29 April 2009

$1 Small Beer

This is the craziest sale I've ever seen. Small Beer Press needs to make some room in their warehouse, and so they're selling a selected group of backlist titles for $1 each, plus shipping. I got the two Small Beer books I didn't already have (Endless Things and Water Logic, which I didn't have simply because they're parts of series I haven't read, but for $1...) and a couple I plan to give to people as random gifts. It's great stuff -- brilliant collections of short fiction by Alan DeNiro and Kelly Link and Maureen McHugh, Angelica Gorodsicher's extraordinary Kalpa Imperial, etc. Stock up!

Martian Happiness

Peter Singer, in an interview with Christine Smallwood at The Nation:
You're a utilitarian. Utilitarianism tries to maximize the net surplus of happiness over misery in the world. What if billionaire Larry Ellison's yacht makes him really, really happy?

This is what some call the utility monster argument. We would have to assume that Larry Ellison actually has capacities for happiness that are vastly greater than anyone else's. Ellison's yacht cost $200 million, and if we assume that $400 can repair an obstetric fistula, that means that the suffering relieved by 500,000 obstetric fistula repairs is not greater than the happiness that Ellison gets from his yacht. That, I think, is not physically possible. But if we ever encountered Martians who could convince us that they had a vastly greater capacity for happiness than we do, then it could be a problem.

Then the moral position would be to let the Martians colonize Earth and make us their slaves.

Yes, that does seem to be the implication of the theory. A lot of people do think that's a damning objection to utilitarianism.

28 April 2009

Idler Ants

Samuel Johnson, The Idler 88, "Idleness", 18 November 1758:
But Idleness predominates in many lives where it is not suspected; for being a vice which terminates in itself, it may be enjoyed without injury to others; and is therefore not watched like Fraud, which endangers property, or like Pride, which naturally seeks its gratifications in another's inferiority. Idleness is a silent and peaceful quality, that neither raises envy by ostentation, nor hatred by opposition; and therefore no body is busy to censure or detect it.
The New York Times, "To Fathom a Colony’s Talk and Toil, Studying Insects One by One", 27 April 2009:

Dr. Dornhaus is breaking new ground in her studies of whether the efficiency of ant society, based on a division of labor among ant specialists, is important to their success. To do that, she said, “I briefly anesthetized 1,200 ants, one by one, and painted them using a single wire-size brush, with model airplane paint — Rally Green, Racing Red, Daytona Yellow.”

After recording their behavior with two video cameras aiming down on an insect-size stage, she analyzed 300 hours of videotape of the ants in action. She discovered behavior more worthy of Aesop’s grasshopper than the proverbial industrious ants.

“The specialists aren’t necessarily good at their jobs,” she said. “And the other ants don’t seem to recognize their lack of ability.”

Dr. Dornhaus found that fast ants took one to five minutes to perform a task — collecting a piece of food, fetching a sand-grain stone to build a wall, transporting a brood item — while slow ants took more than an hour, and sometimes two. And she discovered that about 50 percent of the other ants do not do any work at all. In fact, small colonies may sometimes rely on a single hyperactive overachiever.

(via Jenny Davidson)

27 April 2009

Blasted Horrors

My latest Strange Horizons column has been posted: "Blasted Horrors". Subjects this time around: horror fiction, libraries & children, Stephen King, Sarah Kane's Blasted, Robert Aickman. (For my previous thoughts on Kane, see this post.)

I thought about dedicating this column to Rick Bowes, who went to see Blasted with me in New York this past fall. It's not the sort of play you can invite just anybody to go see with you. Rick was a good sport about it. Then he reported me to the police.

I'll also note that yes, as of right now there is a problem of verb number and agreement in the second sentence. Entirely my fault. I'm terrible with even simple arithmetic. Among the wonders of online publication, though, is that such things can be fixed...

26 April 2009

How to Be Proved Wrong

Now and then, those of us who write book reviews let our guard down and make generalized statements that could be proved wrong with a single exception. Sometimes we buffer such statements with qualifiers that technically relieve them of being pure generalizations, but I doubt many readers are fooled.

