31 March 2004

"Unidentified Objects" by James P. Blaylock

Every now and then I discover, usually toward the back of a double-stuffed bookshelf, a book I forgot I owned, a book I can neither remember buying nor receiving as a gift. These are magical moments which cause me, for a second or two, to believe in book fairies, those wonderful sprites who bring books to their perfect readers. (Sometimes their judgment is wrong, alas, but I love them nonetheless.)

13 Phantasms and Other Stories by James P. Blaylock is a book I forgot I owned. I must have bought it recently, because it is the April 2003 printing. But when? Where? Why?

Why is perhaps easiest to guess at. Blaylock is one of the many writers I have long been meaning to read. Long ago, I read his story "Unidentified Objects" because it accomplished the nearly impossible: it was included in an O. Henry Awards collection, after having been published in Omni. A science fiction story published in a science fiction market reprinted as one of the best short stories of the year in a mainstream collection. When I discovered that O. Henry volume in the local library, I held it like an egg containing an earthquake. I thought: If an SF story can make it into an O. Henry Awards collection, it must be the greatest story ever written by any human being in history.

I read the story and didn't think much of it. "No wonder it didn't win any SF awards!" I said to myself. "It doesn't explain how the spaceships work!" I decided that any SF lauded by non-SF readers must be nambypamby, hoitytoity, pretentious junk.

Perhaps that's why I bought the book. "Unidentified Objects" was published in 1989. I am a very different reader now than I was fifteen years ago. I expect I bought the book because I wanted to know what had so desperately upset my younger self.
All the collected pieces of our imagistic memory seem sometimes to be trivial knickknacks when seen against the roaring of passing time. But without those little water-paint sketches, awash in remembered color and detail, none of us, despite our airy dreams, amount to more than an impatient ghost wandering through the revolving years and into an increasingly strange and alien future.
"Unidentified Objects" is one of those stories that makes defenders of the science fictional tradition pound their fists against dilating doors and retreat to shelves of mouldering Analogs to regroup. (Blaylock would not hold this against them, and the title story of the collection is a gentle homage to such folks, though it does suggest they need to mail themselves back to 1947.)

The beauty of "Unidentified Objects" is that the fantastic elements are not ambiguous, but the realistic ones are. I never doubted the science fictional ending, but nearly everything else in the story is left incomplete, ambivalent, a welter of suggestion.

Blaylock has won and been nominated for a number of awards, including two World Fantasy Awards for short fiction, but this story doesn't seem to have garnered much notice within the SF world, and certainly no notice comparable to inclusion in an O. Henry Awards collection. Here, then, we seem to have a story which is publishable within a science fiction market but appeals more to people who don't read SF than people who do. I would happily give this story to anyone who told me they hate SF, because it is evocative and quirky, an affecting exploration of nostalgia and the passage of time. The writing is excellent, with some sentences and paragraphs so carefully balanced that the addition of one word would ruin them. There is nothing within this story that could ever embarrass the SF genre.

Except it doesn't tell you how the spaceship works. It doesn't imagine a carefully-extrapolated future world or a bizarre and complex far future galactic empire. It doesn't explore alien biology or anthropology. It doesn't have any wizards or wyverns, dark lords or dwarfs. It is not set in an obviously alternate reality. No Great Beings peer from beyond the shadows, sending us colours from outerspace. The reader does not come away with a sense of wonder. If anything, there's a sense of loss and confusion, the smallness of any individual life.

Could this story have been published outside of the SF markets? Anything is possible, but it would probably have been difficult, because most mainstream editors would, I expect, want the science fictional ending, understated as it is, made more "realistic". They might have published it anyway, though, because it's such a fine example of all that can be accomplished within a short story by a writer in full control of his craft. Certainly, most mainstream fiction magazines are not limited only to publishing stories of the most stringent realism, though most SF magazines, by their nature, are limited only to stories which have at least a hint of an SF element.

Samuel Delany has said that SF is the most encompassing form of writing, because any sentence could appear in an SF story, whereas "mundane" stories are limited to sentences which make sense in the "real world". Our publishing practices, though, turn this equation around: mainstream markets are welcome to publish any sentences they want, while SF markets can only publish sentences which add up to a story that is at least marginally SF.

Hence, while SF is the most encompassing form of writing in theory, in reality it is considerably more limited than mainstream fiction.

Reviewing the Situation

Sometimes after I have written about a story, poem, or book here, someone will ask, "But ... did you like it?"

That's a hard question to answer. "Yes," is the simplest, because I seldom write here about anything I didn't, not because there isn't anything I don't like, but because there's so much -- so much that bores me, so much that I find unimaginative and repetitive and silly, so much that causes me to wish the English language had never been allowed near the pens and keyboards of blithering idiots, so much, so much -- that writing about it just to say, "This is awful, don't bother," would keep me far busier than I can afford to be. (Although, there's value in having a few people do that -- John Leonard once said of Brett Easton Ellis and other bratpackers, "I read this stuff so you don't have to." And I haven't.)

Thus, unless I say, "This is drivel, but there's something worth noticing," I probably did enjoy the work in question, or at least some part of it. I don't want to have to write thumbs-up/thumbs-down reviews, because, though it would save me time, I find it more interesting to explore what a work has to offer and the possibilities inherent within it. If you're looking to find out what new books are worth reading, there are many good sites with quick, astute reviews. I don't read in large enough quantities to be able to offer a comprehensive view of anything, and so I offer a particular one. (If you want a more comprehensive view, read Emerald City -- Cheryl Morgan and I have similar, though hardly exact, taste, and she reads more SF in a year than I will in a lifetime.)

I shouldn't spend a lot of words on a simple topic, and so let me end by summing up: Assume that if I write about something, I consider the work in question worth the time it takes to read it. If I don't, it will be extremely clear.

(But don't assume if I don't write about something, that it isn't worth reading. I just haven't gotten to it yet.)

Eleanor Arnason at Strange Horizons

Strange Horizons this week is devoted to Eleanor Arnason, with a short story, "The Grammarian's Five Daughters"; a poem, "Song from the Kalevala", and interview. Arnason fully deserves the attention, just as she deserves the attention for her magnificent stories "Potter of Bones" and "Knapsack Poems", the latter of which I wrote about recently.

The story at Strange Horizons, "The Grammarian's Five Daughters", was published in 1999 in Realms of Fantasy, and is an amusing fairy tale with parts of speech in the place of fairies. It's an efficient, clever, and amusing story, though it would have been particularly nice for Strange Horizons to get a new tale from Arnason for their showcase. (I'm sure the editors would agree, and given the choice of reprinted Arnason or no Arnason, I'm happy with a reprint.)

The poem seems minor to me, but the interview brings up some notable comments on gender and sexuality in Arnason's work, as well as her frustration with hard science fiction that is set in a far future where today's science is still the basis of knowledge.

Site Notes

Sorry for the lack of recent postings -- life got busy. (Apologies to everyone whose e-mails I haven't returned -- I don't hate you!)

I've switched commenting systems to one that doesn't limit the size of comments. There have been some great exchanges within the comments recently, and I don't want the discussions to be limited. I expect there may be a couple of bugs to kill or speedbumps to smooth out, but I won't know until people have taken the new comment tool for a spin.

The bad part about changing systems is that a couple months of comments have now been lost. Over the next few days, I'm going to try to replace some in various entries where people either corrected me, offered a view which shed more light on a subject than I offered, or took things in an interesting direction. If by the end of the week I haven't replaced a comment you like, or one you feel is necessary, please let me know.

Finally, I've abandoned the ModBlog experiment. Too many limitations. If you don't know what I'm talking about, don't worry about it.

Thanks again to everybody for reading this site. I'm stunned and grateful that y'all keep coming back!

26 March 2004

"Many Voices" by M. Rickert

A couple months ago I said that Lucius Shepard's story "Only Partly Here" is likely to be read differently because it was published in a genre magazine (Asimov's) than it would have been were it published in a non-genre magazine. The story's fantastic elements are ambiguous, but since it appeared in Asimov's, most readers are probably more likely than they would be otherwise to assume that the "proper" reading of the story is to give full weight to the supernatural suggestions.

M. Rickert's "Many Voices", from the March issue of F&SF, poses similar problems of interpretation, although to a lesser extent. Part of the story is narrated by a woman who has murdered someone because angels told her to. She claims to be able to read people's "auras", to predict the future, and to heal the sick through a sort of psychokinesis. Standard New Age woo-woo. The one thing we know is that the character fully believes herself to possess such powers, and acts accordingly.

Naturally, most people think she's schizophrenic, though the courts don't judge her to be insane. The story ends with what seems to be proof of her powers, so long as we trust her as a narrator.

To me, this is not an interesting story if we assume the narrator is reliable and all of her experiences were meant to be taken literally. If that is so, then the story is about as original as a UFO sighting, and about as interesting as someone drooling to death in their sleep.

