29 February 2004

We Who are About To...
by Joanna Russ

[Update, 2010: I haven't revisited this novel, because it left such an unpleasant aftertaste, but I may soon because at the time I wrote this post, I was not familiar with at least half the context for the book -- the surprisingly (or not) large number of stories about the terrible things that have to be done to women whenever situations of scarcity arise. It was a strain of male fantasy that We Who Are About To... quite effectively counters. But I still think this post is one of the weaker ones around here, and considered deleting it. I've kept it because I'm generally not in favor of sanitizing the record, even to make myself look less obtuse. In fact, I think in some ways my strong negative reaction to the book speaks to the power it has to get under a reader's skin -- I don't think I reacted so strongly simply because it was tedious. I've read far more tedious books. No, I think it got to me. Which is a good thing.]

I sought out a copy of Joanna Russ's We Who are About To... after reading Samuel Delany's comments about the novel in his essay "Shadow and Ash", collected in Longer Views: Extended Essays. Delany said the novel was an answer (intended or not) to an idea Michael Moorcock had found interesting at an SF convention: "When, in the real world, 95 percent of all commercial jet crashes are 100 percent fatal and we live in a solar system in which presumably only only one planet can support any life at all, science fiction is nevertheless full of spaceship crashes (!) in which everyone gets up and walks away from the wreckage unscathed -- and usually out onto a planet with breathable atmosphere, amenable weather, and a high-tech civilization in wait near-by to provide interesting twists in subsequent adventures."

To this idea, Russ wrote what Delany said is a novel that "functions as the bad conscience of Golding's Lord of the Flies".

Quite true. Russ makes Golding look cheery.

Science fiction is a genre generally lacking in stories which are tragedies, or at least tragedies on the level of, say, King Lear. (Brian Aldiss's Greybeard comes to mind as one exception, a book which would make an interesting tonal and thematic comparison to We Who are About To..., because Aldiss, it seems to me, succeeds at much more than Russ does. Indeed, Greybeard is one book which I think deserves far more attention than it has received, and at the very least deserves to be back in print. But I digress...)

The existentialist tendencies of the novel are made clear in the title's continuation into the first two sentences: "About to die. And so on."

The "we" of the title are a small group of survivors from an interstellar journey who are stranded on a barely-habitable planet. All of the characters except the narrator think they should do their best to create some sort of civilization on the planet, that they should build buildings and use each other to produce children. The narrator thinks they should all accept that they are going to die, that there is no chance of rescue, that they cannot be good ancestors for impossible progeny. One conceit of the novel is that the narrator is recording her thoughts into a "vocoder", and this is what we are reading. (This conceit, like the appendix to 1984, creates a frame around the narrative -- if we are reading it, then the narrator's predictions of it never being found are false, calling into question other of her ideas.)

Delany writes:
Radically, Russ suggests that the quality of life is the purpose of living, and reproduction only a reparative process to extend that quality -- and not the point of life at all. (Only feudal societies can really believe wholly that reproduction -- i.e. the manufacture of cannon fodder -- is life's real point. [Hence, everyone who claims gay marriages are evil because they don't lead to reproduction is operating from a feudal mindset. But, again, I digress...])

The narrator herself -- certainly the most "civilized" person among the passengers -- both recalls and re-voices Walter Benjamin's famous observation: "Every act of civilization is also an act of barbarism".
I'm not sure what causes Delany to call the narrator "the most 'civilized' person among the passengers", though the quotes around the word "civilized" suggest he's thinking of her profession as a musicologist, though there is at least one other survivor who is similarly scholarly. The narrator is contemptuous of this other character, but since she seems to be meant to be unreliable, and her perspective on the other characters is at the least caustic, I don't put much weight on that judgment.

Delany's reading is accurate as far as it goes, but what he neglects is that Russ's novel is achingly plodding to read. Yes, there are intellectual interests in it, but none which haven't been handled better by philosophers and even by other writers of fiction (The Stories of Paul Bowles collects plenty of tales which are thousands of times superior to Russ's novel, and shorter. For that matter, Bowles's first novel, The Sheltering Sky, covers most of the philosophical territory of We Who are About To... and much more.)

Initially, it might seem that the problem with We Who are About To... is the utterly detestable characters. (My general feeling throughout reading the book was: "Die already!") But I can tolerate detestable characters in the service of greater goals. Russ's goals aren't particularly great. Delany sums up everything the novel has to offer in a page and a half. If it can be done in a page and a half of nonfiction, why should it be done in fiction at all?

Fiction can provide us with different ways of thinking than essays or articles, of course. The central problem with We Who are About To... is that Russ doesn't utilize these different ways of thinking very well -- she doesn't create any characters a reader could possibly care about, and so, without reader sympathy for the character, there is no emotional resonance. Lack of emotional resonance can be overcome, or even turned into a strength, if the intellectual progression of the story is surprising and challenging, or if the language is wielded in a masterful way. Any reader with half a brain can get all of the intellectual offerings of the book within the first twenty-five pages (if not fewer), and the language, while occasionally interesting in its coolness, is nothing worth celebrating. I kept telling myself as I read, "Russ is a good writer, she's going to have a surprise just around the corner, there's going to be some sort of structural change, some sort of ... anything..." But no.

Delany says, "For a long time the book will remain a damningly fine analysis of the mechanics of political and social decay we have undergone to arrive at 'this point', however 'this point' changes." I'm no good at reading minds, but I would guess Delany likes the book because it supports philosophical, social, and political ideas he already held when he read it, and he enjoyed seeing those ideas given symbolic power through narrative. Good for him. I basically agree with those ideas, myself. Which is why I didn't need to have them beaten into me by a stark, bitter, one-note novel.

There are plenty of other writers who are more radical and more skilled than Joanna Russ is in We Who are About To...: M. John Harrison (just as bleak, if not bleaker, but with more to offer), Sarah Kane (a British playwright), J.G. Ballard, Thomas Pynchon, Patricia Highsmith, William Gaddis, Kathy Acker, Samuel Beckett ... I could go on...

There is nothing wrong with philosophy in fiction -- it is often a virtue. But fiction where the whole purpose is to illustrate a philosophy tends to be less interesting than fiction which explores a philosophy. The difference is between setting up a situation and following it to its logical conclusion (which can work well in short stories, but seldom as the entire purpose of novels) and investigating the various implications and possibilities of a situation. It's the difference between Dostoyevsky and a mystery potboiler, the difference between great art and the merely competent, the difference between something which is fascinating to read and We Who are About To....

27 February 2004

Stories of Sex and Identity

Speculative fiction is one of the best artistic forms with which to explore ideas of sexuality and gender identity, because SF allows writers and readers to mix imagination and curiosity together to follow hunches about human nature toward some sort of conclusion. (Nonhuman nature, of course, is fertile ground as well, though when read by humans, such stories inevitably serve as foils for human nature.) Despite a fairly conservative base of readers, SF has been investigating sex and gender since at least the time of Theodore Sturgeon, and a few recent stories which fit into this tradition have caught my attention.

Strange Horizons has been, admirably, one of the leaders in seeking out stories which don't represent worlds where heterosexuality seems to have triumphed. Jed Hartman's editorial "The Future of Sex" made me shout out, "Yes! Exactly! Absolutely!", waking my neighbors and scaring my cat. Strange Horizons has carried through on Hartman's ideas, publishing quite a few stories which avoid the quiet heterosexism of most fiction. For instance, the recent "Genderbending at the Madhattered" by Kameron Hurley is a philosophical romance in every sense of either word, proposing, as it does, a world where people's gender identities can be completely fluid. The story itself is worth reading, but I felt after finishing it that it really needed to be a novel, not just because we are only given hints about the odd, steampunkish setting, but because the underlying ideas are ones which deserve more nuanced treatment than a short story provides.

Charles Coleman Finlay's "Pervert", in the March issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, is another story which takes what might be considered a bizarre look at sexual identity, opening with these sentences: "There are two kinds of people in the world, homosexuals and hydrosexuals. And then there are perverts like me."

Like many stories which begin with stunningly attention-grabbing lines, "Pervert" isn't quite able to live up to the promise of its first sentences, because in this case the first sentences are used simply to cause the reader to keep wondering, "But what's a hydrosexual?" and to subvert our expectations of what constitutes the narrator's perversity. It's certainly not a bad story, but if Finlay had bothered to really develop the ideas inherent here, he could have had a story with far more layers, implications, and nuance. Nevertheless, it's a great example of how excitingly strange SF short stories can be.

"Pervert" has caused a bit of a ruckus amongst F&SF's readers, one of whom said on F&SF's discussion board that he "removed" the story from his copy of the magazine -- that is, he tore it out, finding it morally objectionable. Meanwhile, as you've probably heard by now, Asimov's has been accused of peddling smut to minors.

