30 March 2005

Robert Creeley: 1926-2005

Maud Newton and Ron Silliman report that Robert Creeley has died.

It was in college that I discovered Creeley -- not in a class, but rather on my own, trying to educate myself about contemporary poetry. I liked him for his lines, his famous short lines, the lines that felt just right to me. I was young enough to think I'd been waiting all my life for his poems, as if the words and lines were set in some special code just for me. I've now read too much to return to that feeling, but the memory is potent.

Creeley went to high school at one of the main rivals of the school where I work. Fifteen miles from where I sit right now. I wonder how many people there have even heard of him? I hope many. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the teachers gave each student a big piece of chalk and sent them out to scrawl Creeley poems on the roads and pathways, on the sides of the buildings?

I haven't kept up with Creeley's most recent work. Somebody told me his lines got longer, and so I never looked at the books. There are enough long lines in the poetry world; I've always been most fond of the short ones.

His poems were often the sort of thing that could only be done once, and only by him. Done again, done by anybody else, they would have had no power to sucker-punch with the surprise of what comes after the end of a line. Sometimes he imitated himself, but I never blamed him. Who else was there left for him to imitate?

The End of the Day
by Robert Creeley

Oh who is
so cosy with
despair and
all, they will

not come,
rejuvenated, to
the last spectacle
of the day. Look!

the sun is
sinking, now
gone. Night,

good and sweet
night, good
night, good, good
night, has come.

Quote for the Day

When you are in the realm of classical physics (imprecisely called "reality," because the other two kinds of physics are no less real, only far from our everyday experience), it's only normal that you are a rationalist. The alternative is to be irrational which is only an euphemism for being more or less insane. But I joyfully accept becoming irrational as soon as I step into what's the literary equivalent of relativistic and quantum physics. It is not only normal behavior there, but very desirable too. Without being irrational you would never achieve anything in the art of the fantastic. As a matter of fact, the more "insane" you are in that other realm, the better. That "insanity," however, should be as controlled and coherent as possible in order to provide the best narrative results. And that is where the rational part of the mind helps enormously. So, it is only on an intensive cooperation of the two opposite poles, the rational and irrational, that the process of fantastical literary creativity is properly based.

--Zoran Zivkovic

29 March 2005

Pages from a Lost Mumpsimus

Claude Lalumière noticed that my opinions of books and such are often rather different than his. This caused him to come up with what I thought was an irresistible idea: What would happen if we both edited an edition of his webzine Lost Pages? Is it possible that we could find three stories that both of us thought deserved publication? What would they look and smell like?

If you have some idea, then you might want to pay attention to this call for submissions:
Lost Pages teams up with The Mumpsimus!

Claude Lalumière and Matthew Cheney are coediting a special issue of Lost Pages, and they are seeking submissions for the fiction segment of the issue in these three categories:

Science fiction
Crossgenre (slipstream, or interstitial, or whatever it's being called these days)

Only one story in each category will be selected for publication at Lost Pages.

Submissions by email only at: submissions@lostpages.net

length: 1k - 9k words
pay: Can$20-$25 for First World Rights, with a one-month exclusive
deadline: 15 October 2005

be sure to read the full guidelines before submitting
I am thrilled that Claude came up with this idea, and look forward to seeing what stories we end up actually agreeing to publish.

28 March 2005

Short Stories, Long Tails

Maud Newton's post on The Atlantic's decision to cut back on short fiction includes a link to this overview of short stories in general American culture. The comments after the article are worth reading for the variety of responses -- people who defend the short story are, for the most part, talking about short stories in SF magazines, mystery magazines, gay magazines, etc. Short stories are disappearing from high-circulation, general interest magazines, but not from places that are often seen as parts of various subcultures.

The whole concept of "subcultures" when it comes to fiction is inaccurate, though, because contemporary literary fiction is about as sub- to a culture as it's possible to get without hitting the ocean floor. Start talking about audience sizes, and the supposed subcultures don't seem so small anymore, unless you're comparing them to Hollywood, which is one of the only real general interest entities functioning in the U.S. anymore (probably to its detriment, but that's another subject altogether).

As forms of distribution change because of technology, then cultures and how we define them change, too. We can all get more specific stuff more easily than it could be gotten, say, thirty years ago. It's impossible to get any sense of what's going on with short fiction if you aren't also at least partially aware of things like the "long tail" concept:
Unlimited selection is revealing truths about what consumers want and how they want to get it in service after service, from DVDs at Netflix to music videos on Yahoo! Launch to songs in the iTunes Music Store and Rhapsody. People are going deep into the catalog, down the long, long list of available titles, far past what's available at Blockbuster Video, Tower Records, and Barnes & Noble. And the more they find, the more they like. As they wander further from the beaten path, they discover their taste is not as mainstream as they thought (or as they had been led to believe by marketing, a lack of alternatives, and a hit-driven culture).

An analysis of the sales data and trends from these services and others like them shows that the emerging digital entertainment economy is going to be radically different from today's mass market. If the 20th- century entertainment industry was about hits, the 21st will be equally about misses.
I'm not any sort of economist, so if this whole idea is full of horse effluent, let me know, but it makes intuitive sense to me, and it seems to be what's happening with short fiction, and one reason why "general interest" is becoming a contradiction rather than the convenience it's been until now.

It's going to be more and more difficult for some places to maintain their audiences without radical change, but there are other markets that are probably capable of surviving just fine, and even prospering, with only an occasional tweak. The short story is not dead in American culture -- various Best of the Year anthologies, whether specific to one genre or more general, don't sell too badly, suggesting that what the contemporary audience wants is not so much a continual blitz of monthly fiction, but fiction in portable chunks. The monthly and even weekly delivery of fiction may get taken over primarily by internet publishers, while print publishers find more success with less-frequent publications. As someone who has an awful lot of magazines, I can't say I mind the idea of most magazines becoming internet publications, because, frankly, they take up less room, and if I happen to forget an issue, I can go back through the online archives rather than digging through boxes. If I can zoom in with Google, I like as long a tail as possible, but prefer a much shorter one when it's stored at home, wriggling over shelves and the floor.

Perhaps the real future is one that's more like what's done by Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, and various other magazines that have separate, complementary print and web editions. Maybe it's more like what Strange Horizons, Infinity Plus, and Fantastic Metropolis have done: web content primarily, with an occasional print anthology.

