21 September 2004


I'm going to take a pause from blogging for a week or two, because I'm a little afraid of ending up like this, I've got some things I need to write for other venues, and my day/night/weekend job of teaching is eating up most of my spare time. I promise to return soon and not end up like the perpetually-soon-to-reappear Moby.

I trust that I've got enough other sites listed in the sidebar that you won't have too much trouble finding things to read while I'm away.


16 September 2004

Horses Blow Up Dog City review

The new issue of SF Site is now alive and kicking in the cybersphere, and it includes my review of Richard Butner's Horses Blow Up Dog City & Other Stories, yet another Small Beer Press chapbook I like. Read the review to find out why. Or just continue on in blissful ignorance.

Also, the good people at Small Beer have sent word that Richard Butner will be appearing at Internationalist Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina tonight at 8pm with David Connerley Nahm. If I were near Chapel Hill, I would go, as, I'm sure, you would, too.

15 September 2004

Caribbean Storms

Tobias Buckell, a native of Grenada and a fine writer, has made a plea on his weblog:
In Grenada 90% of all the houses there are badly damaged, and no one is sure how many of those are habitable (estimates range). Winds were in excess of a steady 140 miles an hour, one of the largest storms to hit the larger Caribbean area. Grenada has a population of 90,000, and is a small country dependent on nutmeg, bananas, some small industry, and tourism, which was hit hard in the mid 80s (if you don't know why I don't have time explain). If you know much about world politics, if you're a small 3rd world country in the US's backyard, agricultural produce won't make you rich. And tourism suffered again in Grenada after 9/11.

I can't imagine what a immense blow this is to the island, an island where much of my roots lie, and I can't help but be somewhat affected as well. Having lost my home to a hurricane in the USVI once, I know this is a tough time many are going through. While those in Florida, and people in the USVI (as I was in '95) will receive the generous aid of federal disaster relief efforts, and in Florida choose evacuation, for the 90,000 people in Grenada, there was nowhere to go. The country is its own disaster relief fund, they have no larger network to look to, other than the world at large.

So here is a plea from a former member of those islands devastated by Ivan. If there is anything you find it in your hearts to give, Oxfam is taking donations to try and help rebuild and save people in the Caribbean.

For more Grenada specific relief efforts, if you live in Maryland or New York near the Grenada embassy look to this link provided by the embassy for more information on what you can do to help.

If anyone wishes to help, I am offering mailed signed reading manuscripts of any story in my bibliography for your generosity if that interests you at all.

I'm also going to auction off copies of all my spare anthologies here on my 'ego shelf' for Grenada charity. I'll be putting these up on ebay within the week and linking to them here from my weblog if anyone is interested in that as well. Everything helps, and I want to get the word out.

Please, if you are a friend, or an acquaintance of mine, link to, or copy, or spread this around.

My thanks.
Tobias's link is to Oxfam Canada. Oxfam UK is also trying to help. News and updates are available at the Caribbean Hurricane Network, which includes many links for donations and support.

If you want to donate to Tobias and get one of his books, I highly recommend Mojo: Conjure Stories, if he's got any left (that's the anthology with Tobias's "Death's Dreadlocks", which some of my students liked quite a bit, and Neil Gaiman's "Bitter Grounds", the story that should have been Neil's big award-winner this year).

14 September 2004

On John Gardner

Today is the anniversary of the death of John Gardner. Gardner's work has been a large influence on me, because I have both revered and loathed it, embraced it and fought against it, ever since I first discovered The Art of Fiction when I was twelve. I'd read lots of other books on writing, but none had ever made me think so hard -- many pages of the book are indecipherable to even the most literate twelve-year-old. Later, under the influence of his On Moral Fiction, I wrote a paper denouncing my tenth-grade English teacher's choice of text, bewildering her and earning myself the only C I ever got in an English class. I devoured his novels -- Sunlight Dialogues, Nickel Mountain, October Light, and others -- because he radiated a sense of importance, and I was young enough to take him seriously, though none of his most famous novels felt at all satisfying to me. Later, having pretty well decided On Moral Fiction was passionate crap, I gave up on Gardner, returning later to On Becoming a Novelist for some reason or another and finding it tremendously fun to read, perhaps even enlightening.

Except for his books about writing, Gardner is mostly out of print now, though a recent memoir by his last wife (reviewed at Amazon by his first wife) and a new biography have tried to bring more attention to him. Gardner would probably find it sad that his books on writing have been tremendously influential (just in the SF world, Mary Rickert mentioned The Art of Fiction to me, and at the recent World Science Fiction Convention David Marusek brandished a copy during a panel and recommended everyone read it) while his fiction has been, for the most part, little more than a footnote to the literary history of the 1970s and early '80s (Grendel has been popular in classes that study Beowulf).

One of the best short story writers in the U.S. right now, Jeffrey Ford, studied with Gardner and was first published by him in Gardner's magazine MSS.. Readers of this site are probably more familiar with Jeff's novels and his magnificent short story collection The Fantasy Writer's Assistant than with Gardner's fiction, but here is what he told Jeff VanderMeer in an interview a few years ago about his former teacher:
Gardner trashed just about everyone who was anyone, including himself, at some point. If Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole, it wasn't Gardner's fault. Gardner brought a bad rap on himself with all that Moral Fiction crapola. I never paid much attention to it and it never really came up in any discussions we had. I think he liked to stir the shit sometimes for fun, sometimes for notoriety, sometimes out of a sense of perverseness. He was, at once, a very good person and a very troubled person. His mind was spinning 24/7. If you go back and look at the writing of that period in the seventies, he was probably one of the most innovative of fiction writers. He was also writing essays, poetry, opera librettos, plays, radio dramas, you name it. I was never much for some of his more lauded works like The Sunlight Dialogues , a real brick of a novel, but I really love The King's Indian, Freddy's Book, Mickelsson's Ghosts . The last mentioned is one of the wildest fucking books in American Literature. I found its structure and story mind altering. Its style is deceptively at home, but it is really a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Above all else, Gardner was a great teacher of writing (not just my estimation but also attested to by scores of his students, including Raymond Carver). I'd take him these thirty page stories written in pencil on torn out sheets of notebook paper and slip them under his office door. Then, who knew when, sometimes late at night, once in the middle of a blizzard, he'd call me and say, "I'm reading your story." I lived in a motel across the highway from the college and I'd just drop what I was doing and go. Then he'd sit there with a pen in his hand and go through the lines of the piece one by one. He was brutal, but not without a sense of humor. By the time he'd be done, there would be about five lines left. "These are good," he'd tell me. "Write another one." Eventually he told me he wouldn't read them anymore unless I typed them up. It's got to be rare to find a writer of his caliber who would spend the amount of time he did with students. He'd spend hours going over a single story with you. So many of the things he told me about writing I didn't understand at the time but they come back to me now and I just shake my head at how true they were. He'd say weird stuff too, like "I believe that consciousness exists outside the body and it plays the physical being like an instrument." It made me wonder if everything he told me was total lunacy, but, luckily, I was dumber than a sac of shit and knew it, which allowed me to just push forward and trust him.

Bittersweet Creek by Christopher Rowe

Christopher Rowe and Gwenda Bond recently got married, and so this is a perfectly good time for me to say nice things about Christopher's Small Beer Press chapbook, Bittersweet Creek and Other Stories. (I can also point out that Gwenda has posted a new interview with one of the creative geniuses behind Small Beer Press, Kelly Link over at Edward Champion's Return of the Reluctant blog.)

