31 July 2007

A Question

I've been working on finishing up a long review with a deadline of tomorrow, so my brain is a bit fried. The review sparked a question that I have no answer for, though I'm sure it will be easy for somebody out there to respond to.

The question is this: Is there an anthology of science fiction stories about drugs?

The dream book that popped into my mind, and one I'm pretty sure doesn't exist, would be a wide-ranging reprint anthology covering everything from mad scientists with weird serums to 1960s psychedelia to cyberpunk narcotics to ... well, I'm blanking on recent druggy SF stories, but I know there are a few.

Lacking that particular book, though, what is there?

Howard Waldrop Blogs

The world has achieved perfection. Howard Waldrop is blogging at the Small Beer Press site:
You’ll notice there’s a beaver in both ads, the animal more responsible even than the buffalo for the settlement of the US from sea to shining sea.

You’ll also notice Lincoln is wearing a stovepipe ("beaver") hat. It’s all surrealistically related.

(Waldrop has, actually, entered the blogosphere before. But it's good to have him back.)

30 July 2007

Jamestown It Is

It's LitBlog Co-op time again, and this quarter's pick is Jamestown by Matthew Sharpe, a bizarre and wonderfully fun novel that LBC nominator Megan Sullivan sums up well:
Set sometime in the future, this book chronicles a group of settlers from Manhattan traveling South in a large bus/tank to establish an outpost in southern Virginia. The book features historical figures like John Smith, Pocahantas and others. Each chapter tells the story from a different character’s perspective. The settlers are led by John Ratliff, whose mother’s boyfriend is the CEO of the Manhattan Company, who are enemies of the Brooklyn Company. The Indians, who speak English (which they try to conceal to the visitors), aren’t technically Indians. They just try to live like them and are “red” because they’re not using strong enough sunscreen. Powhatan leads them with the help of his advisor Sidney Feingold. Pocahantas falls in love with greasy haired communications officer Johnny Rolfe and saves the life of Jack Smith. Like I said, this book is hard to explain without sounding like a nut. It’s wonderfully imaginative and Sharpe uses language to play with the future and the past in a way that made me giggle and fall in love with the book. Suffice it to say that Sharpe’s masterful writing goes beyond just verbal pyrotechnics into a deeper metalanguage of misunderstandings and what happens when two groups who speak the same language still cannot understand one another.
There will be some little changes in how we present LBC picks this quarter, and bigger changes, I expect, for next quarter. There's a certain blahness to how things have been proceeding, and though we as a group generally agree on nothing else, we're not fans of blahness.

Next up will be posts on the other nominees from this quarter, Nicola Griffith's Always, nominated by Gwenda Bond, and Triangle by Katherine Weber, nominated by Levi Asher. Then each book will get its own week of goodness, culminating with a grand Jamestown fest.

I'll be posting about Jamestown, because that was the only one of the three books to really capture my interest. I liked a lot of what Always was up to, but found the narrative voice off-putting in a way that kept me from caring about the events and characters; I think this is more my fault than the book's. Triangle had some interesting moments, but on the whole I found it too contrived and predictable, and the caricature of an academic it offered was a clichéd stereotype. If the book were the Read This pick, I'd write a dissent, but since it's not, there's no point in my beating up on it any further. Jamestown was, I thought, overlong, but the vigor of its language and the persistent oddity of its vision are admirable, offering many pleasures.

29 July 2007

After the Apocalpyse, Discoveries

Scott McLemee's Inside Higher Ed column this week tackles a topic I took on myself recently: the culling of books. It caused me to reflect on living with a substantially reduced library, since I am now post-cull, and am actually only living at the moment with a small group of the books I saved, since the majority are still in storage back in New Hampshire.

While I enjoy not feeling quite so entombed by tomes as I used to be, again and again I've wanted to grab a book I know I have, only to discover it's not here. It's a strange sensation, the sensation of seeing something in peripheral vision that disappears when you turn your head, the sensation of seeking ghosts.

Not that having fewer choices of what to read has stopped me from reading too many books at once. As of this moment, I am in the midst of reading Dangerous Space by Kelley Eskridge, Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World by Donald R. Howard, The Virtu by Sarah Monette, Beyond This Horizon by Robert Heinlein, Lost Son by M. Allen Cunningham, Sides by Peter Straub, and I'm probably going to start In a Town Called Mundomuerto by Randall Silvas very soon, because I just decided to abandon Mary Modern by Camille DeAngelis (didn't hold my interest, alas, amidst the competition). Not to mention various magazine (just got new issues of F&SF[Alexander Jablokov and Ted Chiang in one issue!], Interzone [ever more gorgeous, and this issue full of Michael Moorcock!] Harper's [Alice Munro!]...) So I'm hardly starving for things to read. And I did bring substantial collections of my old favorites -- Shakespeare, Chekhov, Woolf, Faulkner, Beckett -- though somehow I managed to leave all the Kafka behind, which is just causing terrible angst, and the only poetry I brought with me were two books by Jennifer Moxley, which are wondeful, but not enough, and...

Well, anyway...

Really, the whole point of this seemingly pointless post was to say that in culling my books I discovered some I'd forgotten I had, and that was a great joy. I brought one of them with me, and have been reading it with immense pleasure: Far from the Madding Gerund, a collection of posts from one of my favorite blogs, Language Log. I remember being quite curious about the book when it first arrived, because I wondered how a book of blog posts would work, but then it got buried in the piles and I honestly forgot I had it.

