31 October 2005

A Conversation with Mike Allen

Mike Allen is probably best known within the science fiction/fantasy/horror field for his energetic promotion of SF poetry, both as a writer and an an editor/publisher. He is currently the president of The Science Fiction Poetry Association and the founding publisher and editor of Mythic Delirium. His own poetry and fiction have appeared in Asimov's, Interzone, and Strange Horizons, among many other places. He has won the SFPA's Rhysling Award, co-edited the Rhysling showcase anthology Alchemy of Stars, and also participated in the Speculative Poetry Symposium I moderated for Strange Horizons earlier this year.

Mike's latest books are both published by Prime: Disturbing Muses and Strange Wisdoms of the Dead (forthcoming). He lives in Roanoke, Virginia with his wife, Anita, and works as a reporter for a Roanoke newspaper.

When did you begin writing poetry? Why SF poetry?
I never made a conscious choice to write sf poetry. It's what I write naturally.

I discovered or was exposed to all my main reading staples during a rather miserable childhood spent for the most part in a tiny Appalachian coal mining town. I was entranced as a kid by The Lord of the Rings, and chasing down more of what I got from those books, in isolation from any "communal" guidance, led me in all sorts of directions, from H.P. Lovecraft to T.S. Eliot.

As a teenager I subscribed to Asimov's Science Fiction, and found poetry there. I remember a piece that used parallel columns to describe the points of view of twins isolated on different planets. I love visual shenanigans within text, and that poem really grabbed my imagination (I've probably overabused that same technique in my own poems). Even the Dangerous Visions anthologies, which I read as an undergraduate, included poetry. So when I wrote poetry, it always had sf or fantasy elements.

When I really started trying to get work published my main focus was on fiction. While my short stories fared reasonably well in the group seminars in graduate school, my poems were always brutally savaged. I became determined to produce poems that would survive the workshop, and so wound up cranking out a lot of poetry, which started selling. Laurel Winter especially gave me a regular venue at Tales of the Unanticipated, buying poems that had to have caused the typesetter fits.
What's next for Mythic Delirium now that you've separated it from DNA Publications?
In a way, it's back to the beginning. I began Mythic Delirium back in 1998 as sort of a self-dare. I printed two issues, sensed almost no interest from the small press community, and decided to kill it.

But I had sent copies of those two early issues to Ellen Datlow, and she included my little zine in her informal "best magazines of the year" list. After that, Warren Lapine asked me to revive the magazine for DNA, and I agreed to after much soul searching. Now, six years and 12 issues later, I've published folks from Joe Haldeman to Sonya Taaffe to Theodora Goss to Ursula Le Guin, and after even more soul searching I've decided that I know enough that I no longer need to ride piggyback on DNA. So off I've jumped.

Mythic Delirium will never be a financial juggernaut. But I got a happy chill when I opened up the subscriber list file and saw that a few of the folks who bought subscriptions back when I put out my very first cheap-inkjet-cover issue are still with me.

The biggest challenge is quickly getting Mythic Delirium to a point to where it can support itself. It's got to; my wife's a full-time student and I ain't a rich man. But that actually appears quite doable, and so far, so good.
How did Alchemy of Stars come about?
It didn't begin with me. Roger Dutcher volunteered back in 2001 to put together a long overdue collection of all the poems that had won the Rhysling Award. SFPA had been giving out Rhyslings since 1978 -- but by the time I joined, in 1998, the sum of the Rhysling winners seemed nothing more than a cool-looking list of titles in the back of the annual chapbook of Rhysling nominees. I mean, where could you even find Gene Wolfe's "The Computer Iterates the Greater Trumps"?

Roger soldiered on alone for three years, and found the last MIA author in January '04. By that time, I'd become very active in SFPA, and, God help me, had declared my intention to run for President, so I jumped in. We couldn't find an arrangement with a publisher that worked, but after a year with myself and other new officers in charge, SFPA's financial situation radically changed for the good, and we were able to publish it ourselves. So far, the book's earned SFPA a nice chunk of change, which is exactly what we hoped for.
How does having some money in the accounts change what SFPA does and will do?
Well, publishing Star*Line and the Rhysling anthologies and presenting the Rhysling Awards will always be our main business. But a lot of things are in our reach now that weren't before.

A small advance party from SFPA landed at this year's ReaderCon and mingled with the natives without any trouble. We had a dealer's table that earned a tidy profit, and I hope the poetry reading and award announcement we did will become an annual tradition. We're now eyeballing the possibility of a similar presence at WorldCon, and it's been nice, when folks have pointed out the expense of a table there, to be able to say, "We can cover that."

I hope to see SFPA throw its newfound health (not wealth, mind you, but health) behind promoting speculative poetry in any way it can. But what's the most effective way to do that? We're up against a daunting problem: in a world where most people don't have poetry in their lives and don't miss it, how do we make people start caring? It's a more practical goal, I think, to find ways to trawl for the people that do care, and let them know we're here and creating some of the strangest, most provocative verse you're going to find.
Is there an advantage for a writer in identifying as an SF poet rather than as just a poet?
Frankly, no. SF markets generally pay something while most lit mags don't, but wearing an "SF Poet" armband isn't going to land you a $100,000 arts grant or ensure that your books sell thousands of copies.

But I'm willing to wear that armband, not because I think it's a great sales gimmick, but because it accurately describes what I do. When I perform one of my poems at the improv theater here in Roanoke, I don't stand up before each piece and say, "Hi! I'm a Science Fiction Poet!" -- but the audience can tell I'm doing something really, really different. It's something I do at practically a genetic level. Whatever I do creatively is done in terms of sf or fantasy.
Interestingly, there's overlap between themes in "fantasy poetry" and the so-called "mainstream" to a degree that the two spill over: consider the "incubus possession" poem that appeared in a recent issue of Poetry, or poets like Fred Chappell turning up in Weird Tales. Right now, Prime Books is experimenting along that blurred line with the Jabberwocky anthologies, and with a number of fantasy-themed poetry collections, by folks like Sonya Taaffe, Cat Valente, Tim Pratt and me.

