20 December 2003

"A Walk in the Garden"
by Lucius Shepard

This past summer, Lucius Shepard published a story at SciFiction, "A Walk in the Garden", which takes place in an Iraq occupied by American soldiers, soldiers not too different from the ones currently there except that they are well-equipped with state-of-the-art armor that offers them every convenience of the wired world, as well as protection against every imaginable form of attack. (Quite a contrast to the soldiers who really are in Iraq and don't have the armor they need.) Shepard's soldiers end up going to a mountain where a blast from a new type of bomb has ripped a hole in the quantum fabric of the universe and created a portal to a world based on some Muslim beliefs about hell and paradise. Their trip becomes one of carnage and suffering, with plenty of scenes which would fit well into the screenplay for a hundred-million-dollar summer blockbuster starring the current governor of California. To maintain a bit of self-respect, apparently, Shepard has included a couple of sentences of pop-metaphysical speculation, thus lending the otherwise purely entertaining tale a thin veneer of lit'ry virtue.

Entertaining it is. It's long, but most of it reads quickly, aside from some paragraphs in the last third which could stand a bit of editing. Shepard is one of the most capable writers ever to grace the pages of science fiction and fantasy magazines, and he's had a bit of crossover success as well, publishing in Esquire and Playboy, among others. He's often cited by SF fans as a writer people who aren't SF fans ought to be able to respect.

While Shepard certainly has a fine flair for language, a rare one, he's often his own worst enemy, giving his plots over to the worst excesses of the Tom Clancy School of Reader Manipulation. Only a few of Shepard's stories have ever seemed to me to be truly successful as works of literature, regardless of genre or marketing labels, with "The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule" standing as the pinnacle of his achievement, at least among the works of his I've read. The effect of this work on a reader is exactly the effect of the greatest literature -- it wakes you up, startles you, moves you, disturbs you, makes you view the world through a lens you couldn't have imagined before. ("R&R" seems to me almost as successful.)

How frustrating, then, to see an author of such potential and power offering us the half-baked blather of "A Walk in the Garden". If it were a story purely bent on being entertaining, it would be shorter, tighter, with clearer character arcs and a more satisfying conclusion. If it were a story which were really literature, both entertaining and enlightening, it would offer more complex characters (the characters in the story are little more than stereotypes, authorial cannon fodder), more convincing imagery (the conception of the flowery hell is really rather silly, and I found myself laughing at the whole conceit), more political and social ambiguity -- for though this is a story which has plenty to say about the current situation in Iraq, its commentary is hardly subtle and feels tacked-on. It's also now outdated, as early in the story one of the characters says, "Where you think Saddam's at? He's not dead, man. Some guys're sayin' the flowers might be the front of his secret hideout." A good story has no need to be historically accurate -- this could be an alternate universe, after all -- but nevertheless, the current-events patois doesn't so much lend the story any sort of verisimilitude as it does give in to the commodification of yesterday's news, making actual death and suffering into a story device, a cheap trick.

What caused Ellen Datlow to publish "A Walk in the Garden"? Shepard's high profile within the SF field, the reputational gravitas which lends his every pen stroke into a sacred SFnal text? He's a good writer, a damn good writer at times, and every few years or so produces something which can hold its own with the best of contemporary fiction of any sort, but the reverence he inspires in the SF field does him no good, at least if "A Walk in the Garden" is a result of this reverence. The best thing Shepard could get would be an editor who wasn't a friend, an editor who held him in barely any esteem. I think he'd enjoy the tension and frisson of such a relationship, and the result might be great work.

Fame and reverence tend to affect writers badly, as can be seen in the work of almost any writer who got famous and kept writing. Look at Faulkner and Hemingway -- hollowed out by alcohol, Portabled and Nobeled, their last works were worse than last gasps, sad attempts to recapture the spark and fury of the stories and novels they wrote when they were living in poverty and obscurity. Shepard could easily be as good a writer as Hemingway, and probably a better one, a more versatile and humane one, but he can't let the sappy success he's had within the SF field blind him to the greater possibilities within his work.

08 October 2003

Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and the Politics of Dystopia

This morning I had my classes listen to a program on New Hampshire Public Radio which discussed Ray Bradbury's 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451. One of the guests on the show was James Patrick Kelly, the best science fiction writer in New Hampshire and one of the best in the world. My students demanded that I call in to the show, and so I did, even though I didn't really have any sort of question ready. Inevitably, I was the first caller on the air, and was rather surprised to suddenly find myself needing to say something, so my question (asking what the perfect audience for the book might be) was hardly brilliant. I was just glad I didn't completely embarrass myself. (The students also demanded that I say hi to Jim to prove that I actually know him. Thankfully, he said hi back, so now my students think I'm Well Connected.)

Most of the discussion on the show wasn't quite at the level I'd hoped it would reach, but it was 9 o'clock in the morning and host Laura Knoy's questions mostly involved such things as, "So was Bradbury right about the world we're living in?" and "How does it compare to the movie?" and "How does reading the book make you feel?" Not the sort of questions I tend to have my students approach, but appropriate ones, I suppose, for public radio. The responses were generally intelligent and insightful, at least within the range of discussion allowed.

There were some mistakes propagated by the discussion -- to be fair, of information which would only be known to people who had seen some of the interviews available on the DVD. For instance, no-one seemed to know that Bradbury supported the decision of the filmmakers to omit any reference to a nuclear war. While I agree that the war is an integral background to the book, and would have added an extra level of meaning to the film, it's unfair to blame director Francois Truffaut completely for the omission. (Granted, it's hardly Truffaut's best film -- I think it was Bradbury who called it a mediocre film saved by a brilliant ending, which, indeed, it does have -- one of the most beautiful last scenes of any film.)

One insight which got cut off by the half-hour break regarded Bradbury's portrayal of anti-intellectualism in the book. This is sometimes missed by readers, who comfort themselves with believing the novel's extrapolations have nothing to do with them because they are, after all, literate and don't spend all of their time watching banal TV shows. But the books are burned not so much because of any inherent qualities books as a medium have, but rather because of what they are capable of doing to a human mind -- making a person engage their brain with someone else's imagination. A film, TV show, or radio program could do the same (some do), just as plenty of books are little more than mucas for the mind. What Bradbury was getting at were the habits of mind which had been discarded by the society in the novel. And, as was pointed out well in the program, those habits of mind disappeared not because of government edict, but because of neglect. The government in the book merely took advantage of a situation which was favorable to their goals. But there's hardly any mention of a powerful government anywhere in the novel, and the only laws we know about are the ones which make books illegal. Popular laws, we mustn't forget.

We're also reading 1984 by George Orwell, a book which is commonly paired with Fahrenheit 451 in people's minds (and which, along with Huxley's Brave New World could be said to be a part of the definitive dystopian literature of the 20th century). The two books have proved to be an excellent pair for inciting discussion, because their two worlds are so vastly different, and yet result from similar extrapolations.

