28 November 2005

Caffeinated Quote for the Day

Via the Small Beer Press email newsletter, I discovered the blog Zygote Games and these excellent paragraphs:
It's possible to make a case that modern civilization as we know it was built by coffee. In the Middle Ages, people drank wine and beer, pretty much exclusively. Much of the history of medieval Europe makes a lot more sense when you realize it was populated largely by drunk teenagers.

Then Europe discovered caffeine. Boom! The Scientific Revolution. The Enlightenment. The Industrial Revolution. Heavily-caffeinated Europeans built global empires to ensure reliable supplies of tea, coffee, sugar, and chocolate. Without coffee, we'd still be fatalistic drunken peasants.

Joe Hill Tells All

I'd heard some praise of Joe Hill before I went to the World Fantasy Convention this year, but at World Fantasy it became apparent that he was the new writer causing the most excitement amongst the sort of people whose excitement I pay attention to. Sean Wallace actually took me over to the table where a British dealer had copies of PS Publishing's collection of Hill's stories, 20th Century Ghosts, and all but forced me to buy it. Now, I am not the sort of person who wants to spend $25 on a paperback book, but I didn't know of any other way to get it, and the hardcover was twice that cost, because the exchange rate from pounds to dollars is not particularly favorable right now to those of us using dollars. But then Nick Mamatas said it was a book he'd been wanting to read. And Ellen Datlow told me she'd just taken one of the stories for her Year's Best and would have taken a few others if she'd had the space. So I bought the book. And read one story that night, and another handful on the plane ride home, and then a few more. And, for the most part, everybody was right. Joe Hill is an extremely good writer, and the book would have been worth the $25 for the stories "Pop Art" and "My Father's Ghosts" alone.

Immediately, I decided to see if I could track Joe Hill down for an interview. I did (and discovered he lives here in New Hampshire), and he said yes, though both of us were too busy to start work on it until recently. And now lo and behold, Paula Guran has scooped me with an excellent interview at Dark Echo. Joe's description of a story in the next issue of Postscripts particularly intrigued me:
There's a story in the new Postscripts, 'Bobby Conroy Comes Back From The Dead', that doesn't have any fantasy element in it at all. It's this straight-forward relationship story. Guest-starring Tom Savini and a pile of human body parts.
(I think I've said before that one of my childhood ambitions was to become Tom Savini, so naturally I'm now going to have to hunt down a copy of the story.)

Don't fear that Paula's interview will cause me to give up on mine. There are still plenty of things to talk about. For now, though, go read the interview, and track down Joe's stories. Nobody seems to agree on which stories are best, but I have yet to encounter anybody who has read 20th Century Ghosts and not thought it was a significant collection.

A Toast to Ellen Datlow, Samuel Delany, and SciFiction

My contribution to the ED SF Project, an appreciation of Samuel Delany's "High Weir", has just been posted. If you haven't checked in with the project since it was announced shortly after the announcement of SciFiction's impending end, you should do so, because numerous appreciations have been published, and they're passionate, thoughtful, and fascinating. Many more are still to come, and there are also still plenty of stories waiting to be claimed.

26 November 2005

Weekend Linkdump

  • We here at Mumpsimus Central do not indulge in wanton eating of dead turkeys, but many of our acquaintances (who do not indulge in first-person-plural reference to themselves) eat entire birds on Thanksgiving, and some of them even wonder at the pleasant sleepiness that follows their indulging. We've all heard of tryptophan, but what about two other words: intestinal melatonin?

  • Spurious on writing and failure:
    When your life fails, you can write, my life has failed; failure becomes success -- something has been achieved and this something bears what you have written. But if you were really a failure, would you have been able to write? Bad faith of writing: to have marshalled the strength to write, I am a failure is already to have left failure behind; you are a liar.
  • The House of the Vampire by George Sylvester Viereck

  • Classic Film Preview

  • ON SPEC: The Blog

  • Bud Parr quotes William Gass's essay "The Sentence Seeks Its Form" from the new issue of BookForum. The essay is not online, alas, though plenty of other things are (including a somewhat odd review by Bruce Sterling). The essay provides marvelous readings of the language in everybody from Shakespeare to Djuna Barnes, though the discussions are extended enough that they defy being soundbitten. So, in the interest of bringing more Gass to the internet, here's the most potentially controversial passage from the essay:
    Breath that has sustained a life has been shaped into words useful to communicate a life. This breath is otherwise waste, which may be another reason why the text wanted to intestinalize itself. These words hope to find companions called a sentence, and the sentence, too, is seeking a paragraph it may enhance. The writer must be a musician -- accordingly. Look at what you've written, but later ... at your leisure. First -- listen. Listen to Joyce, to Woolf, to Faulkner, to Melville. And to the poets, above all.

    Ah, but I have a story to tell, characters to create, a plot to contrive, you may, with incautious confidence, insist. No. That's what moviemakers do. They make hokum. You do not tell a story; your fiction will do that when your fiction is finished. What you make is music, and because your sounds are carriers of concepts, you make conceptual music, too.
    (For lots more Gass, see his recent Believer interview.)

  • Abigail Nussbaum's blog, Asking the Wrong Questions has been full of meaty content recently. See, for instance, Gloriana by Michael Moorcock: Being A Positive Bad Review or A Negative Good Review.

  • People buy fantasies

  • Ahua, the Water Language (via LanguageHat)

  • Life in These This United States

23 November 2005

Kelly Burns the Front Porch

James Patrick Kelly has a new book out, Burn, published by Tachyon. It's a science fiction novel that explores some of the ideas of the Transcendentalists, particularly Henry David Thoreau. He's even podcasting the book a chapter at a time (feed link).

Jim talked about Burn recently on New Hampshire Public Radio's program "The Front Porch". I don't know how long they'll keep the audio download available, but it's an interview worth listening to, as Jim talks about the inspiration for the book, his view of Thoreau, what the future may hold, etc. He even has time to mention the singularity.

22 November 2005

Kafka's Ford

Drop everything. Jeffrey Ford has now posted his magnificent story "Bright Morning" online (it was originally published in The Fantasy Writer's Assistant and Other Stories). Jeff sometimes puts stories up for only a few days or weeks, so read it now if you haven't. It's about a lost tale by Kafka. It's the story that made me forever and ever a Ford fan, because (among other things) it so perfectly captures the feelings of bibliophilic obsession.

