30 May 2005

"Heads Down, Thumbs Up" by Gavin J. Grant

I've been catching up on 2005's short stories recently, because until the last week or two I hadn't read any stories published this year. I haven't yet found very much that excites me -- most of the stories I've read so far are skillful, but few rise above the tyranny of their plotting to offer more than a series of connected events, and only one so far offers the thrill of being unique: "Heads Down, Thumbs Up" by Gavin Grant.

Of course, nobody expects fiction from the co-editor of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet to be ordinary, but I've read a few of Gavin's other stories, and while they were good, none prepared me for just how good "Heads Down, Thumbs Up" is. Saying why and how it is good, though, is a bit of challenge.

I won't pretend to understand "Heads Down, Thumbs Up" in the way that I could say I understand a more straightforward story, a story that seeks to be transparent. This story is befuddling, and it frustrates any one interpretation. That's part of its point. The world of "Heads Down, Thumbs Up" is actually multiple worlds: borders shift like weather, and countries cross into each other. Our guide is a child, which adds to the confusion, because a child's perspective of a realistic world is strange enough; when the perception is of a world that is already quite different from the one we know -- not only different, but unstable -- then figuring out the references and landmarks becomes like trying to navigate with a kaleidoscope.

Nonetheless, there is sense to be had here. Some excellent discussion of the story already happened at ShortForm, although one of the wonders of the story for me is that that discussion feels like it only began to hint at some of what's going on in "Heads Down, Thumbs Up". Perhaps such hints reveal the most essential meaning of the story: that in the right circumstances, interpretation can be infinite. A corollary creates a paradox: infinite interpretation isn't required. On a first reading, only fragments of sense present themselves, and yet the story is still compelling -- unlike many more transparent stories, never mind more oblique ones. "Heads Down, Thumbs Up" achieves an extraordinary balance, moving along as if it were just an ordinary tale, while flouting the suspense-creating unities that fuel everything from fairy tales to spy stories.

Borders shift, and not just the borders between one country and another. "Borders" is, in some ways, the wrong word -- what's really going on in "Heads Down, Thumbs Up" are shifts between definitions. Yes, things like the borders between countries change, as well as the colors of the lines on the roads, but in some ways those are the most superficial changes. Names change, words change, relationships change. Power drifts from one person or type of person to another. How children are raised changes, how they relate to adults and adults relate to them changes. The perceptions of genders change: men are stronger and more respected between one set of borders and weaker, more suspect and maligned when the borders shift. Stories change: some borders create stories where witches win in the end, other borders produce stories where the witches end up in ovens, not the children. No control of any one interpretation lasts for long -- witness the fate of Edward Doubleaxe, who tried to control his portrait, and succeeded until his death, after which the story of his giant nose survived along with the flattering portrait so that children would laugh at the fantasy in paint, holding one view of the man in their minds while they stared at the quite different view that Doubleaxe thought would be the only way of looking at him. Which is real, which is false? Both and neither, one and all.

We're back to the paradox of meaning: the meaning of "Heads Down, Thumbs Up" comes from the difficulty of pinning down any one meaning. The witch wins and the witch ends up in the oven. Men are strong and weak, adults are children, forests are enchanted and mundane. Et cetera and vice versa. Everything is potential, everything is in flux: the teacher may be wonderful or horrible, but when she goes to the blackboard and erases her name, she contains the possibility of either and both, just as when the children put their heads down and their thumbs up, there is the potential for any one of them to be picked for the game.

It is a rare story that is as rich and astonishing as this one.

26 May 2005

Case Histories Editor Speaks

Over at the LitBlog Co-Op, Reagan Arthur, the American editor for Kate Atkinson's novel Case Histories has offered some background on how the book came to be published in the U.S. and what her role was as editor. She's been responding diligently to comments, and so it's a good chance to ask questions about the book and publishing.

Not having been one of the original members of the Co-Op, I hadn't read Case Histories when it was announced as this quarter's selection, and I knew very little about it (this will be different next time, when I'll be a full voting member). I did order a copy of the book once I knew it was selected, and read it last week, so will probably offer a few thoughts as we go along. I liked parts of it, but didn't love it on the whole, and am now trying to think about why. It's worth reading, especially because I think it raises some interesting issues of how plot balances with other elements, and Atkinson is certainly a writer of skill and sensitivity. She herself will be appearing at the Co-op in a couple of weeks, and I'm very interested to see her comments on genre, plotting, etc.

The Year of the Bests

As further proof that this was not a joke, two news items:
Jonathan Strahan: I'm very happy to announce that Gary Wolfe and I will be co-editing an anthology of the year's best non-fiction writing about science fiction, fantasy and horror for Chris Roberson at Monkeybrain Books. Tentatively titled Best New SF Writings: 2005, it's a book I'm really excited to be doing. I love the idea, and I really like the books Chris has been publishing. If you have anything you've read that you'd like to recommend, we'd love to hear from you

via Sean Wallace: John Gregory Betancourt, editor / publisher of Wildside Press and co-publisher of Weird Tales, has announced that he will edit a Year's Best Horror 2006, covering the year of 2005. Stories originally published in 2005 are eligible for consideration for the first volume. If your work was published in an anthology, magazine, or story collection in 2005, please have your publisher send a review copy to the following address:

Wildside Press / Year's Best Horror 2006
PO Box 301
Holicong, PA 18928

Works must be submitted by October 1st, 2005, with the final selection of stories being made in November 2005. No email submissions (will be deleted unread). Should you have further questions please contact sean@wildsidepress.com
I'm happy that both books will exist, because I love Year's Best collections -- they draw from a large but finite pool of material and try to turn it into something coherent, a statement or a snapshot. Jonathan Strahan and Gary Wolfe's book ought to be fascinating, and I'll be curious to see how they gather and organize material. A lot of the best nonfiction about SF now consists of back-and-forth conversations and arguments like this discussion of "slipstream" at David Moles's site. We shall see...

