fan of David Bunch, since Bunch is one of my obsessions. As is W.S. Gilbert, whom Michael claims wrote, with the following limerick, "the first language poem" (as in Language Poetry, I'm assuming):
    There was an old man of Dunoon
    Who always ate soup with a fork
    For he said, 'As I eat
    Neither fish, fowl, nor flesh,
    I should finish my dinner too quick.
    The whole week of entries is simply astounding.

  • A review of the remade Texas Chainsaw Massacre at ionarts that has lots to say about movies, genres, horror, etc.:
    What has suddenly emerged from these name-brand horror franchises is a comfort level. The very comfort that these films are meant to shed with their low-budget, anything-goes tactics. Now we have a relationship with Freddy, Jason, Michael, and the backwoods clan of "Massacre." Like its outlaw cousin, the porn industry, we all are just waiting for an ever-changing hero/heroine to get fucked. Which really draws into question the nature of horror and the pathos of violence. It's easier now for audiences to relate to these one-time villains because they have spent more time with them. These baddies have personality, goals, and irreverence, unlike their victims whom we resent for their stupidity and comfort ourselves in our superiority. What began as possibly a horrific concept has now devolved into a cuddly monster flick with as little or no shock value as a Saturday afternoon with "Godzilla." The litmus test being the post-screening chat heard in the theater lobby where fright-hopeful lines stare expectantly at the reaction of the departees. The standard query of "Was it scary?" is responded to with "No, but there were some good killings." While standard porn/horror will always recycle the same stories with different faces and box covers it reveals a desperation in the moviegoers, that they are constantly willing to shell out the now outrageous $10 asking price.
  • And finally, because TMFTML has returned after a hiatus, I thought it might be fun to roam around through his archives to see what got everybody excited in the first place. It was, indeed, fun, particularly once I found a discussion between Bob Dylan and Eminem.

What to Say to the Average Atmospherocepalic Bureaucrat in the Act of Milking a Cranial Harp

"The goats you buy shed a perfume that makes Marxism so terribly clear to me."

From M.D. Benoit I learned of The Surrealist Compliment Generator, and the above was the first result I got.

Later: "Marmots will stick to you in Delaware."

Then there's always the following (which may not work in all browsers):


And, finally, sheep poetry.

30 January 2005

Rhysling Award Nominations

I've finally settled on what I will nominate for this year's Rhysling Awards for science fiction/fantasy poetry. (Yes, I know I've said that I don't like the label "SF poetry", but plenty of people do, and the SFPA is a good organization, regardless of whether I happen to believe in their central premise.)

I have decided that this year I will nominate two poems that I loved because of their freewheeling (to put it mildly) play with words. Thus, for short poem, I'm nominating "To My Readers in the Year 2099" by John Latta, from Jacket 25 and "Nets the Si'ze of Souls" by Michael Szewczyk, from Say... Why aren't We Crying?.

Of course, there were other good poems published throughout the year, and selecting only two for particular notice is a silly endeavor, but not as silly as it might seem, because all nominations get into the Rhysling Anthology, a tool used by SFPA members to vote for the award. Last October, I called for more variety in the Rhysling Anthology, and this is my little contribution toward that end.

These two poems may be a bit off-putting to some readers, and so I'll offer here a few reasons for paying attention to them. Or, rather, I'll just say what I thought about while and after I read them, with the hope that this may offer other readers ways to appreciate the poems.

There's a lot I like about "To My Readers in the Year 2099". On a first read, what I got was the marvelous mix of dictions, the archaic "gaff'd" in the same poem as "grok" (the jumble of g-sounds in the poem is great fun), and I didn't pay much attention to sense or context. Further readings brought some sense to bear, and I particularly enjoyed how hard it became to hold ideas together as clauses built off of each other, replicating, it seemed to me, the speaker's own struggle. That's not an interpretation, it's just a frame I was able to put over the poem for one reading in order to rein in some of its chaos. After that reading, I let the chaos reign again, because that's what's most fun for me about poems such as this -- their ability to be and not be. I don't feel a need with such poems to deliver 1 Absolute Interpretation, but rather to see what the poem does to me on each reading. I'm different each time I read it, so why shouldn't the poem be different, too?

For those of you who are in the sorry state of not having a copy of Say... Why aren't We Crying?, here are some of the first lines of Szewczyk's poem, a poem that is somewhat more difficult to pry denotative sense from than John Latta's poem, but one with similar pleasures:
there is a music in the roosts, from deadly war
teams of the wildlife colony tubes. Shy is the
Wildlife of conflicting del fuego's
and the orthadox Soul Nets of recent mystery.
in a worship Nations existed in dinosaur
cries of hades. Of the book of Lamps,
i march the del fuego in search of dolphins
and Mighty departures. To hours
and ears of the living in the November
well of books whining friendly with the
days of the ghosts of the sea ledges of
the '70s. a message of Azimuth and try
Not to Make Company while swimming.
Giant, how a Monster in May Stops in April
Easter days. Eighty-Eight Monsters 9 bees
and Over and Over Easter of Michael
Gold of the Sands of tierra del fuego.
I have to admit, I hated this poem when I first encountered it. But I've learned to trust that reaction -- often, it points toward something that is powerfully and oddly excellent. Many poems (and books) that I've come to love, I hated at first. (I actually, literally threw Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! across the room three times when I first read it. By the end, it had become -- and has remained -- my favorite American novel.)

I won't pretend that I understand all that Szewczyk is up to in "Nets the Si'ze of Souls", but nonetheless, I have come to appreciate the energy in his syntax, the way the words bounce against each other, the way the poem draws associations from my mind: I think of advertisements and billboards with their Giant Offers Of Stuff, I think of how American stuff makes its way to every corner of the Earth, I think of blithe vacations destroyed by sea monsters and mythic beings. I love some of the later lines -- "left in the Evening among the front Story/ book service, lost in the hunger of a/ had song" (no, I don't know what "the hunger of a had song" is, but I'm sure I've felt it). And the ending, the sad and yet sort of funny/sort of pathetic final two lines:
Giant, how a monster must feel,
the slow course of life ticking upon them.

28 January 2005

Locus Recommended Reading, Poll, and More!

The Locus Recommended Reading list for books and stories from 2004 is up at the website, as is a form for Locus Poll and Survey, which you should fill out.

Thanks to bribery and blackmail, I have secured an unedited transcript of the interview with Neil Gaiman that appears in the February Locus, and I was surprised to see that the editors cut out a section that goes a long way toward explaining Neil's stance in the cover photo:
I've always had an interest in the decathlon, actually, but the only event of it that I've ever excelled at is discus throwing. My record so far is 113 feet, 2 inches, but I still practice a lot, whenever I can. In fact, something people generally don't know is that there is a lost Sandman story, and the whole thing revolves around discus throwing. I wasn't ever able to fit this particular episode into the whole frame of the Sandman, though, so it's still unpublished. I told Dave McKean we should do a children's book about discus throwing, because it's really good exercise, and what with all those kids hurting themselves on broomsticks after reading Harry Potter, I think it's the responsibility of fantasy writers to ground the sports they write about in actual, real activities, rather than things like flying broomsticks, because, okay, sure you can pull a muscle throwing a discus or even dislocate your shoulder, but those are minor injuries compared to the kind of groin trouble kids are causing themselves these days with brooms. But Dave's not convinced. Tori Amos has gotten quite interested in discus throwing recently, though, and she's thnking of making it a part of her concerts....