At first, I found reading it a bit awkward. The biggest problem is one of hyperlinks. The blogosphere thrives on hyperlinks, of course, and though this causes some people concern, for me it's one of the attractions of blogs, because I like to be able to have the option of either follow the directions links lead to or not. With a book built from a blog, the editors and publishers have to figure some way to handle the links, and the folks who put Far from the Madding Gerund together decided to indicate links in the text with a lighter font and with a URL and a little bit of info about the link set as marginalia. It's as elegant a solution as I suppose there is, but it's pretty awkward. I got used to it as I read along, though, and the content of the book is, I find, so compelling that a bit of awkwardness doesn't detract.

I wondered, too, why anybody might want the book when all of these posts are, as far as I know, still available via the Language Log archives. But there's a difference between reading online and reading a book, at least for me -- really, I behave differently. I read a bunch of posts at Language Log the other day, but skimmed around between them, following links, jaunting about. When I sat down with Far from the Madding Gerund tonight, I skipped around, but not nearly as much as I did with the actual site. I read five and even ten pages in order at a time. I also felt a somewhat different attitude toward what I read -- reading the posts as a book, I reflected on them more, read them more slowly, reread parts, thought about things I might share with my students or with friends. I do all that with the blog itself, too, but less frequently. There was something about the book as a book that caused me to consider -- in a subtle way -- its content more carefully than I consider the blog's content, because my mind still treats books and websites differently. It's hard to describe the experience without implying that one way of reading is better than the other, but I honestly don't think of them as better or worse. I'm glad to have the book, because it organizes its information differently than the blog, and so I have discovered things in it I haven't discovered online. Blogs with archives as vast and substantive as those of LL benefit from a kind of "greatest hits" book, and the careful editing of this book has grouped posts together in such a way as to highlight connections that might otherwise not be obvious.

28 July 2007

Death Kitty

Via Scientific American:
When a cat named Oscar curls up next to an ailing patient at a nursing home in Rhode Island, staffers start calling next of kin. Seems the standoffish kitty gets friendly when he senses the end is near: In the two years since Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence adopted the finicky feline, more than 25 residents in the center's dementia unit died just hours after Oscar showered them with affection, Reuters reports. The New England Journal of Medicine let the cat out of the bag. (NEJM; Reuters)
(The longer NEJM story is really quite touching.)

27 July 2007

Felsenfeld

I know you all think that now I live in the New York metro area I have friends quoted in every new issue of the New Yorker, but that's not entirely true -- certainly not true enough for me to be blasé about it -- so I was thrilled to read this Talk of the Town piece about the presence of characters named Felsenfeld in novels by a group of writers who hung out together at the MacDowell Colony, including Katherine Min. (Katherine, too, has recently left New Hampshire, and will soon be teaching at UNC Asheville.)

I was also pleased to see that Michael Chabon was quoted in the article. He's quite the up-and-comer now that he's blurbed Best American Fantasy...

26 July 2007

Do Androids Dream of Directors' Cuts?

On December 18, Warner Home Video will release the long-fabled full director's cut of Blade Runner in three different packages: a 2-disc basic edition, a 4-disc edition with all previously-released versions of the film and tons of extras, and a 5-disc edition that includes the original "workprint" version.

I first saw the movie in my cousin's apartment in Chicago when I was probably much too young to be watching such things, but what are older relatives for if not to corrupt the minds of children? I watched it again after discovering Philip K. Dick, because for a time the only easily-attainable PKD novel was the movie tie-in version of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and at first it caused me to be angry with the film for having so little to do with the book, but soon enough I thought of them as the very separate entities that they are. I think I saw the first "director's cut" when it was released to theatres in 1992, and I know I later saw it at a midnight show at the Angelika. It then became one of the first DVDs I ever bought. I forgot a lot of the differences between the two versions until last year at Dartmouth I watched a laser disc with the theatrical release. (The voice-over was even worse than I remembered it being...)

All of which is just to say ... that 5-disc version was made for suckers aficionados like me...

25 July 2007

Texts and Contexts

Susanna Mandel offered a thoughtful column at Strange Horizons this week, "On SF and the Mainstream, or, Rapidly Changing Scenery", writing from the perspective of someone who hasn't had the chance to keep up with a lot of what's been going on in the science fiction/fantasy community over the last five or so years. I sympathized a lot, having started this blog, in fact, as someone in just about exactly that position. (I'm really interested, too, to see what she's going to discuss in her future columns, which she says will be about pre-1800 writings.)

Richard Larson was inspired by the column to ask for some discussion that moves beyond content to probe the differences between SF and other sorts of things:
I would love for someone to be engaging the SF/mainstream literature discussion with the goal of making formal distinctions, of ignoring content completely and trying to figure out how the experience of reading mainstream literature differs from that of reading genre fiction, and what formal factors are contributing to that experience.
Earlier, Paul Di Filippo posted the results of a panel at Readercon about a "slipstream canon", and Paul Kincaid responded, raising the point that there's hardly any such thing as a "pure genre" (no matter how you define "genre") and that the "canon" is a fine list of wonderful things to read, but these aren't texts that really have a whole lot in common.

