26 April 2004

Pause

Various elements of real life are drawing me away from the much more pleasant life of literature, and so I need to pause for a week or so (I hope not longer) from work here.

I can't resist leaving you without a few links of interest:

Alan De Niro has posted a 6-part story, "Home of the", on his weblog. For easy reference, here are all the links: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and the complete story is available as a PDF file. I haven't had a chance yet to read the story, but I like Alan's work a lot, and expect this one is as worthy of your attention as everything else he has written.

Scribblingwoman, one of the most consistently interesting blogs I've encountered, has posted a lot of interesting things over the past week or so.

(There are a bunch of other excellent literary webblogs out there, by the way, which don't treat genre writing as inherently incapable of containing interest for people over the age of 13, including Daniel Green's magnificent The Reading Experience and Maud Newton's blog.)

The Christian Science Monitor reviews a new book which looks like a fun, schadenfreude-filled read: Ten Percent of Nothing: The Case of the Literary Agent from Hell.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden is pleased the Bush Administration is taking science fiction seriously (or not).

Strange Horizons this week features two writers I often point readers toward: Jay Lake in an interview and Barth Anderson with a story.

23 April 2004

What to Read?

In the comments to the previous post, somebody asked what science fiction/fantasy magazine is my current favorite. I've been thinking about the question quite a bit, because I'm not sure I know the answer.

However, a couple of recent interviews with Gordon van Gelder (at The Internet Review of SF and Locus) made me think about how much I've been enjoying The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction over the past year or so. It's the only magazine that, when it arrives in the mail, a certain spark of excitement hits me, because with just about every issue there's at least one story that at least feels like it was worth spending the time to read. I can't say that for any of the other magazines these days.

The online magazines -- SciFiction, Strange Horizons, Fantastic Metropolis, Ideomancer, etc. -- have all produced some excellent work, with SciFiction generally, and usually deservedly, getting the most notice. Editor Ellen Datlow is one of the greats, I agree, and I thought their Nebula-winning stories this year fully deserved their awards, but there's a scrappiness, a willingness to push any envelope sitting on the desk, that I particularly appreciate about the other three titles I listed (though I should note some bias, since both Fantastic Metropolis and Ideomancer have work of mine in their inventories). However, considering that Datlow gets her funding from the Sci-Fi Channel, I think she's done a remarkable job of keeping the offerings at SciFiction diverse. She is, as someone else pointed out, a true exception to my guess that most great editors only have a few really great years.

And yet I've read very little over the last month or so that has made me want to tell anyone about it, never mind write in any depth about it here.

It could just be me. It probably is. Lots of things are going on in my life beyond this blog that have distracted me from both reading and writing, and so my current feeling that none of the SF short stories I've read recently have been particularly memorable probably has more to do with me than it does with the general and amorphous universal memorability of what I've read.

And yet, there have been some memorable stories. Most have been ones I've read in Jeff VanderMeer's forthcoming Secret Life and Nick Mamatas's 3000 MPH in Every Direction at Once, both of which have highs and lows for me, as they will for any reader, but overall showcase the work of two writers of seemingly boundless imagination, diversity of style, mastery of craft, and a willingness to attempt to accomplish more than most short story writers do.

Both writers have been hit with the hideous and deadly "slipstream" label -- a label which means "pretentious" when wielded by some and "accomplished" when wielded by others, and very little when wielded by anyone, though it is usually an attempt to describe writers who don't fit comfortably within the traditional definitions of "science fiction" or "fantasy". (Nick's fine and, as always, gentle response to being called a "slipstream" writer is worth reading. Jeff has his own sort of response in the next volume of the Nebula Awards Showcase.)

It may be because of their supposed slipstreaminess that both authors have published the majority of their work outside the realms of the more prominent SF markets. Jeff has had a couple of stories at Asimov's, but not (unless I'm forgetting something) at F&SF, which seems like the perfect market for his kind of writing. Or at least, it should be. Same with Nick. And at least ten other writers who don't appear in its pages.

Why do I find myself continually returning to these two writers while continually finding so much else to be competent but mediocre? I'm not seeking sex or eternal love from either Nick or Jeff -- indeed, I've never met either, and they could be evil, nasty human beings for all I know -- but their work has a consistent vitality rare for any writer.

There are other people who, if I happened to be reading their short story collections right now, I would also rave about -- The Rat Bastards, Kelly Link, Jeffrey Ford -- but the number is small, and only a few of the people who come immediately to mind publish the majority of their work in the major magazines.

I'm not suggesting that writers frequently published by F&SF, Asimov's, etc. are bad writers, but rather that the definition of what is a story appropriate to the audience of one magazine or another may be too narrow, either in the editor's or the writers' minds.

The many stories I've read over the past month or so have mostly suffered, it seems to me, from two flaws: not developing their subject matter deeply enough, and not being original enough. This is a common problem of most short stories published, whether SF or not, but my standards for SF are, perhaps perversely, higher than they are for other types of fiction, because what I seek from SF, at the very least, is imaginative rigor. Mediocrity may be natural, even inevitable, and yet I can't help but yearn for more. Most readers are probably happy enough to find stories which engage them, but the more I read the more I want what I read to be different from what I've read before, to explore territories that surprise me and that I wouldn't have thought of myself. Once I encounter such territory, I want to see it plundered for all it can offer. (Easier done in novels, certainly, than short stories, which is why when a short story rises above mediocrity it is particularly exciting.) What a short story can do is imply more depth than its length suggests is possible; a great story blossoms in the reader's mind. Respecting the reader's intelligence is the first step toward accomplishing this feat -- I often feel most disappointed by fiction that works too hard to make sure the reader doesn't miss anything.

Admittedly, what excites and interests me is not what excites and interests the majority of SF readers, and so only a magazine seeking a niche audience within the already-niche audience of SF would really want to try to appeal to tastes such as mine. But would it hurt to try a bit more now and then?

Of course, my desires are for a utopian world where every writer is struck by brilliance and every editor has more great work to choose from than they have available pages. (A utopia where I am always receptive to what a writer has created, as well.) Life is far less certain than utopia, however, and the truth is that most writers and editors work for far less reward than they deserve, and produce more work of quality than the circumstances might lead an outside observer to predict. Still, I can't help dreaming...

