30 July 2006

Summer Break

Time for a break. I'm in the midst of various writing projects, preparations for the upcoming school year, etc. Also, rehearsals for a production of Twelfth Night (I'm playing Sebastian; the director has cast many of us against type, so I have to play a virile, masculine guy. And had to shave my beard. If you're anywhere near Sandwich, NH on August 8-13, stop by the outdoor stage at the Fairgrounds at 2pm to see the show.)

Because of all this busy-ness, I will try to refrain from posting anything here at least until the middle of August. I've got an interview with Juliet Ulman (senior editor at Bantam) in the works, and will post that whenever we get around to finishing it; also, I'll probably make an appearance or two at the LitBlog Co-op, but otherwise I expect this site will be dormant for at least a couple weeks.

Here, then, as a parting, are some new links:

26 July 2006


Paris Press has been bringing out books by Bryher, a writer who was in danger of disappearing beneath the shadow of her partner, the poet H.D., but Bryher's own work deserves and rewards attention.

I've just turned in a review of The Player's Boy and The Heart to Artemis: A Writer's Memoirs to Rain Taxi for their next issue, but there were a few things I didn't have space to say, and wanted to add here.

The Player's Boy is a historical novel about a theatrical apprentice in England from 1605-1626, and while it's worth reading (and more substantial, I thought, than the first Paris Press reprint of Bryher's work, Visa For Avalon), it's minor in comparison to The Heart to Artemis, which is one of the most compelling memoirs I've read. The notable thing about Heart to Artemis is that it is most interesting in the sections that seem least likely to be interesting -- while the portraits of various notable Modernists are well written, Bryher's insistence on avoiding anything that could be perceived as gossip renders them a bit lifeless and fragmentary, but the first half of the book, which is devoted to her childhood, is extraordinary. Again and again she compares life in the late-Victorian and early-Edwardian eras to life later. Her father was a wealthy industrialist, and she spent most of her childhood traveling throughout Europe, so the experiences she relates are fascinating, and she writes about them in a clear, sharp, matter-of-fact language.

Bryher's style of writing is often aphoristic, but not in an affected way (although her punctuation is often not what we'd consider standard), and I found myself making notes throughout The Heart to Artemis so that I could find passages quickly later. There was far too much for me to quote in my Rain Taxi review, and so here are some passages I hated to leave out:
I am inclined to think now that much of the best writing of late Victorian times went into children's literature. It is a myth to suppose that the nineteenth-century child felt particularly secure, the stories were mostly in the Zola tradition and stressed suffering, poverty and the evils of drink. I had one extraordinary volume largely taken up with an account of a small boy's struggles not to compete with his drunken father in emptying tankards of porter. A Bible teacher saved him, of course. There were also grim accounts of disaster through a father's death leaving the family without funds when dogs and posessessions had to be sold and the children scattered to "poor relations" among harsh and unforgiving aunts. Such a fate was usually ascribed to the indulgence of the parents. They had given the family a pony or a trip to the seaside instead of saving every penny against a possible "rainy day." ... Virtue might be rewarded on the final page but it was a point of honour to endure countless tribulations first. Fortunately, it was the righteous who died. The sinners were left to go on battling against temptation. Death was presented factually and boldly, my mother protested mildly when Ruth gave me Little Dot, or the Grave-digger's Daughter one Christmas but I read it all the same. ... Whenever I hear now of conferences to determine the vocabulary used in books for children and of the care taken not to upset their delicate imaginations, I can understand why they prefer their horror comics to literature. Our age treated us properly. The world was a harsh place and the sooner we learned the difference between good and evil the better. Ludicrous as some of the stories were, they spoke of realities and this was healthy. (14-15)

Each period has its own characteristics and what I feared and hated in the nineteenth century were its irrational conventions. Alas, as I have written elsewhere, to be sensitive to an environment as an artist has to be, is also a disadvantage. The future generation, busy with its own conflicts, will live on our victories and be contemptuous of our defeats. (31)

The classics are for childhood and old age, middle life belongs to contemporary experience. (44)

Nobody ever gets over their first camel. (67)

To write of things was to become part of them. It was to see before the beginning and after the end. I almost screamed against the pain of the moment that from its very intensity could not last. (128)

Our opponents forget that alliterative poetry was the basis of English literature and that the ability to hear and use the slight pause or silence between parts of a line or the portions of a sentence is one of the writer's important tasks. (182)

I have a profound contempt for the writer who speaks of making his work intelligible to the masses, he is not serving them but betraying their trust. Our job is to feel the movement of time as its direction is about to change and there can be no reward but the vision itself. It is natural that we should be both disliked and ignored. (182-183)

Neon lighting has standardized the sky. It is the red of metals whether we are in Knightsbridge or Fifth Avenue. (187)

Perhaps great art is always the flower of some deeply felt rebellion. (199)

I grabbed a book of American poetry, if I were going to be killed it should be while I was reading about the New World. (201)

We reacted against the sadistic denials of the age by a heightened consciousness of nature and of art -- places where our enemies could not reach us. (210)

I do not know if it was due to my Eastern experiences or because I had been spared any furtive allusions in childhood but sex to me then was entirely a matter for science and I grasped immediately that birth control was far more important to women than votes. Nobody had the right to force a woman to have a child, I argued, it must be her choice as a matter of moral principle. (228)

The mistake that we made was that though we owed our survival to rebellion, we did not realise that it was not the concepts themselves but the way that mankind had used them that was false. Our incessant mockery of loyalty, duty and honour deprived the next generation of its proper roots and they did not have our apprenticeship of danger to steady them. Yet remember that nothing was left to us of the codes to which our youth had been sacrificed and that we gave our century a sense of honesty (England went into the second war without illusions) and an inquisitiveness of mind. We swept away some good together with much evil but always with such exuberance tht compared with us the thirties seem a dull and spiritless age. (242-243)