Christopher Rowe has been publishing strange stories about fantastic events in the Southern USA for a few years now, and I have not been quiet about my admiration for his recent story "The Voluntary State", a story that is not only the best Rowe I've read, but unquestionably one of the best science fiction stories published so far this year. Bittersweet Creek contains earlier stories, less ambitious stories, but stories that are nonetheless satisfying and sometimes haunting.

One of the satsifying things about this collection is how well the different pieces work together, how well the tales build off of one another. Each story has been selected carefully, some of them share characters, and all of them are set in Kentucky or Appalachia. "The Dreaming Mountains", a short fable, serves as an axis for the other four stories to circle around, and those stories take place in the fantastical past and the mythic future of the region. Many of the characters take their names from the Bible, and biblical elements are present through most of the book. The final story, "Men of Renown", even brings back the Nephilim in a biblical science fantasy story quite different from the Left Behind series.

What makes the book worth buying, though (other than its classy design and low price), are the three stories originally published in Realms of Fantasy, a magazine that consistently hides thoughtful, subtle work behind the most hideous cover art seen outside a porn shop. "Baptism at Bitter Creek", "Sally Harpe", and "Kin to Crows" are each fine, accomplished stories unto themselves, but taken as a whole they are remarkable. Each is mysterious, and each ends so ambiguously as to skirt meaninglessness, but as a group their mysteries intertwine, and what we end up with is not so much a group of good stories, but a quilt of emotions, events, and characters that is greater than any of its single squares. These are stories that feel like legends and history, daydreams and nightmares.

"Sally Harpe" and "Kin to Crows" are both violent stories that don't feel violent, because the violent events gather meaning even when they are ghastly and unnecessary. The suffering of the characters expands beyond any one moment, blood leaks through time, and scars become geography. It's a peculiar way of writing for someone in our era, but the stories have a coherence beyond their plots, and the strange, quiet, sometimes lonesome endings lurk in the reader's mind. Inevitably, Christopher Rowe is compared to Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor, since all Southern writers are, of course, exactly alike -- but the writer whose works I think of most immediately in connection with the stories in Bittersweet Creek is Nathaniel Hawthorne, who structured some of his tales similarly, who was interested in the effect of outsider characters and fantastic events on communities, and whose sentences were quietly sharp.

Imagery, actually, is Rowe's great talent, and he keeps refining it -- witness "The Force Acting on the Displaced Body", which is a model of what an imaginative writer can accomplish. Bittersweet Creek has nothing that, individually, can compare to Rowe's most recent work, but as a whole it is satisfying and rewarding, beguiling in all the best ways.

13 September 2004

Build Yourself a Rocket!

It's not going to do anybody who is interested in science fiction being taken seriously as mature, adult literature any good, but this site made me smile. Hard SF fans will like the discussion of all the rocket stuff. Me, I just looked at the pictures. I'm a sucker for pulpy SF art from before Sputnik made it all so dull, pedestrian, and realistic.

(via Exclamation Mark)

11 September 2004

Fiction and Necessity (Among Other Subjects)

I wasn't sure if I should comment on Mark Rich's review of Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen. After all, Jeff's a friend, and City of Saints is a book I enjoy and admire so much that it sends me into spasms of hyperbole whenever I write about it. I also recognize it's not the sort of book that will appeal to every reader.

That said, the review has stuck in my mind for a few days, which means I really need to write something so I can stop thinking about it. I have no desire to be the VanderMeer Watchdog, but Rich's essay raises large issues of how innovative books are reviewed, and those issues should be addressed.

I am not against negative reviews, nor am I against negative reviews of books I like, or of books by people I like, or both. Indeed, I think a critic's first obligation is to be honest, though it's nice if that honesty can be tempered with knowledge of context and with fine reading skills. Even the best critics make mistakes, contradict themselves, miss points that are obvious even to casual readers, etc. For the record, I do think Mark Rich offers some thoughtful close readings of a few sections of the book, and he's not a bad writer.

However, I think he gets City of Saints wrong again and again, and his review suffers from narrow thinking. I don't want to quibble with assertions of his own taste -- de gustibus and all that jazz -- but Rich makes a few statements that at least deserve some questioning.

First, he doesn't seem to know a lot about how the book came about, nor about the various editions of it that exist. This would not be a mistake in most reviews, since a book should be read for itself and not its history, but Rich makes an issue of it having been originally printed by a publisher that uses print-on-demand (POD) technology:
Print-on-demand technology is a kind of instant-fix technology, a way of making something relatively quick and simple that was once laborious and complex. Observers of the book scene have expressed the same worries about print on demand that they have expressed about electronic publishing: that the rushing to print would tend to bleed over into other parts of the book-preparation process, so that other laborious stages, such as the editing, might be done via an instant-fix approach of the spell-checker variety.

For writers with a penchant for shaping phrases with unlikely combinations of elements, in which meaning is stretched and sometimes broken, the reduction of editorial influence could actually prove beneficial. Is this the case here?
(Rich then argues with a few sentences from one page of the book.) Note the assumption that is passed to the reader here: this book was not carefully edited, and it was, essentially, self-published in haste.

I can identify with the desire to question how a book is edited -- I have done so, for instance, in the case of China Mieville. When I discovered my assumptions were wrong, however, I made a point of giving Colleen Lindsay's comments a prominent place on this site so that I could stand corrected. Now that I know how those books were edited, I read them somewhat differently, and do what I probably should have done in the first place: I assume everything is intentional, and judge it that way.

The writing process and publishing history of City of Saints and Madmen is far more public than that of many other books, and so Rich's ignorance is, perhaps, even less excusable than mine was. The fact is, every page of the book was carefully proofread and edited, and some of the stories, including "Dradin, In Love", which Rich singles out for criticism, have been edited and published multiple times.

As I said, it wouldn't be an issue if Rich hadn't made it one:
The first quotation does suggest that the risk of the print-on-demand book-making may be a real one: it may make it too easy to ignore the sort of slow, laborious editorial process that would catch the false parallel structure in a phrase such as, "north of it stood the religious district and his old teacher, Cadimon Signal," or perhaps clarify the symbolic "standing" of Signal above the merely physical religious district.
Here, the assumption is that the writer doesn't quite know what he's doing and needs an editor to teach him how to write. Shouldn't the critic's first job be to assume the writer intended to write what he did, and, unless it leads to no viable conclusion, evaluate it on that basis?

Again, I can hold myself up as a warning to others. When I wrote about Ian MacLeod's The Light Ages, I criticized some of his stylistic and usage choices, because they had annoyed me as I read the book. A number of people suggested MacLeod might have intended the "errors", because he wanted to suggest something about the narrator's education and social status. That is good reasoning. What I should have said originally is that, though the usage errors could perfectly well have been intentional, they were not effective because the vast majority of the sentences were quite well constructed and standardized, replicating writing rather than speech, and so even if they were intentional, the choice seemed, to me, to be an unfortunate one. I didn't say this, and so I made myself seem to be more of a prig than I usually am.

Mark Rich doesn't come off as a prig, but his assumptions are condescending, and he gets lost in an irrelevant issue when he could have explored quite an interesting topic: If Jeff VanderMeer intended to write the way he did, what does that suggest about the form and meaning of the book? (That sounds a bit like an essay question on a test I'd write for my students, but you get the idea.)