25 May 2005

Code 46

Code 46 is not a perfect film, but it is an intelligent one, and the hostility many reviewers expressed toward it is frustrating, because there's too much that's good about the movie for it to be dismissed as a boring Blade Runner imitation. (A better comparison, actually, would be to Wim Wenders's Until the End of the World.) Even a critic as astute as Lucius Shepard -- easily one of the best film critics in the U.S. -- has been so conditioned to see science fiction movies as excuses for gunfights that he doesn't enjoy much of Code 46 ("I found myself yearning for a stray gunshot," he says, "a fistfight in the background, two people bumping into each other, anything to break the monotony, the slow, step-by-step expository grind of the picture").

It's understandable that many viewers would find the pacing of Code 46 slow or Tim Robbins's performance understated. They are. But it seems to me that there are reasons for both, and they grow from the setting of the story and the circumstances of the characters. This may not be to your taste, but there's a difference between something that is good and something that you enjoy. Plenty of people hate Tarkovsky's pacing, for instance, but to deny that he was a great filmmaker would be ridiculously ignorant. Code 46 isn't as layered, profound, enigmatic, or beautiful as Tarkovsky's films, but it's hardly the work of Hollywood hacks, either.

The slow pace of the movie helps to represent the background world -- a world of extreme monitoring and control. It is a world where the religious concept of fate has given way to a kind of faith in (and fear of) biological determinism. Information about everyone is tracked, and in one of the many subtle touches of the film, various moments are seen through the lens of a security camera of one sort or another, although this fact is never shouted out and is indicated only by a slight change in film stock or filter and the addition of a proprietary watermark in the lower right corner of the screen. Tim Robbins's character, William, has, through his job as an insurance investigator, access not only to personal information about anyone he wants, but also video footage of them throughout their lives. This is a world where people are conditioned to be control freaks, and the moments where control lessens or is lost feel noticeably different: moments in a dream, in a dance club, in the streets of a crowded and impoverished neighborhood, and during sex.

Robbins's performance is nuanced, but not energetic. Why should it be? He's not an action hero, just a guy who works for a tyrannical bureaucracy. He's not a hero of any sort, in fact -- he's quite willing to throw away his family so he can hook up with a 25-year-old. And he doesn't even know why, although if he bothered to think about what the geneticists tell him half-way through the movie, he'd realize it: she's nearly a clone of his mother. The inexplicable attraction that so many reviewers criticized is entirely explicable within the logic of the movie: his genes think he's found his mother, and now they push him to get all Oedipal with her. (Whether this is an accurate representation of genetic science is irrelevant; it's clearly a given in the film that genes determine everything.)

Code 46 is a movie for people who love real science fiction, because it does what the best traditional science fiction does: it makes a fantastic world feel realistic through small details that hint at far more than they state. It plays to the reading (or, in this case, viewing) protocols that Samuel Delany has written so much about, the protocols that make core science fiction sometimes indecipherable to the uninitiated. It's a movie where the viewer has to pay attention in every scene, because every scene not only moves the story forward, but adds contours to the social, cultural, and technological landscape in which that story happens.

Even the language is different here -- English is what most people speak, but everyone uses words and expressions from languages throughout the world, a fact first introduced in the credits to the film. I doubt most of it is linguistically likely, but it's certainly an interesting choice to have some important words be in Spanish, French, Arabic, etc. Just to see a science fiction movie pay attention to the ordinary (as opposed to technological) language of the characters is refreshing.

Something else that is refreshing about Code 46 is that it's not a movie about a couple of characters saving the world. This is another reason it doesn't appeal to people who want their movies big and loud -- it's the story of two rather ordinary people in perilous but not extraordinary circumstances.

Samantha Morton's performance is exquisite, and I'm surprised so many reviewers were blind to it, even if they were blind to everything else good in the movie. Her face is remarkably expressive, her physical presence both alluring and odd. Her accent absorbs the linguistic changes with subtle inflections of British, American, French, Spanish (and others I'm probably less sensitive to). She reveals as much through gesture and movement as she does through words.

The only complaint I have about Code 46, other than little nitpicks, is the music, which is occasionally evocative, but more often than not intrusive, particularly in the last scenes, where much of the possible poignancy is utterly ruined by turning it all into a cheap music video. The ending is brave in many ways, but the bravery is destroyed by the filmmakers not trusting the audience's own intelligence and emotions enough -- a horrendous way to end a movie that has given its audience a lot of credit up till then.

Code 46 may not be a deeply profound movie, it may not be a work of genius, but it is a work of intelligence and integrity, and deserves more accolades than it has received, because such films are rare, especially when they are science fiction.

New Blogs & Blew Nogs

Two very fine writers have started weblogs: Ian MacDonald and Justine Larbalestier. Please go encourage them. Next week I'll try to update the sidebar here with all the various new blogs that have been popping up, as well as other things I've promised or thought about...

24 May 2005

WisCon Whispers

For some reason, various people think I'm going to be at WisCon, but, alas, I'm not, because it's graduation weekend at the school where I work. I don't know where the rumor started, but I've gotten a bunch of emails over the past month saying, "Hey, so I hear you're going to be at WisCon!" I would love to be at WisCon, because I hear it's one of the most interesting conventions in existence, and lots of people I very much want to meet in person will be there, but it is not to be.

Before today, I was particularly upset not to be at WisCon this year, because the new Rat Bastards chapbook was going to be released, and I've got a story in it. But now I hear it's been delayed at the printer, so while there will be an infestation of Rat Bastards, there will not (last I heard) be any of the new chapbooks. So I'm not quite as upset as I was before. (But I still wish I could go.)

Soon I'm sure you'll be able to order copies of the chapbook from the website, and you should do so, because there are some great writers included: Vandana Singh, Rudi Dornemann, Dean Francis Alfar, James Allison, and Eric Rickstad. And me, because ... well, I'm not sure. Because they asked, and because I sent them a story nobody but a crazy person would want to publish, and because they're crazy people.

For a preview of the cover -- in color! looking like a living room from the '70s! -- check out Dean Alfar's blog (a blog that I should have discovered ages ago, and didn't, and so I will now read it faithfully).