21 April 2004

Gardner Dozois Steps Down

Locus Online reports that Gardner Dozois is stepping down as editor of Asimov's after 19 years, with Sheila Williams taking over and Dozois remaining as a Contributing Editor.

I'm stunned. While I haven't found Asimov's to be the most compelling of the magazines for the past few years, nonetheless it's still a force within the field, and a major market for short fiction. Dozois became editor right around the time I started reading SF, and his editing of the magazine and of the Year's Best Science Fiction series has shaped my sense of the literary possibilities of the genre more than any other influence. The first five years or so of his editorship of Asimov's (then called Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine) provided one issue after another of diverse, challenging, and entertaining stories. Most of the best writers of the '80s and '90s benefitted from his support.

Dozois's own writing has been overshadowed by his editing, though early stories such as "A Dream at Noonday" and "A Special Kind of Morning" remain as some of the best work of their time. I hope that with his new freedom, Dozois will be able to cultivate his own writing and that his new work will demonstrate the same sensitivity and skill he showed when he was younger.

Some people have said that Dozois did not create a specific "voice" for Asimov's in the same way John Campbell created a "voice" during the heyday of Astounding/Analog and H.L. Gold created a "voice" for the early years of Galaxy. I don't think this is true at all -- Dozois built on the strengths of Asimov's in his first years, creating a place for fiction that aspired to be evocative and subtle, fusing the best elements of traditional science fiction, fantasy, and horror with a mature approach to characterization and style. He inherited a magazine that had been edited brilliantly by George Scithers, Kathleen Moloney, and then Shawna McCarthy (just look at the history), but there was a consistency and rigor to Dozois's magazine that was thrilling -- it was difficult to predict what the next issue would feel like, difficult to know if favorite authors would be continuing in styles they had become known for or would try something new and different, and so each issue was a great surprise, and a remarkable number of issues felt like they were moving SF in directions it had previously not explored.

At the moment, I can't think of any great magazine editor who has maintained the energy and excitement of their best years. To his credit, Dozois did not close his mind as many more dogmatic editors have done, turning their magazines into pathetic parodies of what they once had been. Plenty of good stories still appear in Asimov's each year, and now and then a great one. Perhaps it is greedy to ask for more. Certainly, it is unrealistic. I look forward to seeing not only what Sheila Williams, who has been with the magazine longer than anyone, is able to do now that it is hers to command, but also to seeing what Dozois is able to do now that he no longer has to claim responsibility for a periodical. I hope he will produce not only his own writing, but an occasional original anthology, because he still has, I expect, some (more) tremendous contributions to make to the world of speculative fiction. Anyone who values SF short stories owes him immense gratitude.

20 April 2004

Nick Mamatas at Dark Fluidity

Nick Mamatas is the featured author at Dark Fluidity right now, with a new story, "Quiet Types, Loners Mostly...", an interview, and reviews of two of his books.

"Quiet Types, Loners Mostly..." is worth taking time with, worth reading more than once, worth nominating for awards. It accomplishes a tremendous amount in few words: philosophical speculations which suggest a frightening world beyond the words, while simultaneously reflecting our own world and, worst of all, our own most detestable desires. It is a disarming story as well as a disquieting one.

The interview by d.g.k. goldberg is also worth reading. Here's a bit to whet your appetite (there's much more in the actual interview):
He dislikes it when writers, "Stack the deck against positions they disagree with, write Hollywood movies-in-text, play to the social fears of whites (especially white women), write about whatever they did a few days ago, with the climax being the decision to write the story I've just nearly finished reading, treat blue collar characters like mindless fucks, lists of brand names during shopping excursions, characters named Ariel, Zoe, Rhiannon, Dirk, Stryker, Dark, Black, Alana, Logan or any other name a fifteen year-old might name himself or herself.

"I also dislike all-white cities. That includes a city that's all white except for One Crazy Homeless Person. I also dislike male characters who say 'I'm a guy!' Not that such a comment is false, it's just too much shorthand."
There are reviews of Nick's recent Move Under Ground (Kerouac meets Lovecraft) and his Bram Stoker Award-nominated novella Northern Gothic. I haven't read either, but I've read most of his excellent collection of essays and stories, 3000 Miles Per Hour in Every Direction at Once and am half-way through an anthology he edited, The Urban Bizarre (I hope to write about the book as a whole soon), so I feel confident in recommending anything Nick has written or edited. I also recommend his recent comments on "the horror industry", Stephen King, and everything else.

Dorothy Allison on Science Fiction

I'm using Dorothy Allison's novel Bastard Out of Carolina in a class at the moment, but I haven't read any of her other work, and so I was surprised to see the following in a 1998 interview:
You are very out about being a lesbian and other renegade aspects of your sexuality, and yet, in a funny way, your lifelong love of science fiction may be your last dark secret.
That's because it's an area in which there is a huge amount of contempt, partly because of the fantasy element. I subscribe to a discussion group on the Internet for feminist science-fiction writers. I barely qualify. I've published a couple of science-fiction stories. But I am a writer, and I am a science-fiction fan, and I get to have amazing conversations with Vonda McIntyre and Nicola Griffith, writers whose work I absolutely adore, who have been writing science fiction for 20 years or more and who get no respect. They are doing serious work. Their work is an assault on conventions so enormous that it is very much more dangerous, sometimes, than writing about lesbianism, which is essentially about love and romance.

19 April 2004

The Nebulas

Recently, I was contacted by my evil twin, who sent this note:

So what about them Nebulas? What kind of group calls itself "The Science Fiction Writers of America" and then gives awards to stories that aren't even remotely science fiction? Good lord! And one of them fellas is a Brit! What is the world coming to?! And what was that guy thinking when he called his story "The Empire of Ice Cream"? The ice cream was just a device in that yarn -- it would be like calling Starship Troopers "The Zap Gun" or some other stupid title. And did any of those people who voted actually read "What I Didn't See"? Pretentious drivel by some little girl who wants people to think she's got one of them special college writing degrees. Not science fiction, that's for sure. Not even much of an adventure. Dull, dull, and more dull. What happened to the sense of wonder?! What happened to The Future?! I thought that's what science fiction was all about, dammit! Science fiction by Americans, for Americans -- the future is ours!

Well, if you want to know what happened with all of those crazy SF-hating SFWA members, read Frank Catalano's report. But I don't recommend it. Traitors all.