Short fiction writers may not be able to make the kind of money that F. Scott Fitzgerald got from The Saturday Evening Post (reportedly $4000, or, according to the Inflation Calculator, about $43,200 today), and it's certainly unfortunate that a high-paying market like The Atlantic is cutting down on its already-marginal supply of stories, but there are plenty of readers and writers of short fiction out there today, and a magnificent diversity of approaches and styles. With any luck, as markets for and distributors of short fiction find ways to adapt to changing circumstances, more people, rather than fewer, will make short stories a regular part of their reading life.

Strange Horizons

The Strange Horizons Readers' Awards have been announced -- the readers' favorite stories, poems, articles, reviews, illustrations, and wombats that this Hugo Award-nominated webzine published in 2004. (Well, no wombats, alas. Maybe next year.)

SH has also this week published "On Our Street...", a story by a new writer named Donald Barthelme. Seems to be a young man of great promise, sure to ignite lots of controversy amongst the readers because of his genre-bending proclivities.

Note, too, that Strange Horizons is having their spring fund drive. Unlike, for instance, NPR, they don't interrupt programming to beg at you. Reward them for their good manners. The money doesn't go to pay the staff, who are all volunteers, but rather is used to cover costs and to pay writers.

And yes, I'm biased because I am now a columnist for them, but please don't punish them for that. All their other judgments have been sound.

26 March 2005


Update of the Updates (3/28/05): Everything below is now obsolete. I found a backdoor in to the Enetation comments, so replacement has begun and I don't need the links here on each post. Go about your normal business. Nothing to see here...

----obsolete information below----
Something's going on with the Enetation servers, so comments don't seem to be appearing on posts at the moment. I'm going to turn on Blogger's commenting system, because I've been thinking of moving to it anyway, as it will email all comments to me so I have them backed up. Once Enetation returns, I'll try to import as many comments as I can, at least on controversial posts.

Update: I've got the Enetation comments back, so you're not insane if you see two comments links below each post. The first one is the Blogger system, the second one the Enetation. There's no other way I can get access to the old comments, so while I'm moving old ones into the Blogger system, they'll both be there. I'm going to try to get this all done this week, so the confusion shouldn't last too long. I'll do my best to preserve as many as possible, but at this point there are about 300 posts here, and a lot of them have comments, so it's going to both be somewhat slow and inevitably incomplete. Ultimately, though, this should be the last time I have to change commenting systems. At least until I break down and move to my own site rather than Blogger's, but that's a much bigger job than I have time for now or in the near future, I expect.

If you happen to post a comment in the old system, don't worry about it. I'll move it for you.

I've also (finally!) updated the sidebar and gotten rid of the Google ads (I thought they were annoying).

---end of obsolete information-----
---or maybe not-----------------
---trust your own judgment-------
---not all narrators are reliable----
---nothing to see here-----------

Hammered by Elizabeth Bear

I bought Elizabeth Bear's first novel, Hammered, without intending to write about it. I've been in the mood for adventure stories recently, and this seemed to fit the profile. An easy read, nothing too challenging, some interesting spins on familiar tropes. It is all that, yes, but there's a little bit more than your average sci-fi technothriller here, and I found myself not reading simply for the plot, not skipping from one hit of suspense to another like a desperate endorphin addict, but rather reading with care. And when the ending arrived with just about nothing being resolved, I was furious, which I wouldn't have been had the novel failed to capture my imagination so fully.

Hammered is, in some ways, set up to please no one. It recycles a lot of familiar SF territory and is written in the idiom of hardboiled post-cyberpunk neuronoir ("My implant hurts." "Maybe it means there's a murder six blocks over being committed by soldiers of multinational fortune peddling spare ozone." "Right. Kiss my NAFTA scar before we get all VR." "Your rhyming makes me beanstalk."), but the writing is actually thoughtful and engaging, sometimes even elegant. It's not a book about its setting, however, and so some readers are likely to feel let down, because the background is drawn with hints rather than (for the most part) through long passages of exposition. (This is just good science fiction writing technique, but despite how often it is proclaimed by writers, there's a godawful lot of infodumping even in otherwise successful books. Or it may just be that I'm oversensitive to exposition.)

Part of what Bear seems to be doing is building a setting that is strange through familiarity: she starts from material known to anybody who has read much science fiction over the past decade or two and inserts small shifts that undermine the cliches and allow an attentive reader to think again about the speculations that created the cliches in the first place. Again and again I found myself thinking that Bear's vision of the future was convincing both as speculation and as a setting for a story, but every time I thought that, some little detail would cause me to wonder why I accepted premises used so often -- why did I assume, for instance, that in books such as this representatives of governments and corporations must be inherently and totally evil? Fred Valens, the government/military scientist in Hammered is a dishonest and obsessive man who is easy enough to dislike, but after a while I stopped sharing protagonist Jenny Casey's hatred for him, which made me question a lot of Jenny's other reactions to things. If Valens had been simply a cartoon, yet another scheming mad scientist employed by the military-industrial complex, pure antagonist, Hammered would be just another piece of adventure drivel churned out for people who want a bit of escape from their drab, wretched lives. If Jenny were an entirely reliable and rational narrator, the novel would be far less interesting. (One flaw, it seems to me, is that Jenny's sister Barbara is presented as pure, unadulterated evil, the nastiest of nasties, and I kept expecting her to burst out at some point with an evil cackle.)

So yes, Bear uses all sorts of genre paraphernalia, and there are echoes of more movies and books than I could count, everything from Blade Runner and RoboCop to "The Ship Who Sang". These echoes will probably anger some readers, but I thought it was fun, because SF has long been a recursive sort of fiction, with writers building from each other's ideas like a thousand Virgils from a Heinleinian Homer. Bear does it like a juggler who is also a magician, occasionally changing the color of the balls as they fly through the air so that we keep our eyes on what's being juggled. She acknowledges and doesn't hide from her lineage.

The echoes and their revisions are not what the book is about, however; they are background. The novel is about Jenny Casey, a 50-year-old veteran of more battles than most of us would want to contemplate, who was once saved from death by having her body reconfigured against her will into a weapon. The first half of the novel is as much character study as action/adventure. The story is told through multiple strands, and so has the potential to be confusing, but this is such a common technique and Bear labels everything so clearly that I didn't ever find myself lost for long, and sometimes actually resented the chapter headings that explained exactly where and when things were taking place. The various perspectives all contribute to the plot, but more importantly (and interestingly) they are all related to elements of Jenny's past and, she will discover, future. It is as if her experiences have been shattered and scattered over the novel's present.