I read some of the magazines of the period over again recently and it is Gertrude [Stein's] work that now seems the most alive. (250)

Perhaps a small hunk of a particular material is given to every artist and the measure of his success or failure is how he uses it. (253)

Suddenly I realised to my horror that it was a vicarage garden party in reverse. These rebels were no more free from the conventions that they had fastened upon themselves than a group of old ladies gossiping over their knitting. (264)

I warned the English privately and also in print [about the Nazis]. They called me a warmonger and jeered at me for my pains. It did not help me when I stood among the ruins of blitzed London to know that my forebodings had come true. I remain ashamed of the majority of my fellow citizens and convinced that apathy is the greatest sin in life. ... Most of us, wherever we live, must share the guilt of having done nothing at all. (326)

25 July 2006

A Sign

Every now and then I get (or, rather, interpret) a sign that I've been reading too much academic writing. Today's was when I heard the following lyrics from a song by Mason Jennings:
when all the world turns into hospitals and jails
i can always count on your love to be my bail
and my very first thought was, "It's a Foucauldian love song!"

24 July 2006

Emerald City 131

Cheryl Morgan has posted the latest issue of Emerald City online, and it's a particularly fun issue, because she offers an editorial on reviewing and bribes and, within the context of a review of Charles Stross's new novel, essentialism (which ties in rather well with the Adam Roberts post at The Valve that I linked to earlier).

I often get frustrated with reviews that go off on a philosophical or political tangent based on the thematic content of a novel, but in this case I like how Cheryl handled it -- we get a sense of the book, her perception of its strengths and weaknesses, and then a mini-essay about essentialism, which makes the review itself a provocative read. Now I look forward to sitting back and watching how people respond to her ideas...

21 July 2006

All You Need are Links

Time to purge the bookmarks...

20 July 2006

PKD and Style

I've been making my way through Carl Freedman's Critical Theory and Science Fiction recently, and though it's admirably ambitious, it seems, so far at least, mired in predictable academic Marxism, and Freedman's attempt to show that critical theory (from Kant till now) can be an outgrowth of science fiction and vice versa leads him toward some conclusions that seem to me (at least right now, and perhaps superficially) silly.

For instance, one section of the book is titled "The Critical Dynamic: Science Fiction and Style" and it attempts to show that the style of Philip K. Dick is not, as many of us have thought, in most cases rather clumsy, but is, instead, a kind of apotheosis of critical style, a perfection in and of itself. (I suppose it would be easy to believe this if you spend most of your time reading academic journals. Dick's sentences would, indeed, seem a revelation of clarity and eloquence.) The annoying part of the discussion is that Freedman claims to be analyzing language, but he seems to bore himself with this discussion, because he's apparently just not very interested in language as language. I'm not saying that language always has to be analyzed purely for its linguistic elements, that aesthetic criticism is the only way to go or that it's free of assumptions or cant, but it would be nice if you're going to discuss language to really discuss it, and not just say, "Style as it's been talked about by literary people is bourgeois, and this style, which you've all previously thought is ugly, will bring us closer to revolution." (Okay, I'm caricaturing. But only a little.)

I feel compelled to argue here with Freedman not because I want to subject a general audience to academic writing (as if I could subject you to anything -- you know you're about to go click over to some porn once this grows boring). Rather, I think it's a worthwhile exercise now and then to look at complex arguments written in difficult language and see what's going on within them, because sometimes what is there truly is complex enough to justify the difficulty of the diction and syntax. I'm not a master of analyzing this sort of writing, but I do read more than my fair share of it, and the risk of utter misinterpretation and misrepresentation seems worthwhile, at least occasionally, so here we go...

I should attempt fairness and let Freedman speak for himself:
The point to be stressed about the language is its profoundly critical, dialectical character. For undialectical theory, the most familiar emotions -- love, affection, hatred, anger, and so forth -- tend to be unproblematic categories, assumed to be much the same in all times and places, and to exist on an irreducibly subjective level. They may of course manifest themselves in a practically infinite number of permutations, and the precritical reader may relish such psychological fiction as that of Dostoevsky or Flaubert for the subtlety and acuteness with which those authors portray the (presumably universal and static) varieties of affective experience. A dialectical approach, on the other hand, would adopt the kind of perspective suggested by Dick. Because the [opening] paragraph [of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?] shows an emotional dynamic of a future age operating quite differently from what we ourselves empirically experience, the question of the historicity of feelings is raised, and the possibility of a historical periodization of emotion in coordination with other aspects of social development (such as technology) is at least implied. The technical emphasis of the paragraph also tends to remove emotion from idealist notions of spirituality or the unproblematically individual, and to suggest that psychic states may be reducible to concrete and transindividual material realities -- a reduction that Freud, after all, held to be the ultimate conceptual goal of psychoanalysis and Lacan (substituting language for neurobiology as the grounding of psychoanalytic materialism) claimed to have achieved through the mediation of neo-Saussurian linguistics. We may also not that, if the phrase I used above, "technology of the emotion," has a strong Foucauldian ring, it is not by chance. Dick's paragraph does indeed resonate with Foucault's concern to show that power does not merely repress or distort the subjectivity of individuals, but actually constitutes human subjectivity, from the ground up, so to speak, and in historically variable ways. (32)
Perhaps I should also quote the paragraph from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? that prompted Freedman to see Dick as an exemplar of Freudian, Lacanian, and Foucauldian ideas:
A merry little surge of electricity piped by automatic alarm from the mood organ beside his bed awakened Rick Deckard. Surprised -- it always surprised him to find himself awake without prior notice -- he rose from the bed, stood up in his multicolored pajamas, and stretched. Now, in her bed, his wife Iran opened her gray, unmerry eyes, blinked, then groaned and shut her eyes again.
Before the section I quoted, Freedman does a good job of showing how the word "merry" conveys information within this paragraph and helps the astute reader learn about the imagined world, but few of his insights are, except for the references to critical theorists, anything that would not appear in a basic How to Write Science Fiction sort of handbook. It may be that those of us who read this stuff with some regularity take it for granted and are blind to the amazing power of single words to suggest worlds. But I don't think so. Consider how many fans can cite Heinlein's phrase "the door dilated" (from Beyond This Horizon) as an example of something SF can do that non-SF can't do.

