31 August 2004

Significant SF Films

John Scalzi is writing The Rough Guide to Science Fiction Film and has put out a call for nominations for his list of "The 50 classic Science Fiction films":
In my own brain, I see this list as the list of the most significant science fiction films, as opposed to the "best" or the most financially successful. This gives me latitude to, say, include films that are influential on science fiction filmmakers, but not necessarily the audience (or, vice versa, as the case may be).
He's got a list of things he's already thought of (most of the obvious stuff), and is inviting comment at his blog.

The only thing I thought should definitely be on his preliminary list is anything by Terry Gilliam. I'm partial to Brazil, myself. Alas, I can't say that SF films are my favorite type of cinema ... often, I go out of my way to avoid them. (Though the upcoming Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow does look intriguing.)

I hope that Scalzi includes a list or discussion of obscure SF movies worth seeking out. If such things even exist. The most obscure I can claim to have seen is Hombre Mirando al Sudeste (Man Looking Southeast), an Argentinian movie that is quite good until it is ruined by a far too literal ending.

27 August 2004

Light Again

North American readers have been impoverished, not having been able to read one of the best science fiction novels ever written: Light by M. John Harrison. Follow the link from the title there, though, and you can order the new Spectra edition.

Yes, I'm shilling for this book, I'm exhorting you to buy it, I'm threatening you with eternal damnation if you don't. Not because Harrison or his publicists or anyone told me to -- I've had no contact with any of them, and I would have been much more reluctant to speak so vociferously if I had. I wrote about Light back in March, and I have since been rereading it very slowly, trying to put together thoughts for what will, if the heat death of the universe doesn't arrive before I complete it, be a long essay about Harrison's recent novels. The experience of rereading Light has only made me respect the book more, because I am doing to it the sort of close reading I have done for only a few books in the past ... things by people named Shakespeare, Swift, Chekhov, and Faulkner. And the book can bear that kind of reading. It is that rich.

There's more than a book at stake here, though. That a major publisher like Spectra is willing to take a risk on a book like Light, a book that is likely to seem alienating and disturbing to the kinds of people who only want nothing more from a novel than easy entertainment or escape, is noteworthy. They aren't going to do it often, and they might be wary of ever doing it again if the book doesn't at least make back some of its investment. Much as I love the small presses, I don't want them to be the only source of rich and challenging writing.

More Links than A Vegan Sausage Factory

A couple of miscellaneous things to tide you over until I write a real post someday:

*Jeff VanderMeer has been blogging up a storm over at VanderWorld, writing about all the books he's simultaneously reading.

*I just read the new edition of Michael Moorcock's Wizardry & Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy, available from Monkey Brain Books (which will soon be publishing Jeff VanderMeer's collection of nonfiction, Why Should I Cut Your Throat?). Here's a taste:
The sort of prose most often identified with "high" fantasy is the prose of the nursery-room. It is a lullaby, it is meant to soothe and console. It is mouth-music. It is frequently enjoyed not for its tensions but for its lack of tensions. It coddles, it makes friends with you, it tells you comforting lies.

*Chris Barzak has moved to Japan and is now writing about his experiences.

*The new version of Amazing Stories is now looking for a new editor, since Dave Gross got an offer he couldn't refuse (he talks about it on the Amazing blog). The job posting is here. Encourage your favorite editor to apply!

*At The Reading Experience, Dan Green has been writing about both metafiction and postmodernism. Even if you don't know what those words mean, you should read what he has to say.

*Giornale Nuovo showcases some wonderful, whimsical drolleries (that is, little decorative drawings in the margins of a book) from a manuscript of The Book of Hours.

26 August 2004

The Bravery of JPK

Jim Kelly is offering a story, "Lisa", for people to read now and see workshopped at Worldcon. Apparently, after the good people of the Cambridge SF Writers' Workshop have their say, the audience will get a chance to respond. This sounds to me like the most frightening and potentially painful experience short of being forced to sit through a Ron Howard movie marathon, and it just goes to show that along with being one of the most patient and tolerant people I have ever known, Jim is also one of the bravest.

I haven't read the story, but in my experience ignorance never stopped anybody from offering their opinion on a subject, so I thought I'd give those of you who will be attending the workshop some suggestions to offer Jim:
*Add more robots.

*The beginning didn't work for me. Have you read Dancer of Gor? I think what the Amazon.com reviewer said of it is important for all writers to think about: "Woman need to know that they are wanted but also to serve. In these books women get both, pleasure from pleasing and pleasure from the men, they make them beg for it to the point that they will just submit. Men could take a few pointer from these books in that pleasure department." [proceed to chew on knuckles]

*I thought it was kind of like The Matrix meets Night of the Living Dead. I mean, I know I'm reading into it, but don't you think the real theme here is the alienation of living in a society where you're not wanted? I think you should add more of that.

*I liked it.

*See, if this were a Quentin Tarrantino movie, now that would be cool, but this -- this is crap, man. Just crap.

*I have a 500-page novel that I wrote in crayon and the blood of my dog, and I was hoping I could give it to you and you'd give it to your agent because everybody says I'm a genius and I'm sure you'll agree. I thought your story needed more sex, too. And religion. The only art is art that venerates God.

*So you live in New Hampshire? Wow, your English is pretty good. I never would've suspected.

24 August 2004

How a Teacher Chooses Some Books

There's been a fair amount of linking around the blogosphere to this article from the NY Times, headlined, "Why Teachers Love Depressing Books", and while I don't have much to say about it, not having read much YA lit, I've been spending a lot of time over the past week or so deciding what books I will use in the classes I teach this year, so I thought I'd share some of the thoughts that go through one teacher's head when faced with writing a syllabus.

First, some background. I'm going into my seventh year teaching at a private boarding school in central New Hampshire. While some of our buildings might remind you of Dead Poet's Society, the school I work at is not at all the sort of Americanized Eton portrayed there. Many of our students have been, for better or worse, labeled with some sort of learning disability, and though we are specifically a college prep school, the graduates go off to a wide variety of colleges. We don't have a huge endowment of money to play with, making roughly 90% of the budget determined completely by tuition, and about 20% of that budget goes to financial aid, so that while, yes, the majority of our students come from families that have a monthly income higher than my annual one, there are plenty of students from a wide variety of backgrounds. There are a few things that make teaching at this sort of school appealing to me: small classes (15 students average for my classes), a lot of curricular freedom, and students buy their own books, which means I can assign things that aren't just what the English department happens to have in stock. (Yes, there are things that I don't like, too. Ask me how I'm feeling after thirteen straight days of fifteen hours worth of various duties, including dorm duty. But the good outweighs the bad, at least for now.)

For this coming year, I'm teaching one section of Advanced Placement Literature for seniors and three sections of American Literature for juniors. We are on a trimester schedule, and the Fall trimester is eight weeks long, plus one week for final exams. The first books of the year have already been decided on, because, for a variety of reasons, the English department thought we should start each grade level off with the same book. For the juniors, it's The Great Gatsby, for the seniors, Kurt Vonnegut'sMother Night. Thus, the immediate decisions I need to make are about what to use after my classes finish those first books.

At the moment -- I have a week and a half to keep changing my mind -- I'm planning on following Gatsby with Neil Gaiman's American Gods and then Willa Cather's My Antonia. Technically, I probably shouldn't use the Gaiman, because he's a British writer, but I think it offers some interesting views of American culture, and, most importantly, it's fun to read. I guarantee that at least one kid in each section of that class will say to me, "Mr. Cheney, I've never read a book that's this long in my life," or something to that effect. English teachers get blamed for ruining reading for people, and, frankly, a lot of that criticism is justified. The basic, traditional paradigm of English teaching seems to pretend that everyone should become a literary critic. That's silly. Over the past six years, I've probably had fewer than ten students who went off to college to immediately become English majors. If I teach kids that reading is hard, boring work, that's the association they're going to be left with. If I start from the premise that reading can be fun and can be rewarding, then maybe when we get to the hard and sometimes boring work, that won't be all they remember. At least, that's what I hope.

I was somewhat reluctant to do My Antonia, but I like to have a variety of perspectives in a term, whether those perspectives be geographic, historical, cultural, or whatever. Hence, My Antonia seems a good perspective to add to Gatsby. I haven't taught it before, but my department head, whose judgment I trust, has, and said though she expected everyone to hate it, many of the students said it was their favorite book of the year. That works for me. I'll also sprinkle in some short stories and poetry, but I don't want to cram the term too full with reading, because I need the kids to have time to do some writing. My philosophy with writing in the Fall term is similar to my philosophy with reading: I need to come up with assignments that will not make these kids dread every assignment I create for the rest of the year. Few of them have ever had a positive experience with a writing assignment before, which is a major reason for the poor quality of their written work: writing assignments are often as fulfilling as chewing your leg off to get out of a trap. The expectation from the school and from parents is that by the end of the year my students will be better able to express their ideas through writing, and so I need for them to start out by realizing that such a thing is possible.