Even amidst this balderdash, we get some glimpses of the excellent essay Rich might have written had he not distracted himself. Note this paragraph:
The second and third quotations suggest that the writing is sometimes being guided by sonority, rather than always by the flow of meaning. This can be a positive thing, if a music of verbal sound arises that never would otherwise, in a more rational approach to the actual writing.
It's a good, basic insight that could have led somewhere. Unfortunately, Rich doesn't follow through:
It can also be negative--especially from the point of view of the reviewer. If sense sometimes surrenders to sound, it means the details within the writing cannot always be trusted: an element's appearance at one point in the story may be a freak, or improvisation, that has nothing to do with the appearance of the same or similar elements elsewhere.
This is either a call for writing to be plain and simple or it's nonsense. In either case, it is wrong. In any sophisticated fiction, from the earliest novels onward, the details within the writing cannot always be trusted. And sound has sometimes trumped sense at least since Shakespeare, who quite often wrote marvelous passages that make little sense at all.

What Rich wanted to say was, "I don't like writing that isn't straightforward." We discover this later in the review:
The problem of such cleverness, presented seemingly for its own entertainment value rather than as an element stitched into something larger, is a real one for a reader such as I am: once I lose the thread of human applicability, the thread that ties the fictional experience to my ongoing, inner experience of the world as a reader, then I lose track of why I am reading. I began losing this thread in "The Hoegbottom Guide to the Early History of Ambergris," in the first half of the book; and then thoroughly lost it in the "AppendiX" (sic), which comprises about an even half of this book, as it is printed. I do not doubt the value of intelligence at play, or clever world-building, or even clever world-taking-apart. I certainly do not doubt the value of experimental fiction, nor of fiction in which the narrator, parading as the author, feels the fictional need to intervene and intrude. At the same time, I must acknowledge that I occasionally raise a readerly white flag and surrender, letting text go undigested on the page, since to my eyes it seems to want to remain there rather than take the jump into the reading mind. ...

What I might venture is being lost, in the course of the volume, is the sense of the necessary, a sense present in "Martin Lake" to the greatest degree: the things that appear on the pages are there because they need to be there. Sparks and flames of fictional necessity flare only now and then, through the pages remaining.
These assertions are, again, condescending and narrow-minded, or at least self-contradictory. There are plenty of people for whom the sorts of things City of Saints is exploring and playing with are neither interesting nor compelling. That's fine. But a review that extrapolates from one book to all of fiction has to be able to answer for its general statements. If Rich truly doesn't mind experiment in fiction, if he thinks there is value in metafictional moments, then what he's really saying is, City of Saints is not a successful experiment, and the various techniques employed by the author don't work. That's an appropriate topic, but it raises one crucial question: Don't work to do what?

Here we need to import Rich's implied definition of "fiction that works": "the things that appear on the pages are there because they need to be there". This is a common enough argument for a certain kind of minimalist fiction, but it sounds more definitive and important than it is. Nothing needs to be there. No story needs to be written, no book needs to be published. Stories are written because writers want to write them, books are published because somebody chooses to publish them, and they are read because readers decide to read them. Necessity has nothing to do with it. Writing and reading are all beholden to choice and leisure.

The argument about necessity is really an argument about how the writer communicates with the reader. If we feel that a sentence, paragraph, page, or chapter of a book is "necessary", it means we feel the author has made good use of the material and has communicated to us the reason for using it. If we feel that something is not "necessary", we don't know why we are being asked to read it, how it relates to the other words or paragraphs or pages, or why the writer chose to include it. Writers either steal, adapt, or build templates for readers. Stolen templates produce the most familiar sorts of writing, the easiest kind of writing to read. Adapted templates produce more difficult writing, but they allow us to use our previous reading experiences to interpret the text. Original templates are the most demanding -- think of Finnegan's Wake, or much of Beckett.

City of Saints and Madmen doesn't fit perfectly into my hasty taxonomy -- it utilizes familiar templates, adding them together into an adapted template, but the overall book is an original template, and that's what causes Rich so many problems. It may be that the book does not fulfill its promise, it may be that it violates its own terms, but to evaluate whether it does so, that promise and those terms must be identified. Rich doesn't know how to approach it, because his own definitions of what is "good fiction" are too narrow to include a book like VanderMeer's no matter how well it is written, no matter how well it achieves whatever it can achieve, no matter how well it creates its own template. There is no possible way Rich could judge City of Saints to be successful any more than anyone knew how to judge the plays of Georg Buchner when they were first written. It's like trying to judge a Porsche by the standards of a John Deere. Both have their purposes and advocates, but the Porsche doesn't do well in mud and the John Deere is pretty dull on the highway.

(By the way, Strange Horizons, where Mark Rich's article appears, is holding a fund drive this month, and even though I sometimes take exception to their articles, they are a venue deeply deserving of your support. Few other places even publish articles that get me thinking enough to want to comment on them, and the fiction and poetry published on the site are of consistently high quality. The staff is made up of idealistic and intelligent volunteers who are quite wonderful people, and they deserve accolades and rewards.)

Update 9/11: Matt Peckham offers his thoughts. Cheryl Morgan is worried about Strange Horizons' articles department. I have more faith in SH than Cheryl does for the moment, but I do think they might want to consider running nonfiction less frequently, because the need to print something every week inevitably makes them have to publish work that isn't as well-considered as it should be.

10 September 2004

Site Note

I've done a few little updates here, adding some links I've collected to the sidebar, and, most noticeably, putting up some ads at the end of the sidebar. They don't seem too obtrusive, so the ads seemed like a worthwhile experiment. If you think I've gone over to the dark side of consumerism ... well, I guess I have. But I'm putting so much time into this blog these days, it seems a shame not to get at least a couple cents from it.

09 September 2004

The The Soundtrack for The The New Weird

At a Worldcon panel on "The New Weird", Jon Courtenay Grimwood, who was in the audience, suggested that the occasional territorial defensiveness displayed in some of the conversations with British advocates of the New Weird could come from the sensibility created by writers who lived through the Thatcher years. He seemed to me to be saying that writers who had known England before Thatcher, who lived through her reign, and who are now quite sensitive to the country that exists after her legacy (a country that is notably different from the one she took control of) might think New Weird can only be written by people of similar experiences. The effect of Reagan on the U.S., for instance, was different and would perhaps create a different sensibility.

To illustrate the Thatcherized sensibility, Jonathan Strahan quoted The The's song "Heartland" from memory:
Beneath the old iron bridges
Across the Victorian parks
And all the frightened people
Running home before dark
Past the Saturday morning cinema
That lies crumbling to the ground
And the piss stinking shopping centre
In the new side of town
I was impressed, not only because the song does seem to have something in common with certain types of British writing in its evocation of landscape and mood, but because the reference reminded me that I can't help thinking of The The's albums Soul Mining and Infected (which contains "Heartland") whenever I think of cyberpunk, and, especially, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which I discovered at the same time I discovered The The. It was a strangely appropriate match, and songs like "I've Been Waiting for Tomorrow (All of My Life)" are an inseparable part of Philip K. Dick's novel for me. Perhaps Soul Mining is a cyberpunk soundtrack and Infected is proto-New Weird.

Not that I support the labeling of literature, mind you. I just like The The.

In Memoriam: Donald Allen

From the NY Times:
Donald Merriam Allen, a poetry editor whose 1960 anthology of the era's contemporary and avant-garde poets remains a milestone in American letters, died on Aug. 29 in San Francisco. He was 92. ...