For instance, last year I wrote a somewhat less than positive review of Nisi Shawl's short story collection Filter House. I even said this:
While I find it easy to believe readers will experience Shawl's stories in different ways -- such is the case with any basically competent fiction -- I cannot imagine how a reader who is sensitive to literature's capabilities and possibilities could possibly say these stories offer much of a performance.
I certainly made a point of highlighting my subjectivity here: "I cannot imagine how...", but still. The intent is clear. I spent most of the review saying, in one way or another, that this book seemed to me the epitome of mediocre, and I tried to imply that it's inconceivable (INCONCEIVABLE!) that anyone would passionately disagree with such a rational perspective.

The greater the claims, the harder they fall... Within days, I had learned that Samuel Delany thought Filter House one of the best collections of science fiction stories published in the last decade or so. Delany and I have fairly different taste in fiction, but I deeply respect his readings of things, and even if I can't share his enthusiasm for a certain text, I've never felt like I couldn't understand what sparked and fueled that enthusiasm.

And now Filter House has been listed as one of the 7 best SF/Fantasy/Horror books of the year by Publisher's Weekly, and it has won a Tiptree Award.

While I will admit I still don't understand the acclaim, I have to say I was completely and utterly wrong -- dramatically, astoundingly, INCONCEIVABLY! wrong -- in thinking that it was an impossible book to see as an example of excellence. Plenty of very smart and sensitive readers have found it to be exactly that.

22 April 2009

Instead of a Post of Substance...

I'm too busy to actually write anything that requires thought, so instead I will give you my favorite encounters with YouTube this week, both from British TV:

An inspiring triumph over preconceptions. (No, not my favorite song by a long shot, but a moment to be treasured.)

Cthulhu Mastermind.

16 April 2009

A Conversation with David Beronä

Over at Colleen Lindsay's digs, The Swivet, I interview David Beronä, who wrote a marvelous book called Wordless Books: The Original Graphic Novels.

One fun bit of trivia I forgot to mention in the intro to the interview -- before David and I had any knowledge of each other, we were both reviewers for Rain Taxi, and you should definitely check out his review there of one of the most recent wordless books to gain a lot of attention, Shaun Tan's The Arrival.

13 April 2009

Coetzee on Beckett's Letters

First, Josipovici, now Coetzee -- Beckett's selected letters are getting reviewed by the best. Deservedly so.

Coetzee uses the occasion of a review to give a fine overview of Beckett's life and thought during the 1930s, as reflected in the letters. For instance:

Migrations of artists are only crudely related to fluctuations in exchange rates. Nevertheless, it is no coincidence that in 1937, after a new devaluation of the franc, Beckett found himself in a position to quit Ireland and return to Paris. Money is a recurrent theme in his letters, particularly toward the end of the month. His letters from Paris are full of anxious notations about what he can and cannot afford (hotel rooms, meals). Though he never starved, he lived a genteel version of a hand-to-mouth existence. Books and paintings were his sole personal indulgence. In Dublin he borrows £30 to buy a painting by Jack Butler Yeats, brother of William Butler Yeats, that he cannot resist. In Munich he buys the complete works of Kant in eleven volumes.

What £30 in 1936 represents in today's terms, or the 19.75 francs that an alarmed young man had to pay for a meal at the restaurant Ste. Cécile on October 27, 1937, is not readily computed, but such expenditures had real significance to Beckett, even an emotional significance. In a volume with such lavish editorial aids as the new edition of his letters, it would be good to have more guidance on monetary equivalents. Less discretion about how much Beckett received from his father's estate would be welcome too.

A bit of internetting can answer some of the questions about money equivalents. This currency converter, for instance, lets us know that the £30 Beckett spent on the Yeats painting equals about $2,880.15 today. Not a minor investment, and, indeed, it would have been nice information to have in the book. Nonetheless, as just about every reviewer, including Coetzee, has pointed out, the scholarly apparatus in the book is vast and in many ways astounding and overwhelming.