Quote for the Day

It struck me yesterday that actually the best form of fundraising for Bob Sheckley would be for someone to bring his best novels and short stories back into print in the US in mass-market form. Given that Douglas Adams was happy to acknowledge in interviews how much what Bob did in the 1950s and 60s resembled what Douglas did many years later (and actually Bob was Douglas's first choice to write the Starship Titanic novelisation)it seems like this is a perfect time to make his work available for a new generation.

--Neil Gaiman
(I mentioned Sheckley's hospitalization in Moscow before, and have now updated to the new PayPal link that goes directly to his family.)

23 May 2005

Because If Everybody Else Jumped Off a Bridge, I Would, Too

I don't usually do the internet quiz/meme/silliness thing, but this has caused me at times to be called humorless, and, hey, it's spring. So here we go with two common ones, perhaps the first and last ones I ever post:

1. The person (or persons) who passed the baton to you.

Tim opened it up to anybody who was willing to steal it.

2. Total volume of music files on your computer.

2127 songs, 9.44GB

3. The title and artist of the last CD you bought.

Blinking Lights; Eels

4. Song playing at the moment of writing.

"Trouble with Dreams"; Eels [because of the above]

5. Five songs you have been listening to of late (or all-time favorites, or particularly personally meaningful songs).

Of late:
"I've Got to Know" Utah Phillips
"The Chimbley Sweep" The Decemberists
"Even Tho" Joseph Arthur
"Marrow" Ani DiFranco
"Clay Pigeons" John Prine

Most played in iTunes:
"Angel from Montgomery (Live)" John Prine & Bonnie Raitt
"Each Small Candle" Roger Waters
"High Rise" Vance Gilbert
"I am Trying to Break Your Heart" Wilco
"How to Disappear Completely" Radiohead

6. The five victims to whom you will 'pass the musical baton.'

As Tim says: "No compulsory memeage for me. Anyone who reads this, consider it an open invitation to participate and propagate. (I am a bad viral agent.)"

And now the other thing that's been popular recently, and the results of which for me shouldn't surprise anyone who's read much of what I've written:
What is Your World View?
You scored as Modernist. Modernism represents the thought that science and reason are all we need to carry on. Religion is unnecessary and any sort of spirituality halts progress. You believe everything has a rational explanation. 50% of Americans share your world-view.
(I scored 75% Modernist, 69% Postmodernist and Materialist, 49% Existentialist, 0% Idealist. It's not entirely accurate -- I don't think everything has a rational explanation; I do have a few ideals -- but the questions are yes/no and don't have much room for grey areas.)

Well, now that that's done we can all go back to our regularly scheduled lives.

This Post is Not for Everyone

An essay by Anne Burke in the latest Context (published by the Center for Book Culture, which also houses the marvelous Dalkey Archive Press) takes reviewers to task for saying that any book is "not for everyone", because it's a lazy phrase -- after all, what book is for everyone?

M.A. Orthofer and Scott Esposito have both replied, essentially agreeing that the phrase is, indeed, a bit silly.

There's a way that "not for everyone" can make some sense, though -- if the reviewer is thinking of "everyone" not as everyone on Earth, but rather as everyone who reads that sort of review. It's still hardly the best choice of description for a book, but there are bigger crimes in book reviewing. If the reviewer goes on to explain why she or he feels the book is not for whoever it's not for, I don't tend to mind the phrase too much. It's the explanation that is key -- any review where there are claims made about a book that are not supported is a weaker, less useful review than one where the judgments are explained.

Having written some reviews of 500 or 800 words myself, I know how difficult it can be to avoid cliches, hyperbole, shorthand, etc. etc. etc., and other things that are not for everyone. Truly thoughtful, insightful reviews under 1,000 words are rare and deserve to be celebrated.

Robert Sheckley

If you're a science fiction fan, you've probably already heard that Robert Sheckley fell ill at a convention in Moscow and has been in a hospital there for a little while. He is having trouble paying hospital bills and, as I understand it, won't be able to return to the U.S. until he is able to pay them. If you want to send money to help him, you can do so via a PayPal link that Michael Moorcock helped set up [5/24/05: new link set up by Sheckley's family] -- updates continue via Moorcock's bulletin board here. Boing Boing and Neil Gaiman also provide links and pleas.

If you want to read some stories by Sheckley, here's a good place to find some online.

20 May 2005


It may seem from the relative silence hereabouts that I have wandered off somewhere to be productive, or that I have stopped reading anything other than the occasional website, or that the universe is boring. None of that is true. I think what's happened is a kind of sickness caused by a particular form of gluttony.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've read about ten short stories and four or five novels (most of them short). This is a little bit more than I get through in the average fortnight, but I had been doing quite a bit of writing before that, and I usually alternate bouts of reading and writing. During the past year, the amount of reading I've done has increased -- there was a time when I averaged only a couple novels a month -- and I'm happy for it. The reasons for the rise in the amount of things I'm reading are many, but the primary one is that I'm writing a couple of book reviews a month now, and I usually read three to six books for every one I review. (Most of my students, and plenty of other semi-rational creatures, would consider this schedule to be horrifying. I think it's fun.)

There's a problem, though, and it's that my reading is governed by an obsessively eclectic taste. If I read, for instance, three science fiction novels in a row, I will quickly become incapable of enjoying any more science fiction novels until I read something entirely different. Usually my need for variety is satiated with fiction from different eras or styles, but sometimes I discover myself incapable of getting pleasure from almost any sort of fiction at all, and have to fill my time with plays, poetry, essays, history, science, etc. Sometimes this is against my will -- just because I want to read more of one type of writing doesn't mean that, once I start, I will find any enjoyment from it at all.

Essentially, that's where I am right now. I've read a bunch of different stories and novels, all of them fantasy or science fiction, and have found none of them satisfying. I'm objective enough to see that in some cases this was more the book's fault than mine, but in other cases, I could find nothing particularly wrong with the book or story -- the fault was mine, an inability to engage with the author's structure, characters, words, images, anything.

