21 February 2007

"Our Wonder, Our Terror Remains"

From "The Sea and the Mirror" by W.H. Auden, 100 years old today:
O what authority gives
Existence its surprise?
Science is happy to answer
That the ghosts who haunt our lives
Are handy with mirrors and wire,
That song and sugar and fire,
Courage and come-hither eyes
Have a genius for taking pains.
But how does one think up a habit?
Our wonder, our terror remains.

Art opens the fishiest eye
To the Flesh and the Devil who heat
The Chamber of Temptation
Where heroes roar and die.
We are wet with sympathy now;
Thanks for the evening; but how
Shall we satisfy when we meet,
Between Shall-I and I-Will,
The lion's mouth whose hunger
No metaphors can fill?

Well, who in his own backyard
Has not opened his heart to the smiling
Secret he cannot quote?
Which goes to show that the Bard
Was sober when he wrote
That this world of fact we love
Is unsubstantial stuff:
All the rest is silence
On the other side of the wall;
And the silence ripeness,
And the ripeness all.

18 February 2007

Greybeard by Brian W. Aldiss

After watching the film of Children of Men*, I didn't go back to P.D. James's originating novel, which I've never read, but farther back, to Brian Aldiss's Greybeard, first published in 1964, a novel I last read somewhere between ten and fifteen years ago.

I went back to Greybeard because other than remembering that it is about a future Earth where humans are infertile, I had no memory of its incidents or characters, only a vague recollection of the book's tone and affect, which I remembered as being like a soft, pastoral requiem -- immensely lyrical, unbearably and unrelievedly sad.

That is somewhat accurate -- it is a sad book, indeed -- but it's not as lushly lyrical as I remembered, not as devoid of incident, not as rich, and not as bleak. Worst of all, I remembered a tragic ending, which is inaccurate. The ending is not one that is full of hope or affirmation, but it's hardly King Lear. (Would I have preferred it to be more tragic? No. More elegiacal, perhaps.)

Though there were disappointments for me in rereading Greybeard there were also rewards. It is a story of apocalypse, but the handling of the story is particularly thoughtful in some rare ways. Where Children of Men takes place while there are still relatively young people around, the central action of Greybeard happens fifty years after the nuclear explosions in space that irradiated the planet and caused mass infertility. Thus, everyone is old. The title character's nickname is somewhat amusing, then, because he's one of the youngest people around, being only in his fifties, and he and his wife, Martha, don't really remember what life in a world with children is like. As Aldiss's characters inch toward not only their own extinction, but the extinction of their species, he lets the novel rise toward metaphysical concerns, and does so, usually, with a light, deft, and complex touch:
"Perhaps that's our bit of consolation or whatever -- each other. Martha, have you ever thought..." He paused, and then went on, screwing his face into a frown of concentration. "Have you ever thought that that ghastly catastrophe of fifty years ago was, well, was lucky for us? I know it sounds blasphemous; but mightn't it be that we've led more interesting lives than the perhaps rather pointless existence we would otherwise have been brought up to accept as life? We can see now that the values of the twentieth century were invalid; otherwise they wouldn't have wrecked the world. Don't you think the Accident has made us more appreciative of the vital things, like life itself, and like each other?"

"No," Martha said steadily. "No, I don't. We would have had children and grandchildren by now, but for the Accident, and nothing can ever make up for that."
Aldiss lets the novel be, among other things, a meditation on the attractions of catastrophe in narrative. This dialogue is only the most explicit expression of an idea that lingers through the entire book -- a questioning of the meaning-giving power of apocalypse. Various characters respond to the situations of their lives in different ways, from the knowing perpetuation of faith-based fraud to stoic pragmatism to nature mysticism to flat-out insanity, and Aldiss doesn't really privilege any of it too much. Nor does he fetishize disaster as so many of the other writers of his time did -- Greybeard could be seen in some ways as a response to all the stories and books that tried to find transcendent meaning in the end of the world. Within the world of Greybeard, meaning does not flow from The Accident, but desire inscribes meanings onto it, and survival requires all the characters to read the inscriptions and make of them what they will.

My memory of the novel was that it was incredibly slow, with hardly any events, and though that isn't at all true, nonetheless, for a book about human extinction, remarkably little actually happens, and few things conclude. There are no maudlin scenes of prolonged death and misery. Though humans are shown to have become more openly brutal and sometimes insanely violent, most of this is done through indirect means, through recollection and suggestion, rather than straightforward depiction. What makes the apocalypse of Greybeard so affecting is how understated is the horror of it all, as if Aldiss had started out writing a pleasant little novel of ordinary people in the British countryside and ended up getting side-tracked by the end of civilization and the slow death of humanity.

