The OF Blog: April 2008

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Saracen Pig! Spartan Dog!

Saracen pig! Spartan dog! Take this! And this! Roman cow! Russian snake! Spanish fly! Anglo-Saxon Hun! - Phil Moscowitz, What's Up, Tiger Lily?
Sometimes, I just feel the urge to scream that at somebody being obtuse, or at myself for being caught up in the obtuseness, or at the cringing, sniveling lurker who snickers maniacally while watching the online discussion version of a hot oil lingerie wrestling match. But other times I feel like chuckling and shaking my head over things like this, which is in reaction to this, which of course refers back to this, which probably can trace the source of its begettings from here to Timbuktu and to the Heaven's Gate cult.

I probably should be ashamed of myself for not being all that serious in my contributions to the circle jerk-like rounds of "Hey! Let's press so-and-so's buttons here and watch them jump!" Then again, perhaps it's the most appropriate response, not taking much, if any, of such things seriously and instead sitting back and being bemused by those working themselves up to a lather, as if they have something "important" to "defend."

Perhaps much of this is due to a long-standing simmering division of sorts into "populist" and "elitist" groups. One smells of shit, the other disdains the very notion of a shit smell. One reads books whose plots are light of air, the other reads books whose pages are as light as air compared to the ponderous tomes of the former. One likes to make presumptions about things without evidence, the other likes to make presumptions about things without evi...wait just a damn moment, here! That can't be right!

Maybe it is, maybe it ain't, maybe it's somewhere in no-man's land. Regardless, there doubtless will be numerous foot soldiers for whatever perceived side that pops up next yelling out things such as "Saracen pig!" or "Spartan dog!", while they charge willy-nilly, foaming at the mouths, into the next "great argument." Hopefully, the next one will be over whether the (anti)heroes/heroines wear boxers or briefs. It is a burning question of mine!

Beginning to Zafón's El juego del Ángel

I found this opening paragraph to be quite attention-grabbing (and roughly 1/5 in, it fits what appearing to follow after quite well):

Un escritor nunca olvida la primera vez que acepta unas monedas o un elogio a cambio de una historia. Nunca olvida la primera vez que siente el dulce veneno de la vanidad en la sangre y cree que, si consigue que nadie descubra su falta de talento, el sueño de la literatura será capaz de poner techo sobre su cabeza, un plato caliente al final del día y lo que más anhela: su nombre impreso en un miserable pedazo de papel que seguramente vivirá más que él. Un escritor está condenado a recordar ese momento, porque para entonces ya está perdido y su alma tiene precio.

Or in my rough English translation:

A writer never forgets the first time that he accepts some money or praise in exchange for a story. He never forgets the first time that he feels the sweet venom of vanity in his blood and he believes that, if he manages that no one discovers his lack of talent, the literary dream will be capable of placing a roof over his head, a hot plate for the end of the day and his deepest yearning: his name impressed on a miserable piece of paper which surely will survive longer than he. A writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is lost and his soul has a price.
If The Shadow of the Wind dealt more with the perils (among other things) of the reader, El juego del Ángel perhaps will capture the attentions of those who write even more than those who read. So far, the story is entertaining and occasionally thought provoking. More later, elsewhere.

Richard Morgan's Black Man (Thirteen) wins the Clarke Award

Just found out about this. A bit more is to be found on Eve's Alexandria. Apparently this was just passed on via text message from the reception itself about an hour or two ago, so doubtless there'll be more later, both there and elsewhere.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A special April 29th book porn entry

This arrived in my mail today. It is the bound galley proof for Carlos Ruiz Zafón's latest novel, El juego del Ángel, which goes on sale on May 13th in the US. While I plan on having a Spanish-language reseña here, I received this ARC because I agreed to review it elsewhere for posting on the 13th. It is a monster at 667 large font pages bound in an 8.5" x 11" format, so it'll probably take me a few days of careful reading to jot down all the necessary notes and to do the translations and re-translations. Needless to say, I am curious to see how this will stack up next to Zafón's previous novel, La sombra del viento (The Shadow of the Wind), which I felt was on the cusp of becoming something truly special before settling for merely quite good. But more on this later. The Cemetery of Lost Books awaits.

Hal Duncan on Pretentiousness

Although it's really late for me and I'll have to wait until the evening to comment at length here and over there, Hal Duncan takes a post of mine from last week and riffs on it, with quite a few conclusions that I can agree with wholeheartedly. At the risk of distorting and overly simplifying his arguments, are not those who cry "pretentious!" at others at risk for self-labelling themselves as "hey, I'm this here dumbfuck who jus' don't git it, ya hear?" After all, the "elitist" accusation can bear amusing unintended consequences if one wants to push it a bit further. I know I have never desired to be mediocre or to "be one in a crowd," as it would seem the opposite of "elitist" would indicate. Best for me to be "out of touch" with that which would suck in my opinion than to embrace a rube's false egalitarianism. But it's almost 1:30 AM here and I fear I'll just ramble on. Feel free to respond, deride, cajole, etc., as I'll try to respond more coherently and less sarcastically in the evening. But do read Hal's article closely, as it brings up quite a few points well worth considering.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Upcoming plans

I've been rather quiet on the review front the past couple of weeks, but expect a few reviews in the coming weeks, including at least one and probably two that will be links only. Also, if things fall according to plan, there might be a Spanish-language review of a highly-anticipated release as well (don't worry, there'll be a link to the English-language version if I have the time to pull these off).

In addition, there are a few books that I want to comment at length here and perhaps I'll do so in a more relaxed, less formal format. These include Toby Barlow's Sharp Teeth, a dual review of Isamu Fukui's Truancy and Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, as well as a look at Scott Bakker's upcoming Neuropath, which I first read as an electronic draft over two years ago. And if I'm lucky, I'll have some comments on Michael Chabon's Nebula-winning The Yiddish Policemen's Union as well as a brief look at the Clarke Award finalists that I will have read by next week (Steven Hall, Ken MacLeod, and perhaps Sarah Hall).

Plus there'll doubtless be a few capsule reviews and commentaries and maybe a few surprises as well. Oh, and that giveaway I was contemplating...I'll start that next week, I hope (or whenever my refund deposit is made).

But in the meantime, let me just reiterate a prior conclusion of mine: Italo Calvino is a damn fine novelist and satirist and reading his The Nonexistent Knight/The Cloven Viscount after reading Ariosto's Orlando Furioso the week before was just serendipitous in its timing. I cannot recommend this book high enough, especially for those who are burned out on the hero spake this and/or slew that. Good shit, that.

Also, I am currently reading Isabel Allende's memoirs, La suma de los días, and her mixture of brutal honesty in the face of familial stress and storytelling ability is making for a read that is near the equal of her finest novels. It was just released in English earlier this week as The Sum of Our Days and I highly recommend this to those who are fans of her writing or those who are curious to know more about this wonderful author. I'm aiming to finish it tonight, so time to hit Publish Post and go do just that.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Nebula Award winners announced

Taken from Science Fiction Awards Watch:

  • Novel: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union - Michael Chabon (HarperCollins, May07)
  • Novella: “Fountain of Age” - Nancy Kress (Asimov’s, Jul07)
  • Novelette: “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” - Ted Chiang (F&SF, Sep07)
  • Short Story: “Always” - Karen Joy Fowler (Asimov’s, Apr/May07)
  • Script: Pan’s Labyrinth - Guillermo del Toro (Time/Warner, Jan07)
  • Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - J. K. Rowling (Scholastic Press, Jul07)
Read the Chabon a week ago and I really, really enjoyed it. Out of the three finalists that I read (it and Hopkinson and Buckell's entries), this probably would have received my vote. Will try to read the other winners later this year, with the exception of the Harry Potter book, which I read back in 2007.


I was browsing through a few sites this evening, when I read this about the 2008 Premio Minotauro, awarded back in early February to Uruguayan author Federico Fernández Giordano, who won for his story El libro de Nobac:

El escritor uruguayo Federico Fernández Giordano ha ganado hoy el V Premio Minotauro de Ciencia Ficción y Literatura Fantástica, dotado con 18.000 euros, con la obra "El libro de Nobac", que rinde homenaje a Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares y Edgar Allan Poe.

El jurado, que ha dado a conocer su fallo esta noche, ha estado formado por Fernando Delgado, Juan Eslava Galán, Laura Falcó Lara, Pere Matesanz, Olga Rubio, Ángela Vallvey, José López Jara -en calidad de secretario sin voto- y Clara Tahoces, ganadora de la edición del año pasado.

Los miembros del jurado han resaltado la riqueza estilística, la originalidad y la frescura de la obra de Fernández Giordano, además de destacar la alta calidad literaria de las cuatro obras finalistas.

