31 May 2004

Tarkovsky's Polaroids

The Guardian has a few of the great Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky's Polaroids up for view. They are part of a new book, which apparently is only available in the UK. The pictures are remarkable not just because they use a medium not often associated with interesting photography, but because they look like they could come from one of Tarkovsky's movies.

By the way, if you haven't read Tarkovsky's Sculpting in Time : Reflections on the Cinema, it's worth at least a glance. Here's a taste:
As soon as one begins to cater expressly for the auditorium, then we're talking of the entertainment industry, show business, the masses, or what have you, but certainly not of art which necessarily obeys its own immanent laws of development whether we like it or not (170).

Random Thoughts from a Weekend Away

Though I very much wanted to be at WisCon, I couldn't get out there because I had to be at graduation at the school where I work. After the ceremonies on Saturday I zipped down to Massachusetts and the Paradise City Arts Festival, where my aunt, a brilliant weaver, was exhibiting. There was plenty of extraordinary work at the show (and some real kitsch, too, alas), but I wasn't feeling particularly wealthy, so I only bought a bit of pottery (by Jules Polk -- I'm very partial to soda fired pots).

Heading home today, we stopped at Mass MoCA, a museum I had long wanted to see, because it is built from old mill buildings and warehouses, and specializes in large installations. I liked Ann Hamilton's "Corpus", at least the main room of it: a large open space where pieces of onionskin paper fall from the ceiling to the floor and bullhorn-like speakers rise up and down, projecting the sound of voices intoning words. It was a surprisingly peaceful installation, with the emptiness of the space, the beauty of the falling paper, the drone of the voices, the light through the many windows filtered red ... all lonely, purposeless, and yet somehow light and even funny. The other work at the museum didn't do much for me, although I liked aspects of Matthew Ritchie's "Proposition Player", a work which seeks to explore the idea of information overload. The specific pieces of art are, themselves, interesting to look at, but the attempt to convey ideas about information, history, cosmology, and whatever else was, at least for me, a complete failure. The ambition is admirable, but it lacks real depth of thought.

The problem of contemporary artists exploring ideas is one that I return to every time I visit a museum of contemporary art, because many artists who have gained enough fame to have an exhibition in such a museum seem determined to convey ideas about life, the universe, and everything; but whenever I stop to think about their ideas and how their artwork expresses and delves into those ideas, I end up getting frustrated because it all seems so terribly cliche, banal, and superficial. For instance, the worst exhibit I saw at MoCA, "The Interventionists: Art in the Social Sphere", was an empty and predictable exhibit, yet another example of earnest artists trying to change the world through art, but doing little more than diddling with their own sense of righteousness. Committed and progressive they may be; sophisticated philosophers and sociologists they are not, and so the work seemed at best mawkish, at worst flagrantly stupid and probably harmful to whatever cause the artists were attempting to support. If they'd taken the money they got to create whatever they created and instead donated it to a charity, they would have helped far more people.

Thus, an experience of two worlds: an upscale arts and crafts fair, and a museum of contemporary art. Very different worlds, indeed, and neither entirely satisfactory. (I had a much more aesthetically pleasing experience walking through galleries in SoHo and Chelsea on a trip to New York back in December.) The Paradise City fair made me wish more craftspeople would try to stretch their media and their conceptions of what their media can accomplish, while Mass MoCA made me wish more academically-sanctioned contemporary artists would stop trying to speak for all humanity and just unleash their imaginations and passions.

I had enough free time during the trip to read Lies, Inc. by Philip K. Dick, a recently re-released edition of The Unteleported Man with about 40,000 words of material Dick wanted added to the original novella (the publishing history is complex). I had not read the book either in its earlier form or the current one, and, given that it was cobbled together at different times both by Dick and his executors, I didn't set my expectations high. The best that can be said for the book is that it isn't entirely painful to read, though it is befuddling. The first two chapters are by far the best, and had me laughing out loud as the protagonist, Raphael ben Applebaum, has the consciousness of a rat inadvertently beamed into his head -- a classic PhilDickian moment, showcasing his great ability to mix humor and horror and convey it through unyieldingly matter-of-fact prose. Some other good concepts in the book might have been effective had they been more thoughtfully and less haphazardly executed, particularly a book-within-the-book that Dick added in the later material, but in the end Lies, Inc. feels less like a novel than like a book filled with various aborted attempts at a novel, with few of the attempts being particularly compelling.

And now I'm home ... with lots of email to answer....

28 May 2004

Stranger Things Happen in Love

Luke at Monosylabik offers some advice to anyone trying to get their significant other to read speculative fiction, saying that his girlfriend had remained impervious to his SFnal advances until he gave her one particular book:
Though she and I have loved many of the same films that can be classified as science fiction, films such as Donnie Darko and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, she has not been overly enthusiastic about any of the speculative fiction books I've urged her to try. Until now. She's now reading Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link and really enjoying it. So there you are spec fic fans -- if you, like me, have struggled for years to get that special someone in your life to read some spec fic, try Kelly Link's Stranger Things Happen. A bit of relationship advice free from The Love Guru.
Good advice it is. If you want to preview some of the stories in that fine collection of fiction, here are some that are online:
The Specialist's Hat
The Girl Detective
Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose
Survivor's Ball (or, The Donner Party)
Most of My Friends are Two-Thirds Water

27 May 2004

Auction for Charles L. Grant

Note: The auction has ended.

I've been remiss in not putting up a reminder here about the Ebay auction to help raise money for Charles L. Grant's medical expenses (information at the Horror Writers Association). Follow this link for bidding. There's some phenomenal stuff available, and the prices currently seem quite low to me, considering the cause and the items.

Quote for the Day

I would like to make it clear that the innovative never replaces the engendering paradigm of the old, but only its weary imitations. The paradigm, it will be obvious, was, when it appeared, innovative. What the innovative replaces is the fetish of a stereotyped process, a process so well known by its practitioners, so predictably implemented, that it could not produce anything fresh or new were it to have a hundred years in which to do so. There is, in other words, nothing "wrong" with, say, the Charles Dickens novel, but there is something very wrong with his forms and inventions as they may be revealed in a novel by a contemporary author. And yet this absolute lack of nerve is weirdly seen, by more people than one cares to think about, as "the furtherance of traditional values." How "traditional values" may be furthered by exhausted methodologies remains a mystery. In point of fact, a work presented as a wholly recognizable construct of conventionalized tropes and structures has a hard time resisting being read or seen or heard as anything but parody. Far from being an attack on tradition, innovation is a rejuvenation of tradition. One might say that were Dickens alive today, he would not be writing "Charles Dickens novels".

--Gilbert Sorrentino
"What's New?: The Innovative Act"
in Something Said

The Light Ages and the Reviewers

Upon publication, Ian R. MacLeod's The Light Ages received the kind of reviews writers dream of, garnering hyperbolic praise from some of the most respectable voices within the world of speculative fiction: Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss, Gene Wolfe, James P. Blaylock, Jeff VanderMeer, Paul Di Filippo, Tim Powers, and Gardner Dozois -- a group of men of varied tastes and backgrounds.

The Light Ages is a good book, even, at times, a remarkable one. Certainly, it is a better SF novel than 90% of the other SF novels published in 2003, and it probably even deserves an award or two. Nonetheless, it is also a novel with some considerable flaws, and the sort of praise it has received does a disservice to Ian MacLeod and his editors, because MacLeod is a writer of tremendous talent and promise who may be capable of producing a truly great book one day, so long as he doesn't read his reviews. (He has written some truly excellent short fiction.)