Whenever this happens, I know it's time for a big change, which is why over the past week I've mostly been reading plays and poetry. I've been enjoying reading some of Sylvia Plath's work, particularly what she wrote in 1959 (in her Collected Poems). It can be difficult to wrench Plath's poems away from her biography, her mythology, her appeal to anyone tempted toward overwrought self-dramatization, but going back to the poems she wrote before 1962 or so is helpful, because it's possible to revel in the pure sound of the poems, the confidence of her words, the assured lines and stanzas. She wasn't as good as W.H. Auden or Dylan Thomas, but I'm not often in the mood for someone of that level -- when it comes to just reading and appreciating, there are few sets of poems I'd rather spend time with than the poems Plath wrote before she really came into her own as a poet in 1962 or so (many of which are poems I like a lot, but those poems possess more of an ability to wound, because by then Plath had tremendous control over the language that sometimes seems to take control of her in the earlier poems, keeping her from expressing pain in words and phrases that draw blood. Her mastery destroyed some of the distance that makes the earlier, less accomplished poems, more aesthetically compelling to me).

I also read the play (well, monologue) Thom Pain (based on nothing) by Will Eno, a theatre piece I'd heard many good things about, but those good things eluded me in reading it. I can see how it could be an excellent vehicle for an actor, but as a piece of writing it didn't do much for me -- as opposed to, say, something like "Terminal Hip" by Mac Wellman (collected in The Bad Infinity) or The Fever by Wallace Shawn, both of which are extraordinary when performed well, but also have at least some interest as written texts (at least for me). Now I'm reading Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, a play I never got around to reading before, despite intending to multiple times.

In any case, I'll be returning to novels and short stories soon, and will report what I find. Because being on the jury for the Fountain Award kept me reading lots of 2004 stories, I've read hardly anything from 2005, and need to remedy that soon.

I wonder if and when people find themselves burning out on certain types of writing -- what's your experience, O my readers? Can you endlessly fill yourself with one sort of book or story and feel no indigestion, or do you need a varied menu? (Most editors, I assume, read a lot of similar things and don't, at least for a while, end up hating it all.) Are you the sort of person who reads an author's entire collected works before moving on, or do you jump from one author to another? When do you know it's time to change your reading habits?

17 May 2005

Anywhere But Here, Episode II

This year's winner of the Fountain Award, "The Annals of Eelin-Ok" by Jeffrey Ford, is now available online. I read some stories last year that were as good, but none that I thought were better.

Also available now is an essay by John Kessel, "Creating the Innocent Killer: Ender's Game, Intention, and Morality". It's a valuable essay for putting one of the most popular science fiction novels into some perspective, and it makes a good companion to Cory Doctorow's recent story "Anda's Game". (via David Schwartz)

16 May 2005

Anywhere But Here

Nothing to see here. Therefore:

*The mid-May SF Site is alive and kicking. It includes, among other things, a review I wrote of four recent titles from the Wesleyan Early Classics of SF series, all of which were impressive in some way or another, although I must say the one book that most enchanted and amazed me was The Twentieth Century (first published in 1882) by Albert Robida, here receiving its first English translation in a beautiful edition filled with weird, whimsical illustrations.

*Alan DeNiro has changed both the address and title of his weblog. What once was Ptarmigan is now Goblin Mercantile Exchange. He has also entered the fray of discussing the SFWA's push poll on Amazon's "Look Inside the Book" feature by translating part of the SFWA FAQ about "ePiracy" into PirateSpeak, with good results: "Information may want t’ be free, but ye get what ye pay fer." (For more background on -- or, rather, against -- the poll, check out what John Scalzi, Cory Doctorow, and Tim Pratt have to say.)

*There's a new Strange Horizons posted. Lots of good things there.

*A couple of fun posts at SF Signal: Design Your Own Dream Anthology (that is, the anthology you might dream of making, not an anthology of dreams) and a report on a 1973 Cliff's Notes book about science fiction.

*Teresa Nielsen Hayden sparks an in-depth testing and deconstruction of a popular little poll to discover "Which Science Fiction Writer are You" (I was Octavia Butler). I love that Gregory Benford took the poll and the result wasn't Gregory Benford.

*The Tensor takes a close look at linguistics in Robert Heinlein's "Gulf".

*Speaking of linguistics, there's a new blog in the blogosphere: Invented Usage, which looks at a variety of subjects (including supposed differences between poetry and prose) from a linguistic point of view, but without lots of jargon. I look forward to seeing where the writers go with this. (via LanguageHat)

*Sarah Weinman writes about books that are impossible to review and points to Crime Fiction Dossier, a blog that's new to me, where there's been some good discussion of the ins and outs of book reviewing.

*Sonya Taaffe's poem "The Laying-Out" is now a featured poem at Mythic Delirium.

15 May 2005

A Big Day

Two major announcements today:

The winner of the second annual Fountain Award, sponsored by the Speculative Literature Foundation, and for which I was a juror, is "The Annals of Eelin-Ok" by Jeffrey Ford, originally published in The Faery Reel, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling.

It was wonderful to be on the Fountain jury, not just because the other jurors were thoughtful, passionate, friendly, and intelligent, but because the award specifically looks for stories both within and outside the SF field, so you'll see from our list of honorable mentions that stories came from such places as Fence, One Story, and StoryQuarterly as well as Fantasy & Science Fiction. The honorable mentions are very honorable, indeed, because about 150 stories were nominated by editors from around the country world, and many stories had strong responses from all of us, but we limited ourselves to ten honorable mentions, which meant that plenty of good stories were eliminated. The longest discussion was to determine the winner, and "The Annals of Eelin-Ok" was a clear favorite because it pulls off the miracle of being charming and wistful without being cute or cloying. Personally, I hate stories about faeries, but I love this story, because it so beautifully captures the wonders and terrors of being alive while knowing that death is just over the horizon.

