28 April 2006

The Edgar in the Glass

Huge congratulations to the great and glorious Jeffrey Ford, whose novel The Girl in the Glass last night won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America in the "Best Paperback Original" category.

Update 4/29/06: Here's Jeff's account of the awards ceremony.

Dada in Kansas

Via Jed Hartman, I learned that in late December the mayor of Lawrence, Kansas proclaimed "International Dadaism Month":
WHEREAS: Dadaism is an international tendency in art that seeks to change conventional attitudes and practices in aesthetics, society, and morality; and

WHEREAS: Dadaism may or may not have come into being in the summer of 1916 at the Cabaret Voltaire at 1 Spiegelgasse in Zürich, Switzerland, with the participation of Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, Emmy Hennings, Marcel and Georges Janco, Jean Arp, and Richard Heulsenbeck; and

WHEREAS: The central message of Dada is the realization that reason and anti-reason, sense and nonsense, design and chance, consciousness and unconsciousness, belong together as necessary parts of a whole; and

WHEREAS: Dada is a virgin microbe which penetrates with the insistence of air into all those spaces that reason has failed to fill with words and conventions; and

WHEREAS: zimzim urallala zimzim urallala zimzim zanzibar zimzalla zam;

NOW, THEREFORE, I, Dennis “Boog” Highberger, Mayor of the City of Lawrence, Kansas, do hereby proclaim the days of February 4, April 1, March 28, July 15, August 2, August 7, August 16, August 26, September 18, September 22, October 1, October 17, and October 26, 2006 as

I'm very happy to see my birthday listed among the days of International Dadaism Month. Perhaps I shall move to Lawrence and work on my tone poems.

26 April 2006

Elsewheres and Otherwhats

25 April 2006

A Few Words on Vellum

Hal Duncan's extraordinary first novel, Vellum, arrives in U.S. bookstores today. Vellum was among the best books published in 2005 that I read, and I am curious what U.S. readers will make of it, because it is not an easy book to read, and many people will, I'm sure, complain it is impenetrable, pretentious, self-indulgent, etc. While reading it, there were moments when I was tempted to call it all of those things (yes, even "self-indulgent"!), but each time I was ready to give up on the whole book as gassy claptrap, something snared me again, a detail or a phrase or an image, and before I knew it, I'd read another fifty pages in a kind of hyperattentive dream.

Some reviewers have, of course, disliked the book, and that hasn't surprised me at all -- this is the sort of book that causes strong reactions in readers, and it is a book that requires some real effort to read, given its length and complexity. I've not been much annoyed by reviewers who said, "I don't get it, and I don't want to bother getting it," because that's anybody's right, but I have been angered by a couple of reviewers who, strangled by the leashes of their pet taxonomies, have willfully and lazily missed the riches within the novel. (This is not to suggest I think the book is perfect -- not at all. It's a mess. But as messes go, it's one I had a lot of pleasure wading through, discovering unexpected jewels in amidst all the material strewn far and wide.)

I received a finished copy of the Del Rey trade paperback of Vellum yesterday, and it's a lovely artifact, feeling much like the beautiful edition of M. John Harrison's Viriconium that Bantam recently produced. One interesting difference between the U.S. edition and the British edition of Vellum is that in the British edition, all of the dialogue is indicated with dashes (a la James Joyce), while the U.S. edition provides standard quotation marks. I expect the standardized version will be somewhat easier to read, but I was kind of fond of those dashes...

23 April 2006


It's time for some congratulations.

First, I just learned from Cheryl Morgan that the speculative poetry symposium I put together with Mike Allen, Alan DeNiro, and Theodora Goss made the shortlist for the British Science Fiction Association Awards in the nonfiction category. I just did the organizing of the article; Mike, Alan, and Dora did all the heavy thinking, and they deserve the accolades. Congratulations also to the rest of the nominees, and especially to Gary K. Wolfe, whose Soundings was the winner.

Speaking of Alan DeNiro, his forthcoming collection of stories, Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead, has made the longlist for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. I got one of the first galleys of the book, and it's truly an extraordinary collection. Having been familiar with Alan's work for a while, I thought I knew what to expect, but reading it all together, the breadth and inventiveness of the stories astounded me far more than I was prepared for. I can't think of another collection that has, on the whole, impressed me quite this much since I read Kelly Link's Stranger Things Happen four or five years ago. (And yes, I could be accused of bias, since Alan and I are acquainted, and he was one of the three Ratbastards who published my [generally unloved] story "Fragments", but even if I am inclined to think somewhat kindly of him, that does not account for how much his book impressed me.)

Speaking of Ratbastards and books that impress me, the news can now be spread far and wide that Chris Barzak has sold his first novel, One for Sorrow, to Juliet Ulman at Bantam. If I can be accused of bias toward any writer, it's probably Chris (and toward any editor, Juliet), and I am particularly biased toward this book, so you may not want to believe me when I tell you that it contains a few scenes so achingly beautiful they will make you cry, but, well, it contains a few scenes so achingly beautiful they will make you cry. Unless you have no heart or are an asshole. So there.

As I write this, Chris is on a plane heading home after spending nearly two years living and working in Japan (and if you haven't been reading his blog about the ups and downs and ins and outs of life there, you've been missing a great read). Welcome back Chris, for however long it may be.