First, let me praise the book, because some of what I have to say may make The Light Ages seem to be less of a novel than it is. MacLeod has, in general, a good sense of language, and just about every page of the 452 (and one fifth) pages of the Ace paperback edition has at least one interesting sentence on it. At times, there are entire paragraphs that are gems of image and sound. The novel has some magnificent passages describing, in loving detail, the world MacLeod has imagined; a world of industrialized magic, of great poverty and ostentatious wealth, of revolution and reaction. The central fantastic device, a substance called "aether" that powers the magic of the world the way oil powers the magic of so many of our own lives, is a clever and broad enough one to allow some resonant hints of allegory. The ending is extraordinary in its pragmatic cynicism, its refusal to offer fairytale answers to socio-political situations, and the choice of a final moment is utterly perfect.

However, such accomplishments are all but overpowered by the flaws of the book, because even if it has one good sentence per page, there are so many pages that the mediocre sentences reign and the clumsy ones, of which there are too many, play on the sensitive reader's ears like a chorus of banshees in a library.

Other elements could overshadow the mediocre and occasionally bad prose, A gripping plot, provocative ideas, engaging and multifaceted characters, a complex narrative structure -- all are capable of drowning out clanging strings of words. Certain chapters of The Light Ages are gripping, every fifty pages or so there's an idea worth thinking about, and a few of the minor characters are engaging. But that's about it. The narrative structure, rather than being complex, is numbingly linear except for a framing device at the beginning and end that is a confusing way to start a book and a painfully plodding way to end it (except, as I said above, for the last page, which in some ways makes it worth the plod).

The fundamental problem with the book is that the main characters are dreadfully dull, particularly the narrator, Robbie Borrows. MacLeod seems to have wanted Robbie to be both Nick Carraway and The Great Gatsby, but he's made him, instead, into an observer who affects much of the action without any panache. It's the worst of all worlds, because, unfortunately, we the readers are stuck with him for the entire length of the book. The other major character, Anna/Annalise, is at first fascinating, but she is ultimately so superficial that I found myself hoping, by the middle of the book, for her to die a painful, miserable death that would force her to become compelling. Some of the minor characters are compelling, and the glimpses we get of them are tantalizing, particularly a William Morris-type character named George, who would have been a far more interesting protagonist than Robbie.

My subject here, though, is less the book itself than how it was received. John Clute offered, as is usual for him, a thoughtful and balanced review, but in most of the others we encounter a vastly different book than the one I have described, for the reviewers find it "stocked with utterly believable primary and secondary characters" (Gabe Mesa, SF Site), "compulsive in the reading" (John Berlyne, SF Revu), "hypnotic, beautiful and stirring" (Rick Kleffel, The Agony Column). While to me all of these statements are hyperbolic, I don't find any of them particularly bothersome, as reading tastes and experiences differ from person to person, and it may be that this just isn't my book.

However, one review seems so drunk on its own delusions that it can't be allowed to stand unchallenged. Thus, from Paul Di Filippo at SF Weekly:
Dickensian, melancholy, full of smoky vistas and moments of contrasting sunshine, MacLeod's book is simply the best fantasy novel since Mieville's Perdido ... MacLeod's character portrayal is the book's next dimension of greatness. Robert Borrows is as rich and deep a figure as any in fantastical literature, from John Crowley's Smokey Barnable to Tolkien's Frodo. Every supporting character--and there are dozens--boasts, if not equal, then appropriate depths. Anna, as willful changeling, is both human and other, and the tentative love affair between her and Robert gives the book its central engine. As Robert realizes late in the tale, both he and Anna have "failed to recreate" as adults the "spells of love" they briefly sustained in their youth. And these characters move in a plot that is both leisurely and powerfully onflowing. Propelled by the central mystery of the day the aether engines stopped in Bracebridge before Robert was born, the story twists and turns into knots before suddenly transforming to a coherent tapestry whose central revelation both shocks and confirms.

But MacLeod's final, most effective conquest is achieved and delivered through sheer language. Sentence by sentence, this book is the most well-written you will have read in ages. Never clotted, yet always poetic, MacLeod's prose flows like aether, bewitching, transformative and seductive. Here, style truly supports content, and vice versa.
Di Filippo's review verges on being an irresponsible piece of writing -- not because of any one statement, but rather because of the cumulative effect of many statements suggesting he either is discussing a book he wishes he read rather than one he actually did, or that he does not have a particularly developed sense of literature.

Many reviewers have called the book "Dickensian", but this is one of those terms, like "Kafkaesque", that has become so debased as to be meaningless. Anything that takes place in London and has both upper-class and lower-class characters is, apparently, Dickensian. Daniel Green at The Reading Experience has a good list of the elements that made Dickens Dickensian: "picaresque abandon, his outsized characters, his exuberant and fluent style, above all his humor ". The Light Ages has none of these elements in any great amount, and has no humor whatsoever. It's not a terrible book, but neither is it Dickensian.

Di Filippo writes, "MacLeod's book is simply the best fantasy novel since Mieville's Perdido." I do think Mieville's Perdido Street Station is a phenomenal novel, but to say that The Light Ages is the best fantasy novel since Perdido is questionable -- 2002, the year between the two books, produced, among other works, Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen (technically not a novel, but it functions best as one), Jeffrey Ford's Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, Jonathan Carroll's White Apples, and Yann Martel's Life of Pi, all of which have at least one element superior to MacLeod's novel. (And those are just some prominent novels published in English. Search through the lesser-known works and the non-English-language works and I'm sure there are plenty of other fine fantasy novels from that year.)

"MacLeod's character portrayal is the book's next dimension of greatness." Considering that some of the various reviewers who had better things to say about The Light Ages than I do mentioned that they found some of the characters to be thin or too passive, I don't think I'm skating far over the edge of reason to say that Di Filippo has an overdeveloped sense of character portrayal, perhaps one that allows him to fill in entire pages the author should have written himself. The fact is, Robbie's character is one of the most cliched, generic, and tedious bildungsroman protagonists I've encountered outside of hack fantasy novels, and anyone who has read anything other than the pulpiest of bestsellers should be able to see that character portrayal is this novel's greatest flaw. Robbie's character never particularly suffers, at least not in any convincing way, and most of what happens to him happens because it's convenient to the plot. Anna's character is worse, and many of the people they encounter throughout the book are little more than names or agglomerations of adjectival ticks.

"...the story twists and turns into knots before suddenly transforming to a coherent tapestry whose central revelation both shocks and confirms." This is how the story progresses: something happens, Robbie goes somewhere, he discovers something, and then we get a 3 pages of exposition explaining what it means (generally it means that somebody he thought was just a random human being is actually Deeply Connected To His Life). It's the same feeling you get after reading a bunch of mystery novels where at the end of each the detective has to explain how all the clues tie together. It's more or less coherent if you're patient enough to read every word of the expositional mucas, but shock and confirmation have nothing to do with it.

"Sentence by sentence, this book is the most well-written you will have read in ages." I'm sorry, but no, I happen to have read quite a few books within just the last few months that are superior to this one, not only in the quality of the sentences, but of their paragraphs and pages and chapters. If Paul Di Filippo has not, he should not try to force his poverty on you or me.

