26 February 2006

Octavia Butler (1947-2006)

Octavia Butler was one of those writers about whom I was forever thinking, "I should read more of her work." I've read a lot of the short stories, but none of the novels yet. Therefore, I will let others speak about her [updated 3/1/06]:

If Mushrooms Could Sing...

Jeff VanderMeer has uncovered a sound from the city of Ambergris and is inviting comments.

I've been doing my own investigations into sounds coming from underneath Ambergris (or maybe just less used chambers of my fevered mind), and after long hours spent sifting through the ruins of the Borges Bookstore, I have come upon a particularly curious piece of apocrypha, said by some to be a folk song of the mushroom-like gray cap people, and by others to be a fraud committed by a particularly untalented and violently defrocked Truffidian priest:
The Sounds of The Silence*

Hello gray caps, my old friends
I’ve come to live with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its spores while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of The Silence.

In restless dreams I walked alone
Beneath these streets of cobblestone
My stomach churned with aching cramps
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the green of
A glowing light
That split the night
And filled me a dread of silence.

And in the glowing light I saw
Ten thousand gray caps, maybe more
Mushrooms talking without speaking
Mushrooms hearing without listening
Mushrooms writing songs that voices never shared
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of The Silence.

'Shrooms, said I, you do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you
But my words like silent spores all fell
And echoed
In the wells of silence.

And the dwellers bowed and prayed
To the spore-born God they made
And I felt my mind warming
With a voice that was forming
And the voice said: The words of the prophets
Are written on the city's walls
And Zamilon's halls
And whisper'd in the sounds of The Silence.

*From section III of The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of the City of Ambergris by Duncan Shriek: "...upon Aquelus' return, the city of Ambergris lay empty, not a single living soul to be found upon any of its boulevards, alleyways, and avenues, nor within its many homes, public buildings, and courtyards." I refer you to Shriek's text for further details, though I do recommend consuming it with large grains of salt and frequent reference to more recent attempts to put Shriek's endeavors into perspective.

24 February 2006


Technical problems have been resolved, and life continues on at its normal frenetic pace. Even with the computer back and running, things are likely to be quiet around here for the next two weeks, because I'm finishing up a particularly busy term at Dartmouth. (The good news: it looks like I now have a thesis committee and will be beginning a thesis on Samuel Delany this summer. More on that as it develops.)

From March 8-12 I'll be at the AWP Conference in Austin, Texas. I'm on a panel put together by the good people of Omnidawn about "Nonrealist Fiction", and am quite humbled to be in the company of panelists Kelly Link, Jeff VanderMeer, Brian Evenson, and Laird Hunt. There are also plans for a reading by all of us, plus the great Gavin Grant, at Bookpeople in Austin on Thursday, March 9 at 7pm (subject to change, I expect).

And now for some more or less random stuff:

20 February 2006

Technical Difficulties

Posting will be sparse for the next week, because my computer's harddrive is dead. It will be replaced soon, but until it is my internet access is unpredictable. I have an external hard drive, so not too much was lost, other than a couple pages of a story I was working on and about three days of emails. (So if I haven't responded to something you sent, please bear with me and feel free to write again...)

If you're hungry for more odd, annoying, and/or contradictory thoughts from me, though, Strange Horizons has now posted my review of Doug Lain's Last Week's Apocalypse.

16 February 2006

A Melancholic View of the Divided Kingdom

I mentioned in a previous post that during Divided Kingdom week at the LBC, I would be offering the view from the "Green Quarter" of the kingdom, where the melancholics are housed, and so I have.

If you accuse me of having had fun while writing it, I shall take great umbrage at such aspersions till my bitter end.

(If you want to know which kingdom you would be relocated to, take the quiz.)

15 February 2006

More Maria

My conversation with Maria Dahvana Headley was fairly popular, and so I thought y'all might like to know that Maria has fused with her computer and is scattered all through cyberspace at the moment.

This week she's a guest blogger at Powell's Books. She's also set up a blog at Amazon.com and has resurrected her old Myspace thingy. And there's still the Year of Yes book tie-in site.

