13 January 2004

Anthologies in Theory and Fact

The closeted formalist in me loves anthologies -- loves to see how editors arrange a bunch of disparate pieces into a whole, loves to read around in search of resonances and repercussions, loves to discover writers I haven't heard of and unknown works by writers I've long adored. I've never read an anthology cover-to-cover in order, and there are very few anthologies of which I've read every word. I should, perhaps, feel guilty for this, but I don't. Reading around, skipping and skimming, allows the book to remain fresh for me whenever I return to it, and I find myself returning to favorite anthologies far more often than to favorite novels. (There are many novels I want to reread, but few I have, because the next novel and the next and the next are always calling. And I'm a slow reader.)

I've been thinking about anthologies recently because I've just returned to skipping and skimming in three which Thomas M. Disch edited in the 1970s: The Ruins of Earth: An Anthology of Stories of the Near Future, Bad Moon Rising (an anthology of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction about politics of the present and future), and The New Improved Sun: An Anthology of Utopian SF. (Tables of contents can be found here. The books have long been out of print, but are readily available via various websites, including Amazon, to which I've linked above).

I first got these three anthologies a few years ago after reading Norman Rush's novel Mating, one of the most impressive novels I've ever read by a living writer. I had devoured Rush's short story collection Whites and his second novel, Mortals, had not yet been published, and I was famished for more of his work. Through a Google search, I discovered he had stories in two of the anthologies above, and so I sought them out, ordering The New Improved Sun as well, even though it was Rushless, because I've got a soft spot for utopian stories.

I read the Rush stories (enigmatic and atypical, but fascinating) and ignored the rest, because life is always busy and there are always other things to read. Recently, though, when teaching a unit about utopian and dystopian literature to my Advanced Placement class, I went back to The New Improved Sun and found it so odd, so interesting (and so frustrating at times) that I immediately took the other two books off the shelves and spent some time with them.

What impressed me about Disch's editing was that it was idiosyncratic and unpredictable, the hallmarks of a great anthologist. Perhaps I should qualify that statement. For me, there are two types of great anthologists: the ones who create comprehensive and definitive books about certain subjects, books which have a kind of arrogance to them, but an informed arrogance (David Hartwell's The Dark Descent is the apex of such an anthology for me). Then there's the other kind of anthologist, the Disch kind, the weirdo, the iconoclast, the demented hedgehog (to steal Archilochus of Paros's analogy). I suppose I'm more fond of the Disch-type than the Hartwell-type, but such a statement is only useful when a gun is held to your head and a choice is demanded, because really we need both.

Bad Moon Rising is the most bizarre of the three in its contents, which range from essays and articles to poems to short stories. It's a kind of bricolage aspiring to be collage, a mini-Frankenstein monster of interstitiality, the science of plate tectonics applied to the continental drift of genres and imaginations. The anthology as tone poem.

When the book was first released, it may have seemed less odd than it does today, for today it is not only a book, but a historical artifact, unemcumbered as it is by Reagan or Rambo, Ethiopia or AIDS, 9/11 or all the fascists hiding in the Bush. It is of its time, as are all three books, and reading them now throws a membrane of irony over the whole endeavor -- we live now in the ruins of earth, and the bad moon keeps rising, holding at bay whatever new improved sun waits to appear. I think I like the books better now, with all their suggestions and implications, their burden of history yet-to-be, than I would have when they first came out, when they were mere collections of interesting words.

The three anthologies make me wish Disch would get back into the anthology trade. He's been busy in the years since, writing novels and plays and stories and poems, many of them captivating and marvelous, but we don't have an anthologist like him anymore (though the annual
Year's Best Fantasy and Horror
anthologies come close). No, too many of our anthologies are hemmed in by market forces and imaginations dulled or shackled by those forces. It's not a genre problem, either -- few anthologies of any sort that I've seen dare to be anything other than what you expect of them (the Beacon Best series, which seems to have died, came close sometimes, as do the Pushcart Prize anthologies, but they've become predictable in their own way, a hazard of any annual collection).

One of the beauties of the Disch anthologies is their determination to ignore genre boundaries, both boundaries of form and of subject matter. Poetry and fiction and not-quite-anythings comingle, as do works published by writers labeled as SF and others labeled as mainstream. Since Disch, there have been occasional anthologies which did one or the other, but few which did both at once. (It's important to note, though, that he wasn't the first. The later books of Judith Merrill's Best SF series did the same thing, and they remain interesting reads even while hundreds of anthologies published around them have sunk into oblivion. Here's a project for a publisher -- reprint some of Merrill's anthologies. It might teach us a thing or two.)

There are some daring anthologies out there (The Thackery T. Lambshead Guide comes immediately to mind), and, more importantly, daring writers and readers. Therefore, I am hopeful for the future, hopeful that within the next few years we'll get some anthologies which surprise and challenge us, rather than giving us only what we want.