12 April 2009

Omit Needless Advice

Geoffrey Pullum, co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, is not celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Strunk & White -- in an essay at The Chronicle Review, he writes:
The book's toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar. It is often so misguided that the authors appear not to notice their own egregious flouting of its own rules. They can't help it, because they don't know how to identify what they condemn.
It's a wonderful take-down, the best I've encountered since Louis Menand's examination of Eats, Shoots, and Leaves ("Why would a person who is not just vague about the rules but disinclined to follow them bother to produce a guide to punctuation?").

The power and popularity of such books is astounding. Both books were quite popular in the high school English departments I worked at, and Strunk & White was often assigned to students. I'm not against teaching basic grammar (I've done it most of my years of teaching), but if you're going to teach grammar, don't teach from books that are, as often as not, incontrovertibly wrong.

11 April 2009

Silver Kelly and My Golden Age

Though it is April, Asimov's Science Fiction magazine likes to stick to the future, and so the June 2009 issue is now available. This is a particularly special issue, as it includes James Patrick Kelly's 25th annual June story -- the first was the June 1984 "Saint Theresa of the Aliens".

Last summer, Jim was the guest of honor at Readercon, where he was interviewed by John Kessel, and where I had the privilege of being on a panel about his work -- and of writing a little bit about him in the program book.

In honor of Jim's June feats, here is what I wrote about him last year:

by Matthew Cheney
originally published in the Readercon 19 souvenir book, 2008

I'm not alone in having a golden age, a time when science fiction was the brightest star shining in the galaxy of my life, but I may be alone in being able to tie that golden age to specific issues of a magazine and to a specific byline in those issues.

Yes, this is my golden age: Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, June 1985 to June 1990. And the hero of my golden age is James Patrick Kelly.

I was not quite ten years old in June of '85. I wouldn't even begin reading SF for a few months yet, but that doesn't matter (time travel has long been a fascination of mine). I didn't discover 1985 until the far end of 1986, when I got a copy of Gardner Dozois's Year's Best Science Fiction, Third Annual Collection. A year later, one of the teachers at my school told me a science fiction writer was coming to visit for six weeks, some guy named Jim Kelly. Nobody at the school had heard of him.

Rural New Hampshire in the mid-80s was not a haven of science fiction fans. I only knew a couple, and they were all associated with the local college where my mother worked. I didn't know anybody who'd published a book. Writers were gods to me -- all I wanted to do in the world was become one, and anybody who published in the places I read (primarily Asimov's and Dozois's anthologies) was more impressive to me than movie stars or presidents.

The school librarian, who had also been my third grade teacher and had fostered my love of writing, showed me some photocopied stories that had been sent along by the writer who would be coming to our school. They were copies of stories from Asimov's. "James Patrick Kelly!" I screamed.

"You've heard of him?"

"He's great! He's a real writer!"

(I had been made cynical by previous artists-in-the-schools visitors, because the writers always tended to be people who had published a couple of pieces of filler in mimeographed gardening newsletters.)

The moments of the first visit are deeply etched into my memory. My class was one of the last ones to arrive in the library, where Mr. Kelly was to give a presentation to a large group of us. I sat in the back, angling for a view. I think I expected him to glow.

He didn't glow. He looked like a relatively normal human being. (This was not disappointing so much as it was beguiling. Normal human beings publish in Asimov's? How is that possible?!) He talked about science fiction, about books, about writing. All I remember thinking is: When is he going to tell us the secrets? Writers, I thought, were people who had figured out secret ways to make perfect stories, and that's why they were published and the rest of us weren't.

The real fun began later, though, when I was part of a small group of students chosen to participate in a weekly series of workshops led by Mr. Kelly. In the first, we did some writing about school in the future, and then he asked if we had any questions about writing, science fiction, or anything, really. I was determined to ask some sort of question, but was so excited, so overwhelmed that coming up with one question threatened to fry my already addled mind. After somebody asked a question I considered idiotic, though, I couldn't resist -- I couldn't let this Great Man go home thinking we were all ignoramuses. I thrust my hand into the air. "This might be," I said, "a question nobody else really understands, because it is necessary to read Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine in order to truly understand it, but if you will permit me, I will ask it anyway." If anyone in the room had previously doubted that I was the biggest nerd in the school, those doubts immediately disappeared.

"Go ahead," Mr. Kelly said, doing his best, I'm sure, to repress a giggle.

