30 August 2009

It's a Plot!

I don't have time or desire to expose all the errors and bad assumptions in Lev Grossman's essay "Good Novels Don't Have to be Hard", but thankfully I don't have to: Andrew Seal has already shown how wrong Grossman is about so much.

Grossman's essay reminds me of a lot of things I've read in science fiction fanzines and blogs over the years where people want to justify their taste and pleasures against armies of straw people marching through an alternate literary history. But I don't really feel any malice toward SF fans and amateur critics who are passionate about what they spend most of their time reading; that they don't have a nuanced understanding of Modernism is really not a big deal.

That a man who has a degree from Harvard in literature and did work toward a Ph.D. in comparative literature at Yale, has written for Lingua Franca, the Village Voice, Entertainment Weekly, Time Out New York, Salon and the New York Times, and has been Time's book critic since 2002 -- that a man of those qualifications can write something this clueless, though, is impressive. After all, plenty of fanzine and blog writers produce better-informed and more thoughtful stuff.

A few quick points before I go...
  • "Modernism" can be, and often is, used as a term to describe an era rather than a set of techniques primarily associated with an era -- an era and set of techniques fiercely debated just about from the moment they first appeared -- but pretending that "Modernism" is a settled term is likely to lead you toward the same sorts of problems you encounter by assuming that, for instance, "science fiction" is a settled term.
  • Books are not popular or unpopular simply because of their accessibility. Consider Faulkner. The Sound and the Fury does, indeed, sell quite well these days. Before teachers realized how much fun it can be in classrooms, it didn't do nearly as well. The bestselling novel in 1929, the year Sound and the Fury was published, was All Quiet on the Western Front (an episodic novel that is not especially suspenseful, at least not in the way we generally talk of popular fiction being suspenseful). In 1931, Faulkner's "pot-boiler" Sanctuary sold well and helped raise the sales of his backlist, but still not in the way his Nobel Prize and academic canonization did. And then a few years ago Oprah helped.
  • Which is just to say that confusing what makes a book popular with how a book is written is likely to lead to distorting simplifications and confusions.
  • Also, confusing the popularity of a book within an academic context with its popularity within a general context is likely to lead to distorting simplifications and confusions.
  • Also, confusing a book's reputation with its popularity is likely to lead to distoriting simplifications and confusions.
  • There is no link between the ideas that A.) a group of writers Lev Grossman defines as Modernists wrote books that are hard to read, and Z.) "millions of readers" "need something they're not getting elsewhere". Look at the lists of 1920s and 1930s bestsellers. Most of the names have been forgotten, but of the ones people today might possibly recognize -- Zane Grey, Sinclair Lewis, Edna Ferber, Rafael Sabatini, John Galsworthy, Booth Tarkington, Edith Wharton, Thornton Wilder, J. B. Priestley, Pearl S. Buck, Willa Cather, James Hilton, Isak Dinesen, Franz Werfel, Margaret Mitchell, George Santayana, Rebecca West, Aldous Huxley, Kenneth Roberts, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, John Steinbeck -- hardly any of them are bestsellers with books that are "difficult" because of the reasons Lev Grossman identifies. (One notable exception is Virginia Woolf's The Years in 1937, though it's a more "accessible" novel than many of her others.)
  • Here's an interesting analysis of bestseller lists that is relevant to this discussion.
  • Lev Grossman sez: "The revolution is under way. The novel is getting entertaining again." This is a meaningless statement outside of a personal context. Its meaning is closer to, "I've recently enjoyed more of the novels that 1.) I have encountered, 2.) have been published within the last few years, and 3.) I identify as 'literary fiction'."
  • Lev Grossman sez: "This is the future of fiction." Do not trust anyone who utters such a sentence. They are likely a charlatan, a mesmerist, or a dolt.
  • Lev Grossman sez: "Old hierarchies of taste are collapsing. Genres are hybridizing." This is called The History of the Novel. Those two statements could have been made at any time during the last 300 years at least.
  • Lev Grossman sez: "The balance of power is swinging from the writer back to the reader, and compromises with the public taste are being struck all over the place." When did writers have power, exactly? Writers do not have power (well, at least before they establish a proven track record of bestsellers). Publishers, editors, marketing executives, reviewers, teachers, booksellers, and readers have power. And what are these "compromises with public taste" of which you speak? Are people writing on walls with their feces or something?
  • Lev Grossman sez: "Lyricism is on the wane, and suspense and humor and pacing are shedding their stigmas and taking their place as the core literary technologies of the 21st century." I'll agree that within this article, lyricism is on the wane.
  • Lev Grossman often sez "the novel". This is even less useful than talking in general about "the internet". It can be done. But it's seldom enlightening.
  • Lev Grossman sez: "In fact the true postmodern novel is here, hiding in plain sight. We just haven't noticed it because we're looking in the wrong aisle. We were trained—by the Modernists, who else—to expect a literary revolution to be a revolution of the avant-garde: typographically altered, grammatically shattered, rhetorically obscure." Whoa, man, you are, like, soooo 1960s!
  • "Lev Grossman is the book critic at Time magazine and the author of 'The Magicians,' a novel." Lev Grossman seems to have mistaken the indefinite article a after The Magicians for the definite article the.
I don't have anything against Lev Grossman. I'm not his Mortal Enemy. I didn't call him "the Uwe Boll of the book reviewing world". I read The Magicians and thought it was a fun idea not very well executed overall, but entertaining sometimes. If this were just one insipid article I wouldn't really care. But it works from assumptions and misperceptions that keep getting trotted out, and my tolerance for it all is low at this point.

25 August 2009

Delany in Conversation

As readers of my introduction to The Jewel-Hinged Jaw know, my fascination with Samuel R. Delany really began when I read an interview with him in Charles Platt's book Dream Makers. I've been an avid reader of Delany interviews ever since, and so when Jeff VanderMeer asked me to do a quick interview with him for the Amazon.com blog Omnivoracious, I was particularly thrilled.

That interview has now been posted.

I want to offer here particular thanks to Kyle Cassidy for allowing us to use his marvelous photograph.

Shortly after I finished putting together a draft of the interview, the mailman brought a copy of a new book, Conversations with Samuel R. Delany edited by Carl Freedman for the wonderful Literary Conversations Series from the University Press of Mississippi. The interviews focus on the recent years, and I'd seen most of them in their original form, but there are a few that were published in fairly out-of-the-way places and a couple that have not been published before, including a particularly excellent one conducted by Freedman himself. It's a marvelous and thought-provoking book.

24 August 2009

Books Received

The majority of the books I receive from publishers and writers are, unfortunately, not ones that spark my interest. They find homes at local libraries, with more appreciative readers, etc. (unless really desperate for cash, I don't sell books I get for free).

The ones that do, for some reason or another, arouse my curiosity are still more plentiful than I have time for. Consider, for instance, two current piles of books I intend to do more than just glance at the cover and publicity materials for...

And that's just stuff that's arrived in the last few weeks...

Some of these are books I will definitely read -- indeed, one of them, Lev Grossman's The Magicians, I read this past weekend. (Not sure if I'm going to write much about it anywhere, because I had exactly the response M.A. Orthofer had at The Complete Review, and I don't think I have anything to add beyond what he said. But we'll see.) I'm writing a piece for Rain Taxi on Wallace Shawn, so will be plunging into his two, as well as brushing up on all the rest of his books, this week. Beyond that, well...