Some of the fun of the story is that it seems like it might be a personal essay. Here's a little excerpt from an interview I did with Jeff for the first issue of Fantasy Magazine:
MATTHEW CHENEY: Many of your stories have autobiographical elements, or at least have narrators who seem to want the audience to believe there are autobiographical elements, moments and characters stolen from the life of Jeffrey Ford. What led you to this technique?

JEFFREY FORD: To some extent all of the stories are autobiographical. And the ones that most readers would think reveal the most about my real life are often the ones that reveal the least. I got hip to this technique of storytelling from reading Isaac Bashevis Singer. He's on my personal short list of the very greatest contemporary short story writers. He has a way of going into a story as if he is sitting across from you at table at a diner sharing a cup of coffee, talking about something that happened to him two days earlier. Check out especially his supernatural, New York stories like "The Cafeteria." His approach is so believable that when the weird stuff hits the fan, the reader can't help but believe that what he is telling is truth. He uses techniques of the autobiographical to gain your confidence, concrete detail from his own life, no doubt, to form a strong foundation for the world of the story. This deepens the fantastic experience of the fiction.

Singer makes this look easy, but to be successful at it is not easy, or it wasn't easy for me to master. The secret is you have to go into the piece with the utmost confidence, never flinching, never blinking, believing yourself that this is what really happened and gathering the attendant physical detail and situation around the tale as if you were merely recalling what you had for breakfast. The reasons I've failed with this technique when I have is because of a lack of confidence. I tried to explain too much -- I blinked and the reader's natural polygraph caught my lie. Kipling also manages this technique really well in some of his better stories.

It's also a way of merging realism and the fantastic, which is a potent hybrid. Fictional hybrids are always more powerful than genre purebreds -- they are more resilient, they have the potential to surprise, the power to escape the gravitational attraction of tradition. Until, of course, they themselves become accredited purebreds, as is now happening with what some call "slipstream". On the other hand, my purely fictional stories hold autobiographical impulses and revelations as well. To me, Art is the physical manifestation -- in words, images, sounds, etc. -- of the artist's ideas and emotions in an attempt to make what is ineffable within evident to another's senses. You can't escape being autobiographical on a very fundamental level.

21 November 2005

I Am Elsewhere, Hear Me Roar

I'm not really here, but I am at SF Site with a review of Cory Doctorow's novel Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town and at Strange Horizons with a new column talking about all the stuff I always talk about, like the borders between "popular fiction" and "literary fiction".

Now that you know what to avoid, go read the other stuff on the sites. SF Site has a particularly rich set of reviews this time, and Strange Horizons has not only the second half of a story begun last week, but a new zodiac short-short by Jenn Reese, new poetry, and an article I'm looking forward to reading very much: "Arctic Fabulous: Speculative Fiction and the Imaginary Arctic" by Siobhan Carroll. (By the way, has anybody out there seen Peter Delpeut's Lyrical Nitrate and Forbidden Quest? They're made from scraps of old films, and Forbidden Quest is a haunting -- I almost said chilling -- arctic story.)

19 November 2005

Primer and the Future of Cinema

The new issue (201) of Interzone is worth reading for a number of reasons (not least the design -- it's the best-looking issue of a magazine I've seen from TTA Press -- the balance between design and readability is nearly perfect this time). Something that might not get noticed amidst all of the stories and artwork are some astute insights by Nick Lowe in a review of the movie Primer:
Primer's boldest achievement is that it's essentially a piece of post-cinematic cinema: a film that nobody stands a chance of fathoming on cinema viewings alone, and which can only really begin to make sense on DVD. In the US, a commented disc has been out since the spring, and the curious now have an abundance of plot-untangling fan pages online (some with gloriously baroque diagrams) to help make sense of the final half-hour, where huge chunks of essential story have been casually teleported into other times and erased. Recognising that ways of consuming and understanding film have irreversibly changed, Primer makes reviewing and fan discussion part of the basic process of understanding. In the end, obviously, it's for viewers to decide whether it warrants the effort to decode it; it's a bit of a shock the first time through when the film suddenly stops after an hour and a quarter and you realise that the revelations you're anticipating have already been dispensed. But it's exhilarating just to wrap your head around a film that has more plot in its missing scenes than most films have in their running time.
I know many people don't consider it exhilarating to wrap their heads around this film, but when I watched it a month ago I found it at first wearying, then, about half an hour in, addicting, because even though I really had hardly any clue what was going on, the pace and urgency of the acting and editing kept my bewilderment from feeling tedious. I then watched it again with the commentary track on, and began to make sense of it. A third viewing didn't entirely elucidate everything, but instead of seeming like a return to a familiar movie, it felt like watching a new movie made from the materials of one I'd seen before. The best summing up I've seen of the effect of Primer on an at-least-partially-sympathetic viewer comes from MaryAnn Johanson:
This is a movie that assumes its audience is geeky enough to be comfortable with unexplained techno-talk, to be familiar with the philosophical problems of time travel, and to be hungry enough for intellectual challenge to welcome a story that asks more questions than it answers. So naturalistic and down to earth that it feels totally fresh, and so confounding that it demands multiple viewings, Primer makes my nerdy, geeky little heart very, very happy.
All this from a film that cost about $7,000 to make.

Elsewhere

And now a little purging of the bookmarks:
  • "The Romantic Underground": In which Jeff VanderMeer tells sappy stories about public transport.