The plot takes over in the second half, which I suppose is inevitable, but it was a bit of a disappointment, because the first half prepared the second to be both a complex tale of a character's moral struggles and a rip-roaring adventure. Few books have ever achieved this, though, so I didn't let myself stay disappointed for long, and ended up caught up in the story and reading late into the night.

And then it ended. Or, rather than ended, stopped. Yes, indeed, there will be a sequel, Scardown. And I'm sure it's good marketing to stop a story before much has been resolved and so keep readers waiting for more, but I find it exasperating. It's why I stopped reading mainstream comic books as a kid -- the stories never seemed to end, but just go from one cliffhanger to another. I can understand why Bear stops where she does -- one phase of Jenny's life is over, another beginning -- but that doesn't make it any less annoying.

I could write more. But I think I'll just stop.

25 March 2005

Fantastic Lives of the Secret VanderMetropolis

Jeff VanderMeer is going west for a while, but in his wake has left a bunch of stuff over at Fantastic Metropolis: three secret lives from his upcoming collection of such things (the three on display here are "The Secret Lives of Medical Billing Personnel", "The Secret Lives of Episcopal Priests" [stop chuckling, they're not Catholic], and "The Secret Lives of Ad Executives"); a work of reputed nonfiction, "The Secret Lives of Important People", and, most wonderfully, one of my favorite of Jeff's stories, "Secret Life", a story that reads kind of like Dilbert on absinthe. Here's a little excerpt from it:
At meetings, the mimic would imitate the chatter around him, but afterward no one could remember exactly what he might have said, if anything. They just remembered it had sounded good at the time.

The woman who shared the cubicle to his left often defended him. "He's quiet," she would say. "His lunch doesn't smell. He's polite. He's considerate of other people's privacy."

For long hours, the mimic stared out the window toward the south, and wept the tears that might not be tears at all.

24 March 2005

The Greatest Cat Story of All Time

I knew Ellen Datlow had been working for a while to get permission to reprint a Fritz Leiber story at SciFiction, and that the owners of the rights had been extremely reluctant, but her efforts paid off, and now "Space-Time for Springers" is available for all to read.

It is a delightful and heartwrenching story, and probably the greatest cat story of all time (I say probably because I can't claim to have read every cat story ever published by anyone). Leiber succeeds, I think, in convincing us that this is really how cats think (and yes, for all you evil cat-haters out there, cats certainly do think. What mine was thinking when he scampered 25 feet into a tree the other day, I don't know, however...)

This is a story that deserves great blurbs, so here are a couple:

Neil Gaiman calls "Space-Time for Springers" a "marvellous short story ... a story that everyone who's ever tried to understand kittens should read. Harlan Ellison sent Fritz a copy of my own 'Dream of a Thousand Cats' with a note from me saying it was probably Fritz's fault."

Theodora Goss lists "Space-Time for Springers" as one of her all-time favorite fantasy stories, calling it "one of the saddest stories I know".

Before it becomes one of the saddest stories known to human or animal, it is one of the most delightful. Go forth, my frisky friends, and read!

We Ain't Seen No Ozicks in These Here Parts

According to The Complete Review, a British reviewer thinks Cynthia Ozick, author of the acclaimed new novel Heir to the Glimmering World and the Pulitzer-winning Puttermesser Papers, is a "much-admired New Hampshire novelist".

I wish, for the sake of my home state, that this were true. But though I have spent most of my life here, and though I own most of Cynthia Ozick's books, I must, alas, admit that to the best of my knowledge she is not now nor has she ever been a New Hampshire novelist. Or a New Hampshire short story writer. Or a New Hampshire essayist.

If, however, Ms. Ozick would like to relocate to New Hampshire, I'm sure we would welcome here. There's much to like about the state -- we've got very few taxes, some of the drinking water is still actually drinkable, there are good mountains to climb up or ski down, every summer we host motorcycle week, and there's always the International Speedway, not to mention the fun of having every U.S. Presidential candidate come pretend they care about us every four years. We've got The Union Leader newspaper, once published by the charming and cuddly William Loeb. There's even the MacDowell Colony and my own hometown of Plymouth, where, in 1864, Nathanial Hawthorne died. What more could you want?!

22 March 2005

Norman Spinrad, Messiah

Before I argue with some of the ideas in Norman Spinrad's latest "On Books" column for Asimov's, I need to dispense with some particularities: First, I have been reading Spinrad's columns since the late eighties, and whenever they appear in Asimov's, I read them before reading anything else. He shaped much of my perception of what science fiction and fantasy are and are capable of being. I disagree with just about every third sentence he writes, but that's half the fun of reading him -- he does what any good critic should, and provides lots of fodder for argument. Personality and passion explode from his words, making him one of the few truly essential SF book reviewers.

Second: The book Spinrad spends the most time on in this column is Iron Council by China Mieville, a book I've written quite a bit about, both here and at the Crooked Timber seminar on the book, so I won't say too much more about it right now, as there are other ideas I want to look at.

Finally, for more thoughts on Spinrad and the forces altering the literary and SF landscapes, see the comments to this post by David Moles, particularly those of Ben Rosenbaum.

Okay, now to the column--

Spinrad praises Iron Council, but seems to have some reservations about Mieville's use of magic. He also thinks the book is a novel of political advocacy, and that fantasy is a bad genre for such a thing, because fantasy is about things that are impossible and SF is about things that are within a realm of possibility. Instead of thinking that, perhaps, Mieville wants to do what he does and how he does it, Sprinrad has decided that the book should be science fiction and is fantasy not because that's what Mieville wants to write, but because the evil publishers both hate science fiction and are terrified that the book would be too revolutionary if it were anything other than what it is. Therefore, being craven cowards of concupiscent cupidity, they forced Mieville to write a fantasy novel:
Advocating a violent collectivist revolution in a disconnected fantasy universe where it can maybe be perceived as just a literary game is dicey enough, but doing it in a science fiction novel where it would cut too close to home reality would, under the present political situation in the United States, probably make it unpublishable, and if published, result in an unfriendly visit from the boys from Homeland Security.
This is, to indulge in Spinradism, horseshit. At best, it is wishful thinking. Wouldn't it be nice if novels actually had enough of an effect on the world that the government cared? Come on -- if the publishers thought the book had any such power or possibility of scandal, they'd be thrilled (think about all the free publicity Checkpoint got from people who thought it was advocating the assassination of the president).