18 April 2004

Pattern Recognition Redux

William Gibson's Pattern Recognition, which I looked at a couple of months ago, has gotten some interesting notice both within and without the science fiction world. While many reviewers, including John Clute, have examined if and how the book fits the label of "science fiction" (given that its setting is only barely science fictional), others, such as Fredric Jameson and now J.W. Hastings, have considered (among other things) the book as a representation of contemporary life -- making it perhaps the sort of contemporary American novel Mark Sarvas has called for.

Hastings has some excellent points to make about Pattern Recognition, seeing it as a retelling of Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 and comparing it to Don DeLillo's Underworld:
Though there are passages in Underworld, a Very Important Novel, where DeLillo's writing is on par with Pynchon's or Saul Bellow's, for the most part the book is not as satisfying as Pattern Recognition, which is merely a thriller that wishes it was a Very Important Novel.
I completely disagree about Underworld -- it does at times sink under the weight of its own supposed Importance, but it's the only satisfying novel I've read by DeLillo, who is one of those writers few people seem to agree on -- I found White Noise, for instance, to be forced and shallow, while many intelligent and discriminating readers swear it's one of the greatest American novels. However, Hastings's statement about why Pattern Recognition achieves what it does -- being "merely a thriller" -- offers some possibilities: Perhaps the thriller elements of the book cause readers to lower their expectations, thus surprising them with insights and viewpoints which, in a self-consciously Important novel, would seem banal or trite. I disagree with the idea that Pattern Recognition is somehow superior to more complex books, however, even pretentious ones, because though I expect to read Underworld a few more times during my life, I doubt I will read Pattern Recognition again. Yes, what was there was satisfying, but there wasn't enough substance to make me want to return. (In fact, I've found much of the writing about the book more thought-provoking than the book itself.)

Hastings faults Pattern Recognition for not adequately dealing with the September 11 attack:
Part of [Gibson's] problem is that throughout the book he deals more the symbolic effect of 9/11 than with the terrorist attacks themselves. In fact, I don't think he uses the word "terrorist" at all during the entire novel. Gibson does get at the sense of what it was like to be in NYC in the days following the destruction of the WTC ... But he really isn't interested in how the world really did, and not just symbolically, change after 9/11: how globalization looked radically different, much more dangerous, than it had before.
Hastings here seems to be criticizing Gibson for not writing the novel he, J.W. Hastings, would have written. He's right: Gibson didn't write a book about how "the world changed" after 9/11 -- he wrote a book about marketing and digital culture, one where 9/11 is a background event in the protagonist's life. It changed her personal life, and that change is explored well, but it didn't change the fundamental contours of her professional life.

Nonetheless, Hastings has a number of useful points to raise about Pattern Recognition, as have many reviewers. If more SF novels received this sort of thoughtful, considered reviewing, the genre would be stronger. Many books deserve more attention than Pattern Recognition, which gained notice because of its author's fame and the book's appeal to the zeitgeist. If SF editors expected the work they released into the world would receive careful and insightful notice, they might be inclined to encourage more work to be able to stand up to such scrutiny. The state of reviewing for mainstream books isn't much better, and, proportionate to the amount of books released may actually be worse, but many mainstream writers do at least expect their work could be noticed by people who will consider it as serious literature, literature that should at least aspire to standards set by the greatest writers throughout history. Too much SF aspires only to appeal to the standards of the latest $150 million action/FX movie.

15 April 2004

Help for Maud and Others

In case you don't know, Maud Newton runs one of the best literary blogs out there -- I envy her breadth of knowledge and her stunning ability to keep her blog frequently updated with lots of content. In a recent post (one which is mostly about what I wrote about in my previous post), a few paragraphs surprised me a bit, because I know she happens to read this site occasionally:
I rarely read science fiction or fantasy books. I like William Gibson, Ursula LeGuin, Philip K. Dick, sometimes H.G. Wells, and Jonathan Lethem's Gun, With Occasional Music, if those count. They probably don't. I read the Dune books when I was a kid but would probably find them unreadable now. I have the vague, nagging feeling that I'm doing myself a disservice by neglecting Neal Stephenson and a handful of others.

Mr. Maud's shelves are filled with sci-fi books. Occasionally I try them out, but I rarely finish. Ditto fantasy, save the likes of A.S. Byatt and Roald Dahl and Stephany Aulenback. Someone gave me a copy of The Anubis Gates back in college and after reading fifty pages I was so turned off by the prose (and, believe me, I use that word loosely) that I nearly set fire to it.* (Instead I walked up a flight of stairs to the honors boys' commons area and left it there. It was gone within 10 minutes.)

In short, I generally don't read science fiction, sometimes because I don't think it's well-written, but more often because it just doesn't move me.
I realized after reading this that I have never bothered to address readers who have found their way here through channels other than sites frequented by genre readers, and that a helpful service might be to give a few recommendations of writers you might enjoy even if you don't think you like science fiction/fantasy/horror/whatever.

First, a note to Maud: All of the writers you name have plenty of credentials within the world of science fiction, so, yes, indeed, they count. (Some people are angry at Jonathan Lethem for his essay "The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction" and so go out of their way to slander him, but though he mixes genres the way Jackson Pollock mixed paint, his roots are in the SF community, and he still shows up to certain events.)

All such lists as I will offer are inevitably incomplete, sometimes glaringly so, but I'm just trying to give you a starting point. Explore the links in the sidebar for more. Also, I expect people will have great suggestions in the comments to this post (hint, hint).

Writers worth checking out, who have a fair amount of material available on the Web, and whom I haven't written about or linked to very recently (though I'm only going by memory):
Neal Barrett, Jr.
Jonathan Carroll
Avram Davidson
L. Timmel Duchamp
Carol Emshwiller
Jeffrey Ford
Karen Joy Fowler
Neil Gaiman
M. John Harrison
Nalo Hopkinson
John Kessel
Ian R. MacLeod
Maureen F. McHugh
China Mieville
Kit Reed
Michael Swanwick
Gene Wolfe
Add all the writers I've mentioned on this site recently, and it's quite a list. A bit overwhelming, I'm afraid. So here's another list:
Four Stories to Begin With
The Empire of Ice Cream by Jeffrey Ford
Last Call in Temperance by Alan DeNiro
Night Blossoms by M. Rickert
The Jaguar Hunter by Lucius Shepard
"The Jaguar Hunter" is, within the SF world, that wonderful oxymoron a "modern classic". M. Rickert and Alan DeNiro have only been publishing (as far as I know) for a few years now, but both use the elements of science fiction and fantasy in new and interesting ways. "The Empire of Ice Cream" is currently up for a couple of awards, and is one of my favorite stories from 2003.