  • Dan Green on the failures of Christopher Hitchens's literary criticism. And on Richard Powers. I'm particularly fond of this paragraph from the latter:
    To say that Powers "has always fallen short in the presentation of viscerally compelling characters" is to say only that he has attempted to exploit the possibilities of fiction in a way that doesn't rely on "viscerally compelling characters" to engage the reader's interest. He wants the reader to involve him/herself in the "intricacy" of design, to find in the tracing out of the incremental, spiralling pattern a source of interest at least as compelling as character identification, if not more so, since Powers's novels make it clear that the writer's job is not merely to tell stories and evoke characters, but to use such things as story and character to make something fresh from the form, to find the means to unite story, character, and theme with form in a way that is mutually reinforcing: character is tied to the evolving revelations of form, formal ingenuity itself embodies and discloses theme. It is said that Powers is a novelist interested in "ideas," especially scientific ideas, but even here Powers uses science--in The Time of Our Singing, quantum physics--to help construct formal patterns that, while illustrative of the ideas and their implications, are also themselves aesthetically provocative.
  • Catherynne Valente: "I Am a Fantasy Writer". This has the best last line of anything I've read in a long time.

  • Waggish on Samuel R. Delany's Motion of Light in Water

  • "The Top Twenty Novels for Geeks" [by men]. What, girls can't write geeky books or books for geeks? Evidence against provided here and here. (I'm ignoring the question of why any of these books are geeky or for geeks. Let others debate that one...)

  • Experienced writers, new bloggers: Nathan Ballingrud and Glenn Hirshberg
    (via Jeff V, who is having good conversations these days with his Evil Monkey. Apparently, Jeff accused Evil Monkey of being a pheasant plucker, and Evil Monkey considers them fightin' words. [Evil Wombat: "Enough with the in-jokes already. I don't understand half of what the two of you talk about!"])

18 November 2005

Remedios Varo

I am not an art historian by any means, but I've spent enough time in museums that I tend to recognize the names of artists associated with major movements such as surrealism. I was surprised, then, when Chris Barzak told me a certain surrealist had had an influence on his writing, because the name was new to me: Remedios Varo.
Creation of the Birds
Chris recommended Janet Kaplan's biography Unexpected Journeys: The Art and Life of Remedios Varo, but I haven't yet been able to get hold of a copy, so I have relied on a few Internet resources to educate myself, including a collection of images, a detailed chronology of her life, an article about an exhibition, and this essay about Varo's scientific influences.

Varo grew up in Spain, lived in Paris, and eventually settled in Mexico after spending time in a Nazi internment camp after the occupation of France. She associated with various members of the artistic and literary avant-gardes wherever she lived, and specifically identified herself with the surrealists.
Roulotte
Varo's technique is continually described as "meticulous" -- she tended to like miniatures, and her approach is said to be closer to that used for egg tempera than for oil painting. Most of her work seems to have the kind of vehemently pictorial surface common to the most popular surrealists, but many of the paintings also remind me of medieval and Northern Renaissance images in some of their shapes and approach to perspective.

Some of Varo's paintings come awfully close to a sort of kitschiness that I associate with some of Dali's work, but few of Varo's paintings seem to me to descend quite to the same level of camp, because there is a naivety to her work that is quite charming, as well as a sense of humor (I particularly like her vegetarian vampires).

15 November 2005

Appreciating SciFiction

David Schwartz came up with a marvelous way to honor the stories that have been published by SciFiction and remain in the archives -- The ED SF Project:
By my count there are 320+ stories archived at the site. I'm willing to bet that there are that many SF writers/critics/fans/what have you who have some sort of presence on the web. So I'm thinking, let's all of us write an appreciation of one of the stories.
All the instructions for how to sign up are at the site.

12 November 2005

Final World Fantasy Post

It's a week now since the day of the World Fantasy Awards, so is as appropriate a time as any to provide some final links to convention reports, gossip, etc.

11 November 2005

R.I.P. SciFiction

I am too shocked and saddened by the news that SciFiction will be ending to be able to say anything coherent and without profanity. Ellen Datlow has done a phenomenal job with the site for years, and I have long appreciated her willingness to publish traditional adventure stories alongside the gonzo weird stuff I'm particularly fond of. The classic reprints made obscure work available to a large audience. I could go on, and I'm sure I will once the shock wears off.

For now, let me just point you to some stories to read. SciFiction published two of my favorite stories this year: "There's a Hole in the City" by Richard Bowes and "Heads Down, Thumbs Up" by Gavin Grant. (See the sidebar for links to what I had to say about each.)

I was going to give a little list of a few stories that are particular favorites of mine, but once I started looking at the archive, choosing seemed foolish. Just go read. We can mourn that a favorite publication is stopping, but we should celebrate the stories that found such a fine home. And let's hope that Ellen gets a great new job soon.

Update 10/12/05: Gwenda has posted a list of favorite stories that does what I did not, and does it quite well.

The Light Years Beneath My Feet and Running from the Deity by Alan Dean Foster

a guest review by Finn Dempster


If the volume of Alan Dean Foster's output is anything to go by, I'm probably the only one here who's not heard of him until now. These engaging little tales were a nice way to meet him.

Marcus Walker was a commodities stockbroker until alien slave-traders the Vilenjji plucked him from the familiar streets of Chicago and dragged him an unknown distance across the galaxy (for further details, see the first novel in the trilogy, Lost and Found). By the time The Light-Years Beneath My Feet begins he's been rescued, as have three fellow prisoners (a dog, likewise from Chicago, a haughty, squid-like creature named Sque, and the imposing but gentle Braouk) by the advanced Sessrimathe race. Comfortable but homesick on the Sessrimathe's world, the story tells of the group's quest to return to their respective home-planets -- an undertaking aided by Walker having transformed himself into a much sought-after novelty act by mastering the aesthetic/savoury art of Sessrimathe cookery.

Soft SF of a benign, gentle breed, this is nonetheless no mere whimsy. Science in the technological sense may be thin on the ground, but this is because the speculative focus is instead on the social. The bulk of the novel concerns the political structure of the race Walker and his companions meet after they leave the Sessrimathe's world, and the transmutative, sometimes disruptive effects caused by their arrival. The Niyyuu, a technologically advanced race, have developed a novel and surprisingly successful way of accommodating disputes between different countries without adverse effects on their race as a whole. War, when unavoidable, is fought by planet-wide consensus only with primitive, non-technological weaponry (roughly the equivalent of, say, medieval Europe's) and only between armies of volunteers on specially designated battlefields deliberately remote from the planet's areas of civilisation. This system owes its centuries of success to the whole Niyyuuan race's belief in the unassailable sanctity of these restrictions, and it is here, you might say, that the narrative begs your kind indulgence. It's likely there are more than a few holes in this idea -- mean-spirited anthropologists would no doubt have a gas picking the concept apart -- but, as stated, it's precisely here that the speculative element of the novel is to be found. What if a race could conduct war in this way... and what if an "alien" intelligence with a background in the brutal, gloves-off realities of wall-street stock trading happened to be thrown into the mix?