Except non-SF can do it, and plenty. Every book builds a new world out of words, because unless the author is writing only for herself, he will need to wield language in such a way as to suggest important background details, because all fiction is a map of territories, not the territory itself, and words are the substance of that map, the instigators of imagination. If we're imagining Saul Bellow's Chicago, we may draw on our previous experience or knowledge of Chicago to build the setting in our minds (or we may have no previous experience of Chicago and have to use our previous experience of Bangalore), but with SF settings we're also grabbing at whatever happens to be in our head that works for that, too -- images from movies and art, experience with current technologies that we alter a bit (at the prompting of the author's words), etc. The translation of reality into words in fiction renders everything imaginary. As for Rick Deckard's mood organ, we figure out what it is because we already have referents for the words "mood" and "organ". Though I might think of "morose" when I think of the word "mood" and might imagine a clunky old organ I saw in a junk shop while you think of "good" for "mood" and a beautiful pipe organ, our references still overlap enough that we're ending up with the same bit of information. (It would be interesting if, though, for "organ" you associated the word "liver". The biological meaning of "organ" is actually not entirely inappropriate, providing a nice pun.) The clever use of the words "merry" and "unmerry" link in our minds to "mood organ", because, well, they link to the word "mood", and so we easily pick up Dick's meaning with a simple bit of extrapolation. But making a typical move in a clever way is not a hallmark of genius; it's the hallmark of a good craftsman who sometimes got lucky.

I'm off on a tangent. Getting back to where we were -- and maybe all I'm doing is proving that Freedman is right and I should be less suspicious, but let's continue being suspicious for a little while at least -- what does all this have to do with style? Freedman says he's not suggesting that "historical materialism, psychoanalysis, Foucauldian archaology ... are actually present, even embryonically, in the short and apparently unpretentious paragraph that opens Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" but that, instead, those "elaborate theoretical structures" and SF have "shared perspectives":
What is crucial is the dialectical standpoint of the science-fictional tendency, with its insistence upon historical mutability, material reducibility, and, at least implicitly, utopian possibility.
Am I an idiot for being doubtful? All storytelling, to some extent or another, represents historical mutability and material reducibility if you want it to. Say you have a novel about one day in the life of somebody whose days are all alike, and thus the book seems, on the surface, to be about the inability to change anything in the world. The writer will, most likely, fill the book with descriptions of objects encountered in the person's unchanging day, situations that are exactly the same, etc. -- and yet, it wouldn't be difficult for a critic to show that, in fact, there are differences between any one moment and the next, and that though the changes represented in the person's day are subtle, they are nonetheless there, and give us hope for the impending, if far-off, triumph of possibility over capitalism.

I could be missing the point. If so, I'm doing it willfully, because I'm depressed about the situation of the world and it's made me cranky with idealists and ideologues. But where were we? Weren't we talking about style? Right, style--
Yet it must be noticed that the quoted sample of Dick's prose, like the prose of most (though certainly not all) science fiction, is far from what is ordinarily considered "fine" writing or the work of a "stylist" in the usual eulogistic sense. If, then, a deep affinity between critical theory and science fiction can be detected on the molecular level of style, the question of stylistic quality or value must somehow be engaged. (32-33)
Freedman then goes on to give an overview of what he sees as "the general context of the ideology of style that has developed within hegemonic criteria of literary value". He contrasts style ("an effect of the bourgeois cultural revolution") with rhetoric, which is older and has a "shared figural infrastructure" that "guarantees a considerable degree of pan-rhetorical community", whereas
Style is generally assumed to be the direct expression of the middle-class ego and must be created anew and almost ex nihilo by every stylist. Fundamentally, it has little in common with such a characteristically collective and transpersonal project of the precapitalist order as rhetoric. On the contrary, it is part and parcel of the whole celebration of personal subjectivity so typical of cultural modernity -- not only in the sense that the individual stylist is personally and almost solely responsible for every act of stylistic production, but also in that every particular style (understood here as an overall pattern perceptible in the work of any given stylist) is taken to be profoundly revealing of the author not merely as producer of style but as a human subjectivity in toto. (34)
Will you forgive me if this makes me want to scream out the Dead Kennedys song "Holiday in Cambodia"?

(Why do I subject myself to this sort of thing? I don't know. Some sort of guilt, I'm sure. Some of you wear hairshirts, I read Critical Theory and Science Fiction.)

Freedman desperately wants to prove that though Dick's writing may seem to be little more than competent and functional, in actuality it is built of "heterogeneous and polyvalent prose" (37), and hence worthy of admiration for its style. He quotes from Ubik and cites Hemingway and Heinlein for comparison, an interesting mix (I wondered what a comparison with Hammett and Chandler would have done, actually).