In some ways, Orwell gives us the best analysis of totalitarian impulses (ones indulged in by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, North Korea, and other leaders and countries) while Bradbury shows us a more insidious world, one in which the culture itself, and the apathetic citizens of that culture, created. Both books are novels, works of imagination, and so are full of poetic license and subtle elisions of logic which make them excellent exercises of thought but hardly blueprints or predictions. Arguments that "1984 didn't happen in 1984" and "Fahrenheit 451 is useless because our technology advanced farther than Bradbury predicted" are irrelevant and misguided, because neither author was trying to predict what tomorrow would look like exactly, but rather to critique trends in the world they lived in when they wrote.

We still read these books, rather than other utopian and dystopian novels, because the authors intuitively latched onto trends which still have resonance in today's world. One of my students went to see Michael Moore speak, and she came back excited because his next film is to be titled Fahrenheit 911: The Temperature When Truth Burns and Moore made allusions to 1984 -- she was thrilled to have been able to get his references, and unsettled that they applied so easily to our own world, one vastly different from the ones depicted in the novels.

This, it seems to me, is the value of utopian and dystopian fiction -- they help us think about the elements of our political and social life which affect our everyday lives. What do the choices we make mean? Jim said on the program that what we need is balance, and that he'll be watching the Red Sox tonight without feeling any guilt about helping to create a world like Bradbury's. I'm keeping up with the Sox these days, too, and even though I sometimes grumble about the distractions of our media-saturated culture, a culture of bizarre TV shows which claim to be about "reality", news programs which manufacture more news than they report, brain-numbing sitcoms, and 24-hour sports channels (bread and circuses anyone?) -- it does no good for us to take a dystopian story and say, "It's all coming true! We must change our lives completely!" Rather, we should consider our choices in life and how they affect the world. If Fahrenheit 451 has convinced one person to spend a little time memorizing a poem rather than watching TV for a night, it has accomplished more than thousands of other books have done, and, I would argue, it has made the world a better place. Not because everyone is killing their televisions, but because some people have thought about how they are using their time and how they are finding value in life.

1984 provides more difficult challenges for a reader. It's not an exciting book to read; in fact, it's relentlessly drab and depressing. The insertion of long chapters of Goldstein's book in the middle of the novel was not, I think, a good choice on Orwell's part, because though the excerpts illuminate the world of the novel and move its arguments forward, they're dreadfully dry reading, a massive speed bump for any reader, even ones interested in political philosophy.

However, 1984 is eminently worth reading and re-reading, because it focuses light on external forces which are apparent in any society. It asks, ultimately, how much authority is too much authority? This is not a left or right question, though Orwell's view was notably leftist. As history has shown, totalitarianism can rise up from any ideology -- left, right, religious, secular, etc. The book is, in the end, about power, and about power's need for more power. It would make a fine companion to various writings of Michel Foucault. The final idea of 1984 is that no individual is capable of bringing totalitarianism to an end. It takes organized action by groups committed to maintaining freedom of thought.

But freedom of thought is a frightening thing. Freedom of imagination is equally frightening to the Powers That Be. I once heard Barry Lopez say (I'm paraphrasing), "Fascism is the death of imagination."

Which is why speculative fiction, a literature requiring tremendous imagination from writers and readers, is one of the most subversive genres. Hundreds of novels have been written about totalitarianism, about the emptiness of pop culture, etc. -- but the ones which have had the greatest impact have been SF novels, whether they've been categorized as such or not.

Let's hope none of the dystopias SF writers have created ever come true, while at the same time hoping SF writers will continue speculating about the trends which lead toward dystopia. We could all use some more subversion in our minds.

02 October 2003

Genre, Imagination, and J.M. Coetzee

The announcement that J.M. Coetzee has won the Nobel Prize for Literature is welcome news -- Coetzee is a brilliant, challenging writer, certainly one of the best alive -- and the response to his most recent book, Elizabeth Costello (due to be released in the U.S. October 16), which is sort of a collection of essays disguised as a novel with occasional elements of memoir, shows that the SF field is not the only one challenged and hampered by genre boundaries.

Though, because it hasn't yet been released, I haven't read all of Elizabeth Costello yet, three parts of it have been available for a few years: two chapters of the book The Lives of Animals are included in Elizabeth Costello as well as an essay/story, "What is Realism", part of which has been excerpted by The Guardian. I have read all of these, and look forward to reading the full book.

I thought about the SF world when I read Adam Mars-Jones's review for The Observer of Elizabeth Costello, a review titled, "It's very novel, but is it actually a novel?"

I knew from the title that I would hate the review. It's exactly the sort of question which annoys me most: the attempt to foist a label on something which clearly cannot be labelled.

Coetzee is quite familiar with 18th century literature, literature which acknowledged few genre boundaries. He has even written a book, Foe, which reimagines DeFoe's Robinson Crusoe, a work of fiction originally sold as nonfiction. Hence, Coetzee is not a writer for whom genre boundaries much matter.

Clearly, then, the question in the headline of the Observer review is absurd. No, the book is not a novel in any conventional sense of the term. So what? The question for any reader is, Does this book inspire my imagination, does it raise questions I had not thought of, does it provoke me?

The three chapters of the book that I've read provoke, frustrate, and astound me -- much in the way good contemporary poetry does. I cannot pin them down, they imply more than they state. The problems they raise are not solved, the questions not answered. But they get under your skin if you approach them with an open mind.

Hermione Lee has a far more astute review in The Guardian, a review which engages the ideas of the book without trying to pigeonhole it. We would expect nothing else from the author of the best biography of Virginia Woolf, since Woolf was a writer herself unfettered by boundaries, and the biography quite brilliantly pushes some boundaries itself.

What can the SF field learn from the misunderstandings of Coetzee? Perhaps nothing, except that we are not alone in our struggles against being labelled and stuck in the cross-hairs of the most recent movement of the moment. Writers write, readers read. That is the only law. Let us praise the writers who challenge us and disdain the writers who treat us like small children, easily manipulated, easily fed familiar pap, easily consigned to the shelf of commercial complacency.

30 September 2003

"Literature of Ideas" and the SF Left

Dave Truesdale stirred up a bit of trouble with his TangentOnline editorial titled "Idiocy from the SFnal Left", which caused a remarkable discussion on the Tangent newsgroup -- a discussion where some excellent ideas and conversation is crowded amidst hostility, short tempers, bruised egos, petulance, bile, apologies, misunderstanding, mis-statements, and brilliance.

The strangest result of the discussion was Truesdale's announcing that, because of it, he was ending Tangent. That would be a great disaster for the SF field, as no-one else, that I know of, works so hard to notice and review SF short fiction. I expect the discussion was the proverbial straw breaking the camel's back, since Truesdale has been under many pressures recently, and Tangent has not been easy to keep going. No matter what the cause, though, Tangent's demise would be a horribly sad one.

What I want to discuss here, though, is the editorial itself, and some of the discussion around it. Truesdale is responding to an essay by Candace Jane Dorsey in The New York Review of Science Fiction (article not online) which challenges the concept of SF being "the literature of ideas".