The other big news of the day is that the LitBlog Co-op has announced its first Read This! selection. (You'll have to follow the link to find out what it is...) Though I'm a member, I'm a recent member, and because of the timeframe, only the original members voted on this selection, so I don't actually have anything yet to say about it. I'll be reading the book soon and will, perhaps, comment then.

14 May 2005

Being Jeff Lint

I've got a copy of Steve Aylett's soon-to-be-released biography Lint on order, because Jeff VanderMeer has recommended it highly, and Jeff Lint is clearly one of the more interesting members of the science fiction community, a man who has long deserved a biography. That as esteemed a writer of nonfiction as Aylett would tackle the project is a real tribute to Lint's growing influence.

Today I discovered, via The Complete Review, the perfect thing to bide the time while waiting for Lint to arrive: A Jeff Lint website, complete with bibliographies, book and magazine covers, interviews, comics, news, and even litcrit.

12 May 2005

Surprise of the Week: Dale Peck Doesn't Like Something

Dale Peck, previously notorious for his reviews of contemporary writers and for being slapped, proclaimed some time back that he would no longer write nasty reviews of books. Instead, apparently, he will write nasty reviews of extremely popular movies. Witness what he has to say about Star Wars.

I actually happen to pretty much agree with his negative assessment of the whole Star Wars franchise, having been immune to the cult from the early days, but ... why bother? Is Peck so desperate for attention that all he can do is try to anger some hapless Star Wars fan? Giving any more notice to a mass phenomenon like Star Wars if you're not a fan of it seems pointless to me. (At least when David Brin did it he had a variety of insights to offer.)

I'm not a Peck hater, but I've certainly lost the patience I once had for his writing. When I was 17 or so, his first novel, Martin & John, was a revelation to me, and I thought it was one of the best novels ever written. I carried it around for a month or two after reading it, keeping it near as a kind of talisman of all that was possible in art and life, or, rather, what I conceived art and life to be when I was 17 (ugh, those were embarrassing days). I've not reread the book since then, though, for fear of ruining the memory of what it was. I even liked a few of Peck's book reviews. But he seems to have become the sort of person who is habitually annoyed by other people's enthusiasms -- the kind of person who goes to birthday parties and loudly reminds everyone about the inevitability of death.

11 May 2005

Compare & Contrast

I read Kazuo Ishiguro's first three novels a few years ago -- I adored his first novel, A Pale View of Hills, then read the next two, An Artist of the Floating World and The Remains of the Day, a bit too quickly to fully appreciate them -- then never got back to his work, despite having been intrigued by the reviews I'd read of The Unconsoled and When We Were Orphans. Now I'm very interested in reading Never Let Me Go, but don't quite have time for it yet, and so I've been amusing myself by paying attention to certain tendencies in the reviews...

Miriam Burstein:
Never Let Me Go is, in fact, a work of dystopian science fiction (which, of course, won't be shelved with all the other SF--it's Ishiguro, after all...), set in an alternative England during the late 1990s.
James Wood:
Works of fantasy or science fiction that also succeed in literary terms are hard to find, and are rightly to be treasured--Hawthorne's story "The Birthmark" comes to mind, and H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, and some of Karel Capek's stories. And just as one is triumphantly sizing up this thin elite, one thinks correctively of that great fantasist Kafka, or even of Beckett, two writers whose impress can be felt, perhaps surprisingly, on Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel. And how about Borges, who so admired Wells? Or Gogol's "The Nose"? Or The Double? Or Lord of the Flies? A genre that must make room for Kafka and Beckett and Dostoevsky is perhaps no longer a genre but merely a definition of writing successfully; in particular, a way of combining the fantastic and the realistic so that we can no longer separate them, and of making allegory earn its keep by becoming indistinguishable from narration itself.

Never Let Me Go is a fantasy so mundanely told, so excruciatingly ordinary in transit, its fantastic elements so smothered in the loam of the banal and so deliberately grounded, that the effect is not just of fantasy made credible or lifelike, but of the real invading fantasy, bursting into its eccentricity and claiming it as normal. Given that Ishiguro's new novel is explicitly about cloning, that it is, in effect, a science fiction set in the present day, and that the odds against success in this mode are bullyingly stacked, his success in writing a novel that is at once speculative, experimental, and humanly moving is almost miraculous.
Geoff Dyer:
In discussing a book built on memories, rumours and hearsay it is, I hope, not inappropriate to start with a few of my own. I heard from somewhere that Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel -- his sixth -- was a work of science fiction. I also remember reading, back in the 1980s, that whereas science fiction once boldly lunged centuries or half-centuries into the future, the imaginative extrapolations now came in increments of just a few years. How neat, then, that in the sci-fi century Never Let Me Go should be set in the past -- "England, late 1990s" -- and that its climax should occur in a little house in Littlehampton.
Andrew O'Hehir:
It might be technically correct to describe this novel as dystopian science fiction or a parable about contemporary life that addresses some social issue (fill in the blank yourself). As a Hollywood formula, I guess you could boil this down to "1984" meets "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie." But that's not really fair. Ishiguro is far more interested in capturing the subjective reality of Kathy and her chums, who are, as one of their Hailsham teachers says, "told but not told" about what awaits them -- and who, like all children, more or less accept the terms of their existence.
Joseph O'Neill:
Suffice it to say that Ishiguro serves up the saddest, most persuasive science fiction you'll read.
M. John Harrison:
Inevitably, it being set in an alternate Britain, in an alternate 1990s, this novel will be described as science fiction. But there's no science here. How are the clones kept alive once they've begun "donating"? Who can afford this kind of medicine, in a society the author depicts as no richer, indeed perhaps less rich, than ours?

Ishiguro's refusal to consider questions such as these forces his story into a pure rhetorical space. You read by pawing constantly at the text, turning it over in your hands, looking for some vital seam or row of rivets. Precisely how naturalistic is it supposed to be? Precisely how parabolic? Receiving no answer, you're thrown back on the obvious explanation: the novel is about its own moral position on cloning. But that position has been visited before (one thinks immediately of Michael Marshall Smith's savage 1996 offering, Spares). There's nothing new here; there's nothing all that startling; and there certainly isn't anything to argue with. Who on earth could be "for" the exploitation of human beings in this way?

