31 December 2012

Some Movies

I haven't had a chance to write about many movies over the past few months, so here are some stray, incomplete thoughts and blazingly subjective opinions on various films, before I completely forget my first impressions...

The Amazing Spider-Man. I've come to the conclusion that I don't much like super-hero movies, and my love of The Amazing Spider-Man, which most people seem to feel at best lukewarm about, is probably because it's not much of a super-hero movie. I didn't care for Sam Raimi's three Spider-Man movies much — indeed, I thought number 2, which some people I know consider the greatest super-hero movie of all time, worked vastly better when played at 1.5 speed, and probably would have been even better played faster, if the voices didn't sound like The Chipmunks. I went into The Amazing Spider-Man with very low expectations, then, and those expectations were exceeded all around. The casting is ultimately the film's greatest strength, because Andrew Garfield (who I've been fascinated by since Boy A) has a wonderful mix of insouciance, nerdiness, and intelligence that plays charmingly off of Emma Stone's typically bouncy/breathy Emma Stone performance. Denis Leary, Sally Field, Martin Sheen, and Campbell Scott are all delights, as well. The story really isn't much, Rhys Ifans doesn't have a whole lot to work with as the villain, and the special effects, while fine, are nothing particularly special for a film of this budget and type. But I never cared, because I loved hanging out with these characters.

Argo. A fun thriller with a surprisingly low body count. We're used to thrillers in which lots of people die, and yet this is in more than one way an old-school movie, a movie that is optimistic about the world-changing power of cinema, and nostalgic for a time when people thought movies could be a force for good in the world. At its core, it's a true story, but the liberties taken with the more mundane truths of the tale are all ones that fit the story into a conventional Hollywood mode. (More unfortunately conventional is its marginalizing of women.) And that's the point, as Jim Emerson has astutely written. It's enjoyable enough as a thriller, but it's more interesting as an exploration of audience expectations, genre conventions, and what we desire from our "true stories".

Beasts of the Southern Wild. I've been arguing with myself about this movie for a month now, which means I need to watch it a few more times. On the one hand, I was completely taken in by the performance of Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy, I found some of the cinematography lovely, and I found the ending moving. (The music totally got me.) On the other hand, it felt at times a bit too close to "noble savage" myths for comfort. What I want to look more closely at with a later viewing is the way the film uses Hushpuppy's point of view — as a child, she does her best to make sense of events and circumstances through her own perception, and because the movie is told through her eyes, her perception becomes ours (hence, the aurochs, which I also loved). While the surface of the film may seem to celebrate the self-reliance of the denizens of the Bathtub, and while Hushpuppy's abusive, alcoholic father Wink is celebrated with a lovely funeral at the end ... I didn't come away feeling that the movie itself was unambiguously celebrating all this. I was not left with an uplifting sense of the wondrous potential of human ingenuity in the face of disaster; instead, I left the film feeling overwhelmed by how limited the characters' choices were, how much they had been abandoned by the world beyond them, how much they had been forced to make do by a country that ultimately didn't really care that much if they washed away into the ocean. On the other hand, while I don't agree with the perspective of the Beasts-haters in this discussion at Slate, and even less so with the perspective of bell hooks, their points are worth considering, and I don't have good answers to some of them. On the other hand, there was a lot I enjoyed in the movie, a lot it made me think about, good and bad. (For other views, see Matt Denault at Strange Horizons and N.K. Jemison.)

25 December 2012

3 New E-Books

I have contributions in three new e-books that offer all sorts of wonders and joys:

  • Don't Pay Bad for Bad is a collection of rare and previously unpublished short stories by Amos Tutuola (author of The Palm-Wine Drinkard, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, etc.). The e-book includes an introduction by Tutuola's son Yinka, and an afterword by me in which I try to give some of the context for how Tutuola's writing has been perceived by readers over the years. [Available from Weightless (Epub & Mobi formats), Wizard's Tower (Epub & Mobi), Amazon.]
  • Tainaron: Mail from Another City by Leena Krohn is a nearly-indescribable novella, easily one of my favorite pieces of writing of the last few decades, and so I'm thrilled to have provided an afterword for the e-book. [Available from Weightless (Epub & Mobi formats), Amazon.]
  • The second issue of the lit journal Unstuck includes all sorts of stories, poems, essays, whatzits, etc., including a little story of mine, "The Island Unknown". The list of authors is awesome: Steve Almond, Kate Bernheimer, Jedediah Berry, Gabriel Blackwell, Edward Carey, Brian Conn, Rikki Ducornet, V.V. Ganeshananthan, Caitlin Horrocks, AD Jameson, J. Robert Lennon, Jonathan Lethem & John Hilgart, Paul Lisicky, Elizabeth McCracken, Ed Park, Donald Revell, Mary Ruefle, Tomaz Salamun, David J. Schwartz, Mathias Svalina, Daniel Wallace, Dean Young, Matthew Zapruder, etc. You can get the issue as a beautiful paperback, and/or you can download the e-book version from Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

16 December 2012

Warrior Dreams and Gun Control Fantasies

Yesterday's massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School was the sixteenth mass shooting in the U.S. in 2012.

Looking back on my post about "Utopia and the Gun Culture" from January 2011, when Jared Loughner killed and wounded various people in Arizona, I find it still represents my feelings generally. A lot of people have died since then, killed by men with guns. I've already updated that post once before, and I could have done so many more times.

Focusing on guns is not enough. Nothing in isolation is. In addition to calls for better gun control, there have been calls for better mental health services. Certainly, we need better mental health policies, and we need to stop using prisons as our de facto mental institutions, but that's at best vaguely relevant here. Plenty of mass killers wouldn't be caught by even the most intrusive psych nets, and potential killers that were would not necessarily find any treatment helpful. Depending on the scope and nuance of the effort, there could be civil rights violations, false diagnoses, and general panic. (Are you living next door to a potential mass killer? Is your neighbor loud and aggressive? Quiet and introverted? Conspicuously normal? Beware! Better report them to the FBI...)

That said, I expect there are things that could be done, systems that could be improved, creative and useful ideas that could be implemented. I'd actually want to broaden the scope beyond just mental health and toward a strengthening of social services in general. I'm on the board of my local domestic violence/sexual assault crisis center, where demand for our services is up, but we're hurting for resources and have had to curtail and strictly prioritize some of those services. It's a story common among many of our peers not just in the world of anti-violence/abuse programs, but in the nonprofit social service sector as a whole.

What we have is a bit of a gun control problem, a bit more of a social services problem, and a lot of a cultural problem.

One of the best books I've encountered on this subject is James William Gibson's Warrior Dreams: Paramilitary Culture in Post-Vietnam America. It's from 1994, but is in some ways even more relevant now.