"Why," I said, "do you keep publishing stories in the June issue of the magazine?"

He explained that it had begun by chance, but then became a pattern, and now he was stuck with it.

Afterward, I brought him my treasured copy of Dozois's Third and asked if he would be willing to sign it. I told him it contained my favorite story of his, "Solstice". He smiled and wrote with a blue felt-tipped pen: To Matt -- My friend in Plymouth.

The workshops were the highlight of my life that year, and I wrote thousands of words of stories for them. On the last day, Mr. Kelly gave me his home address and told me to send him things when I wrote them. I don't think he quite knew what he was offering. Over the years, he received hundreds of pages of letters and stories printed by a dot-matrix printer on track-feed paper, all of it amounting to what is, I expect, a better blackmail file than the FBI could ever assemble for me. I treasured his letters to me more than any other object. He made suggestions about my stories, told me about books to read, and let me know what he was working on. He gave me various details about a story that eventually he told me he'd decided to call "Mr. Boy".

"Solstice" appeared in the June 1985 issue of Asimov's. "Mr. Boy" was the cover story of the June 1990 issue. They remain stories I return to with pure and utter joy.

My literary tastes broadened in high school, and my experience of life and the world became much different from what it had been when I first met Jim Kelly (yes, eventually I was able to bring myself to call him "Jim", as he told me to, but it was tough). We continued corresponding long after "Mr. Boy" was published, and I continued reading SF, though with occasional breaks for other things. Jim gave me my best high school graduation present, in fact: a copy of The Norton Book of Science Fiction signed by all the contributors who had been at the Sycamore Hill conference that year (Bruce Sterling included his email address, but I'd never seen one before and thought it was some sort of strange code for how to hack into a government mainframe).

Jim is one of the most generous and thoughtful people I've ever been lucky enough to have as a friend, and the story I have told here is, I know, not unique. He has been a mentor to entire generations of science fiction writers and fans. This was particularly valuable in the days before the Internet, when connectivity was difficult for those of us who lived away from major metropolitan centers. I was a kid besotted with Asimov's and science fiction in general, and having someone like Jim as a friend during those years deeply affected the adult I grew to be, and nothing I could say or do for him would be an adequate thank you.

The publication of "Mr. Boy", though, brought my golden age to its end. I'd known about that story from the time of its inception, and Jim had told me of his various struggles with it, his excitement when he sold it, his further excitement when he learned it would be the cover story. Getting to peek behind the curtains of the workshop like that, thrilling as it was, destroyed a certain innocence. I have no regrets about that -- golden ages should be shed, because they open us to other sorts of wonder, a plethora of more complex pleasures, and once we have moved beyond them, we can look back on our golden age as something perfect, something complete and pure, in a way we can look at nothing else in the world.

It's a risk to go back to things you loved when young, but I recently reread a lot of Jim's fiction from the first part of his career, before he started winning Hugos and Nebulas, before he became the King of Podcasting, before he edited marvelous anthologies with his partner-in-crime John Kessel.

His early fiction is far more varied in quality than his more recent work -- he has become a reliable master craftsman of the short story -- but it possesses a different energy, and when the stories are good they are good in different ways from what the more mature, and perhaps wiser, JPK writes now. (Even his first-published story, "Dea Ex Machina" [Galaxy, April 1975], at least has an intriguing first sentence: "An educated man among philistines is like a nymphomaniac among impotents; both are victims of inadequacy.") Stories such as "Still Time", "Saint Theresa of the Aliens", "Crow", "Solstice", "Rat", "The Prisoner of Chillon", "Glass Cloud", "Heroics", and "Home Front" mix solid and emotionally affecting character development with cultural and technological speculation that seldom feels particularly dated even twenty years after the stories' first publications. The stories benefit from a classical sense of balance and form that brings to mind Maupassant, O. Henry, and Shirley Jackson.

