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Showing posts from February, 2004

We Who are About To...
by Joanna Russ

[Update, 2010: I haven't revisited this novel, because it left such an unpleasant aftertaste, but I may soon because at the time I wrote this post, I was not familiar with at least half the context for the book -- the surprisingly (or not) large number of stories about the terrible things that have to be done to women whenever situations of scarcity arise. It was a strain of male fantasy that We Who Are About To... quite effectively counters. But I still think this post is one of the weaker ones around here, and considered deleting it. I've kept it because I'm generally not in favor of sanitizing the record, even to make myself look less obtuse. In fact, I think in some ways my strong negative reaction to the book speaks to the power it has to get under a reader's skin -- I don't think I reacted so strongly simply because it was tedious. I've read far more tedious books. No, I think it got to me. Which is a good thing.]

I sought out a copy of Joanna Russ's

Stories of Sex and Identity

Speculative fiction is one of the best artistic forms with which to explore ideas of sexuality and gender identity, because SF allows writers and readers to mix imagination and curiosity together to follow hunches about human nature toward some sort of conclusion. (Nonhuman nature, of course, is fertile ground as well, though when read by humans, such stories inevitably serve as foils for human nature.) Despite a fairly conservative base of readers, SF has been investigating sex and gender since at least the time of Theodore Sturgeon, and a few recent stories which fit into this tradition have caught my attention.

Strange Horizons has been, admirably, one of the leaders in seeking out stories which don't represent worlds where heterosexuality seems to have triumphed. Jed Hartman's editorial "The Future of Sex" made me shout out, "Yes! Exactly! Absolutely!", waking my neighbors and scaring my cat. Strange Horizons has carried through on Hartman's id…

"Free Time" by James Sallis

Just a few pages in Album Zutique #1, "Free Time" demonstrates how much can be accomplished by the careful juxtaposition of words, images, and situations. James Sallis is a tremendously experienced writer, a writer who has worked within and outside various genres and styles, and the forceful effect he creates through suggestion rather than statement shows a writer who trusts the intelligence and attention of his readers.

I've been puzzled by a few of the reactions to Album Zutique from certain reviewers who have suggested (and sometimes stated) that the book is a minor one, its writers drunk on language or imagery at the expense of plot and story. This says more about the readers than the writers, it seems to me, because all of the stories I have read so far in the book reward careful reading. Yes, many of them are short, many of them are devoted to surreal effects, and many of them use stylistic effects to suggest meaning beyond the literal, but none of those qualiti…

Quote for the Day

Before anything else, The Passion [of the Christ] establishes itself in the realm of recent fantasy epics: The Aramaic sounds like bad Elvish, a brief interlude in epicene Herod's degenerate court suggests a minor detour to the Matrix world, the music is straight out of Gladiator, and much of the movie is haunted by the androgynous, cowled Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) seemingly risen from George Lucas's cutting room floor.--J. Hoberman in The Village Voice

50 Books (Starting with 5)

Via David Harris' Science & Literature blog, I discovered the idea of a 50 Book Challenge: read 50 books in 2004 and write in the blog about them.

I can do this. I think. I read parts of hundreds of books a year, and probably read all of 50 or so, but 50 that are worth writing about, 50 in addition to the various reading I do for my job (high school English teacher) ... that's hard.

But I like a challenge, and it will give some sense of the future to this blog, which I could definitely use right now.

Therefore, here are the first five books I intend to read and to write about, books that I've currently got in my stack of things I already intend to comment on here in some way or another within the next month or two:The Etched City by K.J. Bishop

Secret Life by Jeff VanderMeer (not due till June, but I've ordered it already)

Light by M. John Harrison

We Who Are About To by Joanna Russ

Kalpa Imperial by Angelica GorodischerI didn't put any anthologies on the lis…

"Knapsack Poems" by Eleanor Arnason

"Knapsack Poems" is the first story I've read by Eleanor Arnason, and the quality of the story makes me wonder why I haven't paid more attention to her before. Now I will.

"Knapsack Poems" is one of two stories by Arnason currently up for the Nebula award, the other being her novella "The Potter of Bones". What makes this such a fine tale is its compression, for Arnason achieves in only a few pages what many other authors struggle to achieve in novels: she builds a convincingly alien species, creates an evocative world, and subtly explores the implications of what she has imagined, touching on issues of gender, class, art, and consciousness, without ever being predictably didactic.

The aliens of her world, the goxhat, are alien to us not only in their physical form, but in their social relationships: each Goxhat "person" is really a group of people, some male, some female, and some neutral (that is, uninterested in sexual relations). …

Quote for the Day: Did You Know You Know?