Sarah Monette responded to both the list and to Kincaid's response by wondering if "genre" isn't the wrong word, and misleading. She proposes "modality" instead:
Contrarealism--or unrealism--(science fiction, fantasy, supernatural horror, magic realism . . . slipstream) is a modality. Because these things inflect a story on a level a priori to the narrative itself. If a genre is a kind of story, a modality is a kind of approach to a story. You can tell the same story in any modality. E.g., Cinderella. You can tell it as Coal Miner's Daughter (realism). You can tell it as a pararealistic Horatio Alger story. (Which I suppose some may argue is what Coal Miner's Daughter is. Not actually having seen the movie, I can't testify personally. The new Will Smith thing about the homeless man who becomes a stockbroker is also Cinderella. Realistic or para-?) Or you can tell it as a fantasy (Disney!). (I'm sure also that you can tell it as a science fiction story ... ooh, wait. Psion.) The narrative elements will not change. (Whereas, if you tell Cinderella as a horror story, the narrative elements do change. Hence we conclude that horror is a genre. QED.)
It's worth also bringing into this some of the reviews of Interfictions, the response to which I've enjoyed watching. Three recent ones that come to mind are the -- very different! -- reviews by Mikita Brottman, Daniel Green, and David Soyka. The anthology makes an attempt to chart, or at least provide a space for, fiction that doesn't fit into a clear category, and yet that in and of itself is clearly something difficult to assess, at least among the stories in the book. (For my own story there, I wasn't exactly thinking of categories, but rather of mixing up different kinds of texts, different sorts of allusions, different levels of seriousness and unseriousness, and see if I could hold it all together.)

Meanwhile, the old New Weird discussions have been made public once again.

Okay, so there's a bunch of stuff. And it all brings me back to what Richard Larson asked -- how does the experience of reading something called X differ from the experience of something called Y (or not-X)? That's a question I find far more interesting than how to define X, Y, and not-X.

It all brings me back, as so much does, to Samuel Delany, who has done a little bit of what Larson seems to be looking for (mostly in Starboard Wine, which is very difficult to get hold of, but it will be generally available again either in the fall of 2008 or spring of 2009. More on that later).

Delany has called SF a "field phenomenon" that can only be described, not defined. He has argued that "There's no reason to run SF too much back before 1926" because
More, Kepler, Cyrano, and even Bellamy would be absolutely at sea with the codic conventions by which we make sense of the sentences in a contemporary SF text. Indeed, they would be at sea with most modern and post modern writing. It's just pedagogic snobbery (or insecurity), constructing these preposterous and historically insensitive genealogies, with Mary Shelley for our grandmother or Lucian of Samosata as our great great grandfather.
(Adam Roberts has an interesting take on this in his history of science fiction, but I'm no longer near the library I borrowed the book from, and my memory of it is too unspecific to be able to paraphrase accurately.)

In one of his most important essays, "Dichtung und Science Fiction" (in Starboard Wine), Delany says, "For an originary assertion to mean something for a contemporary text, one must establish a chain of reading and preferably a chain of discussion as well." In another essay, "Science Fiction and Literature", he states, "To say that a phenomenon does have a significant history is to say that its history is different from the history of something else: that's what makes it significant."

I've said before that where a text is published can affect how it is read, including how it is categorized and understood by the reader. We see that in some of the reviews for Interfictions, where many of the stories are judged based on the purpose of the anthology, which of course is justifiable, but I also wonder how at least some of them would fare in an entirely different context. In fact, much of what is new about what's happening in the SF community right now -- the changes Susannah Mandel and others notice -- may be more the creation of new contexts than the creation of new types of fiction (about which I've got some of the same questions as Dan Green poses in his review and Paul Kincaid raises in his response to the "slipstream canon").

I'm wary of a form/content distinction, because it seems to me more an occasionally-useful illusion than an idea that really fosters good analysis, but how texts create reading experiences, and how those experiences change in different eras and circumstances does, indeed, interest me. That's an idea worth applying to those New Weird discussions -- what were the circumstances that made such discussions so energetic, combative, and sometimes insane? What was the effect of those discussions on writers' practices (if any), and why does it matter? Was the New Weird a momentary blip, more passion than substance, or was it a historically important argument/label/concern/whatever? What was it trying to be different from, and why?

If we want to map the topography of literary history, including all the little hills and dales, then texts alone will not explain vastly different reading experiences, because the contexts in which the texts are produced, distributed, received, and discussed contribute to that history. Such a conversation would, I think, allow more insight than yet another argument about how to define and delineate different types of fiction based on the texts alone, or on some mythical essential qualities those texts are supposed to possess.

21 July 2007

BAF Release Date Update

I've gotten some inquiries from people wondering when, exactly, Best American Fantasy will be available. (When we first came up with the idea of the book, we'd hoped for June, but that was a bit optimistic.)

The book is at the printer and should be leaving there sometime during the coming days, heading off to the distributor and then to retailers. (Or something like that.) With a little bit of luck, it will be in stores by the last moments of July or the first week of August.

19 July 2007

Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination


I'm back in New Hampshire for a few days, and yesterday journeyed to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts to see the exhibit "Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination", which I'd first heard of when it was at the Smithsonian, and then read about in the Times, and thought: I have to see that.

Cornell is pretty much my favorite North American artist, which isn't to say I think he's the best (whatever that means), but that it is his work I respond to most viscerally. I spent two hours in the galleries of the exhibit, wandering back and forth between displays, staring, daydreaming, looking at details, imagining Cornell's hands and tools as he assembled his boxes and collages. In one place, there is a display of some items saved from Cornell's workshop, and I was thrilled, because artists' studios particularly fascinate me, housing, as they do, the the mundane choice-making and inexplicable inspirations that combine, through craft and art, in creation.