Mr. Allen's handiwork caused a literary stir and upset the poetry establishment in particular. It spotlighted some large new talents culled from small magazines and lent a degree of respectability even to fringe lyricists from San Francisco and its environs.
The anthology in question is The New American Poetry, 1945-1960, an anthology that in some ways still has not been surpassed as a snapshot of certain types of writing at a particular time in American history. Allen later edited The Postmoderns: The New American Poetry Revised, as well as books on specific authors -- my own favorite is The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara.

The geography of American poetry would have been different without Donald Allen's guidebooks.

08 September 2004

As Librarians See Us

Dave Langford's Ansible often has a section titled "As Others See Us", about non-science-fiction people saying things about science fiction people that seem kind of funny to those of us in the know. That's immediately what I thought of when I read this article from Library Journal about a study of 32 science fiction readers to determine how, why, and what they read so that librarians who are not, themselves, familiar with science fiction can better serve patrons who are.

I don't know if the article will be at all useful to librarians (it's a bit vague), but I found it fascinating nonetheless. It's reductive and odd in some of its analyses, but amusingly earnest in the way that attempts at statistical analysis can be. It might even be thought-provoking. For instance:
The strategic, or functional, reasons for reading sf have little to do with the book's content or the reading experience. According to the study, four strategic reasons for reading sci-fi are habit, using category as a filter to make the selection task a manageable size, influence of the reader's social network, and domain knowledge. Domain knowledge includes information and techniques used both in reading the genre (such as expected plot devices) and in making selection decisions (such as reliable reviewers). Domain knowledge comes into play in all genres, but in sf, which specializes in difference and takes place in an unreal world, it seems to play a much greater role.
Odd that the most common, most cliched reason for reading SF isn't raised: "sense of wonder". While that element can at times make SF little more than emotional pornography, it is nonetheless the factor most frequently cited by devoted fans as what keeps them coming back, like flies to blood or addicts to heroin.

Which brings me to some thoughts that have been clanging around in my brain, thoughts about "entertainment". Again and again, I hear people say they don't care about X or Y in fiction, that all they want is "to be entertained", as if that phrase explained itself. The problem is, of course, that what is entertaining for one person may be soporific to another. Plenty of people over the years have found E.E. Smith's books entertaining (full of that good ol' sense of wonder); I'd rather spend my time trying to memorize the Manhattan phone book than read them.

However, when most people say they "just want to be entertained" by a book, they're talking about becoming engrossed in it -- that wonderful feeling of the pages all but turning themselves. It seems that some readers and critics assume this effect comes from the plot, as, for instance, the success of John Grisham might suggest. But plotting is seldom enough to create entertainment, and some popular and entertaining books -- the longer Harry Potter novels, for instance -- are not shining examples of plotting.

One key to making a book read quickly is to end each chapter in such a way that the reader wants to glance at the beginning of the next chapter to see what happens. That's a simple, common trick, and one that is, on its own, annoying. For a book to truly be entertaining, other elements come into play: characters whose fates the reader cares about, strange and compelling settings, engrossing ideas. All of which work together with the events in the book, of course, but cliffhanger plotting alone won't do it.

Where, then, is the (perceived? real?) difference between works that are "simply entertaining" and works that are something more? If the most entertaining books balance a variety of forces, why do we -- supporters and detractors -- see them as shallow or needing defense? Where does "entertainment" end and "something else" begin?

I don't ask these questions rhetorically; there are answers, but I can't claim to have many clear ones of my own.

Perhaps we should banish the word "entertaining" from our vocabularies and speak instead of books that are "fulfilling" to some extent or another. Many of my favorite books are not ones that I could say are, exactly, entertaining, but I would never hesitate to say they are fulfilling. That's what I look for when reading, though what I will find fulfilling depends on mood and circumstance. There are days when John Grisham is fulfilling, though such days are few and far between. Most of the time, Grisham feels to me like empty calories, and by the end I have forgotten everything I read because it was the literary equivalent of watching something on TV but not paying any attention to it: it passes the time. On the other hand, I generally find Carl Hiaasen's novels fulfilling enough compared to the effort put into reading them; the humor and satire function as low-grade vitamins. War and Peace, on the other hand, may be the most fulfilling book I have ever read -- three years after reading it, its taste still lingers, it still provides sustenance. (The parts that I most vividly remember are the parts that were most entertaining. I disliked the last 150 pages tremendously, because they weren't even remotely entertaining, and were as fulfilling as chalk.) I know a few people -- smart, skilled readers -- who have never been able to get even half-way into War and Peace, but they are also, for whatever reason, not as interested in 19th century Russian life and literature as I am. Having a certain prediliction for the material, I found ways for the book to open its wonders to me. (This is, I think, what a great teacher can accomplish now and then for a student -- to provide ways of reading that allow a previously unfulfilling text to become at least potentially satisfying.)

What librarians who help patrons find books are doing, then, is looking for books that will be fulfilling for those patrons. The conclusion of the Library Journal article starts out by going in an interesting direction, but ends in emptiness:
Sci-fi has a great deal of flexibility, allowing readers to indulge in varying reading experiences at different times. A key facet of sf for many of the readers in the study was a characteristic that could be called either scope or possibility. Almost anything is possible in science fiction, and in reading sf over time it is possible to suit changing needs. Science fiction includes a broad range of story types, worldviews, ideologies, degrees of complexity, and degrees of challenge. The material ranges from highly formula serial fiction to rigorous scientific speculation to strongly stylistic border works. Hybrids like sf mysteries allow readers to test other genres while staying in the boundaries of the familiar.

To help a reader select sf, it is important to find out what the particular sf reader is looking for at the time. The reader may have goals that change from time to time, yet will still look for and be satisfied by science fiction.
Am I right in thinking that what these paragraphs say is, "SF can be just about anything, so if someone comes looking for an SF book, they need to know what they're looking for"? That's a clear enough statement, banal and a bit obvious, but what kind of help does it provide a librarian?

I must be missing something. Why not just ask a patron, "What do you find fulfilling in a book?" and go from there?

06 September 2004

Gaylactic Spectrum Awards 2004

I, shamefully, totally missed it, but the Gaylactic Spectrum Awards were given out at WorldCon "to honor works in science fiction, fantasy and horror which include positive explorations of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered characters, themes, or issues". Here's the list:
Best Short Fiction
Winner: "Lark till Dawn, Princess", Barth Anderson (Mojo: Conjure Stories)

Short list:
"Down with the Lizards and Bees", Tim Pratt (Realms of Fantasy 8/03; Little Gods)
"Kiss", Steve Berman (X-Factor)
"Poison", Beth Bernobich (Strange Horizons 1/20/03)
"The Tawny Bitch", Nisi Shawl (Mojo: Conjure Stories)
"The Golden Boy", Warren Rochelle (The Silver Gryphon)
"Living with the Harpy", Tim Pratt (Strange Horizons 10/27/03)
"The Riverboy", A.M. Dellamonica (Land/Space)
"Walking Contradiction", Nancy Jane Moore (Imaginings)

Best Novel
Winner: The Salt Roads, Nalo Hopkinson (Warner Books)

Short list:
Hidden Warrior, Lynn Flewelling (Bantam Spectra)
Lust, Geoff Ryman (St. Martin's)
Storyteller, Amy Thomson (Ace)
Hybrids, Robert Sawyer (Tor)
Spin State, Chris Moriarty (Bantam Spectra)
Trickster, Steven Harper (Roc)
Troll, Johanna Sinisalo (Grove Press)

Best Other Work
Angels in America (Tony Kushner/HBO)
Gotham Central #6-#10: Half a Life, Greg Rucka & Michael Lark (DC Comics)

Short list:
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Joss Whedon/UPN)
Dead Life Me: The Bicycle Thief (Showtime)
Carnivale (HBO)
Global Frequency #3, Warren Ellis & Steve Dillon
I stole that from Andyhat, who seems to have been the first person to post the results. He added lots of links.