I'm more interested in looking at Truesdale's response to Dorsey than in her original article, mostly because I haven't yet been able to get a copy of that article, but also because I think he makes some excellent points as well as some odd, even absurd, ones, and the discussion on the newsgroup was so provocative as to move my thinking in various directions, some of them contradictory.

First, and to answer a question Truesdale repeatedly raised to the newsgroup: Do you or do you not think SF is "the literature of ideas". So that my biases will be clear, let me state quite forcefully that I do not. "A literature which is often about ideas", yes. I might even go along with the label "a literature of imagination", but even that is problematic -- after all, what literature doesn't involve some imagination? (Maybe "a literature of heightened imagination".) Mostly, I just don't care about labels and find them confining rather than liberating. Writers should write what they feel most compelled to write, and labels have more to do with marketing than writing.

However, lots of interesting ideas have come from the discussion of SF as a literature of ideas.

Let's start with this statement of Truesdale's: "A story with character, language, and literary values without its sfnal 'idea' is a mainstream story and not an sf story." Dorsey had, according to him, posited SF as a literature of "passion" -- a far more ridiculous concept than SF as a literature of "ideas", for reasons which Truesdale makes clear.

Ignoring the question of whether there's any value in distinguishing between "mainstream" and "SF" (I do think there is some, but it's not an activity I tend to find engrossing or even very often useful), let's go along with the assumption that SF and mainstream fiction are two separate realms. The challenge then becomes: What's an SF idea, and what distinguishes it from a mainstream idea? In amidst another argument, Truesdale offers one definition: "the idea of change, in all of its aspects (political, social, scientific)". He hints at his definition in another spot by quoting Humphrey Bogart's character from Casablanca: "It doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that." Thus, it seems that Truesdale's definition of what separates SF from mainstream literature is the idea of change on a large, rather than individual, scale.

As definitions go, that doesn't seem bad to me. It creates a filter through which you can say, "This is X and that is Y." Whether the definition holds up completely would take me a long essay to figure out, but here I will simply say that though there are exceptions and grey areas, overall it seems a relatively accurate way to describe much of what is comfortably seen as science fiction (not speculative fiction, fantasy, or fabulism) since Hugo Gernsback created the term "scientifiction" back in, I think, 1926 with the launch of Amazing Stories magazine.

Fine by me. If that's your cup of tea, you're welcome to drink it. I think a magazine or anthology which used that definition as a way of selecting stories would probably publish some wonderful work. I'd even be willing to subscribe.

But Truesdale's argument gets nutty and querelous as he tries to assign blame for SF drifting away from his definition of science fiction. He blames two primary influences for diluting and marginalizing the kind of SF he likes: "leftist" politics, and writers who don't feel bound by genre boundaries ("slipstream" writers -- for a good overview, see Jim Kelly's article on slipstream in Asimov's).

Truesdale writes, "With very few exceptions, no short story writers are challenging authority anymore, or doing anything with gender roles that wasn't done to death in the 70s (and perhaps 80s). Or if they have they have been lukewarm attempts in order to be socially acceptable in our little community. In short, SF is being PC'd to death." (He brings up the idea of gender roles in response to some of what Dorsey wrote.) This is the fault, he writes, of The Left.

We're back to our problem of definitions. There is no accepted definition of "The Left" -- it is used by conservatives to mean one thing, liberals another, self-described leftists as something else. There are, though, overlaps, and the best method of defining that I know is George Lakoff's "strict father model" for conservative thinking and "nurturant parent model" for liberal/leftist thinking.

Lakoff's ideas help explain some of what Truesdale is complaining about. Of the liberal/nurturant parent, Lakoff writes: "The primal experience behind this model is one of being cared for and cared about, having one's desires for loving interactions met, living as happily as possible, and deriving meaning from one's community and from caring for and about others."

There we have the feelings and sensitivities which Truesdale so disdains, or at least disdains if they overcome his definition of "the SF idea". Hence, his complaint makes sense -- but only if we accept the underlying assumption that liberal writers will inevitably write stories which embody Lakoff's nurturant parent model.

It seems to me that some liberal writers, particularly ones devoted to certain causes (think Joanna Russ and Ursula LeGuin) will sometimes write such stories, while others will not. A fundamental, and valuable, element of Lakoff's models is that they are fluid, and people who are liberal in one area are fully capable of being conservative in others (for instance, a person who is liberal in their social relations may not necessarily be liberal in how they raise their children). A writer who is of a liberal political tendency, then, is not necessarily going to be liberal in how they write and what they write about, and vice versa. A great writer of ideas, such as Philip K. Dick, may be mostly liberal. Another, such as Robert A. Heinlein, may be conservative. Or may choose to include their middle initial in their byline. It's not a cause-and-effect relationship, and trying to judge a writer's politics by their way of creating a story could be accurate or could not. In the case of a genius (Dostoyevsky for one, Shakespeare for another), the political and social world they create in their work may be so complex as to defy any analysis based on their (assumed or known) political orientation.

I can see where Truesdale is coming from, and I think in many cases his analysis is on target, though for me there are too many exceptions for the idea of liberal writers as writers of "liberal" fiction to be a rule.

A bigger problem I have with his argument is his slandering of slipstream (or whatever you want to call them) writers. These are the writers who got me reading SF again after I mostly stopped for about eight years. I couldn't stand reading any more stories or novels with clunky, predictable structures, pedestrian prose, cardboard characters -- stories where the only attempts at innovation or imagination were in the "ideas". When a Harlan Ellison story from the '60s (despite Ellison's many flaws) seemed more interesting on many levels than anything published in the SF magazines or anthologies, I stopped reading. (Truesdale would probably agree with me -- we just got tired of most SF for different reasons, mine being aesthetic and imaginative, his being mostly imaginative, and imaginative in a specific area ["SF ideas"].)

I barely know how to address Truesdale's statements about slipstream. He writes:
The new crop of kids writing today are led to believe that it is all the rage to write cross-genre short fiction, to "blur the boundaries." They think it's cool, and an end all and be all to do this. What they don't realize is that when the boundary between (let's say) mainstream short fiction and SF short fiction is blurred, SF is by definition diluted, and weakened. The less "idea" is incorporated into short SF at the expense of character and "relationship" in the fiction, the less it is SF. SF is not enhanced or made more powerful or compelling if it may as well be a tired mainstream story--regardless of how brilliantly the writer can turn a phrase. Or couch the character or relationship story in a thinly veiled sfnal setting, or by tacking on a sfnal element, just for the story to overtly "qualify" as SF.
The only way I know how to reply is by looking once again at definitions. What I find most exciting about the SF field as a field is its openness to imagination, and the definition of SF I love best is Samuel Delaney's -- it's not even a definition so much as a distinction -- wherein he says that any imaginable sentence could appear in an SF story, but not a mainstream ("mundane" is his term) story.

This does not fit Truesdale's definition of SF because it applies to speculative fiction in general, not science fiction. If you stick by a strict definition of science fiction, there are plenty of sentences which could not appear because they would be more fantastic or surrealistic than science fictional.

I don't accept that slipstream writers are trying to write SF -- they're trying to write what their imaginations impell them to write. They are not interested in the limitations of either science fiction or mainstream fiction, as the two are defined by purists. They are interested in being able to write any sentence they want.