En "El libro de Nobac", un misterioso anciano contrata los servicios del escritor de encargo Edgar Pym y de la periodista Lisa Lynch para que dejen constancia de un prodigioso libro, en el que de un modo enigmático, ajeno a todo postulado racional, se va narrando su propia vida, día tras día.

Desentrañar las claves de ese libro supondrá asimismo seguir la pista del profesor Nobac, un excéntrico científico desaparecido años atrás en extrañas circunstancias.

El escritor y la periodista se convertirán en actores principales de un peligroso rompecabezas, una galería de espejos que los atrapará poco a poco hasta extraviarlos en una siniestra trama urdida en torno a ellos y en la que nada es lo que parece ser.

La obra propone un misterio laberíntico donde la memoria y el tiempo recomponen la realidad y la ficción para, mediante movimientos siempre imprevisibles, diseccionar los entresijos de la fatalidad.

Fernández Giordano, nacido en Uruguay, pero residente en Barcelona desde edad muy temprana, se dedica a la literatura y la música.
Bioy Casares, Borges, and Poe as influences? That alone intrigued me enough to do a search on Amazon, Alibris, and ABEbooks. Not a single US dealer has the book. I'd have to import from Spain, it seems. $30 (due to the shitty dollar these days) for the book, but an additional $28 for importing it. Gah! I guess I'll just have to use some of that "stimulus" money coming in the next few weeks to buy both that and Goran Petrovic's Atlas descrito por el cielo (which I can't find for under $90 in the US) and perhaps Andrzej Sapkowski's La espada del destino. I live in one of the largest book buying markets in the world and yet it's still so frustrating when I want to read books in the original or Spanish translations (when they aren't available in English translation) and I have to consider spending $50+ on just the shipping costs! Grr....

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Two Girls One Cup, Reactions, Pop Culture and Literature

This post began as a dare of sorts made by Felix Gilman regarding a joking comment of mine in one of his posts, but as I thought about it, I thought I'd make a few brief observations about cultural expectations and how these might apply to SF to some degree.

I did not provide the actual video to "Two Girls One Cup," because coprophagia does not appeal to me at all. But after having endured being "rickrolled" into seeing Tub Girl and the goatse guy in years past, from the sounds of things this is the next, "logical" step in shock material. It seems the reader/viewer must want more and more explicit "nasty" stuff to view. Eschewing the moral/immoral argument, as I believe that would provide a false dichotomy here, I am interested in how developments such as Two Girls One Cup and the spate of "reaction videos" (there are literally dozens, if not hundreds of videos, on YouTube right now focusing just on how grannies react to this video) might be related to other trends, including those of writing styles in SF.

In the United States, sex and anything revolving around bodily functions and excretions is in turns both revolting and appealing. The fact that we such a schizo-like reaction to this, one moment condemning the violation of "standards" and the next watching with avid glee the transgressions of such "standards," is a fascinating field of study for sociologists and cultural historians. But that is a topic for another time and place. Violence, however, is part of the equation that is only discussed part of the time. What is it about the need to show things that violate our expectations, that transgress our "moral standards," that make us peel back the curtains to delve even further into matters of sex/transgression/violence?

Sickening as videos such as "Two Girls One Cup" may be (again, I refuse to watch the actual video, since I have no desire to see the described action play out before my eyes), are they not but extensions of other developments in our cultural lives? One may argue that there is little difference in substance between such a "shock" video and that of a "shock jock" radio show from 10-20 years ago; merely shadings of content, nothing else. Or what about "everyman" shows such as Survivor or Big Brother that show in full detail the machinations that drive so much of human power struggles? Are they not but just more visible manifestations of our inmost desires and cravings?

These are difficult questions to confront, but perhaps rather easy to formulate. What is it about many cultures today that has led to such a desire to peel back the protective layers and to shove all sorts of explicit (in the sense of it being raw and not covered with euphemisms) material in our faces? Have the days of the staggering shot man in the black hat falling down without anything more than a bullet hole in the clothing over? Do we have to dig further and further into what makes us react, what makes us want to vomit, shudder, or to engage in the flight or fight response in order to be entertained?

It is interesting to see how more and more there are books in a variety of genres, including epic fantasy, that seem to be peeling back those protective layers, all in the name of being "gritty." While I reject this term as being rather misused on the whole, what is it about having to show the violence, the sex, the neurotic and psychotic moments that makes for a "better," more "gripping" story than those that shroud these moments in allusion?

I am not a conservative at heart, at least not politically. But neither am I one who finds this (to me) puerile interest in the transgressions of sex and violence to be appealing or even all that interesting. I cannot help but to wonder where this ever more explicit focus is heading. Are we going to see elements of the most extreme "splatterpunk" become not a trangression that serves to reinforce our "right" to be repulsed, but instead just another part of everyday life? And if so, will we see a corresponding development in literature of all stripes to incorporate such directness in its prose? Shall be interesting to watch and see, perhaps with the same mixture of reactions as that grandmother in that "reaction" video embedded below.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Book Porn: Crossgenre Purchases

Having a bit more money than I expected at this point in the month and with payday next week, I decided to drive into town and go to the local Davis-Kidd and look for some interesting books that may or may not have been shelved as "Fantasy and Science Fiction," but which would meet many of the criteria. What I decided on ultimately were these six books, some of which I have meant to buy for a long time.

The first book was an anthology of Russian fantasy and SF from the 18th to 20th century, edited by Alexander Levitsky, called Worlds Apart: An Anthology of Russian Fantasy and Science Fiction. That was the only one of these books that I found in the SFF section. Next I picked up the Spanish-language edition of Chilean author Isabel Allende's memoirs, called La suma de los días, that was published in Spain last year and which recently was released in the United States. Then came Italo Calvino's The Nonexistent Knight/The Cloven Viscount, which I see I forgot to photograph, instead repeating Keven Brockmeier's The Brief History of the Dead. I picked up this book in part due to remembering he not only had a story in last year's Best American Fantasy but also he will be the guest editor for Best American Fantasy 3 next year. Then I selected a slim volume of Angela Carter's short fiction, called The Bloody Chamber, followed by finally getting around to owning a copy of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland/Through the Looking-Glass. Some things only increase in importance as one ages and this is one of those stories.

Should be receiving more books in the next few days, including a book that is one of my most highly-anticipated upcoming releases, but more on that in the coming weeks.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Locus Award Finalists...and my thoughts on the ones I've read

Here are the just-announced Locus Award finalists, with winners to be announced later:

The Accidental Time Machine, Joe Haldeman (Ace) - Haven't read
Brasyl, Ian McDonald (Pyr) - read, will review in a few weeks, really enjoyed it.
Halting State, Charles Stross (Ace; Orbit UK) - haven't read
Spook Country, William Gibson (Putnam; Viking UK) - haven't read
The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Michael Chabon (HarperCollins) - read, will review in a few weeks, thought this or the McDonald are deserving of awards.
Endless Things, John Crowley (Small Beer Press; Overlook) - have, but will not be reading for a month or two longer, expecting quite a lot due to past successes in the Ægypt cycle.
Making Money, Terry Pratchett (Doubleday UK; HarperCollins) - haven't read
Pirate Freedom, Gene Wolfe (Tor) - read, reviewed last year, thought it was one of the best of 2007
Territory, Emma Bull (Tor) - see what I said above about the Wolfe book
Ysabel, Guy Gavriel Kay (Viking Canada; Roc) - haven't read
Extras, Scott Westerfeld (Simon Pulse; Simon & Schuster UK) - haven't read
The H-Bomb Girl, Stephen Baxter (Faber & Faber) - haven't read
Magic's Child, Justine Larbalestier (Razorbill) - haven't read
Powers, Ursula K. Le Guin (Harcourt; Gollancz) - haven't read
Un Lun Dun, China Miéville (Ballantine Del Rey; Macmillan UK) - read, reviewed last year, enjoyed it
City of Bones, Cassandra Clare (Simon & Schuster/McElderry) - haven't read
Flora Segunda, Ysabeau S. Wilce (Harcourt) - haven't read
Heart-Shaped Box, Joe Hill (Morrow; Gollancz) - haven't read
The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss (DAW; Gollancz) - read, reviewed it elsewhere last year, thought it was decent to good first effort
One for Sorrow, Christopher Barzak (Bantam Spectra) - read, reviewed it here back in January, really enjoyed it and I hope it wins here, like it did with the Crawford Award
"After the Siege", Cory Doctorow (The Infinite Matrix Jan 2007) - haven't read
"All Seated on the Ground", Connie Willis (Asimov's Dec 2007) - haven't read
"Memorare", Gene Wolfe (F&SF Apr 2007) - haven't read, awaiting the Wyrm limited-edition
"Muse of Fire", Dan Simmons (The New Space Opera) - haven't read
"Stars Seen through Stone", Lucius Shepard (F&SF Jul 2007) - haven't read
"Dark Integers", Greg Egan (Asimov's Oct/Nov 2007) - haven't read
"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate", Ted Chiang (F&SF Sep 2007) - haven't read, will buy the limited-edition later, perhaps
"Trunk and Disorderly", Charles Stross (Asimov's Jan 2007) - haven't read
"We Never Talk About My Brother", Peter S. Beagle (Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show Jun 2007) - haven't read
"The Witch's Headstone", Neil Gaiman (Wizards) - read it last year, didn't review the anthology in which it appeared, thought it was a decent effort from Gaiman, but far from his best
"The Last and Only, or, Mr. Moscowitz Becomes French", Peter S. Beagle (Eclipse One) - haven't read
"Last Contact", Stephen Baxter (The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction) - haven't read
"A Small Room in Koboldtown", Michael Swanwick (Asimov's Apr/May 2007) - haven't read
"Tideline", Elizabeth Bear (Asimov's Apr/May 2007) - haven't read
"Who's Afraid of Wolf 359?", Ken MacLeod (The New Space Opera) - haven't read
The Dog Said Bow-Wow, Michael Swanwick (Tachyon) - haven't read
The Jack Vance Treasury, Jack Vance (Subterranean) - haven't read
Overclocked, Cory Doctorow (Thunder's Mouth) - haven't read
Things Will Never Be the Same, Howard Waldrop (Old Earth) - haven't read
The Winds of Marble Arch and Other Stories, Connie Willis (Subterranean) - haven't read
The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Kelly Link & Gavin J. Grant, eds. (Ballantine Del Rey) - read last year, didn't review it, but ranked it as being a very solid anthology in my Best of 2007 post on New Year's Eve
The Coyote Road, Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling, eds. (Viking) - haven't read
The New Space Opera, Gardner Dozois & Jonathan Strahan, eds. (Eos) - haven't read
The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror 2007: Twentieth Annual Collection, Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link & Gavin J. Grant, ed. (St. Martin's) - haven't read
The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fourth Annual Collection, Gardner Dozois, ed. (St. Martin's) - haven't read
Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, Jeff Prucher, ed. (Oxford University Press) - haven't read
Breakfast in the Ruins, Barry N. Malzberg (Baen) - haven't read
The Country You Have Never Seen, Joanna Russ (Liverpool University Press) - haven't read
Gateways to Forever: The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1970 to 1980, Mike Ashley (Liverpool University Press) - haven't read
Shadows of the New Sun: Wolfe on Writing/Writers on Wolfe, Peter Wright (Liverpool University Press) - haven't read, but am strongly tempted to buy, considering the subject matter
The Arrival, Shaun Tan (Lothian 2006; Scholastic) - read it last year, reviewed it, it was the overall #1 Book of the Year for me last year. Fantastic illustrations and story told without words. Hope this one wins!
Dreamscape: The Best of Imaginary Realism, Claus Brusen & Marcel Salome, eds. (SalBru) - haven't read
Emshwiller: Infinity x Two, Luis Ortiz, ed. (Nonstop Press) - haven't read
Mervyn Peake: The Man and His Art, compiled by Sebastian Peake & Alison Eldred, edited by G. Peter Winnington (Peter Owen) - haven't read
Spectrum 14: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art, Cathy Fenner & Arnie Fenner, eds. (Underwood) - haven't read
Ellen Datlow
Gardner Dozois
David G. Hartwell
Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Gordon Van Gelder
Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet
Bantam Spectra
Night Shade Books
Subterranean Press
Stephan Martiniere
John Picacio
Shaun Tan
Charles Vess
Michael Whelan

Lots of "haven't reads," unfortunately, but much of that is due to me not reading the mags anymore, even if I do like more short fiction than my responses above might indicate. On the whole, not a bad list at all. The usual quibbles about the usual suspects, but I like the novel lists better than either the Nebula or Hugo shortlists. Solid but not spectacular set of finalists here.

SF Signal article on Underrated Authors and my own picks

SF Signal has an interesting Mind Meld piece today where industry people give their selections as to which authors, living and dead alike, deserve more praise. So without (consciously) cribbing off of theirs, here are a few that I'd add to that list, even if some might be barely genre at all:

Edward Whittemore (Quin's Shanghai Circus; The Jerusalem Quartet) - American author never sold more than 10K first edition copies of any of his releases and yet 13 years after his death in 1995, his work still resonates with those fortunate few who have sought out his work. Of course, since there are some in the genre who laud him quite a bit, perhaps this is more of a selection for the casual reader to consider.

Richard Parks (short fiction writer) - While I know he's won a few awards for his short stories, I just don't hear his name mentioned often enough. I loved his 2007 collection Worshiping Small Gods, thinking it was the best single-author collection that I read last year and I believe he deserves a bit more consideration.

Milorad Pavić (The Dictionary of the Khazars; other novels) -This Serbian author never tells the same tale twice, nor does he have his books appear in the same format either, as he utilizes various formats (dictionary, tarot cards, etc.) to make the book itself part of the story. Very inventive, but yet gets barely any mentions these days in genre circles.

Han Shaogong (A Dictionary of Macqiao) - Chinese writer who, like Pavić, uses a dictionary/encyclopedia format to tell of a place in which one's very understanding of time and place in rural China depended upon how words were used. Very moving story told within and behind these "entries."

Angélica Gorodischer (Kalpa Imperial) - Argentine writer whose imagined empire contains such a depth of human emotion that it took another writer with a similar range of interests/stories, Ursula Le Guin, to translate this moving series of tales into English so at least a few more people could read it.

Juan Rulfo (Pedro Páramo y El llano en llamas) - Mexican writer of the 1950s whose hallucinogenic first novel contained the germ of the realismo mágico style that became so popular in Latin America and then later in other parts of the world in the 1960s and 1970s. But yet Rulfo never gets the acclaim that a García Márquez or a Fuentes receives.

For once, I'll stop at an even number and let people comment on these and/or add their own to this list. After all, the more an author's name is spoken, the less likely his/her works will fade permanently into obscurity.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Regarding Richard Morgan's recent rant

Since I have little better to do with my time (besides finishing revisions on one review and waiting for the Lakers game tonight), I thought I'd respond to some of Richard Morgan's criticisms revolving around past criticisms that in turn criticize certain criticisms involving critiques, complaints, bitching, and/or moaning and groaning and the almost-prerequisite gnashing of teeth over the state of SF with, what else!, but some criticisms of my own, because we know that this is what any fine, upstanding SF reader/fan/critic lives for, the right to criticize and to write ourselves to a point of feeling good about ourselves at the end of a day that was dreary, pondering ourselves to weak and weary, perhaps over a many curious volumes of forgotten (critique) lore...or some shit like that. On with the expected horse and pony show:

I think Morgan starts off strong, noting in his own way pretty much what I said above, that SFFdom has almost created a fetish out of arguing matters of point. While some of you might have BDSM imagery dancing in your heads, I'm going to be wondering what in the hell Morgan thought he'd be adding after his "five years of reading [this crap-ed.]." More of the same?

But then, finally, at Eastercon 2006, things came to a head; one panel title in particular leapt out of the Glasgow Concussion programme at me, and I realized -- oh, for fuck's sake!!! -- that I'd really, really had it with this shit.

Won't Get Fooled Again, the item in question declaimed. Why don't we just completely trash the whole tired SF genre and try to take the discourse somewhere genuinely new?

What the hell is wrong with us?

Instead of having that program quoting The Who, perhaps Morgan would rather have had the first lines of Allan Ginsberg's "Howl" quoted, the bit about "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness"? Because in a sense, that seems to be what's bothering him, this thought that this is just insanity. Then he continues by noting a difference with another genre group, the crime fiction writers:

Here's a funny thing. Skip across the tracks to the world of crime fiction for a while, and you don't see this shit going on. You don't get this gnawing, mutilative thread of self-hatred, this bulemic purging of whole sub-genres or readership sub-sections as somehow unworthy. A quick trawl through a couple of dozen crime writer websites and messageboards reveals no agendas or dogme-style utterances, no towering rages or griping about how the genre's going to shit these days, how there's all this generic pap being published, how this strain of crime writing is so much more valid than this other strain, how maybe we shouldn't even be reading or writing crime fiction at all, how we need to Get Back to Basics, or Rip it Up and Start Again, or any other misbegotten Year Zero bullshit.