New Issue of The Revelator

The latest issue of The Revelator is now online. Eric Schaller and I put this one together with love and craft. It includes new short stories by Meghan McCarron and Laird Barron, poems by Sonya Taaffe, comix by Chad Woody, a column on music by Brian Francis Slattery, art by Adam Blue, miniatures used in the movie The Whisperer in Darkness, a previously-unpublished interview with H.P. Lovecraft that Nick Mamatas discovered, etc. Once again, we have, we believe, fully embodied our motto: The Truth ... And All.

The easiest way to keep apprised of the always-unpredictable, regularly irregular schedule of The Revelator is via our Facebook page.

08 December 2012

Notes After a Viewing of Red Dawn (2012)

The question is not whether Red Dawn is a good movie. It is a bad movie. As the crazed ghost of Louis Althusser might say, it has always already been a bad movie. The question is: What kind of bad movie is it?

(Aside: The question I have received most frequently when I've told people I went to see Red Dawn was actually: "Does Chris Hemsworth take off his shirt?" The answer, I'm sorry to say, is no. All of the characters remain pretty scrupulously clothed through the film. The movie's rated PG-13, a designation significant to its predecessor, so all it can do is show a lot of carnage, not carnality. May I suggest Google Images?)

My companion and I found Red Dawn to be an entertaining bad movie. I feel no shame in admitting that the film entertained me; I'm against, in principal, the concept of "guilty pleasures" and am not much interested in shaming anybody for what are superficial, even autonomic, joys. (That doesn't mean we can't examine our joys and pleasures.) No generally-well-intentioned, "diversity"-loving, pinko commie bourgeois armchair lefty like me can go into a movie like Red Dawn and expect to see a nuanced study of geopolitics. I knew what I was in for. I got what I expected: a right-wing action-adventure movie based on a yellow peril premise. Red Dawn is an unironic remake of a 1984 movie predicated on paranoid right-wing fantasies; it's not aspiring to even the most basic Starship Troopers-levels of intertextuality and metacommentary. There's none of the winking at the audiences that fills so many other 1980s remakes and homages (e.g. Expendables 2, which relies on the audience's knowledge of its stars' greatest hits — the only convincing performance in the movie is that of Jean-Claude van Damme, who, apparently overjoyed to be released from the purgatory of straight-to-DVD movies, plays it all for real, and becomes the only element of any interest in the whole thing). The closest Red Dawn comes to acknowledging its position in the cinemasphere happens when it turns the first film's very serious male-bonding moment of drinking deer blood into a practical joke, giving the characters a few rare laughs.

What are we supposed to feel good about in this movie? The 1984 Red Dawn was not even remotely a feel-good movie, but it gave us a space in which to feel proud of an idea of America that could survive even the most devastating attack by the Soviet Union (and its Latin American minions). It made a point of showing concrete objective correlatives for the abstract idea that is "American freedom" — the one that was most impressed on me by my father when we first watched Red Dawn together was the scene where Soviet soldiers talk about going to a gun shop to collect the federal Form 4473s, and using them to track down gun owners. This, to my father and many other people, demonstrated exactly why even the most minimal type of registration of guns is not merely annoying, but a threat to freedom. I vividly remember my father saying, "If the Russians come, we burn those damn forms." Red Dawn was not merely an action movie; it was a documentary.

02 December 2012

Anna Karenina

Rex Reed pointed to perhaps the best criticism of the new adaptation of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, written by Tom Stoppard and directed by Joe Wright, a criticism that is over 100 years old. On 18 September 1905, James Joyce wrote to his brother Stanislaus about Tolstoy: "He is never dull, never stupid, never tired, never pedantic, never theatrical." Wright's film of Anna Karenina is often dull, often stupid, sometimes tired, sometimes pedantic, and literally theatrical.

I have a fundamental problem with any adaptation of Tolstoy's novel. If someone (e.g., William Faulkner, F.R. Leavis) were to tell me that Anna Karenina is the greatest novel ever written, I would not disagree. Not having read all of the novels ever written, I'm not in a position to rank them, but I've certainly never read a better novel than Anna Karenina (and I've read War & Peace, — but for all its glories and wonders, it falls apart at the end, so Anna has a point up on it there). Additionally, Konstantin Levin is just about my favorite character in any novel.

Much of what I love about the book and its characters is not, though, its drama. One of the things that distinguishes Anna Karenina for me is that it doesn't work as anything but a novel, because novels can encompass, enliven, and embody so many discourses: dramatic, yes, but also philosophical, journalistic, political, historical... It takes genius to do the same with a dramatic genre, a play or a film, and Joe Wright is not a genius.

30 November 2012

Locus 20th & 21st Centuries Poll

Locus this month has been conducting a poll to find out the "best" science fiction and fantasy novels and short fiction of the 20th and 21st centuries. Though I first suggested on Twitter that I would be filling it all in with Raymond Carver stories, I gave in today at the last minute and instead filled in the poll with some choices other than Carver stories (though I was tempted to put "Why Don't You Dance?" on there, since it has a certain fantasy feel to it, at least to me).

I'll post my choices after the jump here.

23 November 2012

Learning to Read, Still

Joanna Scott on William Faulkner:
Writing that flirts with incoherence can just as readily flounder as writing characterized by simplicity and composure. There is no reliable formula for originality, and strategies that are distinguished as innovative in their first incarnation can quickly become stale in the hands of lesser artists. It’s all too easy to conflate dense prose or jumbled narrative structures with literary ambition. But in this age of trending and blogging, with paragraphs growing shorter and the spaces between them growing larger, it’s also easy to dismiss the kind of fiction that might not yield readily, docilely, to our first attempt to comprehend it. This is the worry that [C.E.] Morgan and [John Jeremiah] Sullivan express; they know how quickly readers—and writers—will turn away from fiction that dares to cast itself as difficult. Sullivan admits that he has done the same. And when, in The New York Times, a contemporary writer derides Ulysses as “a professor’s book,” he assumes that as readers, we have nothing new to learn.

If, however, we allow ourselves to think of reading as a capacity we keep cultivating, then we have reason to turn to books that have something to teach us about the medium they use to convey meaning. While it can be pleasurable to move speedily through a work of fiction, there’s a different sort of pleasure to be had in lingering, backtracking, rereading the same page. As children know, there’s lots of fun in nonsense. We never stop benefiting from staying flexible, open and responsive, even in the midst of confusion. Now, perhaps more than ever, we need to keep learning how to read.
Scott's entire essay is lovely. Faulkner is my favorite American novelist, and his most difficult book, Absalom, Absalom!, is my favorite American novel — partly because when I first read it, I literally threw it across the room three times. But I kept going back. It's not a book I've ever written about or am likely to write about, because each time I read it it opens up new wonders and new perplexities, and I respond to it with awe and terror and humility, not analysis. To write about something that affects you in that way, to reduce it to words other than its own, feels obscene. All I can do is keep reading, and learning to read, the book itself.