12 January 2004

Book People vs. Movie People (and Food People and people)

A post at the blog 2blowhards.com has gotten a lot of notice, and for good reason -- it's beautifully written, thoughtful, and full of interesting insights and questions. The subject is one I've written about (too much, perhaps) here, and which has been brought up recently at s1ngularity: How and why we read, and what the function of critics is. The great thing about this post is that it actually add some new ideas to an ancient discussion, and the central analogy -- between people who love books and people who love movies -- offers some great ways to think about criticism in general. There's too much good stuff in it for me to feel comfortable taking quotes out of context, so let me just point you in that direction and say it's worth your time and attention.

Genesis by Jim Crace

British writer Jim Crace doesn't often get labelled as an SF writer -- he's "unique" or "idiosyncratic", a "writer's writer". He's been nominated for various awards and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Being Dead, a brilliant novel which never quite becomes fantasy, but is certainly a kind of gently scientific fiction.

Crace's new novel, Genesis (titled Six in the U.K.), doesn't fit comfortably into the science fiction or fantasy genres, even under liberal definitions, but like most of Crace's other books, the setting is one which can't be pinned down to the "real world", and the writing gives the events a hazy, dreamlike quality. Reviewers often don't know what to do with Crace because of this -- he isn't a realist, clearly, but what is he? The only possible answer -- an obvious one, but true -- is that he is himself.

What always strikes me about Crace is how his lucid, poetic prose serves to heighten the effect of his story, creating mood and atmosphere as much through the rhythms of the sentences as through what the sentences say. Opening to a random page, I find:
This was a night of pregnancies, and not just Freda's pregnancy. The snow is sexier than the sun. The cold encourages us to get to bed and hug the person we love. Our folklore says it's so. As does demography. The snow is consummate. Fine weather brings the birth rate down. So this was only one of many rooms that benefited from fertility that night, and Fredalix was only one of many pairs. None of them as yet was counting on the cost, the cost of lovemaking, the cost that lasts for threescore years and ten. Nobody thought, when all the hugs and kisses had been finished with, to tell themselves, Things never end. They only stretch ahead from here. We have to thank our lucky stars for that.
Like a refugee from the Romantic Era, Crace loves landscape, loves to suggest ideas and emotions through descriptions of architecture and markets, beaches and fields. A word I have often come back to when trying to describe Crace's prose is palpable. (There's a description of a market in my favorite Crace novel, Arcadia, which at times seems more like a sculpture to me than a couple pages of writing.)

Genesis is about sex and love, about marriage and growing into middle age, about power and fame. The main character, Lix, is a famous actor from a small, apparently European country (a police state growing into a sort of democracy, a place where public kisses were illegal once, and then, when legal, became a kind of magic, until the magic was turned into an advertising campaign, a commodity), but he has one particularly interesting attribute: every time he has sex, it produces a child.

Some reviewers have found this basic premise of the book difficult to swallow ("Why doesn't he just use condoms more frequently?"), but I think a careful reading shows what Crace is up to. This is a book about freedom and responsibility, about trust and daring. The first sentence lays it all out: "Every woman he dares to sleep with bears his child." The choice of words is careful -- the rhyme of "dares" and "bears" is clever, indicating how important those two could be, and, indeed, are, for first there is risk and then there is a result which follows from it, a result which hints at carrying, at weight, at a burden. His child. And yet the story shows us over and over that the children are seldom his in any sense except the biologic -- he is often a terrible father, neglectful, distant, selfish.

There's a lot of sex in the novel -- beautifully written, sumptuous sex, even when, as so often happens, it doesn't please the characters, but leaves them feeling hollow and frightened, sometimes of each other -- but the real subject is the path to love. Lix doesn't learn to love until the end of the book, and it's not the all-out, endlessly passionate love of teenage fantasies, but rather the practical, sustainable love of two adults. A difficult, imperfect love. One which belongs to two people and is a part of the world, reflected in so many of its systems and designs.

The book houses endless possibilities, its characters resound in the imagination, but I don't expect it will be either popular or much of a critical success. It's easy enough to read it quickly, but hard to like it if you do so. The glories are in the details, and few of those details will blossom if they are passed over quickly. There is no clear plot to the book, though plenty of stories. There is occasional suspense, but it is often interrupted. The book lives and dies on its language, and if you don't savor the language, you will lose so much of what is below that language. It is not a book which can be understood or appreciated until its rhythms are absorbed, and that may take a few readings (it certainly required me to reread many passages after I had gotten to the last page).

What a gift from an author, though! A book which is worth rereading, which all but requires it, and where the pleasure in reading grows with each return. There are still books of Crace's which I prefer to Genesis, but all of his books have this quality, though this one, it seems to me, is moving in a new direction for Crace, as if he is now more comfortable than ever in his writerly skin, more comfortable than ever to write at a pace and in a style which pleases him.

In many ways, Crace reminds me of M. John Harrison, though it's hard to cite the exact similarities, aside from a concern for language and landscape. It's interesting to know that Crace is working on a new novel, one which, he says, posits a future United States which has run to the end of its technologies and fallen back into a kind of Medieval society. I wonder if he's ever heard of Viriconium...

