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Showing posts from January, 2004

Film Structure

From Ron Silliman comes news (to me) of plans to make a movie of Samuel Delany's Dhalgren. If the film is even slightly faithful to the book, it would be quite a fascinating piece of work. Of course, it could come to nothing, too, since so few films which even make it past the point of having screenplays commissioned ever actually make it to the screen, but we can keep our fingers crossed.

(In other news, this summer will see a film of Asimov's I, Robot starring Will Smith and apparently not based on Harlan Ellison's screenplay, first published in Asimov's and then as a book.)

The post with the reference to a film of Dhalgren is actually a letter from the screenwriter, who is responding to an excellent post in which Silliman figured out the standard three-act structure of commercial films.

Having studied playwrighting and screenwriting at NYU for three years, this is a subject I know well. Being an inveterate contrarian, I rebelled as much as possible against the id…

David Markson

Mark Sarvas links to a review of Vanishing Point, a new novel by one of the odder writers out there, David Markson, whose books tend to be ostensibly random accumulations of fragmentary information which, after twenty or fifty pages, begin to suggest form and patterns and then, more often than not, end up being surprisingly powerful by the last page.

Markson's novel Wittgenstein's Mistress is one of the greatest post-apocalyptic/last-person-on-Earth books I've ever encountered (and it may not be post-apocalyptic at all, since that judgment is left to the reader), one of the only books I've read which simultaneously conveys senses of claustrophobia, agoraphobia, and endlessly expansive loneliness along with subtle humor, lightness of style, and trivial erudition. The situation in Wittgenstein's Mistress grounds Markson's experimental structure and allows resonances beyond what he was able to achieve in the more hermetic situations of the novels which followed i…

The Sledgehammer of Fantastic Reality

Tim Burton has made some wonderful films, particularly his early work (Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands hold special places in my heart), and despite the execrable Planet of the Apes remake, I've generally thought of him as one of the great makers of SF films.

And then I saw Big Fish, which is currently in theatres. The first half is charming, though lacking in any sort of tension, but the second half -- and, in particular, the last twenty minutes or so -- is one messy ball of ghastly, saccharine goo. It's worse than Spielberg at his most manipulative and meretricious, and demonstrates utter contempt for the intelligence and imagination of the audience.

Burton and his screenwriter (John August), perhaps with the assistance of the original novel (I haven't read it), have bungled a perfectly respectable premise by smashing it beneath a sledgehammer of reality and trite moral proclamations. The central idea of a father who tells so many tall tales that his family ultima…

On Digests and Digestion

Over at s1ngularity::criticism there's been a discussion of the value or lack of value of the digest-sized SF magazines (Asimov's, Analog, and Fantasy & Science Fiction), their current blandness or excitement, etc. It started with this post from Gabe Chouinard, to which I too-quickly added a comment of "Hurray! Yes! Down with the system!" or somesuch thing, being an inveterate knee-jerk revolutionary. As I read more of the posts, I began to think more clearly about my own reservations about the digests, as well as what I like about them, which, it turns out, is quite a bit.

First, there's a certain bit of nostalgia. The digests are what brought me to SF. It was a copy of Asimov's loaned to me by my mother's boss, who thought I might like such things, that got me interested in what "science fiction" is, an interest which has continued, with occasional breaks, for nearly twenty years.

But nostalgia isn't what keeps me subscribing, de…

"Only Partly Here" by Lucius Shepard

Since I was critical of Lucius Shepard's recent "A Walk in the Garden", I thought it would only be fair to discuss a story of his which seems much more successful to me, "Only Partly Here", from the March 2003 issue of Asimov's.

What impresses me about "Only Partly Here" is how well it avoids various pitfalls which a less talented or experienced writer than Shepard would probably have fallen into. As with any story by Shepard (even the ones which don't thrill me), it's vividly written. It tells the story of Bobby, who works in the rubble of New York's Ground Zero, sifting the debris of September 11. Bobby and some of his colleagues relax each night after work at a bar where Bobby soon becomes intrigued by a woman who is also there each night. The story is of their effect on each other.

"Only Partly Here" works so well because it is not forced, not sentimental, not polemical -- not anything other than a description of two …

Who Needs Narrative?