Clarion East Auction Open

Clarion East, one of the oldest and most prestigious SF-writing workshops, lost their university funding last year, and so they are holding an auction, where you can bid on remarkable items from people like Michael Bishop, Cory Doctorow, Harlan Ellison, Neil Gaiman, Jeff VanderMeer, Kate Wilhelm, and Connie Willis, among others. The auction only lasts until tomorrow, January 29, at 11.59pm EST.

27 January 2005

Jim Kelly on Blogs

Recently, the subject of James Patrick Kelly as a fiction writer came up here, but I've seldom mentioned Jim's "On the Net" column for Asimov's magazine, mostly because I assumed the majority of my audience would be familiar with it (a rather dumb assumption now that I think about it, because half the folks who come here are not necessarily science fiction readers).

But now, after procrastinating for some time, Jim has decided to write about blogs. I've been trying to come up with something to say about the sentence at the end where my name appears beside Bruce Sterling's, but I can't, even though Jim sent me a preview of the column, so I should have thought of something by now. Nope. Still too astonished.

26 January 2005

More on John Gardner

Back in September I rambled on a bit about John Gardner, and now, thanks to a link from Mark Sarvas, I discovered a review by Philip Christman of Martin Amis's new novel, a review that applies some ideas from Gardner's On Moral Fiction to Amis's work. While I didn't agree with the rather broad generalization about the portrayal of sex in fiction that Christman offered at the end of his review, I was still glad to see someone trying to rescue a few ideas from the shaky ship of Gardner's polemic. The thing about On Moral Fiction that's so annoying is not all of Gardner's mudslinging against his contemporaries (that was annoying then, but they lived through it just fine), but rather the fact that he buries some truly interesting and possibly even worthwhile ideas beneath such bombastic rhetoric that it's difficult to take any of it seriously.

Christman, it turns out, is a Gardner devotee, as evidenced by his blog and this article from Paste. He and I have vastly different taste, it seems, and so value certain elements of Gardner quite differently, but it's nice nonetheless to see someone else paying some attention to a writer of so many virtues amidst his flaws.

At his weblog, Christman writes:
Yet his reputation has declined--from Jonathan Franzen-size celebrity less than a generation ago to me getting politely confused looks when I mention him now. But I'm not even sure Franzen is the right reference point. In a culture where the irrelevance of books--whatever the hell that's supposed to mean--wasn't as eagerly conceded as it is today, where changes in tax laws had not yet made it harder for older books to remain in holding (now they get remaindered and pulped much faster), where cable and videostores and the Internet didn't provide as many alternatives, where Jaws and Star Wars hadn't yet solidified (I don't believe they created) the blockbuster mentality and mergers hadn't yet speeded that particular disease to every major area of the media, the literary celebrity of John Gardner may have been of a kind we can't quite imagine today. Conventionally, his disappearance from bookstores and conversation is blamed on a couple of factors: He wrote too much, too fast, especially late in his career; he pissed off a lot of people with the careless and reactionary On Moral Fiction; and the rumors about his out-of-control personal life (as well as accusations of plagiarism in his Geoffrey Chaucer biography) made his supposedly moralistic take on how criticism should be done insupportably annoying and hypocritical. I concede none of these points except the last one, and that only partially (I believe his "plagiarism" amounted to forgetfulness, but nobody's going to argue he was a good husband). Gardner's late books are fucking fantastic--Mickellson's Ghosts is a glorious kitchen-sink thriller-love story-philosophical rant, the kind of book that attempts so much and succeeds so often that only the most anal of critics could dislike it. Even Freddy's Book, the oddly-shaped and inconclusive little fable for which he was roundly panned in 1980, is wonderfully atmospheric, and the fact that its framing device is never returned to (for which Gardner suffered much criticism) seems to fit with the mood of existential stalemate the central story leaves us in.
This seems about right to me, though I'd add mention of Gardner's collections The King's Indian and The Art of Living, because it was as a short story writer that, for me, Gardner's fiction was at its most original (and bearable).

I do disagree with Christman about the application of some of Gardner's ideas, and this may come mostly from my not being a Christian than from anything else. At the end of his Amis review, Christman writes:
When John Gardner was in a somewhat more temperate mood, he revisited some of On Moral Fiction's arguments in the subtler, more positive The Art of Fiction, a handbook for aspiring writers. There he argues that the novelist ought to think twice about portraying anything in her fiction that the greatest writers--Chaucer, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, the authors of the Bible--would avoid. It seems a decent makeshift rule for avoiding the trivial (all those scenes Philip Roth sets in the bathroom) or the morbid; after all, there's little in the range of human experience that even the Bible evades. There is something private in human sexuality, something that makes it unportrayable; the very act of observation distorts, as Wendell Berry has argued. In a novel that is occasionally eloquent on the dinginess of a culture of primped, prompted, scripted, and exposed sexuality, the portrayal of actual relationship--the love that we are told develops between Xan and Cora, and between Russia and Xan--seems to elude the author, and his characters' personalities fly right out the window with it.
I am, as just about everybody knows by now, vehemently skeptical of categorical statements about what fiction can and can't do, so a claim like "there is something private in human sexuality, something that makes it unportrayable; the very act of observation distorts" immediately sets my teeth grinding with a determination to prove it wrong, and a suspicion that the sentiment comes more from the religious sense of the human body being unmentionable, shameful, dirty. After all, while he may not quite be Tolstoy, Nick Mamatas manages to do some pretty marvelous things with his story "Withdraw, Withdraw!", a story that wouldn't work if it weren't as explicit as it is. (It is, in fact, a story I think both Tolstoy and Gardner would see the merits of.) The sex in Nick's story is coarse, and it needs to be, but I've also read some immensely beautiful sex scenes, scenes of tenderness and humanity. It's difficult, indeed, and some writers are vastly better at it than others, but the only reason we think sex scenes are "impossible" is because for the majority of fiction's history, explicit scenes have been taboo.

The thing about Gardner is that he discovered some things worth arguing about, things other than itsy bitsy iterations of diction or implied subversions of liminal gobbledegook. I happen to think he was wrong most of the time about which side he came down on, at least in On Moral Fiction, but that's less important to me than his ability to home in on issues and elements that are fascinating to discuss. On Moral Fiction retains its ability to make me tremendously angry -- and hooray for that! Any critic who isn't capable of making people angry now and then probably isn't risking enough.

Gardner was flat-out, 100% wrong for many pages of On Moral Fiction (for instance, he listed a variety of contemporary American writers considered serious and consequential and said most would not be remembered by the end of the 20th century: "Some on the list will die quickly, of pure meanness -- [Katherine Anne] Porter, [Robert] Coover, and [William] Gaddis -- and some will die of intellectual blight, academic narrowness, or fakery -- [Thomas] Pynchon, [John] Updike (or most of his work), and [John] Barth." All six writers are now vastly better known and respected for their fiction than Gardner for his). Yes, he was a blowhard. So what? He zoomed in on topics I still like to consider: the point of writing, the effect of ideas on readers and writers, the dangerous high-wire walk between individual vision and responsibility to a community, the power of fiction to infect minds and worldviews, the nature and purpose of art and artfulness. The big questions, the questions we pose toward things that truly matter.

I don't think we live in a world where fiction is nearly as important to society as Gardner thought it was to his, but what's wrong with pretending? We can't always live in an imaginary Eden where books are fundamental to life, but every now and then it's a good place to visit...

24 January 2005

Abyss & Apex January/February 2005

The latest issue of the online magazine Abyss & Apex has been released, and it contains various stories, poems, an editorial, etc.