And that's caused me to experiment. My first Prime Book, Disturbing Muses, is already out, and it's like nothing I've ever done before: a cycle of lengthy poems about modern masters like Goya and Picasso, that can be read as dark fantasy biographies or maybe as meditations on the destructive power of creativity. The second in the pipeline, Strange Wisdoms of the Dead, which also holds fiction, could be taken as a celebration of Apocalypse; as a writer, I love to rip reality part. It's my hope that anyone who reads Strange Wisdoms will have any preconceptions about sf poetry thoroughly smashed.

26 October 2005

How to Kill Time

Whenever I have a lot to do, I do other things. This, of course, causes stress and anxiety and lateness and all sorts of other maladies, but it also leads to the discovery of things that I might not ever discover. I currently have an entire book to read before a class tomorrow, but am I reading it? No. Instead, I have been looking for fun stuff on the web, because that's why the web is there, isn't it? To provide me with fun stuff. Here, then, is what I have found by doing everything other than what I should be doing:Having a blog is a marvelous way to use time that could otherwise be used productively, too....

25 October 2005

Exercises in Style

Writing too much about books full of pictures is probably some sort of crime with its own circle of hell, but two art/graphic/comic/something books I've read/looked at recently have held my attention: First & Fifteenth: Pop Art Short Stories by Steve Powers and 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style by Matt Madden.

Powers's "pop art short stories" aren't exactly stories -- they're more like incidents, moments, glances, jokes. First & Fifteenth looks and feels and even smells like an art book, and it is an art book, but it's more than that, too -- it's a subtle bit of fun, a way to take a couple kicks at some of the assumptions of what a story can be and do. It's not profound, but since when did anybody go to pop art for profundity -- pop is the province of weasels and corn: it can sneak up on you, and plant roots.

99 Ways to Tell a Story is a more substantial book, and a more ambitious one. It's an attempt to do to the graphic form what Raymond Queneau did to fiction, providing a single, simple story told in various genres, forms, idioms, and styles. (Many of Madden's results are online here.) The story becomes like the joke in The Aristocrats, with the accumulation of iterations being the source of pleasure. Madden is an extraordinary artist, and his ability to copy the style of other graphic artists is particularly impressive, but it is his fidelity to the original, simple story that is the truly amazing feat here. Queneau would be impressed.

Madden's book has a strange blurb on the cover that makes it sound like some sort of touchy-feely how-to book: "An exploration of storytelling that will amuse and delight you, and inspire your own creative work -- your novel, your comic, even your film." Well, maybe -- it certainly shows that there are no limits on how many ways a story can be conceived and structured, and that each choice changes the emphasis and effect. But there's much more here than a guide to digesting the artist within; 99 Ways to Tell a Story is a true tour de force, a valuable work of art in and of itself.

24 October 2005

All the Links that are My Life

It's Monday, so it must be time to purge the bookmarks.

21 October 2005

The First Annual Mumpsimus "Cup of Coffee for a Genius" Award

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been alluding to a plot to reconfigure the entire economic, cultural, and political face of the world, and now I am ready to reveal it: A new award.

The Award
Yes, indeed, the world needs another award. Therefore, I have created a top-secret selection committee composed entirely of myself, and have a specific set of vague criteria to determine a recipient. The recipient must
  • be an exceptionally creative individual, preferably a writer, preferably one whose work I've read
  • show significant promise for interesting future work, preferably writing
The award will therefore provide a qualified individual selected by the committee with the following prize:The goal of the award is to provide the recipient with enough money for at least one cup of coffee, plus a cup for that coffee.

The 2005 Award
The recipient of the 2005 Mumpsimus "Cup of Coffee for a Genius" Award is.......

Rudi Dornemann
I was particularly impressed by Rudi's story "The Sky Green Box" in Rabid Transit: Menagerie this year, and have been impressed by a number of other stories he has published over the past couple of years. It is my hope that with a good cup of coffee (or tea or whatever) he will find the inspiration to produce at least one more strong and energetic work of fiction.

20 October 2005

Tom DeLay: Shape-Shifter

According to the Washington Post, Tom DeLay has extraordinary powers:
Former House majority leader turns himself into sheriff's office in carefully planned appearance
-R. Jeffrey Smith 5:42 p.m. ET
If anyone has photos, please let me know -- the Post only has pictures of DeLay as a human, but I bet he makes a pretty handsome sheriff's office.

19 October 2005

Quote for the Day

American writing, its roots in Poe, Twain, Melville, and extended through Faulkner and, for gawd's sake, everyone else -- is encompassing, courageous, omnivorous. It gobbles contradiction, keeps its eyes open, engages with the culture at every possible level. But boundaries being crossed make the inhabitants of the increasingly isolated castle of the status quo all the more anxious. If we're free to use these methods, allowed to talk about everything we know, if we are allowed to describe the world of advertising, the world of capitalism, the world of pop culture, the actual world where the elements described as of high- and low-brow are in a constant inextricable mingling -- if we let down our guard, where will our status emblems be? What credentials will we burnish? How will we know we are different from the rabble outside the gates? Again, it's sheerly class anxiety that is expressed in these attacks. And, as well, a fundamental discomfort with the creative act, with the innately polymorphous, the innately acquisitive, curious, exuberant and engaged tendencies in the creative act itself.

--Jonathan Lethem

18 October 2005

The Greenstone Grail by Amanda Hemingway

A guest review by Marrije Schaake.

The Greenstone Grail could have been a fine book. It's the story of Nathan, who visits other worlds in his dreams. At first they are only dreams, but gradually he goes over to those other places (disappearing from his bed) and begins to influence events in the dream worlds -- and begins taking people back from them to his own world. It's also the story of his mother, Annie, who has lost her husband before Nathan was born, and perhaps even before he was conceived, and of their protector Bartlemy, who cooks the most splendid food and who may have been around for much longer than you'd expect.