Looking over that list, I see I haven't included anything that is unabashedly traditional science fiction. Mostly, that's because I tend to prefer stories which aren't all about space exploration and technology. However, in the interest of fairness, let me call to your attention Light of Other Days by Bob Shaw, first published in Analog, traditionally the most traditional SF magazine.

It is no offense to say lots of science fiction is badly written -- lots of all sorts of things are badly written (remember Sturgeon's Law). It is also no offense not to be moved (emotionally, intellectually) by a lot of what you have encountered. I've been reading through the past couple of month's of a few SF magazines, and have yet to find a story I considered both well-written and moving. Some were diverting, some had interesting flourishes, but most just didn't do anything for me, and a few seemed both tone deaf and brain dead.

I keep reading science fiction -- or, more broadly, "speculative fiction" (an awkward term, but the best I know of to describe various types of imaginative literature) -- because when it is well written, when it does move me, the experience of reading is both thrilling and edifying -- the experience of the brain and imagination dancing long into the night.

14 April 2004

Political? Art?

Mark Sarvas considers the topic of "political art" at The Elegant Variation, and though every other month or so I tell myself I will never even think about this subject ever again, having survived far too many pretentious arguments about it, I'm drawn to the topic like a moth to a bug zapper.

Sarvas wonders where America's great contemporary political artists are and why more U.S. writers, specifically, aren't "chroniclers of this time which, in many ways, is as divisive and radicalized as any period in American history".

I'm one of those people who thinks all writing is political, because all life is political, but Sarvas is seeking, I think, a kind of writing that is more overt -- he mentions The Grapes of Wrath, and he could probably have mentioned writers such as Arthur Miller. I've never been much of a Steinbeck fan, though I'd happily read everything he wrote if it would save me from having to encounter Arthur Miller's name ever again in my life, because, though I hear he's a very nice man, and I tend to agree with his politics, Miller is to playwrighting what Pauley Shore is to acting.

The problem with Sarvas's argument (or plea) is that it misses an entire type of writing, a kind of writing that various sorts of speculative fiction do remarkably well: stories which utilize the structure of parables, fables, and allegories (sometimes all mixed together) to offer insight into everyday life. (This is not the only technique SF has to offer in terms of political art -- Lucius Shepard's "Only Partly Here", which I wrote about in January, is the best story I've read about the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, and though it contains some clear hints of fantasy, it doesn't seem based on a parable/fable/allegory-type structure.)

From Carol Emshwiller's The Mount to Eleanor Arnason's "Potter of Bones", many of the most memorable recent SF novels and stories have created imaginary worlds which the reader can't help but feel comment on aspects of our own. This technique is neither new nor surprising -- indeed, its history is much older than that of the "realistic" presentation of The Way We Live Now. Often, the greatest art seizes on the human hunger for metaphor, allowing the reader or viewer to connect the dots between the world presented by the artist and the world of consensus reality.

Think of Bertolt Brecht, whose greatest and most powerful plays offer stinging commentary on events during the time Brecht was writing by using historical characters and settings (the plays he set in his own time period are remembered now only by scholars). Think of Camus and his Plague, of Orwell's most famous novels, of Fahrenheit 451. Two of the most vivid, gut-wrenching novels I've ever read are both deeply (and broadly) political and allegorical: Blindness by Jose Saramago and Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee.

Or consider the work of the Nicaraguan writer Gioconda Belli, who has written a magnificent memoir about her life, particularly before and after the revolution, which shows how much truth lay beneath the fantastical/fabulist elements of her first novel, The Inhabited Woman (the only one of her novels translated into English, alas, though she has written others, including a utopian fable [as far as I can tell from my very bad Spanish], Waslala). Belli is a writer deeply concerned with contemporary reality, but she conveys her ideas about that reality through fiction that is imbued with tremendous imagination.

It seems to me that books such as The Grapes of Wrath are anomalies in the history of fiction, and that the majority of political art -- political art that lasts more than a few weeks, that is -- has utilized imagination and fantasy to explore truths which lie beneath the surface of the morning paper's headlines.

12 April 2004

A Curious Essay

I haven't read Mark Haddon's bestselling novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but an essay he wrote for The Guardian makes me want to read everything he's written (thanks to Maud Newton for the link). The essay is exactly what I like an essay to be: a variety of almost-disconnected thoughts from an interesting, insightful mind.

In one part, Haddon discusses the differences between "genre fiction" and "literary fiction". I have some reservations about his terminology, but I like what he says:
Genre fiction says: 'Forget the gas bill. Forget the office politics. Pretend you're a spy. Pretend you're a courtesan. Pretend you're the owner of a crumbling gothic mansion on this worryingly foggy promontory.' Literary fiction says: 'Bad luck. You're stuck with who you are, just as these people are stuck with who they are. But use your imagination and you'll see that even the most narrow, humdrum lives are infinite in scope if you examine them with enough care.'

Obviously, we all know men of 50 who have never paused to consider their own mortality, but I'll wager that very few of them are reading Middlemarch.

I don't mean that literary fiction is better than genre fiction, though I do prefer curling up with with an author such as A.M. Homes rather than Helen Fielding. Nor do I mean that the distinction is a rigid one. On the contrary, some of the best novels -- Jane Eyre, The Woman in White -- have a foot in both camps. I mean only that novels can perform two functions and most perform only one.
I might prefer to replace the term "genre fiction" with "escapist fiction", but I do think Haddon is onto something here. I don't think we should limit fiction to only two functions -- what an impoverished world that would be! -- and it might be more accurate to use the term "tendencies" rather than "functions".

Escapist fiction tends to bring us out of ourselves, away from the concerns of our lives, making us forget rather than reflect or think. (When defining escapist fiction, I always think of something Tom Lehrer once said: "I'd like to take you now on wings of song, as it were, and try and help you forget perhaps for a while your drab, wretched lives.")