I'm intrigued by each of the Night Shade books, but am most excited by Paolo Bacigalupi's first novel, The Windup Girl, since I've had a few things to say about his short fiction in the past. I intend to read the others, but if I only get to one of them, it will be The Windup Girl.

The little book on top of one of those piles is an advance copy of The Original Frankenstein from Vintage, and it's an interesting attempt to reconstruct the earliest manuscripts of Frankenstein. Editor Charles E. Robinson seeks to show the exact nature of Percy Shelley's influence on the novel, and makes what appears, at least at first glance, to be a strong case for Percy as a collaborator with his wife on the book. The collaboration is complex, though, and for anyone who has previously been fascinated by the changes between the published editions of Frankenstein, this volume will be essential. As a reading text of the novel, though, it's awkward, given how much the scholarly apparatus has to intrude upon the actual text, so it's not a book anyone will want to read as their first encounter with Mary Shelley's "hideous progeny".

I'm intrigued by Penguin's re-issue of Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton's novel Who Would Have Thought It? not only because I had never heard of it or because it is billed as the first Mexican-American novel, but because it tells the story of a Mexican girl raised by Apaches who ends up in New England amidst hypocritical abolitionists.I don't usually find a plot to be the most intriguing things about a novel, but that's a plot that intrigues me!

Finally, among the books you may not have heard of, sits my friend Caroline Nesbitt's horse novel, Ride on the Curl'd Clouds, which I am curious to read not because I know anything about horses (I don't), but because I've known Caroline and her writing for years. One of these days I'll get around to interviewing her about the book and about her decision to publish it via Lulu.com, a decision she and I talked about a lot -- Caroline had previously published a nonfiction book in the traditional way, but we thought she might be able to have more success publishing her novel herself and marketing it within the equestrian community, a world she knows well.

The other books are there because at one point or another they seemed interesting to me and so I hope to get to time to read at least some of them. We shall see...

20 August 2009

Best American Fantasy 3 Contents & Recommended Reading

I just posted lots of news about the Best American Fantasy series. Now here is what I've waited a long time to be able to share -- very much worth the wait, I think--

Best American Fantasy 3: Real Unreal
Guest Editor Kevin Brockmeier, Series Editor Matthew Cheney

"Safe Passage" by Ramona Ausubel (One Story, Issue 106)

"Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel" by Peter S. Beagle (Strange Roads)

"Cardiology" by Ryan Boudinot (Five Chapters, 2008)

"The Pentecostal Home for Flying Children" by Will Clarke (The Oxford American, Issue 61)

"For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing" by Martin Cozza (Pindeldyboz, July 6 2008)

"Daltharee" by Jeffrey Ford (The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

"Is" by Chris Gavaler (New England Review, Volume 39, Number 2)

"The Torturer's Wife" by Thomas Glave (The Kenyon Review, Fall 2008)

"Reader's Guide" by Lisa Goldstein (F&SF, July 2008)

"Search Continues for Elderly Man" by Laura Kasischke (F&SF, September 2008)

"Pride and Prometheus" by John Kessel (F&SF, January 2008)

"The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates" by Stephen King (F&SF, October/November 2008)

"Couple of Lovers on a Red Background" by Rebecca Makkai (Brilliant Corners, Summer 2008)

"Flying and Falling" by Kuzhali Manickavel (Shimmer, The Art Issue 2008)

"The King of the Djinn" by Benjamin Rosenbaum &  David Ackert (Realms of Fantasy, February 2008)

"The City and the Moon" by Deborah Schwartz (The Kenyon Review, Spring 2008)

"The Two-Headed Girl" by Paul Tremblay (Five Chapters, 2008)

"The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death" by Shawn Vestal (Tin House 34)

"Rabbit Catcher of Kingdom Come" by Kellie Wells (Fairy Tale Review, The White Issue)

"Serials" by Katie Williams (American Short Fiction, Summer/Fall 2008)

Recommended Reading
The editors would like to call special attention to the following stories published in 2008:

"Run! Run!" by Jim Aikin
F&SF, September

"The Lagerstatte" by Laird Barron
The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Ellen Datlow

"Within the City of the Swan" by Aliette de Bodard
Shimmer, The Art Issue 2008

"What the Redmond Men Found" by Matthew David Brozik
Zahir, Summer 2008

"The Loa and the Gaping Jaw" by Brendan Byrne
Flurb, a Webzine of Astonishing Tales, Fall-Winter 2008

"Jimmy" by Pat Cadigan
The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Ellen Datlow

"Poor Little Egg-Boy Hatched in a Shul" by Nathan Englander
McSweeney's, Issue 28

"Drone" by Gemma Files
Not One of Us, Issue 39

"All the Little Gods We Are" by John Grant
Clockwork Phoenix: Tales of Beauty and Strangeness, edited by Mike Allen

"The Difficulties of Evolution" by Karen Heuler
Weird Tales, July/Aug 2008

"The Hand of the Devil on a String" by M. K. Hobson
Shimmer, Spring 2008

"The Last Dead" by Drew Johnson
Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 2008

"Far and Wee" by Kathe Koja
Weird Tales, November/December 2008

"Litany" by Rand B. Lee
F&SF, June 2008

"We Love Deena" by Alice Sola Kim
Strange Horizons, February 11, 2008

"But Wait! There's More!" by Richard Mueller
F&SF, August 2008

"The Glazers" by Joyce Carol Oates
American Short Fiction, Winter/Spring 2008

"On the Banks of the River of Heaven" by Richard Parks
Realms of Fantasy, April 2008

"The Joined" by Helen Phillips
Mississippi Review, Spring 2008

"The Small Door" by Holly Phillips
Fantasy, May 19, 2008

"Creature" by Ramsey Shehadeh
Weird Tales, March/April 2008

"Detours on the Way to Nothing" by Rachel Swirsky
Weird Tales, March/April 2008

"The Body Autumnal" by Lisa Wells
Ecotone, Spring 2008

"A Different Country" by Wayne Wightman
F&SF, December 2008

"Two Tales" by Imants Zicdonis
Fairy Tale Review, White Issue

Best American Fantasy News

I'll post the contents and recommended reading from Best American Fantasy 3: Real Unreal soon, but until then, some news:
The Best American Fantasy series has undergone a series of important changes, starting with the publisher. Underland Press has acquired the Best American Fantasy series, and will publish the third volume, "Real Unreal," in January of 2010. BAF4, tentatively titled "Imaginary Borders," will appear in March 2011. BAF3 contains work by, among others, Stephen King, Lisa Goldstein, Peter S. Beagle, and John Kessel, as chosen by guest editor Kevin Brockmeier with assistance from series editor Matthew Cheney. The cover of BAF3 was designed by John Coulthart.

The guest editors for volumes 4 through 6 will be: Minister Faust, Junot Diaz, and Catherynne M. Valente. Each of these critically acclaimed writers will bring excellence and expertise to the position. BAF4 will include work published in 2010, as the series skips a year to accommodate the time needed for the change in publisher and general reorganization.

"Victoria Blake at Underland has worked hard to create the perfect home for this unique series," BAF co-founder Jeff VanderMeer said, "and the guest editors we've put in place reflect an exciting diversity of opinions about and approaches to fiction. Each will bring their own spin to the volume they edit, and that's going to be great in terms of keeping the series vital and relevant."