And though it may make you skeptical of the very fine A&A editors' taste, the new issue includes a story I wrote called "Variables". It's an incredibly fragmentary, possibly confusing, and altogether barmy tale, so if you hate it I won't blame you. It was inspired by time travel cliches, but even though it looks like an SF story, walks like an SF story, and smells like an SF story, it's actually a mainstream story.

Really.

I just think it's fun to sell mainstream stories to SF venues and not tell them until it's too late...

Lambda Literary Awards Finalists

The finalists for the Lambda Literary Awards (to "recognize and honor the best in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender literature") have been announced. There are a lot of different categories, so I won't list them all, but the SF/Fantasy/Horror category finalists are:
Firelands by Michael Jensen
Shadow of the Night edited by Greg Herren
The Ordinary by Jim Grimsley
Wizard of Isis by Jean Stewart
With Her Body by Nicola Griffith

23 January 2005

Faith in Metaphor

I love to see what happens when people who are not regular readers of science fiction read it, because it brings to light all sorts of things those of us who have been devouring it since we were kids take for granted or assume, and it helps us think differently about what we value. R.J. Nagle at Idiotprogrammer encountered some Stanislaw Lem and didn't much care for it, then listened to some of the free mp3's that James Patrick Kelly has to offer, and discovered he actually liked some of Jim's stuff. His comments are fascinating:
The problem with much of sci fi is not with the ludicrousness of some of its speculations, but the failure to grasp emotional significance of situations and the failure to recognize that texts and words can convey the things. At heart the problem of science fiction is that focuses not on self-expression or introspection but on human potential (with all its promises and pitfalls).

Lem is probably not a representative example of sci fi, and in fact, just last Saturday, I listened to a remarkable story by Jim Kelley (Bernardo's House) which explorers an android's emotional connection to her owner. Not only does Bernardo's House adopt the point of view of the house/female android, it also conveys perceptions as they would be experienced by a nonhuman (an interesting notion by the way). Lem is interested in warning us about the future and human limitations in an impersonal way; Jim Kelley is more interested in showing how attachments could exist between humans and nonhumans (and pondering the social implications of this fact). He is interested in having the reader compare the emotional needs of the android protagonist to his own (in addition to experiencing the sensual pleasures of conjuring an emotionally/sexually available female android). Jim Kelley's story is appealing to our humanity.

Still, Kelley's story boils down to "Gee whiz, wouldn't it be neat if we could have sex with androids!" The problem is not that this is a ludicrous fantasy or that it is titillating; the problem of this story (and science fiction in general) is: what happens when having sex with androids become a reality? Would Kelley's story be still worth reading?
(Note: I haven't read much Lem [bad me], so some of what I have to say here may not be accurate in his case. I've read nearly everything Jim Kelly has ever published.)

"At heart the problem of science fiction is that [it] focuses not on self-expression or introspection but on human potential (with all its promises and pitfalls)." This can, indeed, be a problem (just as stories that focus on self-expression or introspection have the problem of tending toward narcissism). The wide-angle tendency is an obstacle every writer and reader of traditional, genre SF faces, because it can be tempting to tackle the entire history of the universe (think Olaf Stapledon), which can produce some interesting thought-experiments, but seldom provides satisfying character development, something many readers desire, and easily leads to stories that inadvertently simplify complex concepts.

Because it often seems like science fiction is about the ideas that drive the plot, and because many mediocre writers actually try to write that way, I can understand where R.J. gets the (I think mistaken) idea that "Kelley's [sic] story boils down to 'Gee whiz, wouldn't it be neat if we could have sex with androids!'" Many SF stories do boil down to their surface concepts. But the good stories are more complex than that, and so they avoid the datedness that, frankly, the majority of science fiction has always faced. ("Bernardo's House" is, to me, one of those stories, because it would never occur to me to think it's just a story about sex with machines -- I found the character interactions involving regardless of the characters' species, and don't think technological change would affect my fondness for the story any more than it does my fondness for certain Theodore Sturgeon stories published fifty years ago.)

Stories with an inherent "sell-by" date can be interesting, but they are a different thing from stories that explore abstract, general, or ostensibly universal themes -- compare, for instance, many of the stories in 1950s issues of Astounding to the early stories of Philip K. Dick, and it's clear we're dealing with two quite different tendencies, because Dick never seemed to have much interest in science, and this forced him to write stories propelled by strange and/or goofy philosophical speculations dressed up in the typical science fictional gear of the day (rocket ships, robots, etc.) Plenty of stories published in the 1950s that were important to readers then and got people thinking about technology or science in some new and different way are now forgotten and unreadable and horribly dated, while even Dick's worst stories (and there were plenty) still have the ability to make us think. The various movies made from his work have updated the tech and added chase scenes, but each makes at least a passing nod at the central questions that so obsessed PKD: "What is human? What is reality?"

This is not to slight the forgotten or dated stories, some of which gave pleasure to a lot of people when they were published. This is simply to say there is a difference, just as there is a difference between a novel like The Jungle, which was an important piece of muckraking but hardly a good example of the novel as a form of art, and Ethan Frome, published a few years later, which didn't have nearly as palpable an effect on society, but is vastly more satisfying artistically than The Jungle.

At her blog, Farah Mendelsohn is exploring definitions of SF as well as the effect of reading experiences on different people (particularly children, the focus of her current research -- which reminds me, I need to do her questionnaire). Various of her concepts overlap at least partially with this discussion, for instance her statement that "For those of us who are fans, sf is a work of realism. The reading protocols of sf demand that we take things literally. To probably mis-summarize many critics, if we live in a world were someone can 'give' me their hand, then what we are suspending, is not a faith in realism but faith in metaphor."

One of the appeals of any form of fantasy fiction is its ability to make what would be metaphorical in one context into literal reality within the context of the story. There's a difference between the allegorical or symbolic literalization within the work of, for instance, Kafka and Borges, and the absolute, take-it-for-what-it-is literalization of most science fiction, which is one reason people who can read Kafka with no problem get stuck when trying to read genre SF. (The danger for people who read nothing but SF is a tendency to become dulled to metaphor as metaphor, because SF readers become so adept at suspending the faith in metaphor that Farah mentions. But that's another subject entirely...)

Sometimes a rocket ship is just a rocket ship. The trouble is, if a story is primarily concerned with wowing readers with a concept -- that literal rocket ship, for instance -- the story loses its value if the concept gets overtaken by the wonders of reality. Hugo Gernsback's novel Ralph 124C 41+ was first published in 1926, the same year that Kafka's The Castle was first printed. Gernsback's novel is the purest of science fiction, offering almost nothing to a reader other than technological speculation. Kafka's novel is an unsettling fantasy that bears little literal relationship to the world as we know it, but a lot of relationship to the world as it is emotionally and intellectually experienced by anyone who ever encounters, for instance, a bureacracy. Kafka benefitted from the literalizing tendency of fantasy that pounds similes into basic metaphors, allowing the Castle to be not just like something we desire entering, but something K. truly does want to enter. But Kafka's book has lasted through the years, and communicated so well to so many people, because while its metaphors get literalized within the story, they also maintain some of their abstract qualities. A reader who approached The Castle simply looking for a fantasy story would might find the book interesting, but would certainly miss many of its pleasures, which lie in the border between the fantasy of the story in the reader's own reality. A reader who approached Ralph 124C 41+ with no interest in technology as technology (and not a metaphor for anything) would, even in 1926, have been profoundly bored, if not completely perplexed, by the book.

Comparing one of the greatest and most influential books of the 20th century to an esoteric oddity is obviously unfair, but thinking about such vastly different books may be able to help us understand the assumptions we carry into any reading, and the better we get at noting our assumptions, the better able we will be to communicate about what we read.