Literary fiction, then, is the opposite of escapist, bringing the reader to reflect on life, the universe, and everything. While its intent is generally serious, its surface certainly doesn't have to be.

Using such a taxonomy, there is no need to separate various forms of genre fiction from the stuff that just gets shelved under "fiction" in bookstores, because in the genre sections you'll have escapist fiction beside literary fiction in the same way the fiction section has Brett Easton Ellis beside Stanley Elkin.

Haddon has written many children's books, books which he terms "genre fiction", and he says that though Curious Incident is able to be read by children and has "a carefully shaped plot" that "invites you to enter someone else's life", he was going for something more with this book, a something that pushes it toward the realm of the literary:
[The novel is] about how little separates us from those we turn away from in the street. It's about how badly we communicate with one another. It's about accepting that every life is narrow and that our only escape from this is not to run away (to another country, another relationship, a slimmer, more confident self) but to learn to love the people we are and the world in which we find ourselves.
I'm sure the book is more interesting to read than that -- it is from such banalities that great fiction is made -- but rather than the conclusions Haddon reaches, the goal is what interests me. Here is a writer whose previous goal was, simply and nobly, to entertain. With Curious Incident, he raised his sights a little higher, and aimed to create a story which would cause readers to reflect, perhaps just a little bit, and risk discomfort.

Great fiction comes not from any "hidden message", but from what it does within and against tradition, what it does with language, what it does to the reader. A story about imaginary worlds does not need to be escapist -- myths, fables, parables, allegories all make use of fantasies and fabulations without letting readers forget themselves or their worlds. A story filled with technological speculations is not by definition escapist -- indeed, with the rate at which technology is changing how various cultures work and play, we need more tales letting us reflect on the machines in our lives.

Let me end with a final quote from Mark Haddon, offering words from which we could all learn:
Reading is a conversation. All books talk. But a good book listens as well.

Most adults, unlike most children, understand the difference between a book that will hold them spellbound for a rainy Sunday afternoon and a book that will put them in touch with a part of themselves they didn't even know existed.

Miscellaneous Links (in an Imaginary Chain)

Time to dump out some miscellaneous links I've been collecting:
*The NY Times has an article about Alexis Rockman, an artist who claims as influences both the Hudson River School of painters and Chesley Bonestell. An earlier article from Wired has some more of Rockman's paintings.

*Peter Lindberg has some interesting thoughts about Peter Bøgh Andersen's article "Genres as Self-Organizing Systems" (PDF), which I was able to read about half of before it felt like my brain was seeping out of my toenails.

*McSweeney's has a list of Movies Directed by Mel Gibson's Father, Hutton Gibson.

*I discovered a fascinating post offering thoughts on the classification of civlizations, which might even be useful to writers of good ol' fashioned hard science fiction, assuming one or two ever stop by.

*Here is a collection of numerous definitions of "science fiction", including the following from Northrop Frye: "Science fiction frequently tries to imagine what life would be like on a plane as far above us as we are above savagery; its setting is often of a kind that appears to us technologically miraculous. It is thus a mode of romance with a strong tendency to myth." And here is a definition of "spinach" from the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

*Ever wondered how to make erotic origami?

*Ideomancer has a new issue up that's worth reading, including work by M. Rickert and Jay Lake, both of whom I've written about recently, and both of whom I try to read whenever I encounter their work (I haven't read these stories yet, though, because I've been trying to catch up on other things).

*In awards new, the International Horror Guild Awards were given out in Phoenix, AZ this weekend. My mother and her partner were in Phoenix visiting family, but, not being horror buffs, they found other things to do than attend the ceremony, to which they were neither invited nor aware. As for me, I haven't read any of the winning fiction, and so cannot offer yays or boos, though I did like the winning film, David Cronenberg's Spider.

*Finally, a favorite site I haven't been able to fit into a post anywhere: Notcoming.com. No, it's not a companion to the erotic origami site, but rather a phenomenal reference for movies you might not otherwise hear about. At times it's a depressing site, because you realize how many great films aren't available on DVD. (Recently, they reviewed Paris, Texas, one of my favorite movies, the VHS of which I play only now and then, always fearing that it will break, since it is, in VHS years, ancient.) There are plenty of fun lists, too (I always like lists), including: benevolent robots, weird monsters, and religious controversies.

11 April 2004

Quote for the Day

...[I]t's helpful (as always) to look at the world of science-fiction, which has been more chummy and insular than the world of 'regular' fiction. It also possesses less of a critical/academic infrastructure for delivering accolades to the most worthy work, despite the best efforts of people like John Clute. One writer/critic in the field once said that discerning science-fiction critics had to be willing to read an awful lot of terrible and mediocre genre books--and thus, unless you're a peculiar sort of masochist who enjoys boredom, enjoy them--just to be able to find the good/great ones. I don't see any reason why this can't apply to all fiction.

--Waggish

10 April 2004

Is There Anybody Out There...?

Over at s1ngularity.net, Gabe has made the fairly common complaint that speculative fiction is not known/understood/respected by the General Public. He writes
No one cares about us beyond the high, barbwired walls of speculative fiction. We are a tiny fragment of society, a single chink in a world-sized fence. We are a tiny fragging crack on the side of the universal dam.
Choose any subculture and you will be able to fit the same complaint to it. That's what makes something a subculture. It may be Gabe is arguing SF shouldn't be a subculture ... but then, what should it be?

Is the argument that Nightshade Books should be selling 10 million copies of every title they print? Well, that would, of course, be nice, but human beings have such a variety of aesthetic tastes that I doubt it will be happening anytime soon. The things that appeal to millions of people tend to be the most mediocre, the most blandly comforting, the most familiar and repetitive. I'm far more interested in writing that is designed to appeal to a small, appreciative -- even, dare I say it, elite -- audience.

SF is and will always be a subculture, because at its best it's just too damn strange for the masses. Some SF will appeal to larger audiences because it will contain elements of other subcultures and so be capable of crossing outside of its own ghetto, but to expect SF in general to appeal to a mass audience is unrealistic.

But compared to many other types of writing, SF isn't in particularly bad shape. And once you stop talking about written SF, you're in a completely different world. The most popular movies are frequently SF films, there's an entire channel devoted to the stuff on cable, and even in terms of written work, SF novels frequently appear on the bestseller lists.

"But that stuff's almost all junk!" you scream.