11 January 2004

Innovative Fiction

Daniel Green has written a tough essay for Context titled "Empty Rhetoric: Innovative Fiction and the American Literary Magazine", which looks at how many mainstream literary journals say they want "fresh", "experimental", "innovative", and "original" work and hardly ever publish anything which fits those adjectives.

This is an interesting essay for SF readers to think about, because it shows some of the rifts within the world of mainstream, academically-accepted fiction. Context is published by the great Center for Book Culture, which includes the wondrous Dalkey Archive Press and the Review of Contemporary Fiction, both of which are devoted to publishing and thinking about innovative, experimental literature, so it's not surprising that Context would publish an article saying the current mainstream is dull and repetitive. What's surprising is how easy it is for the case to be made.

Green's essay is long and full of evidence, and I won't quote it here, because no short quotes give the full flavor of the argument. I had two responses after reading the piece, though.

First, I wondered if any of Green's criticisms could apply to the SF world. Could a similar essay be written which looked at the most frequently praised SF markets, the ones which end up in all the Best of the Year anthologies and on the awards ballots? To do so, we would have to change some definitions and expectations, because there are too many forces at play on those markets which are not forces affecting literary journals. The biggest difference between the two, I suppose, is that SF markets -- even the tiniest, edgiest ones -- tend to be read by everyday readers as well as writers and critics, whereas literary journals tend mostly to be read by writers and academics (though, in my experience, the writers don't really read them, they just skim through them and then note the editor's address so they can submit something).

It would be interesting to at least try to write such an article, and I was tempted to start myself, but I don't have the time to do the proper amount of reading, so, alas, it must wait.

My second thought was that Green gets himself into a bit of a corner by seeming to define innovation as innovation of form. He cites structuralist and post-structuralist literary criticism as a support for this, rejecting the idea of "content" as being capable of containing much innovation. To me, SF proves this wrong -- indeed, so much formal innovation has failed in SF over the past thirty years because it's difficult to contain the highly innovative content of some of the best SF within a form which is also innovative. Where most avant-garde mainstream lit has stuck to traditional content (whether psychologically-based on not -- even a content-phobic writer such as Gertrude Stein still chose titles indicating content which was, for all intents and purposes, what people had been writing about for at least 100 years), SF generally finds itself at its least interesting whenever its content becomes too familiar.

What Green fails to note is that not only are most of the well-respected literary journals dull, but so are most of the ones which truly are devoted to innovation. I subscribed to Fence magazine for a couple of years, and though overall I found it more interesting than many of the other journals I've subscribed to, the quality of work seemed comparable, by which I mean I can usually find a few works of interest in any literary magazine and a majority of works which seem repetitive, empty, pretentious, dull -- regardless of whether the magazine is trying to be innovative or trying to publish yet another Raymond Carver rip-off. Maybe that's me.

Perhaps the real truth lies in something said by Frederic Jameson, one of the better-known literary critics in the world, in a recent issue of the New Left Review (at the beginning of a review of William Gibson's Pattern Recognition):
[T]he representational apparatus of Science Fiction, having gone through innumerable generations of technological development and well-nigh viral mutation since the onset of that movement, is sending back more reliable information about the contemporary world than an exhausted realism (or an exhausted modernism either).
Where does that exhaustion come from? Perhaps from an inability of the form-firsters to reconcile with the content-firsters, and vice versa. While it would certainly be nice to see more formally innovative and language-centered SF, there are properties of speculative fiction which may prevent the best SF from ever suffering such exhaustion. Compare, for instance, Dangerous Visions to any collection of cutting-edge mainstream writing from the same time period -- while much of the former has lost its spark and charm over the years, a surprising amount has not, while every example of the latter which I've tried to read has been a torturous experience. (And I'm a guy who likes really experimental writing!)

None of which is to say that SF is any sort of superior literature to any other. Questions of the "importance" of any sort of writing often lead people to make wildly ridiculous claims which seek to raise their personal tastes to the status of scientific law. What's interesting to look at are trends and fads, and one reason I think Green's essay is valuable is that it points out some of those trends, criticizes a couple of fads, and, most importantly, exhorts writers, editors, and readers to expand their visions of what writing can achieve.

Writers and Theory

Matt Peckham has called for writers -- of all genres, sub-genres, and uber-genres -- to familiarize themselves with literary theory, saying
[W]riters of genre-fiction have not done themselves any great favors by reactively ignoring the tools of the so-called enemy, which most critically include the entire history of theory, or the third stage in a generalized history of intellectual thought that began with ontology, metamorphosed into epistemology, and has most recently (post-Saussure) settled upon linguistics. Let me say that again but more clearly. Genre fiction writers interested in creating a theory of what they do and how they do it are missing the boat by avoiding theory and the entire history of academic thinking around the subject. For a writer to ignore theory is akin to a scientist ignoring Newton, or Gould, or Hawking. My secondary point is thus that until more (for some are already quite well-versed, and the trend is growing) writers stop making excuses to avoid theory, which is not easy stuff whether you're "initiated" or not, it will remain unintegrated, cordoned off, separated by the same sort of elitist ignorance that created the problem of genres in the first place.
While perhaps having more SF writers who are familiar with both modern and classical literary theory writing critical essays would be helpful, the idea that mainstream writers have imbibed theory and therefore written well is absurd and completely unsupported by history. (Trent at s1ngularity offers some thoughts on all this.)