When a writer starts appearing all over the Internet like this, you know that they're just procrastinating work on the next book. (Or maybe that their publisher's publicity department has suddenly discovered that blogs are cheaper than book tours.)

The New World

I, too, thought The New World suffered because of its length, but unlike the various reviewers who thought it was too long, I felt like most of the problems came from it being far too short for all that director-writer Terrence Malick tried to do with it.

The people sitting behind me, who were sighing and groaning and whispering to each other ("This is the worst movie!") clearly didn't agree that the majority of the scenes felt attenuated and that some moments seemed to have been edited with a dull axe. Most of this is clearly part of Malick's style, and is similar to what he has done with his past three films (Badlands, Days of Heaven, and The Thin Red Line), but some may also be the result of hasty editing -- originally, the movie was released in a 146-minute version for consideration for the Oscars; it was then re-edited to a 135-minute version for general release (and a 3-hour version has been rumored for the DVD). I simply wanted more, particularly of the moments when the main characters are immersed in an entirely alien culture. I would have even been happy with more scenes of grass blowing in the wind.

But I'm a sucker for Terrence Malick's movies; his attention to sound and image, his sometimes ponderous scenes, his vaguely Heideggerian philosophizing all for some reason create an atmosphere I find both enchanting and thought-provoking. (I can certainly understand how other people find it excruciating, though; on the other hand, I know people who are enchanted by Kiarostami's movies, which bore me to death.)

The New World concerns the first contact of Native Americans with British colonists in Jamestown, particularly the story of John Smith and Pocahontas. Malick isn't much interested in creating a docu-drama, despite careful attention to the details of life in the colony and the life and language of the natives. The colonists are mostly aggressive, obnoxious, arrogant, and stupid, while the natives tend to be inscrutable and animalistic or guileless and innocent. These portrayals are, of course, simplistic in comparison to the actual history, but it often seems that what we see of a particular group is what the other group perceives of them -- we see the natives as they are perceived by the British (particularly John Smith) and vice versa. The movie is intensely subjective (including Malick's trademark whispered voiceovers) and refuses again and again the standard sorts of narrative contextualizing. Characters come and go, seldom with any explanation of who they are or even why they are there or where they came from. Events occur and often we don't know exactly why.

What we do have, though, is a situation common to all of Malick's movies: two people in love, whose passion brings them to a natural Eden that reflects in its peacefulness the joy they have found with their love, and then the Eden is lost or destroyed. Sometimes Malick's characters are self-aware enough to know that their perfect world, their universe of two, is doomed, and that is the case here, at least with John Smith, and some of the most deeply affecting moments of the film come when Smith and Pocahontas (whose name is not said until she is Christened as Rebecca) are most deeply in love and yet also aware of how impossible it is for them to continue their lives outside of their cultures. Smith is at first brought into the native world, and then Pocahontas/Rebecca, exiled because of her compassion for the colonists, enters the world of the British, and ultimately dies in London. What makes a world "new" depends, as does so much in this film, on whose perspective does the defining.

14 February 2006

Quote for the Day

...(And my new Reader will come to me empty-

handed, with a countenance that roses, lavenders, and cakes.

And my new Reader will be only mildly disappointed.

My new Reader can wait, can wait, can wait.) Light-

minded, snow-blind, nervous, Reader, Reader, troubled, Reader,

what’d ye lack? Importunate, unfortunate, Reader:

You are cold. You are sick. You are silly.

Forgive me, kind Reader, forgive me, I had not intended to step this quickly this far

back. Reader, we had a quiet wedding: he&I theparson

&theclerk. Would I could, stead-fast, gracilefacile Reader! Last,

good Reader, tarry with me, jessa-mine Reader. Dar-

(jee)ling, bide! Bide, Reader, tired, and stay, stay, stray Reader,

true. R.: I had been secretly hoping this would turn into a love

Disconsolate. Illiterate. Reader,

I have cleared this space for you, for you, for you.

--Olena Kalytiak Davis
"Sweet Reader, Flanneled and Tulled"

13 February 2006

All the Links that are My Life

12 February 2006

"Scorpions" by Chris Fox

After writing all night, I awoke
to find scorpions in the shoes of my sentences.
So I went barefoot.