Spinrad's crackpot theories and odd criticisms are tied to an agenda that becomes clear as the column progresses. Spinrad sees fantasy novels as having sucked up the market for "literarily ambitious science fiction":
I see the best minds of my generation and the ones that followed surrendering into small press publication in order to be published at all, or adapting their talents to fantasy, or in my case historical fiction -- to earn a living, to be sure -- but also to reach a readership of any meaningful size.

...And any number of writers who thought they had long since established secure reputations as major science fiction writers have at least found themselves unable to secure major imprint publication for major work. I will not embarrass these luminaries by naming them, but I will embarrass myself by admitting that I am one of them.
Here we get to the core of what's going on. Spinrad's own writing is not getting the attention it once did, nor is the writing of his friends. Throughout the entire column -- from the opening where Spinrad moans that he wasn't sent a free review copy of Iron Council to the self-pitying whine of "I've been wondering whether I should even continue to write these columns" to his pointing out that the author of the final book he reviews (Master of None by N. Lee Wood) "happens to be my ex, and she not only didn’t want me to mention it, but didn’t want me to review her novel at all" -- there is an obvious subtext: I matter! What I do matters! Love me!

These feelings, though seldom expressed too openly, are common to most artists, and Spinrad certainly must miss the days when his novel Bug Jack Barron was being denounced as pornographic and nihilistic and he was touted as "the Norman Mailer of science fiction". The failure of the New Wave writers to either remain controversial or to become the bastions of a new literature has embittered many of them. The problem is that Spinrad uses his personal disappointments to create an argument about all science fiction.

Spinrad says nice things about books by Paul Di Filippo and Eileen Gunn, wondering all the while why they were not published by big publishers rather than the "featherweight" small presses that did publish them, and why Di Filippo hasn't been more present on Hugo and Nebula ballots. He is stunned that "something called Tachyon Publications" has put together a professional-looking press kit for Gunn's book. Amazing what a little publisher can do. (And the publicity worked -- a mediocre-to-good collection, certainly not the best collection of the year by any means, has now gotten stellar reviews and been nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award). And in amidst his condescending remarks about the small presses, Spinrad pauses to let us know that his own masterpiece ("the first meta-science fiction novel") was rejected by the major publishers and he was horrified to discover that small presses don't pay big advances.

Despite being aghast that someone of his stature should have to lower himself to looking at the small presses, Spinrad hopes that Tachyon (and, by association, other small publishers) will be successful, because otherwise science fiction writers won't be able to make a living and will go do other things, which will then mean that the universe will end:
Deeper even than the scientific method is the conviction that reality has a knowable nature, that all of creation is of a consistent pattern, that it is all interrelated, that what is is real, and what is real is ultimately knowable, and that the supernatural is therefore a contradiction in terms.

This, I am now prepared to contend, is the root metaphysical assumption of all true science fiction. And in literary terms, it means that all true science fiction is centered on the interaction of the external surround -- physical, political, cultural, linguistic, anything and everything -- with the lives and consciousness of the characters.

If it does this, and there is any speculative element in the externals of the fictional universe at all, it is true science fiction, and if it does not, it is not true science fiction. Period.
Compare this to Spinrad's introduction to his 1971 anthology The New Tomorrows, in which he defined science fiction as "anything published as science fiction" and said that
Of all possible literary movements, a move toward the widest possible diversity in style, content, form, and philosophy will always be the hardest for traditionalists to grasp. I believe that this is what is occurring in speculative fiction today. I believe that the fifteen stories in this book will demonstrate that what the writers hold in common is dedication to private visions, rather than some imagined ideology or commonly held notion of prose style or form. ...

What you are going to read is fifteen stories by fifteen individualists. If you expect a pattern to emerge, you will probably be disappointed. The only pattern here is a lack of pattern; the only stricture is freedom.
It's got a nice ring to it, doesn't it: the only stricture is freedom...

And now, in conservative senescence, Spinrad proclaims that there is One True Way -- not only that, but the One True Way will save rational civilization. Funny that someone proclaiming rationalism appropriates the language of evangelical religion.

Spinrad denigrates fantasy because, according to him, it doesn't require a suspension of the reader's disbelief, then says that
science fiction must create belief.

Belief that its characters, however altered their states of consciousness, however evolved or devolved or alien, inhabit a fictional universe that, however far in the future or far away or both, could in the future or far away or even right now be contiguous with the reality that the reader inhabits.
Sounds more like Scientology than science fiction.

Spinrad's not saying anything John W. Campbell didn't say over and over again. And to a certain extent, some kinds of SF do have the sort of power Spinrad and Campbell advocate -- there are plenty of stories of Neuromancer inspiring computer geeks to create cyberspace and mold the internet into what we've got today. But it is monumentally shortsighted and pitifully grandiose to claim this sort of world-changing power as the fundamental criterion of what SF is, was, and should be. If you think that most of even the famous and inarguably canonical science fiction stories "could in the future or far away or even right now be contiguous with the reality that the reader inhabits", then you are probably deluded and bordering on schizophrenia.

Spinrad puts far too much emphasis on the denotational content of stories, making him the SF world's equivalent of somebody who thinks every single word of the Bible is literal truth. Such a view is a sad, shriveled, and narrow perspective of fiction's possibilities, one that overpraises the virtues of propaganda and ignores the virtues of allegory, fable, myth, poetry, and imagination.

One might think at this point that Spinrad had gone far enough with his Puritan SF ethic, but no, he must go further, and after insulting various non-European civilizations, he proclaims:
If you have no means of imagining and communicating a vision of something above and beyond the present state, you end up with a culture with no means of even conceptualizing it, let alone calling it into being.

This is why the dominant culture on this planet is the so-called West, more properly the globalized culture, for this is the deep force beneath the very notion of cultural progress itself, and this is what has enabled the only culture on Earth that somehow developed a means of doing so to dominate the globe for better and for worse. And no culture that lacks the force is going to be able to compete with one that has it, let alone make things better.
I matter! What I do matters! Love me! I created Western civilization and dominated the globe!