20 April 2006

Worthy of Trust

Ursula LeGuin on Jose Saramago:
Some years ago a reliable friend told me I should read Jose Saramago's Blindness. Faced with pages of run-on sentences and unparagraphed dialogue without quotation marks, I soon quit, snarling about literary affectations. Later I tried again, went further, and quit because I was scared. Blindness is a frightening book. Before I'd let an author of such evident power give me the horrors, he'd have to earn my trust. So I went back to the earlier novels and put myself through a course of Saramago.

It's hard not to gallop through prose that uses commas instead of full stops, but once I learned to slow down, the rewards piled up: his sound, sweet humour, his startling imagination, his admirable dogs and lovers, the subtle, honest workings of his mind. Here indeed was a novelist worthy of a reader's trust.

19 April 2006

Breakfast on Pluto

Really, I should have hated it. Breakfast on Pluto treats serious subjects with utter superficiality, it's sometimes silly and sometimes mawkish, it's a jumble of styles, it's ... well, it's everything Michael Atkinson says it is in his review in the Village Voice ("unbraked blarney ... coy picaresque ... displays a longshoreman's fluency with camp culture...").

And I loved it. I haven't had such a purely enjoyable experience of watching a movie in a very long time. It might have been that I was just in the right mood for what Breakfast on Pluto had to offer. But I think there's something more to it.

The movie begins with birds (pretty obviously computer generated). Their conversation is subtitled. "Okay," I said to myself, "this is not a dramatic, sensitive exploration of transgendered life." This is not Boys Don't Cry (never mind director Neil Jordan's earlier Crying Game, a film I haven't seen in a decade, so I can't really compare it). It's not even Stage Beauty, a pretty vapid film with an excellent performance by Billy Crudup as a 16th century actor specializing in women's roles. (Actually, of the various movies about transgendered people I've seen, Breakfast on Pluto is closest to Beautiful Boxer, a movie I liked but thought needed more spirit and panache to be truly effective.)

The over-the-top style of Breakfast on Pluto, kitschy and often flat-out stupid, won me over because it allowed the story a fairy-tale feel, while at the same time Jordan grounded enough moments in some of the grittier elements of reality to create an unsettling and, I found, quite moving dynamic. Cillian Murphy plays Patrick "Kitten" Braden, who since childhood has known he is as much a she as a he. He suffers some of the standard harrassments of any sort of outsider as he grows up, but from childhood he has a puckish, mischievous, and optimistic attitude that is sometimes downright Panglossian, at other times remarkably subversive. Kitten's character doesn't progress -- she doesn't learn from her mistakes or gain insight and wisdom or anything else. This is more a story of her effect on the world than of the world's effect on her.

The story is, indeed, picaresque, and that structure is inherently episodic and even, yes, coy. But handled audaciously, it's also a lot of fun, and can accomplish more than a traditional structure would have. Halfway through the movie, I realized that I was translating the events into a separate story in my head: I was imagining a painful, naturalistic story underneath the one being presented by the film, and so the film became a kind of dreamworld that the "real" Kitten in my mind used as an escape. Now and then there would be cracks, and the two stories -- the one I was watching and the one I was imagining beneath it -- would reveal themselves to each other, most notably in a scene where Kitten is being roughed up in an interrogation room by London cops. Here, as she is being beaten, she fights desperately to hold onto the personality she has constructed. The scene that follows, where she is finally released and pleads to be locked up again for the "security" the cell provides her, is heartbreaking.

The movie is a story of a grand defense mechanism, of the self Kitten has constructed as armor against a world that is, she says, too serious -- a world that considers her a freak, an abomination, a degenerate. A world that kills her friends and steals her mother and prevents her from ever achieving love. Some critics have contended that Kitten is desexed, that, as in so many heterosexist films and books, the queer is acceptable so long as she or he isn't sexualized, but I don't see that as being quite the case here. Kitten's persona distances her from the world of sex, but so does the world itself, because she isn't able to find a path toward a real relationship. She has plenty of friends, plenty of people who adore and, yes, love her, but no lover she can hold onto, because she cannot fit comfortably into a neat category, and she lives in a world that requires, legislates, and enforces its categories so vehemently as to make anything outside those categories invisible and even unimaginable.

The ending of Breakfast on Pluto is uplifting and fun and joyful, but it is willfully so -- if we stop and think about what life Kitten will lead after the credits cease to roll, it does not seem like a particularly fulfilling one, because though she has found some acceptance and joy, she doesn't seem to have many avenues for emotional fulfillment -- despite her experiences in London, she seems to have resigned herself to living as if she is the only person like herself in the world.

Or maybe I'm just imposing a depressing reading on the happy ending, because I find unambiguously happy endings so unconvincing. But I can envision another happy ending -- perhaps Kitten and Charlie will decide not only to raise Charlie's baby together, but to become lovers and live out the rest of their days together. (Actually, since Kitten never had sex reassignment surgery, she and Charlie could be married, because going purely on the basis of genitalia, they are man and woman.)

Meanwhile, I'm just going to start using one of my favorite lines from the movie on random people: "If I wasn't a transvestite terrorist, would you marry me?"