The AP class is different in crucial ways. I have mixed feelings about everything in life, but particularly mixed feelings about teaching AP, where some elements of the class are determined by the fact that I'm supposed to be preparing the students to take a huge, demanding, and pretty ridiculous test at the end of the year. To do well on that test, they need to have a basic understanding of the history of Western literature and be able to write specific, concise literary analysis on the spot. The department head determined I'm the man for this job, and the school spent a good amount of money sending me to a week-long conference about the AP lit test a few years ago, so I do it, and do my best not to waste everyone's time.

The fun is in working with kids who actually don't mind reading and, sometimes, writing, and being able to talk about reading and writing at a pretty high level with them. This year, I'm excited by what I'm planning to do in the fall: using Alex Irvine's One King, One Soldier as an inspiration and anchor, we're going to read parts of Tennyson's Idylls of the King, a lot of Rimbaud (including letters), Eliot's "The Waste Land", and Donald Allen's The Postmoderns poetry anthology. I betting they'll like One King, One Soldier, and that it will be a good way to open up some interest in texts they would otherwise find dull, off-putting, and inscrutable. Somehow I need to design the assignments to be a kind of quest...

So you can see the choice of books is a mix of some of my own interests (because if the teacher isn't excited about the texts, why should the students be?) and some of the requirements of the specific classes, my guesses about the students, and the expectations of administrators and parents. I've worked at other types of schools and have worked extensively with teachers of everything from first grade to Home Ec. to college, and while my own process of creating a curriculum is not common (I start from scratch every year), the thinking is generally a similar mix of mundane needs and creative struggles against limits. While some teachers care for nothing other than making sure kids get a certain canon of literature pushed into them, a greater number, in my experience at least, are far more focused on what the students can learn and what skills they can develop, what habits of thinking they might discover -- using reading and writing as a tool to do so. And every good teacher I've met ends the year saying, "I could have done better." (That's what keeps me, at least, coming back each year: I suffer the delusion that one day I'll actually get it right.)

August IROSF

The August issue of The Internet Review of Science Fiction has a nice variety of articles: Cheryl Morgan writes about awards, Christopher Garcia offers a strangely touching memoir of a fanzine-that-might-have-been, Mahesh Raj Mohan writes about Comic-Con, and Robert R. Shelsky gives advice to writers who are using Medieval towns as settings for their stories and novels. There's also an editorial from John Frost and reviews and criticism of short fiction, a Borderlands novel, and the recent film The Village.

If you read nothing else, be sure to read the interview with Clive Barker, wherein Barker talks with Brett Alexander Savory about writing, painting, filmmaking, BDSM (bondage & discipline/domination & submission/sadism & masochism ... that ought to bring some interesting Google hits here...), Quentin Tarrantino, etc. Here's a sample:
It's very important to me to, when I can, lend my voice, whether it's a fictional voice or whether it's a voice being used in a public forum, to say something in support of those who, in some way or other, are outcasts, to empower people in what is essentially a predominately white-built, male-built power structure -- and a predominately straight-built power structure. And the fight isn't over. We haven't won. There are still churches breeding hatred and division; there is still the Reverend Phelps going to the funerals of gay people, and people who died of AIDS, and carrying posters saying that they're dying and suffering in Hell. We haven't won the war against the inhumane and cruel and the heartless, and the elements that exist in our culture -- the extremists who rot what is good in our belief system by pushing their own particularly corrupt codes, their excuses for their own prejudice. And I want to be useful. Every artist wants to be useful. I want to have an effect; more than anything I want to have an effect.

23 August 2004

"Cold Fires" by M. Rickert

There are many reasons to subscribe to F&SF, but my own has become a simple, single one: because Mary Rickert publishes most of her work there. Yes, plenty of other good writers appear in those pages, but Rickert is my favorite for the moment, because her stories are enigmatic gems, sometimes sharp and disturbing, sometimes gentle and funny, and often a mix of quotidian details with tropes from traditional fantasy and myth (or, occasionally, science fiction). In her stories, dream logic creates understructures of metaphor -- subtexts and echoes play off the other elements of the story to create a rich imaginative landscape.

The latest issue of F&SF (the October/November double issue) contains "Cold Fires", a complex new tale from Rickert that manages to be three stories in one and much more than that. It starts off like a tall tale of a brutally cold winter:
It was so cold dogs barked to go outside, and immediately barked to come back in, and then barked to go back out again; frustrated dog owners leashed their pets and stood shivering in the snow as shivering dogs lifted icy paws, walking in a kind of Irish dance, spinning in that dog circle thing, trying to find the perfect spot to relieve themselves while dancing high paws to keep from freezing to the ground.

It was so cold birds fell from the sky like tossed rocks, frozen except for their tiny eyes which focused on the Sun as if trying to understand the betrayal.
Rickert has a fine eye for detail and oddity, but this is only the beginning, and while we might think at this point that we know what the story will be (brave people struggling through difficult weather, triumphing over whatever forces caused the birds to fall from frozen skies), Rickert is seldom a predictable writer, and within a few sentences we are introduced to two people (known only as "the couple", as "she" and "he") sitting beside their woodstove and telling stories to each other: "the sort of stories that only the cold and the fire, the wind and the silent dark combined could make them tell".

The majority of "Cold Fires" is taken up with these stories: the woman's story of being descended from pirates and from a witch who devoured strawberries, the man's story of discovering the miraculous inspiration for a bad artist's obsession. Both of the stories explain something for the hearer about the teller, and give a warning -- from the woman, that she may leave the man one day, but the fault will not be lost affection, but rather the "witchy blood" she inherited; the man's story explains why he may be sad or not able to talk about what's on his mind: he has seen perfect beauty and limitless love, and knows that his own love may not "leave an imprint on the world, the way great art does, that all who saw it would be changed by it".

There's more, though, because the final paragraph returns us to the frozen winter, and we learn that the house froze like an ice sculpture and the couple stayed inside it all through the winter -- "By burning all the wood and most of the furniture and eating canned food even if it was out of date, they survived, thinner and less certain of fate, into a spring morning thaw..." -- and eventually the stories they told became secrets they shared, a bond that carried them through whatever weather they encountered, forevermore.

The story is gripping and beautiful because its pieces work together so well, and yet they are also interesting in and of themselves. The frozen world is strange, funny, and a bit scary; the story of the strawberry-loving witch is an amusingly off-kilter fairy tale; the man's story is really two stories of its own, that of the artist and that of the man himself as he tries to learn more about the artist. Each tale has its own path and integrity, but when they all come together, the result is subtle and seemingly infinite in its implications. It is a story of love as art, love as magic, art as magic, the blinding obsession that fuels it all, the inevitable failures, the nobility of attempts, the harsh realities of worldly life, the myths we use (and, perhaps, need) to bind our solitary ways together. The structure Rickert uses for "Cold Fires" is a risky one, because it could easily lead to a numbingly schematic story or one where the individual pieces didn't add up to anything, but she makes it work with the kind of skill and confidence developed over years of practice.

I interviewed Mary Rickert recently (in an interview tentatively scheduled for the October issue of The Internet Review of SF), and I learned much about her, including those years of practice. Though her body of work is still small, it is of a quality most other writers might justifiably envy, and "Cold Fires" is one of her best stories yet.

(If you haven't read any of Rickert's work, Ideomancer has a short interview and three stories: "The Girl Who Ate Butterflies", "Night Blossoms" and "More Beautiful Than You".)

19 August 2004

Move Under Ground by Nick Mamatas

Move Under Ground is an impressive novel, one that draws from a range of seemingly unconnected traditions and styles to create what is, essentially, a character study of a pitiful man lost in his own legend.

Much of the attention the book has received, both positive and negative, has boiled it down to its basic conceit: Jack Kerouac in the universe of H.P. Lovecraft. The Cthulhu Beats ... R'lyeh rising off the coast of bohemian San Francisco ... a naked lunch with the Elder Gods ... subterranean exterminators haunting the dark...

As conceits go, this one is cool and clever, but it's not what the book is about; it's just a way of getting there. Various reviewers have addressed the question of whether one needs to be an afficionado of both Kerouac and Lovecraft to "get" the book, to appreciate it, to grok its inner mythos. (The answer depends, it seems, on whether the reviewer liked the book.) Because Mamatas writes from Kerouac's point of view in an almost-Kerouac kind of style, a tolerance for digression and laconic, affectless prose is a must, but not knowing every reference made in homage to either the Beats or the citizens of Arkham certainly won't doom you, because the novel is not merely a cute literary trick. If the whole thing were little more than Lovecraft meets Kerouac, it could have been a 1,000-word story, amusing and slight.