Reading around on Ron Silliman's blog (because I tend to agree with half of what Silliman says and find the other half excellent food for thought, and because contemporary poetry fascinates me, being perhaps the most flexible of all current modes of writing), I happened upon a post which uses the new film The House of Sand and Fog for a contemplation of narrative and its usefulness, uses, uselessness. Silliman maintains, as many writers have in some form or another, that film has usurped the novel's hold on narrative the way that novels usurped narrative poetry. If we consider a desire for narrative to be a popular desire (and it certainly seems so to me), then the cinema has proved itself to be the best medium for telling stories which appeal most immediately to that desire. I don't think this means the novel should or will follow the path of oblivion which narrative poetry eventually took, however, because reading a poem and reading a novel are still acts of reading, …

Heinlein Raised from the Dead!

I haven't had much time for any sort of reading, never mind blogging, in the past few days, but I happened to be reading Nicholas Liu's blog and came upon a link to R. Robot, which has a fun little automatic blogcreator where you can type in a name and get a blog entry. For reasons unknown to me, I typed in "Robert Heinlein", and this was the entry: Robert Heinlein: low again

Robert Heinlein and his distasteful Bush-haters are at it again. 'You know, Saddam hadn't actually invaded anything for a while,' he said on Nightline. If so, then why has President Bush's call for leadership been so successful? On Good Morning America, Robert Heinlein engaged in clearly depraved treachery that most Americans found shocking. 'You know, Iraqis haven't really gotten along with Islamic fundamentalists ever since hundreds of thousands got killed fighting them in the 1980s,' were the words. Well, duh. At some point, when you look around and realize that y…

SF Writers and the Bush Plan

Wired has an article titled "Sci-Fi Scribes Like Mars Plan", which looks at how a handful of gung-ho SF writers feel about Bush's recent proclamation that the U.S. will now conquer Mars and the Moon (commentary on which I will leave to Dennis Kucinich, who said, "I have a theory why he wants to go to Mars: to find the weapons of mass destruction.")

I suppose if I were a reporter with some time on my hands, I, too, would be calling up SF writers, hoping for some pleasant words about spending billions and billions of dollars on space missions. Ben Bova, Greg Bear, John M. Ford, and Ken MacLeod don't disappoint, either. Examine national priorities? No no no -- we've got to get to Mars and the Moon! To me, they sound like Buck Rogers fans blinded by their own dreams, but that may just be a result of how the article was written.

On NPR the other day, I heard a report where a bunch of students were interviewed about Mr. Bush's plans for space, and the…

Cambell Award-eligible Authors

Since my last post was frightfully long, I went in search of something I could write a short post about, and a link from Tim Pratt provided just the thing: a magnificent website of links to authors eligible for this year's Cambell award for best new writer.

All I can say is, I'm glad I don't have to vote for it, because I couldn't possibly choose one writer from such a rich and excellent list. (Though Tim himself, having recently accepted a poem of mine for an upcoming issue of Star*Line does have my undying love and loyalty...) If you're looking for great reading from great new writers, this website is an excellent place to start.

The Myth of Characterization

SF is often derided by critics as being thin on characterization (which is not quite the same thing as saying it lacks compelling characters -- where would all those fantasy trilogies be without at least a couple such characters, and most of us can name characters from SF stories and novels who have held our imagination for some time). Writers have addressed the issue of characterization at various times, some of them, like Isaac Asimov, saying characterization doesn't need to be the central element of SF stories, while others, such as various people who got labelled as "humanists" in the '80s, have stood up for strong characterization in SF and have exhorted their fellow writers to do better.

I used to agree completely with the characterization-espousers. I thought SF writers needed to work harder to create characters the way mainstream writers do, because often what I most enjoyed in mainstream writing, I thought, was the depth of character, the sense of living a…

Are You a Sexist Reader?

Jessa at Bookslut says:The folks at Readerville are discussing the "news" that New York Times Book Review is sexist. The discussion has gotten pretty heated, and they've gone so far as to do a breakdown of how many men v. how many women are published by various publishers. The results are pretty surprising.

It's difficult for me to formulate a response as my own reading habits are pretty damn sexist, too. In fact, just a woman's name on the spine means I'm more likely to pass it up. My own inherent sexism, I suppose. (Although nothing in the world makes me pass up a book faster than a woman protagonist written by a man.)The discussion continues, with screenloads of commentary, here.

I'm wary of entering the discussion at all, because much of me thinks it's ... well, balderdash would be a good word for it.

And yet...