If anybody needed a reason to wish for science fiction to die, Norman Spinrad has given it to them -- not just the engine of imperialism that he ascribes to the genre, but the pitiful sight of a not-bad writer and provocative and thoughtful critic becoming a raving lunatic in search of a cult.

Perhaps I shouldn't have spent so many words on Spinrad's rantings. It's not like his complaints are going to affect anything, after all. But it's frustrating that someone of such experience, someone who has seen the SF field grow and change and contract and metamorphose, ends up writing like the generation of people before him did, and turns into an embarrassing parody of himself.

Or maybe that's the point. Maybe the column really was a parody. Maybe it was Spinrad trying to be a Campbell for the current generation to rebel against*.

If so, then it was a good try and a clever joke. In fact, I like that idea a whole lot more than I do the idea that Spinrad was entirely serious...

*Which is not to neglect the fact that in the late '30s and early '40s, Campbell was a rebel himself, first with his Don A. Stuart stories and then as editor of Astounding

21 March 2005

Market Forces by Richard Morgan

I'm a latecomer to the Richard Morgan party, not having read his first two novels, Altered Carbon and Broken Angels, before jumping into his latest to reach the U.S., Market Forces. People warned me not to judge him by it, because it's not as good as the others, and at least one person said not to bother, but I've never been very good at taking anybody's advice. So I read it. And am happy to report that it's not entirely awful.

There is much to dislike in Market Forces. The characters are cartoons, the central concept of Road Warrior-meets-The Apprentice is ridiculous, the book could stand to lose at least a third of its pages, and much of the dialogue is little more than an excuse for awkward exposition or tedious speechifying. Cheryl Morgan did a good job of laying out many of the problems with the book, both logical and ideological.

However, Market Forces isn't a complete and utter waste of paper (Adam Roberts even seems to think it's a work of genius). I found it to be a fun read, actually, because I never took it very seriously. It's a dumb thriller jazzed up with some clever satire. Satire doesn't need to be logical or fair, it just needs attitude, and Market Forces has plenty of attitude, offering a world where every character seems to be freebasing testosterone. In some ways, the novel is a classic sort of science fiction, the kind that isolates one element of a present society and speculates about "if this goes on..." Thus, for Morgan, the reductio ad absurdum of neoliberal business practices is an environment of feral brutality masked with the thinnest veneer or corporate civilization. This single, simple speculation leads him to portray a world where all power equals violence.

To understand why the book wasn't, at least for me, entirely a waste of time, I have to compare it to a recent novel that I only read about fifty pages of: The Fountain at the Center of the World by Robert Newman. Newman's book is similar to Morgan's in many ways, particularly in its politics, and better written and more carefully conceived -- but in the portion of the book that I managed to get through, I felt so manipulated by the author that I simply couldn't continue. This is a book that has gotten good reviews, and that was obviously written to advance a political viewpoint toward which I am somewhat sympathetic. And yet I had a visceral negative reaction to it, and soon stopped reading it, saying to myself, "If I want to read Chomsky, I don't need a novel to serve as an intermediary."

I am not entirely opposed to the idea of fiction as propaganda. Storytelling is one way that human beings relate to the world, and fiction can be a tremendously intimate form of art, one that lets us empathize with people we might not otherwise have the chance to know or understand. To create such empathy, though, fiction requires some sleight-of-hand, some diversionary tactics, because details speak loudly in the reader's mind and the author's manipulations in favor of some sort of agenda can become screamers, as Robert Newman's were for me.

Myth and imagination can heighten fiction's ability to bear a message -- we like our fables to have morals, after all, and allegory becomes a muddle without referents. At the end of Market Forces, Richard Morgan has a page of "Books Consulted", and the first two are by Noam Chomsky (Profit Over People and Rogue States), but I only rarely thought while reading the novel that I'd rather be reading nonfiction. The reasons are many, and complex, but a somewhat-too-simple explanation is that, unlike Newman's, Morgan's book offered an imaginative and satirical distance from the real world that allowed me then to make my own connections. Newman's slightly less satirical realism made me feel that he was organizing his novel as a series of incidents to support a thesis, and that's not the sort of novel I have much interest in reading.

I'm writing subjectively because I'm sure there are many readers who would respond in exactly the opposite way -- readers who would find Newman's approach far more appealing, and would be frustrated be the entirely implausible set-up of Morgan's novel. The implausibility of Morgan's story, though, is what saved me, because it created a necessary distance that softened the proselytizing at the heart of the book, and because it suggested that the book is not "the way things are", but rather a thought-experiment, an entertaining extrapolation. If I want to know about "the way things are", I'll read a newspaper or magazine, because that's more efficient than reading a made-up story. If I want to think about what the imaginary, farthest-reaching implications of the idea of competition might look like, then I'll read a work of imagination like Market Forces.

Because Richard Morgan has a particular talent for writing action sequences, and because his book is entertaining and accessible, I expect it will sell well and will find readers who might not be inclined to agree with the author's politics. A few of those readers might begin to think about competition, violence, and class warfare in different ways than they did before -- which may not be exactly as Morgan thinks of those subjects, because the story he tells is ambiguous and imaginative enough to allow for a variety of interpretations. This is not a book that will merely preach to the converted, because the story itself is not entirely from one church, and that story is engrossing and suspenseful enough that even people who vehemently disagree with Morgan's politics at the outset may find themselves caught up in the events and situations, turning the pages late into the night. For a book with a clear political purpose, this is an accomplishment, and one I can respect, despite the book's many, and nearly fatal, flaws.

16 March 2005

Mid-March SF Site

The latest SF Site has been posted, with its usual fine mix of reviews and interviews and such. This time it includes two pieces of mine: an interview with Leena Krohn, and a review of her breathtaking novel Tainaron.

(Note: Things are going to [continue to] be slow around here until next week, because tomorrow performances of The Tempest begin, with me as Caliban. Not much time for reading and writing around all that.)

