26 April 2012


From three of the most interesting things I've read recently and, thus, started thinking about together...

M. John Harrison:
A world can be built in a sentence, but epic fantasy doesn’t want that. At the same time, it isn’t really baggy or capacious, like Pynchon or Gunter Grass. It has no V. It has no Dog Years. It has no David Foster Wallace. It isn’t a generous genre. The same few stolen cultures & bits of history, the same few biomes, the same few ideas about things. It’s a big bag but there isn’t much in it. With deftness, economy of line, good design, compression & use of modern materials, you could ram it full of stuff. You could really build a world. But for all the talk, that’s not what that kind of fantasy wants. It wants to get away from a world. This one.

Ian Sales on Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey:
There are some 150 million people living in the Asteroid Belt. The greatest concentration is six million in the tunnels inside the dwarf planet Ceres. There is no diversity. There is passing mention of nationalities other than the authors’ own – and a bar the characters frequent plays banghra music – but the viewpoint cast are American in outlook and presentation. Ceres itself is like some inner city no-go zone, with organised crime, drug-dealing, prostitution, under-age prostitution, endemic violence against women, subsistence-level employment… Why? It’s simply not plausible. Why would a space-based settlement resemble the worst excesses of some bad US TV crime show? The Asteroid Belt is not the Wild West, criminals and undesirables can’t simply wander in of their own accord and set up shop. Any living space must be built and maintained and carefully controlled, and everything in it must in some way contribute. A space station is much like an oil rig in the North Sea – and you don’t get brothels on oil rigs.

Further, what does all this say about gender relations in the authors’ vision of the twenty-second century? That women still are second-class citizens. One major character’s boss is a woman, and another’s executive officer is also female. But that female boss plays only a small role, and everything the XO does she does because she has the male character’s permission to do so (and it’s not even a military spaceship).

Paul Di Filippo on Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders by Samuel R. Delany:
Given that the book achieves liftoff into SF territory halfway through, you need to know that Delany does not stint on his speculative conceits. His hand is as sure as of old. The future history he creates is genuinely insightful and innovative. But it’s always background, half-seen. Because our heroes are living in a semi-rural backwater and are self-professed “Luddites,” their mode of life is more archaic than the lifestyles of others. But the shifting world keeps bumping up against them, rather in the manner of Haldeman’s The Forever War. Eric and Shit move ahead almost in a series of discontinuous jumps, waking up at random moments like Haldeman’s returning soldiers to find the world growing stranger and less comprehensible and less welcoming around them. It’s as if they are riding a time machine whose intervals of travel are ever-increasing. By the end of the book, the two ancient lovers are relics, fossils, and the mutant children who, in a sense their actions helped birth, are golden-eyed and alien.

Delany’s focus on such humble men—both Eric and Shit proclaim their lives to have been full and happy and joyous, but ultimately inconsequential, and no other character beside Robert Kyle is a Bigtime Player, and he’s mostly offstage—is the ultimate enactment of the goals discussed in Ursula Le Guin’s essay “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown”. No wars, no heists, no inventions, no high drama, no bigger-than-life supermen propel this story. To pervert the title of Aaron Copland’s famous work, it’s a “Fanfare for the Common Horndog.” And yet by this very limitation, by the intensity with which Delany inhabits the simple lives of his heroes, the book assumes that majesty which all eternal and humble things acquire, when seen a-right. 

23 April 2012

A Good Sign for the Caine Prize?

I've voiced my qualms about the Caine Prize for African Literature before, particularly in terms of the stories that often end up winning the award, and so I found this statement by this year's Chair of Judges, Bernardine Evaristo, encouraging:
I’m looking for stories about Africa that enlarge our concept of the continent beyond the familiar images that dominate the media: War-torn Africa, Starving Africa, Corrupt Africa — in short: The Tragic Continent. I’ve been banging on about this for years because while we are all aware of these negative realities, and some African writers have written great novels along these lines (as was necessary, crucial), isn’t it time now to move on? Or rather, for other kinds of African novels to be internationally celebrated. What other aspects of this most heterogeneous of continents are being explored through the imaginations of writers?
I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with individual Tragic Continent stories — I like tragic stories! — but rather with the accumulated, repetitious weight of them, the monotony and predictability. (I wouldn't say "time to move on" — that implies we've "covered" the wars, the child soldiers, etc., and now we can read about happy things; I think it's vastly more complex than that, and I'm sure Evaristo does, too.) There have certainly been plenty of tragedies and atrocities that need to be represented and explored in fiction, but Evaristo voices my concerns exactly: why does African fiction have to be less diverse and heterogeneous than any other fiction? Is it because that's what publishers think European and American readers will read? Should the Prize really be governed by European and American stereotypes of the continent? The great potential of the Caine Prize is that it doesn't have to adhere to publishers' opinions about what Europeans and Americans think is "proper" African fiction.