Update 1/23: Cheryl adds some thoughts and thinks I've tackled the subjects here without thinking them through enough. That may be true, but I should make clear here that my intention was not to offer a thorough analysis of R.J.'s post, but rather to look at a couple of its ideas and link them to other things going on out there. Nor did I intend to suggest, if I did somehow, that I think "Bernardo's House" is doomed to timeliness. I thought I said exactly the opposite in a parenthetical remark comparing the story to some of Sturgeon's best. If you are in the habit of not reading parenthetical remarks because they seem parenthetical, then please reread the above with parentheticals included.

21 January 2005

The Outcast of the Universe

How you evaluate certain types of fiction will depend on assumptions you hold about life. For instance, if you believe human beings are fundamentally understandable, predictable, and subject to whatever you define as "the laws of nature" (apparently all figured out and bereft of mystery), you might agree with Trent Walters that characters in fiction must be "consistent".

If, however, you're more like me, and believe that human personality is nothing more (or less) than a congregation of chemical reactions; and that people have the capacity to be not only unpredictable, but fundamentally unknowable; and that nature still has plenty to prove to us -- then you're likely to compare Trent's concept to cow excrement and find it wanting.

It may be that the two ways of thinking cannot communicate with each other. That, to my mind, proves the second way of thinking to be closer to truth than the first (but, of course, I'm biased).

Or it may be that Trent simply forgot to say that he was not talking about all fiction, but only fiction that aspires to be "psychological realism", a popular mode of fantasy in 20th century literature. If that is the case, then he's entirely correct. One of the requirements of the genre of "psychological realism" is that characters have clear motivations that create a cause and effect structure whereby a character wants X, and so Y action follows. Such writing is a genre of fantasy because it bears little relation to reality, despite its name.

Trent says, "If you're going to write about living creatures we know and understand, you have to follow their rules. If they don't follow their own rules, they fall apart."

But people do fall apart. People do things that they don't, themselves, understand, and that 20 years of therapy may only been able to give them superficial stories for. People are unpredictable, bizarre, wanton, extreme, contradictory, and utterly messy. (Shoot a railroad spike through their frontal lobe and their personality will change entirely.)

Sometimes we think we understand things, but that's only because we tell ourselves stories. How often have you done something that seems odd, and said, "I did that because ________." But you know the blank is really blank, despite all the stories you fill it with. The stories are helpful, and they may illuminate a portion of the truth, but a core of mystery remains. It is exactly this mystery that makes much of the best fiction interesting, because the mystery prevents readers from reducing the characters to simple, unambiguous interpretations.

You don't have to be as devoted to chaos as I am to see the flaws of any general statement about the nature and purpose of literature. Everyone who says there are rules of fiction sets themselves up to be proved wrong. A handful of writers are usful for this task -- when faced with a prescriber, haul out Laurence Sterne, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Jorge Luis Borges, or Italo Calvino (among others). One or all is likely to be just the example you need to disprove any rule.

Trent says, "You cannot have a pedophile on one page and magically transform him into something else the next. You can transition or alter the character so long as it falls within the boundaries of his rules for living." But a story about a pedophile who suddenly and inexplicably stops being a pedophile would be fascinating, particularly if the writer had the integrity to never offer a reason for this change of behavior. Such a story could be marvelously ambiguous, mysteriously real. Characters in the story might try out various explanations, might offer reasons and justifications and hypotheses and guesses, but none would be adequate.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Wakefield" is just such a story. It is brilliant because it avoids reducing its character to clear psychological motives. Of the title character, Hawthorne says, "Had his acquaintances been asked who was the man in London the surest to perform nothing today which should be remembered on the morrow, they would have thought of Wakefield." Yet Wakefield's wife thinks there is something a bit odd about him -- "what she called a little strangeness sometimes in the good man. This latter quality is indefinable, and perhaps nonexistent." (The wife may think she knows her husband, but the narrator has doubts.) Wakefield, the most ordinary of men, walks out of his house one day and gets an apartment one street away from his previous home, telling his wife he's going off on a short journey and isn't sure when he'll return. Why does he do this? He doesn't know. "Such are his loose and rambling modes of thought that he has taken this very singular step with the consciousness of a purpose, indeed, but without being able to define it sufficiently for his own contemplation." He gets a new wig and different clothes so as to disguise himself should his wife see him passing by.

The narrator in "Wakefield", though, holds out hope for an explanation of the protagonist's behavior: "Would that I had a folio to write, instead of an article of a dozen pages! Then might I exemplify how an influence beyond our control lays its strong hand on every deed which we do." But the story itself is not able to provide such explanations. After twenty years, Wakefield one day ends up standing on the doorstep of his old home, rain begins to fall, and he goes inside. The final paragraph reads:
This happy event -- supposing it to be such -- could only have occurred at an unpremeditated moment. We will not follow our friend across the threshold. He has left us much food for thought, a portion of which shall lend its wisdom to a moral, and be shaped into a figure. Amid the seeming confusion of our mysterious world, individuals are so nicely adjusted to a system, and systems to one another, and to a whole, that by stepping aside for a moment a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever. Like Wakefield, he may become, as it were, the outcast of the universe.
Perhaps I am misunderstanding the term "consistency", and Wakefield is consistent because he doesn't become a pedophile. Or he is consistent because he does what we are told in the first paragraph he will do (the entire plot is laid out in that first paragraph; everything else is elaboration, told in the voice of someone imagining details to a tale half-remembered from a newspaper). If Wakefield is a consistent character, though, I can't imagine what an inconsistent one would look like.

"Consistency" is similar to "the unities" that Renaissance and Neoclassical critics proclaimed necessary to all drama. They claimed to get their authority from Aristotle, and though he was more descriptive than entirely prescriptive this didn't stop the totalitarian impulses of the critics, who enforced the view that all drama must have unity of action, time, and place. "Consistency of character" looks to be just another name for unity of action, which came from Aristotle's definition of tragedy as "an imitation of an action that is complete, whole, and of a certain magnitude", a definition most critics have argued calls for a beginning/middle/end structure and clear cause-and-effect relationships. (For a great study of all the various -- and doomed -- definitions of tragedy, see Terry Eagleton's Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic.)

Plenty of writers have either intentionally or unintentionally written great work by utilizing one or all of the unities. Plenty of writers have either intentionally or unintentionally written great work by ignoring one or all of the unities. This has happened for centuries.

Some of the most interesting playwrights of the past thirty years or so have deliberately written plays with characters that could not be described as "consistent" under any definition of the word. One of my favorites is Mac Wellman, winner of the 2003 Obie Award for Lifetime Achievement, who has written plays that intentionally frustrate all desires for predictability and consistency. But if you've ever seen any of his work performed by a competent company, you know that it can be utterly compelling -- far more so than most of the consistent characters in what Wellman calls "geezer theatre".

In a 1997 interview collected in The Playwright's Voice, Wellman says:
Motivation is always boring to me. You need some of it to create narratives, but you need far less than many American dramatists think. The problem with motivation and foreshadowing is that if you do it in a straight-ahead way, the drama is always happening elsewhere. And it reduces all characters to something that may be plausible intellectually, but it's not very satisfying. All people and actions become understandable. That's why I find the work of someone like Arthur Miller ridiculous and shallow. Success and failure turn into these interchangeable icons and nothing is illuminated. A noble man, and certainly somebody I respect, but there are literally dozens of writers of that type whom intelligent people seem to find very moving.
Later in the interview he quotes Simon Callow as saying, "For me it's not the great stories, or even the great language or the great drama, it's the great characters who can will exactly contradictory things at the same moment. That to me is what theatre is about." Then Wellman says, "A lot of my friends who are playwrights are interested in the strangeness and beauty of the world, which Ovid talks about: you can be a beautiful young girl one minute and then be turned into a tree stump."