This is the impulse which led to fiction in the first place, an impulse which pushed early novelists in English such as DeFoe and Swift and Sterne, an impulse which allowed such subgenres of fiction as gothic and romance to develop, and then, from them, the subsubgenre of SF (and the subsubsubgenre of scientifiction). It's the impulse I relish most.

Perhaps the only response I can offer to Truesdale is that diversity doesn't necessarily mean dilution. We still have writers following in the footsteps of DeFoe, Swift, and Sterne. We still have gothic and romance (in the traditional, not Harlequin, sense) fiction. We still have fantasy, we still have traditional science fiction. If science fiction is dull these days, it's not because some writers are interested in writing other things. Blaming slipstream writers for SF's lack of excitement is like blaming the Sundance Festival for Hollywood's boring blockbusters. Hollywood's blockbusters are boring mostly for reasons of economics and conservative, petrified studio and distribution systems. Broadway plays are boring for similar reasons. Popular music, too. Independent filmmakers have in common with Hollywood that they use some of the same technical equipment and occasionally attract the same actors, just as slipstream writers sometimes use the techniques of traditional science fiction and occasionally use the same sorts of characters. But the endeavors are different, the results incomparable. Sometimes Hollywood produces good films, many times independent filmmakers produce junk. But the goals are generally different, and blaming one group for the failures of the other is nothing more than scapegoating.

In the end, I'm quite glad Truesdale wrote his editorial. It's not nearly as incoherent as some of the discussion on the newsgroup would lead you to believe. (Though, with Jeffrey Ford, I too wish Truesdale had been willing to name some names and put some specifics to his arguments -- though that would have really gotten people's feathers ruffled!) The discussion it has provoked is a valuable one, not so much for the primary arguments as for the tangents it led people off on (as should be welcomed by a magazine so titled). The personal attacks from all sides were unfortunate, but the passion -- so there, Candace Dorsey! I'm a leftist, too! -- it provoked was magnificent. I hope the various writers and readers involved are now able to channel that passion into their writing and reading. For that, ever SF reader would be grateful.

22 September 2003

Poetry at Strange Horizons

I've long had ambivalent feelings about SF poetry, primarily because so much of it that I read in Asimov's and a few other places seemed awful, completely unaware of the last century or so of poetic innovations, debates, and techniques. If the "poem" wasn't a prosey joke, it was a half-baked story idea with broken lines.

More than the quality, though, I wondered about the need. Mainstream poetry has not succumbed to the deadening of imagination which so much mainstream fiction has succumbed to. A book like Verse & Universe: Poems About Science and Mathematics is, in its own way, a collection of SF poems, many written by Big Names in poetry. They had no need to label their poems as anything other than poems.

I still think most of the best SF poetry is happening in the literary journals and is not written by writers who would ever associate themselves with a literary ghetto other than the ghetto of poetry, but there are also some good poems being written by writers who intentionally identify themselves with the world of SF.

Some of the best such poetry I've read recently is at the Strange Horizons site. From the linguistic quantum mechanics of Mike Allen's "Pulse" to the literate and quite beautiful "Quasimodo Takes the Grand Tour" by Tobias Seamon, there's a wide range of styles, themes, tones, and subject matter. This is refreshing poetry, regardless of whether you read it because you are inclined to read SF or because you are interested in poetry.

There are plenty of excellent poems lurking in the archives, too. There's "The Holes through which the Scarabs Come" by Marge Simon, which, though at times a bit heavy-handed, includes at least one marvelous stanza:
You were there at the crossing
when the song of rails announced
the thunderous entry of passing souls.
Their statues draped in vines will crumble.
Then through marble holes,
through rifts of bone, the scarabs come.
There's a long, everthing-but-the-kitchen-sink poem by John M. Ford, "Troy: The Movie" (originally published in Weird Tales). There's a fond and beautiful homage to Allen Ginsberg, "Howling with Ginsberg" by Phil Wright. There's the stunning, aching, lyrical "Gwyndion's Loss of Llew" by Ellen Kushner (originally published in 1982). One of my favorite first stanzas is that of "Shepherds in the Night" by Tracina Jackson-Adams:
We weren't expecting shepherds,
and nearly tripped over them, since
we were looking at the sky. There haven't
been sheep here for a dog's age, but shepherds
have never required sheep
to guard, just wolves
to guard them from.
And there's one of my favorite poems of one of my favorite contemporary poets, Tom Disch's "Ballade of the New God", which begins:
I have decided I'm divine.
Caligula and Nero knew
A godliness akin to mine,
But they are strictly hitherto.
They're dead, and what can dead gods do?
I'm here and now. I'm dynamite.
I'd worship me if I were you.
A new religion starts tonight.
Do we need to pigeonhole good poetry as SF poetry? I don't know, though I remain skeptical. The label may serve some purpose, may bring readers and poets together who otherwise might have missed each other. What matters, though, is the quality of the writing, the sensitivity to the language -- language first and last and in between! -- the awareness of traditions and past experiments, the celebration of imagining. All of those qualities are available at Strange Horizons, and their editors deserve praise for publishing both original and reprinted poetry of high quality.

04 September 2003

"The Wait" by Kit Reed

Recently, I picked up a copy of The Best from Fantasy & Science Fiction, 8th Series, edited by Anthony Boucher, which contains a story I've long wanted to read, "The Wait" by Kit Reed, a remarkable writer who deserves to be better known.

"The Wait" is, I believe, Reed's first published story. It appeared in the April, 1958 issue of F&SF, when Reed was about 26 years old.

Any writer, regardless of age, would be proud to call this story their first published. The command of tone and pacing is nearly perfect, with the story unfolding one strange revelation after another. Just when you think you understand the world Reed has created -- one which reminded me of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" -- she complicates the situation and brings in a depth of detail extraordinary in a story of about 16 pages. The characters are not rounded and complex, but rather serve as types in the way many of Flannery O'Connor's characters serve as types -- it's not that they're flat, but rather that they serve the greater purposes of the story rather than of psychology.

I would encourage readers to seek out the story, but for the sake of continuing this analysis, let me give you a basic summary without giving away too many of the frightening twists the story offers. Miriam, a young girl recently graduated from high school, is traveling through the country with her mother, and in the town of Babylon, Georgia, her mother gets sick. The residents of the town have decided to cut down on doctors' bills by having anyone who is sick lie down in the public square, and various citizens will come to them, hear their complaints, and see if they can offer any advice based on illnesses they themselves have had in the past. This is, obviously, not the most efficient method of doctoring, and Miriam's mother remains in the public square for more than a month, while Miriam is taken in by locals and treated quite well.

Miriam, though, is not excited by these events. The town is strange, their customs bizarre. And there are people policing all of the borders, so escape seems impossible.

Miriam begins to hear about "The Wait", which is what young girls who have not been married have to do before they can be married. I won't give away the secret of The Wait, but suffice it to say that it is, in its own way, a logical cultural construct while also being a horrifying one. The images from the final pages of the story will stay with me for a long time.