13 March 2005

"Stitching Time" by Stephanie Burgis

March is one of the snowiest months here in New Hampshire, and the flakes have been falling steadily for more than a day now, which may be why Stephanie Burgis's "Stitching Time" so vividly captured my imagination while I was looking through the latest issue of Fortean Bureau. The first few sentences, after all, could be describing the view out my window:
Imagine a farmhouse surrounded by snow. Not a thin layer of soft, flaky whiteness, the kind you might see in more civilized climates--this is Northern Michigan, where the snow falls and falls until it buries the roads, covers the windows, and mounts up before the door.
The second half of the first paragraph, though, is what kept me reading:
The nearest neighbors are a mile away, impossibly far. Every morning, the men in this scattered community dig their way through to the barn where the livestock are sheltered from the cold. Every winter, some of the wives go mad.
The rest of the story proceeds from this premise, as we discover that the narrator has spent two summers in an asylum for the wives gone mad. Madness is the women's territory, a landscape from which they must be rescued by "months of treatment with a starvation diet, months of bible readings and flagellation."

What, though, is the cause of the madness? Older women offer advice to younger: "The winters are long, they whispered to us; watch out. Don't let your imagination run away from you." Imagine a farmhouse surrounded by snow...

Who are these women? Mail-order brides in a town well-practiced at holding welcoming parties. If a woman dies, a replacement can be ordered -- and without imagination, they are interchangeable, and no more dangerous than any other tool.

But time can be harnessed in cross-stitches, and devils can be tamed with dancing, and spring always returns.

It's a hopeful end to a sad story, a story that proceeds by a method of accumulation, with each repetition of a word or detail being meaningful. By the story's second half, the sentences are like seasons, reminiscent of what has come before, but with a change in light or temperature. The story begins with colors in cross-stitch "mimicking our wildness and our despair" and ends with new colors inspired by a moment of either insanity or vision: "bright golden thread for Ellen's baby, blue for freedom, purple and red for the other women who had suffered." The colors of threads may have changed, but the colors themselves have been there all along -- blue was always the color of the lake in which one woman drowned herself to escape the asylum, and the awful building itself was made of red brick. The colors, perhaps, were waiting for new, more imaginative, meaning.

Thus, the story itself becomes like the cross-stitch, its threads woven together more carefully than might be apparent from a quick glance. Like a snowstorm, it contains both beauty and terror.

10 March 2005

Quote for the Day

Throughout history, a lot of collective names -- the Beats, the Fauvists, Language Poetry -- have been coined by people who were interested in dismissing precisely the thing named. ...[B]eing "typed" allows some people to think they've read you when they haven't.

--Ron Silliman

SF for Liberals

I'm a sucker for lists, and just discovered Waggish's list of Sci-Fi Novels for Liberals, a rather inaccurate title, in that he includes short stories by Carol Emshwiller, Cordwainer Smith, etc. (Waggish's list is in response to China Mieville's.) Some of the short descriptions are masterful -- for instance, of Cordwainer Smith:
Smith was a Kennan-esque Cold Warrior, and in between the more cutesy bits, his work has a Kissingerian sense of realpolitik, depicting a point in the future where government must intervene to alter people's existential senses of themselves.
It's an interesting list, too, in that it suggests some pretty obscure work. For instance, I'd never heard of Mark Geston or Lords of the Starship, but a little bit of research revealed it to be his first novel, written while he was a college student. It sounds marvelously bleak. (Geston went on to write three other novels soon after: Out of the Mouth of the Dragon, The Day Star, and The Siege of Wonder. Then he didn't publish a novel until the 1990s, with Mirror to the Sky.)

Waggish links from his list to an interesting post about Olaf Stapledon's novella The Flames (available in An Olaf Stapledon Reader). The whole post is great, but notice especially these last sentences:
As with most everything Stapledon wrote, there's enough high-minded ideas flying off to distract from the incoherence, but the main message is one of repudiation of his earlier self, a rejection of human aspiration, and an embrace of Wellsian darkness. But Stapledon doesn't have Wells' detachment, and "The Flames" is ultimately more miserable than anything Wells wrote. Stapledon's self-flagellation over believing in his own imagination's "exciting and clarifying experiences" is evidently an overreaction, but it marks him as a brave, if defeated, man, and an antecedent of an entirely different tradition of science fiction.
Perhaps a better title for this list would be "SF for Conservatives" -- not just because it gets rid of that awful "sci-fi" term, but because it seems to me that the last thing liberals need these days is more apocalypticism. It would be interesting, too, to take a small list of books like that and run side-by-side essays about reading them, one of the essays by an avowed liberal and one by an avowed conservative.


09 March 2005

And the third story is...

It's now been announced by the author himself, so I don't mind passing along the news that the third story by an SF-associated writer to be chosen by Michael Chabon for the next The Best American Short Stories is "Anda's Game" by Cory Doctorow (which I once wrote about). Of the three stories I know about from the book, this is the only one that is out-and-out science fiction.

Thanks to Tim Pratt, one of the other writers included in the book, for noting the announcement. (But guessing was fun, wasn't it?)

Reviewing, Genre, etc. etc. link link read discuss etc. etc.

Life remains much too busy at the moment for me to write anything of substance here, so let me send you on to two discussions about subjects that are like congenital Lazaruses so addicted to rising again that they do so before they ever truly die. Or we could just call this The Department of Horse Taxidermists & Abusers (of which I certainly belong in the upper administration):

The Alien Online published a negative review of a book. This caused the author to reply with a charming note that caused the editor of TAO to meditate on the whys and wherefores and whatnots of reviewing, a meditation that spawned a thoughtful post from Niall Harrison, a post that gathered a lot of interesting comments, most of them from reviewers and reviews editors, few of whom entirely agree with each other.

Meanwhile, not far away, Hal Duncan wrote ">a long post/screed about being "in the ghetto". I haven't had time to think very hard about it yet, so won't say anything, but there are comments attached to the post and at Hal's message board.

08 March 2005


Jay Lake has posted the table of contents to his upcoming anthology TEL: Stories (FAQ), which will be published by Wheatland Press this summer.

Most of the anthology is of original material, but there is one reprint story, and its presence is enough for me to give you this early warning that I will be hectoring, pestering, admonishing, badgering, nettling, nagging, browbeating, and generally tormenting everyone I encounter to buy this book, because the story being reprinted is Greer Gilman's "Jack Daw's Pack", originally published in the Winter 2000 issue of Century (the website for which has a tiny excerpt).