The presentation of time and memory is one of the strengths of Greybeard (though I can't help but wish that Aldiss had played around a bit more with the characters' memories, their desires to remember, their inability to, their confusions of memory). The chapters alternate, with odd-numbered chapters telling the story of Greybeard and Martha as they trek down the Thames for reasons that they're never entirely clear about; and even-numbered chapters each moving farther and farther into Greybeard's past, until the last presents some moments of his childhood. The best writing in the book is generally in the river chapters, because here the focus is tightest, and Aldiss admirably holds back from cramming in a bunch of action sequences or cliff-hangers or incidents of planetary consequence -- he trusts his story, his characters, and his audience enough to allow the chapters to serve mostly to show us how it feels to live in this nearly-familiar, immensely strange world. The even-numbered chapters are generally less satisfying because they are more crammed with incident, seemingly trying to justify their presence more, but their effect remains powerful, because each time we return to the river, we have gained, as readers, memories that Greybeard and the other characters take for granted. There is both pleasure and power in moving back deeper and deeper into the past, closer and closer to The Accident, while at the same time moving forward, slowly, toward inevitable death.

Though Greybeard still reads well, it does show signs of its age (beyond locating The Accident in the early 1980s). The relations between the male and female characters are all embarrassingly patriarchal -- Martha's character has some spunk, but she is nonetheless clearly more Greybeard's Wife than her own self, and all of the characters with any authority in the book are men; the women are, basically, decorations, slaves, and whores -- and, left so unquestioned throughout the book, this all seems to be not for any reasons of the particular society the characters are a part of, but rather because such a structure is inherent in Nature. The presentation of The Accident, too, is unsatisfying (though less annoying than the sexism) because it is so carefully explained, so unambiguous that all its potential metaphorical or metonymical power is stripped away and it just sits there, a big, lunky, distracting, awkward bit of background detail, a Thing that could have been, instead, an evocation.

Greybeard seems to have been out of print in the U.S. for a long time, which is a shame, because despite its flaws, it remains a rewarding read and a book that other writers could learn a lot from. Aldiss has had a long and varied career, and I wish more of his books were readily available in the U.S. (Just as I picked up my old copy of Greybeard to reread, I received an advanced copy of Aldiss's new novel, HARM, which is being published over here by Del Rey, so I'm glad to see that Aldiss not only continues to write, but that he still has access to U.S. publishers.)

*I don't really have anything to say about the film beyond what's already been said, but I liked it, was impressed by many elements of it, and though immediately afterward I felt like it was a bit less meaty than it needed to be, its details remained vivid in my memory, a few scenes continued to haunt me, and the overall skill of the filmmaking kept me thinking about the whole in a way I haven't thought about very many other movies recently.

16 February 2007

Chaos Study

A few people have linked to this Guardian article about various famous writers' rooms. I looked at them all and thought, "Wow, those are clean! How do they work there?!"

I have trouble working in an uncluttered space. Chaos comforts me. I know that just about anything I need is probably buried in a pile somewhere around me. I'm good with piles. I understand their logic.

At least twice a year I make an effort to organize things. Or at least organize the chaos a bit more. It usually lasts a couple days, maybe a week. I enjoy the order, but am seldom productive in it. There's something threatening within such clarity.

Each to their own. My work room is particularly cluttered at the moment, so I took a couple pictures:

Perhaps the Guardian article will encourage other people to post pictures of where they write, and perhaps a few of those people will be as fond of clutter as I...

15 February 2007

New SF Site

The latest SF Site has been posted, and it includes various reviews, articles, an interview with Ken MacLeod, and my review of John Crowley's new collection of essays.

14 February 2007

Weird Tales Ann

Weird Tales magazine today announced that the great and glorious Ann VanderMeer will be taking over as editor, starting with the October 2007 issue.

I'm excited by this news for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that Weird Tales has, in various incarnations, been an important part of the fantasy and horror genre since 1923. It not only served as a home for stories by many of the prominent pulp writers (and is particularly noted for its connection to Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, among others), but also published Tennessee Williams's first story, "The Vengeance of Nitocris". (Hardly Williams's finest hour, but he was just a kid, and it's a fun bit of trivia.)

In 1988, WT was reincarnated under the editorship of John Betancourt, Darrel Schweitzer, and George Scithers, and when I was first falling under the spell of weird fiction of all sorts, I would make occasional pilgrimages to Boston to the Avenue Victor Hugo bookstore, where I discovered those issues, each one with a featured writer and artist. It was through those magazines that I first discovered the writing of Thomas Ligotti, Tanith Lee, Gene Wolfe, Nancy Springer, David J. Schow, Brian Lumley, Karl Edward Wagner, Jonathan Carroll, and many others.