WorldCon Panel: The Best Stories of the Year

I've been doing a terrible job of posting from the convention, since most of my time has been taken up with walking between events and sitting around chatting with people. (The best WorldCon blogging I've seen -- and, granted, I haven't had time to look around mich, is at the official blog, though Cheryl Morgan has also been trying to keep up.) However, I've decided that I will make one substantive post from the con before I leave, so here it is, provided the battery on my computer doesn't run out too quickly...

I attended (and took notes at) the a panel on the best stories of the year (so far), moderated by Jonathan Strahan and attended by Gavin Grant, Kathryn Cramer, and Ellen Datlow, all of whom are editors of one "Best of the Year" anthology or another. Gardner Dozois was scheduled to be there, but he was in a car accident shortly before the con and is at home recovering. (Word has it that though he got hurt quite a bit, Dozois is doing okay.)

Much of the talk was about the deadlines the editors face. Jonathan Strahan's is the worst: he and Karen Haber have to deliver their book to the publisher on November 1. How do they turn in a "Best of the Year" book before the year has ended? The benevolence of editors and publishers who send them work before it has been published. (Actually, all the editors rely on this, but none so much as Jonathan.)

The general consensus was that this has been a pretty good year for fantasy, but not as strong a year for horror and science fiction. (And the stuff that comes in between ... well, since none of the books are specifically devoted to that, it's hard to say. My own sense, since it is an area I'm interested in, is that this year has not been as strong as last, but that last year was a tremendous year for short fiction of all sorts and all definitions.)

The editors talked about the differences between their books. Kathryn Cramer said she and David Hartwell are "the hardcore enforcers of genre boundaries. We love Zoran Zivkovic," she said "but we've only been able to take one of his stories over the years." Jonathan Strahan suggested that Dozois's collection is less a "Best of the Year" than a "Science Fiction Yearbook", a book that tries to show what happened over the year through representative examples, and with a comprehensive summary. Ellen Datlow said she tries to put in stories that are on the edges of the genre definitions of "horror", that appear in places such as Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Esquire. "I'm trying to broaden readers' minds," she said, "but not pedantically." Gavin Grant said his and Kelly Link's part of that same book, the part devoted to fantasy, aims to be "a snapshot of the year". (He also said he's happy to do fantasy, because though he reads a lot of science fiction, "A lot of modern SF stories could have been written in 1950, so what's the point?") Jonathan Strahan said his and Haber's book is primarily meant to be a good read, because they have the least amount of space and the shortest lead time.

What stories have been good this year? Not too many specific titles were listed, though everyone mentioned "The Voluntary State" by Christopher Rowe. (Gavin even said that Kelly spent a long time doing a line-by-line reading of the story to justify including it in the fantasy section of their book, even though the story is overtly science fiction!) The other name that received unanimous support was that of M. Rickert. Other writers named (at least the ones I had a chance to write down): Dale Bailey, Benjamin Rosenbaum, Douglas Lain, Sarah Monette, Naomi Kritzer, Theodora Goss, Jeffrey Ford, Kelly Link (not by Gavin, her husband, but by all the others), John Farris, Jay Russell, Laird Barron, Rudi Dornemann, Paolo Bacigalupi, and John Aegard.

Also, all agreed that Realms of Fantasy Magazine is underrated because of the horrible ads inside and the painful covers, but that it's an excellent market.

And then the time ran out.

I'll note here, since I don't know when I'll get a chance otherwise, that you should not subscribe to Argosy, because a third issue is highly unlikely to appear. The reasons are many and horrifying, but I will leave it to someplace like Locus to tell the tale.

Speaking of Locus and Jonathan Strahan, Jonathan asked me yesterday to do some reviewing for Locus. I said yes.

And while I'm speaking of people, let me mention my roommate Scott William Carter, who has sold to places such as Analog and Weird Tales, and who is an intelligent and wonderfully friendly guy. It would have been a much duller convention if he hadn't been here to prod me to go to parties and such. (My other roommate was Jeff VanderMeer, but I already talk about him all the time. Go give Scott some attention.)

04 September 2004

Hugo Award Results 2004

The Hugo Awards ceremony just ended, with Neil Gaiman as a charming and witty MC. Here are the results:

Best Novel: Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold
Best Novella: "The Cookie Monster" by Vernor Vinge
Best Novelette: "Legions in Time" by Michael Swanwick
Best Short Story: "A Study in Emerald" by Neil Gaiman
Best Related Book: The Chesley Awards for Science Fiction and Fantasy Art: A Retrospective by John Grant, Elizabeth L. Humphrey, and Pamela D. Scoville
Best Professional Editor: Gardner Dozois
Best Professional Artist: Bob Eggleton
Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form: Gollum's Acceptance Speech at the 2003 MTV Movie Awards
Best Semi-Prozine: Locus
Best Fanzine: Emerald City, Cheryl Morgan, ed.
Best Fan Writer: Dave Langford
Best Fan Artist: Frank Wu
John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (not a Hugo Award, officially): Jay Lake
Special Noreascon 4 Committee Award (not a Hugo Award, officially): Erwin "Filthy Pierre" Strauss

Another Note from Noreascon

[Note: Sorry for the lack of copious hyperlinks in the post below, but the wireless network here is pretty slow, and I'm writing hastily between events.]

Well, it's day two of the convention now, and though I said I wasn't overwhelmed yesterday, I discovered when I returned to my hotel room for a brief break around 8 that I was completely exhausted and my legs felt like someone had rammed iron nails into them. The Hynes Convention Center is huge, a cross between a warehouse and catacombs, and to get from one event to another can require ten or fifteen minutes of walking. The variety of events is extraordinary, though I have found myself often unable to attend various panels because I have ended up in conversations with people in the hallways and by the time we finish the panel is almost over.

My worst moment yesterday came when I bought a copy of Justina Robson's Natural History from Borderlands Books seconds before someone else wanted it. It was the paperback edition, which was a bearable price compared to the hardcover that a few other dealers have (the exchange rate is awful right now, so British hardcovers are extremely expensive; also, most British hardcovers are badly made: the bindings are weak and the paper is not acid-free, so it bleaches easily and quickly). The other customer looked at my nametag and said, "Oh, damn you Matthew Cheney! Wait -- are you the Matthew Cheney of The Mumpsimus? I read your blog." So not only did I disappoint a perfectly nice and innocent human being, but I alienated a reader! If I were less greedy and selfish, I would have given her the book. But I'm greedy and selfish, and chose to alienate a reader so that I could have the book. (And Cheryl Morgan thinks I'm a "very nice lad" -- little does she know!