Starting with BAF4, the series will consider stories published in English in Latin American publications, as well as translations of Latin American writers into English in North American publications. In short, any story published in English in a Latin American or North American publication or website, and written by a Latin American or North American resident, is eligible for inclusion in BAF. (As and when possible, and keeping in mind constraints such as expense and a need for additional personnel, the Best American Fantasy series eventually hopes to consider material published in Spanish and Portuguese.)

A series of staffing changes have also occurred. Matthew Cheney, who has done wonderful work on the first three volumes, will be stepping down as series editor due to other demands on his time. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer will perform the role of series editor going forward, while Cheney remains in an advisory position. Former first readers Clayton Kroh and Tessa Kum will serve as assistant editors for BAF beginning with volume 4. Fábio Fernandes and Larry Nolen have been added in an editorial capacity, especially as regards the Latin American publishing community. Further staff additions will occur over the next year as necessary.

Guidelines for BAF4 will be made available by January of 2010. Any publications sent to Matthew Cheney will be forwarded to the VanderMeers. Publications should not be sent to the guest editors at this time. Please address queries to POB 4248, Tallahassee, FL 32315. The BAF website will be updated with all of this information shortly.

Guidelines for BAF4 will be made available by January of 2010. Any publications sent to Matthew Cheney will be forwarded to the VanderMeers. Publications should not be sent to the guest editors at this time. Please address queries to bestamericanfantasy@gmail.com or POB 4248, Tallahassee, FL 32315. The BAF website will be updated with all of this information shortly. Bookmark http://www.bestamericanfantasy.com and http://www.bestamericanfantasy.blogspot.com for future updates.
I'm extremely excited about everything in this press release. The biggest news personally is that I'm stepping down as series editor. I care deeply about the series, but being series editor is not a small time commitment, especially when you read as slowly as I do. I've helped put together three books that are each very different but equally excellent, and we've worked out some of the kinks in the system, so I feel confident that the series will be just fine without me, and will be able to prosper in new ways. I'll be hanging out behind the scenes to offer what help I can, and having conceived the series, the VanderMeers know the series editor job as well as anybody, making this a smooth transition.

Where I Lived and What I Lived For

I taught for nine years at the New Hampton School, an independent boarding school in central New Hampshire (from which I also graduated as a student). During my first three years, I lived as a dorm parent in the oldest building on campus and one of the oldest in town, Randall Hall. Randall was a legendary building, having been hauled across town at the beginning of the 20th century brick by brick and rebuilt. By the time I lived in it with 30-35 junior and senior boys (mostly hockey players), it was in desperate need of repair.

During my third year in Randall, I had become, by default, the dorm head, in charge of everything having to do with the dorm. There are few things in the world I hate more than being an administrator, and so I did what I have always done with such positions: used it to get the heck out! I lived the next six years in an apartment in a house owned by the school.

Despite its historical value, Randall could not ultimately be saved. Structural engineers reported that any work was likely to collapse the building. Estimates of what it would take to refurbish it to make it safer and more efficient ran to the tens of millions of dollars, and the only promise was that the ultimate effect would be a building that remained less than ideal. So New Hampton made a very difficult decision: to tear Randall down and build a new structure in its place. And that's what they did, and beautifully so. The new Pililas Math-Science Center fits remarkably well with the three antique buildings around it, and is a massive improvement over the previous facilities. I toured it back in June, and was amazed that the building I had known so intimately had metamorphosed into this.

It was strange to stand where my apartment had been -- the space is now an airy stairwell. It was where my cats, Vanya and Masha, had sat on big windowsills and looked across at the building that housed my classroom. (One year, I was assigned to a room that looked right back at my apartment, and so I would sometimes require my students to wave to the cats.) I wrote a really bad novel in Randall one year, going downstairs to a tiny office and working on an ancient computer so I could get away from the noise of the third and fourth floors, where the students lived. Often, as a warm-up, I would write reviews on Amazon.com, which ended up being good training for this blog. (It's amusing to me now that the novel, which I thought was the important project at the time, turned out to be awful, but without having done the reviews, I might never have created this blog, which has been an important part of my life for the past six years. Oh, and we seemed to have turned 6 two days ago. Happy birthday, blog!)

I learned most of what I know about teaching at a boarding school while living in Randall, because, as anybody who's done it can tell you, there's nothing like the insanity and exhilaration of the first three years. There were many moments where I was within inches of a nervous breakdown, but they were also in many ways the best -- or, perhaps, most intense and vivid and passionate -- years of my life.

So here's to you, Randall Hall. The first thing that got demolished was the apartment I'd lived in during my second and third years. (The last person to live in that apartment was one of my fellow members of the class of '94, and one of my best friends.) Here's a video I discovered this morning of the demolition--

18 August 2009

Financial Advice for the Day

Someone publishing with One Story could almost certainly place every story with a paying venue, but bad business decisions are pretty much inevitable amongst short story writers as writing short stories is itself a bad business decision.

--Nick Mamatas

Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson

They say the sky's the limit
But the sky's about to fall
Down come all them record books cradle and all
They say before he bit it
That the boxer felt no pain
But somewhere there's a gamblin' man
With a ticket in the rain...

--The Low Anthem, "Ticket Taker"

I've been intending to read something by Robert Charles Wilson for a while now, especially after Lydia Millet told me she was a fan. I've got a great talent for intending to read things, but my follow-through isn't always great, and so Wilson's new novel, Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America, is the first of his books I've read.

What ultimately got me reading Julian Comstock was Brian Slattery's 3-part interview with Wilson at Tor.com.  I adore Slattery's work, and trust his judgment, particularly when it comes to novels about the collapse of America as we know it.  I was intrigued, too, that the cover for Wilson's novel echoed the cover of Slattery's Liberation, though I've heard this was, in fact, an accident.  Nonetheless, the books are similar in their portrayal of a world in which climate change and the end of cheap oil have had cataclysmic effects on society as we know it, and both books are adventure stories.  Their differences lie especially in the ways they are told -- the narrative voice in Liberation is baroque and musical, the points of view slip fluidly from character to character, while Julian Comstock is narrated entirely by Julian's companion, Adam Hazzard, whose enthusiasm for neo-Victorian adventure novels has influenced his idea of what "good writing" should be and do.

I hate writing plot summaries, so I'm going to be lazy and steal Brian Slattery's description of the novel, which I can't much improve upon:
In Julian Comstock, with the demise of oil, America has returned to preindustrial levels of technology. The nation’s calamitous fall—involving a thorough depletion of the population and the collapse of the political system as we know it—is a hazy historical memory, replaced by a larger-feeling country, more sparsely populated and more difficult to control. The much-weakened government vies for authority with the Dominion, a huge religious organization with theocratic aims, while waging a war with a European power for possession of a recently opened Northwest Passage.

Into the political, military, and religious tumult steps Julian Comstock, the nephew of the current president, Deklan Conqueror, and—inconveniently for Deklan—also the son of Deklan’s brother Bryce, the former president whom Deklan had executed in his ascent to power. Julian’s own artistic and political ambitions carry him and his best friend, Adam Hazzard, from the Midwest to Labrador to New York City, from homesteads to army barracks to the halls of power. The novel, narrated by Hazzard, is funny and sad, accessible and thought-provoking; a story of the future written in the style of the past; a light romance and a war saga; a novel of power plays and intimate friendship, where the personal is political and the political is personal.
Wilson developed Adam Hazzard's narrative voice after reading novels by Oliver Optic (William Taylor Adams) and finding the naive and good-natured perspective a useful one to set against the often-ghastly events -- like a milder, less absurd Candide.  It's an effective choice, not just because it makes the book fun to read (and it does that), but because it gives us, the readers, something to do -- it's easy enough to pick up the clues very early on that Adam's perspective is a naive one, and from that moment on we understand the book through the surface of Adam's narrative and the deeper structure of our speculations about what is "really" going on.  (One of my favorite instances of this is the information we receive about Julian's sexual orientation.  The clues are relatively subtle, but they add up to a scene at the end that is deeply moving -- as much because of what Adam doesn't say as for what he does.)