Ann is the perfect person to bring some new perspective and spice to WT, and help it become a vital source of new fiction. From working with her on Best American Fantasy, I know that she has eclectic taste in fiction, that she cares deeply about the fantastic tradition in literature, and that she is a meticulous editor. I am tremendously excited to read her first issue. (And as for Best American Fantasy, we'll figure out some sort of policy to account for Ann's new position in a way that is fair to her, to the writers, and to the spirit of our book.)

So congratulations, Ann -- with luck, we will all benefit from this news by getting to read a marvelous selection of strange fiction...

Freedom of Choice

From "The English Language in the Age of Shakespeare" by Charles Barber, from The New Pelican Guide to English Literature, vol. 2:
The standard literary language in England offered considerable variety of choice to its user, more than in later ages. It was above all the grammarians and lexicographers and schoolmasters of the eighteenth century, with their passion for regulation and propriety, who narrowed the choices available; on the grounds of "reason" or classical precedent they rejected such things as double negatives and split infinitives, and many of their prescriptions are influential even today. In Shakespeare's day there was more freedom of choice: often a writer could choose from two constructions where now there is only one; he felt free to coin new words, and to develop the meanings of existing ones; the whole linguistic situation encouraged an adventurous and creative attitude to language.

Taking Stock

It always happens -- I write a post like the last one saying my schedule is a bit clearer and I ought to be able to get better about keeping things updated here, and then bang, life intrudes and I remember all the deadlines I'd been repressing the memory of, and the blog lies dormant again. The best intentions.... I'll make up for it at some point, but things are likely to continue to be slow here for a little bit.

I've been thinking recently about the nature of blogging, this weblog, my life, etc., because a little voice (one of many) in the back of my head keeps asking, "Why do you still do this?!" When I began back in August 2003, I didn't really have another outlet for ideas and thoughts and random musings. Oh, occasionally something would get published here or there, but not much. I kept a journal off and on, but never with much fervor. And then I started reading weird fiction of all sorts again and wanted to talk with other people about it and chart the progress (or regress) of my reactions to it, and a blog was the perfect way to do so.

I looked back through the archives recently, reading around more or less randomly, skimming a lot. Sometimes it was enlightening, because I discovered things I'd utterly forgotten reading or seeing or thinking. Often, it was embarrassing, because I've always had the attitude that posts here should be experimental, that I don't feel any compunction to be consistent in my thoughts or ideas, that I will try not to be afraid to offer incomplete thoughts or ideas that might prove within a few days or hours or minutes to be utterly stupid. I couldn't keep going with this site if I didn't feel that freedom, because I'd develop a fear of saying anything. (I've sort of reached that point with my Strange Horizons columns, frankly. It's a more formal setting, and I tend to try to make that writing at least slightly more considered than the average post here. I think most of those columns are, for me, good work, but I need to find a way to rejuvenate my approach to them, to take more risks and try new forms, because otherwise I'll just play it safe, and that's pointless.)

People who are not bloggers have said to me that they're amazed that I manage to write as much as I do here, and yet I usually feel exactly the opposite -- I would love to be able to put up a post every day, for instance. Even if I had the time, though, I don't think I could do it, because ideas don't come that quickly to me, and I don't really feel the need to spout off an opinion about random news or events. I'm barely comfortable with the amount of spouting off that I already do! Writing that gets shared with an audience requires a certain amount of arrogance, a willingness to ask people to spend time reading your words. It requires confidence, too, because you have to have a sense of your own authority. I wrote so many things for so long without any sort of audience that now that I have a few people who, for whatever reason, read the words I send out into the world, oddly enough, I find my confidence disappears much more quickly.

When I began The Mumpsimus, I wrote almost exclusively about science fiction and fantasy. I'd never had the opportunity to be a part of the SF world before as anything other than a reader. I was just about as naive as it's possible to be. I kept writing about SF as much as I could, but I have eclectic interests, and once I decided to keep the blog going, I knew I would have to let some of those other interests expose themselves as well. This is ultimately what I most enjoyed about the blog -- talking about SF, but not only SF. Finding connections, links to other things. Pretending borders didn't exist, just to see what would happen. Experimenting. It was fun, even when I said really ridiculous things and people told me so.

Then I gained other avenues for publication. I started reviewing for various places, and so did less reviewing here. That inevitably caused the substance and perhaps tone of the blog to change. Then life kept getting busier and busier. That affected things, too. I promised myself that I wouldn't keep the blog going unless I wanted to, and that I wouldn't give in to the pressure the form creates to put up lots of content. I still try only to post when I feel the urge, and to post only what I feel like posting, not what I feel obliged to. That's the only way to keep an endeavor like this going, at least for me. I certainly feel guilty now and then when things are dormant for a while, but what would be the point in putting up content just for the sake of putting up content? We've all got more than enough to read, don't we?