I went to a panel yesterday on "Rhythm, Meter, and the Use of Language", mostly because Greer Gilman was moderating and I wanted to wish her luck for the World Fantasy Awards, where her excellent "A Crowd of Bone" is up for an award. The panel had some good things to say, but fell apart a bit because of overzealous audience participation and a tendency on the part of the panelists to wander to various, somewhat banal, topics. It's a peril of panels.

In the evening, I went to the Wheatland Press party, where Polyphony 4 was the talk of the room -- I'm going to pick up a copy, so I will write about it, or at least some of the stories in it, here in due time. The party gave me a chance to meet Jeff Ford (who no longer sports a beard, by the way -- he and Jeff VanderMeer seem to have coordinated to be the Two Now-Beardless, Hugo-Nominated Jeffs) and a variety of people from Strange Horizons. Later I spent a lot of time at the Tor Books party, chatting with Jim Kelly, Tobias Buckell, Alex Irvine, Brett Cox, Judith Berman, Jack Skillingstead, Beth Meacham, and other people whose names I've either forgotten or never learned.

Now that I've devolved to namedropping, I'm going to stop.

03 September 2004

A Note from Noreascon

I have landed at Noreascon, this year's World Science Fiction Convention, and am not yet as overwhelmed as everyone told me I would be at my first SF convention. I've deliberately taken it easy, so far attending only a reading by various quacks doctors who contributed to the Lambshead Guide, and then the Cambridge Writers' Workshop critique of a new Jim Kelly story. One of the highlights so far has been the chance to say hello to Kelly Link and Gavin Grant of Small Beer Press and to get a copy of Theodora Goss's new chapbook -- as well as the chance to tell her that buying it was one of my anticipated highlights for the convention, as I have been aching to get my hands on a copy since I first heard about it.

I don't need to turn this post into the standard sort of "and then I got up and made a cup of coffee and I thought about my life and realized it was a bitter life and then Joe called and I said hi and we wandered off to the cafe and we drank coffee and then I thought maybe..." weblog post, but I did think I should record my arrival. If anything newsworthy happens, I'll let you know.

01 September 2004

A Conversation with Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi has published a handful of stories in F&SF, including "The Fluted Girl", which appeared in more Best of the Year anthologies than any other single story from 2003. This year, "The People of Sand and Slag" appeared in F&SF and "The Pasho" in Asimov's.

Bacigalupi lives now in Colorado, where he grew up, but he has spent a lot of time traveling, particularly in Asia and India. In 1999, the same year he published his first story in F&SF, he had an essay at Salon.com about some of his experiences in China. He has worked as a writer and online editor for High Country News and has published essays and articles on conservation issues and politics.

But it's his fiction that intrigued me, and made me seek him out and see if he would be willing to answer some questions. He was, and his replies were fascinating, as you'll see below.

It is hard to describe Bacigalupi's stories effectively, to capture the disturbing oddness of them, the careful prose, the pacing, the imagination. When I first read "The Fluted Girl", I thought the central idea of a child genetically sculpted to be a flute to be a bit silly, but the story stayed with me, it lurked and lingered. "The People of Sand and Slag" made me pay more attention to Bacigalupi, because in some ways it made "The Fluted Girl" seem tame and run-of-the-mill, a considerable accomplishment. "The Pasho" is even more accomplished, and here, it seems to me, the different pieces of Bacigalupi's art all come together. For the benefit of readers unfamiliar with his work, here is one paragraph from "The Pasho":
Raphel ducked his head and stared at his hands, vaguely embarrassed at the women's sudden attention. On the back of his left hand were his first attainment marks: the old alphabet in tiny script. From there, lettering the color of dried blood marched up his arms and stole under his robes. Denotations of rising rank, ritually applied over the years, the chanted mnemonic devices of the ten thousand stanzas, hooks into the core of Pasho knowledge, each one a memory aid and mark of passage. They covered his body in the spiking calligraphy of the ancients, sometimes a mere symbol to hook a bound tome's worth of knowledge, something to recall, and ensure that all Pasho trained later might have access to an unchanging spring of wisdom.
And now to the conversation...

It's standard practice to ask authors about their influences, about what they read and such, and it can sometimes be tedious, but your work is so individual in its imagery that I can't help wondering, "What does this guy like to read?" When you are a reader, what do you find fulfilling?
Honestly, I'm not sure that much of what I write about comes fromreading, or at least, not directly. Sometimes something clicks for me:when I wrote "Sand and Slag", I ran across an article about a dog inButte, Montana that was surviving in the middle of a mine tailingsdump... and the image hung with me.

A lot of what I find interesting or fulfilling these days is actually non-fiction, some philosophy and political theory, some history... really, it's all over the map, and often I just pick at books, slowly, one after another in a pretty unplanned rotation.

Things I'm picking at right now are Out of Africa, coupled with a biography of Isak Dinesen; Sand Rivers, about a safari into a game reserve in Africa; Song of the Dodo, by David Quammen, which discusses the distribution of species on islands, and the implications for habitat fragmentation on continents; Walden. Some Wendell Berry. Hobbes' Leviathan. Marquis de Sade (he's always good for a no good view of the world). No Depression, the music magazine. The New Yorker. Those are the kinds of things that I pick up when I'm hunting, trying to find something that I'm still not clear on, trying to make my brain kick over.

In fiction, I honestly read very little of it these days, unless its something trashy and brainless. I just re-read the first five books in the Gor series by John Norman, and they were horrible. But I remember totally loving them when I was in high school, so it was fun to return to them. My dad gave them to me for safe-keeping to keep my step-mother from throwing them away. So they were horrible, but I wasn't really reading for ideas or to refill the well, more to shut everything down. Recently my life has actually been somewhat stressful. I've been juggling a new job, and a new baby, so my life has taken a lot of sharp turns recently, and I'm still trying to really settle into the new rhythms of my life. The fiction I read is really for escape, rather than for stimulation.

When I think about where some of my imagery really comes from, it's generally chance moments that for some reason stick, and make me look at the world differently. Mostly, those are things that I experience, rather than things I read. At least, that's the recollection that I have now. Honestly, in the making of a story, so much ends up getting layered into it, that by the time I'm reading it in final draft, I'm often surprised by the details and catch myself thinking "huh, that's not a bad. I wonder who thought that up?" (And then I get a terror that I've actually ripped it out of someone else's story and don't know it). Seriously, though, a lot of the result seems mysterious, even to me. Obviously, the ideas mulch in from somewhere, but it's hard to pick out specific influences. With something like the fluted girl, I was looking for a really nasty way to demonstrate Belari's power over other people, and reaming out people's bones seemed like a great way to go about it. Maybe de Sade helped with that. Maybe not. In the case of other individual images, a lot of them come from my own experience. I went to India a couple years ago with my wife and my mother-in-law (who are both Indian) and my mother-in-law noted the smell of dung smoke in the air. She took this deep breath and said something along the lines of "Do you smell it? It's dung, burning. I love that smell." This is a fairly elite woman, very proper, who runs a fuelcell technology company, and she's waxing nostalgic about dung. And that image stuck. It was a perspective that was new, and I tried to hold onto it. A couple years later, when I started working on the Pasho, and wanted to illustrate the initial homecoming, that image was there for me.

Is writing fantasy and science fiction stories something you stumbled into, or is being an SF writer something you dreamed of being from, say, birth?
I didn't really think I would be a writer of any sort, for a long time. I read science fiction when I was a kid. My father introduced me to it. He was a big fan, and my grandfather also. I think the first "real" book that I ever read was Citizen of the Galaxy by Heinlein, and it was actually my grandfather's copy. I think I was eight or nine years old. I was really proud that I'd hacked my way through the whole 300-odd pages. So I grew up reading sci-fi, mostly by picking out of my father's collection (a lot of Anne McCaffrey, Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Niven, stuff like that). So it was always there in my mind, as a genre.