Quickly enough, though, we get to the sorts of statements that I find particularly annoying in Freedman's attempt to analyze style, because they show that he's not really interested in style, but rather something else. He states that "the overall critical agendum" of Ubik is "the satiric and rationally paranoid estrangement of the commodity structure of monopoly capitalism", that "the unadorned functionality of neo-Heinleinian prose ... clashes with what is for the reader the intensely strange content of the action" (38).
...Dick's style does more than move his plot along and insinuate the general cognitive estrangements that generically define science fiction. Even more important, the style, in its heterogeneous complexity, enacts on the molecular level the most searching critical-theoretical juxtapositions and interrogations that the novel in toto is concerned with implementing. If this style be "subliterary," then that category itself certainly needs to be rethought -- especially within the general context of science fiction. It is time, in fact, to consider more deeply the ideological functions of formalist canons of stylistic value. (38)
Freedman brings in Mikhail Bakhtin to help in this deep consideration, saying the "rejection of any attempt to construct literature as a self-sufficient autonomous system" is what unites Dick and Bakhtin: "For both, the internal structure of style is no less important than, while closely related to, its radical referentiality" (39). The prose of a novel should not be subjected to the same standards of analysis and evaluation as the language of poetry receives, and a poetic style "for all its apparent verbal richness, tends by its lyrical, rhythmic flow to repress otherness, to occlude difference", and so the heteroglossia of novelistic prose is better suited to foregrounding otherness and difference, and thus to help us foment revolution:
Accordingly, it follows that novelistic style, when most capable and most powerfully novelistic (and in that sense, indeed, most literary) may eschew certain properties of polish, of well-roundedness, of fluently controlled density and resonance proper to the poetic, and, correspondingly, that novelistic prose that does display such qualities, however "literary" it may seem in normative terms, is perhaps to be suspected of contamination by the monologic authoritarianism of poetry. ... Conversely, the dialogic, novelistic style endorsed by Bakhtin and exemplified by Dick is above all critical and dialectical, its "prosaic" quality may signal substantive, as opposed to merely technical, complexity. (39-40)
Of Dick, Freedman says, "Much of the complexity of the style derives from the ironic fine-tuning possible in free indirect discourse, an instrument that Dick can at times play with near-Flaubertian precision" (41).

Summing up, then, we have learned that clever-if-often-clunky prose eschews technical complexity in favor of substantive complexity, whereas more technically refined prose suffers from monologic authoritarianism, represses otherness, and occludes difference. Thus, we should celebrate Dick's prose because its very "faults" actually better serve the purpose of all science fiction: estrangement, which is a critical tactic that (apparently) helps us better see the terrors of commodity capitalism and overcome personal subjectivity.

While I am in awe of Freedman's ability to argue an apparent weakness into being a strength (boy would I love to see him show why Dr. Futurity is a great novel!), I think he's stacked the deck and also performed some sleight-of-hand, because he's chosen work that is ideologically appealing to him and tried to demonstrate how that ideological appeal manifests itself at the level of the prose. There are simply not enough contrasts within this argument for it to be convincing. We needed a stylistic analysis of Farnham's Freehold, a book I doubt Freedman has much ideological sympathy with, to understand how Dick's "neo-Heinleinian" sentences differ from Heinlein's own. We needed an analysis of some of Dick's bad novels -- surely Freedman agrees that at least one or two of them are, if not as awful as some of us bourgeois individualistic stylemonkeys think, not quite great. None of the techniques he ascribes to Dick are particularly rare within the world of SF writing, and without showing how Dick differs from what I would assume Freedman considers lesser writers, there's simply no way to be convinced that there is validity in his claims.

(I don't mean to beat up on Philip K. Dick, by the way. I've read more books by Dick than by any other writer. I do think estrangement is a central pleasure they offer. I think they'd be just as estranging, and perhaps even more so, if their sentences were more carefully wrought, because there are occasional moments in Dick's better novels [and even a few short stories] that show a real talent for a certain stylistic panache, and these moments are often powerful. Imagine what might result if John Crowley polished the sentences of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch!)

I'll continue reading Critical Theory and Science Fiction, and I expect once Freedman moves on to topics other than style that I will find his perspective slightly less annoying. Mostly, I suppose what bothers me is his attempt to use complex references and convoluted writing to put forward the idea that "serviceable" prose style is superior to a more distinctive and accomplished style because it is somehow closer to "the truth", when "the truth" turns out to be a shopworn, doctrinaire ideology that any 19-year-old in a college socialist club could spout with more subtlety. There are writers of more stylistic accomplishment whose viewpoint Freedman might consider just as politically interesting as Dick's (Don DeLillo comes to mind), and I find it difficult to believe that such writers are hiding otherness or blinding us to the realities of our commodified lives through the dazzle of their words, because an accomplished style can be a zap to the language centers of the brain, a distinctly estranging experience at the immediate level of words, a euphonic revolution in and of itself.

I'm hardly the first to say that stylistic accomplishment stands in sharp relief to the flat and numbing language that surrounds us, the dissembling pronouncements of bureaucrats and admeisters, the rote phrases that hide empty thought, hypocrisy, and murder. This may be my own ideology, but it is one of the few that gives me any hope in humanity.

