30 November 2006

Fragmentary Utterances

I'm too busy at the moment to write at any length about a bunch of things I'd like to write at length about, so instead I will make fragmentary utterances and hope that they suffice for the moment...

Fragmentary Utterance #1: I've been reading through some of the stories in Elizabeth Hand's new collection, Saffron and Brimstone, and they are the sorts of stories that make me feel like all my adjectives are inadequate: evocative, lovely, beguiling, masterful -- yes, they are all that, but more, and differently, and not exactly, and... The collection is subtitled "strange stories" and I think it's both perfect and wrong, because it's not that they're just strange, or that strange encapsulates all that they are. Instead, it's more a kind of placeholder, a way of saying "this, at least, is something", and it's true, because they are strange, but marvelous, too, and...

Fragmentary Utterance #2: The new 3-CD album from Tom Waits, Orphans, is full of treasures and oddities, and though I've been listening to it continuously for a week, I am only beginning to get a grasp of my reaction to it, because it's just so full of, for lack of a better descriptor, stuff. I'm a sucker for Waits's ballads especially, so the middle disc, titled "Bawlers", is the one I find, on the whole, most compelling, but there are unique and addictive songs on the other two discs, "Brawlers" and "Bastards". The album as a whole is worth listening to simply for the variety of material it contains -- everything from experiments with sound to covers of such songs as "Sea of Love" and "Goodnight, Irene" (and two from the Ramones) to spoken-word pieces. It's a grab-bag, sure, and the entire collection is likely to appeal only to those of us who find just about anything Waits does to be at least vaguely interesting, but there are a good number of songs here that are just so beautiful they should have a wider appeal than much of the other material: "Tell it to Me", "Long Way Home", "Fannin Street", "Home I'll Never Be", and at least a few others. I'm particularly pleased to have the two songs Waits created for the soundtrack album to Dead Man Walking on a Waits album, because they are among my favorites from his entire career, and for reasons I can't quite pinpoint, I've always wanted them to be surrounded by other Waits tunes.

Fragmentary Utterance #3: I watched the movie Sophie Scholl: The Final Days last night, and have mostly conflicting feelings about it. For one thing, I've read just about everything in English about Scholl and the White Rose group, and even wrote a short play about them when I was in college, and this knowledge makes me hypercritical of any fictional representations of the people and events, because they're easy to turn into sentimental hooey. I haven't watched Michael Verhoeven's 1982 film about the subject in many years, but my memory of it is of a movie that is mostly accurate historically, but that emphasizes the action-adventure elements of the story. Sophie Scholl has this tendency as well, and I'm not sure it's a bad tendency -- there are certainly adventurous moments in the story -- but the newer film changes tone so much that it becomes jarring. Moments of excitement with kitschy dramatic music alternate with truly powerful, intimate scenes. Many of the characters come across as caricatures, but Julia Jentsch as Sophie is often excellent. Some of the interest in the movie stems from its script's use of transcripts of interrogations discovered in East Germany in the early 1990s, but the re-enactment of these scenes seemed to verge on the tasteless, because something in me screams against having actors pretend to be particular people in particular historical situations such as this -- perhaps I'm too much of a Brechtian at heart to ever be satisfied with historical dramas that don't admit their artificiality. And the ending, in which the executions are re-enacted, seemed as grotesque and wrongheaded to me as the wretched sequence in Munich where a sex scene is intercut with the killing of the kidnappers. There is no intercutting as Sophie gets guillotined, but the filmmakers would have achieved so much more if they had shown a bit of restraint in what they chose to represent.

Fragmentary Utterance #4: What SF writers would you recommend to the Library of America? Oh, I don't know. The suggestions Ron Hogan got from various folks mostly seem sensible to me. A Carol Emshwiller retrospective. Alfred Bester's first two novels, plus most of his short stories. A selection of Theodore Sturgeon short stories and some of the novels. Cordwainer Smith. Damon Knight's selected stories and criticism. Tiptree's collected stories. Delany, definitely. (If I were selecting Delany, I'd choose some of the short stories, "Empire Star", Babel-17, The Einstein Intersection, Nova, Trouble on Triton, and Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand for one big volume; Dhalgren, and Hogg for another; all the Neveryon books for another; Heavenly Breakfast, The Motion of Light in Water, Atlantis: Three Tales, and various interviews for another; and as much of the remaining nonfiction as possible for another. Yes, a 5-volume set of Delany for The Library of America. A fine thought. [Yes, somebody is procrastinating working on his thesis about Delany again....])