Update 4/20/06: A commenter points to Roz Kaveney's interesting LJ posts about the film and the book, with some mention of TransAmerica as well. Here's the first, and here, after having read the book, is the second. Pretty different interpretation and experience from mine (as would be expected), but fascinating and much more insightful than anything I could offer.

Best American Fantasy

The word is out, so I thought I'd acknowledge it here: I have agreed to be the series editor for a new series of "best of the year" anthologies from Prime Books, Best American Fantasy, with the guest editors for the first two years being Jeff and Ann VanderMeer.

Yes, we realize there are an awful lot of "bests" out there now, and both Jeff and I have even parodied this fact at various points over the last few years, but we did not enter into this venture without a lot of consideration of the pros and cons, because it is going to eat up a lot of time we would have devoted to other things. At the moment, all I want to say is that this will not be an anthology like any other that currently exists, and we believe we'll be filling a rather large gap in the world of contemporary fiction. Time will tell, and the proof will be in the books themselves, so for now we're going to focus our energies on finding the best fantastical, surreal, odd, postmodern, post-postmodern, nonrealist, fabulist, batshit, weird shit, whatever stories from 2006 that we can. If you see anything you think we shouldn't miss, feel free to make a recommendation at the website. (Note that the site currently redirects to another temporary address; we'll be based at www.bestamericanfantasy.com soon.)

Here, for anyone who wants more details, are the official announcement and the call for submissions and recommendations. At this time we're only considering previously published work, and we are not considering excerpts from novels.


Prime Books announces the establishment of a prestigious new anthology series, Best American Fantasy (trademark pending), guest edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, with Matthew Cheney serving as the series editor. The inaugural volume will be published in June 2007, showcasing the best North American fantasy short fiction from the preceding year. The editors will apply as wide a definition of the term “fantasy” as is necessary for the integrity and quality of Best American Fantasy -- including magic realism, surrealism, postmodern experiments, and all other applicable permutations.

With prominent distribution and a stylish trade paperback format, Best American Fantasy will provide an elite forum for the best short work from U.S. and Canadian writers published in North America. A list of honorable mentions limited to fifty stories will be included in each volume.

The anthology will feature rotating guest editors, with the series editor providing continuity and stability. Ann & Jeff VanderMeer will serve as guest editors for 2007 and 2008 to help establish Best American Fantasy as one of the premier year’s best anthologies in North America.

Interested parties can find out more about Best American Fantasy at the BAF Website: http://www.bestamericanfantasy.com.

Reviewers, publicists, and other media should contact Prime editor Sean Wallace at: seanwallace@comcast.net.

Prime Books is an award-winning imprint that specializes in literary and cutting-edge cross-genre novels and short story collections.

About the Editors

Guest Editor Jeff VanderMeer is a two-time winner of the World Fantasy Award. His books from Pan Macmillan, Tor, and Bantam have made the year's best lists of Publishers Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Los Angeles Weekly, Publishers' News, and Amazon.com, among others, and his short fiction has appeared in several year’s best anthologies. Novels and story collections by VanderMeer have been translated into twelve languages. As an editor, he is best known for founding the award-winning Ministry of Whimsy Press and its landmark anthology series, Leviathan. He lives in Florida.

Guest Editor Ann VanderMeer has been a publisher and editor for over twenty years, running her award-winning Buzzcity Press. Work from her press and related periodicals has won the British Fantasy Award, the International Rhysling Award, and appeared in several year's best anthologies. Books published by Buzzcity Press include the Theodore Sturgeon Award finalist Dradin, In Love by Jeff VanderMeer and the IHG Award winning The Divinity Student by Michael Cisco. A Best of the Silver Web is forthcoming from Prime Books in November 2006. She lives in Florida.

Series Editor Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction with Strange Horizons, Locus, Rain Taxi, Rabid Transit, Pindeldyboz, Failbetter, and others. He has served on the jury for the Speculative Literature Foundation's Fountain Award, and his weblog, The Mumpsimus, was a finalist for the 2005 World Fantasy Award. He lives in New Hampshire.


In General

Literary journals, magazines, anthologies, and other venues based in North America are encouraged to submit their publications to Best American Fantasy so that the content can be considered for inclusion. All publications received will be listed in Best American Fantasy. Please send materials for consideration to both:

Matthew Cheney
Series Editor
POB 313
New Hampton, NH 03256


Ann & Jeff VanderMeer
2006-07 Guest Editors
POB 4248
Tallahassee, FL 32315

Materials only sent to one address will not receive consideration.


Eligible short fiction must fulfill the following rules.

(1) A work of respectable literary quality first published in a U.S. or Canadian periodical (magazines, anthologies, websites, etc.)
(2) Publication in English by U.S. or Canadian writers, or foreign writers who have made U.S. or Canada their home.
(3) Original publication as short stories. Excerpts from novels will not be considered.
(4) Work longer than 10,000 words will not be considered.
(5) All work to be considered must be received by January 15, 2007.

The definition of “fantasy” shall include fabulation, non-realist fiction, magic realism, surrealism, post modern experimentation, cross-genre, etc. The editors will apply as wide a definition of the term as is necessary for the integrity and quality of Best American Fantasy. Editors or individuals should not pre-judge the fantastical content of individual stories or periodical issues but simply send in all possibly relevant materials. Sending tearsheets is discouraged.