Since the language is so often praised, I should be less general about my concerns with it. To begin, let me mention two problems that will be invisible to many readers and of little concern to most. First, MacLeod does not know that the pronoun "I" needs to be the subject of a verb and not the object, leading him to write sentences such as "The cloth spread out from Anna and I as we walked away from each other across that little Kingsmeet hall" (274). Second, his favorite word is "which", a word that appears on every page, in every paragraph of any length, and sometimes so many times as to create an annoying swishing sound in the mind's ear. The use of "which" versus "that" as a relative pronoun is the source of much grammatical debate, but a writer could easily ignore the debate and still determine that it might be a good idea to vary his word choice now and then, particularly when words are in close proximity. (Of course, an editor or proofreader would help, but the book clearly was not proofread, as there are a considerable number of obvious typos.)

Beyond these specific problems -- and keeping in mind that at certain points the prose does, indeed, soar -- in general the language is competent and not flashy. I'm perplexed by the constant references to MacLeod's supposedly rare stylistic abilities, because there are plenty of writers with a better, and certainly more consistent, sense of language. The frequent praise of his skill with English suggests either that the reviewers are so used to the bland, serviceable prose of most SF that when they encounter anything other than pages filled with subject-verb-object sentences, they can't help but enthuse all over themselves; or that the reviewers are tone-deaf to literary style.

Finally, Di Filippo writes, "Here, style truly supports content, and vice versa." How? It's an admirable goal, but there are truckloads of other books that actually succeed with such a goal.

I could go on, but this is painful, and I don't want to beat this poor novel into the dirt, because it doesn't deserve that, nor does one less-than-thoughtful review deserve to be given more attention than it warrants.

Here's the real problem: In these days of cluttered bookshelves and overflowing remainder bins, it can be tempting to scream about a book that deserves respectful muttering. Unfortunately, SF has become like poetry, in that every new poetry book arrives festooned with blurbs proclaiming it to be the greatest thing since the invention of the alphabet. Reviews tend to be somewhat more restrained than blurbs, but not by much, and it's rare to find negative poetry reviews, because the attitude of most editors seems to be that poetry is a marginal enough activity without readers being told not to bother with certain books.

I fear SF reviewers, seeing the genre as marginalized, may feel similarly -- that they should at least try to be nice (after all, what if you meet the author at a convention?), and that when they encounter something better than average (the average being pretty damn bad, anyway) then they should praise it as The Best Possible Novel You Will Ever Encounter In Your Entire LIFE!!!!!!!!

Ian MacLeod's first novel, The Great Wheel, got very little attention, and so perhaps the Olympian roars of praise for his second were meant to counteract that. All I can say is The Light Ages is readable, diverting, and, in general, competently written. With the help of an astute editor, it could have been a phenomenal book. It is not. With luck, Ian MacLeod's next novel will be, and he will have earned the reviews he garnered this time.

Update: For reactions, see this post.

24 May 2004

VOYA Best SF for Young Adults 2003

The Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA) organization has put out a list (PDF) of the "Best Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror 2003":
NEW SKIES Patrick Nielsen Hayden
MEMORY Linda Nagata
FLIP David Lubar

via Untitled Writers' Group
I'm sad to say I've read none of the books on the list, though I have at least read something at one time or another by 90% of the authors. I've been meaning to get a copy of New Skies, but will probably wait for it in paperback. In any case, I applaud Patrick Nielsen Hayden for editing an anthology aimed at younger readers, a group I recently championed.

By the way, does anyone know if there are any anthologies of original science fiction aimed at young adults (or even elementary schoolers)? Are any in the works?

"Rabbit Test" by Jeffrey Ford

Jeffrey Ford has perfected a form of fiction that could be described as autobiographical fabulism: stories that clearly use elements of his own life, including narrators named "Jeff Ford", but do so to tell an essentially fictional tale. In one of the best of these stories, "Bright Morning", collected in The Fantasy Writer's Assistant, the narrator describes his novels as "fantasy/adventure stories with a modicum of metaphysical whim-wham that some find to be insightful and others have termed 'overcooked navel gazing'", a description that could even more easily apply to this particular strand of Ford's short fiction, though "overcooked" is not a term I would think of for these stories, and if there is navel-gazing, it's a superficial element necessary to the overall effect.

Such a blatantly autobiographical approach is not original to Ford (James Patrick Kelly's 1987 story "Daemon" is just such a story, and other writers, in and out of the world of speculative fiction, have used the same or similar conceits), but Ford has made it a habit or hallmark, and to good effect. More than anything else, it was reading "The Honeyed Knot" and "Bright Morning" that made me decide to read SF more faithfully and more consistently than I had in many years, because here, it seemed, was a writer capable of new wonders.

"Rabbit Test", recently published at Fantastic Metropolis, is another story in the mode of autobiographical fabulism, and though its metaphysical whim-wham is less mind-bending than in some of Ford's other stories, nevertheless it is a strange and affecting tale, one which could easily have been published in a mainstream literary magazine (indeed, I often wonder why The New Yorker hasn't snapped Ford up, as he'd be a perfect fit for their pages).

Readers new to Ford would probably not realize the story uses elements of his life, but anyone who has read his earlier work will notice a few details suggesting this is another story in the series. I don't think it particularly matters for this story -- certainly not in the way it does for "Bright Morning", where the entire premise of the story plays with, among other things, the duality Borges pointed out with "Borges & I" -- but it does give an extra and even painful verisimilitude to the events, though for all I know the central problem for the characters could be entirely fictional. The more we wonder "what is real?" while reading the story, the more satisfying it is in the end, even if the question extends beyond the fictional reality of the narrative and into the reality of the author's life, creating an ambiguous membrane between the actual and the possible. It's an unsettling effect.

(Pause for a quibbling grammatical tangent: The first sentence of the story is, "I didn't remember until that morning when I was laying on the pull out couch in the living room, my eyes closed, listening to the rain." Do you see the problem? "Laying" should be "lying". [update: It now is.] Ford is a well-educated man who is also a teacher, the editors at Fantastic Metropolis are all brilliant and incredibly sharp-eyed (I know from experience), and so I'm giving them all the benefit of the doubt and assuming the mistake was intentional, to signify that the narrator is a normal everyday guy, since most people these days don't know the difference between "lie" and "lay" (one's a transitive verb, the other intransitive). But to put it in the first sentence ... ugh, it's probably just my own pet peeve. A novel I'm currently reading and will even write about soon hit my one other big grammatical pet peeve with at least two sentences along the lines of "They gave the zap gun to Jeffrey Ford and I," which should be "Ford and me", since "they" is the subject. There are days when I think it would be better only to know the very basic rules of English grammar, because then I'd be blissfully ignorant of other people's essentially inconsequential mistakes (and my own -- it can be torture to read old blog entries). I'm a fan of split infinitives, I think the silly non-rule about prepositions at the end of sentences is bunk, I frequently begin sentences with conjunctions, and even though I have a fairly clear idea of how I think commas should be used, I'm willing to be liberal. But lie/lay and I/me drive me nuts. Must get therapy.....)

There are many things Ford does well -- he consistently writes magnificent endings to his stories, ending which are seldom predictable and if they are then are so because they are perfect; he has a masterful ability to put just the right amount of ambiguity into a story to make it haunting; he often creates situations and settings that seer themselves into your memory -- but what I most admire in his autobiographical stories is his ability to make them feel informal, off-the-cuff, even chatty, when in reality every sentence is integral to the whole. Read "Rabbit Test" twice and you'll see that various details you didn't pay much attention to the first time all contribute to the story's progression and themes.