There are also dogs named Hoover, water spirits, witches, dragons, ancient prophecies, grails, murder mysteries and English policemen -- and many more ingredients that could have produced a great fantasy novel. The writing is good, too: Amanda Hemingway has a great ear for quirky, believable dialogue and comes up with wonderfully engaging characters. I wish she'd stick to 'said' and just forgot about 'she hissed', 'he amended', 'he insisted' and 'he demanded excitedly' altogether in dialogue attribution, but that may just be my Stephen King indoctrination shining through.

But on the whole, I'm not happy with the book. I'm afraid I found myself arguing with its editing almost from the start. There's so much going on in the story that it's more of a hindrance than a help when we don't stick to a strict chronological order of events. The one crucial event from later on that opens the book is OK, I guess, but from that point on I'd prefer a leisurely, classic buildup -- slowly moving into the village, the school, introducing the neighbours, and then gradually on to how Nathan discovers his special powers and what that does to him.

In some places it's much too long -- dialogue is broken up by lots of description about how people feel about what they've just said, when it's already quite obvious from what they said. The explainy bits about Bartlemy's theory of Nathan's conception and his Destiny are stilted and complicated, and may come too early in the book. And minor characters get too much airtime. For instance, Inspector Pobjoy, who is only there to solve a murder, is described with doubts and backstory and old cases, where I think he should just shut up and be a policeman.

And in other places it's much too short -- interesting events are skipped over, scenes rushed through, complicated happenings pressed into too little space, almost as if the author was forced to cut a lot of material from the manuscript in order to stay under an assigned word count.

Switches in perspective are a problem, too: there are many scenes in which we see events from one person's point of view first, and then suddenly we are in someone else's head, and in the next sentence back in the head of the first character. And whose story is this? Nathan's? Annie's? Bartlemy's? The whole would have been so much stronger if we stuck to Nathan and he was the one central pivot of the story, instead of (for instance) diving too deeply into Annie's love life and her doubts and fears.

It's all quite frustrating, because I get the sense that with a tighter focus on the central narrative this really could have been a very good fantasy novel. I hope Hemingway sharpens her style for parts two and three of this trilogy, because the material is there, the writing and the ideas are good: she just needs a little more ruthlessness with her own text to polish it up right and bring out the strong points.

17 October 2005

If Dickens Were Alive Today, He Would Be Me

A few people have linked to an article in The Guardian about genre ghettos and the Booker Prize. There are plenty of things to argue with in the article, and I'm only going to attack one right now, because it's something I've heard from all sorts of people over the years (and certainly not just people trying to defend the honor of genre writers).

To say, "If Dickens were alive today, he would write soap operas," is nonsense, not because it's unlikely, but because if Dickens wrote soap operas, he wouldn't be Dickens. Dickens wrote lots of things, but we remember him for his novels. If he didn't write novels, he would have been doing something very different from what the entity we celebrate as Dickens did. What Dickens did was expand and exploit the possibilities of the novel. Change that, and you change everything. A truly great writer's greatness depends on an unlikely convergence of many different qualities, and the greatness usually comes from the writer finding the perfect form and style of expression for what is expressed.

Would Shakespeare be a screenwriter if he were alive today? Maybe. Probably. He liked making money and suing people, so I'm sure he'd find Hollywood more appealing than many other places. His scripts would have been chopped up, put through development hell, and rendered "accessible to a wide audience". Nobody but film buffs would know his name. And what he wrote probably really would have been closer to Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter than anything else, because screenplays don't have much room for poetry. In other words, he wouldn't be Shakespeare-the-greatest-writer-in-English writing screenplays, he'd be some guy named Bill Shakespeare with a nice house in Beverly Hills.

Yes, Shakespeare and Dickens wrote popular art. So did Mary Johnston, Harold Bell Wright, Gertrude Atherton, Mika Waltari, and Henry Morton Robinson. Defenders of genre writing need to whine less and spend more time arguing the specific merits of whatever writing they are proclaiming to be masterpieces. Or they need to stop caring what the literary world they so dislike thinks of them, because in my experience, it's the genre-only readers who are more ignorant and disdainful of the world of mainstream fiction than vice versa.

New New New!

There's a new issue of Strange Horizons available. I don't think I've mentioned the latest SH fund drive yet, but it's up and running. Please don't punish them for publishing me -- they do publish some good stuff, like the new interview with Holly Phillips by David Lynton. And fiction and poetry and the a marvelous new series of daily reviews of all sorts of things. And yes, I have a new column there this week, the most amusing part of which is the pullquote on the contents page: it's taken from my quote of James Wood in the column. It's a great sentence, so I'm perfectly happy to be associated with it.

In other new news, there's a new SF Site out now. I'm behind in reading, so haven't had a review there for a month or so, but there are interviews with Gwyneth Jones and Simon Clark, plus reviews of a wide variety of books.

It's not really new, but I haven't mentioned it here before, so it's new to this site: SciFiction has reprinted "Painwise" by James Tiptree, Jr. It's not Tiptree's best story, but it's one that hasn't been reprinted too often, so it's good to see it have an easily-accessible home.

15 October 2005

Links in the Rain

Here in the wilds of central New Hampshire, it has now been grey and rainy for a week. But still, there are things worth looking at out there in the internets...P.S.
I know I promised to begin fomenting a revolution by the end of this week, but one of the necessary coordinators is not around for a few days, so the revolution must be momentarily postponed. I readily admit I suck at teleology.

14 October 2005

Veniss Overground

I just reread one of the earliest posts on this site, a review of Jeff VanderMeer's Veniss Underground, because today I picked up a copy of the new U.S. edition from Bantam, which has a magnificent cover and collects some of the Veniss stories originally included in Secret Life.