Suzan-Lori Parks is another writer of brilliantly inconsistent characters, although she has also proved herself capable of writing perfectly consistent characters as well (she won a Pulitzer for a play about a couple such characters, although they're interesting enough to be not entirely consistent). Maria Irene Fornes, Len Jenkin, Richard Foreman, Jeffrey M. Jones, Eric Overmyer, David Greenspan, Christopher Durang, and many other playwrights have had great fun destroying, to some extent or another, clear motivation for their characters' actions, reveling in the wondrous chaos such destruction has created.

Trent Walters says,
Truth be told, you probably have an interest in something that makes no sense to the majority of the public. Maybe you like feet or shoes or large noses. These quirks are what make you you. It's natural because it exists in nature. Nature has created some beautiful, some strange, some hideous traits in its long life. That's the nature of nature. Any trait in nature should be free game for fiction.
What is something that doesn't exist in nature? And who is to say that something doesn't exist in nature -- who is omniscient enough to know all of nature? Just because something doesn't make sense to you doesn't mean it's unnatural. What, are we supposed to limit our fiction to things explored by sociological, psychological, and anthropological studies? If something can't be verified by somebody in the Department of Human Studies at the University of All Things Proveable, it shouldn't be written about?

Write what you want to write, how you want to write it. If you like rules, then make some up and follow them. If you don't like rules, then fart in their general direction. But don't try to make everybody else play your little game, and don't pretend "the rules" are anything other than what we know them to be: guidelines that have been useful to some people in the past and may be useful to some people in the future. Following rules doesn't guarantee success any more than breaking them does.

Update 1/22: Trent has posted a great response. My goal was to be annoying enough for him to clarify his terms, and he has. Very nice.

19 January 2005

Updates

I'm not dead yet. Thanks for asking. Just busy. (My apologies for the silence to the two of you who suffer addiction to my longer rambles.)

First, some news. Yes, it's true that I will be writing a monthly column for Strange Horizons, the first of which will be published in early February (assuming Susan and the rest of the SH gang like what I just sent for a first piece).

I just finished an interview with Holly Phillips, author of the fine short story collection In the Palace of Repose, which is a great book to give to friends who say they don't like "all that sci-fi and hobbits stuff". Have them read Holly's stories "The Other Grace" and "Summer Ice" to start -- evocative, enigmatic work that should appeal to both die-hard readers of fantasy fiction and people who like their fiction a little bit more on the lit'ry end of things.

I have read almost nothing for the past week other than things for work and the first 200 pages of One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead by Clare Dudman (known in the UK as Wegener's Jigsaw. Jeff VanderMeer threatened never to speak to me again if I didn't read it, and that would leave me bereft, so I'm now reading it. You should, too. I notice that Dudman's second novel is about Heinrich Hoffmann, a fact that pleases me immensely. It's due in the U.S. this summer.)

Actually, I lied above when I said I haven't read anything for a week. I've been dipping into some nonfiction, mostly because with nonfiction I don't mind jumping around, skimming, skipping, and using the index for guidance. Someone gave me a Borders gift card for Christmas, and I used it to get Collapse by Jared Diamond and Freethinkers by Susan Jacoby, both of which have kept me reading late at night when I really should be sleeping. (If you want a preview of Diamond's ideas, you can read variations and excerpts at The Guardian and Seed. As for Freethinkers, you can get a sense of that from a Beliefnet interview with Jacoby, her NY Times article "One Nation, Under Secularism", this excerpt, and Amardeep Singh's thoughts about the book.)

Toward the end of next week, I really will have some time for reading, and will continue to chronicle that reading here and elsewhere. Just so you know some of what to expect from me in the future, here are some of the books I have waiting to be read soon:
And there are probably others I can't immediately remember... (One thing that I do remember is the manuscript of a book due to be published in the next year or two, and which I will not name, because were I even to hint at the title, you would shriek and I would have to kill you if you didn't die of envy first. Here is a sample sentence pulled at random from it as a tease: "Sometimes it left him so weak and drained that he could not teach his classes -- although this did not mean that if his disease went into remission by nightfall he would not take the Path of Hypocrisy right up to Mary's window.")

Oh, and there are the various issues of magazines now piling up on the floor and coffee table.

Will I get through it all? Will I drown beneath a sea of books? Will I devote my life to quiet meditation? Will my eyes fall out? Keep your eyes on this space to find out...

16 January 2005

Mid-January SF Site

The latest SF Site has been posted, and it includes my review of the recent anthology of experimental fiction, Leviathan 4, plus plenty of other good (or better) things, including a conversation with Robert Freeman Wexler by Jeff VanderMeer and an excerpt from Wexler's novel Circus of the Grand Design. Steven H. Silver pays tribute to a long list of people who died in 2004, Trent Walters takes a look at Arkham House Books: A Collector's Guide, and Chris Przybyszewski remembers a book no-one has ever heard of called Fahrenheit 451. And lots more.

15 January 2005

Appreciations of d.g.k. goldberg

In the previous post, I noted Nick Mamatas's remembrance of writer d.g.k. goldberg, who recently died of cancer. I've since found a few more tributes, all LiveJournals:
Laura Anne Gilman

Mehitobel Wilson

Seth Lindberg (includes links to stories online)
Those were all found via this LJ friends list, on the main page of which, proprietor Brett Alexander Savory linked to a post of mine from last year about goldberg's fine story "Melungeon Moon".

Here's a short interview with goldberg from a few years ago.

Her two novels are Skating on the Edge and Doomed to Repeat It.

Apparently, goldberg put together a short story collection for a publisher, but it never got published. That's a shame, and I hope that the possibility still exists for the book to be published, because it is one that I, and I'm sure plenty of other people, would like to read.

14 January 2005

It Came from the Linkdump

It's Friday. It's been a long week. (Well, I teach classes on Saturdays, so it's not quite over yet.) I have a couple of writing projects due elsewhere very, very soon, so for the moment must leave you with nothing but directions to more interesting and/or important places than here, in no particular order or genus or species:
Nick Mamatas remembers writer d.g.k. goldberg, who died recently of cancer.

Ron Silliman on "the changing status of literary magazines in the age of post-mechanical reproduction"

An article on "Feral Cities". (via Futurismic)

A graduate student in linguistics takes a look at Jack Vance's The Languages of Pao.

RealClimate.org considers whether the term "global warming" is imprecise.

Virtual Dali (via Plep)

"How we went about testing these questions and what we found may astound you. Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended prematurely after only six days because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated. In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress." The Stanford Prison Experiment (via Plep)

The Mercury Theatre on the Air

Old Baedekers

11 January 2005

The Isle

I blame Lucius Shepard. A passing reference he made in a review of Korean movies caused me to rent and watch The Isle, a film that affected me more viscerally than almost any other I can remember (Boys Don't Cry and In the Bedroom had similarly powerful effects on me, but for different reasons.)

No, it's not all Lucius Shepard's fault. I should have read some other reviewers. I might have learned that the film is famous for causing viewers to run out of the theatre -- not because it's a bad movie (it's not), but because it's just so hard to watch. There are even stories of people vomiting because of a couple of scenes.

