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Showing posts from 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 y…

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…

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&…

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. To…

"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 t…

"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 co…

Art, Fear, and Violence

The San Francisco Chroniclereports 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 t…

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 …

Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature

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

link via Improbable Research

"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 …

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 h…

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…

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, re…

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.)

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-W…

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 GaurdianFrom 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…

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 bests…

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 …

"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 sto…

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 harrass…

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 in…

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 m…

"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 …