31 July 2004

A Conversation with Cheryl Morgan

Cheryl Morgan is currently nominated for two Hugo awards: for best fan writer and for her fanzine Emerald City. I've been reading Emerald City for a year or so, and corresponding with Cheryl for nearly as long, but knew very little about her. An interview, I thought, might clear some things up.

So I started out by insulting her.

I have the impression, which may be inaccurate, that you are Scottish but live in California. Should I have paid better attention and not make assumptions?
Yes, most definitely. My family is Welsh, but they had the bad taste to have me born just over the Severn Estuary in England. I know that many Americans don't know where Wales is, but if you think about how upset Canadians get when you describe them as American you'll understand how I react to the usual American habit of conflating Britain and England.

I have no connection with Scotland whatsoever, aside from being very fond of their whisky. I strongly recommend that you avoid all Scotsmen for the next few years as they will have taken your question above as a mortal insult to their people.

As for living in California, I used to, but since losing my job there I am now homeless again. I do still spend as much time as I can in California, but I cannot be legally resident there. Technically I am resident in the UK, but I can't afford a home here so I have to scrounge off family and friends.
Did Emerald City begin as a print fanzine, or has it always been on the Web?
Neither. Emerald City began when I had just moved to Australia. I wanted a way to keep in touch with folks back in the UK, and the new American friends I had made at the Glasgow Worldcon, so I started a fanzine. Not being able to afford to print it and post it around the world, I took to emailing it to people instead. Little did I know that I was treading on sacred fannish traditions by doing this. Some time later I discovered HTML and thought it might be fun to put the zine on the Web, thereby getting myself into even deeper trouble with fanzine fandom.
How has Emerald City evolved since its early days?
Well, it wasn't intended to be a book review magazine. I thought it would probably be more of a "Pom's view of Australia" thing. But I discovered that I enjoyed doing book reviews. Also I wanted to promote some of the really good Australian writers that I'd discovered. And probably the most significant evolution is that I've learned a lot about book reviewing.
You keep up a monthly schedule, and each issue is filled with reviews and interviews and news. A lot of work for one person. How do you still manage to go to conventions, do other work, and live?
I'm self-employed, and currently have very little work, so I have nothing else do to. And I am gradually sinking deeper into debt.
Various reviewers have certain creeds -- some won't review books they don't like, some won't review books they like, some see their job simply as telling readers whether a book is worth buying, etc. Do you have any such goals or taboos for yourself?
I try not to review books that I know I won't like. Everyone has their blind spots. Some books, no matter how well written, don't appeal. And other books, no matter how popular, don't fit my definition of a good read. Romance is a good example. I've tried reading Catherine Asaro, but I keep ending up wanting to slap the heroine round the head. I knew that my parents should never have let me read Swallows and Amazons when I was a kid. I did once say in the zine that I didn't review military SF because I didn't enjoy it. I got hate mail about that.
Are there any British books that haven't made it to the States that you think we should be more aware of? Any U.S. books you think non-U.S. readers should strive to find?
I'm pleased to see that M. John Harrison is now getting published in the US. The Course of the Heart, just out from Nightshade, is one of the best fantasy books ever written, and Light is a brilliant piece of SF. The British writers that the US is most missing out on right now are Justina Robson (whose Natural History recently placed second in the John W. Campbell Memorial Award) and Jon Courtenay Grimwood. However, both will be seeing publication from Bantam in 2005 and I look forward to US readers being able to enjoy their work.

The main problem for people outside of the UK is that they find it difficult to get hold of books published by small presses. Big name US writers such as Neal Stephenson, George RR Martin, Lois McMaster Bujold and Dan Simmons get re-printed around the world. But much of the best SF&F being published in the US today comes from publishers such as Prime, Nightshade, Small Beer and so on. Even specialist SF bookstores in the UK (of which there are very few left) tend not to carry that stuff. Some of the small press output doesn't even get onto Amazon UK.
Conventional wisdom is that meeting writers whose works you admire can be dangerous, since most good writers are not as interesting as their books are. Have you met any writers whom you like as much as their books?
I guess I must be unconventional then, because I find most writers to be very interesting people. I've got on well with almost all of the big name writers I have met. I should put in a special word here for John C. Wright who has been very friendly and gracious in email exchanges even though I panned his books. But I suspect that "conventional wisdom" comes out of the mainstream. I'm sure that readers are disappointed at discovering that not all thriller writers are like Hemmingway, for example, or that not all chick lit writers are drop-dead-gorgeous twenty-somethings with a string of male model boyfriends. The great thing about the SF&F community is that both writers and fans are fascinated by ideas. No one expects Larry Niven to have a lifestyle like Louis Wu, but they do expect him to know a bit about physics.
Do any current trends in SF&F excite or frighten you?
Squid. Squid are very exciting. And frightening. They taste good too.
Finally, who would you like to write the SF/F novel of your life?
Lyda Morehouse.

30 July 2004

Mumpsimus Cultural Concurrence Index

It all started with Terry Teachout, who created a kind of quiz for cultural elitists called "The Teachout Cultural Concurrence Index". He claimed later, once it had spread like syphilis through the blogosphere, that it was a joke, but a meaningful one. Indeed, it was. I liked it, but I'm a sucker. I scored somewhere around 50%, meaning I can expect to agree with Teachout about 50% of the time, which seems right.

Amardeep Singh created a version that made me feel like an idiot, because there were many items on it I didn't recognize. However, I liked his perspective, and am now seeking out some of the items I didn't recognize on the list.

I haven't seen a cultural concurrence index that quite encompasses my own tastes, though, so I thought I'd create one here to cause consternation and boredom. Here's a refresher on how it works: Choose an item either from the left or from the right. At the end, count up the left column (my choices) and subtract the sum of the right column from it, thus creating your MCCI. (Which is like MCI, but with a stutter.) The more items from the left you choose, the closer you will be to my own taste, and therefore the higher your score. If you skip some, just fudge it. This isn't an exact science, and I'm not a statistician.

Some of the choices will be easy for you, some will seem impossible, perplexing, unjust, horrifying, or humorous. They were designed to be so.