No, there's more here than what is immediately presented to us. If there were not, then why would Rickert employ the fragmented structure that she does? The story starts with the first-person narrator, Rose, then moves to a short excerpt from a newspaper article, followed by a letter from Rose's mother, a third-person account of an incident in Rose's childhood, dialogue from a session with a psychiatrist, another letter, a dialogue between Rose and her lawyer, another newspaper excerpt, and then the story ends with a return to the first-person narrative.

If Rickert merely wanted to tell the story of someone with angelically-inspired powers, she would not need to bounce from one type of representation to another. So many discourses are mixed within quite a short story that the effect is to displace the reader, to make us wonder what is going on, to force us to construct a story from the contradictory fragments we have been given by the writer.

Unfortunately, because it was published in a genre magazine, we might be tempted to give too much credence to the narrator. After all, is a magazine called Fantasy and Science Fiction going to publish a story without any fantasy or science fiction in it? Were this published in, say, Witness, we might be more inclined to read it as a story of a crazy person.

Neither interpretation is entirely satisfying. If we read "Many Voices" as a fantasy in which a person with magic powers is misunderstood by society and locked away, then it's a tremendously familiar, not particularly compelling piece of work, one which flatters the reader who sided with the narrator early on, providing the inevitable and tiresome ending so common within the science fiction and fantasy genres of the misunderstood nerd/rebel/witch at the very least being validated as having been Right All Along.

If, however, we read "Many Voices" as a realistic story told partially from within a schizophrenic's mind, it becomes somewhat more interesting, but is still not particularly compelling, because, once again, it gives us a balanced equation, a story where everything adds up and the world returns to its regularly scheduled program.

The solution to the problem is to choose both answers (or neither). Keep the story ambiguous, stay ambivalent about what Rickert is up to, allow every voice among the many to be true within this fictional reality. It turns the story into a paradox, and while paradoxes aren't much fun in life, they give good energy to art. Personally, I would have liked more paradoxes, more elisions and lacunae, within "Many Voices", but the structure is interesting enough to make me admire the story nonetheless.

25 March 2004

"Bitter Grounds" by Neil Gaiman

This past fall, I used Mojo: Conjure Stories, edited by Nalo Hopkinson, in one of my English classes. The class is for students who do not necessarily love reading and writing, but who don't need remedial help. I had liked what I'd read of the anthology, and I thought the stories would be both engaging and challenging for the kids. We ended up only having two weeks to spend on the book, so I broke the students into small groups and had them choose a handful of stories to read, discuss, and then present to the rest of the class. A few stories we discussed together, including Neil Gaiman's "Bitter Grounds", a story I find more evocative with each reading.

The first reaction of all of the students to the story was: "This was boring to read, it didn't make any sense, what is he like some sort of zombie or something, it was stupid." They had already begun work in their groups, and were reading other stories in the book, so they were aware of some common themes and subjects, aware that we weren't in the realm of quotidian reality here, but that didn't help them recognize the merits of Gaiman's tale. "These stories are just too weird," one of my students said. "Can't anybody just write normal stories?!"

It is in such moments that I love being a teacher. I knew that, once I could direct their attentions to a few of the subtleties of the story, they would begin to warm to it. They might not love it, they might not go running out to recommend it to their friends, but they wouldn't resent it as much as they did when they first walked into the classroom and sat around the table, arms folded across their chests, eyes drilling imaginary holes in the floor, certain that what they had read was just another example of an author, or a teacher, trying to make them feel stupid.

Though few of my students came to like "Bitter Grounds" as much as I do, they all came to respect it, and I would never ask for more than that. The book as a whole received mostly positive reviews from them by the time we had finished it, with vastly different opinions of which stories were the most effective. "Bitter Grounds" is the one that has remained most vividly in my mind, and is the one I return to most frequently.

Summarizing "Bitter Grounds" is beyond my capabilities. It is a story about loss, love, carelessness, voodoo, sex, ghosts, and more. The first time I read it, my reaction was, "That's it?" I hadn't paid enough attention. I hadn't been expecting the level of complexity "Bitter Grounds" offers. The first sentence, "In every way that counts, I was dead," is extremely important to every sentence that follows, all of which serve to illustrate the "every way that counts" and how it relates to death. This is a story where what isn't done and what doesn't happen is as important as what is and does.

Virginia Woolf once said, "...I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters: I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humor, depth," and that is precisely what Gaiman does as well, though using vastly different techniques. The caves Gaiman digs out are not so much beautiful as they are unsettling and, ultimately, haunting. The various encounters in the story feel random at first, but early on a character says to the narrator, "Remember. People come into your life for a reason," and this sentence proves to be as important as the story's first. Fragmentary moments all take on significance, all loop back to shine tiny glimmers of light into the beautiful cave behind the narrator, the shadow-world of his daily existence.

Once I told my students to look more carefully at the first sentence, at the passages from Zora Neale Hurston, at who disappeared in the story, at how people responded to the narrator -- once they started looking, they didn't want to stop. Everything in the tale connected, there wasn't a loose thread anywhere, even though a quick reading made the story feel random and even inconsequential. Now, having looked at it closely, the students saw how much could be accomplished in a single carefully-crafted short story. They were impressed. Having re-read the story moments ago, I still am.

Art, Fear, and Violence

The San Francisco Chronicle reports on a college professor who lost her job after one of her writing students submitted a story filled with "sex and violence, incest, pedophilia ... no character development -- just hacking up bodies". The student was expelled immediately, and soon after the teacher herself was fired because she had given the class an "unauthorized" story to read: "Girl with Curious Hair" by David Foster Wallace, the title story of his first collection.
According to Richman [the professor], no one in the administration was familiar with the author, and Rowley and Stephens [vice president and president of the school] were none too pleased that the instructor was teaching Wallace's story. "Nobody had ever heard of him," she said. "In fact, they kept calling him George Foster Wallace.''
Wallace is one of the more prominent literary writers in the U.S., and it says something about the school that they would fire a teacher for teaching a short story by a contemporary writer.

What about the student? In what everybody seems intent on calling "these post-Columbine days", schools err on the side of overreaction to any expression which might somehow perhaps lead possibly to something resembling violence. Hence, the student writes what sounds like an homage to American Psycho and gets an interview with the police and an expulsion from school.

The instructor of the class seemed to handle it all professionally, and had a good plan: she was going to use the story as a way to discuss the use and misuse of violence in fiction. This is a discussion her entire class could have benefitted from, and the young writer, who sounds like he might even have something resembling talent, would have seen that there really are ways to make effective use of violence in fiction. (I'd have had him read some Paul Bowles.)

"Girl with Curious Hair" is a wonderful piece of work, by the way, and there's not a lot of Wallace that I like. It's a hilariously funny, deeply disturbing story, and the teacher's decision to use it as an example of an unreliable narrator was a good one.

The student may, indeed, have been disturbed. For the teacher and then perhaps someone else to have a conversation with him would have been appropriate and even necessary. But to call the police and to expell him, and then to fire the instructor of the class ... that is more disturbing to me than a gratuitously violent short story.

24 March 2004

Against Functional Prose

Daniel Green has stumbled upon one of the more obtuse and idiotic critiques of a book I've read in a while -- Debra Fitzgerald writing in Writer's Chronicle about "What Scientists Can Teach Fiction Writers About Metaphor". I'm sure plenty of scientists can teach plenty of writers about plenty of things, including metaphor (we all might do well to at least familiarize ourselves with the ideas of George Lakoff), but Fitzgerald shows herself to be unfit to tell any writer how to do anything. Green quotes a truly hilarious commentary she makes on a passage from Jonathan Lethem's novel Motherless Brooklyn:
It's a passage full of nonfunctional, decorative metaphors, a good example of writing that is all style, no substance.
Green does a good job of showing why this is, frankly, an idiotic statement, the sort of criticism a hopelessly tone deaf person might make against Bach. What I'm more interested in is the term "nonfunctional" that Fitzgerald wields against Lethem's writing.

Not having any sense for theoretical mathematics, I wouldn't pretend to be able to say whether one mathematical theory was more coherent or elegant than another; it's beyond my capabilities or desires. What I can see is that there is more to math than arithmetic, and I expect most people, regardless of how "literary" they are, can see that there is more to language than denotation.

Based on her critique of Motherless Brooklyn, Fitzgerald seems to be the sort of person who wants language to stand still, keep its chin up, and stick to one task at a time. Rather than "functional", we might call such language "developmentally disabled".

Functional is a sad, flaccid term for writing. The sense is of writing that has a pragmatic purpose, the way functional pottery holds your soup or flowers. Memos and newspapers are functional; they get thrown away when their work is done.

Rather than limit itself to one clear, unquestionable, stupidity-defying meaning, great prose should aim to be so full of meaning that it could burst into nonsense with one false move. (Let's not forget, too, that nonsense can be fun.)