Ishiguro's contribution to the cloning debate turns out to be sleight of hand, eye candy, cover for his pathological need to be subtle.
Rick Kleffel:
By focusing on the minutia of the characters' lives and feelings, Ishiguro gives the world behind those lives and feelings reality through its relationship to the characters and their feelings. It's a sly way for this writer to enter the world of science fiction literature. Readers who frequent the genre will find Ishiguro's approach bracing and refreshing, reminiscent of the best examples of what was once known as social science fiction. Theodore Sturgeon once worked and Ursula K. Le Guin still works in this vein. 'Never Let Me Go' is a gripping novel not only by virtue of the veracity of its characters but also due to the level of deception the narrator manages to put between herself and her world. Kathy is the kind of prim woman who knows about the "horror movie stuff" involved in living in the real world. But she's focused on the here and now, on the what-we-can-do as opposed to the what-has-been-done.

Ishiguro's focus on the characters may at first seem like the usual focus of literary authors. His prose is gorgeous and spare, his touch light and unassuming. 'Never Let Me Go' is never less than delightful to read. But the focus on the small aspects of characters serves a revelatory point in the plot. All that gorgeous prose builds up a wave of understanding that breaks over the reader in a precisely timed penultimate scene. The careful characterization serves to set up a classic science-fictional understanding that is brilliantly realized and quite timely. The implications of Ishiguro's novel spread out with a seismic power.
Louis Menand:
Unfortunately, "Never Let Me Go" includes a carefully staged revelation scene, in which everything is, somewhat portentously, explained. It's a little Hollywood, and the elucidation is purchased at too high a price. The scene pushes the novel over into science fiction, and this is not, at heart, where it seems to want to be.
Morag Fraser:
I said "surreal" deliberately. This is not a book of science fiction. I doubt that Ishiguro is even particularly interested in the science or ethics of cloning. So don't go to the novel for a Peter Singer workout. What you will find is an intense, but undramatised exploration of the intricacies of human emotion and human interplay.
Alan Williams:
Never Let Me Go is only ostensibly about cloning, and Ishiguro would probably shudder at ghettoizing it in the science fiction genre. Rather, the book plays chilling, new-fangled variations on themes intrinsic to Ishiguro's previous work: interrelated dynamics of self-sacrifice and thwarted love, and gaining awareness of fulfilling an appointed role within a structure that will inevitably bring about one's demise. From this mix of genetics and dreams deferred, Ishiguro conjures one of the most bizarre, tragic paradoxes in recent fiction, rendered all the more startling through subtlety and implication.
Andrew Barrow:
Ishiguro is primarily a poet. Accuracy of social observation, dialogue and even characterisation is not his aim. In this deceptively sad novel, he simply uses a science-fiction framework to throw light on ordinary human life, the human soul, human sexuality, love, creativity and childhood innocence.
Jenny Shank:
Ishiguro eventually reveals the premise of Never Let Me Go, and it smacks of science fiction -- it turns out that Kathy H. is one of numerous clones produced to become "carers" for organ donors and then to donate her own organs one day. But the only counterpart of Ishiguro's novel in the realm of science fiction is perhaps the work of Ray Bradbury, a writer who never lets the fantastic particulars of his plots get in the way of telling a simple human story.
Scott MacKenzie:
The same premise can be found in certain science-fiction works, but Ishiguro avoids the grandiose spectacle typical of science fiction.
Kazuo Ishiguro:
I like novelists who can create other interesting worlds.

How to Disappear Completely

For some reason, when I tried to post here yesterday and today, I couldn't get Blogger to recognize me. I've been very lucky in terms of Blogger outages -- when many other people have complained of not being able to post things, I've had not trouble, so I guess it was just my turn.

It was very weird having everything ready and being unable to update the site. Alienating. Made me think of one of my favorite Radiohead songs.

I did manage to post something semi-coherent and odd at The LitBlog Co-op, although experienced very different posting problems there -- not with the technology, but with my own brain and words, as explained in the, I see now, pretty much unnecessary first paragraph of that post.

Meanwhile, I'm disappearing beneath a pile of books sent from all corners of the universe. I've actually gotten so many review copies of things recently that I'm going to farm out a couple of reviews to people who seem like interesting matches for the books. (If you have an idea of somebody you'd like to see review The Fourth Circle by Zoran Zivkovic, let me know. I asked Derik, and he said he read it earlier this year because I had recommended it somewhere else. I've become my own enemy! For the record, and I hope he doesn't mind me saying it, Derik liked parts of the book but not the whole. We actually had a nice chat about it, and are now tossing titles of various sorts back and forth at each other. Me ducking titles as they fly by is a sight that amuses my cat, who is not easily amused.)

Most of my time to write substantive posts has now disappeared for a couple days, but I'll try to at least put up a few links to odd, enticing, or frustrating stuffage...

09 May 2005

New Strange Horizons, etc.

The latest issue of Strange Horizons has been posted, and it includes the second half of the symposium on speculative poetry that I conducted with Mike Allen, Alan DeNiro, and Theodora Goss.

Also in this issue is an informative and provocative column by Debbie Notkin, "The Publishing Industry -- From the Reader's Perspective", which will, I'm sure, spark lots of debate and comment.

And in the Department of I Don't Know Where Else to Put This But Want to Mention It Now So Here It Is (aka DIDKWEPTBWMINSHII, which is a very dirty word in certain former Soviet republics): an article by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling on creating anthologies. (via SF Signal)

07 May 2005

Creepy Movies

Michael Berube has a post about "creepy" movies at his blog, offering Carnal Knowledge as "the creepiest movie in the world". In the comments, all sorts of other titles are suggested as either equally or more creepy than Carnal Knowledge, with definitions of "creepy" shifting and metamorphosing throughout. (I offered The Isle as my nominee, at least of recent films.)