18 July 2006

Kafka Gass

The August issue of Harper's includes an extraordinary essay by William Gass about Franz Kafka. Ostensibly, the essay is a review of Reiner Stach's Kafka: The Decisive Years, but Gass decided to approach it with a conceit that only a writer as brave and skilled as he could succeed with: he writes from the point of view of Kafka's writerly self, conflating it with Kafka's fictions, and beginning thus:
I awoke one morning to find myself transformed. I had been a man, but a man who was treated by my parents and my sister like a bug. Perhaps I was not so much an insect at my office; perhaps I was something else there, a blotter or a trash basket. Perhaps, like a bum, I was warned not to loiter when I was out on the avenue, or, while traveling on the train, I became just another newspaper or another sample case. Perhaps, to my boss, I was a worm. At home, however, a bug was what I was, a bug in a bed, a bedbug, sperm of the kind you could find hidden in my name -- Gregor Samsa -- for doesn't "sam" mean seed, a descendant? And so one day I woke to find myself more than a metaphor, more than a figure of derision and indifference. I was a bug, big in my bed as my body was, with a body bigger than any ordinary bug's, bigger than a rat's, a dog's, though I was small, considering what my life meant to me. To others, however, I was huge, monstrous, horrifying, all I always wanted to be, all I always dreamed.
That paragraph alone is a wonder, the sounds and rhythms of its sentences so beautifully crafted, the insights contained within them (about desire and metaphor, about debasement and dreams) suggestive and unobtrusive. Gass continues in this manner for a while, using both voice and detail to create a character ("Did you know my father deals in muffs? receives muffs from a manufacturer, sells those muffs -- as well as carded buttons, lingerie, handbags, gloves -- to retail stores?") until eventually he mentions the biography at hand ("I understand it has been given a wonderfully supple translation by Sheila Frisch"), and biography in general, before returning to ruminations on this Kafka creature in a monologue that could easily and effectively be spoken on stage:
Yes, I remember writing a fragment of fiction about just such a situation. I am safely ... my character is safely in his own bed, but it threatens to become his bride's bed too, so my reluctant bridegroom imagines sending his properly decked-out body to the wedding while he remains at home, unable to venture beyond his blankets, because -- well -- because he is a "large beetle, a stag beetle or cockchafer, I think ... I would then act as though it was a matter of hibernation...." My metaphor would marry and make love. I would not be required to attend.
After a long and fascinating passage about family and love and women, we return to the biography ("Let us stop for a moment to watch how Reiner Stach goes so skillfully about his business. It offers the reader a pleasure all its own"). Gass-as-the-ghost-of-Kafka's-metaphors shows how and why Stach's biography is so much more than the standard bio, how it is so often itself a work of art, and yet he does this within his own art, maintaining the ridiculously sublime conceit of the narrator, getting away with it by embracing the complexities it offers, making the essay about not only Kafka or Stach, but the impossible quest to know the self. It is a quest Kafka struggled with, Stach chronicled, Gass embodied, and few of us escape.

17 July 2006

LBC Summer

The summer pick of the LitBlog Co-Op has been announced, and it is Michael Martone by Michael Martone. The other books nominated for the Read This choice will be noted and discussed in the coming weeks.

For whatever reason, I was pretty indifferent to all of the nominees this round, so probably won't be saying too much, though during Michael Martone week I will at least put up a post asking for help understanding what people found so engaging about the book, since it was probably my least favorite of them all. (And then at the end of the quarter, I'll get to have a bit of revenge, because I was a nominator for the fall, and my nomination, along with two others, will be revealed. Bwahahahahaha!)

15 July 2006

Total Eclipse by John Brunner

I read John Brunner's 1974 novel Total Eclipse primarily because Fredric Jameson has praised it numerous times, and I was curious what might have captured Jameson's interest, since he's one of the most influential cultural philosophers alive and also happens to have a considerable and long-standing interest in science fiction.

Jameson listed Total Eclipse as unjustly neglected in a survey by Science Fiction Studies, and in "Shifting Contexts of Science Fiction Theory" he finds "the climactic moments" to be "extraordinary" and says the appeal of such books as Total Eclipse for him is that they "turn on the experience of discovery". He mentions Total Eclipse in his latest book, Archaeologies of the Future, where he calls it a "beautiful and melancholy fable" and notes how it works on multiple levels as an allegory and is distinctive for its focus on linguistic deductions about an alien civilization.

Contrast Jameson's opinion to that of this review, which says Total Eclipse "will fail to satisfy many readers due to its old-hat, excessively talky approach to hard SF, in addition to too many moments of dated, chuckle-inducing melodrama." (The review does praise the conclusion of the book, however.)

My own response was somewhere in between the two. I found it a fascinating book in many ways, but compelling almost in spite of itself, because not only is it full of people telling each other a lot of information, it is, finally, nearly as bleak as Joanna Russ's We Who Are About To.

I was amazed by Brunner's ability to keep dense passages of exposition somehow at least marginally interesting. I continued reading less because of a real passion for the story than because after the recent discussion of exposition hereabouts, I was curious to think about the exposition in Total Eclipse. The book is mostly exposition. It tells the story of a group of people on an alien planet investigating why a remarkable civilization came to an end; meanwhile, Earth is plagued with wars and famines and the one starship that humans have managed to create may never return to the alien planet, and so the thirty scientists there face being stranded for the rest of their lives.

Some of the exposition fills us in on the characters' backgrounds and on the situation back on Earth, but most of it shows us how the scientists, and one linguist in particular, learn more and more about the aliens. Their conversations are closer to those in a dialogue by Plato than those we might expect from real scientists, because the dialogue's primary purpose is, clearly, to advance the reader's knowledge of the mystery while at the same time causing the reader to think about the implications of the ideas. There are mistaken assumptions and bad guesses, yes, but these are usually solved quickly and easily through discussion. The action of the novel lies primarily in what the characters say to each other; the deductions are the actions, and they make little attempt at verisimilitude. The novel does not try to give us a real view of archaeological processes, which are far messier and less efficient than anything in the novel -- instead, it tries to create the illusion in the reader's mind of what it feels like to think in the kind of way such researchers must have to think.

The structure of the novel is particularly interesting if we hold onto this view of Total Eclipse as an instigator of a kind of thought. The first three chapters (of 24) are riddled with characters' thoughts. We move from one character to another quickly, sometimes without any sort of transition. In the subsequent chapters, the thoughts dwindle to nothing, and dialogue becomes the main conveyor of information about who thinks what. By externalizing this thinking and turning it into discussion, we the readers, the observers, get to participate in the process of solving the central mystery: we make guesses ourselves, we see if we can get ahead of the researchers, we test our speculations against each new discovery. It's the same process as with a traditional mystery story, but here the mystery is vast and does not involve chasing anybody or anything -- the materials of the story are mostly static. The mystery is solved in chapter 21, the solution is affirmed in chapter 22, and then the last two chapters move the novel away from dialogue-heavy problem-solving to the fate of the researchers. The novel returns to where it began, with the presentation of internal thoughts, but now it is done differently. Where before the thoughts of the characters were presented as part of the narration (italicized to separate them from the rest), now one of the characters writes a sort of diary, thus mixing the two modes: the internalized thoughts become externalized artifacts within the story, and then, finally, become the story itself.