The key to the book, it seems to me, lies in the epilogue. After 178 pages of wild adventures on the road to putting Cthulhu back to sleep and saving the empirical universe, we end up with seven pages of pure American realism: Jack Kerouac, bitter and alcoholic, sitting at home, angry at the fans who stalk him in desperate desire of a few words from their guru, while he's only interested now in getting through the day and figuring out the secrets in baseball scores:
The world's been saved once, while every ungrateful son and daughter slept and dreamt their baseball and apple pie dreams. And all they can do when they wake up is raise the chant for death again. They miss their sleeping world so much. Good for them. Better to desire nothingness than to have no desire for anything, like me.
Look at me, ma, I saved the world! And nobody gives me any credit! It's the cry of every sodden sap with a martyr complex, and by ending the book here, Mamatas suggests much about what we have read, and even about the mixed blessings of fantasy. You can read the story literally, I suppose, letting it really be just Kerouac-meets-Lovecraft, but it's not a very good book if you do, because there's not much narrative tension, the characters are little more than cardboard cartoons, and nothing seems much more important than anything else.

But the epilogue shows us that that is not the book we've read. It's the outer surface only. Scratch that surface and look what you find: a man who aches to be loved, who yearns to be important, who is disconnected from old friends and accomplishments. The reality he lives in is one dull, grey pain, an endless hangover, but denying that reality brings him everything he wants: the friends come back, he is worshipped as both powerful and dangerous, and he can go on a quest to the end of the universe, to the end of all sense and imagination, where the book Neal Cassady always promised to write actually gets written, then strewn across a moonless night of nothingness. In the morning, those papers may be just another manuscript left on the doorstep by a fawning fan, but before the wind blows them across the yard, imagination gives them the possibility of adding up to something.

Neal Cassady is at the heart of all this, the man-child holy fool who is Kerouac's obsession. He is angel, demon, creator, destroyer; attractive and repulsive, noble and sad. In the end, he is gone, as the gun-toting avenger Burroughs is gone, and Ginsberg, too, his memory staying behind to troll the empty sewers of the metaphors Kerouac left in his wake.

It is possible, then, to read the book as an expression of the narrator's mind, where wishes and dreams get mashed into grandiloquent hallucination. As such, the novel becomes a rich and affecting exploration of human conditions, full of strange, funny, and disturbing juxtapositions. It's not a page-turner, it's not an edge-of-your-seat terrorfest, and sometimes it can feel like an interminable series of similar and perplexing encounters. But by the end Move Under Ground is painful in a way that monster movie buckets of blood are not, because it is an expression of common human metaphysical suffering, and if you are sensitive to such emotions, the last pages of the book are both transcendent and shattering.

One Year

I'm terrible with dates. August 18 was the one-year anniversary of this website, and I completely forgot.

But the first substantive posts didn't appear until the next day (a bunch of them ... I don't remember writing them, and must have done so before the actual day of posting, because there are a lot, as you can see from the archive).

It's been a fun year. Thanks to everybody who has come along for the ride so far.


Claude Lalumiere has started a weblog somewhat related to his fine Lost Pages webzine. I was surprised and flattered to see that Claude's first post was in response to The Mumpsimus Cultural Concurrence Index (itself a response to Terry Teachout's wildly popular idea). I scored a lot higher on Claude's index than he did on mine, which proves, I think, the superiority of his choices.

I just turned in a review to SF Site of Horses Blow Up Dog City & Other Stories by Richard Butner. It's a $5 limited edition chapbook of 5 stories, most of which are really really really really good. Published by the ever-wonderful Small Beer Press, this one is worth going out of your way to get. But hurry, because they only printed 400 of the things.

16 August 2004

Review of Electric Velocipede at SF Site

A review I wrote of the sixth issue of Electric Velocipede is now available at SF Site.

I warned Alan DeNiro that I wrote at length about his excellent story "A Keeper" and that I hoped he still recognized the story I'd written about...

(I think it says something about my current [warped] tastes that my favorites of the SF stories I've read so far this year have been "The Voluntary State" by Christopher Rowe, "Women are Ugly" by Eliot Fintushel, and Alan's "A Keeper" -- three very strange tales. Very very strange tales.)


Time for a short post, no?

Some stuff, mostly links:

Jonathan Lethem at a Kerry rally:
"This time, it's not only the poets who are filled with passionate intensity, not only the rock stars, not only the comedians. This time, even the novelists are filled with passionate intensity. And when you have roused even the novelists to the barricades against you, I am here to suggest that your days are truly numbered."

(via Rake's Progress)
Think writing a novel is easy? Check out Empire of Dirt, the blog of mystery writer John Rickards, which contains multiple naughty words, including the following:
Still kinda wish I could get away with writing "Fuck" 30,000 times and handing the finished manuscript in to Penguin. Sadly, not only would they shout and throw things - or have me committed - but there's a clause in the contract that says "work of publishable quality". Cunning, cunning devils.

(via Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind)
The Cryptozoo collects "the strangest creatures that may never have been". So if you're looking for a place for the in-laws... (via Exclamation Mark)

Jonathan Strahan reports that Small Beer Press will release A Rose in Twelve Petals, a chapbook of short stories and poems by Theodora Goss. The Small Beer chapbooks are a great contribution to the world -- the choice of authors is excellent, the production quality is high (compared to many other such chapbooks, at least), and the price is good ($6). And the cover art by Charles Vess is marvelously phallic.

Charles Stross has a great post about physics and ESP.

Tabula Rasa interviewed K.J. Bishop, and includes a picture of her at a shooting gallery in Vienna.

I'll leave you with this article, about an obese woman who died literally fused to her couch, which she had sat on for six years. It's hard not to laugh at the beginning, but as the details of this woman's life become clearer, it ends up being a haunting and tremendously sad story.

A Charlatan Among the Visionaries

Michel Basilieres, doesn't like the work of Philip K. Dick. That's fine; Dick is definitely not a writer to everyone's taste. But Basilieres doesn't want anybody to like Philip K. Dick, and he's particularly annoyed that Dick's books are popular both with general readers and certain literary and cultural theorists skulking through the halls of academe. Even that opinion wouldn't be too bothersome if it were supported with real argument, but all Basilieres can do is bluster.

Let's indulge, then, in some exegesis:
It's hard to escape the growing cult surrounding Philip K. Dick; articles about the author are appearing everywhere these days. This probably would never have happened if Hollywood hadn't discovered Dick's literary canon. Three major films based on his books have already been made and another is in the works. Of course, as it always does, Hollywood picks what it can use from his work and discards everything else. Thus even the best of the films made from his work, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, is a mere adventure movie from which the typical voice of Philip K. Dick is absent. And this is a good thing because, let's face it, Dick was a terrible writer.
To simplify, the points being made are:
  • There is a growing PKD cult.

  • It is a cult because there are a lot of articles about PKD "everywhere".

  • This probably happened because Hollywood has made movies based on PKD's work.

  • Hollywood uses the books for its own purposes, that is, making adventure movies.

  • PKD was a terrible writer.
If we assume that the last point will be elaborated on later and that the penultimate point is irrelevant (being about Hollywood, not PKD), that leaves us with the first three points, which can be proved wrong in a number of ways.

First, if articles about PKD are "everywhere", the logical conclusion is his work is popular and/or of interest to a broad group of people who write and read such articles -- a conclusion that does not lead logically to there being a cult. This is not to say that there isn't a PKD cult, just that Basilieres has made a big leap without evidence.

The argument that Hollywood may be the cause of these articles' appearances (aided by the cult?) is a stretch, but perhaps plausible. It would probably be worthwhile to consider what has been written about PKD and see if it is Hollywood's fault. For instance, we might contact Kim Stanley Robinson and ask him if his doctoral thesis (finished in 1982, I think) on PKD's novels was inspired by Blade Runner, which was also a product of 1982.

The rest of the article is mostly about that last clause of the last sentence: Dick was a terrible writer.

At this point, a good essayist would provide some definition and evidence. "Terrible" has to be elaborated on, evidence needs to be presented to back up the claim, and readers need to know what criteria are used to reach such a judgment.

Here's the first piece of the evidence offered:
Dick wrote many science fiction novels--too many, and far too fast.
Thus, writing too much is bad. Good writers only write slowly, and they only write a few books. Hence, writers who have written a lot of books of mixed quality are terrible writers. Good writers don't write bad books. People who write bad books are bad writers. Unless they write their bad books slowly, in which case they might be good writers. Who wrote bad books. Slowly.
That he was only one of dozens of American writers doing this--and the situation doesn't seem to have changed--is the reason science fiction was and still is so derided. The genre is obviously low-grade escapism written for simpleminded adults or, at best, clever kids. Never mind any claims its writers may make for legitimacy, no matter on what grounds or with what evidence. Simply look at the reams of crap flowing through the bookstores like so many Big Macs--Billions Served!--and the truth becomes obvious. Or just look at the book covers.
These are the sentences that made me write this post. Because they are so ignorant, so bilious, so thoughtless, so repugnant that I can't let them go without at least laughing and farting at them as any sentient creature would.

Let's simplify the arguments in that paragraph to their core: Science fiction writers write too much, too quickly because they are trying to make money, and doing so means that SF is low-grade escapist reams of crap for mentally handicapped people. This is obviously true because of the covers the books are packaged with.