(You could be excused for wondering what the point of this post is, then. For me, it's just a way of airing some ideas, concerns, and guilts so that you'll know where I'm coming from right now, because that way I'll feel less guilt about the inconsistencies here and less apprehension about continuing the blog. A crisis of confidence, really, and this is just my way of working through it.)

Much has changed over the course of this blog's life, and one of those things is the amount of time I spend discussing science fiction and fantasy, which was the original purpose for The Mumpsimus. There are lots of reasons for this -- for instance, I didn't want to write about any stories eligible for Best American Fantasy, because I'm always wary of any sort of conflict of interest or inappropriateness. But my reading habits change frequently, and for a while now I've been reading a lot of things other than SF. I find my interests tend to be cyclical, though, and are now returning to SF, particularly science fiction, so I expect there will be more of that here for a little while, because once again my interest in the language, history, and potential of SF is growing. We'll see...

And so perhaps all I wanted to say here, really, is: Thanks for bearing with me. I'm still having fun, and I hope that occasionally some of what I post here is entertaining or somehow valuable for you. I still don't really know what this blog is exactly for, or about, or what -- and that's a good thing, because the only sure death-knell for this blog would be if I felt it no longer had the flexibility to be whatever I needed it to be. That I can say with confidence.

05 February 2007

Catching Up

This blog has been more sporadic and had less content in the past couple months than I would like, but life got suddenly very busy in a bunch of different ways, and I'm still playing catch-up. But some stuff is winding down, and I'm hoping to be able to make things a bit more consistent and varied around here within the next month or so. In the meantime, here are some almost-random fragments of whateverness...
  • It's Wizard of the Crow Week over at the LitBlog Co-op. Most, if not all, of my blogging this week will be over there. We've already posted the first part of a roundtable discussion, and we'll have more parts going up later, as well as some contests for people to win copies of the book, a podcast interview with Ngugi, and various other fun things.

  • We're putting the finishing touches on Best American Fantasy and have put out a call for submissions and recommendations for the second volume. The book is currently available for pre-order from Amazon and from Clarkesworld Books, and by its release in June it should be available all over the place. Jeff and Ann have done extraordinary work on it, and the contents will be, we think, exciting and marvelous. (We're keeping a tight lid on the actual choices right now, but have released that we are taking stories from Elizabeth Hand, Kelly Link, Peter LaSalle, Brian Evenson, and Sarah Monette. And lots of others. Some people's first published fiction, some people's gazillionth. Some not so surprising choices, some utterly and completely and magnificently surprising. To be revealed later. Bwahahahahahahaha!)

  • Quick and dirty and probably unfair movie reviews: The Queen: Helen Mirren was pretty good, but I completely don't get why this is such an acclaimed film. The writing seemed clunky, the filming seemed adequate, and none of the actors other than Mirren seemed to be anything more than animatronic. Clearly, I am the wrong audience member. Venus: Now this is my kind of movie. Both touching and mildly icky. (Sometimes icky because of the touching.) There's a complexity to the situations and characters that I didn't expect, and so the disturbing elements of the story -- the mixed-up power relations -- were tempered by an overall humanity. And some utterly perfect scenes, methought, as well as lovely cinematography, marvelous acting, smart writing. The Departed: My favorite Scorsese movie in a while, but that's like saying my favorite shade of beige. I keep trying to like Scorsese's work, because it's one of those things You're Supposed To, but I tend to find it all slick, vapid, and long. At least The Departed is mostly entertaining, and though in general I liked how the characters were fleshed out, I did sometimes prefer the efficiency of the storytelling in its source, Infernal Affairs. Dreamgirls: I only went to see this because everybody else was watching the Superbowl. Definitely not my kind of movie. I think I laughed inappropriately a few times. (Just about the only movie musicals I can stand are Cabaret and All That Jazz. Bob Fosse directing Dreamgirls -- now that would have been interesting...) Some of the songs were tolerable, most of the acting wasn't.

  • A bunch of books have come in recently that are clamoring for my attention, and I barely know what to read next. I've just turned in a review to SF Site of John Crowley's collection of nonfiction, In Other Words, a book I enjoyed very much. I also enjoyed Nick Mamatas's Under My Roof, which I just read because I'm going to interview Nick for Eclectica. (It's a fun little book about family, neighborhood nuclear proliferation, and garden gnomes.) I'm now reading Jan Morris's Hav for a review for Strange Horizons and Fires by Nick Antosca for Rain Taxi. (More on those later.) Next I plan to finish Chris Adrian's The Children's Hospital (the bits of which I've read so far I have loved), then proceed on to, perhaps, African Psycho or Carnival or Things in the Night or The Future is Queer or Equiano the African or Breakfast with the Ones You Love or -- and that's not to mention the pile of books out from the library or the pile of books I brought back from Kenya or -- ugh, if only there were time...