The story was nominated for a Nebula, and it is utterly unique and bewildering and remarkable. Michael Swanwick interviewed Gilman exhaustively about the story for SF Site, and she says, among other things, "I've taken a lot of flak for my high language. Either people 'bounce off it like an Ent trying to dig into Orthanc' (as Dorothy Heydt said); or they get drunk on it, like wasps on fermenting fruit, and fall over. What I'm trying for is synergy."

"Jack Daw's Pack" is the first in a loose trilogy of which the World Fantasy Award-winning "A Crowd of Bone" is the middle. I heard Gilman read an excerpt from the third story at Pandemonium Books at the end of last year, and she said it was nearly finished, which is great news for those of us who are mesmerized by her words.

I asked Jay what the best way is for people to get copies of TEL when it's released, and he suggested the Wheatland website, Clarkesworld Books, and Borderlands Books. I'll let you know when it's available. (Repeatedly, I'm sure.)

06 March 2005

New Strange Horizons Column

The latest Strange Horizons has been posted, and includes my second column. After Cheryl Morgan said last month that my first column didn't seem to be getting anybody talking on the SH forum, I decided to write something that would almost certainly get people to hurl huge gobs of flame at me. So I declared, as have plenty of fools before me, science fiction to be dead.

The column doesn't say anything that will surprise a regular reader of The Mumpsimus by any means -- actually, I've probably completely exhausted the topic at this point. For that matter, I'm hardly the first person to pick up this particular gauntlet. In fact, all I'm doing is recycling familiar (and, I expect, flawed) ideas. I should probably go over to the forum and denounce myself....

Imagination = Terrorism

Jeff VanderMeer has decided to rant about the latest case of a student being arrested for writing a short story that disturbed some of the Powers That Be. (More reports here and here.) I was going to comment at Jeff's site, but some thoughts began to percolate through the back recesses of my so-called brain, thoughts about the current American hatred of (among other things) imagination.

Nearly a year ago, I noted a similar case, though last year's involved a college student. I think there have been a few such cases since, and now this. An eighteen-year-old arrested and charged because his grandparents found some things he had written and called the police. Arrested not for doing anything other than writing; jailed not for making a specific threat to anyone, but for writing something that might, perhaps, be possible to be maybe construed (if looked at with the proper lens) as a threat to an unnamed high school.

Or maybe it's what the kid says it was: A short story. Fiction. A work of the imagination. About zombies.

Unfortunately, such fiction is illegal in Kentucky:
Under Kentucky law, a person is guilty of terroristic threatening in the second degree when they threaten to "commit any act likely to result in death or serious physical injury" to students, teachers or employees of a school.

"A threat directed at a person or persons or at a school does not need to identify a specific person or persons or school in order for a violation of this section to occur," the law reads.
Specific people and places don't need to be mentioned. How, then, can a threat be made?

As many people have said, such cases are not about terrorism, but thought crime. The writer of the story is being prosecuted for ideas, for things he imagined. Did his grandparents find pieces of a bomb in his room, or a cache of guns under his bed? No. Just a story he wrote.

Here's a story for you: When I was in the eighth grade, I wrote a short story about a boy and his father who go on a hunting trip. They drive into a city, go to the top of a skyscraper, and start shooting down into the streets. (If I remember correctly, I was inspired to write the story after reading something in one of Charles L. Grant's horror anthologies.)

My eighth grade teacher, who was one of the best teachers I ever had, liked the story and had me read parts of it aloud to the class.

Today, that teacher would be fired, and I would have been sent, at the very least, to counseling, because if she knew about a story like that and didn't report it to the principal, it is likely a parent of one of the other students would hear about the story, become horrified, and call the superintendent of the district to complain about the dangerous people allowed to roam free in the local middle school.

It probably wouldn't help things that my father owns a gun shop.

Yes, I, the son of a gun-shop owner, wrote a story about a boy and his father going into a major city and shooting people for fun. My teacher knew I wasn't a psychopath, but that I was a voracious reader of horror fiction, and she knew I was trying to write in the style and manner of the writers whose work I admired. She was not surprised later to see that I grew up to be a pacifist and vegetarian. (She left the local school district a few years after teaching me and went to work for the state prison, teaching writing and reading. She likes it better than working in a public school.)

I often feel that Americans no longer understand what imagination is. Writers are routinely psychologized based on their writings, a practice that is akin to reading tea leaves to predict the stock market. There may be many causes for this new Puritanism -- all the psychobabbling TV talk shows, the rise of passive entertainments that don't need viewers to engage imaginatively with them, the decline of this that or another thing -- but I'm not sure any particular cause or series of causes have led to our current situation so much as the irrational, knee-jerk paranoia that various politicians, bureaucrats, and journalists have so exploited for their own purposes. A society that is more skilled at fear than imagination is one that can be manipulated, controlled, and pacified with shock tactics.

I'm not saying anything new here, I know. But if anything is going to combat is idiotic, fascistic paranoia that continues to explode around us, it may be our willingness to stubbornly and loudly repeat things we already know: That thoughts are not actions; that writing is a form of imagination, not terrorism; that fiction is not reality; that it's entirely possible for a perfectly nice and harmless person to write really dark, disturbing stories.

If you think what's going on in Kentucky is just an isolated case of closed-mindedness, read the Censoround blog for a few days. Again and again, small groups of fanatics are whipping up mobs in favor of censorship and the destruction of free thought, and these people deserve to be exposed as the thugs they are.

Update 3/9/05: Gwenda points to this news story:
And, as it turns out, Poole's writings include no brain-eating dead folks.

What they do contain, Winchester police Detective Steven Caudill testified yesterday, is evidence that he had tried to solicit seven fellow students to join him in a military organization called No Limited Soldiers.

The writings describe a bloody shootout in "Zone 2," the designation given to Clark County.

"All the soldiers of Zone 2 started shooting," Caudill read on the witness stand. "They're dropping every one of them. After five minutes, all the people are lying on the ground dead."

The papers contain two different dates of Poole's death.

Poole has corresponded with someone in Barbourville who claimed to have acquired cash and guns in break-ins, Caudill testified.

No other arrests are pending, he said, but authorities are looking for other potential suspects listed in Poole's papers who are identified only by pseudonyms.

District Judge Brandy O. Brown ordered the documents put under seal because they contain references to juveniles. She sent the case to the grand jury and rejected a request from Poole's attorney to lower his $5,000 cash bond. He is being held in the Clark County jail. [...]