Welcome to the world of appealing to millions of people.

In our culture, great art is almost inevitably marginalized. For all of the envy SF writers, critics, and readers sometimes show toward "literary fiction", have you ever looked at the sales numbers? For every bestselling Jonathan Franzen there are a hundred writers -- better writers -- lucky to sell 5,000 copies of their novels. (If, that is, they can even get published in the first place.)

I can hear the poets laughing in the background. "I'd cut off my ear to sell 5,000 copies!" many a contemporary poet has said. Ever tried getting your poetry book reviewed in a venue read by anyone other than poets? And you thought getting SF noticed was hard...

The poets seem rich to the playwrights. Sure, there are plenty of theatres around the country, but most of them specialize in plays by dead people. A magnificent playwright I know had a conversation with a producer in Seattle who said he specialized in plays by young writers, as evidenced by the fact that he'd produced a play by Craig Lucas (who, in case you don't know, wrote Prelude to a Kiss and was a new, young writer in the early '80s -- it would be like an SF magazine being proud of publishing that young turk William Gibson this year). If you're lucky enough to get a production of your play, it will probably be a limited run at a theatre with fewer than 100 seats. And, unless it wins a Tony or Pulitzer, your only hope of getting it published is as an acting edition for a specialty publisher, which, of course, won't be sold in bookstores. (Go to the drama/plays section of a bookstore sometime if you think the SF section is bad.)

Compared to most literature of any quality and seriousness, SF isn't in bad shape. Yes, short fiction isn't as popular as it was in, say, 1955, but no short fiction of any type is. No, the magazines aren't selling as well as they did in the early '80s, but that's true for most magazines these days. (And even though the circulation of all of the magazines has steadily decreased over the past ten years, the SF magazines still sell far more copies than any of the major literary journals that I know of.)

It would certainly be nice if non-SF readers knew about some of the more interesting young writers in the SF world, but I don't feel that way on behalf of the SF world -- I feel that way because I think there are serious readers out there who would appreciate the work of a handful of people currently publishing in the SF markets. I don't think most such readers would have a lot of patience with any of our major magazines or anthologies, however, because those are the sorts of things that appeal only to people accustomed to the subculture, and the majority of what is published within the SF world in any year doesn't contain qualities that would appeal to people who, for one reason or another, aren't inclined to find SF-style writing appealing. That isn't a slam of the SF world, any more than it is a slam of literary fiction to say that the work of Thomas Bernhard is likely only to appeal to people who like challenging, innovative writing.

About a month ago, I started writing an article about SF and the mainstream, but I've abandoned it because I don't think the problems SF faces have anything to do with non-SF writing. The problems are entirely within the genre, and I don't blame anybody for not reading SF. On some days, I blame myself for reading it at all. So much dead, flaccid, lazy prose; so many juvenile writing techniques; so little real thought about anything other than gimmicks.

The real shame of SF is that within the subculture, we don't appreciate some of the best work to the extent we should, and we give inordinate, grotesque praise to far too much writing that doesn't deserve it.

Update: Gabe has a reply at s1ngularity.net, clarifying his position. I misread some of his intentions, I think, and in many ways we're starting from similar spots but heading off in different, perhaps complementary, directions.

Hugo Nominations

The Hugo Award Nominations have been released. The only category in which I would have trouble making a choice is for Best Novelette, while most of the other categories seem to be incredibly dull representations of a year that was not in fact dull. Each category has at least one good nomination (well, Best Short Story is weak, and some of the writers there published better work in 2003 that wasn't nominated), but it looks like the nominations were mostly made by readers of Asimov's and Analog. Note to such readers: If that's all you read, you're missing a lot of good stuff. Fantasy & Science Fiction is, for my money, a better overall magazine, but most of the real writing, the best writing, is happening in original anthologies, online magazines, and small-press zines -- none of the best of which had a story nominated in any of the three categories.

The Best Editor award deserves to go to either Ellen Datlow (Nick Mamatas offers excellent reasons) or Gordon Van Gelder, simply because F&SF was consistently more interesting in 2003 than Asimov's or Analog, which got the majority of the short fiction nominations. Overall, though, it's a tepid, cautious, and unrepresentative list.

As for the Campbell award, I'm only familiar enough with the work of Tim Pratt and Jay Lake to be able to offer judgment, and the judgment is a simple one: both deserve it. It is a remarkable time for the SF world right now, with so many young writers doing innovative and interesting work, that choosing only one for an honor is beyond my capabilities. Just take a look at who's eligible for the award -- there are at least five writers listed who do consistently more interesting work than most of the people nominated for Hugos for fiction.

Awards are strange things -- it's always nice to win them, of course, because it means somebody out there likes you, but few awards consistently go to work of the highest quality, and most awards are so plagued by idiosyncracies and myopia that they do little more than reinforce the sacred prejudices of the nominating group.

On the other hand, awards can also be great fun, and though they often go to mediocre or cautious work, they seldom go to truly bad work. Though I don't take them very seriously, I still enjoy seeing who prevails. I expect I'll be at WorldCon this year, since it's nearby, and will be as excited as everybody else when the winners receive their trophies.

06 April 2004

Jeff VanderMeer's New Face

The endlessly inventive Jeff VanderMeer now has two new websites: JeffVanderMeer.com, which is a complete redesign of his earlier site, and Ambergris.org, which is a companion site to his book City of Saints and Madmen and the Ambergris series of stories, novels, squid, and related paraphernalia. Jeff says a site map will be added later this week, but I recommend visiting before then for the joy of surprise -- let your cursor wander around over the beautiful Scott Eagle artwork, click every now and then, and see where you end up.

I haven't mentioned Jeff's upcoming collection Secret Life this week, so let me remind you that you still have time to pre-order it before it is published in June. I've been reading the galleys (slowly, savoringly) and will tell you now, with all the authority I can muster, that YOU MUST BUY THIS BOOK. (Yes, I know, there are numerous other books I also keep telling you to buy, and of course you should, but this one is truly magnificent. I don't think we'll see a stronger, more luminous or varied short story collection all year, and it will certainly be a book to put on the shelf of great collections from the early years of the 21st century. Really. I haven't been so excited about a book in a very long time, which is why I keep tantalizing you with exhortations to fetishize this commodity. I'll post a review probably about a week before the book is released, and then you'll really want to buy it. ...Well, I might hate the stories in the second half, which I haven't read yet, but I think that's unlikely.)