Because SF as a genre is often associated in people's minds with childishness, the idea of "adult" SF -- that is, SF with some sexual content, or even SF about people older than 50 -- is difficult for some people to allow into their minds. (Never mind that the Lord of the Rings movies are intensely homoerotic -- celebrating the fellowship of men seeking to destroy what looks to me like a giant flaming vagina in Mordor, one worshipped by an apparently all-male society of trolls and orcs and other warnings against steroids.)

Thus, I was surprised to read "Serostatus" by John Peyton Cooke in the January issue of F&SF, a gay ghost story, and a sad one. The story is a beautiful evocation of the changing nature of Manhattan's neighborhoods in the wake of AIDS, some of the implications of which have been explored by Samuel Delany in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. (It's also worth noting here that Delany's "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals" in Flight from Neveryon, aka The Bridge of Lost Desire, was one of the first works of fiction about AIDS.) Stories of people dealing with AIDS and the effects of losing loved ones to it are hardly rare, and though Cooke's story may not have the glitzy originality of "Pervert" or "Genderbending at the Madhattered", for me it's the most effective of the three tales, for Cooke takes his time in evoking the world of Manhattan's gay community, both past and present, a setting which has almost mythic properties in many gay novels and stories, from Dale Peck's dazzling and heart-wrenching first novel, Martin and John to Michael Cunningham's The Hours, and countless other books before, after, and in-between.

It's strange that "Pervert", which has no even remotely graphic sex scenes, has gotten more attention from prudes than "Serostatus", which has a few short, effective scenes of gay sex. In fact, those scenes are, for me, what make "Serostatus" work so well, for Cooke is exploring in the story the complicated feelings of his protagonist, Tom, about quick, anonymous encounters versus long-term relationships. Some readers will probably find the story "disgusting" because of its frank portrayal of promiscuity, a quality which is often seen as laudatory, or at least enviable, in straight men, but which in gay men (and women, straight and gay) is somehow a sign of insidious evil. Cooke has a far more mature attitude, one which encompasses contradictory feelings. Tom is able to look back on his past actions with a mix of both nostalgia and regret, and the story uses its fantasy elements to make this mix of feelings into a plot point which leads, finally, to a deeply affecting conclusion.

The editorial/biographical note at the beginning (written, I assume, by Gordon van Gelder), made me smile after I'd read "Serostatus": "[the story] is a dark fantasy that takes us into a world that may be as alien to some readers as anything dreamed up by Cordwainer Smith, and yet may be as familiar to other readers as walking out the door. (This world we're on is fairly big, isn't it?)"

That sure beats the warning labels that Asimov's used to put on stories which contained any hint of homosexuality, and it shows that the SF world, in particular, should not be wary of anything alien from "normality", because SF readers should know that "normality" is a delusion.

--Pardon the complete lack of transition, but I thought I should mention here another story I recently read, Jeff VanderMeer's World Fantasy Award-winning "The Transformation of Martin Lake", part of City of Saints and Madmen, in which the title character is gay, but the story doesn't make a big deal of it. That, too, is a direction writers shouldn't be afraid of following, because such characters probably offer a better representation of human life than ones which are put into stories to make a point about gender or sexuality. For various reasons, we need both.

25 February 2004

"Free Time" by James Sallis

Just a few pages in Album Zutique #1, "Free Time" demonstrates how much can be accomplished by the careful juxtaposition of words, images, and situations. James Sallis is a tremendously experienced writer, a writer who has worked within and outside various genres and styles, and the forceful effect he creates through suggestion rather than statement shows a writer who trusts the intelligence and attention of his readers.

I've been puzzled by a few of the reactions to Album Zutique from certain reviewers who have suggested (and sometimes stated) that the book is a minor one, its writers drunk on language or imagery at the expense of plot and story. This says more about the readers than the writers, it seems to me, because all of the stories I have read so far in the book reward careful reading. Yes, many of them are short, many of them are devoted to surreal effects, and many of them use stylistic effects to suggest meaning beyond the literal, but none of those qualities make the book in any way minor -- the accomplishments here are major ones.

"Free Time" is, mostly, a series of self-contained paragraphs, fragments of a character's experience and thoughts, a mosaic where each piece has meaning, but where the ultimate meaning comes from how the pieces work together as a whole. There is a "story" here in the traditional sense -- as I read it: a man whose yearning for connection with his lost, alcoholic (perhaps suicidal) father leads him to sexual obsession, which he regrets, desiring connection and love -- but that plot only becomes truly apparent after "Free Time" has been read at least once. The first reading produces some confusion: How do these pieces connect? What matters here? Who are these people? Who is speaking, and what are they referring to? The questions are easy enough to answer after the story has been read, and part of the thrill of the first reading comes from the initial feeling of there being some sort of connection, and then, about half-way through, beginning to realize the connections. The first pieces are important, though, and unless a reader has a considerably better ability to keep everything in her or his head simultaneously while reading than I do, multiple readings will be necessary. It's a very short story, so multiple readings are not much of an imposition. Indeed, they are a delight.

At the sentence level, "Free Time" is a masterpiece, a short story where each word is as important as any word in a lyric poem. The story itself feels at times like a poem -- images appear without explanation, but with purpose; formal or gnomic phrases mix with the vernacular; certain words gain meaning through repetition. For instance, look at all that is going on in these few sentences from one section:
All my friends are killing themselves.

You said: A boy I used to go with read about territorial imperatives. I came home late one night and there he was on my porch pissing on the front door.

Really I said. They are.
This could be dialogue from a play by Harold Pinter -- it is all about the silences carved around the words, and yet the words themselves also convey meaning. Modern playwrights are generally good at having characters talk around each other, but it's an effect seldom used (or used well) in fiction, at least that I've noticed. Here we have an example of what such dialogue can accomplish, indicating more about these characters in four sentences than many writers would be able to show in whole pages.

Album Zutique has mostly been reviewed within the SF press, because the surrealism (and decadence -- can't forget that) of many of the stories makes them seem to fit under a loose definition of the fantasy genre, and many of the authors included have published within the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres. Sallis has done so himself, many times. How, then, is this story SF? I don't know. I don't care. Labels are useful up to a certain point, but when it comes to good writing, all we need to say is: This is worth reading. This is writing at its best. Pay attention and your attention will be rewarded.

24 February 2004

Quote for the Day

Before anything else, The Passion [of the Christ] establishes itself in the realm of recent fantasy epics: The Aramaic sounds like bad Elvish, a brief interlude in epicene Herod's degenerate court suggests a minor detour to the Matrix world, the music is straight out of Gladiator, and much of the movie is haunted by the androgynous, cowled Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) seemingly risen from George Lucas's cutting room floor.
--J. Hoberman in The Village Voice

50 Books (Starting with 5)

Via David Harris' Science & Literature blog, I discovered the idea of a 50 Book Challenge: read 50 books in 2004 and write in the blog about them.

I can do this. I think. I read parts of hundreds of books a year, and probably read all of 50 or so, but 50 that are worth writing about, 50 in addition to the various reading I do for my job (high school English teacher) ... that's hard.

But I like a challenge, and it will give some sense of the future to this blog, which I could definitely use right now.

Therefore, here are the first five books I intend to read and to write about, books that I've currently got in my stack of things I already intend to comment on here in some way or another within the next month or two:
The Etched City by K.J. Bishop

Secret Life by Jeff VanderMeer (not due till June, but I've ordered it already)

Light by M. John Harrison

We Who Are About To by Joanna Russ

Kalpa Imperial by Angelica Gorodischer
I didn't put any anthologies on the list because I usually take a few years to finish an anthology. I know it's weird, but I just don't like to read the whole of an anthology in under a year or two. For those of you who are curious, I'm currently reading in (and will probably be writing about certain stories soon) Trampoline, Album Zutique: No. 1, Leviathan Three, and Cosmos Latinos.

Okay, got to get back to reading...

23 February 2004

"Knapsack Poems" by Eleanor Arnason

"Knapsack Poems" is the first story I've read by Eleanor Arnason, and the quality of the story makes me wonder why I haven't paid more attention to her before. Now I will.

"Knapsack Poems" is one of two stories by Arnason currently up for the Nebula award, the other being her novella "The Potter of Bones". What makes this such a fine tale is its compression, for Arnason achieves in only a few pages what many other authors struggle to achieve in novels: she builds a convincingly alien species, creates an evocative world, and subtly explores the implications of what she has imagined, touching on issues of gender, class, art, and consciousness, without ever being predictably didactic.

The aliens of her world, the goxhat, are alien to us not only in their physical form, but in their social relationships: each Goxhat "person" is really a group of people, some male, some female, and some neutral (that is, uninterested in sexual relations). They use first-person singular pronouns to refer to what we would consider multiple people, or at least multiple expressions of one person, leading to such wonderful sentences as: "I looked at myself with uncertain expressions." Indeed, the story includes moments of linguistic fun which reminded me of Alfred Bester's "Fondly Fahrenheit", and the goxhat themselves brought to mind Damon Knight's "Four in One" -- not bad company for a story to be keeping.