Individuals and editors of online magazines can make recommendations via the Best American Fantasy Recommendation Form, found on the BAF website at: www.bestamericanfantasy.com. No self-published work will be considered.

17 April 2006

Catching Up with the LBC

Over at the LitBlog Co-op we've announced the Read This! selection for this quarter: Television by Jean-Philippe Toussaint. Each day this week, one other nomination for the Read This! choice will be announced by the nominator.*

We've changed some of our procedures for the LBC, having been doing it for about a year now and having had both some successes and some mis-steps. One of the things we discussed a lot was that we wanted readers to have more of an opportunity to seek out and read the books before we discussed them, so from here on out we're going to announce the nominations once we've got them. Hence, an announcement of the summer nominees. We're all beginning to read these right now and will vote on them in the coming months, so you now have a chance to read along and see if you agree with the result of our vote in the summer.

Also, we've decided to encourage more people to comment as we discuss the books: The name of everyone who comments at the LBC site during our discussions of these books will be entered into a drawing for a complete set of the nominated titles from this quarter.

*One of the nominated books is by a Friend of the Mumpsimus (yes, we have a couple). I deliberately kept a distance whenever we of the LBC were discussing it amongst ourselves, because it's not a book I feel I can be entirely objective toward.

13 April 2006

Beckett at 100

Today is the day we have been waiting for, even though it is better not to wait, because always what you get is less than what you hoped. 100 years since Samuel Beckett's birth. (Yes yes, they shall all now scream, "Birth was the death of him.")
I once knew a madman who thought the end of the world had come. He was a painter--and engraver. I had a great fondness for him. I used to go and see him, in the asylum. I'd take him by the hand and drag him to the window. Look! There! All that rising corn! And there! Look! The sails of the herring fleet! All that loveliness!


He'd snatch away his hand and go back into his corner. Appalled. All he had seen was ashes.
The thing is, Beckett makes me laugh. That's why I've stuck with him. Yes, there's bleakness and dreariness and the-world-is-awful and all that, but before there is that there is laughter. A sad laughter, yes, but that just makes it more meaningful and complex.

Before the laughter, there is language. That's what caused my first crush. It was "Happy Days", and yes they were -- high school, my head blown off. It took me forever to read the play. People were allowed to write like this? ("Embedded up to her waist in exact center of mound, WINNIE.") I couldn't make head or tail or kneecap of it. I wanted to know more. Who gave insane people pens to write with? Who published them? From the library, I took a copy of Waiting for Godot. I don't remember making much of it, but I do remember reading it entranced. Something in the rhythms.
Let's hang ourselves immediately!

From a bough?
(They go towards the tree.)
I wouldn't trust it.

We can always try.

Go ahead.

After you.

No no, you first.

Why me?

You're lighter than I am.

Just so!

I don't understand.

Use your intelligence, can't you?

(Vladimir uses his intelligence.)

I remain in the dark.
I couldn't stop. I read all the plays. They fit in one book and feel like a shelf. I haven't stopped reading. Now I have a case.

Eventually, I discovered the prose. Where? How? I don't remember. It took me a while. I still haven't finished Watt, fun as it is. With the prose, I tend to like it shorter -- the sublime How It Is and Texts for Nothing are particular favorites.
intent on these horizons I do not feel my fatique it is manifest none the less passage more laborious from one side to the other one semi-side prolongation of intermediate procumbency multiplication of mute imprecations

sudden quasi-certitude that another inch and I fall headlong into a ravine or dash myself against a wall though nothing I know only too well to be hoped for in that quarter this tears me from my reverie I've arrived

(How It Is)
Closest to my heart, though, is Endgame, perhaps because I once directed it (with high school students! Yes, I'm insane! But it turned out well, despite the odds.) and so I have lived with that text most closely. I find myself using phrases from it suddenly in everyday moments ("We'd need a proper wheel-chair. With big wheels. Bicycle wheels!"). It's an interesting enough play to read, but it's when you're in the midst of a production of it that the wonder of Beckett becomes most apparent, because the words become, somehow, living things -- not so much fragments shored against the ruins, but the magnificence of the ruins themselves, the words adorning the death of everything, an apotheosis in words, the last things left, the only things we can still apprehend after the speaker or writer is gone.
I open the door of the cell and go. I am so bowed I only see my feet, if I open my eyes, and between my legs a little trail of black dust. I say to myself that the earth is extinguished, though I never saw it lit.

12 April 2006

Kelly and Beckett

I'm a failure. Yesterday was James Patrick Kelly's birthday, and I failed to note it. What kind of friend am I? You should all give up on me now -- I've known the man for something like 20 years, and I forget his birthday.

It's Beckett's fault. I've been so fixated on the countdown to Beckett's 100th birthday that I have ignored my friends, let all the details of my life fall apart, and sequestered myself in a small room to wait for the end of the world.

So today we'll mix our daily Beckett link with a Kelly link. (No, not that Kelly Link, much as I like her. And she knows Jim Kelly, too, and probably remembered his birthday. For all I know, she knew Beckett.)


Happy birthday tomorrow to Samuel Beckett -- here's Beckett's late (1988), short prose piece "Stirrings Still".

Happy birthday yesterday to Jim Kelly -- here's "The Propagation of Light in a Vacuum", one of my favorite of his stories.