The value of a story such as this one is not in its horrible events or its bizarre take on local customs. This is a story which makes honest readers re-examine their own prejudices, their own cultural habits. The people of Babylon seem eminently friendly and pragmatic, and yet how can we judge them as anything other than lunatics?

Reed's genius is that she makes Miriam and her mother fallible as well, even annoying, in some of the same ways as the family in O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" are annoying. Miriam makes a choice in the end of the story, and it is not a choice which any reader could be comfortable with. Our feelings at the end of the story are mixed: we sympathize with Miriam's plight, but are horrified by her decision, her acquiesence. And yet, what would you or I do? Her mother is as implicated in the decision as Miriam is; what she says to Miriam at the end of the story may be the main motivation for Miriam's decision. Miriam gives in to an alien custom because she sees no other way to get anything she wants. Fighting would be, if not fatal, at the very least difficult and dangerous.

Should we blame her? Should we blame the society she has become a part of? How many of our own habits and customs are, judged with both logic and ethics, harmful and insane?

This is a story which should not be obscure. It should be read by high school students and their parents, it should be discussed and debated, absorbed and meditated upon. Find a copy -- it's worth whatever you have to pay to dig up the few books it has ever appeared in. This is short story writing at its finest and most provocative.

Update: Kit Reed just informed me that "The Wait" is available in her collection Weird Women, Wired Women. I should have known this -- lax research on my part -- it's one of those books on my "Got to buy that soon" list.

25 August 2003

The Geography of Imagination: Speculative Fiction as Setting

There's an old law amongst writers of speculative fiction: the best writing has speculative or fantastic elements which, if removed, would ruin the story. You will frequently see writers say that if a tale is merely set in an SF universe, it is not a good story, because it could be mainstream ("realistic") writing, and is only posing as SF.

While I have great respect for the many people who believe this, I disagree, because such an idea gives in to the concept of the mainstream, contemporary, "realistic" story as the basis of all fiction, and much as I like much mainstream writing, I don't want to give it so much power over the imagination.

Certainly, writers have written stories which are not particularly interesting or compelling, and some of these stories suffer from having the only SF element be the setting (usually, the setting is not well realized or original, merely a few mentions of spaceships and nanotech machines). Stories which don't work should be criticized and analyzed, but they should be looked at on their own, and we must guard against using bad stories to create grand generalizations about how SF should be written. All formulas, no matter how valuable they seem, are pernicious.

Not all stories are about their setting, though SF stories tend to highlight setting more than mainstream stories, because SF stories seek to create an entire, often unfamiliar, world in the reader's mind, while mainstream writers can more or less assume that when they set a story in suburbia, their readers will understand the culture and details of suburban life.

But -- to make a completely uneducated guess -- 85% of mainstream stories have setting descriptions which are necessary and central to the story, either to highlight themes, give information about character, or take advantage of imagery. Think of some great mainstream writers -- any mainstream writer you consider good -- and more often than not you will have a sense of the milieu they wrote about in your favorite works. Favorite writers of mine, from Hawthorne to Faulkner to J.M. Coetzee and Paul Bowles, all have used setting to their advantage. (Other favorites, such as Donald Barthelme and Carole Maso, have often had other concerns, often using the text itself as a landscape.)

The hardliners say that if a story's SF elements could be removed without injury to the story, then it is not an SF story, no matter how brilliantly it is told. What sort of argument is this, though? A brilliant story is a brilliant story.

From Edgar Allen Poe on, critics have maintained that short stories should have no unnecessary elements. What readers perceive as unnecessary differs, but certainly, it seems to me, an author should know why she or he wrote whatever words were written, and should omit any which seem needless.

Novels are a different matter altogether. Many types of novels thrive on not-completely-necessary detail, though often the detail actually is necessary for giving the reader a full experience. While War & Peace is easy enough to abridge, any abridgement is a different work, a different experience, from the whole huge, ragged original.

If a writer wants to set a story in an SF setting, even though the story could be told in a contemporary setting, or even a historical one, what is the problem? Fiction should be trying to illuminate the experience of being human, of living life, of acting and being acted upon. Why do we assume that the contemporary, "realistic" setting is the basic one, the one that any piece of writing should employ unless it has specific reasons for doing otherwise?

Samuel R. Delany once said that the difference between SF and mundane (from "mundus", of the world) writing is that any sentence from mundane writing could fit into an SF story, but the opposite is not true. Both a mundane writer and an SF writer could write, "The streetlights turned on," but only the SF writer could write, "The streetlights turned around and greeted the woman with a smile." (Unless, of course, the mundane writer was chronicling a dream.)

Hence, when a writer sits down to write, why shouldn't he or she be able to choose to begin from the broadest possible imaginative starting gate? The only way to do that is to give up all assumptions about setting, to build the setting from imagination. It might correspond to what is generally agreed is "reality", or it might not. It might need its imaginative setting to justify fantastic or improbable events, or it might not. It might be a great piece of work, or it might not.

The fear of "non-SF in an SF setting" comes from a fear of diluting the genre of SF. But what if we give up on the idea of SF as a genre at all? What if we assume from the moment we begin that all writers are imaginative writers, and that they chose the setting they did because it seemed the one most appropriate for the story, or even for the writer's mood on the day composition began?

I don't think it's necessarily a good thing to get rid of all genre identifiers -- it's nice when you're in an SF mood to be able to go to the bookstore and find some books which will fit your mood -- but I do worry that it can be a limit on our imaginations, and that too much genre identification can cause writers and critics to seize on questionable propositions in order to keep the genre pure. The urge to purify genre is a fascistic urge, and fascism is the death of imagination, the quantification of creativity into an X/Y graph with parameters around which The Writer Should Not Travel.

Let's judge stories by their merits as stories, not by abstract concepts of what a story "should be". There are exceptions to all such strictures, and the exceptions should be embraced. If a story is a good story, if it works for the reader, if it excites the imagination, then it should be celebrated, regardless of genre, regardless of assumptions, regardless of empty critical pronouncements from on high.

SF writers chart the geography of the imagination, and readers and critics should challenge them to keep that geography boundless.

24 August 2003

Sighted At Other Sites

I've gotten suddenly busy and haven't updated this site nearly as much as I hoped to, and haven't been doing nearly as much reading as I'd hoped to, so I thought I would take a moment to point readers toward interesting other SF-related material currently on the web.

Graham Sleight has started a new weblog, Stet, which is young but already brimming with good thought. I particularly liked his look at the worldview of the Harry Potter books, wondering if that worldview is inherently liberal or conservative or a bit of both.

Richard Calder takes a long look at Swinburn's poems "Faustine" and "Dolores", concluding:
Both Faustine and Dolores are, of course, succubi: muses that possess and inflame the author -- or, at any rate, those authors 'marked cross from the womb and perverse' -- muses that bring down the fire and reveal the beauty of Hell ...

As such, they are incarnations of my muses, too.
Tim Pratt offers some off-the-cuff speculations about speculative poetry, and links to a discussion of speculative poetry at the Nightshade Books discussion area which is very much worth your attention.