03 November 2012

A Year of the Weird Fiction Review


The Weird Fiction Review website has existed for a year now. During that time, it has published work from around the world, including such wondrous things as a new translation of Bruno Schulz's "The Sanatorium at the Sign of the Hour Glass", Olympe Bhêly-Quénum's "The Night Watchman", and Finnish writer Leena Likitalo's first story in English, "Watcher". And tons of other things, including my own "Stories in the Key of Strange: A Collage of Encounters". The website has become a hugely valuable resource, and it just keeps getting better, more varied, more surprising, more impressive. If you haven't spent time with it, you're missing a treasure trove.

02 November 2012

Words to Live By

Usually the comment spam that comes in here is pretty boring. But this was too oddly lovely not to save:

01 November 2012

A Momentary Miscellany

I still don't have time to write a substantive post about much of anything, but there are a bunch of things I'd like to note before I forget them, so here's a rather fragmentary and scattered post about things mostly unrelated to each other...

I've been doing quite a bit of writing, but none of it is stuff that's currently for online venues. (For instance, I wrote an introduction to an upcoming art book from Hideaki Miyamura, about which I'm sure I will say much more later, once it's available.) Also, I sold a story to Steve Berman for an upcoming anthology of queer Poe stories, which is very exciting for me because I've hardly written any fiction in the last 2 years, and whenever I finally get around to writing a story, I always wonder, "Do I still remember how?" Apparently, yes. I'm also thrilled because I've had a chance to read a couple other stories that will be in the book and they're really excellent — honestly, even if you're indifferent to Poe and you think you only like your stories 100% hetero in their inclinations, you should get this book. (And not just because 100% hetero is so dull you should never talk about it in mixed company. But I'm not judging you. Actually, I am. Unless you read this book when it comes out next year...)

Speaking of coming out soon, we're almost ready to release a new issue of The Revelator. For a preview of what's to come, check out our Facebook page. It's even possible that we will manage to get two whole issues out within the next 12 months, doubling our current rate! A lot depends on our Copy Editor, but we've got faith.

30 October 2012

My Students Have a Blog...

For the Advanced Prose Workshop class that I'm teaching at Plymouth State University this term, I had the students create and manage a blog. They've been playing with it for a little while now, testing out templates and figuring out how to post different types of things.

We opened it up to the world today.

I'm pretty much letting them do what they want with it, hoping that having a real audience for their work will be both educational and encouraging. With that in mind, I encourage you to take a glance and leave a comment, particularly if something they've written especially interests you. For many of these students, this is the first audience they've ever had beyond friends, family, and teachers.

They're really just getting started with posting, but there should be a steady stream of material over the next few weeks.

(And as I've warned before, my own blogging here is likely to be light through December.)

14 October 2012

Starboard Wine at Strange Horizons

Strange Horizons has just posted a review by T.S. Miller of the new edition of Samuel Delany's Starboard Wine, for which I wrote an introduction. It's a generally thoughtful and well-informed review; inevitably, I have quibbles with it, but they aren't important — what's important is that, as Miller notes, the book is now available to a wider audience than ever before.

28 September 2012

The Mystery of Werner Herzog

Over at Press Play, there's a new video essay by Nelson Carvajal accompanied by a new text essay by me, all about Werner Herzog, under the general title "The Mystery of Werner Herzog".

16 September 2012

Midnight's Children

A group of friends and I saw Midnight's Children in its New England premiere as part of the Telluride at Dartmouth program at Dartmouth College. (I saw a bunch of the films last year, but don't have time this year and, in any case, am not as enthusiastic about the selection as I was last year.)

The group of us had very different reactions to the movie, with some people extremely enthusiastic about it. For me, it was unfulfilling, and seems a perfect illustration of two general rules: 1.) novelists should not adapt their own books for the screen; 2.) Great books don't make great movies.

A surprising amount of the plot of Salman Rushdie's original novel is retained in the film, and this seemed to me the heart of its problem. A novel of 500+ pages has the room to let its incidents spread out and breathe; a 148-minute film can only include the majority of those incidents if it spends very little time on any of them. And that's what happens. The movie zips along, but it's in such a hurry that nothing much feels like it matters. A story like Midnight's Children, which takes place over many decades and various locations, is especially unsuited to such crammed rushing. It flattens characterizations, making everyone seem like a caricature, and accentuates the many coincidences and contrivances that feel less ridiculous in a large novel. The effect is to make the world of the movie feel absurdly small, and, by the end, to leave it no recourse other than a thin sentimentality. The film sacrifices everything to get as much of the book's plot in as possible, and thus ends up less like an adaptation of the novel than of its SparkNotes summary.

One of my pet peeves with adaptations of complex works of literature is that they rarely seek to find a cinematic equivalent to the literary style. Midnight's Children is interesting as much for its language and structure as for its events, but neither Rushdie in his linear and unimaginative screenplay or Deepa Mehta in her direction find any sort of analogue for that. Rushdie himself gives an ever-present narration in voiceover, further making the film seem like an illustration of the book — we get to look at pictures while somebody reads at us! Last year, I had mixed feelings about We Need to Talk About Kevin, but one of the things I most admired was its determination to be a movie unto itself and not merely an illustration of the novel. The book exists as a work of art in its own right; the movie should, too.

I was often annoyed by the film's colors, which are frequently saturated and sometimes desaturated — manipulation that renders all the whites glowing, blank, and depthless, giving the whole movie an unreal quality that was certainly intentional but to my eyes screamed of kitsch. The same is true for some digital effects in the last third or so of the film, where it sometimes looks like lost outtakes from 300. Occasionally, such as scenes in a Delhi slum, the saturation of colors provides beautiful greens, reds, blues, and yellows, but on the whole the effect was distracting, and especially disappointing given that I thought Mehta's earlier film, Water, was visually powerful and affecting.

13 September 2012

A Miscellanea of Catching Up and Checking In

Crickets have taken over The Mumpsimus recently, mostly because I've been working on some projects and have started the new school year.

This will be a fragmentary post trying to capture a few things that seem to me worth capturing before too much more time passes and I enter senescence.

After a hiatus due to some technical reconfigurations at Boomtron, The Sandman Mediations have now resumed with a few thoughts on the first part of The Wake. I'll finish up The Wake in the coming weeks, then continue with Endless Nights, after which I plan to stop.

I made one last video essay before classes started up again, this one on Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales. I'm hoping to make another on Eastwood's Gran Torino soon, but not sure when I'll be able to steal the time.