This is not to say that great prose has to be oblique. I occasionally like oblique prose, but not in large doses. Though I doubt I'll ever read all of Finnegan's Wake, I do like dipping into it now and then. Even at an early age, Joyce had a command of English superior to almost anyone's, as the famous last paragraph of his story "The Dead", written when he was in his mid-20s, shows:
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. it was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
It's a beautiful, moving paragraph, where the syntax and rhythm evoke as much as the words themselves. It's also been argued over for years by critics, because no-one is sure exactly what it's saying about the major characters in the story. Wallace Gray says of this paragraph:
The reader will have to make a choice or, in the spirit of contemporary literary theory, decide that there is no choice, that the contradictions render the sentence meaningless. On the other hand, one can accept both meanings, revel in the ambiguity, attempt to hold two contradictory interpretations in the mind at the same time without trying to resolve them.
"Revel in the ambiguity" -- yes, indeed, a perfect phrase for what great prose can offer us: an opportunity to revel, and in revelling a revelation of life and literature's possibilities.

Many of the writers whose style I most revere write remarkably clear, sharp, uncluttered prose which Fitzgerald herself might even term "functional", though I would throw my glove down to anyone who did so and demand satisfaction there on the spot.

At the moment, I'm reading Age of Iron by J.M. Coetzee, a writer whose sentences seem miraculous to me. Consider:
At least it is not cattle he is slaughtering, I told myself; at least it is only chickens, with their crazy chicken-eyes and their delusions of grandeur. But my mind would not leave the farm, the factory, the enterprise where the husband of the woman who lived side by side with me worked, where day after day he bestrode his pen, left and right, back and forth, around and around, in a smell of blood and feathers, in an uproar of outraged squawking, reaching down, scooping up, gripping, binding, hanging. I thought of all the men across the breadth of South Africa who, while I sat gazing out of the window, were killing chickens, moving earth, barrowful upon barrowful; of all the women sorting oranges, sewing buttonholes. Who would ever count them, the spadefuls, the oranges, the buttonholes, the chickens? A universe of labor, a universe of counting: like sitting in front of a clock all day, killing the seconds as they emerged, counting one's life away.
I don't know how Fitzgerald would react to Joyce or Coetzee, because her blindness to what literature does may keep her from appreciating anything other than basic instruction manuals and police reports.

I hope, though, it is clear that while the two paragraphs I have quoted have purposes within their texts -- many purposes, not one, and some of them ambiguous and contradictory -- they are far more than merely functional agglomerations of words. The metaphors they employ, while perhaps not scientific, are, nevertheless, glorious and terrifying.

Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature

Did you know taxonomy can be fun? Neither did I. But now I'm absolutely enchanted.

link via Improbable Research

22 March 2004

"Cat Lady" by Elise Moser

The latest update to the e-zine Lost Pages includes a story which is a fine example of how careful details and well-crafted prose can make something which is a small, amusing plot into an experience that is fulfilling for a reader.

The story is "Cat Lady by Elise Moser, and I found myself drawn into the tale from some of the earliest sentences:
The building sat, crowding the narrow sidewalk, surrounded by others like it that were equally down-at-heel. In between there were square apartment buildings -- their faces run across with flaking metal balconies binding them like braces -- which had grown into the gaps where other once-proud stone-faced houses had been removed by time or circumstance.
The attention to detail in those sentences, and the attention to the rhythm the words create together, helps an entire world to grow in the reader's mind.

If I say too much here, I'll give away the ending, and it's a fun one. This is a story that could have been little more than a gimmick, a trick, a momentary amusement. While not weighty and profound, it is nevertheless more affecting (and more satisfying) than it would have been were it written simply to push the reader toward the last sentences. Even without the last sentences, this would be an interesting portrait of a character. With the last sentences, it's a little bit more than that...

Archform: Beauty by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

After reading Cheryl Morgan's review of L.E. Modesitt's novel Archform: Beauty, I made a note to myself to pick up a copy sometime, but didn't get around to doing so until recently. I wanted to catch up with Modesitt's work, since I had known him years ago when he lived nearby and was working on some of the books in the Ecolitan series, as well as beginning The Magic of Recluce, a fantasy novel that was to launch him from being a little-known author of politically and economically astute space opera to a well-known author of various fantasy series. Recluce was, I think, the first high fantasy novel that I ever read without skimming and with joy, probably because of Modesitt's careful working out of the logic and economics of his society.

Modesitt soon moved across the country, and I lost contact with him. At the same time (though I don't think there's a correlation), he became a tremendously prolific author, and I found myself unable to read as fast as he wrote. While I would smile whenever I saw a shelf of his books at a bookstore, and even occasionally buy one, I didn't read any of them.

Archform: Beauty, though, will have me paying a bit closer attention to Modesitt, at the very least to a second book set in Archform's universe, which is due from TOR in September.

People who have been reading this site faithfully are probably shaking their heads, wondering what has happened to me. After all, I'm the guy who keeps saying we need to blast through the walls of genre, stomp on the stinking carcass of traditional SF, fart in the general direction of Big Fat Fantasy, and tear the guts out of the emotional pornography that is mainstream horror fiction. I'm all about fine prose, subtle nuances, metafictional effects, etc. etc. ad nauseam.

All true, guilty as charged. But just because I want more attention paid to the small presses and the edgier writers, more readers for imaginative fiction that plunders the virtues of mainstream fiction, more writers who dare to alienate their audiences -- that doesn't mean I want to eradicate good examples of traditional forms. It would be like saying that just because I happen to like innovative, "difficult" poetry, I must therefore hate all sonnets. Or Ogden Nash.

The fact is, Archform: Beauty got me thinking and kept me entertained. Doing both can be difficult, and one of my problems with cookie-cutter traditional SF is that it's both braindead and boring. Some people like going through the same sort of story over and over again; I'd rather watch a moth die and pretend I'm Virginia Woolf. Entertainment is not a quality that should be dismissed -- it doesn't by itself make a book a great work of art, but it's also rarer than some critics would like to admit. (Or, I should say, it's rarer in my experience -- I'm not easily entertained by books. Some people must find crap endlessly entertaining, or else they wouldn't keep devouring it. Coprophagia plagues our culture...)

Archform: Beauty is not the sort of book you should give to people if you want to make them fall in love with SF. This one requires some linguistic orientation to the field. The first 50 pages are so full of neologisms and character names that a reader not used to going with all that flow will be frustrated. I was frustrated, myself, at first, though later I realized Modesitt knew exactly what he was doing and did so with purpose.

All of the book's strengths are also what make it difficult reading at first. The narrative is broken between five first-person narrators, and one of the subjects of the book is the relationship between language, image, sound, art, and society. Modesitt's world is Earth in the 24th century a few hundred years after an environmental and political collapse. Much of the culture of the old world has been lost, and anything which hasn't been digitized is considered worthless, including classical music, which happens to be the passion of one of the characters, an adjunct professor of voice and music at a Colorado (or, what once was Colorado) university. The other narrators include a reporter who likes to write poetry, a police officer, a politician, and a corporate CEO.

The neologisms are necessary to portraying this society. If they're annoying (and they certainly were to me), then it's worth taking some time to think about the forces that brought them about, and to think about whether Modesitt's theories of language change are valid. SF is one of the great literary sources of linguistic play and speculation, and Modesitt takes the time to alter some aspects of language, and to vary the language between characters, so as to make it noticeable to us, defamiliarizing key words, and implying certain connections between language and behavior. It's not quite Clockwork Orange, but certain pages have a similar effect. One short chapter in the first third of the book is an excerpt from Historical Etymology by T. Eliot Stearns (wink, wink) from A.D. 2241, discussing how the transformation of the meaning of the word "discrimination" from "to differentiate, to recognize as different" into a synonym for bias and prejudice "clearly reflected and foreshadowed the disaster to come" and did so "more immediately and more accurately than did all the analysts, social scientists, and historians":
At one point more than three-quarters of the youthful population entered institutions of higher-level learning. Credentials, often paper ones, replaced meaningful judgment and choices ... Popularity replaced excellence ... The number of disastrous cultural and political decisions foreshadowed by the change of meaning in one word is endless...
The play on T.S. Eliot's name is a hint, perhaps, that this is a conservative or tradition-bound writer, one who might be blind to various forces affecting society -- what matters, though, is that this little bit of fictional nonfiction gets the attentive reader thinking about the words used by the various narrators and the overall linguistic environment of the world Modesitt has imagined.

The plot of Archform: Beauty is a complex -- some would say convoluted -- mystery-thriller involving corporate dealings that make Enron look minor, mind control, and interplanetary relations. But the real subject of the book is announced with a page of epigrammatic epigraphs:
"Great art is beauty."

"An elegant solution is beautiful as well."

"The beauty of words is lost behind the power of image."

"The beauty of politics lies in how effectively power is shared and transferred."

"A good family is a beautiful one."
Each of the sentences can be applied to one of the narrating characters, and the plot, while interesting and, in the last 75 pages or so, quite gripping, works best as a way to propel us through and between these various ideas. At heart, the novel is a meditation on beauty, irrationality, and the value of arts which are not immediately popular. A reader who grabs this book because it looks like it will be a good shoot-'em-up, a diversion for a plane ride, will be in for a bit of a surprise. There's plenty of shoot-'em-up (more accurately, blow-'em-up), but there's much, much more. Archform: Beauty is propelled by plot and ideas, the traditional hallmarks of science fiction, but there is an underlying humanity to it which puts parts of it in the conceptual vicinity of The Etched City, though on the surface the two books couldn't be any more different.