The results of Walker's arrival are something best left to the reader to discover, but a morally challenging by-product of this system of war-in-moderation is its effect on the non-combative, civilian majority of the planet. War becomes sport, more or less literally; coverage provided by reporters immune by law from attack is screened constantly around the Niyyuu, the bloody conflicts eagerly absorbed by civilian spectators. Is this voyeurism at its most bloodthirsty, or is it healthy channelling of aggression by proxy, another facet of the Niyyuuan's policy of acknowledging and controlling its race's capacity for violence rather than denying it?

Character-wise, Foster scores more often than he misses. Having missed the first novel in the trilogy, this is the first time I've met Walker, but he was a guy I was happy enough to root for. Conspicuous by his redundancy is the giant Braouk who, physical size notwithstanding, makes the smallest impact on the narrative. But memorable characters abound, particularly the squid-like Sque, whose habitual, haughty assertions of intellectual prowess she is routinely able to substantiate, and whose self-imposed position of lofty isolation from the group leads to internal conflict as she gradually becomes aware of her emotional dependence on these cerebral inferiors.

Foster has a fondness for colourful description which, on the whole, he keeps in check, never allowing it to become overly florid, or to impede the clarity of his prose. True, his flashy adjectives can be punishing ("Was she only typically curious about the strange alien who had addressed the gathering, or was her intensity reflective of the preternaturally perspicacious query she had so transiently posed?"), and his penchant for alliteration can occasionally grate (see above). But for every descriptive black hole there's a galaxy of good ones; Foster has fun with the free hand the softer end of the genre tends to grant authors, and his multi-coloured, multi-limbed characters are clearly the product of a gleefully unrestrained imagination.

The Light Years Beneath My Feet is no page turner. You won't be kept up till three in the morning, refusing to put the book down until you know how the group survives to the end of the chapter. You probably won't laugh out loud at the jokes, either; these things just aren't on the menu. But you'll look forward to returning to it, you'll grow fond of the characters, and you'll enjoy the mild but pleasing humour that permeates the prose. Undemanding and occasionally thought-provoking fun.

Clearly not finished with culture-clash concepts, Foster shifts the technological development aspect of the Walker-Niyyuu equation around a bit, throws in some theology, and builds Running from the Deity upon the resulting thematic framework. Here again is the human outsider whose presence disrupts the social landscape of an alien society; in this instance, however, the human is the technological superior, the alien society he encounters not amused by his novelty but awestruck by his apparently magical powers.

The eleventh book in a series that's been around for nearly 30 years? Too late to join in now, surely? Don't worry, this is a novel that stands perfectly well on its own. A few opening pages of inevitable exposition aside, back-story is fed to the reader only when necessary and in convenient, bite-sized nuggets, never damming the flow or making you feel like you've arrived at the cinema half-way through the movie. These need-to-know facts include the main character Flinx's surgically-wrought abilities as an Empath; a curse rather than a blessing which leaves him overwhelmed with second-hand emotion on populated planets and forces him to remain solitary much of the time. The reason for the above-mentioned surgery? It seems the Commonwealth (a human-alien confederation of civilised planets), and indeed the whole galaxy, is under threat by a vast, malignant entity approaching from an area of space called the Great Emptiness, consuming whole star systems along the way. Flinx's quest, and the reason he's been burdened with his unique ability, is to find the means to stop it.

Epic stuff indeed, essentially mere background to a self-contained, well crafted tale. Forced to land his ship for repairs on a class ivB world (that's Primitive, to you and me) called Arrawd, Flinx's initial commitment to Commonwealth regulations regarding contact with developing cultures is rapidly eroded by his ever-present loneliness. (If these first contact rules sound familiar to those of us who regularly watch a certain star ship going boldly where no one has gone before, let us cite as a mitigating circumstance that Foster's warehouse-sized back catalogue includes fully ten Star Trek novels.) Unable to resist using the higher technology at his disposal to help the sick and injured among the small rural populace he finds himself in, Flinx unwittingly creates first a cult and then an embryonic religion... with himself as the titular deity. Flinx the well-intentioned amateur doctor over-prescribes; planet Arrawd develops a bad case of socio-political upheaval.

The Light Years Beneath My Feet gave us the Vilenjji -- enjoyably evil characters of an old-fashioned type we could have fun booing at. Running From The Deity is a subtler offering, in which simple characters such as the above-mentioned slave-traders would feel awkward and out of place, so don't expect to meet their equivalents on Arrawd. As the international crisis precipitated by Flinx's arrival snowballs, most of the characters act for what they feel to be the best. No two-dimensional bad guys here; greed, fear and bureaucracy are the real villains of the piece.

The novel works because you care about Flinx (as a Tragic Hero, he could have a worse Fatal Flaw than kindness), and because the novel's central theme -- good intentions leading to bad consequences -- has a universal resonance. It also works because Foster is skilled enough behind the narrative wheel to avoid the bog of pathos in which his novel might otherwise have become mired; the darker elements he injects -- and there are a few -- make sure of that. But whilst this is certainly an example of Foster in Melancholy Mode, the novel won't have you reaching for the antidepressants; a sadder tale than that discussed above, it's nonetheless infused with the same pleasingly dry wit. True, there's a certain something about the dialogue, as there was in The Light Years Beneath My Feet, which doesn't quite work in places -- the best way of articulating it I can come up with is that sometimes Flinx appears to be reading prose out loud -- but this is a minor and occasional flaw about which we need not get into a flap. And at an economical two hundred pages of tight, smoothly written chapters, it never outstays its welcome.