Note that you should choose things purely based on your own taste, not on what is considered most respectable or some other criterion outside of yourself. It's all about you. (Well, no it's all about me, and you disagreeing with me.) Many of the choices are ridiculous, but that's part of the fun. Here we go...
1. Isaac Asimov or Robert A. Heinlein
2. Stanley Kubrick or Steven Spielberg
3. Bach or Mozart
4. Ubik or Valis
5. Mieville or Tolkien
6. van Gogh or Monet
7. John Clute or Paul di Filippo
8. Edward Albee or Arthur Miller
9. Ani DiFranco or Alanis Morissette
10. "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" or "Friends"
11. The Nation or The New Republic
12. Truffaut or Godard
13. Peter Straub or Stephen King
14. Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman
15. Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet or Asimov's
16. Bartok or Schoenberg
17. Brazil or Blade Runner
18. Aristotle or Plato
19. E.E. Cummings or Ezra Pound
20. "Mork & Mindy" or Mrs. Doubtfire
21. Talking Heads or The Police
22. John Gielgud or Laurence Olivier
23. Anton Chekhov or Ivan Turgenev
24. cats or dogs
25. Thomas Pynchon or Arthur C. Clarke
26. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Adaptation
27. vegetarian or carnivore
28. Max Ernst or Jackson Pollock
29. The October Country or Dandelion Wine
30. Philip Glass or Yanni
31. Texas Chainsaw Massacre original or remake
32. Samuel Beckett or Neil Simon
33. Faulkner or Hemingway
34. Bakunin or Marx
35. Adrienne Rich or Robert Bly
36. Duck Soup or A Night at the Opera
37. R.A. Lafferty or Connie Willis
38. Hawthorne or Melville
39. Tom Lehrer or The Capitol Steps
40. Susan Sontag or Harold Bloom
41. NPR or CBS
42. Gomez or Wilco
43. Samuel R. Delany or David Foster Wallace
44. Mac or PC
45. Frida Kahlo or Diego Rivera
46. In the Bedroom or A Beautiful Mind
47. David Sedaris or Garrison Keillor
48. Ursula LeGuin or Charles DeLint
49. Pauline Kael or Roger Ebert
50. Paul Celan or Pablo Neruda
51. The 1960s or The 1940s
52. Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen
53. Philip Pullman or J.K. Rowling
54. Basho or Jack Kerouac
55. Stephen Sondheim or Andrew Lloyd Webber
56. Frank O'Hara or John Ashbery
57. Paul Bowles or Graham Greene
58. Schubert or Schumann
59. Dostoyevsky or Dickens
60. Orson Welles or John Ford
61. August Strindberg or Eugene O'Neil
62. Keaton or Chaplin
63. The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction or Galaxy
64. Short novels or long novels
65. Castle in the Sky or Princess Mononoke
66. Patricia Highsmith or Jim Thompson
67. David Lynch or Spike Jonze
68. William Gaddis or Saul Bellow
69. Bob Dylan or The Grateful Dead
70. Nebulas or Hugos
71. Fence or The Gettysburg Review
72. Jonathan Lethem or Dave Eggers
73. Toni Morrison or John Steinbeck
74. They Might Be Giants or Phish
75. Philip K. Dick or Frank Herbert
76. Sylvia Plath or Robert Lowell
77. coffee or tea
78. Rear Window or Vertigo
79. Rodgers & Hart or Rodgers & Hammerstein
80. Gore Vidal or Norman Mailer
81. tragedy or comedy
82. Angels in America or Rent
83. Swift or Pope
84. George Carlin or Howard Stern
85. Theodore Sturgeon or Hal Clement
86. Seven Samurai or Rashomon
87. Vladimir Nabokov or John Updike
88. Edward Whittemore or John LeCarre
89. Radiohead or The Cure
90. Goya or El Greco
91. Alice Munro or Raymond Carver
92. James Baldwin or Truman Capote
93. New York or Paris
94. J.M. Coetzee or Nadine Gordimer
95a. H.P. Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard
95b. Roald Dahl or Beverly Cleary
96. Annie Hall or Sleeper
97. Jello Biafra or Ralph Nader
98. Virginia Woolf or Arnold Bennett
99. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" or "The Wasteland"
100. Weird Tales or Amazing Stories
Update: I don't think my instructions make mathematical sense. Don't subtract anything. Just add up your left column answers, and there's your percentage. (And give yourself a freebie because of the two 95s).

Early results are in: Brian is recalculating, since he actually followed my instructions, but I think he'll be in the low 70s. He says I'm cruel. Indeed.

Gwenda has a 76. She suggests few of these are decisions worth dying for. True.

My life is now complete: Nick has answered, including some amusing emendations. And better than that, he's created his own.

Alan does his thing.

Graham is 62% of me. I like his intemperate comments. (And I, too, prefer juried awards. When I created the choice, I was only thinking of the general results over the past, say, 25 years. But feel free to interpret it however you want. This thing is best when most subjective.)

Jeremy Tolbert sings the praises of false dichotomies, offers some very funny running comments, then declares himself uncultured. We call it "differently cultured" around here, Jeremy!

Books I Haven't Read

At some point, those of us who love reading have to face the fact that we will die without having read everything we wanted to read, or even a majority of it. Were I to list all the classic books (whether classics of literature, classics of science fiction, classics of car repair) that I haven't read, I would look like an illiterate bumpkin. (Maybe I am an illiterate bumpkin...)

So, in that spirit, here are links to some good writings about books I haven't read:
The Cultural Gutter on Joe Haldeman's The Forever War

Peter Tsungen has three interesting posts about Italo Calvino's Time and the Hunter: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

MadInkBeard looks at Gilbert Sorrentino's Under the Shadow

Dave Schwartz on Alice in Jungleland, an extremely rare book written by the mother of Alice Sheldon (better known as James Tiptree, Jr.). Just for fun, I looked up what a copy of the book costs -- the best price I found was $195. I was glad to know Dave's copy is circulating through the Tiptree Auction at WisCon.

SF Signal reviews Ringworld's Children by Larry Niven

Finally, Eric Schlosser, whose books I've been meaning to read for a while, writes about Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang, a book I've read a few times.

27 July 2004

The Value of Zines

An interesting conversation has begun between Chris Barzak and Catherine M. Morrison about small press "zines" and what they add to a writer's bibliography. The dialogue begins with a post by Morrison about her own ways of perceiving writers, wherein she says:
Some folks have a huge list of pubs, but when you look at them 90% are smalltime 'zines with no whuffie. And that's when I think "oh, small time writer, going nowhere fast" and dismiss the person. On the otherhand if a writer had pruned the dreck and had listed a half dozen or a dozen solid pubs (which were buried under the crap), I probably would have looked at the list and been impressed, thought the person was possibly someone to look for.
Chris responds with some of his own thoughts, ones that elaborate on what Morrison wrote (it is, as I said, a conversation, not an argument). He says much that I liked, and even sticks his neck out for the executioner to take a look at:
One of the interesting things to note is how the editors of the print science fiction and fantasy magazines often say that their subscriptions are dwindling.  They wonder why.  Some have tried to remedy this by attempting to "go back to genre roots" so to speak, by publishing stories that are "center of the genre", with voices that harken back to not only a decade ago, but perhaps several decades previous.  I will be a bit of an ass here and publicly wonder if perhaps numbers in subscriptions dwindle because so often the stories being printed are speaking to a generation of readers who are dead.
Morrison replies and pretty well agrees with Chris, though doesn't put quite as much value on 'zines as he seems to:
I agree with Chris there aren't enough pro outlets for stories. I'm less convinced the 'zine culture is doing a great job of filling that gap. I don't think most of the editors of the 'zines have any sort of real editorial vision, in the way that a scappy little 'zine like LCRW does and can actually affect the publishing culture.
I haven't read too many zines beyond Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet and Flytrap, both of which are consistently worth reading, and the most recent issue of Electric Velocipede, which is very much worth the $4 cover price.

Those three publications are, indeed, ones with vision, and I'm sure there are others out there I don't know about. All three tend to look the same in their design, but they offer sometimes strikingly different content, particularly Electric Velocipede, which, if I can judge from only one issue, seems to specialize more in traditional SF/fantasy/horror stories than mixed-genre and non-SF works, though ones that would have a hard time getting into one of the major SF markets. That a magnificent story like "A Keeper" by Alan DeNiro would never be accepted by a major professional market says a lot about the lack of vision of the major markets, not the zines. (Actually, I can imagine Ellen Datlow of SciFiction giving the story a shot, depending on what else she had in inventory, since it's not too much farther out into the land of weird newness than Christopher Rowe's "The Voluntary State", one of the best stories SciFiction has published this year.)