Finally, I was particularly pleased with the resolution of the central plot elements. Though the mystery is solved and the bad guys get taken care of (and two of the characters even find love and at least momentary happiness), the triumphs of the novel are primarily personal. For the police and politicians, it was all one crisis among many, and for most of the citizens it was just a good news story for a day or two. What we, the readers, see is that for a handful of peopl, life has changed, but the world around them has not. Even though things are different for these characters, they still have to work their way through the world, they have to get through their days, they have the remaining moments of their lives to live. That, it seems to me, is a courageous ending for a book of this sort, perhaps even a subversive one. It's for all the little subversions of its genre that I appreciate Archform: Beauty, and one of the reasons I'll be reading Modesitt more regularly from now on.

But first I need to get back to the genre-defying, carcass-stomping collections of fine-prosed short fiction I'm reading...

21 March 2004

Quote for the Day

John Leonard, from "Cyberpunk Rocks" in When the Kissing Had to Stop*:
"Into the code": space-pad, send-key, readout, blink rate, arbitrary input, navigation error....Information isn't knowledge, and information density isn't wisdom. It makes you wonder. When was this meeting where they voted out existential humanism and voted in pomo? Why wasn't I invited? Isn't pomo really one big cover-up for the failure of the French to write a truly interesting novel ever since a sports car ate Albert Camus? Without gravity, can there be any grace? Instead of sitting around being valorized by pomo, why aren't the punks out there doing something about the ownership of the modes of production by Bell Atlantic, Liberty Media, Walt Disney, Rupert Murdoch, Bill Gates, Si Newhouse, Viacom, and Time Warner? Have any of these people, pomo or punk, during downtime ever read Beloved or Midnight's Children or One Hundred Years of Solitude; spent a night as a volunteer at a homeless shelter, worked with AIDS patients, saved whales, stopped a troop train or a lynching, sought to walk in the virtual shoes of schoolteachers, migrant workers, and physical therapists, engaged what's really out there among the "end users," beyond the "abstracted interface," the "database protocol," the "test-bed methodology," and the "parallel processing," instead of posturing in front of it, striking attitudes like matches? Are Shining Path and Khmer Rouge punk? Postmodern? Is virtual reality the same as phone sex? Is it really true that ten minutes of a Mozart piano sonata enhances abstract brain activity? Don't you, too, hope that when the last soft machine in cyberspace is about to disappear into the ultimate black-rabbit-hole of deathmetal digits adding up to NULL case, what it will whistle in the dark is something like a Magic Flute?

*the full title of which is When the Kissing Had to Stop: Cult Studs, Khmer Newts, Langley Spooks, Techno-Geeks, Video Drones, Author Gods, Serial Killers, Vampire Media, Alien Sperm-Suckers, Satanic Therapists, and Those of Us Who Hold a Left-Wing Grudge in the Post Toasties New World Hip-Hop

A Psychological Phenomenon

I haven't posted anything of particular weight here in a few days because I've been working on what has become a long, incoherent article about the relationship of science fiction (with nods to fantasy and horror) to mainstream literature (the stuff in the "fiction" section of bookstores), with a second half about why genre-bending isn't a bad thing or the product of left-wing agitators who hate science and progress. It's aimed at a mainstream audience (i.e., all my friends who think I'm batty and have lost any taste I once had because now I read a lot of that sci-fi stuff), but may not ever be in any shape to show to anyone. In any case, while working on it I've come to some interesting little realizations ... wannabe epiphanies, if you will.

The one I keep thinking about is my own progress away from and then back to reading genre fiction. I was one of the stereotypical 12-year-olds who falls in love with stories about space ships and ray guns, read SF voraciously and indiscriminately, condemned fantasy as silly stuff about elves, liked horror only at its splatterpunkiest. My tastes matured a bit as I worked my way through high school, but I also developed a love of weird plays (Beckett was my hero, and still is) and some mainstream fiction. In college, my genre reading began to fall off -- I didn't want to be seen with those gaudy magazines and mass-market paperbacks, I wanted to be seen with my beloved, battered copies of Faulkner and Dostoyevsky. I suddenly all but rejected genre fiction -- let my subscription to Asimov's lapse, stopped keeping up with who was writing what, and was known to say that it was all just fine for people who had no literary taste, but that SF stuff really can't compete with Garcia Marquez or Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison or Borges.

For about six years, I not only read almost no SF, but I actively avoided it, scorned it, laughed at it -- as if I was trying to purge it from my past, to scrub my temporal lobe of any memory that once upon a time I had actually lived for the thing I now so disdained.

When I returned to reading genre fiction -- a slow process, a word here or there, a sentence, a whole page, a short story, a book, more books, more stories -- I soon became a sort of evangelist. I knew the arguments against SF, because I'd made them all myself. When I was young, I had been a true believer, and like many true believers, once I became disillusioned, I went vehemently in the other direction. Having lived on both extremes, I now found myself not in the middle, but rather in a more complex, discerning, and open-minded netherworld.

One SF writer told me that he had gone through the same development, not reading genre fiction for about six years, then returning to it with both more vigor and more perspective.

I wonder if this is a common experience for anyone? For me it has a parallel in my political views, which, when I began reading SF, were far to the right-wing, became by the end of high school extremely left-wing, leading me in college to work with groups such as Earth First! and to nearly get arrested protesting the pope with ACT-UP and later marching for Mumia-Abu Jamal with 200 other people through the streets of Burlington, VT. At this point, though my politics are hardly moderate, they're certainly more muddied and multi-layered.

Developmental psychology and aesthetic judgment ... anybody need to write a dissertation?

20 March 2004

Feast Your Eyes

I haven't written much (if at all) about visual art here, since I generally find it impossible to talk about except at the highly intellectual level of, "Uh, I like it," but I can't let that stop me from recommending Yayashin to you. I discovered it from a tantalizing note on linkfilter, and was not at all prepared for the complexity of the site. It's French, but there's plenty of English so those of us who are Franco-deprived can still navigate. I looked at it from a dial-up connection, which took about a minute and a half to download the front page, and then about thirty seconds to a minute for everything else. It's worth it. Go now.

Site Note

I'm playing around with a different blogging application, one which offers a number of features Blogger doesn't, so if you're curious about my experiments, head to the Mumpsimus lab. I particularly like the built-in forum and RSS aggregator.

(Please don't change any bookmarks or links or anything yet -- I'm not moving from here any time soon, if at all.)

19 March 2004

Rhysling Award Nominations

It's time for members of the Science Fiction Poetry Association to make nominations for the Rhysling Award, so please do. Not a member? What's wrong with you?! Here's membership information -- It costs 18 American dollars, you get the bimonthly Star*Line journal (currently edited by Tim Pratt, though he only has one more issue as editor, I believe), you get the annual Rhysling Award anthology, and you get to make nominations and then vote for the Rhysling. And for only $300, you could become a life member! It's cheaper than the NRA!

(No, I don't have any idea what an SF poem is. I expressed the only opinions I have on the matter back in September in this post. When I was going through poems to nominate, I considered any that didn't seem to be limited in scope to normal, everyday reality.)

In case you're curious, my nominations for best poems of 2003 will be:
Short Poem (up to 50 lines): Tomatoes Cannot Tolerate Frost by Nathan Parker, from Metastatic-Whatnot

Long Poem (50+ lines): Quasimodo Takes the Grand Tour by Tobias Seaman, from Strange Horizons
Poems which I almost chose were "Once" by Rae Armantrout (from Conjunctions 40 -- the poem itself is not online, alas), "Schrodinger's Top Hat" by Peg Duthie (from Star*Line July/August 2003, also not online), and, for the long poem, "The Ship at the Edge of the World" by Jeff VanderMeer (from his collection The Day Dali Died: Poetry and Flash Fiction, which has a couple of poems I prefer, but they were first published earlier than 2003 ... one of them won a Rhysling, now that I think about it). On another day, in a different mood, I might have chosen one of my runners-up rather than the ones I did choose. Or maybe not. I just wish I could nominate more than one poem...

It's unfortunate that there isn't an award for best book or chapbook. If there were, I would undoubtably nominate Centuries, a magnificent collection of 100-word prose poems by Joel Brouwer, whose first book, Exactly What Happened, is the best collection I know of for someone who says they hate contemporary poetry. You can read some of Brouwer's Centuries poems, which are considerably more surreal and abstract than most of his earlier poems, here, here, and here.

18 March 2004

Quote for the Day

Howlin' Todd Rivers returns to the sanctuary of his childhood home, 'Dawn Waters', after his entire family are raped by Eskimos. The tranquillity of the lakes is just what Todd needs right now. He needs to feel clean.

But when he comes across an ancient, syphilis-racked hillbilly washing his arse in the lake, he starts to question the purity of his drinking supply. And the health of his mind. Why does he keep seeing wet things? (Drinks, sponges, puddles etc) Why does his own water burn? Will these 'Dawn Waters' inundate (flood) his consciousness?