The fact is, most fiction writers, poets, and playwrights have gone out of their way to avoid theory. Finding ones who haven't, and who have achieved success within the academic literary world (that is, their works are included on numerous syllabi), is difficult. Every now and then there's someone like Susan Sontag, but the general agreement is that her nonfiction is vastly superior to her fiction, particularly her early, theory-influenced fiction. William Gass knows some theory, since he's a professor of philosophy, and some of his work may have been influenced by it, but my sense of his writing is that he gets more influence from other writers he admires, such as Rilke, Malcolm Lowry, and John Barth. A few writers on the fringes of the avant-garde have made a lot of theory, but really the only fiction writer I can think of to have achieved some prominence while also deliberately attempting to write with critical theory in mind is Samuel Delany, who receives no mention in Peckham's rant, though he'd be an obvious choice of a writer to hold up as a role model.

Theory can be fascinating and can help us read in different ways, but the fact is, 99% of the writers out there couldn't care less about it. From Aristotle on, theory has been written to show what writings have done, to point out ways of interpreting and evaluating, but it's about as useful to writers as real estate listings are to architects.

What Shall It Be?

Traffic to this site has increased substantially over the last week or so, much to my surprise and (frightened) pleasure. It's made me decide to put a bit more time and attention into the blog, and I'm thinking of where to go from here. I like simplicity, and the Net is filled with plenty of intelligent people doing and saying interesting, intelligent things (and plenty not, of course), so I'd like to try not to be redundant. There is one major limitation: my life is incredibly busy, and therefore I don't think it's realistic for this to be a site which gets daily updates. I'd prefer to write thoughtful posts rather than lots of posts which are created only to keep the content fresh.

I'm thinking of moving the site to my own domain and using Moveable Type to allow it to be more flexible, but I'm debating whether it's worth the time, or whether I should just spend a little bit of time designing the current Blogger site more carefully. Not being much of a techie, moving to MT will require quite a few hours of trial-and-error for me (I used to run a Greymatter-powered blog -- I think it took me about 6 hours to set it up, and by the end I wished I had just stuck with the previous system).

If you've got any thoughts or desires for what you'd like to see here, please let me know in the comments.

10 January 2004

2003 SFWA Nebula Awards Preliminary Ballot

The 2003 SFWA Nebula Awards Preliminary Ballot is out, and it's a bit strange. Cheryl Morgan has some comments about it, and Mark Kelly compares the novel list to Locus's recommended reading list.

The rules for eligibility seem clear, but the works chosen come from both 2003 and 2002, which perplexes me a bit. I'm not very familiar with Nebula ballots or eligibility, so I may be missing something...

But why why why isn't something such as James Patrick Kelly's "Bernardo's House" included? Yes, I'm biased -- I've known Jim for years -- but "Bernardo's House" is, even accounting for bias, one of his best stories, and therefore one of the best stories of the year, if not one of the best stories to be published in an SF magazine in the past ten years.

It's not that the list is bad -- there are a bunch of good stories out there -- it's just that it's weird. And weird in a way general awards shouldn't be: it's not the least bit representative of the past year of SF. If the Nebula is to maintain its distinction as a valuable and valued award, it cannot be so limited and bizarre.

Can anybody help me understand what the Nebula folks are thinking?

08 January 2004

Genre Fiction Don't Get No Respect

I happened to be looking at some old (well, old in Internet time, which means more than 24 hours old) postings on Terry Teachout's weblog, and discovered something he'd written about Stephen King at the National Book Awards ceremony:
[King] said (repeatedly) that he didn't write for money, that genre fiction deserved to be taken seriously, and that the judges of the National Book Awards had an obligation to read the best-selling books that are shaping American popular culture (I'm paraphrasing from memory, but that was the gist of his complaint). 'Bridges can be built between the so-called popular fiction and literary fiction,' he declared, and to that end he supplied us with a long reading list of popular novelists whom he commended to our attention, among them Elmore Leonard and John Grisham. (He also mentioned Patrick O'Brian.)
Teachout follows this up with a later post in which he writes:
But while the noir novelists scarcely deserve to be ranked among America's best and most significant writers, their harsh tales are infinitely more readable than the chokingly tedious output of a thousand American writers of impeccably correct reputation, and I venture to guess that people will still be turning the pages of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice and Cornell Woolrich's I Married a Dead Man long after the likes of Toni Morrison and Allan Gurganus are remembered only by aging professors of literary theory who wonder why nobody signs up for their classes any more.

Does that put me in Stephen King's camp? I think not. I don't think The Long Goodbye is as good a book as The Great Gatsby, and I believe the difference between the two books is hugely important. But I also don't think it's absurd to compare them, and I probably re-read one as often as the other.