"Knapsack Poems" is remarkable not only for its characters and setting, all drawn with stunning efficiency, but also for the fine balance of humor and seriousness. It's not a specifically "humorous" story, but it does have plenty of marvelously amusing lines, including the last one (you'll have to get to it yourself, I don't want to spoil the story by quoting it here. It's not a twist ending, but rather one which is perfect in its pacing and syntax). Here's just one example of Arnason's odd, sly wit: "My children were Virtue, Vigor, and Ferric Oxide."

The title of the story comes from the protagonist's desire to be a famous, wealthy poet. The story is sprinkled with some of her/his/its poems, most of which read like ancient poetry from Asia in rough translation. Arnason adds footnotes to explain some aspects of the poetry, as well as to explain certain elements of goxhat life and physiology, and the footnotes provide a curious frame for the story -- they are written for humans, from a human point of view, and yet the tale doesn't offer any clues as to the goxhats' relationship with humans or human history. (The footnotes are not presented well in the online version of the story -- they appear in the midst of the text, breaking it up, making the footnotes, I expect, quite perplexing to someone who has not seen the printed edition.) The effect of the footnotes is to make the story itself seem like a relic or artifact, something which would be read in a library by scholars. It's a lovely effect, adding depth and providing both enlightening and entertaining information, though not in a way which undermines or questions the central narrative, as a postmodernist like David Foster Wallace tends to do.

What we have here, then, is a carefully constructed story full of resonances, a story which offers the traditional science fictional virtues of ideas and alien-ness, but which is written with a deceptively light touch and copious creativity, making the story a fascinating read and hiding what are, in truth, a number of remarkable technical accomplishments on Arnason's part. "Knapsack Poems" could stand as a model of all that can be accomplished within an SF story, giving the lie to anyone who thinks novels are the best the genre has to offer.

21 February 2004

Quote for the Day: Did You Know You Know?

In need of a chuckle or an egoboost? Read this and discover what you didn't know you knew:
As of March, 2000, THEY represent about 95 to 98 percent of the total Earth population. YOU KNOW IT. YOU FEEL IT.

THEY have been growing in numbers since a 'spiritual hurricane' swept up this planet from 1993 to the present day. YOU are a SURVIVOR of this situation. YOU KNOW IT. YOU REMEMBER IT.
Via Crank.net, a veritable trough of chucklematter, which was via Goblindegook.

Read It While You Can

Richard Calder's blog will be ending soon, he says, and taken off-line. It's a fascinating collection of thoughts, travels, readings, esoterica, and the uncategorizable. Read it now, before it's too late and you regret not having done so.

19 February 2004

The Loneliness of the Idiosyncratic Writer

Over at the marvelous FutureTense, Alan Lattimore meditates on "Zen and the Art of Idiosyncratic Writing", positing that there are 2 paths for a writer to follow, that of writing what you want to write, how you want to write it, defying categories and what everyone else is doing, and that of doing basically what everyone else is doing, with some small differences of your own (essentially following the herd):
It seems that if you take the compromise path--to run with the herd--you might improve your short term chances of getting published. But where will you be in 10 years?

I can't guarantee the ideosyncratic path will change your life. But it just seems so much more interesting to be writing different stuff 10 years from now than the same old thing.
I thought immediately of Piers Anthony's latest newsletter, in which, among the many subjects he discusses (quite amusingly), he mentions some short stories he's written:
I regard myself as a natural story writer; the reason I have done more novels than stories, literally, is that I can sell my novels, while stories are iffy. Editors are choosy idiots, as every aspiring writer knows. So the notions pile up; my computer says my Idea file is over 57,000 words long. Normally they are fantasy ideas, and they find their way into fantasy novels, in due course. But some stories don't make it; the poor things languish. Why? Because they are mainstream notions. What use are they to a fantasy writer? Finally I have had enough of this unfairness, and I am writing those stories, to make up a story collection titled Relationships. ... I'll send it to my agent, and when it doesn't sell I'll see about small press publishing or self publishing it. You thought I was promoting small press and self publishing just for the benefit of aspiring writers? I use them myself. It's the way to get around the resistance of Parnassus to readable or provocative fiction.
Then I thought about the April 1976 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which I just got at a used bookstore for $1, quite a deal for a particularly important issue of a magazine which has often been important to the field. Why is the April '76 issue so important? Because it contains an essay by Barry N. Malzberg titled "Rage, Pain, Alienation, and Other Aspects of the Writing of Science Fiction" in which he says that the story published after the essay, "Seeking Assistance", is his final SF story. At the back of the magazine is a long letter from Harlan Ellison, responding to a previous letter which seems to have suggested (I don't have the issue it was printed in) that there was something wrong with Ellison for wanting to be known as a "writer who writes some sf" rather than an SF writer.

Some illuminating passages, first from Malzberg:
[After a discussion of Richard Kostelanetz's book The End of Intelligent Writing, which, according to Malzberg, "claims that almost no American writer under forty has been able to achieve a wide audience for serious work much less critical acknowledgment"]: Kostelanetz's academic/literary nexus either does not know we [SF writers] exist or patronizes us as pulp hacks for escapist kids; in any case they leave us alone and enable us to be probably the only medium (but less so in years past) for dangerous, ambitious work. But if you win, you lose; my ambition had turned upon itself. I had beaten the [mainstream literary] system by getting out of the system, but the system wouldn't be beaten after all because it would not acknowledge that I existed and that made my work meaningless. Also I was getting knifed up pretty good inside s-f. Ambitious writers always do; historically the field has silenced or reduced to ineffectiveness its best writers. There is not a single American s-f writer over the age of forty-five whose work is the equal of what it was a decade ago, if it even exists.
And now Ellison:
But what about those of us who want to go our own way, who want to write whatever we choose without having to be pigeonholed? Is that some terrible sin against the wonderfulness of sf? In my case, I have a body of writing behind me that is as much non-sf as it is fantasy. ... Why should potential readers who might enjoy these books never get the chance to read them because Web of the City, a street gang novel, is dumped in with all the "we-have-been-visited-by-aliens-who-built-the-pyramids" books? ...

Why should a book like Deathbird Stories, clearly not sf, be reviewed with pure sf books in the New York Times and be found wanting on the basis of its having contained precious little sf material? And what the hell is so bloody holy about those two letters s and f? John Collier, H.G. Wells, Donald Barthelme, John Hersey, E.L. Doctorow, Vladimir Nabokov, Roald Dahl, David Lindsay, and Anna Kavan managed to write sensational, immortal fiction without being bothered that what they were setting down may possibly be called sf by some, and might be called other things by other people. They were writers, not sf writers, and they received universal attention because they weren't shuunted off into the giant ant and space opera ghetto.

Who's to blame, you ask? Well, publishers and distributors and readers and writers and fans like you who insist on the baby blue blanket security of your little labels. The blame is unequally shared by all those who wish to constrain writers in any way.
Final piece in the collage -- reading through Locus's Year in Review, I was amused by how many of the reviewers, noting their favorites works of the year and any trends they happened to spot, said 2003 was the year of slipstream, or the year of pushing genre boundaries, etc. (My favorite: Gary K. Wolfe: "...if there was a clear movement in the SF/fantasy world over the last year or so, it was a movement to have more movements." Metamucil, anyone?)

The only year in review article which got me particularly annoyed was Gardner Dozois's, which I assume will mostly be reprinted in his next Year's Best collection's "Summation". I owe a lot to Dozois -- my sense of the SF genre was molded by his annuals in the '80s, and Asimov's is the magazine I have subscribed to for the longest time. I think he's a treasure. Therefore, I was frustrated to read his review of the year, which -- and it may just be my reading -- seemed to have a tone of annoyance at writers who don't fit labels. Of Trampoline he seems downright hostile, saying, "this is much more of a classic 'slipstream' anthology, and ... a number of the stories strike me as not even slipstream or Magic Realism, but as mostly mainstream stories with occasional very faint fantastic -- or at least 'odd' -- touches; some of them don't even have the odd touches..." It's as if Dozois has spent so much time within the confines of the traditional SF world that he's afraid to look beyond it, afraid of books where the subject matter and style of writing can't be predicted from one story to another, afraid of having to take a story for what it has, itself, to offer, rather than how it fits into his perception of what is or isn't "science fiction", "fantasy", or "horror". Such an attitude is a cousin to the attitude of the critics who complain about the fantastic elements in Jonathan Lethem's novels.

Idiosyncratic writers are the writers who keep literature alive, but to do so they must be noticed by at least a few readers. Writers of the energy and egomania of Malzberg and Ellison have an easier time of it than quieter, less prolific writers. Even the best readers tend to fall back on what they know, what they recognize, what they can immediately comprehend. While sticking to her or his principles, writing only what is most personally compelling, may be the noble path of the idiosyncratic, it can be a bruising and humiliating path for anyone who wants to connect with readers. Nobody said it was supposed to be easy, though, and despite enmity from traditional fans and critics, despite the difficulties of selling and marketing idiosyncratic work, we are living in a time of much great and original writing from writers who are sticking to their principles. Our job as readers who appreciate this work, I think, is to let other people know about it, to coax them toward appreciation.