Go on, see for yourselves -- it just ain't there.

Of course, I'm finding myself asking "since when did crime fiction writers ever really have a symbiotic - parasitic? - relationship with its fans?" I dunno, was there a time when there were as many organized fan conventions for crime fiction as there have been for SF? Has there been anywhere near as much diversity in the crime fiction genre has there have been in all the flavors of SF and Fantasy? How many existentialist crises were caused by the hunt for the perpetrator? I just am not convinced that this is a solid comparison point, since one would have to accept as a fait accompli that SF and Fantasy are really homogeneous entities with a fairly well-understood impetus for crafting such stories. Color me unconvinced that this is the case.

Well, Ali and I batted that one back and forth for quite a while. Where does this rather less cannibalistic attitude come from? Is it maybe because there's a bigger pie to share in crime fiction, more readers, more dosh, and so a lot less anxiety about why >not enough people are buying my stuff, goddamnit, why don't they appreciate what I'm doing with the genre? Is it because, aside from the money, there's relatively more respectability in being a crime writer than in writing SF and Fantasy? Or is it perhaps that the line between reader and writer isn't as blurred in crime writing, that comparatively few of the crime readership are themselves aspiring to write what they read, so the genre lacks the bitchy that should be me up there dynamic? Is it because crime readers are older on average, or less demanding, or less transgressive, or maybe just less bloody-minded? Is it the readers, or the writers, or both (or neither)? And back on this side of the fence, is it just a few malcontent bad apples in the SF barrel, or is it something endemic to the form? Is it maybe just down to an overdeveloped literary ghetto grievance and a lack of self-esteem?
Nice questions, albeit ones asked along the tangential path being blazed by this point. While certainly there is some cause to wonder if certain authors (or unpublished/obscure ones in many cases) might meet much of this, I can't help but to believe that Morgan isn't really addressing the root causes here, especially that of there being such a fractured sense of what "the genre" really is.

But instead of addressing this potential departure point for exploring why such vehement disagreements come about, Morgan begins to lay it on thick with the Kumbayahisms:

At this point, you might be forgiven for asking the question So What? So there's a lot of bitching, lekking and squabbling in SF and Fantasy. So it's a cannibalistic, malcontent genre. So who cares?

I care.

Because it seems to me rather a shame that right here and now, in the form of fiction that's most fit to explore the twenty first century, at a time when our newer, sister media -- movies, TV, video games -- are replete with the genre's well-worn furniture, we still can't seem to get our fucking act together, find some faith in ourselves and just go do our thing. So you want to write Mundane SF. Good idea -- go away and do it; if Geoff Ryman's Air is anything to go by, something resembling Mundane SF might -- eventually -- win the genre its first Booker prize. But why the crushing need to denigrate the space opera end of SF before you start? What's with the superior attitude? Oh, and you guys -- before you start looking all smug 'n' shit behind this -- so you lot don't want to write (or read) mundane SF. Fine -- don't. But is it so terribly threatening when someone else does, that you have to vomit up this ocean of rage and abuse, as if the Mundanistas had come out suggesting re-education camps for the Star Trek fanbase. Is the Mundane manifesto really such an affront that established authors (who really should know better) and fans alike have to start hurling abuse around like they're a street gang and someone said something dirty about their mothers?

And while we're at it, all you self-professed New Weirdsters - did nailing your New Weird colours to the mast five years ago really have to mean such an avowed and out loud contempt for all that painstakingly imagined (and yes, mapped!) "consolatory" fantasy and those who like to immerse themselves in it? Was that the only way the manifesto could stand -- in fake-defiant from-the-barricades revolution-chic opposition to something else? Did there -- does there always -- have to be an enemy? Do we have to hate before we can get passionate about what we're doing? Or was it just a sneaking suspicion that those "consolatory" guys were going to steal readership share?

Which, of course, they inevitably will do. "Consolatory" fantasy does well. So does "consolatory" Space Opera. People like it, and so, not unreasonably, they buy it by the ton. Of course, it's become customary in genre debates to sneer and blame this sort of thing on marketing -- as if without the marketing departments, Terry Brooks fans would suddenly be marching en masse into Barnes and Noble and demanding a reprint of In Viriconium; as if marketing is what prevents the readers of Star Wars tie-in novels from developing a passion for Stanislaw Lem. I mean, come on, guys, get real -- enough of the false consciousness rap, already. People know what they like (and, yes, sadly, they tend to like what they know). And a large number of such people within the SF&F readership like straightforward, by-the-numbers story-telling with a lot of sensawunda, heroes who achieve their goals, bad guys who go down hard, and a solid happy ending. In this, they are no different than the reading (or indeed TV, or cinema-going) public in general. Marketing is simply a system for shifting product to that public in as large quantities as possible. And I never met an author yet who didn't want their books to sell in large quantities.

All nice and warm in one bit, all in-your-face,-motherfucker the next. But while to a degree I agree with the sentiment, I still believe that Morgan fails to address what's occurring here. Is it really a unified umbrella approach going on here? Or is it rather a barely-communicating loose set of confederations that has taken place over the years, each with vaguely-defined boundaries that need to be hashed out before much can occur? And as for the bit about the New Weird, I still am waiting for that "manifesto," considering one of the points of the recent The New Weird anthology was that it was far from an easily-defined "movement" at all during its tenuous "genesis" and dissemination. Sorry, but I'm just not buying this part of your argument right now, Mr. Morgan. As much as I want to agree with you about how there are readers that have defined tastes, there seems to be too much of a flow between these groups (look at my reviews over the past year here and the books I mention in passing, for example; hardly the sign of a homogeneous reading taste) for there to be that much justification for the criticisms leveled at the groups named in those passages.

So. This is the landscape around us, and we all know what it looks like. What we need to do is stop qvetching about the terrain, and just decide where we're going to pitch our bloody tents. Ian McEwan argues (obliquely, through conversation and event in The Child in Time) that good writers write for themselves, and I think probably that's true; certainly I try never to write for anybody else. But writing for yourself does carry an opportunity cost. If you're lucky, your self shares tastes with enough other people that your books are going to sell well; you can hand your finished product over to the marketing guys, and they'll run with it. As Neal Asher once remarked to me, I don't mind doing the crowd-pleasing stuff because most of the time what pleases the crowd also pleases me. But if that particular piece of serendipity doesn't happen for you, then you're simply going to have to make a choice. Want to make a shit-load of money? Want to make the bestseller lists? Then get on and write a three brick fantasy trilogy about a good hearted farm-boy who becomes a wizard or a warrior (or a space pilot) and defeats an evil empire. Want to write grim and gloomy portraits of emotional decay in unemployed, divorced or otherwise alienated Londoners who may -- or may not! -- have come from an ever so faintly different parallel universe? Prepare to keep your day job for some time to come.

Or, of course, you could reduce that parallel universe angle to such homeopathic dosage that it can be safely interpreted by mainstream critics as wholly illusory, in which case you can then make your genre-break escape bid. And the best of luck to you, if you do. Sincerely. There's gold in them thar TLS pages, and why shouldn't you have some of it? You might be the next Jonathan Lethem or David Mitchell in the making. But watch out -- don't allow even the whisper that you might be writing SF or Fantasy, because in the mainstream, that kind of thing still goes down about as well as lap dancers at a wedding. Sad fact, but an enduring one. The bulk of mainstreamers (and mainstream critics) are no different in this to the bulk of any other readership, including our own. They also know what they like, and like what they know. (And generally, they don't know or like SF&F very much). Yes, they are partisan and small "c" conservative and subject to prejudice, just like the rest of us. Big surprise.

Damn, I hoping for something other than more of the same, tired two paths. Can't one just be themselves within the genre without either conforming to some perceived "model" or some "genre-escaping" alternate? The fact that Morgan uses "mainstream" here in an almost pejorative sense makes me wonder why he bothered with the above, since it seems that unwittingly he has many of the same attitudes regarding this so-called "mainstream" and "mainstream critics" as those of many others that have preceded him on the Bitch Trail. For whatever reason, I get this bad image of a segregationist railing against the evils of racism when I read such comments that seem to validate (or at least encourage) this notion of a division between "Genre" and "Mainstream," with literary miscegenation being almost abhorrent for a great many of them. Irritating, that thought. Hope that isn't close to the heart of the matter here.