And just for fun -- J. Michael Straczynski's City of Dreams Episode 7: Samuel Beckett, Your Ride is Here, featuring John Turturro and Bill Irwin. (Irwin, by the way, is no stranger to Beckett performances.)

11 April 2006

Links to Soothe a Weary Soul

  • Laird Hunt has a blog. And it gets its name from a line in a Paul Celan poem, a sign of great taste and intelligence.

  • If you've ever worked at a bookstore, you might have experienced the sometimes painful, sometimes delightful practice of stripping mass market paperbacks of their covers and just sending the cover back to the distributor. And you might have also experienced the returning of trade paperbacks and hardcovers to the distributor whole. And you might have wondered about these things. Now we all need wonder no more, because the Honorable Dr. Justine Larbalestier was willing to ask why? about those publishing practices (and some others), and the Esteemed and Knowledgeable Patrick Nielsen Hayden provided some answers.

  • Also thanks to Dr. L: "How to Fail in Literature" circa 1890.

  • Fred Ramey of Unbridled Books asks: "Why does it seem that the publishing industry can gainfully expect fiction readers to muscle their way through a slough of artlessness to get to the heart of a story but rarely believes that readers will be willing to slip into the currents of an artful telling to get there?"

  • MySpace vs. Friendster, and other cultures and subcultures in social life: "Often, people don't need simplicity -- they want to feel proud of themselves for figuring something out; they want to feel the joy of exploration. This is the difference between tasks that people are required to do and social life. Social life isn't about the easy way to do something -- it's about making meaning out of practice, about finding your own way." (via Alan DeNiro)

  • The second issue of Green Integer Review is now online.

  • Ben Yagoda on the awfulness of NYT reviewer Michiko Kakutani.

  • Textbooks can be so gay. (via Scott Esposito)

  • Don't forget Samuel Beckett's 100th birthday on April 13. I expect to hear you all singing. I'll try to post a Beckett link every day between now and then. Here's one. (via Bud Parr)

The Innovative Novel

From an interview with George Saunders:
Q: Might you try writing a novel in the future?

A: I just did. It's very innovative. It is only 25 pages long.

10 April 2006

Farewell to the Fortean Bureau

The final issue of Fortean Bureau has just gone online, and it's a sad farewell from here, because I was quite fond of FB and usually found at least one story and/or poem an issue that was worth not just reading, but writing about (e.g. "Stitching Time" by Stephanie Burgis). I was also addicted to Nick Mamatas's typically acerbic columns.

Speaking of Nick, his final column is a not-for-the-faint-of-heart review of Paraspheres, the large anthology of "nonrealist fiction" or "new wave fabulism" or "whatever" put out by the good people at Omnidawn.

Also in this final issue is Jay Lake's story "The Soul Bottles", originally published in Leviathan 4 (which, once upon a time, I reviewed). I love the imagination behind "The Soul Bottles", and despite my quibbles with the neatness of its ending, all sorts of images from it have stuck with me since I first read it in Lev 4, and it has remained one of my two or three favorite Jay Lake stories.

So adieu, Fortean Bureau -- may your soul be unbottled and released back into the paraspheres before all our time is stitched! (And may I nevermore wax lyrical!)

Strange Horizons

First, it's Spring Fund Drive time at Strange Horizons, everybody's favorite nonprofit weekly speculative fiction web magazine. Unlike NPR, they don't stop programming to beg from you, they just offer gentle reminders now and then that they'd like to be able to continue paying their writers.

Second, it's Reader's Choice Awards time at Strange Horizons, where members of the unwashed masses have their say, regardless of whether they contributed to past fund drives! And they say nice things! We love the Strange Horizons readers (or at least the ones who voted)! Everybody deserves congratulations, but I'd like to offer special public congrats to Mike Allen, Alan DeNiro, and Theodora Goss, who did all the heavy thinking for the speculative poetry symposium that won first place in the Articles category. Congratulations all around!

08 April 2006

Birthday Game

Well, it's the weekend, so it's time for the blog to let its hair down and indulge in some general silliness, namely the "3 events, 2 births, 1 death on your birthday" game that's floating around various LiveJournals and blogs. (I'm indulging in this because I tend to be obsessed with who and what shares my birthday, because there are some amusing things there...) Some of this comes from Wikipedia, but I've added some things from elsewhere:

October 17


*538 BC: King Cyrus The Great of Persia marches into the city of Babylon, releasing the Jews from almost 70 years of exile and making the first Human Rights Declaration

*1859: John Brown, having invaded Harper's Ferry during the night, hangs out and hopes for a national slave rebellion to begin.

*1908: Emma Goldman begins a national lecture tour while the country is immersed in presidential campaigning. Lecture topics include "The Political Circus & Its Clowns," "Puritanism, the Great Obstacle to Liberty," and "Life versus Morality." Large audiences attend her lectures in Pittsburgh & Cleveland.


*1813: Georg Buchner, German playwright (d. 1837)

*1972: Eminem, American rapper


*1910: Julia Ward Howe, American composer and abolitionist (b. 1819)

06 April 2006

Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006)

When Stanislaw Lem died last week, I wanted to note it, but didn't know quite what to say, as of Lem's novels I had only read Solaris, and that so long ago that my memory of it was vague. I thought about gathering up various obituaries, but other sites were doing a pretty good job of that, and I was too busy at the time to roam far and wide searching for more obscure obits. (I should note here, though, that one of the best appreciations I've seen is from Mr. Waggish.)