(And maybe it's time somebody created a Year's Best Idiosyncratic Fiction series, since the genre years' bests say if a story doesn't fit a label then it doesn't belong, and the non-genre years' bests don't tend to read outside mainstream publications, and often the editors don't know how to read something with fantastic elements.)

The U.S. = Mars

Charles Stross visited the U.S. recently and wrote some wonderful blog entries about his trip. It's fun to see him wrestle with his perceptions of this country, because he's both a good writer and a thoughtful observer.

Two paragraphs of one post in particular made me think for a moment that Mr. Stross has figured out one reason for Mr. Bush's fascination with Mars:
Another thing I needed was my annual reminder of just how parochial the US news media are. Today's half-baked theory: America's view of the rest of the world can best be understood by a European if you start by imagining that America is psychologically located on Mars, fifty million plus kilometres from the quaint neighbours on that funny third planet over there. The quality and quantity of foreign news reporting is absolutely dismal for the most part, highly selective, and framed entirely in terms of the domestic political discourse. ('Political crisis rocks Ruritania! How opinion of US tourists affects balance of power between Ruritanian Royal Family, Junta!') It reminded me of how badly we in the UK need the BBC -- not because the BBC is always right, or always unbiased, or always insightful, but because it provides a reference baseline for the quality and quantity of foreign news reportage in the other media, and the BBC's charter includes the clause 'to educate'.

In the US, I saw precious few signs of a committment to education in foreign affairs outside of a few major broadsheet newspapers and weekly or monthly magazines aimed at a core readership of foreign policy wonks. I can't help feeling that this has contributed to the psychological sense of insulation that keeps people in the US half-believing that the rest of the world either doesn't exist, or is an annoying obstruction created solely to get in their way. Its the News, Stupid. If your sources of information are skewed and corrupt, you make policy decisions based on ignorance. It's a much simpler explanation for the bad craziness that has engulfed us since 9/11 than the conspiracy theories that are doing the rounds: and more importantly, it suggests a solution to the problem.
Clearly, it is in the Bush administration's best interests to keep us on Mars.

(Okay okay okay, it's a lame joke at the expense of Our Great Leader, but I couldn't resist.)

Words Without Borders

Every now and then I'm grateful to the New York Times, and today my gratitude is for a story which led me to the lovely website Words Without Borders, which presents translations of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction from around the world. It is a young site, having existed only since July, but the content is steadily growing. Each month, the site focuses on a different country or region, and this month (fans of Kalpa Imperial take note) the focus is Argentina. I was particularly fascinated by a short essay about Xul Solar, an artist and writer who was a friend of Borges and seems to have influenced him considerably.

17 February 2004

Lists

If you want to get a lot of varied, contradictory, contentious, and amusing opinions, ask a fairly literate audience for a list of Books Every Educated Person Should Read . (Actually, it's books published after 1970, building on a list by Will Durant, which I haven't been able to find online.) Interesting that there are quite a few SF books suggested, particularly if you consider Gravity's Rainbow to be SF (as Jonathan Lethem has proposed, though he's certainly not the only one.) The "list" itself -- that is, the comments in response to the call for suggestions -- is less interesting to me than the sort of conversation it has created, a conversation which veers away from the original objectives fairly frequently and ends up producing suggestions which might better be called "Books I Think Should Be Read More Often By More People and Valued in the Same Way I Value Them" which is what every such list usually becomes. It seems to me that were people to stick to the original subject -- that is, books every educated person should have read to be able to be called "educated" (whatever that is) -- then the list would be somewhat less esoteric, and would include more books which disagree with or contradict each other, because much of the value of reading (for the purpose of being "educated", that is) comes from the text's ability to incite thought. I've often found myself more incited to thought by the conversation in my mind between two books than I have been by very many books on their own.

While recognizing the absurdity of listing, the utter impossibility of completeness, the various frustrations likely to be created, let me propose a list for my own readership: what 2 to 5 books do you think every literate SF reader should read before they die? Here are my suggestions, which I'm sure I will disagree with in the next hour:
The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing
Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
Bill, the Galactic Hero by Harry Harrison
The Start of the End of It All by Carol Emshwiller
Galaxies by Barry N. Malzberg
What a bizarre, ridiculous list! Of course, I thought of at least 50 other books, but I settled on these because I liked how they talked to, at, around, and about each other. (Though I almost cheated and listed Lessing's The Fifth Child with its sequel, Ben, In the World -- two books which create their own dialogue by, in the first book, making readers loathe the monstrous title character, and then making them sympathize with him in the second book. Also thought The Fifth Child would go well with Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human.) All I can say is, I'd be curious to know what a person thought after reading those five books one after the other (not necessarily in the order I set out). Malzberg's Galaxies (discussed here by Adam Troy-Castro) is a book that I find particularly amusing when read by other people, because it inevitably causes a reaction. It's also one of the only purely metafictional SF novels I know.

I was very much tempted to list anthologies, from Dozois's The Year's Best Science Fiction: Third Annual Collection, which covers 1985 and is one of the single most remarkable anthologies I know, to various anthologies from Kathryn Cramer and David Hartwell, to Leviathan 3, Trampoline, etc. This desire to suggest anthologies reminded me that so much of what is valuable within the SF realm, so much that is worth talking about, is not of novel length. So here, then, is a list of a few stories I think it would be good for every SF reader to read and think about before they plunge off into the abyss of the beyond:
"Day Million" by Frederik Pohl
"Unlocking the Air" by Ursula K. LeGuin
"Or All the Seas with Oysters" by Avram Davidson
"The Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
"Heavens Below: Fifteen Utopias" by John Sladek
Another completely inadequate list, but so it goes. With this one, I simply wanted to look at imagination and form.

I'm sure some of you out there can do better.

"The Falls" by George Saunders

Late-night websurfing occasionally reveals wonders. Last night I discovered that one of my favorite contemporary short stories is online: "The Falls", written by a New Yorker writer who happens to be one of the better writers of satirical speculative fiction, George Saunders. I'll let you explore the wonders of the story for yourself, though if you're determined to know why I think Saunders is worth reading, I did review him for English Journal's May 2003 issue. [Update 10/1/09: The link to the review no longer works. One day I'll repost it...]

Reviewing Situations

By now you must have heard that Amazon.com's Canadian site had a bit of a glitch and revealed the identities of anonymous reviewers of books. I ignored the story for a few days, thinking, "So what?" I can be very obtuse at times. This is an interesting story because some of the anonymous reviewers turned out to be the authors of the books themselves.

READER BEWARE: WHAT FOLLOWS ARE SELF-INDULGENT RAMBLINGS AND RUMINATIONS, ATTEMPTS AT META-CRITICISM, AND FAR TOO MANY PARENTHETICAL REMARKS. IF I WERE LESS TIRED AND INDOLENT, I WOULD EDIT THIS ALL DOWN TO TWO SHORT SENTENCES. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.

The ethics of reviewing can be frustrating to think about. I've always taken Amazon's customer reviews with sea-sized grains of salt, because, of course, anybody can write a review. Many of the reviews seem barely literate. And yet sometimes they're written by intelligent and informed people, and are quite helpful. It just never occurred to me that authors would review their own books and hide behind a pseudonym. (Have I mentioned the fact that I can be tremendously obtuse? Or, as someone less polite than I might say, stupid?)

I have written a number of reviews at Amazon (the number being around 60), though not recently, since this blog keeps me plenty busy expressing my opinions. Most of those reviews were written when I was working on a deservedly ill-fated novel, and I would write a review as a warm up before working on another chapter. At first, I tried to draw attention to little-known books by writers I knew or cared about. Very occasionally, I had such a strong reaction against a book that I felt obligated to write something negative, but the vast majority of the reviews simply aimed at informing potential buyers of what they were in for, because those were the sorts of reviews I appreciated reading, and still appreciate.

The fact that Amazon is not really a reviewing organ, but rather a marketplace, makes the reviews function in ways a review in, say, Locus might not: the reviews are read, mostly, by people who are considering spending money on the book at that moment. Hence, I can understand why authors feel like they need to plug their book or to answer negative reviews, particularly if negative reviews are posted by people with an axe to grind against the work in question.

It seem clearly unethical to me, despite being understandable. Hiding behind a pseudonym in such cases is just that: hiding.

The weblog phenomenon makes the ethics of reviewing even more complex. Anybody with an internet connection can create a blog and write whatever they feel like. I could, if I wanted, make The Mumpsimus into the "Anti-Writer X Blog" and write horrible, nasty things about Writer X. I could hide my identity. I could lie and cheat and try to steal. I've put my name prominently at the top of this blog not because I think it's particularly beautiful or will draw in hordes of readers, but because I want everyone to know right from the beginning that these are my thoughts, the thoughts of one completely fallible guy who often writes too quickly but tries his damnedest to be fair, if not accurate. (I also hoped the title might cause some people to look up and thinking about the definition of the word "mumpsimus", the choice of which was a coy way for me to try to avoid all presumptions of accuracy from the get-go.)