The review is not particularly well written or insightful -- it is weakened by the fact that I had just returned to reading SF after years away, and I had been so excited by the directions certain writers were pushing the field toward that many sentences suffer from a bad case of hyperbolic gush. But my basic opinion of the book, sans gush, remains the same. In many ways, I'm glad to have reread the review, because now having read so much more of Jeff's work, I'd begun to develop the feeling that Veniss was a minor element of his oeuvre, when it's really quite a good piece of writing in and of itself. (Yes, I still dislike the slang, but it's my problem, not the writer's.) Because the Ambergris material that makes up City of Saints and Madmen (itself to be released in the U.S. in a new edition at the beginning of the year) is so rich and vast, I had focused over the past couple of years on it, and had not given a lot of thought to Veniss, but looking at it again now, I realize that this was a mistake. Plenty of images and moments from Veniss remain vivid in my mind now, despite my having read hundreds of books since last reading all of Veniss Underground. That's often what I most value about a book -- to call something "haunting" is some of the highest praise I know, because life is busy, and images and words bombard us all constantly. For a few images and words to lodge themselves in my memory for more than the length of a book is rare and marvelous, and it adds depth to the experience of living.

When I wrote the Veniss review, I didn't know Jeff VanderMeer at all, though we have since become friends. When he emailed me after I posted those thoughts on the book (mostly to explain his reasons for the slang), it gave me an opportunity to tell him that we'd actually corresponded before -- I was about fourteen, I think, and he had just founded a magazine called Jabberwocky that lasted for two issues. I read about it in the market listings in Writer's Digest and sent some awful story to him, and got back a long personal rejection explaining everything that was wrong with what I'd written. It was the first note of any length I'd ever gotten from an editor, and I wrote back, explaining that I was 14 and wanted to be Isaac Asimov. Jeff offered advice of various sorts (grow sideburns, study biochemistry), and I bought a copy of the magazine. From then on, I paid attention to his name, and I remember feeling like I had some connection to royalty when a couple years later he won a World Fantasy Award for "The Transformation of Martin Lake". Buying a copy of Veniss at a crowded bookstore today, I felt again a little touch of that adolescent wonder, but this time it was overshadowed by the joy of seeing a friend's accomplishment.

Political Pinter

I expect I'll have more to say about Harold Pinter's Nobel Prize, because I have admired his plays for a long time, but for now I just want to make a quick note about his politics. Pinter is an aggressively political man, though, and his controversial statements have made it relatively easy for some of the more ignorant and illiterate denizens of the American right wing to proclaim that Pinter won the Nobel for his political views. Pinter himself seems to think this could be true. And it could be. But it's irrelevant, because even if Pinter were a neo-Nazi, the fact is, he's one of the two or three most influential and enduring playwrights alive.

There are no irrefutable, objective ways to judge a writer's worth, and there will always be dissenters, because tastes vary. But the tests of time and influence are useful ones -- a writer who influences the work of other writers, and whose own work survives for multiple generations, has made a valuable contribution to literature, regardless of what any one person thinks of that writer's work. (I have an almost physical aversion to the plays of Arthur Miller, for instance. I think they're idiotic, manipulative, awkward, sentimental, tedious ... well, I could go on. But it would be absurd to deny that Miller was one of the major American playwrights of the twentieth century, one whose work had a profound influence on writers, actors, directors.)

Pinter's great contribution has been to show that the linguistic minimalism that Beckett took to its farthest extremes could be applied to the traditional domestic drama, and this melding of two seemingly contradictory modes of writing created a wealth of new visions for theatrical art. For know-nothings like Roger Kimball and Stephen Schwartz, it is inconceivable that a flagrantly left-wing writer could actually be any good. According to Schwartz "Pinter has produced no significant work for the stage in 40 years", which is simply wrong. Pinter's early plays were lightning bolts, but his later work includes such masterpieces as Betrayal, Moonlight, and Ashes to Ashes -- three of the most significant plays to be written in English in the past few decades. Betrayal alone would be enough to solidify any writer's reputation.

Pinter's political views fuel his work, but he has, for the most part, restricted his polemical impulses to his hideous poetry. It would be wrong to ignore Pinter's politics, but it is equally wrong to suggest that the only people who can appreciate his plays are those who agree with his politics, while those who disagree must pretend he is not a significant writer.

For more on this subject, see Alicublog. (via About Last Night)

13 October 2005

Quote for the Day

    REBECCA: Guess where I went after tea? To the cinema. I saw a film.
    DEVLIN: Oh? What?
    REBECCA: A comedy.
    DEVLIN: Uh-huh? Was it funny? Did you laugh?
    REBECCA: Other people laughed. Other members of the audience. It was funny.
    DEVLIN: But you didn't laugh?
    REBECCA: Other people did. It was a comedy. There was a girl...you know...and a man. They were having lunch in a smart New York restaurant. He made her smile.
    DEVLIN: How?
    REBECCA: Well...he told her jokes.
    DEVLIN: Oh, I see.
    REBECCA: And then in the next scene he took her on an expedition to the desert, in a caravan. She'd never lived in a desert before, you see. She had to learn how to do it.
    DEVLIN: Sounds very funny.

    --from Ashes to Ashes
    by Harold Pinter, Nobel laureate

I'm Getting Meta All the Time

When I started doing this blog, and then started writing book reviews for other places, I often wrote here about what I thought I was doing and why, etc. etc. It was more for myself than anybody, but it helped to put it out there so a few people would tell me when I said anything other than the obvious and when I was just ... well, being self-indulgent. I've tried to avoid too much of that recently, but now and then I have to indulge in some meta-blogging just to try to remind myself of why I'm here. (Yes, this is a warning that what follows is probably worthless.)

Mostly, I try to think about these things without writing about them publicly, but I've been thinking a lot about a good response John Joseph Adams gave to a question that was posed to him: "As an aspiring writer, is it a career-limiting move to write a bad review?" My name is invoked in his response, not because I specialize in bad reviews (though I've written my fair share), but because the tiny bit of status I have in the SF world has come through blogging and reviewing. I was certainly pleased to be thought of, particularly when surrounded by ideas I agree with, but it also seemed odd to me, because I'm not used to being thought of as a model for anything.