Many people have tried to express the attraction of Cornell's work, focusing often on the extraordinary balance between nostalgia and formalism, sentimentality and austerity, creepiness, childishness, yearning, hope, sadness, naivety. As I wandered through the galleries, though, I realized that one of the things I most appreciate in Cornell's work is that it doesn't inspire words in me -- it exists in a realm entirely outside language, which is almost a paradoxical statement given that plenty of his works utilize items with text on them. But they aren't texts to me, they are shapes and patterns and evocations.

The exhibition is apparently the first Cornell retrospective in 26 years, and it includes quite a few pieces that have never been shown publicly before. It also includes 7 films Cornell made, making this the first time his films have been shown in conjunction with his other artworks. I watched two, "A Legend for Fountains" (which I found both transfixing and heartbreaking in some weird way) and "Rose Hobart", which I'd seen before, but which feels very different when projected on a big wall.

A few Cornell links:

17 July 2007

Night Shade Books Sale

The good people at Night Shade Books (and Jeremy Lassen) are having a sale to make room in their warehouse for new arrivals. Here's the deal: 50% off all in-stock and forthcoming books until Sunday, July 29 when you order 4 books or more.

You could, for example, pre-order Paolo Bacigalupi's first collection and John Joseph Adams's anthology of post-apocalyptic stories, then add M. John Harrison's Course of the Heart, John Courtenay Grimwood's 9Tail Fox, Kage Baker's Dark Mondays, Ray Manzarek's Snake Moon, Laird Barron's Imago Sequence, Gwyneth Jones's Bold as Love, Steve Tomasula's In & Oz, Tricia Sullivan's Maul, Douglas Lain's Last Week's Apocalypse, Joel Lane's The Lost District, Conrad Williams's London Revenant, Liz Williams's Snake Agent, Kit Reed's Bronze, Lucius Shepard's Softspoken ... or so many other books. Night Shade is a wonderful publisher, so go crazy and spend the last bits of your ill-gotten gains with them!

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

It begins with a murder and ends with the discovery of the murderer, but that's some of the least interesting material in The Yiddish Policemen's Union, a novel so crammed with vivid, complex moments, situations, and ideas that what most amazed me about it was not that it kept from ever being confusing or convoluted -- it's both things at various times, particularly in the second half -- but that, against all odds, it all usually holds together so well.

It would be easy to see the book as little more than a detective story in an amusingly speculative milieu, a story that hints at greater aspirations but doesn't give life to them, a lark. There were certainly moments when I was reading when I wondered, "Well, is this all there is, then?" but those moments were fleeting, and the effect of the novel in the end was a profound one, though in an odd way. It's a book of implications, a vaudeville act that, looked at from a different angle, offers a glimpse of the entire universe.

The setting is the most attention-grabbing element of The Yiddish Policemen's Union, for this is an alternate history story in which Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes's suggestion in 1940 that Alaska be given to Jewish exiles from Europe was enacted, unlike in our world, where the idea gained about as much traction as a Ferrari on an iceberg. Chabon extrapolates the effects of this new world with impressive imagination, and his imaginative skill is matched by his wit, for throughout the book allusions to an assortment of alternative fields and philosophies pop up, but they seldom call attention to themselves, and sit quietly in the text as moments of amusement and added detail for readers in the know. (I was particularly taken with references to Orson Welles's film of Heart of Darkness. It was one of the few times when the world Chabon posits became one I wanted to move to.)

The setting is the primary concern of The Yiddish Policemen's Union, particularly the city of Sitka, where most of the events are set. The characters are mostly stock figures from crime stories, and rarely break the expectations of that form: there's the lonely, weary, alcoholic, rules-breaking homicide detective; his loyal partner; the difficult-but-ultimately-loyal boss; low-lifes on the prowl and on the take; gangster bosses with mysterious connections and ulterior motives with ulterior motives; soft-hearted tough guys; and a possible messiah. (Okay, so messiahs aren't exactly a staple of crime fiction. But other sorts of saviors certainly are.) Many of the characters are endearing and compelling, but it would be a mistake to say they have a lot of psychological nuance and depth, and a mistake, I think, to want them to have such nuance and depth, because many of the novel's joys come from Chabon's ability to manipulate the shorthand of various genres, including their character types.

Even with occasional stumbles of pacing and plot, The Yiddish Policemen's Union is an immensely enjoyable book to be in the midst of reading. The pleasure for me did not come from the promise of a solution to the mystery -- by the middle, that barely held my attention -- but from Chabon's meticulous exploration of his imagined world. This is why the characters needed a certain flatness, a certain familiarity, because they are a vehicle for what the book is about, not its central purpose. The novel might have been able to offer more vivid characterizations, but such characterizations would have served little purpose and been, I expect, mostly distracting.

While it's easy to read The Yiddish Policemen's Union as an entertaining, quirky tale, there's more going on in its pages and between its lines. Chabon masterfully conveys the details of his world without obtrusive exposition. (The worst moment of infodumping happens in a late chapter, where so many threads of the plotline need to be tied up that he seems not to know what else to do, and so the point of view shifts awkwardly away from the protagonist and into somebody else's flashback.) We learn of the alternative world's points of departure from our own through suggestions rather than statements, with a narrative voice that would be appropriate to, well, a detective novel of that world.

Language is a primary tool for Chabon's speculations -- he has stated that he started thinking about the story after writing a controversial essay for Harper's about Yiddish, and that he wondered what a country where Yiddish was the primary language might be like. As Mark Oppenheimer points out in an informative review for the Jewish Daily Forward, this is not a minor question, and Chabon explores it with subtlety and rigor. Though the characters are mostly speaking Yiddish to each other (we're told when they break into "American"), we read their words and thoughts in contemporary English spritzed with Yiddish words and phrases, some of them familiar, some of them used by Chabon as neologisms and slang, showing how the language would live and grow within the environment of its Alaskan home.