Really, how something is published doesn't determine its quality -- saying something was published in a zine is pretty much like saying it was published on paper. It's similar with the web. We've reached a time when the term "webzine" includes everything from SciFiction, the highest-paying SF market, to Strange Horizons, Ideomancer, and Fortean Bureau to various smaller efforts and all the sites put up by 17-year-olds who want to publish softcore porn about Lord of the Rings characters. The term "zine" for print publications is narrower and so more useful, but as the major markets continue to atrophy, the alternative markets will only flourish -- if not in circulation, then certainly in the quality of work they are able to choose from, because too many good writers are alienated from the major markets.

26 July 2004

Hugo Voting

I just submitted my votes for the Hugo Awards to the good people at Noreascon. Yes, I'll be at WorldCon, at least for the weekend portion. I've actually never been to a science fiction convention before, because I don't tend to like conventions of any sort, but it's been a while since WorldCon last plopped itself down ninety minutes from where I live, so I didn't think I could get away with resisting this one.

Voting for the Hugos this year was difficult because, for the most part, I disliked most of the choices in every category except novelettes, and there I really wanted a tie between a few of them. I didn't vote for a novel, because I haven't read any of them, or any short dramatic presentation, because I hadn't seen any of them. The professional editor category was the easiest -- although in a perfect world, I think Gordon van Gelder of F&SF and Ellen Datlow of SciFiction would tie, I voted for van Gelder as #1 and Datlow as #2. I expect Gardner Dozois of Asimov's will win, though, not only because he tends to be the popular choice, but because his recent resignation from editing Asimov's will make people want to give him awards while they can. Since Asimov's dominates the short fiction nominations, perhaps this makes sense, but I enjoyed reading F&SF far more than Asimov's last year (and even more so this year), while SciFiction seems to get better and better (indeed, so far this year SciFiction has offered the most consistently excellent and interesting work by a major short fiction market, though F&SF has also continued to publish some interesting work in just about every issue).

It's all an amusing game, but I'm wary of taking any awards too seriously, much as I like analyzing them. I look forward to seeing the Hugo ceremony and offering applause and congratulations to everyone who wins, because ... well, because it's fun.

24 July 2004


For your weekend reading pleasure...

H.G. Wells: Wargamer

Giant Monster Blog (from Brian of Weirdwriter)

Trent Walters on I, Robot, with a bunch of links I'd been saving to put in a post myself once I got to see the movie. Now I can move on with my life. One thing Trent doesn't note: Asimov's title comes from a story by Eando Binder, published in the January 1939 issue of Amazing Stories and made into a 1964 Outer Limits episode with Leonard Nimoy.

Hugo Gernsback on the wonders of technocracy.

A thoughtful review of Dozois's The Year's Best SF collection.

Chinese fantasy art

Finally, can you live without your own Monty Python albatross? (via Gravity Lens)

23 July 2004


Jeff VanderMeer has called on bloggers to pause for a moment from their regular subject matter and take note of what is happening in Sudan. I've tried to keep political discussions to a minimum here, but I also think it's important occasionally to note what is going on in the real world.
"While the world debates, people die in Darfur," Kansas Republican Senator Sam Brownback was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.

"We actually could save some lives instead of lamenting afterward that we should have done something."
While we all may have different views on what the U.S. government's responsibility to the world is, or what our own individual responsibility is, at the very least we should not claim ignorance as a defense.
During a three-hour flight over Darfur, hundreds of blackened and scorched villages were starkly visible against the red desert. Mrs Mousa walked for three days to reach Kalma after the Janjaweed militia attacked her village, Shatee, west of the Mara mountains, two months ago.

"They came at dawn, at 4am. They came on horses, donkeys, camels and Land Cruisers. They burnt the houses and killed the men and many of the male children. I don't know if my husband is alive or dead."
Updated news from various sources is available at AllAfrica.com.

United Nations situation reports are available here.

Organizations such as Amnesty International, Oxfam, Unicef, and Africa Action are working in various ways to try to stop the massacres.

Update 7/25: I'm going to keep adding links here to good information and organizations. Kirsten Bishop suggested Christian Aid and Ecos Online for information.

Matt Peckham has suggested Human Rights Watch for both information and activism.

22 July 2004

"Old Tingo's Penis" by Geoffrey A. Landis

With a title like that, how could I resist?

Geoffrey A. Landis is best known as one of the better writers of "hard science fiction", but in this case ... well, you can fill in your own play on those words for this story, because I intend to write seriously for a serious audience, and I will not let myself become bogged down in puerile attempts at humor.

It's a little "just so" story that explains how men happened to come--

[Cough, sputter.] By writing this story, Landis may be throwing his credentials as a writer of scientifically credible work away, instead setting out on a quixotic, Lamarckian journey. Die-hard fans are likely to be disappointed, and I expect to hear accusations that Landis has sold out, and that his speculative abilities have become limp, his scientific imagination flaccid--

[Sputter, cough.] Despite all the amusement the story provides, there is an annoying assumption embodied in lines such as the following:
...back then men didn't have any penises yet. Nothing, just a flat spot between their legs. The women had to make their fun with each other, but since they didn't have anything to compare to, that was okay.
This is a remarkably heterosexist attitude, one that suggests this society had no lesbians and that once the penis was invented, women discovered pleasures they'd never known before (a common male fantasy). On the other hand, perhaps Landis has become a radical feminist, his text showing that the only thing women really value from men is their penises, and that men had to invent The Penis so that women would value their company. Such an interpretation may prick--

[Mutter, sigh.] Geoffrey Landis has written a story that is a kind of anthropological take on King Missile's classic song "Detachable Penis". I refuse to say anything more than that.

Update:I got so excited that I forgot to link to the story, but I've got it up now.

21 July 2004

Boy Genius by Yongsoo Park

A child genius on a TV show in a South Korea ruled by His Excellency the Most Honorable President Park ("who created the heavens and the earth and saw that it was good"). Tough young boys who are actually wild dogs in disguise. A surgical procedure that allows Asians to look like rich white Americans. A neighborhood near Manhattan called Bogota (site of the First Bogota War and the Bogota Accords, which are brokered by Harold N. Napalm, principal of P.S. 38). And everywhere, the threat of Communism.

This is the world of Yongsoo Park's jaunty, gonzo, and hallucinatory novel Boy Genius. When it came out in 2002, the word most often used to describe it was "surreal", and the book it was most frequently compared to was Candide. Both are accurate, but not entirely helpful.

Certainly, the novel is surreal. After all, the main character, Boy Genius, swims across the ocean at the end (and even gets swallowed by a whale that spits him out, conveniently, exactly where he was trying to go). But everything is described as "surreal" these days, and when everything from breakfast cereal to baseball games to Presidential speeches fits comfortably beneath one label, I get the urge to zoom in and clarify the terminology. I'll spare you the terminology this time, though, and simply say Boy Genius is a joy to read, because with zany humor and a fine economy of language, Yongsoo Park does what the best fantasy writers do: he creates a world where anything can happen, and yet everything that does happen somehow feels appropriate to the imagined universe.