I quickly thought to ask Eric Schaller to write something about Lem, because visiting with Eric recently I'd seen a bunch of Lem books on his shelves. Eric graciously obliged. I do hope eventually to write something about Lem's essay collection Microworlds, a book that strongly influenced my view of SF when I first read it years ago, but I may not be able to do so for a little while.

For those of you who don't know him, Eric Schaller is an associate professor of biology at Dartmouth College, an illustrator perhaps best known for his work on Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen, and quite a fine writer himself.

"Reading" Lem in Krakow

by Eric Schaller

Two years ago, I attended a science conference in Krakow, Poland. On the Main Market Square, not far from the cafe where my wife and I drank our beers and coffees, filled out postcards that would reach the States sometime after we did, and listened to the lone trumpeter on St. Mary's church call out the hours, we discovered a small bookshop. I had to go in. That's not too surprising because I search out bookshops wherever I travel. But here all the books were in Polish, and I don't read Polish. That, however, was the point. I wanted to buy a novel by Stanislaw Lem printed in the language of its inception, the template for what I had read in translation. I knew that I would never read this book, but it would go on my bookshelf next to the other Lem novels in my collection. Later, when I looked at it, I would be reminded that I had been to the city where Lem lived, walked the streets that he walked, and bought a book by him from a bookshop that he had probably browsed. Below are some thoughts engendered from reading Lem's novels, which like all the best science fiction are launching pads and booster rockets for ideas, the titles of the novels given here in their original Polish in deference to that bookshop in Krakow.

Solaris (1961). No movie can recreate a novel, nor should it, but how a movie differs from the book that inspired it can be revealing. Has any other science fiction author of the modern era had two different directors take on the same novel? Okay, that's pushing it because the Soderbergh film is so clearly inspired by the earlier Tarkovsky film that it must be considered as twice-removed from the novel. Not surprisingly, the Soderbergh version is a drab beast of institutional gray that disappears unless you keep a steady eye on it. Tarkovsky at least has a sense of color and the last scene of his version is achingly sad and beautiful. But neither movie comes close to capturing the pace of the novel, the dynamic thinking of the characters. Tarkovsky chooses to linger, as is his nature, letting time stand in for depth of thought. But, simply put, Lem is not a boring writer and both movies leave the impression that he might be.

Cyberiada (1967). I love this book, not just for its sheer loony humor, the human-like foibles exhibited in the folktales assembled by its society of robots, but for how it plays with ideas of evolution. "First, they were creeping molds that slithered forth from the ocean onto land...and then they stood upright, supporting their globby substance by means of calciferous scaffolding, and finally they built machines. From these protomachines came sentient machines, which begat intelligent machines, which in turn conceived perfect machines." Here we have organic life serving as a step in the evolution to machines, an idea that mirrors and predates one modern idea on how organic life may have first arisen. Before organic life arose on earth, there may have been clay crystals that replicated and changed (read evolved). At some point nucleotides were incorporated into the crystals, forming molecules of RNA. The RNA/clay hybrid continued to evolve until a point was reached where the clay was superfluous, the RNA then serving as the primordial organic molecule that with proteins and lipids gave rise to the cell. So, incorporating scientific conjecture and science fiction, evolution works something like: clay crystals assembling organic life and thus becoming obsolete, then organic life assembling robotic life and thus becoming obsolete. But it doesn't end there. Just like we build robots, the robots strive to assemble and perfect organic-based forms. And so on in a never-ending cycle.

Fiasko (1986). This is my favorite of Lem's novels. It starts out like one of his Pirx the Pilot stories, seeming to imply an arc in which a problem will arise and be resolved within the span of twenty or thirty pages. But nothing is that simple here. The book slingshots itself into a novel, and a big one at that, an epic tragedy encompassing Lem's utterly pragmatic viewpoint on the astronomical odds against our ever having a meaningful meeting of minds with an alien culture. But nevertheless we try because, being human, we're driven by a romantic notion, one that's animated us since before we deserved the name Homo sapiens, that all problems have a solution if only we can think clearly enough. The novel ends unhappily, as you know it must from the title, but along the way there is an interstellar mission, nanotechnology, and truly alien aliens that have still fallen prey to some of the same problems we face on earth.

It's Fiasko that I intended to buy while in that Krakow bookstore, studying the spines of the shelved books, pulling out each in turn to check the cover illustrations and the prices. But I was stymied. Fiasko cost significantly more than the slimmer volumes by Lem, and I didn't know if I could justify the additional expense for a book I would never read. Maybe I should buy Cyberiada? Or Powrot z gwiazd (Return from the Stars)? Or something else? Although completely mundane, this indecision, my shelving and reshelving the same books while outside dark clouds began to spit rain, was a Lemian moment. I had been struck by a romantic impulse that did not quite dovetail with pragmatic reality. Here the consequences of my decision were slight, but on the canvas where Lem worked his calculated magic the effects could be broad comedy or devastating tragedy. Recognizing and dramatizing this distinctly human conundrum is at least part of the legacy left by Stanislaw Lem.