In addition to what the story suggests about language -- how words affect a society, and how a society affects words -- there is also much in the book about power and belief, and the implications are sometimes unsettling. The dead man on the first page turns out to be the most purely honest and admirable character in the novel, and his descent into heroin addiction seems to have been an attempt to escape his own inherent goodness. All the other characters often act from ostensibly good motives -- even the worst schemers think they have people's best interests at heart -- but good motives have a habit of turning into zealotry, and zealotry of all sorts begets violence, whether the personally self-righteous zealotry of the crusading detective type, the religious zealotry that links the most deluded of the Jews with the most deluded power-brokers of a United States that seems to have been taken over by fundamentalist Christians, or the zealotry of political operatives who think they can conspire ways of pulling off grand plans for the benefit of all society. At the least, these true believers inflict bruises on each other; at the most, they launch missiles to vaporize their enemies.

By the last pages, we get a solution to the whodunnit that is anti-climactic mostly because the import of the story lies in the approach, not the arrival. We are left with two main characters who have some hope for their lives in amidst the ruins all around them, two characters who were flawed and compromised and now must make their way in a world that has become precarious for so many of their friends, colleagues, and rivals. A novel that reached out across space and time, that played with language and genre, that invoked noble truths and deflated its own pretenses, that whooped and scatted and wept -- this novel ends with a couple of characters, battered by the world and each other, looking with a certain dented happiness at an uncertain future, one where they will have to reinvent themselves and grow out of the stereotypes that have given them comfort through the years. It's a kind of hope for us all: though the world may feel sometimes senseless and sometimes brutal, there might be a few more shreds of happiness if we give our borders a bit of a wink and a nod, if we redistrict the lines of our limitations, if we accept the imperfections of our loves and let our zealotries go slack before we end up stuck between a rock and an endgame, with no good choice left to make but annihilation.

I said before that I think the book needs its characters to be somewhat flat and formulaic, and here's another reason why that's so: because in the end they need to be able to look to a future where they are no longer characters in a detective novel, where they have outgrown their genre and are, instead, whatever they want to be.

13 July 2007

What I Did Wrong by John Weir

What I Did Wrong is one of those wonderful books I knew hardly anything about before reading it, one of those books I started reading with the idea that I'd give it ten or twenty pages at most to capture my interest, one of those books I soon arranged my days around, hungry for good blocks of time in which to slowly work my way through its pages, not wanting to miss any sentence, wondering the whole time if the writer could live up to the promise of the beginning. I finished it last night with the rare and invigorating feeling of having read a book that was not only just the right length, not only an impressively crafted novel, but exactly what I'd been hoping to read, even if I hardly knew quite what I wanted when I began.

The first element that stuck out to me was the novel's narrative voice, and at first I wasn't sure I liked it. Here are the first few paragraphs:
But I don't want to talk about the dead guy.

It's Sunday, Memorial Day weekend, the year 2000, and I'm in the East Village, counting my pulse. My heart beats too fast. You can hear it over my breathing, like a remix where the bas line, pushed way forward, thrums whatwhat, whatwhat. It's the caffeine talking. I'm drinking black tea in a coffee shop, fueling up for another hundred years, and reading Saul Bellow's Ravelstein, about a dead guy. Everybody's got one. Mine's Zack. He's buried in Queens, behind Queens College, where I teach. Though he's been gone six years, his voice is still in my head, hectoring me, raw with complaint. Whatever, as Justin says. Why stress? Everyone is headed for a graveyard in Queens. In the meantime, I try not to hear Zack too clearly or think about Justin, who is sleeping in my apartment. I crept out this morning without waking him, then came here for my morning caffeine fix. "Friends don't let friends go to Starbucks," says a sign on the counter, where a skinny kid pours my fourth cup of Earl Grey. He's wearing a knit cap indoors and a T-shirt that says GUIDED BY VOICES.

"That's me," I think, going back to my seat. I'm returning to Ravelstein, trying to turn down the volume on Zack's rasp and Justin's drone, when I look up and do a double take. Strolling into my neighborhood cafe is my high school best friend, Richie McShane. Richard, son of Shane. He's in a hurry, and he's headed for me.
There's something too polished in the tone and rhythm of those paragraphs, a certain awareness of performance, as if the narrator is trying awfully hard to have a particular effect, like somebody who really wants you to like them but doesn't want to come off as desperate, so ends up turning into a self-parody, or at least a bore. That oh-so-dramatic opening paragraph. The names of as-yet-unknown characters dropped like gossip so we can pretend to be in on the conversation. The world-weary pose of "Everybody's got one."

And yet I kept reading. Maybe because it was New York. Maybe because I was tired of reading about worlds where everybody's heterosexual. Or maybe I intuited what I consciously realized later: the voice is entirely perfect for the character, whose name is Tom, who teaches creative writing, and who admits he sometimes poses as being far more masculine (and perhaps world-weary) than he can really pull off.