The next paragraph hedges a bit. Basilieres says that some "intelligent writers" have, indeed, managed to sneak into the "blanket of garbage" that is SF. (I don't actually disagree with this. Nor do I categorically disagree that much, or even most, SF is garbage, at least under certain definitions of garbage. It's just that Basilieres is not arguing the point very well.) The interesting thing about the hedging comment is that Basilieres lays out his primary criterion for "good" writing: that to be good it must "make sense".
But Philip K. Dick rarely made sense. His paranoid delusions about his own life transposed easily into his baroque space operas. He's becoming a hero in hindsight only because his work coincidentally seems to presage the creepiest developments of our contemporary culture. On the evidence of what's on his pages, people are beginning to think he knew what he was talking about.
Boiled down: Philip K. Dick was paranoid and had delusions; he wrote his books from these paranoid delusions, and therefore the books don't make sense -- though because the books seem applicable to some current cultural trends they give the illusion of making sense.

There are a few problems here. The first is that Dick's nuttiness as a human being is irrelevant. Strindberg was a fruitcake, and though it made him difficult to live with, his writing is a lot more interesting than it would have been had he been sane. Even that argument, though, is dangerous, because the life of the author may be interesting for biographical reasons, but the biography of the author does not determine the value of what the writer wrote, unless you think all good writers also have to be sane and rational human beings. I happen to value writings, which are less ephemeral than the lives of the writers. Otherwise, I would have to stop enjoying the work of quite a few writers because I thought they had crazy lives.

But maybe Dick's books really don't make sense, and maybe sense is the be-all and end-all of writing. Okay. But we need some evidence for this argument. What do we get?
[H]is work coincidentally seems to presage the creepiest developments of our contemporary culture. On the evidence of what's on his pages, people are beginning to think he knew what he was talking about.
The writings would have had to make some sort of sense if they are able to presage anything about our culture -- even if it is making sense by not making sense, because contemporary American middleclass culture doesn't make sense.

No. According to Basilieres, they presage but don't make sense.

Worse than that, lots of people "are beginning to think he knew what he was talking about." They are wrong. Because PKD doesn't make sense, either in his life or his writings. Hence, there is a cult. It has brainwashed people into thinking PKD made sense. But Michel Basilieres is not a member of the cult, he knows the Truth, he has seen The Light, and he is willing and able to volunteer for all deprogramming sessions offered by the United Nations and the Pope.

Then Basilieres goes on to discuss Emmanuel Carrere's book I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick (a book I have not read but am really going to have to, because reviewers seem to either love it or hate it, and such books are often interesting, even if I end up siding with the haters). Here Basilieres seems to have found a cult member (another one is Jonathan Lethem, mentioned briefly), one who has tried to represent the mind of PKD from his writings. Basilieres rattles on about what a screwed up mind is represented, and then uses Carrere's representation of that mind to criticize PKD's writings:
Dick may have been emotionally troubled, but his work is not that of a visionary genius out of step with the blinkered society around him. It is the product of chemical psychosis.
Because chemical psychosis does not make you out of step with a blinkered society, and it certainly doesn't make you a visionary genius. In fact, even if your work "presages the creepiest developments of our contemporary culture", because you used amphetimines (to write too much, too quickly) that work is not visionary. And it doesn't make sense.

Basilieres switches topics now to the Surrealists and automatic writing. (A moment of quibbling: The Surrealists did not call all of their work "automatic writing", only the writing that was written in a particular way, and many of them disagreed about what that way was. For this discussion it would also be worth noting that Poe, the Decadents, and Dada came before surrealism. But never mind.) Basilieres only brought up the subject so he could complain again that Dick wrote too much, too quickly, and, worst of all, for money:
Like Dick, they produced some remarkable results. But they never tried to make a living at it, so they were able to eschew commercial considerations such as plot and continuity. Dick, by contrast, was forced to bend his neurotic fantasies to the formulas of pulp fiction.
So Dick did produce "some remarkable results". (But he was a terrible writer.) Dick's problem was that he had to think about plot and continuity, because he was trying to make a living. Which good writers don't do. Because they make sense. Which requires plot and continuity. Except when you don't care about commercial success.

Next, Basilieres praises Dick's The Man in the High Castle. Why? Because instead of using "pulp conventions or intuition", Dick consulted the I Ching. This allowed him to get beyond "his own unbalanced view of life" and -- best of all! -- it is "remarkably like a mainstream novel". Why? Because it is "realistic" and "believable". It makes sense. Because it was based on the I Ching.

But Hollywood won't like it, Basilieres says, because there is "little room for action in the book". Good writers, after all, don't appeal to Hollywood. Or have action in their books. Good writers make sense and are boring. (Lest you be taken in by this idiocy, The Man in the High Castle is an entertaining and thought-provoking novel, and, indeed, one of Dick's best. But a good conclusion does not a good argument make. And the implied conclusions about all science fiction are ridiculous.)

After this brief interlude of praise-with-bite, Basilieres finally makes some specific charges against the actual writing. Namely, that the prose "was at best competent and never conscious of itself as a tool for creating art" and frequently worse than that. Also, Dick had no empathy for female characters, and so women in his books are "wooden props", evil wives, "emasculating harridan[s]" who get killed or punched instead of divorced. And--

But that's it. His prose was bad and his female characters were victims, villains, and props. (Oh, yes, and he doesn't make sense. Can't forget that.)

If you judge Dick by much of his work, those charges are entirely true. Lots and lots of terrible prose. Lots of embarrassingly bad (in every sense) females. And males, for that matter, because most of Dick's characters were not what one might want to encourage their children to grow up to be.

But we should judge writers by their best works, and there are times, particularly in his later novels, when Dick rises above these limitations. However, Basilieres has hit upon a couple of generally valid criticisms. He doesn't, though, end there. Alas.

Realizing that he needs some backup, Basilieres brings Stanislaw Lem in (after making a few more lame hedging statements, saying Dick's books can be fun to read but they weren't anything new and now they're really old), though it's really just name-dropping, a chance for him to let us know he's read Lem's essay "Philip K. Dick: Visionary Among the Charlatans" (in Microworlds). If you glance at that essay, and at Lem's "Science Fiction: A Hopeless Case -- with Exceptions" you'll find some of Basilieres's arguments being made with much more care and force. In fact, I'm not sure Basilieres has ever read any science fiction ... he might only have read Lem.

Finally, he reminds us (did we know?) that he's actually reviewing Carrere's "brilliant book", and his final verdict is that Dick would either have been "terrified by it, or convinced it was after all his own work, the book he's always wanted to write." (Why? Who knows. Basilieres meant to tell us, but got so wrapped up in bashing Dick as a psychopath, a misogynist, and a writer of bad prose that he forgot to tell us exactly why a representation of a writer's mind by an imaginative biographer is better than the writer's own work. I assume because it has good prose, balanced portraits of women, and makes sense. Unlike the mind it is supposedly representing.)

I suppose it's ridiculous to go on at length about an essay that is so obviously incoherent and irrational. Really, we should just label Basilieres's piece as humor and have a good laugh. He's probably a good guy, after all, and even if he only likes fiction that isn't written for money, fiction that is written slowly, fiction that makes sense ... well, there are worse crimes.

I've written all this because I want better criticism of science fiction to exist. Criticism that isn't based on broad generalizations and unsupported proclamations. There are valid points to be made about how and why we read what we do, how we value certain works rather than others. Such criticism is useful because it helps readers look at what they read differently. It's a selfish idea, really, because I want new ways to look at what I read, new ways to value different types of writing, new ways to communicate my passion for such writing. And I don't mind re-evaluating writers whose works, for one reason or another, I do appreciate, such as Philip K. Dick, even if the re-evaluation is harsh. Stanislaw Lem's essay is, indeed, a model. I disagree with a lot of it, and I think Lem oversimplified at times and also suffered from a lack of access to many texts, but nonetheless the effect of all his essays is to get me thinking more broadly about what science fiction is, what it does, and what, more importantly, it could do. His essays use certain examples of writing to speculate on the possibilities of literature; they expand our understanding of what we read by carving new shapes in the matter of our thoughts.

Basilieres's essay is the opposite; it is a constriction, a puritanical diatribe, a dogmatic belch.

And it doesn't make sense.

14 August 2004

I've been trying very hard to ignore Nick Mamatas, because I promised him that I would write about his novel Move Under Ground and I haven't even finished reading it yet, but his latest LiveJournal post is so worth reading that I can't help but point you toward it.

You will find when you read it that Nick applies some ideas from Dale Peck's Hatchet Jobs to science fiction, in response to a post by Jed Hartman (as well as the comments that followed).

Yes, Dale Peck has ideas other than that every novel since Ulysses sucks (except for his own, of course), and in fact the essay that Nick is, I think, relying on -- about contemporary gay fiction -- is one with some good insights, and it seems to have been ignored in the fracas over Peck's other, more hyperbolic reviews.

I'm not quite sure where Nick's going with some of the ideas, but I think it will be interesting to watch.