Such efficiency and perfection is not always what I value in a story, and I certainly wouldn't want all fiction to be efficient (what of Sterne, what of Stanley Elkin?!), but with Ford's work it is admirable because it is a kind of authorial legerdemain -- the reader is lulled into thinking less is going on than actually is. (This effect reminds me of some of Tobias Wolff's best stories.) Too many mainstream writers have tried for a similar effect, thinking they are either emulating Chekhov of Joyce (the idea of "epiphanies"), ultimately ending up with less than the sum of the minimalist parts, but Ford succeeds again and again because he hollows out the world around his characters, he decenters their realities, letting the stories hover over in the uncomfortable realm of perhaps.... By utilizing fantasy to explore both the mysteries of reality and the human tendency to seek meaning in coincidence, Ford is a kind of American M. John Harrison, but his view of life is much less bleak and menaced.

I'm not sure how much more Ford can do with his autobiographical fabulism, as he seems to be falling into a bit of a formula, particularly with the more recent stories, which are less metafictional than the earlier ones. The formula seems to be: The narrator experiences a problem or loss, there are mysterious objects or people or coincidences that pop up in the periphery, and the resolution of the problem (or emotional resolution of the loss) suggests a possible but not certain connection to the mysterious elements. It's not a bad formula by any means, but I expect once he has exhausted it Ford will write even more breathtaking, surprising work, and I look forward to it.

21 May 2004


If you haven't been reading The Internet Review of Science Fiction, the new issue (their 5th) is a fine place to start, as it has some thought-provoking articles and the discussions in the forum about the articles are beginning to get quite interesting. Also, IROSF isn't going to stay free for long, so be sure to register now to prevent kicking yourself later.

Fervid Mumpsimus readers (Mumpsimusers?) might remember my post about Jay Lake's fine story "The Redundant Order of the Night", a post which provided some inspiration for Jay's new IROSF article about authorial intention and reader interpretation. He offers his own thoughts and experiences as well as some great comments from a handful of other writers.

If I continue to make writers say, "Huh?" about how I've read their stories, then at the least I hope they all go on to write interesting essays such as this one.

20 May 2004

May Ideomancer

The May issue of i d e o m a n c e r is online, with stories by Jay Lake, M. Rickert, Patrick Samphire, and, ummm, ME!

Quote for the Day

Inspired by my post about Angela Carter, Dan Green of The Reading Experience creates a paragraph I would happily put on a flag and wave from the top of a tall building:
Whenever I hear or read someone urging writers to be "clear," to "communicate," to avoid "trickery," I can only take it as an exhortation to be good. Not to offend official sensibilities or imply that many readers are too timid in their willingness to take risks. In the name of literary decency not to engage in "too much writing." Perhaps in the long run these stylistic gatekeepers can be persuaded that literary form and style have nothing to do with morality, but most of them probably don't really much like literature, anyway, if "literature" is more than just an opportunity to assert your own virtue.

19 May 2004

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary

Simultaneously a film of a ballet and a beautiful homage to silent movies, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary was originally made for Canadian television by director Guy Maddin and based on a work choreographed by Mark Godden for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet .

I have not seen any of Maddin's other films, though I will certainly seek them out now, because from the evidence here he may be a genius. He saw that the aesthetics of ballet and silent film could work together and enhance each other, and he delved into the original novel with a creative, fruitful, and deconstructive zeal.

The film ends up, then, not as a PBS-style 3-camera representation of a performance, but rather as a fully reimagined work of art in its own right. While it pays tribute to silent films of the past -- everything from Nosferatu to The Passion of Joan of Arc -- it is far more than a simple tribute, but is, rather, a film that uses the conventions of silent movies to create a beautiful and entertaining piece of cinema.

The viewers who will enjoy this version of Dracula most are ones who are at least somewhat familiar with the original novel, with silent film, and with ballet. I expect lovers of ballet find Maddin's use of various lenses, film stocks, and jagged editing to be a distraction from the excellent choreography, but some of the most affecting movements get full and loving attention, particularly the pas de deux between Dracula and Lucy and Dracula and Mina. To Maddin, Dracula represents the energy and lust Victorian women were expected to repress, and the energy of freedom and passion fills these dances. Lucy's final scene is also a tremendous accomplishment of acting, dancing, and cinematography.

Maddin discovered that ballet dancers make excellent melodramatic actors, and numerous scenes capture extraordinarily dramatic facial expressions and body postures that, had the film not been constructed with such care and sensitivity, would have been cloying or inappropriately hilarious. There are funny and campy moments in the film (particularly the opening credits, which stress the inherent xenophobia in the Dracula myth -- the threatening, monstrous menace from Eastern Europe coming to corrupt and destroy good British women), but such moments make the scenes of grace or horror more affecting through contrast.

In the end, this Dracula is a grand celebration of style -- the beauty of human bodies in motion, the photographic possibilities of various camera and editing effects, the exuberance of melodrama. It is an intelligent film, and often a clever one, but the underlying ideas it explores and the emotions it provokes all rely on the stylistic choices of the director, choreographer, cinematographer, production designers, and actor-dancers. By committing themselves to an aesthetic exploration of an old story, the filmmakers allow the story the excitement of being new.

18 May 2004

Sakharov's Predictions

Moscow News has a short article looking at some predictions Russian Nobel Peace Prize-winner Andrei Sakharov made thirty years ago. Considering that he essentially predicted the Internet, I'll take Sakharov over Nostradamus any day.

The judgment at the end of the article is sobering, though:
Some of Sakharov’s ideas seem far-fetched and others realistic and yet others started out and then progressed in a direction he did not at all anticipate; this is the way with all predictions. The only problem is the contrast between the vision and the reality. George Orwell’s 1984 painted a bleak picture of the world that came out somewhat true; yet it was a huge relief when 1984 came and went and the hole humans had been digging themselves into wasn’t anywhere as bad. Sakharov’s predictions inspire sadness -- unlike Orwell, he had obviously thought of humans too well.
(Actually, I have to quibble a bit with that judgment -- Orwell was not "predicting" anything for the actual year 1984. Only lunatics were sitting around on December 31, 1983 in abject terror of Big Brother suddenly appearing at midnight like some Dick Clark gone wrong. Orwell was, like many a good science fiction writer, extrapolating from tendencies he saw in the world he lived in, and he was writing as much about his own contemporary reality as he was speculating about the decades to come. Somebody writing for a Moscow newspaper should be able to understand this.)

17 May 2004

All Hail the Slush God

John Joseph Adams, the editorial assistant at F&SF (among other jobs), has just started a blog called THE SLUSH GOD Speaketh... Accept and praise him.

via Weirdwriter

Destruction and Imagination

Peter Conrad writes in The Observer about apocalyptic films such as The Day After Tomorrow and the entertainment value of destroying a city:
These fables cater to some dissident craving deep in our minds. Cities are meant to be civic, communal places, yet -- looking at Piranesi's panoramas of ruined Rome, or Bill Brandt's photographs of a lunar London during the blitz -- we take a perverse pleasure in imagining them emptied. Is this because we wish our obnoxious fellow citizens dead, or because we know that the city will outlive us? The metropolis is a teeming, populous graveyard; life in it encourages a postmortem vision. ... The accumulation of stories means that nowadays, wherever you go in New York, you seem to be moving through the traces of a catastrophe that has already happened in fiction and may well recur in fact.
Such films are, perversely, the realization of Bakunin's (in)famous statement that "The passion for destruction is a creative passion, too!" By spending hundreds of millions of dollars to imagine the destruction of a city, and then by gathering millions of people together to gain joy, pleasure, and diversion from the imaginary destruction, does the movie purge makers and viewers of the desire to destroy? Or is the imaginary destruction completely unrelated to the real world?