Roger Ebert gets it just about right with the opening paragraph of his review:
The audiences at Sundance are hardened and sophisticated, but when the South Korean film "The Isle" played there in 2001, there were gasps and walk-outs. People covered their eyes, peeked out, and slammed their palms back again. I report that because I want you to know: This is the most gruesome and quease-inducing film you are likely to have seen. You may not even want to read the descriptions in this review. Yet it is also beautiful, angry and sad, with a curious sick poetry, as if the Marquis de Sade had gone in for pastel landscapes.
I remember being a teenager and watching Dead Ringers for the first time, probably because of an article in Fangoria, my primary source for movie recommendations at the time. I never once turned away from the screen while watching Dead Ringers, and so I ended up disappointed. (My aesthetic judgment has, I think, improved since then, and I no longer evaluate a movie solely by its gross-out factor. I watched Dead Ringers later and it impressed me deeply.)

While watching The Isle, I turned away from the screen at least twice. I thought, having seen just about every sort of thing there is to represent on a screen, I could get through nearly anything.

It was the fishhooks. A personal dislike, ever since I was six years old and got a fishhook stuck in my thumb while out torturing worms and trout with my father. Fishing has always seemed to me a horrible and grotesque excuse for a sport (apologies to all my fishing readers and friends. Some of my best friends fish. In fact, just about everyone I know likes fishing.)

Anyway, yes, there are fishhooks in The Isle, and they are used in such a way that I now have unbridled admiration for director/writer Ki-Duk Kim (best known in the U.S. for Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring, which I haven't yet seen) -- not admiration for what he does to his characters with those fishhooks, or even for his ability to watch it all over and over during filming and editing, but for his ability to isolate such a simple, brutal image. A filmmaker who can find such powerful imagery and employ it so effectively deserves admiration, even if the imagery is, as here, utterly disgusting.

One of my favorite short poems is Margaret Atwood's "You Fit Into Me", a poem that is a perfect companion to The Isle:
You Fit Into Me
by Margaret Atwood

you fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye
A marvelous trailer could be made for The Isle by showing a close-up of the character of Hee-Jin, a silent prostitute, cutting to the text of the poem (presented with each line fading in; white text on a black background might be best), then dissolving to a close-up of Hyun-Shik, a depressed and suicidal man who has come to an isolated lake to live on a little float until he can kill himself. Fade to the title with the sound of Hyun-Shik's screams and cries from the moment when he uses a fishhook on himself, the first vomit-inducing scene.

Wouldn't that get the kids running to the theatre?

Of course, all the people who came expecting Kyongsangnam-Do Chainsaw Massacre would be in for a slight surprise, because when characters in The Isle aren't getting mutilated, the movie is slow, austere, quiet, and repeatedly beautiful, with some shots so carefully composed and balanced that they look like paintings by a Korean Edward Hopper or Andrew Wyeth. Moments of Hee-Jin looking out a window are, in terms of cinematography, as evocative as anything I've seen on film.

The acting, too, is remarkable, particularly that of Jung Suh, who plays Hee-Jin, and never speaks. She is a forceful presence on the screen, communicating as much with a glance or the position of her body as many other actors do with pages of dialogue. Since the end of the silent film era, it's rare to see an actor capable of using silence so well, and the only comparison I could think of was, indeed, a silent movie: Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Anyone wanting to know how to tell a story with images rather than dialogue would do well to study what Ki-Duk Kim has done here.

It doesn't all work, I don't think (the symbolism becomes obvious and repetitive, though this may have been part of the point; the music is atrocious), but it's different from any other movie I've seen in its mix of brutality and elegance, its deliberate pace coupled with elements of the pulpiest thriller, and, most notably, the writer/director's willingness to leave so much unexplained or only barely hinted at. This is a movie of total audience participation: each viewer will make their own interpretation of what has happened and why, of who is to blame for what, of how the characters are to be judged, of what is most disturbing or moving. That willingness on the creator's part to allow the audience its autonomy is what raises craft to art.

A China Mieville Mini-Seminar at Crooked Timber

Some of the members of the group blog Crooked Timber have put together a "mini-seminar" about China Mieville's recent novel Iron Council, with short essays by various people and a comprehensive response from China. I got to participate, but rather than link directly to my essay, I'll link to the introduction (which has links to each post) because that's by far the best place to start. There's also a PDF of the entire discussion.

10 January 2005

Genre Transcending

Last year I wrote an article about the difficulties the science fiction and fantasy world has with the term "genre", a word that, as Ursula LeGuin once said, only the French could love.

Recently, Sarah Weinman wrote about the cliche so many reviewers fall on, that a particular piece of writing (mystery novels, in this case) "transcends genre". It's a magnificent post, and some good discussion follows it in the comments.

On the same subject, Gwenda Bond quoted Samuel R. Delany: "To use such rhetoric -- the rhetoric of transcending the genre -- about the SF novelist is just a way of announcing you don't think most SF is very good, so that any SF that is good must be something more than SF."

Tingle Alley pointed to some words from Laura Lippman, arguing against gentrification of crime fiction:
Crime fiction has its share of jerry-built and dilapidated stock, but the genre is sturdy, its possibilities endless. Come on in, but don't think you'll transform it via the literary equivalents of granite counter-tops and Viking stoves. Like the rowhouses of Baltimore, thrown up in the 19th century to house the working class, the only thing great crime fiction has transcended is those who would render it transitory.
Sarah Weinman follows by noting that the book Lippman discusses "works because it's apparent, at least to me, that Atkinson is thoroughly aware of what makes crime fiction work and what's good about it. She's not trying to throw the baby out with the bathwater by barrelling in, having read little or no previous entries in the genre, and then doing what she wants with it."

Consider, too, Paula Guran's review of a Dan Simmons novel, which begins:
Dan Simmons is one of those authors who is often described as "transcending genre." An editor (quite rightfully) once skewered my use of the cliche "transcends genre" in a review. He was right. No matter how well-intentioned we may be, it's an insult to whatever category of fiction you are dealing with as well as the writer to whom you are applying it. Transcend means (according to Merriam-Webster) "to rise above or go beyond the limits of...to triumph over the negative or restrictive aspects of: overcome...synonym see exceed." And that's not what I meant to say (although some folks may mean it). Yes, "genre" can be used to mean a certain formulaic "expected" type of fiction. There is such a thing as genre horror and science fiction and fantasy, but when you are considering horror and science fiction and fantasy as literature - there are no limits to go beyond, no restrictive aspects to triumph over. How can you have expectations of the fantastic? How can you exceed the limitless? How can you assume anything about that which is speculative?
Finally, some words from Michael Chabon, from his Locus interview:
It's quite obvious to me that so much of what goes on in the world of science fiction has analogies with a ghetto mentality, with a sense of clannishness and that ambivalence that you have: on the one hand wanting to keep outsiders out and identify all the insiders with a special language and jargon so you can tell at a glance who does and doesn't belong, and on the other hand hating that sense of confinement, wanting to move beyond the walls of the ghetto and find wider acceptance. It's a deep ambivalence. You want both at the same time: you feel confined, and you feel supported and protected.
To some extent or another, I agree with everyone I've quoted here, and yet I think a lot of the discussion of genre displays the kind of ambivalence Chabon notes.

I have noticed a tendency in my own reviews and conversations to use the word "genre" to describe something specific, something that might be designated "traditional science fiction". This is something that can't exactly be defined so much as a consensus of opinions can cluster around it. I haven't found a word other than "genre" that is useful for this particular type of writing. In this sense, there is a specific thing that is "genre science fiction" and a vastly more amorphous thing that is "science fiction".