The comparisons to Candide are apt in the sense that the novel is picaresque in structure and style, its characters are little more than cartoons, and it has certain satiric purposes. Candide is a bleaker book, though, and one that gives a sense of a coherent philosophy and worldview. Boy Genius is different in being more social, less philosophical -- its greatest satiric success, it seems to me, is that the setting is a world wherein various racial, financial, and political stereotypes are treated as if they are realistic, so that though the reader experiences them with plenty of irony, none of the characters seem to. (Of course, I should note here that the novel is a first-person narrative, and the narrator is vehemently unreliable, so there's no way to establish the exact nature of the world outside of his mind. For all we know, he could be a mental patient hallucinating in a hospital. Lacking evidence of this, however, it's probably best just to read the book on the terms it establishes.)

Boy Genius himself is completely paranoid, and though at the end of the book we are given some reason to doubt his paranoia as being justified, passages such as the following, which comes at the point where his life first gets difficult, let us think his paranoia is perfectly reasonable:
He thrust a stack of forms before me and slapped the top page. "Those documents will prove that your perspective never existed. You never met with His Excellency the Most Honorable President Park or me or anyone related to our noble democratic republic that upholds the uncontestable merits of democracy, human rights, anti-communism, and free enterprise. You know nothing about the abduction of parliamentarians who have never disappeared or the alleged disappearance of other commie bastards and North Korean stooges who have disturbed our peace and threatened our stability. Nor do you know anything about the arrangements which we have not made with certain representatives of foreign nations and business leaders who do not exist. ... Do you understand what I have not said and what you have not heard in this room that does not exist?"
Boy Genius escapes from South Korea and ends up in Bogota, New York, where he becomes a ruffian until the tyrannical forces of P.S. 38 finally triumph over his rebellion. Eventually, having learned to be docile, he gets a job with Peace Now, "a small consulting firm that worked to guard corporations against theft", and though he becomes rich he realizes there are limits to how high he can climb in society, because of his Asian appearance -- "Were my face representing Peace Now," he says, "clients might mistake it for a Chinese restaurant." After some more adventures, he solves this problem with surgery that promises to cure "Middle Kingdom Syndrome", the symptoms of which are described for him by a concierge at the Enola Gay hotel in Hiroshima:
"No have big behind. No have very much facial hair. No have double fold over eye. No like spending money. No muscle tone. No have girlfriend. These all symptoms for Middle Kingdom Syndrome. Very very contagious disease. Spread by sexual intercourse. More than one billion people in China suffering from Middle Kingdom Syndrome right now."
Boy Genius soon discovers, though, that even when he's cured of Middle Kingdom Syndrome, he can't escape his past. Despite having essentially no character development and a magnificently absurd plot, the conclusion of Boy Genius is affecting, because it suggests various layers of meaning and elicits conflicting emotions. The details and rhythm of the final sentence are bittersweet.

Though nominated for an Asian American Literary Award and listed as a "Notable Book" by the Kiriyama Prize, Boy Genius does not seem to have gotten much notice in the literary world, perhaps because it was published by the small (but excellent) Akashic Books and so didn't have the opportunities for exposure that a larger publisher could provide. This is a shame, because the novel is considerably more interesting -- and fun -- to read than most of what is published by major presses.

18 July 2004

Four Recent Stories by Carol Emshwiller

Carol Emshwiller's work has remained remarkably consistent throughout her long career, though it is only recently that she has attained wide recognition for her writing -- or, rather, wider recognition, since her name is still not known as widely as a writer of her skill deserves. Early on, she was published a few times in Judith Merrill's Best SF anthologies, and she had a story in Dangerous Visions, but until the last few years it was perfectly understandable for even the most voracious readers of science fiction and fantasy to have read none of her strange and unsettling tales, and for a while she seemed to have abandoned SF markets, a tactic that allowed her to garner some grants and even a Pushcart Prize. She came back to SF, though, and has developed a devoted readership and finally won some of the awards she has long deserved.

Emshwiller's stories work best when a few are read together, because often she seems to use her stories to explore variations on themes. Four recent stories show this particularly well: two from SciFiction, "On Display Among the Lesser" and "Gliders Though They Be" could conceivably be set in the same universe, while "My General" from the second issue of Argosy and "The Library" from the August issue of F&SF take place in worlds ravaged by war. (Numerous recent Emshwiller stories explore the social and psychological effects of war.) Thematically, though, the four stories are much more closely related, exploring the possibilities and consequences of love between people of different cultures.

A simplistic and propagandistic approach to writing such stories would be to show that people from different cultures can learn to appreciate and love each other so as to be role models for everybody else. Emshwiller often begins her stories so that they could follow this route, but she lets her characters live in complex worlds, ones where love may be a pleasant and euphoric balm, but it is seldom a solution to much of anything when the world around the lovers remains destructive.

"On Display Among the Lesser" is the only one of these four stories where love triumphs, and it does so because the lovers escape the society that captured and tortured them, but do not return to their own society. Throughout the story, their love is shown to be not only pleasant but practical, because psychologically and physically they complement each other. They have attained freedom, because they are not subject to the requirements, expectations, or prejudices of the worlds they have left. They answer only to each other, and the only criterion of success is survival.

"Gliders Though They Be" offers a different view, one where, as in "On Display Among the Lesser", love is a motivation for tremendous accomplishment, but fate intervenes, and in the face of disaster, the person most valued is saved. Beauty sparked love (the singer's singing), and the society preserves the beauty for itself, allowing the lover to be carried off by an eagle. As he soars higher and higher toward his inevitable death, he is granted a greater vision of beauty than any of his people or his lover's people have ever had, but he is not granted a way to communicate that beauty.

"The Library" offers a similar view of possible transcendance. Here, love allows two people from societies that do not understand each other (a kind of cartoon Sparta versus a cartoon Athens) to develop patience, to try to understand. In some ways Emshwiller has stacked the deck in this story, making the peaceful culture of the librarians an appealing and beautiful one, and suggesting at the end of the story that this culture has a unique view into a transcendent heaven. Nonetheless, she doesn't let her characters off easily. For a brief time, they enjoy the same society-of-two that the characters in "On Display Among the Lesser" end with, but it is not a society that can be sustained, and the walls come tumbling down.

"My General" offers the bleakest variation on these themes, leaving us in a world so ruined by violence that love has no chance of conquering anything. Yet the love of a mother for her children does survive, and offers a certain hope for the future, so long as the children are not destroyed by the forces that destroyed their parents. The village overcomes its prejudice against the narrator's son, whose father is an enemy soldier, because men are useful, particularly as cannon fodder. The violent world makes all decisions grimly pragmatic, and in such an environment emotions only get in the way -- and, in the case of the narrator's treatment of the general, deadly.

The landscape of war has brought a complexity to Emshwiller's fiction that has sometimes been absent in the past. "On Display Among the Lesser" and "Gliders Though They Be" are accomplished and interesting stories, but they lack the power of "My General" and "The Library". The latter in particular seems to me to be one of the best stories Emshwiller has published recently, a story that rewards careful rereading, because it explores enough emotional and philosophical territory for a novel. The other three stories offer clear and not particularly ambiguous endings, but the conclusion of "The Library" answers fewer questions than it raises, exploding the implications of the story far beyond where they were a page before.

(For more explorations of Emshwiller's short fiction, see Trent Walters's consideration of "Boys", another war story, and L. Timmel Duchamp's in-depth reading of two early Emshwiller stories.)