I'm a proponent of the idea that stories which employ fantasy and imagination are as valuable to life as stories which strictly mirror and mime the quotidian world, and that such stories help us think about and consider our world, so it would be ridiculous of me to suggest that a movie that imagines the destruction of New York, and turns that destruction into entertainment, does not have some grounding in real desires.

The distinction, and one often missed by critics of everything from slasher movies to Marilyn Manson, is that the connection between imagination and reality does not need to be one-to-one. Most people would (I hope) think it absurd to say, "Because you enjoy movies like The Day After Tomorrow, you must want New York to be destroyed."

One of the reasons fantasy literatures are valuable is because of the often mysterious and generally unpredictable connections between imagination and reality. Western theatre is a perfect example of this -- we venerate as classic many works filled with imagined destructions, both personal and public. There have been, at least since Aristotle, countless suggestions of why this is so. Perhaps we need to be reminded of our mortality, to face our anxieties and doubts about how and why we live. Perhaps we need to imagine our world destroyed so that we can value it before it collapses. Perhaps we are strengthened by envisioning all that could go wrong.

In truth, though, most people find a marked difference between imagining horrors and experiencing them. Despite all the claims that September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington, D.C. "felt like a movie", it didn't. A thousand movies couldn't capture the depth of emotion and the breadth of experience that September 11 continues to represent throughout the world. "It felt like a movie" because we needed a frame through which to look, a vantage point from which to begin experiencing the unbelievable, and the only immediate metaphor was what Hollywood had given us.

There does seem, though, something creepy about continuing to imagine New York's destruction. There's a weight to the imagining now, a shadow to the images. Are they still entertaining, or is there something else going on?

Nostradamus Predicts the Future of Literature

Because it seemed like a good idea at the time, I asked the Nostradamus Quatrain Generator a simple question: "What is the future of literature?"

The answer:
A great king captured by the hands of a young man
Will be found in the temple of the Vestals
Beaucaire Arles will retain the hostages
Nimes, Toulouse perish in water, the market to collapse
Not being the world's best interpreter of Old Nost, I asked another question: "Huh?"

The answer:
Garden of the world near the new city
Over the walls to throw ashes, lime chalk and dust
To prepare for a journey torments the first offspring
When the dead will come out of their graves
I began to feel a bit, well, frustrated with my intellectual capabilities -- capabilities the Lovecraft Engine labelled "the rigid, anthropoid yammer".

Finally, I put the first quatrain into a translator, and all was made clear:
The Future of Literature
as predicted by Nostradamus
and translated by an algorithm

A nincompoop king captured by insolent bullethole of tee-totaler womany man

Will be found worthless insolent busdrivers of insolent Vestals

Beaucaire Arles will retain insolent hostages

Nimes, Toulouse perish worthless happy-flapjacks, insolent market to collapse

16 May 2004

SF in China

Searching for something else, I came upon a site called Living in China which referenced the most interesting weblog I've discovered in a while: Chinese Science Fiction and Fantasy.

There are many things I know nothing about, and one of them is Chinese literature. Thus, I was fascinated to read the entries on the blog, as well as articles they linked to, including "Science Fiction, Globalization, and the People's Republic of China " by Lavie Tidhar, originally published by Foundation and reprinted online by Concatenation.

A couple of quick searches didn't turn up much in English about Chinese SF, but there are some basic overviews at Unsafe and China.org.cn.

Finding stories translated from Chinese is particularly difficult, but there are a few at Mirage. There is one anthology of Chinese SF in English that I know of.

SF is quite popular in China -- Science Fiction World has an immense readership -- and it would be interesting to see if the Internet could be used to create more communication between English-language and Chinese-language readers and writers.

15 May 2004

Learning from Angela Carter

The Guardian has published an appreciation of Angela Carter by Ali Smith, all of which is quite worth reading, but I was particularly struck by this passage:
Pick up any novel by a woman in the early or mid-60s, any good-selling typical book of the time, anything, by the new young novelist everyone was talking about, Margaret Drabble, or the much more baroque Beryl Bainbridge or, say, Up the Junction (1963) by Nell Dunn, which opens on a typical 60s room:

"We stand, the three of us, me, Sylvie and Rube, pressed up against the saloon door, brown ales clutched in our hands. Rube, neck stiff so as not to shake down her beehive, stares sultrily round the packed pub. Sylvie eyes the boy hunched over the mike and shifts her gaze down to her breasts snug in her new pink jumper".

Or the eponymous L-Shaped Room (1960) by Lynne Reid Banks, which opened the door on 60s realism like this:

"There wasn't much to be said for the place, really, but it had a roof over it and a door which locked from the inside, which was all I cared about just then. I didn't even bother to take in the details - they were pretty sordid, but I didn't notice them so they didn't depress me; perhaps because I was already at rock-bottom".

Compare them to this:

"The bar was a mock-up, a forgery, a fake; an ad-man's crazy dream of a Spanish patio, with crusty white walls (as if the publican had economically done them up in leftover sandwiches) on which hung unplayable musical instruments and many bull-fight posters, all blood and bulging bulls' testicles and the arrogant yellow satin buttocks of lithe young men. Nights in a garden of never-never Spain. Yet why, then, the horse-brasses, the ship's bell, the fumed oak? Had they been smuggled in over the mountains, in mule panniers? Dropped coins and metal heels rang a carillon on the green tiles. The heels of her high boots chinked as she came through the door".

It's 1966. We're still in England. But the tone is outlandish, it's rich, over-rich, a revelation of artifice all round, a knowing fakery in both the room and the voice describing it, rhetorical witty questioning, a promised foreignness and savagery, a place of camp potential and even the premonition of a Western shoot-out as the doomed scarred blonde beauty, Ghislaine, chinks her boots through the door into the Carter-shaped room. This is another England. This is the beginning of Carter's first novel, Shadow Dance.

It isn't that Carter isn't a realist. "I've got nothing against realism," she said at the end of her life, as if tired of having to explain. "But there is realism and realism. I mean, the questions that I ask myself, I think they are very much to do with reality. I would like, I would really like to have had the guts and the energy and so on to be able to write about, you know, people having battles with the DHSS, but I, I haven't. I've done other things. I mean, I'm an arty person, ok, I write overblown, purple, self-indulgent prose - so fucking what?"

Secret Life by Jeff VanderMeer

Mass media should be gut shot and left out in the desert to die, he decided, looking again at the page proofs on his desk.

"Experiment #25"
by Jeff VanderMeer
A diverse menagerie of squid, mushrooms, Incan emperors, virulent vines, seers, murderers, and metaphysical fictioneers, Secret Life will be arriving on bookstore shelves any week now, a treasure chest thumped down amidst mass-market baubles.

If you have read City of Saints and Madmen and Veniss Underground, you already know Jeff VanderMeer is a magnificent writer, one capable of constructing beautiful sentences and unleashing them in structures where they dazzle like fireworks during an acid trip. What you may not have known is that he is capable of writing an affecting story (in dialect) about the blues, that he writes magic realism as if he were born in Peru, that historian John Julius Norwich has been as much of an influence on his penchant for footnoting as Borges (though Norwich doesn't have a bookstore named after him in Ambergris).