Aside from being amusing and sometimes giving us something to do, Adam's narration is also an accessible way into the world of 22nd-century America as Wilson has conceived it, because Adam has spent most of his life in a small town far from the country's governmental and religious centers, so when he travels, his observations are those of a wide-eyed neophyte, someone who needs lots of things explained to him.   The effect can also be evocative, as in this paragraph wherein Adam tries to describe his first sight of New York City:
Manhattan in a spring dawn!  I would have been in awe, if not for the dangers overhanging us.  I won't test the reader's patience by dwelling on all the wonders that passed my eye that morning; but there were brick buildings four and five stories tall, painted gaudy colors -- amazing in their height but dwarfed by the skeletal steel towers for which the city is famed, some of which leaned like tipsy giants where their foundations had been undercut by water.  There were wide canals on which freight barges and trash scows were drawn by reams of muscular canal-side horses.  There were splendid avenues where wealthy Aristos and ragged wage workers crowded together on wooden sidewalks, next to fetid alleys strewn with waste and the occasional dead animal.  There were the combined pungencies of frying food, decaying fish, and open sewers; and all of it was clad in a haze of coal smoke, made roseate by the rising sun.
This is a paragraph that could have appeared -- at least in terms of what it describes -- in a 19th century novel.  Indeed, scenes from Gangs of New York popped into my mind occasionally.  Artifacts from the days of the "Secular Ancients" are prized, but by the time the novel begins, most of the useful ones have been found, and many of them have been locked away by the Dominion, which seems to consider ignorance a vital ingredient for religious faith.

This distance from our own time and technology is another difference with Liberation, where most of the adults remember the old days of cheap oil and polar ice caps.  In some ways, the lack of much hybridity from the previous era was a disappointment to me, but I wouldn't say this is a failure on Wilson's part so much as a weakness in my own expectations -- I'm a sucker for stories of mixed and reconfigured technologies.  Wilson's presentation of the world Julian and Adam inhabit is mostly plausible and convincing, though, and also captures some of unpredictable elements of future history: in this future, for instance, the Dutch are a major foe of the American powers as everyone scrambles to control a Northwest Passage through Labrador (such a passage being much easier to navigate as the arctic seas thaw...)

That the world of the novel is, indeed, so like pre-20th century America is a statement in and of itself about history and power -- the social/political structures that return include slavery and feudalism, both of which seem to be an outgrowth of numerous forces, but which fluorish because of how useful they are to the twin powers within the less-centralized United States (those powers being the Dominion and the basically monarchic-aristocratic government).  The danger for the entrenched powers within such a society is that they will be undermined if that society begins to change -- this, indeed, is Julian Comstock's own hope, and there are hints that his hope is not misguided.

One of the pleasures of Julian Comstock is the complexity of its political vision.  Wilson does not present a monolithic, omniscient totalitarian government or some other sort of simple dystopia.  The rivalry between the Dominion and the government is convincingly developed, and the country itself is also shown to have complex variations of culture, society, and politics in its various regions.  There is also religious complexity -- the Dominion, which is a sort of amalgamation of various fundamentalist tendencies, is not the only religion in the land.  Julian's mentor and guardian, Sam Godwin, is a Jew, though so little knowledge of Judaism has survived that he struggles to create a viable sense of faith and tradition for himself.  Adam's parents are members of a barely-supported sect with a peculiar devotion to snakes.  Groups of "unaffiliated" (basically illegal) churches are essential to the plot and character development in the later sections of the novel.  Wilson's ability to present the political, economic, and religious complexities of his imagined world so effectively and entertainingly is among the most impressive accomplishments of the book -- there are only a few sections where the pacing falters and the story slumps, and these are easily forgiveable.  The narration is so buoyant that I sometimes let the light touch of the telling fool me into thinking the book was shallow or superficial, but then, whenever I stopped reading, I realized just how vivid the world and the story were, just how much I knew about this imagined place, and I began to admire what Wilson had done the way I admire any difficult feat achieved with the gusto and flair that make it all seem effortless.

I must say something, too, about the songs.  Wilson nearly has Thomas Pynchon's talent for inserting song lyrics into his story -- traditional songs, religious songs, protest songs, and finally, and most amusingly, songs about Darwin and natural selection.  Julian's dream is to create a movie, an art form that has nearly disappeared completely in this world, where most old films have been lost and where the technology for creating movies barely exists.  The films that people get to see are silent, and to accommodate this they are a mix of film and live theatre.  And they usually include songs.  Thus, when Julian begins work on a movie about Charles Darwin, he needs some songs, and Adam's wife Calyxa helps him come up with them.  They aren't just songs about natural selection, though, because Julian needed to create a movie that would be popular, and so he got help from Adam's favorite writer, Mr. Charles Curtis Easton, who offers some excellent advice that Adam relates to Julian:
"He agreed that the story lacked some essential ingredients."

"Such as?"

I cleared my throat.  "Three acts -- memorable songs -- attractive women -- pirates -- a battle at sea -- a despicable villain -- a duel of honor--"
Julian eventually recognizes the value of these elements, and so adds them to the story of Charles Darwin, leading to pages where I chortled continuously as I read.

Speaking of music, while reading Julian Comstock, I discovered a perfect soundtrack for it -- a gorgeous album by The Low Anthem called Oh My God Charlie Darwin (parts of which can be heard on the band's MySpace page).  I listened to the album repeatedly throughout my reading of the second half of the book.  In particular, the first song, "Charlie Darwin" (available via the YouTube here), which, when listened to late at night while reading the last chapter before the epilogue, will make you cry.

A fine synergy -- lovely, evocative music and an amusing, thought-provoking novel.  Really, what more do you want from life?

Piles o' Books

I've run out of bookshelves and have been rearranging some things, which has caused me to create a few big piles of books. I liked them as sculptures, so took some pictures. Then I began wondering what would happen if by some miracle these piles survived a few centuries and were discovered by future archaeologists -- they'd figure, perhaps, they had stumbled upon the hoard of a mad hermit. And would not be entirely incorrect in thinking so...  [click on images to see full size]

17 August 2009

District 9

District 9 gave me qualms. And then my qualms got qualms. So now I'm all qualmed up.

Because more than being a well-made action movie, more than being a sometimes clever and often allusive sci-fi summer blockbuster, District 9 is also a South African movie about aliens, a movie with more than a hint of metaphorical intent. Andrew O'Hehir's piece about the film and its director, Neill Blomkamp, is even titled, "Is apartheid acceptable -- for giant bugs?"

My first set of qualms began when I tried to view the movie within the context of South Africa's apartheid history, but it didn't work. The premise isn't about a native ethnic majority that is segregated and oppressed by an ethnic minority of more recent arrival. The premise is about refugees -- and, this being a sci-fi movie, the non-native aliens are really non-native and really aliens.

Thus, the District 9 of the title is a slum full of refugees (obviously, there are some echoes of District 6, but again the apartheid connection is problematic). In the O'Hehir piece, there is this exchange:

[Q:] There's a very dark comic side to this story, in which blacks and whites come together to treat another group worse than blacks were ever treated under apartheid.