I wouldn't continue reading a book in which I found the voice annoying no matter how appropriate it seemed to the character. (After all, I'd just abandoned Alessandro Piperno's The Worst Intentions because the idea of having to spend 300 pages with the narrator was more than I could bear.) Tom's voice became for me not annoying, but surprising and addictive. By page 16, I was already dog-earing pages with passages I wanted to come back to, things I wanted to savor or save. Here's the passage that caught my attention on that page, in which the narrator, Tom, talks about the boy back in his bedroom, Justin:
Well, I'm a gay man writing fiction. If I were Dennis Cooper, I'd cut him up, but tenderly. If I were Edmund White, I'd rhapsodize about his ass. If I were Genet, we'd be in prison. If I were John Rechy, talking to Justin would cost me fifty bucks. Gore Vidal would make me kill him. Mary Renault would pretend he's Greek, and we'd be headed across the Peloponnese in golden chain mail. In Proust, he's a girl; in Tennessee Williams, I'm the girl; in Colette, we're both girls. Gertrude Stein would turn him into a verb phrase. Virginia Woolf would give him a sex change. Oscar Wilde would have him sit for his portrait, and I'd paint it, and then he would never get old, which is terrible, because I keep aging, and if he's not going to touch me when he's twenty-five and I'm forty-one, what will happen when he's twenty-five and I'm sixty? I want him to age. I don't care about his youth. I'd like somebody in my life to age the normal way, not thirty years in seven months, but slowly, in stages, whether he wants to touch me or not.
A paragraph that begins with fun metafictional play ends with an honest and, for me at least, affecting statement of yearning and loss. Cleverness meets pathos, and much gets said, both stated and implied.

Any writer who can do so much in one paragraph is a writer worth paying attention to, and by that point I was hooked. I kept dog-earring pages, moments when I laughed out loud, moments when I was struck by the surprise of a particular phrase, tone, or idea, something I didn't want to lose along the way. Here's one from page 46:
Irony is conservative, after all. It's a way of preserving the past, storing your innocence in a display case long after you realize that the hope itself might have been the inciting crisis in your string of irretrievable losses.
The book has a strong narrative drive (propelled, yes, very much by the voice) and a complex structure of present-becoming-past-becoming-present, but it's also got some of the best epigrams (or shall we call them zingers?) of any contemporary novel I've read in quite some time. This is appropriate, too, since every chapter gets an epigraph, as does the book itself, and most of them are perfect in their new context, amusing or even moving. Tom lives an intertextual life, and this causes him struggle, certainly, as people are not texts -- but words and sentences, pages and books are also central to how he understands himself and, perhaps more importantly, how he makes sense of the world where his actions affect people's lives, and people respond to his actions much more than they do to his texts.

I mentioned the structure, and that's something else that is impressive about What I Did Wrong. Many bad novels shuffle back and forth between a character's past and present, using the past as mysterious signifier or Freudian barometer, a foundation from which to build a shoddy house of pop psychology. Even plenty of very good novels get weakened by utilizing the past as an obstacle to be overcome, abjuring complexity and ambiguity in favor of comfort and neat resolution (this was my objection with the ending of Generation Loss, a book I found sometimes breathtakingly impressive otherwise). In many cases, this is a matter of taste and worldview, and one reader's epiphany is another's cop-out, but with What I Did Wrong, I'm happy to have an easy-to-point-to reference for a novel that I think uses a character's past to enrich the story -- indeed, to constitute the story -- rather than as a way to strain for drama or sympathy, or to create a problem that needs to get solved.

It would take much more than I am willing to write to really chart out how the different time periods of What I Did Wrong interact from chapter to chapter, how information accrues in the reader's mind, how Tom's perception of events and people changes both obviously and subtly, how almost paragraph-by-paragraph the book moves both forward and back. Reading the first few paragraphs I quoted above is a different experience after finishing the book, and not just because we know a whole lot more about who Zack and Justin and Richie are, but because we also can judge Tom's tone and circumstances from a more informed vantage point. But that's just an extra bonus produced by the back-and-forth, the play of memory against present moment against other memory, the layers of life that sit like silt between the novel's lines and clog the gears of each shifting tense. The effect is one of opening up, not closing off; its the effect of a long novel, and yet this is not a long novel; rather, a craftily compressed one, and all the better for it.

The past in What I Did Wrong has meaning and effect, yes, but indefinite and shifting ones -- it's a past to be cogitated rather than digested, a past with pull, like a moon or a trawler. It's full of algebra rather than arithmetic. Tom knows this:
The waste of whatever is already lost surrounds us. Up the West Side is the elevated highway that Robert Moses built, abandoned and rusted in the sun. Is anything more comforting than ruins? I don't miss the past, I miss the ghost of the past, industrial remains, the crumbling piers of the Port of New York. I miss how the city used to live with its garbage plainly in sight as you walked along the Hudson River, in the light of the giant neon Maxwell House Coffee cup dripping its last drop over and over into Jersey. When I first moved to the city I thought the bitter smell of coffee grounds along the West Side was a chemical response created by abrasion of river air against New York brownstone, but Mark told me it came from the Hoboken coffee plant. "Chemical air/ sweeps in from New Jersey/ and smells of coffee": Robert Lowell. Mark likes facts, but I prefer debris.
I don't mean to make the book seem like a prolonged downer. It could have taken itself too seriously, and Tom could have been insufferable, but instead there's plenty of deprecation amidst the insights, plenty of breeze to blow away every approaching fog. The book is more humane because of this, but also more effectively philosophical -- and it is, among other things, a novel of ideas -- because no concept gets to dominate without at least a little bit of undercutting, no philosophy gets to puff itself up to the point of exploding its guts over every scene. Fools are often wisest (at least in Shakespeare), and there are sufficient moments of foolish wisdom in What I Did Wrong to make it wiser than most of its companions on the shelves.