The point is that I accept the existence of hierarchies of quality without feeling oppressed by them. I have plenty of room in my life for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Chandler, for Aaron Copland and Louis Armstrong, for George Balanchine and Fred Astaire, and I love them all without confusing their relative merits, much less jumping to the conclusion that all merits are relative.
[The first paragraph is from a review of The Library of America's Crime Novels : American Noir.]

In response, A.C. Douglas writes:
I would only point out to Mr. Teachout ... that the distinction (or, rather, lack of it) is not between The Long Goodbye and The Great Gatsby; not between Armstrong and Copland; not between Astaire and Balanchine, but between, say, any Stephen King or John Grisham opus and anything by, say, Fitzgerald or Hemingway; between (insert name of punk rock group or C&W opus here) and, say, Copland or Ives; between Riverdance or (insert name of dance number from any current Broadway musical here) and, say, Balanchine or Graham. In short, not the distinction between the popular and the exclusive, but the distinction between trash and art.
(To be fair, Douglas is not writing directly about this subject in his post, but rather is taking exception to various laments about the death of high culture, to which Teachout himself took exception, and Douglas responded.)

I noticed all this for a few reasons. I couldn't care less that Stephen King won a National Book Award. He won the same award (Lifetime Achievement, I believe) that Ray Bradbury and Oprah won before him. The winners in the past have included some good books and some bad books, as awards tend to do. Time will tell what cultural artifacts, if any, matter from our epoch. For now, all we can do is enjoy what we enjoy and, if we're of a didactic bent, try to say why.

Critics, and all well-read people, for that matter, should make distinctions between works, because it can matter. Some writers are difficult and deserve to be championed so that people who might not have the inclination or stamina to stay with them might give them a second chance. If you tell me, "This book is important," I'm much more likely to try to keep reading it than if I just happen to pick it up myself. I doubt I would have read any of Samuel Delany's books if I hadn't seen people say he was a genius. The first couple I read left me cold. I didn't give up, though, and eventually I came to see what all the fuss was about. He is a genius. Some of his writing takes work, but it's work well rewarded. I'd read Delany over 99% of other fiction any day, simply because my brain gets more from the experience.

I've read some of Jim Thompson's book, including The Killer Inside Me and I've read some of Patricia Highsmith's book and stories. Both would be considered "trash" of a certain sort, though both often aimed to be slightly higher than trash. I prefer Highsmith to Thompson, but I wouldn't confuse either with Dostoyevsky. The fact is, the literary world could live without Highsmith or Thompson, but literature would be a vastly emptier domain without Dostoyevsky. Why? He does everything the best mystery writers do, and more. (I would also suggest that William Gaddis is superior to Highsmith. He shares some of Highsmith's concerns -- forgery being one of them -- but his work engulfs all of reality, rather than simply reflecting it. His books are considerably harder to read, even for particularly erudite readers, but they're also infinitely more rewarding.)

It's the more that matters. Delany seems to me to be one of the great writers of the 20th Century because he, too, does more. More than other SF writers and more than most mainstream writers. And he does it in ways different from any other writer who has ever put words on paper. There are plenty of writers who don't necessarily offer "more" in the sense of creating huge imaginative universes the way Dostoyevsky, Gaddis, and Delany do, but who do things so differently that what they write gives us new ways to look at the act of living -- Carol Emshwiller comes to mind immediately, also M. John Harrison -- and so they seem to me to be in the highest, or near the highest, realms of literature.

What I dislike about Teachout's comments are his assumption that genre is necessarily a limitation. Genre is a marketing category. Yes, it can be a limitation, and most genre writers accept it as such (consciously or unconsciously, I'm not sure), but the only real limitations are talent and vision (or, more accurately, the only limit is how well a writer mixes talent with vision and communicates this synergy to readers). For most of his career, Delany has been labelled a science fiction, fantasy, or pornography writer, and his books still generally get stocked on those shelves in bookstores. To say that his work is therefore somehow "below" the other great American writers, though, is absurd, and can only result from a bias against genre. Such a bias has a corollary among readers who are genre chauvinists, who insist that SF is somehow superior to all other forms of writing, and that it must heed certain formulas (the readers who say Isaac Asimov is a greater writer than either Dostoyevsky or Delany) -- such readers tend to hate Delany because he consciously includes various structuralist and post-structuralist theories within his books. If the books were not successful as fiction, the presence of various philosophies and theories wouldn't matter -- a bad novel is a bad novel, regardless of intent -- but the books are successful as fiction in any way a literate and well-informed reader defines it, and they are also successful as thought experiments, which is where the philosophy and ideas come in. You don't have to agree with them -- plenty of readers loathe Dostoyevsky's theology, for instance -- to admit that they add something valuable to the work.

Ultimately, any sort of differentiation of literatures is going to be elitist, but I don't think that's a bad thing. The elite means the best, and trying to define the best may be quixotic, but it's a valuable quest because of the discussions it arouses, as well as the passions. Strict relativists and egalitarians may find such discussions uncomfortable, but saying "Shakespeare and Danielle Steele both have pleased lots of readers, so therefore they're equal, and really it's all just personal opinion anyway" does nothing to help us become better, more discerning readers, readers who are capable of appreciating the more subtle and complex possibilities of literature. Let's celebrate the greatest accomplishments, even the ones we don't personally find exciting.