While I'm mentioning the great Nighshade discussions, you can find there two threads about the controversial concept of "The New Weird" -- here and here. For different discussions on the same topic, you can find five threads at Third Alternative Press's discussion board section on M. John Harrison. For a general overview of the whole idea of "The New Weird", see this site.

At Locus, Cynthia Ward has an excellent overview of the brilliant animated films of Hayao Miyazaki.

SciFiction has a new Lucius Shepard story. Shepard is always, always worth reading. I'll probably review the story here once I get a chance. If you like Shepard, don't miss his movie reviews at Electric Story, some of the best writing being done on the web, and some of the best film reviewing being done by anyone anywhere.

Bookslut offers a review of Three Novellas by Thomas Bernhard.

That's it from here. I'll post more soon, with any luck.

20 August 2003

The Stone Canal by Ken MacLeod

I discovered Ken MacLeod recently, after reading China Mieville's 50 Fantasy & Science Fiction Works Socialists Should Read. I'm not a socialist, but I like politically-engaged fiction, particularly with a leftist bent, so I was curious to see what he'd come up with. Mieville writes of MacLeod:
British Trotskyist (of strongly libertarian bent), all of whose (very good) works examine Left politics without sloganeering.
Sounded good to me. When I was next at a bookstore, I found The Stone Canal, where the protagonist, Jonathan Wilde, is described on the back cover as "an anarchist with a nuclear capability who was accused of losing World War III". Sounds good to me, I said to myself, and promptly bought the book.

It is, in many ways, a remarkable novel, though also a frustrating one. I can't say that I've settled my feelings about it -- I know that the story held me most of the time, the characters were sometimes interesting, the imagined world is vivid and interesting both philosophically and scientifically, and the narrative is well constructed with shifting points of view which come together in the end in a surprising and clever way.

Summarizing the plot in a few sentences is nearly impossible -- the story ranges from the 1970s to the end of time. The protagonist is Jonathan Wilde, who discovers at the beginning of the book that he's been resurrected by revolutionaries on a future planet far from the solar system, a planet called "New Mars" where canals have deliberately been built and the society is structured along anarcho-capitalist lines. Wilde had been friends during the end of the twentieth century with David Reid, who ultimately founded New Mars. (Thanks to nanotechnology and some other advances, human lifespans have become essentially limitless.) Wilde was an anarcho-capitalist, but not as vociferously as Reid, because Wilde is first of all an opportunist (with some similarities to a certain character written by about Henry Fielding in the eponymous novel Jonathan Wild), and so he and Reid came to be on-again/off-again enemies, and now Wilde is considered the only hope for helping people in New Mars escape from Reid's tyrannical grip on genetic materials he brought with him from Earth, and which may allow dead humans to be resurrected.

The story is full of action, and full of political discussion. I love political discussion, and found the earliest chapters about Wilde's life in contemporary Britain to be the most compelling parts of the book. I doubt this is true for most readers. The rest of the book was fascinating, but I wanted to get more of a sense of how everyday life on New Mars worked, because some of the principles which governed life in this world had been argued out in the earlier sections, but it was never clear to me (perhaps I didn't read closely enough) which were really in effect. So much time is spent on moving the action forward that, in the second half of the novel, the details of the world itself grow thinner and less compelling, as if MacLeod had realized his publishers would want him to get as big an audience as possible, so he pumped up the standard thriller elements of the book at the expense of the world building. It may also be that I shouldn't have read this book first, for MacLeod's first novel, The Star Fraction, is a prequel. I'll have to read that next and see if it helps.

Some critics have called MacLeod a stylist, and I would disagree with this. A philosopher, sure. A good writer, definitely. But his prose is standard stuff -- clear, full of momentum, and, ultimately, pedestrian. This does no disservice to the book, though I do wonder what a writer more concerned with language would have been able to do with the material, for the many provocative ideas in the book call out for more provocative handling. Alas, we can't have everything, and if The Stone Canal is not a masterpiece, it is, at least, thought-provoking and worth a quick read.

19 August 2003

Veniss Underground by Jeff VanderMeer

Every now and then a writer writes a first novel which feels like a tenth, a novel full of imagination, skilled writing, careful structure, and compelling characters. Jeff VanderMeer's first novel, Veniss Underground is one such book. It is not a perfect novel, it will not appeal to all types of readers, but it is work which must be taken seriously, and labelling its author as "promising" does him an injustice, for he writes with more skill and verve than most people who have published far more books than he.

VanderMeer is not a new author -- he's won the World Fantasy Award and others for his short fiction and poetry, and he's worked as an editor for various publishers and journals for many years. In many ways, I'm grateful he waited so long to write a novel, because the maturity of vision demonstrated by Veniss Underground is a rare thing.

The plot is complicated and fragmentary, and no summary can do the book justice. All a potential reader really needs to know is the story is a sort of science fictional version of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, although the similarities are mostly superficial. The story posits a world of genetic manipulation reaching monstrous heights, a world of crime bosses and petty hustlers mingled with struggling artists who are trying to make art from the latest technologies. And, of course, somewhere beyond them all, the very rich, who maintain a certain power over the world. But there's a place where the rich can't reach: the land beneath the streets, levels and levels of underground which grow more Dantesque the deeper they descend.

The story is broken into three sections: the first, told in the first person point of view, is of Nicolas, a failed artist who gets involved in much more than he bargained for when he signed up to work with a shadowy man (creature?) named Quin, known for his genetic manipulations. The second section, somewhat longer, is told in the second person point of view, and "you" are Nicola, Nicolas's sister, who tries to find him after he disappears. The final section, and the longest, told in the third person, is that of Shadrach, a friend of Nicolas's and of Nicola's, a man who emerged from the underground and now descends into it again to try to save the people he cares for.

What makes Veniss Underground compelling is less its plot, or even its characters, than its vivid landscape and lyrical, creative language. VanderMeer loves language, he languishes in it, and yet he doesn't ever let it get beyond him -- there aren't really any Faulknerian moments of stream of consciousness verging on babble or blather, but rather a sensibility toward the crafting of sentences which simultaneously convey information and have an aesthetic appeal. The novel is a quick read, and a compelling one, but it should, perhaps, be read slowly, its gems savored, for devouring it all too quickly will make it seem thinner than it is.

Are there weaknesses? Certainly, but I expect each reader will consider different elements to be faults, because the novel has so much to offer that it is difficult to settle down and simply appreciate it for what it is. For me, the weakest part was the first one, from Nicholas's point of view, because I found the slang he used to be gimmicky. Unlike some authors, VanderMeer has a specific point he's trying to make with the slang, and a specific reason for using it which is tied to the character, but I've never liked any made-up slang, except, perhaps for that of Clockwork Orange because it was so creative and so plentiful that it was woven into the basic fabric of the book. [Update: Jeff VanderMeer just pointed out to me, after reading this, that since Nicholas is a failed slang artist, his slang is therefore intentionally bad. Duly noted.] Later, I felt that Shadrach's journey into the Underground went on a little too long, and the plot seemed to push us forward from one horrorific genetic nightmare to another, as if walking through a museum. Readers who thrive on imagery will probably find this to be a real strength of the book, but by that point in the story I wanted more of other things -- a change of language or style, an change of character, something. I'm not sure about the decision to make each section substantially longer than the previous one, either; I loved the progression of points of view, but wanted more time with both Nicholas and Nicola, and a bit less with Shadrach.