A critic once suggested that if I wanted to get "noticed", I would post less raw material, more polished ideas, more careful prose (MORE STRONG VERBS!), and would actually try to say something that was insightful rather than thunderingly obvious and/or naive. Each to their own, I guess. I suppose there are some people who are able to use a weblog as a place for their best writing, and I suppose they try to make sure every post they put out there will be deathless and perfect, but I've tried to stick to the original impetus I had for beginning this blog: to record ideas as they occur to me, and to see what happens. I certainly never expected to gain much of an audience, nor to still be doing this now more than two years later. It was an experiment then, and it remains an experiment, because it actually gets harder to continue the longer I do it -- I don't have an infinite amount of ideas about anything, time is limited, and I'm not always good at balancing the various projects I sometimes impulsively commit myself to. I'm grateful to the people who keep checking in to see if there's anything worth reading or arguing with here, and I certainly hate to disappoint anybody, but for a blog to be effective, I think it needs to be the sort of thing someone would do regardless of whether the audience was one person (hi mom!) a week or one hundred a day.

Maybe I'm just feeling old (my birthday is Monday, and it's one of those ones ending in 0). I used to be ambitious, but somewhere along the line, ambition seemed to be less a force that impelled me toward great work and more a thing that made me endlessly unhappy with my life, because no matter what I accomplished, it didn't seem like enough. I was the sort of person who, if he'd been given a Nobel Prize, would say, "Thanks, but it's so disappointing that I couldn't be Emperor of the World." Harry Kondoleon's play Zero Positive has a line that I've often thought back to -- something like, "I used to have dreams and ambitions, but they got so tired and worn out, I took them out back one day and shot them."

It's probably naive and idealistic to hope that people who review books, write blogs, and write fiction do so because they like writing such things, regardless of the response they receive. Many of the writers I know and respect have a very professional attitude toward their work, but though I once was able to think that way, it's strange to me now. I wrote all sorts of things for so long without any sort of audience that the times when I've found an audience have been exhilarating, but also frightening and alienating. I expect it's true for many writers: that desire for communication coupled with horror at the effect of communicating. When I first realized people were paying attention to what I wrote here, it was paralyzing. But so many different discussions sprouted from it that the benefits made me suppress my anxieties. It's been thrilling to have the opportunity to put ideas out there and have people respond to them, either with agreement or such responses as, "What are you thinking?!" I still hate the fact that it's just as likely I'll look like an idiot in public as anything else, but I've spent enough time in the theatre to know that the tension between the fear of failure and the desire for success -- between fear of humiliation and the possibility of communication -- is a necessary tension, a force that propels us in directions we couldn't have anticipated.

I don't write a lot of fiction these days, because I find it the hardest thing in the world to write, but when I have a story I think might not be a complete waste of an editor's time, I try to submit it with the same attitude I had before anybody ever knew me as anything other than yet another name amidst all the others in the slush. Most editors still treat what I submit that way, and I'd be horrified if they did otherwise -- if they started feeling guilty for rejecting me because they knew my name from another context, I'd feel guilty for causing them guilt, and on and on it would go, until a puddle of misery covered the world. I've submitted to editors whose work (either as writers or editors) I've criticized, and though sometimes it's felt foolish, I nonetheless think a critic needs to stay open to criticism, too, and a rejection slip is a simple, clear kind of critique. Conversely, an aspiring writer might think that writing positive reviews will win them points with editors. I'm sure that in the history of writing there have been such cases, but my experience is that editors judge purely on whether they think what you submit is the sort of thing they want to commit time and money to publish. (I may be deluded about this, but it's a comforting delusion.)

At the risk of being ever more obvious and naive, the only thing I'd add to JJA's solid advice to aspiring writers thinking of entering the reviewing game, is: If you like doing that sort of thing, do it. If the idea of writing about what you read and making your opinions known seems repulsive to you, don't do it. If you want to do it because it will win you status, love, and eternal fame ... well, in that case, you might want to try auditioning for American Idol instead.

12 October 2005

Troy: Lord of the Silver Bow by David Gemmell

Below is a guest review by Justine Musk, whose first novel, BloodAngel, has just been released by ROC/Penguin.

David Gemmell's Troy: Lord of the Silver Bow is a novel as well-choreographed as its fight scenes. The first of a projected trilogy, it retells the story of the Trojan War from the perspective of Aeneas, also known as The Golden One, also known as the Lord of the book's title. But mostly we know him as Helikaon.

With the deft touch of a storyteller who's been doing this a long time, Gemmell builds his storyworld through a minimum of physical description and a maximum of character. The first 33 pages alone feature six different perspectives from major and minor characters alike. These multiple angles on Helikaon -- as well as the multiple names that he goes by -- establish him as both a legend in his own time (we first see him through the eyes of small Phia, who mistakes him for a god) and a flawed individual at war with his own fear and rage who suffered at the hands of his father. He also has a keen understanding of public relations. As Helikaon observes his men about to embark on a frightening sea journey, he knows what they are thinking: "The Golden One, blessed by the gods, was sailing with them. No harm would befall them. Such belief in him was vital... The greatest danger, he knew, would come if he ever started believing it himself."

Splintering the narrative among so many characters makes for a slow pace at first – as soon as one storyline gains momentum we're yanked away from it and dropped off somewhere new, where Gemmell has to establish character and place all over again -- and requires the kind of attentive reading that make English teachers proud. Minor people have a way of appearing and disappearing and reappearing down the line as unexpectedly significant: a soldier is a famed assassin in disguise, a castaway and sailor-for-hire an exiled Egyptian prince. Gemmell layers in the characters until he accumulates a kind of cross-section of his invented society: we view the action from the perspectives of royalty and the people who serve them: kings and queens and soldiers and shipbuilders and whores and the children of whores. Most of the characters speak in a high-toned style of complete, grammatically correct sentences and paragraphs, which gives most of the dialogue a sameness of rhythm, so that the speech of an underprivileged little kid -- "My mother is ill, and I have no offerings…But if you heal her, I will work and work and will bring you many gifts" -- sounds much like the speech of a cosmopolitan king: "Everything sounds ugly when it comes from your mouth. Your sisters will find joy in their children and the wealth of their husbands." Yet the dialogue, as corny as it tends to get at times ("Fear is...like a small fire burning.... Panic comes when the fire is out of control, consuming all courage and pride") manages to convey a world very other than our own, a fantasy of an ancient place where epic heroics unfold and prose that shades towards the dangerously purplish is actually more of a hardboiled norm.