10 November 2005

Getting the Links Out

Here are things that are not here:

Two Front Teeth in the Small Press

It's probably time to start thinking about the holidays that all seem to jumble together at the end of the year, that fine time for gift-giving and celebration and debt. My needs are few, so I'm just asking for my two front teeth, but for those of you seeking something more literary, here are a few things I've noticed recently from small presses. Get your consumerist joys hereabouts:
  • Nightshade Books has published some beautiful new volumes, including The Algebraist by Ian Banks, which I hear is selling quite well, so if you're looking for a first (U.S.) edition, you'd better snap it up. At World Fantasy I also laid my eyes for the first time on new books such as Snake Agent by Liz Williams and Trujillo by Lucius Shepard, both of which have beautiful dust jackets, making them perfect for gifts. (The dust jackets, that is. Keep the books for yourself.)

  • Speaking of limited copies, I just heard from V. Vale at RE/Search that copies of J.G. Ballard: Quotes are selling well and may be getting hard to come by. I didn't realize that there is a limited, signed edition of the book available for $60 (order here); a perfect gift for your village Ballardian.

  • Prime Books is, as usual, publishing up a storm. I've heard Westermead by Scott Thomas is quite good. Having read a few of Forrest Aguirre's stories, I expect his collection Fugue XXIX is a feast for readers who like formal and stylistic invention. The best things to come from Prime recently, though, may be Fantasy Magazine and the Jabberwocky anthology/journal/thing -- the first issues of both of these endeavors are packed with the work of great writers, and Jeff Ford's story in Fantasy is definitely not to be missed (I haven't yet read the others, though Nick Mamatas has threatened to bury an icepick in my head if I don't read his story soon).

    [Update 11/10/05: I'm not good with details. The books by Scott Thomas and Forrest Aguirre are published by Raw Dog Screaming Press, though they are available from Prime, among other places.]

  • Flying home from World Fantasy, I read a few stories in Joe Hill's first collection, 20th Century Ghosts, and was impressed. I'm not a big fan of most horror fiction, because so often it seems to exist solely to be horrifying, but Hill has many more aesthetic goals than that, and stories such as "Pop Art" and "My Father's Masks" reward sustained attention. It's a shame for those of us on the bad side of the exchange rate that this book has only been published in England -- I don't usually buy books from PS Publishing for exactly this reason, but I splurged on the paperback at the convention, and was glad to do so. (Alas, it's already gotten a bit tattered in travels.) This is a book that deserves to be picked up by a major publisher in the U.S. PS has also just published Jeff Ford's Cosmology of the Wider World.

  • Devoted readers of this site are probably already familiar with the latest offerings from Small Beer Press, but I thought I'd remind people who are, like me at the moment, rather strapped for cash, but needing to get gifts, that Small Beer's Peapod Classics and Chapbooks are quite reasonably priced, and full of interesting fiction.

  • Wheatland Press has been publishing up a storm in the past couple months. Be sure to pick up a copy of Lucius Shepard's film reviews, Weapons of Mass Seduction for any film fans who dislike flim flam. TEL: Stories is also now available, as are Polyphony 5 and The Nine Muses.

  • Tachyon has just published a heap of enticing titles, including new books by James Patrick Kelly, Terry Bisson, Brian Aldiss, Carol Emshwiller, and others.

  • I'm sure you've already gotten your copy of Rabid Transit: Menagerie from the Ratbastards, so you don't need me to remind you about it. Similarly, if I don't shut up about how marvelous Lydia Millet's Oh Pure and Radiant Heart is soon, somebody will probably whack me over the head and leave me in a bomb silo.

09 November 2005

World Fantasy: Namedropping, Narcissism, and Superheroes

As I've been thinking about what more to say about this year's World Fantasy Convention, I've realized that a general report of all I saw and did would be immensely dull, because most of my time was spent sitting around talking with people. I'm going to do it anyway. I'll try to keep the namedropping compact. (And if I forget anyone, I'm entirely sorry and will be immensely nice and generous to you in the future.)

World Fantasy is a different sort of convention from the previous two I've attended -- ReaderCon and the World Science Fiction Convention -- because it is so focused on the publishing industry. I can't imagine what it's like to attend if you're not a writer, editor, publisher, or reviewer, because there really aren't that many panels or other sorts of events. There are certainly enough things to fill the time, but also not so many that I ever felt guilty for spending so much time just hanging out with people.

I had the best time I've had at a convention so far, though, because of that hanging out. I finally got to meet so many people I have wanted to meet for years. I met in person a couple people I have interviewed via email: Alan DeNiro and Paolo Bacigalupi. I finally got a chance to spend some time with Ellen Datlow, whom I'd previously only said hi to while passing through busy hallways of other cons. Gordon van Gelder, editor of F&SF, and I had just enough time to finally shake hands and say hello, but not much more than that. I saw the winner of the Mumpsimus Award, Rudi Dornemann, a couple of times, and he told me he's getting good use from the coffee mug I sent him. I got to have meals with large groups of people -- with Liz Gorinsky of Tor, Forrest Aguirre, Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan of Omnidawn, Mark Kelly, Rajan Khana (whose site features some in-depth WFC reporting), Kelly Shaw, David Moles, Paula Guran, David Schwartz, Megan McCarron, Gregg van Eekhout, and Brett Cox (who was, with Dave Schwartz, my roommate -- though none of us slept very much, so we enountered each other outside the room far more than inside). I killed some time in a bar with that brutal woman Kameron Hurley and her roommate, Jenn Whitson. Et cetera et cetera et cetera.

I was amazed at how many Australians made their way north for the convention, and I spent quite a bit of time with Deborah Biancotti and Trevor Stafford, who is organizing Conflux 3. Because Jeff VanderMeer had recently spent three weeks in Australia, I was sure it couldn't be a place of dignity and discriminating taste -- apparently they'd let any old squid-eater in. But I was pleasantly surprised at how much fun both Deb and Trevor were -- how industrious, jovial, lively, and long-suffering. And then I remembered that this was the little continent that produced Jonathan Strahan and K.J. Bishop. Clearly, it is a secret continent of superheroes. (My first amazed acknowledgement of the Aussies' humanity can be found at Emerald City, with a reply from Jonathan Strahan and an explanation from Cheryl.)