The effect of this structure is to unify the actions of the researchers with the fate of humanity. It is, indeed, a blatantly allegorical move. Brunner seems to have message, but the novel becomes more than its message through its mix of modes and possible interpretations. The message, we discover, is not so much a prescription as an unanswerable question: Why do intelligent, complex civilizations knowingly commit suicide? The book gives us all the information we need to solve every other mystery within it, but that final question lingers. We begin in our minds, we solve problem after problem together, and then we are alone in our minds again, facing lonely death, with a head full of brilliant ideas while the real problem -- the problem of how to survive -- remains unsolved.

13 July 2006

Fantasy Magazine Interviews

I had begun to wonder whether the second and third issues of Fantasy magazine would ever exist as anything other than PDFs for reviewers, but the second and third issues were released simultaneously just in time for Readercon, and they are apparently now available via Clarkesworld Books. I have interviews in both; here are excerpts:

Theodora Goss:
The best prose writing will have poetry in it, and the best poem will contain elements of prose. Fantasy and realism are also on a continuum. They are not literary genres but ways of writing, and even of approaching the world. I believe that we, as writers, have two opposite impulses: to describe our world as accurately as possible, that is, to represent, and to create something that we have never seen before, to imagine. Every story contains fantasy and realism, in different proportions. Pure fantasy: perhaps that would look like one of Lord Dunsany's dreamscapes, where nothing in particular happens but everything the narrator describes is fantastical. Pure realism: the best example I can think of is actually a parody, Mr. Bailey, Grocer in George Gissing's New Grub Street. And Gissing himself seems, to me, a writer firmly on the realistic side of the continuum.
Peter S. Beagle:
MC: Do you think of yourself as a "fantasy writer"?

PSB: I think of myself as a fantasy thinker. I’ve done a lot of writing that wasn’t fantasy, but I know that "fantastic thinking" is a particular mindset of mine. There was a piece in today’s San Francisco Chronicle about a writer I know slightly, Christopher Moore, and in it Moore talks about wanting to write horror from quite an early age, but finding that somehow his horror always turned funny. Because that’s the way Moore is. So it just did. In the same way I could be writing about the minutes of a Congressional committee meeting, and somehow a fantasy element would enter without my knowledge.

12 July 2006

Maps and Fantasy

There are so many unquestioned assumptions and shallow statements in a new article at Strange Horizons, "The Reader and the Map", that it would be exhausting to detail them all, and they're suffiently obvious that I doubt I really need to. Nonetheless, the topic of maps in books is an interesting one in some ways, and my frustration with the essay mostly stems from wishing the material had been treated with more depth and insight.

The first book review I ever published was in the fanzine Niekas when I was in my mid-teens, a review of L.E. Modesitt's The Magic of Recluce, a glowing review that, if I remember correctly, made only one criticism: that the book didn't have a map. I was not a regular reader of fantasy novels at the time (I was a science fiction snob; I read Recluce because I knew the writer and he'd assured me it was a rational, scientific fantasy novel, a fantasy novel written by a science fiction writer), but I was a regular player of role-playing games, and I liked RPGs as much because of their detailed maps and books of rules and information as for the imaginative play, which was usually a let-down compared to what I could create in my head from the raw material.

At Readercon this weekend, China Mieville said, in his guest of honor interview, that one of the things he notices in both the audience for his work and in himself is a tension between a desire for otherworldly mystery and a desire for detail, detail, detail. He noted RPGs as an expression of this tension, a sublimation of geekiness within the rules and tables and worldbooks of the game that was often at odds with the fantastic potential of the material, and sometimes of the source material itself -- he noted that the game of Call of Cthulhu seemed to utterly miss Lovecraft's point: Cthulhu goes from being a creature so great and terrible that it can't possibly be described or comprehended to being a creature with 100 hit points. (I may be mangling China's argument, since it's based on memory, so please blame me if you disagree, not him.)

This tension between the desire for that-which-is-so-amazing-it's-incomprehensible and that-which-can-be-quantified is one most of us who are readers of SF probably share to some extent or another, and it can be a productive tension, perhaps even one of the foundational tensions in fantastic literature, the tension that propels much good fantasy writing into a realm that borrows from traditions of allegory, surrealism, and slice-of-life realism but doesn't comfortably fit into any one camp, and, at its best, is therefore richer than each.

M. John Harrison has said of his Viriconium series:
"What would it be really like to live in the world of...?" is an inappropriate question, a category error. You understand this immediately you ask it of the inscape of, say, Samuel Beckett or Wyndham Lewis. I didn’t want it asked (and I certainly didn’t want it answered) of Viriconium, so I made that world increasingly shifting and complex. You can not learn its rules. More importantly, Viriconium is never the same place twice. That is because -- like Middle-Earth -- it is not a place. It is an attempt to animate the bill of goods on offer. Those goods, as in Tolkien or Moorcock, Disney or Kafka, Le Guin or Wolfe, are ideological. "Viriconium" is a theory about the power-structures culture is designed to hide; an allegory of language, how it can only fail; the statement of a philosophical (not to say ethological) despair. At the same time it is an unashamed postmodern fiction of the heart, out of which all the values we yearn for most have been swept precisely so that we will try to put them back again (and, in that attempt, look at them afresh).
I assume Harrison's sort of fantasy is of the kind that Johan Jönsson says "a map would be totally uncalled for", but it's hard to tell, because he barely explains how and why maps are called for or uncalled for. Apparently, only quest fantasies with multiple volumes call for maps, but why is this? Crime and Punishment doesn't need a map? Then why do some editions come with one?