In many ways, these are quibbles, and quite personal ones. I don't imagine many other readers will have loved the same parts of the book as I, nor had reservations about the same parts I did. That, for me, is the wonder of rich literature such as Veniss Underground: it is not perfect, but it is better that it isn't, for perfect isn't nearly messy enough for my tastes. This is a book to read and think about, to argue over and dissect, to read aloud for sheer pleasure and read silently, late at night, to creep yourself out.

Veniss Underground reads to me like a little brother of China Mieville's Perdido Street Station, one of the best and most satisfying SF novels I've ever read. Mieville's book is long and complex where VanderMeer's is short, tough, focused, and VanderMeer has, to my ears, a better sense of language (and less proclivity for pulpy turns of phrase) than Mieville. Both works are brilliant, both are worthy of any reader's attention, both are magisterial exercises of imagination, and both contain a beautiful sense of truth and meaning.

Brazil: The Criterion Collection DVD

Brazil is the best SF movie I have ever seen. It is also the movie which comes closest to realizing on film some of the sense and style of Philip K. Dick's novels and stories, even though it's not based on a PKD book, and I have no idea if director Terry Gilliam has read any of PKD's work. (By the way, this insight is not original to me: Gardner Dozois made the point in the "Summation" to one of his early Year's Best SF anthologies.) Gilliam's later film 12 Monkeys is also very PhilDickian, especially with its time travel themes, but though I think 12 Monkeys is a superb work, it's not as mesmerizing for me as Brazil.

The Criterion Collection edition of Brazil is one reason I bought a computer with a DVD player in it (since I don't own a TV). It's a 3-disc set, originally released as a laser disc (remember those?), and it includes all sorts of extra material -- commentaries, production art work, and a couple of documentaries, one of which looks back at what has been "The Battle for Brazil", when the studio releasing the film insisted that Gilliam cut it down to no more than 120 minutes (from 142) and make the film as a whole focus on the love story between two of the main characters. The studio ended up cutting their own version of the film (at about 90 minutes), and that version is also included in the Criterion edition. It makes for fascinating viewing for anyone familiar with the longer version originally released to American theatres, because it demonstrates how some clever (and sometimes clumsy) editing can completely change a film's tone and meaning.

The Criterion edition is also especially pleasing because it includes the longest and most complete version of the film available, with roughly 20 more minutes than was available on the version released on VHS and on the cheaper one-disc DVD. The extra length does not change too much of the meaning, and some viewers may find that it prolongs the experience of the movie too far, but for me it is glorious, because much of what I love about Brazil is revelling in the sumptuous imagination fueling it all.

One of the wonders of Brazil, especially the longest version, is that you can watch it over and over again and still discover new elements within it. I have seen it at least 20 times, and have found myself engaged in the narrative and the surreal world with each viewing, for the detail is remarkable. This is not a movie which cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make; the production costs were relatively small, and yet it has far more depth and imagination than any blockbuster.

Unlike some of Gilliam's other films, Brazil doesn't live or die on its visual impact -- its script is as strong as any that has been written. Much of the credit goes to Gilliam's collaborators, the great and clever British playwright Tom Stoppard and actor/writer Charles McKeown, both of whom helped Gilliam give form to his original idea, and both of whom added many of the little touches which ultimately make the film so intriguing.

The wonder of Brazil is that it doesn't interpret itself for the viewer. It is a Chinese box of mysteries, a grand flow of paradoxes, an unsettling mix of humor and horror, as if Franz Kafka found himself on the whirling teacups at Disneyworld with Buster Keaton to one side and George Orwell to the other. Some viewers hate the film because of its ambiguities, but for me this is what makes it a masterpiece: while having a strong narrative structure, it is also open to many interpretations, for it houses many ambiguities and circularities within its careful, and often seemingly logical, framework. How much of the story is only in Sam Lowry's head? When is he conscious, when is he dreaming? What, really, is his fate?

Some viewers find the ending to be depressing and take from it a "message" that life is hopeless and dreaming is futile. I don't see this at all. For all he has gone through, what has propelled Sam through so much is his imagination, and even in the end, it seems to me, he is able to escape from pain and suffering by sending himself to the world of his dreams, making him useless to the malevolent forces which seek to impose more and more torture on him. He wins, in the end, because his enemies give up. But the cost is great.

"Presence" by Maureen McHugh

"Presence" is currently up for a Hugo Award, and since I haven't yet read any of the other novelette nominees, I can't say whether it deserves to win or not, but it certainly deserves its nomination.

This is a carefull-crafted, well-modulated story which looks at a possible future near-cure for Alzheimer's Disease. Since my own grandfather had Alzheimer's, I can say with some authority that McHugh's presentation of the disease's effect on its victims, and on their caregivers, is sadly accurate. The prose in the story is clear, though not particularly stylish, and the story mostly avoids the kind of cheap sentimentality that stories about sufferers of diseases can often fall into. The ending is particularly well done, with no simple "cure", no easy solution, no sudden fix -- instead, McHugh offers a mutedly emotional ending, one which mixes hope with sadness and regret, the general pain of being human.

I have some reservations about the story, though not reservations about whether it should have been published or whether it deserves to be nominated for awards. As I said, it is an effective story, in some ways a beautiful story, and one which deserves to be read.

Taking all that into account, though, it seems to me to suffer from the same problems as Alice Elliot Dark's story "In the Gloaming", which John Updike included in The Best American Short Stories of the Century. I seem to be the only person in the universe who found "In the Gloaming" a frustrating story, one of those tales which gets labelled "poignant" and "sensitive" and "moving", but which ultimately manipulates the reader by offering no option but to feel for the characters and their plight. I think McHugh's "Presence" is a better story, actually, than Dark's, because there is some distance, and a difficult moral question is posed to the reader (we are left to wonder whether the main character's decision to subject her husband to the Alzheimer's treatment against his will was justifiable). For me, "In the Gloaming" was a sort of "disease-chic" tale, the kind of thing which gets made into softly-lit movies (it has been) that make audiences cry. Again, McHugh doesn't quite sink this low, but she also doesn't rise above some of the facility which disease stories offer to authors.

If we compare "Presence" to a classic by Anton Chekhov, "A Doctor's Visit", we can see some of what might have made McHugh's story into a truly remarkable work: a greater willingness to allow ambiguity in what is said between characters, less of a desire to portray every action with clarity for the reader, and more attention to the physical details of daily life in the world she created. I do think there are moments in the story where she nearly achieves this, and the relationship of the son to the rest of the family is a particularly strong choice which adds depth to the narrative and the characters, but there is not enough connection between the characters and the physical world they inhabit for the reader to be allowed the real resonance which great literature provides. Chekhov's story is half the length of McHugh's, and yet its world is more vivid (and in some ways more alien to us), its characters more fascinating because they are mysterious and hint at complexities beyond the frame of the tale itself.