If you haven't read much VanderFiction until now, Secret Life is as good a place to start as any -- more varied than Veniss (though often equally intense), less labyrinthine than City of Saints and Madmen, more fulfilling than The Day Dali Died. Though the book didn't take my breath away with the same force my first reading of City of Saints did, that may be because my expectations for VanderMeer's work are absurdly high, and a short story collection of such variety as this inevitably has less cumulative force than a collection of tales set in one universe.

There is not now, and perhaps never has been, a writer within the genres of speculative fiction who is more broadly talented than Jeff VanderMeer, and Secret Life proves that fact better than any other single volume. There are other writers who are better at specific types of fiction, specific styles or milieus that they have made their own, but VanderMeer is a master ventriloquist while also being a master carpenter, constructing complex and beautiful homes for all the voices which crawl out of his imagination. In Secret Life a story such as "Greensleeves", a graceful and even sentimental fantasy,is followed by "Detectives and Cadavers", a surreal bit of science fiction, which is then followed by "Exhibit H: Torn Pages Discovered in the Vest Pocket of an Unidentified Tourist (Note the blood-red discoloration in the lower left corner)", which is subtitled (or is it sub-subtitled?) "An excerpt from Hoegbottom's COMPREHENSIVE TRAVEL GUIDE TO THE SOUTHERN CITY OF AMBERGRIS, Chapter 77: An In-depth Explanation for the City's Apparent Lack of Sanitation Workers (And Why Tourists Should Not Be Afraid)". The story lives up to its title.

The settings of these stories tell much about VanderMeer's ambitions and talents. The reader follows these tales from Florida to Latin America to Cambodia, from London to India, from Veniss to Ambergris. Each story has a density to it which other writers should envy and emulate, and readers should appreciate by savoring only one or two stories at a sitting. The wonders of this book are many, and are revealed by patient, joyful reading and rereading.

If we could create truly perfect sentences, we would destroy the world: it would fold in on itself like a pricked hot air balloon and cease to be: poof!, undone, unmade, unlived, in the harsh glacial light of a reality more real than itself.

"Learning to Leave the Flesh"
VanderMeer's sentences are often weighty with surprising word choices, making them difficult to skim because each clause is boobytrapped against complacency, but nevertheless his prose doesn't feel much more "experimental" than John Updike's. VanderMeer is a far more interesting writer than Updike, however, because his relatively well-behaved sentences often gather together in unruly groups of paragraphs, using the conventions of fiction like the kids in Graham Greene's "The Destructors" use a house. In his recent chronicle of how City of Saints and Madmen came to be written and published, VanderMeer said he wrote "Learning to Leave the Flesh" after attending the Clarion Writer's Conference and wanting to write a story to defy all the supposed "rules" he'd been exposed to at Clarion. The best stories in Secret Life might also fit such an aspiration.

Consider, for instance, the title story, which is a collection of interlinked fragments about life in a strange office building. There is, I suppose, a plot to the story -- a stubborn plant snakes its way through the building, eventually destroying it -- but it's less plot than device, a hat rack for a tea party in Wonderland. Some characters learn things, but few learn anything of much importance, and any epiphanies are epiphenomenal. Entire pages are, at least from a traditional point of view, extraneous, but joyfully so, because this is a story where the tributaries have magic water filtered from the mainstream. The reader is invited to wallow in the pools and eddies rather than punch the timeclock at every port. The journey matters more than the destination, but the destination is a resonant, melancholy, and deeply affecting one.

"Secret Life" is conservative, though, compared to "The Festival of the Freshwater Squid". Jeff VanderMeer has much in common with writers such as Daniel DeFoe and Mark Twain, who gloried in dressing their fiction in the clothes of other genres: newspaper articles, memoirs, travelogues, etc. Ostensibly a newspaper article, "The Festival of the Freshwater Squid" will likely try readers' patience, unless they are as obsessed with squid as VanderMeer, but it is a remarkable experiment, and readers familiar with Ambergris will find some interesting conjunctions and disjunctions with certain happenings within that fabled city.

More successful experiments, it seems to me, produced "The Machine" and "The City", two of the most imagistic and mysterious stories in a book brewed from images and mysteries. These are stories which don't dictate any single "meaning", but rather exist as objects of the imagination, linguistic artifacts that dizzy the reader's synapses instead of connecting them. Such stories are alienating not in the Shklovskian sense of making the familiar unfamiliar, but rather in the way Beckett's fiction is alienating: by using familiar words and objects within a universe of such focused perception that landmarks fail to reveal themselves. Using the techniques of science fiction, fantasy, and horror fiction, VanderMeer goes Beckett one better, alienating his characters from their environment by plunging them into deeply subjective inner worlds, but in weird and fantastical landscapes rather than bare ones. In such stories, the imaginary exterior world consists of hints and inferences acting as stimuli on the characters' thoughts and delusions.

While many of the stories in Secret Life will probably not prove to be crowd pleasers to compete with Star Trek novelizations, the majority of stories should be accessible to readers who like their fiction to stick to predictable forms, with character arcs and linear chronologies. Indeed, there are a couple of masterpieces of such stories available here, particularly "Flight Is for Those Who Have Not Yet Crossed Over" and "The Bone Carver's Tale", both of which merit a wide readership.

Secret Life ends with "Experiment #25 from the Book of Winter: The Croc and You", a bit of metafiction that brings various strands of VanderMeer's writing together: traditional and innovative techniques, "nonfictional" and fictional narratives, humorous and terrifying images, and speculations on the nature of imagination, reality, truth, and emotion. It is a fine and appropriate ending to a book of remarkable skill and beauty.

Update 5/16/04: Order Secret Life from Mark Ziesing Books and look what you'll get in addition to the book:
You'll get an original, handwritten, short story by VanderMeer written especially for you and produced in an edition of one. That's right, drop us a line and tell us what you do for a living and give us one other interesting aside about you and your life and we'll forward that information to VanderMeer who will write a mini-story about your own secret life and will send it directly to you.
If you can resist this, you're a stronger person than I...

John Leonard on PKD

The latest (June) issue of Harper's Magazine arrived in the mail today, and I was thrilled to discover that my favorite living book reviewer, John Leonard, discusses a new edition of a book about Philip K. Dick, I Am Alive and You Are Dead by Emmanuel Carrere. The entire review is very much worth reading, but here's a little taste:
"What [Dick] asks of culture, psychoanalysis, and even religion," Carrere tells us, "was not that they educate him but that they hand over the password that would permit him to escape from the cave wherein we are shown not the real world but only its shadows."

This, alas, describes an entire generational subculture not confined to the sixties, a bunch of addled nomads who agreed with Lily Tomlin that reality was just "a collective hunch," who assumed with R.D. Laing that madness was a proof of grace, and who thus deserved Harlan Ellison's disdain: "Took drugs. Saw God. B[ig] F[ucking] D[eal]." When they were done trashing their own minds, no one picking through the rubble could tell the difference between toxins and nutrients.

13 May 2004

Fundraiser to Help Charles L. Grant

Nick Mamatas sent me the following press release, which deserves your attention:
May 13, 2004

Contact Information:
Horror Writers Association
Nicholas Kaufmann,


The Horror Writers Association holds auction to benefit stricken author

NEW YORK, MAY 13. The Horror Writers Association (HWA) is holding a benefit auction for legendary author and editor Charles L. Grant, who has been hospitalized indefinitely with severe cardio-pulmonary disease and emphysema. Mr. Grant, whose body of work spans five decades, faces a tremendous burden on his health and substantial health-related expenses.