"The Redundant Order of the Night" by Jay Lake

I've wanted an excuse to write about Jay Lake for some time now, but all I could think to say was, "Read him," or "He's, like, totally prolific," or, "His name is fairly easy to pronounce, I think."

Now, though, I want to spend a few moments on two items by Mr. Lake. First, let me just point you toward his Handy Guide to Genre Distinctions, which, for those of you determined to discriminate genres, could be printed out and laminated and put into your wallet for confusing moments at a bookstore or library. Purists and impurists will quibble, of course, but notice that this is not labeled a "definitive guide" or an "all-points-of-view-democratically-represented guide", but rather a "handy guide", which could mean a number of different things, all of which I will leave to your imagination.

What I really want to write about, though, as you can tell from the title of this post, is "The Redundant Order of the Night", a very short piece of writing that could be called a short-short story, or flash fiction, or a prose poem, or just a confabulation of a small amount of words. I prefer the latter term, because "short-short story" sounds like a stutter and looks like a typo, "flash fiction" makes me think of porn, and "prose poem" is an oxymoron, though I wouldn't say I dislike that term to the same extent I dislike the other two.

Categorization is pointless, however, because there are really only two kinds of writing in the world: writing that is worth spending time to read, and writing that is not.

Being very short, this writing doesn't have to do much to be worth the time spent on it. It is, however, more interesting than many stories ten times its length, and more deserving of repeated reading than the majority of stories published in the major SF magazines recently. It's the kind of story you'd get from the love child of Gertrude Stein and Frank Zappa.

Consider the first sentence:
Smell the pretty flowers, how they confuse the redundant order of the night. Our palace here is most commoditized, do you not Legree? We have gone to great links to make it more hornlike for such as you.
Before you file this under "nonsense", read it through a few more times. Read the whole piece (it won't take you long, so what've you got to lose?). After a few readings, you should begin to feel the words push against their meanings, evoking and suggesting alternate versions of themselves. Hold onto what you imagine. Let your mind roam through the sentences and between the paragraphs. For this story to work, it seems to me the reader must hold multiple copies in mind at once: there's the literal meaning of the words, which renders up only a bit of sense at best, and then there's the meanings which result from slippage, from displacement and resonance, from misreading. Imagine a text translated into German, the German into Russian, the Russian into Japanese, the Japanese into Swahili, and the Swahili back to English and it will all begin to make sense.

(Actually, forget Stein and Zappa. The story/poem/thing reads more like the better writings of Charles Bernstein.)

"What is the value of this?!" I hear you cry. "No matter which direction you cut the bread, this potato is nonsense! I just wasted five minutes reading it over and over again! Are you mocking me?!"

If after three readings you don't find "The Redundant Order of the Night" amusing, there's little hope you ever will, and you should move on to other things without feeling any guilt.

However, it seems to me that this is a piece of writing which deserves attention because of what it manages to do with language. Here is prose which, through the author's great care with diction and syntax, blossoms in the mind, so long as the mind is open to suggestion. This is not literature of ideas, but rather literature of hypnosis: as with the best surrealist writing, it sends reconnaissance teams into the reader's subconscious and plants some bombs. The words activate imagery we have stored from other stories, movies, advertisements, comic books; shadow-characters float in the periphery of our mind's vision, suggesting people we have met in life and literature; entire galactic empires and future histories construct and deconstruct just beyond our reach.

Welcome to the story as Rorschach test, shadow box, and alien artifact. The minimalism of overdetermination. Memory as funhouse mirror. Language which exists for itself, in itself, of itself -- and yet at the same time communicates. The suggestions the words and sentences send are slightly different each time, variations on a theme contained within itself. The brain baffles itself.

This is writing that doesn't merely "represent" reality, but which constructs its own reality and lets us glimpse it, be affected by it, see/feel/touch it.

Science fiction and fantasy are not the only styles of writing capable of accomplishing such feats, but they may be the only styles of writing capable of making such feats expansive ones, because the best speculative fiction aims to create its own world with each new story. Unfortunately, too much SF has tried to do this within the narrow form of Victorian fiction, and until more writers like Jay Lake start showing us other possibilities, we will keep repeating the same stories over and over, changing nothing other than the technology. It's not the technology in the stories that needs changing, but rather the technology of the storytelling.

Update: Jayme Lynn Blaschke, who accepted this story and published it at Revolution SF, makes a good point: Editors deserve credit for buying works such as this one and helping to make them available to readers. It's always nice to find editors who are willing to take a chance on something which might not appeal to a broad audience. If you want to know how rare such editors are, read Jeff VanderMeer's "City of Saints and Madmen: The Untold Story, Part 1", which gives us a valuable blow-by-blow account of the obstacles that acclaimed book faced on the way to publication. (Thanks to Rick Kleffel for publishing the article.)

04 April 2004

No art, all fear

I previously wrote a post, "Art, Fear, and Violence" about a student who was expelled for writing a violent short story for a class at the Academy of Art University. The teacher was also fired (read the comments to the entry to watch Nick Mamatas attempt to enlighten me, and me respond by digging in my heels.)

Well, the story is, unfortunately, not over. Cory Doctorow over at boingboing posted the following, which he gave the excellent title "Academy of Art University: Free speech chickenshits":
Neil Gaiman forwarded this note from Daniel "Lemony Snicket" Handler:
The Academy of Art University here in San Francisco - the biggest art school in the country - recently expelled a student for writing a violent short story, and then fired his instructor for teaching a story by David Foster Wallace the administration also found offensive.

As this story broke in the press the school has responded by announcing stringent policies regarding the content of students' artwork (writing, visual art, film, video game design, etc.), what can be taught in the classroom, and who is allowed to speak on campus.  This was brought home to me when an instructor at the college invited me to speak to his class (along with the fired teacher and a representative of the First Amendment Project) and I was physically barred from entering the building.
All students at that supposed university should leave immediately. Or else the administration should be sent to ... oh, I don't know ... Libya? Do these people work for the FCC or something?

Update: Neil Gaiman offers more, including a note that the university got a complaint from Salman Rushdie, currently head of the PEN American Center, and that they claimed not to know who he was. I can understand non-English dept. folk not knowing David Foster Wallace's name, but Rushdie?!