28 August 2012

Painter with a Movie Camera: A Tribute to Tony Scott

I suppose that comparing the late Tony Scott to Dziga Vertov will seem ridiculous to many (most!) people, as will proclaiming Domino a masterwork. So be it. Here's a tribute to Tony Scott in which I do both of those things:

Painter with a Movie Camera: A Tribute to Tony Scott from Matthew Cheney on Vimeo.

And here are the tributes I mention in the video:
Manohla Dargis, "A Director Who Excelled in Excess"
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, "Smearing the Senses: Tony Scott, Action Painter"

20 August 2012

"How to Play with Dolls"

This little story was originally published in Weird Tales 352, Nov/Dec. 2008, edited by Ann VanderMeer.

How to Play with Dolls
by Matthew Cheney

Jenny's father spent a year making a dollhouse for her, a three-storey mansion with four gables and six chimneys and secret passageways and a dumbwaiter and a tiny television that, thanks to a microchip, actually worked.  He gave it to her on her seventh birthday.  Jenny thanked him and kissed him and told him she had always wanted an asylum for her dolls.

Though he wanted her to make the house into a pleasant place for tea parties and soirees, Jenny's father stayed silent as he watched his daughter restrain her dolls with straightjackets fashioned from toilet paper.  He kept his silence as she built prison bars with toothpicks and secured every door with duck tape.  But as she placed the dolls into their cells and set a group of them to stare at the television, he could not observe quietly any longer, and so he went to his workshop and reorganized his impressive collection of antique awls, adzes, augers, and axes.

Jenny continued in his absence.  She created schedules for the patients, times when they could wander through the halls or make origami birds or rant and rave without reproach, or sleep in the cots she had built out of matchboxes stolen from her late mother's private stash.  She had considered appointing some of the dolls to be doctors, but she did not trust them, and so retained all supervisory duties for herself.  She did not sleep, for fear that were she not to keep a vigilant watch, the dolls would revolt or, worse, harm themselves.  She despaired, though, because none of the patients seemed to be making any progress.  Instead, they were all becoming recalcitrant, and they did not want to wander or create anything, they stopped ranting, they let the television slip to a channel of grey static, they slept and slept and slept.  Jenny tried extreme measures: water dunking, severe lighting, simulated earthquakes, and even, with a contraption made from spoons and Christmas tree lights, electrocution.  Nothing got better, and the dolls might as well have been dead.

After a month, Jenny's father returned from his workshop with delicately-detailed miniature hot air balloons, and as Jenny sat beside her asylum and wept over the helpless despair of the dolls, her father orchestrated clever escapes for the patients, who proved to be masterful balloonists, each and every one.  They flew to the paradise of Jenny's bed, where they waited until she returned one night, the asylum having been abandoned, and they embraced her in their tiny arms and sang ancient songs in lost languages while she slept, her face wet with tears from her dreams.

Creative Commons License
"How to Play with Dolls" by Matthew Cheney is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

On Weird Tales

It was a sad day when Ann VanderMeer and the rest of the staff at Weird Tales were fired when the magazine was bought by people who wanted to change the direction away from the great innovations Ann et al. had brought to it and instead return the magazine to publishing, apparently, Lovecraft pastiches. Apparently, Ann and creative director Stephen Segal winning a Hugo for their work wasn't good enough. The new owners wanted, they said, to return the magazine to its roots.

Well, Lovecraft was a thoroughgoing racist, and apparently those were the roots editor/publisher Marvin Kaye had in mind, although in his mind it's actually "non-racist". Sure, keep telling yourself that. [Update: Weird Tales has taken Marvin Kaye's post down from their website, so the link there doesn't work. However, there's a Google cache. I'm happy the publisher has apologized, but I'm not a fan of memory holes.]

For a better chronicle of the awful, see Nora Jemison's post on the topic. I'm sure there will be more. I'll update this post as time allows.

For now, though, I'm going to follow Nora's lead and post my story "How to Play with Dolls" here on the blog. It was published by Ann in WT 352, and it is one of my proudest publications. But I want it to be free from association with Weird Tales in its current incarnation.

Update: Completely, totally, and hurriedly stealing some additional links from Shaun Duke:

Given that Revealing Eden would not generally fall under WT's genre purview and that the prose and story are hardly so transcendant as to justify making an exception, it’s impossible to read Kaye’s decision to reprint the first chapter as anything other than a defense of racist writing. It is just barely possible that Foyt may have had the best of intentions and been genuinely taken aback when her book was called out for displaying her unconscious racism. Kaye, however, has no such excuse. This is a calculated statement of scorn for non-white authors and readers and their allies, and it stinks.
Update 2: Weird Tales backpedals.

Update 3: Ann VanderMeer resigns as senior contributing editor of the new WT.


Here's an important post from Atlantic senior editor Garance Franke-Ruta regarding Republican U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin's repugnant comments about pregnancy rarely occurring from "legitimate rape" (just typing those words makes my hands shake).

Franke-Ruta makes the important point that Akin is not an outlier in the world of anti-abortion zealots. His ideas are connected to those that seek to distinguish between "forcible rape" and something else. Such dangerous delusions are central to so many of the misogynistic and ignorant tenets of the anti-abortion movement and to the sorts of ideologies that seek to downplay the frequency of sexual assault and defund the institutions that attempt to address sexual violence:
Arguments like his have cropped up again and again on the right over the past quarter century and the idea that trauma is a form of birth control continues to be promulgated by anti-abortion forces that seek to outlaw all abortions, even in cases of rape or incest. The push for a no-exceptions anti-abortion policy has for decades gone hand in hand with efforts to downplay the frequency with which rape- or incest-related pregnancies occur, and even to deny that they happen, at all. In other words, it's not just Akin singing this tune.
Amanda Marcotte explores similar evidence and ideas at The Prospect:
Akin’s comment should serve as a reminder that despite its sentimentality surrounding the fetus, the anti-choice movement is motivated by misogyny and ignorance about human sexuality. In this case, what underlies the rape-doesn’t-get-you-pregnant myth is the notion that sex is shameful and that slutty women will do anything—even send an innocent man to jail to kill a baby—in order to avoid facing the consequences of their actions.
 Akin's ideas are not a gaffe.