10 July 2007

The Music of Razors by Cameron Rogers

a guest review by Craig L. Gidney

Angels, fallen and otherwise, are making a bit of a resurrection in fiction. One can look to such treatments of the angelic mythos as Storm Constantine’s Grigori trilogy, which imagines the Nephelim as sexy outsiders, or The Vintner's Luck by Elizabeth Knox, where the fallen angel was a melancholic muse to the eponymous vintner. Fallen angels are a way to explore the mystical and mythic underpinnings of religion. The angels in these books are not evil in the traditional, villainous sense. Rather, they are tragic iconoclasts who challenge the heavenly status quo. Cameron Rogers’ novel The Music of Razors adds to the new wave angelic canon that includes Hal Duncan, Philip Pullman, as well as Knox and Constantine.

The Music of Razors is a contemporary gothic fantasy with historic and mythological back stories. The brief prologue sets the stage. A fallen angel murders another angel, then creates magical instruments with its bones:
From those bones the angel fashioned instruments approximating its own power....Mercurial and undying, the living bone was bestowed with aspects of the angel’s own function....It then scattered these instruments across the Earth...
The novel is about those who search and are affected by these mysterious instruments. We meet Henry, an alcoholic drop out, would-be surgeon, and murderer in late 1800s Boston. He joins a group of occultists and together they summon a forgotten angelic being who knows the whereabouts of the instruments. This has disastrous results, and Henry finds the course of his life forever altered by the encounter.

A second contemporary storyline concerns Walter, a 4 year old in England, who is terrorized by a closet monster. He makes a decision that casts him out this world and into a nether region presided over by Henry and his dark sorcery, while his body lays in a comatose state for 20 years. Walter must somehow protect his little sister Hope (who grows from imaginative child to sullen, gothy teen in the course of the narrative) from Henry through dreams.

Rogers has other storylines in the novel that are intriguing, but they are quickly (and often inexplicably) abandoned. The daughter of Henry’s rival occult has a brief appearance that features Rogers’ most interesting creation: the clockwork ballerina Nimble and her companion Tug, an ogre. These scenes, full of sinister beauty, are not given full development. Hope’s childhood friend (and lover) Sunni also has a skeletal storyline that is abruptly dropped.

The Music of Razors walks a delicate tightrope between moody horror and angst-ridden coming of age. It doesn’t always come together. Hope and Sunni’s tumultuous affair can stray into Dawson’s Creek existential teen drama. Rogers’ mythology shows real originality, but is often too esoteric for its own good. A fascinating back mythology of the angels, fallen and otherwise, is hinted at, but never developed. He also has a habit of revealing crucial character history late in the story, when it would have been more effective had it been introduced earlier. The novel has the disjointed feel of being a "fixup" book. The storylines presented here seem like orphans, all packaged together. One gets the sense that there is at least an entire novel’s worth of material that was scrapped and reshaped to form this book.

Despite these significant flaws, The Music of Razors is an arresting tale. The amoral aspects of fallen angels are beautifully rendered, and Rogers’ imagery is hypnotic and unsettling:
Something clicks, inside the dancer....The three-ring sphere in which the ballerina’s box-heart is housed begins to slowly and comprehensively spin, building speed, faster and faster, until light begins to creep up from the box. It is now a silver spheroid blur, growing brighter by degrees, and as that first scintilla of light makes itself known, so do other soft sounds come from elsewhere inside the ballerina: her joints, her fingers, the ball of her neck. As the light becomes a soft and constant glow—all of the quiet, tiny parts within her coming to life—her face slowly rises.
It is in scenes like these throughout the book that Rogers’ talent shows itself. His fevered, hallucinogenic prose is easily the equal of Caitlin R. Kiernan’s. Like Kiernan, Rogers is creating a hybrid genre—not quite horror, not quite fantasy—full of beauty and terror. It will be interesting to see how he develops as a novelist.

09 July 2007

Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand

My review of Elizabeth Hand's novel Generation Loss is now up at Strange Horizons.

It's fund-drive time at Strange Horizons, by the way. SH is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and the staff are not paid -- the money is used to cover the costs of the site and to pay contributors.

Also, if you want an easy way to keep up with the posted-four-times-a-week reviews, there are two feeds available: an Atom feed and an RSS 2.0 feed. (Be the first person on your block to know about such things as last week's exploration of John Crowley's Aegypt series!) Just plug one of 'em into a feed reader, and away you go.

06 July 2007

New Address

As I've mentioned probably too many times now, I am moving. In fact, I have moved. This has caused me to gain not only a new physical address, but a new email address, one that will replace the old ocsub@earthlink.net address, which is likely to exist only for a few more weeks. Here, for anyone curious, and all the spammers in the world, are my new contact infos:

themumpsimus@gmail.com

and

P.O. Box 3038
Hoboken, NJ 07030

I'll receive all mail sent to my New Hampshire P.O. box until August 1, at which point I'll only receive mail that qualifies for forwarding.

And, as a couple of the role models from my childhood used to say, we thank you for your support.

04 July 2007

From the Annals of Analog

I was sorting through some old issues of Analog magazine that had been collecting dust in my apartment, and in looking through the book reviews, came across a few passages that amused me, as much for where and when they appeared, and who wrote them, as for what they say.