'Magisterial. Who would have thought Marenghi could have spun out a tale of urine infection to this length?' --The Gaurdian
From The Official Garth Marenghi website
via Jim Treacher

Genre and Pleasure

After reading Gary K. Wolfe's essay on the history and nature of genre fiction in Conjunctions: 39, The New Wave Fabulists, I looked for an article he cited by Emma Straub, who, in a literary theory class at Oberlin, was assigned Stephen King's Salem's Lot, which caused many of her classmates to cry foul. The novel is entertaining enough to read, the class said, but it's certainly not good literature.

For Ms. Straub, this was a surprise. Her father, after all, is Peter Straub, who happens to have collaborated with Stephen King on two novels.

Emma Straub decided to use her resources to ask a number of prominent genre writers and critics to comment on her experience in the class. The responses, and her thoughtful reflections on them, were published in an online magazine called The Spook.

I very much wanted to read this article, but, alas, The Spook seems to have lived up to its name and evaporated.

Some quality time with the Google search engine, though, brought me to David J. Schow's website, where he has quite helpfully posted a copy of the article, titled "Symposium on the Nature of Genre and Pleasure in the 21st Century".

The respondants are (in alphabetical order) John Clute, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, David Schow, Peter Straub, and Gary K. Wolfe.

Here are choice bits from each of them, though I highly recommend reading the entire piece (as well as Emma Straub's poetry):
Stephen King: And what is GENRE? It's nothing but an English professor's steak-knife, a tool to cut slices off the roast--a bit of the naturalistic tale here, a bit of surrealism there, a horror tale or mystery cut off the butt end. Fame is a by-product, nothing but effluent from the particular fuel I happen to burn. It's an annoyance. Your classmates might be surprised to hear it (and might not believe it), but the work's what matters. I WOULD DO THIS FOR NOTHING, and continue to do it until all the fuel in the tank is burned. And what would I do then? Nothing but die happy, beautiful. Nothing but die happy.

Neil Gaiman: Enjoyment or lack of enjoyment is a lousy litmus test for a good book. Off the top of my head, my tests for a good book would be a bunch of questions like:

1) How good is the writing? Is there a pleasure to be taken in the way the words are put together?

2) Has the author taken me somewhere I couldn't have gone on my own?

3) Am I a different person now, because I read that book?

There are great works of horror that do that, and great works of detective fiction, and great works of romantic fiction. Many books won't deliver that kind of stuff -- the best you can hope for is a few hours away from your own life.

Peter Straub: Visceral emotion has a good part in the gravity of decent works of horror literature, but even more important, I think, is its connection to other emotions seldom reckoned with in horror's closest literary relatives, mystery and fantasy. For a long time now, I have been interested in horror's ready openness to feelings like loss, grief, sorrow, uncertainty, and dislocation. These emotional conditions are uncomfortable and powerful, and people often wish to deny or repress them. We wish to be optimistic, even while circumstances inform us that optimism is shallow and insufficient.

David J. Schow: Horror as a legitimate genre will always be retarded by its worst examples. The way out for writers is to survive in a genre -- nearly every writer starts out writing "generic" fiction of one sort or another -- long enough to accumulate an audience that comes not for the subject matter, but to hear that voice speak.

Gary K. Wolfe: Another problem with horror in particular, as I've said more than once before, is that it's a bad idea for a genre. No other genre is actually named for its intended emotional impact on the reader or viewer (it would be like calling romance "swoon fiction"). I think the very concept of the genre tends to mitigate against taking it very seriously for many readers, since it suggests it's a genre only designed for effects.

John Clute: A central way of defining crap in a genre work is to ask yourself if the work in question is governed by a structure of rules, or if it itself governs the rules. A Star Wars novel can be precisely described in terms of its adherence to a priori rules, adherence to the bible that the Star Wars owners insist be followed to the letter by any serf hired to plough their fields. A fantasy (say) by Michael Swanwick, (say The Iron Dragon's Daughter), will penetrate the web of rules and break through into a vision of the nature of the world that has been enabled by the kind of story he has ransacked.

Emma Straub: There are different avenues of pleasure one can stroll down, the gut-wrenching lock-your-doors sort, and the intellectual, Nabokovian acrostic sort--although isn't the conquering of that too a physical feeling of satisfaction, of elation? If we give weight to one over the other, how do we choose the heavier? This is entirely self-destructive and counter-productive. The act of reading is meant to be enjoyable, not a juggling match of lead balls.
There's plenty to quibble with and squawk at in the article, of course, but the value of it, I think, is in the range of voices it allows. Some other voices would round it out well -- for instance, does the fact that all the authors polled are men matter? How did the class respond to these ideas?

A more important question might be: Does any of this matter at all? Stephen King sells more books than any academically sanctioned literary writer does, so how could this discussion possibly affect him, except for his own sense of his value to the world and his chance at winning the lottery of posterity? Some writers survive by having their works assigned in courses, whereas King's books survive because people actually go out and buy them of their own free will. Literary theory is lovely when it echoes through the halls of academe, but, really, what good is it to anybody else? Why, pray tell, should any of us care what a bunch of overanxious undergraduates think of popular literature?

I think Neil Gaiman's questions about any book are ones which help answer the questions I posed, as does John Clute's distinction between works that adhere to a priori rules and works that penetrate those rules to break through into a new vision. For such works to find publication and an audience, an environment needs to be created in which vision and originality are encouraged and supported. Because of such an environment, a writer like Faulkner has survived. Because of such an environment, Gertrude Stein has found an audience through the years. Countless writers have been rescued from obscurity and oblivion, and delivered to readers who would otherwise miss them, because writers and critics have been able to ennunciate criteria for valuing what those writers were up to.

The bestselling authors don't need help, but we should stand up against anyone who condemns an entire type of writing, because by doing so we create space for writers of value who might otherwise be lost, and we learn to think about what it is, exactly, that we ourselves have learned to value. We don't need movements, and we certainly don't need rules (unless to break them), but we do need standards of judgment, even if they're all different -- a quantum theory of literature rather than a monolithic one.

Despite what Emma Straub says, there is not one purpose to reading, there are many -- perhaps as many as there are books to be read. If we want to wrench ourselves toward greater humanity, not all reading should be fun. Some reading should be disturbing, difficult, painful, terrifying in all it suggests about us and our world, horrifying in the psychic spaces it brings us to. Some reading should be comforting, beautiful, light.

David Schow's point is a useful one, too: We should be seeking out writers not because of any label smacked on them, but because theirs is a voice worth listening to. Let our writers be sirens and shamans and wolves howling at the moon, not lumps of product placed by brand and expiration date on a shelf.

Addendum (3/19/04): If you want more thoughts on this subject, be sure to read what Cheryl Morgan has to say.

New Jerusalem by Len Jenkin

Unless you've spent some time in New York's alternative theatre scene, you've probably never heard of Len Jenkin. He's one of the most entertaining and interesting playwrights in the U.S., and though for a while he was regularly produced by Joseph Papp at the Public Theatre, for the most part his work has been produced in very small venues which the average theatre-goer never finds. If you ever get a chance to see one of Jenkin's shows, go. Particularly if it's his masterpiece, Dark Ride -- drop everything, leave the wedding or funeral or whatever silly event you're attending that night, and go.

Jenkin has written two books that I know of, The Secret Life of Billie's Uncle Myron, a children's book that is only mildly amusing, and a novel for adults, New Jerusalem.

New Jerusalem was originally a play (in the late '70s, I believe), and then Jenkin rewrote it into a novel which was published in 1986 by Sun & Moon Press. It was not a bestseller. I've only ever seen one copy of it, and that's the copy I own, purchased at a used bookstore in Manhattan, somewhere around West 20th Street.

I didn't read the book for years. I was afraid it would be disappointing, that it would be as unorganized and unengaging as The Secret Life of Billie's Uncle Myron. I adore Jenkin's plays, and I don't particularly like reading flaccid work by writers I otherwise revere.

But I saw the book on the shelf recently, and it lodged itself in my mind. It was time to face it, no matter what I ended up thinking. I could handle the disappointment if it was terrible. I would be cheerfully surprised if it was not.

I was cheerfully surprised.

No, it's not as good as his best plays. But it is as good as his not-best plays. Which is damn good.

Since finding a copy of this book is difficult, let me give you a summary and, I hope, enough details to make you seek it out (the seeking is half the fun -- and since much of what Jenkin writes involves quests for lost or apocryphal items, it's appropriate).

Though published by a respectable lit'ry press, New Jerusalem is a science fiction novel. It takes place somewhere around the year 2037 in a future where all criminality has been ended through drug treatments which eliminate criminal tendencies. Our narrator is a hardboiled newspaper reporter named Farber. He's a reporter of the old school -- in 2037, most newspaper stories are complete fiction, because truth is boring and doesn't sell. Farber misses the old days where reporters actually went out and covered stories that had happened.