I ended up being on two panels: On Friday, I was on a panel moderated by Jeff VanderMeer about "fringe fantasy", and then another on Saturday moderated by Ann VanderMeer about the reader's role in fantasy fiction. Ann must have some Australian blood, because she is a superhero. On Wednesday night, as I was packing to go to the convention, Jeff sent me a note saying Ann had been in a car accident, the car had essentially been cut in half, but she was okay and insisting they still go to the convention. She showed up bruised and aching, but in remarkably good spirits. I don't know how she did it. Both panels went well, though I managed to be pretty annoying on Ann's panel when I insisted that every term being used needed to be defined, and that everything depended. After beginning my third or fourth answer with, "Well, it depends," Ann interrupted and told me I just kept saying that. She was right. I explained that I think everything is socially or culturally determined, that there is no inherent meaning to abstract terms such as "art" or "the reader", and that if we don't define our terms, then we're working from unstated assumptions, and we all have somewhat different unstated assumptions. Jay Lake accused me of being a situationist and an existentialist. Luckily, Hal Duncan was on the panel, and he cleared everything up, though I'm not sure how many people realized this, as Hal is from Glasgow, and may need in the future to be equipped with subtitles.

Hal is a marvelous person -- we first met on Thursday night in a hallway outside of a party and ended up talking for quite a while about the wonders of Guy Davenport. Hal is the first person I've met who's actually read much Guy Davenport. But then, as anybody who has even glanced at Hal's novel Vellum can tell, Hal has read all sorts of esoteric things, and can talk about them with a speed and energy known to few mortals. I expect he has family in Australia.

I also got to chat a couple of times with L.E. Modesitt, whom I knew fifteen years ago, when he was first writing The Magic of Recluce, a book I remain quite fond of. I think we're going to do an interview, so you'll be hearing a lot more about him soon.

And now we must talk about twee. I said to Jay Lake at one point that something seemed to have been okay, given that the subject was ... and then I struggled for the right words. "Inherently twee?" Jay said. "Yes!" I cried (while thinking "Eureka!" and "Avast!"), and said, "There should be an anthology called Inherently Twee!" Jay looked at me skeptically. "Would you want to be known forevermore as the man who edited Inherently Twee?" he asked. "I was born to be that man," I said. Jay dared me to propose the anthology to Sean Wallace of Prime Books, and I did, and Sean did try to smite me.

And so it began. Evermore, until the last day of the con, where'er I went, the twee followed me. I told all and sundry of my plans. I schemed with Australians to invite other Australians to write for Inherently Twee. I proposed a sequel: a collection of flash fiction called Wee Twee. Someone suggested a holiday anthology: Christmas Twee. Liz Gorinsky avoided me for two days, knowing that I planned to ask for a three-book deal. Deborah Biancotti took to calling me Captain Twee. (Stop laughing. It's not funny.)

Why do I bring these things upon myself? Why can I let no bad joke, no awful pun, no silly rhyme go unstated?

Juliet Ulman, the endlessly amazing editor at Bantam who has brought such books as Light, The Etched City, and Veniss Underground to a larger audience, seemed relieved that, when she brought me down to the bar after the awards ceremony, I did not press her to publish Inherently Twee. She is clearly experienced at telling people their grand ideas will not be published by her company. Luckily, she is publishing Barth Anderson's first novel, which she tells me is brilliant and also lots of fun to read, a fine and rare combination. Clearly, both Juliet and Barth are Australian. (Barth was at the convention, but I only got to talk with him very briefly.)

There is so much more I could say, but very little of interest. Alan DeNiro looks great in a wig. Peter Straub and Graham Joyce are hilariously good MCs of awards ceremonies. I was thrilled when Brian Evenson's collection The Wavering Knife won the International Horror Guild Award. I saw Nick Mamatas tell Dave Schwartz he'd sold a story to Spicy Slipstream Stories, which Dave took quite calmly (and be sure to read Nick's account of reading slush at the con.)

Enough. It was a marvelous convention. Everyone I met was generous, loveable, intelligent, and Australian. Who could ask for anything more?

07 November 2005

World Fantasy: The Short Version

I haven't really slept more than a few hours here or there since last week, because the World Fantasy Convention was so well attended by interesting people who were willing to put up with my presence for at least a little while. I didn't win the award I was nominated for, but while of course this was disappointing, I think the judges did a great job, because the winner in my category, Robert Morgan of Sarob Press, actually does something useful: he publishes books. I like it when small presses get awards.

The award that most excited me was John Picacio's for art, because his work is stunning and it's nice to see him get recognition as a professional illustrator. If more illustration were of such quality, it would be less embarrassing to be associated with SF and fantasy books than it so often is.

I met oodles of people I had hoped to, and many others I hadn't realized I would, and they were all generous and fun and patient and silly and -- well, I barely made it to any panels other than the ones I was on, because I was just having so much fun spending time with people in hallways and lounges.

Sleep deprivation is causing me to keep this post short, but on either Wednesday or Friday I will give some more specific thoughts about the convention, the panels, the people, and the reason a couple of Australians now call me Captain Twee.

Until then, there is some coverage of the convention at Emerald City, but I haven't seen any specific reports other than that yet. Some pictures are here. I expect everyone is about as tired as I am, and so will be posting reports and pictures later.

03 November 2005

Away Message

I'm heading to the World Fantasy Convention until Monday, and am not going to bring my computer. Thus, no blogging until I return. I expect Cheryl Morgan will have good updates for people looking to find out how the convention is going.

Pinter and Losey

Soon after Harold Pinter won this year's Nobel Prize in Literature, I thought about writing something about his films, because I've seen quite a few, and read many of his screenplays. But I hadn't done any of that recently, so I wanted to refresh myself before spouting off in public.

I decided to start reviewing Pinter's film work with some of his earliest movies: the three directed by Joseph Losey. I own an old VHS tape of The Servant, and was able to borrow a now-out-of-print DVD of Accident and a VHS of The Go-Between. I watched them in the order they were made, and then read the scripts (in Five Screenplays). Each film is based on a book, but of them I have only read Nicholas Mosley's Accident.