Meanwhile, go buy Move Under Ground. (I think you can still get signed copies for $20 here and support the revolution at the same time.) Then when I finally do write about it, you'll have some idea what I'm writing about and can disagree vociferously with all the bizarre opinions I express.

"The Liberation of Earth" (and other stories) by William Tenn

I meant to read just one.

After all, I've got a lot to do right now -- promises to keep, miles to go on untaken roads -- and I don't have time to be spending hours reading one old story after another.

Because really I just wanted to say that William Tenn's "The Liberation of Earth" remains one of the most painfully funny satires since Swift.

Yes, that's what I was going to do: write a post about "The Liberation of Earth". To do so, I had to reread it. So I grabbed Immodest Proposals, the first of two NESFA Press volumes of Tenn's collected fiction, a book I got for $5 somewhere because the binding is coming apart, and I read "The Liberation of Earth" for about the fifth time.

It didn't take me long, so I decided to revisit "Down Among the Dead Men", in which prejudice is condemned, including prejudice against soldiers built from the corpses of war casualties.

Of course, then I had to reread "Brooklyn Project", one of my favorite time travel stories, because it's simple, clear, surprising, funny, and subversive. For instance, consider what an official says when a reporter complains that she doesn't want to be locked up for 2 years so the government can more carefully monitor how she reports:
You must remain within the jurisdiction of the Brooklyn Project because that is the only way that Security can be certain that no important information leakage will occur before the apparatus has changed beyond your present recognition of it. ... After your editors had designated you as their choices for covering this experiment, you all had the peculiarly democratic privilege of refusing. None of you did. You recognized that to refuse this unusual honor would have shown you incapable of thinking in terms of National Security, would have, in fact, implied a criticism of the Security Code itself from the standpoint of the usual two-year examination time.
That was written in 1947. After the editors of nearly every science fiction magazine at the time rejected the story -- Tenn reports that John W. Campbell "called me to his office and skimmed the piece back to me across his desk. 'Oh, no,' he said. 'No, no, no!'" -- it found a home with one of the pulpiest pulps, Planet Stories, where the editor said it really didn't fit, and its implied criticisms of the National Security State made it less than safe to publish in those days of the House Un-American Activities Committee, but, he continued, "I figure this one is for God. An editor is entitled to at least one for God." (The issue "Brooklyn Project" appeared in also included Ray Bradbury's classic "Mars is Heaven", which was, I suppose, a more overt present for God.)

Once I started rereading old favorites, I thought I should read a few stories I hadn't read before, so I moved on to "Winthrop Was Stubborn", another time travel tale, this one a long story about some ordinary folk from 1958 trapped in the twenty-fifth century, and none too comfortable with all the odd changes that have occurred in the time between. It's a remarkably inventive and imaginative story.

One of my new favorites is Tenn's own favorite: "The Custodian", a last-man-on-Earth story that is not a satire, but a philosophical character study and a meditation on the value of art. The writing is denser, the pace slower than in many of Tenn's other stories, and to good effect here, moving it all toward an ending that is appropriate and humane. After the Earth has been abandoned (the sun is predicted to go nova), one man remains, a man who has been dubbed a "custodian" because he is interested in things that aren't merely useful, unlike the pragmatic Affirmers, a sort of religious sect that seems to have organized the evacuation of the planet:
I can just imagine the kind of conversation I might be having with an Affirmer at the moment, were one to have been stranded here with me. What dullness, what single-minded biologic idiocy! What crass refusal to look at, let alone admit, the beauty his species has been seventy millennia in the making! The most he might have learned if he is European, say, is a bit about the accepted artists of the culture. What would he know of Chinese paintings, for example, or cave art? Would he be able to understand that in each there were primitive periods followed by eras of lusty development, followed in turn by a consolidation of artistic gains and an increase in formalization, the whole to be rounded off by a decadent, inner-groping epoch which led almost invariably into another primitive and lusty period? That these have occurred again and again in the major cultures so that even the towering genius of a Michelangelo, a Shakespeare, a Beethoven will likely be repeated -- in somewhat different terms -- in another complete cycle? That there was a Michelangelo, a Shakespeare, and a Beethoven in each of several different flower periods in ancient Egyptian art?

How could an Affirmer understand such concepts when he lacks the basic information necessary to understanding? When their ships departed from the moribund solar system laden only with immediately usable artifacts? When they refused to let their offspring keep childhood treasures for fear of developing sentimentality, so that when they came to colonize Procyon XII there would be no tears for either the world that had died or the puppy that had been left behind?
I'd better stop, before I quote the whole story.

And wasn't I going to write about "The Liberation of Earth"? Yes, of course--

"The Liberation of Earth", written in 1950 and published in 1953, predicted the "we had to destroy the village to save the village" attitude. "Predicted" may not be accurate, since such an attitude has probably been a part of human history from long before the Vietnam war, but Tenn's story so perfectly elucidates that homocidal way of thinking that it was, he says, read aloud at protests during the war. (He also says he wrote it with the Korean war in mind, wanting to write something from the perspective of the people being "liberated", though he adds that "...recently I have come to the conclusion that if I had been a Korean, North or South, under those same circumstances, I would very much have welcomed the U.S. intervention. Am I growing old? Or just official?")

There is much that is remarkable about "The Liberation of Earth", and not just the satire, though that's its biggest selling point. The rhythm and pacing of the sentences and paragraphs is simply, comically brilliant -- the sort of timing Woody Allen achieves now and then, the sort of timing that lets early details become big laughs later, that prepares you to be surprised and yet still surprises. The story also manages to be interesting in a form that is often quite boring if it lasts for more than a few pages: a long-range history told in a detached, ironic tone. It's a form Mark Twain used quite a few times (see the Tales of Wonder collection for some examples), but I think Tenn is often more fun to read than Twain, at least in this style.

The history we get here is a history related by a devolved human, a human relegated to sucking whatever air he can get on an Earth that has been liberated nearly into oblivion by various alien visitors who used the planet and the people for their own purposes and then abandoned the place. Another author might have chosen to make the narrator self-pitying and preachy; Tenn's choice was to make him revel in his liberation and pity the people of the past:
Visualize our ancestors scurrying about their primitive intricacies: playing ice-hockey, televising, smashing atoms, red-baiting, conducting giveaway shows, and signing affidavits -- all the incredible minutiae that made the olden times such a frightful mass of cumulative detail in which to live -- as compared with the breathless and majestic simplicity of the present.
Of course, the story oozes irony, much as Voltaire oozed irony -- and Tenn's first collection, Of All Possible Worlds, which included "The Liberation of Earth", began with an epigraph from Candide about living in "the best of all possible worlds" -- and the irony grows thicker as the story progresses and the two aliens, the Dendi and the Troxxt, keep liberating Earth from the other:
Whereas the Dendi had contemptuously shoved us to one side as they went about their business of making our planet safe for tyranny, and had -- in all probability -- built special devices which made the very touch of their weapons fatal for us, the Troxxt -- with the sincere friendliness which had made their name a byword for democracy and decency wherever living creatures came together among the stars -- our Second Liberators, as we loving called them -- actually preferred to have us help them with the intensive, accelerating labor of planetary defense.

So humanity's intestines dissolved under the invisible glare of the forces used to assemble the new, incredibly complex weapons; men sickened and died, in scrabbling hordes, inside the mines which the Troxxt had made deeper than any we had dug hitherto; men's bodies broke open and exploded in the undersea oil-drilling sites which the Troxxt had declared were essential. ...

Truly, even in the midst of a complete economic paralysis cause by the concentration of all major productive facilities on other-worldly armaments, and despite the anguished cries of those suffering from peculiar industrial injuries which our medical men were totally unequipped to handle, in the midst of all this mind-wracking disorganization, it was yet very exhilarating to realize that we had taken our lawful place in the future government of the galaxy and were even now helping to make the Universe Safe for Democracy.
William Tenn (whose actual name is Philip Klass, by the way) will be the Guest of Honor at WorldCon in a few weeks. He has written very little fiction in the last thirty years, spending most of his time teaching instead, but he never separated himself from the science fiction community, a community that is only now beginning to give him the awards he has for so long deserved. The fiction he published was some of the best short SF of its time, and a surprising number of the stories hold up well today, when most stories by even the eminent names that appeared alongside Tenn's seem awkward, rudimentary, and naive. His concepts are still penetrating, his sentences both lively and complex, his craftsmanship remarkable.

Note: If you're looking for Tenn online, there's a basic "official website" with pictures and links, including to a 1975 interview.

The only story of Tenn's that is available online, alas, is "Bernie the Faust", a good little tale with an O. Henry twist, well balanced and well written, but not as biting or rich as some of my favorites.

Update: Josh Lukin notes in the comments that I missed a Tenn story SciFiction posted a year and a half ago: "Party of Two Parts". Many thanks for letting me know!