Rereading them, I realized that there are stories I wish were better known, stories I wish had gained the attention and respect that Jim's more recent work has. "Home Front" is a particular favorite of mine, a perfect example of an entire world being fit into a short story -- in this case, a world of war as televised entertainment. What is remarkable about the story is its mix of the global and the personal, a scope plenty of writers aim for but few are able to achieve in as satisfactory a manner. It is a story suffused with suppressed terror, and it manages an emotionally complex ending where the surface is one of sentimental patriotism and triumph, and yet an astute reader will pick up on the nightmare at the story's heart, the nightmare of children being pushed to revel in violence and war. The future in "Home Front" is bleak and desperate, but the tone and structure of the story urges us toward empathy, not scorn. We can understand what the kids feel, and we can be appalled by the forces that have legitimized those feelings.

I could go on and on about these stories -- I could rattle off vast theories about why "Solstice", "The Prisoner of Chillon", and "Mr. Boy" are more impressive as separate entities than as parts of the novel Wildlife (although I could also defend that novel against anyone who dared defame it!); I could tell you that "Heroics" and a letter from an Asimov's reader complaining that it didn't belong in a science fiction magazine are the twin items that launched me on a career of defending fiction against labels and definitions; I could exhort you to seek out the very different metafictional stories "The F&SF Diet" and "Daemon"; I could speculate about why "Death Therapy" is the only one of Jim's first seven or eight stories to possess the craftsmanship and imagination that would soon appear in every story; I could tell you how fond I am of the stories that make up the book he wrote with John Kessel, Freedom Beach; I could go on and on about the covers of Planet of Whispers (gasp! ack!) and Look Into the Sun (not bad!). But I won't. Because I've already said what I want to say, and what matters most, and I said it in the seventh grade, when even as the biggest nerd in my school, I knew one of the truths of the world:

James Patrick Kelly is great. He's a real writer.

06 April 2009

Short Notes on Various Books

One thing I love about blogs is seeing people discover books that have become so much a part of my own life that I develop the sense that everybody else on Earth has also read them, and so there's no need for me to talk about them, because we all know these are great books, right? It's nice to be reminded that this is a fantasy -- nice to see people suddenly fall in love with books I've known for a little while already.

The great and glorious Anne Fernald just posted a list of some books she's read lately with joy and happiness, and the two books on the list that I've read are ones I recommend without reservation: Tropical Fish by Doreen Baingana and Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys.

I first heard about Tropical Fish when I was in Kenya for the SLS/Kwani conference and Doreen Baingana was part of a panel discussion; I found her captivating. Later, a Ugandan friend (who also told me about FEMRITE) exhorted me to read the book. I did. I exhort you to do the same.

I don't remember when I stumbled upon Good Morning, Midnight -- I feel like the battered, crumpled paperback I've got has been with me for years, but I know I read it only a handful of years ago. Few other books have affected the prose of my own writing as deeply. Much of what I've written, and even some of what I've published, I could call my pre-Rhys writing -- aspiring toward a sort of lyricism that now I have little interest in. Good Morning, Midnight offers, to my eye's ear, a prose that I would rank in its stark, precise beauty with that of Paul Bowles, J.M. Coetzee, and even, to some extent, Beckett.

Meanwhile, much like Anne, I've been reading a lot without writing about it. I've felt like I either didn't have much to say about what I've read, or what I'd have to say has already been said by plenty of people. Here, though, are some quick thoughts on some of what I've read over the last few weeks:

I was looking forward to Jedediah Berry's first novel, The Manual of Detection, with so much excitement that I may have slaughtered it with expectations. Some of Jed's short stories are among my favorites of recent years, and I had high hopes for the novel, but those hopes were never quite met. It was a brisk and sometimes exhilarating read, but ultimately felt whispy to me, especially in the last third, from which I ached for much more. Much more what? I don't know. But more.

Similarly, I think Brian Evenson is one of the better contemporary American writers, and so my hopes for his new novel, Last Days, were unreasonably high. It's an interesting and sometimes harrowing book, but again I wasn't satisfied with it in the last third or so. (Matt Bell has written a comprehensive and thoughtful take on the novel here.) It's not that I didn't like either The Manual of Detection or Last Days -- I read them both, and neither ever really felt like a slog to get through -- but both left me unsatisfied, yearning for more complexity and depth and nuance and implication.