05 January 2004

The Ratbastards

"A DIY attitude in publishing, combined with a network of like minded zineish SF and cross-genre publications, small presses, and bigshots sympathetic to progressing the art, can provide a framework of longstanding health in a community of freaks. "
--Alan DeNiro, Ratbastard


Intrigued by Alan DeNiro's manifesto and the Ratbastards website, I ordered their two chapbooks, read one story ("The Blue Egg" by Christopher Barzak), which I thought was beautiful and elegant and poignant and ... well, a damn fine story.

And then the two chapbooks sat on my coffee table for a couple of months.

What was my problem? Fear of good fiction?

Well, in any case, I have since read them both cover-to-cover, and can say that if you want to read great stories by new authors, read these books. You get a heck of a lot more bang for your buck with these two chapbooks than you do with any of the magazines in the SF field (at least with recent issues of the major magazines, whose names I won't mention for fear of bringing shame upon my karma). These are not traditional stories of science fiction or fantasy, though a few of them might be considered traditionalish contemporary-esque fantasy. Don't hold it against them. But if you're looking for something that might feel at home in, say, Analog, then the Ratbastards are the wrong company for you. (They might just cause you to realize how dreadful Analog is -- oh, did I say that? Bad me, bad bad bad....)

Of the two books, the most recent one, Rabid Transit: A Mischief of Rats seems to me to be the stronger, more consistent and cohesive volume. There isn't a weak story in it. As I was preparing to write about the chapbook, this was, roughly, my thought process: "Okay, so I'll say 'Gramercy Park' is the best story, because it tackles the most ground and Haddayr Copley-Woods is a writer of great skill and insight. But I really liked 'Wally's Porn', too, and it made me laugh and almost cry, even though I saw the ending coming from a mile away. It wasn't a bad ending. And the structure and pacing of the story are extremely well done. I must give kudos to Victoria Elizabeth Garcia for writing it. And then, of course, there's Nick Mamatas's 'joanierules.bloggermax.com', which totally surprised me with where it was going -- it's been ages since a story surprised me in its first few pages quite as much as that one did. It's funny and clever, in the best senses of the words, and manages to be moving in the end -- I didn't realize I was as attached to the narrator as I was. Finally, there's 'Braiding' by David Hoffman-Dachelet, the shortest story, which made me glad, because after reaching the ending I had to read it again immediately, since, though there are clues earlier, the last page offers a bit of a twist. A good story, but short and not as resonant as the others, I didn't think. It's nice, though, to have a shorter piece in amongst the others. Did I forget 'The Headline Trick' by Douglas Lain? I loved that story! Anything involving magic and cons of any sort, even ones that work against the space-time continuum, appeals to me, and this one has the added benefit of being written well. It's entertaining, thoughtful, thought-provoking ... and even Ricky Jay would probably like it..."

How could I possibly turn such a mush of thought into a review (and I won't even begin to try to replicate my thinking about the earlier chapbook, which was even more conflicted).

The second chapbook doesn't contain stories which are as overtly experimental as some of the stories in the first chapbook. Does this mean the Ratbastards are getting conservative? Hmmm... And yet I liked the second book even more than the first. Perhaps this means I'm getting conservative....

Let me try this -- without slighting the other stories, because I do think these are extremely strong collections, and the tales balance each other well, I will say here that there are a few stories which no serious reader of SF, or of short fiction of any sort, should miss. They are [imaginary drum roll]:

Particularly Exemplary Short Fiction from the Remarkably Exemplary Ratbastards:

*"The Blue Egg" by Christopher Barzak
*"A Number of Hooves" by Alan DeNiro
*"The Headline Trick" by Douglas Lain
*"Gramercy Park" by Haddayr Copley-Woods
What's the point of such a list? Ugh, there isn't one. I was just trying to be a good critic and be discerning. It's pointless. These are two excellent chapbooks, every story deserves at least one reading (with Alan DeNiro's requiring quite a few ... I'm still not sure I get it, but I so like the sentences and the chutzpah of it that it seems a standout to me), and if any major magazine rejects a story by one of these writers, that magazine's editor deserves to be fired and run out of town on a rail.

Clear enough?

Update: My interview with Alan DeNiro is here.

04 January 2004

War and Peace and The Lord of the Rings

I recently had the pleasure of seeing the 1961 Russian film of War and Peace, directed (and starring) Sergei Bondarchuk, who seems to have been Russia's answer to Orson Welles. It's a breathtaking film -- one of the most expensive ever made -- covering four DVDs plus a bonus disc of background material, including silent films of Leo Tolstoy himself wandering around as an old man. The battle scenes are particularly amazing, making those in Spartacus seen small, though in some ways it's hard for us today, used to computer-generated scenes of thousands of people (or aliens or orcs), to fully comprehend the scope of Bondarchuk's achievement -- choreographing whole armies of people and horses, explosions and hand-to-hand combat. The film is not just great with the war scenes, though. Peace gets its due, and many of the quieter moments between only a few characters are subtle, nuanced, and skilfully acted.