12 August 2004

Reviewing Cliches

In The Telegraph, Tom Payne offers an exhaustive, not to say exhausting, list of book reviewers' cliches. The article has it all: edgy attitude, amphetamine-fueled listmaking like William S. Burroughs on acid, a searing indictment with countless penetrating insights you won't want to miss. Payne hits the ground running in the deceptively simple, inimitable style of Edgar Allen Poe meets Margaret Thatcher:
When did you last come across the words "coruscating" or "magisterial"? It's unlikely to have been in a holiday brochure or a recipe. Surely it was on the back of a book or in a book review.
Continuing at a breakneck speed by this stage, each paragraph becomes an achingly beautiful emotional rollercoaster of high-octane panoramic sweep with "fluent prose" written all over it. At its core, Payne's article is a tour de force of literary scholarship that is as good as any novel -- truly magisterial.

The dogged investigation of the article's first section moves at a cracking pace toward an epic, laughoutloud funny list of politically correct terms that should be required reading for George W. Bush and his advisers. It is a coruscating litany of pure, complete, unadulterated codswallop bliss that demonstrates an epoch-making lightness of touch that is darkly comic and reads like a Who's Who of contemporary poetry from fin-de-siecle Vienna. It's a rattling good read and a cultural event divided like the state of India itself between deadly earnest icons and warts-and-all erudition worn lightly.

I do have a few minor quibbles. Bursting to get out of this cocktail of Henry and Jesse James is a leafy, feisty workmanlike biography revved up on Viagra. Though the article holds the reader's attention in an iron grip, Payne does not in true postmodernist fashion constantly invent and reinvent himself, proving his editor should be shot for not encouraging a heady mix of searingly honest reportage with that rare thing, a surreal and sympathetic portrait of things not as they seem. Construed thus, the article would have been an overnight sensation, a stunning debut, unputdownable.

Nonetheless, Payne writes like a dream and the fact that truth is often stranger than fiction shines through. In fact, the article bears an uncanny resemblance to Douglas Coupland's novels of twentysomething angst, those vast, sprawling epics that were, in effect, the first conservationist/feminist/Communist/librarian chronicles that were simultaneously wickedly funny and woefully inadequate. Take one part Wallace Stevens, mix in some W.C. Fields, add a dash of Stephen King, leave to simmer, and what do you have? A vibrantly alive, poetic man who will appeal to the serious scholar and general reader alike, will stay with you long after the last page is turned, and will resemble a young German corporal by the name of Adolf Hitler.

The rest, as they say, is history.

10 August 2004

Poetry Note

The Rhysling Awards have been announced by the Science Fiction Poetry Association. The winners were "Just Distance" by Roger Dutcher from Tales of the Unanticipated (short poem category) and "Octavia is Lost in the Hall of Masks" by Theodora Goss from Mythic Delirium (long poem).

You can still get copies of The 2004 Rhysling Anthology, which was sent to all SFPA members, through the website for $9.45, and it's worth the money, because some of the nominated poems are also excellent. I was particularly impressed with the work of Sonya Taaffe, a poet I hadn't paid enough attention to, but who has a deft sense of line and diction, as well as an imagination that offers continual surprises in her poems. There's a density to the poems that you don't often find in pieces labeled as "speculative poetry", which so often is the realm where jokey short-short stories go to die. (I believe that the next issue of Flytrap (#3) will feature a few poems by Taaffe -- somebody please correct me if that's a delusion.)

There isn't much work by Sonya Taaffe available online, but there are a few things:
A list of recommended science fiction novels and stories

"A Maid on the Shore" (short story)

"Over the River" (short-short story/ prose poem)

"Theagenes Remembers" (short-short story/ prose poem)

"Moving Nameless" (short story, added to list 8/15/04)

One King, One Soldier by Alexander C. Irvine

I'm not going to write much about Alexander Irvine's new novel, One King, One Soldier, not because I didn't like it, or because I don't think it is worth thinking about, but because I'm mad at John Clute, who said everything I wanted to say about the book, and plenty I hadn't even thought about saying. I have no desire whatsoever to write dueling reviews with John Clute, a fool's quest if ever there was one.

Actually, I'm lying. Or vacilating. Or something. I've been thinking about One King, One Soldier for a few days now, thinking about its story of the Grail, the Knights Templar, Oak Island, Rimbaud, Jack Spicer, baseball, imperialism, and fate. The writing is strong, both clear and evocative (particularly in some of the sections about Africa), and the story is engrossing. Even if the last quarter of the book is not particularly convincing, not nearly as satisfying as the beginning, it would be hard to imagine any other way Irvine could have brought so many strands of story together. The problem he faced was the one faced by anybody using historical figures in their fiction: how close to alternate history do you want to get? Irvine might have been able to produce a more satisfying, less contrived storyline if he had made it clear his book took place in a parallel universe, but there is an entertaining tension to be had by fitting fiction into the shadows of known history, and doing so lets Irvine suggest themes he would not have been able to otherwise. One King, One Soldier is, among other things, about how the stories we tell influence the reality we live in, how what we believe determines our actions, how the ripples of those actions slip beyond our view and control.

(One tangential note: Jack Spicer's books are all, as far as I can tell, out of print. This is unforgiveable. He was one of the most important and most interesting American poets of the second half of the twentieth century. A good biography is available, as are his lectures, but not his poems. Call Congress! Contact your local small press! Circulate petitions! This is a travesty!

End of public service announcement.)

07 August 2004

World Fantasy Award Nominations

The World Fantasy Award nominations have been announced, and all I can say is I'm glad I'm not voting, because having to choose between some of these nominees would be difficult, painful, and heartbreaking.

Anyway, here they are, with some links:
# The Etched City, K. J. Bishop (Prime Books)
# Fudoki, by Kij Johnson (Tor)
# The Light Ages, Ian R. MacLeod (Ace)
# Tooth and Claw, Jo Walton (Tor)
# Veniss Underground, Jeff VanderMeer (Prime Books)

# "A Crowd of Bone", Greer Gilman (Trampoline: An Anthology, Small Beer Press)
# "Dancing Men", Glen Hirshberg (The Dark, Tor)
# "The Empire of Ice Cream", Jeffrey Ford (Sci Fiction 02.26.03)
# "Exorcising Angels", Simon Clark & Tim Lebbon (Exorcising Angels Prime Books)
# "The Hortlak", Kelly Link (The Dark, Tor)

# "Ancestor Money", Maureen F. McHugh (Sci Fiction 10.01.03)
# "Circle of Cats", Charles de Lint (Viking)
# "Don Ysidro", Bruce Holland Rogers (Polyphony 3, Wheatland)
# "Gus Dreams of Biting the Mailman", Alex Irvine (Trampoline, Small Beer Press)
# "O One", Chris Roberson (Live Without a Net, Roc)

# Gathering the Bones, Jack Dann, Ramsey Campbell & Dennis Etchison, eds. (Voyager Australia; Voyager UK; Tor US)
# Strange Tales, Rosalie Parker, ed. (Tartarus Press)
# The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases, Jeff VanderMeer & Mark Roberts, eds. (Night Shade Books)
# The Dark: New Ghost Stories, Ellen Datlow, ed. (Tor)
# Trampoline: An Anthology, Kelly Link, ed. (Small Beer Press)

# Bibliomancy, Elizabeth Hand (PS Publishing)
# Ghosts of Yesterday, Jack Cady (Night Shade Books)
# GRRM: A Rretrospective, George R. R. Martin (Subterranean Press)
# More Tomorrows & Other Stories, Michael Marshall Smith (Earthling Publications)
# The Two Sams, Glen Hirshberg (Carroll & Graf)

# Brom
# Donato Giancola
# John Jude Palencar
# John Picacio
# Jason Van Hollander

# Peter Crowther (for PS Publishing)
# John Howe & Alan Lee (for artwork in The Lord of the Rings)
# Kelly Link & Gavin Grant (for Small Beer Press)
# Sharyn November (for Firebird Books)
# David Pringle (for Interzone/service to the field)
# Sean Wallace (for Prime Books)

# Deborah Layne & Jay Lake (for Wheatland Press)
# Paul Miller (for Earthling Publications)
# Ray Russell & Rosalie Parker (for Tartarus Press)
# Dave Truesdale (for Tangent Online)
# Rodger Turner, Neil Walsh & Wayne MacLaurin (for SF Site.com)

A Comment from Colleen

Colleen Lindsay left a fascinating comment on my Considering Mieville post, but since the discussion there had died down and her comment was number 23, I asked her if I could post it on the main page, since many people who might be interested in what she has to say might not have seen it. If you want the full context, you'll need to go back to the comments section of that post (quite an interesting discussion, actually).
Hi all -- I'm Colleen Lindsay and I am Del Rey's publicity director. I am also China's personal PR machine. The fact that so many of you are grumbling about his celebrity means that I have done my job right -- thank you! :-)

First some thoughts on editing. I am not an editor, but I do know something about the editorial process at Del Rey especially where China's editor, a very gifted fellow named Chris Schluep is concerned. When Del Rey bought PERDIDO STREET STATION, it was, essentially, a finished book. We were simply publishing the reprinted UK edition, with some minor Americanization of spelling here and there. Chris did no editing of this book. However, when he went back to China's agent to buy more original stuff, the idea was that he and China's UK editor would work together on the edits.