The Servant may be the best introduction to Pinter that exists. Apparently, both Pinter and Losey had separately thought of adapting Robin Maugham's novella to the screen, and through various negotiations, were able to bring their efforts together and get the film produced. Michael Billington, in The Life and Work of Harold Pinter, says of the Pinter/Losey collaborations:
Both were natural outsiders, both were steeped in theatre, and both viewed the British class sytem, a constant factor in all their work, with a mixture of moral disapproval and grudging fascination. ... But Pinter and Losey were also sufficiently dissimilar to make a perfect team. Pinter's verbal economy checks and balances Losey's baroque tendencies, while Losey's visual stylishness simplifies Pinter's exactness and precision...
Billington was discussing The Go-Between there, but his insights apply equally to all three films.

The Servant is the most disturbing of the films, the only one that delivers a visceral kick, the only one that lingers, for me, emotionally. The Go-Between is extraordinary in many ways, but it's an intellectual extraordinariness, and the emotional effect is to produce a certain wistfulness and melancholy in the viewer rather than the deep revulsion that comes at the end of The Servant. Some people have referred to the end of The Servant as tragic, but it's not -- the characters are repulsive, reprehensible, grotesque, pathetic. The ending is both the strongest part of the movie and its greatest failing, because it is entirely nihilistic: unattractive, self-absorbed people become debauched, debilitated, destroyed. It's fascinating to watch as it happens, but it leaves us with nothing. In some ways, this was a useful corrective at the time to certain sentimental aesthetics, and it was a logical extension of the sorts of things attributed to the "Angry Young Men", but now it can feel shallow. (I have similar, though stronger, reservations about Five Easy Pieces, but that's another topic entirely...)

Accident has a couple of exquisite scenes, but I don't particularly care for it on the whole, though many people consider it a masterpiece. There are plenty of misjudgments in Pauline Kael's review of the film, but she also hit some targets that needed hitting: "In Accident," she said, "it shouldn't be that difficult to make at least the accident itself relate to the characters and plot. Nothing in the movie would be much changed if there were no accident (the only revelation -- that the philosophy don would 'take advantage' of a girl in shock -- isn't convincing anyway)." This is exactly the opposite of the book, because in the book the accident presents the central moral problem. It's a philosophical novel with a melodramatic plot to move us from one speculation to another; the movie preserves the melodrama but dispenses with the philosophy. (And in the book the don doesn't "take advantage" of the girl at all -- and that he doesn't is an important moment, an important insight into his character. Mosley chronicles his discussions of this moment with Pinter in his autobiography, Efforts at Truth.)

Kael gets to the heart of the problems with the film's narrative by picking up on Pinter's response when asked what the movie "meant": "I have no explanation for anything I do at all," Kael reports him as saying, and then continues:
This might give the impression that the movie has been written out of the unconscious, but it is so carefully plotted that you can watch the preparations being made and chart how each event or reaction was led up to.
Reading the script of Accident, it occurred to me that what I dislike most about the movie is how efficient it is: every line and image has a purpose. Of course, that might seem to be what good writing is -- no wasted material -- but good writing also needs to appear less mechanical, less determined to connect all its own dots. There needs to be more room for messiness, as there is in so much of Pinter's (and Losey's) other work, or else we end up with a hypothesis or a graph, not art. (Losey's messiness was often not to his benefit; Pinter's is usually the messiness of a conundrum, which is more palatable than the messiness of a mess.)

The Go-Between is far more satisfying, and is in many ways the best film of the three, even if I prefer The Servant for its shock value (and the way it plays with the overt homoeroticism of the relationship between servant and master). The ways the narrative, voiceover, and imagery upset the chronology remain interesting, even in these post-Pulp-Fiction-and-Memento days, because they are subtle, ghostly, and essential to the protagonist's development. The Go-Between also seems to have had an effect on Pinter's playwrighting -- there is a noticeable difference between his post-Go-Between plays and the earlier ones, both in their depth of situations and in their handling of time and memory. Indeed, Betrayal might not have been possible without The Go-Between. (The Go-Between works better as a film than the Betrayal movie, though, because plenty of techniques that are effective in live theatre feel arch and clunky on film, despite strong performances. I've found Betrayal to be both moving and funny on stage, but was less enamored of the backwards-chronology when I saw the film, because it felt somehow heavy-handed, while the chronological tricks in The Go-Between play upon both our senses of sight and sound [via the voiceovers, which don't match with the images] in a mysterious and unobtrusive way, and are therefore richly cinematic.)

The Pinter/Losey (or Losey/Pinter) films came in the beginning and early middle of Pinter's career as a writer, and the beginning of his career as a screenwriter. Later scripts, such as The French Lieutenant's Woman, are better crafted and more impressive, but I've not yet seen a film Pinter wrote where it felt like the director was as strong a collaborator with Pinter as Losey was.

For anyone interested in Pinter's screenwriting, Sharp Cut: Harold Pinter's Screenplays and the Artistic Process by Steven H. Gale is useful and illuminating, despite the author's occasional moments of fannishness, repetitive prose, unjustified assumptions, and superficial analyses -- these are weaknesses, but nonetheless the book is filled with research and information about Pinter's writing process, which can be enlightening with regard to some of the choices he made in the scripts.

02 November 2005

The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges

While I have at least one copy of nearly everything by Jorge Luis Borges that has been translated into English, I never managed to get a-hold of The Book of Imaginary Beings -- in fact, though I'd see reference to it, I had never even seen a copy. I certainly enjoyed the online version, but though Borges's work often lends itself well to hypertext, I still prefer to read it on paper, bound in a book. It's somehow more Borgesian to read a physical artifact that can collect dust and smudges.

Thus, I was elated to hear that Viking/Penguin was bringing out a new edition of The Book of Imaginary Beings, translated by Andrew Hurley (who translated the Collected Fictions) and illustrated by Peter Sis.

I was about to write a review of the book when Michael Dirda's review appeared in the Washington Post and said just about everything I would have said, and more. (Dirda's far more knowledgeable about bestiaries than I am. You'd think that I'd know more, since a longtime friend of mine created the roleplaying game sourcebook GURPS Bestiary, but, well, much as I try to know everything, I must admit that there are some small tiny minuscule areas in which I am, shall we say, utterly ignorant.)