But you know, you grow up, you go to college, you get a dose of reality, you go get a job, and then another job, you make some money and you start to get a real life... and then you find out that that you don't like the life you're building at all, and you start writing, because it's the only thing that wards off depression. I started working on my first novel about ten years ago and at that time, I'm not quite sure why (maybe because I'd read so much of it), I had a real burning urge to write science fiction -- even though almost all the things I was reading at the time weren't. Around then, I think I was reading Cormac McCarthy, and J.G. Ballard, and Hemingway, stuff like that. But anyway, I wrote that sci-fi book, and managed to avoid selling it, and at the same time I also wrote "Pocketful of Dharma" which came out in F&SF. Harlan Ellison called me up soon after, and after sort of dressing me down and giving me a solid thump on the head about problems he perceived in the story, he told me not to get stuck in the science fiction genre, not to get labelled as an sf writer and to get out while I could. A "Save yourself while there's still time" kind of speech. It was a weird phone call, but in some ways it hung with me. I ended up writing three other novels, and none of them were sci-fi. One historical fiction piece. One contemporary "literary" (whatever) book. And one mystery. And then, at the end of all of that I sort of looked around, and decided that I actually liked writing science fiction quite a lot and went back to it.

So, here I am again, sort of the long way around to get here, but I'm feeling a little more focused because of it. And, I think those other writing projects were instructive for me. Sort of a self-study course in writing, where I got to work out a lot of the questions of craft that I had.

One of the things I like about writing science fiction is that I feel like it gives me a large enough palette to work with my ideas, without having to be constrained by "reality". For me, scif-fi means that I have a huge amount of control over every aspect of the story, and ideally, that means that the characters and plot which I create can then be reinforced, hopefully quite strikingly, with the settings and technologies that I choose for it. What I'm trying for, when the story is really working well, is to create a sort of feedback loop between the setting, the characters, and the plot so that they're mutually reinforcing. With science fiction I feel like I've got room to do that.

Do you think you'll try to publish the early novels you wrote, or are you moving on?
I did actually try to get them published. My agent shopped all of them, and I ended up getting a lot of interest, without any final commitment. Typically, I'd have one editor fall in love with the story, and then it would be killed by other editors, stuff like that. With my first sci-fi novel, I actually turned down a publishing offer, because my agent felt the advance was too low. Looking back, maybe it was, maybe it wasn't. At the time I was feeling pretty good about myself, and was confident that I'd write more novels, so I was able to walk away from the offer. Now, older and more bitter, I might go back and take it. Who knows?

At some point, I suspect that I will try again to get those stories out into the world. The rejections had less to do with the quality of the stories, and a lot to do with how they would categorize, and where they would fit into various market segments, and in one memorable case, I was rejected by an editor because, as she put it, "As a mother, this story disturbs me." All of that was a bit of an eye-opener for me, because when I started out writing, I was so sure that if I just wrote a great story, that was all that mattered. I didn't really understand the business end of the book-selling equation. These days, I'm mostly focused on writing new material, and I'm putting most of my energy into short stories, where editors seem to have a little more flexibility about what they buy.

China and the Chinese languages have been, it seems, an important part of your life. How did you develop an interest in China, and where has it led you?
I started studying Chinese in college. Originally I didn't actually have much interest in China, per se, but I had this idea that by the time I finished my liberal arts degree, I wanted to be fluent in a language. I was sick of studying Spanish from high school and thought it was too easy, so when I went through the school's course catalog and ran across Chinese as an option I said to myself, "Huh. Chinese. I've heard that's hard." So I picked it. And it turned out I was right. It was really hard. But that was really the only reason. I was so ignorant going into it that I think the full extent of my knowledge about China was that there'd been some kind of a protest there, and it maybe had a big wall... or maybe that was Mongolia. I really was that ignorant. Over time though, I ended up spending a couple years over in China, and it ended up informing a lot of the way I view the world.

If you spend enough time away from your own country, it sort of poisons your psyche. You never get to be a pure American again, because there's this foreign part of your brain that's been jammed in as well. It gives you a bit of double vision when you look at things. And I think that sort of experience, looking askew at the world, also helps me write, somewhat: that off-kilter sense that everyone else thinks something is normal, but you can't quite get on board. The classic example that I hear a lot from people who've been in the Peace Corps or spent a lot of time in a poorer country, is their first view of a supermarket when they return, with its aisles and aisles of food. It seemed so normal before, and yet suddenly it seems perverse.

For me, the first time I really felt off-kilter with home, I was just back from China, and I was walking through a park, and I kept coming across all these awful rodents, and I kept wondering why no one had put out traps or poison for them. And they were squirrels. You just don't see things like squirrels in parks in China, so I'd completely forgotten about them. It's trivial things like that. And also larger ones. Things like the assumptions we carry with us about what fairness is, or honesty, or family, or what human life is worth, or what responsibility means. Things that we take for granted often becuase of common cultural understanding, and yet can have very different meanings for people from other cultures. It's daunting to run up against because you can end up losing your sense of absolutes. And ultimately, when you come back, it makes you think about everything again, because you suddenly have a sense of how much of our life depends on everyone agreeing on certain baselines of behavior. But it's all made up. And absurd.

Every once in a while, I go back to China, and Southeast Asia, mostly in the hopes of having my ideas stirred around and confused again. That's a huge influence for me. Just to be reminded that the way I view the world isn't the way others view it.

"The Fluted Girl" has become, by virtue of being reprinted in three best-of-the-year anthologies, your most famous story so far, the one readers are most likely to know if they know your name. What was the genesis for that story?
It actually started out as the idea for a novel I had and which I then trimmed down, thinking that I'd go back later and write the full version if I ever got time. Originally the focus was more on the feudalism of the society. I'd been watching a lot of music stars and assorted richies buying up land around the town that I grew up in, and their paternalistic "we're going to help out these poor hick locals" attitude, along with the way they injected cash into the local economy, really got me thinking about a new sort of feudalism. People seem to read those feudalistic elements as fantasy, rather than sci-fi, but in my mind, I was trying to reflect a sense that we are moving in a feudal direction with our worship of music and film stars, and their increasing monetary clout. Out here in the rural West, these stars are buying huge ranches and really to my mind, setting up their own little feifs. So that was a lot of what I was thinking about when I first started working on the piece.

At the time, Belari was actually the main character, but by the time I finished polishing the story, I hated it, and I realized the biggest problem with the story was that the fluted girls were actually the most interesting thing in it. So I went back and rewrote the whole thing from scratch, from their perspective. And, as I worked on it, it opened up new ideas for me: the power relationships, the subservience and dominance, the hunt for self-realization, all that really came to life for me. I'm glad I forced myself to go back and tear up the first version of the story, because "The Fluted Girl" was better because of it, but it was scary and depressing to do, at the time.