Now I don't know how much you know about the editing process in the UK, but traditionally, there isn't a whole lot of developmental editing in many of the big houses. With THE SCAR, Chris lopped off a good 200 pages, and caused China no endless amount of consternation and grief and agony. But China LOVED having the editorial direction. The published result was a far superior book than what was originally submitted. This is how it is supposed to work.

With IRON COUNCIL, Chris worked even more closely with China, and they really knocked it down to it's bare essence. Sure, everything in the world could probably use more editing, but in the real world of publishing, you have deadlines and publishing schedules and laydown dates and at some point you must say, "Well, here goes nothing."

Now, as for PR, well, I am here to tell you: PR is all about the writer and not about the book. When I have to make a judgement to determine which of my new authors I get to spend my meager publicity and marketing budget on, I look at the following things:

:: The book itself

:: The author's physical appearance: Is he or she well-groomed? I know two authors who have terrible body odor problems; when you are near them, you don't think about the book or how great a writer he or she may be, you just think about how fast you can get aay from them. Sad but true. Is the author significantly overweight? If so, will this be a physical hindrance to the person if I need to send them on a rigorous tour schedule? (As someone who is very overweight myself, I know the strains this can put on one's body is one is routinely inactive.)

:: The author's bearing: Does he or she bear themselves with dignity and grace, or does he /she give the appearance of walking like a victim? This is the kiss of death in front of a crowd of eager fans.

:: The author's voice: Does he or she have a radio-appropriate voice? Does he or she have an accent that will hinder an audience's comprehension when he/she reads? Does he/she have an unpleasant voice in general? If you have an unpleasant voice or vocal habits, by golly, hire a voice coach and get rid of them.

:: The author's vocabulary and sense of humor: How educated and intelligent is the author? How erudite? Can he/she make you laugh without resorting to ribald humor? Can the author talk about anything other than his / her book? Trust me, nobody wants to hear about your book on a radio show after the first two minutes. Greg Bear is a favorite author of mine as he can talk intelligently on pretty much any scientific subject, and his sense of humor and timing are impeccable.

:: How the author comes across on the telephone: Does he or she mumble, or talk too softly?

:: How the author comes across in person, and sense of charisma: Is the author humble or a pompous ass?

You don't need to be pretty like China, but you need to be confidant, well-groomed, educated, erudite, interesting to talk to, able to maintain a sense of humor throughout, and someone that other people want to get to know.

Terry Brooks is another prime example. You may hate his writing, but anyone who has ever spent any time with him knows he is the consummate professional, easygoing, funny as hell, intelligent and a little bit of a smartass sometimes. I can put him on any radio show in the country and know that whomever is listening -- even if not a fan of his -- will be entertained or intrigued. China was actually blown away by what an great guy Terry when he met him in 2002.

Neither Terry nor Greg could possibly be considered young or pretty. They just get what it takes to market yourself in today's publishing world.

Just my two cents, kids. Back to your discussion, please.


06 August 2004

Iron Council by China Mieville

(Note: If you haven't read Iron Council, intend to, and don't like to know plot elements and details before you read, you should not stray much beyond the first two paragraphs in this post.)

I began to read Iron Council with a mix of emotions and biases: I had enjoyed China Mieville's earlier novel Perdido Street Station and found some of its imagery breathtaking; I had liked parts of his next novel, The Scar, very much, but overall found the book tedious; I was tired of the cult-like hero-worshipping displayed by some of Mieville's fans; I looked forward to seeing how Mieville's imagined world of Bas-Lag would be developed; and I hoped very much that the book would demonstrate a maturation of Mieville's craft and not a settling in to his fame and guaranteed readership.

Iron Council is, indeed, a maturation, a book of depth and richness, particularly when viewed as the third part of a trilogy. (Actually, as Mieville has said, the order the books are read in probably doesn't matter. That they echo and add texture to each other, though, is certain.) Structurally, it is more assured, and certain structural choices seemed to me to play a larger part in the book's overall meaning than has been true in Mieville's work in the past. The language remains baroque, driven by rhythm as much as meaning, some passages being almost Faulknerian -- there are sentences and paragraphs rivaled by few contemporary writers for their beauty, but Mieville is also deliberately paying homage to various pulp traditions, and so the lyricism is generally usurped by melodrama, a technique that is emotionally manipulative, but a vital part of much popular culture. Mieville is an entertainer, a storyteller who wants to keep people turning pages and staying up late into the night to finish yet one more chapter.

It was a pleasant surprise, then, to discover that Mieville was willing to redirect his story 148 pages in with a flashback that is nearly as long as the entire book up to that point, a kind of narrative speedbump that will annoy many readers, I'm sure. The section is labelled an "anamnesis", a term that goes back to Plato and means a reminiscence or recollection, though it also has some meanings in religion and theosophy, and is even the title of a book by conservative philosopher Eric Voegelin. The various meanings anamnesis has accrued over the centuries often suggest memories that lead to later inspiration, a kind of ethical pre-learning, the basic knowledge or experience known to the subconscious (either personal or collective) that motivates someone to commit ethical actions.

The word anamnesis, then, gives us almost everything we need to know about the significance of this section to the book as a whole, to the ending, and to the Iron Council itself. The Council is a motley crew of errant revolutionaries who, after a railroad strike, build a society on a stolen train. In the decades since the Council fled, its actual deeds and existence have been far less important to the city of New Crobuzon than its legend. The legend inspires various people to fight against injustice and to hope for revolution. The anamnesis is that of both Judah Low, the protagonist of this section of the book, and of all New Crobuzon itself, which is one reason the governing powers in the city will stop at nothing to destroy the Iron Council -- they understand its symbolism. Judah was present as the creation of the Council, was a valued member of it, and then became its self-proclaimed bard after leaving it to return to New Crobuzon. When the Council itself returns for a last battle at the end of the book, Judah's final actions preserve the Council so that the process of anamnesis can continue and the Platonic idea it represents remains intact. Though, as one character says toward the end, "There's no plan to history," Judah makes sure there is, at least, hope.

The anamnesis section of the book is a minor masterpiece, a story that is emotionally affecting, philosophically interesting, well written, inventive, and gripping. It is a pastiche of various types of writing -- most clearly tales of the Old West -- which also manages to maintain its own integrity. It echoes much labor history, utilizing archetypes from strikes and union battles past. (I couldn't help thinking of the role of railroads in the Mexican Revolution, and I'm sure other readers will think of various parallels.) It is, appropriately, filled with the excitement of underdog stories, of good guys versus bad guys, fueled with a naive (but necessary) belief in wondrous progress.

Mieville deserves accolades for letting his vision be larger and more realistic than many other writers would with similar material, because other writers would either cynically show the revolutionary fervor of the anamnesis section to be misplaced and ignorant, or would allow the Iron Council to triumph over evil and create a utopia in New Crobuzon. Mieville shows that revolution is much more complex than most revolutionaries expect, that human beings have many motivations, that events may not be what they seem, effects may be impossible to predict, and good guys seldom win for very long. That he does this without a trace of cynicism in his tone or in the structure of the novel is remarkable. (The only book I can think to compare it to, at least in this respect, is Norman Rush's Mating, though the books are vastly different.)

Taken as a trilogy, Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council offer a wide view of change, loyalty, and fantasy. Each of the books is about the need for fantasy despite the inevitable ability of reality to shatter all dreams, or turn them into nightmares. It is the process of dreaming that Mieville celebrates, suggesting that when people wish and hope and dream they can create meaningful change in themselves and even the world, though no change is permanent, and ghastly costs may be attached. In each of the books, people place their faith and trust in characters who end up being less or more than they seemed, often to the detriment of the trust -- and yet it is that trust which provided the impetus for the characters to do remarkable things, to dream, to change. Loyalty, then, is worthwhile, even though it often leads to sorrow and danger. New Crobuzon changes in the time from the opening page of Perdido Street Station to the closing page of Iron Council, and it is not a good change, but a reactionary and oppressive one. Great sacrifices are made, but little progress. But there is some potential within the city that lures the wayward back, both in The Scar and Iron Council, that keeps them believing, hoping, dreaming, that illuminates moments of happiness and wholeness. Over and over again characters try to escape New Crobuzon, to find joy in life elsewhere, but always they must return.

The three books are adventure novels, ones with similar plots overall: a mystery is raised and slowly solved, leading to unexpected outcomes, the main characters' lives are imperiled, the setting threatened with total destruction, and then lots of people kill each other, with bittersweet results. The formula works well in Iron Council up until the last two hundred pages, partly because of the complex juxtapositions of chronology and events, but threatening New Crobuzon yet again with eldritch forces from beyond seemed unnecessary, and I could have lived with about half as many battles, because the book began to feel more like a scenario for a roleplaying game than a novel: one seemingly impossible battle ("Good dice roll!") leads to an even more seemingly impossible battle ("Your weapons aren't effective against noncorporeal entities, but luckily coming down the hill...") leads to another and another and....