One of the interesting things about Berube's post is what he points out about the effect Carnal Knowledge had on the careers of people involved with making it:
Look at what happened to the principals: Ann-Margaret was plunged into depression for years because of her role in this film. Art Garfunkel disappeared and was next seen on a milk carton somewhere in Central Park. Jack Nicholson basically became his character, Jonathan Fuerst (and sometimes even plays older or parodic versions of him, as well). And Mike Nichols, after opening with Virginia Woolf, The Graduate, and Catch-22 (not bad for a start), followed this with Day of the Dolphin and then ... nothing, really, until he resurfaced in the mid-1980s as a director of bland, airplane-movie things like Heartburn and Regarding Henry. Only Candace Bergen seems to have been left untouched by the movie's soul-destroying creepiness, and I imagine that's because her character escaped early, and is nowhere to be found in the second half of the film (except for that still in Jonathan's "Ballbusters on Parade"). I think that's the sign of a powerfully creepy movie--its effects last for years, decades. God only knows what happened to the gaffer and the key grip on this one.
One person whose career continued just fine, it seems, after Carnal Knowledge, was Jules Feiffer, the writer, who deserves at least some of the praise or blame for Carnal Knowledge's considerable creepiness. Though he's perhaps best known as a cartoonist and author of children's books, Feiffer's plays show that creepiness is a specialty of his, and Carnal Knowledge, originally a play, fits comfortably alongside such subsequent plays as Grownups and Elliot Loves.

05 May 2005

MultiVerse: Speculative Poetry Reviews

Eric Marin wrote to let me know about his new venture, MultiVerse: Speculative Poetry Reviews, and graciously offered to be quizzed about what he's up to:

Q: What's the genesis of the site? Was there one particular moment that made you say, "Hey, I should review SF poems!"?

A: Over the past year, I realized that speculative poetry garners very little critical attention, particularly online. I didn't know where I could request reviews of the poetry I publish in my webzine, Lone Star Stories, and, athough I knew that I couldn't review my webzine's selections, I felt that other speculative poetry publications should have a reviewing venue. So I started MultiVerse. My hope is that the reviews on MultiVerse will attract readers to strong speculative poetry that they might not otherwise read.

Q: How do you determine what to review?

A: I peruse magazines, mostly online but some in print, that publish speculative poetry, looking for strong poems that warrant positive comments. If I don't like a poem, I won't review it. It's a subjective process.

Q: Other than just "go read this, it's good!", what sorts of positive things do you try to say?

A: When I write a review, I try to point out the poem's strengths without giving away too much of what the poem is about in order to intrigue potential readers. I might briefly discuss the structure, the language, the topic, or the mood of the poem.

Q:. How do you think the site will develop? What's in store for the future?

A: I'm unsure how the site will develop; it's a work in progress. If the site garners enough interest, I'll add a links page and a discussion board. I'm open to suggestions and requests.

Q: Do you think you'll add other reviewers? Multiple reviews of a poem could be interesting.

A: I'm very open to other reviewers contributing to MultiVerse. In fact, Samantha Henderson is already providing reviews for MultiVerse. Her style is a bit different than mine, and, in contrast to me, she reviews all of the pieces in a particular magazine issue. The idea of more than one reviewer examining a poem is something to consider.

Q: What do you look for in a poem? What's a good poem to you?

A: I look for speculative poetry (poetry with elements of the fantastic and the surreal or of science fiction) that leaves a strong impact on me as a reader, whether through vivid language, compelling theme, intriguing topic, or other means. A poem that manages that is a good poem to me.

Q: Have you found any speculative poetry outside the SF field, or are you pretty much just looking at places that label themselves as SF?

A: I will review speculative poetry wherever I can find it. If you have any suggestions for markets to examine, please let me know!

For more information on Eric and his various projects, check out his website, which also includes contact information.

Eric also passed on the good news that Tangent Online will now be reviewing poetry.

Odds & Ends

*Despite having written about two of the books in the Reading the World initiative, I've never mentioned that endeavor before. Bad me. The list of books is quite exciting. Go to an independent bookstore and buy lots of them to make yourself happy.

*Tonight I watched What to Do in Case of Fire (Was tun, wenn's brennt?), a tremendously silly and joyful movie about German anarchists. Well, German anarchists who got old and sold out, but who can't escape the past and who eventually discover that friendship is more important than money. A feel-good movie about homemade bombs, really. It's slick, superficial, predictable, plays up stereotypes of anarchism that make me cringe ... and I loved it from beginning to fairy-tale end.

*David Moles wonders if the term "slipstream" isn't getting too defined, and lots of interesting people offer lots of interesting comments in response.

*A nonfictional blog called Fictional Blogs. Truly. (via Scribblingwoman)

*Finally, and most importantly: Greg Egan has published a sad and moving article about an Indian man who sought asylum in Australia and has been detained there now for over six years. (via Stumblings in the Dark)

04 May 2005

A Number by Caryl Churchill

I love reading a script that makes me want to direct it, because the act of reading becomes so much more intense than it is when reading a script that is merely interesting because of its ideas, characters, structure, or story. Some of Caryl Churchill's plays, much as I find them intellectually engaging, don't appeal to my inner director, but some of her recent short plays, such as Far Away and A Number, are so spare and enigmatic that reading and (inevitably) rereading them provokes the imaginative concentration required when directing, and does so more than most other scripts I know.

A Number is a science fiction play, just as Far Away and the earlier Skriker are fantasy plays. Except in the theatre world there are only such things as plays, and nobody much bothers worrying about what to call them or their writers. (How odd it would be to hear someone describe Churchill, or anyone else, as "the famous sci-fi playwright"!)

Cloning is the ostensible subject of A Number, but it's also not, because the play is as full of silences and ambiguities as anything by Pinter or Beckett. There are no stage directions, barely any set description -- all we're told is the play takes place "where Salter lives", and all we know about Salter is that he's "a man in his early sixties" and that he has two sons named Bernard, the first one forty and the second thirty-five, and a son named Michael Black, who is also thirty-five. Churchill's plays are often hard to read because she writes dialogue with particular structures for each play. With some scripts she is very specific about how lines overlap. With The Skriker she created a dialect for the "shapeshifter and death portent" of the title that reads like something James Joyce might have tried to write for naughty children. Far Away employs a simple language of short sentences and vivid, nightmarish imagery ("The rats are bleeding out of their mouths and ears, which is good, and so were the girls by the side of the road").