Anyway, the challenge I soon faced was: What do I do when I want to write about people I know or have corresponded with or who have been nice to me in one way or another? (Since no writers or editors have so far been particularly mean to me, I haven't yet had to deal with that, thankfully.) Of course, I want everyone in the universe to buy every single word ever written by such magnificent people as Jim Kelly and Jeff VanderMeer, both of whom are in my personal pantheon of Heroes, but therefore if I write about their works, I'm likely to write differently than I do of an author who is a stranger to me. The eventual solution I came to was simple honesty: I'll admit every bias I'm aware of in the review itself, allowing readers to judge if my partiality has gotten in the way of my vision.

It also helps, I suppose, that I'm not interested in thumbs-up/thumbs-down reviews. In some ways, that's what distinguishes reviews from criticism -- though, being a fan of genre-blurring, I like to incorporate elements of both types of writing. I like writing this sort of stuff because I like figuring out how stories work, what elements I respond to as a reader, and how the piece in question fits in to whatever larger scheme seems appropriate. My motives here are mostly personal, and are expressed best by E.M. Forester, who (reputedly) once said, "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" (There's a lot more to writing than that, of course -- sometimes I frankly don't care what I think, I just want to write a nice sentence, which is much more difficult than either thinking or saying -- but it suits my purposes for the moment.) Because I'm primarily interested in the hows and whys of writing, it's relatively easy to say, "Okay, so I've got a reason to like this writer other than just their writing, but that doesn't mean I can't analyze what they're up to."

Evaluation is more difficult. I've stayed away from writing too much here that's negative, but the reasons for that are many -- if I don't like something, I often give up on it and move on, and I haven't (quite) gotten desperate enough yet to write about works I haven't read or viewed all of; I have eclectic tastes and generally am willing to give writers the benefit of the doubts; and there's so much good stuff out there that I hate wasting too much time talking about works which seem less than interesting. I do know that evaluating why something doesn't seem to work (that is, for me) can be useful, and certainly it can be fun, particularly when in a bitter mood, to write nasty, snarky posts about All That Is Rotten (a la Dale Peck), but ... well, it just seems like there are better things to do with my time. If I were a reviewer for a magazine which required me to write about the free books I got, then of course I'd have to write negatively about some books, since I'd have to finish reading books I didn't like, and I always resent that. In fact, when I was in college I wrote theatre reviews for a year and half for NYU's school paper, and I had to review whatever shows the editor sent me to, which were usually quite awful. To vent my frustration at having wasted time at boring and inept productions, I wrote vicious reviews. Eventually, I got bored with this, partially because the catharsis of writing sharp reviews just didn't make up for all the lost hours at horrible productions. But it also felt like I was getting predictable. After all, not being a genius, I have very few Truths to convey to the world, and once both of them are out there, I haven't got much to do except repeat myself.

What's the point of all this? I've forgotten. Oh, yes, just a simple note: I'm not reviewing myself here. I'm trying to remain ethical, while recognizing the limits of ethics. And sometimes I can be obtuse.

16 February 2004

A Bit of Disch

Dan McNeil has an interesting review of Thomas M. Disch's short stories (early ones). I've been thinking about writing something about Disch, a fascinating and sometimes problematic writer, but now I don't have to (at least immediately), because McNeil has some interesting things to say. Here's just one:
In Disch, I sense a man who wants you to taste his words, to enjoy the sentences they create, to observe the paragraphs as they assemble themselves before you, to feel uncomfortable with the direction you are being pulled in, to feel your mind being stretched. And what’s wrong with that? Much of the dross that strains the shelves today is safe and easy. It’s also dull, inane, useless and derivative. These attributes are fine for TV, but for literature? Pass me the blowtorch.
(Note: You may have to scroll down a bit after following the link to McNeill's review site.)

15 February 2004

Jan Svankmajer, Faust, and Surrealism

I've wanted to see some of Jan Svankmajer's films for a while now, since I have liked the bizarre works of the Brothers Quay, who claim him as an influence. But I live in rural New Hampshire, and the video rental places around me don't have many international films. Finally, I joined Netflix, and one of the first DVDs I rented was Svankmajer's Faust. (Why start with that and not another? Because I find the Faust story to be filled with possibilities and was curious what Svankmajer would do with it.)

Svankmajer's Faust is a magnificent film, one which mixes live action with claymation and human actors with marionettes (sometimes even human actors inside marionettes). There are many elements of the film I could praise, from the remarkable lack of dialogue in the beginning scenes to the brilliant and disturbing imaginative vision of it all, but what most held my thoughts after seeing the film was the way Svankmajer uses techniques of surrealism to explore the contours of reality.

Svankmajer has said:
There's a lot of misunderstanding about surrealism. People still see it through the prism of certain works of art, by Dali for example; they look at it superficially in terms of aesthetics. But there is no surrealist aesthetics; it's a psychology, a view of the world, which poses new questions about freedom, eroticism, the subconscious, and which attracts a certain sort of people -- subversive types. It offers an alternative to the ideology offered by most modern societies, and it's a great adventure; it's tried to return art, which has become representational, aesthetic, commercial, to its level of magic ritual. And that's why I consider myself a surrealist. If art has any purpose, I think it's to liberate... both the artist and the spectator. And if it doesn't liberate, it's just a commodity, an aesthetic game.
Surrealism can be a kind of art-for-art's-sake, but it doesn't need to be, nor is it necessarily at its strongest when it is. For me, surrealism is more interesting when it is used in an epistemological way, when it becomes a lens through which to accumulate knowledge and understanding of reality, which is itself too vast to be known or described by the reductive techniques of any art which calls itself "realism".

What Svankmajer does is meld realism and surrealism. The first half or so of the film has odd, surrealistic events happen within a realistic context, the context of late twentieth century Prague. The response of the protagonist, however, is distinctly unrealistic: he is intrigued by such things as fruit rotting suddenly before his eyes, but he takes it in stride. Opening an empty egg (which he discovered in a loaf of bread) brings on night and a storm, an event which would cause the protagonists of many stories to fall to the floor in abject terror. Not our everyman Faust. He turns on a light. Similarly, he wanders through the city, following obscure clues, until he finds himself in a theatre, where he laconically puts on a costume and make-up and wanders toward the stage. Why does he do this? How does he know what is expected of him? What, in the words of die-hard Method actors, is his motivation? We don't know, nor will it ever be openly explained to us.

As the film progresses, it gets stranger and stranger, veering for a while into scenes of pure surrealism, mixing moments on stage with moments in realistic settings where marionettes run free of their puppet masters and the head of Mephisto builds itself from clay into an image of Faust's own face. In the end, Faust returns to the starkest sort of realism with Faust getting hit by a car while running across the street. Some filmmakers would have ended here, letting us see that perhaps the character was deluded or insane, that he couldn't escape reality. This was my first impression, but it only lasted seconds, because an old man who had been part of some of the more surrealistic scenes then entered and, in a moment which exquisitely reminds us of an earlier scene, runs off with Faust's severed leg. And when the police open the driver's side door, they discover the car has no driver.

Svankmar's story has political resonances, which he has pointed out:
There's no great difference between a totalitarian system, which we lived through in the '70s and '80s, and a capitalist society. The manipulations are the same, it's just the methods that differ. So the film is about the degradations of our time, and Faust is manipulated like a puppet.
Here, Svankmajer shows that his surrealism is one which functions similarly to allegory and parable -- it's a different approach to the actual experiences of life. It is not mimetic, but rather expressive, in that it expresses what it feels like to live in certain situations and environments, and it uses fantastic elements to explore the ambiguous and complex forces which play on people, cultures, political structures, and even physical landscapes. By using suggestive imagery it achieves more than it would through didactic statement, because it allows multiple layers of meanings, offers no clear interpretation, and lets viewers apply the imagery to their perception of reality without dictating how they must do so. Even though, in the end, Faust becomes more and more of a puppet, Svankmajer does not provide us with any clear (allegorical) explanation of who the puppet masters are. By providing images, situations, and characters without naming the particulars controlling and motivating those images, situations, and characters, Svankmajer creates art rather than simplistic agitprop.

What this oh-so-serious discussion has neglected to express, though, is that watching Faust is not only thought-provoking, but it is fun, it is pleasurable. (Gross and even frightening at some points, but that just adds to the pleasure.) You could watch the film without any knowledge of the last thirty years or so of Eastern European history, and you would still find much of the imagery breathtaking, and, if you were of such a bent, you might even relate it to whatever reality you know.