It is also the kind of ancient world where characters are marked out as admirable by their decidedly modern sensibilities. Khalkeus engineers the most impressive ship ever built by pooh-poohing the ineffective, ship-building methods of the day. Onaicus explains to a boy that the future will be forged through trade and commerce, not war, and condemns a legendary figure like Herakles as just another butcher not worthy of young boys' idolatry. Kolanos and Agamemnon are fingered as villains not simply because they are murderous, but because they are obstacles to true progress who will (explains Onaicus) prevent the world from achieving "great things". Helikaon, established as a successful merchant and trader as well as a warrior, can bridge the present to a new and better future. He is a killer, yes -- a key scene has him setting fire to a chained enemy crew as their countrymen watch helplessly from shore -- but, while his enemies raid and plunder, Helikaon demonstrates a fine understanding of capitalism as well as compassion and self-restraint.

Another sign of Helikaon's superiority is that he can recognize the beauty of Andromache. Ahead of her time -- as Kolanos and Agamemnon fall behind the times --she is perceived as 'plain' by men who don't know what to make of her intelligence, forceful nature and athletic ability. Andromache stands up to her less-than-desirable future father-in-law, King Priam, fights for the rights of her abused servant and, in true Buffy fashion, downs the spoiled malicious princess with a punch to the jaw. Recognizing an equal when he sees one, Helikaon falls in love at first sight, despite the fact that she is betrothed to his good friend Hektor and bad things must certainly ensue.

The reader, of course, has a pretty good idea of what's to come, and part of the fun of the novel is how Gemmell manipulates the baggage of expectations any reader brings to such a wellworn tale. Some of it gets tweaked. Paris, for example, is revealed as a graceless scholar with rounded shoulders and the "plain, thickset" woman by his side is none other than Helen herself. Still, his fervor for her is unquestioned ("She is everything to me!") and the politics that trouble their relationship -- Helen's Spartan father must side with the vile king Agamemnon or be killed -- sound yet another drum of approaching doom for reasons that have nothing to do with beauty contests and pagan gods on high. Actions of greed, vengeance and conquest lend Lord of the Silver Bow a 'behind the story' aura of historical accuracy that is itself artificial; Gemmell is taking apart an imaginary tale in order to tell an equally imaginary tale, but one that seems more authentic for being more realist.

Gemmell does employ magical prophecy. The reader might know what's to come, but so do a series of powerless and marginalized characters who appear throughout the novel -- the dying prophet whom Agamemnon consults and derides; the fey child Kassandra who warns of blood and warfare and is condescended to even by the wise Andromache; the traumatized queen who recognizes her visions as prophecy but is too locked in pain and grief to do anything about them. Gemmell turns the reader's expectations into another layer of foreshadowing and suspense; the reader is sidelined with the women and children and old men, where knowledge is acknowledged yet rendered impotent.

The fate of Troy is not in question, the fate of Helikaon's soul a bit less certain. Whether the mounting damage to Helikaon's psyche -- his loved ones have the unfortunate tendency to die in horrible ways -- will leave him as just another violent tormented warrior, or a leader capable of true wisdom and compassion, leading his people from the burning wreckage of Troy and into a new land, is a key dramatic question (or at least pretends to be), in what promises to be an intelligent and absorbing trilogy from a consummate storyteller of the genre.

10 October 2005

After the Flood

I went to a wedding in New York this weekend, and along the way to and from stopped in Brattleboro, Vermont to see Nick Mamatas, his partner in crime, Eli, and their wonder-dog, Kazzie. I had intended to go to various events at the Brattleboro Literary Festival, but only made it to one panel. Nick, thankfully, made it to a few more, and has already chronicled the experience. (Yes, they both fell asleep seconds after Sven Birkerts began talking. I was standing, and though I am entirely capable of sleeping while standing, I somehow managed to stay awake as Birkerts spent most of his time telling us how hard it was to come up with a specific element of Saul Bellow's work to discuss, because Bellow was, of course, both Shakespeare and The Beatles, and so, Birkerts told us, pinning down the specific elements of Bellow's style is a difficult task, an impossible task, really, and in the few minutes allotted to him, the minutes that he had said he would use to discuss Bellow's style, which is, of course, a copious subject, and one that doesn't fit well into minutes, because Bellow was a master, one of the greatest, a writer who has meant very much to Sven Birkerts, possibly more than any writer, and much of that has to do with his style, but what aspect of his style should he address, he wondered, given that he could say so much, and so, finally, having told us that Bellow's style was a great human accomplishment, and that it had meant so much to him, Sven Birkerts, because its rhythms are unlike any others, and every great while a Bellow comes along to grace our lives, except there was only one Bellow, and his style was indescribably broad while also stunningly specific, which of course was obvious to us all, utterly self-evident, truly true, as Sven Birkerts read a few passages from one of the books, which he would have liked to have read more from, but there wasn't time, even though Saul Bellow meant so much to him, Sven Birkerts, who smiled after reading the passages. And then was done.)

We were all impressed to some extent, though, by Alan Lelchuk's remembrance of Bellow; it was direct, specific, and amusing. In the quick Q&A afterward, someone asked about V.S. Naipaul's assertion of the death of the novel, and Birkerts said that, well, of course, that was difficult subject, one that deserved study and thought, and he was wrestling with it himself in a new essay, one he hoped would show the possible vitalities of the novel in the current age, and of course Bellow was important to this, central, indeed, because he meant so much to Sven Birkerts. Lelchuk said the novel is declared dead every ten years, Naipaul's pronouncement was narrow-minded and silly, and nobody should bother to pay attention to it.