When I was in high school, I sent a letter (remember those?) to a friend who was finishing her doctorate, naming my favorite writers. Sh…

A Writer to Notice: Karina Sumner-Smith

I was thinking of writing something about the first issue of Flytrap, an interesting new zine very much worth some attention, when I decided I might also say some things about the thirteenth issue of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, but I needed to read that issue first. Picking it out of the vast pile of to-be-reads sitting on the floor, I noticed it contained a story by the writer of my favorite story in Flytrap, Karina Sumner-Smith, and so I read it and found it to be lovely, a haunting story, one which seems to be a kind of shadow to her Flytrap story "She is Elizabeth Lynn Rhodea", which is even more haunting, a perfectly-modulated study of loss and longing.

I wanted to know who this writer was, since her bio in both zines said little more than, "You haven't heard of me." Well, now I have, I said.

So I fired up the venerable Google and typed her name in. Found her website. Not too many publications, but a few here and there, including one at St…

Unjustly Neglected: "Dead Center" by Judith Merril

Every now and then I'm going to point toward a story (or maybe book, film, person...) which seems to have been unjustly neglected, a work which is difficult to get a copy of without haunting the dusty and cat-filled back rooms of used bookstores (my favorite is Avenue Victory Hugo in Boston), a work which should be familiar to all serious readers of SF.

There's no better place to start this series than with Judith Merril's 1953 story "Dead Center", which at this particular moment I happen to think is the most unjustly neglected SF story of all time. (Of course, tomorrow I'll probably think of another, but for now that's how I feel.) It was not always neglected -- indeed, it shares the rare distinction of being one of the few stories ever included in the Best American Short Stories series, though it also shares the distinction of being the only one of those stories not currently available in a book which is in print (for a list of such stories, see Andy …

Anthologies in Theory and Fact

The closeted formalist in me loves anthologies -- loves to see how editors arrange a bunch of disparate pieces into a whole, loves to read around in search of resonances and repercussions, loves to discover writers I haven't heard of and unknown works by writers I've long adored. I've never read an anthology cover-to-cover in order, and there are very few anthologies of which I've read every word. I should, perhaps, feel guilty for this, but I don't. Reading around, skipping and skimming, allows the book to remain fresh for me whenever I return to it, and I find myself returning to favorite anthologies far more often than to favorite novels. (There are many novels I want to reread, but few I have, because the next novel and the next and the next are always calling. And I'm a slow reader.)

I've been thinking about anthologies recently because I've just returned to skipping and skimming in three which Thomas M. Disch edited in the 1970s: The Ruins o…

Book People vs. Movie People (and Food People and people)

A post at the blog 2blowhards.com has gotten a lot of notice, and for good reason -- it's beautifully written, thoughtful, and full of interesting insights and questions. The subject is one I've written about (too much, perhaps) here, and which has been brought up recently at s1ngularity: How and why we read, and what the function of critics is. The great thing about this post is that it actually add some new ideas to an ancient discussion, and the central analogy -- between people who love books and people who love movies -- offers some great ways to think about criticism in general. There's too much good stuff in it for me to feel comfortable taking quotes out of context, so let me just point you in that direction and say it's worth your time and attention.

Genesis by Jim Crace

British writer Jim Crace doesn't often get labelled as an SF writer -- he's "unique" or "idiosyncratic", a "writer's writer". He's been nominated for various awards and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Being Dead, a brilliant novel which never quite becomes fantasy, but is certainly a kind of gently scientific fiction.

Crace's new novel, Genesis (titled Six in the U.K.), doesn't fit comfortably into the science fiction or fantasy genres, even under liberal definitions, but like most of Crace's other books, the setting is one which can't be pinned down to the "real world", and the writing gives the events a hazy, dreamlike quality. Reviewers often don't know what to do with Crace because of this -- he isn't a realist, clearly, but what is he? The only possible answer -- an obvious one, but true -- is that he is himself.

What always strikes me about Crace is how his lucid, poetic prose serve…

Innovative Fiction

Daniel Green has written a tough essay for Context titled "Empty Rhetoric: Innovative Fiction and the American Literary Magazine", which looks at how many mainstream literary journals say they want "fresh", "experimental", "innovative", and "original" work and hardly ever publish anything which fits those adjectives.

This is an interesting essay for SF readers to think about, because it shows some of the rifts within the world of mainstream, academically-accepted fiction. Context is published by the great Center for Book Culture, which includes the wondrous Dalkey Archive Press and the Review of Contemporary Fiction, both of which are devoted to publishing and thinking about innovative, experimental literature, so it's not surprising that Context would publish an article saying the current mainstream is dull and repetitive. What's surprising is how easy it is for the case to be made.