And now for the closing arguments:

I guess in the end what I'm saying is that it's about growing up. Not growing up in the sense of writing or reading "grown up" literature (whatever that actually is), or pretending -- on some Eastercon panel or messageboard somewhere -- to cast off a specious immaturity of prior literary taste in favour of more weighty and worthwhile prose. No, I'm talking about growing up in the sense of seeing both the genre and the wider world in the way they are instead of the way we'd like them to be. I'm talking about making conscious choices in what we write, and then taking responsibility for those choices, instead of railing against some crudely confected other that's spoiling everything for us. This is, above all, about getting a sense of perspective on what we do for a living, about accepting our genre as a whole, the way the crime guys accept theirs; accepting it has facets and seeing them that way, instead of constantly turning them into factions; accepting that just because you don't get off on a particular strain of SF&F, doesn't mean other people don't, can't or shouldn't. This is about accepting, as Iain Banks once said, that when all is said and done, we are all a part of the entertainment industry.

Is that so terrible to admit? It shouldn't be. Entertainment looks set to become the major industry of the twenty first century. It seeps into everything we are and do; it's as powerful a globalizing force as anything else in play right now. Not a bad place to be working, really. All we have to do is keep our perspective; shrug off that pitifully self-important delusion that we're locked in some sort of titanic struggle for the cultural soul of humanity against hostile elites or witless hordes or evil marketing empires. Let's save that kind of hyperbole for (some of) our fiction. Let's get a fucking life, people, let's get over ourselves and start enjoying this ride for its own sake -- rather than constantly glowering around with militant disapproval at our fellow passengers further down the car, all on account of what they're reading.
Enough bile. Gentlemen and ladies -- let's go to work.

For a writer who isn't the biggest fan of Conservatism, Morgan certainly sounds that way in his closing. For many (not all, but many certainly) writers, the point isn't to accept that genre is this static thing (after all, a lot of these hellraisers with whom Morgan seems to be irritated here created some very influential work that pushed SF and Fantasy writing in different directions, creating little globules from the greater globe for such exploration of style, theme, and characterization), but instead to push, push, and to keep on pushing to see what will emerge. Sometimes that means conceptual arguments as to what "should" and "shouldn't" be taking place. That's only natural, but it seems that Morgan poo-pahs this a bit too much. Maybe on occasion it gets to be a bit "ridiculous," maybe people push too far for other's comfort, but I'm sorry if I just cannot accept fully Morgan's alternative.

Sure, there is certainly hyperbole in a lot of these arguments, but underlaying quite a few of them is this searching quest for understanding and of exploration that is akin to the writing spirit. Entertainment is not a bad thing; it just isn't necessarily a great thing either. Some writers want to discover themselves and others as they write and while on occasion this spills out in invective that isn't all that enjoyable, I cannot help but to think that even this negative sort of discourse has had an ultimately beneficial effect on writing. So rage on, you followers of your Muses, rage on.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Cover art for Carlos Ruiz Zafón's upcoming El juego de Ángel

Looks like this book will be a monster, clocking in at 672 pages in the Vintage Español edition available for pre-order at Amazon. It is the second of four planned books that center around the Cemetery of Lost Books.

With a release date of May 13, 2008 in the US for the Spanish-language edition and with its current ranking in the 12K range, this likely is going to be one of the more eagerly-anticipated international releases in the US for the first half of 2008. As soon as I get my copy and read it, I'll try to post a short review (probably in English for the benefit of the vast majority of the blog's readers, although I might be tempted to do it in Spanish) giving my general thoughts and perhaps a short passage roughly translated into English.

How to be a better, more pretentious blogger/reviewer

Main Entry:
French prétentieux, from prétention pretension, from Medieval Latin pretention-, pretentio, from Latin praetendere
1: characterized by pretension: as a: making usually unjustified or excessive claims (as of value or standing) pretentious fraud who assumes a love of culture that is alien to him — Richard Watts> b: expressive of affected, unwarranted, or exaggerated importance, worth, or stature <pretentious language> <pretentious houses> 2: making demands on one's skill, ability, or means: ambitious, pretentious daring of the Green Mountain Boys in crossing the lake — American Guide Series: Vermont>

In much of contemporary discourse, "pretentious" has become the "it" thing to call someone, supplanting past favorites such as "git," "snob," and my all-time favorite, "poopyhead who has cooties." Unfortunately, this much-maligned word has become even more of a pejorative, with legions using it at the drop of the hat to signify that the signifier believes that the signified is little better than an obnoxious twirp. However, as the definition I listed bears out, if one has a valid point to make that runs counter to whatever facile argument that another desires to make, then the usage of "pretentious" is like a corollary of Godwin's Law - it kills them dead.

It is time to take back the word "pretentious" and to claim it for ourselves, just as "bad" has become the new "good" and just as "sick" is threatening to become quite well indeed. Instead of shirking the label, I embrace it, because dog gone it, I'm
ambitious! I don't care to settle for "general" opinion or for "common" tastes. If I cared for what the vulgar want, I'd quaff it, motherfucker.

Even in the relatively tiny world of SF blogging, there are people who seem to fear standing out from the crowd. "Oh noes! Spoilers are teh suck and full of fail!," one might hear such declaim. But how in the hell can one even
think about writing about the damn story if one doesn't dare to take it on, wrestle it, hog-tie it, and make it squeal like a pig in order for something to be gleaned from it? But once one sapere aude and asks others, "What was so damn important about that story in the first place?," it seems the defensive shields are set to full and the "pretentious" grenades are thrown.

I am quite ambitious in everday life. I hate being wrong and I want to challenge what's going on. I am pretentious. In reviewing, lately I've become more and more dissatisfied with many blog reviews (including many of my earlier ones) and I want to push and see what's out there. Same with my reading; the same-old often results in the rusty-ol'. So with that in mind, here are a few tips on how to be a better, more pretentious blogger/reviewer:

Question yourself - Before you start writing the first sentence, question why in the world you're writing it and what you could say that would knock the socks off of anyone. Aim high, even if you end up hitting someone below the belt.

Believe in what you say - Honesty is undervalued too much these days. Once you're honest with yourself and have faith that what you are about to write is better than the moldy sliced bread being served up elsewhere, you'll be fine.

If it smells like shit, looks like shit, and threatens to taste like shit, it's shit, dude - State the obvious on occasion; some might be shocked by it.

Go further and deeper in - Harriet Klausner is one of the least-likely people to be labeled as being "pretentious." Ever wondered why? Say something more than just your own damn personal opinion. Give evidence, support it, and defend it if need be.

Keep pluggin' - There have been numerous times, especially on a few semi-popular forums, where I've been called all sorts of shit, just because I didn't support their points of view and because I didn't know them from Adam or Eve (whether they know their own asses from a hole in a ground is a different matter). While on occasion it's irritated me or made me pause a bit too much, it really isn't worth it stooping to the level of the uncouth and reacting to their petty comments. Best to keep on challenging yourself, even if it means pissing off a few more of the dullard cretins who inhabit such forums like squatters.

With these goals in mind, not to mention a healthy dose of pragmatism and/or high-quality vodka, you can be one of the best pretentious bloggers/reviewers out there.

So tip your own hat, nod, smile, and practice being erudite in the face of near-illiterate responses.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Dune: Three Editions and more

Lately, Frank Herbert's classic SF novel, Dune, has been on my mind for a variety of reasons. There was an aside here that made me think back to it and its meaning to me. There was a random search on Amazon a month ago that turned up the Serbian translation of the first third of the novel (far right), headed up by a notable author, Zoran Živković, whose own works I have enjoyed immensely. There was the time a few years ago that I imported the Spanish translation (seen in the middle) just so I could see how the story read in translation.

But through it all, I have not read the novel in English since late 2001/early 2002 or fully in translation since 2004 (although I shall be trying to complete both in the next few weeks). In a time in which Earth Day is now an annual celebration/call to arms, this eco-novel (among a great many other things) is just as relevant and as important now as it was back in the mid-1960s when it was serialized and later released as a single volume. Hopefully, I'll find the time in the coming weeks to make a few posts here and there (and some even on the blog) about this book, which is one of my all-time favorite SF novels.

I guess I'm not a "true" SFF fan now...

In the name of stirring up thought/controversy/arguments over metaphysics and/or politics, I present you with a throwaway line in a recommendation post made a few days ago over at Pat's Fantasy Hotlist. Here is the "offending" quote:

Hence, here is a small list of speculative fiction works -- old and not so old -- that seem to be widely unread. I'm not saying that everyone has to "like" these books, but I feel that one cannot call themselves SFF fans if they haven't given these novels/series a shot.
After which, with two exceptions, only epic fantasies are named.


Does this mean that those of us who aren't as enamored with epic fantasies (I like a few, but many on lists such as that of Pat's are dreck in my not-quite-humble opinion) and have never really cared to try anything else that might have the whiff of Tolkien about it (not me personally, but others have stated this in the past) are not SFF fans?