It all made me think about The Lord of the Rings, since I had only a few weeks before seen The Return of the King. Though I have never been able to get overly excited about the books, I've loved the movies for their scale and their effects and their detail. Before seeing War and Peace, I'd even thought the battle scenes were the best ever filmed. (In terms of special effects, they still are, but I think there's a vast difference between Bondarchuk's accomplishment and Peter Jackson's.)

But the differences between the films, and their individual successes and failures, tell a lot about the differences between the source materials, the difficulties of adapting one medium into another, and the nature of epic storytelling itself.

Let me be clear about my biases: I think War and Peace is a vastly superior book to The Lord of the Rings, though I think the accomplishments of the films of both are almost comparable.

The one absolute superiority for Bondarchuk's film of War and Peace over Jackson's of Lord of the Rings is in the quieter scenes I mentioned above. There are many of them. And though it can be difficult to keep the characters straight if you haven't read the book, a few of them (Pierre, Natasha, and Andrei especially) come through with much of the complexity they possess in Tolstoy's original. While most of the characters in Lord of the Rings are translated to the screen without too much harm done to them, and differentiating between the various personalities is much easier in Jackson's film than Bondarchuk's, what I most disliked about The Lord of the Rings, both book and movie, is the hollowness of the characters. While Bondarchuk certainly provides some painfully unconvincing moments between his characters, Jackson's three films have a total of perhaps half an hour of interesting, vital, nuanced moments between characters. The scenery is amazing, the effects stunning, the battles nerve-wracking. The characters are, mostly, tools of the story to keep it moving along from episode to episode.

Perhaps this is not a fault. Overall, it seems to come from Tolkien's determination to write an epic myth for England. Most epics and myths are not full of well-rounded characters, and the characters are far less important than the events. When the characters do matter, what matters is their motivation to act -- their effect on the events rather than the events effects on them.

Tolstoy's goal was not so much to create a myth as to destroy myths. He wanted to change the world's perspective on Russian history, on historiography itself, and, most notably for this discussion, on how large actions occur, and their ultimate effects. He created his story, and filled it with didactic passages, to prove that history was made by ordinary people committing small actions, and that the grand commands of men like Napoleon had far less effect on what actually happened in both war and peace than did the small actions of millions of people.

Unfortunately, Bondarchuk was not able to find a cinematic correlative to Tolstoy's philosophizing about history and action, which is a shame, since in many ways it is the book's core.

What he is able to do, though, is maintain Tolstoy's hatred of war. This is what makes War and Peace a monument of literature, distinguishing it from Tolkien's monument of entertainment and imagining. Tolstoy had seen what war could do, and, unlike many anti-war writers, he admitting that killing could be exhilerating, that battle can make a person feel like they have meaning in life. And yet the ultimate effect of his novel is to make the reader see and feel the pain, the suffering, the waste. Bondarchuk's movie, for all its extraordinary battles, conveys much of this feeling. War hurts -- it maims combatants, it ruins the lives of civilians, and crushes the people who are far away from the killing but who have loved ones in battle. Toward the end of the book and film, young Petya Rostov runs away to do his national duty, excited by the glorious myths of war, and ends up quickly dead. His naive attitude compared to the weariness of the older soldiers is beautifully conveyed in the film. Similarly, the character of Kutuzev, the commander of the Russian armies, is complex: he wants to save his beloved country, but he's not blind to the destruction. Kutuzev is one of my favorite characters from the book, and the casting and performance in the movie are nearly perfect.

Contrast this to Tolkien's use of violence and destruction in his books, and, worse, Jackson's in the film, and the superiority of Tolstoy's and Bondarchuk's work is clear. While there are a few moments of questioning in the book and films of The Lord of the Rings, these are quickly cast aside in favor of genocidal battles. Such is the nature, I suppose, of any conflict between Good and Evil. Napoleon in War and Peace isn't the paragon of Evil, but is, rather, a flawed and destructive man who happens to have the power to bring millions of soldiers into battle at his whim. Thus, Tolstoy doesn't let any one character stand for Evil, but rather investigates the forces which allow them to move their desires into evil actions. It is both a moral analysis and an analysis of how history is created and communicated, an analysis which The Lord of the Rings, in Tolkien's desire to create myth and Jackson's desire to create exciting action, lacks.

Tolkien was reimagining history, too, but he was reimagining imagined history, creating a detailed fantasy to give a nation and a group of people a story which would clarify their own feelings toward themselves, toward ethics and morality, and toward their nation. This is both a magisterial and a frightening goal, one which is nearly impossible, and the various meanings the books have had for readers over the years show how difficult it is for an author to control how a story is read. Tolstoy knew he couldn't just leave the story up to his readers' interpretations, and so he interprets it for us as we read along, making the book part novel, part history lesson, and part philosophical discussion (indeed, Tolstoy said his Anna Karenina, written after War and Peace, was his first novel). Much of the authorial lecturing in War and Peace can be tedious, but it is a testament to Tolstoy's genius that so much of it is compelling.