Later, the scorpions became
words, almost--
phonetic with exoskeleton,
grasping and pinching,
stinging at the world with interrogatives.

Later still, scorpions and shoes became
sentences about scorpions, shoes
and sentences.

It's hard to write with pincers,
hard to type
with shoes on the feet of my hands,
hard to love you the way I do
when you keep mistaking the shape of my body in profile
for a rhetorical question
and I desperately need
your answer.

originally published in Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet No. 16, reprinted with permission of the author

Rhysling Award Nominations

Last year, being a dutiful member of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, I emailed my nominations for the annual Rhysling Award, and even got permission from one of the writers to reprint his poem here. Time went by, and I received the annual anthology of nominees, and neither of mine were included. I gently asked my friend Mike Allen, president of the SFPA, if I was considered too radical to be a nominator, since I've said a few times I don't believe in the basic concept of "science fiction poetry", but, being an inveterate postmodernist, this doesn't mean I don't support the efforts of the SFPA to bring attention to good poems. Mike assured me that what had happened was that my nomination had simply gotten lost, and the nominating process has been tweaked a bit to try to ensure that this doesn't happen again.

Thus, I have now returned to nominating. In the short poem category, I am nominating Chris Fox's poem "Scorpions" from Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet (no. 16), and in the long poem category, I am nominating "Croatoan" by Louis Armand from Jacket 28.

Two very different poems, indeed. "Scorpions" is a poem I have remembered ever since I first read it this summer, because for one reason or another it amused me, and I like the turn it makes in the last two stanzas. The poem verges on being cute, and I like that in a poem titled "Scorpions".

"Croatoan" is a difficult poem. I have read it three times, and that clearly is not enough. It is one of the richest poems I have read in quite a while, both conceptually and linguistically. This is another poem I remembered long after first reading it, and I nominated it because whole phrases from it had stuck in my mind -- a mind that doesn't usually remember many phrases of any sort. In my failed attempt at nomination last year, the short poem also came from Jacket, and I was wary of drawing from the same place twice. I read lots of great long poems last year (I particularly liked a number of poems in Agni 61), but "Croatoan" was the one that stuck with me most vividly, the one that continued to make me think and wonder.

05 February 2006

How to Write Dialogue?

A friend beginning to write fiction asked me how to write effective dialogue. I think I said some platitude or another, something like, "Listen to people," and then changed the subject. Then Jed Hartman wrote up some observations of dialogue, and I got to thinking about it again.

The question has stuck with me because it's so difficult to give any good advice about it, and difficult even to argue about it. For instance, Jed really liked the dialogue in The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl, while I did not. Who's right? Both and neither. Certainly there are times when dialogue is obviously clunky or too expository, etc., but once a writer has moved past a beginner's mistakes, dialogue becomes entirely a matter of "ear" -- the writer's and the reader's. (For some good basic lessons on dialogue, check out Robert Sawyer's advice, Holly Lisle's points and excercises, and this list of pitfalls and exercises.)

To move beyond the most basic points about how dialogue works, we need to think about it as a transaction between the writer and the reader, one that relies on the other elements of the writing. "Effective dialogue" is not a single, universal entity. A style of dialogue that is effective in one story may not be effective in another, and whether dialogue is effective depends not just on the writer's skill, but the reader's sense of tone, as well as how the reader constructs an idea of what function the dialogue serves in the story.

Dialogue is not just about how characters talk. It is, more than anything else, a writer's trick. Dialogue in even the most "realistic" story is not how real people talk -- it is a convention created by the writer and accepted by the reader. The most effective realistic dialogue is dialogue that supports the illusion to such an extent that the reader forgets they are reading and begins to hear the words in their mind's ear, convinced that this is, indeed, how real people talk.

If you want to see the difference between real dialogue and fictional dialogue, record a conversation, and transcribe exactly what you hear. Written down, it will usually seem confusing, repetitive, fragmentary, and, paradoxically, unrealistic (or at least mannered), because our minds are not used to converting pure speech into text.