28 November 2006


Sez Jonathan Lethem to Mark Sarvas:
...I'm helping preside over the utter and irreversible canonization of one of my (formerly outsider) heroes, Philip K. Dick: I'm writing endnotes for The Library of America, which is doing a volume of four of his novels from the sixties, which I also helped select.
Here's a USA Today (actually, Associated Press) article about the upcoming book.

26 November 2006

"Quitting Dreams" by Matthew Cheney and Jeffrey Ford

I just received Electric Velocipede #11, and though I'm sure it contains many excellent stories, the only one I have read (well, skimmed) so far is the collaboration between Matthew Cheney and Jeffrey Ford, "Quitting Dreams".

What the reader will notice first is that the story's title and byline are printed on a label attached to the paper. While Mr. Ford's lawyers have requested that I not spread what they call "vile, malicious lies, untruths, and stuff", I would like to note that many a message-board is abuzz with the rumor that Mr. Ford has initiated a suit against the corporate fatcats at EV in what has so far proved to be a fruitless attempt to have his name removed from the story. Apparently, the lawyers for all sides came to a compromise solution, and now readers can tear the title and both names off the story for themselves.

Nonetheless, "Quitting Dreams" is a truly extraordinary piece of fiction, and not merely because it contains some very long paragraphs. Readers will be pleased to see that, despite Mr. Cheney's stated penchant for long sentences, "Quitting Dreams" actually contains more short sentences than long sentences (as measured by freelance statisticians of sentence length hired by The Mumpsimus). In fact, the story begins with two short sentences: "I met Paul Cleary because I was addicted to his dreams. I wanted to meet the man who had ruined my life."

This is an admirable beginning, because it introduces us to both the main character and the premise and conflict of the story. Such skill is displayed throughout the story -- notice, for instance, this sentence from later in the story: "I didn't go back to the house." Here the narrator not only states an action, but the action is a negative one, and yet indicates a concrete thing (the house). It takes a writer with truly basic knowledge of English to be able to write such a sentence.

The integration of dreams into the story is a particularly brilliant touch. So much fiction today is limited to the malaise of pedestrians, usually over-educated men walking down the street to have an encounter with someone who is not their wife. Unlike such stories, "Quitting Dreams" includes "stock market crashes, genetic mutation of crops and food, portable nuclear bombs set off in O'Hare Airport, oceans rising, martial law declared, personal ownership of firearms banned, evangelical Christianity proclaimed the national religion of the U.S. of A., famines and plagues" -- and all of this within one sentence.

Another strength of "Quitting Dreams" is its realism. Much science fiction today refers only to its own predecessors, creating a feedback loop of in-jokes and recursive fetishization of the nostalgicized tropes of Golden Age writers. "Quitting Dreams", instead, uses its addictive dreams to create a true relationship to consensus reality:
I dreamed I was a writer and had a reading gig and when I got to it, it turned out to be at the base of this pier. It was night and it was cold. The water lapped the sand behind me. Boards were nailed up across the stanchions of the pier so I really couldn't see too well underneath it. A couple of them were falling off. I stood there and read a story (I think it was called "The Beautiful Gelreesh", whatever that means). All I could hear was the ocean behind me.
This is hard science fiction with a hardboiled realism -- writing that refers not to other writing, but to the world at large.

Aesthetically, philosophically, politically -- really, in any way imaginable -- "Quitting Dreams" must stand among the most brilliant stories written in the hour it was written, a story for the ages, prose for the deathless, fiction for the fictional. Anybody who doesn't read it is not only missing out on sentences written in more-or-less grammatical English, but probably has something better to do.

25 November 2006

From Oregon

Here's a photo from Thanksgiving day in Yoncalla, Oregon. It has been suggested to me that this would make a fine publicity photo. I'm not sure for what sort of publicity. It certainly does seem appropriate, though, to the author of "Blood"...