Maps possess an air of objectivity, and a good map can of course be extremely useful, but they are entirely subjective and in many ways fictitious. In Maps of the Imagination, Peter Turchi notes that a map "fires the imagination" through "the balance of detail and blankness, suggestion and opportunity". A map is a selection, a fantastic creation where landscape is simplified and arranged and colorized. A map is an expression of choice, imagination, and ideology as much as a story is. I wonder if there are fantasy novels that make this a part of their structure -- it would be fascinating to read, for instance, a new Viriconium novel that included maps as part of its structure of subversion. That we accept the maps in standard fantasy trilogies as accurate says as much about our expectations from those works as does the presence of the maps themselves.

10 July 2006

DeNiro Events

Alan DeNiro is running around giving readings from his marvelous first collection of stories, Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead (about a third of which is available as a handy PDF here). It's great fun to hear Alan read (and if you bribe him appropriately, he might even try to read in Dave Schwartz's famous Minnesota accent), so if you're anywhere near these events, don't miss them:
  • Tonight (7/10) at 8pm at Amherst Books in Amherst, MA
  • Tomorrow night (7/11) at 7pm at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, MA with the incomparable Theodora Goss and Kelly Link.
  • Tuesday July 18 at Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis. This is the official book-launch party. The Small Beer Press site lists the time as 7pm, but the Magers & Quinn site lists it as 1am, so I don't know what to tell you. Show up at both times. Wear a funny hat. Speak in tongues.
And if this isn't enough DeNiro for you, check out his Rain Taxi review of Paraspheres. (By the way, the article he cites in it, "Antebellum Literary Culture and the Evolution of American Magazines" by Heather Haverman is available as a PDF here and is fascinating.)

I'll be at the Porter Square reading. I'll be the guy in the back wearing a velvet dress and clown nose, playing an accordion, and singing a polka version of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy". Really.

Which reminds me, if you ever hang out with John Scalzi (and you should, because he's awesome), mention Oliver! and the Artful Dodger to him and see what happens...

09 July 2006

Random Thoughts Post-Readercon

Unlike last year, I didn't take any notes during Readercon this year, so I don't have much to report, and I'm wary of mentioning too many specific people, because I know I'll forget a few important ones and end up feeling guilty, which I'm already feeling for not being able to write a more interesting post about Readercon, and much as I like it, I really don't need more guilt.

It was a pleasure to meet people I'd not had the chance to meet before and to catch up with friends I hadn't seen in a while. I'd tell you about some of the treasures I got in the dealer's room, but then I'd feel guilty for causing jealousy and being generally boastful. I'd tell you that one of the highlights of the con for me was learning to play Mafia (Michael Cisco will never trust me for the rest of my life; Laird Barron is a brilliant Mafia player), but that might make it sound like I didn't appreciate the various panels and readings I went to, or the great Guest of Honor interview with China Mieville, and I did appreciate those things, and I'd feel guilty if somebody thought I didn't.

So that's all for now, but in case the pretty Red Cross nurse with the blue eyes and the jolly laugh says that it's all right for the trolley car to jump over the house and play tag with the chimney, I'll try to come up with something else to say about something or other sometime soon.

07 July 2006

Infodump Assumptions

I've been wondering about exposition recently, particularly exposition of the infodump variety, wherein an author needs to convey a lot of information and does so by coming out and stating it. Telling vs. showing. Choosing efficiency over subtlety.

Here are some ideas, questions, and assumptions about exposition that could be entirely wrong, because I haven't really analyzed them very hard, but perhaps they will spark some discussion. I've numbered them for easy reference, not linearity.

1. It seems to me that an aversion to exposition in fiction may be a 20th century thing. Earlier literatures seemed more comfortable with it than 20th century literatures. If this assumption is correct, does the new aversion come from a move toward more verisimilitude in writing?

2. Why do infodumps feel unrealistic to us, particularly in dialogue? Much of what we say every day is expository. But transcribed into dialogue in a story, most of our expository conversations would feel unrealistic.

3. Does a foregrounding of psychology rather than action in a story reduce the challenges of exposition? If we're deep inside, for instance, Mrs. Dalloway's mind are we less concerned about expository lumps than if we're reading about Mrs. Dalloway's adventures in time and space? It could be that the tangential and associational writing associated with the representation of a mind undercuts the need or desire for straightforward exposition. But probably only if the setting and situation are ones that a general audience can be assumed to have some familiarity with. If Mrs. Dalloway were thinking about buying flowers on the planet Xsgha, where the riuGsj splort the frunktiplut, the need for some sort of exposition would increase. But would it look different as exposition because we're so deep inside Mrs. D's brain than it would were we following her from a more objective viewpoint?

4. Are we more accepting of straight-out exposition in comedy than in drama?

5. If a narrative is obviously not trying to be realistic, why do we care if the exposition isn't "realistic"?

6. Is exposition a problem of point of view and tone rather than a problem in and of itself? (Is exposition a problem? That and why? are the metaquestions here, I guess.)

7. What is an example of a novel, story, or movie that is full of exposition and handles it with great subtlety? What is an example of a novel, story, or movie that is full of infodumps and it doesn't bother the reader/viewer?

06 July 2006

Transcendent by Stephen Baxter

reviewed by Finn Dempster

The Die-back: a struggling Humanity's name for the gradual erosion of Earth's environment through global warming. The governments of this uncomfortably near future are taking partially successful steps to halt this, or at least to treat the symptoms, and most people, jaded middle-aged widower Michael Poole included, are content to accept this compromised solution. Poole is jolted out of his complacency by his son's near-fatal involvement in a Die-back induced explosion of hydrate gases under the Earth's polar caps, and he begins to investigate the possibility of using his engineering expertise to ease the struggling planet's burden ... a task made no easier by recurrent, fleeting visitations of his dead wife and a fraught relationship with his son.