18 August 2012

"The trap of data, numbers, statistics, and charts"

Maria Konnikova, from "Humanities aren’t a science. Stop treating them like one" at Scientific American's Literally Psyched blog:
Every softer discipline these days seems to feel inadequate unless it becomes harder, more quantifiable, more scientific, more precise. That, it seems, would confer some sort of missing legitimacy in our computerized, digitized, number-happy world. But does it really? Or is it actually undermining the very heart of each discipline that falls into the trap of data, numbers, statistics, and charts? Because here’s the truth: most of these disciplines aren’t quantifiable, scientific, or precise. They are messy and complicated. And when you try to straighten out the tangle, you may find that you lose far more than you gain. 
It’s one of the things that irked me about political science and that irks me about psychology—the reliance, insistence, even, on increasingly fancy statistics and data sets to prove any given point, whether it lends itself to that kind of proof or not. I’m not alone in thinking that such a blanket approach ruins the basic nature of the inquiry. Just consider this review of Jerome Kagan’s new book, Psychology’s Ghosts,by the social psychologist Carol Tavris. “Many researchers fail to consider that their measurements of brains, behavior and self-reported experience are profoundly influenced by their subjects’ culture, class and experience, as well as by the situation in which the research is conducted,” Tavris writes. “This is not a new concern, but it takes on a special urgency in this era of high-tech inspired biological reductionism.” The tools of hard science have a part to play, but they are far from the whole story. Forget the qualitative, unquantifiable and irreducible elements, and you are left with so much junk.
And a postscript, via Einstein, here.

17 August 2012

An Accidental Nonfiction Writer

In the author's note to his new collection of essays, Magic Hours, Tom Bissell calls himself "an accidental nonfiction writer", and then says:
When I first started writing for magazines, I imagined that I would use nonfiction writing as a way to fund my fiction writing. This did not go exactly as planned. Insofar as I am known as anything today, it is as a nonfiction writer. Earlier in my career, I was neurotic enough to let this bother me. When I started out as a writer, I regarded fiction — novels, especially — as the supreme achievement of the human imagination. While I still hold fiction in very high regard, and continue to write it, I no longer believe in genre chauvinism. Life is difficult enough.

15 August 2012

Fall Classes

I've just about finished drafting syllabi for my fall classes, and so it's time once again for my semi-annual post about how I'm planning the coursework.

I'll be teaching three classes at the university, two for the English department and one for the department of Communication & Media Studies. The English classes are "Advanced Prose Workshop" and a general education intro to lit class, "The Outsider". The Com/Media class is "Media as Popular Culture". I've taught The Outsider a bunch of time, Media as Pop Cult once before, and have never taught Advanced Prose Workshop, which I'm doing only because our writer-in-residence is in Ireland this term.

13 August 2012

Was Worldcat Designed By People Who Actually Use Libraries?

Update: Attention has been paid! Please see the comments for a nice response from a WorldCat representative. We now have an answer to the title question: Yes.

My beloved university library has now switched over from an in-house computerized catalogue to using WorldCat. There are definite advantages to this, and some neat things WorldCat can do.

But for all its many useful features, I wonder: Does anybody at WorldCat actually use libraries?

07 August 2012

"Hell Broke Luce"

Tom Waits has made a beautiful, surrealist video for the song "Hell Broke Luce" from his Bad as Me album. It's one of my favorite of his songs, a coruscating view of war and soldiering. Play it loud. (Note: Some strong language.)

06 August 2012

Readercon Update: Making Amends

The Great Readercon Harassment Debacle of 2012 has resolved with a statement from the Convention Committee that is an excellent example of how to apologize for mistakes and, more importantly, how to make amends.

When I read the statement, I'd just gotten the new album by Franz Nicolay, Do the Struggle, and a line from the chorus of the magnificent first song seemed oddly appropriate: "The hearts of Boston have a hurricane to answer for."

The hurricane's dying down. The rubble is getting cleaned up. The hearts are strong.

There are lots of things in the statement to pay attention to — ideas that will, I hope, serve as a model for other events in the future, not just Readercon. I was especially pleased to see this among the actions the committee has committed to: "Working with the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center to train concom members and volunteers in swift, appropriate reactions to observed or reported harassment."

Such actions move Readercon from having passive policies that may (or may not) help in the event of harassment to having systems in place that actively work against the culture of rape and violence. Knowledge and awareness matter: they change how you interact with the world. By taking such a thorough and public stand and becoming a site for education and prevention, Readercon helps chip away at the forces that support and enable intimidation, harassment, and violence.

A few folks have asked if I would reconsider my resignation from the Program Committee, and I've said that while I completely support the new statement and policies, have great respect for the work that went into it all, and look forward to attending Readercon 24, I need, for various reasons, to take at least a year off from participation in the committee. This is as much for emotional reasons as rational ones, and I don't have adequate words to explain why.

For some of what went into creating the statement and new policies, see this post by Rose Fox. Lots of people worked really hard, through difficult conversations and difficult emotions, to make all this happen. We should be grateful to them for doing that work, for putting their words and hearts and minds on the line.

Here's Genevieve's lovely response to the statement.

See you at Readercon next year.

31 July 2012

Two Lists

At other places around the internet, there is listing going on. I can't resist a good list. Though neither of these two listing events is one I was invited to join, both made me think, "What would I put on such a list?" (Lists are fiercely contagious.)

30 July 2012

Kick Unstuck!

I don't generally publicize Kickstarter projects, etc., here, because it would be easy to get overwhelmed, but here's one I've got multiple personal interests in: Unstuck: New Literature of the Fantastic and Surreal.

Unstuck is a new(ish) annual(ish) journal out of Texas. Their first issue included fiction by Aimee Bender, Matthew Derby, Amelia Gray, J. Robert Lennon, Meghan McCarron, Rachel Swirsky, Leslie What, and others who are just too fabulous to name.

Their upcoming (at the end of the year) second issue will include work by Other People You Know, plus me (a very short story about Victrolas and turtles that I read last year at Readercon). The rewards for funding the project are pretty great.

Also, one of the editors is Meghan McCarron, someone whose life I nearly ruined once by hiring her to teach at a boarding school in New Hampshire. She's beginning to forgive me. She'll forgive me more if you fund this project. (But don't use that as an excuse not to send money!)

Meghan's in the video above. She says, "Barbarians who collect heads," in what may be the world's most perfect line reading.

Also, Tyler Stoddard-Smith, who demonstrates how to use Unstuck to combat insects and rodents, is my new favorite superhero.

29 July 2012

Utopia and Guns, Again

My post from last year on "Utopia and the Gun Culture" has gotten some attention in the wake of the horrifying shootings in Aurora, Colorado.

Most of what I have to say about guns, I said there. Here, I'll mainly link to a few recent writngs of interest and add a bit of comment at the end.

First, if you're curious to know more about the labyrinthine federal and state laws regarding firearms, the ATF has guides to federal (PDF) and state laws. (For a general overview, there's Wikipedia: federal, state.)

Here's a perfect example of useless utopian thinking: "A Land Without Guns: How Japan Has Virtually Eliminated Shooting Deaths". Such articles are a waste of time.

For more on the deep issues and why utopian thinking is a waste of time, see Timothy Burke's post "Don't Bring Policy to a Culture Fight".

For a good exploration/demonstration of the difficulties of drawing any useful conclusions from statistics about guns, crime, and violence, see the discussion at Ta-Nehsisi Coates's blog on this post.