A strange picture of Mr. Cheney(The item in my hand, by the way, is a leg crook used on sheep.)

22 November 2006

Robert Altman (1925-2006)

I was shocked by the news of Robert Altman's death. Despite the fact that he lived a wonderfully long and productive life, he was one of those icons I always thought would be around, because how could we live in a world without Robert Altman?

I could praise his genius, his willingness to experiment, his determination, his ... well, you name it. But as I've been absorbing the news of his death, what I've been thinking about is that he is the one director who has produced movies I have loved for all of my life.

When I was a little kid, Popeye was my favorite movie. I thought it was the funniest, most delightful, most emotionally satisfying film that could ever be created. (Yes, you could probably say that only an 8-year-old would feel that way about Popeye, but still...)

In high school, Vincent & Theo was my favorite suffering artist movie. I had a grainy VHS tape of it, a tape I must have watched 20 or 30 times before finally getting the DVD when it finally came out recently. It remains a favorite, and continues to be neglected in discussions of Altman, which generally focus on some of his slicker, more superficial films like The Player and Gosford Park.

I saw a matinee of Short Cuts at the cinema in Plymouth, New Hampshire when it came out in 1993. I was the only person in the theatre. It was an overwhelming experience, and I'm sure some of the power of watching that film alone in a theatre has contributed to it being my favorite Altman movie (and thus just about my favorite movie by any American), but nonetheless, I have watched it repeatedly, and every time I discover something new to capture my attention within it.

Right around the time I saw Short Cuts, I met the writer Calder Willingham, who got screen credit for writing Altman's Thieves Like Us. I had already read about Altman's freewheeling approach to filmmaking, and so assumed that writers probably weren't particularly thrilled with what he did to their words, so I was gentle when I brought up Altman's name to Willingham. A look of disgust -- perhaps even horror -- came over his face, and he immediately changed the subject.

My first disappointment with Altman came when I saw his film of Christopher Durang's play Beyond Therapy. For a while, Durang was among my favorite playwrights -- his anarchic comedy at its best fits my sensibilities well. Beyond Therapy was on TV very late one night, and I stayed up to watch it, only to discover the film was leaden and completely destroyed all the humor of the original.

Of course, anyone who loves Altman also has to admit that he was capable of making atrociously bad movies like Beyond Therapy. That's part of what is so fascinating about his work -- the same commitment to experiment that led him to moments of genius also produced truly failed experiments. While this could be disappointing -- we want our geniuses to be gods of perfection, after all -- it is in the end, I think, his greatest quality, because he fully committed himself to the process of filmmaking, and he let his interests range farther than any other director I can think of. It's likely we wouldn't have had the masterpieces without the failures in between them, and if it required a few Beyond Therapies to get Altman to the point where he could create such films as MASH, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville, Vincent & Theo, and Short Cuts ... well, I'm not going to complain.

My only complaint is he didn't live even longer. But it's a hollow complaint, because he died in the midst of work, at a time when he was receiving accolades for the achievements of his life, and there aren't too many better ways to go.

21 November 2006

Julie Phillips Interview

It's Thanksgiving week here in the U.S., and I'm in an undisclosed location in the wilds of rural Oregon visiting friends, so it's unlikely there will be many updates this week.

I did want to direct your attention, though, to Strange Horizons this week, where there are many things worth looking at, and where I have an interview with Julie Phillips, author of James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon.

19 November 2006

Waiting for an Angel by Helon Habila

Waiting for An Angel is Helon Habila's first novel, although it is also a collection of interlinked short stories, one of which won the 2001 Caine Prize for African Writing. (Though each story can be read separately, it is their resonances with each other, particularly in the order Habila has presented them in the book, that provides the most emotional power, and so I will refer to the book as a novel.)

The events of Waiting for an Angel are not presented in chronological order, and this choice strengthens the book's effect. It is seldom confusing, and is, in fact, in many ways clarifying -- by the second half of the book, whenever we encounter a character, place, or situation, we often know something of its past and future, and so casual actions or phrases that might have otherwise meant little instead take on significance.