September 1966 issue, from a review by P. Schuyler Miller of Judith Merril's 10th Annual Edition: The Year's Best S-F:
How to characterize all this? Judith Merril does it herself, of course, in her summation: this is the book that shows how "the distinction between the specialty writer and the writer-in-general has almost vanished." SF (science fiction plus fantasy plus all the borderlines, in the Merril application) may at last be approaching the point which mystery fiction reached long ago, when any good writer may try his hand at it without condescension, when many do, and when the protectiveness of cult-membership is no longer needed. Even non-initiates can enjoy; even the nonordained can preach.
July 1971 issue, the opening paragraph of P. Schuyler Miller's review column:
Increasingly, as you may have discovered if you read book ads or other reviews than these, "mainstream" writers are discovering science-fiction themes and using them in "respectable" books. In most cases, the internal evidence suggests that they know nothing about science fiction, see no reason to separate it from fantasy, and consider themselves tremendously original to have hatched such ideas. So do the critics and reviewers who read them.
August 1976 issue, the opening paragraphs of Lester del Rey's review column:
There seem to be a lot of science fiction writers who are obsessed by a peculiar neurosis -- they desperately want to be accepted into the mainstream, and yet they never sit down and write a mainstream novel. Apparently, they're secretly afraid to try. A number of them recently have been clamoring to "get out of the ghetto" by the simple expedient of having the science fiction label left off their book. They hope thereby, I assume, to have the booksellers place their books on the main racks where general fiction is sold.

Publishers stubbornly refuse to give in to their desires, because any publisher worth his salary knows a few things about the market. In the first place, the average science fiction novel sells more copies and makes more money than the average novel. That really happens to be true: a few general fiction books make a great deal of money, but many more are failures in the market. In the second place, any honest cover blurb would automatically turn off the general reader, the one who will read science fiction has bypassed the general section and gone to the science fiction shelves. And finally, it's a foolish publisher or author who tries to deceive a bookseller!

Still, there's nothing wrong with writing general fiction. In fact, one of the novels of mine which I consider my best had no hint of science fiction or fantasy in it. Maybe a writer should get away from science fiction once in a while. And writing general fiction isn't all that difficult. All it requires is a good idea, a set of interesting characters, and the basic ability to write decently; but just as in trying to write science fiction, the writer should familiarize himself with what he wants to do by reading a lot of the material in the field and seeing how it is done. (That is the step which most category writers neglect when they try to write mainstream fiction.)

Also, of course, there's nothing wrong with a mainstream writer trying to write science fiction, provided he takes the trouble to know what he is doing and is willing to write honestly. Too many in the past have tried condescending to a lucrative science fiction market for which they felt contempt, and the results have been pretty sad.

Today, there are a few signs that some very successful authors are thinking seriously about introducing at least some elements of science fiction into their work. And when they succeed, it might be well worthwhile for writers -- and perhaps readers -- to take a good look at what they do and compare it with what the regular science fiction writers do. Maybe they know something about the mainstream -- and story-telling in general -- that we don't.

03 July 2007

Returning to Reflect

After I posted the rant about "the literary establishment", I was away from the internet for a few days, and then I returned to discover it had garnered quite a bit of comments, not just here, but elsewhere. Some of the comments, disagreements, agreements, and discussion interested me quite a bit, and I thank everyone who contributed. (Most people kept a more thoughtful and civil tone than I did in the post, which I'm also grateful for.)

I've spent some time thinking about why it is that I responded so vehemently to the article in NYRSF. A lot of discussion ended up focusing on The Road, but it wasn't really the statements about The Road that sparked my ire -- mostly, I think it was that Sanford's article hit multiple areas of sensitivity for me all at once. What I realized when reading all the commentary about what I and others had said was that there are a number of topics related to the perception of science fiction/fantasy outside of the active community of self-identified readers of SF that I enjoy seeing discussed with an awareness of all the different sorts of complexity involved. When that complexity seems to be ignored, I get annoyed, because what I really want is for somebody to answer questions I don't have answers to, because I lack the knowledge and experience to dig into them.

I don't intend to beat the discussion into the ground -- I've pretty much said what I have to say -- but I want to offer a couple points of clarification. My argument was mostly with the idea of a "literary establishment" and a "literary elite", but I didn't mean to somehow imply I think all books are treated equally by editors, publishers, distributors, booksellers, reviewers, teachers, and readers. That would be an idiotic argument, and though I am fully capable of making idiotic arguments, I hope I didn't make that one. It's the differences that really hold my fascination, in fact, which is why I think I got so testy with an article that I perceived to be simplifying things horribly.

I also think science-fiction-as-science-fiction is in an interesting moment, one where, yes, many topics primarily (but not exclusively) the province of SF over the past sixty or seventy years are often not being identified by writers, marketers, or readers as SF. (Books for teens should also be a part of this discussion.) In The Jewel-Hinged Jaw and, especially, Starboard Wine, Samuel Delany posited the idea that the basic difference between science fiction and other types of prose is a difference of subject/object relationship rather than of content -- that SF privileges the object, whereas other types of writing since the 19th century privilege the subject. If this was true, is it still? What are the different forces at play in the careers of such writers as George Saunders, Aimee Bender, and Kelly Link -- or, for that matter, Ursula LeGuin, Nalo Hopkinson, and Lucius Shepard? What are the systems and forces that came together to make such a general success of The Road ... or Harry Potter? Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Those of us who feel obsessively drawn to these questions, perhaps against our better judgment, would do well to avoid generalizations and probe carefully into the contradictions, exceptions, surprises, histories, orthodoxies, and assumptions of the topic. That's a reminder as much for myself as for anybody else.