04 April 2006

On Short Story Collections

At the new group blog Talking Squid, Jonathan Strahan posts a thoughtful response to my review of Gregory Frost's Attack of the Jazz Giants and Other Stories, picking up on the final, intentionally provocative, paragraph, wherein I fulminated:
Short story collections suffer when they are padded with ancillary materials (forewords, afterwords, story notes) and not-entirely-effective tales, because the energy of the better material gets sapped away and the reader's attention lags. What matters is the fiction, and a collection should be an opportunity for a writer to present, in more permanent form than a magazine offers, his or her best work, not just everything they happen to have gotten published, plus some cheerful hyperbole from pals.
Being incapable of sticking to any strong opinion for long, the day after this review was published I received a copy of Jeffrey Ford's new collection, The Empire of Ice Cream, and proceeded to read nothing but the story notes. And to enjoy them immensely (I've read most of the stories from their original publications).

Now, Jeff Ford story notes are better than 96.8% of the story notes out there (yes, I've done a study), so I don't think the fact that I devoured them so joyfully undermines my entire argument, but it does at least undermine it a little bit. A foolish consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds and all, I'm not afraid to be inconsistent. I'd rather qualify my original point, though, inspired by Jonathan's diversion from complete agreement with me (how dare he!)--
In his collection Going Home Again Waldrop adds lengthy story afterwords, some as long as 3,000 words, to each story which are a critical part of the book as a whole, adding layers of meaning and experience for most stories. Harlan Ellison is also a master of the form, as can be seen in collections like Deathbird Stories, Shatterday, and Love Ain't Nothing but Sex Misspelled.
Jonathan is absolutely correct here, and shows the Achilles' heel of my generalization, because there are writers who do a good job of mixing stories with notes about them into a coherent, cohesive whole. Some writers also benefit from the force of their voice and personality -- Ellison's story notes are often more interesting than his stories, and turn his books into autobiographies with stories included, and the fiction and nonfiction echo each other and make the book far richer than it would be were it merely either fiction or nonfiction. Because Waldrop's stories are so often built from esoteric historical backgrounds, the notes help the general reader understand the context. It also helps that both Ellison and Waldrop often collect material by theme and subject matter, and so the notes add to the whole reading experience rather than distract from it. The best of these books are unified, coherent, and thoughtfully constructed.

Where I disagree with Jonathan is something he says in a comment in response to another comment on the post:
Giving the reader some context, some background for a new writer is a worthwhile thing. And, if a reader doesn’t like them, they can always skip the notes. You can’t skip something that isn’t there.
Yes, context can be useful, but I'm wary of encouraging people to include more and more and more just because if readers don't like it, they can skip it. Jonathan himself states some basic criteria well at the end of his post:
I’d put it that the test for a collection shouldn’t be whether it contains a particular element or not, but rather how well those elements are executed. You can have introductions, story notes, afterwords etc, as long as they’re done well, and as long as you never compromise on the quality of the fiction.
Exactly. The best collections aren't merely collections, they are books, and as books their elements work together to create a unified whole. What those elements are is irrelevant if they work together well.

Most writers are not Ellison, Waldrop, or Jeffrey Ford, though, and their fiction doesn't benefit from ancillary materials. It's interesting to note that the inclusion of so much nonfiction in fiction collections (and I'm speaking of collections not put together for historical or scholarly purposes, which are entirely different) is a tendency more common in genre collections than collections marketed as general fiction. I expect this comes from the reliance of genre fiction on fans -- introductions and story notes add a personal sense of the author and give anecdotes about the hows and whys of the writing, creating a sense of the writer not just as a byline but as somebody who might be fun to talk to at a convention, or somebody who has pearls of wisdom to offer aspiring writers, which is what many fans are. Notes and such in collections seem to be a legacy of the time when the path to becoming a professional SF writer was to start as a fan and work your way up the ladder; it was a way for the people at the top of the ladder to offer some crumbs of encouragement and insight to the people down below, and it was a very effective way for everyone involved in the SF community to create a sense of that community as a real and vital thing. (For me, it was the notes in Asimov's Hugo Winners books that did this. I tried rereading some of them recently and found them cloying, but when I was 13 they created a sense of a utopian world of fans and writers, a world I wanted to be a part of.)

I don't expect to win anybody's love by saying this, but the story notes and introductions in most books, the ones that are not integral to the book's conception and construction, add nothing but a sense of amateurism to the whole. Maybe amateurism is something we need more of, maybe it undercuts pomposity and reminds us that writers are ordinary human beings, but I'd rather see more books that were put together with care and selectivity rather than made to fit some template or obligation. Let's have fewer books with material that can be skipped and more where every word on every page is essential to the whole.

In a Name

Gwenda Bond just sent me a news item about the Montana state spelling bee, which was won after 41 rounds with the winner correctly spelling the word mumpsimus.

Of course, we here at Mumpsimus Central are proud of our educational effect on the world, improving the spelling of readers far and wide.*

*Pronunciation is another thing entirely; I have discovered over the past few years that, despite its phoneticity, actually saying the word "mumpsimus" is quite difficult for most people. The Mumpsimus Guide to Proper Living suggests practicing the pronunciation of the word at least five times every morning and then five times before going to bed at night.

And, since we're here, the Mumpsimus Lawyer Cabal insists we note that the fact that one of our dearest of dear readers actually contracted the mumps this year has no direct relation to The Mumpsimus. Thank you for your support.