Evaristo's final paragraph almost had me jump up out of my seat to exclaim, "Yes!":
For African fiction to remain more than a passing fad on the world stage it needs to diversify more than it does at present. What about crime fiction, science fiction, fantasy, horror, more history, chick lit? To be as diverse as, for example, European literature and its myriad manifestations. Imagine if the idea of ‘European Literature’ only evoked novels about the holocaust, communist gulags and twentieth century dictatorships. I’m looking forward to the time when the concept of ‘African literature’ also cannot be defined; when it equates to infinite possibilities and, as with Europe, there are thousands of disparate, published writers, with careers at every level and reaching every kind of reader.
Now that's an idea of "African literature" I can get behind.

22 April 2012

Shirley Jackson Award Nominees

I am a juror for this year's Shirley Jackson Awards (along with Laird Barron, Maura McHugh, Kaaron Warren, and Gary K. Wolfe), for which the nominees have just been announced. It's a diverse and interesting list, I think, but then, I'm one fifth of the people responsible for it, so I'm a bit biased. The winners will be announced at Readercon in July.


  • The Devil All the Time, Donald Ray Pollock (Doubleday)
  • The Dracula Papers, Reggie Oliver (Chômu Press)
  • The Great Lover, Michael Cisco (Chômu Press)
  • Knock Knock, S. P. Miskowski (Omnium Gatherum Media)
  • The Last Werewolf, Glen Duncan (Canongate Books, Ltd.)
  • Witches on the Road Tonight, Sheri Holman (Grove Press)


  • “And the Dead Shall Outnumber the Living,” Deborah Biancotti (Ishtar, Gilgamesh Press)
  • “A Child’s Problem,” Reggie Oliver (A Book of Horrors, Jo Fletcher Books)
  • “Displacement,” Michael Marano (Stories from the Plague Years, Cemetery Dance Publications)
  • The Men Upstairs, Tim Waggoner (Delirium Books)
  • “Near Zennor,” Elizabeth Hand (A Book of Horrors, Jo Fletcher Books)
  • “Rose Street Attractors,” Lucius Shepard (Ghosts by Gaslight, Harper Voyager)


  • “The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine,” Peter Straub (Conjunctions 56)
  • “Ditch Witch,” Lucius Shepard (Supernatural Noir, Dark Horse)
  • “The Last Triangle,” Jeffrey Ford (Supernatural Noir, Dark Horse)
  • “Omphalos,” Livia Llewellyn (Engines of Desire: Tales of Love & Other Horrors, Lethe Press)
  • “The Summer People,” Kelly Link (Tin House 49/Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories, Candlewick Press)


  • “Absolute Zero,” Nadia Bulkin (Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters, Prime Books)
  • “The Corpse Painter’s Masterpiece,” M. Rickert (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Sept/Oct, 2011)
  • “Hair,” Joan Aiken (The Monkey’s Wedding and Other Stories, Small Beer Press/ The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July/Aug, 2011)
  • “Max,” Jason Ockert (The Iowa Review 41/1)
  • “Sunbleached,” Nathan Ballingrud (Teeth, HarperCollins)
  • “Things to Know About Being Dead,” Genevieve Valentine (Teeth, HarperCollins)


  • After the Apocalypse: Stories, Maureen F. McHugh (Small Beer Press) 
  • The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares, Joyce Carol Oates (Mysterious Press)
  • Engines of Desire: Tales of Love & Other Horrors, Livia Llewellyn (Lethe Press)
  • The Janus Tree, Glen Hirshberg (Subterranean Press)
  • Red Gloves, Christopher Fowler (PS Publishing)
  • What Wolves Know, Kit Reed (PS Publishing)


  • Blood and Other Cravings, edited by Ellen Datlow (Tor)
  • A Book of Horrors, edited by Stephen Jones (Jo Fletcher Books)
  • Ghosts by Gaslight, edited by Jack Dann and Nick Gevers (Harper Voyager)
  • Supernatural Noir, edited by Ellen Datlow (Dark Horse)
  • Teeth, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (HarperCollins)
  • The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (Harper Voyager)

Touch of Psycho

An exploration of echoes and variations — a few moments from Touch of Evil and Psycho reimagined through each other:

(The two films shared a number of personnel: actors Janet Leigh and Mort Mills, art director Robert Clatworthy, and John L. Russell, who worked as a camera operator on Touch of Evil and director of photography on Psycho.)

02 April 2012

Fact, Fiction, Life

My latest Strange Horizons column is about John D'Agata and Jim Fingal's book The Lifespan of a Fact, which has been provoking a lot of discussion.

My favorite of the responses to the book is Ander Monson's "The Skeptical Gaze", because not only has Monson read Lifespan with some care (which cannot be said for many of the people punditing about it), but he's also done some wonderful work himself to explore the possibilities and boundaries of fact and fiction (I wrote about his excellent book Vanishing Point a couple years ago for Strange Horizons). (Pardon another parenthetical, but I also want to add that comparisons between Mike Daisy and John D'Agata are superficial and fundamentally wrongheaded, as Josh Voorhees pointed out at Slate. Daisy hid his lying and worked hard to do so, D'Agata has put his fictionalizing front and center and let the world respond. I wrote the column before the Daisy scandal broke, however.)

Anyway, my own take on The Lifespan of a Fact was written about a month ago, but for scheduling reasons couldn't be published till now, so it feels a little bit superfluous to the conversation. I'm glad it's out there nonetheless, because I don't think mine is quite the same perspective as many of the others.