There's one story left that might be interesting enough to compete with the fiction on the front pages, and Farber begs to be assigned to it: The United Nations is closing a penal colony they had created (in 1987), an island called New Jerusalem, where, until the advent of the drug treatments ten years later, convicts were parachuted for a life sentence. There haven't been any visitors to New Jerusalem in a long time, ever since some problems with the Tourist Promotion Board, which, under the direction of a charismatic leader named Arnheim, was the closest the island ever came to having a government.

Farber goes to New Jerusalem to cover the island's final days as a penal colony -- all the convicts are being brought back to the U.S. to have the drug treatment, so long as they aren't completely insane. Farber quickly finds himself caught up in a quest for the last of a substance called "keph", which was once made from the brains of dolphins, but the only person who knew how to make it has since gone completely insane and isn't able to communicate his knowledge. Keph is immediately and irrevocably addictive, and everybody wants some, because everyone knows that once they get off the island, they're going to have to have something to sell. A bizarre cult has formed around keph, and their members vie for the remains with various other unscrupulous folks: a gangster/wannabe-dictator, an obsessive film director who has been shooting imaginary movies for twenty years, and even a Confucian pirate.

The story progresses to a drastic ending, but the plot isn't the real fun of the book. Jenkin had a grand time imagining the pecularities of the island's culture and history, and the joy of the novel is in seeing what he can come up with next. For instance, the cult. They've never gotten over the loss of New Jerusalem's tourist trade, and they desperately want modern appliances. Their leader, Big Tiny, manipulates them into worshipping gods named Motorola, Betamax, and (the mean and nasty god) Magnavox.
"They believe the ship is coming, yes, but to bring at last all the appliances they have performed their magic to obtain. ...

"They believe the ship is filled with rotisseries, coffee makers, plate warmers, dishwashers, dryers, hairblowers, electric carving knives, pot scrubbers, toasters, telephones, radios, television sets, entire cinemas, simultaneous translation booths, HomEnt units, biofeedback units, lie detectors, stereo equipment, and motorcars. ...

"Mr. Faber, they even believe there is a child who will lead them to their paradise -- Big Tiny's son. He's been raised for this purpose from birth. They call him the Kephiboy. Big Tiny tells them that the child commands a number of spirits who sail the seas about New Jerusalem in boats with black sails, each armed with a flowering stick that has the power to cause any dolphin who smells it to follow its possessor. Under this spell, the unhappy beast swims along to shore, where it is netted, and carried to a clearing far from any human habitation. Here the spirits seize the living fish and bore a hole through the top of its skull. It is then suspended, head downwards over a caldron of boiling oils. The drippings from the dolphin's brain fall into the hot oils and supposedly form a most valuable medicine..."
You might think from the above that New Jerusalem is a simple satire of greed and consumerism, and though at moments the words walk that way, there's a lot more going on here. Desire is dangerous in this story, and it doesn't matter what the desire is for -- appliances, drugs, money, freedom, love -- it all leads somewhere, and that somewhere is seldom good. The most virtuous person in the book, perhaps the only virtuous person, is the Confucian pirate.

One of the tendencies of Jenkin's work is for the characters to be enlivened stereotypes. New Jerusalem, like many of his plays, feels like a mosaic of bits of American pop culture from no later than the 1950s. Unlike some post-modernists, Jenkin doesn't patronize or beautify his stereotypes, he doesn't use them for any obviously ironic intent. Mostly, he seems to like the language they produce. He likes to listen to two-dimensional characters talk, and to put them in situations where their talk is definitely odd, but also oddly appropriate. While many of his characters and settings seem to come from classic film noir, Charlie Chan movies, and old comic books, they are made to play their hands and smoke their cigarettes and plot their triple-crosses in a world where nothing is absolute, and endings seldom arrive. (Unlike many of Jenkin's plays, New Jerusalem not only follows a linear plotline, but it has a real conclusion. Dark Ride's ending sums up the feeling many of his characters get to, though: All of the actors end up saying, or chanting, "I'm not interested in philosophy. Just tell me how it ends." New Jerusalem suggests that this is a fatal wish.) It's like Edward Whittemore with fewer spies, and though there are plenty of conspiracies, they only affect the conspirators.

It's not a perfect book by any means -- it answers too many of its own questions, some of the incidents are considerably more effective than others -- but it has perfect moments, and some images that will live with me, I expect, for a long time. Consider the following, which, published alone, could almost be mistaken for something by Russell Edson:
The city of New Jerusalem hops like a tethered hummingbird. The sun has set hours ago, and the heat is still overpowering. Along the docks, in the narrow area between the piers themselves and the warehouse godowns, men are gathered in small groups, eating out of wooden bowls which they wipe clean with their shirttails. Tied up along the wharves are junks, sampans, old Chris-craft inboards, an antique U.S. Coast Guard destroyer fitted over as a nightclub. Black barges with panels of corrugated sheet iron roofing them over, torches lit at the prows, glide slowly past the piers. These barges carry rice husks, sawdust, charcoal, green bananas -- whatever else has been made, grown, or delivered up by the sea.

A butcher stands in the tail of his pigboat like a Venetian gondolier; a pig's head is nailed to the prow, the rest of the carcass laid out in the anatomically correct order down the length of the boat. The curled tail is nailed to the stern. The pig has been expanded, so to speak, and set out for sail.

17 March 2004

Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop

Graham Sleight just posted the news that the Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop in Boston is closing.

It would take me pages to list all of the books I have bought there, a place I first went when I was, I think, twelve years old. There was a science fiction bookstore in Cambridge that I found, but they didn't have Nevil Shute's On the Beach (I've always loved after-the-bomb stories) and told me to try Avenue Victor Hugo. Odd name for a store, I thought. But I and my uncle, who was my guide that day, got on the T and went to what was then known as the Auditorium stop, climbed up the urine-soaked stairs, and walked a few paces down Newbury Street. The small shopfront disguised the depths hidden inside.

No trip to Boston since then has ever neglected a visit to Avenue Victor Hugo, if I could help it. On every visit, I seemed to find at least one book I'd been searching for for months or years.

I'll have to make one more trip down there before they close. A year or so ago, they moved a few numbers up on Newbury Street, to the other side of Johnson Paint, and so in some ways the store I loved, the only address in Boston I know by heart (339 Newbury Street) has already died. But once it's gone, truly gone -- once the Hynes Convention Center stop on the T, which used to be Auditorium, the sweetest word on Earth, no longer leads to a place of overstuffed shelves of every imaginable kind of book, of racks of obscure magazines and bizarre postcards, of old pulps with bug-eyed monsters and big-bosomed broads sprawled over the covers, of new hardcovers from tiny presses run by love and obsession, of mystery, of imagination, of nostalgia, of beauty -- once it's gone, then we who loved that place will be left wandering the streets, a little dazed, a little sad, looking for all we have lost.

Addendum: And now I learn that The Grolier Poetry Bookshop in Cambridge (Mass., not England) is closing. This is the oldest all-poetry bookstore in the country, a place visited by many of the greatest poets of the 20th century. Perhaps it's crazy to expect a poetry bookstore to survive at all, and, as the article notes, they've come close to closing before. But getting the news of both Avenue Victor Hugo's impending demise and Grolier's on one day is devastating. (I think I'm being punished for the stuff about Mel Gibson a few posts earlier...) What's next, New England Mobile Book Fair? The Strand in New York? (No no no, don't even get me started on bookstores that have closed in New York...)

"The Art of Suffering" by Martin Livings

It's been a while since I read a horror story that truly made me cringe, but "The Art of Suffering" by Martin Livings did so once or twice. The story also has a couple of very effective sentences -- my favorite passage being the following:
Then she lay face down on the bed, legs slightly apart, arms over her head, hands on the pillows. She knew this would make the muscles in her back stand out better, and also accentuate the subtle scars that were already there, crisscrossing her skin like delicate graph paper.
I love the image in that last clause. As a blurb writer might say, this is not a story for the faint of heart.

I wonder, though, who it is a story for? Yes, there's a certain visceral thrill to a gory tale such as this, the same kind of thrill available from, say, Day of the Dead or Texas Chainsaw Massacre (when I was a kid, I wanted to be Tom Savini ... in fact, some days, I still do), but for me, at least, film is a better medium for this type of horror story. If, as some writers have said, horror is more of a mood or an effect than a genre, then a story should have something in it other than just a few events strung together in a provocative scenario with a character given a sympathy-inducing background so that we the readers care about her or his peril, a care which is cheaply used by a writer to manipulate the audience. That's emotional pornography, not good writing.

This story also inspires me to make one request of horror writers (or any writers, for that matter): Could you please stop ending stories with dramatic sentences in italics. If your ending is dramatic, then it will be dramatic on its own and doesn't need your added typographical drum-beating. One-sentence paragraphs as endings are only slightly more justifiable.