In response to this dire situation, the HWA called for contributions to a benefit auction for Mr. Grant. Although HWA is not a charitable organization and contributions could not be considered charitable donations, this didn’t stop a flood of concerned writers, editors and publishers from contributing to this cause.

Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Neil Gaiman, Peter Straub, Clive Barker and nearly fifty other accomplished authors have confirmed contributions to the event. Publishers such as Leisure Books, Earthling Publications and Night Shade Books have also contributed.

"The response has been amazing," said Joe Nassise, president of the Horror Writers Association. "The absolute generosity of everyone involved has been truly overwhelming."

This two-part fundraiser, being held in conjunction with the HWA’s annual Bram Stoker Awards Banquet weekend, is the first of its kind for the organization. One component of the fundraiser is a high-profile auction to be held on eBay beginning May 23 and running until June 5, the evening of the awards. Bidders can find all auction items by searching the eBay User ID "bookwyrm55."

The second component is a silent auction to be held on June 4-6 at the HWA annual meeting in New York City where the Bram Stoker Awards will be presented.

THE HORROR WRITERS ASSOCIATION (HWA) is a worldwide organization of writers and publishing professionals dedicated to promoting dark literature and the interests of those who write it. HWA was formed in the late 1980's with the help of many of the field's greats, including Dean Koontz, Robert McCammon, and Joe Lansdale. Today, with over 1,000 members around the globe, it is the oldest and most respected professional organization devoted to the genre.

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact Nicholas Kaufmann at nkaufmann@nyc.rr.com

12 May 2004

SF for Kids

Alan Lattimore reports that on a recent visit to a local school's Scholastic Book Fair, he found no titles that were actual science fiction under any traditional definition of the term. Plenty of fantasy, some horror, some thrillers ... but no science fiction.

Elsewhere I've read of some attempts to create new lines of science fiction books for the YA market, but I don't remember where I saw them and I'm too lazy to go searching at the moment. There have been some excellent non-Harry Potter fantasies published over the past ten years, but science fiction seems to have nearly disappeared.

Even though I would like to see more genre bending, I've come to realize that I really don't want genre bending that destroys the "pure" forms of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. This is less a logical thought than a nostalgic one: When I was first getting interested in reading, the things that excited me were pure genre books. I started with horror, discovering Stephen King, the first author writing for adults whom I read with excitement. I moved on from there to various other horror writers, magazines like Night Cry (anybody remember that one?), etc. Then I discovered science fiction, and it was love at first sight. I hated fantasy for some reason -- too fascinated by technology, I suppose, and magic just seemed liked a cop-out. When I abandoned science fiction, it was for mainstream fiction, particularly works with a weird, surreal bent. It's only recently that I've discovered I actually like fantasy, so long as it doesn't have too many elves and fairies.

The type of kid who likes science fiction is not necessarily the type of kid who will like fantasy. And there's nothing wrong with that. Most young human brains need to start with something specific and then their tastes can diversify. If science fiction isn't available to kids, then we are losing the chance to hook certain types of people not only on science fiction, but on reading.

Working at a high school, I've seen plenty of students who are labelled as poor readers devote days of reading to Ender's Game or Neuromancer. I've seen other students who are skilled readers but who don't read, who think no book can compete with a video game, and they've been surprised to discover that Philip K. Dick and Ursula LeGuin (particularly The Dispossessed) really are worth taking a break from the X-Box to read.

There are plenty of science fiction books that kids read -- the ones I mentioned above, plus countless others, including Star Wars and Star Trek novels. But what is there for readers who aren't quite ready for writing aimed at adults? There are thousands and thousands of books for elementary school kids, but which ones are science fiction? (Please make recommendations in the comments -- it would be great to compile a list.)

As a teacher, I find it much easier to help students learn to appreciate and even love the sorts of things we English teachers are supposed to venerate -- The Great Works of Literature -- when I'm teaching students who read for pleasure in at least a little bit of their spare time. It's just about pointless to try to teach complex and demanding works to students who only read books assigned to them (I don't even like assigning books -- results are almost always better when people have some choice over what they read).

Much as I want to see more works which mix and match genre tropes, which interrogate and explode all the conventions of popular literary genres, we need the pure genres themselves to have dedicated and enthusiastic readers and writers so that a healthy dialogue develops between various types of writers and readers. The genres need readers for writers to write toward, and therefore some people to be excited by the possibilities of science fiction when they are young. Society in general is, I think, better off when more people recognize that books can be interesting, fun, and stimulating; science fiction is one way for some people to recognize that early on.

What's the solution? Cooperation, I think. We need to identify works that already exist and get them in the hands of parents, teachers, and, most importantly, kids. We need to support and encourage writers who decide to write for the younger markets. We need to share our enthusiasms.

10 May 2004

Chekhov Lives!

Though he seems to have lost a transliterated H over the years, Anton Chekhov recently gave a reading at the Union Square Barnes & Noble in New York.
After I finished my first short story, the crowed applauded.  I then told the following anecdote:

"Under Communists in Russia I could not talk to my friends like I am talking to you, my friends.  KGB was everywhere.  If you went to restaurant to eat and talk the waiter was probably KGB.  If you went to library to talk, then librarian went, 'Shhhhh...'[holding two fingers in front of my lips].  And, if librarian did not say to shush, she [I cupped my hand around my ear as if to hear a whisper] was listening because she was KGB.  The only safe place to walk and talk was the one place nobody was listening or watching…the graveyard."

I then began to read "In the Graveyard".
It seems to me this could be a way to increase appreciation of various writers who deserve more attention. Perhaps we could start having national tours. Imagine Borges and Philip K. Dick together...

(via Metafilter)

Calling All Poets!

Speaking of Alan DeNiro (which I seem to be doing a lot recently), he's editing "a one-shot chapbook, a mini-anthology, of speculative poetry and poetry informed by science fiction, with an emphasis on work from experimental and innovative practices." Check out the submission guidelines.

A New Look

Regular readers are shocked, I'm sure. The design of this blog has entered the 21st century. (Well, sort of.)

Blogger has finally gotten around to updating their system, and it's got some new bells and whistles, as well as templates. I like it, at least for the moment.

The one bad thing, though it's not too too bad. Comments are now a natural part of the Blogger environment, so I don't have to outsource. This is a good thing, except that it means all old comments have been deleted. My profoundest apologies. This should be the last time I lose comments.

I'm sure there are still some bugs in the design, as it is quite early in the morning as I finish this up. Eventually I'll even get around to updating the links in the sidebar....

Update: I've returned the Squawkbox comments, as Blogger's system is too rudimentary (in functionality, not installation) and not particularly flexible. I've also fixed some of the text settings, which should make it all work better if you want to adjust the size of the text in your browser. (Usually command+ and command-.)

"Tetrarchs" by Alan DeNiro

Just as I was trying to figure out why I thought Michael Bergstein's "The Reincarnate" in the latest issue of Conjunctions didn't quite work, despite many good elements, I read "Tetrarchs" at Strange Horizons, in which Alan DeNiro does much of what Bergstein seemed to be trying to do, and plenty more.

Since Bergstein's story is not online, it is probably unfair of me to comment about it at length, at least for the moment. I recommend getting Conjunctions: 41 not only so you can read Bergstein's story, but also for numerous other pieces. (In fact, Alan DeNiro himself recently wrote to me about the first story in the journal, by Steve Erikson, which is science fictional, but I haven't had a chance yet to read it.) Bergstein writes a clever, though hardly original, story about reincarnation, in which a man continues to realize he is someone else, and that someone else is someone else, and someone else just might be everyone else. The story is told with skill and has some interesting narrative surprises, but it left me cold.