15 July 2004


I've only had time to read very short things recently, and of the very short things I've read, the only ones I think I should point out are those of Colleen Lindsay on her deadlanguages blog. Colleen is probably better known as an editor than a fictioneer or poet, and her La Gringa blog is known and cherished by many readers. deadlanguages has existed since April, but I only stumbled upon it this week. There isn't a tremendous amount of content there yet, but there are a couple of good pieces, including the story "Parcels" and two odd little "Word Exercises".

14 July 2004

Chekhov and Perception

I promised a couple of weeks ago to write some posts about Anton Chekhov to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his death, and so, to at least begin keeping that promise, here are a few small thoughts about Chekhov and the nature of perception within some of his works.

Consider the stories I said in that first post I would discuss: From the early stories written as little more than comic filler in newspapers ("The Telephone", "After the Fair") to the somewhat more developed stories soon after ("Dreams", "Kashtanka"), to the mature masterpieces ("Gusev", "Ward No. 6"), one of the central subjects of Chekhov's short stories is the way characters perceive the world, and how their perceptions can conflict.

Ideological critics have often twisted themselves into all sorts of interpretive contortions to prove that Chekhov stands for one philosophy or another in his work, but while his biography and his letters prove him to have been deeply humane and thoughtful, even his least significant stories and plays keep from endorsing any one position. This is one reason Chekhov can be frustrating to readers who first encounter him. He was profoundly interested in people and their interactions, an interest that often kept him from creating stories with traditional plots, though as such stories as "Ward No. 6" show, he was perfectly capable of weaving complex and satisfying plots. Plot was, though, for him a tool to illuminate the characters, and if it wasn't a necessary tool for a particular story, he dispensed with it. Perhaps "dispensed with it" is too extreme, for though Chekhov's work can certainly feel plotless, it is not necessarily so. The plot simply becomes less about external events than about encounters, both social and psychological. There is plenty of drama in Chekhov, but often the obvious drama is not particularly important or resonant, while a suggested drama is. (The Cherry Orchard, his final play, which is now 100 years old, is a perfect example of this sort of effect. Anyone who thinks the play is about the sale of a cherry orchard, or even the effect of the sale on Ranyevskaya and the other characters, will likely find the play uninteresting. Once you realize it is about various people coming to grips with time, change, and mortality, then it starts revealing some of its wonders.)

Perception is everything in Chekhov, whether it's being used for a purely comic effect as in "The Telephone" (a marvelous sketch about the perils of new technologies) or for more dramatic effect, as in the other stories. Chekhov is often cited by die-hard writers of realism, but he was only partially a realist, in that he was, indeed, interested in "the real world", yet he was willing to use many different techniques and styles as he tried to capture some sense of what it means to be alive. "After the Fair" is only one of many early stories that does not use a standard narrative structure, but rather utilizes the ability of fiction to imitate other forms of writing to convey meaning. I'm especially fond of that particular story because it tells so much so efficiently -- scraps of paper with a brief introduction framing the situation, all of which could have been fodder for novels by numerous other writers. And yet to the reader willing to commit her or his imagination to the story, the reader willing to let the fragments grow into a shadow and the shadow into a small universe, it is an emotionally affecting piece of writing. Not tremendously unique in terms of its situation, by any means, but the nature of the telling, the placing of the reader in the same position as the off-stage wife, is clever and touching -- more so than many stories twice its length.

In "Kashtanka" we have a story told from the point of view of a dog, a story that has been popular both with children and with critics of all types, who desperately try to place some sort of grand interpretation on it (for a marvelous chronicle and critique of these critics, see the first chapter of Kataev's If Only We Could Know). The story doesn't need any grand interpretation, though: it just needs readers who, like the children it is so popular with, will sympathize with the tale being told. If we do so, we might look a little differently at the world for a few minutes.

"Dreams" and "Gusev" are two favorites of mine, though I must admit to being utterly incapable of writing about them with any depth. They astound me too much, and they move me too deeply. Were every story in the world to disappear but those two, I would probably not mind very much. Both are about perception, about suffering, about living, and both are written so carefully that even the clunkiest translations convey something beautiful. The ending of "Gusev", in particular, seems to me to be one of the greatest bits of prose ever written, not merely for its language, because I don't read Russian and so can't judge the actual language, but for what it accomplishes within the scope of the story itself. A body is thrown overboard, and then the universe expands for the reader, since previously the story has been often claustrophobic in its intensity. It's a tour de force just for that opening up, but then when we begin to think how the choice of ending the story this way relates to the philosophical problems of the story ... the effect is breathtaking.

"Ward No. 6" is a somewhat more literal exploration of perception, and some critics have slighted it for being contrived. But contrived stories don't get much better than this one, where the mechanics of the plot work smoothly and flip not only the circumstances of some of the characters, but the reader's expectations, and do so in a way that isn't gimmicky, but is, rather, quite disturbing. Regardless of how many times I've read this story, I always find something unsettling in it that I didn't notice before, while things that bothered me before, details that lodged in my brain like tacks, seem more benign. The last time I read it, it was Sergey Sergeyitch's pious praying in the chapel over the body that got me: the blind loyalty to an irrational god while faced with the evidence of the irrationality ... and yet is it really irrational? In some ways, I thought, this is one of the most rational stories ever written. Coldly, horribly so. And so we have a rational god sanctifying -- but then the two final, horribly abrupt sentences shut down my overthinking. Two tremendously matter-of-fact sentences. Two of the loneliest sentences I know.

Thank You for Hitting Me

Well, according to SiteMeter, since August 19 of last year, there have now been more than 20,000 hits to this site. No, that doesn't mean 20,000 people have read this site or anything -- SiteMeter tends to count hits from search engine spiders, and my IP address changes frequently enough that it doesn't always ignore my own visits -- but I think there are about 100 regular readers out there, and so I thought I'd take this opportunity to thank you all. If you'd told me a year ago I'd actually have an audience for this endeavor, I'd have thought you needed a hole drilled in your skull. (Ahh, the lost art of trepanning!) Thank you for putting up with my inevitable inconsistencies, irresponsible thoughts, half-completed ideas, and dead links. I'll do my best to continue at least being a mildly amusing diversion between porn sites and spam.


12 July 2004

Elitists of the World, Unite!

Nick Mamatas has already given something close to a definitive reply to a new article at Strange Horizons, "The SciFi Superiority Complex: Elitism in SF/F/H" by Tee Morris, but there are a few small points I'd like to add at the risk of merely reiterating more blandly what Nick has already said.

Either I'm too tired these days to make sense of a logical progression of thoughts (quite possible), or Morris does not make a coherent point. I can live without coherent points if an essay is otherwise stimulating, and this one certainly tries, but I couldn't get enough of a grasp on much that was in it. Apparently, it is elitist not to like bad movies, and worse than that, it is elitist to proclaim that bad books are not worth my time.

Anyone who is incapable of seeing a qualitative difference between Shakespeare and H.G. Wells -- never mind Shakespeare and Stephen King -- has not developed any sort of aesthetic judgment other than "Imaginary islands are cool." If you like Wells or King more than Shakespeare, that's your business, but you shouldn't expect to be taken very seriously by anyone who has spent much time considering the merits of various works of literature any more than I should be taken seriously if I say I can't tell the difference between one Division One college basketball team or another. All such games are equally entertaining to me, because I don't know enough about the game to be able to discern the difference between competent, good, great, and genius-level playing. (And basketball's easier than aesthetics in that it, at least, has clear statistics and scores.)