Some viewers, I'm sure, find Svankmajer's work all too imaginative, his images too free of explanation or realistic motivation, his narrative too obscure, and they aren't able to enjoy the film purely for its visual qualities because they don't find pleasure in anything which eschews cause and effect, narrative tension, etc. That's not a perspective which can be argued with -- we like what we like -- but for those of us who do not require a tight plot and "psychologically rich" characters in the works we read and view, Faust is a treasure trove. I can't wait to work my way through Svankmajer's other films -- if they are of the visual, intellectual, and artistic richness of Faust, I will welcome them into the little corner of the universe I call my own reality.

Underrated and Overrated

In response to my post about David Bunch, The Website at the End of the Universe offers a short post on science fiction's most underrated and overrated writers. Suggestions for underrated writers were: Gordon R. Dickson, Richard C. Meredith, Allen Steele and Barrington Bayley. (I'm actually hoping to write some about Bayley soon, if I can get through a pile of reading I'm behind in and refresh myself on some of Bayley's work.) The overrated list is far more controversial -- William Gibson, Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, Connie Willis. The author's own pick is one I can't disagree with more strongly: Samuel R. Delany. It would be a more interesting discussion, I think, if there were reasons given for why these writers either deserve more or less attention. Gibson, Herbert, Heinlein, Willis, and Delany might not be to your particular taste in reading, but what are their flaws, how are they meretricious or superficial, what qualities are the readers who find them important judging incorrectly? Anybody can say, "So-and-so sucks!", but the opinion doesn't gain any worth until it is supported with evidence and argument.

13 February 2004

Unjustly Neglected: David R. Bunch

I'm not in this business primarily to describe or explain or entertain. I'm here to make the reader think, even if I have to bash his teeth out, break his legs, grind him up, beat him down, and totally chastise him for the terrible and tinsel and almost wholly bad world we allow.... The first level reader, who wants to see events jerk their tawdry ways throguh some used and USED old plot -- I love him with a hate bigger than all the world's pity, but he's not for me. The reader I want is the one who wants the anguish, who will go up there and get on that big black cross. And that reader will have, with me, the saving grace of knowing that some awful payment is due...as all space must look askance at us, all galaxies send star frowns down, a cosmic leer envelop this small ball that has such great Great GREAT pretenders.

--David R. Bunch
It is not a surprise that David Bunch's hundreds of short (very short) stories have been nearly forgotten, his few books gone out of print nearly as soon as they sneaked their way onto unsuspecting shelves. It is not a surprise, but it is a shame. A travesty. An indication of all that is wrong in the best of all possible worlds.

That Bunch's large body of small works have become little more than a footnote in reference books is not a surprise because Bunch was never an easy read. His prose has been called "convoluted", he was said to be a writer who alienated readers. "Convoluted" may be an accurate term for the feeling one gets from reading Bunch's sentences, but it is not an accurate term overall because it connotes bad writing, and Bunch was not a bad writer -- exactly the opposite. "Dense" is a better way to describe those sentences, those little stories of immense weight. "A miracle of language" might be the best description, though.

Out from the black-curtain area those compilers from another unit would swagger and stand looking at us like we were cold spit on the floor, and then they would gaze all around our area as if seeing everything clearly in a kind of blanket stare and evaluating everything correctly in a kind of God's judgement just before ambling on up to get their doughnuts, and their coffee or tea, with the sure walk of Captains to the snack bar.

("In the Empire")
I've been reading a bunch of Bunch over the past few days. I knew I wanted to write about him, as I have wanted to write about him for years, to shout his name out to the world, to say, "Look what you have ignored!" But I hadn't read much Bunch in years, and I needed to refamiliarize myself with the specifics of the tales, to try and figure out how he did what he did, because from the first story I read (in Dangerous Visions) I could describe the effect of Bunch on the brain -- he sizzles the senses, he snaps the synapses, he makes you go back to page one and start all over again -- I've never been able to figure out, precisely and incontrovertibly, HOW he achieved his effects.

(Another Bunch effect: He's contagious. Look at that ALL-CAPS up there. Oh, DRB, what have you done to me!)

It's been said that when Bunch was publishing one story after another in Amazing, Fantastic, If, Galaxy, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction during the 1960s and '70s that readers were outraged -- they felt the stories were deliberately opaque, that he was mocking them and their desire for linear narratives with clear plots and sympathetic characters.

He was.

But he was doing it out of necessity, and somehow he convinced editors to let him get away with it. (Perhaps because he didn't take up too much space. It's a rare Bunch story that lasts for more than a few pages.)

What readers who decided to hate Bunch, to deliberately Not Get It, missed out on what were, among other things, some of the best first sentences and paragraphs ever published in genre magazines:
At first I was always scared that the policemen would come. And there I'd be up in my poor little room kicking this head. So the extreme pleasure I would be getting would be tinged with fear -- not guilt, not at all -- but fear that sooner or later those big blue men would come on their leather-cloppy feet -- heel plates thundering, thick knuckles pounding, and say, "Who's that up there making all that noise? Like kicking a head. Who's it? OPEN UP!!" And there I'd be.
("Any Heads at Home")

It was early along in my Stronghold reign, after I had won me a couple of world Max Shoot-Outs and had established myself as the current Greatest Man, that I began to think again of other things; I began to think of ... aspects ... Purpose ... Beauty ... Community Interest...
("The Bird Man of Moderan")

There wasn't much we could do about it. Mostly we just did our job, which was to dump the cans and scoop up the sacks and the broken lamps and the pieces of chairs and the old picture walls and the kids and put it all in the back. Where the teeth were.
("In the Time of Disposal of Infants")
The wonder of Bunch is that all of those first sentences and paragraphs are followed by equally skilled, surprising, magical sentences and paragraphs. Each story works its way toward endings which are unpredictable, disturbing, darkly funny, and utterly apt.

Reading lots of Bunch is an exhausting experience, but also fulfilling, for the vast majority of his stories are -- given close attention -- immensely rewarding. You would think that reading such SHORT stories would be easy, quick, light. Not in the least. There are some Bunch stories which I have spent an hour reading, working slowly through the sentences, going back and forth and back and forth, imagining and savoring, constructing and reconstructing the sense and imagery in my mind.

In Trillion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss says of reading Bunch's collection of linked stories and not-quite-stories Moderan: "The effect is as if Whitman and Nietzsche had collaborated to rewrite a typical Heinlein-Anderson-Niven-Pournelle future history story. As such it is a unique book in the science fiction field." He goes on to say: "Moderan appeared only once, in paperback in the USA in 1971. Like so many good books in SF's history, it vanished in the flood of hype which launches many lesser fictional craft."

Judith Merrill put a number of Bunch's early stories in her Best SF anthologies, Harlan Ellison invited Bunch into Dangerous Visions, and, more recently, the controversial LeGuin/Attebery The Norton Book of Science Fiction including one of Bunch's tales of Moderan, "2064, or Thereabouts". A collection, BUNCH!, appeared from Broken Mirrors Press in 1993, and in 2000 Anamnesis Press published a collection of his poetry.

But so much of Bunch has been left uncollected, and all but a handful of stories are extremely difficult to find. Judith Merrill said Bunch had published 200 non-SF stories before selling his first SF story to If, and throughout his career he published nearly as much in small mainstream journals as he did in the SF magazines. (Some of these stories are collected in Bunch, and they don't feel too different from the SF stories, though they tend to have fewer machines.) At best, it seems, only 1/3 of Bunch's stories have ever been collected.

I have a copy of one uncollected story, "Doll for the End of the Day", from the October 1971 issue of Fantastic. It's essentially a horror story, and one of the most horrifying I've ever read, a tale of how one man takes out his frustrations, and the art that can be made from blood. If the rest of Bunch's uncollected work is of a similar quality, then the fact that it has remained uncollected means we have been deprived of knowing some of the best writing of the 20th century, in or out of the SF field. Scattered throughout hard-to-find old SF magazines and even-harder-to-find old literary journals is a wealth of wonder, and it's nearly impossible to know what we have lost through their obscurity.

David Bunch died a few years ago, forgotten except by some dedicated fans. His work should have changed the landscape of the SF genre. It still should.
Flying saucer stories were a little too mundane for these old rumor tigers, each of whom was a minor wise-person in many areas, not including of course the area on how to live on Earth with the world as presented to them by history and beyond their blame and, in large measure, beyond their power to alter and make amends for. In other words, these derelicts couldn't adjust, roll with the punch, make the best of it and all that. They were hung up on things like how to earn the daily and how to pay consistently for a roof that didn't leak too much to be under at night in moderate to heavy wet stormy weather. They were losers. Protestors. Disturbers. Snarlers and howlers until the end. YES!