Bondarchuk's film of War and Peace, for all its brilliance, is, in the end, a failure, because it cannot encompass Tolstoy's work, though it tries to. Not only are entire chunks of narrative removed, but the themes of the book are pared down and simplified. (How they could be preserved within a movie which was watchable, is a damn near unsolveable problem.) Jackson had an easier time of it -- while he certainly had to cut and change much from the original novels, his films of The Lord of the Rings convey most of the ideas and much of the excitement of the books. Indeed, for some of us, the films are superior to the books in their narrative momentum. While we can all quibble with various changes made in the adaptation from book to film (I have some problems with the ending of Return of the King for instance), overall I think it's clear that Jackson has captured the essence and spirit of the books, and mangled it far less than many people suspected would be necessary.

What Bondarchuk did was not so much mangle War and Peace as use elements of it to create an often great, though deeply flawed, movie. He was under pressure similar to the pressure Jackson received from Tolkien fans -- Tolstoy was and is worshipped in Russia, and people wanted Bondarchuk to make a film which was faithful to a book which they loved. Filming War and Peace, though, is harder than filming Lord of the Rings because War and Peace is a richer text. Bondarchuk's film must be nearly impossible for people who have not read the book to follow, because all of Tolstoy's many explications of why events happen are removed from the story, making many of the scenes feel random and disorienting. I went back to the book a few times to refresh my memory of what was going on and its relation to the narrative as a whole.

The achievements of the two films, then, seem almost opposite to me. Lord of the Rings is great on the whole, but numerous single scenes are, it seems to me, clumsy or simplistic or even embarrassing. This doesn't diminish the pleasure of the films, though, or their technical accomplishments, and I've seen each of the three films at least twice, with great joy each time.

Bondarchuk's film of War and Peace is brilliant in pieces and a mess as a whole. There are images and scenes which, I expect, will live in my memory for a long time -- a boy being executed, a wolf's eyes after it has been shot in a hunt, Pierre stumbling around the battle of Borodino in a white top hat, Natasha standing alone at a ball, desperately waiting for someone to dance with her -- these are powerful, searing moments.

Perhaps this is for the best. Tolstoy would have wanted the small moments, the human moments to matter most, just as Tolkien would have wanted us, I assume, to focus on the grand sweep of the narrative.

Ultimately, both films and, more clearly, both authors show us how impoverished so much of even the best of our contemporary fiction is. So much contemporary fantasy is written purely to give readers a way of wasting time between waking and sleeping, while so much mainstream fiction has little sense of history or scope. It would certainly be nice, too, to see some SF writers use Tolstoy as a model rather than Tolkien, for we've gotten about all the imitations of Tolkien as a world really needs. Creating an epic narrative which never loses sight of the everyday moments of life, the ordinary people, the miniscule events ... now that would be quite an accomplishment for the SF field.

01 January 2004

Site Notes

Updates have been slow here for a few months, as my life has been busy and I haven't been reading nearly as much SF as I would like. However, there should be fairly frequent updates, at least for the next few weeks.

First off, there are now comments on this site. I went back and forth as to whether I wanted them, but have decided that one of the things I like most about weblogs is that comments allow discussion to develop. Of course, people have to find the weblog and decide it's an interesting place to visit for that to happen, but we'll see. If I try to keep updating with some frequency, maybe this little corner of cyberspace will get noticed by one or two people.

There are a few good things out there which deserve your attention and not much comment from me:

Emerald City is up to their 100th issue, and it's got plenty of good pieces by folks like John Clute and Ken MacLeod. I went to read the Clute piece, then found myself reading just about everything. Lots of thoughts on what SF reviewing is and should be.

Speaking of SF reviewing, be sure to see the new s1ngularity blog. It's a collaborative blog, and full of great conversation. The mix of personalities and tastes is particularly strong here, creating dialogue which moves ideas forward, backward, up and down.

I just discovered L. Timmel Duchamps's website, which has lots of good stuff available, including plenty of her excellent and thoughtful nonfiction. I haven't read much of her fiction -- in fact, until last week, I hadn't read any -- until I discovered a comment of high praise from Samuel R. Delany in an interview in the first issue of Argosy magazine. (The interview seems to me to be the best thing in the issue, though I haven't read the Michael Moorcock novella yet. Everything else is a bit mediocre. The design is great, the packaging handsome, but the proofreading needs work and the quality of the content does not justify the high price of the magazine. But it sometimes takes a new magazine a few issues to find its voice and get work of real quality, and if any magazine is going to do that, I think Argosy has a shot. I'll certainly keep reading.)

The new, official Philip K. Dick website is magnificent, with lots of fascinating content. One piece which has been available on the old site (now the fan site) which I had not paid attention to before, but which is worth your time, is his audio interview on the "Hour 25" radio show (a transcript of which is available at the fan site). It's a meaty interview, full of PKD's trenchant, and often bizarre, opinions and perspectives.

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.