So in a teasing spirit, I present you, dear gentle/arrogant/non-SFF fan reader with a few books that should have been added to a list such as that:

Frank Herbert, Dune - One of the all-time bestselling SF novels got no love over there, so I'll give it some here. I like this book so much that I bought Spanish and Serbian translations of it so I could quote the "Fear is the mindkiller" mantra to natives of those languages. Plus the story is one that has a great many layers to it.

China Miéville, Perdido Street Station - It's weird, it's not pastoral/questy, and the prose is a brilliant mess. In other words, it ain't no fuckin' Hobbit trapasing through the liliacs story! Or something like that, for those of you regulars reading this who haven't been under a rock the past decade...

Gene Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun (series) - I've spent a lot of time this past autumn discussing his major works, so just do a search in November and December 2007 for all the reasons why I enjoyed these books and think that they are a must-read for a great many SFF fans.

Ursula Le Guin, Earthsea (series); The Left Hand of Darkness; The Dispossessed - It was a criminal oversight on Pat's list, so if you haven't sampled her work, sample it!

Samuel Delany, Dhalgren - This was the proverbial mindfuck of a novel when it was released around 40 years ago. It still is and well worth the effort spent trying to grasp just what in the fuck was happening.

Roger Zelazny, The Great Book of Amber (omnibus) - Zelazny wrote some terrific stories in these 10 collected Amber novels. It occupies a space that touches the borders between heroic/epic fantasy, SF, and "simple" adventure novels, told in a fashion that makes (at least for the first 5 novels) for a well-paced and thought-out story arc.

Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood's End - Despite the acclaims he received for the Odyssey series, I found this standalone to be the best of his work. It's a metaphor of sorts for the crisis that our "modern civilizations" face and the conclusions are still disturbing, more than 50 years after it was written.

And there are doubtless countless dozens more that I could add to such a list, but since I'm not really huffed about any of this, I'll let others add works to such a list, keeping in mind that it most certainly shall not approach the size of this. That list alone can occupy any dedicated SFF fan (see, we don't make, even in a joking fashion, claims that those who haven't read X aren't members of Y here!) for years, if not decades. And that being said, time to finish the final 7 cantos of Orlando Furioso before I revise one review and begin writing another.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Weekend Links

Here are a few interesting links to things that have grabbed my attention:

Jonathan McCalmont has a very detailed review of Ian McDonald's Brasyl. He likes it perhaps even more than I did and I found his take on the end sequence to differ somewhat from many who complained about how it "weakened" the novel. His point of view is similar to mine, although I think McDonald perhaps could have been a bit more concise in the explanations. More on that another time.

Interesting review of Sarah Hall's just-released-in-the-US book, Daughters of the North (The Carhullan Army in the UK)

Small Beer Press has released John Kessel's story collection, The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories, as a free download under a Creative Commons license.

Matthew Cheney on the ridiculousness of a group trying to define what is and what is not a poem. My response to that: There are many more words to be wasted saying what one is not than are dedicated to exploring what is.

SF Signal Mind Meld discussion piece on the state of short fiction today.

Hal Duncan has a few free downloads that might be of interest to some reading this, including a novella that apparently hasn't yet been released in any format before.

Tobias Buckell asks his readers what they look for in a review, reminding me that I still have to write something to that effect later.

Nic of Eve's Alexandra reviews Clarke Award finalist Ken MacLeod's The Execution Channel, which I'm planning on reading in the next week or so for a future review here.

Fantasy Book Critic has an interview with Alan Campbell.

James Nicoll writes about the question of if/how genre awards are exercises in futility.

Via Science Fiction Awards Watch, the nominees for the Compton Crook Award (best first novel). Read Abercrombie and Rothfuss's entries, might read the others some other time.

And finally, Realms of Speculative Fiction has a roundup of genre-ish blogs that interest that new band of Slovenian bloggers. Nice selection, even if I view epic fantasy works (the well-written ones, anyways) a tad more favorably than what might be presumed after reading that piece!

This week's book porn

Seven books this week, a mixture of purchases and review copies. While I suspect it will be quite easy for those who know my tastes well to identify which is which, it might be harder for a few to read the titles. From the top, going left to right: Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting; Liliana Bodoc, Los días de la Sombra (middle volume in an Argentine epic fantasy trilogy that's one of the best sellers in Spain and Latin America); Denise Little (ed.), Front Lines; Tanya Huff, Blood Bank; Katharine Kerr, The Shadow Isle; Orson Scott Card, Keeper of Dreams; and Margaret Weis, Amber and Blood. I also received a postcard with an illustration taken from the upcoming (June) illustrated novel by Tom Corwin, Mr. Fooster: Traveling on a Whim, which I read a few weeks ago and enjoyed for its premise and how well I thought Corwin executed it. I'll try to review that one sometime shortly.

Junot Díaz interview, upcoming book

Interesting Amazon Omnivoracous interview with the 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz. Sounds as though he is working on a novel that might be even more SFnal than any of his previous works. Needless to say, I'll have a preorder placed as soon as that becomes available, if ever.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Author Spotlight: Ludovico Ariosto

Of ladies, cavaliers, of love and war,
Of courtesies and of brave deeds I sing,
In times of high endeavour when the Moor
Had crossed the sea from Africa to bring
Great harm to France, when Agramante swore
In wrath, being now the youthful Moorish king,
To avenge Troiano, who was lately slain,
Upon the Roman Emperor Charlemagne.

So begins Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, one of the longest and best epic poems ever written. Laid out in that first octave is a story that is in turns romantic, brutal, light-hearted, and filled with the depths of human conflict. I first read Orlando Furioso about 13 years ago, when I was still an undergraduate history student. I had read my Homer and my Vergil, dabbled a bit in Juvenal, Ovid, and Terence, but when I read a comment of Sir Walter Scott's that he ranked Ariosto's epic poem above any others, I searched long and hard in Knoxville-area bookstores (Amazon was barely more than a dream back then) before I found copies of Barbara Reynold's 1973 two-part translation. When I read it, I found myself daydreaming about the stricken Orlando (or Roland), the paladins of Charlemagne's court, the passion of Ruggiero and Bradamante, all set amidst a continent-spanning struggle between Christendom and the Saracens. It was a tale that sparks the imagination, only to hit the reader later with some keen observations about how people interact with each other.

But although I loved the poem, I delayed re-reading it until today. Remembering that there were a few elements in Toby Barlow's Sharp Teeth that reminded me of Ariosto (and of Torquato Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered), I decided to begin reading Ariosto's magnum opus before writing the Barlow review. Good decision, as I found myself soaking up the ambiance that Reynolds' translation manages to capture. So while it'll be a couple days longer before I finish it, I just thought I'd post a bit about a poet who deserves a much wider readership than what he currently enjoys. And for those who want to see a more fearsome Orc than that of Tolkien's, be sure to read this, as these Orcs have an interesting history of their own. But most of all, just read it and see why there are some of us who know that the epic fantasy form has much more left to offer than what even most of its most ardent partisans believe.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Going against the flow

It is always tough going against a presumed (near) consensus. The more others seem to believe that something is the best, the greatest, the cream of the crop, the harder it is to muster up the courage (yes, courage) to say "No." Although I am far from a well-known literary/genre reviewer, there are times that I have felt the temptation to blunt my criticisms or to silence myself just because others seemed to dig something that, for whatever reason, didn't appeal as much to me.

Taste is a very personal thing, of course, and sometimes one's own taste is derided because it differs from that of others. Recently, there has been a growing trend on many genre forums (and quite a few blogs) to declaim those who favor works that require a bit more effort to grasp or those that are polarizing because they contain uncomfortable elements for many. I have lost track of the number of times that I myself have been called "pretentious" (never mind the poor use of that pejorative, as it's now one of the presumed illiterati's catch-all slam words) or "elitist" or "snobbish," just because I found myself questioning why certain works are so highly praised.

Recently, I was asked to write a review of Joe Abercrombie's Last Argument of Kings. I had read the first volume, The Blade Itself, back in January, but while I liked the trilogy opener well enough to consider reading the other volumes, I then was in no rush to acquire them. As part of the arrangement, I received copies of both Before They Are Hanged and Last Argument of Kings in mid-February and read through both in about a week's time. I thought they were an improvement over the first volume, making for a solid debut story arc, but that they weren't revolutionary or the end-all, be-all of epic fantasy storytelling. But I delayed writing the reviews, hoping that re-reads and a "longer perspective" (to paraphrase the Annalists) might help me grasp better what it was about the books that appealed so strongly to others.