[Blomkamp:] I was pretty aware of that. I thought that was a pretty funny concept. Another part of recent South African history that isn't world news is that the collapse of Zimbabwe has introduced millions of illegal Zimbabwean immigrants into South African cities. So you have impoverished South African blacks, hoping for a better life in their own country, faced with an influx of millions of impoverished Zimbabweans who have come to South Africa to build a new life for their families. Now you have this powder-keg situation, with black against black, which is highly bizarre.

When we started filming the movie, we had this terrible situation where we woke up one morning to find out that Johannesburg was eating itself alive. Impoverished South Africans had started murdering impoverished Zimbabweans, necklacing them and burning them and chopping them up. That's a very serious piece of contemporary South African society that also finds its way into the film: some impoverished citizens wanting other impoverished citizens out.

Blomkamp's choices of words here are odd -- blacks and whites together oppressing aliens who look like giant insects is a "pretty funny concept" (hey, let's end racial strife -- give us an enemy we can all agree is repulsive! It'll be a laugh riot!) and violence between people who come from different places and are impoverished is "highly bizarre" (only if you think "black people" is a monolithic category -- violence between people who have been systematically forced to scrounge for a living amidst awful conditions is, alas, historically the opposite of bizarre, and the forces that encourage and benefit from it can generally be pretty well defined and analyzed). The important point, though, is the connection to the politics and sociology of refugee situations rather than, primarily, to apartheid.

It's possible to see District 9 as a purely science fictional story: What if aliens landed in Johannesburg and weren't able to leave? Blomkamp said that's, in fact, where he began--
I wanted to see science fiction in that city. I mean, I lived there, and you don't come across cities like that much, especially not in the First World. They don't exist.

So that was the primary reason for making "District 9." No allegories, no metaphors, nothing. Just science fiction in Joburg.
The problem is that there is no such thing as "just science fiction" when the story includes such resonant imagery as that of slums -- in a media environment where images of slums are, for many audiences, racialized and politicized, creating a story about aliens in slums will explode with meanings beyond the immediate narrative.

What we have in District 9 is a story about beings who are (according to the information we are given) monomorphic, monocultural, monolinguistic, physically repulsive to most humans, grotesque in their habits, barbaric in their behaviors, and mostly quite stupid.

In other words, every xenophobe's and racist's worst caricature of a refugee or immigrant.

It could be that this is part of the point. The humans who have jurisdiction over the aliens are shown to be mostly violent, scheming, greedy, ruthless, and contemptible. They are, themselves, mostly quite stupid and barbaric in their behaviors. They are not, though, grotesque in their habits, physically repulsive to most other humans, monolinguistic, monocultural, or monomorphic. (Or at least not so to us, a human audience.)

I had qualms about this, but as I thought about them, my qualms got qualms. At first, I was thinking about the excellent post by Mely from last year concerning metaphorical/allegorical uses of race -- uses which horrendously simplify the idea of race in a biologically deterministic way and which have the unfortunate effect of positing that people who are not members of whatever hegemony is in question are, actually, just like a different species. Mely wrote: "As in nonmetaphorical racial stereotyping, whiteness is treated as the human default and differences from whiteness are treated as aberrations, flaws, signs of violence, inhumanity, lack of control, and threateningness."

That, though, is not what's going on in District 9, exactly, though I was tempted for a few moments to believe it was. The key thing to consider is how the film manipulates our sympathies.

It's an action movie, remember. We need at least one good guy to sympathize with and care about so that we can ignore any concerns about enjoying the ghastly havoc any such film is rich with. How such a film creates and sustains sympathy for a character or group of characters and creates and sustains antipathy for other characters is vitally important.

In the first ten or twenty minutes of District 9, it's hard to figure out where our sympathies belong. The humans are doing things that remind of us Stuff We Know Is Wrong, but the aliens are really gross. We might even begin to wonder if, heck, maybe what the humans are doing isn't even totally unjustified...

Soon enough, we realize that the nebbish and not-very-self-aware Wikus van der Merwe (played by Sharlto Copley) is our hero. It's nearly impossible to sympathize with him at first -- he's pathetic.

[Pause to let folks who haven't seen the film know that I'm now going to reveal some of the major plot elements.]

But then comes the black fluid. (Yes, black.) It causes Wikus to turn into one of Them and forces him to fight against nearly every human in the film.

The more humans Wikus kills, the more we root for him.

Our sympathies are also manipulated through the character of Christopher Johnson and his son (and I love that the humans are so uninterested in trying to pronounce the aliens' names that they just use ordinary English ones for them -- it's worth noting that for most of an American or British audience, at least, a name like Wikus van der Merwe is more alien-sounding than Christopher Johnson). At first, they are repulsive and threatening and very alien -- Wikus makes the mistake of thinking the son is cute and ends up getting a tin can thrown at his head -- but soon enough they seem as cuddly as E.T.

The film then becomes a buddy picture -- the human/alien hybrid Wikus teamed with the aliens Christopher and his son against every human they encounter.

We move from a reluctant sympathy with unsympathetic humans who, at least, are human ... to a sympathy with a man who is becoming ever more alien and his alien companions. We root for them to succeed in returning to the ship and in getting it operational so they can get the hell away from this crazy, threatening planet -- our planet. When a gang of aliens show up toward the end of the film to fight against the corporate soldiers, we root for the aliens. We laugh and cheer when the soldiers are bloodily obliterated with the aliens' awesome weapons.

Creatures that had seemed stupid and barbaric now seem more complex than we gave them credit for being. We don't know everything about them -- we know, in fact, hardly anything at all -- but we do know that we underestimated them, and that what we took for understanding was anything but.

The final image is, in such a reading, haunting and powerful -- it represents the full journey of our sympathies and the ache within sentient beings for connection.

What was previously alien is now a source of comfort and safety; what was comforting and safe is now threatening and alien.

Being a man of qualms, I still have a few. The Nigerian gang in the slum is the biggest source of qualms for me -- Blomkamp justifies them by saying that Nigerian gangs in Johannesburg are at the center of much of the drug and prostitution traffic, but that ignores the issue here, which is not that there are no gangs of violent black people doing awful stuff in reality, but that images of such people in pieces of mass entertainment deserve a lot of careful thought. When pictures of Barack Obama as a "witch doctor" are circulated by anti-health care reform activists, it may not be the greatest thing in the world for a popular movie to have scenes focused on stereotypically savage black guys who are specifically said to be believers in muti and who think that eating parts of the aliens will give them power. Maybe it would be good to, you know, think about such representations a little bit more before employing them....

On the whole, though, my qualms have settled into admiration of District 9, at least for today.

15 August 2009


Before I could even get around to putting up my annual post about the Strange Horizons fund drive, John and Kristine Scalzi made a wonderful offer of matching donations up to a total of $500. John's announcement rounded up so much interest that in 27 hours the fund drive exceeded its goal of raising $7000 for the month.

As someone who benefits directly from people's donations (yeah yeah, I know, I should be paying them to publish my stuff, but what can I say?) and who reads SH pretty darn faithfully, I'm tremendously grateful for the support shown to the site.

And perhaps we should give Scalzi another Hugo Award -- this time for Best Related Act of Generosity.