I try to avoid whenever possible the term "genre" for fantasy, because I haven't yet settled on any definition of "fantasy" that feels even remotely like a genre to me. A style, yes; a tool, yes; a tendency, yes. The stuff (a charitable term) that I would tend to want to apply the word "genre" to seems more like basic formula fiction, more a sub-sub-genre trying to climb up a ladder that doesn't lead anywhere.

A genre has, by definition, limitations, borders, and ways of recognizing its own kind. The label is not a qualitative judgment, unless you think limitations and borders are inherently bad. If a genre gets too diffuse, it's not a genre anymore. Nothing wrong with that, either; it just means a different label is needed.

I tend to like work that tries to transcend some genre or another, because I find the attempt interesting. I used to like things that stuck within a genre (specifically science fiction), because I liked to see all the permutations and variations possible. But I got bored. Most of what could be done with the motifs, tropes, cliches, and equipment that gets bundled into the science fiction genre had been done and finished by the end of the 1970s, if not earlier. Most contemporary genre science fiction feels to me like variations on variations, and so I'm less interested. (No perilous general statement such as the previous ones I've made is entirely accurate, because immense talent can always provide new surprises in territory that once seemed exhausted or repetitive.)

Writing that intentionally transcends genre -- often not out of contempt for the genre, but interest in it -- fascinates me, even when it's a disaster. There is an energy to the work of writers who build from their knowledge of the possibilities and limitations of one form of writing, and then try to use that knowledge to move in directions not expected, or even appreciated, by readers who have become conditioned to those limitations and dogmatic in their expectations of the possibilities.

On the other hand, there's also something wonderful about a master of a particular genre, someone who knows the ins and outs, the traditions and pitfalls, the expectations and needs of a specific type of writing. It's like reading a new sonnet by someone who truly understands the form. (After a while, though, they get monotonous.)

It's time for the SF community to agree on how to use the word "genre". I don't think it does anybody much good to use the word as a catch-all term for a style of writing. It does seem useful, though, as a label for a type of writing with somewhat clear rules, or at least expectations, about form and content. A narrow use of the term might lead to a bit less confusion, and less confusion would mean fewer arguments between people who, on the whole, actually agree with each other.

We might also be able to understand some of what's going on in the SF field (not genre!) right now. For instance, there's the perpetual discussion of how much SF should appear in Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine. An interesting point was made by E. Thomas in this note: "I often get to the end of a F & SF mag with the feeling--hey! Was there any sf in that one? Often I'm surprised when I go back and count. Stuff I was considering horror was also near-future sf (ie M. Rickert's 'Bread and Bombs') or one of the sf stories was at the beginning and I forgot it or it was science fantasy and I forgot the science element."

This experience probably stems from F&SF publishing more science fiction that isn't exactly genre science fiction than some of the other major magazines, a tendency that has been with the magazine since its founding. It's also why I, a reader who prefers work that transcends genre over work that resigns itself to it, tend to like F&SF more than the other prominent magazines, though I do wish F&SF would stretch farther out on a few different limbs. (Hint: Commission stories from Jeff VanderMeer, Kelly Link, Chris Barzak, Sonya Taaffe, Alan DeNiro, Theodora Goss, Nalo Hopkinson, Jeff Ford, Barth Anderson, Stepan Chapman, Vandana Singh, etc. etc. etc. F&SF should be a natural venue for writers of that sort -- transcenders all -- and that it is not speaks volumes about the absurd limitations of genre-think.)

Strange Horizons often transcends genre, and this has caused readers numbed by genre writing to be utterly befuddled by the magazine, as can often be observed at the forums. This does not mean the stories are all brilliant or perfect, but simply that Strange Horizons is devoted to work that could appeal to an SF audience, yet that is seldom genre writing. It's a courageous stance to take, and a valuable one.

I realize I have jumped all around here, leaving entire strands of thought neglected and others bludgeoned with repetition. I've committed wanton generalizations, presented assumptions as facts, and perhaps even contradicted myself. I haven't resolved any of my ideas yet, but I hope a few are moving forward. If any seem like they need to be put out of their misery, feel free to take them out back and shoot them.

07 January 2005

The Newish Kinda Weird

Recently, I've been thinking a bit about a book for which I am not the ideal reader, a book that I found neither painful to read nor, on the whole, the sort of thing I would recommend to friends. I thought about letting it pass by me without a mention, because that seems to be a merciful and fair way to deal with books that don't fall to one pole or another on the axis of enthusiasm. It's also a first novel, and I think such endeavors deserve as much acknowledgement and praise as is reasonable.

But.

While I read Steve Cash's The Meq, I couldn't help thinking about its possible and intended audience. Much more than the book itself, the audience interested me. I hoped the book would find an audience to appreciate it, but I couldn't figure out what that audience might be. And, for once, I'm not willing to put the audience for fantasy novels fully at blame.

First, some information. The Meq is coming home to America, having first been published in the U.K. in 2002, but I don't know how well it sold. It must have sold well enough to interest the good people at Del Rey in taking a risk that the book would find enough of an audience in the U.S. to make back whatever investment they put into it.

I don't think Del Rey is nuts for acquiring the book. The Meq is a generally enjoyable story, occasionally even an intriguing one; solidly written, ambitious of scope, sometimes amusing, sometimes clever, but never much more than that. Hundreds of worse books are published each year, dozens of better. As a tool for whittling hours into yesterdays, The Meq does just fine.

I realize the above paragraph is a Hoover Dam of faint praise, but it's hard to get excited one way or the other about competence, and The Meq is a perfectly competent book. Cash is a capable writer who may, with each new book, become either more wonderful or more terrible. (Of course, the same could be said of any writer.)

The premise of the series is intriguing: an immortal race, the eponymous Meq, have forgotten their origins, though they have lived alongside humans throughout history. They look like humans, but their physical development stops at age twelve. The novel tells the story of Zianno (called Z), who was born toward the end of the nineteenth century. Just as he turns twelve, his parents are killed in a train wreck, he is taken in by a benevolent merchant, eventually he meets other Meq, and people he loves are killed by a rogue Meq called the Fleur-du-Mal. Z travels all across the world, encounters various historical personages in cameo roles, enjoys baseball, gets out of some tough scrapes, and leaves plenty of room for a sequel.

Fiction is, by its nature, contrived -- somebody made it up and arranged the pieces in a particular order for a particular reason -- but The Meq is contrived in the worst sense of the word: every event happens for an obvious narrative reason, often with the help of a coincidence or deus ex machina, as if the Author God needed help winding up a creaky old story-machine. Even when everything seems hopeless there's little sense of actual jeopardy -- we trust the characters to get out of scrapes, because they do so with clockwork regularity and nary a bead of sweat. By a hundred pages into the story, The Meq feels like an epic on Prozac, functional and free of passion.

On the whole, it's just too nice. Steve Cash is probably a very nice guy, and he seems to like his characters, letting them overcome obstacles without conveying any sense of pain. He treats the characters as he might a dog, making them do tricks and jump through hoops, giving them a treat before they chew up the couch. Now and then something truly bad happens -- murder, kidnapping -- and it hurts a little bit, but it all gets worked out in the end. Moments that deserve Francis Bacon get painted instead by Thomas Kinkade.

There's a kind of nostalgia to novels like this, a wistfulness for a Golden Age before the Fall that was World War II or Vietnam or whatever other arbitrary moment ruined The Good Life. Toward the end of The Meq our nice heroes realize that technology is changing and they will not be able to keep living the way they have, that greater dangers than rogue Baudelairians lurk on the horizon. As if the nineteenth century were not a century of genocide in North America and Africa, as if Asia were just a place of mysterious monks until Pearl Harbor or the Tet Offensive. The Meq tries to be a novel that roams the world, but the world it roams has no more depth than a dime novel.