We had lunch at a cafe beside the Connecticut river and watched all sorts of debris floating down it, because of torrential rains on Friday and Saturday. Someone said a dam had burst at Bellows Falls. Trees and boards and white boxes that looked like washing machines or refrigerators bobbed and swirled through the water. It usually takes me two hours or so to drive back home from Brattleboro, but I go through Keene, New Hampshire, and just as I got to routes 9 and 10, I saw a long line of traffic and a lot of police cars. Eventually, a state trooper walked up, I rolled down my window, and he said, "Where are you trying to get to?" "Concord," I said, since I needed to get there to go north to home. "All these roads are closed," he said. "You'll need to turn around, go back through Vermont, up 91, then over to Lebanon, where you can pick up 89."

"You're kidding, right?" I said, inadvertently.

"No sir," he replied, with an unstated Do I LOOK like I'm kidding?! hanging in the air.

Since I'm taking classes at Dartmouth right now, I know the Lebanon and Hanover areas well, and also knew then that they were about an hour away from where I was, and were entirely north, when what I really needed was to go northeast. I turned around, but was determined not to go back to Vermont, so I weaved my way through various back roads until finally I got to New London, then drove the back way home from there. All along the way, one road after another was closed. It took me about four hours. When I got back, my mother had left a message on my answering machine, saying she hoped I would be home before midnight or so, since the entire Keene area had been flooded. I checked for news on the internet, and, sure enough, both WMUR and The Union Leader were reporting catastrophes and deaths. It made the debris we'd seen in the Connecticut seem less odd, more eerie, more sad.

(By the way, Nick alluded to an idea we came up with that will change not only the nature of all blogging as we know it, but probably alter the entire socio-economic balance of the world. I'll try to figure out the details this week and get it started, because I know you've all been waiting, refreshing this page constantly, hoping against hope for ... something. Well, hang in there. The first half of this week is tremendously busy for me, but I should have some time by the end of the week to begin fixing all the problems in the known universe. Until then, we'll probably just have a guest review that I'm currently proofreading.)

03 October 2005

MirrorMask Contest Winners

Thanks to everybody who offered Onion-style headlines about MirrorMask for the contest. I've got enough prizes for four winners, I think, so here they are, with first place getting first pick, second second, etc.:

Gaiman and McKean reteam for first time in 3 hours

New Wave of Movie Piracy for McKean/Gaiman's Mirrormask:
Substantial lucid dreaming community views film without paying.

Gaiman and McKean hold up Mirror to Muppet Archives, Masking Hidden Horrors

Mirrormask Fans Snubbed By Corpse Bride Fans, Mocked By Serenity Fans, Beat Up By Transporter 2 Fans
[Aramis Troche]

Thanks again to everybody who participated. (If you're the writer of the fourth place winner, please let me know so I can have the film's publicity folks send you something.)

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

If you expect Never Let Me Go to be about cloning, you will be disappointed. If you expect to be able to read it as a logical science fiction novel, one that extrapolates an alternate world that makes sense, you will find much to grumble about. You will not be satisfied. You will be annoyed, even bored. You will have missed the point.

Cloning is a MacGuffin that Kazuo Ishiguro uses to create symbolic situations and characters that coalesce in a powerful vision of life. The symbolism doesn't quite reach the level of allegory, because it's difficult to assign definite meanings to each scene and person, but nonetheless it quickly becomes difficult not to think about certain themes: mortality, love, fate, memory, art, nature. Each paragraph either illustrates or expands one of these themes. In the first half of the book, the ideas the novel personifies do not gain a lot of emotion, but by the second half of the book the characters have become familiar, their personalities distinct, their situation clear, and as the resolution of this situation moves ever closer, Never Let Me Go becomes a sad and unsettling novel, because the surface reality has so fully embodied the symbolic mysteries.

Ishiguro is known as a clever writer, one whose books are carefully constructed to work on multiple levels at once. He's often been praised for his ability to create narrators who are so self-deluded that they are utterly unreliable, creating tension between what is stated on the surface and what is going on in the imaginative reality underneath the words themselves. That's not the structure of Never Let Me Go -- instead, what we have here is a world where the characters all want the reality beneath the words to be different from what it appears to be. If their existences were more ironic, they might be more comforting. Kathy, the woman who narrates the novel, is utterly reliable as she tells her memories of growing up in a strange sort of boarding school called Hailsham, then of becoming a "carer" for "donors" until she eventually becomes a donor herself.

I've read only two reviews that seem to have understood the book in the same way I did: those of James Wood in The New Republic* and M. John Harrison in The Guardian. Wood puts a bit too much emphasis on the cloning, but nonetheless sees exactly how we can best enter the narrative, saying that Ishiguro's
real interest is not in what we discover but in what his characters discover, and how it will affect them. He wants us to inhabit their ignorance, not ours. The children at Hailsham live in a protected environment. They know that they are different, but their guardians are cryptic about this difference. Gradually, through tiny leaks on the part of these guardians, the children gather a burgeoningly complete picture of their fate. By the time they leave school, they know the essential facts. So what might it mean to learn, as a child, that one will never bear children, or hold a meaningful job, or sail into adulthood? How will these children interpret the implications of their abbreviation, the meaning of their mutilated scripts?
M. John Harrison in some ways makes the book sound like one of his own, but he doesn't have to stretch too much:
This extraordinary and, in the end, rather frighteningly clever novel isn't about cloning, or being a clone, at all. It's about why we don't explode, why we don't just wake up one day and go sobbing and crying down the street, kicking everything to pieces out of the raw, infuriating, completely personal sense of our lives never having been what they could have been.
Wood dislikes the ending of the book, thinking it falls into preaching against the dangers of cloning, but this is an odd view to take when he's perceived the rest of the novel so clearly. Harrison gets it right:
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. So what is Never Let Me Go really about? It's about the steady erosion of hope. It's about repressing what you know, which is that in this life people fail one another, grow old and fall to pieces. It's about knowing that while you must keep calm, keeping calm won't change a thing.
It's not a book about literalizing metaphor or anything so pedestrian; it is, instead, a meditation on how to find meaning in life. (I know that sounds awfully pretentious, but summing up the implications of a great novel usually leads the person doing the summing up to sound either pretentious or silly, because otherwise there wouldn't be any need to write a 300 page book: the meaning could be textmessaged to the gods of summation and we'd all have a lot more time to bask in the eBay.)