For an example of at least an attempt at some conversation without too much stereotyping, name-calling, and knee-jerking, see the comments on this Daily Kos post.

27 July 2012

An Unenforced Policy Is Worse Than None

Note: Updates below.

Here's the Readercon harassment policy in writing:
Readercon has always had a zero-tolerance harassment policy.

Harassment of any kind — including physical assault, battery, deliberate intimidation, stalking, or unwelcome physical attentions — will not be tolerated at Readercon and will result in permanent suspension of membership.

As always, Readercon reserves the right to strip membership at its discretion.
Here's the Readercon harassment policy in practice:
Earlier today I was contacted by a Readercon representative, who let me know that by decision of the Board, my harasser has been suspended from Readercon.

For two years.

I was not given the reasoning behind the decision; the board’s deliberations, I was told, were confidential.

I was assured the board had taken everything into account – my report, my eyewitnesses, others who had come forward with information they declined to detail. They asked me if I felt they had taken my complaint seriously. They hoped to see me at next year’s Readercon.
I love Readercon and have been on the programming committee for the past two years. (I am not on the general con committee, so had no involvement in this decision.) Because I rarely go to other conventions, it's the one time in the year when I get to see a lot of friends from around the country and world.

But I cannot support an organization that doesn't enforce its own policies.

The language is clear, blunt, and unambiguous. The decision is a violation of the stated policy.

Two years is not permanent.

If the convention committee wants to change the harassment policy to give them more leeway, then they should do so and make their decision public so that people who attend the convention know the policies under which they are agreeing to attend. But until then, the committee should enforce the policy that exists — the policy we all agreed to abide by when we decided to attend Readercon.

I'm just learning about this now, and I have respect for the members of the convention committee, so I hope they will address the discrepancy between their policy and practice soon. 

But I promise this: I will not be associated with an organization that so blatantly violates its own policies. Until the decision is either better explained or, preferably, changed, I will not be associated with Readercon.

Update: The head of my committee, Rose Fox, responds to the decision: "This is not the outcome I wanted, and it makes me very unhappy." Rose is one of the major reasons I got involved behind the scenes at Readercon, and I respect her tremendously.

And as Rose says: Feedback on the board's decision should go to info@readercon.org.

Update 2: The Readercon Board of Directors has issued a statement about their decision. I wrote my post pretty soon after reading Genevieve's, and my language was a bit wishy-washy in some spots because I was so surprised and shocked. I thought there must be something I'm missing, some miscommunication somewhere, something that would make this make sense. But that's not the case.

I've officially resigned as a member of the programming committee. This is heartbreaking for me, but it also feels obviously necessary. I support the people who are continuing to work with Readercon despite their disagreements with the Board. We need people to do so. We need people to help the convention get better, because it's been making all sorts of great strides until now. But I just can't do it.

Our trust was betrayed by the Board of Directors. Before the convention, at least one email went out reminding attendees of the con's various policies. They're on the website and in the program guide. We agreed to attend Readercon 23 with those policies known and in place. Our expectation was that the policies would be enforced. They were not.

There is a time and place for helping people who have made mistakes learn from those mistakes, atone for them, and grow from them. I've said and done plenty of things I have heaps of regret for, and I'm grateful to friends and acquaintances who have helped me learn from them — and will, I hope, continue to do so, since I'm not done living and thus not done making mistakes. I want to live in a world that's more about rehabilitation than punishment. But rehabilitation is not the responsibility of an event or its committees. If you hold an event, your job is to make sure the people who attend are as safe as you can reasonably ensure. Your job is to put policies in place and to enforce them. That's your responsibility. Readercon has failed in that responsibility.

And so I have resigned, and will remain so regardless of how this plays out further (and I expect we have not heard the last of this). Perhaps I will attend next year, perhaps not; I'm never exactly sure what's going on in my life that far in the future, anyway. If progress is made (and my schedule permits), I will attend, because I support the convention overall, and I want it to continue to get better. The Board's statement is not evidence of this so far. But I hold out hope for improvement.

Update 3: The Readercon board resigned and Readercon has instituted new policies. An excellent response to the situation. My thoughts are in a new post.

Show and Tell

From an excellent collection of writing advice offered by the great Colson Whitehead:
Most people say, “Show, don’t tell,” but I stand by Show and Tell, because when writers put their work out into the world, they’re like kids bringing their broken unicorns and chewed-up teddy bears into class in the sad hope that someone else will love them as much as they do. “And what do you have for us today, Marcy?” “A penetrating psychological study of a young med student who receives disturbing news from a former lover.” “How marvelous! Timmy, what are you holding there?” “It’s a Calvinoesque romp through an unnamed metropolis much like New York, narrated by an armadillo.” “Such imagination!” Show and Tell, followed by a good nap.

22 July 2012

Free Leiber

The Library of America has just posted a Fritz Leiber story, "Try and Change the Past", online. If you've never read any Leiber, now's as good a time as any to start.

The Man Who Had No Idea: Getting Into SF

I saw an article at World Literature Today's website called "Fun with Your New Head: Getting into SF", and thought, "Hey, this'll be great — they probably have a good list of science fiction from around the world and resources for people to find out more about world SF. I love it when that happens!"

Sadly, no.

Writer Michael A. Morrison instead says reading William Gibson's first two novels is hard, so here are a bunch of critical studies of SF that you should read. This is perverse.

And it is not helpful. Do not listen to this article, or at least any of it before the final paragraph where The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction is mentioned. That's a perfectly good introduction, though weak on work from the last 10 years.

What a failure for a magazine called World Literature Today! SF is not just stuff published 30 years ago and then written about by academics. Really, it's not. I promise. And I say that as somebody who writes about SF, sometimes academically.

Go read The World SF Blog. Go read the Words Without Borders issue on The Fantastic. Read The Apex Book of World SF. Read The Weird Fiction Review and The Weird. Read the venerable print magazines (F&SF! Asimov's!) and the online magazines (Strange Horizons and Clarkesworld and Tor.com and Subterranean and Lightspeed, oh my!) Sure, read nonfiction, but don't start there for gawd's sake! (If you want a mix of fiction and nonfiction, Visions of Wonder is a good start, if a bit dated at this point.)

SF is a world literature, and it's written and read today. Too bad World Literature Today couldn't find somebody who knew that.

21 July 2012

Readercon 23

Last week's Readercon was among the best of the many I have attended, for me at least. Inevitably, there wasn't enough time for anything — time to see friends, time to go to all the various panels I had hoped to go to, time to mine the book dealers' wares... Nonetheless, it was a tremendous pleasure to see so many friends and acquaintances again, as well as to be immersed in such a vibrant community of people who love to talk about books.