("That High-Up Blue Day That Saw the Black Sky-train Come Spinning")

12 February 2004

What Fiction Can Learn from Poetry

to bend at the end of the line
to give up the line for a word
to push when a word tries to shove
to try when nothing else works
to find everything in nothing
to look without wanting to find
to scour the language with want
to guess what lies outside language
to play outside when it's cold
to jumble a why to a when
to break before getting to why
to watch for what came before
to read without setting a watch
to set down all that moves up
to move when the grammar gets tough
to be tough in the face of forgetfulness
to judge each face by its shadow
to shadow the beauty of yesterdays
to speak truth to beauty
to forget about truth
to embody all that is forgotten


(Sorry ... it's been a long day and I was feeling pretentious...)

Some New Links

I've updated the links in the sidebar, cutting out a few which were dead, moving some into categories which seemed more appropriate (the categories are just a guideline -- many of the sites don't fit comfortably into one category only). There are some great blogs I just discovered and added.

One link I didn't add, because it isn't related to speculative fiction particularly, but which I've enjoyed very much, is the Missouri Review blog. It's interesting to see behind the scenes of a mainstream lit magazine, and provides some wonderful links, for instance these writing exercises. The blog is young, and I look forward to seeing what the various writers will come up with. Unlike some blogs connected to major publications, this one allows the writers to be personal, giving us a sense of the personalities working on a respected literary journal, while at the same time providing good information about publishers and writers.

10 February 2004

Heroism and Happy Endings

Albert Goldbarth's poem "Far: An Etymology" is lovely and affecting, written in a style which mingles the lyrical with the vernacular with grace and skill. These early lines caught my eye:
In 1950s sci-fi idiom: space--"far"er,
with its smug and kickass certainty that interstellar travel is
the farthest: so, the most heroic.
I immediately thought of myself at twelve years old, sitting in my bedroom, reading a couple of fragile copies of Galaxy from the '50s which I'd gotten at a used bookstore, entranced by the idea of a space beyond myself, of worlds Out There, of heroism.

I'm not a big fan of heroism anymore. It was a nice escapist fantasy when I was 12, but now I've seen the effects of people trying to be heroes, scattering lives and resources in the wake. Heroism is a vastly different concept to me now, one not linked to strength and power, but more to sacrifice -- I find myself most awed by people willing to give up comfort and clarity, to lend their life to something other than their self. All those heroes we meet in space operas and space operettas seem like egomaniacs to me.

Perhaps that's why I tend to revere the darker, drearier literatures to the ones which tell us everything will be okay. There's an honesty and nobility to unhappy endings. I've seen so many readers complain of "depressing" stories winning major awards, and didn't Janet Asimov write an editorial some years ago (for Asimov's, of course) with a title saying something to the effect of, "Writers! Lift us up!"

Please don't, I remember thinking, I couldn't bear it.

"These are people who began as the same/ meiotically rendered egg as you and me," Goldbarth writes. Easy to forget that when "these people" are space cowboys and dragonlancers, as alien as any bug-eyed monster.

The desire for escapist fiction is understandable, but we should not be required to respect it. Entertainments serve their purposes, and we all need breaks from the heavy weather of daily life, but that's what TV is for.

I once went to a reading by the poet Donald Hall, and a friend asked me if I expected Hall would read a bunch of "depressing" poems, because his wife, Jane Kenyon, had recently died. I said I expected so and hoped so, since the only poem of Hall's which I've ever adored is "Without", which is about Kenyon's death. During the question and answer session after the reading, I asked Hall how he would respond to my friend's fear of depressing poetry. He said something to the effect of the deepest feelings being the darkest, and that art should be about the deepest feelings.

Which is not to say, of course, that we shouldn't laugh. I like my laughter mixed with darkness, yes, and I'm more likely to value a work which probes deeply than a work which is clever and humorous -- but Dorothy Parker, whose wit was so sharp it drew blood, wrote four of my favorite lines in English:
Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Roumania.
She calls it "Comment", but I'd prefer "Credo". It's enough to strike a happy writer dead.

And then there's one of the best fictional explorations of the whole subject, Margaret Atwood's "Happy Endings". It shows everything I'm trying to tell.

Except this: I've known some writers of very dark and painful work, and some of them have been happy people. (Happy in that they are not overhappy ... the overhappy get rubber rooms...)

Perhaps there are two kinds of readers in the world: those who want to dig deep, and those who want to be diverted. Two kinds of personalities, really, because such proclivities don't determine a person's literary values alone, but also what sorts of movies and music they like, how they interact with friends, what they do at parties (if they go to parties at all). I could rant about bread and circuses, but the truth is that we all find our own ways to live. Myself, I'll keep looking for dark bread and Quin's circuses.

09 February 2004

Notes on Blogging

I never paid much attention to Terry Teachout until he started a blog. He was too conservative for my tastes, I seldom agreed with him, and most of his publications were in conservative magazines I seldom read. But his blog is great.

Why? Because he's literate, observant, and has a sense of humor. Even if I don't care for anything he says, at least there are plenty of links to follow.

Some clue as to why Teachout is a great blog writer (sorry, "blogger" sounds too much like "booger" for me) can be gleaned from the fifteen notes on blogging he posted recently. For instance:
4. The blogosphere is a pure market--but one in which no money changes hands. If you can afford the bandwidth and your ego is strong enough, it doesn’t matter whether anybody wants to read what you have to say. But the more you care about how many people are reading your blog, the more your blogging will be shaped by their approval, whether you get paid or not.
(People get paid for blogging?! What a thought!) It's a good rule, and one I keep reminding myself of. Actually, though, some awareness of an audience is a useful thing for a blog writer, because it prevents total self-involvement and reduces the amount of drivel you are likely to put out there. (Of course, a certain amount of drivel will always come through because of the quick and informal nature of the medium. Bad spelling, rotten punctuation, ill-chosen words, and other errors will also creep in, alas.) I put up a comments function on this blog once I started getting an audience, because it both allows this to be a conversation and it reminds me that if I say something too quickly, too stupidly, someone is likely to notice. I'm too stubborn and set in my ways to try to write posts which please everyone.
14. If you want to be noticed, you have to blog every day.
That's scary for me. I try to post at least once every other day, just to keep things fresh, though I tend to manage a substantial post only once or twice a week. Even that is a big task, given that it requires a fair amount of reading, thinking, and typing ... and I do have a lot of other things I should be doing. But I value the conversation, both here and at the many other blogs I read.

Here's one of my favorite of Teachout's notes:
10. Blogs will be to the 21st century what little magazines were to the 20th century. Their influence will be disproportionate to their circulation.
I have no way of judging whether such a statement is or will be true, but it's a pleasant idea for those of us who spend too much time reading and writing around the blogosphere to contemplate.

Meanwhile, the good folks over at s1ngularity:criticism have been trying to figure out what their blog is, could be, should be, might be. A group blog can be a tough act, a kind of "pushme-pullyou" (from Dr. Doolittle), and it's going to take time for the s1ngularity blog to find its voice. There are enough intelligent and passionate people involved, though, that I trust they will, and I've (mostly) enjoyed watching the evolution.

What the s1ngularity blog has caused me to think about is the point of writing about writing. My thoughts are still unformed and contradictory, which is why I recently wrote the Parable of the Reader as a parable and not an essay (well, I was also in the mood for a change of pace, and was feeling ... parabolic...?).

I was going to put some notes of my own here about blogging, but I've decided not to, because I don't like to lay out rules, unless it's to create rules which should be broken. I worry about creating too many "rules" of blogging, because the medium is young and pliable, and we shouldn't be imprisoning our imaginations. Variety and diversity are better than monotony.

I will suggest one thing for s1ngularity or similar group blogs, a plagiarism of an idea from a post at the Brandywine Books Blog, offered originally to the New York Times Book Review: Dueling reviewers. I'd love to see a couple of smart, knowledgeable people with vastly different views of a book or story or poem or essay or anything argue their way through the work. It would make for fascinating reading. The key would be to ground the argument in the concrete elements of the work being discussed, to keep the discussion from becoming an endless diatribe about abstract ideals and ideas, as the "New Weird" discussion has become at so many places. (Speaking of the New Weird, perhaps a work to start with would be M. John Harrison's story "Science and the Arts" from his collection Things That Never Happen. Or even the collection as a whole. Harrison is certainly not a writer who appeals to every taste, and, though I don't tend to associate with people who don't like his writing, I'm sure there are a few people out there who have a passionately negative response to it. The discussion would be valuable because it would illuminate a variety of differences in how and why we read, what we value, our conception of fiction, etc.)

"The Mappist" by Barry Lopez

I had the privilege of being in Barry Lopez's workshop at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference a few years ago. At Bread Loaf, the faculty all get to do readings, and Lopez read his story "The Mappist", from what was then a forthcoming collection of stories, Light Action in the Caribbean. It was an overwhelming experience for many of us in the audience -- Lopez is a magnificent reader (as you can hear on the audio cassette of the book, or the even more wonderful tape of his collection of essays About This Life), and the story itself is haunting, subtle, and written in a prose which I have no more precise adjective for than perfect.