If writers want to improve their dialogue-writing skills, the best advice may not be to eavesdrop on conversations, but rather to look at a wide variety of fiction and decide what seems effective and what doesn't. Look at something from the 19th century, then something from today. Read a variety of contemporary playwrights -- David Mamet, Caryl Churchill, Tony Kushner, Wole Soyinka, Edward Albee, Suzan-Lori Parks, Wallace Shawn -- to see the range of possibilities, everything from the most colloquial to the most ritualized and declamatory (each is effective when it serves the overall purposes of the play). Compare Elmore Leonard and Alice Munro, Carole Maso and Stephen King, Toni Morrison and Kelly Link, Hemingway and Faulkner, Yasunari Kawabata and Louisa May Alcott, Don DeLillo and E.E. "Doc" Smith, J.M. Coetzee and Grace Paley, The Graduate and JR. And and and.

If you read and pay attention to the dialogue in the work of various writers from different cultures and historical periods, you'll find some that impress you and some you find almost unreadable. This is a test of you as a reader, but you can apply it to the sense of yourself as a writer, because it's likely that the rhythms and styles that most appeal to you as a reader do so because they match the conventions your brain has most deeply absorbed, and that will be the style that is easiest for you to write well in. (I'm not saying you should always write in that style, or that good writers never question and challenge what comes easiest to them, but rather that you might as well start with what is most comfortable and work out from there.)

Dialogue can serve many purposes. It is as much about tone and pacing in a story as it is about conveying information about the situation or characters. A lot of short conversations speed up the reading, while long speeches are generally slower to read, as are conversations broken up by narration. Dialogue filled with content is slower than dialogue that is suggestive and apparently empty. Blunt dialogue is different in effect from subtle or evasive dialogue. The use of speech tags is important, too -- often, we want readers to know exactly who is speaking, but not always, and a strategically deleted "he said" can be useful in some situations: it forces the reader to stop and think, or it plunges them into a confusion that forces them to sort things out, or to see characters as identical. Punctuation is often vitally important: there is a difference between a character whose words dissolve in... and a character whose discussion gets slashed with-- The use or lack of quotation marks or (as James Joyce and Hal Duncan prefer) opening dashes can create different tonal effects. Stories where the dialogue is not set apart from the narrative with quotation marks, such as many of Grace Paley's and Jose Saramago's, feel different from stories that use the conventional punctuation; there is a somewhat dreamier feel, one where the talking and the narrative are not as distanced from each other. Unrealistic, stilted, "literary" dialogue -- dialogue that works against the dominant conventions of realistic fiction -- can be valuable for creating irony or humor, or to highlight disconnections between elements of the fiction.

Certainly for many writers dialogue is a means to a narrative end more than a true skill of its own, but while dialogue is one item among many, it rewards careful thought and attention, because it opens up quite a range of possible effects for a writer sensitive to its potential.

04 February 2006

The Commonplace of Every Thought

Here are some words by other people I've been mulling, collecting, disputing, worshipping, or generally gerunding recently:
We love a sentence only partially because of what it means, but even more for the manner and intensity through which it makes its meaning vivid.
--Samuel R. Delany, "Emblems of Talent", About Writing

I think that what I blame books for, in general, is that they are not free. One can see it in the writing: they are fabricated, organized, regulated; one could say they conform. A function of the revision that the writer often wants to impose on himself. At that moment, the writer becomes his own cop. By being concerned with good form, in other words the most banal form, the clearest and most inoffensive. There are still dead generations that produce prim books. Even young people: charming books, without extension, without darkness. Without silence. In other words, without a true author. Books for daytime, for whiling away the hours, for traveling. But not books that become embedded in one's thoughts and toll the black mourning for all life, the commonplace of every thought.
--Marguerite Duras, Writing
translated by Mark Polizzotti

Average art students produce art with different values than the art they admire or are taught. Average art is less challenging, less aggressive, more conciliatory and inviting, more immediately comprehensible, and less troubling than exceptional, historically important art.
--James Elkins, Why Art Cannot Be Taught