03 April 2006

PW does SF

The new issue of Publisher's Weekly has a couple of articles about fantasy and science fiction: "Fantasy Goes Literary" by Gwenda Bond and "Too Geeky for Its Own Good?" by Ron Hogan. (Thanks to Richard Nash for the tip.)

Update 4/4/06: Ron Hogan has posted outtakes from his article, with some interesting stuff from Lou Anders, David Hartwell, and others.

Also, be sure to check out Colleen Lindsay's great comment about publicity in the comments to this post.

Loving Delany

There are a couple of interesting reports from the recent Samuel R. Delany conference -- L. Timmel Duchamp offers an overview, and Steven Shaviro has some notable things to say as well. I'm immensely jealous of them for having been able to attend!

Since I'm working on writing a proposal for my masters thesis on Delany this week (I got a thesis committee together through a good sales pitch, but now need to figure out the substance), I was struck by something Duchamp noted:
For many of us the most startling and moving moment of the conference came during the panel discussion on the first day, when Delany said that although he was gratified by the evidence of so much careful, devoted attention to his work, he worried about the dangers posed by its being so motivated by love. Not only did he think such work might be too partial, but he also ruefully noted that intense love of an artist's work could without warning flip into its polar opposite, intense hatred.
This very idea has occurred to me as I've been reading through various critical works about Delany, because most of the people who have written the richest material about him are quite obviously deeply enamored with his work, and the strength of what they write often comes from a passionate connection to his material. This makes perfectly good sense, since academic work on Delany is still marginal compared to writers whose work has sparked both intense love and hate, and because scholarly work is so time-consuming, most of us prefer to spend that time with subjects we don't just get angry at. (I could never, for instance, write about the British Victorian novelists, because reading even their major works is tedious to me, never mind all the minor and obscure things a scholar has to wade through.)

There's a difference, though, between love for a writer's work and fascination with it. I wouldn't say I love Delany's writings. Certainly not in comparison to the writings of many other people. But I find them more fascinating than the writings of just about anybody else, and I have for many years. I'm intimidated at the thought of having to write about them, which is one reason I've decided to do so -- I like to tackle writing projects that intimidate me, because even if in the end it all seems wrongheaded or superficial or a disaster, inevitably I feel like I learn more than I would have had I done something I was more comfortable with, more sure of.

Loving a writer's work makes it difficult to use that work as a tool of thought. Being fascinated by a writer's work, though, is a different thing: passionate, yes, but in a cooler and more analytical way. I have trouble writing about Chekhov, for instance, not because I am intimidated by his stories and plays, but because I adore them. I read them over and over, and if I ever have to think about why and how they work, it takes a real act of will to do so, and even the process feels disappointing, thin, wrong -- the writings themselves provoke the love, and so any distance from those writings becomes a distance from the source of love. Whereas I've heard and read tremendously perceptive insights into Chekhov from people who respect or admire his writings but clearly don't adore them.

Fascination leaves the fascinated reader open to more ways of viewing the work, because no-one likes to hear criticism of something they love. Say bad things about Chekhov and I won't listen and will probably think there's something wrong with you, that you're not just illiterate but probably subhuman. Say bad things about Delany and I might think you missed a particular point or something, but unless you're just being moronic ("He uses big words"), it's not likely to bother me, and I'll probably be interested in why you don't find the writing successful or engaging, because that can become an extension of the fascination: an interest in ways the writing-that-fascinates is received, ways it is valued and disparaged, and so the fascination is not simply with the writing itself (although that is the foundation), but also with the entire real-world milieu the writing provokes, inspires, and shapes.

02 April 2006

Getting the Links Out

I had lots of April Fools things planned, but ended up spending the day judging the New Hampshire Educational Theatre Guild's State Festival, helping to choose two plays out of thirteen to go on to the New England Drama Festival, and it just wasn't quite the right place for joking around -- "And the winner is X! [Pause.] April Fools!"

Locus Online did published their annual April Fools news items, though, with news about space tourist Barry Malzberg, "adult" Star Wars novels, a new publisher for prolific writers, the lies in Jack Williamson's memoir, the SFWA Grandmaster Award, and corporate sponsorship of the World Fantasy Award.

Ed Champion posted a bunch of April 1 literary news, some of which even overlaps with certain of the Locus Online pieces -- "Harlan Ellison's Anger Lost" and "Joyce Carol Oates: 'I Will Write No More'", which should probably not be taken as an indication that Whime Press's hopes of publishing Oates's unpublished novels are dashed, because Oates has enough material stashed away to continue publishing two books a year for the next ten at least.

The new issue of SF Site is up, and includes some April Foolish fun by Jeff VanderMeer: "Lost Books Resurrected", with good news about the lost works of Milorad Pavic, Bruno Schultz, Alasdair Gray, Marcel Proust, Vladimir Nabokov, Cormac McCarthy and Angela Carter. The issue also contains a bizarre interview Jeff did with the folks at Payseur & Schmidt. Not related to April Fool's Day, though I expect some people wish it were, is my review of Gregory Frost's Attack of the Jazz Giants and Other Stories, in which I am curmudgeonly about short story collections in general and this one in particular.

And now for some links that I've been saving up and have nothing to do with April Fool's Day...