I've been on the Programming Committee for Readercon for the past two years now, which changes my experience a little bit, because I find myself paying closer attention than I did before to how the panels end up working in reality (after we on the committee have puzzled over their possibilities for a few months) and to how people on the panels and in the audiences respond to them. (Note: We're actively trying to expand the invitation list to Readercon. If you have any names to suggest [including yourself], please see here for more info.)

I don't love being on panels myself, because I don't really have any confidence in my ability to say anything beyond the banal in an extemporaneous situation, but I was on a couple this time, and though I don't think my contributions were anything memorable, there were some good moments. (More thoughts on panels and the current discussion of gender parity on panels at cons below.)

11 July 2012

Nonfiction and Science Fiction

There's a fun Mind Meld feature at SF Signal on "Non-Fiction Books About Science Fiction That Should Be In Every Fan’s Library", with responses from an eclectic group of writers, scholars, reviewers, etc. Well worth a glance. My own prejudices and inclinations align enough with many of the respondents that their lists include a lot of books I've spent a lot of time with, as well as others I'm unfamiliar with, which is always fun. One of the good things the Mind Meld editors do a lot is create agonizingly broad questions that can elicit hugely varied responses depending on how people interpret them; that's part of the fun of the feature. In this case, Gary Wolfe nails it: "I think this question depends on what you mean by 'fan.' Not all fans set out to be students of SF; some just want to enjoy the stuff and have no more interest in finding out about it than in finding out where their sausage comes from. Still fewer aspire to be scholars of the field in the academic sense..."

Things I likely would have added had I participated would have been Damien Broderick's Reading By Starlight: Postmodern Science Fiction, which gives a good overview of a lot of the critical issues that have come up over the last couple decades in SF scholarship, and Samuel Delany's Starboard Wine.

Starboard Wine has been out of print pretty much since five minutes after its publication in 1984. Copies are nearly as rare as moon rocks. But no longer! Wesleyan University Press releases a new edition of the book this month, with an introduction I wrote. It should be available any day now, and the ebook edition is already available from Amazon and Google. (Currently, both editions are listed as by "Samuel R. R. Delany". Apparently, George R. R. Martin has decided he has enough R's, so he's loaning his out now...)

A number of people mention The Jewel-Hinged Jaw in the Mind Meld, and that's all well and good (it's been a hugely influential book for me, too), but only Cheryl Morgan brings up any Delany book that's less than 30 years old — she mentions About Writing, an excellent choice, indeed. But it's symptomatic of, frankly, so much that is shallow about SF criticism that everybody keeps going back to JHJ, and especially "About 5,750 Words", which he wrote when he was 26. Delany's ideas have become, since he was 26, more complex, more subtle, more nuanced, more informed. I love JHJ and everybody on Earth should should buy a copy right now — but they should also at least get About Writing and Shorter Views (which gives a wider exposure to his ideas about texts and the world).

And now, finally, we can add Starboard Wine to the list, because it's his most developed and accessible book focused on science fiction. The difficulty of finding a copy of the first edition made ignoring the book understandable; now, there is no excuse. Carl Freedman gave it an appropriate blurb:
After all the years since it was first published, Starboard Wine remains one of the three or four most important critical statements ever made about science fiction. No one with a serious interest in the field should be ignorant of it.
One thing that the Mind Meld made me think of was a variation on the actual topic. Even though it's against my own best interests to say so, I don't think the world is in any great peril from SF fans not reading enough about SF. The question that bubbled up into the swamp of my mind was:  

Which non-fiction books NOT about science fiction should be in every fan’s library?

09 July 2012

Guest Post — Star Wars: The Old Republic: Revan

One day I happened to overhear a student talking about Star Wars novels, and I told him that Del Rey Books has sent me some over the years, and that usually I donate them to libraries, since I rarely read series fiction or media tie-in novels (rarely, but not never; heck, I used Jeff VanderMeer's Predator novel in a class once). I asked him if he'd like the ones that were currently sitting in a pile somewhere in my house, and he said sure. I had recently done a big library donation, so didn't have much more than a few advanced copies, but I brought them in anyway. When I gave them to him, at first I thought he was disappointed that they were ARCs without finished artwork, but it turned out his silence and immobility were the behaviors of a die-hard fan in bliss, as I had given him a novel that was hugely anticipated and not due to be released for at least another month.

It was then that I hit upon an idea: Here was a thoughtful, articulate, well-read student who was also a knowledgeable Star Wars fan, and I wondered if he would be willing to write a post or two for this blog in which he explored not just the specific books I gave him, but the attraction of the Star Wars universe for him and other fans, since the audience for this blog, as far as I know, is not mostly composed of readers as committed to the Star Wars universe as he. I love learning how people value books and movies and art of all sorts, and this seemed like a great opportunity to learn about the attractions of Star Wars fandom.

And so I give you Michael DiTommaso with a post on Star Wars: The Old Republic: Revan and the life and purpose of a Star Wars fan. He writes the "Ask a Star Wars Geek" column at T.X. Watson's Blog-Shaped Thing, and has recently joined the staff of Beyond the New Jedi Order

I hear that Michael is working on a comprehensive post about multiple Star Wars books and their attractions, and if we are kind and encouraging, perhaps he will allow me to post it here once he's finished...

Star Wars: The Old Republic: Revan
reviewed by Michael DiTommaso

I am not Matt Cheney, just to get that out of the way. I am instead the self-proclaimed biggest Star Wars fan in New England — a contention that's yet to be successfully challenged. How could I possibly claim such an audacious title, you may ask youself. Well, I've read about 133 Star Wars adult novels, and about 15 more young adult novels, as well as a couple of the comics. I've played several of the games, and read a maybe a dozen more short stories, all of these licensed parts of the Star Wars franchise. Of couse I have seen the movies themselves, many times.

It's kind of my hobby. The fact that it is Star Wars and not something else derives from three factors: firstly, as a kid, I watched the original trilogy of movies, and got excited about the prequels coming out (by that time I had already begun reading the X-Wing series, one of my favorites to date). Secondly, Star Wars was accessable (my godfather owned over 90 books, which he eventually gave me, though by that time, my love of Star Wars had already been sealed, and I owned my own collection of books). The third and biggest factor, though, is I didn't want to stop reading, and for that, Star Wars was (and is) perfect.

08 July 2012

Re: Your Stephen King Problem

Dear Dwight Allen:

Thank you for letting me know about your Stephen King problem (henceforth, SKP). Many people let these problems go, thinking they're not particularly important or, ultimately, relevant to anyone other than themselves, but  the science shows that letting these problems linger encourages them to fester, and once they fester they can then lead to all sorts of complications and an endless array of other problems (most commonly, J.K. Rowling problems and J.R.R. Tolkien problems, which themselves can lead to entire textbooks of other problems.) Such suffering becomes an infinite sprawl of frustration, guilt, pain, and, often, anti-social behavior and anal warts.