Over a month went past before I could attempt a re-read/review of the second volume. In the interim, on a few epic fantasy forums, the praise got to the point that if one had done the Folger's Coffee switch of Abercrombie's name with that of the much-reviled Terry Goodkind's, many of the superlatives would have read much the same (not comparing those two in any way, other than noting the nature of the extreme fannish responses to the authors' works). But I wasn't getting it, I'm afraid. Or rather, I got it in part, the part that thought that despite some flaws in the storytelling and (later) in the characterizations, the story ended up being a well-told tale. But best of the year/decade/century level prose and story? No.

But I waited some more, struggling to identify what it was that appealed to others, thinking that my own reactions might be the "wrong" one. I read and considered quite a few responses in various forums' spoiler threads for LAoK, but the comments (which were near-universal in praise; something had struck a chord with them, something that didn't resonate with me) made me question even more why it didn't work as well for me. Was it because I have different tastes? Was it because I saw some flaws in the story mechanics that others didn't? Or was I just plain wrong?

Finally I forced myself to gather my thoughts and to write an outline for the review:

I. History of recent epic fantasies (Erikson, Lynch)

II. Audience expectations/reactions to authors playing with epic fantasy archetypes

III. Summary of Abercrombie's first two volumes

IV. How Abercrombie approaches characterization and how the archetypes differ from older models.

V. LAoK - strengths and weaknesses in its mechanics, especially characterization.

VI. Abercrombie's concluding volume as a whole

It still took almost a week to finish writing out a review of almost 1500 words and to an extent, it still reflects my ambiguous attitudes towards the book and series. I think part of that is because I know that almost certainly there will be fans that will read my review after it has been edited and posted elsewhere, under my full name even, and attack me for having an opinion contrary to theirs. Not question, not attempt to establish a dialogue, but instead attack.

Mob mentality seems to be the name of the game more and more when it comes to discussing "hot" items, such as the musical flavor of the month or the presumed "Next Big Thing" in publishing. Despite knowing better, there is still that reluctance to go against the flow, to question why the emperor isn't wearing any clothes. Sometimes, daring to be honest and open about one's own conflicted opinions is too daunting of a task to accomplish. Shall be interesting to see the fallout in the future.

And a silly late-night question

I just finished writing the draft to a long-delayed review (to be edited and posted sometime in the next month or so, if accepted), so I have a backlog of books to review (due to me feeling guilty about not completing this one first) in the coming weeks. One book is Toby Barlow's Sharp Teeth.

Would it be too much of a conceit to consider writing a review in verse of a book that was written in verse? Because part of me is tempted to break out the metres and go to town.

And in non-genre reading news: I'm getting this sneaking suspicion that I'm going to end up buying every single Milan Kundera novel available in English translation in the very near future. The Unbearable Lightness of Being was excellent when I read it a few weeks ago and 25% in, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is almost as high in quality. Just a head's up to those who might be willing to experiment with some "literary fiction" that challenges the reader to think and to feel in reaction to what is transpiring on the written page.

But damn, it's past 1:30 AM here. Alarm is set for 7:10. I'm so going to be a zombie throughout the day.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A quote

At a time when history still made its way slowly, the few events were easily remembered and woven into a backdrop, known to everyone, before which private life unfolded the gripping show of its adventures. Nowadays, time moves forward at a rapid pace. Forgotten overnight, a historic event glistens the next day like the morning dew and thus is no longer the backdrop to a narrator's tale but rather an amazing adventure enacted against the background of the overfamiliar banality of private life.

Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

There's just something about that quote, which appears early in this 1970s book of Kundera's, that just resonates with me, making me eager to read the rest of the book in the coming days. Are there any books that contain lines like that which have captured you and made you think out the book's themes long after the book itself has been reshelved?

Monday, April 14, 2008

I'm thinking of having a giveaway here

When I decided to make this blog more visible a year ago, I mostly eschewed having promotional giveaways, instead preferring to arrange those for wotmania rather than here. However, after looking at a growing pile of review copies that I just cannot review adequately because they are the sequels (in one case, the fifth volume of a book) in multivolume series, I am considering doing a giveaway.

Now since I like creative responses, there certainly would be more than just a random draw element. I'm thinking a contest here. What that contest will be, I am not sure, although I have a vague inkling of what it might be. As for the books, well, I'll list those at another time, as any contest will have to wait until mid-May at the earliest, since I'm brokeass poor at the moment after paying my 2007 income taxes. But I can say that the books will represent a wide range of subgenres, from urban fantasy to epic fantasy to SF and a few points in-between. Hopefully the vague hope of nabbing a desired book for free will entice people to enter.

But before I do any of this, I have to see substantial interest. I don't want to offer a dozen books or more (many in hardcover, most of the rest in tradeback) and have only a half-dozen people enter. I need to gauge the interest for this. So if you're inclined to participate if/when I make an official post next month, please respond here. Thank you.

P.S. Due to shipping costs, this shall be US only. Sorry, but I cannot afford to spend $20+ to ship a single book outside the US.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

More Book Porn

I received seven books this week, six of which appear as the first six books seen on the second shelf of one of my bookcases. I thought it might be amusing to a few to see not just the new and forthcoming (and yes, I'm rather excited about receiving an ARC for Nisi Shawl's first short story collection, Filter House (coming out in August from Aqueduct Press), but also to showcase my rather non-systematic shelving arrangement. Spot the non-genre books mixed in with the genre ones, if you can.

And now back to the finishing stages of a long-delayed review. If I'm lucky, I might have a handful of smaller reviews up in the coming days, some of them involving two or more books with similar themes or attitudes towards the story being presented. And yes, a few of these planned reviews involve books whose spines are just barely visible in that photo. But more on all this later; lunch awaits.

Saturday morning links

Here are a few links that have caught my attention recently:

Felix Gilman has one of the best ideas for a book giveaway contest: If you can kick his ass, he'll give you a signed copy of his excellent book, Thunderer. Might want to pay attention to who is not eligible.

Joe Sherry offers his thoughts on the Nebula finalists for Best Novella. Interesting takes; will have to look into some of these stories if I ever have the time this month.

Nic of Eve's Alexandria has a very good article on four books by James Blish.

Interesting corollary on the meta-review posts, this one related to the reviewer/author interaction in a review, over on Fantasy & Sci-Fi Lovin' Book Reviews.

Realms of Speculative Fiction reviews Jeff VanderMeer's just-released novella, The Situation.

Rob Bedford of SFF World reviews the John Joseph Adams-edited anthology, Wastelands. Whenever I get around to writing my review, I too will be giving this one high marks, as I thoroughly enjoyed most of the stories in that collection.

Strange Horizons reviews J.M. McDermott's Last Dragon (which I reviewed back in February).

Matt Stagg's is guest-blogging on Jeff VanderMeer's blog and he asks an interesting set of questions for the writers reading it.

And finally, Nick Mamatas has a bit of fun with a self-published author's "press kit."

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A childhood favorite, rediscovered

A couple of days ago, I was cleaning out a disorganized pile of books in the elementary school library at the residential treatment center where I work, when I came across Mitchell Sharmat's Gregory, the Terrible Eater. I received this book when I was a first grader, back in 1980-1981, and I remember thinking how cool the illustrations were and how strange it was that a goat was a picky eater.

So naturally I brought the book into my classroom when the afternoon session began and I read it again. I still found the illustrations to be wonderful, the story interesting, and the notion of a goat wanting veggies instead of wholesome junk to be strange and intriguing. To think that it was due to books like this that I developed my love for reading and later for speculative works. Just thought I'd post a little bit this morning in tribute to one of those magical works that got me hooked on reading.

Anyone have similar books to share here?

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Needing some short fiction titles, please

One of the other hats that I wear besides blogging and making an online fool out of myself is that of a teacher at a residential treatment center. Although my areas of public school certification are in the social studies, here I have to teach all subjects. While Language Arts is not a problem in general (my mother has taught English at both the middle school and high school levels for the past 37 years), trying to remember specific titles that I could use that a) would be enjoyable and b) I could use to assess knowledge and understanding of themes can be a problem.

So here's a bit of an open forum for suggestions. Since I teach students whose reading levels range from a 1st grade capacity (I'm having to teach two teen boys how to read) to college-level, it is challenging to come up with interesting stories that I can use for each subgroup. While I'm currently using Lois Lowery's excellent The Giver with my female students, I'm finding myself needing shorter stories that can engage them without being overly this or that. So, what do you suggest for me to buy over the next month or so (if said stories aren't public domain and available online)?