DeNiro is not exactly dealing with reincarnation in "Tetrarchs", and his story certainly shows more imaginative panache than Bergstein's, but the link between the two that interests me is in how they approach and resolve the Moebius strip-nature of their tales. Bergstein's story is far more traditional in its approach, while DeNiro takes jazz as his structural model, riffing both with language and incident. I ended up feeling "The Reincarnate" was less interesting than it could have been, because I ended up feeling that the story doesn't carve enough space for the reader to do some work -- it's not a story that expands very much in the mind. "Tetrarchs" is exactly the opposite: this is a story I read twice because it felt like my skull might burst open.

Let me abandon both hyperbole and questionable comparisons with other stories and delve into what Alan DeNiro has written--

Consider a paragraph:
A kid reached out his hands and asked if I could spare him a dream, and I said, no, I didn't have any dreams to spare. He clenched his hands together, towards his tiny face. Like he was in a two-bit opera. I kept walking. I wanted a cigarette and whiskey more than anything. The perfect duo. Peeking in windows of St. Saul wasn't getting me anywhere, so I decided to take a shot at Misericorde. I hopped the #2 train, which took me over the river-bridge. Below me, the river forked into a pair of equal streams. Patterns cloaked the cities. I tried my best to figure out what they were trying to tell me, these patterns, but they hushed up for the most part.
I chose that paragraph almost randomly. It's one of my favorites in the story (I have many favorites, and I am promiscuous among them), but I could have chosen any other as an example not only of fine prose, but of an author using prose to accomplish many things at once.

In that paragraph, the narrator is in a second sort of life, one of four, and we the readers have only begun to piece together either the environment or the situation. Each sentence, then, offer information we need to comprehend the story. But (and hear this in the voice of a TV infomercial) THERE'S MORE! Yes, folks, not only do you get the information you need, but you get it conveyed with surprising images and rhythmic vernacular sentences. (Say them in any other way, and they won't dance quite so well. Summary cuts their legs off completely.) NOT ONLY THAT, but those sentences are jam-packed with both data and nuance -- like old Strunk might have said, they omit needless words.

(Pause while I shrug off the salesman's voice.)

Alan DeNiro is one of the most consistently innovative young writers willing to publish (or try to publish) with SF markets. What he has managed to accomplish with "Tetrarchs" is a fine and difficult balance of innovation with traditional narrative. Yes, this is a story which you need to read once to learn how to read it well, but it is a story which nonetheless has plenty of pleasures on a first reading. Pleasures which verge on thrills. Because, like the best jazz, it can't be summed up or placed in a box, and it doesn't pander to the audience. We end up constructing the story along with both the writer and the narrator, and though they're far more in charge than we, the readers, are, we nevertheless are allowed the thrill of feeling that we're creating it all as we go along.

(Pause while I cast off the royal We: I should speak of I. For all I know, You will not be hoodwinked or bamboozled or dizzied by the labyrinth so much that you think you control more than You do.)

By the time I'd finished my second reading of "Tetrarchs", I was all the more impressed, and I nearly read it again -- for the sheer fun of it, the fun of finding new connections, of paying attention to different parts, parts I had not weighed the same way before. This is a story which could be read like a poem, a story which could be heard like the notes of a saxophone drifting out of the fourth-floor window of a tenement one hot summer day.

08 May 2004

SF Cliches

Here's an idea for a contest: Write a story using every cliche listed at The Grand List of Overused Science Fiction Cliches.

That would actually make a fun anthology: various stories which employ the hoariest old SF cliches for fun and profit. It would be easy enough to write parodies; the harder, and more worthwhile, challenge would be to write stories of depth, stories that weren't just jokes.

Bouncing Back

Thank you to everyone who sent notes wondering what became of me. Things are mostly well, though horrendously busy. I haven't had much chance over the past two weeks to read anything, and have only momentarily fired up my computer. Now that I have begun to catch up on e-mail and blogs and e-zines and all the other wonderful candy of cyber-reality, I'm a bit overwhelmed.

But I feel like returning by comparing myself to Neil Gaiman. True, I am not a brilliant writer of comics, novels, and short stories (a form Gaiman is a master of and yet seems to get less credit for than his other work); I have not written the English adaptation of one of Miyazaki's films (Princess Mononoke); and I am not British.

However, Neil Gaiman and I are both fans of Stephen Sondheim, the composer and lyricist of the single most brilliant body of writing for musical theatre, including Company, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Follies, Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George, Assassins, and (my favorite) Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (among others).

In a recent post to his journal, Neil Gaiman writes that he has received and listened to the CD of Sondheim's latest play, his first since 1994's Passion, Bounce. "I don't dislike it," Gaiman says, "not even a little bit, which is a relief."

I haven't gotten the soundtrack yet, but I did see the show in Chicago, and it was one of the most depressing experiences in my theatre-going life. I am the sort of person who generally thinks Sondheim can do no wrong, and that if something seems wrong, it's probably my own lack of taste or intelligence. However, Bounce was so desperately dull that even I couldn't figure out much good to say about it. The direction, by Harold Prince (himself a legend), was worse than I've seen at some high schools. The only redeeming qualities were a couple of good actors, particularly Richard Kind, who gave a subtle and beautiful performance in a show completely devoid of subtlety and beauty.

However, this doesn't mean the soundtrack should be awful. Even at his worst, Sondheim is a better composer and lyricist than just about anyone currently working in musical theatre. Removed from Prince's cumbersome production and John Weidman's scattered and undeveloped book, Sondheim's music could, I imagine, stand on its own, though from hearing it once I don't think it will stand with his best work. I'll be curious to hear the CD, though.

Numerous critics have pointed out that Sondheim's career is a strange one, the career of a man who seems to be writing for the wrong genre. (Terry Teachout has a good essay on whether Sondheim is really a writer of opera in his Reader.) Standard musical theatre audiences don't know what to make of Sondheim shows, because the standard criterion for whether a musical is any good is if you can hum the tunes. (A criterion satirized at one point in one of Sondheim's best scores, Merrily We Roll Along.) Sondheim's music is a little bit more complex than that, his lyrics a bit more unpredictable.

And yet, by working in a marginal art form, one which many people would hesitate even to label art (the purpose of most musicals is entertainment and spectacle), Sondheim has been able to both influence that art form and develop new styles of his own. Had he chosen to become a composer for concert halls and piano recitals, Sondheim would have done interesting work, but there are plenty of composers out there more skilled and talented in those realms than he. Had he chosen to give up music and instead develop his verbal skills by becoming a poet, Sondheim would have, again, done some interesting work, but probably nothing to put him at the forefront of modern poetry. He is, though, the greatest living practitioner of musical theatre, one who has influenced everyone who has come after him. The reason for his success has been his luck at finding a genre best suited to his own peculiar interests and proclivities.

Certain writers within different literary genres have found similar kinds of success. Patricia Highsmith, for example, would not have been half as interesting a writer had she not simultaneously used and fought against the structures of crime fiction to the point that even an essentially mainstream novel like The Tremor of Forgery would not be half as interesting had it not been written by someone with a crime writer's concerns. The same could be said of Sondheim's best work -- Sweeney Todd is a masterpiece because it starts from the basic foundations of musical theatre and adds in elements of opera, grand guignol theatre, modern and classical composition, and metafictional storytelling. It could not have been written by a "more serious" artist who decided to dabble in musical theatre -- but it was written by a musical theatre artist who knows more than just musical theatre.