Enough ingredients already for an dramatic tale, you might say, and I'd agree. Baxter goes somewhat further. Alongside Poole's story we get that of Alia, a teenage girl born on a spaceship half a million years in the future. The Commonwealth, government of this galaxy-sprawling future humanity, sends recruitment agent Reath to Alia on behalf of its mysterious undertaking the Trancendence -- the accrual of a telepathically connected mass of handpicked individuals whose collective consciousness is itself giving rise to a new, godlike mind. Alia travels the galaxy with Reath as part of her induction, her narrative linked to Poole's by her adherence to the Commonwealth-mandated ritual of Witnessing (itself part of a larger endeavour called the Redemption), whereby she can view Poole at any point in his life.

This successful and ambitious novel is the third in a trilogy that began with the Arthur C Clarke Award-nominated Coalescent and continued with Exultant (this trilogy itself forms part of the ongoing "Xeelee Sequence" series). I'll confess straight away that most of those passed me by, but stay with me: I've done my research. Baxter, it would appear, goes Supersize in whichever area of his output you care to investigate, whether that be time, space, or theme. Here he's selected three biggies -- Family, Evolution and Theology -- and set them against the aforementioned backdrop of near-infinity.

The first part of Alia's story is almost a picaresque, with Alia and the reader getting a guided tour of various colonised planets and their technically still-human inhabitants. Alia is largely passive during much of this, taking something of a backseat whilst Baxter speculates in a fairly free-roaming way about how humanity might change biologically if given enough strange environments and time. This would appear to be a favourite theme of Baxter's, and it's this enthusiasm, combined with a knack for speculating convincingly along these lines in remarkable, almost frenzied directions (my favourites were the occupants of the desert planet Baynix 11, who've ditched their carbon-based bodies for slower silicon models which leave them resembling motionless, man-shaped monoliths) that leaves you quite willing to forgive the amount of time he spends doing so, and the fact that it takes a while before Alia becomes a more active participant in her own story.

Michael, bless him, has all the makings of a spectacularly dull leading man, but his ordinariness forms the perfect counterweight to the spiralling speculations of Alia's narrative. Similarly, he plays off well against some of the stranger characters in his own timeline; both the intriguing and eccentric AI Gea, and Michael Poole's mysterious Aunt Rosa (the main character in the series' previous book, Coalescent) acquire a degree of believability through sharing the page with Poole. True, not all the characters are as well-realised; Alia's sister is relegated for much of the novel to the thankless role of passive hanger-on and occasional dialogue-facilitator, and Poole's brother John remains sadly two-dimensional. I could give other examples, but not many, since Baxter's characterisation is generally solid, and in any case his stage direction is deft enough to ensure that the spotlight remains for the most part on the two characters we care most about.

Baxter is presented with a particular problem in telling Michael's story, and his method of resolving it represents another of the novel's few weak areas. He assumes, reasonably enough I suppose, that his readers have a limited working knowledge of geological engineering. Since this is integral to Michael's story, Baxter has to convey the essentials to us in some way or another, and his method of choice is to throw his characters into a meeting room with at least one person present who needs things explained to them. This approach works -- we learn what we need to know -- but it makes for functional rather than electrifying prose and occasionally teeters perilously on the brink of direct exposition. Baxter also occasionally commits the cardinal sci-fi sin of throwing in gimmicky technology for its own sake: we probably didn't need quite so much on Smart Paint, the issue of parents modifying their children's genes in the womb is raised but Baxter doesn't really run with it, and Alia's ability to "Skim" (to teleport by effort of will) serves little purpose beyond a possible homage to Bester's The Stars My Destination. Put all this down to over-exuberance rather than self-indulgence on Baxter's part; at worst these things are minor distractions, off-set by at least as many effective, evocative descriptions: "humans moving out from Earth had found themselves in a sky full of old worlds, like children tiptoeing through the dusty rooms of a dilapidated mansion" (p. 106).

There's a lot of fun to be had here. Yes, there are plenty of flaws, but Baxter's trying to do a lot here, and if he's picked up fifty balls and only managed to juggle forty, he's still earned a slap on the back. Having recommended this book, however, I'm going to include the caveat that it probably isn't intended to be read in isolation from the rest of the series. Presumably Baxter is happy for readers unfamiliar with his earlier tomes to partake of his prose without first going back and reading the entirety of the Xeelee sequence (although presumably he wouldn't object to that either), but there's a polite expectation, I feel, that you'll pick up Trancendent with at least Exultant and preferably Coalescent already under your belt. The narrative seemed to assume some familiarity on my part with certain characters and organisations, and I got the impression Baxter had too much on his plate (or too many balls in the air) to waste time shoe-horning back-story into his narrative for the benefit of us dawdlers turning up for the third act. It works fine on its own -- in fact it works great -- but get hold of the earlier novels first if you can.

04 July 2006

Possible Futures of Indian/South Asian Speculative Fiction

A little while back, I got an email from Samit Basu, asking if I would be willing to be interviewed for a project he was working on about Indian and South Asian literature, speculative fiction, etc. My first thought was, "I am about as ignorant as it's possible to be on this subject," and my second thought was, "Well, let's give it a try," because I figured that even if I had nothing but ignorant statements to make, at least it would give people something to argue against, and maybe that would be worthwhile, because the topic of how fiction gets written, published, distributed, and read outside what I, at least, tend to think of as the major centers of publishing is one that is extremely important.

Samit did not merely interview me, but rather got a whole spectrum of people to respond, and the fascinating results can be accessed from here. The conversation will be continuing, as it should.

03 July 2006

In Desperate Attempt to Create Content, Blogger Posts Links

Lacking anything even remotely interesting to say myself, I will now perform the traditional blogging ritual of sharing links to other people's stuff, much of which you've probably seen linked to by other people, but it's not like it's my problem that all you do all day is read blogs and follow links, so just shut up and--

Sorry -- I guess the Evil Monkey movie awoke some deeply buried reserve of hostility in me...

01 July 2006

Kit Reed interview

Nothing much happening around here today, but if you go over to SF Site, you'll find an interview with Kit Reed that I conducted, talking about writing and morality, her new novel The Baby Merchant, and biscotti. Among other things.