In need of a chuckle or an egoboost? Read this and discover what you didn't know you knew: As of March, 2000, THEY represent about 95 to 98 percent of the total Earth population. YOU KNOW IT. YOU FEEL IT.

THEY have been growing in numbers since a 'spiritual hurricane' swept up this planet from 1993 to the present day. YOU are a SURVIVOR of this situation. YOU KNOW IT. YOU REMEMBER IT.Via Crank.net, a veritable trough of chucklematter, which was via Goblindegook.

Read It While You Can

Richard Calder's blog will be ending soon, he says, and taken off-line. It's a fascinating collection of thoughts, travels, readings, esoterica, and the uncategorizable. Read it now, before it's too late and you regret not having done so.

The Loneliness of the Idiosyncratic Writer

Over at the marvelous FutureTense, Alan Lattimore meditates on "Zen and the Art of Idiosyncratic Writing", positing that there are 2 paths for a writer to follow, that of writing what you want to write, how you want to write it, defying categories and what everyone else is doing, and that of doing basically what everyone else is doing, with some small differences of your own (essentially following the herd): It seems that if you take the compromise path--to run with the herd--you might improve your short term chances of getting published. But where will you be in 10 years?

I can't guarantee the ideosyncratic path will change your life. But it just seems so much more interesting to be writing different stuff 10 years from now than the same old thing.I thought immediately of Piers Anthony's latest newsletter, in which, among the many subjects he discusses (quite amusingly), he mentions some short stories he's written: I regard myself as a natural story writer; th…

The U.S. = Mars

Charles Stross visited the U.S. recently and wrote some wonderful blog entries about his trip. It's fun to see him wrestle with his perceptions of this country, because he's both a good writer and a thoughtful observer.

Two paragraphs of one post in particular made me think for a moment that Mr. Stross has figured out one reason for Mr. Bush's fascination with Mars:Another thing I needed was my annual reminder of just how parochial the US news media are. Today's half-baked theory: America's view of the rest of the world can best be understood by a European if you start by imagining that America is psychologically located on Mars, fifty million plus kilometres from the quaint neighbours on that funny third planet over there. The quality and quantity of foreign news reporting is absolutely dismal for the most part, highly selective, and framed entirely in terms of the domestic political discourse. ('Political crisis rocks Ruritania! How opinion of US tourists a…

Words Without Borders

Every now and then I'm grateful to the New York Times, and today my gratitude is for a story which led me to the lovely website Words Without Borders, which presents translations of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction from around the world. It is a young site, having existed only since July, but the content is steadily growing. Each month, the site focuses on a different country or region, and this month (fans of Kalpa Imperial take note) the focus is Argentina. I was particularly fascinated by a short essay about Xul Solar, an artist and writer who was a friend of Borges and seems to have influenced him considerably.

Lists

If you want to get a lot of varied, contradictory, contentious, and amusing opinions, ask a fairly literate audience for a list of Books Every Educated Person Should Read . (Actually, it's books published after 1970, building on a list by Will Durant, which I haven't been able to find online.) Interesting that there are quite a few SF books suggested, particularly if you consider Gravity's Rainbow to be SF (as Jonathan Lethem has proposed, though he's certainly not the only one.) The "list" itself -- that is, the comments in response to the call for suggestions -- is less interesting to me than the sort of conversation it has created, a conversation which veers away from the original objectives fairly frequently and ends up producing suggestions which might better be called "Books I Think Should Be Read More Often By More People and Valued in the Same Way I Value Them" which is what every such list usually becomes. It seems to me that were peopl…

"The Falls" by George Saunders

Late-night websurfing occasionally reveals wonders. Last night I discovered that one of my favorite contemporary short stories is online: "The Falls", written by a New Yorker writer who happens to be one of the better writers of satirical speculative fiction, George Saunders. I'll let you explore the wonders of the story for yourself, though if you're determined to know why I think Saunders is worth reading, I did review him for English Journal's May 2003 issue. [Update 10/1/09: The link to the review no longer works. One day I'll repost it...]

Reviewing Situations

By now you must have heard that Amazon.com's Canadian site had a bit of a glitch and revealed the identities of anonymous reviewers of books. I ignored the story for a few days, thinking, "So what?" I can be very obtuse at times. This is an interesting story because some of the anonymous reviewers turned out to be the authors of the books themselves.