A week or so ago, Brian over at Weirdwriter put up a hyperlinked list of 10 stories Ramsey Campbell said (in the FAQ of the website) are his favorite horror stories. After the list, Campbell said:
Whether these are the most terrifying is a moot point. Some certainly deserve the adjective, but I don't think it covers all the qualities of any of them.
There's some good advice beneath those two sentences. Writers who aspire to terrify, horrify, or just gross out their readers would be well advised to offer a few other qualities as well. Otherwise, I'd rather wait for the movie.

(Note: I found this story thanks to Jonathan Strahan's mention of the new Australian e-zine Ticonderoga Online.)

16 March 2004

Who Goes There? (Random readings in the corners of cyberspace)

Plenty of interesting things have appeared online recently which I've meant to pass along, so here's a summary of stuff that has caught my attention:

*Which science fiction/fantasy hero/villain is George W. Bush?, complete with hyperlinks to relevant information.

*The Globe & Mail has an article in which the author compares a certain hoax quite cleverly and devastatingly perpetrated by Jonathan Swift under the name Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq., to modern-day "identity theft". It was the Bickerstaff story, which I first heard from a professor of 18th Century lit in college, that made me completely fall in love with Swift, so I'm pleased that it's remembered here and there.

*Daniel Green writes about science and literature, specifically attempts to use works such as Hawthorne's "The Birthmark" or Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to advance anti-scientific ideologies.

*Maud Newton reports that Michael Moore's publisher, HarperCollins, is harrassing Soft Skull Press over the upcoming book How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office: The Anti-Politics, Unboring Guide to Power, edited William Upski Wimsatt and Adrienne Brown (which can be ordered from Amazon.) HarperCollins apparently thinks the title is too close to Moore's own Stupid White Men ...and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation. Moore himself says he doesn't think there's a problem and had not been told his publisher was threatening a small press because of a title. His own struggles with HarperCollins were tremendous, since originally they planned to pulp his book if he didn't tone it down after September 11. If I were Soft Skull, I'd send former employee Nick Mamatas to tell HarperCollins where to put it, because Nick just has a special way with words...

*Finally, this made me laugh.

15 March 2004

Oh, The Passion!

Orson Scott Card has become a movie reviewer, and even includes a fawning fan letter in his review of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Personally, I'm waiting for Lucius Shepard to review it. (Or you could read reviews by a writer for Fangoria or a fan of bondage/sadomasochism. Best of all, you could read transcripts of some bloopers (the last via scribblingwoman, an academic blog very much worth reading).

In less sacrilegious news, uber-realist Richard Ford spat on Colson Whitehead, who had dared to write a negative review of one of Ford's books. Whitehead's own work often has elements of fantasy (or fabulism, as some people prefer to say), but I'm sure that had nothing to do with it.

Time for the Bests

Update: Over at the Asimov's discussion boards, Gardner Dozois has kindly and helpfully posted the contents to all of the Year's Bests for 2003. If you can stand the complaints about the distinctions between science fiction and fantasy being blurred or not being adhered to, it's a good discussion.

In an earlier post, I mentioned the table of contents to Ellen Datlow, Gavin Grant, and Kelly Link's Year's Best Fantasy and Horror collection, and now Kathryn Cramer has helpfully posted the table of contents to Year's Best SF 9 and Year's Best Fantasy 4, which she edited with David Hartwell. The contents for Gardner Dozois's collection and Karen Haber & Jonathan Strahan's are also posted at the Asimov's message boards. Thus, we can now see what the editors of these various collections agree on, and the directions their books take.

There isn't, alas, a single "Best Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Etc." book, so each volume inevitably selects based not only on the editors' perception of a story's quality, but also on its genre. That can be difficult these days, as the overlap between the various collections shows. Also, there are the inevitable problems of packaging, with the Hartwell & Cramer and Haber & Strahan volumes particularly limited in size (though Jonathan Strahan has overcome that slightly by editing a collection of "best novellas" for the Science Fiction Book Club).

Many things could be said about these collections. The first is that each looks like a good value for the money, particularly if you don't take the title too seriously. Every reader will have differences with each of the editors, which is natural. There's an added problem of the ethics of editing such a volume -- for instance, with Dozois and Datlow the editors of two of the major short fiction markets, and Link and Grant both publishers and editors, it's possible to say there's a bit of a conflict of interest, as they are all forced into the position of choosing from stories they've already bought, since exempting stories they first published would not be an accurate representation of the field. (Dozois inevitably puts every Asimov's story he doesn't reprint onto the "Honorable Mentions" list at the end of his book each year, which makes it a handy index, but...) With Terry Windling having departed as Datlow's co-editor, that volume is now faced with the problem of one of the editors (Kelly Link) being one of the best short story writers in the field. Datlow chose one of Link's stories ("The Hortlak", which Datlow herself originally bought for The Dark anthology) for her half of the book (against Link's protestations, she said, though the protestations didn't go so far as to not granting the reprint rights), thus putting herself in the position not only of having bought the story twice, but of putting it into a book for which the writer is also a co-editor.

None of which is going to matter much to the average reader, because it doesn't particularly affect the quality of the books -- Dozois has chosen good stories from Asimov's, Datlow has chosen some good stuff from SciFiction and her own anthologies, and regardless of Link's connection to the Year's Best anthology, every story she publishes is still of remarkably high quality. I'm sure if you asked the editors if they would have chosen the stories even if they hadn't originally published them, they would offer a wholehearted yes. And just try finding someone to edit a collection who doesn't already know a bunch of writers. Heck, they've probably reprinted stories from writers they think are loathsome human beings. I don't think this mitigates the ethical dilemmas of a Year's Best collection, but I do recognize that pragmatic considerations trump ethical ones in this case. It would certainly be nice to have editors who edit nothing else and write nothing else, thus cutting down on conflicts of interest, but I don't know of any publisher willing to pay a living wage for one anthology per year.

Moving to practicalities: There is quite a bit of overlap among writers in the anthologies, but less so of specific stories. Michael Swanwick is in all of them, with his story "King Dragon" reprinted a few times. "The Fluted Girl" by Paolo Bacigalupi (from F&SF) looks to be the only story chosen by every editor (I'm not doing a scientific study of the lists, so I may miss a connection or two -- more obsessive readers are welcome to correct my mistakes). The most pleasant surprise is that George Saunders, generally considered a mainstream writer (his primary market is The New Yorker) makes it into the Datlow/Grant/Link volume with "The Red Bow" and the Haber/Strahan with "Jon". I've written about Saunders before, and I'm glad he's getting attention from within the SF field. The biggest disappointment to me is that Jim Kelly's "Bernardo's House" only made it into the Haber/Stahan volume, and his "Mother" didn't make it into any of them, though it seems to me both stories are some of the best he's written. Also, I happened to like "The Only Known Jump Across Time" by Eugene Mirabelli, but nobody else ever mentions it.

If I were forced to choose only one of the anthologies to buy, I'd probably go with the Haber/Strahan, which surprises me, because I haven't much cared for the previous Bests Haber has edited with Robert Silverberg. Either my tastes are changing or Jonathan Strahan has moved the book closer to my kind of stuff. The Dozois and the Datlow/Link/Grant volumes are still the largest, and the latter does a particularly fine job of discovering good work in places the average SF reader might not look. I admire, though disagree with, the purity of purpose of the Hartwell/Cramer volumes, which really try to stick to specific definitions of science fiction vs. fantasy, and I was particularly pleased to see they've chosen two stories from Cosmos Latinos, a fascinating anthology of Latin American SF, even though those stories weren't originally published in 2003.

Thankfully, we're not limited to only having to have one of these books, and altogether they at least show that 2003 was a particularly good year for short fiction. Don't just stick to these editor's choices, though -- at the very least, treat yourself to a copy of Album Zutique or Trampoline.

13 March 2004

Light by M. John Harrison

In a review of Doris Lessing's The Four-Gated City, John Leonard created my favorite first line for a review: "On finishing this book, you want to go out and get drunk."

I could say the same for Light, which has been called M. John Harrison's triumphant return to down-and-dirty science fiction, which he seemed to abandon after The Centauri Device (a book I think I remember Harrison saying he feels is his worst). It is, indeed, a return, and it is certainly a triumph -- a triumph of vision, a triumph of prose, and a triumph of construction. It has garnered strong reviews from Ian Banks, Paul Di Filippo, Jeff VanderMeer, Cheryl Morgan, and others.

It is an easy book to admire, a difficult book to like. Perhaps that explains what Cheryl Morgan described as "the bored thumbs down it got from [David] Hartwell [of TOR, etc.], [Gardner] Dozois [of Asimov's] and [Charles N.] Brown [of Locus] at a panel at ConJose". Those boys should know better, though it may be that their critical senses have been dulled by reading too much mediocre SF and thinking it's what everyone should aspire toward. Light is worth the work of learning to move beyond admiration, and I will go out onto a shakey limb and say that calling it "boring" reflects on the reader the same way calling The Brothers Karamazov boring does -- yes, m'boy, you might find it to be so, but that is only because you're not willing to work hard enough.

Casting hyperbole aside for a moment, Light is not The Brothers Karamazov, though it could be as influential on SF writers as the messy monster of a Russian masterpiece was for 20th century writers, so long as the SF writers were willing to be influenced by a great book rather than market forces.