The first chapter of the book, in fact, is the last chronologically. It begins:
In the middle of his second year in prison, Lomba got access to a pencil and paper and he started a diary. It was not easy. He had to write in secret, mostly in the early mornings when the night warders, tired of peeping through the door bars, waited impatiently for the morning shift. Most of the entries he simply headed with the days of the week; the exact dates, when he used them, were often incorrect. The first entry was for July 1997, a Friday.
We will soon learn that we are in Nigeria during the reign of General Abacha, that Lomba was a journalist in Lagos and is now a political prisoner, and then we will move backward to discover the people Lomba knew outside prison, the life he led and the lives that intersected his. The point of view will shift, but the matter-of-fact prose will continue to convey wonders and terrors with an accumulative power, so that by the end of the novel what we will come away with most vividly is a sense of intersections of personal and political life, because loss is loss, regardless of what causes it.

Because of the structure of the book, we know from early on what will become of Lomba, and so the reader is put in the position of a dreamer, again and again with each passing page hoping, wishing, yearning for a different resolution, for a way for Lomba and everybody else to escape fate. Habila is always ahead of us, though, and he knows what he has conjured -- the second chapter tells the story of Lomba and a friend going to a fortune teller to find out what will become of them:
"What did he say?" I asked.

Lomba shrugged. "Prison. That was all he saw ahead of me. Go in, try your luck, ask for good fortune, don't ask too closely."
The friend asks to know when he will die. The fortune teller will not say, but instead offers what he can for advice: "A wise man is always ready for death. Assume it will come tomorrow, or in the next minute." We know from the first sentence of this chapter what we are reading about, though: "Today is the last day of my life."

Waiting for an Angel is all about death, yes, and fate, and wretchedness, but though it wrenches both gut and heart, it is less depressing than many such books, because throughout it all there is an unsentimental attitude of carpe diem, a focus on the details of living that makes the fortune teller's view of wisdom into a view of the world.

In an afterword, Habila says he sought "to capture the mood of those years, especially the Abacha years: the despair, the frenzy, the stubborn hope, but above all the airless prison-like atmosphere that characterized them." I am not capable of judging whether he succeeds at this goal, but I can say that perhaps what impresses me most about the book is that it does not feel like a self-consciously "social" novel -- it does not feel like it is trying to do what Habila says it is trying to do. Instead, it feels like a collection of glimpses of human lives. This is not to say that Habila therefore fails to write the social book he wanted to write; the most deeply affecting portraits of society are composed of portraits of individual people, and it is those portraits that make this such a complexly affecting work. (The problem is not with social novels per se, but with social novels that feel like social novels, therefore becoming something closer to history lessons and case studies.)

In February, W.W. Norton will release Habila's second novel, Measuring Time, and it is a book I await eagerly, because for all its strength of vision and specificity of character, Waiting for an Angel feels like just a taste of what Habila has to say.

18 November 2006

Holiday Books

The busiest shopping days of the year are coming up soon, which means a couple of people out there might be looking for good books to give as gifts. Here are some that have delighted me over the past year and thus are on my list to give as gifts for readers looking for intelligent and entertaining reads:
  • The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Vol. 1: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson. This is simply an extraordinary novel, regardless of the fact that it's being marketed as a book for "young adults". It's one of those books I'll probably always try to have extra copies of, just to give away whenever I encounter someone who hasn't read it.

  • My favorite novel from last year, The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia, is now out in paperback. I loved the hardcover just for its shape and weight and design, but the paperback has preserved most of the interior design, and so now an inexpensive and easily-available copy is ready for a whole new batch of readers.

  • (Other favorites from last year have also come out in paperback, including Magic for Beginners, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, and Divided Kingdom.)

  • Shriek: An Afterword by Jeff VanderMeer. I could be accused of bias, since I once met Mr. VanderMeer (in a dark alley in a forgotten city), but this novel has received accolades from far and wide, so I know my admiration and enjoyment of it are not anomalistic. (In fact, I'm trying to like the book a little bit less these days, because I'm uncomfortable agreeing with so many people.) I recently forced a friend to buy Shriek, a friend who does not generally read fantasy fiction, and she reported to me that she finds it both compulsively readable and extraordinarily disturbing. She has been having strange dreams about mushrooms, she said. She worries that there are other books in the world like this. I said she should not worry, because there are not.

  • Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century edited by Justine Larbalestier. In a year that seems to have produced some good anthologies, this is the one I have found myself returning to most frequently, because the mix of stories and critical essays creates such a compelling conversation.

  • 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. I seldom read history books cover-to-cover, but this one I did, and I've found myself recommending the book again and again to various and sundry people. (For a taste of what the book has to offer, see this article, much of which was incorporated into the book. There's also a lot available at Mann's website. For lots of discussion of the book, check out this post at Making Light.)

  • James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips. This is a book I'll be giving to people who profess no interest in science fiction, but who have some interest in 20th century gender issues or just like interesting life stories, because though Alice Sheldon became best known as the woman who wrote the fiction published under the name James Tiptree, Jr., Julie Phillips tells the truth of her life so well that it is simply a fascinating portrait of a human being.

  • Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology edited by John Kessel & James Patrick Kelly. I'm not much interested in defining "slipstream", if there even is such a thing, but this anthology makes a fine gift simply because it's got a bunch of good stories in it. Anthologies can be pretty hit-or-miss, and this one is just about all hit.

  • An American Obsession: Science, Medicine, and Homosexuality in Modern Society by Jennifer Terry. Of all the books I've encountered while working on my masters degree, this is the one I have found most illuminating and invaluable. It's a big, rich book, with revelations on every page about the intersections of science, medicine, and identity in the U.S. in the 20th century. The writing is remarkably lucid for an academic text, and the stories Terry has to tell are amazing.

  • Map of Dreams by M. Rickert and The Empire of Ice Cream by Jeffrey Ford. 2006 been a good year for short story collections, but Golden Gryphon Press may have published the two best, at least of collections marketed as SF. Rickert and Ford are very different writers, and though neither book is perfect, each shows a commitment to both imagination and art that is rare this days. They are collections of wonder and thought, and, as such, make marvelous gifts.

  • Last Evenings on Earth is a short story collection I have just begun reading, and I'm entranced. Bolano's writing is deceptively straightforward, seemingly artless, and yet by the end of each tale, it feels as if an entire novel's worth of life has opened up. Having only read a few stories, I'm already planning on giving this book to a number of different people.

  • The Children's Hospital by Chris Adrian is another book I must admit not having finished yet. In fact, I've only read the first 60 pages or so, and it's a big book. I have no idea when I'll be able to finish it. I'm not worried, though, because it's a book I'm perfectly happy to live with, a book that promises riches -- the opening pages are among the most original and spellbinding of any new novel I've read in years. I'll be giving copies of this to friends just so there are people I can call up late at night and say, "Did you read that sentence on page x,y,z? That paragraph on page u,v,w? Isn't it amazing!"

16 November 2006

A Well-Deserved Award

M.T. Anderson has won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature for his novel Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation; vol. 1: The Pox Party.

I don't usually note award results around here, but in this case I am thrilled to see such an odd and extraordinary book honored, and it also gives me a chance to note that Jenny Davidson (of Light Reading) recently wrote a fine review of the book for the NYTBR.

Update: Here's a great interview with Anderson about the book.

15 November 2006

Rules for Writing

If you use adjectives in your prose, do not use nouns. If you use nouns, you must not use verbs. If you use verbs, try to avoid verbs that specify a particular city.

When specifying particular cities in fiction, do not use cities that have been specified in poems. Poems have so few things left of their own anymore that we should let them have their own cities.

When writing poems, use many different points of view. Poems without multiple points of view are too strident. Prose is allowed to be strident on certain political holidays, but poems that are strident tend to resemble over-ripe fruit, and nobody likes that.

Bad writing is usually caused by over-ripe fruit, but often enough there is too little rain during the season, and that isn't any good, either. More good writing is produced by rain than by drought.

Do not write about the thing that annoyed your brother the last time you wrote about it, because he's bigger than you and he's got a mean streak and there are plenty of other things to write about, like the weather.

If you write about the weather, use as many adjectives as you can, or else your nouns will wilt and become adverbs.

Some coaches insist adverbs are stronger than nouns, but an independent panel of statisticians has proved otherwise. Despite appearances, though, statisticians don't like nouns so much as they adore conjunctions.