12 August 2009

Africa and Science Fiction

Two posts already today, both of them full of negative waves, so here's something positive:

You should read Nnedi Okorafor's guest post at the Nebula Awards blog, "Is Africa Ready for Science Fiction?" Lots of information and great stuff to think about. Since one of my favorite people is a Kenyan who recently completed a science fiction novel, Okorafor's question is one I'm particularly interested in, but even if you aren't as personally invested in its immediate concerns, the essay raises some really interesting issues of culture and communication.

Quote for the Day

Paul Monette, whom some people might call a "sexual pervert" who suffered from "objectively disordered appetites", once wrote,
You'll pardon my French, but it's not so hard to be politically correct. All you have to do is not be an asshole.
Some people are really failing at that right now.

Tin House Genre Fiction

A reader writes to Tin House:
I have read several issues of Tin House, including the most recent. Two vegetarians go on a hunting trip . . . enough said. I feel that I have several pieces that would fit the magazine, however, I am struggling with just one thing. This question is geared not only toward the magazine but the writing workshop as well. Do you accept genre fiction? I was also wondering how I might go about determining whether or not my piece fits into a specific genre and what general fiction is. Thank you in advance.
—Confused in LA
And Tin House responds.

Now, I happen to like Tin House very much. We've reprinted stories from the magazine in each volume of Best American Fantasy. Their "Fantastic Women" issue was awesome. Their current anniversary issue is also awesome. Just about all of their issues are awesome.

But the response to Concerned in LA is not awesome. It's disappointing.

I spend too much time, perhaps, defending writers, editors, and publishers of "literary fiction" from being maligned by writers, editors, and publishers who would never utter the term "literary fiction" without a sneer. I do this because some of my best friends happily embrace the term "literary fiction" for themselves. I don't even mind being seen in public with such people, any more than I mind being seen in public with my friends who insist the only thing they write is "science fiction". I'm all about the kumbaya.

So please, literary fiction people, STOP MAKING MY LIFE SO DIFFICULT!

Let me try to address some of the things I dislike in the three paragraphs that most annoyed me in the response, one by one:
I think you know genre fiction when you read it. My personal definition goes something like this: fiction that almost purposefully avoids the literary, in hopes of keeping the reader (or the writer, for that matter) from having to “work” too hard. It also tends to employ some stock tricks, like ending very short chapters with cliffhangers, often hopping predictably from one POV to another. Characters tend to be one-dimensional, with the kind of awkward and false-sounding dialog you’d expect.
Maybe I'll mail Tin House a copy of Peter Swirsky's useful book From Lowbrow to Nobrow, which counters some of the assumptions about certain forms that appear in "genre fiction" and are supposedly absent from "literary fiction". But I actually don't have a big problem with this paragraph on its own; it's a statement of personal taste, and there are certainly general differences that it is, generally, somewhat accurate in general about, sort of. How this paragraph moves on to the next bothers me more:
Genre writers know their audience, and it’s a large one: John Grisham sold 60,742,288 books during the 1990s. That’s certainly nothing to sneeze at, and I won’t do that here. But that audience, for reasons that sometimes seem obvious and sometimes are madly mysterious, is almost universally not interested in the same things we are.
We move from: Genre fiction is lazy, formulaic, predictable, one-dimensional, awkward, and false ... to: it's more popular than the Pope ... to: why is it so popular? huh. ... to: that's not what we're interested in.

What are they interested in? So glad you asked:
We’re interested in good stories. Contrary to what many people think, it’s not work to read them. A good story is a thing to savor, something you want to make copies of and pass around, something you might find yourself inexplicably wanting to read out loud. (Or not so inexplicably—good writers all have musicians living somewhere inside them, whether they know it or not, and have perfect pitch when it comes to the sounds of the words they use). If you read a lot of good stories, then you know what they are. If you don’t, then you should start, beginning with the summer reading titles on this blog. Sometimes it takes me days to parse out what made a good story so damned good, sometimes I never can.
Ah haaaaa! Genre fiction is not good stories! So all these writers who just want to write crap for the masses are not interested in good stories! And the fans who love cliffhangers and want good plots and hate stories about two vegetarians on a hunting trip -- they don't want good stories, either! These gazillions of people making those genre fiction lame-os rich don't savor what they read, don't pass it around, don't want to read it aloud. And why? Because they haven't read good stories and don't know what they are. (Oh, and though genre fiction makes sure you "don't 'work' too hard", "it's not work to read [litfic]". Apparently the economy has hit Tin House hard, too, because ain't nobody working around there...)

The problem here is one I've blathered on at length about many times before -- the problem of confusing descriptive and evaluative labels. (Come to think of it, in the package including From Lowbrow to Nobrow, maybe I'll include a copy of The Jewel-Hinged Jaw...) There is simply no such thing as a universal "good story", and so using a term like "good stories" as a euphemism for "stuff I like" is not useful. Replace the term "good story" in the Tin House post and much of it becomes less objectionable. Banal, but less objectionable. There are still contradictions and ignorances, but none of us could survive without contradictions and ignorances, so I'm not as upset about those.

I could go on. I don't have time or energy. (Ugh, that James Wood quote later in the post! Who is this universal "the reader" and why should that person's narrow idea of what is worth falling in love with matter for anybody else? If I think a work of fiction has taught me how to read it, am I wrong if you think otherwise? Vice versa?)

Please -- friends, Romans, countrywomen -- send your best writing to Tin House, regardless of whatever label happens to seem appropriate to it right now. It's a great magazine. The new issue even includes a poem by Stephen King. They publish all sorts of different stuff, and that eclecticism is part of what keeps me coming back to read it again and again. They publish what I think are often really good stories (and poems and essays and interviews and miscellanea...). But don't listen to what they say on their blog about "good stories". That's just crazytalk.

Update 8/13/09: Tonaya Thompson, the assistant editor at Tin House who wrote the post I criticized, responded thoughtfully in the comments section to this post, as did her friend and co-worker Tony. I wrote a comment that was way too longer for Blogger's commenting system to handle, so I'm posting it here:
Thanks to Tony and Tonaya for responding and clarifying -- I expect if we were sitting around chatting, we'd probably agree way more than we disagree, once we were able to figure out terminology, or at least show how we're using terminology, what assumptions we're bringing to it, etc. I expect, too, that we'd find our tastes in fiction even overlap a lot (I do, after all, love a lot of the fiction in Tin House).

I think it's important, though, for editors and spokespeople especially to be careful in how they talk about their perceptions of fiction -- and I mean this for editors of magazines, journals, and anthologies devoted to all sorts of fiction. We're at an exciting time, I think, in the history of short stories and novels, a time when we've all learned a lot about what this thing called "fiction" can do and be. I'm especially excited by publications such as Tin House (and Conjunctions and McSweeney's and A Public Space and One Story and LCRW and Electric Velocipede and Weird Tales and, when Gordon's feeling particularly edgy, F&SF, not to mention a plethora of wonderful webzines, anthologies, etc.) that do not have as settled a sense of what fiction is and can be as do some more conservative venues. (And honestly, I think we need both -- because there are all sorts of different types of readers and writers, but more importantly because a vital dialogue exists between cleary "core" types of writing [die-hard kitchen-sink realism; hard science fiction] and the crazier kids on the margins. It's the crazy kids at the margins that particularly excite me, but that's just me.)

And that's why I responded so vociferously to your post -- I don't question that it represents what you think you are looking for, or that it's what at least a part of the staff at Tin House thinks the magazine represents ... but as a loyal (premiere-issue owning!) reader, I'm saying I think what the magazine does is actually bigger, greater, and more complex than you've found the words for. And that the words you have found, at least in the original post, could lead to some unfortunate misperceptions and misconceptions.