There is a difference between elitism and snobbery, at least in terms of taste. Anyone who continually seeks to educate themselves should strive to be an elitist, should strive to learn more, to think more carefully and critically. There's no need to be a snob about it, though, to say someone is a bad person for reading Stephen King or Danielle Steele, for watching Revenge of the Killer Asparagus from My Daughter's Armpit and finding it more entertaining than, say, Shoah. Plenty of great people have bad taste, plenty of war criminals have good taste. (If you want to explore this idea, read Wallace Shawn.)

Finally, the article is fundamentally incoherent because Morris sees subject matter as some sort of aesthetic criterion. The subject of a piece of writing or a movie does not determine whether the work is worthwhile. Yes, some subjects may be inherently more interesting to individual readers and viewers than others, but that's irrelevant. How the subject matter is handled, how it is shaped and presented to the audience, how it conveys whatever it conveys -- that is what makes one creation better than another, and that is what people should be arguing about.

11 July 2004

Books to Look At

The physicality of a book is not, generally, as important to me as the text. I go to most books for the words they contain, and though I would love to be able to afford beautiful rare editions, prudence and necessity have led me to choose to own many cheap books rather than a few expensive ones. However, I do have a few volumes that I venerate as much for their design as for their content.

To that latter list I must now add McSweeney's Issue 13, a comics issue guest edited by Chris Ware. If you want to know about the content, read Matt Peckham's thorough review. (I know almost nothing about comics, so I defer to Matt, who is quite well read in that area.) All I can say is I bought the book because more than one review said it was beautiful, and I wanted some beauty that day. For the cost of a regular hardcover book (a bit less than most, actually), you, too, can possess a thing of beauty. I wondered for a little while whether anyone who actually knows things about comics would find it as fun to leaf through (and unfold) as I do, but Matt's review answers that question.

I also recently got review copies of the first two books in a series of British fantasies for kids that are only now being published in the U.S., the Edge Chronicles. The stories are engaging, though episodic, but the design -- including the copious illustrations by Chris Riddell -- is what sets these books apart from many others. Some examples of the illustrations are available at the series' website, though that can offer only a flat glimpse at the real joy of the books, which is in their design and layout, the way the text wraps around the pictures, the feel of the paper. To their credit, Random House didn't use ultra-cheap methods of producing the books, and so they are a joy to read not only for the stories, but for the books as objects in their own right. They aren't as lovely as many small-press books, but they are a pleasant surprise coming from one of the profit-first conglomerated behemoths that dominate the world of publishing.

10 July 2004

Considering Mieville

Adam Lipkin's review of China Mieville's new novel, Iron Council, despite some over-the-top pronouncements ("Mieville is just an abhorrently boring and pretentious novelist") offers a concise window into the strengths and weaknesses of one of the most popular, talented, and frustrating fantasy writers to come along in decades. (Jeff VanderMeer's Washington Post review of Mieville's previous novel, The Scar, raises similar questions about Mieville's strengths and weaknesses, though VanderMeer's tone is more balanced than Lipkin's.)

After reading the review of Iron Council, I read some of Lipkin's other reviews, paying particular attention to what he had to say about works I was familiar with. He's well read and thoughtful, a sensitive reader, and some of the more hyperbolic and general statements in his review could be ascribed to a few causes, not the least of which being Mieville's popularity. This is a writer who doesn't get too many bad reviews, who has a cult of fans, who has been hailed as a savior of everything from fantasy literature to socialism to humanity itself.

Being occasionally given to excessive, hyperbolic statements myself, I can forgive Lipkin his Dale Peck moments, because the fundamental complaint (obscured by his approach) is one we should pay attention to: Mieville could be a truly great writer, but his writing is so often unfocused and undisciplined that the occasional moments of brilliance -- sometimes a brilliance unparalleled by any living writer I know of -- seem all the more miraculous.

To a greater extent than with other writers, each of us sees Mieville's particular strengths and weaknesses differently. Lipkin hated Perdido Street, while I found most of it engaging and considerable sections of it utterly enthralling. Jeff VanderMeer (and, I should note, zillions of other readers) hated the first 100-150 pages of The Scar, while that was the only sustained section of the book I found captured my imagination, partly because it was the beginning and my hopes were high, but also because the latter part of the book felt like one battle after another, followed by interminable descriptions and exposition, useless digressions, hazy and downright goofy writing -- ugh, I don't want to think about it. Plenty of readers thought the book better than Perdido Street.

It may be that Mieville's incontrovertible strengths are what lead every person who reads him to value him differently. I, and I trust many other people, would identify those strengths as his prodigious imagination and his mixing elements of fantasy, science fiction, horror, pulp adventure stories, political philosophy, and whatever other style of writing that floats toward his pen, allowing a great range to his novels. Those two strengths are what we all respond to with greater or lesser pleasure, and it may be because Mieville's imagination is so fertile that his judgment is so weak; he seems incapable of telling the difference between an evocative, breathtaking idea/plot device/sentence and a dull or silly one. Yet the range is large enough, the amount of ideas so high, that there is something for nearly every sort of reader now and then. At the same time, near whatever strikes their fancy, sensitive readers are likely to find something to annoy them. Or readers may simply find Mieville's unstructured excess overwhelming. (Not everybody who writes too much in too many different styles at once can be a genius like Melville, after all.)

I'll be curious to read The Iron Council, because I very much want Mieville to become something other than the Thomas Wolfe of speculative fiction, desperately seeking an editor to give shape to his imaginings, to reign in his worst writing, to sculpt the masterpieces hidden within his messes. On the other hand, Mieville may simply be what he is, and more discipline could constrict the vitality of his vision. I certainly hope not, because such vitality is exactly what fantasy fiction needs these days.

07 July 2004

Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke: A Googlism Poem

Life has gotten suddenly busy, so I haven't had the mental stamina to do much hereabouts, but my brain is numb enough to create a poem about the "big three" science fiction writers (Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke) from phrases culled from Googlism:
Isaac Asimov is the original quidnunc,
your guide as you probe space
against Reagan's Star Wars,
though Isaac Asimov is not actually there.

Isaac Asimov is dead.

Robert Heinlein is not someone whose views
I would think anyone wanted to quote in
Siamese tights fetish pics.

Right in the center of this group photo
Tom Clancy takes refuge in Buckingham Palace
and Robert Heinlein is the gnarly midget boggled by Peking
(Buck Rogers moves to Siberia).

Robert Heinlein is the slippery large insertions;
Robert Heinlein is the fat chubby naked men.

The archdean was attacked by Uranus
if Robert Heinlein is to be believed
or imitated by Hollywood.
He tortures the nipple trainer.

Robert Heinlein is my favorite author,
a big mistake.

Robert Heinlein is dead.

Arthur C. Clarke is best known
for his 2001 unusual birthday presents.

Arthur C. Clarke is a British world,
often given credit for the geostationary orbit
worth paying attention to
for a multitude of reasons.

One of the truly prophetic figures of the space age,
chancellor of the International Space University
and the University of Moratuwa,
Arthur C. Clarke is one of the first
guests in the Hilton Orbiter

Arthur C. Clarke is alive and well and living in paradise.