A Number is more difficult to read than those plays, because the characters' words bleed into each other. Here's how it begins:
B2 [Bernard]: A number
SALTER: you mean
B2: a number of them, of us, a considerable
B2: ten, twenty
SALTER: didn't you ask?
B2: I got the impression
SALTER: why didn't you ask?
B2: I didn't think of asking.
The play is designed for two actors: one plays Salter, the father, and one plays all the sons. There are five short scenes. Performances in London and New York reportedly ran between fifty and sixty-five minutes. Depending on the production, I expect A Number can feel either entirely inconsequential or vividly mysterious, a prod to the imagination. Churchill doesn't write a play "about" cloning, but rather a play that includes cloning, a play that couldn't exist without cloning. It touches briefly on various issues of identity and authenticity, of genetics and personality, but it does not explore or debate these ideas the way a typical play "ripped from the headlines" would. Handled with sensitivity by talented actors, I expect these ideas could gain gravity through implication, through seeing how they are played out in the immediate emotional existence of characters for whom they are not issues or ideas, but, rather, the problems of life.

In his latest collection of plays, References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot, Jose Rivera includes a wonderful postscript called "36 Assumptions About Writing Plays", a few of which apply quite well to A Number:
Theatre is closer to poetry and music than it is to the novel.

Each line of dialogue is like a piece of DNA: potentially containing the entire play and its thesis; potentially telling us the beginning, middle, and end of the play.

Rhythm is the key. Use as many sounds and cadences as possible. Think of dialogue as a form of percussive music. You can vary the speed of language, the beats per line, volume, density. You can use silences, fragments, elongated sentences, interruptions, overlapping conversation, physical activity, monologues, nonsense, nonsequiturs, foreign languages.

Action doesn't have to be overt. It can be the steady deepening of the dramatic situation...or your characters' steady emotional movements from one emotional/psychological condition to another: ignorance to enlightenment, weakness to strength, illness to wholeness.

Strive to be mysterious, not confusing.
A Number is deeply mysterious, but it does not have to be confusing, because the situation is laid out with a certain amount of clarity: Salter, years before the play takes place, paid a scientist to clone his son. He didn't realize the scientist made twenty clones instead of one, and so Salter is faced with having to tell one of his sons that he is not the original, and then gets to meet some of the others, each of whom responds quite differently to the news. Why Salter had one of his sons cloned is explained with a couple of different, contradictory reasons, and Salter may be lying. The past is not what's important, the reasons are not important: the facts must be dealt with in the present:
B2: Because there's this person who's identical to me
SALTER: he's not
B2: who's not identical, who's like
SALTER: not even very
B2: not very like but very something terrible which is exactly the same genetic person
SALTER: not the same person
B2: and I don't like it.
The only son who has his own name, and the only character with a first and last name, appears at the end. He has a life, and feels comfortable in himself, but Salter never feels that Michael truly has an identity -- the worrying has slipped from the sons to the father, who previously was most concerned with suing the scientist who made more clones than were agreed on. But Michael isn't particularly annoyed:
MICHAEL: I think it's funny, I think it's delightful
SALTER: delightful?
MICHAEL: We've got ninety-nine per cent the same genes as any other person. We've got ninety per cent the same as a chimpanzee. We've got thirty percent the same as a lettuce. Does that cheer you up at all? I love about the lettuce. It makes me feel I belong.
To Salter, the cloning is always a big deal, though in what way it's a big deal changes over the course of the play. To Michael, it's an amusing tidbit about himself, but it doesn't change who he is, his memories, his family, his friends. The play ends with the (to Salter horrifying) revelation that Michael likes his life.

Churchill's plays don't force emotion on the actors or audience, but they do leave wide possibilities for tremendous emotion -- I can imagine ways that Salter's slow devastation through the play could end up being complex and moving. The script is a blueprint, and a thrilling one to read, because it leaves so many possibilities open. Churchill is enough of a master to be able to skirt the edge of meaninglessness without sliding over; her recent plays are richly suggestive, and therefore can reward imaginative readers as much as a good production can.

02 May 2005

Elsewheres & Otherwises

A few things from places other than here:

First and foremost, Strange Horizons has posted the first half of something I've been working on for months: A Symposium on Speculative Poetry I conducted between Mike Allen, Alan DeNiro, and Theodora Goss. I was thrilled with the thoughtfulness of the conversation between Mike, Alan, and Theodora, three people who are tremendously knowledgeable and have marvelously different perspectives on poetry.

Also this week is another of my monthly columns at SH, this one a rambling meditation on apocalyptic inclinations.

Elsewhere on the web, the new SF Site has been posted, including a review I wrote of recent issues of The Third Alternative and Interzone. This edition of SF Site has the regular set of reviews and news, plus a new feature that will be fun to watch called "Close to the Heart", wherein reviewers write about SF books that were an early inspiration to them. The first column is by Nathan Brazil, about Genesis by W.A. Harbinson.

And at another elsewhere: Paula Guran offers a comprehensive response to Locus's policy on reviewing and counting any books produced through Print on Demand technology. There's still a lot of confusion out there about how POD is used, and it's nice to see that some people are combatting the misperceptions, because publishers such as Wildside and their imprints have shown that POD can be used to keep a lot of books in print and can allow publishers the opportunity to take a risk on innovative writers.

Yes, lots of POD books are unedited vanity press publications. But the technology itself doesn't only work for vanity presses. And not all vanity press publications are horrible. Indeed, there's even a blog devoted to finding the pearls in the manure pile of POD self-publishing. A noble cause, it seems to me. (Please don't use this as an excuse to send me your book. I still like editors, because I'm just one person and can only read and review so much.)

Update: John Clute has offered some concerns about POD at his message board. (via Cheryl)