Monday, April 07, 2008

2008 Pulitzer Prize Winner: Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Three months ago, I reviewed Junot Díaz's excellent 2007 novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I just learned that this genre-friendly novel won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

For a novel that contains references to so many genre classics, from The Lord of the Rings to the Star Wars original trilogy to Logan's Run and so many others, coverage of this novel on many SF sites and blogs has been relatively sparse. Hopefully this will change with this news of Díaz's book winning the Pulitzer Prize.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The perfect library?

Sometimes, I want to swear that British newspapers (good as the better ones might be in covering actual news, compared to the US papers) set out to piss me off. The latest is from the Telegraph, with their 110 book "perfect library."

Oh, I'm not going to deny that the books on there aren't "worthy" choices (I've read slightly over half of those, and if I were more into reading biographies, the number would have been much higher), but in a day and age where everything, including literature, is global, that was the best that could have been devised? It read more like an Oxbridge required reading list than of anything that reflected much of anything from the past 30 years.

Let's see what notable omissions there have been. Borges immediately comes to mind. One would have thought he would have been considered due to his Anglophile tastes, but nope. Chinua Achebe? No, despite writing one of the most powerful looks at how imperialism changed African social systems. Same holds true for Ben Okri, alas.

In the poetry section, no Beats. I guess Ginsberg would have been talking about the best minds of my generation being destroyed reading such an antiquated list that seems to summarily dismiss so much of the past 60 years of poetry. But then again, he was an American, which perhaps accounts for so little of my country's writers and poets making it on this list. But no Miguel Cervantes? The oft-presumed "founder" of the modern novel? What sort of shit were the list's constructors on when they devised this skewed parody of a broad library list? Putting Tolkien in the Children's section? Excuse me while I ponder sending a rabid berserker Hobbit after them...

If the timestamp had read 4/1/2008 (or 1/4/2008 or 2008.4.1, if you prefer), I would have dismissed this as an antiquated April Fool's Day joke. But now I have to wonder if the list's contributors have read much of anything outside of pastoral English literature, sprinkled with the near-obligatory mentions of the more "daring" fictions of the 20th century. Because if this shitty 110 book list constitutes a "perfect library," then I guess my personal one of 1500+ is an ultra-double Alpha plus library, since it has most of these along with greats from dozens of global regions.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Interesting Scott Bakker interview

Pat's Fantasy Hotlist has a new interview (the second of the past couple of months) with Scott Bakker, author of the Prince of Nothing fantasy series and the upcoming May 2008 psychothriller, Neuropath. Normally, I'd just have this be part of a series of links, but since a) I did provide one question for the interview, b) I'm name-checked in the interview (although I suppose I ought to kill Bakker for mentioning my last name, even if the reason behind my half-anonymity - teaching at a public school - no longer applies in full), and mostly importantly, c) Bakker has some interesting takes on matters that bears greater exploration, I'll 1) write a run-on sentence and 2) post some brief reactions to what he says in part of that interview.

If you embrace the form, strive to entertain above all else, there really is no limit as to the crazy cerebral contents you can give the reader. I take the success of The Prince of Nothing as proof positive of this. The problem is that most writers interested in arguing with readers go to university, where they’re taught that forms, particularly popular commercial forms, are the devil. So they generally go on to write cerebral fiction that violates or “plays” with generic conventions, and as result end up generally writing for people who share their education and values. All their talent is squandered on people who already share the vast bulk of their thoughts – they simply become high end entertainers. Intellectual buzz merchants.

The editorial bias against intelligent genre fiction, I would argue, is the result of a pretty understandable equivocation: it’s the violation of form, the beloved rules, that turns off popular audiences, but since it’s so regularly paired with cerebral content, the latter ends up taking the blame as well.

The situation is certainly more complicated than this: there’s definitely issues of vocabulary and comprehension that are going to impact the overall accessibility of any book, but I’m arguing that it’s primarily the form and not the content that selects for or against certain audiences. Like I said, if you look at a set of generic rules as an opportunity to communicate with people at large, rather than the corporate devil, you’d be amazed with what you can get away with.
What Bakker says here is similar to certain thoughts that I've been having for quite some time regarding genre/literary discussions. While I would quibble on some particulars (namely, this does sound a bit too monolithic of an opposition), I have noticed on a few forums where I am a regular that there are many readers who are concerned with issues of "accessibility," even if they couch it in other phrases, namely "entertaining" and "not full of mental masturbation." But yes, it is the "form" and the "presentation" that shapes much of the reticence that editors and genre/literary readers alike have in picking up tomes that risk containing elements that run counter to their preferred comfort zones.

But I cannot help but to take this a bit further and in directions away from that which Bakker was postulating. If there are certain "forms" that have to be met for certain editors/readers to consider picking up the book in question, then what does this say about the discernment of such people? Could one argue that in the very act of tacitly (or openly) agreeing that there is some sort of "divide," that the erstwhile arbiter of elegance has made choices that might be self-delusional or "wrong?" Some argue that SF is this, this, and this, while others note that it differs from "mainstream" or "literary" writing due to X, Y, and/or Z. Schemae have been constructed; impressive towers of argumentation have been built. Perhaps all on very shaky foundations.

Outside that, I have an evangelical bent. I believe in human stupidity (my own included!) so fervently that I want to shout it out to the world. Look at history. Hell, look at the evening news. We’re surrounded by evidence of our folly, and yet all we do is congratulate ourselves all the time. Our kids spend two decades being educated, and nowhere – nowhere – are they taught anything about themselves, about the cognitive shortcomings that will lead to their divorces and their addictions, to their prejudices and their self-serving delusions. They come out of university not only ignorant of their limitations, their weaknesses, but convinced that they’re tough-minded critical thinkers.

I actually have a bad habit, which I’m sure has alienated many an acquaintance. Whenever someone tells me they’re a critical thinker – and let’s face it, everyone but everyone thinks they’re a critical thinker – I always ask them “How so?” Usually the answer is that they don’t believe everything everyone tells them. They make fun of Mormons, distrust corporations, or disagree with Fox news or some such. But when I point out that no one believes everything everyone tells them, so that can’t be a criterion for being a critical thinker, they get freaked out.

You get lots of valuable procedural knowledge in school, as well as a smattering of dogma, but nowhere – not even in most philosophy programs – are you taught how to think critically. We are hardwired to bullshit ourselves, and that’s a bloody fact Jack. And what are you taught? What does our system drum into your head at every bloody turn?

To believe in yourself! Believe in yourself when all the research shows that you are in fact the least credible person in the room. Though it seems the other way around, we’re actually much better at critiquing the claims and predicting the behaviour of others than we are ourselves. Check out David Dunning’s Self-Insight if you don’t believe me.

Ignorance is invisible, and so long as we remain ignorant of our cognitive shortcomings we will be slaves to them, we will be condemned to repeat all the same mistakes over and over, only with toys and tools that grow ever more powerful.

I must admit that I have conflicting reactions to this. Part of me wants to dismiss this out of hand, all the time knowing that this is just avoidance on a meta level. Another part wants to argue, to probe this, to find holes in the argument. Then another part of me realizes that in referencing such "parts," I am trying to distance myself from the conflict by pretending there are two "real" and discernible "parts" to me. I suspect much of what Bakker is talking about here refers to the efficacy of doubt and how self-doubting can be employed as a sort of meta-cognitive "spell checker," making sure that certain errors can be identified more readily. Whether or not one chooses to "correct" those "errors" is an entirely different matter, one which I've known from personal experience with Bakker is something that interests him keenly, that being the fallacies of certainty and conviction. Personally, I'm more of a Functionalist and have been for over a decade (those of you reading this who are familiar with arguments regarding the Final Solution ought to be familiar with that application of the term. Just take it further and apply that view to matters of religion and other cultural artifacts.) I suspect that while Bakker's arguments on this point probably are closer to being "correct" (whatever that might mean) than that of most, I cannot help but to wonder if the application of those ideas might be so unsettling to many (such as myself, as I did have some nightmares in the form of imagining a devastating argument in my dreams after reading that book of his) as to inspire all sorts of irrational behavior. Is there a risk of Pandora's Box being opened anew?

There is much more to consider in that interview and while my comments above are just the musings of the moment, I can't help but to want to reject much of what Bakker has stated. Not because I have a more plausible model to present (and I don't trust in pre-fab models here to explain away his questions and tentative conclusions), but rather because the implications of what he notes is anathema to me. Not many people have managed to present arguments that inspire such a reaction, but even two years later, I still find myself on occasion trying to come to grips with the possibility that I'm flat-out wrong on views regarding life, the universe, and everything. But yet, there's that comforting possible self-delusion that seems to serve a nice function in my life, however, that is a topic for another time and place. Right now, I want to get sleepy before my brain chemistry changes for the worse.
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