04 July 2004

Max Ernst's Collage Novels

The invaluable Giornale Nuovo has a new post about Max Ernst's collage novels (and an older post about Une Semaine de Bonte, ou, Les Sept Elements Cardinaux (A Week of Kindness, or, the Seven Deadly Elements), his greatest such novel, which is available in a good online version).

These images have influenced various artists, writers, and filmmakers, including China Mieville, who called it "The best comic strip of all time. The best illustrated book of all time. The best sustained work of surrealism of all time. A magisterial whodunwhat, full of little deaths and high adventure, insurrection and freedom."

Some people wonder if such a thing as Une Semaine de Bonte can really be categorized as a novel. I don't tend to worry about it, but if I did, I might suggest that "novel" is different from "collage novel", although I can't at the moment think of any reason why the distinction matters. It is what it is, and what it is is wonderful.

Update: Giornale Nuovo continues to explore Ernst's collages.

02 July 2004

A Little Linkage

Three diversions for the day:
The Tacky Postcard Archive: Hideously hilarious -- and you can email them! (via Plep)

The Word Spy: Words that have recently been sighted lurking at the edges of the language...

The Language Construction Kit: Because you've mastered Klingon and Elvish and want to create your own.

A Conversation with Alan DeNiro

I first discovered Alan DeNiro's work when I read the first of the Ratbastards chapbooks. Over the next few months, I found myself corresponding with Alan about the possibilities and limits of contemporary fiction and poetry. It's not often you find somebody who can discuss definitions of hard science fiction and space opera along with the poetry of Lorine Niedecker and Jack Spicer.

The release of a third Ratbastards chapbook gave me an excuse to drag Alan into a public interview.

First, a bit o' bio: Alan De Niro has been published by Strange Horizons, Fence, Minnesota Monthly, Trampoline, and Polyphony 3. He runs Taverner's Koans ("A One-Room Schoolhouse of Experimental Poetics"), is a founding members of The Ratbastards, and has been shortlisted for such awards as the O. Henry.

If, for some perverse reason, you're interested in more of my thoughts on his writing, I wrote a post about his story "Tetrarchs" in May.

And now for some conversation...

What were your goals when you put together the first Ratbastards chapbook? Have those goals changed at all?
Although I can't speak for everyone, I think we were trying to create, and still are, little islands of misfit toys. Or, er, stories. Stories that, for whatever reason, might be hard to place elsewhere, that were just off, but in a good way...

The big and obvious difference is that the editorial process changes when you're looking outward to try to fill slots. The first chapbook with our own work was a good first step in that way; it let us get our feet wet with actually having a physical product out there, and I think it helped us gain confidence for the subsequent works.

Another goal has had a lot to do with recent zine culture and how that has affected the science fiction community. Although this isn't earthshattering or anything, it's interesting how the specific types of production have had a direct effect on the aesthetic experience itself. E.g., the pulp digests were, and are, coming from a specific cultural context, and that context shapes the reading experience, and what ought to be put in between those pages. It's not the only factor, of course, and editors work against the grain of that all the time. But it's there and to be reckoned with. The zines are coming from a much different place, and I think in some ways a more generous place. Seedlings for an alternative community within the field that couldn't be easily pinned down (which is, of course, overlapped and accretive with other communities within the field). Lady Churchill's has had a profound effect on the field not only because of the high caliber of fiction it was producing, but it broke out of The Matrix of "high pay rates = high quality of work". (Not that I think that Gavin and/or Kelly are Keanu Reeves-esque or anything).

Anyway, in an odd way it was hearkening back, too, to the mimeographic fanzine tradition of older SF, which I'd known nothing about (and still don't know nearly enough about that as I ought to), which was a big topic at the Wiscon panel on zines in 2001. It was after that panel and Wiscon that we decided to try to put something out there. So for lack of a better term, the cheapness of the whole project, on one level, is also empowering.

I hope that we're putting out off-kilter stories that catch people's attention, and that we keep doing it in conjunction with a lot of other great zines out there. And that certainly hasn't changed from the first Rabid Transit.

But there's a difference, isn't there, between digests like Analog and F&SF?
Sure, but that has to do with the content itself. The physical product and the packaging are still an uber-framing device for the stories. (Although F&SF has some pretty nice covers more often than not.) Typography and production matters -- whichever direction you want to go with it.

Look at Third Alternative -- sometimes its design goes a little overboard in terms of readability, but on the whole it's a visually striking magazine. I think that goes a long way in providing a vibe (wow, did I say that word) in approaching the fiction, which leans towards the edgy as well. Which, again, isn't to say that other digest-sized magazines are metaphysically incapable of putting out bracing, intriguing work. But the framing devices often determine how that work is received -- coldness, warmth, or indifference.

Now for a thought experiment about reading...

Imagine two people (I'll call them Gertrude and Robert, though those may not be their real names or genders, given that they're imaginary constructs): Gertrude has an MFA from a prestigious creative writing program, subscribes to ten literary magazines (as well as Poets & Writers), and secretly thinks everything she's ever written is, well, boring.

Robert didn't finish college, though he spent enough time to major in five different subjects (everything from acting to zoology) at a prestigious school of some sort, and he is a voracious reader of science fiction whose prized possession is a personal rejection letter from Gardner Dozois at Asimov's. He has published a couple of stories in the SF field, but he feels that his writing is lacking something, and he's even discovered that most of what he reads doesn't particularly excite him anymore. He spends far too much time playing X-box now and trying to discover web links that Cory Doctorow will pick up for Boing Boing.

Anyway, the question: What would you suggest for these two people to read?
Vague Anthropomorphic Entity #1: Jonathan Carroll (particularly Bones of the Moon and Sleeping in Flame), Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree Jr., The Night We Buried Road Dog by Jack Cady, The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories by Gene Wolfe, Ring of Swords by Eleanor Arnason, Lafferty in Orbit by R.A. Lafferty, China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh, Gateway by Frederick Pohl.

Vague Anthropomorphic Entity #2: The Angle Quickest for Flight by Stephen Kotler, Justine by Lawrence Durrell, Super Flat Times by Matthew Derby, The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance by Richard Powers, The Arabian Nightmare by Robert Irwin, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender, Emporium by Adam Johnson, The Stories of TC Boyle, The Sea Rabbit by Wendy Walker, The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier.

Set one could be easily interchanged with set two and vice versa.

Does your attention to poetry, and your writing of it, affect your fiction?
I've been thinking about this a lot -- that maybe there's some kind of undersea cable that connects the two. Well, let me backtrack, I think there are two ways to answer this question.

First, on a purely craft level, learning the "basics" of writing poetry is extremely useful with an apprenticeship with fiction writing: attentiveness to language, concision when it's called for, knowing when to stop and let the absences kind of breathe on their own. I'd always written fiction here and there -- though I thought of myself as a "poetry writer" from high school right to when I finished my MFA. That was the point I stopped writing poetry for a good year or two and started plunging into the thickets of fiction, particularly science fiction, magic realism, experimental fiction, etc. etc., whatever. And it was always a matter of compartmentalizing the two different parts of my head -- I'd either be in a "fiction mode" or "poetry mode" and rarely the twain would meet. It's only been in the last, say, two years or so that I've been worried less about "mode" I'm in, and just tried to be a writer instead of a poet or fiction writer. And so on many days science fiction feels to me like a form of poetry that happens to be in sentences instead of lines. A lot of this has had to do with reading more Language poetry and other recent work that has been spun off from it in the last decade. And other branches from the tree -- poets influenced by Jack Spicer, for example. The British poet J.H. Prynne has been another huge influence on me, both in the fiction and poetry. I mean, with Jack Spicer -- God, talk about a poet steeped in science fictional and mythic iconography. But never in a cloying, stilted way.