Ishiguro presents us with a world where people are born to die, where there is no secret meaning to their fate, where there is only the fact of death itself. What Wood finds so didactic in the ending is instead vital to the thematic core of the book (though I'll grant I thought it went on too long). After their lifelong friend/rival/lover Ruth has died, Kathy and Tommy seek out one of their old guardians from Hailsham and try to get a deferral for their own deaths, because they are in love and have been told that couples who are truly in love can be given a few more years. Ruth herself held onto this hope for them. Surely love can save them.

But of course not. Love can't save them anymore than it can save us. They wonder, later, whether it would have been better for Ruth to die knowing the truth about Hailsham, about why they were raised the way they were, and about how little the world outside themselves cares about them. Tommy says to Kathy:
You and me, right from the start, even when we were little, we were always trying to find things out. Remember, Kath, all those secret talks we used to have? But Ruth wasn't like that. She always wanted to believe in things.
It's like asking whether, if the universe is truly as cold and meaningless as it seems to be, we're better off knowing that than believing in eternal salvation, the redemption provided by good acts, and the basic loveliness of human nature. The answer for each person is different.

What Kathy clings to rather than belief is memory. Tommy does too, but to a lesser extent, and he finds some meaning in art, a meaning that had been impossible for him when he was at Hailsham. Ruth held onto dreams of the future, then stayed alive by believing in things that ultimately weren't true, but she often forgot the past, because the past didn't have the weight and substance it had for Kathy.

Kathy's obsession with memory plays itself out in the structure of the narrative. Again and again she moves forward, then finds she needs to go back. The present only makes sense under the light of the past. What M. John Harrison considered Ishiguro's "pathological need to be subtle" is not pathological so much as it is artistic -- the way the story is told embodies the meaning as much as the story itself does. Never Let Me Go has more unity of form and content than thousands of other novels, and this fact makes it seem odd and anomalous, makes Ishiguro seem a bit freakish even. It is a book that is entirely faithful to the premises it sets up, but not in the way that is governed by a political, scientific, or economic logic from "the real world". The only world here is the one between the first word and the last, but the art is that the book's world is provocative enough to force us to consider our own world and our own lives. Indeed, Kathy's narrative is addressed to somebody -- now and then she says such things as, "I've heard it said enough, so I'm sure you've heard it more..." and "I don't know how it was where you were, but at Hailsham..." It's as if she is reaching out from her reality into ours, assuming a connection, never questioning that we will understand.

Questions remain, and they are big ones. The big ones. James Wood delineates a few of them particularly well:
To be assured of death at twenty-five or so, as the Hailsham children are, seems to rob life of all its savor and purpose. But why do we persist in the idea that to be assured of death at seventy or eighty or ninety returns to life all its savor and purpose? Why is sheer longevity, if it most certainly ends in the same way as sheer brevity, accorded meaning, while sheer brevity is thought to lack it?
The questions Never Let Me Go raises are as old as the tragedies of ancient Greece, but though a rich trove of questions lies under the surface of the book, no answers are proposed, because answers are not the writer's job, but rather the job of each reader, because each life must find its own answers. Or not, because our fates are the same in the end.

*Certain readers might find the opening paragraphs of Wood's review to be insulting to the ever-ready-to-be-maligned genre of SF. I think this would be a misperception of what Wood is saying, a misperception that continues to show itself in a paranoid us vs. them mentality -- the clannishness and ambivalence that Michael Chabon spoke of in his Locus interview. I could go on and on and on, but I think I'd better save it for another time, as this post is already far longer than I intended...

Fantasy Magazine

Though a quick glance at the cover might make you think it's catering to a different sort of fantasy than it is, the new Fantasy Magazine now has a website from which you can subscribe. Attendees of the World Fantasy Convention will get copies in the gift bag. It costs $5.95 for a single issue, $20 for a year's subscription.

Here's the table of contentment:
"The Tyrant in Love" by Tim Pratt
"To Make the Dead Speak" by Margaret Ronald
Interview with Jeffrey Ford by Matthew Cheney
"In the House of Four Seasons" by Jeffrey Ford
"Bones Like Black Sugar" by Catherynne M. Valente
"The Finer Points of Destruction" by Richard Parks
"Hanging the Glass" by Sarah Brandywine Johnson
"Shriek: An Afterword" by Jeff VanderMeer
"The Sense of Spirals" by Sonya Taaffe
"Sun, In Its Copper Season" by Vera Nazarian
"Tear Her Standard Down" by Megan Messinger
"A Sure and Certain Song" by Erzebet YellowBoy
"Closer to the Lung" by Simon Logan
"The Bunny of Vengeance and the Bear of Death" by Eugie Foster
"At the End of the Hall" by Nick Mamatas
"Summer Ice" by Holly Phillips

plus book reviews by Peter Cannon, Stefan Dziemianowicz, Rich Horton, John Grant, Paula Guran, Ann Kennedy, Jeff VanderMeer, and Doug Winter
I hear that for the second issue's cover, editor/publisher Sean Wallace is taking a lesson from Fence magazine and getting the Suicide Girls to donate an image.

01 October 2005

Site Notes

First: I've had to add word verification to comments, because in the past couple days the site has been deluged with comment spam. I think I've deleted it all, but there was so much that it took a while, and I just don't have time to keep going through and deleting such things. Sorry for the added extra step when commenting, but it beats turning off comments altogether.

Second: Apologies for so few posts this week. A couple of projects unexpectedly ate up most of my free time. Most of the month of October is likely to be pretty light in terms of posting, but I hope what I do manage to post will have at least some substance to it. Thanks to everyone who has checked in, and thanks for the continuing additions to the MirrorMask contest.