But.

This could be the future of fantasy fiction. We've been lucky so far -- if you wanted to avoid total junk, you knew you should be skeptical of anything with comparisons to Tolkien on the cover. The Meq is an example of a new genre -- the Newish Kinda Weird. A few interesting concepts thrown in (regardless of logic or plausibility), a little bit of historical reference (making sure, though, that the characters talk and behave primarily like contemporary, middle-class Americans), a reference or two to ancient and mysterious forces, a variety of "exotic" locales that aren't exotic enough to be alienating, likeable characters that draw in the reader's sympathy and concern, though preferably some of the likeable characters are from the margins of society in one way or another: a clean and virtuous prostitute, a gentle-hearted thief, an American Indian who has buried great wisdom beneath a veneer of modernity, a reluctant warrior, a sad alcoholic with a tragic life story, etc. (but be careful -- only certain types are allowed: our prostitutes are never gay men, our warriors are never so reluctant as to be pacifists, our thieves aren't anarchists shouting at the barricades of capital).

Some of those types appear in The Meq, but not all, because it is a representative but not definitive example of this soggy little genre, and it's probably one of the better books in its class. I tend not to finish reading such books, but this one held my interest throughout most of its course (I skimmed Chapter 8 -- too much tedious exposition and backstory -- and began skimming again toward the end, when I mostly just wanted to know how it all ended), and the fact that I kept reading and wanted to finish does say something for its merits. I might even read, or at least skim, the second volume. Cash seems to be talented, and I'm curious to see if he's better able to utilize his talents in the next book.

But this isn't about Cash. This is about genre fantasy novels, because there's now a new dead end off of Main Street.

I'm not entirely interested in fantasy as a genre -- I prefer it as a style, a mode, an inclination, a flourish. Genres have boundaries and yes/no answers. The Meq is a genre novel that appears to grow out of a desire not to subvert the fantasy genre or smash its iconography, but rather to do some interior redesign. Take some of the basic elements of the most routine genre fantasy novel, mix in some tendencies watered down from non-genre fantasy novels (anything from Jonathan Carroll to Carol Emshwiller to Tim Powers to Nalo Hopkinson, writers for whom fantasy is usually more a tool than a template), turn it into a trilogy, and all of a sudden one of the most ennervated, routine literatures has gotten a facelift. It's entertaining enough in small doses, and certainly preferable to Tolkien Lite or I Dream Of Fairies or My Celtic Grandmother Beat Up Your Norse God or some other fourteenth-generation reiteration of an imitation of a second-hand idea.

The real question, though, is why bother? I finished reading The Meq and thought, "Okay, that was pleasant enough. But there are a lot of great books I haven't had time to read." Obviously, I'm not the right reader for this novel, but then I wondered who would be? Somebody who reads five books a day?

That's when it hit me: this is the perfect book for people who like formula fantasies but are tired of the standard formula, because the standard formula no longer works for them. The high has gotten too low. Standard formulas work because the reader at some point read something that moved them or interested them or excited them, and they want to be reminded of that experience. Too much similarity after a certain period of time, though, becomes numbing, as the thousandth copy of an original bleaches into the epitome of bland. The remedy is to find superficial change. Expectations should not be subverted, words mustn't warp and woof, ideas should be easy to comprehend but perhaps clever, because the reader must not, at any cost, be allowed to feel stupid. Such readers want to be pulled immediately into a narrative dream and have a good enough time that they don't wake up before they want to, and when they do wake up, they should be able to pick up their life -- both their real life and their imaginary life -- exactly where they left off.

This is neither shameful nor uncommon. The number of readers who want books that do the opposite of what I described is small, and such readers may be a bit off-kilter, a bit odd, because why would a well-balanced person want to be continuously challenged, their assumptions shattered, their intellect overwhelmed, their emotions jabbed and jiggled and tickled and stabbed? What sort of masochist yearns for the dizziness of chronic subversion?

But.

It's an extremely rare -- perhaps impossible -- book that is truly capable of challenging, shattering, overwhelming, jabbing, jiggling, tickling, stabblng, and subverting a reader. (I played that type in stereo, just to see what sound came out.)

We are willing participants in what we read, and we read it as carefully or superficially as we choose. Books can change our minds and overturn the ground we stand on, but such things tend to happen when we're ready for them, when we desire them, because otherwise we either don't notice or don't continue reading.

When discussing fiction, I find myself coming back again and again to form, structure, and language, rather than other properties. A form that is not a formula interests me. A structure that is subtle or surprising in its movement and juxtapositions will catch my eye faster than a scaffold that could be placed in front of any building in a generic city. Language that finds turns in its straightest ways makes for a thrilling ride.

And so despite some good moments and interesting touches, The Meq, like so many other books, drifts quickly out of my mind. In their earnest desire to please, such books end up dissipating, like a memory of memories, a fog that aspired to the acridity of smoke.

O Generous Researchers and Collectors of the World, Hear Me Now!

If you have any idea about how I can get copies of the following two stories by David R. Bunch, please email me:
"A Little at All Times", Perihelion Science Fiction, Summer 1969
"The Joke", Fantastic, August 1971
I've checked all the online sources I could think of (Ebay, various dealers, etc.), but that doesn't mean I haven't missed something.

05 January 2005

Quick Warning

Jason Erik Lundberg warns that there are only about 60 copies of his anthology Scattered, Covered, Smothered left of the 200 in the first printing.

I have just begun reading the book. You will want a copy. It costs $9.99 (in cheap American dollars). Weird stories about food. And weird poems about food. And recipes for foodish items. And a beautiful, amusing cover.

The anthology contains work by writers who are also bloggers -- Barth Anderson, Christopher Rowe, Heather Shaw, and -- a recent entry to the blogosphere -- the great (in more ways than can be defined) Rhys Hughes. (And others. If I gave you a complete list, it might satiate your curiosity, and then you wouldn't go look at the website, and then you might not buy the book, and then you would be filled with deep regret for the rest of the year, and perhaps even the rest of your life. See: I'm helping you. I have your best interests at heart. Go now.)

(But please don't buy every copy. I need a few for Christmas presents next year.)

Nominations

Various awards are now open to nominations:

storySouth's Million Writers Award for Fiction: "Stories of more than 1000 words, published online during the 2004 calendar year, may be nominated by writers, readers, or editors of an online publication. Nominations are due by Febuary 1, 2005."

Rhysling Award: Speculative poetry, nominated by members of the Science Fiction Poetry Association (to which you can become a member for less than $20!)

The Nebula Preliminary Ballot has been released. Members of the SFWA can vote.

Hugo Award nomination ballots are available now. Supporting or attending members of Noreascon 4 or Interaction (the upcoming Worldcon) are eligible to nominate. You have until the end of January to become a supporting or attending member of Interaction if you aren't currently eligible to vote.

SF Site Reader's Choice Awards wins my award for best introduction (by Neil Walsh):
In December 2003, the Canadian Prime Minister retired and Canadians got stuck with a new Prime Minister we didn't necessarily want; he was confirmed in office (albeit with a minority government) in the federal election of 2004. After the U.S. elections of November 2000, Americans got stuck with a President they didn't necessarily want, and it looks like he's been reelected in 2004.

Do recent events make you feel more than a little uneasy about the whole process of voting? Well now it's time to cast a ballot that should actually make you feel good about voting. Here's your chance to make your votes (all 10 of them) count, by voting for what you consider to be the best SF & Fantasy books of 2004.