I like your response here a lot, Tonaya, and so if I dig into it a little bit more, I hope my tone does not come off as that of someone trying to -- well, I don't know, but I fear that I'll sound smug and patronizing when I mean to simply offer a perspective of somebody who has enthusiastically attended both Bread Loaf and science fiction conventions.

Editors frequently say they want "good stories" and don't want "lazy writing" -- I don't know a genre editor who would say the opposite! Actually, the best response to the question I know of is one written by Nick Mamatas when he was editing the online (genre) magazine Clarkesworld. Nick's penultimate paragraph could fit Tin House, too, I suspect. And I love that!

The question of genre -- what it is, if it is, how it is -- is a huge one, and I've written tens of thousands of words about the topic over the years, with very few of those words ever really getting at what I was hoping to get at. (Thus, I keep trying...)

Take your example, a wonderful one -- Player Piano. I've got a first edition of the paperback of the book, and it's been renamed Utopia 14. You can see the cover here. Is it a science fiction novel? You betcha! Genre? That's a thornier question. By my definition, yes, because to my mind a "genre" is a set of publishing practices and reader expectations. Science fiction is, in that sense, a genre -- one that became particularly differentiated in the U.S. in the 1920s, developed its own groups of writers, editors, fans, and publishers, then history, which affected expectations that in turn affected production in a complex way.

Only the tiny minority of science fiction readers who think SF must always include complex astrophysics would not recognize that novel as a science fiction novel. Would non-SF readers recognize it as a literary novel? When it came out in hardcover, some did, sure (see the original NYT review), because it was a dystopian novel and so fit into a tradition broader than that of SF, though one which SF is generally happy to overlap with and exploit. But Bantam clearly thought the key to sales for Vonnegut was to market him as an SF writer. It didn't work all that well, for various reasons -- he was about ten years ahead of his time in the SF world (though C.M. Kornbluth, William Tenn, and Robert Sheckley were doing somewhat similar things to what he was up to) and when he did become popular, it was through a widening of his audience among the younger readers who liked the Beats, etc., but many of whom were also happy enough to read Stranger in a Strange Land and Dune. Also, Vonnegut wrote in a marvelously -- deceptively! -- simple and accessible style, which is helpful in reaching a mass audience.

You're absolutely right that what any sensitive reader would probably be tempted to identify as lazy writing gets published within certain marketing categories -- some of those categories rely on tried-and-true formulas that their audiences enjoy, and it would be self-defeating to stretch those formulas too much because then it would be something other than what it's expected to be. If Harlequin were to sell Jane Austen novels using the same packaging and marketing they use for their regular books ... well, they'd have some pretty perplexed and annoyed customers (as well as some who discovered a new favorite writer). If genre fiction is fiction that is necessarily formulaic in a particularly narrow way because the audience will not recognize it otherwise, then of course it would be foolish and silly of any of you at Tin House to say it's something you're open to reading.

But I'm betting that's not what Confused was asking. I would guess that Confused wanted to know what you emphasized in evaluating a story -- if you, for instance, like stories that are more plot than character. Or stories that are more about stuff than people. Or stories that use such things as aliens and dragons as primarily literal items within the narrative rather than primarily as metaphors.

To which I would also bet your most honest answer would be something along the lines of, "Well, it depends." What does it depend on? Language is one thing, maybe the thing -- by "not lazy writing" what I take you to mean is prose that achieves a certain deliberate effect, that is, in and of itself, a kind of music. Go ahead, put Mars in your story, but tell that story the way, for instance, Theodore Sturgeon did with "The Man Who Lost the Sea" (or, rather, don't tell it like that; find your own voice, but find a voice). After all, why publish a story that sounds just like ten thousand other stories? That's no fun!

And don't be afraid to make the reader work -- great art is demanding, and I think Tin House is in the business of seeking out great art. Why bother otherwise -- I somehow doubt the work is making you astoundingly wealthy.

"Demanding" isn't a bad thing for writing to be. Not every novel has to be Gaddis. The beauty of Vonnegut's best writing is that there's a whole lot more to it than will be perceived on a superficial reading, and, indeed, the apparent ease of reading him can conceal the complexity of what he offers (I've taught Mother Night at both the high school and college level and every time have learned something new from the book. It is a wonder.)

Perhaps really what we're talking about is readers and their expectations and desires. If I can put words in your mouth for a moment, you want readers who are seeking stories that they do not treat as disposable consumer items. Adventurous sorts of readers, ones who have neither a narrow idea that all stories must be a Raymond Carver spin-off or ones who think all stories have to have a clear plot, rising action, and "transparent" prose (prose is transparent when it is at its most conventional, and prose at its most conventional is not particularly fulfilling for readers who desire music and stories that don't sound like ten thousand other stories).

You raise an important issue (or two or three!) at the end of your response to me -- dozens of manuscripts arriving daily that are obviously inappropriate to the magazine, and the mass popularity of certain things that are not Tin House. I think these issues are significant ones, but tangential to the idea of what makes a story exciting to those of us who are excited by the sorts of stories Tin House publishes.

I can assure you that editors around the world face the same problem of receiving lots of manuscripts apparently sent to them at random. Heck, even with Best American Fantasy, a series of explicitly reprint anthologies, I inevitably receive a pile of unpublished manuscripts every year. We human beings have an extraordinary capacity for obliviousness.

If Tin House sold 60 million copies, it would no longer be the Tin House we love; it would be toilet paper. The kind of person who possesses both the interest and the skills to appreciate complex literary expression is probably roughly the size of the part of the population that possesses the interest and skills to appreciate advanced theoretical mathematics. There are lots of reasons certain books are bestsellers, and those reasons have little to do with genre -- bestsellers are their own category. Some of them are even pretty good by the standards of somebody who actually does appreciate complex literary expression (I'm in a minority that fervently believes Neil Gaiman's American Gods has been underestimated by many readers who mistake the genius of its structure for raggedness; I also think Thomas Harris's Red Dragon is among the great American novels of the 20th century, better than any of Hemingway's novels -- yeah, I'm a weirdo, and should probably burn my Literary Elitist membership card right now...)

Anyway, I'm rambling now. Thanks for the work you do, Tonaya. I hope my criticisms are of the sort that spur you on rather than bum you out.

And meanwhile, everybody should subscribe to Tin House because, as I said before, it's awesome.


I woke up this morning and thought, "I really need good ammunition against people who say that 'hopefully' can't be used to mean 'I hope'," because that's the sort of thing I tend to wake up thinking (yes, my paranoias are often about being mugged by style goons). I fired up my ol' computer machine and plugged into the intertubes and went immediately to Language Log, where I got a concise explanation of what I needed:
Speaker-oriented (or "stance") adverbial hopefully has been taking abuse pretty steadily for 30 or more years (see MWDEU). Linguists are mostly just baffled by this disparagement; see the discussion in the American Heritage Book of English Usage, where it's noted that "hopefully seems to have taken on a life of its own as a shibboleth." But the word fits right into long-standing patterns of the language -- cf. frankly in "Frankly, this soup stinks" and surprisingly in "Surprisingly, this soup is delicious" -- and it provides a way of expressing the speaker's attitude towards a proposition which is both (a) brief and (b) subordinate: "I hope that S", "I have a hope that S", "It is to be hoped that S", and the like are wordier, and have the hoping expressed in a main clause (as the apparent main assertion), while what writers want is to assert the proposition provisionally, adding a modifier expressing their attitude towards it. So speaker-oriented hopefully is a GOOD thing, and it's no surprise that it's spread so fast.
That's followed by some excellent, concise insight about very, which everybody who's been told to never use that word should read as well.