Light Action in the Caribbean is an uneven collection, with a handful of stunningly beautiful stories, a couple of duds, and a few mediocre tales. Many of the stories owe a lot to Latin American Magical Realism, though there are also contemporary horror stories such as the title story, a painful attempt at science fiction ("In the Garden of the Lords of War"), and a story told primarily through endnotes ("Ruben Mendoza Vega...").

"The Mappist" remains my favorite, and one of my favorite stories written by anyone at any time. My fondness for the story may go back to that first, magical reading at Bread Loaf. But I have passed the story on to enough people who know nothing of Lopez to know that it strikes diverse readers as a supple, affecting tale.

The story is in some ways an homage to Borges, as it tells of a narrator's obsession with a pseudonymous author of remarkable travel guides and maps, works of such detail and care that they capture the "essence" of whatever city they describe. The narrator eventually tracks down the creator of these works, the reclusive Corlis Benefideo, and visits him, viewing new maps Benefideo has created, maps of remarkable depth and brilliance. Benefideo states his philosophy:
I could show you here the whole coming and going of the Mandan nation, wiped out in eighteen thirty-seven by a smallpox epidemic. I could show you how the arrival of German and Scandinavian farmers changed the composition of the topsoil, and the places where Charles Bodmer painted, and the evolution of red-light districts in Fargo -- all that with pleasure. I've nothing against human passion, human longing. What I oppose is the blind devotion to progress, and the venality of material wealth. If we're going to trade the priceless for the common, I want to know exactly what the terms are.
The story ends with the narrator asking if Benefideo will serve as mentor to his daughter, and then driving off into the darkness. It's a quiet ending, one of many possibilities, with a final paragraph of sentences perfectly balanced against each other, a final image which resonates with as much power as any I have encountered.

The story could have been an attempt to proselytize for Benefideo's values against the values of modern consumerist society, but it is far more nuanced than that. The narrator's own flaws and limits ground us in the complexities and contradictions of the human world, and while Benefideo is presented as a kind of god or wizard, he does not strain credibility because of the story's mythic air, which permits us to believe in such impossible perfection. Benefideo is a beacon indicating the potential humans possess when they are willing to observe the world around them with care and sympathy. We are the accumulation of our details, he seems to be saying, and so we must start with the details if we are to discover our truths. In the face of chaos, why not try to create some beautiful maps?

Lopez is known primarily as a "nature writer", having won the National Book Award for Arctic Dreams. He is one of the best essayists in the U.S., and so his fiction often gets ignored, but the stories in such books as Winter Count and Field Notes prove Lopez to be a master of quiet tales which explore the intersections of the physical world with the world of human culture and society, tales written with a clear prose which seeks to suggest more than it expresses, to evoke images which resonate and situations which leave trails of implication in the reader's mind. This is fiction which owes very little to the realist tradition of Europe and the United States, and very much to folktales and tall tales and myths and legends. The best of Lopez's fiction should be treasured as highly as any published in the last one hundred years.

07 February 2004

What is an Anthology?

Cheryl Morgan reports:
I'm pleased but a little concerned to see The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases listed under Anthology [on the International Horror Guild's shortlist of awards]. Either a book is an anthology or it isn't. Locus says it isn't, the IHG says it is. It is great that the book should get awards, but I worry about controversy here. This leaves the door open for award administrators to arbitrarily disqualify the book because they take one side or the other in the dispute. Here's hoping that the Hugo Administrators let the book in to the Related Book category if enough people vote for it.
Locus may have some esoteric and specific definition of an anthology being a collection of short fiction, but though that may be the definition they and others use for their purposes, it's not the definition of the word "anthology", which originates from the Greek and means, literally, "a collection of flowers" (used in a metaphorical sense to mean flowers of verse by multiple writers collected in one place).

While the Lambshead Guide may not look like an ordinary anthology to the average reader glancing through it, it's a collection of fiction written by a wide variety of authors and collected by a couple of editors (darn good ones at that) ... and that makes it different from an anthology ... how? Just because the fiction included isn't in the standard problem-development-resolution structure doesn't mean that the book itself is not an anthology.

06 February 2004

Parable of the Reader

Alienated and decidedly idiosyncratic, Writer sat at her battered, steam-powered typewriter, pounding grey letters onto yellowed paper, certain that her inner genius had begun to ooze and tremble onto the page. She had stared at this page for many years, fearful of writing a word lest it be somehow wrong, ill considered, a clang where there should be a melodious tweet.

But a person cannot stare forever at a piece of paper, watching it turn yellow in the sun and dusty in the dark, and Writer, being a person, felt her legs ache and her bowels scream and her stomach rumble as all the necessities of physical life clawed for her attention. Once she got more words down, she told herself, she would be free.

The words proceeded. The story, if that's what it was, got told.

Later, after the last letter of the last word of the last page had plunged into inky reality, Writer got up, stretched her legs, paid a visit to the toilet, and then ordered a pizza from the crazy Irishman down the street who insisted he was Italian.

Soon, there was a knock on the door. The crazy Irishman was, Writer thought, remarkably fast tonight. She opened the door to discover, not the crazy Irishman bearing a pizza, but her old friend Reader, bearing a book.

"I thought you'd like to borrow this," Reader said, handing Writer a rumpled paperback with space ships on the cover. "It's a fast read," Reader said, "and lots of fun. Plenty of action."

Though there were many times when Writer found Reader (at best) annoying -- indeed, she had once plotted his death -- she was grateful for his attention and pleased that he would think of her. He frequently passed books on to her, usually ones with spaceships on the cover and plenty of action. She liked reading them after having spent time working on her writing, because it was a nice way to relax, one step up from staring at color bars on her television set.

"I just finished a new story," Writer said.

"Wonderful! Can I read it?"

"It's just a first draft," Writer said. "But I like it. So sure. Come on in."

She handed Reader the yellowed sheets of paper.

"Did it take you long?" Reader asked.

"Not at all. It's just an experiment. Nothing serious. But I'm curious if you find it interesting, or cliched, or anything."

Reader smiled and sank down in the understuffed arm chair, dust and stuffing rising around him.

Just as Reader read the last word of the last sentence on the last page, there was a knock on the door. Writer opened the door, took the cardboard box of pizza from the crazy Irishman, paid him a hefty tip, and offered Reader a slice.

"No, thanks," he said. "I stopped for a burger on my way here."

Writer put two slices of pizza onto a plate for herself and sat on the floor in front of Reader. "Well," she said between bites, "what do you think? Is it awful?"

Reader scowled. "We've been friends for a while, right?"

"Sure," Writer said.

"So I can be honest."

"Please do."

"Well, it's not a story," Reader said. "It's ... it's a vignette, I think..." (He pronounced the g in vignette, as, being a strict Anglican in linguistic matters, he did with all words.)

"Oh. Okay. Well, is it interesting?"

"No," Reader said. "It's just a lot of telling. The last issue of Writer's Digest had a whole article on showing versus telling. I think you should read it."

"But the story is--"

"--Vignette."

"Right -- it's set up as a kind of lecture. The ape is lecturing to the people who have come to hear him and find out how an ape can become civilized."

"That's a problem, though," Reader said. "Don't you see? You've got a great situation with him in the cage on the ship -- he could break out, he could throw people overboard -- it would be wonderful. But you just have him tell everyone that he was in a cage and then he offers his thoughts on it. That's not a story."

Writer sighed. "He couldn't break out of the cage on the ship. He has to experience life with humans first, and realize all the cages around him. He's looking for a way out, even when he's not in a cage."

"And that's what's wrong with the st-- the vignette. He tells us everything we're supposed to know and think. He says he's looking for a way out. And then at the end he says he's found it, and he says all he does is report and leave it to the people listening to him to interpret and judge. That's really dull. He just tells, tells, tells. No showing. And how does he know English so well, anyway? His sentences are really long and complicated. It doesn't make any sense."

Reader handed the yellowed pieces of paper, which had grown even yellower and more brittle in his hands, to Writer, who had left her second slice of pizza untouched.

"Are you going to eat that?" Reader asked, pointing to the pizza.

"No," Writer said. "I'm not hungry anymore. You can have it."

Reader took the slice of pizza and swallowed it in one gulp. "Well, I've got to go -- thanks for the pizza," he said, and walked out the door.

Writer walked to the small window of her apartment, a window grimy with smoke and dust and age. She unlocked it and tried to open it, but the window's frame had warped and the window would not open. She had wanted to toss the pages out, to let them scatter down to the streets of the city, to let them be stepped on and swept up and burned and ignored. But the window would not open.

"Well," she said to the pieces of paper, "I guess we're stuck with each other." She set them on the table beside her typewriter, then went to her bed and quickly fell into a dreamless sleep.

In the morning, a small pile of dust lay beside the typewriter, but no papers were anywhere to be seen. Writer touched a finger to the pile of dust, then leaned down, and with one swift breath, blew the dust into the air and watched it dance in a single bolt of sunlight before it joined all the other dust on the floor.