The book is a delight to read, a joy to dip into for a few pages, then put back on the shelf and, later, return to for a few more pages. It easily becomes addictive, though -- it's not difficult to say, "Oh, I'll just read one more entry, and one more, and..." until the book is exhausted, and you are, too. One of the marvels of the book is its eclecticism. It is not a comprehensive book by any means, and at times the choice of beings and the choice of information presented about them can seem almost random, like a raid on a library rather than a research trip. Personally, I prefer that approach to a vaster one, at least in this instance, because it makes the book feel like a conversation with a slightly dotty, but utterly engaging, old scholar.

There is a useful note by the translator at the end that explains some of the history of the book's various editions, and some new notes have been provided to show Borges's textual borrowings. Some of Borges's own interpretations of the history and mythology seem as imaginary as the beings, which is part of the fun, but the notes are helpful for people who want to parse the balderdash amdst the balderdash.

One thing Dirda points out that also occurred to me is that we don't know from the material provided in the book what Margarita Guerrero's contribution was -- the title page lists the book as by Jorge Luis Borges "with Margarita Guerrero", but we tend to speak of the book as if it were Borges's own, I expect because he's the renowned writer. (I'll try to do some research and see what I can uncover about the collaboration.)

I'll leave you with a tiny excerpt, one entry from the book:
Hochigan
Descartes tells us that monkeys could talk if they wanted to, but they have decided to keep silent so that humans will not force them to work. The Bushmen of South Africa believe that there was a time when all animals could talk. Hochigan hated animals; one day it disappeared, taking the gift of speech with it.

Delany at Dartmouth: The Dirt

On Monday, I heard Samuel R. Delany deliver the annual Stonewall Lecture at Dartmouth College. I've been reading Delany's work since I was in grade school, and since college I've been familiar with both his critical writings and his occasional pornography, so I wasn't at all surprised when his lecture, titled either "Queer Thoughts on the Politics of Sex" (official title) or "The Gamble" (Delany's title), veered from the medical and scientific rhetoric of its beginning into an explicit and autobiographical discussion of sex. Not everyone in the audience was familiar with Delany's writings, or his predilections, and so there were a couple of palpable moments of shock. Most people seemed to find the lecture engaging and compelling, but a few people did leave. I don't expect they walked out because they were bored.

The student newspaper has published a fairly accurate report of the event. Being a newspaper that does not seek to scandalize its audience, The Dartmouth was not able to include some much of what Delany said. Since I had a notebook with me, and am perfectly happy to scandalize just about any audience, I will now add a couple of quotes to the otherwise adequate report. You have been warned.

One of the main points Delany reiterated is that, in his view, most studies of AIDS are based more on hearsay than evidence. This was his central thesis, and he tried to illustrate ways that hearsay is both attractive and misleading. He acknowledged that we let hearsay rule our lives most of the time (Most of our critical judgments, he said, are based on hearsay, most consumerism, and "the entire field of politics"), but it is a mistake to confuse hearsay with empirical knowledge. Evidence is science, and it is the sort of thing that allows planes to fly and lightbulbs to work. When we fall out of the grid of knowledge, hearsay takes over.

So far so good. But this is where he got personal, and stated that between 1982 and 1988 he had about 300-500 oral encounters a year, and that the numbers have fluctuated since then, depending on where he lived, but he estimated he's had roughly 5,000-7,000 moments of oral sex since 1982. He remains HIV negative. Then he told the story of meeting a porn star/prostitute who was sure that he'd gotten AIDS from oral sex. He said they'd talked for a while, that the other man was well informed, but that he (Delany) should have asked him a question he thought of shortly afterward. He should have asked, he said, whether before the man seroconverted if he had been in an orgy situation where someone who had come in his mouth had then licked his ass (Delany's terminology). "This is not the sort of question," he said, "that straight researchers think to ask."

He then said something like, "I have myself recently begun barebacking again with a fuckbuddy in upstate New York. While this may seem insane, it does need to be factored in."

Behind me, a fairly well-known American/Cultural Studies scholar burst into some of the wildest laughter I have ever heard from him (and having taking a course with him, I've heard plenty).

"I enjoy a certain kind of pleasure," Delany said, "and I gamble on getting it." We do not know enough about AIDS, he maintained, because the right sorts of tests are so seldom conducted, and the amount of true evidence, rather than hearsay, is so small, and drawn from such small samples of people. This is particularly the case in terms of women, where the lack of information and testing is, he said, "genocidal".

Then came questions. At first, nobody spoke, but soon enough there were some strong challenges. Delany vehemently denied that he was suggesting oral sex can't lead to AIDS -- he said his point is that there is hearsay evidence of multiple sorts, but there haven't been enough studies to say definitively one way or another, which is why he said his own behaviors are a gamble. Someone else said that he sounded like the tobacco company CEOs who deny that there is enough evidence that cigarettes cause cancer. Delany seemed to say that he believed there was good evidence there -- my notes are incomplete -- and then said, "We do know that oral sex doesn't cause cancer. That's one of the things it's got going for it."

The woman who introduced Delany, Susan Ackerman (of the Department of Religion), had said that he wrote 9 novels by the age of 25. Delany laid out an average day in his life at that time, saying that in between making breakfast and dinner for his wife (Marilyn Hacker) and writing his books, he would have sex with about 20 people on a normal day, and that he could never have been as productive a writer if he hadn't had that outlet. (At this point, someone near me whispered, "He's a superman!") "Sex is an appetite," he said. "If you don't have gourmet food, you eat out of the garbage can."

A student said she found his candor and frank terminology refreshing, and wondered if he thought more people should talk that openly about sex. He said he didn't want to tell anybody else how to talk about sex, but that we should talk about it however we are comfortable talking about it, using whatever words we are comfortable with.

Finally, a student suggested that his remarks could be used against gay people as proof that gay men are promiscuous, that they are just asking for AIDS, that they deserve to be marginalized and oppressed. Delany said he did not want to be taken as a representative example. "I'm not going to play the role of the Good Gay Man," he said. "I'm not the Good Gay Man. Maybe I'm the Bad Gay Man. Other people will be other things and say other things. Other people can speak for other ways of living. A whole range of things need to be said, and we need to work together." [some of that was paraphrased, because I can't write quite as fast as he talked]