Standards are inevitable, and the best of these will create themselves to meet, to create new occasions. Let us, therefore, admit standards. But let us also ask how many critics of literature espouse, even selectively, the new, speak of it with joyous intelligence? Taking few risks, the best known among them wait for men of lesser reputations to clear the way.
--Ihab Hassan, "POSTmodernISM", New Literary History, Autumn 1971

Poets should exceed themselves -- when demands on us are slack, we should be anything but. Pressing the demands of the word forward is not only relevant but urgent. If our country does not vigorously cultivate poetry, it is either poetry's ineluctable time to wither or time to make a promise on its own behalf to put out new shoots and insist on a much bigger pot.
--C.D. Wright, Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil


Because much as I try, I can't squeeze 72 hours into a 24-hour day, I have many books waiting to be read, books with alluring covers and titles and authors, books that sit in piles, where they whine and purr and gurgle late at night, urging me to pay attention to them, their every page accusing me of neglect and indifference. It's not that I want to neglect them. It's not that I want them to feel spurned and abused. Perhaps I should mention them here -- perhaps that will convince them to be patient...

Here, then, are a few of the books I'm looking forward to reading in the coming weeks and months:
  • Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell: Tobias gave me an advance copy of this at the World Fantasy Convention, and I have been looking forward to reading it for a variety of reasons; it is at the top of the pile, and its screams and screeches for attention late at night scare my cat.

  • Silver Screen by Justina Robson: I got a review copy of this from SF Site, but haven't yet gotten to it. I also got an advance copy of Robson's Living Next Door to the God of Love and haven't read that yet, either.

  • Red Cavalry and Other Stories by Isaac Babel: I love Babel's stories, and haven't yet read these translations of them (from 1994, revised 1998), though I did read the introduction to the book, and enjoyed it. This looks like a good place to start if you haven't read Babel before.

  • Mindscape by Andrea Hairston: I'm excited to read this novel, not only because it comes highly recommended from a couple people whose judgment I trust, and not only because Hairston is primarily known as a playwright (and I am more of a playwright at heart than anything else), but because the novel is published by Aqueduct Press, a publisher I have wanted to become familiar with for some time, and yet have not, for one reason or another, done so. Bad me. Bad bad bad. (Aqueduct is offering a discount to readers who preorder Mindscape through their website by March 1.) Just moments ago, I ordered Writing the Other, so I will be slowly making up for my previous neglect of Aqueduct.

  • Pashazade, Effendi, and Felaheen by Jon Courtenay Grimwood: I've heard many good things about this series, and had an advance copy of Effendi for some time, but was told that the books are best read in order, starting with Pashazade, so for a while now I've had the excuse that I don't have all three books and therefore my neglect is justified. But I recently got the other two books. Now my neglect is less justified.

  • Living My Life by Emma Goldman (Penguin Classics -- 1 volume, abridged): I love the full version of this book, and the good people at Penguin just sent me an advance copy of this new abridgement, due to be released in March. It's a generous selection from the original, and looks like it will be a magnificent way for people to become familiar with both Goldman's life and ideas. I've so far read half of the long introduction by Miriam Brody, and it's clear and thoughtful.

  • The Method Actors by Carl Shuker: I've actually begun reading this, though it's long and I'm not sure I'll have a chance to finish it before I have to return it to the Dartmouth library. It's about various gaijin (foreigners) in Tokyo, and comes with a blurb from David Markson, who calls it "an extraordinarily ambitious and often brilliant first novel". (I know it's generally not very helpful to listen to blurbs, but c'mon, it's David Markson!)
I have nearly finished one book this week, though: In the Shadow of Fame by Sue Erikson Bloland. Bloland is the daughter of psychologist Erik Erikson, and I read her article "Fame: The Power and Cost of a Fantasy" in the November 1999 Atlantic Monthly with great interest, finding it often insightful and fascinating. Unfortunately, the book is ploddingly written and offers no satisfying development of any of the ideas from the original article. Oh well. There are plenty of other books waiting, and I'm sure at least a couple of them will reward my belated attentions.

02 February 2006

Happy 124th, Mr. Joyce

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

--James Joyce
"The Dead"
(written 1907)