For more on hopefully and ambiguity, see this and this.

Oh, it's a good day when it begins with sane information about style and usage!

10 August 2009

Mumpsimus Gmail Address Active Again

I mentioned a few months ago that I'd taken the [mumpsimus at gmail] address off the site for a bit while I weeded it of spam sent through from some old addresses that were forwarding to it.  The problem has been fixed and I've weeded through everything as best I could.  The delay was much longer than I intended or expected it would be, but I've added the address back to the "About" section of the sidebar and should now be able to keep up with new messages sent to it.  (Note: If you happened to send a message to it in the last six months or so and haven't yet gotten a reply, but would like one, please send your message again.)  My apologies to anybody who felt ignored!

09 August 2009

Hooray for Hugos!

I'll admit it: I have a sentimental love of the Hugo Awards. The Hugo Winners anthologies edited by Isaac Asimov were essential to forming my early view of what science fiction is and can be (Asimov's introductions to the stories were as important as the stories themselves, painting a portrait of a community of readers and writers that I deeply wished I could join). The Hugo Winners volumes 1-5 sit proudly on my living room bookshelves -- below shelves of Chekhov and Kafka, above a shelf of Virgina Woolf and a shelf of Shakespeare.

I didn't have a problem with Adam Roberts's recent call for the Hugos to get "better", because in amidst the shouts of "elitist!" and "nuh uh!" it led to some good conversation. Criticism of the Hugos is an important tradition. Soon after I discovered the Hugo Winners anthologies in a library, I discovered in a used bookstore two anthologies edited by Richard Lupoff: What If? volumes one and two. Subtitled "Stories That Should Have Won the Hugo", the books offered their own, highly opinionated, introductions to each of the Hugo years (up through 1965, which is, alas, as far as Lupoff got). I had so internalized Asimov's presentation of the Hugo Awards that reading Lupoff's books felt more scandalous than reading porn. Lupoff taught me not to trust the Hugos as a brilliant arbiter of quality, but Asimov's fondness for them never left me -- Kelly Link let me hold hers once, and it was probably as close to a religious experience as I will ever come.

Anyway, all of this blather is prelude to my offering congratulations to this year's Hugo winners. Congratulations!

Three first-time winners, though, I want to highlight here for purely personal reasons. I'll do it alphabetically.

John Klima won a Hugo for Electric Velocipede. I'm wary of saying anything, because a few days ago I actually submitted a story to him, so I'm afraid he's going to think I'm sucking up to him now that he's Hugo-ified, but my cover letter was so sycophantic that I couldn't possibly top that. (Except to say that I think the Hugos should be renamed the Klimas. I'm going to make a motion for that for the next Worldcon.) I first encountered EV five years ago when I reviewed it for SF Site, and I am thrilled that the zine is still being published and that its quality has remained high, with only one notable lapse of taste.

Cheryl Morgan is simply one of my favorite people, and that she has now won a Best Fan Writer Hugo is -- well, the only word I can think of is perfect. When I think of smart, compassionate, and good-humored fandom, I think of Cheryl. This is not her first Hugo (she won before for Emerald City), but it is the Hugo she was, in my utterly biased and joyful opinion, born to win.

Finally, Ann VanderMeer & Stephen H. Segal for Weird Tales. Of course, I'm biased because Ann has been a great friend of mine for years, and she even had the bad sense to publish my little story "How to Play with Dolls" recently, but I think the work she and Stephen have done on WT is astounding, fantastic, and amazing. It's become a magazine that is consistently surprising and engaging, but it has not lost a sense of its important history and identity. I feel like Ann and Stephen are only beginning to show us what they can really do with it, and each issue seems to surpass the high standards set by the previous one. It's a magazine that feels coherent and vital, and that's a hard thing to accomplish.

Oh, and I suppose I should add: In honor of John Scalzi's win, I will not use the word "alright" for at least one day...

07 August 2009

NH Theatre Events

Posting here has been light because at the moment I'm in rehearsals for The Winter's Tale in Sandwich, New Hampshire. It's the realization of a lifelong dream -- I am getting to play the King of Bohemia! (Otherwise known as Polixenes, but I insist everyone refer to me as the King of Bohemia. I rule over many cafés and have my own line of designer liberal guilt.) For anyone who happens to be nearby, the show runs August 11-16 at the outdoor stage of the Sandwich Fairgrounds at 2pm, rain or shine.

Also, I haven't yet had a chance to write about my experience as a participant in the first of the Write On Golden Pond playwrighting/screenwriting workshops offered by Whitebridge Farm Productions here in central NH. I've known workshop leader Ernest Thompson (winner of one of them Oscar thingies for writing an obscure indie flick called On Golden Pond) for longer than either of us would care to admit, and for five or six years I participated in an informal playwrighting group he led, so I more or less knew what I was getting myself into, but the workshop exceeded all my expectations -- easily one of the best I've participated in, and having been a playwrighting major at NYU for three years, I've been in a lot of workshops.

A second writing workshop is coming up in two weeks, and I can honestly and enthusiastically recommend it for anybody interested in dramatic writing. It's an intense, immensely fulfilling experience. Also, I'm told financial aid is available. And New Hampshire in the summer is beautiful. (Well, when it's not raining. But even the rain is beautiful!)

05 August 2009


For certain reasons, I've been musing on some of the science fiction stories that, over the years, at one time or another, I might have classified as "mindblowing". Just a little personal list, one made very quickly...

"The Lost Kafoozalum" by Pauline Ashwell
"Blood Child" by Octavia E. Butler
"Fool to Believe" by Pat Cadigan
"Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang
"Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" by Samuel R. Delany
"The Start of the End of It All" by Carol Emshwiller
"The Faithful Companion at Forty" by Karen Joy Fowler
"Midnight News" by Lisa Goldstein
"The Violet's Embryos" by Angélica Gorodischer
"Out of All Them Bright Stars" by Nancy Kress
"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin
"Tiny Tango" by Judith Moffett
"No Woman Born" by C.L. Moore
"Rachel in Love" by Pat Murphy
"A Scarab in the City of Time" by Marta Randall
"The Food Farm" by Kit Reed
"Souls" by Joanna Russ
"The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet" by Vandana Singh
"Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled with of Light!" by James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon)
"The Mile-Long Spaceship" by Kate Wilhelm
"The Last of the Winnebagos" by Connie Willis

(Some of those writers, I could have put many stories on the list, but I decided to limit it to one story for each writer, choosing the one that most immediately stood out in my memory.)

Update 8/7/09: And here's a collection of online stories you can actually read now:
The Mammoth e-Book of Mindblowing Mars SF (2009) presents 20 of the finest examples of mind-expanding, awe-inspiring, 21st-century Martian science fiction that are free and ready-to-read on the Internet. The storylines range from a spunky young bride-to-be truding across Red Planet sands, to a classical concert on Earth interrupted by unannounced guests, to a brutish psychic that roams the twisting urban alleys of the north face of Mars. These are works that take you across time and space -– from today’s top-name contributors, including Camille Alexa, Kage Baker, Terrie Leigh Relf, Patricia Stewart, Mary A. Turzillo, and Liz Williams. So sit back, adjust your glasses, and prepare to have your mind blown!
(via SF Signal)