READER BEWARE: WHAT FOLLOWS ARE SELF-INDULGENT RAMBLINGS AND RUMINATIONS, ATTEMPTS AT META-CRITICISM, AND FAR TOO MANY PARENTHETICAL REMARKS. IF I WERE LESS TIRED AND INDOLENT, I WOULD EDIT THIS ALL DOWN TO TWO SHORT SENTENCES. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.

The ethics of reviewing can be frustrating to think about. I've always taken Amazon's customer reviews with sea-sized grains of salt, because, of course, anybody can write a review. Many of the reviews seem barely literate. And yet sometimes they're written by intelligent and informed people, and are quite helpful. It just never occurred to me that authors w…

A Bit of Disch

Dan McNeil has an interesting review of Thomas M. Disch's short stories (early ones). I've been thinking about writing something about Disch, a fascinating and sometimes problematic writer, but now I don't have to (at least immediately), because McNeil has some interesting things to say. Here's just one:In Disch, I sense a man who wants you to taste his words, to enjoy the sentences they create, to observe the paragraphs as they assemble themselves before you, to feel uncomfortable with the direction you are being pulled in, to feel your mind being stretched. And what’s wrong with that? Much of the dross that strains the shelves today is safe and easy. It’s also dull, inane, useless and derivative. These attributes are fine for TV, but for literature? Pass me the blowtorch. (Note: You may have to scroll down a bit after following the link to McNeill's review site.)

Jan Svankmajer, Faust, and Surrealism

I've wanted to see some of Jan Svankmajer's films for a while now, since I have liked the bizarre works of the Brothers Quay, who claim him as an influence. But I live in rural New Hampshire, and the video rental places around me don't have many international films. Finally, I joined Netflix, and one of the first DVDs I rented was Svankmajer's Faust. (Why start with that and not another? Because I find the Faust story to be filled with possibilities and was curious what Svankmajer would do with it.)

Svankmajer's Faust is a magnificent film, one which mixes live action with claymation and human actors with marionettes (sometimes even human actors inside marionettes). There are many elements of the film I could praise, from the remarkable lack of dialogue in the beginning scenes to the brilliant and disturbing imaginative vision of it all, but what most held my thoughts after seeing the film was the way Svankmajer uses techniques of surrealism to explore the con…

Underrated and Overrated

In response to my post about David Bunch, The Website at the End of the Universe offers a short post on science fiction's most underrated and overrated writers. Suggestions for underrated writers were: Gordon R. Dickson, Richard C. Meredith, Allen Steele and Barrington Bayley. (I'm actually hoping to write some about Bayley soon, if I can get through a pile of reading I'm behind in and refresh myself on some of Bayley's work.) The overrated list is far more controversial -- William Gibson, Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, Connie Willis. The author's own pick is one I can't disagree with more strongly: Samuel R. Delany. It would be a more interesting discussion, I think, if there were reasons given for why these writers either deserve more or less attention. Gibson, Herbert, Heinlein, Willis, and Delany might not be to your particular taste in reading, but what are their flaws, how are they meretricious or superficial, what qualities are the readers who fi…

Unjustly Neglected: David R. Bunch

I'm not in this business primarily to describe or explain or entertain. I'm here to make the reader think, even if I have to bash his teeth out, break his legs, grind him up, beat him down, and totally chastise him for the terrible and tinsel and almost wholly bad world we allow.... The first level reader, who wants to see events jerk their tawdry ways through some used and USED old plot -- I love him with a hate bigger than all the world's pity, but he's not for me. The reader I want is the one who wants the anguish, who will go up there and get on that big black cross. And that reader will have, with me, the saving grace of knowing that some awful payment is due...as all space must look askance at us, all galaxies send star frowns down, a cosmic leer envelop this small ball that has such great Great GREAT pretenders.

--David R. Bunch It is not a surprise that David Bunch's hundreds of short (very short) stories have been nearly forgotten, his few books gone …

What Fiction Can Learn from Poetry

to bend at the end of the line
to give up the line for a word
to push when a word tries to shove
to try when nothing else works
to find everything in nothing
to look without wanting to find
to scour the language with want
to guess what lies outside language
to play outside when it's cold
to jumble a why to a when
to break before getting to why
to watch for what came before
to read without setting a watch
to set down all that moves up
to move when the grammar gets tough
to be tough in the face of forgetfulness
to judge each face by its shadow
to shadow the beauty of yesterdays
to speak truth to beauty
to forget about truth
to embody all that is forgotten


(Sorry ... it's been a long day and I was feeling pretentious...)

Some New Links

I've updated the links in the sidebar, cutting out a few which were dead, moving some into categories which seemed more appropriate (the categories are just a guideline -- many of the sites don't fit comfortably into one category only). There are some great blogs I just discovered and added.