Before I start talking a lot about the difficulties Harrison's novel poses, let me offer a visceral response to the tone-deaf charge that the book is boring. I am a slow reader when I like a book, because I read every word, sometimes over and over. I read the first 100 pages of Light in my normal manner, 20 pages here, 20 pages there. Then, like avarice or the flu, it consumed my life. It took me a little over ten hours to read the last 200 pages of the book. Ten consecutive hours, with short, occasional breaks for food and other necessities. I last did that four years ago with the final two hundred or so pages of War and Peace. Another boring book. (Yes, all my touchstones are 19th century Russians, who in Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy showed us the potentials and limits of the novel, and in Chekhov the same for the short story and play.)

Light is not boring. Be aware, and it will infiltrate you, it will propel you through its mazes and architectonic wonders. Enter looking only for "entertainment" (governor of the vegetative state) and you will be disappointed, because though the novel is hugely entertaining, it is also disturbing, it is cold, it is cruel, and it offers no easy answers to any question you could conceive. Enter seeking escape, and you will find yourself mocked in the many scenes of masturbation.

What Harrison has done in Light is give us the alien love child of Cordwainer Smith and Louis-Ferdinand Celine, and like any child it is bound to its parents at the same time it renounces them. There is Smith's vision (and cyborgs and cats), a hint of Celine's bile (toward humanity and, perhaps, women), but there is also hope, a kind of yearning for redemption in characters you would never invite to dinner, but who are, in all their awfulness, compelling as a car crash. The only real hope, the only true possibility for redemption, is that the universe can be rebuilt -- a hope and a possibility that is alive on the last page.

What is most stunning about Light, though, is its construction. The prose has been rightly praised, the ideas and speculations have been lauded, but I haven't seen enough regard for Harrison's ability to build a book where it seems every sentence connects not only to the sentences around it, but to sentences 100 pages away. Jeff VanderMeer rightly invoked Nabokov, and this is a novel that could provide plenty of fodder for Ph.D. dissertations. After reading the book once, it pays to go back to just about any page and think about how it fits in to the grand scheme ... although the grand scheme itself can be difficult to discern in its details, because the details are scattered like the many motes of light in the book throughout its pages. It's fine to read this book the first time as any devoted fan of space opera might -- indeed, that's probably the best way to read it first -- but it deserves at least one more reading, read from the point of view of a quantum physicist looking at the behavior of radiation.

Light will be published in the U.S. in August, so if you live here and haven't been able to scrounge up a British import, you can pre-order it. Read it when you're ready for both challenge and delight.

12 March 2004

"The Screwfly Solution" by Raccoona Sheldon

Whether using her primary pseudonym of "James Tiptree, Jr." or the occasional "Raccoona Sheldon", Alice Sheldon was a woman who wasn't afraid of looking big philosophical and speculative questions in the face ... sometimes to deliver a knockout punch.

Mortality and the fragility of the human body (and human society) was one of her favorite topics. Just look at the titles: "Love is the Plan the Plan is Death", "Painwise", "On the Last Afternooon", "In Midst of Life". At her best, she confronted some of the most basic human emotions and fears, and the results of these confrontations were seldom comforting.

"The Screwfly Solution", which won the Nebula Award, is one of those stories I'd always meant to get around to reading, but hadn't. Now that I have, it stands for me as a summation of so much that was great about Sheldon/Tiptree's work -- as well as some of the perils of trying to write seriously within the commercial science fiction market.

As much a horror story as science fiction, "The Screwfly Solution" explores a remarkable number of meaty themes within a short story: love, gender, violence, aliens, mass death, religion, and entomology. The logic of the central premise is carried to its stark conclusion, with no deus ex machina descending to save the good-at-heart humans. The premise is a cynical, even nihilistic one: people are the sum of their biological impulses, slaves to genes, pheromones, and the archipallium.

Over the course of the story, the suspense builds. Many great horror stories start the way "The Screwfly Solution" does: slowly. The reader settles in, gets, perhaps, complacent. And then one by one, events unsettle the world. The pacing of this story is almost perfect, with languorous moments placed in just the right spots to move us back into our analytical, objective mind, before then bringing in the full horror of the tale.

One of the great triumphs of this story is its narrative structure. If Sheldon had constructed "The Screwfly Solution" in the standard way of, for instance, a 1950s alien-invaders tale, with an objective third-person narrator or a harried (but heroic, of course) first-person narrator, she would have had a good story, perhaps even an effective one, but she would not have been able to cover as much ground. By starting us off with a third-person narrative interspersed with various first-person documents, we are quickly given a wide view of the central situation. The real genius happens later, though, when Sheldon surrenders the story to Anne's first-person voice. This happens after we have read part of her daughter's diary, thinking it has been put in like the other documents, and that we're about to return to Alan's point of view. But the paragraph immediately after it shows this clipping is different: "I ripped that page out of Amy's diary when I heard the squad car coming. I never opened her diary before but when I found she'd gone I looked ... Oh, my darling little girl. She went to him, my little girl, my poor little fool child. Maybe if I'd taken time to explain, maybe--" The narrative, then, is a kind of Russian-doll structure of discrete voices and points of view embedded within one another, for the next sentence ("Excuse me, Barney.") cues us to Anne's imagined audience. Except for the third-person narrative at the beginning, every voice here is embodied and aimed at someone else. (Sheldon has some fun with the names, too, the alphabetical positions at the very least signalling the relationships: Alan [husband], Amy [daughter], Anne [wife/mother], with the friend -- close to them, important, but not of the family -- Barney.)

The wonder of the story's structure is that it isn't the least bit confusing, even on a first reading. It is also emotionally affecting, which is a real accomplishment when so much information is conveyed and so many points of view are thrown together. Sheldon does this partially by appealing to an inherently emotional situation: a man driven to kill his family. Only the clumsiest writer could fail to find some emotion in that scenario, so perhaps the real accomplishment of "The Screwfly Solution" is that it manages to avoid collapsing into soggy sentimentality.

There are some large flaws in the story, though, almost fatal ones. It may be an irresponsible guess on my part, but it seems the problems with "The Screwfly Solution" come not as much from the author's lack of skill (this was an author of profound skill and intelligence), but from the pressures and assumptions of the market she was writing for.

I see one minor problem and one major one with the story. The minor problem is that the entomological subplot is too obvious, it gives away too much information too soon, so that by the time the cause of the mayhem in the story is revealed to the characters, an aware reader has figured it out already. The writer has pandered to the reader, has written to a lower common denominator than is necessary.

A far larger problem with the story is the ending, particularly the last sentence, which doesn't match the tone of the story, and tries to add a kind of "gotcha" effect so beloved of pulp writers. Instead of ending on a somewhat ambiguous, resonant note, Sheldon ties up all the loose ends, makes sure we've figured out the connections between plots and subplots (as well as the title), and then hammers us over the head with a lame attempt at cleverness.

Think I'm splitting hairs, defaming a great work of art? Let me go from defaming to defacing. Consider the effect of a rewritten ending:
I guess nobody will ever read this, unless I get the nerve and energy to take it to Barney's. Probably I won't. Leave it in a Baggie, I have one here; maybe Barney will come and look. I'm up on the big rock now. The moon is going to rise soon, I'll do it then. Mosquitoes, be patient. You'll have all you want.

The thing I have to write down is that I saw an angel too. This morning. It was big and sparkly, like the man said; like a Christmas tree without the tree. But I knew it was real because the frogs stopped croaking and two bluejays gave alarm calls. That's important; it was really there.

I watched it, sitting under my rock. It didn't move much. It sort of bent over and picked up something, leaves or twigs, I couldn't see.

Let me repeat--it was there. Barney, if you're reading this, THERE ARE THINGS HERE. And I think they've done whatever it is to us. Made us kill ourselves off.

Barney dear, good-bye. I saw it. It was there.

But it wasn't an angel.
Would the effect be the one Sheldon wanted? Maybe, maybe not. The effect, though, is a far more profound one, because it leaves the reader something to think about, ideas to construct, connections to make. It respects the reader's intelligence. It doesn't go for gimmicky effects.

One of the problems of most commercial fiction is that, in aiming for a large audience, it insults that audience. SF does this all the time, even, as with "The Screwfly Solution", with some of its best work. Readers are treated as intelligent if there's a discussion of scientific speculation in the story, but when it comes to the narrative itself, we get spoon fed everything the writer wants to us to know and think and (god help us) feel.

Sheldon avoids the trap of sentimentality while falling flat on her face into the quicksand of overexplanation. Better tie up those loose ends before somebody, somewhere doesn't get the point. This is the literature of ideas, with the ideas scrawled on the two-by-four that slams into your forehead. That's how we like it in our sci-fi mags, ayuck.

The virtues of "The Screwfly Solution", though, are many enough to overcome the flaws, flaws present in most of the Tiptree/Sheldon stories. The tragedy of Alice Sheldon may be that she was a great writer who didn't escape the pitfalls of the genre in which she was writing.