And there's something there, a similar attraction to both forms (experimental, Language-based poetry and science fiction) that's difficult for me to pin down, though I know it's there, even though they might seem like radically different ways to go about it, they rupture consensus reality in similar ways. To use an oversimplification, they both show that language can create worlds. Delany's talked about how science fiction is a way of reading as much as anything else, and there's something attractive about that, that poetry and science fiction (by the way, I'm using SF as a very very wide blanket term for a lot of different fiction that I like, some of which may or may not be set in the future...ok, disclaimer over) are orientations or alignments of the mind more than anything else. They provide methods to interpret textures in language.

Well, to what purpose? And I guess that's the kicker to this rather long-winded answer. To what purpose? Not to crank them out for their own sake, hopefully.

Whether I write a poem or a story, they're both coming from the self. Which might seem self-evident, but with science fiction in particular, it's not, because there is all of this cultural baggage, er, I mean, architecture, about the requirement that the stories reflect, and at best inform, empirical realities. I mean, what does story X involving hard science (just as an example) tell us about the person who wrote it? Not the ideas and the historiography, but the person.

I like reading stories and poems where you get the sense that the writer needed to write something; kind of like how some Replacements songs are always on the verge of falling apart, that there's this desperation. It's that falling apart-ness that is in itself an emotional argument. Poets (well, many of the poets I like) are very good at letting the frayed edges show. Someone like David Bunch did the same; he had the confidence to risk total chaos in his stories.

This goes beyond stylistic ornamentation -- someone could write a very minimalist story that has this edginess and passionate precision. And maybe that's what's so fascinating -- that working in very material forms (which I consider SF and poetry to be, although in different ways) allows for a really rich symbol-set for exploring personhood. What does a planet mean? What does an alien mean? What happens when you let them become, say, your inner demons or the staging area for your own pathos or your late night terror about dying? We all have odd ways of looking at the world, we all have really hermetic sensibilities that we rarely put out in the open -- both poetry and SF are superb vessels for doing just that. So maybe that's how I see SF as a form of prose poetry. Bruno Schulz did this quite well with Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hour Glass.

But there's more to fiction (and poetry) than symbol-making, isn't there?
Absolutely. The symbols themselves have to breathe, jitter, do cartwheels, whatever. They have to position themselves in relation to other symbols. So maybe it's syntax-making instead of symbol-making.

How do you know when you're writing well?
When I finish a story or poem. I have a horrible inclination to leave things unfinished. Whether I'm revising a piece well is, of course, a whole other question, and that's not easy to feel around either. I think it's harder to know when you're revising well, even though that might be even more crucial than writing a first draft well.

Do you have any particular approach to revision?
Not really. I just keep printing out the story, make line edits, and make the changes, and print the story out again. Also as a half-revision step: when I type the story into the computer in the first place (I've been writing most of my stuff by longhand the last year or so). It's technically just word processing, but I can get in a zone just transcribing words and little things that I didn't notice before pop out at me. (So much of revision is typography! Seeing the words in different ways.)

I'm not in any sort of writing group, which is both good and bad, I guess. But it's been valuable in some ways to muck around on my own through a story for the first few drafts. I have some first readers that I rely on a lot who are invaluable; my wife has a huge influence on me in this regard. We're both very different types of writers, and we help balance each other out.

Daniel Green has suggested that the picaresque is a form that has nearly been lost to contemporary fiction writers, and that we might be able to broaden our sense of what is or isn't a viable story if more writers were to experiment with it. What kind of thinking will help writers (and readers) discover interesting structures for their work?
I'm not sure the picaresque will ever be lost, although it will certainly be mutated. Is Lethem's Amnesia Moon a picaresque novel? Maureen McHugh's Mission Child? The picaresque always works well with absurdities, and I don't think life is going to get any less absurd any time soon. Literary tradition and historical circumstance, that intersection of the old and the new, will more than provide enough soil to dig into. It's just a matter of reading a lot and being attentive to little permutations in different ways to tell stories, or even to interrupt or thwart them once in awhile. Reading stories in translation is also certainly a good way to discover interesting structures -- things that might seem quite wild to our eyes but fairly normal in other cultures. Those arcs might turn into rollercoasters or steep, unending plummets or ascents -- whether it "works" or not is up to the writer, what he or she does with it, not the structure itself.

Do you think there are any elements that are essential to fiction? (People have suggested conflict, change, etc.)
Nah. Useful, sometimes very useful, but not essential.

What, then, distinguishes fiction from poetry or essays?
Ok, so we can say that fiction is (a) prose, and has sentences instead of lines; and (b) a portion, or all of the shit therein, is made up. Those are the essential elements. Everything else is fair game in terms of structural elements. But even this doesn't really satisfy me; what about fiction created to be treated as if it's nonfiction (e.g., some religious texts)? Obviously I'm just stumped, and sounding dorkier by the sentence. But I think that fictive forms are very malleable, and in different cultures have entirely different uses.

What about audience? Isn't it pretentious and arrogant of writers to use structures and techniques that alienate their audience?
Everyone's pretty much alienated from everyone else. I don't mean that in a pessimistic way. For the most part going through day to day we skate over the surface of our inner lives (our under-lives). Obviously, nothing wrong with that, that's the consensual reality that we live in. But deeper in there are a lot of un-understandable things, fragile things. Writing is a way to move to where that estrangement and fragility is, not to capture it but to be aware of the fact that it exists at all. It might unlock something in the reader, it might not, who can say. It's good to know what other people think but not to worry about it too much, except maybe as a personal bar to work against the grain of audience expectations once in awhile.

This is not to say that "difficult" writing is inherently uncommunicative -- far from it. (Difficult can mean many things, by the way -- the stories I've been writing lately have been both plainer and more hermetic). But if the writer can put something out there that is dense, textured, and nuanced, maybe it has a greater durability in the long run. Maybe.

01 July 2004

Awards News

Winners from two awards have been announced recently: The Locus Awards and The Wooden Rocket Awards (for online SF & Fantasy).

Congrats especially to Neil Gaiman for his multiple Locus Awards (I will be circulating a petition at WorldCon to rename all this year's awards "The Gaiman") and to Wooden Rocket runners-up Cheryl Morgan (the Empress of Emerald City) and Revolution SF, where Jayme Lynn Blaschke is fiction editor. (I know they got runnered-up for more than fiction, but Jayme's the only person there I've had any contact with, so I figure he can pass the congrats along.)

One odd things about the Wooden Rockets: the award for "Best Fan Site Homepage" is the only one that allows blogs, thus making winner Teresa Nielen Hayden and runners up Bruce Sterling and Jeff VanderMeer into "fans". I suppose they are, in some sense, but I tend to think of all three as slightly more than that...

Another note about the Wooden Rockets: Jed Hartman notes that the award wasn't supposed to be given out this early, so some people didn't get a chance to vote. Odd, that. Well, congratulations all around in any case.

Update 7/2/04: Cheryl has some questions.

Jeff VanderMeer at SF Site

SF Site has posted an interview I did with Jeff VanderMeer, as well as a short excerpt from the title story of Secret Life.