Then one day the mail brought both The Letters of Noël Coward and The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 1, 1929-1940. I wondered what the mail gods were trying to tell me (one friend replied, when I mentioned the coincidence: "I think it means you are either: an absurd gayist ... or a flamboyant abusrdist. Possibly both." I'll try for both). The Coward was a review copy, the Beckett a book I splurged on for myself. I tried reading the former for a bit, because I do have a certain weakness for good ol' Noël, but the letters are presented amidst a narrative of Coward's life, and I found it annoying, so couldn't continue.

The Beckett is a masterpiece of editing, a feat of scholarship, and utterly fascinating. I devoured half of the big book in only a few days (then stopped, ready to go again on the second half very soon). Gabriel Josipovici reviewed it, so I have nothing else to say.

Partly because of my "Murder, Madness, Mayhem" class, I happened to read some Robert Aickman stories and became obsessed. I had last read Aickman when I was about 17 or so, and I had hated his stories. I thought they were the most boring, pointless things ever written by any human being ever, ever, ever. Ahhh, youth! "The Hospice" and "The Stains" are now stories I am simply in awe of. I quickly hunted up the only two relatively affordable Aickman collections available on the used book market: Cold Hand in Mine and Painted Devils. They are full of exactly what Aickman says they are full of: strange stories. Beautifully, alarmingly strange stories.

Someone should publish an affordable paperback of Aickman's selected (or, be still my heart, collected!) stories. Tartarus Press published a two-volume collected stories, but it's going for at least $700 these days, and though I love Aickman, I can't spend $700 on him. Thus, I implore the publishing world to relieve my yearning and reprint a collection or two or eight of Aickman's stories in inexpensive editions! Someone? Anyone? Please? NYRB Books, I'm looking at you right now.....

Wanting to read some nonfiction about Aickman, I borrowed S.T. Joshi's The Modern Weird Tale: A Critique of Horror Fiction from a library and read the fairly astute chapter on Aickman. But I have to admit, my first thought on reading various parts of Joshi's book was, "What crawled up this guy's ass and died?" I know some people have thought the same about things I've written, so I didn't hold it against him. I was curious how Joshi is perceived within the horror community, though, because his rants against writers like Stephen King and Peter Straub seem so over-the-top to me that they actually work better as humor than as criticism, and he sometimes seems to get angry at writers for not fitting into his own narrow categories, for not agreeing with his (Lovecraftian) view of the universe, for not being more, well, Joshian. He has some fascinating things to say, but also ... not. Is he the Ezra Pound of genre criticism? The Cimmerian quotes Joel Lane (whose short stories I like quite a bit):
[Joshi's] Lovecraft biography is a serious classic. Joshi’s recent book The Modern Weird Tale is a mixed bag, highly idiosyncratic and unfair, but full of good insights. His new book The Evolution of the Weird Tale, despite its grand title, is basically a collection of review articles; but it’s enormous fun and less narrow than some earlier Joshi stuff. The Weird Tale, published in 1990 and covering the weird fiction genre from Machen to Lovecraft, is ambitious and dynamic but heavy-handed and too fond of extreme statements. Behind the veils of academic objectivity, Joshi can be seen to be a volatile, short-tempered, aggressive and highly intense young man. He has mellowed a little since, though his sarcasm can still wither at forty paces.
As I prepared my class to watch an episode of Dexter, I read around in Jack the Ripper and the London Press by L. Perry Curtis, Jr. and Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture by David Schmid -- both well worth reading, rich with insights.

Nowadays, I'm mostly doing research about British imperialism and its connection to mystery and adventure fiction. Fascinating stuff, which will, I hope, bring a new project to fruition...


It was Samuel Delany's birthday on April 1, and the Philadelphia Inquirer has very thoughtfully given him the present of a profile, including comments from Gardner Dozois, David Hartwell, Josh Lukin, Jacob McMurray, Gregory Frost, and others.

The article even included a quote from Philip K. Dick that I don't remember encountering before. Dick reportedly called Dhalgren "a terrible book [that] should have been marketed as trash." Gave me a good chuckle, that did.

I should also note that I discovered the profile via a particularly excellent collection of links posted by Ron Silliman.