Authorities had released little information about the nature of the threats, and many people assumed from the WLEX story that Poole had been made a victim.

Caudill said he had received more than 50 e-mails and perhaps a dozen "nasty phone calls."

But after school shootings such as the one at Columbine High School in Colorado, where 13 people died, authorities must take threats seriously, he said in an interview.

"Do we as a society want the police to stop there -- that he didn't mean it?" he asked. "I'm not going to take that responsibility and have children's and police officers' blood on my hands."
It will be interesting to see what else comes out of this one, if anything. Seems like too much of a mess of conflicting reports to be able to second-guess it all, but I continue to think the law (as presented) is too vague and the evidence that has so far been reported is thin. But we may never know what all of the evidence actually is, given that minors may be involved (or at least named).

04 March 2005

Quote for the Day

And that, ultimately--the belief that the very act of "moving the story forward" is the prime requirement for a sense of wonder--is what is so frustrating sometimes in SF. If I'm driving my car at 75 mph, a lot of the time I'm not even thinking about it; the fact that, in the whole history of humankind, the vast vast majority of it could not even fathom going this fast. But occasionally, I do think about it, and it provides a "holy fuck, what am I doing here" kind of tension. (Then I turn off and try to find a parking spot.) I think everyone has those moments. It's this multiplicity teetering of perspectives--not just the bludgeoning home a point about technophilic kicks--that can provide amazing, volatile textures in science fiction. I wish some stories would slow down enough, or get off their own predestined track enough, to let these kinds of moments seep into the authored worlds.

--Alan DeNiro

01 March 2005

March SF Site and February Emerald City

The latest issue of SF Site has been posted, and it includes a review I wrote of Mere by Robert Reed, a writer whose work I often like (and I sort of liked Mere. I just wanted it to be more ... well, go see the review).

The Reader's Choice poll results have been posted, too, and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell easily took the first place spot, as it had done earlier in the poll of SF Site contributors.

Cheryl Morgan has also just put Emerald City 114 online, and it deserves a look not just because it includes her usual copious set of reviews, but because she makes some very astute recommendations (although I think she's bloody bonkers with a certain comment about the Fan Writer category). I wanted to most heartily support the following:
As usual I am going to plead with you to choose some book editors in the Best Professional Editor category. David Hartwell is top of my list, but Juliet Ulman deserves credit for picking up some wonderful British books (as does Lou Anders but his are only just starting to come out next month). As far as magazines go, Ellen Datlow's Sci Fiction is the only one I read regularly. I’ve listed Nalo Hopkinson as she's done some great anthologies recently. And Peter Crowther deserves a little more recognition (this time outside of the World Fantasy Awards) for the marvelous job he's doing with PS Publishing.
Juliet Ulman at Bantam has scooped up many of the best writers and books of the past few years, and deserves huge accolades. I'd also recommend Sean Wallace, as the more I read from Prime, the more impressed I become (in fact, a couple of the books Juliet Ulman snapped up were originally published by Prime). I usually recommend authors and titles to people, but with Prime I feel comfortable recommending the whole publisher -- if the Prime name is on a book, it's more than likely going to be a book that captures your imagination without insulting your intelligence. (That sounds like a blurb. Its not. I've been meaning to praise Prime and Sean for a month now, and the opportunity just presented itself. I've read a pile of Prime books in the past year and a half, and I actively disliked only one. I can't say that about any other publisher.)

For magazines, I certainly second Cheryl's championing of Ellen Datlow -- SciFiction had a great year last year -- and would add Gordon van Gelder to the list, as F&SF also had a very strong year.

Editors: Damned If They Do and Don't

A conversation I've sometimes considered starting myself has begun over at the Nightshade message boards: "The Resurgence of the Small Press Zine". It's an innocuous enough title, but the discussion quickly grew to be an important one: Are the small press magazines publishing high-quality work that should, but does not, get published in larger markets, or are the small press zines publishing work that is interesting only to a very small audience?

Some of the participants in this discussion include Sean Wallace (of Prime Books, Ellen Datlow (of SciFiction, Gordon van Gelder of (Fantasy & Science Fiction), Tim Pratt (of Flytrap), Jeff VanderMeer, Theodora Goss, Jeff Ford,Lucius Shepard, Mikal Trimm, and others.

I have been very close to writing something about this subject and held off at the last minute, because I didn't feel like I had enough information or perspective. It's easy to point to all the great writers that F&SF or Asimov's hasn't published, but the reasons tend to be many and complex, and both those magazines have published authors you might not expect to find there. Some writers don't submit at all to the major markets, some writers are truly terrible at judging which of their stories are best for which editors, and editors often think as much about the balance of the work they're publishing as any one particular story. And then there are readers. It's easy for me to say, "Publish more weird stuff!" -- I don't have to keep advertisers, owners, readers, etc. happy, or try to make some sort of profit. Check out the message boards for Asimov's or F&SF if you want to see the diversity of readerly opinions that these editors are trying to appeal to. I was stunned to see how infuriated some readers got with Mary Rickert's story "Cold Fires", a story I thought was one of the best of 2004, in or out of the SF field.

It's easy to beat up on editors, since they are the ones most obviously in charge of choosing what goes into an issue of a magazine. Putting some pressure on them does have value, and I don't intend to stop, because it may be a way of counteracting the pressure editors get from people who just want stories that feel like they could have been published fifty years ago. What we may need to appeal to more than the editors, though, are the readers, because if an editor publishes something and it causes lots of lost subscriptions and no new ones, then there's no reason for the editors to change. All the SF magazines have declining circulations right now, at least according to the most recent Locus summary. Taking too many risks could be deadly. Places like F&SF and Realms of Fantasy that really do try for some balance between more traditional work and more innovative work deserve support (and, of course, websites like SciFiction and Strange Horizons, though they face somewhat different circumstances than print mags).

So here's today's little something to be celebrated: Mary Rickert's "The Harrowing" is the cover story of the April F&SF, a fact that deserves happy hoots and hollers, because regardless of whether you consider her work "traditional" or "innovative", she's a remarkable writer, and F&SF has consistently and loyally given her a home, despite some very perplexed and even angry readers. A new Rickert story always makes my day brighter, and so I thank Gordon van Gelder and his staff (don't forget our beloved, venerable, and all-knowing Slush God) for providing a venue for such a marvelous writer.

I've got a list of a few more who would be nice company....