Also, Nick Mamatas offers his thoughts, which are, as always, worth reading. The comments are interesting, too.

03 April 2004

"Born on the Edge of an Adjective" by Christopher Barzak

I should tell you what an effective and affecting story "Born on the Edge of an Adjective" is, what a subtle and odd and pleasurable and unsettling story it is, and I should praise the many skills of Chris Barzak, a real rat bastard, a writer's writer whose work is accessible and humane enough to appeal to a broad audience. I should compare him to Chekhov and Michael Cunningham and Frank O'Hara and my mother. I should demonstrate how the ostensibly plain prose of his story has an accumulatively poetic effect, and I should--

But, you see, Chris and I have been corresponding recently, and--

Oh, hell. I don't care if I'm totally biased: it's a great story, and Chris is such a good person that even if you were inclined to hate every word of everything he wrote, you wouldn't be able to, because the guilt would weigh you down until you were a microparticle of frustrated bile bubbling in the interstices of the universe you previously inhabited. And you wouldn't want that to happen, now would you?

(By the way, I went to see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind tonight on Chris's recommendation [well, Jeff VanderMeer saying it's one of the best films he's ever seen helped, too], and liked it a lot, even though I've never liked anything with Jim Carey in it. At least 3 people left the theatre before the middle of the movie after grumbling noisily about how weird it was. I found it surprisingly well-grounded in reality, certainly not overwhelmingly bizarre, and far more emotionally charged than other films I've seen with scripts by Charlie Kaufman, but that all may say more about me than Kaufman or Eternal Sunshine. Also, I'm not surprised Kaufman has written a script (PDF) of Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly, as Endless Sunshine could easily have been a lost PKD story. His script is not the one being used by Richard Linklater for his upcoming film of the book, starring [ugh] Keanu Reeves.)

(By the way II: Revenge of the Parentheses: According to my sources, Chris is going to be a featured writer at Ideomancer in a few months, so more of his work will be available for the teeming hordes which are, or at least should be, clamoring for it.)

01 April 2004

Impostor

After reading Kathi Maio's recent review of various movies based on Philip K. Dick stories, I rented the DVD of Impostor, based on Dick's 1953 short story of the same title. She laments the quality of such PKD-inspired films as Minority Report and Paycheck and calls Imposter "the genuine article".

Methinks Ms. Maio is a tiny bit desperate for a good PKD film, and therefore her critical judgment has suffered. Imposter is not a good movie, unless you find an interminable series of chases and unlikely escapes to be entertaining. Almost every other reviewer in the world panned it, the studio buried it, and viewers didn't view it.

Of course, good -- even great -- films sometimes get badly reviewed, thrown down the drain by the studio or distributor, and shunned by audiences. Impostor, though, deserves its fate.

I would not have any issue with Ms. Maio if she didn't claim that this was a good adaptation of Philip K. Dick. I don't mind people liking movies I loathe. But to say this film does justice to PKD, that this is "the genuine article" is ignorant wishfulness. Let's look at one of her paragraphs in depth:
With Sinise and D’Onofrio in the principal leads, you should already be heading for the video store.
Yes, because Mission to Mars and Bark were such great movies. (Both Sinise and D'Onofrio are capable of excellent work, but actors have very little control over whether a film is good.)
But this movie has more than solid acting to recommend it. It actually seems more interested in Dickian ruminations into the nature of reality and human identity than it does in blowing things up.
A few people saying, "Who am I?" and "I thought I knew him," do not add up to "Dickian ruminations". And, since everything blows up in the end, that does seem to be what the movie is interested in. Everything moves toward that. Lots of chases and gun battles, too -- at least 50% of Impostor is made up of badly-staged and horribly-photographed chases and fights, none of which have anything to do with PKD.
Although guns are fired and explosions do occur, Impostor isn’t afraid to slow things down a bit and substitute a bit of old-fashioned suspense for some of the standard-issue Hollywood violence.
If you consider Gary Sinise running through dark alleys and corridors for ten minutes at a time to be suspenseful, then this movie was made for you. Some of us call it "filler", but if you want to call it "suspense", go ahead.
This movie is even brave enough to end on a very disquieting note.
Brave is making a movie that will get you villified or killed; having a downbeat ending just means you're not being produced by a major studio (or you're being produced by a major studio desperate for an Oscar).

What's disturbing about the ending is its political implications. The original story was, of course, produced during some of the lovelier, livelier years of the Cold War, and certain elements are similar, but the movie makes D'Onofrio's character far more bloodthirsty than he is in Dick's story, and he utters a few lines which sound like John Ashcroft talking about gay Iraqis. The ending, though, shows D'Onofrio and the government (led by "Big Sister") to be correct in all their fears, and so a movie which started out seeming like a critique of governmental paranoia and xenophobia ultimately reinforces and supports it.

What has happened to Philip K. Dick in Hollywood is quite sad. Even Blade Runner simplified the original book so much as to make it nearly unrecognizable, and though the film (still) looks great, it is hollow at its core.

One of the problems may be that Hollywood has made more movies from Dick's short stories than from his novels. While some PKD short stories are quite good -- "Colony", "We Can Remember it for You Wholesale" (all the more reason to loathe Total Recall), "The Electric Ant", "I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon", and some others -- most of them are minor and gimmicky, especially compared to the best of his novels. Filmmakers love the short stories because they usually center around one basic idea, allowing the screenwriter to use the idea and pad it with action sequences and hundreds of millions of dollars of special effects. Yawn.

What makes Dick's best work so good is not only that it contains a provocative central idea, unsettling atmosphere, and surprising twists and turns, but that it explores the ideas. The best work feels, if anything, too short. It doesn't stop with the common questions of "What is reality?" and "What is human?", but rather starts with them and examines every possible path they lead to.

Being a devout PKD fan, perhaps I will never be satisfied with a movie from his stories or novels, because much of the effect of his books comes from the way the language used to describe the characters' perceptions unhinges from the established reality of the narrative. The last pages of Ubik, for example, deliver an effect that would be extremely difficult to replicate through a visual medium (though Dick did write a screenplay of the book).

I may never be satisfied with a movie from PKD material, but I would still prefer to see better films made from them than Impostor, which is not "the genuine article", but rather a desperate and meretricious fake.