While I hope Mieville develops a new formula soon, I also understand that the one he keeps reverting to is inherent for the kind of story he wants to tell, and that it has been done much worse by other writers. Many readers won't mind at all -- will, in fact, find the innumerable battles to be the best moments of the books. Mieville has so much else to offer, though, that it seems a shame he always ties things up by having his characters spend most of their time killing each other.

Mieville has stated in interviews that he does not want to create stories with simple "good vs. evil" morality, but that is generally what he does. The government of New Crobuzon is populated entirely with people who operate with as much love and compassion as a Dark Lord. Mieville's main characters are often conflicted, impulsive, selfish, and wonderfully complex, but they end up fighting against forces that are entirely loathsome, which is a cop-out.

There is much to celebrate about Iron Council, though, and much of the book demonstrates a prodigious achievement of craft and imagination. It is more complex and less bloated than The Scar, wider ranging in scope and philosophy than Perdido Street Station, and yet it maintains and builds off of those books' tremendous imaginative energy. It is not at all perfect, and will not be to everyone's taste, nor to every Mieville fan's taste, but it rewards attention and thought, which is more than can be said for many of the books it shares shelf space with on the New Books rack at bookstores.

04 August 2004

Quote for the Day

I am not interested in making plays that say, Here is the message. I am interested in plays that put into play in exhilarating fashion all of the different meanings circulating around us. Art is a place where you don't have to make life's desperate choices, but can enjoy their interplay. Many people confuse art with life.

--Richard Foreman

03 August 2004

Speaking of Elsewhere and Other Things

Some things to look at:

*An excellent discussion of China Mieville and economics over at Crooked Timber. Start here with Henry Farrell, then move to here with John Holbo. I look forward to their take on Iron Council, which I have just begun reading and am enjoying much more than I did The Scar.

*Speaking of John Holbo, the weblog he maintains with his wife, Belle, called John & Belle Have a Blog, is always good and often excellent.

*I recently saw a new biography of Borges at a bookstore and somehow managed to keep myself from buying it (the $35 price helped). Here's a review from The Boston Globe. (via Rake's Progress)

*Speaking of things to buy, the great live album The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads is finally being released on CD, with some extra tracks. (Maybe I'll buy a copy for Jeremy...)

*Fantastic Metropolis has an interview with and a story by L. Timmel Duchamp. I have read neither yet, but will soon.

*Speaking of things I haven't read but will soon, Katherine Cramer has posted a PDF of a September 11 special supplement to the New York Review of Science Fiction.

02 August 2004

"Artistic Merit" and Stephen King

Matt Peckham's new essay on Stephen King's Dark Tower books is one of the best pieces of criticism I've read in quite some time. It's the start of a series Matt will be doing on each of the books, as well as some of the peripheral works (he has just posted a draft on Salem's Lot). One passage I particularly liked was the following:
It seems a bit shortsighted to me, to imply that the relationship between art and the public at large is a one-way street, that the responsibility for its reception as either sugar-coated and likable or barbed and unsettling lies with the author alone, and not the reader, a piece of the equation I think too easily and often dismissed based on a sweeping and pretentious generalization about the level of sophistication of the so-called masses. Besides, subversion alone is hardly a qualifier of artistic merit. Revolutionaries tend merely to replace what they've overthrown with their own brand of dogmatism, their own rituals of inclusion and exclusion.
The term "artistic merit" is a difficult one, as Matt astutely shows in his post. We do not live in a culture with only one definition of "artistic merit", nor do I think many people would want to, because such a culture would likely be stagnant, unsurprising, unimaginative. It's fun to have opinions about art, and valuable, at least intellectually, for people to argue about what is or isn't good art, and to defend their positions, but it is dangerous to develop knee-jerk reactions to types of writing, or any other art form, for that matter, because such reactions lead too easily to hard-and-fast standards, and art is too subjective a realm to be beaten into shape by thugs brandishing narrow and exclusive rules.

On the other hand, to say "if you like it, it's good" is a criterion only useful when recommending a book to somebody, not when discussing what it is that makes books worth reading. If a discussion is going to rise above purely personal preferences, then there have to be some standards for the discussion to rest on. Disagreements about standards are useful, actually, because when people disagree and make a careful case for their point of view, the discussion can be illuminating, creating a dialectic that at the very least shows different ways types of books can be appreciated. When people don't support their point of view with anything other than, "So-and-so is a good writer/bad writer", the discussion becomes little more than "I like it, therefore it is good".

I hope the literary world -- a tiny world, we mustn't forget -- isn't as clearly broken into two camps as Linton Weeks suggests in a Washington Post article about the controversy sparked by Stephen King's National Book Award. King unfortunately fell into the trap Harold Bloom prepared for him, issuing broad generalizations to castigate his audience. What I'd hoped he would point out -- because, as Danse Macabre proved, he can be an occasionally insightful critic -- is that there are different ways of reading and valuing books, and perhaps there is some overlap within the standards those different ways of reading assume.

Matt Peckham has begun to show what some of those overlaps may be, just as Elizabeth Hand did in a 1999 Village Voice review of King's Hearts In Atlantis. There's no requirement to agree with everything Peckham and Hand say about King, but both offer specific insights that can be thought about, discussed, and expanded, helping readers see a writer in a way they might not have before.

I made a comment in a post a few weeks ago that some people seized on -- and I think they did so rightly, because I should have been more clear and less bellicose. Here's the comment:
Anyone who is incapable of seeing a qualitative difference between Shakespeare and H.G. Wells -- never mind Shakespeare and Stephen King -- has not developed any sort of aesthetic judgment other than "Imaginary islands are cool." If you like Wells or King more than Shakespeare, that's your business, but you shouldn't expect to be taken very seriously by anyone who has spent much time considering the merits of various works of literature any more than I should be taken seriously if I say I can't tell the difference between one Division One college basketball team or another. All such games are equally entertaining to me, because I don't know enough about the game to be able to discern the difference between competent, good, great, and genius-level playing. (And basketball's easier than aesthetics in that it, at least, has clear statistics and scores.)
I thought when I wrote it that it was clear I was making a statement purely about aesthetics, that is, about the style, the structure, etc., and was doing so at the level of the highest human accomplishments with literature. Reading it now, I'm annoyed by the passage, because it's missing some vital qualifiers in the second sentence, and that verb "like" is dangerous. I think a good argument can be made that King is not particularly notable aesthetically compared to quite a few writers of the past and present, but to read Stephen King for aesthetics is to miss many of the things that are notable in his work: his knack for portraying the psyche of a certain part of contemporary American culture (which he does, I think, far better than a number of contemporary novelists who have been lauded for doing exactly that), his ability when he is writing at his best to create tremendous narrative momentum, his ability to evoke rural American settings that feel half like home-grown myths and half like reality, etc. I don't, personally, think too many of his works stand up to multiple, careful readings, but Matt Peckham shows that some of them do, and combining that quality with the others I mentioned shows King has some value for literature other than for purely sociological and historical interest (for more on this distinction, see Dan Green's post on "Literary Realism" -- tangentially, the description at the end by Richard Chase of Frank Norris could apply to Stephen King: "...he wrote books that departed from realism by becoming in a unified act of the imagination at once romances and naturalistic novels.")

A difference critics should note more often is the difference between writers who have much to offer their own culture and writers who have much to offer future generations. These are not mutually exclusive categories, certainly, nor do they need to be value judgments in and of themselves. We need immediate art as much as we need art for posterity. An example I fall back to often is Larry Kramer's play The Normal Heart, which I don't think is a particularly fine example of a play (too melodramatic, too manipulative), but which was an important social and cultural force at the time it premiered, a lightning rod for arguments the world desperately needed (Richard Goldstein offered some perspective on all that changed, and didn't change, in the world from The Normal Heart's premiere to its recent revival). To judge The Normal Heart on purely aesthetic terms would be to miss its real contributions to various cultures, from the culture of American theatre to gay male culture to 1980s culture to...

Any critic who tries to speak for posterity suffers a grandiose delusion, because history shows that what ends up being valued by multiple generations is often not what was valued by the artist's contemporary world. There are definitely exceptions, just as there are science fiction stories that have accurately predicted future trends or technologies. It doesn't make much sense to say that because a writer is popular, therefore they are good, nor does it make much sense to say that because a writer has difficulty getting published, therefore they must be the equal of Emily Dickinson or Franz Kafka. There are many reasons for popularity, just as there are many reasons for a lack of popularity, and sales figures should be kept in the marketing department, not trotted out to support or condemn a writer. When writing about contemporary works of art, works which may or may not survive some sort of test of time (we'll never know!), good critics make clear what aspects of a work they value or disdain, being careful to avoid too many categorical judgments. The best critics show us how to look again at a work of art, how to value or disdain what we might previously have ignored, and Matt Peckham has done just this with Stephen King.