Some of this is hindsight, too. Even when I finished the rewritten version, I still thought it was crap. I sent it to Gordon Van Gelder at F&SF and I spent the next month waiting for an insulting rejection. I was really embarrassed about it, because it felt like such a demented little piece, and I didn't think anyone would care for it. If Gordon hadn't taken it, I doubt I would have had the guts to send it out to a second market. I'd already given up on it, and only really sent it out because I try to make rules for myself about finishing stories and submitting them so that I won't chicken out. That's actually a problem I have with a lot of my writing: by the time I finish a story, I'm pretty certain its dumb, it's been done before, its obvious, its derivative, its boring. Then I force myself to send it in and find out if I'm right.

Have you ever had the opposite experience with a story: believing what you've written to be interesting and not being able to find anyone interested in it?
Not really. I've written a couple sub-par short stories, but I hated them just like I hate everything else when I finish writing, so it wasn't really a surprise when they got rejected. More of a feeling like, "Oh. I guess it really did suck. Bummer. I should work on that." With the really good editors, they sometimes take the time to point out some possibilities of why the story went wrong, but I've never had anything rejected because it was uninteresting. With my novels, I've sometimes felt that I had good material and that it wasn't being appreciated, but I never really got the feeling from the editor's rejections that I hadn't written good stuff, just that I hadn't written stuff that was a good monetary risk. The rejections ran more along the lines of "great writing, great story, I can't buy this, it's way too dark." Stuff like that. With short stories, I get the impression that editors evaluate stories more for their quality. With novels, it seems like it all comes down to the cash potential. How many units can we sell? How much for each unit?

With "The People of Sand and Slag" and "The Pasho", I felt like you were creating stories that not only worked well on their own terms, but that had a hard-to-pin-down, nearly-allegorical relationship with contemporary events and trends (political, environmental). Am I imposing my own inclinations on stories that are really just stories, nothing more?
I feel a little weird talking about this in some ways, because I don't like my politics to get in the way of my stories, but more and more I feel like I'm influenced by larger ideas that I'm wrestling with, and it's interesting to me to find ways to use fiction to gnaw away at those ideas-- political, social, environmental, what have you. The trick, in my mind, is to tell a compelling story that maybe carries an idea, but doesn't leave anyone with that awful "I've just been preached at" feeling. In large part, that means to me that I try hard to make things more complex, less clearcut, less explicitly confident of the conclusions, even if that means obscuring some of what I really wish people would take away from the story. At the end of the day, I feel like the story has to hold its own as escape, as entertainment, and then, if I can manage it, as a food for thought. I don't really know if I succeed at that, but that's what's on my mind when I sit down to work with an idea.

With "Sand and Slag", I had a beef with an old boss of mine, and his absolute belief that science would solve all our problems into the future. It's not a new belief, but we got into an argument about it, and I ended up mulling the question for years. Then, finally, this story about the Butte dog showed up and the pieces started to come together -- that I could make my argument by giving my boss' assumption free reign: Yes, we can solve every problem with technology. But there's no guarantee that we'll solve the right problem. What I desperately wanted to do was hold up a sign and say "HEY WE'VE ONLY GOT ONE PLANET, LET'S NOT FUCK IT UP" but that would have made a pretty boring story. I hope people ended up both entertained, and came away with something to think about, but I have no idea if it succeeded at that.

With "The Pasho", I'd been thinking a lot about cultural extinction, and the Pasho was my attempt to look at some of that. It came from spending so much time abroad and seeing the "Americanization" of these various places that I was travelling through. China has been interesting to watch over the last ten years as it's gotten progressively more open and leaned more and more toward a market economy. So China is, in some ways, because it's no longer insulated from outside influences, becoming less Chinese. Maybe. Does eating McDonald's take away your Chinese-ness? Does driving a car? Does playing Quake? Does a belief in freedom of the press? This is fertile ground for me, because there aren't any good answers to what we are as a culture, and what makes a culture alive or dead.

Down in southern China there are a bunch of minority cultures who are all dealing with encroachments not just of U.S. consumer culture, but also Han (the dominant cultural group in China) culture. They've got floods of Han tourists coming through, gawking at them, taking pictures, paying them to perform their festivals every day instead of just once a year, sort of theme-parking them to death. And the impacts are pretty acute: the sons don't want to be monks anymore, they just want to ride around on motor bikes, they don't want to wear their culture's traditional dress, etc. etc. It's a mess.

And more than anything, with "The Pasho", I couldn't come out with an answer to these problems. Cultural integrity is important, sure. But so is technology and comfort. So how do these things intertwine? As we interact more and more, it means that the diversity of things, people, viewpoints that makes life so interesting, are blended away. Maybe this didn't matter when we only had small cultural incursions like war. But when culture is globalised -- through media, branding, manufacturing, what have you -- the homogonization is apparent. I'm trying to figure out what my half-Indian kid is going to be like. How much of India is really going to survive the cultural mixing in him?

Do you think that writers have any responsibility, or even ability, to combat cultural homogenization?
I don't think we can combat it, really. Even by writing a book and publishing it in several languages on several continents, an author can be part of the phenomenon. And, I'm not even sure that we should try to combat it. Cultural interactions seem like a mixed bag to me. One one side, you learn new things, on another, those new things have the chance of wiping out your old ways. And that's a two-way street for both cultures. Coca-Cola's all over Asia, but at the same time, because of time I've spent over there, I take off my shoes in my own house. Am I more Asian because of this? Or am I a little more civilized because I don't track dirt around my home? These are trivial examples, but they're illustrative. China might not be discussing press freedom if there wasn't an interaction with the outside world. Taking my son as an example, he's not going to speak Hindi very well, and his understanding of Hinduism is probably going to be an outsider's view, but, on the other hand, he also isn't going to treat women the way they're treated in India. Cultural change and influence and homogenization are all extremely complex in my mind. What's interesting to me as a writer, in this particular case, is to look more critically at this phonemenon which is more and more pervasive, and which we also often seem to take for granted.

Escape from Reality!

It's opening paragraphs of reviews like this one that give me dental problems:
Life in England must be hell on earth. How else to explain the huge number of fantasy authors who hail from its shores? While America has produced sci-fi authors focused on the application of technology for the betterment (or detriment) of humanity, many British authors seem to value nothing more than a headlong flight from this world into another. J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Neil Gaiman have all made themselves rich and famous by running away. Joining this exodus from reality is Susanna Clarke and her first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which is being billed as a Harry Potter for adults.
I have not read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, nor do I expect to have time to in the near future, but it isn't anything about that particular book that bothered me in the paragraph; it is, instead, the assumption that fantasy equals escape from "the real world", as if reading fantasy is a wimpy alternative to using LSD.

Of course, some -- many -- maybe even most -- novels marketed as "fantasy" are, indeed, escapist, in that the writer's desire is merely to create something entertaining and the reader's desire is merely to be entertained, to pass some time.

But there can be, and these days more and more often there is, something more going on. As storytellers from the dawn of human history have known, fantasy is a powerful way to make an audience think about their own world and lives while at the same time being entertained. Some people might even suggest that that is the primary accomplishment of most great literature that has survived through the ages. (Other people might accuse such people of reductionary thinking, but so it goes. [Some people might say "reductionary" is a high-falutin', nasty bit o' jargon that belongs only in dumpsters and academies. So there.])

I expect the reviewer was trying to be kind of funny by starting out the review with a dig at those depressing, eccentric Brits. However, the assumptions underneath the sentences are annoying, and they are insulting to the writers mentioned. I know I shouldn't be so sensitive when there are truly offensive things in the world, but is it too much to ask that a reviewer for a major newspaper not assume that slice-of-life fiction is the only way to write seriously and for adults?