I suppose it seems a bit silly to criticize a story which I've said is better than one included in a book called "The Best American Short Stories of the Century", but I often find myself wanting to criticize really good stories more than bad ones, because the really good ones come so close to greatness. There are a plethora of bad stories out there, hundreds and hundreds for every one story which is even mediocre, and thousands and thousands for every one story of "Presence"'s quality.

I can't help dreaming, though, can I?

(Note: I read "Presence" in Dozois's Year's Best Science Fiction: Twentieth Annual Collection.

"The Only Known Jump Across Time" by Eugene Mirabelli

This story is from the latest (September 2003) issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and it is a story which every lover of short stories should read.

I don't tend to like "sweet" stories, stories which cleverly put two kind-but-awkward characters together in an inevitable love story, stories which play on the reader's sense of nostalgia for a simpler era, etc. "The Only Known Jump Across Time" does all of this, but it is done with such skill and such control of tone that it achieves the hat trick of putting a bunch of less-than-exciting elements together into a magical, masterful whole.

It is the story of two shy, but kind, people, living in America in the 1920s: a tailor and the daughter of a Harvard horticulturalist who discover a similar desire to travel back in time and say some of the things they meant to say before, do some of the things they regret having not done. The premise becomes clear in the first few pages, and I feared as I read that Mirabelli would give in to the sentimentality which could so easily overpower the story's strengths. Miraculously, he doesn't.

The tailor has read Einstein and knows that the past cannot be changed, but he thinks if he can create some lightning (yes, lightning), he will be able to step at least a few moments into the future. He and Lydia (the other main character) attempt this, and the results, while not entirely surprising, are remarkably beautiful and touching because of their ambiguity: Can a shared experience be truly meaningful, Mirabelli seems to be asking, even if it might not be completely based in reality?

What makes the story work is its structure and tone, a tone which is dry, objective, and almost clinical, much like the best stories of Anton Chekhov. The structure aids the tone: the tale is broken into fourteen sections, and the entire story is just under fourteen pages long. This structure allows Mirabelli to create narrative gaps which the reader must fill in with imagination, and these gaps undermine any possibility of too much sentiment or a slip into purple prose. The narration tells us the facts of the story, it sticks to what happened, and there isn't a lot of interpreting of characters' emotions. Instead, we discover their emotions and thoughts through their actions and dialogue, and the ultimate effect is to create two people we sympathize with, care about, are interested in. The final section of the story is a work of genius, strengthening all that is great about the story by creating a perspective which reaches out beyond the narrative itself, while at the same time upholding the central power of the tale.

This is one of those stories that drives labellers crazy -- is it science fiction? Is it even fantasy? Or is it just a mundane story attempting to be imaginative through the addition of ambiguity?

Folks, it doesn't matter. This is one of the best stories published this year, in or out of the genre confines of speculative fiction. It is written with extraordinary skill, and should serve as a model for what the short story form can accomplish when handled by a master.

"Mother" by James Patrick Kelly

I've been friends with Jim Kelly for many years, and have even been declared by him his "most deranged fan", since I have a nearly-complete collection of his works, including all of his books and all of his earliest stories (the ones he'd like to forget). To be fair, he has lots of my early work, too, things I wrote when I was in grade school, and which he vows to keep as blackmail material should I ever decide to show anyone his early publications.

"Mother" is the only story I've read so far in what looks to be a particularly strong original anthology, The Silver Gryphon, which commemorates the twenty-fifth publication from Golden Gryphon Press. I have a special love for Golden Gryphon, as they published the first large collection of Jim's stories, Think Like a Dinosaur (now, finally, reprinted as a trade paperback).

The qualities that make Jim Kelly special are his sensitivity and virtuosity. Many writers have one or the other, but few combine depth of humanity with an open willingness to try new forms, new themes, new ideas. The risks are great, particularly for short story writers. If you invest months of work on a story, stretching your own boundaries while maintaining your own integrity as an artist, you aren't likely to see a huge pay-off. There is a devoted group of readers for short fiction, but it's a small group, and within that group, the fraction which appreciates the amount of work that has gone into the story can be tiny. Not every Kelly story works for me -- there are times when I think his humanity and compassion veer into sentimentality, or times when I think his virtuosity makes him cut corners on the humanity -- but when he gets the tricky balance right, the result is as good as anything published under the labels of "science fiction" or "fantasy" at any time.

2003 has been a particularly good year for Kelly, in that he's published two stories which seem to me to be among his best: "Bernardo's House" in the June 2003 Asimov's and "Mother".

"Bernardo's House" is, for me, the stronger story, mostly because it is longer and slower-paced, and so the development of the characters and situation is more affecting. This is not to slight "Mother", however, because here Kelly's particular achievement is to cram an entire world into eight and a half pages, and to create many resonances for the reader. It is the story of a girl named Les who has just come back to Earth after escaping from ostensibly benevolent aliens on the Moon, aliens who, she thinks, intend to destroy humanity by promises of immortality for people who give up the ability to produce children. Les has come to Earth to have as many children as possible, and thus to save the world (she thinks). The social system for people who want to be parents is somewhat different from our own, with a Birth Control center (love that name!) which helps train people on how to take care of babies. Similarly, there are many differences in classes of people on Earth, and in a few careful strokes Kelly evokes a vivid world which is similar to ours, but different enough to be both fascinating and unsettling. The resolution of the story is a particular triumph, leaving the reader to wonder if Les's perceptions are at all accurate, and letting the story grow in the imagination like a small seed growing into an immense, mysterious tree.

What's This Mad Universe?

I've created this weblog to keep track of my reading in and thoughts about the world of speculative fiction.

I'm not a big fan of definitions, and I have little patience for arguments about whether a particular work is "science fiction" rather than "fantasy" rather than "horror" rather than "slipstream". I will, in general, use the term SF here, because it doesn't lump writings and authors into little ghettoes, other than the general ghetto of what has been called "weird fiction" or "fabulist fiction" or, one of my favorites, "philosophical romance". I like the last term because it situates writing within a general literary category and doesn't marginalize it (too much) within the world of "mainstream" fiction (aka "literary fiction" aka "mundane" [as in mundus] fiction). I do think there is a distinction between works where anything and everything could possibly happen, where worlds are built and destroyed and characters may or may not have unusual powers and proclivities, and works which deliberately stick to the laws and customs of the "real world". But SF to me includes not only writings published by genre publishers, but also writers such as Samuel Beckett and Ama Ata Aidoo.

Hence, the works discussed on this site will be eclectic. I will try to record thoughts on whatever I happen to be reading which seems to be SF of some sort to me, and I will offer occasional thoughts and rants about various issues regarding those readings, as well as thoughts on news and miscellaneous items which seem relevant. Who knows what will come of all this?

18 August 2003

Mumpsimus (MUMP-si-mus) n.

1. a traditional custom or notion adhered to although shown to be unreasonable.

2. a person who persists in a mistaken expression or practice.