One link I didn't add, because it isn't related to speculative fiction particularly, but which I've enjoyed very much, is the Missouri Review blog. It's interesting to see behind the scenes of a mainstream lit magazine, and provides some wonderful links, for instance these writing exercises. The blog is young, and I look forward to seeing what the various writers will come up with. Unlike some blogs connected to major publications, this one allows the writers to be personal, giving us a sense of the personalities working on a respected literary journal, while at the same time providing good information about publishers and writers.

Heroism and Happy Endings

Albert Goldbarth's poem "Far: An Etymology" is lovely and affecting, written in a style which mingles the lyrical with the vernacular with grace and skill. These early lines caught my eye:In 1950s sci-fi idiom: space--"far"er,
with its smug and kickass certainty that interstellar travel is
the farthest: so, the most heroic.I immediately thought of myself at twelve years old, sitting in my bedroom, reading a couple of fragile copies of Galaxy from the '50s which I'd gotten at a used bookstore, entranced by the idea of a space beyond myself, of worlds Out There, of heroism.

I'm not a big fan of heroism anymore. It was a nice escapist fantasy when I was 12, but now I've seen the effects of people trying to be heroes, scattering lives and resources in the wake. Heroism is a vastly different concept to me now, one not linked to strength and power, but more to sacrifice -- I find myself most awed by people willing to give up comfort and clarity, to…

Notes on Blogging

I never paid much attention to Terry Teachout until he started a blog. He was too conservative for my tastes, I seldom agreed with him, and most of his publications were in conservative magazines I seldom read. But his blog is great.

Why? Because he's literate, observant, and has a sense of humor. Even if I don't care for anything he says, at least there are plenty of links to follow.

Some clue as to why Teachout is a great blog writer (sorry, "blogger" sounds too much like "booger" for me) can be gleaned from the fifteen notes on blogging he posted recently. For instance:4. The blogosphere is a pure market--but one in which no money changes hands. If you can afford the bandwidth and your ego is strong enough, it doesn’t matter whether anybody wants to read what you have to say. But the more you care about how many people are reading your blog, the more your blogging will be shaped by their approval, whether you get paid or not.(People get paid for blo…

"The Mappist" by Barry Lopez

I had the privilege of being in Barry Lopez's workshop at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference a few years ago. At Bread Loaf, the faculty all get to do readings, and Lopez read his story "The Mappist", from what was then a forthcoming collection of stories, Light Action in the Caribbean. It was an overwhelming experience for many of us in the audience -- Lopez is a magnificent reader (as you can hear on the audio cassette of the book, or the even more wonderful tape of his collection of essays About This Life), and the story itself is haunting, subtle, and written in a prose which I have no more precise adjective for than perfect.

Light Action in the Caribbean is an uneven collection, with a handful of stunningly beautiful stories, a couple of duds, and a few mediocre tales. Many of the stories owe a lot to Latin American Magical Realism, though there are also contemporary horror stories such as the title story, a painful attempt at science fiction ("In the Ga…

What is an Anthology?

Cheryl Morgan reports: I'm pleased but a little concerned to see The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases listed under Anthology [on the International Horror Guild's shortlist of awards]. Either a book is an anthology or it isn't. Locus says it isn't, the IHG says it is. It is great that the book should get awards, but I worry about controversy here. This leaves the door open for award administrators to arbitrarily disqualify the book because they take one side or the other in the dispute. Here's hoping that the Hugo Administrators let the book in to the Related Book category if enough people vote for it.Locus may have some esoteric and specific definition of an anthology being a collection of short fiction, but though that may be the definition they and others use for their purposes, it's not the definition of the word "anthology", which originates from the Greek and means, literally, "a collection of flowers&…

Parable of the Reader

Alienated and decidedly idiosyncratic, Writer sat at her battered, steam-powered typewriter, pounding grey letters onto yellowed paper, certain that her inner genius had begun to ooze and tremble onto the page. She had stared at this page for many years, fearful of writing a word lest it be somehow wrong, ill considered, a clang where there should be a melodious tweet.

But a person cannot stare forever at a piece of paper, watching it turn yellow in the sun and dusty in the dark, and Writer, being a person, felt her legs ache and her bowels scream and her stomach rumble as all the necessities of physical life clawed for her attention. Once she got more words down, she told herself, she would be free.

The words proceeded. The story, if that's what it was, got told.

Later, after the last letter of the last word of the last page had plunged into inky reality, Writer got up, stretched her legs, paid a visit to the toilet, and then ordered a pizza from the crazy Irishman down the st…