Green's essay is long and full of evid…

Writers and Theory

Matt Peckham has called for writers -- of all genres, sub-genres, and uber-genres -- to familiarize themselves with literary theory, saying [W]riters of genre-fiction have not done themselves any great favors by reactively ignoring the tools of the so-called enemy, which most critically include the entire history of theory, or the third stage in a generalized history of intellectual thought that began with ontology, metamorphosed into epistemology, and has most recently (post-Saussure) settled upon linguistics. Let me say that again but more clearly. Genre fiction writers interested in creating a theory of what they do and how they do it are missing the boat by avoiding theory and the entire history of academic thinking around the subject. For a writer to ignore theory is akin to a scientist ignoring Newton, or Gould, or Hawking. My secondary point is thus that until more (for some are already quite well-versed, and the trend is growing) writers stop making excuses to avoid theory, wh…

What Shall It Be?

Traffic to this site has increased substantially over the last week or so, much to my surprise and (frightened) pleasure. It's made me decide to put a bit more time and attention into the blog, and I'm thinking of where to go from here. I like simplicity, and the Net is filled with plenty of intelligent people doing and saying interesting, intelligent things (and plenty not, of course), so I'd like to try not to be redundant. There is one major limitation: my life is incredibly busy, and therefore I don't think it's realistic for this to be a site which gets daily updates. I'd prefer to write thoughtful posts rather than lots of posts which are created only to keep the content fresh.

I'm thinking of moving the site to my own domain and using Moveable Type to allow it to be more flexible, but I'm debating whether it's worth the time, or whether I should just spend a little bit of time designing the current Blogger site more carefully. Not being …

2003 SFWA Nebula Awards Preliminary Ballot

The 2003 SFWA Nebula Awards Preliminary Ballot is out, and it's a bit strange. Cheryl Morgan has some comments about it, and Mark Kelly compares the novel list to Locus's recommended reading list.

The rules for eligibility seem clear, but the works chosen come from both 2003 and 2002, which perplexes me a bit. I'm not very familiar with Nebula ballots or eligibility, so I may be missing something...

But why why why isn't something such as James Patrick Kelly's "Bernardo's House" included? Yes, I'm biased -- I've known Jim for years -- but "Bernardo's House" is, even accounting for bias, one of his best stories, and therefore one of the best stories of the year, if not one of the best stories to be published in an SF magazine in the past ten years.

It's not that the list is bad -- there are a bunch of good stories out there -- it's just that it's weird. And weird in a way general awards shouldn't be: it's n…

Genre Fiction Don't Get No Respect

I happened to be looking at some old (well, old in Internet time, which means more than 24 hours old) postings on Terry Teachout's weblog, and discovered something he'd written about Stephen King at the National Book Awards ceremony:[King] said (repeatedly) that he didn't write for money, that genre fiction deserved to be taken seriously, and that the judges of the National Book Awards had an obligation to read the best-selling books that are shaping American popular culture (I'm paraphrasing from memory, but that was the gist of his complaint). 'Bridges can be built between the so-called popular fiction and literary fiction,' he declared, and to that end he supplied us with a long reading list of popular novelists whom he commended to our attention, among them Elmore Leonard and John Grisham. (He also mentioned Patrick O'Brian.)Teachout follows this up with a later post in which he writes:But while the noir novelists scarcely deserve to be ranked among Ame…

The Ratbastards

"A DIY attitude in publishing, combined with a network of like minded zineish SF and cross-genre publications, small presses, and bigshots sympathetic to progressing the art, can provide a framework of longstanding health in a community of freaks. "
--Alan DeNiro, Ratbastard


Intrigued by Alan DeNiro's manifesto and the Ratbastards website, I ordered their two chapbooks, read one story ("The Blue Egg" by Christopher Barzak), which I thought was beautiful and elegant and poignant and ... well, a damn fine story.

And then the two chapbooks sat on my coffee table for a couple of months.

What was my problem? Fear of good fiction?

Well, in any case, I have since read them both cover-to-cover, and can say that if you want to read great stories by new authors, read these books. You get a heck of a lot more bang for your buck with these two chapbooks than you do with any of the magazines in the SF field (at least with recent issues of the major magazines, whose names…