If you use foreign phrases in your writing, be careful to use the correct pronunciation.

There are really only three plots: the queen cried because the city became a piece of over-ripe fruit; the king killed himself because the political holiday was ruined by the weather; and the thing that annoyed your brother caused him to hate nouns.

If you write a play, call it a poem, because otherwise everyone will assume it's a blog post, and trust me, you don't want that.

14 November 2006

Some Notes on Invitation to a Beheading

I've been subjecting my Advanced Placement students to Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading, and it's been fun to see their responses, because many more of them enjoyed the book than I expected. I introduced it by having them read Azar Nafisi's memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, which most of them found engaging, and it helped give them a grasp of some of what Nabokov was up to before they plunged into the bewildering world of Cincinnatus C. and his prison cell.

Inevitably, there were students who were convinced Nabokov was insane or a drug addict or both. This accusation comes up all the time when we read anyone who is not among the hardest of hardcore realists, because imagination is something that has come to be associated only with the stimulus of drugs or madness. That someone could think up a story like Invitation to a Beheading -- where a man is imprisoned for "gnostic turpitude" in a fortress of porous walls and fake windows and rules against improper dreams -- without being addicted to hallucinogens or lacking a couple of screws is at best inconceivable to many people, if not threatening. The people who issue these accusations would never think of such a story or such imagery themselves, and therefore they can't imagine how anyone else could, unless there was something wrong with their brains. I am sad to see this way of thinking in my students, because it means they are suspicious of one of the fundamental techniques of art, but at least in the classroom I am able to challenge and undermine those beliefs; the effect of such suspicion on the world at large is depressing to contemplate.

It is against just such thinking that Invitation to a Beheading stands, the story of an "opaque" man in a "transparent" world. For reasons that are (intentionally) never made clear, it's hard to figure out exactly how Cincinnatus C. is different from the people around him, except that he is apparently more "real" (at least to himself) than the "parodies" of people he encounters throughout his life, and throughout his life they have distrusted him, reported on him, interrogated him, threatened him. It is not the crime that matters, but rather the perception. Very little in the book gives us concrete evidence of Cincinnatus's difference from his, as he calls them, coevals -- they're all a bit strange, yes, but he's a pretty odd duck, himself. What the book shows, though, is a conflict of perceptions, of feelings, of imagination, because everything has always felt wrong to Cincinnatus, and imagination is his one tool of hope for escape. An incident in childhood was, he says, "when I first understood that things which to me had seemed natural were actually forbidden, impossible, that any thought of them was criminal."

Inevitably, people compare Invitation to 1984, and Nabokov speaks out against Orwell in his preface to the English-language edition of the novel, calling Orwell one of the "popular puveyors of illustrated ideas and publicistic fiction". He did not desire comparison to any writer at all, but Orwell particularly irked him. At first, it's difficult to see why, because it is difficult not to think of Invitation as, if not a political book, then at least a book with some political implications. 1984 may illustrate ideas, but no novel can avoid doing that -- the human mind likes patterns, and stories, being elaborate patterns, echo and suggest other patterns -- and so Invitation to a Beheading illustrates ideas as well, but one of the differences lies in what gets missed if the book is reduced only to its ideas. 1984 can be discussed as a political tract -- we can talk about the implications of Newspeak and the Memory Hole, of Big Brother and rewritten history and perpetual wars and all the other prophetic/satirical accoutrements to the book. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing -- different books yield different items of interest -- but trying to read Invitation to a Beheading in such a way becomes quickly frustrating, because while Invitation contains a portrait of a totalitarian world, it is equally about art, perception, and "reality". And, this being a Nabokov novel, every word serves the purpose not so much of illustrating those ideas, but of embodying them.

