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Showing posts from 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 inclu…

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 Laur…

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 title…

"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. T…

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…

"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 ty…

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 s…

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

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 vi…

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 need…

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 …

"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 st…

"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…

"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 …

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 happ…

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.