To assess your treatment needs, let's analyze some of your history and symptoms.

05 July 2012

False Teeth and the Foreign Office

Terry Eagleton, from a review of the 50th anniversary edition of Erich Auerbach's Mimesis:
To describe something as realist is to acknowledge that it is not the real thing. We call false teeth realistic, but not the Foreign Office. If a representation were to be wholly at one with what it depicts, it would cease to be a representation. A poet who managed to make his or her words ‘become’ the fruit they describe would be a greengrocer. No representation, one might say, without separation. Words are certainly as real as pineapples, but this is precisely the reason they cannot be pineapples. The most they can do is create what Henry James called the ‘air of reality’ of pineapples. In this sense, all realist art is a kind of con trick – a fact that is most obvious when the artist includes details that are redundant to the narrative (the precise tint and curve of a moustache, let us say) simply to signal: ‘This is realism.’ In such art, no waistcoat is colourless, no way of walking is without its idiosyncrasy, no visage without its memorable features. Realism is calculated contingency.
The idea itself is as old as the hills (how old are the hills? and which hills, exactly?), but Eagleton expresses it concisely, and his examples made me chuckle.

04 July 2012

A Train Between Worlds: The Darjeeling Limited

I wrote up a draft of what was going to be a blog post about Wes Anderson's 2007 movie The Darjeeling Limited, but then decided it might be fun to turn it into a video essay instead. And so "A Train Between Worlds: The Darjeeling Limited" was born. Because the narration was originally going to be a blog post, the video is a bit text-heavy — it clearly didn't need to be a video per se, but I think it's more enjoyable in that form, especially because I could include various songs from the film's soundtrack (many of which were taken from other movies' soundtracks). For reference, the entire narration is available on the video's Vimeo page, and I'll paste it below the cut here.

The Darjeeling Limited has been one of Anderson's least popular and least critically lauded movies, but up until this year's Moonrise Kingdom, I thought it was his most accomplished and satisfying. I like all his movies a lot, but my taste is weird — where most people seem to find Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox the most satisfying, I'd rank Darjeeling Limited and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou higher, much as I enjoy the others. Later this summer, I'll probably try to create a companion video about The Life Aquatic to explore some of its intricacies.

Meanwhile, a new online film journal has just appeared, Screen Machine, and the first issue includes an excellent essay by Huw Walmsley-Evans that looks at Wes Anderson and the question of realism.

And if you haven't yet seen Moonrise Kingdom, seek it out. Even people whose taste isn't as questionable as mine seem to like it.

02 July 2012

"Bombay's Republic" Wins the Caine Prize

According to the Caine Prize on Twitter, the winner of this year's award is Rotimi Babatunde for "Bombay's Republic".

You can read the story as a PDF via the Prize website. It was the first of this year's nominees that I wrote about as part of the Caine Prize Blogathon, and my post also has links to other bloggers' (quite varied) takes on the story. It was certainly among the top of the stories for me, though I'm glad I didn't have to make the choice, as this year's group of nominees was generally impressive overall. Congratulations to everyone involved!

29 June 2012

Readercon 23 Schedule

I will be at Readercon 23 in a few weeks. It's the one convention I attend every year, and I'm especially excited about this year because the panels are especially interesting, the guest list is awesome, and one of the guests of honor is Peter Straub, whose work I am in awe of and who is among the most delightful people to hear on panels or in interviews or readings or, really, anywhere. (Honestly, if Peter Straub were a train conductor, I'd follow him from car to car. He'd get freaked out and call the police, and I'd get arrested for being a weirdo, but it would be so worth it!) Also, we get to celebrate 50 years of Samuel Delany's work. And we give out the Shirley Jackson Awards!

Before posting my schedule, I wanted to note the Readercon Book Club selections for this year. These are panel discussions of specific books, a "classic" and a recent work of fiction and nonfiction each. This year's are:

27 June 2012

"The Stains" by Robert Aickman

Today is Robert Aickman's 98th birthday, and in honor of that, here are some thoughts on my favorite Aickman story, "The Stains". I've been meaning to write about Aickman's work, and this story in particular, for a long time, but I have found it difficult to muster the courage to write about works that are so mysterious, so ineffable, so richly strange and deeply affecting. I think it is no coincidence that I have had the same struggle with the work of Franz Kafka, who is absolutely central to my reading life, and yet I have never written at much length about him at all. Aickman is not as great a writer as Kafka, but that's no insult; Aickman's talent and vision were narrower, his oeuvre less ragged. Nonetheless, there is an affinity of effect (and affect), partly, I suspect, because both writers were masters of writing from repressed obsessions, and both found unique, personal forms of fiction with which to encase those obsessions.

"The Stains" is a late story by Aickman, first published in Ramsay Campbell's anthology New Terrors. It won the 1981 British Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction, but has rarely been reprinted. (Currently, it's in print in the Faber & Faber UK edition of the Aickman collection The Unsettled Dust, which, along with a couple other Aickman collections, is also available as a Kindle ebook from Amazon, though I haven't found it for other electronic formats.)

It is the story of a civil servant named Stephen, whose wife, Elizabeth, has recently died, and whose very straight-laced, controlled world has begun to come apart. Stephen seems like a perfect representation of the stereotypical stiff-upper-lip, aging British male — but really there's nothing essentially British about this stereotype, for it is more generally a kind of masculine ideal: fastidious, emotionally repressed, with a sense that one's status as a (white, middle-to-upper-class) male should lead then to dominance over a world that always threatens chaos. Such attributes lead to a psychology that fiercely guards against the exotic. Stephen's Britishness (and Aickman's) will be important to the story, though, because of the story's subtle allusions to the Empire.

Marriage is, for Stephen and his ilk, a vital component in the fight against chaos, and Elizabeth was for him the nearly-perfect wife. ("They said he was a man made for marriage and all it meant. ... [H]ow many women would want to marry Stephen now? A number, perhaps; but not a number that he would want to marry. Not after Elizabeth.") A man made for marriage and all it meant. Elizabeth's only flaw was her inability to bear Stephen a child, preferably a son to carry on his name, lineage, tradition. But no man can have everything, and each needs some burden to bear.

It is no surprise that once Elizabeth is dead, Stephen's world shifts toward chaos. Their doctor immediately leaves, and he is replaced not by another man of the same mold, but rather someone different. "The new man was half-Sudanese, and Stephen found him difficult to communicate with, at least upon a first encounter, at least on immediate topics."

Stephen leaves to see his brother: the Reverend Harewood Hooper BD, MA. ("Their father and grandfather had been in orders too, and had been incumbents of that same small church in that same small parish for thirty-nine years and forty-two years respectively.") A man of scholarship and God, Harewood is also a "modestly famous" expert on lichens.