Invitation to a Beheading refuses to create a stable fictional reality for the characters or for the reader, and, as with much of Nabokov's best work, there are multiple plots at once: the surface plot of what's happening in the story, the subtextual plot of things "really" going on that the characters either aren't aware of or are hiding, and the plot between the text and the reader (or sometimes the narrator and the characters). It could be that, in the last sentence, Cincinnatus has broken through to a "real" reality, but we have no way to know, because it is all a matter of perception -- his wishful, imagined double achieves life in the second before (during?) Cincinnatus's death, and he walks toward what he thinks are "beings akin to him", but he is able to judge only by their distant voices. The characters who persecuted him have all metamorphosed into tiny, pathetic creatures. The funhouse mirrors have been turned. Body and spirit are inverted, but no-one can say which is which.

This is not a "it was only a dream!" ending, though, because the reality of the book is the reality of Cincinnatus's perceptions, and he has not perceived the world he has escaped to be a dream -- indeed, the hopefulness of the last sentence is predicated on everything before it having been, for Cincinnatus, utterly true and real. A shallow political interpretation of the book would have trouble with the ending, I expect, because such an interpretation would see the ending as suggesting that totalitarianism can be escaped through imagination, but what the book shows with nearly every sentence is, instead, that imagination is anathema to totalitarianism of every sort. Nabokov was no sentimentalist, however, and Invitation to a Beheading demonstrates as relentless a fight for purity and rigor of imagination as do his Lectures on Literature -- Cincinnatus does not, after all, walk down a path toward beings who might be akin to him until he has been within a second of having his head chopped off.

On Being Ill

I had not planned to completely stop posting things around here, but in the middle of last week I began to get a fever, and that fever steadily progressed into the full-blown flu by the weekend, causing me to be able to do little other than moan and sleep. Today is the first day in the past five when I have been able to function at, if not full capacity, at least something resembling it.

I haven't been this sick in many years, and it was a bizarre, agonizing experience to be completely unable to do anything I wanted or needed to do at a particularly busy time of life. I tend to want to pretend I do not have a body, or at least that it doesn't have much control over the "real" me, but now and then that body does something to remind all the me's, real and imaginary, that it is, indeed, in charge.

In any case, this is not a plea for sympathy -- I'm fine, and millions and millions of people suffer through worse every day -- but merely a note to say that I expect things will be returning to their regularly unscheduled, erratic pace from now on.

06 November 2006

Strange Horizons Fall Fund Drive

The Strange Horizons Fall Fund Drive has been extended to Nov. 12, meaning you still have a chance to give some of your ill-gotten gains to them before you're thrown in prison. Please don't blame them for things like my latest column. They also publish good stuff, like a week of Tiptree-related reviews.

(And yes, I know I've been a lousy blogger recently. I've been a lousy everything recently, what with work, thesis, deadlines for various writings I promised to people back when I had a delusion of spare time, etc. I probably owe you an email. I probably forgot to do that thing I said I'd do for you. I probably ruined your childhood. I apologize for the first two. With luck, things will get a bit more lively around here soon.)

03 November 2006

The End of ManBug Week

ManBug Week has wound down over at the the LBC with a podcast interview with George Ilsley created by the great and glorious Carolyn Kellogg of Pinky's Paperhaus and the tenebrous, ranting denizens of The Bat Segundo Show.

I haven't been on a fast enough internet connection yet to listen to the interview, but Carolyn told me she enjoyed talking with George and that he said plenty of illuminating and amusing things, so I'm looking forward to listening to that part of the interview. I'm more wary of the beginning, because Carolyn and I talk about the book for a moment before introducing George, and I expect I sound like an idiot. Ignorance is, perhaps, bliss.

02 November 2006

Fresh Links

I rely on NetNewsWire for RSS feed reading, but have begun to experiment with Google Reader as an online alternative. As part of that experiment, I'm trying out the sharing capabilities, so you will now see (I hope...) a "Fresh Links" section of the sidebar. This offers some recent links to weblog posts that I've found in some way or another interesting. You can connect from there to my public page, which also has its own feed if you want to receive it all in your own reader*. I'll keep playing with it see how it works out. Ideally, it could be an easy way to keep some fresh content going, and reduce some of the need for big linkdump posts.

Note: If the "Fresh Links" section has disappeared, that means I'm fighting with it or am abandoning it. If it looks funny, that means I haven't gotten the code to integrate well with this site's template. In other words, this is all a test.

*I've only been able to get the feed to work in Google Reader, which may be the only place it will work, I don't know. With more time, I'll figure it out.